Monday, November 18, 2013

Uphill Battle

After a few professional conversations in the last while, I've come to the conclusion that we face many uphill battles when it comes to student-centered learning and other tenets behind what dominates the Ed Reform Circuit (e.g. the BC Edplan). I do believe these are battles worth fighting, but it is not without casualties.

I'd like to visit of few of these battles... let's start with Active Learning/Student Ownership:

Why we do it: we've come to associate passive learning with "the old ways" of doing school, receiving learning rather than constructing meaning, and we've spent a lot of time talking and trying to introduce more active learning. This takes many forms, but usually starts with students getting their own grasp of learning intentions, and designing many of the ways by which they will meet these intentions, with a focus on participation at each step, no sitting back and simply taking it in. This effort is often associated with critical thinking, constructivist learning, self-regulation, and authentic inquiry. It is done to combat apathy and increase relevance.

Casualties: it is hard work for students to be "on" all the time at school. This doesn't necessarily mean they are apathetic, it usually means they have enough on their plates (their interests, concerns, drama, problems, dreams, goals), that they are not willing to invest all of their "presence" and energy to your creative exploration of grammar, your innovative math lesson, or your backstory on John A. Macdonald. They are polite, though, so passive learning often seems a reasonable compromise. "We'll sit here and do most of what you ask as long as you don't push us too hard." I see this same sentiment among adults in the meetings, PD sessions, and public lectures I attend. Few have the capacity to sustain full engagement and active participation; we are simply not used to it and need to have breaks, sometimes just to listen for a bit, watch a video, doodle in the margins, get lost in our thoughts. As we raise the bar (e.g. expect and facilitate more self-direction and engagement), many of our students will jump higher, push themselves more, but it is also clear that those not reaching the bar find despair. This is the fundamental reason why so many teachers design banal, completion-based assessment for students -- it provides an easy way out for disengaged students. Easy to mark, students rarely complain, only the most truant and reluctant learners ever need to know course failure. If we truly expect students to own their learning, and are willing to back this up with interventions, support systems, etc. in exchange for high standards (e.g. the kinds of performance or evidence or learning that comes from engaged students), we need to be ready for the mess when students give up. School can indeed be a place of wonderment, discovery -- entertaining and engaging -- but it is also a place of work, some of it hard and uncomfortable, and a place of deferred rewards, requiring grit and patience. This second part is missing from most ed reformers lingo when they describe the magic of 21st Century Learning -- it is assumed that student-centered learning automatically engages students and leverages their passion. This is why it is an uphill battle -- students will often default to their comfort zone, and are more than happy to drift along without being challenged by their teacher or others. Maybe the years of compulsory schooling have done this to them, maybe it a basic human trait to seek comfort and safety (and boredom). We should also recognize that disengagement and perceived apathy does not have to be the fault of schools -- we live in a messed-up society rife with nature deficit, idiotic role models, corrupt rulers, corporate cynicism, engineered class divisions, sexualized media, digital addiction, and enablement of many kinds. That's for mainstream kids, for all. Add the lingering (and ongoing) impacts of colonialism, drugs, and abusive scenarios and it is no wonder that so many of our vulnerable students suffer from toxic stress and mental illness. Disconnect in all its forms happens long before they get to my class. Nonetheless, one must do what one can, and we can laugh at ourselves a little bit, acknowledge that the road ahead is steep, and carry out the idea that one of the best tickets for a better future is to get the most out of high school and emerge with both a diploma and a skill set for life, study, and work. Of course, it would help if they just showed up (ok, attendance is an uphill battle all on it's own).

Needed to win: persistence. Teachers need the license (permission from themselves, support from their community & employer, time to do it) to experiment with their designs for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, I think we need something intermediate between failing a course and simply shunting kids through who are "close enough" (had some ideas about this last year) -- this would take some real time and collaboration to figure out, though, and this is hard to squeeze into a teacher's schedule (and too few administrators take on these challenges). In most schools, it is one or the other for reluctant and disengaged learners -- fail or squeak out a close pass -- often with indistinguishable effort. The fear of making kids sad or engaging their parents means that the quick pass is pushed as the default. We need to get over the widespread use of cursory interventions designed to push kids through to "minimally meets expectations" -- it sends all the wrong messages and does not lead to engagement. It teaches students that a little more or less than their mediocre effort is all it take to get by, just put in some time, complete whatever "work" you have with you, and we'll pretend that you've mastered some learning outcomes. We need to patiently persist, drop our own mediocre lessons and disengaging activities one by one, and collect our own data about the projects, trajectories, and assessments that build understanding for discouraged learners and also challenge our top performers. More than that, if we value critical thinking, constructivist learning, self-regulation, and authentic inquiry, then we need to build our assessments to measure these things. Along with other members of the Pacific Slope Consortium, this has been almost the sole focus of my PD over the last 3 years (e.g. Time for a New Exam). I'm sure others have more succinct ideas for how to navigate the challenges of engagement, the seemingly natural tendency of students to expect passivity in their school experience. Love to hear them. UPDATE: I came across this awesome blog while thinking about how teachers can shift the focus in their class to active student engagement --  a frank account of one teacher trying to unlearn bad habits and try on some new ones I think we need more of this kind of honest self-reflection and willingness to experiment.

Other "battles" I'd like to visit: AFL, Digital Learning, "depth vs breadth" curriculum change, personalized learning, PBL, and flipped classrooms.

Image source:

Monday, November 11, 2013

Peace and Remembrance 2013

The photo shows my grandpa Johann Heinrich Enns who served in the Russian Forestry and Non-combatant Medical Service during WWI. As a conscientious objector, this was the alternative duty afforded to German-speaking Mennonite colonists who refused to bear arms against other human beings. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended the war and sent my grandfather home to his family in Neu-Samara, Central Russia (southwest of the Ural Mountains). It was then that the real terror began for the Mennonites in Russia. Between the frequent thieving raids from the Red Army (and sometimes White Army), wanton murder and molestation from gangs of bandits, they faced starvation, drought and crop failure, outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and malaria.

In the midst of this chaos, my grandfather married my grandmother Anna Loewen in 1921; their first home was a sod house on her father's farm. The first two children born to them on the cold Russian Steppe lived 18 months and 6 months respectively before succumbing to typhus and pneumonia. In the growing national fear and acts of state-sponsored terror against all who opposed communism (or held land, or spoke German, or withheld crops, or even their wives and children), many Russian Mennonites fled to Canada. My grandparents left in 1925, not long before this exodus became impossible. They arrived in Quebec on the SS Minnedosa, and (as my aunt writes in a family history book) "must have looked like a real show piece standing there on the dock in their plain dress with 'Schemadaun' in hand, not knowing a single word of English between them." By the time they had established a farm of their own in southern Saskatchewan, they managed to get one good crop yield in 1928 before the Great Depression made life difficult once more. Still, they raised 10 children in the Canadian prairies and never saw the ravages of war up close again.

War and service means different things to different people. For my, grandfather, during WWI, it meant hard work in the forests at Tossna near Petersburg, followed by two decades of hardships. I knew him as a happy, gentle man, and realize that he had it pretty good compared to others in his family and others who lived and served in WWI.

