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Changing Trajectories of Teaching and Learning

Changing Trajectories of Teaching and Learning
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Author: Judy Parr, Helen Hedges, Stephen May
Publisher: NZCER Press
Average Rating: Not Rated
Pages: 246
Originally published: 2011
ISBN (ePub)9781927151402

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This monograph is the first in a series that is designed to highlight areas of research strength found at The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education. The chosen theme of this first volume, “Changing trajectories of teaching and learning”, encompasses the Faculty’s strong research presence in ongoing teacher learning and in raising student achievement, particularly in lower decile schools and in the area of literacy. It also encompasses the Faculty’s role in enhancing teaching and learning through researching quality teacher education and social work education. 

This volume consists of two invited lead chapters, one each by Professors Stuart McNaughton and Helen Timperley. Each of these contributes to our conceptualisation of notions of trajectories of learning for students and teachers respectively. The final chapter by Dr Mei Lai, also an invited piece, addresses issues of sustainability of interventions to change trajectories of achievement, issues clearly vital for the ability to maintain and further improve teaching and learning beyond the length of any teaching or research intervention. 

In addition to these invited chapters, there are 15 chapters that approach the notion of changing trajectories from a number of different viewpoints theoretically and empirically and in terms of the particular issue, level and area of education addressed. 

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From: Changing Trajectories of Teaching and Learning, by Judy Parr, Helen Hedges and Stephen May

Chapter 3: Teaching as Inquiry in the New Zealand Curriculum: Origins and Implementation

Claire Sinnema and Graeme Aitken

The inclusion of a model of effective pedagogy in a national curriculum is both new in the New Zealand context, and unique internationally. The teaching as inquiry model in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) signals the importance of educators engaging in three kinds of inquiry—focusing inquiry, teaching inquiry and learning inquiry (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008). These inquiries promote teachers’ consideration of what is most important for their students, what strategies or approaches are most likely to work, the impact of teaching on students and implications for their practice. These considerations lead, potentially, to a somewhat changed trajectory of teaching and learning in New Zealand schools. School-based curricula become more responsive to priorities for teaching and learning in the particular context, and less focused on coverage of a prescribed sequence of teaching and learning. This chapter examines the origins of teaching as inquiry and discusses how practitioners have begun to give effect to this aspect of the curriculum. It draws on findings from a national curriculum implementation evaluation to highlight three key issues in the implementation of teaching as inquiry: confusion with inquiry learning, absence of engagement with evidence, and limited progress in implementing teaching as inquiry. Finally, it outlines implications for addressing those issues.

Introduction

One of the key shifts in the recent revision of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) was the inclusion of a section on effective pedagogy in the English-medium curriculum policy statement (Ministry of Education, 2007). In addition to statements of desired outcomes of education, the 2007 curriculum signals to educators desirable teaching and learning approaches and sets out a model of effective pedagogy—‘Teaching as inquiry’ (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008; Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 36). This attention to pedagogy in a national curriculum statement was not evident in the previous curriculum framework (Ministry of Education, 1993) and is unique to New Zealand.

Teaching as inquiry: Changing the trajectory of curriculum in New Zealand schools

The positioning of teaching as inquiry alongside outcomes statements in the written curriculum was a call for changing the trajectory of teaching and learning in New Zealand schools. Rather than a comparatively linear and predetermined course of teaching and learning through achievement objectives at progressively higher levels within each learning area, teaching as inquiry involves a less prescribed path. The notion of a focusing inquiry, along with the emphasis in the NZC on locally designed curriculum and school’s autonomy for determining desired outcomes, present a quite new and unique curriculum trajectory. It differs markedly from that of the previous curriculum which, arguably, focused schools more on planning for curriculum compliance and coverage of achievement objectives. While there are considerable risks in a curriculum that does not prescribe sequence, detailed progressions and particular content, those risks are reduced through the promotion of rigorous inquiry.

In the New Zealand context, such inquiry has been promoted not only through the prominent position of teaching as inquiry in the curriculum statement, but also through its use as the organising framework for many other initiatives and publications aimed at supporting curriculum implementation since 2007. In each of these there is emphasis on teachers inquiring into what is most important, what strategies or approaches are most likely to work, the impact of teaching on students and implications for their practice. Teaching as inquiry was used, for example, as the framework in seven case studies drawn from the Quality Teaching Research and Development project (Sinnema, Sewell, & Milligan, 2011) to illustrate how teachers used an inquiry approach to become more culturally responsive and improve outcomes for their Māori and Pasifika students (Ministry of Education, 2010). Teaching as inquiry was also used as the main organiser in the pedagogy section of the recently revised guidelines for Education Outside the Classroom (Ministry of Education, 2009a) and is described as “at the heart” of curriculum guidelines for the teaching of Te Reo Māori (Ministry of Education, 2009b). The approach has also been emphasised in a number of national professional learning and leadership initiatives since 2007, and informed the development of an inquiry cycle in the context of teacher professional learning (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007).

