Monday, April 25, 2011

Jumping on, Jumping off!

Ok, so it is playoff time in the city of Vancouver. The Vancouver Canucks are amidst the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Truth or not, the fans of Vancouver have often been described as bandwagon fans. Apparently, we jump on board when things are going well and jump off as soon as the tide turns against us. Those of you who follow NHL Hockey know that the Canucks won the first three games of their playoff series to jump out to a 3-0 series lead. All over the city, I heard talk of a four-game sweep, questions about who the Canucks might face in round 2, accolades being tossed around about the stellar play of goalie Roberto Luongo, the defensive play of Ryan Kesler and the offensive contributions of such a deep defensive core. Everything seemed so rosy and the Canucks were gaining new fans each day!

Well low and behold, the past three games have not gone the same way. Chicago dominated play in Games 4 & 5, found a way to win Game 6 and have shifted the momentum in their favor heading into the deciding Game 7. The talk of the town is now Roberto Luongo's poor play, Ryan Kesler's lack of offensive contributions and whether coach and player changes are necessary if the Canucks completely collapse.  Many of those so-called 'fans' have quickly become skeptics.

So, compare bandwagon hockey fans to educators' responses to new initiatives in education.  New initiatives are brought back to schools all the time.  Think of the last time you brought back a fresh idea from a workshop, conference or conversation with other educators.  Hearing the benefits and gains experienced by others, you probably got quite excited about the possibilities of implementing the idea in your school or classroom.  Your excitement likely caught the attention of some of your colleagues and they probably demonstrated their interest in the initiative by asking you for more details.  Exciting times, right? A chance to really push forward with something innovative, right? Full of enthusiasm, you probably started implementing it in your teaching and crafting plans for getting others on board.

Sometimes initiatives stick and become part of your regular repertoire of skills and strategies that you draw on from time to time.  Other times, you experiment with limited success, your excitement fades and gradually the initiatives fall into your 'black hole' of passing educational fads.  Each of us has our own 'black hole' of passing educational fads, full of strategies that might have worked for others but for some reason just didn't work us.  Sadly, when we allow our enthusiasm to drop off and we no longer push forward with new ideas, we default back to doing things the way we have in the past...sigh, the status quo.

Staying on board and pushing forward with new ideas is never easy.  You need to remain committed to its implementation even when you aren't met with immediate success.  You need to challenge yourself to build upon your successes, and reflect rather than be critical of your failures.  You must be willing to defend the merits of your ideas and acknowledge the need to improve upon its limitations. And more than anything, you must continue to envision where the initiative will take you, your colleagues and your students once you successfully implement it.

I have jumped on board with Assessment for Learning, Professional Learning Communities, Professional Learning Networks, Personalized Learning and Technology Integration.  Although I know it won't always be easy and at times I may face adversity as I move forward with these ideas, I am committed to staying on board and advancing these ideas for myself and with others.

I challenge you (in your next blog or tweet) to define the initiatives you are jumping on board with and to not jump off the bandwagon!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Edcamp Vancouver: Power of the unconference

@gmbondi said "Edcamp - best pro-d I've been a part of"

@SheilaSpeaking said "Hope that #edcampvan has been the start of something huge!"

@Stephen_Hurley said "There was something very cool about meeting PLN and others at #edcampvan Conversations longer and richer" and "One of the impressive things about #edcampvan was the fact that participants seemed to arrive and depart energized"

@teachingtammy said "I have never been so engaged with a PD session as I am today"

@tangomanfromqc said "Had a great time at #edcampvan! Dreamed about AFL, Social Media, Web 2.0 tools and alternative ed all last night!"

@thornquill said "You know it was a good day when the ideas are still spurring discussion hours after the unconference"

This past Saturday, over 80 people, including students, parents, teachers and administrators gathered at John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver for the first-ever Edcamp Vancouver.  Edcamp Vancouver followed the 'unconference' format that has been growing in popularity throughout North America.

Unlike traditional conferences, there were no advertised keynote speakers who were known to be 'experts' in their particular field.  Rather, participants elected to attend Edcamp Vancouver in anticipation of engaging in rich and meaningful discussion about topics of their choosing.

