This is the story of how an administrative team worked within their district’s Framework for Enhancing Student Learning and used the Spirals of Inquiry process to support their staff and students to delve into the redesigned BC curriculum with a particular focus on the Big Ideas and Thinking Core Competency.
By Christel Brautigam
This is the story of an inquiry that began in September of 2016 when my vice principal Brooke Douglas and I began our term as administrators at Anderson Elementary School in Richmond, BC. Anderson is a K-7 neighbourhood and early French Immersion program school in the city centre of Richmond, with a population that hovers around 570 students. Most students speak English as an additional language and are recent immigrants to Canada. The staff is large and diverse.
When Brooke and I began at Anderson the Framework for Enhancing Student Learning (FESL) was a new process in Richmond, inviting us to garner staff and student engagement in following the Spirals of Inquiry (Halbert and Kaser, 2013) process for which we were provided in-service sessions from Drs. Kaser and Halbert.
As newcomers to a school community, we found ourselves at a fascinating intersection of many new things at the same time: new administrators to this school, newly redesigned BC curriculum, new goal setting/inquiry process and a new-to-us framework with which to work. This could have been a daunting challenge (it did feel a little bit daunting), but we were excited about the possibilities, knowing that the only way to keep afloat of the task’s hugeness was to leverage the FESL (BC Ministry of Education) and the Spirals of Inquiry as an access point to the redesigned BC curriculum.
As we saw it, the redesigned curriculum has two major new components: the Big Ideas and the Core Competencies (BC’s New Curriculum curriculum.gov.bc.ca). We could see that these were challenging concepts for our teachers who were comfortable with the former curriculum. We could see that these concepts were somewhat nebulous and we spent a lot of time strategizing over how to make these concepts accessible to EVERY teacher. We knew that some people would not welcome the change, would find it overwhelming, and would not know where to start.
We began by breaking down what FESL is and how we would begin to create one. We were honest with the why – and one of the reasons for doing this was because we had to. It wasn’t a process of choice. It’s true that there are many benefits for following an inquiry process such as this, but it’s also true that some people just needed to know this was something we were going to be doing because we were directed to. The higher level reasons would be exciting for some, but realistically not for all.
Click here for our FESL staff meeting presentation PowerPoint.
After this initial staff meeting, Brooke and I set to work interviewing and scanning students with these questions based on the questions outlined in Spirals of Inquiry (Halbert and Kaser, 2013 pp. 37-44);
- What are you learning?
- What are the big ideas you are learning?
- Why is what you are learning important?
- How do you know how you’re doing?
- Can you name two adults you care about you?
Developing a Hunch and Focusing
We had a hunch that most students in the school could name two adults who cared about them and their learning (Halbert and Kaser, 2013, p. 38) because of our observation that this was a well-connected school community with a lovely ethic of caring.
As we gathered information, our hunch was realized. The students did indeed feel connected. What we noticed very clearly, however, was that students were not able to talk about why their learning was important or what the big ideas were in their learning. We noticed that the students would attempt every question, and give some sort of an answer, but that there was a lack of depth in what they were able to say about their learning. However, it was extremely important to both Brooke and I that staff discover this for themselves. At our next meeting we provided staff the students’ verbatim responses for our questions and invited our staff members to discuss what they noticed and wondered about what the students had had to say. Then we crossed our fingers that they would notice the same things we did!
As the staff pored over the responses we could hear they were engaged in the student voices represented on the paper. Staff could celebrate where they saw successes and by the same token could see the gaps. In the end, the staff determined a general need to focus on the “What Are You Learning?” question. Almost no students could articulate the big ideas of their learning or why what they are learning is important.
Learning and Taking Action
This was great news! They could clearly see the successes of their community thus far, and could also clearly see the gaps. Now we needed to turn this into something we could work on. This juncture provided the perfect opportunity to weave in aspects of the redesigned curriculum. There was a Ministry requirement that year for students to self assess on a core competency for the first time. The thinking competency seemed to fit well with getting students to access the why of their learning. Thus, we looked at the data and re-framed our staff discussions into the following inquiry focus that would incorporate a delving into both the Thinking Competency and the Big Ideas: Will a focus on the Thinking Competencies help support
- How we help students understand the big idea?
