What is an inquiry cycle and why is it important?

An inquiry cycle is a form of professional learning that uses learner data to inform a teacher’s reflection on the gaps in their learners’ learning, which can be bridged through adjustments in practice. As a teacher, you and your coach / mentor can then reflect on the knowledge and skills you require to improve learner outcomes in the relevant areas. The inquiry cycle is an ongoing process of reflecting on practice, undertaking professional learning, implementing that professional learning, and assessing impact. The term “inquiry cycle” is often used interchangeably with “action research”, which follows a similar cyclical process. 

The inquiry cycle:

  • provides you with new skills that can contribute towards resolving problems of practice, or issues within a class or setting.
  • keeps you engaged with the needs of your learners through repeated cycles of reflection and improvement.
  • focuses on continual improvement of learner outcomes.

The inquiry cycle can be undertaken individually or as part of a group. It may be used setting-wide to identify larger trends and gaps in learner outcomes, or it may be used as part of year-level or subject area improvement.

Conducting an inquiry cycle

There are a range of different ways to conduct an inquiry cycle:

  • Individually - Focusing on one class or a specific problem of practice.
  • Teaching teams - Through collaboration, or focusing on a specific challenge across several cohorts. Watch a team of science teachers undertake an Action Research project here. Together they research the difference a team teaching model makes to attendance and learner outcomes.
  • A whole setting approach - Involving all teachers researching a common problem in a consistent way.

The stages of an inquiry cycle

The stages of the cycle are shown in Figure 1 below. The first two stages involve you undertaking research to better understand the problem to be addressed, the middle two phases focus on building capacity and applying learning and the final stage is examining the impact of the changes made to your practice.

Figure 1: Stages of inquiry cycle[1]


1. What knowledge and skills do learners need?

The answer to this can be found through the interpretation of learner data. Dr Helen Timperley, Professor Emeritus of Education at The University of Auckland, states that it is important for teachers to view learner data as a way to identify areas for their own improvement, and not as an indicator of the capability of the learner[2]. For this reason, she advises that the data used to inform an inquiry cycle should be curriculum-related assessment information, as this is more useful in highlighting learning needs than data that reflects a learner’s usual achievement, but is not curriculum related.

2. What knowledge and skills do you need?

You should work with education setting leaders, mentors, or other relevant experts to analyse the learner data and learn how your practice could be improved to address the gaps in learner outcomes. Timperley[3]advises asking the following questions:

  • How have I contributed to existing learner outcomes?
  • What do I already know that I can use to promote improved outcomes for learners?
  • What do I need to learn to do to promote these outcomes?
  • What sources of evidence or knowledge can I use?

By asking these questions, you are engaging in reflection around your current teaching practice and acknowledging the impact your practice has on the outcomes of the learners in your class. This is a difficult undertaking, but through unpacking learner data, you can get a more objective view of the strengths and areas for development in your practice.

3. Deepen professional knowledge and skills

An inquiry into the improvement of learner outcomes is more likely to succeed when aligned with a deepening of pedagogical content knowledge and an understanding of theories that underpin assessment information, curriculum, and quality teaching[4]. Focusing on skills alone will not provide you with the flexibility to meet the complex demands of each of your learners. It is important for you to be able to use your theoretical understanding to make links between the effects of different teaching activities on different groups of learners.

4. Engaging learners in new learning experiences

Once you have engaged in relevant professional learning, it must then be applied to the classroom. High quality professional learning should be delivered in a way that is implementable within a classroom setting. Through speaking with other teachers, mentors, or leaders who have experience in the relevant area, you can get tips on how they have successfully implemented similar adjustments within their classroom. While increased engagement or enthusiasm on the part of the learners may be seen relatively early into the implementation, it is important to note that some adjustments may take longer to have a visible impact on learner outcomes.

5. What has been the impact of your changed practice?

You should regularly measure the impact on learner outcomes. This can be through formal or informal methods and the frequency will be determined by the focus of your inquiry. Sometimes adjustments to practice may not have had the desired effect. In these instances, reflection on the data collected and the steps taken in the inquiry cycle may lead you to decide on a different adjustment. The professional learning undertaken can still be useful knowledge for the future, even if it may not have the desired effect in your current context.

Difficulties of the inquiry cycle

One of the most difficult aspects of the inquiry cycle is defining an area of practice to improve upon. It is important to ask the questions in stage two above, but also to define a problem statement and brainstorm potential solutions. Speaking with colleagues, mentors, and leaders can help with this. Throughout the researching and professional learning phase, it is important to always keep the problem statement in mind.

Keep an open mind to the potential results of the research, as they may not be what is expected. From there, the most appropriate professional learning can be decided upon.

Why conduct an Inquiry Cycle?

  • Inquiry cycles enable teachers and education setting leaders to focus on a shared problem they wish to further understand or solve. Settings and teachers will face diverse challenges and Action Research enables them to tailor their learning and address issues that are unique to their context. Successful inquiry cycles start with a clear and meaningful research question.
  • Inquiry cycles are an effective form of professional learning, especially when teachers are collaborating, as by their nature they are job-embedded and evidence based.
  • Reflections and insights gained from inquiry cycles will lead to further research and professional learning, enabling teachers to constantly learn and improve their practice.

1. Timperley, H. ‘Using assessment data for improving teaching practice’. Research Conference, 2009.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Timperley, H. S., & Parr, J. M. (2007). Closing the achievement gap through evidence based inquiry at multiple levels of the education system. Journal of Advanced Academics, 19, 90–115.