Step 1 – have a good idea
Step 2 – try it out with some students
Step 3 – think about what happened – is it worth doing again?
Step 4 – think about why it worked. Maybe dig into the reams of existing research to find out what others think. Come up with a theory which provides a post hoc justification for your good idea’s success.
Step 5 – share your idea with other teachers. Ask them to tell you what they liked and what they didn’t like.
Step 6 – improve the idea.
Step 7 – resist, with all your might, the temptation to slap numbers on to your idea in an attempt to justify why it’s good; this is cargo cult science.
Whilst this approach may appear appealing, the proposed model of 'teacher research' is flawed as it is packed with opportunities for cognitive bias. Soyer and Hogarth (2015) argue that what we think we have learned from experience may well indeed be wrong. By using experience as our guide to 'what is a good idea', we will have viewed the past through a number of different filters, examples includes; a focus on outcomes not processes; what our closest and not so closest colleagues tell us; and, our own limited powers of reasoning. These limitations lead to our interpretations being biased, and as a result our current actions may be misguided. Accordingly, a 'good idea' may be a 'bad idea.' Nevertheless, if we are aware of those biases we can then use techniques to overcome them. Soyer and Hogarth identify a number of techniques to overcome these biases which include: seeking evidence to disconfirm your 'good-idea'; looking at situations where a failure was disguised as a success; studying failure by providing 'safe' environments to discuss what went wrong; provide opportunities for disagreement; pursue prevention by engaging in activities such as pre-mortems.
The Spiral of Inquiry
Fortunately for teachers wishing to engage in evidence-based teacher inquiry, Timperley, Halbert and Kaser (2014) have developed a process of investigation known as the 'spiral of inquiry', which explicitly acknowledges the potential for cognitive bias. Timperley et al describe the spiral of inquiry process as a multi-tiered and multi-connected process, which is framed by two central questions :What’s going on for our learners? How do we know? (p7) and is illustrated in the following figure
The individual phases of the spiral of inquiry
Phase 1 Scan what’s going for our learners
Phase 2 Focus on where our energies will potentially make the most difference
Phase 3 Develop and check-out your hunches of what might be a good idea
Phase 4 How and where can we learn more about what to do?
Phase 5 What can we do differently to make enough of a difference?
Phase 6 Have we made ‘enough’ of a difference ?
Let's now look at the developing a hunch phase in more detail.
Developing a hunch
In this phase the focus is on How are WE contributing to this situation? (p13). Hunches are often based on intuition and are not grounded in evidence. In this phases, we must have the confidence to bring these hunches to the fore, and explore the underpinning assumptions and evidence. However, to explore deeply held views, will require 'emotionally safe learning environments for teachers, so these hunches can be explored without fear. As such developing hunches is concerned with with: getting values and beliefs about our own teaching practice out into the open; identifying those practices that are within our domain and we can do something about; and finally, it's about checking our assumptions, our evidence, and our initial interpretations for validity before taking the next step.
Although the model of 'teacher-research/inquiry' proposed by David Didau may appear attractive, it has fallen into the trap of being both simple and simplistic. Unfortunately, the model pays little or no attentions to the possibility of cognitive bias, which can distort both what has been learnt from both past-experience and the current process of inquiry. Fortunately, Timperley et al's 'spiral of inquiry' provides a potentially more effective model of teacher-inquiry. In doing so, the model explicitly acknowledges the role of cognitive bias, and provides mechanism by which it may possibly be counter-acted. Finally, if we want teachers to be evidence-informed practitioners, we must not shy-away from the challenges involved. Rather than provide overly simple solutions we must help teachers gain the skills and expertise they require for genuine evidence-informed/based teacher inquiry, and which can make a real difference to both professional and student learning.
Halbert, J and Kaser, L (2013) Spirals of Inquiry for Equity and Quality, BCPVPA Press, Vancouver. Further information available at www.bcpvpa. bc.ca/node/108.
Kaser, L and Halbert, J (2009) Leadership Mindsets: Innovation and Learning in the Transformation of Schools, Routledge, London.
Soyer, E. and Hogarth, R. (2015) Fooled by Experience : What you think you've learned may be wrong. A guide to finding out the real lessons. Harvard Business Review May 2015 pp 73 - 77
Timperley, H (2011) Realizing the Power of Professional Learning, Open University Press, London.