Sunday, December 22, 2013

Someone Gave Me Homework...Now It's My Turn

So my Boston-based pal, Patrick Larkin has me all tied up in a chain-blogging task which obligates me to share 11 random facts about myself and then to answer 11 questions that he has asked. Not to mention, just the day before, my 'brother from another mother' Bill Ferriter did the same thing!  So, I need to do my homework, and get to work.  For me, it will be 11 Random Facts, and 22 Responses to questions from Patrick and Bill, followed by an invite to 11 bloggers to keep the madness alive--all in the name to get to know each of us a little bit better. Here goes!

My 11 Random Facts
  1. My real last name is Croatian and decidedly defunct of vowels - Brkjlacic (changed by my grandfather to 'Birk' about 65 years ago).
  2. My mom was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, hence my affinity for the Red Sox.
  3. I played and watched hockey for most of my young life, but now barely watch or play hockey at all, except if friends are playing.
  4. My wife and I watch "Love Actually" every Christmas holiday.
  5. I am a fine singer.
  6. My family would disagree with #5.
  7. I wake up at night thinking of cereal for breakfast at least four or five nights per week.
  8. I had hip replacement surgery last year, and likely will have the other replaced in the next five years.
  9. I've had a brief conversation with the #1 ranked golfer in the world in 2011 (Luke Donald).
  10. I get really excited to go to the United States, and hope to live there at some point in the future (for part of the year, at least).
  11. When the Masters Golf Tournament is on, everything else in my world stops.

Here are the questions from Patrick...
  1. Have you ever been to Massachusetts? When I was very young, and again last year when I was at Harvard and Fenway Park. Luckily, I will be back there twice in 2014. I actually believe I was meant to live in MA.
  2. What is your favorite sports team (college or pro)? The Red Sox
  3. Besides you, name a blogger that you would recommend to others.  David Culberhouse.  In New England parlance, "he's wicked smaat".  Jeff Delp would be a close second.
  4. When you were little, what did you dream of becoming?  True story, I actually thought I would be a rock star.  
  5. How far away do you live from where you grew up?  400 miles.
  6. What is your favorite meal?  Steak, but I have an affinity for smoky flavored ribs.
  7. If you were offered a free trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go?  Maui--got married there and can't wait to go back.
  8. Do you prefer Macs or PC's?  I like Big Macs, does that count?
  9. Other than the birth of your children and/or the day you were married or met your soulmate, what was the best day of your life?  December 20th, 2003.
  10. What is the best movie you've seen in the last year? Tough movies but none so great this year -- really looking forward to Lone Survivor in January!
  11. What is the last live concert that you've attended? U2 in 2010.

Here are the questions from Bill...
  1. Grande Soy Green Tea Frappuccino with Extra Whip or House Blend Black?  House blend black for sure--maybe a dash of cream.
  2. If you were going to write a book, what would its title be?  The Perks of Being A Principal
  3. Rate graphic novels on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing “useless” and 10 representing “simply amazing.” If these are the Archie and Jughead variety, I would say "10".
  4. What member of your digital network has had the greatest impact on your professional growth?  Honestly, I'd have to say Bill Ferriter.  Chris Wejr would be right there as well, as would George Couros.  I think Simon Breakspear is going to have a huge impact on my thinking in the near future.
  5. How do you feel about the holidays?  Tremendous!  Love Christmas.
  6. Rate the following movies in order from best to worst:  Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version).  Christmas Vacation is the only one of consequence for me, but my kids love the Grinch.
  7. What is the best gift that you’ve ever gotten?  When I was six I got a huge Death Star play set from Star Wars--loved the trash compactor with the foam bricks in it.
  8. If you had an extra $100 to give away to charity, who would you give it to?  Children's Hospital--seeing children hurting is heartbreaking.
  9. What are you the proudest of?  My family--they have really made the best of the shallow gene pool that I contributed to them :)
  10. What was the worst trouble that you ever got into as a child?  When my halo slipped off.
  11. What was the last blog entry that you left a comment on?  What motivated you to leave a comment on that entry?  One linked to my post "You're Just Not That Interesting"--I am passionate about the need to examine the way we teach and learn at conferences.

My 11 Questions for 11 others...
  1. Ketchup, salsa, or hot sauce?
  2. What is one thing that you are a part of (or believe in) that is 'bigger than you'?
  3. What do you do that is great?  Not 'good', GREAT.
  4. If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
  5. If you were a breakfast cereal, which one would it be?  How come?
  6. What is the one thing (outside of your family) that you absolutely make time for--no matter what?
  7. If ________ could be eliminated from your life, you would be stress-free.
  8. What is a talent that you have that would surprise those that think they know you well?
  9. If you were to give yourself a cool pen name or pseudonym, what would it be?
  10. Your favorite movie is?
  11. "If schools closed tomorrow, I would go and be a ____________?"
I will link to my 12 (one more because I can) people on Twitter, and hope they have not been tagged yet!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Do We Have Time To Be Cautious?

The improvised carbon dioxide scrubber aboard Apollo 13.
This morning, I stumbled across a very compelling video, called "Future Learning - A Short Documentary" (embedded at the bottom of this post).  Every couple of weeks, I find myself needing to see a clip like this to get re-calibrated and to take me 'outside of my school' in terms of my own thinking.

Within this quick movie, there were a number of snippets that resonated with me.  One of the most poignant bits was from Ntiedo Etuk, CEO at DimensionU, who described our current education system as having a "prove it before we put it out there" mentality in terms of what works or what does not in schools for kids.   This really made me think.  In a time when we are asking people to innovate, discover problems, and find divergent and sustainable solutions, I agree that often times we take on an arm-chair quarterback, "prove it to me, THEN (maybe) I will believe it" approach to new ideas.

I am guilty of this as well:  I have always felt that part of my position is to (as I call it) "see around corners" in terms of anticipating possible problems prior to their occurring.  As a result, there are times when I am more tentative and cautious than perhaps I should be when it comes to innovative solutions to issues that we might have in our school.  Yet each of has and will continue to encounter problems to which we don't have the solution.  Furthermore, the answer may just be something that is something so distal to our comfort zone it is nearly inconceivable for us to imagine.

Last Thursday evening, I watched the movie Apollo 13 for the first time.  Although I am a movie buff, this was one that I had simply missed for all of these years.  What a great film, and of course, one of the most gripping scenes in the movie was when the crew aboard Apollo was in danger of dying from toxic levels of carbon dioxide.  With only a very short period of time and three lives hanging in the balance, a group of engineers at NASA had to find a way to create a square-shaped carbon dioxide scrubber fit into a round hole using only the materials the astronauts could access on a space ship.  There were no other options.

While not nearly as dire but perhaps easier to relate to, the evening following my screening of Apollo 13, I was travelling with my family by car to Penticton.  Along the way about an hour into our journey, the engine light in our car lit up and the vehicle started to hesitate.  As luck would have it, this happened at 4:45PM on a Friday, just the perfect time for any tired and hard-working mechanic who was ready to go home to their family on the weekend.  Groan.  Two hungry kids, a car full of stuff, and my wife and I limping the car to the nearest mechanic;  we were in full problem-solving mode.

Of course these examples were very different in terms of the magnitude of the stakes (life or death versus the family being on time for dinner with friends), but in each of these situations the participants had an urgent situation where there was an immediate need to generate ideas that could lead to a solution.  Some of the ideas might be 'way out there' and zany, but the situation dictated that (to quote the movie) 'failure was not an option'. The more ideas, the better, and right now is not soon enough.

In Apollo 13, they gathered all the material that would be available to the astronauts on the space shuttle, bounced ideas all over the place, and finally came up with a solution that worked.  It had to work.  In 'Birk 13', we quickly thought of who we might need to call, where we might need to stay, which of the things in our car were essential and not-so-essential to take with us, and what we would do should we not make it to the automotive shop.  We brainstormed ideas, thought about who could help us best, made a couple of crazy suggestions, and landed on a solution--just like anyone would.  We problem-solved, and in the end it all worked out.  It had to work out.

Bearing these examples in mind, when I reflect upon why we tend to be more of cautious when it comes to innovation, or worse, be the arm-chair innovator that sits back and fires shots at the innovation balloons that pass by, I think the answer might be quite simple.  We are cautious and critical when we have TIME to be cautious and critical.  When time is of the essence and when the situation is urgent, we tend to welcome any and all ideas en route to a solution.

In my own position, I want to make the best decisions that I possibly can for our school given the information that I have available to me at any given time.  However, if I want to model and create and environment that doesn't require us to "prove it before we put it out there", I have to try and balance 'making the best decision with the given information' with an urgency to look at things in new ways because I may not HAVE all of the given information from down the road.  There are times when I have to compress timelines, get everyone together, ask the shortest question possible, and trust the idea that we will solve the problem.  We have to solve the problem.

And taking that to a macro level, in education, do we have time to be cautious?  Or is it time for us to implement some radically different approaches the learner, the curriculum, the tasks that we ask children to do, and all of the people that educate our young people?

