Understanding schools from the inside

In this extract from his book, 'Understanding the Development of Inclusive Schools', published by Falmer Press, 1999, (and in Spanish by NARCEA, Madrid), Mel Ainscow explains his use of what he calls 'collaborative inquiry' in order to investigate school practices.

.............. I have found it essential in my own work to engage in forms of inquiry that are to a large degree located within schools and classrooms, and that require me to work in partnership with teachers. The overall aim is to understand difficulties experienced in schools from the points of view of insiders and to explore together how these can be addressed in ways that attempt to support the growth of those involved. In this section I provide accounts of two, very different experiences that illustrate what this may involve and, at the same time, give a flavour of the potential advantages and difficulties of such ways of working.

The overall aim of the Improving the Quality of Education for All (IQEA) project has been to explore how schools can develop in ways that support the learning of all students (Hopkins et al, 1994). I see this as contributing to understandings that are central to the development of thinking in the fields of school improvement and special needs education, in that the concern is with how schools can become more inclusive. As part of this research programme we recently looked in detail at developments that had occurred in a small group of secondary schools over a period of five or six years, focusing in particular on the perceptions and interpretations of insiders. Our detailed knowledge of these developments represented a starting point for the study but we were keen to enrich our understandings and, indeed, have our outsiders' accounts challenged by accounts constructed from the inside. What we were confident about was that all these schools had gone through a period of at least five years of sustained attempts to bring about organisational restructuring and developments in classroom practice, and that there was evidence that actual changes had resulted.

The aim of the study was, therefore, to find ways of 'digging deeper' into the experiences of the five schools. However, we also wanted to make use of methods of inquiry that would enable us to follow their developing stories over those years from the perspectives of different participants. We were conscious that our own impressions and interpretations had probably been influenced, if not shaped, by the relatively small group of people we normally meet during our school visits. This study would, we hoped, sensitise us much more to different interpretations of the same range of events, as well as giving richer accounts of the social and cultural complexities that influence change efforts. Finally, we were very committed to the use of methodologies that would be helpful to our colleagues within the schools as they continue their improvement efforts. To quote our own rhetoric, we wanted to 'work with the schools, not on them' (Ainscow and Southworth, 1996).

In devising a suitable methodology we were aware of others who have attempted to follow a similar path. For example, Poplin and Weeres (1992) report a study called 'Voices From the Inside', carried out by students, teachers, administrators and parents in four schools. Here the aim was ' to create strategies that allowed everyone at the school site to speak and insured that everyone be heard'. Thus the research allowed all participants to be both the researchers and, at the same time, the subjects of the research. Since the study began with the assumption that academics had already 'misnamed the problems of schooling', the roles of outsiders had to be rethought so that those on the inside could come to know and articulate the problems they experience. The use of this process was reported to have led to many changes in the schools, although it was also found to be extremely time-consuming.

Two other studies also seemed to be near to what we had in mind. First of all, in their 'School Change Study', Wasley and her colleagues (1996) used what they call 'collaborative inquiry' to study the work of five schools that had taken part in the 'Coalition of Essential Schools' project for at least four years. Their interest was in how the schools had used the project ideas and values to drive change; how they had sustained and developed the process; and whether the changes made were having an impact on the educational experiences of students. In addition to a large external research team, a teacher in each school was paid to act as a coordinator for the study and two students at each school were paid to write weekly journals. The stated aim of all of this was 'to bridge the worlds of practitioners and scholars'. However, whilst there was clearly insider involvement in the research process, the locus of control remained with the outsiders. Finally, Levin's (1993) account of his use of what he calls 'empowerment evaluation' as part of the Accelerated Schools Project seems to have many similarities with our approach, particularly his emphasis on the idea of widespread involvement as a school is 'taking stock'.

In designing our own study we too were keen to develop a way of working that might be characterised as 'collaborative inquiry' (Reason and Rowan, 1981; Reason, 1988). At a meeting of representatives of the five schools a set of ground rules was worked out. In our summary of these ground rules we stated that 'the intention is to produce rich, authentic descriptions of individual 'cases' as a basis for subsequent analysis and comparison'. It was agreed that each school would form a team of three to five members of staff to carry out the inquiry. The team was to be reasonably representative of 'different levels and viewpoints in the school'. It was also agreed that each account would attempt to include the full range of views available within and around the school, including, if possible, those of students, parents, LEA officers and governors. In the final accounts it was not necessary to reconcile or judge the value of the various perspectives.

