An important partnership
As you have read in another article in this Newsletter, CAfLN and NOIIE are partners in an application to the Social Science and Humanities Research Council to implement and learn from networks of educators and researchers who are deeply interested in making powerful assessment for learning strategies a way of life throughout Canada. From our perspective this is timely – and long overdue. Let’s start by congratulating Dr. Lorna Earl from CAfLN, author of Assessment AS Learning
and Dr. Chris Deluca and his colleagues at Queens, as well as other academics from across the country who have come together to develop an initiative to provide assessment strategies and to research the impact of the strategies in a significant way.
As leaders of the Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education (NOIIE), we leapt at the chance to be part of this work. The networks have grown steadily in BC and the Yukon from their roots twenty years ago. Originally, school teams used formative assessment strategies combined with the use of provincial learning progressions in four significant areas – reading, writing, numeracy and social responsibility. Thousands of classroom teachers were involved in developing the learning progressions and thousands more became involved in applying AFL and inquiry in their classrooms, schools, districts and territories.
Dr. Lorna Earl and Dr. Helen Timperley, her friend and colleague from the University of Auckland, have been guiding intellectual lights to the networks in BC and the Yukon from the start. One important moment in developing the Spiral framework came from a mountain “think tank” where the four of us explored all the important ideas that we thought Canadian and New Zealand educators were being asked to learn - and we filled many pages of chart paper.
Then we set to work to pick the
most powerful areas of focus. You may not be surprised that two of the most important areas we identified were assessment for learning and social and emotional learning. The work of Dr. Kimberley Schonert-Reichel and her colleagues in the consortium of social and emotional learning was very useful. The research and writing of Dr. Lorna Earl and Dr. Helen Timperley about assessment thinking became the second focus.
In BC we were concerned about the overuse of standardized test measures – especially when the measures were used to rank schools in league tables. We were highly motivated to develop a different way to “improve”. We had used a collaborative inquiry approach with the network schools right from the start in 2000. Annually, each school that participated
was asked to make their work “public” and their case studies were then published initially in print and later on the web.
Creating an inquiry framework
After a decade of exploration of learning progressions and the development and publication of thousands of case studies, we were ready to refine our thinking. Over a two-year period of collaboration with Dr. Timperley, we explored and deepened our respective learning about networks and adult inquiry cycles. In 2013, we wrote a book for BC educators, Spirals of inquiry: for equity and quality
and in 2014 along with Helen Timperley, we published a monograph: A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry.
We shared what we were learning widely and worked to make it as accessible as possible. In 2017, after working with a plain language specialist, we published The Spiral Playbook
which is now being used globally.
As a result there are now inquiry networks across the world. Educators in a range of places including British Columbia, the Yukon, Sweden, Catalunya, Manitoba, New Zealand, England, Spain, China, Wales and Australia are applying the spiral of inquiry in deep and intentional ways.
The spiral of inquiry involves six key stages of scanning, focusing, developing a hunch, engaging in new professional learning, taking new professional action, checking that a big enough difference has been made and then re-engaging to consider what is next. Although the stages in the spiral overlap, paying attention to each aspect is critical in achieving the greatest benefit for all learners. At every stage, inquiry teams ask themselves three important questions: ‘What’s going on for our learners?’ ‘How do we know?’
and ‘Why does this matter?’
The first two questions prompt educators to check constantly that learners are at the heart of what they do, and that all decisions are based on thoughtful evidence from direct observations in addition to formal evidence sources. The third question helps to ground teams in the importance of the direction they are pursuing.
Scanning: What’s going on for our learners?
We have learned effecting real change through collaborative inquiry starts by talking with and listening to young people using two key questions.
Starting with learners – Two key questions
Being curious about what is going on for our learners is at the heart of the inquiry process. When learners experience being listened to with respect, they feel valued and develop a greater sense of agency. As one Grade 6 girl said to her teacher, “This is my best day ever. No one has asked me about my learning before.”
1. Can you name two adults in this school who believe you will be a success in life?
Kimberley Schonert-Reichl and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia developed the Middle Years Development Instrument, a survey with a series of indicators for student social emotional well-being that is now used in a number of jurisdictions. There are forty indicators on the survey that provide a lot of invaluable information. However, for the purpose of scanning, we want teachers to focus on areas that have the greatest impact and over which they can have control. With the advice of the SEL research team, we landed on this first big question (and one follow up):
“Can you name two adults in this school who believe you will be a success in life?” (and then if you get a positive response: “How do they show you?”)
There are number of critical points about this question. First, the evidence on resiliency indicates that one positive adult can be enough to keep a young person on track. For all our learners, and especially for the most vulnerable learners, we need to make sure that there at least two adults in the school who know, appreciate and encourage them.
