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As a school leader, what can you expect to gain from practitioner enquiry?

Having been using practitioner enquiry for over seven years now for individual professional development, as well as the main vehicle for school improvement, we have lots of insight on why it has worked so well for us. It is these that I share in this post. I qualify them by saying that these are what we found and if you have been using a similar approach you may have discovered other benefits, and you may question some of our identified benefits. Everyone starts from, and is in, a different place to ourselves and the importance of context has been identified by many as crucial in any school, system or individual development. What I would say is that many of the benefits we have accrued would match those identified in the research of Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Susan Lytle, Helen Timperley and others. This post does not deal with each of these benefits in too much detail, otherwise it would be too long. Look out for my book about all this coming out next year.

So here are some key benefits we have identified:

Raised attainment and achievement for all learners. Because every teacher is now more focused on the learning that is happening, they are more aware of gaps in learning and have a better understanding of how to address these. They have used data and research to make changes to their learning and teaching practices so that they are better able to meet the learning needs of all their learners. Very quickly we began to see general improvements in learning and teaching, and therefore in the understanding of learning by learners. What was particularly exciting to see was the improvement for our lowest 20% of attainers. This cohort started to make more significant progress as teachers were more aware of, and able to deal with, their particular needs. 

We connected all aspects of our development. Instead of tackling each crucial aspect of personal and school development in a discrete way, we were able to deal with them all through the natural connections that exist. When teachers were looking at aspects of learning, and how to improve this, they couldn't do it without looking at pedagogy, the curriculum, planning, assessment, reporting at the same time. This meant we have made improvements and changes in all these aspects, but we have done this as part of an ongoing and relentless process of development. No longer do we focus on assessment one year, then curriculum the next and so on. We are considering all of these all the time and how they need to be tweaked to improve the learning experience for all our learners.

We took charge of the change agenda. Prior to our engagement with practitioner enquiry we were constantly at the beck and call of others in the system about what our improvement agenda should be.  Staff were feeling overwhelmed about what they were being asked to do and the short time-frames we were given. As we were determined to keep the 'main thing' the 'main thing' our focus stayed on learning and teaching and how we developed these. We found that everything we worked on, as our priorities could be fitted in to local and national agendas, and when they didn't we ignored those outside agendas. We were back in control and could manage our development so that it fitted into the rhythm of school life and activities.

We improved collaboration and the learning culture. Although practitioner enquiry promotes each individual closely reflecting on and developing their own practice, it also provided an ideal vehicle to develop collaboration between staff and across schools. They now had common experiences and issues to explore and discuss with each other. In addition, as these were focused on learning, dialogue and conversations about learning developed and became the norm. Many visitors to our schools have commented on the conversations they hear about learning around the school, as well as the depth of these. All our practioners think deeply and carefully about learning and will discuss these with colleagues to develop shared understandings. Everyone sees themselves as a learner.

Learning and teaching experiences improved. We would not have achieved some of the other benefits identified here if this had not been the case. Myself and the others on the SMT began to see improved learning experiences in all classrooms and with all teachers. We have had HMIE inspections and visits from GTCS, Education Scotland and university representatives and they have confirmed many of our own observations. Teachers are now more able to manage their teaching and provide better learning experiences so that all children can make progress. They are less focused on activities and more on learning, and they understand better how to have quality meaningful time with each learner to support that learning.

Teacher confidence has improved. Teachers are better able to articulate where each child is in their learning, and how they know. They have deeper understandings around learning and addressing issues, and they know how to access research and reading to develop their understanding. They not only understand what they are doing, but why they are doing it and how it will impact positively on learning. They have more time confidence that what they are doing in their practice is the right thing to be doing and they know how to use their reflections to improve what they do. They are better able to justify what they do and the impact it has learning.

Teaching practice has become informed by data and research. We are very careful to not be driven by data, but we are now informed by it. At the start of the school year each teacher carried out baseline assessments in what they were planning to teach, in order to identify gaps in knowledge and understanding. This then informed their planning, which they completed collaboratively. When they identify an issue that concerns them, they know how to access research to help inform them about what they may do to address it. This protects them, and their learners, from the latest fads, fashions and trends and ensures they have evidence for changes they make.

Teacher agency has developed. We have teachers who know they are expected, and supported, to reflect and identify changes they can make to their practice. They are in control of this process and my role is to provide that support. I am looking to develop adaptive expertise in each of them and, to do this, they have to be the main person in charge of their own development. They do not wait for myself or someone else to tell them what they can or should improve, they do this themselves. Many have what Cochran-Smith calls 'Inquiry as stance'. It has become a personal and professional disposition for them to be constantly enquiring into their practice. They are able to make decisions about their practice and professional development.

Dispersed and teacher leadership has developed. Through the enquiry approach, teacher leadership and what Clive Dimmock calls 'dispersed leadership' has grown. All teachers know and understand their leadership role not only in their own classroom but also across the school. Teachers will come to myself and say they have identified an aspect of the school development that they would like to work on, and are quite happy to lead on. Leadership is not about titles and everyone understands they have meaningful roles to play. Rarely do we have to create formal development groups or working parties, as these emerge naturally out of the learning culture that exists within the schools. We are able to tap into the expertise and interests of the staff in order to support colleagues and the schools.

Professional dispositions and identity have changed. I read a book by Knud Illeris which look at Transformative Learning and Identity. In this he postulated that learning was not truly transformative until an individual's identity had changed in some way. When you have truly learned something new you become a different person in some way. All our teachers are different to the teachers they were seven years ago. They are all improved versions of their former selves. Not one of them has been content to stay still and think they have nothing new to learn. As I have already stated, practitioner enquiry has changed many of their dispositions and how they see themselves as a professional educator.

We slowed down, but achieved more. Over the last seven years we have slowed the pace of individual and school development but have achieved much more in terms of depth and sustainability. Change before was never given enough time to become embedded and issues addressed. We were full of busyness, but didn't have the time to ask 'what is the impact for learners of all this busyness?' Now, we are still busy, but it is for a common purpose and with a common understanding. We better understand the complexity of meaningful change and make sure we give enough time and 'space' to allow this to happen. We are not as manic about skipping from one thing to another. We would much rather aim for depth over coverage. Now, when we make changes they are much more likely to be embedded and sustainable as teachers have identified what these should be themselves.

You know what? As a school leader, I think that's a pretty impressive list of development over seven years, and it puts us in a great position to sustain even more improvement in the years to come.


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