Creating Cultures of Inquiry: Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton

Creating and Leading Cultures of Inquiry

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                   Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton,

Co-Directors, MiraVia LLC


Humans are a social species with roots in a primate past. Communal life on the African savannahs shaped our early ancestors mentally and emotionally. Like our predecessors, we are attuned to the cues of others and are predisposed to take collective action when it serves the greater good.

Yet, there is really no such thing as a group. Groups emerge from collections of individuals who make choices about how and when to participate. All groups and group members have boundaries formed by physical, technical, temporal and social elements  (Arrow  & McGrath, 1993). These boundaries are the membranes through which information and resources flow in and out of the group. The word membrane and the word member share related Latin roots – membrana, meaning the skin covering an organ or member of the body and membrum, a limb or body  that is a distinct part of the whole. At one level, group members are the bodies enclosed within the boundaries of a membrane. At another level, each member has his or her own boundaries — his or her own membranes (Wellman & Lipton, 2004).

In the study of physical science, we learn that membranes can be permeable, semi-permeable, or impermeable to various size molecules. Gortex® fabric is an example of these attributes in action. This material is permeable to the molecules of human body perspiration – “it breathes”, at the same time, the fabric is impermeable to the water molecules of rain and snow – “it is waterproof”. In the same ways, the boundaries of groups and of group members vary in permeability. The key difference is that these boundaries are not fixed physical properties.  Skilled group leadership and purposeful group development open these membranes within and between people, information and insight. 

Creating cultures of inquiry promotes boundary shifting, knowing when to focus in and when to focus out. It is the work of seeking information, processing information, decision-making, planning and implementation. These functions are also the work of individuals operating within the membrane of the group. Leading cultures of inquiry means helping members see their parts within the whole and helping them take responsibility for regulating their personal and collective permeability to perspectives, ideas, options and actions.

Group Development

Leading groups that work in which there is maximum participation, productivity and satisfaction, requires attention to three arenas of group development: task focus, process skills development and relationship development. Productive groups learn from experience by setting goals for themselves, monitoring their performance and reflecting on their practice.  Experience by itself is not a reliable teacher. By focusing only on the tasks at hand, groups may get that work done but do not expand their capacities for addressing increasingly harder or more complex tasks. 

The harnesses of draft horses are fitted with blinders to block peripheral vision and keep the horse’s attention on the road or furrow ahead. Many groups operate with similar blinders missing the importance of the organizing their tasks to increase their efficiency and productivity, developing their process toolkit for supporting thinking and clear communication, or purposely building relationships within the group to develop their capacities for collaboration and strengthening professional community.


In practice, one of the most imposing roadblocks on the journey to engaging collaborative inquiry has been the ways in which data are used. Accountability requirements and legislated mandates have pushed the administration of formal assessments from which data are collected and reported to external agencies, including the district office, the province, the federal government or even international bodies. There tends to be lower uses of data for self-assessment, problem solving, reflection and personal discovery. That is, data is often used to prove, rather than improve. Data is perceived as something that needs to be gathered, organized and transferred to comply with the requirements of others rather than as a tool for gaining insight into and improving professional practices. Nancy Love (2002) and her colleagues describe this pattern as the difference between teachers being submissive data-givers and becoming confident data-users. Effective data use requires school leaders who know how to shape cultural conditions that support thoughtful, informed and collaborative data-driven dialogue in their schools, and classroom teachers who have the skills and processes for participating fully.

School improvement is a discipline (Elmore, 2002).  It requires meaningful targets, timely feedback mechanisms and collaborative interactions focused by data that reach and reflect the technical core of teaching and learning in the school. To be successful, these challenging endeavors require three critical conditions for any working group: psychological safety, cognitive resourcefulness and relational resilience.

Psychological safety:  Collaborative inquiry is about shared learning and is therefore both psychologically and socially risky. Group members must be willing to share what is both clear and unclear to them about their students’ learning, what is clear and unclear to them in the data they are exploring and, potentially, what is clear and unclear to them about the effects of their own teaching practice. For productive collaborative inquiry, it must be safe to not know. The ways in which facilitators structure group work, pose questions and respond to group members’ contributions can increase or decrease psychological safety for participants.

Cognitive resourcefulness:  Emotional safety is a foundation for cognitive resourcefulness. Thinking is hard work. Collaborative inquiry works best when groups share a process toolkit, clear structures and deliberate protocols for tapping the thoughts of everyone in the room not just the vocal few. Questions that cue specific cognitive processes increase the effectiveness of collaborative forums. For example, questions that direct group members to predict, compare, contrast, infer cause and effect, generalize facilitate the task of data analysis, interpretation, planning and problem solving. Specific structures, such as round-robin sharing, paired-reading strategies and the use of graphic organizers support the complex thinking necessary to make sense and use of the data being explored (Lipton & Wellman, 2012).

Relational resilience: In steadily improving schools, teachers actively question and explore individual and collective teaching practices calibrated by both student data and shared learning and teaching standards (Chenoweth, 2007). These collaborations require relationships that are resilient enough to withstand close scrutiny of professional practice. Group members need skill in cognitive conflict, that is, conflict with ideas – not with one another (Amason, et. al, 1995). Attention to developing shared processes, structures and effective collaborative experiences produces relationships that can withstand difficult conversations, challenging questions and respectful, public examination of teaching practices.

And Then:

Successful groups don’t just happen.  They are the result of planning, problem-solving and reflection-on-action on the part of both group members and group leaders. Successful group leaders see the group as it might be, not as it is. This requires a developmental lens for group development and a willingness to invest in thoughtful capacity building and not just immediate task accomplishment. A similar developmental lens is important for group leaders to embrace for themselves as well. We all need to learn to project ourselves as group leaders into the future and operate in the moment with that bigger picture in mind. A willingness to grow and develop as a group leader conveys an important message about the purposes and values of professional collaboration and the purposes and values of professional learning.




Amason, A.C., Thompson, K.R., Hochwarter, W.A., & Harrison, A.W. (1995, Autumn) Conflict: An important dimension in successful management teams. Organizational Dynamics, 24 (2), 20-35.


Arrow, H. & McGrath, J.E. (1993). Membership matters: How member change and

continuity affect small group structure, process, and performance. Small Group Research, 24, 334-361.



Chenoweth, K. (2007). It’s being done: Academic success in unexpected schools. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Educational Press.


Elmore, R. (2002 January/February). The limits of change. Harvard Education Letter, 18, No. 1.


Lipton, L & Wellman, B. (2012). Got data? Now what?: Creating and leading cultures of inquiry. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


Love, N, (2002). Using data/getting results: A practical guide for school improvement in mathematics and science.  Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.


Wellman, B. & Lipton, L. (2004). Data-driven dialogue: A facilitator’s guide to collaborative inquiry.  Sherman, CT: MiraVia.









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