Saturday, 26 May 2012

When Less is More

This week our district played host to a regional meeting to discuss proposed changes to the way curriculum is developed and presented. The common lament about there being no time or way for teachers and students to cover everything was acknowledged, and a shift to a new way of doing things was proposed. "Wouldn't it be nice" one presenter asked, "if at the beginning of the year teachers could wonder about what they could add to the curriculum instead of worry about what they might have to leave out?"

The new BC Education Plan, with its emphasis on personalized learning and 21st century skills, is also looking at curriculum. Under the Plan, teachers, students and parents will work together to make sure every student’s needs are met, passions are explored and goals are achieved. This means student-centered learning that’s focused on the needs, strengths and aspirations of each individual young person. Students will play an active role in designing their own education and will be increasingly accountable for their own learning success. It’s all about putting students at the centre of education. That means giving teachers and schools the flexibility to make sure each student is well served by their educational program. Each student is unique and our education system will support each student’s interests and ways of learning. 

Under the plan, Curriculum will be redesigned to reflect the core competencies, skills, and knowledge that students need to succeed in the 21st century.  A curriculum with fewer, but higher level outcomes will enable deeper learning and understanding. Teachers and students should benefit from the increased flexibility that will be key to making sure that students' passions and interests are realized, as well as their different and individual ways of learning without sacrificing the core competencies that ensure every student acquires the base knowledge required to successfully deal with an ever changing world.

The Ministry appears to be serious about implementing change, and it is also serious about hearing from people who matter in education: students, parents, educators and the general public. In addition to meetings such as the one held this week in SD 60, the Plan is online complete with interactive functions, twitter feed and a multitude of methods for folks to find out more and respond. Anyone with a question or a point of view has the means to make their voice heard. Comments are collected, published in newsletters and put out on display for evaluation and further response. Regardless of  our ongoing labor issues work on the BC Ed plan is pressing ahead. Our regional meeting was well attended by teachers, trustees, administrators, parents, students and district staff, and many of them liked what they heard. Hopefully the day when all partners in public education can consider what they can add to the basic curriculum to enhance student learning will be here sooner than we think!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Growing A New Mindset

In their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath focus attention on how to effect transformational change. One of their most effective chapters deals with the issue of mindsets. Examining the work of Carol Dweck, with its focus on set and growth mindsets,  the Heath brothers explore implications for educators if they buy into the growth mind set theories.

Dweck divides people into one of two main mind sets. Those with a fixed mind set believe talent and intelligence is set. Individuals learn or achieve to the level of their natural abilities. In a growth mind set people believe that abilities are like muscles; that with practice and training they can be improved over time.

For educators the growth mindset should be a no brainer. What are teachers doing if not helping students to exercise their brains and to learn practice and hone new skills? All teachers come to the classroom hoping to help students. In a growth mind set model however,  the process matters just as much as the result. Students are taught to try and to keep practicing as they get better at a presented skill. There is not the expectation that mastery will be always be attained on the first try; instead the understanding is that difficult tasks are mastered through repeated and sustained effort. Failure is an option, but rather than be seen as a stigma or catastrophe to be avoided at all costs, it can become part of the learning process.  Mistakes and failures become part of the journey as students learn from them, rather than being destinations that permanently mark students down as less than capable.

A growth mind set fits nicely with initiatives within AFL (Assessment for Learning) As pointed out at, the growth mindset leads to optimal learning. Sucess breeds further success as students build and expand upon subjects that interest them, and negative experiences become challenges to expand one's abilities and to improve and grow. Assessment becomes an instrument of direction rather than a measuring stick to determine worth.

Other principals such as George Couros have noted that a growth mindset, while valuable for inspiring persistence and efforts in all learners, can also have a tremendous positive impact on student who already excel. In his blog entry "More than an A" Couros explains:
"One of my big questions that I have in the traditional model of grading is the following; when a student receives an ‘A’ for their work, why is there a need to continue?  You have set the criteria, the student has met it, why move forward?  With the idea of this “growth”mindset, we want our students to move way further than an ‘A’."

With a set mindset students need only clear the hurdles. With a growth mindset the heights they can reach are unlimited. In this era of rapid change the growth mind set is an idea worth investigating and supporting. It instills a sense of resilience and perseverance in learners by valuing their efforts and inspires students to pursue learning that interests them as far they can go. Resilient achievers - sounds like a worthy goal to me.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Charting an Uncertain Future: Dealing With Ambiguity

Friday was our district's planning day. Traditionally schools use the day to review plans, assess data, determine progress made towards goals and to reformulate or adjust objectives in  an effort to make a positive impact on the future. This has been a very different year. In some schools planning day was one of the first  times entire staffs could meet and work together in unambiguous and meaningful ways. Reviewing a year punctuated by job action, meant that some of the traditional benchmarks were hard to measure or assess. The future offers few certainties beyond the inevitable promise that  the current situation will be resolved - eventually. The lack of familiar patterns and routines, likely left many educators dealing with high levels of  anxiety and ambiguity.

Ambiguity is defined as uncertainty or inexactness of meaning, often emerging from a failure to choose between alternative points of view.  Given the the current distance between the bargaining positions of the BCTF and BCPSEA, it  cannot be a surprise that high measures of uncertainty hung over this year's efforts.  Labor issues aside, an examination of the new BC Ed Plan indicates that coping with ambiguity is considered a valued 21st century learning skill. After all, the preface to the plan states "many of the opportunities and jobs we’re preparing our students for don’t even exist today". We are definitely preparing students for an uncertain future.

So if we know what we are facing, a bigger question is how do we do it? Microsoft Corporation, has embraced dealing with ambiguity as one of its key learning competencies for educators. Citing the ability to deal with uncertainty as a strategic skill, Microsoft suggests educators must strive to effectively cope with change; shift gears comfortably; make decisions and act without having the total picture; and comfortably handle risk and uncertainty as a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, lead to professional success. Their learning competencies web site offers a wide variety of tools and suggestions to assist educators in identifying and dealing with ambiguity,. The site includes a matrix for self assessing one's ability to deal with ambiguity, professional readings and a variety of suggestions to help turn a quality that frequently induces anxiety and indecision into a force for improving personal and educational efficacy. 

In the past ambiguity was seen as something to be avoided. Certainty was required if one was to enjoy a level of professional success. Today all that seems certain is that the pace of change is increasing rapidly, and no one should count on present circumstances staying the same for long.  An ability to deal with change and a degree of comfort with ambiguity are now skills we all must work at mastering.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Putting the Extra into Extra Curriculars

Last month, as part of the ongoing dispute with the provincial government, the BC Teachers Federation  withdrew its support for all extra-curricular events. This month concerned administrators in SD 60 found ways to sustain several of these events including the district badminton tournament and elementary track and field day. It would have been very easy for everyone to simply throw up their hands and let extra curriculars slide until the labour issues are settled, but this did not happen. The reason? Extra curricular events are just too valuable to let them go.

Research indicates that participation in extra curricular events is one of the most important factors that helps students to engage with their school, and subsequently their learning. In the United States, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) has clearly established positive links between student participation in extra curriculars and improved classroom performance and behavior. Laurence Steinberg, author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10–25, suggests that kids who are involved in clubs and sports spend an extra couple of hours a week with an adult, usually a role model like a drama director or a football coach. Typically students build positive relationships with their adult mentors, and don’t want to disappoint them. Often this relationship can be used to advantage in the classroom. Extracurriculars make school more palatable for many students who may otherwise find it bleak or unsatisfying.  Grades improve not because of what kids are learning in their extra curricular event, but because the extra curricular is making them enjoy school more. They show up more often, find a circle of like-minded friends, and become more engaged at school.

Even without the benefit of knowing the research many veteran SD 60 principals intuitively recognize the value of strong extra curricular programming. Despite absorbing additional duties and responsibilities in this difficult time, these principals are making the time for extra curriculars because they know that the time invested outside the regular day pays dividends inside the classroom. These principals deserve thanks and appreciation for their willingness to go the extra mile when it would be so easy, even reasonable for them to stop. 

It is also very encouraging that when this year's elementary track meet was in danger of being cancelled, many of the district's younger administrators stepped forward to volunteer. It has been suggested that a commitment to extra curricular events is a generational quality that might be lost as more experienced principals retire. The willingness of younger administrators to get involved is a positive sign.

In less contentious times there are also many dedicated teachers who recognize the value of extra curricular involvement. It is little wonder that the decision to withdraw from extra curriculars was agonizingly difficult for the BCTF, and many of its members. Once labour issues are resolved it is to be hoped that these folks will return to their voluntary roles as coaches and mentors. 

Our elementary district track meet is set for early June. On that day I know where I'll be. Barring mishap,misadventure or re-assignment, I'll be near the starting line in my capacity as official starter. Hopefully, district staff will all be out in force supporting those who support students. Working together we make things better for everyone. Having a little fun outside of the classroom  in order to enhance the learning within it, is always time well invested.