The Power of Why: Learning in the Modern Age

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

There is an old saying from that wise old author Anonymous that goes something like this; we are all experts on education because we have all had experience with education.  Of course, for all of us, to varying degrees, this is true. Every generation of schools has to understand, and wrestle with, change. In schools we see changes in student demographics, changes in pedagogy as a result of research and emerging technologies and changes in the demands and expectations that parents and society have of our schools.

Too often, we think of the changes and challenges we are seeing in our modern schools as being about technology or the moving away from teaching the basics. Not true. The real change and challenge is related to who actually ‘owns’ the learning and how this learning can occur. The schools we went to were based on the premise that the teacher owned the knowledge and gave it to the students- who in turn, demonstrated success by regurgitating this knowledge back to the teacher. The questions we asked as students; “will this be on the test?” are not the questions our students today are asking; “why is this important?” or “why should I do this?”

All the nostalgic whinging in the world will not change the fact that the children that this generation of parents have raised (and are raising) have been conditioned to ask these why questions. What we have learned about the brain and how people learn, along with the powerful, connected information tools we now have, is that learning is an instinctual process that is driven by the curiosity and creativity of the learner. The most recent research indicates that people who are curious and act upon their curiosity lead more productive, complete and satisfying lives.

It turns out that “Why do we have to learn this?” is actually the question all students should be asking. For us as educators and parents, this is a great challenge- the schools that we knew are not the schools we now need. The emphasis on recall and memory still plays a role but they are nested within the curiosity, critical thinking and creativity of the student.

At our school; we have noticed that this type of thinking and problem solving is an area of struggle for many of our students and, as a result, we have invested a great deal of time and energy in learning how we, as educators, can guide our students to use questions to launch, sustain and consolidate their learning.

Interested in reading more about this? Try Amanda Lang’s recent book The Power of Why.


February 8, 2014 1 comment

As we engage in re-imagining public education in the coming years, I believe that we must re-think the use of space, the use of time, the structure of the school day and year, the sorting of students by grade, the use of schools within communities and, probably the most significant, the structure and content of curriculum.   Not everything will need to change but it is important to ask the question: “is it right for today or are we doing it this way because we always have?”                                                 ~Ken Thurston~

This past week the Director of our district school board, Ken Thurston, announced that he will be retiring at the end of July. (For my American cousins, in Ontario the title Director is akin to Superintendent). I’ve had the chance to work with Ken in a variety of roles over the 14 years I have known him. He was one of my school superintendents when I was in the classroom, I had the chance to work with him when I was local union steward and committee member and, for the past 4 years I have been proud to serve as a vice principal and principal under Ken’s leadership. It was Ken who sat across the table and led the conversation that resulted in my appointment to the position of principal.

One of key traits I have observed consistently in the years I have known Ken is the importance he places upon relationships. Whether he is thinking about students, staff, parents, unions, community members, trustees, or policy makers, relationships matter most. The other trait I have observed is the willingness Ken has to question the status quo, imagine alternatives and grant agency to those who wish to do likewise.

At Park Avenue PS our students, staff and parents often tell me that I think “differently’ on many issues, sometimes in little ways, sometimes in more radical ways. I do so because we have had a Director not only granting permission, but actually challenging us to do so- Ken’s question, quoted in bold text above, guides my daily work.

During our short time together working as the principal of our school community we have asked ourselves this question and given ourselves permission to re-think our use of tools, time and curriculum. Over the course of our intensive math professional learning this week I challenged each of our grade teams to rethink our concept of how we teach our math curriculum- both in structure and content- and look more closely at how we can use the Landscape of Learning to provide developmental instruction that challenges and meets the needs of all our students.

As we learn how to do this in math, and gain confidence, I’m sure we will find lots of ways to apply this in other areas of our school community and better inform our parents in this area so they can both support and better trust the work we are doing in our classrooms. Re-imagining our school, and re-shaping it to meet the challenges of the world we live in now, is the work that each of us; staff, parents and students, must do together.

Back at our first staff meeting together I remember saying to our staff that I didn’t want to change everything, just the things that weren’t working, and we would make these changes together.  I’m encouraged that, even as he prepares to depart, our Director is giving principals and teachers permission to re-think, re-imagine and re-create our classrooms and schools.

Of course, it’s more than likely I would have continued on this path regardless; but sometimes it is better to have permission rather than have to beg forgiveness.

