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Archive for September, 2012

Will Richardson’s blog was one of the very first educational blogs I followed.  For close to a decade I have been reading, learning and engaging with Will.  As a school principal at Riverside Secondary, I would regularly send out links to staff from his previous blog (here), and I continue to follow his current blog here.  I have also referenced his book on Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms as a staff study group book.  Along with Alan November, Chris Lehman, Dean Shareski and a few others, he has profoundly influenced my thinking around the possibility of learning and schooling in the future. With this background, I was naturally interested in reading Will’s latest book, Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere.

Rather than as a collection of new ideas, I think most BC educators (and generally across Canada) would see this as a synthesis of many of the conversations educators are now having about the transformation of the education system.  Richardson pushes hard on assessment — a topic currently very much in vogue in BC — with many taking a critical look at class, school and provincial assessments, and more toward less “grading” at the elementary level, and less time and energy sorting and ranking students for post secondary at the high school level.   I would argue while there are elements which would pertain to the Canadian education system, whether it be on assessment, teaching, or a range of other areas he challenges, these concerns are not as profound as what he sees happening in the United States.

For me, I think his book helps to further emphasize that Canada and the United States are moving further apart, and not closer together, in education. While Canada has moved to a post-standardized world, and concepts around personalization, this does not seem so true south of the border.  Without a doubt,  they are some similarities, but these are far less similar now than a decade ago, and are on a path to becoming even less so in the future.  There are conversations, though, looking at transformation happening with educators (and largely through social media) that need to move to the mainstream.

In his section on “New School” Richardson lays out six key themes for educators and the system:

  • Share everything (or at least something)
  • Discover, don’t deliver, the curriculum
  • Talk to strangers
  • Be a master learner
  • Do real work for real audiences
  • Transfer the power

He builds the case around ‘urgency’.  It is one I have previously described as The Urgency of Our Own Kids.  We truly can’t wait 10 or 20 years to engage in the conversation of what learning and schooling can/should look like — this would be too late; too late for our own kids and the decisions they will have to make to set the education course in the next window of time.  Agree or disagree with the book’s premise, it is an important conversation to engage in as educators, parents, students and the community.  Richardson concludes, “Just imagine the learners they could become if we made these skills [using technology to solve real problems and think independently] the focus of our work; if, instead of passing the test, we made those ever-more important skills of networking, inquiry, creation, sharing, unlearning, and relearning the answer to the ‘why school’ question.  Imagine what our kids could become if we helped them take full advantage of all they have available to them for learning.”

For more of a backgrounder on Will (and his book), his recent TEDxMelbourne presentation nicely summarizes some of the key ideas of the book:


If you are interested in reading the book, please consider spending the $2.99 to buy it (here).  Also, a group of us will be discussing the ideas he has raised and are going to try a Twitter book club, this Tuesday, September 25th, 8:00 p.m. PST.  You can follow along using the hashtag #whyschool.

THANK YOU – to all who participated in the conversation.  Please continue to use #whyschool to keep the conversation going.  We will try this again next month with another book to push our thinking.  What a great turnout of people passionate about education.  Thanks to Chris Wejr – here is a link to more than 400 of the comments on the #whyschool chat.

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I am not sure what it means to take off my ‘teaching hat’ and put on my ‘parenting hat'; it’s kind of all the same to me. I also think we bring all of our hats to help us in different situations. That said, this is a post with my ‘parent hat’ in mind.  As classes are settling in and school is in full swing, I have some hopes for my own kids’ experiences (and my engagement with these experiences) for the coming school year.

Communication

I am so pleased so many teachers have websites.  I love how the teachers display their kids’ work, giving weekly previews and sharing ideas on how we, as parents, can support their current learning at home.  My day job severely limits my ability to see school in action for my kids and the website is a wonderful way for me to stay connected.  I also appreciate the ability to subscribe to the websites and receive emails with new content.  While I know we should be checking back regularly, the updates are a great prod for me to take a look. I know it may seem like “one more thing to do” but the sites have been an amazing tool of engagement and connecting me with my kids’ learning.

