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Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

What is Smart  A TEDx West VanccouverED presentation.

I have been tasked with answering this question, “What is Smart?” for my short TEDxWestVancouverED talk today.  The essay that is a basis for the talk is a final collaboration I wrote with my dad this past July.  The slides are at the bottom and I am sure the video will be up in a couple of weeks.  

‘Smart’ just isn’t what it used to be.  It is actually becoming passé.

In a world of knowledge scarcity, being smart was very important. Those who were smart were the people with knowledge. Others would seek out those who were smart. Smartness was in the hands of the few.  This is not just the world of centuries ago, but this was the world I grew up in.

We know who the smart people were:

  • Political leaders
  • Professors
  • Doctors, Lawyers and Teachers
  • And Jeopardy Champions – I am sure “Who is Ken Jennings” is the answer many would have given when asked about someone who was smart

Largely, these were the people who were the keeper of the facts, the smart ones with the information who would share it with others.

In school, it was those who could recall the facts, and particularly those who could recall them quickly.  If you could memorize your multiplication tables you were quickly labelled as “smart”.  Smart was a product of a system based on sorting – some kids were smart, and the other kids were . . . well, we didn’t really call them anything aloud, but the implication was that they were less than smart. And in the traditional school smart hierarchy – the matching of provinces and capital cities along with the ability to memorize weekly spelling words was the apex of smartness.

Of course, the last 20 years have moved us away from a world of knowledge scarcity to knowledge abundance; now, all manner of information is available to everyone. For better or worse, we no longer look to our political and intellectual leaders for their all-knowing guidance, we quickly check what they have said with what we read on Wikipedia, Web Doctor MD or other online information available to us.

And even our leader of smarts, Ken Jennings, was outsmarted by a computer. . . . Damn you Watson!

Really, the value of smart is not only about the move from a world of knowledge being scarce to it being abundant . . . . we are devaluing the word ourselves.  We have:

  • Smart phones
  • Smart cars
  • Smart Meters
  • And even a Smart Planet.

The word “smart” was reserved for the few, for the special, and now we attach it to the objects in our pockets.  When we say someone is smart it ends a conversation, it doesn’t start one.  The word has become greasy.  Smart has become fast food.

We are actually at a turning point in the history of smart. We either need to abandon the word for newer, more apt descriptions of the qualities and traits we value, or come to a new understanding of the word that is reflective of what we now value as smart.

And, in our schools, especially if we listen to Psychology Professor Carol Dweck, we need to get away from so often using the word, to rather encourage effort, continual improvement and a growth mindset and abandon ranking and sorting.

So, there is a good question – what is smart?  But there is also another good question, Is being smart relevant and does it still matter?

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waves-15

About five years ago we started discussions in our district about modernizing the classroom. At that point it was really a discussion about creating a level playing field with technology in our schools.

The First Wave

What emerged from the discussions was the view of a modern classroom starting with wireless access across all schools. At the classroom level all teachers were provided with digital devices. We took a different approach from the past and elsewhere when staff were given a choice about what devices they needed — some selected iPads, others MacBooks and still others chose PC netbooks or tablets. In addition, each classroom, from Grades 4 to 12, was also equipped with a projection device. These were not huge shifts, but they created some equity and it also built the groundwork for the student bring-your-own-device program. This program has taken hold throughout the district, in some schools as early as Grade 4, but largely implemented in Grades 6 to 12. Currently, most schools have a plan for students bringing devices and engaging them in the classroom.

The Next Wave

The next wave will continue to have a digital influence, but the modern classroom is far more than a ‘digital’ classroom. Of course, these are not things with clear start and stop timelines, so in some schools the final projectors are still being installed and student device programs are being finalized.  As schools have more students with devices, we will need to revisit our work and make further improvements to items like Wi-Fi access. So, for the next wave, I see four trends emerging:

1)   Rethinking the common spaces. Most notably, rethinking libraries as learning commons areas. Schools see these areas as places that can symbolize and epitomize some of the changes we are seeing with how we access information and organize learning.

2)  Refreshing the web environment.  The portal of 2010 has become clunky and dated.  We are looking to create secure spaces to make student publishing easier, and we are looking for ways to ensure the web tools our students and staff are working with outside the school day are available during the school day and part of our core systems.

3)  Self-regulation is influencing our classrooms.  I have written often about Stuart Shanker and the influence he is having, as well as the self-regulation work in our school district.  This can translate into fewer posters on the wall, different kinds of lighting, quiet areas in the classroom for some students and a variety of desks and chairs to improve  environments for learners — another important understanding about how young people learn.

4)  Outdoor learning spaces.  We now see many school and community gardens connected to curriculum, as well as schools interested in outdoor shelters or other structures to allow for more formal teaching out-of-doors. Combined with outdoor learning programs, these shifts are definitely altering how we view classrooms as strictly being an indoor activity.

The modernized classroom is a digitally rich classroom and as this first wave continues alongside the second wave, we will see more students with devices and more technology benefiting student learning.  As mentioned, the modern classroom is much more than kids with computers — from common spaces with less of a library look and more like Starbucks, to flexible classrooms with different furniture to ‘classrooms’ being outdoors, the modern learning environment is an evolving and dynamic place.

It will be exciting to be part of this shift.

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QUestu

I often hear feedback like “I really like what is happening with inquiry and project based learning, but my kids need to be prepared for university, and university is never going to change.”

Well,  last week we loaded up the bus with all of our school principals and vice-principals and headed up the highway to Quest University in Squamish.  Quest has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately and here is why.

Quest University is a private, non-profit liberal arts and sciences university which opened in 2007.  From an initial enrollment of about 70 students, it now boasts a population of about 700 (it is fully subscribed). But what is grabbing the attention of students and parents is how different the university structures its programs.

Students take one course at a time. For three-and-a-half weeks students focus on a single course with at least five hours of class time per day. The benefit around this set up is that it makes it easy to take field trips local or abroad — there is nothing else to worry about.  Students are in classes of 20, and walking through the school one sees tables of 21 — one for the professor and student to sit at for their discussions.

In their second year, students spend an entire block with 15 students and a tutor to figure out what question they are going to think about and focus on for the next two years. We heard  Quest’s President, David J. Helfand, speak about one of the questions a student came up with, “What’s the best way to educate a child?” The student then spent their third and fourth year focusing on this one question. In this example, the student read Maria Montessori and spent a month in a Montessori school; they also read Rudolph Steiner, and spent a month in a Waldorf School; then read John Dewey, and spent a month in a public school.

Students take a series of courses around their passion with a huge emphasis on experiential learning.  To date, the majority of students also study abroad and Helfand sees it as a goal that all students spend some time studying elsewhere as part of their study program.

Even the application is very different with students having to submit an original creation (some sort of passion project), along with an essay. Students who are successful in this stage of their application then move on to an interview process and final decisions are made on students acceptance.

Helfand knows a good deal about the traditional university having come to Quest from 34 years of teaching at Columbia University.  He joked during his talk that he was not all that fond of nature and looked forward to returning to the concrete of New York. He also said that he wouldn’t go back to a world of semester-long courses and individual departments.

The vision he has helped realize gives emphasis to the words of Sir Ken Robinson and his much-loved TEDx presentations.

When a small group of individuals gets together and pools their talents to work on a difficult problem and comes up with an innovative solution, in university, it’s called cheating. In life, it is called collaboration and is highly valued, but in class, it’s forbidden. (Sir Ken Robinson as quoted by David Helfand)

While acknowledging that although it is happening slowly, Helfand envisions what is happening at Quest spreading.  More universities are curious about what is going on. Student reviews at Quest are off the charts — clearly, something is going on.

The work that Helfand and Quest are heading sends an interesting message to those in K-12.  We often shy away from making some of these bold changes in our system; hiding behind a belief that since universities are not changing, we also need to stay the same. Of course, as we see with Quest, those questioning the structures of learning are not limited to K-12 or higher education; there is opportunity for growth in both systems. We are now part of a larger learning transformation not governed by any particular age or school level.

To see and learn more about David Helfand and Quest, below is a TEDx presentation he gave in West Vancouver just over a year ago:

 

 

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The_real_world_title_card

It is a real honour to speak at many spring graduation celebrations and, while I realize usually nobody is really there to listen to the superintendent, it is a chance for me to share some of my thinking on education, life and the real world.

So, in addition to congratulating our graduates, acknowledging our passionate and giving teachers and thanking our parents for supporting public education in every way in our community, I also tackled the issue of the ‘real world’ this year.  Here is an excerpt from the comments I shared at our graduation ceremonies:

Starting with my own high school graduation in 1991, this is the twenty-fourth consecutive year I have got to attend at least one graduation ceremony.  And, as much as our world has changed over the last 24 years, from MC Hammer and Sony Walkmans to Pharrell Williams and selfies, graduation is still quite similar – still relevant, still an important mark in life.  It is part congratulations, part acknowledging a transition, and a time to pause and take stock – to be thankful for what has come before and look forward to what is ahead.

I think people who say our job in schools is to prepare you for the real world are wrong.  If we have done it right this year and over the last 13 years, your school experiences have been very much the real world.

There is a notion that school is all about preparation. It really starts early – kindergarten is to prepare you for Grade 1 and it just continues from there.  We start giving you tests in primary grades because you will get tested in older grades and you need to be ready.  Some see school as continuing to prepare you for what’s next and, ultimately, the job of school is to prepare you for life after school.

Actually, when you are in kindergarten you need to be in kindergarten – it is its own thing and not just a preparation for something else. And Grade 12 is also its own thing.  And so, as Grade 12s, I know particularly, in recent months, you have kept one eye on what is next – acceptance letters for university, travel opportunities and job offers that have come forward – sure our job is to prepare you for the real world, but hopefully school has been the real world.

The real world is about community.  The real world is about working with colleagues, making mistakes, learning, trying again – hopefully, that has been your year and your school career.  The real world is the collaboration that leads to the amazing arts performances at your school, the tremendous results in athletic competitions and the determination that leads to outstanding marks in the classroom.

The real world is about learning from wise mentors – and, we are so blessed with amazing, passionate, giving and talented teachers.

So, tonight is less about stepping out into the world, but more about celebrating your place in our world – a wonderful school career and the optimism of what is to come.

It is great to work in the West Vancouver system  — an education system that is not only committed to preparing students for the real world, but is the real world.

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kids-300x255

Outside of work, I spend many hours coaching my kids and other parents’ kids in school and community sports.  There is a  lively debate right now in the youth sports community about the value of focusing exclusively on a single sport from a young age. I wrote on the topic in a 2012 post on the Multi-Sport High School Athlete, and in 2013 on Being a Sports Parent Today.  Part of what really draws me to this challenge in youth sports are the parallels and similar debates in education.

I find the conversation around sports and whether we should be keeping score and ranking players and teams from youth, akin to the conversation around the purpose and appearance of elementary school report cards. Letter grades are very much like keeping score; those who argue for them remind us of the competitive nature of the world we live in and the need to let kids know where they stand, with those opposed contending the real competition is with oneself, learning and improving skills and the relative comparison to others is really secondary.

I also find the challenges for new providers in the youth sports game very similar to what has happened and is happening in education.  A generation ago it was the local community sports associations who were organizing youth sports. If you wanted to play hockey, soccer or basketball there was really only one option available.  Now, there are dozens — traditional community providers sharing the stage with other non-profit organizations, for-profit enterprises, as well as a series of new sport providers in as many sports capacities.  Similarly, in education we see public education challenged by independent schools for market share, and even less traditional options for learning like for-profit tutoring companies and completely virtual options like the Kahn Academy.

Youth sports, like learning options for young people, is in a time of transition — and it is part of what makes it an exciting time.

With that as a backdrop, here are my recent comments I shared for an article by Don Fennell, Sports Editor for the Richmond Review, Year-round sports mode: top athletes, coaches share their thoughts. I have also included the comments of my wife and oldest daughter on the topic from the article because the thoughts are really ‘all in the family’.

The shifts happening in youth sports are far more complex than just being good or bad, says educator Chris Kennedy, who is also a former president of the B.C. High School Boys’ Basketball Association.

“With the opportunity to go year-round, we have seen the traditional season disappear for almost all sports,” he says. “And there are some real concerns. There is a lot of research that early specialization leads to fatigue and burnout and overuse injuries. It also seems to serve the adults more than the kids. Kids are looking to have fun and often it is the adults’ competitiveness that is driving the decisions their kids make. There is also research that suggests adults who specialized in one sport growing up have higher rate of adult physical inactivity.”

Kennedy says the related debate with increased early specialization is whether sports should be more or less “score-focused” at younger ages. He thinks youth soccer and basketball have it right: de-emphasize scoring at younger ages and focus on development.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t want kids to be competitive, but do we need to keep score and have a focus on winning and losing all the time?,” he asks. “I like the race to nowhere metaphor and how it applies to youth sports. Parents are killing themselves to get their kids to so-called elite training that is getting in the way of being a kid and what is really the goal.”

Kennedy’s wife, Stephanie, is equally passionate about the topic. She has always believed that kids should be exposed to and participate in as many different sports as possible while they are young. And for a variety of reasons.

“I know through my own four children that all kids have their own structural make-up, both physically and mentally, and that different sports may cater to these differences,” she says. “I truly believe there is a sport for all kids, but it may take some effort and time to find out what that is. And in today’s age of childhood obesity, low activity levels, access to electronics and the resulting de-socialization of youth, sport can play a key role in reversing these trends.”

Stephanie, who runs Panther Cheer Athletics, is also adamant that kids participating in as many sports as possible when they’re young aids their physical development. This doesn’t mean, she says, they must do multiple sports at the same time, but within a calendar year should shift from one activity to another.

“This allows children’s young bodies, which are often growing and changing so rapidly, to adapt and hopefully grow stronger with minimal injuries,” she says. “I know from personal experience as a provincial level gymnast that I enjoyed the opportunity to play intramural sports (such as volleyball, basketball and soccer) in high school but began to resent the fact I wasn’t able to participate in these in any large way as gymnastics took most of my time. It also alienated me from my peers who played more conventional team sports and were members of high school teams. “

The eldest of the couple’s four children, Elizabeth, 12, thinks those who focus on one sport may quickly tire of it, burn out and then have no other alternatives.

“It is also more likely you will be injured because you are using the same body parts over and over,” she says. “(Alternately), if you play a lot of sports you have the chance to meet a far more diverse group of people and learn a diverse group of skills.”

Elizabeth says unfortunately sports out of the mainstream don’t get enough exposure and because kids don’t know about them “they may never try a sport they could be really good at or have a passion for.”

“Coaches in some sports are also organizing so many practices (young athletes) don’t have time to try other sports,” she adds. “I think there will be many more overuse injuries and once their career in that sport is over they won’t know what to do because they will feel it is too late to try a new sport.”

The entire article is worth a read here.  It is interesting that there is general consensus from all those interviewed of the value of young people playing a range of sports. So, I am left wondering, if we all believe this to be the right approach why then is this topic such an issue?  I think we may know it to be right on the theoretical level, but in the heat of  “keeping of with the Joneses” we have trouble letting our actions reflect this approach.

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What’s Your Job?

jobFrom time to time I have taken some of Seth Godin’s ideas and have related them to an educational setting.  In previous posts, I have written about Alienating the 2%, Thinking of School as an Experience, and the Pleasant Reassurance of New Words.

A recent post, What’s your job? struck me.  Teaching, and education in general, is such an interesting profession because there are multiple ways to teach successfully. To realize a common definition of our purpose (just what is the purpose of schooling or education?) and our role (what is an elevator speech for what teachers do?) is almost impossible. Godin writes:

What’s your job?

Not your job title, but your job. What do you do when you’re doing your work? What’s difficult and important about what you do, what change do you make, what do you do that’s hard to live without and worth paying for?

“I change the people who stop at my desk, from visitors to guests.”

“I give my boss confidence.”

“I close sales.”

If your only job is “showing up,” time to raise the stakes.

As a teacher, part of my job was to ensure my History 12 students did REALLY well on the government exam.  I also thought my job was to ensure students were interested in pursuing more learning opportunities in English, Law and History after taking the class (hopefully) than before taking it. I also thought part of my job was to add value and create community beyond what students could find in a textbook or on the Internet.

Now, as superintendent, I think my job is to keep us moving in the right direction. And there are so many moving parts — from politics and labour issues to new curriculum and pedagogies. So, part of my current job is to ensure our district is more than a collection of independent contractors who share a common location. It can be challenging and it is always a balancing act — pushing and supporting, giving attention to one area at the expense of another and then readjusting the whole.

It would be interesting, if not challenging, to put a one-sentence reply on “what we do” on an organizational chart.  So, back to where I started and “What’s your job?” There are so many different, innovative and fitting ways to do the job.  The more superintendents I meet and come to know, the more I am impressed by their approach to leadership and how they have taken ownership of the ‘job’. The person who will follow me will make the job theirs and it will likely look very different from what it is now.  Also likely, the people around them will have different approaches and facets to their jobs. Several highly accomplished superintendents in West Vancouver have shown us this through the years.

I think part of what is exciting and can also drive one crazy about education: is there one inclusive and all-encompassing answer to the “What’s Your Job” question?

