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What are the steps in carrying out a practitioner enquiry?

My last two posts looked at what school leaders could expect in terms of benefits from the adoption of practitioner enquiry by teachers, and some of the issues they needed to consider when using this approach. One of the most common questions I get asked is, 'how do you go about carrying out an enquiry?' This is often asked by people who have no real understanding of the process or its complexity, but who are wanting to start somewhere. I always give lots of cautions and health warnings, and the strongest is that this approach is not a simple linear, step by step approach. Yes, there are key aspects to any successful enquiry, but none are guaranteed to lead to the next, or even to each other. Teachers and schools need to develop adaptive expertise and be able to change and adjust their actions according to changing circumstances and conditions.

Having said that, I do think it is possible, and desirable, to identify the key characteristics. What follows are those we have identified, following seven years of engagement with practitioner enquiry.

Identify the issue
What is it that is causing you concern in your classroom? We have always focused on learning issues. We ask teachers to identify an issue, to do with learning, that they are unhappy or dissatisfied with. This could be in any area of the curriculum but, given that we are working in primary schools, this is often an aspect of literacy and numeracy learning as these are such key areas for us all. We have had teachers look at things like learning in reading, writing, number, spelling, writing, problem solving, mental maths strategies, and so on. All have led to significant insights for teachers and improved learning and attainment for learners.

Frame the issue into a question that you can research 
Once we have identified a particular learning issue, we then have to frame this into a research question. This is something a lot of teachers find difficult at first but, with practice, they get better at it. Getting the question right helps shape the whole enquiry, keep it on track and stop it from becoming too big by growing arms and legs of further questions. So we often have questions that start with 'what happens when....?' Or 'what if....?' Examples of questions teachers have asked include: 'What happens when I hear children read?' 'What if I spent time each day developing metacognition in children when working mentally with number?' 'What happens when I systematically teach spelling strategies for learners to use?' 'What happens when I immerse learners in different genre of writing?' Such questions lead to enquiry and insights that can help all. The most common early mistake is to make your enquiry too big. e.g. 'How do I improve maths attainment?'

Identify the pupils or group for focus
The key to a successful enquiry, especially when starting, is to keep it manageable and focused. Don't try to cover too much, or too many pupils. We have found that a focus on no more than six pupils in a class works. It keeps the process manageable, remembering that teachers are very busy and the enquiry needs to be built into what they would normally be doing in the classrooms. If it is seen as an 'add on' it is more likely to stall or fail, especially if it adds too much to workload. What we have found, as have others, is that, though your focus may be on a small group of learners, enquiry quickly scales up, so that their are benefits for all learners. 

Gather data
Having data is key in enquiry. You need data to inform your actions and to assess your impact for learners. Once you have identified your small focus group of learners, you need to gather data from them about the issue you have identified and the question you want to answer. There are many ways to do this. Some of the ways we use regularly are pupil interviews, questionaires, concept cartoons, tape recordings, filming, teacher observation and testing. What you need is data to show if the question you wish to ask, relating to the issue you have identified, chimes with what the learners say, do and think. This data collection forms the baseline for your enquiry.

Professional reading and engaging with research
Once you are clear about the issue and you have your research question you then need to be spending some development time reading and engaging with research around the issue. This too can be problematic for some. In Scotland we are lucky in that all teachers have free access to the EBSCO research base through the GTCS. This gives us all acces to a vast range of research papers and professional reading that can support enquiry. Of course, there are lots of other ways we can access research and professional reading, and these can be utilised too. One of the first skills teachers need to develop is the ability to engage critically with such research and reading, so that they are able to identify reputable sources of such research. It is also useful if you put aside time to engage with and discuss with colleagues as this helps develop and deepen understandings. 

Identify changes, strategies or interventions you are going to use
Having looked at the issue, formulated your question from your reading and research, you should now be in a position to identify a new strategy or intervention that you wish to employ. Remembering that you are trying to improve learning for your learners, the interventions or change you look to implement should be designed to have positive impacts on that learning. Don't try to introduce too many changes too quickly. The more changes you make the harder it will be to identify which, if any have had positive impacts. I would suggest no more than two changes.

Implement the change
Now you need to make the change you have identified. For this to be meaningful, you need to implement the change for at least a term, to give this the best opportunity to have demonstratable impact. If you are making changes to pedagogy implement these for all pupils, but your aim is to measure impact for your focus group only. This keeps data gathering focused and manageable, but also scales up impacts.

Re-gather data to measure impact of change
After a least a term of change you should then revisit your data gathering exercises used at the outset. What has changed? Has learning improved? How do you know? These are all important questions to ask and consider now. Hopefully, you will have a mix of summative and formative assessment, data and evidence that demonstrates the impact of your intervention or change. There should be positive impacts for learners. If there haven't been any, you need to consider why, adjust your intervention and go again. Most often, you will find there have been positive impacts and you will have ample evidence and data to show this. This is not about 'proving' anything, but is to provide you with information about the success or otherwise of your intervention.

Report your findings and share
Next, you need to report your findings in some way and to share your insights with colleagues. This can be done in many ways. You could write up a report on your enquiry. You could produce a mind-map or poster showing the elements of your enquiry and your conclusions. You could produce a PowerPoint, or something similar, to share, or you could just talk through your enquiry with colleagues. The important point is that you do share. This helps develop and deepen your understanding about what has happened and also helps and supports colleagues as part of the professional dialogue and collaboration that is the life-blood of sustainable school development.

The next stage is that you keep repeating this process, so that it becomes a disposition and part of your identity as a professional and reflective practitioner. If you achieve this you will have what Marilyn Cochran-Smith has called 'inquiry as stance' and you will have a career long disposition towards professional and personal development that has impact.

Remember you are not a researcher. Your research is for one purpose and that is to improve the learning of your students. You are not aiming to publish your work in academic or professional journals and you are not bound by all the rules and conventions that pertain for those who do. You have to be ethical in your enquiry and you have to be aware of bias and the impact of other factors. But, you are enquiring into your impact on learning, so that you can improve. Your enquiry is professionally valid and can add to the profession's knowledge base in some small way. Don't beat yourself up when things go wrong, or you get deflected by competing demands, accept these when they happen then get back on track as soon as circumstances allow.

In my opinion, this approach allows you to have a truly meaningful and sustainable disposition to professional development. It also puts you front and centre in charge of your own professional development, something done by you, not to you. The alternative is you keep looking for lots of other 'things' to do. You will find plenty of them, but you might not have time to see if they have any sustainable or positive impacts on student learning. I know which approach I prefer.


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