10. Children, parents and teachers benefiting from teaching as inquiry

Cover of 10th narrative

Oratia School(Year 1 to 6) in Auckland has a roll of over 500 children. Most are Pākehā/ European, approximately 60 identify as Māori, and 50 are either Pacific or Asian.

School leaders were clear the school’s positive achievement trajectory was a result of implementing very specific, targeted strategies in response to data and evidence. With well-managed teaching-as-inquiry processes in place, leaders, syndicates and individual teachers had undertaken inquiries and shared their findings with the wider staff. These inquiries contributed to ongoing innovation and improvements, and resulted in enhanced outcomes for students.

In this example we share the:

  • processes introduced to manage teaching as inquiry
  • some practices, outcomes and impacts resulting from these inquiries.

Processes to introduce and manage teaching as inquiry

Leaders encouraged teachers to trial innovations in the classroom and across the school. The expectation was that they focus inquiries to improve teaching and  learning, especially for target students. Trials related to their inquiries could be either short or long-term, but it had become apparent the most successful innovations came out of longer trials. Experience showed it usually took two years to implement an innovation, make necessary modifications, and evaluate its impact.

School leaders and the board encouraged and supported teachers to put proposals forward for consideration. All proposals were expected to:

  • clearly align with the school’s vision, goals and priorities
  • be backed by sound research
  • focus on promoting learning and raising achievement
  • include expected outcomes for students
  • show how the actions could be sustainable
  • meet clear accountability expectations.

The accountability requirement meant teachers had to report to school leaders and the board about achievement in relation to National Standards and about student engagement (defined in the school’s strategic plan as ‘students taking a role in their learning’). In their twice-yearly reports to the board, teachers shared quantitative data about progress and achievement, the strategies they were using, what had been successful and why, and proposed next steps. These reports were an essential means of making sure the board knew which strategies, practices, and approaches were working and should therefore be continued. The trustees were actively involved in decision making and wanted to see a clear line of sight from the school’s vision to actual teaching and learning.

“Everything starts with the strategic plan and achievement data.”

Teachers used a digital template for their inquiry proposals. Proposals had to include or cover:

  • the inquiry question
  • the purpose
  • a description of the strengths and needs of the target children
  • research
  • ongoing reflections
  • impacts for students
  • mechanisms for reporting to the board and to staff.

The principal and deputy principal undertook professional learning and development (PLD) to strengthen their own understanding of teaching as inquiry and then all staff engaged in externally facilitated PLD with a strong teaching-asinquiry component. A designated senior leader had responsibility for building the practice of teaching as inquiry throughout the school. Their clearly defined role included supporting teachers, modelling actions, observing strategies, and sharing inquiries with the wider staff.

Story hui example

As an example of how this worked in practice, a class teacher engaged in an inquiry that successfully accelerated student progress by building educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau. Recognising its success, leaders asked all teachers to trial it for a term.

Teachers shared the ongoing progress of their inquiries with colleagues in syndicates and professional learning groups (PLGs). They shared their actions, outcomes and findings formally via a ‘story hui’ co-constructed with the other members of their PLG (see image).

When starting or extending an inquiry, leaders would discuss their intentions in carefully planned consultations with parents and whānau.

“This is one of the toughest challenges we face when we want to introduce any innovation. We can’t take it for granted that whänau and families will support what we do. We know they will question and challenge us, so our preparation and groundwork has to be thorough and strongly grounded in research evidence. As part of the process we use focus groups and personalised emails. We also host information evenings and invite selected parents, who will be constructive, to be involved as critical friends.”

Some inquiries and outcomes for children

Reading section engages to modern learning environment

Recent inquiries included working in partnership with parents to accelerate the progress of target students; introducing modern learning environments; trialling a boys-only class; and the benefits of composite classes where students had the same teacher for two years.

These inquiries all complemented each other and contributed to the goal of children accepting agency for their own learning.

An inquiry to strengthen working with parents

A teacher wanted to try something different to accelerate the achievement of the reluctant writers in her class. Like her colleagues, she had read Educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau. She used the findings from that report to inform her inquiry and saw very significant gains for her target students. The teacher selected a small target group, all boys. She then hosted an information evening for the parents and whānau to explain what she planned to do and what this would mean for her, the boys, and their families. The evening took the form of a presentation followed by a question-and-answer time. Prior to the evening, she shared part of her presentation with the boys, as she wanted them to understand her intentions and be active parties in the inquiry.

Letter to parents
Oratia School encourages teachers to engage in a personal inquiry designed to improve their practice.

My inquiry this year is ‘how do I get my students to put into practice what they have learnt in lessons and apply it to independent tasks’. My goal is to raise achievement in writing. I am focusing on a target group of 11 boys, which includes your boy. I have already started the process and I am enjoying working with the group as they have a lot to offer.

I believe that school–home partnership has a significant impact on children’s learning. Because of this I would love it if you could come to a parent information evening on Thursday … in the staff room.

At this meeting we will cover:
1. How I approached the boys about being part of this group.
2. What my aim is.
3. What I am doing in class to support the boys’ learning.
4. How you can help.
5. How you can access the boys’ blogs and use the Read/Write app.

I will provide drinks and nibbles!

From the beginning, she was open with the parents about the intervention being part of an inquiry and her ongoing learning.

The following slides are from the teacher’s presentation:

How can you help?

Be an audience
● Positive feedback - Respond to writing, i.e.
● Ignore the stuff you want to fix - sit on your hands!
● Talk about goal
● Share it with family

Planning - generating ideas
● E-mail home every Friday about what genre I am teaching, i.e.
recounts - talk about what they can write that week, bring in
photos, objects, home video etc
● Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk

Types of Feedback

Respond to story
● What is your goal?
● Can you show me?
● What kind of help do you need?
● What do you need to do to achieve your

Feedback from parents and whānau confirmed they felt empowered to support their children with their writing. Following the success of this inquiry, senior leaders decided to initiate a whole-school inquiry with the aim of addressing the underachievement of some Māori students, particularly boys.

Early in Term 3, the parents of the target students met with their child’s class teacher. The teacher discussed their specific concerns (achievement in reading, writing or mathematics) with the parents and showed them what their child needed to be doing to be achieving at the expected level.

Every two weeks the teachers would make contact with the parents (either face-to-face or by phone or email) to discuss what their child had achieved and check whether the parents felt they were ready for another goal. Parents were also given resources, such as flash cards, to use with their child. In their feedback, parents said these regular communication opportunities improved their relationships with their children’s class teachers.

Parents we spoke to said they felt their input and ideas were listened to and valued by the teachers, and they were empowered to support their children’s learning at home:

“I definitely felt like a partner in the learning process.”

“All of us [child, parents, class teacher, and mathematics support teacher] had the same learning goals. We all knew the games and activities to support the learning goals. With this consistency, all of us were on board to work together.”

“As a parent I felt involved and felt valued and in the loop of the whole process. Previously I had known our daughter had reading to do at home but didn’t know what to focus on. This gave me the confidence to ask more questions and be more involved. If I know what she is working on then I can help her.”

“Our daughter is much more involved in her learning at school. She has more confidence. She used to say she isn’t clever but is now much more confident.

“I felt my thoughts and opinions were really listened to and valued. The teacher listened to any concerns I had about how my son was handling a change of reading levels and they made adjustments to his reading books.”

A YouTube video provides further insight into this initiative, together with excerpts from a discussion in which a mother talks about how it has benefited her son.

A modern learning inquiry

Inspired by a conference and a school visit, two teachers began changing their practice with the aim of getting students to take greater ownership of their own learning. The results were sufficiently encouraging for them to put a joint innovation/inquiry proposal to the board. The proposal was clearly linked to the school’s strategic plan and focused on pedagogies that had the potential to raise achievement.


To raise student achievement

Links to the strategic plan

Provide teaching that inspires curious, creative and critical thinkers who each achieve to their potential.
Raise achievement in reading, writing and mathematics.
Provide individualised, high-quality learning and teaching in all curriculum areas and encourage student voice.
Use inquiry-based learning, incorporating the key competencies and school values to equip students with broad holistic life skills required for success in the 21st century


To use modern learning pedagogies to raise student achievement.
To show accelerated progress for children who are below or well below National Standards.
To extend children at or above National Standards.
To provide children with the tools and skills to be successful learners.
To promote a collaborative, inclusive and supportive learning environment.
To provide a learning environment that is physically, socially, culturally and emotionally safe.

The proposal was accepted, and implemented the following year.

In their midyear report to the board, the teachers shared summaries of research articles relating collaborative teaching and described what they had done to date:

  • embarking: how they initially trialled this in the morning block and then extended it to other teaching blocks
  • embedding: as a sign of success, one class convinced their relief teacher to use the new approach rather than follow the structured plan provided by their regular teacher
  • embodying: strategies used included modelling, children instigating discussion, times for both explicit teaching and individualised learning/practice
  • evaluating: skills students were more confident using, plus results from a student survey 
  • extending: what they had done to get other teachers’ perspectives, and their own next steps

What have we done differently...

