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Taking an enquiry stance – collaboration and a ‘disciplined dialogue’ by Duncan McBride

During my Extended Work-Based Project (EWBP) I conducted a case study of what happened when teachers learned to adopt the practice of practitioner enquiry within their classrooms.  Whilst reflecting on the conversations I had with teachers over the course of the study I became increasingly interested in how bias affected teacher judgement and have since sought ways to work with practitioners to reveal bias through explicit discussion and negotiation of the democratic values that underpin their judgements.

I have come to see this work as contributing towards an enquiry stance (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 2009) and view the facilitation of democratic discourse as a fundamental component in moving school culture in this direction.  While discussing my work I often use the phrase ‘disciplined dialogue’ to describe such discussion, which stems from the work of Elliott (2006) and his attempts to map out the distinction between ‘educational research’ and ‘research on education’.  The latter being principally focussed on producing forms of knowledge that can be applied in practice to affect educational change.  In this blog piece I begin by describing my learning in the EWBP around bias before moving on to unpack my use of the term ‘disciplined dialogue’ further through a discussion of more recent attempts to reveal bias in schools.

Revealing Bias

During my study I adopted a theory of identity as a situated construct, continually re-negotiated through our experiences and interactions (Lauriala and Kukkonen, 2005).  This allowed me to account for the inter-connected nature of teacher and student identities as described by participants.  After all the identity label of teacher is dependent upon the complimentary notion of student and both are associated with behavioural norms, expectations and conceptions of power and autonomy.  I posited that this understanding of identity is relevant to our discussion of bias because when played out in classrooms these constructs often affirm or restrict the identity claims that can be made during everyday classroom interaction (Bloome et al., 2005).

In the following example a female teacher describes her frustration with the disparity she perceives between the behaviours and attitudes of boys and girls.

They (boys) couldn’t answer the question. […] it was quite clear which were the girls and which were the boys. The girls were positive, I got very positive answers from them. The boys were mixed, so you’ve got some boys – the well-behaved boys – whom I was able to give a lot of praise to. Other boys where their behaviour was such that it was really hard to actually praise were less positive, more negative answers. They’ll always be getting into trouble all around the school – I suspect – and not getting much positive feedback so to be honest I focussed more on the girls.

This example reveals a gender-based bias between this teacher’s perception of boys and girls, which is rooted in her conceptions of her relationships with them and her emotional response to their behaviour. This bias led her to place more weight on the ‘positive’ responses she received from girls and subsequently to re-produce a structural inequality within her classroom. I categorised this type of bias as micro-sociological because it stems from the internal attitudes, beliefs and emotions of the individual.  However, some participants also expressed bias which was derived from broader macro-sociological factors as demonstrated in the following example:

So I’m looking at a first year class, as I say, mixed ability – but really looking at pushing the most able and it’s not at all a preference it’s just that I think as a profession we spend so much time worrying about the lowest 20% and the least able and the ones that need support for learning and the ones that have emotional problems, that we maybe sometimes forget that there are some very able children sitting there who maybe aren’t being pushed.

Whilst interpreting these transcripts I surmised that this stigmatisation of students was at least partly derived from the broader institutional labels used to classify student groups.  For example, when the teacher refers to the ‘lowest 20%’ she is using the same language found in a national data tool used by widely in Scottish schools to analyse attainment against deprivation.  Similarly, when she refers to those who require support in their learning her inference is derived from the schools internal labelling of children as having ‘Additional Support Needs’.

Furthermore, not all bias is overt, often teachers in the study tended towards a type of political neutrality which ignored the inequalities faced by some students and promoted the view that a single intervention could be utilised to the benefit of all, despite their individual and cultural differences and the structural inequalities they faced.

I would say that the experience of a child being in this school still isn’t that reading is at the heart of their day […] I don’t know if it matters where they come from so much as their interactions with different people – I don’t know – [if] all the staff members in school act as reading role models, maybe that’s how you overcome the class issue.

Since concluding the study I no longer view the distinction between micro and macro sociological factors in binary terms.  Indeed, bias is always enacted in the context of the micro sociological, in the relationships, emotions and stories of participants. However, I believe the distinction is useful in understanding the forms of action that may be taken to redress it. In our first example of gender-based bias, the participants experience of conducting enquiry created opportunities for personal realization (Anderson and Davis, 2012) which we explored in our dialogue.  Trust and mutual respect for diverging views was fundamental to creating a space in which the teacher could explore these issues openly. On the other hand, the stigmatisation of children based on institutionally assigned labels led me to explore more collaborative approaches geared towards facilitating change across practice communities.  In the following section I discuss one such example of this approach and use this to illustrate a practical application in using disciplined dialogue to eliminate bias.


Towards a Disciplined Dialogue

Since completing the EWBP I have been largely influenced by the work of Sharratt and Fullan (2012) and their book ‘Putting Faces on the Data’ which argues for re-connecting data with the personal dimensions of teachers lived experience of their classrooms therefore re-connecting the macro-sociological with the personal stories, relationships and emotions involved in everyday practice.

In 2019 I worked with a small team to implement their ideas, creating a data wall using pictures of the students in our school.  Each student photo was accompanied by their institutionally assigned ‘flags’ and information relating to their current attainment.  As the students were beginning S3 this information showed their attainment within the Broad General Education. Teachers were also asked to make a prediction of each student’s likelihood of attaining a level 5 qualification in their subject by the end of S4.  The results were grouped to show those predicted to achieve 5 awards at level 5, 4 awards at level 5 and so on.  The aim was to make this a live source of information, to facilitate wider collaboration contributing to a shared interpretation of the data and increase our sensitivity to bias.  Over the many discussions that followed I listened carefully to the language used by middle leaders to describe or justify the discrepancies we revealed in teacher judgement.  Over time we developed a shared capacity for specifically identifying statements made during our dialogue that revealed value judgements and progressively learned to question each other’s assumptions.

In these discussions we began to recognise the individuality of the student experience and engage in increasingly nuanced forms of negotiation on the desired values that should inform our judgement.  However, in her discussion on the relationship between Action Research and Social Justice Griffiths (2009) refers to the need for both recognition and redistribution as desired outcomes of the research process. In my work I have found many instances of recognition, but examples of the redistribution of resources are not so prevalent.  Indeed, the tacit conventions held by practice communities often served to protect existing practices against change.  However, Griffiths (2009) also places dialogue at the centre of this endeavour instead advocating for ‘Questions to be Asked Frequently’ relating to epistemology, action and effects, voice and power and recognition and re-distribution.

Bias cannot be overcome in a vacuum. Collaboration is key to challenging both individual and communal practices which sustain inequality.  Consequently, I believe school leaders are responsible for creating opportunities for disciplined dialogue in schools. I view this as a distinct form of discourse because it is geared towards negotiation on what constitutes valued outcomes in education, using relevant and robust data to contribute to a shared interpretation of progress towards those aims and systematically seeking to identify and eliminate bias from those interpretations. Change is not easy or guaranteed, nor is the revealing of bias and leaders are likely to encounter resistance to their attempts to expose it.  However, it is essential that we do if we hope to move beyond the rhetoric of social justice in schools and realise the promise of educational research as a tool for meaningful educational change.



Anderson, K. and Davis, B. (2012) Creating Culturally Considerate Schools: Educating without Bias. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Bloome, D., Carter, S. P., Christian, B. M., Otto, S. and Shuart-Faris, N. (2005) Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and Literacy Events: A Microethnographic Perspective. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cochran-Smith, M. and Lytle, S. L. (2009) Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Elliott, J. (2006) ‘Educational Research as a Form of Democratic Rationality’ Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40(2): 169-185.

Griffiths, M.  (2009) ‘Action Research for/as/mindful of Social Justice’ In Noffke, S. E. and Somekh, B. (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Eduational Action Research. London: Sage Publications Ltd., pp. 85-99.

Lauriala, A. and Kukkonen, M. (2005) ‘Teacher and Student Identities as Situated Cognitions’ In: Kompf, M. and Denicolo, P. (eds) Connecting Policy and Practice: Challenges for teaching and learning in schools and universities. London: Routledge, pp. 206-215.

Sharratt, L. and Fullan, M. (2012) Putting Faces on the Data: What Great Leaders Do! London: Sage ltd.


Mr Duncan McBride

Depute Head Teacher

Dunbar Grammar School



Educator, leader and life-long learner with a commitment to developing socially just pedagogies that support the attainment and achievement of all young people in our schools.


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