Balancing the Basics

February 5, 2014 1 comment

Contrary to the stories of doom and gloom that we are hearing, our mathematics education system is not broken. Can we improve what we do? Certainly. Should we throw out the whole thing and go totally back to basics? Absolutely not. There are three key things that can improve what we have – balance, balance, and balance.                        ~Ian VanderBurgh~

I understand the concerns and restless anxieties that parents feel about the performance of our students; I’m the father to 3 high school students who happens to also be an elementary school principal. I also understand the reasons why our media outlets would raise and amplify these concerns- they play a valuable role in shining a light on our democratic, public schools.  It’s a good thing that we are having conversations about these concerns; in our communities, face to face, through the mass media and our social networks.  In that context, I’d like to share some of my concerns…

  • I’m concerned that people are starting to believe that, based upon recent standardized test results, our children are sorely lacking in their mathematical knowledge, when compared with previous generations.
  • I’m concerned that people are starting to see private or commercial tutoring groups  like JUMP Math or Kumon as sustainable solutions to these perceived concerns and beliefs.
  • I’m concerned that people are forming opinions based upon opinions, and not upon what is actually the state of affairs in elementary math education.

This is why I appreciated the perspective that the University of Waterloo’s Ian VanderBurgh shared in a recent op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail.  As a school principal and elementary mathematics specialist teacher I could relate to Ian’s point that community engagement, collaboration between parents, teachers and ‘balance, balance, balance’ are keys to supporting improved student learning in mathematics.

You see, our kids are not the dullards some would have us believe. It would have been great if those of us who occupied classrooms in the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s had been asked to complete the most recent PISA or EQAO math assessments; it could have provided some baseline data and certainly add some context (and modesty) to the opinions we hold of this generation of children.  I’m certain that the rote learning and memorization that formed the  foundation of my ’70’s era mathematics learning experience would not have prepared me to face the adaptive, open ended tasks that form the core of our current tests. Not sure? Check out some of the questions on the recent PISA assessment.

Nor can we really count on private foundations and organizations to ‘solve’ this crisis. What makes our public schools essential is that they are public; accessible and accountable to all. Not all students and families can access the often costly programs and resources that are touted, which makes it even more important that we ensure that the teachers in our public schools have the knowledge and capacities to teach mathematics effectively to all students. Of course, as one who works in public education, my bias and my beliefs draw me to this stance (just as those who operate private tutoring services are drawn to theirs).

Opinions being what they are, for the most part, instruction in ‘the basics’ is alive and well at our school and this ‘discovery learning’ thing is not the evil, Birkenstock-clad conspiracy that some have opined. We don’t even use the term discovery learning-it’s seems like a rather redundant term- doesn’t all learning require discovery? We recognize that when we involve our students in posing questions and contexts we see greater participation, deeper thinking and more connections to the ‘real’ world. And we recognize that our students need direct instruction on ways to use mathematical models and strategies to help them make sense of numbers and solve problems.

For us, the basics include more than memorization of facts, they include different ways of showing number relationships and arming our students with multiple strategies and tools for solving problems. And we are learning how to better use a balance of direct instruction (teachers teaching) and problem solving (students learning) to do this.


The Gifts We Bring

December 19, 2013 1 comment

“Each one has their gifts.They are not for you- they are to give!”             ~Hemat Malak~

A few weeks back I asked our students and staff to join me in a little project. With the holiday season in full roar and the busy-ness associated with this time of year I asked our students and staff to take a moment to think their talents and gifts and share with me one that they felt they shared with others. I gathered all the responses and pasted them into this Wordle word cloud (for those who are new to Wordle, the larger the word, the more often is was used).

A little sappy? Sure. Of course the reason why I thought it was worth a try was simple- empathy. All month long our school has been exploring empathy- what it is and why it is an integral part of an inclusive school and a civilized society. I’ve always believed that private victories come before public ones (credit to Steven Covey).  Before we are truly able to share our gifts or talents with others; we need to have a sense of what they are and know that they are recognized and valued by others.

The essence of empathy is respecting, appreciating and valuing others for who they are and the gifts they bring. There are almost 500 children and adults who work and learn at our school every day. We are a collective of individuals; unique and united- and we make up a wonderful, messy mosaic-we create, we make mistakes, we laugh and we cry. I value and appreciate the gifts and talents of each member of our school community and am happy to celebrate them!

As was the case last year, the Open Office will take a break for the next few weeks and I enjoy the company of friends and family and squeeze in a few trips to the ski hills! On behalf of our school community- I wish you peace, happiness and joy.

See you in 2014!


Joint Work in the Digital Staff Room

December 10, 2013 4 comments

Dean Shareski makes me chuckle and makes me think- two things that are greatly appreciated. He has a well-developed sense of the importance of play and joy in learning and asks great questions.  Perhaps it is the amount of time he spends travelling, or those long, cold Prairie winters- but Dean’s blog posts speak to me, they are reflective, transparent and challenging. Because I appreciate @shareski and believe that a network is both a place where one gives and receives; I am happy to accept Dean’s invitation to engage in a (seemingly) random act of web-enabled joint work.

Need to activate some prior knowledge? Click here . I suppose that Dean is looking to engage in a little play and extend a capacity building task- he may have some other unknown goal-or, it could be he’s trapped in the throes of a Saskatchewan winter- who knows?

Regardless, I’m happy to play along…

So here is the task…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger- in this case it would be me…
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

11 Random Facts About Me…

  1. As much as I love being a principal, my coolest job was working on an Aircraft De-Icing Crew
  2. Though I write with my right hand, I am actually left handed
  3. Between my wife @techieang and I we have taught every grade from Kindergarten to grade 8
  4. But I have taught more grades: 1,4,5,6,7 & 8
  5. I was a Boston Bruins fan until I was 6 years old, then I was told being a Leaf fan was a ‘family rule’
  6. Ever since I was 6, I’ve resented rules
  7. If there is a James Bond film on TV, I will watch it
  8. Answer: Yes   Question: Coffee?
  9. Any challenging, difficult or complex problem is easier to solve after a day of skiing
  10. I am an introvert
  11. I believe it is important to face my fears (see 10)

11 Questions from @shareski

  1. How do you feel about pants?    Levis, please
  2. What was the last movie you saw in a theatre?  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at the Retro Holiday Film Fest in at the local cinema 
  3. Where are your car keys?  Hanging by the door on an appropriately key-shaped key holder
  4. What time is it?     EDT
  5. What’s the last tweet you favorited?   Here
  6. Outside of your immediate family; which relative do you like to spend time with? Brother-in-law’s don’t count as ‘immediate, right?
  7. Have you ever been to Saskatchewan? No
  8. How long did it take you to walk to school as a kid?  10 minutes- 5 if I had slept in
  9. Besides you,  blogger should I be paying attention to?   Paul Aniceto
  10. Name one golf course.  Bushwood
  11. What’s your favorite Seinfeld episode or line?  “that’s right- he’s a real sideler.”


A reminder of  the task…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger- in this case it would be me…
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

My Questions for You Are…

  1. Who is your favourite superhero?
  2. What is the most interesting place you have visited?
  3. IOS or Android?
  4. Would you rather be a hammer or a nail-Why?
  5. What was your first part time job?
  6. Left on a desert island, what 3 books do you take with you?
  7. When do you usually write your blog posts?
  8. Pizza- thin crust or regular?
  9. What was the topic of your first blog post?
  10. Did you ever own an 8-Track cassette?
  11. Lennon or McCartney?

Now its Your Turn…

  1. Aviva Dunsinger
  2. Paul Aniceto
  3. Yoon Soo Lim
  4. David Truss
  5. Rodd Lucier
  6. Zoe Branigan Pipe
  7. Stephen Hurley
  8. Mark Carbone
  9. Doug Peterson
  10. Sue Dunlop
  11. Donna Miller Fry

Of course, your participation is not mandatory…if you do remember to link back!


Leaning on PISA

December 8, 2013 3 comments

“Bad news sells” is a very depressing truism of our business, even when the bad news doesn’t remotely convey what’s happening.”        ~Jeffrey Simpson~

The media landscape has been filled with responses to the release of the results from last year’s Programme of International Student Assessment test (PISA). The assessment is designed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to gather data on the core skills of reading, science and mathematics and is administered to a sample of 15 year old students from around the world. The focus of last year’s test was mathematics and, though many countries participated in this assessment, it is important to note some key points:

  • approximately 510 000 students (21,000 from Canada) participated in the assessment world wide and their selection was made by school- all the 15 students at a randomly-selected school would’ve taken the 2 hour test;
  • there was a mix of countries, states and cities that participated; from city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore to countries like the United States and Russia. In fact, the OECD, which administers the test classifies participants as economies and states;
  • the assessment does allow for the gathering of demographic information that permits a more robust and detailed analysis of the results.

