Spirals of inquiry - Australian secondary schools' example

An example of leading improvement through inquiry

A focus on writing extended text


School leaders noticed a pattern of students not doing as well as similar schools on national assessments, particularly in those subjects requiring a lot of writing.


Careful analysis led the leaders to some, rather than all, of the mechanics of writing.

Test results indicated students were not writing well formed sentences, their paragraphs were poorly constructed, and their extended written texts were, therefore, of poor quality.

Focusing on these aspects of writing made for a manageable inquiry and was summed up as ‘getting the grain size right’. The teachers weren’t focusing on every aspect of writing – too large – or just a very narrow part of it, such as spelling – too small.

Developing a hunch

In essence, the teachers’ hunch was that making progress on these aspects of writing was likely to impact outcomes. They verified this by interviewing a small sample of students. As suspected, the students lacked the knowledge and confidence to write extended texts fluently.

The leaders also had a hunch that the teachers themselves weren't confident in these skills either. They knew that there was no consistent method of teaching them across the school.

New learning

These hunches or theories formed the basis for the learning required to progress student learning.

With the assistance of a writing specialist, the leaders selected a marking rubric from a written language test and simplified it to create a draft guide to writing skills in the three areas of focus: sentence structure, paragraphs, and overall writing cohesion – linking paragraphs to form a coherent text. 

The team of teachers then met every two weeks in their scheduled team meeting time to progress the work.

One teacher in the team took responsibility for collecting a sample of extended writing from all students in standardised conditions; each class was given the same topic, the same instructions and the same time to write an unaided piece of extended text on a set topic.

Teachers assessed students’ writing using the analytic criterion-referenced marking rubric.

Even though the teachers had developed a rubric with criteria, they lacked confidence in their ability to mark consistently, so they employed the expert teacher to mark all the student texts using the rubric they had developed. This provided them with feedback on the quality of the rubric – the expert teacher found it workable and easy to use.

Taking action

Assured their marking was reliable, the teachers could now use the results as a sound baseline for students’ ability in these aspects of written language.

The results clearly showed the majority of students were operating at a low level in the areas of focus. From this data, the teachers could easily set a short-term target for improvement: to shift the median from a 2 to a 3.

A few leaders took on the role of writing guiding notes for teachers so they were clear on the main points of need that had arisen in the students’ texts, and how to teach them.

The leaders developed scaffolds or artefacts to support the teachers to teach concepts consistently, for example, a poster on how to construct a paragraph based on the PEEL model – Point, Elaboration, Examples, Linking back to the whole story.


A second sampling showed a good level of shift, particularly in reducing the number of students not scoring at all for paragraphing. But they didn't achieve their target of shifting most of the 2s to 3s.

The team members re-examined the student texts, particularly those scoring 2, and determined what explicit teaching was required to get the shift. They gave themselves another five-week teaching period before re-checking for evidence of improvement.

As the year continued the team made iterative improvements and got the cohort to their target of almost all students reaching level 3 and above. They kept a sustained focus on this skill.

Keeping it going

The next year, as the team moved to other priorities, they made a ‘call to action’ to monitor the writing skills once a term in the same way, to ensure they were sustaining the progress they had made.

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Leadership capabilities

Successfully leading a team in this type of inquiry for improvement involves numerous leadership capabilities. Some of them are:

Problem solving

This whole activity is essentially a problem-solving exercise. It requires leaders to be unafraid to name a problem and start the process of investigating what lies behind it – What are the causes?

Leaders investigate the real nature of the problem and test their hypotheses about it before deciding on what to do. In this scenario, they did not jump to the solution of a readymade professional learning programme on written language. 

Goal focus

Leaders need to be clear that this is the one big focus – it is not part of a package of many interventions going on in a school. Unless leaders can prioritise this over other concerns, it is unlikely they will get traction on solving the problem.

Data analysis

Leaders need to be able to gather data in a reliable way – in this example, by taking a writing sample in a standardised way and getting it marked in a standardised way. Then analyse the data in ways that make the patterns in the data clear and make it possible to refine the goal to an explicit target.

Strategic resourcing

Leaders make inquiry ‘business-as-usual’. In this scenario, leaders made sure teachers could use their regular meeting time for progressing the problem. 

Creating educationally powerful connections

Leaders ensure that expectations for students and teachers across the school are clear.

In this scenario, the leaders ensured coherence across the school by creating guides on what to teach and how to mark the texts. Everyone knows what is expected and teachers do not need to continually revisit the same learning. 

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