Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Fall 2022In a system marred by political instability, a small number of leaders created a network of schools in Catalonia and transform how teachers engage with their own learning. The impact? System-wide transformation has begun. Read how Begonya and her colleagues have used metaphor and relationships to begin to shift a system towards a focus on students. By Begonya Folch Martínez
Educational Transformation in CataloniaSince 2016, a movement to transform education in Catalonia has been taking place. The author of this paper, Begonya Folch, along with Marina Gay and Carles López from Escola Nova 21 (a private initiative committed to educational transformation) have been working with education authorities and stakeholders to implement strategies from the Spiral of Inquiry framework into local learning environments. This paper outlines the political and social context in which this work was undertaken, the way networks of inquiry have been formed in Catalonia, and an exploration of the lessons learned. The goal of the educational transformation that the Catalan Government is pursuing is the development of both students and teachers as expert apprentices. Both students and teachers will need to participate actively in their learning contexts, with commitment, knowledge, and strategies. We want to move towards learner focused schools, where teachers are also learners. The Spiral of Inquiry offers teachers involved in transformation networks in Catalonia the necessary scaffolding and protocols to improve both the learning of their students and their own professional learning.
Political Context and BackgroundIt would be easy for me to talk about what the Catalan teachers have learned from the Spiral of Inquiry, but first it is important to understand the political climate that preceded these changes in our education system. I want you to know that the point we started from was not a time of calm, but a time of political conflict and upheaval in Catalan society. We need to move away a bit from the phenomenon to understand the initial strength of the project and also to understand what we have done, what we have learned and why we are here today to share all of this, three years later. In the past four years (2016-2019) we have had three general elections in Spain, which has meant two different governments from two different parties and two different Spanish Education Ministers. We have also had two regional elections in Catalonia (2015-2017). The second one was forced by the Spanish Government who suspended regional autonomy for eight months. We have also had four Catalan Education Counselors. One of them, Clara Ponsatí, had to leave the country in March of 2018 to avoid retaliation after authorizing the use of school buildings for people to vote in a self-determination referendum. Other members of that government are currently in prison or in exile in Belgium, Switzerland and Scotland. At the time of writing, we anticipate an upcoming local election will likely result in further upheaval. In summary, it will mean for Catalan people six elections in less than five years. The effects of all these changes on learners, families and teachers at schools cannot be underestimated. Remember that we have today in our secondary schools the children who were born just before the global crisis (2007-2012), and they were three, four or five years old when the crisis broke out. The children in our primary schools were born in the middle of that crisis, which was an exceptionally difficult time for our country. Early in 2010, the Catalan Education Counselor cut the professional learning development programs for teachers. In a cost saving measure, she cut the civil servant exams needed to become a permanent secondary teacher by 61%, because substitute teachers are cheaper to employ. She imposed a new time table on secondary schools in order to close the dining rooms, again for economic reasons, which means that students and teachers now attend school from 8am to 3pm without lunchtime. According to 2018 census data, in Catalonia 27.7% of children are living in poverty (Institut d’Estadística de Catalunya, 2019). The worsening economic realities for families are constantly adding complexity to the school context, especially in public schools, but also in subsidized schools. Today, government investment in education in Catalonia is the lowest in Europe, and 18% of our students leave school before completion.
Transforming Education: Escola Nova 21 and the Emergence of School NetworksIt was within this context that Escola Nova 21, a private initiative committed to educational transformation, put a call out to primary and secondary schools in April 2016, asking them if they would like to improve and update their purpose, practices, methodologies and organizations. This call was answered by about 500 publicly funded schools, which is 10% of Catalan schools. The schools responded because they wanted to improve their learning environments and have more engaged learners. The program intended to work intensively with a sample of 30 schools, to accompany them in their transformation through a change protocol and through methodological and organizational coaching led by Boris Mir and Mata Pujadó. But what about the rest? No one had predicted this level of interest in the program. The Escola Nova 21 leader, Eduard Vallory, then consulted the OECD’s expert David Istance, and he told us about the Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education (NOIIE) in British Columbia, Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, and the Spiral of Inquiry work. With the commitment and co-responsibility of other stakeholders such as the Diputació de Barcelona and many city councils, we started organizing schools in to networks, first in Catalonia. and then in Barcelona, where the Barcelona Education Consortium, in an agreement with Escola Nova 21, the Rosa Sensat Teachers Association and the UAB Sciences Education Institute (ICE), created the educational transformation networks Programa Xarxes per al canvi(Networks for Change) as a public policy, and made three more calls in 2017, 2018, and 2019, with the goal that all elementary and secondary public schools would eventually join their district based network. We can, therefore, say that all education authorities and key stakeholders have played a role in the renewed movement of the educational transformation in Catalonia. Marina Gay, Carles López and Begonya Folch, from Escola Nova 21, read The Spiral of Inquiry Playbook (2017) and traveled to London in February 2017 at the invitation of Whole Education, where we met Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert. We shared what we learned with Victoria Ibáñez and Mercè Mas from the Barcelona Consortium of Education, the team I met to run Xarxes per al canvi in Barcelona starting in March 2017. By May 2017 we were already sharing with the Barcelona networks the Growth Mindset, the 7 Principles of Learning and the Spiral of Inquiry. In November 2017, Kaser and Halbert visited Barcelona invited by Fundació Jaume Bofill and shared with us a conference (Halbert & Kaser, 2017), a workshop, and a school visit, and luckily they could attend a school networking meeting at L’Univers primary school. Bofill’s energy and support have been constant. We have taken part in ICSEI 2019 in Stavanger, and were invited to the NOIIE International Symposium in Vancouver last May, as well as the Whole Education meeting in London last autumn at the invitation of Rosie Leonard, and now here we are at ICSEI 2020 in Marrakech. These events have made us feel part of a very broad movement, where all contexts and voices are considered valuable and where we can share the goal of improving learning for all of our learners and for all of us. As Kaser and Halbert (2009) wrote in Leadership Mindset, “learning requires talk with others” (p. 90). What all of us have in common today after three years of deep conversations, shared reflections, more than six hundred network sessions in fifty networks, ten conferences, books shared, school visits, three summer schools and lots of social network conversations is just that we all are concerned with everyone learning. The Escola Nova 21 program was created with the intention of being a three-year project. Now, in December 2019, its work is finished, and the Catalonia Department of Education will assume the responsibility – as Barcelona Consortium of Education did before – of setting the facilitation conditions for the different school networks to be consolidated and the creation of an acceleration program for further educational transformation work over the next three years. Of course, teachers would like reassurance that we will be able to secure an ecosystem of professional learning networks for teachers beyond these three years. Unfortunately, political policies do not always match what is required to maintain an optimal educational environment. However we know (OECD, 2015) this: Relationships, connections and trust take time to form. The interaction of networks and communities unfold in time, not instantly. It takes time to learn, no matter who is doing the learning – individuals, classes, schools, networks, communities of practice, districts, stakeholders or ministries of education [emphasis added]. And with time comes change: change in context and relationships, change in the form of growth, and in the form of decline and disappearance as well…Growing innovative learning environments organically, based on sound knowledge and professional commitment, clearly cannot be achieved at scale overnight. (p. 77)
A Learner Centred ApproachIn line with the countries in our European context and thanks to the recent publications of UNESCO (2015) and the OECD (Dumont et al., 2010), Escola Nova 21 was able to articulate a program to update the goal of our education systems and practices based on how we best learn. This learner centered approach understands assessment as learning and assumes that more flexible and adaptive organization will be needed. As a society, we want a wide and deep education transformation that reaches every school, teacher, and student. It only will be “transformative” if it is for everyone, for the common good, ethical, sustainable and nonreversible. The handbook Structuring Equality (Davidson, 2017) explains it in this way: The basic premise of student-centered, engaged learning is that, to make a truly equitable and democratic society, we have to begin with a form of instruction that is itself equitable [emphasis added]. The title of our collection, Structuring Equality, comes from our central conviction that you cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You need to design structures that themselves are equal. If you do not, you end up replicating inequality, no matter how good your intention. Engaged learning must engage every student. That goal of structural equality must be part of the reflections upon which all pedagogical experiments are based. (pp. 12-13) Our documents, norms, and decrees in Catalonia have been in line with widespread educational transformation and they have been taking place in a favorable context. However norms do not change the culture: people do. For a new school culture to emerge it must engage people and inspire a broad and deep movement, adaptable to all educational contexts while incorporating teacher-led design. Our approach to this challenge has been to build trust in teams and networks for professional innovative learning environments that will in turn create the learning environments that our students need. And for this movement to be wide and deep, the transformation can’t be fast. As Fullan & Hargreaves (2012) wrote, “Because collaborative cultures don’t evolve quickly, they can be unattractive for administrators seeking swift solutions” (p. 117). However, time is a necessary component of doing this work. Fullan and Hargreaves remind us: Collaborative cultures take much more time, care, and sensitivity than speedily implemented changes or hurriedly assembled teams allow. As we shall see shortly, professional learning communities can be stilted caricatures of the vibrant cultures of deliberation and dialogue that they could really be. Building collaborative cultures is a patient developmental journey. There are no easy shortcuts. (p. 119)
Mindset and SymmetryIn order to build a collaborative learning culture, it is important to develop a shared language and a common purpose (with the goal of everyone, including teachers, learning). The Spiral of Inquiry is not a tool or a method; as its authors, Kaser & Halbert (2009) say, it is a mindset. Tom Beresford (2017) talks about the importance of a collective vision which “binds the efforts of the many in the same direction…The most powerful collective visions encapsulate a single purpose, as well as a set of design principles…that codify a commitment to the heart and soul of an approach” (p. 58). He explains that collective visions define everyday actions and thought processes and “ensure we practice what we preach” (p. 58). Having a collective vision that guides our practice encourages teacher and learner engagement and ownership of change. It is also important that teachers recognize the process of learning. Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School of Education says: One of the most powerful things you can do is give adults models and experiences that mirror what you are hoping they will do for students. We also call this “symmetry” in our work — that if, as a system level leader, you want teachers to teach students in a particular way, you have to give teachers opportunities to have those same kinds of learning experiences. (cited in Beresford, 2017, p. 58) What we pursued with our work from the beginning was exactly this: our network sessions were a context where the medium was the message. Through the latest research (Dumont et al., 2010) about how people learn we created the context for deep conversations that led us to a shared language and meanings. This is crucial in education, where all of us use the same words but everyone has their own interpretations. As Monike Boekaerts (2010, p. 91) wrote, that emotions have a crucial place in learning. Our affective functions are engaged with learning through purpose, goals, interests, needs, effort, and persistence. Learning environments, both for teachers as for learners, have to be designed in ways that everyone’s voice and choice can be heard because this shift will lead learners to own their own learning. We cannot underestimate the importance of this shift in thinking about learning design. Giving voice to students and learners allows them to answer the question “what are we learning and why is it important?”
Working with the Spiral of InquiryAs network facilitators, we offered teachers the opportunity to start a Spiral of Inquiry cycle in their schools. They were not required to produce anything at this point, this was simply an exercise for them to learn how the Spiral works. Some of them tried it. All they had to do at first was find a colleague and ask themselves about their students’ needs and challenges. Our first observation was that teachers were not initially focused on students’ learning, but rather on their own difficulties as teachers: they wanted to improve their working conditions, like noise levels in the corridors, the number of fights at recess or the students’ dependence on their teachers. We faced these “false starts” by shifting more attention to the students’ voices. Teachers had forgotten to ask the four big questions, or they had written other questions, lots of questions, but skipped the “four big”. Why did they do this? First, a quick reminder of the Four Big questions:
- Can you name two people in this setting who believe you will be a success in life?
- What are you learning and why is it important?
- How is it going with your learning?
- What are your next steps?
Universal Design for LearningNow we were ready to talk about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Our teachers were not familiar with UDL, but they quickly understood this new playing field: no longer thinking of themselves as somebody who applies activities on learners, but somebody who is able to create highly inclusive learning contexts so that all learners could be involved with heart, head and hands, with engagement, understanding and performance. That is, learners that:
- Own the purpose: “What are you learning?” and “Why is this important?”
- Know the success criteria: “How is it going?”
- Take action: “What’s the next step?”
A story about unlearning:I would ask you to see this story with scientific eyes. We offer it to you as a metaphor. For us, it has been very powerful. This is the story of a painter, William Utermohlen. He was born in Philadelphia, 1933. He was an American painter established in London and specialized in portraiture. In 1995 William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. From that moment he decided to paint at least one self-portrait every year (perhaps to document how his disease affected his painting, we don’t know exactly). Today his self-portraits are used as case studies in all psychiatric universities in the USA. We’re born with a brain, but the mind is a construction. We cannot understand the mind of studying a brain. And Art is the most complex ability for the human mind. In that time he said once he realized some shortcomings in his self-portraits. But he stated he couldn’t identify exactly the mistake and how to fix it. About this self-portrait, in 1999, he said, “I cannot see my nose”. He painted his last self-portrait in 2000. He died in 2007. Shortly before completely losing his ability to paint, he explained that his self-portraits had no depth and he also realized there were some mistakes. However, he also acknowledged that he had no idea how to correct or improve them.
