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Why Collaborative Inquiry? Professional Learning That Makes a Difference

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Today's guest blog is co-authored by Jenni Donohoo, a Provincial Literacy Lead in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch in the Ontario Ministry of Education.

The term "job-embedded" is commonplace when referring to professional learning today, however, sometimes "job-embedded" simply entails a change in location - a move from ballrooms into school libraries or gymnasiums. At other times, the term is used to mask top-down, directive approaches under the guise of increased teacher choice and autonomy. In order for professional learning to make a difference, we need to define the phrase "job-embedded" and consider aspects that make professional learning impactful.

This article contains five key ideas for educators to consider. Professional learning is powerful when:

1)    Learning is defined as a change in thinking and behaviour (Katz & Dack, 2013).

2)    The power of the collective is drawn upon.

3)    Teachers' influence and power to make decisions is increased.

4)    Results are interpreted and cause/effect relationships are identified.

5)    A staff's perception of their ability to affect change is positively influenced.

The premise is that when educators engage in continuous learning, student learning is improved. However, not all professional development leads to learning as defined by Katz and Dack as a

"permanent change in thinking and behaviour" (p. vii). Realizing improved outcomes for all students requires that educators examine and question long standing fundamental beliefs and make permanent changes to their practice by trying, assessing, and reflecting upon the effectiveness of different teaching strategies and approaches. Therefore, it is important to structure and provide professional development that sets the bar based on Katz and Dack's definition of learning. Professional learning makes a difference when it results in permanent changes in thinking and behaviour.

A second consideration in designing professional learning involves drawing upon the power of the collective - what Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) refer to as 'social capital'. The authors argued that in order to accelerate learning it is important to concentrate on the group and noted that "social capital strategies are one of the cornerstones for transforming the profession" (p. 91). 

Professional learning structures and processes that require educators to collaborate in order to identify and solve problems of practice are what is needed. "High-yield strategies become more precise and more embedded when they are developed and deployed in teams that are constantly refining and interpreting them" (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012, p. 96). In my experience, educators' most valuable professional learning is a result of in-depth collaboration.

Effective professional learning also increases teachers' influence and their power to make decisions on important issues related to school improvement and professional learning. Leadership opportunities extend beyond merely serving on a committee or acting as a department or division chair. Structures for teachers to become authentic leaders and decision-makers need to be in place. Through their leadership, collaborative work, and meaningful involvement in school improvement, teachers become catalysts for change.

When educators' everyday work and student learning are examined as rich sources of evidence, professional learning is more constructive and truly "embedded in daily practice" (a phrase I prefer over "job-embedded"). Educators collaboratively analyze student evidence for the purpose of evaluating their impact, reflecting on their collective work, and determining optimal next steps. Interpreting results by examining student learning data helps to strengthen connections between the learning task, content, instruction, and student outcomes. 

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.

Finally, professional learning becomes more powerful when it is intentionally designed to influence a staff's perception of their ability to positively influence student outcomes. With an effect size of 1.57, Hattie (2016) recently ranked collective teacher efficacy (CTE) as the number one factor influencing student achievement. Collective teacher efficacy refers to the "collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities" (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004, p. 190).

Efficacy beliefs are very powerful as they "directly affect the diligence and resolve with which groups choose to pursue their goals" (Goddard, Hoy, & Woolfolk Hoy, 2004, p.8). When teachers believe that together, they are capable of helping students master complex content, fostering students' creativity, and getting students to believe they can do well in school, it happens. If educators' realities are filtered through the belief that there is very little they can do to influence student achievement, then it is very likely these beliefs will be manifested in their practice.

Professional learning makes a difference when it purposefully and explicitly taps into the sources of collective efficacy (mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, social persuasion, and affective states). Furthermore, when professional learning is designed to assist teachers in making the link between their collective actions and increases in student achievement, it helps in fostering collective efficacy (Donohoo, 2017).  

Collaborative inquiry is a professional learning design that makes a difference by delivering on the five aspects, that make professional learning impactful, outlined above. Katz and Dack (2013) argued that conceptual change is necessary for fundamental school improvement and noted that collaborative inquiry is an "enabler of the kind of professional learning that is about permanent change in thinking or behaviour" (p. 7).

Changes in beliefs occur as teachers reconcile discrepancies between initial thinking and new ideas that emerge through the examination of evidence and reflection (Donohoo & Velasco, 2016). Transfer is more likely to occur when teachers build knowledge together. Interdependence of action and connections with other educators ultimately influence changes in practice.

Collaborative inquiry situates educators' everyday work as the central focus for their learning. Educators' encounters rest on a shared responsibility for improving student outcomes and interdependence results from the need to draw upon each other's experience and expertise in order to develop more common understandings of student learning needs and instructional practices. In addition, the collaborative inquiry process has been found particularly effective in increasing efficacy (Bruce & Flynn, 2013; Voelkel Jr., 2011).

Given limited time and resources, it makes sense to concentrate professional learning efforts on designs that make a difference. Collaborative inquiry is one such design that not only makes a difference in regard to student outcomes, but also results in greater 'buy-in' from educators. 

Jenni Donohoo is the author of several best selling books on collaborative inquiry. Check them out here. Connect with Jenni on Twitter. 

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