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Collaborative teacher inquiry

What is collaborative inquiry?

Teachers work together to identify common challenges, analyse relevant data, and test out instructional approaches

Collaborative inquiry involves teachers, or members of a professional learning community (PLC), working together to systematically examine focused aspects of their educational practices by exploring student responses to instruction, leading to new understandings and changes in classroom teaching. Teachers work together to define problems, co-plan, co-teach, co-monitor and interpret outcomes, and then consider together “what’s next.” (Schnellart & Butler, 2014

Teams work together

Teams work together to:

  • ask questions
  • develop theories of action
  • determine action steps
  • gather and analyse evidence to assess the impact of their actions.

Throughout this process, teams test presuppositions about what they think will work against the evidence of what actually works (City, Elmore, Fiarman, & Teitel, 2009 ). By closely examining and reflecting on the results of their actions, individuals and teams begin to think differently. They begin to question long-standing beliefs and consider implications for their professional practices.

Inquiry is cyclical

Inquiry is a cyclical process that fosters an ongoing dialogue about classroom practices and student achievement. The idea behind this approach is that systematic, collaborative work will increase student learning.

In a collaborative inquiry cycle, teachers:

  • commit to a common goal or focus for the inquiry
  • proceed through stages of developing a plan for action
  • carry out the plan while collecting and analysing data
  • determine the implications of their findings as they relate to their collective and individual situation.

Research and evidence inform all stages 

Research and evidence inform all stages of the inquiry. When teachers collaboratively develop and test their own ideas, they can understand and apply new theories and practices better.

Jennifer Donohoo presents a brief introduction to collaborative inquiry, outlining her four steps to a successful collaboration process.

  1. Framing the problem
    • Identify student learning needs.
    • Identify gaps in educator learning.
    • Determine actions to address need.
  2. Collecting evidence
    • What evidence will be collected to show effectiveness?
    • What evidence will best determine how to address the issues?
  3. Analysing evidence
    • What does the evidence reveal?
    • How does the evidence inform the next steps?
  4. Collecting and sharing
    • What worked?
    • What didn't?
    • What are the group's next steps?

Why use a collaborative inquiry approach?

Research suggests that teachers make and sustain valued changes to their practice when they collaboratively construct, monitor, and adapt context-specific approaches to address their goals.

Schnellart & Butler, 2014

Collaboration adds motivation and value

A growing body of evidence suggests that when teachers collaborate to pose and answer questions informed by data from their own students, their knowledge grows and their practice changes (David, 2009 ).

Bringing teachers together to collaborate on an inquiry:

  • sustains attention to goals over time
  • fosters teachers’ learning and practice development
  • results in gains for students.

Teachers are more likely to collect and use data systematically when working as a group rather than relying on anecdotes and intuition.

Educational communities who are prepared to “explore new ideas and ways of working, share, and challenge each other’s knowledge, work through open-ended problems, navigate relationships [and] learn about themselves” are more likely to experience transformational outcomes. 

Bolstad et al. 2012  p. 15 

A professional learning community where critical dialogue around learning and transformation carries on over time helps to evolve and strengthen teacher practice. The more teachers embrace new ways of teaching, the more their pedagogy and practice will shift, and the more this impacts positively on student outcomes. To embed change, a commitment to ongoing learning and change is needed.

Fifty teachers in the USA were asked the question, "Why collaborative inquiry?". This six-minute video outlines the themes of their responses.

  • The value in partnerships and co-learning
  • Ownership and relevance of professional learning
  • Becoming more reflective and co-reflective in day-to-day practice

We need communities within and across schools that work collaboratively to diagnose what teachers need to do, plan programmes and teaching interventions and evaluate the success of the interventions.

Hattie (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise  p. 23

Purposeful and evidence-driven collaboration is promoted by education systems that show sustained improvement. Inquiry is difficult for individual teachers to do in isolation from their colleagues or from leaders Timperley et al (2014 p. 5) .

We must shift from working alone to a professional effort that emphasises collaboration. Honest conversations around what the data is telling us are becoming increasingly important in driving meaningful changes in teacher practices Hattie (2015) .    

