Showing posts with label effective teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label effective teaching. Show all posts

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Real Emergency in Education- Crisis As Opportunity...

Let's face it, to some people everything is an emergency.

A Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two parts:
danger and opportunity…
Crisis as Opportunity (wéi ji) 

Danger – originally pictured as a man on the edge of a precipice
Opportunity – a reminder of the seemingly small but important opportunity that can come out of danger

There is controversy surrounding the symbol above and its interpreted meaning, but that's for other people to worry about. For the sake of the point I'm making, I believe as interpreted, the idea behind the meaning of the symbol above is very important. How it's further interpreted in practice is exponentially more important.

A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. "I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived."
Emergencies are often what we make of them. 

I can't tell you how many times I've had to address the emergent situation that someone dared to park in someone else's regular parking spot in our staff parking lot. 
  1. a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

We need space to learn...

I was sitting on my backyard patio recently with Keenan, one of the new teachers who has joined our staff for the upcoming school year. He wanted to get together and ask me a few questions about what he's heard about our school, and to get the "lay of the land" as he put it. Keenan was wondering what he should be doing to prepare for a successful year. The thing is, I had a conversation that same morning via Google + that got me thinking about preparing for the upcoming school year, and it was resonating for me a lot. Alex Gagnon is a fellow Canadian thinker and doer, and he is not a teacher. I like to speak with non-educators whenever I get the chance. They have interesting views about what should be done in schools. Part of what Alex said is spinning around my thought-stream...
Really teachers or facilitators etc. just need to have a space they can hold... and be left alone to do the important work of learning... at whatever speed learning chooses to happen on that given day... less structure, less paperwork... more just being face-to-face and in small groups.
I totally agree with Alex on this point, and I tried to emphasize for Keenan that he should be reflecting on the point as well. 'Learning space' can mean many things... physical space, cognitive space, emotional space, experiential space... it's all about perspective. I've been thinking about this idea of 'learning spaces' for a long time. At our school we've set to the task of designing them in multiple contexts to reflect environments of authenticity (to us, purposeful and meaningful learning experiences... those that inspire kids to continue learning, do homework without it being assigned and to conceive their own ideas about how to represent what they've learned,) and effective inquiry based learning. As a result different kinds of collective learning spaces are evolving at our school, and it makes sense for us to reflect on where that is coming from.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Leaps of faith...

flickr image via Scarto

In teaching and learning, whether we're jumping off a cliff, or jumping off a curb, the important thing is that we're jumping off something. I've never been one to make a lot of resolutions for a new year, but this year I will make at least one. I'm actually thinking it's more of an unresolution than a resolution owing to the notably not so much a SMART goal nature of it.

I'm not going to stand still.

I intend to keep moving down the learning paths I've set for myself; maybe even define some new ones understanding that the journey is something to be enjoyed, and perhaps that in learning, we never really arrive at the place where we can check 'that one' off the list. As soon as we think we know something, a truly authentic pathway of learning will show us a new direction or branch of the path that sets us off asking new questions so we can learn more, or differently along that path. I'm OK with this ambiguity because I think it will enable me to see beyond a more specific and narrowly focused goal (resolution.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Why Empathy?

 Empathy Symbol image retrieved from

This is a guest post by Larry Hartel, my principal at Glendale Sciences and Technology School. Click here to read it where it was originally posted at Empathy ReBoot, one of our school blogs.

Why Empathy?

Good question. Undoubtedly there are those who believe a successful inclusive school is one that tries to accommodate kids who don't really fit the mold of a 'regular' classroom. Perhaps they would view inclusion as a set of strategies enabling the rest of us to tolerate their presence in our classrooms. They may even go so far as to say they accept these kids. At Glendale we're not those people. Tolerating kids who are different isn't good enough for us. As we design a cultural shift toward full and ubiquitous inclusion at Glendale School, we're not even comfortable saying we've accepted the kids who are different from the rest. For our school to be truly "inclusive," it must be one that celebrates difference.

