Thursday, February 13, 2014

Change…From the Ground Up

The changes coming to BCs Education system are profound and, in my opinion, well founded in educational and brain based research.  Moving to a system with goals based more in thinking abilities rather than knowledge will prepare students far better for a rapidly changing world.  Making education "fit" the world of the future by incorporating more varied structures (both physical and temporal) is long overdue.

However, sitting in a workshop the other day looking at the latest iteration of the ministry's curriculum documents I was struck by the enormity of the changes and some of the hurdles we face as we make these changes.  One issue that came up for discussion at our table was the issue of resources.  Will teachers be able to use existing resources?  Will current lesson plans work with the new framework?
Thinking this over, my thoughts are that yes, current resources probably could be 'repurposed', but I think it would be a mistake and here's why.

Though teachers create their units and their lessons, and textbooks and other resources are created by educators, we must also acknowledge that once created, all these artifacts affect us right back.  By this I mean that consciously or unconsciously the way we teach (and sometimes the material that we teach) is affected by the content and structure of the resources we're using.  This is not to say of course that most teachers simply "teach from the book," they don't.  But to deny that having lesson plans from previous years, or well used and beloved texts and materials affect the way we think, or affect the way we structure our teaching is to live in denial.  My worry is that failure to acknowledge this, and to reuse too many of the current resources (no matter how well produced and effective) will lead people back to familiar thought patterns, familiar activities and, inevitably, to comfortable and familiar teaching.  At that point we risk replacing the revolutionary nature of the changes being proposed with just another evolutionary change (to borrow a comparison from Thomas Kuhn).  If we're hoping for a "paradigm shift" then we have to recreate what we do from the ground up.

Of course it's too much to ask of teachers to change everything they do all at once, but as educators we all need to be aware that in the long run simply adjusting our outlook and materials to try to fit new ways of thinking about education poses the risk of falling back into old habits and old ways of thinking.  A conscious effort must be made to encourage educators throughout the province to recreate their courses from scratch.  In an ideal world the ministry would understand this and help provide new resources (and dare I say time?).  After all, restructuring properly usually requires a new foundation.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Our PISA Results. Good? Bad? Does it really matter?

The latest PISA results are out and the ratings on Canada's performance range from “This is on the scale of a national emergency,”  bad to "We didn't improve at all, but we didn't slide much" bad.  In others the reaction seemed confused, for instance  as Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail says here "Before everyone goes off half-cocked, as a few commentators already have, the OECD report contains both good news and bad." Yet later in the same commentary he claims that, "Given this need (to think about what is going on and make improvements) everyone in British Columbia should grab pitchforks and stick them in the educational “reform” proposals now on the table."  If throwing out years of work toward improving an already strong system due to results of one international test doesn't constitute "going off half cocked" I'm not sure what would.

Of course rating Canada as a single jurisdiction is pretty much meaningless anyway since education is strictly a provincial responsibility.  But whether it's hand wringing because of mediocre to poor results or jubilation due to having made 'great strides' the question still remains "So, what does it all mean?" The answer, as an increasingly large number of commentators are saying, is a resounding "Well, not much really," as Diane Ravitch outlines here.  Ms. Ravitch points out that the US has been doing quite poorly on these types of tests at the senior grades ever since they were started in the 60s.  Claims to be "slipping" are disingenuous in that American kids have never really done very well on international standardized tests, particularly at math.  Nobody would argue however that the US has been anything short of an economic juggernaut over those same 50 years.  It's also been a world leader in creativity, innovation and productivity over that same period.  According to Keith Baker in this 2007 PDK article, the predictive value (according to most 'quality of life' type indices) of any country's results on these tests is essentially zero.

That's not to say that these tests have no uses.  They do provide a very general indication of how our education systems are performing, at least in so much as how well we're preparing kids for tests.  But more importantly (and this is something that 'mean' measures don't address) they shine a light on differences in academic achievement across socio economic boundaries.  In other words, it's not the norm that's important it's the deviations from the norm that are a better indication of how we're doing.  In this respect Canada does very well, with fewer exceptions than most countries, rich and poor alike have access to quality education in this country.

