Building a Supportive Spirals of Inquiry Leadership Model

Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2021 |

To sustain a learning system over time, careful consideration for an equitable promotion of the conditions that allow learning leadership to flourish is a challenge worth tackling – even in a global pandemic. District leader Lisa Carson shows how schools are emerging from this isolating pandemic as connected and networked learning organizations.

As part of a global system, the role of educational leaders has been evolving from managers of teaching to leaders of learning, a shift more revolutionary than evolutionary. The learning culture, however, has been challenged by our current global pandemic.

To sustain a learning system over time, careful consideration for and equitable promotion of the conditions that allow learning leadership to flourish is a challenge worth tackling.

During times when urgent tasks weigh upon us, it is easy to set aside the complex work of deeper learning in favour of getting through task-focussed management. While there is a real need to deal with management tasks, there, too, is a need to get back to the work that moved each of us into education in the first place: connected leadership that supports student learning.

In School District No. 73 (Kamloops-Thompson) in British Columbia, Canada, we were curious about creating a culture of inquiry. For some time in our district, we had a mechanism to support innovation in schools through small grants. A deeper look at the recipients of the grants over the years showed inequities in the system and left us determined to find a way to ensure more educators could be supported. We posited that creating the right conditions for innovation and inquiry would result in a culture of curiosity.

Invitational not prescriptive

As a starting place, we asked what would happen if we made the process invitational rather than a prescriptive application form? We moved from a place of grant application and competition to open invitation and participation in a learning series. Working with Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser on their Spirals of Inquiry (2013) framework, we developed a learning series, along with small grants, to ensure that teachers could be released from their classrooms for professional learning as well as provide the means to purchase learning resources. Within the first registration period, it became obvious that educators welcomed the opportunity to learn the Spirals of Inquiry process within a carefully constructed, safe, learning space. The workshops were advertised as a place to “come and try it out” within a supportive network of colleagues. The format was designed to allow participants a forum to share successes and challenges rather than report outcomes. We measured our success by noting that instead of a handful of successful recipients in a grant application process, we had over one hundred educators learning about and participating in the Spirals of Inquiry in the first year. Momentum continued in subsequent years. These subtle changes to support the learner, rather than the outcome, were our first steps towards developing a culture of learning.

Teacher Agency

Ultimately, we aimed at system change through developing teacher agency. This work is no small feat; as Halbert and Kaser point out, “We have learned that system change is not for the faint of heart. Significant change takes a real sense of purpose, unfaltering passion and absolute persistence” (2016. p. 2). Our reality reflected this sentiment. Each year, our learning series begins again, and combines educators new to Spirals of Inquiry learning along with those who have experienced success for their students through changed practice. As Halbert & Kaser (2016) rightly note, “In peer-to-peer learning networks, the most powerful influencers tend to be those who, regardless of their role, have a strong repertoire of changed practice, combined with a mindset of deep curiosity” (p. 14). As we continue to have more educators who have experienced success through the Spirals of Inquiry, we develop a larger pool of practitioners whose strengths we can leverage to further facilitate district-wide improvement.

While it was important to begin under the excellent guidance of Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert, they made it clear that their work was to get us started and not to lead us year-after-year. It is this belief in each learning team becoming a network within a larger network that supported our gradual release to run our own learning series on the Spirals of Inquiry.

How it all comes together

Juniper Ridge Elementary, under the leadership of principal, Carol DeFehr, and supported by learning assistance resource teacher, Sherri Hoffer, began to look deeply at phonological awareness in their youngest students. By examining data, defining a focus, and becoming introspective in how they, as a group of educators have affected the ability to achieve greater success, they have begun the work of effecting positive change for their learners. Teacher agency is a key factor in their success.

A strength of the Juniper Ridge program was the invitational nature of the work. Hoffer participated in the Spirals of Inquiry learning series and as a learning assistance resource teacher, began to wonder about a program she could apply in the “action” part of the Spiral. Using a phonological awareness program and openly sharing her successes and challenges with her colleagues, she drew a group of curious educators to her classroom. As she completed subsequent spirals (the process is iterative and a single Spiral brings to light new areas of inquiry so the framework becomes more defined with each inquiry), she noted interest from teachers outside of her school. In year two of Hoffer’s work, she was featured as a classroom stop in our Curiosity Cab event. The Curiosity Cab was an on-the-road workshop in which we booked a school bus filled with interested principals and educators and took them to various school sites to watch inquiry in action. Hoffer noted that in the second year, there was a cultural shift when her colleagues started coming to her to share their successes and challenges rather than waiting for her to do a check in with them. It is the development of this teacher agency that became an important change in the culture of the school. It was also the most evident sign of burgeoning teacher collective efficacy. They now knew that they could make a real difference in literacy acquisition for their learners, and if they struggled, there was a network to provide real-time support.

