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The Inevitable Tension Between Standards & Individiuality

“…if we believe that the most powerful learning that kids do can only be measured by their desire to learn more, then any innovation we introduce must focus on creating fundamentally different experiences for kids in our classrooms, with or without technology.”  ~Will Richardson~

W.B. Cameron once remarked, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts,” We live in a world where measurement, classification and comparisons have become  part of our culture. We place a great deal of value on standardization, in the products we use, in the institutions we rely upon and systems we have created. Schools, because they support the priorities of our society, keenly reflect this reality. Ken Robinson expressed in this so eloquently in his noted TED Talk; it’s easy to see our schools as factories; where we process children in batches “based on their date of manufacture.”

I can understand why schools from the past were drawn to this type of thinking; they were tasked with preparing children for life and work in an industrial age. Learning was seen as a simple process- teachers transmitted knowledge to students, measured how much they had digested and then ranked and sorted them based on the results. In the industrial context, this type of thinking helped to ensure control and consistent quality- that is the essence of standardization. It’s easy for us to be drawn into this mode of thinking- we want our children to have the best, be the best and be able to compete in a global context.  Will Richardson’s writings prompt us to challenge this mindset with good reason.

Our schools struggle with the tension between standardization and individuality. As parents we value the unique and varied characteristics of our children and face the challenge of fostering pro-social growth and development while honouring each child’s drive to be who they want to be and do what they wish. We are social beings; but people (and children are people too) rightly resist environments where conformity and standardization confine them or they are reduced to a number. Children are not test scores, numbers, marks or levels- there is no such thing as a ‘level 3 student’– these are constructs of our system and do not reflect that our children are so much more that that. It’s time for us to think about what we want for our children; is it standardization or the fostering of individual development and potential?  Depending on one’s beliefs about this- our schools could look and feel very different.

Chasing Squirrels

February 25, 2016 1 comment

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”    ~William Shakespeare~

Confession, apparently is good for the soul and my confession is rich with irony. When I was a boy in school; I was that student. The one who often gazed out the window during class, rarely sat still (especially when told to do so), frequently called out when I knew the answer and, almost always brought home report cards that lamented my inability to ‘reach my potential’.

My parents aside, no one was more surprised at my career choice than I- why I made the decision to devote my adult life working in an institution that was often my sole source of torment is still, frankly, beyond me. Regardless of the why, I’ve worked hard over my 24 year career to explore how I could connect with, and engage all the students I have had the chance to teach. But I must admit my affinity with, and empathy for, those students who share the restless, sometimes compulsive, seemingly scattered and frequently creative characteristics that bind us- meet my people: the squirrel chasers.  

I grew up in an age where my impulsivity, apparent inattention and abundant energy were not viewed as a disorder but rather the byproducts of my gender and an underdeveloped character-something that a mix of stern discipline, frequent outdoor play and maturity would eventually fix. As infuriating as I’m sure I was to my parents; they knew and accepted me as I was; baffled that a child who could never seem to stop moving (even when asleep) quickly and, at an early age, learned to read, write, could absorb massive amounts of information and would habitually complete projects and  study “when I felt like it.” I envied my siblings and friends, they could sit still, they followed the rules and enjoyed blissful days in idyllic classrooms. As an educator, I’ve spent a lot of time working with, and reading about my people, the squirrel chasers. I’ve learned about what actually impacts learning, about effective teaching practices and about neurodiversity.

Over the next few posts I’m hoping to explore some of this research; this piece by Andrea Gordon in the Toronto Star offers a small sampling of how we need to be working to better understand, support and activate the potential of the squirrel chasers in our community of learners.                 

The Opportunity of Neurodiversity

January 31, 2016 Leave a comment

“If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.”         ~Bob Dylan

The wonder and beauty of human life is its diversity. The fact that we have different skills, appearances and dispositions is one of the reasons we have been able to evolve into the capable, adaptive and successful species we have become. Difference is good; and diversity is our greatest strength. With this in mind; it’s important to stress that not all of us learn the same way, at the same pace and with the same level of interest and engagement.  The term that scientists now use to describe this is neurodiversity.

Over the past 20 years the information that neuroscientists and geneticists have made in understanding how the brain develops and operates has been staggering. So staggering that those of us who work in the related fields of education and mental health are only now beginning to understand the implications this knowledge can have on our practices. This needs to change. We now know that the assumptions that many of us have held about teaching and learning (as parents and as educators) no longer apply- particularly where it concerns students who learn and communicate using strategies or skills that don’t reflect the practices of traditional teaching methods.  

