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With change comes opportunity.

As British Columbia has engaged in a learning transformation over the last decade I have felt the continual tension.   We can either try to do the new thing just like we did the old thing, or see the new thing as an opportunity to think differently.

I have heard some say that inquiry is “what we have always done in our classes” while others have dramatically shifted their classes to increase student choice, voice, and agency under the guise of inquiry.

With curriculum, some argue that it is not really new, it is just the same curriculum organized differently.  Others suggest that the focus around big ideas is a dramatic move away from a focus on volumes of content to one of skills and competencies.

The same conversation has happened in so many areas – is the technology changing the classroom, or is it really just a new “version of pen and paper” as I have heard in some classes.  Is self-regulation about students having greater ownership over their ability to regulate and be in a zone for learning, or is it just new language around getting kids to behave in class?

The revised careers curriculum which sees us move away from Planning 10 and Grad Transitions to Career Life Education and Career Life Connections is another one of these tension points.  And again the same comments have been made.  I have heard they are really just the same courses with new names and that nothing needs to change.

Well, we disagree.

We see this change in Career Education not as a chance to make the new courses fit with what we have always done, but to do things differently.  And this change in Career Education is an opportunity to look differently at time in our schools, and how we use it, and listen to our students.  Beginning in the Fall all of our secondary schools will have new bell schedules that provide students with a 32 minute block of flexible instructional time (FIT) each day.  This will give students time to address the new Career Education competencies and content.  But it will also do more than that.  It will give students something they have continually asked for whenever we survey them – some flexible time as part of their formal school day where they have choice and voice – to complete assignments, collaborate with peers and receive extra help in a particular area.

Our system is very much built on a factory model.  Of course, no one really believes that all students need 120 hours to “learn” any particular course, some need far less and others need far more.  This change begins to recognize these differences.  Some students will need to spend time in math, while others will choose to spend their time in art or working on careers.

We regularly hear from our students (and their parents) of the increased stresses and pressures on today’s learners.  As we have listened to students, parents and staff this year – one comment I heard numerous times really struck me, “Students just need time to breathe.” Again, this is just a small change, but hopefully it will help – and also help the mental well-being of their teachers who can give directed support during the school days, perhaps freeing up some of their lunchtimes and after schools often dedicated to helping students.

FIT is not revolutionary.  Dozens of high schools in the Vancouver area have found ways to build regular flexible time into their schedule.  It is new for us.  And while I know some want us to completely revolutionize the learning structures of school, we continue to look for ways to make real changes that give students greater agency over their own learning.

We could have just tried to do the new things in old ways, but we are seizing the opportunity to do things differently.  As someone who believes in students and their teachers, I am excited for the Fall.

Why esports?

Do many kids play too many video games? Yes.

Do some of the games kids play lack the values I would like to see portrayed? Definitely

Do I want our schools to get in the esports game? Absolutely

Conversations around esports is a wonderful generational clash.  Those of us who grew up with Atari, ColecoVision and the original Nintendo often cannot fathom the idea that there is any redeeming value in the video games that today’s kids are playing.  From what we see in the media the innocence of Pac-Man has been replaced by a stream of violent first-person shooter games.

Well, we hosted our first esports tournament last month with teams from all of our high schools and it was awesome!

I loved what I saw for a host of reasons, many of the same reasons I love what I see with students participating in the arts, athletics and clubs in school.  Students were taking on a role as part of a team towards a collective goal.  They were problem solving and competing.

Esports are definitely a global phenomena.  They are projected to do more than a billion dollars in business this year.  In a recent poll in the United States young people in similar numbers identified themselves as fans of esports as they were of football.  Closer to home the Vancouver Titans have marked our entry locally into the professional esports circuit and professional facilities are being built to host players and fans.  And it is not just for professionals, as colleges are beginning to run varsity esports teams and offer college scholarships.

Of course, just because something is popular doesn’t mean we should do it in our K-12 system.  What I have seen with esports in our schools, and elsewhere make me think they are a good fit our schools.  Some of the “why” for me includes:

  • Esports engage students as part of the school.  Students wear school uniforms, and have a sense of pride and identity.  Students connected to schools is a factor in success.
  • Esports are about team.  There is tremendous coordination and communications among participants as they work towards their goals.  These are some of the real world skills we continually say we want more of in  schools.
  • When we play esports in school it makes it easier to open up conversations about the type of games students play, the length of time they spend playing and hopefully influence their gaming with our school system values.
  • A key aspect of schooling is relevance.  When we see scholarships being awarded, universities being engaged, professional leagues being established and careers being built not only in playing but in other STEM related fields related to esports, we should look for an entry point.

