Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Inquiry-based Discomfort

Over the last several months, our faculty has been working hard to co-develop our "Attributes of a Graduate".  As a group, we wanted to determine the skills and characteristics that we want for our students to have as they leave us to face an ever-changing and uncertain future.  We had come up with a number of descriptors as a staff, and solicited thoughts and input from our parents and community.  On our Professional Development day this past Monday, we determined our critical question to drive our learning for the day was  "How do we get Sa-Hali attributes into the heads, hearts, and hands of our students?".

This question led us to consider a number of things:
  • What are the most important attributes?
  • How can we demonstrate that students have an authentic voice in attribute creation and development?
  • How many attributes will students (as well as the staff and community) be able to focus on and remember?
  • What is the best way to kickoff/promote our attributes, and truly get them into the heads, hearts and hands of our entire Sa-Hali community?

So the day began, and were I to use descriptive, non-judgmental, instructional rounds-style data to describe the day, I might say the following:
  • the staff participated in a team-building activity focused on our collaboratively developed attributes
  • the staff did a distillation and consensus-building process that required them to analyse, evaluate, synthesize and then agree on three "Attributes of a Sa-Hali Graduate" that will guide our School Innovation Plan
  • multiple staff members led these small group discussions to engage all of our faculty and ensure each staff member's voice was heard
  • when I asked the staff to take a break for coffee, none of the groups left their tables to take a break--they just kept working on the task in front of them (they eventually left a few minutes later, but I had never seen that before) 
  • the staff used collaborative technology to crowd source ideas
  • the staff began collaboratively planning a promotional campaign (perhaps something that takes off from a creation by two staff members at our school) to showcase and co-develop our attributes, including a mixed media assembly and follow-up lesson plan to solicit input from our students
If one read the above observational data, they might say that it was a productive day that had our staff participating in higher order tasks.  And, going 'up the ladder of inference', I can tell you that without equivocation, it most certainly WAS a productive day.  Yet at one point, one of my teachers said to me "Why are you frowning? You should be really happy right now--look around!  EVERYONE is working on this!"

Good point.  Why was I frowning?   

I wasn't frowning because I was upset--quite the opposite, in fact.  Our staff took a very important task and ran with it...and they ran hard! I was frowning because a process that I had envisioned being a bit more linear and sequential went 'wide' in a short period of time.  Very wide.  And the number of amazing ideas flying around the room suddenly became overwhelming to me.  Too often in my time as a Principal, I 'knew' what the final product should be.  I would begin with that product in mind, be hyper-organized in my planning, and guide the group to a point which would look awfully similar to MY vision--sometimes with only scant bits of commitment from everyone involved.  I would utilize very little of the knowledge and expertise of the room, other than to validate my own ideas.

#bigmistake

By starting with an inquiry-based mindset on Monday, the critical question rapidly moved us into a level of divergent thinking that I had completely underestimated.  I quickly realized that my role in the room had changed significantly:  I was going from 'leader' to...well,  learner, facilitator, cheerleader, and even 'granny' (from Sugata Mitra's 'School in the Cloud').  And while the level of engagement and discourse amongst our faculty was astounding, the level of complexity in terms of coming up with a solution to get our attributes into the heads, hands and hearts of our students had also increased dramatically.  Hence the frown.  And when that staff member saw me frowning, I'm sure I was overwhelmed and all-consumed with one thought:  "How the heck am I going to pull all of this together?".

Later Monday evening, I received a very thoughtful and kind note from one of our staff members. They were impressed with the thoughtful dialogue and discourse that took place throughout the day and the amount of headway that we had made with our attributes.  And then it hit me: it's not about how "I" alone will do this--it's about how WE will do this together.  I can only guess that had I used my traditional method of 'asking a question that I already knew that answer to', I would have gotten 'my answer', and likely been mostly on my own trying to figure out the best way to make it a reality. But by using a co-developed driving question that engaged the group, WE got 'our solutions', and with that ownership, WE will transform our solutions that we created into reality TOGETHER.  And WE will do a fantastic job because the product that we create will be visible to our students and our entire Sa-Hali community.

