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So You Want To Enquire Into Your Practice?

For over four years now the schools I lead have been using practitioner enquiry as a vehicle for individual and school development. In that time we have transformed our attitude and practices in regard to professional development and whole school development. We are about to embark on our fifth year of enquiries into practice and we will shortly be sharing our plans with colleagues from another school as they begin their own journey with practitioner enquiry.

This engagement, as well as the fact that we have new staff of our own, has led me to consider and identify the steps we have been taking in our previous enquiries. I think it is important that teachers are clear on the process of carrying out an investigation, and so I have identified the key stages that need to be followed.  It is these that I am sharing with you in this post. They come with huge health warnings.

The first is that enquiring into practice should not be seen as a linear process, even though I am giving you the stages in that form. Often you will have to change tack, slow down, stop or even retrace you steps. That is fine. Learning and development is messy and the worst thing you can do is to keep ploughing on when things are not working out. It really helps if you have a supporter or critical friend who can help you with this, but it is equally important that you can identify yourself when things are going awry. Your enquiry should fit into what you are already doing and not be seen as another 'thing' you are having to do. Do not become bogged down by data or paperwork associated with your enquiry. Data should inform your actions but not drive them. Keep a simple learning journal or scrapbook about your journey, something that will help you to develop your thinking and enable you to share your discoveries with others. Keep it simple. Don't over complicate things, you need to walk before you run, and don't beat yourself up if you don't complete everything you want in the timeframe you thought. Most enquiries take a full school year, or more, to complete and have an impact, so slow down! Understand that there will be times when you have to leave your enquiry to one side as you deal with other things. You know, things like Halloween discos, Christmas parties, Christmas performances, report writing, residentials and the like. Be realistic and go easy on yourself and your expectations.

So what are the basic steps to carrying out an enquiry? Here are the ones I have identified that we have used.

  • Identify the issue you want to focus on. We always look at an aspect of learning that is concerning us or raising questions. Ask yourself what is it that is causing you concern? Keep your focus small, so not all of a curricular area, or the whole class, but an aspect or group or a few children.
  • Select a small group of children that you are going to focus on. Keep this group small and manageable. You cannot focus on the whole class, in terms of evidence and data collection otherwise the task becomes to big and will be unmanageable in work terms.
  • Now you know the issue and your focus group you can start looking for some professional reading and research around this issue. Teachers in Scotland can access the EBSCO resource on the GTCS website and most universities and libraries have resources you may be able to access. Again a critical friend could help you here and point you in the right direction.
  • You need to begin to collect some baseline data around the issue from your focus group of learners. Where are they now in their understanding? You can collect this information in lots of different ways, such as assessments, interviews, questionnaires, concept cartoons, video, sound recordings and so on. 
  • You should now have identified a change or strategy you are going to introduce to try and improve the learning. There may be more than one but try not to have too many, as it becomes harder to identify which has had what impact.
  • Implement and introduce the change or strategy. You can implement this with all learners and the full class, but your specific, evidence focus is going to be on the selected learners you have identified.  This means that any benefits are experienced by all, not just your focus group.
  • On completion of a block of input with the change or new strategy, you then collect more data and evidence using the same techniques as at the outset. Now you need to analyse this to answer questions like: What has been the impact for your focus group of pupils? How do you know? What have you learned about your practice? What are the implications for the future? What are your next steps as a result of this evidence?
  • If learning has improved, it should have improved for all, you then need to start thinking about another issue that is concerning you, then repeat the process. If learning hasn't improved, you need to analyse why this might be and then consider what change or strategy you can try next. You then repeat the process.
Enquiry is very much a cyclical process and should eventually just be the way you think about any problem or issues. 'Inquiry as stance' as Marilyn Cochran-Smith describes it in her book of the same title. The above is a simplified version of the steps you can take to begin thinking and working in such a way. If you want to think differently, work differently and produce different results, you have to do something differently. Practitioner enquiry has brought about the biggest and most sustainable improvements in professional and school development that I have ever experienced. Most importantly, it has allowed us to raise attainment for all learners, including our lowest 20%of attainers. Every teacher has developed and improved by taking control of their own professional development and ensuring this is firmly fixed on learning and teaching. They are more confident and have a deeper understanding of learning, where all their pupils are, and how to build on their learning. They are not all in the same place, but they are all different, and better, teachers than they were five years ago. I am a different, and better, Headteacher than I was five years ago. My schools are in a better position than they were five years ago, and we started from a very good position.

If you want to give enquiry a try, I suggest you enquire into what is involved carefully, then go for it!

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