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Use of Teacher Inquiry in PLCs — November 2018


Could you provide research on models of teacher inquiry and their use in professional learning communities?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on models of teacher inquiry and their use in professional learning communities. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Burke, A., & Collier, D. R. (2017). “I was kind of teaching myself”: Teachers’ conversations about social justice and teaching for change. Teacher Development, 21(2), 269–287. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article shares teachers’ conversations within teacher inquiry groups and considers how this reflective approach has potential for transforming teachers’ practices. Conversations took place at the early stages of a longer teacher inquiry project and centered on the critical interrogation of social justice-oriented children’s literature. These conversations served as a forum to help teacher professional learning communities and to reconcile understandings about social justice, action and agency within larger political and cultural forums of teaching. The teacher inquiry sessions shared in this paper explore teachers’ beginning struggles with conceptualizations of social justice, and the teacher’s role in imparting values to students. Teacher participants imparted their experience and practice as they negotiated their own understanding and implementation of social justice education in their schools. The teacher inquiry groups provided a needed supportive space where classroom teachers’ struggles were shared alongside their beliefs and pedagogical approaches so that a social justice agenda could be achieved.”

Carroll, T., Fulton, K., & Doerr, H. (2010). Team up for 21st century teaching and learning: What research and practice reveal about professional learning (Condensed excerpts). Washington, DC: National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This document contains excerpts from Team Up for 21st Century Teaching & Learning. This document includes the excerpts of five articles that provide a substantial evidence-based argument for the power of collaborative communities to improve teaching and learning. These articles are: (1) Professional Communities and the Artisan Model of Teaching; (2) Professional Learning Communities: A Review of the Literature; (3) A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation of Teacher Collaboration for School Improvement and Student Achievement in Public Elementary Schools; (4) Moving the Learning of Teaching Closer to Practice: Teacher Education Implications of School-Based Inquiry Teams; and (5) Tracing the Effects of Teacher Inquiry on Classroom Practice. Case studies written by skilled practitioners who are working today in PLCs in schools around the country are also presented. The teachers in each of these schools have redefined their roles as they have become members of a professional community composed of accomplished teachers, novice and student teachers, and teacher coaches. Each case study tells the story of the process of developing learning teams, overcoming obstacles, and ultimately changing teaching to improve learning and student achievement through collaborative work. Individual excerpts contain resources.”

Farley-Ripple, E., & Buttram, J. L. (2014). Developing collaborative data use through professional learning communities: Early lessons from Delaware. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 42, 41–53. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In 2010–2011 the Delaware Department of Education (DE DOE) mandated that all grade or subject area teachers have 90 minutes weekly to engage in professional learning communities (PLCs) in which collaborative data use was the central activity. The purpose of this research is to learn from the early implementation experiences of four elementary schools in two districts, with particular attention to whether and how schools’ implementation fostered collaborative use of data. Findings suggest the mandate resulted in the establishment of scheduled collaborative time and teachers’ collaborative use of data in all schools. However, the nature of collaborative work and the ways in which data were employed varied in ways that relate to key school and district differences.”

Goddard, Y., Goddard, R., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 877–896. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “A review of the literature demonstrates that schools are frequently called upon to improve by developing high levels of teacher collaboration. At the same time, there is a paucity of research investigating the extent to which teachers’ collaborative school improvement practices are related to student achievement. The purpose of this study was to review the literature and empirically test the relationship between a theoretically driven measure of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement. The data for this study were drawn from students and teachers in a large urban school district located in the midwestern United States. The population for this study came from the elementary schools in one large midwestern school district. Survey data were drawn from a sample of 47 elementary schools with 452 teachers and 2,536 fourth-grade students. Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) was the primary analytic method. Survey data were collected approximately 2 months before students took the mandatory state assessments, which provided the scale scores that served as dependent variables in this research. HLM accounted for the nested nature of the data (students nested in schools). This was a naturalistic study that employed secondary data analysis. There was no intervention, treatment, or randomization. Naturally occurring differences in teachers’ levels of collaboration were measured, and statistical controls for school social context were employed. At the student level, the study employed controls for children’s social and academic backgrounds. Data were obtained from teachers and students in the sampled schools. Teacher data were obtained via a survey assessing teacher collaboration. Student data were obtained from the central administrative office of the school district for all students who attended sampled schools during the year in which we surveyed teachers. Results of HLM analyses indicate that fourth-grade students have higher achievement in mathematics and reading when they attend schools characterized by higher levels of teacher collaboration for school improvement. The authors suggest that the results provide preliminary support for efforts to improve student achievement by providing teachers with opportunities to collaborate on issues related to curriculum, instruction, and professional development. The authors also discuss the need for more research on the effects of different types of collaborative practices using more representative samples.”

Heller, J. I., Daehler, K. R., Wong, N., Shinohara, M., & Miratrix, L. W. (2012). Differential effects of three professional development models on teacher knowledge and student achievement in elementary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(3), 333–362. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “To identify links among professional development, teacher knowledge, practice, and student achievement, researchers have called for study designs that allow causal inferences and that examine relationships among features of interventions and multiple outcomes. In a randomized experiment implemented in six states with over 270 elementary teachers and 7,000 students, this project compared three related but systematically varied teacher interventions—‘Teaching Cases, Looking at Student Work, and Metacognitive Analysis’—along with no-treatment controls. The three courses contained identical science content components but differed in the ways they incorporated analysis of learner thinking and of teaching, making it possible to measure effects of these features on teacher and student outcomes. Interventions were delivered by staff developers trained to lead the teacher courses in their regions. Each course improved teachers’ and students’ scores on selected-response science tests well beyond those of controls, and effects were maintained a year later. Student achievement also improved significantly for English language learners in both the study year and follow-up, and treatment effects did not differ based on sex or race/ethnicity. However, only Teaching Cases and Looking at Student Work courses improved the accuracy and completeness of students’ written justifications of test answers in the follow-up, and only Teaching Cases had sustained effects on teachers’ written justifications. Thus, the content component in common across the three courses had powerful effects on teachers’ and students’ ability to choose correct test answers, but their ability to explain why answers were correct only improved when the professional development incorporated analysis of student conceptual understandings and implications for instruction; metacognitive analysis of teachers’ own learning did not improve student justifications either year. Findings suggest investing in professional development that integrates content learning with analysis of student learning and teaching rather than advanced content or teacher metacognition alone.”

Little, J. W. (2012). Understanding data use practice among teachers: The contribution of micro-process studies. American Journal of Education, 118(2), 143–166. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Despite the growing volume of research on data use systems or data use activities in which teachers engage, micro-process studies—investigations of what teachers and others actually do under the broad banner of ‘data use’ or ‘evidence-based decision making’—remain substantially underdeveloped. Starting with a review of the extant research on teachers’ data use practice in workplace and professional development contexts, this article argues for a more conceptually robust, methodologically sophisticated, and extensive program of micro-process research on data use that also anticipates the ways in which local practice both instantiates and constructs institutional and organizational structures, processes, and logics.”

Marsh, J. A., Bertrand, M., & Huguet, A. (2015). Using data to alter instructional practice: The mediating role of coaches and professional learning communities. Teachers College Record, 117(4), 1–40. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Despite increased access to student learning data, scholars have demonstrated that teachers do not always know how to use these data in ways that lead to deep changes in instruction and often lack skills and knowledge to interpret results and develop solutions. In response, administrators have invested in instructional coaches, data coaches, and professional learning communities (PLCs) to support teachers in this process. Despite their popularity, there is limited research on the ways in which coaches and PLCs mediate teachers’ use of data and the various types of expertise brought to bear on this process. This exploratory study examined how working with a coach or PLC shaped teachers’ responses to data in six middle schools and the factors that influenced the activities and effects of coaches and PLCs. Our intent was to deeply examine processes and identify key constructs and relationships to guide future research and practice. Our research involved a year-long comparative case study of six low-performing middle schools in four districts that supported teacher data use via literacy coaches, data coaches, or PLCs. We draw on cultural historical activity theory and data from 92 interviews, 6 focus groups, 20 observations of meetings, and monthly surveys of case study teachers (15), coaches (4), and PLC lead teachers (2). We found that coaches and PLCs played important roles in mediating teachers’ responses to data and were often associated with instances in which teachers used data to alter their instructional delivery (as opposed to surface-level changes in materials and topics). Further, the dynamic relationship between vertical expertise (an individual’s knowledge and skills) and horizontal expertise (knowledge that is co-created through interactions and movement across contexts) may help explain the ways in which PLCs and coaches facilitated deeper level changes in pedagogy. Finally, dialogue was a central mediating practice, and school leadership and the district-level context shaped the possibility for change. Our research adds conceptual clarity to what types of expertise may be needed to ensure that teachers respond productively to data. The study suggests that administrators should consider multiple facets of expertise when designing interventions, recruiting coaches, assembling PLCs, and developing professional development for coaches and teacher leaders. The centrality of dialogue also suggests the need for policies and structures allowing for uninterrupted time for educators to collectively reflect on data.”

