An investigation into teacher inquiry methodology in teacher education

The objective of this project was to learn how teacher inquiry is understood and taken up by in-service teachers, and how engaging in teacher inquiry might move teachers towards professional transformation.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Margaret MacDonald
Co-Investigator: Dr. Cher Hill
Funding Agency: Teaching & Learning Development Grant

What's Proposed

This project examined teacher inquiry projects implemented by practicing teachers in our graduate-level education programs. Teacher inquiry is the intentional and disciplined study of one’s own practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; 1999; 2007). Through spirals of inquiry (Halbert & Kaser, 2013), critical reflection (Brookfield, 1995; Greene, 1978), and community engagement (Noddings, 2012; Wheatley, 2009), teachers develop their capacities to act in responsive, ethical, and creative ways, to theorize their own practice, and to cultivate change (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2007). The objective of this project was to learn how teacher inquiry is understood and taken up by in-service teachers, and how engaging in teacher inquiry might move teachers towards professional transformation.

How This Project is Carried Out

This mixed-methods research involved an analysis of student-work samples (end of term portfolios), focus group interviews with students and instructors, as well as a survey administered to 80% of our student population.

Why This Project Matters

Teacher inquiry is considered highly effective in generating positive changes in teaching and learning, but few studies exist to confirm this perception, and those investigations typically focus on the experiences of pre-service teachers.  Our study examined in-service teachers’ understandings and implementations of teacher-inquiry.

Through our analysis of portfolio data we found that teachers’ framing of inquiry questions and research methods produced diverse conceptualizations of teacher inquiry (Hill & McDonald, 2012). Teacher inquiry can be understood as variations along an imaginary continuum ranging from a subjective to objective ontological positioning. At one end of the continuum teachers were focused primarily on self as the unit of analysis and adopted an ‘auto-biographical’ focus to interrogate their practice. Their written work while highly reflective, included limited consideration of the interactions they had with others.  At the opposite end of this subjective-objective continuum, we found that some teachers interrogated their practice by focusing almost exclusively on ‘student performance and evaluation’ using a ‘document centred approach’ with little consideration of their own relationships to their students or their inquiry topic. We locate teacher inquiry in the area surrounding the centre of the continuum in which teachers assume a subjective-objective ontology (Heron & Reason, 1997) and are mindful of both inner and outer events in developing their practice.

As our students moved through our program they reported an increase in the intentional, formalized study of practice, reflection, experimentation, as well as collaboration with students, parents, and/or colleagues. Engaging in teacher-inquiry enabled many teachers to act as 'pedagogical bricoleurs' and adapt their pedagogy based on the specific needs of their contexts (MacDonald & Hill, 2012). While the transformation of practice has been our primary educational goal, we found that articulating and affirming one’s beliefs was particularly valuable for our teachers and created conditions that enabled them to take action and create change.

How This Project is Put into Action

The analysis of the portfolios revealed that few teachers engaged in an authentic shared inquiry with their students, and instead undertook parallel or intersecting inquires (MacDonald & Hill, 2012). Upon further analysis, we found this element of inquiry lacking in our own classrooms and engaged in a self-study to better develop and understand, as well as model this aspect of our own practice. Although not all of our efforts were successful, we learned about the ways in which our roles and relationships with our students, as well as differences in research interests constrained our ability to engage in authentic shared inquiry with our students (MacDonald, Hill, Donovan, Howarth, & Irvine, 2013).

Wenger (1998) points out that in order to create successful communities of practice, it is not enough for people to simply learn about or observe communities of practice. It is widely accepted that some of the most powerful professional learning occurs when individuals become part of an inquiry driven learning community. This is how we felt that our research influenced our teaching practice. In becoming engaged with research in the program area we connected deeply with the student learning and realized how our pedagogical practices were shaping our students.

Where to Learn More

Project References:

Hill, C. & MacDonald, M., (2013). Principles and practices of teacher-inquiry: Towards an empirically generated method/ology.” Roundtable Paper presented at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, June 1- 5, 2013, Victoria, B.C.

MacDonald, M., Hill, C., Donovan, L., Howarth, P., & Irvine, M. (2013).

Actualizing Co-Inquiry: Theory and Practice. Paper presented at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, June 1- 5, 2013, Victoria, B.C.

MacDonald, M., & Hill, C. (2012). Teacher Inquiry and Reflective Practice in Primary Teacher In-Service Teacher Education. Roundtable Paper presented at the American Education Research Association, Annual General Meeting, April 13-17, 2012, Vancouver, BC.

Reports submitted to the Teaching & Learning Development Grant Site can be viewed here: http://www.sfu.ca/tlgrants/grants/completed-projects/educ/GL0023.html

General References:

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming  a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey­ Bass Publishers.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S.L.  ( 2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research in the next generation. New York:  Teachers College  Press

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in community. In the series, Review of Research in Education, 24, 249-305. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Cochran-Smith & M. Lytle. S. L. (1993). Inside/Outside Teacher Research and Knowledge. New York, New York: Teachers College Press.

Greene, M. (1978).  Landscapes of learning. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.

Halbert, J & Kaser, K. (2013). Spirals of Inquiry: For quality and equity. Vancouver: BC Principals and Vice Principals’ Association.

Heron, J. & Reason, P. ( 1997). A participatory inquiry paradigm. Qualitative Inquiry, 3 (3)274-294.

Hill, C. & MacDonald, M., (2013). Principles and practices of teacher-inquiry: Towards an empirically generated method/ology.” Roundtable Paper presented at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, June 1- 5, 2013, Victoria, B.C.

MacDonald, M., & Hill, C. (2012). Teacher Inquiry and Reflective Practice in Primary Teacher In-Service Teacher Education. Roundtable Paper presented at the American Education Research Association, Annual General Meeting, April 13-17, 2012, Vancouver, BC.

MacDonald, M., Hill, C., Donovan, L., Howarth, P., & Irvine, M. (2013).

Actualizing Co-Inquiry: Theory and Practice. Paper presented at the      Canadian Society for the Study of Education, June 1- 5, 2013, Victoria, B.C.

Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education 38 (6), p. 771–781.

Wheatley, M. (2009). Turning to one another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers