Practitioner Research

Leading Learning Through Collaborative Enquiry

George Gilchrist, Headteacher at Parkside and Ancrum Primary Schools, Scottish Borders Council, has provided the following article discussing how collaborative enquiry is used as a model for professional learning in the schools he leads.

Leading Learning Through Collaborative Enquiry

Leading Learning Through Collaborative EnquiryThe schools I lead are now into their sixth year of using practitioner enquiry as an approach to professional and school development. This has been a roller-coaster of a ride for myself and the rest of the staff. What I think we would all agree on is that the journey has been well worth the ups and downs of the ride. All the teachers have grown and developed their understandings and their practice, as have I and the rest of the SMT. So, as a leader, what is it you may need to consider and address to give such an approach the optimum chance to succeed and result in embedded benefits of your learners, teachers and yourselves?

The very first step is to ensure you have a culture and ethos that can support collaborative enquiry and which is based firmly on personal and professional trust. If there are low levels of trust, there will be equally low levels of engagement and therefore impact. Such an approach requires practitioners to identify what they need to do to improve, and to articulate what they don’t understand. This will never happen if the culture is one where you would not feel safe, feel you were being judged, or even be criticised, to openly express and expose your areas for development publicly. If people don’t feel safe and supported they are unlikely to open up so that they can identify how they can get better, ‘not because they are not good enough, but because we can all get better’ as Dylan Wilam expresses it. So spend time to build that trust.

Collaboration and openness are also key. Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris and many others have demonstrated the power of professional dialogue and collaboration to schools, teachers and systems. Helen Timperly notes that ‘it is no longer acceptable for professionals in schools to do their individual best. Rather, it is expected that they will engage collectively with what is known to be effective in improving outcomes for all students.’ For collaborative enquiry to have the biggest impacts it needs to be a collective and collaborative approach – it is what it says on the can. The schools I work in have always been collaborative, but if this is not the norm in your school, you need to promote, establish and support such practice. As Ken Blanchard notes, ‘none of us is as bright as all of us.’ We need to harness then unleash the power of collaboration.

The next consideration is about pace. Pace has become a mantra and a bit of a weight around the neck of schools for a number of years now. Pace has been equated by many in the system with speed, and we have been encouraged to do more and do it quicker. I would argue that to really develop collaborative enquiry as an approach, we need to slow down the pace of development and give ourselves and our teachers the time and the space to engage in a meaningful way. This is not a ‘quick-fix’ approach and for it be embedded into the school’s DNA you have to give it the time and attention required. You might need to create the space in you development activities by reducing these and accepting you could do less, but do it better.

If collaborative enquiry is worth engaging with, I would also argue that it is important that school leaders and their management teams are part of that engagement too. This is not another ‘thing’ to do, but needs to be a ‘golden thread’ found in everything you do. If we are truly promoting professional collaboration it is important we are part of that collaboration. This is not hierarchical or a ‘top down’ approach. This is an approach that can be key to improving learning and teaching and therefore the school senior management need to be active participants. If you are not actively involved you will be unsure how development is shaping, be unable to support your teachers properly and will not be aware of problems and issues as they arise so that you can make adjustments in the light of this information. Like many aspects of development in school, leaders need to lead, but be wary of directing, such an approach.

The other message I would give to school leaders is that once you go down this route it would be very difficult to go back. But, why would you want to? If your teachers are constantly reflecting on their practice, engaging in professional reading, being informed by data, collaborating and engaging in high level dialogue, and are focused very much on improved impacts for learners, how could you wish for much more? You have a staff that is developing and growing collectively and collaboratively and, as a consequence, so will your schools. I would also add, that we have a growing body of evidence that, as a result of such professional collaboration and enquiry, we have improved outcomes for all our learners, including those most at risk because of deprivation factors. We are working hard to close the gap and allow all our learners to have the opportunity to achieve their potential and succeed in their lives.