Nelson, T. H., Deuel, A., Slavit, D., & Kennedy, A. (2010). Leading deep conversations in collaborative inquiry groups. Clearing House, 83(5), 175–179. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Collaborative inquiry groups, such as professional learning communities and lesson study groups, are proliferating in schools across the United States. In whatever form, the potential for impacting student learning through this collaborative work is expanded or limited by the nature of teachers’ conversations. Polite, congenial conversations remain superficially focused on sharing stories of practice, whereas collegial dialogue probes more deeply into teaching and learning. Examples of talk taken from collaborative teacher inquiry groups are used to illustrate these important differences. Specific recommendations are provided, including the role that teacher leaders can play in adopting and modeling specific strategies that support the use of more substantive professional conversation.”

Richmond, G., & Manokore, V. (2011). Identifying elements critical for functional and sustainable professional learning communities. Science Education, 95(3), 543–570. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In this paper, we examined data collected as part of a 5-year project designed to foster reform-based urban science teaching through teachers’ communities of inquiry. Drawing upon a distributed leadership framework, we analyzed teacher ‘talk’ during professional learning community (PLC) meetings. This analysis yielded five elements: teacher learning and collaboration, community formation, confidence in knowledge of content and guided inquiry, concerns about the impact of accountability measures on teaching and learning, and sustainability of reform. Follow-up interviews with participants reinforced the importance of these elements. While accountability measures were found to have a significant impact on science teaching, participants were also able to use their PLC-based experiences to develop strategies to deal with such external constraints. Facilitation and leadership also play key roles in establishing and maintaining PLCs in this urban setting. Finally, we present a revised framework that incorporates the elements we identified to describe those local and systemic factors critical for successful implementation and influence of professional development efforts.”

Stoll, L., Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Wallace, M., & Thomas, S. (2006). Professional learning communities: A review of the literature. Journal of Educational Change, 7(4), 221–258. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “International evidence suggests that progress in education depends on teachers’ individual and collective capacity and its link with the school’s capacity for promoting learning. Building capacity is therefore critical. Capacity is a complex blend of motivation, skill, positive learning, organizational conditions and culture, and infrastructure of support. Put together, it gives individuals, groups, whole school communities, and school systems the power to get involved in and sustain learning over time. Developing professional learning communities seems to hold great promise for capacity building for sustainable improvement.”

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 24(1), 80–91. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “After an overview of the characteristics of professional learning communities (PLCs), this manuscript presents a review of 10 American studies and one English study on the impact of PLCs on teaching practices and student learning. Although, few studies move beyond self-reports of positive impact, a small number of empirical studies explore the impact on teaching practice and student learning. The collective results of these studies suggest that well-developed PLCs have positive impact on both teaching practice and student achievement. Implications of this research and suggestions for next steps in the efforts to document the impact of PLCs on teaching and learning are included.”

Watson, C. (2014). Effective professional learning communities? The possibilities for teachers as agents of change in schools. British Educational Research Journal, 40(1), 18–29. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The concept of the professional learning community (PLC) has been embraced widely in schools as a means for teachers to engage in professional development leading to enhanced pupil learning. However, the term has become so ubiquitous it is in danger of losing all meaning, or worse, of reifying ‘teacher learning’ within a narrowly defined ambit which loses sight of the essentially contestable concepts which underpin it. The primary aim of this paper is therefore to (re-)examine the assumptions underpinning the PLC as a vehicle for teacher led change in schools in order to confront and unsettle a complacent and potentially damaging empirical consensus around teacher learning. This paper examines the characteristics and attributes of the ‘effective’ professional learning community as identified in the literature, drawing out the tensions and contradictions embodied in the terms professional, learning and community. The paper considers the implications of this analysis for practice and concludes by offering some insights into the nature of ‘school improvement,’ and the role of PLCs in realizing this.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers –

From the website: “Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers (ALER) seeks to stimulate the self-development and professional growth of professors, teachers, reading specialists and students at all educational levels. We encourage the continuing improvement of college and university curricula and assist preparation programs for teachers and reading specialists. Our members work at the forefront of policy, pedagogy and practice. Further, we encourage the continuing improvement of administrative, clinical, diagnostic and instructional practices related to the learning process.”

