It is early days yet and we are still in the honeymoon phase of the school year. Rested and inspired over the summer break, students, staff and parents return with new goals and big ambitions. It is a great time of year to be in our schools, and over the past few weeks I have spent from a few minutes to a few hours in each of them. And, what I have noticed, while there is not a lot strikingly new, there are practices which have evolved over the last few years that have become ingrained and with an increasing depth to the work.
I have written often about the interplay between inquiry, self-regulation and digital access. And, when I visit a school now I see elements of all three in action. They are reflected in school plans, but more importantly, they are seen in the classrooms — and not just a couple of classrooms.
I have talked with several elementary teachers about their planning on units of inquiry. Last year, while they may have done one each term, teachers are refining these units and adding a second unit to each term this year. The language they use around inquiry is also more precise — a common language across grades and schools.
Not five years ago, self-regulation was a foreign concept to me. Now, I walk into schools and see teachers working on breathing exercises with students; libraries equipped with a variety of spaces to meet the needs of different learners, and classroom work focussing on students to assist them in feeling calm and alert for learning. I wrote about our district’s work this past February toward a district-coordinated effort with two of our lead schools connecting to a national network of schools and districts.
However, it is digital access that has seen the most profound change. Thanks to a Board of Education-initiated budget plan, our Grades four-to-12 classrooms have been modernized with projectors, and each teacher has been given a mobile device of their choice (iPad, PC Laptop, PC Tablet or MacBook). In addition to this, many classrooms have adopted bring-your-own-device programs with some school-wide.
But, I barely notice this because it has become less of an activity — when I walk into a classroom I don’t see 25 students staring at laptop screens; some are working on their device, others with pen-and-paper, and still others working with a combination of tools — it is absolutely true that the technology is becoming more invisible. We are getting better and more comfortable with it.
Of course, saying “there is nothing new” doesn’t make for a good story. We crave “new” in education. The most frequently asked question of me, starting in the summer through to September is “what is new / different / special / cutting-edge in West Vancouver this year?” My response comes back to what I said three years ago as I was becoming Superintendent:
I know in many places gimmicks are quite fashionable — a particular program or approach that will be the be-all and end-all. We hear this a lot from the United States as they talk about No Child Left Behind . . . if only we all just did Smart Reading, or all had laptops, or used EBS, or played first and then ate lunch, or had a particular bell schedule, then our system would move forward and students would graduate in even greater numbers. These are all worthy and can be powerful initiatives, but there are no magic bullets. It is the hard work in the classrooms everyday — the mix of science and art; teachers taking what they know about what works, combining this with their skills, and building relationships with their students . . .
Of course, there is “new”. There are new courses, new programs, new facility upgrades, but while it doesn’t make for a good story my survey of our district shows we have sustained a focussed purpose on a small number of key areas. I see a mix of school, district and ministry directions interwoven in our work; for example, schools with an arts focus and an emphasis on inquiry fostering personalized learning for their students.
In a recent post I suggested this might be the Year of the Report Card. My early year visits indicate this is also the year we probe, explore and go deeper with the work we have started around inquiry, self-regulation and digital access.