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The Eternal Classroom…

May 14, 2016 4 comments

“Professional development that is most relevant for teachers is focused on teachers’ real work, provides teachers with opportunities to make choices about their own learning, happens over time, and contributes to building a professional culture of collaborative learning.”                ~Kathy A. Dunne~

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Most of us envision schools as places where adults spend their time teaching children. Regardless of one’s pedagogical beliefs; constructivist, problem-based or old school transmission/bunch-o-facts, our concept of school is a place where only children learn. Though we recognize the need for  teachers to be trained, often this training (or professional development) is structured to occur out of school; at workshops, conferences or on training days.This structure does not serve either teachers or their students well.

I’ve been fortunate over my career to have had the chance to work with thousands of teachers in a wide range professional training contexts; from ballrooms filled with hundreds of teachers, to conference sessions and workshops, webinars and small group inquires. I’ve also had the chance to research all manner of professional learning structures and, in synthesizing these two sources of information, can summarize my belief about teacher professional training with the following theory of action:

If we use classrooms as places where both teachers and school leaders learn; then student learning will be richer, deeper and more impactful.

Over the past few weeks our staff have been engaged in some school-based professional learning focused on helping our teachers learn how they can use common assessment tools and practices to help them improve their math instruction.  We have put our teachers into small learning teams (3 or 4 members) and provided them with the time to express the challenges and questions they are wrestling with, explore common themes and patterns and connect them with the practices that may help us address these challenges.

It’s not a complex structure and it rests on the simple belief that teachers want to work together to improve their teaching.  In her article, Teachers as Learnerseducational researcher Kathy Dunne outlines 7 key aspects that all effective professional learning structures share:

  • Driven by a vision of the classroom
  • Helps teachers develop the knowledge and skills to create vision
  • Mirrors methods to be used by students
  • Builds a learning community
  • Develops teacher leadership
  • Links to the system
  • Is continuously assessed

Earlier in my career I served as a school-based Adjunct Professor for a teacher education program and upon completion of the program I would congratulate the teacher candidates with the following reminder; you don’t just have a license to teach, you also have a license to learn.  It’s folly to assume that all teachers enter the profession with all the knowledge and skills required to be successful. Teaching is a highly complex and specialized field that requires constant learning and that learning is best situated in the place where teachers ply their craft and, with colleagues who can best help them learn and grow.

John Hattie, in his work The Politics of Collaborative Expertise expresses the imperative that; rather than apply external pressures or mandates, school and system leaders focus instead on providing the structures and resources to support teachers to build their collaborative expertise; within and across schools. As a principal, I trust that the teachers I am leading wish to improve their classroom teaching and are eager to work with one another to do so; even if this learning is complex and demanding.

Teachers spend a large amount of their lives in classrooms; first as children and later as adults. It turns out that the best teachers continue to see the classroom as place where they can learn; we need all teachers to see the classroom this way.

This Year’s Model

April 9, 2016 10 comments

“The only way to learn mathematics is to do mathematics.”   ~Paul Halmos~

 

This week the Ontario Ministry of Education announced that they would be investing over $60 million in a province-wide teacher development strategy in mathematics. For those of us in the math community who have been fighting the good fight for years this was a “woo-hoo” moment (tempered,of course, with a sprinkling of “it’s about time”).

For those who like to reduce complex issues into simple media sound bites; it was another ripe opportunity to climb into the Edsel and bemoan the fact that we don’t teach the ‘facts’ anymore, lob a few rhetorical barbs using terms like ‘discovery math’ or  ‘back to the basics’ and engage in a little brand building for private tutoring programs and or advocacy groups designed to undermine the status and professionalism of our classroom teachers.

In the past, I’ve written about this issue in an effort to challenge these myths, share some of the research on effective mathematics teaching and provide those brave teachers who are actually working to improve their practice with the sense that this principal has their back. Writing about mathematics is an important part of my leadership and my learning.

