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Purposeful Change: The ALN Rapid Cycle of Inquiry

A group of math coaches and I gathered for a local PLC meeting. We had been looking at student work and discussing some of the problems of practice facing the teachers in our buildings. In any gathering of educators, it’s pretty easy to articulate difficulties. Parents don’t support good math instruction. The administration doesn’t understand our goals and methods. Teachers won’t try new approaches. And the children face ever steeper learning curves. Anyone who’s ever engaged with educators knows that there are many challenges that all of us face daily. But I wanted us to focus our efforts on finding solutions for some of the more common issues keeping all learners from math success. What could we do to make a positive change? Steve Leinwand refers to this as the 10% improvement, a small change with a cumulative effect.

First, problematize – what specific improvement will we make?

The first step in the inquiry cycle is to identify a specific problem of practice for inquiry. In most cases, when ALN works with schools, we focus on what children already know in order to build on this. In the Rapid Cycle of Inquiry, we are looking for a problem to gather data on and improve.

The group I was meeting with identified a clear and common problem:

We finish reading a problem the class is working on and, without much thought, some students will put their hands up and declare, “I don’t get it!” At that point, someone  will often come over and show the student how to do the problem. The problem gets done, but not much learning takes place.

We worked on clarifying what we thought the problem really was. Were the adults who were helping too helpful? Had the students not understood the problem? Was the language used in the problem keeping students from accessing it? In the end, we decided that our problem was that students could not engage with the problem. We set about finding ways to create access to problems for all our learners.

Second, gather data – why is this a problem?

Our gathering data stage was very simple. This is an important part of the rapid cycle process: Don’t make data gathering difficult. If the data collection is too complex or requires permission of less accessible colleagues, it will stall the process. This is a rapid process. We asked the coaches in our group to observe teachers introducing problems to their classes and to make notes on the process. We also asked them to confer with teachers and get their opinions on the issue.

Our data consistently showed that at least two or three children were unable to “enter” a problem or task when it was presented to the whole group. There were a number of theories as to why this was. Some coaches reported that students were unclear what they were trying to solve for. They claimed that students lacked an understanding of the problem from the beginning.

Other coaches (and many teachers) believed that the language of the problem was the issue. They believed that students did not, or could not, understand the language of the problem. This is a concern many teachers have expressed to us over the years, particularly in regard to their math programs being, “too language dependent”. Whether this is actually the case, it is a pervasive observation.

Some coaches believed that students were too stuck on trying to find “the right way” to solve a problem, rather than thinking about doing something that made sense. This particular struggle is at the heart of a good deal of student difficulty. Without a consistent message that strategies are more important than answers, students often try to play a game of “guess what’s in the teacher’s mind”, rather than applying their own logic.

Finally, several coaches observed that students made poor estimations. Their usual approach was to solve first and then “estimate.” This was a problem because when students did something illogical and the teacher asked, “Is your answer reasonable?”, the student answer was always, “yes.”

Third, create theories and test

These data led the group to try to construct a protocol for introducing math problems. We knew that we wanted this protocol to address the language issue, focus students on the problem, allow for reasonable estimation and emphasize strategies over one procedure. 

We came up with several test protocols to try out in classrooms. In one case, we had the teacher read the problem to students three times (we read about other such protocols) to be sure that students understood the language of the problem. In another test, we asked students to underline key elements in the problem. This was another prescription that came from other sources. From some special education colleagues, we got the question, “What would an answer for this look like?” And one math specialist who was an expert in using Number Talks suggested that listing strategies should be part of the work.

Coming to conclusions, finding answers

Some of the tests proved successful. Asking, “What are we trying to figure out with this problem?”, and sometimes having students write this down, proved helpful. We also found that brainstorming strategies before beginning work was very helpful and drastically cut down on the number of “I don’t get it” comments from students. 

Some of the tests were not successful. This proved especially true for underlining important information in the problem. What we found, as we tested this approach, was that students underlined numbers in the problem and performed some arithmetic on them to get to an answer. Usually, the computation they tried was whatever the class had been working on most recently.

Reading the problem three times to students was not particularly effective, though teachers noticed it was better than just handing out the problem. What did seem to work was to read the problem chorally, and then ask what we were trying to figure out.

All of these tests and data resulted in the creation of the Problem Introduction Protocol, a tool that many ALN schools use daily. The protocol was the result of a Rapid Cycle of Inquiry – we posed a problem of practice, gathered data, created and tested theories, and made conclusions.

How does the Rapid Cycle of Inquiry improve math instruction?

This process of rapid inquiry is helpful for schools in two ways. First, it leads to test solutions to problems of practice that benefit students. In addition, though, the process is one which helps to nurture teacher efficacy. The process empowers teachers to understand that they can address barriers to student success on their own, without giving away their agency to outside researchers or other experts.

In the example above, we observed that teachers were able to create an instructional move (the Problem Introduction Protocol) to address a problem of practice. This solution was informed by extant literature – other people’s thinking about problems like this – as well as data gathered in their unique context. The process of finding this solution honed in on a group working together to create theories about potential solutions and then to test the effectiveness of each of these theories. The whole process made use of formative field data to draw (and test!) conclusions. This process can be invaluable for schools and districts attempting to improve math outcomes. Focusing on instructional practice is always an effective way to improve math learning. The Rapid Cycle of Inquiry provides a flexible and fluid way to explore how specific instructional choices can make an impact on student success. It is formative assessment for instruction, and informs our practice. 

More than that, though, is the impact of this process on agency for teachers and coaches. Coaches and curriculum directors rely on professional research and literature to inform their best practices. However, not all empirically supported practices work in every context. Schools, and the communities they serve, share many common characteristics, but they are unique in many ways, too. To ensure that instructional practices will be effective in a particular context, they must be tested, and revised with local data.

The Rapid Cycle of Inquiry moves authority for “knowing what to do in the classroom” from researchers and experts, to analysis from local professionals. This shift in authority avoids the pitfalls of simply relying on teacher impressions of what’s best (data are gathered and analyzed to avoid individual opinions) and/or relying on prescriptions from outside the local context. The Rapid Cycle of Inquiry is a tool that allows teachers to lean on the work of others, while maintaining their professional responsibility to decide what works best in their context.