Lane Clark Workshop Series

real. thinking learning assesment

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A Puddle. A Pond. A Lake. An Ocean.

I was recently asked by a colleague to share my thoughts in regard to the dispositions I believe an effective ‘inquiry’ teacher possesses.  Interestingly, and coincidently, I was thinking about just that, but more in relation to teachers who engage kids in dynamic, authentic, relevant and rigorous thinking and learning.  This sent me down a slightly alternate path, or so I thought…

Dispositions, defined as the internal filter that affects the way a teacher is inclined to think and act on the information and experiences that are part of his/her teaching context. (Schussler, 2006)

After much reflection, I see two difficulties in answering this question.  For me, the first deals with the practice of ‘inquiry’ itself; the second is sort of a ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma.

Inquiry learning is no longer ‘new.’  It has become an instructional approach, advocated at the Department level, and realised in many classrooms, internationally.   Particularly in New Zealand, most teachers ‘cut their teeth’ on an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.   As a result, many would suggest that they are effective ‘inquiry teachers’.

This however begs the question, are all inquiry approaches the same?  If not, certainly the inquiry delivered would suggest that the ‘deliverers’ possesses some, if not many, diverse dispositions.  Enter my first struggle in responding to my colleague’s question.

All inquiry models are not similar.  In fact, they vary from what one might consider to be little more than a glorified research approach, to a rigorous, learning framework, where inquiry is a part, but certainly not the whole process.

Some address outcomes at a superficial level; while others require learners to critically examine factual information, relate prior knowledge, see patterns and connections, draw out significant understandings, evaluate the accuracy of those understandings based on supportive evidence, transfer their understanding across time or situation and most importantly, use new knowledge and skills to creatively solve a problem, create a new product, process or idea, develop alternatives or recommendations.

Some invite learners to independently, self-directedly ‘fluff’ about, as they record information so that they can digitally communicate a regurgitation of what they have found out to their peers and parents; while others invite learner’s to find out with the use of thinking tools that have been strategically framed to facilitate both intended and unintended insights, relationships and deep, broad understandings.  Learners create digital and non-digital communication vehicles that are determined on the basis of what they need to communicate and to whom.  Ideas, solutions, recommendations and alternatives are communicated to an authentic target audience.

Some teachers and learners participate in an inquiry block during their day or week; while other teachers and learners are engaged in inquiry learning all day long.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are engaged in an integrated inquiry unit all day.  Instead they may use an inquiry approach during a maths block or literacy block. For these inquiry teachers, inquiry is not a time in the day but a philosophy – an approach to learning that underpins everything they do full stop.

From the surface looking directly down, we may find that a puddle, a pond, a lake and an ocean, all look pretty similar.   Well, they are all composed of water…beyond that however, we know that they are far from similar.  The life within them differs; the composition of the water differs; their breadth is very different as is their depth.  From the surface, many believe that they ‘do inquiry’ because the stages or steps sound the same or similar; we are all referring to this approach called ‘inquiry’ so again, it must be much of a muchness…

The diversity of inquiry teachers out there, are as diverse as the inquiry approaches they use.   Subsequently, the dispositions employed by the teachers of these very different inquiry approaches would be…very different.

This brings me to my second challenge…what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Rather than think about the dispositions of an effective inquiry teacher, I wonder if we first need to think about the values and beliefs held by an effective inquiry teacher.

Values and beliefs guide practice.  It is that simple and that complex.  For everyone is likely to have values and beliefs that they ‘think’ they hold and therefore readily espouse.  To know and understand the values and beliefs that are true and real, turn to video evidence.  After video recording your practice, all day long, for at least one week (anyone can fake it for a day or two!) openly and honestly review the footage.  The real deal will become blatantly apparent.

If a teacher values and believes in authentic and relevant learning, then their inquiry approach will reflect this.  Learners will not engage in learning so that they can simply share their knowledge on a test or report it through an imovie, website or blog they have created – they will USE that learning to make a difference in their life.  Whether they were engaged in a unit on fractions in maths, fairytales in English or a fully integrated unit…simulation would never be an option, because it is not real; the ‘endcome’ of all learning would be USE of knowledge and skills.

If a teacher believes in rigorous, deep and broad learning, then their inquiry approach will reflect this.  Learners will not engage in ‘fluffy’ research.  Instead learners will be supported with the use of thinking tools that explicitly frame rigor, depth and breadth of thinking so that they are guided in their inquiry learning.

If teachers believe that pedagogy should be underpinned by cognitive and neuro-scientific research then their inquiry approach will reflect this.  They will be able to substantiate their design and delivery decisions against research and will eagerly and enthusiastically revise their practice as they explore and reflect on new research.

If teachers believe in student voice, ownership and accountability, then their inquiry approach will reflect this.  Learners will not have to wait until they are told what they must do next.  They will not wait for their teacher to mark their work.  They will not wait for the class to catch up before they move on.  Instead, learners will use frameworks or explicit processes that outline next steps so that they can navigate their own learning and move on commensurate with their readiness; they will use specific, measureable, realistic criteria written in kids speak, to guide their learning, assessment, evaluation, goal setting and monitoring; they will be provided opportunities to sign up for clinics as needed, so that they can meet their own needs and be responsible for their growth and development.  They will negotiate their learning – what they learn, how they learn, when they learn.

If these are the values held by a teacher, provided they have the skills to act on their values, I believe the associated dispositions will naturally be employed, regardless of whether the teacher is even cognisant that he/she possesses these dispositions.  Based on the examples provided, dispositions might include:



-open mindedness


-creativity & innovation

-critical thinking

Perkins, Jay and Tishman suggest that dispositions are composed of three elements:

  1. inclinations (motivation, habit, policy): “the person’s felt tendency toward behavior X” (p. 4).
  2. sensitivity to occasion: “the person’s alertness to X occasions” (p. 4); “a distinct perceptual or perception-like mechanism for detecting occasions in the absence of explicit prompts” (p. 5).
  3. abilities themselves: “the actual ability to follow through with X behavior” (p. 4).

They argue that dispositions can be learned through both ‘cognitive factors and cultural influence’.  I challenge whether this is possible if the disposition is incongruent with the values and beliefs held by the individual.  One can develop an understanding of a diversity of dispositions intellectually; and can be surrounded by those who employ these naturally and consistently; they might possess the skills to act on these dispositions when required…but when the video is reviewed, after a week of recording, if the values and beliefs are not within them…all the learning and cultural influence won’t make a blind bit of difference!

I really believe that dispositions are shaped by our values and beliefs first and foremost.  It is the values and beliefs that drive the inclination, without which, the knowledge of the dispositions, and even the ability to employ them, are rendered irrelevant.

If dispositions represent the chicken and values and beliefs the egg…the egg comes first!


If you are in a leadership position or like me, in a position where you are trying to influence pedagogical practice; and you are hoping for an ocean instead of a pond…the more critical questions might be…

What are the characteristics of effective inquiry?

What are the values and beliefs that underpin this kind of inquiry teaching?

Can the values and beliefs of others be influenced and if so, how?

Things that make you go hmmmmmmm…




 Perkins, D.N., Jay, E., & Tishman, S.  (1993). Beyond abilities: A dispositional theory of thinking. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: Journal of Developmental Psychology, 39(1): 1-21.

Schussler, D. (2006). Defining dispositions: Wading through the murky waters. Journal of Teacher Education, 41, 251-268.