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Collective Inquiry

In this column, we often report on qualities and practices of high-performing school systems. Today, my colleague Aparna Patankar writes about collective inquiry, and how it helped build some of the enviable teaching forces in the world.

By Aparna Patankar

Collective inquiry is the process by which educators build shared knowledge and learn together.

It's also a common practice that high-performing school systems around the world use to create and sustain a strong teaching profession. Collective inquiry helps build a shared vision for students' futures, and offers a constructive way for teachers to improve their craft together.

In Singapore, each school has a professional learning community. Collective inquiry is embedded and supported throughout the system. Within professional learning communities, teachers are divided into learning teams of four to eight members who work together to improve student learning. Learning teams collaborate to refine lesson plans and materials, teaching strategies, and assessment practices. The aim is to use collective inquiry to engage educators in an ongoing cycle of reflection that promotes collective learning and continuous improvement.

Teachers in China also utilize collective inquiry to improve their practice. Shanghai teachers, for example, teach relatively few classes, so that they have plenty of time for preparation. Senior and junior teachers practice and refine lessons together to video. Teachers observe one another teaching in an effort to learn from one another. Further, Chinese systems require teachers to have several open classes each year, so that other teachers and even trainees can learn from and guide them. Such collective inquiry enables Chinese teachers to collectively refine instructional strategies to ensure better implementation and results.

In Japan, teachers participate in regular lesson study, during which teachers, along with their peers, review lessons and consider how to improve them. This process allows teachers to better understand student errors, provides a mechanism for self-reflection, and generates consistency in teaching. This process often takes years and begins with a group of four to six educators, at the same level, coming together and setting a goal or research theme for themselves. These educators then collectively create a curriculum that strives to achieve this goal, collaboratively making decisions on content and integrating new teaching techniques. After practicing teaching the lesson and receiving feedback, the group then refines the lesson to improve its content and implementation. Such groups exist at both the school and the district level.

Some U.S. schools and districts are working to change their teaching culture to support engagement in collective inquiry. Evolving from a culture of closed classroom doors and isolated teaching to one that encourages professional collaboration and sharing is one of the biggest challenges facing our system.

Next week, I will share practical advice on utilizing collective inquiry in your school.

Follow Aparna Patankar and Asia Society on Twitter.

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