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Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

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I was pleased to contribute to the recently published paper – Shifting Minds 3.0 – Redefining the Learning Landscape in Canada.  The paper is authored by Penny Milton, the former long serving  head of the Canadian Education Association, and had contributions from more than twenty superintendents across the country, among others.

I have written before about the value of a national conversation in education.  Despite falling under the mandate of provincial governments there is huge value in building a learning network across the country.  As we embrace a post-standardized world, learning from jurisdictions across the country is essential, as we want all students in our country to be well prepared for the rapidly changing world.

There have been a number of papers written in recent years on the shifts in learning that we are seeing, and that we need to see, and I have given a lot of blog space to the great work I see on a regular basis in West Vancouver.  What is particularly valuable about the Shifting Minds 3.0 document is that the same conversations, the same areas of attention, and the same urgency, are being seen and felt across the country.   The work is both exciting and daunting:

The challenge for school district leaders is to extend the transformation to all classrooms and schools. Whole-system reform requires conditions that support educators in examining and reshaping the foundations on which their practice is built (leadership and management, as well as teaching) . . . Because education is complex and the stakes for students are high, a dual strategy of both improvement and innovation can offer a reliable way to maintain stability while enabling forward momentum.

The dual strategy notion of innovation and improvement is one we often talk about in West Vancouver.  Yes, the world has changed and the skills our learners need are changing.  But this change is within a context of having one of the highest performing systems in the world.  We are moving from a place of strength so stability must be alongside momentum.

It is interesting to see the work in British Columbia in the context of the country.  In reading this document, I get the sense that we are ahead with much of what we are doing.  The document describes three governance models and management approaches and we see all three in BC:

Central direction involves stakeholders in an iterative relationship of policy design and local implementation. This approach has raised academic achievement across the majority of schools. Success depends on feedback loops, with leaders and practitioners learning from and adjusting strategies as needed. Central direction can promote improvement in schools, but it limits innovation.

Non-intervention approaches allow school districts to respond to local contexts without the pressure of specific school improvement policies. In these cases, the central authority encourages rather than mandates the change. Some districts have been able to innovate under these conditions; others less so.

Enabling or permissive approaches encourage or support experimentation and innovation at the district and school levels. Some may enable innovation by the simple absence of a prescribed regulatory framework; others may develop specific innovations—for example, in curriculum or assessment. The advantage of this approach is that it allows the province to learn and try out alternative policy designs before attempting to replace one significant policy with another.

We also see all three of these approaches at work locally in West Vancouver.  We have spent a lot of energy  trying to foster enabling and permissive approaches, but it is important to use all three depending on the initiative and the circumstances.

Finally, the shifting system drivers described in the document are very useful.  It is not that the shifts are new, but it is an important reminder of their interconnectedness.  We are definitely shifting learning environments and pedagogies and working hard on shifting governance.  We are getting strong leadership from the province on shifting curriculum.  I see shifting assessment and citizen and stakeholder engagement, of the six, as the two we have the most work to do.  Very important to see they all must work together (double-click to open graphic in a full-page):

www.c21canada.org wp content uploads 2015 05 C21 ShiftingMinds 3.pdf

I encourage you to read the full document.  There are many documents on the topic of the shifts in education, from many organizations with many intended audiences.  This one nicely describes the challenge needed by those of us at a systems level.  It is an important challenge for us to continue to take on.

As the paper concludes, “change is inevitable; transformation is possible. System leaders create the conditions for transformation by encouraging leadership at all levels, imbued with the very attributes we are aiming to develop in young people—creativity, inquiry, collaboration, calculated risk taking, reasoned problem solving, and the capacity to learn from experience and face the next challenge.”

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http://avaxhome.ws/blogs/igor_lv

You can call it a passion project, a portfolio, a capstone, a demonstration of learning – heck call it anything you want. More and more, as I see these type of expressions of student work at the end of school years or the end of school careers, I am becoming convinced they should be regularly part of our system.  And, in fairness, more and more they are the new normal in our schools.

Just over a decade ago there was a major push to move in this direction with the short-lived Graduation Portfolio.  There are numerous reasons why it was abandoned.  Two lessons I took from the experience, were 1)  at the time the technology was not good enough to do what we wanted in terms of documenting learning and it became a paper-heavy process and 2) a cumulative portfolio or project should not be simply the checking off of boxes as tasks are completed, it needs to be more meaningful.

