Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mastery is a Myth

We need to challenge individuals by continuously raising the learning bar- mastery in learning is a myth.

Learning is continuous growth fueled by wonderment leading to discovery.When we place arbitrary benchmarks on any learning continuum, and then deem one on the high end of the continuum to be mastery, we do a disservice to learning. The most profoundly intelligent among us are those who understand implicitly that they have everything to learn. The term mastery by definition connotes exactly the opposite of this idea...
-mastery [ˈmɑːstərɪ]
n pl -teries
1. full command or understanding of a subject
2. outstanding skill; expertise
3. the power of command; control
4. victory or superiority
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
With the exception perhaps of definition number two, mastery in the context of learning seems to connote control, command, power and superiority; elements contrary to the idea that no matter how much we think we know, pushing the parameters of discovery requires curiosity, humility and the perspective that there are no limits to how much we can learn.

There are no objective definitions of failure, therefore there should be no objective definitions of success. In learning, mastery is a myth.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What you see isn't always what you get...

The question is iconic... "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Perhaps there are those of the opinion that we ask this question in school too early, and maybe even too often adding stress to the minds of young people who have enough on their plate just handling the pressures of school. The fact remains, however, that all children will do something when they grow up requiring the unique skills and abilities they develop throughout their lives, and teachers play an important in this development.

Thinking of this development as each child's story is one way to approach our challenge to support and nurture it. We start hearing from our writing teachers very early in school that the best writing comes from our own experiences. What if our students began documenting their learning stories in kindergarten, and continued to write them all the way through to graduation? I mean actually writing them down. The story would read and look differently over time, but that's what we would intend to happen.

For our students, these stories would be a meta-reflective, continuously evolving assessment of where they've been, where they are and where they want to go in life and school; their hopes and dreams would jump off the page like postcards predicting the future. For their teachers, these stories would be the assessment lens we use to gaze at our students strengths, glance at their weaknesses and analyze where we think we can support them in writing the next chapter. If authentic assessment is that which carefully considers the perspective of the learner while striving to make learning relevant and engaging, then I can't think of an easier way to tap the private logic of kids than simply asking them to tell us their stories, from their point of view.

Simply sharing our student's stories, celebrating them, using them as catalysts for personalized learning and competency development is an opportunity teachers should leverage in support of each one of them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

21st Century? Let's Just Call it Contemporary Teaching and Learning...

I don't write a lot about technology in education, but it is a prominent aspect of my professional development. I learned some years ago that the best way to learn in the context of professional development is to do the background work required to provide professional development for others. I did just that at the recent Alberta Technology Leaders in Education Conference (ATLE) 2010 in November. It's hard to believe I hadn't heard about this conference, and right in my backyard. Anyway, when I did hear about it via Twitter, I jumped at the opportunity to propose a session- Insights on Initiating a Technology Integration Game Plan from the Ground-Up.

My session was very-well attended and I was pleased with the dialog that it generated. I formatted my presentation in the form of a workspace; a style I'm using more and more often. I appreciate the collaborative element work spaces provide, and I think of this sort of presentation as an "open source" offering... when I'm done with my rant, those who attended can do whatever they want with it. The link is theirs to use however they want. They can even do the presentation themselves if that's what works for them. I'm learning that to be truly collaborative, (and my experience at ATLE 2010 confirmed this for me once again,) I have to let go of what I believe is a natural tendency of teachers to protect "their" stuff. If what I have to say helps a colleague advance their practice, I encourage them to leverage my message in their own way for their own purpose.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend much of the rest of the conference as a result of other responsibilities and commitments, so my learning was limited to what I discovered while preparing my presentation. My school is on a technology integration learning curve funded through the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI). Near half-way through our technology integration action research project, we've learned a great deal as a staff, and I've learned a tremendous amount personally as a leader within the project, mostly by making mistakes.

One of my larger epiphanies has surrounded the term 21st Century Learning. I'm not fond of this term. I have thought about this a great deal, and I've come to the conclusion that contemporary kids don't need to be told they are learning in the 21st Century... they just are. To me learning in the 21st Century, when boiled down to a core element is really just about change; not change as in a desired change of state from what is not good to what is, but rather change as a constant. This is how I've learned to frame change in contemporary teaching and learning. The world is shrinking and growing at the same time. This bit of irony continues to fascinate me. Technology creates accessibility among people around the globe, connecting them in affordable and efficient ways never before possible; our world is shrinking. At the same time, these networks and connections allow us exposure to new cultures, ideas and knowledge previously inaccessible; our world is expanding. This is an awesome shift.

As I stood and spoke with my audience during ATLE 2010, it struck me that much of the professional development we do in education fits the "change as moving to a desired outcome or state" paradigm. My session was contextualized as a primer for building a technology integration plan from scratch, and when I asked participants where they were at on the tech integration spectrum, most indicated they  arrived at a place where technology integration was evident. There was one lady though who asked me before I started who the target audience was. I explained that my initial plan for the session was to provide some insights for colleagues who were just getting started, but as I worked to prepare the session in the weeks leading up to ATLE 2010, I realized that the process of change, (in this case, change in the way we approach and utilize technology in schools,) is perpetual. Authentic change doesn't end because once we get to the state we desire, it's time to change again; that's just the nature of change within contemporary teaching and learning.

I told the lady that my session was for anyone who had an open-mind and a willingness to think deeply about the role of technology in schools, and more importantly, how teachers should be continuously upgrading and refining their technology skills and perspectives. She stayed, and participated in the back channel too. She engaged, and that made me happy.

So in retrospect maybe I should have called my session "Approaching Technological Change in Contemporary Teaching and Learning" instead, because that's what it ended up being. Imagine that, my approach changed to fit the context of my learning and what I wanted to share with my colleagues... maybe I am becoming a contemporary teacher and learner.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Take a pass on yelling uncle..."

I came across this awesome Nike ad while attending the Alberta Lacrosse Association Annual General Meeting this fall. Kyle Miller, a world champion field lacrosse player, showed it at the beginning of his keynote presentation to the AGM. Kyle's resiliency story is one of character, perseverance and courage, and it was an honor to hear him tell it. After learning about Kyle's story, it was very clear why he chose this particular video as an opener. Resilience is something Kyle Miller understands implicitly, and this ad isn't about anything if it's not about resiliency.

"Only the strong will survive" ... the theory of evolution indeed. The theory of competition... "The strong aren't immune to getting their asses kicked." Every athlete knows this. I've been talking a lot lately with anyone interested about change as continuous improvement as opposed to a finite change of state. Athletes know implicitly that the variables affecting their performance on any given day are infinite. They know that there are two sides to every competition and they line up to play the game to find out which side will be stronger... and both have to believe in their hearts that they will be the one. They do whatever they can to prepare for that game to the best of their ability, but without really knowing what the outcome will be. They have a challenge, and they prepare for it as thoroughly and professionally as possible considering the infinite variables at play. When they lose, the harder these gamers fall, the faster they bounce back to play again after dusting themselves off and adjusting their game plan. They "take a pass on uncle," and teachers should too. Teachers can learn so much  in attempting to understand and adopt the athlete's perspective toward challenge.

Take some time to reflect on that. Passion, dedication, fortitude, commitment to purpose; all critical elements of a resilient person. If we intend to nurture resilient students, teachers must strive to possess these qualities so we can reflect them back toward our students. In doing so we become alternate mirrors reflecting positive and encouraging images about what the future has to offer; one where things never stop getting better and better as long as we are committed to the principle of change as continuous efforts to improve, as much as possible, despite the odds stacked against us. Change will happen despite what we do to try and control it... we need to embrace it and work with it; never say uncle on behalf of our students.

