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The Spirit of Inquiry for Ohio's Collaborative Teams

This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

Teaching can be endlessly fascinating, or it can be terminally deadening (see, e.g., Cameron, 2015). What will happen on any day? Today? Tomorrow? All next week? Staying curious about what's going on with teaching and learning is essential to good teaching. And our curiosity shows us just how much data we already have at our finger tips. Things happen with our students and with us, and we take note. All of this is part of the spirit of inquiry because it is grounded in curiosity (Cochran-Smith, 1991).

For exactly this reason, members of a great many TBTs and BLTs are already set to bring the interpretation of data into their collaborative work. The next step is to agree to see what happens next as they work on an instructional practice together. They become curious together about the next right decision. That decision is informed by data-often produced through data collection and analysis efforts they organize themselves (Mandinach & Gummer, 2016).

Annual performance data aren't close enough to classroom practice to be much help. It's the wrong information, and having teachers fixate on the wrong information as if it were the right information is demoralizing. It undermines the spirit of inquiry.

Working together on a project to improve instruction, team members need to construct a common experience. Think about it. They are no longer working in isolation; they are trying to use the same practice and collect information about it (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015). As the team makes meaning from the information it collects, it builds the common experience the team needs (Beck, Morgan, Brown, Whitesides, & Riddle, 2020; Love, Stiles, Mundry, & DiRanna, 2008).

They might, for example, observe in one another's classrooms and then discuss what they thought they saw (their observations). Those "observations" are data. Lots of tools are available to make observations more consistent from person to person. Using such a tool would help move the discussion from "my opinion of what I saw" to something shared more widely by members of the team. The team decides what they want to examine in their teaching and chooses a tool to help them do it.

When teams get to this point (and it's not so easy to do this!), they are developing a shared spirit of inquiry. Here's the surprising thing. The spirit of inquiry reflects a team's willingness to let go of the idea that professionals are people who already know the answers.

They've asked a question about the issue that is important to them and their students. They've gathered data to help them make the next right decision. And they keep on in that way. The spirit of inquiry becomes a disposition that breathes life into the team's practice (see, e.g., Bryk et al., 2015; DeLuca et al., 2015; Love et al., 2008; Mandinach & Gummer, 2016). It also fosters curiosity as part of the school and district culture, and the learning environment for students. After all, curiosity is what motivates us all to learn.

A lot can get in the way, however. Ellen Mandinach and Edith Gummer (2016) explain one commonly encountered impediment to the wise use of data:

Practices that suggest that annual test scores can be disaggregated by strands in the disciplines for individuals or groups of students misinform teachers about the appropriateness of data use in the classroom. The use of these summative test results is unfortunately what people often think of when assessments are mentioned, forgetting that there are many other sources of student performance data and other data that are much more informative to the instructional decision-making process. It is also part of the reason that data use has gotten a bit of a bad reputation, because it is being conflated with the overemphasis on testing and the use of wrong test results to make decisions. (pp. 60-61)

It's a well-known fact that many, and perhaps most teachers and school administrators are anxious about data or find the whole idea of "data-based decision making" threatening or distasteful (e.g., Dunn, Airola, Lo, & Garrison, 2013; Mandinach & Gummer, 2016). Part of the problem is that data have been used in the past in a spirit of blame. The spirit of inquiry, however, is contrary to the spirit of blame. With a spirit of inquiry, Ohio leadership teams can collect, analyze, interpret, and use data to answer the questions they pose.