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Now Is the Time for Teachers to Use Data-Based Inquiry Cycles

December 2020

In this unprecedented time during a global pandemic, schools are navigating uncharted waters as they must quickly adapt to new ways of teaching and learning. Teachers are learning how to use video conferencing platforms, employ interactive digital tools, test creative strategies for maintaining student engagement, and redesign their classrooms for social distancing. Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West Literacy Improvement Partnership leader Kim Austin calls the current situation “a large-scale, unintended experiment in American education.”

Without a blueprint to follow, now is an opportune time for teachers to innovate and try new ideas. But how can they know if a new approach is actually helping students to learn?

This is the moment — it is the time of innovation,” says Jarrod Bolte, founder and CEO of Improving Education. Bolte has been involved in REL West partnerships supporting K–6 teachers to use an iterative cycle of prototyping and problem solving to improve student outcomes in literacy.

“We know that teaching has to be done differently in this new environment,” adds Austin, “but we don’t have clear answers yet as to how to reach all students, including all types of learners.”

To help develop clearer answers, REL West partnerships have been working with teachers to engage in cycles of prototyping and inquiry — trying out new approaches, gathering data, and making refinements to improve their practice.

Teachers Prototyping to Shift Their Instruction

To assess whether an aspect of instruction is resulting in student progress, teachers can use a form of prototyping — similar to what designers do to test and validate a solution to a problem before investing more fully into it. If data indicate that an instructional approach is not helping students, teachers make an adjustment, then assess again.

To illustrate this iterative process, consider a team of teachers who have weekly grade-level meetings. At the start of an inquiry cycle, the teachers identify a shared problem. They agree on gathering specific data that they can capture to better understand the problem and that they will bring to the next meeting. The teachers meet in collaborative “learning huddles” to examine the data, which informs the innovation or the change to their instruction that they will test. At their next meeting, if the new data show that the change is working, the teachers may decide to adopt the practice. If teachers don’t see positive results in the data, they may decide to make an adjustment and continue testing it, or even decide to abandon the practice and try an alternative approach (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Inquiry Cycle

Identify an improvement focus; collect and examine data; conduct a small test; examine data.

Source: Literacy Improvement Partnership. (September 2018). Using Learning Huddles to Improve Teaching and Learning. REL West.

“Teachers are ‘change idea’ machines — they iterate on and tinker with their instruction every day,” says Austin. “Inquiry cycles introduce a more intentional way to evaluate what’s working and what’s not working.”

With the limited time that teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators have to modify their teaching for millions of students this year, continuous improvement can serve as a useful tool. As Bolte states, “Through an improvement approach, the change is a faster pace and produces quicker refinement than piloting a whole program and reflecting on it afterwards.”

Teachers as Change Agents

Bolte points to recent work in Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) as an example of how teachers can prototype an idea, rely on data to improve it, and then very quickly scale it for broad impact. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in spring 2020 and schools closed for in-person instruction, BCPS elementary school teachers knew they needed a solution to provide continuous learning for students sheltering in place, especially those without internet access. A core group of teachers brainstormed ideas and quickly decided to put together a boxed set of “low-tech” materials along with instructions for 40 learning activities, then test the boxes with 250 BCPS students and their teachers. Each “Learning in a Box” contained grade-appropriate materials, ranging from modeling clay and other manipulatives to whiteboards and dry-erase markers. To understand how well the boxes were working, the core teachers collected information on how students and parents were interacting with the materials, the number of students who engaged daily with the materials, and how long they used the materials. The informal feedback served as data, enabling the teachers to modify and improve the content. Two more cycles of testing, data collection, and adjustments were conducted as a second round of 500 boxes were distributed, followed by a third round of 1,000 boxes. With each cycle, the teachers continued to refine the Learning in a Box content until it was ready to scale across the district. The teachers also developed nearly 100 supplementary one-minute videos of BCPS teachers demonstrating activities using the kit materials for students and parents, who are able to access the videos online. As schools reopened virtually in the fall, the district distributed 5,000 Learning in a Box kits to BCPS students in pre-kindergarten through second grade with plans to distribute more kits in the winter and spring as it secures additional grant funds.

In another example from Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, REL West supported two elementary schools by introducing inquiry cycles to improve literacy instruction. Several grade-level teams were trying to understand how to improve their writing conferences with students — a key component of their new Being a Writer curriculum and an evidence-based practice. To start their improvement efforts, the teachers needed data. They developed conference trackers to monitor how often writing conferences were conducted with each student. When the teachers met in a learning huddle to look at the trackers, the data revealed a few things: One, teachers were not conferring with a consistent number of students every day; two, some students needed more touchpoints than others; and three, there was a need for teachers to provide additional discussion points during the writing conferences. After reviewing their processes, teachers decided that students needed a “work on” prompt to remind them about specific changes to make to their writing and some students needed a follow-up conference to assess whether the changes had been made. They modified the tracker to support these change ideas by adding two columns to record a “praise” point and a “work on” point discussed with their students and by grouping students according to common areas of need on the tracker for small-group, follow-up conferences. As the inquiry cycles became routine, REL West observed the teachers shifting in how they collaborated and used data in their teams. Through the iterative process, teachers were able to reflect on their practice over time, adapt their writing conference practices and conference tracker prototype, address each issue as it surfaced, and ultimately, observe their students’ writing improve. The prototyping and improvement process helped make teaching visible and highlight areas of instruction to change to better meet students’ needs.

Continuous improvement cycles provide teachers with tools to identify their own problems and opportunities to improve their practice. Additionally, when teachers see from the data that an innovation or change idea works, they can share the emerging practice with other teachers, who can test and adapt it for their own context.

Key Conditions for Teacher Success

Understandably, time is needed for teachers to develop comfort and confidence in utilizing a new approach to professional learning. Coaches, principals, and other support providers can provide research-based guidance to support teachers’ decisionmaking and prototyping. With practice and support, the cyclical routine can help teachers develop a different mindset —specifically, that it’s okay to not know the solution to a problem right away, that inquiry data do not have to be complicated and formal, that even small changes can produce wins, and that improving practice comes from a series of trial and error.

From their recent work in supporting K–6 teachers to conduct their own rapid cycles of testing and reflection to improve literacy instruction, Austin and Bolte offer the following elements as important to teacher success:

Teacher Mindsets

  • An openness to change and innovation.
  • A willingness to be vulnerable with your practice, to make your practice public, and to acknowledge when something isn’t working.
  • A habit for asking a problem-oriented question — What is the problem we are trying to solve? — and to use “change ideas” to guide the work of that cycle.

Routines for Collaboration

  • Use collaborative structures and routines for how to do this work together, such as:
    • learning huddles for collaborative, rapid decisionmaking
    • a discussion protocol to make space for problem solving and to discuss successes and challenges
    • access to resources from outside of the teacher team — instructional coaches, key articles, or examples from other teachers who have been successful in tackling a similar problem
    • meeting agendas to focus discussions and provide purpose
  • Bring data to every learning huddle, which adds rigor to the process.
  • Leverage existing data, such as student work. If possible, develop data collection prototypes that are easy to use, such as quick observation notes, checklists, or tally sheets.

Supportive Leadership

  • Adjust the schedule to allow sufficient time for ongoing professional learning and different types of collaboration to support planning, inquiry, and problem solving.
  • Understand that with continuous improvement support, teachers should be the main decisionmakers in this change work and that they have expertise in developing the answers.
  • Message the “why” of the work consistently to support a culture of learning and problem solving. Provide opportunities to use a trial-and-error approach to identify emerging practices.

Related Resources

To learn more about collaborative structures that can support teachers in using inquiry cycles, check out these REL West resources: