Teacher Inquiry Questions 2.0

‘Treat scale-up as a new implementation process’

So says the EEF’s implementation guidance report. Sage advice for school leaders looking to extend the reach of their intervention. Also sage advice for school leaders (like me) looking to change the nature of an intervention in order for it to evolve. In this case an arm of our professional development offer – teacher inquiry questions.

We started with these back in September 2018. The genesis goes back to a talk myself and Shaun Allison heard from John Tomsett at the Research School national conference of that year about a similar structure he used at his school, Huntington.  Based on this, our idea was for teachers to identify an aspect of their classroom practice that they wanted to develop, and, through the appraisal process, frame this into an evidence-informed inquiry question to direct purposeful practice throughout the year. You can read more about the initial part of our journey with inquiry questions in these two blogs, here and here.

Framing the questions themselves has until now been up to individual teachers, although we have directed that they must attach to one of our teaching and learning priorities. These vary slightly year-on-year but most popular over the past four years have been metacognition, formative assessment, memory and disciplinary literacy. At the start of each year we have spent time with teachers narrowing them until we got an agreed format. An example would be:

What impact does explicit teaching of and retrieval practice of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary delivered over a year have on quality of exam responses (4-6 mark questions) for middle starting point girls in my KS4 classes?

Now, these have been great in places, but during the summer (as you do) we start to have a deeper think about inquiry questions in terms of how successful the implementation of them had been and what our next steps would be. This was part of a general evolution of our teaching and learning and professional development structure. In its 2022-23 iteration it looks like this (I am CRu):

Shaun Allison blogged recently about some aspects of this structure here. As we are a large secondary school, the core of this structure is its subject specificity. The whole thing is driven by department improvement priorities and those teams working together regularly on subject specific professional development to realise those priorities. SPDS is the core mechanism for this (hence it is bright green), where teachers meet fortnightly to discuss what they will be teaching over the next two weeks and how to teach it really well.

One thing we recognised in reviewing teacher inquiry questions is that they felt a bit disconnected from this subject specific professional development. Teachers chose them individually and worked with an expert from the wider teaching and learning team rather than within departments. While this provided a great mechanism for mobilising evidence-informed practice it didn’t necessarily chime completely with what the curriculum leader had identified as the core priorities for the year.

It would be fair to say that our DIPs have become more and more aligned with evidence-informed principles and practice as the years have gone on, and this year they were genuinely excellent. We are lucky to have a fairly settled team of curriculum leaders who know their teams, cohorts and subjects and can identify precise evidence-informed solutions to move their departments forwards.

In this context it was time to place inquiry questions into the hands of the curriculum leaders. In order for DIPs to be realised then all available professional development mechanisms need to pull in that direction and having inquiry questions disconnected from that doesn’t make sense any more. We are now at a stage where driving the evidence-informed agenda doesn’t need to come from centralised teaching and learning team but instead from curriculum leaders.

It was some nervousness that I have started to read enquiry questions as appraisals have been completed. Whenever a piece of implementation is out in the wild there is always the risk of lethal mutations. However, while I haven’t yet seen them all, so far they are looking really strong and in line with those of previous years in terms of fidelity to evidence-informed principles.

What comes next is directed time at INSET to work collaboratively in departments in terms of committing to action. These are three questions I will be asking teachers to discuss in pairs as part of sessions run by the curriculum leaders:

  1. What do you want to be different from the point of view of both your teaching and student behaviours?
  2. What are going to be your actions from now until the March INSET day?
  3. What mechanisms for evaluation are you going to put in place across the year?

Below is the yearly rhythm that our inquiry questions will follow:

In between will be the work in the classroom and the evaluative process that are built in. As shown by the overall structure above the monitoring of them will fit into our overall professional development structures. It is fair to say however that there is a high degree of personal responsibility on teachers in the implementation of these inquiry questions and as such they do sit within the appraisal structure. Key here is that there is no expectation that they are required to show a positive impact. It is ok if they try something and it doesn’t demonstrate obvious success, it is the process we want to focus on.

Alongside this I have been and will continue to work with our curriculum leaders on how these inquiry questions connect to the recent EEF guidance report on effective professional development. As a research school we need to practice what we preach with this. I could be being a little optimistic but I think, if done well, our inquiry questions hit quite a few of the mechanisms contained in the guidance report:

I should caveat that but saying that this is only when you connect them to wider professional development opportunities, in particular SPDS. I’ve also pulled these apart a bit and tried to exemplify how exactly the inquiry questions hit each highlighted mechanism:

It all gets going properly at our INSET at the end of November. I’ve been at this long enough to realise that the reality will end up some way from my minds eye, and I’m not naïve about the degree of inconsistency that will appear across a large staff. What I am happy with though is where inquiry questions now sit within a very subject specific professional development structure and the purpose that they have in supporting that.

Chris Runeckles

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