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As I read the media reports of the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results I could almost feel the media’s disappointment.  Of the 72 countries and jurisdictions around the world participating, students in British Columbia were the highest performing in reading, 2nd highest in science and 6th in math.  The results are outstanding.  And this is no small test – over 500,000 15-year-old students participated around the world including more than 20,000 in Canada.  Of course, good news just doesn’t make “news” like bad news.  There are far more people who seem to enjoy a “Students Struggle with Reading” headline, rather than a “Local Students Top Readers in the World” headline. (See full Canadian results here).

I dedicate dozens of posts each year on this blog to talking about the need to do things differently.  And results like those from PISA do not change the need or urgency.  They do remind us in British Columbia (and all across Canada) we are improving from a place of strength.  We have an exemplary education system that is not satisfied with the status quo and we want to be sure that as the world continues to change, our curriculum, assessment and programs continue to adapt to ensure our relevance.

I have written about PISA two times before (when both the 2009 and 2012 results were released – and I still hold to these commentaries).  Beyond the high-level numbers the power of PISA is that there is a lot of data that helps tell a more complete story.  I find the most useful information are deeper in the report below the silly “who won” conversation.  From first look, one sees that there is a very small gender gap in science in Canada, for example, and overall the level of equity (the difference between the highest and lowest scores) is better (more equitable) in Canada than elsewhere.  As I said in my comments three years ago, when asked about PISA – “It is what it is”.  It is one part of the education story, but when governments invest billions of dollars into education, it is a powerful tool to help see we are doing some things right.

I am also left thinking about Finland today.  Like many others, I have visited Finland to learn about what they have done to develop such a strong education system.  And just what first attracted me to Finland?  Well, it was their PISA scores.  The same PISA scores that today indicate the world has a lot to learn from Canada and British Columbia. The same PISA scores that remind me that we can learn a lot in British Columbia from colleagues in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and truly across the country.  The same PISA scores that remind me as Superintendent in West Vancouver, there is a lot we can learn from Surrey, Victoria and Bulkley Valley.

Of course we have many areas in British Columbia we can improve – it is forever the nature of education.  We need to continue to work to improve our Aboriginal graduation rates, and support all learners in our classrooms.  There is a danger that a report like this can suggest we tick the education box in our society and stop investing – we need to do the opposite and continue to invest in public education in British Columbia so we grow from this position of strength.  And yes, PISA is just one measure – we know there are so many factors beyond tests like these that we need to track to ensure our students are strong academic performers and capable citizens (and yes, there are many thoughtful critics of PISA).

But let’s leave the other conversations for another day – today is a day to recognize the system we have – and it is damn good!  All of us who have children in BC’s schools, and all of us who work in BC schools should be very proud.

OK, that is more self-congratulating than most of us Canadians are used to – let’s get back to work!

football

Sports are a huge part of my family life. My wife owns a sports business for young people, my kids are very involved in numerous sports and I try to find time to coach and volunteer whenever I can.

And we participate in a lot of sports – soccer, basketball, volleyball, swimming, cheer, cross country, track and many more.  We have never been a football family.  Like others, anxiety over safety issues in football have raised concerns for me.  And when I learned that former BC Lion Angus Reid was going to be speaking about high school football at TEDxWestVancouverEd I was preparing to not agree with him.  A former football star touting the importance of high school football at a time when the sport is facing trouble with participation; I was ready to be reminded that schools need to be like they used to be, when football was king.

TED Conferences can be overwhelming.  One speaker after another, mostly confirming your view of the world.  Many of the talks, no matter how powerful or passionate, can run together.  Well, we are a couple of months after the event now, and one talk has really stuck with me – it is Angus Reid’s Why We Need High School Football.

It is hard to change one’s thinking in 12 minutes – but Angus Reid made me see high school football differently.  His set-up was important.  He was clearly focused on high school football, differentiating it from community and professional football.  He also dealt with the concussion and safety issue in a very upfront way – taking the approach if high school football is important enough we ca figure out the safety issues.

