Making space for creativity in the classroom sounds like common sense. Few educators today would dispute the wisdom of challenging students to think critically and to solve problems in creative ways. When it’s elevated to the primary goal of elementary schools, displacing the acquisition of foundational knowledge and skills, it’s time to ask deeper and more fundamental questions.
Teacher Aaron Warner, initiator of the Google-inspired “Genius Hour” at Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School, is definitely a true believer in teaching creativity. Justifying his two hour-a-week program in a new book, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer’s Pushing the Limits (2017), Warner provides this declaratory statement: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.” That insight, we are told, echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s contention in “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” the most watched TED Talk of all time. It’s Robinson, of course, who uttered what became that simple, unassailable, unverifiable educational truth that “creativity” is central in developing education that will “take us to a future we can’t grasp.”
What’s the problem with repeating Robinson’s claim and citing a statistic to support that hypothesis? It’s a classic example of transforming education or “building the future schoolhouse,” on what Hack Education commentator Audrey Watters has termed “theory of mythical proportions” instead of evidence-based policy-making. Citing the statistic that “60% (or 65%) of future jobs have not been invented yet,” is doubly problematic because no one can authenticate the research behind that oft-repeated statistic.
Two enterprising British teacher-researchers, Daisy Christodoulou and Andrew Old, recently tracked the origin of that statistic and found it essentially without substance. On the BCC World News Service program, More or Less, aired May 29, 2017, they identified how that statistic originated and got parroted around the globe. Most fascinating of all, one of the researchers who popularized the claim, Dr. Cathy Davidson of The Graduate Center CUNY, has now reached similar conclusions and ceased repeating the “65% statistic.”
“I haven’t used that figure since about 2012,” Davidson said, in response to the BBC News investigation. Her explanation of how the statistic disappeared is revealing about the sorry state of educational policy discourse, not only in Canada but across the world.
The disputed statistic was promulgated in Davidson’s 2011 book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. The figure, she says, didn’t originate with her. She first encountered it in futurist Jim Carroll’s book, Ready, Set, Done (2007) and it has been tracked down to an Australian website where the “65%” figure was quoted with some visuals and categories of new jobs that hadn’t existed before. After Now You See It appeared, that 65% figure kept being quoted, so Davidson attempted to contact the authors of the study to be able to learn more about their findings but all in vain. By then, the site was down and even the Innovation Council of Australia had been closed by a new government.
Since the reputed source of the statistical claim had disappeared, Davidson began issuing a disclaimer and stopped repeating the figure. She also embraced “Big Data” and started to deconstruct what the category of “job” really means. Much to the surprise of the British researchers, Davidson welcomed the probing questions and agreed that educators need to be far more careful about their use of statistical claims, and, most significantly, the wisdom of “using statistics like that at all.”
Why is 65% so problematic? The BBC researchers, Christodoulou and Old, also did rough calculations by looking at jobs that exist now and jobs that existed in the past and compared job titles. They found that maybe 1/3 of all jobs today are actually “new,” even by the most generous count. That’s 33% – not 65% – and hardly justification for turning the entire school system upside down.
No one has yet challenged one of Daisy Christodoulou’s key points in the BBC News broadcast. When asked whether “21st century skills” would last, she responded that, in her judgement, “the alphabet (language) and numbers (numerology)” would outlive us all. Surely that claim deserves a much wider public discussion.
Davidson has abandoned that unverified statistic and changed her rationale for system-wide change in the direction of “21st century learning.” Her brand new book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (2017), carefully avoids recycling the statistic and, instead, claims (with “intuition” rather than “data”) that “closer to 100 per cent of jobs have changed in some way” in recent decades.
The American promulgator of the “65% statistic” has backtracked on one of her best-known claims. The whole episode has real implications for Canadian education policy discourse. Indeed, it raises serious questions about a whole set of related claims made in Pushing the Limits that schools have to be “transformed to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist.”
Creative imagination has is place, but not when it comes to perpetuating popular educational myths. It’s our responsibility, as educators, to critically assess generalizations such as this repeatedly made using questionable research data.
Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, NS, and Chair of researchED Toronto, November 10-11, 2017 at Trinity College, University of Toronto.
Toronto – September 19, 2017 – Education leaders from across Canada will gather in Toronto for the Educator Well-Being: A Key to Student Success symposium from October 5-6 to discuss how they can create a climate that supports well-being for all.
The EdCan Network is concerned that the steep hike in reported cases of student anxiety and suicidal ideation is creating stress and emotional exhaustion among teachers. Schools aren’t mental health treatment facilities – principals and teachers cannot be expected to shoulder the entire burden.They can, however, be an important part of the solution.
Registration spaces are still open. This is an essential opportunity for School Board Mental Health Leads and Administrators, Guidance Counsellors, Principals and Community Health and Social Workers to shift the conversation from ‘fixing symptoms’ to addressing how we can proactively support our educators to develop wellness within entire school community cultures.
“In today’s world, classrooms don’t turn off at the 3:00 p.m. bell,” says Darren Googoo, Incoming Chair of the EdCan Network. “Education leaders have roles to play in providing safe zones for teachers and principals to navigate their own journey to well-being and continue a long career.”
Through this symposium’s hands-on group discussions and case study presentations, leading experts will explore what it means to embed well-being in diverse school and community contexts. Participants will return with new ideas for building resiliency in themselves, their colleagues and their students.
With over 125 years of experience as the leading independent national voice in Canadian K-12 education, the Canadian Education Association is proud to launch the EdCan Network to support the thousands of courageous educators working tirelessly to ensure that all students discover their place, purpose and path.
 R.C. Kessler, P. Berglund, O. Demler et al, “Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 6 (2005): 593-602. See also: Health Behaviours in School Aged Children, Ontario 2014 data, and The Mental Health and Well-Being of Ontario Students, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2016.
 Findlay, L.,“Health Reports: Depression and suicidal ideation among Canadians aged 15 to 24,” Statistics Canada (2017).
 D.M. Rothi, G. Leavey, and R. Best, “On the Front-Line: Teachers as active observers of pupils’ mental health,” Teaching and Teacher Education 24 (2008).
 Kenneth Leithwood et al., “School Leaders’ Influences on Student Learning: The four paths,” in The Principles of Educational Leadership and Management, eds. T. Bush, L. Bell, and D. Middlewood (London: Sage, 2012), p.1.
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For more information:
EdCan Network Director of Communications
416-427-6454 firstname.lastname@example.org @max_cooke
Every school year, a small number of Canadian Indigenous and mainstream students take their own lives. Teachers and school boards often find themselves wondering what they can do better and different to help students and staff struggling with issues of mental health, but when Indigenous Peoples talk about well-being, we don’t talk about it in negative terms. An Elder once told me that “there are no words in our language to talk about bad mental health – there are only concepts to describe wellness and balance.” It’s about being prepared for what life throws your way and there’s no good or bad. This statement is a good way to describe our network’s upcoming Well-Being: A Key To Success Symposium – this notion that educators need to be prepared mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally for all of the stresses of teaching and life. That their mind, body, inner and outer spirit – how they think, act, feel and interact – are balanced.
Nobody is perfectly balanced at any given time and educators aren’t immune to that. In today’s world, classrooms don’t turn off at the 3:00 p.m. bell. Today’s educators feel the constant pressure to be there for their students all the time, but they have the right to reclaim personal time and space away from school in the evenings and on weekends.
Educators also need strategies in place that refer them to support from psychiatrists and health professionals in community-based structures when the needs of their students overwhelm them. School boards and ministries of education have roles to play in putting these support structures in place, for both students and educators. When we can successfully help children in crisis to navigate their way back to wellness for themselves, this provides a safe zone for educators to navigate their own journey to well-being and continue a long career. Otherwise, we’ll continue to burn out our most caring and dedicated educators.
First published in Education Canada, September 2017
Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario was among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against Fidget Spinners, the latest craze among children worldwide.
On May 23 and 24, 2017, the North Bay principal visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds, then sent a letter to parents explaining the decision. What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – the classroom distractions were driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.
Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, Fidget Spinners became a major disruption, interfering with teaching and learning and affecting everyone in the classroom. Childhood crazes come and go, but this one was different because the gadgets were billed as therapeutic tools providing supposed benefits for children affected by ADHD and a host of school-age anxieties.
In May 2017, school authorities across the world stepped in to limit or eliminate the spinners in the classroom. While American and British education leaders were quick to react against the latest gadget, their Canadian counterparts were more cautious, and teachers were more receptive to claims that Fidget Spinners had therapeutic effects based upon what researchers term ‘pseudoscience.’
The arrival of fidget spinners on school playgrounds had a polarizing effect, pitting regular teachers against those serving special needs children. Influenced by child psychologists like Toronto’s Sara Dimerman, teachers recommended using spinners to help ease the anxieties of students in Grades 3 and 6 writing Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) exams in reading, writing and math during the week of May 22 to 26.
The critical question remains: why did it take so long for Canadian educators to confront the latest menace to effective teaching and learning?
Fidget Spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.”
Serious problems arise when Fidget Spinners are used to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. While Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, she’s not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms. In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.
School authorities in Maritime Canada initially accepted the claims of the marketers and were swayed by their special education program consultants. Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Stuart Shanker of York University, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies and tools.
Seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms, New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts readily accepted Fidget Spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their spin bikes and wiggle stools. In the Atlantic Region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order.
Prominent education critics and teacher researchers had a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of Fidget Spinners into today’s regular classrooms. A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, found little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.” Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, saw “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warned parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.
The founder of Britain’s researched, Tom Bennett, was more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in schools. The latest fad – Fidget Spinners – he saw as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.” Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress. Misdiagnoses, he claimed, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.
“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett pointed out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “Fidget Spinners,” he added, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”
Magic bullets – like magic beans – which do not pass the sound research test have no place in today’s classrooms. In many cases, they do far more harm than good to our students.
Meeting the incredible range of students’ needs in diverse Canadian schools is a daunting task. In every classroom, there will be students who easily grasp new concepts and others who need more time, more support or a completely different approach to help them learn. Simultaneously meeting these differing and often competing needs is what makes good teaching and learning so challenging. One approach used in teaching math, Discovery Learning, has become a flashpoint for anyone concerned with math education in Canada.
Discovery Learning can be traced back to the writings of American philosopher and educator John Dewey over a century and a half ago, but the modern Discovery Learning movement is generally attributed to educational psychologist Jerome Bruner in the 1960s. Discovery Learning differs from traditional education in that rather than using direct instruction, students are encouraged to solve complex, “real life” problems, and through that process develop understanding.
When Ontario’s math curriculum was last revised in 2005, one of the stated key fundamental principles was “…the belief that students learn mathematics most effectively when they are given opportunities to investigate ideas and concepts through problem solving.” A clear indicator of a shift towards Discovery Learning.
Concerns about the effectiveness of Discovery Learning began to be raised in 2011 when math test scores began to drop. Parents became concerned that their children weren’t developing the math skills they expected. Gone were the familiar days of flash cards, times tables and algorithms, replaced instead with open questions that allowed for a variety of “right answers”.
Concerns about Discovery Learning have fueled a robust public discussion about math education methods. However, the discussion is sometimes superficial and ignores key issues. As advocates of “back to basics” math become ever more critical of Discovery Learning educators are increasingly asked to defend new methods of learning math.
It’s a well-worn cliché that in education, there is no silver bullet. In a classroom with differing and diverse needs, the notion that any single instructional approach can help all students succeed is misguided. The Discovery Math vs back-to-basics debate is dominated by “armchair educators”- people who rarely have the responsibility of helping a group of students understand a math concept. Teachers don’t have the luxury of discounting any approach that might help a student learn more effectively.
I’ve yet to see a classroom that uses Discovery Math or back-to-basics rote learning exclusively, or met a teacher who advocates a single approach. Every student is different and good teaching employs a variety of methods. The most effective approach will change depending on the concepts being taught and the students who are learning. In the classroom, there’s no room for ideologues.
This public math debate also reveals how limited our thinking is about math education. We commonly think of math as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing and not much else. Most teachers have been accosted by a disgruntled friend, family member or neighbour who’s upset because someone working at a store couldn’t accurately calculate how much change they were owed when the cash register wasn’t working. These are computation skills.
But the math curriculum is much broader than computation. Understanding numbers and operations is just one of five areas of math that students learn about. In the Grade 5 math curriculum there are 77 separate learning expectations but only seven, barely 10%, refer to computation skills. What about the other 90%?
The simple story that math test scores are dropping is superficial and misleading. Are test scores dropping across the board, or are there some areas (geometry, data management, measurement) where students are improving? What about student ability to solve complex problems? To think about math? Our collective ability to teach math to over two million students can’t be properly assessed with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down response.