We are on a journey to learn how to celebrate the diversity of students we encounter within our school as a cultural reality worthy of celebration; to glare at strengths while only glancing at weakness. To do so, we must understand that inclusion isn't simply a set of strategies, but rather a reality in the world that schools should be reflecting and influencing. The world is a wonderfully diverse place. We have to reflect this if we are to create authentic and optimized learning environments for ALL students.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Alternatives...

flickr photo via David Blaine

The first thirteen years of my teaching career were spent teaching in what are commonly referred to as alternative school environments. I worked for six years in First Nations schools in northern Alberta, and then within the Red Deer Public School District's Alternative School Programs. I learned more than I could imagine about life and learning during every one of those years. I formed a phenomenological perspective that allowed me to see students in a different light, and apply supports that extended beyond teaching. The reality was these kids needed to come to terms with the other stuff in their lives before any learning was going to occur in the traditional school sense.Helping our students come to terms with the other stuff was the essence of the alternative approach to teaching that my colleagues and I practiced. We affectionately referred to ourselves as  the "Alternatives."

A former colleague, Kevin Hanrahan explained the alternative philosophy rather eloquently one day before giving all of us a wing-nut to string on our key-chains as a lasting reminder of who we were. He said being alternative is like a wing-nut. A regular nut locks into place and doesn't move; it's rigid and permanent. A wing-nut on the other hand, is designed to easily be moved; adjusted according to the tension required for any particular job. I still have that wing-nut on my key-chain. That's the alternative way.

I came across an excellent example of alternative philosophy at Larry Cuban's blog, Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. In his post, Narrow Thinking About Health and Schools, Larry introduced me to Dr. Jack Geiger. In 1965 Dr. Geiger prescribed food for hungry kids in the Mississippi Delta understanding that hunger trumps the desire to gain knowledge. He also founded one of the first federally funded community health centers in the United States. Clearly a man who understood that social determinants play an overwhelming role in whether kids learn successfully or not. He got it. He was alternative.

In this excellent post by Liz Dwyer at the GOOD EDUCATION blog, she mentions Sir Ken Robinson's belief that,
change begins at the classroom level. Every teacher has the ability to take the time to build relationships with students, make her classroom an engaging environment, and connect students with real world opportunities in local creative industries and higher education.
This is so close to the entire point that education reform does not need to cost billions; it does not require a silver bullet resource or teaching strategy de jour and it certainly does not require copious amounts of expensive, traditional professional development to ensure we're all on the same page. As Liz Dwyer so honestly and simply states, what ed reform really needs is for Alternative Education to go mainstream. Simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple.

Back in the day when I was teaching with the Alternatives, we used to get asked to explain our strategies and processes during various seminars and workshops. A humble group of educators that we were, we really weren't interested in talking about what we did, but we were very interested in providing opportunities for our students to explain how they benefited from how we did it. I wish I would have filmed even one of those sessions. Our students were honest, and they were real. They took the opportunity to tell the audience what they could do if ever they came across a student like themselves. It wasn't complicated. They told their audience of teachers to listen to their students, especially the ones that were giving them a hard time. They told their audience of teachers that really hurting kids with few or no supports anywhere else who have been let down by so many adults in their lives often give their teachers a really hard time because they want to know which ones can take it. It's a test; a test to find out which ones will still be there for them tomorrow, like a loving family member would be no matter what bad thing had happened. They're looking for the Alternatives.

Our students, every single one of them having been removed from their previous mainstream school environments, told brutally real and visceral stories of how they felt in those mainstream environments, and more importantly how things had changed for them since becoming "alternative." Within minutes, and during every single session we did, tears were flowing among the audience of teachers, some of who had taught our kids prior to their alternative placements. Our kids told their stories, and we listened to them, and that was all it really took to get from here to there with them... they simply needed someone to truly listen to them without bias; without judgment, and without advice. Their learning paths were theirs alone. It wasn't for us to steer them in any particular direction. Our job was to hold their hands as they traveled their chosen paths. When they took a wrong turn we held their hands even tighter. When they took a right turn, we let go just a little. Over time for so many, we let go completely, but we always made sure they knew we were there for them if they needed us, and we made sure to also lend our support to those teachers who would hold our students' hands after they left us.

