Archive for October, 2011

I was listening to Canadian Education Association CEO, Ron Canuel, recently and he referenced John Kotter, a professor at the Harvard Business School. It was a name I knew, but I hadn’t previously been exposed to his work. Canuel shared Kotter’s list of the four strategies people use to help kill good ideas.

  • Fear mongering involves creating infectious anxiety, scaring others into believing a good idea is far too risky to pursue
  • Death by Delay entails stalling an idea with never-ending questions, straw polls, and meetings—until the idea eventually loses momentum and fizzles out
  • Confusion consists of peppering a conversation with a stream of irrelevant facts and convoluted questions, making it near impossible for the innovator to keep the discussion on track
  • Ridicule is a direct attack on the character of the person who proposed the idea, creating indirect doubts about the idea itself
I am sure this list can be applied to many professions, but for me, it definitely does apply in education — and I admit I am guilty of at least one of them, having suggested my share of committees to delay ideas in the past.  In looking at any of the major educational initiatives, both past and current, they all seem to suffer from those roadblocks on Kotter’s list.
Kotter’s suggestions on how to deal with these challenges:
  • Invite the opposition in — “bring in the lions” — which is often counter intuitive since it focusses attention on the idea, which creates attention and engagement and can help win over hearts and minds; critics can be helpful
  • Keep ideas clear, simple and full of common sense and don’t allow yourself to get lost in the details
  • Treat the audience with respect – don’t try to beat people into submission. This just makes you look bad. Let the crowd come to understand and sympathize with your view
  •  Pay attention to the masses, and don’t obsess over the very few.  In the end, it is about the majority, not the minority
  • Preparation is really what it is all about
Kotter’s ideas are part of a book he has co-written with UBC professor, Lorne Whitehead,  Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down.
Here is a short video interview that summarizes many of the key notions:
A good reminder that sometimes a good idea is not good enough.

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To varying degrees, the three most common elements I am hearing right now around new and evolving instructional and classroom innovation from teachers and schools involve inquiry, technology and self-regulation. Many school communities are talking about classroom design–what the schools of the future will look like and, for some, the future is now as they look at pedagogy and the spaces required to maximize these visions. There is more, of course, but these elements seem to dominate the conversation that only a year ago was often described as 21st century or personalized learning.  The direction has not changed, but the vision has become more precise, more tangible.


A worry around inquiry is the term’s overuse to describe anything that involves asking a question.  There are a number of definitions as they continue to be refined in different contexts, but I like the one from the Galileo Educational Network that sees it as:

. . .  a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world.  As such, it is a stance that pervades all aspects of life and is essential to the way in which knowledge is created. Inquiry is based on the belief that understanding is constructed in the process of people working and conversing together as they pose and solve the problems, make discoveries and rigorously testing the discoveries that arise in the course of shared activity.

Inquiry is a study into a worthy question, issue, problem or idea. It is the authentic, real work that someone in the community might tackle. It is the type of work that those working in the disciplines actually undertake to create or build knowledge. Therefore, inquiry involves serious engagement and investigation and the active creation and testing of new knowledge.

I wrote a full post last spring on inquiry available here.  While the term was previously reserved for the world of International Baccalaureate, it is taking hold, in varying degrees, in all of our schools.


There is no shortage of work taking place in our district, or other BC jurisdictions around the ethical use of technology to improve student learning and engagement.  Last week,  the Minister of Education, the Honourable George Abbott, listed a five-point plan around educational transformation in British Columbia (here) that  included Learning empowered by Technology as one of the key principles. There is amazing innovation happening with technology in a number of areas in West Vancouver. The work at Caulfeild Elementary is an example of this, and has been interesting to follow as they have launched their Inquiry based Digitally Enhanced Community (IDEC). Principal Brad Lund is writing a regular blog (here) keeping the local and larger community updated on their journey. Following up on the larger journey in our district, the Digital Literacy blog (here) is an excellent up-to-date resource on both the micro and macro efforts around using technology to fuel student learning.


Dr. Stuart Shanker has brought self-regulation to the masses. He has been a regular presenter in British Columbia, as mentioned in an earlier post on his work  here, and spent two days in West Vancouver at the beginning of September, that included him speaking to all staff. We are hoping to have him back soon, and have dedicated some time from Moray McLean, one of our occupational therapists, who will support each primary class in our district over this year around work in self-regulation.  Jody Langlois, Director of Student Support Services, has also shared thoughts on this through her blog here.