The interest in Hoffer’s program grew once again in year three.  She is currently offering mentorship to an inter-school group interested in learning more about her inquiry and how to look deeply at their own phonological awareness queries within the context of their own schools.

Valleyview Secondary School (VSS) is another strong example of networking to promote student success. VSS has been shifting to a culture of inquiry through a focus on Indigenous learners. Working with other schools throughout the province with a similar focus, VSS has found that purposeful leadership connected to deep inquiry is showing early signs of success for their Indigenous learners. One of the difficult to measure yet impossible to ignore signs of success is a deepening of relationships in the building. Principal, Barb Hamblett, attributes this success to the creation of a safe space to look deeply at the work. The Spirals of Inquiry are iterative and process-oriented. “If the inquiry is centred around the student, it is possible to begin the first steps towards connecting the data to individual students. It keeps the relationship between the students and learning as the focus” (B. Hamblett, personal communication, January 29, 2021).

Hamblett’s description aligns with the three big-picture questions (What are you learning, how do you know, and why does it matter?) when the focus is centred on the students. Success in developing this safe, relationship-building space makes way for the next level of deepening the work of the inquiry: teacher agency. As educators become familiar with the success of Spiral of Inquiry work, they find the freedom required to make the work meaningful on a personal level. For VSS, some of that familiarity came through videography. While experiencing the power of the network and the value of bringing personal success back to the school team, Hamblett also recognized the power of student voice. When learners can answer the three big questions, and their feedback is a part of the process within the inquiry, the actions become more powerful.

Scaling up or rippling out? Many districts have schools like Juniper Ridge Elementary and Valleyview Secondary; these pockets of excellence often begin like pilot projects, but the question becomes, how do we spread these early successes in a way that benefits all schools and all learners?

At a district level, we asked: how can strong examples of supporting Spirals of Inquiry through the development of teacher agency spread throughout all schools participating in inquiry?

In response, we are developing an online infrastructure to ensure we can continue to meet these conditions for learning in a safe, networked environment.

For our learning leaders, creating a space, albeit online, is a necessary step. Our intranet is a place for our educational leaders to access a repository of resources, partner with each other as coaches, and mentor teams of teachers new to the Spiral of Inquiry. While we all have individual strengths, it is as a collective—a network—that we are strongest, and most able to draw upon the insights of many voices and different forms of expertise.

The necessity of meeting in a virtual forum has been both restrictive and has forced innovation; we have had to become open to developing new pathways to support each other. We have kept our learning journey moving forward with online formal and informal learning sessions thanks to strong advocates of inquiry work within our school district: Barb Hamblett and Angela Stott.

It is important to distribute the leadership of this important work. One person is not a network. The development of an online repository of work and a group of well-trained colleagues who regularly “check in” with teachers and principals interested in being supported through an inquiry takes a team. And, from a district-level, we have ensured that we have resources to support those taking their first steps on the inquiry journey in addition to those already well down the path so they can sustain and deepen the work.

Spirals of Inquiry created the space to have learning conversations and apply real, measured actions to better support our learners. While we are at the beginning stages of this work, it is already apparent that our reinvention of how we support learning leaders will continue after the pandemic passes. Perhaps ironically, we are emerging from this isolating pandemic as connected and networked learning leaders.

Lisa Carson

Lisa is a Director of Instruction in SD73 (Kamloops-Thompson) where she supports curriculum, assessment, and reporting. Through her role, she hopes to create professional learning opportunities that support, engage, and empower learners, learning leaders and educators throughout the system.

Halbert, J., & Kaser, L. (2012). Inquiring learning environments: New mindsets required. Centre for Strategic Education, April 2012, 3 – 16.

Halbert, J., & Kaser, L. (2013). Spirals of inquiry. BC Principals’ & Vice-Principals’ Association.

Halbert, J., & Kaser, L. (2016). System transformation for equity and quality: Purpose, passion and persistence. Centre for Strategic Education, November 2016, 2 – 18.

Le Fevre, D.M., Timperley, H., & Ell, F. (2016). Curriculum and pedagogy: The future of teacher professional learning and development of adaptive expertise. In Wyse, D., Hayward, L., & Pandya, J. (2016). The SAGE Handbook of curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. (Vols. 1-2). SAGE Publications Ltd,

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