Teaching as Inquiry in ECE – What, Why and How To

Benefits, Method and Tips – Jane Warnock Explains

“Teaching as Inquiry ultimately benefits self and puts you in the forefront in ‘what you do’ that benefits the children. It should be part of your day, not an addition to what you already do.”

Jane Warnock

In New Zealand, teachers are required to undergo an annual appraisal process, a big part of which is showing development and growth in your teaching practice, and linked to teaching standards.  Teachers and centres have a lot of leeway as to how they do this.  Until recently, reflective practice was the main approach, but in the last couple of years “teaching as inquiry” has become more prevalent because:

  • It encourages a more proactive mindset
  • Research topics accommodate more team collaboration

It is important to note for New Zealanders that the Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand does not recommend one over the other, but does insist that some kind of demonstration of growth in relation to standards form part on the appraisal process.

This post summarizes a webinar by an educational leader with 40 years’ experience, Jane Warnock, from longtime Educa customer Tui Early Learners in Palmerston North, New Zealand. The centre won this year’s Westpac Manawatu Business Award, which recognise the ‘smartest, savviest and strongest businesses’ in the  country and placed early childhood education at the forefront.

Internal Evaluations vs Teaching As Inquiry (TAI)

Centre-wide internal evaluations by the Education Review Office (ERO) [in New Zealand] are all about improved outcomes for children.  And so the evaluation is about the children, and, of course, the process is a collaboration benefiting all of the learning community.

By contrast, Jane says “Teaching as Inquiry ultimately benefits the self. It’s putting you in the forefront and what you do that benefits the children. It should be part of your day, not an addition to what you already do,”

In fact, there’s no reason why you can’t start a ‘Teaching as Inquiry’ or ‘Teacher as Inquirer’ approach today, she prompts.

“Focus on an area of teaching you want to refine, strengthen and revisit. Have a curiosity mindset.”

What sparks an inquiry?

Warnock presented a recent Educa webinar, Teaching as inquiry – What is this all about?, in late 2018. She says an inquiry could be sparked by:

  • something working really well,
  • a problem – problems can be from a positive perspective – or
  • a hunch or a trigger about something

that could benefit you as an educator or the children for their growing and learning.

“TAI is about being involved in sustained research and investigations; taking responsibility and enacting change. It’s about enriching your teaching, knowledge, meeting the Standards for our sector, being a researcher, exploring pedagogy and being, sharing, taking and having responsibility within a culture of inquiry. Warnock acknowledges Te Kopae Piripono’s approach to considering all forms of responsibility for self and within a wider community context.

Adapting a template to fit

Her provocation to educators was to explore what would be a best-fit template for them to explore TAI as an individual or as a whole centre. Her centre took 18 months to finesse their version, which works well to boost accountability and it’s always evolving.

Warnock suggested using the following questions to create your own template for Appraisal of ‘Teaching as Inquiry’:

  • A TAI question (an example: what do effective relationships look like in my practice and across the centre’s curriculum (capturing every component of the centre)?
  • What relevant professional standards do I see this inquiry/goal linking to (list the indicators)?
  • Which bicultural competencies will be demonstrated through this inquiry goal (or list others)?
  • Best practice indicators in two or three succinct statements that is based on credible research and reflects your inquiry questions
  • To plan and work through this goal, I need to ask the following inquiry question: how does this inquiry relate to my job description?
  • Does this inquiry link to our strategic guiding document, centre annual plan, internal evaluation strategy plan; is it regular or emergent and how?
  • What are learners’ needs?
  • What are my learning needs?
  • How will I develop this new learning/knowledge that is needed and what evidence should I collect?
  • What are the current practice and understandings?

Educa Note: Educa customers can set up standard questions in their teacher portfolio to help teachers through this process.  If you’d like more details, consider creating an inquiry template in Forms.

A spiral, not a cycle

Warnock tipped her hat to researchers Timperley, Halbert & Kaser (2014)[1] for describing TAI as a spiral rather than a cycle of inquiry.

“TAI is a process to reflect on practice using a TAI template to carry out your plan, gather evidence, reflect, share, analyse, evaluate and monitor, but instead of looking like a cycle, it is now starting to  look more like a spiral with lots of backwards and forwards, that’s an iterative process.

“This is where my eyes really open to TAI. We have implemented it as a cycle. However, through the whole researcher and investigation approach, we can also see our cycle as a spiral of inquiry. The spiral process slows us down.

“Inquiry is uncertainty, I so agree with that there are no set time frames. Inquiry is a way of being: what are you learning, why, how, when, what and where? Those are the fundamental questions that all come through. It should be something that comes through in your everyday practices,” she says.

The need to document

Warnock said a key component of TAI was documenting what you’re doing and reflections.

“We have a phrase: if it’s not written, it didn’t happen. If you’re seeing something happen and it relates to your inquiry, it’s important to document that reflectively so you can add that to your inquiry and evidence gathering.”

Put aside an hour each week of your own time to write-up your TAI – that’s four hours a month and, when you consider holidays and sick leave, then 48 hours per year is reasonable, she suggests.

“What you can achieve in a year, it can be manageable. It’s is both a personal and professional journey in committing to and undertaking a TAI in order to add to your own kete [traditional Maori basket] of professional learning and development.

Being mindful of ethics

As well, she urges educators to take an ethical approach in how they gather information, research as well as engage colleagues, parents, children in the process.

It’s also important to acknowledge where your information comes from to give those researchers or theorists credit in your documentation. This is the key to ‘triangulating’ your critical inquiry to be fully effective – describing the situation, naming the learning with linking to theory, and including the impact on you as a teacher, she says. These three steps are imperative; one does not go without the other.

Transforming learning for many

This is the work that’s needed to really improve and transform outcomes for children, educators and the wider learning community, Warnock argues.

“TAI is a journey as part of your teaching. It’s your responsibility to be the best teacher as inquirer you can be,” she says.

Learn more about Educa’s teacher portfolio here.  To watch a replay of this Educa webinar or others visit this page.


Related Links:

Tui Early Learners Childcare Centres, New Zealand, home page

Teaching as Inquiry evaluation report – Education Review Office, New Zealand

Centre of Innovation Research Report of the Te Kōpae Piripono Māori immersion early childhood centre in New Zealand, 2008

[1] Timperley, H, Kaser, L, & Halbert, J. [2014]. A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education, New Zealand, Seminar Series 234, report

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