Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Inclusiveness, a Profound 30 Year Shift

Wandering around the school at lunch I always ponder what’s going on around me and how things have changed and continue to improve in the world of education.  Today my thoughts wandered to “What would have happened to ______ in the school system in which I grew up?”  I saw Jimmy (no real names) who has a gregarious personality and genuinely wants the best for everyone.  But he’s not particularly academic, he ran into some minor behaviour issues as a younger student and his outgoing boisterous nature, coupled with not always knowing “when to stop” means he can rub people the wrong way.  He’s offended more than a few fellow students and teachers alike.  In a school in the 70s or 80s Jimmy would most likely have dropped out by now and would probably have been labeled a “juvenile delinquent” for his lack of abilities at school coupled with his indiscretions.  Yet in 2014 Jimmy is an integral part of the fibre of our facility.  He’s at the centre of the cafeteria high fiving and greeting all comers, he loves being here (despite his struggles) and in his own ways he’s growing into a genuine leader.

As I ponder Jimmy’s progress Alexa comes bouncing past, the human pinball.  Alexa has ASD and ADHD and as such is pretty unpredictable (not in a dangerous way) one moment to the next.  Each day she literally bounces around the cafeteria group to group, table to table saying hi, proclaiming random facts about Harry Potter or One Direction to anyone and everyone.  But all here fellow students take it in stride, nobody looks askance, everyone says hi, many even listening sincerely to her essentially random ideas.  And there’s Jimmy in the centre of it, hi fiving Alexa every time she wanders past, asking how her day’s been so far, engaging her (as much as possible) in friendly conversation.

Forty years ago I’m pretty sure most high schools wouldn’t have had a place for Jimmy or Alexa.  I know my own high school, though liberal and caring for its day, would have been unwelcoming in ways both subtle and blatant for either of these two students.  Both of these kids will have struggles in their lives more profound than most of us will face.  And these are only two of myriad others who have unique challenges of their own. But at least we are now provide a warm, caring inclusive place for them as they develop the social skills necessary to function in our ever more diverse society.  That is a distinct improvement over how school “used to be done”.

Now that we provide such an inclusive environment for all learners other issues are starting to appear…stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

As I sit here watching teachers picket during Richmond's day of rotating strikes a number of complementary and conflicting notions regarding the state of our education system keep running through my mind.  Underlying all these ideas is the simple question "Why are we going through this…AGAIN?"  We live in one of the richest countries in the richest epoch in history, so why are we, as a society, perpetually nickel and diming our education system?  Long ago we ran out of "fat" to cut, we've been cutting and eliminating crucial elements of our system for years now.

Somehow we've managed to remain a world class system, that's a huge accomplishment by the thousands of dedicated educators across this province.  But it can't keep going like this, as an administrator I'm starting to see the edges fray.  EAs taking more sick days off each year due to stress and burnout, kids with special needs not being addressed due to lack of resources.  The irony is that more so than ever we know how to help kids with special needs thrive, yet for some we have no option but to watch them float or worse, flounder.

Our school systems have done a wonderful job of incorporating inclusive education principles over the past two decades, kids who are "different" are now more accepted than ever.  But we risk losing some of that if we continue to underfund the system.  Some special needs kids thrive in mainstream classes given enough support.  But providing that support for all kids who need it has become an impossibility, and having these students in class without support leads to frustration for the student and often disruption for the rest of the class.  The result is that some students are often left out of classes in which they could otherwise be successful.

The provincial government is ever mindful of the bottom line, as it should be.  But at what point do we, as a society, decide that a robust education system is more important than ever lower tax rates?  We have some of the lowest income and corporate tax rates in Canada, but we also have the second lowest rate of pay for teachers next to PEI…and we most certainly don't have the second lowest cost of living.

The bottom line is simply that our education system needs more money.  Teachers ARE NOT greedy, they're not in it to get rich, but neither should they be getting progressively poorer.  As enrolment decreases costs most certainly do not decrease accordingly, yet funding does.  MLA Andrew Weaver has provided a cogent and workable way forward here, we all need to start looking for a better way to do things, starting with a more collaborative and respectful relationship between the government and teachers.  As Derek Bok said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

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 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.”