The inclusion of a model of pedagogy in a national curriculum statement is unique to New Zealand. While curricula in many countries mention inquiry-oriented practice, the emphasis on inquiry in the New Zealand policy statement is more prominent and central than most. In other contexts, the notion of inquiry is hinted at through reference, for example, to the curriculum promoting “reflection on what has been learned and how that learning occurred” (Welsh Assembly Government, 2008), or through mention of assessment being organised “to support and influence teaching and learning (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2004). A pedagogy of teacher inquiry in the curriculum recognises that the curriculum statement alone cannot influence the kinds of changes that will lead to improved outcomes in educational achievement. Factors relating to teachers and teaching are, of all the variables potentially influenced by policy, the most likely to influence student learning (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2005). Teaching as inquiry in the NZC connects the curriculum more closely to those influential variables (teachers and teaching). In a sense, it provides a bridge between the statements of valued student learning, and the kinds of approaches that increase the likelihood of that learning being achieved for individual students and the system as a whole.

This chapter has three purposes. The first is to outline the origins of teaching as inquiry. The second is to report on the implementation of teaching as inquiry in English-medium schools in New Zealand based on findings from an evaluation of the curriculum overall undertaken during 2008 and 2009 (Sinnema, 2011). Finally, we suggest implications for practice that may begin to address some of the issues that were apparent in the implementation findings.

Teaching as inquiry: Origins

This section focuses on the most immediate and direct origins of teaching as inquiry in the NZC, The Social Sciences Tikanga-a-iwi Best Evidence Synthesis (SSTAIBES) (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008). It describes the teaching as inquiry model and explains how it emerged as a finding in the process of synthesising social sciences evidence. It also touches on the longer-standing origins of teaching as inquiry in the broader field of practitioner inquiry.

Teaching as inquiry: From the Social Sciences Best Evidence Synthesis to the New Zealand Curriculum

In 2006 the authors were commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education to write a Social Sciences Best Evidence Synthesis as part of the Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis Programme (Ministry of Education, 2004). That programme aims to systematically identify, evaluate, analyse, synthesise, and make accessible, relevant evidence linking teaching approaches to enhanced outcomes for diverse learners. The SSTAIBES was concerned specifically with teaching and learning in the social sciences domain in early childhood and school settings and sought to answer two main questions: what teaching approaches enhance outcomes for diverse learners in the social studies curriculum domains, and how and why are these effects happening?

The teaching as inquiry model was presented as the fifth finding in the SSTAIBES alongside four mechanisms used to explain effective approaches in the social sciences (Connection: Make connections to students’ lives; Alignment: Align experiences to important outcomes; Community: Build and sustain a learning community; and Interest: Design experiences that interest students). The teaching as inquiry model, in final draft form in the SSTAIBES at the time the NZC was under development, was subsequently adopted for inclusion in the NZC statement.

This model requires educators to engage in three kinds of inquiry as they seek to achieve curriculum goals—focusing inquiry, teaching inquiry and learning inquiry (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008). Focusing inquiry requires careful attention to prioritising what matters most for the teachers’ students given the curriculum requirements, community expectations, and most importantly, the learning needs, interests and experiences of the learner. Teaching inquiry requires attention to both outcomes-linked research evidence and evidence from practitioner experience to inform decisions about what teaching strategies to try. It encourages teachers to view research evidence as the basis for explaining findings about the impact of their own practice on their students’ learning, and as sources of better-informed conjectures about what might enhance learning for students in their classrooms. Learning inquiry requires consideration of the impact of teaching actions on student outcomes, and inquiry into the relationship between the teaching and those outcomes.

The original statement of teaching as inquiry in the SSTAIBES, unlike the statement in the NZC (Ministry of Education, 2007), also makes clear that the model is underpinned by a set of attitudes. Foremost among those attitudes are open-mindedness, fallibility, and persistence:

Open-mindedness refers to a willingness to consider teaching approaches that may be unfamiliar or that may challenge one’s beliefs about the best ways to teach. It refers also to being open to what the evidence shows about the effects of teaching on student learning. Fallibility refers to the lively realisation that however strong the evidence may be, educational research findings are always conjectural because they are context-bound. Fallibility involves accepting the possibility that what was, or what has been, successful with one group of learners may not be successful for another and that, for this reason, well-designed intentions might fail to generate the desired response. The need for persistence directly follows from fallibility, as teachers must inquire again into the focus of future learning and into the possibilities for future, more effective action. (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008, p. 53)

The attitudes associated with teaching as inquiry reflect a post-positivist approach. Engagement with evidence about effective teaching approaches is promoted, but emphasis is also placed on the idea that “knowledge is not based on unchallengeable rock-solid foundations—it is conjectural” (Phillips & Burbules, 2000, p. 26).

The design of teaching as inquiry to address problems in synthesising evidence to explain effective pedagogical approaches

The teaching as inquiry finding was designed as a response to two problems. The problems became apparent in synthesising outcomes-linked evidence from a large number of studies and relate to anticipated issues in the use of the research evidence by practitioners in educational settings—the problem of generality, and the problem of the particular.

The problem of generality arises from the framing of findings about effective teaching in the social sciences as underlying mechanisms (Pawson, Greenhalgh, Harvey, & Walshe, 2004). The mechanisms were developed as an organising device based on underlying explanations of how particular but different practices, applied in different contexts, worked to achieve valued outcomes for students in the social studies. Their explanatory, conceptual nature was also designed to support transfer of the findings between the multiple contexts that comprise the social sciences. The breadth of the synthesis in terms of subject and age range meant that the description of a particular strategy from one context may not be recognized as applicable to another context. For example, the particular strategy of “drawing a before view” with 5-year-olds may not be recognized as relevant by a teacher of 17-year-old history students, especially if it is accompanied by a rich description of the 5-year-old’s learning context. The mechanism framework sought to increase the likelihood that the history teacher will recognize the value of the mechanism that such a strategy triggers—namely, making connections to prior knowledge—and of, therefore, making age-appropriate modifications. There are, however, potential difficulties associated with the interpretation of the mechanisms by teachers.

While the generality of the mechanisms aimed to help teachers understand underlying transferable explanations, this very generality itself poses problems of sense-making and implementation. While desirable for many reasons, communicating “deep underlying principles rather than the superficial aspects of specific examples” generates a language of abstraction that may not be helpful to sense-making, because abstraction “is susceptible to being understood in superficial and idiosyncratic ways” (Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002, p. 416). When presented with evidence about what works in teaching and learning, it is tempting for practitioners to over-assimilate and not recognize distinctions between what the evidence is suggesting and their own existing practice (Spillane, 2004). This was a particular risk at the level of generality evident in the four mechanisms. They may appear to offer nothing new and to simply state, in formal terms, what teachers perceive themselves to be already doing.

The problem of the particular was identified during the trialling and formative feedback phases of the SSTAIBES development. In spite of the intention to use the mechanisms to communicate general transferable explanations of learning, teachers sought out detail and particular strategies in their effort to understand what the mechanism was actually telling them. There is no great surprise in this. In their research into teacher reactions to a new physics curriculum in New Zealand, Fernandez and Ritchie (2003) found that teachers latched onto the content examples that were consistent with the old prescription mentality, because, as one teacher put it, “that’s where you have got something to hang on to” (p. 96). In so doing, these teachers narrowed the scope of physics as conceived by the curriculum writers. Commenting more generally, and based on many years of experience with curriculum and school improvement attempts in the United States, Eisner (2000) noted that:

what members of the field of education in general and curriculum in particular have increasingly come to realize is that given a competition between the general and the particular, the particular will win every time. (p. 354)

The “particular winning” is problematic given that the particular is unlikely to work in the same way in different contexts. During the synthesis process it became apparent that strategies that worked in one context, or for one learner/group of learners, or in relation to one outcome, often did not work in another context, or for another learner/group of learners or in relation to a different outcome. We found, for example, contrasting evidence relating to a widely used approach (the use of literature/narrative) that was successful in one example (Tyson, 2002), but that had unintended negative outcomes in another (VanSledright & Brophy, 1992). The Tyson study explains how the use of literature “helped students to articulate concepts of social action, both hypothetically and realistically in their own lives and communities” (p. 62). The VanSledright and Brophy study revealed how the use of narrative was valuable in terms of developing imagination and empathy, but problematic since it led to storytelling responses that included “fanciful elaborations” rather than the factual knowledge of content the strategy was intended to support. Similarly, we found evidence of both the successful and unsuccessful use of questioning. In a study reported by Gillies and Boyle (2005), the teacher’s use of questions was effective in terms of modelling, and clarifying for learners how to make their understandings and reasoning more explicit in cooperative group discussions. In contrast, Dillon (1985) reports findings that show teachers’ use of questions inhibited the interactions between students in discussion.

The extent to which we found apparently contradictory findings (both successful and unsuccessful examples of seemingly similar strategies) signalled the need to address the certainty with which some educators may apply the particular strategies reported in the synthesis to their teaching. In response, we developed a model of pedagogy intended to promote conjecture about the likelihood of approaches impacting positively on valued student learning—teaching as inquiry (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008, p. 53).

The teaching as inquiry model was designed to address problems of generality and of the particular. It encourages teachers to use the mechanisms and their elaboration and other research evidence in two ways. First, as the basis for explaining findings about the impact of their own practice on their students’ learning, and second as sources of better-informed conjectures about what might enhance learning for students in their classrooms. While the presentation of the model and its coupling with a body of outcomes-linked research evidence have made a significant contribution to curriculum in New Zealand, the ideas inherent in the model are not entirely new.

Teaching as inquiry: Connections to a long-standing tradition of practitioner research

While teaching as inquiry in the NZC has its immediate origins in the model presented in the SSTAIBES, it also draws on a longer-standing tradition of practitioner inquiry. The model has connections to particular genres of practitioner inquiry and reflects many of the common features of such inquiry.

Connection to genres of practitioner inquiry

Teaching as inquiry does not fit precisely into any one of the genres, or versions, of practitioner research outlined by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009). Two of the versions are, though, particularly related to the model of teaching as inquiry described here—action research and teacher research.

Like action research, teaching as inquiry involves a cycle of problem solving, data gathering and analysis, and action. It focuses on altering curriculum and disrupting typical or habitual practices that may not be serving students well. Unlike action research, teaching as inquiry does not require (although could involve) collaboration between teachers and university-based educators. Teaching as inquiry also emphasises engagement with outcomes-linked research evidence more strongly than most action research models.

Like teacher research, teaching as inquiry has social justice concerns at its heart. Many teacher research efforts “work for social justice by using inquiry to ensure educational opportunity, access, and equity for all students” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009, p. 40). Similarly, the Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis programme that has promoted the teaching as inquiry model has equity concerns at its heart. The programme seeks to address trend data that have shown relatively poor system performance for Māori and Pasifika learners (Ministry of Education, 2004). The programme positions difference as salient, putting it at the centre of a knowledge-building strategy, and works through a responsiveness-to-diversity framework (Timperley & Alton-Lee, 2008). The model provides a tool for such responsiveness, and in this way resonates with the historical roots of practitioner inquiry in critical social action.

Features of practitioner inquiry

Several of the uniting, though not identical, features of various forms of practitioner inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) are also emphasised in teaching as inquiry. First, and most obvious, is the notion of teachers engaged simultaneously in practice and in research, generating knowledge in and for their own contexts. In this sense, the model rejects the knowledge, science and methods critiques commonly raised in relation to practitioner inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Methods for gathering and analysing data that are privileged in teaching as inquiry are those most suited to addressing educational priorities determined by teachers in their own contexts. Judgements by practitioners about trustworthiness and usefulness, for example, are treated as more appropriate than academic criteria for validity and generalizability.

Secondly, teaching as inquiry is focused on and carried out in practitioners’ own contexts. It emphasises attention to important outcomes there alongside outcomes deemed important at a system level. Its attention to evidence from practitioners’ experience alongside formal research evidence, also signals the role of collaboration within contexts.

At this point, we turn from consideration of the origins of teaching as inquiry to matters of implementation and discuss insights about the way in which educators responded to the model in practice.

Teaching as inquiry: Implementation

The new emphasis on teaching as inquiry in the revised NZC made it imperative that it be included as a focus in the Monitoring and Evaluating Curriculum Implementation (MECI) project funded by the Ministry of Education and carried out during 2008 and 2009 (Sinnema, 2011). Th e project’s aim was to determine progress made in the fi rst two years of implementation of the NZC and identify factors that explain the extent of progress. The evaluation used a mixed-methods approach and involved surveys of educators (both school leaders and teachers) in random stratifi ed samples of schools (see Table 1), complemented by a series of 26 focus groups involving 247 participants from across a range of school types and roles. Ethical approval for the project was granted by the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee.

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Methods: Teaching as inquiry in the MECI evaluation

Items about teaching as inquiry were included, inter alia, in all of the MECI project methods. In the 2008 web survey participants were asked to indicate how accurate they thought statements relating to various curriculum aspects, including teaching as inquiry, were. The statement was: “The ‘Teaching as Inquiry’ model of effective pedagogy in the NZC suggests that teachers should use evidence to inquire into possible strategies to try.” Response possibilities included: entirely accurate; entirely inaccurate; partially inaccurate; incomplete in a critical way; or do not know. Responses were analysed to determine the degree of match between the respondents’ and experts’ perceptions of the statement accuracy. In the 2009 web survey, respondents were invited to respond to an open-ended projective device question, which asked them to complete the sentence: “Teaching as inquiry in the NZC requires teachers to ….”. Responses were qualitatively coded, then quantified to determine the frequency of responses that revealed confusion between teaching as inquiry and inquiry learning.

In the paper surveys (2008 and 2009) five items were included in the practice section of the questionnaire about teaching as inquiry (see Appendix 1). Respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which the items were evident in their practice. Descriptors focused on the emphasis given, or extent to which particular practices were evident, but also combined an element of commitment in terms of how much those elements mattered or were considered important.

A factor analysis of all 23 items about NZC-related practices showed the five teaching as inquiry items to function as a single factor (α=0.75), measuring the extent to which an inquiry-oriented approach is taken—being responsive to evidence about students’ needs, abilities and response to teaching; drawing on both colleagues’ experience and published research to inform changes to practice; and collecting and analysing data about student response to teaching. Descriptive statistics were calculated for the individual items, and comparisons made between the responses to the teaching as inquiry factor between 2008 and 2009. In the 2009 paper survey, an item about participants’ engagement with any Best Evidence Synthesis was also included, as an indicator of engagement with research relevant to the teaching inquiry.

There are, of course, limitations in the extent to which a survey tool of this sort can indicate the depth, quality and nature of practitioners’ approach to teaching as inquiry. Those objectives are best met by other methods that allow deeper consideration of context, conditions and explanation. However, other questions about practitioners’ response to teaching as inquiry in the curriculum were effectively addressed through the survey method. In particular were questions about the extent to which various key behaviours associated with teaching as inquiry were evident in teachers’ practice, and the extent to which those behaviours were evident across a representative national sample of respondents.

Findings and discussion: Implementation of teaching as inquiry

The following section outlines key findings about the implementation of teaching as inquiry in the first two years following the introduction of the curriculum. On a positive note, this aspect of the curriculum was well received by educators. There were, however, a number of issues relating to confusion with inquiry learning, lack of attention to data and research, and overall limited shifts between 2008 and 2009 in the extent to which inquiry practices were evident.

Positive response

Responses from focus group participants indicated that educators from across the system were strongly receptive to the teaching as inquiry model. Overwhelmingly, comments were enthusiastic and matched the high regard overall for the curriculum. Many indicated that it was a valuable addition to the NZC particularly since the increased flexibility had brought with it increased uncertainty about where to begin with implementation. The cyclic, but non-prescribed nature of the model was well received because it provides “a way in” that also takes account of teachers’ professionalism and capability. School leaders, in particular, suggested that having a model of pedagogy supported their role in leading curriculum improvement in a way that includes the diversity of learners, teachers, and learning areas. Teachers, especially, appreciated the emphasis on inquiry focused on their own students’ needs and abilities and noted that the model helped them connect curriculum requirements to recent emphases in the education sector on formative assessment. Despite the predominantly positive response, a number of issues were apparent which present challenges.

Confusion between teachers’ and learners’ inquiries

The term “teaching as inquiry”’ was often taken as synonymous with inquiry learning. Comments about teaching as inquiry such as “we have used inquiry learning for many years … I feel the new curriculum fully supports this form of learning” highlight the confusion. Interestingly, this misconception was apparent in responses both from those who favour inquiry learning, like the participant quoted above, and also those who were more sceptical. Another participant, for example, explained “I have concerns about putting all of our pedagogical eggs in the inquiry learning basket—yes, it has a lot of strengths but it is not a universal panacea”. While those two responses differ in their view of inquiry learning, they share confusion that the NZC suggests it as a preferred approach.

Even in 2009, two years after the introduction of the NZC, confusion was still evident over these two concepts. Respondents were asked to complete the sentence: “Teaching as inquiry in the NZC requires teachers to…”. Thirty-three percent of the 513 responses suggested confusion between teaching as inquiry and inquiry learning. For example, the response that teaching as inquiry requires teachers to “encourage students to ask questions and seek the answers themselves” suggests a misunderstanding that teaching as inquiry is prescribing inquiry learning whereby students learn by investigating and exploring topics of interest.

There are two important points about this confusion. First, inquiry learning, and other similar approaches (discovery, problem-based or experiential learning) described by Kirshner, Sweller and Clark (2006) as “minimally guided” is an approach in which students are inquiring—learning about learning, investigation and research as they explore topics of interest without direct instruction from the teacher. Teaching as inquiry, on the other hand, emphasises teachers’ inquiring—making decisions about what matters most to focus on, considering approaches that are most likely to be successful, and examining the impact on students’ learning. Indeed, inquiry learning may be one possibility that teachers inquire into and consider as they carry out their teaching inquiry. But inquiry learning is by no means a required approach, and not even a generally recommended one, since it may not be the most effective in some situations. The teaching inquiry phase of teaching as inquiry (and in particular the aspect of this phase that involves engaging with research evidence) might lead teachers, in certain circumstances, to prioritise what is considered by some to be the opposite of inquiry learning—direct instruction. Second, as Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) point out, there is convincing evidence from rigorous, experimental design studies that support direct instruction (for example, see Moreno, 2004; Tuovinen & Sweller, 1999) in certain contexts and that warn of science students’ misconceptions, frustration and confusion resulting from a pure-discovery approach (A. Brown & Campione, 1994; Hardiman, Pollatsek, & Well, 1986). Kirschner et al. also point to compelling findings that greater depth (Moreno, 2004) and greater quality and quantity of learning (Klahr & Nigam, 2004)—including increased likelihood of learning being transferred to new contexts—result from direct instruction in science compared to pure discovery. The evidence opposing the use of minimally guided approaches (such as inquiry learning) in particular circumstances makes the prevalence of confusion between teaching as inquiry and inquiry learning an important problem to address.

The absence of engagement with data and research

Just over a third of respondents indicated a strong emphasis in their practice on engaging with evidence about their students to determine priorities for their learning (see Table 2). There were marked differences, however, in what teachers indicated were informants of their decisions about approaches to try in order to meet those priorities. While approximately one third of respondents in both years indicated that they consistently drew on the experience of colleagues to inform possible changes, far fewer (less than one fifth in both years) indicated the same degree of engagement with published research.

This suggests that the issue of a research–practice gap (Broekkamp & van Hout-Wolters, 2007; Gersten & Smith-Johnson, 2001; Greenwood & Abbott, 2001; Greenwood & Mabeady, 2001; Groth & Bergner, 2007; Vanderlinde & van Braak, 2009) is at play in the context of curriculum implementation.

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There were, though, indications that particular kinds of research, such as the best evidence syntheses series, were useful. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of the teacher respondents in 2009 reported engaging with a best evidence synthesis (BES) at least once to support their implementation of the curriculum. Those in leadership roles had referred to a BES more frequently than teachers. Slightly more than half of the principal respondents (51 percent) and other leadership team members (58 percent) had used a BES more than three times. Overall, however, the tendency was for a lack of attention to research. That gap was also reported by the Education Review Office (2011) who found that “Few schools used research findings as the basis of their decision-making about provision for students. Teachers typically selected future teaching strategies from an existing repertoire of their own and colleagues’ practice” (p. 29).

We propose two reasons for the relatively limited engagement with research in the context of inquiry. The first is that teachers simply did not yet understand the necessity to use research in their inquiry. Responses to the 2008 web survey item in which respondents were asked to indicate the accuracy of a statement about teaching as inquiry support that proposition. Seventy-seven percent of principals and 54 percent of teachers responded in ways that differed to the response of a curriculum expert. Furthermore, 12 percent of principals and 31 percent of teachers indicated that they did not know how accurate the statement was. Understandably, given the timing of this evaluation in the early stages of implementation, there was significant uncertainty about this new aspect of the curriculum. Practice differing from policy intentions is by no means uncommon in policy implementation. Even well-intentioned practitioners are influenced by expectations embedded in their existing schema and over-assimilate reform ideas as similar to their existing ideas (Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002). If existing ideas about teaching inquiry relate primarily to drawing on practitioner experience, then the move to engage with research is a challenging one.

The second explanation for the lack of engagement with research involves the research– practice gap. This explanation arises from findings that show that even teachers who do recognise the call to engage with research do not necessarily do so. The gap problem involves what Broekkamp and van Hout-Wolters (2007) describe as problems with the research itself. Their review of the literature suggests that practitioners believe educational research is not conclusive or practical. This is despite arguments spanning several decades for the intentional use of empirical findings to improve teaching (Gage, 1978).

More than a third of respondents also indicated that modifying their practices as a result of their learning about students’ response to their teaching was strongly evident in their work (Table 2). It would seem, however, that such learning is unlikely to be based on rigorous analysis of student learning data, since in both years less than a quarter indicated strong emphasis on systematically collecting and analysing data as a means of understanding how students had responded to their teaching. Similar issues were reported by Parr and Timperley (2008) and Brown (2008). Parr and Timperley found that educators were not necessarily well-prepared to engage in assessment of the kind required by policy, did not often collect evidence adequate for evaluating classroom initiatives, and often lacked the necessary skills to do so. Similarly, Brown describes widespread research findings that indicate “the vast majority of teachers, principals, and administrators have limited understandings of the more technical qualities of assessment information … whether it be derived from their own assessments of students, from external standardized test marks, or from their own in-class performance assessments” (p. 286).

The limited progress in implementing teaching as inquiry practices

While teaching as inquiry was well-regarded from the outset, like other elements of the curriculum there were only limited shifts in practice between 2008 (M = 1.98, SD = 0.54) and 2009 (M = 2.01, SD = 0.52) on the teaching as inquiry factor. While the difference between 2008 and 2009 was statistically significant, the magnitude of the difference was very small, (t(4262) = -2.15, p < .05, d=0.07). Only very slight shifts are indicated in Table 2 which shows that only one or two percent more of the respondents were strongly embedding teaching as inquiry practices at the second time point. The limited shift in practice is not a unique or unexpected finding. Challenges have been evident in efforts to implement curriculum innovations over many decades (Fullan, 2008; Fullan & Pomfret, 1977; Goodlad & Klein, 1974; Levin, 2008; van den Akker & Verloop, 1994). While curriculum changes will inevitably take time to be reflected in practice, the limited progress in the first phase of NZC implementation makes teaching as inquiry an important focus for future implementation efforts.

Implications for professional practice in educational settings

The three issues highlighted above have important implications for those working in educational settings. The first issue—confusion between inquiry learning and teaching as inquiry—requires the distinction between two seemingly similar approaches to be made explicit for teachers. Such explicitness is important since, as Spillane (2004) suggests, it is tempting when encountering new initiatives to over-assimilate and not recognize how new requirements differ from existing practice. Misconception alerts (Wiggins & McTigue, 1998) such as those outlined in the SSTAIBES (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008, pp. 320–322) provide a potentially useful way of making the distinction. The authors set out clear statements of what teaching as inquiry is, and also what it is not. They clarify, for example, that while teaching as inquiry involves educators engaging with research findings, they should not simply implement research findings as if they are instructions or recipes to follow. Rather, research findings should be used as informants of possible change. Furthermore, any changes made should be carefully and systematically monitored for their impact in the immediate classroom context. The misconception alerts also make clear that, while teaching as inquiry promotes the notion of teachers reading and using research, this does not mean that teachers’ own experience is not a useful informant of pedagogy—it is, but it is not the only source of possibilities. Both research and teachers’ experience are useful—teachers’ experiences are useful since they are richly contextualized and immediately accessible, and research offers access to new possibilities and makes claims based on rigorous, transparent methods.

As well as a need for clarity over meanings of similar terms, there is a need to focus on theory engagement in professional learning about teaching as inquiry. As Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd (2008) describe, theories of action are powerful because they explain teachers’ actions and act as filters through which change messages are interpreted. Changing understandings about what teaching as inquiry is, and how it might be carried out, requires high-quality support that engages teachers’ existing theories about it.