Homework

I really would prefer you didn’t.  I won’t use this space to get into the big debate about the value of homework (that said here is an article from Alfie Kohn that will get you thinking), but I know our kids, like so many other kids, are very engaged in learning outside of school. So, particularly at their age (young elementary), homework is really unnecessary.  I do love home reading, particularly when it is focused on reading and sharing and not about simply reading a certain number of books.  My oldest son has the ability to turn reading into a contest, to find the easiest books to read as possible, so he can ‘win’.

Create Some Space

The most enjoyable times my older daughter has had in school have been when she has had some free space and choice of what she can learn, and how she can display that learning.  Please give them some work that pushes their boundaries, pushes their thinking, and that does not necessarily have an “answer”.  They love this type of work, it is what they talk about at the dinner table.

Be Careful with Busy Work

When there is a Hollywood movie being shown, one of my kids wants to stay home.  She also doesn’t understand why, when she understands a math concept, she should use the rest of the time to colour.  To be clear, these type of things have happened exceptionally rarely, but they discourage my kids from school.

Grading

Again, prefer you didn’t, even with our oldest child in Grade 5.  I have been in education my entire life, but if she comes home and tells me she got a “B” on something, I have no idea what that means and then the conversation ends there.  Please give feedback, and  feedback that my kids can use to improve their work next time, feedback that my wife and I can use to support what is going on in their learning and in the classroom.

What Really Matters

Just take good care of them, help them adjust socially. And, be memorable like all of my elementary teachers were. I can point to at least one way each of my elementary teachers made a difference in my life — from my love of Bruce Springsteen to my interest in storytelling.  All of our kids mention when their teachers ask about their lives outside of school, whether it is about family, sports or other interests. These little things are really the big things for our kids about school.

To be very clear, our kids go to an outstanding neighbourhood school and they have a great sense of place and belonging. And, to date, we have had 10 teacher experiences — all very positive. Here’s to counting on another great year ahead.

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This past week I had the opportunity to join Radio One’s On The Coast host, Stephen Quinn, and fellow panelists Ann Whiteaker, past president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils; Jerry Li, Grade 11 student from Surrey, and Peter Cowley, Senior Vice-President of Operations and Director of School Performance Studies at the Fraser Institute, in looking at the state of public education in BC. The forum, which was hosted at Vancouver Technical Secondary School in Vancouver, used the tagline “Is BC’s Public Education System Broken?”  Unfortunate, because while I do appreciate the question makes good media sense, it is not a productive starting place for a conversation about what we need to do to improve upon one of the world’s top public education systems.

I would have liked more of a chance to explore the system we want, to have engaged on how to keep it moving forward, and to discuss what a greater focus on the pedagogy and practice that will be required for schooling in our future world would look like. However, the forum did highlight the passion of those who work and participate in the public education system in British Columbia.  Hopefully, there will be more public input and conversations soon (and more listening to the voices of young people!) focussing on the learning our kids need and the education system this will require.

The forum podcast is available here (the forum was held in hours two and three,  though there is a good interview with the Ministry of Education’s Superintendent of Achievement, Rod Allen, in hour one). There were also active, and good conversations on Twitter, which one can still find by searching #otcforum. Several thoughtful reflections on the event have also been received, including this one from Jenny Arntzen.

Finally, on this topic, in advance of the session, each of the four panelists was tasked with the homework of putting together two minutes of material describing the greatest strengths and weaknesses of British Columbia’s public education system.  The notes I prepared for the conversation are below:

The greatest strength in BC is our consistent, high levels of achievement; we do really well for most kids – from graduation rates to international assessments – we are one of the top performing jurisdictions in the world. Educators from around the globe flock to BC to learn our secrets, and international students, for example, see our schools as highly desirable.

We have an incredibly diverse clientele, far more diverse now than even 10 years ago; we have been challenged by funding, yet our achievement levels have continued to improve.

And at its core, this is all about outstanding teachers and administrators – highly-skilled, dedicated, passionate teachers investigating new ways – embracing technology, and giving so much to the life of the school from athletics to the arts.  There is nothing more important than the connection teachers make to students and we get that right.  There is a total commitment to doing the right thing for every student – it is very impressive.

The system is not broken.

Ironically, this strength is also a weakness.  It is hard to transform a system that is highly successful – why change when we are doing well?  We have to come to grips with the understanding that while it may be reassuring for our kids’ schooling to look a lot like our schooling looked like, this will not prepare our kids for the world that we are in and they are entering.

We need to transform the system to a new place – more of just the same is not going to make us better; we need to connect and network the brilliant pockets of innovations blossoming around the province.

We need to address the increasing relevance and engagement gap for kids – particularly as students move to high school – kids tell us their engagement is waning.

We need to ensure the system is reflective of the world we live in with an increased focus on skills and competencies, real world learning and less content focussed.

We need to better figure out how to meet the needs of students that don’t see university as their first option after Grade 12.

To be very clear, we are in this transformation from a position of huge strength – becoming a better version of us.

Hopefully, this is the first of many opportunities this year to move conversations about public education in BC to the mainstream.

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I have a different take on private school K-12 education than some in the public system.  I like it.  I think private schools are good for the public education system; the competition for enrolment from private schools forces us to stay at the top of our game.  While some debate the funding they receive from government, their existence, and the choice they offer for parents in the community ensures public education is not just a default option.  This choice is especially true in a community like West Vancouver, with many families who can afford a private school education and excellent private schools in the community. While we rattle off a lot of statistics over graduation rates, and post-secondary transition, one statistic I am most proud of is the decade-long trend we have seen in West Vancouver, with families increasingly selecting public school for their children.  We have outstanding teachers, and our schools continue to refine their programs to meet the needs of the community.

In public education, we generally go quietly about our business, the work we do in our schools, in all public schools, the important work of improving life chances for the next generation. And I usually let the most outlandish critiques of our system roll off.  But not this time.

When reading the most recent Business in Vancouver, and seeing an article: “What are the real costs of private school?” on page 14 of the September 4-10, 2012 edition under Member News, (unfortunately I have not been able to locate an online link,) I didn’t expect to find this quote:

Given that private schools have proven to give students a leg up when it comes to attending university, networking, and surpassing academic standards, a private school graduate is very likely to land a high-pay job. Tuition can be considered a down payment for a child’s future salary.

With all due respect to author Carly Maga, ENOUGH. I just can’t let you get away with saying something like this.  I am the first to admit we often do ourselves a disservice in the public system; the decades long labour tension takes it toll on everyone, and yes, we have a system that can improve, but I will put our public schools side-by-side private schools any day.  And it is more than a “gut feel”, just last week the Globe and Mail brought attention to a recent UBC study of over 4,500 students that indicated public school graduates outperformed private school graduates in first year sciences.   As I said to our staff at our Opening Professional Development Day for the year:

We are in a profession that is regularly challenged and often undervalued and underappreciated by those who look from the outside.  Our world is changing so quickly – it is an exciting time to be a teacher; and teaching is still the greatest job in the world.

I struggle to properly compliment the excellence I see and hear about in our classrooms – too often comments like “we have great teachers”, or “fabulous things are happening in our classrooms” appear trite.  We have a great system, great schools and great teachers.

And, as a parent, I understand it is not just what my kids get from school, it is also what they give.  A K-12 education is not like buying a dishwasher, it is a relationship.  My three older children are right now getting “a leg up” by attending the public school in our neighbourhood.  My kids and our family have a lot to offer the school.  And while I want my children to receive an excellent education, I also want all students to receive an excellent education. I am less concerned about “winning” school, and far more interested in the rich learning experiences that arise when a complex and diverse student population pushes boundaries to create an organic jolt of innovation in a classroom.  Siphoning off some students, particularly those of affluence, to exclusive private schools is a “real cost” both to these children who have so much to gain and contribute, as well as their public school peers.

