Learning Sprints - The game changer for collaborative time

Written by Cale Birk, and originally published through his blog The Learning Nation

Cale Birk

Cale Birk

Across North America, the first couple of weeks of school are complete.  Students are settled into their classrooms, teachers have begun to dive into the curriculum for the year. As a former senior biology teacher, I remember looking at my curriculum guides and course outlines at the start of each year thinking the same thing--my students are once again going to struggle with understanding the process of gas exchange in respiratory system.


It was never all of the students of course--some would pick up the concepts fairly quickly. But year in and year out, as fast as you could say ‘carbaminohemoglobin’, I knew I was going to have a core group of students that just wouldn’t get it. Does this resonate with you?

Do you have an outcome in your course where you KNOW kids will struggle, even before you have started to teach them?

Outcomes like number sense. Grammar. Fractions. Balancing chemical equations. Compound sentences. Hum a few bars if any of these tunes sound familiar to you, or sing your own song if you are thinking something more along the lines of conjugating verbs in a language class or proving trig identities in math. Those outcomes that, year in and year out, a few students always find to be challenging.

Not only was I aware of this outcome, I also felt like I had tried every approach short of shrinking students down to the size of a red blood cell to get them to understand gas exchange! Yet it seemed like no matter what I did, no matter what year it was or which group came through the door, there was going to be a certain set of students that didn’t pick up what I was throwing down. Death, taxes, and five students who got lost when I taught gas exchange--those were certainties in my world. I couldn’t spend any more time de-mystifying what happened at the capillary level, I had other outcomes to cover! At the time, I knew I needed to do something different, I just had absolutely no idea what that was going to be.

Years later, after working with schools across British Columbia, the US and Asia, I have come to realize that I was not alone in having this ‘nemesis outcome’ in my Biology course: every course has outcomes where we know kids are going to struggle. And even though many of our schools in our District currently have “PLC time” where teachers collaborate on strategies to improve student learning, and that I used to be the Principal of one of the only “model PLC schools” at the time in British Columbia--we still have these same outcomes where students struggle, even though we know exactly which ones they are and ‘collaborate’ about them each week!

We all know that having “PLC time” or being a “learning community” has never been enough--many of our schools would say that their PLC time isn’t as focused as it could be on student and teacher learning. In fact, some of our teachers might go so far as to say their PLCs are impinging on valuable instructional time. And after reading the Gates Foundation Report on teachers perceptions of current models of professional development and collaboration in schools, I know our educators are not alone in their thinking about what is and is not working for improving student achievement.

What we knew for sure is that we wanted and needed to do something different.

Last May in our school district, I asked teachers and administrators at five of our schools to try Learning Sprints in an attempt to take a new approach to those outcomes where we knew certain students struggled the most. We chose to investigate Sprints for a few reasons:

  • they gave teachers rapid formative feedback on strategies that worked (and didn’t work) for students in that outcome area

  • they were short, quick and tightly focused

  • they did not require additional structures--they used what schools already had in place

  • they had educators working together in small teams

  • they had been used by hundreds of schools, and made a difference in student results.

purposefully chose the month of May to test another important aspect of Sprints--that they were do-able, even for the busiest teacher. As we know, the lead up to summer holidays for teachers is a crazy time.  Year-end field trips, track meets, science fairs and math expositions turn the May calendar into a nearly blacked out Bingo card. But one other thing is common for teachers nearing the end of the school year: to a person they are working hard to get those students who have struggled with certain outcomes across the finish line before the doors close for summer break. Yet as busy as our May was here in BC, after I sent out Simon’s introductory Sprints video to the five schools, teacher teams from five schools took the plunge into Sprints.

In order to launch Learning Sprints in our district, we tried a number of things things to ensure that our educators had a positive learning experience that met their needs. And while every district will have their own approach, these were a few things we found to be successful. We...

  • created a one-page information flyer. A flyer much like this (this is our latest flyer for our next cohort this fall) was sent out to our schools so that Principals would have something to refer to should any curious staff members have questions. We also emailed out the link to the Agile Schools website so people could check it out.

  • asked that teacher teams be accompanied by a Principal. We felt that it was vital for school leaders to be clear on the process so they could provide any necessary supports for the Sprint team, and also to give them the opportunity to connect deeply to the work that their teachers were doing in the classroom.

  • provided a full day of release for the teachers to attend the Sprints Day One workshop (and a half day for Day Two). Upon reflection after the days were done, we could have done it with a half-day of release time for each workshop (and will this Fall), however, the teachers appreciated the time to work together to lay out their Sprint.

  • had exemplars of the Sprints tools visible for each of the groups

  • provided copies of the tools and made Chromebooks/technology available. We wanted the teams to be able to access the Learning Sprints videos, as well as additional materials or research as an injection of external expertise into their Sprint that they felt they might need.

  • referred to the videos and tools on the Agile Schools website during the workshop as needed. While the group would ‘learn the work by doing’ the work in the workshop, we wanted them to be familiar with the layout of the site should they need additional guidance when they were back in their schools.

