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How to Implement Collective Inquiry

Last week, my colleague Aparna Patankar reported on a practice used in many high-performing school systems around the world: collective inquiry—the process in which educators build shared knowledge and learn together. Today she offers advice on how to get started in your school or district.

by Aparna Patankar

Collective inquiry is valuable for many reasons that range from increasing individual student achievement to supporting and strengthening education reform movements. Through a collective inquiry process, educators come together—often within a professional learning community—to ask and answer tough questions about student achievement, their individual and collective instructional practices, and their school policies. This is in service of improving student achievement.

Collective inquiry provides a mechanism for teachers to learn from one another to improve their own practice and is a method to scale innovative and collaborative approaches to improving student outcomes. Teachers can come together to identify the common elements of successful teaching. They can create a clear, collective understanding about what proficiency looks like and how to personalize learning depending on students' level of understanding.

When engaging in collaborative inquiry, teachers can also coordinate their lessons to ensure that all the necessary standards are being met and create robust lessons that span content areas, allowing students to approach learning in more authentic, interdisciplinary ways.

Collective inquiry builds understanding and buy-in by recognizing that teachers are the experts in the reform process and supporting them as they work together to determine the best way to implement the changes in policy.

The practice transforms the culture of the teaching profession in ways that more deeply engage and energize teachers. Giving teachers a role in improving educational success, through collective inquiry and professional learning communities, elevates the status of the teaching profession because teachers then see themselves as autonomous professionals actively participating in the improvement process.

Teaching can be an isolating profession, with teachers closed off in their individual classrooms—collective inquiry can change that by uniting teachers as a professional community working together to improve both individually and collectively.

To get started with collective inquiry, start a conversation with these questions:


  • What criteria should we use to assess students' work?

  • How can we ensure that we apply these criteria consistently?

  • Who among us excel at teaching certain skills? How can we learn from one another?

  • How can we create more robust learning experiences—with lessons and units that span across content areas?

  • How can we personalize learning to help struggling students achieve proficiency while enriching learning for students who have already demonstrated proficiency?

At the district level, many systems are successfully utilizing collective inquiry to improve student learning. For example, Chicago is working on a district-wide approach to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They are creating a system to collaboratively approach these new standards with their teachers to ensure that students are consistently achieving at high levels and meeting the CCSS. Collective inquiry, such as that taking place in Chicago is going to be essential in implementing the CCSS in a manner that supports and drives student achievement.


How have you utilized collective inquiry in your school or district? What advice do you have for others?

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