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Albany Senior High School – Teaching as Inquiry as a model of professional learning

Albany Senior High School's Teaching as Inquiry model supports teachers to reflect on the quality of their teaching in the context of problem solving. The model of distributed leadership encourages leaders and teachers to work together to examine their practice of and beliefs about teaching and learning, and to take responsibility for the learning of each student. 

Importantly, the school leaders demonstrate that making change in a school is not a straightforward process, it’s an ongoing process of trial and error, and of negotiation.

Albany Senior High School in Auckland is a co-educational secondary school catering for students in years 11 to 15. The school, opened in 2009, aims to remain a "new" school through continual development based on high quality and current educational research.

These video clips are taken from a Spotlight presentation to the ULearn conference in October 2015 by principal Barbara Cavanagh and associate principal Miranda Makin. Their presentation, under the title "Leaders Growing Leaders", covers the implementation of effective Teaching as Inquiry in the school. You can view the complete presentation on YouTube.


The value of teaching as inquiry

Principal, Barbara Cavanagh and associate principal Miranda Makin discuss the value of teaching as inquiry and the difference it has made to their and their teachers’ professional practice. 


Barbara Cavanagh: 
The thing that I’m most proud of is our professional inquiry model. I get absolutely emotional, I have to say, when our teachers are presenting. We have a Tuesday morning presentation, and sometimes I’m listening to these teachers, and I’m thinking, “Whoa, you don’t know what a big shift you have made, and you don’t know how unusual that is to make that shift.  

Miranda Makin:
The exciting thing for us about Teaching as Inquiry, was that it was a model of professional learning that actually took into account how unique every single teacher’s individual classroom is. You know, from the different students that are coming into your classroom at the different times of day, um, the different subject areas, the different ages. Because it is such a unique mix the response, your teaching response, has to be able to meet the needs of those unique learners, at that time. 

So, Teaching as Inquiry allows us to be responsive, to meet our students’ needs. So that was a huge change from that “one size fits all” kind of professional development that a lot of us, certainly I’ve been brought up (with) and I was very used to.  

Viviane Robinson’s work and Mei Lai’s work, um, puts teaching practice in a context of problem solving. And what I mean by that is  every time we go to make a practice decision, we are sometimes on the trot making lots and lots of these decisions every day, but we’re making a decision of what is best going to meet the learning needs of my students in front of me now, to get them to the place I need to be.  

And the reason I want to talk about these practice solutions, is because often we’re making these decisions based on what we know to be deep seated truths and beliefs about our students.  

Sometimes these beliefs are flawed.  

And one of the wonderful things, if we do inquiry well, if we do it rigorously, we can actually begin to uncover some of those beliefs that we have about groups of students, and Barbara you were talking about...

These generalisations are not helpful. You know, and if so we can uncover those beliefs then we can start to think to think differently about the possible solutions.  

And that opens up a whole new repertoire in our practice. It increases our quality practice because we have more repertoire to draw on to meet the needs, the many needs, of the students that present in front of us.  

Teaching as Inquiry is a way that we can interrupt those automatic solutions, practice solutions, that we come up with.

Reflective questions

  • What are the unique needs of the students in your classroom/s?
  • What deep seated beliefs about teaching and learning do you have that might need to be examined?
  • What is the best way to go about this? 

Developing and refining the professional learning model

Miranda Makin discusses the development of the Teaching as Inquiry process at Albany High School, from using the model in the New Zealand Curriculum to one refined by the school to fit their circumstances. 



Miranda Makin:
What we found when we started, and we started by just implementing the model from the New Zealand Curriculum. We did training around it, we worked with staff on it, we had a focus group of teachers and middle leaders, and a senior leader, who worked with staff to develop our approach.

And then we gave good time to it too. We spent a lot of time. We don’t do any other professional, (you know, kind of) compulsory professional learning as a school, it is all professional inquiry. That’s what we spend our time on, and we dedicate our time to. 

And we also try and share our learning by presenting with each other. So we put aside, in the past we put aside half a day to present our learning together, to share what we’ve learned.

What I found really interesting watching this learning was the variety of learning that people would bring to the table. Some seemed deep and rigorous and was going to make a difference for our students, and for the students in the classroom. And some of the inquiries that were being presented were just (um, you know), were driven by interests of teachers which were quite separate to the students in the classroom.

So we started to talk about this as a senior leadership team. The other thing that I was really interested in at the time. I was (I was) actually quite taken by one person’s presentation. The thing that struck me about it was the level of ownership she took for those students who failed. She owned their failure. And that was hugely motivating for her. She believed that she had (control) the ability to  to open up the opportunities to achieve for those students. And she did that.

So my motivation when I was starting to investigate the variation of the ways inquiries were enacted. Um, I wanted to see if motivation, if people believed the situations was urgent, would it be a more successful inquiry for them, because I looked at her inquiry. A huge success change for these students and I thought, “Gosh!” She felt it was a successful inquiry. 

As a senior leader how do you help people get successful inquiries. You can’t direct people entirely, so how do you do that?

I wanted to figure it out. So I did some research around that - found out, bottom line – teachers motivations for doing their inquiries when they were around student engagement, student achievement.

Barbara suggested, and I think it was a brilliant suggestion, and staff breathed a sigh of relief.

The model of Teaching as Inquiry when you’re first trying to get to grips with it. Where do you start, what do you do?

We knew we wanted to start with the students in the class and make a difference for those that were in crisis.  So we turned this into a linear model.

As we’re becoming more confident with it, I don’t think it’s as necessary, but boy, we had to develop our expertise and confidence to start with.

Reflective questions

  • Who takes responsibility for student achievement in your classroom/s?
  • Do you see under achievement as urgent, even a crisis? Do your students?

Key steps to success

Miranda Makin identifies the key steps in their development of effective Teaching as Inquiry.


Miranda Makin:
We actually asked teachers to name the student. You know, if you name the student – that’s a learning relationship, a learning contract you have with that student. It makes it harder to wiggle out and to say it doesn’t matter. You know who that student is that you’re intending to make a difference for.

We asked people to identify (you know, um) a crisis in the classroom, and the crisis, and I know it sounds like deficit theorising, but the intent of that was not to be deficit at all. It was to identify the students who were present for the teaching, but didn’t get it.

Their learning needs were not met, so they were in crisis. Their opportunities are in crisis. So we wanted people to use data to help them justify the students that they were going to make a difference for who had not found achievement yet.

At a senior school our students choose the subjects they want to be in. They all expect that they will have some level of success in their subjects – they’ve chosen to be there. So it’s our job to actually find that success for them.

The other thing that you’ll see here is about theories. Putting your theories of what created that learning need on the table.

It actually helped to distance people’s deep beliefs. You’re not putting your belief on the table, something that you own and then could feel like a personal attack.

It’s just a theory of what might be. It may be wrong, it may be right, but it offers up that opportunity for scrutiny around your beliefs, and looking for confirming and disconfirming data.

We also asked. We know for learning that different views, different theories are really important. Understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve – with your practice solutions, understanding that in different ways

So you’ll see that we’ve asked for different theories from different people within the school, including students. And I know that this isn’t rocket science at all, but I was amazed how many people bypass students who probably know their learning needs pretty well and what they didn’t get. And to include them in the conversation is really powerful for our teachers this year, ‘cause we’ve really made that a driving focus.

Reflective questions

  • How do you use data to improve teaching and learning? Can you put names to that data?
  • Do you include the students in your inquiries about their learning?

Distributed leadership and next steps

Miranda Makin and Barbara Cavanagh discuss their present stage of the Teaching as Inquiry process, growing the capacity of the middle leaders to help teachers inquire more rigorously. 


Miranda Makin:
We at our school have brought in a more distributed leadership model, and I don’t think it’s different in many other schools to be honest, where middle leaders take a lot of responsibility to support the professional learning of teaching staff.

And so we have timetabled meetings for our middle leaders to meet with staff, to talk about the process and how the learning’s going for them, as well as having time to talk to other colleagues and teachers.

Our thoughts around that were that middle leaders would be able to help teachers inquire more rigorously, to learn more effectively. No, I mean that’s what the big push is always. How do we support that?

But we didn’t know if that was working. 

So that leads us to the next part, or the next where we’re at, probably at the moment of, “Well what, what are the kinds of interactions for middle leaders with teachers in professional inquiry?“

That brings me to the research that I’ve just finished. It was looking at... OK, we made assumptions that distributing leadership of teaching inquiry was going to be really useful, really helpful – effect learning, support learning. So we put this system in place, but we didn’t really know what was happening.

So I thought it was a great opportunity to find out about that human side of the routine. How were we enacting the conversations that matter together – between leaders, and between teachers? 

The new meaning for me that I took away from this in terms of leadership is that our job, if we are leading learning, is that we must create space no matter which teacher we are working with, whether they already know the answer or they don’t.

We need to create space with that teacher, to work with that teacher, to learn. So it is a conception of leadership which is around the leader learning alongside the teacher learning.

Where you don’t hold stuff back, where you share what you’re thinking and say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this. Let’s go and find more evidence to figure out what direction we should take.”

As a leader you’re not being strong, you’re not being weak either. You’re being made, you’re showing what you’re thinking. You’re making yourself a bit more more vulnerable. It’s what you’re expecting of your teachers. So making yourself more vulnerable in the pursuit of better evidence because the more robust that evidence is, the better practice decisions we will be making. And that’s what we all want, because that will make a difference for our students.

Barbara Cavanagh:
You’ve got a responsibility to be a leader. And that’s what you need to be in this school, a leader. And you need to be having conversations with your teams all the time whatever teams you’re in, whatever teams they are.

How are we going to make… How is the lot for every single student in this school going to be better for my having been here?

Reflective questions

  • How can Teaching as Inquiry be implemented to make a difference for each individual student?
  • How can we make it a shared responsibility between leaders, teachers and students?
  • What values underpin the engagement between leaders and teachers in your school?

Download copies of the documents referenced in the video clips.

PDF icon. ASHS Inquiry diagram translated to a linear model (PDF 113 KB)

PDF icon. A new conception of leadership (PDF 112 KB)