Why Collaborative Inquiry?

Puzzled

In a facilitator’s guide for Collaborative Inquiry for Educators, Jenni Donohoo presents the formation of professional learning communities as a means of addressing “adaptive challenges,” or those “for which the necessary knowledge to solve the problem do not yet exist” (Vander Ark, 2006 p 10). Many aspects of professional development seeks to approach these types of adaptive challenges, as many aspects of teaching and learning presently find themselves in flux.

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In such times, Levin notes that “the challenge of change is compounded by pressure from others to remain the same” (Levin, 2008 p 81), but that “change in schools come from ‘thoughtful application of effective practices in particular contexts” (p 81).

“When members of professional learning communities (PLCs) engage together in investigating challenges of practice, their understanding of these challenges grows deeper and is more unified, practice grows more sophisticated and powerful, and the group develops a tighter sense of camaraderie and common purpose.”

This type of cultural cultivation allows teams to “construct common understanding, share knowledge and experience, and develop common goals.” Developing a culture of inquiry enables sustainable change and the ability of an organization to respond to the evolving needs of a community:

“High quality professional learning includes learning communities that apply a cycle of continuous improvement to engage in inquiry, action research data analysis, planning, implementation, reflection and evaluation.”

But merely putting such a model into place is not enough to ensure such a culture will take hold. In fact, such cases are shown to be rare; where they are shown to be successful it is because of meaningful learning activities are undertaken to drive the process forward.

Donohoo presents a four stage process:

  1. Framing the Problem
  2. Collecting Evidence
  3. Analyzing Evidence
  4. Documenting, Sharing, Celebrating

Teams begin by determining a meaningful focus, and developing an inquiry that will allow them to collect evidence in their classroom, personal practice, or collaboration with a colleague. Once evidence has been collected, it is brought back to the team for analysis before being shared and documented for the wider PLC, and used to consider further inquiries. These stages are “the same stages used in action research.” However:

“The difference between the two approaches is that collaborative inquiry is conducted by a group of educators interested in addressing a school, department, or common classroom issue driven by student learning needs.”

In concluding the opening chapter of a lengthier guide for facilitators, Donohoo shares three primary considerations in implementing a collaborative inquiry model: Timing, Forming a Team, and Fostering Academic Discourse.

“The best time to introduce a collaborative inquiry is when the process of school improvement planning takes place,” Donohoo advises, adding that:

“By introducing collaborative inquiry as a strategy for school improvement, it will help team members understand how it relates to the work that is already happening in schools.”

In forming inquiry teams, Donohoo cites Katz et al. (2009) and suggests formal leaders “distribute leadership, identifying those teacher leaders who are in the position to lead in a focus area because of their expertise” (p 75).

However, it is the consideration toward fostering academic discourse which provides the greatest challenge – and in turn the greatest opportunity – for schools engaging in collaborative inquiry, highlighting MacDonald’s observation that

“teachers must be willing to expose their struggles and failures with their colleagues must be willing to tell the truth, or teams will go through the motions of collaborative inquiry but never see results” (2011 p 45).

Developing a rich dialogue that allows participants to reflect on and evaluate their own practices in the context of communal inquiry creates the opportunity for teams “to collaboratively generate knowledge while investigating problems of practice.” In closing, Donohoo refers to both Senge (1990) and Vander Ark (2006):

“Senge (1990) used the term ‘learning organizations’ to describe organizations that transformed themselves to meet adaptive challenges and become knowledge-generating versus merely knowledge-using organizations. Vander Ark (2006) noted that meeting an adapting challenge required ‘creating the knowledge and tools to solve the problem in the act of working on it” (p 10).

Such a model of inquiry is congruent with a constructive view of professional development described a few posts back:

“This act of development is a constructive act, one which suits the principles of democracy that we are all – regardless of subject speciality – charged with teaching in our classrooms, and a process we are obligated to engage in as citizens in a democracy, as well as teachers, and professionals. And if we are to provide this type of learning in our classrooms, we should be engaged – and are compelled to be engaged, in the language of our own members’ guide and professional expectations –  in a similarly constructive development of our own practice and profession.”

Not everyone will buy into the process deeply, maybe even especially at first. And it is a colleague’s prerogative to engage in professional development in this fashion. However, if small groups or pairs of colleagues are supported and given time and opportunity to experiment and explore their practice – and document and build through an ongoing praxis of inquiry – these relationships being fostered across a staff could enact a profound shift in school culture.

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