Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Spring 2021
During the pandemic, the authors of this paper developed and launched a university course at Sweden’s Uppsala University built on the Spiral of Inquiry. Built from the ground up, this paper offers a behind the scenes look at the design work that goes into supporting leadership development at the graduate level.
By Ingela Netz & Lillemor Rehnberg
Introduction by Judy Halbert
Linda and I first met Lillemor Renhberg twenty-five years ago when we were participating in a summer course in the USA on educational leadership. The Canadians and the Swedes bonded in a group that was largely American and close friendships developed.
Fast forward several years to 2017 when Lillemor, now a lead instructor in the compulsory National School Leadership Training Program based at Uppsala University, led a study tour of academics to British Columbia. At a session hosted by UBC, Linda and I introduced the group to the Transformative Educational Leadership Program and to the Spiral of Inquiry.
A few months later, Lillemor attended a Spirals session hosted by the Whole Education Network in England. Shortly after that Linda and I were invited to Sweden to spend two days with two hundred principals who had participated in the national program. The seed was planted as Lillemor invited Ingela Netz to join her in establishing the Swedish network. Schools engaged and regional hubs grew.
Next, Lillemor and Ingela submitted a proposal to the Swedish National Agency for Education to develop a course for new principals based on the Spiral of Inquiry. With the green light to develop a pilot program, Ingela left her school principalship to join Lillemor in this exciting new adventure.
Their first cohort launched last fall – right in the midst of COVID-19. This is the story of their beautiful work.
During the pandemic, we developed and launched a university course built on the Spiral of Inquiry.
The National School Leadership Training Program is a state-regulated academic professional educational and training program for school heads, preschool managers, and those in related leadership positions. The program plays a key role in the Swedish school system as the schools are state-regulated and governed by the national curriculum. The goal for the program is to give participants the knowledge necessary to
- ensure that all pupils and children receive a high-quality education,
- create conditions in which targets can be achieved at both individual and organizational levels, and
- take responsibility for ensuring the development of the organization as a whole.
The National Agency for Education regularly evaluates the program and has expressed their intention to strengthen the connection between theory and practice in the field. In that context, Uppsala university suggested a course on The Spiral of inquiry to support inquiry-based leadership.
Mr Anders Duvkärr, head principal education at NAE, and Lillemor Rehnberg, an educator at The National School Leadership Training Programme, quickly developed the plan for this offering, which NAE approved in March 2020. During this period Drs Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, founders of the Spiral of Inquiry model, made important contributions.
To align with the Spiral of Inquiry ethos around collaboration, each participating principal was asked to bring along a teacher from their own organization.
When the course started in September 2020, we had 33 registered principals, accompanied by 34 collaborators (teachers or vice principals) from each school. The course was planned to take place as one or two-day sessions with overnight stay, but everything had to be moved to Zoom. A few participants decided to leave directly at that point as they feared they would lack energy and engagement enough to complete the course online. 64 persons participated in the first session in September.
Designing distance learning was new to both of us. We had been taking part in digital meetings and Ingela had a daily experience of leading her school staff through the first intense months of the pandemic but neither of us had been teaching. As we both had different experiences, Ingela as a former student in the national principal programme and Lillemor as an educator in the same program, we identified the following success factors: We wanted our participants
- to become aware of all the fellow students as soon as possible.
- realize that they are important for what could be able to happen and to each other
- to feel invited
- to know that they are counted on
- to know that their experience, knowledge and voice is asked for
- to realize that it includes job between the course sessions
- to realize that we as teachers and leaders of the course are as much co-learners as evaluators of their assignments.
We are convinced that we have to live the values of the Spiral as that is something we want them to get familiar with. Curiosity, generosity, and a relational attitude nurtures a culture for learning.
Relationships. We open the Zoom 30 minutes before the program starts so that we can better welcome everyone as they join. This space enables us to connect and ensure all their technology is working. We, of course, also have our cup of coffee, a Swedish fika is compulsory. To encourage relationships between participants from the beginning we shared a digital map of Sweden overlayed with photos of each participating team, identifying their locations around the country. We also asked them to make and share a short video to introduce themselves and their context to their fellow classmates. As instructors, we made and shared our video first to model a simply styled video.
The participants are divided in learning groups. The groups are based on the age of their pupils/students. We create time for sharing experiences and dialogues in every session and we encourage them to stay in contact between the course sessions. We know that this happens but not to what extent. As we want them to get a sense of all the people in “the room” and hopefully also connect to people outside their own learning group, we create smaller break-out rooms for shorter dialogues.
