spirals of inquiry

Spirals of Inquiry

The following article was written by Jacalyn Kersey, Maple Leaf’s Vice Superintendent of schools BC program. It was originally published in the British Columbia Principals and Vice Principals Association in their publication Adminfo. You can find that original publication here.

Spirals in the East

It seems that teachers who use the Spirals of Inquiry find each other, no matter where they are in the world. Maybe it is because those of us who have worked with Linda Kaiser and Judy Halbert speak a common language, or perhaps it’s because we share a common attitude about learning.  Jeff Laing, who is currently the Vice Principal of Maple Leaf Wuhan Foreign National School, has been teaching the British Columbia program in China for almost 7 years.  I first met him in Dalian, China at an August Professional Development day for new Maple Leaf Administrators. At the break, Jeff and I fell into a conversation that used the language of Judy Halbert and Linda Kaiser and the Spirals of Inquiry. It was wonderfully familiar language in an unfamiliar context.   I first worked with them over a dozen years ago when I participated in a provincial leadership professional development, and since then, through the Aboriginal Enhancement Network, and Network of Inquiry and Innovation.  I was delighted to find that Jeff had worked with Judy and Linda in the Vancouver Island University Masters program. Hearing the language of the Spirals and connecting with a colleague with a growth mindset on my first day at work in China was greatly comforting.

Moving to China after teaching in BC education for 23 years was a scary undertaking.  My husband was teaching grade 7 and 8 in Lumby, BC, and I was in my 9th year as an Administrator of a school that I had watched grow from the school that no one wanted their kids to attend, to the school that everyone wanted to enrol their kids in.  Our careers were satisfying, but when presented with an opportunity to live and teach overseas, we realized that we were ready for an adventure.  We packed up our daughter, who was going into grade 2, and we moved to Dalian, China to work with Maple Leaf Educational Systems.

Unique Situation

Maple Leaf Educational Systems currently enrols 9,000 of its 30,000 students in the BC Program. The founder, Dr Sherman Jen, had a daughter enrolled in a BC public school in Vancouver, and he was so impressed with BC education that he sought permission to start a program in China.  In 1995, 14 students were enrolled in Maple Leaf. Today Maple Leaf employs over 410 BC Certified teachers at eleven Maple Leaf High schools, and three K-9 Maple Leaf Foreign National Schools. The Maple Leaf High Schools enrol mostly Chinese students who attend Chinese programs from K-9 and then enter the BC Program in grade 10.  They graduate in grade 12 with the same BC Dogwood as onshore students.   The Foreign National Schools enrol only non-Chinese students and the law permits them to study foreign curriculum in grades K-9.  The 3 Maple Leaf Foreign National Schools enrol 600 students from 40 different countries, all of whom study the BC Curriculum.  The goal of Maple Leaf is to combine the best of the East and the West.  Over 90% of Maple Leaf graduates go on to attend the top 100 Universities in the World. 

Spirals at the School Level

In 2016, Jeff Laing spent year one of his VIU Masters Program diving deep into the Spirals with the guidance of Judy Halbert and Linda Kaiser.  At the Wuhan Maple Leaf High School in his role as Vice Principal, he spent September, October, and November scanning to identify what was going on for Wuhan learners. Friday afternoon school-based Professional development sessions included built in dialogue time.  Teams of teachers identified topics to explore and began dialogue around professional learning, setting goals, and identifying learner needs.  Surveys, teacher dialogue, and focus meetings helped to determine that both learners and teachers were in need of support with English Language Acquisition.  Peer tutoring, ELA subject support, and further professional development were developed.  Over the course of the year Jeff took his staff through the six stages.  In August of this year, Jeff led a session on the Spirals that was attended by 30 Wuhan teachers.  He moved to the role of Vice Principal for the Wuhan Foreign National School, but Melissa MacLean, incoming Vice Principal at the High School, took up the torch to coordinate the Spirals.  With the help of many of the teachers who attended the Spirals session, she continues to move student support in a positive direction. 

