Cherry Award finalist Dr. Nancy Fichtman Dana emphasizes inquiry in teaching

Nancy Fichtman Dana, Ph.D., speaking to students at the Cherry Award Lecture, in Marrs McLean Science Building, Monday evening. Mireya Sol Ruiz | Multimedia Journalist

By Matthew Muir and Tyler Bui | Staff Writers

Dr. Nancy Fichtman Dana, the second of three Cherry Award finalists, delivered her lecture on inquiry’s role in teaching Monday evening.

Dana, a professor of education at the University of Florida, was selected as one of three finalists for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. Dana, along with fellow finalists Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black from St. Mary’s College in Maryland and Dr. Reuben A. Buford May of Texas A&M University, was required to present a lecture during the fall semester. The eventual winner will receive $250,000, $25,000 for their department at their home university and a position in residence for a semester during the 2020-2021 school year.

“The role of inquiry in inspired learning” was the topic for Dana’s lecture. Dana defined inquiry as “systematic, intentional study by teachers of their own practice.” Inquiry, Dana said, is how teachers can continually improve their methods to better connect with and educate students.

“There is a quote I love from Maya Angelou: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better,’” Dana said. “It’s important to engage in inquiry as a teacher because the process allows us to continually know and do better for every student we serve.”

Dana presented the five-stage cycle of inquiry, beginning with developing a wondering, or “a burning question that a teacher has about his or her practice,” which is born at the intersection of real-world problems and a teacher’s work. The cycle then progresses through data collection, analysis, sharing of findings and finally acting to make an informed change. Dana said collecting different types of data was crucial to producing positive results.

“Multiple types of data can help us capture the richness of the complexity that’s occurring in the teaching act,” Dana said. “There are many people that don’t want to think of teaching as complex, and they want to deprofessionalize the teaching practice… and it’s about raising test scores. What inquiry does is help push back on that narrative.”

Dana also said the step of sharing information is particularly important.

“Teachers learn an incredible amount through engaging in this process, and it is learning that is transferable to many other teachers, so opening up your practice by sharing what you learn allows other teachers to also learn from you,” Dana said. “There’s a reciprocity, as a teacher. Making your work public means that others can ask you some good critical questions that push you even deeper into reflection on your teaching and learning about your students.”

Educating new teachers on the process of inquiry, Dana said, is important because it is giving them “the gift of a professional lifetime.” She said she is so passionate about inquiry because she has seen the impact it can have.

“I am passionate about this topic because I have seen over and over and over again how powerful inquiry can be to transform teaching practice and enable all teachers, no matter what their discipline or content area is or what level they are teaching, to become the very best teacher they can be for every student they teach,” Dana said.

This year’s crop of nominees consisted of more than 140 entries. Cherry Award committee chair Dr. Michael Thompson said the impact the committee envisioned Dana having at Baylor is part of what set her apart from other nominees.

“We look at the impact that the finalists have had on their campuses and picture what would happen here because that was part of Mr. Cherry’s vision: to bring great teachers to Baylor and have them have an impact on student lives,” Thompson said.

Dana said she is grateful for the opportunity and is enjoying the journey.

“It’s humbling and amazing and overwhelming all at the same time,” Dana said. “It is an incredible program and I think what it has meant for me is it has really created many wonderful opportunities, and I have enjoyed every single opportunity.”