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Archive for January, 2013

fish

I often speak and write about how the principalship and the superintendency need to look different in the era of social media. And, while it can be difficult to distill  ideas to a few key points, a recent post from Brian Verhoeven does a great job of summarizing what that leadership looks like, and while the post was not specific about schools or school systems, I think the messages are right on for our system.

Verhoeven’s post summarizes a discussion by authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant of Humanize:  How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.  The messages and the five key points about what makes a good organizational leader are very straightforward (my own thoughts are added below each point):

1.  They provide clear direction.

This list rings true for our education system.  Districts should set direction for schools, schools set direction for classes, and then leaders should step back and not micro-manage.  This action allows staff autonomy to find their own solutions, with superintendents and principals providing clarity of direction, and not necessarily all the answers.

2.  They use positive language when things change. They embrace change.

Principals and superintendents are often regarded and turned to in times of change, whether the changes are from government, in demographics, or in our understanding of teaching and learning, we always need to be out front and curious, with change not for the sake of change, but for different and better.

3.  They are transparent and share information freely.

The era of control is over, or almost over.  In the era of the instant, spending time thinking about “managing the message” has passed.  There is an expectation of timeliness and that we remove the secretive nature of the work.  Information is just that; the job of leaders it to make sense and direction of that information.

4.  They reinforce the value of experimentation—even failure.

The quote I often use, borrowed from a former colleague in Coquitlam, is that “you don’t have to be sick to get better.”  For us, in the West Vancouver school district, it is the notion and practice of a ‘culture of yes’, of thoughtful experimentation, and risk-taking, knowing we do not move forward unless we leave our comfort zone.  The best school and district leaders are supportive of staff and students taking the risk, quick to give praise when it works out, but just as quick to shelter those taking risks from criticism when it doesn’t.

5.  They talk aloud sharing their rationale and understanding with the team. They leverage the expertise of others to help them solve the tough problems.

Although the final decision is often made by one, along the way there are huge opportunities to leverage the brainpower of the room (whether that be a physical or digital room) to help ensure the best decisions are made. And, with such powerful and accessible networks, we would be remiss not to take advantage of this opportunity to make the best possible decisions.

A very straightforward, five-point list. Yes, but a very effective way of showing what we need today in educational leadership.

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final-exam

Changes in structure gives one an opportunity to step back and take a look at usual practices.  Last year, almost all Grade 12, Provincial Final Exams were eliminated. These exams, which at one point were worth 50 per cent of students’ final marks, were offered in courses from Chemistry to Spanish to Geography. With changing requirements from universities, a government policy decision to make the exams optional (among other reasons) the exams were poorly attended, and then eliminated.  At this point, most students will take five government program exams in their high school career: three in Grade 10 worth 20 per cent of their final grade (English, Science, Math); one in Grade 11 also worth 20 per cent of their final grade (Social Studies), and one in Grade 12 worth 40 per cent of their final grade (English).  There are a few other options for students, but this is a fairly common pattern.

As a History 12 teacher, I regularly complained about the Grade 12, Provincial Final Exams.  The History 12 exam was not a terrible exam. It had some opportunities for students to analyze documents, identify bias and think critically, but it was also quite focussed on content.  With a final exam focussed on coverage and facts, my class was (at least, on some days) a bit of a race to get through all of the required content. I would have liked to go into deeper discussion in some areas and allowing students to explore more areas of interest. So, one day it was Korea, and the next day was Vietnam, and then it was Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

The elimination of these mandatory exams, which so many of us championed, has been met with a variety of responses.  I regularly hear from teachers, who love the new-found “freedom”, who do not feel burdened by the final exam and are creating more inquiry projects, presentations, deep research opportunities they felt were limited with the content-based final exam.  It is not that content is not important, it is just it is not the only thing that is important. In terms of transferable skills for other courses and other life experiences, the skills of being able to analyze a historical document seem to trump the date of the start of the Suez Crisis (before you Google it, it was October 1956).

This said, another reaction has been to replace the ministry exams with school-based exams to “fill the void.”  And with all this as background, we get to the real topic of the post — are we moving to a post-standardized system in education that should lead to the elimination of the traditional “final exam” for most courses in secondary school?

While there are exceptions, in most schools and  in most districts across the province, most academic courses have a summative final exam from grade 8 to 12.

The elimination of the Provincial Final Exam has also brought about some new interchanges  – it has set a new model that final exams may not be the best way to assess performance at the end of the year, and has also led to the scaling back of “exam timetables” — the time required for doing exams is being recaptured by instructional time.  With more days in class and fewer exams at the end of June this leads to a lot of questions about what to do.