I think some of the push-back has to do with the word “sport” in the name – as though a proponent of esports is saying that we shouldn’t be physically active – as if it is a choice between the two.  Esports are not intended to replace soccer or basketball.  Nor do I really think they should be in the Olympics.  (Of course there is another really good post here about what exactly is an athlete – I remember the questions in 1995 when Indy 500 Champion Jacques Villeneuve won the Lou Marsh Trophy for Top Canadian Athlete and Larry Walker said “I got beat by a machine”).  But like with competitive robotics, or entrepreneurial showcases, debate competitions or trivia tournaments they are a way to connects students and their school.  And a little bit of competition is sometimes a good thing!

Maybe esports are a fad?  Of course 200 million people watched the 2018 League of Legends World Championships, about twice as many as watched the Super Bowl, so it is showing some early staying power.  Esports remind us we should go where the kids are.  They offer an opportunity to turn what can be an isolating event into a social experience that contributes to the overall culture in the school.

Students take great pride in contributing to their schools and schools continually find new ways to make this happen.  Esports is just one of the latest ones – and one that looks like it might have some long term staying power.

 

For much of my life I have heard of the pending demise of movie theatres.  First, it was the video tape, then DVDs and more recently it has been the explosion of online viewing options.  So, who would go to the movie theater and pay $15 to watch a movie when they can watch one online anywhere they want.  Well as we have learned, the answer is a lot of people.  I am apparently one of the few people who has not seen Avengers:  End Game.  As of writing this, it has made over $2 billion in theatres!  Not bad considering theatres were supposed to be relics of the past by now.

I think of the changes they have made in connection to the changes made in schools.  I actually think we have some things in common.  Throughout my teaching career, I have often heard from prophets of the future say that schools are going to go the way of the dinosaur – for many of the same reasons I have heard for movie theatres.  In short, technology would make schools as we know them out-of-date.

So just how have schools and movie theatres evolved in the last few decades to be as relevant and important now as ever.

They are more than just about the content. Go to the movies, and the movie is just part of the experience.  Movie theatres are full amusement complexes with food courts, arcades and a range of other activities.  And schools and classes are more than just the course material.  If schools were just teachers reading material and students copying material – this could be easily replaced, but they are engaging places where students connect with information.  The course material is actually just a small part of what makes up school.  So while you can replace the delivery method of school material – that does not replace school.

They both create experiences you cannot create at home through a screen. I grew up going to movie theatres that had small screens, not-so comfortable seats and your snack choice of 1. popcorn or 2. popcorn with butter .  Go now, and you have seats that recline, 4D films, and theatres that are like your living room on steroids.  Again, they built an experience that would not be possible anywhere else.  And in schools, classes are inquiry focused and more personalized.  We have moved away from the factory model that could easily be sent through computer wires to something that is far more connected.   In the past, schools would sometimes operate in ways that could easily be automated, but no longer is that ever the case.

There is something about gathering together in the community.  With both movies and learning, we sometimes underestimate the power of the shared experience.  There is something about going with your friends to see a movie together – in an increasingly disconnected world, this is a common intersection.  And similarly schools provide that community gathering place.  While in many parts of our life we connect digitally, schools allow us to learn together and have shared experiences.  And while the experiences are different than a generation ago – the importance of the shared experience is still as critical as it is today.

The comparison of the transformation of movie theatres and schools is not a perfect one.  It is interesting to see how they have both managed to stay incredibly relevant.  And while we can watch movies in so many ways now, or access learning anywhere or anytime, the institutions are still strong.

So no Avengers for me, but I will definitely be in line on December 19th for Star Wars!

I Am Them

For the first time since finishing my Masters Degree in 1999 I am back in the student world. In January I began a doctorate program with eighteen colleagues from my district and around the province. It is so interesting going into the modern student world I have been seeing as a teacher and administrator over the last two decades. There are probably a lot of future blog posts in the work and the reflection of my experiences.

