Sunday, 24 June 2012

From 3 R's to 4 P's

At a recent meeting in Vancouver educators from a number of BC school districts discussed what it will take to ensure that students keep getting quality teaching and learning experiences as they move deeper into the 21st century. Hard to believe but we are already more than a decade into the new century and still many educators talk like its something new. In the last century education dedicated itself to providing students access and proficiency in the 3 R's - reading, writing, and arithmetic. (As an English teacher, it still seems ironic that alliteration took precedence over spelling!) In the new century it appears that the R's, while still important, may need to give space to three P's - play, passion and purpose, if education is to keep students meaningfully engaged.

3 P's are prominently featured in Tony Wagner's book "Creating Innovators - The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World". Wagner identifies a pattern—a childhood of creative play leading  to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion, and purpose become the forces that drive young innovators. Wagner also discusses the education system and how it might better promote such a pattern.

Certainly the the three P's resonate within the BC education system. Though elements of all three P's should be present throughout a student's school career, the play, passion, purpose progression aligns neatly with the primary - intermediate - secondary system currently evolving in Peace River North.  Channeling the energy and enthusiasm that is common within our primary grades into increasingly individualized learning in the often turbulent middle years, should generate secondary students who learn with purpose and drive.

A strength of such a system is that everyone has a role to play. Educators certainly need to innovate and engage students, but the students themselves, and their families have to play their part. Awakening, developing and exploring possibilities must be a shared responsibility, and all parties need to keep the others accountable. Tuning out and turning off when things get hard or do not come easily cannot be an option regardless of whether one is in the class, in front of it or supporting it from home. Partnership becomes the fourth, and possibly most important P!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Thinking Outside The Box Moves A Meet Inside

Last week our district held its elementary track and field championships. With well over 400 student participants, dozens of officials and hundreds of events, heats and events, staging this annual event is a major undertaking. Throw in the challenges of an uncertain labor climate and people start to think the challenge may be too much. Add inclement weather that turns the outdoor facility into a bog and cancellation becomes a near certainty.  Not for this school district.  Thinking outside the box, a small group of individuals rallied to pull off this year's meet in a unique fashion.

Discussion about whether or not to cancel this year's meet began back in February. With job action dragging on, it was unclear whether the staffs of the two hosting schools would be willing or able to participate. Veteran administrators who had staged the event before expressed concerns but the young administrators responsible for this year's event remained confident. A month prior to the meet principals were surveyed to gauge school's interest and willingness to contribute time to help officiate the event. A decision was made to go forward, recruiting a retired teacher with a long history of expertise in track and field to serve as meet coordinator.

As the meet approached some of our veteran staff came forward to take on roles they had held at past meets. Everything looked promising. Then the rains came. Four days of torrential downpours turned the venue to a muddy lake. The event looked literally dead in the water. The initial date was washed out and there was no hope the track would recover in time for the back up date four days later.

That's where this story takes a twist. While returning timing equipment to the Pomeroy Sports Centre (PSC),  our winter sports complex, our meet coordinator explained our problem to the facility manager. She then suggested the meet move indoors and utilize the speed skating oval, free of ice for the summer as our track. Long distance events could be held on the walking track on the third floor and the field events on the dry floor space where the hockey arenas sit. The idea was not without challenges but with the cooperation of the city, the support of district staff and maintenance, and hours of tireless innovation from our meet coordinator and his core group of volunteers the winter facility was turned into an indoor track and field facility in only 72 hours.

As luck would have it the weather was fair the day of the meet but no one really minded. The meet came off on time and with only a few minor tweaks - not unlike what would have happened outside anyways. The staffs at the two hosting schools pitched in with enthusiasm, a free canteen was provided for all participants and the event finished on time to many positive reviews. Administrators from all across the district donated their day and officiated the event. With the event happening inside the instructional day teacher coaches were able to participate with their students. The event became a success for everyone. There's even a suggestion that the meet should now be held at the PSC every year.  

One end of the PSC houses our SD 60 Energetic Learning Campus. Staff and students wear tee shirts that read "you know you're Canadian when your school is in a hockey arena" It must make us even more Canadian when our track meet is held there too! The whole event demonstrated the power of collaboration, cooperation and creative thinking as many diverse groups pulled together to benefit students. Following tradition would have left the meet 'dead in the water". Some creative "outside the box" thinking brought the meet indoors and provided everyone with a great day.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What Students Need to Bring to Their Education

Recently the BC Ministry of Education distributed a video entitled "What Do You Want From Your Education System?" The two and a half minute video features students, teachers, parents and community members stating their desires and ambitions for BC public education. The video includes many diverse ideas like having  persons use their own technology to communicate better with teachers, ways of supporting student career aspirations,  and  providing an interesting though more concise curriculum.  Good as far as it goes, the video describes only half of what is essential in a positive learning environment - providing what  people want. The other essential piece is what people are prepared to do to get what they want. 

Much has been made of the need to engage students and to provide them with opportunities that interest and challenge them. It might also be appropriate to promote an increased level of commitment from the students as well. In January of 1961 president elect John F Kennedy challenged Americans and the world with his famous "ask not" inaugural address. The much quoted "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" line was preceded by a series of statements that begin "let both sides......". Kennedy's speech eloquently underscores the need for both parties in any partnership to be bring their best to the table.

. Julia G Thompson, author of "The First Year Teacher's Survival Guide"captures the frustration of many teachers when she writes:
"There are many reasons for the unwaveringly feeble effort that many students present at the first sign of a challenge. For many students, the fear of their work not being “good enough” is paralyzing. Rather than earn a failing grade from a teacher, they give it to themselves by just not doing the work.  Other students are so accustomed to overly helpful adults who respond to their learned helplessness with so many hints and clues that they do not really have to think for themselves. Unfortunately, this pattern of behavior is all too recognizable. These are the students who ask others for the page number rather than check a table of contents, ask dozens of anxious questions rather than read the text for information, of who put their heads down on their desks rather than work independently for any length of time. Whatever the reason, it is possible to mitigate these patterns of learned helplessness." 

Thompson goes on to provides an extensive list of 'how to" tips to assist teachers in developing patterns and habits of persistence in students. While no one questions the obligation of education systems to provide quality education opportunities, the responsibilities of the learners should also be remembered. Students certainly need to be passionate about what they are learning, but they also need to be persistent, tenacious learners capable of dealing with adversity, resilient in the face of set backs and willing to patiently put in the time and effort required to acquire and hone new skills.
 It is also useful to remember that there really is no substitute for hard work, or putting in the time and effort needed to master a skill. The 10,000 hour rule, first postulated by Anders Ericsson and made popular by Malcolm Gladwell"s book "Outliers" argues that attaining expertise in any skill demands a dedication to meaningful practice. Gladwell repeatedly references the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a tremendous extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. In short, hard work can be measured in terms of the amount of time one is willing to devote to the task. In our modern fast moving world, with its bias towards easy and instant gratification, there is a real danger that the message that real learning takes time and hard work can be lost.

Its important to ask what people desire from their education system. The answers the BC Ed Plan is receiving should help develop a better system for everyone. It is also important to remember what an education system requires of its members. Passionate, persistent, dedicated learners, willing to put in the time required to master skills will also help push BC's education system to the forefront in the quest for quality 21st century learning. 


Sunday, 3 June 2012

From Hard Talks to Courageous Conversations

As the year winds down educational leaders will assess the year that's been, and plan for the year to come. Many conversations need to happen. There will be conversations around district targets, school goals, budgets, professional growth and institutional change. Where progress has been made, the conversations can be easy, even celebratory. Where things have not gone so well, or where change is required, the conversations will be hard. 

Hard conversations can be challenging, to say the least. Few people enjoy being the bearer of bad news. Many people are uncomfortable communicating information that is likely to generate conflict, anger, resistance or any other negative response. Administrators sometimes put off difficult exchanges with staff as they fear the talk might make things worse. They hope problems will resolve themselves without intervention; an unlikely option at best. Sooner or later it must be recognized that putting off difficult conversations helps no one. Not having these conversations can even be more damaging than any hurt feelings or negative response, for by putting off the conversation, one is putting off any remediation and bad situations  can fester or get worse.

In 2009/2010 the Ontario Ministry of Education recognized having the hard conversations as one of the five core leadership capacities the ministry wanted to develop in all its educational leaders.  Characterizing such communications as "Courageous Conversations" Ontario sought to temper their perceived unpleasantness by emphasizing their importance and relative value if done well. In an article entitled Ideas Into Action, "The Case For Courageous Conversations" the ministry acknowledged and affirmed that such conversations were not easy but still vitally important. The article includes the statement:

If we are leading for improvement, we are inevitably leading for
change and can expect some degree of discomfort, disagreement
or resistance along the way – whether on the level of the individual,
or the organization. Change often challenges our deeply-held beliefs,
and as John Kenneth Galbraith famously said, “Faced with the choice
between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to
do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”. Open, authentic,
truthful dialogue, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, is the key
ingredient that makes meaningful change possible.

Further on, the document lists 18 reasons why administrators sometimes avoid courageous conversations. The list includes many familiar excuses ranging from "I want people to like and respect me" to "If I just wait for the right moment" all the way to "I just don't have the energy today". Reading the complete list gives all of us ample opportunities to uncomfortably recognize ourselves from some situation or another.

If the conversations must be held, the next question is how to do them well and effectively. Effective administrators need to be well practiced in the soft skills of clear and honest communication. Discretion, tact and diplomacy help as well. Jill Eisner of Poynter.Org  suggests that PFF - Preparation, focus and followup, are essential. In getting ready for a conversation come fully prepared with facts and context. Don't lose focus or be side tracked by the distractions or protests of others, and follow up in order to document and benchmark the key points.

Whether characterized as courageous, or just plain hard conversations that deal with difficult or contentious matters are part of an educational leader's job. Hoping and waiting usually won't make issues go away. Taking on the challenges in an appropriate, honest and diplomatic manner can help take the sting out of a problematic issue and clear the way for future progress and more pleasant conversations in the future.