Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Fall 2022In this article, the authors share how they began using the Spirals of Inquiry in their leadership practice as Schools Principals to improve outcomes for learners. The impacts have rippled far beyond their schools in some surprising and far reaching ways to connect hundreds of school leaders in this transformative work. By Natalie Mansour and David Sim
As principals in the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education, with experience in leading diverse and complex schools, we’ve had the opportunity to witness first-hand the evolution of the role of principal.In recent years we have been extremely fortunate to have had a view into international education systems which has inspired us to reflect on the role of principal in a contemporary, future focused NSW Public School. In particular we have been encouraged by the increasing use of the terms principals as leading learners or principals as instructional leaders; which is a significant step forward from the notion that principals are merely the manager of the site with responsibility for the daily administration of the school. We know only too well how a principal’s time can be monopolized by toilets, taps and tantrums! Our views on the role of principal, and indeed our belief in the direct impact of a principal on student outcomes, have been shaped by the work of Australian and international educational researchers. We believe strongly that in order for a student to improve a teacher must have the knowledge and skills to assist them. To that end, for a teacher to improve their classroom practice, a principal must do something to support their learning. In this paper we will discuss the conditions that have led to the widespread use of Drs Halbert, Kaser and Timperley’s Spiral of Inquiry in NSW. We will share our journey of innovation and inquiry that has resulted in school transformation in our own schools and beyond. It often pains us to admit that as school leaders we have been party to decisions regarding professional learning and the development of teachers that we have recently heard described as the spray and pray approach. In fact, the more we talk to colleagues about this type of approach we have used in times gone by, we realize that it was a system wide phenomena. Concerningly however, we think a spray and pray approach to professional learning still exists in some schools. As Kaser and Halbert (2009) point out, “the evidence is clear – school leaders make a difference to the learning of the pupils they serve” (p. 1) and the time for action in revolutionizing the way in which school leaders treat the learning of adults in their schools is now. A 2016 report called Beyond PD reminds us that “teacher professional learning is how [school leaders] all improve student learning; it is how they improve schools… they work in systems that are organized around improvement strategies explicitly anchored in teacher professional learning” (Learning First, 2016, p. 3).
Transforming Leadership PracticeHowever, all of the international research and meta-analysis is only as valuable to students as the impact it has on what school leaders do (Harris, 2009, p. 39). In our own experience leading schools we have found that attempting to reflect the most up to date educational research in the daily rhythms (Kaser and Halbert, 2009, p. 117) of a busy school often requires bold, brave action. Transforming school practice and learning culture needs to be just that – transformational! We have learned that in order to create an effective and evidence based learning culture, it cannot be an extra add-on to existing school practices. In our own schools, and in others around NSW that we have had the privilege of learning with, this type of change has required a total commitment from the whole school leadership team in order to redefine and reimagine the school’s approach to improving teacher knowledge and practice. This work of course, is filled with risk. Schools who successfully navigate this terrain place students at the heart of all decision making. They demonstrate significant alignment in leadership mindsets and have a clear, unrelenting plan for improvement. This important work must be supported by system wide policy and directions. In NSW we have been fortunate in recent years to grow as public school principals within an evolving policy context. In fact, we believe that in many ways the policy reforms that NSW has been through are the system enablers for school improvement. This extensive reform agenda rightly acknowledged that the best place for decisions to be made about the strategic directions of a school, including the professional learning of teachers, is best made inside the school gates. This change from rigid, centralised system practices has been a huge benefit to school leaders. The NSW Department of Education genuinely demonstrated their trust in principals by devolving much of the decision making to the local level. As principals, we have seen an improvement in the delicate balance of responsibility and accountability in our schools and witnessed an increase in the opportunity for our leadership teams to think outside the box. Policy reforms like Local Schools Local Decisions allowed for greater flexibility in how we resourced and structured our schools, which was critically important as we began to explore how we could create the conditions for every learner in our settings to achieve their learning potential.
Reimagining School Learning CulturesAs we began to understand the new opportunities that were available to us we started to dream and reimagine how learning at all levels could occur in our schools. The phrase nothing is off the table started to be heard quite frequently, but we also instinctively knew that there were many things that simply had to stay. We were still accountable for a national testing regime, a state wide entry point assessment, mandated learning time for all subject areas and a range of employee industrial conditions. We also knew that as principals of primary (elementary) schools there were traditions spanning back many years which the whole school community had come to expect. So the real question quickly became ‘what can we take away to clear space and make time to reimagine our school learning cultures?’ The possible solutions to this question were equally challenging and complex in each of the four schools in which we were practicing. However, the common motivation continued to be a sense of urgency to deliver better outcomes for students. So much of our learning during this time centred around the seminal work of Dr Viviane Robinson (2007). For students to be successful we knew that our school learning communities needed to be orderly, but that effective systems, routines, timetables and processes were not enough. We knew we needed effective distribution of resources but we couldn’t just put technology in classrooms and hope for improved outcomes. We knew we needed to set goals as a school that were aspirational but we also knew the importance of individual students having their own achievement measured against their own progress. As we examined Dr Robinson’s research and tussled with the idea that as school leaders we could have impact on student learning outcomes by facilitating and participating in high quality professional learning, the answer started to become more obvious. Professional learning in each of our schools was pretty much the same. We reflected on the notions of effectiveness and impact of teachers being involved in a weekly professional learning session for an hour after the school day. We started to ask ourselves questions about the things that we could control ergo the mandatory elements of staff training versus the opportunities for authentic professional learning that would benefit from a redesign. The most common question we asked ourselves was how we could highlight the learning of the adults in a way that demonstrated our commitment to their learning in the same way we were committed to student learning. We reflected on the notion of prime learning time and more importantly thought about ways that we could provide opportunities for teachers to learn during this time. Across our schools and in many others there was a common belief that the learning time of students should be prioritised over that of their teachers. We asked ourselves what rhythms of learning looked like in a primary school setting. And for every idea we had, we found more and more questions. Without knowing it what we were actually doing throughout this time was scanning each of our schools, focusing on the main issues and eventually forming a hunch that professional learning was the key to unlocking teacher learning potential, raising expectations and improving student outcomes. As fate would have it our new learning arrived just at the right time. An opportunity to hear about the Spiral of Inquiry from Drs Halbert and Kaser when they were visiting Sydney put our moral imperative to do something for change directly in front of us. It was clear from that initial overview of the Spiral, that in order for us to take the bold action of reimagining and igniting enthusiasm for professional learning in our schools we needed this framework. Moreover, we needed to search for people like Drs Halbert, Kaser and Timperley who we found intellectually attractive!
Investing in TeachersWith a new vision and a renewed sense of purpose; and with permission from a positive policy context in NSW, we set about making the decision to invest in what we considered to be our most valuable asset: teachers. We identified opportunities within a variety of national and state funding sources and policies and set about stripping away years worth of historic school structures. We worked towards replacing them with what we believed was a modern learning oriented design (Kaser and Halbert, 2009) that positioned the learning of adults, along with students, at the epicentre of decision making and whole school resource allocation. This work was at times messy and required consultation, negotiation, compromise and a whole lot of trust. Leadership Mindsets (Kaser and Halbert, 2009) taught us that our leadership teams needed to be on the same page. In fact, we learned very quickly that the success or otherwise of such a significant change in our schools would only be achieved with their support and commitment. As such, in different ways we had our starting point. Some of our team members were early adopters and immediately made the connection between the effective learning of staff and the impact it has on the learning outcomes of the students. Some hastened with caution but understood the value of giving something a go. A few of our colleagues were more difficult to convince. With a healthy dose of optimism, along with some calculated risk taking, common structures began to appear in our schools. Each of us in our own way made a commitment to providing job embedded time for teachers to learn together. Whilst there were slight differences in each of our schools, the common thread was the notion that we couldn’t take time from other areas, indeed we needed to create time. As four principals we met regularly, sometimes weekly to discuss how things were going in each of our settings. We learned that there were a number of challenges in each of our schools, including an initial belief by some staff that the use of the Spiral of Inquiry (and collaboration more generally) was being used by the leadership team as some kind of covert evaluative process. It became apparent that we needed to monitor closely our language when talking about the Spiral and as such we developed a range of common descriptors to describe the why in each of our settings. We began to use phrases such as looking down and not up when describing the importance of student voice as a tool for our learning. We borrowed Elmore’s phrase of professionals coming together to diagnose the learning (City et al., 2009) and we created group norms which promoted a culture of high expectations and professionalism commensurate to the time and money being invested in the professional learning of every teacher in the school.
Whole School Involvement in the SpiralIn many ways, this is where the use of the Spiral of Inquiry in NSW Public Schools departed somewhat from what we understood was happening in schools in Canada. Towards the beginning of our journey of whole school implementation of collaborative practices using the Spiral of Inquiry we were fortunate to be invited to visit a number of schools in British Columbia (BC) and to attend a NOII BC symposium which brought together Network leaders from all over the Province. What we discovered surprised us; without knowing it we had interpreted the use of the Spiral in a slightly different way. Our NSW policy context and local budget autonomy allowed us to make whole school decisions about implementing the Spiral of Inquiry that seemed rare in the schools we visited in BC, where we often saw smaller numbers of teachers involved in an inquiry process that sat alongside the rest of their professional learning. These were people who were passionately committed to inquiry in order to learn more about what was going on for their learners. However, these same educators were constantly surprised when we described to them our whole school structures, including job embedded time for every teacher to be involved in the inquiry process. This international perspective initially made us question whether we were on the right track. After hosting reciprocal visits in NSW with Drs Halbert, Kaser and Timperley we were hugely encouraged by the positive feedback we received. Moreover, we were uplifted to continue to refine and document the evolution of inquiry in our schools and share as much information as we could with our international friends and colleagues. Validation of how our work in NSW was inspiring our international colleagues to further push the boundaries of inquiry and collaboration in their own settings, assured us that we were indeed on the right track. Within our own schools, the fear that the Spiral of Inquiry was being used as an evaluative process began to evaporate. Teams of teachers began to see these collaborative experiences as an integral part of their planning, teaching and assessment cycle. Additionally, our leadership teams were realizing the correlation that existed between successful inquiry cycles and whole school improvement. Whilst we resisted the urge (and continue to do so) to link the Spiral of Inquiry directly to school or state targets, we collected school based data that demonstrated unequivocally that teachers were improving in their knowledge of curriculum content and delivery and our impact could be measured by student achievement and growth. The word of this good news began to trickle out of our schools into neighbouring schools. At first a small number of colleagues began to ask us questions about what we were doing and why. Very quickly however, this curiosity grew into many colleagues visiting our schools to witness the Spiral of Inquiry in action. In a very short amount of time we went from four schools coming together as a Network, to five. Soon after that, it was ten schools. As such the Network of Inquiry and Innovation in NSW was born. During this time we continued to self-fund trips to British Columbia in school vacation periods. This ongoing relationship with the founders of NOII, Drs Halbert and Kaser, and the willingness of Canadian school leaders to welcome us into their schools with open arms, continued to be vitally important to our own learning. We would bring back to NSW a refreshed sense of validation for what we were doing in our schools, but perhaps more importantly the understanding of how important it is to do this work together. We were inspired by how the work of NOII BC was informing the system more broadly from a grass roots level. We learned valuable lessons about the importance of empowering school teams who otherwise could be impeded by distance or remoteness to collaborate in new ways. We saw the value in bringing people together to be curious, to learn, to uplift, to encourage and to challenge one another to continue this important work. After being invited by Drs Halbert and Kaser to formally lead NOII NSW we began the process of trying to distill what we now describe as the NOII way. To us that meant ensuring quality and equity was at the heart of every decision we made. In addition, we committed our Network to the three pillars that underpin the Spiral of Inquiry; every learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options; every learner leaving our settings more curious than when they arrived; and all learners gaining an understanding of and respect for Indigenous ways of knowing. Acknowledging the continued policy context of local school leader empowerment, we now find ourselves in a position where we recognize a grassroots movement developing across NSW at an extraordinary pace. NOII NSW has a core group of principals and school leaders who were willing to take a risk and try something different in their own schools very early on. This core group of principals is now supporting more than 200 schools representing some 70,000 students. We believe strongly in the NOII way of giving to receive and as a result we have committed to providing an annual cycle of professional learning opportunities for colleagues to come together to share and learn. With every event we host our numbers grow and our impact reaches further. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the work so far has been the opportunity to witness new relationships growing between school leaders and to stand alongside reinvigorated colleagues as they begin their journey of inquiry and collaboration.
Improved Student Learning OutcomesOf course none of this work is worth the investment of time and energy without evidence of significant impact on student learning outcomes. We have learned that measuring the impact of the Spiral of Inquiry and collaboration more broadly isn’t as simple as merely comparing data sets. Indeed, the evidence of this work is far reaching and can range from the impact on the pedagogy of early career teachers all the way through to more experienced colleagues rediscovering their passion and curiosity for student learning. That is to say, much of the impact that we are observing even in some of our most complex schools, additionally relates to fundamental changes in collaborative learning cultures. We have seen time and time again that schools who commit to using the Spiral of Inquiry as a whole school pedagogical framework reap the benefits of developing robust systems and practices that allow for teachers to learn together to better understand what is going on for individual learners in their class. The NSW evidence suggests that schools who create an environment where collaborative practices are at the forefront of all learning are better able to identify specific aspects of individual student learning directions. This allows school teams to make informed decisions about the strategic interventions required for students to make progress as measured against their own learning pathway. Many schools are using visible learning strategies such as data walls, annotated work samples and learning progressions to accurately align explicit teaching to the needs of individual students. To us, this represents a major shift in the planning, teaching and learning cycle based on what we have previously experienced for many years. We are witnessing teams of teachers moving away from conversations framing the learning challenges of large cohorts of students toward far more differentiated and tailored action plans which support every learner as an individual. Another significant change we have witnessed has been the use of student voice as a genuine feature of data collection relating to the Spiral phases of scanning and checking. In fact, we believe that student agency has become one of the cornerstones of practice of NOII schools in NSW. Hundreds of teachers are regularly using Timperley and Hattie and Timperley’s (2007) cognitive learning questions as a springboard to gain a deeper understanding about what is going on for their learners. Some exciting findings resulting from national testing suggests that schools who are taking this approach are recording accelerated student learning growth. That is to say, students who are partners in their own learning, and who are supported by curious teachers with an inquiry mindset, are meeting learning milestones faster and faster. The overall impact of this work is seeing schools ‘punching above their weight’ when comparing their value added student data to other statistically similar schools. In other words, schools using the Spiral of Inquiry in a coordinated, collaborative and unrelenting manner are seeing their students making gains faster than other schools in similar neighborhoods with similar socio-economic conditions. This has not only created an exciting improvement in student outcomes, but also a shift in the mindsets of teachers working in schools everyday, especially those often described as complex. Where once we heard statements like ‘These kids will never get it’ or ‘This grade has always been behind’, we are now hearing teachers saying ‘What if we tried this?’ and ‘I wonder what is going for that student?’ This type of improvement in learning culture is also creating the conditions schools need to ensure equity in the quality teaching students have access to across all classes in a school. New teachers are being upskilled far more quickly to understand the curriculum and how to teach it, experienced teachers are critiquing traditional assessment methods within an environment that honours curiosity; and school leaders are finding themselves closer and more connected to the learning of individual students than they have in years. As a school principal recently described it to us, “the Spiral of Inquiry has created the perfect storm for genuine and lasting school improvement”.
Future DirectionsSo where to from here? As the network continues to grow, the system as a whole is beginning to recognise that the Spiral of Inquiry is successfully assisting teachers to improve outcomes for students. We are convinced that where like mindedness exists, along with trust and adequate resourcing from the system, change is possible and exciting. At the core of what we continue to do is the notion that it is our collective responsibility to be committed to our own learning and the learning of our colleagues so as to provide the best conditions possible for every student in NSW to be known, valued and cared for (NSW Department of Education, 2018). It is with this spirit that we commit to continuing this journey of learning, collaborating and sharing now and into the future.  The original four leaders of NOII NSW: Hallie-Ann Baxter (Principal, Middleton Grange Public School); Natalie Mansour (Principal, Glenmore Park Public School); David Martin (Principal, Lurnea Public School); and Michael Newcombe (Principal, Sackville Street Public School).
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