Spirals at the System Level

One of my roles as Assistant Superintendent is to demonstrate that the entire Maple Leaf BC program is continually improving.  Maple Leaf Educational Systems is accredited by AdvancEd, a globally recognized educational accreditation board, and AdvancEd requires that we continuously address areas that we need to improve on.  The only way I knew to approach this daunting task was to use the Spirals of Inquiry.  With the help of the Continuous Improvement Team, a group of 14 teachers and administrators who volunteered to represent all of the Maple Leaf schools, we set out to find out what was going on for our learners.  I gave a presentation on the Spirals at our first meeting, which was held online.  We developed a scanning tool and decided to approach the scan from a positive inquiry perspective.  We asked “What is going well, How do we know it’s going well?  What could we do better? What should we do more of?, and What should we get rid of?”.  Each member of the Continuous Improvement Team engaged their school in an extensive scanning activity.  Six weeks later, the team came together in Dalian.  We put the results of the scans onto chart paper, spread it out across the room, and circulated to read and compare.  We found that there were many similarities across the campuses and that our scanning activity brought up many questions.  We decided to focus on three areas that would have the biggest impact for our learners: data collection, information technology, and implementation of the new BC curriculum.  At this point in time, we broke into 3 groups, each group taking on a focus area.  We spent several weeks developing hunches and learning about each area.  We came together to share our hunches – that the data we would like to collect is out there, we just need to be able to gather it in an easier way – that Professional Development around IT would increase innovative use in the classroom – that a more robust wifi system would help us with data collection and increase innovation in IT, and that Professional Development would help ease implementation on the new BC curriculum.   The 3 groups set out to learn more about their areas.  They surveyed teachers, sat in on Department Head and System Coordinator meetings, and had one to one discussions.  Eventually, each group set goals, benchmarks, and timelines.  We presented these to departments that could help us to achieve them, such as the Head Office IT department, and the Principals and Vice Principals group.  We are currently in the Take Action phase, pursuing goals that we think can make a meaningful difference.

Where to Spiral Next?

The Continuous Improvement Team has an inquiry question that we developed in our first few meetings together: “How will we know that our efforts to continuously improve will result in student success?”.   We will reconvene over the next couple of months to determine if our efforts are making enough of a difference.  We will continue with the Spirals as we strive to continuously improve as a system.

Jeff Laing plans “12 weeks of Spirals “ in the classroom with the intermediate students at Wuhan Maple Leaf Foreign National School, as well as to use the Spirals to continuously improve the school.

The Continuous Improvement Team’s dive into the Spirals has created spin off spirals.   The System Coordinators (Intinerant teachers) and the Curriculum Team have found in their scanning that our students entering grade 10 in Maple Leaf High Schools often have no prior experience with inquiry, self assessment, and self reflection. The law in China for students in Kindergarten to Grade 9 is that they must study the Chinese curriculum. They study English on top of this curriculum, but their exposure to inquiry, self-assessment, and self reflection is minimal to non-existent.  In Maple Leaf High Schools, these concepts are introduced in Grade 10.   The System Coordinators and Curriculum Team are currently learning more in order to determine how best to introduce, scaffold, and build mastery in the 3 years high school students are with us. We will soon move to Take Action.

Since connecting with Jeff Laing, I have met many more Maple Leaf teachers who are familiar with the Spirals, and with Judy Halbert and Linda Kaiser.  I had several copies of the Spirals Playbook when I arrived in China, and they are currently being used in Maple Leaf schools all over China.  We will continue to grow our network within Maple Leaf Educational Systems.  We plan professional development in August for the entire system around the Spirals of Inquiry.

The language and use of the Spirals of Inquiry has brought comfort and familiarity, as well as challenge as I continue my learning journey in China.  The Spirals are an important tool for encouraging collaboration and focus around the experiences and success of learners.  In an international setting, a deep understanding of learning and the experience of learners is essential, as the international educator must be open to new understandings about learning. Bringing the Spirals of Inquiry to China is combining the best of the East and the West.

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