The Cycle of Inquiry and Action: Essential Learning Communities

In a true learning community, inquiry becomes everybody’s work. Teaching, learning, community involvement, leadership, organizational management and change, professional growth–all take place in a continual dynamic of asking good questions and finding evidence that can guide a school’s actions.

The kids who skip school, the kids who cut class, and the kids kicked out of class all end up, at some point, in Greg Peters’s office at Oceana High School. “I could spend all my time just checking up on kids,” says Peters, a math teacher and the attendance officer at this 800-student school in Pacifica, California, a diverse, working-class community about half an hour south of San Francisco.

But prompted by a growing interest in equity at this Essential school, Peters started to wonder whether patterns would emerge if he kept track of who came through his office, and why.

This past fall, he began to log certain data daily on a simple Excel program he devised: the students’ grade levels, ages, genders, ethnicities, and grade point averages; the classes and teachers they were missing; what time of day they showed up. He developed a simple reflection form, and asked kids to write about why they had skipped, cut, or acted up. He interviewed a focus group of students who had been kicked out of class at varying rates. And he kept a journal of his own, recording hunches and observations as they occurred to him.

In a monthly regional study group coached by Anna Richert, a Mills College education professor who serves on the Coalition’s national Executive Board, Peters sought out feedback, support, and critique from other teachers doing research in their own settings. And though still far from a conclusion, he says, he has taken a few small steps to test out the inklings and possibilities his early data suggests.

“Our repeat truants are often Latino, I realized,” he says, “but the initial warning letters we send out to the families when a student skips school were in English only. Right away we translated them into Spanish, and into Tagalog as well.”

As attendance officer he offered extra support and coaching to teachers who were sending students to his office at a higher rate than most. “I started seeing fewer kids almost immediately,” he says.

Peters also shared the entire process of his “action research” with the low-achieving students enrolled in the “Essential class” he teaches, which aims to build their inquiry skills and accustom them to demonstrating mastery through exhibitions and portfolios.

“The kids come up with their own questions to research about the school,” he says, “and then gather data, analyze the evidence, and present a summary of their results.” Some class members chose to look into how well the school’s required portfolio process was working to increase student achievement; others investigated the success of Oceana’s advisory system.

Hundreds who gathered at the Bay Area Coalition’s regional student conference last month got a chance to see these Oceana students present their results, which were “far less than polished but as authentic as it gets,” Peters says. “They really knew their stuff–the questions, the process, the struggles.”

And their findings usefully highlighted some issues at the school. “With both portfolios and advisories, kids noticed a gap in what’s happening,” Peters says; though some teachers did a fine job in these areas, others gave them only shaky support. Oceana would not see strong results from students, his class concluded, unless its staff could unite behind its vision.

A Cycle: Inquiry and Action

The work this teacher and his students are doing creates a “cycle of inquiry” that has immense importance in the work of changing schools, Essential school educators and many outside researchers agree.

The cycle starts when someone poses a question about the work in relation to the school’s vision of teaching and learning, then identifies possible sources of information that might help answer it. The next step involves gathering the relevant data and breaking it into parts that make possible comparison, reflection, and analysis. Finally, that analysis yields new action, which in turn suggests new inquiry into the results; and the cycle begins again.

When teachers take the initiative in this way, looking closely at evidence from their own practice and making changes based on what they find, the whole idea of educational research undergoes a striking change in perspective.

Instead of receiving the wisdom of outside “experts,” teachers draw on their own experience to construct new knowledge on the job. They might call on the research of others to enlarge and enrich their inquiry, but the messy work of discovery stays squarely in their hands.

And just as students learn better when they act as workers in the classroom and connect new concepts to their own experience, so teachers also find their understanding and effectiveness increasing when they carry out what is known as “action research” in their field.

Introduced in the 1950s at Teachers College of Columbia University, and developed in the 1960s by John Elliot’s Action Research Network in Cambridge, England, such practitioner research was once common, before social-science research gained dominance in university education departments.

It is now regaining its place, as more educators start to believe that change will succeed only if it comes from within the school community, arising from the knowledge that its members construct together.

The Power of Group Inquiry

When groups of teachers collaborate in the work of inquiry, it holds especial power, many believe.

“Inquiry is everywhere!” says Kim Carter, a media specialist at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire who praises the “powerful synergy” she has experienced in working with colleagues to improve teaching practice.

“For me, the keys are learning to identify the questions, dig into their underlying assumptions, and investigate a wide range of quantitative and qualitative data that can deepen our understanding,” she says.

Many teachers do this as a matter of course, she observes, “but rather unconsciously, and alone.” The rich dialogue of a working group, she says, helps surface the different assumptions and interpretations its members make as they explore data–and supports them as they take what they learn back into the classroom to help students.

All this takes time and practice, and to support such work, the DeWitt-Wallace Readers’ Digest Fund this year funded the Coalition of Essential Schools to join with the Southern Maine Partnership and the CES Northwest Center in a pilot project dubbed “Instructional Improvement Through Inquiry and Collaboration” (IITIC, pronounced eye-tick).

