Spirals of Inquiry

Last year, many administrators participated in a couple days of learning entitled Leadership 360, spearheaded by our Deputy Superintendent, Jordan Tinney. It was an inspiring day that helped to focus the participants on what is really important, and, in fact, imperative in moving our students forward and improving student achievement: Assessment For Learning. As part of the series, we received the book, Spirals of Inquiry: For Equity and Quality by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in association with the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association.

This book has been widely purchased throughout the province and throughout our district. There are 8 staff members at our school who are going to be a part of an inquiry team with the support of this book. Being part of this team, this book was part of my summer reading list. Now that I have completed reading it, I thought I’d share a bit about the book here. I will include a couple of my favourite quotes from each chapter to pique your interest. Some of the things that impressed me the most in this book is that it is grounded in strong research, features amazing and inspiring narrative from schools and classrooms through BC, and throughout the book, Halbert and Kaser always keep the students at the centre, giving practical suggestions throughout.

In Chapter One, Weaving the Ways: Wise, Strong, and New Learning from Indigenous Perspectives, Kaser and Halbert talk about the importance of building on the strengths of the past and using our knowledge of the present to create our future (pg. 13). They discuss the 9 main holistic principles of learning which they believe that, particularly as BC educators, we must acquire respect. While these principles of learning are rooted in Indigenous traditions, all educators and students would benefit from incorporating them into their practice. A couple of quotes that struck me to be of particular importance,

“There are many connections between Indigenous principles of learning and the development of greater self-regulation and emotionally connected learning environments.” (Pg. 16)
“The opportunity for learners to observe, practice, and then to teach others had a profound impact on engagement and success.” (Pg. 16)

Chapter Two, Weaving the Ways: Building on Strong Practices, focuses on important findings in the research, mainly, the development of a growth mindset, the role of formative assessment practices, the power of feedback, the impact of reciprocal teaching, and the importance of teacher-learner relationships in strengthening the outcomes for all learners (pg. 18). I found the discussion about the six key strategies of Assessment for Learning valuable (pg. 20). A few quotes (there were many) that I’d like to share include,

“Embracing the “spirit” of assessment for learning requires much more than a few workshops.” (Pg. 21)
“The purpose of feedback is to increase the extent to which learners are the owners of their own learning.” (Pg. 21)
“We look forward to the day when an interested observer could walk into any classroom or learning setting anywhere in BC and hear learners able to describe confidently in their own words what they are learning, where they are going with their learning, and why their learning is important to their lives outside of school.” (Pg. 25)

Yes, yes, and yes! I can’t wait for that day!

And one final quote, one that is held deep inside my heart as an educator, and one that made me tear up reading it,

“We can imagine the difference it would make if every learner felt truly respected, known, valued, and emotionally secure in their learning setting.” (Pg. 25)

In Chapter Three, Weaving the Ways: Exploring New Possibilities, new global innovative learning environments are discussed. Throughout this chapter, Kaser and Halbert discuss the principles that need to be in place in order for a learning environment to be considered innovative. Local examples and international connections are discussed in detail and are quite inspirational. The authors go on to talk about self-regulation and creativity and how each impact learning.

One quote that caught my attention in particular was,

“For teachers, self-regulation involves engaging in continuous reflection on learning and teaching practices and on identifying assumptions that hinder progress,” (pg. 34).

This demonstrates that the onus is not just on our students, but also on our educators. Self-reflection is a key compontent in ensuring any change becomes the sustainable reality.

Four Key Questions and Why They Matter is the title of Chapter Four. In this chapter, Kaser and Halbert discuss the four questions which should be at the beginning of any inquiry. The answers to these questions should guide the inquiry throughout the inquiry cycle. The four questions include:

“1. Can you name two people in this school/setting who believe that you can be a success in life?
2. Where are you going with your learning?
3. How are you doing with your learning?
4. Where are you going next with your learning?” (Pg. 38)

They go on to make the point that these questions are for also for the adults in our learning environments, not just for our students. As a leader in education, it is important to keep this in mind for all of our learners in our buildings.

In Chapter Five, Halbert and Kaser go deeper into the Spiral of Inquiry, focusing on the answers to questions #2-4 above. According to the authors,

“This spiral model uses the key stages of scanning, focussing, developing a hunch, engaging in new professional learning, taking new professional action, checking that a big enough difference has been made – and then taking time to consider what is next” (pg. 48).

