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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. 

Success: More or Less?

November 28, 2015 Leave a comment

“The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common parking lot.”   ~Robert Eaker~

After a move to a new school in September and, what could only be described as an interesting fall, I’m starting to feel a little more settled with my (not so) new surroundings. Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to focus on getting to know the school community, the students, families and staff and see, more or less, how the school ‘works’.

It is often noted that there is greater consistency in practice across schools than within a given school. During 24 years in public education, working at 10 schools in various capacities; teacher, mentor and administrator I’ve had the opportunity to observe this phenomenon first hand.

The key challenge many schools and school systems face is one of both complexity and diversity. With so many variables and influences to factor; people, context and resources, trying to enact a change initiative is akin to the iconic cat herding commercial from a few years back.  Often, we are feel we need to respond to complex problems with complex solutions; but the more I think, read and reflect upon this, the more it occurs to me that these problems actually demand simple solutions and that require a focus on relationships and doing less, more effectively.

David Kirp, an American public policy researcher and author, wrote about this recently in his book Improbable Scholars.  One of Kirp’s main assertions is that successful schools and districts avoid trendy, fancy or complex improvement strategies and instead focus on these three key areas:

  • rich early learning opportunities for all children;
  • a strong focus on language-rich instruction across the grades, and;
  • professional learning for teachers using school-based collaborative structures.

Success, it turns out, is a matter investing more in the collaborative capacities of classroom teachers and less on the external factors and tools that we have come to rely upon in many of our schools.

For me the word that best describes a truly effective school is coherent. A coherent school is one where teachers direct their resources and focus towards the development of logical, well-organized, consistent and effective teaching practices across the school.  As a school leader my task is to engage the professionals I’m working with to create this coherence.  As an example, collaborative assessment of student learning is one area where digital tools can help immensely as we can use media tools to gather and analyse a wide range of authentic student work samples as our teachers make use of tools like Google Classroom and Dreambox to support both their classroom teaching and professional learning.

Though we may use new tools, technologies and strategies to accomplish this, it is not the intention to add ‘more’ to the work we do in schools but rather to reduce the use of ineffective or inefficient practices and establish the structures necessary for teachers to work together to create coherence and communicate in a meaningful manner with their students and families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Deja Vu…All Over Again

September 26, 2015 1 comment

…there are many committed, forward thinking teachers who will make (inquiry and authentic work) happen despite the barriers. But community members, parents, legislators and lobbyists will resist large-scale transformative change at every turn because they are tied so deeply to their nostalgia for school as they knew it or to the potential windfalls of making traditional schools better.”      ~Will Richardson~

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. After a quiet, blissful summer with family and friends I’ve launched into the start of the school year at a new location with the opportunity to get to know a new team of educators, students and families. September did bring lots of new stuff; but to quote the dearly (and recently) departed dugout linguist Yogi Berra, there is an element of that deja vu all over again in our schools this fall.

Current circumstances and events, along with the some of the reading I’ve been reflecting upon, has got me thinking about where we are in our profession, in our schools and our systems. Specifically, I’ve been reading Will Richardson’s latest book From Master Teacher to Master Learner and hope to weave a narrative over the next few posts to share my thinking, connect with some fellow travelers and, hopefully, provoke others to do likewise.

I’m a tinkerer; a restless soul with a willing disposition to challenge the status quo. As a school principal and prior to that, as a classroom teacher, I’ve tried to meet challenges and solve problems with creativity, imagination and a willingness to try new things, take risks and make mistakes. It helps that I welcome the ideas and perspectives of others; especially when these prompt me to refine and revise my thinking. This is how I learn and, above all, I see myself as a learner.

This is why, I’m sure, that I’ve found Will’s blog posts, talks and books to be so helpful. I can connect with his ideas and perspectives, both as a father and an educator. They give me pause to think, help me reflect upon my work and support me in my advocacy.