For now, I want to talk about my first two major assignments and my feedback on my feedback.   These are both fairly large written assignments – done in a group of three (I really like the ability to collaborate – a post for another time).  We submitted the first one, and a few days later one of my partners texted the others of us in the group to let us know our paper was marked.  I think the text was something like, “Paper is back .  A-“.  Well, that was a bit disappointing, like an A- is an OK letter grade and we all have some paper-writing rust, all just getting back into writing after a long time on the other side of assignments with our students.  My partners then said that there was a lot of feedback on the paper.  I think to their somewhat surprise and disappointment I said something like “We got an A-. Time to move on.  I am not going to read the feedback.”  And perhaps to partially prove a point, I haven’t read any of the feedback on the paper.  I heard it was very good.  The professor raised a number of issues and questions for our consideration.  And I know he may be reading this blog, and I know I am supposed to be a mature learner, but I didn’t read the feedback – I had my grade, A-.  And that was OK, and I was moving on to the next assignment.

Push ahead to our second assignment. Same professor.  We got it back today.  There was no letter grade on it.  He gave some kind comments that we were well on our way and he offered a lot of feedback, questions, suggestions, and provocations throughout the paper.  I have read the comments three times already and re-read the paper at least as many times.  I am sure I will spend several hours seeing how I can incorporate the thoughts into an improved paper.  I see some ways it definitely can be better.  My mind is just so different without the letter grade on the assignment.  I know at some point there will be a letter grade on the assignment and as our professor says, “deadlines are your friends.”  And in that way, I guess marks are as well.  They do signal conclusion.

Now, for all inside education this little experience I have had will not come as a surprise.  For the last twenty years (and longer) we have been talking of the power of feedback and the challenges associated with grades on papers.  This links to the movement away from grades at younger ages.  It is interesting to experience it myself.   Feedback is an invitation to a conversation and to improvement and grades (even if accompanied by the same level and quality of feedback) is an end point.

Thinking of our students, and what they have told me about feedback and grades, as I said in the title, I am them.

West Vancouver continues to take pride in offering the most innovative programming in the country to meet today’s learning and preparing them for the future. We are pleased to announce the launch of the Belvedere Learning Academy. This unique program for grades 4-9 students is a complete re-think on the modern school experience.  While much has been made about the competing ideologies in recent years of Back to Basics vs. 21st Century Learning, we are changing the debate with our new program.   We are bringing back the era of Garbage Pail Kids Stickers, boys playing shirts and skins in PE and leveled readers for all.

If you look around at leaders across North America one thing that is true is that an increasingly high percentage of them went to school during the 1980s.  This period of time, is in many ways the intellectual and cultural high point of the last 100 years.  We think today’s learners don’t need seats in rows and pencil and paper based learning of the Back to Basics 1950s nor the modern learning with all the fandangled technology of the 21st century – they need, what many of us had – an immersive 1980’s experience.  And everything at the Belvedere Learning Academy will be 1980s.  As the kids say, it is going to be gnarly!

Why Belvedere?

We start with the name.  The Belvedere Learning Academy (BLA for short) is named for Mr. Belvedere, one of the many 1980s situation comedies that reflected life in North America.  Mr. Belvedere was a posh British butler who moved in with the Owens family in Pittsburgh to assist the family on a weekly basis in solving their problems.   Students today don’t understand that this is how problems in the 1980s were often solved – by your British butler.  The photo of Mr. Belvedere at the front of the school will be a constant reminder of our purpose.  We could have named the program for one of the more popular 1980s shows – the Family Ties Learning Centre or the Facts of Life Institute, but we think the BLA is more appropriate – Mr. Belvedere was never that popular, but it hung around and was OK, the kind of show you would watch if your only other choices were Cagney & Lacey or a repeat of Riptide – that is the kind of program we want to create.

School Uniforms

Unlike the Back to Basics schools which have strict uniform requirements, the BLA will have a philosophy.  We think all students need to dress for the time.  It is the expectation of big hair for the students, both boys and girls.  Key clothing students should buy before enrolling include:  Reebok pump high tops, spandex, leg warmers, high wasted acid wash jeans, cut-off sweatshirts and lots of neon.  The dress code will extend to the staff.  You will be able to identify all male staff at the BLA as they will be wearing Miami Vice suits each day and the females will be wearing Dynasty-like shoulder pads, even their tshirts will have them, just like in the 80’s.

Technology

Yes, we will use technology.  We will use 1980s technology.  The Academy will be equipped with 8 Apple 2e machines in the library.  This will allow students to regularly play Lemonade Stand and Oregon Trail.  Not wanting to lose sight of the current trend of computer coding we will also expose all students to Apple Logo programming – the triangular turtle is back!  And yes, we will be a one-to-one device school – all students will be expected to have a Little Professor and bring it with them daily to school. For our secondary students we encourage the very stylish Casio watch calculator which we hope doesn’t slip off while we practice our Rubik Cube drills.

