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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rob Thornell

Facilitating a Collaborative Inquiry Culture

Updated: Mar 30

​“Clarifying, pushing, and extending thinking are not the only benefits of sharing. Fellow professionals also benefit from the knowledge colleagues create through engagement in the inquiry process.” - (Dana et al., 2011, pg. 11)

Leading With Assumptions:

Unintentional biases and beliefs that can make or break a school. After over 25 years in education as a teacher, campus administrator, and district-level administrator, I have seen and made many assumptions about what makes a successful lesson, a successful classroom, and a successful school. I have been responsible for taking those assumptions and making decisions that impacted the lives of many, and disgracefully, I accepted many of them as certainties without evidence or proof that they had either a positive or negative impact on student achievement. If I have learned anything in my time in school, it is that I do not know everything and that the best solutions are almost always found working in collaboration with others. We need to move past leading with assumptions, both good and bad, and take the time to ask better questions about our practices in a way that leads to improved learning.

What is an assumption? The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines it this way:

Assumption: 1. a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen without proof.

As an educator, we must challenge our own assumptions and even those of others. Luckily, we do not have to do it alone.


Think of a time you made an assumption about something at your school and later realized you were incorrect. What changed your mind?

A Case For Collaborative Inquiry

In 2022, Learning Forward revised their professional learning standards, and a Culture of Collaborative Inquiry is one of eleven areas acknowledged as a foundation for robust, continuous professional learning. Also embedded in those eleven standards is a Leadership strand, which is important to note, as the impact of collaborative inquiry is not seen as a project or initiative but instead as a professional way of being within a school. (School Leadership). Indeed, collaborative inquiry should not be isolated to a simple protocol or compliance activity but more found in the culture of a building in the way work is done.

In education, rarely are the best things accomplished in isolation. Working together, or collaborating, brings together a larger collection of knowledge and experiences that can expand the ideas generated and create a sense of focus on common challenges. Indeed, over 15 years ago, ASCD: What Research Says About Collaborative Inquiry noted that teachers working together to explore questions about their practices is one of the most promising practices to improve learning and teaching. However, they also noted it to be one of the most difficult to implement effectively. Principals play an essential role in collaborative inquiry as they can greatly influence their school's culture by honoring their teachers’ professional expertise and placing importance on asking questions about instruction. Despite what some might believe, research has shown that collaboration is not something that often occurs naturally, but rather, it must be intentionally cultivated either by the teachers themselves or campus leaders (ASCD). Modeling collaboration for teachers is an effective form of instructional leadership and can have both short and long-term benefits for individual teachers as well as student outcomes. In a recent Learning Forward blog post, Are You Modeling Collaboration Skills New Teacher Need?, author Jennifer Abrams offers tips to help leaders reflect on actions that may help teachers (especially new ones) learn to use collaborative inquiry both in their classrooms and in their professional learning communities (PLC). In addition, the UChicago IMPACT, a division of the University of Chicago, has invested over thirty years of research in schools and has developed what they call the 5 Essentials of Effective Schools. One of the five is Collaborative Teachers, and they define it as “teachers collaborating to promote professional growth.” The research makes a clear case: Collaboration helps all of us get better together.

Circle graph with 5 essential factors for school improvment

Collaborative Teachers, as defined by UChicago Impact: “All teachers collaborate to promote professional growth; are active partners in school improvement. Teachers are committed to the school and focused on professional development.”


In what ways does your campus foster intentional collaboration? Do your teachers take ownership to make not only themselves better but also those around them?

Implementing Collaborative Inquiry:

As educators, we need to ask questions about our own practice, our students, and questions to help us realize why we are getting the results we are getting. In a Culture of Collaborative Inquiry, a PLC must stop using assumptions and focus on what is happening; many successful schools have begun adopting an inquiry, job-embedded approach to their professional learning. It has been my experience that many times, initial attempts to have teachers work collaboratively result in a polite, surface-level discussion about some variable rather than their own practices. Author Jenni Donhoo describes the transformation to true collaboration in this way: “When conversations shift from generalized talk about student’s progress and polite sharing of teaching strategies to more in-depth conversations about the connections between the two, professional learning becomes more impactful. This shift can only occur in light of student learning data” (Donohoo, 2016). As educators, no matter your role, finding both the dedicated time for inquiry and the willingness to pursue it is the key to implementing it well. While there are many models or protocols for inquiry cycles, I advocate the Inquiry Cycle shared by Boynton, Dana, & Thomas in their book Inquiry: A Districtwide Approach to Staff and Student Learning because they encourage practitioners to start with a “wondering.” As Walt Whitman once said (and Ted Lasso may have made famous), “Be curious, not judgemental.” At the heart of collaborative inquiry is the idea that we can ask questions about our practice and those of our colleagues.