One of the non-computational math skills students learn is data analysis. They learn about bias in data collection and how to collect information to ensure that any conclusions drawn are accurate and representative. They’re taught to critically analyze the data used to avoid drawing inaccurate conclusions. It’s a skill that’s underutilized when we use test scores to assess our effectiveness in teaching math.
When test scores are released, we immediately begin drawing conclusions without considering whether the scores are, in fact, accurate. When collaborative problem solving is one of the main methods of math instruction in Ontario schools, why is math learning assessed through an entirely independent pen and paper test?
Students learn math from Junior Kindergarten into high school by sharing ideas and they communicate that understanding in a variety of ways (writing, speaking, drawing diagrams, etc). But on standardized tests, there’s only one way to represent your understanding, only one right answer, and students can’t ask questions. It isn’t surprising that some students struggle to make that transition. Why don’t we ever stop to consider that maybe the test might be the problem?
Our unwillingness to critically question our testing methods is just another indicator of a superficial public debate about math instruction. Rather than entering into a nuanced and informed exchange, parents, advocates and pundits retreat to their respective camps and defend their corners. And as the debate rages, teachers continue working hard – using the best methods available – to ensure students are learning the math curriculum in the most effective way possible.
Developing a Growth Mindset in students and their teachers is perhaps the hottest trend in the education world outside of Canada. Originating in psychological science research conducted by Carol S. Dweck over thirty years of studies and continuing at Stanford University, it burst upon the education scene in 2006 with the publication of Dweck’s influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and has become a favourite topic in education faculty classes and professional development sessions.
The so-called Mindset Revolution, like most education fads, has also generated its share of imitations and mutations. Two of the best known are the Mathematical Mindset, promulgated by Math educator Jo Boaler ,and a more recent Canadian spin-off, The Innovator’s Mindset, the brain-child of George Couros, a division principal of Teaching and Learning with Parkland School District, in Stony Plain, Alberta. While Growth Mindset 1.0, got little traction among Canadian policy-makers, the second-generation iteration dreamed up by Couros is increasingly popular among tech-savvy Canadian and American educators.
Legions of professional educators and teachers in the U.S., the UK, and Australia, have latched onto Growth Mindset theory and practice with a real vengeance. One reliable barometer of ‘trendiness,’ the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, Edutopia, provides a steady stream of short online videos extolling the virtues of Growth Mindset (or GM) in the classroom. The growing list of GM e-zine pieces @Edutopia purport to “support students in believing that they can develop their talents and abilities through hard work, good strategies, and help from others.”
Figure 1: The Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset (Carol Dweck, 2006)
Dweck’s theory of the Growth Mindset gained credibility because, unlike most educational ‘fads,’ it did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in case studies with students in the schools. Leading education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings and applied them to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment. He adopted this equation: Talent = Hard Work + Persistence (A Growth Mindset) and offered this endorsement: “The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”
For much of the past two years, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie have been alerting researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what is termed a “false growth mindset” in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as in the U.S. and the UK. Too many teachers and parents, they point out, have either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept, reducing it to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it’s educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.”
Dweck’s greatest fear nowadays is that Growth Mindset has been appropriated by education professionals to reinforce existing student-centred practices and to suit their own purposes. That serious concern is worth repeating:“It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement.” In a December 2016 article in The Atlantic, she conceded that it was being used in precisely that way, in too many classrooms, and it amounted to “blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not.”
A “false growth mindset” arises, according to Dweck, when educators use the term too liberally and simply do not really understand that it’s intended to motivate students to work harder and demonstrate more resilience in overcoming setbacks. “The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them,” she reminds us. “It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter. “Far too many growth mindset disciples, Dweck now recognizes,reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” in the learning process and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”
The Canadian mutation, George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset  seeks to extend Dweck’s original theory into the domain of technology and creativity. Troubled by the limitations of her model and its explicit emphasis on mastery of knowledge and skills, he made an “awesome” (his word) discovery that GM could be a powerful leadership tool for advancing “continuous creation.” In his mutation of the theory, the binary “fixed” vs. “growth” model morphs into a more advanced stage, termed the “innovator’s mindset.” In his fertile and creative mind, it is transmogrified (transformed almost beyond recognition) into a new theory of teaching and learning.
Figure 2: The Innovator’s Mindset (George Couros, The Principal of Change, 2017)
Taking poetic license with Dweck’s research-based model, Couros spins a completely different interpretation in his fascinating professional blog, The Principal of Change:
“As we look at how we see and “do” school, it is important to continuously shift to moving from consumption to creation, engagement to empowerment, and observation to application. It is not that the first replaces the latter, but that we are not settling for the former. A mindset that is simply open to “growth”, will not be enough in a world that is asking for continuous creation of not only products, but ideas.”
Promising educational theories – even those founded on some robust initial research – can fall prey to prominent educators pushing their own ‘pet ideas’ and pedagogical theories. A 2016 Education Week report demonstrates that Growth Mindset initiatives can produce mixed results and British education researchers are currently having a field day picking apart Carol Dweck’s research findings. Having another version of her creation circulating in mutated form will make it even harder to assess her serious case studies being replicated around the world.
 Dweck, Carol (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
 Boaler, Jo (2013). Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education. Forum, 55:1, 143-152.
 Dweck, Carol, and Lewis and Virginia Eaton (2016). Recognizing and Overcoming False Growth Mindset. Edutopia, January 11, 2016.
 Gross-Loh, Christine (2016). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize. The Atlantic, December 16, 2016.
 Couros, George (2015) The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Kindle Edition. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.
 Couros, George (2017). A World that is Asking for Continuous Creation. The Principal of Change Blog, January 27, 2017.
 Education Week (2016). Mindset in the Classroom: A National Study of K-12 Teachers. Arlington, VA: Education Week Research Center.
 Didau, David (2017). Is growth mindset bollocks? The Learning Spy Blog, January 25, 2017.
“Learning isn’t a destination, starting and stopping at the classroom door. It’s a never-ending road of discovery and wonder that has the power to transform lives. Each learning moment builds character, shapes dreams, guides futures, and strengthens communities.” Those inspiring words and the accompanying video, Learning makes us, left me tingling like the ubiquitous ‘universal values’ Coke commercials.
Eventually, I snapped out of it – and realized that I’d been transported into the global world of British-based Pearson Education, the world’s largest learning and testing corporation, and drawn into its latest stratagem- the allure of 21st century creativity and social-emotional learning. The age of Personalized (or Pearsonalized) learning “at a distance” was upon us.
Globalization has completely reshaped education policy and practice, for better or worse. Whatever your natural ideological persuasion, it is now clear in early 2017 that the focus of K-12 education is on aligning state and provincial school systems with the high-technology economy and the instilling of workplace skills dressed-up as New Age ’21st century skills’ – disruptive innovation, creative thinking, competencies, and networked and co-operative forms of work.
The rise to dominance of “testopoly” from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the Common Core Standards assessment regime, and its Canadian variations, has made virtually everyone nervous, including legions of teachers and parents. Even those, like myself, who campaigned for student achievement testing in the 1990s, are deeply disappointed with the meagre results in terms of improved teaching and student learning.
The biggest winner has been the learning corporation giants, led by Pearson PLC, who now control vast territories in the North American education sector. After building empires through business deals to digitalize textbooks and develop standardized tests with American and Canadian education authorities, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the company was again reinventing itself in response to the growing backlash against traditional testing and accountability.
Critics on the education left, most notably American education historian Diane Ravitch and BCTF research director Larry Kuehn, were among the first to flag and document the rise of Pearson Education, aptly dubbed “the many headed corporate hydra of education.” A June 2012 research report for the BCTF by Donald Gutstein succeeded in unmasking the hidden hand of Pearson in Canadian K-12 education, especially after its acquisition, in 2007, of PowerSchool and Chancery Software, the two leading computerized student information tracking systems.
More recently, New York journalist Owen Davis has amply demonstrated how Pearson “made a killing” on the whole American testing craze, including the Common Core Standards assessment program. It culminated in 2013, when Pearson won the U.S. contract to develop tests for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, as the only bidder.
When the pendulum started swinging back against testing from 2011 to 2013, Pearson PLC was on the firing line in the United States but remained relatively sheltered in Canada. Standardized testing programs associated with Pearson were targeted in the popular media, most notably in one stinging HBO TV segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver attracting over 8,600,000 views. From Texas to New York to California, state policy makers scaled back on standardized assessment programs, sparked by parent and student protests. Pearson bore the brunt of parent outrage over testing and lost several key state contracts, including the biggest in Texas, the birthplace of NCLB.
Beginning in 2012, Pearson PLC started to polish up its public image and to reinvent its core education services. Testing only represented 10 per cent of Pearson’s overall U.S. profits, but the federal policy shift represented by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tilted in the direction of reducing “unnecessary testing.” The company responded with a plan to shift from multiple-choice tests to “broader measures of school performance,” such as school climate, a survey-based SEL metric of students’ social and emotional well-being.
Measuring student “grit” and determination has been a key focus for American public school system ventures. Some schools are seeking to teach grit, and some districts are attempting to measure children’s grit, with the outcome contributing to assessments of school effectiveness. Angela Duckworth’s 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, was one of the hottest North American non-fiction titles of the year. In spite of the flurry of public interest, it has yet to register in the Canadian educational domain.
“For the past four years, Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network has been developing, implementing, and testing its own assessment innovations,” Vice President Kimberly O’Malley recently reported. This new Pearson PLC Plan not only embraces SEL and is closely aligned with ESSA. It also looks mighty similar to an Ontario initiative — initially aimed at re-engineering the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) provincial testing program– and gaining traction in Canadian student assessment circles.
While the Pearson testing division was busy re-inventing itself, the Ontario-based People for Education (P4ED) advocacy organization has also been pursuing the goal of broadening the existing measures of student success to embrace “social-emotional skills” or competencies. With a clear commitment to “move beyond the ‘3R’s” and redefine the established testing/accountability framework, P4ED founder Annie Kidder and the Toronto-centric research team have been creating a “broad set of foundational skills” and developing a method of “measuring schools’ progress toward those goals.”
The Ontario initiative, billed as “Measuring What Matters “(MWM), proposes a draft set of “Competencies and Skills” identified as Creativity, Citizenship, Social-Emotional Learning, and Health — all to be embedded in what is termed “quality learning environments” both in schools and the community. The proposed Ontario model makes no reference whatsoever to cognitive learning and subject knowledge or to the social-emotional aspects of grit, perseverance or work ethic.
The P4ED project mirrors the Pearson Education venture, driven by a team of Canadian education researchers with their own well-known hobby horses. Co-Chair of the MWM initiative, former BC Deputy Minister of Education Charles Ungerleider, has assembled a group of academics with “progressive education” (anti-testing) credentials, including OISE teacher workload researcher Nina Bascia and York University self-regulation expert Stuart Shanker.
A 2015 MWM project progress report claimed that the initiative was moving from theory to practice with “field trials” in Ontario public schools. It simply reaffirmed the proposed social-emotional domains and made no mention of Duckworth’s research or her “Grit Scale” for assessing student performance on that benchmark. While Duckworth is cited in the report, it is for a point unrelated to her key research findings. The paper also assumes that Ontario is a “medium stakes” testing environment in need of softer, non-cognitive measures of student progress, an implicit criticism of the highly-regarded EQAO system of provincial achievement testing.
Whether “grit” or any other social-emotional skills can be taught — or reliably measured — is very much in question. Leading American cognitive learning researcher Daniel T. Willingham’s latest American Educator essay (Summer 2016) addresses the whole matter squarely and punches holes in the argument that “grit” can be easily taught, let alone assessed in schools. Although Willingham is a well-known critic of “pseudoscience” in education, he does favour utilizing “personality characteristics” for the purpose of “cultivating” in students such attributes as conscientiousness, self-control, kindness, honesty, optimism, courage and empathy, among others.
The movement to assess students for social-emotional skills has also raised alarms, even among the biggest proponents of teaching them. American education researchers, including Angela Duckworth, are leery that the terms used are unclear and the first battery of tests faulty as assessment measures. She recently resigned from the advisory board of a California project, claiming the proposed social-emotional tests were not suitable for measuring school performance. “I don’t think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” she told The New York Times.
Whether standardized testing recedes or not, it’s abundantly clear that “testopoly” made Pearson and the dominance of the learning corporations is just entering a new phase. Developing sound, reliable measures to assess social-emotional learning are already beginning to look problematic. It’s also an open question as to whether the recent gains in mathematics and literacy, however modest, will fade away under the emerging broader measures assessment regime.
