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Archive for June, 2012

For the last 34 years I have been connected to public education in British Columbia.  The first 23 in Richmond included 13 as a student, five in university as a volunteer coach and five as a teacher. After Richmond, I spent six years in Coquitlam as a vice-principal and principal, and the last five years have been in West Vancouver, as assistant superintendent and now superintendent.   Over these years, I have met many amazingly gifted educators.  This past fall, I wrote about Mrs. Caffrey (here), who was one of the many great influences in my life.  And, this week, three of the finest and personally influential people I know in the profession are moving into retirement and new opportunities.

Retirement in teaching is different, I suspect, than many other professions. Schools have such a rhythm — it starts fresh with September, bustles through December, and finishes with an even mix of anxiety and anticipation in June –finishing up work from the year, celebrating accomplishments and then about moving on, often to new grades and different schools.  There is a build-up to the final week of school, and for our district it will culminate today and tomorrow with final events for students and staff.  For my friends and mentors – Don Taylor, Ron Haselhan, and Warren Hicks, this June is also about moving on to new opportunities. While we will look to school next fall, they will look out to new opportunities outside of public education.

Don Taylor was my Grade 7 teacher in 1985-86, at Daniel Woodward Elementary School in Richmond. From Kindergarten, students looked forward to being in Mr. Taylor’s class.  He was a teacher and vice-principal, but he also personified the school.  It was a school full of opportunities.  There were more sports than anywhere else, including school teams for cross-country, soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.  There was also a school newspaper, an annual, a radio show on CISL 650, huge school productions, and so many more opportunities that seemed so much greater than in other schools.  And, while Mr. Taylor did not do it all, he was the driving force behind many of them.  That grade 7 year, we had 38 students in class (maybe the good ol’ days weren’t always that good), and in addition to enrolling the class, and doing his duties as vice-principal, Mr. Taylor was engaging in activities with students before school, at lunch and after school, almost every day.  It is a small wonder that after his 19 years at Daniel Woodward they named the gym after him.  Mr. Taylor was cool. He took an interest in all of us, was always full of energy, and recognized that there is great power in connections inside and outside the classroom.  After my elementary days, I did return to Woodward to coach alongside him. He was also generous as a mentor, assisting me later on with my career path and application to education at UBC and to the Richmond School District, where I began my teaching career.  We have reconnected over the last two years, and he still has the energy and passion that I encountered when I first met him in 1978. Since then, he has made a postive impact on the lives of thousands of young people in my hometown of Richmond.  A very impressive 35 years.

Ron Haselhan was a department head and lead teacher at Riverside Secondary in Port Coquitlam, when I arrived at the school in 2001 and during my time as vice-principal and principal of  that school.  Ron was a quiet leader. He was part of the team that opened Riverside Secondary in 1996, an opening that had its challenges as multiple staffs came together to build the school. Ron, saw the good and possibility in everyone, and was someone who brought people together.  It was Ron who would bring his motor home and park it out in front of the school during a teachers’ strike, turning it into a home base for hot chocolate in the morning and hot dogs at lunch.  It was also Ron who would always look at the teaching profession with a critical eye; could he teach different, or better, and he was a leader on assessment well before it became vogue.  He was also the kind of person who would never miss a school dance, would open the school on weekends for students and sponsor all-night charity fundraisers.  During my time at Riverside, Ron shifted part of his role to teacher-librarian, bringing leadership in digital technology and the ability to work side-by-side with his colleagues. With over a 100 staff, Ron had credibility with all of them.  Ron was that type of leader.  He never wanted the credit, and shied away from attention, but in his more than 30 years in Coquitlam, he influenced students, schools and the profession.

Warren Hicks, and I have worked side-by-side for the last five years in West Vancouver on the District Leadership Team.  Warren is a great example of a serious thinker, who knows not to take himself too seriously.  He is also the most popular Human Resources Director I have ever met.  Everyone in West Vancouver knows and loves Warren.  He grew up on the North Shore and spent his 34 years in education in North Vancouver and West Vancouver, teaching, principaling and leading in the district office. In recent years, Warren has done amazing work with the Squamish Nation, increasing opportunities for our Aboriginal students, and awareness of Aboriginal education for all of our students.  For me, in coming to a new district and taking on new roles, Warren has been a trusted confidante.  He has challenged me, guided me and supported me, and was at his best during the most difficult situations.  In every conversation we have had over the last five years, Warren has been unwavering and undaunted in his view that every decision we make must be done through the lens of what is in the best interest for students.  Warren would cut through the noise, was willing to fight the good fight, and to make sure he left West Vancouver a better place.

