What is Practitioner Enquiry?

Practitioner enquiry, as defined by Menter et al (2011), is a ‘finding out’ or an investigation with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended. The findings can then be shared so it becomes more than reflection or personal enquiry.

It is usually undertaken within the practitioner’s own practice/ context or in collaboration with others. Within collaborative enquiry the group shares a common research question which can then be ‘investigated’ through different lenses to enhance knowledge creation and sharing within the group and beyond.

As such, evaluation and reflective teaching are fundamental elements of practitioner enquiry if it is to have impact on the practitioner’s practice and ultimately pupil experience.

It is envisaged that practitioner enquiry will become an integral aspect of the day-to-day practice of teachers and other education professionals.

For the experienced teacher, regular engagement in practitioner enquiry supports professional growth by challenging or ‘disrupting thinking’ and ‘ingrained habits of mind’. Practitioner enquiry helps to create a space to stop and look again at existing ways of working.

It is argued by McLaughlin et al (2004) that teachers who engage in research have ‘better understanding of their practice and ways to improve it’. For some teachers, enquiry may promote levels of critical reflection that are ‘transformative’.

? What is 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 which impact positively on pupil learning.

Practitioner research can play a major part in making change more systemic and indeed sustainable as practitioners become ‘agents of their own professional learning’.

Systematic enquiry helps teachers to “‘let go’, unlearn, innovate and re-skill in cycles of professional learning throughout their career in response to changing circumstances” Menter et al (2011).

? References
McLaughlin, C. Black-Hawkins, K. and McIntyre, D. (2004) Researching Teachers Researching Schools, Researching Networks: Review of the Literature. University of Cambridge: Routledge Menter, I Elliott, D Hulme, M. Lewin, J Lowden K. (2011) A Guide to Practitioner research in Education. SAGE publishing
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Teachers as enquiring professionals

Teachers as enquiring professionals and practitioner enquiry rest at the heart of teacher education post-Donaldson. This way of being a teacher is distinctly different and is likely to challenge, in many ways, the current practices of teachers and education professionals.

Education professionals will be expected to develop an enquiring disposition towards their professional practice. This expectation is embedded throughout the Professional Standards.

Adopting enquiry as a core aspect of being an education professional is likely to demand different understandings and practices.

Way of being a teacher

For me, it is revisiting that you are actually a professional, not just a practitioner. You are in this situation, you are operating at a different level. You are very much involved in an intellectual project, you are going to be analysing data, you are looking very critically at what you are seeing and hearing, you are thinking about it and you are unpicking it.
Member of a School Senior Management Team

Teaching Scotland’s Future (Donaldson, 2011) called for a reconceptualisation of teacher education and the teaching profession.

This change is needed to provide teachers and education professionals with greater autonomy, knowledge and understandings to better meet the needs of pupils.

For this to happen some long-held practices may no longer be appropriate and teachers should be supported/ encouraged to operate in different ways. The focus on practice should always be about developing learners and working to progress learning.

These changes need to be supported at all levels of the education system.

By adopting this approach to practitioner enquiry, it will enable education professionals to develop a critical and questioning disposition.


To be a critically reflective teacher means that we regard both our personal and collective experiences and our reading of formal theory, research or philosophy as important elements in our critical journey.
Brookfield (1995)

Being critical is not about taking a negative stance but instead asking questions. Critical reflection helps to:

  • challenge assumptions
  • offers a new lens with which to view our practice
  • make informed decisions about our practice
  • prevents ‘groupthink’ by offering a stimulus to encourage different perspectives

Becoming critical involves questioning current practice.


