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

fire.jpg

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.

Part 3: No Cruise Control

This is the third post in a series of sharing regarding the initial steps taken to implement Learning Sprints from the perspective of one middle school administrator participating with the school team amidst a growing network of schools established by Agile Schools’ Dr. Simon Breakspear and The Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Holidays as a child were very often road trips. Anticipating the final destination was always where we, as children, focused our imagination and thoughts. We didn’t really concern ourselves with how we would eventually arrive, we just wanted to get there…the faster, the better.  My parents, on the other hand, did think about the route we would take. Without our current digital maps, they would look over well-used, tearing-at-the-seams, fold-up maps collected from various gas stations over the years, and choose a route that was a combination of the best road conditions and the shortest distance. Should my father get lucky, it would also be a road he hadn’t already driven.

I still enjoy a road trip. I have the old-school maps, more for sentiment than anything else, and once I find myself on the highway, I rely on cruise control. I appreciate the ability to “set it, and forget it”, and soak up the scenery as it moves by.  Learning Sprints has been a bit of a road trip for our team, though it has become clear that there is no place for cruise control on this learning journey! As our team worked through the processes to implement our first Sprint this fall, we became increasingly familiar with Agile School’s model, tools, and protocols, yet the speed with which we have worked through this process has shifted along the way.

Following our first ATA-Agile Schools workshop in Edmonton with Dr. Breakspear, our team spent considerable time mapping out the route for our first Learning Sprint cycle. Focus on identifying the specific learner outcome, along with a student task to confirm that teachers’ observations of students’ needs were indeed accurate for identifying our target group, was the first leg of our journey.  Following this, our team was thoughtful in compiling questions for one-on-one interviews with targeted students to gain a greater understanding of why they struggled with this particular learning outcome. The first steps of Focus, Define, and Understand were where we gained traction and speed in the process. It was as we moved ahead to the Design and the implementation of our Sprint, that the road became a little rough, and we experienced a few detours.

Leaders of innovation draw on a blend of creativity and discipline that allows them to react effectively in diverse and changing conditions. Rather than being unstructured, disciplined innovation involves constant problem definition, horizon scanning, situation analysis, monitoring of progress, creation of contingency plans, and feedback for improvement throughout the innovation process.
— Earl & Timperley, 2015, p.7

It became evident that our team had arrived at a cross-roads with our Design. In response, our foot came off the accelerator, and we adjusted our pace. This stage of the Sprint process requires that teams consider both the collective expertise of effective practices, along with what current educational research has to offer, in a manner that guides the team to design for impact. In the end, our team identified what was deemed to be a promising practice to implement, based on its familiar, known approach. Upon review, teachers found it to be effective with some of the students, yet are interested in what the long-term impact might be for these learners. It was also noted that exploring new, research-based strategies in the Review & Reset phase might have deepened our understanding about the importance of shifting teacher practice for impacting learner outcomes.

Looking in the rear-view mirror, I wonder about where, along the way, we might have been able to sooner predict that we were entering unknown territory in order to gear down for a smoother transition onto the rough road. Initially, our team really did hit the road hard; we may have even “burned rubber” (in a good way) off the starting block. We were able to navigate quite smoothly through the first steps of the Sprint process, accessing and discussing Agile Schools videos and tools. Perhaps because of these initial successes, we felt we were well on our way, and perhaps unconsciously did set cruise control, only to discover a quick turn in the road was ahead to challenge us.

  • Was this challenge a result from shifting focus from learner outcomes to teacher practices?
  • Did we rush past sharing the diverse experiences and strategies that each team member brings to the work?
  • Should we have allowed for more time to explore new instructional approaches found in research?
There are no ground rules about how the innovation should evolve but it is important to routinely and rigorously revisit the goals and the theory of action, and to chronicle, document and monitor the progress and decisions over time, as a backdrop for understanding what works, how and under what circumstances.
— Earl & Timperley, 2015, p.20

Personally, one key learning has been recognizing the importance of anticipation in order to be responsive and supportive as the teachers work through the Sprint process.  While teachers drive much of this work, leaders fill the important role of navigator, so to speak. An effective navigator must see and know the road ahead. Agile Schools website has been a valuable resource to help map out what is on the horizon and provides strategies to navigate throughout the journey.

