Sunday, 31 March 2013

Finding Fresh Focus

Photography is one of my favorite hobbies. My wife and I have had the good fortune to travel to some pretty amazing places. Capturing memories in pictures allows us to fondly recall our adventures quickly and clearly. Any photographer can tell you that finding focus is key to a great picture. In education focus can be just as important to ensuring effective progress.

The modern world bombards everyone with information and distractions. On top of the demands of daily life and the expectations of our jobs, educators also face  self inflicted distractions from our technology and gadgets. Smartphones, ipads, ipods, and other devices have gained a huge foothold in our lives. Even worse is the compulsive, almost addictive attitude we have developed towards the applications such devices carry. The internet, Facebook, blogs and Twitter, improperly used can become black holes of wasted time. I have heard Twitter described by some people as being an invaluable source of ideas and information, on par with the most outstanding professional development. Maybe so, but even the most casual follower of Twitter quickly becomes aware of people and organizations  that seem to live to post, follow, tweet and retweet with such fierce determination that one wonders when they find time to do anything else. With so many demands and competitive mechanisms seeking to gain our attention, the ability to focus on what really matters has never been more important.

Psych Central has a great webpage outlining tips to help people enhance their focus. It includes common sense advice like establishing gadget free zones, taking breaks to get outside, maintaining to do lists and limiting the number of applications open on your computer at any one time. Joseph Cardillo, in his book  "Can I Have Your Attention?: How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration" advocates asking a series of questions to train your brain to better focus. Such questions include:
  • Where am I at the moment? 
  • What do I want to gain from this situation?
  • What should I gain from this situation?
  • What have I done in similar situations in the past?
  • Do I want to change that? 
  • If so, how?
  • What do others expect to gain from the situation?
  • What attention does my environment demand from the situation?
  • What information that is entering my attention should be activated? 
  • What information should be restrained?   
Eastern Michigan University Associate  professor Brian Bruya similarly talks of collecting and shedding information cues in order to determine and deal with important tasks with greater ease and responsiveness. Bruya suggests its most important to concentrate on what really matters. Excluding extraneous stimuli can allow a person to deal with the task at hand more effectively and with greater ease.

The human brain can process an amazing amount of information. Psych Central reports that psychologists estimate we can process up to 40 bits of information simultaneously. Finding focus, however, is not about how much information we can take in all at once, but more about what we zero in upon to the exclusion of the all the other noise. Being able to focus on a few key tasks, complete them and do them well is really a much more valuable 21st Century skill than being overly wired in, over-connected, and over stimulated.Using the tools available can be great but it is also important to maintain focus on what really matters!

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Choosing Happiness

This post finds me writing from the mid point of Spring Break. By now hopefully most people have had a week to unwind and relax. With still another week of break to look forward to, I suppose the happiness level of most staff and students should be relatively high. But how will that happiness shift as next week slides by, and a return to education matters looms closer?

Its a popular social meme to dislike work. Aside from Disney's Seven Dwarfs, I've rarely encountered images of people happily setting off for their days work. Instead, its common to hear about dealing with the daily grind and the drudgery of doing mindless tasks for insufficient pay. This image does not improve for students either. Commercial media commonly depicts school as a place of mind numbing boredom, or as a scary and threatening environment built to deprive children of all hope or happiness. Society has created a myth that people have a right to be happy all the time and things that deprive us of our leisure cannot possibly make us happy.

Happiness is getting a lot of attention these days. Author Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project has spawned a website and a series of best selling books. Google happiness and you'll get literally thousands of hits. Many of these sites extol the virtues of happiness and promote the position that people have a right to be happy -the implication being that things that interfere with or get in the way happiness are bad and should be avoided.

I would suggest  that rather than being a right, happiness is actually more of a choice. When people buy into the myth that happiness is their right, they immediately set themselves up for disappointment. In her book The Myths of Happiness author Sonja Lyubomirsky identifies how the IF factor (I'd be happy IF I only had more money, the right job, better friends etc) actually works to keep people from attaining real happiness.  The truth is we all control our own happiness through the choices we make. Happiness is not found in what we get, it is determined by what we do with it. Happiness is an attitude and is most determined by how we choose to respond to adversity.

