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Archive for February, 2011

If,  in the era of Facebook and Google, IBM has lost some of its “cool” in recent years, the 100-year-old company (check out this great video celebrating its Centennial) has redeemed itself with WATSON – the Jeopardy winning computer.

This past week, I had the opportunity to listen to four of the top IBM researchers muse about the world of 2050.  They admit, like many of us in education also do, it is difficult to event plan five years out, but Don Eigler, Spike Narayan, Dr. Winfried Wilicke,  and Thomas Zimmerman did identify some interesting trends.  While there was some talk of flying cars (maybe not quite the Jetsons), the continual growth and change in the movement of data, the requirements of energy in a world that will need to be sustainability-focussed with water being the new oil, I was struck by the idea of synthetic immortality — and just what it might mean for schools.

The idea of synthetic immortality was put forward by Thomas Zimmerman, whose Data Glove invention sold over one million units in the field of Virtual Reality. Zimmerman was also named California Volunteer of the Year in 2009 for his science-enrichment work in schools.  The idea of synthetic immortality is that, since we are creating and posting so much digital content about ourselves and others — and this is only increasing (apparently some people are now basically digitally documenting every hour of their life), in the future — we will be able to pull all of this data together and, even after someone dies, create an avatar that someone could interview and engage with.  This will sure change book reports.  You want to interview a former Prime Minister, you can just call up the synthetic version of that person.  With all the digital content, it is not something I had considered — our perpetuity beyond our lives.  A good deal has been written about managing social media after one dies, like this recent New York Times article and this one in Time but not, at least from what I have seen, about how this could all be aggregated together to virtualize someone.

While it is difficult to even get my head around what schooling and learning should and could look like for my kids over the next 10 years, it is interesting to hear people predict what it could look like for my kids’ kids.

One final connection on this topic, if you haven’t seen this video, A Day Made of Glass — Made Possible by Corning, do take a look at it. It is an interesting window into the future:

The subject does make some of our current conversations around the edges of change seem quite small, given what is likely coming soon.

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Earlier this week, I had the chance to spend an hour with Catherine Walton’s Grade 11 and 12 Peer Helping class at West Vancouver Secondary.   We spent the hour discussing the current state of schooling and the potential of social media.

The first activity was having the students write down everything they could remember from Grade 6. In the discussion that followed students realized that not one of them had written about content covered, but reflected on their feelings and connections. They wrote about the teachers they loved, the friends who were in their class, the activities they participated in and the fun they had.

The conversation moved to describing their current school experiences.  They wrote about their anxieties and fears about university; the challenges of getting good grades, and the complexities of navigating the system to find the right courses to land them in the right universities.  It was actually a bit depressing — few students had positive comments about their current experiences.

So, naturally, the conversation flowed to what could be done different now, in their schooling, to bring back some of those strong, positive feelings they associated with in Grade 6?  I left the conversation feeling that while they were nervous and anxious, the only thing we could do worse, right now, is to change the system.  These students have figured it out — they have binders full of notes; they know how to study for exams, and they are completely fluent in the entrance requirements for universities across the continent.

When pushed for what they would change, they spoke of schooling that placed less emphasis on homework, “It shouldn’t be for marks, it is practice”.  The students liked the idea of their texts being digital, but, almost to a person, they did not feel ready to replace their paper binders with a digital equivalent. While they are interested in using technology, they are frustrated with the different systems they need to spend time figuring out, and that take away time from their subject area.  They have mastered the system — so, change the way for the kids who follow, just don’t change anything now for them.

And what about social media?  The only time students had uploaded a video to YouTube was for school projects, and beyond Facebook, the use of social media was very spotty.  They did report Facebook was an excellent learning support — a place to get help with homework and promote school events.

And finally, what about e-mail?  Please, only teachers send them e-mails — even their parents know to text them.

Having done a similar exercise with Grade 6 and 7 students several weeks ago, it was interesting to see how much more open these younger students were to changing the learning model.

At least, given this small sample of Grade 11 and 12 students, they want to be sure there are no changes late in the game to a system they have spent 13 years mastering.

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Much is being written this month as we celebrate the first anniversary of hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. From tourism to the economy to amateur athletics, various sectors are examining the impact of the Games.

