The inquiry approach

    “Teaching effectiveness is determined by the quality of inquiry into the relationship between teacher actions and student learning.”

This alternative view conceptualises teaching effectiveness in a way that addresses the problems raised in the discussion of style and outcomes. 

Put simply, this approach argues that effective teachers inquire into the relationship between what they do (style) and what happens for students (outcomes). 

But effective teachers do more than simply inquire (or reflect) – they take action (in relation to what they are doing in the classroom) to improve the outcomes for students and continue to inquire into the value of these interventions. 

Thus effective teaching is more than style and it is more than outcomes – it is the continual interrogation of the relationship between these two dimensions with the aim of enhancing student achievement.  

Such a model implies particular attitudes or dispositions – open-mindedness, fallibility – and particular actions – questioning students about what they are understanding – but it does not prescribe or checklist such qualities. It simply prescribes inquiry, action and the search for improvement.

The dimensions of this inquiry model are illustrated are illustrated in figure 3. The inquiry model depicts two phases of inquiry:

Inquiry 1

This inquiry focuses on the impact of teaching actions on student outcomes. Central to this inquiry is the collection and analysis of high quality evidence based on the key question: “What is happening for students in my classroom?” and sub-questions that explore the relationship between teaching actions and student learning.

Inquiry 2

This inquiry focuses on identifying possibilities for improvement sourced in the experiences of other teachers (craft knowledge) and from research. Inquiry 2 adopts a different approach to such evidence than the style-based approach describer earlier. 

Craft and research knowledge are not regarded as absolutes to be applied in all circumstances. They are regarded as the source of working hypotheses for enhancing the relationship between teacher actions and student learning. As such, they too need to be evaluated in the particular context within which the teacher is teaching.

The cycle of inquiry established by the processes of Inquiry 1 and Inquiry 2 enhances the opportunity to learn for the teacher, in the sense that they are learning about the impact of their own practice, and for the students, in the sense that changed teacher practices are aimed at increasing student engagement and success.

Figure 3: Teaching effectiveness as inquiry

The approach to teaching effectiveness requires particular knowledge and skills, and attitudes.

Knowledge and skills

Knowledge and skills relate to such areas as:

  • how to pose questions that capture the main dimensions of the relationship between teaching and learning 
  • how to collect valid and reliable information that helps answer the questions about the relationship between teaching and learning
  • how to analyse data to identify patterns and issues
  • how to observe and analyse the teaching of others in ways that identifies actions that impact positively on student learning
  • how to locate and evaluate research that provides strong evidence of impacts on student learning.


These may be even more important than knowledge and skills because they are so influential on the willingness to learn and apply the knowledge and skill. They are also more difficult to develop.


  • to advancing knowledge about personal practice. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) refer to this as adopting an “inquiry stance” that is deliberate and systematic. They do not deny that much inquiry and action in teaching is, and needs to be, spontaneous but the inquiry stance implies a genuine willingness to re-search one’s own teaching – to open it to ordered and intentional analysis and critique.
  • to ideas from all sources. In searching for possibilities for improvement (Inquiry 2) it is easy to drawn to the ideas that are familiar and to restrict ourselves to sources that support our beliefs (about the “right” way to teach). As Popper (1965) has explained, however: There are no ultimate sources of knowledge. Every source, every suggestion, is welcome; and every source, every suggestion is open to critical examination ... The proper epistemological question is not one about sources; rather we ask whether the assertion made is true – that is to say, whether it agrees with the facts... And we try to find this out, as well as we can, by examining or testing the assertion itself; either in a direct way, or by examining or testing its consequences. (p. 27)


Phillips and Burbules (2000) refer to three dimensions of fallibility:

  • understanding and accepting that in an area such as education there are no absolute truths. As Bruner commented: I should warn you ... to beware of the likes of us. We do not have a tested theory of instruction to offer you. I warn you for good reason.  Educators are a curiously doctrinal or ideological people. You are given to slogans and fight and bleed on their behalf. You have looked to psychology to help and have often been misled into accepting mere hypothesis as the proven word. There are two cautions here – the caution about certainty, but also the caution about ideological conservatism in teaching. Such cautions do not mean, however, that one idea is as good as any other.  Some are better supported by evidence than others and we should certainly seek out those with the most competent warrants to back up their claims. No matter how powerful their support, however, they are only ever our best conjectures or working hypotheses.
  • understanding that our hypotheses may fail but that it is important to keep searching because “to give up the quest is knowingly to settle for beliefs that will almost certainly be defective” (p. 3)
  • accepting that our own ideas and beliefs, no matter how powerfully held, might be wrong – in Oliver Cromwell’s famous words “My brethren, by the bowels of Christ I beseech you, bethink that you might be mistaken.” This means not searching only for the fragments of evidence that might “prove” our pet theories right but increasing the strength of their warrant by searching for evidence that indicates the approach might not be working (for particular outcomes, with particular students, in particular contexts).


Cochran-Smith, M. Lytle, S. (Eds.) (1993). Inside/Outside: teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Popper, K. (1965). Conjectures and Refutations. New York: Basic. 6

Phillips, D.C. Burbules, N. C. (2000). Postpositivism and educational research. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. 

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