Sunday, 14 June 2015

The School Research Lead and 'Disciplined Inquiry'

At researchED 2014 Dylan Wiliam said:  'All teachers should be seeking to improve their practice through a process of ‘disciplined inquiry.’  Using for guidance the work of Cronbach and Suppes (1969)*,  I will seek to provide School Research Leads and teachers with:
  • a definition of the term 'disciplined inquiry'; 
  • an explanation of the difference between 'decision-oriented' and 'conclusion oriented' inquiry; 
  • a consideration of the implications of the above for School Research Leads in supporting evidence-informed teacher inquirers.
Disciplined Inquiry Defined

Cronbach and Suppes deliberately avoid providing a narrow definition of the term disciplined inquiry.  They do so to prevent disciplined inquiry being conflated with quantitative research, whilst at the same time wishing to embrace the potential of qualitative research.  By doing so, inquiry is not limited to scientific inquiry but can be expanded to include a broader range of inquiry methods.    As such Cronbach and Suppes state that the purpose of a disciplined inquiry is to ...  out to answer  a rather narrowly defined question.  The specific of such inquiries are usually less important that the conceptualisations they generate(p.14)

However, the narrowness of focus does not mean a restrictive approach to methods.  Cronbach and Suppes state:

Disciplined inquiry does not necessarily follow well established, formal procedures. Some of the most excellent inquiry is free-ranging and speculative in its initial stages, trying what might seem to be a bizarre combination of ideas and procedures, or restlessly casting about for ideas (p. 16).

Nevertheless, Cronbach and Suppes go onto identify the elements of disciplined inquiry which distinguishes it from less disciplined forms of inquiry by stating. 

Disciplined inquiry has a quality that distinguishes it from other sources of opinion and belief. The disciplined inquiry is conducted and reported in such a way that the argument can be painstakingly examined. The report does not depend for its appeal on the eloquence of the writer or on any surface plausibility, (p. 15). 

Accordingly, the following would appear to be the essential components/features of disciplined inquiry
  • Ultimately a narrow focus and question for inquiry
  • The possible use of a wide range of inquiry methods
  • Is subject to focussed self-review to identify potential weaknesses in the inquiry and to identify mitigating actions
  • Has internal consistency
  • Is undertaken and constructed in such a way that allows for external scrutiny

So how do we categorise different forms of inquiry, and it is to that to which I now turn.

Distinguishing between decision-oriented and conclusion-oriented inquiry

Cronbach and Suppes argue that is it necessary categorise different types of inquiry primarily to identity both the different focuses of inquiry and the conditions in which they take place.  In doing so, they recognise that any categorisation may be arbitrary and that certain inquiries may may straddle the boundaries between the categories.  

Decision-oriented inquiry 

In this form of study/inquiry, Cronbach and Supes state that ...  investigator is asked to provide information wanted by the decision-makers: a school administrators, a government policy-makers, the manager of a project to develop a new biology textbook or the like.  The decision-oriented study is a commissioned study.  The decision-maker believes that needs information to guide his actions and he poses the questions to the investigator. (p20)  


Cronbach and Suppes state that conclusion oriented inquiry .... takes its directions from the investigartor's commitments and hunches.  The equational decision-makers can, at most, arouse the investigator's interest in a problems.  The latter formulates his own questions, usually a general one rather than a questions about a particular institution  The aim is to conceptualise and understand the chosen phenomenon; a particular finding is only a means to an end. (p21)

If one sets asides 'who/whom' commissions the inquiry, the distinction between decision-oriented and conclusion-oriented inquiry is potentially useful as it help separates evidence-informed practice and broader conceptions of research.  The former involves undertaking an inquiry using the best available current evidence in order to help make a decision which will hopefully benefit pupils/colleague.  Whereas, conclusion oriented inquiry is more in tune with the notion of research for understanding

Implications for School Research Lead seeking to support evidence-informed teacher inquiry

Initial reflection would suggest there are a number of ramifications for the work of the School Research Lead. 


Given that disciplined inquiry ultimately has a narrow focus and question for inquiry, developing the skills to help colleagues to devise well-formulated question and answerable questions will be essential component of the School Research Lead's role.  This is particularly the case if the purpose of the inquiry is to lead to decisions about practice.  Accordingly, it will be helpful for researchers to be comfortable with the difference between background and foreground questions and how both the PICO and CIMO formats may assist in this process.  By having a clear and answerable question this will hopefully will create the conditions whereby inquiry can be seen as both a legitimate and feasible component of colleague's work.


A key aspect of the School Research Lead's role will be to develop their own inquiry skills in order to help colleagues unpack the elements of his or her own inquiry.  A previous post on 'humble inquiry' looks at this in more detail, but the key aspect of this work will involve the school research lead patiently seeking to understand a colleague's perspective on an issue/task requiring some form of decision.  Helping a colleague get reading to understand the value of disciplined inquiry may take some considerable time

Trust and culture

A necessary but not sufficient condition for disciplined inquiry, is an open, trusting and school culture, which creates the conditions whereby colleagues feel comfortable in sharing evidence, ideas and interpretations of data.   Disciplined evidence-informed teacher inquiry is unlikely to happen where colleagues do not feel they are able to share evidence, ideas and thinking in  a safe and supportive environment.  The School Research Lead has a vital role in creating and maintaining such a culture.

Some final comments
Engaging in disciplined inquiry should be seen essential part of the work of all teachers as they seek to improve their practice.  As Dylan William argued at researchED 14 this could involve:  sharing work with colleagues; writing up their work for wider publication; studying for post-graduate degrees; or finally undertaking research  But for me, no matter in what was disciplined inquiry is pursued it needs to be focused, transparent, self-critical, internally consistent and be capable withstanding rigorous  external scrutiny.  


Cronbach, L. J., & Suppes, P. (Eds.). (1969). Research for tomorrow’s schools: Disciplined inquiry for education. New York: MacMillan. This is a report of a special committee of the National Academy of Education. It includes a detailed discussion of disciplined inquiry, a number of historical case studies of educational research programs and a set of policy recommendations.

* cited in Shulman, L.  (1997) Disciplines of Inquiry in Education: An Overview in Jaeger, R. (ed) (1997) Complementary Methods in Complementary Methods for Researchers in Education, American Education Research Association, (pp 3-19)


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