Cover: Inquiry-Driven Innovation by Liz Dawes Duraisingh, Andrea Sachdeva


A Practical Guide to Supporting School-Based Change












Logo: Wiley

For Manoj, Joseph, and Tom ‐ my home team
For Marc, Aarav, and Jaya ‐ my guiding stars


We would like to begin by thanking our colleague, Edward P. Clapp, who co‐directed the Creating Communities of Innovation project from which this book emerged. He played an integral role in developing the concept of inquiry‐driven innovation, as well as many of the tools in The Toolkit for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation. His insights, vision, and knowledge helped to shape many aspects of the work reflected in this book.

The Creating Communities of Innovation project was generously supported by GEMS Education. The content of this book was developed through a process of collaborative inquiry over several years with a devoted cohort of educators in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). We would like to especially thank Sunny Varkey, Founder of GEMS Education, as well as Dino Varkey and Sir Christopher Stone for backing this work. We would also like to thank Michael Gernon and the Innovation Research and Development and GEMSx teams, and Dr. Linda Rush and the TELLAL team. We are further grateful to Nicholas Bruce, Vicki Hallatt, and Helen Loxston‐Baker for the leadership roles they have played on this project. Additionally, we would like to express our gratitude to Kalimullah Muhammad Siddique, Ibadet Ullah Khan, and Hunzullah Khaliqnoor for all of the camaraderie and support they offered to us during our time in the UAE. This book would not have been possible without the hard work and support of the teachers, principals, and leadership teams at all of the participating schools. We are especially grateful for the contributions of Jennifer Parker, Cathy Sciolis, Abhishek Singh, Peter Thorpe, and Principal Dr. Katherine Miner at GEMS American Academy—Abu Dhabi; Rob Darby, Zoe Downes, Ruth Farmer, Harriette Gardner, Rebecca Goodman, Neil Matthews, Nicola Matthews, Simon Murphy, Simone Rapsey, Zoe Tostevin, and Principal Stephen Sharples at GEMS FirstPoint School—The Villa; Sudharani Attili, Suby Bimal, Lourdes Oliva Mascarenhas, Mareen Mathew, Gauri Meghani, Sharmi Rodgers, Rana Sabohi, Bhawna Sajnani, Zahra Shirazi, Sreeja Unnithan, Deepa Varghese, Latha Venkateswar, and Principal Asha Alexander at The Kindergarten Starters; Ritesh Vrajlal Dhanak, Juliana Li, Sharada Kenkare, Reshmi Suresh Menon, Malini Murali, Priyadarshini Prakash, and Principal Nargish Khambatta at GEMS Modern Academy; Venetia Jayaraj, Nahmiya Ambala Kandy, Stella Laus, Christine De Noronha, Teresa Rusten, and Principal Fatima Martin at GEMS New Millennium School—Al Khail; Nicholas Bruce, Majd Hadad, Vicki Hallatt, Andy Williams, Sarah Wright, and Principals Ruth Burke and Maryssa O'Connor at GEMS Wellington International School; and Anthony Loxston‐Baker, Helen Loxston‐Baker, Emma MacDonald, Tracy Moxley, Shafaque Riaz, and Principals Damian Bacchoo and Elizabeth Stanley at GEMS Wellington Academy—Silicon Oasis. We are indebted and especially grateful to Christine Nasserghodsi for all of the effort and intellectual spirit she brought to this work as our devoted project liaison on the ground in the UAE. The Creating Communities of Innovation project would truly not have been possible without her tireless efforts.

In addition to our collaborating teacher and administrator partners on the ground in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we are also grateful for the contributions of various colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We thank the research assistants who helped at different times with the project, including Alen Agaranov, Iman Allawzi, Katy Bullard, Cortney Evans, Adriana García Nuñez, Audrey Pindell, Aneeqa Rana, and Giiti Wassie. We are also grateful for the support of our colleagues at Project Zero, including our director Daniel Wilson, our finance director Faith Harvey, and the Project Zero core team, including Sarah Alvord, Tina Blythe, Jordy Oakland, Margaret Mullen, Leyla Omeragić‐Buljina, and Matthew Riecken. We thank our colleagues Kristen Hinckley, Mara Krechevsky, and Christina Smiraglia for their feedback on the manuscript.