All matters of policy within the study were openly debated with the school teams and on a number of key issues our original plans were subject to substantial modifications. As Wasley et al (1996) found, 'even when a collaboration works, it is full of surprises'. So, for example, we were keen to use a series of research techniques, known as 'Mapping Change in School', developed by members of our group (Ainscow et al, 1995). During discussions, however, the teams, which included the head teachers of four of the schools, resisted our proposals, agreeing only to consider the possible use of some of these approaches if they proved to be relevant at a later stage.

The initial phase of the study, involving the collection of data and the production of the initial accounts, took about a year to complete. During this period the approaches used gradually took on very different forms in each of the schools. Such diversity is, of course, somewhat disturbing to a research team attempting to carry out some form of cross-site comparison. It does, however, seem inevitable in a study that is seeking to allow insiders to conceptualise their own versions of what has occurred. In a more positive sense, of course, these diverse formulations are in themselves interesting in that they provide an illustration of how a school goes about getting things done. Furthermore, they illustrate the dangers of researchers attempting to reduce these differences between schools into some form of cross-site, generalised explanation.

All the draft accounts were read by the inquiry teams in the five schools and debated during a whole day meeting in which they all took part. This, in itself, led to some very interesting discussions, with individuals using the experiences of other schools to reflect on their current understandings of their own situations. It also confirmed our view that, despite the vast differences in the ways in which data were collected, analysed and reported, the case studies provide rich, complex and, at times, challenging accounts, based on an impressive range of perspectives in the schools. In addition, as a result of these experiences we are now considerably clearer about both the advantages and, of course, the difficulties involved in carrying out such a study.

In terms of advantages, from the point of view of the schools there was strong evidence that those involved found the process to be both informative and stimulating. Specifically they found that the need to engage with multiple interpretations of events in their schools had forced them to think much more deeply about their own perceptions. Furthermore, exploring ways of valuing points of view that they might more usually ignore, or even oppose, also seemed stimulate them to consider previously ignored possibilities. At the same time they found the process to be affirming, giving them an opportunity to celebrate many achievements in their schools.

Turning to difficulties, the experience of this study highlighted some of the problems that can occur when practitioners take on the task of carrying out what might be referred to as insider research. We found, for example, that despite the commitment to reporting a wide range of opinions, some of the accounts revealed little evidence of alternative voices, thus giving the impression of what seemed to us a most unlikely level of consensus. There was also very little evidence presented from students and parents, gaps that seem particularly regrettable when we read the findings of the Poplin and Weeres' study, reported earlier. All of this may explain, in part at least, the comment of one head teacher who, after reading the account of his own school, felt that it failed to reveal the 'soul of the place'.

Finally there remained some concerns about confidentiality. Specifically, as the accounts are read by more people in the schools can we be sure that the views of certain individuals will remain anonymous? And, in one case, in particular, we remained anxious that some of the views expressed could have led to considerable distress to at least one colleague in one of the schools.

From our own point of view, as we have explained elsewhere (West et al, 1997), the account led us to question some of the assumptions we had been making about these particular schools. They also threw up more general questions about processes of school and teacher development that we wanted to pursue. In particular, they suggested a series of contradictions which needed to be addressed in our subsequent work.

Evaluation through collaborative inquiry

An experience in a very different context provides further illustration of what is involved in using what I am calling collaborative inquiry to develop understandings that can help to facilitate movement towards more inclusive practices. It involved the evaluation of a project in Anhui, a province in China, to integrate children seen as having special needs into local kindergartens.

The evaluation was carried out by a team that included a project officer from the Anhui Provincial Education Commission (APEC), a Chinese special education specialist and an integrated education adviser from Save the Children (SC-UK), the organisation that has supported the project since 1988. Present also were two interpreters, both with background in educational development activities, and the Chief of the APEC Elementary Education Division.

