Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: November 2020 | TELjournal.ca
This article provides an in depth look at how District Leadership engaged with stakeholders through collaborative inquiry in the quest to better serve students who may need alternative educational settings in order to achieve success. Evident in this particular Spiral of Inquiry is the depth of learning the team engaged in before taking action.
The Surrey School Board provides a variety of opportunities and pathways for students to reach their graduation and future life goals. The majority of students will attend their neighbourhood school and the neighbourhood school will meet the educational needs of the majority of students. However, it is also recognized that students may need an alternative educational setting to support them.
Currently, there are five Learning Centre facilities in Surrey that service learners needing an alternate or alternative pathway. Approximately 1000 learners will circulate throughout these sites at various times of the year. Learning Centres provide a small, caring, highly staffed and flexible environment for learners who are having difficulty experiencing success in the traditional secondary school setting.
At the core of Surrey Schools is the vision of “Learning by Design” (LBD). Learning by Design encourages a deeper look into the learning, the structures and the tools that are used to create conditions that are student-centred, inquiry-focused, engaging and steeped in real-world experiences. In September 2019, leaders in Surrey were encouraged to use LBD to focus specifically on student transitions. A round table discussion looked at District-wide data that revealed that each year, post grade nine, we start to lose a larger percentage of our learners. The journey to look at our Learning Centres in Surrey started with this round table discussion and the question, “If we focused on Learning Centre student transitions, what would we find? How could we do a better job at keeping our kids in school?”
Shortly after the round table discussion on transitions, a 2019 TELP presentation with Superintendent of Schools Lisa McCullough, re-emphasized the need to “hold tight” to our kids. She spoke passionately about “literally finding those lost kids and meeting them in whatever way possible to reconnect them to the adults who care” and to “not just let them go” (McCullough, 2019). Her first purpose, beyond the successful graduation rate in her school district, was to keep learners in school; encouraging the story, “I see you…and…I know you can do this”.
There were also discussions occurring at the same time regarding the learning experiences at the Learning Centre sites. In Mehta and Fine’s (2017) research How We Got Here: The Imperative for Deeper Learning, the authors discuss the term “deeper learning” and how it is not a passing fad or a pendulum swing. Curiosity around socio-economic status being related to low cognitive demand tasks was intriguing.
Finally, the 2018 BC Adolescent Health Survey (BC AHS) involving 38,000 youth aged 12-19, was published. Results of this survey were reported in a 2019 report titled Balance and Connection in BC: The Health and Well-Being of Our Youth. This report indicated an increase in mental health conditions, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, and ADHD. It also showed an increase over previous years in the number of students with self-injurious behaviour or suicidal ideation.
It became clearly evident that youth today are navigating an increasingly complex world. A number of learners in our school settings struggle with outside pressures, anxieties, learning disabilities, traumas, equity imbalance and a general feeling of disconnect at a level never quite recorded before. As such, the moral imperative to celebrate the successes within alternate and alternative school environments was needed, but also providing an opportunity to question, review, revisit and challenge thinking was in order.
Important questions needed to be addressed: What was going on for our learners? How do we know? and Why does it matter?
Implementation with Intention: Planning for Impact
“How do we think about new ways of supporting, strengthening and expanding leadership and collaboration in educational systems to meet the dynamic of change”? (Daly, 2020)
“How do we redesign our learning systems to meet the needs of our most complex youth?” (OECD, 2016; Mackay, 2020)
There is no shortage of ideas about how to bring about change in an organization and how to “leverage the collective intelligence within a system” (Mackay, 2020). Evidence strongly supports the notion that approaching the work with curiousity and an evidence seeking mindset into what makes the biggest difference for learners will deepen the experience for everyone.
A few of the concrete and more specific first steps in the transformational leadership plan for Surrey Learning Centres has so far involved the initial stages of a Spiral of Inquiry (Halbert & Kaser, 2014); anchored firmly within an emerging concept of how the school district and school sites exist in this moment as learning organizations (Kools & Stoll, 2016; OECD, 2016). Both of these models are delicately interlaced and the work within the two domains occurs almost simultaneously.
