The five principles of teacher enquiry


The best and most effective schools are those that encourage their teachers to continue to learn alongside their pupils using enquiry-based approaches. Gareth Mills offers five ideas to help you embrace this approach.

In great schools, everyone – teachers and students – comes to school to learn, and everyone can make a contribution to teaching.

Many studies tell us that the best way to bring about school improvement is through the professional development of teachers. The Sutton Trust (1), for example, notes that with effective teaching pupils can gain an extra 1.5 years of learning. As such, investing in teachers as learners is one of the most effective ways to improve outcomes.

At the same time, the Education Endowment Foundation’s Pupil Premium Toolkit tells us that peer-teaching, pupils acting as teachers, can be an extremely powerful way to promote learning. 

Most good teachers know instinctively that one of the best ways to learn something new is to try to teach it; preparing a good unit of work means undertaking research, synthesising key points and communicating what you’ve discovered in memorable and engaging ways. It seems that this works for pupils too.

Perhaps we need to do more to create climates where everyone comes to school to participate in a community engaged in learning and personal development. This should apply as much to school leaders and teachers as it does to pupils. 

Reports by McKinsey (2) and the OECD (3) suggest that if we really want to bring about deep improvements in schools, we should be investing more time and effort in CPD. However, the Teacher Development Trust (4) estimates than on average we spend about £8 per pupil on teacher development compared with about £25 per pupil entering for exams.

So what sort of teacher development should we be encouraging? Research by Cambridge University found that the forms of learning many teachers encounter tend to be passive. Far too much CPD tends to involve listening to information or watching presentations. Deep and sustained change requires something a little more substantial.

Consequently, the NFER and Futurelab designed the Enquiring Schools programme. It is an approach to teacher development that puts classroom enquiry at the heart of a development process. Teachers are encouraged to follow a seven-step process that begins with the realities of their own classroom and a reflection on their own repertoire of practice. It encourages them to explore options for growth by engaging with the education research base and to be both innovative and disciplined by providing tools to capture baselines against which impact can be evaluated.

Importantly, the CPD is sustained over a period of time, providing time for talk, collaboration and reflection. Here are five ideas that helped shape the programme, which I believe could be considered as a checklist for good “on-the-job” CPD.

Scratch the itch

CPD works best when it arises directly from needs identified by teachers in their classrooms. It needs to scratch a genuine itch. Unfortunately, the experience for many teachers is quite the opposite. CPD is often driven by external factors such as the new Ofsted framework, the new curriculum, or a new approach to assessment now that levels are disappearing. Precious time is eaten up by briefings about the latest initiative rather than the realities of classroom practice and the needs of the pupils. Identifying credible and authentic reasons for change is essential to get buy-in and the motivation to try new ideas. 

Explore options

In his seminal book, Visible Learning, Professor John Hattie tells us wryly that everything works. When intelligent and energetic people seek to bring about change they are often successful. However, he encourages us to consider “what works best?”. 

Time is the most precious resource in schools, so we should use it wisely. Prof Hattie encourages us to engage with the research evidence base so that we put our energies into those things that are most likely to have the biggest impact. So, for example, a school exploring the use of tablet computers might link their work to enhancing peer review through blogging because we know from evidence that giving and receiving quality feedback is a high-impact learning strategy.

Be imaginative – and disciplined

Teachers often want to be innovative so it is important to create a climate where it is okay to take managed risks and make a few mistakes. Paradoxically, one of the ways to do this is to underpin creativity with a degree of rigour. One way to do this is by supporting/fortifying the creative approach with a systematic process of enquiry. For example, we suggest that at the outset schools capture a picture of current practice to act as a baseline against which it is possible to evaluate impact. 

Create time to talk

In the busy life of schools it is hard to find time to stop, talk and reflect. Without time to do this, much of the potential learning can get lost in the realities of day-to-day teaching. Time needs to be found to allow teachers space to plan together, observe each other, discuss pupils’ work and have time for genuine debate and reflection. Programmes of learning that take place over a minimum of two terms, with dedicated time on INSET days and at a series of staff meetings, are most likely to bring about deep and lasting change.

Think principles not methods

At the end of a cycle of enquiry it is important to take stock and draw out the deep principles about why things might have worked. Deep principles, rather than a shopping list of methods, are more likely to enter the DNA of individuals. 

Principles permeate individuals like the name through a stick of holiday rock – lists of “hints and tips’ are easily lost like leaves in a breeze. 

There is some wisdom in quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “As to methods there may be a million, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” 


With the increasing marketisation of education there is a growing rise in the number of commercial CPD providers seeking the attention of schools. It is important that teachers become critical consumers, able to make informed judgements about the claims made by providers. 

There are few “silver bullets” – real teacher development happens as part of a sustained engagement with issues of real significance. One of the best ways to do this is to collaborate with critical friends and invest in more enquiry-based “on-the job” approaches to professional development.

  • Gareth Mills is head of learning for NFER’s Enquiring Schools programme and director of The Design Studio for Creative Learning.

Recognising research excellence

Wilmington Grammar School for Girls in Kent participated in the Enquiring Schools programme and has become one of the first recipients of the new NFER Research Mark, which has been developed to recognise excellence in practitioner-led research. 

The school was presented with its award in November by Gareth Mills, who praised the commitment of the staff and leadership team in embedding research engagement as a key part of their approach to ongoing teacher development.

He said: “The teachers’ enquiries were based on a good evaluation of the needs of different students. Teachers then drew upon research evidence to design interventions and evaluate the impact the changes they made. In PE, for example, gains were made in performance by changing the nature of feedback, making more use of peer review.” For more on the NFER Research Mark, visit

Further information
  1. The Sutton Trust:
  2. McKinsey:
  3. OECD:
  4. Teacher Development Trust:


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