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A Culture of Collaborative Inquiry: Learning to Develop and Support Professional Learning Communities


by Tamara Holmlund Nelson, David Slavit, Mart Perkins & Tom Hathorn — 2008

Background/Context: The type of professional development provided for teachers has been undergoing change from a one-time workshop approach to a more embedded, long-term, reflective, and collaborative structure. Although findings on the impact of new forms of professional development (PD) are beginning to emerge in the literature, there is little research on the professional development of those who design and support these PD efforts.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: To better understand how to support secondary teachers’ engagement in collaborative inquiry, a group of 12 professional development providers deliberately set out to use the same processes and structures in their development and implementation of a PD model. This research examines what this group learned about fostering and sustaining a culture of collaborative inquiry and considers how this can inform PD providers’ support of teachers’ engagement in a collaborative inquiry cycle.

Research Design: A narrative case study design was used to examine the evolution of the professional development group from its inception in March 2004 through December 2005, halfway through the project’s duration. The particular timeframe was targeted to explore the developmental phase of the group and critical decisions that shaped the group structure and direction.

Data Collection and Analysis: Traditional qualitative data sources were collected and analyzed in the construction of the narrative, including interviews with the professional developers, archived documents, and video and audio recordings of meetings.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The PD group’s focus on how to foster and sustain a culture of collaborative inquiry provides insights into the structures and processes that support this kind of collaborative endeavor. Assuming an inquiry stance toward the work was challenged by the ongoing business of implementing a large-scale project and the demands of people’s other work in school districts and universities. Difficulties related to communication between and during meetings also occurred. An explicit reliance on collaborative norms and explicitly using processes such as dialogue structured by protocols, distributing leadership responsibilities, and co-constructing an inquiry focus based on data analysis helped the group develop and maintain an inquiry stance. These findings inform the support of teachers undertaking collaborative inquiry for professional growth.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 6, 2008, p. 1269-1303
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14745, Date Accessed: 9/17/2014 7:31:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Tamara Nelson
    Washington State University Vancouver
    E-mail Author
    TAMARA HOLMLUND NELSON is an assistant professor of science education at Washington State University Vancouver. Her research focuses on the transformation of science teacher knowledge and beliefs, and how teachers translate their new understandings into practice. A related publication is “Knowledge Interactions in Teacher-Scientist Partnerships: Negotiation, Consultation, and Rejection” in the Journal of Teacher Education, 2005.
  • David Slavit
    Washington State University Vancouver
    DAVID SLAVIT is associate professor of mathematics education at Washington State University Vancouver. His research interests focus on preservice and in-service teacher development and student understandings of mathematical content, particularly algebra. Dr. Slavit has also done extensive research on teaching and learning with instructional technology.
  • Mart Perkins
    Southwest Washington Math, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA)
    MART PERKINS has a B.S. in field biology and a master’s degree in social foundations of education. She taught middle school science, math, and language arts prior to serving as a research assistant for the PRiSSM project. She currently works as codirector for Southwest Washington MESA.
  • Tom Hathorn
    Olympic Educational Service District, Bremerton, WA
    TOM HATHORN is the science education director for the Olympic Educational Service District in Bremerton, Washington. He is especially interested in developing the science and mathematics content knowledge needed for teaching these subjects, and he also has a keen interest in leadership development using professional learning communities and the cultivation of collaborative capabilities.
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