What is a professional inquiry and how can a professional inquiry help to improve teaching practice in order to positively impact student learning?
These are the questions that I will explore in this blog post using my own professional inquiry as an example. Before getting into the specific details of my own professional inquiry, I feel it is important to share some background information to help provide more context for this blog post and the direction I am hoping to go with my own professional learning related to my teaching practice this school year.
The pandemic has reshaped and upended education as we know it and has led to a dramatic change in the way that schools have structured teaching and learning over the past year. Almost every school around the world has been impacted by COVID and our school here in Saudi Arabia, The KAUST School, has had its own share of obstacles and challenges to overcome in order to keep learning alive and on track.
Although my main role at The KAUST School over the past 5 years has been to work with teachers to help them deliver the best learning possible for their students, due to COVID, I’ve had the opportunity to jump back into teaching for the first time in quite a while. It’s been a rewarding experience to be teaching PE again after so many years which has helped to give me deeper insight into my leadership role as a pedagogical coordinator.
Everyone in our school, regardless of position, must choose a professional inquiry that will guide their own learning and growth throughout the year. It is called the Professional Learning and Performance Framework (The PLP) and the philosophy behind the PLP is to cultivate a culture of collaborative inquiry that encourages staff to be courageously bold in their pursuit of professional excellence. As the school states:
“We believe it is our responsibility to learn with and from others, as well as contribute to the growth of others. Through honest reflection, feedback, and analysis together with colleagues, staff are engaged in an appraisal process that promotes lasting change that positively impacts student learning.”
Staff are accountable to themselves, their students, their colleagues, and the administration to fully engage in this process and leverage opportunities to thrive and support the school in becoming a global leader in education.
As a pedagogical leader, I have a professional inquiry that is focused on how I can make my work with teachers as relevant as possible in order to help them maximize the impact they have on student learning. However, as a teacher this year, I feel it is also important to have my own professional inquiry. From the start of the year, I’ve been very curious about how I might create the conditions for each of my learners to flourish in their own unique ways. This has led to me thinking more deeply about the structures and routines I utilize in my PE classes and how I can free myself up during my lessons to work more closely with students, on a one-to-one basis, in order to provide them with the timely feedback needed to help them make progress with their own learning.
Over the past several years, I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with a team of researchers, including Dr. Tim Fletcher, Dr. Doug Gleddie, and Dr. Deirdre NiCronin, who have been responsible for developing the Meaningful PE framework. This framework for teaching physical education has really resonated with me over the years and has led to me being very curious about how I might deliver my own teaching in a way that allows each of my students to find their own entry points to learning in the units being taught. It is my belief that if I can help my students find their own entry point to learning, they will not only be more engaged, but will develop the intrinsic motivation needed to keep practicing and making progress with their skills, therefore motor competence is a by-product of creating these conditions for student learning.
I've written extensively in the past about the cycling unit that we have run at The KAUST School in Saudi Arabia and my previous blog post shed some light on the unit itself, my hopes for the unit, and how I was trying to align my assessments with the big ideas/concepts being explored in the unit. This is always a special unit to teach as cycling is a big part of our community context here at KAUST. Our goal as a PE team was to inspire our students to find a joy and love of cycling that would continue long after the unit. Our hope is that the students take action to ride their bicycles more in our community in multiple different contexts when not in PE.
In order to create the conditions for kids to find joy and meaning in our cycling unit, it was imperative to think about the 5 features of the Meaningful PE framework. Although all 5 features are equally important, I specifically focused on the features of Challenge and Personal Relevance in this unit. I felt that if I could get these features right, the kids would experience joy, they would interact with their peers in the process, and motor competence would take care of itself as they were accessing 'just right' challenges that were suited to them and their needs/abilities.
Over the course of the 9-week unit, I felt as though the unit stayed on track and that the students not only enjoyed themselves, but also made quite a bit of progress in regards to their cycling skills. Although I observed lots of smiles and could see the students getting better each lesson, I could not base what I thought was the truth about these observations on a hunch. All too often, I've heard PE teachers say things such as, "My students loved that game." or "My students had a blast in our unit, they couldn't get enough of it." I have fallen prey myself to making large scale assumptions about my teaching and about my lessons/units thinking that 'all' kids loved it or that 'all' kids were engaged in their learning.