Thoughts on Peace and Remembrance 2010 and 2011 and 2012.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Open Letter on the State of Technology

Open letter regarding the motions from the last board meeting, the ones about:
  • A) reporting to the SD57 Management & Finance Committee about cost-savings associated with single-platform decision in 2010, and 
  • B) reporting to the SD57 Education Programs Committee about student learning initiatives using district technology 
Dear Trustees and SD57 Senior Learning Team,

First off, I appreciate your efforts to restart a long overdue conversation. When I attended an open segment of a Management and Finance meeting in April 2010, the audience was assured by the chair that a technology plan would be forthcoming and the topic of district-level leadership and support (for the kind of work with technology that existed at the time) would not be lost. Again in March 2011 a presentation by district staff at Van Bien T&D Centre called "Enhancing Learning using Technology" looked at where innovation was going in the wider world and hinted at directions for 1-1 student access, a BYOD policy, complimentary purchase strategy, improved consultation with schools, cloud computing, the need for planning, and better wifi. Six of these seven topics have stalled; the only tangible result is the availability of wifi in more schools, though not without issues including a reduced level of access and functionality for teachers compared to the wireless systems that were in place prior to 2011. We've been waiting many years for a real tech plan and for a return to a district-level conversation. Perhaps now is the time to see some movement on these goals.

Regarding Motion B), my suggestion would be to ask a number of teachers about this topic (about what is going well and what is not) in addition to the "good news" stories that will be supplied by administration. I, or any former members of the District Tech Team,  can supply an extensive list of teachers who use technology for teaching & learning if this is helpful. Another source of public information is the substantial district input given on the 2011 "Enhancing Learning" presentation. Morris Scarpino collected this information and I have kept an archive if the data is hard to find. The feedback from the PGSS Tech Committee was particularly lucid (see link below).

Regarding Motion A), my suggestion would be to ask a more relevant set of questions about the state of technology in our district. I am puzzled as to why the board would choose a question about cost-savings in order to start a conversation about how "learning empowered by technology" (aka BC Edplan) can remove roadblocks in SD57. The financial result of technology decisions and directions is fairly clear -- there has been a substantial cost-savings associated with educational technology since 2010 as a result of many factors:
  • single-platform consolidation 
  • non-replacement of key features, software, and services that were provided prior to 2010 
  • adjustments to "greening" schedules (computer lab replacements) 
  • elimination of the District Principal of Technology position (formerly a District Resource Teacher position) 
  • elimination of the District Technology Team and associated release time for DTT members and "Key Tech Contacts" 
  • rejection or deferral of technology innovation requests and project proposals at multiple sites 
  • reduction of school technology allocations (e.g. schools are spending less on technology budgets) 
No doubt there are other factors at play, and perhaps the district budget picture will indicate that total expenditure on technology remains high despite the cutbacks since 2010. Having a leaner technology presence at the district level may be positive in a decentralized model, but this has not translated to more independence for schools to make technology decisions. The point is that we spend less now, and face more restrictions than we did four years ago, for key aspects of technology that support learning and the work of teachers with a vision for how learning can be enhanced through technology. The vibrancy sparked by leadership and district-level collaboration, the engagement of teachers, and impact on students as a result of technology is simply not where it was a few years ago, in part due to financial decisions and in part due to approach. While most districts in BC are increasingly hardware-agnostic, and have embraced mobile technology as integral part of school technology planning, our district is still silent on basic questions about where we are going with educational technology. On a classroom by classroom basis, no doubt you will find amazing, creative, and powerful uses of educational technology by teachers and students; this happens as much in spite of, rather than because of district policy and direction.

I'm sure my thoughts on the topic of reviving a rich culture of technology innovation are not new to you; I have spoken and written extensively about this topic and and would be happy to provide case studies and references to support the arguments I have made. I can also share some very positive examples of how educational technology is being used and how this relates to budget priorities.

