By G. FAITH LITTLE
When designing professional development projects, we’re constantly examining how our promising practices can be solidified as we support educators. Through this examination, we’ve come to identify five principles of practice: Communities of practice, Contextualized practice, Critical reflection, Cultivating strengths, and Cycles of inquiry. As part of our series investigating each of these principles, let’s dig deeper into cycles of inquiry. (You can see previous entries in this series here.)
We believe in and utilize a cycle of inquiry with school teams as a powerful means towards transforming and improving practices and school structures. Our approach is inspired by the notion of social inquiry, as developed by John Dewey and C.S. Pierce, which privileges reflection and action, and articulates a process to identify a problem and investigate it through collaborative experimentation and exploration to develop a clearer understanding of an issue.
We’ve got more to say on our foundations and theory, but my three-year-old nephew demonstrates the practice efficiently and effectively with his very favorite question: Why?
We aren’t going to go swimming right now.
Because we’re going home.
It’s late, and you need to get dinner and a bath before bed.
[Pause] Is the pool open?
Yes, it’s open.
Can we get bath at the pool?
I suppose we can, yes. But what about dinner?
Because you’re going to get hangry soon.
Remember, when we don’t eat and then small things bother us, and then we get mad easily, and sometimes we throw a tantrum?
And we have to sit to think about it?
[Pause] McDowell’s! (yes, he says McDowell’s) I see it. Maybe can we eat then go swim?
Then we can eat and swim and be happy to swim.
The conversation continued. We went swimming. On the way home we talked about swimming and why it makes us happy. My nephew asked, “Why?” at least a dozen more times. His pauses helped me see that he was thinking about the answer — he remains curious no matter the subject.
Previously, I shared how our team goes about exploring our questions and challenges. Once a month, we gather together for Fiesta Fridays, which involve self-directed team-building activities that allow us to use play to surface larger challenges. Last year, our team began a cycle of inquiry focused on our Fiesta Friday experiences by using a simple structure to capture what we were curious about:
I am studying (topic): norms and consensus within the Fiesta Friday (FF) experience
because I want to find out how: FF partners should perform
in order to better understand: the goal of FF
so that we will know more about: how well we are meeting that goal.
From this starting point, we introduced letter writing as a way of passing along our learning from one Fiesta Friday to the next. Planners from January’s experience wrote a letter to those planning February’s outlining their goals for the experience, how it connected to the previous FF goals, and what, if anything, they might have changed following the experience. After a few months, we had some data we could use to loop back into our original question about FF partners and FF goals.
Our inquiry process is informed by Dewey’s and Pierce’s descriptions of three cyclical stages of the inquiry process: deductive: identifying an issue and developing a hypothesis or approach to try; inductive: testing a hypothesis and noting implications; and abductive: returning to adjust and hone a hypothesis or strategy based on experimentation.
With our partner schools, we see that by engaging in a cycle of inquiry to improve instruction, educators can identify the problems specific to their contexts and engage in a cycle of exploration to seek promising practices that address their particular needs, as opposed to relying solely on experts for “answers.” We turn the focus toward the questions that are bubbling up for teachers and for students. Where is the curiosity? What questions do their questions lead to, and what can they learn along the way?
During our inquiry process, we may refine the question or gather information that leads us to a new question, but we start with curiosity. We wonder. We ask, “Why?” We imagine.
What are you curious about today? Perhaps you’re interested in giving it a little thought through writing:
I am curious about ___________________________________
because I want to find out (what/how/why) ___________________________________
in order to better understand (what/how/why) ___________________________________
so that we will know more about ___________________________________.