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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Regular readers will know that libraries and librarians, both in the school and community are a semi-regular topic here. I am quite fascinated by the transformation I have seen in my lifetime in the spaces and the work. More than a decade ago I wrote My Take on Librarians, a post that still largely holds up today.

I had the chance to speak to teacher-librarians from across the country recently (here is slide deck), and shared, what I see, as having been a remarkable reinvention over the last 40 years.  I really think if in 1982, you explained to people the way information access would be transformed over the next 40 years, many would have thought libraries in schools and the community would disappear.  Like Blockbuster Video, they would have served a useful purpose for a period in time and people would have moved on.  But actually, the opposite has happened.  Libraries have become more central to the work in schools and the community.  They have defined themselves not by the books they move in and out, but by their role as a gathering place. As David Lankes argues, “Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities.”

And we know the stereotypes of teacher-librarians in popular media – conservative and traditional (probably almost as bad as the stereotypes about school superintendents). I now stand in the room with teacher-librarians and their reinvention is so deep, they talk about “library-learning commons” with ease.  Virtually nobody called what I knew to be the library, “the library”, I felt so dated with some of my references.

From what I have seen from our schools and district and from the other schools and districts I have worked in, the powerful reinvention has had many drivers, but for me the key ones have been:

  • Space
  • Technology
  • Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity and Reconciliation

These have been the areas that have ensured library-learning commons, and the people who lead these spaces, are more relevant than ever.  And the three areas are all connected, with one following the next and building on it.

With space, many will remember the push early this century to make schools more like Starbucks.   This is a bit simplistic, but the idea is that schools should be places that are comfortable, where kids want to hang-out, and informal learning spaces are embraced to compliment the more formal ones.  Libraries helped lead this.  Dated books were often removed, and couches replaced tall shelving.  The spaces were opened up.  More than ever they were places that students wanted to gather.

Then came the technology.  Libraries still embraced the physical space, but they also often supplemented this with digital spaces.  Blockbuster Video doubled-down on being the video people and Netflix crushed them.  Libraries embraced being the connection places for information for everyone and the repository for all to access.  

And now, I see library-learning commons being the hub of what has become our crucial work at this time around equity, diversity, inclusivity, and Reconciliation.  No place connects to all classrooms like library-learning commons, no people connect to more people like teacher-librarians.  There is discomfort with some of this work.  More than anything people don’t want to make a mistake, and having expertise in teacher-librarians (and community librarians) helps to move this work quickly and thoughtfully.

So, here we are.  Companies like Blockbuster Video, Polaroid, Tower Records and Kodak have all gone.  Caught up in our shifting world.  And yet the school and community library stand more important than ever.

And so what is next?  If I was giving advice I would tell libraries to keep looking ahead – tell the stories of the next 20 years.  They should never forget their core purpose of literacy – but continually define this broadly. And they should be the gathering place for people and ideas.  As so much of our world seems to have siloed, we need these common spaces to connect school and community.

 

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There is a lot made about the “C”s in education. Whether it is the three of them or maybe the four of them, or sometimes the seven of them.  Competencies like communication, creativity, and critical thinking are top of mind for all designing modern education programs.  Always on this list is also collaboration.  While everyone agrees in their importance, finding ways to see students demonstrate them can be challenging. 

This leads me to a story of robotics.  

I had the chance to join our elementary school robotics teams at the VEX World Championships last week.  In just a few years West Vancouver has built one of the top school robotics programs in the country (there will be another blog post on that soon). I have watched several competitions, but this was my first chance to be fully immersed in the world of robotics. 

And, one of the five elementary teams we had at the Championships was crowned World Champions in a field of over 500 teams from around the world (and the competition was truly global).  Now different divisions work differently, but this is how the elementary division worked at the World Championships.

