Practitioner enquiry is a form of professional learning that enables teachers and college lecturers to engage with research to support their learning needs and to enhance learners’ experiences.
Practitioner enquiry in the Professional Standards
The expectation that teaching professionals develop an enquiring disposition towards their professional practice is embedded throughout the Professional Standards.
Practitioner enquiry is highlighted in the Professional Standards as an expectation of all teachers and college lecturers, as a way to enhance their pedagogy and professionalism. Teachers and college lecturers being enquiring practitioners is core to a profession with learning at its heart.
- continue to develop deep knowledge of learning and teaching;
- critically examine how their teaching impacts learners;
- use evidence collaboratively to inform teacher judgement and next steps for learners.
- critical self-reflection; and
- collaborative professional enquiry to enrich professional knowledge and practice and enhance student experience and outcomes.
How to adopt an enquiring stance
If you adopt enquiry as an aspect of being a teaching professional, you will need to develop different understandings and practices.
The resources below provide a starting point if you are seeking support with this aspect of professionalism.
We can define practitioner enquiry as a way for teaching professionals to make sense of the complexities of teaching as a social practice to enhance their effectiveness.
Practitioner enquiry can also be a process of investigation about aspects of practice, with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended. The practitioner can then share their findings so they become more than reflection or personal enquiry.
Practitioner enquiry is usually undertaken within your setting or context and you can undertake it in collaboration with others. In collaborative enquiry, the group shares a common research focus which they can investigate through different lenses to enhance knowledge for sharing within and beyond the group.
Self-evaluation and reflective practice about teaching are fundamental elements of practitioner enquiry if it is to impact practice and, ultimately, learners’ experiences. At its most effective, practitioner enquiry will be an integral aspect of your day-to-day practice.
Regular engagement in practitioner enquiry supports professional growth by challenging or disrupting your thinking. It will help you to reconsider ingrained habits and routines. Practitioner enquiry helps to create a space for you to stop and look again at existing or comfortable ways of working.
‘Enquiry as Stance’ is a term coined by Cochrane-Smith and Lytle (2009). The term refers to a way of being a teaching professional. It describes a teaching professional who adopts a focused, critically informed, questioning approach to their professional practice and maintains that disposition continuously.
When you take an enquiring stance you should always be asking challenging questions about what you do, for example:
- For whose benefit am I enquiring?
- For what purpose(s) am I enquiring?
- What am I making ‘problematic’ and why?
- What am I not questioning? Which assumptions am I taking for granted? Why?
- What knowledge will I gain? What can be known from this enquiry?
- Who is or should be involved and why?
Another way of looking at practitioner enquiry is through the lens of ‘enquiry as project’.
In this form of enquiry, you would embark on an enquiry framed by a specific need or focus relating to practice.
Project-based enquiries are often time-bound and/or resource bound, purposely designed to investigate an aspect of practice through a method that can be defined and defended (Menter, Elliott, Hulme & Lewin, 2010).
This approach can be useful for whole-setting improvement initiatives or supporting process-focused policy enactment.
Project-based approaches are often associated with a more academic method than enquiry as stance.
One of the challenges associated with project-based approaches is that, when finished, they can give a sense of completion of professional learning. In a professional environment, you must see your learning as ongoing. You should see project-based enquiries as supplementary to maintaining a continuous enquiring stance.
Practitioner enquiry should lead to deep transformative learning that significantly informs and influences professionals’ understandings, practice and subsequent impact. However, for any sustainable change and impact on professional practice, you need to understand enquiry as a process and not as disconnected acts, events or isolated projects.
Being an enquiring professional is not simply about teachers learning the research skills, techniques and methods of enquiry and conducting enquiries into practice regularly. Instead, it is much more about developing the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understanding required to become the kind of professionals who can question, challenge, understand and know deeply about teaching and learning.
It can and should be a challenging journey. It can and should reveal what Mockler and Groundwater-Smith (2015) call ‘unwelcome’ and often uncomfortable truths about what is actually happening e.g. during the learning and teaching process and through this process extend our knowledge and confidence in our practice. This has important implications for the design of an enquiry.
An enquiring professional is:
- open to change
- critically engaged with their context and practice
- aware that, if enquiry is to have a genuinely transformative effect on their professional understanding and practice, then it should reveal difficult truths that are acted upon.
This is a flexible, evolving and ongoing process of ‘becoming’.
Teaching professionals develop their subject and pedagogical knowledge through engaging in enquiry. The very nature of practitioner enquiry demands that individuals bring their current knowledge and understandings and open these up to scrutiny and questioning.
Enquiry is the basis for reflective and strategic thinking about practice (metacognition) and becomes the methodology for professional learning. It requires an informed theoretical rationale that underpins the enquiry and a reflection of how the research, literature or policy has changed thinking and practice. This is done through extended reading in the area of theory and research, and as appropriate the subject matter itself. Teachers need to develop this knowledge to be able to ask critical questions through their enquiry. They develop the knowledge by asking critical questions and examining practices and engaging in wider reading.
It is important that the taken-for-granted practices and knowledge are brought into question and examined alongside distinctly ‘new’ knowledge and pedagogical understandings.
The Research area in MyGTCS offers access to a wider range of resources:
1. Education Source provides access to over 1,700 education journals
2. Leadership and Management Learning Centre (LMLC) – provides resources specifically related to issues of leadership and management. This includes journal articles, eBooks and video resource content.
3. eBooks – provides access to eBooks under the themes of Assessment, Enquiry & Research, Leadership, Learning for Sustainability, Professional Learning, Social Justice and Learning, Teaching and Pedagogy
Being critical is not about taking a negative or problem-seeking stance but instead asking questions to interrogate the norms and routines of your practice.
Critical questions and reflection help to:
- challenge assumptions
- offer a new lens with which to view practice
- make informed decisions about practice
- prevent ‘groupthink’ by offering stimuli to encourage different perspectives
Engaging in critical thinking involves questioning your current practice to:
- bring about fundamental changes in pedagogy through enquiry
- develop a deeper understanding and questioning of theory, policy and practice
- question, develop and evidence for their practice in more meaningful ways
- develop deeper knowledge, understanding and skills in research
- understand our own and our students’ learning more deeply
- accurately and creatively assess and generate evidence of impact on learners and learning
- become critically informed
- engage in deep, sustained and transformative professional learning
- critically question and challenge educational assumptions, beliefs and values
- become adaptive experts
Being critically informed means being able to:
- draw on a range of sources to justify choices relating to your practice
- evaluate the credibility, relevance and appropriateness of sources
- recognise that viewpoints different to your own have value
- balance your contextual knowledge, as well as personal and professional experiences alongside other sources of information to generate deep professional awareness
- think about professional choices through the lens of theory as well as practice
The idea underpinning transformative teaching is that the purpose of education is to support the development of a more just world. The objective of transformative practice is to help learners make sense of the power structures that govern their lives to enable them to think critically about the world they are inheriting from previous generations and about their rights and choices.
Transformative teaching and learning are a product of being willing to ask hard questions about why things are the way they are and what can be done to effect change for the better.
When teaching professionals take an enquiring stance towards their teaching, they model a critical, questioning approach to learners that contributes to transformative thinking.
A questioning approach enables learners to understand learning as more than the absorption of facts or methods. It helps them to see their education as the key to unlocking their future opportunities through the development of habits of thinking that will enable them to be adaptive, lifelong learners. It also helps them to think about their place in their community, society and the wider world.
Agency is the term that describes an individual’s capacity to act, including their decision-making capacity and their capacity to affect outcomes.
While it is recognised that every teaching professional may have a different degree of agency according to where they are in an institutional structure or hierarchy, the capacity to act is also vital to all teaching practice because, without it, there can be no flexibility to meet the individual needs of learners.
The process of working to understand learners’ needs, through understanding their experiences and the conditions that dominate their lives, can be regarded as an aspect of practitioner enquiry. It is also ethical work that is tied to caring about learners’ experiences and outcomes.
