Change through Collaborative Inquiry
In the teaching profession we sometimes get labeled with the slogan “most resistant to change”. Fair or not, we do spend a lot of time and effort on trying to understand and effectively implement change. At times it is difficult to keep up with the ever changing world. As the complexities increase and we try to juggle numerous competing priorities in our various leadership roles, we often hear the phrase “we need to work smarter together rather than harder alone”. In fact the ability to collaborate has been identified as a critical component of the 21st Century Skills and the Conference Board of Canada’s employability skills. We do recognize that working in teams has many benefits including the potential to be more efficient and effective as well as the potential to build capacity amongst the members.
When we examine professional collaboration, we discover that traditionally and usually more evident in a high school setting, there has been an established norm of teacher isolation. If we reflect on our practices with respect to professional collaboration, we discover that in many cases we do naturally communicate, work together and share our ideas and resources with our colleagues. We all acknowledge the importance of the skill to collaborate, but are we really clear on what is truly defined as professional collaboration and are we maximizing the benefits.
“Working together in a group for a common purpose” is how collaboration is usually defined. The first thing to consider is should group be replaced by the concept of team? If we consider a group of runners in a marathon race who are all running towards the common goal of the finish line, then is that considered an example of collaboration by the definition? The experts like Rick Dufour would say not really and use a more accurate example of a team of paddlers in a dragon boat paddling towards the finish line. The difference is that in the marathon example the actions of each runner do not really impact the actions of the others whereas, in the dragon boat the actions of one team member impact the rest of the team’s efforts to achieve their objective. There is a level of interdependence that exists when we function as a collaborative team and co-labour on a defined task or towards a determined objective.
To maximize our efforts we need to formalize the purpose and process by viewing collaboration through the lens of collaborative inquiry. Collaborative inquiry offers teams the opportunity to collaborate but great care and attention is given to first defining the purpose or objective. The team needs to decide what is important for them to co-labour on and develop a guiding question. This provides the team with their particular focus which ultimately should benefit student learning. The team uses evidence and data such as student work to help guide them in developing their question and provides a meaningful rationale for their work. Members need to feel that their efforts will produce relevant and research-based outcomes that will be worth the investment. They can then research, collect evidence, develop strategies, experiment and share their efforts and work as they explore potential answers to their guiding question.
The primary objective of professional collaboration is to impact student learning but there is much more to it than just trying to increase student achievement results. More importantly, through the process of collaborative inquiry we can increase student engagement and acquire strategies to adjust teaching practices to maximize learning. When working in self-directed teams, the members develop a sense of motivation, trust, ownership and validation.
Professional collaborative inquiry, however, does not just happen on its own. We need to invest in developing both our collaboration skills and the skills that assist us in collecting and interpreting the correct data in the inquiry process. Understanding team dynamics from formation, development and sustainability are critical for the success of the work. Formal structures can be put in place to provide us the time to collaborate but a culture that promotes reflective practices and the use of data to guide our practices is crucial for teams to fully benefit from the efforts of collaborative inquiry.
So if we add collaborative inquiry to our toolbox of resources, we can use this tool when we must function as agents of change. Collaborative inquiry can be a valuable instrument for professional learning and has the potential to also be a very effective vehicle for change.
The Best Advice …To Get And Then Give.
Recently I had a grade twelve student come to see me seeking advice about possible post-secondary options. The conversation started with “I’m not sure which university to attend or what program to take so can I talk to you?” After a few minutes of questioning me about my own choices and career path, then came that dreaded question “What should I do?” The student asking is an elite athlete, on the honour roll and one that I would truly classify as well-rounded. She is extremely bright and is currently taking all available math and science courses. Viewing her future through the analytical scientific lens, she was searching for the formula or equation that would give her the right answer. Fighting the urge to say pursue your passion of playing field hockey and go to the same university I went to for my science degree, I stopped to reflect about a time when I went to someone for a similar type of advice. Read the rest of this entry