Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Scaling Collaborative Inquiry: Professional Learning for Educators

By Jenni Donohoo & Moses Velasco — February 07, 2016 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest blog is co-authored by Jenni Donohoo, a Provincial Literacy Lead in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch in the Ontario Ministry of Education, and Moses Velasco, a Professional Learning Leader with Toronto District School Board.

Every teacher deserves access to high quality professional learning. Collaborative inquiry is a high quality design that is based on the premise that teachers are essential leaders in school improvement efforts. For decades, the most respected educational thought leaders and researchers have promoted professional learning designs that enable teachers to lead and learn in practice - about practice (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Darling-Hammond, 1998; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Hattie, 2012; Lieberman & Miller, 2004, Little, 1990; and Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014).

Ball and Cohen (1999) suggested that if teaching and learning how to teach became the object of continuing and thoughtful inquiry then “much of teachers’ everyday work could become a source for constructive professional development.” Collaborative inquiry situates teachers’ everyday work as the central focus for their learning as teams identify student learning needs, investigate promising approaches, test new strategies in their classrooms, collect evidence, collectively examine results, and determine next steps.

Collaborative inquiry as a scalable reform holds the potential to transform education systems. The process necessitates the reconstruction of beliefs about the nature of learning, leading, and teaching. During a collaborative inquiry cycle, participants examine explicit and implicit theories of action and reflect on the congruence between the two. When educators reflect on their theories, collaborate, and develop solutions to address their problems of practice, efficacy increases. John Hattie’s research indicates that collective teacher efficacy is the number one factor that impacts student achievement.

Ensuring collaborative inquiry lives up to its potential will require a concerted effort as collaborative inquiry teams can either “work together to either reinvent and improve teaching practice or simply reinforce the status quo” (Stanley, 2011, p. 73). Emihovich and Battaglia (2000) noted that the creativity and knowledge to begin this work is not lacking and that much of the work has already been initiated. What they suggest is lacking however is, “the energy, discipline, and patience to study what is involved in the transformation and the courage to test our capacity for commitment to sustain such change” (p. 235).

Collaborative inquiry remains largely theoretical in many school districts. The ongoing challenge is bringing collaborative inquiry out of the realm of theory into the professional learning practices of teachers. While we believe that scale, as redefined by Coburn (2003), is attainable through the utilization of a collaborative inquiry approach to professional learning, some of the ways in which collaborative inquiry is being carried out directly prevent Coburn’s notions of scale from coming to fruition.

Based on our work with collaborative inquiry teams in schools and districts in Ontario and Michigan, we have identified six lynchpins that are vital to ensuring collaborative inquiry will reach a critical mass or tipping point from which its breadth and depth can spread change in thinking and practice throughout school districts.

Six Lynchpins Necessary to Bring Collaborative Inquiry to Scale

Lynchpin #1 - Voluntary Participation
We have witnessed greater success in school districts where teachers have been invited to participate in the process. Where it’s been introduced as a mandate, teachers approach it with skepticism and often associate it with past professional development experiences - which may have been inappropriate to address the daily challenges they face. Where it is voluntary, it is spreading more widely because the design honors the professionalism of the participants; they find it relevant, rewarding, and empowering; and enthusiasm quickly spreads throughout a system by teachers’ word-of-mouth.

Lynchpin #2 - Shared Leadership
Collaborative inquiry provides participants with the autonomy to make decisions as they test solutions related to their challenges of practice and formulate answers to the questions set out at the start of the cycle. Formal leaders are required to resist the temptation to solve problems and invest the time needed for others to discover what works best. When formal leaders provide opportunities for shared leadership by affording others the power to make decisions, everyone benefits.

Lynchpin #3 - Guided from Experience
It is more difficult to guide something if you have not had the opportunity to experience it yourself. You can muddle your way through but in the end, certain nuances can only be understood through genuine engagement in a process. This is true when it comes to collaborative inquiry. By engaging in the process, leaders not only come to understand, appreciate, and value it as a powerful professional learning design, it also enables richer and deeper conversations between system leaders and other educators.

Lynchpin #4 - Achieved Coherence
For collaborative inquiry to reach scale teachers need to see that it is not another initiative; it is their important contribution to school improvement. However, in districts where the two processes are incoherent, system-wide professional learning days are usually devoted to topics prioritized and determined by central office staff and therefore disconnected from the learning related to the inquiry.

Teachers come to believe their collaborative inquiry work is an add-on. In districts where collaborative inquiry teams are provided time during system-wide professional learning days to engage in the cycle (rather than learn about something else), they come to see that their work is directly related to the school improvement planning process. Coherence is achieved through the process of shared and continuous improvement.

Lynchpin #5 - Learning is Recognized and Disseminated
We have noticed that when districts and schools do not put in place mechanisms for this sharing to take place then opportunities for collaborative inquiry to spread are limited. We have witnessed diminished enthusiasm for collaborative inquiry when teachers perceive that the reach of their learning is limited to their classrooms only.

Lynchpin #6 - Skilled Facilitation
A final lynchpin critical to scaling collaborative inquiry is skilled facilitation. While collaborative inquiry is initiated, shaped, and driven by teachers, it must be guided by skilled teacher facilitators. Since collaborative inquiry is a process that surfaces the beliefs and assumptions underlying current teaching practices to propose and attempt new approaches, a skilled facilitator is critical in ensuring that the process is faithful to its intended outcome.

Ultimately, we envision collaborative inquiry as an alternative to short-term, top-down, formulaic approaches to professional learning that do not hold enough rigor to realize self sustaining cycles of improvement in schools. In order for education to remain relevant and responsive to the current and future learning needs of students, teachers and other educational leaders must have mechanisms and processes in place to collaboratively identify how schools should improve and how to meaningfully refine and sustain those changes. Collaborative inquiry holds the potential to do that by calling each individual in education to raise within themselves a truer sense of leader and learner.

Jenni and Moses are the co-authors of The Transformative Power of Collaborative Inquiry: Realizing Change in Schools and Classrooms. This book moves beyond a focus on how to do inquiry and examines the conditions necessary to support the adoption of collaborative inquiry as a viable strategy for organizational learning and improvement.

Jenni is also the author of the best selling book: Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide to School Improvement.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.