Take 12 minutes and watch this video.  I am betting it will challenge your thinking much like it challenges mine. And I am thinking that we don't have time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Educating Educators

The backbone of the book "Instructional Rounds in Education” by City, Elmore, Teitel and Fiarmen what they call “The Instructional Core”.  The instructional core is defined as ‘the essential interaction between the teacher and the student in the presence of content”.  Within this instructional core is the task, which, when properly created, can tightly align that which we intend students to learn and what they actually learn as a result of doing this work.

Evidence-based based or not, we would be hard pressed to find an educator who doesn't feel that the learner has changed in the last 15 years.  Since the advent of the internet, mobile devices and the ability for students to connect to whatever they wish whenever they wish to, most educators would say that it has become increasingly challenging to engage students with the content in their classrooms.  This is somewhat debatable--we are making a broad assumption that, prior to this ‘instant connectivity’, students were truly engaged in their subject content in the first place.  However, without doubt, there are an abundance of readily available, highly-personalized learning opportunities and distractions to our students of today:  these often make the environment for the learner outside of the school markedly different than their experiences inside of the classroom.  Whether we like it or not, there are many differences in the students of today versus those in the 1990s.

In response and concurrently with the changes in our students, numerous educational jurisdictions are attempting to change their approach to curriculum to provide students and teachers with more choice and opportunities for individualization.  Consider the following:
  • In Finland: Finland’s use of school-based, student-centered, open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum is often touted as an important reason for the nation’s success on the international exams. The national core curriculum provides teachers with recommended assessment criteria for specific grades in each subject and in the overall final assessment of student progress each year. Local schools and teachers then use those guidelines to craft a more detailed curriculum and set of learning outcomes at each school, as well as approaches to assessing benchmarks in the curriculum. According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment.
  • In British Columbia:   BC’s Education Plan states “while a solid knowledge base in the basic skills will be maintained, to better prepare students for the future there will be more emphasis on key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy. We can also connect students more directly with the world outside of school, with increased focus on learning these skills across topic areas.
  • In Alberta: “Inspiring Education and Curriculum Redesign are pointing the way to a reimagined system that will empower Alberta’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow in our communities, workplaces and society. It is about being innovative and creative about the ways we are using existing curriculum today and bringing the best parts of Alberta’s proud education legacy into a 21st-century context with our future curriculum to ensure that all learners have access to an excellent education that prepares them for a bright future.
And these are but three samples of dozens of cases of curriculum reform across North America and the world.  Curricula are changing to reflect the changing needs of students and demands of society.

So we see changes in the learner, and we see changes in the curriculum--but what about the other piece of this instructional core?   What about the educator?  In the seven principles of Instructional Rounds, City et al state “If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two to affect student learning.”  This makes sense to me--if the learner changes, and the curriculum changes, we have to ensure that the skill set and in some cases even the mindset of educators (at all levels--teachers, administrators, and support services) changes commensurately.  If we have a new curriculum which calls for students to develop an understanding of the role of technologies in shaping and influencing society, clearly we would have to work with educators so they could learn some of these technologies and be able to apply this knowledge to use them to shape and influence society themselves.  If we expect the students to be able to demonstrate this skill, clearly someone needs to demonstrate it to them.  Clearly.

Or maybe not so clearly. Are we actually helping educators learn?  Are we creating mechanisms that deliberately and consistently allow educators to themselves become the experts that we want them to be?   And most importantly, are we creating the environments that are conducive to learning and teaching in ways that we know are best for adult learning?

If I look at this wordle that was recently created by a hundred or so educators at a PD session I hosted, I have some questions. From the prompt “Teachers learn best when…”,  the group responses were summarized here:

in combination with the idea that “we learn by doing”, and then subsequently reflect upon the learning opportunities we have with educators such as staff meetings, team leader meetings, collaborative meetings, district meetings, professional development days and conferences, I really don’t know.  I really don’t know if we are doing all that should help each of the educators at every level in our school systems move in a way or at a pace that is commensurate with the changes that we see in curricula and the students of today.  

But we have the chance to change the way we educate educators.  We know that the tiny push off of the dock that teacher training programs at colleges and universities is not enough to last us a career.  We know that we have the chance to approach the aforementioned educator learning opportunities differently.  We just have to do things differently.  And I believe that it starts with a simple question:

"Are we educating the educators in ways that optimize their learning?" 

And if we aren't...why not, and how can we do it?

Sounds like something I need to look into more.