Prior to asking this question, there needs to be discussion about the meaning of success in life. Teachers have found using personal stories, literature, short video clips and student experiences helpful in developing a wider picture of what success means.
What happens if the learner can’t name anyone? A sense of connectedness is so important that we do not need to complete a whole spiral before moving to immediate action. One of the most effective strategies is called the 2 x 10. If you discover a learner who does not think there is anyone in the school who believes in them, then you commit to finding two minutes a day for ten days in a row to connect with that child individually – about anything personal to them and not about anything to do with school. In many cases, this is enough to develop a connection and to change their sense of belonging.
The second part of this question is to name the specific behaviours of the adult that indicate their belief in the learner. The responses to this question initially can be a source of surprise. In our experience in many different schools, some common themes have emerged. One is the importance of specific communication to individual learners. Another is the positive impact of high expectations and teacher relentlessness in pushing for quality. Be curious about what your learners have to say – you may be surprised too. Finally, when you listen to a learner talk about the adults who are making a difference in their sense of self, please don't keep this information to yourself. Teachers appreciate hearing about strategies that work.
There are many ways in which these questions – and the student responses – can be used to build teacher curiosity. We were impressed by the response of teachers at one primary school where the professional learning meeting started with short video clips of students talking about the adults in the school who believed in them.
2. What are you learning and why is it important?
Consciously strengthening social and emotional connections with each learner is a vital part of a powerful inquiry repertoire. It is also critical to ensure that each learner understands the purpose of his or her learning. There is a big difference between learners knowing what
they are supposed to be doing and knowing why
what they are learning is important. Just posing this second question starts to shift the focus from simply completing a task towards more purposeful learning.
Our experience is that learners are only able to answer this question when they are helped to find personal meaning in what they are learning. Without a clear sense of purpose, many learners become disengaged and lose their sense of curiosity even as they continue to jump through the hoops of schooling. For learning to be relevant and purposeful, young people need to be in an environment where clarity about the big learning intentions, the big ideas, the big learning goals or the big questions is evident.
Helen Timperley and John Hattie have written about the importance of feedback from learners to their teachers. They point out that it is very productive to regularly find out from learners the answers to the following three questions: Where am I going in my learning? How is your learning going? What is the next step in your learning?
Years of experience with inviting educators to explore these questions have taught us to emphasize starting with this first two-part question: “What are you learning and why is it important?” If we don't get strong answers to this question, there isn’t much point in continuing to the next ones.
It is a concern when young people are unable to give full answers to this cognitive question. Our overall aim is to ensure that every
learner can articulate what they are learning, why it is important and how it is connected to their lives. There is a big difference between being able to say what
they are doing (‘we are doing erosion’) and why it is important (‘we are learning about erosion and how it impacts the sustainability of our island’).
As school staff members become more familiar with formative assessment strategies and adept in making connections between the curriculum and the lived experiences of their learners, rich answers are becoming the norm. Asking “what are you learning?” as a general question can be interesting as you find out what is “sticking out” in the mind of the learner. It can also be helpful to ask the question more specifically: What are you learning about reading? What are you learning about thinking critically? What are you learning about the natural world? What are you learning through your community engagement work?
During the scanning process knowing how many young people feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to adults in the building and then knowing how many understand what they are learning and why that learning matters are the essential starting points. Equipped with this close-to-the-learner information leadership teams can make much more informed decisions about productive areas of focus.
Once teachers and formal leaders start engaging with these questions the motivation to ensure that young people have a sense of belongingness and truly understand the importance of what they are learning becomes really significant. Many schools take a focus on assessment for learning strategies when they realize that their learners need to know more about what they are learning and why and how their learning connects with their lives.
Moving forward together
In our visits to jurisdictions at home and around the world we have found that those schools where assessment for learning is a way of life are those that truly stand out as terrific places for young people to live and learn. CAFLN and NOIIE share the goal of having EVERY Canadian school develop intellectually curious learners who know how to drive their own learning. Using our assessment knowledge along with the spirals framework can help us reach this goal – together and faster.
Earl, L. M. (2013). Assessment AS learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Corwin.
Halbert, J., & Kaser, L (2013). Spirals of inquiry for equity and quality
. BCPVPA Publications.
* Copies available at: Sarah Lockman firstname.lastname@example.org
Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2017). The spiral playbook
. C 21 Canada Publications.
* Copies available at: Jennifer Harfield email@example.com
Please note: all funds from the sale of spirals books are given as small inquiry grants to NOIIE schools doing Indigenous learning work.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77
(1), 81-112. DOI: 10.3102/003465430298487
Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education
. Seminar Series Paper No. 234.