? Reference
Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Jossey-Bass

  • bring about fundamental changes in pedagogy through systematic enquiry
  • develop deeper understanding and questioning of theory, policy and practice
  • question, develop and evidence for their practice in more meaningful ways
  • develop a deeper knowledge, understanding and skills of research
  • understand their own and their students’ learning more deeply
  • accurately and creatively assess & evidence impact on learners and learning
  • become critically informed practitioners
  • engage in deep, sustained and transformative professional learning
  • critically question and challenge educational assumptions, beliefs and values
  • become adaptive experts

Adaptive expertise

Generally, problem-solvers demonstrate adaptive expertise when they are able to efficiently solve previously encountered tasks and generate new procedures for new tasks.

The notion of adaptive expertise suggests that new problems can be viewed as a platform for exploration in a new problem and not just an opportunity to practice completing a task more efficiently A distinguishing feature of adaptive expertise is the ability to apply knowledge effectively to novel problems or atypical cases.

Holyoak characterised adaptive experts as being capable of drawing on their knowledge to invent new procedures for solving unique or fresh problems, rather than simply applying already mastered procedures.

? Reference
Holyoak, K. J. (1991) Symbolic Connectionism: Toward third-generation theories of expertise In K. A. Ericsson & J. Smith (Eds.) Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits 301-335. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

The nature of purpose and disposition

Practitioner enquiry should lead to deep transformative learning which significantly informs and influences professionals’ understandings, practice and subsequent impact.

However, for any sustainable change and impact on professional practice, enquiry must be understood as a process and not as disconnected acts, events and 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 on a regular basis.

Instead, it is much more about developing the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understanding required to become the kind of professionals who are able to question, challenge, understand and know deeply about teaching and learning.

Individuals who adopt this enquiring stance as the core of their professional practice will critically question their own educational beliefs, assumptions, values and practices. This locates the education professional as career-long learner, critical knower and knowledge creator.

It has, without a doubt, for the staff who have embraced it, transformed the way they think. I think it has been hard for the teachers. I think it has been challenging. I think it has been quite an intellectual venture for some but I think it is transforming the kind of teacher they are. They are focused on what learning is happening when they do something, which is great. It is taking the focus away from teaching to the focus on pupil learning. I think the teachers involved have seen things they didn’t see before, things they didn’t question before. They have evidenced that. They have got a much more critical eye. I think they are developing a deeper language of learning.
Member of a School Senior Management Team

The enquiring professional is:

  • adaptive
  • open to change
  • engages critically with their context and practice

This is recognised as a flexible, evolving and on-going process of ‘becoming’. Therefore, enquiring professionals will need to develop the necessary knowledge, research skills, processes, understandings and practices.

They will continually ask critical questions about what they are doing, why they are doing it, with what impact and for whose benefit. This will ultimately impact on the quality of learning, teaching, attainment and achievement in Scottish education/schools.

Enquiry is about…

Knowing deeply, knowing what, knowing why, knowing how

Teachers doing enquiry should always be asking:

  • what am I making ‘problematic’ and why? And what am I not questioning?
  • what knowledge will I gain/what can be known from this enquiry?
  • for whose benefit am I doing this enquiry?
  • for what purpose(s)?
  • who is/should be involved and why?
? What do we mean by problematic?
When we make our day to day practice ‘problematic’ we take a stance of critically questioning our practice. Thinking about what’s causing you and your learners the most problems can be the stimulus to then ask questions of your practice to improve outcomes for learners.

Teachers and other education professionals who adopt an Enquiry as Stance position and engage in practitioner enquiry, as outlined in this area, ensuring their enquiries are robust, will become critically informed and this will likely lead to transformative learning, sustainable change and impact.

Enquiry as Stance

Enquiry as Stance is a term used by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) to refer to a ‘way of being’ a teacher.

By this they mean a teacher/education professional who acts in slightly different ways. They are professionals who move beyond the well rehearsed ‘reflective practices’ of good classroom teachers and instead they adopt a more focused, critically informed questioning approach to their professional practice and pupil learning.

Inquiry as stance is perspectival and conceptual – it is a worldview, a critical habit of mind, a dynamic and fluid way of knowing and being in the world of educational practice, that carries across professional careers and educational settings.
(Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009:120)
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