Networks and school systems leading with an inquiring mindset.


Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, Co-leaders of the Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education.


British Columbia, Canada.

The pioneers

Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser are Co-leaders of Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education (NOIIE).

They have served as principals, district leaders and policy advisors with the Ministry of Education in the areas of innovative leadership, district change, rural education, literacy and Aboriginal education. They currently lead the Transformative Educational Leadership Program for system leaders at the University of British Columbia.

“Both of us were identified as transformative leaders back in the day. We had the first hand experience of taking pretty difficult schools and making them better. However,  as principals we were quite isolated. When we had the opportunity individually, with some funding, to start the network, we said let’s work together because we knew it would be so much more powerful.”

The Big Change

The Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education are voluntary networks of inquiry based schools and school districts across a range of jurisdictions.

Schools participate on an annual basis by engaging in a ‘Spiral of Inquiry’: an inquiry-oriented, evidence-based approach to learning and teaching – one that focuses on making education systems more equitable by educators listening to learners and reflecting on their own practices.

The Spiral of Inquiry was developed in collaboration with Professor Helen Timperley from the University of  Auckland in New Zealand and was informed by case study research from BC schools. The spiral is a continuous process and not a fixed cycle as new learning generates new questions, ways of knowing and new opportunities for learners. At the end of each year, schools submit case studies to share their learning.

“For the past twenty years, we have been supporting a network of hundreds of schools within the province of British Columbia that has expanded to include schools in the Yukon Territory, England, Wales, New South Wales, Queensland, New Zealand, Barcelona, the Northern Territories and Sweden.”

“We believe that innovation floats on a sea of inquiry. We’ve become more and more innovative as a system and as teachers see the impact of their inquiry on the experiences of their young learners.”

The ambition for changes

The big vision for NOIIE is:

  • Every learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options.
  • Every learner leaving our settings more curious than when they arrived.
  • All learners gaining an understanding of and respect for Indigenous ways of knowing.
  • Through our collective efforts eliminating racism in schools.

This is being achieved through schools participating on an annual basis in Spirals of Inquiry, supported by the Network, which shares resources, case studies and reflections in a spirit of generosity, curiosity and growth.

A shift in direction

The Networks of Inquiry and Innovation was established in 2000. Initially funded by the BC Ministry of Education, it was designed to improve the quality and equity of education in BC through inquiry and teamwork across roles, schools and districts, as well as a focus on applying coaching forms of assessment to assist learners to take greater ownership of their learning.

Judy and Linda have realised that isolated efforts to make a difference, no matter how well intentioned, are not enough to make a lasting difference in complex education systems. Teamwork is essential, and so is building a wider network of inquiry-minded people to deepen and spread the learning.

Making change happen

1: The start point

Don’t lead in isolation: relationships matter

For both Judy and Linda, the starting point was as principals and their personal experiences of changing schools. To combat feelings of isolation, Judy and Linda formed a small group of principals to learn from one another and offer support.  They knew from their very grounded experiences as principals that the networks had to involve principals and teachers working together.

In addition, networks had to be invitational and attractive for people to be involved, as well as acknowledge and respect the judgement, experience and language of teachers. Having an inquiry base gives teachers a sense of ownership over what they are signing up to.

Together they shared the aim of shifting the ownership of learning from the teacher to the learner by developing learner agency and greater teacher confidence in assessing for learning.

2: Taking off

Establishing a clear common purpose

Having a clear, non-negotiable common purpose is vital for inspiring big changes that unite education systems.

By adapting and evolving the goals over time, participants in Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education have identified three key goals that reflect their shared purpose for system reform:

  • Every learner will cross the stage with dignity, purpose and options.
  • Every learner will leave more curious than when they arrive.
  • Every learner will develop an understanding of, and respect for, Indigenous ways of knowing.

“We had a clear idea that we wanted to have learners more engaged, teachers more confident. These goals were not in place at the beginning, they have emerged from schools. Everywhere we go, you can see educators really resonate with them. You can see people agree and get behind them. We need to have hard, aspirational, motivating goals for schools.”

Shifting mindsets

The Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education call for a different kind of classroom learning, a different kind of professional learning and a different kind of leadership that comes from all levels. Judy and Linda ground their approach in research on teacher professional learning, the evidence about the impact if formative assessment and the growth mindset research of Carol Dweck.

Using established research, like growth mindsets, as part of the change process is effective because it intuitively makes sense to teachers. The spiral of inquiry offers a clear way to shift from the fixed mindset of sorting and ranking to a growth mindset for deep learning.

