Monday 11 May 2015

The School Research Lead - Evidence-Informed Practice and Humble Inquiry

The motivation to write this post arose from a desire to help school research leads avoid the trap of telling colleagues -  'what the evidence is ... ' or 'what the evidence tells you is ....'  Most colleagues, and especially teachers, have never liked to be told what to do, particularly if they think they already know the answer.  Indeed, instead of telling people what the answer is to a question, learning to ask better questions may lead to the creation and development of more positive relationships.  Given the complexity and challenge of working within schools, we cannot hope to bring about improved outcomes for both our pupils and colleagues unless as Schein (2014) states : ... (we) know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get the job done.  The remainder of this post will, hopefully humbly, attempt to answer these questions:
  • What do we mean by 'humble inquiry'?
  • How does humble inquiry differ from other forms of inquiry?
  • Why is this difference important for evidence-informed practitioners?
  • What strategies can be adopted develop the skills associated with humble inquiry?
What do we mean by humble inquiry?

Schein argues that to achieve this we need to learn a specific form of questioning i.e. 'humble inquiry,' which he defines as ... the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.

Although Schein uses a number of examples, especially from high hazard industries, to make the point of what happens when relationships and communications are not based on humility and trust.  Indeed, in schools the importance of leaders being able to build high quality trusting relations is evidenced by researchers such as Robinson (2011).

How does humble inquiry differ from other forms of inquiry?

Given the central part that disciplined or deliberate inquiry has to be the development of evidence and research informed cultures within schools, differentiating humble inquiry from other forms of inquiry is essential. Schein states  Humble inquiry maximises my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimises bias and preconceptions about the other person.  I want to access my ignorance and ask for information in the least biased and threatening way.  I do not want to lead the other person or put him or her into a position of having to give a socially acceptable response. I want to inquire in the way that will best discover what is really on the other person's mind.  I want others to feel that I accept them, am interested in them, and am genuinely curious about what is on their minds regarding the particular situation we find ourselves in. 

Schein argues humble inquiry differentiates itself from other forms of inquiry - such as diagnostic, confrontational and process-led - by not seeking to influence the mental processes of others.  It's about continually seeking to hear what the other person has to say without allowing our own expectations, prejudices or biases come to the fore.

Why is this difference important for evidence-informed practitioners?

If you accept my definition of a school centric evidence-informed practice, posted on 6 April 2015, as

Evidence-informed practice involves the making of decisions within schools through the conscientious, explicit, judicious and skilful use of four sources of information:  
  • educator's (at all levels of the school) expertise and judgment  
  • open and transparent evidence from both within the school and other sources, which is subject to rigorous evaluation 
  • a critical analysis and appraisal of the best available scholarly research - both theory and evidence
  • the values and preferences of  pupils, educators, parents, employers and other stakeholders who might be affected by the decision.  
then 'humble inquiry' has an integral role in the work of the evidence-informed practitioner.  First, being an evidence-informed practitioner involves accessing the skills and expertise of all members, and at all levels, of a school community, and is best done in a non-biased or non-threatening manner.   Second, evidence-informed practice has to take into account the values and preferences of pupils, fellow educators etc, and this will require a genuine interest, curiosity and respect for those individuals's values and preferences.

What strategies can be adopted develop the skills associated with humble inquiry?

Schein identifies a number of different strategies which use to develop the attitude of humble inquiry.

Take-time and slow down  - to ensure that you are able to take-stock - to see what is going on - and not miss things through the blur of speedy-action.

Reflect more and ask yourself humble inquiry questions   - before jumping in with 'two-feet' take the time to ask: What's happening here? What do I feel about the situation, and what do I want to get out of it?  What would be the most appropriate action to take?  Who do I need to build a relationship with to make this happen?

Become more mindful - ask the question - what else is happening here?   Try and locate the situation within a broader context.

Try innovating and engage the artist within you - this could be as simple as writing a journal - even maybe blogging about your experiences as a School Research Lead.  Alternatively, it may involve visiting another school or department where they do things in a manner which is different from your normal ways of working.  Exposure to different views is an essential part of the process.

Review and reflect on your own behavior after an event - engage in structured activities such as - After, Action, Review - to get feedback on what happened in a particular situation - making sure you engage with all those who are part of the process.  If something goes wrong, hold meetings to explore what happened, and individuals's  perceptions of events.

Become sensitive to coordination needs in your own work (school) - use humble inquiry to identify current levels of interdependence within a schools, and then work on building relationships that can help with collaboration.

As a leader, build relationships with your team members - recognise that as a leader you are dependent upon your colleagues to make things happen.   In order to make the most of this dependence, it will necessary to build relationships based upon high levels of trust and communication.  Indeed, this may require you as to make yourself in some ways vulnerable to your colleagues.

And finally 

As Daniel Willingham said at researchED New York, "What I try and keep in mind is that I'm actually winning the argument when the other person is talking because I need to know where they're coming from, if I've got any hope of ever convincing them of something." And "It's about planting a seed, walking away, and letting them mull over it on their own time before revisiting it with them."


Robinson, V. (2011) Student-Centered Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
Schein, E. (2013) Humble Inquiry : The gentle art of asking rather than telling, Berrett-Koehler, London


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