Skip to main content

As a school leader what do you need to consider when using practitioner enquiry

In my last post 'As a school leader what can you expect to gain from practitioner enquiry' I spoke of the gains to be expected when adopting practitioner enquiry for individual and school development. In this follow-up, I now wish to look at some considerations you need to be aware when using this same approach. No meaningful school development process runs smooth and true in simple linear steps. Here are some of the things I have discovered that need to be understood, despite the many substantial benefits to be gained.

You have to start from where you are.

This seems an obvious thing to say, but how many times are actions and strategies imposed on schools that seem to assume all schools should be starting from the same position? This is a ridiculous assumption, given that each school has unique characteristics and context. You need to understand this and have confidence in your self-evaluation processes, so that you really do know accurately where your school, and individuals in it, are in terms of development. Remember each individual teacher will be in a different place as well, and this needs to be recognised and allowed for. Not all staff will get as much from practitioner enquiry, some will get more, and some less. What I am convinced of though is that all will gain benefits, and therefore so will all learners.

Not one size fits all.

Do not think you can lift what you have seen or heard has happened in another setting, or settings, and copy this exactly (if you could) and get the same results. You won't! Even if we repeated what we have done in my own two schools over the last seven years, the results and impacts would be different. Each member of staff is different. Relationships are different. Contexts are different and, the thing is, these differences are different over time. What you should look to do is apply the principles that underpin practitioner enquiry and then apply these to your particular context. As practitioner enquiry is about dispositions and an ongoing process of informed and relentless development, it needs to be adjusted and modified according to circumstances. Do not try to stuff square pegs into round holes, or vice versa. Adapt what you do according to where you are.

This whole process is messy and complex.

Understand that all meaningful and sustainable development is complex and it can get quite messy at times. This is no linear step by step approach, with all steps moving you forward. Sometimes you will need to stop and stand still. Other times you might have to go backwards or change direction. It is important you know this and are able to tap into the 'mood music' of the school in order to recognise when this may be necessary. The implementation and speed of adoption of practitioner enquiry is determined by your staff. All will move at different speeds. What is important is that all of them move. That movement will be forward over time, and therefore the learning experiences for your learners will do the same. We are a 'people' business and people are complex, as are the relationships between each and everyone of them, as well as their relationship with you.

You will challenge practice and orthodoxies.

Practitioner enquiry is challenging to school leaders and teachers alike. For some school leaders who like to micro-manage and feel in control of everything, the adoption of such approaches are very challenging. Control and the ability to make decisions moves more towards teachers, as their agency and dispersed leadership roles are enhanced. Teachers and school leaders will find orhthodoxies and the 'aye been' cultures that exist in many schools and classrooms are challenged, as is their usefulness  in developing and deepening learning. Many of the practices that have existed in schools, based on nothing more than the fact that they have always been done this way, and which many teachers are comfortable with, are soon revealed as the imposters they are. Sometimes we have practices that we believe are the right thing to do, but when we start to look critically at the evidence we can soon realise they are a bit like the emporer's new clothes, in terms of developing learning. Such practices have to go, or change.

You have to expect mistakes.

You will make mistakes. Teachers will make mistakes. But, this is a good thing. These mistakes will lead to deeper and better understandings of the process and will promote new learning and understandings amongst all. Just as it does for our learners. Embrace the mistakes you make and learn from them, so that you can move forward in your thinking and your practice. Don't stop yourself from trying new things out because you are afraid you might get it wrong. If, and when, you get things wrong, learn and then move on. Do not criticise people for making mistakes, because if they aren't making any this is a sure fire indicator they may just be happy staying in their comfort zones.

School culture needs to be supportive and promotes trust.

I usually start with this. The culture and ethos needs to be built on support and trust. If they are not people will not be prepared to innovate or make mistakes. They will play safe, to the detriment of improving practice and the experiences for learners. People judge you by your actions, not what you say. Don't say 'you can trust me, and I trust you' then immediately jump on the first person who gets something wrong. Such actions promote fear, conformity and gaming of the development process. Let go a bit, and support a lot. Admit your own mistakes and tell people what you have learned from them. Model what you seek.

A knowledgeable and critical friend is a big help.

We certainly benefitted from the input of Dr Gillian Robinson from Edinburgh University as we began our own journey with practitioner enquiry. Nowadays there are more people around who have been working with practioners enquiry. If you know, or can find one, tap into their experience and expertise to help keep you on track. It is really difficult for school leaders to support teachers if they don't deeply understand the process themselves, and this is where a critical friend can be so useful, especially in the early days of implementation. Remember, this is a new journey fro you too.

You are opening a Pandora's Box in many respects.

The above are some of the issues you need to consider and be aware of. The last point I would make is that the adoption of practitioner enquiry approaches can be a bit like opening a Pandora's Box. You aren't always sure what is going to come out of this particular box, and where it might lead. Once opened, I don't think that it is possible, or desirable, to try and go back to old ways of school development, and the constant movement from one disparate 'thing' to the next, with little impact for most learners. I don't believe any of my teachers who have 'inquiry as stance' could think of working, or approaching any issue, in any other way. As a school leader, I see the development of such career-long dispositions as the only justification needed for the route we have taken.

In my next post I will consider the process involved in carrying out an enquiry into practice.


Popular posts from this blog

The Power Within

I sent a tweet the other day which seemed to generate a deal of resonance with some on my PLN. What I said was that meaningful school development can only come from within and cannot be imposed from outside. Now 140 characters on Twitter does have benefits but, as anyone who tweets regularly knows, it also has huge limitations in what you can say. So what I would like to do here is offer some further explanation of what I was trying to convey in my tweet.

For many years well meaning and informed people have increased our understanding and have made constructive suggestions  on how schools can develop and move forward. We also know that there have been lots of other suggestions made by less informed but vocal contributors to this debate! As all in education and schools know, everyone has an opinion or view on what should be going on in our schools. The media loves to feed on all of this and much of it stokes the fires of debate and gives oxygen to some of the wilder suggestions.

As som…

Why we might need more tortoises and fewer hares in education

We have heard Aesop's fable of 'The Tortoise and the Hare.' In this tale with a message, a tortoise challenges an arrogant hare to a race. The hare quickly leaves the tortoise behind. Being so confident,  he decides to have a sleep midway through the race. When the hare wakes, he finds the tortoise, who has kept slowly moving forward, has arrived before him, and has won. A common interpretation of the message of this fable is 'slow and steady wins the race.'

Thinking of schools and education, I believe we celebrate hares too much, and tortoises not enough. School systems are full of people racing to do lots of things, as quickly as possible. Education is not a race. Education is a relentless process of personal enlightenment, growth and development. There is no end point. In that case, it is through adopting the dispositions and characteristics of the tortoise in Aesop's fable that we are most likely to keep making strong, steady progress. Such a relentless ap…

Improving versus proving

During the first two months of 2019 I have been able to attend a number of professional learning events across Scotland. What has been impressive about these events is, not only the breadth and range of development activity taking place across the system, but also the commitment, professionalism and determination of people to getting better at what they do.

What such events also provide, is the opportunity to develop my own thinking and understanding, through listening to the experiences of others and engage in a dialogue around the issues, experiences and insights of different participants. I believe that professional learning with the greatest impacts, should produce changes in facilitators and leaders, not just the participants.

This week I was facilitating a session on parental engagement, on behalf of Connect the parent/teacher organisation in Scotland. This session was with school leaders, and others who had responsibility for this particular area of school development. What I …