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Into The Light: With Practitioner Enquiry

Yesterday I took part in a conference at Edinburgh University which was focused on Practitioner Enquiry and it's impact for teachers, schools, systems and educational research. As a Headteacher who has been using such an approach for over four years now, I was very interested to get a picture of where we were now with Practitioner Enquiry,  it's impacts and dissemination more widely within the system. Attendees included school representatives, local authorities, Education Scotland, General Teaching Council Scotland and a number of universities from across Scotland.

After the welcomes and introductions to the day, we began by hearing from Tom Hamilton of the GTCS. The title of Tom's presentation was Impact: 'What Impact? Whose Impact? Educational Practice, Educational Policy and Research Excellence.' This encapsulated a common theme for the day, which was around impact for learners at all levels, and the recognition that we are all learners. Tom pointed out the position in Scotland where Government Poliies, GTCS through professional standards and professional update, Education Scotland and Higher Education were very much aligned in direction of travel. He saw this as a time of great 'opportunity' for Scottish Education and one which fully supported the adoption of enquiry practices to teacher, school and system development. Whilst he saw this as a time of opportunity he also had a few words of caution. He warned against the 'snake-oil salesmen' who were often prevalent in education. The ones who offered magic cures, silver bullets and off-the-shelf solutions to our problems. He noted that whilst research was vital, it was important that we should look critically at all research and it's quality. Sometimes good and excellent research is ignored because it does not fit a particular Government's or Authority's politically philosophy on education. He welcomed and supported the adoption of practitioner enquiry approaches and particularly advocated the 'Inquiry-as-stance' advocation of Marilyn Cochrane-Smith, where enquiry is seen very much as a disposition and a way of being for professionals. He thought the new professional update process would support such a way developing. He pointed out that PU was positively motivated  and was about empowering teachers to take forward their own professional development. He saw teachers as enquiring professionals as central to teacher professional learning.

Tom did describe himself very much as the warm up act for the star of the day who was Marilyn Cochran-Smith. She was the next speaker.

Marilyn Cochran-Smith is the Cawthorn Professor of Teacher Education at Boston College in the USA. She has been developing her theories and practice regarding practitioner enquiry since the mid 1980s and has published and edited many books and papers on this subject. The title of her presentation was 'Inquiry as Stance: Local and Beyond.'

She too started with a couple of warnings. She cautioned that there was a danger that practitioner enquiry could be attached to lots of different agendas. Like any other well meaning and well intended approach it could become something completely different in order to fit different agendas. If that happens its impact will not be as it should. She spoke of two examples of what this might look like. One was in the USA where many districts 'require' teachers to take part in practitioner enquiry. To ensure this happens they then provide them with a step by step manual of how they will go about this. The second example was from Singapore where every teacher is expected to be in a Professional Learning Community focused on enquiry into practice. But when she and colleagues spoke to school principals about these it became clear that they didn't know what these were for or how they should operate. Two examples of how you can take the label 'practitioner enquiry' and change completely the principles behind it, or not even understand them, and produce something else without achieving the same results.

Having started with a caution, she then went on to speak at length about why she saw practitioner enquiry as the way forward for teacher, school, leadership and learner development. As the title of her talk indicated she was looking at this through two lenses, the local and the beyond. She began by stating again that inquiry was for everyone not just teachers. Every individual, learner, teacher, headteachers, local authority managers, academics, everyone would benefit from the adoption of such approaches to their work and their positions. Next she pointed out the differences and commonalities between Professional Inquiry Groups and Professional Learning Groups, TLCs and the like. She felt that the former were very much 'social movement' groups, based on teacher and student learning, looked at means and ends, were concerned with data of practice and equity outside of the accountability framework. The later she categorised as 'school reform initiatives' focused on school effects, were seen as a means to an end, shared best local practice, used assessment data and were concerned with equity only within the current accountability frameworks.  She said the key was that it was the process that went on within Professional Inquiry Groups that made the difference, not the content. To be truly effective and embedded practitioners needed to adopt inquiry-as-stance, but what does this mean and what are the impacts? She saw three major categories of benefit:
  • This was a theory of action grounded in the dialectic of enquiry and practice
  • It repositions the collective intellectual capacity of the practitioners
  • It transforms teaching and learning, and schooling
'Practitioners take action because they are committed to improving the lives and the life chances of all their students.'