 We can no longer categorize students who learn or communicate differently as being disabled, or look at these differences as a defect or weakness- this diversity is our strength and the ways that all classroom teachers design teaching, learning and the assessment of learning needs to adapt to respond to these strengths. As a leader, I have a sense of urgency to create a climate where the staff I am leading can work together to learn, adapt and change how they teach so our school can respond the needs of all our learners.

It is time to change both our mindset and the tools we use; to use our creativity and our technology to adapt the ways that we design, assess and evaluate student learning. It’s time to change the ways we respond to student behaviour and alter the both the beliefs and the structures we use to provide remediation and  meaningful instruction in a way that values the diversity of each child in each classroom in every school. 

The Slippery Slope

November 21, 2015 2 comments

“The principal goal of education in schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”    ~Jean Piaget~

For the first time in almost 20 years, my school, along with the rest of Ontario’s public elementary schools are missing out on the annual ‘conversation’ about the results of the annual grade 3 and 6 provincial EQAO assessments.  EQAO opted not administer the assessments after public elementary teachers refused to participate in the testing process as  part of the work to rule sanctions imposed in the spring.  Whatever one’s opinions are on standardized testing (not the focus of this post) it has made for an interesting fall.

Normally, at this time of the year school and system leaders are responding to the results on multiple fronts. Depending on the numbers, one could be dancing in the hallways and serving cake in the staff room, or sweating through an angry parent meeting trying to articulate the plan that will raise the scores and floating in stream of the annual media hand wringing about the decline of our system and our inability to ‘compete’.

Serendipity being what it is, our school board did engage in some broadly-based data collection last year- we conducted a system-wide student engagement survey. Near the end of the school year students in grades 5 to12 were invited to complete a questionnaire on a few key aspects of their life at school.  Over 52,000 students completed the survey (mostly online) representing 72% of our student population- a pretty robust sample size.

One of the key areas the survey focused on was how our students perceived their schools as engaging, modern learning environments.  A slice of data in this area of our student survey is represented below:

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The percentage values on the left (light blue) represent responses from our gr.5-8 (middle school) students and those on the right (navy) are responses from our gr.9-12 (high school) students.  What is noteworthy for me is the quantity of students who feel that their voices, values and interests are not evident in the school they attend and the decline in each category’s percentages from the middle school to high school results.

 

It reminds me of the results reported from the survey the Gallup organization conducted with a similar aged cohort of over 500 000 American students in 2012. An 80’s themed piece on this report can be found in The Atlantic .

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Engagement and motivation are essential for deep learning. Whatever one’s stance or perspective is on what school should be; it’s pretty clear to me our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that school is not what it could be. Do we really wish to be part of a system that gradually erodes the enthusiasm and joy of learning of the majority of the children it is designed to serve?

This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an address by Will Richardson in which he challenged us to consider the beliefs we hold about our own learning and reflect upon whether these beliefs were evident in the actions we take in our schools and classrooms.  I think (hope) most of us know that the things we do to children do not reflect what we know we ought to be doing- and yet we persist.

Regardless of your role, if you work in schools now, knowing what our students have told us, how will you respond?

Fair is Fair…or is it?

November 18, 2015 2 comments

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.”     ~Georg Christoph Litchenberg

 

The talk linked to this post is powerful, thought provoking and was, for me, disturbing.  Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, legal scholar, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hopefully you will grab a bag of popcorn, dig in and watch the talk before you read this post. That is, after all, why I often ink my posts with media content.

Schools are complex systems; the interactions of children, families and educators are complicated- with moments of joy, outbursts of conflict and a level of intensity that is powerful. So powerful that emotion can, at times, trump reason and a balanced perspective.  This is no more true than those times when children harm one another, respond to perceived injustices by acting out or challenge rules that they feel are unfair.

There was a time when we used terms like ‘zero tolerance’ to describe school discipline practices and policies- with the belief that punishment would be enough to ensure that students wouldn’t hurt one another or challenge the existing authority structures of the school. I reject this belief for a simple reason- it doesn’t really work.

Bryan Stevenson explains how and why it doesn’t ‘work’ with much more eloquence, authority and urgency that I ever could-I won’t even try (so watch the video-please).