There are numerous different examples of these demonstrations of learning in West Vancouver schools.  Some of these presentations are built into programs.  We currently have four International Baccalaureate (IB) Programs  in West Vancouver – two at the Primary Years level (PYP), and one at both the Middle Years (MYP) and Diploma levels (DP).  In each of these programs students have a structure to bring their learning together.  In the MYP Program, our Rockridge grade 10 students present an exhibition of their personal projects.

At Westcot Elementary, the Passion Projects represent seven months of exploration,  discovery and learning. Students are given one afternoon each week to pursue any area of interest. Nearly 100 grade 6 and 7 students follow their passions, blog about their progress and ultimately present to the school community in a culminating exhibition. Whether the finished product is a graphic novel, a fundraiser for school supplies for underprivileged children or an animated short film, students are encouraged to reflect upon the process each step of the way.  In this photo ( Credit – Cindy Goodman), Grade 7 student Rory Scott demonstrates the quarter pipe ramp for skateboarding he built for his project.

Westcot elementary passion projects

The most recent version of this type of learning I have seen in action in the Advanced Placement (AP) Diploma.  These grade 11 and 12 students take two courses – AP Seminar and AP Research. These courses see students doing team projects, research based essays, and public presentations – all in a context of student choice.  Students that take and score 3 or higher on 4 AP courses and complete the Seminar and Research course receive the AP Capstone Diploma.  The Capstone Diploma is being piloted in a limited number of Canadian schools, including Sentinel Secondary in West Vancouver.

As we look out over the next five years, it would be wonderful if all of our students get a chance to pull together their learning – ideally at least once in the elementary grades and again during their high school career.  As we work in the system to break down thinking of learning in content based compartments, there needs to be an opportunity for all our students to share their learning across curriculum and from inside and outside of school.

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Simple Job Market Advice

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Whenever I find myself speaking to students working their way towards a degree in education, someone will turn the conversation to the state of the job market.  And the truth is, in recent years, it has not been very good.  In British Columbia there are a number of factors that have led to a limited number of jobs for new teachers.  From district budget reductions, to declining enrollment, to fewer than expected teacher retirements, to huge numbers of candidates going through teacher education programs.  With this, I feel the angst of those graduating, looking for the little advantages that might help them secure a job.

I was recently speaking with elementary and middle school student teachers at the University of British Columbia, and gave some off-the-cuff advice, that I think is worth sharing more widely.

So, just what should a student teacher do?

1) Be Damn Good!

The explosion of teachers looking for work means that we get dozens (or sometimes far more) applicants on every position.  Our schools never have to settle for average candidates.  I am blown away by the quality of teachers being hired.  So, first and foremost, if you want a job, you better be good.

2)  Get Involved!

This can look really different from person to person, but it is really about playing up and sharing your passions.  Maybe it is coaching the volleyball team, or helping with the school musical, or sponsoring the chess club or being a lead on the school professional development committee – or a combination of them.  The parts around the classroom are some of the best experiences for students and teachers.  It is about seeing teaching as more than a job.

3) Connect!

It has never been easier to connect.  I feel like a broken record but all new teachers should get on Twitter, find at least five blogs to regularly follow, and consider starting a blog themselves.  And the power of the network is not just digital, student teachers transitioning into new teachers should connect into school district and multi school district teacher networks.  I know in West Vancouver, and I am sure it is true elsewhere, our professional opportunities are open to all – and that all includes student teachers and new teachers who might not have classroom teaching positions yet.

One more piece I shared when I met with the student teachers at UBC was an updated digital story (below) that I shared as a welcome to our amazing profession:

 

There are definitely things that can be discouraging in our profession, but whenever I have a chance to speak with those just coming into our profession I am left with so much hope – it is an exciting time for teaching and learning.

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I have been teaching in a couple high school classrooms recently, and I have been reminded that students on small hand-held internet devices can be distracted and distracting.  I am being intentional in not using the word phone.  For almost all of us, the devices we call phones are primarily used for other functions.  I know for me, the phone is maybe the fifth or sixth most popular use for my small internet device.    I don’t think the discussion is about phones vs. tablets vs. laptops rather it is about what functions are best done with what size of device.

For more than a decade I have been advocating students bringing internet-ready devices into the classroom.    I have said things like, “phones are great, if that is all students have, they should bring them.”   And this is still true.

I have also regularly said, “If students have a phone and can’t afford a laptop, their families should really consider making a different (better) decision that could benefit the child’s learning.”  I know families have invested in phones for a variety of reasons and safety is a reason I often hear.  Well, get a cheap phone for emergencies and take that money for the iPhone contract, and invest in a laptop or tablet.

Back to my recent reminders.  I will focus on one particular class of grade 11 and 12 students I was working with.  We were having a discussion around leadership in the digital age.  And I have to be honest, the students on their small devices were driving me crazy!   I could see the students were distracted, and in turn, this was very distracting for me and others.  They were texting away with students in the room and outside the room, only periodically engaging in the lesson.  Now, I know it is partly my fault.  If my lesson was more engaging, the students would not have been so easily distracted.  I also could have done a better job of classroom management.  I also know that in our efforts around students bringing their own devices, the journey has not, nor will not, be linear in terms of how students use devices in their classrooms – we are in shifting times.

At our District Parent Advisory Council Meeting this past week we had a great discussion around technology that included a high school teacher and a grade 10 student.  As the student reminded us, “When kids are on their phones they are usually not doing school work.”  Heck, when adults are on their phones it is more likely for social rather than business.  I have always been a believer in the key role of adults to model technology use and it is hard to suggest kids just need to behave differently when so often we see parents busy checking their Facebook or Twitter feeds.    The power of devices in school is usually around what is possible to create, and with the small handheld devices, in schools they are almost exclusively consumption devices or texting machines.

So, the advice of the last decade does stand – that any internet device that gets you in the game is good.  But it is also true that some devices are better than others and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking devices like iPhones are changing learning.  I am a bit “old school” and like to type on a keyboard so my advice when asked about what one should get for their child is probably a laptop, or a tablet with a keyboard.  More and more other specs matter less, and work lives in the cloud – it is about getting to the internet.

And what else was I reminded in teaching classes where all students have technology; technology does not making teaching easier, but it does make it very different.

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grades

There is a debate in education around the relationship between grading and learning. Many of our teachers and schools have shifted the ways that they give students feedback – focussing more on constructive comments for improvement and less on grades. Of course, this has been met with some concern. For so long, schools have been using grades as something of a sorting system, and while also a learning system, the sorting often took priority as students marks were used to make comparisons.  And of course, with almost all of our students looking towards post-secondary education in our community, grades do matter.

Our teachers and schools are committed to getting better at how we communicate student learning. Like many BC school districts, we have been piloting new reporting documents this year, and next year both Kindergarten and Grade 4 will be running district-wide reporting pilots. The goal of this work is to take the best information we have about student learning, and have that reflected in what we share out to parents and students.  In my last post, I referenced FreshGrade, that presents a new way of communicating student learning.  It is one of the tools our teachers are beginning to use to break down traditional way of reporting – moving reporting away from being an event but rather an ongoing dialogue.

I was recently reminded of the challenge of assessment, grading and reporting  with a story told to me by a colleague in the district about her daughter, currently in Grade 6, who attends a school in another district. Her story is a common one that I hear about assessment practices, and one worth sharing.

In this particular story, the class was asked to develop some speaking notes on a topic and deliver a 3-5 minute spoken presentation. Her daughter practiced for several days behind closed doors, working hard to ensure that she could deliver the presentation in the allotted time, as points would be deducted for presentations that were either too long or too short. She felt prepared and really enjoyed the research and work involved in putting it together. She even shared some of her ideas with classmates in the days prior to the delivery, and they talked about their shared concerns and strategies to overcome the usual pitfalls of public speaking. It was a great project, with one very big downside.

When she had delivered the presentation, her mother asked how it had gone. “Well, I don’t have my grade yet, but people asked questions and two of my friends said that I did really well.” She was pleased about the positive feedback and talked about her own impressions of the project.

The following day, her daughter returned home, locked herself in her room, and examined the grade and evaluation sheet in private. It was not what she had hoped to see, and she was not eager to share it with the family.

This story illustrates our challenge. We want assessment to help improve learning, but for this student, as soon as the grade was given, the learning stopped. Instead of being a stop on a learning journey – this became a story about ranking and sorting.

While parents love to hear that “Sophia is a pleasure to teach,” timely and constructive comments that help parents understand how they can support at home the work in the classroom is far more useful.

There are no easy answers, but this is an important conversation we are having in our schools and across the province as we look for better ways to assess student learning.

A previous version of this post was originally shared in my Superintendent’s Message that was published earlier this month for the West Vancouver School District e-newsletter, the Learning Curve.  

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dotsIf education in British Columbia made news over the last few years, it was almost exclusively around the ongoing labour issues.  With new contracts in place now for teachers and support staff, there is more of an opportunity for other education stories to hit the mainstream news – whether that is television, radio or newspapers.  There have been quite a few recent stories, that might at first glance appear to be unrelated, but are all very much connected and part of a larger story – one of quite a shift happening in education, both in BC and around the world.  For regular readers of this and other educator’s blogs, this might almost seem passé, the shifts happening have been well covered inside the profession, but now, in between stories of hospital wait-times and transit plans, there is some space for some important education issues to be part of a larger public dialogue.

My broad sweeping generalization about the current changes in education around curriculum, reporting, innovation, and related topics is that students and families who are engaged and part of the change are excited, and as one moves out from them to the broader community, there is increased concern, skepticism and distrust.  While families in a class that has moved away from using letter grades in elementary school to more descriptive feedback may appreciate the way the reporting support improved learning, those at a distance may see this a edu mumble-jumble and a lowering of standards in the system.

I want to take three recent stories – read in isolation they are interesting – but collectively tell a larger story, and open up a large, rich and important conversation.

From January 29th, Tamsyn Burgmann of The Globe and Mail, wrote a story on a forum hosted by the BC Ministry of Education  and included all key educational partners and a number of International experts, including internationally known scholar, author, and speaker Yong Zhao, who is extensively referenced in the quote below:

The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child’s individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.

“To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics,” Dr. Zhou told the room. “But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people’s interest.”

His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province’s education minister announced a new education strategy.

Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning. 

Work around personalized learning is well underway in West Vancouver, with teachers and schools focusing in inquiry, student passion projects, unique community partnerships and other initiatives give students real world learning experiences.

A week later, Tracy Sherlock of the Vancouver Sun wrote about reporting in the age of social media:

Report cards are entering the social media age as new software called FreshGrade allows real-time sharing and reporting on student progress.

Tracy Cramer, a kindergarten teacher at Richard Bullpit Elementary School in Langley, has been using FreshGrade  since the beginning of this school year and says she loves it because it makes communicating with parents so easy and it makes doing her students’ report cards relatively painless.

“Teachers get anxious around this time because of report cards. But I have all my evidence there … so I just have to go in and add a few comments and my report cards are done,” Cramer said.

She says the program gives the kids — even in kindergarten — ownership of their work.

“They will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’” Cramer said. “I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.”

And at the same time, a number of local news outlets picked up on a petition started by a parent in North Saanich to take a look at the state of math instruction – calling for a back-to-basics approach.  The CBC was one of those outlets to pick up the story:

A North Saanich parent has started a petition against new math learning methods currently being adopted as part of the province’s revamped curricula for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Tara Houle launched the petition, which calls for the return of traditional learning like rote memorization of multiplication tables. So far the petition has gathered more than 500 signatures.

“What I find is the biggest challenge is at the elementary level where we have a lot of math concepts being introduced to kids at a very young age,” said Houle. “It completely overwhelms their minds.”

Houle wants kids to develop a strong foundation of math skills before trying to learn “higher-order concepts.”

She believes new learning methods don’t stand up to research that supports explicit, direct instruction and memorization, adding that the U.K. and Australia had abandoned the new methods since adopting them.

Three different stories yet all linked. Part of the challenge with change in education is that one cannot change one part, without changing other parts as well.  If you alter the curriculum, you need to change assessment.  And if you modify assessment in K-12, you need to be sure it aligns with post-secondary admissions.  And if you are moving individual parts, you need to develop new models to lead the way on what the future of learning can look like.  And while you are doing all of this, you have to continue to ensure you have some social licence – some acceptance and approval from stakeholders and the broader community.

And on these three  items – what do I think?  I think encouraging innovation is a good thing and networking teachers and schools together is the right way to do it – so much better than a top-down approach.  I think assessment is changing and has been changing for many years.  My crystal ball says that we will be less reliant on letter grades in five years and that is a good thing.  And I think the math conversation is not a black / white dialouge.  There are fundamentals that all students absolutely need and they must be able to apply these concepts.  A return to the math teaching of a generation ago is not the answer – just ask how many parents had a good experience with math growing up but math teaching is a healthy discussion as it helps parents better understand what they can do to support their children at home.

But, as I said, the shifts are not just about these three issues – they are broader and it is heartening to see the media bringing these issues forward so we can have the rich discussions about teaching and learning for now and into the future.

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Students at West Bay Elementary School

Students at West Bay Elementary School

I walk into almost all of our schools in West Vancouver and very often the first thing people want to show me or talk to me about is the changes happening around the library.  Or more specifically, schools are taking great pride in their learning commons spaces that are developing.  While the physical spaces are exciting, the changes to our mindsets are far more powerful.  We are not destined for new schools in West Vancouver anytime soon but the rethink of the library has been both a symbolic and concrete shift in how we think about space and how we think about learning.  The school library – a centre piece in schools – is now the modern hub for learning.

I like the library metaphor from Joan Frye Williams (shared in this blog from Joyce Valenza):

Our libraries should transition to places to do stuff, not simply places to get stuff. The library will become a laboratory in which community members tinker, build, learn, and communicate. We need to stop being the grocery store or candy store and become the kitchen.  We should emphasize hospitality, comfort, convenience and create work environments that invite exploration and creativity both virtually and physically.

The library as a kitchen – I love it.

And just what does this look like?

A couple weeks ago I was at West Bay Elementary for the opening of their new space.  Recently, I have been to other formal and less formal tours at unveilings at a variety of schools including Eagle Harbour Montessori, Bowen Island Community School, Cypress Primary, Irwin Park Elementary and West Vancouver Secondary.  There are many elements all of these spaces have in common.  One immediately gets the sense that the primary goal was to draw more students in to do individual and collective work. There are spaces for silent study, but also other areas that often look more like a coffee shop than a traditional library.  In listening to West Bay Principal Judy Duncan, describe their vision for their space, she said, “We believe the library is a hub of our school, a space where learners of all ages gather to learn through conversation, collaboration, independent study and purposeful play.”

Our work in West Vancouver, both with spaces and mindsets is not happening in isolation.  We have been influenced by the work at universities, like this work at the University of British Columbia, the work at other schools in BC, like this work at John Oliver Secondary in Vancouver and the work at public libraries, including the efforts of our own local library – the West Vancouver Memorial Library.  For my thinking, a particularly useful document is Facing the Future – A Vision Document for British Columbia’s Public Libraries.  It’s author, Ken Roberts, the former Chief Librarian of the Hamilton Public Library, argues that “there is a growing realization that physical libraries are becoming  even more important community spaces, places where people gather, share and learn from each other.”  In short, the shift that public libraries are facing is the same ones that schools are facing and we have a lot to learn from and with each other.  The BC Teacher Librarians’ Association, an amazingly thoughtful and forward-looking organization have also produced a document to help schools in the midst of the transition.

The photos below give a sense of some of the uses of the new space at West Bay, and what we are seeing across our district as we make these shifts.

Individual and group work.  Technology is present but not the focus.

Individual and group work. Technology is present but not the focus.

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Students working before school

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Students working at lunchtime.

 

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Activity during instructional time

For more on the specifics of this particular transformation, Principal Judy Duncan has blogged about Transforming Learning Spaces to Meet Today’s Learners.

At the recently held Ontario Library Conference, I made the argument that we can get hung-up on the money when it comes to learning commons spaces. But it is first about mindsets – we need to embrace new ways of learning and find ways for our space to reflect these changes and be the gathering places for our all our learners.  The thinking around the learning commons is symbolizing the shifts we are seeing with learning throughout our schools.

 

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