My many thanks to Don, Ron and Warren, for all you have done for me and the students of BC.  Your more than 100 years of combined service for young people has been key, and so worth it.  We need to be sure that the next generation of Dons, Rons and Warrens choose public education in BC.  Our profession is not ever about a special program, or secret strategy — our strength is our people.

There has been occasion this year that it hasn’t always seemed like the best time to be in public education in our province, but I am continually reminded about the fine people giving their professional lives to improve life chances and opportunities for our next generation.  All the best to all of our retirees and a safe and restful summer to all.

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I didn’t know what to expect once I arrived in Finland. I did know that over the last couple of years they had become the ‘rock stars’ of education.  And, there is still a lot we can learn, but the big lesson? There is nothing magical going on in education in Finland.

Just like a child’s game on the telephone, over the last few years, a narrative has been told and retold — pulling out parts of the Finnish experience in creating a utopian view of learning for all to aspire to.  We have heard about how teachers in Finland are valued and respected like in no other profession; how all teachers have Master’s degrees, and how all students attend their local schools with a relentless commitment to high levels of trust and equity.

There IS a lot to like and some qualities are:

  • Their teacher-education programs are consistent and research-based
  • They take a longterm view of education, educational policy and election cycles seem unrelated
  • Teachers are well-trained prior to and during their careers
  • A high level of trust throughout the sector and within all groups involved
  • The ability of students to move between academic and technical streams
  • Deep connections between different levels of schooling including K-12 and post-secondary
  • Lack of hierarchy (students address teachers by their first name) and there are strong student parliaments – an emphasis on democracy
  • Strong cultural paradigms that permeate society and influence education

They also have many of our same challenges:

  • Roles of parents – how to become involved, but how to properly define what that looks like
  • Concerns over teacher compensation and workload
  • An ageing society with growing expenditures/stresses on health care
  • A growing migration and multicultural school setting
  • Student safety and bullying
  • Appropriate class sizes
  • Usage of digital learning resources in schools
  • The role of non-formal and informal learning
  • Differences in learning results between girls and boys, and between schools
  • Implementing the national development plan at the local level
  • Evidence-based leadership

I leave Finland even more convinced we shouldn’t try to model our system after theirs.  Jorma Kauppinen, Director of General Education at the National Board of Finnish Education agrees, arguing “you can’t copy or follow [Finnish education] it is part of our history and values.” It is not every country that proudly declares its commitment to a welfare state, and so deeply holds values like the best school is the closest school because every school is a good school.  Admirable – but so deep in their culture that it is not easily transferable.

I was also struck by one particular line, on one of the slides from the Director of Education – that the Finnish curriculum (and system) was aligned to PISA.  So, that clearly begs the question, if measures change on what we value over the next decade, and we further embrace a different set of competencies, will Finland still be the perfect education model?  Finland also realizes this possibility, as their efforts to transform their system are at least as strong as those in British Columbia.

We should learn from Finland’s experiences and continue to chart a journey to where Finland is going next.  What was particularly exhilarating about the work in Finland, was their generosity towards learning together and commitment to learning side-by-side British Columbia, and other jurisdictions around the world.  I think we definitely can take lessons in their civility and alignment in the education sector.

In looking ahead, I am inclined to paraphrase Bruce Beairsto (from BCSSA Conference — spring 2012) we should not try to be Finland, we should work to be a better version of ourselves.

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It was a great honour for me, as part of my commitments to the GELP (Global Education Leadership Program), to come face-to-face with the most talked and written about education jurisdiction in the world — Finland.  As our host, Auli Toom, at the University of Helsinki acknowledged, thousands of visitors come from all parts of the world to try to understand just what it is that Finland is doing so right, and what can be taken from it and applied to their own jurisdiction. Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons:  What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? is a wonderful introduction to understanding what Finland is doing and why it is working so well. However, nothing quite beats seeing the “educational change”  face-to-face.

In Sweden,  just a 55-minute flight away, they are talking the same educational language (high-performing) and have the same goals (personalized learning), but in other ways, the Finnish experience couldn’t be more different.  Whereas Sweden has a universal voucher system and a system that embraces choice and competition, Finland has focused on equity and equal opportunities.

This will be the first of two posts exploring the Finnish system.  The visit to the university focussed on the pre-service of teachers, as will this particular post. The following presentation gives a solid overview of both the Finnish education system and their teacher training programs:

The teacher education program at the University of Helsinki receives about 1000 applicants annually, and admits about 100 to their program.  They, along with the other universities with teacher training, only create space in their education programs balanced on the needs of the system; in British Columbia, the number of teachers being trained is dramatically greater than the number of teaching vacancies.

It has also been widely discussed that Finland obtains the “best of the best” teachers.  Many will apply for teaching and then, if unsuccessful, look to other areas like medicine and engineering — this is somewhat the reverse of what happens in North America.  It is clearly not the pay that is different.  Toom describes teacher compensation as similar, if not less, to what it is in BC.  She argued that the workload, shorter hours and longer vacations are part of the attraction, but these are similar to most jurisdictions around the world.  Much of the discussion comes back to the place of teaching in society — as a profession held in extremely high regard.

The funding model is very different for university – it is free in Finland.  While it is very competitive, with less than half of the applicants gaining admission, successful applicants do receive a fully funded education.  The continuum of the system is also important to understand; students do not start school until seven years of age, and prior to that a highly subscribed user-pay (though nobody is denied access) pre-school or  Kindergarten system exists.  At 16 years of age, students move into an upper secondary program, or a vocational program, or (and this worries the Finns) some leave school all together.  At age 19 (about one year later than in Canada), students enter university.

It is also true that all teachers have a Master’s degree.  They complete a three-year Bachelor’s program and a two-year Master’s program.  This is different in structure to BC, but not in total number of years — with the typical BC education graduate completing a four-year Bachelor’s degree and a 12-month Education degree. In Finland, admittance to an education program includes a 100-question, multiple-choice test to gauge appropriateness, and for those who advance beyond this round, an interview system that assesses appropriateness for the profession.

Finland has also harmonized the main parts of their teacher education programs, with a common approach to teacher education, across the country. British Columbia sees huge variances based on particular university programs and with greater autonomy at the hands of its universities.

In looking at their teacher-education model, there are a number of pieces related to cohesiveness and alignment that are ones we could learn from in British Columbia — from the focus on deep research as part of preparation, the strict focus on pedagogy, the link between spaces in programs and system requirements, and the common approach from all teacher education programs –these are all areas that could use additional work in BC.

As a fellow high-performing system (it is always worth reminding ourselves BC is in the top grouping of jurisdictions along with Finland) the challenges that they have identified for their system, sound very familiar to us:

  • Special Education
  • Multiculturalism
  • Student Engagement

Having spent more time understanding the Finnish education system, it is interesting to see where they have been, but more interesting to see where they are trying to go — many of the same places we want to go in British Columbia.

I have previously written about Finland, and what I have learned about their system through GELP (here), in looking at their efforts for change in a highly successful system.

More to come . . . .

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In the middle of an industrial park just outside of Stockholm is one of Sweden’s top-performing schools – Kunskapsskolan Tyresö.  It is part of a network of 33 Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden – all funded by a public school voucher system (Sweden has a national voucher model), and has no tuition, accepting students on a first-come, first-served basis.

Having just spent some time with several colleagues who attended High Tech High, in San Diego, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in the stories they told (Here is a post by Gary Kern and by Lynne Tomlinson) about their  experiences.  It is a school that has technology as a key tenet, but one would hardly notice it; students do inter-disciplinary work and have large segments of time to organize themselves; the school is a draw to those “on the ends” of the learning spectrum – gifted and challenged – and both groups flourish; students outperform their counterparts in neighbouring schools and have strong records in post-secondary.

The physical plant itself is modest.  The particular school we visited was in the midst of an industrial park in a converted factory; other schools in the network have taken older office buildings, or leasable space, and have converted them into schools.  One is struck by the fact every square foot in the building is used.  A case in point is, there are no hallways – rather, there are tables and gathering spaces literally everywhere for students to collaborate.

Much of the same language around British Columbia’s education system and personalized learning was evident with teachers and students at the school, but what was most noticeably different from the BC experience is that they didn’t take one or two practices and adopt them at their school, they completely rethought everything about their school and how it operates. Here is a video overview of the school:

Here are some of the key elements we saw as we walked around the school and talked with teachers and students:

  • Every student has personal goals that are continually monitored
  • Every student has personal strategies on how to reach these goals
  • Every student has an assigned coach to meet with them every week in a structured, 15-minute discussion – it was noted this was far more than a conversation, but a structured process
  • Teachers had multiple roles – all teachers had a base group they met with each morning and afternoon (an advisory-type program), and these students are the ones they meet for “coaching” once a week.  In addition teachers are subject experts (e.g. math or French) and also run tutorial centres that require some more general knowledge
  • The schedule is flexible.  There were group lessons, individual study sessions and teacher-led workshops
  • The school offers a variety of learning sessions and formats – some compulsory, some voluntary – from lectures, to labs, to individual sessions
  • The curriculum is organized by steps and students’ progress on an individual basis without being tied to a class or grade
  • Thematic courses provide contextual understanding, while providing subject standards
  • The Learning Portal gives access to learning resources everywhere and anytime – the entire curriculum is online and teachers are continually working to develop and improve materials
  • Every student has a log book to keep track of their work (like our agendas) with clear purpose and value – this is connected to the weekly coaching sessions
  • There are regular, individual progress tracking review/development discussions
  • The student has their own individual study plan

The bullet points are all quite familiar for those following the personalized learning discussions.  What was stunning was I don’t think I have met many students like the two Grade 9 students who toured the school with us – the epitome of students who own their own learning.

The conversation with Odd Eiken, Executive Vice-President of the Kunskapsskolan network of schools, highlighted the different approach they are taking toward schooling.  He argued the schoolwork versus homework conversation is not one worth having – it should be able workload – and students, like adults, need to find ways to manage their workload at school or home.  He articulated that all the efforts to standardize systems at the schools allow for teachers to have more contact with students – about 30 hours a week — compared with about 20 hours of student contact in most schools.  It is the personal relationships that are key, so they are what need to be the focus of teacher-time.  In his schools, teachers spend far less time prepping for classes, and more time with students.  Teachers also have a more traditional formal workday: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the school, and they spend a large part of their summers building curriculum. Technology, he argues, is to “liberate time” for teachers, so that they can do the important work connecting with students.

Here is Eiken’s full presentation:

Just as with High Tech High, there are many “Yeah, buts”.  The Kunskapsskolan schools are products of a voucher system; the Swedish school system does not consider athletics and the arts as part of the school program like we do; the voucher system which has produced the school leads to real concerns over equity and concerning behaviours (they told a story of a neighbouring school giving away free computers to draw students); while they have been successful in Sweden, and are expanding to New York, England and India, the feedback has not been all positive.

I left the school with the impression of the two kids who gave us the impromptu tour of their school.  I want my own kids to care as deeply for their learning at 14 as these two students clearly do.

The visit to Kunskapsskolan Tyresö came, in part, after hearing Valerie Hannon discuss the school at the BCSSA Conference two years ago – here is a link to the post on that presentation.

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There is a very interesting dynamic between two of the strongest trends for K-12 education — connecting to the earth and connecting to the digital world. Though these two ideas appear to run counter to one another, they can also coexist, and they do work together in the evolution of the education system.

I have covered digital connections on many occasions — from my presentation at TEDx, a post on Classrooms of the Near Future, and a reflection on How My Teaching has Changed.  In West Vancouver, throughout  British Columbia, and across the world, there have been  fascinating examples of technology infused practice and the evolution of learning with technology to simply learn (with technology ever-present and creating these experiences for students).

I have also written about the intensification of inquiry and self-regulation — two other key theme areas we are seeing in our schools.  However, there is another topic that is not receiving as much attention, but should, and that is the increase in curriculum and programs toward connecting to the earth.  Over the last 20 years, there has been a steady growth of student-driven environmental clubs, school-wide efforts around sustainability, and the proliferation of school gardens. But, there is also much going on beyond these largely co-curricular or extra-curricular opportunities.

On Bowen Island, the Bowen Island Community School is launching Outside45 — a choice program for Grade 6 and 7 students.  Principal Jennifer Pardee, and Vice-Principal Scott Slater, describe the program as a “new district academy that will complement our school’s vision in terms of environmental education and inquiry-based learning by blending learning in the classroom with frequent experiences in the community and natural environment.”

When the program was announced in the fall, there was always the question of enrollment, and it ended up being oversubscribed for its first year.  While it stands alone in the best of current thinking around learning with meaningful connections to the outdoors, it is also part of a larger vision around sustainability at the school.

At the other end of the district, West Vancouver Secondary School has seen the growth of the Sustainable Resources / Urban Agriculture course. Led  by Gordon Trousdell, the West Vancouver campus is now home to two bee hives.  The course is also a draw because of its off-hour scheduling, and has attracted students from the other two secondary schools.  Steve Rauh (here) blogged about the course earlier in the year and it was also featured in the North Shore News.  The course takes concepts from the science classroom and brings them to life for students who pursue passions in real world experiences.

Photo credit:  Gordon Trousdell

Of course, these programs are not unique to West Vancouver — there are several others we have looked at for guidance:  Saturna Ecological Education Centre (Gulf Islands School district), Nature Kindergarten (Sooke School district), and the place-based Environmental School Project (Maple Ridge School district). All programs are unique — yet similar —  including place-based learning, inquiry, imagination, and experiential learning.

But, returning to my theory; while the trends appear to run counter to one another — the programs exploring the digital landscape, and those connecting more deeply to the earth and ecology — are actually bouncing off some very similar themes. So, connected schools like the Calgary Science School have found ways to marry the commitment of both in the same environment.

I am often pressed about the future of schooling, and I always come back to the themes of digital literacy, inquiry, self-regulation and the strong belief that schools are key gathering places in the community and are not going away.  I will also say, I see a new trend in education emerging as we connect to the digital space and to the earth. I am hopeful we will find thoughtful ways to link the two.

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