Finally, we wish to make a special recognition in memory of Sharmi Rodgers, who did inspiring work as part of the study group at The Kindergarten Starters.


It has been a decade now since I took on the role of principal at Kindergarten Starters, a primary school in the heart of Dubai with 5,000 students between the ages of four and ten. The sheer size of the school, however, was not the only disconcerting issue I faced. Desks stood in neatly lined rows facing the teacher, who delivered a standard lecture, with all children presumably learning at the same pace as their peers. This is a common sight in Indian schools, and although everything was orderly, hierarchical, and well managed according to parental expectations, I knew the soul of the school was missing.

I was searching for ways in which I could make a disruptive shift in this educational model. As a principal with more than three decades of experience, I knew that this model did not meet the needs of the present generation, much less the demands of the next. My pursuit for a new way of introducing collaborative learning for the early years had taken me to Reggio Emilia in Italy, a trip that I had found deeply inspiring. It was at the same time that the research work detailed in the pages that follow began in our school community, in partnership with researchers from Project Zero, a center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This work brought refreshing new changes in its wake.

What I had witnessed in Reggio Emilia reaffirmed my belief that children and their teachers should make their thinking visible in order to allow their thoughts and thought processes to emerge and to increase awareness within the school community of how students learn. However, it was Project Zero that gave us the tools for inquiry and innovation, including thinking routines1 that enabled us to effectively display student thinking. They also offered a structured process for thinking about how to incorporate these thinking routines into the everyday teaching practices at our school—something that was very new for us. This research work married the process of inquiry with innovation, as explained in this book, and so began a change in pedagogy that allowed children to collaborate to solve problems and to use creative approaches and analyses.

Not only did the classrooms at Kindergarten Starters undergo a physical transformation, but so did the thinking of our teachers about what learners could do as they started to encourage students to collaborate to come up with their own way of solving problems. This inquiry‐driven approach allowed students to explore the world according to their own curiosities. They puzzled out the solutions and understood that there were multiple ways to arrive at them. Most importantly, they learned by trialing different processes as they found out what worked best for them.

Our parents and teachers harbored a belief that this kind of learning approach was possible only in schools with an abundance of financial resources. They soon began to realize that creativity, collaboration, innovation, and self‐direction were the greatest resources and they were inherent in all children. These qualities just needed the right kind of provocation and opportunity to come to the fore. As students explored, they became fearless and confident in their abilities to search for solutions. They realized there was no one right answer and that by understanding others' perspectives they could become truly connected to the world in which they live. Parents were welcomed into lessons to see how these approaches worked first‐hand so that they understood that there was no need to rely on rote memorization—because their children had developed critical thinking skills.

This was the school I had envisioned and the kind of learning that I had hoped for. I learned that we have to stop building structures into which our students and teachers have to fit. Instead, we must create an open, multidimensional approach to teaching and learning that will revitalize our education system by giving teachers and learners the autonomy to become creative, innovative, and critical thinkers. Only this can create a common culture that supports innovative education.

The Kindergarten Starters is continuing its journey of promoting inquiry‐driven innovation as we now take on the challenge of embedding climate literacy into the curriculum—not only in schools belonging to the GEMS network, such as ours, but in every classroom all over the world. Project Zero and the Creating Communities of Innovation research project illustrated throughout this book have shown us that our vision is scalable and that by sharing best practices and our story we can imbue others with self‐belief. The journey of innovation continues at our school as we embrace educational technologies to find solutions to problems both in our local communities and the wider world in order to preserve the humanistic and developmental purpose of education.