Curriculum

Most lessons will involve students copying information off of the overhead projector, and then sharing it back with the teacher through some zany-joke filled worksheet and end of unit scantron tests.  Since the school will have 2 video players and 25″ televisions on rolling carts that play both VHS and BETA we will also include a number of key programs in the curriculum.  For example, for science we will use episodes of That’s Incredible (but please as Cathy Lee Crosby reminds us – Don’t try this at home) and in our unit on communities in Social Studies we will use Real People episodes.  Having Sarah Purcell and Byron Allen coming through the screen – they will be like extra teachers in the room.

In PE there will be a lot of parachutes and cosom hockey.  As a treat, the gymnastics equipment will come for 5 weeks during which time students can climb ropes to the ceiling, vault like Mary-Lou Retton and perfect their Bart Conner rings routine (acing their iron cross will only help the students with their flexed arm hang test).  And yes, the fitness badges are back – so practice your shuttle run.  Not to lose sight of current efforts around cross cultural understanding, in PE during the professional wrestling unit and when for example, we are instructing on the Camel Clutch, this will be an opportunity to delve into the background for the Iron Sheik and his feud with Hulk Hogan and the good vs. evil struggles that exist around the world.  We are particularly excited about this unit as it will be an opportunity to take our uniforms to the next level – totally tubular!

Evaluation

Two words will define our model – speed and awards.  How fast can you complete an assignment?  There is a math sample just below for you to practice.  And awards – there will be stickers, lots of stickers!  We will also post all the grades so the weaker students better understand they are weaker, thus wanting to improve.  Now before you enroll, time yourself on this worksheet:

 

Hot Lunch Program

The modern hot lunch program, we all can agree, is out of control.  Students at BLA will be asked to bring their lunch box daily, along with their Super Socco drink.  As a reminder these lunch boxes will help define their class status, so please stick to Superman, My Little Pony, Evil Knievel, Knight Rider or other socially acceptable ones.  On the last Friday of each month will be Hot Dog Day.  This will be a huge production at the school.  Parents will be expected to come in to boil wieners in the kitchen attached to the gym.  The menu will be simple:  hot dogs for everyone, then you select plain or chocolate milk and glazed or jelly donuts.  That’s it.  To borrow a quote from our current politics, we are going to make hot dog day great again!

 

Recess

We do expect students to get outside at recess, maybe shoot some hockey cards or play with their He-Man and She-Ra figures.  They will not be allowed to have their Sony Walkmans on the field, and are asked to keep them in the cloakroom.  Also a reminder that students are not to have their sticker collections out – save trading your scratch-and-sniff stickers for after school.

Final Sales Pitch

We all know that everything was better in the 1980s.  So, stop just telling your kids about it and send them to the BLA so they can live it and become as successful as you!

Today’s announcement is the latest in the long line of innovative actions from our school district.  Here is the list of those from recent years:

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.

In 2015 we created our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy.

In 2016 we introduced the Drone Homework Delivery System.

In 2017 we introduced the Donald J. Trump Elementary School of Winning.

In 2018 we announced the construction of Soak City Elementary.

We look forward to bringing you all back to the 80s and I hope you are enjoying today as much as me!

 

The much discussed US college cheating scam “Operation Varsity Blues” that has seen 50 people charged with various crimes has really stuck with me, as well it seems with people across North America. Of course the story has a movie-like crazy scheme storyline filled with celebrities and other powerful families.  It is the kind of story we love – it makes for great television.

For me, hearing the story I kept thinking, really this is a thing? I admit to being one of the more naive and trusting people but I struggle to believe these kind of activities really take place in our world. The media have been full of “hot takes” on the issue, but I want to look at a different slice of the story.  I have been thinking a lot about what the cheaters did in relation to the notions of abundance and scarcity in education.

I continue to hear comments that degrees are less important than they used to be.  In the modern world, we have moved from a time of scarcity to abundance in education.  While it definitely has some implications for K-12, the notion is most often used when we look at post-secondary.  In the past, with a limited number of spaces in post-secondary we were in an information-scarce time with acceptance to university/college being the way to access the information.  If you didn’t get to college or into the class, you couldn’t access the material or acquire the knowledge.  Now, in the age of abundance, we have a tsunami of new technologies creating access to any content you want.  You want to access the best lectures from the finest institutions in the world, you can likely do this all for free.  The cheerleaders of this change see this as opening up education to millions of people left around the world left out in the past.  And there are numerous stories of people picking up content online and this leading to dramatic changes in their life opportunities. Perhaps the era of credentialing being the key driver for so many professions in our world is ending?