It is also worth considering the effects the Games have had on education in B.C.  I have written about my own participation connected to the 2010 Winter Olympics, and shared some of that in my TEDxUBC presentation.   Looking back, here are some of my reflections of their effect on education: 

1.  To make broad-stroke generalizations across the province would be impossible. Communities that hosted sporting events (Richmond, Vancouver, West Vancouver, Whistler) clearly had more opportunity for engagement in the Games. The Board’s decision to close schools in West Vancouver during the Games is also seen, in retrospect, as a very wise decision — it was almost universally praised by staff and families.  One of the legacies in adjusting the 2010 Spring Vacation calendar is that it has stimulated more discussion over the validity and suitability of non-traditional breaks in school calendars.

  2.  The Games linked social media and schools.  While projects like Students Live were overt in their use of social media, all media outlets leveraged Facebook, Twitter and other social tools.  For many schools in BC, the Olympics were the first event they had ever tracked through social media.  While some classes have used social media to follow world events in Iran, Haiti and elsewhere, the Olympics brought social media into classes — and, in many places, it has stuck.

  3.  The Games created interest and curiosity around sports beyond hockey, soccer, baseball, and basketball.  There is a range of winter sports available that were highlighted during the Games, and schools embraced these with field trips and “school-versions” of them.  Primary students think about participating in luge, speed-skating and snowboard cross now – sports very few kids knew existed two years ago.

  4.  As much as the Olympics had an impact on education, I would suggest the Paralympics had a greater impact.  Give the Canadian Paralympic Committee and the organizers of the Paralympic Games credit — they did an amazing job of getting their message to schools in advance of the Games and engaging students.  Thousands of students were able to attend Paralympic events, and the Paralympic School visits leading up to the Games were powerful learning opportunities.  Students had the opportunity to test-drive Paralympic events, and hear from athletes.  As a result of the Games, young people in many communities have a new understanding of the word “disabilities” and they now recognize that people should not be defined by them.

  5.  The Games forged new relationships. In West Vancouver, they provided an opportunity for students from both public and private schools to work together toward making the Games relevant for all.  That same spirit has students from public and private schools working together again this spring, on a community-wide event for youth.  The Games also created a showcase for student talent — a district choir that came together for the Torch Relay has been replicated, in a slightly different form, for other events in West Vancouver.  The Games brought people together, who would not normally have had the opportunity to connect, and some of those relationships and partnerships have continued on to build to new opportunities.  With the Centennial approaching for the District of West Vancouver and the School District, many are looking to the Olympic experience as a model for engagement and celebration.

  6.  The Games tested the notion of teaching without a binder or textbook.  In some ways, the technology and overall readiness were not prepared for the vision.  One of the criticisms of the 2010 Olympic Education program was that there was no binder like with the 1988 Calgary Games.  The vision was forward thinking – it provided learning resources, lesson ideas, content, and allowed teachers to craft and construct learning with students, and to make meaning of it for themselves. This happened in some places, and elsewhere, it fell flat.  We are clearly moving into an era of fewer text books and more digital content, and I think the model will work better in five years than it did last year.  That said, many districts, with the support of the Canadian Olympic Committee (with excellent resources) and VANOC, created some great learning experiences in class.

  7.  For many students, teachers and classes, Olympic learning is now an ongoing  part of what they do.  Whether it is exposure to a range of winter sports, the use of Olympic athletes as motivational speakers, or the inclusion of resources available from many sources — including the Canadian Olympic Committee — teachers and schools have, in many cases, not treated the Games as a one-time event, but have found ways to weave the lessons and values learned though the Games into their ongoing practice.

8.  At a time when we are often looking to find connections between subjects to promote deeper learning, the 2010 Games modeled that topics including arts, sports, culture, politics and sustainability could all be part of the same conversation. 

  There was a definite concern the Games would go through our community, but that the schools and young people might miss out on the potential opportunities. One year out, not only do people reflect fondly on the experiences of the Games, there are clearly a number of legacies that continue to play out in our schools.

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George Couros, a principal from Stony Plain, Alberta, and my digital colleague, has done a nice job of starting a conversation last week on his blog about cursive writing here.

