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Inquiry Cultures and the Larger Systems

Source: Coalition of Essential Schools

Cultures of inquiry make very different demands upon the larger system and on outsiders than do less dynamic organizational types, points out John Watkins, whose Amherst, Massachusetts firm Inquiry and Learning for Change (JWatkins@javanet.com) coaches and analyzes school change. For example, he observed in a recent paper:

A culture of inquiry is an "open system, " continually examining its own purposes as well as the ways it reaches those purposes. New and even conflicting ideas can come into the system at any time to influence what happens. The school's vision guides its work, but in a dynamic tension with its actions, each tested against the other in an ongoing inquiry into the current state of affairs. To encourage this, the larger system must not impose too rigid rules or high stakes.

Cultures of inquiry create multiple, flexible structures as they need them–for example, multi-age groups, multiple forms of assessments, or various ways for school and families to interact–and they continually test those structures against the vision. Rather than asking how to make a current structure more efficient or how to put a new one into practice, inquiry cultures ask what problems the old structures solved, what values they reflected, whose interests they served, what structures might be more consistent with the values and beliefs of the school's vision, and what people need to know to enact those. An inflexible, prescriptive bureaucratic system does not work well with this; instead, the larger system also must be able to purposefully reconfigure itself as necessary.

Cultures of inquiry depend on adults and students collaborating in teams and networks, and they set up critically reflective processes and norms that guide them. These structures–grade-level or cross-grade teams, critical friends groups, school-university teams, leadership teams–include professional interactions among teachers, but also involve other people important to the work, inside or outside the school and community. To support this characteristic, the larger system, too, must replace its hierarchy with multiple networks of this sort.

Cultures of inquiry have sophisticated structures, settings, processes, and norms that support problem-setting, problem-exploring, problem-solving, and inquiry. They have little patience for categorical, prescriptive approaches; for traditional ways of choosing among innovations to implement; or for "experts." From the larger system they seek critical friendships with "outsiders" who are themselves part of learning systems, and who increasingly act also as insiders.

Cultures of inquiry create a risk-taking, experimental environment that encourages members to develop, reflect on, and modify structures and processes. The larger system must not penalize such risk-taking by creating a high-stakes environment or imposing highly structured or constrained settings for change. Instead, it should support, encourage, and reward open-ended, creative work.

Cultures of inquiry are highly strategic and purposeful about seeking and using outside information, resources, expertise, and collaborations. Ideas, information, and people constantly move across their boundaries with the "outside." The larger system must provide access to information and support, networks for sharing and building knowledge, and non-hierarchical, ongoing partnerships, interactions, and critical friendships.

Leadership in a culture of inquiry is shared and inclusive, a source of and model for asking the hard questions that guide all work. The larger system must thus see all aspects of the system as settings for leadership development and communities of inquirers–non-bureaucratic and non-hierarchical, it should support, facilitate, and provide resources for local decision-making and leadership.

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Last modified: June 2, 2004

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