It does get a little tiring when I hear good teachers and robust research dismissed as a ‘fad’ or categorized as some new age ‘yoga-like’ phenomenon- btw, why would anyone have a problem with yoga?  It especially grates me when retired teachers jump into the fray to undermine the efforts that our current teachers are engaged in to learn and grow their practice (so much for solidarity sisters & brothers).  It bothers me because it lacks logic and here’s why:

Extensive research has been done into the area of teacher knowledge, experience and classroom practice in mathematics and it has consistently revealed a common theme; most elementary teachers have a limited background in mathematics and express a lack of confidence in their teaching of this subject.  Of course, the obvious point to be made here is that these very same teachers are almost all  products of the very same teaching practices that are held up by the Edsel squad as the solution to this crisis in mathematics education (oops).  The other obvious point to be made here is that the solution to any lack of knowledge or confidence (with teachers or anyone else) is always the same- learning and training designed to close the gaps in practice and build the skill set of the workforce.

What I have learned from my own research and from over 20 years of working with students and teachers in the area of mathematics is that mathematics is a powerful tool for communication and understanding that requires a deep understanding of our number system and how numbers relate to, and operate with one another.  It is because most of us were taught just to memorize procedures without understanding that so many of us struggle with mathematics in our everyday lives. I also know that we rarely solve today’s problems (let alone those we we encounter in the future) with yesterday’s ideas.

In the video above, Dr. Cathy Fosnot (@ctfosnot) articulates how important it is for teachers to know how to help children model their mathematical thinking in order to push them towards an understanding of how our common procedures and algorithms actually function so they can use them appropriately- watch the video and you will be struck at the complexity of this task. Teachers can learn how to do this, I’ve seen it and done it myself. It’s not easy and requires (wait for it) professional learning- $60 million spread out over tens of thousands of teachers is a start.

Ultimately, mathematics is about asking questions while justifying and providing proof of one’s thinking; anyone who tries to convince you that they have a simple, magic bullet solution to teaching mathematics in a way that meets the diversity of learning needs and challenges of a typical classroom ought to be held to this expectation (as all classroom teachers are).

Next time the media wants to do a story on the teaching of mathematics I hope they seek out some of the skilled, innovative and effective teachers we have doing the job now; I’d be more than happy to pass along a few names…

 

The Inevitable Tension Between Standards & Individiuality

“…if we believe that the most powerful learning that kids do can only be measured by their desire to learn more, then any innovation we introduce must focus on creating fundamentally different experiences for kids in our classrooms, with or without technology.”  ~Will Richardson~

W.B. Cameron once remarked, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts,” We live in a world where measurement, classification and comparisons have become  part of our culture. We place a great deal of value on standardization, in the products we use, in the institutions we rely upon and systems we have created. Schools, because they support the priorities of our society, keenly reflect this reality. Ken Robinson expressed in this so eloquently in his noted TED Talk; it’s easy to see our schools as factories; where we process children in batches “based on their date of manufacture.”

I can understand why schools from the past were drawn to this type of thinking; they were tasked with preparing children for life and work in an industrial age. Learning was seen as a simple process- teachers transmitted knowledge to students, measured how much they had digested and then ranked and sorted them based on the results. In the industrial context, this type of thinking helped to ensure control and consistent quality- that is the essence of standardization. It’s easy for us to be drawn into this mode of thinking- we want our children to have the best, be the best and be able to compete in a global context.  Will Richardson’s writings prompt us to challenge this mindset with good reason.

Our schools struggle with the tension between standardization and individuality. As parents we value the unique and varied characteristics of our children and face the challenge of fostering pro-social growth and development while honouring each child’s drive to be who they want to be and do what they wish. We are social beings; but people (and children are people too) rightly resist environments where conformity and standardization confine them or they are reduced to a number. Children are not test scores, numbers, marks or levels- there is no such thing as a ‘level 3 student’– these are constructs of our system and do not reflect that our children are so much more that that. It’s time for us to think about what we want for our children; is it standardization or the fostering of individual development and potential?  Depending on one’s beliefs about this- our schools could look and feel very different.

Chasing Squirrels

February 25, 2016 1 comment

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”    ~William Shakespeare~

Confession, apparently is good for the soul and my confession is rich with irony. When I was a boy in school; I was that student. The one who often gazed out the window during class, rarely sat still (especially when told to do so), frequently called out when I knew the answer and, almost always brought home report cards that lamented my inability to ‘reach my potential’.

