Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: November 2020 | TELjournal.ca
In this article, the author shares the journey of a district transition spiral of inquiry. Listening to student voice lead to the transformation of systems and structures and revealed that it is the collective voice that leads to collective agency toward more inclusive and equitable learning environments.
True inclusion and equity in schools continues to be a goal educators strive for.
In order to “foster inclusive learning environments where all students feel that they are safe and belong – physically and emotionally –and where all students are inspired to explore their personal strengths and interests” the B.C. Ministry of Education transformed the Professional Standards for B.C. Educators to reflect some of the changes needed for schools to become inclusive learning environments (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2019, p.2). There is much to do in terms of moving our system forward to engage and ultimately live out these standards in the day-to-day life of schools. School leaders need to be empowered to support the kind of leadership that fulfills this mandate. Helen Timperley (2020) reveals that, through the Spiral of Inquiry, if we focus on our most vulnerable students then all will benefit. This is really at the heart of inclusion and through inclusion we can achieve equity which is the kind of “clear and moral purpose” intended for a Spiral of Inquiry (Kaser & Halbert, 2017, p. 18).
In September of 2019 the Delta School District’s (DSD) Learning Services-Inclusive Learning Department met with Principal’s in ‘family of schools’ to talk about school start up. It was not surprising to hear that for many students the transition back to school in the Fall was challenging, especially, it seemed, for more vulnerable students. This helped spark a district-wide transition spiral- a co-created endeavor amongst the three strands of the Learning Services department (Curriculum, Assessment & Instruction, Indigenous Education and Inclusive Learning). Brooke Moore, District Principal of Inquiry and Innovation in the DSD, had shared Tilleczek’s concept of transitions as “being, belonging, and becoming” (McGregor, 2019, p. 9). Tilleczek frames transitions as being a period of change rather than a series of distinct events. Transitions are easier if a person has a sense of belonging and is valued for “who they are and what they bring into their life experiences” as they are becoming (McGregor, 2019).
As a larger district transition group, we scanned various district satellite data (e.g. graduation rates) and map data (e.g. Home Quest Program numbers, Indigenous Camp Feedback, and data from the ‘Tell Them From Me’ survey) to see how students were experiencing transitions.
After scanning at the district level, it became obvious that some students were falling through the cracks particularly in the first few days of school or between some of the larger transitions that occur throughout the school year. Through a series of strategies, the data was further explored and refined, and it was determined that focusing on changing systems and structures would provide the most impact.
When the transition Spiral groups were doing their initial scan to determine what students needed for successful transitions, the first action was to survey. Surveys provide the opportunity to gather a large volume of data from a diverse range of students. While interpreting the data, however, the transition groups were having to fill gaps with their own assumptions and biases. The group needed to be cautious that their “… inquiry stance … was [not] directed toward confirmation rather than disconfirmation of assumptions” (Robinson et al., 2020, pg. 3). In other words, that they were seeking truth not confirmation of preconceived notions.
A transition spiral sub-group was formed to inquire into their hunch that if they talk to students directly, they could co-create transition plans with students that are more likely to succeed. First, they needed to gather additional data from students. Clearly, talking to learners to ask them about their experience is the most direct source and yet is often overlooked. Students who struggled in their first few days in September were interviewed. Sure enough these students were able to clearly articulate what went well and identify the barriers to successful transitions. Students shared barriers such as: the new teacher(s) not understanding their needs in advance, plans being formed but not ready to go for the first few days of school, work not being provided in an accesible format, simple calm down strategies (e.g. having a deck of cards to shuffle) not readily available, or being asked not to use during class, causing unecessary stress and anxiety. Equally, students could give examples of plans that went well, for instance, having a routine well laid out in advance, having a ‘go to’ peer or adult for first day, or having a safe space to go if feeling overwhelmed. The impact of not having barriers removed varied from student to student but in all cases led to a challenging transition back to school and for some, challenges that led to leaving school entirely.
As so often happens, the transition sub-group was ready to move to action. Thankfully, using the spiral of inquiry, a time for the transition spiral groups to come together around some new learning was set. Brooke Moore, Delta’s District Principal of Inquiry and Innovation, shared a variety of research articles about transitions. In reading these articles, the transition sub-group realized their original plan of action needed tweaking.
