Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Are you a genuine inquirer?

If you have anything to do with inquiry within schools, this post is for you. In particular, if part of your role is to have 'professional' conversations and dialogues with colleagues, this post will illustrate both the challenges in having genuine and open conversations and the prevalence of pseudo inquiry.  In doing so, I will draw upon the work of Le Fevre, Robinson and Sinnema (2014) who recently undertook a study of how 13 school leaders engaged in inquiry, and whose main finding is that leaders engage in predominantly pseudo inquiry, with little evidence of genuine and open-minded inquiry.    Given the importance of this finding and its implications for school-based inquiry and leadership and management, Le Fevre et al's work requires further examination.  As such, the rest of this post will :
  • distinguish between and inter-personal and intrapersonal inquiry
  • examine Genuine Inquiry as Open-mindedness;
  • explore some of the barriers to Genuine Inquiry;
  • summarise the study's research methods and findings;
  • consider the implications for both schools and school research leads.

So what is the difference between inter-personal and interpersonal inquiry?

First, it is important to clarify that we are examining inter-personal rather than intra-personal inquiry. Le Fevre et al argue that intra-personal inquiry involves, for example,  personal reading or private reflection.  Whereas interpersonal inquiry involved some form of personal interaction - normally face to face

So what do we mean by open-mindedness?

Le Fevre et al argue that open-mindedness as associated with being critically open to alternative possibilities, a recognition that they indeed may be wrong about the issue at hand be willing to change their position,  With this open-mindedness incorporating a recognition that their beliefs may be incorrect or misinformed, and that new evidence becoming available may require a shift in a position or view.

So what do we mean by 'pseudo-inquiry'?

Le Fevre state that pseudo-inqury takes place where there is not a commitment to open-mindedness and ...  has the surface characteristics of inquiry, it is not driven by a desire to learn,  Genuine inquiry requires conversations to be motivated (either consciously or unconsciously) by a desire to learn and to be drive by a stance of open-mindedness (p884)

Pseudo inquiry can often be indicated by the types of questions which are asked.  For example, if the questions posed are designed to communicate your own point of view, in a subtle and often implied manner.  - Don't you agree that it would be a good idea to ..... Alternatively, a number of simple straightforward questions are asked in order to create an air of consensus, and which makes more difficult to subsequently disagree.  Finally, there is the form of pseudo-inquiry where the answer to the questions are already known to the inquirer.   

So what are some of the barriers to Genuine Inquiry?

Cognitive Biases

Le Fevre et al argue thats some of the main barriers to genuine inquiry are cognitive biases.  In a previous post I identify a number of cognitive biases which can get in the way of genuine inquiry and those include:
  • Confirmation bias - the tendency to selectively search or interpret information in a way that confirms your perceptions or hypotheses.
  • Conjunction fallacy - the tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one.
  • Endowment effect - the tendency that people often give more value to on an object they already have than they would be pay to acquire it.
  • Fundamental attribution error - the tendency to over-emphasize personal factors and underestimate situational factors when explaining other people's behaviour
  • Halo effect - the tendency for a person's positive or negative traits to extend from one are of their personality to others' perceptions of them. 
  • Hindsight bias - a memory distortion phenomenon due to the benefit of feedback about the outcome of an event, people's recalled judgment of the likelihood of that event are typically closer to the actual outcome that their original judgments were.
  • In-group bias - the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own group.(Wilke and Mata, 2012).
Perceptions of risk

Le Fevre et al argue that perceptions of risk can have a significant impact on the nature of inquiry, leading inquirers to avoid that will lead to negative emotional reactions.  Le Fevre et al go onto argue There are two sorts of risks; one, is of up-setting the relationship, and the second is of being challenged (p886).  As such, when individuals are motivated by the need to confirm rather than challenge their beliefs and underpinning assumptions, they are far less likely to take relationship risks.

Limited skills in Genuine Inquiry

A third barrier to effective Genuine Inquiry is related to the interpersonal skills of the inquirer.  Le Fevre et al reference research which indicates that educational leaders - headteacher etc - are far better at putting forward their own point of view than listening and learning about the perspectives of others.  Le Fevre et al argue that this lack of skill reflects both the cognitive and behavioural elements of skills and that school leaders are perfectly capable of asking open and inquiring questions, which seek to get to the bottom of an issue relating to a college.  Unfortunately, the thoughts that occupy their minds get in the way of them doing so.  Le Fevre et al suggest that leaders don't check others' understandings of an issue for fear or disagreement or if a parent raises an objection this leads to a feeling of being stuck and which gets in the way of further inquiry; they don't check understanding of the other person's perspective because they have forgotten what has been said as they are more interested in what they are going so ay next.