Prior to the evaluation terms of reference had been agreed. These specified the objectives, information to be collected and a list of indicators that were intended to guide the teams' investigations. However, it was made clear that these indicators might need to be adapted during the process. Arrangements had been made for the team to gather information in six kindergartens and one primary school over a two-week period.

On the way to Anhui the SCF adviser and I discussed issues related to the style of the evaluation. We were in broad agreement that a participatory approach would have a number of advantages, although somewhat anxious that our fellow team members might not necessarily agree. I had recently read a report given to me by Cheng Kai-Ming of Hong Kong University in which he described his difficulties in attempting to utilise ethnographic research approaches within a team carrying out a similar evaluation task in Chinese schools during the 1980s. In the paper he referred in particular to problems of status that occurred within the evaluation. For example, it had been suggested that he should not have meals with his fellow evaluators because he was the 'foreign expert'. He also described the difficulties of getting teachers to speak openly to him after he had been given a formal reception as part of what was clearly seen as a visit by government officials.

All of this heightened my sense of anticipation as we prepared for this work, not least as a result of a previous visit I had made to the Anhui project in 1994. On that occasion I had attended a conference in connection with the same project and visited a small number of the kindergartens involved. These experiences had drawn attention to how the local ways of orchestrating such events seemed to create expectations of what is to occur and, indeed, constraints as to what is possible. In saying this it is important to note that these arrangements seem to be driven by a strong desire to make respected visitors welcome and to make efficient use of time.

The nature of this orchestration and its likely impact can be best illustrated by providing a description of what, in my experience, is the usual format for visits to Chinese schools by teams of visiting 'dignitaries'. The team arrive shortly after school commences and is met at the front gate by a group of local leaders. Introductions are usually made in the street. Meanwhile parents and others passing by stare curiously, particularly where the visitors include foreigners. This scene is filmed by one or two video crews and, in addition, there is at least one photographer. Following the introductions the whole party march into the grounds of the school passing a freshly painted sign in Chinese and English welcoming the 'visiting experts'. The visitors are then escorted into an office where they sit at a large meeting table. Around the walls are examples of children's and, sometimes, teacher's paintings. Tea is served in mugs with lids. On the table are plates of nuts, fresh fruit and sweets. In addition there are new packets of cigarettes.

The meeting begins with a brief welcome from the most senior leader who then invites the head teacher to provide a 'briefing on the situation in the school'. Written copies of this report that have been prepared for the visitors are distributed but, nevertheless, the head teacher reads it aloud without interruptions.

After the meeting the visitors go outside to watch the children do their morning exercises. They are then escorted to a classroom where rows of chairs have already been laid out at the back of the room for them to sit as they observe the lesson. The impression is that considerable attention has been given to lesson preparation, with attractive teaching aids used and the teacher providing what seems to a Western eye be a rather dramatic performance. Children regarded as having special needs may be pointed out by one of the leaders, all of whom sit and observe the lesson with the visitors. Later the group is shown to another classroom for a second observation. This may be followed by an escorted tour of the rest of the school, including exhibitions of toys and aids made by staff. Throughout, the video crews and photographers continue to make a record of the proceedings.

The visit concludes with a final meeting at which one of the visitors offers the leaders and the head teacher some brief comments. The visitors are then thanked for their advice, which, it is noted, will be followed.

How, then, to conduct the evaluation in such a way as to penetrate the inevitable barriers created by such arrangements seemed to be a major challenge facing the team as we set about planning our methodology. Implicit in the terms of reference was an expectation that the team would try to gather authentic views from teachers, parents and administrators. How could such views be collected if our style of working gave strong messages that we were an elite group whose interpretations might lead to unknown yet significant outcomes for those involved?

Against this background the team held a whole day planning meeting. During the first part of this meeting those who had been closely involved in the project explained its history. The newcomers occasionally prompted this process by asking questions of clarification. Particular attention was given to the content and format of the in-service training given to project teachers and to issues regarding the choice of pupils suitable for integration. The SC-UK adviser explained the guidelines that had been developed in order to brief schools joining the project. After I had commented about how directive these instructions sounded from a Western perspective the team had the first of many discussions about cultural factors and how they influences processes that occur in educational contexts. In this instance Chinese colleagues argued that in their context people were willing to accept directions when they were faced with new circumstances. This was, they suggested, in the nature of 'Chinese pragmatism'.