A recent post by Mariana Ashley at  The Change Blog states "We always have the choice to be happy. Learning to change our attitude is frustrating, but worth it in the end. When we choose to be happy, things tend to work in our favor, and luck seems to be on our side; and even if things don’t happen the way you want them to, if you choose to be happy, you can accept situations for what they are and make the most of life, no matter the hand it deals you."

A positive attitude, regardless of circumstances,  builds resilience, and that's a real 21st century skill. So here's hoping that everyone makes the most of the rest of spring break. May it put you in a positive and resilient frame of mind, so when next week comes around we can all choose to happily  return to education matters. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Embrace the Break

As I look outside at the still all too present piles of snow, it seems hard to believe that for the next two weeks our school district will be on Spring Break! Hopefully, many staff and families will be able to take full advantage of the holiday to rest and recharge in preparation for academic year's final quarter.

The tradition and need for a spring break are both long standing and self evident. Its a long haul from Christmas to Easter through some of the darkest and dreariest weather of the year. This year BC added a Family Day holiday to the school calendar in February, but one long weekend doesn't really compare to the luster and allure of two full weeks away from the regular routine.

While the holiday may have had its roots in the agrarian calendar and connections to the observance of Easter, there is solid and scientific evidence that the holiday break has a positive impact on physical and mental health. The insurance company Standard Life lists the benefits as stress relief, improved mental cognition, improved physical health, strengthened family ties and all round greater enjoyment of life.  National Public Radio (NPR) reports that holiday breaks give everyone time to restore balance to the lives, improve their health and sleep patterns and decrease their stress levels.

Most vacation studies focus on the benefits breaks afford to adult workers.  Some critics suggest that frequent school breaks may have an adverse affect on student learning. The spectre of summer learning loss is frequently raised in support of shorter holidays or year round schooling agendas. However, even those that argue over the appropriate length of holidays agree that well placed holiday breaks help to reduce student stress and burn out, have a positive impact on student mental and physical health and generally improve the mood and outlook of most students.

So here's hoping that this year, where ever we are and what ever the weather brings, we all get to enjoy a great spring break.  Whether our breaks involve travel, rest or just a break from the regular routine, let's take full advantage so that we can return to education matters re-energized and ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

DL and the 21st Century - Distributing Learning A Different Way

Its sometimes curious how circumstances combine to bring an issue into greater focus. A couple of weeks ago I wrote on how my passion for penguins has earned me many invitations to speak to students through out my district. One of the schools extending an invitation was our Northern BC Distance Education School (NBCDES)  That same week I also received an email from the school's principal sharing some frustration over comments made by BCTF President Susan Lambert about distributed learning.  Ms. Lambert had issued a president's message that included the following statements:

   “Some administrators are trying to relieve the pressure by encouraging students (elementary students as well) to enroll in electronic distributed learning (DL) courses. I find this practice unconscionable. While DL provides students who are unable to attend face-to-face classes a crucial alternative, it is not instruction that can ever replicate the richness of a classroom. DL should never be encouraged as an alternative to regular classroom programs unless a student is simply unable to attend school.”  

Ms Lambert's comments were made in the context of a larger article in which she was hi-liting the importance of non enrolling teachers and the TF's belief that the province needs to hire more than 6000 more teachers. (Her entire message can be seen at  ) With all due respect to the BCTF's support for ensuring public education is sufficiently staffed, my experience at NBCDES would indicate that DL instruction is much more than just an alternative for students who cannot attend a bricks and mortar classroom.

I regularly make presentations to students about my experiences with penguins. I had never done my presentation on line,  and didn't really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised at just how interactive and rich the teaching experience was. Students did indeed log in from a variety of locations both near and far, but through technology we were able to communicate visually, verbally, by text and by voice. The virtual classroom experience was every bit as vibrant as any face to face presentation I have made, and the students comments and questions, delivered by means of  online chat,  helped shape and guide the conversation just as much as when the students are sitting with me. I was impressed by how expert and comfortable the students were with the technology and was quite aware that in this setting, I was both a presenter and a learner. The patience and interest of both the staff and the students  was incredibly supportive. Everyone came away every bit as excited and charged up by the interaction as I have experienced in a "regular" classroom setting.

