School Resources

The spiral of inquiry: An introduction to focusing

Focusing is about establishing the priority for improvement. In this phase teachers use information about students’ strengths and needs gathered during scanning in order to determine where to concentrate their energies to change the experiences and outcomes of students, and what is going to provide the biggest impact. The broad scan will reveal many new perspectives on students’ experiences. The focusing phase narrows and hones the area of investigation. It involves breaking down larger issues into something more workable, and explores close-up questions that offer additional insights. An outcome of the focusing phase might be a working map of the elements that comprise the area that needs improving, and identifying pathways toward potential approaches to trial. Focusing should allow teachers to develop a good idea of where to focus their ongoing inquiry and what it might involve.

A guide to the focusing phase 

Start by interrogating your evidence. Review the data and question your findings, asking ‘how do I know?’ and ‘why does this matter?’ Then create a data overview, a succinct and well-organised summary of data relevant to your question, based on several data sources, in order to provoke thinking and discussion. Share your data with a critical friend or your team. No one can individually identify all of the patterns in the data. Encourage them to ask questions, to challenge your assumptions, and to check your preconceptions and blind spots.

Next you need to select an area of focus. Focus on areas of student learning that are most important and which you have the greatest ability to influence. Be careful not to choose according to your own interests. Ensure that your area of inquiry focuses on investigating teaching practice (rather than, for example, creating a unit of work). Focus on what your scan shows is happening, and don’t introduce completely new areas unrelated to the scanning process. Select key observationsand generate inferences and potential explanations and conclusions for those observations. Avoid jumping to conclusions, but speculate what might be the reasons for the patterns in the data that you identify. 

It is important to ensure the selected focus is manageable: select no more than one or two small and specific areas, and make your inquiry deep and focused but not overly constrained. Sometimes areas are related or reinforce one another and so can be tackled at the same time. Think about how to build on strengths and positives as well as gain clarity on challenges. Consider whether there are common areas that you might collaborate on with other teachers.

Once you have narrowed your area of focus, you need to define the problem. Try to drill down and identify the true root cause of the problem. Continue to collect evidence to clarify what is happening, and avoid jumping to solutions: make sure you understand the issues fully.Ensure your analysis is thoughtful and based on multiple, rich sources of information.

Tools for focusing

The following tools may be useful during the focusing phase, although it is not essential to use these or any other formal tools.

This tool has been designed to help teachers list things that emerged during the scanning phase, to evaluate what’s working well and what’s not, and to consider the amount and quality of data collected prior to selecting an area of focus. It is useful for helping to narrow your focus and identify any areas where you might need to collect a bit more evidence.

PDF file or Word .docx file

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

If you have a general area in need of improvement, use this tool to narrow your focus by identifying the who, what, how and why of your key observations, and what the learning should look like. You can also use it to speculate possible causes of the problem or challenges. A narrow focus will enable you to conduct a tighter and deeper inquiry.

PDF file or Word .docx file

The 5 Whys analysis method is useful for identifying and defining the problem. It can be very difficult to clearly identify the root problem or issue, and this tool helps you to get past symptoms or factors, such as poor student attendance, that may affect a student’s behaviour and motivation in class but are not the true cause of the problem.

PDF file or Word .docx file

Next steps

Before rushing to set a goal and create an action plan you need to work through the next phase in the inquiry spiral – the ‘developing a hunch’ phase. It is important you work through this phase to identify the cause(s) of and how your teaching practice has had an impact on the problem. 


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.