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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.

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