Fall 2020

Supporting School Improvement Through Collaborative Inquiry

School improvement planning is a process undertaken by principals and teachers to increase student achievement in their respective schools. It involves identifying areas of student achievement that need to be improved, outlining what activities should be implemented to promote improvement, setting timelines for these activities, and determining what measures will be used to record whether improvement has occurred (Education Improvement Commission, 2000). 

While school improvement plans (SIPs) help school staff work toward collective goals, they tend to be viewed more positively by principals; in a nationally representative American sample, principals were more likely than teachers to believe that SIPs change teaching practices (67% versus 44%) and lead to school improvement over a five-year period (81% versus 64%;
Doss, Akinniranye, & Tosh, 2019). The fact that teachers have less favourable perspectives on SIPs suggests there is room to enhance school improvement planning. One way to engage teachers more actively in supporting student achievement is to incorporate collaborative inquiry (CI), a team-based form of recurrent professional development. 

What is Collaborative Inquiry?

The Millbrook-South Cavan Public School Kindergarten Collaborative Inquiry

Collaborative inquiry “is a process in which participants come together to examine their own educational practice systematically…driven by the consideration of student learning needs” (Limestone District School Board, 2012, p. 2; see Figure 1). A CI cycle begins with a group of like-minded educators who identify an area of professional practice that they would like to explore together to better meet the learning needs of their students. Like any effective inquiry, it involves developing an open-ended question to guide the learning. For example, a group of eleven kindergarten educators in Ontario involved in a year-long inquiry about early math used this question to guide their inquiry: “What instructional practices best support early geometry and spatial sense development?” (Youmans, Schroeter, & Colgan, in press). During a CI, teachers question and challenge aspects of their professional practice in relation to an area of demonstrated student weakness. After researching potential solutions, the team modifies past practices and implements new ones. In the case of the CI mentioned earlier, educators implemented and refined different hands-on-activities (e.g., design challenges, provocations, use of manipulatives) to support students’ early math learning. As part of a CI, the team collects evidence of student learning to evaluate whether their change in practice had a positive impact on learning (Donohoo & Katz, 2018). With respect to the early math CI, the team used early math trajectories to assess whether students’ understanding of geometry and spatial sense developed (see Clements & Sarama, 2009). When a school team experiences success with a CI, they come to believe in their ability to collectively improve student outcomes. 

What are the benefits of a Collaborative Inquiry?

Research indicates that Collaborative Inquiry (CI) supports the development of Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE; Donohoo & Velasco, 2016). As a school team comes to realize that their collective hard work is driving their success, their confidence in each other and their ability to improve student achievement increases and they push each other to greater heights (Donhoo & Katz, 2018). Moreover, after participating in a CI, team members tend to adopt high-quality, evidence-based pedagogical practices, an important predictor of student achievement (Katz, Dack, & Malloy, 2017). In fact, according to Hattie’s (2017) research on over 250 influences on student achievement, CTE has the greatest influence on achievement with a notable effect size of 1.57. Ultimately, collaborative inquiry improves student achievement through promoting the following productive teacher behaviours:  

  • more positive attitudes toward professional development (Rauf, Ali, Aluwi, & Noor, 2012), 
  • deeper implementation of evidence-based instructional strategies (Cantrell & Callaway, 2008) 
  • a greater focus on academic subject matter (Hoy, Sweetland, & Smith, 2002), and
  • a deepening understanding of how to assess student learning and use it to guide instruction (Borko, 2004).

What Makes a Collaborative Inquiry Successful?

The success of a CI is dependent on several factors. First and foremost, school districts must develop a shared cultural understanding of the value of collaborative inquiry (Limestone District School Board, 2012). Other elements of successful CI involve the following: 

  • Leaders that foster collaboration and data use (Marsh, Pane, & Hamilton, 2006)
  • Adequate training in inquiry, discussion protocols, and data collection,
  • The development of CI teams that teach similar grades,
  • Sufficient blocks of scheduled time to meet regularly for the duration of an inquiry cycle (Nelson, Slavit, Perkins, & Hathorn, 2008),
  • A skilled facilitator to develop and keep meeting agendas focused on improving instruction,
  • Use of common student assessment samples rather than standardized test scores (Marsh, Pane, & Hamilton, 2006), and,
  • Data sources rich enough to serve as a basis for discussion and development of alternative instructional practices (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999).

In conclusion, collaborative inquiry is a powerful form of recurrent professional development (PD) that promotes collective teacher efficacy and, as a result, increases student achievement. CI is a self-directed form of PD that enables educators to focus on how they can improve their practices to promote achievement in an area of student weakness. Participation in a CI often results in the adoption of high-quality, evidence-based instructional practices that improve student outcomes. 

Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, has worked for Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board since 1992. A Kindergarten Teacher specializing in early geometry, spatial sense, and coding, he is the author of 55 Activities Promoting Spatial Visualization and Orientation (2019) and Nelson Math Grade K (2018).

Alexandra Youmans OCT, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. She is an advocate of high-quality teaching and learning practices that promote student achievement. Alexandra has had the privilege of documenting successful collaborative inquiries.

Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 3–15.
Cantrell, S. & Callaway, P. (2008). High and low implementers of content literacy instruction: Portraits of teacher efficacy. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(7), 1739-1750.
Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2009). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach. New York, NY: Routledge.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. S. (1999). Relationship of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24(1), 249–301.
Donohoo, J. & Katz, S. (2018). When teachers believe, students achieve: Collaborative inquiry builds teacher efficacy for better student outcomes. The Central Okanagan Teachers’ Association (COTA) Blog. Retrieved from: https://www.mycota.ca/pro-d-blog/2018/02/15/when-techers-believe,-students-achieve-collaborative-inquiry-builds-teacher-efficacy-for-better-student-outcomes/
Donohoo, J. & Velasco, M. (2016). The transformative power of collaborative inquiry: Realizing change in schools and classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Doss, C. J., Akinniranye, G., & Tosh, K. (2019). School improvement plans: Is there room for improvement? Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2575z4.html
Education Improvement Commission. (2000). School improvement planning: A handbook for principals, teachers, and school councils. Toronto, ON: Education Improvement Commission.
Hattie, J. (2017). Visible learning plus: 250+ influences on student achievement. Retrieved from: https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/VLPLUS-252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf
Hoy, W., Sweetland, S., & Smith, P. (2002). Toward an organizational model of achievement in high schools: The significance of collective efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 38(1), 77-93.
Katz, S., Dack, L.A., & Malloy, J. (2017). The intelligent, responsive leader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Limestone District School Board. (2012). Facilitator’s guide to collaborative inquiry. Kingston, ON: Limestone District School Board. Retrieved from: http://thelearningexchange.ca/wp content/uploads/2015/10/limestoneCollaborativeInquiryFacilitatorsGuide.pdf
Marsh, J. A., Pane, J. F., & Hamilton, S. (2006). Making sense of data-driven decision making in education: Evidence from recent RAND research. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
Nelson, T. H., Slavit, D., Perkins, M., & Hathorn, T. (2008). A culture of collaborative inquiry: Learning to develop and support professional learning communities. Teachers College Record, 110(6), 1269–1303.
Rauf, P., Ali, S., Aluwi, A., & Noor, N. (2012). The effect of school culture on the management of professional development in secondary schools in Malaysia. Malaysian Online Journal of Educational Science, 2(3), 41-51.
Youmans, A., Schroeter, E., & Colgan, L. (in press). Supporting early geometry and spatial reasoning in kindergarten: A collaborative inquiry. Ontario Mathematics Gazette.

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