Then last week in a lecture I attended there was a discussion about the dramatic differences that exist today, and increasingly so, of the different salaries and unemployment rates for those who have high school, college or professional degrees.  The data shows that more than ever (at least in the United States) the more education you have, the more money you will make, on average, and the less likely you will find yourself unemployed.  I am struck by these seemingly competing messages – in the modern world you don’t need the piece of paper anymore for the degree and in the era of abundance you can have access to all the content online and gain the skills that others pay thousands of dollars to receive BUT at the same time, the piece of paper may be more valuable than ever as an indicator of how successful you will be professionally.

So how does this relate to the cheating scam?  I am struck that so many seemingly very smart and successful people would spend so much money and put themselves and their families at risk to try to “hack” the old system and find their way to the top in the scarcity model.  If it is true, that it matters less where one goes to school, and the degrees that one has and matters more what one knows, the competencies they exhibit and how they apply their knowledge (and this doesn’t have to be through school) – then these 30+ families sure risked a lot for something that really doesn’t matter as much anymore.

And I realize it is far more complicated than this.  I am sure there are numerous status-related motivations why some of these people did what they did and it was not just about them deciding trying to criminally bypass the old model.  Perhaps for them education scarcity was a better bet than embracing a modern notion of educational abundance for their children.

I am a little less naive than I was a week ago about people but still have no clearer idea on what the future of learning and credentialing beyond grade 12 will look like going forward.  Will elite universities continue to be places that people will apparently be willing to lie, cheat and steal to attend or will the era of abundance mean that we no longer value the elite university credentials the same way we have for many generations?

I am pretty competitive. It is a short list of things I won’t try to turn into some sort of contest.  I don’t just like to run, I like to race. And while I like getting steps with my FitBit, I also really like seeing how I am doing against my friends who have the same device. I could easily go on, the list is long.  And while I like winning, I really like the act of competing.  I find it motivating.

Since I think competition is so great in so many areas, why am I so lukewarm on letter grades – particularly with our younger learners.  And why have I written multiple posts criticizing the Fraser Institute and their use of school assessment data to rank schools?  If my FitBit rankings encourage me to walk more, shouldn’t the Fraser Institute rankings encourage our students to perform better?

A recent conversation with Dean Shareski helped me bring some of this into focus.  As I look at the competitions I like, they are all ones that I have voluntarily joined to participate.  I think a key piece for me is this explicit commitment to participate.

All my favourite competitions are ones where those of us involved joined, not ones we were forced into.  I am good with competitive team sports, with their scoring and winning as the participants knew what they signed up for.  And for those who don’t want to compete, they don’t sign up.  The way my brain is wired, I think everyone must want to compete about just about everything, but I do know this isn’t true.  I was struck by a recent post by my colleague Maureen Lee who wrote that she found her FitBit was actually hurting her fitness so she has taken it off.  I think it is crucial to recognize that competition is a motivator for some people in some instances but this is far from universal.  And I realize it is not always healthy for motivation to be so extrinsic- I am the person who now doesn’t want to get off the couch when my FitBit is charging, thinking of any steps as wasted steps.

It is this volunteering piece that leads to some of my struggles with the Fraser Institute and our ranking and sorting in schools.  The Fraser Institute has a narrow slice of criteria (a few province-wide assessments) and applies blanket rankings to all schools in the province on these results.  The schools don’t sign up to participate.  It is not that inner-city schools are saying, “this year let’s compete in our writing tests with some of the elite private schools in the province”.  It takes no acknowledgement that different schools may have a different focus or goals, and are all starting from very different places.

Similarly, students working through learning their math or language arts are not asking to be put on a common scale with their age-similar peers and have their results posted in the class (I know this happens very rarely now) or stamped with a grade that says little about what they need to improve but says a lot about how they currently stack-up with others around them.  This is particularly true at younger ages.  I wonder how a 10 year-old bringing home a report card with C’s thinks – when did I sign up for this?  We know better.

It is not easy to reconcile how we can both embrace and champion competition and also question its necessity.   Perhaps we need to ask the hard question –  why exactly are we competing in something that really is a personal journey?   At least for now I am going to see how this new criteria fits – I am all for competition that I signed up for.   And to all you FitBitt-ers on my Friends list – I am coming for you!