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Explaining practitioner enquiry to those who cannot see

In the last twelve months I have been asked by various people to justify our focus on practitioner enquiry as the main vehicle on our professional and school development journey. The questions usually go along the lines of: 'What has been the impact of practitioner enquiry for your learners?' 'How does practitioner enquiry help your school improvement plan?' 'Why do let teachers all do different things when they carry out an enquiry?' 'What will I see when I go in a classroom to show practitioner enquiry is happening?' And, the worst of all, 'can you give me six easy steps so I can get others to take part?' At first, these questions didn't bother me, as I understood people were interested, didn't understand what practitioner enquiry was, and I quite liked explaining what we were doing and why. Nowadays, they tend to just pee me off! It could be my age.

The reason they raise my ire is mainly to do with the fact that the people who keep asking me such questions, are visitors to the schools I lead who tend to be the 'bean counters' of the system who don't understand and don't want, or have time, to understand. They are motivated heavily by accountability agendas and it disturbs them that such an approach is not easy to 'see', so that they are able to tick a box to say it is happening. After all, enquiry approaches are now an expectation from all teachers in Scotland's professional standards. It is also still an approach that not many whole schools are following and which has, at various times, put myself and our staff in opposition to those who would seek to direct and control our every move in school.

They also annoy me because behind the sometimes inane questions they ask I can detect the scepticism about the approach and its impact. The trouble is we have a host of data and evidence that demonstrates the impact of what we have been engaged in for almost seven years now, but it is complicated and takes time to interrogate and understand. There is not one piece of A4 paper that would give you the information you are looking for. You would need to take time to understand what practitioner enquiry entails, the values that underpin it, the dispositions that it promotes and how it changes your approach to everything you do. Armed with that understanding you would then need to spend more time engaging with myself and teachers in professional dialogue around the approach and how it has changed our professional agency and identity. You would need to have conversations with learners about the changes they have experienced in learning activities and how it feels to be in our schools as a learner. You would have to look at the hard data and assessments we have that show us how our learners have moved on in their learning and how they understand what they are doing in a deeper way. You would have to understand individual journeys that have been made by each member of staff, as well as our learners, and you would need to understand how pedagogical practices have changed over time, and whole-school approaches that have had to change as a result of our improved knowledge and understanding. You would also need to see how all of this is informed by research and evidence about what might work, but how we have had to adapt this to fit our particular context. 

Then you might begin to understand why you may struggle to 'see' practitioner enquiry in each classroom. You might understand then why when something is embedded into you as a disposition it becomes part of you as a professional teacher, informing your thinking and approach to what you do. It is not a visible  trick' or 'technique' you can tick a box to say you have seen in a classroom, in every lesson and on every day. There are no lollipop sticks to see here. It is a way of being. You might understand why it has to be different for every teacher, as they are all in different places on their own development journey, and each has different strengths and development needs. You might begin to see that it connects everything in our school improvement plan and keeps us focused on our core purposes of education, learning and teaching. You might finally begin to see the complexity of what we do, and how such an approach helps us deal with this in a meaningful and sustainable way. You might understand when I tell you about the times we have had to stop or go backwards before we were able to move forward again. You might see how we are trying to deal with the holistic development of each member of staff and each individual child and why we are not narrowly focused on accountability and performability agendas. You might also see how all of this has helped both the schools I lead to move on from where they were seven years ago, and begin to see how they will be different again in another seven years.

You might, however you just might not have the time!


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