What I will add is this-only because it is based on my experience as a father and an educator. Punishment doesn’t work because when we punish we are not teaching. As Ross Greene reminds us, children behave the way they can; based upon their experiences, state of mind and well being. Teaching requires that we understand the child’s needs and create the conditions for them to connect, reflect, communicate and learn. Whether it is learning about our number system, the events of our past, the elements of effective narrative writing; or what to do when you have harmed another person.

This is why effective schools -and enlightened youth police outreach programs- focus on restorative justice approaches. When children learn to accept responsibility and repair the harm that they have done we work towards solving two problems- the harm that was caused and the issues and challenges that led to the harm in the first place.

In my experience, the students who are subject to the most disciplinary responses exist on the margins-  they have language or learning difficulties, mental health concerns like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or live in communities with limited resources, poverty or weak family support structures. Schools are supposed to serve to counter to these influences- not accelerate them- this is what it really means to be ‘fair’.

 

Perception Deception

November 5, 2015 Leave a comment

The eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend.      ~Robertson Davies~

We are products of a lifetime of experiences and the perceptions these experiences foster. Some may be familiar with the anecdote about the teacher who mistakenly mixed up the previous year’s class list test results and launched into the school year believing that the group with the high results was actually the one with low results – and vice versa.  The subsequent confirmation bias, with a year of high performance from the low scoring class, may or may not be true (the web, after all, is a boundless source of these stories) but it sure makes a poignant tale.

The video above makes a great point about how we perceive the children and families we work with in our schools. Every one has a story-a set of experiences that they carry around in their hearts and minds. In schools we think a lot about the ‘stories’ our students carry and, when we are at our best we try to learn and understand these stories so we can better teach them.

Of course- we have our ‘stories’ as well.

I wonder if we are aware of the perceptual lenses we carry? Each of us has a lifetime of experiences that form the basis of our stories and these influence the opinions and decisions we make about our students and their families.

Something to think about…

November 1, 2015 1 comment

Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.        ~Daniel H. Pink~

The school year has an ebb and flow to it. The early days of September; filled with the excitement of a new school year, the novelty of a new classmates and the opportunity for a fresh start, are often referred to as ‘honeymoon’ phase. By early November, this early enthusiasm and excitement has usually waned as staff and students have settled into the routines, structures and expectations of daily school life. Honeymoons, after all, don’t last forever and the stresses of academic learning, peer dynamics can lead the children we teach to a wide range of behaviors that would seem familiar to anyone who has any life experience in a classroom or school.

Behavior is communication; we know that actions are a much more reliable source of information about people than words. In schools, we often see children’s behavior as something we (the adults) can control. In the pursuit of this noble goal we often expend a great deal of time and energy designing the type of incentive, reward and punishment schemes that our friends in The Office satirized in the video excerpt above.  I’ve moved around a lot in my career as a teacher, staff developer and school administrator and one common observation I can make from these experiences is how deeply embedded the use of this type practice is in classrooms and schools.

Another observation I can make is for most kids (and especially those kids who are marginalized in any way) these ‘systems’ just don’t work.  People much smarter than me have written and spoken at length on this topic (follow the links) but for me the reasons these programs don’t work comes down to three flawed assumptions:

  1. Our default stance is selfishness
  2. Learning is something we try to avoid
  3. Hierarchy is our natural order

Our history as a species tells us that to be human is to create, seek connections, novelty and networks. These patterns are embedded deep in our DNA; the desire to learn, form communities, follow our curiosity and nurture life, often regardless of the risks and costs. Cognitive and social scientists support this thinking with research on motivation and how cultures and societies reflect these common themes across time and geography.

That is why I struggle when I encounter practices that are designed to coerce, manipulate or intimidate children to learn and behave in a pro-social manner. Points or token systems and other external rewards shift the learning away from the internal (the child’s needs) towards the external (the adult’s needs). It is also why working to change this status quo is one of the areas I’ve focused a great deal of my time and energy on in my role as a school leader.

An important part of being in school for children is it gives them the opportunity to develop as social beings, experience both success and failure and, through these experiences and behaviors, build the resilience that will serve them for life.  The author and provocateur  Alfie Kohn asks us to consider whether our children experience these successes and failures as information or as a rewards and punishments?

I think I know how we got to this place in education-what I wonder is how we can interrupt and begin to develop a set of structures in our classrooms and schools that will lead us away from this place?

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