Disciplined Inquiry, performance review and asking well-structured and formulated questions

Recently, I wrote about how disciplined inquiry was being used by some schools as a central part of their teacher performance review scheme. Now models of disciplined inquiry will often be based around some form of structured inquiry question, such as the one put forward by the Institute of Effective Education:

What impact does (what practice?) delivered (over how long?) have on (what outcome) for (whom?)?

Two examples of this type of inquiry question have been very helpfully provided by Shaun Allison and Durrington High School

• What impact does increasing the frequency of modelling writing, followed by structured metacognitive reflection in lessons delivered over a year have on the quality of creative writing for my two Y10 classes?

• What impact does explicitly teaching Tier 2 and 3 geographical vocabulary using knowledge organisers delivered over a year have on the appropriate use of tier 2/3 vocabulary in written responses for the disadvantaged students in my Y8 class?

However, given the diversity of teaching staff, it is unlikely that a single question structure is going to meet every teachers’ needs, interests or requirements. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a single question structure is likely to be sustainable over a number of years – with teachers losing enthusiasm for ‘disciplined inquiry’ when asked to do more of the same.

With this in mind, it’s probably worth examining a number of other formats for developing structured questions. One way of doing this is to use something known a conceptual tool known as PICO – and which is explained below

• Pupil or Problem - Who? - How would you describe the group of pupils or problem?

• Intervention - What or how? What are you planning to do with your pupils?

• Comparison - Compared to what? What is the alternative to the intervention – what else could you so?

• Outcome - Aim or objective(s)- What are you trying to achieve?

Sometimes additional elements are added to PICO, including C for context and the type of school, class or setting – or T for time – which relates to the time period it takes for the intervention to achieve the outcomes you are trying to achieve.

Although PICO is probably the most well used structure to formulate questions, there are a number of different variations which could be used. These alternatives are especially useful when you focus is not just on the outcomes for pupils, but consider other issues, such as, who are the stakeholders in the situation; from whose perspective are you looking at; and, how do pupils experience the intervention. Examples of these alternative frameworks include:

  • PESCICO Pupils, Environment, Stakeholders, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome

  • EPICOT Evidence, Pupils, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome, Time-period

  • PIE Pupils, Intervention, Experience/Effect

  • SPICE Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparator, Evaluation

  • PISCO Pupils, Intervention, Setting, Comparison, Outcome

  • CIMO Context, Intervention, Mechanism, Outcome

  • CIAO Context, Intervention, Alternative Intervention, Outcome

Let’s now look at worked examples for two the frameworks: PISCO and SPIDER


In this example, we are interested in whether ‘holding back’ Y8 pupils will have a beneficial impact on their learning outcomes.

  • Pupil or Problem -Who? Y8 pupils who have made insufficient progress

  • Intervention - What or how? Pupils will not progress to Y9 and will remain in Y8 and be provided with additional support

  • Setting Where ? - A secondary school in an inner-city

  • Comparison - Compared to what ? Progression to Y9

  • Outcome - Aim or objective(s) - For pupils to have caught up with pupils who progressed to Y9?


For this example, we are interested in the following question - What are Y7 pupils experience of transition from primary school to secondary school’

Sample of the population - Who? -Y7 pupils

PI – Pheonemna of interest- What’s taking place or happening? Pupils transition from Y6 to Y7

Design - Study Design - Interviews, focus groups and surveys

Evaluation Outcome measures Perceptions of support, expectations and attitudes towards school

Research - Type -Qualitative

What are the benefits of developing structured questions?

As a busy teacher, you may ask yourself whether it’s worth taking the time and effort to develop structured and well formulated questions. Unfortunately, there is little or no research which supports our claim for the benefits for teachers of such an approach – not for that matter that disciplined inquiry is an effective component of performance management. However, within the context of medicine and health-care seven potential benefits from the question formulation process have been identified - (Straus et al. 2011) – and which are likely to transfer to the setting of a school. These benefits include:

• Focusing your scarce professional learning time on evidence that is directly relevant to the needs of your pupils

• Concentrating professional learning time on searching for evidence that directly addresses your own requirements for enhanced professional knowledge.

• Developing time-effective search strategies to help you access multiple sources of relevant and useful evidence.

• Suggesting the forms that useful answers might look like.

• Helping you communicate more clearly when requesting support and guidance from colleagues

• Supporting your colleagues in their own professional learning, by helping them ask better questions

• Increases in level of job-satisfaction by asking well formulated questions which are then answered.

Tips for developing your question

There is no one preferred way for developing a question which forms the basis of your disciplined. However, there are a number of actions you can take which will increase the likelihood of developing a question that may lead to improvement in both your teaching and outcomes for pupils.

• Seek help from colleagues. If you school has a school research lead get their advice, they may help you refine your question or point you in the direction of colleagues who have looked into the same or similar question.

• Developing your question is an iterative process and your question will change as you discuss issues with colleagues, begin to explore the literature and your own thinking changes.

• Don’t be afraid to write down your question, even if in your mind, it will be incomplete or not yet formally formed. Keep a written record of your thinking as it develops

• Especially when developing a PICO or similar type question, particularly if you are new teachers you may find it difficult to identify both the intervention and comparator. At this stage you may want to focus on both the problem being encountered and the outcomes which you wish to bring about.

• When thinking about the comparator you might want to spend some time working on how you would describe ‘business as usual’ – as this is likely to be the comparator to whatever intervention is being considered.

• In all likelihood, for any problem you are trying to address, there will be more than one question you could ask. It will be useful to focus on a single question, when considering how to access different sources of evidence.

• Before committing any time and effort into trying to answer your well formulated questions think long and hard about whether the benefits from answering your question will outweigh the costs. Is your question: feasible, interesting, novel, ethical and relevant - (Hulley et al. 2013)


Hulley, Stephen B et al. 2013. Designing Clinical Research. Philadephia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Straus, S E, P Glasziou, S W Richardson, and B Haynes. 2011. Evidence-Based Medicine: How to Practice and Teach It. (Fourth Edition). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone: Elsevier.