Stories from the field

These stories are about how people are working with the spiral of inquiry, learning and action. They are about things that worked and things that didn't work completely the first time. They were all made possible through a sustained focus on a culture of professional learning and inquiry.


Scanning for social-emotional connections

In a rural Canadian school with a large First Nations population a teacher started thinking about the way the school constructed supplementary programmes for learners. She wondered whether all their pull out programmes were actually leading to social-emotional disconnection and what the answers would be if she asked the students ‘Can you name two adults who believe you will be a success in life?’

Socio-emotional connections

Scanning when professional development wasn’t making a difference

An Australian school had engaged in a great deal of high quality professional development and achieved great things for school climate and culture but the low student academic outcomes hadn’t changed. In this video they talk about how they changed things around by engaging in the spiral of inquiry.


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Getting to a single focus

A Waikato school had many different foci. Some were reflected in their annual plan but some of their real priorities weren’t. For example, they:

  • wanted to be more culturally responsive to their local iwi and were engaging whānau in storying their local history, with each student involved in developing a school-wide journal
  • had literacy goals around writing narrative
  • were creating modern learning environments where learners took more responsibility and ownership for their own learning.

All these foci involved staff in professional development.

The principal realised there was a problem when he suggested they take up a new offer of professional development in maths. His suggestion was met by silence in the staff room.

So they all took a deep breath and revisited their scanning data. All foci still seemed important.

  • Their Māori students were less engaged than others and most could not name two adults at school who believed they could be a success in life. 
  • asTTle results in narrative were lower than in recount (the only purposes assessed).
  • Learners were vague about their learning goals and where to next.

When working through these options, the staff realised that they were not doing their learners or themselves any favours by focusing separately on cultural responsiveness, narrative writing and students taking greater responsibility for their learning.

In reality, these foci could be combined into a school-wide focus for the year – writing narrative by bringing historical storying with whānau into the centre and integrating modern learning practices. They worked out which aspects of the scanning data they would use to set goals and targets.

Finding out more to deepen the focus

An Australian primary school was concerned about their maths results. The leaders also realised the students had major motivation problems in maths – partly because behaviour problems in some classes escalated around maths time.

The leaders also wanted to focus on something that would involve the whole school. But where to start? They deepened their scanning data by working with teachers to interview students about their attitudes to maths. These interviews confirmed their initial scanning data. Typical student responses included: Maths is boring. I’m dumb at maths. My teacher doesn’t explain it to me when I don’t understand.

So they engaged a maths expert who looked carefully at the patterns in the students’ results and suggested that some of the problems arose from poor knowledge of place value. She worked with the teachers to help them to understand the importance of having a strong foundation in place value and together they developed a progression of understandings expected at each year level from Year 2. 

They reassessed the students on the continuum, moderated their judgements, and found that they were well below expected levels.  They decided to make this their focus.

As a footnote, within two months of ongoing professional development and new teaching practices, all but three students had made progress across at least one level. Student motivation took care of itself and the staff was keen to continue.

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Developing a hunch

Testing hunches using learning maps

Learner agency is about students having ownership and control of their learning. Finding out how much ownership they feel they have in what and how they learn gives an insight into learner agency. Do teachers always set tasks? Do learners feel they have choice about who they learn with?

Asking learners to draw learning maps about who or what helps them with their learning can be very revealing. Brian Annan and Mary Wootton developed this idea about learning maps.

In this video a young primary school student describes his learning map.

  › Rata Street School student - Learning and Change Networks on Youtube

Testing five year olds’ skills

This large primary school in South Auckland was surprised when they tested their hunch that students’ poor reading levels in Year three were the result of learners “coming to school with no skills”.

Staff room talk often focused on telling stories about children arriving at school completely unprepared for learning. The school did not assess their learners on arrival because they thought it was a waste of time but decided to do so to test their hunch.

They developed a list of 25 skills they believed were important for students to begin a formal school programme. They estimated that on average the children would have about 5-7 of the listed skills. One teacher gave a much higher estimate.

What they found after the testing was that the average was much higher – around 20 of the skills. They also noticed that the learners in the class of the teacher who gave the higher estimate made greater progress over the first year. So they bravely re-assessed their hunch and decided that maybe a greater problem was that they were not recognising and utilising the skills and resources the learners brought with them on arrival.