  • asked the group for permission to document their experiences. We took lots of pictures, and even some video footage--whether the pilot was successful or not, we wanted to make the learning that we were doing visible to other teachers in the district through authentic artifacts of the Sprints journey. We also gave some suggestions for the teams about what they might want to document as evidence of their own learning throughout their Sprint.

We also had a one-day workshop for administrators and teachers with Dr. Simon Breakspear a few months in advance.  This was fortuitous and quite by chance--Simon happened to be working a short distance from our District, and we asked if he could pop over and spend a day with us. We wanted to give our educators a sense of the work of Agile Schools as well as a chance to ask any questions they might have. This visit was an added bonus: while the online tools are both user-friendly and robust, when we have the chance to have an expert work with us, well...we jumped at it.

And so the five teams came to Day One, and we worked through the foundations of Sprints. In each of the Define, Understand, and Design phases, we used the short video to describe each section, and at least one of the suggested tools to help guide participants through learning the work of Sprints by doing the work of Sprints. Each of the groups found these tools to be valuable, but they also found the Sprints Canvas to be essential for ensuring that the great discussions that were taking place were being transformed to actions for their classrooms that they could take away at the end of our first session.

Each of the teams successfully planned their Sprint.  They got ‘granular’ and targeted a specific learning outcome and the smallest group of students that they could in their classes. They determined the current learning experience for their students and the types of instructional strategies they were attempting in their classes.  They took advantage of the expertise of their colleagues in the room as well as external expertise through their research of promising strategies in their targeted outcome area. They determined the lean evidence they would be collecting during their Sprint, and finally, they presented their plan to a team from a different school to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions in the true spirit of “hard on the content, soft on the people”. Our educators left Day One excited and energized, knowing that we would be reconnecting as a group in just four short weeks. They also left feeling supported: each of the Principals who attended were tasked with checking in with each of the teams in addition to their Sprint meetings to ensure teachers had what they needed to execute their Sprint.

Our teams returned to us four weeks later. As a facilitator I was curious to see how our educators were feeling after such a short period of time and what kind of progress: maybe they didn’t call their target outcome a ‘nemesis outcome’ like I did, but they were working on an outcome that was important to them and their students! What did they find? What were the changes they saw in student learning? Were there any changes? What worked? What didn’t? What’s next? I had a lot of questions. And wow, did we hear a lot of answers.

To begin the second session, we had participants do a reflection protocol. Team members from different Sprint teams interviewed each other and then reconnected with their school team to debrief about what they heard and what modifications they might make to future Sprints they were going to do at their schools. One of the major themes that came out from the group was around evidence collection: nearly every team mentioned that they needed to be even ‘leaner’ in how they collected evidence of learning in the target outcome area. They recognized that there were so many quick and easy ways that they could have collected evidence of learning from students that are not ‘formal’ but still inform teachers about strategies that are working and not working for lifting student outcomes. Another major theme was that their Sprint made a difference to student learning AND to their instruction. The evidence that they collected showed tangible changes in student learning. Period.

As we shared around the room, some notable things our educators said included:

"Sprints allowed us to find what the actual problem was, not what we thought it was."
"After doing Sprints, I realize that we tend to just re-teach, rather than address skill gaps or identify missing sub-skills"
"Sprints gave me the opportunity to gain insight into the learning styles of individual students."
"We should do more quick, easy assessments for learning, rather than making assumptions about what students know."

And in a “Before I thought, now I think protocol” to end Day 2, two important points were made that resonated throughout the group:
"Before Sprints I used to think it would be impossible to see the impact of small changes to my practice...now I think I can tune my instruction over time to increase its efficacy "
"Before Sprints,  I used to think 'How can I fit ONE MORE THING'?", now I think
"I HAVE to do this!" for my students."

From a facilitator’s perspective, I was shocked at the energy of the group at the end of their first Sprint, and when I asked them if there was one thing that surprised them about Sprints that they would tell their colleagues, as a collective the group said “Sprints are easy to do and they make a difference”. And to a person, each team member said they will be doing Sprints again.

But one of the most poignant comments was made a few days after the completion of Day 2. The Principal of one of our pilot schools informed me that his two teachers were starting another Learning Sprint for the last three weeks of the school year, and said this:

“Learning Sprints is a game-changer for our collaboration time. It is the missing link.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Going forward, Learning Sprints will be a vital piece of collaboration, design, reflection and iteration in our professional learning cycle for our school district. Having our teachers work together as high-functioning teams with a tight focus to provide us with rapid information on that improves student and educator achievement is something we can absolutely get behind. As a result of our Learning Sprints pilot we are ramping up our Sprints efforts here in Kamloops (starting again in three weeks) to take our PLCs and collaborative time to another level.

If you are looking to bring meaning and results to your teacher collaboration, I believe that Learning Sprints will make a difference. But don’t believe me! Follow this link to watch the short video and hear what our teachers had to say. I think you will be surprised!

Simon Breakspear