Sunday, 24 January 2016

Spirals of Inquiry

Doing some reading about enquiry models, I had previously read about the ‘Spirals of Inquiry’ model. I attended a presentation at the ICSEI conference in January and was absolutely blown away with the presentation by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser who delivered a session entitles ‘Knowledge exchange through inquiry networks: A BC perspective’. The book co-authored by Halbert and Kaser entitled “Spirals of Inquiry: for equity and equality” can be an informant to the Scottish context as the new narrative for Curriculum for Excellence in evolving to Curriculum for Excellence and Equity (CfEE). This enquiry model supports the aspirations of CfEE to inspire our young people to develop skills which will allow them to move forward in making their dreams a reality supported by enquiring practitioners. Learners need to remain curious and as Halbert and Kaser said at the presentation “all learners should leave more curious than they arrived”. As Halbert and Kaser state (p20);
”What is especially important from an equity perspective is that vulnerable learners experience the greatest positive impact in terms of both increased motivation and depth of learning”.
In order to realise our aspirations for our young people the teaching workforce must also be life-long learners and not just pay lip service to this. Practitioners should be curious about learning and think of themselves as “designers of learning” (p37) and how this can be transferred to learners through their teaching pedagogy to facilitate skills and knowledge development.

One of the key factors that affects young people’s learning ability is the belief that they can! Every young person needs a cheerleader, someone who is explicit in communicating positive belief and helping young people to develop resilience both as an individual but also resilience in their learning. Through being more resilient, young people can then develop a more independent way of learning, becoming agents of their own learning, and are confident they can learn and comment on the learning of others. This growth mindset stance is not only applicable for young people but also applies to practitioners, who must be willing to become an ‘adaptive expert’, Timperley (2011) and continually identify and modify their research enriched practice when needed to respond to the needs of their learners. Halbert and Kaser also discuss Timperley’s argument that engaging in inquiry and knowledge building cycles is one of the key ways to develop adaptive expertise and is at the core of professionalism (p63).
Having an ‘enquiry as stance’ Cochrane-Smith & Lyttle (2009) helps teachers to develop a deep understanding of the experiences of their learners and use this as the basis for informed professional learning. Professional learning for practitioners should be our core business, driven by learners needs as enquiry practitioners “allow for a range of outcomes and keep searching for increased understanding and clarity” (p11). Professional learning needs to be of high quality and includes time for practitioners to engage in professional dialogue so as to shape new knowledge and come to new understandings. Although attending conferences, workshops and events can help us reframe our understanding and perhaps give us insight into current educational thinking, professional learning has to be more than this. It has to support the practitioner in creating professional knowledge by engaging with new information that challenges their assumption and perhaps long held beliefs and supports the creation of new meanings. This can be a transformative experience as the old ways of learning and teaching are replaced by new research enriched pedagogy which is learner centric.
The ‘Spirals of Inquiry’ lays out an approach which helps practitioners to be focused on the pursuit of quality learning experiences for young people by asking questions of one’s own practice. The process of the ‘Spirals of Inquiry’ has six steps which overlap but at each step the following questions should be asked;
What’s going on for our learners?
How do we know?
Why does this matter?
 The first two questions keep the learners at the heart of the inquiry and the last question helps to ground the inquiry team as Halbert and Kaser state “productive inquiry focussed teams don’t rush”(p48).


The steps of the Spirals of Inquiry process are as follows;
1.    Scanning
The scanning phase involves collecting a variety of rich evidence and considering useful information in key areas of learning.
2.    Focusing
This phase is about gaining greater clarity about the situation for learners before deciding on a course of action. This involves listening to all the stakeholders in the situation to understand the differing perspectives before committing to actions.
3.    Developing a hunch
Developing a hunch involves reflecting on the ways in which professional practice may be contributing to the situation for the learners. It requires the team to stand back and take stock of the key driver in the situation for learners.
4.    New professional learning
This is the phase that advocates that practitioners should engage with research, as Halbert and Kaser state “the best innovation education solutions often draw on what is already known to develop something new that is consistent with sound theory and evidence” (p55). There are challenges within this phase which include ensuring that all practitioners have sufficient time to engage in new learning and that the professional learning is linked directly to their context with their learners in mind.
5.    Taking action
Taking action is the phase that everyone has been itching to get to. It is the jumping across the knowing-doing gap and trying out new practice with plenty of opportunity built in for dialogue, observation, reflection and the opportunity to take risks and learn from mistakes.
6.    Checking
The final phase of checking is the time to check that the difference made was ‘good’. The inquiry can only be thought of as ‘good’ if learner outcomes have improved. The key is to have a general agreement ahead of time about what evidence to look for and what constitutes enough of a difference, therefore using performance standards in both the scanning phase and the checking phase makes a lot of sense.  This phase is also the time for personal reflection for practitioners, who should think about what went well? What could have gone better and why? Then celebrate their achievements and work out how to build on these.

Sustained enquiry matters so practitioners can support young people get the best learning experiences possible. This also helps practitioners to continually evaluate and adapt their practice driven by the learning needs of the young people they work with. For this to be successful the enquiry teams need to be supported by their leadership teams but it would also be beneficial if they created a micro-network in Scotland to support each other. These enquiries would have to have a clear focus and purpose but can also be supported through advice from GTCS.

The Spirals of Inquiry network has a website which can be used for further information,


Halbert, J. & Kaser, L. (2013) Spirals of Inquiry – for equity and quality:The BC Principals & Vice Principal Association : Vancouver

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