My parents aside, no one was more surprised at my career choice than I- why I made the decision to devote my adult life working in an institution that was often my sole source of torment is still, frankly, beyond me. Regardless of the why, I’ve worked hard over my 24 year career to explore how I could connect with, and engage all the students I have had the chance to teach. But I must admit my affinity with, and empathy for, those students who share the restless, sometimes compulsive, seemingly scattered and frequently creative characteristics that bind us- meet my people: the squirrel chasers.  

I grew up in an age where my impulsivity, apparent inattention and abundant energy were not viewed as a disorder but rather the byproducts of my gender and an underdeveloped character-something that a mix of stern discipline, frequent outdoor play and maturity would eventually fix. As infuriating as I’m sure I was to my parents; they knew and accepted me as I was; baffled that a child who could never seem to stop moving (even when asleep) quickly and, at an early age, learned to read, write, could absorb massive amounts of information and would habitually complete projects and  study “when I felt like it.” I envied my siblings and friends, they could sit still, they followed the rules and enjoyed blissful days in idyllic classrooms. As an educator, I’ve spent a lot of time working with, and reading about my people, the squirrel chasers. I’ve learned about what actually impacts learning, about effective teaching practices and about neurodiversity.

Over the next few posts I’m hoping to explore some of this research; this piece by Andrea Gordon in the Toronto Star offers a small sampling of how we need to be working to better understand, support and activate the potential of the squirrel chasers in our community of learners.                 

Real Math

February 4, 2016 Leave a comment

“Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics.”   ~Dean Schlicter~

It’s common for people to refer to the changes schools are making to the methods we use for teaching math as “the new math’ as if there has been some recent, radical change to the discipline of mathematics. This is actually inaccurate as the ways that people have represented mathematical ideas  (number symbols, drawings, models and charts) have not really changed much over the centuries. What has changed is our awareness of how mathematics can be taught and this is a function of both what we know about mathematics and how children learn.

It turns out that children learn best when they are engaged in tasks that are meaningful, authentic and provide just enough struggle to make it worth the effort. The short video from math teacher Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) gives some helpful examples of how real, everyday situations and contexts can be turned into meaningful math learning opportunities for students.

The example above differs from the traditional math instruction that is familiar to most of us and I have had many opportunities over the years to help guide conversations in this area. When working with parents and colleagues I find it’s helpful for them to know about my past experiences in the area of mathematics. Along with having taught math in almost every grade as a K-8 classroom teacher; I also had the opportunity, for several years, to work at the system level developing and leading mathematics professional development sessions for teachers from all over our district.

The ironic part about this, as my own parents would attest, is that my experiences as a math student in elementary and high school could only be described as abysmal.  I struggled greatly in my attempts to learn math- the times tables, the procedures, formulae and rules were all too confusing for me to keep track of or apply with any confidence. Upon graduation I refused to even consider taking any math courses when I moved on the university.

So when, as a novice teacher, I found myself in the awkward position of spending my first year having to learn the mathematics curriculum I would be teaching my grade 7 class-I’m happy to  report that my second experience learning grade 7 math was much more successful.  During that year (and in the years since) I realized that learning math requires the understanding that math is best learned through experiences, communication and the solving of real problems and not just through the memorization of the rules and facts found in textbooks. 

I didn’t really learn to appreciate and understand math during my time as a student in school. In fact, everything I have learned about math; both in my teaching and how I use math in my everyday life, I have learned since I began my teaching career- again in the real world.

The Opportunity of Neurodiversity

January 31, 2016 Leave a comment

“If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.”         ~Bob Dylan

The wonder and beauty of human life is its diversity. The fact that we have different skills, appearances and dispositions is one of the reasons we have been able to evolve into the capable, adaptive and successful species we have become. Difference is good; and diversity is our greatest strength. With this in mind; it’s important to stress that not all of us learn the same way, at the same pace and with the same level of interest and engagement.  The term that scientists now use to describe this is neurodiversity.

Over the past 20 years the information that neuroscientists and geneticists have made in understanding how the brain develops and operates has been staggering. So staggering that those of us who work in the related fields of education and mental health are only now beginning to understand the implications this knowledge can have on our practices. This needs to change. We now know that the assumptions that many of us have held about teaching and learning (as parents and as educators) no longer apply- particularly where it concerns students who learn and communicate using strategies or skills that don’t reflect the practices of traditional teaching methods.  