In the qualification round, teams are randomly assigned to one of nine sections. In each of these sections are about 60 teams.  You play 11 qualification matches.  How these matches work is that two teams work together to try to score as many points as possible in 60 seconds.  I will link HERE to this year’s game.  I won’t do it justice, but the simple explanation is that you need your robot and your partner team’s robot to pick up small balls and shoot them into a basket (there is a lot more to it than that with multiple other ways to score).  And you are randomly assigned a partner for each match – so you might be with a strong team and then a weaker team.  The premise is that over 11 matches this evens out and the strongest teams emerge as having the most points.  

Then, in the playoff round the top twenty teams advance in each of the nine sections.  And in each section the first place team is partnered with the second place team, and then the third place team is partnered with the fourth place team, and so on all the way to the 19th and 20th placed teams partnering.  And you have one match with this partner team to score as many points as possible.  So, it should be the first / second partnership that is favoured.  

Then, in the final, the nine winners of each section advance to the championship and play one more time – the team with the most points wins and is crowned World Champion.  West Vancouver had four teams make the playoff round and two teams advance to the Championship – an amazing accomplishment.  And then had one of its teams win the World Championship (and got a perfect score!).  They won the World Championship with the Kermit Crafters from the Gateway Science Academy in St. Louis, Missouri.  

Now, West Vancouver’s Team and the team from St. Louis, Missouri were 3rd and 4th in their division.  Here is the moment after the 1st and 2nd team finished and scored were posted that they knew they made the finals.

I find this wild.  It is one of the ultimate tests of collaboration.  In the qualification round you have to quickly make plans with 11 different teams to try to score as many points as possible and then you advance to the playoffs and you partner with a team and you are completely reliant on each other.  Those who can collaborate will succeed.  So like all competitions, there is a heck of a lot of skill, and a little bit of luck and amazing teamwork.   But this is so different than anything else I have seen as you have to build this rapport in minutes not over months like you would in volleyball or soccer.   And for the finals, you compete on stage in front of several thousand spectators.  

In the older divisions top teams get to choose their partners for playoffs and so that adds another element.

We often try to find ways to see collaboration in action.  My three days at the World Championships for Robotics was some of the best I have seen.  Watching teams, people who have just met, plan strategy, talk through strengths and weaknesses and make plans to execute them was awesome (and remember these students are all in elementary school).

It was surreal afterwards as we were walking out of the arena, posing for one last picture with the teammates from St. Louis, and heading off in different directions. Our students and theirs had just shared a moment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  I would say never to see each other again, but they were all connected by social media.  

Championship Teams

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have seen on display and these young students did it in front of thousands of people who were cheering each of their moves.

I have always been a fan, but I am fully converted to the power of robotics – yes the technical skills are important, but the human skills it teachers are all those we need for our world.

For more on robotics, my colleague Cari Wilson, who is one of the lead teachers in the program, wrote a great post on the Worlds experience HERE. And congratulations to the full team of teachers including Cari, Todd Ablett, Braydan Pastucha, Mahesh Chugani , and Jeff Huang. And to the administrator team of Diane Nelson and Paul Eberhardt.  

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From about 2002-2014 I was regularly on the rubber chicken dinner circuit speaking about technology.  From blogs, and wikis, to personal devices in classrooms, to the use of social media in schools  – technology discussions were front and centre everywhere. You couldn’t go to an education conference without someone talking about innovation and technology – like they were one thing. All eyes were on how the emerging web tools were forever changing teaching and learning.

And like with most trends in education, our hyper attention moved on. Look today and you can’t find a conference that is not about equity and diversity. This is not a criticism of this previous time or today. Our schools and our system both lead and reflect our world around us, and topics of social justice are front and centre right now in our world.

Now part of the reason for this shift in attention is that technology was no longer seen as something separate from learning.  Just looking at the last two years, we see how Zoom, Google Workspace, Teams and a suite of digital tools have become common for everyone.  It was a novelty three years ago for students to have a video conversation with other students, and now it is just another day. 

There is a bit of a sense that we have now embraced technology in schools so we are “done”.  This is a huge misread on the world around us.

To think because technology is no longer at the front of as many discussions as it was earlier this century that somehow technology has stopped changing, morphing and evolving would be a major mistake.  The speed of the digital changes in our world around us are, if anything, accelerating.  