Academic Research

Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by Edward Sosu and Sue Ellis from University of Strathclyde explores issues around the education attainment gap associated with poverty in Scotland. This is a significant issue in Scottish education and it is important that all in the education system can better understand what the issues are and look at ways to take action to help close this gap. This relates well to the values embedded in the GTCS Standards and the importance of social justice.

The summary report is available below:

You can view the full version at:

Teachers’ perceptions of pupil active citizenship and the transition from primary to secondary school

Previously, Jane Brown ( and Hamish Ross ( of The University of Edinburgh looked at teachers’ perceptions of primary-secondary transition and school citizenship. Although there have been significant studies of both transition and school citizenship, including in Scotland, the relationship between the two is internationally under-researched. The researched involved four clusters, 17 schools and 53 teachers and was funded by the Gordon Cook Foundation. A summary of the project along with the full project report can be found in the Useful Links section.

Interested in primary-secondary transition? There are lots of references in the report (researched in late 2012) but Jane and Hamish suggest these as starters and explain why:

In conversation….

One School’s Journey into Practitioner Enquiry

In conversation with George Roberts, Headteacher of Danestone Primary School in Aberdeen City, we explore how he and his team have developed a learning culture in the school to become an community of enquiry.

One School’s Journey into Practitioner Enquiry

One School’s Journey into Practitioner Enquiry

We know we are at the start of a journey and it’s a slow process but it is important that the team feel we are all learning together and sharing our learning. It was important to me, as Headteacher, that I shared the learning experience with the team. Most of us were anxious by the thoughts of and the myths around Practitioner Enquiry. Was it like doing a PhD? Was I going to manage doing an enquiry alongside the busyness of school? Did everyone else know what they are doing? Then we stopped and reflected and realised that it was a journey but we were travelling together as a staff and we were supporting each other. We also had amazing support from Bill Lucas, University of Winchester, Centre for Real-World Learning through the Expansive Education Network and also from Aberdeen University School of Education. As with all changes there were people who are very confident and embraced the idea immediately, our pioneers, and others who needed more support to become more confident before we all began Practitioner Enquiry. I believe in giving every support to staff but this comes with high expectations to make the most of all opportunities so we can improve our knowledge and understanding to support our learners.

The support from the University of Winchester’s Professor Bill Lucas and Professor Do Coyle, from University of Aberdeen School of Education, was invaluable. Bill supported us through the Expansive Education Network, of which we are members, by doing sessions for staff both face to face and by recording session that we could refer back to. Bill helped to dispel the myths around research and supported us in our research methodology. This support helped us to focus our research questions into something tangible and more importantly do-able. Do Coyle was very supportive in facilitating the arrangements of a professional mentor from the University for each member of staff and we hope to make this self-sustaining by our pioneers becoming mentors for our staff and also to support staff across our cluster. The key aspects of the support which helped make this successful are that we now use research as a tool to support improvement and are willing to undertake research to support the aspiration for our pupils.

From a Headteacher’s point of view, I planned to build up capacity to eventually share our individual work across the team, but as these things sometimes do, the critical mass of sharing took over and even though there was no expectation placed on staff to share and adopt practice last session, we have now implemented findings from two enquiries into our practice across the school.

For me, this has been a great experience as a leader and practitioner. The teachers value and support Practitioner Enquiry and are all involved in collaborative working. This sharing has led to the difference between class teachers being narrowed as we have shared and adopted common practice, like John Hattie says the difference between teachers in the same school is greater than the differences between schools and I think that Practitioner Enquiry has helped us in this. All of the staff in their PRD were very positive about their experience of Practitioner Enquiry but our task now is to make it sustainable, make it last, to make it part of who were are. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning with staff and ultimately sharing practice has shaped our pedagogy and each little change makes us better placed to support our children to be the best they can be.

Positive Families

In conversation with Lisa Sturrock, PT Personal Support, Graeme High School, Falkirk, discussing the Positive Families project and her learning through this project

Positive Families

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