My 21st Century Vision

For the past few years I have thinking a great deal about what 21st century learning will look like in secondary schools in British Columbia. I am certainly not alone in this endeavour. My voice is but one of thousands of educators and non-educators alike whom are actively discoursing about the changing paradigm. At times it seems overwhelming because how does one digest and synthesize all this information that is being volleyed around. Further, what elements does one incorporate and what elements does one leave out? While I’ve seen a few frameworks put in place in different schools I’ve decided to build my own. While many more elements could be included, I offer below what I believe to be a few of the major components of a 21st century school setting. Further, to make it sustainable and pedagogically sound, these components need to support each other in a way that produces a coherent educational framework from which deep learning can take place.

Timetabling a 21st century classroom. I think we are beginning to see the end of purely classroom-based learning. 79 minute classes, four times a day, fives days a week seems like an outmoded system to me. Having said that, I am not suggesting that the traditional classroom is dead. On the contrary, it still serves a very important learning and societal function. After all, building communities is an essential ingredient to a healthy school and society. Instead, I just think it needs to be structurally opened up in a way that allows for more inquiry-based learning (IBL), which I believe should be a necessary and deeply embedded component of our school system. While some would argue that teachers already do IBL with classroom projects, I am suggesting that we make this a much deeper and richer process. Ideally, I would like to see some time in the week set aside in the timetable for students school-wide to explore a curricular-focussed, multi-disciplinary project for which students would get course credit. Their project would be expansive and would require them to fullfil certain skills and learning outcomes established by the educators at the district and school level. This inquiry period would give students the freedom to meet up with their teachers about their inquiry-based projects, and because their projects would be multi-disciplinary, students would be able to contact the appropriate teachers who specialize in that field. The students would be free to move from teacher to teacher, or classroom to library when necessary.

Repurposing libraries. The idea of the school library needs to be re-imagined. Libraries used to be the ultimate learning hub because one would have access to a wide range of information at their fingertips. Well, that has changed. Students don’t need libraries in that way anymore because they have ubiquitous access to reams of information from the internet. A student’s learning today is no longer confined by space and time, their smartphone is their library, their information centre. So what purpose does the library and the librarian now serve? If anything, the library and librarian are more important than ever. Libraries are now knowledge-sharing and knowledge-building centres, not information-getting centres. They are now the places where students go after they have collected their information, and whom are now relying on the expertise of the librarian to help them make sense of it. The emphasis has change.

Paradoxically, while students have access to too much information, their preference is to usually limit their literature to sources such as wikipedia. Librarians more than ever are needed to help build data acquisition skill-sets in students. Students need to be taught how and where on the web to collect information from a diverse range of sources, then know what to do with it afterwards. The process may sound simple, but it’s a major stumbling block for students these days. Librarians can help bridge that gap between data-collection and knowledge building.

Unfortunately, austerity measures has meant cutting back on librarians around the province. This is more than troubling because not only do librarians help students frame their thinking about their topic, but they are also in a sense the school’s educational lynchpin. Thankfully, our district has worked very hard to keep our school libraries open and staffed with excellent librarians.

Libraries need also to be physically repurposed. Libraries today still contain stacks and stacks of books, but students rarely ever use them. As our literary world becomes increasingly digitized, the need for paper-based stacks comes into question and we need to rethink how we can better use this space. I am not suggesting that paper-based books aren’t important. Books should continue to be very much a part of the library environment, but the need for stacks rows-deep are gone. Let’s get rid of them and repurpose that space. One would think that because of the internet, libraries would be empty vessels. In fact, the opposite is true. Our library at Rockridge is packed, which I believe is a testament to our hardworking staff and its welcoming environment, but space is limited and we could use more of it. The students enjoy sitting in the comfortable furniture and being part of the warm aesthetic that encourages learning and a desire to stay. I believe that libraries are the most complex environments in the school and that we need to pay more attention to them. If I could foster this, I’d rather have a student choose to do more work in the school library than at home because that would give us a chance to facilitate and guide their learning.

Repurposing a classroom. While limited classroom space is always an issue, in my ideal world, students and teachers would have access to multipurpose rooms. For example, a classroom could be set aside, emptied of desks and chairs and made available for both students and teachers to use in any way imaginable. Essentially, this classroom becomes an empty canvas where lessons can turn theory into application. One wall could be used for a green screen for filming projects, science students could use it for laboratory space, drama and humanities students could use it for rehearsing or role playing, art classes could use the space for those large artistic creations, math students could use it to turn mathematical theory into application. I could go on. There really is no limit.

Classrooms versus e-Learning: Blending the best of both worlds. While were not likely to see the demise of the traditional classroom any time soon (nor should we), we can take advantage and incorporate the best elements of e-Learning with traditional learning. For example, there are aspects about e-Learning which are superior over classroom-based work. For example, if teachers could “digitize” their lessons by having access to a fully functioning, easy to use, Learning Management System (LMS), they could get students to interact with each other at the digital level. I would like to see teachers building their lessons on an LMS in a modular-based structure. Modular e-lessons are great because students can clearly see the flight path of the course and therefore plan around it, but they would also get all the benefits of a face to face classroom setting. By incorporating an LMS into their teaching, both teachers and students would together be able to read/watch/listen/blog/wiki/test/contribute/edit/share on a web 2.0 management system that would allow teachers to track a student’s progress and for students to track their own growth as learners. [Teachers would use the inquiry period to build and maintain their LMS courseware.]

Students and their personal device. As personal devices become more affordable we are going to see more of them being used by students in school. This is a good thing. Incidentally, I took a poll last year and discovered that 95% of incoming grade 8s to Rockridge had some form of smartphone. Whether it be a laptop, an iPad, or a smartphone, students can already now research and produce on their devices. Educators should leverage this incredible opportunity and they can do this by building courseware on the LMS which would give students 24/7 access if they so desired it. This would add a level of complexity and flexibility to a traditional setting that would both enhance the learning but also make it more engaging.

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What if the Secret to Success is Failure?

It’s a rare thing that I am compelled to jump out of my seat, hunt down my computer and blog about something I’ve just read. Well, that is exactly what just happened.

I’ve read a number of articles on education over the years and I don’t usually react this way. To be perfectly honest, I find a great deal of articles on pedagogy to be a little pedantic––scratch that––a lot pedantic. Zzzzzzzz. However, I just read a very good article from the New York Times called, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (free account required). Before you click on this link (and I highly recommend that you do), I just wanted to highlight a couple of things:

The author has nicely and thoughtfully encapsulated a number of the educational issues that have been bouncing around in my head the past year––into one article. Examples of those are:

  • Failure (at something) should be re-imagined. Failure vis-à-vis making mistakes: Getting better at something often involves being challenged but sometimes that means failing (at something) in the process. Somewhere along the line, a neurosis has formed around making mistakes; the errant supposition is that it has to be avoided at all costs. When did we become afraid of fallibility? Making mistakes has never been the problem, it’s the willingness (or lack theirof) to correct them. It has become a vicious cycle. Maybe re-imagining failure may encourage more students to take chances and risks, or at the very least, explore their curiosity. This leads to the next point.
  • That IQ is not the only predictor of success. That persistence and determination is as important, if not more, in helping determine overall success. This belief that IQ is not the only indicator is also supported by authors like Carol Dweck (thanks Brooke); and, of course, this has implications in terms of growing the whole student. This leads to my next point.
  • That there is more to a student’s growth than just G.P.A. “Wouldn’t it be cool, he mused, if each student graduated from school with not only a G.P.A. but also a C.P.A., for character-point average?” A very interesting idea, and one that gets to the heart of many issues around character development of youth. This also connects with school goals focussed on social responsibility and academic integrity. As you would expect, this leads to my next point.
  • Evaluating students on a broader spectrum. When reading this article, I immediately thought of Kaser’s and Halbert’s Network of Performance Based Schools––the changing emphasis of numerical feedback. De-emphasising numerical feedback for written is in line with the de-emphasis of the G.P.A. as the sole indicator of achievement and growth. I hope you read the article as it will fill in the gaps left here.

Where Are We Going? My Entreaty.

June is always a great month. It’s not just because teachers and administrators can already taste the lazy days of summer. While earned, it’s more than that. June is similar to September in that both are “bookend” months. Not surprisingly, these two months present a great opportunity because the things we as educators reflect upon in June can be applied in September––allowing for the constant honing of our craft and with a fresh start every year. There are not many jobs that give people this opportunity.

The things I usually ponder in June are:

  • What lessons worked wonderfully and what lessons needed tweaking.
  • Was I a better teacher this year than from last? Was I better at communicating those tough concepts to a greater range of students?
  • Approaches to learning for next year. Will they change? Should they change? How?
  • How can I further integrate technology in a meaningful way into the classroom? Will it improve student achievement?
  • My professional experiences with students and staff (after all, this is a large part of what we do as educators).
  • And, as always, what is in store for us next year?

Another year is wrapping up and normally I am comforted by my usual pondering. I am normally rather ecstatic about the upcoming summer break and look forward to starting anew in September. However, this year is different. For the first time in my career, the future looks murky. I don’t mean my personal career, but the future of education in general in British Columbia. In June, I typically ask myself, “what will my teaching look like two years from now.” I normally have a two year plan, but I can honestly say that I don’t know what the future looks like. It’s not because I’ve lost the ability to plan; it’s because I get the sense that big changes in education are coming down the pipe from the Ministry of Education (MoE) and––in all appearances––educators in general are not being meaningfully included in the process of change. Change is inevitable, but for it to be lasting and effective all parties involved need to feel that they are a part of the team and working towards the same goals. Not only does that make good o’ fashioned sense, it’s good leadership. To anyone who is listening, this is my entreaty: less murk and more clarity.

“Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate.”

One of the joys of teaching is being able to collaborate with colleagues. My best professional development has often come from informal conversations with my fellow teachers. We talk. We get a great lesson idea. We plan how it would work in the classroom. Then we act on it. This process of change is spontaneous, dynamic, engrossing, and totally enjoyable. Here in lies the brilliance of being a professional educator and collaborator. It works because all parties involved have participated in the creative process, whom are working towards the common goal of great education. So my entreaty is, if there are indeed major changes taking place from above then please let us educators be a part of it. Let us teachers and administrators collaborate with you so that we feel we are an integral part of the team that is our educational system.

Minister of Education, George Abbott, recently stated that British Columbia’s educational system is “good” and that he wants to make it “great”. That sounds like something with which we can all agree. Having said that, I believe our system is already great. While I have not worked in every district in the province and can’t speak about other locales, it has been my experience here in the district of West Vancouver that we already have a “great” educational system and that we are always striving to make it better. International PISA rankings aside, I witness great things from our students every day. Together, we work hard and do great things here, as I’m sure is the case for educators and students in other districts.

I love what I do, but I do consternate about the dearth of collaboration between the MoE and teachers. The irony is that while we already have all these great 21st century communication tools, seemingly little communication is taking place from said parties. It occurs to me that we need the social networking equivalent of Facebook for teachers, school and district-based administrators, trustees, and members of the MoE. Collaboration is a very powerful tool and being on the same team helps set in motion some pretty powerful, effective, and lasting changes. I truly believe that everyone involved in our educational system strives for greatness, but we must do it together; the majority of the educational shareholders cannot be left in the periphery. While not everyone will agree with the changes, which is to be expected, most however will appreciate being included in the process of change. Far more can be accomplished this way and it allows all of us to plan accordingly, in June, as we ponder the future.

In the meantime, enjoy the summer break!

Content versus Skill: The Great Showdown

Let the great showdown begin. In one corner we have the big C––Mister Content himself, the master of details. Watch out, he’s got quite the arsenal, he can keep ’em coming. In the other corner, the up and comer, the man with many tricks up his sleeve, Missssster Skills. He may not have the fire power that Content has, but watch out, he’s adept at changing it up and adapting to whatever Content can throw at him. You can almost taste the tension. Let the battle begin, let’s see who will reign supreme. Ding……

Ugh. Why? Why are we framing education in the 21st Century as a boxing match? The number of times I’ve heard lately that content is dead and that skill reigns supreme is worrisome. I find this assumption almost humorous because it’s wrong––wrong I say, completely wrong. Interestingly, where are the defenders of content? Have you been silenced or are you just not playing along?

I’ve met/heard teachers and administrators suggest that content is no longer as important as skills, that content is truly only necessary because it is a means to an end––skills. The argument, in part, is that our curriculum in British Columbia is too full and that we can’t possibly learn it all and build on all those important skills, which in the long run are more important because (a) who will ever remember all those details anyway, and (b) it is the skills that will help students think and become life long learners and wholesome contributors to the modern knowledge-based economy.

Sure, while I agree that our curriculum is full in some courses and that a trimming would be helpful, I don’t agree that content is dead. Far from it. Why must we frame things with polarizing Bushisms: “You’re either with us or against us”. You’re either with Content or with Skill. Well I propose a radical idea: Why not give both equal weighting? Soviet Union leader, Khrushchev, once stated, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you” (I know, I know, you’re probably wondering where this is going, but hear me out, this is an example of why both content and skill are equally relevant). In short, the West initially misinterpreted and misunderstood Khrushchev’s message in 1956. Instead of interpreting his words as a statement of inevitability––that the Soviet Union will eventually attend the West’s funeral service when capitalism ultimately fails, the West viewed it as act of aggression––that the Soviet Union will cause their burial.

My point: First, anyone reading this needs to know the historical facts of this period to understand the context of my argument. As well, at some point students and adults alike need to have a shared knowledge base and understanding of our history––if for any other reason, to communicate past successes and failures to avoid repeating mistakes. Second, those interpreting Khrushchev’s message in 1956 had to be careful not to make assumptions or rely on a simple translation. They needed to apply their critical thinking skills and perhaps collect more information before making any rash decisions during a very tense historical time, for the purpose of ensuring our future global security.

“Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”

The truth is, history is on our side and we need to both know it and understand it. For instance, take Khrushchev’s quote. It “popped” in my head while writing this post. It  “popped” because my brain was able to retain and retrieve this historical fact. Ergo, because I know the particular details of the Cold War (content), I can therefore understand its context and greater significance (skill). We need to dispense with both this notion of the boxing match, and this pointless idea of one laying supremacy over the other. They are both very important and essential ingredients in education. Mind you, I would personally give content the edge––an importance level of 51% over skill’s 49––but that’s just my particular bias. No matter. You can’t have one without the other. While we need the horse before the cart, we need both the horse and the cart.

I recently had back surgery and I couldn’t help think about the prodigious amount of detailed knowledge that my neurosurgeon has about the body. His knowledge is based on content. He needs to know intimately my body, err, the human body, in order to be a good doctor. At the same time, if he is going to push the boundaries of medicine, he needs to tap into his critical thinking skills. Content and Skill should not be considered mutually exclusive. They should be by default, mutually inclusive.

Before I wrap up, two assumptions exist about this debate that I find troubling.

First, there is a great deal of talk around our “knowledge-based economy,” and yet we seem to be counter-intuitively de-emphasizing facts and information. According to the dictionary, facts and information are a part of knowledge. So why this boxing match and the dumbing down of content? I believe what’s happened in the past few years is that content has become so readily available and easy to access online that content has therefore lost its sheen, its importance––it has become, dare I say, pedestrian. Information has been liberated. Everyone today can be the knower; just google it. For instance, it has become almost a daily experience while teaching that a student will put his or her hand up and state, “Mr. Chubb, did you know…”. This is wonderful and I hope it continues, but what I am finding is that students lack the bigger picture because they are missing other important contextual details––thus, possibly drawing false conclusions. This is my chief concern. History teachers already know how easy it is for students to draw conclusions based on limited information; they witness this in their classrooms. When our students become adults and future leaders they need to have sufficient background knowledge when making important decisions. Case in point: Many years after the Vietnam war, former Secretary of State, Robert S. McNamara, stated in his book In Retrospect, that America was fundamentally ignorant of Indochina’s history, and that if they had known more and understood the unique geopolitical dynamic in that region, then perhaps America would have drawn a different conclusion and never would have been there in the first place.

