Adjusting the sails

Ship's sails

‘Sails’ by Chris Seward (cseward /Flickr)
Licensed under: Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

“When you can’t change the direction of the wind — adjust your sails.” – H. Jackson Brown

I came across the above quote this past week as I was thinking about how I move to include in my practice the ideas that were synthesized in my mind at ConnectEd Canada and help spread those ideas in my school. There is currently a lot of fear and suspicion between the different participant groups in the BC Education System highlighted by a very tense and adversarial relationship between the current BC Liberal government, as represented by BCPSEA, and the BCTF. Any proposals of change in schools is met with careful scrutiny for its ideology, backers and motives. Yet as a teacher, I don’t feel the current labour relations situation should stop me from doing “what’s best for the kids” in my own practice and with colleagues at my school. This is not to say there aren’t systemic challenges that make implementing those practices more difficult. Support for our most needy students, a shortage of specialist teachers (librarians/learning assistance), and class size and composition are all real issues that make providing a high quality education that is responsive to the needs of the student more difficult.

During the time at ConnectEd Canada we had the opportunity to visit the Calgary Science School (CSS) and talk in-depth with staff and students about the structure and educational experiences at the school. I was familiar with the work being done at CSS before the visit because of their excellent school blog, but I was curious to get a sense of what makes it so “innovative” and how it compares and contrasts with my current school. Five main qualities stuck out for me.

  1. Confident able learners – Every student that I spoke to at CSS was willing and able to talk about their projects, learning activities and educational experiences. Our two guides, grade 6 and grade 8 students, spent about 20 minutes taking questions from my colleague Craig Suttonand I about the school, how it is organized, what being a student there is like and their perceptions of their educational experiences. On top of being completely open and honest, the student guides were extremely articulate and thoughtful in their descriptions and analysis. When one of their teachers joined the conversation, the tone didn’t change, nor did the openness. It is clear that the students are comfortable sharing and supporting their opinions and talking to adults.The staff at CSS have a framework that is used throughout the school to define the qualities and skills of exemplary learners. This framework is reinforced through a learning strategies class and repeated referencing in class activities. The students I talked to exuded an understanding of the how, what, when and why of exemplary learning and a confidence in their abilities as learners. It cannot be overstated how powerful it is to have the belief that given the time, space and access to resources you can learn about, or how to do, anything that interests you. If I could impart one thing to my students it would be the desire to learn, the skills to do it and the confidence to know they can. Yet, we give very little time to these pursuits in a way that isn’t integrated into the curriculum. I think they need explicit attention if we are going to develop them in a meaningful way.
  2. Collaboration to the max – Staff, students, admin and parents at CSS collaborate with each other on a regular basis. The collaboration takes place in an environment that appears from the outside to be respectful, supportive and have clear guidelines about the terms of that collaboration. Two important factors seem to enable that collaboration to be productive: a willingness to recognize and value the contributions from anyone in the school community and allocated time for it to take place. As Gary McKinnon, superintendent of CSS, put it during a session on collaborative teaching at ConnectEd Canada,
    “Where do you start with collaboration? You start with your students – collaborate with your students.”That seems like sound advice for starting collaboration that pervades all levels of a school and builds a culture where there is value placed on our shared understandings and creations where ideas meld together and connections are made. Finally, the culture of collaboration is encouraged by connections to the world outside the school and venues for sharing those shared products.We used to have a scheduled collaboration block at our school every second Wednesday morning that originated out of teacher desire to work together and was a venue for active collaboration. Unfortunately that time became politicized through a mandate about how it should be spent and it slowly devolved to “extra” prep time with minimal collaboration before being eliminated completely from the timetable. I would love to see a return to scheduled collaborative time directed by teachers that also actively involved students in a meaningful way. I see that shared time for reflection, meeting and sharing as crucial to a collaborative, reflective practice. It is very difficult to find that time to meet with other teachers in the normal school day without it.
  3. Connecting outside
    Man on a ladder looking in window

    “Education is relevant when people outside the school become interested in what’s going on in the classroom.”
    “Wanna have a look inside?’ by Hindrik Sijens (hindrik/Flickr)Licensed under: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

    I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but it has stuck with me as a great benchmark for evaluating the quality of a project or curriculum. There were a number of examples of this connection to the world outside the school walls at CSS. Science projects in the local nature reserve, a live streamed debate between mayoral candidates and follow-up street level campaign to increase voter turnout, and an augmented reality playground where monuments come to digital life are all examples of this connection. One role of public education seems to be to develop active, engaged and thoughtful citizens. By helping students establish community connections and dialogue about relevant issues we are helping prepare them develop a voice to advocate and participate in their community. Connecting learning to “real” world experiences also communicates that school is not a game, but rather an opportunity to explore and develop their understandings of society and the world around them. It might also limit the number of times students ask, “Why do we have to study this? When will I ever use it?” By allowing our schooling to reach out the community, we draw in experts and a more diverse range of views that can contribute to our students’ understandings. A final benefit of learning that connects outside the school is it keeps the community aware of the value of schools as community institutions and refreshes the stereotyped perceptions of adolescents.

  4. Technology is embedded- Prior to visiting CSS, I had seen the school referenced in blogs and online writing for its use of technology in teaching and learning. To be sure there was lots of technology present at CSS, and a few applications that were new to me. However, the majority of what was being done with technology was not what I would term cutting edge, innovative or even complex. For the most part, it centred around students presenting and sharing their ideas, writing, projects and educational experiences. The students seemed to be enabled to access the technology as and when they needed it, and were trusted to use it responsibly for the task at hand. The result was an environment where the technology seemed embedded in the learning process in an almost seamless way. Also, there seemed no inherent preference in the teaching practice for using technology over “more traditional” methods. Technology is used where it adds something or enables something that isn’t possible without technology.It is important to stress that the use of technology doesn’t in and of itself make a lesson better. I think a lot of teachers feel a pressure to use technology in their teaching, but don’t know where to start or find it intimidating to get going. A reassurance for these teachers that a strong educational experience is in the design rather than the technology skill it involves might go some way to relieving that pressure and apprehension. I see technology as vital to education now and in the future, but only because it facilitates and extends connections, access to information, and presentations in ways or scope that wouldn’t be possible without it. Helping teachers see the potential to extend what they’re interested in doing will work much better in getting them to use technology than simply telling them they need to use it.It must be said that the same goes for students. It is often assumed that because students have had access to computer and mobile technologies for their entire lifetime that they are natural users or “digital natives” (a term I dislike greatly, but that’s another post). What I have found is that students don’t carry the same fears and perceived self-limitations into their use of technology and they are generally more literate at navigating and interacting with digital devices. However, they often don’t know how to explore and experiment to test a device or application’s capabilities, struggle with connecting to uses outside their personal experience or interest, and need guidance on aesthetics, analysis, critique of sources and composition. Schools have a role to play in mentoring students to use technology for their own learning and development in an appropriate manner. Students must also be shown that the use of technology isn’t inherently better, but has its own context, advantages, disadvantages and aesthetics.
  5. We can do this – The inquiry learning projects and educational experiences that I witnessed at CSS were interesting and creative. However, I work with a fabulous group of educators that do amazing things everyday at Frank Hurtand none of the projects I saw were anymore impressive than type of activities going on at our school like:
    • YouTube channel where students post instructional videos on how to fix different car problems and receive views, comments and feedback from around the globe
    • Class where students write and edit a digital school newspaper in group blog format – FHWordsmith
    • Students designing and building their own wood furniture
    • Students design, edit and create all the content for the school yearbook in a class
    • Grade 8 Humanities students developing a repertoire of analysis and critical thinking techniques while becoming prolific writers and engaging with classic texts
    • Art students developing exhibits for the local art gallery
    • Physics lessons where students design their own experiments, test and model the results to develop understanding of the laws of physics
    • Student run theatre company that puts on multiple productions per year with students filling all the roles on and backstage
    • Rec Leadership course where students volunteer, and organise and run events in the school
    • Game Design course where students design, program and present their own computer games and receive feedback along the way from experts & peers

    There are some important differences that lead to CSS being held up as an innovative school and I think those are primarily in the overall culture of the school. The cultural differences that I see are a much more frequent and broad use of inquiry learning across all curricular areas, a high value placed on learning, a commitment to collaboration and sharing, and a school-wide focus on developing learning strategies and skills. Cultural change is not easy to bring about, but it can be done with time.

