Evidence Led Practice

The power of disciplined professional enquiry

This year our primary trainee teachers were set a simple professional enquiry task. They were asked to think about how pupils learn, with a particular focus on cognitive load theory. The task was to be presented as a question; What impact does X have on the outcomes for pupil/pupils Y over a 6-week period?

As research driven practitioners, sometimes it helps to take a magnifying lens to what makes a difference to our pupils and celebrate the small successes that happen in our schools on a daily basis. I thought it would be interesting to share the impact of one small study undertaken by Jane.

Jane had been discussing and analysing with expert colleagues how to reduce distractions that take attention away from what is being taught (e.g. keeping the complexity of a task to a minimum, so that attention is focused on the content). She though carefully about how to break complex material into smaller steps (e.g. using partially completed examples to focus pupils on the specific steps).

We know that more successful teachers do not overwhelm their students by presenting too much new material at once (Principles of Instruction Research-Based Strategies that All Teachers Should Know, Rosenshine, 2012) and that the approach used in the professional enquiry is coherent with Sweller’s Cognitive Load theory (Cognitive-Load-Theory-and-its-application-in-the-classroom.pdf).

Jane’s enquiry task was; What impact does breaking down tasks into small achievable steps have on improving outcomes for neuro-divergent pupils?

She had a focus on two particular pupils and prior to every lesson she prepared a list of success criteria, the task was broken down into small achievable steps which could be ‘ticked off’ by the pupils as they achieved them. Each set of success criteria had partially completed concrete examples.

As the weeks passed she gradually began to decrease the detail of the steps and to gradually remove the scaffolds. This decrease in steps and scaffold correlated with an increase in motivation and attention on the part of the pupils.

She found that over the course of the 6-week enquiry, pupil attention and motivation increased and dependence on the teacher decreased. Pupils developed a greater sense of intrinsic motivation as their task success rate improved. Tables 1 and 2 show the increasing level of self-motivation in just 3 weeks.


Table 1


Table 2

What was apparent form this simple task was the increase in Intrinsic motivation; defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Ryan and Deci, 2000  

With this increasing level of self-efficacy and motivation Jane also noticed a marked improvement in the output of work and the attainment of the two pupils. Image 1 shows the outcomes for pupil A at the very start of the professional enquiry task. Image 2 shows the outcomes for the same pupil at the end of the professional enquiry task.



Image 1


Image 2

With so much research out there, as a provider of ITT, we recognise the power of sharing this simple view of pupil progress - a journey of a thousand miles for our trainees begins with a single step. 


Principles of Instruction Research-Based Strategies that All Teachers Should Know, Rosenshine, 2012


Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Ryan and Deci, 2000  

Written by Susan Marbe, ELE and Director of ITT, West Essex SCITT

Find out more about Susan here.

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