1. At the Core: A Strong Network for System Change
Research refers to the critical importance of forming trusting working relationships as the foundation for successful collaborative teams. “Everything we want to do is layered on top of a base state of relationships that will then influence the depth of how the work unfolds” (Daly & Stoll, 2018). Powerful networks of learning are a compelling catalyst for change and lay the foundation upon which leaders can inhabit a space of open dialogue, curiousity, creativity and imagination that can deepen the learning experience for all participants and impact the learning of students.
In addition to opening the mind to challenge assumptions, opening the heart to be vulnerable, and opening the will to let go of pre-set goals and agendas (Scharmer & Kaufer cited in Senge, Hamilton & Kania, 2015), strong networks need to operate with a clearly articulated purpose. In a district organization the size of Surrey, three different system networks engaged in the Learning Centre conversations and inquiry work. The initial purpose of all three of the network groups was to examine the transition processes for alternative learners and to explore opportunities to retain a greater number of these students in our alternate programs by designing equitable authentic, relevant and engaging learning opportunities. The initial scan involved looking at the learners and the sites in closer detail. Teams began with the initial overarching question, “What does quality and equity look like for learners?”
The first network to be engaged in this inquiry was that of the five Learning Centre Principals alongside one of Surrey’s Directors of Instruction. The group met monthly for breakfast and/or lunch meetings and scheduled five working afternoons to engage in their Spiral. Although this inquiry team did not use a specific social network analysis tool for mapping network structures, an informal awareness of the social interactions was crucial. It was important to build awareness of the quantity and quality of interaction between and amongst the members. Listening and providing support in order to reduce feelings of isolation and insecurity were very important. Some members of the team felt they were not sought out as often as others for important projects, advice and information. By paying attention to individual interactions between team members, it became possible to bridge misunderstandings and work toward creating an environment of safety and inclusion. “Change happens not only in technical plans and blueprints, but through the interaction, co-construction, and sense making of individuals” (Daly & Stoll, 2018).
“We are often most comfortable with those with whom we share a common history and views. But operating within our comfort zones will never lead to engaging the range of actors needed for systemic change” (Scharmer & Kaufer cited in Senge, Hamilton & Kania, 2015).
Engaging beyond the individual site team, the initial Learning Centre principal group also formed a network with principals of other alternate schools in the province of British Columbia. The initial meeting was focused on questions such as, “where are our non-attenders and what are their voices saying? How will we find out?” Shifting mindsets within their own school teams became important and discussions around the not-so-productive mindset of being a “goal keeper” of the Dogwood emerged. It quickly became apparent that this network provided a valuable opportunity to learn from each other as experienced leaders in a variety of contexts. Social connections were greatly enhanced, and this was evidenced by the increase in comfort to reach out to each other beyond the formalized network and engage in learning conversation informally.
The third network, involved district leaders from around the province. With grant monies provided by the B.C. School Superintendents Association (BCSSA), Surrey Schools enlisted the facilitation support of a consultant from Turning Point Resolutions to initiate the dialogue between the twelve BC school districts involved. Consultant Ken Highman, strategically facilitated the preliminary conversations in an effort to bring an outside perspective and clarity to the questions, issues, needs and desired outcomes of the inquiry. This network continues to grow in size and, moving forward, will continue to meet regularly in the upcoming school year.
Focusing on the potential of the collective capacity, rather than individual contribution leads to deep dynamic and sustainable change (Daly & Stoll, 2018). In all three networks high expectations for relationships that were both supportive and challenging were encouraged and modelled (Sarra et al., 2018). To be challenged in a functioning team, Patrick Lencioni (2002) talks about the need for vulnerability-based trust where you can raise concerns, disagree, ask for help, make mistakes and learn from each other. All three teams operated with a differing degree of vulnerability-based and relational trust, but all three were committed to the conversation and engaged in the work. With time, vulnerability-based trust improved most dramatically within the Principal network.