Curiosity. A challenge for us as educators is to hold back advice and instead meet questions with a curious and inquiring attitude and mindset. To be a listening and curious partner in inquiry, instead of delivering answers.
Generosity. A culture of generosity and openness is spread from the Networks of Inquiry and Innovation (NOIIE). We hope this culture will be felt, recognized, and lived among our participants/students so we have emphasized sharing experiences, findings, and challenges between the participants.
Design and structure
The design of the sessions follows the phases of the Spiral of Inquiry. When we planned the course, our ambition was that the participants should do a total Spiral, but now halfway through the course we realize the need to reconsider. For a variety of reasons, participants took longer to get started with scanning than we had anticipated.
“Just start,” is the invitation Kaser and Halbert give to everyone curious about trying a Spiral. In the same way, we assigned our participants to start asking the Spiral scanning questions in their organizations after the first session. At the ICSEI conference in Marrakech 2020 Kathryn Riley said that “Stories are like data, but data with a soul”. The experiences that the principals shared with their fellow students and us is an example of that quote and gives evidence for the power of the individual stories and how they call for deepening curiosity and a will to explore more.
As we had some worries about the habit to rapidly go from noticing a problem to taking action, we encouraged them to slow down, turn back, question, and reconsider their conclusions. We found it was important to use much more time for them to get started, find their focus and explore hunches. A turning point was in realizing that biases and beliefs exist individually and collectively. New and deepening questions is one aspect of the Spiral that challenges the established beliefs, mindsets, and ways to work with systematic quality management in Swedish schools. Therefore, it became important to create space for inquiring and exploring mindset.
An important element in the structure is follow-up dialogues with the principals and their collaborating teachers. One dialogue for about 30 minutes between each session. Our ambition is to stay in contact, get a glimpse of how it proceeds, more often to slow down than hurry up. It takes time to establish another type of learning culture than what they are used to from other university courses. Questions like “is what I have written good enough?”, “How many pages do you want me to write?”, “I´m getting nervous about what you will think about what I have accomplished” have been asked now and then even if we have tried to be clear that joint inquiry work and learning is our focus. We aim to be learning facilitators, speaking partners, and critical friends – not evaluators.
The course literature is carefully chosen and includes both national and international educational research. It includes the macro perspectives of the classrooms and the meeting with the students as well as more general theories about leadership, learning, mindset and organization. As a companion through the whole course the participants have a newly translated version of the Spiral Playbook that, despite the small size and simplicity from a content point of view at a first glance, captures all the necessary perspectives to understand the ideas and theories behind the Inquiring Spiral and place it in its own practice.
During one session when both the principals and their teacher collaborators participated, we invited a principal and two teachers from an upper secondary school who have been working with the Spiral for two years. They shared their experiences, mistakes, pitfalls, restarts, and learning from the Spiral’s first three stages. The dialogue was recorded and has been edited to be used as a resource for the participants to return to and even use in their different organizations. It will even be used by us when presenting the Spiral for schools, stakeholders, and leadership.
The final assessment also reflects the culture we would like to establish during the course. The participating principals are expected to write a text that summarizes their Spiral journey, whether they have started a Spiral in their organization or if their focus has been on their own learning and inspiration for Spirals to come.
During the last two-day session they are also expected to make a presentation together with their collaborating teacher in a form of their choice. Our hope is that their creativity will be stronger than their sense of limits.
The expectations of academic writing might seem low. As the participants already have demonstrated that skill and competence by passing the national 3-year program for principals, the focus is the spirit of the Spiral: Being in a curious and exploring mindset you have to start in your own understanding. We would like to avoid documents and assignments written in purpose to shine/flaunt or to make the educators satisfied. The focus must be their own benefit, both on short- and long term, for the sake of all learners.
In another demonstration of how central inquiry is to this work, this course is being studied
by researcher Dr Åsa Liljekvist. She will also follow some of the schools for a period when the course is finished to consider the impact of the course.
Focus for the research is:
- Who are the participants and why did they attend? Are there any common challenges or expectations among them?
- What different outcomes or results are visible in a year and in the long term
- How can differences in the way a Spiral starts or not in different schools be explained?
Dr Liljekvist’s aim is to identify the supportive structures and processes in order to contribute with the kind of knowledge that helps schools to reflect and learn along the work in process, and thereby more easily avoid fruitless and time-consuming attempts of change.