Inquiry‐driven innovation is about solving problems that are commonly experienced and for which collective thinking is required—because, as individuals, we may not always have the best answers. That is why it is necessary to create communities of innovation within your schools. Working together to create your own success stories of innovation will support the creative flow that is contagious not only to your community, but also to the world at large. Dreaming to designing and then making that dream a reality is an energizing process as you will discover in Inquiry‐Driven Innovation: A Practical Guide to Supporting School‐Based Change.

Asha Alexander

Principal and Executive Leader—Climate Change

GEMS Education


  1. 1.  Thinking routines are defined in the Glossary at the end of the book, alongside other key terms.



The school library offered cozy spaces for students to settle down with a book or study quietly. Colorful posters adorned the walls. One particularly prominent poster used giant letters to offer this exclamation: “Take time today to LEARN something NEW!” Now, however, as early morning sunshine streamed through the windows, adults rather than children were gathered in groups among the bookcases. They were part of a two‐year collaborative research project exploring inquiry and innovation in education. Study groups from seven schools serving different communities across the K–12 spectrum within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were participating in this project, including today's host school located off Dubai's busy Sheikh Zayed Road. They were convened for one of the project's tri‐annual in‐person gatherings that included exhibitions of each school's work. A genuine buzz filled the room: participating educators expressed excitement about the opportunity to catch up with one another and to find out how their different innovation projects were progressing. There was also a palpable sense of being engaged in work that mattered—not to mention a small dose of friendly competition.

The innovation projects on display were varied: one was about promoting the use of thinking routines1 across grade levels to make student thinking more visible; another involved the development of a schoolwide rubric to promote critical thinking; another was about promoting positive dispositions with regard to online learning; yet another was about introducing student‐led assessment; and a further one presented the idea of using the local landscape to establish a “desert school” (a tortoise crawled through the space to bring life to this proposal). Working together in small groups—called study groups—the participating teachers and administrators had been engaging in the process of inquiry‐driven innovation for about a year. As part of that process, each study group had spent months learning to look at its teaching and learning contexts with fresh eyes. The groups had collectively identified potential changes they would like to see in their schools, established an inquiry focus, and then developed innovations to help make those changes happen. They had piloted their innovations and were now iterating on their initial designs. This morning they had brought along posters and visual displays to update the other study groups about their work, as well as to receive and offer constructive feedback. What did they most appreciate about one another's innovation projects? What connections were they making to their own? What puzzles or questions did they have? The educators listened attentively to one another.

▪ ▪ ▪

Three Key Elements: Innovation + Inquiry + Community

This book is about inquiry‐driven innovation: an ongoing process that empowers individuals and communities to pursue positive school‐based change that is relevant and responsive to local contexts. Three key elements are integral to the Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation: innovation, inquiry, and community. Given the demands of our fast‐changing contemporary society—and the need to prepare young people for the complexities and challenges of the world in which they are growing up—each of these elements has been acknowledged as vitally important in schools. Innovation, inquiry, and community are integrated within this framework in a way that both builds on and extends current thinking and practice, as discussed in the chapter that follows. Importantly, while the collaborative research that led to the development of the framework was initially focused on promoting innovation, it quickly became apparent that the professional growth—or “lift”—that the participating teachers and administrators reported experiencing was tightly bound up in the process. This book is therefore as much about empowering individual educators as it is about promoting innovation in schools. Powerful professional development and positive school‐based change, as others have pointed out, go hand in hand (e.g., Schleicher, 2011) and the Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation offers a fresh approach to strategically combining them to the advantage of both. It is important to note that this book takes a highly expansive view of what counts as innovation, interpreting it as the act of trying out anything that is new within a given school context, even if it involves practices that are quite commonplace elsewhere. This and other key terms are defined as they are used in the book in the Glossary at the end of the book. Additionally, the term educator is used throughout the book to refer to both classroom teachers and administrators.

The framework consists of key concepts and principles, a suggested process or “roadmap” for enacting inquiry‐driven innovation, and a range of over twenty practicable tools that were collaboratively designed and field tested with educators engaged in a design‐based research project called Creating Communities of Innovation led by the Project Zero research center at Harvard Graduate School of Education in collaboration with GEMS Education.2 The framework is intended to be used flexibly and to serve educational practitioners working at any grade level and with any content area or curriculum. A series of case studies and innovation journeys in Part Two shows how the framework can play out in different ways according to the local school context and the team of practitioners engaged with it. Part Two also includes an examination of the ways in which individuals experienced professional growth through this work.

This opening chapter introduces the overall concept and essential qualities of inquiry‐driven innovation. It also previews the contents of the rest of the book, offering suggestions on how to read and use it. The following chapter describes how the Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation was developed and loosely situates the framework within the broader educational landscape.

Figure 1.1 shows how the elements of innovation, inquiry, and community are tightly connected and mutually supportive within the framework.

This book shows how:

  • Innovation practices are enhanced when educators use an inquiry approach to pursue locally relevant innovations in collaboration with one another and in the service of specific communities about which they know and care.
    Schematic illustration of the key elements of inquiry-driven innovation.

    Figure 1.1 The key elements of inquiry‐driven innovation.

  • Inquiry practices are enhanced when they are focused on innovation projects that are meaningful to a group of participants who have the opportunity to learn both with and from one another.
  • Community‐building or collaboration practices are enhanced when there is a clear purpose for educators to work toward collectively and they are given relative autonomy to promote change that is meaningful to them and their communities.
  • Individual teacher professional development and community building or collaboration practices are mutually supportive: while this book emphasizes the collective pursuit of inquiry‐driven innovation, it also features powerful stories of individual growth.

The Five Principles of Inquiry‐Driven Innovation

Now it is time to unpack the five key principles that are integral to the Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation. As Figure 1.2 shows, the framework promotes work that is purposeful and intentional, attentive to multiple perspectives, adapted to the context, sustained and iterative, and structured and supported. No one principle is more important than the others and all connect to form a coherent whole, encircled by the key elements of innovation, inquiry, and community.

Schematic illustration of the key elements and principles of inquiry-driven innovation.

Figure 1.2 The key elements and principles of inquiry‐driven innovation.

Principle #1: Inquiry‐driven innovation is purposeful and intentional

It addresses a specific need or interest and involves deliberate design choices throughout the process.

The framework supports educators to work on innovation projects that address a specific need or interest—that is, to develop innovations that are purposeful and explicitly designed to promote positive change within their local contexts rather than innovating for innovation's sake. For the schools featured in this book, this kind of positive change meant different things. In one school, it meant radically overhauling kindergarten teaching practices to enable young learners to express their ideas and develop a passion for inquiry. In another, it meant promoting critical‐thinking skills across the curriculum to improve students' capacity for analysis and discussion. In still another, it meant supporting students to develop positive dispositions toward online learning so that they could take greater advantage of the school's blended learning model.

Educators are also encouraged to be intentional throughout the process in terms of making choices or decisions that seek to advance the intended purpose of their innovation. For example, some of the tools presented in Part Three, such as Population, Innovation, Outcome and Theory of Action, help educators to focus in concrete ways on who or what they want to impact and how they are going to do so. The iterative nature of the recommended process for inquiry‐driven innovation also promotes intentionality. From the outset, educators are supported to observe and listen carefully to what is happening in their schools and classrooms before developing their innovation projects. Later on, they are asked to respond thoughtfully to the data and documentation they are collecting and interpreting in order to further advance their innovation projects. Reflection is key to the entire process, a point that is emphasized in Chapter 6 on individual teacher growth.

Principle #2: Inquiry‐driven innovation is attentive to multiple perspectives

It engages educators who offer a variety of perspectives and considers insights from diverse literatures and stakeholders.

The Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation recommends that educators come together in study groups that are intentionally designed to engage a variety of perspectives. Part of the power of the framework comes from facilitating learning experiences that bring together professionals who do not habitually work together and who perhaps underestimate how much they could learn from one another's expertise and practices. Accordingly, it is generally recommended that study groups include members who differ by role and level of responsibility within the school, degree and type of professional experience, subject area, age level taught, and personal identity—for example, by gender, race/ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, and/or national or regional identity. In this regard, the framework reflects research that indicates that diverse groups tend to be more effective than more homogeneous groups in terms of problem‐solving and generating creative ideas—in no small part because of the different perspectives and ways of thinking that diverse group members can bring to the table (Hong & Page, 2004). Furthermore, drawing study group members from different areas of a school means that the group's innovation focus is likely to be relevant to a wide variety of stakeholders and to then take hold and be scaled throughout the institution. However, depending on the local context and impetus for engaging in inquiry‐driven innovation, it might make sense for study groups to bring together educators who fulfill similar roles within a school (Weinbaum et al., 2004). In the case of the Kindergarten Starters School, for example, the two study groups were mostly comprised of teachers working at the same grade level.

The framework also fosters attentiveness to multiple perspectives in ways that go beyond the composition of study groups. The tools shown in Part Three, some of which build on decades of research, are designed to generate or bring to the surface multiple ideas and perspectives. They encourage those engaged in inquiry‐driven innovation to observe and listen carefully to a variety of stakeholders, including students, teachers, parents, and other community members, as they conceive of, initiate, and develop their innovations. These tools also encourage educators to consult with and draw inspiration from a variety of sources, including ones that lie beyond the field of education. Finally, the concept of building community across as well as within schools means that study group members are introduced to a variety of practices, ideas, and learning environments beyond their immediate contexts, as indicated by the opening vignette. This kind of cross‐fertilization among educators can serve to encourage or endorse the work that study groups are doing; at other times it calls into question some of their assumptions or generates new ideas.

Principle #3: Inquiry‐driven innovation is adapted to context

It responds to local conditions and addresses specific needs or interests, fostering a sense of local ownership.

Innovations are far more likely to take hold if they are relevant and responsive to the local communities that they are designed to serve. The framework's recommended process begins with the development or refinement of inquiry skills that are designed to promote educators' attentiveness to their local context and the viewing of it with fresh eyes. From the start, they are encouraged to develop innovations that make sense within their local contexts and that draw from multiple perspectives. This emphasis on local adaptation helps to empower educators because it enables them to tap into their own experiences and knowledge of a particular context to generate innovations that address local needs or interests. As a result, educators are likely to experience a great deal of ownership and satisfaction. For instance, several of the study groups who helped to develop the Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation gave specific names to their locally adapted innovations as a means of signaling that these innovations were unique to their schools and a source of pride. For example, the study group that promoted critical thinking across the curriculum gave their rubric a whimsical name that incorporated their school's initials (“WISical Thinking,” as featured in the case study in Chapter 5). Meanwhile, the school that promoted positive dispositions toward online learning gave their framework the acronym “CRUISE”.

Principle #4: Inquiry‐driven innovation is sustained and iterative

It involves ongoing individual and group commitment, with the process requiring revision and refinement over time.

As already noted, school‐based change and individual professional growth go hand in hand. Inquiry‐driven innovation stands as a counterpoint to ad hoc or scattered approaches to professional development in schools. The framework is intended to be implemented over a period of at least one to two years, with the resultant innovations and practices enduring well beyond. It promotes the concept of sustained and ongoing learning journeys—at the individual, study group, and whole community levels. As part of the framework, study groups are invited to reflect on and develop their own collective stories of developing an innovation together, including the challenges or obstacles that they have overcome (see the Project Journey Mapping tool in the Toolkit). A great deal of individual and group commitment is required for this kind of work. However, many educators are looking precisely for this kind of sustained professional development, which enables them to continue to evolve their practice and empowers them to make original and positive contributions within their local contexts.

The framework proposes an iterative approach to innovation in which innovations are developed by educators through a process that involves ideating, piloting, implementing, evaluating, and then eventually scaling their innovations, all the while deploying inquiry skills to help them refine and further develop their innovations and take stock of the impact they are making. The tools presented later in Part Three are designed to be revisited and reused over time; for example, the Theory of Action tool guides the creation of a living document that is continually being revised and updated.

Principle #5: Inquiry‐driven innovation is structured and supported

It follows a coherent trajectory from conceptualizing the innovation to scaling it up, and involves using or adapting specifically designed tools, resources, and structures.

Educators need structures in place to facilitate their growth and development: most individuals working within schools are simply too busy to carve out enough time for sustained professional development or to engage in coordinated networking with other colleagues. This framework proposes weekly study group meetings that follow an arc of activities, as well as periodic cross‐study group community meetings that can happen in person or virtually.

Inquiry‐driven innovation requires commitment and ideally direct involvement from administrators and leaders within a school. While study groups may need to develop creative ways to meet or coordinate with one another because of scheduling constraints, they will ideally have protected time to be able to meet with one another on a weekly basis. As already noted, any type of collaborative work in schools needs at least some level of approval and support from those with administrative authority within a school; the Spreading, Scaling, and Sustaining and Spheres of Influence tools shown in Part Three recommend involving and engaging administrators and other stakeholders to help promote and develop the innovation.

The framework crucially involves supporting educators to develop innovations that matter to them and their schools, with the energy and psychological support that they derive from working in community, making the experience more satisfying and impactful. It is not easy to take risks through innovation. By supporting one another to overcome challenges and by having a shared collective experience, educators who work together are able to achieve much more than they can working solo. Moreover, they can develop very close bonds with one another in ways that can sometimes be surprising if they are working with people with whom they would ordinarily have little contact. As the opening vignette indicates, educators can become invested in one another's work and feel a sense of collective pride in being involved in a larger network that speaks to their broader professional identities in ways that transcend local school contexts.

How to Use This Book

This book offers a practical guide to promoting school‐based change through the Framework for Inquiry‐Driven Innovation. This chapter has introduced the key concepts and principles of inquiry‐driven innovation. To recap, the three key elements of inquiry‐driven innovation are innovation, inquiry, and community, and the framework represents work that embodies five major principles: purposeful and intentional, attentive to multiple perspectives, adapted to context, sustained and iterative, and structured and supported. The next chapter focuses on how the framework was developed and how it is situated relative to existing practice and research in education.

Part Two, “Inquiry‐Driven Innovation in Practice,” offers a range of innovation journey maps and case studies to show how the framework was variously implemented on the ground in schools; these stories are offered as a source of inspiration and indicate the inherent flexibility of the framework. Part Two also includes a chapter on individual professional growth, showing how the lifting of individual practice was bound up with the collective pursuit of inquiry‐driven innovation—with openness, purpose, and reflection emerging as key aspects. The third and final part of the book is called “Creating Your Communities of Innovation.” Here, readers will find guidelines and resources for establishing their own innovation communities centered around inquiry‐driven innovation, including a suggested process “roadmap” and over twenty pedagogical tools to support this work. The book and framework are intended to be both flexible and dynamic: some readers may wish to use just a few ideas, while others may prefer to follow the framework and suggested process more carefully. Regardless, the intent of this book is to support educators—both individually and collectively—on their own paths toward generative school‐based change, to the benefit of the students and communities whom they know and serve. In the book's conclusion, the authors share their own perspectives on what they have learned through the process of developing inquiry‐driven innovation, calling on all schools to embed more innovation, inquiry, and community into their practice to better serve young people.


  1. 1.  Thinking routines and other key terms are defined in the Glossary at the end of the book.
  2. 2.  The primary researchers working on the project from Project Zero were Edward P. Clapp, Liz Dawes Duraisingh, and Andrea Sachdeva. The primary liaison for GEMS Education was Christine Nasserghodsi.