The Inquiry Process: Conversations & Protocols

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in our school district’s second Inquiry Workshop of the year entitled Conversations and Protocols.  The first session this year focused on developing a good inquiry question.  Last night’s session focused on how to organize and conduct productive conversations with inquiry teams.  It was an amazing session!

Last year, our school district moved to an inquiry-based model for school improvement.  That meant that rather than focus on one (or more) of our district goals as a whole, schools were asked to develop inquiry questions that focused on specific aspects within the goals that were most needed in their schools.  Our 3 District Goals – Literacy, Numeracy, and School Completion – remained, and we did ask schools to develop a question(s) that fit within one of the three goal areas, however, schools were now able to focus their attention on what really mattered. 

This benefitted our small schools and our large schools for different reasons.  Small schools were now able to concentrate their efforts rather than having everyone doing everything for three goal areas; our large schools were able to develop a connectedness around a common question that typically focused on the School Completion Goal.  This is starting to connect individual departments to a common question and focus, which for High Schools is a huge step forward.  To make a long story short, our schools spent all of last year developing their questions, shifting the paradigm around school improvement, and developing new routines for dialogue.  Samples of our school-based improvement plans can be found at our website: Now before you get too excited, remember, we are only in year 2 and our questions still need some fine tuning, however, we think we are off to a great start.  All of our schools are at various points along their own continuum – that’s okay.  We encourage schools to look inward – to highlight how much they have grown and how much they have learned.

Anyway, this year we are focused on developing leaders who can facilitate inquiry sessions for learning teams and/or schools.  We had a group of 30 teachers/administrators attend the session. 

As you likely know, protocols are ways of organizing and structuring your professional learning conversations.  So often our professional discussions start to go sideways and we begin to talk about irrelevant things.  We’ve had a good time, ate some good food, left happy, but accomplished very little.  Protocols keep groups focused on the purpose of the meeting and begin to build a true culture of collaboration.

Protocols help educators achieve trust and create a culture that is essential for collaborative work on issues of substance. You can’t wait until the culture is “perfect” to engage in protocols; it is through their use that the culture will develop and trust will emerge. The structure and norms, such as warm and cool feedback, of the protocols, combined with actions that are in accordance with the assumptions that undergird protocols, lead to a collaborative culture willing to engage in substantive dialogue. (Lois Brown Easton)

Protocols are very beneficial when you have a group that doesn’t know each other very well OR when you are dealing with a controversial issue.  The facilitator’s role is really to keep the conversations going, ask the right questions, and keep people on task.  A facilitator is not there to give answers or advice.  The inquiry process is about discovery; there wouldn’t be any discovery if the facilitator gave all the right answers.

Anyway, I will likely add more about our inquiry-based school improvement process in future blogs.  I really just wanted you to know that we had a great session last night.  It just confirmed for me that I work in a great school district and with some amazing educators!

2 thoughts on “The Inquiry Process: Conversations & Protocols

  1. Howdy Tom,
    Just read this post and it made me think about something our school has been working on and with called CFG or Critical Friends Group. You’ve probably heard of it, but it all about how to have professional conversations and using a variety of protocols to do so. It’s been a great addition to our staff and how we operate. Cheers.

    • Hi Stacey,
      Thanks for taking the time to read my post. I think critical friends are important in our growth as professionals…as opposed to the ‘devil’s advocate.’ The critical friend is no tout to destroy your ideas but you help you think of all possibilities. Protocols help keep the conversation from getting personal and are essential if those involved don’t know one another very well. Once you have trust and you use protocols, the conversations really take off. Great to hear from you ‘Just.’

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