Networks without borders, inquiry without rushing

By February 19, 2014Uncategorised
Anne Jenkins, Angela Stott, Debbie Koehn, Linda and Judy with Andy Hargreaves Feb 10

Five  of us from the BC networks of inquiry and innovation recently had the opportunity to work with a  new network of rural educators from Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  This network is  designed to improve student outcomes and reduce teacher isolation in small rural schools through face-to-face and on-line collaboration. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley from Boston University have been consulting with the team from Education Northwest and the Center for Strengthening Education Systems in Portland for the past couple of years in anticipation of the launch which took place in the midst of a freak snowstorm last week Seattle. 

Andy talked  with  Linda and me when we were together at a conference in England in December and he suggested to the organizers that having a team from BC come to help with the launch might be a great idea. We were delighted that Anne, Angela and Debbie were willing to spend Family Day helping this group of rural educators. We all felt that we  made a useful contribution and formed some connections that will continue. Anne was able to provide direct coaching help to a early career Science teacher – the only Science teacher in her tiny Idaho community.  This teacher was enormously grateful and epitomized  the kind of crushing loneliness that some teachers experience. Debbie shared her expertise in early literacy with the primary group and introduced them to the performance standards; Angela talked with school-based formal leaders about the importance of the on-going support and involvement of principals and vice-principals. Linda took the Social Studies and intermediate teachers under her wing and I spent time with the state education staff. 

After it was over, we all reflected on how lucky we are to live and work in BC where we have access to the BC performance standards and a coherent approach to inquiry.  Sometimes it is easy to take for granted the importance of the performance standards in providing a common set of learning progressions that help us answer the questions – Where are you going with your learning? How are you doing? and Where to next? The performance standards provide us with the tools that we need to help learners take more ownership of their own learning – and they help us as teachers   provide the kind of feedback that will move learners forward. The new common core standards in the USA are a step in the direction of creating greater consistency across jurisdictions –  and they do not offer the same focus on learning progressions as we have. 

We also thought about what we have learned collectively through our experiences with inquiry and networks in BC. In the networks, we used to start by asking schools to identify a learning problem that would become the focus for their year long inquiry. We know more  now about the importance of starting by getting a really clear idea of what’s going on for our learners through the scanning process. This has to happen  BEFORE jumping to a focus or, even worse, to a solution.  We encouraged our American colleagues to take the time to develop a shared picture of what’s going on for their learners and not to rush to action too soon. 

As teachers, I think we are all action-oriented. We see a problem and we want to fix it – right now. Sometimes prompt action is critical and totally called for.  Lots of the time, however, we could benefit from taking a little while longer to make sure we are really addressing the key issues.  I once had a friend tell me that at the school where I was the principal, I sometimes raced around like a hummingbird on crack. Pretty useful feedback – if a bit blunt!

I am starting to think that maybe we need to slow down the inquiry process in order to speed up the longer term impact. The analogy of bamboo seems to fit. When bamboo is first planted, there isn’t much showing  above the ground. All the action is taking place underground where the roots are thickening and connecting. Only after a few years do the shoots grow wildly above ground.  Once established, it is really hard to remove.  If you have ever tried to dig bamboo out of your back yard,  you’ll know what I mean.  So we are encouraged by the thoughtful ways in which districts and schools in BC are using the spiral of inquiry to build a shared understanding of what’s going on for learners – and then to move to informed action.  

Sharing our experiences with our American colleagues provided us all with a great opportunity to reflect on the work in BC – and we are very grateful to Anne, Angela and Debbie for joining us on this adventure. 

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