Learning Sprints: How to Help Overloaded Educators Continuously Enhance Their Expertise

Better all the time

If we believe that we are to help our learners to make at least one year of growth for every year of schooling, then it would seem logical that as educators we focus on improving our practice every year we teach. This is not intended to be a deficit approach, but rather a continuous improvement lens where we are seeking to improve, not because we’re not good enough, but because we could be even better. Cultivating a culture of “let’s get better,” not because we have to, but because we want the joy of developing greater mastery and seeing more progress for the students we teach.

Designing school-based structures for effective teacher learning

Around the world, schools and districts have invested in more time for teachers to work collaboratively in order to improve their practice and better impact learner outcomes. Allocating time for teachers to work together is important, yet insufficient to effectively increase teaching expertise. It is what teachers actually do together during this time that has the biggest impact on both the individual and collective expertise of the teachers.

The literature on effective professional learning is clear: teachers need to be engaged in sustained, job-embedded inquiry. This process should provide an opportunity for teachers to frame relevant problems of practice; review relevant research; and engage in cycles of thinking, doing, reflecting, and adjusting within their context. All the while, teachers should be learning and updating their mental models through the process.

This form of collaborative disciplined inquiry is often difficult to initiate and sustain for overloaded educators. Teachers often tell us that the professional collaboration feels like one more thing to add to their already overcrowded list of expectations. We could see an emerging tension to overcome: how can we make collaborative teacher inquiry both rigorous and doable?

Co-designing a new approach: Learning Sprints

Over the last two years, we have been working alongside hundreds of schools to pioneer a new approach to teacher collaborative learning: Learning Sprints. This process is powerful in developing new levels of expertise, but also manageable for overloaded educators.

Our guiding mantras are simple:

  • If it doesn’t work for educators, then it doesn’t work.
  • If it doesn’t have an impact for student learning, it’s not worth doing.

Learning Sprints are all about enhancing teacher expertise through better teacher learning. The Learning Sprints process is simple, relevant, and achievable for already overloaded teachers and their leaders. Learning Sprints align with the best available evidence on the essential elements of effective professional learning (see Cordingley et al. 2014 & Timperley et al. 2007). The process is job-embedded, collaborative, informed by research, involves disciplined experimentation, and generates evidence of impact on the students we teach. We also drew on emerging insights from behavioral science on how to best support adults to make small, but important, changes to habits and routines (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). In short, through Learning Sprints we enable educators to pursue a ‘massive incremental change’ approach to enhancing their expertise, where improvement is both manageable and meaningful.

We help teachers to work on tiny changes that, at first glance, would seem to make only a modest difference at best, but add up to significant shifts in expertise over time. Each small Sprint is only 1-4 weeks, but the cumulative effect on teacher expertise over multiple cycles can be extremely powerful, especially when sustained in one learning domain area for 6 months (e.g. teaching numeracy, literacy, or essay writing to name a few). Our hypothesis is that teachers learn to think and act differently due to the development of improved mental models within particular subject-specific areas. In effect, they are learning to think and practice more like experts.

The Learning Sprint process: simple, relevant, and achievable

As outlined in Figure 1, the Learning Sprints process involves three key steps that support three different forms of teacher learning.

  1. Prepare Phase: Stimulate new thinking through disciplined team dialogue

During this first phase, Sprint teams engage in disciplined dialogue about student learning and consider relevant research to identify a precise focus for their Learning Sprint. The key here is for teams to define a highly specific focus for the Learning Sprint connected to the impact they want to have on student learning. We believe that teacher learning should start with the question: what do our students need us, as teachers, to learn next? Teachers engage with both research-based and practice-based evidence to support them in designing small, specific changes to try out in their classroom.

  1. Sprint Phase: Embedding new thinking into new action through deliberate practice in the classroom

Teachers then go into the Sprint Phase, where they test out and embed their new learning through short, 1-4 week cycles of deliberate practice in the classroom. Teachers focus on applying their evidence-informed approach with their students and monitor whether or not it is having the intended impact. As needed, teachers also seek out peer and expert guidance to help develop their capacity in the effective use of the new approach. Every week, Sprint teams come together for a dynamic 15 minute ‘check-in’ meeting in order to provide support, solve problems, and sustain motivation for action.

  1. Review Phase: Engage in developmental reflection in order to analyze progress and transfer lessons

A Learning Sprint ends with the developmental Review Phase, where educators analyze the evidence of student progress, and consider how to transfer new pedagogical knowledge and skills into future practice. During this phase, teachers intentionally slow down their professional learning in order to make connections and update certain beliefs, assumptions, and practices. This step is crucial to the development of individual and collective efficacy, as teams explore where they would like to go next in their professional learning.

Get Sprinting

Download this guide  to help you embark on Learning Sprints in your school!

Learning Sprints are all about enhancing teaching expertise by using the collaboration time you already have available to provide a better organizational routine for professional growth. Organizational routines are regular approaches to getting work done, and developing and sharing knowledge. Learning Sprints provide a way of doing the work together by using a set process and range of protocols for collective learning. The process has been designed to be adaptable to your school structures and context, so why not give a Sprints a try in your school!

Find out more at www.learningsprints.com or come along to our session at Corwin’s Annual Visible Learning conference in Las Vegas.


References

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. (2015). Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Retrieved from https://tdtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/DGT-Full-report.pdf

Practice With Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. Deans for Impact (2016). Retrieved from https://deansforimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Practice-with-Purpose_FOR-PRINT_113016.pdf

Thaler, R.H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/2515/15341

Written by

Dr. Simon Breakspear is known internationally for helping educational leaders navigate complex change, harness research evidence, and drive continuous improvement for better learning. Simon is the Founder and Executive Director of Agile Schools, which equips educator teams with the research, routines, and tools they need to drive improvement and innovation. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales and Research Fellow of the Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change at The Education University of Hong Kong.

 

Dr. Ryan Dunn is the Director of Agile Schools, which equips educator teams with the research, routines, and tools they need to drive improvement and innovation. Ryan has considerable experience within education and has advised and collaborated with schools and districts across the USA and Australia. He is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, where his work focuses on teacher professional learning, educational leadership, practitioner research, and primary mathematics. He is the Director of the Maths Collaborative, a partnership between the Maths Association of Victoria, Melbourne University, and 40 primary schools.

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