- How we help students make connections?
- To what they are learning
- To the world in general
- To other subject areas
- How we help students reflect on their learning?
In this way we incorporated an articulated framework to dive into the Thinking Core Competency and to the Big Ideas of the curriculum. We asked our staff to commit to this by voting on it through our Staff Collegial Council processes. It was helpful to use this process to commit to this inquiry and to help keep everyone on track. There will always be those fully committed no matter what, but we wanted to make sure to bring along everyone, regardless of where they are on their learning journey and their apprehension of the redesigned curriculum. By working in this way, the staff was also bound by their own structures to stay committed to the process.
We then spent the year taking action. This looked like making the Big Ideas and Thinking Core Competency accessible to staff. We asked them to take simple steps, like simply write one of the big ideas up on their wall or white board as a reference point for the teacher and for students to discuss. We asked them to get students talking about how they get their ideas and make use of anchor charts and brainstorm webs to record and keep track of their thinking. We took time at every staff meeting to celebrate successes. One strategy that got particular traction was a running slideshow at the beginning of every staff meeting. This consisted of photos of where work around the big ideas and core competencies was spotted in the school. No names or commentary made. Just the images. It was important that what was shown wasn’t necessarily fancy, it just had to be posted and visible.
Big Ideas and Core Competencies Posted in Classrooms
As these images looped, other teachers wanted to be noticed. They started sending us photos of their big ideas posted or asked us to come and take a look. We realized that teachers wanted their work with their students to be celebrated. We created a Big Ideas board at the front of the school that highlighted the Big Ideas being learned in each classroom, and invited parents and students to make connections between them.
Big Ideas Board in School Foyer
Parents were especially interested in this and we made sure to highlight the classroom learning often at our PAC meetings and on our school website (http://anderson.sd38.bc.ca/check out the School Story section for more details).
While incorporating the Big Ideas at this basic level was not too difficult, accessing the thinking competency in a meaningful way was more challenging. Our student body comes from a background of traditional learning: learn because you are told to learn, without too much questioning. Asking students to think about their learning, reflect on it, and be metacognitive was very difficult. Teachers found it hard. Their first attempts yielded surface level responses that felt meaningless. The teachers felt like they wanted to give up. We supplied them with simple strategies, a few at each meeting, for example:
Then a couple of teachers shared how they had done some reflecting on thinking with their class and it had been a huge failure. They were discouraged, but they decided to try again anyway, with some more scaffolding. The second time was MUCH better. They were starting to see progress. They finally believed what Brooke and I had been saying. It’s hard, but it gets easier. We asked them to share their story at a staff meeting. They bravely did and it made a big difference for their colleagues. They felt re-inspired to keep trying. We continued sharing examples and simple strategies to make it easier.
We underlined that we knew it was hard work and that progress might be slow. It was simply important to just keep at it. Because this is challenging work, the continued process of sharing examples, re-summarizing where we were on the spiral and in the process and asking teachers for check in and self-reflections along the way helped to keep us on track with this learning phase.
Checking and Re-Scanning
In the Fall of 2017, a year after we started this inquiry, it was time to gather some data. We interviewed students with these questions:
What are you learning? What are the big ideas you are learning? Why is what you are learning important? How do you get your ideas?
What we found as we started to collate the student responses was that the answers grouped themselves into levels of response. It was apparent that a rubric could be created with concrete examples of what fully formed responses could look like from K-7. We tallied the data, added the student quotes and presented it to the staff;
How Do You Get Your Ideas?
|Summary||They just happen||Simple naming of sources||Life experiences and sharing|
I get my ideas by thinking about it for a long time
The teachers tell us
|If you don’t share ideas you won’t learn much (gr 6)
Your old memories (3)
When you read an idea can pop into your head
I plan it in my brain, my brain tells me (K)
From other kids stories (Gr 4)
Telling and listening to stories (gr 3)
I might get an idea from someone else and then make it my own (gr 3)
|Number of Classes at this stage||4||12||10|
Brautigam & B. Douglas November, 2017
What are you learning about?
