As a school leader, one of the main challenges that that you will face in trying to establish a research and evidence-based culture within your school will be to try and provide opportunities for teachers and other colleagues to engage in collaborative inquiry (Brown, 2015). So in this post – drawing upon the work of (DeLuca, Bolden, & Chan, 2017) – we will identify the factors that both enhance and inhibit teacher experiences of collaborative inquiry. We will then consider teacher perceptions of the significant outcomes – for both teachers and students – of collaborative inquiry. Finally, we will reflect on some of the implications of the research for your role as an evidence-based school leader. But first let’s provide both a conceptual framework for collaborative inquiry and a brief overview of the research.
Collaborative Inquiry – a definition and associated conceptual framework
(DeLuca et al., 2017) describe collaborative inquiry as engaging ….. teachers as learners within their own teaching contexts with the aim of transforming teachers’ conceptions of professional learning and promoting enhanced pedagogical effectiveness. (p67)
As such (DeLuca et al., 2017) drawing upon a framework developed by the (OLNS, 2010) state that collaborative inquiry would appear to have seven characteristics that work together to bring about new knowledge and understandings of teachers’ problems of practice. These are:
- Relevance: Student learning guides inquiry
- Collaborative: Teacher inquiry is a shared process
- Reflective: Actions are informed by reflection
- Iterative: Progressive understanding grows from cycles of inquiry
- Reasoned: Analysis drives deep learning
- Adaptive: Inquiry shapes practice and practice shapes inquiry
- Reciprocal: Theory and practice connect dynamically (p69)
DeLuca et al’s research used multiple methods – both survey and focus groups. In total 292 elementary school teachers across 15 teaching districts in Ontario, Canada, completed the survey. Of the respondents, 83% were female and 88% reported that they had been involved in some of formal – Ministry supported collaborative inquiry within Ontario schools, with the remaining 12% being involved in some form of informal inquiry. In addition, 6 school-based focus groups involving 63 elementary teachers In these focus groups questions were asked which looked at; teachers’ experiences of collaborative inquiry; factors that inhibit collaborative inquiry; factors that inhibited its effectiveness; and, perceived outcomes of collaborative inquiry. The data collected from the surveys were analysed using both descriptive and factor based statistics, with the focus group data being analysed though the use of inductive thematic analysis. Let’s now turn to the findings of the research.
Factors than enhanced collaborative inquiry
- Teacher choice of inquiry focus
- Acknowledging CI takes time
- Acknowledging teachers as experts
- Establishing trusting relations with colleagues
- Seeing student success resulting from CI (De Luca at al, p72)
Factors that inhibited collaborative inquiry
- Perceptions of collaborative inquiry as another ‘add-on’ for teachers
- Perceptions of collaborative as ‘inefficient’ (teachers having to figure out vs being taught)
- Perception that CI lacks relevance to a teachers’ particular context
- Perception that teachers’ times better spent with students than doing collaborative inquiry
- Fear of exposing personal teaching weaknesses
- Lack of confidence in out-of-teach ‘experts’
- Lack of support regarding the structuring of collaborative inquiry as a professional learning process
- Lack of confidence/familiarity with new practices
- Difficulty and frustrations demonstrating accountability of collaborative inquiry success (De Luca et al, p74)
Perceived significant outcomes from collaborative inquiry learning
- More teachers talking to one another, supporting the development of a culture of collaboration
- More informal collaborative inquiry – teachers talking to one another without waiting for structured collaborative inquiry
- Increased confidence to take risks/shift practice arising from the support of colleagues
- Increased attention on teacher reflections and ongoing teacher learning,
- Students adopting a collaborative inquiry mind-set – which involved the students becoming risk-takers
- Student empowerment through a collaborative inquiry mind-set –with student needs driving the collaborative inquiry
- Students’ academic growth – with students being more willing to refine their work
(DeLuca et al., 2017) argue that their findings suggests that teachers’ collaborative inquiry work is variable. Whist teachers appear to value the classroom relevance, reflective and collaborative aspects of inquiry – there is still much to be done to develop teachers’ capacity and capability as iterative, reasoned, adaptive and reciprocal inquirers. Furthermore, DeLuca et al argue the data suggests that teachers are not participating in the iterative aspect of collaborative inquiry, be it the ongoing development of the focus or inquiry, or undertaking success cycles of inquiry. Also, while teachers valued evidence of increased student outcome resulting from collaborative inquiry, teachers did not often engage in gathering evidence of student learning. This would suggest that teachers should not only be supported in gaining evidence of student learning but should be helped in how to interpret student data. De Luca et al also make the point that we need to teachers to become ‘theoretically literate’ (p76) so that they are able to cycle back and forth between theory and practice when engaging in collaborative inquiry. In addition, teachers appear to sharing their problems of practice, looking to others for solutions, rather than adopt a ‘research’ perspective towards inquiry. Finally, De Luca et al argue that both personal and social factors are strong inhibitors to the development of collaborative inquiry
What are the implications of De Luca et al’s research for you as you try and develop a culture of evidence-based practice within your school?
First, as an evidence-based school leader, De Luca et al’s research helps you ‘walk the talk’ in as far as it provides some evidence of the factors that appear to promote or inhibit collaborative inquiry along with evidence of the positive outcomes for both teachers and students of collaborative inquiry. On the other hand, you need to be wary of evidence that support your predispositions to a particular course of action.
Second, you need to be mindful of the generalisability of the research to your setting. The research was undertaken in Ontario elementary schools, where over a number of years formal support had already been put in place to help teachers engage in collaborative inquiry. So if collaborative inquiry is new to your school, you will need to give attention to establishing the appropriate conditions for success.
Third, it would appear that even if the conditions for supporting collaborative inquiry are created – be it being a priority for the school, providing teachers with the appropriate time to undertake inquiry, creating a trusting culture where teachers feel safe to innovate –this does not necessarily mean that colleagues will produce ‘high quality’ collaborative inquiries. The development of collaborative inquiry skills will need to be supported over a number of years – refining the focus of inquiry, gathering and analysing data, increasing research literacy – before substantive and far reaching improvements in both teacher and student learning will occur.
Brown, C. (Ed.) (2015). Leading the use of research & evidence in schools. London: IOE Press.
DeLuca, C., Bolden, B., & Chan, J. (2017). Systemic professional learning throuhg collaborative inquiry: Examining teachers’ perspectives. Teaching and teacher education, 67, 67-78.
Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (2010) Capacity building series – collaborative teacher inquiry. Toronto : Author
About the Author:
Dr Gary Jones, @DrGaryJones, writes the blog ‘Evidence Based Educational Leadership‘, having worked in post-compulsory education for over 25 years. Gary has a doctorate in educational management from the University of Bristol and is interested in evidence-based practice and the implications for school leadership and management. Gary is a Fellow of the Center for Evidence-Based Management and associate of the Expansive Education Network based at the University of Winchester, where he supports teachers engage in evidence-based practice.