The final two issues—lack of engagement with research and data, and lack of progress in strengthening teaching as inquiry in the first two years of NZC implementation—could be addressed through strategies linked to existing school processes. Three possible strategies are: 1) embedding teaching as inquiry into the approach to appraisal; 2) emphasising capabilities that are crucial for high-quality inquiries in professional learning; and 3) prioritising the underpinning attitudes of teaching as inquiry in the recruitment and selection of teachers.

Embedding teaching as inquiry in teacher appraisal

Teaching as inquiry is not necessarily a discrete process. Rather, it can be embedded in existing processes such as performance appraisal. An approach to appraisal that focuses on “appraisal for learning” (Sinnema, 2005) rather than “appraisal for compliance” is strongly coherent with teaching as inquiry. Appraisal for learning emphasises the need to ground appraisal processes in priorities for student learning, to inquire rigorously into the relationship between teaching and learning, to gather and engage with data, and to treat appraisal as a serious opportunity for the improvement of practice (Sinnema, 2005; Sinnema & Robinson, 2007).

Required components of appraisal processes such as classroom observation and discussion provide ideal contexts in which to carry out focusing, teaching or learning inquiries. Observations, for example, could be treated as opportunities to gather data about a teacher’s practice and about their students’ experience and achievement in relation to that practice. The appraiser and appraisee’s shared experience of the context in which the data were gathered would provide a useful basis for rigorous discussion about the implications. Rather than taking a purely descriptive or evaluative focus, subsequent discussions could involve joint inquiry into the relationship between the teacher’s approach and what happened for their students. The discussion could also involve engagement with research evidence to both help explain what happened, and to inform decisions about next steps.

Emphasising capabilities crucial to high quality inquiries in professional learning

A further implication of the findings reported here is the need to consider the focus of professional learning opportunities for teachers and school leaders. First, there is a need to strengthen educators’ capabilities in using assessment evidence from their own contexts. As Parr and Timperley (2008) suggest, “practitioners need to have the skill to draw inferences from the data, and need to understand what it shows”. They go on to emphasise the critical additional element of knowledge practitioners need about how to “apply the information gained from interpreting the data to classroom instructional practice” (p. 69). This task is a complex one, particularly given the broad-ranging outcomes of the NZC. If teachers are to inquire effectively into the broad-ranging desired outcomes set out the curriculum, they will need to be responsive to information about learning, not only in literacy, numeracy and the content of learning areas, but also on other important curricular outcomes. Second, there is a need to strengthen educators’ capabilities in using evidence from formal research. This requires attention in professional learning to supporting teachers to locate, critique and interpret research relevant to the teaching and learning priorities in their own context.

Emphasising capabilities about engaging with research in teaching as inquiry is also important in the wider educational context. The Education Review Office report (2011) indicates the importance of teachers engaging with research, and the limited extent to which they saw teachers doing so in schools. However, the review office’s own lists of the practices evident in schools they claimed were using inquiry well excluded mention of engagement with research. Furthermore, their recommendations for next steps did not include any suggestions relating to research. Expectations for teachers to engage with research must be accompanied by school and system conditions that support and enable them to do so.

Prioritising underpinning attitudes in the recruitment and selection of teachers

Promoting and developing the attitudes described earlier are key to continued efforts to embed teaching as inquiry in teaching and learning. Because the attitudes are likely to be more difficult to acquire than other knowledge and skills of inquiry, they are important to be prioritised in the recruitment and selection of teachers. This involves attention to prospective teachers’ receptivity, or as the metaphor used by de Botton (2002) suggests, to their “travelling mind-set” — a mind-set characterised by being intrigued by the small details of a place that locals might not notice, being prepared to dwell at length at things others might pass by, and being open to the new and different ways of doing things in different places. Such receptivity in a classroom context is crucial to the improvement of teaching and learning. A travelling mind-set, de Botton suggests, contrasts the mind-set of home, where one might be more settled, assured, habituated and blind. Such a mind-set, along with attitudes of open-mindedness, fallibility and persistence, are key to teaching as inquiry.

Conclusion

The widespread positive response to the teaching as inquiry model indicates that continued efforts to strengthen the model are both timely and feasible. The quality of teachers’ inquiries, the extent to which professional learning activities embed the principles of teaching as inquiry, and the degree to which school and wider contexts promote and support high-quality inquiry, are all critical. In the first instance, high-quality teaching as inquiry can change the trajectory of learning for teachers, but ultimately it can influence the trajectory of learning for young people, and enable the aspirations of the NZC to be realised.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Teaching as inquiry items in the Monitoring and Evaluating Curriculum Implementation study paper survey

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