REL West note: One report published by ALER is relevant to this request, as follows:

Szabo, S., Martin, L., Haas, L., & Garza-Garcia, L. (2013). Literacy is transformative. Richmond, KY: Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers. Retrieved from

From the introduction: “For their 56th annual meeting, the Association of Educators and Researchers (ALER) met in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Amway Grand Hotel. This year’s conference theme was Literacy Is Transformative, which was also used as the title for this year’s Yearbook, Volume 35. Included are double-peer reviewed papers, the presidential address, and keynote addresses: (1) Teaching Annie to Read; (2) Transformative Practices for Literacy Teaching and Learning: A Complicated Agenda for Literacy Researchers; (3) The Transformative Power of ALER: Growing Professionally through Mentoring, Collegiality, and Friendship; (4) Transforming Students’ Literacy Lives through Reading and Writing for Real-World Purposes; (5) Tapping into the Common Core Standards; (6) Transforming Literate Practice for Adolescents: Intersecting Disciplinary Literacy and New Literacies; (7) Albert J. Mazurkiewicz Special Services Award; (8) Laureate Award; (9) Expanding the Learning Zone: Decisions That Transform the Practices of Two English Language Arts Teachers; (10) The Three C’s of Professional Development: The Coach, the Content, and the Context; (11) How Do Teachers Change Their Practice? Case Studies of Two Teachers in a Literacy Professional Development Initiative; (12) What Are We Asking Kids to Do? An Investigation of the Literacy Tasks Teachers Assign Students; (13) The Impact of Professional Development in Writing Instruction on the Implementation of Writing Strategies in the Classroom; (14) Developing Effective Family-School Partnerships: What Can We Learn from Parents of Children Who Struggle with Reading?; (15) Understanding Educators’ Changing Perceptions of Job-Embedded Professional Development Following the Action Research Process; (16) Constructing Voices through Lived-Experiences: A Phenomenological Study of Novice Reading Teachers’ Personal Understanding of Pedagogical Ownership and Professional Identity; (17) Tablets in Tutoring: What Is the Research Saying?; (18) Teacher Inquiry Projects for Preservice Teachers; (19) Inquiry Can Be Transformative: From ‘I will make him write’ to ‘He will learn to write’; (20) Secondary Preservice Teachers’ Beliefs and Experiences Toward Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) in a Content Area Literacy Course; (21) Perceptions of Writing Among Second Graders in an Exemplary School: Language and Gender Issues; (22) Self-Efficacy of Graduate-Level Reading Students: Does Program and Course Content Make a Difference?; and (23) Korean University Students’ Language Learning Strategy Use: EFL vs. ESL Contexts. Individual papers contain references.”

Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) –

From the website: “For 20 years, Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) has led efforts to improve public education, drawing from the expertise and insights of experienced educators. We have worked with thousands of teachers, administrators, and system leaders nationwide, listening to and learning from their experiences, then collaborating with them to create solutions to make public schools better. We help teachers grow as leaders. We partner with administrators and district officials to reimagine how schools work. We bring together teams at all levels to find solutions to improve public schools. Our vision is a public education system that works better for all students.”

REL West note: One report published by CTQ is relevant to this request, as follows:

Rasberry, M. A., & Mahajan, G. (2008). From isolation to collaboration: Promoting teacher leadership through PLCs. Chapel Hill, NC: Center for Teaching Quality. Retrieved from

From the introduction: “In many schools across America, teachers enter their classrooms each morning only to close the door and teach with little to no peer interaction. Working closely with several schools, the Center for Teaching Quality sought to address this culture of isolation, as well as to reduce the attrition rate among teachers, by initiating professional learning communities (PLCs), groups committed to continuous improvement through shared values and reflection. Working with their peers, teachers in PLCs collect and analyze classroom data, share best practices, and make instructional decisions as a team. Together, they engage in deeper learning as teaching professionals to better meet the needs of their students. This document is a best policies and practices guide for promoting teacher leadership through PLCs.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources: (model OR practices OR strategies OR approaches) AND (“teacher inquiry” OR “teacher researchers” OR “action research” OR “classroom research” OR “educational research” OR “reflective teaching” OR “theory practice relationship” OR “data use practices” OR “group dynamics” OR “teacher leadership” OR “teacher leaders”) AND (“job embedded professional development” OR “professional learning communities/network”)

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.   

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally-funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.