Collaborative inquiry amongst professionals is seen as effective in improving student learning, as it “facilitate[s] classroom teachers in a reexamination of their beliefs that can lead to changes in instructional norms and contexts” (Holmlund Nelson, Slavit, Perkins, & Hathorn, 2008). Clearly such a powerful tool has a place in many educational settings and we are interested in understanding it better.
One thing that we noticed in our early discussions is that each of us is currently at different stages in the use of collaborative inquiry within our professional circles. Jan-Michael’s staff is currently engaged in a collaborative inquiry, Heidi has participated in teacher collaborative inquiries previously and her staff will be beginning collaborative inquiry groups in January, and Shannon would like to introduce collaborative inquiry to her colleagues.
We recognized, however, that we are likely to encounter common issues, so we developed this inquiry question: What are the challenges associated with implementing collaborative inquiry and how can these be addressed in order to ensure that said collaborative inquiry is successful?
We generated some research questions that we felt we needed answering, in order to design a solution to this problem:
- What are the typical challenges faced by schools/professional groups in implementing and sustaining collaborative inquiry and what strategies are suggested for mitigating them?
- What role should leaders take during collaborative inquiry to help ensure success?
- What are the needs of adult learners and how will this affect the design of collaborative inquiries?
- What challenges can we identify in our professional contexts?
The literature and our own experiences identified five main challenges to the successful implementation and sustainment of collaborative inquiry; time, a shared vision, choice, competence with digital tools, and team formation.
Time was identified in the literature and in Jan-Michael’s school research as being a central barrier to collaborative inquiry. Teaching is a demanding profession that requires a significant amount of a teacher’s professional and personal time. That being said, most teachers are willing to invest in something that will pay dividends in their classrooms, particularly when there is an element of choice, which is explored below. The research into adult learning indicates that adults value learning experiences that are pragmatic and applicable to their roles. Therefore, helping teachers understand that collaborative inquiry will directly impact on their teaching in a practical manner should increase engagement. This is where pedagogical leaders can positively impact collaborative inquiry by providing the forum and structure for teachers to explore what is not working in their classrooms, and then using that information to help them design a collaborative inquiry to solve it.
In addition to respecting teachers’ time by ensuring the inquiry is applicable to their roles, it is vital that the school find ways to create time for teachers to engage in collaborative inquiry. There are a number of options that schools can examine, such as late starts or early dismissals, using professional development days, collapsed time-table days, event days, bringing in substitute teachers and using staff meetings. Wiliams (2016) suggests that one meeting (of unspecified time) every month for the duration of the school year should be sufficient. This will allow teachers time to do research or implement a strategy and reflect on it between meetings. As a result, the time teachers are together can be spent sharing and building knowledge as opposed to getting work down. Time is always a critical issue for professionals and before collaborative inquiry is implemented, solutions to the time issue should be considered and addressed.
Shared vision or goal
A shared vision or goal is frequently mentioned in the literature as fundamental to the success of collaborative inquiry. Using student data was consistently mentioned in the literature as a way to help teams determine a shared goal at the outset of their inquiry. It is important to recognise that as the teams work through their inquiry, the assumptions each of them hold about how the inquiry will unfold, or how they apply the learning to their own context can be different. Collaborative inquiry teams need to constantly negotiate and renegotiate their co-constructed vision of success as they work through the inquiry, discover new ideas and build their knowledge base (Holmlund Nelson, Slavit, Perkins, & Hathorn, 2008). In Jan-Michael’s school, a lack of a clear shared goal made it difficult for some members of the team to maintain momentum and understand the significance of their work. A shared goal helps professionals focus their attention and time.
It is also important that the shared vision or goal fits within the school/workplace’s mission or vision. The improvements to practice must be in line with the fundamental beliefs about teaching and learning. A collaborative inquiry into the best workbook for teaching writing would not be in line with the vision and mission of an inquiry-approach school, and therefore a waste of time to the larger learning community. This is where pedagogical leaders play an important role in helping teams frame their inquiry within the belief system of the school/workplace.
All learners crave choice. Choice is a significantly motivating factor in learning. ”…students who develop mastery goals are motivated by the actual learning experiences. Their rewards arise from the challenges of acquiring and applying new knowledge and skills” (Whitman, 2014). One of the core principles of collaborative inquiry is that professionals will develop mastery around an area of their practice that will have a positive impact on student learning. By allowing these professionals to choose which area of their practice to focus on, engagement in the task will be higher. Wiliams (2016) reinforces this idea by explaining that teachers work best in collaborative teams when they are valued for their strengths, not focusing on improving their weaknesses. A range of strengths is needed to make the collaborative inquiry successful, therefore teachers must be allowed to choose for themselves what they need to develop.