To lead public schools today requires degrees of creativity, optimism, resilience and the capacity for what Roger Martin has called, integrative thinking; the ability to incorporate two seemingly opposite ideas simultaneously to create change out of unpleasant or difficult situations.

Right now, and for the past 20 years, the stakeholders in our school system have engaged in fierce conversations and debates about the structures of our system; allocation of resources, organization of schools, reporting processes, class size, standardized testing and sequencing of curriculum standards. These policy points reflect a belief that the imposition incremental adjustments to the structure of schools and systems can effect a change in outcomes for students. This hierarchical stance no longer serves us in our networked, connected world but it remains the dominant mindset that we apply to our classrooms, schools and systems.

Nested within this conversation is an actual problem; at every level of our system (classroom, school, district and and legislative) our structures reflect a scarcity mindset that is based upon one-way transmission. The teacher who limits student learning to content-based worksheet lists and discreet facts that are doled out incrementally in advance of the test is no different than the school administrator who is required to appraise teachers based upon student test scores and classroom look-for checklists; or the policy maker who makes the decision to mandate investments in resources (like school technology) without accounting for the front-line implementation of these resources in schools.

All of these examples reflect the belief that when information, or performance, or resources are transmitted and measured; learning is an outcome. But this is no longer the case.

Learning, Will reminds us, is actually an outcome of learning. And learning is a process that is provoked by the questions of the learner, not the information that is being transmitted by the teacher.

So the questions I want to explore over the next few posts relate to the things we can do as educators to interrupt this ‘deja vu’ and change our conversations (and our systems) to be learning-focused for all; teachers, administrators, parents and most of all, students.

Thoughts?

Moving on…

June 3, 2015 2 comments

“Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance.”    John Steinbeck

 

http://www.fotothing.com/ujbanyiv/photo/1b2acce6300e1ea025fdf3778c26350a/

Photo: The Old Glory   Ujbanyiv’s Fotothing

Our district announces the appointments and transfers for principals and vice-principals for the next school year in early June and last night, my name was on the list. After 3 fun-filled years as the principal at Park Avenue Public School I will be moving on to serve as the principal at Clearmeadow Public School this coming September.

Changing schools is not a big deal for most school administrators; we get the chance to work in multiple schools as vice principals and, as a result, are well versed in managing transitions. We also are aware that we have committed to a school system, and not just a school. In a district like ours, with over 150 schools, principal movement is a reality. Additionally, a big part of what drives those of us who choose this role is an willingness to embrace change and experience the challenges and opportunities that different schools offer. This was certainly one of the aspects that drew me to school leadership.

That’s not to say that I am doing cartwheels about leaving the school I have served for the past 3 years. I’ve had the chance to get to know a wonderful group of students and their families and work alongside an amazing group of dedicated professionals. But I always knew my time at Park Avenue would end and it has.

There’s an old saying the goes ‘it’s better that people think fondly of you of wherever you go, instead of whenever you go’; I certainly hope that’s the case for me (although one never really knows). I know that together we have made many changes in our little school during my time here. Some of them were my idea but, honestly, most of the changes were ideas that our staff, students and community came up with- I was just the guy who said, “sure, let’s try it…” and, sometimes, “how much does it cost?”  Either way, I am proud of the changes we have made and the things we have accomplished.

As a staff we launched a school-wide modern learning professional inquiry on how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning, together, with our parent community, we explored effective mathematics instruction and have taken a much closer look at how we can respond to the mental health and anxiety-based needs of our students. All good stuff- and it will continue.

All this good stuff; the ideas and the initiatives, came from the staff and students at our school- and almost of of them will be staying around. I’m not-but they are; and the work we began will continue with our new principal Bruce Baynham. Bruce will bring a fresh perspective and add his ideas to the mix-this is the way of public schools.

So, soon I will bid farewell. I will miss this place but I am excited about the the next steps I will take in my professional journey. In the meantime, I plan on enjoying every last second of my time as principal at Park Avenue Public School.

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