They go on to discuss each part of the spiral model. When discussing “hunches”, I loved it when Kaser and Halbert stated,

“There is no point in blaming parents, the community, the elementary school or the absence of a pre-school program. Assigning blame does not change anything. The guiding question has to be, “How are we contributing to this situation?”” (Pg. 52)

They go on to discuss some important considerations and suggestions (with specific examples from BC schools) to truly make the spiral model effective in our individual context. I quite enjoyed the suggestions they make for the leaders in education.

At the end of the chapter, we are reminded that,

“Inquiry really has no end. As we persist in asking “What’s going on for our learners?” “How do we know?” And “How does this matter?” we will be engaged in a continuous spiral of scanning, focussing, developing hunches, learning, taking action and checking.” (Pg. 59)

And, finally, they challenge us.

“Let’s make sure that inquiry does not become something we did last year. Instead let’s work together to ensure that inquiry-minded ness is at the heart of all we do as professionals.” (pg. 59)

In Chapter Six, the authors focus on the important aspect of Professional Inquiry for Deeper Learning. They talk about the need to leave behind some of our well-honed routines (what Will Richardson has said is “unlearning”) to move forward into deeper learning for all. While they admit that this won’t be easy, it is important to develop an adaptive inquiry mindset, especially for school leaders (pg. 61). They really push the education leaders in this chapter, especially when it comes to building the appropriate school culture. They state,

“Building cultures where trying out new strategies is viewed as an essential, on-going and normal part of our professional obligations is a key leadership responsibility.” (Pg. 63)

They go on to discuss the changes they think need to be made in teacher professional learning and school leaders impact in this area. Again, they push school leaders when they ask,

“Look at the agendas for your staff meetings and department meetings. What’s the proportion of time spent on adult learning as opposed to routine items that could be easily handled in another way?” (Pg. 65).

This is an important question indeed, especially if we want to move our staff forward in a similar direction. Without specific time for whole-group discussions, it is highly improbable that any positive effect on student achievement will be possible.

Kaser and Halbert go on to state that,

“Effective professional learning requires both tact and bluntness. … The best presenter in the world will have little impact on teacher practices unless there is a clear understanding that in order for learner needs to be addressed, classroom practices will have to change. Regularly asking the questions, “what’s going on for our learners? and How do we know? can shift the focus from instruction, with its inherent potential for pretense and defensiveness, to a greater curiosity about learning. And, when we focus on what learners need, it becomes easier to identify what it is educators need.” (Pg. 68)

This is highly challenging and will require some skill for the leaders to be successful. Teaching, for many, if not all, is so highly personal for our educators. For some, it is difficult to see the needs of the learners as paramount importance. It is our job, as leaders, to help them keep the focus on the learners.

Kaser and Halbert go on to give more practical suggestions for meetings, for scheduling collaboration time, and building a learning community based on the spiral model. In an effort to help us focus our teams, they conclude their book with some important questions for us to ask about our own learning environments. A couple of quotes I would like to feature from the final pages of Spirals of Inquiry are:

“We are convinced that no teacher, no matter how talented, can get high equity and high quality for young people by working alone. The work is simply too difficult. Searching for colleagues who share your passion is crucial. Rather than just critical friendship, forge bonds of collaborative power and develop a ‘let’s do it now” spirit.” (Pg. 74)
“We need to work together to create spaces in which every day, in every setting, productive and engaging learning conversations take place as collectively we figure out better ways to helping young people learn.” (Pg. 75)

And one of my favourite quotes,

“Developing curiosity matters for learners of all ages. It is the cure for boredom.” (Pg. 75)

Throughout this book, I felt challenged, nodded in agreement, was intrigued by the multitude of local stories, and became excited by the possibilities of the years to come in education. It really is an exciting time! I highly recommend this book to people in the field of education who are genuinely interested in improving student (and educator) intellectual engagement and achievement.

If you would like to order Spirals of Inquiry, you can do so through the BC Principals’a and Vice-Princiapls’ Association here. All proceeds go to support Innovative and Inquiry projects throughout the province.

If you would like to read a Storify of a chat that Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert had on Twitter about this book, with Chris Wejr and Chris Kennedy as the moderators, you can find it here.

Published by Tia M. Dawson

There are many things that define who I am as a person. First of all, I am a mother of 3 wonderful children! I can not express how fortunate we are to have our children in our life! Secondly, I am an elementary educator who recently returned to the classroom after 12+ years as an elementary school administrator. Lastly, I am passionate about helping others, learning about abuse, helping others in abusive relationships, and helping others understand their worth.

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