Beyond all the Shanker momentum, MindUP  is another example on the same theme of self-regulation. What started with training for one school staff  has spread to several, with more training to be scheduled soon. West Bay Elementary Principal, Judy Duncan, recently blogged (here) about her school’s experiences.

The conversations on the elements of inquiry, technology and self-regulation are a marriage of pedagogy and environment. Of course, in a world of increased student ownership and personalization of learning there will likely be more diversity rather than less to what a classroom should look like. Some may question the concept and purpose of the “classroom” itself. And, while this is an interesting conversation, we need tangible shifts we can implement now. As we imagine classrooms for the very near future, it will be interesting to track the place of these three current tenets in their design.

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This is a companion blog to a post I recently wrote about the principals in our district stepping out with their own blogs (a complete list here).  However, superintendents are also finding their voice in digital space across the province.  In speaking with a lead Superintendent in the Eastern United States, his comment was, “it seems like more than half of the superintendents blogging in North America are from BC”.

The reasons why superintendents are joining the blog world are similar to those of school principals — it can help build community, and allows us to tell our story in our own words; it is excellent modeling for leadership, and for the students we encourage to write for public audiences.  The topics covered by superintendents are varied — they can range from the issues of the day to reflections on school visits.  In the past year alone, there has been a dramatic increase in district leaders finding and sharing their voice in the digital world.

Who is blogging, and what they are saying:

Scott Benwell, Vancouver Island North (here)

Patrick Bocking, Sunshine Coast (here)

Jim Cambridge, Sooke (here)

Steve Cardwell, Vancouver (here)

Teresa Downs, Gold Trail (here)

Keven Elder, Saanich (here)

Larry Espe, Peace River North (here)

Tom Grant, Coquitlam (here)

Jeff Hopkins, Gulf Islands (here)

Dave Hutchinson, Nanaimo – Ladysmith (here)

Jeff Jones, Kootenay Lakes (here)

John Lewis, North Vancouver (here)

Greg Luterbach, Kootenay-Columbia (here)

Mike McKay, Surrey (here)

Karen Nelson, Fraser-Cascade (here)

Monica Pamer, Richmond (here)

Brian Pepper, Prince George (here)

Jan Unwin, Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows (here)

With a few more superintendents planning to launch soon, we are approaching 20 per cent of 60 district superintendents in the blogosphere (and, I am sure I  have missed one or two).  It can be a challenging role from which to blog.  The profile and political nature of the job, the relationship with the local board and the ministry, all, give pause.  While the role and issues may be the same, the blogs are as different and as individual as the superintendent writing it. Some employ their blog more as a news site, some focus exclusively on learning, while for others, it is a diary of experiences. They all have important stories to tell about their communities.

It is challenging to write on a regular basis for a public audience, so it is great to have more company in this space. Many of these people I see only once or twice in a year.  Now, I can learn from them, and with them, on a regular basis.

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Two metaphors I often hear our Director of Instruction, Gary Kern, evoke while discussing our work with technology are the faucet and the pool.  They are ones I find myself repeating more, as we explain the work we are doing with digital literacy.

In a typical district, school or class, the adults control the supply of technology that students use to support their learning.  While the district may have invested millions to support all students with digital literacy, in some classes the technology faucet is turned off; in others it is a slow drip, while others have it open wide.  We are trying to allow all students some steady flow of technology to support their learning — regardless of a particular school or class.  And, while some will enhance the experience, all students will have basic access.

In K-3, all students in West Vancouver have access to Dreambox (I have written about this program before here).  In some classes it is part of the school day, but all students can access it from home, and all parents can access the analytics to see the areas where they can support their children.  In Grades 4-12, we are just beginning to explore what is possible with student dashboards. Gary Kern, recently wrote about them here.  All students have email, instant messaging, storage, and a series of other tools which allow them to collaborate in a safe environment.  All students can actually instant message the superintendent (and four have so far).  We are not turning the technology faucet on full, but we are creating a steady stream for all students.  Students can explore how they can ethically use digital tools to support their learning.

It is difficult to teach kids to swim without getting them into the pool.  And, this is also true of being good digital citizens — we can’t teach digital citizenship without giving students a safe digital space to experiment, learn and grow in. Again, the student dashboards are part of the latest effort to teach our students to swim in the digital world.  And better yet, we know that when we get into the water with  the kids, it is even easier. We also know we need to continue to support administrators, teachers and parents in the digital world to be more comfortable swimming in the water with their kids.  While some take the approach that the technology pool, although very inviting, is closed with large, raised fences around it — we are taking a different approach.  We want to be able to say that all our kids know how to swim safely.

Turning on the faucet for all children and jumping in the water with them does challenge the status quo.  Giving all students access to some technology and expecting all students will have some ability to navigate in a digital environment is not the norm.  If we believe what Coquitlam administrator, David Truss recently wrote, that education is going to be increasingly open and distributed, we need to support students for this world.

There are times when I wish this fall looked more like last fall — it would make life easier but, of course, it would not be the right thing to do.  It will continue to be exciting to see what happens as we open the faucet and jump in the pool with our students.

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I was lucky to have a number of amazing teachers in both my elementary and secondary schools. I began my teaching career in the same district I grew up in, at a school I attended, McRoberts Secondary.  So, over the years, I have had the opportunity to say “Thank You” to many of the amazing teachers who have influenced my life,  some now colleagues and friends.  But, there is one teacher, Mrs. Caffrey, to who I never fully expressed how much she meant to me.

As we celebrate World Teachers Day, I want to say a belated “Thank You” to Mrs. Caffrey and all my other teachers who have influenced my life.  Often, we are lucky to have an amazing teacher for one year, I had Mrs. Caffrey for three years, in Grades 2, 3 and 4, at Daniel Woodward Elementary. I didn’t have the best experience as a Grade 1 student.  I can still remember being singled out by the teacher because of my weak reading skills, and not being allowed to read the books I saw all my friends reading.  Three years later, I left Grade 4 confident with my learning and, while there were many factors at play, I owe Mrs. Caffrey a lot of credit. Some of the specifics have faded over time, but there is still a lot I remember:

  • Mrs. Caffrey would regularly ask me and other students about what we were doing outside of school.  She knew about my hockey and soccer teams, and would often ask how we were doing — she was genuinely interested.
  • She held me accountable.  I can still see her at her desk calling “Christopher James” — she would use my middle name when I produced work that was sloppy or rushed — she held me accountable to do my best work.
  • She had some amazing stories she had written about her own kids and family, and would read them to us as a special treat on some Friday afternoons.
  • She gave me a Mr. Men book (I actually still remember it was Mr. Bump). I did struggle with the reading, but this book became a prized possession, and through her encouragement my reading improved.
  • She was not very ‘sporty’ but she was one of the coaches at track and field every spring.
  • She connected me and a number of my classmates to Ms. Knoepfel (yet another great teacher who influenced me) who, through an amazing enrichment program, exposed us to Olympics of the Mind and other similar problem-solving activities. Ms. Knoepfel also engaged us with technology (Lemonade Stand and Oregon Trail on our Apple IIe computers).

Mostly, I remember Mrs. Caffrey made me feel safe, and I was excited to come to school everyday.  To this day, 28 years later, I smile when I think about her.  And so, I feel I never really properly thanked her.

Mrs. Caffrey went on to teach both of my younger brothers, and I went back to the school after leaving Grade 7, spending the next five years helping coach basketball. I would often see her, she would always ask about me, my family and my interests. About a dozen years ago, I received a  card in the mail from her congratulating me on some of my achievements.  There was no return address — I probably should have tried harder to find her — just a couple years later I saw her obituary in our local paper.  I clipped it out, it reminds me to thank people when I have the chance.

In Daniel Woodward Elementary School, I acquired my love of basketball from my Grade 5 teacher, Mr. Nakanishi; my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. Whitehead, committed me to becoming a lifetime fan of Bruce Springsteen and, my Grade 7 teacher, Mr. Taylor, became a mentor as we coached basketball together in the years that followed.  The three great years I had in Grades 5-7 were possible because of my experiences with Mrs. Caffrey — someone who quietly changed my life and, I am sure, the lives of many others. So, Mrs. Caffrey – I am sorry this is a bit late, but “Thank You”. Thank you for deciding to teach and thank you for being such a forceful influence in my life.

To all my teachers, past and present, and to the many great teachers I get to work with every day in West Vancouver and beyond, all the best on this World Teacher’s Day!

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