So there it is. The simplest form of education reform is the authentic caring that comes from a teacher who knows how massive her impact can be within the realm of one classroom, in one school, in one community; a teacher who gets it. A sphere of positive influence grows through simple acts of caring, unconditional support, and acceptance from teachers who know this. Kids have this remarkable ability to flesh out what teachers know.

If you want to be ready when a student chooses you for the test, why don't you try being one of the Alternatives? 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Unfolding- Classrooms emerging from a platform of creativity

Friday, July 8, 2011

I believe we never stop learning...

I believe that we never stop learning, despite ourselves. Those who embrace the joy of learning, embrace the joy of life.
 flickr photo via fotologic

One thing I know about kids is that they have tremendous capacity to be resilient. Most young children are unfettered by "the world." They have a very fortunate egocentric perspective that shelters them from the sort of stress that adults deal with. They see everything anew and are mindful of it all. They see possibilities where adults see constraints. They ask "why" and "how" seeking understanding about everything they encounter. Each is a nomad on  a journey of discovery. Young children embrace the joy of life through their experiences; this is how they make sense of the world; how they learn.

Young kids do a lot of living. Their experiences are so visceral, raw and authentic... how could they not learn from them? They embrace every experience, and in turn, embrace learning; the two are synonymous in kids' minds... they believe the world is one of possibility, and they seek to be part of that possibility. They see the world they believe as opposed to believing the world they see.

Like my friend Ted, I am a sucker for sappy songs... and also for sappy videos; especially when they make a statement as simple as this one does.

Video credit with appreciation to Junior Chamber International Petaling Jaya

One of the most effective ways I can think of to help kids hold onto their dreams is to model hanging on to ours. Adults who remain connected to their child-like belief that all is possible provide effective modelling for those kids that may be vulnerable to the negative influences of the world. Adults experience the world in ways that knock us down a bit, but if we can remember that there is something to be learned from every experience, even the bad ones, perhaps we can make a bit more sense of it all, and then we'd be embracing the joy of learning and life just like we did when we were kids.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I believe learning is personal...

I believe that effective education is about people, always. We must reach people on personal levels to foster relevance in what they learn.
 flickr photo via

My former principal, Mark Jones, confirmed this belief for me during our first meeting two years ago. I had just started my first administrative appointment as a vice-principal at Mattie McCullough Elementary School, a thriving K-5 school with a technology focus.  He told me my initial responsibility was to get to know the kids at our school and also their parents… sit back a bit and learn how things flowed in my new school. I took his advice and it proved to be the best advice I received during my first year as a school administrator, and very much aligned with my personal philosophy pertaining to engaging students.

In my previous placement as a middle school counselor before coming to Mattie, and as a teacher working with kids manifesting severe emotional and behavioral challenges before that, I learned the value of learning kids’ stories. I was eager to learn the stories of the people that represented the culture of my new school. I believe that every student has a personal learning story, and I think of that story as containing three main components: the student’s past; the student’s present and the student’s future. In a more specific context for me as the teacher, these components translate into the story I need to learn about (past), the story I need to help write (present) and the story with the happy ending (future). Our stories define us, and it's so important that schools are environments that encourage people to share them.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


 flickr photo via shanzy 294

When I was in graduate school one of my assignments was to reflect on and create a set of beliefs about education and leadership. I posted a couple of these a while back. My intent was to roll one out every week or so until I had written about each one of them at KARE Givers. I wanted to compare what I thought of as my personal beliefs back then, to how they may have changed since then. My intentions were good, but other things came up and I didn't follow through.

