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Does Smart Still Matter?

What is Smart  A TEDx West VanccouverED presentation.

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

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

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

We know who the smart people were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Quest is Doing It

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:

 

 

Calling all bloggers  – Leadership Day 2014   Dangerously Irrelevant

When Scott McLeod asks you to do something, it’s difficult to say “No”.  He is one of those connecting leaders in education.  The following tweet showed up in my feed this week:

Scott M

So, this is my first time participating in #LeadershipDay14 discussing leadership with digital technologies in education. It has been, and continues to be, a journey that takes me to different places on many levels. The following is a list of 10 things I have and continue to learn as a teacher, principal and now superintendent:

1)  More and more it is not digital leadership, it is just leadership. Just as digital literacy is giving way to literacy and digital citizenship is becoming simply citizenship, digital leadership is really just leadership. We live in a digital world, so it would be virtually impossible for educational leadership to not embrace the role technology is playing in our learning, teaching and in our schools today.

2)  You are never done.  There are many leaders, schools and districts that mistakenly embrace technology plans with the belief that one can implement technology like it is a thing — some sort of program.  Digital is a journey — the educational tools we use on that journey continue to evolve.  So, there will always be something else or new to learn.

3)  Digital doesn’t make things easier. I have said this before in different contexts, but there is still a belief digital technologies make teaching easier, or learning easier. They don’t — they make it different. However, when everything connects, digital tools allow learners to do things that could not be possible without digital tools.

4)  Listen carefully to the skeptics.  Those who question and challenge are an important part of the process. Yes, some will challenge for strictly political reasons, while others enjoy being the dissenting voice. My experience with those most closely involved in education, particularly teachers, is they will do amazing things if they think they are the right things for kids.  The culture needs to be developmental not judgmental.   If you have many skeptics — come back to why the effort is good for kids.

5)  Always start with learning goals.  Please don’t set out to have an iPad in the hand of every student as your ultimate goal. We want students to be connected learners. Now, let’s figure out how to make that happen.  And while you are doing this — also be sure you have a plan for equity. If digital tools are the answer for the learners who can afford them, we better figure out how we can put them in the hands of all learners.

6)  Make sure teachers have the tools.  I think almost all districts across North America are at least thinking about a plan to include personal devices in the classroom. This is great news.  But, before students walk into classrooms with devices, make sure you have a plan for teachers to have devices as well. We have the responsibility to ensure our staff have the tools they need to go where the kids are.

7)  You can’t microwave change.  All teachers, all schools, and all districts must go through the process. Yes, it can be frustrating that change is not happening as fast as a leader might hope for, or that the digital transition is lagging.  There are ways to support and encourage it, but trying to force the change will ruin it.

8)  Embrace the uncertainty.  I never trust people who speak with certainty about what schools will be like in five years, or what role technology will play. Same, with those in education who self-gloss themselves as technology or social media gurus.  I think we can be pretty sure about the skills our kids will need, but the rest is really uncertain and that is okay. Technology will not ensure our kids are prepared for the future, but we can be sure that in five years technology will play a greater role, not a lesser one, in our schools and in our world.

9)  Whatever you do — model it. If you want kids to blog, then the leaders need to be blogging. If you want schools to go paperless, then the district office needs to go paperless. And, if you want classes to be more learner-centred, the same should be true for staff meetings.

10)  For leaders — surround yourself with people who will push you and make you uncomfortable. There is nothing worse than being satisfied with status quo. Finding leaders who will take risks is not easy, but they are out there. We need them in our district offices and in our schools.

Community is the greatest part of the educational journey. From those who I work with everyday, to the amazing digital community, there are so many of us trying to figure out the way forward — part of that is doing our best for all of our kids in this digital world.

Teacher

Dad Updated Photo

I have been stuck.  This is my first blog effort in about a month.  It is, by far, my longest time away from public writing and it has been challenging to write.  While I know some might have hoped I would write about the job action that has cast a cloud over the BC public education system, there is little I could add that would not just be more noise. So, with less writing, I have been reading more.  And, something I read finally gave me the momentum to become unstuck.

I stumbled my way to the blog You Suck, Sir from a local Vancouver teacher.  As he describes the blog, “My students are funny.  Sometimes, it’s intentional.”  The blog is a collection of stories from the English teacher’s class over the last two decades — some absolutely great writing.  He recently wrote a post  answering a question about having a teaching philosophy.

He starts:

Great question.  And I was reminded of it tonight when I got in touch with my sponsor teacher from 1995.  He’s well into his retirement now but he was a legendary teacher in his day and head of the English department in our city’s largest high school.  He took me under his wing and I got to observe how a master teacher runs his class.  And I’ll be honest: I didn’t see anything.  I had to report back to my faculty advisor all the things I’d noticed in terms of methodology and classroom management.  But I didn’t “see” anything.  It took me a while to realize why:  he made it look easy.  He had internalized everything a teacher is supposed to do.  I even confronted him about it one day to ask which educational philosophy he abides by, and he answered: “Listen to what they’re saying.”

This IS the challenge of teaching.  Maybe other professions have similar challenges, but it is difficult to define powerful teaching.  It is this blend of art and science the masters weave so effortlessly.  I grew up in a house of teachers. I can remember from a very young age watching my mom and dad prepare lessons. I knew they were good at what they did — I would hear it from my friends on sports teams and others in the community about how much they liked having my parents as teachers, but it was difficult to really understand exactly what they did that made their classrooms work. As I started my teaching career I would try to emulate how I thought they would teach; it was tough because there is just no ‘how-to’ recipe for our profession.

Returning to the blog, the author distills three main ideas:

1)  If you can’t address a student’s immediate needs, he won’t be available to your teachings.

2)  Do not compromise a young person’s dignity.

3)  Do not take anything personally.

Continuing his observations about his sponsor teacher:

The teacher I mentioned at the start of this, my sponsor teacher, said something that I’ve carried with me to this day: “I would do this job for free if I didn’t need money.”  At the time, I found this statement disturbing because there was no way I’d do it for free.  But I see now that he was talking about joy.  There is joy to be had in this career.  There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a student suddenly “get” a concept she’d been struggling with. There are few things more smile-inducing than watching your grade eights help each other out with assignments while joking around with each other.  And the pure happiness of watching them really, truly enjoy learning—man, that’s the reason I returned to teaching after an eight-year break.

It is interesting the conversations I would have had/still do have with my parents about our profession.  They love the craft.  The would shun any attention for what they were doing — they weren’t doing it to be noticed, they were doing it for the students and their commitment to teaching.  It IS a pretty special profession.

The author finishes with words that are so true, “Teaching is about being a learner yourself.  That’s why, when it comes to being an effective teacher, we have to listen to what they’re saying.”

I have tried (and will continue to try) to use my blog to tell the many stories of students, teachers and others in our system trying new things and making a difference. And, like my parents, most are not looking for any attention, but it is still kind of nice when someone notices.

I guess I saw that firsthand this past week. I have spent a lot of time with my dad recently, he hasn’t been that well and we got to talking about the blog post on teaching philosophy.

It was pretty special because the sponsor teacher that the author, Paul, was writing about was my dad.

Thanks Paul.

Thanks Dad.

Keep Well Teacher Friends.  The joy will be back.

 

 Update – August 11 

My dad died last week, just a few days after his 72nd birthday.  You can read more about him here.   I am so glad that I got to share this post with him and I am so appreciative of all of the comments.  It is nice to know his story connected with so many of you.

The_real_world_title_card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kids-300x255

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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