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Onerahi School – Teaching as inquiry

“The key thing with curriculum development is that as much as you plan, share models and put labels on things, the real step for that to be effective is to win the hearts and minds of teachers.”

Deputy principal, Richard Jones

At a recent teacher only day Onerahi School staff explored the effective pedagogy section of the document and the model of teaching as inquiry (NZC p35).

Richard Jones.

Deputy principal Richard Jones explains, “We’re also examining a couple of things: one is teacher effectiveness, or teacher impact, and we’re also taking a bit of a snapshot to find out what we understand by inquiry in our school. For two or three years we’ve talked about inquiry learning, so what is the picture of inquiry learning that one teacher has compared to another?

If we value inquiry learning in our school and we want our learners to be inquirers, then as teachers we need to model what that might look like, so we’re going through that as well as the kids. We have an understanding of what’s happening at the classroom level and that will help us unpack what effective teaching is about.

We’re examining our pedagogical principles. We looked at the principles in NZC and asked, what are the pedagogical principles that we hold? We have developed these with the staff and have written them at the front of our admin handbook. We try to keep it simple and to allow flexibility for teachers. 

Teacher impact

Two students working on the floor.

Onerahi School has included 'teaching as inquiry' as part of their new appraisal system. They were aware there wasn’t a lot of ownership of the old system based on goal-setting, and it didn’t 'live' within the school. They wanted to improve the effectiveness of the appraisal system, and they saw value in an approach that helped teachers focus on their impact within the school and in teaching.

While grappling with this challenge, the NZC was released and Richard realised that the effective pedagogy section within the NZC included teaching as inquiry. In addition he heard Graeme Aitken speak at a principals’ conference, providing ideas for a way forward. Other important influences were Lester Flockton and Graeme Nuttall.

He explains, 'What we have at the moment is a synthesis of those ideas as well as the work of John Hattie on teacher effectiveness.'

'We’ve set up a simple model of inquiry that combines Lester Flockton’s review wheel and teaching as inquiry. When we presented this to the teachers, we introduced Graeme Aitken’s research about the three views of teacher effectiveness – the 'style' view, the 'outcomes' approach and the 'inquiry' approach. He argues that the inquiry framework offers the most defensible conceptualisation of teaching effectiveness.'

"Effective teachers inquire into the relationship between what they do (style) and what happens for students (outcomes). But effective teachers do more than simply inquire (or reflect) – they take action (in relation to what they are doing in the classroom) to improve the outcomes for students and continue to inquire into the value of these interventions."

The inquiring teacher: Clarifying the concept of teaching effectiveness 

Process for teachers

The school leaders provided a map that outlined the inquiry process and allowed a year to work through it:

  • Why did you choose this area for inquiry?
  • What’s happening in your classroom?
  • What’s your source of feedback to consider why this is happening?
  • Support that with some research
  • What are your research sources?
  • Do you agree, disagree or are you not sure?
  • What is your hypothesis?
  • What are you going to do?
  • Action Plan
  • What’s happening?
  • Review classroom impact
  • What came out of that evaluation?

All teachers, including senior management, conduct their own inquiry. The teachers choose an aspect of teaching they would like to explore further in negotiation with their lead teacher or senior manager. They are able to link to what they are doing already and they have flexibility. Some chose an individual topic, while others worked on a shared theme, but conducted individual inquiries. While each class is different the teachers support each other as they carry out their inquiries. Teachers might apply this across a cohort group or a full class.

An interesting surprise

One teacher believed she wasn’t reaching her students, and was concerned they were not very engaged in learning. Working with an RTLB who observed her class, she discovered that while there was a lot of talk and discussion, actually a great deal of it was about the learning outcomes. So, while she had some questions, the students were more engaged than she had realised.

That’s that hidden curriculum, and some learn from a co-constructed social aspect, from the discussion and the synthesising and evaluating that happens when kids are talking about their learning.

What we’ve learned

Richard says they have discovered through the development of their planning model that if they consider engagement, alignment and success as key areas for planning and delivery, they can actually work a lot smarter.

'We don’t need as many learning experiences, we just need better ones. But we also need to know what is it we want our students to learn. What is the concept? That has been a shift for us – to think about what is the concept we want children to understand, rather than what is the content we want to deliver.For some, this can be a real paradigm shift and will mean letting go of some established practices and a 'relearning' of the principles that underpin our vision.

'It’s all very well having our pedagogical principles on paper. Our challenge is to do this in the classroom.

'Another challenge is, just as we have to differentiate for our learners in the classroom, we must differentiate for our teachers. Some teachers like structured steps, while others like flexibility and creativity.

'Over time our teaching inquiries have become a part of discussions on planning, which has been a neat evolution from accountability. We’re noticing a lot more discussions about pedagogy, teaching as inquiry is in the mix as well.

At the end of the year we evaluated the impact. I conducted a survey that asked:

  • What was the impact on your classroom?
  • What was the impact on your own teacher knowledge?

The results showed teachers could see this was effective and meaningful.'

A teacher's perspective

Meredith McInnes

Meredith McInnes found the inquiry process easy to adopt. She chose formative assessment in student writing as the focus for her inquiry.

She observes, “It was great to be able to focus on something I wanted to work on. Each of us had an appraiser who we reported in with regularly. I found this important. It wasn’t so much that someone was checking up that you were doing it, but it was just a good way to check that I was on the right track and able to discuss it.”

She found that it was a big job to narrow her research to a selection of materials that related strongly to her topic, as there were thousands of papers available online.

She says, “One thing that my appraiser had observed was that I didn’t give a lot of written feedback to the kids. Oral feedback is fine and it has its place. But how can you say to a child, I talked to you about this last week? If its written, you can go back to it and remind them that we have talked about this before.

Meredith noticed she started to write a great deal more in her students’ books. Her inquiry took place during the term they were studying narrative, providing a great opportunity to give written feedback. She adds, “I think the kids responded quite well. I could see them looking back and checking – have I done that?”

She has noticed changes in her teaching practice and is sustaining these. “I’m doing a lot more writing up the learning intentions and sharing those. I’m doing a lot more feed forward. I’m negotiating criteria with the students so I think they’re having more say. A lot of the criteria that I assess against are negotiated with the kids. They have ownership of what they have to do but at the same time they also know how they can achieve this.

This year I have noticed that without really having to think about it, I have been providing a lot more written feedback during writing. But it’s not just happening in writing. There’s a lot more written feedback in other areas.

Having done this inquiry myself, I feel that I can teach inquiry and explain it to the kids a lot better. The kids in my class knew that we were doing inquiry and they knew what my inquiry was. I think it changed my conversations with the kids because when you show that you’re trying to learn something as well, then instead of being a teacher you’re a learner with them. So there’s not so much of a hierarchy.

I think it has changed my interactions and conversation with other staff members. Last year I had about four people with expertise I could call on and talk to about my inquiry. This year it’s good again because I’ve got someone who is doing the same inquiry, and I feel more experienced as a teacher.”

effective pedagogy
teaching as inquiry

Updated on: 12 Aug 2011