Getting started – Effective collaboration

Becoming an effective inquiry team takes patience and persistence

While collaborative inquiry strengthens teaching and learning, it is difficult to implement. Leadership and support are essential.

To begin:

  • create a shared understanding of the purpose and value of collaborative inquiry among teachers and leaders
  • include time for teachers to meet regularly 
  • provide adequate investment in training and facilitation
  • identify common lessons and student tasks that are meaty enough to merit collective investigation and serve as a structure for discussion (David, 2009 ).

Four supports to create and sustain inquiry communities

Together these four supports have the potential to create and sustain inquiry communities (Schnellart & Butler, 2014 ).

Plan/provide sufficient chunks of time to meet

Provide time for teachers to undertake the inquiry process.

Structural supports include:

  • scheduled blocks of time for working with colleagues
  • release time
  • building inquiry into staff meetings.

Cultural and social/emotional supports are needed to realise the potential of the inquiry. Develop norms to create a context where members feel valued and comfortable engaging in an inquiry together.

Build trust

Building trust is important for teachers to collaborate successfully so they can:

  • challenge and critique each other respectfully
  • focus on evidence-based needs
  • have clarity about their roles in the work/process.

Develop norms 

Develop norms to support collaboration. Include processes: 

  • for gathering, sharing, and analysing data
  • that build trust
  • that enable and encourage risk-taking in a safe environment.

Build connections

Creating a collaborative community requires more than just setting up professional networks. The aim is to meet both individual learning and social/emotional needs.

Learning talk

Reference: Dalton, J. (2011) Learning Talk: build capabilities
Order from: www.leadingadultlearners.com
Accessed from: https://www.learningnetwork.ac.nz

Useful resources
Sticky notes with brainstorming

Learning and process supports are resources that offer new ideas and approaches that help teachers address the inquiry questions or “problems”.

  • Learning supports include professional learning through courses, readings, workshops, and so on. Include training in inquiry skills.
  • Process supports provide teachers with choices in types of resources and ways of accessing them so they can choose what best fits their preferred modes of learning, the contexts in which they are working, and the time they have available.

Teacher ownership/agency provides teachers with choice in their process from conceptualising the issues, choosing professional resources, contextualising new ideas and practice, and monitoring progress based on their collective goals. Inquiry communities are successful when leadership and agency are distributed across the community members.

Teachers meeting at Hampden Street School
Co-construct processes

  • Co-construct a vision of high-quality teaching and learning, to generate a common inquiry goal.
  • Identify tools and processes for collecting and analysing data.
  • Develop skilled facilitators to keep the discussion focused on implications for instruction instead of "war stories".

Collaboration provides perspective, diversity, and space for teachers to consider questions about student learning that can provide new insight unavailable in inquiry processes that are done individually. Finding common ground for all teachers to engage authentically together requires negotiation.

Using data

Teachers discussing student learning at Ashhurst School

The kind of data available to inquiry teams matters. Assessment data must be timely and accurately measure student learning. Data sources must be rich enough to provide a basis for considering alternative instructional approaches (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999 ). Products of student work or individual teachers' formative assessments are more relevant to instructional practices than standardised test scores are. While standardised test data can point to problem areas, it provides little guidance for improvement (David, 2009 ).

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Planning the inquiry

Framing the problem and developing the question

Jennifer Donohoo, PhD, explains key considerations when framing the problem and developing your collaborative inquiry question.

When framing the problem:

  • it must stem from student learning needs
  • agree what success looks like
  • ensure the problem is within your scope of control – are you able to have influence over it?
  • ensure it is manageable – do you have the time and resources available to carry out the inquiry?

During this phase, your team needs to engage in open and honest conversations. Before beginning the inquiry, you need to have:

  • built team norms and a safe environment
  • identified and shared your beliefs and understandings

When developing the inquiry question, begin with an exploratory approach.

  1. Identify student learning needs through:
    • daily observations
    • considering conversations with students and/or teachers, and their parents/caregivers
    • assessment data.
  2. Identify gaps in educator learning
    • look at research
    • consult with outside sources, for example, visit other schools or speak with experts
  3. Determine actions to address need – theory of action
    • Can you explain your theory of action in a simple and direct way to your colleagues?
    • What do you think will occur as a result of your actions 

Ask: What is the impact of specific classroom practice or teacher action on identified student learning need?

  • Be specific when identifying classroom practice or teacher action
  • Ensure the action or practice you are inquiring into is grounded in best evidence.

Consider your expected outcome as a result of your planned action.

Identify: If I take this action, then this result will occur.

Remember: Sometimes your theory of action will be proved by the inquiry, other times the evidence will show something different, which leads to your spiral of inquiry.

Collecting evidence

In this video, Jennifer Donohoo explains the types of evidence to collect and the importance of a plan.

Consider the types of evidence available to you:

  • student learning data (assessment and observational)
  • perceptual data (satisfaction of staff, students, and parents – usually gathered through surveys or questionnaires)
  • school process data (information about current approaches to teaching and learning, other programmes or supports available in the school community)
  • demographic data (describes the school context – who the school students, staff and community including languages and language proficiency, culture, attendance, enrolment, and number of students receiving specific supports).


  1. What evidence will be collected to show effectiveness?
  2. What evidence will best determine how to address the issues? Is it valid and reliable?

Commit to a written data collection plan which shows:

  • how the data will be collected
  • what data will be collected
  • when and who will collect the data.

Ensure the evidence collected is a measure of student learning and includes examples of what teachers are doing so that you can see the impact of teacher practice on learning.

Analysing evidence

In this video, Jennifer Donohoo outlines these key steps for organising and analysing your data.

  • What does the evidence/data reveal?
  • How does the evidence inform the next steps?

When you have enough information to answer your inquiry question, data collection stops and analysis begins. Work through these five steps. 

  • Organise the data to facilitate analysis – include dates, labels, format graphs, and copies for everyone in the team.
  • Read the data – understand what the data is telling you, each team member should read through the data before coming together as a team.
  • Describe the data – bring a lens of objectivity, describe the facts
  • Classify the data – identify how you will group/sort the data into specific areas/themes so that you can answer questions such as:
    • is the theme reflected in more than one data source?
    • are smaller patterns contained within the themes? If so what are they?
    • upon close inspection and review, is the evidence a good fit?
  • Interpret the data
    • Ask these questions:
      • what does the data tell us about the problem?
      • what assumptions can we make about the students and their learning?
      • what are some things we can do to address the issue?
      • what are the strengths and needs the team can see based on the data?
    • Synthesise into general conclusions and understandings

Collecting and sharing

  1. What worked?
  2. What didn't?
  3. What are the group's next steps?
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The role of technology in collaborative inquiry

Technologies enable collaboration and deeper learning

Rate, 2015

Technologies can be used in two ways within an inquiry –

  1. Technology is the enabler, connecting teachers and content. Teachers can access a range of devices including iPads/tablets, digital and video cameras, and mobile phones, to support collaboration, planning, gathering evidence, and reflecting on their inquiries. 
  2. e-Learning tools have the potential to change pedagogical approaches and transform classroom-based professional learning. These can form the focus of an inquiry into tools that support specific change.

Using technologies to support collaborative inquiry

Video analysis

Research shows that video reflection, along with suggestions and recommendations made by others, is the most influential element in helping teachers change their practice (Rate, 2015 ).

The recording and collaborative critical analysis of teaching captured via video enable teachers to:

  • make aspects of their practice open to peer review
  • learn new practices and pedagogical strategies
  • analyse aspects of teaching practice that may be difficult to capture otherwise.

Online learning conversations

Using technologies to support collaboration and effective interaction for learning provides a catalyst for change.

Rate, 2015

To maintain a 21st Century focus, teachers need to be continually learning themselves. This means engaging in professional learning communities where educationally challenging discussions and sharing of practice occur. The exposure to new ideas and ways of teaching ensures teachers are continuing to question, learn, and improve their practice. Professional learning communities that teachers choose to join need to be more than just networks; they need to stimulate and provoke teacher learning and development.

Teacher, Josie Woon talks about the potential of Enabling e-Learning community groups to impact on teacher practice.

Online e-learning tools, and technologies that support and enhance practice include:

Online interaction promotes teacher ownership of learning as they have chosen the focus of their conversations and completed tasks at times chosen by them (Polly & Hannafin, 2010 in Rate, 2015).

Online discussion forums within a community of teachers clearly impact on their learning and their practice. Online discussions make teachers move beyond the individual and into supported and collaborative approaches to reflection and inquiry, which develop their quality reflections (Loughran, 2010 in Rate, 2015).

Sharing and planning using digital technologies

Two teachers discussing with a laptop

Using digital technologies to create, document, and share planning and reflections related to the inquiries provides teachers, leaders, mentors, and coaches with easy access to information. They can record comments and provide feedback.

Teachers can create professional blogs or e-portfolios where they post evidence and reflections of their progress towards their inquiry goal along with links to collaborative planning, documentation, and review. e-Portfolios allow teachers to share artefacts, document critical reflection and provide professional learning through “collective learning and knowledge sharing” (Boulton, 2014, p. 375 in Rate, 2015). When they are viewed as developmental (rather than for presentation or assessment purposes), and used to initiate professional dialogue, they can support a collaborative inquiry approach to professional learning. “It is here that the interface between portfolios and reflective inquiry occurs... where small heterogeneous groups agree to use a process of critical questions to extract greater meaning from narratives of practice” (Stewart, 2008 p. 6 in Rate, 2015).

Gathering data

Gathering rich data that suggests what adjustments are likely to increase student understanding is an essential part of the inquiry process. Consider how digital technologies can:

  • support data gathering and analysis – analysis drives deep learning
  • support teacher collaboration across the inquiry.

Christchurch Girls High School – Collaborative inquiry

Teachers use a collaborative inquiry approach to explore whether using digital devices and providing greater student agency has a positive impact on students' wellbeing. In a series of videos, teachers describe the changes they have made to their practice and how they are collecting evidence of success.

Research and readings

Promoting collaborative learning cultures

A summary of the article, Promoting collaborative learning cultures: Putting the promise into practice  from the bulletin Ideas into Action summarised on the Educational Leaders website. The article discusses the necessary conditions for establishing an authentic collaborative learning culture in a school, and how to build collaborative relationships across and between communities of schools.

Professional inquiry report on professional collaborative inquiry and technology

This study by Nick Rate (2015) investigates how teachers can approach teaching as inquiry collaboratively, collectively solving problems of practice together, and how this is further enhanced through the use of technology. The results show that when the principles and conditions for effective professional learning are in place, technology becomes an enabler providing the ability to access, document, communicate, and connect to build capability and thus improve outcomes for students.

Video: Using collaborative teacher inquiry to support students with LDs in math

This video provides an overview of collaborative teacher inquiry and how it can be used to facilitate and investigate new ways of supporting students with learning disabilities (LDs) in the area of math. The accompanying Viewers’ guide provides key messages and concepts presented in the video as well as individual and group activities to deepen an understanding of CI and the use of manipulatives to support the learning of students with LDs in math.

Supporting collaborative teacher inquiry  

This paper was presented at the Research on Collaborative Teacher Inquiry Conference, May 27, 2009, USA. The researchers discuss the benefits of supported collaborative teacher inquiry. They discuss the supports that make an impact for successful collaboration and inquiry. 

What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise

This paper by John Hattie (2015) describes what a model of collaborative expertise could look like and how to make it a reality. The greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximise the effect of their teaching on all students in their care.

The benefits of collaborative professional learning

The Educational Leaders website summarises the paper The benefits of collaborative professional learning: One school's journey in learning languages  The paper reports on the development of a professional learning community within one school, where a group of teachers undertook professional development in languages. It illustrates how a professional learning culture can support teaching and learning in a school.