SWST Collaborative Inquiry

Last year my colleague (and friend) Sandra Molyneaux took collaborative inquiry with teachers up a notch in SWST.  She made a point of pulling all of her teachers out of class at least once while working with them to really look at student work (not just in a short debrief meeting).  Their classes would be covered by a supply teacher so that they could have an extended block of time to reflect on student work with each other.  Together, they looked for assets from which they could build, and they talked through any wonderings that they may have.

As a SWST team we decided to take a page from the book of Sandra this year.

As the year got started we committed to mini-collaborative inquiries in every school in which we were working.  The goal was to have more eyes looking at student work and more brains wondering about student work.

Here’s how it looked the first time I ran it this year.


– Everyone brought a piece of student work that they found interesting  (“something that makes you scratch your head”).  I also brought some documentation from all three classrooms in which I was working.

– Each teacher presented his/her students’ work and asked for his/her peers to reflect on it.  We wrote assets and wonderings on sticky notes and stuck them to the work.  This mostly happened in silence because:

 “Brainstorming is more likely to generate different ideas when individuals first brainstorm on their own and generate as many solutions/ideas as they can.  The group activity is then a way to ‘take up’ each individual’s ideas.  What is most important is that there is a systematic way to ensure that every person’s ideas make it to the bigger list.  Remember, the propensity for ‘group think’ and conformity is high, and people will be unlikely to suggest ideas that fall outside outside of what others in the group have already suggested.  That’s why it’s so important for all of the ideas from the individual work to make it into the group space for consideration, because that’s where multiple perspectives – and contradictory evidence – will come from.”

– We took the stickies from all six pieces of work and engaged in some affinity mapping.

– Our categorized sticky notes looked like this:


– From the affinity map we crafted a collaborative inquiry question: “How might we increase engagement through purposeful lessons/assignments that connect students to the world around them and teach them essential life skills?

– Next I shared this video about supply and demand in PD.

– I asked teachers how they’d like to proceed.  They said that they’d like to use some release days together to see if there was a way that they could amp up their teaching using the human resources that they had in-house.


– This day was devoted to modifying a lesson (or series of lessons) in the direction of our CI question.

– Since I thought that our question was a little too broad (not actionable), so we started the day by using a causal model to draw out some specifics.


*resource taken from The Institute of Play’s Systems Thinking Design Pack.  Here’s ours:


– We also looked at ideas that the group has brought in, one TED talk and two education texts.

– We decided on one ONE lesson that we were going to tackle — the history essay.  

– We planned to meet two more times.  One day would be used to create a new essay model (a collaborative piece of writing) that would also work on teaching self-advocacy, organization, personal responsibility. The second day would be used to co-teach the lesson, document the process and debrief.


– This day was spent planning out the lesson that we would be co-teaching.

– Our foci: What life skills are we going to teach/assess/provide students feedback on? How will we know they got it? How will we document it?

– In order to help us through our planning we talked through how we might triangulate our assessments.



– Is happening next week…  I think it will need a blog post of its own.

The process has been amazing.  The things that I would look to repeat are:

  1. The initial affinity mapping.  It made sure all of our work rooted in student work.  
  2. Using causal modelling was very useful.  It  took something HUGE and broke it into manageable bits.  It gave us a starting point.

The big lesson that I learned was:

Make more time for talking.  It’s rare that we get a chance to engage in professional dialogue.  All three teachers that I worked with thanked me for the conversations that we had.

I might need to be more mindful of:

Not trying too hard to define or replicate this collaborative inquiry with others.  It was special because it was responsive.

I’m wondering what collaborative inquiry looks like in your classrooms/schools/boards.  What am I missing?  What can I add?


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