If you adopt inquiry-as-stance it is

inquiry as:
  • perspectful conceptual
  • a world view
  • a critical habit of mind
  • a dynamic and fluid way of knowing and being in the world of educational practice
  • carries across professional careers
  • carries across educational settings
 In contrast with inquiry as:
  • project
  • problem solving method
  • set of steps
When she looked beyond, Professor Cochran-Smith posed herself the questions. So what? Why? What is the impact beyond the local from the adoption of practitioner enquiry approaches? The first she identified was in improved teacher learning. They better understand their role, their impact on learning, how to improve this,  and this then becomes more widespread. Next she identified great benefits for student learning. In a world where the demands are forever greater for students, PE increases their ability to meet these demands. Equity and social justice is improved. Opportunities improve for all, especially our most disadvantaged. It allows teachers to partake in what she described as 'constructive disruption' where they are better able and informed to challenge accepted norms in the system. Finally she felt that adoption by teachers of PE approaches allows them to contribute to the development of the body of public knowledge.
She encapsulated her main messages as follows:

1) Inquiry is a powerful and critical stance on practice, not simply a project, tool or set of steps to solve a problem or produce a specific outcome (like boosting a studen's test scores)
2) When practitioners work from an enquiry stance, they deliberate on practice and generate local questions and knowledge that are often useful  beyond the local context
3) Educational transformation depends on the collective intellectual capacity of practitioners working with others on larger goals related to learning and social justice.

The final speaker of the morning was Professor Pat Thomson who is Director of Educational Research at Nottingham University. Her talk was entitled 'Getting Beyond 'What Works'' She contended that we need to get away from the concept of 'what works' where practitioners just copy some practice as it has been used elsewhere in the expectation that it will work the same in a different context or setting. ' Do this because it works!' She felt this was wrong for a number of reasons. These included, the frustration of inadequate measures of how something works, the real difficulty in sorting out cause and effect, the lack of information about why something works, the little assistance provided to work out how to do it better and finally the possibility of missing out on a better alternative. She contended that a lot of these approaches fail because at the outset no one has actually identified what the problem is that is being addressed. The challenge for teachers is that as life and children get more and more complex, what they need is a whole repertoire of approaches to meet different needs and situations. The worst example of this approach is the 'why not take it off the shelf' one. She exampled a number of these but was particularly scathing of VAK. 'For VAK read vacuous' she commented. She told us about the 'Get Wet Project' in Nottingham which was very cross-curricular and learning centred aimed at meeting the learning needs of the children, not just delivering a set curriculum. This was founded on principals of Action Research.The learning was real and connected, and largely driven by the children and, although in primary school, a lot of it was at senior secondary school levels. This project very much harnessed local expertise and was based on 6 principles:
1 start with the children's questions
2 connect to the children's everyday experiences
3 powerful knowledge helps children explain and evaluate their world and their place in it 
4 knowledges work together
5 connect local/ global past/present and future
6 go outside, get dirty and make art

This whole project was a huge success and this was due to the enquiring approach taken by all the participants, including the children. By adoptin these approaches, Pat felt there was benefits for all in the system. She talked about Action Research and how reflection was a key component of its success. This she felt needed to be systematic, using good tools, contains regular, open,trustworthy shared and public dialogue and sharing and which needs to be institutionally supported to succeed. Such enquiry approaches needed a collective effort from all in the system. 'Despite difficulties, change is still possible.'

The afternoon consisted of workshops around the theme of the day and these generated lots of lively discussions and debate. My own looked at what was happening around practitioner enquiry already, how we could all support this and what needed to happen to spread this practice further afield? Gillian Robinson from Edinburgh University echoed the speakers in the morning when she cautioned against the 'lethal mutations' that might emerge and that we should look out for. The general consensus was that the day had been thoroughly stimulating and thought provoking, with most of us having much to consider in our daily roles. I do hope I have done justice to the main speakers from my scribbled notes. I have added my own interpretations of what was been said, when my notes let me down! Hopefully, we may all now consider your own thinking and practice as we all seek to move 'into the light.'

 Tweets from the day can be found on #Light14

 More information about the Get Wet Project at get wet.org.uk









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