Q&A: Spotlight on observational inquiry


An Interview with Teacher Advisory Council 3 Member Andrea Quintana

Teacher Advisory Council (TAC) is a volunteer body made up of educators from around the country who meet in-person with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s education team in Seattle twice a year. TAC members participate in working sessions that provide the Foundation with teachers’ honest reactions and feedback to its new and ongoing education funding efforts.

Andrea Quintana, who teaches kindergarten at Zuni Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has spent the past year working with six colleagues to build and pilot a professional development plan based on the observational inquiry model—a professional learning process that helps teachers collaborate to solve problems of practice.

In July, they showcased their plan at the Agents for Learning competition, hosted in Chicago by Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future—and won first place among 12 finalists. The competition aimed to identify the most promising professional learning activities for funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

We caught up with Andrea to learn more about her efforts to develop meaningful professional development for every teacher.

What is observational inquiry?

The process begins with a shared vision to solve an identified problem. During inquiry cycles, teachers and administrators can observe their colleagues in the classroom. For those interested in observational inquiry, I strongly recommend the book Opening Doors to Equity by Tonya Ward Singer. For our project, we followed the framework and debriefing ideas in the book.

How did you incorporate observational inquiry in your work?

We started our pilot program in 2015, when we were inspired by an idea from Teach to Lead. We designated seven teacher teams throughout our district to pilot the plan and work to solve a problem of practice (POP) that met their students’ needs. My team and I worked to solve the problem of how to appropriately incorporate technology into an early childhood classroom. We observed one another in eight cycles and looked at student engagement, vocabulary, and prior knowledge of iPads, SMART Boards, and different apps. After each observation, we debriefed what we saw, comparing similarities and gaps in students’ abilities in order to effectively plan next steps. We continued to do this all year, using our observations to refine our strategies and evolve the scope of our problem.

How did you benefit from the observational inquiry model?

Watching my peers and learning from their struggles and successes helped me to gain confidence and try new things. Because of this success and the desire to share this with other schools in our district, we wrote a similar plan for the Agents for Learning competition. The idea behind this competition fit our learning perfectly, and we wanted to make sure as many teachers as possible could learn from our success.  

Can you tell us more about your team’s winning plan?

We called our project “Breaking Bad PD in New Mexico”—a pun on the TV series Breaking Bad. The purpose was to help our school district utilize ESSA Title II funds to allow teachers to work collaboratively on observational inquiry projects to solve their own POPs. The core of the professional development plan was that it was teacher-led and encouraged peer learning, and thus was relevant to teachers’ needs.

What did you learn from the competition?

This plan and competition changed my teaching forever. I learned more over the course of one year observing my team of novice teachers than I have in 15 years through professional development opportunities that were not meaningful to my students or my classroom. When teachers can use job-embedded, teacher-led professional development to meet the needs of their students, they can fully engage and continuously improve. Teacher leaders are our biggest asset as education professionals—we are often good at what we do, but once we share and learn from each other, we become great! I would love to see schools in every district use ESSA funding to provide teachers more opportunities to observe and learn together.

What suggestions do you have for your TAC peers who want to design professional development using an observational inquiry model?

I strongly suggest finding a group of colleagues who want to learn together by watching how students learn. Along the way, ask yourselves: How do students respond to strategies you implement? What’s working well for them? I would also reach out to new teachers and invite them to observe you. Doing so will foster trust and comfort that will help them gain confidence in their teaching. To me, “professional development” is anything that helps teachers meet students’ needs. So, find what works, do it often, and stay committed.