I am in the incredibly fortunate position to get to meet and discuss leadership and enquiry with a wide range of people involved in education across Scotland and beyond. What’s heart warming is to see the growing enthusiasm for supporting teacher leadership to develop practice which is, and practitioners who are, best placed to meet the needs of children and young people. It’s also great to see more and more schools agreeing to take an enquiring approach to making that happen…but what exactly does that look like?
A number of the conversations I have had recently would suggest that many schools are taking the approach of ‘enquiry groups’. These often involve small groups of the school’s staff, often with an element of choice, which each enquire into an aspect of practice. The whole school might be developing numeracy, and each group is enquiring into an aspect of numeracy practice, or the scope might be wider and have each group enquiring into a different aspect of pedagogy across curricular areas. This for many schools is a great step forward, and any professional learning which allows teachers time to reflect upon and develop their practice in small groups can only be a good thing. However, I would suggest that if you are taking this approach you could make one small tweak to your process which might help really unleash the potential of these groups.
Start with the question: ‘what do we want to be different for our young people?’ Not at a whole school level. But at the individual level, and then the group. This one question has the power to greatly enhance what the enquiry group then goes on to do as it shifts the exercise from being largely a whole-school improvement and professional learning exercise to a deeply personal enquiry into practice which makes a meaningful difference to the children in each teacher’s care. It also allows you to meaningfully gather and analyse evidence of impact as you know what it is you are hoping your change of practice will achieve. It also allows teachers the scope to consider issues of equity in their contexts and how this might be addressed through an enquiring approach.
Take for example an enquiry group who are looking at approaches to improving homework. In scenario A this could go as follows:
- Group meets and shares experiences of and current practice in setting homework. They read and discuss literature to explore possible ways of making homework better.
- Each member of the group agrees to try out one possible alternative approach to homework.
- Each member of the group gathers some evidence, i.e. the homework artefacts and possibly a survey of the young people plus their own reflections, and reports back to the rest of the group.
- The group shares their findings with the school.
However, in scenario B, this same group could proceed like this:
- Group meets and shares experiences of and current practice in setting homework. They ask themselves what do we want to be different for your young people as a result of this? They discuss the biggest issues facing them in their practice right now. For one teacher this is that homework is making no impact on the learning. For another teacher the pupils never do their homework and huge amounts of time is wasted chasing this. One teacher is worried about pupils from the most deprived areas and their lack of access to resources to complete homework. Another teacher is frustrated that the pupils give up too easily and leave most of their homeworks blank. The last member of the group is worried about a student in their class who has English as an additional language and isn’t even keeping up with the learning in class let alone homework.
- The group explores literature for different approaches to homework practice and discusses how each of their identified issues might be addressed through changes to homework practice. They also speak to learners in their classes to discuss current homework practice and the issues arising to explore possible solutions that they might have.
- Each teacher decides upon and tries an approach to homework practice which will impact upon the needs of their learners. These approaches are different and tailored to the needs of their learners.
- Each teacher gathers evidence of the impact their change in homework practice has had on the learners in question. Each approach to evidence gathering is different as appropriate for the issue they were interested in addressing.
- They share their learning with each other and with the whole school.
For me, the fundamental differences between these two scenarios are that the first is serving the needs of the school, whereas the second is serving the needs of the learners as judged by the teachers involved. And also, the first scenario is hoping to achieve change but isn’t clear why, whereas in the second there is a clear purpose to the change in practice which can be related to tackling inequality and evidenced in terms of impact.
So, if you’re planning an enquiry groups approach for next session, perhaps you might consider how you could enhance these groups by asking this one question at the outset…
What do we want to be different for our young people?