Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Spring 2019This narrative reveals how a high school teacher executed an efficient Spiral of Inquiry in his classroom by using a series of tools from the business world. Throughout this account, he outlines his step-by-step process, identifying the resulting benefits and stumbling blocks, and providing examples of spirals he has led in this way. By Thomas Lowe
An obsession with failure seems to be gripping our social circles. The idea that failure is “good” and what it means to “rise strong” (Brown, 2011) has become ethos.Luckily, my career has been a series of failures. Failure to get an interview out of the gate led to teaching in China for a year which was where I got engaged to my wife, had an amazing cultural and professional experience, and toured China playing hockey with a bunch of ex-pat teachers. Failure to get the interview again upon returning home led me to help open a high-school on a mountain at Sun Peaks, out of something formally called the Sun Peaks Education Society. I finally got a job at 0.25 FTE in the Kamloops School District and boom – strike! This systems failure led me to go back to school to get a Masters of Business Administration. My most recent failure was to get rejected from the SD 73 leadership development program after nearly killing myself to get in. I have to say that this one almost broke me. I felt mad, frustrated, and upset. In reality, I was actually entitled, under the immature delusion that if I just worked hard enough, I would be owed a seat. I was so busy running around that I didn’t stop to think that maybe I was just not good enough… yet. With my tail between my legs, I did what any good teacher does when presented with failure, I bought some good beer and reflected on my process. I tell you this self-abasing anecdote because it illustrates my understanding of failure: failure is good; failure can lead to new opportunities. Failure led me to apply for the Transformative Educational Leadership Program (TELP) at the University of British Columbia and, as a result, this Spiral of Inquiry.
Spirals in the classroomThe largest hurdle I have found when using Spirals in the context of a semestered classroom is the time constraints. It is difficult to go from hunch to action within the scope of a term while covering curricular competencies and content. However, in Physics 11/12, Biology 11, Science 8, and French 9-12 rural classrooms,I have found many of the tools I used in business work well to speed up the Spiral without compromising its integrity. The example that I outline here is from my Science 8 class. When starting work with Spirals in the aforementioned classes, I knew I had to establish a baseline of where my learners were at before I could go anywhere with my project. I created a survey to determine student interests, values, previous grades, and learning behaviours. The initial survey gave my students a voice in the class and gave them the sense that they were able to influence their own classroom experience. This sense of agency allowed them to take ownership of their learning. Second, it formed the foundation of our learning culture. By inquiring into students’ values and interests, they could immediately reflect on their own value system and we thereby avoided adopting my own agenda. Finally, I was able to learn their interests immediately which allowed me to make fast connections. Creating a baseline is important for any inquiry because it allows you to gather initial date which you can use to measure results.
Step 1 – Find your bottleneck (Scan)When I toured with the Thompson Rivers University MBA case competition team, we focused on one underlying principle when tackling any of the business issues presented to us: what is the root problem? Generally, as soon as we identified the main problem (bottleneck) and created a problem definition (reason for bottleneck), we could create a corporate strategy to tackle the issues. We used many analysis tools such as a SWOT analysis (the Mind Tools Content Team, 2015), stakeholder’s analysis (Thompson, 2015), and gap analysis (the Mind Tools Content Team, 2015), all to answer two main questions: what are we doing and why does it matter? Meeting learners where they are at by analyzing the main issues or, as I like to say, the bottleneck of the student’s learning, is a priority in the Spiral. A bottleneck is something that reduces the flow or capacity of a system – in this case, knowledge and skill acquisition of our students. The most diverse part of adapting Spirals of Inquiry to a time constrained classroom model is the idea of “what is going on for your learners” (Kaser & Halbert, 2017, p. 19). The diversity of all classes and teachers makes the bottleneck unique every time; but, using this process should lead you to the core issue or problem of practice. After the final assessment of the first unit, I had my students complete a short check-in:
- What are you learning?
- Why is it important?
- What is going well in the class?
- What would you change?
- What has been your favourite lesson so far?
- Is there anything else that you would like to share or think that I should know about?
Step 2 – FocusOnce you have discovered your bottleneck, it can be difficult to understand the cause of the bottleneck. In my example, my students believed that content was king, but I had no understanding beyond my own assumptions as to what was causing this belief. In order to learn what was at the root of this issue, I leaned heavily on the tools of business analysis using one of my Mindset Mondaysessions to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis with my students. We discussed issues surrounding the new curriculum, came up with our collective strengths and targeted opportunities to grow, noting what might currently be hindering our growth. They helped me realize that my previous rubrics and assessment methods were not as competency specific as I had imagined. Also, they pointed out that, as a class, they tended to shy away from competencies that they felt unsure of, such as communication (such as presentations) and creativity. In addition, we agreed with the First Peoples Principle of Learning that “learning involves patience and time” (First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2008),that we had not fully switched our thinking over to the new curriculum, and that old habits die hard. Some of the added benefits of this collaboration with my students were that they
- felt listened to
- realized that I wasn’t peddling snake oil when I told them that they would have input, and
- their level of engagement was extremely high during the activity and seemed higher with future curricular activities.
Step 3 – Develop a problem of practice statement (Hunch)In this phase I use the process of grouping all the issues into an umbrella statement in an Issues analysis protocol. I tend to use a lot of stickie notes, vertical learning surfaces, and mind-maps during this step. The big idea here is to make connections between different issues, name assumptions, and come up with a problem of practice statement broad enough to encapsulate a majority of the issues but concise enough that it has actionable solutions. The good news is that there are really no wrong answers here. If you decide on a problem statement that is not really the core issue, that is fine. The beauty of the classroom Spirals is that it is basically a professional round for yourself and anything you decide on should inform your practice. In the case of my classroom example, I created the following problem of practice statement: My classroom culture and the low resiliency of my students do not adequately use the new curriculum to support student learning and skill acquisition. This statement might not be perfect -you could spend months perfecting a statement, but I was happy with it because it allowed me to move forward with actionable solutions. In my experience I have learned, with time constraints it is important to have a minimum viable product and move forward or else time will run out. As long as I am constantly reflective, this approach will serve me well.
