Monday, December 19, 2011

barriers to change

Public education is at a crossroads in BC. As our British Columbia Ministry of Education contemplates how best to implement its new BCED plan for reforming our education system, the government's representatives (BCPSEA) continue to meet for fruitless contract negotiations with the teacher's union (BCTF).  As of Dec 7, 2011, they have met 61 times, and have reached no significant agreements on any major bargaining items. The Ministry agenda and the lack of bargaining progress are no doubt related, as the BCPSEA has made it quite clear that changes to the teacher's contract are necessary in order to allow government the ability to realize its educational plan. In return, BCTF would rather have discussion about educational reform take place at local levels where there is more accountability, experience, and context, and is holding out for contract improvements. Their respective arguments for themselves and against their enemies is easy to find on their websites. Search BCPSEA or BCTF.
Whichever side you support (or trust), change is on the table; the charge against our education system is that it represents 20th century adaptations to a 19th century model, and that we need to focus more on a 21st century approach. This is characterized, arguably (and variably) as a flexible system of personalized learning, problem-solving, embedded/disruptive technology, teachers less as content experts and more as learning consultants, and community-based or contracted learning activities. This contrasts with 20th century education which might be defined by an emphasis on knowledge, a reliance on "brick and mortar" schools, teachers as lecturers, and batch processing of students doing the same thing at the same time. Some would suggest that the current reforms are intended to starve traditional learning scenarios and replace them with cheaper ones that require less teachers, staff, and buildings. Rural schools have already felt this sting. 
Regardless of how urgent these new changes seem to be, the reality is that our school system has always been a set of compromises. Any one of the competing reform agendas has consequences to the system that limit other changes -- decision-making structures, role of technology, class composition, class size, prep time, common and/or standardized assessments, assessment reform, collaborative models, control of professional development, new elective programs, and so on.  Make big changes in one area, and something else will suffer, and too seldom do we replace the lousy ideas with better ones. Decrease class sizes, there is less money for technology. Allow teachers to co-develop vision and make decisions, and the ability of administration to affect change is limited.  Start a new cross-curricular program and other core programs get squeezed. Provide flexible hours and blended learning environments and the ability of parents to work full-time is affected. Add more math and elective programs decline. Add more choice schools and students no longer have neighbourhood schools. Provide robust bus service and classroom funding suffers. Insist on network stability and security and lose out on user-generated innovation and differentiation. This could go on forever; the point is that driving hard towards a new goal usually comes at a price to processes or relationships that were already satisfying a need.  I’m not one to defend the status quo, quite the opposite, but I understand how compromises are crucial if any change is to last. Very skilled, progressive, inclusive, and forgiving staff can often work out these compromises and make a school a successful balance of good ideas. Trying to push a particular education reform, especially where progressive thinking and inclusion are lacking or too many ideas are at play at the same time, and the school stalls out on change -- all the successful programs and practices come to a stop as the “new thing” gets pushed. There are indeed some exceptional schools and programs in which a single sustained vision is able to take root and flourish, maybe an exclusive private school, or a program targeted at teen moms, and so on, but large-scale public education is not sustained on singular visions or niche clientele. I’ve also met a few fantastic teachers who can pursue their vision come hell or high water and have students and parents respect them for it, they are masters at their craft and often pull entire schools along with them. There are also some schools, I imagine, with remarkable principals possessed of brilliant ideas; but these, too, require some patience, balance and broad foundations among staff in order to secure long-term success when the principal inevitably moves on. Getting the most out of change cycles, and sustaining successful programs and positive relationships among educational partner groups requires something less toxic than the current climate, with an emphasis on management directing the activity of teachers while counting on them to make undefined/unrefined concepts of reform take hold. Schools operate within a set of licenses: social, educational, political, economic, perhaps environmental, and the dynamic between these licenses requires complex management and paradigmatic compromise. It falls on leadership among administrations, teachers, and others, to manage these licenses, and inevitably on teachers to figure it our student by student. It is not fair to task teachers with the burden of system change nor to leave it to administration and board offices to design learning scenarios for students and control all aspects of district learning and working conditions. The challenge must be shared and some kind of balance between a respectful role for teachers in system change that does not make them scapegoats or reduce the basic autonomy that we enjoy that has provided virtually every innovation and successful program in our school district in the last 30 years. Barriers to educational change are well-studied (e.g. here's a random search result with plausible arguments), but I'm thinking more about the ongoing barriers and politics that our BC system, from the local to provincial, faces in 2012.
I would suggest that both the Ministry and BCPSEA will have more success if they realize that the barriers to change lie not with the teachers or the teacher contract, but with the leadership models that are tasked with managing change at the school, district, and provincial levels. There is much room for the teacher contract to evolve, but agreeable changes will only take place when the inconsistent words and actions of the leadership model are addressed. To put it bluntly, teachers will respect change when their own efforts to lead change are respected and supported, and when their own educational leaders can model change and show it to be successful. Teachers want their principals and district leaders to be good teachers, to have actions consistent with their talk, or failing that, to get out of the way and let good ideas flourish where they originate. The most powerful experiment a leader can undertake is to have some faith in the ability of others to produce change and to say yes when they offer to lead. I would allow that we need better mechanisms for dealing with ineffective teachers and administrators, whether it be retraining for another profession or a program of development for addressing the concerns, but we don’t need to shake the entire set of licenses (contracts, expectations, relationships) to make this happen. 

