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Post date: Friday, 11 January 2019

School-wide inquiry: how can leaders decide on a focus?

By Cathie Johnson

Focussed school-wide inquiry is a powerful way for school leaders to engage staff and make a difference for students’ learning outcomes.

My colleague Julie Roberts and I have been reflecting on what we see in our ‘Leadership in Assessment’ workshops and webinars. These confirm the vital role leadership plays in improving learning in schools through focussed inquiry. Good leaders align professional  development with that focus to ensure they are making the best use of teachers’ time and energy. Some middle-level school leaders may think of themselves as mentors, rather than leaders; they also have a role to play in leading inquiry, as Mike Fowler discusses in this 2012 article for set.

But we see leaders struggle to close the gap between their intentions and their reality. From our perspective, the two  greatest challenges are authentic problem definition, and deciding where the focus of school-wide inquiry should be.

We’ve developed  three questions that help school leaders overcome these challenges—we use them in workshops and group discussions—you could ask them of yourself. And no, we’re not suggesting this is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Each question opens up plenty more, but if you try to answer the big questions you’ll begin to close that gap.

1.    What improves learning?

School leaders know a lot about learning. This question invites a positive response and generates a flow of ideas. Quite often we see different ideas emerge depending on the audience perspective. For example, a group of first-time principals said: relationships, feedback-feedforward, teachers teaching better, knowing the child, children talking, relevance, student-driven, curriculum personal to the community.

On the other hand, a group of assistant and deputy principals said: relevance, ownership engagement, relationships, scaffolding, questioning, cultural responsiveness, resilience, challenge, critical thinking, wellbeing, risk-taking, purpose, collaboration.

Everything on the lists is important and, if the group was a mixed one, we could find common themes across them:

  • pedagogical content knowledge
  • relevant local curriculum
  • student-teacher partnerships
  • identifying the capabilities student require to be successful learners.

Once you have agreement on what improves learning, it’s time for question two.

2. What would make the most difference to improving learning for your learners?

The thinking now shifts from identifying what works generally to what your learners need specifically. From the list you develop in response to question one, what will have the greatest impact in your school? Think about your students’ needs as learners, beyond their academic position. Consider your teachers’ capacity to meet those needs. You’ll begin to narrow down the list and see which areas it makes sense to  prioritise for school-wide inquiry. You’re getting closer to the hardest question.

3. What evidence do you have that these things are happening in your school?

What monitoring and tracking take place that tells you these things are either happening or being deliberately developed in your school? How do you know that all your teachers understand and use the practices that you believe will improve your students’ learning?

This question always sparks debate in workshops. We hear comments like, ‘good point, I don’t think we do’, or ‘those things are really hard to measure’, or ‘we’d have to do a lot of work to get our teachers’ heads around that’. And there is generally a collective ‘aha’ moment when participants realise they may need to  plan inquiry to examine teachers’ assumptions and perceptions around the area of need they have prioritised.

I’ll leave the questions within the questions for other blog posts. You’ll use more than the 600 words above to identify the focus of inquiry in your school for this year. If you start by focussing on improving learning, your teachers will see the connection between what is needed and what you are asking them to do..

If you want help to work through this process to design a focused inquiry, get in touch. I’m Cathie Johnson and my colleague is Julie Roberts. You can email us at We can help you to decide which assessment data would support your inquiry and help you find clever ways to use the data you’ve gathered to start the conversations you know you need to have.


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