A GROUP OF ABOUT 30 scholars, school administrators, graduate students, and educators gathered for three days in St. John’s, N.L., in August 2022 to engage in conversations about what it means to “decolonize professional learning.” For many of us, this was the first in-person gathering since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and it was food for the heart and soul.
Decolonize-ing is an action verb that seeks to alter existing inequities and disparities in outcomes for equity-deserving groups. As a process, a pedagogy toward decoloniality works to change unequal relations of power and notions of “professionalism,” which are often taken for granted without examining who they privilege and exclude and in what ways. Decolonizing your mind, heart, and soul translates to identifying the roots of why things are the way they are and working toward transformative possibilities that centre the experiences, voices, and perspectives of historically minoritized peoples, particularly Indigeneity.
What can be a starting point for educators grappling with where to begin? It starts with investing in pedagogical approaches that support students who have in the past or currently are experiencing trauma, including intergenerational trauma such as the impact of residential schools. This involves creating spaces for healing where students have opportunities to share their lived experiences as embodied curriculum, including who they are and how they are impacted socially and emotionally by societal issues and systemic barriers in education. As a whole, this constitutes a trauma-informed approach to critical pedagogy where engaging with pain and suffering is encouraged, as it has the potential for empowerment and liberation (Eizadirad et al., 2022). We must operate from a harm reduction stance, aiming to reduce systemic barriers for equity-deserving groups while advocating for new policies, practices, and processes that are more equitable and just. This needs to be an all-hands-on deck effort involving ideas and voices of different students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders, particularly minoritized groups.
Hegemony was coined by Antonio Gramsci as a theoretical concept describing how the ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – established and maintained control of power through the combination of force and consent. Hegemony is socio-culturally constructed through a dynamic process that influences social relations through legitimization of a narrow set of ideologies as “commonsense,” often told and perpetuated by those in positions of power and authority. Through this process, ideas are taken for granted without questioning.
We can apply the concept of hegemony to the rhetoric of “professionalism” in education. Teacher “professionalism” has become a tool for exclusion and deficit thinking in such areas as how we are expected to dress, speak, and interact with others. This applies to students, educators, and administrators. As Weiner (2014) reminds us,
“The subtle cruelty of hegemony is that over time it becomes deeply embedded, part of the natural air we breathe. One cannot peel back the layers of oppression and identify a group or groups of people as the instigators of a conscious conspiracy to keep people silent and disenfranchised. Instead, the ideas and practices of hegemony become part and parcel of everyday life – the stock opinions, conventional wisdom, or commonsense ways of seeing and ordering the world that people take for granted.” (p. 40)
The central feature of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is that it operates without force as “it becomes our worldview and through hegemony we are in complicity with our own subordination” (Madison, 2012, p. 65).
Part of decolonizing and unlearning is engaging with critical questions, rather than accepting simplified or distorted answers. For example, we must question processes or lack of them that contribute to the limited teacher diversity in the workforce. When it comes to the existing lack of teacher diversity from coast to coast to coast in Canada, which does not reflect the demographics of students and communities we serve, we must ask: What are the barriers for racialized and minoritized educators to secure permanent teaching positions? What has become hegemonic within educational policies and practices, functioning as gatekeeping mechanisms, and what needs disruption and dismantling? How can processes be improved to value diverse identities for who they are and their contributions and experiences, instead of pressuring them to fit the hegemonic notion of how they are supposed to look and how they are supposed to show up to do the job? What data is being collected (e.g. race-based data) and shared with the public to ensure transparency and accountability and to improve diversity over time? This is the struggle to decolonize education and to meet the needs of equity-deserving students and educators who face more systemic barriers in the education system.
“Small fires” were used as the main pedagogical approach at the gathering to facilitate interactions amongst participants. Participants gathered in small groups based on a topic of interest where a leader facilitated a discussion. The intention was to encourage unlearning and challenge each other through a lens that valued each participant’s unique identities, lived and professional experiences, and complex intersections with privilege and oppression. The objective was to build relationships, value spirituality, and create networks across the country for those who advocate for and engage in decolonizing education at various levels from K to 12 and in higher education.
Below are reflections from three of the small fire leaders.
The theme for my small fire circle was “Resistance, Subversion, and Non-Hegemonic Approaches” in education. As a small group we engaged in discussions about what decolonization means and looks like in action in our various roles. I used an interactive activity with sticky notes to promote reflection. I proposed that participants reflect on four major questions:
Discussing the purpose of research in response to the question posed, I shared my conviction that research should be a tool for advocacy and activism. As a collective, we agreed that research should not only critique but also facilitate ways of doing things differently to support the needs of all students. This prompt led to further discussions about how and in what ways we can disrupt “professionalism” in educational settings in our various roles and relative access to power. As part of their responses, participants emphasized the importance of “actions over appearance,” “seeing students of colour,” “different ways of knowing being valued,” and “rejecting the expectations of the status quo.” We all agreed that we must take risks, at times be subversive, and challenge the status quo internally and externally.
During my small fire session, I discussed the theme of “deconstructing systemic anti-Black racism within la francophonie.” I highlighted how the first step to combating systemic anti-Black racism is transformative leadership. In particular, I focused on the following questions:
The discussions aligned with what I have learned from my research with educational system leaders in la francophonie (see my article in this issue: www.edcan.ca/articles/critical-incidents-in-educational-leadership/) about the importance of examining critical incidents (experiences that confirm, modify, or fragment leadership) that arise to identify areas for change (Sider et al., 2017). Principals and other system leaders are called upon to review critical incidents as valuable data. Examples of critical incidents that can be examined together include how a school board’s administration delayed removal of a white school principal after two interrelated situations involving anti-Black racism, and more specifically what it took for the Black student to finally be heard two years later via the Black Lives Matter London Twitter account (CBC News, 2021).
As a collective, we discussed how essential conversations that de-centre whiteness and traditional educational leadership discourse are central to transformative change to create more equitable spaces for belonging (Cranston & Jean-Michel, 2021). Participants felt it is necessary to couple prevention with concrete and continual interventions. The discussions within the group indicated that it is not about one-off activities, training sessions, or reacting in a way that reduces students, families, and community members from equity-deserving groups to anecdotal evidence or experiences. Rather, transformative leadership is about listening and creating conditions for inclusion. Instead of being fixated on what is impossible, we can continually explore how as educational leaders we can embrace diversity and work toward creating conditions, policies, and processes that advocate for equitable inclusion for all. This work has to be done at the individual and institutional levels for it to be sustainable in society.
Borrowing from the title of Tuck and Yang’s (2012) much read and discussed provocation “decolonization is not a metaphor” and some of its underlying ideas, participants were invited to consider how they might shift from seeing themselves as “allies” to becoming engaged “co-conspirators” to dismantle the Eurocentric, white supremacist system of higher education, including the discourse and rhetoric associated with professionalism.
In offering my own experiences as a racialized, immigrant, first-generation university student who is also a cis-gendered, heterosexual male and holds a senior administrative role in a Canadian university, I framed the conversation to consider:
The discussions in the group focused on key characteristics of decoloniality (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018), particularly how we can work together to uncover the social and ideological hierarchies embedded in the education system from kindergarten through post-secondary that are designed and sustained to disconnect, displace, and dispossess Indigenous and racialized peoples. As part of enacting decoloniality, participants identified the importance of creating learning opportunities for students to connect to traditional lands and their histories, various languages and cultures, and family ancestry. As a collective we agreed that we require decolonizing at the ideological and ontological level.
PART OF DECOLONIZING is asking critical questions – with consideration for where we raise such questions, how we raise them, with whom, and for what purposes. This is the spirituality of decolonizing work to undo and reduce the harm caused by the intersections of colonial logic, white supremacy, and imperialism. Decolonizing work can occur in different settings. At the micro level, it can involve creating mentorship opportunities and support networks to ensure minoritized identities do not leave educational spaces due to lack of inclusion, belonging, or being on the receiving end of constant microaggressions. At the institutional level, it translates into not only creating access to opportunities for equity-deserving groups but also ensuring they are supported and valued for who they are, how they show up, and what they contribute to the teaching and learning community once they arrive within educational spaces, even if that differs or goes against the status quo.
Photos: Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, Ardavan Eizadirad
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
CBC News, (2021, May 29). Ontario principal removed after twice wearing hair of Black student like a wig. CBC News.
Cranston, J., & Jean-Paul, M. (2021). Braiding Indigenous and racialized knowledges into an educational leadership for justice. In F. English (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Educational Leadership and Management Discourse, (pp. 1–27). Palgrave Macmillan.
Eizadirad, A., Campbell, A., & Sider, S. (2022). Counternarratives of pain and suffering as critical pedagogy: Disrupting oppression in educational contexts. Routledge.
Hayes, A., Luckett, K., & Misiaszek, G. (2021). Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: Critical perspectives on praxis. Teaching in Higher Education, 26(7-8), 887–901.
Hernandez, J., & Khadem, M. (2017). Transformative leadership: Mastering the hidden dimension. Harmony Equity Press.
Madison, D. (2012). Critical ethnography: Methods, ethics, and performance. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Mignolo W., & Walsh C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts analytics praxis. Duke University Press.
ON FEBRUARY 14, 2012, the section of Wellington Street directly in front of Parliament Hill was filled with yellow school buses that stopped to let off the children and teachers who were aboard. As the bus doors opened, children of all ages and backgrounds hopped off onto the snowy sidewalks, carrying colourful homemade signs and wearing buttons and fabric hearts pinned to their jackets. They excitedly walked toward the steps of Parliament to join the hundreds of other students, teachers, and community members who had come to participate in the first annual Have a Heart Day event, one of many First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (Caring Society) reconciliation-based education campaigns. Many of the children chanted, “Equal education for First Nations!” and read speeches they’d written. Others sang songs they’d penned, and hundreds mailed letters they’d written to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, calling on him to treat all children in Canada with love and fairness. The children’s many hand-crafted signs expressed how they felt: “Respect First Nations Children”; “Fight for Equal Rights!”; “Treat First Nations Children Fairly, Please!” Another of the signs that the children held that day stated: “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall!”
These children and youth, and their teachers, had been called to action by Shannen Koostachin, who was a youth from Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, on the shores of James Bay in Treaty 9. These lands have been home to the Mushkegowuk Cree for thousands of years, where generations of Mushkegowuk children were educated on the land by their kin prior to the forced removal of their children by the Canadian state to the Indian Residential Schooling system for nearly 90 years (General, 2012). For years, Shannen and her schoolmates had been forced to attend school in temporary portables, after the demolition of the community’s school due to a massive diesel leak. The portables soon became decrepit, with intermittent heat, warped doors, mice infestations, and frozen pipes during the winter. After nine years of waiting for their new school, Shannen and the other children were upset by the federal government’s failure to act. Shannen documented the condition of the school in Attawapiskat and invited other students and their teachers across Canada to write letters to the federal government to get action. Shannen’s leadership resulted in thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and non-Indigenous children writing letters to elected officials to demand proper schools and education for First Nations students.
When Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010, a group of students from Attawapiskat, with support from the Caring Society and Shannen’s family, created the “Shannen’s Dream” campaign, vowing to continue her work so that all First Nations children receive a proper education. On June 22, 2012 – the day Shannen would have graduated from high school – construction began for a new school in Attawapiskat. The school opened in 2014; however, many other First Nations are without proper schools, so Shannen’s Dream continues (Blackstock 2019). Shannen remains an important role model for all children and young people, as she taught us to “get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins” (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, 2020).
Shannen’s Dream, which has been described as “the largest youth-driven movement in Canadian history” (Angus 2015, p. 2), has grown to include other social justice campaigns put forth by the Caring Society. As a national non-profit organization, the Caring Society aims to ensure First Nations children and their families have culturally based and equitable opportunities to grow up safely at home, be healthy, get a good education, and be proud of who they are. A recognized leader in child and youth activism and reconciliation education, the Caring Society supports the learning of educators and students through three main social justice-based reconciliation campaigns: Shannen’s Dream (equity for First Nations education), Jordan’s Principle (equitable access to government services), and I am a witness (equitable First Nations child welfare). Thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and non-Indigenous children and youth have participated in these campaigns, and their activism has offered a unique opportunity to advance knowledge about the impacts of reconciliation-based education and provide evidence-based research about how we can best move forward to support professional learning (Blackstock et al., 2018).
Across Canada, teachers and students are doing the work of truth, and then reconciliation, through their learning and actions. While this is significant, our research with teachers tells us that there continues to be hesitation, avoidance, and fear for many educators when approaching this work and a tendency to relegate learning to such days as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, rather than a year-long commitment. Our research project, “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall,” seeks to understand how teachers use Caring Society campaigns, such as Shannen’s Dream, in their classrooms, and what the impacts are on their teaching and student learning. Based on our findings, we developed a curriculum and resources that were piloted with a group of teachers. We believe that co-creating professional (un)learning communities that are grounded in sustained relationships over time provides opportunities for teachers to engage with their heads, hearts, and spirits in truth and reconciliation and thus address some of the tensions that teachers often explain as reasons for not doing the work.
Our research project began in 2018 and involves a team of researchers, teachers, community members, activists, and experts in law, medicine, and child rights from around the globe. This team contributes to a reconciliation framework that respects First Nations epistemology and relational ethicality, emphasizes collaboration, and takes a collective inquiry approach to a shared responsibility (Blackstock, 2011). Our research team endeavoured to uphold an ethic of relationality throughout the study, by forming trusting relationships with the members of the teacher pilot group over the year we worked with them. We did this by reaching out several times throughout the year, and offering support at all stages. We invited them to events within the university community, including talks, workshops, and sharing circles. Thus, in seeking to address the TRC Calls to Action in the transformational spirit that they were intended, our research team endeavoured to work with teachers toward “[b]uilding student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” while “[i]dentifying teacher training needs” and “[s]haring information and best practices” on reconciliation education (TRC, 2015, pp. 238–239). The group of teacher participants who piloted these resources in their classrooms and shared their experiences informed the development of future resources, and have become “Spirit Bear” teacher leaders.
By creating, supporting, and sustaining professional communities of (un)learning with teachers, we hope that our research provides examples of how it is possible, and beneficial, to unsettle teacher professional learning from a one-day workshop-based model toward a sustainable ecosystem of relationships as we unlearn and learn together. Our relationships with teachers have resulted in the upcoming launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School for Teachers, which will be hosted on the Caring Society’s website. The Spirit Bear Virtual School will be a space where teachers from across Canada can access curriculum and learning guides co-created with teachers; listen to talks by educators experienced in working with the Caring Society’s campaigns; and learn about additional resources that will help them on their journey towards enacting truth and then reconcilia(c)tion education in their classrooms.
Barbara Giroux is a Grade 1 teacher at Holy Family School in Ottawa, Ontario. After taking part in our virtual Spirit Bear Retreat for Teacher Professional Learning in August 2021, Barbara decided to join our pilot group during the 2021–2022 school year. She was hoping to unlearn some of the history she’d learned in school, and by extension, had taught to her students. Through our partnership with the Caring Society, Barbara received a Reconciliation Ambearister to help teach herself and her learners about the ongoing legacies of colonialism, including Residential schools, the Indian Act, and current inequities such as the lack of clean water, education, and services in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Barbara writes:
“My Grade 1 class embarked on an incredible learning journey with a black and cream bear who came to us as a Reconciliation Ambearister from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. He arrived in a box with the word “puzzles” on it. We took it to mean that he was puzzled to find out about his Algonquin heritage and we would learn along with him, with the help of an Elder for as much time as she could give to us. She gifted our bear the name Makoonse, which means “bear cub” in Algonquin. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program is perfect for us because it could meet us where the children were at, and expected only a willingness for us to learn about the territory and peoples on whose unceded land we reside, to make connections with, and learn from, our partners, and to demonstrate meaningful work for Reconciliation. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program also encourages us to continue our own group learning, particularly as it relates to the local Algonquin First Nation. We have learned that the third moon of the year is the Sugar Moon or ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS, and represents the Anishinaabe New Year, when the maple sap begins to run. The children enjoyed learning about maple sap as a medicine, and that Nanabush, an Anishinaabe cultural hero, taught us, through stories, that the greatest gift is in the giving. We also learned that the back of a turtle represents the number of lunar cycles in a year, and the length of time in each lunar cycle.”
In the sharing sessions we held over the year with the pilot group, Barbara shared the challenges and struggles she experiences while doing this work. The sharing sessions supported her questions, thinking, and growth as not only a teacher, but as a human being. Although the sessions were virtual due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the teachers who participated remarked how they felt a strong sense of solidarity, friendship, accountability, and mentorship. By connecting with other teachers doing the work of unlearning and truth and then reconcilia(c)tions, teachers received and offered support in sustained and meaningful ways. Barbara shares:
“I had a lot to learn and a lot to teach, and I am humbled and proud to say that this year has been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career, as well as the most challenging. It has been a year of humility; admitting to the children that I am learning along with them; realizing there is no end to how much I have yet to learn; being an actively reflective practitioner and acknowledging where past practice requires a new mindset.”
Barbara recently was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in teaching for her work with Spirit Bear and her Reconciliation Ambearrister, Makoonse kindergarten curriculum and program. Her example demonstrates that transformational approaches to professional (un)learning and teaching gives life to the head, heart, and spirit. Furthermore, opportunities to engage in (un)learning teacher communities with researchers supports the work of community partners such as the Caring Society, and the thousands of children and youth who are leading the way forward.
An Invitation to Join Us
The work of unlearning colonialism cannot be facilitated in a one-day workshop based on a slideshow presentation or discussion. Teachers must be invited into a community of relations where they feel a sense of belonging, the space to question and wonder, and the opportunity to pose questions and ideas. In the words of Shannen Koostachin, who said, “School is a time for hopes and dreams of the future” (Angus, 2012), we welcome more teachers to join us as we hope and dream for the future of professional (un)learning. We invite you to visit www.fncaringsociety.com/spiritbear to learn more about Spirit Bear, and for updates about the launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School!
Photo: Barbara Giroux
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Angus, C. (2012, January 10). Shannen Koostachin “Really believed that kids could change the world.” HuffPost Canada. www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/shannen-koostachin-really-believed-that-kids-could-change-the-w_b_1197267
Angus, C. (2015). Children of the broken treaty: Canada’s lost promise and one girl’s dream. University of Regina Press.
Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1–16. https://jswve.org/download/2011-1/spr11-blackstock-Emergence-breath-of-life-theory.pdf
Blackstock, C. (2019, July 16). When will Ottawa end its willful neglect of First Nations children? The Globe and Mail.
General, Z. (2012). Akimiski Island, Nunavut, Canada: An island in dispute [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Waterloo. https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/handle/10012/7022
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
We live and teach in a society that for the most part ignores the brain. For many of us, when we hear the term “wellness” we think about our physical, emotional, and mental health, yet few of us apply the term wellness to our brains. Research into the brain has increased in leaps and bounds over the last forty years. It is time for us to include it in our wellness repertoire.
It’s common knowledge that our sleep, diet, and activity level impact both body and brain health. What’s less commonly understood is how chronic or toxic stress can cause harm to both body and brain. And while we may seek out medical insights when our body manifests symptoms of toxic stress, we are less likely to do so when our brain shows signs of suffering. After all, neurological scars, anatomical changes, and the dismantling of brain architecture cannot be seen with the naked eye. Scientists, in contrast, can see these physical changes on brain scans. Non-invasive technology has revealed that toxic stress can do serious and lasting damage to the brain.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is scientists also have learned, and documented in extensive research, that our brains are innately wired to repair and recover. That said, it is not a quick fix and it is not easy. Returning a brain that has felt trapped in a toxic stress environment to organic brain health requires daily work at evidence-based practices. Reducing and eliminating the destructive effect of chronic stress demands the same kind of activation energy needed to get up off the couch and begin an exercise regime. You need to start slowly or risk injury. You need to believe in yourself in order to muster up the day-in, day-out work of deliberate practice. With commitment, over time you will find your lungs gasping less, your heart pounding less, your muscles strengthening, your resilience increasing, and your stress levels dropping.
Aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, it is immensely curative for a stressed-out brain. It fuels the brain with BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor, which neuroscientists see as comparable to fertilizer needed to encourage the birth of new brain cells, grow healthy brain structures, and fuel neural networks. A notable distinction between the body and brain, when it comes to exercise, is that the former can happily run on either a treadmill or a wooded path and still get strong and fit. In contrast, the brain does far better on the wooded path. Brains are hungry for learning on multiple levels. Along with the documented stress reduction of “forest bathing,” the path out in nature feeds the brain’s craving for challenges, surprises, and changes. There are few things better for the brain’s balance system than being thrown a rock or root on the path that requires it to do a rapid adjustment. Comparably, playing a sport combines aerobic exercise with further brain challenges. Competition that revolves around exercise is ideal for a brain that needs to train social-emotional connections, expand peripheral vision, hone focus, work the memory, and make split-second decisions.
Targeted brain training can also provide a boost to an educator’s overall wellness. A role model for what can be attained in terms of brain fitness is American quarterback Tom Brady. At 45 years old, he’s competing with 22-year-old professional athletes and outperforming them. Not only does he do daily physical fitness training, but he also does the BrainHQ online program designed by neuroscientists. While the market has many programs, I am highlighting this one because it is backed by extensive independent research from top-level institutions and individuals. Many programs promise to increase brain performance, but they lack research to back up their claims.
Other high performers who put the brain front and centre of their wellness program are basketball players Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. However, rather than targeted brain training, they practiced mindfulness with their team. The goal of their former coach, Phil Jackson, was to build a team that was so mindfully and empathically connected they could go into a flow state when playing regardless of the pressure they were under. They were trained by mindfulness expert George Mumford, and they went on to earn 11 NBA championships.
As documented in extensive research, mindfulness effectively calms the stress that triggers the sympathetic nervous system. The slow, purposeful breathing signals to the brain that it is safe and activates the parasympathetic response known as “rest and digest.” This lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can become very harmful to brain and body health if it is being frequently released by the many stressors faced by educators and students. Despite a busy schedule, carving out time to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is an evidence-based investment that comes with multiple rewards. Mindfulness practitioners are responsive, not reactive; they’re more calm and creative; they feel more grounded and happier; they have better physical and mental health.
In our stressed lives we feel we cannot add another thing, but creating time for exercise, brain training, and mindfulness is a game-changer in terms of wellness that includes the brain. As educators, we are in the privileged position of being able to role model wellness for students and share with them what we practice. Imagine how much healthier, happier, better regulated, calmer, and less reactive students would be if they too had time each day for aerobic fitness, targeted brain training, and mindfulness. According to leading neuroscientists, these lessons in wellness are arguably the most important ones we need our students to learn. Prioritizing teacher and student wellness that includes the brain creates a foundation from which great learning can occur. Without it, lessons can be quickly lost to toxic stress.
The ability of scientists to see the brain via non-invasive technology needs to change the way educators understand threats to their own wellness and safety, as well as student wellness and safety. Schools are well-prepared and assessed regularly by experts when it comes to the risk of fire, but we have more work to do to ensure that teachers and students are not suffering from activated stress response systems and the damage caused by high cortisol levels. Chronically stressed educators and students not only suffer harm, they can also pass on their stress to others. As seen on brain scans, frequently released cortisol can turn a plush healthy hippocampus into a shrivelled lump. The hippocampus is an area of the brain engaged in learning, memory, tagging memories with emotion, and storing memories. If it is being bathed in cortisol, an educator may struggle to teach and a student may struggle to learn. Wellness is compromised for both adults and children. According to leading researchers Martin Teicher, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Bessel van der Kolk, harm to the brain from bullying and abuse creates much too high levels of cortisol and can leave neurological scars on the brain.
Shining a spotlight on harm to the brain from adversity and trauma supports a holistic understanding of wellness and encourages daily practices to enhance brain recovery and health. Having informed discussions as educators and sharing this knowledge with students enhances social-emotional relations, self-regulation, and overall learning. It is especially valuable since neuroscientists are well-informed about ways to return brains back to organic health after adversity. Evidence-based practices such as aerobic exercise, targeted brain training, and mindfulness can repair and restore brains so even students who have adversity in their past or present can be empowered to care for their brain.
The greatest way to share this important knowledge is by engaging in it personally, role-modelling it, and embodying it. This is where teachers can be allies in bringing about a brain-fitness revolution. Teachers who prioritize wellness that includes their brain can do a great deal to support student wellness.
As podcasters ourselves, we have learned a lot and see a lot of value in podcasting for the classroom. That said, for those not in podcasting, the idea of creating one with students can seem daunting; there are so many tools, and the starting point isn’t always that clear. That’s where we step in! Podcasting really isn’t that scary, and can be simple to do in the classroom.
We will help you to understand why podcasts are great for the classroom, and how you can get started.
Believe it or not, podcasting is a fantastic way to get students talking, and is a natural scaffold to the writing process. Here are some of our top reasons to introduce podcasting with your students:
As a bonus, it’s easy to get started. Podcasts don’t require much in the way of equipment. These days, almost all students have access to a cell phone or a device that can be used to capture audio.
Podcasting isn’t as complicated as you might think. There are four main phases in the podcasting process: Identify, plan, record, and share.
Here are some simple and free recording tools to consider:
The above tools are a great starting point for any skill level. They are simple to use and only require a student to click on record, and then click stop when they are done. The web-based tools will then give you the option to download the mp3 file.
If you have access, here are some additional tools to consider:
4. Share This doesn’t have to be public; it can be as simple as curating each student’s work on a collaborative slide deck (think PowerPoint or Google Slides), or simply sharing a folder that houses all of the audio files (Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.) with the class.
That being said, you may want to build toward creating a podcast that can be shared with a wider audience, such as your school community. Building in an authentic audience can help to create buy-in and motivation for students.
Podcasting is likely a new concept for your students, so it is important to scaffold the process as much as possible so that students can experience success with this new modality.
As a teacher, your first step should be to expose your students to the podcasting format. There are so many student-friendly podcasts, so a simple search should provide a wealth of options (See Student-Friendly Podcasts for some suggestions). While listening together, you can then identify the different components, such as an intro, an outro, and the different segment structures.
From there, identify what skills you want your students to demonstrate in their podcast. This is a totally new format for most students, so be sure to provide a planner, a template, and a means of brainstorming ideas either independently or as a class. This is also a time to help support students with skills such as pronunciation, language, and communication in general. This may be an uncomfortable format for many students at first, so they will need time to practise and get used to podcasting.
If students want to interview a guest, it is important to go over questioning techniques, question formation, and interview etiquette. You might consider offering a set of question starters or stems to scaffold the question creation process. A quick internet search will help you find lots of ideas to get started.
Podcasting doesn’t have to be an immediate or short-term goal. It is possible to scaffold it in such a way that you help your students to build the skills over a longer period of time, with the end goal of producing their own podcast by the end of the semester or term.
As with all things web-based, it is extremely important to consider the privacy and protection of student data when sharing the podcast. Make sure that you check with your administration, get permission from parents or guardians, and also review Board policies to ensure that you are not potentially putting students at risk.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
The EduGals Podcast E050: Podcasting in the Classroom https://edugals.com/podcasting-in-the-classroom-e050
The EduGals Podcast E083: Leveraging Audio in the Classroom https://edugals.com/leveraging-audio-in-the-classroom-e083
Blog Post: Student-Created Podcasts Made Easy with Screencastify https://edugals.com/student-created-podcasts-made-easy-with-screencastify
Ten-year-old Kate Sergieiva and her mother, Olga, still remember the blasts of Russian bombs dropping on their hometown of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine as they fled on February 24, 2022. It took three months in Moldova, Armenia, and Bulgaria before they arrived in Toronto, where Kate was able to attend school.
Olga, a single mother, worried that Kate’s transition to school in Canada would be traumatic. She says that Kate is still frightened by noises, loudspeakers, and people in uniforms. Kate worries about friends and family in Vinnytsia, where Russian missiles have destroyed their neighborhood and killed dozens of people. She relives the trauma of the bombing.
“We have this scary feeling,” Olga says. “You think every moment that it could happen again.”
But Kate loved her month in Grade 5 in Toronto and can’t wait to return in September. The teacher was very welcoming, she says, and all her classmates wanted to lend her their computers and play with her. She is glad they didn’t ask her about the war. “I am happy not to talk about it… I don’t want to bring the sad news to everyone.”
But Kate says another Ukrainian in her class was lonely because he could not understand English. The language barrier prevented him from integrating, she says. “It was much harder for him, and he mostly ignored the lessons.”
Kate’s story shows that while children arriving from war zones have things in common, each child is different and they can face different barriers to education. Teachers must create learning environments that are not only welcoming, but also equitable and inclusive.
New students with refugee status in Canada have legal access to resources, protection, and funding. Since Russia’s latest invasion, many Ukrainian children have arrived in elementary and secondary classrooms across the country. However, Canada has not granted refugee status to Ukrainians arriving during this recent conflict, instead offering a temporary settlement program, which for some has made their settlement process more precarious and uncertain.
Ukraine has made efforts to prioritize access to education for all children, especially since February’s invasion, yet many who have been forced to flee remain without access to school (Brookings, 2022). Ukrainian children have experienced prolonged exposure to violence and conflict, particularly since 2014 when Russia invaded and occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and large swathes of the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk (also known as the Donbas). Many children have had to cope with the trauma, and for them close attachments to family, caregivers, and educators are most critical for their psychosocial wellbeing (Bogdanov et al., 2021).
Multilingual learners adapting to a new landscape also need socio-emotional support in their transitions. For instance, traumas suffered by students from conflict zones need to be considered when teaching about topics that could trigger students to feel oppression or exclusion (Parker, 2021). Such social and emotional burdens make learning that much more challenging.
The welcoming process for displaced students has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. E-learning, social distancing, and wearing face masks have taken their toll on students worldwide, leaving many to feel disconnected and disengaged (Zakaria, 2021).
Many teachers across Canada have experience with refugee students joining their classrooms. They are faced with the challenge of differentiating their instruction to meet the needs of each student. However, addressing the needs of refugee and newly arrived students who have experienced the trauma of war is an additional challenge that many teachers may feel ill equipped to handle. The challenge is amplified by a lack of support from varying levels of the education system, including uneven resource distribution across schools, inadequate communication about the needs of these students, and few professional development opportunities.
Identifying and responding involves taking the time to understand the students’ lived experiences. Below, we offer background for supporting newly arrived Ukrainian students and pedagogical support for creating inclusive classrooms.
To address the barriers facing students arriving from conflict zones, we suggest some essential practices teachers can implement.
While these factors highlight what teachers can do to support newly arrived students’ readiness to learn, more resources and training opportunities from the different levels of the Canadian education system are needed (Clark, 2017).
Restorative justice in education (RJE) offers a framework for supporting the inclusion of students who have resettled from a war zone and helping them address their internalized trauma. Used with equity-focused and trauma-informed (see sidebar) approaches (Brummer, 2020), RJE pedagogies (such as intentional relationship building, dialogue exercises, circles, and conferencing) contribute to building the safe and welcoming community that students deserve in Canada. With a restorative approach, students are not passive members of the classroom who follow the social direction of the educator, but instead become responsible, active participants in maintaining harmony with their peer community as they engage in relationship-building.
Many teachers fear speaking about young people’s traumatic experiences. Their fears are amplified by a lack of training and support from administrators, colleagues, and communities. However, research shows that when teachers take the time to get to know their students and help them process traumatic experiences through relational connection and affirmations, their relationships with each other and with the class community deepen (González, 2015; Parker-Shandal, forthcoming). Teaching students about current issues from neutral perspectives is traditionally risky for teachers; however, ignoring or glazing over them could invalidate the experiences of some students. Teachers can use dialogue exercises and circles to help facilitate conflictual conversations, while being attune to students’ feelings and questions as they process this difficult situation.
For students arriving from conflict and war zones, building healthy relationships means creating a container for dialogue and understanding of the experiences that students bring to the classroom. The sooner educators can foster deep listening skills and develop a culture of valuing each other in the classroom, the easier integration and inclusion becomes.
Develop and sustain relational connections and community
Global conflicts have infiltrated classrooms as conversations emerge based on misinformation about the pandemic, white supremacy, and this most recent genocide in Ukraine. Developing strategies to support students’ mental health and wellbeing has become part of an ongoing commitment during the pandemic. These strategies need to continue developing and being applied, especially for students from conflict zones. Focusing on the individual experiences of students, using multilingual pedagogy in teaching strategies, and prioritizing relationships through restorative justice pedagogies are all strategies teachers can use to facilitate the integration of students and contribute to creating space for peace-building in times of conflict.
Refugee Story Bank of Canada provides first-hand accounts of people who sought refuge in Canada, which could be used in lessons about refugees and autoethnographic narrative writing. This site will soon feature lesson plans and educator resources for using these narratives in K–12 classrooms. www.refugeestorybank.ca
Facing History and Ourselves Lesson plans and activities for educators to draw on to teach about the global refugee crisis.
Relationships First This restorative justice in education consortium envisions communities where the inherent worth and wellbeing of all involved are honoured and promoted. It includes lesson plans and resources to support teachers’ integration of restorative justice in their classrooms and schools. www.relationshipsfirstnl.com
INEE: has curated a collection of tools and resources relevant to the crisis in Ukraine to support the provision of education and mental health and wellbeing of practitioners, teachers, students, caregivers, and others. https://inee.org/collections and click on “Ukraine Crisis Resources”
Sesame Street In Communities: Resources in Ukrainian: These playful exercises and inclusive materials can help students feel safe and acknowledged. Activities include videos and games to support children’s emotional wellbeing.
ReliefWeb is a source for general information and news on the conflict in Ukraine.
Bogdanov, S., Girnyk, A., et al. (2021). Developing a culturally relevant measure of resilience for war-affected adolescents in eastern Ukraine. Journal on Education in Emergencies, 7(2), 311.
Brookings. (2022). Ukraine and beyond: Lessons in refugee education. A Brookings-Yidan Prize event on key issues in refugee education.
Brummer, J. (2020). Building a trauma-informed restorative school: Skills and approaches for improving culture and behavior. Jessica Kingsley.
Clark, K. (2017). Are we ready? Examining teachers’ experiences supporting the transition of newly-arrived Syrian refugee students to the Canadian elementary classroom [Research study, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto]. TSpace.
González, T. (2015). Reorienting restorative justice: Initiating a new dialogue of rights consciousness, community empowerment and politicization. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 16, 457–477.
Jones, N., Pincock, K., Guglielmi, S., et al. (2022). Barriers to refugee adolescents’ educational access during COVID-19: Exploring the roles of gender, displacement, and social inequalities. Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, 8(2), 43–72.
Parker, C. and Bickmore, K. (2020). Classroom peace circles: Teachers’ professional learning and implementation of restorative dialogue. Teaching and Teacher Education, 95.
Parker, C. A. (2021). Refugee children in Canadian schools: The role of teachers in supporting integration and inclusion. In G. Melnyk & C. A. Parker (Eds.), Finding refuge in Canada: Narratives of dislocation. Athabasca University Press.
Parker-Shandal, C. A. H. (forthcoming). Restorative justice in the classroom: Liberating students’ voices through relational pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan.
Zakaria, P. (2021). Education under attack: An examination of education in emergencies and strategies for strengthening education. In I.Fayed & J. Cummings (Eds.), Teaching in the post COVID-19 era (pp. 149–156). Springer.
One of the many things COVID-19 has brought into focus is the classroom – the confined indoor space in which the majority of K–12 learning happens. Faced with the risk of spreading germs in indoor locations, many Canadian educators moved learning outside into schoolyards and local community spaces. In my view, these are steps in the right direction – but not only, or even primarily, because of viral spread. Rather, literally getting outside classroom walls and metaphorically getting outside the entrenched ways in which we tend to think about teaching and learning can offer learners important skills, knowledge, and dispositions.
Learners in Canada today are living the legacy of Western, industrial views of schooling, curriculum design, and humankind’s relationship with nature (Judson, 2010, 2017).
Overwhelmingly, schooling separates learners from the local natural and cultural contexts in which they are situated and divides a richly interconnected living world into disciplinary containers. “Real learning” happens inside, at desks or tables, not in local parks, communities, or schoolyards. Schooling also marginalizes imagination in the learning process. Outcomes or objectives drive curricular decisions rather than the emotional or imaginative significance of topics.
There is no better time than now – amidst the turmoil this pandemic has already caused – to take a critical look at education in Canada, how it may be missing the mark, and what can be improved. In this article I describe two changes that could better equip learners to face the uncertain years ahead: widespread cultivation of imagination and learning outdoors.
A world of complex issues and problems requires a population that has a richly developed ability to envision the possible, the not-yet. It is this imagination that is needed to navigate an unpredictable, wild, “white water world” that is “broadly connected, rapidly changing, and radically contingent” (Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018, p. 7). Pendleton-Jullian and Brown’s (2018) work on the pragmatic imagination challenges misconceptions that imagination is somehow antithetical to real academic learning or reasoning. They show the myriad ways in which imagination contributes to a range of cognitive processes, including perception and reasoning. They insist that the muscle of imagination is the force behind vital processes of speculation, experimentation, and free play that humans must employ when facing wildly complex and interrelated wicked problems.
In addition to needing imagination to deal with the complex world of today, it is imagination-focused pedagogy – teaching that brings into focus the emotional and imaginative core of all topics – that is most aligned with the emotional nature of human beings. We are, as psychologist David Kresh suggests, perfinkers. We perceive and feel and think at the same time. We perfink. And yet, far too often, students don’t feel much of anything about the topics they are learning about. Many educators think of the imagination as something that comes into play when foundational learning has already taken place; it is a kind of frill or supplement that may be valuable and enjoyable, but is not crucial to learning itself. While objectives are undoubtedly important for teaching, when they drive curricular decisions, teaching misses the emotional core of all learning (Egan, 1997).
At the same time, there are calls worldwide to improve schools so that students graduate with strong creative thinking skills. Education is needed, therefore, that feeds this emotional core. Imaginative Education is such a pedagogy that can fill that gap between valuing the imagination on one hand and cultivating it routinely in schooling on the other. It uses practical tools – cognitive tools – to shape lessons into engaging stories and cultivates imagination in the process. If imagination is understood to be the fertile soil out of which all learning, creativity, and innovation grow (Judson, 2021), then schooling should embrace the tools to cultivate it in all contexts and for learners of all ages.
In this Imaginative Education classroom, students are learning about the wonderful world of punctuation. Lisa is a comma, Hendrich, a period, and Paola, a semicolon. Each student has their own super power: Lisa the comma grants breaths and brings things together in a series; Hendrich the period has the power to end ideas, thoughts, and actions; one of Paola the semicolon’s mighty strengths is to connect full ideas. Their teacher is evoking the ingenuity of seemingly insignificant punctuation marks – those tidy little packages of meaning that help convey body language that we physically experience in face-to-face interactions but that is lost in written communication. Yesterday the students played with facial expressions and bodily gestures that may be conveyed with an “!” They giggled when they thought how a “;” can replace a wink (e.g. I got a new car; it is a midnight blue Maserati.) Tomorrow students are exploring the most unusual punctuation marks – have you heard of the interrobang?! – and the stories of those who invented them.
Human beings continually engage with the world in ways that evoke their emotions and imaginations. For example, words cause images to arise in our minds. We universally enjoy stories of all kinds. We identify patterns in the world around us. We enjoy jokes and humour. Extremes of experience and limits of reality – the stuff in the Guinness Book of World Records – intrigue us. We notice and often idolize people, ideas, or institutions. We collect things and obsess over hobbies. Mysteries entice us and we can experience awe in the face of unanswered questions or strange events. Our emotional and imaginative lives manifest themselves in many varied ways. These different forms of engagement are not insignificant; they are ways of thinking that help human beings learn.
In Imaginative Education, a theory and pedagogy developed by Dr. Kieran Egan, these acts of imagination are “cognitive tools.” They are emotional ways or strategies through which human beings make meaning in the world and, when used to shape lessons, can engage and grow imagination (Egan, 1997, 2005). Imaginative Education offers all educators a glimpse into the imaginative and emotional lives of their students and, importantly, describes sets of tools students are using to make emotional sense of the world that any teacher can use to shape curriculum. So rather than being objectives-driven, Imaginative Education is imagination-driven. Because cognitive tools are used to shape curricular decisions (Egan, 1997, 2005) teaching aligns with the emotional core of human beings.
In an Imaginative Education classroom, educators are storytellers. This does not mean they constantly create or integrate fictional stories in their teaching, but, rather, that they use cognitive tools such as revealing the heroic qualities of a topic, evoking powerful images, noticing the unique or novel, and engaging the body, to shape topics in ways that reveal their emotional importance. (See Learn More for resources.)
Focusing on imagination as we teach all curriculum topics is one way we can improve education in Canada post-pandemic. The next step? Literally stepping outside classroom walls.
Research shows that meaningful experiences in nature as children can impact the development of a conservation ethic (e.g. deBrito et al., 2017; Selby, 2017). Emotional connection can move us to action. Unfortunately, many students don’t have an emotional connection to the local natural and cultural contexts. My research has shown an alarming level of emotional disaffection among students. Students may know more about global warming but do not feel connected to any Place; they are not moved to live harmoniously with the natural world. Many students lack a sense of ecological understanding – knowledge of humankind’s interconnection in a living world and an affective relationship with nature that inspires changed action that is required in a world facing massive ecological crises (Judson 2010, 2015, 2018).
Understanding the natural world as a powerful teacher is uncommon in a Western view of schooling. Indeed, Place-based learning is a rich, but small, part of a Western educational tradition that has largely separated human beings and learning from nature. In contrast, the connection of learning with Place forms the heart of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. One of the devastating effects of colonization in Canada has been the virtual dismissal of Indigenous knowledges. Our education system can be improved if we learn from and with Indigenous peoples in Canada about a world view that acknowledges the inseparability of people and Place. I am dedicated to this work.
Unfortunately, not all outdoor learning experiences are created equal. Practices that neglect emotional and imaginative engagement in the learning process do little to cultivate the heart of a conservation ethic (Judson, 2010, 2015). Reconnecting with nature for its intrinsic value – re/membering (with) nature as an extension of our own selves – is a central goal of a cross-curricular approach to learning called Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).
Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) aims to nurture students’ personal relationships with the natural and cultural contexts in which they live through frequent engagement of the body, emotion, and imagination in learning. By designing pedagogy around the distinctive features of students’ imaginative lives – applying the cognitive tools of Imaginative Education discussed earlier in outdoor learning – IEE more routinely engages the body, emotion, and imagination where students live and learn. Because IEE is a cross-curricular approach to teaching suitable for students in elementary through secondary school in urban, sub-urban, or rural contexts, IEE makes it possible for the development of ecological understanding to take place alongside the fulfillment of curricular requirements.
The Walking Curriculum (Judson, 2018) is an accessible and highly practical set of activities educators can use to move learning outside with inquiry and imagination. Based on principles of IEE, the 60 easy-to-use walking-focused activities in the Walking Curriculum are designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with their local natural and cultural communities, to broaden their awareness of the particularities of Place, and to evoke their sense of wonder in learning. In the Walking Curriculum, a walking theme is paired with a cognitive tool to develop understanding and engage imagination. The resource is designed for teachers who don’t necessarily consider themselves “outdoor educators” – as a result, it has been of wide interest and is being widely implemented (Judson, 2021).
While I acknowledge that a radical revisioning of schooling and broad social changes will be required to learn to live within the Earth’s carrying capacities (Blenkinsop & Fettes, 2021), moving learning outside is one step in the right direction.
So, what do I recommend for changing the 130-year legacy that lives in schools today? Literally, we can change the story one step at a time. One tool at a time. We can cultivate learners’ imaginations through teaching as storytelling. We can shape learning opportunities for students of all ages in ways that move them outdoors, into communities and that employ tools that engage their emotions and imaginations in engaging with the natural world. When imagination and outdoor learning become core principles of education in Canada, we will be better equipped to navigate a “white water world” and may begin to form relationships with nature that can support a different ecological future.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Learn more about:
• Imaginative Education, the Walking Curriculum, Imaginative Ecological Education, and how to use cognitive tools on the imagineED website: www.educationthatinspires.ca/imaginative-education
• The Walking Curriculum: www.edcan.ca/articles/a-walking-curriculum
Blenkinsop, S. & Fettes, M. (2021). Living within the earth’s carrying capacity: Towards an education for eco-social-cultural change. Report for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. www.circesfu.ca/practice/ecological-place-based-education/educating-for-living-within-the-earths-carrying-capacity
de Brito Miranda, A.C., Jófili, Z., & dos Anjos Carneiro-Leão, A.M., (2017). Ecological literacy: Preparing children for the twenty-first century. Early Child Development and Care, 187(2), 192–205.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding University of Chicago Press.
Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Judson, G. (2010). A New approach to ecological education: Engaging students’ imaginations in their world. Peter Lang.
Judson, G. (2015). Engaging imagination in ecological education: Practical strategies for teaching. UBC Press.
Judson, G. (2017). Re-imagining relevance in education. In J. Cummings & M. Blatherwick (Eds.) Creative dimensions of teaching and learning in the 21st century (pp. 47–58). Sense Publishers.
Judson, G. (2018). A walking curriculum: Evoking wonder and developing sense of place (K-12). Kindle Direct Publishing.
Judson, G. (2021). Cultivating leadership imagination with cognitive tools: An imagination focused approach to leadership education. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. doi.org/10.1177/19427751211022028
Judson, G. (2021, June 21). Working with Place: Recommendations for developing imaginative ecological teaching practices. Green Teacher Magazine, 128. https://greenteacher.com/working-with-place/
Pendleton-Jullian, A. & Brown, J. S. (2018). Pragmatic imagination: A new terrain. CreateSpace.
Selby, D. (2017). Education for sustainable development, nature, and vernacular learning. CEPS Journal, 7(1), 9–27.
The past 30 years have been marked by an increased rate of change in societies around the world. In the span of a single generation, new technologies like personal computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media forced us to reconceptualize the way we engage in social interactions, work, and public life. Now artificial intelligence is challenging the boundaries of what it means to be human.
While these technologies have largely been adopted in positive ways, the systems under which they were created have also caused or exacerbated major world crises. The climate change crisis has shown us the consequences of unsustainable exploitation of nature and little regard for our limited resources. The spread of COVID-19 revealed capacity, coordination, and equity issues in our health, government, and education systems. Finally, most modern societies are also facing an economic crisis as a result of late-stage capitalism,1 which will undoubtedly change the face of our cities, work relations, and public life.
With all of these life-changing scenarios, what can the educational community do to equip students to deal with the challenges facing our world? This kind of question is usually confined to conversations about curriculum policy or reform. Many teachers believe their current curriculum does not address these challenges effectively, making it hard to tackle them in the classroom – especially in mathematics.
Specifically in mathematics, why is it so hard to address matters of public life in class? Perhaps the answer has less to do with curriculum policies and more to do with how we understand math education. The solutions to a quadratic equation, for example, can be found through digital technologies with precision and efficiency, so why is it that we still teach the discriminant technique? If we were to pay less attention to procedures and formulas, what could we do in mathematics classes to support our students to navigate the changes in our societies?
Preparing students to respond to the challenges imposed on our lives in the 21st century is a shared responsibility between policymakers (responsible for designing curriculum and approving pedagogical resources) and practitioners (school boards, schools, and teachers). Many readers might argue that the solution is to change the curriculum. While this is true to some extent, most Canadian provinces and territories have recognized that mathematics teaching in the 21st century must look different from the past.
Provinces already incorporate some of these important issues in mathematics classes, and many others are revising their curricula to increase their importance. They do so in three ways:
If many provincial curricula already have space to address our generation’s most pressing problems, what is missing? This is an epistemological problem. We, as mathematics educators, have been trained to see mathematics through its scholarly representation. We understand and appreciate theorems, concepts, algorithms, and formulas. But if we take a step back and look at mathematics as a way of thinking and being in the world, we might be able to see how our classes can contribute to a better tomorrow. Teachers often find themselves confused about the values they promote regarding mathematics. What is the purpose of teaching mathematics in the 21st century?
As it turns out, there are three answers to this question. In my research with mathematics teachers, I have identified three main orientations of mathematics education: disciplinary, professional, and citizenship. Depending on their orientation, teachers understand the value of teaching mathematics in unique ways. Consequently, they will respond to social change and tackle contemporary challenges distinctively. Below, I provide a brief description of these epistemologies, along with suggestions for readings and activities teachers can do with their mathematics classes. These are suggestions I’ve been using in my teacher education courses that have proved relevant to mathematics teachers’ visions and values.
This orientation refers to the most traditional – and most common – approach to teaching mathematics. It approaches the subject as the teaching of a scientific discipline, i.e. as an abstract science that is worth knowing for its own sake.
Most secondary mathematics teachers who pursued a specific degree in the subject enjoy mathematics for its own sake. For these teachers, mathematics – just like fine arts – should not serve immediate economic goals. It should instead be appreciated and celebrated as a common heritage of humankind and a way of developing the mind through problem-solving, logic, and rationality.
Teachers who share the disciplinary orientation of mathematics can respond to contemporary challenges by portraying mathematics problems that have yet to be solved. It is important to show students that mathematics as a discipline is still unfinished. Most students would assume that mathematical knowledge is already established and there’s nothing else to discover or invent. That is the result of the way math is often represented in the curriculum and textbooks, with formulas and concepts that must be memorized. By sharing unsolved mathematical problems, teachers can also show students that mathematical investigations can be done with a variety of technologies, including spreadsheets, coding, software programs, simulators, etc. Unlike what many might think, mathematical work is not isolated, and it certainly uses more than just paper and pencil.
Instead, I would invite teachers to introduce to their students the notion of a conjecture (a proposition that seems to be true but for which we still lack proper proof). Exploring a conjecture provides many opportunities for students to learn about the work of mathematicians and use a variety of technologies to investigate mathematical propositions. Students can also learn about the history of mathematics and how mathematicians pushed the boundary of human knowledge in attempts to prove conjectures.
Suggested book: Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Simon Singh (Fourth Estate, 2017). This book explains the history of more than 300 years of mathematical endeavours to prove a relatively simple proposition. Students can create a book club to discuss the book in parts. They will learn that mathematics is a lively science with lots to explore. The theorem (previously known as a conjecture) was only proved in 1995, 350 years after it was first proposed.
Suggested classroom activity: Explore the Collatz Conjecture2 with students in class. This conjecture can be easily understood by middle and high-school students and can generate many beautiful representations. Use Excel spreadsheets to automatically create a sequence based on a seed number, implement an algorithm (in Python language) that creates the sequence based on the user’s input, and create a concept map (use CmapTools) of multiple sequences.
This orientation is perhaps the most pragmatic of all three; it stems from an economic view of education as training. For teachers (and students) who espouse this perspective, the teaching and learning of mathematics should prepare students for future professional life. Particularly in high school, mathematics classes should develop appropriate skills that students could use in the workplace and/or prepare them for university programs that demand mathematical skills. With the intensification of the use of technology, skills associated with mathematics (counting, estimating, measuring, comparing, reasoning, etc.) have become ubiquitous in virtually all fields of professional life, from life sciences and STEM to literary work and fine arts. Most professionals face some, if not multiple, strands of mathematics daily. These demands intensify as they attempt to get promotions and climb the ranks of their organizations (typically moving toward management positions).
Consequently, mathematics classes should be responsive to these changes and portray the use of mathematics in a range of professions, so that students can see the value of learning mathematics and make informed career decisions in an increasingly precarious job market.
Many teachers see this phenomenon as a way to increase their students’ motivation to study mathematics. However, when faced with the infamous question, “When am I ever gonna use this?” they struggle to bring authentic examples of math in professional life. After all, it is unrealistic to expect mathematics teachers to be aware of how different fields are evolving. Do we expect industrial engineers to solve quadratic equations by hand to optimize costs in a production line? Or do they use software programs to simulate different scenarios under budget and resource constraints?
To tackle this challenge, teachers could provide students with opportunities to explore mathematics in professional life through research and social media. Platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, and others provide a much-needed connection between school settings and real-life professionals. Through these platforms, students can reach out to workers from many fields and ask specific questions about the way they engage with mathematics in their daily tasks. Not only can this practice increase motivation, but it also allows teachers to create a portfolio of examples of math used in real-life workplace settings.
Suggested books: For middle school mathematics, On-The-Job Math Mysteries: Real-life math from exciting careers, by Marya Tyler (Prufrock Press, 2008). This book presents a set of mathematical problems faced by real-life professionals in interesting and unique fields. It provides teachers with explicitly mathematical problems that can be used in a class while also portraying mathematics authentically.
For high-school mathematics, 101 Careers in Mathematics – Fourth Edition, by Andrew Sterrett Jr. (Maa Pr, 2019). This book can be used by students, teachers, or counsellors to explore a wide range of careers for those who enjoy mathematics in high school. The book features real people in different fields and how mathematics was part of their professional trajectory.
Suggested classroom activity: Although most “traditionally mathematical” professions now use software programs for mathematical tasks, there is a lot of value in knowing how particular mathematical concepts were developed within those fields. One good example is geometric instruments and constructions, both of which were developed in the context of architecture. Notable angles, parallel and perpendicular lines, and triangle centres can all be constructed with high precision simply through a compass and a ruler. Students can learn a great deal of math by exploring why such constructions work. Here is a guide for a variety of constructions: www.mathsisfun.com/geometry/constructions.html
This orientation perceives the teaching of mathematics as a way of facilitating active participation in social life. Mathematical knowledge is one lens through which students can understand the world. When we discuss issues of public policies, the planning of our cities, the distribution of resources, or the electoral system, it is important to understand how mathematical information is produced, used, and communicated. It is therefore paramount that our students learn to decode different discourses through mathematics.
Most teachers present this orientation in implicit or explicit ways. They agree that mathematics is required to become a well-rounded individual in our societies, but sometimes struggle to identify proper opportunities to discuss important issues in the classroom. How much time should be spent discussing the context before diving into the “actual” mathematics? How much preparation does a math teacher need to approach sensitive topics? How do we identify the underlying mathematics concepts that can be explored in such topics as city planning or government budgets?
It is true that mathematics teachers need to go above and beyond their original training to make connections between mathematics and citizenship. However, once this connection becomes clear, it can save time in the classroom by interweaving different math strands into one unit. Also, the most recent curriculum revisions have introduced topics that facilitate these connections explicitly. Financial literacy, coding, and data literacy are just some examples of new mathematics strands that can easily be implemented with a citizenship epistemology. These concepts are unequivocally connected to social situations.
Suggested book: How Not to Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin, 2015). Each chapter of this book explores a different mathematical concept or principle and how it has been used to shape our daily lives. It is a great resource to find deep and authentic connections between mathematics and social life.
Suggested classroom activity: One of the biggest debates in Canada over the last decade has been electoral reform. Currently, Canada uses the so-called first-pass-the-post system: each of 338 districts elects a member of Parliament to represent its interests, and the party with the most seats then forms the government. Through publicly available data,3 students can organize a spreadsheet according to each district and the votes received by each party.
A range of questions can be explored: What is the percentage of votes received by your MP? In which riding does a vote have the most/least percentage impact? Which riding elected an MP with the highest/lowest number of votes? Which riding had the closest race or largest landslide victory? Which non-elected candidate received the greatest number of votes? Has any MP been elected with less than this number? These questions elevate the debate about Canada’s voting system without promoting any specific position about electoral reform.
Similar to art, which can be valued for its aesthetic contribution as well as its depiction of social issues, mathematics is multi-faceted in its contributions to our world. The orientations described above are present in curriculum expectations, textbooks, teaching practices, and students’ rapport with the subject. They are certainly not mutually exclusive and can emerge in the classroom at different moments. Mathematics educators can benefit from a deeper look at their own values related to mathematics in order to recognize the biases and ideas guiding their instructional choices. In doing so, they might also be able to recognize the orientations their own students bring to the classroom and express in mathematics.
Which of these orientations is most closely aligned with your values? How do they inform your practices in the classroom?
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
1 Commodification of housing and health, widespread industry monopolies, precariousness of workers’ rights.
2 See The Simplest Math Problem No One Can Solve – Collatz Conjecture. Veritasium. www.youtube.com/watch?v=094y1Z2wpJg
3 2021 results: www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rep/off/44gedata&document=index&lang=e
Listen to “Self-Care for New Educators” on Spreaker.
Teacher candidates are prepared to care for students in the classroom, but often they’re less prepared to take care of themselves. Why does educator self-care matter in the workplace?
First published in September 2019
Teaching in northern and remote communities can be an intense, even overwhelming experience – and the result can be exhausted, struggling teachers. The authors present seven dimensions of wellness as a framework for nurturing both personal and collective wellness in the context of rural and remote schools.
My first year of teaching was an emotional rollercoaster. I cried. I laughed. I cry-laughed. In the span of one academic year, there were suicide attempts, deaths, high rates of teacher attrition, and school closures. These traumas were compounded by the poverty, lack of food security, and unsafe drinking water in the community. I was a brand-new teacher teaching high school in an isolated First Nation community in Northern Ontario and I was filled with both excitement and doubt. I was drowning in student debt, completely removed from my family and support network, and working harder than ever to be the best teacher I could. What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that you can’t out-teach trauma or grief, and you can’t out-teach a complete lack of well-being. I tried to, but I couldn’t.
I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now.
I realize now that my wellness was deeply compromised – financially, socially, physically, environmentally, and intellectually – and I didn’t even know it. I thought I needed to toughen up; I just needed to get through the day, the week, the month. But at the end of each day, each week, and each month, I was depleted and drained. I had so little left to offer my students. They were resilient, supportive, and strong, not me. I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now. I knew about physical health and why it was important. I knew I needed to exercise and eat well (neither of which I did) and I knew mental health mattered, so I talked to colleagues and tried to offer and gain support when needed. But that was the limit of my understanding about wellness and the limit of my embodiment of it. I never thought to access counselling support from someone like my co-author Elaine, or to seek help from veteran teachers, family, or administration. I just white-knuckled it through three full years of teaching. In the end I left my teaching position to pursue a PhD and, quickly thereafter, I crashed. I was riddled with anxiety, battling weight gain, taking on more student debt, and attempting to fend off looming health concerns. I was forced to begin a long journey in learning about wellness and how to prioritize my own.
That journey has led me here, to writing this article that you are reading today. It also led me to the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge, where I’m an associate professor and where I met Dr. Elaine Greidanus. When I met Elaine, we shared stories of the North: the long drives, the intense cold weather, the amazing people, and the communities and cultures we were privileged to learn from and with. Whether in Alberta or Ontario, our experiences merged and as a result we have pursued a research agenda and teaching opportunities that have centralized the wellness of educators.
Every two weeks I would leave my home in Edmonton at five in the morning and make the five- or six-hour drive to the community I was to work in. I marked the time of the year by which town I drove through as the sun came up. In the summer, the sun was just rising as I left Edmonton; in the spring, I would witness the sun rise over the farming fields around Westlock; and in winter, the sun might just be rising as I got to the community for that day. Often, I would not see anyone else on the road, except the moose, coyotes, deer, bear, and lynx.
I made myself available to help in any way that I could.
Some school days, I would complete one or two psychoeducational assessments with students who were struggling to meet the educational goals that were set for them. On days when there were no assessments to complete, or the students were not able to attend that day, I made myself available to help in any way that I could. Each school had their own ideas about the best use of my time. On occasion, I was asked to meet with students who were feeling upset, coach inclusive education teachers on how to design or implement individualized plans for students, or speak with principals about the ways to approach mental health challenges that arose in the school.
Whenever possible, I made it a priority to be in classrooms with teachers who invited me to provide feedback on their students or their own teaching approaches, and at the end of the day I stayed as long as possible to talk with those teachers who wanted to talk. Every teacher I met was open to talking about their experiences in the school, and many shared their own personal struggles with working and living in a remote community. Because I was not directly employed by the school, they felt I was far enough removed to be impartial. Because I was a psychologist, I was “professional” enough to hold their confidences, and because I worked in the communities, I understood enough for them to share their stories with me – stories just like Dawn’s.
You can’t pour from an empty cup! As a teacher, you have heard this said several times, and perhaps even said it yourself. The statement resonates with us; it reminds us to take the time we need to be our best selves, so we can best support our students. However, research shows that the wellness of educators is much more complicated than this. As educators, we are part of a greater community and even if we have a full cup individually, the collective cup (the school community, the families, and students) may not be full. This impacts the day-to-day experiences in every classroom. So, how can educators situate themselves and their understanding of wellness both individually and collectively in order to thrive and not just survive?
Wellness can generally be defined as an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.1 The “7 Dimensions” model of wellness (below) is a strong fit with the practice of educators because it highlights the diversity of wellness needs and provides a practical framework to develop wellness both individually and collectively.2
Figure 1: 7 Dimensions of Wellness
In Northern and remote locations, the dimensions of wellness are often more deeply intertwined. Colleagues are friends, parents and students are neighbours, and social interactions take place in school settings with colleagues and the greater school community. Living, working, and socially interacting with the same pool of people in common places compound and intensify all seven dimensions. The occupational dimension of wellness is of vital importance and relevance for those educators who find themselves part of small school communities where the borders between school and home are blurred. A concerted focus on the occupation dimension can be very useful for educators in Northern, remote, and rural school settings as a means of developing collective wellness.
1. Pedagogical Alignment: To increase your satisfaction and challenge yourself, seek out and explore various pedagogical approaches that align with your philosophy of teaching and learning.
2. Professional Networks: Reach out and develop networks of peers within and beyond the school to expand your connections and contribute to a healthy and productive dynamic.
3. Positive Perspective: Contribute to a positive, growth-oriented working environment by seeking solutions, thinking forward, seeing challenges as opportunities, and expressing gratitude. Adopting a growth mindset can help to actively challenge limiting frameworks such as black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizing, jumping to conclusions, personalizing, catastrophizing, and blaming.
Not only can the seven dimensions of wellness serve as a framework to support collective wellness; they can also generate a strong foundation for addressing and developing wellness at an individual level.
1. Self-Assessment: Identify the wellness dimensions that are already strengths for you and those areas that you want to learn more about. To assist you in identifying these areas, consider using a self-assessment tool that attends to different aspects of wellness, such as the one provided online by Simon Fraser University.3
2. Strategic Wellness Planning: Based on the wellness priorities you have identified in your self-assessment, be strategic and choose just a few to focus on during one timeframe. Design a plan to address those specific dimensions, using a SMART goals approach.4 If possible, find an accountability partner to check in with periodically to see how you are both doing in terms of addressing your wellness. As time progresses, revisit your plan and adjust according to what your needs and current realities or limitation are.
3. Seek Support: Reach out through your networks, such as an employee assistance program, community programs, or social networks. Meet with a counsellor, try a meditation class, join a walking group or a book club, or download (and use!) a mindfulness app. As you work through a self-assessment process and develop a strategic wellness plan you will, more clearly, be able to identify what types of support to seek.
The wellness of educators in all school settings is a vitally important aspect of the teaching profession. Research indicates that when educators address both individual and collective wellness needs, rates of teacher attrition decrease, school dynamics improve, and ultimately students benefit. Addressing and developing a culture of wellness for teachers and in schools is no easy task. Working on the three P’s and the three S’s will help develop a strong culture of individual and collective wellness and will ultimately serve to improve school environments for both teachers and students. This is especially important for those Northern, rural, and isolated school communities where the spaces between individual and collective are narrowed.
It’s been more than ten years since Dawn started her teaching career in Northern Ontario. She says, “Since then I have devoted much of my time both professionally and personally to wellness. I have never felt better, more motivated or more passionate about teaching. I exercise, eat well, seek support, and develop wellness plans that I share with my accountability partner. That being said, I have days, and even semesters, when I am exhausted, stressed out, and feel hopeless at times. But when those days or semesters come, I revisit the 3 P’s and 3 S’s and I work at my wellness, the same way I work at my lesson plans and assessments with students.”
After all, teachers who are well will be our best teachers.
Photo: iStock and Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, December 2019
2 Adapted from Alberta’s Strategic Approach to Wellness: Health for all… wellness for life (Government of Alberta, Alberta Health: 2014).
4 SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. https://alis.alberta.ca/plan-your-career/set-smart-goals
Over the past two years, teachers have had to shift and change their teaching practices due to the worldwide pandemic. This has caused us to re-evaluate the traditional teaching methods that we have been using in the classroom. Instead, we have shifted to instructional practices that are more differentiated, and that attempt to meet the needs of all of our students.
As we shift away from traditional classroom practices, one strategy that has shown a lot of promising results is the use of short, teacher-created instructional videos. When instructional videos are teacher-created and personal, they can also foster digital relationships with our students.
There are many reasons why this practice has shown so much promise. Here is a breakdown of some of the benefits to teachers, as well as students.
The first step is to determine your learning goals. Go back to your curriculum, figure out which skills you want to target, and plan backwards from there. You want to make sure that your learning goals are very specific, and will allow you to chunk them out into short videos of approximately five to six minutes. This means that one curriculum expectation might turn out to be a series of several videos and that’s OK!
In terms of which tools to use, it is completely up to you! If your board or district has rules around the tools you are permitted to use, then be sure to consult that list. If not, then there are a variety of options available – choose one that you are comfortable with, and that fits your purpose. There’s no need to get fancy or to try out a new or complicated program.
Plan out the structure of your video. Start by deciding if you’ll be doing a presentation, using a whiteboard tool, or demonstrating something in a classroom. For subjects with practical components, such as labs or tech courses, it might make more sense to outline the steps of a procedure instead, so that you can physically demonstrate that skill in the video. Either way, you’ll want to make sure that you have a clear picture of the outline of your video structure before you hit record.
Once you have an outline in place, you will then want to create the visual component that you will use for that lesson. It can be a PowerPoint or Slides deck, a more complex Prezi presentation, your LMS, or even a physical lab set up with materials. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but whatever you choose, make sure you minimize the amount of text that you are using – too much text can be extremely difficult or cognitively overwhelming for many students. You should also try to find images that pair well with the text you are presenting; this will help students to make more meaningful connections to your lesson.
If using Slides or PowerPoint, you should also consider using transitions or animations to help chunk out the different steps or concepts that students need to know. This will allow students to focus on one thing at a time, instead of reading ahead and possibly missing out on an important concept.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Possible recording tools to use:
Possible tools to add interactive elements:
ADAPTABILITY HAS NEVER been a more important skill for educators than during the COVID-pandemic. From intermittent shifts between online and in-person learning environments to planning within restricted classroom working conditions, educators have been forced to hustle since the spring of 2020. As they continue to adapt and adjust to change, they must also consider how to prepare students for a labour market that is transforming before our very eyes. We are seeing significant shifts to remote work arrangements that appear to be both permanent and increasing (Castrillon, 2020; Lund et al., 2021). With so much change, pursuit of an enjoyable and valuable learning experience for any student can feel elusive or even unattainable – and this may be especially true for students with exceptional learning needs.
We know that students with exceptional learning needs were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. While many students faced abrupt discontinuations to specialized services such as speech and language therapy, others struggled to keep up with online lessons and expectations without the kind of direct support they’d been used to receiving in the classroom. In addition to losing supports, new “quadmester” formats see students learning fewer subjects at greater pace, leaving many feeling anxious, stressed, and burned out. With educators already doing everything they can to deal with changing and sub-par conditions, it is essential that students take on greater management of their own learning. Like adaptability for educators, self-regulated learning has become paramount for students. This is a skill that that students with many types of exceptional learning needs tend to struggle with (Nader-Grosbois, 2014; Schunk & Bursuck, 2013).
During the pandemic and beyond, educators must focus their efforts in education on helping students with exceptional learning needs on their path to becoming self-advocates. Even better, through the lens of inclusion, this should be a universal endeavour within our classrooms to benefit all students.
For students with exceptional learning needs, self-regulated learning can involve consideration of what additional learning supports they will need and be provided with. At the elementary and secondary school levels this kind of planning is driven by educators and parents, but responsibility shifts dramatically to the students following their completion of K–12 education. Students need to understand their strengths and areas of needs, because accessing the accommodations that are necessary for success in post-secondary education is contingent on the student’s ability to request, negotiate, and implement those plans. That was true before the pandemic began, but understanding one’s own strengths and needs has become even more of a challenge during the pandemic. Educators must prepare these students for this shift, and it will take some reconsideration of how educators communicate with and about students with exceptional learning needs. In short, students with exceptional learning needs must become self-advocates. But what does this involve?
While the negative impact of the pandemic on our society cannot be overstated, one potential benefit of pandemic schooling may be that educators become nimbler in their efforts to provide supports for students. As students move through the education system, they too become used to change – in how learning happens at multiple levels, in what is expected of students, and in who is expected to be the greatest advocate for students with exceptional learning needs. While we cannot prepare ourselves entirely for the next environment we will find ourselves in, whether it be another pandemic, a post-secondary program, or a new career and workplace, we can focus on what we bring into that environment. We can work to understand our strengths and needs, and prepare to obtain the resources we will need to be successful.
Test and colleagues (2005) constructed a conceptual model of what self-advocacy involves, and what it requires of us as educators. According to their model, becoming a self-advocate involves developing:
Students with exceptional learning needs who become self-advocates are positioned well for transitions (changes in environment). Like learning a language, researchers agree that developing self-advocacy skills is done best when students are young. During the pandemic and beyond, educators must focus their efforts in education on helping students with exceptional learning needs on their path to becoming self-advocates. Even better, through the lens of inclusion, this should be a universal endeavour within our classrooms to benefit all students.
Providing students with self-knowledge can involve distinguishing between what a student’s exceptionality actually means and what they might think it means. Educators should look to inform students about their specific learning challenges; we know that students who have the same label (e.g. learning disability) do not necessarily experience the same challenges. Experimentation is encouraged here – work with students to figure out what conditions are most and least ideal, and collaborate to generate ways to overcome the obstacles they face. The better they understand themselves, the better prepared they’ll be to seek what they need in whatever environment they find themselves in next.
For students who are identified with exceptional learning needs, educators have a legal responsibility to provide the supports that they document on their individual education plan (the term varies by location in Canada). These students must be taught to recognize when their needs are not being met, and to understand what kinds of accommodations and supports they may expect. This kind of education sets students up well to learn their rights as individuals with disabilities entering a labour market that will almost certainly not include an individual who advocates for them in the way that educators do for their students. Advocacy skills should be transferred to students and Pearson and Gallagher (1983) famously provided us with a model of how to do this. Educators must model for students, collaborate with them, scaffold supports as needed, and work toward the students’ independence.
Knowledge of self and rights are almost useless without the skills to communicate with others. Educators should focus on teaching students to seek what they require by being assertive and proactive, rather than aggressive and reactive. Often, students with exceptional learning needs will find themselves in situations where they cannot access the supports they need (e.g. prompting students to refocus during asynchronous learning). Here, educators should focus on helping these students learn to negotiate for support; the student and teacher/supervisor can consider the task demands, the environment and resources available, and find a way to compromise.
An essential component of self-advocacy is peer support. Students needs to look out for one another because, whether they are learning remotely or in the classroom with restrictions, educators may not as easily notice when students are struggling. It benefits everyone to encourage all students to consider how their peers are doing through regular check-ins, and to speak up when someone is having difficulty. Whether a student has exceptional learning needs or not, all students can advocate for their peers when additional support is required. Developing a culture that values this team-first approach begins with the teacher.
Sudden shifts to online learning required educators to think quickly about how they were going to create a new learning environment. The use of online platforms, a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and flexibility were all common features across the country. Many students with exceptional learning needs experienced obstacles with these new forms of learning and instruction, but these experiences also point to some tremendous lessons that we can take forward. Ultimately, the pandemic has been (and should be) a reminder that educators must develop a reflex of asking “can this be more accessible?” While educators should be asking themselves if learning can be more accessible for their students, there is a great opportunity to involve students with exceptional learning needs in this conversation to share their perspectives and insights from what they have experienced. In addition to focusing on the development of self-advocacy skills for our students with exceptional learning needs, several findings from pandemic research are worth considering.
We must also consider how, based on their experiences during school closures, educators might create more active opportunities for parents of students with exceptional learning needs to inform what happens in the classroom. Whitley and colleagues (in press a) identified that parents of children with exceptional learning needs generally did not feel confident in their ability to support their child’s learning needs during the pandemic-related school closures and remote learning. In a lot of cases, parents and caregivers were required to assume, to some degree, the role of “teacher” for their child. This was especially necessary for many parents of children with significant exceptional learning needs who were not able to access remote learning in the same ways as many of their peers. However, these researchers (Whitley, in press b) also identified that parents who felt they had greater social-emotional support from the school (e.g. supports for the child’s emotional well-being) felt more confident in their ability to support their child. In the same research study, some parents were able to identify new approaches, based on the knowledge they gained about their child’s exceptional learning needs during their focused time together.
Together, the results of this research highlight the opportunity we have in education to foster stronger parent/teacher relationships. While parents and caregivers have always been the experts on their children, many now have new insights about the exceptional learning needs of their children, and how learning happens best for them. As we move forward in education with uncertainty, we can be certain that students with exceptional learning needs can benefit when school and home collaborate to generate ideas about how learning can be more accessible. While this sort of collaboration may be often limited to annual meetings to review the child’s individual education plan, Whitley and colleagues (in press B) have documented that parents and caregivers can provide ideas for consideration about how teaching and learning happen.
IT DOES NO GOOD to dwell on what we cannot change. Despite the challenges and tragedies that the pandemic has brought, we should rather dwell on the opportunities it has given us to reconsider how we can give students a great learning experience, and how we can prepare them for an uncertain future. Pandemic-related research on children with exceptional learning needs not only highlights the challenges these students face regardless of the learning environment, but also reveals the anxiety and stress that these children and their families experience in dealing with these challenges. Communication among educators, parents, and students with exceptional learning needs is paramount to provide them with the support they need to succeed now, and the knowledge they need to thrive in whatever lies ahead for them.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock
This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.
Castrillon, C. (2020, December 27). This is the future of remote work in 2021. Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/12/27/this-is-the-future-of-remote-work-in-2021/?sh=14a485721e1d
Lund, S., Madgavkar, A., et al. (2021). The future of work after COVID-19. McKinsey Global Institute. www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19
Nader-Grosbois N. (2014). Self-perception, self-regulation and metacognition in adolescents with intellectual disability. Research in developmental disabilities, 35(6), 1334–1348. doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2014.03.033
Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317–344. doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(83)90019-X
Schunk, D. H., & Bursuck, W. D. (2013). Self-regulation and disability. In M. L. Wehmeyer (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of positive psychology and disability (pp. 265–278). Oxford University Press.
Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Wood, et al. (2005). A Conceptual Framework of Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 26(1), 43–54. doi.org/10.1177/07419325050260010601
Whitley, J., Matheson, I., et al. (in press a). Perspectives of parents of children with special education needs: Self-efficacy and school supports during COVID-19 school closures. Exceptionality Education International.
Whitley, J., Specht, J., et al. (in press b). Holes, patches and multiple hats: The experiences of parents of students with special education needs navigating at-home learning during COVID-19. In R. Turok-Squite (Ed.), COVID-19 and education in the Global North: Storytelling as alternative pedagogies. Palgrave.
THIS ARTICLE DRAWS on four high school teachers’ experiences to show how a multiliteracies approach can be practised in the classroom. Multiliteracies envisions inclusive education that encompasses:
The examples we discuss are drawn from a national research study, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. Our research explores multiliteracies in Grades 7–12 classrooms and adult community spaces.
Lifelong learning is not just about acquiring workplace skills. It offers a vision for a more just, compassionate, and creative society based on the values of “participatory democracy” (Brookfield & Holst, 2011, p. 5). Ideally, adolescents’ education prepares them to become adults who will engage with passion, intelligence, and integrity in shaping the world. Teachers foster a disposition for lifelong learning in their students by opening up opportunities for students to think deeply and holistically about meaningful contributions they can make to their societies. Many of the students in our research indicated they felt more engaged in courses when teachers allowed them to follow their own interests and included topics or assignments that explored cultural diversity.
In our study, a Visual Arts teacher provided an interdisciplinary opportunity for her students to collaborate in a multimedia exhibit with the English department’s Indigenous literature course. The teacher noted, “Even through interviews they [students] had conducted with First Nations elders, they wanted to distill it symbolically within a work, and that process alone, coming from an abstraction, and realizing it visually, is a very difficult thing to do.” Shifting from the oral mode to the visual mode, students needed to find ways to visually symbolize their interpretations of the interviews they had conducted with the elders. The teacher observed that students opened up more about their own cultural backgrounds when asked to be a part of this art exhibit. The students’ artwork was shared with a broader audience of teachers, administrators, parents, guardians, and community members. Thus, this exhibit bridged students’ school and home lives.
The New London Group coined the term “multiliteracies” and called for civic pluralism, involving the “formation of new civic spaces and new notions of citizenship” (New London Group, 2000, p. 15). Our research revealed examples of teachers bringing civic pluralism into their pedagogy. The Civics teacher reflected,
“I think it is my job as a teacher to prepare them [students] for life as citizens of the community that they are in, and I try to make sure that whatever I do, whether it be computers or careers or communications technology, it shows them how best to participate in society.”
This teacher involved students in the community’s Youth and Philanthropy Initiative. Students chose a social justice issue, found a local charity that addressed that social issue, and interviewed someone at the charity. The students then created a presentation to convince the Initiative that this charity deserved their $5,000 grant. Through this assignment, the students had to consider, in philosophical and practical terms, what citizenship meant to them. Initially, the teacher encountered some resistance from students about having to go into the community for this assignment, but ultimately they became enthusiastic, and some students even continued working with the charities afterwards.
Teachers in this study modelled inclusive education by reaching out to their students with significant learning disabilities, using multimodalities and differentiated assessment and evaluation tools. As one Special Education teacher reflected,
“What’s necessary for some, is good for everyone. And so, ensuring that you are helping every student at the ‘just right’ step of their process of learning, enables them to have the confidence and the tools to show you what they know. And just writing it down on a piece of paper is not the best vehicle for every student.”
As this teacher recalled, she often had students create “a three-dimensional landscape of where the story takes place. And so, they would tell me why the character starts here doing this… they’re either giving me the plot or they’re focusing on character.” Another example of an alternative assessment involved creating graphic novels that highlighted an important scene or summarized the plot of a literary story through visual means. For example, one student created a graphic novel in English but also translated it into Hebrew. (See photo.) Alternative assessments like these give high-school students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge without solely relying on the written mode to express themselves.
In another secondary classroom for students with special needs, a Biology teacher similarly engaged in a multimodal teaching strategy. She explained how she worked with her students to build a model of lungs using balloons. She wanted students to physically see how the diaphragm’s contraction makes the lungs expand. The teacher commented that building the model helped the students “concretely grasp” this abstract concept.
This teacher’s assessment used multimodalities: tactile (blowing on balloons), spatial (making organs proportionate), visual (getting colours and shapes accurate), gestural (ensuring movement mimics human respiration), and oral (team discussions). To follow up, she consolidated students’ knowledge by having them create an interactive book about the respiratory system. (See photo.) Theorists such as Kalantzis et al. (2016) believe that “knowing how to represent and communicate things in multiple modes is a way to get a multifaceted and, in this sense, a deeper understanding” (p. 234). Teachers in this research promoted student success and a deeper understanding by building multimodalities into their assessment practices.
An Art teacher in the study questioned, “What would life be like without people wondering and making and doing and creating meaning and connecting culture and using our humanity to inform the good work of the future?” She believed in the importance of identity exploration through various artistic forms. One of her students explored religious identity. This teacher recalled that the student created “a portrait of a girl wearing a hijab – or as an Arabic [sic] student would say a ‘hijabi girl’ – and there were colours all over the hijab that revealed she was wearing [it] as a crown.” Later, that same student painted a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Her teacher commented on the power of students creating portraits to represent diversity in a positive light. Serafini (2014) makes the point that “visual literacy combines psychological theories of perception with sociocultural and critical aspects of visual design” (p. 29). Through visual literacy, these young student-artists negotiated ways to visually communicate their interpretations of cultural diversity. In an interview, another student said, “I think it’s important to maintain what was brought down from different cultures. And that way we get to see different views on teaching and different styles.”
Recognizing the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity on students’ experience, a Civics teacher discussed an assignment she used that encouraged students in a rural, monocultural school to think analytically about their community. She explained,
“What I have the students do is create a cultural brochure that introduces immigrant workers to differences that they might face working in Canada as opposed to in their home country. So, it forces the students to actually examine what culture is like here.”
This assignment allowed students to reflect critically on their own culture, which they were so fully immersed in that it might have felt invisible to them. This teacher, as a person of colour herself, recognized that it is vital when teaching a homogenous student body to engage in critical thinking about cultural diversity to encourage students to be prepared for their futures in an increasingly globalized, heterogeneous society.
THE MULTILITERACIES PROJECT web platform (www.multiliteraciesproject.com), founded on this research, is designed for classroom teachers and adult educators to provide them with free resources and ideas for teaching using a multiliteracies approach. The theory of multiliteracies offers a practical way forward for teachers to foster an inclusive classroom that allows students of diverse backgrounds and levels of abilities to thrive in their school classrooms and beyond.
All Photos: courtesy of authors
Brookfield, S. D., & Holst, J. D. (2011). Radicalizing learning: Adult education for a just world. Jossey-Bass.
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.). (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. Psychology Press.
Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., Chan, E. et al. (2016). Literacies. Cambridge University Press.
New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp. 9–38). Routledge.
Serafini, F. (2014). Reading the visual: An introduction to teaching multimodal literacy. Teachers College Press.
School, for nearly every child, means far more than schoolwork. This point was clearly highlighted by the pandemic-related isolation: children were missing their friends and the social fabric of their school communities. During the pandemic, most children in Canada were isolated at home or confined to cohorts during the school day, often separated from friends. Recess, lunch, extra-curricular sports were drastically reduced, if not cancelled altogether.
How quickly we were reminded that social connection, play, and overall well-being are critically important to a healthy childhood, and how quickly we were reminded that well-being is critically important to school engagement. Just as there have been concerns of pandemic-related “learning loss,” there has been, unequivocally, a “play loss.” As we start a fresh new school year, we argue that children will need an extended amount of school time to focus on reconnection, healing, and play. Supportive spaces at school will need to be carved out for this to happen.
Schools have long been defined by standardization, academic competition, individualism, and conformity – so much so that play, social connection, and a sense of belonging may seem trivial and counterproductive to the purpose of learning.
But there is a sizable body of research to indicate otherwise. In a landmark new book, Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle (2019) consolidate over 700 recent research studies that link school-based play and social connection to increases in well-being and far better learning. Creativity, imagination, play, and social connection are foundational to well-being, and well-being is foundational to learning. It’s that simple. Yet the education system tends to be deeply entrenched in practices and routines that pay less attention to the social and emotional needs of children.
But we can change this. If the pandemic is to have a silver lining, it’s that it has highlighted the need to prioritize time and space for human connection. And this is particularly necessary in school, where attitudes and behaviour take root early and are continually reinforced. We have an opportunity now to change up the entrenched routines.
Let’s start now with something rather simple: provide more – and better – recess.
Recess is a social space. Remember how important recess was to your life, for better or for worse? Recess, from the perspective of students, is far more than a break from instruction, a time for fresh air, or a need to amass the required 60 minutes of daily physical activity. We have long known that positive school friendships provide students with a sense of connectedness that makes school meaningful and engaging. Indeed, we know that learning happens in relationships, and relationships are forged when students have an opportunity to connect with their peers during the school day, most often outside of instructional time. These connections happen during lunch, on the playground, and in other informal school spaces, with important benefits for health and learning.
Yet, we need to pay attention to these informal settings to ensure that they are supportive and inclusive, otherwise we run the risk of undermining the very benefits we hope to realize. Unfortunately, out of all of the developed nations, Canada has some of the highest rates of school-based social harm – and the majority of this harm has been found to take place during recess and lunch. Many schoolyards, particularly those in low-income areas, are barren and uninviting, covered by a soulless layer of asphalt; and in dense urban neighborhoods, schoolyards are further impeded by their small size. And for some children, particularly those in low-income and urban areas, recess may be the only chance for outdoor play and access to friends in their entire day. Our concern is that when these spaces go unsupported, we see higher rates of boredom, bullying, loneliness, and exclusion – factors that undermine children’s attempts at play and connection.
We can do better. It’s time to change this and use this time to prioritize well-being and ensure all children have the space in the school day to connect with others in activities that allow for meaningful, inclusive, and playful engagement. Far from detracting from learning, these opportunities can influence mood, well-being, school engagement, behaviour, learning, focus, attendance, and overall school climate.
