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rpsImg

The West Vancouver School District has become synonymous  with excellence and innovative programming.  In recent years this reputation has been bolstered by our commitment to a range of sports academy programs.

I am thrilled today to announce the latest in the long list of innovative programs – our Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy.  It is tremendously exciting that we are going to engage our students with this sport that has worldwide popularity.  There is great pride in being an international community and our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy will support this.

The world is changing and we need to embrace traditional sports like fencing, soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball and also look at new emerging sports.  That is where Rock, Paper, Scissors fits in.  We know that there will be tremendous excitement over this announcement, and student-athletes will come from many surrounding communities to be part of our Academy Program.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a sport that anyone can participate in from 5 to 85.  It will help foster lifelong fitness.  While many have raised concerns about the lack of physical activity with our youth – Rock, Paper, Scissors, gets our children away from the video games and engaged in physical competition.

Our curriculum will be based on resources available through the World RPS Society.  Students will learn about the history of the sport that is traced back to the Chinese Han Dynasty.   And the training will both be in the classroom and in the gym.  Competitors at the top-level need to be both physically and mentally sharp.  As any of our instructors will tell you, Rock, Paper, Scissors is far from random, and over time through deep study, athletes in the academy will become familiar with the various algorithms of their opponents selections.

As student progress through the grades, the academy will allow them to explore higher levels alternatives including rock-paper-scissors-Spock-lizard and other East Asian Hand Games.

This academy is completely aligned with the new curriculum – focusing on a series of competencies and embracing cross-curricular connections.  Students in the program will receive credit for English, Math and Physical Education.

Our Academy Programs have always been about supporting students through being academic athletes and taking their talents to the next level.  It is exciting to think the next World Champion might be sitting in our classrooms now and all they need is this type of program to catapult them to the world stage.  Here is a video of the 2014 United Kingdom finals:

We know that our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy we are launching today has the potential to be as succesful as our many other academy programs.  Anticipating its success we are already considering adding other emerging sports including cheese rolling and toe wrestling.  It is all about getting our young people active and excited about activity!

Finally, to quote our Academies Principal Diane Nelson, “Today marks a special day in the West Vancouver School District as we announce the very first Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy in the world.  We are honoured to welcome some of the region’s most talented athletes.  I am equally proud of this truly special sport as it continues to delight people of all ages with it’s quantum indeterminacy.”

This is the latest in what has become an annual tradition at this time of year to launch innovative initiatives.

In 2012 I launched my FLOG.

In 2013 I made the announcement of Quadrennial Round Schooling.

In 2014 we formalized our System of Student Power Rankings.

Today we add our Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy to this list.

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

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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.

LC3

Students working before school

LC4

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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Photo - Rob Newell

Photo – Rob Newell

Personalized learning has become one of those terms that can often elicit eye-rolls in a crowd of educators – so used and overused that it has been a word used synonymously with almost all current educational reforms.  As I have joked, there are very few pushing for de-personalized learning.  I have written a number of times on the topic, including specifically here in the fall of 2010, when I tried to wrestle with a definition.

This past week as part of a feature in the North Shore Outlook I was extensively quoted on what I see with personalized learning and just what it means.  Here is the text:

Not all kids learn the same way. Traditional education hasn’t always had space to address these differences, but now the West Vancouver School District is looking to change that.  It’s using personalized learning to shift the emphasis from traditional learning to an  inquiry-based system that focuses on learning  how to learn.
Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools for the district, has been at the forefront of the push towards personalized learning for the last five years.

Things are changing so quickly that the key facts to know right now just won’t be the same in five years,” says Kennedy.  “The topics will be different. The content will be stale.” Rather than teach facts that will likely be obsolete in short order, the district is focusing instead on teaching students how to learn, rather than what to learn, in order to encourage them to continue learning far beyond their time at school.  “Knowledge has become so easily accessible it changes the dynamic between teachers and students,” says Kennedy.

“In a more traditional classroom, students might take notes or answer questions at the end of the chapter. In an inquiry-based classroom… They start with an overarching theme, question or challenge and go from there – this encourages ownership, exploration and curiosity.” Kennedy adds that this approach often results in powerful demonstrations of learning in the form of projects, productions and exhibitions that show real sophistication.

Part of personalized learning includes different types of learning environments and opportunities for students.  Technology is a big part of that. All schools  in the district have wi-fi and teachers are provided with mobile devices to use in one-to one learning environments.  Students are encouraged to bring their own devices, however, the district also provides devices for children who can’t afford their own or have forgotten theirs at home.  But there are also other changes in classroom design, such as offering different work station options or the ability to opt-into an outdoor class rather than an indoor one.

“Personalized learning is about giving students more control – more choice – over what they’re learning, how they’re learning it, even when they’re learning… so students feel it’s more theirs,” says Kennedy. “It’s also important for students to know what they’re working on, how they are doing, and what they need to do
next to improve.”  “It changes the students to being more the owner of the learning experience. The teacher spends more time guiding, rather than directing, learning.”

Parents also have a key role to play in the district’s approach to learning. Educators hope that parents will have conversations with their children to discover what types of learning approaches work best for them so that teachers can address each child’s specific learning needs.

The district is already seeing success with the new model. “We have a long history of very successful students,” says Kennedy. “We’re finding that some students that might not have been as engaged are finding this approach more appealing. In some classrooms students are coming up with their own questions.”

Still a work in progress, but it is important to continue to talk about the future we are trying to create and put depth behind the terms we are using so often.

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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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