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Introduction to Professional Inquiry

"What is a professional inquiry?" In this article we will explore the purpose of professional inquiry and investigate the spiral of inquiry framework.
Teaching as Inquiry, Professional Inquiry and Action Research describe practices where educators inquire into their practice to improve learning for their ākonga | learners.

Why do we inquire into our teaching practice?

Professional inquiries are a way of using our reflections, combining them with data and information and turning them into action to improve our practice. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this practice is also known as Teaching as Inquiry. To avoid confusion with ‘inquiry learning’, we have chosen to use the term professional inquiry for this course.

Professional inquiries can be inducted by individual teachers, to inquire into their professional practice. However,

Inquiry is difficult for individual teachers to do in isolation from their colleagues or from leaders. Nor can leaders decide what the focus of their inquiry should be. It is the collaborative inquiry process that matters.
A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry by Timperley, Kaser, Halbert, 2014, p5

In the Leading Local Curriculum guide, strengthening collaborative inquiry is one of the four high impact practices: “Use a systematic inquiry approach to find out what works – when, for whom, and in what context. Building and sharing knowledge about teaching practices positively impacts on students’ learning. This knowledge should be used to review and refine the school’s strategic priorities.” (p7).

So whether you want to improve individual practice or the practice of a team, professional inquiry can help you achieve this.

How do you conduct a professional inquiry?

Timperley, Halbert and Kaser developed this spiral of inquiry:

Diagram of the Professional Inquiry Process. Along a continuous spiral are the words Scanning, Focusing, Developing a Hunch, Learning, Taking action, Checking.

In A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry, the authors give a detailed explanation of how to conduct a professional inquiry based on their spiral model. While they explain how to apply their framework in a formal school setting, much of this transfers to our settings, too.

One of the key aspects they emphasise throughout their paper is the importance of inquiring into practice collaboratively, as a team, in order to affect change across the whole institution. While there is a seemingly linear progression through the stages of Scanning, Focusing, Developing a hunch, Learning, Taking Action and Checking, there are multiple opportunities to step back and forward to other stages as the professional inquiry develops.

Timperley et. al. elaborate on the six stages:

Scanning
We find out what’s going on for our learners. Taking a wide perspective on learning and an inquiring approach, we find out from learners what is happening for them from their perspectives, and from those of their families and the community.

Focusing
In this stage we use the information we have gathered during scanning and focus on what we will spend our time on in order to change the experiences and the outcomes for ākonga. At times this will require us to collect more information, including going back to the learners. It is important that we build on our strengths and identify a focus area that allows as many of our team to buy into as possible as collaboration is the key to changing practice. This is also the point where we might start considering what change we want to see, which will help us later under Checking.

Developing a hunch
At this stage we are exploring our ideas of how we are contributing to the identified situations. This stage requires courage; we need to feel safe to explore the ideas with the group and hear what others have to say. At the same time, by exploring our hunches, we take ownership of the situation and are likely to be more invested in the changes we decide to make.

Learning
While learning happens at all stages of this inquiry process, this is the time when you seek out relevant, current information and research to help you inform how you will adapt your practice. This information should directly link in with the hunches you have been exploring and make an impact on your ākonga’s learning. It is vital that you understand why this new information or new approach makes a difference and is better than your previous practice. Be prepared for the process to require time to explore, time to discuss and time to implement.

Taking Action
The key question for this stage is “What can we do differently to make enough of a difference?” (Timperley et.al., p.17). The actions we take are in direct response to our initial scan and supported by our new learning. The impact of our actions on the learners need to be evaluated and disseminated with the group in a supportive and safe environment. We are learning new things while we take action, and we might find that we have to try different approaches, maybe even step back to a different stage of the spiral when we try to tackle a complex problem.

Checking
This is the point where we evaluate if we have made enough of a difference for our learners. Throughout our inquiry we have reflected on what is going on for our learners, and at this stage we collaboratively ask whether we have done enough, as well as where to go from here. Checking might also bring the realisation that actually not enough has changed, or uncover some different challenges that need exploring before you can make more progress on your original issue. It is important that within the collaborative environment everyone feels safe enough to admit that their results were different than expected – which can in effect be the seed for a new collaborative inquiry.

Over to you

While education in the culture and heritage sector in Aotearoa New Zealand links closely with formal education, there are some distinct differences. We might need to adapt the approach shared by Timperley et. al. to our particular settings.

We have identified three of these differences: Please use the comments below to share your ideas how you have (or how you could) adapt the authors’ approach to your setting.

  1. What’s going on for our learners?
    Rather than regular contact with a limited number of students and classes, many educators spend a limited amount of time with many different students and classes. How do you check what is going on for your learners?
  2. Collaborative inquiries
    Many educators work in small teams, by themselves, or even carry multiple roles. How do you engage in collaborative inquiry?
  3. Current and relevant research to support our Learning
    Where do you find information and research to help you improve your practice?

Further Information

TKI: Teaching as Inquiry
TKI: A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry

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