The transition spiral sub-group had planned to re-interview the same group of students prior to the next big transition-winter break. They wanted to co-create plans with the students for the transition back to school in January, 2020. They still felt this was a good plan, however, a common theme in the research articles they read revealed that a connection between student and teacher, or an adult in the building that believes the student will be a success, is critical. For this reason, they reached out to find the classroom teacher or a connected adult to do the second interview with the students.
The result from the second round of interviews was successful. The dialogue with students had allowed for the nuance of their narrative to be revealed. As well, through dialogue, the student gained insight into who they are as a learner and what they need for generative transitions; it was a mutually beneficial process.
As the research had revealed, the team found it critical that the person doing the interview was someone the student was connected to. Not only did this mean that the dialogue was more authentic but also needs revealed and support related to the co-created plan itself could be acted upon because the student and person interviewing were connected.
Plans for checking in to talk to students about their co-created transition plans for after Spring Break were underway when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. Through this transition Spiral, changes to systems and structures have already begun.
One significant system change has been a new Grade 7-8 Transition Planning Process. The Grade 7-8 Transition Planning Process now consists of three parts. In Part A the elementary school team provides significant information about a student and what they feel the secondary team will need to know to help the student transition successfully to grade 8. In Part B students share specific strategies for what they feel is needed for a successful transition to secondary school. In Part C the elementary and secondary teams get together to co-create the transition plan for the first day and weeks of school, ensuring that they attend to the student voice. Initial feedback from school teams has been positive.
Download the Transition Planning Tool
There have been some challenges. Interestingly, in each case where the transition was a source of stress, the parents had not been involved in creating the transition plan. Clearly, it’s important that all voices be invited to the table. One source of data is not enough; it is important to have “multiple sources of evidence to inform decisions” and parents can provide rich information about their children’s needs (Leithwood, 2013, p. 24). Through the transition Spiral, the group has learned that listening deeply and taking time for conversation with students is ‘the structure’ needed in our system to help students transition from being and belonging to becoming successful world-class citizens.
The sub-group is completing a check this Fall to see if the co-created transition plans are successful. They will ask the questions: “Are we making enough of a difference? How do we know? (Kaser & Halbert, 2017, p. 34). The hope is to expand this work. Based on the information gathered, the transition spiral group will adjust transition planning processes and seek additional ways to help students’ sense of being, belonging and becoming.
The OECD, The Future of Education and Skill: Education 2030 (2018) states that, “in order to help enable agency, educators must not only recognize learners’ individuality, but also acknowledge the wider set of relationships- with their teachers, peers, families and communities- that influence their learning…everyone should be considered a learner [including] teachers, school managers, parents and communities” ( p. 4). As illustrated through Delta School District’s transition Spiral, the need for ‘collective voice’, adults and students, in co-constructing the learning environment is essential.
What has stood out from this process is the impact that speaking directly to students, getting to know their true being versus the behaviour or exterior façade, is vital. Failing to listen to students’ own telling of their experience can lead to disconnection, including in some cases complete withdrawal from attending school. This dynamic underscores the urgency for centralizing student voice and agency. Thankfully, the Spiral of Inquiry helps educators to dig deep into truth that leads to action.
If we focus on listening deeply to our diverse community of learners, both students and adults, we will see a positive impact on the design of equitable and “inclusive learning environments where all students feel that they are safe and belong” as well as outcomes for learners as they journey through being, belonging and becoming (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2019, p.2)?
British Columbia Ministry of Education (2020). Vision for Students Success. Retrieved from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/k-12/administration/program-management/vision-for-student-success
Kaser, L., & Halbert, J., (2017) The Spiral Playbook: Leading With an Inquiry Mindset in School Systems and Schools. C21 Canada- Canadians for 21st Century Learning.
Leithwood, K. (2013). Strong Districts and Their Leadership. A Paper commissioned by the Council of Ontario Directors of Education and the Institute for Education Leadership.
McGregor, C. (2019). Improving Transitions for Indienous Learners Through Collaborative Inquiry: AESN Transitions Report, 2016-2018. Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education (NOIIE): Vancouver, CAN.
OECD (2018). The Future of Education and Skills – Education 2030. The Future We Want. OECD. pdf
Robinson, V., Meyer, F., Le Fevre, D. & Sinnema, C. (2020): The Quality of Leaders’ Problem-Solving Conversations: Truth-Seeking or Truth-Claiming?, Leadership and Policy in Schools, DOI:10.1080/15700763.2020.1734627
Timperley, H. (2020). Leadership of Professional Learning for Impact. Chapter 1. Pdf