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School Resources

The spiral of inquiry: An introduction to developing a hunch

The aim of this phase of the inquiry is to generate a plausible theory about how particular teaching practices (current or desired) influence learning and outcomes. There are two parts to this phase. The first part involves investigating beliefs and assumptions made about the problem. The second involves making predictions about the impact that possible changes to practice will have on the area of focus. 

It is essential to assess and test the accuracy of assumptions. Assumptions tend to come from personal beliefs, goals and values, past experiences, and perceptions of the context of action. Assumptions that remain private and unchallenged often limit meaningful change in practice.  An effective way to identify and challenge assumptions is to carefully investigate the root causes of a problem, as in the focusing phase of inquiry. 

The second part of this phase builds on work around assumptions by getting teachers to form hunches about the impact that changes they make to their practice will have on their area of focus. The evidence uncovered during the scanning phase will not provide absolute answers about what is going on for students, and developing a hunch provides an opportunity to theorise and think at a deeper level about what is happening and why.  It is often useful to frame a hunch with ‘if, then’ statements, as in the following examples: 

  • If I ask students to articulate their understanding orally before writing, then their writing will demonstrate a deeper understanding of the content.
  • If I provide choice in assignments, such as how many or which examples to complete, then students will be more likely to complete their homework.

Hunches are an opportunity for teachers to put their teaching intuition into play, based on observations and experiences with this group of students. It is important to test hunches by seeking evidence and determining which hunches are most accurate in order to be reasonably confident about what is causing particular outcomes before experimenting with teaching practice in the next phase.

A guide to the developing a hunch phase

The key question to address during this phase is ‘how is my teaching contributing to this situation’?Start by identifying and voicing assumptions.During the focusing phase you will have started to identify the causes and effects of your issue. The causes could be something you’ve done personally or could be categorised by curriculum, methods, policies, procedures, or environment. By identifying the effects of the causes or the issue itself, you will be able to understand the impact the issue has had on students. It is also important to question your teaching beliefs: consider how your beliefs have influenced your actions and the impact they have had on your focus area. Then you can develop a theory of action by listing the actions you have taken in regard to the issue, the beliefs and attitudes that motivated those actions, and the assumptions you had when you took those actions. Interrupt your assumptions and automatic reasoning processes by thinking about and making conscious your assumptions about how you have contributed to existing student outcomes.

The next stage of developing a hunch is to interrogate your thinking by posing questions to critically examine your assumption about the relationship between teaching and learning outcomes in this context. Consider all possible interpretations of the evidence, and develop multiple explanations which may turn into new hunches. It might be helpful to share your inquiry with a colleague or your team to develop a collective set of assumptions. Be cautious about coming to conclusions: for example, there might be a correlation between factors and outcomes rather than causality.

Once you have interrogated your thinking and examined your assumptions, you can begin to create hunches byconstructing ‘if/then’ statements and listing evidence that supports and does not support these statements. Discuss your hunches with others, and be courageous and confident about putting your hunches on the table and challenging well-established routines and structures. It is important to consider and plan how you might (fairly quickly) test out these hunches, which is the final step in this phase of inquiry.

Tools for developing a hunch

The following tools may be useful during the developing a hunch phase, although it is not necessary to use any formal tools.

Use this tool to develop a clear picture of a problem, understand why this problem occurs, and to begin to generate potential ways to address it. This tool works well following on from the 5 Whys Analysis from the focusing phase.Brainstorm possible causes and group them into categories. Some categories could be people, curriculum, methods, policies, procedures, equipment, materials, and the environment. Identify the effects that the causes have on students, staff, the school, and the community. You need a good understanding of the causes and effects of the problem to begin come up with some improvement actions. Try to decide what changes you would like to see, so that in the checking phase you can assess whether your actions have made a difference.

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Use this tool to help you to select an area to focus on. It will help you rate potential areas to address against the level of need, your capacity to make changes, your strengths, challenges, your interest in it, potential to collaborate and ease of assessing progress and change. It’s a very quick tool to use to help you keep moving through the inquiry process.

PDF file or Word .docx file

Use this tool to formulate ‘if, then’ statements and to consider what evidence you will need to collect in order to test your hunch and what further information and professional learning you will need in order to take action.

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Next steps

You can test  your hunches by seeking out evidence to support or dispel your hunches, considering all data rather than just the data that confirms your hunches. Use evidence to confirm or modify a hunch, or reject it and develop a new one. Don’t worry if your hunches don’t have any evidence base: rather, move on to the next phase, professional learning, which may help you to devise and test new hunches. 

References

Handscomb, G., & MacBeath, J. (2006) Professional development through teacher enquiry. SET – Resources for teachers, 1, 40-45.

The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. (2010).Collaborative teacher inquiry: New directions in professional practice. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_SystemLeaders.pdf

Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry (Seminar series 234). Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Education.