Step 4 – LearnHowever you engage in your own learning, I do suggest that you involve your students in the learning process as well. Share with them what you are learning as you learn it. This transparency will prompt a few things: one, it cements your learning; two, it allows your students to see your otherwise invisible effort into creating a better learning environment; three, it increases the capacity of your students in the areas in which they are weak; and four, it increases buy-in to the process. In my Science 8 classroom example, I concentrated my efforts on evolving my learning culture into one that encapsulated the curricular competencies as well as built up the resiliency of my students. I read a lot about resiliency (so much so that I found out that it is apparently pretentious to say resiliency instead of just resilience). The biggest influencer I came across during this step was Brené Brown who suggests that very resilient people have certain things in common which include: courage, connection because of authenticity, and compassion. She argues that, most importantly, they embrace vulnerability (2011). Additionally, she finds that people are not resilient because they feel shame and “a fear of not being worthy” (2011). I also read a few other novels on the subject of resilience, which include, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, which talked about process over product, and Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull which was extremely informative with respect to systems that I could install and remove from my classroom to really inspire a creative learning culture. Due to the time constraints of the term,I moved to action more quickly than I might otherwise have moved. However, I absolutely bounce back to this step as needed – which is the true beauty of the Spirals model – it is not linear.
Step 5 – Design and take actionOnce I had my problem definition, and had done some learning, my class and I wrote three mutually exclusive alternatives that I could use to solve my problem. An alternative is mutually exclusive to another alternative if both alternatives cannot be true. That is to say that if one happens, then the other cannot. A common example of this is a coin toss: if the coin comes up heads, then it cannot possibly come up tails (both cannot happen at the same time). Once I had those ideas, I took them to my class and discussed the pros and cons of each.
- Use Mindset Mondays as the forum for cultivation and growth of core skills and resilience
- Embed resilience into all projects (core competencies have already been embedded)
- Have students do an inquiry project into resilience and core-competencies with respect to their curricular content
Action planMy action plan was fairly straight forward which mostly consisted of curricular development which was definitely the fun and easy portion of the process.
- Establish a forum in which the class can work on/ learn about resilience
- Re-visit all of my assessments and ensure that they are targeting core-competencies
- Create a unit plan with mini-lessons on resilience and core competencies
- Create the individual mini-lessons/activities
- Establish check-in points and measures of impact
Step 8 – Check-inBefore jumping into the action mentioned above, take some time to decide how you will know if the action is successful or not. What metric will you use? Creating an efficient classroom culture takes maintenance. Students will tend to revert to what is easy should they be given the opportunity. Whatever my metric is, I tend to check in with my students informally on a consistent basis using the 2×10 strategy: checking in with two students a day for ten days. Formally, I use the student check-in survey every other unit that I cover in my course. If I find something in my check-in, then I will bounce back to other components of the spiral. Each formal check-in that I did helped me to further focus my strategy and I am happy to report that by the end of the Spiral all of my students had showed at least some switch in their thinking to focus more on core competencies. Rather than reporting on content, my students would tell me how their presentation skills had improved, or how they were better able to work with peers who they had never worked well with in the past. Moreover, the responses to the “why does it matter” question where much longer than one-liners, which showed that their engagement and resilience were stronger than the beginning of the Spiral. Additionally, the class’ output increased which I quantified by the number of referrals to academic intervention and missing assignments. To me, this showed an increase in resilience.
ConclusionTo quote Ed Catmull, “no one – not Walt [Disney], not Steve [Jobs], not the people of Pixar – ever achieved creative success by simply clinging to what used to work” (Catmull, 2014, p. 166). Spirals of Inquiry is an excellent tool to really challenge our thinking and professional practice. It is easy to get stuck in our ways, hoping that our tried and true methods work for all students who walk through our doors; however, the more iterations I do of this efficient classroom Spirals model, the more I realize that I truly don’t know what I don’t know. I may think I am doing everything right, trying new things, and believing that I am learning from my failures, but my students are truly the ones who know exactly how it is to learn in my class andthe spirals keeps me centered on that truth so I can respond accordingly. I allow 15 minutes at the start of every Monday for cultural cultivation and growth. A classroom culture will establish itself, with or without our influence, and giving time to cultivate a positive learning culture with students who genuinely need to understand more about their learning is something that I find very useful -especially later in the Spirals journey. I call these Monday sessions Mindset Monday and they have ranged from YouTube videos to a rap battle that was more embarrassing than most of my dad jokes. Topics have ranged from growth vs. fixed mindset, grit, how brains work, mindfulness, kindness, vulnerability, and respect. I often use Character Lab playbooks by Angela Duckworth (Character Lab, 2019), whom you may know from her TED talk on grit(Duckworth, 2013). The purpose of this focus is to facilitate the creation of a culture conducive to learning and growing so that students engage when you ask them to use the Spiral.
Brown, B. (2011, January 3). TED Talks -Rising Strong. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0&list=PLKtmqXynUyO6gUtG5ZgsP6kfgoGXA86t2
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the Mind Tools Content Team. (2015). SWOT Analysis. Retrieved from Mind Tools: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_05.htm
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