Second, those in the Skill corner argue that there is no need to espouse factual details because they will forget it anyway, or that the sheer volume is simply overwhelming and impossible to memorize. As well, why memorize when you can just easily look it up? I believe this argument to be a failure to understand the power of our magnificent brain. Yes, it’s true that I don’t remember every single detail I’ve been taught or book I’ve ever read. However, this misses the point. It’s another classic all or nothing argument. I have remembered a large portion of it; and sometimes it’s just a matter of recall, where all I need is my memory jogged and then it all comes flowing back. Besides, what’s the alternative? How will anyone be able to have an impromptu political debate about anything if individuals are too busy needing to constantly “google” it?

When I had back surgery a couple of weeks ago, and before I went into the operating room, I put a lot of faith into my neurosurgeon’s content knowledge and skills. I counted on him to fix me. While I was anaesthetized and don’t remember the particulars, I don’t believe that while he opened me up, next to him lay his “how to” guide or textbook on back surgeries. Surely he had already learned and memorized the procedure before picking up the scalpel. But then again, how am I ever to truly know.

I Love Your Course But I Have to Drop it!

Has the following ever happened to you? A student decides to drop your course part way through the year, usually after term report cards. They bring the withdrawal form to you and say, “I love your course but I have to drop it.” Sometimes it’s followed by, “I’m so, so sorry,” as if they’ve just stabbed you in the heart. This has happened again to me very recently. The reason why? They are academically overloaded and they need to focus on math and science and therefore need to drop history. Now this is not going to be a diatribe about math and science being considered more valuable than history. While I’m always up for an interdisciplinary debate over which reigns supreme, I’ll save that for another post. I digress.

“I love your course but I have to drop it.”

The issue is not that a student prefers one course over another, nor is this a post on self-pity. I have long since given up the notion that I can convert everyone to the ways and life of history. Besides, I’m not so sure the world would be a better place if I were to be successful. I digress again. The issue is that students drop the course despite it being one of their favourites. They are compelled to drop it because of the pressures exerted on them to become successful applicants to a post secondary institution. On the one hand, this is an entirely rational decision. The anxieties around the competitive nature of post secondary applications is significant enough to warrant such a move; students in senior high school courses need to start thinking about their future. On the other hand, it’s a shame because I know the value they are getting out of the course. They show up for every class, enthusiastic to learn, ready to engage, ask pertinent and critical thinking questions, and contribute to the overall class dynamic in a constructive way. Then they leave––darn.

“It’s a shame because I know the value they are getting out of the course.”

More often than not, it is the student that has a good mind for history that drops it. The one that got away––oh well. There isn’t much that can be done about it either. I can tell him or her that it is a shame, but the decision has been made, usually with the support of their parents. I suppose my frustration lies not with the student, but with the prohibitively high grades that are required for acceptance into post secondary institutions. Because of this, students need to drop courses in order to have more time to increase marks in others. I often wonder if fewer students would drop courses, knowing that the entrance stakes weren’t so high––and in the process they would be exposed to a more well-rounded education. In the end, grade 12 has become a numbers game. Sad but true…

To Award or Not to Award

Note: I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I believe I needed to provide more analysis on the issue due to the nature of the topic.

There appears to be a movement under way: the movement to end award ceremonies. I have to say I am a wee bit sceptical. I’ve been reading a few blogs and their subsequent comments and I am a little surprised by the apparent enthusiasm. Now admittedly I am not a primary or elementary teacher, whom the commenters appear to mainly be. Aside from doing some Teacher-On-Call work I cannot profess to know anything about those grade levels. Perhaps the issues are different. I can only speak about secondary schools.

