Friday, December 28, 2012

What I've Been (Re)Reading in 2012

Looking for a good read to kickstart 2013? Here is a selection of some of the books I’ve (re)read during 2012 that have really influenced my thinking. Thanks to those of you who recommended them to me through your tweets and reflective blog posts! If you know of another worthwhile read, I’d love for you to share it with me!
Drive (Daniel Pink)
A great read for teachers leaders and administrators who are interested in learning about what intrinsically motivates people. Pink’s big three are autonomymastery andpurpose. Big questions I’m once again asking myself…How can we create the conditions where all teachers are intrinsically motivated to be learners? What frameworks/models can we apply to increase student-driven learning?

Shifting the Monkey (Todd Whitaker)
Another good one for leaders. Whitaker shows how to shift an organization’s focus from compensating for and working around people to cultivating and supporting responsible employees. I’ve definitely identified some ‘monkeys’ I’m carrying. The challenge for me is to shift these ‘monkeys’ back to whom they belong to!

Start with Why (Simon Sinek)
“People don’t buy WHAT you do. They buy WHY you do it!”  Sinek discusses what inspires us and the people around us. This is a natural complement to Drive. I’ve realized that often times I’m too quick to share ‘what’ I’d like to see without fully sharing the ‘why’. I may know the ‘why’ for myself, but I will only inspire action if I share the ‘why’ with those I hope to influence.

I found this a really easy read that touches on a variety of educational technology topics. Anyone interested in exploring ways to use digital technologies in schools can benefit from this one.  I will continue to revisit sections of this book as we explore ways to engage teachers, students and parents through digital technologies.

Tom’s book has really made me question some of my beliefs about assessment and grading. The biggest point I continue to reflect on having read Tom’s book is the impact that grades can have on student motivation.

It’s all about Thinking (Faye Brownlie, Carole Fullerton & Leyton Schnellert)
Having just participated in one of Leyton’s workshops a few weeks ago, I’m very interested in reading about practical strategies we can use to differentiate for all learners. Many of the ideas he shared in his workshop (and I anticipate are shared in this book), Leyton modelled when we co-taught 17 years ago.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Earning or Learning?

Just over a week ago, we distributed first term report cards to students. In the days that led up to this, many of the comments I overheard students say reminded me of the question, "Is the focus on earning or learning?"

Here are a few examples of students comments:

"I have to get the assignment done. I need the marks so I pass the term!"

"I'm already getting an ok mark in that class. I need to spend time studying for the test in the (other) class so I can raise my mark for the report card."

"It's marks cut-off time. I have to finish it before the cut-off otherwise it'll be too late and won't be counted towards my report card mark."

"Whatever...I totally don't know what I'm doing in that class. I'm failing anyways. What's the point in doing the assignment?"

"Seriously, why does every teacher have to give us a test right before marks cut-off? Couldn't some of them wait until next week? I need to keep my grades up and this is stressing me out!"

When I hear comments such as these, a number of things come to mind about these kids.

Their motivation to do the work and study for tests is marks and grades.

Not even the threat of a low mark/grade is enough to motivate some students.

Our obsession with marks and inflexibility about due dates is causing stress for some students.

Sadly, these kids seem more interested and concerned about earning marks than learning.
Is their focus on marks something they have arrived at independently or have we, as educators placed such a high value on marks that we have coached them into this thinking this way?

I think back to the beginning of my career, full of energy but very inexperienced. I remember wanting my students to believe that every class period is important. So, I attached marks to almost everything my students did. This would teach them to come to class and hand in all their I thought! By the end of a term/year my marks book was bursting with entries. Of course, I figured the mark I would assign each student would have to be valid. I'd have so many entries as evidence to back it up.

But what I started to notice is that my students were asking lots of questions about their marks, how to gain more and how much an assignment/test would be worth. Fewer and fewer of my students'  questions related to their learning. Rather than motivating my struggling learners, many were getting overwhelmed and turned off by a lack of success. They were disengaging, withdrawing and some were avoiding class. The impact on the higher achieving students was no better. They were becoming so consumed with point gathering that they were afraid to make mistakes and they were no longer asking deep questions. The constant pressure of meeting deadlines and having their work judged was contributing to leading to anxiety and in some cases caused them to cheat!