    Boats adrift in a storm

    ‘The Storm Caught Up With Us’ by CameliaTWU (Flickr)
    Licensed under: Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

    The idea of institutional change often gets peoples’ guards up because they worry about where they’ll fit or what role they’ll play in the new version of the institution. The need for changes also suggests an implied problem with current practice. It is important to bring everyone involved along with the changes and reassure them that they have a role in the future while communicating a positive vision of the future organisation. The need for change in our schools and educational system is ongoing because they should reflect our society and environment and those are constantly shifting and changing. Our educational practices should also reflect our most current researched understandings about learning and development. Schools have changed over the last 100 years, just not fast enough to keep up with the winds of change in society, technology, educational research and our environment. So, we find ourselves drifting wondering where the next change will blow us. It’s time for a pro-active approach…we need to our adjust our sails catch the winds and move briskly into the future.

    At Frank Hurt, I know the frame of our ship is solid and the crew is skilled and able. We need to get together, look at our charts and sight our course. Let’s get on those ropes and start pulling…we’ll be sailing with the wind before we know it.

What’s good for the kids?

Throughout the weekend at ConnectEd Canada, I heard many people referring to inquiry learning and other collaborative practices being discussed “as what’s best for our kids/students”. It strikes me that this is an implicit assumption in the conversations that took place at ConnectEd Canada. It seems almost all participants share a common vision of the type of educational approach that is “best for our students”. Here is what I heard reflected across the sessions that I attended and in the Twitter stream as core to that vision of education.

Relationships – Education is a product of sustained, respectful relationships with open communication. The primary relationship is between student and teacher, but almost equally important are the supporting and surrounding relationships student to student, teacher to teacher, parents with teachers/administration and teachers with school administration.

Students as co-creators – Students should be active participants in the design, monitoring and assessment of their learning progress along with teachers, administrators and other support staff. This varies from student choice of assignment or topic to student designed rubrics for assessment.

Descriptive feedback over data – Education is a process of unveiling understandings and building connections between ideas and information. It is very difficult to measure in an equitable way an individual’s progress along this continuum of educational experience at any one time. Standardised testing takes away from a more nuanced view of education and ensures teaching and learning remain focused on information delivery and memorisation. Descriptive feedback help the student make connections and modify understandings as they move through that progression. Marks and grades under a strict quantification system must also be evaluated through this lens for their value in improving a student’s education.

A spirit of collaboration – Education should draw on the social nature of humans and encourage collaboration between students, between teachers and between students and teachers. We will all benefit from working together toward a greater understanding, on an individual and collective level, of each other, the world around us and our society. Social networks as a tool for connecting professionals and the sharing of educational ideas and resources, whether in your school building or online, are key components of a growing culture of collaboration. As Gary McKinnon, superintendent of Calgary Science School said in the last session of the conference,

“Where do you start with collaboration? It begins with collaboration between student and teacher.”

Inquiry is where it’s at – An inquiry focused education that provides opportunities for students to deeply explore and uncover their understandings and connections across a variety of topics then communicate those understandings is richer than one focused on knowledge being stored in the learner through exposure and testing on a vast range of content. Inquiry takes many forms drawing on methods from the ancients through to modern media presentation techniques. It is critically connected to the idea of descriptive feedback, which enables students to revise and build on their understandings and connections. Inquiry is a process that draws heavily on curiosity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication/dialogue and creativity.

Time is precious – Time is a critical resource in our education system and we must be conscious of how we can best make use of that resource. Students need more time to explore, grow and create under an inquiry method than under a knowledge transmission system. Teachers need time to create educational experiences, collaborate, reflect on their practice and build relationships with each other and their students. Lasting change doesn’t usually happen overnight with a sweeping, directive initiative, but over time through the continual reflection and adjustment of practice based on peer feedback and research of best practice.