I came across the list the other day and decided to revisit sharing my beliefs about teaching and learning. As I read through it once again, I realized that my beliefs haven't changed much at all since I wrote them down over the two year period I was in graduate school. I took the reflective assignment very seriously, and I maintain my perspective that teachers must be serious about what they believe.
Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny. -Mahatma Gandhi
In order for teachers to be sincere and purposeful about what they do, they must be grounded in a set of philosophical principles that guide their practice... their practice being the words, actions, habits and values that they choose to articulate every day in the classroom. To this end, I'm including my complete list here in this post. I will follow up over the next while to expand on each one of my beliefs about education and leadership with the intent to elicit conversations that challenge them. I think teachers need to challenge their beliefs perpetually if they are to continue seeking better ways to do what they do.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Passionate and Caring teachers...

Passionate, caring teachers... maybe some of the luster and significance of these adjectives is lost in the broad world of cliche language that well-meaning people use to describe the art and science of teaching.

Could it be that things become cliche for a good reason?

Ideas that endure do so because they make sense. If the fact they endure makes them cliche, I can live with that.

When it comes to passion and care in teaching, I simply cannot think of any elements that would be considered more foundational and true... essential.

I am a passionate and caring teacher. The work I do is entirely on behalf of my students.

I make no apology for the language I choose to represent that.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Great "stuff" doesn't make a great teacher...

After reading Andrew Churches' wiki post regarding the characteristics of 21st Century teachers, and while still thinking about a tweet I posted a while back, I want to share some evolving thoughts on effective teaching in today's complex educational world.

In my Twitter #edchat conversation a while back I said that "many new teachers think success comes from 'stuff'- resources, programs etc. Success will ONLY come from them and sound personal philosophy." Hey, let's face it... many teachers, new and old alike, are feeling a bit like Inspector Gadget lately; we are being pulled (the pessimists among us may say 'pushed') in many different directions as time marches on in education, and in the broader society we reflect. So how do we navigate these turbulent waters?

Relax. There are no emergencies in education. This personal maxim has served me well for a long time since adopting it from a former principal I had the privilege of learning from. True, there are a number of roles teachers need to play in order to keep up with the evolving disposition of the new-age learner, but rather than rue this challenge, why not accept it with excitement and enjoy the ride?

I agree with Andrew's above vision of the 21st Century Educator. Although today's teacher is most definitely all of these things, I believe contemporary teachers need to consider themselves primarily as collaborators within the learning process... a stark removal from traditional teaching perspectives where the teacher was first and foremost a provider of information. We are (need to be) much more than that for the brilliant young people evolution has provided us the good fortune to work with.

Teaching is about relationships... great teaching is absolutely not about the "stuff" (those resources, technologies, programs, textbooks etc.) that many associate as representing a good educational environment. Next fall as thousands of new North American teachers scramble to find the latest and greatest classroom tools to make their first year of teaching manageable and successful, let's reflect seriously on the fact that positive and effective educational environments aren't about teaching tools; they're about relationships... people working with people to establish the trust and commitment necessary in any successful relationship. Teaching and learning is a collaborative effort that we should be making together with students as opposed to a deliberate attempt by the teacher to contol, dictate and disseminate information.

We're hearing much about authentic learning lately, and we all know what Mr. Bloom would say about some of the transactional practise evident in today's classrooms... why can't we lighten up a bit and enjoy the ride as much as we would like our students to? I believe that when we make positive and authentic connections with students first, that the control many teachers crave will happen authentically and automatically. In the wise words of Nel Noddings, "it is obvious that children will work harder and do things — even odd things like adding fractions — for people they love and trust."

Let's stop worrying and concerning ourselves so much about the tools of our trade, and return to the roots of our craft. Let's tap into our higher order thinking skills and start working on regaining the creativity and optimism that comes from ideas, understanding that ideas can come from anywhere, including our students. Let's collaborate on the learning process by adopting an attitude of inquiry and discovery and getting on with Fourth Way ideologies of the future.

Let's relax and have fun doing what we have the privilege to do...
Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog


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