Having dealt with the history of the project the meeting moved on to consider themes and issues that needed to be addressed during the evaluation. A starting point for this discussion was, of course, the terms of reference referred to earlier. However, I was keen at this early stage to emphasise the general idea of participation, first of all in respect to decisions faced by the team. With this in mind, I argued that it was important that each team member should contribute to the evaluation agenda, using their experiences and perspectives as a resource that could enrich our overall understanding of the contexts we were to examine. I noted, for example, that within the team we had the possibility of drawing upon both insider and outsider perspectives, male and female, Chinese and English, and so on.

In order to demonstrate the potential of these possibilities I suggested that each of us spend ten minutes or so making notes of our own ideas about what the evaluation should address. Then each person was asked to number their proposals in order of importance, using an abridged 'nominal group technique' (Ainscow, 1994). A list of each person's first priority was then written on a flip chart in both Chinese and English. After a long debate about the content of this list, including further consideration of its relationship to the terms of reference, the team agreed an overall typology that could guide the enquiry. This consisted of three major categories: experiences, outcomes and lessons.

These three headings were written on a sheet in order to frame discussions of possible methods of enquiry. At this stage I outlined experiences of evaluations carried out elsewhere; in particular, a previous evaluation study of a similar integration project in schools in Lesotho, carried out by Stubbs (1995). I went on to suggest four principles that might be helpful in guiding the enquiry. These were that the evaluation should:

These ideas were received with smiles and nods by my colleagues, but no comment were made. However, what occurred subsequently suggested that in the main they were seen as being useful. For example, on many occasions during the following two weeks members of the team made reference to how far our actions were in line with 'our' agreed principles.

The planning proceeded with more detailed discussions of what methods of enquiry would be relevant to our three major categories. Against the category 'outcomes' what was described as 'traditional practice' was noted. Specifically this involved 'interviews with head teacher and staff; classroom observations; checking records and files; and discussions with parents.'

This done I outlined some examples of so-called participatory methods, emphasising, in particular, the value of group processes and visual methods of recording. My proposals here were influenced to a large degree by experiences of using collaborative inquiry methods in English schools, including some of the techniques we had developed as part of IQEA (eg. Ainscow et al, 1994; Ainscow et al, 1995). A further source was the notion of 'participatory rural appraisal' (PRA), as developed by Chambers (1992) and refined by Stubbs (1995) for use in school contexts. Gosling and Edwards (1995) argue that PRA is a particular form of qualitative research that can be used to gain an in-depth understanding of a community or situation.

These proposals led to considerable discussion and, indeed, a degree of uncertainty about the willingness of Chinese teachers to contribute to participatory methods. Eventually it was agreed that use could be made of the idea of school 'timelines' (Ainscow et al, 1995) as the basis for focused interviews with staff. However, various other group data collection suggestions were rejected since these were felt to be too time consuming. Finally a full programme for the first school visit was agreed, to include classroom observations, interviews with staff, parents and administrators (discussions with children were to be added a few days later, following the visit to the first kindergarten), and scrutiny of various documents. Finally there was discussion of roles and responsibilities, including a consideration of issues of confidentiality and how the final report would be prepared.

This whole process had taken almost eight hours. Towards the end of the meeting some participants looked very tired. Afterwards one of the interpreters commented that meetings of such intensity rarely occur in China, apart from in situations of 'crisis'. Nevertheless, everybody seemed relaxed and comfortable with the decisions that had been made.

For my own part, I was aware that during these early discussions competing positions had been in evidence and that compromises had probably been made. In my notes I commented that there remained the question of meaning, ie did we all mean the same things when we agreed the approaches to be used, particularly those that assumed a significant level of teacher participation? I noted, for example, my 'slight suspicion' that certain team members still regarded evaluation as a form of school inspection.

