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Instructional Coaching Strategies: Collaborative Inquiry Cycles

Instructional Coaching Strategies: Collaborative Inquiry Cycles

About midway through the school year, it can be common for teachers to feel a drag in their step. The anticipation they felt in August for the coming school year has turned into the reality of bus duty, lunch duty, in addition to keeping up with paperwork, struggling students, and a host of other daily tasks that can make it difficult to stay motivated to grow. While this might seem like a good time to leave teachers alone and let them tend to their immediate needs, this is actually the most important time to foster a community of collective efficacy around each teacher to help engender a renewed sense of urgency and hope. Collective efficacy doesn’t happen by chance, and coaches can engage in some specific strategies to help foster communities at this crucial time of year.

Instructional coaching strategies should all share one thing in common: evidence. An instructional coach who doesn’t ground their work in some artifact of teaching and learning is like a carpenter with a saw and no wood. While the right tool for the job is important, master craftsmen know that the basis of their work is the raw materials that will be crafted into the final product. If a craftsman starts with the tool and hopes to find the raw materials along the way, she’s much more likely to be destructive than constructive. For any craftsman working in schools, those raw materials are the knowledge and skills of students in the classroom. Similarly, coaches who implement an outstanding coaching strategy with little focus on the ultimate purpose of said strategy can do more harm than good. The worst part of this approach is that, when students are not more engaged and learning has not improved, the strategy itself is often faulted, when in fact it was the missed opportunity to take a hard look at students throughout the process of implementing the coaching strategy.

A Collaborative Inquiry Cycle is one such tool that mandates raw materials before the tool can be applied. Instructional Coaches who wish to engender a sense of collaboration amongst teachers can use Collaborative Inquiry Cycles to gather a small group around student learning artifacts to find ways to systematically move all students toward mastery. This is a great strategy for teachers learning to differentiate instruction and can be a wonderful addition to your professional learning community (PLC) or department team meetings. 

Download this short guide to see the four steps of Collaborative Inquiry Cycles. This guide is one of many strategies, videos, and guides in the Sibme Learning Center New Teacher Induction Course, which can be accessed by any Sibme members from within the Sibme web app. If you don’t have a Sibme account, you can also sign up for a free Sibme Learning Center account to access the course. 


Download the guide


While the download is enough to get you started, here are five essential tips to help your Collaborative Inquiry Cycles thrive:


  1. Don’t leave it to chance: If you have an established collaborative team like a PLC or department team, don’t assume that the people in the room are the right people for this activity. You’ll need to follow tips 2-4 below to make sure that the cycle works. But once you’ve helped a group of teachers come together by following these tips, Collaborative Inquiry Cycles can run autonomously for a few weeks before you’ll need to check in. Be sure to check in, though, to see if the cycle has run its course. After 3-6 weeks, it might be time to re-establish new groups to make sure the process doesn’t get stale.
  2. Start with the artifacts: By now, it should seem obvious that the very first step is to ask teachers to collect student artifacts for this process. Artifacts must have a few key characteristics for the inquiry part of Collective Inquiry Cycles to work:


Artifacts must be:

    • Representative: It’s important to be sure that collected student evidence represents the diversity of a particular teacher’s classroom(s). One such strategy is to ask each teacher to choose a learning objective, find an artifact that all students completed that demonstrates mastery of that learning objective, and then sort all student artifacts into four categories based on the level of mastery. That way, it will be easy to evaluate representative groups to make sure that the inquiry doesn’t just focus on a particular subset of students. Remember, the goal is moving all students towards mastery and growth.
    • Inclusive of Student Voice: Doug Fisher and Frey, authors of the book PLC+, suggest that one of the key elements of evaluating student work is to ensure that students get a chance to voice metacognition in a way that helps teachers understand learning artifacts in a deeper way. In order to accomplish this, make sure teachers don’t limit student learning artifacts to exam results, worksheets, or other demonstrations of mastery. Make sure that representative samples also allow students the opportunity to explain how they arrived at an answer or created the learning artifact. The best way to accomplish this would be to record short videos of students talking about their work, perhaps prompted by teacher questioning. If video is impossible or difficult to accomplish, ask students to write their process down. However, written responses will always be less authentic. Video or audio recordings are the gold standard. 


Watch our interview with Fisher and Frey


    • Mamma-Bear Sized: While it’s good to have all student learning artifacts on hand, it’s a mistake to assume that each individual piece of student learning will be evaluated in a Collaborative Inquiry Cycle. That’s why sorting student learning into representative groups is so important. Selecting one or two samples from each group is more than enough fodder for inquiry. Any more, and the nuances of each student will make it difficult to arrive at any actionable change for a teacher to undertake as a result of the inquiry. Any less, and whole groups of students will not be served by the cycle.
  1. Set an appropriate goal: Tip one is the hardest part. Once student evidence has been collected, sorted, and representative samples have been selected, the next step is to identify 1-2 goals for the teacher that will help accomplish the ultimate goal of moving all students to mastery. This might be finding an assignment that more appropriately scaffolds learning for students or instructional strategies that respond to different student learning styles. Coaches should work with each teacher to find a goal that relates to the selected student evidence. This process will be helpful for the coach to then undertake the fourth tip. 
  2. Build the collective: It is only after teachers have individually curated student evidence and worked with a coach to set goals that teachers should be grouped into Collaborative Inquiry teams. By working with each teacher to set goals, the coach has enough perspective to see trends in teacher goals, strengths, and challenges. Using these trends, a coach can choose to group teachers by ability, goal category, or a number of other factors. The important part is that groups be intentional, and not just based on grade-level, content area, or some other superficial reason. Once the Collective is built, teachers can work together to help each teacher in the group to evaluate evidence, understand goals, and collaboratively plan new strategies to reach goals. This is the point at which teacher-teams can be autonomous to come up with solutions to each teacher’s problem without the intervention of a coach or administrator. One important ground rule to set is that everybody gets a turn, but everybody waits their turn. Make sure that there is sufficient time for each teacher to feel that they get an equitable chance to be the focus of inquiry. Don’t let teachers infringe upon one another’s cycle, and allow for an even distribution of time so that no teacher feels overly-criticized or left out of the process. Teams can be as small as 2, but should be no larger than 4. 
  3. Remember…it’s a cycle: One of the biggest mistakes teams can make is to assume that each teacher’s goal can be accomplished in a single inquiry session. The point of Collaborative Inquiry Cycles is to give teachers a chance to try out new things to accomplish goals, and then evaluate those new things as they relate to each student group. Time constraints are a common excuse for rushing through all professional learning processes, but no one said this process has to happen in person. Using a tool like Sibme allows for a blended experience for teachers to evaluate student evidence, discuss strategies, and look at growth asynchronously, making it easier to work through these cycles gradually over time. But engaging in a Collaborative Inquiry Cycle without asking two crucial questions is a mistake:
    • Did it work?
    • What’s next?


Collaborative Inquiry Cycles are one of many Instructional Coaching Strategies available in the Sibme Learning Center. These cycles are great for difficult times of the year for two reasons: 

  1. Cycles turn a teacher’s attention away from the minutiae of day-to-day work and towards something meaningful about their profession.
  2. Cycles connect teachers in collaborative teams, often with people with whom they don’t normally interact, building a sense of community and interpersonal connection. 


Whether you have some connectional group on your campus already or you’re just getting started, this instructional coaching strategy can be a great way to get teachers talking, and a great opportunity to make sure the conversation is focused on something that will build collective efficacy and student growth. 

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