Archive for May, 2012

“Innovation” is all the rage, and it is probably the most used word in my blog posts as well.  However, there are a lot of new ideas and methods that become wrapped up under the innovation label.  A particular challenge is that, for everything new we add to the K-12 system, we also need to determine what will come out. Currently, we are  trying to address a jammed-full curriculum, and adding new items without withdrawing other items only exacerbates the challenge.

The first thing we have come to realize is some interventions, ideas, courses, or programs have a shelf life.  It is not that they were wrong decisions, the world changes and our programs need to reflect that change.  I think this is also true with a number of initiatives intended to encourage technology and support digital literacy.  As the use of technology becomes less “learning with technology” and more “learning,” the special initiatives — whether built around one-to-one programs for specific student cohorts, or some distributive learning programs — need to be recognized for the role they have played in moving education forward and then we need to move on.  Of course, we are so much better at starting initiatives than we are at ending them, even when it is time.

This is not failure. When new research is being considered, and when new ideas are being proposed, stopping (before again moving forward) ensures the new innovations have an opportunity to grow. We have tried running all the courses we had last year along with the new ones proposed, to the same students, and sign-up is fragmented, often with many courses being cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.  We also can and do protect existing programs, even if they no longer connect with students in the same way they had before, thereby limiting the opportunities for new programs to develop.  It’s a bit of a Catch-22, and it becomes further complicated as teachers have favourite courses they want to teach, and resources invested, but may no longer be a good match for what kids need and want.

In the private sector, where the free market rules, it seems to be much easier to abandon innovations that no longer work.  I give full credit to one of the most creative district principals I know. Diane Nelson, who nurtures our sports academy programs, proposed a field hockey academy, and it didn’t work.  So, instead of trying to force it to work, she moved on, and now she has a baseball academy set for the fall that is highly subscribed.  She knew to walk away from the one, and to reinvest in the other, continuing the search to find programs to meet the needs and wants of our students and their families.

When courses disappear, or school rituals retire, it should not be seen as negative. In many ways, it is progress.  Great ideas have a shelf life, and is often from where other ideas do develop and grow.  So, while we are really good at celebrating all the “new” we are starting in education right now, we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull along the way to make a place for the better.

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Okay, this is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but given that the sun is now out and my three older kids have exchanged their soccer cleats and basketballs for another season of summer swimming, I have been thinking a fair bit about swimming, myself.  I was also reminded of a favourite article of mine, by Herb Childress, Seventeen Reasons Why Football is Better Than School.  While I don’t agree with it all, it does open up some interesting discussions.

So, with some inspiration from Childress’ list, just how could school be more like swimming?

When kids are grouped, age and ability matter

In swimming, levels and groups take age and maturity into account, and blend it with ability.  Five-year-olds and 12 year-olds are not together, but there may be kids within a difference of three years of their age training together; as students improve, the groups are fluid enough to allow stronger swimmers to advance to new groups.  Of course, in school, the December 31st / January 1st boundary is almost impenetrable.

Reporting clearly separates skills and work habits

I have given my life to education, and I will admit that I better understand my kids’ swim report cards than I do their school report cards.  Their swimming report cards clearly indicate skills mastered and those in-progress.  There are often comments about behaviour, work habits and attitude, but these are not confused with the other part of the report.  In school, we often blend achievement and attitudes making it challenging to separate these two equally important, but very different, areas.  Even with my own kids’ report cards, I will sometimes read it and ask “what does this really mean?”

Parents are expected to lend their expertise but not to be the coaches

Every parent in the swim club is expected to volunteer.  We are not expected to coach (coaches coach), but all parents have some skills or expertise that can be transferred to benefit the group.  Parents are more than just fundraisers and they are not quasi-coaches.  In schools,  parents expertise is not always expected, encouraged, or fully utilized.

Older kids are expected to work with younger kids

Kids can’t wait until they are old enough to spend time working with younger swimmers.  Higher-level swimmers return and typically volunteer in the very youngest classes in order to keep coach/athlete ratios low and, over time, some will gain credentialing and transition into coaching roles.  We do some of this in school, but it is often inconsistent, and we have no great laddering or apprenticeship from keen and interested student to future classroom teacher.

Kids work as individuals and as part of a team

Swimming is an individual sport.  Individuals are responsible for their own performances.  That said, there is a collective component to swimming where results are aggregated together for the team.  Teammates cheer for each other’s success in ways we don’t see in classrooms.  It is a rare classroom that celebrates the overall achievement of the students.

There are at least six or seven practices to every competition

There are hours and hours of practices with very few competitions.  Better yet, kids often select which competitions to attend, knowing,  in the end, it is about their own best times, so attending all competitions may not be right for them.  In schools, we often quiz and test on an almost-daily basis in some areas — partly, to continually monitor progress, and for a range of other reasons including a belief that it helps ensure on-task behaviour.

Coaches share a plan with athletes before practice, and then post it publicly

Each practice has a particular focus that is explained to the athletes at the beginning, and then the practice plan is outlined on the board for the swimmers to track their practice.  This is similar to what we see with some teachers and their use of overviews and visual calendars in the classroom, but in swimming, it has a uniformity which kids follow from day-to-day and year-to-year.

Coaches give constant feedback

On almost every length, coaches give feedback to swimmers.  They will stop athletes and re-set them with constructive feedback when necessary.  Coaches are also not afraid to get in the water and model the drills and strokes for the athletes.  Very often, coaches still see themselves as athletes as well and are doing their own training (learning).

While there is competition, most kids are obsessed with their own best times

My kids couldn’t tell you about what they won or how they placed, but they can always tell me if their times have improved.  While there is always a competitive piece to swimming, as in school, much of the competition is focused on individual improvement and not their success relative to others.  I would love my children to have the same passion for their best art work at school, or strongest English composition, as they have for their new PB (personal best) in a given swimming discipline.

Nobody talks about averages

In the end, it is about celebrating the best performance in each discipline. There is never a discussion at swimming that a swimmer swam this much at the beginning of the year and that much at the end; their real level is an average of the two times.  Athletes have multiple opportunities over time to display best results.

Yes, it is a little simplistic.  I also realize I am far from a swimming expert and while I have spent thousands of hours in gymnasiums coaching basketball over the last two decades, my swimming experience is really as a parent in Red Cross Swim Lessons and two summers of Summer Swimming.   And, I could probably write a similar post arguing the opposite about how swimming could and should be more like school.

That said, in education and working with young people, sometimes we need to look around for other models that have some pretty appealing characteristics.

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Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the TD National Reading Summit III – A Reading Canada:  Building a Plan.  The goal of the National Reading Campaign was to bring together a coalition of readers, parents, writers, publishers, bookstore owners and teachers to create a reading strategy for Canada.

My participation in the event was as panel participant in Young Readers: Strategies for Our Future.  The panel, hosted by Simi Sara, also included Maureen Dockendorf from Coquitlam and Lyne Laganiere from Quebec.  While not my area of expertise, it does hold great interest for me personally (as the father of four young children), and professionally — believing a reading culture, fostered from a young age, is crucial for our society.

So, when it comes to young people and reading, panel participants agreed the state of reading is not as dire as some statistics show (Here is a link to Ontario data which shows a dramatic decrease in young people reporting they like to read), because what we are all seeing is reading for pleasure is, at least, holding if not growing for young people.

A collection of other observations we made:

  • The Harry Potter effect — multi-generations in a household reading the same books at the same time, as books for youth, have often become books for all.   Recently this has been seen with The Hunger Games with kids, parents and grandparents reading the same books.
  • Books that were banned in schools, even a decade ago, are now being used to engage boys in reading — from comic books to graphic novels, to magazines and blogs.  This is all part of a larger theme, that of choice in what kids can read, either in school or at home.
  • Many of the strategies that work with adults to encourage reading, also work with kids — book clubs are on the rise in schools, libraries and the community.
  • Technology is absolutely changing reading, but exactly ‘how’ is not so clear.  One powerful way is how it allows young people to build community around books — just as movies based on books build community.
  • Social media can create networks for young people to connect about their reading. Vancouver teacher librarian, Moira Ekdahl, shared  a wonderful example of how Hazel, a John Oliver student, used technology to build community around her readings.
  • One concern is that with all of our well-intentioned literacy efforts, we are losing some of the joy of reading in our over-analysis and scientific dissecting of works.
  • Another challenge is ensuring we continue to promote Canadian content (and in particular, Aboriginal stories) to our students as they continue to read and become  interested in mass-marketed books like The Hunger Games, and Twilight series.
  • We do need to keep our “eye on the prize” and while there are some boundaries over what we want our kids to read (for example, at the event, the case was made around work that promotes sexual stereotypes) having our students read newspapers, magazines, or even Captain Underpants, opens the door to reading.
  • It is really important to not lament what has been (or perceived to have been) lost over past decades — this is a dangerous cycle — it is more important to look for what is needed and what is possible moving forward.
  • If we want a culture of reading in Canada which includes our young people, we likely don’t need more of what we used to have, but need to build a culture for our changing, and increasingly digital world.
I don’t often take time to separate my thinking around literacy from that of reading.  Having done the thinking around reading, I realize as much as I know how important it is that our students are literate, it is having our kids read which brings great joy.

To close, I want to thank three amazing educators in West Vancouver who have helped me prepare on this topic, are great influencers of my thinking, and are leading the way:  Cathie Ratz, Principal at Irwin Park Elementary School, Jody Billingsley, Vice-Principal at Lions Bay Community School, and Sandra-Lynn Shortall, District-Principal for Early Learning.

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