Learning Sprint – A series by Corey Haley

Written by Corey Haley, originally published through his blog.
Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada

Part 1: The Start

This post is one in a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

We are launched into the Learning Sprints world as of Friday. I presented the concept to the group of teachers that we have chosen to run our incubation with and are now on to defining and understanding our Sprint. The group our school has chosen to experiment with is the grade 7-9 teachers. Our large focus is going to be literacy. Here are some things that I learned and that I am thinking about after a few days of reflection.

The biggest help that I found when presenting to the group of 7 teachers was that I had incubated my incubation. Incubating in the Learning Sprints world is to start with a small group of teachers that will act as an experiment and facilitate a school-wide adoption of Learning Sprints. What I chose to do is to start by speaking with a teacher who is in this group in advance to get feedback and to refine with another perspective. I found this to be valuable when presenting to the other teachers. This teacher spoke up a few times when I was presenting to clarify areas from a teacher perspective and made the process much easier. One suggestion I would have to any school starting out on this Learning Sprints journey is to incubate your incubation.

The other big contributor to the teacher’s understanding of Learning Sprints is the visuals and videos that are available on the Agile Schools website. I like to think I do a pretty good job of communicating, but I don’t come close to the concept knowledge of Dr. Breakspear who appears in the videos. Also, just like a class, providing multiple ways of accessing knowledge (in this case a visual to support my speaking) is beneficial. I would suggest any team to use them.

The aspect of this presentation that I found taking the most time was getting the teachers to know that they are in charge of defining the particular strategy or intervention. I want them to make decisions based on their knowledge of the students at our school. A teacher came to me and shared that they were confused as I had explained that our focus was to make small changes, yet I had defined a broad goal (literacy across subject areas). They felt as though this was unaligned. How I explained this was that it is a leader’s role (with help from staff) to set the broad focus area using data and through knowing our students. It was the teacher’s job to attack the problem (literacy) using their lived experience and knowledge of the students in their grade as a filter. The teacher chose the small changes, the administration chose the large goal.

I also feel an important piece of our setup was ensuring that strategies and interventions will be based on research and evidence. The main source I suggested for our incubation group is Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, Frey. The source of this information needs to thought out beforehand. I chose this particular book because of the easy to access strategies and because I think it is based on high-quality research. Making the research-based strategies available easily is important when they become busy. I don’t want the to resort to pseudo-science or worse, make no change at all. Make accessing quality strategies and interventions easy for staff.

I was extremely happy when the group decided to try to make one change right away, before our next meeting. They understood this was about small differences being put in place right away to test them for efficacy. In the words of one teacher, “Why wait?”. Agreed. Why wait? Let’s get on this journey from day one. Let’s try to get better right away.

Part 2: First Check-in

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

Our teachers have been in their first sprint for almost 2 weeks, so it was time for a check-in. The first sprint was designed to be a bit longer at almost 5 weeks. We chose this length as it was the start of the year and teachers are getting to know their students and as deal with all the start-up paperwork and routine building. Even though we are early in the year, I felt it was important to come together to get some feedback, make adjustments, and at minimum make sure teachers did not forget about our sprint focus. Sure enough, there are lessons to be learned already and changes to be tried.

Our first sprint was put in place quickly and our goal was less defined than it could have been. My thoughts were that this quickness would help us to learn fast and it was OK if we made errors at the beginning as we were new to this process. It makes me think of the early Facebook mantra of “Move fast and break things”. Our goal was to have teachers start a small improvement right away. The lack of refinement and definition of the goal is something we will tighten up next time. Some teachers have not had a problem with this broad goal, others found it more difficult. New rule, always define your goal more than you think you need to.

Our first intervention was a strategy focusing on summarization. I have learned that even a strategy can be too broad and too big. When we started discussing how this strategy had been put into place, we realized that it could get overwhelming. Summarization is a complex skill and our students had differing levels of mastery. Some teachers found their group could dive right into summarizing texts, while other teachers needed to explicitly teach some ways to summarize (and even define what summarizing was). Lesson learned, even a strategy needs to be small.

Another area that we will improve in the next sprint is clearly defining the assessment tools that we will use to know the impact of our intervention. Again, in the interest of moving quickly, we did not define how we would know if what we did made any changes to student learning. We have decided to aim for more qualitative feedback from students during this sprint, but I want to move into more quantitative measures for the upcoming sprints. Change for next time, know how you will know if what you did had an impact.

My last reflection is on the leadership aspect of this process. I realize I need to hand over more authority and responsibility to the teachers involved. I need them to know the structure of the sprints, the areas to cover when evaluating, the ways to come to define the different aspects of the process. My goal is that as soon as possible, they can engage in this process without me there. I need to remember that we are in the incubation period and that if we are to scale this project, I need people who are independent with this collaborative process and can work out issues that arise. I will not be able to attend every Learning Sprint meeting in my school, which means they need to do this themselves. My goal is to take the lessons learned from this group and refine the process for the others that will follow if we are successful.

We are in the early stages of this process, but I am confident that we are putting in place structures that ensure meaningful improvements. Onward.

Part 3: Beginner’s Mind

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

The concept of “Beginner’s Mind” comes from Zen Buddhism. According to Shunryu Suzuki it describes the feeling of openness to all possibilities, the innocence of first inquiry, acceptance, and freeness from habit. It was with this approach that I was participated in a session on the introduction of Learning Sprints with Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear this past week.

Why the need for a beginner’s mind? I had recently spent a week-long course on this practice and had launched the Learning Sprints model in my school. I was feeling confident in my understanding of the concept, but this also made me wary. What was I missing? What did I still need to learn? The beginner’s mind approach made seeing things as they were and forgetting what I wished them to be more evident.

The beginner’s mind approach is also a useful way of confronting many problems that we have as teachers. At times, the master teacher does not see all the possibilities in a solution and gets caught up in a single-minded approach. This leads to less innovation and similar results being reproduced. The beginner sees the possibilities of the ways to intervene. The beginner is open to new ways and makes a choice to start.

The first lesson that my beginner’s mind received was the fact that Learning Sprints gives teachers the structure for effective collaboration. I have seen too many collaboration sessions where teaching professionals waste their most important resource, time, with conversations that do not ultimately lead to impact on learning. This usually happens innocently, they simply do not know how to structure a conversation to focus on what is important and what needs to be done. Learning sprints give a structure and keeps the conversation oriented on the intervention and the result. Let’s not waste the precious time we have with our colleagues on unimportant banter any longer.

Lesson 2, learning sprints seek to create clinical practitioners. This does not mean that we are looking to create a bunch of doctors, but rather we are seeking to create professionals that use the scientific method to analyse data and use it to inform decisions. The Learning Sprints model gives the foundations for changing how teachers think and act in regards to their students. It teaches to analyse data, survey options that are based in research, make an informed choice of intervention, and collect data to verify impact. One would take for granted that their doctor follows this practice, but it is at times missing from the world of education.

The adaptability of Learning Sprints is another interesting observation that my beginner’s mind made. Regardless of how research changes, what the school/divisional/state/provincial goals are, what the needs of the population you serve are, this approach gives you the structure to enact change. It is adaptable to the future needs of the student population and to the future information that we will get about learning. It also make change incremental and iterative, so that it does not feel overwhelming. Small changes, over time, lead to big changes.

The focus of the approach to implementation in Alberta (and perhaps other places) has been that the 3 levels of leadership of a school need to be involved and are active participants. The teacher leaders, the school administrators and the divisional/district leaders should all be present and implicated in the learning sprint. I had a personal example of the efficacy of this at our last meeting. In the course of a conversation between our team, a question came up about creating a report to give teachers data to target their interventions. Our divisional representative was able to give an answer right away and offer to work with our software developer to make the report widely available. In the course of 2 minutes, we were able to make important data easily available to all teachers in our school division because of the fact that we were all around the table.

The last point that I will touch on with my “openness to new ideas” is the possibility that this approach could lead to joy. The concept of craftwork, detailed in the book “The Craftman” by Richard Sennett, proposes that we can all feel a deep inner satisfaction when we perfect our work. That in process of making something better and producing something of quality, we may increase our joy. We need more of this kind of joy in education, as the stakes are high. Instead of making beautiful furniture or playing a beautiful piece of music, teachers are contributing to another human’s life. We are creating learning that ultimately helps people and a communities. What a joy it is when we do that well.

A special thanks to Agile Schools and to the Alberta Teachers’ Association Council for School Leaders for organizing an incredible learning opportunity.