Coding and Robotics

It is always interesting to visit schools and pick up on the trends. One can often see ideas that are spreading from one class or one school and quickly to all schools. One of the challenges in a district position is trying to capture the growing areas, and help support them to grow even further – looking at questions around how do we expand these great opportunities to not just some students in some schools but more students in more schools.

Much of the discussion in British Columbia is currently dominated by the refreshed curriculum.  While there are conversations that start about the content – what is the stuff being covered in each subject and each grade, these conversations are often moving to the pedagogy and assessment needed as part of this process.  And when we look deeper at the differences, I see the greatest shift over the  last two years is likely in the work around Aboriginal education.  As I have written here different times in different ways, we see Aboriginal understandings across grades and subjects.

I am always curious to see the words and ideas that are growing.  It was from individual classrooms and schools that ideas around self-regulation, inquiry and digital access have exploded.  I have also written before about the growth of outdoor learning among other trends that are taking hold.  It is sometimes hard to track their growth – it comes from students, teachers, parents and the community and when they stick – they become the new normal.

The two ideas this fall that I would add to the list and I think are just beginning to blossom are coding and robotics.  When I look at the growth plans of staff, or the inquiry questions of our Innovation teams, or listen to the interests of parents, these ideas are coming up more and more.

Coding is not new, and it is part of the ICT 9-12 curriculum.  In part driven by the global Hour of Code initiative, there are efforts to expose all students to the possibilities around coding not just those who select it as a secondary school elective.  More and more we are hearing from students, teachers and parents that we want to engage younger learners with these skills.  Cari Wilson has done a wonderful job leading the Hour of Code initiative in our district – getting into elementary and secondary classrooms.  Given the Star Wars theme this year I am sure students in classrooms and at kitchen tables across our community will be engaging with coding.


It was interesting to read recently that there may be a “significant decline” in IT literacy in our tablet / smartphone era. Given the seemingly continued importance of these skills, projects like Hour of Code may be even more important.  And we are trying to figure out how to move beyond this initial exposure and build in regular opportunities for young people with a passion for this type of learning in their elementary years to engage with activities as part of their school program.

Robotics has a somewhat similar story.

I had the chance to visit several schools in Delhi, India two years ago. And in one particular school, in a community of immense poverty, where the power went out three times while we visited, and nobody reacted as that was typical, where there were sparse resources, there were students building robots.  It was stunning what I saw . . . .


Students were working together building robots.  As the Principal reported, this is the future.

Fast forward ahead to this fall, and I am seeing the same curiosity and excitement around robotics in our schools.  We have had a number of staff working with robotics over the last several years.  It really has been a natural progression from makerspaces, digital access and trying to connect students in relevant ways to our world. This fall Todd Ablett, a past winner of the Prime Minister’s Award  for Teaching Excellence joined our district and he has begun to infect (in a good way) our district with his passion for mechatronics and robotics.  For now he is running a club at West Vancouver Secondary and doing guest lessons with every grade 6 and 7 classroom in the district.  The plan is to continue to grow the program – hopefully into a secondary school Academy Program next fall, and also a grade 6/7 program.  As I watched student-built robots shoot balls across the Board Room at last week’s Board Meeting as everyone in the Gallery took out their phones to record the moment – one could feel the excitement.


The structures are a work in progress but we have an unwavering commitment to ensuring our schools are relevant and connected to the world our kids are participating in – the world that I heard Todd describe where self-driving cars are just the beginning of what the future may hold.  I often wince when asked “what’s new” in our school district.  The truth is most of what we are doing is about going deeper and getting better at what we already do.  We are also trying to keep our eyes open and look around the corner at what is coming next.   If you want to look for two things I think you will hear about and see far more in 2018 than you do in 2015 – I think coding and robotics are good bets.


I recently gave a talk entitled, “What Stuart Leaves” which focused on how districts can maintain the momentum after Stuart Shanker has ignited interest and curiosity in self-regulation.

Over the last five years I have regularly written about Stuart, and his influence on our work with self-regulation.  This post from 2010, is my most read post ever.   It has been wonderful to see the growth of self-regulation in our district – like the stories told from our schools in this post from 2013.

We have an amazing group of teachers and administrators taking the lead with our work in self-regulation.  Over the last five years, it has become key to how we think about learning.  Self-regulation, along with inquiry and digital access have been ongoing themes and over-arching pillars in our work across the district.

My recent keynote presentation shared some of our experiences in West Vancouver at the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative Roundtable (if you are reading this via email you may need to open in a browser to view slides):

So what are the key learnings we have had over the last five years in West Vancouver:

  • Self-regulation is about the culture we want and the way we want to think about kids and learning
  • Self-regulation has entry points for students and teachers at any grade across subject areas
  • Being inspired is a good first step and there are some very powerful outside voices who can provoke a community
  • There is great power in the research and the science that supports the work that is happening in schools
  • Building a strong district team is important – it needs to be part of some people’s portfolio
  • Self-Regulation is a “big tent” and there are numerous initiatives, programs and practices that connect to our work from MindUP to Zones of Regulation to secondary mental health literacy
  • It is important to continually tell our stories over and over – to staff, parents and beyond our district
  • Self-regulation should be a focus across the organization from assessment and reporting to facilities planning
  • Self-regulation connects many of our staff with the reasons they got into the profession and their passion for making a difference for every child

The greatest shift in our schools over the last five years hasn’t been the increase in the use of technology, or the move to inquiry based learning.  While both have been important, it is through the self-regulation lens that we have had and continue to have the conversations about creating the optimal learning conditions for every child.  We have learned and continue to learn from the science, and our classes look and feel different.

To stay connected to Stuart Shanker’s current work, check out the MEHRIT Centre website and follow Stuart and his team on a variety of social media channels (all links are on the website).  Stuart’s recent blog post here about the myths of self-regulation is a great read.

Stuart was very clear when he spoke with all staff in our district 4 years ago, “There is no such thing as bad, stupid or lazy kids.”  So simple, so clear and something that guides our work.

What Comes First?


Clearly you can’t change one part of the education system in isolation.  This is one of the great challenges we face in British Columbia – we have new curriculum, but does the assessment still match?  We have been given greater permission from the provincial government to think differently, but have we fully engaged our community in what the “different” would look like?

While it is true one cannot do everything at once, we all need entry points for transformation. First with school and district leaders in our district, and then with Superintendents from across Canada I have recently worked through trying to rank and prioritize these six system drivers:  Shifting Curriculum, Shifting Pedagogies, Shifting Learning Environments, Shifting Assessment, Shifting Governance, Shifting Citizen and Stakeholder Engagement. (click on the graphic below to enlarge)

www.c21canada.org wp content uploads 2015 05 C21 ShiftingMinds 3.pdf

The six items come from Shifting Minds 3.0 – Redefining the Learning Landscape in Canada. I have previously written (Here) about the power and importance of having a national conversation around transformation in education.

I realize it is a bit of a false discussion – you can’t do any of these separate from each other.  In part from being influenced by my local and national colleagues, if we started with one – I would start with pedagogies.

At its core, learning is about the relationship between the teacher and students.  We can have the best curriculum, policies or assessment, but first we need the practices.  As our pedagogies change, our assessment will follow.  And new pedagogies and new assessment will beg for new curriculum and these changes force both shifts in policy and engagement.  And finally our learning environments should reflect our practice so as the practices change the learning environments will follow.

What do you think – if you could start with only one – which one would you select?

Our group of Superintendents from across the country is committed to our own learning starting with shifting pedagogies – it will be interesting to see what we can learn from each others successes and challenges from across the country.


West Vancouver is hosting a screening of the new movie Beyond Measure.   Along with the new book of the same name by Vicki Abeles, they make the case of the collective power of communities to work together for a better school system.  The trailer for the movie nicely sets the tone:

As I was with the previous effort by this film’s director, Race to Nowhere – I am left with mixed feelings.  I am reassured that our work in Canada, and particularly British Columbia is on the right track.  From our shifts in teaching and learning in part fueled by the rethinking of our curriculum, to our move, albeit slower than some would like, to a post-standardized world of assessment where letter grades and system-wide tests are less important and ongoing feedback is more important – there is a lot happening around me that would be success stories in Beyond Measure.  And while I see elements of familiarity between the common Canadian student experience and the common American student experience – while broadly over-generalizing, there are tremendous differences, and we seem to be moving further apart – with the Canadian system, far more in-tune with the themes of Race to Nowhere and Beyond Measure.

Of course there is always more to do.  Beyond Measure reminds us that as we make up ground in one place,  to truly move forward there are many pieces that have to move together.  We are moving on testing, and images of a “zombie apocalypse” that Abeles shares in her book are not our reality, but we are not there yet – a work in progress.  Other topics that Abeles raises from the volume of homework to college admissions are ones we continue to wrestle with.  I was speaking with new teachers last week and was asked about homework “policy” in our district.  We don’t have a central policy, but schools have guidelines, and I can say with certainty there is less homework now being given than a decade ago, the work is far more purposeful – but external pressure, often from parents remembering their school experience fights efforts to move beyond homework.  The guidelines shared in Beyond Measure are strong aspirational goals – homework should advance a spirit of learning, homework should be student directed, homework should honour a balanced schedule.

Particularly heartening is that rather than just list problems, the book is really a call to action – what parents, educators and communities can do together.  I feel some of this “action” right now in BC as we work together to move our system forward.  If others are interested, the book is available here.

The screening of the film is Tuesday, October 27, 2015.  Here is ticket information.  If you can’t attend, encourage your community to bring the film to your local school or theatre and let’s keep this conversation going!


I studied a mix of History, Geography and English during my undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia. I did a practicum teaching junior and senior English and Social Studies. After a brief stop teaching math and science, my teaching load largely consisted of Socials 9, Socials 10, English 11, Law 12 and History 12 during my time at McRoberts Secondary in Richmond.

And what is something I never learned about going to school in BC, or taking social geography and history at UBC?  Or never learned about through my teacher training or ever really covered in any of my classes?  Our history of residential schools.

I thought I was doing a good job of exposing students to some of the real sore spots in our recent history from the Komagata Maru to the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.  If I had the chance to go back now into my classroom of twenty years ago probably the biggest change would be the increased influence of Aboriginal learning and I would correct my omission and include age appropriate materials to help students understand the ongoing legacy of residential schools in our province.

Of course, I know I was not alone.  One of the many reasons I think the changes to the BC Curriculum are so important, is the purposeful embedding of Aboriginal learning throughout the curriculum.  The First Peoples Principles of Learning (from the First Nations Education Steering Committee) is a document that is discussed in almost all conversations around the curriculum.  No longer is learning about First Nations limited to Social Studies in grades 4 and 10 – it is truly across subjects and across grades.

First Peoples Principles of Learning

Specifically to the topic of residential schools, there are a number of new and excellent resources that have been produced.  In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report for age-appropriate education materials about Indian Residential Schools teacher resources have been developed for grades 5, 10, and 11/12.   These resources have received some excellent media attention recently, helping to spread the word.  Other new and thoughtful resources include the BC Teachers’ Federation produced, Project of Heart: Illuminating the Hidden History of Residential Schools in BC and  the Ministry discussion paper Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives in the Classroom.  There are even examples of students learning about residential schools in daycare (the link also provides some great books for very young learners on the topic).

There is a lot I like about the changes to the curriculum.  One of the most powerful differences I see in classrooms in our district, is the care and attention given to learning about our Aboriginal history.  There is no doubt, if I was transported back to my classroom of the mid 1990’s I would take what I have and continue to learn about our local history and the history of residential schools and bring it in the classroom.  I am so pleased that the teachers I work with today are making sure this generation of learners engages in this important part of our history.

It Just Works


“Teachers are required to use some of the worst software I have ever seen.”

This quote from Lane Merrifield, co-founder of Fresh Grade, in his recent talk at TEDxWestVancouverED, sure resonated with many teachers and administrators in the room.  Given the user experience in our province around some of the required software systems over the last twenty years, I know why people think this.

When I first heard people talking about FreshGrade – it was through my cynical experience of other recent technology software that I entered the conversation.  Really – we need another e-portfolio system?  Don’t we already use several in the district.  But this is different, I was told – it just works.

Over the last year we have had a growing number of teachers use FreshGrade in their classes.  Unlike previous initiatives where we provided the tool to everyone, it has been very organic.  And it has that word of mouth excitement one rarely gets in the world of education technology.   All of us who have seen the power of digital access in a classroom have got our hopes up only to have a far too often OPUD (over promise, under deliver) from our digital tools.

This feels different.