To the kid in grade 9, tomorrow's math test can mean everything…as adults we know it doesn't.  To a kid in grade 12, those final marks can mean everything…as adults we know they don't.  To the Fraser Institute, FSA and other "ranking tools" can mean everything…as adults (I hope) we know they don't.  To countries (or provinces in the case of Canada) why does PISA seem to mean so much?…As adults why can't we believe that it doesn't?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Acceptable behaviour...how does your school achieve it?

Though details regarding what constitutes acceptable behaviour change from school to school, the big picture is pretty much the same wherever one goes.  Integrity, honesty, respect and any number of other "mom and apple pie" type traits would be the expectation.  What interests me is how acceptable behaviour is achieved.  There are two ways of establishing and maintaining acceptable behaviour, through rules or through cultural norms.  Of course the vast majority of people behave in socially acceptable ways the vast majority of the time regardless of rules or expectations.  I'm not talking about egregious transgressions here, we'll leave those to the police.  But in the schools of today, as we question much of what we've done pedagogically in the past, I'm seeing ever increasing confusion, and having many more conversations about what is and isn't acceptable.  This ambiguity affects students, teachers and administrators alike.

For instance, let's look at the "zero as a grade" debate.  Most educators I talk to now understand that a zero for incomplete/late/copied work is not fitting and does not indicate what the student knows, nor does it help in establishing more acceptable behaviour in the future.  When we dig down a little most people understand that the grade of zero is really nothing more than the application of a rule to gain compliance regarding completion of work on time.  When we question the validity and efficacy of this practice it breaks down, and so most educators (rightly so) no longer use it.  So what replaces it?  Well, nothing per se, but the teachers who have the fewest issues with student work are the ones who establish cultural norms in their classroom around the expectation of complete and punctual work.  They also make assessment for learning practices a common theme in their classroom, giving students multiple and/or differentiated opportunities to show their learning.  In other words, they elicit acceptable behaviour around work and assessment by establishing a culture of work, trust (through multiple opportunities) and high expectations.

Another perennial issue around secondary schools in particular is what to do about students who show up late.  Anyone who's worked in secondary schools can tell you that establishing rules around tardiness is one thing, enforcing those rules with consistency is quite another.  And no matter how clearly and comprehensively the "policy" is written, before the ink dries someone will show up with an exception that wasn't considered.  What happens if a student flaunts the rules around tardiness, or simply can't get themselves to class on time?  Should we suspend them?  In other words, have them miss more school for having missed a lot of school?  The most effective policies I've seen around students coming in late involve no hard and fast rules, perhaps a few guidelines around acceptable consequences but most importantly very clear and oft repeated expectations that "around here we do everything we can to get to school (and class) on time."  When students and teachers alike accept a cultural norm of punctuality "lates" still occur, but less frequently, and the students arriving late do so in a hurry with an apology on their lips.  Any teacher or administrator will tell that this attitude toward tardiness makes ALL the difference.

Though neither of these two issues is of earth shattering importance, they both serve to illustrate a point. If acceptable behaviour is achieved through rules it amounts to enforcement through coercion, yes it's effective in the present, and it certainly helps in preserving order, but if the enforcement flags, the reason to behave in an acceptable manner disappears.  Not only that, the following (or breaking) of rules does not necessarily lead to any appreciation of why the rule was enacted in the first place. The more effective method of establishing acceptable behaviours is through cultural norms or expectations.  Establishing these norms is never easy, it takes patience, skill and clear vision.  But to a certain extent, therein lies the difference between management in schools and leadership in schools.



Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Let Kids Make Decisions...and Mistakes

As both an educator and a parent I need to constantly remind myself to let kids, both my own and the students with whom I work, make as many decisions as feasibly possible WITHOUT my intervention.  This becomes most difficult when poor decisions are made and failure is clearly more than just a possibility.  Obviously this rule doesn't apply if any serious harm or damage will result from making an ill advised choice, but adults in the modern world seem to have largely forgotten what most of our parents knew, that making decisions is a big part of life and that wise decisions often come from earlier poor decisions.  I was reminded of this just the other day when my two year old son refused to wear his jacket, leading to a long discussion (don't bother trying to reason TOO much with a two year old) and eventually arguments and tears (some of which were his!).  But afterward I asked myself "why?".  It was cold out, but far from freezing, he may have felt uncomfortable but there was certainly no danger.  (...and I hope we're all beyond the belief that a "chill" is the cause of any illness).  Of course it was about him asserting his will, testing another scenario in which he might have some power.  So why not let him assert it in this case?  He'll be the one living with the consequences, either he'll be fine or he may learn that jackets aren't such a bad idea in October in Canada.  Either way, the results were his to discover from his choice, and even if he didn't learn (he is only two after all) he would get the message that yes, he does have some affect on his own life.  Choices like this are small pieces of the larger puzzle of self determination and personal efficacy.

As educators we need to follow the same guidelines.  John Abbott, in his work with the 21st Century Learning Initiative often talks about the "principle of subsidiarity" as applied to education.  Originally a term associated with the catholic church, the principle of subsidiarity refers to the notion that all decisions should be made at the lowest level of authority possible.  In other words, districts shouldn't make decisions that could be made at the school level, schools shouldn't be making decisions that can be made at the classroom or teacher level and (this is the one we too often forget) educators should not be making decisions regarding a child's education that could feasibly be made by the child.  Whether the decision is something as large as which course of study to follow, or something as banal as whether or not to do homework, we spend too much time and energy pushing, pestering, cajoling and offering unsolicited advice, hoping to help kids avoid poor decisions and mistakes.  We often tell kids that mistakes are a learning opportunity, but if we then go too far out of our way to help kids avoid them it becomes nothing more than a meaningless platitude.  Making wise decisions is a skill and mastering any skill takes practice.

We must also be aware that if learning by doing and erring  is valuable, we can't then stick with traditional "grading" practices that tend to punish mistakes.  Thankfully ever greater numbers of teachers are moving to assessment for  and as learning techniques that recognize the value in mistakes and don't punish students who make them.  By definition formative assessment exists specifically as a way for kids to test what they think without fear of failure or punishment.  Therefore educators we need to move toward models where formative assessment comprises the bulk of how we assess student work.

There are numerous reasons proffered for "bubble wrapping" kids/students from errors, but to me they all seem to boil down to three main categories, and none of them are valid.  First (and this is one that nobody will admit to) comes laziness.  Quite simply, it's often easier and faster to help kids avoid errors than to clean up or debrief (or whatever the case may be) afterward.  Next there's the pretty well debunked self esteem type arguments; kids will feel badly about not doing well.  This of course is not true in and of itself, kids only feel bad when there are value judgements attached to errors and failure, and that's on us, as educators and parents to rectify.  Finally (and here's another one people won't admit to on the surface) there's the purely selfish argument for helping kids avoid pitfalls.  We, as parents or educators, feel bad when our kids don't succeed. After all, it's natural to empathize.  But from hyper protective parents who won't let their kids climb trees to "helicopter parents" who travel with their adult children to college, deep down it makes us feel better to smooth things over.  None of these lines of reasoning are valid.  But we all know, whatever the excuse, that acting as "fixers" for all our kids' woes is simply setting them up for bigger and potentially more critical failures down the road.  More importantly, it leaves them unable to cope emotionally with setback and loss.  Protect your kids from genuinely dangerous decisions, and help guide your students without coercion or pressure, but remember that when all is said and done we all need to "learn things the hard way" once in a awhile.  When it happens, bite your lip, relax and keep telling yourself that it's a learning experience.

Monday, April 29, 2013

8 Characteristics of Strong Teachers


What makes a teacher strong? What differentiates the best from the rest? There’s no shortage of bodies (some dramatically misguided) attempting to solve this riddle.  The answers are nebulous at best. Below is a list of traits, some of which may be familiar but many of which will never show up on any sort of performance review.  Check them out and see what you think.

1. They Demonstrate Confidence
Confidence while teaching can mean any number of things, it can range from having confidence in your knowledge of the material being learned to having confidence that your teaching acumen is second to none. Though these two (and many other) “confidences” are important the most critical confidence a teacher can have is much more general, and tougher to describe than that.  It’s the confidence that you know you’re in the right spot doing what you want to be doing and that no matter what transpires, having that time to spend with those young learners is going to be beneficial both for them and for yourself.  It’s clear to students when teachers exude this feeling. Working in schools is difficult and stressful, and also immensely rewarding. But if you’re not confident that you’re in the right place when you’re teaching…you’re probably not.
2. They Have Life Experience
Having some life experience outside the classroom and outside the realm of education is invaluable for putting learning into context and keeping school activities in perspective. Teachers who have travelled, worked in other fields, played high level sports or enjoyed any number of other life experiences bring to the profession outlooks other than “teacher”.  From understanding the critical importance of collaboration and teamwork, to being able to answer that ageless senior math question “when are we going to use this?”, educators who have spent significant time and energy on alternate pursuits come to the profession with a deep understanding of where school fits into the bigger picture of life.
3. They Understand Each Student’s Motivation
Just as each student has a different set of interests, every student will have a correspondingly different set of motivators.  Many (or most) students will be able to reconcile their own outlook and ambitions with what’s happening in the class and take motivation from that relationship.  Unfortunately some students will rely simply on external motivators, but worse, we’ve all run into students who really can’t find a relationship between what makes them tick and what’s happening in the classroom around them.  These students run the risk of disengaging altogether.  This is where the master teacher knows each of her students and helps them to contextualize the work they’re doing to allow the student to make a connection with something in his realm of interest.  Teachers who can’t help students make this connection need to rethink what’s going on.  After all, what IS the point of work in which a student finds no interest and for which he can make no connection?
4. They’re People, Not Heroes.
Yes, all teachers are heroes.  Now let’s move beyond the platitude to what this really means.  Some teachers still have trouble showing any sort of vulnerability of fallibility.  These teachers will expend immense amounts of energy hiding the fact they’re frustrated at something, that they’re upset or perhaps even angry.  Why?  Other teachers get tied into logical knots to avoid admitting “I have no idea what the answer to your question is.” But teachers who genuinely connect with students are the ones who aren’t afraid to show emotions in class, who can admit that they aren’t in fact the repository of all knowledge. Of course nobody want to be a wallowing, blubbering mess in class, but what better way to teach empathy than to give the students someone to empathize with when we’re having a bad day? What better way to foster collaboration and to teach that it’s okay not to know something than to say “I don’t know, let’s find that out!”?
5.  They’re Technologically Capable
Let’s not belabour this point, after all, plenty of ink (or pixels as the case may be!) has already been spilled on this topic. As time passes, the statement “But I’m not very good with _________ .”(fill in the blank with any number of technological devices) is sounding ever more like “But I’m not very good with a telephone.” The ONLY time the sentiment above is acceptable is if it’s followed immediately by “…but I’m very willing to learn!”.  After all, we wouldn’t accept such weak rationalizations from students regarding their work.  In 2013, as a profession, we lose credibility every time we allow excuses like this to go unchallenged. Enough said.
6. They Model Risk Taking
We encourage our students to be risk takers, we’d all like to be risk takers, but let’s be honest, the nature of the beast is that many teachers are not naturally risk takers.  This point goes hand in hand with showing vulnerability, the teacher who’s willing to go out on a limb, to try something new, to be “wacky” in the name of pedagogy earns the respect of students, even if the snickers seem to say something different. No matter the success or failure of the risk taken, the experience will certainly be memorable for the kids in that class, and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?  After all, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
7. They Focus On Important Stuff
Whether it’s worrying about who’s late to class, collecting every little piece of work in order to “gather marks” or spending too much time lecturing to the class in order to “cover the material”, there’s no shortage of ways to distract teachers from the what’s important.  Strong teachers know that  things like chronic tardiness or skipping class are usually symptoms of larger issues and as such, spending precious time and energy trying to “fix” the issue almost never works.  That’s what administrators and counselors are for.  They also understand that efficient and effective assessment means eliminating busy work while giving targeted, meaningful feedback and that engaging the students, connecting the material to their interests and passions, is the surest way to maximize learning.  There’s plenty of minutiae and enough CYA (Cover Your…) in education to easily get sidetracked, strong teachers keep their focus on what’s important.
8. They Don’t Worry Too Much About What Administrators Think
This trait is tied in with many of the others listed above. Strong teachers do their job without worrying too much about “what the principal will think”.  They’ll take risks, their classes my be noisy, or messy, or both.  Their activities may end up breaking something (usually the rules) in order to spark excitement or engagement.  They understand that learning is not a neat and tidy activity and that adhering too closely to rules and routines can drain from students the natural curiosity, spontaneity and passion that they bring to school.  Worrying about what the boss may think can be draining and restrictive in any job, teaching is no exception. The best teachers live by the code “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