The causes of low achievement

This Auckland primary school was participating in professional development in writing using an inquiry process. The principal was particularly skilled in eliciting, testing and challenging teachers’ hunches about low achievement.

Testing hunches about low achievement

Drawing inferences from text

In this primary school, focused on professional learning in literacy, one of the teachers expressed a hunch that the low achievement of her Pasifika students was their inability to make inferences.

The evidence she based her hunch on was that whenever she asked them inferential questions about the text they were reading they did not give correct answers. Their literal comprehension appeared to be much better.

The Samoan facilitator put forward an alternative hunch that the students were able to make inferences but struggled with the English vocabulary in the text which led to their more literal answers. She suggested that she ask the students the questions in Samoan using a Samoan text to see if there was a difference.

When this hunch was tested, the evidence indicated that the Samoan teacher’s hunch was more consistent with the evidence. The students were readily able to answer both literal and inferential questions.

Interpreting the demands of questions 

This secondary school, the staff believed that senior students’ low achievement was a result of their inability to read test and examination questions. They were intending to introduce a reading programme for those students not achieving well but decided instead to ask students representing a range of achievement levels to read samples of questions across different area of the curriculum.

They found the students showed little difference in their ability to read, ie. decode, the questions. What they found to be the problem was the students’ ability to interpret what the question was asking them to do, e.g. compare and contrast, or to analyse, or to describe.

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New learning

Organising for professional learning

Pakuranga College principal Mike Williams describes the strategy, structures and processes the school is using to embed professional learning in teacher daily practice.

Pakuranga College: Organising for PLD

Creating professional learning opportunities

An Australian primary school had been working with the spiral for over a year but had not made much progress until they narrowed their focus and got serious about promoting professional learning opportunities for their staff. 

Staff meeting structure

We now start our staff meetings with 10 minutes or so of professional reading or professional sharing – just to open up what we’re doing more. Then, the main focus is an actual workshop where we do the work, there and then, together, to get common understanding. At the end of each meeting, we make a commitment to action.

Leader of learning

We have created a new role to oversee teaching and learning and develop consistent practice across the school.

PD at school

Instead of people going out to PD events, as in the past, we’ve brought the experts in to us. We started at the beginning of the year at the big picture level. This term we brought it down to a specific focus. From that, we looked at and talked about where it's found in the syllabus. 

Collaborating with another school

We created the opportunity for the teachers to learn collaboratively with another school to benchmark learners’ writing samples

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Taking action

Organising for action

One Australian school was starting the taking action phase but realised they had the wrong focus and were having difficulty getting staff commitment. They re-focused. When they got to the stage of taking action with this new focus, they attended to some important issues:

  • weekly team planning for action
  • developing collaborative processes to decide the action they would take in classrooms and determine how they would check if things were changing.


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Going deeper

A school in Australia re-focused after finding out they hadn’t reached their targets. In this video they talk about how they re-scanned and re-focused to go deeper.


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Stories demonstrating the whole spiral

New Zealand school stories

Pakuranga College: Leading learning

Inquiry at Albany Senior High School

Australian secondary schools' example

This story summarises the experiences of three Australian secondary schools working through the spiral of inquiry, learning and action to improve students' writing. Analysis of senior examination results showed that students were not succeeding as well where they needed to write extended texts. The schools focused on three identified student needs in writing.

Spirals of inquiry - Australian secondary schools' example

Reflecting on the process

The Australian school leaders talking in two of the videos earlier on this page, reflect on the overall experience of working with the spiral of inquiry, learning and action, up to that time. Since they made this video, their students have achieved above the state average in most aspects of NAPLAN. 


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Related stories


These stories also describe how schools have been using the spiral of inquiry, learning and action:

Otago Girls' High School – NZC Online blog

Porirua East schools – Enabling e-learning website

Roydvale and Waiakei primary schools – Enabling e-learning website

Supporting transition

Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN) is part of the Network of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII), a voluntary, inquiry-based network of schools in British Columbia, Canada, established in 2000.

Several schools in the AESN network are working to enhance students’ experience of transition to or from school. In this video, educators describe what is happening at their schools.

AESN - Youtube

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