A new day is a new game and an opportunity to adjust our game plan to reflect what we think should be done to make that day better than the one before it... continuous improvement.

Teachers... get in the game.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Perspectives on Change in Contemporary Teaching...

Recently the "tone" of my blog was called into question. Before this I can say with absolute honesty that I had given precisely zero thought to the tone I wanted to project from this thinking and writing project of mine. It's not complicated... I have always kept a journal, but the value of sharing my thoughts within the realm of education and the social sciences with people around the world was too enticing not to experiment with. This guy's blog is an action research project designed to idea-tap with anyone who's interested in engaging the conversation... and the conversation never stops in my world- it's ever-changing. That's it.

I don't have an agenda, nor do I intend for this blog to take on a tone. It's an organic project going in a bunch of directions because that's where the conversation leads me. There is no intentional tone. It's a free-flowing place stemming from my belief that change is a constant, not a variable. Trying to manipulate change is a slippery slope in my opinion. Accepting change as a natural process that will happen despite our efforts to control it is the more interesting path. It just keeps leading us around the next bend, and that's exciting to me. I like change; I thrive on it, and I think this perspective benefits me as a teacher and learner.

In today's teaching and learning environments things move so fast; it's hard for teachers to keep up with the social, emotional, political and pedagogical issues. Contemporary (aka 21st Century teaching- a term I'm not fond of,) teaching and learning is not about technology; it's about change. Change is the most pressing challenge in teaching and learning, and also our most brilliant opportunity. I am growing increasingly wary, however, about how some of those invested in education (and virtually everyone seems to have something to say,) perceive change.

There is such a dichotomous aura surrounding the principle of change. We have the old way of doing things, and then there is the new, "better" way that we should aspire to, (according to those who believe strongly that their better way is the only better way.) These change realities as perceived by the opinion and lobby behind them originate from any number of angles, and may or not be properly informed, researched or field-tested. We view change as something that needs to happen before our desired state is achieved. The question begs; what is our desired state?

Let's assume that any given change resulted in an improved educational reality. Does this mean that new reality as framed by a change can be crossed off the list so we can move on to changing the next undesired reality? In my mind this is a grossly unproductive way to view change. Wayne Gretzky is the best hockey player that ever played the game. Interestingly enough he was also the first guy on the ice at every practise, and the last guy to leave. In athletics we understand that change is best framed as perpetual improvement, not as changing realities as we seem to contextualize and understand change in education.

We've created such a frenzy around changing desired educational realities. We've even begun to stratify the process and the people within it. Terms like "edupreneur" and "change agent" are floating around out there to describe those who "get-it" more than the rest of us, as if they are change Jedi's... brave and wise warriors fighting on our behalf to make education somehow better. This is not good. Any true change, positive or negative, has to permeate a culture to be sustained. Creating change  hierarchies among educators is exactly the opposite of widespread cultural change. The kind of change we should be talking about in education is cultural change, not changes of state. We need to contextualize change as the perpetual process of doing things better, differently and with more creativity. Once the teacher culture gets this simple principle we will begin to see the organic, creative and fluid environment that is all-of-a-sudden able to reflect the broader global society of the 21st Century.

So let me define the tone of my blog. Wait a minute... I can't. I can't because on any given day I hope it reflects the best thoughts I have in a variety of change (improvement) contexts, and even more importantly those that are shared with me by my network of colleagues that couldn't care less about forcing absolute realities. I can't predict the future, but by accepting change as a constant and quantum element of my role as a teacher and learner, I will be ready to accept it and do my best to flow with it.

There are no perfect realities, but I can fit perfectly in any reality I'm willing to perceive openly and with a constant eye toward improving it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Personal Paradigm Shift in the Context of Inclusion...

For a period of eight years I taught within segregated special education environments designed to address the needs of socially/emotionally and behaviorally challenged middle and high school students. When my journey began I was a full-fledged believer in segregated teaching and learning. My perspective was simple... if even one child felt excluded in an "inclusive" environment, could we really call it an inclusive environment?

Ours was a highly specialized educational environment supported by massive amounts of funding designed specifically to nurture a sense of belonging and purpose for our students, but it wasn't long before I started to question the legitimacy of what we did. Don't get me wrong; we did really great work, and we had visitors every month from far and wide seeking clarity about what we did for our students and how we did it because they wanted to emulate our effort. However, as the program evolved, I started wondering why what we did couldn't be transferred to any school context. As I understand now, the awareness I was developing was regarding the fact that no matter how "included" our students felt within our environment, we simply could not deny that they were excluded simply by virtue of their enrollment in our segregated/congregated environment. 

I really started to question whether what we were doing for kids were the most advantageous and least intrusive interventions possible. I reflected on my perspective toward disabilities and challenges in learning, and I began to consider the concept that perhaps in some ways we are all disabled and challenged; that the continuum of social, emotional, cognitive and behavioral issues affects all of us- so why would we segregate particular groups of individuals? Are we not all traveling on a learning journey that is unique and personal... like our learning fingerprint?

These questions plagued me, and I lost sleep. My perspective began to change. I thought a great deal about Occam's Razor and how we could simplify the process of helping our kids so that the process could be extended to any teaching and learning environment, with some customizing for each particular context. Then I met Nan Henderson and the thoughts I was dancing around in my head began to organize. What I was looking for wasn't a strategy, a program or another source of support for these kids; it was simply a philosophy... the philosophy of resiliency. It's free and it literally touches every element of learning, and teaching. To me, resiliency is the essence of inclusion and it's all about perspective- the lens we look through everyday in our effort to provide a caring environment in our schools and classrooms.

Looking at challenge (cognitive, social, emotional, behavioral) as opportunity and celebrating strengths within as asset-based model are benchmarks of a resiliency-based school culture. Every student is challenged in his or her own individual way... it's imperative that teachers learn what these challenges are so we can re-frame them as learning opportunities to be measured against themselves, not on a curve that's externally applied. Providing appropriate and effective strategies to support the teaching and learning process addressing these challenges can take many forms, and not all of them requiring extra funds. In its simplest form, supporting a resiliency-based school culture is as easy as wrapping a layer of love and caring around a student, and it takes only one person to do that at a minimum... a person that is so often a teacher.

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout. 
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in! 
Edwin Markham- "Outwitted"

I've created a workspace addressing the philosophy of resiliency in schools, and I invite collaborative contributions to the space from anyone who has questions or wants to contribute to the positive development of this idea. I used it to present a session at this year's Alberta Teacher's Association Special Education Conference. Please visit the 'Presentations' page at and share your thoughts.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I feel like a first year teacher again!

Like me, my wife is a teacher. Tonight she said something that really made me think. She took a transfer to a new school this fall; a school with very exciting things happening. Her new school is a freshly re-tooled science and technology focused school, and on top of that, changed from a middle school to a newly minted kindergarten - eighth grade school. Suffice to say there is a very positive buzz surrounding these changes, and the staff are working very hard to build a new culture and put the pieces together.

Amidst all the change in her new school environment, and as she was preparing for her day tomorrow, my wife said "I feel like a first year teacher again!" ...what an awesome statement! If you are an experienced teacher and you feel like this, good on you because it means you are taking risks, trying new things and moving your practice into anxiety inducing realms, but in a good way. Not to state the obvious, but learning doesn't stand still, and neither should we as teachers. If you feel a little uneasy about what you're doing this year, I'm proud of you because you're not standing still; you're moving your teaching and learning practice forward and your students will be the benefactors of the effort.


