The Role of Collaboration in Action-Research and Inquiry 

             At its best, inquiry not something done by a single person in isolation, but a continuing process that involves cooperation and collaboration between two people, or even many people.  It is not surprising that many, perhaps most, Nobel prizes in the sciences are given jointly to two or more people doing cutting edge research in cooperation with one another.  At times, “collaboration” involves competing scientists, each trying to get to a break through before one another, but still taking advantage of, and building on, one another’s insights.  In this context, one scientist may gain superior recognition, but at least all the scientists progress and learn more, as do the societies that benefit from their breakthroughs.  


Recently, Discover Magazine (January/February 2011 issue) featured this magazine’s assessment and reporting on the 2010’s top 100 science stories.  One of the stories was “Scientists Tap Wisdom of Crowds” (p. 74).  The details of that brief report are worth quoting here: 

            “When University of Washington biochemist David Baker needed help predicting the structure of proteins, he did not turn to his colleagues.  Rather, he decided to let the whole world participate.  Increasingly, scientists are relying on such “crowdsourcing”—calling on ordinary citizens to volunteer their help in addressing complicated problems.  In Baker’s case, he helped develop Foldit, a computer game that challenges players to wiggle and shake protein chains into stable structures.  In August a paper in Nature revealed that Foldit players, most of whom had little or no biochemical education, surpassed or matched the performance of a sophisticated protein-folding algorithm on 8 of 10 puzzles.  “People are better at analyzing the whole situation,” Baker says.  “Computers just approach problems randomly.”  Volunteers for the Galaxy Zoo project have classified a million images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, leading to about 20 scientific publications and one genuine enigma:   a peculiar green intergalactic blob.  Other crowdsourced projects include labeling aerial photos of Mongolia in a quest to find Genghis Khan’s tomb and improving climate models by pouring over World War I ship logs for weather information.  Government agencies are getting in on the action too, listing projects on a new Web site,, and offering prizes.  In July a retired engineer from New Hampshire won $30,000 from NASA for a model that forecast solar activity with 75 percent accuracy.  “There’s a huge appetite from people who aren’t scientists to actually involved in science,” says Galaxy Zoo principal investigator Chris Lintott.”


            The above examples are only the tip of the iceberg of the power of collaboration.  Soliciting broader participation in inquiry and research isn’t only about increasing the “quantity” of labor in hopes that one or two people will have a conceptual breakthrough or stumble onto a “hidden” piece of data.  The old saying “two heads are better than one,” is very true, and collaboration provides many different opportunities for improving the breadth and depth of inquiry.  And arguably, in the realm of social change and community improvement, collaboration is essential both because it improves the quality of inquiry and because citizen participation is essential to the promotion of a democratic society.  The importance, and interconnectedness of these principles can be found in the work of such famous philosophers as John Dewey (e.g., in his book, Democracy and Education) and Paulo Freire (e.g., Pedagogy of the Oppressed). These considerations are behind WISR’s proposal to create community action think tanks (which are discussed in some of the documents referred to, below).


         Let’s consider some other examples of the role and importance of collaboration in learning, inquiry and action. . . .

             Students, especially in countries like China, often succeed because they work together, making sure that all participating learners succeed, rather than simply competing so that only one will “make the grade.”  Recent research on education across many countries around the globe suggests that those countries where educational achievement is the highest are those countries committed to the learning and education of all students. 

            Many of us may have had the personal experience of pairing off with a friend, and then asking one another evocative questions.  In thinking about and trying to articulate answers posed by one’s friend, we often come up with new insights and new ways of articulating whatever it is that we’re trying to write about.  This is, for example, a way that two students can help each other to write the papers or theses that they have been having trouble in getting the right words down on a piece of paper.  For example, one student can come up with the key questions that he or she wishes to address, and then have his/her friend “quiz her/him”—and the friend can probe, and ask for expansion, clarification and illuminating examples. 


            Recently, I was reading a paper by WISR PhD student, Larry Berkelhammer, on his action-research project.  I noted that Larry had some very important insights about the role of collaboration in inquiry.  (Larry is studying the role of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in working with clients who are challenged by chronic or life-threatening health issues, and as part of that he was trying out some of his methods with a group of people who are not in such precarious heath situations.) [quoting Larry at length here]:

“WISR faculty member, Deborah Pruitt, who is on my dissertation committee, gave me some guidelines to use in the interview process. These guidelines proved to be of enormous help, and led to the exceptional level of quality in the interviews. Her advice was as follows:

  • Use the interviewee’s words as much as possible, in order to avoid any inaccuracies in my reporting.
  • Speak from my authenticity.
  • Speak from my heart.
  • Speak from my passion.
  • Get in touch with my desire to help people improve their QOL, health, and happiness.
  • Use open-ended questions.
  • Name what I’m working on and invite them to participate.
  • Tell them I’m working on a research project to help people be more engaged with home practices.
  • Explain to them how I have developed state of the art tools based on advances in psychology.
  • Tell them that I would love to get their insights on this.
  • Probe with the interviewees. Don’t accept pat answers. “Have you heard stories that may be exceptions?” Although those exceptions may be too small in number for me to get involved, it will give me a sense of what’s out there. Even when they give pat answers, ask them some pointed questions that may catalyze a curiosity on their part in exploring with me an area they hadn’t previously considered.

 Related to Doctor Pruitt’s advice, I had a real epiphany in my facilitation of the Wednesday night test group segment of my action research project, which will change forever, how I facilitate future groups.

Here is what happened: In one of the early sessions, I did something that was so well received, and which I enjoyed so immensely, that I decided to build on it in the future.  What I had inadvertently done that week was to allow myself to be present to what I was feeling, and to be particularly revealing and authentic. Everyone seemed moved by my authenticity.  That set the tone and then they shared openly in a similar way.  The entire evening was spent with everyone in the group fully participating and sharing with a high degree of authenticity. To this day, transparency has become my trademark. I discovered that group members will open to what I model, whereas they commonly do not open to what is offered didactically. I have facilitated several many group meetings since then, and I always set the intention to be as transparent as possible. Sometimes I am very successful, and at other times, I have more difficulty being completely authentic. One of the variables I have discovered is that when I am triggered, it is very difficult to allow myself to be open and vulnerable. I remember that when I trained with Gerald Jampolsky, M.D., founder of the Center for Attitudinal Healing, he taught that: “In my vulnerability, my safety lies.”


          In the realm of social change, community improvement and institutional reform, collaboration not only enhances the quality of the knowledge-building and insights that ensue, but collaboration is often absolutely essential to the putting knowledge into action.  Knowledge without active citizen participation is at best limited, unfulfilled potential, and at its worst, worthless.  This is the basis for WISR’s vision for community action think tanks, where groups of people from all walks of life would come together to wrestle with challenging problems, in hopes of coming up with new insights for feasible, change-producing actions. 

         Over the years at WISR, a number of us have written in various ways about this topic, “the role of collaboration in action-research,” and here is a link  to some relevant  excerpts from articles written on action-research at WISR. 

  1. #1 by William Poehner on May 21, 2011 - 10:08 pm

    “In my vulnerability, my safety lies.”

    This is a spiritual practice that takes ongoing commitment, I say this because we have 5000 years of domination culture that tells us the complete opposite(and continues to do so). I initially stumbled upon this idea that “vulnerability is strength” from listening to Fr. Richard Rohr’s sermons on tape. Fr. Richard illustrates that the most powerful imagine in the Roman Catholic Church is that of a crucified man. He later states, how could a religion that worships a man on cross lose sight of the strength of vulnerability. Since then, I hold the cross as a reminder to live in my vulnerability.

    And to practice vulnerability on this comment, I will say that I still struggle with fully embracing this concept. So, I hold it as an ongoing experiment in my life and at work. I updated my website and decided to post as much about myself as possible, not sure if this will comeback and bite me…but I’m sure i will learn from it.

(will not be published)

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