2. Developing as a Learning Organization
Developing as a Learning Organization is the responsibility of leaders system-wide. “Most scholars see the learning organization as a multi-level concept involving behaviour, team work, and organization-wide practices and culture” (Stoll cited in OECD, 2016). A learning organization is an adaptable and collaborative system where the members learn alongside each other on the journey toward realizing their vision. Whereas the Spiral of Inquiry provides the framework for an evidence-based model of collaborative inquiry that will make an impact on student learning, it is the Learning Organization model that is the footing on which the collaborative and purposeful Spiral of Inquiry work can occur with the most impact. Co-developing a process to embed all of the seven dimensions of a Learning Organization into Learning Center practice, in a natural and seamless way, was important.
One of the first dimensions of a Learning Organization is to develop a shared vision centred on the learning of all students. A shared vision firmly rooted in common values and beliefs provides “a sense of direction and serves as a motivating force for sustained action to achieve individual and school goals” (Stoll cited in OECD, 2016). Having a shared vision should involve a myriad of stakeholders and should centre on the commitment of making a difference in the lives of learners.
In early October 2019, the principal network of the five Learning Centre sites along with the Director of Instruction met to look at shared collective core values and beliefs, with the goal of setting a collective vision. Together they explored the question “What does it look like when we are all doing our best work?” They explored ideas and assumptions about who the learners were and used a “Here’s What, Now What” format (Wellman & Lipton, 2017) with the data in front of them. They discussed noticeable patterns, surprises and important information that seemed to stand out.
The outcomes from the work resulted in a clear common understanding of the active mindsets that were guiding decisions for learners at each site. In addition to the very positive sets of beliefs such as:
- We believe that learners can be complex and diverse, with a wide range of abilities, gifts and talents that often need nurturing in unique and flexible ways
- We believe that trusting, caring and supportive relationships and personal connections are the pillar of success and are essential in nurturing a positive growth mindset for learners
- We believe that students learn best when they are part of planning, problem- solving and decision making
- We believe that learning centres are places of joy and hope, providing personal connections that move learners forward with the tools they need to create a healthy, happy future where dreams are possible.
…contradictory beliefs also emerged:
- We believe in providing a strong supportive environment for academically capable at-risk youth
A core value is only true if it has an active influence and if the people live by it most of the time. Uncovering this one belief helped to surface the fear of adults who felt that they were not well equipped at the centres to be able to meet the needs of learners with high and low incidence special needs, severe learning disabilities and/or mild intellectual support. It provided the reasoning behind the strong attachment that each centre had to the Canadian Adult Achievement Test (CAAT) score for student entry. It provided information for the early planning stages in moving forward with the resources and supports needed so that an equity of service based upon positive values and beliefs could finally align.
Creating and supporting continuous professional learning and promoting team collaboration are two other dimensions within the Learning Organization framework. The initial evidence that has been gathered seems to indicate that although the principals at the five sites provide opportunities for team learning and collaboration, there does not appear to be a lot of uptake from the teachers and support staff at some of the sites to participate. Commitment outside of school hours is minimal at best and reveals dramatically lower participation than colleagues at neighbouring secondary schools. One hunch for this might simply be that the demands and complexity of the work teachers do in our Learning Centres has an affect on their health and well-being. Another hunch might be that some of the team leaders are experiencing difficulty modelling a learning mindset of their own. Regardless, in an effort to develop further as a learning organization it will be important for teams to ask the important questions and find out why.
In terms of embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning, this has been important work throughout Surrey. In addition to initiating a PowerBI data dashboard (with input from stakeholders about the types of data they would like to see), there has also been an investment into the system-wide use of Microsoft Office 365 and the Teams platform. Regular workshops and learning opportunities have been provided to support the use of both. As an internal team, the Learning Centre Principal Network has created their own Team page through which they store, and share ideas for learning with each other. They have also used this page to co-collaborate on documents and simply chat with one another. Each principal has also set up their own Teams page for each of their sites within which they have invited school staff to join. Regardless of the individual role within the school, every staff member is encouraged to participate.