Some reasons (I have heard) for the continuation of final exams:

  • they are an important part of many college and university programs; so the practice of exams in high school is important
  • they help to instill good work and study habits in students
  • work authenticity — in an era when cheating (or at least the suspicion of cheating) is high — everyone in the room at one time makes cheating almost impossible
  • exams are a common test that everyone in a class, school, district or province can take to ensure there is a common measure of comparison
  • by having exams at the end of the school year, this ensures students will stay focussed until course end, and not fade out in June
  • their elimination is another example of coddling students and the weakening of standards in our education system
  • they keep teachers honest — ensuring they cover the entire curriculum so students are fully prepared to write their final exams

Some reasons (I have heard) for the elimination of final exams:

  • they often test superficial content and the multiple choice formats lend themselves more to trivia than a reflection of learning
  • there are a number of other more authentic ways to determine what students have learned — such as portfolios
  • those who excel at them are those who are best at memorization and regurgitation — two skills not widely seen as part of 21st century learning
  • if we are truly moving from a “sorting system” to a “learning system” do we need to continue with standardized final exams for students?
  • there is no feedback mechanism for students to understand their mistakes and learn from them
  • they create an amazing level of stress, anxiety, and create a high stakes experience for students not necessary or conducive to learning
  • they are actually very difficult to properly construct; they often don’t allow high-end students to push their thinking and are more about “gotcha” not learning, and there are many examples of poorly-created final exams
  • by removing them, it forces us to have new conversations about learning, about what students know, how we know it, and how to demonstrate it

Just because we “have always done it,” is not a good enough reason to continue.  And when there are external changes that force a second look, it is a great opportunity to see if the reasons bear out.

My general view is there are far richer ways to have students demonstrate their learning than a two-hour, scantron-heavy test. My answer is also slightly nuanced, recognizing that math may lend itself more appropriately to a final exam than English or Social Studies.  If the exam period was to disappear tomorrow, and we were forced to find other ways to account for student learning, we would likely come up with some very powerful and effective models.  I agree with the current BC Teachers Federation advertisement that we should be working towards “more authentic means of assessment.”

I look forward to this discussion.

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150 Posts Later

World of Recent Posts

Wordle of Recent Posts

I think, in many ways, my blog has defined my superintendency in West Vancouver.  I came into the role committed to doing things differently and while many of the aspects of the work are hard to define, or are not very visible, my efforts at writing for a public audience, about once a week, has been something I have been completely committed to.

My original motives behind blogging are largely the same today:

  • try to be transparent with my learning and leadership
  • model the “new way” many claim is the way students will learn — engaging with the world, and using digital tools to connect in ways we couldn’t connect without them
  • offer a different voice on educational issues from those in the mainstream media
  • work out ideas; get feedback, and push my own thinking

Some of what I have learned over the last 150 posts:

  • there is a tremendously supportive community of interested teachers, students, parents, and others wanting to engage in topics related to education
  • a good post can influence conversations in schools and the community
  • my network will help me out when I need it — it’s pretty amazing to have access to hundreds of the smartest people in the world through my blog
  • building a digital network makes it so powerful when you meet these people face-to-face —  it’s like you’re old friends
  • some of my thinking has changed over time, and the blog is a wonderful resource to track the changes in my ideas —  a filing cabinet for my brain
  • I am always a little nervous when I hit “Publish” — mostly worried that former English students of mine will find my spelling or grammar errors, and also worried that I may offend instead of engage
  • my writing has improved — it is a skill that improves with practice
  • a good post is one which people talk about the ideas raised; a bad post is one which has people talking about what I said… and, I have definitely done both

Some advice I would give to other educators starting to blog:

  • be clear about what you will and won’t write about — it is easier if you know from the onset the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ behind your blog
  • it is a bit cliché, but write for yourself, not for what others may want; let the blog be a personal journal in a public space
  • do not be too ambitious with your writing — make plans to write once a week, or once a month and stick with it
  • use social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to amplify your message
  • be thoughtful of the relationship between your professional role (teacher, administrator etc.) and your blog
  • think in blog posts — when you are at a conference, reading a book, or attending a meeting, begin to organize your thoughts and take notes like you are writing a story
  • the more voice you can have in your blog the more engaging it is for readers
  • be a storyteller — our schools are full of amazing stories waiting to be told

Some other observations:

