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How does Cooperative Inquiry work?

silhouette of people against a blue sky

Cooperative inquiry, also known as collaborative inquiry, is a based on the idea of researching ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people. You can read more about it in this blog post, What is Cooperative Inquiry?

This post explains a bit more about how cooperative and collaborative inquiries work in practice.

The initial call

People respond to a ‘call’ generated by an individual or from within an organisation.

This call sets out the inquiry topic or theme. The group gather with those initiating the inquiry and outline:

  • The evolution of their interest in the inquiry topic
  • The way the method works
  • The outlined timetable
  • The key ‘negotiables’ and the ‘givens’.

Getting underway with the inquiry

Participation and commitment is established and the inquiry process gets underway with participants working out their own focus of interest within the general theme.

Through discussion each person clarifies and refines their theme until they are ready to take it out into the field. They outline how they intend to monitor their research; what records they will keep; and what criteria they are employing.

The collaborative discussions about these aspects of the inquiry shape the topic into something tangible, capable of deep observation and rigorous, systematic effort.

The participants then implement their agreed inquiry cycle out in the world.

Cycles of planning/action/review

At their next meeting the researchers share the data; sifting through the raw material before deciding on whether to refine their question or change it for another related theme.

This collaborative sifting and testing of each other’s learning transforms individual learning into collective insight, challenge or new questioning.

It marks a key difference to action learning sets, in which the members are led by problems (rather than questions) and each person’s learning remains largely the property of themselves.

In an inquiry, the process of the group – how it takes and shares responsibility for its work together within a non-facilitated environment – is a fundamental element of the overall inquiry methodology.

Inquiry members may develop a common question with some or all of the other researchers pooling their findings about the common theme; or they may follow parallel tracks of different but related themes throughout the inquiry using those within or external to the inquiry to inform their research.

The general theme or guiding question set out within the original call continues to set the overall framework within which the inquiry members focus their learning. Inquiries benefit from approximately six cycles of planning/action/review. At the close of the inquiry the researchers may hold onto the results of their research; collaborate on a shared report; use their notes as a basis for an account; or some combination of the above.


Cooperative Inquiry has four main outcomes:

  • personal change of those taking part – the process is not easy and is a form of experiential development
  • presentational forms of account – ways of giving expression to the learning achieved
  • propositional results – participants may be able to formulate their learning into working arrangements that inform their practice
  • practical applications – the implementation of inquiry learning in the form of day-to-day ways of behaving.