I wrote recently about NFTs and crypto currencies and their potential impact on our schools.  And this is just a small example of how the digital landscape around us will likely have a major impact on not just the “what” of school, but also the “when”,  “where” and “how” of school.   It is hard to imagine the increasing use of wearable technologies, the coming normalcy of driverless cars, higher quality virtual reality experiences, and a boom in 3D printing around us will not impact how we operate schools and structure learning for students.  My West Vancouver colleague Sean Nosek gave a primer of what this might be in his recent post on school in the metaverse.  

We have a habit to get narrowly focused in education, and lose the interconnections. We need to think about the important equity and diversity work, the still foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, the ever changing digital landscape and many other big rocks in education as one conversation and not siloed discussions that can only be focused on one at a time.

For the person that told me “educational technology is so 2010”, I think you are missing the plot.   I appreciate the challenge, in a world when we just wish some things would stay the same for a bit and we could catch up, technology is not a willing partner.  

We might not be debating if Facebook has a role in our schools, or if iPads are appropriate for primary aged students, but the amazing shifts in the tools that will impact our lives and our work continue.

Our schools have always reflected the world around them and as educators we have helped make sense of that world for students.  No matter what we wish, we will continue to help bring our teacher values to the ever changing digital landscape.  

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There is a lot of discussion in education around motivation, with intrinsic motivation being the nirvana we are all seeking. Of course, we can all use some nudges on the way.  I always think those of us trying to motivate students should be looking at how we are motivated ourselves. to give an honest view of what makes us do the stuff we know is good for us, but we sometimes struggle to do.

When it comes to my fitness I am quite obsessed.   There are three apps that are hugely influential on me:  Fitbit, Strava and Participaction and each push me with very different motivators. In combination they have made be a bit (some might say a lot) obsessive, but also pushed me to health goals which I always knew were what I wanted theoretically, but never could really keep beyond a few weeks or months.

Fitbit – Since January 1st of 2014 I have taken at least 10,000 steps a day – through rain, snow, travel, illness – sometimes at 11:45 PM, but always hitting the target.  Steps are just one of the things I track obsessively on Fitbit.  I keep track of my nightly temperature to see if I might be getting sick, I follow my heart rate and try to look for behaviours that are leading to even a couple beat difference in my resting heart rate.  I also feel the buzz on my wrist 10 minutes before every hour telling me to finish getting my 250 steps for the hour.  And I see my sleep scores and I try to reverse my pattern I have of always having the poorest sleep score on Sunday nights. And in our house we also have Fitbit connected to our scale, so weight and body fat are regularly measured and tracked over weeks, months and years.  The metrics give perspective and motivation.  

I know many people who have got rid of their smart watch.  As all these things that I have listed as motivators, they see as the opposite.  The joy, they say, is gone from working out when you are driven my your watch.  They say they are happier and fitter without being tethered to the data – but for me it works.

Strava –  I became a daily Strava user about a year ago and it has made a massive difference in my life.  Strava has some of the metrics of Fitbit, but it is more the system of badges which motivate me.  Now, I know this seems silly.  While Strava is a social app, I am connected to maybe a dozen people.  I am definitely not collecting badges to impress anyone.  But I do love to collect them.  There are badges for doing a 5 km, 10 km and half marathon each month.  There are also badges for reaching 100, 200 and 300 km of running distance each month.  And a series of other badges for various accomplishments over periods of time.  I will think, when am I going to get my half marathon badge in February?  I don’t think I would have thought – when am I going to run a half marathon in February if not for this gently nudge.  Strava has a series of other features – including the ability to track best times over segments of a run.  And yes, when I am out a 5 AM running a 10 k, I will think, I am going to sprint the segment between 4 – 5 km mark today to try to record my fastest time ever.  Again a gently nudge,  a way to break up the monotony of the run and a chance to share a “gold medal” for my fastest time with my dozen followers.