|Summary||Tasks/activities||Topic||Themes||Themes with connections to other themes and big ideas|
Pumpkins and the life cycle and scientific things about pumpkins
First Nations – their traditions and their history
Being kind to others
Learning more about our real life and taking a bigger step into the future
|Identity, we have a big web, we are doing patterns and mixtures and connections and people who immigrate here and push and pull factors (gr. 6)
Different things each day, a lot. How we learn to have new friends, because you can’t just be by yourself at school, that’s important to me, if you are by yourself it’s not as much fun (K).
For every subject there is a connection between another subject (Gr 5)
|Number of Classes at this stage||6||7||8||5|
Brautigam & B. Douglas November, 2017
What Are the Big Ideas You Are Learning About?
|Not Yet||Minimally Meeting||Fully Meeting|
|Summary||Don’t know or re-name the topics||Scripted||Articulate independently|
|Examples||Science because we are learning about science
Know the routine
We have lots to do for our project
|Patterns repeat (K)
seeing a bigger picture (gr 6)
Everyone has a unique story to share (gr 3)
|You are connected to identity, your connections are what you have experienced and seen, it’s about yourself (gr 6)
All about you so other people can learn about you
We have to learn so that you have someone to play with (K)
How to run a plan and make it work (gr 7)
I need to be brave and have courage (gr 5)
To be a deep thinker
Making connections to books helps us learn more about ourselves and make connections to ourselves (gr 3)
|Number of Classes at this stage||14||6||6|
Brautigam & B. Douglas November, 2017
Why is What You Are Learning Important?
|Summary||Because, or don’t know||So you get smarter or get a job||Connects to self today and generalizes the specific learning|
|Examples||I don’t know Because . . .||Science is a pretty big part of our life and we use it everyday
So when we get older we know more things
So when you’re big enough you can count your money
So we can be a grownup and know all the things
Because we might use what we are learning about in the future
|We are learning a lot about our family and why we came and how – it’s important so we can pass it on (gr 3)
We see patterns in all our life and we need to understand why they are important and how you can use them (Gr 4)
Social studies and social skills are important because we can communicate with other people and we can learn what’s going on in the world (Gr 6)
We have to learn to listen and work together or else it will be hard to work (gr 3)
|Number of Classes at this stage||6||13||7|
Brautigam & B. Douglas November, 2017
It was exciting for them to learn that it didn’t matter what grade a student was in (many K teachers thought that K students couldn’t meaningfully answer these questions), and what was really apparent was that teaching works! “It is essential that people dare to innovate in their daily practice” (Timperley, 2016). Students were listening. There was evidence that where big ideas and thinking processes were being explicitly taught, students were picking up on it. We could not emphasize this point enough. Teaching matters. Direct teaching of challenging concepts matters. Teaching and re-teaching matters.
More Learning and Taking Action
We did not let up on the importance of this direct teaching, and continued sharing strategies with staff, being in classrooms and demonstrating them ourselves, and working with classes to try out strategies we proposed. We continued to share examples from classrooms and when we couldn’t find any in our own building we went to Twitter for more ideas. When we came around to our next set of data collection in the spring we noticed huge gains. So many more students were able to articulate why what they were learning was important (specific data can be found on the Anderson website under the School Story section anderson.sd38.bc.ca). Obviously teachers had started to work on this with their students. What had been the most challenging question to answer now became the one that had the deepest answers. This was exciting and we celebrated this work with our staff! We were also sure to underline that we knew this was hard work. Sticking with it with students at the beginning is challenging; however, teachers were starting to see that as activities that involved more metacognition and reflection became more a part of their repertoire that students were more highly engaged.
As we neared the end of last school year as a staff we decided to keep the momentum going and go deeper with our work and learning in these areas. Our evidence had been suggesting that a focus on thinking and talking about ideas and where they come from had created a shift in teaching and learning; there was much more focussing on and highlighting of the connection to big ideas as a central pillar from which curriculum is explored (What are the big ideas you are learning about?) AND the why of what we are teaching and what students are learning (Why is what you are learning important?).
