Getting to know John McMillan, Inquiry By Design’s Founder and President

Click here to learn more about John's background.


How did Inquiry By Design come about?

I saw a real need for an organization with a concern for something other than, or more than, product dissemination. We wanted to combine the power of smart, well-designed curriculum with intensive professional development experiences, in ways that dignified students, teachers, and the profession.

There was a sense that a lot of curriculum out there wasn’t cutting it, generic feel-good professional development wasn’t cutting it, and we wanted to create an intersection between professional development and curriculum that helped everyone get smarter together, that leveraged the collective intelligence, and that took way more seriously the challenges of coaching kids into smarter work.


What were you seeing and experiencing as an educator that convinced you of the need for this work?

I saw myself as a teacher going to professional development experiences that were vapid and insulting and where the general consensus was that the sooner it was over the better. Regular practices included meaningless walk-throughs, disconnected activities, and instruction that violated the very kinds of pedagogy it ostensibly sought to promote, creating a hypocritical or contradictory professional development experience. There was this unspoken understanding about the relationship between the teachers and the staff developers that here is a person who knows a lot of stuff and you as a teacher are someone who doesn’t know stuff­—the whole construct was insulting.

Then in terms of the materials, I’ve had fairly extensive experience as a teacher and educator and I’ve come across some really good things: national writing project stuff, genre and author studies, integrated reading and writing work. But those are rarities. You see a prevailing dependence on anthologies and the idea that teaching is about basically stringing together long sequences of activities to keep kids occupied, but these practices don't actually equip teachers with a vocabulary and capacity to describe what they’re observing and the ability to make instructional adjustments out of those observations.

We wanted to bring people together and build solid relationships that allow us to have hard conversations that are invigorating and constructive, not demoralizing.


Who and what are you reading and coming across currently that is furthering or challenging your thinking?

Generally I’m looking a lot at writing instruction; things that confront the misunderstandings about the value of writing—for example approaches that are product centric as opposed to those approaches that appreciate the ways that writing plays an integral part in kids’ cognitive and intellectual development. I’m interested in encounters where writing is less of a culminating task but is seen as an essential part of our encounter with texts and ideas, period.

I’m reading through Steve Graham, Mina Shaughnessy, and Janet Emig. Also Embedding Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy. Important Stuff.


What is Inquiry By Design’s current hot topic or project?

We’re about to start working on a project where we’ll be looking at mountains of student work and sorting those with an eye on the standards and grade level rubrics as well as sequences of work across grade levels, so there are some really authentic anchor papers that show progressions and development.

And of course we’re looking at e-learning, digital materials, online professional development, and other approaches that will make our materials and services more cost effective for schools.

But really, our hot topic is what it’s always been. How do we design professional development modules that can be flexibly implemented to help people improve their practice and their understanding of what it means to teach kids to write? For me that is the call of the Common Core, as well as the TEKS. The big question is how do we make writing something more than just another thing that we’re supposed to do with kids, but rather an integral part of what happens in classrooms on a day-to-day basis. How do we bring rigorous writing back to the center of conversations about teaching and learning?


What shifts are you seeing in literacy in classrooms across the country?

There are good things for sure: the notion of close reading, even though it’s interpreted a thousand different ways; the notion of writing from evidence and constructing arguments; taking other people’s ideas seriously. These are all super important things moving us away from teaching English in order primarily to slog our way through canonical texts.

Unfortunately positive movement always collides with fiscal constraints and politics. Teachers are faced with having to design their own smart work aligned to new standards and leaders aren’t always honest or aware of how difficult and challenging that work is or the kind of investment that is required. Teachers are frustrated by a lack of support in many parts of the country.

No doubt there are innovations related to technology that can do a lot to support the changes, but I’m always concerned with the mentality that, ‘technology is the answer. What was the question?’ I’m afraid that we will make sacrifices around validity and quality in favor of logistical elegance. We need to keep an eye on the actual output of these innovations and not become enamored with delivery.


What kinds of things do you do when you are not thinking, talking, reading, and writing about literacy?

I’m going to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway this fall on my bike. It’s a thousand miles. I cross-country ski in Texas on roller skis.


What are you reading for pleasure? 

That’s a tough question because I have stuff of all kinds stacked up around me. Let’s see, I’m reading The Art of Fielding, which is the first novel by Chad Harbach. It was named one of 2015 Best Books. It’s great.

Also on my nightstand are Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Ben Greenman, and Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton.


If you could give teachers one tip to push their pedagogy in the direction of inquiry based learning, what tip would you give?

It would definitely have something to do with minimizing the isolation inherent in teaching. Open your classrooms up and become a participant in conversations across the school and across the district. Look closely together at artifacts like student work samples, watch each other teach in real time, and ask tough questions because we’re committed to improving practice and we’re dialed in to helping kids get smarter. That’s probably the answer for me when we’re talking about progress or change of any kind.