“At one communty meeting, we ran into a high-conflict issue. We ran out of time and agreed to postpone this issue until the following week. All week, emotions ran high and opposing views intensified. We eagerly assembled at the next meeting, impatient to get this issue resolved. This was a Quaker community—each meeting began with 5 minutes of silence. On this day, the clerk announced that, due to the intensity of this issue, we would not begin with our usual 5 minutes of silence. We all breathed a sigh of relief, only to hear her announce: “Today, we’ll begin with 20 minutes of silence.” —as told by Parker Palmer, Educator and Writer
This is the story that begins a brief essay on urgency by Margaret Wheatley from her 2010 book, Perseverance. It’s the story that captured my imagination as my thoughts moved across the threshold into another year.
To many, the turning point in Palmer’s story will seem more than a little counter-intuitive, especially when placed in the context of a reflection on urgency. After all, isn’t urgency a call to immediate action—a push to drop everything and respond?
As Wheatley points out, a sense of urgency pushes us into a crisis mode and our behaviour changes as a result. We are often fueled by anger and we lose our sense of foresight as well as our ability to think with clarity. The world becomes increasingly polarized and divided into those who “get it” and those who don’t:
“And we get angry. Anyone who doesn’t respond immediately becomes our enemy. They may actually be wise people who caution patience, who have a longer-term perspective. But we can’t hear their wisdome or experience; we’re too anxiously engaged in our cause. We hastily udge them as being in denial or just looking for an excuse not to get involved.” (from Urgency Urgency by Margaret Wheatley)
It has been my experience, in both my personal and professional life, that a sense of urgency can quickly transmute into a state of emergency!
Urgency is a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? On the one hand, a sense of urgency can help to create the impetus for action. It can wake us out of our acceptance of the status quo and inspire us to action. In this way, there are many who believe that the change in education we want to see would benefit from a greater sense of urgency. At the same time, we don’t have to look very far to find evidence that the urgency trap has caused us to rush to respond to reports, test scores, public opinion and political ideology before we take enough time to allow us to move along the trajectory from data to information and through to knowledge and wisdom.
But what do we take from Palmer’s story as it appears within Wheatley’s context of urgency? What might emerge if our responses to educational indicators and datasets began with a type of no immediate action policy, allowing for the time to rest in the kind of “organizational silence” that, far from ignoring the need to respond, opened up a space for inquiry, insight and wisdom? And what if the results of that silence were allowed to influence the decisions we make and the actions we take? And what might happen if the length of that period of silence was directly related to just how urgent we perceive the situation to be?
Some opening thoughts at the beginning of another year.
One of the core tenets, perhaps the central belief of formal education, is that there is truth. Truth that can be learned, transferred and used to make decisions and solve problems. When William Butler Yeats wrote “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” it is this idea of education, as the transmission of truth that he is commenting on.
Educators see this daily in their work with students that come to school wanting answers. And despite the increasing use of constructivist teaching methods such as Inquiry Learning, education is still essentially the pursuit of truth. We encourage students to find their own understanding, but implicit in that is the belief that there are answers to be found, answers that matter and that endure.
However, there’s considerable evidence that the importance of truth is declining and that it may have already outlived its usefulness for many. We need only consider recent events across the world to realize that we are living in a “Post-Truth” world.
Post-Truth is the belief that facts no longer matter. That what is proven is not relevant, and what really matters are the emotional reactions to information, not whether the information is true. The term “Post-Truth” was first used by David Roberts in 2010 when he described the extreme polarization of US politics as “Post-Truth Politics”. Over the past six years many others have also come to the conclusion that increasingly, truth doesn’t matter.
There are many historical examples of commonly held beliefs that have little basis in fact. Since the 1700’s people have believed in the existence of a plot to control the world by the Bavarian Illuminati. McCarthy’s communist witch hunt, the belief in a flat earth, assertions that the Apollo Moon landings were faked and the conspiracy theory that the attacks of September 11th 2001 were an “inside job” are more modern examples of popular ideas which have no basis in fact, yet still endure.
What’s changed recently, however, is the degree to which ideas which have little basis in fact have become commonly accepted and even come to occupy a central role in important public debates and decisions. How did this happen?
There’s considerable evidence that, contrary to conventional wisdom, people do not naturally seek truth. Rather than gathering facts and forming opinions based on evidence, most people form opinions and then accept or reject facts based on whether they confirm their beliefs. The Information Age has provided an endless stream of information that people now use to confirm whatever they believe. Rather than ushering in a new enlightenment, more information has led to greater ignorance.
A second factor is the existence of filter bubbles. Eli Pariser first explained how search algorithms use personal information (e.g. location, past click behaviour, search history, etc.) to shape what information is provided to users. This means that a search is likely to provide results that confirm what you already believe, even if what you believe is wrong. We “…become separated from information that disagrees with our viewpoints, effectively isolating us in our own cultural or ideological bubbles”. Because of filter bubbles people see radically different information from the same search terms.
What makes filter bubbles especially dangerous is that they’re invisible to users. People don’t realize that what they’re seeing on Facebook or Google has been selected to confirm their beliefs. They think they’re seeing the world as it is. As a result, we become increasingly isolated in an “information bubble” where we never encounter contrary or dissenting information.
There is no better current example of the shift to a Post-Truth world than the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the victory of the Leave Campaign in the UK Brexit referendum. In both examples, prominent public figures repeatedly made false statements that were repeatedly proven not to be true, and it didn’t matter at all. People no longer appear to be interested in truth. When UK politician Michael Gove claimed “people in this country have had enough of experts”, he was announcing the ascendancy of the Post-Truth era.
What this means for educators depends a lot on what you believe about the role of schools. Are schools a mechanism by which we prepare students for the future, or are they more, a way we can remake society and improve the world?
Currently, most educators seem to be walking their students into a Post-Truth future. Schools embrace the role of filter bubbles and the democratization of expertise, teaching students that using Google is an essential 21st Century Competency and encouraging the use of social media as a trusted source of information.
If, however, we believe truth is important, we must formally and explicitly begin to teach students about the digital world they are entering. All citizens need to be aware about the role algorithms play in what they read on their screens, and there’s no better group to start this with than students.
Students must better understand that the technologies they use are not “magic”, but are created by people who, like all of us, have inbuilt and often unconscious biases. When we use these technologies these biases colour what we see, how we see it and the devices we use transmit the underlying assumptions they’re built on. There can be no better and more relevant example of this than the way black players experienced Pokemon Go in sharp contrast to white players’ experience.
