Tuesday / April 23

Reimagining Schools for Better Student Learning

Consider this four-part collaborative inquiry process to guide our new normal.

We have seen a significant strain on the education system. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced a wide-range of student needs requiring social-emotional supports, innovative approaches for student engagement and more impactful strategies to accelerate student learning. While this is a challenge, it can also be considered a once in a lifetime opportunity for transforming climate, building capacity and creating coherence to achieve equitable growth in student learning.

Consequently, we have witnessed much variability in how teachers and leaders are attending to this critical work. Schools demonstrating success in light of the challenges have employed robust collaborative inquiry processes to create clarity of focus, cultivate shared leadership, develop collective expertise, and engage in continuous improvement.

Collaborative Inquiry

The research points to collective teacher efficacy as the second highest effect size (1.39) strategy for improving student outcomes (Hattie, 2018). When this improvement strategy is closely examined, four key drivers are found to be at the core; clarity of focus, shared leadership, collective expertise and continuous improvement. And the unifying factor that conjoins these four key drivers is collaborative inquiry.

Collaborative inquiry provides the structure for educators to lead and learn together productively and focuses efforts on the causes of student success and failure (Donohoo et al., 2016). The power of collaborative inquiry is that it “shapes a common mindset” promoting improvement of practices and growth in student learning and, at the same time, provides a “structured process for co-leading improvement efforts”.

Clarity of Focus

The greatest challenge with creating clarity of focus is that it requires a collaborative inquiry process that engages school staff in collectively defining the most critical work at hand. As noted by Michael Fullan, focusing direction is a key driver for coherence making as it creates a shared depth of understanding about the nature of the work and how it impacts the results desired for student achievement (Fullan & Kirtman, 2019). Schools that engage in collaborative inquiry informed by the following key questions will be more successful with shaping a common vision and structured process for co-leading improvement efforts.

  1. How can a moral imperative for improving student learning be shaped as staff analyze data, share personal experiences, and establish agreed upon values that define the most critical work for the school?
  2. How can staff input be used to shape agreed upon processes for collaborative decision-making on school-wide priorities and action steps?
  3. How can staff engage in authentic conversations about the ability of individuals and teams to successfully implement school improvement efforts?
  4. How can staff come to recognize that creating shared meaning and depth of understanding for the work is an on-going process?

Shared Leadership

The purpose of shared leadership is to grow the capacity of a group to co-lead their improvement efforts. Two underlying factors impact the extent to which shared leadership is cultivated. First is a mutual understanding of leadership as a ‘process’ that can be taught, shared, distributed, and collaboratively enacted. And the other is collectively recognizing leadership as ‘contextual’ in specific knowledge, skills and abilities.

Many lessons have been gleaned from the work of schools and districts that have been successful with cultivating shared leadership. The key takeaway is to develop lead learners that support others in navigating the complexities of changing practices. This is achieved by modeling specific beliefs and behaviors to support others in co-learning and co-leading for the purpose of achieving agreed upon outcomes. If you want to accelerate change, then develop more lead learners, as this is the ultimate purpose of cultivating shared leadership.

Collective Expertise

The key ingredient for developing collective expertise is having a shared purpose that drives and sustains equitable growth in student learning. When district and school leaders serve as role models for developing collective expertise, the improvement of practice is 5.3 times more likely to be successful (Bachmann et al., 2021). This on-going process is aimed at improving the instructional core; maintaining high levels of student engagement in the learning of rigorous and complex learning tasks supported by teachers with pedagogical expertise (City et al., 2009). . Five key elements guide the process of developing collective expertise.

  1. A strategic school focus guides the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.
  2. Agreed upon outcomes drive the equitable growth in student learning.
  3. Clearly defined student learning priorities inform the design of rigorous and complex student learning tasks.
  4. Multiple sources of evidence monitor the impact of teaching on student learning growth.
  5. A robust collaborative inquiry process guides recurring teaching and learning cycles.

Continuous Improvement

The concept of continuous improvement has always been a central focus in education whether framed as outcome-based, process-oriented or culturally-driven. Focusing on student equity would be an outcome-based model, engaging in collaborative inquiry cycles would be a process-oriented approach, and establishing a common vision, shared purpose and agreed upon structures would be a culturally-driven strategy. All three paths of improvement lead to the framing of ‘problems of practice’ to clearly define which leadership and teaching practices will have the greatest impact on student growth. Five key questions can serve as a guide for engaging in such evidenced-based inquiry cycles.

  1. What problems of practice are observed among students as they engage in rigorous and complex learning tasks?
  2. What problems of practice do teacher teams experience when engaging students in instruction designed to develop cognitive skills for applying content knowledge?
  3. What problems of practice do school leadership teams encounter when facilitating job-embedded professional learning of teacher teams?
  4. What problems of practice do principals recognize as constraints for leading the improvement of school culture and practices?
  5. What problems of practice do district staff encounter when supporting principals and teachers in their collaborative work of school improvement?

As schools come to embrace the fundamental shifts taking shape within this next normal in education, the hope is that there will be a collective desire to reimagine schools for better student learning. 


Bachmann, H., Skerritt, D. & McNally, E. (2021). How capability building can power transformation, Retrieved from

City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Donohoo, J. & Velasco, M. (2016). The transformative power of collaborative inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fullan, M. & Kirtman, L. (2019). Coherent school leadership: forging clarity from complexity. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hattie, J. (2018). Collective teacher efficacy (CTE) according to John Hattie,. Retrieved from,

Written by

Jay Westover, co-founder and chief learning officer of InnovateEd, has provided leadership training and school improvement consulting in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, state departments of education, colleges, educational service centers, and school districts across North America. Jay can be reached at


Chris Steinhauser served as superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District from 2002 to 2020; the fourth largest school district in California. Chris has earned a national reputation for improving student achievement and closing achievement and opportunity gaps. Chris can be reached at

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