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Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

dennis sparks

I started my teaching career in the infancy of the Internet information age. At the time, information on how to improve one’s practice was scarce.  I relied heavily on books, monthly magazines, face-to-face professional development opportunities and the advice and mentorship of colleagues. Over the first several years of my career a few individuals became key influencers. I am sure it is similar in other professions, but I would look to several educational leaders with great awe and admiration — they were the “rock stars” of education in my books.  The list was quite short. There was Barrie Bennett (he is responsible for me using and overusing the place mat activity); Richard DuFour (Mr. Professional Learning Communities); Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton (when I stand away from the item I am talking about to separate myself from the data, they are responsible) and Dennis Sparks (his regular articles for the National Staff Development Council were a source of information and inspiration).  If I were building a Mount Rushmore for my education gurus, they would definitely be the leading candidates.

I have had the chance to interact with each of them in recent years, and it was with nervous anticipation when I responded to a recent interview request from Dennis Sparks.  In the Internet age, many education authors who have made their living off of books and presentations have struggled to figure out a new model. Why I love Dennis (and others like Bruce Wellman and Grant Wiggins) is they have embraced the blogosphere where they share information for free knowing that it will actually increase their credibility and ability to secure presentations, or sell books.

Dennis has a great blog here and he “gets” it; as on his blog and on Twitter he is fully engaged with his audience. I shared some of my thinking with Dennis, which he published in a recent post.  You can read the full post here.  Below, I have reprinted some of his questions and my answers:

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity. They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control. This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know of any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students. How will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves. They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often become distracted. That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller. I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents and the community.

Sometimes, teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger. As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy, we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

My thanks to Dennis for inspiring me early on in my career and for continuing to be someone who pushes my thinking to this day. Having leaders like him engaged in professional learning in our digital world brings depth and credibility to it.

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Student Power Rankings

PowerRankings-1

It is with great excitement I announce the launch of our Student Power Rankings. This is an exciting time that will push education into the 22nd century.  You have already heard a lot about 21st century education.  Some have said, “Well yes, but the 21st century is already more than 10 per cent over.” There is strong evidence that we need to focus on preparing students for the next century.  And, the next century will not be about lowering the stakes, but raising them — that is why we are launching our Student Power Ranking System today.  We know there is nothing more important than knowing if your child is doing better than the child sitting next to them in class. Now, on a weekly basis, you will have that answer.

So, just what are Student Power Rankings?

Student Power Rankings will allow you to see exactly how your child is doing in comparison to every other child in the class, school, province, country and beyond. Key factors include:  IQ, recent test results, attendance reports and Body Mass Index; these numbers are then crunched into a numerical result accurate to 3 decimal places. Rankings will be updated each Monday morning (or next school day in the event of a holiday).

The rankings will be posted at each school and on each school website.  It is all about transparency so, once per term, results will be also posted in the newspaper including our “Top 20″ Team with the highest scores in each grade across the district. Rankings will also be employed to determine and assign students to classes and to assist them in making appropriate career choices. Also, based on the power rankings, the bottom 10 per cent of students at any grade level will be placed on probation and, of these, 50 per cent will be held back. It is important that the rankings have rigour.

The top 10 per cent will receive a T-shirt marked “I am better than 90 per cent of you”.

Why do we need Student Power Rankings?

We need to prepare students for a world that is more competitive.  We also know there has been no better way to improve schools than school rankings based on test scores. Since we know school rankings improve schools (no citation necessary), it is quite obvious ranking students will improve their results. If a child sees himself near the bottom of the rankings, they will work harder to raise their score. It is also not appropriate to think that all students can actually be “good students” — there are always some who must “be better than the others” reaffirming this important principle.

There is also a powerful focus on early learning right now, and we will be launching our Pre-K Power Rankings — allowing the community to celebrate their highest-ranked, three-year-olds.  If we can let three-year-old students (and their parents)  know they are behind (and losing) they can improve.

How are the Rankings Unique?

One might think anyone can do this, so how are our Student Power Rankings unique? While we have listed several factors that will go into the rankings, the actual algorithm is proprietary and we are not revealing all of the criteria that will be utilized. It is a bit like the Colonel’s secret chicken recipe, or the secret of the Caramilk Bar – one of the key elements in the ranking is an unknown.  If we revealed all of the criteria, students could then work toward meeting this criteria and have equal levels of success. Since this is not real life, not 22nd century education, this is not part of our program.

Are the Rankings accurate?

Simply put, it is all done by applying a mathematical formula accurate to 3 decimal places. Therefore, a student with an 86.435 will be better than a student with an 85.232 ranking.  Math doesn’t lie.

Many of you have heard me speak in the past, and I have often complained “With all due respect, If we can rate professional football quarterbacks for passing accuracy, surely we can rank Grade 2 students for the world to see.”  Starting today, we will do just that!

It is an incredibly exciting time for our district.  It almost seems like an annual event that we have this day to make big announcements.

24 months ago we announced The Flog.

12 months ago we announced Quadrennial Round Schooling.

And today, we announce our Student Power Rankings!

Hopefully, your first day of April is as much fun and exciting as mine!

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Google

Thomas Friedman recently wrote a piece in the New York Times on “How to Get a Job at Google.”  As I read the comments of Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, the more I found that Google is looking for many of the same attributes in its employees that we are looking for in West Vancouver, when we hire principals and vice-principals.

One of the more common questions I am asked is just what does someone need to do to secure a school principal or vice-principal job?  The truth is there is no one thing or an exact path.  In West Vancouver we do receive dozens of applications for any job opening, and many of these candidates have all the required boxes checked for what is needed in these leadership positions.  Many who apply believe there is a certain ‘formula’ in getting a job as a principal or vice-principal, but I haven’t seen it yet. I have heard,  “you need to be on district committees,” or “you need to have experience in multiple schools; to have experience in different subjects and at different grades.” And the list goes on.  In the end, our view is similar to that of Bock, “Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many non-traditional ways today.”

Bock identifies five key attributes in hiring:

  • learning ability — the ability to pull together disparate bits of information and process on the fly
  • leadership — when faced with a problem at the appropriate time you step in and lead
  • ownership — the feeling of responsibility
  • humility — the ability to step back and embrace the better ideas of others
  • expertise — it is important, but less important than the other four

The list really speaks to the skills we are looking for with our school administrators and the kind of attributes we are seeking in our leaders. We want them to be able to be smart and make decisions on the fly; to lead — not only from the front, but to feel like their school is theirs; to step back and allow others to share in the success and, finally, to have the expertise in many of the learning and management areas that are regular parts of the job.  Friedman is right, “In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavour, it also cares about a lot of soft skills – leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn.”  This is why we almost always ask candidates about who is in their network and how they learn with their colleagues. We want our buildings to be about learning, and that includes our leaders being model learners themselves.

And, really, this entire list and conversation extends to the qualities we are looking for in our teachers. We want our teachers to be innovators, leaders, and owners of their classroom. We do want them to be humble and, yes, we want expertise — but I will take someone with the other four qualities and lacking in expertise rather than the reverse, any day. Good grades don’t hurt, but we are looking for more than that with our teachers and educational leaders.  I agree with the notion Friedman shares, “Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job.  The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know.”

Of course, the teaching, principal and vice-principal jobs in West Vancouver involves different perks than Google (sorry about that) but it looks like we are looking for many of the same qualities.

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Fencing 1

Whether by phone, email, or in person, I get a lot pitches about just what it is we need in our schools. Actually, it can be quite overwhelming at times. So, when our District Principal of our Sports Academies said “I had to meet the fencing guys,” well, you can understand my skepticism.

Then, I met Igor Gantsevich, National Fencing Champion, World Cup & Pam American medalist. Now, several months later, there is something amazing happening in our district.  We have had well over 2,000 students exposed to fencing through their PE classes, and in six of our schools out-of-school fencing clubs have started up, with more clubs possible and a district-wide showcase envisioned. And, this may just be the beginning, as Diane Nelson, District Principal of Academy Programs said in a recent North Shore News story, “Our vision is an international academy on the North Shore where students from all over the world would come to train. We hope that students from West Vancouver would funnel into this academy and receive scholarships for Ivy League schools.”

I have never tried fencing.  My total exposure to it, until a few months ago, was watching some of it in Olympic coverage every four years, usually waiting for some other sports coverage, because despite it being part of the Olympic games since 1896, it is not a sport with a rich history in Canada. But Igor, the BC Fencing Association, and former World Champion Vitaly Logvin, and the current President of the international charity For Future of Fencing, are planning to change this.

sidebar-fencingInitially, we envisioned exposing students to fencing through PE classes this year, then looking at club programs next year and maybe an academy in the future.  The timeline is speeding up — with club teams this year and interest from families for academy programming in the near future.  As someone who grew up on hockey and ball sports, it is all quite amazing to see.   When we featured a story on fencing for our district e-news publication Learning Curve, the ‘click rate’ dwarfed everything else in the edition.  So what is going on?  I have some thoughts on this:

  • The fencing instructors are first class. Igor has a wonderful way with students and he has brought in former Olympic medalists to support him with the teaching. Teachers and instructors for these types of programs make the difference.
  • There is a fair bit of equipment involved and the providers have taken care of all of the first class modern equipment for students to use.
  • Although most students had previously never tried fencing, they had seen it at the Olympics or elsewhere, and there is a ‘cool factor’ to try it out.
  • Fencing is a multi-age sport that can be done together with girls and boys; so, it is very inclusive.
  • Since nobody has really practised fencing before, the skill levels are quite similar; when we divide up for soccer or basketball, even at the elementary school level, there can be a massive difference in skill levels which can be discouraging for some students.
  • Fencing attracts a different type of student than would be playing ball sports. As École Cedardale Principal, Michelle LaBounty, pointed out in the North Shore News article – fencing sparks student imagination.  “For students who do a lot of reading, fencing attaches an element of reality to their books,” she said. “It takes them to another time.”
  • The number of young people participating is relatively small in Canada, so the opportunity to compete provincially, nationally or internationally, is a real possibility.
  • While the sport does not have a rich history in Canada, it does in many other places around the world, and our community is very diverse. Many of our families grew up in countries where fencing is part of the culture,

It will be exciting to see what happens next. We want students to be more active and it is exciting how passionate so many of our students have become in such a short time about fencing. When I speak with Igor, he talks about the future Olympians he envisions from our partnership. It is quite incredible.

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Tools

Last week I shared Superintendency & Social Networking, a post that was also published in the AASA School Administrator Magazine.  I also wrote two smaller pieces for this most recent edition; edited versions are below.  I came back to two questions that I get asked frequently – how do you find the time and what tools should one be using.

Here are my thoughts:

Finding the Time for Social Media

The superintendency is already a completely consuming job, so how can you possibly find the time to invest in social media? These are my suggestions for those looking to add social media to their work routine.

Create manageable expectations. Whether it is a blog, Twitter or other tools, be realistic about the commitment you can make to participating in social media.

Choose a few tools and use them well. There are thousands of tools available. Select a few and develop a comfort level with them. Start with tools such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, all of which are heavily subscribed to by those around you.

Block out some time. As you get into a routine, schedule time each week to spend engaging in social media. It might be 15 minutes a few nights a week or some time on Sunday morning, but it needs to become part of your routine.

Decide what this will replace. As you start tweeting and blogging, decide what you won’t do and what this will replace. As you engage in social media, some of the more traditional outlets, such as reading newsletters, can be eliminated.

Embrace mobility. Be sure people know you want to be contacted, and then ensure you have access to all these tools on your mobile phone, whether it is phoning, texting, tweeting or Facebook use. You want to be mobile so you don’t have to be in the office to be at work.

Five Indispensable Tools

Blog: Consider this your home base for social media and the venue for sharing your ideas on leadership and education practices. My blog is where I share my thinking, and it serves as a great portfolio of the work that has engaged me.

Facebook: Often considered more of a personal communication tool, it remains an excellent way to connect to your community. It is still the No. 1 social media tool used by our families, so it functions as a great place to share photos from events and alert the community to upcoming events.

SlideShare: This is the place to post all of your PowerPoints so they are easily accessible to educators in your district and elsewhere. No longer do I distribute presentations by e-mail. Rather, I make them all accessible through SlideShare so others can use and share them.

Twitter: This is your avenue for connecting to your community 140 characters at a time. Twitter is a wonderful professional learning network, connecting me with colleagues from around the world.

YouTube: Short videos of your school visits or records of your speeches now can go online. The use of video is growing, and YouTube is a great place to create a repository of your work.

I know these are regular questions for many – I would love to hear other tools that people find as core, and also other strategies people use to find the time.

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Social-Network-Stock-PhotoThis post is a copy of an article in this month’s School Administrator Magazine

“When you hire me, you don’t just get me, you get my network.”

At least, that’s what I argued four years ago when I interviewed for the superintendency.

An hour prior to the start of the interview with the board of education trustees, I was given a question. And without hesitation, I was on my computer sharing the question on Twitter.

Over the next several minutes, I fielded a dozen responses from my network. There were a few quotable quotes, some links to helpful research on the Internet and a couple of “good luck” wishes. I took their thinking, blended it with my own and put together a presentation. Although the school board might have been curious about what I thought, I figured they were probably more interested in knowing I could find the best thinking, synthesize the ideas, contextualize them for our location and then share them in a thoughtful way — all in a timely manner.

Had I attempted this just a year prior, I may have been asked to leave the interview, or even been accused of cheating. It shows how quickly our world is shifting — what might have been considered disingenuous or even cheating a decade ago is now considered effective professional networking.

Since that interview, I have only become more reliant on my network, both in the face-to-face form and in the digital world.

The Network’s Power
The value of a strong network is nothing new, and social media serves to extend the reach of that network. Now, more than ever, it is not just what you know but who you know.

Traditionally, our personal and professional networks included the people with whom we went to high school or college or with whom we work and engage on a daily basis. These networks now extend globally. Social media allows us to build diverse networks with those in similar roles, across different segments of the community that have an interest in education. We not only get to connect with those we agree with but build a network that transcends the echo chamber we sometimes can detect in our daily connections.

Certainly, traditional structures where we gather in role-alike groups still exist — there are sessions for teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and the community, and sometimes we bring these groups together. Online, the roles tend to blur, and it is the ideas that become the focus, with the most current thinking and range of views. Tremendous power is available in being able to ask a question and engage so many in the answer.

District leaders can (and do) build networks across North America to learn from and with educators, such as Michael Smith, superintendent in Tuscola, Ill.; Pam Moran, superintendent in Albemarle County, Va.; Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent in Burlington, Mass.; and the hundreds of other district leaders who publicly share their ideas through social media.

Model the Way
We are continually encouraging our teachers and students to embrace digital tools. Leaders have a role to play in modeling their use, as well. We want students to take the risks in their learning and not to be afraid to make a mistake. Increasingly, we want them to engage with the real world, to own their learning and to create content for the digital world. We can help by modeling all of this.

True, social media can be daunting for school district leaders — the technology is new, and there are many waiting to pounce on any misstatement. This, though, is the world we want our kids to participate in.

What we can do is model the integrity, honesty, compassion and care in this space that we would want all others in our community to show. Our blogs as superintendents can lead to principals blogging, to teachers blogging and to students blogging. Our participation can model for others in our organization the power of the tools and also serve as the example for others to follow. Our participation does model the engagement we want for our communities in the serious issues of teaching and learning and does so in a respectful and appreciative way. District leaders can move (and model) beyond talking about it and start being about it.

Admittedly, I find blogging scary. I do it every week, but every time I hit “publish,” I worry I may have committed a spelling mistake for the world to see or said something that will be misconstrued or gotten my facts blatantly wrong. I have been in schools as a student and educator for about 35 years; I can only imagine the stress students must sometimes feel when they put themselves out there publicly — and it is also good for me to understand this.

Real and Connected
The superintendency often is seen as a role disengaged and detached from the reality of classrooms and schools. Social media can change that perception.

I clearly recall one angry parent who came to see me with a concern about a decision made about his child at one of our elementary schools. He explained his situation and ended by saying, “And I trust your opinion on this. I have read your blog and know you have four kids in school, so you obviously understand what it is like to be a parent.” In a way, my blog validated my credibility, not because of anything I had said, but because it helped to make me more real.

Social media engagement also allows leaders to keep tabs on what is being said in the community and elsewhere about your school or district. One can follow students, teachers, parents, media, politicians and others and then engage with them. Often, what is in the newspaper tomorrow or the day after is being discussed on social media today. The community wants to know what the superintendent thinks, and blogging lets us do this on our own terms.

Our Own Words
There are many people who are happy to provide a version of what the superintendent thinks and says. The local news media often paraphrase the remarks of the superintendent, as do union leaders and others in the community. Social media allows us a platform to connect directly with the community to tell our story. Instead of lamenting that our stories are not told factually and fully and that the only news reported is bad news, we can change that — by telling our own stories through social media.

The proliferation of social media had led to more public gossiping than ever. By the same token, the use of social media can help us reach our community unfiltered. I know my blog posts — typically two to four a month — influence the watercooler conversations in our schools. When I wanted our district to engage in a conversation about final exams, a blog post on the topic laying out some of the positives and negatives helped guide the conversation.

The profile and political nature of our job and the relationship with the school board and government officials all can give pause. I am careful and clear about the areas I discuss in social media and those I don’t. My focus is on teaching and learning. While I spend time discussing budgets and labour contracts with our board, those are issues for them to speak about publicly.

While others will gladly say what we believe if we let them, social media does help break down some of the traditional barricades to reaching the people we want to teach. It also can humanize us and allow us to share our thoughts and stories in our own words.

Professional Benefits
Professional learning and development for educators used to be scarce. Educators depended on monthly magazines, professional journals and occasional conferences. Now phenomenal resources are available just one or two clicks away.

While school districts’ physical boundaries remain well-defined, when it comes to professional learning, the district geography is blurry and becoming ever-less important. We are finding ways to connect and engage online that have little to do with geography. And just what can you find online? Without question, another superintendent in another school district is wrestling with the same issues you are dealing with.

My digital professional network has enhanced my face-to-face network. At last year’s AASA National Conference on Education, I connected with many colleagues I had known only digitally until then. I have found a common trend that I connect with people online and then meet them and then continue online — the combination of both digital and face-to-face connections has made these relationships far stronger than those I know exclusively online or in person.

Through Twitter and blogs, I have discovered we can connect with others in the field, solve problems, and open ourselves up to new ideas and learning.

Doors to Opportunity
Social media opens up opportunities. It gives space to highlight the work in our school districts. Each week I am sharing the best practices and programs I see in our schools — from teachers using inquiry, to students being able to self-regulate to maximize learning, to schools using digital devices. And then we can connect this work across the district and around the world.

Being engaged also opens up personal opportunities — from speaking and consulting opportunities to first insight on job openings. Social media means you have the power of your network to bring to any future job.

Anyone who sees participation in social media as another demand on an already full schedule hasn’t yet discovered the power that participation can have. None of us is truly too busy to blog, tweet or otherwise engage in social media. If we aren’t doing it, we just haven’t yet realized why it should be a priority.

West Vancouver is a school district of just over 7,000 students in British Columbia, Canada. But through involvement and engagement of our staff in social media, we are known around the world.

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The Halfway Point

halfway

There are some magic numbers in education — two numbers often referenced are 90 and 35.  A teacher can retire with an unreduced pension when their age and seniority equals to 90.  If I continue teaching, this will come for me when I am 56.  If I wait one more year I will have 35 years of teaching, and be able to retire with a full pension. And, why am I thinking and writing about this now? Because this month I am at 17.5 years — the halfway point of my teaching career.  Yes, there are a lot of “what-ifs”, but if I continue to have a career in education, and the rules remain the same, I am likely moving into the second half of my career.

