Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Fall 2022See how a Swedish Network grew from a two day learning session about the Spirals of Inquiry which the authors of this paper see as a systematic mental model for disciplined collaboration and encourages the professional mindset and language necessary to bring about positive change throughout our school system at all levels. By Ingela Netz, Margareta Nenzén, and Lillemor Rehnberg
The Spiral of Inquiry SwedenThe Spiral of Inquiry Sweden initiative started as a result of two in-service-training days for experienced principals given by Rektorsprogrammet at Uppsala University. The purpose of the network is to bring meaning back to the work in schools and to make schools good places for every learner: not just students but professionals as well. As network leaders in Sweden, we want schools to be a place where everyone is involved in creating and shaping a culture designed to help every learner reach their potential. We want teachers to be proud of their efforts and we want parents to trust the school to which they send their children. We believe that the Spiral of Inquiry offers a systematic mental model for disciplined collaboration and encourages the professional mindset and language necessary to bring about positive change throughout our school system at all levels, from preschool to adult education. In this session we will share how colleagues across municipalities are working as a voluntary network to help the Spiral of Inquiry Sweden grow in an organic way. We will describe the impact the Spiral of Inquiry has brought to some schools and municipalities. At this point, the Spiral of Inquiry Sweden is a loosely connected network initiated by Lillemor Rehnberg, Ingela Netz and Margareta Nenzén, the authors of this paper. We think of ourselves as a core group of “connectors” whose main task is to inspire teachers and leaders and demonstrate the possibilities that lie within the framework of the Spiral. The Spiral is not simply one more method that should be implemented, or something brought to the schools by external consultants. Rather, it is a mindset that needs to grow organically through a generous sharing of knowledge and experiences at all levels in the school system, both nationally and internationally.
Background and ContextThe Swedish school system has, since the first half of the 20th century, been an international role model when it comes to educational equity for all learners, with explicit goals formulated for fostering both democracy and academic knowledge. Participation, trust and sustainability are all important concepts in Swedish society which are reflected in the national curriculum. It is not good enough to teach about democracy, rather democracy should be taught and modeled in every part of the school, from very early years, with the intent of giving every single learner the opportunity to discover their unique individuality. The Swedish National Board of Education (2018) states “the task of the school is to encourage all pupils to discover their own uniqueness as individuals and thereby be able to participate in the life of society by giving of their best in responsible freedom”. Since the 1990s, Swedish schools have been operating in a decentralized and marketized context, and New Public Management (NPM) values and rationales are increasingly driving the education system. Controls, inspections and easy-to-measure goals have become more prominent and highly valued. Decentralization has meant that many local authorities have established, in addition to the national and general curriculum, in-house sections to monitor ‘quality.’ These often involve ongoing assessments and officers who are specifically tasked with quality development. Teachers, therefore, are often overwhelmed by the increasing level of assessment at the classroom level and there is a risk that teachers and school leaders are losing initiative and energy when it comes to the work with the needs of development within the individual school in its local context. At the same time, Swedish society is struggling with increasing segregation and inequality. The Swedish school system has, over the years, been designed to compensate for inequalities and provide local conditions that provide all learners with opportunities to succeed in school with their education and bildung regardless of where the school is located or what context the learners come from. Unfortunately the present market system seems to be amplifying societal inequalities which adds to the challenges the Swedish school system is facing. Systematic Quality Management is central in the Swedish school system. A cycle of results, analysis, assessments and interventions is undertaken and analyzed on both local and central levels. In most Swedish schools you will find a local collegial collaboration that guides teaching, which means that the preconditions for working with an immersive and student-centred perspective concerning equity and quality are good. However, many schools lack a larger structure to support continuous, student-level observation of the consequences of initiatives on students and the local learning environment. The methods used today often build upon quantitative measurements by surveys. With this method the students (and their learning experiences) are primarily being objectively observed and measured, rather than subjectively reported by students. One possible consequence is that schools might lack data that accurately reflects what students experience and the teaching taking place in the classrooms, data that should be the basic foundation for decisions and priorities regarding educational quality and improvement.
Our “Why”Our initiative to start a Swedish network for the Spiral of Inquiry is voluntary and nonprofit with the purpose of spreading information and knowledge about the Spiral, the research behind it and its mindset and values. In a joint exploration we want to try Spiral strategies and contribute to and learn from this movement with colleagues around the country. We ourselves represent different parts of the school system and in our professions we cover the whole educational system from kindergarten to university, from teacher to school leadership educator, which gives us a broad network and a strong mandate to initiate questions and ideas about school development in many contexts. In our ambition to be a part of improving and developing the Swedish school system at all levels, we want to connect teachers, leaders and decision makers so that they, by using the Spiral of Inquiry as a framework when working with the systematic quality management, will be able to establish and strengthen mindsets and ways of working that embrace the complete task of the school, where the learners are put at the forefront and where the mandate to take charge of the development of the teaching will be returned to those who are closest to the learners: teachers and school leaders. We view ourselves as “connectors” who have a broad overview of the Spiral framework and who organize meetings with the intent of promoting a generous sharing of knowledge and experiences from all levels of the school system, both nationally and internationally. But we do not exert any control. Rather, we have discussions with people with power and mandate, we connect educators and school leaders, we point to relevant research and we bring attention to examples of good teaching and learning.
Our Journey with the SpiralEverything started with a study visit to some schools in the Vancouver area and University of British Columbia in the spring of 2017 where we were lucky to meet Dr Judy Halbert and Dr Linda Kaser. In March 2018 the Centre for Educational Management in Uppsala invited their alumni to take part in a two-day seminar held by Halbert and Kaser and presented The Spiral of Inquiry, which was met with huge response and interest from the participants. School leaders were then invited, together with their lead teachers, to a couple of meetings to share experiences and thinking. The first network began to grow and out of that even some smaller, more local networks. Ideas and experiences were shared in both real and virtual meetings. One municipality, Hudiksvall, invited Halbert and Kaser who presented the Spiral to every staff member in the local schools in the beginning of 2019 and in June of the same year Helen Timperley was their guest lecturer for a day. In March 2019 we finally managed to get our homepage and Facebook group up and running. We started to plan for a conference because we wanted more school leaders and teachers to get the chance to meet Halbert and Kaser. In the middle of September we monitored the regional conference in Gävle for 101 participating school leaders and teachers. During the fall of 2019 we have been supporting a principal at a bigger school with students in grades K-9, we have met the teacher team leaders responsible for the collegial learning at the school, and we have presented the Spiral to every staff member. The school is just now beginning a large-scale project in order to increase and strengthen student learning and results, and the intention in the management group is to work in line with the Spiral. We have been invited to speak to a group of school leaders in Stockholm about the Spiral in the first part of 2020. This also includes preparations for a study visit to Catalonia where they are going to take part in the work going on there. We have also planted a seed of interest for the Spiral with the biggest private school actor in Sweden. Our aim is to inspire them to let the Spiral become a way of thinking when they develop their internal systematic quality management. In December 2019 we also met with officers at the National Board of Education. They are in the early beginnings of reorganizing parts of the educational program and in-service training for school leaders and have shown an interest in offering a module built upon The Spiral of Inquiry.
The Spiral in Action: Stories from Two SchoolsThe 140 learners at Uven high school in Uppsala have a long story of failure. The student population faces many barriers: there are many recent immigrants who came to Sweden alone, as well as students with mental illnesses, diagnoses of learning disabilities, experiences with the criminal justice system, and troubling home lives. Some students have more than one of these barriers. Most of the students have not been in school on a regular basis for many years and when they have been there, they´ve very often just been in the building and not always in the classroom. The staff decided to ask the students one of the four key questions for learners in the Spiral of inquiry about adult persons in the school who they thought believe in them and out of 140 only 3 couldn´t name two persons. The teacher teams decided to spend at least two minutes a day during ten days in a row adressing every student with more personal, caring questions. The effect has been amazing – the students now come to school every day, and they even do the school work. The mentors have a regular contact with the homes where the students live. The mentors have been asked what´s going on in school. One mentor reported that “since September [the students] get up in the morning, they eat breakfast, they go to school and they talk about the school in a positive way. And they do this voluntarily, without any pushing and no complaining or hard words in the homes where they live.” One 16 year old guy said to his mentor that he likes when the mentor talks with him, “and it would be great if you ask me about the rest of my life too, not only school stuff, you know if I’m well and if I´ve been sleeping, you know things like that.” And that little comment from one student made the whole staff to change the way they talk with the students, today it´s not only “school stuff”, but also relating to them as human beings. And this shift in attitudes is constantly growing. It’s the staff who are in charge when it comes to work with why, how, when and what needs to be developed and/or changed. And the principal, Torbjörn Kättström, puts a lot of efforts and time in this work – supporting, challenging, asking questions, listening, helping everyone get back on track when they slip. And he is present at every teacher team meeting. That is his priority #1! Torbjörn’s main message is that you have to work with a very open mind and realize that it takes time to change your own mindset. He says “a collegial community is necessary to interpret the answers you get from your learners correctly. Never let the bias of one single person do that. You don´t hear what´s being said, it´s your brains interpretation of what´s being said.” The teacher teams meet and try hard to understand what they have heard. One question frequently asked is “What am I/we doing that makes it hard for the learner…? What can I/we do to eliminate the obstacles?” The school administration in the municipality knows what´s going on and they applaud it, and together with Torbjörn they are introducing/presenting the mindset of the Spiral of Inquiry to other schools working with students who need some extra pushes to “get back in business.” And they have fun! Another teacher at Uven high school shared this story. She went to a dinner with the family and saw her niece and her boyfriend who are both grade 9 students. Linnéa couldn´t resist asking them the Spiral key questions for learners. Both could easily name two adults who they felt believed in them. She heard that knowing what they are learning was no problem, but why it´s important and how to go further was not that easy to answer. Linnéa encouraged her to talk to her teacher about this and the importance of taking charge of her own learning process. They met a couple of weeks later and the niece told Linnéa how thought-provoking her questions had been and that she now always asks her teachers about “why this is important and how to go on and deeper.” She said she is much more aware of her own learning and that now school is much more interesting and relevant. This story is a good reminder that seeds for change can show up in different ways. Never underestimate the possibilities of a dinner conversation with an aunt! At Skönstaholm school in Stockholm the management saw a need to move focus from analyzing results to analyzing processes. “We wanted to change perspective from analyzing the results to improve learning to analyzing learning to improve the results,” said principal Patrik Sjöberg. In August he introduced the ideas of the Spiral and during the fall of 2019 the teacher teams worked together twice a month on scanning and by December they were ready to move on to focus. Principal Patrik Sjöberg says that the teachers’ ways of expressing themselves has slowly changed from what are you doing and what´s your result? to what are you learning about and how did you learn? Patrik continues “It´s important for us as leaders to persist in the belief that the mixed-up feelings in the beginning will eventually lead us to a sense of being so close to the learners and the core of learning that this is the most necessary work we´ve ever done, and that the scanning and our analysis will give evidence for our continuous learning. Previously we had been working on strategies based on James Nottingham’s (2017) concept of visible learningand when we started talking about the Spiral some teachers were reminded also about the Learning Pit and wanted to revive those thoughts. We´ve supported these kinds of initiatives from the staff because we didn´t want to steer them too much.
It’s too early to say if our way of introducing the Spiral mindset will increase our effectiveness in teaching and the students’ results, but it has definitely increased engagement from the staff and already resulted in a more visible learning for teachers and management. Our next step is to work out how to introduce the Spiral to staff working at Fritids (leisure time centers). Our school will be part of a scientific study about the pedagogic task of after school childcare, and we believe that it will be a perfect context to dig deeper into the mindset of the Spiral.Huge efforts are currently being made to digitize the whole school system in Sweden. Karlstad University is planning to invite preschool leaders and teachers to a program dealing with this important issue and they are going to use the Spiral of Inquiry in their process. We will let you know more about this as soon as the program has started.
We look forward to seeing how the Spiral will be used to improve learning for students, teachers, and leaders throughout the school system in Sweden.
Footnotes: Lillemor Rehnberg is working as a lecturer at the Centre for Educational Management at Uppsala, Ingela Netz is working as a principal in a pre- and/primary school, Margareta Nenzén is currently working as a teacher in senior high school and adult education, currently mostly with immigrants and refugees. Margareta has been working as a principal for many years, mainly within adult education.  Lgr11. The National curriculum for the compulsory school, preschool class and school age educare, 2018. p 8. National Agency of Education.  Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual’s mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society.  Kaser, L. & Halbert, J. (2017) The Spiral Playbook. Spiral of Inquiry: Leaders leading learning. C21canada.org. A resource with field-tested ideas, tools and approaches, and stories about creating inquiry-based professional learning cultures using the Spiral of inquiry as its framework
Kaser, L. & Halbert, J. (2017) The Spiral Playbook. Spiral of Inquiry: Leaders leading learning. C21canada.org.
Nottingham, J.A. (2017). The learning challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding. Corwin.
Swedish National Agency for Education, Curriculum for the compulsory school, preschool class and school-age educare (revised 2018),