What makes Spirals of Inquiry such a simple but effective way for teachers to connect with students while advancing their own learning? Whole Education sat down to talk to educators, Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert, to talk about the system.
What was the big issue/problem you were trying to solve that led you to develop spirals of inquiry?
LINDA: I was considered a good teacher. But as I progressed in my career, I was disappointed in my teaching. I didn’t have the strategies to help every kid. I knew how to ask difficult questions in literature but I didn’t know how to get them up to level in reading if they couldn’t, for example. That made me interested in changing teacher education programmes and in adult learning.
JUDY: As a teacher, I had a principal who was a leader in professional development. The school had a great professional learning programme so I had the experience of being in a terrific school and wanted that for everybody.
When I became a principal, a colleague and I were hired at the same time. We became friends. By Christmas, he had disappeared… I was doing great. At the end of the second year, he went on sick leave and never came back. This incident made me think about what it was in the culture of a district for one person to be so successful and another person to go in the opposite direction – and nobody do anything to help, including me. I felt ashamed and responsible for seeing somebody struggle and not reaching out.
The combination of really great professional learning and the negative impact of isolation, of how people can be destroyed in a profession, made me want to create a situation where learning was exciting, challenging and where smart people have a place.
Why was it important to you to change schools? Do you have any anecdotes from those days?
LINDA: I went from teaching in a wealthy community to a difficult community. It’s a layer of experience. Once you realize what is happening to some young people, in families – sexual abuse, parents being jailed – it’s hard to see the world in the same way again. You see how uneven the playing field can be, even in a country like Canada.
JUDY: The year after I left teaching in a really tough town, four of my students died by suicide. Two of them had a suicide pact. And they did this because they saw no hope. That influenced me forever.
Why do you think indigenous knowledge in education is important?
JUDY: My reasons come from personal shame and feeling complicit in my ignorance. I grew up in a white, middle class, privileged family. When I was an assistant superintendent, a classroom teacher referred to the native people as savages There was a huge deal and I was caught in the crosshairs. It just didn’t end well. And it could have ended a lot better. He hadn’t done anything intentionally. But I became aware of how much we didn’t know as white settlers.
Why are the initial spirals questions important?
LINDA: The questions are important to know what is going on with the individual learners as opposed to testing students, grading them, putting them in a graph and expecting this to tell people what to do next.
It’s [data driven practice] caused a lot of the best and most creative teachers to leave the profession. It’s demoralizing to feel that you can organize the evidence of kids in front of you in a chart and this is more important than what’s happening for those young people.
We wanted to change that balance. We asked what are things that teachers need to know and made a huge list. Then we asked how can we pick the smallest amount that can help schools move forward. I think the spirals process works because it’s in plain language and it’s based on evidence of how teachers learn.
JUDY: The first of the big picture questions – what’s going on with our learners – it’s just our opinions. But the second question – how do we know – we have to look for the evidence. There’s a focusing of the questions that’s really important. There’s a research basis behind the four questions used in the scanning phase. And the choice of clear language in those questions is intentional.
+ What are you learning and why is it important?
+ How is it going with your learning?
+ What are your next steps?
What do you think makes Spirals successful?
JUDY: Spirals moves away from the intense focus on test scores. The emphasis on data-driven conversations and decision-making – it was well-intentioned but didn’t capture the hearts and minds of teachers. Often, it felt like exam data dumped on teachers. I think Spirals is so successful because it makes sense to teachers. It takes the tacit practice of how good teachers work and makes this explicit. Also, teachers are attracted to a shared, bigger purpose that comes from participants and not from someone telling them what to do.
What would be the dream to achieve with Spirals?
LINDA: That we get to 100 percent in our three goals in our lifetime – that we have indigenous wisdom, that everyone’s leaving more curious than when they arrived and every kid is crossing the stage no matter how rich or poor they start out. And I would like to see ten centres in the world working and learning together so we can get enough depth of the evidence that it will be sustained for a long time.
+ Every learner will leave more curious than when they arrive.
+ Every learner will develop an understanding of, and respect for, Indigenous ways of knowing.
Why do you do the work that you do?
JUDY: I love it. I feel enormously privileged to have this life. Sometimes we look at each other and say, “Not bad for a couple of English teachers.”
LINDA: “Almost every day.”
JUDY: It’s deeply satisfying. It feels meaningful, relevant, important, I’m intellectually engaged, it’s difficult.
LINDA: I think it’s spirit lifting. I don’t like being bored. I haven’t been bored for one second.
You can find out more about Linda and Judy on the NOII website. You can find out more about Whole Education’s UK Spirals of Enquiry network here.