The last point is where I will direct my focus for now. Predictably, the release of the test results set off a lively cycle of reaction from the media; with responses ranging from panic, denial to smug self-congratulation. Across Canada media outlets analyzed, sought ‘expert’ insight and opined about the national and provincial results. The initial reaction from the media that I have scanned has been pretty balanced. There were some initial alarms claiming that we are ‘falling’ due to low standards’ a misguided mathematics pedagogy of inquiry and exploration and that we needed to get ‘back to the basics’ and focus on more traditional methods of math instruction. But, as the days have passed and accounting for bias, some helpful points have been raised and discussed:

  • Much was made of the rankings as evidence as indicative of Canada’s declining status in mathematics as we ‘slipped’ from 10th in the world to 13th (out of 65). While, the raw math scores have declined 14 points over the past decade Canadian 15 year olds still perform at high level using this measure. Only muddled math could equate above average as a crisis- especially when one factors in that 4 of the 13 ‘countries’ above Canada in the rankings are actually cities in China that were reported as separate entities.  The key concern here is the decline using this measure and how we can explore this pattern in our context. A common element among the districts that had high performance in math is the emphasis they place upon teacher quality and expertise in the teaching of mathematics. Though factors like curriculum design and socio-economic status play a role; the PISA results confirm that the students who perform best in math have teachers who are well trained, both initially and over the course of their careers.
  • When comparing the performance of Canadian provinces much was made of the superior results in Quebec; with some commentators giving credit to Quebec’s focus on rote memorization and avoidance of the ‘fuzzy math’ that other Canadian provinces have adopted.  Fortunately, commentators have looked more deeply at Quebec and realized that though their curriculum is not that different than the rest of Canada, the investment that they make in preparing and supporting the on-going professional knowledge of their teachers is; with Quebec teachers spending significantly greater time learning about mathematics during their pre-teaching preparation and beyond.  McGill Mathematics Education Professor Annie Savard points out that; “People on their way to becoming math teachers also do plenty of field work, watching and doing hands-on teaching while still in university. By the time they graduate and head into classrooms, they have done a minimum of 700 hours of in-class internships.”   We could also point to Quebec’s decade-old investment in affordable, universal child care as a factor in these results as there is a robust connection between a child’s development of early number concepts and later academic success.

In our school context we are considering the PISA insights to guide both our planning for professional learning and our allocation of resources.  We know that one-off ‘programs’ that emphasize basic skills and memorization do not work just as we know that ‘inquiry learning’ that expects children to discover and develop mathematical understandings by themselves will not work. What we do know is that learning occurs when teachers have the skill to design tasks that require students to struggle, allow them to use models and strategies that they have been taught and compel them to prove and justify their thinking. These are all outcomes of classroom teaching.

As a school, our key investment is in developing the capacities of our teachers to provide focused instruction in mathematics.  And that is why it is exciting that 8 of our teaching staff will spend some time learning about effective mathematics instruction with Dr. Cathy Fosnot over the next week.

Categories: Mathematics

Modelling, not Memorizing Mathematics

November 9, 2013 Leave a comment

“Mathematicians do not study objects, but relations between objects.”       Henri Poincare

I was chatting with a few of our staff this week about the ways we help our students develop their ability to work with numbers, specifically when they are adding and subtracting in the early years.  An important point that I often stress when talking with parents and teachers about mathematics is that the area that many of us believe to be the critical focus of mathematics (the operations of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing) is actually of secondary importance.

Simply put- we spend way to much time trying to force children to memorize or learn the operations and not nearly enough time helping them understand the numbers they are using. Put another way- think of the numbers as nouns and the operations as verbs; in math, as in life, there are way more nouns than verbs and they are much more interesting!

This media clip on Using Open Number Lines from Dr. Alex Lawson does a great job explaining how using a model like a number line can support children to think about the quantity value and relationships that exist between numbers in a mathematical situation. It also shows how using models as a precursor to what we call the standard algorithm is important at all stages of mathematical development. For most of us, this type of instruction was just not used when we were learning math in school and it is too bad, because it would have save many of us from a life of math phobia.

A lot of  students and adults think that using the algorithms is the math- it’s part of it, but not nearly the most important part. In fact, the algorithm can most simply be described as a way of showing (or modelling) what has been done with the numbers. A student who uses an algorithm to solve a problem without understanding the relationships between the numbers is no better off than a student that uses a calculator- they both don’t really know what they have done.That’s why we are using models like the open number line- they allow the student to see the connections and relationships between the numbers and build a model of how they can solve a problem.

There are only a few mathematical operations but the numbers are (literally) infinite- the numbers are much more interesting than the operations- tools like the open number line help our students discover and harness this idea.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,441 other followers

%d bloggers like this: