Preaching the power of Teacher Inquiry
‘Inquiring’ minds are finding answers in Nancy Dana’s passion
The photocopied sign taped to a cabinet drawer in Professor Nancy Fichtman Dana’s office at the UF College of Education employs just one word to arrive at the heart of the matter: Inquiry.”
Dana is a leading international authority on teacher inquiry – a powerful form of educator professional development that’s helping teachers design and deliver engaging ways to help all students learn to their maximum potential.
“Teacher inquiry is systematic, intentional study by educators of their own practice,” Dana says. “So, rather than research being done to teachers or school leaders, practitioner inquiry empowers teachers and leaders to engage in action research on their own practice, wrapping their professional learning around the learning of students.”
Her influence in the research and growing practice of teacher inquiry is evident in UF’s modernized teacher preparation curriculum, and in the UF Lastinger Center for Learning’s extensive outreach professional learning initiatives and educator coaching programs, which so far have reached over 10,000 teachers. Dana has worked with numerous schools and districts across Florida, the United States and abroad to help them craft professional development programs of inquiry for their teachers, principals and district administrators.
She embraced the inquiry concept while collaborating with a group of teachers and their principal at a Tallahassee elementary school as part of her doctoral dissertation studies during the late 1980s.
“The practice of inquiry was a transformational and empowering experience for all of us at that elementary school,” she says. “Over and over again I’ve seen what an incredibly powerful form of professional development inquiry can be.”
Dana has studied and written about practitioner inquiry for over 20 years, publishing 10 books on the topic, including three best sellers. Her latest book—on Professional Learning Communities and titled, simply, “The PLC Book”—was published in November by Corwin Press.
Dana has been racking up the frequent flyer miles of late, traversing the nation and globe making keynote presentations and leading workshops for educators hungry for professional learning models that focus on examining evidence from practice. Over the past few years her work has taken her to China, South Korea, the Netherlands and Belgium. In January 2015 she led a weeklong course on inquiry in Lisbon, Portugal, for education leaders from nine countries in the European Union. Next October she is headed to Estonia.
Born and raised in New York, Dana has a doctorate in elementary education from the Florida State University College of Education, which recently honored Dana with its 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award. She also served on the Penn State University education faculty for 11 years. She arrived at UF in 2003, around the time the UF Lastinger Center for Learning was created as the College of Education’s innovation hub for education reform. Dana immediately identified with the center’s progressive philosophy and objectives and was instrumental in infusing inquiry into the center’s outreach professional development programs for practicing educators.
“I had always been passionate about raising teachers’ voices in educational reform and helping educators improve their practice, and the Lastinger Center was emerging as a place that kept practicing professionals’ voices at the core,” she says.
Lastinger director Don Pemberton describes the center’s emergence and Dana’s arrival at UF as “perfect timing.”
“Nancy’s work is particularly relevant because it takes research-based practices and translates them into helping educators improve the quality of their teaching through an accessible, scientific process,” Pemberton says. “That is a key distinction of practitioner inquiry and Nancy’s scholarship.”
Dana doesn’t focus singularly on inquiry, although her signature focal point seeps into her other interests. She and co-researchers Cynthia Griffin (UF special education) and Stephen Pape (Johns Hopkins mathematics education) secured a $1.5 million grant from the federal Institute of Education Sciences to develop and study an extensive online professional development program for third-through-fifth-grade general and special education teachers focused on the teaching of struggling math learners. Teachers’ engagement in inquiry was the program’s core feature.
She also is deeply involved in the college’s new, professional practice doctoral program in curriculum, teaching and teacher education. The Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program is an online, on-the-job degree program designed specifically for practicing K-12 educators who aspire to lead change, school improvement and education reform efforts in their schools and districts. As you might expect, the program emphasizes evidence-based self-study and Dana designed a course specifically to introduce these students to the concept of inquiry.
When it comes to practitioner inquiry or “action research,” Dana and others at the College of Education know that they are onto something special – something that’s transforming teacher practice and boosting student achievement.
“Teacher inquiry is a very personal process,” Dana says. “Teachers are engaging in inquiry because they care really deeply about the learners in their classroom, and they desperately want to do anything they can to be successful in the teaching of all learners and to meet their varied needs.”
SOURCE: Nancy Dana, firstname.lastname@example.org
WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, News & Communications, UF College of Education, email@example.com