  • Students plan their own day: prioritising time management,
    making decisions, having choice, accountability
  • Students set purposeful and relevant goals in reading, writing
    and mathematics. The goals are personalised and set in collaboration with the teacher

What we have noticed...

  • Significantly increased engagement and motivation to learn
  • Better understanding of their own learning
  • Increased independence
  • Improved time management and organisation skills
  • Ability to work collaboratively and in a team
  • Students wanting to continue their learning at break times, before school and at home
  • Significantly decreased behaviour problems

The inquiry resulted in the desired changes for children. As they became increasingly able to manage themselves independently, they were able to plan the order of their learning within the overall framework. They used digital technologies to support their learning. They selected workshops appropriate for their learning needs and level. They engaged in follow-up activities closely linked to the teaching they had just had. They could talk about recent learning and make connections across different learning experiences. Parents commented on the work that their children were doing at home to achieve their goals.

“Our teacher puts us in charge of our own learning, if we are stuck she doesn’t just give us the answer, she talks about other strategies I can use.”
Year 5 child

“I knew what my numeracy goal should be because from a test done earlier I had found groupings within 100 tricky.”
Year 4 child

“Students are driving their own learning, and are wanting to learn. They nag me if I don’t get to a workshop on time.”

In the 12 months of this inquiry…
Twelve students made accelerated progress in reading. Four moved from ‘well below’ to ‘below’, six from ‘below’ to ‘at’ and four from ‘at’ to ‘above’ the National Standard.

Ten students made accelerated progress in writing. Two moved from ‘well below’ to ‘below’, four from ‘below’ to ‘at’ and four from ‘at’ to ‘above’ the National Standard.

Fourteen students made accelerated progress in mathematics. Four moved from ‘well below’ to ‘below’, five from ‘below’ to ‘at’ and five from ‘at’ to ‘above’ the National Standard.

The modern learning approaches trialled have since been extended to other classes. Leaders are using achievement information and responses from the Me and my School survey to evaluate ongoing outcomes.

Band of Brothers: an inquiry into educating boys

At the end of 2012 leaders noticed, for a particular cohort of Year 5 to 6 boys, there was a close correlation between engagement data (from the Me and my School survey) and achievement data. Achievement and engagement levels were significantly lower for the boys than for their female peers.

Class activites with a scientific experiement

Leaders approached three teachers and invited them to participate in a two-year trial of a boys-only class. These teachers visited schools with boys’ classes and reviewed research findings, which supported their belief that, for such classes to succeed, choice of teacher was critical.

Two teachers began preparations for a boys-only class that was to start at the beginning of 2013. In year one of the trial they aimed to raise engagement and achievement and, in year two, to sustain engagement while further accelerating achievement. Throughout the two years, they would report regularly to parents, teachers and the board.

Leaders made sure parents were well informed about the planned trial and the supporting research. They held information evenings for the parents of Year 4 boys and provided links to relevant research. They made up information packs with more detail and invited parents with questions to meet with the principal to discuss them. Information about the probable composition of the class was included in the school newsletter for the information of the wider school community.

The progress of the boys was accelerated during the two years of the trial but it was decided that, rather than begin another boys-only class, successful strategies would be introduced to other classes so more children would benefit. As a result, opportunities for independent and group work increased, as did opportunities for the children to choose their working environment. However, as leaders acknowledged, there were still more boys than girls needing support to reach the expected level.

An inquiry about children staying with the same teacher for two years

A teacher wanted to investigate how well Years 5 and 6 children progressed if they stayed with the same teacher for two years. This 2014–15 inquiry linked into the boys-only class inquiry (see above) and was used as a comparison in the second year.

The teacher carefully tracked the children’s achievement and found, at the end of the two years, more children were achieving or exceeding the expected level. Some of the increase in maths achievement may have been because all mathematics planning was now being shared online as part of an initiative to help parents support their children’s learning. However, in writing, the numbers of children achieving success had also increased, and the numbers judged to be ‘well below’ the expected level had been halved by the end of the two years.

“Firstly, there was a very quick start to our daughters learning in the second year as she knew the teacher and the teacher knew her. Secondly, the teacher has really got to know what helps her learn and her learning has really progressed because of this.”

“My son is a bit shy but feels more confident with his teacher as they have gotten to know each other well. The teacher understands my son well and has customised tasks and projects to his abilities.”

The school has continued keeping children for two years with the same teacher and have recognised this promotes tuakana-teina relationships where the older children support the younger ones. Leaders and teachers saw, too, that it was much easier to develop educationally powerful home–school partnerships when teachers could get to know whänau over a two-year period. This finding linked into another inquiry exploring how educationally focused partnerships with parents and whānau could enhance learning.