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How Can We Improve Professional Inquiry?

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Today's guest post is written by Thomas Guskey, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky.

At no time in the history of education has there been more emphasis on fostering student inquiry. We encourage teachers develop lessons around probing, essential questions designed to help students become creative problem solvers. We stress the importance of distinguishing fact from opinion when investigating issues. We compel students to use primary sources of evidence and to consider the quality of research studies when judging the validity of their findings.

Oddly, while pressing students to become more thoughtful and systematic in their approach to inquiry, educators are becoming less so. The approach they take in their own professional inquiry differs significantly from what they prescribe for students. In fact, educators frequently conduct professional inquiries in ways they would never consider acceptable from students. This is especially true regarding inquiries on reforms in assessment and grading.

When questions arise about some aspect of assessment or grading, educators today seldom turn to reliable sources of research or evaluation evidence. They don't look for well-designed studies that have been published in reputable journals. They don't consult scholarly organizations such as the American Educational Research Association, the National Council for Measurement in Education, or the American Psychological Association - organizations that collaboratively developed the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Instead they turn to books, blogs, and social media as their primary sources of information.

Many educators begin the inquiry process with a Google search that identifies every blog ever posted by anyone who ever formed an opinion on the topic. Some may restrict their Google search to "Scholarly articles on ...," but that's relatively rare.

Others bypass the Google search and start the inquiry process by posting their question on Facebook or on Twitter chats where they receive a myriad of responses from individuals whose firmly held opinions may or may not be based on verifiable evidence. Occasionally Facebook and Twitter chat responders preface their comments with "In my opinion ... or "I believe ..., but their authoritative tone gives the impression their opinions or beliefs are indisputable truths.

This is not to suggest that all books, blogs, and social media are bad. I've written books, posted blogs, and occasionally participated in Facebook discussions and Twitter chats. But we must recognize these outlets for what they are and, more importantly, what they are not. In particular, they are notauthoritative or trustworthy sources of information upon which to base education policies or practices.

Ironically, no teacher would allow students to conduct inquiry in this manner. In teaching students how to investigate a problem and conduct systematic inquiry, teachers explain the first step after clearly defining the problem is to establish what is already known about that problem. This requires exploring what others have found in studies of the same or similar problems, and determining the quality of those investigations. In formal inquires for research papers, theses, or dissertations, this is referred to as a "review of the literature."

Teachers who teach inquiry skills insist that the resources students consider in their literature reviews offer verifiable evidence from reputable sources - not opinions or conjecture. Blogs, Facebook discussions, or Twitter chats are rarely considered acceptable at any level. They fail to meet the most modest criteria of credibility or reliability.

When conducting inquiry into assessment or grading policies and practices, educators must do the same. In their literature reviews, they should consider established research bases such as the Education Resources Information Center, or ERIC, an online library of education research and information sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education. They should consult JSTOR, short for Journal Storage, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. Some find useful information in the What Works Clearinghouse, also sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Proquest Research Library, or even Google Scholar.

Basing policies and practices on the opinions gathered from books, blogs, and social media is a sure ticket to disaster. Well-intentioned educators who do soon find they are confronted by equally strong and passionate opposing opinions held by board members or parent groups who then organize to squelch reforms. Because these opposing stakeholders often have credibility in their communities that writers, bloggers, and social media consultants do not, their opinions frequently prevail. As a result, the road to assessment and grading reform is strewn with the wreckage of numerous districts and schools that tried valiantly to restructure policies and practices, but failed miserably in their attempts.

The commitment and passion of writers, bloggers, Facebook contributors, and Twitter chatters is certainly commendable. They help to bring assessment and grading issues to the forefront in discussions of education reform. But policies and practices based on these sources often do more to extend naiveté and perpetuate myths than they do to promote truth. It also diminishes the quality of professional inquiry and slows advances in our field.

Let's conduct our own professional inquiry in the same thoughtful manner we want our students to use. Let's not allow our own inquiry skills to diminish while seeking to enhance those of our students. Instead, let's model what we want our students to learn, exemplifying the best of professional, scholarly practice. Not only will that be far better for our students, it also will help make education the evidence-based profession we want it to be.

Connect with Thomas at [email protected]  

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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