Reflecting on the first-half of my career, my first classroom was an old art room at McRoberts Secondary School in Richmond.  The school was undergoing renovations and the art wing was going to be torn down — in the meantime, I set up my first year classroom.  At 22 years-of-age, I was returning to the junior high I attended with my Social Studies and English background, teaching a load of junior Math and Science.  I absolutely loved that first year. I can remember each of my seven blocks of students.  We had chalkboards, no computers in the classroom, and criteria-based assessment was a huge focus.  I was blessed with great mentors and soaked up professional development.  I remember often defaulting to how I was taught, but I learned so much from some of the amazing teachers in the school.  I have previously documented the change in my teaching here.

Flash forward to today, and I struggle with the question “so, what’s changed?”  I was in three of our West Van schools last Friday and they definitely look a lot different from my first classroom.  Physically, the chalkboards are gone and in many places the white boards are gone as well.  All the teachers have technology.  For me, technology in that first year was mostly email and mark calculations.  Now, I see teachers regularly using video, encouraging students to comment on class blogs and engaging with students and parents as part of the school-home communication cycle.  Classrooms are louder than what I remember from my first classes — I hear the regular buzz of active engagement.  And, the teacher-student relationship is shifting. I could feel the shift when I started teaching — it was different from when I was a student, and it is different again today; there is a sense that students and teacher are all learners — in it together.

I also see some of the same challenges.  Half a career later, we are still looking to improve the transitions from elementary schools and limit the number of different teacher contacts grade 8 students have during the day. We are challenging the structure of the traditional timetable limiting flexibility, to connect the learning experience to what is happening in the world.  To say schools haven’t changed would be unfair.  In some ways they are very similar – the calendar is almost identical to 1996, but in other ways there have been huge changes.  In almost every class I visit I get a sense of increased student ownership of the learning. This was not really part of my thinking as I began my career; I definitely started teaching feeling I needed to be the expert, but that thinking has also changed over time. I also see far more choice in what students are learning, when they do their learning and how they show and share what they have learned.  The access to technology for students is really shifting us from content providers in schools to those who make sense of ideas.  And, it also needs to be noted, that the call for more resources to support our schools is very similar.

All that said, I do hope the second half of my career continues to look very different from the first half.  I am one who thinks the speed of change will increase, but the school as the face-to-face gathering place will remain essential.  It’s not that we haven’t been doing the right things, just that doing the right things is changing — as our world changes.  I am excited by BC’s leadership around curriculum and reporting, heartened by efforts to encourage students to use their technology for learning, and continually bolstered by the fact that those of us who call ourselves “teachers” in this province are a committed, passionate and curious group of people.

Of course, I am also a little depressed — I have somewhat enjoyed the word “young” in the first sentence of descriptions about me, whether it was the young teacher, young administrator, or young superintendent. And, now I am coming to grips with being part of the “older” crowd. I am also asked if I am going to keep doing what I am doing?  I hope so.  I think public education is just about the most important work one can do.  I am looking forward to the next 17.5 years working with everyone who, like me, are in the second half of their careers, as well as all who come after to keep rethinking and evolving our wonderful system.

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Photo Credit:  Nutmeg Designs

Photo Credit: Nutmeg Designs

Dean Shareski shared a very thoughtful talk at TEDxWestVancouverED  last spring, arguing the need to include more joy in our schools and in our lives.

He also argues that in our standards-focused world, we need to take time for joy within the curriculum, and because it is a great thing to do even if it is not part of required learning.  He shares five pieces of advice:

1)  Be mindful

2)  Create something

3)  Commit regular random acts of kindness

4) Turn pseudo learning into real learning

5)  Be silly and laugh everyday

I have known Dean for a few years and regularly follow him online, and it is great that he lives this life full of joy. He is often approached by others who wonder how he can find the time to do some of the things he does — it is all a matter of priorities and what is important.

I was recently reminded of his talk when reading Anchorboy - True Tales From the World of Sportscasting (when you have a brother who works at SportsNet you get gifts like these) by Jay Onrait.  Jay is an anchor on FOX Sports 1′s FOX Sports Live out of Los Angeles, having recently started there after a successful career in Canada.  The book is a collection of essays tracking his career at Global TV in Saskatoon, to a very successful decade plus-long run at TSN.  The essays give an insider’s view to the media business and a look behind the scenes of television in Canada.  So, just how does this link to joy, education and Dean Shareski’s TEDx Talk?

