Teachers’ inquiry into the impact of their teaching on students

Teachers’ inquiry into the impact of their teaching on students

The four phases of the teaching as inquiry cycle,[18] and the three sets of related questions, [19] also apply to inquiry that happens in classrooms. While classroom inquiry tends to be more individualised and contained, there are opportunities for teachers to talk with others about their inquiry processes and findings. Reflective journals, end of term/end of unit evaluation processes, action research projects, portfolios, and participating in the PMS, are common forms of classroom inquiry.[20] Each can be used in different ways and some can be combined to provide rich information and accounts of learning and teaching.

Where teachers have the skills and disposition, teaching as inquiry also happens moment-by-moment as teachers reflect on what learning is happening and how they will respond to the emerging needs and strengths of students. Regardless of when and how it happens, teaching as inquiry is purposefully oriented to knowing about the impact of teaching on students, and then to responding to this information in ways that will promote students’ learning. Effective leaders play an important role in establishing and promoting inquiry approaches and in emphasising the deliberate nature of teaching as inquiry.

Teaching as inquiry is essentially a teacher activity,[21] however because students are the beneficiaries of teachers’ inquiry, it makes sense that they participate in the process at certain points. For instance, students can take responsibility for working towards achieving learning goals or priorities that have been identified by teachers through inquiry. To do this effectively, teachers must make it explicit to students what these goals are, and the processes by which students can achieve and review them as part of the classroom programme. Students can also give teachers useful information about the impact of teaching practices on their learning and engagement.

The extent of teachers’ inquiry in the classroom

ERO found that many teachers used teaching as inquiry in their classrooms.

In 77 percent of classrooms, teachers were either using a high level or some inquiry. In 23 percent of classrooms there was minimal or no evidence of teaching as inquiry. Figure 5 illustrates the level of inquiry found in classrooms in this evaluation.

Figure 5: Teaching as inquiry – level inquiry in the classrooms

figure 5 is a bar graph called Teaching as inquiry- level inquiry in the classrooms. The y-axis is called percentage of schools (n=200)it is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20. The x-axis is call level of inquiry and has four labels which are High 26%, Some 51%, Minimal 17% and None 6%.

High levels of inquiry

Findings indicate that in classrooms with high levels of inquiry, teachers focused on knowing about students’ achievement. Student assessment data were gathered over time, using many tools and processes. They collected and inquired into both formal and informal assessment data. Teachers gathered information informally, and in an ongoing manner, to find out more about a particular student’s progress on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. Typically there was also a schedule developed by school leaders that teachers followed when gathering formal assessment data. School leaders analysed data and information that was then passed on to groups of teachers in a form that could be used by them. Teachers discussed the findings and shared approaches that could be used with students to raise achievement.

ERO found that teachers were well supported by leaders and their colleagues in improving their teaching and their understanding of inquiry as a process for changing practice. As this example shows, there were opportunities to learn from peers, guided by systems established by leaders:

The teacher was involved in a critical inquiry cycle process with another colleague in the department. Key questions informed this process. All teachers had regular times for their meetings with colleagues and for planning. (Secondary school, Years 9-15)

Individual classroom teachers also used their own analysed data to cater for individuals and groups of students. They typically used it to identify gaps in students’ learning, monitor their progress, and develop or adjust long and short-term planning for them. A common use for assessment data was to group and regroup students in reading and mathematics.

The teacher evaluates lessons by writing in a scrap-book and reflecting on these evaluations. She uses success criteria to see how students have done and which areas of learning need revisiting. Exemplars are used to assess individual student progress and to re-teach and re-group where necessary. (Contributing school, Years 1-6)

The culture in classrooms where inquiry was high was one of both informal and formal monitoring, reflection on and responsiveness to students learning needs and interests. For instance, teachers made moment-by-moment decisions on how to respond to emerging issues for learners on the basis of their observation of what students were doing as shown in the following example:

The teacher was a close observer of students’ learning in progress. She constantly modified her approach as she assessed students’ understanding and application. (Contributing school, Years 1-6)

The teacher listens to students’ responses to gauge their understanding and makes notes that contribute to her planning and teaching for the next day. (Full primary school, Years 1-8)

Sometimes teachers used more formal processes for recording information about students. These included class descriptions, reflective journals, weekly evaluations, or analysed student surveys. These were used to improve aspects of the programme and the learning environment, such as adapting the level of challenge in units of work.

The teacher did frequent evaluations with students. Comments students made changed aspects of the English department scheme, influenced the way this teacher taught, and contributed to decisions about topics and resources. The programme was now more student centred.(Composite school, Years 1-15)

Whereas some teachers felt confident about changing aspects of the curriculum in response to information about students learning, others were less inclined to do so.

