Guest blog from Dr. Kel McDowell (school counsellor)

Dear Premier Clark and Minister Fassbender. I have become increasingly disappointed with your government’s stance with the BCTF. I understand the basis of negotiation as I deal with it everyday in my job. In fact, my entire doctoral thesis was on ethics and relations – how parties must first understand the expressed needs of each other during negotiation and then strive to balance these in an ethical and fair manner. I have not seen this on the part of government during this dispute, in fact I’ve seen mostly unethical behaviour and very disturbing leadership – actually quite scary not just for teachers, but for all citizens in a supposedly democratic system.

I understand that your government is from a different side of the political spectrum than either me or members of the BCTF, but I’m not sure why you feel you have the right to dismiss their (BCTF) right to a different political belief and simply try to engineer society to be the way you want it. Ms. Clark, you have made it your personal agenda since 2002 to try and ‘eliminate’ the 41,000 people who are the BCTF – almost like a sort of political genocide – simply because they have a greater social awareness and conscience than you or your government. Furthermore, you don’t really want the public education system to actually ‘work’ as your mandate is to see more people move their children into the private education (for profit) system. I, as well as many others, would argue that you are trying to keep this strike going as long as possible in hopes that more people will move their children into private schools. Would it not be more effective leadership to try and compromise and sustain a lasting relationship with all of the citizens of BC, rather than create a lasting adversarial and provocative one with those who don’t share your views, such as the BCTF (to mention just a few).

For the record many of us, are quite happy to pay taxes, in fact I’d pay even more, if I can be assured at least two basic human rights – health and education – are secured. I am frightened by your ideas of ripping the social fabric out from under all of us – may the rich survive and the poor die. I think your leadership would be much more respected by all citizens (not just those who voted for you) if you took the high road, rather than reverting to what some in this latest dispute would ironically call your high-school drama antics of bullying your adversaries because you are in power. Why not have Mr. Fassbender work with the BCTF and not against them.

My further questions to you (or Mr. Fassbender, although he has no voice of his own, he just speaks for you like some sort of puppet) are:

  • Why are you so adamantly opposed to fair negotiations with labour unions, particularly the BCTF?
  • Why do you want to (or rather why did you) provoke another teacher’s strike?
  • Why do you have a personal vendetta against teachers and public education?
  • Was your own experience so horrible at school that you are angry with teachers and the system?
  • What is your actual stance on public education – do you see it as a human right for all citizens in a democratic society?
  • Do you not feel it is unethical to take public monies to pay for your son’s private education?

I look forward to hearing from you or one of your representatives. I don’t actually suspect I will, because you probably only respond to ‘the converted’, or those who tell you what a good job you are doing. I sincerely hope those converted people still say that in 10 years when we have become another post-Thatcher, Regan, Harper disaster right here in BC. If however, I can use my skills and education, (a public one which subsequently led to my getting a doctoral degree – in ethics), I would be happy to help your government with some advice on how to treat people in a fair and ethical manner. It may actually help you politically – how’s that – coming from someone on the ‘other’ side.

Dr. Kelross McDowell


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.

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.