There were a number of strong points Angus made.  His emphasis on the structure that football can give young people is important.  In a world of uncertainty, football is very routine – one game a week, usually on Fridays, and a series of after-school practices each day with a specific purpose as they build up to the game.  As I wrote in my most recent post, people are often seeking routine in an ever-changing world.

Then there is the entire issue of participation.  Reid notes that there are 88 chances in a game to get kids to play.  So you can find a way to get everyone in the game on a team of 40 or on a team of 80.  Football is a sport that is open to everyone – different positions require different shapes and sizes and very different skills.  The issue of participation in school sports is one I have been thinking a lot about recently.  Maybe because my kids are now at the young high school age, I am seeing kids (and their parents) crushed as they are cut from basketball and volleyball teams.  As much as I love both of those sports – they are ones where sometimes only 12 of 60 or 70 interested kids “make” the team.  We need more sports like football, and rugby, ultimate, cross-country track, among others that find a way to include most if not all of their interested kids.  This point has been further emphasized this past week with the announcement that young people in Canada are some of the least active in the world.

Finally Reid makes the case for the empowerment that can come from football.  Reid mentioned Nolan Bellerose, who was the subject of a wonderful recent story from Howard Tsumura at the Province Newspaper.  It is true that sports can be a vehicle for so much more.  It is true that we see these possibilities through many school sports, and similarly through music, art, robotics and a range of other co-curricular and extra-curricular programs it is true that football can often tap into a population of our young men who often struggle to connect in our schools.

So, Angus Reid, you changed my thinking.  I will look at high school football differently from now on.

photo_boosterjuice_smoothiewithfruit1

My friends know I am not much for fancy restaurants. I know what I like.

I love chain restaurants.  Knowing what I am going to order when I walk in, appreciating, for the most part, how the food will taste and how it will be presented, is very reassuring.

I have it all planned out:

Milestones – California Salad, no goat cheese with salmon

White Spot – Veggie Burger with Yam Fries

Tim Hortons – Grilled cheese sandwich with Medium Ice Capp (shot of hazelnut)

Subway – 12 Inch Veggie on Flatbread – no olives or cucumbers with honey mustard

Booster Juice -Ripped Berry

I could go on.

So just what does my somewhat curious eating habits have to do an education blog?

I find the world to be quite chaotic.  We live in constant change and the speed of the change seems to be ever-increasing.  I often write about how exciting it is to be teaching and learning now.  Teaching in schools today is very different from just 10 years ago.  I spend my days talking about inquiry, coding, self-regulation and other terms I didn’t ever use just a few years ago.  We are preparing our students for an ever-changing world, and one where most will have many more jobs than the generation before them – some that do not exist today.

It is in this world of changing politics, economics and technology that I have comfort in the fact that at least I can have certainty when I go out for a meal.  So maybe Blockbuster Video no longer exists, and I cannot take my film in for developing but at least when I go to Starbucks, pretty much anywhere in the world, and order my Caramel Frappuccino Light – it will taste the same – the same in Denver or Helsinki and the same today as 10 years ago.

While I have looked for certainty in an uncertain world through some somewhat odd restaurant choices, I find many people looking for reassurance in an ever-changing world through schooling.

Let me explain  . . .

Many of us romanticize our school experiences.  The details have faded over time, but we remember schooling as a largely positive experience and we credit who we are today in part to our experiences in schools.  So, as we become parents in this world that looks so different from when we were students there is something reassuring about schooling looking largely the same.  If only our children can have the same experiences that we had in school, they will be OK – like us.  Parents like that learning is generally organized the same as it was 30 years ago.  Students go to their classes daily from September to June from 9 AM – 3 PM attending subjects that rotate every hour from Math to PE to Art.  And this is reassuring.  As our communities change at least schools stay the same.

We need to continue to challenge this.  While it is odd and quirky that I find assurances through my choice of restaurants, it is far more dangerous for our children if we do not continue to challenge the notions of learning and schooling.  We need to continue to think about how we organize subjects, we need to continue to give students greater control over what, when, and how they learn and we need to embrace the possibilities of modern learning and new technologies in our schools.

I get how it would be far easier to slow down the pace of change in our schools and allow our students to complete the same worksheets we did in school, read the same Shakespeare plays and do the same science experiments.  There is definitely something appealing about trying to return to a simpler time.

I find it a daily challenge as I watch my children learn differently than I learned in school – I worry they are missing out. In an uncertain world, we need schools to ensure they stay relevant and engaging and embrace this uncertainty.

I will be at the Food Court if you want to discuss this further.

invitationsI was struck seeing this quote recently.

It is so true.  But sometimes it sure does not feel true in our business.

This challenge is one I see with my school and district administrator colleagues.  Administrators are invited to an incredible number of events.  It is easy to be a school principal and be out each night, and at least one day on the weekend at school and community events.  And all the events are good and worthwhile events, but given all the professional demands, and the importance of balancing these with a life outside of work, it is a challenge.

I know, particularly when I was new into roles, as vice-principal, principal, district staff or superintendent I would often treat invitations as subpoenas.  If someone took the time to invite me to attend an event, I had to figure out how to make it work.  If I was asked to speak out-of-province, I would fly on a red-eye flight and fly back immediately to be home for an evening event the next day.  I have also sat at a meeting, or a dinner and wondered, why am I here?  Is my presence adding to the event or am I getting something of value personally or professionally for our organization by attending.  It is hard to swallow the response – it is just one of those things it is important to show-your-face at.

Figuring out which invitations to accept is one of the tricky jobs of a school or district administrator.  One piece of advice I would give to new people to their roles, is to think about your priorities and drivers when it comes to attending events.  Do you prioritize school events in your district? What about community events?  Or professional development events?  I too often have said yes to events well into the future, because a particular date was free on my calendar, only for that date to get closer and me to be wishing I had not agreed to attend.

I know one strategy I have is keeping track of which schools I have visited for special events.  So if I go to some schools for Remembrance Day Ceremonies, I will try to visit other ones for Christmas Concerts.  And as an executive team, we try to always talk about which events we will attend.  It is often not necessary for all of us to be at the same events.  I also do try to prioritize my own professional growth  – with a few opportunities that I block into the calendar and work other events around them.  It is hard, and I sometimes regret committing to conferences as the time approaches, but it is important for all of us in the system to be taking time to focus on our growth.

And with the numerous community events, I try to place priority on those organizations we work most closely with in the School District, asking the question, Does me attending this event add value to our district?  It is interesting – roles like school principal or superintendent are a bit what you make of them.  You can do the jobs very differently and be successful, and community expectations around accepting invitations can vary widely.

It is exceptionally hard when you get an email that says, “we would be honoured if you could find time to attend our event”, and then say no.  Initially you want to attend absolutely EVERYTHING.  It is easier now, having worked in the community for almost 11 years, and entering my seventh year as Superintendent, but the push and pull between thinking of an invitation as just that and not as a subpoena is still a challenge that I do think about almost every day.

I have written before that I think how superintendents (or principals) spend their time is key.  It sends a message of what they value and what they think is important.  Something to consider the next time you get an invitation.

Mission Accomplished?

mission-accomplished

So just what does a 2003 George Bush speech have to do with the state of technology in BC?  I think we could make the argument that it is “Mission Accomplished” when it comes to going digital in British Columbia schools.  There has been some amazing work done over the last 10 years.

At the recent Computer Using Educators of British Columbia (CUEBC) Conference I described the shifts I have seen in the last decade.

  • In our schools we largely now have reliable internet connectivity.  Changes to the province-wide system and investments made in communities mean that most schools in most communities have stable and reliable connectivity.
  • Most schools in most districts have found ways to get devices into the hands of teachers.  While it is not perfect, many districts have programs that see teachers getting laptops (or at least dedicated desktops) as part of their work.  This was rare a decade ago.
  • Bring-Your-Own-Device plans for students have moved from “pilot programs” to being quite the norm in many schools.  With considerations of equity, schools have found ways to ensure all students have digital access through lending programs, helping with financing for families and creative partnerships with the community.
  • We have stopped banning phones or disallowing other internet devices at school.  A decade ago, phones would often be collected in a principal’s desk.  They are now seen as a tool for learning – though generally not as good a tool as a slate or laptop computer.
  • Social Media is built-in as part of school and district communication strategies.  And generally, we are seeing students behave far more ethically in these spaces than a decade ago.
  • We have got passed the idea that we need to chase around “blocking” sites like YouTube and focused on education.
  • Wi-Fi is almost expected throughout a school system.  If I go into a school without wi-fi I am very surprised.  Again what a difference a few years makes.

