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Creating a Culture of Inquiry in Schools

The benefits of slowing down to promote deeper and more meaningful learning in the classroom
Project Zero Innova Schools

When Liz Dawes Duraisingh was a middle and high school history teacher in a low-income and historically low-achieving school district in her native England, she remembers being under a lot of pressure to get students ready for high-stakes exams. Later, in Australia, she had the opportunity to experiment with a more student-centered, inquiry-driven approach to teaching — one that encourages young people to think really critically and creatively — and realized that she had, “totally underestimated” what her students were capable of and “what was possible in the classroom.”

Student-centered teaching is challenging and requires educators to engage in emotional work and even some unlearning of past practices, explains Dawes Duraisingh, now a lead researcher with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero research center. Her team’s recent white paper, Deeper, Together: Practical Lessons on Cultivating Deeper Learning from a Low-Cost School Network, which she co-authored with Adriana Garcia, Mara Krechevsky, and Andrea Sachdeva, includes tools and techniques to help teachers push their students’ thinking to more profound and complex places and to “not just cover content superficially,” she explains.

The new paper is the result of a four-year collaborative research project called Creating Communities of Inquiry between Project Zero and Innova Schools, a private network of approximately 70 K–12 schools in Peru which has been steadily expanding in the country and more recently to other parts of Latin America with a mission to provide affordable and high-quality teaching and learning.

While other HGSE colleagues have explored a lack of deeper learning in U.S. schools, including some well-funded ones, what interested Dawes Duraisingh and her team, which also included several of HGSE's bilingual master's students, was the question of how with very limited financial resources the Peruvian network could develop deeper, more collaborative, and student-centered learning at scale that would be relevant in their own local communities.

“You have to live and embody and practice being in a learning community with people where you're really respecting and listening and learning together.”

Dawes Duraisingh shared some of the lessons learned from the project that she and her colleagues believe can inspire and equip other schools and districts in the United States to pursue deeper learning and understanding.

Steps to promote curiosity and critical thinking:

  • Pursue an inquiry-driven approach and tweak for local context and understanding.

Building on the team’s earlier research work in the United Arab Emirates, Creating Communities of Innovation, the Project Zero team collaboratively developed a definition of “inquiry-driven” learning, which they and their partners came to describe as “both a stance toward the world and a process for trying to understand and transform the world.” Simultaneously, the Project Zero team worked alongside Innova teachers, professional development coaches, and other leaders within the network to understand how existing approaches for promoting inquiry-driven teaching and learning could be adapted and framed for the local context, and how new ones might be developed.

  • Define terms and expectations.

Before embarking on any deeper learning endeavor, educators should reflect on what they think deeper learning is, says Dawes Duraisingh, and take stock of where they are and where they want to get to in the process. She warns that schools need to be aware of “contrived collegiality”  in their shared practice, where “the principal or the district or whoever the authority is is using the idea of teacher collaboration to implement policy” because “teachers usually hate it.”

  • Demonstrate intellectual humility.  

The Project Zero team consistently listened to the participants in their study and were responsive to their ideas and opinions. They used words that showed they were working with the coaches and educators, not merely training them, and shared their own questions and uncertainties, as part of an effort to encourage the educators to see themselves as learners too, along with their students.

  • Encourage collaboration.

The researchers encouraged a process of “collaborative inquiry,” where the educators and professional development coaches were viewed as collaborators and encouraged to become more inquiring and reflective about themselves and their own practices, versus the researchers telling them what to do. The team also modeled its practices and values.

“You have to live and embody and practice being in a learning community with people where you're really respecting and listening and learning together,” explains Dawes Duraisingh. “Then it felt like we were getting exciting glimpses of what can happen when you really go deep and change how you're thinking about teaching and learning.”

  • Slow down, think, and reflect — less is more.

Project Zero’s Slow Looking tool can help with collaborative inquiry. Teachers can set “five or 10 minutes to intentionally slow down, stop and try and look in a new way at what's going on in the classroom and start to generate questions about what's going on and why, and how it might be different,” says Dawes Duraisingh. The tool can also be a helpful starting place for groups of teachers to think about where they might want to take and improve their practice together. Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox is another useful resource, but Dawes Duraisingh cautions against using the techniques superficially and notes the importance of first doing the “deep work” that is needed to get the most out of them.

  • Encourage symmetry.

Dawes Duraisingh says the project offers an example of how a school community or district can go “deeper together” by embracing consistency and shared practice or symmetry at all levels. For example, to help teachers observe and think more deeply in the classroom, they were encouraged to use thinking routines, including See, Think, Wonder and to consider how they might create space to respond to deeper questions from their students. The thinking techniques were also used by professional development coaches in their classroom observations and by leaders at Innova Schools as a broader reflection tool.

  • Create autonomy.

Educators need to have some autonomy to be able to respond to their students’ questions and interests and to help their students experience more autonomy themselves. The challenge in this case was to create the right balance of autonomy, without losing the structure that Innova Schools had already built across its highly centralized system.

With support from Innova leaders, the research team modeled autonomy by developing authentic relationships and encouraging the coaches and educators to try out new strategies connected to their practices. They also offered choices for the format and focus of their inquiry work and allowed participants time to work on their own and to decide how best to use their time.

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