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Using Spirals of Inquiry to transform teacher practice and increase student agency: Improving writing

Tags: English | Teacher inquiry | Blogging | Primary | Upper primary |

Year 8 teachers at Breens Intermediate, carried out a collaborative inquiry focused on increasing student agency to raise student achievement in literacy, supported by the use of digital technologies.

Focusing the inquiry

"Could we focus on change management – looking at the use of e-learning in literacy to raise student achievement?" asked team leader, Liz Maclennan at Breens Intermediate School.

Year 8 teachers transformed their professional practice and processes using Halbert and Kaser’s Spirals of Inquiry  (2013) to scan for a wider range of evidence before developing solutions to raise literacy levels for six priority learners who were working towards the National Standard in Writing.

Spirals of inquiry diagram.

Timperly, Kaser and Halbert (2014)

Liz and her team explored the reasons why some students were not working at level 4 of the curriculum for writing. From this a range of evidence-based questions emerged:

  • How can we help students become self-regulated in order to help them “think about their thinking” to help with their learning?
  • How can we develop an understanding of student agency so we can foster this within our students? 
  • How can we support students to seek and receive quality feedback and feedforward?
  • How can we effectively use digital technologies to support students and encourage self-belief in order to improve knowledge acquisition?

The process of exploration encouraged the teachers to approach their practice in a more disciplined way and develop new teaching approaches to support improved student agency and learner outcomes.

Scanning the current situation

Halbert and Kaser (2013)  explain, the scanning part of Spirals of Inquiry requires an evidence-seeking mindset; it is not about reinforcing the status quo. Pushing the “pause button” on the initial solution-based question, “Could we focus on change management – looking at the use of e-learning in literacy to raise student achievement?” allowed the team to step back and engage in a quality scanning process.

Integral to this approach was:

  • the use of three lenses – collaboration, Spirals of Inquiry, and future-focused education – as a guide for change and reflection
  • the co-construction of the current situation through in-depth scanning before focusing the team into a collaborative inquiry
  • a strengths-based focus on practices already within the team which they could build on.

Using a future-focused lens during the scanning phase encouraged the teachers to take a much wider perspective on learning. The Breens Intermediate team looked at data and information beyond asTTle scores.

The team worked with priority learners supporting them to map their learning and identify:

  • what helps them to learn
  • what had an impact on their learning when writing.

Students used arrows and symbols to indicate the amount and type of impact. For example, a thin one-way arrow from a person indicated a weak impact and little two-way dialogue about learning. 

Questions used to guide students as they drew were:

  • How do I like to learn?
  • What do I like to learn?
  • Where do I like learning?
  • Where do I find information to learn?
  • Name two people who champion me as a learner?
  • What are the tools that help my learning (technology, online etc)
  • What are the interactions that support my learning?

Creating the maps enabled improved conversations between students and teachers about learning goals and about what helps with writing. When the students completed another set of maps at the end of the year, they were more explicit about their writing goals.

The maps gave insight into personal interests and therefore the students were given more time to engage with their personal interests, for example: filming, listening to music and sports.

– Liz Maclennan

Situation analysis is a process that encourages inquiry into practices to fully understand a student’s achievement challenge. Situation analysis involving the perspectives of family, whānau, and community can help to identify practices leading to achievement challenges. 

Timperley and Earl (2012)

As they moved through the scanning process, their initial questions emerged as they focused on the evidence they gathered from conversations with students based on the maps of their learning, analysing data, and practices. 

Teacher inquiry focused on building self-regulated students and agency supported by the use of digital technologies. Students used Google Apps collaboratively to construct their writing and Blogger to publish it. A focus on giving quality feedback to students was identified as a professional development priority.

The impact on teaching and student learning

During the "focusing" and "taking action" phases of the Spiral of Inquiry teachers engaged in further learning about self-regulation and student agency. Changes included:

  • regular discussion about self-managed learners and student agency during team meetings
  • shifting administrative tasks to Google Docs or other forums outside of meeting times
  • teachers working with students supporting them with goal setting, discussing their writing, and identifying next steps
  • the team creating “differentiated hotspots” – descriptors for things students must do, their choices, and challenges (optional)
  • supporting students to develop a SOLO rubric describing student agency and self management enabling them to monitor their learning and behaviour
  • the team creating tracking books to check-in with priority learners, and a target board with reminders about their writing goals
  • introducing blogging as part of literacy sessions with a specific focus on surface features for the priority learners (drama, plays, athletics, and camp preparation were all wider activities that students could blog about)
  • all teachers checking in with priority learners during roving time – giving specific positive feedback when students were demonstrating their goal of working independently
  • teachers having continuous conversations with students about their goals and staying on target
  • displaying goals on classroom walls.

SOLO Rubric for self management developed by students with support from teachers:

Prestructural Unistructural Multistructural Relational Extended Abstract 
No work completed independently.
Need to be constantly managed by a teacher to stay on task.
Has a seat to sit at.
Some work done.
Not neat.
Need regular teacher check in to stay on task.
Needs teacher reminder to be at lessons.
½ work done – the bits that we like!
Noise – normal voice. Can be a volcano.
Need teacher reminders at times.
Have a book and pens ready to work but it might not be the right one - red pen instead of blue, no ruler etc….
Most work done independently.
Some work to a high standard but slips only at times.
Voice – at a murmur but sometimes needs reminding to keep it down.
Has correct gear ready to learn most of the time.
Careful and caring.
Finished all work to a high standard.
Neat and tidy.
Really organised with books and gear.
On time to lessons.
An independent learner.
Helps others with their work when they need it.


The team used the students’ maps and other scanning data to monitor progress during the explicit focus on “taking action” during Term 4.

Teacher reflections on changed practices and processes during the scanning, focusing, and taking action phases

"Going very well. Increased in effort leading to positive movements in literacy. Engaged in group discussion, coming up with ideas without prompting, commenting on other peoples ideas, taking part in fitness and athletics day. Has a greater sense of ‘belonging’."

"Children have made excellent progress. Engagement levels very high. They were very enthusiastic about writing the plays that they have just performed. Boys were very engaged. Scripts worked and it gave them a chance to show off what they have written."

"The children have also been engaged in athletics, camp preparation and indoor sports tournaments so are learning across all areas of the curriculum. The balance is great – it gives the children a chance to excel and show off their talents and skills in other areas – helps them to engage in their learning. For example, water polo has been a thing that has made [name] feel that he belongs to a group. He has made significant progress in reading and writing."

Final Overall Teacher Judgement (OTJ) data showed that two of the six priority learners were now working at the curriculum level for their age. The other four students had made significant progress moving one or two sublevels in asTTle.  

Teacher reflections on what they could have done differently or what could have gone better during the end of year review process

"Could have been more explicit with the kids about what was happening to help them to improve in writing – less passive recipients – more agency."

"Needed to start the process of learning about teaching as inquiry/spirals of inquiry earlier in the year."

"Communicate more with parents."