I definitely want to continue this conversation and, while I often write with a view or a position, I am really writing this with less of an opinion and with more of a question today.

I do come to the conversation with my own biases.  I don’t know how to handwrite.   I was slow to learn how to print and given how messy it was — and still is — I never really took to handwriting.  I don’t think I’ve missed out on not knowing how to handwrite. I can read handwritten work, sign my name but, beyond that, it has been a life of printing and, more recently, keyboarding.

I recently discussed this with several teachers in our district who suggested that handwriting is a huge hang-up — particularly for boys — and creates a level of stress that interferes with their learning.

The instruction of cursive writing is not simply teachers clinging to past practices, it is part of the curriculum.  In Grade 3, one of the prescribed learning outcomes is:

legible print, and begin to show proper alignment, shape, and slant of cursive writing

This is an important starting place.  When I posted to my Twitter network for information (pro and con) on the use of cursive writing in schools, here are some of the thoughts — and humour — I received:

“printing is the norm when it comes to using technology so cursive writing is, in effect, obsolete; no need to teach it”

“maybe it could be part of “history” class”

“it’s not the Middle Ages anymore”

“the tactile feel of pen on paper is important”

Several posters also suggest that handwriting prepares students for high school and university exams which, in large part, are still done by hand, although I think this is less true every year.

I was also pushed to a number of others who have written on the topic.

Dana Huff makes the point:

. .  .this complete inability to use cursive concerns me. It shuts off a whole realm of communication to students (even if it is, as has been argued, an archaic means of communication). For example, census images I’ve read while researching my family history were all taken down in cursive, and very few are available as transcriptions. I also experienced the recent joy of reading a diary my great-great-grandmother kept in 1893-1894 — in cursive.

Beth McKinney makes the argument, supported by a number of others:

While students do need to be digitally competent to succeed, teachers need to continue to teach cursive handwriting according to much of the research . . .  Though the repetitive drills that accompany cursive handwriting lessons may seem outdated, such physical instruction will help students to succeed. These activities stimulate brain activity, lead to increased language fluency and aid in the development of important knowledge.

Finally, like George Couros in his post on this topic, I am intrigued by the quote from Kate Gladstone:

The more education a child had been allowed to have before his/her handwriting was changed over to cursive — in other words, the fewer months and years s/he had spent learning/using cursive — the larger his or her vocabulary was (as measured by the number of different words used in the student’s writing over the course of a year).  The differences were huge — the kids who’d been required to do the least cursive had vocabularies THREE TIMES the size of those who’d been required to do the most cursive.

From this, for some reason, the researchers decided that the second half of 3rd grade was a great time to change everyone’s writing to cursive (which, as the researchers pointed out, basically means putting all other aspects of written English on hold in order to go back to scratch and start all over again with the ABC). An even more logical next step, though, would be to wonder why any age-group at all should be required to spend time on what amounted to an exercise in vocabulary-stunting (not that cursive in itself is bad for your vocabulary but you’re unlikely to increase your vocabulary while that and other things have been put on hold for the sake of changing your handwriting style). The fact that the vocabulary-stunting effect was worst for those who’d been changed to cursive the earliest can — as the researchers noted — be at least partly explained by the fact that any educational damage has worse effects when imposed on younger, more impressionable, more ignorant students.

It was also interesting, in reading the articles shared by my network, that many suggest teaching writing as a precursor to printing, such as Samuel Blumenfeld.  This, as I have found out, is quite common in other languages.

As our education system evolves, we are often looking to wedge more into the day–be it physical activity, digital literacy or a range of “21st Century skills”. The really hard part is always letting go. For our Grade 3 students beginning to learn cursive handwriting now, and graduating in 2020, will it be something they need to have learned to engage in that world?  If we were building curriculum not from our memories of our learning, but from a blank slate, would cursive handwriting cross the bar to be included?  Do teachers and parents hold onto handwriting as important because it is part of our teaching tradition? What about the research that supports the value of cursive writing, even in an increasingly digital age?

I look forward to the continued discussion.

