I had the opportunity to interview Jenni Donohoo regarding her work surrounding collaborative inquiry. Jenni has authored publications on both collaborative inquiry and collective efficacy, and has more than 15 years experience leading school change. She has previously presented at our annual TLC conference, and is a great friend and colleague.

How did you come to write about collaborative inquiry?

I came to write about it because I recognized that collaborative inquiry really isn’t a new concept. Helen Timperley and other educational thought leaders have been promoting it as a high-quality professional learning design for a number of years, but in my work of supporting professional learning communities, I saw a need to articulate the process for facilitators so that it would live up to its potential, which is about changing practice to improve student learning.

Tell me about your publications on collaborative inquiry

My first publication was a facilitator’s guide (Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator′s Guide to School Improvement; Corwin, 2013) based on my experiences in facilitating groups, including some of the pitfalls that come with collaboration and the potential of the process.  More recently, I have seen a need to write for a broader audience and try to drill down to some of the factors that help support this kind of work at a systemic level. So that brought about a second book with a partner of mine, Moses Velasco. He was a professional learning facilitator at the time in the Toronto District School Board and now is a student achievement officer with the Ministry of Education. We wrote about how to think about all of the enabling conditions that help collaborative inquiry come to fruition.

What are some of the core ideas in your approach to collaborative inquiry?

The biggest core idea is around empowering teachers – the need to think about honoring and recognizing teachers’ expertise and experience and bringing teachers together to collaborate. Further, collaboration should be focused on instructional improvement; not just about coming together but about engaging in a cycle to deepen understanding. That is, helping teachers develop knowledge and assist each other in overcoming some of the challenges that they face in schools and classrooms.

Another key idea in the cycle of collaborative inquiry is thinking about the assessment piece; that is, assessing the impact that we’re having on student outcomes. Core ideas in that regard include building capacity to use a variety of assessment data and engaging teams in deep reflection, considering the impact of other strategies and approaches on all of the students in their care.

Was John Hattie a big influence on you, or did that just happen coincidentally?

Actually, Hattie’s work influenced my third book, Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning. I’ve been fortunate to be in his audience and have conversations with him. I am also a certified trainer in the Visible Learning work. When I heard in his latest research update that collective efficacy is the biggest factor in influencing student achievement, I started to look for more material on it and realized that there wasn’t a lot out there. Again, thinking that there was that need in the field to help people gain deeper understandings, I combed through a lot of the dense research to make it more acceptable and practical to educators. Yes, so definitely John Hattie’s work has had a big influence on me and my work. We co-authored an article together that is going to be published in next month’s Educational Leadership.

I never thought of myself as a writer until I sat down. My writing does take a long time. I think we’ve talked about this. I love the process though. And for me it’s a really rich form of my own professional learning. To be able to articulate something and explain it to the depths that you need to for an audience, I find very rewarding.

What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on collaborative inquiry?

One of the things is the importance of a focus on facilitation. Not only how a facilitator can support a team but also what support facilitators need to provide to each other as they work to improve support of adult learners with regard to school improvement.

Do you want to say anything about how your work is relevant for coaches?

I think it is very relevant. For example, when I think of a cycle of inquiry, I think of your impact cycle. There are a lot of different models out there, but they basically follow a very similar process, where engaging people and identifying a student learning need and the role of the teams or the coach or the facilitator is to get people to identify a high-leverage, promising, instructional approach to address that need. From there, we support people in trying it in their practice and then sit back and reflect to see what impact it has on students.

So, I think that there are a lot of similarities between the role of the facilitator and the role of the coach in supporting adult learners. For example, your partnership principles help to inform the work of the facilitator, too. One difference might be that the facilitator is working with a larger team, whereas with coaching it’s sometimes more one-on-one. However, more and more coaches are working with teams.

What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?

Some of my key learnings are around the need to understand some misconceptions. One of the big misconceptions that I’ve heard about is that facilitators need to be formal leaders. In trying to help clear up that misconception, I think we need to find ways to help people who are designated leaders understand that it’s about empowering teachers and to help teachers see themselves as leaders and agents of change. Even though teachers don’t have a designated title, they can be authentic decision makers and true partners to those who hold formal titles in issues around school improvement.

Another big learning for me in the last few years is recognizing the need to help others become critical consumers of research. When I think back to John Hattie and some of the updates to his body of evidence and then hear claims and see claims on the Internet that everything under the sun basically is going to improve collective efficacy in schools, I believe it is important to gain a better understanding of the research before jumping into action. Everybody has the best intentions, and as teachers and as educators we jump to action, but I think it’s important to take a step back and gain a really good understanding of the research.

What is a good metaphor for what coaches do?

I’ve given this question some thought. I couldn’t think of any good metaphors, but I chose the word responsive. The need to be responsive – in the sense that we are able to read situations accurately, respond sensitively to participants’ aspirations and apprehensions, that we are able to respond flexibly in our approaches as coaches and facilitators, and that we can respond supportively to ensure strategies are tried and tested in classrooms.