The teacher was aware of teaching as inquiry as a concept from whole staff and faculty PLD. She was developing a sense of how to use inquiry to improve teaching and learning. Inquiry was not a strong process in what to teach [the content of learning] as the course was set down in the scheme and the teacher thought she should follow it. (Secondary school, Years 9-15)

It is important that teachers have the flexibility and are encouraged to make adaptations to the programme when they have the evidence to indicate that to do so would benefit students’ learning. School leaders have an important role in conveying the value of balancing the documented school curriculum and prescribed timeframes with the emerging needs, interests and strengths of the students in their classes. Where teachers receive a clear message from school leaders that it is not only permissible but also desirable to do this, teachers will be more inclined to inquire into their practices and make necessary adjustments to their teaching.

Critically inquiring discussion among teachers should be probing and challenging. Teachers need to be open to learning and trying new ways of teaching that might be beneficial to their students. It is not clear that these types of probing inquiry conversations occurred in schools. What is clear is that only a few teachers made use of research in considering alternative teaching approaches in their programmes. Problems of practice, including what to do for students who were not progressing at the expected rate, were mostly addressed by drawing on current teaching repertoire. It would be beneficial if leaders and teachers located relevant research that would challenge thinking about current practices.

Leaders supported good practice in inquiry by providing frameworks for teachers to follow. For example teachers had a set of questions that guided their inquiry at both a school and classroom level. Leaders also produced planning and assessment systems, and school expectations that supported consistent and coordinated teaching practice across classrooms and made it easier for teachers to engage in inquiry. Formal frameworks that encouraged observation and critical reflection, as part of the PMS, also created a useful context for teachers to use an inquiry approach.

This example illustrates leaders’ influential effect on how teachers taught.

Teachers were well supported by clearly documented guidelines for planning, teaching and assessment. They benefited from targeted and well-planned professional development. Teaching as inquiry was well supported by the self-review system developed by senior managers. Self review was focused on raising students’ achievement by improving practice. Professional development and the performance management system were closely aligned to supporting teachers in improving their practice. (Full primary school, Years 1-8)

Underpinning teachers’ work was a set of attitudes that defined the teaching and learning culture in the classroom. Where there was strong inquiry, teachers showed a desire to make a difference for students, a disposition to include students in the processes of learning, a curiosity about what would make students’ learning better, and a willingness to improve teaching practice.

Students’ were involved in making decisions about their own learning. They were encouraged to set goals on the basis of the information teachers had gathered about them, and to reflect on the progress they had made towards meeting these. In some instances students were also involved collaboratively in negotiating criteria used in assessing their work.

Students were fully aware of their progress and grades. They have copies of the indicators used by teachers to make judgments about the quality of their work. Students do self-assessment activities and meet with teachers to discuss their progress and next steps. There was a clear emphasis on individual progress and a personal approach to achievement. (Secondary school, Years 9-15)

Knowing about their own progress and achievement and the means by which they could improve, were considered useful steps in fostering students’ sense of ownership for learning.

Some level of inquiry

Where there was some level of teacher inquiry, more work was required at a school‑wide level to develop teachers’ understanding and application of teaching as inquiry. ERO identified gaps in teachers’ practice in all four phases of the teaching as inquiry cycle. Typically, data gathering was less comprehensive than in classrooms with high levels of inquiry. For instance, data on students’ ethnicity were not collated or reflected on criticallu. There was variable practice in relation to using assessment information as the basis of classroom programmes. Some teachers used data well (including information from self review or evaluation); whereas others had yet to routinely link assessment data to planning. As this example shows, the practice of using data to guide practice was somewhat tentative:

Teachers throughout the school were beginning to get to grips with using student achievement data for informing the classroom programme. They were beginning to group students and teach them according to their needs identified from student achievement data.(Secondary school, Years 9-15)

Where analysed information was used well to focus learning, it was used to identify gaps in students’ learning, for grouping or regrouping students (especially in mathematics and literacy), and to develop long and short term plans for students. Some of this planning was not closely aligned to the data gathered.

The influence of leadership practice on teachers was apparent, especially in the support teachers received for carrying out review. Leaders set stimulus questions to structure review, developed templates for recording review processes and outcomes, and established evaluation schedules and guidelines. They were pivotal in making sure teachers had opportunities to meet and reflect on learning and teaching. Teaching as inquiry underpinned the appraisal process, specifically through peer coaching, reflective conversations, feedback and setting goals.

Students had some involvement in learning processes, through goal-setting and opportunities to reflect on personal performance. This involvement was noticeably less than in classes with highly developed inquiry.

Minimal and no levels of inquiry

In 17 percent of classrooms, teachers had minimal understanding of teaching as inquiry, or were confusing it with the process of inquiry-based learning. Some leaders encouraged teachers to meet, to discuss students’ learning, and share planning. However, these activities were not regular, and ongoing inquiry was therefore not established. Decisions made were not sufficiently anchored in evidence about student achievement to make these sessions useful.

In the few classrooms (6 percent) where there was no inquiry teachers had not met to talk about students or engaged in organised or coordinated professional learning using an inquiry framework. The same confusion about inquiry noted above was also evident in these classrooms. There were few examples of teachers evaluating the outcomes of their teaching and modifying their programmes or timetables to give priority to where their students needed to focus most. Without this supportive environment, teachers were not in a good position to apply teaching as inquiry in their classrooms.