Again, it is not all that logical.  While Strava is a social app, for me it is not.  It is a personal app.  I think the motivation on the segments help me realize that I can get older and still get faster – it makes me feel good!  And the badges are silly – I get it.  They are meaningless but take February, there are only 28 days, so I have 3 fewer days than January to finish my 300 km and earn the badge – I am planning now my running schedule for the month – crazy, but it works for me.

Participaction –  I am probably most embarrassed about my motivations in using Participaction.  You remember Participaction?  The people that brought us Body Break with Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod in the late 1980’s now have an app to get Canada healthy.  The app takes data from your fitness tracker (in my case Fitbit) and tracks steps, moving minutes and active minutes.  But why do I come back?  I come back for the prizes.  They have weekly draws for people who use the app, read the articles and watch the videos.  So, when I have a couple minutes I do these things.  And finally after using the app for a couple of years – just a couple weeks ago I won a $10 Amazon Gift Card.  In terms of value for return based on time spent, it isn’t great – but prizes, even small ones, can be a motivator.  And, I have learned a lot from the articles and videos – content I would likely have never engaged with.

Now, I know, I keep thinking about how bad it is to pay our kids for good grades, but here I am learning about health and fitness for the shot at a small gift card.  We all do like to win things, and the chance of winning a prize helps bring me back to Participaction.

So, that is my oversharing for the week.  Am I intrinsically motivated to be fit?  Sure.  I also find that technology helps nudge me along – it gives me data that allows me to feel ownership of my health, it gives me a sense of competition and of ongoing improvement, and it rewards me with prizes.  And through this, I better understand myself and my motivations and know there are lessons in all of this for the work we do in schools as well.  

 

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In education we often live with one foot in the present and the other in the future.  And this has been more true during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are both making changes on the go as we match learning systems to different stages of the pandemic, while also looking for lessons learned during this time as we prepare for a post-pandemic education system.  There are many ideas to take from the last 12 months that will likely impact our systems for a generation, here are 7 that I  have seen:


A Nationalized Conversation –  Canada is one of the few countries without a major role for the Federal government in education.  That said, there has been more connections than ever across this country as provinces have taken similar health approaches in schools, and Canadian educators have looked to connect digitally.  With the Federal Government investing one billion dollars in national education it has helped emphasize the connections.  The networking seems destined to continue, and even though education falls to provincial governments and local jurisdiction, from Indigenous Education, to technology access to literacy there are many important national connection points that need to continue. 

Expectations Around Video and Social Media –  Advocacy for the use of video and social media in schools and districts is not new, but nothing like a pandemic to make it obvious that non-traditional tools are needed.  Now, not that they are the only tools, but whether is is sharing information nights with school communities, or holiday concerts or assemblies, video is just expected.   We see this trend with leadership as well.  I have argued for a while that leaders need to be in the digital game, and that is more true than ever.   I appreciate what my BC colleague Jordan Tinney has been able to do, making a massive district feel like a small community through the use of digital tools and regular engagement.  

High schools will forever be different – I often hear, “the quarter system is not new, this is not that innovative.”  And this is true (quarter system is students taking only 2 courses at a time) – examples of the system in BC date back decades.  The best of what I have seen with secondary schools is not the particular block structure but what has come about because of the scheduling.  What we have seen includes:  courses have become less about time in a seat,  real conversations about what is essential have been prioritized, greater flexible time for students to make choices over their learning, and a value placed on teacher student relationship in high school with fewer teacher contacts for each learner.  Now, many of these could have been done without the quarter system, but the combination of factors of fewer classes, safety rules that limit students in some classes, and a widespread curiosity for new models has led to some exciting work.

Health and Education are Permanent Partners –  Health and Education have always worked closely together.  But this year is completely different.  We are in daily contact – and not just at a superficial level, we have got to know each others’ work.  So, going forward these relationships built through COVID will carry over.  On everything from vaping to physical literacy to mental health to just broadly building a stronger community we will be more explicit partners. 