Effective Leadership- Got Humility?

Effective leadership is about people- always. Without the faith of your followers, a leader you are not.
If you fail to honor your people,
They will fail to honor you;
It is said of a good leader that
When the work is done, the aim fulfilled,

The people will say, "We did this ourselves.

Lao Tzu, , 604-531 B. C., Founder of Taoism, Tao Te Ching

I can't think of a simpler concept in leadership, or one that would be considered more practical and authentic. In the measured contexts of our everyday lives as leaders, all teachers, whether they like it or not, are called upon to serve; primarily our students, but also each other, our student's parents and the learning community we are an integral part of. In humbly putting the needs of others ahead of our own as leaders, we honor them. The appreciation we receive as a result pays dividends as our followers are empowered to feel strong and supported in their important work. I strive as a leader to let good people do their work with my full endorsement, intervening only when they seek my assistance.

A former superintendent in my district said once that as a leader, you stand in front when things need defending and in back when they need celebrating... servant leadership in a nutshell. Servant leadership requires a good dose of humility to be effective, and the humility of great leaders resonates with people and inspires them to also be humble and supportive in their own leadership; to do whatever it takes to push others upward and hold them in high regard... to choose to see what's right with people.

Ben and Rosamund-Beth Zander refer to it as "giving people an A" in their book, "The Art of Possibility;" a game changer for me professionally and personally. The authors emphasize that, "giving an A is a fundamental, paradigmatic shift toward the realization that all is invented." Alas, all is invented. The lens we look through is ours alone, and it affects the way we see every other person, and every interaction we have with them. We don't even have to know what others perspectives are to initiate an open and collaborative exchange with them; we just have to know that they all have one, and most importantly, be willing to listen to it.

The humble leader thinks deeply about perspective and how it affects the equilibrium of interdependency critical to success within any functional relationship. We have to truly listen to our followers; to put aside our bias and personal perspectives to consider that there may be other ways, perhaps better ways to move our organizations forward productively and positively. The Zander's understand that when we give people an A we can be open to a perspective different from our own, For after all, it is only to a person to whom you have granted an A that you will truly listen, and it is in that rare instance when you have ears for another person that you can truly appreciate a fresh point of view.

Even the most cynical among us are susceptible to this approach. Ben Zander explains a paradoxical element to giving people an A when he says that "a cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again." So let's not disappoint our people; let's give them all an A and strive, as the Zander's suggest, to speak to their passion, not their cynicism.

To a person, everyone of us has been shaped and formed by the variables of time and experience, and as a result we have our own personal reality tunnels; those perspectives that guide our judgments, our actions and our relationships. Humble leaders understand this, and even more importantly they understand that the private logic within all of us will affect the dynamics of every interpersonal relationship we are challenged by.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Embrace the struggle, but don't do it alone...

flickr CC photo via Bill Brine

"Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean."  -Ryunosuke Sator

Teachers, you're going to struggle this year... we all do. If you don't, perhaps you need a reality check. For teachers, our contextual struggle can be positively framed as the perpetual quest toward better ways to do what we do. Teaching is as fluid and non-static an effort as any, perhaps more than any, and this is a very good thing. When viewed through the purposeful lens, the intangible nature of what we do is exactly what makes it so challenging and interesting- a craft that allows for infinite degrees of creativity and innovation.

Embrace the struggle; seize the opportunity to exist in a teaching and learning environment that welcomes change as a constant, not a variable, but by all means understand also that like many things, when compared to acting alone, collaboration is the key to unlocking creative potential that you may not individually realize.

For whatever reasons teachers have been a fairly solitude group of people for a long time. Perhaps the structure of traditional teaching and learning is to blame as we enter our classroom domains each year comfortably protected by the boundaries of the four walls that surround us... but that's changing. Interdependent networks of forward-thinking educators are discovering the immense possibilities in web-based interaction. Since discovering the power of on-line collaborative networks, my personal learning tribe has grown in the last ten months to incorporate people and their ideas I never dreamed possible.

As we move education forward I think this trend will leave behind anyone who isn't willing to at least lurk in the new paradigm of collaborative, web-based professional interaction until they are comfortable enough to be involved directly. It's ironic that the comfort we used to feel within the boundaries of our secluded classrooms of the past will be replaced by feelings of discomfort and disconnect in classrooms that remain isolated and closed. Teachers who refuse to capitulate to the new cooperative paradigm will undoubtedly find their job increasingly difficult and blocked, and this resistance to work interdependently with others will be the downfall of many teachers to the detriment of their students progress and joy of learning. The problem extends beyond the specifics of resisting the efficacy of web-based teaching connections; resistance to collaborate with others will negatively affect every aspect of the modern classroom.

Reliance on outmoded and under-stimulating pedagogy will exacerbate the problem for disconnected, solitary teachers. As connected classrooms move toward more engaging and authentic teaching and learning, they will be left with dissatisfied and bored students. To me, contemporary education provides no alternative in our professional practice to effective collaboration with progressive practitioners who routinely seek innovative and creative ways to connect every part of the teaching and learning process for kids.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thinking differently... really?

It takes courage to truly think differently. It's our natural human tendency to want to belong to a group; we're social beings after all. We're affected in so many ways as members of the groups we belong to, and some not so good for us or the group. As the pull of the group gains strength, it becomes harder for individuals within it to think differently- enter groupthink.

I used to chuckle a few years ago when it was very popular for teens to dye their hair straw blond, you know, like Eminem did. Every time I casually asked these kids why they did that the response was identical... "I want to be different." A quick peek down the corridor of the local mall on any given day during that time revealed literally hundreds of kids with dyed blond hair. I witnessed the same phenomena during my undergrad studies when the grunge-rock scene was pumping out of Seattle at breakneck speed. A glance through any library on campus revealed dozens, if not hundreds depending on the library, of young people being "individuals" by looking exactly like Kurt Cobain in their tattered dress and knotted-up long hair, not having showered for a few days. I'm going to call this mentality fad-eology; a portmanteau meaning a fad that becomes an ideology for the masses of group-thinkers who jump on the bandwagon. We are undeniably and ironically influenced by groupthink on our quest to be "different."

Although it's easy to understand how groupthink happens, and the examples I mentioned are rather harmless to be sure, groupthink can become complex and rather dangerous. Let's say an original and good idea was the source of whatever concept the group is espousing, and it's spread like wildfire. Over time, and amidst the fervor of the growing group and it's idea, scrutiny toward the idea wanes and members cease to be individuals with their own thoughts and perspectives toward it. They are now "idea-assimilated." I'm not sure the original idea can be considered original and good (different) anymore, (in context meaning open, critical and fluid- not static and closed.)

In education we need open, critical and fluid thinking. When once radical positive ideas become mainstream as a result of groupthink influence, the scrutiny is lost and those who dare defy the inertia of the group's idea are shunned and criticized as non-reformist. Hey, let's face it, when compared to groupthink, sometimes doing things conservatively is the most innovative just because so few are willing to acknowledge within the group that their desire for change has clouded their ability to think independently about the original issue- they become "change-addicts" lost in the fervor of the group and blind to the grassroots seed of the issue needing to evolve.

I accept that I will be criticized for my stance on this. I have seldom been caught in the web of groupthink. I question, therefore I am, and that doesn't sit well among group-thinkers. However, those who are willing to receive my questions and thought contributions objectively as I intend them to be more often than not perceive that my motivation stems from a desire to contribute to the improvement of public education, a cause of great importance requiring careful thought. Public education is too important to be influenced by groupthink. Any move to improve the education system should always and without bias be open to the scrutiny of independent thinkers ready to challenge thought, even if this challenge is dare I say, the unpopular and minority point of view.