The government wants to conduct a large-scale social and educational experiment by designing a system in which the experimentation must take place, instead of simply supporting the experiment in progress and seeking (contractual) changes when it can see the results. For example, many of the key tenets of 21st century learning have been practiced and pushed by teachers and a few principals for at least twelve years in our school district, and yet it is only recently that the board office talk has caught up with what has been going on.  Perhaps fearing a loss of control, the board office has in fact put the brakes on 21st century learning projects for some of this time, slowing the process of change and in some cases disassembling processes that supported change. I've witnessed and documented this trend too often -- teachers (and occasionally administrators) suggest and lead change in real contexts that involve actual groups of students, only to be held up with bureaucracy and a fixation on control and government-mandated rhetoric; they are blocked or sidetracked by their own school board office. This is exactly the kind of evidence that is anathema to the BCTF/BCPSEA discussions, because the government is not at the stage where they want to see that the barrier to change is not with teachers. The vocal teachers, with their left-leaning union and sky-is-falling rhetoric, make an easy target for the simplistic arguments of the BCED plan (that we're stuck in a previous century). The intricacies of school district politics and organizational management are harder to unravel, but I suggest this would be the better place to start if the goal is system transformation. Of course, it would make the labour dispute easier to resolve, too, if both parties could remove their fixation on the cliché-fest of 21st century learning. All parts of our education system should be willing to venture a new approach to education, but should not be anxious to break up the foundations of the teaching profession in order to do so. In this way we get to the education system we deserve, never perfect, but possessed of admirable qualities from many centuries and one that adheres to a vibrant societal license that respects both the requirements and demands asked of its educators. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's in the attic?

One of the ways we started off our SS10 Heritage Project was to ask about the kinds of artifacts that students knew about in their homes. What's the oldest thing in the house? What would you save if your house was on fire (the family and pets are safe, the electronics are covered by insurance, and we'll assume your data is backed up)? What object has the most interesting story behind it? Many students came up with stuff right away -- photo albums, war medals, antique clocks, ancient tools, and so on.  For me it would probably be a shelf full of rare books and a small box full of relics, like the coins that survived my great-grandfather's house fire in the 1930s. A few students had artifacts that were more than 200-years old (e.g. spoon, hymnal, travel-desk), but many more had no clue. These students were encouraged to find out what was lurking in their attic or basement, maybe even their mantel (if they still have such a thing), and start asking about how their family history, for better or worse, is expressed in the way their home is configured now. Many of these objects have made their way to our classroom (physically or virtuually through photo and video) and have anchored student presentations. Yesterday M.J. presented her project, describing her parents' life in South Africa before and (briefly) after apartheid.  Her ancestors had, for the most part, gotten on well with black families and had received gifts or purchased mementos over the years signifying their respect for indigenous culture. One of the objects was a wildebeest shield with cudgel and ceremonial spear (shown in the photo above) given to M.J.'s grandfather by a Zulu chief. What's in your attic? What artifacts have special meaning for you or your family?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

200 yr old spoon

Another great day for heritage project presentations! Christine brought us stories of extreme grief from WWII-era Croatia, counterbalanced as is so often the case with the journey to Canada and an end to grief. Bruce contrasted his German/English background with his Filipino background, a contrast that sometimes led to conflict. Braydon told us about his Kookum and Moosum (Cree for Grandma and Grandpa) and the difficulty of maintaining Aboriginal languages in modern Canadian society. Adam delved into his Irish roots, and showed us some Irish turf dub from a peat bog and a carving made from petrified turf. The carving has based on a 7th century crucifix bearing elements from both Christianity and pagan traditions. It was interesting to think about a civilization in transition, turning to local materials to express their defining aspirations. What do we turn to? Am I doing it now? Tyler had a amazing volume of research assembled from his Scottish, Ukrainian, Acadian roots. He brought up the topic of food, and talked about the various dishes that defined his understanding of family. I was left hungry for tortiere, the famous French-Canadian meat pie, and also borscht, to which I am no stranger.
Justin navigated us back in a few directions, notably into his Danish past. Focusing on one family group's experience in Denmark, the immigration experience to Canada, and adjustments afterwards, we got a sense of how rites of passage, choice of occupation shaped identity. We heard about Pier 21 (first time for almost the entire class), of course this gives me clue what should be in a subsequent lesson (another bonus to these projects). The "Vikings" were very good at recording their history, thus Justin had two big charts that took his connections back to the 1400s. He also showed us a spoon that his great-x5-grandfather carved from an ox-horn. This was a communal utensil, passed along with a main dish and used by everyone at the table. As one of my colleagues pointed out, the intimacy of food is high on the list with the other things that we do with our body, including learning, and has an enormous potential for grounding our identity and providing significance to other areas of our life.  
I'm thankful for the intimate act of learning that occurred today, in that we allowed carefully researched ideas and faithfully guarded memories to enter our heads and give us pause to reflect on how we got here and how we should now conduct ourselves.