As I look back, I realize I was really missing the point.

I should have placed much greater emphasis on formative assessment.

I should have provided greater opportunity for students to make mistakes without punishing them in the gradebook.

I should have provided much more descriptive feedback that would point out to students what and how to improve.

I should have been more flexible with my arbitrarily decided due dates.

When determining grades, I should have exercised my professional judgment when looking at the data I had collected on each student. Data should be nothing more than a guide.

So now think about the students in your class..."Is their focus on earning or learning?"

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Going Beyond the Converted: Reflections from Edcamp Leadership BC

The dust has now settled following Saturday's Edcamp Leadership BC. As participants, the nearly 200 of us have now gone our separate ways, back to our roles as students, parents, teachers, administrators, etc.  Before time escapes too quickly, it's important to do some reflecting. As an organizer, the days leading up to Edcamp were busy and filled with uncertainty...Who will show up? How many people will participate? What topics will participants propose? By the time Saturday arrived, it was almost a relief because I too could be like everyone else...a PARTICIPANT.

Having participated at two previous Edcamps (Edcamp Vancouver & Edcamp Delta), I am well aware that a major aspect of an Edcamp is the opportunity to form new connections and strengthen existing ones.  It's also a time when many people who are unable to participate in face-to-face discussions, contribute to conversations through Twitter.

To kick off the day, I challenged participants to at the very least, take one connection they were about to make during the day and continue to strengthen this connection through conversation beyond the unconference. The amazing number of face-to-face conversations on the day and ongoing interactions on Twitter that continue to use the #edcamplbc hashtag are a positive sign.  I encourage you to check out the links to the Google Docs from each session, access the Twitter list of people who participated face-to-face and contributed from a distance and some of the blog posts that participants have written since Edcamp Leadership BC.

Learning at Edcamp by Jim Allison
My First Edcamp: Full of Light and Brightness by Carolyn Durley
Edcamp Leadership BC: Notes and Reflections by Phil Macoun
Multi-Perspective Platform: Edcamp Leadership BC by Bernard Soong
Edcamp Leadership BC by Khanh Nguyen
Reflections from Edcamp Leadership BC by Terry Ainge
Edcamp Leadership BC by Tyler Nelson

I participated in three sessions: 21st Century Teaching and Learning with Technology, Engaging Aboriginal Youth and Connected Leadership. During the Connected Leadership session facilitated by David Wees, Ron Canuel from the Canadian Education Association (CEA) made a comment that really stuck with me. "We need to surround ourselves with opposing ideas in order to create a richer context."

Ron's comments got me thinking about the nature of Edcamps. Edcamps, while highly inspirational are very much about 'preaching to the converted'. Those of us who attend Edcamps do so because we see a need and are interested in making progressive change in education. But while we may be making changes to our own practice, are we actually creating widespread scalable change?

Although I wasn't an educator at the time, I tend to agree with the idea behind another of Ron's comments. "Many of the issues we are talking about in education we were still talking about in 1988. Change is stressful, what do we try to do? We try and reduce stress (which means we work against the change we want to see)."

Why is it that we continue to repeat the same conversations?

I'd argue that too often we are afraid to wade into uncomfortable conversations where we may be challenged to justify and defend our positions.  As a result, we become content to limit our exchange of ideas to our own mutual admiration society.

So when it comes to Edcamps, it's great to hear what people in other areas are doing and to glean some inspiration from fellow participants, but in order to trigger widespread change we must communicate our ideas beyond just Edcampers. We must engage those who hold differing and opposing views and provide a convincing enough argument that they see reason enough to change.

So with some encouragement from Lynn Oucharek, I closed the day challenging participants to take an idea that they had heard at Edcamp and share it with someone who didn't attend and quite likely has a differing opinion. These are the people with whom we must share our ideas with and have the courage to enter into deep, rich dialogue with. As educational leaders, it is our responsibility to help others see what we see, see what is possible and how together we might get there. This is necessary so that in 10 years, we aren't saying, "Many of the issues we are talking about in education we were talking about at Edcamp Leadership BC 10 years ago!".

