Archive for March, 2011

We have spent a lot of time in our district considering what digital literacy should look like at the primary level.  To its credit, DreamBox Learning has received strong reviews and many awards.  It is also one of the first digital tools, I have seen, which introduces students to learning in a digital environment, while offering ongoing and constructive feedback; it also includes a school-home connection — a key focus in our use of technology in the younger grades. Currently, 10 of our elementary schools are piloting the program.

We have had some success with a home-reading program that I wrote about earlier here, and DreamBox has similar potential with its school and home licensing components.

What I like about it so far:

  • the program adapts to the student’s abilities — so students can be working in the same classroom, but at their own level
  • it allows students to work through and solve problems — offering them assistance as they need it
  • real-time assessment for teachers (and for parents — if enabled for home use) is included; a recent addition of a program component allows for school-wide overviews — a great way to identify areas of focus in a school
  • students report the learning is fun — it is not about just taking math equations and putting them online; it is all built around digital manipulatives
  • students can spend 30 minutes working with the program in school, and then supplement this at home (or not)

What it doesn’t do:

  • DreamBox does not “replace” math and numeracy instruction
  • it is linked, but is not an exact match to curriculum

I have worked with it at home with my three oldest children, and the results have been impressive — it has given learning focus to some of their screen time, and they have become more confident in numeracy and solving problems in multiple ways.  In addition, as a parent, I have received feedback in ways I have never before with my kids’ learning, and this feedback has given me ideas for extension activities I can do with my kids.

As we make decisions for the fall, it will be interesting to hear the reactions of students, teachers and parents on the program’s value and the role they see DreamBox Learning playing.  In the marriage of personalized learning and technology, I think adaptive learning platforms — like that on display with DreamBox Learning — will become increasingly important.

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Over the last five years, opening a conversation with a provocative video has been a common approach in discussions regarding the need to evolve our K-12 education system.  The Did You Know? approach — in which we show a five-minute video and use it at a springboard for conversation — often soaks up the first 15 or 20 minutes of a meeting.  There are a lot of wonderful videos —  Justin Tarte recently compiled a great list of twenty-seven of these videos — great for staff workshops, parent meetings, or any other sessions  as a conversation starter on education.

I find myself using the video approach less often these days. The videos still do make a strong case for change, but most people get this now and want the specifics on what we can do. In April, I plan to open several meetings with a new video that tackles the issue of reform from what we have learned about our brain.

From our board office staff meetings, meeting with all administrators, to several PAC meetings I am scheduled to attend, I will be using Born to Learn, which is described as ” the first animation in a fascinating series aimed to provide easy-access to the exciting new discoveries constantly being made about how humans learn!”

The video comes from the 21st Century Learning initiative, resident to John Abbott, and it is often referenced around the personalized learning discussion in BC.

After showing the video, I will be looking at the following points for discussion:

  • What stands out?
  • What are the key messages for parents of young children and early childhood educators?
  • How does the “earthquake in the brain” manifest itself in our schools?  How do we respond?  How could we respond differently/better?
  • How do we honour risk-taking from the upper intermediate grades through graduation?  How do we stifle it?
  • How should what we have learned about the brain (from this video and other research) change our structures/approaches with students in early learning? in their teenage years?

I am interested in what others think of the video, and how it might be used it in their contexts.

Of course, these 15-minute conversation teasers — where we use a video to spur on discussion, may help to shift thinking, but are most valuable when followed up with concrete action.  I know many people I work with will say, “Great, we know this.”  So, why don’t we do a better job to match what we do to what we know?

The video is clearly part of a larger initiative and is linked to a new website Born to Learn (it is going live on March 28th — after this post’s publication date). Whatever the “New” looks like in education and schooling, it needs to be absolutely in sync with the latest developments in evolving our understanding of brain research and how we learn.

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Over the course of the past year, I had the opportunity to hear Kieran Egan speak several times on a very simple idea — that students be randomly assigned a topic to study in depth for 12 years.  And just what topics did he suggest?  In A Brief Guide to Learning in Depth, produced by the Imaginative Education Research Group at the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, possible topics included paper, skin, gold, cotton, storms, leaves, castles, jungles and coffee.  In addition to the usual curriculum, students would study their assigned topic throughout their elementary and secondary education.

The first time I heard Egan present the concept, I was as skeptical and cynical as many of those who commented on Janet Steffenhagen’s blog post last fall about Egan’s new book, Learning in Depth.  I had the “yeah, buts” that Egan addresses in his book, like: “wouldn’t students become bored with a topic for 12 years?” “it is unfair to randomly assign topics?” “it would be difficult to organize;” “how do we know this works?” and “would this learning transfer to their other parts of school?”

With the perceived complications around making systemic changes so many believe are needed to evolve our education system, Egan’s idea is simple, doable, and is already happening in many places.  One of the concerns I share with the many, is the minutia in the curriculum — the hundreds of specific outcomes which do not allow one to ‘go deep’ on topics.  I believe it matters little what students can go deep on — it is that they have the ability to do so, and move beyond surface level and recall.  While I am still not sure I want my five-year-old son studying silk for the next 12 years, I do like the idea he could do deep learning outside the bounds of what we normally think of as school.

In Learning in Depth, Egan suggested that “for each student, by the end of her or his schooling, [the goal] is to know as much about that topic as almost anyone on earth.”

The  benefits included a deep understanding of the nature of knowledge; engaging students’ imaginations and emotions in learning; building confidence and pride in knowledge; developing research expertise and organizational skills.  There are similar benefits suggested for teachers and schools — enriching experiences, a de-emphasis on assessment and grading and an enriched school culture.

As part of his presentation last week, Egan spoke about the thousands of students who are participating in this program in Canada, the United States and around the world.  Participation has grown rapidly over the last few years.  While some have modified their study to only one year, or a few years, and in advanced grades some all choice, many schools are carving out time for this in their week.

Before you quickly dismiss the concept like I did at first, take some time to explore the Learning in Depth Project.

While we continue to explore many grander changes to schooling, I am becoming convinced we need to carve out specific time, each week, for this new, deeper, integrated learning (attach the buzz phrase of your choice).  It may seem ludicrous on the surface — blocking out time for something intended to be part of everything we do — but, somehow, on the journey we may need to set aside time to do something different.  Whether it is a project like Learning in Depth, or an initiative like  Destination Imagination, or engagement in DreamBox (more on both Destination Imagination and DreamBox in future posts), we need to systematically move forward and make a commitment to do similar ‘new’ activities — not just one teacher, one class at a time, but entire schools and districts.

Egan’s project reminds me of Dennis Littky’s Big Picture schools  that were started in the United States; albeit, Littky builds projects around student choice while Egan’s are randomly selected.  On the topic of rethinking secondary school learning, I find Littky to be one of the most thoughtful and important voices and his book Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business is a must-read.

With so many educational reformers speaking and writing about deep learning these days, Egan provides us with a simple entry point.

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A great deal has been written about who is framing the education conversation in B.C. And some suggest, I believe wrongly, nobody is leading these conversations.

As the system evolves, a number of contributing voices have emerged.  It is impossible to create an exhaustive list, but in identifying the 25 people who, I think, are currently contributing to the conversation and are influencing the direction of education in B.C., I hope to generate even more conversations.  I have tried to look across roles, and balance those from within and outside the province.

Some guidelines I used for the list:

  • no elected officials (local, provincial or national)
  • no Ministry of Education staff
  • nobody I work with in West Vancouver (though I wanted to add a couple)
  • it is not about the people I agree with, but those who influence the education system

With that said, here is my list, organized alphabetically, of 25 influencers on the state of public education in British Columbia in 2011. Some of their key areas of influence are bracketed, and you can click on their name for links to bios, blogs and more information:

John Abbott, Director, 21st Century Learning Initiative (personalized learning)

Jameel  Aziz, President, BC Principals and Vice-Principals Association (assessment / principal and vice-principal advocacy)

Cale  Birk, Principal, South Kamloops Secondary School (secondary school reform / social media)

Steve Cardwell, Superintendent, Vancouver School District / President BCSSA (student engagement)

Damian Cooper, Education Consultant (assessment and evaluation)

Peter Cowley, Director of School Performance Studies, Fraser Institute (school rankings)

Maureen Dockendorf,  Assistant Superintendent, Coquitlam School District (early learning / professional learning)

Kieran Egan, Professor of Education Theory Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University (imaginative education)

Carole Fullerton, Teaching Consultant (numeracy)

Judy Halbert, Network Leader, The Network of Performance Based Schools (networked learning)

Valerie Hannon, Director, Innovation Unit (personalized learning)

Andy Hargreaves, Thomas More Brennan Chair, Lynch School of Education at Boston College  (school/district reform)

Clyde Hertzman, Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at UBC  (early learning)

Linda Kaiser, Network Leader, The Network of Performance Based Schools (networked learning)

Craig Kielburger, Founder of Free the Children  / Co-founder, Me to We (social responsibility/global citizenship)

Susan Lambert, President, BC Teachers Federation (social justice/teacher advocacy)

Barry MacDonald, Canada’s National Advocate for Boys, Educator and Registered Clinical Counsellor, Professional Speaker (boys and learning)

Gordon Neufeld, Developmental and Clinical Psychologist in Vancouver (parenting)

Sir Ken Robinson, Internationally Recognized Leader in the Development of Creativity, Innovation and Human Resources, Author/Speaker, (creativity, future thinking)

Stuart Shanker, Research Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at York University (early learning)

Janet Steffenhagen, Reporter for the Vancouver Sun, (social media/system transparency)

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC Representative for Children and Youth (youth advocacy/at-risk learners)

David Wees, Teacher at Stafford Hall in Vancouver (social media)

Chris Wejr, Principal at Kent Elementary School in Agassiz (social media/rewards)

Lorna Williams, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning (Aboriginal education)

I look forward to hearing about who is on your list.

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At the last District Parent Advisory Council meeting in West Vancouver, our Trustee Liaison, Cindy Dekker, shared her reflections as a parent whose youngest of two daughters graduates this year, having been in our school system for the last 15 years.  The straight talk was great and while some of the passion is lost without the presentation, the ideas are worth sharing with a larger audience.

She opened by acknowledging the key role that other parents played in her role as a parent raising her girls — a network of mentors.   She also emphasized the influence of Barbara Coloroso as a parenting expert worth following.

Cindy’s talk focussed on three key ideas:  school work, phones and communication, and finances.

On School Work:

– let your kids fail, and let them do it at a young age so they learn what they need to do to improve

– sometimes, when they forget their lunch, they need to solve the problem on their own

– help facilitate studying, but don’t do their homework for them

– don’t close any doors — encourage your kids to take a range of courses

– don’t be so worried about the “right” school, all schools are great

On Phones and Communicating:

– I bought a phone for my daughter, so it was mine, and if I called them they had to pick up — it was the rule

– the home is command central

– when your kids go to a party, call the parents and talk to them about the event and the supervision

– you meet some great parents when you connect with them over the parties they are hosting for kids

– always get the information you need from your kids before they leave the house

On Finances:

– financial literacy does not only need to be taught at school, but in the home as well

– giving allowance is great — it teaches kids about responsibility and about purchasing errors, buyers remorse and the value of charity giving

– encourage your kids to get a job and understand the value of money before they are on their own

We spend lots of time working with, and listening to, experts in the field, but parenting is one area where we usually also have a lot of real-life, lived experience and expertise in the room.

Cindy closed with a couple poems that she has had on her fridge for many years:

By Cleo V. Swarat

I dreamed I stood in a studio
And watched two sculptors there,
The clay they used was a young child’s mind
And they fashioned it with care.

One was a teacher:
the tools she used were books and music and art;
One was a parent
With a guiding hand and gentle loving heart.

And when at last their work was done,
They were proud of what they had wrought.
For the things they had worked into the child
Could never be sold or bought!

And each agreed she would have failed
if she had worked alone.
For behind the parent stood the school,
and behind the teacher stood the home!

A Touch of Love

You were six months old and full of fun.
With a blink of my eye, you were suddenly one.

There were so many things we were going to do,
But I turned my head and you turned two.

At two you were very dependent on me,
But independence took over when you turned three.

Your third birthday, another year I tried to ignore,
But when I lit the candles, there weren’t three, but four.

Four was the year that you really strived.
Why, look at you now, you’re already five.

Now you are ready for books and for rules.
This is the year that you go to school.

The big day came, you were anxious to go.
We walked to the bus; going oh, so slow.

As you climbed aboard and waved goodbye,
I felt a lump in my throat and tears stung my eyes.

Time goes by so fast, it’s hard to believe
That just yesterday you were here home with me.

And tomorrow when the bus brings you home and when you jump to the ground,
You’ll be wearing your cap and graduation gown.

So I’m holding on to these moments as hard as I can,
Because the next time I look, I’ll be seeing a man.


Parenting is messy and it is nice to be reassured that others share their stories and their lessons.

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