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Some Principles If You Wish To Take A Practitioner Enquiry Approach To Teacher Development

For the last three and a half years the schools I lead have been adopting practitioner enquiry approaches to developing individuals, and therefore the schools themselves. In this time teachers have transformed their practices and understandings to such an extent that their individual and professional identities have changed. A key signpost for transformative learning as identified by Knud Illeris in his book 'Transformative Learning and Identity' published last year. As a result both schools I lead have developed in deep and sustainable ways, so that learning experiences and attainment for our pupils have improved greatly. Both schools were recognised as performing at high levels before we embarked on this new developmental journey.

I have long held that the sharing of 'good practice' is something we should be vary wary of, as all schools and all situations are different, and what this can promote is copying and mimicry, with little understanding. Instead, we should share principles behind successful practice and development, as these should be constants in most situations. With this in mind I would like to share with you some of the principles that my colleagues and I have identified that need to be understood to give you the best chance to be successful in adopting this approach.

Principles:

  • For this approach to work and be embraced by all it needs an open and supportive culture, with high levels of trust. This does not happen overnight, and if it is not there time needs to be devoted to establishing such a culture. You and your colleagues need to recognise and admit what you don't know before you can identify a way forward. This is unlikely to happen if people feel judged and unsupported as a result of such admissions.
  • The next principle seems obvious but is often ignored or not recognised by many, it is that you need to start from where you are, not where you think you are. Self-evaluation and honesty are crucial here. Individuals need to know exactly where they are in terms of their professional development and practice, and so does the school. You need to really know where you are starting from so that you can start to build from that point and not some imaginary point where you or, worse, others think you are.
  • The Headteacher and senior managers need to be fully committed and involved in the enquiry process. You cannot delegate this to others. School leaders have to recognise the importance of professional development and to lead it, in order to have the greatest impact on learners. You need to understand and embrace the process so that you have an informed perception of the demands on colleagues and are better able to support as a result. You need to manage the process. This is not something that is being done to you, but which comes from within each individual.
  • You need to recognise, accept and embrace the complexity of what you are doing. There is nothing simple or linear about such an approach. It's complex and messy. The more people who are engaged in the process, the more complex it becomes. It will tax your organisational, emotional and cognitive capacities to the full and, as with all good learning, you will make mistakes. The speed of progress will be impacted by all sorts of different factors, some internal and others external.
  • Practitioner enquiry approaches are challenging. They are challenging to individual teachers and to school leaders. They are challenging in terms of complexity but also to long held orthodoxies and practices. You and your colleagues start to look at everything you do through a more critical lense. The question 'for what purpose?' becomes common and can lead to uncomfortable realisations. This is not an easy option or approach to take, but I would argue the rewards outweigh the difficulties. 
  • A 'critical friend' is almost essential. We have Dr Gillian Robinson from Edinburgh University supporting us and she has been fantastic in that role, both for myself and individual teachers. This has helped us build links with the university and with other academics and research. Whoever acts as your 'critical friend' needs to understand practitioner enquiry thoroughly in order to provide the support necessary. They should not be the drivers of the process, that needs to remain you and your staff.
  • You should recognise that adopting a practitioner enquiry approach is a way of being. It is not another 'thing' to do, but a disposition. It has to be thus to be truly transformative for individuals and schools. It would be practically impossible to go back to old ways of working once you have embraced this in its fullest sense. So you need to think and plan carefully ahead of adopting this way of working.
  • The focus of teacher enquiry into practice needs to be firmly on learning, not activities. They need to look at the learning that is happening in their classrooms and how they can facilitate and develop this, for the benefit of all. To do this you should start small in focus and then scale up. Teachers look at what is happening in small areas of their practice, with a few pupils and how this might be improved. What emerges then impacts on all learners and all areas.
  • Speed is an important consideration. The overall speed of development is mainly dependent on capacity of staff to understand and assimilate changes into practice. This will be quicker for some than others. All the regular activities in the school calendar, such as report writing, parents, nights, Christmas, etc. need to be recognised, and their impact on workload. You cannot just keep steaming ahead if people are being left behind, or are feeling they have insufficient time to think, collect data and embed change. Slower is better than quicker in this respect. The direction of travel still remains forwards.
  • Finally, one size definitely does not fit all. You could not lift what we have done for three and a half years, drop it into another two schools, and expect to get the same results. Your implementation has to be tailored to suit the needs of you and your school. They are all different and will all be starting from different places. This is an inherent difficulty of blindly sharing good practice. There are no 'magic bullets' to school development that will work in every school and every situation.
The principles above have emerged over three and a half years of engagement. If you understand them and consider them you will give yourself, your colleagues and your school the best opportunity to succeed with a way of developing that will be deep, sustained and will have positive impacts for all learners. I would have no hesitation in recommending more schools who are looking for an approach to deliver such outcomes to adopt an enquiry approach.

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