What is going on for our learners? How do we know? Why does it matter?

Written by: Killian Moyles | Published:
Key questions: The six parts of the spiral of enquiry as well as three big picture questions (diagram adapted from Halbert & Kaser, 2013)

The innovative Spirals of Enquiry model is an action research technique that can give us great insight into our pupils' attitudes and learning. Killian Moyles shares the experience of staff and children at Mayfield Primary School

Over the last year, Mayfield Primary School in Cambridge has been on a journey towards answering the questions posed above by devoting an entire week each term to “Spirals of Enquiry”, an enquiry-based model which is becoming increasingly popular around the world.

Spirals of Enquiry was first developed and implemented in British Columbia, Canada, with the goal of narrowing the gap for the state’s aboriginal Native Canadian population (Halbert & Kaser, 2013; Kaser & Halbert, 2009).

To understand more about the educational experiences of the children from this, at times, marginalised community, researchers Dr Judy Halbert and Dr Linda Kaser began with a central core mantra: ask them.

Four fundamental questions were developed which underpin the Spirals framework, facilitating rich and informative discussion with learners:

  • Can you name two people in this setting who believe you will be a success in life?
  • What are you learning and why is it important?
  • How is your learning going?
  • What are your next steps?

These questions allowed teachers to understand their children like never before. Having seen these questions posed, perhaps the most striking thing about them is their implicit acknowledgment that we, as professionals, do not know everything about the educational experiences of the children in our class – and that is why we are here. They encourage us to humbly leave our pre-conceived notions at the door and listen attentively.

Spirals is currently being used in educational establishments around the world as a multi-use framework for collaborative enquiry which puts evidence about a school’s learners at the centre of decision-making. It is described by Halbert and Kaser as “a field-tested way to spark professional curiosity and inspire informed action” (Kaser & Halbert, 2017).

For many school leaders, elements of Spirals will be familiar in that it is built on evidence-based concepts you already know and practices you may already use. But there are features that, in combination, distinguish this cycle of enquiry from other forms of action research. For example:

  • It requires collaboration.
  • It starts with a deep understanding of learning and the experiences of learners.
  • It is specifically designed to change outcomes for learners in important areas.
  • It respects the judgement, experience and language of teachers.
  • It is informed by the best of what we currently know about powerful professional learning.

As its name suggests, Spirals is not a one-off assessment but a cyclical framework to test and retest, monitoring a development in a focus area. The spiral is structured in six phases:

  1. Scanning: Asking carefully crafted questions of learners that help us to understand their perspectives on how and what they are learning.
  2. Focusing: Exploring the issues raised by learners to identify priority areas for further enquiry.
  3. Developing a hunch: Exposing the beliefs and practices that have a bearing on this issue – what am I doing that is contributing positively, or negatively?
  4. New professional learning: Seeking out fresh ideas and developing new practice by engaging with colleagues, other schools and with research evidence.
  5. Taking action: Applying new learning and practice with a clear sense of the impact we expect to have for learners as we do so.
  6. Checking: Making sure we had the impact we expected. Have we made the difference we hoped for? If not, why not? What else can we do?

In many cases, Spirals is used to address a specific focus or need, for example closing the gap, where the questioning (and subsequent phases) would be posed to a specific target group, such as year 5 boys who require support with reading.

At Mayfield Primary, however, co-headteachers Paula Ayliffe and Sarah Stepney saw scope to expand this process across their school. They wanted to have a deep understanding of the educational experiences of every child in the two-form entry school and developed Spirals Week as a means by which to achieve this.

Over the course of one week each term, every class teacher sits down for a planned conversation with each child in their class. Teachers are encouraged to leave their assumptions at the door and pose, among others, Halbert and Kaser’s four key questions over a 10 to 15-minute conversation.

This was made possible by the two classes in each year group coming together as one group of 60, with one class teacher facilitating the group on child-led learning projects – another of the school’s ambitions. These projects are then documented with at least two pieces of work per child and used at the end of the year to supplement the report to parents.

Jake Holt, tasked with overseeing Spirals Week, acknowledges that in the early stages staff had concerns about the implementation of the week. These were in relation to the benefits of the initiative, the one-to-one conversations, the structuring of the week, and the delegation of support staff.

Mr Holt feels the success of the child-led activities hinged on two things – letting each year group find their own way in terms of what they should be doing while the conversations were taking place, and ensuring that the activities were manageable, given the other administration involved with making learning journals. He explained: “We started by presenting a couple of different options for staff to choose from, but essentially each pair of teachers decided together how to organise the week. We have been promoting child-led learning as much as possible, as this gives the children an opportunity they might not normally have, but also helps to reduce teacher workload.”

The initial year of Spirals Week has provided a rich feedback loop for the continued development of the model. The school has been careful to listen to any issues arising from the implementation of this new initiative and have tried to address as many of them as possible.

“On the whole, the children and staff have been mostly very positive about the activities part of the week. The children particularly like getting to have more say over what they are doing,” Mr Holt added.

After the first conversations took place, the headteachers received positive feedback from the teachers, who felt they were learning things about their children that they had not previously known. This was on a personal level, in terms of pupils’ interests, but they were also finding out about the children’s approaches to learning, including general approaches to learning and more specific strengths and areas that the children felt they wanted to improve in.

Mr Holt continued: “Teachers have been feeling that their overall knowledge of the children is much greater and there appears to be a sort of relaxed calm among them when discussing what has been uncovered in conversations. Interestingly, the children I spoke to say they are keen to know their teachers better and I think these conversations help them to trust their teachers more so then they can speak to them more easily when they need to.”

One year 5 pupil said: “The conversations are exciting. All you do is talk and get to know about your teacher. It is nice to spend time with your teacher because then you know more about them. It helps you trust them and then you can ask them questions about learning.”

For example, through the one-to-one conversations, it was revealed that the children wanted to talk about their learning but did not necessarily have the language to be able to do that. As teachers recorded and compared their conversations, it became clear across the school that there was a need for increased metacognitive skills and language. From there, Mr Holt approached five teachers to form a task group: “They were very keen and I made sure that after presenting them with some research with several ideas of ways to introduce the language they chose how they wanted to do it in their classes.”

Through this, Mayfield’s Taking Action phase consisted of a mini-project in years 2, 4 and 5 to see if promoting metacognitive language in every day teaching could have an impact on their ability to talk about their learning more deeply.

The proven impact of this project is on-going and will roll into this academic year.

  • Killian Moyles is facilitator for the Whole Education primary network.

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