So my appeal to educators far and wide is to become more open to scrutiny of ideas, especially fad-eology ideas. We need to think differently and objectively, perhaps even more scientifically about improving education. Twitter is such a great forum for broad conversation, so in the interest of creating open dialog around the need for critical and creative thought within the education reform process, why not use the hashtag #thinkdifferently to promote dialog contrary to fad-eology. One group with a hundred thoughts is better than a group of one hundred with one thought.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Flashpoint change...

I don't believe in the flashpoint approach to change in education. I don't think it works in the long-run and it typically creates inordinate collateral damage.

A little context... I do believe that change happens despite what we do or do not do to effect it. Our world is organic, a living system, and our education world is no different. Trying to stay ahead of change in teaching and learning is akin to pulling an already speeding freight train with a big old chain- it aint easy! All this being said, I also believe that committed educational leaders can positively and pragmatically influence change, but it must be done in a systematic, strategic and tempered manner.

When attempting to influence the education system; to contribute meaningfully to improving the teaching and learning process, we need to ensure that our efforts include careful consideration and responsible forms of leadership. This takes time. Call it slow-boil change. On the contrary, flashpoint change represents the antithesis of the slow-boil. It's quick, turbulent and violent affecting a short term change to be sure, but not one that can be sustained. Like a pot of water that heats up too fast, all we're left with is a big mess after the flashpoint boils over.

I'm confronted with what I feel relatively safe saying is a revolutionary perspective toward change in education on behalf of a good number of my professional colleagues. I have written previously about my views on reform vs revolution. Revolution is most-definitely flashpoint change. Reform in my opinion connotes more of the slow-boil characteristics of sustainable change. A slowly boiling pot of water is controlled, it gets the job done and we're left with a result that we intended- no collateral mess. I can't think of anything within education that is so unacceptable and bad for kids that it requires immediate, violent change. When the issue of change takes on a bigger focus than the reason to change, this is not good. We get all fired up and foaming at the mouth over the need to change, all the while losing sight of why the change was important in the first place. This is when creative dissonance turns to disharmonious dissent and it goes nowhere fast.

I support the mission of public education and believe strongly that we have much to be proud of within our system that ultimately exists in the noblest of causes; to support the healthy development of mind, body and spirit in an ever-changing world. No small task. Each of us as educators must value what we do, advocate our cause and remain committed to the perpetual improvement of the system if we are to ensure that kids continue to benefit from the highest quality teaching and learning. Let's face it- we're all in this together.

I'm a teacher and educational leader who loves what I do.  I regularly reflect on my practise and contribute in many ways to the evolution of the education system. What I refuse to do in the interest of slow-boil effective and sustainable change is dishonor the efforts of my teaching predecessors by implying there are elements of the system that require immediate and violent reversal. We've advanced beyond the need for this approach- grossly unacceptable elements of education past like corporal punishment and segregated schools are no longer reality... the time for revolutionary efforts in education have passed. What contemporary education needs now is the ubiquitous will to change as a reality woven into the very fabric of everything we do. Are there aspects of the system requiring improvement? Undoubtedly... but a reflective, responsible and systematic effort is the only type that will get the job done sustainably and convincingly.

Let's take control of change in education. Let's be reflective and thorough in every decision-making process. Let's work together to control slow-boiling changes within our profession and rise above the reactionary, flashpoint perspective to accept that we are all part of a good and eminent institution that can only get better when we take a tempered approach to change.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Define questions; discover answers...

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." - Albert Einstein
Traditional school curriculum defines answers and makes up questions. We need curriculum that defines questions and discovers answers... educators need to think differently. This came to me a while back as I was drifting through different Twitter conversations late one night. There is no exhaustive list of what we can know, but we've artificially created many lists of what we apparently need to know. In order to advance our practise beyond teaching to these lists, teachers would do well to revisit the domain of the question... we need to think differently.

I firmly believe that teachers understand the value of questioning, I'm not suggesting otherwise, but I am suggesting an adjustment to our perspective on questioning would improve our ability to practise teaching. The curriculum we establish in each grade is a great example of how we've become a bit controlling and predictable as professionals- we define the list of what kids should know, and then we make up questions to teach to the lists. I believe that we should state curriculum as questions needing to be answered instead of facts needing to be questioned. I envision curriculum statements not as outcomes to be achieved, but as questions to be answered. Making this change would change the culture of learning from a culture of standards that are exhaustive to a culture of standards that are limitless... limitless learning based on true inquiry, not the artificial inquiry we practise now.

Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing. Albert Einstein
Caveat: I am not an expert. I shudder to think in the context of this post that expertise is even possible. The topic of exceptional teaching and learning is about as fluid a topic that can possibly exist in my humble opinion, and my opinion is what I am stating in this post; take it or leave it. I'm not telling you what to do as educators, or parents for that matter... or even how to do it. I simply want to  strike a chord of thought in you to reflect on as you develop your own perspective toward teaching and learning, and for the record, I don't believe this process ever ends for what parents and teachers should be first and foremost- conscientious learners.

I'm hearing much from my Twitter tribe about "what teaching is," and what defines a good teacher as major elements of the cognitive surplus running wild via the influence of social media. Teachers all have opinions on these points of discussion. We started to form them as undergraduate students in teaching colleges all over the world before we had any clue to an informed position. (As I think back to those days I wonder if it's a good idea to expect pre-service teachers to form a teaching philosophy... maybe it would be better to expose them to the myriad of teaching philosophies that permeate our craft, and let them pick one to start with, then begin to form their own... I digress.)

It seems to me that the entire process of contemporary education depends on what I will call the principle of predetermined principles. The profession of teaching and the process of learning is dependent on what we already claim to know about both entities. I'm not saying this is inherently bad, but it certainly can create some contextual problems as we define good teaching and learning. First-year teachers need a foundation to work from as they enter the profession; they benefit from the principle of predetermined principles as they experiment with different perspectives and ideologies on their way to defining their own. However, if they aren't inclined to question what they're doing and what they're believing constantly, then the context gets diluted. In the worst cases it gets diluted to the point of stagnation. Above all, good teaching and learning MUST include the element of questioning; we have to understand that discovery (learning) is an inquiry-based process, and not something that can have limits placed upon it.

Predetermined principles are important for students too. Humankind has built an incredible base of knowledge over our short history, and we can't discount this as teachers. We know what we know, and that's NOT a bad thing. (I'm growing increasingly disheartened by a stance among educators that appears to want to throw away virtually all previous practise and knowledge as if it were the 'wrong way' of our past to be replaced by the 'right way' of the present.) We need to understand that our past mixed with inquiry in the present will create many 'right' ways to do things in the future.

So here's my contribution to the discussions intending to define teaching and good teachers. (Wow... glad I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this one- Socrates knew this over two-thousand ago.) Teaching is the art of questioning, and it's not simple. Good teaching is nothing different. To me it's defined by the level of proficiency within the art of questioning one has developed. Even more importantly to me, great teaching is developed through a willingness to question not only our students, but ourselves; what we do and how we do it, everyday.

We grow as teaching artisans by using the Socratic method on ourselves in our reflection and review of our own practise. Don't accept your own comfortable place in teaching. Strive to operate in an environment of creative dissonance if you intend to grow as a learner along with your students.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Virtual tribes...

I had a brief Twitter conversation awhile back with George Couros (@gcouros) about the complex interaction between people and the technology we create. George commented that he was reading tweet archives from the International Society for Technology in Education 2010 (ISTE10) Conference, and noticed that very few were about technology.  Instead, many delegates at the conference commented about the human relationships they initiated or renewed. Interesting considering this conference is a massive education technology event.

My contribution to the conversation ended with the comment... "synergy between people and the technology they use creates ideas, collaboration... possibility otherwise unlikely." I have met many who assert that the use of technology in teaching and learning 'depersonalizes' the experience. I am compelled to disagree. As I grow with technology in my teaching and learning, I am finding that the opposite is true. The tribe I call my PLN (personal learning network) has grown exponentially since I started using Twitter a short seven months ago. I have had my mind stretched further than ever, including my time in graduate school. My network of passionate educators hails from all over the globe, and I am collaborating with them in ways never before possible without this simple tech tool.

Shortly after I began using Twitter, I started blogging here at KARE Givers. I have always kept a paper journal of reflections and ideas that cross my mind anyway, and I thought blogging would be a good way to collaborate with those who perhaps share my interest in teaching and learning. I had no idea how beneficial this would become, and I've barely gotten started.

My point is rather simple. Adults do well when they understand the power of inter-dependency. We have passed through the stages of dependence and independence in our lives, and hopefully learned that it's infinitely easier to handle the stresses and responsibilities of adulthood when we have others to count on, (and more enjoyable too.) We are social beings; we appreciate the value and benefits of tribes... it's a very basic element of human nature. Micro-blogging (Twitter) and blogging, two relatively simple technologies, have made it incrementally easier for me to connect with my virtual tribe, and I don't plan on looking back.

Using technology in my professional practise has done the exact opposite of depersonalizing my job; on the contrary, it's brought me closer to other teachers who share my passion for teaching and learning, and allowed me to belong to something so much bigger than myself- a global education reform movement dedicated to the perpetual improvement of the teaching and learning process.

I fail to see any downside to this.

Engaging classrooms "manage" themselves...

 I'm not too sure- do authentic, inspirational classrooms have to be 'managed?' When teachers use the term "classroom management," they generally mean managing behavior in the classroom. I've worked with the most challenging students imaginable from first grade through tenth grade and I have never understood this terminology.

The term management has many different connotations. From, management is defined as:

1.The act, manner, or practice of managing; handling, supervision, or control: management of a crisis; management of factory workers.
2.The person or persons who control or direct a business or other enterprise.
3.Skill in managing; executive ability.

There's a common theme in all three versions of the noun 'management' above. Each connotes an element of control... a word that also has an excessively broad spectrum of connotations. Of course teachers need to be in control, but what does that mean in a classroom context? To me, it's simple- teachers need to be in control of the learning process, and if they do this well, there will be no imminent need to manage student behavior at all because kids will feel so engaged in the process of learning that they won't have any idle time for their thoughts to wander.

Kids, no matter the age, need to feel engaged. They feel engaged in a classroom because the learning activities they are involved in capture their interest; they're fun and they don't feel like a chore to be endured. Teachers can create engaging classrooms in a multitude of ways, and I'm going to begin a new series of posts with this one dedicated to sharing those that have worked for me. They worked for me in classrooms that most teachers will never experience filled with kids who arrived there as the most disengaged students imaginable.

Before working as a middle school counsellor, and now as an elementary school vice-principal, I taught in First Nations communities and behavioral programs for fourteen years. My experiences weren't just career altering, they were life-changing. I wish to share some of my experience with you in the effort to initiate dialog surrounding engaging teaching. There should be no end to the professional conversation surrounding engagement in the learning process... the issue of engagement permeates everything teachers do. Engaging students is arguably our most important responsibility.

Rule of Engagement # 1: Talk to students.
This sounds so simple. Why then do so many teachers not understand this rule? My take is that we get so caught up in the scripted teaching we feel we're expected to deliver that we forget we're teaching young people; people with personalities... strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, talents and challenges that may or may not jive with our scripted teaching usually designed inadequately to address the majority of faceless kids in class- the infamous cohort of kids who supposedly fit the mean. Here's a bit of news for us all- there is no average student in any class anywhere.

Every single child in every single classroom is unique, worth celebrating and needs us to talk to them sincerely and purposefully- not at them with our scripted teacher talk. When we do this we show kids we are serious about building a relationship with them as individuals; that we care and we want to help them be successful. We can't go wrong with this message.

Talk to kids about their strengths, their anxieties, their families, their lives away from school... and about the daily things that just happen. Forging on with the script knowing there are kids not really 'with' you, for whatever reason, is professionally irresponsible... we have to make sure every kid is engaged, and if not, we shouldn't be moving on without them, we should be talking to them about what's bothering them and hindering them from being present and mindful in class.

Talk to kids.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Assessment reform... are we going in circles?

I'm admittedly torn about the assessment thing... I'm left wondering whether opposition to perpetual reform of how teachers assess students is based more on a lack of understanding and poorly communicated strategy than fear or top-down direction to the contrary. Teachers need to find balance between high-quality current assessment practise, and action-oriented efforts to make future practise even better.

At the core of professional, responsible assessment is really strong and meaningful (real-time) communication (feedback) with students. Effective and solidly researched assessment practise (portfolio-based, two-way dialog between teacher and learner... group dialog has a place here as well- and perhaps even peer evaluation) is nothing new. Like many logical and pedagogically sound improvements to what teachers do, when we think we've discovered something new, some immediately and inevitably begin to resist out of ignorance. Seems to me the assessment issue is a black swan- we think we've discovered 'new' and better ways to assess students, and now we're busy aggressively trying to justify them and convince our colleagues that they need to follow our lead and implement the same assessment strategies because they are more effective than those that the "uninformed" utilize.

For decades, teachers have been doing assessment in relatively the same manner- summative, high stakes, 'bell-curved' tests have been the norm for a long time... and that's OK because these were what defined the limits of our understanding about how best to provide useful and positive feedback to students. Few would have predicted we would find better ways to evaluate students, (if the case were otherwise, it would have happened sooner...) but the reality is that today, we know more about how assessment works. Teachers don't have to justify pedagogically sound and responsible assessment, they just need to do it. Simply practising research-based, effective and meaningful assessment of students that surpasses previously-held understanding of what "works" is the best way to communicate best-practise with our colleagues...  morphic resonance will take care of the rest.

Teachers are professionally obliged to perpetually seek improved ways to do everything we do... including assessing students. Even more importantly, we are professionally responsible to share what we discover with others meaningfully, pragmatically and incrementally. The tipping point of assessment reform depends on how well we can display the effectiveness of new ways to evaluate students over time; and it will take time. It will also depend on our avoiding getting stuck in any "new" way of doing assessment. Like our limited perspective and conditioned acceptance regarding traditional forms of student assessment that have permeated our craft for decades, if we were to begin doing assessment differently, and then become resistant to critical analysis leading to even better ways, we'd right back where we started, wouldn't we?

I'm growing weary once again of the dichotomous perspective teachers appear to default toward on so many issues. There's the "old" way of doing something, and then there's the new (right) way according to the person making the claim. Instead of the old vs. new way of doing assessment, I think teachers should simply always be looking for the better way. To deny that this is a good, professional perspective would be ridiculous.