I am curious to know what others see as their “job”.

 

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health

There are observations often made about young people today. Young people today are “taking more risks” or “using more drugs”.  The observation becomes generalized that young people today are “just not as good” as young people of the past. The observations are insinuated quietly and, as isolated incidents emerge, they become referenced through the media in a way to punctuate the negative narrative. More observations are then made about why the incident has happened; maybe it is all the video games, or a shift in societal values, or that we are raising a generation of young people who are just not quite up to standard of those before them.

Well, this is where the latest survey results from the McCreary Centre Society  become interesting.  The McCreary Centre Society “is a non-government, non-profit organization committed to improving the health of B.C. youth through research and community-based projects.”  Since 1992, they have had students complete surveys on a range of topics related to comprehensive school health. The latest results published this year are the fifth such set of results based on the surveying of about 30,000 students in Grades 7 to 12.

Unfortunately, the media release which accompanied the results from the McCreary Adolescent Health Survey did not seem to generate a lot of discussion. Quoting from the release:

Results show that youth are generally making better choices about risk behaviours than they have in previous years. For example, a lower percentage of students reported having tried tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or other substances than their peers five and ten years ago. They were also more likely to engage in injury prevention behaviours, such as wearing a seat belt and not driving after drinking.

These choices may also be reflected in better health outcomes: students were less likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection or to have been pregnant or caused a pregnancy, and a smaller percentage reported serious injuries than in previous years.

Other encouraging news from the survey included a decrease in the percentage of students who had been physically or sexually abused, as well as in the percentage who had been sexually harassed.

Now, that is a story that just doesn’t fit in with the observations. In fact, the kids today are actually doing pretty good.

The McCreary data is exceptionally useful for school districts in our planning processes. We have already spent quite a bit of time dissecting data and there is more time that will be spent still to come.  With thanks to Maureen Lee, our District Administrator (all data charts and graphs below are Maureen’s) we are looking at current areas of strength, concern and noticeable trends.

There has been tremendous work around school safety over the last decade. From the province’s ERASE Bullying Strategy, to numerous local school and community initiatives, there has been a sustained focus in this area.  Our data is trending in a direction that shows these efforts are paying off:

 

safety in schools

The “%” listed is for 2013 and the “%” bracketed is for 2008.  In all areas of the school, students are reporting they are feeling more safe and the numbers reporting they feel safe “Usually” or “Always” is over 90 per cent.

As we look at substance use the statistics are flat for marijuana, with three in 10 young people every having used it; tobacco use is slightly less with one in four having tried smoking. Of other drugs, it is prescription pills that still standout — although down from 17 per cent in 2008, the number is still at 10 per cent.  This has been a concerted area of work in our community with the school district working with West Vancouver MP, John Weston, the West Vancouver Police Department, as well as other partners to raise awareness on this issue.

The alcohol data shows the number of students who have tried alcohol has dropped by about 10 per cent and there has been a slight increase of students who have not “ever tried alcohol”.  It is also interesting to note, of those who have used alcohol, the age of first use has risen — so, young people are choosing to drink in lower numbers and are also choosing to drink later:

 

alcohol

In looking at the foods our young people are consuming, some of the messages around fruits and vegetables seem to be sticking.  Our young people are also drinking more water than when previously surveyed:

food

 

One final chart, which really struck me, was the one on Internet safety (below). Over the last five years, technology use in the hands of young people has exploded; it has become increasingly mobile and we are also encouraging students to bring their devices to school. In spite of this quick and huge growth in technology, students are reporting they feel safer with fewer feeling unsafe online and fewer reporting they have been cyber bullied.  Again, this is an area of huge investment between schools and communities and it does appear to be paying off:

 

cyber safety

As with learning outcomes, we have to be careful when we talk in percentages. If four per cent of students are feeling unsafe, these numbers represent real children and anything below 100 per cent (feeling safe) tells us we still have work to do.  We should be pleased with the story our young people are telling us and we can also take this as a clear message we need to keep doing what we are doing — our interventions are working.  There are also other areas we must continue to focus on including mental health, a lack of sleep and physical activity.

The Provincial BC Adolescent Health Survey is available on their website here.  The McCreary Centre Society will also be producing documents for each of the 16 health service delivery areas.

Of course, there are areas we still need to focus on and even in areas of strength, we must remain diligent. But, we do need to tell the story of our young people today and their health — it is a good story, an improving story and not just an observation.

 

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