 We can no longer categorize students who learn or communicate differently as being disabled, or look at these differences as a defect or weakness- this diversity is our strength and the ways that all classroom teachers design teaching, learning and the assessment of learning needs to adapt to respond to these strengths. As a leader, I have a sense of urgency to create a climate where the staff I am leading can work together to learn, adapt and change how they teach so our school can respond the needs of all our learners.

It is time to change both our mindset and the tools we use; to use our creativity and our technology to adapt the ways that we design, assess and evaluate student learning. It’s time to change the ways we respond to student behaviour and alter the both the beliefs and the structures we use to provide remediation and  meaningful instruction in a way that values the diversity of each child in each classroom in every school. 

Success: More or Less?

November 28, 2015 Leave a comment

“The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common parking lot.”   ~Robert Eaker~

After a move to a new school in September and, what could only be described as an interesting fall, I’m starting to feel a little more settled with my (not so) new surroundings. Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to focus on getting to know the school community, the students, families and staff and see, more or less, how the school ‘works’.

It is often noted that there is greater consistency in practice across schools than within a given school. During 24 years in public education, working at 10 schools in various capacities; teacher, mentor and administrator I’ve had the opportunity to observe this phenomenon first hand.

The key challenge many schools and school systems face is one of both complexity and diversity. With so many variables and influences to factor; people, context and resources, trying to enact a change initiative is akin to the iconic cat herding commercial from a few years back.  Often, we are feel we need to respond to complex problems with complex solutions; but the more I think, read and reflect upon this, the more it occurs to me that these problems actually demand simple solutions and that require a focus on relationships and doing less, more effectively.

David Kirp, an American public policy researcher and author, wrote about this recently in his book Improbable Scholars.  One of Kirp’s main assertions is that successful schools and districts avoid trendy, fancy or complex improvement strategies and instead focus on these three key areas:

  • rich early learning opportunities for all children;
  • a strong focus on language-rich instruction across the grades, and;
  • professional learning for teachers using school-based collaborative structures.

Success, it turns out, is a matter investing more in the collaborative capacities of classroom teachers and less on the external factors and tools that we have come to rely upon in many of our schools.

For me the word that best describes a truly effective school is coherent. A coherent school is one where teachers direct their resources and focus towards the development of logical, well-organized, consistent and effective teaching practices across the school.  As a school leader my task is to engage the professionals I’m working with to create this coherence.  As an example, collaborative assessment of student learning is one area where digital tools can help immensely as we can use media tools to gather and analyse a wide range of authentic student work samples as our teachers make use of tools like Google Classroom and Dreambox to support both their classroom teaching and professional learning.

Though we may use new tools, technologies and strategies to accomplish this, it is not the intention to add ‘more’ to the work we do in schools but rather to reduce the use of ineffective or inefficient practices and establish the structures necessary for teachers to work together to create coherence and communicate in a meaningful manner with their students and families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Slippery Slope

November 21, 2015 2 comments

“The principal goal of education in schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”    ~Jean Piaget~

For the first time in almost 20 years, my school, along with the rest of Ontario’s public elementary schools are missing out on the annual ‘conversation’ about the results of the annual grade 3 and 6 provincial EQAO assessments.  EQAO opted not administer the assessments after public elementary teachers refused to participate in the testing process as  part of the work to rule sanctions imposed in the spring.  Whatever one’s opinions are on standardized testing (not the focus of this post) it has made for an interesting fall.

Normally, at this time of the year school and system leaders are responding to the results on multiple fronts. Depending on the numbers, one could be dancing in the hallways and serving cake in the staff room, or sweating through an angry parent meeting trying to articulate the plan that will raise the scores and floating in stream of the annual media hand wringing about the decline of our system and our inability to ‘compete’.

Serendipity being what it is, our school board did engage in some broadly-based data collection last year- we conducted a system-wide student engagement survey. Near the end of the school year students in grades 5 to12 were invited to complete a questionnaire on a few key aspects of their life at school.  Over 52,000 students completed the survey (mostly online) representing 72% of our student population- a pretty robust sample size.

