Working through Partnership to Develop Professional Enquiry in Schools

It’s made me really think about my lessons, having done my enquiry, I had videoed myself five times and was able to have a look at my videos and I wasn’t very happy with how I came across and my practice. So it’s made me really think about what learning and teaching is actually going on in my classroom. And again I maybe assumed that my lesson was super. And when I actually watched some of it back and I thought, I’m not really sure that it actually is! The other thing that I did was I was invited to observe a colleague in another school. I observed a lesson then asked her about what learning and teaching was going on. And she, like me, was absolutely horrified that not an awful lot was!
Teacher May 2012

Practitioner enquiry, by its very nature, offers context-specific, practice-focused professional learning. It should lead to deep transformative learning, which significantly informs and influences professionals’ understandings, practice and subsequent impact.

Deep transformative learning

Transformative learning can only occur when individuals have the opportunity and skills to really question and consider their underpinning beliefs, assumptions, values and practices.

It goes beyond developing content knowledge and requires a critically questioning approach.

The process of transformative learning can be challenging and ‘uncomfortable’.

Transformative learning is essential as it is this that will lead to meaningful changes in practice that impact positively on pupil learning.

Teachers who work in schools, in local authorities and in universities can each offer a quite different set of experiences and perspectives to the enquiry process and it is important that partners recognise and are able to draw upon the particular strengths each can contribute. 

At this important early stage in the development of meaningful professional enquiry practices in Scottish schools, partnership working between schools, local authorities and universities is necessary. Bringing their own particular set of expertise and experiences, each can act as critical friend to the other.

This is particularly important, if transformative change is sought, as Donaldson indicates.

The most powerful professional development is often undertaken locally, in teams, and is designed to lead to a tangible outcome in a school or cluster of schools. Self-evaluation, reflection and inquiry are in themselves potentially powerful tools for professional development. Similarly, individual teachers comparing and learning from each other’s practice through approaches such as peer observation are likely to have immediate impact.
(Donaldson 2011:96)

Quality and relevance of support from all partners is indeed crucial, as is the ability to act with integrity, remaining sensitively open and adaptive to the particular needs arising within the school context.

An external stimulus is often needed to challenge assumptions, stimulate ideas and illustrate new teaching approaches. Such a stimulus needs to be high quality and relevant.
(Donaldson 2011:96)

To develop effective, sustainable professional enquiry at this stage and to provide relevant, quality support:

University partners might be expected to:

  • be able to negotiate, explore and refine the focus
  • be able to provide subject expertise and/or access to expertise and curriculum knowledge
  • be skilled and knowledgeable and experienced in practitioner enquiry and action research, not just social research more generally
  • have a deep understating of the change process
  • build trust and develop relationships with colleagues in schools
  • offer hands-on support with data gathering, modelling, 1-1 critical conversations and analysis

School partners might be expected to:

  • be willing and able to critically examine practice with the specific aim to improve teaching and learning
  • designate specific time and space for them to learn the necessary enquiry skills and to engage in the enquiry process for at least one academic year (any less time and it can become superficial, tokenistic and unfulfilling)
  • monitor, track and evaluate progress throughout and beyond the first year of development

Here is one example of a school and university working in partnership, where genuine consultation and adaptation featured throughout and a noticeable impact on both teacher and pupil learning was achieved:

  • School staff decided the curriculum focus to be developed in line with School Improvement Plan (SIP)
  • School SMT contacted relevant university staff to explore possibilities for the necessary professional learning
  • School SMT met with university staff to consider the ways in which practitioner enquiry could be used to help address the needs of the school (as identified through SIP process)
  • SMT consulted with staff about proposed outline plans. Where necessary, plans were amended accordingly and agreed by all involved

The agreed outline plans incorporated provision for:

  • development of teachers’ curriculum subject knowledge
  • exploration of related learning and teaching approaches that would achieve the desired impact on learners and learning, through systematic, professional enquiry
  • development of school staff’s knowledge, skills and understandings of how to conduct systematic, professional enquiry

University staff contributed through:

  • being open and adaptive to the specific needs of the school, throughout the process
  • providing input on curriculum subject knowledge, as requested by school staff
  • recommending/providing relevant professional reading to help school staff inform and challenge their practice
  • modelling, guiding and sharing skills and processes involved in meaningful professional enquiry (planning and gathering data that is fit for purpose; analysing data to critically inform teaching and learning; planning next steps in enquiry
  • acting as a critical friend, from outwith school and local authority cultures, to enable school staff to explore beyond existing experience, understandings and typical practices

School staff contributed through:

  • being open and adaptive to challenge and change as they critically reflected on and evaluated their own understandings and practices
  • systematically monitoring and tracking the impact their teaching had on learners and learning
  • allocating and devoting specific time and effort into the enquiry, throughout the process

Evaluating progress and adapting accordingly throughout the whole process, school and university staff continued to work together to ensure that the aims for meaningful, contingent professional learning and, ultimately, the aims for intended impact on the pupils and their progress might be achieved.

This necessarily involved staff from both the university and the school learning with and from each other, throughout the process to develop a relevant, quality professional learning experience.

During the inspection of the school, the Reporting Officer in the HMIe inspection team commended the tangibility of the evidence of the impact achieved as a result of the professional learning process.

Identified as crucial, was that teachers not only knew the nature and extent of the impact that had been achieved for each of their pupils but could also systematically evidence progress made.

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