Technology is a part of the process – The structure of inquiry should not be using a specific technology to communicate, but rather using technology because it enables or extends educational experiences beyond, or in a different way, than what is possible without technology. Pedagogy and careful thought about the planning of the educational experience should always proceed the introduction of technology. Technology is part of the process because it enables connections and creation in forms that aren’t possible without it.

Connection to our communities – One of the ideas that I most connected with this weekend is the concept of inuuqatigiit, an Inuktitut word meaning “your education must reflect your culture and community”, via Bill Belsey. I heard this reflected in discussions about connecting disengaged youth to volunteer opportunities in community organisations, field learning at locations in the surrounding community, involving experts from the community in teaching and presenting student work to community members. Schools are centres of our communities and the connections between our schools and our communities should be active and authentic. Involving community members in educating our young people keeps schools relevant and connected to meaningful issues to our students and their families. Openness to community participation in education also encourages representation of the diverse cultural heritage of country and our students. Likewise, school participation in the community helps develop students into active citizens who are aware of the issues in the community and able to participate in the dialogue and decision making processes. Increasingly our community also extends to global connections and so our students should be mentored in how to connect internationally.

Responsible risk-taking – Learning requires us to venture out, if sometimes only in thought, to confront ideas, situations and connections that we hadn’t previously considered. This is risky because it means we could end up more confused than before or in a messy situation that will take time to sort through. It takes trustful relationships between students and teachers, peers, parents and school staff, and teachers and administrators to provide the space for this responsible risk-taking to take place. In my eyes, risk-taking is responsible if it takes into account the needs of those around us, is connected to research or previous observation, is supported by a mentor of partner who can provide feedback and isn’t associated with a permanent change that can’t be altered or corrected. Teachers must be enabled to take responsible risks in their teaching practice with the room to make mistakes without fear of reprisal, as students must be able to explore and inquire without constantly being evaluated and marked.

One problem…

There is one major problem with all of these thoughts on education. For as much as they may form a shared vision of an education that is “best for our kids” for most people at ConnectEd Canada, that vision is not shared by a majority of people in our country. Most people alive today, not currently in school, received and experienced an industrial model education focused on knowledge transfer, drill and memorisation. This forms the basis of the expectations about what school should look like for students in this generation. Mainstream media, right-wing think tanks, and school reformists (of the standardised testing variety) tend to perpetuate these ideas and push for an education system that can be extensively measured and quantified. In this view, the ability to rank, order and measure a student’s learning, and in turn teacher and student quality, is “good for the kids”. Heck, there are lot of educators who would feel similar or find it to daunting to take on the changes given the demands and expectations placed on them by parents and other stakeholders. Inquiry learning and the ideas laid out above don’t mesh well with such a system because they’re messy, take time and acknowledge the complexity of assessing one’s understanding and application of concepts. But, it’s much easier to have an opinion when the world is black or white.

The inherent value about “what’s good for the kids” is the undercurrent to the discussion about shifting educational practice. Inquiry practices, moving away from standardised testing, removing the dependence on grades and ranking, and de-emphasizing the importance of memorizing broad swaths of discrete content will be heavily contested. As one of the participants at ConnectEd Canada said to me in the hall, “For all the Twitter and technology used at the conference, it’s all in the room, and if the conversation stays in the room nothing will change.” In this case, I think “the room” could be defined as the educational community, and in that case I think it makes the statement true. The dialogue about shifting educational practice to inquiry methods remains primarily within a relatively small network of self-selected educators interested in exploring ideas about teaching and learning online. I hope that ConnectEd Canada becomes part of extending and opening that discussion to a broader audience, first with students, parents and educators in our own schools then with the media, ministries of education and other organisations involved in public education.

To that end, ConnectEd Canada was a great first step in what will hopefully be a continuous dialogue about educational practice in Canada.

A Rush to Innovate

The first day at ConnectEd Canada was highlighted by tours of Calgary Science School and an evening of “TED-style” talks from educators in different fields. Throughout the day, the word that kept cropping up was innovation. It seemed every speaker and every 2nd tweet contained the word or a focus how innovative things are at the school. Don’t get me wrong, I was impressed with the conversations I had with the students and staff at Calgary Science School, but I wonder why there is such a strong push to define so many of the educational stories being told at this conference as “innovative”. Innovation is defined as “the act of introducing something new; something newly introduced”. Perhaps the title of Brad Ovenell-Carter’s Sunday session says it best, “The Ancients Stole All of Our Good Ideas”.

