Engaging Teachers in Effective Collaborative Inquiry


collaborative inquiry

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This paper was created as part of my participation in the graduate course Collaborative Inquiry at Queen's University as part of the Graduate Diploma in Professional Inquiry leading to a Master of Education degree. This work, shared with permission, was a collaborative effort with this group of passionate fellow learners and leaders. 

  • Scott Dowling, Student Achievement Officer with the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat in Barrie Ontario
  • Erin Elmhurst, Principal, Forest View Public School in Oshawa, Ontario
  • Chris Elliott, Intelligence Officer, Canadian Armed Forces in Windsor, Ontario
  • Kristin Harding, Teacher at Maani Ulujuk Ilinniarvik in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut
  • Brendan Lea, Vice Principal, Curriculum at The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Ontario.
  • Miles MacFarlane, Teacher, Leila North Community School in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

This report focuses on a new fictional primary school in which administrators have established collaborative inquiry (CI) groups to monitor learning conditions, content, processes, and achievement. CI teams meet regularly, however they are proving to be less productive than expected. We define the environment in which the problem occurs, explore the research that informs our approach to the problem, and concrete steps to correct the problem.

Problem Context/Ecosystem

Administrators observe a lack of focus in the groups, shallow conversations, and almost no attention to available data. Participants are only marginally engaged and some have suggested their time could be better spent planning on their own. Administrators determine that participants do not yet see value in the process and are not investing themselves into making the CI teams work.

The authors of this report identified this problem following our consideration of the challenges we observed when educators work together in the context of collaborative inquiry. It is common for time and resources to be provided to teachers to engage in collaborative inquiry but there are times when this goal is not achieved. Occasionally, educators are participating in collaborative inquiry groups, but they are not engaging in collaborative inquiry. We observed in these situations, that teachers are not positioning themselves as learners and appear disengaged or disinterested. They communicate that they either do not value or understand the purpose of the inquiry or that they are already achieving the best possible outcomes with students.

Problem Statement

Some established teacher groups are not effectively engaging in the collaborative inquiry process and question the value of this activity.


Understanding the Problem and Informing the Solution

Collaborative inquiry focused on classroom practice and student achievement is at the core of professional learning best practice (Moore, 2004) and ultimately, developmental changes in teacher practice (Nelson, Slavit, Perkins, & Hathorn, 2008). Because of this, school leaders are increasingly expecting teachers to collaborate on curriculum planning and assessment design, and offering peer feedback on student work. Because the nature of day to day teaching is “innately individualistic” (Evans, Thornton, & Usinger, 2012), many teachers do not necessarily understand true collaboration. Rather, they focus on group work instead of collaboration (Lipton & Wellman, 2012).

Leaders in schools often set up structures for collaborative inquiry providing time and resources to support teachers working in groups, like the professional learning community (PLCs) model, but for a range of reasons, this does not always result in true collaborative inquiry. Evans (2012) states that teachers see PLCs as extra work rather than opportunities for professional learning or growth. School leaders, whose intent is to create collaborative inquiry and professional learning, do not always create the conditions necessary for groups to effectively engage in collaboration. Piercy (2011) shares Friend and Cook’s list of essential components of collaboration, that it:

  • “... is based on mutual goals;
  • requires parity among participants;
  • depends on shared responsibility for participation and decision making;
  • requires shared responsibility for outcomes;
  • requires that participants share their resources; and
  • is a voluntary relationship.”

Katz and Dack (2014) state that when considering teacher inquiry it is important to recognize that, “changing teacher practice means changing understanding,” and, “if you want to change people’s practices and beliefs, you have to alter patterns of communication and build new kinds of relationships among them” (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). Productive working and outcomes through a collaborative inquiry group require strategies that support the vision development, relationships, communication and ways of working together. Collaborative inquiry groups are possible with dedicated teachers, but without well-defined context and clear process support they are hard to maintain (Nelson et al., 2008).

Each of the three problems are addressed in several ways, each of which has an impact on the participants’ engagement and ability to see the value of the collaborative inquiry process. Articulating the desired outcomes for each component of the solution helps inform our prototype and offers a metric by which we can measure success.

Problem identification and intervention

Underdeveloped collaborative culture

Participants lack a clear understanding of collaboration and are engaged in group work instead of collaborative work (Lipton & Wellman, 2012)

Desired Outcome

Solution and Prototypes

Participants will share thoughts and reflections openly. Research, discuss and co-create a definition of collaboration (i.e. Frayer Model, Looks Like, Feels Like Charts etc.)

  • Arrange facilitated discussion to help participants find common ground and engage in dialogue about the strengths they bring to the table and the possibilities for the group. (Senge, 1990, p. 240)
  • Work through and embrace discomfort. There is value in diversity and creative tension and exploring differences for creative possibilities (Argyris, 1976; Gassmann & Zeschky, 2008).
  • Co-create groups norms to build a common understanding of the way the groups will work together (Langer & Colton, 2005).
  • Teachers must look at an individual learner's progress over time. Collaborative inquiry is not something that is finished in a couple of meetings.
  • Articulate the theoretical framework guiding the inquiry process so participants appreciate how each step adds value and contributes to the group’s effectiveness.
  • Teachers learn and follow collaborative norms; when leadership and structures support the inquiry (Langer & Colton, 2005).


Learn and practice collaborative and interpersonal skills (Kuhn, 2015).

  • Use norms (share the air, step up, step back, sentence starters such as “I wonder”), group agreements and protocols to approach the analysis of student work in a supportive and respectful way. (T. H. Nelson et al., 2008)
  • Appoint a teacher-facilitator to lead groups in these approaches.
  • Ask probing questions and engage in questions that challenge and promote further thinking (Langer & Colton, 2005).
  • Co-create stem statements, questions or accountable talk prompts, to be used in the beginning stages to guide the discussion and allow for deep, thought provoking questions.
  • Use a NSRF Describing Student Work Protocol to collaboratively examine student work.
Inquiry groups will a promote openness by nurturing an open and safe environment. Relationship and team building leads to a greater sense of trust and openness. Increased social interaction outside formal collaborative inquiry sessions build positive professional environments in which educators feel comfortable challenging each other. Opportunities to interact socially also contribute to group function (Pentland, 2010, 2014).

  • Take time to build a sense of community within each group. (Kuhn, 2015).
  • Organize social events away from the school.
  • Encourage a school staff social committee.
  • Include social opportunities as part of formal gatherings.


No clear focus for inquiry

Participants have not found, or were not given a clear target for their inquiry efforts. Participants are not invested in the solution and are therefore not invested in the process.

Desired Outcome

Solution and Prototypes

Participants will identify and explore the problem space before looking for solutions. Spend ample time exploring the perceived problem and its context (Langer & Colton, 2005).

  • Explore the roots of the problem, contributing factors, outside influences, etc.
  • Recognize when discussion is turning to solutions and redirect to exploring the problem space.


Resist the temptation to focus on familiar problems and revert to known solutions (Scribner, Sawyer, Watcon, & Myers, 2007).

  • Ensure multiple data sources have been investigated and analysed to inform the inquiry focus.
  • Create "If...then statements" that require true inquiry rather than attempting an already established evidence based strategy.
  • Identify and challenge commonly held assumptions.
  • Review literature and highlight information and viewpoints both for and against your point of view (Argyris, 1976; Katz, 2012; Senge, 1990).
Participants will identify a clear and meaningful focus for inquiry that challenges thinking and practices. Ensure the chosen inquiry question is challenging and open enough for teachers to innovate and inquire into their practice together (Fullan & Hargreaves, 2012) but targeted enough to offer a clear focus.

  • Identify the ‘value added’ or ‘aspiration’ of the inquiry. How will things improve as a result of the inquiry?
  • Identify some key indicators of success.
    • What evidence might we see if we are successful?
    • What would we see if we are not successful?


Connect end goals with logical processes and the philosophies that underpin them. (Dorst, 2011)

  • Identify organizational values in order to apprehend problems and craft solutions to address them.
  • Identify what will change
  • Identify how it will be implemented
  • Identify the value of the new approach.
Participants will use ongoing, timely evidence to identify need and progress. Gather evidence and data to determine needed interventions, next steps, and goal achievement.

  • Using ‘multiple measures’ of student learning to drive the focus of inquiry such as demographics, perceptions, student learning, school processes, school-based evidence, as well as aggregate data from larger jurisdictions (Bernhardt, 1988).
  • Avoid focusing solely on standardized data sets from the past. (Fullan & Hargreaves, 2012)
  • Use a NSRF Data Driven Dialogue Protocol to collaboratively examine data.

No perceived value

Participants see neither the need for, nor the purpose of collaborative inquiry. Participants do not see how the process will help them or their students, and feel their time is better spent in other ways.

Desired Outcome

Solution and Prototypes

Participants will appreciate the value of collaborative inquiry. (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012) Encourage questioning of both content and process (Nelson, Deuel, Slavit, & Kennedy, 2010).

  • Research the purpose of collaborative inquiry together before beginning.
  • Invite others who have participated in collaborative inquiry share their successes with others beginning the process.
  • Ask probing questions for clarification relating to the discussion, and relating to the inquiry process. The more participants understand, the more likely they are to find value in collaboration.
  • Value conflict when it arises because it challenges participants to view situations from another point of view.
  • Keep dialogue focused so there is sustained attention to the inquiry question.
  • Identify inquiry question that are:
    • open ended, and
    • relevant to classroom practice.
  • Engage with inquiry questions that are reasonable and achievable given time, resources and effort (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010)
Participants will be personally and collectively invested in the process. Ground inquiry in teacher experience (Bruce, 2013).

  • Allow participants choice in group and inquiry focus.
  • Understand the purpose of each stage of inquiry, and how to determine the next best step in the process.
  • Pursue needs arising from the examination of student learning (Nelson & Landel, 2009). This creates authenticity and relevancy as it relates to participants’ daily teaching and student learning.
  • Take time needed to examine the data carefully and to create a problem that all participants agree upon.
  • Embed inquiry into classroom experience taking ideas from the meeting room into the classroom and back again:
    • define the problem,
    • explore solutions / strategies / actions, and
    • continuously reflect on evidence with the inquiry group to determine if the strategy is working.

Process Report

In working through this project, we kept a process record describing our thinking along the way and documenting the evolution from messy jumbles of ideas through to focused finished product (as much as inquiry is ever finished!). We chose to collaborate on all sections of the project rather than divide it into sections and work separately. Our intent was to have all members of the group intimately familiar with all elements of the project from beginning to end. We believed that a collaborative effort, iterated over many meetings, discussions, and dialogues, was essential for our own understanding and for the quality of the end product. We believe that this resulted in a more cohesive product that flows logically from beginning to end and afforded us the opportunity to experience collaborative inquiry in the process.

We created a mindmap on Mindomo for anyone who wants a less linear, more exploratory version of these ideas.

There is also a brief PowToons video describing the digital tools we used for collaborating while we were located in six different Canadian cities in two different provinces and one territory.


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