The other effective practice that has been beneficial on many fronts is the weekly Check-In. These gatherings keep the momentum moving forward and provide valuable insights about how the team is doing. Establishing the weekly Check-In (scrum) as a non-negotiable practice has taken some time, and has become an invaluable practice for our team for several reasons, most notably we:

  • share accomplishments & challenges
  • discuss viable tweaks & changes
  • plan next steps
  • celebrate, validate, support each other
  • laugh & eat chocolate

Our Check-Ins don’t consistently include all of these components, but regardless, these moments are opportunities to consistently work and grow as a team. Taking the time to reflect on our first Sprint has been important in order to reconcile where we are currently with our desired destination. Throughout this journey, our team has been building a deeper rapport and working relationship with each other, while simultaneously understanding and implementing the Learning Sprints model. No simple task. We have had moments of optimism, and moments of uncertainty. We have also experienced extraordinary circumstances that might have thrown us completely off course, if not for two hands on the wheel, adjusting speed as needed, and a solid team commitment, trusting that together we would stay the course.

Making the relationship work is an ongoing process of listening, questioning, and trying to understand the different perspectives, in order to profit from each other’s expertise and insights.
— Earl & Timperley, 2015, p.16

“Are we there yet?!” was the inevitable question one of my siblings or I would call out from the backseat during family road trips years ago.  Our Agile team is not asking that question. We realize that this journey is a continuous loop of learning, however we are cautiously celebrating and reflecting on what we’ve just worked through and learned. We already have one eye back on the road, anticipating our next Sprint, sharing ideas and reflections about what we could do differently next time. Having a better understanding of the lay of the land has been helpful as we look to the horizon and prepare. Plus, now we have our winter tires on.


Earl, L. and H. Timperley  (2015), “Evaluative thinking for successful educational innovation”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 122, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Part 4: Doorways into Learning Sprints

This is the fourth post in a series of sharing regarding the initial steps taken to implement Learning Sprints from the perspective of one middle school administrator participating with the school team amidst a growing network of schools established by Agile Schools’ Dr. Simon Breakspear and The Alberta Teachers’ Association

When our school joined the ranks of ATA-Agile Schools cohort this fall, we entered through the Learning Sprints door with our small team of teachers that include Instructional Coaches and Administrators.  As has been shared in previous posts, we have been experiencing firsthand that the only way to truly understand and learn this work is by actually doing the work. From the vantage point of an administrator, I am continually inspired by the dedication of staff, and the genuine thoughtfulness with which they have embraced this work, knowing that we have two goals in mind:

  1. Short-term, our team recognizes the need to hone our understanding of and capabilities in the processes and protocols that Learning Sprints contain to become more effective and efficient with each component.
  2. Long-term, our team is aware that as our fluency and confidence in Sprints cycles develop, we will begin to structure a method of scaling the work to involve all of our teachers for the benefit of our students and their opportunities to improve learning outcomes.

As our team reflected on our first Sprint, each person shared their perspective of how we stepped over the threshold, where we learned from successes and small wins, along with where we learned from challenges and small stumbles. Even after just the first few months of being involved with Sprint cycles, we are beginning to predict how our learning now might best serve colleagues later when we begin to expand this work to involve them. With this in mind, I began to look for alternate doorways, separate from a full Learning Sprint cycle, to begin introducing additional teaching staff to a tool or process that might eventually smooth the way for our future, long-term goal. The thinking here is that becoming familiar with components of the Learning Sprint model, without undertaking a full Sprint, might help to increase effectiveness when we are ready to take the step of scaling our work. One entry point for some subtle introductions has been during the discussions between individual teachers and administration regarding teachers’ annual Professional Growth Plans.

Developing the plan is a professional function through which teachers demonstrate their commitment to lifelong professional learning while fulfilling their regulatory requirement pertaining to continuing education.
— The Alberta Teachers’ Association

From my experience, it is very common to have a teacher share two or three self-identified goals that are, in Agile Schools terms referred to as “Boulders” such as Literacy, Indigenous Education, or Technology Integration. This fall, as I reviewed PGPs with several individual teachers, I was able to turn the key to more intentional and precise support for them to consider in order to help clarify their goals (Define), discuss why the goal was selected, in particular from the view point of what learners need (Understand), and identify what strategies might be implemented (Design) in order to see impact.

In these meetings, I did not share the Learning Sprint model. Seldom was a specific Agile Schools template used. Instead, I embraced the meeting as a conversation that was also a learning opportunity… for both myself as well as the teacher. By listening as PGP documents were shared, teachers led me through their thinking behind their goals and I was able to gain a deeper understanding of where they are in their own learning journey. Responding with questions that invited teachers past the entrance to think about their goals in a manner that aligned with the Learning Sprints model prompted some focused discussions:

  • Hypothetically, if you had to choose one of your three goals as your top priority, what would it be?
  • Given your top priority, how might you narrow that broad goal into a smaller, more manageable goal? What would be the specific learner outcome you would hope to improve?
  • What do you see or hear from your students that leads you to choose this goal?
  • How can administrators, instructional coaches, and/or your professional learning community collaborate and support you with this goal?

Teachers were willing to consider the challenge that these questions posed. Often they were quick to shift from a Boulder to a Pebble, though the grain of Sand, was not as easy for some to pin point. One of our Fine Arts teachers had an epiphany as we chatted through the repetitive “Why?” to identify the underlying reason for one her goals: “This was helpful. I just picked this goal because I felt like I wasn’t giving students enough opportunities to be engaged in this activity, but actually, they need to develop this skill in order to be successful with the learning outcomes when I have them again next year.

These moments have emphasized the importance of administrators walking through the door with teachers to learn alongside of them. As I thanked teachers for being open to the discussion and probing questions, I reciprocated by sharing one of my personal goals: Developing more effective methods for supporting them and their work, knowing that developing their practice is what can have great impact on our students’ achievement. I want our staff to know that I am beside them, and behind them in our learning journey, and that my door is always open.

Part 5:  Show & Share

This is the fifth post in a series of sharing regarding the initial steps taken to implement Learning Sprints from the perspective of one middle school administrator participating with the school team amidst a growing network of schools established by Agile Schools’ Dr. Simon Breakspear and The Alberta Teachers’ Association.

When my son was in Kindergarten, he looked forward to the weekly session of “Show and Tell” and the opportunity to bring in an item to share with the class that connected to their “Letter of the Week”. The week of “T” was in October.  We’d been crafting some nifty seasonal pumpkins at home, and Zachary hatched a plan of “tricking” his teacher with one of his pumpkins, knowing that by unwrapping the orange fabric, he could show the full roll of toilet paper hidden underneath. Show and Tell has stood the test of time as a means for sharing experiences and making connections. Our Learning Sprints team used this long-known activity to our advantage as this school year came to a close.

Edmonton’s ATA Agile Schools Network cohort has fueled our work as a school team and through the Sprint cycles designed, our teachers spent much of this past year exploring and experimenting with the implementation of Sprints in their classes. This focus eventually evolved into bringing additional teachers on board and expanded our one team into smaller sub-teams. By the end of this year, we had doubled our numbers and were ready to share the experience with our teaching staff.

Structuring time for teachers to gather provided the opportunity to share our Learning Sprints journey with our colleagues. We showed this adapted visual highlighting the Learning Sprints components in a cycle where teacher teams collaborate and prepare a learning activity (based on student need). The Sprint is then reviewed by teacher teams for what effectiveness and the team determines what next steps might be. The cycle continues and evolves as teacher teams work and learn together to improve effectiveness and instructional impact for student achievement.