Of course, public schools need to be more than just a default, and strong private schools help public schools get better.  We also need to be exceptionally clear about the state of public education – the world is changing rapidly, and schools need to change as well, but there is no system with the diversity that we see in British Columbia, and in Canada, meeting the levels of academic excellence we have here. You do not need to go to a private school to “get a leg up” – my experiences as a public school graduate, as an educator in three districts, and as a parent of three children in the public system, say you need to go to your local public school to gain an advantage. And, if you have an extra $20,000 you want to spend on your children, put it toward opportunities for life-long learning and take an extra family vacation (or two) each year.

On a related note, I will be participating in a forum for CBC Radio this Wednesday, (September 12) entitled “Is Our Education System Broken?”  The forum is hosted by Stephen Quinn and begins at 4:00 p.m., and I encourage you to come and participate live at Vancouver Technical Secondary School (2600 E. Broadway) in Vancouver. Of course you can also follow along on the radio, online and engage on Twitter with the hashtag  #otcforum.

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This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the September 2012 Issue of School Administrator.

It’s impossible to attend an education event today without someone on stage passionately calling out for more innovation. It’s probably the most widely used word in my blog posts as well.

Discussions about innovation permeate much of what I have been addressing in our school district. The innovation label applies to all manner of things — ideas, methods, programs — and pretty much anything that differs from current practice.

Yet the challenge is that, for every new program we add to the K-12 system, we also must shed an existing program. As it is, the general public and the educators point out that we are trying to do too much, to cover too much ground. In many U.S. jurisdictions and in British Columbia where I reside, in order to provide a competitive slate, we try to meet the expectations of parents by offering a curriculum jammed full of options. At the same time, we struggle to address the standards established by our ministries of education. Putting the two together, we create a curriculum too full, one bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, we are better at initiating programs than we are at ending them, even when they have outgrown their usefulness.

The Test of Time
In the resulting litmus test, it has become apparent that some ideas, interventions, courses or programs have a shelf life after which effectiveness disintegrates. The world is constantly changing, and we need to reflect that process of ongoing change in all that we do.

This is particularly true of initiatives intended to encourage the use of technology and digital literacy. I’ve watched a steady evolution away from the “learning with technology” approach toward a broad-based integration of information technologies into our learning systems. We no longer need to teach K-12 students  how to use computers, but we find our curricula so overburdened that it is difficult to make room for programs that would encourage that integration.

The problem is that we are much better at starting initiatives than ending them. Even when existing programs no longer connect with students, we often protect them because our investment of resources, in one way or another, into some of these programs dissuades us from abandoning them. On the other hand, holding on to these programs limits the development of new programs and learning experiences for students.

It’s something of a Catch 22 because we know new innovations need time to take root and grow. We have tried running all the courses from the previous year along with the new ones proposed (to the same students), but sign-up is fragmented, and many courses are cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.

The Solution?
So what’s the answer? Well, I believe we need to take a cue from the private
sector, which fully understands that it is necessary to let go of the old and make room for the new. When innovations no longer work, they are abandoned, or the company goes under. The concept provides us with a direction forward.

A case in point: Diane Nelson, who nurtures our school district’s sports academy programs, proposed and launched a field hockey academy.
It didn’t work out; so, instead of trying to force the field hockey academy to work, she dropped the idea and now has started a baseball academy, which drew sufficiently high registration to launch this fall. She knew to walk away from one and to reinvest in another, continuing the search to find programs to
meet the needs of our students and their families.

When someone says that our kids should be doing more “X,” it is usually
difficult to disagree, whether that might be financial literacy, cross-curricular
experiences, physical activity, workplace experience, self-directed
inquiry or some other wonderful, innovative program. To keep on adding
“X” will eventually work against us, covering more superficially, and preventing students from digging deeper in their learning.

When courses disappear or school rituals retire, it should not be seen
as negative. It represents progress. Many ideas have a shelf life. So, while
we are really good at celebrating all the new notions in education today,
we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull innovations
along the way.

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