Mills Teacher Scholars is a teacher learning program of the Mills College School of Education. We partner with schools and districts to support teacher-led inquiry work.
When introduced to our program, many people have questions about the specific nature of Mills Teacher Scholars approach to inquiry and about what this work looks like in practice.
What is inquiry?
Inquiry for Mills Teacher Scholars is about looking closely with colleagues to understand what is happening for students. It’s not a fancy extra research project, but rather it’s about having supported time to better understand how students are thinking and learning in your classroom.
How is Mills Teacher Scholars different from other forms of professional development?
There are a few key unique aspects to the Mills Teacher Scholars work:
- Mills Teacher Scholars is teacher-led—the teacher decides what questions she/he wants to ask, what data would give relevant information, and who the focal students should be.
- Mills Teacher Scholars puts understanding students at the heart of teacher collaboration.
- Mills Teacher Scholars considers “data” to include anything that gives us information about how students are thinking, feeling, and learning.
- Mills Teacher Scholars assumes that adults need support in having productive learning conversations and builds the adult coaching skills of the participants.
- Mills Teacher Scholars looks at student learning over time. High leverage competencies (discussion skills, writing skills, reading comprehension, analytical thinking, problem solving) are built over time. To understand if instructional strategies are supporting students, teachers need to be supported to look over time at student learning.
What are some examples of teacher inquiry projects?
We want to dispel that this has to be a complicated research project and show that it is simply about systematically reflecting on students’ learning with colleagues
- “I have my kids turn and talk all day but I actually have no idea how/if it is building their idea development” (teacher records the turn and talk conversations to understand what is happening and shifts instruction based on what she learns).
- “I’m not sure when a sentence frame is a support and when it is limiting my students’ thinking” (teacher experiments with using and not using sentence frames).
- “I’ve been having my students do writing journals for 5 years because someone told me it builds fluency, but I have no idea if that is actually happening” (teacher looks with colleagues at writing journals over time to see if there is development in fluency and shifts instruction based on what she learns).
When does the inquiry work happen?
Teacher scholars do their inquiry work in the monthly, facilitated inquiry sessions where they have time to think alone and think together with colleagues about their inquiry work. The work between the sessions is to identify and collect the data you want to look at with colleagues.
What is involved in the inquiry process?
- Identifying an area of focus
- Selecting focal students
- Choosing a routine data source
- Looking collaboratively over time at student learning and changing your teaching as you come to new understandings about how students are thinking and learning
- Going public (in small or large ways) with what you have learned
Why is inquiry helpful for teacher learning and instructional improvement?
- The idea that floats around in the mainstream is that teachers are supposed to know everything and be completely certain when, in reality, the work of teaching and learning is uncertain. Every school year, teachers encounter new uncertainties as they grapple with new curricula, new standards, new assessments, and new students from diverse backgrounds. Inquiry acknowledges this uncertainty and insists that we look to see what is happening for students.
- We are so busy doing and planning that sometimes we don’t have time to make sense of our students’ thinking in order to guide our teaching practice. To best serve our students, we have to adopt an inquiry stance and learn systematically by looking at student data to see what is really happening for our learners, becoming clearer about our expectations for students, and wondering how we can create learning experiences that help students achieve our learning goals.
- Teaching can feel isolating, which is not conducive to teacher or student learning. If we want to become smarter about our students’ thinking and our teaching practice, we need to create a safe space for teachers to support and push each other in their meaning-making together and come to shared understandings.