I have personally participated in the selection process for year-end awards. At our school we have a philosophy of spreading the “wealth” as best we can among our students––usually the strongest and most well-rounded get it, but also do the most improved, etc. While it is true that most do not receive an award, it doesn’t mean that award ceremonies have no value. I am a little perplexed with this notion that somehow students who do not receive an award are therefore being excluded or their motivation for learning will be thwarted. I have to disagree with this philosophy. I think we as educators make too many assumptions about a student’s ability to cope. Sometimes I wonder if we are projecting our own insecurities onto the students. In our efforts to make this world a kinder and gentler place, I believe we miss the point when we consider solutions such abolishing award ceremonies. Surely there is a level of disappointment when the person beside you receives an award, but you don’t. That is a natural reaction, but one that must be processed and understood by the student. We can’t insulate every student from disappointment. This is an impossible task, and quite frankly, a dangerous one. Students need to learn to accept loss or defeat gracefully in as much as they need to be allowed to enjoy the moment of success and accept winning humbly. After all, the award is the culmination of one’s hard work, it is a symbol of one’s accomplishments. Why not recognize this?

“Our primary responsibility is to…make certain that [students] develop a repertoire of skills that will help them meet life’s inevitable challenges and disappointments.”

––Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege

I don’t think the majority of students join sports teams, for example, because they are driven solely by the trophy. Most individuals join because they enjoy the competition, the beauty of the game, the camaraderie, the challenge, the exercise. As well, the argument about awards only reinforcing extrinsic motivation are also false. Inevitably, there is the student that is motivated for the wrong reasons––awards, parents, money, etc. Hopefully one day these individuals will come to this realization, but that is one that they must arrive on their own. Most, however, are working hard for the right reasons and are learning some important life skills along the way––such as commitment, confronting adversities, and challenging one’s self––to only name a few.

Further, I would argue that students are keenly aware of their peer’s success, with or without an awards ceremony. They already know which students are strong and in which subjects. This comes as no surprise to them. Just as educators recognize strengths and weaknesses in their students, they too recognize it in their own peer group. I know this because I often hear that so-and-so student is really good at this or that. So why try to disguise a truth that certain people excel at certain things? It rings false. I believe we are insulting their intelligence by trying to include everyone––where “everyone is a winner”. Everyone on this planet at some point will lose at something. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We shouldn’t teach avoidance. Is recognizing everyone or no one really a better alternative to recognizing some? I question this logic. What are we teaching our students if we do this? What are the consequences?

“Students should be encouraged to push for their personal best, despite knowing that they may not be the best.”

I propose a different alternative. Keep the award ceremonies. Recognize strength. Without it, how can we determine excellence? How do we determine the gold standard? However, this is not to say that we don’t recognize multiple or diverse talents. Talents come in many forms. We shouldn’t focus solely on academics and sports. While important, there is more to life and we ought to recognize that diversity. Recognize artistic and technical strength, applied skills. At the risk of stereotyping, the student who is a whizz at physics, many not be the best athlete. I teach my students to discover their innate strength, but to also know that hard work is a necessary condition to achieve at a high level. Therefore, allow the bar to be set high in all disciplines, so that other students push themselves to reach it. In truth, most won’t, but that is not the point; some will, and that is the point. There should be no illusion about this.

Is it possible as educators to get students to achieve the highest standard in all things? I know I can’t––and I’m nearing forty. However, just because I didn’t excel at everything didn’t mean I didn’t value what I was good at. Similarly, because I knew I excelled at a few things, didn’t mean that I was a failure when others would excel at different things. We need to celebrate the success of others as well. This is equally as important in the emotional development of children. Are we not becoming a little too self-absorbed as a society when we can’t stick out our hand and congratulate another for their achievements? Doesn’t that demonstrate character and fortitude? Doesn’t that have value? We should use these moments of both failure and success as learning experiences, personal growth experiences. We should be encouraging our students to get up and brush themselves off and try again.

Students should know the benchmark of excellence, but they should also be realistic about their expectations. Students should be encouraged to push for their personal best, despite knowing that they may not be the best. Truth is, there will always be people who are better than us in anything that we do––just like there will always be someone taller or shorter than you. Rather than focussing on notions of absolutes––winners versus losers––we should be teaching our students to acknowledge their current ability and build upon it. Not for the sake of awards, but for the sake of their growth. If anything, we should be placing more emphasis on “most improved” awards. Instead of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by getting rid of award ceremonies altogether, perhaps we should be encouraging students to achieve their best despite the outcome. After all, students need to develop their sense of self through exploration and challenge and if they miss out not receiving an award here or there, then that is ok too.