We also need to start helping students understand the value of a free and independent media. When Donald Trump lies to his nation it is journalists who hold him to account and inform citizens that he is lying. This is the critical role of a free and independent media. Not providing information as quickly as possible, but to act as gatekeepers of truth, to informs us when our leaders lie.
Students must become thoughtful activists of Internet content. Algorithms are built on user behaviour, so if we change our behaviour we can change what we see.
We need to show and require students to use a variety of different sources. Googling something or searching Wikipedia isn’t enough. We have easy access to more sources than ever, but students use a narrowing range of research in their learning. It’s time to broaden that. Students should be required to present both sides of an issue using multiple sources that they synthesize into a common viewpoint.
As the shockwaves of the Brexit decision, and the possible election of Donald Trump have shown, the implications of post-truth decision making are costly for all of us. We need to re-build the infrastructure that puts truth at the centre of our public and private decision making. And this must begin today, in our classrooms.
One thing that is often overlooked in education is the learning space. We need to look at our schools and ask, “Is this classroom flexible, open, wireless, comfortable, and inspiring?” – Steven Weber
One of my all-time favourite movies as a teen was Back to the Future II (truth is, I loved the entire trilogy). I especially enjoyed the second installment due in large part to their excursion to the future. My mind was spinning with possibilities. Whether it was Marty’s shoes or the new age diner all I could imagine was how cool the Future was going to be!
Some time ago I was sitting down and watching a Disney show with my son. The show is called Jessie. It caught my attention because the opening scene took place in a school. Immediately I was fixated on the teacher’s behaviour and the classroom design. One thing that really stood out was that the school on TV still had chalkboards. My brain began spinning; do most schools still have chalkboards? Then I noticed the classroom walls and found them to be jam packed with stuff. Then I noticed the seats; students were sitting at conventional desks with a partner. They weren’t exactly in rows, but it still appeared traditional in its layout.
As I sat and watched the show with my son, I began to daydream. I began to imagine the possibilities of the future.
As I dreamed of the optimal learning space, my visions focused on these areas:
FLEXIBILITY – Today’s classrooms should provide space to move and if I may, a non-definitive front of the room. Recently, I visited Kent Innovation High in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The flexible spaces really amazed me. Each room had multiple points that could be deemed the “front.”
I also found the space roomy. At no point did you feel restricted or cramped. Both the teacher and students could move throughout the room with relative ease.
DECLUTTER – Each time I enter a space, the first thing I notice is the overall neatness/cleanliness of the room. One of the best teachers I ever knew had a workspace that drove me bonkers. She was amazing with kids and the way she created a room of “doing” was something to marvel at. But her room could also be distracting. Her walls were 100% covered with charts, quotes and posters. The table tops had stacks of papers, supplies and scrap paper scattered over it. The floor even had miscellaneous projects and cardboard leaning against the walls. The room was just cluttered with stuff. Make no mistake, this IS distracting to our learners. The optimal learning space focuses on less being more. I often say, if you haven’t used it in two years, it’s time to get rid of it.
SEATING – Ask yourself, if you were in a room for 6+ hours a day, would you want the chair to be rock hard and stiff on your back? The optimal learning space would include the option of collaborative seating or individual spots. As educators, we have a clear understanding of the value of teamwork and collaboration amongst our students, yet we also realize that some students need their own space now and again. The most optimal learning space is one of flexibility. Students may have a standing area, stools, couches, or even yoga balls. When I think of “optimal” I imagine this…
LIGHT & COLOUR – Scientists at the Lighting Research Center have reported that day lit environments increase productivity and comfort. The Optimal Learning Space would include as much natural light as possible. In addition, instead of drab, plain white walls you would ideally have warm, soft colours. By increasing natural light and warming up wall colours, you will immediately see positive dividends. Both staff and students will show better performance and a more positive disposition.
When I remember scenes from Back To The Future II, a smile comes to my face. It no longer has to be a distant dream. Learning Spaces of the future are happening NOW! Educators across the globe are seeing the benefits of an innovative space.
My role as Principal at Warner Elementary has allowed me to share the research with teachers and to begin to develop learning spaces that foster creativity, imagination and comfort. Our teachers have really taken to the new designs.
As we started our redesign journey, we focused on a couple things to keep us centered. First, our decisions needed to be about putting kids first…not aesthetics and cutesy decor. Second, we agreed this could be done in stages. Cost is a real factor and expecting it all to be done at once is not realistic. Third, if we are going to be proactive in our learning spaces we also need to have our instruction evolve. Standing in front of students and lecturing is not innovative practice. The Warner staff bought in and within a few years, the building really became a source of happiness. The redesign impacted the school culture tremendously. Seeing our community take pride in our school feels like a major win, but seeing our students value their school is where I really take pride!
When you dream of optimal learning, what does the space look like?
Over time I’m discovering how much our own experience in life and in school affects how we handle situations and how we teach. We bring a very strong belief about schooling to our classrooms every day and in every way.
One of the first questions I asked Randall Fielding of Fielding Nair International is why he decided to immerse himself in school design and create amazing new innovative learning spaces. The answer was simple, yet daring – he ran away from school in Kindergarten because it was nothing like the comfort of his home, which eventually led him to deinstitutionalize schools and make them more inviting and caring spaces.
Norma Rose Point School is a Fielding Nair design produced by local architects, Think Space. The learning spaces – or pods – are indeed comfortable, welcoming and inviting. They are designed for up to four teachers to collaborate, and to share a professional office and learning community of 66-120 students. The teachers co-plan and co-teach. We often refer to it as “working in community” as teachers do not escape to isolation. It can be an absolutely magical environment and learning situation. However, it also creates a level of discomfort for teachers that can be too much for some to handle. It is our greatest challenge and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Since everyone experienced schooling in their own way, and often in a traditional setting, educators’ ideas are diverse and every teacher has their own “movies of the mind” as to how a student’s educational experience should look like. Sometimes teachers become absorbed in their own movies of their mind that it is bound to create tension that does not exist when teaching in isolation.
Clay Shirky describes three levels of collaboration referenced as the Shirky Ladder: sharing, cooperation and collective action. Although he frames his model in the context of the Internet and social media and how they are enabling forms of collaboration outside of traditional norms, it has incredible relevance on collaborative efforts within schools. These levels exist on a ladder of increasing commitment, risk and reward. The rungs represent how much the individual has to work to coordinate actions with the group. Sharing is the easiest of the three. You offer something of use to others who can do as they wish with the item or content. Cooperating is the second level and is harder because it means “changing your behaviour to synchronize with others who are changing their behaviour to synchronize with yours”. Cooperating involves shared risk and reward – conversational skills are important as well as adhering to mutually agreed upon standards while remaining flexible. Collective action is the third and rarest level of collaboration – when a group of people commit themselves to a shared effort where it’s an “all in” kind of thing. It requires significant collaboration and dedication. It’s a game changer and creates interest and demand from others regarding the collective efforts. It’s the hardest to get going and to sustain, involves shared risk, reward and accountability. This level is by far the most difficult as good intentions can be lost because of individuals motivated by their own need over the collective good.