Change doesn't have to delineate right vs. wrong ways of doing things. When viewed as constant improvement, change never ends, and things never stop improving because getting it right simply becomes making it better... everyday. There are no meaningful static goals in the education assessment realm. To be truly striving for excellence, the bar must be continuously inched upward.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pay attention to those who disagree with you...

flickr cc image via mwlguide

"The only things Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music and what we do." Kieth Richards

There are three types of people we all interact with on a daily basis: strangers, acquaintances and friends. We see them at work, at play and often just pass them by as we go about our business. There is a quantum nature to our interactions with others, and we never really know where they will take us as we navigate each day. There are some elements to the relationships we develop that need to be considered carefully if we are to avoid unproductive or perhaps even debilitating interactions with others. One rule of thumb I go by is to simply be aware that strangers dismiss, acquaintances agree and friends question. Please, let me explain...

Strangers are those whom we have no direct connection to. We may sit beside them on the transit, pass them by on the street or perhaps buy something from them, but we don't really communicate with them beyond the artificial surface-level "how are you doing" type of exchange. We interact, then we dismiss each other.

Acquaintances are those whom we have an ongoing connection to. They are our co-workers, friends-of-friends or those whom we see regularly because our daily goings on share a common element. We communicate more regularly with acquaintances, but it doesn't generally advance beyond small talk designed to pass the time without much thought of deeper meaning or more involved dialog. We interact, and just agree with each other... we don't want to think too much.

"Nine out of ten Americans believe that out of ten people, one person will always disagree with the other nine!"
Colin Mochrie

Friends are those whom we have a deeper connection to; they are the inner circle of our tribe. We may not communicate with them regularly, but we never lose our bond with each other. Something in our past has strengthened our relationship to the point where we consider each other as confidants; those willing to listen to us and support us. We interact in deeper more involved ways, and as a result there is occasional conflict involved... but this is good. This is what makes friends so much more valuable to us than acquaintances or strangers.

Friends are those who will call us out when we are on the wrong track. Friends are those who don't let us get away with anything- they hold us to a higher standard. The most important role of a friend is to disagree with us. Friends take the time to critically analyze us, and they can because they know us well. They take the time to scrutinize our actions, feelings and words because they care about us and they care what we do. Even if we become annoyed or upset with our friends as a result of their scrutiny, we must remember that they care and that makes them who they are- people who support us by grounding, balancing and questioning our actions feeling and words.

"The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know." Napoleon Bonaparte

Pay attention to those who disagree with you... these people are your friends and they see something in you that you may not see yourself- a person that can be better.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Too much social, not enough media...

OK, I've been thinking about the value of online collaboration lately. For the record, I really, really like #edchat. In fact I am fond of chiming in at a number of Twitter-based online collaborations... #ecosys, #ptchat, #gtchat and more. I appreciate the professional value of these online networks relative to sharing ideas and furthering the improvement of anything to do with teaching and learning... but, there is an issue.

I've been using Twitter to build my cyber-PLN (personal learning network) since late last November, and I'm beginning to notice that occasionally the conversation surrounding teaching and learning becomes imbalanced; too much social and not enough media in social media. Let me explain the context...

'Social' for the purpose of relaying my point of view here will mean, "of the group." 'Media' in kind, will mean, "a means of communication." It's my impression at times when involved in Twitter chats that some people participate more for the social element of it than the media element; primarily to be part of the group. Don't get me wrong; there's nothing inherently damaging about socializing, but when the social environment and the seemingly overwhelming need for some to preserve it, hinders open and honest dialog about the issues being addressed, this means the scales have tipped to create an imbalance between socializing and communicating professionally. I see an increasingly prevalent level of groupthink out there in Twitterland, and it's bothering me a bit. Like Professional Learning Communities (PLC's... we love our acronyms don't we...) my understanding is that the most prominent element of a PLN needs to be learning. If learning isn't happening as the major element of our professional social media interaction, then it's just socializing; again, not inherently bad, but also not productive with regard to becoming a better teacher and learner.

I don't go to professional chats to socialize per se... I go to learn- that's the essence of professional development; the reason I think we all participate via Twitter in the first place- to develop ourselves professionally. Its like those who call going out for a refreshment with coworkers on a Friday after work "team-building"- this is fun for most, and I would even submit that you may get to know your co-workers better as a result, but in the context of team-building, there is no benefit... the function of the team is not strengthened by this activity, hence it's not team-building. If I'm going to involve myself in professional conversation using Twitter (and the group chats that occur there) as my conduit, then I am professionally responsible to do this intellectually and with purpose beyond simply belonging to a group of like-minded people. I love the original version of "Twelve Angry Men"... Henry Fonda's character, Mr. Davis is the only juror in a capital murder case to cast a not-guilty vote for the accused, and he sticks to his guns despite the intense groupthink efforts of the rest of the jury to sway him... a remarkable film broaching human nature in such a visceral way- highly recommended. We all need to be reminded of the Mr. Davis' of the world, and when we're feeling the peer pressure of any group to conform at the expense of our core beliefs just so we can continue to belong in that group, we need to step back and remember our responsibility to be true to ourselves, even if that means disagreeing with the direction the group is pulling us in. We need to think independently first if we are to make a meaningful contribution to any group.

As professionals who use Twitter as a conduit for collaborative idea jamming, we must avoid groupthink. I don't have to agree with you, and you don't have to agree with me... I prefer conversations where agreement is a distant possibility because its dissonance that stretches people's thoughts, not conformity. Through the process of hashing about our theses and antithesis toward that distant possibility called synthesis, we grow ideas; we formulate potential and truly evolve understanding. Many profess to appreciate having their ideas stretched until someone disagrees with them; then their true nature is revealed through defensive lashing out at the contradictory person. We have to get past this tendency to take things personally and strive for a default position that takes an objective point of view toward dissonance; one that posits conceptual growth... the evolution of ideas is impossible without contradiction. Blindly accepting the ideas of any group/cohort/ movement/etc... is a recipe for stagnating ideology... dead-end thinking.

Teachers, lets act objectively and responsibly toward the sharing of ideas and professional collaboration. We can't grow our status as leaders of thought otherwise... we have to be true intellectuals; people who invite contradiction as challenge leading to deeper and fuller understanding... aka knowledge.

Feel free to disagree with me;o)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

You can teach an old dog new tricks...

Although I completely get that our children are growing up in a digital age that is vastly different and more advanced than any other widely accessible technology we have previously seen in society, I am growing weary of the whole "digital citizens/digital immigrants" continuum. Let me tell you why.

We recently bought new net-books for our children. My son is particularly interested in computers, and we are actively encouraging his interest. He is a very smart kid, but the traditional school environment isn't really working for him, so we're working on connecting him with different forms of digital interaction so as he grows perhaps he will migrate toward his aptitude for tech integrated learning. He's super excited about the new blog we're building together, the gaming he's getting involved in and different forms of social media software like Skype, Twitter etc.

This evening, one of the coolest things happened. I've been communicating with my grandfather for years now via Skype. Originally from Saskatchewan, he now lives in Ottawa. My grandfather is an electrician by trade, and worked for years with Saskatchewan Power Corporation, so he has some really strong mechanical understanding and worked with analog computers in his role as an operator with Sask. Power, but it wasn't until I sent him an old HP computer we had replaced about 9 years ago that he began tinkering with digital technology. That's also when we started communicating via Skype. When the kids were babies we used to hold them up in front of the web camera so my grandfather could see them and talk to them. They have grown up with this, and they love to visit with their grampa in this manner. Tonight was the first time my son spoke with his great grandfather on his brand new net-book, and he was thrilled... it was touching for his mom and I to see him get so excited about what he was doing. The happiness on his face as he spoke to his Grampa Woods using this tool that he has always known, but never manipulated personally was obvious.

So here's why I'm weary about the digital native/digital immigrant continuum. This evening I witnessed the joy of two people... a ninety-two year old man, and a seven year old boy... as they manipulated a tech tool to digitally connect with each other. My grandfather was born in 1918. Certainly that must place him in the digital immigrant cohort. Think about it... he has lived to see the evolution of the motor age, the age of flight and the video age. He told me once that when televisions became widely available and he got his first in the 1950's, he wondered if there would ever be a day when he would be able to talk with people on the telephone and see their face on some sort of TV-like screen. Well today he did just that, and on his computer screen were the happy faces of a couple of digital citizens- his great grandchildren.

How cool is that?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Worksheets are to learning as junkfood is to eating...

With special thanks to Lisa Butler (via Twitter @SrtaLisa) for creating this poster, I'd like to further the thoughts behind the quote.

This quote (in the form of a tweet) garnered 22 re-tweets; a record for me;o) The simple message seemed to resonate with people, and I was happy about that. The idea for the quote came to me after visiting two distinctly different grocery vendors on the same day in my home town.

Where I live, people have been enjoying the ambiance of our local farmer's market for over forty years. A stroll down the aisles of this HUGE outdoor market on a sunny Saturday morning... the sights, sounds and smells welcoming you from all sides... is one of my families absolute favorite things to do in spring, summer and fall. It's a multi-sensory experience that just feels right. We eat fresh cooked breakfast there; we sample and buy fresh produce and other natural products like honey and soap; we listen to cultural musicians and we occasionally buy stuff that catches our eyes for the kids, or for our home... there is no end to the supply of unique and interesting clothing, art, nostalgia, furniture, greenery etc. We could spend all day there, but alas, the market moves on to the next town around noon, and we go on with the rest of our day.

A couple of weeks ago we left the farmer's market and went to a local big-box retailer to purchase some party supplies for my daughter's birthday party. As we walked through the doors of this massive building it just hit me. You know how that happens... like a big old wind that comes out of nowhere and startles you with its strength... I was completely taken aback. Fresh from my visceral and fulfilling morning at the farmer's market, I knew my big-box experience was going to be less than memorable.

The farmer's market is so vivid, so stimulating to the senses, that its impossible to feel rushed. Every modality is firing on all cylinders there- you feel alive and receptive; in the here and now. Coupled with the fact that virtually every item for sale at the market is produced naturally, by hand in an organic and particular way, the farmer's market experience becomes so meaningful and mindful; the two words I use to describe an authentic environment.

On the contrary, the big-box environment is filled with stuff too, but it hits you in a vastly different manner. There are no smells in the big-box store beyond the air-freshener aisle. Everything just sits on shelves within the same packaging it left the factory. There's no sound beyond the whirling of shopping carts and the odd "cleanup on aisle 8" intercom announcements in the big-box store. In the grocery section there was no fresh produce in sight... as I walked up and down the aisles I felt rather unstimulated and distant... and I know why. The big-box store was the antithesis of what I call an authentic environment. That's when the analogy hit me.

The farmer's market and the big-box store both provided me with an opportunity to get stuff I needed (even if I didn't realize I needed it until I got there;o) That's where the similarity ends though. At the market, high-quality, organic and creatively manufactured products are sold in a wonderfully stimulating environment that peaks the senses in a way that would affect even the most unreceptive patron... that's just the way it is. In the big-box store, prepackaged, mass-produced chemically-altered products of marginal quality are sold in a glorified warehouse that is about as inviting to the senses as the industrial plants the products were manufactured within.

It's hard for teachers not to draw parallels between their in, and out-of-school experiences... enter my thoughts about authentic teaching and learning environments. The market was like an authentic classroom... hitting all the sensory targets with creative, meaningful and purposeful activities... the classroom where students and teachers feel a sense of discovery and wonderment... where the experience is remembered because it was enjoyable and stimulating to the mind, body and spirit.

The big-box was like an inauthentic classroom environment... hitting none of the sensory targets as a result of under-stimulating, prescribed activities with little relevance to the learner... the environment where the answers are already provided (curriculum) and everyone is busy trying to make up the questions to match them.The first example of a "learning activity" I thought of that undeniably represents this sort of environment was the infamous worksheet... hence the quote.

The pre-packaged, chemically-altered junk we buy at bog-box stores, like the worksheets teachers use in school, fill us up to be sure, but not with anything good. Let's move away from the easy 'drop a worksheet on the desk' mentality and start letting kids fill themselves up with questions instead of answers, and lets make sure that the classroom environments we create look, sound and feel more like the metaphoric farmer's market than the big-box store.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

We lose our dreams, and that's a bad thing...

Young kids know dreams implicitly. I have spoken to so many social workers that consider this fact a hindrance to determining the appropriateness of a child's home environment because it's hard for kids to articulate reality when they are young. On the contrary, I think it's a blessing. If kids who grow up in environments that place them at risk had to also be vividly aware of this fact, it would be overwhelming.

I remember a therapist asking me a question once during a family counseling session when I was about 7 years old, and all hell was breaking loose in my home... "Sean, what is your biggest problem at home- the problem you would like to change if it were possible?" My answer was that I wished that the clothes I wanted to wear on any particular day were clean; because they weren't always. Amidst the violence, battery and alcoholism that was prevalent in my home during that time, this was a peculiar response, I must say. I can only guess that at the tender age of seven, it just wasn't possible for me to perceive anything more serious than that particular problem from my child's perspective... even though some really bad things were happening. Perhaps I was dreaming, (and for a child I daresay, that just means living,) in a world of my creation; a world where bad things didn't happen and only good things were justified.

As a counselor in a middle school, and at various times in my teaching experience when I have encountered kids who were really down and out, one of my more effective strategies was to pull out their cumulative file and show them their school pictures from their first years in school. I have yet to look at one that didn't represent hope and happiness in the bright face and glowing smile of each child. This could be called a re-framing strategy that I consider to be a version of the crystal ball technique. The questions that accompany this strategy attempt to revisit the state of mind of these kids when the picture was taken seeking understanding about why things have changed. Questions like, "why were you so happy back then?" and "if you could be as happy now as you were then, what would have to change to get that way?"... are the type I would ask, and believe me, the tears flowed quickly and inadvertently many, many times.

What are the circumstances that create the child's dream state of mind? I think it's actually the child's state of mind that creates the circumstances. Children live in a visceral and fascinating world inside their heads that allows them to see the world they believe; not believe the world they see... the world of their dreams, and I think there is tremendous possibility in extending this perspective beyond childhood along the growth spectrum; even into adulthood. At some point we lose our dreams, and that's just profoundly sad because losing our dreams in adult terms is synonymous with lost purpose and possibility. The only thing worse than losing our dreams is losing our tears, but that's another post for another time.

I have noticed that the incident often occurs in middle school. At this point kids are placed in a broader social spectrum; they become more aware of the other kids and how they live their lives. They may be more exposed to the others through visits to their house, playing on sports teams with them or some other extracurricular activity. In whatever context though, the maturation process and expanded awareness of the world around them makes kids reflect on their own reality, and sometimes they don't like what they see, and it's devastating.

What can teachers do? I think we can ensure that our learning spaces are the type that will be adored by kids; magical places in their eyes that provide opportunities to discover, question and explore without fear of scrutiny or failure. They should be places where mistakes are welcome elements of the learning process. After all, if mistakes were the end of the world, nobody would ever learn how to ride a bike. I have been in many classrooms like this, and each one was physically different. It's about the way a place makes you feel, not what the place looks like. We need to make the zeitgeist of our classrooms viscerally endearing to kids; intellectually stimulating from their perspective as opposed perhaps, to ours. We need to tap into their instinctive learning tendencies and not let them fade over time. Is this easy?