The morning began with individuals proposing potential session topics to a bulletin board.  Participants indicated their interest in topics by writing their names on sticky notes and posting them to proposed topics.  During this process, participants mingled and engaged in conversations that ultimately led to additional topics being proposed.  As a greater number of participants demonstrated their interest in a topic, the topic was shifted to the main schedule board. After 45 minutes of mingling, informal conversations, session proposals and voting, 16 session topics were identified. Four sessions took place during each of four-45 minute sessions. Topics included Social Media 101, Assessment for Learning, What Professional Development should look like, Communication between Stakeholders, Bringing TED Talks to Schools, Envisioning New Models, Motivating Students from a Distance, Creating Online Learning Communities, Beginning Teacher Support, Inquiry-Based Learning, Creating eBooks, Moving away from Letter Grades, Awards Ceremonies, Differentiated Instruction, Moving English and Language Arts into the 21st Century and Math Collaborators.

Sessions started with a mini-presentation, a question, a problem, a solution or discussion topic and were designed to initiate deep, rich discussion between participants. Participants were highly engaged and most participants contributed during each session. In many cases, sessions continued beyond the scheduled time and smaller conversations were struck between participants during the breaks. Hierarchical relationships were not present at all.  Participants of all ranges of experience and backgrounds shared freely and openly with one another.  Although each person's perspectives and ideas were respected and embraced, the conversations that ensued were not examples of 'groupthink'. Ideas, opinions and perspectives were challenged by others, but done so in a manner that encouraged deeper reflection.  All the while, there was an active Twitter backchannel occurring, with many participants (myself included) contributing their thoughts and ideas using the hashtag #edccampvan.

In each of the sessions that I facilitated and participated in, I took away important questions to reflect on, ideas to think about and initiatives that I'd like to develop more fully at a school level. The sessions are proving to be a catalyst to ensuing conversations that I will have with my immediate colleagues and with my PLN.

What was different about the day? One difference was obvious from the instant the doors opened and the first person walked in. Participants began the day with enthusiasm and energy. Everyone appeared genuinely excited to connect with each other. In many cases, the event provided the opportunity for people to meet face-to-face for the first time with many of the individuals they knew previously only in a virtual world through Twitter.

Another difference is that because lengthy presentations were discouraged and discussion was encouraged, a much higher level of interest and engagement was evident than I have typically seen from people during 'stand and deliver' presentations.  Further evidence of the new connections that people established and the high level of engagement was that at lunch time many individuals sat with people they did not know before the day began.  I am a great example of this, as I ate with and talked with a small group of educators who I had met during the previous session on Supporting New Teachers.

Despite all of the positives I have noted I believe there is still a place for traditional professional learning models.  We can all benefit from hearing 'experts' speak from time to time.  The value of the unconference comes when we have the opportunity to share with one another what we have learned from the 'experts' and how we have attempted to apply what we have learned.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Julia Clark (@learnbyliving), Bernie Soong (@bsoong), Blair Miller (@millerblair), Darren Yung (@penphoe), Kate Henderson (@ScienceWorldTr), Heidi Hass Gable (@hhg), Grant Frend (@grantfrend), Peter Newbury (@polarisdotca), Elsbeth Wissink (@elswis) and David Wees (@davidwees) for making it such an enjoyable experience to organize the event with them.  Thanks also to hosts Gino Bondi (@gmbondi), Dustin Keller (@solitaryvox) and Zhi Su (@zzsu). Based on the positive feedback and the conversations about possible future unconferences that have been taking place days after the event, it's clear that Edcamp Vancouver was a successful experiment.  I look forward to participating in future 'unconference' events and being involved in the planning for Edcamp Vancouver 2012!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kids Just Aren't Like They Used to Be

Do you recognize these 'kids'? Yes, the 'New Kids on the Block'!
They aren't so 'new' anymore are they?

As you chuckle at the photo above, I'm sure you're thinking "Kids just aren't like they used be!"

I'm going to guess that you've heard this comment many times before. Teaching colleagues, parents and employers have all made this comment. Unfortunately, when I hear this comment it often implies a negative connotation about kids or some notion of disbelief about a kid's actions. As much as I hate to admit it, I am guilty of having made similar comments out of frustration in the past.

But, think about the statement for a moment. Not only is the statement true, but seriously, shouldn't it be? And even more importantly, shouldn't we hope that the statement is true?

The kids of today are growing up in a world that is considerably different than it was 10, 15, 20 or more years ago.  Their 'past' is shorter and different than the 'past' of the previous generation.  The world that has influenced their values, beliefs, principles and actions is considerably different than the world that shaped the thinking of the generation before them.  So, shouldn't we expect that 'kids just aren't like they used to be'?

The fact that 'kids just aren't like they used to be' is what drives forward progress.  They move us beyond the status quo and ensure that the world is constantly changing. Some argue that as a result of growing technologies the world is changing at a greater rate than it ever has in the past. Their fresh ideas and new ways of doing things challenge conventional wisdom.  As they expand their knowledge, gain real-world experience and combine this with new perspectives, they often contribute to the development of innovative ideas and solutions that make our lives easier and better.  It is hard to argue that advances in technology, medicine and even learning aren't contributing positively to society. However, these innovative ideas, while undeniably positive, often create emerging local and global challenges. But who better to adapt to these challenges and design solutions than the next generation of kids, who they themselves think and act differently than the generation before them.

So why is it that when we say 'kids just aren't like they used to be' we often do expressing our frustration and disbelief about them.  Is is because we are struggling to understand them? Is is because we are resisting change and unwilling to accept their new perspectives?  Consider this the next time you're about to utter the words 'kids just aren't like they used to be'.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why are we learning this?


"Why are we learning this? Do we have to do it this way?"

We have all heard our students ask these kinds of questions.  I know I have.  Sometimes they ask these questions immediately at the start of a lesson and other times they ask well into a lesson. As educators, we should know why we're asking our students to learn certain topics and we should also have reasons why we've asked students to apply certain learning strategies.  (Of course, the answer of "because you'll need to know how to do it this way for next year" isn't a solid rationale.) So, assuming you have thought things through and have solid reasons for doing what you do and how you do it and your students are still asking these questions, please take the time to clarify with your students the learning intention and why you're asking them to approach their learning in a certain way.

On the other hand, if you struggle to answer these questions on some days, I urge you to consider reframing the questions as...

Is what your students are learning relevant to them in their daily lives?
Is how your students are learning relevant to them in their daily lives?

The reason I am raising this subject is because recently, I have heard many people (educators and non-educators included) question what and how students are learning at school.  I have found there to be quite a diverse range of perspectives. Some people believe strongly that education should focus strongly on advancing the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.  They value the same 'hard' skills that were emphasized when they were in high school and that have likely contributed to much of their success to date.  On the other hand, there are others who believe that in addition to the traditional basics, students must develop the 'soft' skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity in order to be successful in the future.

In order to assess whether 'what' students are learning and 'how' students are learning is relevant to their daily lives, I believe we must clarify the answers to some important questions.

  • What basic fundamental knowledge and skills are crucial for our students to develop?
  • What knowledge and skills are gaining increasing importance as society progresses in the 21st Century? 
  • What methods of learning support the development of this knowledge and skills?
  • What types of environments, structures and experiences contribute to the most relevant and applicable learning for students?
In an effort to answer some of these questions, I will reflect on the professional learning experiences I have been a part of throughout my career as an educator that have stood out in positive ways.
  • I was hooked from the start and excited to learn more about a specific topic.
  • Options were available and I was able to choose a topic or workshop I was most interested in.
  • I was grouped amongst others in a way that encouraged discussion.
  • Questions were framed in a manner that invited participants to share their perspectives and ideas.
  • As a collective group, we constructed meaning around new ideas.
  • I engaged in conversations that challenged my ideas, perspectives and philosophies.
  • I acquired skills and knowledge that I could apply to my current and future practice.
Compare this to the high school classroom of today.  If we were to ask students which factors contribute to their best learning experiences, they would likely identify many, if not all of the same points listed above.

So, I urge you to consider the following questions as you reflect on the relevance of 'what' and 'how' your students are learning.
  • Why am I asking my students to learn what I'm asking them to?
  • Is my students' learning relevant and meaningful to their current lives?
  • Why have I chosen the teaching/learning strategies I'm using to help my students learn?
  • Do my students have input and choice in what and how they learn?
  • Are my students learning by collaborating to actively construct new meaning?   
One thing is clear, 'what' and 'how' our students should be learning is not static.  As the world changes, different skills and knowledge are required.  Undoubtedly, in his blog post 'The Future of Learning', the ideas that Scott McLeod (@mcleod) suggests we should consider when trying to improve the relevance of 'how' our students are learning were not ideas that we would have considered 10 years ago.

So for now I will leave you with two challenges...

If 'what' your students are learning isn't relevant, either contextualize their learning so it is made relevant or don't ask them to learn it.

And if 'how' your students are learning isn't relevant, change how you are asking them to learn so the skills they are applying are relevant.