“Educators we’ve worked with have responded very well to the research on growth mindset and the evidence about formative assessment. Many teachers, including ourselves, grew up with many forms of fixedness being taught. We were praised for marks and this had an impact on our practice. When teachers are introduced to growth mindset in a sensible way, it makes strong, intuitive sense to them.”

3: Keeping going

Listening to learners is absolutely key

At the beginning of a spiral of inquiry, schools ask their students two questions:

  • Can you name two adults in this school who believe you’ll be a success in life?
  • What are you learning and why is it important?

Judy and Linda have found that listening to learners helps to build educator curiosity and to overcome reluctance.  By systematically engaging in professional inquiry, educators gain confidence in listening to their learners, in reflecting on their current practices, in exploring ways to develop deeper learning and then moving to action.

“We have many examples of where just those two questions have been the impetus for some significant changes. For us, that’s the essential part. The adults have to really understand the experience of the learner through their own eyes, voices and personal interviews. Sometimes teachers can mistake compliance with satisfaction and engagement. When you actually scratch the surface, things are often not what they seem.”

Sharing inspiring examples of leadership

Through the NOIIE and the educational leadership graduate programmes, Judy and Linda regularly share stories of courageous leadership. Each year the NOIIE hosts a symposium showcasing innovative approaches to educational leadership and real-life examples of the Spiral of Inquiry in action from BC schools and beyond. The symposium attracts educators and researchers from all over the world.

“Showing stories at the annual symposium gives people the courage to make friends and try to do more difficult work. Courage can be contagious.”

Don’t rely on large amounts of money

Judy and Linda were able to set up and get a lot done with a microcredit approach.

“A big difference between our work and some of the work we’ve seen in other places is that our schools get a small grant to thank them for the completion of work, rather than money at the beginning as an incentive. How we structured the finances proved really helpful in sustaining the learning over time.”

“I think that the most significant impact is that we have a strong system. People are interested in seeing what’s happening in BC partly as a result of the network, inquiry, leadership and development approach. I think the other impact we’re seeing is the interest in other places. We now have networks in New South Wales, Queensland, The Northern Territories in Australia, Sweden, Barcelona, England, Wales, China and growing interest in Germany. It’s interesting for us to see that without any overt effort from our part that people are asking to be a part of this, to learn from one another.”

Taking change wider

Find a friend and get started

Since the beginning of NOIIE, friendships and working relationships have formed and deepened as teams commit to the spiral of inquiry in the spirit of building trust, courage and curiosity.

“We use this term ‘network’ in the organic sense. This isn’t a structure, it’s a way of being. Find a friend, create some kind of a small community, even if it’s just two or three people initially. When Linda and I started this work, it was the two of us. Now it’s thousands of people. Get a friend, get started. Find some small source of support so you’re not working in isolation. Try things quickly and show that they work.”

Keeping it simple

Getting the structure right for NOIIE was integral for extending the approach. Judy and Linda encourage networks to stay focused on the goal of changing outcomes and experiences for learners and to resist the urge to make it more complex.

“The structure is simple and not overly demanding on schools so that they can understand the rhythm. The structure has stayed constant over the years.”

Saying yes

“One of the most critical factors to our success is we’ve said yes, even when we’ve not been sure about how to proceed. When an opportunity presented itself, we said ‘sure, let’s give that a go’. More often than not we weren’t really sure how we were going to do it but we saw the opportunity and we moved in.”

Ten years ago, Judy and Linda have said yes to developing a focus on improving outcomes for Indigenous learners. As a result, the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN) – a network paired with NOII offering support to teachers working with Aboriginal learners transitioning to further education – was born. More recently, the two networks have been merged under one overarching term, the Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education.

The impact of change

System impact

  • Over the past twenty years the Networks and the use of Spirals of Inquiry has grown from 34 schools in BC to include 1225 schools in BC, the Yukon, England, New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territories, Barcelona, New Zealand, Sweden and Canadian schools in China.
  • Understanding and applying the Spiral of Inquiry is now a key element of pre-service teacher education programmes in five of nine BC post secondary institutions.
  • BC was identified by the OECD as one of five international learning laboratories for innovative learning environments for its work on inquiry networks and leadership development.

Learner impact

  • Increased levels of intellectual engagement reported by secondary students.
  • Consistently strong results on PISA and PIRLS.
  • Evidence of increased sense of belonging and success for Indigenous students.

BC was identified by the OECD as one of five international learning laboratories

Tools and resources

For more on mindset: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck.

For more on spirals.

Spirals of Inquiry: For Equity and Quality handbook.
All proceeds from the sales of the handbook supports small grants to inquiry schools.