The point is, for this learning community,  I was in a regular classroom. As identified by LearnNow BC distributed learning is an important, vibrant growing field of education. Its objective is to offer the same courses as are on offer in a bricks and mortar school. More than just correspondence or distance ed, distributed learning offers a 21st Century alternative means of providing learners with a rich and vibrant learning experience. (More information on DL can be found at both the ministry's website or by contacting NBCDES )

Its significant to note that all of the staff at NBCDES have previously enjoyed success working in regular schools. These folks certainly model lifelong learning. Some of them have come to DL after more than twenty years of successful regular instruction practice. Their passion, enthusiasm and efforts on behalf of students belie the argument that somehow their efforts are less rich than those of their colleagues working in brick and mortar classrooms.

Distributed Learning represents a new way of reaching an ever diversifying student population. Whether they log in from next door or halfway around the world, the DE/DL experience  meets students where they are, and utilizes both the latest in technology and sound pedagogy. The heart of the DL experience is provided by quality teachers who care every bit as much about providing students a quality education as their colleagues in traditional school buildings. Contrary to the opinions of some,  DL is a field that needs to be acknowledged, accepted and celebrated, rather than viewed as an after thought or a threat to conventional education. The goal of public education is to prepare students to adapt to changing world where technology is playing an ever increasing role. Our DL staff and students live that goal every day.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Memory Learning :More than Just All She Rote

Memory learning seems to be getting a bad reputation these days. Its become common to condemn rote learning practices as "drill and kill" and the mechanical force feeding of ultimately useless facts to students so that they can regurgitate them for tests and then promptly forget them in order to prepare space for the next set of facts.  In the rush to embrace "personalized learning", encourage student creativity and promote engagement through greater flexibility in where, when and how students learn, the value of good memorization skills is getting shuffled to the sidelines.

Make no mistake - memorization is not always easy. It can take considerable time and consistent effort to commit something to memory. In a modern world with ready access to Google and the internet, one could argue that memorization is no longer a 21st century learning skill. But, while the need to commit things to memory may have indeed diminished, the value of being able to do so has not.

Justin Snider provides a well balanced view of the debate around the value of memorization in his Huffington Post article: Rote Memorization Over-rated or Under-rated?. In it, Snider suggests that while some aspects of rote learning may have deservedly earned a negative reputation, there may still be considerable value in learning things "by heart".  As Snider points out, memorization is a bi-product of true engagement. He goes on to give three key points in support of memorization. 

1. Its not as hard as one thinks but it is a challenge. Meeting and overcoming the challenge is an act in which students can take justifiable pride. 2. Its good exercise for the brain. In an age where technology is omnipresent, keeping the brain sharp and certain key facts handy is increasingly vital. Having a browser on your smart phone won't help you much if you can't remember your password! 3. Repetitive practice and review can allow students to find insights and knowledge that were missed the first time through. As Snider says "It's only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We're deaf and blind in our first encounters with things."  There's nothing inherently evil or bad with repetitive practice, provided we have a point and interest in learning the presented concept in the first place.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow makes similar points. He points out that, "All forms of mental flow depend on memory, either directly or indirectly. ... As far back as there are records of human intelligence, the most prized mental gift has been a well-cultivated memory.... Only in the past century, as written records have become less expensive and more easily available, has the importance or remembering dramatically declined. Nowadays a good memory is considered useless except for performing on some game show or for playing Trivila Pursuit.

But for a person who has nothing to remember, life can become severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that 'rote learning' was not an efficient way to store and acquire information. As a result of their efforts, rote learning was phased out of the schools. The reformers would have had justification, if the point of remembering was simply to solve practical problems. But if control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort. A mind with some stable content to it is much richer than one without. It is a mistake to assume that creativity and rote learning are incompatible. (p. 121 - 123)

Pointless memorization of materials without purpose or engagement can be a numbing experience, but committing valuable learning to memory by putting in the time effort and practice required to truly master a vital idea is still an achievement in which students can take pride. In an age where information is truly at our finger tips, feeding the passion to truly learn something by heart is a 21st century skill that still illustrates how education matters!