Over the next few days a pattern of activity gradually emerged as the team traveled from kindergarten to kindergarten. Typically this meant that a full day was spent collecting data in each kindergarten and then team members spent the early part of the evening writing up their field notes. Later in the evening the team would have a meeting to review the visit and plan for the next day. Where process changes were agreed these were recorded on a computer so that each person could have their own copy of the new plan. In addition, of course, the notes had to be prepared in two languages. All these activities had to be arranged around travel between districts, including settling into new hotels and taking part in frequent banquets hosted by local leaders

As this pattern developed so, gradually, did the shape of the enquiry in each kindergarten. By the later visits use was made of all of the following techniques:

Classroom observations. Each team member spent most of the morning observing alone (or where necessary with an interpreter) in one of the classrooms. Care was taken to cover different age groups and classes were observed that did and did not include children categorised as having special needs. The focus was on the whole process of these lessons but with particular attention given to noting evidence of implementation of ideas and strategies introduced as part of the integration project. Of specific interest here was the teachers' strategies for encouraging pupil participation in lesson activities, including those children seen as having special needs. Field notes tended to take the form of general accounts of the lesson with more detailed descriptions of what were perceived as being significant events and interactions. In addition, video recordings and photographs were made of some sessions. These were processed immediately in order that they could be discussed by team members as soon as possible after the events recorded. Whenever possible periods of classroom observation were followed almost immediately by informal discussions with the teachers involved. Here the team member would feedback aspects of their observations and invite the teachers to comment. The intention was to gain greater insight into the teachers' thinking, particularly with respect to processes of planning and lesson modification in respect to pupil differences. In carrying out these discussions team members had agreed to avoid making remarks that might be perceived as being critical of what had been observed.

Timeline interviews. In each kindergarten two members of the team carried out an interview with the head teacher and the project coordinator in order to design a visual timeline illustrating the most significant events that had occurred as the project developed. Typically timelines included items such as meetings, courses, visits and pupil admissions. A sample of staff, including the head teacher, was then interviewed individually. After an initial demonstration of what was required each teacher was asked to draw a line on a copy of the timeline indicating their perceptions of the 'ups and downs' of the project. Once they had had time to think the teacher was asked to tell the story of the project from their own point of view, using the completed timeline as an aid-memoire. During this process the roles of the team member were to make notes and to provide an occasional prompt. At the end of the discussion, which usually took about 15 minutes, the key points noted were read back to the teacher who was asked to make any necessary corrections or modifications. It was the view of all members of the evaluation team that this format was enormously successful in encouraging teachers to talk frankly and was highly efficient in terms of use of time.

Group discussions. Each site visit included a programme of discussions with members of key stake-holder groups. These discussions were loosely structured around the themes and issues emerging from the enquiry within a particular kindergarden and, at the same time, taking account of the wider evaluation agenda. Frequently such discussions were used to check interpretations and gain deeper insights into findings. Groups taking part in these discussions usually involved local leaders and educational administrators, pupils and parents, including those of children perceived as having special needs. Factor posters. As the study developed it became increasingly apparent that there was considerable variation in progress between kindergartens. Consequently the team became interested in trying to define factors that seemed to be influencing these differences in implementation. With this in mind the evaluation team developed a group discussion technique aimed at collecting teachers' views on this matter. This was focused around a poster format. A large piece of paper was placed on the wall in front of the group of teachers. The paper was divided into two by a vertical line, one side of which was headed 'factors that support', whilst the other was headed 'factors that hinder'. After a brief explanation the teachers were each given two sets of small paper slips, each set of a different colour. They were then asked to write one idea on each paper, using one colour for supporting factors and the other for factors that seem to have hindered the progress of the project. The team member leading the activity collected all the slips and these were grouped around themes and stuck on the poster. Whilst all these individual written responses remained confidential, the group was then invited to discuss the themes suggested by the completed poster. A note was kept of the content of these discussions which, with the poster, provided a record of what occurred.

Documentation. The final main source of evidence was various documents kept in each school, a sample of which was analysed by one member of the team. The documents examined usually included policy documents, research reports written by members of staff, lesson plans and records kept about individual pupils. A deliberate strategy within the evaluation design was that of using 'triangulation' as a means of checking and exploring the significance of data. Three forms of triangulation were used. These involved comparing and contrasting evidence from:

Indeed, much of the discussion within the team was stimulated by attempts to find common meaning within the mass of data that was accumulated in each kindergarten.