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Leading Learning from Within

A few days have now passed since the Association of Delta School Administrators (ADSA) Annual Conference so it's time for some reflecting. As an organizing committee we have long since heard from our colleagues that they value the networking component to our conference, desire for more opportunities to talk about what is going on in their respective schools, share ideas and learn with each other. From these comments evolved our question of inquiry, "Will a focussed effort on collaborative inquiry around administrators' interests and unique capabilities accelerate leadership performance and commitment to professional development?"

In an effort to follow our inquiry, this year we opted for a new conference model, one without a keynote, without a 'guru', without any 'sit and get' presentations. This year, there would be no chance that an external expert would come in and push his or her ideas on us without being aware of our context. Instead, we asked our colleagues to volunteer to facilitate conversations on topics they are passionate about. We knew we were taking a bit of a risk. What if our colleagues didn't volunteer to lead sessions? What if it turned out that we were less connected with each other because we weren't all sitting in the same room listening to the same presenter?

Well, taking the risk paid off! The theme of the conference could very well have been 'Leading Learning from Within'! We offered a total of nine sessions, with three sessions running concurrently at any one time. In fact, because almost 1/3 of our ADSA colleagues volunteered to lead conversations, we actually chose to host only the most popular sessions. Session topics included Demystifying Human Resources, Student and Educator BloggingEmpowering Students Through LeadershipEasy to Use Technologies that can Change EducationSupporting Teacher InquiryRelationship-Based MentoringCreating a Culture for Inquiry-Based LearningTechnology to Help Us With our Jobs and Assessment for Learning

Conversations were rich and engaging because they were led from within. Colleagues shared their experiences, knowledge, successes and failures. It was a great chance to ask questions, benefit from each others' learning and share strategies for overcoming challenges.  As you can tell by the google docs from some of the sessions, colleagues were very much engaged in sharing and building a collection of ideas and resources.  New connections  were established and previous connections between colleagues were strengthened, largely because people had the opportunity to discuss topics they are interested in and passionate about. The tone to the conference was comfortable, friendly and supportive. People felt safe in putting their ideas, challenges and mistakes forward because they knew that others were there to help! View a short clip of conference reflections from colleagues.

Our experience is another encouraging step toward creating a collaborative culture amongst ourselves, where we go beyond sharing to truly collaborating on projects with each other. As excited as I am about the steps we took at the conference, I'm also enthused about Delta School Disrict's commitment to collaboration and learning through inquiry. With teacher collaboration time built into the schedules of many schools, Coordinators of Inquiry heading up teacher-directed inquiries and the sharing of stories and ideas taking place through the 180 Days of Learning Blog and the new Delta Learns Portal, I feel we are in an exciting time as we build a culture of collaboration throughout the district.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Connecting (not Protecting) Ideas

The other day, I bumped into a teacher in the hallway and we engaged in a chance conversation. She had just returned from meeting with colleagues from across the school district and it was clear she was bouncing off the wall with enthusiasm as she described some of the possibilities that she now saw for her own classes. More than anything, what stood out to me was the passion and excitement in her voice. She expressed how great it was to exchange ideas with her colleagues, and how excited she was to once again be a learner, exploring new ways of doing things with the support of others.

Her experience is a perfect example of how inspiring it can be share our thoughts with others and how we feed off of other people's energy. It's within networks of trusting relationships where we can share our hunches, ask questions, admit mistakes, seek reassurance and describe our experiences. It's in these environments where we can connect our own hunches to what we learn from others and begin conjuring up innovative ideas. Over time, as we engage in conversations, receive support and reassurance from others, and continue to mull over ideas, we gradually reach the point when we have the confidence to transform our innovative ideas into innovative practice.

So why would anyone want to restrict themselves to learning in isolation?

Who wouldn't want to connect his/her ideas with those of others?

Why would anyone intentionally protect their ideas from others as though they were holding on to some secret intellectual property?

Who wouldn't wish to participate in a professional learning community (PLC)?

Why is it then, that so many educators are learning in isolation?

  • Yes, time can be a factor. Teaching all day with little to no common time to meet definitely presents an obstacle. Although it is a start, even the embedded collaborative planning time that many schools have incorporated into their schedules is insufficient to spur on lasting innovation. Sharing and collective reflection amongst colleagues, whether formal or informal must be a part of the daily learning culture in order for innovative thinking to prosper.

  • Yes, proximity can also be a factor. It's challenging for teachers from different schools and different districts to meet face-to-face. The few times a year that this type of gathering takes place is again insufficient to generate any momentum in teacher learning. And even within many larger schools, teachers tend to converse and share informally with colleagues who teach in the same part of the building. While there's nothing wrong with this, groupthink can quickly occur. This is why it's important to introduce external ideas and perspectives that challenge the thinking of the group.

How do we overcome these obstacles?

Enter social media.

2 years ago I started creating my own Personal Learning Network (PLN). Shortly thereafter, I began blogging as well. At the time, I never would have predicted how significantly the process of blogging and my PLN would have on my learning. I've assembled a collection of some of the most foreword-thinking educators from around the world, individuals with whom I would never have been able to interact or learn with if I hadn't built my PLN. I've shared my learning and reflections with my PLN through my blog. And in return, I've received feedback, connected with learning opportunities, accessed professional development resources and built camaraderie with other educators. In many cases, conversations I've started with my PLN have continued via Skype, telephone and face-to-face. In the same way that the teacher I referenced earlier was excited by the conversations she had with her colleagues, I find myself inspired daily by the conversations I have with my PLN. Sure, a digital connection has its limitations. It doesn't replace my face-to-face conversations but it offers me an ongoing stream of perspectives, hunches, ideas and questions that I can connect my own thoughts to. Conversations through social media may seem somewhat chaotic because of the multiple conversations that are simultaneously going on in public. But, as Stephen Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From indicates, it's in these environments where hunches can collide, and where ideas can mingle and swap.

So, for those of you who still require some convincing, I encourage you to check out the short clip Twitter for Educators, create your own PLN and take advantage of the anytime and anywhere opportunity to connect and collide your hunches and ideas with those of others!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

We are 'Game-Changers'

Over the past few months I’ve been fortunate to have had anumber of chance meetings with former students. Whether it was at the mall, a restaurant, the park or a movie theatre, in most cases it was my former students who made it a point to approach me and say hello. Although our conversations were brief, a few things jumped out at me about my former students.
·     They were relaxed, comfortable and spoke with asense of confidence and pride.
·     They were equally as interested in how I was doing as I was interested in how they were doing.
·     They recalled fond memories from a class I taught them in, moments when I had coached them on an athletic team or simply a random act of kindness I may of extended towards them.
·     They expressed their thanks and appreciation.
In particular, a conversation I had with a former Biology 12 student and basketball player of mine stands out. He mentioned how important it was that I believed in him, both in the classroom and as an athlete.  He recalled, at the time, how much he disliked spending so much extra time outside of class time with me as he tackled what he found to be quite a challenging course.  He said with a smile how much he felt he had accomplished by the end of the course and how much he had learned by persevering. He also described how much it meant to him that I had stuck with him and supported him as a player even when he had a sequence of poor performances on the court.  Now in his early 20’s, he said he regularly applies what he learned about patience,commitment and leadership through our conversations. More than anything he expressed how much he appreciated my effort and how valuable his experiences were in helping him become who he is today.
Truthfully, rather than him thanking me, I should be the one thanking him. As teachers, too often we don’t get to hear what our students go on to become and what role we played in them getting there. These kinds of comments serve as powerful reminders of the impact that we, as educators have on the children we work with. Simply put, we are ‘game-changers’ in the lives of our students!
The manner in which we speak, respond and act with our students has a profound and lasting impact. The effort we invest to create meaningful learning opportunities and the passion we bring to our work is clearly evident and demonstrates to our students how much we care about them and their learning.  In everything we do and every decision we make, we have the opportunity to challenge, motivate and inspire our learners.
So, as things get busy at different points in the school year, and you feel yourself getting consumed by day-to-day details, I encourage you to recall conversations similar to this, reflect on WHY you entered into a career working with children and remember that every interaction you have with your students has the potential to be a ‘game-changer’ for them!

Cross-posted on Delta School District's 180daysoflearning Blog

Saturday, August 25, 2012

WHY Purpose & Passion matter

Why do some people appear to be so passionate about their work?

You know the people I'm talking about. They have excitement in their voices, they are constantly thinking of new ideas, they willingly accept new challenges, they work diligently to see things through, their words are convincing and they are inspiring. Hopefully, this describes YOU!

These passionate people believe not only in WHAT they do for work, but more importantly, WHY they do their work. It's their knowledge of WHY and their sense of PURPOSE that makes their words and actions authentic. They say and do things they truly believe in!

Authenticity is crucial in an organization because it contributes to the building of strong relationships. Strong relationships build trust, and with trust comes loyalty and a sense of belonging. The feeling of belonging, that one's work is valuable, important and part of something bigger, is what inspires people to go beyond the call of duty. "People working together for a common what creates the bond and the camaraderie that brings success." Sinek

This is what schools should feel like!

Passionate educators working together to ensure the best opportunities and best learning for each and every student. Students working together for a common cause and purpose. Adults and students working and learning together.

And just like everyone else, YOU have an important role to play in creating this.

So take some time to ask yourself, "Just WHY is it that I do WHAT I do?"

As you attempt to answer this question and clarify (or re-clarify) your PURPOSE you may begin to question some of your own practices. You may feel uncomfortable but this needs to happen if you are going to align your WHAT with your WHY. It's an important step in gaining (or regaining) your sense of PURPOSE and being able to approach your work with PASSION.

Don't resort to threats such as zeros and late penalties or incentives like bonus marks in order to get your students to take action. These are just attempts to manipulate! Approach your work with PURPOSE and your students with PASSION. Inspire them to take action!

I'd love to hear your WHY's and I encourage you to share with a comment! Thanks.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Novelty or Innovation?


"Real innovation changes the course of industry or even society."   
                                                                                      Simon Sinek
(Yes, it's a day late but I wrote this in the spirit of #leadershipday12.)

In his book, 'Start with Why', Sinek (@simonsinek) references many examples from the business world (Motorola, Colgate, Apple) that we can draw parallels to in education.

As I listen to and participate in conversations face-to-face and through social media I sometimes wonder if our quest to create innovative approaches to learning has somehow resulted in our overemphasis on the shiny new tool. Is it good to be a trailblazer and be on the leading edge of a new approach to teaching and learning? Of course! However, we should also strive for our new approaches to lead to lasting improvements for all learners.

The newest laptop, the most recent version of the iPad...these are examples of shiny tools with added features, but in short order they will all be replaced. It wasn't long ago that the first iPad was being introduced and now people have the iPad 3, equipped with new features, in their hands. When it comes to added features, Sinek writes, "They are added in an attempt to differentiate, but not reinvent." So the question to ask before investing big dollars in the latest technology is whether the tool will help the teacher 'reinvent' education for today's learners or simply be a temporary engagement 'fix'  that learners will become bored of once the technology is replaced?

I'm as guilty as anyone else of being dazzled by the most recent shiny tool. I enjoy the flexibility of working from my iPad, MacBook or smartphone, depending on where I am and what I plan to do. But, it's not the shininess of the tool that has captured my long term attention. Instead, over the past few years these tools have supported my shift to become a globally connected learner. On a daily basis my network of educators exposes me to new ideas, challenges my thinking and inspires me! Is the technology itself engaging? For a while it was! But what keeps me coming back to these tools is that they have helped accelerate my learning. In other words, the way in which I am learning is the focus of my shift and the tools are simply supporting this shift.

In schools, we need to be approaching investments of time, energy and money with similar thinking. We're better off encouraging innovations in pedagogy that can be accelerated through the use of new technology instead of focussing on the learning of a new technology without a shift in pedagogy. Supporting teachers in their learning of new pedagogies such as inquiry-based learning or project-based learning, that can incorporate and be accelerated by technology, will lead to lasting advances in teacher and student learning. We should be supporting teachers' attempts to transform their students into active learners who are proposing questions, seeking answers and creating solutions to their own problems. And if their students' learning can be accelerated by becoming globally connected and they can share their learning by having access to creative presentation tools then we should be investing in the technology that allows them to do so.

While simply investing in the latest tools and training teachers to use the tool may lead to temporary improvements in teacher and student engagement it will not magically lead to a pedagogical shift. Consequently, teachers and students will likely revert to traditional forms of teaching and learning when the novelty of the tool dies down.

New frameworks for learning will demand our investments in technology. Investments in technology won't demand new frameworks for learning!

Monday, August 13, 2012

First WHY, then WHAT!

I am currently reading Simon Sinek's (@simonsinek) book, 'Start with Why - How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action'. In it, he stresses 'that people don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.' This has got me thinking a lot about how this applies to teachers, students and how students don't buy WHAT teachers do, they buy WHY they do it.

Consider Sinek's ideas in the classroom. Telling students WHAT to do (or even HOW to do it) isn't enough on its own to generate long term motivation. Instead, teachers who communicate WHY...the values and beliefs inherent in WHAT they are asking students to do are more likely to inspire long term action on the part of their students.

"When we communicate from the outside (WHAT) in, when we communicate WHAT we do first, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information, like facts and features, but it does not drive behaviour. But when we communicate from the inside (WHY) out, we're talking directly to the part of the brain that controls decision-making, and our language part of the brain allows us to rationalize those decisions."  Sinek

As educators we must be mindful of this. We communicate to students a lot about WHAT challenges will look like and HOW they can go about accomplishing them. The WHAT involved in any particular challenge may interest and engage a certain group of students but it likely won't interest all students and definitely won't contribute to any lasting engagement. If our goal is to engage students in meaningful tasks, we must communicate the WHY! For learners, understanding the WHY is what creates the meaning in a task.

"We're drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us. Those whom we consider great leaders all have an ability to draw us close and to command our loyalty."  Sinek

In the classroom, we are the leaders! Our ability to consistently motivate, inspire and convince students to do what is asked of them comes in large part from whether we communicate the reason(s) WHY we do WHAT we do! Our WHY'S should include explanations such as 'caring about students', 'wanting what is best for them in the present and their futures' and 'doing what is in their best interest'! Of course, these are not words we can say just once and expect they will believe. We must remind them of our beliefs and convince them through our actions! It is through our consistent words and actions that we tap into our students' emotions and build the loyalty and trust we all hope to create with our students. Once we've established our students' trust and loyalty, they will go beyond our expectations and agree to challenges even when they know they may not be to their liking.

Each of us can recall stories of specific students who truly seemed to work for us, regardless of their ability, the level of challenge or their fondness for a task. They are great examples of students who obviously bought into WHY we do WHAT we do! Through consistently supportive words and actions we demonstrate how much we care about our students. Once we establish trust and loyalty with them, they appear even better, more committed students. They consistently complete tasks when assigned to them, follow through on instructions and embrace challenges even when they know it will require considerable effort. Rather than questioning the logic behind completing such difficult challenges, their rational brains generate reasons to justify WHY they should embrace these challenges.

People may refer to all this as building rapport while others may call it fostering relationships. Most importantly, they both rely on a foundation of trust and loyalty that has been established by teachers who emphasize WHY before WHAT!

So the next time you catch yourself describing to students WHAT they are about to do, I urge you pause and consider whether you have emphasized WHY they should do it!

Here is clip of Sinek's TEDx Talk.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fruitful Reflections on Learning

Earlier this week, I ventured to a local blueberry farm to pick some blueberries. What a great day to have been outside. It wasn't easy picking today as the farmer sent us out to a section of the field that had obviously already been picked over. Nonetheless, it offered me lots of time for reflection.

In my previous post I also wrote about perseverance. Let me tell you, picking blueberries definitely tested my perseverance. The berries were harder to find than usual and the plants were short, which meant for lots of crouching and kneeling. My knees ached, my shoulders were sore and there were a number of times where I felt like calling it a day and simply buying some ready-picked berries from the stand. But I had committed to picking a boxful and I wasn't going to leave until I had finished. Now, what is the connection to education? When students arrive at reasonable and manageable challenges, we must demand they persevere to the point of completion. On the other hand, we must not criticize their lack of perseverance when they lack the skills and ability necessary to complete certain challenges.

I observed blueberries of all different colours. sizes, shapes and other unique characteristics. Some were very ripe and barely required my helping in falling off the bush. Others were nowhere near ripe and even with a gentle tug resisted falling off the bush. Again, how does this relate to education you ask? Each of our students is unique in his or her own special way. And much like berries, each of them matures and develops at his or her own pace. As educators, it is our responsibility to judge each student's development and gently pull them on to new challenges when the time is right.

Look Beyond the Obvious
Initially, it was discouraging not to find berries very easily. But I quickly learned that when I took a moment to look under some branches and peel back some leaves that there were many ripe berries to be found. I believe this is another important lesson for each of us who works with children. Rather than making judgments and assumptions about children based on what we see them demonstrate on the surface, it's important that we make the effort to get to know our students, find out who is truly behind the eyes we see on a daily basis and recognize each student's individual abilities and potential.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Perseverance & Resilience - A Responsibility

Ask teachers to describe some of the concerns they have for their students and it's quite likely they'll begin by describing specific portions of their course that students find more challenging than others. They may refer to students who consistently fail to complete work, are unprepared for tests, appear distracted by other interests or are very much disengaged. The list of concerns and frustrations can go on and on.

I often hear teachers compare the students of today with students of the past and claim that our present students 'just aren't the same as students were in the past'. They claim kids today simply aren't as responsible and lack perseverance and resilience in the face adversity or challenge.

I cannot deny the importance of students developing a sense of responsibility, perseverance and resilience. These are important qualities for students to develop and take with them into adulthood. However, some questions I'm pondering are:

  • Is our assertion that students would be more successful if they demonstrated more responsibility, more perseverance and more resilience simply an excuse for us not to examine and be critical of our practices?
  • Are we 'forcing' students to persevere through their learning when we should be looking for ways to engage them more in what we're asking them to learn?
  • Is increased responsibility, perseverance and resilience the answer for some of our most vulnerable learners?
  • What are 'we' doing to create an environment where students can develop personal responsibility, perseverance and resilience?

These are obviously big questions. Not ones that can be answered in one blog post. For the purpose of this post I'm going to focus on our assessment practices and how they may impact what we observe in our schools.

If you were a student who struggled to achieve learning mastery because the pace was too quick for you, the content was too difficult for you or you were lacking the skills to accomplish a task, what actions do you think you would demonstrate? To start with, you'd probably struggle to meet deadlines.
But if you took your teacher up on his/her flexible timelines, and sought out his/her assistance in helping you learn the necessary skills and knowledge, great! Your teacher would probably compliment you on how your commitment and handwork led to your achievement!

But, what if your teacher stuck to rigid deadlines, didn't 'insist' you come in for extra help and assigned you zeros when you failed to complete work on time? You'd probably get discouraged, your confidence would be deflated and gradually you'd probably resign yourself to failure. Over time, you'd likely appear disengaged. Your teacher might describe you as lacking initiative, lazy or as someone who gives up too easily. And just imagine if you'd been enduring these struggles for the many years you've attended school. Of course the lack of success would leave you feeling beaten down and you'd be far more likely to wave the white towel at the first sign things weren't going well! So while you'd have heard many people tell you that if you just 'worked harder, stayed up-to-date and learned from your mistakes' you'd be successful, you'd find it much harder to do so because the odds were stacked against you.

So if we insist on rigid timelines for the submission of work and apply punitive measures (zeros, late penalties) when students fail to submit work on time, what more can we expect to see other than seemingly irresponsible students who lack perseverance and resilience?

Is it really 'right' for us to be critical of our students and insist they will ALL be successful if only they were more responsible, perseverant and resilient? Or, do WE also need to look ourselves in the mirror and examine whether our assessment practices are enabling students to become more responsible, perseverant and resilient?

Please take a moment to read through the short list below and reflect on your own assessment practices. If you feel you could do more in any of the following areas as part of your daily routine as an educator, then I encourage you to make the shift.
  • Provide 'flexible deadlines' to meet the needs of the range of learners you teach. (I'm not suggesting you eliminate deadlines!)
  • 'Insist' that students see you for help outside of regular class time when you notice they are lagging behind or struggling in a particular area.
  • Abolish '0'! Communicate with your students. Ask them 'why' they didn't complete their work, insist that they do so and if necessary, insist they do so in your presence so you can offer support and troubleshoot their mistakes.
  • Involve parents in the conversation early on! Describe what you're observing in class, what their child needs to do in order to be successful and how you are supporting their child in achieving these goals.
And yes, I do realize that if you embark on any of these shifts in your practice, it may not be easy. It will require some intentional planning, hardwork and likely some adjusting as you reach some challenging moments and possibly some adversity. But if you commit to the shift, please stick to it. After all, isn't it our RESPONSIBILITY to do what's in the best interest of our students? And shouldn't we model the same PERSEVERANCE and RESILIENCE we demand of our students when things don't go perfectly?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Assessment Confessions & Apologies

Let me begin by making some confessions. When I started my teaching career 16 years ago as a Science teacher, I wanted students to believe that every class was important. So what I did on most days was assign work that counted for marks. I marked a lot of assignments, I entered a lot of numbers into spreadsheets and I frequently updated students with their marks. I sometimes assigned zeros when students failed to submit work and I sometimes assigned late penalties when students submitted work late.  This system seemed to work for a good majority of my students. My most motivated students appeared diligent about completing high-level work and most others seemed to comply to and complete a reasonable amount and level of work. Unfortunately, at least one group of students for whom this approach didn't seem to work for was my struggling learners...those who often appeared to lag behind. The other question that I now realize I should have asked is 'what was motivating my students to learn?'

Fast forward to just over a week ago and I had the opportunity to participate in an online panel discussion using Google+ and share my perspective on the 'no zeros' policy that has recently caught the attention of educators and the general public. While I don't consider myself to be an 'expert' on this topic, the chance to join the panel of Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer), Tom Hierck (@UMAKADIFF), Joe Bower (@joebower) and Lorelie Lenaour (@LLeanaour) and respond to questions from a PLC organized by Rose Pillay (@rosepillay1) proved to be an excellent learning experience for me. I'd like to thank Rose for inviting me to participate and for challenging me to further clarify my thoughts and ideas on this high profile subject.

In the days following our discussion I have had the opportunity to reflect on my previous assessment and grading practices. I now feel I owe many of my former students some apologies.

I apologize if...

I assigned you a 'zero' when you failed to submit work.
A 'zero' signifies that you knew 'nothing' about the topic in question. If it really was the case that you knew 'nothing' about a given topic after I worked with you, then the person who should have received the 'zero' is me. After all, it was my job to help you learn. Each time you failed to fully complete work on time, I should have asked you 'why?' instead of assuming you didn't care, couldn't be bothered or forgot.

I discouraged you from learning or provided you an excuse not to learn.
If you had truly tried, struggled to understand a concept and consequently failed to submit work, receiving a zero would have been very discouraging. Instead of incenting you to continue trying, I likely demotivated you by signalling to you that you were unable to learn 'on time'. And at some point, when your discouragement contributed to your disengagement, I provided you the ultimate excuse not to continue learning. You probably told your friends and parents that there was no point in completing the work because I had already assigned you a '0'. I should have provided more flexible timelines and more opportunities for you to demonstrate that you could meet the learning outcomes.

If I didn't make learning mandatory for all of you, all the time.
When I witnessed you failing to complete work, I shouldn't have allowed you to walk away without insisting that you learn. Whether it meant spent additional time during class or outside of class, I should have sat with you, supported you and demanded that you learn.

I emphasized point-gathering rather than learning.
So many of the tasks I assigned you had marks attached to them. Each time I told you how many marks each assignment was out of and explained how to achieve those marks, I shifted the emphasis to point-gathering, not learning. In doing so, I used grades as a motivational tool to encourage you to complete work and not to communicate your progress towards learning outcomes as I should have. In some cases I may have extinguished your genuine passion and inspiration for learning and turned you into a desperate and competitive point accumulator. Instead of spending so much time marking your work with numbers, I should have spent the time providing descriptive feedback so that you would have known what and how to improve. This would have shifted our conversations towards 'learning'.

I assigned you an inaccurate grade.
Each 'zero' I assigned for work you didn't submit, was invalid, inaccurate and contributed to a distorted representation of what you actually knew. The zeros may have said more about your work habits and less about your ability to meet some of the learning outcomes. Needless to say, the grade I assigned you was likely a confusing combination that reflected your work habits and your ability to meet the learning outcomes. 

I made you feel like you were being judged and ranked.
Far too often and far too quickly I assigned numbers to your work. I know you compared numbers with your classmates and determined where your mark ranked within the class. For some of you, achieving a  high rank in the class became your motivation (which it shouldn't have) and for others, knowing you consistently ranked towards the lower portion of the class must have been extremely discouraging. Simply put, school should not be about surviving punitive grading practices. It should be about LEARNING!