  • the posts that tend to get the most interest are ones about self-regulation or athletics; people also really appreciate a little bit of “personal” mixed in with educational theory
  • blogging is a wonderful way to publicly say “Thank You” to teachers, colleagues, and mentors who have been an influence in your life
  • the busiest day for comments on my blog is Sunday, which is not true for other bloggers, but makes sense in the education world — it is the one time when we actually have a few minutes to read and reflect
  • we still need to find ways to make education more accessible – and while we need bloggers wanting to be the New York Times or the Globe and Mail of blogging; we also need less formal versions (I realize mine are more the latter)
  • it is not easy to write for a public audience — if you are told otherwise, the person is not being honest with you
  • it is okay to write about serious things, but in my blog I try not to take myself too seriously — while it should be informative, it should also be fun

I realize people like to put others in simple boxes.  I spent the first part of my career as the basketball coach who taught English and Social Studies.  I then transformed into the “kid” who became a vice-principal, and now I am the blogging and tweeting superintendent.  I suppose there are worse things I could be (or called), and I have become very comfortable with who I am and blogging has helped with this.  It has forced me to be specific about ideas, pushed me to share publicly, and given me a regular vehicle to reflect and refine my thinking.

At an earlier stage in my life I was a newspaper columnist for a local community paper. After about 150 columns I felt I ran out of things to say.  Blogging is different; it is the difference between telling and engaging, and I look forward to engaging in the next 150.

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wilson

One of the great treats at Christmas time is holiday reading.  Added to this, I am very fortunate so many of my friends and family know that books are the ideal gift for me,  and you can expect that over the next few months I will likely punctuate some of my more regular posts with perspectives from some of my most recent holiday readings.

The first of these is W. Brett Wilson’s Redefining Success – Still Making Mistakes. For someone who is usually immersed in books by and/or for educators, it is great to do some reading outside of my comfort zone. Prior to his book, my knowledge of Wilson was his three years as a panelist on Dragon’s Den — a show that I regularly PVR.  I have always appreciated his humanity and compassion (particularly in comparison to others on the show), but I knew very little about the complex process of philanthropy, and even less about investment banking — two areas that have dominated much of Wilson’s life (and  book).

Wilson’s story lines up with some told by prominent Americans,  including Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who are all committed to giving away much of their money during their life rather than leaving it as a legacy.  Wilson writes, “If you think you’re going to do your children a favour by leaving them a big inheritance, think again. Inter-generational wealth transfer is one of the most serious issues of our time.”

Wilson also reveals that philanthropy in business is a very strategic exercise, from finding the right projects, the right partners and the right opportunities to benefit important causes, to engaging the community and highlighting/profiling the company.

Beyond all of this, is a very powerful, personal story of refocusing life around family and friends, as well as his view on what we need in education — which obviously stood out with me.

Wilson argues for the importance of “teaching marketing, entrepreneurship and philanthropy beginning in elementary schools and continuing into all higher learning, either academic or in the trades.”  Given the excitement and engagement with Me to We, and similar movements often done as an “add-on” to curriculum, he makes a persuasive argument that these areas should actually be part of  core schooling – a course, he suggests, in changing the world.  Wilson says that the ways in which anyone can make an impact on, or in, the world comes down to offering their time, money or leadership. He states:

We as a society need to think more clearly about what each student needs to have at the end of the journey.  Every student needs a bundle of knowledge, skills and experiences.  The first group  of students who graduate with my three subjects – marketing, entrepreneurship and philanthropy – as part of their core curriculum will be a dramatically different caliber of student.  But until everyone speaks the same vernacular we’re not going to change the quality of student we produce. Until it has become core curriculum, it’s just another elective, and the impact will be negligible.

These core subjects will develop students’ leadership skills. And if we’re going to drive innovation and productivity, it’s as important to fill the bus with leaders as it have leaders driving the bus.  As University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon eloquently stated during our discussion on the subject, “We need to develop our students as whole people, being able to work across disciplines and across sectors.  That’s how we are going to make great citizens.”

While the language may not be the same, Wilson’s list reminds me of a talk by UBC’s former President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Martha Piper, where she also highlighted global citizenship and community service learning, among other key areas (Dr. Martha Piper And the Way Forward blog post here).

My challenge to Wilson would be one I offer to others suggesting what we need to add to schooling, is to also make the argument about what needs to come out of schooling. One of our greater challenges in an era full of wonderful ideas about what additions to make to schooling, is in an era when many are suggesting creating more “white space” and flexibility in schooling, at a time we are also considering limiting the hours of schooling.

So, I read the book to find out about the ‘truth’ behind the Dragon’s Den deals, and although interesting, it was the human story of lifelong learning that stood out for me, as well as a wonderful book for those interested in leadership.

Thanks to Pieter Dorsman, a parent in our community committed to making education better for everyone, for the gift of the book —  a great way to grow ideas.

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