At Norma Rose Point School, we are definitely immersed in collective action. We are not working in silos. We are organized in pods and are accountable to all students. Our collective efforts in flexible learning spaces with creative and innovative professionals is atypical in a school setting and is being recognized by others worldwide. However, I’ve been struggling for the past two years to find out how I, as a school leader, can engage staff in addressing the messiness of collaboration and in establishing practices for success. I’m left with more questions than answers:
In general, there is a common understanding that a collaborative group of educators has a potential that doesn’t exist in isolation. Groups can transform educational practice by building on everyone’s strengths to improve learner outcomes. In the article by Steve Munby and Michael Fullan, Inside-out and downside-up: how leading from the middle has the power to transform education systems, they speak of “cluster-based school collaboration” as an avenue for system-wide school improvement, in essence to what Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser have been advocating for decades in establishing networks of inquiry and innovation in British Columbia. Fullan and Munby note the success factors for effective system-wide school collaboration:
Above all, the purpose of collaboration must be to improve outcomes.
Building on #1, every partnership must be founded on a clearly articulated shared moral purpose.
If we accept #2, then we should also see that transparency, trust and honesty are both crucial and a professional obligation.
A commitment to and capacity for effective peer review form the engine that drives improvement under these conditions. (p. 5)
A recent article in the New York Times, What Google Learned in its Quest to Build the Perfect Team says that it’s not about the WHO, but rather it’s about establishing group norms and listening with heart. The successful teams shared insecurities, fears and aspirations and created successful psychological safety. A beginning point, then, is to spend the time to learn what each team member is about and to share vulnerability.
Steven Covey has long spoken about one’s emotional bank account and how we need to make deposits into these accounts otherwise they go into withdrawal. We need to continually build the trust – enough trust to make many withdrawals without going far into overdraft.
How do we navigate this? How do we navigate through the difficult times?
Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team speaks about teams as inherently dysfunctional since they are made up of imperfect individuals who have egos and selfish goals. He goes on to speak about making teamwork a top priority and why trust is the basis of all teamwork. Building trust within the team allows members to share vulnerabilities, weaknesses and mistakes openly and become comfortable engaging each other in conflict. A revealing comment is that teams perform poorly in the absence of teamwork because they waste time and energy on politics – trying to outmaneuver each other. This results in low morale, less focus on performance and the loss of valuable players who have had enough.
With all of the above stated perspectives from the field, what I realize, first and foremost, is that we need to go back to establishing our group norms and our moral purpose before moving any further. Although collective action is exhilarating, it presents many challenges within an educational setting such as ours. In almost two years, what have we learned as part of our lived experience at Norma Rose Point? Here are the basics of what we need to continually work on.
First and foremost, we need to be willing to let go of past assumptions, traditions and beliefs unless they are grounded in research. Our ways need to be evidence based not just feelings based. No one can say that they know everything and have 100% success rate. It’s not humanly possible to believe that your way is the only way. Listen as much as you speak while modeling respect. Being respectful means although this is not the perfect way for me, it’s OUR way based on everyone feeling heard and valued. It may not be my right and true way but we will get there, incrementally. It’s not going to look like your last school. It’s not going to look like your “movie in your mind”. It’s going to look like a bit of each member on the team.
Everyone. Represented. Valued.
Remember, without trust, people aren’t wanting to be told how to change. They are wanting to be told that they and their ideas are valued, first and foremost. Without having built trust, instead of thinking of major changes all the time, why not just consider minor edits? Minor edits over time creates trust and the impetus for change. This will allow for sustainable working groups instead of fleeing working groups.
You need to give it time. A brand new group of people coming together to team is like entering Kindergarten. The following year of working together is like entering Grade 1 and so forth. We need time to build on our skills and to grow as learners. Even adults.
We know that establishing group norms is important but we aren’t harping on it as much as she should. There are standard norms but we need to be very specific and detailed about what each team has agreed to – from which days they will be staying late to when no more changes can be made to a day’s plan. The group expectations need to be explicitly stated to ensure a common understanding. Set ground rules and play within those rules.
Do not compare. How do we find the fine point that allows us to change things while not diminishing someone else’s worth? There’s a fine line and it’s challenging to know where the tipping point rests with every individual. Different teams will look different. One is no less nor better than the other. Modeling care is foundational. Judging others gets us nowhere. In fact, it gets others on the highway away from the team. Remember, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.” Focus on your group and your strengths. Avoid comparisons.
Communicate and assume you are being filmed. Every group recognizes the individual that has a harder time accepting compromise if they don’t get their way so others back off. Teachers become silenced because of what others say or how they behave. Be careful not to show anger and to refrain from being judgemental. The dissatisfied feel put down, inadequate, afraid to speak, and not acknowledged for their strengths. Those getting their way, feel even more frustrated things aren’t moving along as fast as they want them to move along. Everyone believes they are compromising their ways. Never abandon your team in haste, in anger or in frustration. Talk about what you are experiencing on a weekly basis by reflecting on collaboration using this protocol, adapted from Navigators Council:
The questions above very much reflect on connections of the heart. Lara-Lisa Condello quoted in Arresting Hope offers an insight shared by a medicine man, “The longest journey I will travel is the twelve inches between my head and heart.” May our continued efforts recognize this undeniable journey between the head and the heart. At the same time, may trust ensue to take on the necessary challenges within our innovative learning environment because “with trust, conflict is nothing but the pursuit of truth”.
What does a school look like? For most of us, the image that first comes to mind is very much like the school our parents went to. The blackboard may have been replaced by a Smartboard; there may be new elements like computer tablets in the classrooms, but the basic structure is the same. Chances are that you, like me, most easily envision a blocky building with strings of square single classrooms, an office, a gym, a library, a playground.
Is this what a school has to be? Not anymore. Architects have understood for decades that form dictates function. While creative educators do find ways to work around the limitations of a traditional building, it’s also true that new approaches to teaching and learning can be either fostered or hindered by the building where they take place. As Zoe Branigan-Pipe points out in her Viewpoint column, it’s high time our learning spaces were designed for the activities we want to take place in them.