So what research did Le Fevre et al undertake?

The study involved 13 educational leaders on a university graduate programme in educational leadership, all of which volunteered to take part in the research.  The characteristics of the groups are as follows:
  • 9 females/4 makes
  • 8 worked in primary schools and 5 worked in secondary schools
  • 4 had less than 2 years senior management experience, 6 had 3-5 years and 3 had 6-10 years
  • The majority were between 31 and 50 years of age
The participants were recorded having a conversation - of approximately 8 minutes - with a female actor playing the role of a teacher, with the conversations being based on an identical scenario.  Immediately after the conversation the educational leader was asked to complete a self-assessment of their interpersonal skills.  One week later the educational leaders were each issued with a transcript of the conversation and were asked to annotate the transcript with any thoughts and feelings they had during the conversation which they had not expressed in the conversation.  The educational leaders were subsequently asked to write up to half a page detailing what they were seeking to achieve during the conversation.

Data analysis and findings

The transcripts of all 13 conversations were repeatedly listened and led to three categories of transpctin being identified
  • No inquiry
  • Pseudo-inquity 
  • Pseudo-inquiry and limited genuine inquiry
A fourth category of genuine inquiry had been expected, but no conversations fitted into that category.  A second step involved identifyin patterns within each of the categories to help establish the reasons for the absence of genuine inquiry, with the whole transcript being used as the unit of analysis.  Indeed, the main finding of the study

... is that leaders engaged in minimal genuine inquiry.  One conversation involved no inquiry of any sort, two conversations involved inquiry but it was all pseudo and the 10 conversations were predominantly pseudo inquiry.  While much inquiry, as signalled by such linguistic feature as questioning, was common-place, our analysis of the unspoken thoughts and feelings revealed considerable closed rather than open-mindedness.  Self-assessment data indicated that the leaders themselves wre aware of their limited capability in genuine inquiry (p890)

Le Fevre et al go onto state : While interpersonal inquiry, in the context of professional learning and problem-solving is highly values, our research suggests that genuine inquiry in situations of anticipated difference and disagreement, at least is relatively rare. When conversations are risky and likely to rouse negative emotions, genuine inquiry is overtaken by the desire to wine, and to do so while avoiding risk and negative emotion. (p895)

So what are the implications of the study?

Le Fevre et al argue that the study has the following implications:
  • it confirms previous research in both business and educational settings
  • given that research in other fields suggests that participants are likely to perform better in a scenario situation than in real life, the study suggests the genuine-inquiry 'failings' are greater than this research suggests.  As such, further research in real-life settings is required
  • to develop leaders skills as genuine inquirers may require significant disruption to the their current practice and ways of work.  In the first instance, this may best be achieved by some form of 'private' intrapersonal inquiry.  Having challenged their own assumptions in private, this may lead to a willingness to do so in public interpersonal inquiry.
So what are the particular implications for the school research lead?

For me, three implications spring to mind:
  1. The need to accept that in all likelihood everyone of us involved in educational inquiry have a long way to go in developing our practice.
  2. The current emphasis on lesson study and joint practice development, may indeed by putting the 'cart before the horse' and colleagues may first require a structured individual programme of support to attempt to unpack their underlying beliefs, values and biases before they are in a position to engage in genuine inquiry with others.
  3. Building school cultures which are genuinely open and not pseudo - will take time, effort and real commitment.  School leaders are going to have to show the need to demonstrate that developed their own genuine and open-minded ways of thinking and behaving, if genuine inquiry is to have real roots within a school.

Le Fevre, D. M., Robinson, V. M., & Sinnema, C. E. (2014). Genuine Inquiry Widely Espoused Yet Rarely Enacted. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 1741143214543204.

Wilke A. and Mata R. (2012) Cognitive Bias. In: V.S. Ramachandran (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, vol. 1, pp. 531-535. Academic Press


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