Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

1.4.2 The inquiry process: Investigating and questioning practice

While the structure provides the framework for the Network, the core work of the school or district teams is to deeply investigate the learning of their students. To assist in this process, inquiry is structured in a cycle that includes the following elements:[1]

  1. Scanning: This stage requires Network members to ask the question, “What is going on for my/our learners?” This first stage of the inquiry process requires members to examine many different forms of data or information about the learners in their school/classroom. All aspects of learning and student engagement need to be deeply probed, so that social/emotional learning, physical well-being and academic achievement are considered. While student performance indicators can form part of this scanning process, discussions with students as well as personal observations can be central features of this phase. An important scanning practice is to also consider what is known from the study of contemporary educational research. For AESN members, an important consideration is how the principles of Aboriginal pedagogy and cultural knowledge provide important guidance to the analysis of “how” students are doing. Members are also required to review the goals of their local Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement so as to ensure their inquiry meets one of the goals highlighted as important to their district and wider school community.
  2. Focus: In this stage, members ask the question, “What does our focus need to be?” Informed by their initial look at the needs of their learners through the completed scan, members of the Network begin to craft a question that could be answered through investigating and documenting their own efforts to change practices in their classrooms. Here previous questions can be considered, including questions that have been investigated by other Network members with similar or related inquiries into their learners’ successes and needs. Developing a good question for inquiry can take some time, and AESN members are encouraged to continue to revise their initial questions in order to clarify their purposes, foci, and efforts. It is important to note that the inquiry questions can be revised throughout the inquiry cycle in order to better reflect the core purposes of the investigation.
  3. Developing a hunch: In this stage the core question is “What is creating this situation, and how are we contributing to it?” This question is designed to have team members avoid the ‘blame game’ where others (such as the students themselves, parents, socio-economic conditions, ethnicity/cultural membership) might act as blocks to more deeply investigating how the school or school system itself is creating conditions that limit student success. This is an important component in all Network inquires, but of particular importance to the AESN members as it provides a context for teams to examine their own dominant or hidden beliefs about the social, cultural and racial assumptions they hold related to Aboriginal student success. Teams are encouraged to reflect beyond their own beliefs and to discuss with others in their school community (students, parents, community members) about how they perceive the forces that are shaping student experiences and success (or lack thereof).
  4. New professional learning: In this stage the core question becomes “How can we learn what we can do to change the situation that now exists?” While there may be important clues that have become evident in the early stages of the inquiry process, now the focus becomes how to search and assess alternative strategies, approaches, or practices that may be able to effect changes in the context being considered. However it is not so much the “know how” but the “know why” that needs to be examined; this speaks to an equally careful examination of learning theories—Network members are encouraged to draw from multiple sites of information, but careful attention has been given via the formal structure of the Network to highlighting approaches that have been proven to have considerable impact on student learning. What makes this stage in the inquiry particularly powerful is that inquiry teams become immersed in learning together; processes of investigation, knowledge sharing and questioning gives many opportunities for deep reflection and thinking about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of particular approaches. Frequently teams bring in or consult with other ‘knowers’ in the field or the community; this can be an important phase for AESN members, particularly because cultural knowledge may be lacking among non-Aboriginal educators. Seeking knowledgeable community members to provide advice, guidance and be partners in the inquiry can be a significant asset to the learning done by the members in the inquiry.
  5. Taking action: At this stage of the inquiry cycle the new learning develops into an action plan; members are encouraged to construct their inquiries into short two to three week cycles so they can frequently discuss, report and share observations, and seek support from others who can serve as critical friends—asking questions in order to consider other potential actions, activities or approaches. Evidence is collected, including things like student comments and/or responses to planned lessons or activities. By using this shorter cycle of implementation and reflection, inquiry can be better sustained as dialogue and deeper forms of thinking emerge over time and result in repeated cycles of investigation, reporting and discussion.
  6. Checking: At this stage of the inquiry, several shorter cycles of action have been completed, and it becomes possible to ask the question “Has our inquiry made a big enough difference?” Here the goal is to measure success of the initiative; sometimes this is best achieved by comparing the early ‘scanning’ stages of the inquiry with the later outcomes. In the case of AESN member inquiries that can be focused more on social/emotional forms of learning, engagement, self-worth and/or motivation, this can mean more use of less traditional test measures and instead consider student representations of his/her learning. These results can be shared with other members of the community and their interpretation of the results also considered as evidence of success.
  7. What next? The final stage of the inquiry cycle asks its participants to consider what they might wish to modify, re-investigate, build upon or change for a subsequent question. It reports on what has been learned as well as gaps that have become apparent through the process, both of which lead its participants to continue to grow, learn and take action to respond to specific learner needs. Here it is important to note that the learning being considered and reported is not just student learning, but professional learning; it also illustrates how the inquiry cycle continues—it is a persistent and recursive process, not a one time event.

The AESN participants are encouraged and supported in the use of the cycle of inquiry as a part of the work they do in their AESN investigations. Again, as our earlier summary notes, this parallels the NOII inquiry process, although like the earlier structural description, the focus of the inquiry is always brought back to the goals of the local Enhancement Agreement; in this way the inquiry cycle is continually focused on constructing inquiries which meet the goals of the agreement, particularly in the early “scanning” and “hunch” phases, but also in the “checking” and “what next?” phases of the inquiry process.


[1] Taken from J. Halbert & L. Kaser (2013) Spirals of Inquiry: For equity and quality. BC Principals and Vice Principals Association: Vancouver, BC CAN.