Our professional inquiry process here at KAUST requires teachers to have different data points about their teaching in order to collect the information needed to truly make informed decisions about the direction of their teaching with the ultimate goal being to positively impact student learning. As mentioned earlier, 'collaboration' is a very important element of the professional inquiry process. There are three times a year that teachers must meet up with someone from senior leadership to have open and honest dialogue about teaching practice with a specific focus on their professional inquiry. There is the 'beginning of the year' chat, a 'mid-year' chat and finally the 'end of year' chat. As teachers move through the inquiry process, with each passing month, they have the autonomy to take their inquiry in whatever direction they feel is best, but again, this is not based on a hunch, but much more so on 'student data' and how the data can be used to inform the next steps in their professional inquiry.
In addition to meeting with senior leadership, they also meet with their pedagogical coordinator, as well colleagues across the school, to discuss their learning journey, to receive and give critical feedback/suggestions, and to help deepen their learning by seeing what others are doing.
In regards to my own professional inquiry, I enlisted the support of my friend and colleague Zack Smith. Zack is an outstanding early years educator who has also focused on applying the Meaningful PE framework in his teaching. Due to COVID restrictions and major changes in teaching and learning in kindergarten, Zack has moved into the role of being in charge of distance learning for students in kindergarten who cannot attend face-to-face classes. Although Zack's role has changed this year, he is still involved in team planning with the early years PE team and still collaborates with us on a regular basis. I thought Zack would be perfect to help me decide on some student voice questions that he could use for quick interviews with students across the classes I teach in elementary PE.
Zack and I came up with three simple questions that he would ask my students. We decided that he would randomly select three boys and three girls from each class to interview. The three questions were:
Professional inquiries are all about the unknown. A genuine inquiry is not about having the answers or knowing exactly where this professional learning journey will take you. It's about being curious about your own practice and knowing what it is you are hoping to find out more about. As stated above, my professional inquiry was about:
'Thinking more deeply about the structures and routines I utilize in my PE classes and how I can free myself up during my lessons to work more closely with students, on a one-to-one basis, in order to provide them with the timely feedback needed to help them make progress with their own learning'
At the heart of this inquiry is creating autonomous learners who feel that they have choice and that I can provide them with the feedback needed to help them make progress with with the skills necessary to become more competent cyclists. Therefore, the three questions that Zack and I designed were a very good starting point to find out more information about student learning in my classes.
As a teacher who cares deeply about students and their learning, I obviously wanted them to know I was here to help them and that they had multiple choices and entry points into their learning, so this is what I was most interested in knowing more about. For the sake of clarity, Zack used a simple number system when collecting student voice. A number 1 meant 'very little', a number 2 meant 'some' and a number 3 meant 'a lot'.
As always, the professional inquiry process can be full of surprises! In my own case, the initial data was a bit surprising. I had to take a step back and stay open and curious to what the data might be telling me. I had to remind myself that collecting student voice is all about looking at the data with non-judgement and to turn off any emotions associated to the data itself. Even after teaching for so long, it can still be difficult to turn off our emotions. I've included some of the student voice below to give you some real examples of what it looked like.
Next Steps in My Inquiry
To clarify a few of my own thoughts is important here. For me, it's definitely not that I want my students to be dependent on me for help. I'm all about created autonomous, self-directed learners in my program, however, I do want them to know that I'm always here for them when and if they need help and support with their learning.
The fact that a number of kids felt that they hadn't made '3-a lot of progress' was a bit of a concern to me as my observations throughout the unit led me to believe that they had all made quite a bit of progress with their learning. I thought that it was obvious that they had, but the data showed me that a number of them didn't feel that they made '3-a lot' of progress, but rather '2-some'. What might this mean? How might I better explore this question and their answers in moving forward with my practice? These are some curiosities I now have about the first question. I don't have the answers yet, but will continue to think my way through this and take actionable steps to address it. The one thing I need to consider is how I am challenging the highly competent cyclists in class so that they feel that they can keep getting better.
