The New Zealand Curriculum[1] describes teaching as inquiry as a process that involves educators investigating the impact of their decisions and practice on students. In early 2010, the Ministry of Education asked the Education Review Office (ERO) to conduct an initial evaluation[2], and a follow-up evaluation one year later using the same methodology. The evaluations were to capture, at points in time, the nature of the inquiry teachers were using, and to describe the extent to which teachers were using inquiry to inform their practice. In the initial evaluation, the schools were selected from those scheduled for an education school review in Term 3, 2010.

Findings from the first evaluation were published in the 2011 ERO report, Directions for Learning: The New Zealand Curriculum Principles and Teaching as Inquiry. A further group of schools were selected for a follow-up evaluation as part of their scheduled education reviews in Term 3, 2011. This report outlines findings from these schools and focuses on the nature and the quality of the:

  • systems and processes established by schools to support inquiry practice, and
  • inquiry practice that teachers use in their classrooms.

ERO found that 58 percent of schools had processes in place that were either highly, or somewhat supportive of teaching as inquiry. Where inquiry was working well in classrooms and amongst groups of teachers, all phases of the inquiry cycle were happening. However, teachers and leaders were stronger at the focusing inquiry phase (identifying which students need help), than they were at planning how to respond to them (teaching inquiry) and evaluating how well programmes impact on learners (learning inquiry). These latter stages require a level of problem-solving and evaluation that challenge many teachers. ERO also found this issue in the previous evaluation. It would be useful for leaders to help teachers to develop their competency in both of these areas if they are to achieve the important task of lifting student achievement among priority groups.

Where inquiry practice was not strong, leaders and teachers needed to:

  • draw on a wider range of research and/or effective practice when they designed programmes and interventions for learners
  • make better use of evidence when they evaluated the outcomes for learners of the programmes and initiatives they had put in place
  • use the information they had about students’ learning strengths and needs to design appropriate professional learning and development opportunities for teachers.

ERO compared the data from each of the evaluation phases and noted a disappointing drop in the current evaluation in the extent to which teachers were supported with their inquiry practices, and the extent to which they were inquiring into the impact of their teaching on students. Further analysis of the samples by schools’ type, location, decile and size found that there were no statistical differences between them. While the two samples differed in terms of the ratio of primary schools to secondary schools, this was not found to contribute to this decline.

There are clear benefits for students and teachers when inquiry happens well. Firstly, students’ needs and strengths are responded to quickly and more precisely because teachers have up-to-the-minute information on which to base their teaching decisions. Secondly, the feedback loops that are established when teachers observe, respond and evaluate in “real time” improve their teaching practices.

ERO encourages schools to review the effectiveness of their teaching as inquiry practice, and build on current practice, so that they can better meet the learning needs of all students, particularly priority learners. This includes exploring the factors that make inquiry more successful in some learning contexts than others, with the purpose of supporting teachers to use inquiry more effectively in their day-to-day practices. It is important that teachers adopt teaching as inquiry as a constructive process in which their continuous deep thinking about students’ learning, and their responsive actions, pave the way for all students to succeed. Leaders have a critical role in fostering teaching as inquiry as an ongoing tool for learning.