​As you and your learning team wonder about practices and results, do you sound like this? Wondering:

What is the one challenge that, if we solved it, would have had the greatest positive impact on our campus?

Develop a Wondering:

  • I wonder…

    • If we __________, then _________ will happen.

Ultimately, the entire collaborative team can benefit if we can frame a wondering into a powerful question. Some examples might look like these:

  • Does planning formative questions throughout the lesson improve student outcomes?

  • What teaching strategies produce the highest level of student engagement in mathematics?

  • Does the use of small group instruction improve our reading instruction?

Collect Data

When we collect data too often, we rely on summative test scores rather than smaller, more frequent formative observations but data collection in a collaborative inquiry model should take many different forms of data collection. One of my personal favorites is teachers observing other teachers. As a principal, we must be intentional about allowing such job-embedded learning opportunities, but if we keep the focus on the “wondering,” then we are observing with a purpose. If a schedule doesn’t permit in-person teacher-to-teacher observations, you can always use video to facilitate the collaborative process. Another form of collaboration that I believe is underrated in PLCs and lesson planning is implementing some “Pre-Lesson Share” protocol. Having teachers share their thinking about a lesson/activity BEFORE the lesson and receive critical feedback from peers before the teaching has occurred. This allows the inquiry to occur prior to the lesson and may actually enhance the learning experience for the teacher and the students. Whatever types of data you choose to collect, the inquiry should revolve around the idea of “what can we learn from this to make us better?”.

​“At its core, collaborative inquiry is a structured process for problem understanding and solution generation, with defined roles and pacing for questioning and solution suggestions.” - (Byrne-Jimenez & Orr, 2007, pg 19)

Data Analysis

When reviewing the information a group has collected before jumping to conclusions, it is important to consider trends and facts. A collaborative inquiry team will avoid making excuses or trying to explain away the results but rather observe what happened. This evidence, without explanation, sets the inquiry process apart from other types of data digs. Collaborative teams are open to the idea that more than one possible reason exists and do not fall into the usual assumptions. As a collaborative team continues with their data analysis, some questions they can use may include:

  • What are some possible…?

  • What additional information do we need…?

  • What do we know about how we have done in the past…?

Take Action

Information without action does not produce improvement. Effective collaborative teams do not stop at data analysis but rather take the information they have gathered and the explanations they have hypothesized and create action steps for improvement. Some questions to consider:

  • What specifically do you want to accomplish?

  • What will be different as a result of working in this area?

  • How can we make the goal measurable—to know when we’ve achieved it?

It's this collective ownership in growth that leads to learning and new ways of doing things to address identified focus areas.


When considering the four steps of an inquiry cycle and the team you work most closely with, in which area do you collaborate well and which do you tend to do in isolation?

Looking Ahead:

  • Principals - What can you do to build in job-embedded time for collaborative inquiry, and how will you cultivate a culture of questioning on your campus?

  • Teachers - How might conversations with colleagues change if collaborative inquiry were at the center of your PLC discussions?


  • Abrams, J. (2023). Are You Modeling The Collaboration Skills New Teachers Need? Learning Forward. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Adams, A. (2020, March 5). Tips for Fostering Collaboration in a Professional Learning Community. Edutopia. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Byrne-Jimenez, M., & Orr, M. T. (2007). Developing Effective Principals Through Collaborative Inquiry. Teachers College Press.

  • Dana, N. F., Thomas, C., & Boynton, S. (2011). Inquiry: A Districtwide Approach to Staff and Student Learning. SAGE Publications.

  • David, J. L. (2008, December 1). What Research Says About / Collaborative Inquiry. ASCD. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Donohoo, J. (2016, November 20). Why Collaborative Inquiry? Professional Learning That Makes a Difference (Opinion). Education Week. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Learning Forward. (n.d.). Culture of Collaborative Inquiry - Standards 2022. Standards for Professional Learning. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Learning Forward. (n.d.). Standards for Professional Learning. Home - Standards 2022. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Learning Forward. (2022). Leadership - Standards 2022. Standards for Professional Learning. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

  • Lipscombe, K. (2021). Lipscome, K. & Kidson, P. (2021) Leading Collaborative Inquiry. NSW Department of Education. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from,_K._and_Kidson,_P._2021_Leading_Collaboritive_Inquiry.pdf

  • UChicago Impact. (n.d.). 5Essentials. UChicago Impact. Retrieved September 2, 2023, from

Dr. Rob Thornell is a School Improvement Coach, Professional Learning Facilitator, and author of Inside the Principal's Office: A Leadership Guide to Inspire Reflection and Growth. He also serves his first term on the Learning Forward Texas Board of Directors. Connect with Rob on his Intentionally Bold website or on X/Twitter @thronell5.

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