Collecting and exchanging knowledge also happens in workshops and professional learning opportunities throughout the district. New this year, the district team involved with expanding professional learning, began offering newly designed opportunities. In the past, workshops were offered to specific groups (ie: a principal workshop, a teacher workshop, a clerical workshop, a custodial workshop) on a specific topic (leadership, change, data collection). Now, participants can register for any learning they are interested in regardless of their role, and many of the workshops are no longer single-day topic-specific workshops, but are on-going year-long collaborative learning opportunities infused with Surrey’s leadership competences.
Finally, funding is available for regularly scheduled purposeful inquiry within the district. Having the funding available asserts the importance of inquiry work as an opportunity to collect and exchange knowledge and learning. The funding and support within the district has also extended to funding and support for learning alongside our external environment and larger learning system.
Creating a Learning Organization is an ongoing commitment to look at the seven dimensions in practice. It is not a task to complete, but rather a guide to reflect. The work accomplished within each dimension will be fluid and will need constant re-checking. It is a conversation and a growth tool involving inquiry, evidence, reflection, and learning. With this mindset, the crucial work of organizational transformation will help build vibrant and exciting learning centres focused on quality and equity for learners well into the future.
3. The Spiral of Inquiry (see map in Appendix attached)
“One of the marks of any professional is the ability to reflect critically on both one’s profession and one’s daily work; to be continuously engaged in self-improvement that will lead to improvement in students’ learning. To be able to do this within an organisation requires a pervasive spirit of inquiry, initiative and willingness to experiment with new ideas and practices” (Stoll cited in OECD, 2016).
No matter how well intentioned, research suggests that working in isolation will not create a long-term sustainable difference in our educational systems (Halbert & Kaser, 2017). Inquiry networks are environments of curiousity and learning, designed to create opportunities for empowered positive transformation long-term. The Spiral of Inquiry is grounded in twenty years of research and involves a continuous cycle of six phases of investigating student learning and action impact. These six phases are not designed to be linear, but purposefully viewed as a spiral, inviting networks to enter into deep curious evidence-based conversation about students and their learning at any point, circling back when necessary and moving forward when ready. The process is characterized by meaningful reflection and an intense, shared moral purpose.
Scanning and Focusing
Scanning involves gathering a wide perspective on student learning. It is about curiosity and gathering evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) to inform the direction of the inquiry (Halbert & Kaser, 2017). All three of the Learning Centre network groups were integral in adding perspective to the scope and sequence of the scan. It was important to ensure that “deliberate and consistent use of multiple sources of evidence was gathered to inform decisions” (Leithwood, 2013). With a transformation of this scope, it was important not to rush into misinformed action and an appreciative scan of learner experience was paramount. Teams are, therefore, currently in the initial stages of their work.
Focusing involves using the information from the scan to make a decision on where to “concentrate energies in order to make a big and lasting difference for learners” (Halbert & Kaser, 2017). The Learning Centre inquiry was born from the initial district-wide round table data that revealed the loss of learners to the sites during transitions (with the largest loss occurring for Aboriginal learners), the inspiration from Superintendent Lisa McCullough emphasizing the need to “hold tight” to kids, deeper learning concepts, and the 2018 B.C. Adolescent Health survey results. Transitions and equitable learning quickly became a focus. In an effort to dig even deeper at the Surrey and British Columbia context, further scanning to gather more information has so far involved:
- Creation of a student survey asking the learners four key 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? And What are your next steps?
- Gathering Learning Centre student reflections post-graduation with questions such as: What contributed to your success? What advice would you offer to new students? What kept you coming to school? In what ways could the learning centre environment be improved to help students attend more often?
- Engaging the McCreary Centre Society to do a multi-district review of alternative student experiences across British Columbia
- Collaborative creation of a specific PowerBi dashboard to provide specific data relevant to equity and transitions within Surrey
- Collection and collation of current research in the field, resulting in a twelve-page literature review of Alternate Education from research world-wide
Developing a Hunch
The hunch phase involves surfacing deeply held beliefs and assumptions about practice and checking those assumptions for accuracy before moving ahead (Halbert & Kaser, 2017).