And I am reminded that these statements are more true in some places than others.  I get that.  With challenging budgets and unique community factors these ideas may not be as absolute in some places as others.  What is true is that the philosophical battles have been decided.  Students and teachers having access to devices, with reliable connectivity to the internet is a good thing and something we want for everyone – and this was not an easy place to land.  Many of us spent hours in discussions about the “need” for technology in schools, or a range of related topics.

But back to George and the photo.

It would be easy to put together a talk and roll-out a mission accomplished banner in British Columbia when it comes to technology.  Like George and others saw, the real challenges were to come after the banner ceremony.  We have a tremendous opportunity now in British Columbia.  We have had the hard conversations and debates around technology.  We have made huge strides with the “stuff” in the last ten years.  We arrive at today with classrooms that look different at the same time as we are working through revised curriculum.  What an opportunity that we have a set of digital tools at our disposal just as we are reflecting on the what and how of our teaching.

West Van teacher Keith Rispin asked a really good question in his blog recently: Is it my imagination or have things started to stagnate in the world of Educational Technology? I think we have made tremendous strides with technology but the best work is ahead of us and the time is now.  I have seen far too many people give each other high-5’s because they got SmartBoards in all their classrooms.  We need to be better than that.

In the talk at CUEBC I also argued that people didn’t really want the “stuff” but they wanted the fulfillment of the promise of relevent, engaging and connected learning.  A great barrier of the early part of this century has been we didn’t have the stuff and the stuff we had didn’t really do what we wanted.

While not perfect, we are moving past that.  These are exciting times – let’s not roll-out the Mission Accomplished banner, but rather focus on taking advantage of the current opportunities.

used-to-blame

I Used to Blame Parents But Now I Have Kids is the title of the recent Ignite talk I gave as part of the Ignite Your Passions event held in conjunction with a Canadian Education Association conference. Unlike previous talks, we were restricted by format this time – all using the “I used to ____________ But Now I __________ ” format. At the bottom of this post I have included the slides I used.

Here is some of my thinking.  It is best to read with a bit of the tongue-in-cheek tone intended with the understanding it was a talk I gave in a bar (always one of the interesting parts of doing an Ignite talk):

I would often hear early in my career from my more seasoned colleagues, “if you don’t have kids you don’t understand.”  I would always think that I was different.  I was closer in age to my students than their parents, I was connected to the students and I figured I probably understood them better than their parents.  I had no idea what I didn’t know and I lived largely in a black and white world.

Then, I had kids, and it really changed my thinking.  I remember thinking pre-kids, “Really, you can’t find 15 minutes a night to read with your children?”  I would wonder who these parents were, were they really that bad or did they just not care.  Well I learned that it sounds easy, but sometimes finding 15 minutes at home is impossible and if you do find 15 minutes to spend as a family, maybe reading should not always be the first priority.

I was also one of those teachers who was outraged when parents took their kids out of school for a day to go on a family trip.  Did they not respect what we did in school?  Did they not understand what we did was important?  Well, I have now been one of those parents.  My vacation-time does not always align with the vacation time where my kids go to school.  And yes, I have taken my kids, while not frequently, out of school so we could do something as a family.  It was not an indictment of what the school was doing, I just know that sometimes there are experiences you want to have as a family that are almost impossible to limit to times when all the holiday stars align for all members of the family.

Having kids also made me better recognize the hope, pride, joy and dreams that parents have in their kids.  All parents I know hope their kids will be a little smarter, kinder, more athletic and all-around slightly better person than they are.  I know that is something I want for my kids.  As the quote goes, parents are sending us the best kids they have.  Parents are not adversaries (at times I thought that early in my career), they are allies.  They are looking for insight advice and dialogue.