However, Wiliams also states that “The design of professional development for teachers should begin by determining the content of teacher professional development – what teachers are expected to get better at – and that this should be primarily driven by the needs of students and not the wishes of teachers.” (William, 2016, 164). As much as teachers should have some choice over which area of their practice to explore, it must ultimately be driven by the needs of students. This links back to the use of data. Data helps to identify the needs of the students but also prevents teachers from relying solely on their perceptions of where students are struggling.
In the collaborative inquiries Heidi engaged with in the past, a range of topics were suggested by the teachers and pedagogical leaders in an anonymous survey. These ideas were then posted around the room and teachers were allowed to choose which topic to explore. This led to high engagement in most groups. Reflections written by the teachers afterwards indicated that some staff chose the topic based upon who the other group members were, and less on interest and that in most cases they would not make the same choice again. The following year showed even higher levels of engagement as teachers understood the importance of choosing by topic, not by group members.
This came up as a point for discussion following the results of Jan-Michael’s data collection. It is unclear whether the time pressure teachers felt was due to actual time constraints or to a lack of engagement because they had no choice in which topic to explore – the school decided all staff members were going to learn and blog about supporting English language learners in their subject areas. When people feel invested in a topic, they will often find the time needed to work on it. This is supported by the research into the needs of adult learners. Adults crave a level of autonomy in their work.
Competence with digital tools
Competence with the digital tools used in the inquiry can also pose a barrier to successful implementation. According to Bell, the use of “computer-based learning environments”, and the lack of training on how to use these to their full potential, is an important challenge to successful CI (2014). This was identified first hand in the set up of this collaborative inquiry. We chose google.docs as a useful format for collaboration. However, it was a new tool for one group member so some time was lost in getting everyone into the document. This was also evidenced in Jan-Michael’s research as those teachers unfamiliar to blogging struggled with the need to share their learning through this platform.
Accountability to team members was also indicated in the literature as an effective component of successful implementation. By writing down goals and assigning tasks, it was found that team members were more likely to complete expected components. This is one way digital platforms can support collaborative inquiry, by publicly recording expectations.
Finally, challenges in team formation are a prevalent issue and without pedagogical leadership support, can prevent a collaborative inquiry from achieving anything worthy. Dominate personalities, clashes between members over whose ideas will be followed, beliefs about who is an “expert” and pre-existing personal conflicts are common issues that prevent team members from working in a truly collaborative manner. Helping teams understand the predictable stages of team formation, resolving conflicts, and establishing meeting norms are strategies pedagogical leaders can use to help ensure the success of collaborative inquiry.
Understanding the common challenges to implementing and maintaining collaborative inquiry can help pedagogical leaders and team members ensure success. For schools or professional workplaces that wish to implement collaborative inquiry, they must first find a solution to the time problem. Prioritising professionals working together in this manner may mean changing long-established routines, but if it is valued enough by the organisation, time can be found. Pedagogical leaders should spend time explicitly exploring the stages of collaborative inquiry with their teams to clarify how it fits within their professional responsibilities and is pragmatic and relevant to their work. Collaborative inquiry needs to live within the culture of the school/professional workplace and mirror its beliefs and values. Assuming most professionals work within a culture that matches their own beliefs, they should be given choice in determining which topic to explore specifically and base their inquiry on their students’ data. This ensures that the changes the professionals implement will lead to improvements in student learning. Professionals should be encouraged to use digital tools they are comfortable with or be provided with training in these tools prior to implementation. Finally, pedagogical leaders should explicitly explore the stages of team formation with the professionals and provide them with structures that will help them establish behavioural norms and resolve conflict. All of these challenges must be re-examined within the context of the working environment and tailored to suit the needs of the specific professionals who are implementing the collaborative inquiry.
Implications for our contexts:
Each of us is designing a different design brief to match our professional contexts. We identified the challenges we think were particularly relevant in our professional environments.
Heidi’s design brief:
Heidi is responsible for staff development at her school. She has outlined a few goals and believes that collaborative inquiry (called teacher inquiry groups in her context) will be the most successful way to achieve many of these goals.
- Improve student learning
- Improve teachers’ understanding of inquiry
- Develop a collaborative culture
- Help teachers see themselves as part of the learning community
- Increase teacher self-efficacy
- Lack of competence with digital tools – until this year, our school had very limited access to digital tools for teaching. We have trained teachers in using google education this year, so that will likely form the core of the digital component, but Heidi will also conduct a staff survey to determine which other digital tools teachers are comfortable in using.
- Use of school data – the school has a spotty history of collecting data and teachers have not engaged in data analysis to determine trends. This will require some significant pedagogical leadership support.
- Shared goal – as this is the first time the staff have engaged in any form of collaborative inquiry, some significant pedagogical leadership support will be needed to help them establish a shared goal. We will supply them with more structure at the beginning of the process and then ease it off once the teachers feel more comfortable. We will engage the teachers in frequent reflection which will be shared with the pedagogical leadership team to help us anticipate upcoming problems and help teams find solutions before momentum is lost.