Monday, December 05, 2011


Travis with some props from his Heritage Project
As students present the heritage research they've been at (on and off) for a month or so, I've been thrilled to watch how some of them have taken a fresh approach to project design. I'm sure most teachers can relate to the stubborn student that struggles to find a topic, opens up a powerpoint or brings out a poster board, surfs the web, then starts dumping random material inside with no real direction. Travis did the opposite. He has been thinking about this project for a long time, considering his approach and gathering research material carefully. The arrival of his "poppy" in town from Newfoundland provided him with an interview subject and focus for his presentation. The powerpoint was simply a vessel to tell his story, something done at the end of the process (utility in research) rather than the beginning (wishful research). His slideshow and talk gave the impression that we were getting highlights of what was an ongoing, ardent examination of his own background. The story was Newfoundland, as seen through his family's experience. The Newfie coins and stamps were cool, but the other two objects from/about his family members were amazing. The first was the book about the first 500 enlistees in the Nfld regiment sent to WWI, many of who died at Beaumont-Hamel. This had some significance for us as it was the subject of the guest speaker at our recent Remembrance Day ceremony. The second object was a letter sent to the mother of a John McDonnell of the 1st Nfld Rgt. In it a nun from a Egyptian hospital describes the final hours and death of John by dysentery, which we all agreed was a terrible way to go but probably not that unusual in WWI. As with the other project presentations, Travis proved the hypothesis that when identity is engaged and inseparable from curriculum, the quality of inquiry and the confidence of learning is pretty much guaranteed.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Awesome start to student heritage projects

After a month of preparation mixed in with the other things we do in Social Studies 10, my students are finally ready to present their Heritage Projects (blogged about 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 times now). Having learned from the past, I knew we had to start on Friday with a few students were very organized and inspiring. That way the rest of the class could home for the weekend, sulk for a bit, and then get to work on the last bits of their projects. As Akhil said "okay, that was good, but you set the bar way to high!" What a great start. First class, Travis and Jennifer fit the bill: thorough, engaging, and ready to go (I'll write about them soon). Erin led the next class off, with a tour of her diverse background, and some wonderful storytelling about tolerance of difference based on a story her grandmother shared with her. What made me very proud of Erin was that I often give her a hard time for procrastinating, so she was determined to go first for this project and prove me wrong. We finished the Friday round with a stunning presentation from Hailey. Her slideshow was modeled after a history book, mostly a British one at that, and she had incredible artifacts like the old hymnbook, journals, an unusual ring, and "the box" (shown above) to go with the slides. According to Hailey's family tradition, and the note included in the writing-box, this belonged to William Beatty, part of their family a number of generations back. He was the ship surgeon aboard Admiral Nelson's HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Assuming this checks out, it is quite likely he used this fold out desk aboard the hosptial ship Sussex in 1806 to write his influential work on Nelson's death, something he was unable to prevent (he did the autopsy, though!). The box shows a few defects, and perhaps some more modern repairs, but is otherwise in fine condition. Hailey's mom brought it in to show us at lunch, and it wasn't long before the history buffs and wood enthusiasts among staff & students were gathered around and jumping in on the conversation. Our shop teachers had the veneer, joints, inlay, finish, and species figured out. Our Socials teachers had the Napoleonic struggle dialed in, with some speculation about how this major museum-worthy specimen ends up in a basement in Prince George. Where's the Antique Roadshow when you need them? Hailey also shared a leather-bound notebook with beautiful script from the 1890s belonging to her great-x2-grandfather, a chemist, containing recipes for tonics, ointments, and cure-alls. This was a journey into Victorian medicine ("maggot wash" was my favorite), a time when mercury, arsenic, opium, ground up bones, and all manners of herbs and spices could be had from the local apothecary. One more of the stories she shared was that of her great-great-grandparents who responded to the Laurier/Sifton "Last Best West" campaigns and came to Manitoba in 1911. Needless to say the process leading up to this day involved some cool learning for Hailey and others, for me, for a bunch of parents. The students are picking up skills related to historical empathy, critical thinking, resilient research, the themes of geography, judgement of evidence, strategic use of technology, and authentic presentation. It is amazing how excited students are when the learning is connected to both themselves and the threads of "social studies" that they identify as interesting and important. I'll try and keep up with blogging about some of the other presentations.