Why being a ‘teacher of enquiry’ can be of great benefit to an educator’s professional development, by Henry Saunston.

If you don’t use evidence, what are you using?

The education sector is beset with challenges, but also rich in opportunity. Many teachers are actively seeking to improve themselves and their practice through a process of professional development, but how can this best be achieved when it is self-directed? How can we become practitioners who are informed by and engaged with evidence?

Too often, decisions are made using a surface-level approach. There is little consideration for not only the purpose of the strategy but its validity in the desired setting, its intended impact and its implementation, so is it any wonder then that the strategy fails? A ‘little knowledge’ is indeed a very dangerous thing; so many interventions fall to the wayside because of insecure foundations and poor enactment. Robin Alexander stated back in 2010 that ‘all decisions must be founded on three things – evidence, pedagogical principle and educational aim – and that anything else is unsound’. If you don’t know why you are doing something, then you have no idea whether or not it is having any positive impact at all.

Problem, then solution

As professionals in an evolving sector, we have the right and responsibility to be the gatekeepers to our own cognition. We must regulate the flow of ideas and ‘instruments for change’ into our practice, avoiding the ‘siren-like temptation’ of the latest book, visual summary, or Twitter thread. All are excellent sources of information, but the key is to know what you are looking for based on what problem you are trying to solve, not the other way around.

As professionals, we also have the right to be curious and critical. When we understand more about how we learn as adults, we can take more control over our own development. Higher-order thinking is built on existing expertise, and as such we should focus our decision-making in the classroom on the areas we know best, e.g., our subject specialism, and only then moving out and on. To use evidence is to interrogate the past and present, combine that with what is known and make informed decisions as to what may work.

Teachers of enquiry

One way we can facilitate this process is to develop ourselves as ‘teachers of enquiry’ 1 ; we frame our development within clearly defined parameters and a knowledge of what success looks like, starting with the identification of the problem to be solved. This helps us avoid both the dangerous surface approach outlined above and the curse of compliance.

The simple model of an Enquiry Question can be powerful for focussed development; how does [strategy X] impact on [specific outcomes Y] for [groups of students Z]? The focus is clear, the strategy purposefully chosen, and the outcomes defined – the evaluation of impact then becomes far easier. It also allows for the contextualising of theory from paper to the ever-variant environments of the classroom; what works on paper may not manifest in practice! That is another facet of being evidence-informed as opposed to evidence-led; you have the autonomy to make critical decisions and professional judgments.

Evidence informs practice; it must not replace it. Robinson suggests that ‘leading teachers in enquiring together into how to improve the learning of pupils has high effects.’ 2 Professional development is one of many intervention measures that must be implemented effectively to ensure improved student outcomes. In his 2009 book ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ Geoffrey Petty outlines that “people often mistake common practice for best practice and seem to prefer the comfort of the crowd to thinking for themselves using hard evidence.” 3 Often, our own bias and comfort zone prevent us from making the right decisions in terms of evidence and research.

The benefits of evidence-informed practice and inquiry are many, as cited here by Austin (2016) 4:

  1. Help you find solutions to particular problems
  2. Underpin professional learning of knowledge, skills and understanding
  3. Connect with sources of information and networks of professional support
  4. Clarify purposes, processes and priorities when introducing change
  5. Improve understanding of professional context, enabling you to teach more strategically and effectively
  6. Develop your own agency, influence, self-efficacy and voice – autonomy as opposed to compliance.

Ultimately, we can be agents of change. However, we must be informed, pragmatic agents of change.

Research and evidence help us make better choices, solve problems we have identified and put outcomes and efficiency at the heart of the matter. What it also requires is humility; a belief that we can all continue to improve, no matter how experienced we are or how much we think we know.

By being a teacher of enquiry, we have a greater sense of curiosity and we’re consciously asking questions; we can support clearer planning and focus; we can investigate and reflect on current realities and adapt our approaches using evidence and advice. Above all, “we need to see and hear how to ask questions, how to seek answers and how to evaluate impact.” 5

References

  1. Fox, Alison and Poultney, Val (2020). Teacher professional learning through lesson study: teachers’ reflections. International Journal of Lesson and Learning Studies, 9(4) pp. 397–412.
  2. Robinson (2009): Robinson, V., Hohepa, M. & Lloyd, C. (2009) School leadership and student outcomes: identifying what works and why. Best Evidence Syntheses Iteration (BES). New Zealand: Ministry of Education
  3. Petty, G; Evidence-based teaching – A practical approach; 2009; Nelson Thornes
  4. Austin, R (Ed.); Researching Primary Education; 2016; Learning Matters / SAGE
  5. Burn. K, Hagger. H, Mutton. T; Beginning Teachers’ Learning: Making Experience Count – Ed. Menter. I; 2015; Critical Publishing

Author

  • Henry Saunston

    Henry is the director of Teach East SCITT, developing new teachers for Peterborough Schools. His specialism is Secondary English, and he has worked as a teacher for nearly 15 years. He is a fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and of CollectivED, and has contributed many articles to publications such as Impact and TES.
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