How to Support Teachers Using Descriptive Inquiry

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant elementary school principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Employees in a group meeting raise their hands to ask questions.

What is Descriptive Inquiry?

In order to support teachers using descriptive inquiry, we must first have a good understanding of what descriptive inquiry is. Descriptive inquiry is a process of close observation in which educators can use descriptive language and documentation to avoid judgement and review the development of students, student work, and instructional practices.

Usually descriptive inquiry involves educators collaborating with each other by using open-ended questions to focus on inquiry and to guide the process of descriptive inquiry. Collaboration is key here, as the thoughts and opinions of other professionals is essential to the descriptive inquiry process. By inviting colleagues to weigh-in on specific instances, teachers can listen to the thoughts and experiences of other professionals and benefit from their ideas.

Descriptive inquiry can be organized into specific steps. These steps can include the recollection and the descriptive review of the child. During the recollection phase, a descriptive story related to a posed question developed by the teacher is used to help each person involved in the descriptive inquiry recall experiences related to the topic. In this phase, the group reflects on the issue or topic and can ask questions and clarify misunderstandings they might have. The descriptive review of the child follows the recollection phase.

During the descriptive review, the work of the collaborative team involves developing a big picture of the student at hand. This would include a physical description of the child, the child’s ways of interacting with others, a description of the child’s interests and preferences, and anything else that helps those involved understand the child and their way of thinking and learning. These descriptions can be taken from teacher observations and should be as detailed as possible. This ensures that when discussing students and student needs, the whole child is considered. 

Why is Descriptive Inquiry an Effective Way to Support Teachers?

Collaboration is always important when educators are trying to solve problems, intervene, or enrich a student’s educator experience. By creating a collaborative group that will focus on descriptive inquiry, educators can expand on their practices, thoughts, and ideas. When more than one brain works together, a good idea becomes a great idea and a thought becomes a plan!

For example, when teachers are able to bring their ideas to others, be heard, and hear the experiences of others, they tend to feel less alone and begin to feel supported and empowered. In turn, when colleagues can share their experiences with others and help teachers solve problems, they also feel empowered and have a sense of purpose. Their efforts and work are appreciated, and they feel heard and impactful in the lives of students and their colleagues.

In this current time in education, educators are facing new challenges every day and need fellow teacher support. It is important for them to feel that they are not alone. By participating in descriptive inquiry, teachers can problem solve, collaborate, plan, and learn more about themselves and their students all at the same time.

Ideas for Using Descriptive Inquiry with Your Teachers

There are many ways an educator might use descriptive inquiry. This can be done within grade levels, leadership teams, or any other way in which educators come together to inquire descriptively regarding students, student needs, and how to meet these needs.

Below are examples of how an administrator could use descriptive inquiry to support teachers.

Encourage a Descriptive Review of Students:

Administrators can present headings to teachers. The number of headings can range from three to five and can include: student appearance, student interest, student actions, etc. According to University of Chicago Press, teachers and group members will then begin to describe the students in detail, helping the group get a better understanding of the child/children.

Encourage Teachers to Provide a Descriptive Review of Teaching Practices:

This provides an opportunity for teachers to reflect on their planning and teaching practices beginning with a focus question. According to University of Chicago Press, focus questions could be, but are not limited to:

  • How can I change the culture of my school or classroom?
  • How can I change my classroom practices to foster democratic ideals?
  • Do I give students time to explore their interests, ideas, and have choice in their learning process?

Provide Adequate Planning Time for Staff:

In order for descriptive inquiry to take place, staff must have the planning time to reflect on students and practice. Working this into the master schedule will benefit educators and help administrations ensure that descriptive inquiry takes place.

Model Descriptive Inquiry:

School administrators can use descriptive inquiry by modeling the process. For example, in PLC settings, administrators could describe their leadership practices by posing a question and then asking for and listening to feedback from their staff. This creates a safe place for true and honest reflection. By modeling this process, school principals can be seen as a leader and as a person open to feedback and suggestions.

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