I returned from the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) conference with a renewed sense of commitment to the notion of “inquiry as stance” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) as theoretical and practical guide for professional learning. For the past two years, I have been working in a community of inquiry with art and music teachers. Together we question our own practice, share students’ insights, grapple with the meaning of ideas, and explore ways that we each envision our classrooms to better support artistic freedoms for students.
At ISTE, a colleague and I attended a presentation called, “Digital Learning Community: Case Study in Networked Professional Learning.” The presenters offered several good ideas for those who design and support professional learning communities for teachers who are setting their own learning goals. They spoke about how their Digital Learning Community (DLC) program as fastened to an Inquiry as Stance (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) approach to professional learning. I briefly summarize two key ideas from their presentation that stand out as especially important to me as a facilitator of collaborative inquiry. Later, I share a summary of chapter 5 in the book, Inquiry as Stance, which the ISTE presenters cited as their key text in visioning and supporting DLCs.
Key Idea #1 Develop a structured process by which teachers can exercise the freedom to think creatively.
Leaders, project developers, and funders who are aiming to support creative, open-ended explorations of teacher collaborative inquiry should aim to provide a solid structure for this work to occur. This is not to say that collaborative inquiry groups should be given directed assignments or be asked to learn or implement best practices. Rather, teachers should be given the freedom set their own goals, and develop a line of inquiry that fits the unique and particular interests and needs of members of the group. According to the DLC presenters, a framework is needed for this kind of messy, free, creative inquiry work to occur. For example, a structure might require that teachers post periodically and with due dates to a wiki or blog space. Or, set up a series of check-points, surveys, feedback, or other structures that give teachers the confidence that their work is focused in the “right” directions, and they are not “off-task.” The DLC leaders found that this structure gave teachers the freedom to think creatively about their inquiry and contributed to a sense of accomplishment.
This key idea gave me a lot to think about as we plan another year of inquiry together. What are the structures in place that help teachers to feel this sense of accomplishment the DLC leaders speak of? What kinds of structure limit creative freedoms in inquiry and what structures support and promote collaborative inquiry? How can we provide this structure without dictating the themes of inquiry that teachers elect to undertake?
I view the notion of a structured process for inquiry as different from providing the inquiry theme itself. This important distinction could be the difference between a typical novice/expert workshop based professional development class and a collaborative of inquiry model for ongoing professional learning in which teachers are inquiring into ideas and questions that they find to be urgent in their local teaching and learning contexts.
Key idea #2 Evaluate the effectiveness of a professional learning program where the goal is to develop an “inquiry as stance” approach to teaching and learning
The DLC evaluators administered a survey periodically throughout the year. They also observed the conversations that occurred in the group meetings. The survey was constructed of a variety of questions types, mostly multiple choice designed to help teachers self report their learning. The survey data was reported as quantitative data the changed over time. The survey helped teachers indicate 1) What they thought they were learning and 2) Their attitude about what they were learning. The observations helped to determine if the survey data was trustworthy. Evaluators listened to the conversations happening among teachers and learned that they were often teaching themselves the technology needed to accomplish the goals the group set for themselves. This collaborative learning meant that teachers were not only learning new tech skills, but more importantly they were practicing collaborative learning and inquiry-based learning that would hopefully allow them to continue to learn in this way in future. This is a different format that the tech tool workshop in which an expert teaches you everything there is to know about a particular tech tool.
One of the audience members in this ISTE presentation made the comment: “But teachers don’t know what they don’t know. How are you [project leaders] seeing to it that teachers learn the skills and content important to proficiency in digital technology.” The presenter kindly returned to the inquiry as stance framework. Teachers are the experts about their own practice. They seek the tools and information they need to reach their own learning goals and to assist members of the group in collaborative learning. A person fluent in the inquiry as stance view would hesitate to pose a question that positions teachers in a deficit of knowledge. Rather, and inquiry as stance approach is one that values the local knowledge of practitioners as they inquire about and critique the interplay of teaching and learning in their own contexts.
The DLC project leaders and evaluators frequently referred to Inquiry As Stance as the theory that supports the design and evaluation of the professional learning communities. I read parts of this book in 2010 as I was writing my dissertation proposal. I returned to chapter 5 this week to think again about the relationships between inquiry as stance and the design of professional learning in collaborative inquiry groups. The following is a summary of the 4 dimensions of Cochran-Smith & Lytle’s (2009) notion of inquiry as stance as it applies to professional learning communities.
4 Dimensions of Inquiry As Stance (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009)
1) Local Knowledge
Teachers learn by constructing knowledge of experience with daily life in schools. This local knowledge is connected to a global context. “Constructing local knowledge is understood to be a practice of building, interrogating, elaborating, and critiquing conceptual frameworks that link action and problem-posing to immediate contexts” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009, p. 131).
2) Practice as interplay of teaching and learning
Teaching and learning is “continuous reinvention” (p. 134). Practice is not limited to just the practical but is a theory in action. Practice is about “inventing and reinventing frameworks for imagining, enacting, and assessing daily work in educational settings” (p. 134). Teachers engaged in inquiry as stance are not learning from the expert as novices waiting implement best practices. Instead, they are positioned as knowledgable in work that serves to “deliberate problems of practice” (p. 144).
3) Communities as catalyst
For Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2009) communities of learning are the “primary medium or mechanism for enacting the theory of action” that is, inquiry as stance. The focus of the inquiry as stance community is more broad than analyzing test scores or efforts to understand and implement best practices presented in texts written by “experts”. Rather, teachers “work together to uncover, articulate, and question their own assumptions about teaching, learning, and schooling… [They] pose problems of practice that require studying their own students, classroom, schools, programs (p. 141).
4) Toward a democratic end
The authors see the democratic end not as a separate fourth dimension but as an all-encompassing idea. The goal of practitioner inquiry is to enhance students’ learning and their opportunities for life. The potential outcomes of inquiry as stance is for learning and learning agents to be radically changed; and for practitioners to seek new directions, purposes, and aims toward the improvement and critique of learning.
Thanks to the DLC leaders who presented at ISTE for the gentle reminder about how important it is for leaders in professional learning to develop structures with practitioners that serve to empower inquiry in community to study, critique, and re-vision teaching and learning contexts.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.