One of the key areas the survey focused on was how our students perceived their schools as engaging, modern learning environments.  A slice of data in this area of our student survey is represented below:

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The percentage values on the left (light blue) represent responses from our gr.5-8 (middle school) students and those on the right (navy) are responses from our gr.9-12 (high school) students.  What is noteworthy for me is the quantity of students who feel that their voices, values and interests are not evident in the school they attend and the decline in each category’s percentages from the middle school to high school results.

 

It reminds me of the results reported from the survey the Gallup organization conducted with a similar aged cohort of over 500 000 American students in 2012. An 80’s themed piece on this report can be found in The Atlantic .

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Engagement and motivation are essential for deep learning. Whatever one’s stance or perspective is on what school should be; it’s pretty clear to me our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that school is not what it could be. Do we really wish to be part of a system that gradually erodes the enthusiasm and joy of learning of the majority of the children it is designed to serve?

This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an address by Will Richardson in which he challenged us to consider the beliefs we hold about our own learning and reflect upon whether these beliefs were evident in the actions we take in our schools and classrooms.  I think (hope) most of us know that the things we do to children do not reflect what we know we ought to be doing- and yet we persist.

Regardless of your role, if you work in schools now, knowing what our students have told us, how will you respond?

Fair is Fair…or is it?

November 18, 2015 2 comments

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.”     ~Georg Christoph Litchenberg

 

The talk linked to this post is powerful, thought provoking and was, for me, disturbing.  Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, legal scholar, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hopefully you will grab a bag of popcorn, dig in and watch the talk before you read this post. That is, after all, why I often ink my posts with media content.

Schools are complex systems; the interactions of children, families and educators are complicated- with moments of joy, outbursts of conflict and a level of intensity that is powerful. So powerful that emotion can, at times, trump reason and a balanced perspective.  This is no more true than those times when children harm one another, respond to perceived injustices by acting out or challenge rules that they feel are unfair.

There was a time when we used terms like ‘zero tolerance’ to describe school discipline practices and policies- with the belief that punishment would be enough to ensure that students wouldn’t hurt one another or challenge the existing authority structures of the school. I reject this belief for a simple reason- it doesn’t really work.

Bryan Stevenson explains how and why it doesn’t ‘work’ with much more eloquence, authority and urgency that I ever could-I won’t even try (so watch the video-please).

What I will add is this-only because it is based on my experience as a father and an educator. Punishment doesn’t work because when we punish we are not teaching. As Ross Greene reminds us, children behave the way they can; based upon their experiences, state of mind and well being. Teaching requires that we understand the child’s needs and create the conditions for them to connect, reflect, communicate and learn. Whether it is learning about our number system, the events of our past, the elements of effective narrative writing; or what to do when you have harmed another person.

This is why effective schools -and enlightened youth police outreach programs- focus on restorative justice approaches. When children learn to accept responsibility and repair the harm that they have done we work towards solving two problems- the harm that was caused and the issues and challenges that led to the harm in the first place.

In my experience, the students who are subject to the most disciplinary responses exist on the margins-  they have language or learning difficulties, mental health concerns like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or live in communities with limited resources, poverty or weak family support structures. Schools are supposed to serve to counter to these influences- not accelerate them- this is what it really means to be ‘fair’.

 

Perception Deception

November 5, 2015 Leave a comment

The eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend.      ~Robertson Davies~

We are products of a lifetime of experiences and the perceptions these experiences foster. Some may be familiar with the anecdote about the teacher who mistakenly mixed up the previous year’s class list test results and launched into the school year believing that the group with the high results was actually the one with low results – and vice versa.  The subsequent confirmation bias, with a year of high performance from the low scoring class, may or may not be true (the web, after all, is a boundless source of these stories) but it sure makes a poignant tale.

The video above makes a great point about how we perceive the children and families we work with in our schools. Every one has a story-a set of experiences that they carry around in their hearts and minds. In schools we think a lot about the ‘stories’ our students carry and, when we are at our best we try to learn and understand these stories so we can better teach them.

Of course- we have our ‘stories’ as well.

I wonder if we are aware of the perceptual lenses we carry? Each of us has a lifetime of experiences that form the basis of our stories and these influence the opinions and decisions we make about our students and their families.

Something to think about…

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