By taking an agentic approach to pedagogy and practice, Priestley, Biesta and Robinson (2015) argue that teaching professionals become knowledgeable and develop confidence in their capacity to do what is right for their learners.
This is closely tied to them becoming empowered to act in ways they know to be professionally right and in the interests of learners.
Enact and Embed
Teaching professionals engage in professional learning to stimulate their thinking and professional knowledge and to ensure that their practice is critically informed and current.
When a wide range of high-quality, sustained professional learning experiences are undertaken, you are more likely to inspire learners and provide high-quality teaching and learning experiences, enabling learners to achieve their best.
It is important that professional learning provides rich opportunities for you to develop and enhance your professional knowledge and practice, to progress the quality of learning and teaching and for whole-setting improvement.
Practitioner enquiry is one of several different approaches to professional learning but it is highly effective because it is directly linked to the learning needs and context of the teaching professional undertaking it.
Furthermore, when it is tied to annual review discussions, such as Professional Review and Development (PRD), it can be a powerful way to plan for and demonstrate improvement in practice.
Self-evaluation is an important aspect of enquiry. While reflection involves engaging in a thoughtful process of considering events or incidents and your role in the outcome of these, self-evaluation is a more evidence-focused process. When you self-evaluate, you are aiming to measure your progress in an area of professional learning.
- asking deep and searching questions about self and practice
- considering the needs of learners/colleagues in your context
- using the GTC Scotland Professional Standards to inform and guide your reflections and actions
- using other influencing factors such as whole setting or departmental improvement plans; other standards or targets; issues or guidelines relevant to your setting or context
- using evidence from a range of sources to inform and support your self-evaluation
- using your ongoing reflections and enquiry into practice
You may find our professional reflection and self-evaluation tools useful for enabling deep thinking about progress in areas of your practice.
Enquiring through collaborative professionalism is a powerful force in developing your agency and engaging learners, their families and communities in the education process.
In addition to participating in project-based departmental or setting-wide enquiries, engaging in collaborative enquiry as part of taking an enquiring stance can involve:
- asking questions about your own and others’ practice regularly, with a view to acting on the answers
- taking responsibility for the learners of others in your setting, just as you do for your own
- engaging in dialogue or respectful debate with colleagues about ideas, plans, politics and the best way to meet learners’ needs
- being able and willing to make significant professional judgements in collaboration with others
- collaborating with learners, as well as for them. In addition to the obvious democratic benefit, this can be highly effective, as Wall & Hall (2016) argue, in promoting and supporting learners’ metacognitive development.
Example Practitioner Enquiries
Developing coaching skills
Primary Principal Teacher Kate Turnbull explains the benefits of practitioner enquiry for building leaders of learning.
Developing maths in STEM teaching
Through her practitioner enquiry, primary teacher Linsey Houghton aimed to develop high quality STEM education for her learners.
Secondary teacher and Curriculum Leader in English, Nicola Daniel explored the link between literacy and boy’s attainment.
References and Further Reading
Cochrane-Smith, M. and Lytle, S.L. (2009) Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation, London: Teachers College Press
Menter, I., Elliott, D., Hulme, M. and Lewin, J. (2010) Literature review on teacher education in the twenty-first century, Edinburgh: The Scottish Government
Mockler, N. & Groundwater-Smith, S. (2015) Seeking for the unwelcome truths: beyond celebration in inquiry-based teacher professional learning, Teachers and Teaching, 21:5, pp. 603-614
Priestley, M., Biesta, G. and Robinson, S. (2015) Teacher Agency: an ecological approach, London: Bloomsbury
Reeves, J. and Drew, V. (2013) A Productive Relationship? Testing the Connections between Professional Learning and Practitioner Research, Scottish Educational Review, 45 (2), pp. 36-49
Wall, K. and Hall, E. (2016) Teachers as Metacognitive Role Models, European Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4). pp. 403-418
Wall, K. and Hall, E. (2017) The teacher in teacher-practitioner research: three principles of inquiry. In Boyd, P. and Szplit, A., International Perspectives: Teachers and Teacher Educators Learning Through Enquiry, Kielce-Krakow, pp. 35-62