- He had evidence of the errors he made in his self-portraits, related to his purpose, his “why”. This evidence was related to his purpose, his “why”. If his purpose had been to stain the canvas, there would have been no evidence of failure. In other words, the evidence of success or failure must necessarily come from achieving (or not achieving) a purpose or a goal.
- He couldn’t make a judgment about what was wrong, what needed to be fixed. He lost the success criteria.
- And he couldn’t make a decision about how to fix it. He couldn’t find the next step.
- He had evidence while maintaining the purpose
- He lost his capacity to make judgments
- He lost his decision-making ability.
- Own the purpose and have evidence
- Make judgments based on success criteria
- Make a decision and take action, the next step
- Purpose drives us to evidence
- Success criteria drive us to judgments
- Taking a decision drives us to the next step
- From purpose to evidence
- From success criteria to judgments
- From decision-making to the next step
Our HowThe work around Spiral of Inquiry in our network sessions is based on deep conversations between the participants. We wanted everybody engaged in these conversations, so from the beginning we used the Tuning Protocol (Allen, 1995) to facilitate the inclusion of all voices. Conversation protocols are: …methods by which we structure equal participation by every member of the class rather than allowing anyone—whether the professor or a particularly extroverted or intellectually aggressive student—to play the dominant role…If we are going to have equality in learning, we need to structure that into how we conduct our classrooms. (Davidson, 2017, p. 13) We learned conversation protocols like Critical Friends Protocol (Tuning Protocol) by doing it, in a symmetry of experiences that mirror what we are hoping teachers will do for students. What we learned from this practice is that working in their pairs and thinking on their Spiral projects was more relevant to them than having an expert give them an opinion. The facilitator’s voice is still heard and valued, but teachers feel most valued when their pairs are given the opportunity to share their opinions and ideas in order to “tune” the focus, for example, or talk about the learning possibilities (the “I have…” phase in the Tuning Protocol). Of course, as Fullan & Hargreaves (2012) wrote, no deep-conversation arrives without trust, respect and understanding. They said that “the differences between merely arranged and artificially contrived or forced collegiality are to be found in whether there is already enough trust, respect and understanding in a culture for any new structures or arrangements to have the capacity to move that culture ahead” (p. 125). That doesn’t mean there is a lack of expertise. Both solid knowledge from research and deep conversations are needed, as Hargreaves & O’Connor (2018) state: Effective collaboration needs specific designs, protocols, structures, and processes to guide conversations so that peers can improve their practice without jeopardizing existing relationships. It needs solid expertise about curriculum, teaching, and learning, too… “Educators should be wary of a trend toward the ‘death of expertise’, in which no member of the group is expected to stand out as an authority, or in which everybody is assumed to have equally valid experience and knowledge.” (Nichols, 2017, as cited in Hargreaves et. al, 2018, p. 15)
Our why: metacognitionSince we want to “give our teachers models and experiences that mirror what we are hoping they will do for students, opportunities to have those same kinds of learning experiences” (Beresford, 2017, p.58) we should assure that all network sessions finish with enough time for deep reflection, the metacognitive phase, a sort of “why moment” that will lead teachers to continue reflecting. This will give sense to the learning experience, enabling them to learn deeper, and to understand how important the metacognitive phase is for their students as well. As we know, …learning how to learn is a skill that lasts long after the knowledge mastered in a class is forgotten or outmoded. In a rapidly changing world, learning how to learn is a survival skill. Learning how to learn lasts a lifetime. That is the motivation behind student-centered learning. It is, quite simply, a higher, better form of learning. (Davidson, 2017, p.15) In our short experience with the Spiral of Inquiry work, this is the main shift we can enact in our professional culture: all learning improvement initiatives should arrive from the bottom-up, from the teachers’ eyes, from the value of equity, from the real context in every school. And learning initiatives should have in mind learning improvement for all learners, with the professional learning of all the teachers and administrators taking place alongside the learning of the students. The authors of Reimagining Education Together (Big Change Innovation Unit, 2019) …recognized a new model of transformative change that is human-centred and built on foundations of trust, experimentation and open conversation. This shared practice demonstrated that not only is change necessary, it is also possible. It showed us that the answer to how change happens is: together. (p. 1) Our thanks and deep respect and recognition to Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser for their support, lessons and trust. They have made the difference in all of us. The journey continues.
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