Inquiring minds
want to know Dana’s secret

The large sign in Prof. 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 the nation’s leading authority on teacher inquiry – a powerful tool that’s helping teachers deliver customized, engaging and effective instruction.

Teacher inquiry resides at the core of her philosophy of education and forms the nucleus of the UF Lastinger Center for Learning’s on-the-job Florida Master Teacher Initiative.

The inquiry process is so crucial that Dana’s Guided Teacher Inquiry course is the first class taken by Master Teacher candidates, and she makes quite a first impression.

“Charismatic leader is a perfect description of Nancy,” says Rachel Wolkenhauer, a Lastinger-trained Master Teacher who’s pursuing her doctorate in education at UF. “I see her most often as a leader in inquiry seminars, where she works with educators who are learning the process or are learning to coach the process with others.”

What is inquiry? Simply put, it begins with a question or issue important to teachers’ practice. This is known as a “wondering”: One wonders how to reach a particular student, or how an online learning community will affect student achievement and motivation. That sort of thing.

“Inquiry is defined as systematic intentional study by educators of their own practice,” Dana says. “So, rather than research being done to teachers, the practice of practitioner inquiry empowers teachers to engage in research on their own practice, wrapping their learning around the learning of their students.”

Through inquiry, both the act of questioning and the process to which it leads, Lastinger-trained Master Teachers work in cohorts, assess the solution in their classrooms with their students then propagate their learning and knowledge throughout their schools and districts, leading Professional Learning Communities and school-based Leadership Teams. Think of it as the Johnny and Jane Appleseed approach to professional teacher development.

Dana adopted the concept while working at a Tallahassee elementary school on her doctoral dissertation during the late 1980s.

“The practice of inquiry was an incredibly powerful and transformational experience for all of us at that elementary school,” she says. “Over and over and over again, I’ve seen what an incredibly powerful form of professional development it can be.”

Born and raised in New York, Dana earned her degrees at the State University of New York at Oswego and at Florida State University. Before arriving at UF, she served as an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University.

Dana arrived at UF in 2003, around the time that the center was created. She immediately identified with its philosophy and objectives.

“The opportunities that the birth of this center presented were very exciting to me,” she says. “I had always been very passionate about raising teachers’ voices in educational reform, and certainly the Lastinger Center was emerging as a place that kept practicing professionals’ voices at the core of how they would develop their skills.”

Don Pemberton, the center’s director, says he cannot overemphasize the importance of Dana’s role and presence.

“She’s written five highly respected books and her work is particularly relevant because it takes research-based practices and translates them into helping teachers improve the quality of their teaching through a scientific process,” Pemberton says. “Her work at the Lastinger Center demonstrates our ability to attract and be driven by the very best research, the top folks in the field, who are informing what our work looks like on the front lines.”

Dana works with Lastinger’s partner districts around the state as they strive to overhaul and modernize professional development programs for teachers, principals and administrators.

“We often consult on the design of professional development programs that scaffold teachers and principals in Lastinger principles on a step-by-step basis,” she says. “That includes introducing them to the concept of inquiry, helping them define and develop the wondering – that burning question they have about their practice.”

At UF, Dana’s students speak glowingly of her work and her devotion to their careers and practice. In fact, Wolkenhauer confesses to being “a little star struck” by Dana.

“She treats me as if we are on the same playing field,” Wolkenhauer says. “She gives me confidence in my abilities, makes me want to work very hard and expects me to do so. Completely genuine and down to earth, Nancy shares her wisdom and expertise without hesitation.”

When it comes to teacher inquiry, Dana and others at the center know that they are onto something – 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.”