Practitioner Inquiry as School Design

Today I had the honor of being the first presenter in a new practitioner inquiry collaborative at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania (PennGSE, where I am attempting to complete my doctorate, slowly). I presented a transcript of a team meeting the REAL School Design team had last spring.

Presenting for Descriptive Review is an intense experience. The presenter gives context and then basically shuts up while others go through rigorous a set of rounds in which they dig deeper and deeper into describing what they see in the text. Consider me thoroughly re-humbled and I will write more about this specific experience with descriptive review later today.

In this post, however, I want to consider the power of the tools of practitioner inquiry–systematic data collection and analysis, stopping time, collaborative review protocol including descriptive review, and others–as the tools of an effective, inquiring school.

The deep, local, rigorous investigation and analysis that is the basis of practitioner are essential tools for learning from what happens in schools and therefore for improving our practices. The members of the REAL School will take an inquiry stance towards our own practices by design. We intend to be a community in which, as Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) detail:

…educational practice is not simply instrumental in the sense of figuring out how to get things done, but also and more importantly, it is social and political in the sense of deliberating about what to get done, why to get it done, who decides, and whose interests are served (p. 121).

This is the stance I take towards my own work and it is the stance that the REAL team has taken collectively. To this end, as Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) further explain, we engage in “a continuous process of making current arrangements problematic; questioning the ways of knowledge and practice are constructed, evaluated and used; and assuming the part of the work of practitioners individually and collectively is to participate in educational and social change” (p. 121).

This is the process we have attempted to build into the design of the REAL school. Ongoing inquiry is structured into the lives of students and teachers. For example, students will conduct civic action research with the goal of creating change in the school or larger community as part of their group work in daily advisory classes. Similarly, teachers will conduct and present practitioner inquiry as part of their independent professional growth.

It does not matter, for example, to REAL, that I happen to not to be convinced of the efficacy of ability-based student tracking. It also doesn’t matter that some of our teammates are convinced. What matters for the REAL team and the future of our school is that we think first about what our values are and then we think systematically about how we can apply these values to the organization of students for learning purposes. Then we must investigate what results to make further improvements. We must constantly guide and develop. REAL School design decisions will be centrally shaped by the inquiry conducted within the school.

It is my hope that we will be able to organize ourselves in ways that allow individuals to pursue their own passions and interests while also helping team members bridge gaps between what they know and are comfortable with now and what the team may help them learn.

Out of our work together will come a developing body of practitioner inquiry writing done by members of the team and ultimately members of the school–students, teachers, leaders, and community members. This body of literature will, I believe, capture the values and purposes of the school as well as the cliché’s in any mission statement could. Someday I hope to say to the REAL board of directors, “we don’t know the answer to that question, but we are inquiring and we we are learning things that are important to our practices.”

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