Digitization is Here  – We have been saying for more than a decade that we were moving digital on the education side with textbooks and other learning resources and on the administrative side with forms and processes.  And then, after saying it, we have often not fully invested in the tools, choosing to live with one foot in the past paper world and one foot dipping its toes in the digital world.   We have had no choice but to go digital in many places over the last 12 months, and again this does not show any signs of going back. There is finally far greater alignment between how we say we want education and what it looks like.

Equity, Equity, Equity  – The pandemic has on one hand brought the challenges of equity in many forms to the forefront and also showed things we have said were almost impossible, are possible.  You have seen me argue before in this blog, “if we can figure out how to have garbage picked up at every house we surely can figure out how to get these same houses wifi” and like with garbage pick-up it should just be expected.  On the concerning side, we saw vast differences in the access to tools like technology and also in the access to opportunities during the pandemic.  We also, though, figured out how to get digital devices into the hands of almost all students – something we deemed impossible until recently.  Post pandemic we need to keep this focus.  The pandemic has put a spotlight on where we need to do better – from equity of technology, to equity of experiences.

Learning is often an outdoor activity –  Again, we are finally doing what we have said for a long time is the right thing. Particularly in our younger grades our students are spending time outside connecting to nature and having authentic real world experiences.  Our medical officials have encouraged our students to spend more time outside.  Many educational experts have already been arguing the powerful pedagogy of this, for many years.  Now rather than just building playgrounds on school grounds, we are looking to create outdoor learning spaces.  From school gardens, to urban agriculture, the future of schooling needs to be more time outside.  And how exciting – that school could be both more digital and more connected to the earth.  While some would view these ideas is incompatible, but really can be complimentary.  

Our greatest challenge of the next 12-24 months is to ensure that pieces of all 7 of these ideas are not lost and are part of our system going forward. There will be a lot of noise to “go back to normal.” When we meet with system and school leaders – nobody wants that – we had a good system, that has been taxed by a pandemic but there is learning that can make us even a better system as we look to the fall of 2021 and beyond.  

It is a stressful and exhausting time to be an educator, but it is also an exciting time as we look for ways to have our lived experience match the system we have been envisioning for much of this century.  

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Video Is Changing Us

I know we are all a little “Zoom”ed out right now.  In all parts of our life the novelty of the video call, and the Brady Bunch style screens has worn out.  And I think the reviews around video in classrooms are mixed.  But beyond teaching and learning, there are some changes that video has made in the last several months in our schools that has actually been long promised, and now will probably never go back.  Video has opened our schools to the community in ways we have often promised and now are finally delivering.

Connecting With Teachers

The parent-teacher conference has gone virtual and that is a good thing.  We have all seen how email can go wrong, and how quickly intentions can be misconstrued and a question from a parent to a teacher or a comment from a teacher to a parent has escalated.  The advice from seasoned colleagues is always to pick up the phone.  Now, the advice is to get on a video call.  I have spoken to several teachers who highlighted how quick video calls with parents have helped resolve situations – it really helps humanize our connections.  And traditional parent meetings at the end of the term, done virtually allow working parents to attend who might not normally be able to take time from work to come to face-to-face sessions at the school.  It is a good example of how little is lost by the change of format.  And for teachers who may be uncomfortable with a particular parent alone in a meeting, the virtual format  creates a safe place for everyone.

Information Sessions

You know how these work.  You rush home from work and then figure out how to get your kids to their evening activities so you can get to the school gym to listen to the principal explain the programs for next year at the school.  And then you come home to try to re-tell the key items to your partner and child.  So, now as these events are created and posted online families can watch and re-watch at their convenience.  And then time that would normally be for hosting the sessions can be dedicated to answering the questions online of parents and students about particular programs.  So many times I hear about the need to host these events on multiple nights because of various conflicts, now they can all take place on demand.