sprint-cycle.jpg

We had pre-determined a learner outcome to fast-track teachers through the Boulder-Pebble-Sand Tool and then spent time working through three Agile Schools Tools to help design a potential Sprint. (Credit goes to our dear colleague, Terri-Lynn Guimond for this activity from her uLead18 session). One of the benefits of this simulation was that our teachers were actively involved as they explored a Sprint cycle in a relatively short amount of time. They experienced the basic process, became familiar with a few tools, connected pieces of the Sprint cycle to some of the work that Professional Learning Communities were involved in, and began to see how the structure might be of value for our PLCs moving forward.

empathy-tool.jpg
must-do-could-do.jpg
strategy-talk.jpg
…we would do better to attend more carefully to the process by which we create our plans and intentions… that enable a group to keep clarifying its intent and strengthening its connections to new people and new information. We need less reverence for the objects we create, and much more attention to the processes we use to create them.
— (Wheatley, p. 155)

Following this activity, each member of our Sprint team shared a personal experience and “A-ha moment” that stood out for them. They were genuine and candid about the challenges and struggles along the way, as well as the accomplishments and learning of their work together:

  • Admitting that the first couple of Sprints were awkward..
  • Acknowledging initial skepticism, but by sticking with it, positive results eventually shifted that perspective.
  • Observing noticeable gains from students who had struggled in understanding a concept or demonstrating a skill becoming able to articulate their learning and explain it to others.
  • Recognizing that there may be a deeper reason for why a learner is not progressing.
  • Validating that teachers often predict which specific outcome will be difficult for students, and using that experience to the benefit of planning their instruction.
  • Recognizing the value of formative assessment strategies to better identify which students need help.
  • Acknowledging that their instruction changed based on student needs (and that research helped support that change).
With Sprinting, it forces you to target specific groups of students. It can be students who don’t get a specific learner outcome, but it can [also be] other groups… I think often as teachers we focus on our low-end learners and sometimes we let other students just slide by. For example, your high achieving learner who would get 95% regardless of their teacher, or the 70% student who just coasts by. I like Sprints because it forces me to ensure that I focus on all my students. Every student deserves a year of learning and Sprints [helps] me to ensure that.
— Grade Seven Science Teacher

One of the final, heartfelt comments from a long-serving and effective grade six teacher caused a pause for many of us, administrators included, when, at the end of the presentation, he simply added:

This really made me think about why I teach the way I teach. When I plan a lesson, do I really think about what the students need to understand or do and why that is important? This has helped me to be more thoughtful in my planning, and more reflective about my instruction. If a student doesn’t understand something, I need to try to find another way for them.
sharing-sprints.jpg
…small influences can have enormous impact. It is not the law of large numbers or critical mass that creates change, but the presence of a small disturbance that gets into the system and is then amplified through the networks. Once inside the network, this small disturbance circulates and feeds back on itself. As different parts of the system get hold of it, interpret it, and change it, the disturbance grows. Finally, it becomes so amplified that it cannot be ignored.
— (Wheatley, p. 87)

Our journey this year was not without its hurdles and detours, however, the persistence of this team has been inspiring. Stepping back and listening to their “Show and Share” was a definite highlight of our work!

…focused effort sustained over time where all stakeholders are consistently pushing in the same direction… where it becomes hard for everyone in the school to resist joining in…
— (Buck, p. 149)
 Our team this past October meeting Dr. Breakspear for the first time.

Our team this past October meeting Dr. Breakspear for the first time.


Post-Script

As a follow-up to our Show and Share, our final PLCs of the year asked for feedback from the teachers about what they’d heard and learned. They were asked:

“What is one thing about Learning Sprints that you are feeling anxious about?”

The majority of teachers did not voice a concern, and those that did, not surprisingly, shared their nervousness about the time that would be needed. (It’s reassuring to note that our administrative team and Instructional Coaches recognize this need and have been working with the upcoming school calendar and timetables to find embedded time .)

“What about Learning Sprints excites you?”

Overwhelming, the common response was the anticipation of more focused team collaboration for specific goals and student needs.


Buck, A. (2017). Leadership Matters: How Leaders at All Levels can Create Great Schools. Woodbridge, Suffolk: John Catt Educational Ltd.

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