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I recently had the opportunity to be part of the Vancouver Opera’s Opera Speaks Series on a panel with BC Housing Chair Brenda Eaton, Tsawwassen First Nations Chief Kim Baird, political scientist Michael Byers, and Globe & Mail columnist Gary Mason, discussing what makes a great leader and what qualities we want in those who govern us and lead us.  This event was presented as part of the lead-up to Vancouver Opera’s presentation of La Clemenza di Tito.

All of the presentations have ben posted to the Vancouver Opera website here, and the podcast on my segment is posted here and embedded below (click on the right arrow to play):

A second podcast that has just been posted is an interview I did with with Rorbert Martellacci of  MindShare Learning.  It is part of the February MindShare Learning Report that is linked here which has a spotlight on British Columbia.  MindShare Learning does an excellent job of connecting education and business, and promoting and highlighting innovation in education across the country.  The MindShare Learning Report is a great, free subscription for Canadian educators (subscription page linked here).

Here is the podcast link to my interview and it is also embedded below:

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The Value of School Sports

Photo Credit:  Mike MacNeil, WVSS

There is a rhythm to school sports and secondary school sports are approaching their second of three crescendos in the year.  One has its pinnacle in early December with the conclusion of sports like volleyball and football. Basketball among others play for championships in March and rugby and track-and-field are among those that climax in late May. In February, many schools turn to the basketball playoffs as we approach B.C.’s March Madness.

I don’t spend as much time in gyms as I did even a few years ago when I was often consumed by them — first as a coach and then as a school administrator — but the value I see  in school sports hasn’t changed.  There is a great deal that can be written about what is changing with school sports, and what needs to change, so they remain vibrant parts of our schools (clearly, more posts to come), but this post has a tighter focus.   The photo above, taken at last Friday’s game between West Van Secondary and Sentinel, shows amazing school pride in action.

What do I love about school sports?  They provide a lens through which to see the world.  It is positive values that make sports meaningful.  These values are still alive and well in two ways — the value of school sports, and the values that we hold in school sports.  It is a wonderful ritual that links our school experiences to those of our parents and our kids.

From time to time, I am concerned about athletics and values.  Mostly, I am worried school athletics in the larger community are not valued as they should be.  We often hear about how we need to improve reading, writing and math skills — and the implication is, it’s okay if the arts or athletics fall off.  I sometimes feel like I missed a memo somewhere — are school sports not important anymore?

For many adults, some of our greatest moments in high school came from outside the classroom, at a school drama performance, as part of a school trip and, for many, from school sports.  We also know, absolutely, school sports make an important contribution to the culture, character and definition of our schools.

I have seen, and still see, school sports much like Bill Bradley described in his book Values of the Game.  So many of the qualities of a full and meaningful life are honed on a soccer field, in a gymnasium, or in the pool.  The passion that drives you to compete and better yourself.  The discipline that forces you to maintain a schedule and balance your life.  The selflessness that epitomizes being a great team player.  The respect you develop for each other, teammates, opponents and the games you play.  The perspective and resilience you find by realizing life goes on, even after a big loss, and winning and losing is not only about the score in the game.  The courage you show to triumph over adversity, and the leadership which defines special athletes whose greatest accomplishments are not only about making themselves better, but raising the level of all those around them.

We are lucky to have the model we have for school athletics.  A model built on volunteerism — teachers and other staff coming together with parents and others in the community, to foster not only the growth of school sports, but also the building of life values.  There are few better feelings than when a former athlete sees you some 10 or 20 years after you worked with them, calls you coach and tells you that he or she is now also coaching.  While we can lament there is not more money in athletics, or that we don’t have a paid coaching model like some private schools, or many places in the United States — we do have a model where communities come together and make school sports happen, and often “pay it forward” athletes later in life become coaches to offer others what they once had.

Thanks to everyone in our district — and in all districts — who support our students through athletics, helping our students to sharpen their values.  School sports continue to be a wonderful ritual worth celebrating.

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If you don’t subscribe to Seth Godin‘s blog, you should.  One of his very short posts this week, The pleasant reassurance of new words, really hit home:

It’s a lot easier for an organization to adopt new words than it is to actually change anything.

Real change is uncomfortable. If it’s not feeling that way, you’ve probably just adopted new words.

I have to admit, the “21st century skills” and “personalized learning” conversations are not really feeling very uncomfortable yet.

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