Live Events

The most recent example of this was Remembrance Day.   Our schools shared out links to students and often parents of their Remembrance Day Ceremonies.  These important ceremonies are always welcoming of the community, but again, often hard to attend in-person.  More and more of these events are being streamed for families.  Last month I  was at Eagle Harbour Montessori School to see their Historical Halloween live streamed to families.  And on a call with principals this week, plans are already underway for Holiday concerts.  It really started last spring with our grad ceremonies.  There was great disappointment that these rituals could not be held in-person, but overwhelming positive responses to the virtual alternatives that were created.  And while there is power of having people come together in-person for events, we seem destined post-COVID to stream more from our classrooms, our assemblies, our sporting competitions and arts showcases to our parents and larger community.  

These ideas are not groundbreaking.  And we could have done many of them twelve months ago – but we had no urgency.  And the technology was seen as a great mystery. We just couldn’t possibly figure out the technology.  But emergencies push you forward.  The technology has got better and easier, and we have got more comfortable with the tools.   There will be great discussions around lessons of the COVID era for schools, but I think one of the impacts is that we will forever  be thinking about the use of video and how we can open up events to those who cannot attend in-person. And a side benefit for many is that they can do all of this on a more flexible schedule.  I know these digital shifts  have changed things for me – as a parent and superintendent I am more connected now than I was before to so many important school rituals.

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Today I keynoted the CUEBC (Computer Educators of British Columbia) Conference with my mouthful of a title, “Isn’t This Kind of What We Wanted – The Good, Not So Good and Hopefully Awesome of Technology in Schools in the Time of COVID.”

At the bottom of the post is the video of the talk. Rather than restating the entire talk, let me highlight some of the big ideas that I wanted to share.

In the spring we were scrambling; it was emergency learning. It was very revealing which schools and districts had invested in technology and had coherence in their work built over the last decade. We learned who was faking it in the new world and who was truly invested. Those who were thoughtfully invested and had strong infrastructure, common platforms and a baseline of use across schools and the district outpaced the others.

What is exciting about the fall is that everyone has upped their game. And I don’t think it really matters if you are a Microsoft, Google or Teams District – what matters is that you have selected a robust set of tools and are using them well. Also in the spring we saw a lot of just trying to get digital content out to students, now we are seeing far better use of technology in ways that does not just replicate traditional school experiences, but creates experiences that would actually not be possible without the technology.  In the spring we were being driven by technology and now we are being driven by learning and using technology.

It does feel like we have a tremendous opportunity.  Students, staff and parents want to use this time as an opportunity to create new structures for learning –  new ways to engage students in relevant and connected learning opportunities.  As I wrote in my last post, we want to do this without losing the collective good of education – we cannot just turn schools into credit factories.  And we need to be conscious of equity.  As exciting as these times are, we need everyone to benefit.  It was interesting in the spring in British Columbia, we found ways to get devices into the hands of almost all students who needed them, and get wi-fi into homes that didn’t have it.  We need to hold this to be a fundamental obligation that all students have access to the tools so that all students benefit from the power of digital learning.  And this is not an impossible goal – we need to keep focused on this.  As I argue in my presentation, if we can ensure all houses have garbage pick-up we surely can ensure all houses have wi-fi access.  

Borrowing ideas from the OECD and others, I think the next 12-24 months create numerous opportunities including:

  • harnessing innovation
  • re-imagining accountability
  • remembering the power of the physical world
  • supporting the most vulnerable
  • reinforcing capacity
  • building system self reliance
  • preparing digital resources

More than ever, leaders need to celebrate risk-taking.  There are fewer rules in the pandemic, and we don’t need just one model, we need multiple models as we move forward.  

I think this is a once in a career opportunity for us in education.  Of course we wouldn’t have planned for the opportunity to come in a pandemic that can be absolutely exhausting – but here we are – and we can’t let this chance go to waste.

If you have some time, please take a look at the video and join the conversation. Or view the slides HERE.  Discussion and debate is good – it will move us forward.  

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It has been a rough spring for students.  Our kids have been stuck in their houses, only able to see their friends from six feet away, and missed out on music, drama, sports and the many other parts that bring them joy.  So I realize this is probably not good timing on my part, but I have some more bad news.

Kids – there may be no more snow days.

I feel like I am sucking the joy from one of society’s great rituals.  The “snow day” has been part of life as long as any of us can remember.  Often allusive, at least where I grew up and live today, the snow day is  legendary.  As students we would carefully follow the 6:00 evening news forecasts and see the chance of snow in the long-range reports.  And then track that and talk to our friends, could it really be, might we really get a SNOW DAY.  And on those very rare occasions, we would wake up very early in the morning, rush to the window to see the streets covered in snow, and our parents come in and tell us they heard on the radio there is no school, it is a snow day.  And what a day.   It was this bonus unexpected holiday in the middle of a winter wonderland.  People would get older and say things like, “remember the snow day of ’85 – that was a great day.”

All good things must come to an end.

The premise behind the snow day is that learning and schooling happens in a building.  In a building where teachers and students gather about 190 times a year.  If the teachers and students can’t get together in the building, you can’t have learning and schooling.  Thus, the snow day.

But things have changed.  Of course, they have really been changing for a while.   Technology has broken this rule.  For close to two decades more and more students have been learning online and teachers have been instructing online.  And we have spoken about blended learning, where learning moved between home and school.  That said, we have never had a real urgency to fully embrace a new model.  The pandemic has changed this.  Now almost all students have been on remote learning for 9 weeks.  In some ways, it has been 9 weeks of snow days.  It has been challenging, stressful, exciting and uneven.  And it has started to make us question the future of schooling – next month, next year and forever going forward (this is a bigger topic that will need more space another time).

I am struck by the notion of schooling on a dial during a pandemic.  As conditions improve, you dial up to more in-person instruction, but when they worsen, you may dial down again.  And really this is the notion of the end of snow days.  As schools as places that are not fully in-person, you might dial-down on a snow day and move the class to the virtual classroom, and then dial back up when the snow clears.  In the pandemic school world, every class is both a physical space and a virtual space.  

There is much more thinking to do on this, but maybe one of the unintended results of the pandemic is that we no longer need to turn school off and on – we think of where it occurs on a dial.

And sorry kids, it might mean no more snow days.

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At first I was just going to skip over writing a post on memes, it seems so trivial, but the more I have read and learned, the more I realized how important it is to shine a light on the not so frivolous parts of this topic.

This past week I have been struck by the story out of Vancouver and the spreading of offensive “memes” by students. And while this was in Vancouver, and was at an independent school, I think we all know these kinds of activities transcend schools and geographic borders. Media or other commentators who are trying to restrict this conversation to being one about “boys” or “private schools” or “bad parenting” are not following along with what is going on these days on the internet.

This is not my typical blog post, it is more of a call to action in our community and more broadly.  I do think this is all of our business.  We need to do more to collectively focus on ensuring our digital spaces and engagement reflect the same values as our physical spaces – ones rooted in care for each other. And that all of us (students, teachers, parents, community) continually ask ourselves if what we are posting online is truthful, is kind and adds value.

Over the past decade during my time as Superintendent I have taken great pride in our work as digital leaders in education. I see us creating opportunities for learning that are aligned with the world in which our kids live in. It has been incredibly exciting to see the transformation in our classrooms. For example, hundreds of students are engaged in coding and robotics, areas which barely existed five years ago.  I see the relevance to our students learning every day.   It is this leadership that leads me to want to flag this issue.

As an American colleague of mine, Bob Ryan, recently noted in a message to parents, sharing digital content on phones and social media is not a new behavior. But there is an increasingly prominent “meme culture” where posting, liking and saving funny, tasteless or offensive content has become part of regular social life. Unfortunately, too many people can have a difficult time separating what is funny from what is inappropriate, or even horribly offensive. Probably all of us who engage in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram have seen these kinds of examples. The impact that this sharing can have is often lost on people.

This is not brand new,  it was the spring of 2017 when the story broke  Harvard rescinding admission letters for 10 students because of offensive memes they shared in a private Facebook group. This story, which gained attention across North America, saw high school seniors posting increasingly vile content in an attempt to be quicker, more clever and edgier than each other and earn more social clout.

Last month the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain  (also pointed to me by Bob Ryan) took an extensive look into the Harvard story and  interviewed one of the students involved. The hour-long episode is well worth your time and provides valuable insights into the digital behaviours of teenagers and the complicated social waters they are trying to navigate. At the end of the episode, the host Shankfar Vedantam summarized the situation:

Nearly everything that everyone says on social media goes unnoticed. And everyone can see you’re getting no traction. This can drive some of us to come up with the edgiest, funniest, hottest takes. Likes and retweets and fire emojis become currency, signaling our worth to those around us. Sometimes the things we post work, and we become stars. Other times, we fall flat or, worse, my joke sets off your rage. When this happens, it’s no use saying there is even more terrible stuff online. There is only a price to pay. The things we post take on a life of their own, and they can be as permanent as a scar.

I have written recently on this blog a couple posts which also speak to my concerns first on the use of cell phones by parents in schools and then more recently on the important differences between technology and social media.  I encourage parents to have discussions with your children about the apps they use, the photos they have and the content they share. I encourage our staff to continue to find powerful ways to teach using technology and model the power of digital tools. And I encourage students to pause before you share.

Daniel Panneton wrote earlier this year in the Globe & Mail:

Even though memes may appear to be the height of triviality, that’s exactly what makes them such serious vectors for dangerous worldviews. Because they’re often composed of inside jokes and hidden references, the ability to read their subtext is now a form of cultural knowledge itself. Meme literacy, which would have been an improbable phrase just a few years ago, has become an essential skill that must be expected of educators, historians, journalists, politicians and law enforcement.

We are just a small part of a larger conversation that needs to be had about how we treat each other in the digital world. We have seen the best and worst of this in our recently concluded Federal election and in the daily news in our country and others. But just because it is a larger conversation doesn’t mean we should ignore it.  And we have an absolute responsibility in schools to insert ourselves into these conversations.  These are all our kids.

For local readers, know that I have had recent conversations with our District Parent Advisory Council about how we can find learning opportunities for parents around students and their digital activities.  This is not just a school issue, but how we treat each other is an everyone issue.

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I share the seemingly global angst with social media. These spaces whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat are not what many would have hoped they would be even a few years ago.  And yes, while schools engage in these spaces, they are not core to the learning experiences of our students.  But when I hear that technology is a real problem in our schools and then critics go on to list the problems of social media, they are not being fair to the more broader application of modern learning tools that has come with technological change in the last decade.  We have ongoing work to do with social media and how we treat each other online, but we can say this and still champion the amazing ways technology is being used in our classrooms.

In schools this fall, I have been so impressed with how seamlessly modern tools are used in classrooms.  Whether it is students on their laptops in their Google suite of tools, doing science via Discovery Techbook,  3D printing, VR (virtual reality) goggles or a host of other tools their use to enhance learning and engage students is impressive.  Then there are entire areas, like robotics that simply don’t exist without modern tools.  I often note how less noticeable our digital use is in classrooms.  Technology use is not an event that happens in a specific place, whether in a grade 4 class or a grade 12 class, students often bounce back and forth between technologies, traditional pen and paper and collaborative work – often in unison.   I think for some students they may use technology less now than five years ago, but it is far more purposeful when the do.  No elementary classes are staring at screens in computer labs several times a week.

It has become popular to pile-on technology as a real problem.  We need to be more specific.  Social media, and its use by kids and adults, raises a lot of questions.  We had a recent threat incident in our community that spread via social media from kids and parents in minutes.  And even after the issue was dealt with, the social media continued to echo with hurtful comments and lies.  And yes, schools have ownership over some of this.  We are places where students can learn good habits and have behaviours reinforced, and the community also have great responsibility when it comes to this.  Ten years ago I would say since parents are not on social media they looked to their friends as guides.  Well, now parents are on social media and they need to be good models for their children on how to use these powerful tools.

We have to be smart enough to separate the amazing advances in our classrooms that would not be possible without technology, while still realizing all of us of all ages, are going to have to come to grips with how we treat each other and respond to events in our digital social spaces.

 

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