November 14, 2008
Faculty Inquiry Groups (FIGs) treat professional development as a collaborative enterprise. One of the most persistent impediments to educational improvement is that teachers have-because institutions provide-so few purposeful, constructive occasions for sharing what they know and do with one another. Thus, one of the most important moves a campus can make is to create occasions for educators to talk, to find colleagues, to be part of a community of practice.
Of course talk is not enough, and not all talk is created equal. Skeptics worry that FIGs may produce energetic conversation but no real advance in knowledge or improvement in practice. One external reviewer of SPECC wondered if the open exchange encouraged in FIGs might reinforce misguided notions about, say, the capacity of certain groups of students to succeed.
Thus, it is important to stress that collaboration is not “just talk.” Indeed, many of the campuses have worked their way toward FIGs with carefully structured routines and protocols for collaboration. The English group at Los Medanos, for instance, operates as a kind of graduate seminar, with clear tasks and homework for each meeting and an emphasis on developing new understandings and products-course assignments, for instance, and assessment instruments. At Glendale Community College, FIGs employed by the math department are dedicated to the design and analysis of common final exams, and at Cerritos College one focus has been on identifying explicit student learning outcomes. At City College of San Francisco, several FIGs now organize themselves around a carefully structured process of classroom observation, which is then grist for discussion during their meetings. One might in fact observe that FIGs benefit from the same principles that operate in effective developmental classrooms: high structure, high expectations, intense engagement, intentionality, and inquiry. Teachers are developmental learners as well.