I have seen the power of FreshGrade with my younger son, who attends school in another local school district.  This is my ninth year as a parent in the school system, with four kids from grades 1 – 8.  I have seen more of my younger son’s thinking, learning and engagement in a month through the FreshGrade app than collectively with all the other teachers over all the years.  And this is not an indictment of the other classes – there were photo sites, blogs, emails, newsletters and a host of other tools, but the way  this experience truly engages me in the communication of student learning is different.

zack fg

It is not just me noticing what is going on.  Michelle Hiebert from Abbotsford blogged about what she was seeing with FreshGrade last spring, Ian Landy (the Cal Ripken of BC edu-bloggers for his daily posts) has regularly written about his experiences as a Principal with it in Sorrento, and Tracy Sherlock even covered it in the Vancouver Sun.

I would say this is the only time I have seen a piece of software grow like this in its use with teachers, but that would not be fair.  Right now we are seeing similar growth in the use of a variety of Google Classroom tools.  And again the comments I continue to hear are that the tools do what we want them to and they make sense for teachers and schools.  Maybe we are getting to a new place with software in education – as we become less reliant on trying to make tools created for something else work for education, and embracing tools designed for learning.

I look back about a dozen years to when the portfolio came and went in British Columbia as part of the grad program – and it was too bad.  Part of the vision of the 2004 Graduation Program was having every graduating student present a portfolio to school and community members.  There are many reasons why it failed, from poor resourcing to a design that made it really just a collection of boxes to check off.  More than anything, I think it failed because the technology was not ready for the vision.

I regularly challenge people who suggest that many teachers are anti-technology and just don’t want to enter the modern world.  The teachers I know and work with want to use technology that allows them to do things not possible without the technology and make learning more relevant and engaging.

Looking at the growth of FreshGrade in our district is showing that to be true.

Thanks to grade 4 teacher Ms. Bourne for using FreshGrade with her class – I am sure I am not the only parent who really appreciates your efforts.  I see FreshGrade has also noticed and profiled her this week.  

The Healthy Tension

tensionI know the word tension is often viewed as a bad thing. I think there is a frequent healthy tension when it comes to change in education. And I am feeling it right now.

In a post-standardized and personalized learning world how do we decide which  structural decisions are at the class, school, district and system levels?

One area we are seeing this tension right now is around reporting.  Should reporting look the same across the board in a school?  Across a district? Across a province?  These are all good questions.  Traditionally reporting in British Columbia has generally looked the same across the province.  The Ministry of Education sets out the rules that see students have a certain number of formal and informal reports each year.  Across the province, letter grades and work habits are used in a fairly consistent manner.  And I get it, as students move from community to community or graduate into the world of post-secondary school or work, having some common elements of reporting help make the system run smoothly and clearly.  While those of us in the system have been openly questioning the current reporting structures, I appreciate the larger community often feels assured knowing that there is some sameness when it comes to assessment.

Recently, many districts (including West Vancouver) have been looking closely at different ways of reporting.  And thus the healthy tension within education.  We have some outstanding report card pilot projects in our district and we have decided that the work in different schools needs to inform a common district approach to reporting.  For this fall we are looking at a new common approach to reporting in both Kindergarten and Grade Four.  These new reports flow out of the work we are doing around the curriculum changes in BC.  Of course with diverse programs like IB and French Immersion, even our efforts to have a common approach to reporting will be nuanced.  I know other jurisdictions have held tightly to common reporting across the entire system, while others allow incredible autonomy at the teacher level.

My general view is that wherever we work really influences how collective we need to be.  As a teacher, I often didn’t feel what I did in the class needed to be connected to what was happening in other classes, I just needed consistency throughout my teaching.  As a principal I strived for consistency in the school but didn’t always feel we needed to be consistent with other schools.  As a Superintendent I feel the need to create some common structures across the district, and I see those at the Ministry of Education trying to ensure some common approaches across the province.

As I stated, it is a healthy tension between the class, school, district and system level on a variety of topics as the tension helps open up the conversation.  Whether it is determining what body of content all students in a school, district or province need to know; deciding if there should be a common set of digital tools for teachers and students; or identifying reporting structures that should be consistent in a system there are important conversations to have.  And continue to have.

I have said in presentations that “schools are not fast food franchises” each should have their own signature reflective of the community in which they exist.  I also often say those in schools, “are more than just a group of independent contractors who share a parking lot.”  It is a balancing act to see both these concepts at work.

As we continue to see change in our system, we need to be continually thoughtful and mindful of the parts that must to be consistent across schools, districts and the system.  There is not necessarily one right answer, but the rich conversations that come from these decisions should make our system better.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,177 other followers