We’ve written here multiple times about collaborative inquiry and how it is the most essential ingredient in using data to achieve real results. The two foundational books that came from the Using Data Project at TERC, Using Data Getting Results* and The Data Coach’s Guide, created a great number of pages, templates and tools describing step-by-step processes to guide instructional coaches, administrators, grade level team leaders and others. The guidance focused on how to begin developing the trust, confidence and skill of practitioners that can bring about collaborative inquiry in the service of learning to use data to guide instructional changes.

Our work began In the late 90’s just as data began it’s ascendency as flash points for improving educational outcomes. The underlying research was initially sparked by requests from schools, districts, and state department of education leaders, who themselves were overwhelmed and seeking help to understand how best to use data in schools. The growing demand for technical assistance led, Nancy Love, then at TERC, to wide-ranging research of a nascent body of literature and a very short list of other educators working in the field – Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman, Ruth Johnson, Mike Schmoker, Victoria Bernhardt. But in fact, much of what was developed and disseminated through professional development came from schools themselves, where teams of early explorers worked with the Using Data Project team in partnership with WestEd,  to shape the ideas and build the tools.

One result, nearly twenty years later, is that you can’t pick up a book from the educators’ book list without encountering the essential ingredient for any change process to take hold which is collaborative inquiry. And it matters little what the main topic of the book is, to get the work done, it starts with teachers shifting their culture from one based on being individually “highly qualified”, to being part of a collaborative team where inquiry uses multiple perspectives and sets of skills to craft more rigorous lessons, differentiate instruction to assist all children to grow from their own starting point, use multiple forms of formative and summative assessments and other data to measure growth, provide timely feedback to students, and identify new areas of content and pedagogy needing professional development or coaching and peer feedback.

We know better than ever how powerful collaborative inquiry is in the hands of classroom teachers. We have hands-on professional development, online courses and tools, videos from the Teachers’ Channel and YouTube to assist schools in shifting their culture toward one of collaborative inquiry. We have rubrics to help us gauge our progress to achieving the goal and showing us what the end goal will look like. What we don’t have, perhaps, is a clear idea about what it looks like when schools don’t make this journey.

Based on our work over the past twenty years, we recognize what practice without collaborative inquiry looks like, and what it sounds like in schools with no culture of collaborative inquiry at the heart of how teachers go about the business of teaching our children.

Without collaborative inquiry, some if not all of the following attributes are in clear evidence. Same old, same old…

  • There is no weekly schedule that devotes common planning time to teacher teams who need to bring their student work or other assessment results to the table for investigation.
  • Administrators rarely sit in on team meetings to learn and to support teachers’ work.
  • Grade level and subject level team conversations sound like past years’ “teachers’ room talk” where students or their parents are routinely blamed for students’ poor behavior or performance.
  • Cursory examination of end-of-year or interim assessment results is focused on what’s wrong with the wording of the items.
  • From grade to grade, subject to subject, there is no common vocabulary related to assessments, content or pedagogy.
  • Interventions and specialists’ work with students is not aligned or in step with classroom instruction – no coordination of scaffolding to support students’ needs.
  • Students have no idea where their own learning is in relation to the learning standards. Grades are just marks on their work.
  • Instruction is focused on helping students learn “basic skills”, develop fact fluency, use “key words” to determine what algorithm to use.
  • Rigorous instruction is restricted to high achieving students until the rest master the previous bullet items.
  • Team talk rarely if ever digs into the concepts embodied in learning standards, to explore their own content knowledge or the pedagogy that could support different learners.
  • Instructional coaches or assistant principals meet individually with teachers to tell them about the data they are seeing and to suggest needed changes.
  • There is no coherence of content vertically (or horizontally) and little knowledge of what instruction in previous grades looked like relative to current instruction.
  • There is little evidence that current research about best practices or case studies are brought to the table to provide new insights.
  • Administrators select professional development for staff based on what other schools are doing near by.
  • There is no routine monitoring to determine the level of impact of newly implemented “fixes”.
  • No time is devoted to enabling teachers to regularly reflect both as individuals and collectively about their practice, about what excellent instruction would look like to help their students learn this, what would it take, how far are we from that.

We have spent years and years in schools recognizing the attributes above at the outset of the work, and we’ve experienced the satisfaction and real joy that comes when we see these characteristics disappear as teachers themselves begin to surface the important questions and go after the data to help them find the answers.

Collaborative Inquiry is happening! Read about the experience in Metro-Nashville Public Schools working with REL Appalachia to support teachers building their craft together through Collaborative Inquiry.


Johnson, M. (2018). Empowering educators to make data-informed decisions: A district’s journey of effective data use.   In E. G. Mense & M. Crain-Dorough (Eds.), Data leadership for K-12 schools in a time of accountability, 158-183. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, Inc. MNPS Collaborative Inquiry Toolkit website at www.mnpscollaboration.org/about.html


*Using Data Getting Results was published by Christopher Gordon Publishers which no longer exists and the book is no longer in print.

*The Data Coach’s Guide is still published and available at Corwin Press a Sage Publishing Co.