With IITIC funding, groups in several Essential Schools in Washington and Maine are using the cycle of inquiry to investigate their teaching practices, understand the weaknesses in these practices, take the risks necessary for meaningful change, document the effects of these changes on student achievement–and ultimately, share what they learn with other teachers and schools.

Asking Good Questions

At Noble High School in Berwick, Maine, for example, a ninth-grade teaching team is looking into the relationship between students’ engagement and their achievement. In the process, they have learned much about framing a question that can be answered through research.

“At first, we asked ourselves how we could get students more involved with their learning,” says science teacher Liza Finkel. “But that question is too broad to collect data on.” Instead her team decided to research its conviction that when curriculum involved students in choices, made connections to their lives, and crossed disciplinary lines, the quality of work would go up.

Throughout the first semester, Finkel steadily increased the choices her students made about their classroom work. “In our project based on a nearby stream each one chose a question to investigate,” she says. “When we studied plate tectonics, they chose which aspect of the theory each wanted to research and present to the class. When we studied space exploration, the class decided together what we’d need to know in order to establish a colony on Mars.”

Meanwhile, their teacher had research of her own to do. As well as recording her observations about class involvement, Finkel closely charted her assessments of student work, including whether they turned it in on time and complete. What she found created a new question: as the students had more choices, their work came in more promptly but suffered in quality.

“I’m wondering now what other factors might affect that–the content of the unit, the time of year, my rising standards as the semester progresses?” Finkel says. “My students always reflect on their work in a portfolio at the end of a unit. With our next project, I’m going to ask them to do that throughout, and see what differences come out.”

As she continues her inquiry, Finkel notices that she herself is growing better at one of her chief goals for students, “how to ask good questions and answer them with data.” And sharing the research process has electrified her teaching team. “We’ve always talked together about particular students or the nitty-gritty of curriculum,” she says. “But this pushed us to talk about what goals we’re most concerned about, and how we can reach them better. We’re having the best conversations ever about the way we work with students.”

Collaboration Is Critical

Collaborative inquiry can come in many forms, from teaching teams like Finkel’s to curriculum study groups, parent-teacher-student task forces, and the “critical friends groups” for which the Annenberg Institute’s National School Reform Faculty as well as many Coalition Centers provide training.

In such groups, teachers commonly focus their work using two main techniques: examining student work together, and observing each other in the classroom. New to many teachers, each of these practices benefits from using a careful “protocol” that eases the anxieties of revealing the heart of one’s practice to colleagues. Inquiry groups may choose from a growing array of such protocols for looking at student work (see Horace, Volume 13 Number 2, November 1996). And Simon Hole, an elementary Essential school teacher from Rhode Island, has worked out a useful set of similar guidelines for peer observations. (See sidebar, page 6.)

An emphasis on exploring a particular question about teaching and learning marks all these techniques for close observation and discussion. If what teachers find out then yields new practices in the classroom, “they’ve closed the loop between research and action,” says Kathy Simon, CES’s director of research and professional development.

Worried about student apathy, a critical friends group at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle (an IITIC site) decided to investigate whether student-centered discussion increases student engagement and academic achievement.

Coached by their colleague Elaine Wetterauer, the group members first spent time wrestling with how even to observe and assess such a slippery quality as student engagement. Should they chart the number of times students speak in a discussion? And how would they document higher student achievement as a result of such discussion? What exactly qualified as “student-centered discussion”? Was it hard work? How could they tell?

The teachers began their work by observing Socratic seminars, says Rolynn Anderson, who co-directs the CES Northwest Center and coaches several of its IITIC groups. Next, some learned to facilitate such seminars in their own classes; and they have now asked Anderson to help them assemble a repertoire of ways to conduct student-centered discussions. Already, Anderson notes, many group members are trying out new strategies in their classrooms.

School-to-School Inquiry

Working partnerships with other schools can also deepen and strengthen the inquiry process. A group of five Massachusetts Essential middle schools has been participating in a sustained cross-school inquiry sponsored by the Center for Collaborative Education, Boston’s regional CES Center. Supported by a three-day summer institute and two days of follow-up meeting in the fall and spring, teams of teachers function as critical friends to a partner school.

In early March, for example, a half dozen teachers from O’Maley Middle School in Gloucester spent two days in nearby Salem, visiting classes and conferring with teachers from Collins Middle School. The schools both serve roughly 1,200 students, and their challenges have enough in common to provide plenty of material for inquiry.

“We’ve been working on raising awareness of the diversity of our students, making sure all voices are heard and respected,” Collins curriculum coordinator Linda Darisse told the visiting team at the start of the visit. “We’d like you to be looking for evidence of how we’re doing.” As the observers scattered –some to bilingual classes, some to self-contained special education classes, some to the guidance office, some to a meeting on educating kids about sexual harassment–they kept her question in mind. When the two teams debriefed at the end of the second day, the session would bring the visitors’ fresh eyes to the daily details of school life.