As successful as the day was, my reflections about Monday have also made me realize that if I was out of my comfort zone and overwhelmed by the divergent thinking of our group and my changing role in the learning that was taking place, others might experience this too.  Going forward, I need to be very cognizant of the fact that as we look ahead at the journey our school will take to help our grads to become creative, resilient collaborators (our three attributes that we are going to present to our students), many of us may be moving of our individual and collective comfort zones.  When we develop tasks and activities that truly require students to demonstrate our attributes, each of us will need support in working through learning that is non-linear, messy, and requires us to become a combination of learners, facilitators, cheerleaders, and 'grannies' all at the same time!

But if the net result of these tasks and activities that we co-create is the engagement and learning that I saw from our faculty on Monday, it will definitely be worth the initial discomfort that comes with inquiry-based learning.

*cross posted at the Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Connecting the Disconnected


This past weekend, I was lucky enough to go to the 21st Century Learning conference in Vancouver, BC. I was particularly jazzed to see two presenters; Will Richardson and my pal Bill Ferriter have both impacted my thinking significantly since I added them to my personal learning network.  And while their methods were different, both Will and Bill had some common messages in terms of the learning that students are doing in schools today and how (or if?) it relates to the types of skills that students will need in the hyper-connected environment that we live in today.  They pushed the group to think about how we 'connect the disconnected' by highlighting a some points that resonated with me:

As kids move through the K-12 system, they become less and less engaged in their schooling.
And while Sir Ken Robinson and others have affirmed this fact for us, both Will and Bill quoted the 2012 Gallup Poll Student poll (of more than 500,000 students) that showed the percentage of students that described themselves as being engaged in their studies dropping by over 30 points as they move from elementary to high school.  Each of them challenged the group:  are we comfortable with this?   Are we willing to confront this?  And for me personally, no matter how many times I hear statistics like this, I still cringe and think about what we can do differently.



We need to give students meaningful work
Students want to do something that makes a difference.  They want to help others.  The Kiva Club developed by Bill Ferriter's Grade 6 that raises money to provide microloans for impoverished individuals and the #sugarkills blog to fight obesity that his students created are sustained by students who are willing to give up their own time to help others that they have never and will likely never meet.  But worksheets are not meaningful.  Memorizing answers to questions that we can simply search for using Google are not meaningful. Right now?  Meaningful.  There is a chance you might need to know this at some point in your life?  Well, not so much.

Classrooms need to be places to make connections, not disconnect
We can no longer ask students to disconnect from the hyperlinked, information-saturated, teacher-laden world (yes, teacher-laden--because students have the ability to learn so much from virtual and face-to-face peers and adults in their world who have loads of expertise in different areas) where they learn for two-thirds of their day.  As Will Richardson said, we need to completely wipe that scarcity-inspired thought from our minds.  We have to.  Because if we think that students are going to settle for anything less than that, they won't (and they aren't).

We MUST have a clear vision
We don't begin with 'all of our students are going to blog'.  Or 'each of our classrooms will have Smartboards'.  Or spending a billion dollars on iPads (as the LAUSD did, with decidedly 'mixed' results).  We don't begin with the mindset that 'technology engages kids'.  We begin with a vision of the attributes that we want for our children (like the excellent work being done in the Kelowna School District and Farmington High School), and then use these attributes to guide our decisions, our structures, our PD, and our approaches to student learning in our classrooms.  (To see a way to get started with your staff, check out this fun way to begin the conversation about developing a mission in schools.)

So, I know what you are thinking:

"Ya ya ya...we know all this stuff, but how do we do it?

Both Will and Bill were very clear--in British Columbia, we enjoy freedoms in our curriculum that simply do not exist in most jurisdictions across North America.  And they were also very clear in their plea for us as educators to take advantage of this curricular latitude to create the learning environments that children need.  And finally, they both told the participants one thing:  get started.  Now.  The urgency lies in the idea that every day the world is changing, so we have a moral imperative to change the environment that students learn in for six hours per day to more closely mirror the world they live in for the other eighteen hours.
So at Sa-Hali Secondary, what are we going to do as a result of the message that I heard this weekend?

  1. We are going to involve our students in the development of and execution of a process that will both highlight our work on attributes to this point and involve them in the selection and definition of these attributes.  We will use the High Tech High Tuning Protocol to develop this process starting with the question "How will we involve our school community in the development of our list of attributes so that they are in the heads, hearts and hands of students, staff and the community?"
  2. We are going to use these attributes as a start point for the process of Instructional Rounds in our school.  We will reflect on our school through the lens of the attributes that we feel are important, and determine how we can scale the innovative practices that are currently happening in our school through making the walls of our classroom permeable to our staff and to others.
  3. We are going to make student and adult learning visible at our school through the development of a school-wide digital portfolio.  Our staff and myself will learn the process of developing digital portfolios by creating a three-dimensional digital portfolio that will serve as our school improvement plan.  We will do this so that we can learn by doing, and model the creation of a positive digital footprint that will allow students to truly demonstrate what we know.  This will allow us to prepare students to develop a capstone project as a culmination of their K-12 learning (a great example of Capstone Projects can be seen at Chris Lehmann's Science Leadership Academy) that they can take away to support them in what they choose to do after they leave us.
  4. On a personal note, I am going to start a Kiva project at our school.  I don't know how this is going to work yet, but I am confident that like every school we have the students who want to make a difference in the lives of others.

Perhaps these are lofty goals, but I am articulating them here so I can hold myself to them.  I agree with Will and Bill, we can change how we engage and empower students in their education, and we need to start. Now.

So we will!  Stay tuned.


Friday, October 24, 2014

#EDUDO - The New Ed Hashtag -- It's all about what you DO!

This morning, Gino Bondi (@gmbondi) and I were sitting at the 21st Century Education conference in Vancouver.  During a bit of down time, we were chatting about how exciting it is to see links to things that flash up on Twitter which are solely focused in what people are DOING in education.  What they are doing in their classrooms.  In their schools. In their districts.  And in a moment of unparalleled brilliance, Gino came up with an idea--a new hashtag that is just for what people are DOING.

Not theories, quotes, or lists.

Not what we should be doing in education, there are plenty of hashtags for that.

But a hashtag for the driving questions, exciting lessons, collaborative projects, professional development strategies, faculty meeting ideas, and district initiatives that are truly making a difference to student learning, teacher learning, administrator learning, and community learning.  Pieces that have tangible products that other students or educators can take, adapt, modify, make better and share them back.

If such a thread interests you, please tag your good things with #EDUDO , the hashtag with the emphasis on DOING!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Advantages, or Opportunities Lost?


The number of students taking online courses in British Columbia is growing.  And while this growth has slowed slightly in the last couple of years, the impact of the rapid increase from 30000 to nearly 80000 unique students taking one or more courses since 2008 in BC distance education facilities is something that I have begun to notice at our school.  Our district is no exception--for example, more than 300 students were taking online Physical Education last year.  And while it may seem paradoxical that students are taking a physical activity course on the computer, it is happening.  And not just in PE.

To be quite honest, when asked, I have been cautious about recommending online courses for students.  I have always felt that the online learning environment can be effective for certain students, but for others, online courses can be much more challenging to complete.  I have always felt that a 'regular' classroom is a better place to learn than in an online environment.  

I fully acknowledge that I have a bias: I am a product of the public school system, I work in the public school system, and my children are in the public school system in typical, 'bricks and mortar' classrooms.  For all intents and purposes, the public school system has served my family very well.  But the reality is that more students are finding alternative ways to explore their passions and get credit for it at the same time, and as a result, those students are moving away from the traditional 'bricks and mortar' schools.  I also acknowledge that my experience in an online learning environment is limited--I did the Deeper Learning MOOC last year and got a great deal from it.  However, even with the scant evidence that I have to support my feelings--I feel the in-classroom experience has some decided advantages for kids.


Bearing these thoughts in mind, I began pondering a question: 


"What are the advantages for a student in a typical, face-to-face, 'bricks-and-mortar' school versus an online learning environment?"


I have asked a number of colleagues this question, and even posed the question in a survey on Twitter.  Here are some of the more common answers came back to me:

  • interact/work with others in a face-to-face environment
  • more 'immediate' interaction with a teacher and other students
  • someone there to motivate, inspire, and 'drive the learning'
  • getting to hear the ideas of others
  • a diversity of hands-on activities
  • being a part of a culture, something larger than the individual
  • student-student relationships
  • student-teacher relationships
And while there are likely numerous other pieces that we have not considered (and please feel free to add them to this survey), I want to evaluate each of the advantages above, but focus in on each of them with a slightly 'tighter' lens, which is

Are we consistently leveraging the advantages that we say that we have in 'bricks and mortar' schools?  Considering each of these advantages, if evidence to support these factors is difficult to find on a consistent, classroom-to-classroom basis, then these are NOT true advantages that we are leveraging. Instead, one might argue that they are little more than lost opportunities.

