Using the Inquiry Process to Improve Learning Outcomes
With data gathered from early assessments, teachers can work together to improve lessons to better meet the needs of all students.
Elementary teachers are on the front line when it comes to tapping into the needs of each student to not only ensure that they meet the yearly benchmarks to move on to the next grade but also make sure they become lifelong learners. The inquiry process is a tool that develops the teacher’s craft and brings the attainable goal of positive student outcomes into focus.
As a teacher’s knowledge base expands to effect positive student outcomes, the teacher takes on a leadership role within the school to “move the system” to meet the needs of the students by revising lesson plans and units or advocating for services and resources.
Step 1: Set Goals and a Theory of Action
Develop goals and a theory of action: At the beginning of the school year, teachers assess students in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. Based on those assessments, teachers decide where (ELA or math) to focus the inquiry. Once they’ve selected the focus, teachers develop the SMART Goals and the theory of action that explain the changes they’ll make to improve the teaching and learning.
Identify students: Teachers then choose the students who will participate in the inquiry process, typically those who score in the bottom third of the assessment. Tracking the students is vital to the inquiry, since the selected students will be the focus of the strategies.
Step 2: Implement Protocols
Notice and Wonder: The Notice and Wonder protocol we use at my school is based on Daniel R. Venables’s book The Practice of Authentic PLCs. The Notice and Wonder protocol allows teachers to objectively look at student work. Teachers meet on a weekly basis for cycles lasting from six to eight weeks, each bringing work from their targeted student group to the meeting. Teachers place a Notice and Wonder worksheet with each student’s work and then walk around the room writing in the students’ worksheets (5 minutes per each student):
- I noticed that…
- I wonder why, if, how, whether…
- What additional data is needed, such as attendance data for the student, as this may affect how the student performs?
- Next steps should be?
Once each teacher has written in each student’s worksheet, the teacher collects the work and reviews the comments, which takes about 15 minutes. Then the teachers take turns asking clarifying questions such as did the student work independently or in a group in completing the task, or did the student need assistance in completing the task from the teacher or from a fellow student? The teachers then move on to the next protocol.
Teaching strategies: The teaching strategies worksheet is a worksheet I developed for my school that documents the methods we use for the inquiry. It has two parts:
- After the teachers have completed the Notice and Wonder protocol, they gather the comments and discuss the strategy that they’ll implement in their classroom—e.g., small group lessons, conferencing, differentiated worksheets. Teachers receive suggestions from other teachers on the team and may use those suggestions.
- Once teachers have implemented the strategy, they reflect on the results. Did it work? Why or why not?
Teachers then bring back their reflections to the team and share the results.
Tuning the lesson plan: We adapted the tuning protocol developed by Joseph McDonald and David Allen to include interclassroom visitations by the teacher team. Teachers provide feedback on the implementation of the strategy and give each other feedback, which leads to “tuning” the lesson plan.
At my school, teachers share lesson plans, so seeing a strategy in action instead of hearing about the lesson is powerful. The teachers in the grade work as a team and share lessons for consistency across the classes. Of course, we include differentiation in the lessons for our students with disabilities.
Step 3: Move the System
Implementing steps one and two leads to teachers doing what I call “moving the system,” tweaking and updating the lesson plans to better meet the needs of the students. Teachers revisit the goal after they administer the next set of assessments and track the students’ part of the inquiry to see if they showed positive improvement.
If the inquiry process has a positive effect on student learning based on the inquiry cycle, the teacher team designs a new inquiry focus, creating a new goal and inquiry cycle. If the inquiry process has no effect on student learning based on data, the team revisits the inquiry goal and determines if they need to adjust the goal and continue with another inquiry cycle.
I’m a firm believer that we all lead from the position we have, and going through the inquiry process can result in teachers’ taking on leadership roles. The inquiry process gives teachers a voice on meeting the needs of the students based on data. And when teachers move the system to meet the needs of the students, it leads to a major impact on students’ educational experience.