Archive for the ‘Personalized Learning’ Category

tensionI know the word tension is often viewed as a bad thing. I think there is a frequent healthy tension when it comes to change in education. And I am feeling it right now.

In a post-standardized and personalized learning world how do we decide which  structural decisions are at the class, school, district and system levels?

One area we are seeing this tension right now is around reporting.  Should reporting look the same across the board in a school?  Across a district? Across a province?  These are all good questions.  Traditionally reporting in British Columbia has generally looked the same across the province.  The Ministry of Education sets out the rules that see students have a certain number of formal and informal reports each year.  Across the province, letter grades and work habits are used in a fairly consistent manner.  And I get it, as students move from community to community or graduate into the world of post-secondary school or work, having some common elements of reporting help make the system run smoothly and clearly.  While those of us in the system have been openly questioning the current reporting structures, I appreciate the larger community often feels assured knowing that there is some sameness when it comes to assessment.

Recently, many districts (including West Vancouver) have been looking closely at different ways of reporting.  And thus the healthy tension within education.  We have some outstanding report card pilot projects in our district and we have decided that the work in different schools needs to inform a common district approach to reporting.  For this fall we are looking at a new common approach to reporting in both Kindergarten and Grade Four.  These new reports flow out of the work we are doing around the curriculum changes in BC.  Of course with diverse programs like IB and French Immersion, even our efforts to have a common approach to reporting will be nuanced.  I know other jurisdictions have held tightly to common reporting across the entire system, while others allow incredible autonomy at the teacher level.

My general view is that wherever we work really influences how collective we need to be.  As a teacher, I often didn’t feel what I did in the class needed to be connected to what was happening in other classes, I just needed consistency throughout my teaching.  As a principal I strived for consistency in the school but didn’t always feel we needed to be consistent with other schools.  As a Superintendent I feel the need to create some common structures across the district, and I see those at the Ministry of Education trying to ensure some common approaches across the province.

As I stated, it is a healthy tension between the class, school, district and system level on a variety of topics as the tension helps open up the conversation.  Whether it is determining what body of content all students in a school, district or province need to know; deciding if there should be a common set of digital tools for teachers and students; or identifying reporting structures that should be consistent in a system there are important conversations to have.  And continue to have.

I have said in presentations that “schools are not fast food franchises” each should have their own signature reflective of the community in which they exist.  I also often say those in schools, “are more than just a group of independent contractors who share a parking lot.”  It is a balancing act to see both these concepts at work.

As we continue to see change in our system, we need to be continually thoughtful and mindful of the parts that must to be consistent across schools, districts and the system.  There is not necessarily one right answer, but the rich conversations that come from these decisions should make our system better.


Read Full Post »

out thereI am often told that in the type of job I hold, it is better to say nothing. I am told it is a no-win situation, if you communicate, no matter how positive the message there will be some who take issue to what you say, how you say it, or twist your words and use them against you. And I have experienced all of that.

I do think it is our job to be out there.  And while the most important messages that parents receive from the system are from their child’s teacher, and the next most important are usually from the school’s principal, it is also important for superintendents to communicate directly to families.

In the digital world, this message can take many forms and often needs to come in multiple forms to reach people.  I know this blog is just one way to connect to our community.

This past week, I sent out the following back-to-school email to all the parents in our school district:

Our schools were open last week, preparing classes, planning activities and taking some time to reflect on the past and the future of education. We enjoyed welcoming all our new and returning families today, and hope that you’ve had an enjoyable summer break.

Over the summer, I heard many remark on how good it will be to get back to a ‘normal’ school year. And while I understand where that’s coming from, in light of the challenges we faced a year ago, this year in West Vancouver Schools, I’m asking our teachers, students and parents to challenge the validity of normal. As I wrote about in my blog, The Culture of Yes, normal is about average, and as many who work, learn and teach in our district already know, West Vancouver Schools is an exceptional place.

On Thursday last week, as we do every year, we launched the new school year by inviting all staff to attend an Opening Day morning event, followed by an afternoon of professional development. We were so privileged this year to hear from one of the world’s foremost experts in education, Dr. Yong Zhao. His ideas are inspiring, especially in light of the move towards the new curriculum.

Dr. Zhao spoke passionately about the evidence that shows all schools need to move away from educating for the average, to educating the individual. Rather than fixing ‘deficits’, we need to help children become great, achieve their autonomy and enhance their potential.

Fortunately, this work has been underway for some time in the district, with our work on project-based learning, inquiry, self-regulation and digital literacy. The curriculum doesn’t teach – teachers do that. A litany of specific education outcomes does not guarantee success, student motivation, passion and talent contribute to that outcome.
We are, I am proud to say, making sure that our students not only understand the facts – which are widely available in the digital age – but also understand how to interpret them and use them creatively to solve the right problems.

We are teaching kids to take on a world that is far different than it is today. It is critical to instill the creativity, confidence, compassion and resilience that young people need to embrace those changes.

Along with the Board of Trustees and my colleagues at West Vancouver Schools, we wish you a successful and pleasant year ahead!

I never know how many people read these emails that I send out, but I know from those who respond that there is definitely some engagement.  I always get some very kind responses, appreciative of the information and always some that take issue with the topic – that is what happens when you put yourself out there.  Whether the concern is about the role of technology in schools and more broadly in society or whether personal experiences in schools are reflective of what I am saying – the engagement is encouraging.

This past time I was struck by two particular responses – one from a mother in Italy who wrote:

My son started just yesterday his school year and is absolutely thrilled about West Vancouver school, new friends and the programs that can be accessed.  I look forward to hearing about you and any news you will forward to me

and from a father from Germany who wrote in part:

I am very proud that my son is taking part in this terms school program to learn, how different countries estimate the importance of educational background in complete different ways. In Germany we have nowadays a huge discussion about inclusion on the one hand and reduction of school years. What we do not have, and it hurts me to say it this clear, is a discussion about elite in the most positive meaning of the word, about investment in the most precious „resource“ we have — our children and their education.

What a great reminder that we are really communicating for a global audience.  I sometimes get stuck in my thinking that my messages are going out to the people within a few mile radius, in my mind who have always been here, and with whom I already have a largely shared experience.  Of course this is not true.

In our schools which have students from around the world, coming from a range of systems and experiences, messaging with them is not only a nice thing, but the right thing.  The revised curriculum conversation in British Columbia may be covered on our local 6:00 news, but we need to reach all of our families and engage them in our conversation.  And whether one lives around the block or on the other side of the world, continually coming back to messages of what we are doing and where we are going are crucial.

Some good first week reminders for me.

I do think with the power of the tools we have, we need to take up the opportunity to communicate more than just when we are thinking about closing schools because of snow.

Read Full Post »


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.”

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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!

Read Full Post »


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.  

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,172 other followers