Finally, last year I invited those of you who had attended the BCED Leadership Fall Conference to think about and respond to three challenges that face our school district. The second one was the most relevant to technology in SD57 -- I've reposted these challenges here:

Additional references:
Best regards,
Glen Thielmann

Thursday, November 07, 2013

BCED Leadership Conference a Year Later

Last year, I wrote about my experiences as a participant and presenter at the BC Superintendent's Association BCED Leadership Conference. I had hoped that other SD57 participants would offer their own perspective, but I am still left wondering how our district staff and trustees felt about the relative progress of our school district in light of the stunning exemplars from around the province. I would suggest that we have three major challenges that stuck out in comparison with other school districts:
  1. Need to pursue more creative and meaningful experiments in collaboration, both formal and informal. The idea of a regulated collaboration system with prescribed topics sits on the ridiculous end of the spectrum -- there were a few districts doing this -- do any of our school still do this? We need "co-creative" habits modeled at all levels, and active support for any group that embarks on a promising path moving from "sharing of practice" to "joint practice development." For example, the practice shared by David Hargreaves of one school staff visiting another school’s staff at work (and vice versa) led to diverse collaborations. Not suggesting we try this, but asking the question about what culture and design would need to be in place for this sort of thing to happen in our district? The need exists from the classroom to the boardroom. Simply acknowledging that we interact with partner groups is not enough; we should move into an interdependent relationship where we actually meet each other's ambitious goals. What actions would result if we asked powerful questions about the strengths of and challenges to our collaboration across the organization?
  2. Need for more thoughtful planning on technology. Our narrow focus on managing systems, maintaining network integrity, controlling platforms, reducing costs, and banning devices to comply with backroom purchasing decisions are holding us back. We need free-wheeling, inclusive, formal discussions on integrating technology into learning (to compliment the informal professional learning on the topic that already happens), and a support plan that begins with pedagogy. One the elephants in our room is the inexplicable and hushed decision to ban ipad purchase requests (and other devices and technologies) from principals and teachers for student use. Another elephant is the collapse of district-wide educator teamwork on tech philosophy and implementation -- the platform or devices is not the issue, it is the avoidance of a pedagogical discussion that leverages technology. The once-vibrant culture for collaboration on technology in our district died a few years ago and we are now left with an appalling lack of interaction between teachers and district leaders on technology. The examples across the province showed how good tech blends into the background of solid teaching and learning, but nonetheless requires district-wide dialogue, planning, training, support and shared decision-making. Every district that told me they had a BYOD (bring your own device) philosophy also had a complimentary purchasing strategy based on the expressed needs of educators. Our "prime directive" with tech needs to shift from network security & standardization to teaching & learning, creating & collaborating. These are not incompatible but the priority is important. To be blunt, the longer our school district sits on these issues, the more we losing technology capacity, educator excitement, and student interest.
  3. Need for improved communication and celebration of success. We certainly saw amazing provincial evidence from blended learning programs, attachment strategies, environmental and community connections, innovation with technology, collaborative practice, and students showing leadership. What’s happening in SD57? For educator examples, we have had some success with the mentorship program and learning team grants, but they are for the most part well-kept secrets. For student examples, each school I'm sure is doing uplifting work with kids -- but the success is often hidden. Adding more leadership structures or responsibilities is not necessary, we just need to "release the hounds" and benefit from the energy that is already at work (and often at odds with dominant thinking). We need to keep working on developing social media, website, news media and conversational connections to share our good work with the larger stakeholder community that supports us, as well as for our own professional learning and work with students.
In short, if we want to talk about 21st century skills we have to plan for them and model them ourselves. Our province is pervaded with high quality examples, no need to look very far to see high bars for collaboration, tech planning, and communication. We have a long way to go here, but we also have lots of positive examples in our midst, thought often hidden among the underbrush. I was, nonetheless, proud to represent our district because the people I work and learn with place a high priority on the development of all children and generally have a good sense of humour... they put up with my blog posts, for example. It would be awesome, though, to get even a single response from any one of the folks who attended the leadership conference. Sending a dozen or so delegates to this conference cost our school district about $18000, and while there is no formal duty for senior admin and trustees to publicly share what they learned or respond to a fellow delegate, I am puzzled as to why they would not. This is not "holding your feet to the fire" this is a genuine invitation to dialogue... teachers, principals, parents, even students are interested to know what educational leaders get from a professional learning experience, especially one that centered around how schools and districts are implementing personalized learning and the BC Education Plan.