When I sit and talk to kids who have been jerked away from their sense of wonderment and possibility so much sooner than most, and they feel helpless and hopeless, it's been a very effective strategy to suggest they return to their place of dreams seeking the purpose and enthusiasm they once realized.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sometimes the path chooses you...

I have written loads about the power of learning people's stories. This spring as my first year as a school administrator wound down, I had the pleasure and good fortune to attend the retirement celebrations of two very honorable and noble men. One is my former District Superintendent, and the other is a friend and lacrosse coaching colleague, and now a former principal. Once again I was reminded what an honor it is to learn someone's story.

I have worked in my District for ten years, the same term that my retiring Superintendent has been in his position. I have known Don to be the epitome of professionalism and commitment in his role as Superintendent, and I have had total confidence in his leadership and guidance. Bob was the principal of the elementary school that my behavior program was housed within during my first five years with the District. I learned a great deal from him about leadership and the art of caring. He also had an incredible ability to use inaction as a form of deliberate action... a skill I have worked hard to develop over the course of the year, (hard for me as a first time administrator wanting to do whatever it takes to the best of my ability in every single situation). Both of these scholarly and hard-working gentlemen have been mentors to me whether they know it or not, but in the context of this post, I want to focus particularly on an element of their retirement celebrations that is resonating with me.

As part of each retirement party event, a historical overview of each man's life before and during their teaching and administrative careers was presented. As I sat listening to these presentations, and watching the slide shows that accompanied them, I became admittedly emotional. I heard things about each man, impressive things, that I had never known before, and it struck an emotional chord with me. In my professional dealings with each of them, I had never known about the personal challenges they overcame to become the people I had come to know. I had not known about many of the amazing accomplishments each had achieved in their lives, or the scope of their talents outside of the educational environment. Hearing about these things for the first time, and being so impressed by each of their respective personal journeys made me wish I had known these things about Don and Bob when I started with the District ten years earlier. At any rate, I know them now, and I am an improved person as a result.

I know that in each man's case, their life journey took them down paths that they may not necessarily had predicted, or even chosen in some cases. I also know that, depending on the situation, they did whatever needed to be done to endure, solve, overcome or perhaps cherish or celebrate the challenges encountered on these paths. This is the mark of  resilient, humble and effective leaders- those who recognize that the path chooses them and understand that the manner in which they walk down it makes all the difference. 

In the hurried and complicated context of our everyday professional lives, it is so easy for really important stuff about people to go unnoticed. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to become aware of some of this stuff about Don and Bob; two honorable men whose mark on teaching and learning has been positively and permanently made, and for that I thank them... and I thank them also for sharing their stories with me.

As a protege and successor to these fine educators, I have been etched by their stories, and reminded that the rewards in teaching and learning far, far outweigh the challenges.

Best wishes Don and Bob.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Where have all the scholars gone?

In my desktop version of the Random House Dictionary, scholarship is defined as, “the qualities, knowledge, or attainments of a scholar", and scholar is also defined therein as, “a learned or erudite person.” (“Random House Webster’s Concise Dictionary,“ 1993). In attempting to synthesize these definitions, perhaps a reasonable summary would be that a scholar is a person who has acquired knowledge through research and learning. If attainment of scholarship were this simple, the relative value of scholarship would be drastically reduced, for there are many in my opinion who have researched and learned without acquiring the qualities of a true scholar.

To be a scholar is much more than simply possessing knowledge. In addition to being learned, a genuine scholar believes in the absolute value of pursuing truth, beauty and goodness, and because of this, has more questions than answers.

A scholar must be learned to be sure. To have knowledge creates powerful possibility. What of the scholarly person, however, that possesses knowledge and doesn’t use it in any valuable moral service? Can this knowledge be considered beneficial other than for the sake of knowing? It is the understanding of true, beautiful and good things that provides a purpose to impart, share, and utilize knowledge in pursuit of excellence in the essence of Plato’s theory of knowledge. It is through reason and the science of Dialectic that the philosopher in any scholar will attain a purpose for knowledge.
Dialectic identifies the entire range and variety of forms- from forms of artifacts such as beds and chairs; lowly things such as apples and dogs; relations such as equality and similarity; values such as beauty and goodness and justice. By the power of dialectic the philosopher not only identifies all these forms and establishes their truth, but also moves toward organizing the forms into a single structured order of truth and value. The forms tend to constitute a hierarchical structure, a pyramid, from the many least universal to the few most universal, from the most concrete to the most abstract; from the forms of inanimate physical things to the Idea of the Good... the Idea of the Good is the end or fulfillment or purpose for which all things exist, and thus it alone gives intelligibility, truth, and goodness to all other forms, which are dependent upon it, and it alone provides their coordination and unity.” (Lavine, 1989, p.41).
The synthesis of forms in Plato’s Idea of the Good encourages students to define their own intellect. If the foundation of teaching is the truth, beauty and goodness that can be found in the world, those that are exposed to it are encouraged to seek and understand the same. As a teacher, I am constantly aware of this and strive to dwell on those wondrous positive elements of our world that are universal, abstract, worth knowing and pursuing. In furthering my study of how to be a better teacher and leader in the field of education, I aim to ground myself in whatever action I choose by remaining true to this principle. The Idea of the Good is strongly reflected in the art of teaching, undeniably a most scholarly endeavor. I want to emphasize this in my pedagogical leadership. In pursuit of a scholarly existence, I aim to align myself with people who share my faith in society’s ability to recognize the capacity in everyone to pursue their own intellectual growth, to synthesize Plato’s many forms in the essence of the Idea of the Good.

Webster’s defines intellect as, “the faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands.” (“Random House Webster’s Concise Dictionary,” 1993). I would argue, however, that this definition is also flawed as it applies to scholarship. Intellectual capacity is without question a necessary trait of the scholarly person. I believe however, that not knowing, or understanding, but wondering is the most natural state for a scholar.  The innate desire to question, to challenge and reflect on what is not known is the basis of scholarship. Scholars are perpetual learners willing to be immersed in the challenging pattern of learning that produces more questions with every bit of intellectual progress made. Lines 1 - 4 in chapter II of the Tao Te Ching as translated by Thomas Cleary state that:

“When everyone knows beauty is beauty,

this is bad.

When everyone knows good is good,

this is not good.” (Cleary, 1998, p.9).
“When it is forgotten that conventional conceptions are conventional conceptions, and they are taken for objective facts that everyone knows and no one questions, then narrow-minded bigotry and blind prejudice can develop unopposed.” (Cleary, 1998 p.133).
I agree with Cleary in my belief that complacency in the acceptance of ideas and theories as if they were objective facts is unproductive and damaging to a scholarly existence. In pursuing personal scholarship, I aim to produce opinions that respectfully challenge convention, and to never allow an accumulation of knowledge to contribute to a complacent state of knowing.

In synthesizing Plato’s Idea of the Good and one small teaching of the Tao Te Ching, I believe I have created a framework with which I can pursue a scholarly existence in the domain of educational leadership. I pledge to never lose sight of the truth, beauty and goodness in the world, and to accept in the accumulation of knowledge that I am not looking for answers, but really for more complex questions.


Cleary, Thomas (1998). The Essential Tao - An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism through the Authentic Tao Te Ching and the Inner Teaching of Chuang Tzu. New Jersey: Castle Books.

Lavine, T.Z. (1989). From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. Toronto: Bantam Books.

(1993). Random House Webster’s Concise Dictionary. New York: Random House.
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