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Where are we now with practitioner enquiry?

Anyone who has been reading my blog posts for any length of time will know that the schools I work in have been using practitioner enquiry approaches for professional and school development for some time now. In fact, we are now well into the seventh year of using such approaches. Don't ask me where the time has gone, but I suppose it is the same for all of us. I am about to speak to another couple of cohorts of teachers who are keen to adopt enquiry approaches to their professional development and this has caused me to reflect and look back over our journey and where we are now. 

Our journey began seven years ago and was driven by our desire to connect, and make sense of everything we were being asked to do in our schools, and with our dissatisfaction with CPD activities we had been engaged in up to that point. Teachers were feeling overwhelmed by all the 'things' they were being asked to address, many associated with the 'new' Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) being developed in Scotland. The list of these 'things' appeared to grow week by week, and meeting by meeting, and we seemed to be jumping from one 'priority' to another, then another. We were very busy and staff were very committed to their work and their professional development. Staff were used to going on lots of courses and embracing local authority priorities like AIfL, Mediated Learning, Personalised Learning, and others. Trouble was, we struggled to see the sustainable impact of most of this busyness, and we really struggled to identify much sustained impact for learners. We needed to change something, if not everything.

Our return to professional sanity was through practitioner enquiry. Through this we were able to control, manage and, most importantly, connect all the various developments we were needing to engage with. We were also starting to develop an approach to career-long professional learning that allowed each practitioner to focus on their own practice, understandings and their impact on learning. We began to embrace research and professional reading to inform and underpin our actions and we began to measure everything we did in terms of impact for learners. We took very little baby-steps as we commenced our journey and we came to understand the complexity of our undertaking, and of everything worth doing. A big early insight was around discarding previous beliefs that school and professional development could be broken down into simple linear steps which would work in any context. 

I have written before on here of the early years of our journey, and you can refer to these posts if you wish to retrace those early steps. In this post I really want to focus on where we are now. What have we achieved? What has changed? What other insights and issues have emerged over time? 

We are still engaged in practitioner enquiry, but for the majority of the staff who have been on the full journey, the approach has been subsumed into their professional identity and their practice as professional teachers. It's what we do, and is the approach we take with everything. Most of the teachers who have been on this journey now have what Marylin Cochran Smith calls 'Inquiry as stance'. It has become a disposition and a way being. As Knud Illeris identifies, their identity has changed as their professional learning has become truly transformative. They are different teachers, and people, to what they were seven years ago. Not all have moved on as far as the ones who have developed most, but all have moved on and every single one of them is a better teacher, with better understandings, than they were seven years ago. Most importantly, learning and teaching experiences for all pupils have improved and attainment has risen as a result. Most excitingly some of the biggest attainment gains and improvements have been made by those pupils who fall within our lowest 20% of attainers.

Obviously, we have had some turnover of staff in these seven years. Some have moved on, but I am heartened to hear that, though now working in other settings, most are still using the same approaches. We have had a few NQTs in this time and a number of new and temporary members of staff have arrived, a lot of whom had little understanding or experience of practitioner enquiry. I am pleased to note that our NQTs took to the approach most easily as they were using similar methods whilst training or at university. All the NQTs we have had just saw the approaches we used as a continuation of what they had experienced whilst training. New, more experienced, members of staff found the approach most challenging and required more support. However, they liked the approach and the fact that we were not jumping from one 'thing' to another. The ones who found it the most challenging were the ones who arrived from schools or authorities, where they were still just seen as 'deliverers' of resources and programmes. They were on the steepest learning curves, because this approach requires real, critical thinking and deep understandings of learning. It also requires teachers to be driven by where pupils actually are in their learning, not where they should be according to some resource or programme.

When we first started with practitioner enquiry we cleared everything else from our school improvement  plan as we sought to give everyone the time, space and support to develop their understanding and to make the mistakes we would inevitably make. We had established a culture based on trust and this has developed over our journey, so that all staff continue to innovate and take risks. It's what we expect of everyone. We have dispersed leadership across the school, with all recognising they have a leadership responsibility. Leadership is no longer about titles or residing in one to two people. We all lead when necessary. The culture of collaboration and deep understanding of learning has grown, and focused professional dialogue between staff is often commented on by visitors to the school. We no longer jump from initiative to initiative but have a relentless approach to personal professional development, and towards school development. One school development plan leads into another and we are protected from fads and trends as we become more and more critically informed by research.

Staff and myself have helped other schools, and other teachers to engage with practitioner enquiry and are able to contribute to system development in our local area and further afield. We are currently working with four small schools in the Borders whose leaders are wanting to develop a collaborative model of support and school development. Practitioner enquiry is providing them with the common vehicle for that development. We have worked with NQTs from across the local authority and I am working with more experienced teachers, as I indicated at the start of this piece. I continue to work with school leaders across Scotland and enquiry approaches are being developed in schools across the country. Our own journey was supported very much by Edinburgh university at the outset, and it is pleasing to see and hear of similar partnerships being developed between schools and universities across the country. Many have practitioner enquiry or collaborative enquiry as their focus and the results are promising for all.

What is it they say about little acorns? I am very excited by the potential of enquiry approaches to really reshape professional and school development and it is heartening to see such approaches being adopted by so many others. It is not a simple or an easy journey, but in my opinion it is one worth making. The alternative is we keep doing what we have always done, getting the same results and with  the gaps in the system getting wider and wider, and with more learners falling through those gaps. Not a scenario I wish to be part of.

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