Disciplined enquiry, or how to get better at getting better

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How do you know what to do to improve your teaching? And if you can identify what you need to do get better, how do you know whether what you are doing to try and improve is actually making a difference where it really matters: in developing your students’ learning?

I think there are probably five main sources available to teachers to help them identify areas for their improvement. These are the data on their students’ outcomes, feedback from their colleagues, feedback from their students, research evidence into what works and where, and, finally, their reflections about their practice.

Each of these sources can be extremely useful, providing teachers with valuable insights into where they might need to focus. Equally, they can all be very unhelpful, giving unreliable feedback on areas of strength and weakness, particularly where limitations and nuances are not fully understood, or where potential improvement tools are used as performance measures.

Perhaps the best approach is to take a number of these sources of feedback together, increasing the likelihood of identifying genuine areas for improvement. In subsequent posts, I hope to outline a framework that harnesses these feedback mechanisms into a clear and systematic structure, but for now I want to focus on exploring just one means of self-improvement: getting better at being you.

In many respects, you are both the best source of feedback, and the worst of source of feedback; you can be wise and foolish in equal measure! The problem is that, whilst you are undoubtedly the one who spends the most time with your students and the one who thinks the most carefully about how to help them improve, you are also extremely prone to bias and flawed thinking, which can make it hard for you to trust your judgements, especially in relation to developing your own practice.

Others have written extensively about human fallibility and the dangers of trusting instinct. Daniel Kahnemman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, David Didau’s What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? and David Mcraney’s You Are Not So Smart all provide excellent insights into how we humans routinely get things wrong. It is clear, then, that we need to understand and respect our cognitive limitations and avoid thinking we know what works just because it feels right. Instinct is not enough. That said, I believe we can be useful sources of feedback in relation to improving our own teaching, particularly if we can learn how to reduce the impact of our biases and can get better at being more objective.

What is disciplined enquiry

Honing the skills of restrained reflection is the hallmark of a disciplined enquirer, and disciplined enquiry is what I have come to think is probably the best we way can grow and develop as a profession. Like many terms in education, disciplined enquiry means lots different things to lots of different people. For me, it represents the intersection between the science and the craft of teaching, and involves a systematic approach that encourages teachers to ‘think hard’ about their improvement and making use of the best available evidence to inform their decision-making. My definition of a disciplined enquirer tries to capture this complexity:

A disciplined enquirer draws upon internal and external experience – they operate as both subject and object in relation to improving their own practice. Through a systematic framework a disciplined enquirer develops the ability to limit the impact of bias, whilst learning how to become more attune to interpreting the complexity of the classroom, such as appreciating the role of emotions, the impact of actions and the nature of relationships. Over time and through deliberate noticing they become increasingly sensitive to interpreting patterns of behaviour and learning how to react better in the moment and how to make better decisions in the future.

Understanding how we make decisions

Perhaps the first step to becoming a disciplined enquirer is to recognise the nature of decision-making itself. Kahneman’s model of system one and system two thinking is instructive here. System one thinking describes the way we use mental shortcuts to quickly make sense of complex phenomena and to give us the appearance of coherence and control, whereas the system two model uses a more methodical and analytical approach to decision-making, where we take our time to review and weigh up choices. The trade off between the two modes is time and effort. The result is that busy teachers come to rely more and more on quick, instinctive system one thinking over the slower, more deliberate system two model, which can lead to mistakes.

As well as understanding how we make decisions and how we react to given situations, a disciplined enquirer needs to appreciate the way that we gain insights in the first place, since it is the opening up new ways of seeing that we are ultimately looking for in order to help us improve our practice. It seems to me that if we know the conditions under which we are more likely to learn something new, whether about our teaching, our students’ learning or any other aspect of the classroom environment, then we are better able to take steps to recreate these conditions and harness them when they manifest.

In Seeing What Others Don’t See, Gary Klein uses a triple-path-model to illustrate the ways in which we commonly reach such new insights. Klein’s model challenges the widely held notion of eureka moments, where inspiration or epiphany follows long periods of gestation. From studying decision-making in naturalistic conditions, Klein suggests there are three main triggers that typically lead to new insights – contradiction, connection, and creative desperation. These triggers, working on their own or in combination, shift or supplant the existing anchors that we ordinarily rely upon to make decisions. An anchor is a belief or story that gives us a sense of coherence and informs the decisions that we make, often without us even realising.

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In some respects, Klein’s anchors resemble the idea of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, in Kahneman’s model of system one thinking. The anchor and the heuristic both guide action, usually subconsciously, and both can prevent us from seeing things clearly. Whilst we need heuristics (or anchors) to make our daily lives manageable – getting from A to B, for instance, without endlessly checking the route – for more complex decision making, such as that which constitutes classroom teaching, they can often lead us to make mistakes or develop false notions of what works. Disciplined enquiry should therefore seek to find ways to engage system two thinking, and to consciously trigger the cultivation of better anchors to help us improve our decision-making.

