Sunday 18 October 2015

Strategic Inquiry - An Alternative to Lesson Study?

If you want to explore alternatives to Lesson Study, this post is for you.  Nell Scharf Panero and Joan Talbert's 2013  book   - Strategic Inquiry : Starting small for big results in education -  describes a model of school-based inquiry which is explicitly linked to improvements in pupil learning and school improvement.    So use this post  as a stimulus to critically examine whether Strategic Inquiry (SI) is worth including in your school's portfolio of developmental activities.


The SI model has its' origins in the Scaffolded Apprenticeship model (SAM) programme of school improvement, and was launched in 2005 by the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College and New Visions for Public Schools.  Originally developed in New York City public high schools its use has now been extended to Boston, Rochester and Oakland

What is strategic inquiry?

Panero and Talbert (2013) describe SI as

... teams study(ing) the whole school in microcosm, assuming that a part represents the whole.  They identify the essential skills gap for a group of struggling students, investigate how school-wide learnings conditions allow the this gap to persist, and design and implement strategic changes, the effectiveness of which is measured by the closing of the gap.  Getting small is essential in the model's theory of change.  It makes the otherwise overwhelming task of change manageable, scaffolds and ensures the development of new skills and experiences that shift team members' thinking, and defines a direct line between action and results so that actions can be continually improved and results ensured.  (p4)

Why is strategic inquiry (allegedly) successful?

Panero and Talbert argue that SI works because it leads to improvement in student achievement by addressing the learning needs of students who are struggling, whilst at the same time developing leadership capacity for inquiry-based reform.   Panero and Talbert argue that SI is successful for three reasons
  • SI starts with a small group of staff who become skilled in the process, who then help other teachers within the school do the same.
  • SI focusses on key changes in teachers' thinking, practice and school cultural norms necessary for on-going improvements.
  • SI invests in training facilitators to support and coach groups of teachers through the key stages of the process.
What are the assumptions underpinning strategic inquiry?

There are a number of key assumptions which underpin SI, including:
  • All schools have a zone of success, where there are students for whom the current ways of working are effective.
  • All schools have a zone of failure, where there are students for whom current practices are not working.
  • The practices that lead to a lack of student success are a product of school structures and cultures.
  • If school leaders can work out what is working and why, and what is not working and why - they will be able to work out what needs to be done to improve outcomes for students and subsequently be able to implement them.
  • By getting small it is possible to identify where specific students are struggling and identify what actions to be taken.
  • Teachers beliefs about what brings about student improvement are changed as result of adopting new practices i.e behaviour influences values.
  • Once learning has taken place it can be applied across the rest of the school.
In other words, SI is about teachers understanding school practices and processes from the perspective of the struggling students and subsequently removing barriers that get in the way of student success.

What are the elements of strategic inquiry?

SI  consists of - what Panero and Talbert describe as the 4 Ts - teams, targets, tasks and training.


Teacher collaboration is deemed as essential for a number of reasons; the diffuculties of the challenges faced by schools; teams create space in which teachers can practice and develop new skills; by developing a sense of collective responsibility for the success of students creates a sense of shared accountability.


An essential element of SI is the setting of small and measurable targets by which progress is measured.  In other words, it's not about setting broad targets about improving maths skills in underachieving students but rather identifying the specific skills and knowledge that those students lack, for example, how to divide a fraction by a fraction.  Panereo and Talbert - argue that this precision in target-settings one of the hardest things for teachers to grasp.  Furthermore, by having precise targets this helps to maintain a laser-like focus in the gaps in current student learning and what is needed to close that gap.


SI requires a number of cycles of inquiry, with inquiry tasks being organised into three distinct phases.   Phase 1 is to  move the students.  Here a specific high impact skill-gap is identified for those students who are outside the school's zone of success.  Having really drilled down into the data, a specific student learning target is identified and trained facilitators are used to redesign teaching practices to meet the needs of this specific group of students.  This phase may lead to teachers changing their beliefs about not only causes gaps in student learning, but also what can be done to close those gaps.

In Phase 2 teams consider what they can to change and improve a decision-processes about teaching and learning within the school.  This may include looking at what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching.  However, each of those decisions are considered from the perspective of students with the specified skill gap.  As a result of this analysis, one small change is identified which will help those students close the specified skills gap by getting them support they require.  By being disciplined and focussing on small changes, it is possible to increase shared accountability with an emphasis on measuring what the student has learned in response to the new approach. Teams also analyse other systems from the perspective of students who are not in the zone of success and work to remove to barriers which are in the way of student success.

In Phase 3 - in this phase members of the strategic inquiry team work, in a leadership capacity,  with other colleagues to help those colleagues understand the process and to increase shared learning within the school.  Members of the SI team also get back together to supported one another, as they develop their coaching, mentoring and facilitating skills.  In addition, an important component of this phase is for team members to evaluate the impact of their work in closing gaps in student learning gap.

Training - Facilitators

Panero and Talbert argue that experience within schools using SI found that there was a relationship between teacher ratings of facilitator support and their success with strategic inquiry.  They found that facilitators were necessary to help inquiry teams learn how to overcome challenges in the inquiry process, and in particular learning how to make it work.  External support is deemed necessary to help colleagues push through difficulties, which might otherwise cause the inquiry to stall if not fail.

Limitations to strategic inquiry?

Inevitably, there are limitations of the SI model.
  • SI assumes that even if teachers can identify what are the problems facing pupils, the school has the ability to bring about the required change.  As such, the model could be described as being US-centric in the belief in self-improvement.  
  • SI is based upon the availability of trained facilitators (and associated funding)  who are able to support colleagues close the identified gap in student learning. Given the current pressures of our 'age of austerity' this may be an important limiting factor.  
  • SI could be described as giving a new fangled name to the simple process of finding out what doesn't work and do something else instead. 
  • There is lack of evidence examining the effectiveness of the SI process, within so we don't know whether it works or not within the UK's various educational contexts.
Why is strategic inquiry worth considering?

Despite these limitations, there are several reasons why school leadership teams may wish to give SI further consideration.   SI:
  • focuses on the evidenced needs of students and reducing gaps in student learning; 
  • emphasises improving teacher practice rather than generating research outcomes;
  • starts small, which given the resource pressures on both schools and school research leads, is probably a necessary starting point;
  • has the potential for demonstrable short-term success, which will create the conditions for further evidence-informed practice.
To conclude:

SI could play an important role as part of and evidence-informed school's repertoire of strategies for school improvement.  By focussing on gaps in student learning, SI  has the potential to align evidence-informed practice with school improvement.  SI may be right for you and your school, or it may not.  The choice is yours to make.


Scharff Panero, N. & Talbert, J.E. (2013) Strategic Inquiry : Starting small for big results in education.


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