Teaching as Inquiry: How to Love It!

Teaching as Inquiry is a process where teachers inquire into their own practice and use evidence about their learners to make decisions about ways to change practice for the benefit of those learners. It is a continuous, reflective and iterative cycle and is focused on complex pedagogical change. Regardless of the framework that is used (e.g. Spiral of Inquiry, Inquiry and Knowledge-Building Cycle) these same key principles apply to the process.

A wrong or inaccurate idea

In my years mentoring and coaching leaders and teachers to implement the Spiral of Inquiry, I have discovered that there are many misconceptions about Teaching as Inquiry. I hope this post provides some clarity about some of the more common misconceptions, how to address them and therefore, how to foster a love of Teaching as Inquiry!

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Misconception #1: Inquiry must result in changes in Reading, Writing or Mathematics curriculum knowledge and practice

Not necessarily! We may select learners based on our failure to help them to succeed in Reading, Writing or Mathematics - however, Scanning widely enables teachers to consider a wider range of factors in terms of what might be influencing learner success. We search for strengths and challenges that our learners face both within core learning areas and beyond - even into how they learn when at home. This investigation can often lead teachers to locate a complex pedagogical challenge that has little or nothing to do with the teacher's curriculum knowledge and practice. Perhaps self regulated learning and goal setting is the starting point, or building relationships - rather than finding new teaching strategies for Reading. Often the core curriculum area can part of the more complex solution, but it doesn't have to be.

Misconception #2: Analysing data is hard

Data is just information. When we Scan our learners we end up with a wide range of data from achievement information, observations, learner and whānau voice, photos, videos, drawings, to reflections and more. This can be overwhelming if we allow it to feel that way. The thing is, if we have worked together as a team to gather together some great data about our learners, we will know that data very deeply.

In order to focus on the themes in Scanning, we simply ask ourselves "What popped out during Scanning across all of our learners?". The most important thing here is to:
- be sure that our data is accurate and reliable (with no assumptions)
- have extensive team dialogue about what we have noticed and what is going to give us the biggest impact

Using simple tools like the Question Spinner or dialogue cards from Catalyst can help teams to relax about data analysis. I also use a "weaving exercise" designed by my colleague Suzi Gould to help teams to talk about data together.

Misconception #3: We must pick the topic of our inquiry from the outset

The spiral of inquiry demands that new learning – how and what we are going to learn – emerges from a thorough scan, is sharpened through focusing, and is informed by the hunches we have developed
Kaser, Halbert & Timperley (2014)

This quote says it all. No team of teachers should be selecting their inquiry focus before they have Scanned, Focused and Developed Hunches (analysed their own practice). No leaders should be requiring staff to "do inquiries" on specific topics or areas.

While Teaching as Inquiry is a great framework for fostering teacher passion in their craft, Inquiries are not passion projects for staff from the outset. Inquiries emerge from the information we glean from learners and our practices attached to that.

Once a focused inquiry has emerged, teaching teams might consider:
  • how the solution could be more innovative
  • how the solution includes a focus on other priorities such as wellbeing or Writing or Agency or Technology (these priorities or "lenses" might come from leadership, visions, Kāhui Ako focus areas or from the teachers themselves)

Misconception #4: Inquiries have a finite or set time period

When a focused inquiry emerges, teachers begin working together to Learn, Take Action, change practice and Check for impact. If we are looking to solve complex pedagogical problems, we are hardly going to implement and embed the new practices within a Term or even a year. Inquiries may morph and change over time as we engage in further iterative cycles of activity across the different phases, but they never really end.

The professional learning research evidence indicates that the integration of substantial new knowledge requires a minimum of a year of focused collaborative effort to make a difference. Two years is much better. With three years of intensive engaged effort, movement towards a transformed learning environment is usually well under way. So space must be created for this to happen.
Kaser, Halbert & Timperley (2014)

Misconception #5: We have to record everything! On Templates!

It is important that staff feel ownership over the Teaching as Inquiry process. Templates can cause staff to reject a process if they feel they are being told what and how to do something in a prescriptive way. This leads to staff describing inquiry as a "tick box" activity that is required of them.

Leaders with good intentions who want to make things easier for staff often create templates with the unintended consequence of staff disengagement. Never use templates as shortcuts. Ways to avoid this are to:
  • Co-construct all templates with staff or have staff pull a prepared template apart if they wish to change it for their own purposes
  • Really question whether a template is needed 
  • Offering mentoring and coaching support as opposed to templates to ease the burden on staff

Many staff question why we need to record things in Inquiry. It is important that we don’t require staff to record things that are of no use, or where there is no real purpose for recording information. Consider the following when deciding whether or not to record aspects of a team inquiry:
  • Do we need it to inform current or future actions? (early actions taken in the classroom may inform the solution later on)
  • Will recording our reflections and thinking or actions allow us to engage in metacognition? (metacognition and reflecting on what we’re learning or have learned as a team is a very important part of the learning process - we expect this of learners, so we should expect it of ourselves too)
  • Will having a written record support us to meet the requirements of teacher registration later on?

It is important to see this phase [taking action] as more than just implementing some new strategies that we learned in the previous phase. By taking action we are deepening our learning... In these complex situations, some actions may be premature and we need to bring collective thinking to the table before leaping in. That is what the inquiry spiral is all about. Otherwise we can get into unproductive cycles of experimentation, disillusionment and abandonment, only to jump to the next thing that may or may not work.

Kaser, Halbert & Timperley (2014)

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