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Listening to Learners: The Starting Point for Real Change

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This post is by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, who are co-leaders of Networks of Inquiry and Innovation and the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network

Last month in Vancouver, at the annual symposium of the BC Networks of Inquiry and Innovation Jordan, a Grade 10 student from a mid-sized secondary school presented an Ignite talk to the 350 educators in the room. Jordan showed the bentwood box she had built in a combined English and Fine Arts class. A beautiful design was etched into the top of the box and poetry circled it. Jordan explained the symbolism of the objects carefully placed in the box - a piece of cactus representing resilience, a vial of water from the lake reflecting openness to learning and a piece of sage symbolizing forgiveness and cleansing. She read an excerpt from the letter in the box that she was giving to a local Elder. And, she thanked the school for providing her the opportunity to learn about the local Indigenous culture, to learn from and with Elders, to read widely, to learn on the land and to create a gift of personal significance. Jordan ended by acknowledging the teachers who created the conditions for learning to flourish. There were few dry eyes at the end of this talk and the audience rose as one to provide a prolonged standing ovation.

What were the conditions that led to this school creating the conditions for the kind of learning that Jordan is experiencing? What distinguishes the BC Networks of Inquiry and innovation from other forms of school networks? How does a shared framework across schools help to keep the focus on deeper learning?

For the past eighteen years, we have been supporting a network of 600 schools within the province of British Columbia that has expanded to include schools in the Yukon Territory, England, New South Wales, Queensland, New Zealand, Barcelona and Sweden. Educators in these diverse systems are voluntarily coming together in pursuit of three common goals: every learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options; every learner leaving our settings more curious than when they arrive; and, every learner gaining an understanding of and a respect for Indigenous knowledge and culture. In addition to supporting these networks, we have also been involved in developing and teaching graduate programs with a focus on developing the kinds of mindsets and skills required to meet the dual goals of high equity and high quality.

Central to our work with schools in the Network is a disciplined and evidence-informed framework for professional inquiry, developed in collaboration with Helen Timperley from the University of Auckland. 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. Like other action research processes, this process asks teachers to engage in a cycle of action and reflection, but what is particularly distinctive about our process has been its focus on understanding the perspectives of students--and then using this knowledge to design more powerful learning experiences.

Spirals of inquiry.jpg

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 as well as formal evidence sources. The third question helps to ground teams in the importance of the direction they are pursuing.

An additional foundation for the inquiry learning networks consists of four key questions that are drawn from research on social emotional learning and self-regulation. School teams use these four questions with their learners as key parts of the scanning and checking phases of the spiral of inquiry:

  • Can you name two people in this school who believe that you will be a success in life? How do they let you know?
  • What are you learning? Why is it important? How does this learning connect to your life outside of school?
  • How are you doing with your learning? 
  • What are your next steps?

These questions may seem deceptively simple. When used as a regular routine, however, educators have found that they have a profound effect on shifting learning practices to increase learner sense of belonging and ownership. The first question quickly helps educators identify learners who do not feel connected to adults within the school - and propels them to immediate action. The next three questions help move educator thinking from a preoccupation with content coverage to a focus on what learners are actually experiencing and the extent to which they are developing agency and depth.

So, how is this focus on networked inquiry leading to deeper learning for young people like Jordan? When the staff at Jordan's school asked the questions, many students reported that although they were doing relatively well, they didn't see the relevance of what they were learning. They could say what they were doing but struggled to say why it was important. They didn't know how what they were learning in school was connected to life outside of school. They had limited connections to their community and to the land. A number of young people were unable to name two adults who believed in them. These responses from their learners moved the staff to informed and committed action designed to deepen engagement.

By systematically engaging in professional inquiry, educators are gaining confidence in listening to their learners, in reflecting on their current practices, in exploring ways to develop deeper learning and then moving to action. By using evidence about learning that values collective professional judgment, teachers are becoming more curious about the experiences of their learners. By participating in an international inquiry network, school teams are expanding their conceptions of what is possible.

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