Play and social connection mitigate stress. After nearly a year of social isolation, chaotic change, and uncertainty, students are undeniably experiencing stress. Stress makes it difficult for children to access the aspects of the brain that allow for thinking and reasoning. We now know that play activates the brain’s reward circuitry and releases endorphins – the chemicals that make us feel happy and calm.
Play, by definition, is something we do because we want to, not because we have to (Gray, 2013). This is important for children – particularly now – because it gives them a sense of control and predictability that allows them to feel safe and secure, mitigating the effects of anxiety and stress. Both laughter and physically active play trigger the release of oxytocin and serotonin, chemicals that relieve tension and buffer against further stress. Social play provides the emotionally sustaining qualities of happiness and support, which is precisely what children need to feel safe and secure.
Play makes children happy. Gasp – dare we consider this as a “metric” to measure school quality? Schools are far more than academic institutions. They are communities where children spend a considerable amount of their waking hours during highly significant developmental years. We know that when children feel included, connected, and accepted by their communities, they are more likely to develop a healthy, positive attitude toward themselves and others that influences their behaviour at school. When children feel calm, secure, and happy they are more likely to enjoy school, engage cooperatively and considerately toward their schoolmates, be committed to their schoolwork, and have higher expectations of success.
Children have a Right to Play. Because play is so fundamental to a healthy childhood, Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (General Assembly of the United Nations, 1989) deems play and rest to be indispensable human rights: “the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” This responsibility to protect and promote this right includes schools. This right can be leveraged by ensuring the recess environment is inclusive, fully accessible, secure from the effects of social harm, and appropriate for all genders, ages, stages, and abilities (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013).
Children should love school. We all want our children to experience an ecosystem that supports curiosity, creativity, and connection. When this nightmare pandemic is over, let’s collectively find ways to give them opportunities to laugh and connect again, to have meaningful breaks in their day that allow them to heal from the relentless trauma. Let’s push hard for what William Doyle calls a new Golden Age of Play – and be sure schools are part of this conversation.
This article is a summary of a chapter from the Royal Society of Canada’s Report on COVID and Schools, in press, 2021.
As a start, we suggest all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, education leaders, parents – continuously advocate for schools to integrate more and better recess:
General Assembly of the United Nations, Convention on the rights of the child (1989) Treaty no. 27531. United Nations Treaty Series, 1577, pp. 3–178.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.
Sahlberg, P., & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the children play: why more play will save our schools and help children thrive. Oxford University Press.
UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31), 17 April 2013, CRC/C/GC/17. www.refworld.org/docid/51ef9bcc4.html
My teaching career began as a high school mathematics teacher, yet my focus over the last ten years has been in elementary, both researching and now teaching. I am currently teaching math to two Grade 5/6 classes, with half of them having IPPs. They are a complex group.
My interest in elementary math began by watching my own kids struggle. What was holding them back? Why did some students struggle more than others? Both of my kids, early in school, were labelled with learning disabilities in mathematics. Now both are achieving at a high level, one in high school, the other in junior high. My work with them was a journey that ebbed and flowed between barriers and progress. It often felt like going through a maze, heading in one direction, and then hitting a barrier. So, we would turn around and try another direction. Over time, patterns emerged in those barriers, and one telltale characteristic began to reveal itself: memorization. Through this recognition, the barriers became easier to avoid. Upon hitting a barrier, I would ask, “OK, what in this task am I expecting them to just remember without understanding?” Once identified, we would go back and focus on developing the conceptual understanding or image in their mind for this idea or symbol. Once they were no longer expected to memorize a process or a symbol without understanding, they would progress in leaps and bounds, often exceeding my expectations. Where there had previously been a brick wall there was now a passageway.
The barrier for many students is not the math but the ability to remember. Presenting students with symbols along with a series of steps that represent concepts before they have sufficiently grown their own personal understanding or image for that concept can be a major barrier. Students who memorize easily have an advantage, but is that advantage rooted in mathematical understanding? I have worked with many students who can find an answer but do not understand the underlying math.
How can we be more inclusive while focusing on the growth of understanding for the majority? It was this question that took me down the path of exploring how we absorb information and what types of activities contribute to the growth of our mental images for mathematical ideas. Are there ways of offering students information that are richer than others?
May I suggest three categories for offering information, ranked according to their ability to give us information as directly, originally, and optimally as possible:
The first mode of presenting a mathematical idea is through the oral discussion of mathematics and its written symbols. This is the emptiest way of presenting the meaning within a mathematical idea. We absorb information through our senses, and these symbols visually look nothing like the ideas they represent. If a student has not grown the understanding of these symbols, we are not offering them anything with meaning. Symbols are just the tip of the conceptual iceberg; the meaning, which is so much bigger than the symbol, lies underneath the surface. The symbol for four (4) can represent a distance, position, or quantity, which can be represented in an infinite number of ways. The shape of the symbol (4) itself offers no meaning; it is the students themselves who bring the meaning.
The second form, the imaginative, is the act of visualizing. Zimmerman and Cunningham (1991) state that the intuition that mathematical visualization affords is not a vague kind of intuition; rather, it is what gives depth and meaning to understanding. This internal offering of information for the idea through your personally developed images has much to offer in terms of growth in understanding. Images beget more images, leading to deeper understanding.
It has been well documented in both sports and music that growth occurs through the act of visualizing. As a teenager, my husband’s swim coach would ask the swimmers to lie on deck with their eyes closed while he orally described a swim race, guiding them through it, while they imagined themselves in the race. The description by the coach is a signitive offering, but where each swimmer takes those oral descriptions imaginatively is different for each person. In a meta-analysis done to answer the question Does mental practice enhance performance? (Driskell et al., 1994) the researchers concluded that “mental practice is effective for both cognitive and physical tasks; however, the effect of mental practice is significantly stronger the more a task involves cognitive elements” (p. 485). In this discussion, it is noteworthy to mention that physical practice was the most effective form, and that those who were experienced in physical practice (perceptual) benefited more from mental practice (imaginative) than those who were novices in the task. The reason suggested for this is that, “the novices who mentally practiced a physical task may not have sufficient schematic knowledge about successful task performance and may be spending their effort imagining task behaviors that could turn out to be somewhat counterproductive” (p. 490). This supports the idea of the importance of establishing the perceptual level of activity, which allows for continued growth when visualizing.
Our world is perceived not only in terms of object shapes and spatial relationships, but also in terms of environmental possibilities for action. A perceptual experience in mathematics, I suggest, is the acting out of a mathematical idea. It is within the spatial acting out that meaning is given or “lived” in the most direct, original, and optimal way, for we are experiencing the mathematical idea through our senses when, for example, we physically cut the shape into equal parts, connecting us to the concept of fractions. This physical act will allow for growth when we later imagine this act.
It is important to distinguish and emphasize the importance of this third category (perceptual) because it is a sensory act. It is this act that allows for the deepening and continual growth of images. So, when a student is stuck and struggling to understand, some kind of perceptual experience must be offered, some level of active interaction with the environment to promote further growth.
The imaginative and perceptual are closely intertwined. In fact, they are hard to discuss as separate entities, for together they are one idea – spatial reasoning. Spatial reasoning is more than just passively receiving sensations; it is the intentional act of perceiving and then engaging our bodies purposefully (Khan et al., 2015). Through acting out a mathematical idea there is a co-evolving that occurs in both our mental and physical skills. The actions being discussed are not only physical actions, spatial reasoning encapsulates mental actions as well. Visualizing is very productive within mathematics, as spatial reasoning ability and mathematical ability have been shown to be intimately linked (Mix & Cheng, 2012). Mental interactive playing and exercising of our images can stimulate growth in and of themselves without actually engaging our environment, but a foundation for this imagining must first be established (e.g. physically counting, organizing, regrouping, building, drawing, etc.). It is through these physical acts that our imaginative and perceptual experiences interact seamlessly with each other, building and strengthening images.
The idea that the math classroom benefits from the interaction between the signitive, imaginative, and perceptual is the arena in which my research lies. The perceptual and imaginative strengthen and evolve as we engage with our environment, but also within mathematics there is a strong signitive element that must be attached (memorization) to our mental images. How can these elements interact to the mutual benefit of all three?
The classroom teacher and I worked with her Grade 5 students in a school for students labelled with learning disabilities. We began with the foundational ideas of fractions. In our preassessment the students presented as having minimal understanding, many not knowing how to write a fraction (signitive). We had four days with them, offering perceptual experiences that were always combined with the signitive to encourage the association with their growing images. We would have them physically cut shapes (perceptual), practising the concept of splitting into equal parts. Yet before they cut the shapes, we would discuss and imagine how to ensure that they would end up with equal parts (imaginative), i.e. we would fold the shapes and then cut them. Next, the students would write the symbols representing the fraction pieces (signitive). This interaction with pieces offered them a visual, embodied, and imaginative experience connected to the mathematical concept. Later they would combine (perceptual) these different pieces and write the fractions (signitive) using an addition symbol.
Although we started with the basics, we continued stretching the complexity of the topic to see how far their images/understanding would take them. By day four, we played a game called imagine-build-steal, in which we offered them a signitive question first, such as 2/4 + 1/2 The students were then asked to imagine and give a solution. None were able to answer the question based solely on this signitive offering; they had not yet grown sufficient images. They needed more from their environment to deepen their own images. To promote this further enhancement, the students were asked to build (perceptual) using the fraction pieces that they themselves had cut out. This they could do; they had grown sufficient images for looking at the signitive offering and building the solution. So, we continued with this cycle of signitive first, then asking to imagine, and then offering a perceptual experience. Their images continued to grow until by the end of that period, students began to offer up imaginative solutions to expressions like 2/3 + 2/6 + 2/8, based solely on the signitive offering. They had reached the point of sufficient growth of their personal images to solve this complex expression without having to build it.
The growth of mathematical understanding is a complex process, as seen over and over again with my own kids, in my research, and in the classroom. It is also personal; each student must grow their own images for the mathematical ideas in order to be able to visualize and make use of them. For some, they can be slippery. This is true of both the student who finds it easy to memorize and the one who does not. I find spatial reasoning tasks to be a great equalizer in a classroom. The student who struggles to memorize and therefore follow steps may reason and visualize with ease, but those who can follow a series of steps to an answer may struggle to visualize the mathematical concept. Math, however, is about ideas and concepts, not a set of memorized rules. My experience and my research support the claim that mental images are a key element to mathematical understanding that is often underappreciated. Far too frequently, the goal is to get the student as quickly as possible to an answer rather than to deep understanding of the idea.
If these mental images are the key to deep understanding, then what factors influence the growth of these images? If we accept the idea that images are grown through a dynamic process of restructuring based on a stream of perceptual encounters and conceptual revelations (Arnheim, 1969), then playing with, utilizing, and exercising these images can support their growth. A classroom focused on growing images is one in which students are engaged in imagining, drawing, moving, and regrouping objects while incorporating the signitive to encourage association. If all we offer students are symbols on a piece of paper, only those students who have already grown sufficient images can benefit from such a task. As educators, we are then not providing new opportunities for growth to the various levels of student understanding that every classroom contains.
Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. University of California Press.
Driskell, J., Copper, C., & Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of applied psychology, 79(4), 481–492.
Khan, S., Francis, K., & Davis, B. (2015). Accumulation of experience in a vast number of cases: Enactivism as a fit framework for the study of spatial reasoning in mathematics education. ZDM: The International Journal of Mathematics Education, 47(2), 269–279.
Mix, K. S., & Cheng, Y. L. (2012). The relation between space and math: Developmental and educational implications. In J. B. Benson (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 42, pp. 197–243). Academic Press.
Zimmermann, W., & Cunningham, S. (1991). Editors’ introduction: What is mathematical visualization. In W. Zimmermann, & S. Cunningham, Visualization in teaching and learning mathematics (pp. 1–7). Mathematical Association of America.
What would it take to support all students and be a part of their academic and social success? How can we advocate for our students? Isn’t education a tool for social justice? Around the world, students in the same classroom are not necessarily receiving the same learning opportunities. Teaching practices, assessment processes, curriculum delivery, as well as exclusive practices and racism, may in some measure deprive students of the support they need to develop their skills and competencies. How can teachers promote equity among their students? In a multi-ethnic context, teachers are called on to support immigrant and refugee students in their cultural, linguistic, and academic integration. Thus, teachers have to adjust their practices and adapt their actions to develop a supportive environment for all students, regardless of their culture. Considering this challenging context, our project, which takes place in Québec, the French-speaking province in Canada, aims to analyze stories of practice in which teachers were asked to narrate a situation they faced in class with an immigrant or refugee student. Two stories were chosen for analysis because of their potential to illustrate – through the teachers’ “conversation with the situation” process (Schön, 1987) – how they adapted their practices to improve learning opportunities for their students. The actions listed below could be used as tools for teachers’ professional development.
Stéphanie, a classroom teacher, has years of teaching experience in many schools in Québec. The story she narrated took place in a multi-ethnic, public French primary school located in Montréal. Stéphanie told the story of Mohamed, a newly arrived immigrant Grade 6 student who had not yet mastered French, the language of instruction. According to her, the student was experiencing a trauma. She said that he was “very closed and isolated, and going through emotional issues.” Academically, Stéphanie declared that “though Mohamed had difficulty in reading and writing, he didn’t have a specific learning disability.” Stéphanie stressed the importance of diversifying her intervention strategies to support her students in general, and for Mohamed specifically. To do this, she took four actions.
Stéphanie considered it important to understand the reality of her students and to bond with them in order to accompany them in their learning process. She said, “We have to do everything to understand where the difficulties of our students come from. I frequently ask them to tell me about themselves, their migratory journey and their mother tongue.” For her, this “may guide the intervention process.” In Mohamed’s case, she tried to get to know more about him and how he was doing in school. She believed that “he certainly has got emotional wounds.” She added that she understood that Mohamed was “a strong and able student in his native language and then, all of a sudden, had found himself failing in school here.” This awareness can help the teacher adjust her practices to address the student’s academic and emotional needs.
Stéphanie valued her students’ backgrounds; she used tools that were anchored in their culture and language to support them. She asked Mohamed to write his texts in his original language: “I tried to value him in his native language, even if I was not sure of his competence. My goal was to reduce his cognitive load and give him the chance to demonstrate his writing skills.” She was also concerned about motivating him: “I told myself that by doing this, he would find this feeling of personal efficacy that is so important for motivation.” She also changed her practices to address his needs: “I realized that certain collaborative practices did not work for Mohamed, so I decided to work individually with him, and that worked,” she explained. “In reading practices, I used to break down the task for him and allowed him to work on his own and not in a team.” In this way, recognizing the student’s culture and language as an asset facilitates their integration process.
