GET SMALL: GRAIN SIZE, LEVERAGING CHANGE, & A CASE FOR STRATEGIC INQUIRY
Updated: Nov 1
A new cohort of doctoral students are beginning their journey in the education leadership program at CSU, Fullerton. Among their first-semester courses is a methods course in data collection. It’s the course I am most passionate about delivering because its contents are the most important thing we do as educators: Collect and analyze data for the expressed purpose of examining student outcomes. In other words: Is what we’re doing working? It leads to a question these first-year doctoral candidates will study in their second year: Does money matter?
The course revolves around the concept of strategic inquiry. Inquiry-based reform is commonplace in education. Related to student achievement it involves drilling down to identify skill gaps. Related to examining other aspects of the school district organization, it involves drilling down to better understand a complex problem and either validate or debunk assumptions. Strategic Inquiry (Panero & Talbert) differs from other inquiry-based reform models. Its approach requires teams to narrowly focus in a way traditional and more common inquiry models do not. Therein lies the idea of grain size. Strategic inquiry teams get small through more precise diagnostics. The high-functioning strategic inquiry team knows when to get small, and how small to get; it also knows when to get big, and how big to get. The perils of getting too small or staying small could lead to a team missing the big picture. Panero and Talbert refer to it as the big-small dilemma.
As a general rule and guiding principle, a team gets as small (more precise diagnostics) as it needs to get to find the information it needs to move students (or the organization) forward. Getting small means identifying the granular components of the problem. A complex problem becomes suddenly manageable on a granular level. Applied to teacher teams, Michael Fullan describes this “theory in action” in terms of its core assumption that learning, not teaching, is its primary focus.
Strategic inquiry fits in as a protocol within the structure of a high-functioning PLC. Once collaborative inquiry is established as a district priority and strategic inquiry as the protocol for examining problems such as skills gaps, building capacity for inquiry-based improvement starts with creating conditions, including the key condition: regular meeting time for teachers to collaborate in a meaningful and productive manner.
My goal is to hook my students and get them addicted to strategic inquiry from day one. It’s the same practice I engage in as a Superintendent of Schools. In my experiences, and the experiences of many of my fellow superintendents, schools and districts are only as successful as their protocol for inquiry. Most districts are somewhere between the extremes of acknowledging data is important; and never making a decision that is not data-based and defendable. The most successful districts not only have a sophisticated protocol for inquiry, they employ advanced analytics to track and report data.
Districts that persistently fail or have grown stagnant can benefit from strategic inquiry. For schools and districts that are committed to productive collaboration and professional community, this model has the potential to move a school or district from good to great. Districts that have not created a culture of inquiry or struggle with developing productive collaborative teams consistently across the district would be smart to work with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.
The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is a state agency created in 2013 under California’s groundbreaking Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Dr. Carl Cohn and his team provide personalized, immediate, and evidence-based support to school districts so they can take ownership in continually improving learning for all students.
Get small and watch some big things happen.