At the evening meeting following the first site visit the team discussed how the process of data analysis might be handled. Three possibilities were considered: (i) try to agree an immediate common framework for analysis; (ii) stay completely independent until much later; (iii) keep one another informed about emerging ideas with a view to moving gradually towards a common framework. The second option was quickly rejected and after further discussion it was agreed that the third approach was an appropriate way of using our individual differences in a way that was consistent with our principles and yet sensible in moving towards some agreed conclusions. Certainly it proved to be an excellent approach in terms of our own learning as a team.

After one of the team meetings to share our findings I made the following notes in my learning journal:

'....we had a meeting to review our findings about yesterday's school. It was wonderful. Each person took it in turns to talk about the things that had stuck them most. In this way we gradually built up a rich account of the school, putting together complimentary and, at times, contradictory material that enabled us to engage one another in a debate about the significance of our experiences. It was a pity the discussion could not have been taped. In future evaluations of this type I would recommend at least a day's writing up time between schools in order to draw together and make a record of these perspectives. This is the potential power of this methodology, I feel.'

Overall, then, the methodology described here can be characterised as essentially a social process. It required a newly formed group to engage in a search for a common agenda to guide their enquiries and, at much the same time, a series of struggles to establish ways of working that enable them to collect and find meaning in relevant data. All of this was carried out in a way that was intended to be of direct benefit to those in the contexts under consideration. In so doing the members of the group were exposed to manifestations of one another's perspectives and assumptions. At its best all of this provides wonderful opportunities for developing new understandings. However, such possibilities can only be utilised if potential social, cultural, linguistic and micro-political barriers are overcome.

In my notes after the final meeting of the team I commented on what I described as an 'amazing learning experience for me'. In particular, I noted that I felt I had been learning about 'ways of working within Chinese traditions'. This points to an important point to bear in mind when electing to adopt participatory approaches to inquiry. It seems likely that such ways of working will take on very different forms as a result of the influence of particular cultures. In this respect the actual methods adopted may not be the most significant factor. Rather, as Chambers (1992) notes, 'the behaviour and attitudes of outside facilitators are crucial, including relaxing not rushing, showing respect, 'handing over the stick', and being self-critically aware'.


The experience of these two studies and, indeed, others that have involved the use of a similar orientation, has confirmed my commitment to the argument I have developed in this chapter for the use of collaborative forms of inquiry that emphasise practitioner research as a means of encouraging the development of more inclusive practices. Specifically it leads me to believe that greater understanding of how educational contexts can be developed in order to foster the learning of all children is most likely to emerge from studies in which outsiders, such as myself, work alongside teachers as they attempt to work out 'what works in theory'.

Such an orientation helps to overcome the traditional gap between research and practice. As Robinson (1998) argues, it has generally been assumed that this gap has resulted from inadequate dissemination strategies. The implication being that educational research does speak to issues of practice, if only the right people would listen. She suggests an alternative explanation, pointing out that research findings may well continue to be ignored, regardless of how well they are communicated, because they bypass the ways in which practitioners formulate the problems they face and the constraints within which they have to work.

As we have seen, practitioner research is fraught with difficulties. On the other hand, the potential benefits are enormous, not least in that the understandings gained may have an immediate impact on the development of thinking and practice. In the chapters that follow I explore what is involved in moving towards forms of classroom practices and school organisation that can effectively reach out to all pupils, using evidence from a range of activities that have made use of collaborative inquiry methods of the type discussed in this chapter. In essence this requires teachers and those who work with them to work together in order to examine existing practices within their own school and classroom contexts, including the thinking behind the thinking that informs these arrangements.

This orientation may be disappointing for some readers in that it does not result in generalisations and lists of strategies that can be lifted and transported across educational contexts in order to inform improvement efforts. Rather it leads to fine grained accounts that illustrate practices within the particular contexts in which they occurred. Their greatest value is in their potential to stimulate us to scrutinise and reflect on our own ways of working, and to challenge the assumptions that inform and shape those practices. Consistent with this position, my discussions and arguments make extensive use of examples from my observations in schools and classrooms, plus interpretations of these descriptions from those taking part. In this way I attempt to avoid the traditional academic pitfall, that of 'misnaming the problems of schooling'


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