Establishing a culture of inquiry
While inquiry can be carried out independently, it is most effective and results in deeper learning when it is conducted in learning communities characterised by a âculture of inquiryâ. As Earl and Katz (2002) stress, âmaking sense out of data and ruminating about how it contributes to deeper or clearer understanding in a group brings a great deal into focusâ (page 1020). The reflection that takes place in a culture of inquiry forces its participants to make their knowledge public and understood by their colleagues and provides a wider range of critical perspectives on the issue at hand.
Spillane et al., 2002, page 406
Interacting with each other, local actors can explicate tacit beliefs, as individuals are prompted to summarize and articulate their interpretations in struggling to communicate their point of view. Once articulated, these frequently tacit opinions become visible to the individual and the group â open to discussion, debate, and negotiation, supporting group sense-making to find inconsistencies and flaws and to resolve them. Calling on the distributed expertise of their communities, local actors can mediate confusing situations by interacting with their colleagues, leveraging the knowledge that is situated within webs of social relationships (Sachs, 1995).
Cultures of inquiry flourish in environments characterised by trust, respect, and good humour.
Reid, 2004, page 7
Inquiry will only flourish in conditions that promote it. Since the basis of inquiry involves self and collaborative critical reflection about established practices and routines, it presumes an institutional and system-wide environment of trust. That is, educators must feel that they can reveal aspects of their practice about which they have concerns and explore these without it counting against them.
There is considerable evidence in the inquiry literature about the importance of establishing cultures of inquiry in schools (Earl and Katz, 2002; Reid, 2004; Stoll et al., 2003). The Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (TPLD BES) reports that effective professional learning communities in schools support participants to process new understanding and its implications and focus on analysing the impact of teaching on learning. This is reflected in the way people talk to each other.
Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, and Fung, 2007, page 203
A condition that differentiated the change-supporting communities from those that reinforced the status quo was the set of norms that governed dialogue. When the dialogue failed to challenge problematic beliefs or to test the efficacy of competing ideas, the status quo was likely to be further entrenched.
When members of communities characterised by a culture of inquiry encounter evidence that conflicts with their expectations, the dissonance that this creates becomes the catalyst for working towards improvement.
In Case 2, senior management at a rural secondary school is working to build a whole-school culture in which teachers see themselves as learners who âneed to keep learningâ. See video Clip 7.
Earl and Katz, 2002, page 1017
Data become the window for identifying âwhat nextâ and instilling âurgencyâ as a way of unleashing the energy and excitement associated with embarking on a course of action that makes sense in fulfilling the moral purpose of schooling.
Earl and Katz (2002) argue that if school leaders are to establish a culture of inquiry, they need to:
- involve others in interpreting and engaging with data
- stimulate an internal sense of urgency
- make time
- use critical friends.
The literature on inquiry focuses primarily on individual teachers and schools, but Reid (2004) argues for a new system-wide model in which inquiry is âthe fuel that makes the system workâ (page 11).
It is just as crucial that institutions as a whole (such as schools and centres) and the central and district offices of education systems model and support inquiry. Unless this happens, inquiry approaches are destined to be constrained at best and fail at worst.
Reid explains that the communities of practice at each layer of the system would be characterised by:
- the ongoing development of the skills and dispositions needed to engage in inquiry
- structures and processes that model and support inquiry and research
- an environment that nurtures the conditions for inquiry and research.
The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) reinforces the importance of establishing a culture of inquiry at the foundational level of the classroom:
Since any teaching strategy works differently in different contexts for different students, effective pedagogy requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students. Inquiry into the teaching-learning relationship can be visualised as a cyclical process that goes on moment by moment (as teaching takes place), day by day, and over the longer term.
TheSchooling Strategy situates this âcyclical processâ within a system-wide model of inquiry underpinned by evidence-based practice:
Ministry of Education, 2005, page 17
Evidence-based practices are applied by government, principals, teachers, boards of trustees, teacher educators, and researchers, who base their thinking and actions on credible information, monitor the impact of their actions on student achievement, and adjust them accordingly. Families and whÄnau seek information about their childrenâs learning, and about family practices that support learning.