In Surrey, the long-held belief that learning centres could not provide the proper equitable support to learners with high and low incidence special needs, severe learning disabilities and/or mild intellectual support persists. Similarly, inquiry teams have several hunches as to why their staff teams are seemingly more reluctant to engage in collaborative professional learning opportunities as compared to their secondary neighbourhood school counterparts. Hunches and assumptions are addressed for accuracy as they surface, but staying focused on the unearthing of those assumptions that pertain directly to the work surrounding transitions and equity has become the central focal point. Reworking the hunches so that they focus on areas over which teams have control has been challenging. A few of the hunches that have surfaced so far:
- Slowing down the referral and intake process at each site will help transition learners more thoughtfully.
- Offering a personalized and thoughtful SEL component to the transition process will help students experience greater success
- Offering in-house health support and learning support will help students attend and complete their work.
- Offering in-house health support and learning support will provide learning assistance that will allow for more equity in terms of whom we service.
- Ensuring that student work is more deeply engaging and relevant (moving away from ‘packages’) will improve attendance and transition rates.
Learning takes place throughout every phase of the Spiral, but this phase is about carefully designing professional learning to test and develop the hunches. The goal is to make meaningful change in professional practice (Halbert & Kaser, 2017). Specific learning opportunities have included:
- Staying connected to networks on a regular basis and ‘checking in’
- Learning Centre principals visiting and touring other Alternative sites: Thomas Haney in Maple Ridge, Delview in Delta, Mountainside in North Vancouver and Bakerview in Abbotsford
- Collection, collation and sharing of current research in the field, resulting in a twelve-page literature review of Alternate Education from research world-wide
- Current research and ideas sharing with the Office 365 platform
- Learning from a smaller transitions ‘pilot’ at one site before adopting a large-scale reform
Taking Action and Checking
Taking action embraces the deeper work involved in a new way of doing things. It is about providing the support, time and space necessary to take risks, try something new and learn (Halbert & Kaser, 2017). The Checking phase is inextricably connected to the Action phase itself.
The purpose of every inquiry is to make a difference in student learning and knowing what needs to be accomplished for learners is imperative. The current action plan at the moment has unfortunately shifted slightly, and at a much quicker pace than teams would have liked. This was due to the results of a 2020 British Columbia Ministry of Education compliance audit of the Surrey Learning Centre sites. However, leadership is about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage” (Timperley, Kaser & Halbert, 2014). “Courageous leaders are driven by, even obsessed with, the imperative to eliminate excuse-making and blame from themselves and their organization” (Frank, 2019). Finding the connection between the work that must be done for the Ministry prior to September (within a virtual ever-changing COVID aware environment) and linking those changes back to the purpose and focus of the inquiry itself, has strengthened relationships and provided opportunity for great conversation in shaping the future. Teams have been able to collaborate with a variety of stakeholders across the system to design new forms and processes and infuse the inquiry work as it has unfolded so far:
- Referral & Intake processes
- Student learning plans
- Contact logs
- File maintenance
- Student transition/exit plans
Where to Next? Avoiding the word “Conclusion”
“If we teach students the same way as yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow,” John Dewey
“It’s time for all of us to step up” (Brown, 2018). “Work fused with meaning and momentum” engages and drives learning forward (Mehta & Fine, 2017). To make an impact for learners at each Surrey Learning Centre site, inquiry teams have expressed their desire to outwardly address issues of equity in teaching and learning and to look more acutely at student transitions. This is obviously not accomplished in a single day, month or year – but the conversation is starting and networks are hopeful they will be able to provide visible transformative evidence within a two-year window.
Motivation and energy build as educators discover compelling reasons to change what they are doing, and as they take shared responsibility for doing so. As they engage in deeper forms of inquiry, the process becomes central to their professional lives. They will not, in fact they cannot, go back to earlier, unquestioning ways of doing things (Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014).
The momentum for profound, meaningful system transformation is already well-underway at the Surrey Learning Centre sites and will continue into the Fall of 2020 and beyond. The next few years will be promising as leaders system-wide collaborate to make an impact on how students transition into learning centre sites and receive equitable deep learning opportunities for all. “Great things can happen when friends get together and resolve to take action on what really matters most” (Halbert & Kaser, 2017).
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