Hacking Away: Diving Into Learning Sprints

Written by: Wayne Durksen and Cam Makovichuk

The term “hack” suggests quick, rough, and perhaps covert actions;  but historically, hacking represents creativity, playfulness, and perseverance. Indeed, “hacking might be characterized as ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity.’” (The Jargon File,  http://www.catb.org/jargon/ ). For us, this spirit of ingenuity is the power behind agile learning sprints.  It’s the idea that as teachers we need to seek out the problems worth our time rather than developing  pretty solutions that fit the average (that no student is). That sometimes we need to dive in, particularly when the path ahead is uncertain.

In August 2015, we attended the Alberta Teachers’ Association Educational Leadership Academy  (ELA) facilitated by Dr Simon Breakspear. The ELA was an intensive, hands-on and minds-on course in adapting our teaching practice to be more effective within the constraints of school  (with limited time and resources). Simon introduced us to learning sprints and encouraged us to be unbelievably specific, so we decided to focus  on counting strategies (division one) and adding and subtracting operations (division two). We wanted to apply successful teaching practices from literacy, namely providing feedback through conferring, in our math lessons. As John Hattie describes, we wanted students to be able to know where they’re going, how they’re going, and where to next.

Feedback is already used with our students in their reading.  The reading  benchmarks conducted at the beginning of each  year provide the evidence needed to guide our instruction for groups of students. The use of feedback fosters a sense of being a reading learner; students understand themselves as being on a reading  journey, rather than as being either good or bad readers. In mathematics, however, a fixed mindset (of being good or bad at math)  is ubiquitous. We hypothesized that providing targeted feedback would help students to change their mathematical mindsets and students would begin to identify themselves as mathematicians on a learning journey.

But what feedback could we give? David Ausubel insists,  “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him/her accordingly.” In reading instruction we start with what the learner already knows. The data that informs our feedback in reading conferences comes from reading benchmarks and running records. A literacy continuum allows teachers and students to identify where they’re going, how they’re going, and where to next. Unfortunately, an Alberta mathematics continuum didn’t exist, and the grade-by-grade curriculum, while cyclical, didn’t provide the sequential path that we needed to inform our feedback. In mathematics instruction we weren’t starting with what the learner already knew; we were starting with the grade-level curriculum.  In any classroom you’re going to have a wide range  of “grade” levels, with some students working below grade level, some at grade level, and some beyond  grade level. No wonder students had developed fixed mindsets about their mathematical abilities.

We didn’t have time to pour through the Alberta mathematics curricula to create our own continuum. So, we hacked a solution. We found one that was already created – the New South Wales Numeracy Continuum K-10 (http://www.numeracycontinuum.com/). We also needed some sort of standard assessment that we could use to benchmark starting points, and compare pre- and post-assessments. We found one of those,  too – New Zealand’s Junior Assessment of Mathematics (https://nzmaths.co.nz/junior-assessment-mathematics). Was it Albertan? No. But it matched what we were looking to find out about our students. Was it perfect? No. But it was good enough to start with. It was a hack.

Learning sprints ask teachers to define outcomes, understand learners, and design teaching that’s targeted to impact specific student learning outcomes. While we designed our first sprint with student feedback in mind, we quickly discovered that we lacked the specific student data to inform this feedback. Our subsequent sprints sought to fill this gap – by collecting the data that would allow us to give targeted feedback. Our sprints have taken us from JAMs and IKAN tools to math running records and screening tools; all while deepening our understanding of what it means to be a math learner in our classrooms. The sprint process helped us to do what we’ve always wanted to do as teachers: be brave enough to dive in and hack solutions to the really important questions about learning in our own classrooms.


Simon Breakspear