Research School Network: Developing a ​‘Disciplined Inquiry’ Approach

Developing a ​‘Disciplined Inquiry’ Approach

by Durrington Research School
on the

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to listen to John Tomsett talk about how Huntington have developed a disciplined inquiry’ approach to teacher appraisal. This is a way of encouraging teachers to think deeply about how they are going to improve their practice. You can read more about the approach Huntington have taken, in this blog from Alex Quigley. Before listening to John’s talk, I had some questions about this approach:

  • Was it just a re-named version of action research’?
  • If so, did it have some of the same flaws that teacher action research’ can sometimes have e.g. big conclusions being drawn from very small sample sizes (often without comparison data), which then results in teachers being told this worked for me, so you should do it too; teachers carrying out research’ that has already been done on a much bigger scale and with more robust methodology’?

I should have known better. John convinced that me that this was a sensible approach for schools to be thinking about, in terms of developing a more evidence-informed approach to teacher improvement. Furthermore, it brings to life the Dylan Wiliam quote above – or as John puts it If you work in my school, I’m going to expect you to be committed to getting better as a teacher’. His message was summed up by this quote from Alex, in the Huntington blog mentioned above:

We don’t have teachers undertaking research that is being shared across schools as the answer’, but we do have a process that supports really hard thinking about our practice, in a process that is supportive, intellectually challenging and formative.”

Disciplined Inquiry is not about teachers carrying out a research project’ and then making grand inferences from their findings, that directs all teachers to do the same. It is an approach that can be aligned to appraisal in schools, that asks teachers to think deeply about how they are going to improve their teaching (using evidence informed approaches), with a very narrow focus, and then how they will monitor and evaluate the impact that this change is having on the learning of their students. By adopting this approach, we might have a better chance of ensuring that a small, but focused and sustained improvement in our practice has a significant impact on the learning of our students (the Pareto Principle):

In this blog by Dr Gary Jones, he suggests that disciplined inquiry should have the following features:

  • Ultimately a narrow focus and question for inquiry
  • The possible use of a wide range of inquiry methods
  • Is subject to focussed self-review to identify potential weaknesses in the inquiry and to identify mitigating actions
  • Has internal consistency
  • Is undertaken and constructed in such a way that allows for external scrutiny

We are starting to think about this approach here at Durrington. Our starting point is to provide teachers with a framework for writing a focused inquiry question’ that they will work on next year, as an appraisal objective. This will focus on an aspect of their teaching that they are looking to improve, how they can use the available evidence from research to address this in their classrooms and then how they will know if it’s making a difference. We are using this question structure, from the IEE:

Some examples of some possible inquiry questions, using this structure:

  • What impact does increasing the frequency of modelling writing, followed by structured metacognitive reflection in lessons delivered over a year have on the quality of creative writing for my two Y10 classes?
  • What impact does explicitly teaching Tier 2 and 3 geographical vocabulary using knowledge organisers delivered over a year have on the appropriate use of tier 2/3 vocabulary in written responses for the disadvantaged students in my Y8 class?

So, having thought about the improvement they are looking to make, they have then considered how best to approach this, using the best available research evidence e.g. metacognition and tier 2/3 vocabulary. They have then considered how they will know if the new approach is successful or not. This outcome measure is specific enough to the new approach to be attributable, but should also contribute to an improvement in overall attainment.

Having thought about an inquiry question, we can only really know if what we are doing is making a difference, if we look for a comparison What was it like before I did X and what’s it like now? Has it got any better?’ Teachers will be supported to think about how a range of evidence could be used to look at this:

  • Assessment scores before and after the change you have made to your practice.
  • Example of student work before and after.
  • Student/​staff questionnaires before and after.
  • Student interviews before and after.
  • Observation/​IRIS review before and after.

Whilst we are excited about the prospect of all teachers in our school working on their own inquiry question over the course of a year, we remain aware of the limitations of this approach. Even if we see an improvement in attainment of our students as an apparent result of trialling a new approach, it’s important to understand that this is a very small sample size, so it would be difficult to draw firm conclusions from it, that should then be implemented by everybody. At best, this would suggest that it is a promising approach, that requires further exploration.

That said, we should be sharing and celebrating what we have done in our classrooms, what appears to have worked or not (as there is as much to learn from the latter) and most importantlythe process of professionally pursuing a line of inquiry to purposefully improve our teaching. We envisage that this will happen in a number of ways:

  • INSET days will be used to share some inquiry questions that staff are working on and how this is going.
  • Subject CPD time (INSET and Subject Planning & Development sessions) will be used for colleagues to discuss and share their inquiry questions.
  • Staff will share their inquiry question journey’ through writing blogs.

Disciplined inquiry is a great way of supporting teachers to improve their practice, by mobilising the best available research evidence. At our September INSET day today, we started this process by asking teachers to consider these questions:

  • What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
  • What does the research evidence say?
  • What am I going to do differently to address this?
  • How will I monitor progress and make sure I stick with it – with fidelity?
  • Who’s my critical friend/​s?
  • How will I share my success/​challenges?
  • How will I evaluate impact?
  • What’s my inquiry question?

Further Reading

Developing Disciplined Inquiry – Alex Quigley

The School Research Lead &Disciplined Inquiry’ – Dr Gary Jones

Disciplined Inquiry – or how to get better at getting better – Phil Stock

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