The Indiana Essential Schools Network works with Critical Inquiry Groups in ten schools, all asking how to “develop a systemic culture of inquiry that supports standards-based but not standardized learning for all students.”

Each group collects data at the school level, documenting the beliefs, assumptions, and practices that have to do with standards and student learning. (For example, teachers are asked, “How do you determine what you teach? How do you know students are learning what you want them to know?” Students are asked “How do you know if you are learning? How do you determine the quality of your own work?”)

Then the inquiry groups gather for coaching on key techniques such as performance assessment. In school “process-folios,” they collect samples of students’ and teachers’ work and reflections, and they spend time examining that evidence as well as observing classes.

“We hope the data will soon help us understand the impact of collaboration and reflection on student learning and teacher practice,” says Randall Wisehart, who with Melody Shank coordinates the Indiana CES Network. “And for the long range, we hope it will help us understand the impact on student learning when teachers align their authentic asssessment practices with the proficiencies measured by state standardized tests.”

Especially, the Indiana schools are looking for evidence that students can demonstrate understanding in state proficiency areas even if they do not score well on standardized tests. Some will be comparing particular students’ test scores with their more “authentic” work that aligns with the same proficiencies. Ultimately, the effort could help influence the state’s policy debate on school accountability and standardized testing.

Who Is a Researcher?

When the habit of asking questions together begins to pervade a community, it changes everyone’s role into that of a learner and a researcher. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators all become responsible for checking out whether the evidence supports what the school says its vision is.

In a culture of inquiry, “inquiry is what people do,” points out researcher John Watkins, who has coached school inquiry and action groups in Essential schools. “Every-thing that goes on is framed as inquiry–leadership, classroom learning, professional development, parent involvement, teaching, crisis management, exhibitions, student conferences, the whole array.”

At McCluer High School in St. Louis, Missouri, a dozen students on a task force advised by assistant principal Jane Crawford took on the question of whether the system that tracked students into regular and honors classes was giving all students a fair chance.

Almost 60 percent of McCluer’s 1,700 students are African-American. But Jenniqual Roberson, who at 16 chairs that student task force, says, “I am the only black female and we have only 3 black males in my honors English class.” She has done well in advanced classes, she says, but one year her score on the required English placement test declined and she was transferred to a lower-level class. “The year before I scored 10 out of 12 and got in; but the next year I only got a 6.” (Crawford defends the school-wide writing assessment, which is “scored holistically by trained scorers and monitored carefully for reliability,” she says. “The essay prompts are examined for validity by a university representative who helps out with our assessment.”)

Even if they can do the work, black students are often reluctant to enter an advanced class where they feel outnumbered, the task force’s students (who are mostly African-American) hypothesized. To check out their impression, they surveyed students and teachers, and began to break down several years’ class enrollment figures by race and gender.

Supported by a daily 20-minute advisory period and by the St. Louis regional CES Center’s “CES Kids” institutes, these students are confronting the difficulty of changing the system from within. “Our survey results seem like kids want to keep things the way they are,” says Roberson. “But we think they need the chance to try out advanced classes for a few weeks at the beginning of the year and then decide.” Dilemmas like this often prompt new questions–like “Why do kids want to keep things the same?”–that in turn fuel deeper inquiry.

The Larger System Adjusts

No matter what their age, learners in a culture of inquiry make uncomfortable demands on the larger system when they call attention to such issues, which often lie deep in its norms, structures, and processes. Those tensions are healthy, says Watkins, but adds, “This is a scary process.”

“When critical inquiry begins to overcome the subtle and pervasive ideological constraints to change,” he observes, “a true disequilibrium sets in, which drives ongoing learning, renewal, and change.”

A teaching team might well find out it needs more time to plan, for example, once it realizes what its inquiry is uncovering. It might raise questions about the school schedule that disrupt the ways things have always been. Students pushing for more access to honors courses may find that powerful community interests block their way, concerned about preserving the privileges of a system that has kept their children at the top of the heap.

Districts, states, and higher educational systems will also feel their balance shaken as a culture of inquiry develops, Watkins notes.

Instead of relying on old hierarchies and routines, they will have to stay ready to create and dismantle flexible new structures as schools need them. Instead of solving problems by bringing in “experts” with prescriptions, they will have to make available information and resources as schools work through possible solutions on their own. Instead of imposing high-stakes accountability systems, they will need to support experimentation and risktaking, then provide a model for asking the hard questions that guide all work.

“Leaders strategically can push people to act without complete understanding,” he says. “They build understanding through their coordinated and thoughtful action.”

As teachers begin seriously to collaborate on this kind of work in Essential schools around the country, they will increasingly test the policy environment’s willingness to support local initiatives that would significantly change school practices and structures. In the process, they gain strength to transform the educational system in ways new regulations never could.

“Time and again I’ve seen teachers realize that data can actually help them determine if they are making a difference and what they might adjust if not,” says Indiana’s Randall Wisehart. “When they discover that looking at data doesn’t have to mean being bludgeoned by numbers on a secret test to show their ineffectiveness, they suddenly experience a wonderful new power.”

*Please see graphic image in upper right corner.

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