So here we go, let's examine them, one-by-one...

Interact/work with others in a face-to-face environment:
Working with others in a face-to-face environment is a skill that has been both deemed as necessary and condemned as being lost with today's student, all in the same breath.  And while there are certainly more jobs that can be done 'remotely' or from behind a screen, the majority of jobs and interactions that students are going to have in the next few years are still going to require face-to-face interactions and cooperation.

But ask yourself this....

What are the nature of the interactions that are taking place in classrooms?  Are students actively taught how to effectively collaborate in partnerships, triads, small and large groups? Are there driving questions and opportunities for kids in the class to dialogue and practice these skills?  Are the tasks that students are asked to do requiring them to participate and interact with each other?   Are the tasks ones that require positive interdependence between the students, or for them to simply to do their part? Is the seating arrangement in the classroom conducive to these sorts of conversations?  Is the length of time spent on these interactive activities long enough for students to become proficient at these skills and make them transferable to other situations?  


Someone there to motivate, inspire, and drive learning:
Each of us has had those teachers who were truly inspirational, that got to know us, and got to know what our strengths and interests were both in and out of the classroom.  They took something as boring as Ohm's Law or poetry and turned it in to something that was both interesting and meaningful.  Their passion for their subject area was second only to their passion for us as students in the classroom. They kept us on task and roughly moving in the same direction.  It was awesome.

But ask yourself this...
What percentage of your teachers or university professors fit the above description?  100%?  10%?  1%?How many of them tried to determine what motivates students to learn?  In our schools, do we ask students what their motivations are, or do we assume they are driven by things like grades, university, or the promise of a better life (which may or may not be so applicable to a rambunctious Grade 7 boy who has just come in from the playground)?  Do we ask driving questions (check out the 'Tubric' from the Buck Institute), and use tuning protocols to empower students in their learning, or do we come up with the activities in isolation, and hope that students want to do it? Do we think of learning from a  developmental perspective, honoring the fact that if we create our lessons with the acknowledgment that students come from different backgrounds and have different skill sets, that they will be more motivated to do the task? Do we try to determine what gets students into 'flow'?

If we don't do these sorts of things to inspire our students, we cannot lay claim to having someone there to inspire and motivate as an advantage--we can only lay claim to having a person...well...there.


Getting to hear the ideas of others:
There is no doubt that crowd-sourcing an issue is going to lead to a more diverse set of solutions.  Among many examples, Steve Johnson's "Where Good ideas Come From" talks about the collision of smaller hunches to form bigger ones, and the Professional Learning Community model of collaboration both point to the power of the group versus the individual.

But ask yourself this...

Do we consistently give students tasks that require multiple perspectives and multiple solutions?  Do we actively demonstrate to our students that there is more than one way to accomplish a task or meet a learning outcome?  Do we 'go wide' with our students, asking the shortest question possible and then encourage divergent thinking?  Do we create a safe forum for this to occur, and have students display their learning in such a way that it allows others to comment on, critique, and draw inspiration from to affect their own work in a positive way?


If we have students do tasks that require one answer or that can be copied from a book/website/peer or have students demonstrate their learning in ways that are not visible to their peers, this cannot be considered an advantage.

A diversity of hands-on activities:
Individual work.  Group work.  Driving questions that require creative solutions. Peer review and evaluation.   Labs.  Projects.  Role plays. Digital portfolio work.  Video creation. Connections with the community.  Field trips.  Internships.  Cross school/district/country collaboration using technology.    The list of possibilities goes on and and on for activities to do in the classroom with students.

But ask yourself this...
What are the typical tasks that students are required to do in each of the classes in our schools.  I can say with honesty that some of my science classes were predominantly textbook based, with the 'where's Waldo'-style review questions at the end of a section, potentially a lab, and then some sort of quiz or test.  Occasionally I did a debate, role play, or something that I thought was pretty cool (although I am not completely sure that the kids agreed with me). However, for the most part, I felt as though I had a great deal of content to get through and didn't have a lot of time to 'waste' on these sorts of activities.  I rarely did any task analysis to see what my students were actually required to learn as a result of doing the tasks in my classes.  Looking back, I could have truly empowered my students in their learning by having them involved in task development:  I could have used a variety of different activities that would have been designed with a focus on  'how best will students learn this' rather than 'how best can I cover this material'. 

