How to create a culture of collaboration: Collaborative Inquiry 1 of 3

Collaborative Inquiry

When done right, collaborative inquiry(CI) engages participants in deep reflection on, and discussion about evidence and artifacts relating to the organization's goals and the individual's practice. CI participants challenge each others' practice and points of view in pursuit of positive change.

Calling a collection of people a, "collaborative inquiry group" however does not mean that they will really be engaging in collaborative inquiry. So how do you know if your groups are off track, and what can you do to make the groups more effective?

In this three-part blog series, we look at three common reasons CI groups are dysfunctional and what the research suggests for improving group function. This is part one of three.

Culture of Collaboration

When participants lack a clear understanding of collaboration and processes of inquiry, they tend to merely engage in group work (Lipton & Wellman, 2012). Group work looks like sharing lessons, trading resources, planning field trips, and marking student work. Inquiry is a mindset of asking questions, of reflection, conversation, seeking feedback and constructive criticism.

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.

Encourage social interaction outside formal collaborative inquiry sessions to 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

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.


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