There are a number of steps that can help achieve this end. The diagram below gives an idea of what this might look like in practice. None of the suggestions are a panacea – it is surprisingly difficult to shift our thinking in relation to our deeply held values and beliefs – but they are an attempt to provide some sense of how we could get better at not only making decisions, but also of being aware of the reasons why we are making those decisions in the first place. The goal for disciplined enquiry is, then, to try ti find ways to override system one intuition, and activiate system two consideration.

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Identifying inconsistency

One example Klein uses to illustrate the trigger of identifying inconsistency is the case of an American police officer who whilst following a new car is struck by the strange behaviour of the man in the passenger seat. Following the car, which is otherwise being driven normally, the officer notices the passenger appear to stub a cigarette out on the seat. What he witnesses is at odds with his understanding of what people normally do when riding as passengers in new cars. As a result he decides to pull the car over – an action that leads to an arrest, when it turns out that the car has in fact been stolen.

There are several ways a disciplined enquirer can set out to deliberately create this kind of inconsistency of thought – the sort of cognitive dissonance that might lead to a useful new insight into an aspect of pedagogy. One obvious way is to actively seek out alternative views or dissenting voices. Rather than always being surrounded by likeminded opinions, whether online or in the staffroom, teachers wishing to improve their practice should spend time listening to the views of those with contrary positions. This approach helps to avoid groupthink and fosters the kind of self-questioning that might shed light on an area of practice previously hidden.

Spotting coincidence

Unlike the trigger of identifying inconsistency, the trigger of spotting coincidence is about looking for similarities and patterns between phenomena and using these revealed relationships to build new insights. One of Klein’s examples of how spotting coincidence can change understanding and lead to meaningful changes in practice involves the American physician, Michael Gottilieb. After noticing connections between the symptoms of a number of his homosexual patients in the early 1980s, Gottilieb began to realise that what he was actually dealing with was something very different and very important from what he had previously experienced. His insights led him to publish the first announcement of the AIDS epidemic.

There are two crucial aspects of this story in respect of disciplined enquiry. The first is that Gottilieb’s insight didn’t happen overnight. It was slow process over a long period of time involving the gradual noticing of patterns that could not initially be attributed to something already known. Too often us teachers try to make too many changes to our practices too quickly, without understanding or assessing their impact. The second important point is how much Gottilieb retained his focus – he didn’t just notice something once, think it was interesting and then move on; instead he relentlessly pursued an emerging pattern, consciously noting down his observations, until he could formulate his observations into something more concrete and usable.

One of the key things that leads to developing new insights is thus a combination of time and deliberate attention: being alive to the possibility that two or three things that have something in common may lead to something more meaningful, or they may not. As the name suggests, disciplined enquiry involves disciplined focus, something so often overlooked in education in the scramble to share untested best practice. It is far better to isolate one or two variables in the classroom and look to notice their impact on student learning, than to proceed on a whim.

Escaping an empasse

Perhaps the most poignant story in Klein’s book is the story of a group of smokejumers who were parachuted into the hills of Montana in 1949 in an attempt to control a large forest fire that was spreading quickly. The firefighters were soon caught in the fire themselves which was moving swiftly up the side of the grassy hillside. The men tried to outrun the fire, but sadly only two of the original 15 made it to the top. The other 13 could not run fast enough and were consumed by the onrushing flames.

One of the two men to survive was Wagner Dodge who, like the others, initially tried to outrun the flames, but, unlike the others, realised that this wasn’t going to work and unless he did something different he would die. His quick-thinking insight was to set fire to a patch of grass ahead of him, thus creating an area of safety where he could stand with the fire deprived of its fuel. In a moment of literal life and death decision-making, Dodge had arrived at a creative solution that had unfortunately passed his friends by. Out of desperation, Dodge had discarded his intuition (to run), and thought hard about a radical solution (to cut of the fire’s fuel source).

Obviously, as important as teaching is, it is not really a profession that rests on life or death decisions. That said, there are aspects from the story of the Colorado smokejumpers, in particular the counterintuitive actions of Wagner Dodge, that a disciplined enquirer can learn from in an effort to increase their chances of generating new insights. Foremost amongst those lessons, is the way that a fixed condition – in this case the fire sweeping up the fireside – forced Dodge to focus on the other variables open to him. It may be that self-imposed limitations, such as deadlines, parameters for recording reflections or routines of practice, rather than stifle thinking, may actually encourage new ways of seeing. Being forced to consider all possibilities, including rejecting existing ideas and beliefs, could enhance our ability to make great sense of student interaction or learning. After all, the famous Pomodoro Technique is largely predicated on the notion that short bursts of focused, time-bound thinking produce much better results that longer, drawn out periods of study.

Disciplined enquiry is not easy and does make demands on what is already a very demanding job. That said, if there is a framework and culture that supports disciplined enquiry and makes the systematic study of one or two areas of improvement routine, then I think it could be a powerful means of both individual teacher and whole school improvement. What this framework might look like will be the subject of my next post.