Monday, April 22, 2013

How do you make your students feel?



Research is starting to show pretty conclusively that the answer to this question can have a profound effect on the learning that occurs within your class or school. More specifically, children who are anxious about their learning, about their abilities, about their homework…about just about anything, will have elevated levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. Though cortisol has its benefits, a perpetual state of elevated cortisol levels, or even regular spikes in levels are damaging to the body in numerous ways, including impaired cognitive abilities.  Studies also show that increased instances of elevated cortisol levels leads to lowered cortisol levels down the road, which is also problematic. The other, more immediate effect is that the physiological energy needed for the body to regulate stress hormone levels detracts from the energy available to focus on learning.
We’ve all seen children in obvious states of emotional distress, and it’s well known that students in such a state are incapable of much learning. But students with less visible, perhaps lower levels of stress or anxiety are also affected. The notion of stress in this case is very broad, and many kids, parents (and educators) are unaware of the effects of these stressors. Things like too much video game time, too little breakfast or tension in the home can have profound effects on students’ levels of stress which can mean an imbalance of cortisol.
As educators we need to not only be cognizant of how our behaviour and expectations are affecting our students, increasingly we need to work to counteract the effects of outside stresses which may hinder success in the classroom. Of course we have no way of discerning the emotional state (and thus the readiness to learn) of each of the students in front of us. But with ever increasing numbers of kids who have difficulty self regulating most teachers can bet on the fact that some (or many) of the students in front of them on any given day are in either a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused emotional state. Here are 5 simple things that teachers can do to help students self regulate.
1)   Monitor the Physical Surroundings
Avoid clutter, including too much visual stimulation in the form of bright colours and other visual distracters. Yes it’s great to have some decoration, and displaying student work is a must, but avoid having your classroom space look too “busy”.
2)   Allow for Movement and Fidgeting
Sitting still simply isn’t an option for some kids, and for many others it’s doable, but at a high cost in terms of attention and focus. Some teachers have had great success experimenting with exercise balls instead of seats, disc cushions or simple “fidget toys”.

3)   Reduce Extraneous Noise
Some noise is good, it’s productive and rhythm exercises are great for development. But some kids shut down in the presence of “disorganized” noise.  Reduce the number of hard reverberative surfaces where possible, and keep the music area to one corner of the classroom, with a simple divider where possible, so that those not participating can focus on other tasks.
4)   Build in Time for Transitions
Most teachers area aware of, and do this, intuitively. But sometimes we try to hurry from one activity to the next. Kids who have difficulty up regulating from a “lighter” activity to something requiring more focus, or down regulating from a busy activity, can get lost in the shuffle if we don’t allow time (and perhaps provide a little guidance).
5)   Make Your Students Aware of Their Own Mindset
Tools like The Alert Program encourage students to be aware of their own readiness to learn. Young kids will always need some guidance and help to self regulate, but if students are made aware of how they’re feeling, and if teachers are aware of how they (and their classroom environment) are affecting students, classroom management issues will be reduced and student learning will be improved.

Recent findings in neurophysiology and psychology (to name but two) are emphasizing the importance of self regulation in children. For a reasonably comprehensive and very practical resource on this topic check out Dr. Stuart Shankar’s “Calm, Alert and Learning”.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Habits of Effective Administrators


1.    Balance management with leadership.
School administration involves both management duties and leadership opportunities. The management side tends to be the stuff that one has to do. Leadership is the stuff that one chooses to do. It’s very important as an educational administrator (especially a rookie) to remember these two things i) to be a leader you need followers and ii) to gain followers one must complete management duties in a timely and efficient manner. Teachers will not care what you have to say about educational leadership if you don’t manage effectively.
2.  Envision the ideal, but focus on the doable.
Effective school leaders have a vision of what their “ultimate” school looks like. This vision helps create the culture and atmosphere of the schools in which they work. But a clear path directly to this goal is rarely, if ever, discernible. Leaders must pick their way toward this goal one small step at a time, focusing on ideas and changes that can be implemented now, ones that may take a year or two and ones that may take 5 years. The ideal is never achieved because it always evolves, but it’s the incremental changes made working toward the ideal that improve learning for students.
3. Act as a representative for the missing voice.
A big part of being an administrator is helping sort out other people’s conflicts. Parents will come to complain about teachers, teachers about kids, kids about teachers etc. With interpersonal issues, getting one side of the story never suffices in shedding enough light on the situation, of course it’s imperative to get views from all possible sides in these matters. But in the interim, while listening to the initial report of any conflict, effective leaders try to understand the missing person’s point of view, and keep that in their mind as the discussion progresses. Adopting and, where necessary, representing the missing person’s point of view helps in keeping the discussion focused and moving toward settlement. Too readily accepting the initial complaint at face value often leads to more awkward situations later on.
4. Listen and interpret.
People will usually say what they mean, but often mean more than what has actually been said. Often they’re simply shy about “sharing everything”. A student who admits to going to bed too late can be expressing numerous things, from anxiety issues to more esoteric ailments like “screen addiction”. A teacher complaining about too much marking may be asking for help in planning or looking for ways to work more efficiently. Effective administrators pick up on this and, using communication techniques such as paraphrasing, try to elicit the full meaning of what is being communicated. It’s only after frank discussions with all necessary information available that effective feedback, and help where necessary, can be provided.
5. Reflect constantly.
After every action, interaction and decision, the best administrators will always ask “How could that have been done better?” Whether something has gone extremely well, or the flaws in planning and/or execution were evident for all to see, a cycle of constant reflection upon their work allows these administrators to improve their practice every day.
6. Plan for your own departure.
It’s nice to think of one’s self as indispensible, but the aim of an effective administrator should be the opposite. After all, the essence of true leadership is building capacity within an organization.  If there’s a process or procedure that’s important to the running of a school, strong administrators will ensure that they are not the only people within the building capable of completing the task.  Whether it’s something as mundane as turning off the bells for a holiday or as complex as building a timetable, building redundancy into the system is a critical part of creating a robust and sustainable leadership structure.
7. Improving student learning is our sole guiding principle.
This may seem like a truism, but nevertheless we often find ourselves asking “What’s best for ________?”. I’ve seen this simple question work miracles, from diffusing extremely tense conversations with both teachers and parents, to kick-starting what seems like a stalled professional development conversation. Everyone in the field of education works from the premise that we’re here to help students, we all just need to be reminded once in a while.