Strategic Inquiry


Last week I was looking all over the house for a book called Strategic Inquiry: Starting Small for Big Results in Education by Nell Scharff Panero and Joan E. Talbert. I’ve been a fan of their work for quite a long time, and Nell gave me a call a few weeks ago to catch up and talk about where they might take that work next.  Their book is based on what they call a Scaffolded Apprenticeship Model (you can read more about the SAM model here).  I was delighted to read her new book and so much of the thinking resonated with the investments we have been making.

Their theory of action: “When a teacher team systematically studies the school through the lens of struggling students, it comes to see and then be able to remove obstacles to the students’ success.” (p.13) They focus on “teams, targets and tasks” to move students, colleagues and the whole. The thinking is very aligned to our Literacy and Math Design Collaborative work and the Innovative Professional Development (iPD) portfolio we started a few years ago to radically redesign professional development systems in districts.  Ever since I picked up Strategic Inquiry, I’ve been trying to find ways to connect our work.

They use “inquiry teams” which were scaled to some degree across New York City.  Their focus is on where students are struggling and on how to make small shifts that dramatically change those students’ experiences. They have some really clear evidence that their process and protocols create better outcomes for students, and they make it sound so easy to implement!

I wondered how we might move more schools to strategic inquiry teams if we were able to find more time during the school day through our iPD work. What might an inquiry team look like in the Fresno Unified School District or the Bridgeport Public Schools where our work on creating time for teachers to collaborate is strongest? How might this model strengthen what they are already doing? How might more time strengthen what is already happening in NYC?  I had the immediate urge to throw a dinner party with school leaders and teachers from our iPD sites and the strategic inquiry teams in NYC for a conversation about our shared values and the collective work.

We’ve started to integrate a “lesson study” protocol into the collaboration days at some of our iPD sites. This process ensures a very disciplined conversation about practice that moves these districts through a cycle of planning an assignment; teaching an assignment; analyzing the results; and applying lessons learned. The lesson study work has focused teachers on student learning and accessing the instructional content, formative assessments, skill gaps and student success, and adopting a clear, common language in the same way that the strategic inquiry teams Panero and Talbert talk about have done in NYC.

The small, singular, and clear focus on something is also an aspect of our “positive deviance” work in the Long Beach Unified School District. Teams of teachers are trying to focus on a very specific aspect of their work, find “outlier” teachers who are addressing that issue well, and then look deeper at those teachers’ practices.  Panero and Talbert’s focus on “struggling students” is a critical nuance and an area where I think Long Beach might want to dig deeper and take a look at some of the their protocols.

I think Panero and Talbert’s work has great promise, but the question is how to spread it out to more schools. It’s a challenge of what is scalable and how to scale it? I started an unfinished conversation with Nell about her next steps and how we might be helpful. It’s powerful work and the book is definitely worth a read.

I did finally find my copy of the book. It was tucked away in my 9 year old daughter’s backpack, of all places. What was it doing there? She looked at me innocently and said, “It looked like a good book, so I picked it up and started reading it. I’m not finished with it, Mom.”  I promised to return it to her when I was finished with this blog. So here I go putting it in my 9-year-old’s backpack, hoping she will figure out what we should all do next to make her education better and how to get more teachers to practice strategic inquiry.

 – C. 



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