4 Steps of Inquiry That Help Principals Improve Instruction

August 11, 2015   |   By Sandy Austin, Project Director, University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL)


When principals are asked what prevents them from focusing on instructional quality in their school, the number one answer is: time. It’s true, time is always a concern for principals, but it is not the only one.

At the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) we have found that even when principals carve out the time to improve instruction, they are often at a loss for what to do.

Over the years, we have developed an instructional leadership inquiry cycle tool that helps principal supervisors and principals to collaboratively engage in a continuous process of instructional improvement and analysis.

Let’s take a closer look at this inquiry cycle and see how taking an “inquiry stance” can become a way of working in our schools.

Step I: Analyze evidence

In the first step, principal supervisors and principals use student test scores, self-assessments, classroom observations and observations of principal practice to identify the most pressing student learning problems and any associated teaching and leadership problems of practice.

For example, a student-learning problem could be that English Language Learners (ELL) struggle with comprehension of mathematics problems and cannot explain their thinking to others. The corresponding teaching problem of practice could be that teachers need to better teach the vocabulary and the processes for students to engage in effective mathematical discourse.

Step II: Determine a focus

After defining the learning and teaching problems, a team consisting of a principal and a principal supervisor analyzes evidence to identify a principal instructional leadership area of focus.

Such an area of focus could be — following the example from above — for a principal to find out about the resources available for teaching school leaders and staff what mathematical discourse looks and sounds like in a fifth grade math classroom.

One important thing to remember in this phase: be sure to surface the current realities of student learning, and teaching and leadership practice to project what would count as evidence of success at the close of the cycle.

Step III: Implement & support

Creating an implementation and support plan is the next step in the process. Typically, a principal supervisor and principal set up a series of learning activities together based on the principal’s and teachers’ learning needs to improve student learning in the identified area of need for this cycle.

Learning activities need to be carefully designed to improve principal practice in the identified area of need. Keep in mind that these are learning activities — and not steps that the principal is expected to take on his or her own — since it was clearly established that the principal does not know how to do these activities without additional learning or support.

Step IV: Analyze impact

Analyzing impact is the step in the inquiry process that principals and their supervisors often skip. This is unfortunate because collecting evidence and analyzing results generated by the actions taken is crucial to building a virtuous cycle of instructional improvement.

To share the project results, principals often prepare a written reflection on the changes in student learning, and teacher and principal practice. After presenting this reflection to the principal supervisor or colleagues, the principal/principal supervisor team can decide whether to continue with the current cycle or begin anew.

Impact on Practice

Getting this process up and running is not easy. But when it grows and takes root it is a powerful force for instructional improvement.

Because school leaders are getting results, they have a greater sense of accomplishment, which increases their motivation to continue to dedicate time to focus on instructional leadership. 

To learn more about how CEL’s cycle of inquiry tool can help you improve instructional practice, watch our webinar and download additional planning resources from the BloomBoard Marketplace.

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