I get the amazing balancing act that is family – with home, school and everything else in life.  And if having children has solidified my views on any one topic in education it is my negative views on homework, particularly in the early grades.  There are few things worse than being a parent trying to help coordinate a group project with your son or daughter that will soak up the entire weekend.  And don’t get me started on homework over holiday breaks.

All of my black and white views from my early 20’s are really now very grey.

This is not a rant that if you don’t have kids you can’t be a good teacher.  Some of the most spectacular teachers I know don’t have children.  What is true is that for me, many people, events and experiences have transformed my practice, none more than having kids.

world-teacherSo, just how many of your teachers from grade school can you name?

I was struck by a story shared by Dean Shareski on Opening Day about The Amazing Miss A and Why We Should Care About Her.  The study comes from McGill Faculty of Education, Professor Eigil Pedersen.  The study initially looked at how students who had Miss A for grade 1 showed an increase in IQ scores between grades 3 and 6 while those in other classes were stable.  There was nothing unique about Miss A’s class but something was going on.  Students were again studied years later and given an “adult status” score  including factors such as the highest grade of high school completed, the type of housing they occupied, their personal appearance and their occupational status.  And again it was those in Miss A’s class that stood out.

And what else was true, every single pupil of Miss A’s could remember her as their grade 1 teacher.  So what was it about the magical Miss A?

lt was reported that she never lost her temper or resorted to physical restraint, and showed obvious affection for the children. She generated many lessons on the importance of schooling and why students should stick to it. She gave extra hours to pupils who were slow learners. She believed every pupil could learn. That surely explains the one characteristic that emerged as a steady pattern, illustrated best by the comment of one respondent, “it did not matter what background or abilities the beginning pupil had there was no way that the pupil was not going to read by the end of grade one.”

The entire story is worth reading and a good reminder that we need to be careful to buy into simple explanations of socio-economic conditions as being the sole determiner of students’ success.  It also is an excellent reminder of what are truly the characteristics of a great teacher.

The story got me thinking, when I look at my K-12 school years – how many of my teachers could I name?  I actually did pretty well and have really nice things to say about virtually all of them.  So, on this World Teachers’ Day I would like to thank those who I remember:

K – Mrs. Groening

Grade 1 – Can’t remember name and don’t have good memories

Grade 2 – Mrs. Caffrey  (Read all about her)

Grade 3 – Mrs. Caffery

Grade 4 – Mrs. Caffrey

Grade 5 – Mr. Nakanishi

Grade 6 – Mr. Whitehead

Grade 7 – Mr. Taylor

Grade 8 – Mrs. MacDonalnd (Science), Ms. Bourne (English), Mrs. White (Social Studies), Mr. Inglis (Math), Mr. Paquet (PE and French), Mr. Hobson (Band), Mrs. Hicks (Food and Clothing) 8 out of 8

Grade 9 – Mr. Carroll (Science) Ms. Ball (English), Mr. Bryan (Social Studies), Mr. Loader (Math and Computer Science), Mr Milholm (PE), Mr. Hobson (Band) 7 out of 8

Grade 10 – Mr. Carroll (Science),Ms. Bourne (English), Mr. Bryan (Social Studies), Ms. Blaschuk (Math), Mr. Hirayama (PE), Mr. Hobson (Band and Consumer Ed) 7 out of 8

Grade 11 – Ms. Carey (English), Mr. Brown (Social Studies), Mr. Turnbull (Math), Mr. Gresko (Biology), Ms. Hurley (Computer Science), Mr. Spearman (Law) 6 out of 8

Grade 12 – Ms. Carey (English), Mr. Brown (Western Civ and Literature), Mr. Commons (History), Mr. Topping (Geogrpahy), Mr. McCallum (French) 6 out of 7

It is an interesting exercise.  I have strong memories of almost all the teachers I remember and they are almost exclusively not about what I learned, but how their class made me feel.

To all my teachers, and those in the profession past and present – Happy World Teachers’ Day.