Stéphanie continued to work with Mohamed, believing that with the right support he would succeed: “I was sure that this student had everything he needed to succeed, even if his results at the start of the year were very weak,” she noted. Although his other teachers didn’t agree with her, she stuck to her decision to support him. She mentioned that “other teachers at the school believed that Mohammed had a behaviour and attitude problem.” She reported in her story that she believed, rather, that there was something that made him unhappy, and that he needed time. She talked to her colleagues in an effort to convince them: “I informed my colleagues about what he had experienced, and I asked them, by the same token, to be patient with him.”
Stéphanie acted to engage other stakeholders in supporting Mohamed. Not only did she collaborate with the school’s speech therapist in an attempt to facilitate the student’s learning process, but she also changed the usual practice: “Mohamed did not want to work individually with her. I think it was difficult for him to accept the fact that he needed individual help. So, we decided not to force him to work with her outside the classroom. When she came to the class, she offered help, but indirectly, which he accepted.” By respecting his feelings, Stéphanie created a safe emotional environment for Mohamed.
Maggie, a music teacher, had been teaching music for seven years in mono-ethnic schools before moving to a multi-ethnic school context. When we interviewed her, she told us about a challenge she faced when she had just been transferred to a largely multi-ethnic public French primary school located in Montréal. This is the story of her mixed group of Grade 5/6 students, who were “very resistant to what I taught them.” She reported: “Whenever I entered this class, I encountered a kind of rebellion.” Maggie mentioned that of the class of 27 children, 25 were immigrant students. She admitted that she was “shocked” when she first saw this very large concentration of immigrant students. Music class, she found, didn’t “interest the students at all.” She added that she “felt some pressure as I was losing control.” Thus she decided to adjust her practices to adapt to the new situation. She also reported that this “was a big evolution” for her in her career, and described it as “making a great journey.” Our analysis of Maggie’s story revealed the actions she took and the changes she made in her own practice in response to students’ needs and interests:
As she was at the beginning of her career, Maggie disclosed that she “relied a lot on the school program.” She explained that she had “to teach the students to sing, create, and perform musical works.” Because of the students’ resistance, she decided to widen the scope of her lessons to include American music: “I told myself that young people liked it, but it didn’t really work with them,” she said. So she resolved to act differently to motivate them: “I decided to change my approach. I asked the students about the music they liked and what it meant to them.” She then went even further, by asking them to teach her the music. She stated that after many inducements, “they finally started to mobilize; they introduced me to their music, and the girls taught me how to dance. They were excited to do so.” She related this change in their attitude to her actions: “I realized that because I had chosen to open up to them, they started to be less defensive with me.” By the end of the year, Maggie was able to assess them: “This change didn’t stop me from evaluating them. I had covered my program, but in a different way. I remained the teacher and they, the students, while having a lot of fun,” she said. As noted, this adjustment didn’t prevent her from fulfilling her initial aim to meet the requirements of the program.
Maggie was concerned about engaging her students to create a positive class environment. She said: “It is important to maintain positive class management. We had to find what pleased them. For them, it was the pleasure of learning, and for me, the pleasure of teaching them in a participative class atmosphere.” This conviction led her to take action: “I really had to take a big step toward them to try to bring them toward me,” she recalled. Maggie noticed that the class environment became: “more pleasant and positive when she was more open.” As Anderson (2016) stated, students need to feel connected to the class to improve their learning. This is what Maggie did by giving them the choice and the voice to learn about the music they liked.
Maggie mentioned that it was really important for her to build the teacher-student relationship. She reported the necessity of “taking time to sit with the students for a chat.” She advised teachers to “ask your students to tell you about themselves and open up to them to get to know them better, be curious about what they like, ask them questions and tell them about you, too. This is how the bond is created. ” She insisted that the basis of everything is for the students to “feel that you are interested in them and that you are there for them. You must take the time to get to know each other, to share good times. I also think that you have to love your students. They feel it when we love them and then they don’t want to disappoint us. ” Developing such a dialogue helps teachers to understand students’ existing knowledge, situation, and problems (Kincheloe et al., 2011), so they can act effectively.
Establishing a culture of equity necessitates a real adjustment, not only in practices but also in positions and beliefs. Maggie mentioned this in her story about herself and her students: “You had to go beyond their music, our music, or our values, their values. We managed to meet, but for that, I was the one who made the first move. It really changed the classroom environment.” She admitted that this shift in her practices and beliefs wasn’t a simple formula: “I knew I had to go through their culture, but I was afraid. I didn’t know their music. I was not sure how to do it. Then, I realized that I am not losing my identity, I am teaching.” She added that she “had to keep this attitude of openness.” She stressed the importance of integrating cultural elements from her students’ background. By doing so, Maggie reconstructed her professional and personal identity and her comfort with diversity grew.
Teachers need to reflect on their practices and modify them according to the class context. As Maggie said, “I believe that as a teacher, I have to be able to analyze my actions.” She added, “This experience has changed the way I think about immigration and diversity. It allowed me to ask myself a lot of questions. I will never see diversity the same way again.” This subsequently has influenced her teaching: “It has changed the way I teach. I had to have a new approach by beginning to get to know the students, before introducing the program. When I [later] worked in another multi-ethnic school, I had a positive experience.” By the same token, Anderson (2016) stated that reflection is key to growing as a professional. This allows teachers to bridge the gap between their practice and their students’ needs.
THE NINE ACTIONS that emerged from the teachers’ stories of practice were the result of a lengthy process of inner negotiation and decisions teachers made in light of many contextual factors. Teaching for equity is a long journey. To make changes to their practices, teachers and educators must engage in a process of self-awareness. In this way, a school culture can be reconstructed that gives all students an equal opportunity to pursue their way.
1 Intervenir en contexte de diversité ethnoculturelle : se raconter. Un projet de reconstruction et de théorisation de récits de pratique d’enseignants, by G. Audet, G. Lafortune and M. Potvin (2018–2021), was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Anderson, M. (2016). Learning to choose. Choosing to learn. ASCD.
Kincheloe, J., McLaren, P., & Steinberg, S. (2011). Critical pedagogy and qualitative approach. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 163–178). Sage Publications.
Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. Jossey Bass.
If there is anything that we have learned over the course of COVID-19 and the constant shifting from in-person to remote, etc., it’s the importance of a positive classroom community. This is established when all students feel valued, safe, and represented in their classroom, and students are actively taking risks and making mistakes.
Every classroom is going to look different, because every teacher and student group is different; what works for one educator is not going to be the same for others – and that’s OK! It’s important to reflect on your strengths and what you bring to your own classroom, and build from there.
In an ideal world, face-to-face interactions are a key component to building community; students get to see and interact with their teacher and peers, and become comfortable in the classroom setting. The strategies we share below are meant to provide ideas on how you can leverage tech tools to support this class bonding.
Please remember that building community is not a one-and-done activity; it takes real effort and continuous commitment to build and foster positive relationships throughout the course of the school year.
Why is community so important? Classroom community is a fundamental building block upon which everything is based. Positive relationships foster safe, inclusive, and effective learning environments.
First, a positive community encourages communication. Communication allows students to get comfortable with their peers, to build friendships, and to gain confidence using their voice in the classroom. It also allows students and teachers to communicate more openly about expectations, struggles, and how to improve.
From there, community leads to more effective collaboration. This is a skill that is important for students in all courses, but will also be important for their future.
Community also supports social and emotional learning. It’s important for students to build healthy attitudes toward their self-identity, to learn how to manage their emotions and behaviours, and to develop a sense of empathy for themselves and others.
Finally, one of the most important reasons for building community is the creation of a safe and inclusive learning environment. By recognizing milestones and highlighting the many cultures and strengths in their classrooms, educators can create a space where students feel valued and able to share their ideas, their learning, etc., without feeling judged or ridiculed by their peers or teacher.
Now let’s talk about technology tools that you can use to support community building in your classroom. No matter which tools you choose, consider tools that allow students to see and/or hear you and each other. This helps students to connect with you as their teacher, and with their peers. Think of the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” – when you include yourself in a video, students can see facial expressions and hear intonation, without having to interpret that from text only.
Be sure to protect students and their identities. Check privacy policies, and try to avoid having students use tools that gather a lot of personal data. If your board has rules about technology use for students, make sure that you are verifying each tool to ensure students are protected.
Please note that there are many different tools that are quite similar. We have included tools that we use regularly.
You can record a combination of voice, screen, and/or webcam. Tools include Screencastify, Loom, Explain Everything, Screencast-o-matic, and WeVideo.
These tools allow you to record audio notes in Google Workspace (Docs, Slides, Forms, Gmail) and beyond. You can achieve this with Mote and Google Read&Write’s Voice Comment feature.
Real-time messaging apps are more similar to the way that students communicate in real life. Tools include Remind, Slack, Discord, Google Chat or the chat feature built into your LMS.
These are collaborative tools that can be leveraged in the classroom. Examples of these tools are Microsoft (Office) 365 (Word, PowerPoint) and Google Workspace (Docs, Slides, Drawings).
These tools can be used to gather information. Surveys can be created using a variety of tools, such as Microsoft Forms, Survey Monkey, and Google Forms.
This is a great tool for collaborating in real time. Similar tools include: Google Jamboard, whiteboard.fi, whiteboard.chat, as well as the Microsoft Whiteboard.
Video conferencing tools have become a staple in virtual classrooms. Take advantage of additional features within these tools such as polls, Q&A, and breakout rooms to build your classroom community.
An LMS is a centralized hub where students can access content, submit assignments, and more. Examples of an LMS are: Google Classroom, Brightspace by D2L, Schoology, Canvas, etc.
As you start off your school year, remember that community building does not happen overnight. Teachers must continue to make an effort throughout the course or school year to ensure that all students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. Taking just a few minutes every day can lead to positive student outcomes, as well as stronger and more positive student-teacher relationships.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
This department is generously sponsored by IPEVO
Will the post-pandemic world return to a past version of itself or will there be a new story with changed values? The Story Model (Drake et al., 1992) is a transdisciplinary way for students and teachers to explore these questions, and address change and the “unimaginable” future. At a time of deep uncertainty, it is crucial to offer students two things: an approach to interpret the world they live in now, and a way to nurture their hope and personal agency for their future.
No matter what changes, two fundamental questions of education will remain: What is important for students to know, do, and be in the 21st century? And how is education best delivered? We cannot reliably predict the “know” of essential content, but it’s clear that artificial intelligence will play a role (Hey, Siri).
What should students be able to do? There is general global consensus that learning 21st-century skills is essential (OECD, 2020). The Councils of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) identify these skills as:
How do we want students to be? While attitudes, values, and behaviour are influenced by cultural norms, in Canada we want students to develop a good work ethic, and to be flexible, open-minded, and committed to being good citizens.
How is the curriculum best delivered? In a post-pandemic world, we anticipate an expansion of technological skills, integrated curriculum, project-based learning, design thinking, and personalized and collaborative learning.
The Story Model (see Figure 1) is aligned with our view of future education and can be integrated into curriculum in any subject area. It is the perfect vehicle for a collaborative multidisciplinary project and is particularly useful to explore “wicked problems.” The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (sdgs.un.org/goals) are examples of wicked problems. Ending poverty, achieving zero hunger, and addressing climate change are problems so complex and intertwined that they can seem overwhelming and unsolvable. The Story Model’s emphasis on individual and collective agency for positive change counters despair and motivates action in the face of such problems.
Humans make meaning through narrative (Binder, 2011; Vygotsky, 1978). Individuals “story” their lives to make sense of them, interpreting experiences to create a story that has a perceived past and an anticipated future. Groups, cultures, and nations also have stories. Stories are filled with emotion and conflict. Embedded values influence decisions. The Story Model makes these stories and values explicit. Alone or collaboratively, people can consciously choose to change the storyline if they do not like its direction. We can create a new story to live by.
1. Explore a topic. Students work with the Story Model graphic (Figure 1) to explore a relevant, engaging topic through the four interwoven layers that frame the model: personal, cultural, global, and universal. Topics such as pollution, the Olympics, beauty products, hockey, video games, and racism can be studied at different levels of complexity throughout the grade spectrum. Let’s use the topic of blue jeans to consider each frame.
The personal narrative is the first lens of knowing. Canadian students, familiar with this popular fashion item, can write or tell a story about wearing or wanting to wear jeans. A personal connection increases engagement and highlights the relevance of the topic.
The second lens is the cultural story. Each student lives within at least one cultural story, be it ethnic, religious, social class, and so on. Some cultures may disapprove of jeans, whereas jeans are almost a uniform in others. Critical reflection helps deconstruct these cultural stories and their often taken-for-granted values.
The third lens is the global story. The popularity of blue jeans has significant global repercussions for ecology, labour, and the economy, to name a few. Cotton cultivation and manufacturing consume vast quantities of water, produce toxic pollution, and exploit labour. Multinational companies advertise, transport, and sell globally. When Canadians purchase their jeans at a local mall, they tap into a huge international network worth $100.25 billion US in 2020 (Shahbandeh, 2020).
The universal story connects us as humans. We all experience human needs and hold values. Humans everywhere value survival, health, and social belonging (Maslow, 1954). Yet, these universal human rights are threatened by the fashion industry.
2. Analyze the present story. Individually or in groups, students analyze the present story of their topic(s) by situating it within a transdisciplinary real-world web (Figure 2) that has been designed by the teacher, the student, or both together. The categories on the web are flexible; for example, the web in Figure 2 is missing politics/ government, global connections, and the arts. Perhaps they would appear on the web you design. The key idea is that categories are broad and rooted in real-world context. For younger children, the web would contain fewer words and words that are more familiar to them. For example, the word economy becomes money; equity becomes fairness; law becomes rules; technology becomes computers.
An effective web ultimately pushes any topic into the global realm. It also extends any topic from a disciplinary to a transdisciplinary context. Students use each category on their web to identify what they already know. They supplement their knowledge with research. Frequently, they consult with other students to make connections among categories. Systems thinking can be made visible by drawing connecting lines on a paper transdisciplinary real-world web or mind-mapping