Teacher Collaborative Inquiry and Democracy in Schools: Possibilities and Challenges

Teacher Collaborative Inquiry and Democracy in Schools: Possibilities and Challenges

Kristy Cooper Stein (Michigan State University, USA) and Taeyeon Kim (Michigan State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1968-3.ch012
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This chapter presents possibilities and challenges of teacher collaborative inquiry from the perspective of democratic leadership. Under the pressure of complexity in today's education, building democratic communities is an important strategy for helping leaders and teachers solve problems and create change. Given this, teacher collaborative inquiry can be a useful intervention for democratic school improvement. By examining this premise theoretically with the concept of Woods' (2005) democratic leadership, the authors explore possibilities for how teacher collaborative inquiry could foster democracy. To link the theories to reality, the authors present two case studies of teacher collaborative inquiry groups in one high school, which reveal challenges that school leaders will need to consider when enacting inquiry for democratic purposes. The chapter closes with practical recommendations for diverse leaders seeking guidance for creating democracy in the pursuit of organizational change.
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As complexity grows in today’s society, leaders face challenges in addressing problems and making successful changes that will improve organizations. In education, one way for contemporary leaders to solve problems and create change is to build democratic communities. Woods (2005) characterizes democracy as “being about liberty, belonging, growth towards our true potential as human beings, and a unity that suffuses diversity and difference” (p. xv). Although he recognizes challenges for leaders aspiring to create democratic experiences for stakeholders, Woods argues that leadership aiming to meet these goals is the ideal practice for educational leaders. As such, he calls for more school leaders to aspire to these ideals of liberty, belonging, growth, and unity. In schools, one intervention for change that has the potential to meet these democratic ideals is teacher collaborative inquiry.

Teacher collaborative inquiry is a type of teacher collaboration in which teachers engage in inquiry to solve existing problems. As an intervention for instructional change and a practice for sustained professional learning, teacher collaborative inquiry typically entails teachers working in small groups to ask and answer questions about instruction by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting evidence from their own classroom practice (Crockett, 2002; Nelson, Slavit, & Deuel, 2012). Rooted in Dewey’s early notions of inquiry into one’s practice as foundational for professional learning, collaborative inquiry gathers teachers together to foster such analytic thinking through discussion (Crockett, 2002; Dewey, 1916; Johnston, 2006). Scholars and practitioners alike have lauded collaborative learning more generally among teachers as an effective form of job-embedded professional learning (Darling-Hammond, Wei, & Andree, 2010; Wei, et al., 2009; Zepeda, 2014). Indeed, research has linked teacher collaboration to enhanced instruction (Erickson, Brandes, Mitchell, & Mitchell, 2005) and student achievement gains in math and reading (Ronfeldt, Farmer, McQueen, & Grissom, 2015). As Panero and Talbert (2013) explain, the theory of change for collaborative inquiry as a particular form of collaboration is that it provides participating teachers with collective capacities – e.g., insights, strategies, and habits of mind – to study their own and one another’s practice, such that the team “comes to see and then be able to remove obstacles to students’ success” (p. 13).

Given the nature of teacher inquiry – with its inherent offerings of freedom for teachers to choose and guide the focal area of their inquiry while working within groups of colleagues that could engender belonging, growth, and inclusion of diverse voices – we might surmise that collaborative inquiry has the potential to be highly democratic. Yet, experienced educators are likely to recognize that schools are complex organizations rife with tensions over performance, accountability, seniority, and internal and external politics – tensions that can inhibit the productivity of collaborative efforts. Simply placing teachers into collaborative groups and providing time and resources for collegial inquiry are unlikely to lead to experiences of democracy. Rather, educational leaders will need to recognize the potential possibilities and challenges of collaborative inquiry and take active steps to create organizational conditions that increasingly allow for democratic ideals to flourish as teachers work together.

Given all of this, this chapter explores teacher collaborative inquiry as a tool for creating more democratic school environments for teachers. The objective of this chapter is to examine this premise both theoretically by linking Woods’ (2005) conceptualization of democratic leadership to facets of teacher collaborative inquiry and empirically by presenting case studies of two teacher inquiry groups working to enhance their teaching.

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