Inquiry Project Retreat October 15 - 16, 2002

As before, LR/RI and RIDE have invited participants to begin with broad initial questions and to refine their questions over the early stages of the project year. Participants worked to refine their questions and work plans during a two-day retreat held at the Alton Jones Campus of URI. What follows is an overview of a process, developed in 2001 with Cassandra Drennon, and adapted and developed for the current round of projects. For more information, please contact LR/RI.

On October 15 and 16, participants in the 2002-2003 inquiry process

We began with a round of introductions, and in two small groups, participants completed group resumes -- visual representations of their accomplishments, skills and interests. This exercise, introduced in 2001 by Cassie Drennon is one that past (and current) participants have since used with their own students. People construct a visual image of their combined abilities and in so doing learn about one another's interests including, and beyond the realms of learning and teaching.

Following the development of group resumes, each participant described her/his project; the rest of us took notes but did not ask questions at that point - our purpose was to learn about how we listen, what kinds of questions we might ask and how we might see shifts in the kinds of questions we might ask as we explored the process of listening to one another more deeply over the course of the retreat. Over the course of the two days we spent a fair amount of time being aware of the ways in which feedback and questions can be helpful (or not) and can assist the researcher in opening up her/his understanding of the question being posed. I also encouraged participants to respectfully push one another and to challenge ideas in ways that would stretch all our thinking. I'm particularly interested in learning how to engage in questioning that opens and encourages dialogue and learning to avoid questions and conversations that close off possibilities or ideas.

Michele at newsprint
Michele Rajotte considers her question

Critical friends activity, developed by Cassie Drennon

Understanding the Issues: Instructions for Critical Friends

1. Take 15 minutes to read the writing presented by your partner(s) in this activity.

2. As you read, underline words or phases that stand out to you for some reason. These may be "powerful" words or phrases that you want to hear more about; they may represent vague or ambiguous ideas and concepts; they may be words or phrases that capture what seems to matter most to your colleague.

3. Also, in the margins pose "I wonder . . ." questions in relation to the ideas your colleague has written about. These should help them generate even more vivid description or deeper levels of thinking.

4. After you've read and made notes, spend 30 minutes discussing each person's question or issue. Share what you came up with for #2 and #3 above, giving the person plenty of opportunity to respond.

Other important things to talk about:

  • If unclear, what really is the underlying issue needing to be understood or the problem to be solved?
  • If the underlying issue is made clear, are there other ways to name it? Could the issue actually be something else?
  • What are all the possible causes of this problem?
  • What difference would it make if this issue or problem were understood better or even solved?
  • Critical friends should not offer advice or possible solutions!

    We used the critical friends guidelines as part of the larger process, described throughout this page, of learning about how to help one another clarify meaning, focus on areas of interest and refine the research questions we want to pursue.

    Kevin, Leanne at table
    Leanne Ovalles and Kevin McKay

    Assumption: Any belief, idea, or hunch, you have about a subject. We use our assumptions to guide our behavior.
    (A worksheet adapted by Cassie Drennon)

    The rules of thumb that underlie and inform our actions.

    The general beliefs, commonsense ideas, or intuitions that we hold about something.

    Why care about our assumptions? We get into trouble when we start believing that our assumptions and inferences are fact. Since we all have assumptions about a subject, it's important to clarify and challenge them before we start to design or carry out research about that subject.

    Critically analyzing an issue is a process of continually --

  • surfacing
  • examining
  • challenging and
  • potentially changing
  • -- our taken-for-granted assumptions.

    Adapted from The Action Learning Tool Kit, 1997, by Partners for the Learning Organization and from Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood, J. Mezirow, ed.

    Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater, authors of Fieldworking: Reading and Writing Research, define assumptions as "untested attitudes or theories (based on experiences about unfamiliar people, places or ideas)." [page 50]

    Throughout the first day we grappled with understanding the broader implications of inquiry, and worked to find ways to examine our ideas, the assumptions that underlie them and the work we want to do as critically as possible, with the intention of broadening our practice and our understandings. Explicitly discussing assumptions helped us begin to see where we were asking questions that we might already be answering somehow and to push those questions to really enable us to explore our topics with eyes and minds wide open.

    people in front of trees
    Rebecca, Nancy, Bob and Michele, outside our meeting room at the W. Alton Jones campus of URI

    We spent the first part of the second day in a critical review of a brief article about inquiry, written by an adult education practitioner. It wasn't an especially well chosen piece (my fault), but gave us an opportunity to practice the critical review process, though which in pairs or small groups, people speak individually, first noting something that stands out in the reading for them, then posing a question or critique: "I wonder..." We did this in order to begin to gain a sense of how to respond to one another's work as it develops, and to begin to find a common language for giving and receiving feedback.

    people at table
    working on the questions

    Nancy Fritz

    Michele Rajotte

    Janet Isserlis

    Leanne Ovalles





    Leanne at the easel
    Leanne considers her question

    We then began the process of re-writing and redefining questions. People were asked to begin to focus into what their question would be -- what is it they want to learn during this inquiry process? We discussed elements of good and bad inquiry questions -- a 'good' question being one that is truly open, that leaves the questioner with room to explore, while a not so good question somehow assumes that the researcher already knows the answer.

    Leanne at the easel
    Sherry considers her question

    For example, if I ask "How can I help learners speak more in class?" I'm already assuming that speaking more is a good thing, and I just need to find out how to help people do it. Asking if speaking is good (a yes/no question) really leaves me nowhere to go. If, however, I ask, "What happens when people speak more during class?" I remain open to the possibility that positive things might occur, but I also understand that they might not, and that I need to gather evidence to see what the outcomes of increased speaking might be.

    Other characteristics of good questions (again, shared with us by Cassie Drennon) are that they are neither too broad nor too narrow, are feasible within the time constraints we face, are of abiding interest to us, can help us understand what we already do in new ways and can inspire and challenge us to question our own assumptions about teaching, learning, literacy and change.

    Towards the end of the second day, after intensively working on one another's questions, we decided to take a stretch break. Leanne, who teaches yoga and worked on another project on stress reduction, led us through some very helpful, and energizing, stretches. (To learn more about yoga, have a look at Everyday Yoga, a site providing basic information about yoga you can do at work and/or at home).

    At the end of the day, participants were asked to write one nagging question they still have as they set out to do their work, as well as one excitement. This is what they wrote:


  • I look forward to another in depth look at my passion!
  • good people, good minds - great outcomes!
  • clearer sense of direction compared to this same stage last year
  • It will be challenging and exciting to work with this group throughout the year
  • Inspired by the other members of the group. The discussions and the 'deep' thinking about our teaching
  • working with a great group of people
  • to get started with research and get feedback
  • a nagging question

  • Am I doing the right thing?
  • Am I taking on too much?
  • Feeling like I want to determine my data collection plan earlier but wondering if I should wait to see how things play out?
  • What if I'm asking too much of teachers in addition to what they already do? Do I have time to do a good job on this?
  • Will my plan work - create change?

  • Throughout the retreat, participants reviewed, discussed and rewrote their tentative questions. The first assignment (to be submitted via email) follows:

    Problem statement

    Based on your experiences during this retreat (journal writing, personal reflection, critical friends activity, private consultations), write a concise statement of the problem or issue you will pursue through inquiry as you've come to understand it through the work we've done together at this retreat.

    Research questions

    List two or three research questions you could pursue based on the statement you've generated above.

    setting the context:

    Describe the students, the program and yourself: your beliefs about teaching and learning, which inform what happens in your classroom

    The inquiry process continues through til next spring; participants will meet again in December to begin to consider what counts as evidence, how data is gathered and what to do with it once it's assembled. I thank them all, and the RI Department of Education, particularly Bob Mason, state director of adult education, and Cassie Drennon, of Cassandra Drennon and Associates, for their ongoing support of this work. - Janet Isserlis

    people stretching
    people stretching

    page created December 4, 2002

    updated March 16, 2005

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