Jay, clearly understood that people could easily obtain sports highlights from the Internet anytime they wanted.  He says of his early work at TSN, “For whatever reason, even though I knew we would alienate a large part of the audience with our shenanigans, I was utterly convinced we were taking the show in the right direction. Streaming videos on the Web was starting to take off.  Soon people would have access to highlights on their tablets and phones whenever and wherever they wanted.  No need to wait until 1:00 a.m. eastern time for your day’s sports highlights anymore.  We needed to deliver something more, give the viewers another reason to tune in.”

People would tune in to watch Jay because the show was far more than a sports highlights show — it was a show about people who loved what they were doing, who were informed, but who were also trying to bring a smile and a laugh to their audience. He recognized that the current sports highlights format needed to change, and that meant he needed to reinvent his work to stay relevant.

I think there are some parallels to what Jay says about covering sports, to what Dean argues about joy, to teaching and learning in our schools. Not that we need to turn our schools into edu-tainment, a mix of education and entertainment, but just as Jay realized sports highlights shows needed to offer something more and different from what viewers could get on the Internet, we need to have the same view of our schools.  If our classes are the same as what students can find in a video on YouTube, or a lesson from Kahn Academy, they will become increasingly less relevant. And, at least part of the answer is “joy”.  Dean illustrated this in some of his examples of real-world, hands-on learning kids were engaged in.

The power of young people coming together to learn needs to be fun; it doesn’t need to be fun all the time, but it does need a good dose of joy – not only joy for the students, but fun for staff as well. Show me a school that is doing well, and I will show you staff who enjoy having fun in their class, and with each other.  Mark Twain said, “To get the full value of  joy you must have someone to divide it with.” This is definitely part of what we are trying to do in our schools.

One of the nicest compliments I have ever received was from my first principal, Gail Sumanik.  In a reference letter she described me as “a serious thinker who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”  I know I stray from this description from time to time, but it is something for me to continue to aspire to, and to more joy.

Here is to a 2014 filled with more joy.

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boywithmagnifyingglass

Student voice is everywhere and this is a good thing!  Schools and districts are finding ways for students to have increased influence in the running of their schools and districts, and there have been numerous recent forums and events that have addressed some of the issues around this.

I recently attended one such event in Vancouver; It’s My Future was hosted by the Learning Partnership inviting students from 10 districts across Metro Vancouver to tackle some questions about their education including:

  • What has worked well in education?
  • Where are the opportunities for enhancement to public education?
  •  How is education helping students think about their job/career after high school?

Similar events are being presented throughout British Columbia and, actually, around the world.  There is almost universal acceptance of the belief that students should have a greater voice in their schooling. Some of the latest efforts in BC have been around Student Trustees on Boards of Education with some examples of this from Vancouver and on the Sunshine Coast.

So, will all these efforts lead to a greater student agency?  Or, more directly, how do we move from giving students voice to giving students agency — the kind of learning that builds self-efficacy?

Learner agency is characterized by a pedagogy that builds on the passions of learners and also has real world relevance.  We are seeing numerous examples of this in our schools, and the school structure is also beginning to change to accommodate this transition.  Schools are adopting more flexible schedules, new and more personalized methods of reporting are being adopted, and examples of hands-on experiences from outdoor learning to community business partnerships are flourishing.  Many do see learner agency as being key to the future of schooling. However, examples are far from universal.

And, could the new wave of learner voice lead to an even more, systemic learner agency?  Certainly not to criticize, but it is important to note while learner voice is a good start, it can end up being a tokenism if we are not careful.

For myself, the question is whether the efforts of student voice and student agency are the same challenge, or two different efforts.

Maybe learner voice and learner agency are two different ideas that overlap; or maybe it is a continuum, and as we solidify learner voice at one end of the spectrum, we will increase learner agency and eventually land on learner leadership — where students are the leaders of the change and design of their educational programs.

I often reflect on a question I heard Alan November pose more than a decade ago, “Who Owns the Learning?”  Increasingly, the answer is “the learner” with voice and agency being key elements on this journey.

Thanks to the work of David Jackson and Valerie Hannon – I have borrowed heavily from their definitions and a presentation I saw them give “Learner Voice, Agency and Engagement.”

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bandwidth

The number one challenge facing technology in education is not pedagogy or access to devices – the number one challenge facing  technology use in British Columbia’s schools is bandwidth.

I was looking back at a presentation I gave in 2002, when I said, “We should think of Internet access like curbside garbage pick-up.  It should be regular and something we can depend on.”  A decade plus later not much has really changed for me.  I simply expect when I load a website, open my email or launch a video, for that to simply work.  In the past decade, my home access and my mobile phone access have improved to a point where I almost never worry about access or speed.  The access in our schools is not so perfect.

British Columbia does lead the country in Internet connectivity. Students increasingly have their own devices at school, and very often more than one. And, how they use these devices is quickly changing — no longer are they just consuming content, they are content creators.  Even five years ago we lamented the spikes in bandwidth use at lunch and after school as students saw Internet use at school largely as a social tool. Current data tells a different story.  Spikes in Internet use are now during class hours and less use before/at lunch and after school.  Our teachers and students are trying to do exciting things with their digital access.  We are seeing a boom in one-to-one initiatives, more etextbooks, inquiry initiatives in a digital space, video streaming and collaboration online between schools, districts and countries.  My colleague from the Surrey district, Jordan Tinney, recently wrote a wonderful post on this very topic – Change is Just a Mouse Click Away . . . Or is It?

The story often told is that we don’t have enough technology, or that teachers are not ready to make the pedagogical shift. Yes, those are factors, but not the ‘number one’ issue.  Over the last two years we have ensured all staff in West Vancouver have access to a digital device of their choice, a topic I recently wrote about When Teachers Have Devices.  Surveying these teachers at the end of last year, we learned that about one-third of teachers are looking for more support with the changing pedagogy of the digital classroom; about the same number referenced the need for more technical support, and close to 90% indicated improving Internet speed “needs to be a priority.”  While it is tremendously exciting what is happening our classrooms, the spinning wheel in the middle of the screen can be a real downer.

The West Vancouver School District is actually in far better shape than most school districts.  We have invested in fiber connectivity, upgraded devices, modernized the ‘behind the walls’ with our technology and are looking at traffic shaping (giving priority to certain types of activities on the Internet like the student information system) and still we are challenged. Looking at the next five, or even two years, there is going to be more outbound traffic.  Classes are increasingly using data rich websites; video use is taking off; teacher collaboration in a digital environment is growing rapidly, and a new student information system for BC promises to provide amazing data at the touch of a key. In fact, in the very near future, I predict we will have more devices connecting to our network on a daily basis than we have students and teachers in our district.

It is easy to identify challenges, but this is one with some solutions. The Provincial Learning Network (PLNet) provides “reliable, robust and safe network infrastructure enabling communications and the delivery of educational content to schools and post-secondary institutions in British Columbia” according to its website.   It has served us very well.  It has helped us give assurances to families around content filtering (such as students surfing the web). However, as school bandwidth demands are expected to increase 30% year-over-year, we need to either upgrade this system or move on to a new model. So, do we do it together as a province or 60 different ways as districts?  And, as it often comes down to in education, who pays?

As we scale the use of technology in our schools we will need to reduce and eventually eliminate the bandwidth barrier.  Recently, I heard a speaker suggest that the global leaders in digital learning will be those with the greatest bandwidth.  We are making a promise to create engaging learning environments for our students through personalized learning powered by digital access. We will continue accessing the Internet and we need it to be as reliable as heat, light, and telephone service in our schools. We also need to get on with this challenge — if we wait on it longer, there will only be larger barriers in the years ahead.

I recently spoke on a ministry panel on this topic with the IT and Communications Working Group; a group that has concluded that moving forward requires a robust and upgraded provincial data network. AGREED!

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