First Steps in Learning Sprints

Written by Jocelyn Lamothe, Assistant Principal from Evergreen Catholic School Division, Alberta, Canada

These posts are a means of sharing the initial steps taken to implement Learning Sprints from the perspective of one middle school participating in a growing network of schools established by Agile Schools’ Dr. Simon Breakspear and The Alberta Teachers’ Association. 

Part 1: Problem Worth Solving

Out for an evening run last week, I was distracted by a handful of Canada geese directly overhead in what appeared to be one of their practice flights as they prepare for the long journey south that will soon be upon them. Growing up with these birds in my backyard, this has always been a familiar and favorite sight at the turning of seasons, however, this was the first time I ever paused to watch them while thinking “There’s my Agile Team taking off!”

I belong to Evergreen Catholic School Division, a small division which has been blessed to have had the support of Dr. Simon Breakspear and be involved with ATA Agile Schools Network for the past few years. This year, the middle school where I am an assistant principal will be joining this growing initiative. Our first cohort workshop is fast approaching, and our school team members are voicing their anticipation, excitement, and questions about this work. Our team is a small group of seasoned, successful, and dedicated teachers, who bring various backgrounds and expertise to the table, yet together we agree that our work must always focus on improving student learning through improving professional practice.

As we prepare for our first official launch of an Agile Learning Sprint, it was important to communicate that, in part, we have already been implementing components of this structure, which we will now begin to tie together with additional pieces to develop a cycle that build traction and sustainability. In particular, our teachers have become increasingly aware of, and intentional about, looking at evidence of student learning to provide direction for their practice. Acknowledging this helped to frame our discussion around the Learning Sprint Model; our focus and how we might define the problem worth solving. Building on this, we considered the three critical questions:

What specific problem are you trying to solve? 
What change are you going to introduce and why?
How will we know if the change is an improvement?

Our team is ready for the work. We know that our next step must be to set the direction, and define the specific outcome for students, so that we can get moving on our first Learning Sprint.

Those Canada geese reminded me of our Agile Team, because they were clearly working toward solving a worthwhile problem: Winter in Alberta is coming! Although their strategies to address the goal of a warmer destination is based on instinct, they will rely on each other, and work as a team, to realize their goal, as will we! (And in about two months’ time, we will likely wish we went with them!).

Part 2: Fuel the Fire, Learning Sprints

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The phrase “adding fuel to the fire” usually alludes to causing a problematic situation to become even worse, however here you will read about fuel that feeds sparks of inspiration as a teacher team becomes more agile, responsive and invested in Learning Sprints.

Our team’s introduction to Agile Schools’ Learning Impact Model and the phases for implementing Learning Sprints began at the tail end of last school year in anticipation for what would be our first launch. I had been following the work of Dr. Simon Breakspear for quite some time, and as other schools in our district had become increasingly more involved and successful, our team’s interest had been sparked. Our school team was excited to join this growing cohort based in partnership between Alberta Teachers’ Association and Agile Schools. Our understanding of, and preparation for, the first day workshop was two-fold:

  1. Improving student learning is at the center of this work. While it is true that there are many components to the methodologies and processes that we would be exploring with Dr. Breakspear and his colleague, Nelson Gonzalez, this work revolves around what our students need from us as educators to help them succeed.
  2. Learning Sprints would become the tool and structure that we work through together to achieve the goal of improving student learning. It was with intention that some current practices were acknowledged as having a place in this structure, recognizing the importance of connecting new to known. Learning Sprints would lead us to research and experiences that provide increasing precision and effectiveness in our instructional practice.

Spending the day in a room literally bursting at the seams with professionals eager to reconnect, listen, and learn, certainly fueled the sparks within our team. Our dialogue ping-ponged from the specific details around the focus of our first Learning Sprint, to long-terms ideas on where and how this work would one day scale up for our entire school community. I believe that what most fanned the flames, so to speak, was that the day was structured for teams to work together, in conjunction with the expertise, energy, and encouragement shared by our facilitators, Dr. Simon Breakspear, Nelson Gonzalez, and our own dear colleague, Terri Lynn Guimond.

From an administrator’s perspective, it was vital to be involved, and yet, it was important to recognize when to take a step back and simply be witness to the work. On occasion I became more directly involved in discussions by clarifying, validating, or inquiring, however I found my challenge to remain a bit at arm’s length as our team talked through their thinking about various processes and structures. My attention, then, in part, was to observe our team working as a team and in doing so, I was reminded of the interplay and balance between talking and listening coming together create a common understanding and focus. I am deeply invested in ensuring that our team journeys forward together. Margaret Wheatley’s writing about systems has been of interest for many years, and as I continue to reflect on groups of professionals working as a team, I referred back to some of her work.

“When a [team] knows who it is, what its strengths are, and what it is trying to accomplish, it can respond intelligently to changes… the presence of a clear identity [provides] greater freedom to decide how it will respond” (Wheatley, 2006, p.86).

During our workshop, and in the days that have followed, I have seen keen interest and increased clarity develop amongst our team members. Dialogue about this work has become interspersed and embedded in the school day. Some of these discussions occur at more formal team meetings (which I believe will soon evolve into Nelson’s structure of a scrum) and other times, the comments are in passing, where other colleagues may overhear bits and pieces of the work, and sense the excitement surrounding it.  As our Agile Team is heating up, there are sparks of interest growing within other staff members.

I asked our team about what has most resonated for them since our first ATA-Agile workshop. Their responses, I would suggest, are indicative of the fuel that the work of Agile Schools provides to teacher teams:

  • I have a greater awareness of why we need to specify focus and learning outcomes.
  • This helps me to be more reflective… it is embedded in the work.
  • We are doing something different.
  • This creates greater professionalism, results, research
  • It builds confidence.
  • This is practical.
  • I am invested. I see that this work will be impactful and be able to sustain itself.
  • We need to work with our colleagues and it allowed us to do that.

Our team is taking Simon’s message of moving slow to move fast to heart. Currently, we are exploring the Agile Schools website and tools in order to identify which one (or two) might best fit our Learning Sprint design. The Empathy Square Tool listed in the “Understand” step of the implementation process has provided some important reflection as one of our teachers said, “This is something I don’t do enough of”.  By spending the time required to really understand students, our team believes that their design will have more precision, and greater impact. I await each next step with bated breath!

“Any group can benefit from others’ experience and from experts, but the final measures need to be their creation. People only support what they create, and those closest to the work know the most about what is significant…” (Wheatley, 2007, p160)

Witnessing the deliberate steps and considerations our team is taking is pretty amazing. They have explored and familiarized themselves with new ideas, structures, research and knowledge about our students in our school, and how teacher practice can impact their learning. The fire is burning pretty brightly right now as a result of a number of people and situations fueling our team. I’m super grateful, and super stoked!

 

Wheatley, M.J. (2007). Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Wheatley, MJ. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, 3rdEd. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.