Introducing Inquiry Maths into a department

At an Inquiry Maths conference workshop recently, Rob Smith raised the issue of introducing inquiry into a secondary school department. Rob, the leader of the Maths Department at Northampton Academy (UK), wanted advice on the best way to promote Inquiry Maths with his team. Andrew Blair, who has led maths departments in three schools, replied:

The approach I would take depends on the culture and practice of the department. If we assume that the department is like the majority described in Made to Measure, then we face a situation in which teachers do not expect students to solve multi-step problems or reason mathematically on a regular, or even infrequent, basis. In this context, the introduction of Inquiry Maths is unlikely to succeed without support and training. It is not sufficient, for example, to write prompts into the schemes of learning as suggested activities. This approach underestimates the obstacles teachers face. Firstly, Inquiry Maths is not simply another resource that can be assimilated into existing practice; the full model might involve fundamental changes to a teacher's practice. Secondly, teachers in the UK state sector rarely have the time to engage with new ideas on their own. Hence, teachers will reject the suggested inquiry in favour of tasks that fit with their existing practice. 

I will now consider three cases based on the level of support for or opposition to Inquiry Maths within the department:

(1) The majority of the department is interested in inquiry learning. 

In this case, I would require all members of the department to try out the same inquiry, with each colleague choosing one of their, for example, year 7 or 8 classes. This initiative would be the main professional learning to occur in the department over a half term, taking up the majority of time in departmental meetings. The departmental leader would organise sessions on trying out the inquiry, considering the level of inquiry appropriate to each class, discussing potential pathways that might arise, preparing resources for those pathways and, afterwards, evaluating the inquiry. In the next half term, the team could go through the same process or teachers might select their own inquiry to work on in smaller teams. Whatever approach is taken, however, departmental time must be given over to planning, implementing and reflecting. By the end of the first year, the leader might feel confident to include inquiries as required elements of the schemes of learning.

(2) A minority of the department is interested in inquiry learning. 

In my experience, this is a more common situation. Perhaps two other teachers are prepared to embrace new ideas and are excited by the prospect of negotiating aspects of learning with their students. In this case, I would work with the interested teachers using a lesson study model. (Read Helen Hindle's report on an inquiry lesson study here.) We would observe each other running the same inquiry, focusing on the learning of identified students. Once again, time is a key issue. I would endeavour to arrange time off timetable to prepare the lesson study. Even without that, however, I have found that teachers interested in Inquiry Maths are those most committed to collaborative development and they are likely to give up their own time to improve practice. The aim would be for the two teachers to become advocates for inquiry within the department, spreading their enthusiasm to others. This phase might last for a year or less depending on how quickly others are drawn in. In the second year, the two advocates would lead their own lesson studies with four other colleagues and in the following year - that is, the third year - inquiries become required.  

(3) The members of the department are opposed to inquiry learning. 

It is difficult to envisage a situation in which you would find yourself leading a department that is opposed to inquiry if you wanted to introduce Inquiry Maths. If you are applying for departmental leadership posts, my advice is to consider other schools because this situation inevitably leads to frustration and acrimony. There are, however, two ways you might end up in this position. Firstly, you have been promoted internally and want to stay at the school. Hopefully, the relationships you have built up during your time in the department will lead others to trust you and you are able to identify one or two colleagues who are at least prepared to try out inquiry. Secondly, you are promised by the headteacher at interview that you will have the full support of the senior leaders to change practice in the maths department. This is a cynical ploy to use you as the battering ram against a recalcitrant department. Think carefully before accepting the post because, in my experience, the success of departmental leadership rests more on the relationships you have with classroom teachers than those with senior leaders. If the department thinks you are a stooge of the headteacher, then they will resist the introduction of Inquiry Maths (and any other initiative for that matter) even more.   

It is difficult to introduce Inquiry Maths into a department without the possibility of developing at least one advocate. Even if the department is supportive, the process involves cycles of planning, implementation and evaluation until, after a year, inquiry prompts become part of the schemes of learning. Of course, the special nature of inquiry learning means the process is never complete. Each inquiry starts with a unique set of students' questions and observations, has the potential to develop into new pathways and requires the teacher to decide each time on the nature of structure or guidance offered to the students. Eventually, discussion between colleagues about inquiry will become an everyday feature of the department's culture, but the leader must always be prepared to reinforce that process by giving over time in formal meetings to analyse the team's ever-deeper understanding of inquiry processes.

Andrew Blair, July 2016