Australian school: inquiry story

Leaders in an Australian primary school talk about their experience using the spiral of inquiry, learning and action to raise the achievement of their students in writing.

When PD wasn't making a difference


Q: I wonder if we could start with you briefly outlining how you approached professional development before you engaged in this inquiry process?

Positive professional learning community

A: I think, probably over the last six to seven years, we’ve spent a lot of time on building the notion of learning community, by building relationships, both professional and personal. We’ve spent a lot of time on that.

We spent a lot of time on social and emotional development, mainly with our students and trying to find the tools to do that. So we use a philosophy called Habits of Mind. We find that aligns a lot with our thinking.

We spent a lot of time teaching, explicitly, cooperative strategies throughout the school. We began to team plan and organise structures around that. Then that led to team teaching.

So over years we’ve created all those things that we thought were part of changing a whole paradigm of thinking.

We spent a lot of time teaching thinking skills and learning about thinking skills. We created beautiful learning spaces. We changed the way we looked and over time changed the way we talked. And, generally the way we trust and respect one another. We did a lot of work around substantive dialogue.

And, we got to the point where we thought we were pretty good. We thought the school was a really happy safe place to be. We enjoyed coming to work. We particularly loved working with one another in stages.

And, teachers, I think, began a whole new process where they were really relieved of the pressure of always having to make decisions themselves. So, I think, as a cooperative professional learning community we were doing really well.

Negative student achievement

Before we came to Timperley we were also noted as a failing school according to NAPLAN results of student achievement. And, it was just such a nightmare to us because we thought we worked so well as a group.

We would wait for NAPLAN results. We would pull out all the negatives. There weren’t that many positives. If there were, we said, yep, that’s fantastic. But I’ve always focused on the other. We would have every excuse known to man: we have quite a transient population; we believed we had developed so well as a cooperative unit that we'd lost the balance of students learning how to do tasks independently and thinking on their own.

It wasn’t until we came to Timperley did we learn to get past all that and start scanning and finding out why – and collecting data and following that whole process.

Value of scanning

Q: OK, can you tell us a bit about your scanning process then?

B: Well originally we looked at our NAPLAN data and our writing was  the area that we found was the area that we were failing in, probably, the most. So, we decided we’d choose that area as the thing we were going to work on. And, we looked at the different components, grammar and punctuation, and things like that.

Another teacher and I talked about, well, what could we do. How can we change what we’re doing?  We’d already previously gone, yep, our grammar and punctuation isn’t going well, so one year we focused on that. And, the next year, oh, this isn’t going well, so we focused on that. So, we [actually] decided to start working on our writing and we just made that a focus of the whole school.

Now, at that point, we weren’t part of the inquiry process. We weren’t aware of the inquiry cycle, as we are now. And, we [actually] hadn’t done scanning. So after we learned about scanning and developing our hunches and all that, we sort of backtracked.

We went back and we did some surveys with the children to find out how they felt about writing, how their teachers were helping them with their writing, and things like that. We scanned the teachers – we interviewed them to talk about the difficulties they were having with teaching in writing, where they perhaps needed help, and things like that.

So, that’s then how we did our scanning but originally we didn’t do our scanning. So we were [actually] trying to solve a problem without really knowing what the problem was.

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Going deeper


Missing targets

I think it’s important to acknowledge that [actually] when we initially collected our data – from our baseline data – and then we had data six months later, we [actually] didn’t reach our targets, and missed the targets quite largely. So we had to investigate that.

And, once again, as a staff, we looked at all the reasons.

We did a problem-solving chart and people wrote down [well] what could’ve happened. People listed the reasons: well, it could’ve been each teacher presented the task differently; it could be that our targets were too high; it could be the marking of the writing.

So we problem-solved all these things that could have impacted on our results and then came up with a list of solutions for that. And one of those solutions was to [actually] have an expert marker mark samples as well, so we could see whether our marking was too easy or too hard or whatever, to see whether that had impacted on our results.

And, what we found was, as a staff, we generally were all marking a little bit too easy. So, then we used the expert marker’s data as our baseline date and we started again.

Narrowing the focus 

The other thing that we learned at that time – because at that time we were [actually] focusing on the whole writing task with nine different criteria – so at that time we also learned that we needed to [actually] narrow our focus. So we [actually] chose the focus of sentence structure because we felt that had a big impact on all of writing, so that was a good one to choose.

And, we [actually] once again went through the inquiry process: What are our hunches about sentence structure? You know, well, why are kids struggling with sentence structure? Once again, teachers said they didn’t have the expertise at that higher level and they weren’t sure about how to teach kids to write complex sentences and all those higher level thinking skills. So we [actually] targeted  the teachers and [actually] helped them to develop their expertise with the kids in the classroom.

And, teachers [actually] really did that in their own time and supported each other by saying, “Oh, I found this great Youtube clip. It’s great to share with the kids”, or “I found this …”, or “Here’s a really good reading”. So the staff really collaborate and support each other in that learning.

And, from then … we had narrowed down our focus; we had our baseline data from our expert marker; and then we spent a period of time teaching sentence structure; and then we assessed our data a term later. And the data was graphed from the first marking to the second marking and we saw a huge improvement in sentence structure.

And, I think, that was because we had narrowed our focus and because we had really addressed the problem, which was teachers’ expertise and what was happening in our classrooms.

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Reflections on the process


Q: Do you want to comment on some of the high points, low points, challenges, celebrations?

Given us benchmarks

A: From where I sit, I think it’s really … I don’t just see engaged learners now, I see learners who are really excited about finding out more and more and more. Yeah, the conversation between teachers never stops. And, the engagement of the students really reflects the thinking their teachers are doing.

I’ve asked teachers for years, really not knowing myself how to do it, to set benchmarks that we knew to work to. And it was always too hard. It was too hard for any of us to figure out. Yeah, it’s a good idea but how do we really do it?

Through the work that we’ve done the benchmarks have automatically been set. And now it’s easy to report what they are. That’s something I’ve struggled with for years, so for me as a principal of a school, that’s exciting.

Ways to deal with problems

B: [I think that] I suppose when we had set our targets and we didn’t reach our targets, I think that was disappointing. But, there was a problem and solution sheet that Helen and Linda shared with us and when we worked through that process, it really helped us to breakdown what could’ve happened and then try to solve some of those problems and some of those issues.

So, in future if we’re not achieving our targets, we [actually] know that we need to go back and look at what could’ve happened, what could’ve caused that to happen and then look at some of the solutions. So that was a low point but I think we know how to deal with that now.

Changes in teachers

I also think that now we’re dealing with teachers and their learning as well as students and their learning. I think teachers are now prepared to say I don’t have the skills to do that, I need help, I need support to do that.

And I think teachers are now much better in their classrooms at really looking at student outcomes and are kids really achieving those outcomes. And, is what the teacher doing in the classroom, the activities and tasks they are setting actually helping the students to achieve their outcomes.

B: That’s one thing we do need to get back and scan, because we have hunches that that’s not the case as consistently as it should be, even with all our stages.

Q: So getting consistency now’s your challenge?

A: Yes …

B: ... around the purpose of what they’re doing.

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