But keeping the momentum going is easier said than done. Although many teachers had come a long way in their learning journeys, there were also a handful that were fairly far behind. As with any group of learners there is a spread, and what we noticed is that for some the gap was widening quite significantly and some were getting left far behind. The threat of this becoming too difficult to catch up was worrisome. On the other hand, some teachers told wonderful stories of their learning, and some of them were even brave enough to share more with the staff. The young and keen were always eager to share, but when the mid to late career teachers stood up to say something, those were big steps and we were so grateful for their bravery because their sharing made a difference. One teacher passionately noted that she was on her own spiral of inquiry in this process! We documented our staff learning journey on a big spiral in our staffroom so we could keep visible how far we had come;
Re-Scanning and More Learning
As the learning needs of our staff are now on different places on the continuum, how to proceed became the challenge for the next fall. We re-scanned our students in the fall of 2018 with the same four questions and decided that instead of just collating and tallying the data ourselves, it was important for teachers to reflect on their own students’ responses. I was lucky enough to secure some release time to sit down with teachers individually and have a conversation about their student data collected from November 2017 to December 2018. Although the students were different, it was an opportunity to look at what trends they might notice that would relate to their teaching and what supports could be useful to them. Teachers, with only two exceptions, were very happy to have this dedicated time. They were excited and passionate to talk about what was going well, the differences they were noticing in students’ thinking skills, their own growing comfort with the curriculum, student engagement and where they wanted to go next. Many wanted to talk past their allotted time!
The biggest theme that came out of all of the conversations was the importance of connections. They saw that when students could make connections – to the big ideas, the bigger ideas, across curricular areas, to the real world, etcetera – their ability to retain and retell information grew. They noticed that focusing on connections deepened interest and engagement with learning. Teachers of older students noticed the benefit of the teaching that came before them and that it was easier to get into the routine of reflection and metacognition because it was no longer new to students.
In conclusion, here is what worked for moving this inquiry forward at Anderson:
A clearly articulated plan
A cohesive administrative partnership with a clear vision
Perhaps the most inspiring act leaders can exhibit is pushing through when the wind is in their face, standing by boldly staring down the naysayers and charging the mountain” (Frank, TELP presentation, October 2018).
Small, explicit chunks of learning for staff (Severson, 2018)
Individual check ins
Visuals and examples
In school examples from colleagues – Peer to peer sharing
Frequent noticing, naming and celebrating (Timperley, H., Ell, F. & LeFevre, D 2018)
Following the Spiral of Inquiry around and around again, tweaking the plan as learning shifts and progresses (Halbert and Kaser, 2013)
The Spirals of Inquiry (Halbert and Kaser, 2013) provides a framework to launch into then maintain a collaborative inquiry focus in a school community. As this paper has shown, the Spirals is also a framework for transformative leadership as it shapes teaching and learning around the needs of the students.
BC Ministry of Education. (n.d.). BC’s New Curriculum Retrieved April 1, 2019, from https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca
BC Ministry of Education. Framework for Enhancing Student Learning Retrieved April 1, 2019, https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/k-12/administration/program-management/enhancing-student-learning?keyword=framework&keyword=for&keyword=enhancing&keyword=student&keyword=learning
Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2013). The Spirals of Inquiry for Equity and Equality. Canada, BCPVPA
Timperley, H. OECD brief (2016) What makes a school a learning organization: a guide for policy makers, school leaders and teachers.
Frank, B. Presentation to TELP class. October, 2018
Drago Severson (2018) - Theory for Understanding and Supporting Adult Development, in Leading Change Together
Timperley, H., Ell, F. & LeFevre, D (2018) Developing adaptive expertise in professional learning communities. Chapter 10, pp 175-189 in Harris, A., Jones, M., and Huffman, J. (Eds). Teachers Leading Educational Reform: The power of professional learning communities. Routleldge: London.