The next thing was to look at question 2. As stated, my hope was that my students felt that they could come to me for help and that I was always here to support them. This is why I chose to structure my lessons throughout the unit in a specific way to free myself up to be available for more one-to-one/small group support. I felt that I had done this well in my teaching, but the data showed that a number of students felt that I helped them '2-some of the time'. So, what might this mean? As I reflected on the data related to the second question, I thought to myself, why might they feel that I only helped them some of the time or in other cases '1-very little'? I didn't have the answers initially, but through conversation with Zack, we came to a few potential breakthroughs:
A) Perhaps I wasn't explicit enough in the language I used with my students. There is a possibility that I didn't explicitly let them know that I was here to help them and that anytime they needed me, they could come to me for support. Rather, I cycled around checking in, giving quick feedback when needed before moving on to the next student. Had I been more explicit in my language about helping them, this might have changed their perception about me being there to better support them. So, in moving forward, I will be aware of the language I use to ensure I am more explicit and specific about the help that I want to offer them when they need it.
B) The second thing we identified was that it may have been a great sign that they felt I only helped them '2-some of the time' or even '1-very little'. As I want my students to find their own entry points to learning and to self-differentiate in order to find flow and to be intrinsically motivated to work on their skills, having the feeling of autonomy and independence is hugely important. The fact that they feel I didn't help them very much might indicate that they were on the right track with their learning and that they didn't require my help that much.
As seen in my previous blog post, the students self-assessed using red, yellow, and green stickers. There were very few reds ever in this unit (red stickers meant that the task they were working on was 'impossible' for them). Had there been a bunch of reds, the students would've needed my help a lot more. There were mostly yellow stickers (making progress but still challenging) and green stickers (fully competent and confident).
C) The third conclusion was that perhaps question 2 was not the best question to ask. A better question Zack could've asked might have been:
To what extent do you feel that you could've gone to Mr. Andy for help and support when you needed it in the cycling unit?
1-I feel I wasn't able to really go to him for help if I needed it.
2-I feel he might have helped me if I needed it.
3-I knew I could always go to him if I needed help.
Choices, Choices, Choices
The third interview question was all about choices and whether or not the students felt as though they had enough choice in the cycling unit. As the data indicated that most students felt that they had some choice in this unit, it really surprised me, as I thought I had emphasized many times that they could work on what they wanted. Every class we cycled around, as a group, to explore different challenges so that they knew the different activities they could try out in order to self-differentiate.
In the second half of the unit, we explored lots of different possibilities. I specifically asked the students to identify the choices that they most wanted to try out the rest of the unit and made a poster to identify what these challenges were. You can see the poster below, as well the self-assessment stickers that were also used:
As Zack and I analyzed the student voice data around 'choices', I felt that a couple of things could be explored including, once again, the explicit use of language. Although I feel I had been abundantly clear that the kids had lots of different choices available to them, the student voice data shows otherwise. Perhaps they felt limited to only the 7 challenges/choices on the posters put up around their outdoor PE space. I thought I had emphasized to them that these were not the only challenges that they were allowed to explore, but that they could be as creative as they want in making up extension challenges. The next steps in regards to my inquiry related to choices are:
1. Use very explicit language about choices, emphasizing the word 'choices' and being more specific that they do indeed have choices, but are not limited to only these choices. Intentional language use around 'choices' will definitely be my focus next unit.
2. Create a visual that shows the choices that they have but create 4-6 blank boxes below the listed choices with the question, 'What other choice can you come up with here?' It might look something like this:
An additional thought I would like to share about professional inquiries is that it is all about the process of learning over time. It's not about a final product or about having that ONE right answer in the end. The idea is that regardless of where a teacher is at in their professional inquiry journey, it is about remaining open and curious about next steps and exploring these next steps with a definite plan in mind while using student data to support. It's about failing and figuring out what may have not gone right and why. And then making the necessary adjustments to our teaching practice. It's not about judgement or being wrong. With continued curiosity and knowing within our heart that the main purpose of a professional inquiry is about having a positive impact on student learning, the journey can be so worthwhile.
My next steps are to implement the changes described above into my teaching in the next couple of units. Just before the end of the year, I will have Zack come back in to gather more student voice to help me know whether or not the changes I've implemented have had a positive impact on student learning in regards to my professional inquiry.
Even after teaching for 20 years, I love this process as it keeps me motivated to get better and to find out more about what I can do to make a difference to my students. My goal remains the same though, to inspire them to find a love of physical activity and to help create meaningful learning experiences that shows my students what is possible. And as Dr. Scott Kretchmar says, 'It is important to guide our students by the hand to the kingdom's doors to show them that there is some really good stuff in there. Trust me, I know what's inside the kingdom and it's my job is to create the conditions for you to find out for yourself.'
Would love to hear from you and how you are addressing professional growth and learning in your program. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. Thanks for reading.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.