Collaboration as a Vehicle for Critical Inquiry & Engagement in Literacies (Part 1 of 4)

Picture this:  You are attending one of your school or district’s professional development (PD) days (likely virtual at some point this past year with the COVID-19 pandemic). A guest speaker has joined you, just for the day, to talk to you about a topic unrelated to your everyday teaching and learning. You look around the room (or Zoom) and see some colleagues captivated by every word, clamoring for needed inspiration and encouragement. You see other colleagues grading papers or lesson planning. Engagement is mixed, but one thing is certain:  it is overwhelmingly a passive, receptive experience. Does this sound familiar? I know I remember these moments from my days in the classroom!

As an educator, you likely engage in some form of professional learning and development each year. A recent report from the Institute of Educational Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education found that 83% of district-used Title II-A funds for professional development activities for teachers supported “short-term training or conferences” (often one-off guest speakers) while only 46% of funds were utilized for “collaborative or job-embedded” activities” (p. 7). But if these short-term, one-off professional learning experiences lead to mixed engagement and impact, what is a better alternative? What does it mean to pursue a collaborative or job-embedded activity, especially for educators in literacies?

Over the next few weeks, I will share stories and examples from the field, of educators who are actively engaged in and leading collaborative work that looks much different from the typical PD day. The running question that will be the common thread across these posts is:  How does collaboration promote critical inquiry and engagement in literacies for educators and students? But before jumping in to these features, I want to begin with some theory and research on collaboration to serve as a foundation. 

As opposed to a one-off or top-down professional learning experience, collaborative designs, such as professional learning networks (PLNs) “show potential to build expertise within educators because they [the educators!] hold responsibility for advancing their own knowledge and practice” (Schnellert, 2020, p. 2). In this conceptualization, educators are not in the passenger seat of a vehicle out of their control, they are actively driving the work. But in this vehicle, they are driving with their colleagues, as well as their students, all aimed toward a common destination.

“PLNs engage teachers and school leaders as collaborative inquirers into their practice, and authors and agents of situated innovations (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Pennington, 2007; Schnellert, Kozak, & Moore, 2015). Emerging research suggests that teachers engaged in collaborative inquiry are more likely to sustain attention to goals, try new ideas, and persist in efforts at innovation (Luna et al., 2004; Morrell, 2004; Schnellert, Fisher, & Sanford, 2018; Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014).” (Schnellert, 2020, p. 3). In this framing, educators in literacies are able to tackle hard and important problems of practice. The act of collaborating together on issues that are relevant, job-embedded, and useful means that educators want to be driving this work. There is a collective understanding that the collaboration will ultimately benefit them as educational professionals and, most importantly, their students.

So what are defining characteristics of a meaningful, impactful PLN or other collaborative design? “Collaborative professionalism” provides a useful, accessible conceptual framework (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018) highlighting that ongoing educational collaboration should be “teacher-driven, student-involved, and evidence informed […] Collaborative professionalism depicts a network of professionals whose dialogue is deeper and more rigorous, involves constructive feedback, and is guided by continuous collaborative inquiry” (Washington & O’Connor, 2020, p. 24). Educators use inquiry frameworks and protocols to serve and support them and their students. They engage in community-based initiatives and project-based learning to connect students’ learning to the world around them. Educators are willing to share about their teaching and learning, and students are excited to make their learning visible, too.

When thinking about what these models look like in practice, it often makes sense why they are meaningful and impactful. If you are actively involved in your own professional learning, if you and your colleagues get to ask the questions, center students, and ensure that your inquiry is deeply connected to your everyday teaching and learning, you are more likely to be invested in the experience and to learn and grow as an educator. This understanding is critical for us as literacies educators as we consider issues of equity in the classroom related to culturally responsive and sustaining education, effective writing instruction, and how to center the identities, experiences, and ways of knowing for all of our students and their respective families and communities. 

I’m looking forward to sharing some amazing examples of this work with you in the coming weeks. I would also love to hear how you are engaging in collaborative professional learning activities as educators in literacies. Stay tuned!

Happy collaborating (and reading, too, of course!),


(Twitter: @mtpoc)


Note: The photos above are from the Collaborative Professionalism research study, taken by Michael T. O’Connor, Ph.D., with appropriate permissions.

Further reading on Collaborative Professionalism


  • Schnellert, L. (2020). Professional learning networks:  Facilitating transformation in diverse contexts with equity-seeking communities. United Kingdom:  Emerald Publishing Limited.
  • Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance:  Practitioner research in the next generation. New York, NY:  Teachers College Press.
  • Hargreaves, A., & O’Connor, M. T. (2018). Collaborative professionalism:  When teaching together means learning for all. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.
  • Luna, C., Botelho, J., Fontaine, D., French, K., Iverson, K., & Matos, N. (2004). Making the road by walking and talking:  Critical literacy and/as professional development in a teacher inquiry group. Teacher Education Quarterly, 32(1), 67-80.
  • Morrell, E. (2004). Legitimate peripheral participation as professional development:  Lessons from a summer research seminar. Teacher Education Quarterly, 32(1), 89-99.
  • Pennington, J. L. (2007). Reviewing NCTB through the figured worlds of policy and teaching:  Creating a space for teacher agency and improvisation. Language Arts, 84(5), 465-474.
  • Schnellert, L., Fisher, P., & Sanford, K. (2018). Developing communities of pedagogical inquiry in British Columbia. In C. Poortman & C. Brown (Eds.), Developing professional capital in professional learning networks (pp. 56-74). Abingdon:  Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Schnellert, L., Kozak, D., & Moore, S. (2015). Professional development that positions teachers as inquirers and possibilizers. LEARNing Landscapes, 9(1), 217-236. 
  • Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A Framework for transforming learning in schools:  Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Seminar Series 234. Melbourne:  Centre for Strategic Education.
  • Washington, S. A., & O’Connor, M. T. (2020). Collaborative professionalism across cultures and contexts:  Cases of professional learning networks enhancing teaching and learning in Canada and Colombia. In L. Schnellert (Ed.), Professional learning networks:  Facilitating transformation in diverse contexts with equity-seeking communities (pp. 17-47). United Kingdom:  Emerald Publishing Limited.