School systems to guide, inform and support teaching as inquiry

School systems to guide, inform and support teaching as inquiry

The primary purpose of teaching as inquiry is to bring about improved outcomes for students through purposeful evaluation, planned action, strategic teaching, and focused review [10]. Reid [11] emphasises the deliberate and strategic nature of teaching as inquiry:

I understand inquiry to be a process of systematic, rigorous and critical reflection about professional practice, and the contexts in which it occurs, in ways that question taken-for granted assumptions. Its purpose is to inform decision-making for action. (Reid, 2004: p4)

Teaching as inquiry, represented in The New Zealand Curriculum, is a four phase cyclical process. These questions guide teachers in their inquiry process:

  1. What should students achieve, where are our students in relation to these goals and priorities, and what do students need to learn next (focusing inquiry)?
  2. Which strategies will support students to achieve these outcomes (teaching inquiry)?
  3. What learning happened for students and what will teachers do next to ensure that students continue to improve (learning inquiry)?

As Figure 3 shows, the process of inquiry should be dynamic and responsive to information gathered about students. In the pursuit of appropriate strategies for helping students, the inquiry process can skip some phases and revisit others several times.

Figure 3: The teaching as inquiry cycle

figure 3 is the teaching as inquiry cycle it is  a flow chart that links 5 boxes these are from top right, Teaching, Learning, Learning inquiry - what happened as a result of the teaching and what are the implications for furture teaching?, Focusing inquiry - What is imprtant and therefore worth spending time on given where my students are at?, Teaching inquiry - What strategies evidence based are most likely to help my students learn this? These boxes are linked by continuous arrows. There is also an arrow linking Learning inquiry to teaching inquiry called Is there something I need to change? The arrow linking learning inquiry to focusing inquiry is called what are the next steps for learning?

Teaching as inquiry is founded on the notion that problems of practice and/or issues related to students’ learning are bound by context and therefore require locally-developed teaching responses. These should draw on the successful experience of teachers as well as on respected sources of research that extend teachers’ thinking. Whatever teachers choose to do with respect to their teaching, their decisions should be based on a thorough and candid examination of their practice. They should also assess what additional or alternative practices or approaches could be used to improve outcomes for students.

As Reid (2004) pointed out, inquiry is about challenging teachers’ thinking in ways that promotes their own learning as well as that of their students. For this to happen, teachers need to examine their taken-for-granted practices critically in the light of evidence about students’ learning (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar and Fung, 2007). They should also explore relevant research literature that can challenge their thinking and offer new teaching possibilities.

The considerable role school leaders play in supporting teaching as inquiry is documented in literature[12]. Amongst groups of teachers, leaders promoted a culture of trust, open-mindedness, responsibility, wholeheartedness (Reid, 2004); and fallibility[13] and persistence (Aitken & Sinemma, 2008). School leaders also develop systems to help teachers engage in inquiry. They arrange for teachers to meet in groups, investigate data related to specific aspects or issues, reflect on why problems or difficulties might be occurring, and consider approaches or strategies that will promote better outcomes for students.

In 2010, ERO investigated what school leaders did to establish and maintain systems in schools that built teachers’ understanding of teaching as inquiry as a process, and how they helped teachers to use it. The findings are reported below.

The extent schools used inquiry to inform and support decision

Many schools (72 percent) had processes in place that were either highly, or somewhat informative and supportive in promoting teaching as inquiry. In 28 percent of schools, there were no processes or processes were minimal.

Figure 4: Teaching as Inquiry – level of school support for teachers

figure 4 is a bar graph called Teaching as Inquiry – level of school support for teachers. The y-axis is called percentage of schools (n=109)it is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The x-axis is called level of support for teachers and has four labels which are High 26%, Some 46%, Minimal 24% and None 4%.

The concept and practice of inquiry preceded the release of The New Zealand Curriculum. For example, the use of evidence-based evaluation and inquiry was the underpinning theory for schooling improvement models[14]. This meant that some schools had experience of thinking about and applying an inquiry model to their school processes before The New Zealand Curriculum was introduced.

Schools where teaching as inquiry was highly informative and supportive

Where schools used inquiry well to inform and support their practices, ERO noted:

  • they used external expertise to build teacher understanding about teaching as inquiry
  • they included teaching as inquiry in the process of exploring The New Zealand Curriculum
  • they integrated and promoted teaching as inquiry through school systems that applied at classroom and school level
  • they drew links between professional development programmes they were involved in, and the processes of teaching as inquiry.

Inquiry was generally an expected and monitored component of school practice. It happened in multiple and concurrent ways and typically included discussion in groups of teachers or among school leaders. The focus of the discussion was on combinations of the following:

  • sharing a problem of practice (such as students whose progress was not at the expected level)
  • critical data analysis
  • appropriate teaching strategies and approaches.

Individually teachers engaged in inquiry when they:

  • recorded in journals information about students’ learning, and ideas about actions teachers would take to improve learning
  • wrote end-of-term classroom or syndicate programme evaluations
  • observed each other’s practice, giving each other feedback and following up with discussions or planning.

Teachers were not the only ones who used an inquiry approach. Occasionally, inquiry was applied to the self-review process carried out by leaders. For example, leaders made decisions about future PLD opportunities on the basis of information collected through the performance management system (PMS). Such practices indicated the strength and coherence of inquiry in these schools.

In schools where teaching as inquiry was highly informative and supportive, a culture was created and characterised by a shared aspiration to improve learning and teaching, and a desire to work as a team. Teachers met regularly to engage in joint activity that had learning and teaching foci. By being part of the group, teachers developed a shared commitment to decisions made, and to implementing practices consistently.

Leaders were instrumental in initiating activities and processes that supported teachers’ work. Their work in this area included:

  • establishing inquiry routines (such as regular meetings and ongoing classroom evaluation practice)
  • developing guidelines, expectations and protocols about how groups of teachers should engage in inquiry
  • making information available in forms that teachers could use as part of their inquiry activity
  • conveying the importance of, and modelling, reflective practice
  • creating opportunities, through school systems such as target setting and performance management, for teachers to build their capacities as high quality teachers.

An inquiry approach was most often applied when teachers and leaders reviewed student’s progress and achievement information. They explored analysed data and then made decisions about groups of students who were not meeting achievement expectations. Decisions for these students were about: planning school initiatives; selecting appropriate learning programmes; discussing strategies individual classroom teachers would use, and setting targets for students who were at risk of educational failure. As this example shows, these students were a shared priority:

Teachers discussed in depth syndicate-wide assessment data. From these discussions they identified students (individuals and groups) at risk, areas of concern and strategies to address these. From these discussions each syndicate also identified syndicate goals for the term.(Contributing school, Years 1-6)

Few schools used research findings as the basis of their decision-making about provision for students. Teachers typically selected future teaching strategies from an existing repertoire of their own and colleagues’ practice. While there are merits to choosing known approaches, the risks are that these do not necessarily align well with the currently identified issues. Thinking about the possibilities that could lead to better outcomes for students should include looking at what other teachers and researchers have found to be effective.

A further application of inquiry was through the Performance Management System (PMS). The PMS in some schools operated like an inquiry cycle. Information about students’ learning was used to set goals for teachers’ practice, evidence about students and teachers’ progress was collected and reviewed, and further goals were set. The objective of implementing the PMS in this way was to build teachers’ capacity to think about their own practice and its possible impact on students’ learning. In some schools where processes were highly informative and supportive, teachers:

  • set teaching goals based on student achievement information
  • sought peer feedback about their teaching practices
  • used peer mentoring, coaching, and observations
  • met periodically, with school leaders, to review progress towards meeting teaching goals and school targets.

As this example shows, school leaders played a significant role in supporting this process. There was also a clear link to school-wide targets.

Each teacher set a development goal that came from school targets about increasing student engagement. Teachers set their goals using data gathered from class observations, videoing and self assessment. Information from these goals fed into an overall review of the school target. Twice a year teachers had meetings with the principal where they discussed individual student achievement and progress against set targets. From these discussions teaching approaches were considered.(Contributing school, Years 1-6)

Teaching as inquiry is about sustainable learning. Timperley et al (2007) note that sustainable teacher learning and improvement is contingent on:

  1. A strong theoretical understanding about the foundation for changes to practice
  2. Teachers equipped with the skills to inquire into the impact of their teaching on student learning
  3. Leadership that provides the conditions for collective, evidence informed inquiry, and for improved pedagogical content and assessment knowledge
  4. Participating teachers and their leaders taking responsibility for, and believing they have the capacity to address identified problems with student outcomes
  5. Solutions that are located within the educational opportunities of the school
  6. A focus on minimising competing initiatives and policy directions.

In schools where teaching as inquiry was highly informing and supported self review and decision-making, sustainable learning processes, as described by Timperley et al above, were beginning to happen. A small number of schools were well on the way. Notably, in these schools, teachers had been equipped with the skills to use inquiry. Skilled leaders supported, modelled and expected inquiry to happen, and teachers were committed to making a difference for their students. The development point in terms of sustainable practice was for leaders to encourage teachers to explore relevant research literature that could challenge their thinking and assumptions about student learning.

Schools that were somewhat informative and supportive of teaching as inquiry

In the 46 percent of schools where ERO found processes to be somewhat informative and supportive of teaching as inquiry, the features of sustainability described in the previous section were much less evident. Compared to schools using high levels of inquiry, leaders’ influence was less apparent. Nonetheless, their contribution was important. In some cases they worked with teachers, and/or sought support from external facilitators to build understanding of the “front end” of The New Zealand Curriculum [15] , including the notion of teaching as inquiry. They made achievement information about students available to groups of teachers. They encouraged discussions in groups that focused on how to address the specific learning needs of students.

Overall, in these schools there was a need for teachers to gain further clarity about the nature and process of teaching as inquiry and its implications for practice. None of the activities described in the four phases of the inquiry cycle as described in The New Zealand Curriculum, were seen often. The deliberate and rigorous inquiry process described by Reid (2004) was not seen. Missing were the structures that supported robust inquiry in the schools with good inquiry: clear guidelines about how inquiry should happen, monitoring of inquiry activity, and promotion of the inquiry processes by school leaders.

There was a particular gap in the learning inquiry phase of the teaching as inquiry cycle [16]. As this example shows, evaluation lacked a necessary focus on whether or not there had been improved outcomes for students:

Teachers are expected to evaluate completed units of work, but there is variability in terms of the quality of these and the frequency in which they are done. The best practice happened where teachers’ evaluations included reflective and informed comments about what went well, what had not, and why, and what the teacher would do differently. Some teachers, however, simply made descriptive comments about what students had done rather than being evaluative about the impact on students’ learning. (Contributing school, Years 1-6)

Schools that gained little information from teaching as inquiry, or used the process minimally

In schools where inquiry processes were either minimally informative (24 percent) or not used to support decision-making (4 percent), teachers were in the early stages of understanding what inquiry was about. Some teachers had confused it with a learning approach used by students called ‘inquiry learning’. Teachers had few opportunities to work together using an inquiry approach. The capacity and sustainability features that ERO found in schools that had highly informative and supportive inquiry systems and cultures were not evident in these schools.

There were gaps in practice at every phase of the teaching as inquiry cycle [17] . Leaders did not promote the use of student achievement information as the basis for making decisions about teaching and learning. Focused discussion on strategies for addressing students’ needs was absent. Evaluation practice was not carried out well or did not happen at all. Compared to schools where teaching as inquiry was well embedded, teachers were less inclined to be reflective about their practice. Leadership, through the PLD programmes (including the PMS), did not support teachers’ development effectively.