I’m not sure that what I saw the first day is what I would class as new, though it certainly doesn’t fit the mould of a typical, or perhaps stereotypical, school. Perhaps, the focus on innovation comes more from a collective vision of the stereotypical school, rather than the typical experience of students in our communities. These types of ideas are being done across the country and around the world. We are likely not the first, and most of these take ideas that existed before and recreate them in different mediums or combinations. Sometimes, the current push toward ’21st Century Learning’ is focused on preferencing ideas that are seen as new. However, shouldn’t the focus solely be on educational activities and strategies that enrich our students’ understandings about themselves and the world around them whether those are new or not? One of the other commonalities that I notice in the programs being highlighted as innovative is a focus on creation of end products, both digital and physical. By labelling these creations as innovative, it downplays the importance of expository writing, mathematical proofs, Socratic discourse and other forms of learning that don’t fit to a presentation model of learning representation. These modes and representations are just as valuable to the learner and people they interact with in understanding our world and ourselves.

I worry that a focus on classifying educational initiatives as “innovative” is exclusionary. It drives an emulation of a particular style of education as positive, while everything else is in turn devalued. In addition, a lot of the initiatives that fall into the “innovative” category are at schools that for one reason or another don’t serve a diverse population in terms of learning needs, ethnicity, and income. So, I wonder if innovative is just another way of perpetuating power structures and relationships that are already present. I believe firmly in the importance of universal public education for all and an equality of opportunity within that system. If access to “innovative” programs is only available to those from a particular group, income level or learning ability then it falls short for me. I believe if we are pushing to change the nature of education then we need to also address the structure of the system that teaching and learning takes place within.

I’m excited to continue the discussions over the next couple days about changing practices in education in Canada. I hope those discussions will better tease out clearer descriptions of the practices that work to expand all students’ understandings of their world and themselves rather than lumping them under a jargon-like term such as innovation.

Exploring Slopes of Perpendicular Lines

On the Ed534 Math Curriculum Development weekly web meeting (Week 4), we were discussing Task 2 related to creating a Geogebra applet and I mentioned that I had recently created one for my Math 10 class around exploring the slopes of perpendicular lines within the context of systems of linear equations.  Unfortunately the applet is only on my course website, which requires an account, so I agreed to share it more publicly.  It isn’t possible to embed Geogebra applets in WordPress, therefore I can’t put it directly in this page.

So, I decided to throw together a wiki (http://mathemaction.wikispaces.com/) as a place to share my interactive resources.  I’m not sure I’ll stay with this solution, but for the time being it’ll have to do.

Here is a direct link to the Exploring Slopes of Perpendicular Lines applet created in Geogebra,  which includes a link to a short screencast tutorial on how to use the applet.

Blogging to Action??

Maybe I should have titled my site, ‘Blogging to Action’ instead of ‘Think to Action’.  However, I hope this will be one of the repositories for my thoughts in my ongoing professional development as an educator.  I see blogging as a form of active thinking by translating thoughts into concepts,  more concrete ideas or activities and one step on the process of bringing change to what I do.

As the saying goes:

“The only thing constant in life is change.”

So I plug on toward an endless goal of consistently being an educator that helps students explore and make connections to the world around them while realising their own potential to learn, develop skills and create meaning.

My primary interests in education surround teaching and learning of math and information technology.  I teach mostly junior secondary school courses (grades 8-10, 13-16 years of age) with experience in Math, ICT/Programming, Business (Accounting), Distance Learning and lately Science.  I’ve had the opportunity to teach and experience a different education system for 3 years in London (UK) in addition to this my 4th year here in the Greater Vancouver area (Canada).

I’ve been interested in blogging for a while, but the impetus to get going came from my participation in a Math Curriculum Development Course (ED534) being offered free online through P2PU (Peer to Peer University) by Maria Droujkova.  Hopefully, this is the start of a continued exploration of my professional development and thoughts on education - most importantly how they are translated into action.