If students are mostly exposed to textbook/worksheet based tasks with quizzes and tests that are multiple choice, matching, short answer and long answer questions, we are not maximizing our opportunities to engage kids with the activities that are possible in a face-to-face environment.

More 'Immediate' Interaction with a Teacher and/or other students
For a variety of reasons, students in an online environment may experience a 'lag' in terms of needing versus getting assistance.  And if the online experience is such that a student is working individually and asynchronously, the odds of the student being able to work with their peers can be 'hit and miss', depending on who is online or whether such a mechanism has been set up with that particular course.  In the 'bricks and mortar' classroom, the students are in physical proximity to the teacher and eachother, and most often are learning synchronously.

But ask yourself this...
Can the student access the teacher at any time, and if content coverage is a norm, is there even time for students to get help from a teacher?  And if not the teacher, are there mechanisms for peer support that have been created and actively taught in the classroom so that students can get this 'immediate' interaction?

Being a part of a culture, something larger than the individual
Friday night football, Texas-style.
Last year, I got to cross off a 'bucket list' item when I was able to go to a Friday night, high school football playoff game in Texas.  The kids were there in school colors.  The parents were there in school colors.  The marching band was there in school colors, playing the school song.  The home town was there.  The visiting town was there.  Everyone was there.  I got goosebumps just sitting in the stadium, thinking that I was a part of something amazing--even if I wasn't from Texas.  


LINK Crew - Day 1!
Of course it's not about football, it's about that connection to the school, the colors, the mascot, and the community.  To be a 'Sabre', a 'Dragon', or a 'Bulldog' right along side of the rest of your peers.  But if we don't consciously and consistently create opportunities (like LINK Crew, peer mentorship, spirit days, intramurals, recognition assemblies, etc) for our students to connect with our school and the people that work there, they are not a part of something larger than themselves.

Student-Student Relationships:
Students love to come to school to see their friends and socialize.  They love to work with each other in class, and play with each other at lunch.  

But ask yourself this...
As schools, do we cultivate these relationships, and ensure that they are positive and productive?  Do we have programs such as Me-To-We, RespectEd, Roots of Empathy, and Safe Schools.  Do we monitor our progress and how students are feeling about our schools through Student Voice, Satisfaction Surveys, tools like Tell Them From Me, and focus groups.  And when we get this information from our kids, do we respond to it so they feel better about connecting with each other and the school.  Or do we hope for the best, and allow the "Law of the Jungle" (a tongue-in-cheek quote from one of our excellent staff members) to manifest itself in our hallways with a "they need to sort it out" philosophy?  

While this area is not a dichotomy, we need to help students with developing positive relationships with their peers.  Adults need help with their relationships all of the time--why would kids be any different? 

Student-Teacher Relationships:
This could be the biggest leverage point of all for bricks and mortar schools!  Research validates the statement that kids 'don't care what you know until they know that you care'--in fact, the teacher-student relationship has seven times the impact than does the teacher's knowledge of their subject area.  What an advantage, right?

But ask yourself this...

How are we getting to know our students, or are we really getting to know our students at all?  Would our students say we have positive student-teacher relationships in each of our classrooms? Considering there is a repository of ideas only a few mouse clicks and key strikes away for getting to know our students, do we use these sorts of activities to create connections between ourselves and our students?  How do we determine the prior learning and individual contexts of our students?  Do we believe in that respect is something that is earned, and therefore that we must earn the respect of our students and their parents?  Are we vulnerable in front of our students, and comfortable telling them that we don't have all the answers, and it's ok?

If we do not actively cultivate these relationships, we have lost one of the very biggest potential advantages of a 'bricks and mortar' school.  


In conclusion, I want to add one big qualifier--each of our schools is doing many of the things above, at the least in smaller pockets, and sometimes full-scale.  And should we leverage each of these opportunities that we have with children in our schools, there is no one who could convince me that the online experience would be superior to the in-class experience for student learning.  Yet given the proliferation of students choosing alternative options to pursue their passions while concurrently getting credit towards graduation, I think all 'brick and mortar' schools need to take a sincere look at each of these opportunities for us to enrich the in-class environment to see whether they are truly advantages that we are realizing rather than tremendous opportunities that are lost.


This has been cross posted in the Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox.