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Improving Instruction with Teacher Learning Huddles and Inquiry Cycles

May 2021

It’s 2:30 pm on Wednesday, time for the Stead Elementary School teachers’ bi-monthly, grade-level meeting. On this day, teachers are conducting a “learning huddle.” Teachers join their team and scan the meeting agenda that will guide their data inquiry for the next 30 minutes. In each team, teachers know to volunteer as facilitator, timekeeper, or notetaker so that their limited time is used productively, efficiently, and purposefully. With a brief review of the team’s action plan from their previous meeting, followed by a quick check-in from each teacher, each team spends the next 20 minutes analyzing data from their writing conferences with students, and deciding on what they will try next to improve their instruction.

“Stead Elementary’s participation in the Literacy Improvement Partnership opened our eyes to true reflective practice that was job embedded,” —Dr. Susan Egloff, Principal

Stead Elementary’s experience illustrates how elementary teachers in the Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Reno, Nevada, are routinely conducting cycles of data inquiry in their grade-level learning huddles to improve how they teach reading and writing. Over the course of three years participating in REL West’s Literacy Improvement Partnership, these teachers have internalized an improvement mindset, adopted new behaviors for collaborating in their grade-level teams, and learned how to collect and reflect on data on their own practices to shift their instruction. “Stead Elementary’s participation in the Literacy Improvement Partnership opened our eyes to true reflective practice that was job embedded,” says the school’s principal, Dr. Susan Egloff.

Building Teacher Capacity for Inquiry Cycles

When leaders in WCSD identified the need to improve the literacy performance outcomes of its elementary students, the district and REL West formed the REL West Literacy Improvement Partnership, with the Center for the Collaborative Classroom for curriculum expertise, and the Northwest Regional Professional Development Program for professional learning.

To help WCSD achieve its goal, the partnership lead, REL West’s Kim Austin, took a long-term view, planning for sustainability: REL West coaching would emphasize building teacher capacity to adopt the routines and practices of a collaborative inquiry approach to improve teaching and learning. Specifically, WCSD elementary teachers would learn to make evidence-based decisions about refining their literacy instruction, using a collaborative problem-solving cycle of choosing a “change idea,” testing it — or trying it out — in their classrooms, collecting data, looking at the data together in teams, and fine-tuning the change idea. Austin’s guiding question in the partnership has been, “How can we shift the way teachers collaborate, so they become more reflective about their practice and improve their practice more intentionally?”

REL West also worked with the principals, district coaches, and grade-level lead teachers to build knowledge about inquiry cycles so that these leaders in the district could support teachers in practicing and utilizing the new data-driven decisionmaking process. This work entailed developing key focus areas, or “drivers,” with the partners, informed by the recommended practices in the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide, Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers. It also involved piloting the efforts to improve reading and writing in two WCSD elementary schools before scaling the use of inquiry cycles in other content areas and throughout the district.

Engaging in Learning Huddles to Examine Data and Refine Instructional Practice

For their learning huddle on this particular Wednesday, the teachers bring in records of the feedback they offered to students in recent writing conferences. As the teachers share their data, they look for patterns and outliers, answering, What do you notice about the data? Why do you think the data looks like this? They discuss whether the new change idea they had agreed to test during their last learning huddle — to give each student both a “praise point” and a “work-on-this point” in their writing conferences — is helping to improve students’ writing. Based on the data, the teachers aim to decide whether to adopt, adapt, or abandon their change idea.

The teachers notice that the quality and consistency of the conversations in their writing conferences has improved with this modification. They also notice that as more students have applied the teacher “work on” feedback to their writing assignments, students are increasing their use of effective writing practices. Deciding that the shift in how they confer with students about writing is producing a positive change, the teachers agree to adopt the practice of incorporating the two specific talking points into their regular writing conferences with students.

Over the course of the inquiry cycles and meeting every 2–3 weeks throughout the semester, teachers observed changes in their students’ writing, remarking in end-of-year surveys, “Students are doing a better job of using my feedback, especially after I started writing in their notebooks,” and “Students are starting to give more detail and are able to express that through writing more.”

What Shifted for Teachers?

As inquiry cycles became more routine for the teachers, REL West coaches observed shifts both in teachers’ instructional practices and in their collaborative practices in the following ways:

  • Focused grade-level meetings. Whereas formerly, teacher talk during meetings may have focused on debriefing about student behavior or planning the next day’s lessons, now teacher teams engage in solving an instructional issue grounded in data. Agendas help to structure the meeting time, and discussion protocols guide the conversation while ensuring that all teacher voices are heard.
  • A cyclical approach to improving instruction. Teachers intentionally engage in cycles of data inquiry to improve an aspect of instruction. They use learning huddles as a vehicle for rapid data-based decisionmaking. They devote meetings to collaboratively look at what the data reveal and then make an informed decision about whether or how to fine-tune a singular instructional practice during each inquiry cycle.
  • Reflection on practice. In examining data, teachers may come to unanticipated findings about their practice. WCSD teachers have discovered from the data, for example, that they weren’t actually conferring in writing conferences with all students as consistently as they had believed, and that students often were not implementing teacher feedback in their writing. In both cases, the data made visible the aspects of instruction that the teachers couldn’t see, which led to iterative testing of change ideas to solve the problem.
  • A culture of “practice-focused” data. WCSD teachers have learned how “practice-focused” data, connected to observations of student learning, can be generated while teaching, and how these data can be informative for refining instruction, by improving a daily instructional practice like writing conferences or facilitating pair-shares during whole class instruction. Such data may include a tracking sheet recording the frequency of a practice being used, a completed checklist of tasks (for self-evaluating using a rubric, for example), or a tally of students’ feedback (e.g., thumbs up, sideways, down) in response to a question about their engagement with a lesson.
  • Teacher agency. As WCSD teachers have grown more comfortable with the iterative cycle of identifying an instructional problem, determining how to gather data, finding meaning from the data, and deciding whether or how to adjust their instruction, teacher agency has increased. Teachers have adopted a routine for leading their own collaborative professional learning and an iterative process for improving their practice.

Lessons Learned for Supporting Teacher Change

REL West shares the following lessons learned for supporting teachers as they practice new routines such as inquiry cycles:

  • Give teachers choice. Teachers are more invested in the continuous improvement process when they collectively can focus on an instructional problem (within an overall evidence-based focus area) and choose change ideas to address the problem or gap that they believe is meaningful to improving their students’ learning outcomes.
  • Use discussion protocols to help foster a culture of data reflection. Because teachers may feel vulnerable sharing data about their teaching or their students, relying on a protocol to structure conversations about data can help teachers focus on the problem-solving aspects and create a culture of feeling “safe to fail.” With repetition and frequency, the process becomes more comfortable.
  • Keep the intervals between learning huddles short, such as 2–3 weeks. Teachers need just enough time to test the change idea and collect data before regrouping to analyze the data and determine whether to adopt, adapt, or abandon the change.
  • Know that the learning huddle is not the solution for all problems. Understanding what the method can and cannot do is important for ensuring that a learning huddle is the right process for the task or problem being addressed. Learning huddles work well for supporting instructional practices that are used on a frequent (ideally, daily) basis so that they can be tested over the course of a few weeks. The process does not lend itself as well to planning a unit or determining which students need intervention and support. There are other professional learning routines that provide better structures for such purposes.
  • Use common curricular materials. When teams of teachers use the same curriculum and pedagogy, they can share strategies and generate knowledge about what works across a set of classrooms and, potentially, an entire school. For example, Collaborative Classroom’s Being a Writer program suggests that all teachers conduct writing conferences, but is not prescriptive about how they are conducted. Teacher teams in WCSD collaborated to develop and refine a specific process for conferences that met their needs.
  • Make instruction visible — through prototypes and teaching artifacts — to support the reflection and improvement process. When teachers collaboratively work on a common tool to improve their teaching, it makes key processes — and important gaps to address — visible as well as fosters a culture of design, innovation, and improvement.

As the teachers in WCSD have engaged more frequently with data to problem solve and adjust their teaching, they have seen improvements in their students’ writing. This has convinced them that inquiry cycles help them improve their instructional practices. Teachers in the pilot schools and coaches in the district have expressed interest in using inquiry cycles for other content areas, as well.

One district coach who had been supporting the grade-level teams reported that “learning huddles now have become natural where the protocol is more internalized, they naturally select roles, they quickly review their data, and they identify some patterns in that data.” She described how the teachers now “move seamlessly” through the cycles, examining the data and coming to agreements about next steps.

“Teachers are wonderful at analyzing student data,” remarked Principal Egloff, “but what set the learning huddles apart from a typical professional learning community was the focus on teacher practices. This is when we saw instruction shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a more student-centered approach.”

Related Resources

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