She is developing a series of workshops to engage staff in prior to the commencement of teacher inquiry groups, based on her learning. She would appreciate any feedback and will share this plan through twitter and on her blog to gather more feedback.
Jan-Michael’s design brief:
Jan-Michael is currently participating in a whole-school collaborative inquiry project at the International School of Phnom Penh. SPELTAC was created by one of his colleagues, and is aimed at improving English language learning and international mindedness within the school.
Jan-Michael had noticed that although initial interest in the project was very high, it has been slowly waning, and as a result, the successfulness of the professional development taking place has been negatively affected. Given this fact, Jan-Michael wanted to identify the causes for the decrease in interest as well as the different ways these issues could be addressed in order to assure that it does not happen again in the future. Jan-Michael conducted interviews and sent out a confidential survey as a way of gathering this information. Once done, he analyzed their responses and found that many of the challenges associated with the implementation of collaborative inquiry continue to be a problem once the practice is actually taking place. In the case of SPELTAC, the most common challenges that came up in teacher interviews/surveys were as follows (placed here in order of importance):
- Lack of time: Despite the fact that one sixty minute staff meeting per month and four half day professional development sessions are being allocated to working on SPELTAC, many of the teachers at ISPP say that they do not have enough time to work on the project. In order for collaborative inquiry to be successful, a lot of research needs to be done during free time. Seeing as most of their time is spent planning, marking and recording, teachers have very little of this free time. It seems that having little choice with regards to the form of the collaboration (as will be described in the following point) may also have had an effect here, since lack of choice may have affected our teacher’s willingness to spend the little time they have doing research.
- Lack of flexibility/choice: The way SPELTAC has been designed, participants are forced to blog about their discoveries and experiences (they need to blog a total of fourteen times over six month period). In theory, not doing so would result in a discussion with the school’s administration. For those within the group that are not tech savvy, this has been a huge issue, to the point that many participants have only blogged once thus far (they should have a minimum of four blog posts at this time). It seems that this issue is a common one with regards to collaborative inquiry. According to Bell, the use of “computer-based learning environments”, and the lack of training on how to use these to their full potential, is an important challenge to successful CI (2014). With regards to those that actually knew had to use the blog, lack of choice was also an issue. A lot of participants in the project, myself included, felt they would rather have a conversation about their discoveries rather than have to write about them on an online forum. As a result, many tended to write less and with little excitement, choosing instead to “get things done”. This greatly affected the depth of the inquiry taking place. Interesting enough, the school’s administration felt the same way, with most ending up not reaching the blogging requirements themselves.
- Lack of focus/Lack of clear goal: The project itself is considered too open ended by many of the participants. People are uncertain of what they need to do as an end goal, and the collaborative process is suffering because of this. Another issue identified by Bell refers to “providing learners with exactly the support they need” (2010). According to him and his team, open-ended exploration needs to be balanced by guidance. This is something that has been so far lacking from the project.
Jan-Michael will use his group’s findings as the basis for a program evaluation of SPELTAC, and will share this work with members of his school’s administration team and with the creator of the project.
Shannon’s Design Brief:
Shannon is interested in how to implement collaborative inquiry to my colleagues to improve our learners success and experience in our program. She has created some aspects of the program and learners that she believes could be improved by the use of collaborative inquiry.
- Improve learner experiences in the program especially in practicum where our team is limited on how much influence we have and so creative solutions are required.
- Improve learner success in the program by discovering ways that we can better support students when they are off campus in practicum settings.
- Improve instructor’s knowledge and understanding of collaborative inquiry and encourage engagement amongst team members.
- Need other instructors to understand the inquiry process. – The people I work with are not “educators” per se but we are subject matter experts teaching our profession of Diagnostic Medical Sonography. They may not understand the process or the impact of collaborative inquiry so I will offer them some materials to encourage their learning in this area.
- Convincing other instructors to get together often and participate. – We already have scheduled program meetings every two weeks and I will add this to the meeting agenda. I will also schedule bi-weekly practicum program meetings as this seems to be where the learners are struggling most at the moment.
- Lack of time and/or workload. – We are all very short on time in this program especially during the fall semester. I will implement some online collaborative technology so that my team members can contribute and discuss issues on their own time as they see fit. One example that I will try is VoiceThread which I discovered while engaging with NISOD.
- Not having the opportunity to apply new knowledge – Try to encourage team members to try implementing a small amount at a time as it fits and makes sense.
- Limited authority to make needed change – Talk to Academic Chair and try to get support on collaborative inquiry amongst our team.
She is putting together some materials to present to her team at the next meeting, based on her learning. She is hoping that the team will be on-board and will join the VoiceThread platform to put forward their own ideas and receive feedback.
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