The examples showcased in this issue are truly inspiring in their exploration of possibility. From Zoe’s demonstration classroom in Hamilton, Ont., to the multi-room, multi-age Kindergarten at St. Gregory’s Catholic School in Hinton, Alta., to the Ottawa Catholic board’s brand-new schools, educators across the country are re-imagining what a school can be. All three of these examples have been recognized by the CEA for their transformative potential, while in Building Capacity, Stephen Hurley takes us inside Canadian schools designed by the architectural firm Fielding Nair to see how these spaces enable a more creative and collaborative approach. In all of these examples, the design followed from the pedagogical goals and learning vision of the school community.
Exciting as these new buildings are, they are not where most students and teachers spend their days, and so we would like to invite you to read, and contribute to, our blog series supporting this issue. In it we ask: How can we re-imagine, reconfigure and reorganize our traditional schools (and school grounds) so that they work better for today’s teaching and learning activities? We look forward to reading about, and seeing photos of, your creative solutions!
It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the Canadian Education Association celebrates its 125th Anniversary this year. Established in 1891 as an organization dedicated to connecting educators, policy thinkers and those interested in the growth and flourishing of public education systems across the country, the CEA has been a trusted convenor, connector and provocateur on the Canadian education landscape.
If you were to look for those catalytic moments in the story of the CEA—those plot points when new energy and focus was realized—your attention would eventually be drawn to those times when the organization’s leaders sought to “put their ear to the ground” in an effort to get a sense of what issues, challenges and opportunities that were keeping them awake at night. This process of listening has always enabled the CEA to mobilize its resources, research and initiatives to respond in a meaningful way and in a timely manner.
I’m thrilled to be part of the team of listeners that will be moving out across Canada this fall to engage in the establishment of 5 Regional Exchanges designed to enable the CEA to hear from shareholders at all levels of the system around what is important in their particular contexts.
Each Regional Exchange will be comprised of 15-20 participants and will meet twice during the year—first to become more aware of the issues and opportunities at work in their particular region and, second, to explore more deeply how the most pressing of these are playing out in the day to day of our students, educators, parents and wider communities. The commitment to both depth and perspective make this a unique initiative and one that, we believe, will hold value for all of us.
So, this is an invitation to you, the groups and individuals who are working throughout Canada’s public education systems. You know who you are. You are thinking deeply about the quality of these systems. You are immersed in your own context, but are aware of and open to what is happening in other parts of the system. You have definite ideas and perspectives, but are willing to hold them lightly while listening to the perspectives of others. You get energized by the conversations, but see them as a started point for committed action.
And you sometimes feel like noone is listening. Well, the CEA is listening and would invite you to take a closer look at the EdCan Network Regional Exhange initiative, because we’re coming to your region this Fall:
Monday, October 24th: Western Canada and NWT—Regina, Saskatchewan
Wednesday, October 26th: Ontario—Mississauga, Ontario
Friday, October 28th: BC and Yukon—Vancouver, British Columbia
Friday, October 28th: Francophone—Montréal, Quebec
Wednesday, November 2nd: East Coast—Halifax, Nova Scotia
Take a look at the initiative page, fill out the application form and let your voice be heard!
When I walked onto the tarmac at our local public school yesterday morning I was immediately drawn into that beautiful sense of chaos that is The-First-Day-of-School. Close to 1100 children and the parents, grandparents and caregivers responsible for getting them there. Nearly 100 staff members making sure that everyone knew where they were going. Comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes, delights in the recognition of long-lost friends (lost for two months) and the quiet assurances offered by adults to those experiencing a little bit of first day jitters. All of this held close in the stifling early morning air.
But then something wonderful and mysterious happened. The morning bell rang and this beautiful mess was very quickly transformed into a sense of order as our children once again became students. The transition from summer vacation to another school year was happening before our eyes. And happen it did! Students were gathered together into their respective classes and led, line by line, into the school building, while the adults that brought them there left (some reluctantly) to continue on with their days.
It’s a scene that will be played out every day from now until the end of June and, although the intensity of that first day can never be replicated, there is something very important that occurs in those daily exchanges when we say goodbye to our children, and their teacher says good morning. When you think about it, there is a deep sense of trust that makes these daily moments of separation and connection liveable. As parents, we trust that the school staff is going to have the best interests of our children at heart and that they will be looked after, protected and nurtured in their growth. In the same way, our educators trust in the support of families to come alongside them as partners in their child’s learning and education.
As I stood in the schoolyard yesterday morning, it struck me that these daily moments of trust are really the starting point for our conversations about parent engagement. It’s in the space created by this relationship of trust that we can find new ways of working together, new ways of drawing the talents and energies of parents and others into the school and new ways for families and educators to look out into the community with a shared purpose and commitment.
The start of every school year invites us to look differently at so many things. As Chair of the School Council at my own kids’ school, I’m hoping to make parent engagement one of the dimensions that we choose to actively explore a little more deeply, with a little more imagination and creativity.
I know that there are many of you who have done a whole lot more thinking about this over the years, and I hope to hear some of your stories.
What does parent engagement mean to you? As a teacher, an administrator or a parent, what ideas are you imagining that might bring even more life and vitality to your school community? How does that daily exchange between parent/family and school inspire your thinking about engagement?
Let’s get curious about that space for parent engagement and how we might hold it open for exploration, conversation and innovative ideas.
The teacher didn’t read my name on the first day of Kindergarten. Well, not right away.
We were all seated on the floor in front of Mrs. McCreath who was trying to maintain a sense of calm while she worked her way through the class roster that she had been provided. For most of us, this would have been the first time in our rather short lives that we had heard our full names spoken by an adult other than our parents. (It was only when I was in trouble at home that my mother took the time to attach a surname to her “becks” or “calls”)
We all listened intently, waiting to respond, “HERE“, when our names were called. At that point, we didn’t really having much familiarity with alphabetical lists. Heck, we were still learning the alphabet! I recall taking a small breath of anticipation each time Mrs. C. moved from one name to the next until that fateful moment when she looked up from her page and asked, “Have I forgotten anyone?”
At first, I was afraid to say anything, but then Paul, my friend from down the street, piped up and announced, “You missed Stephen!” I didn’t move but looked straight at Mrs. C. who, a little flustered, looked at me, looked at her list and then looked back at me.
“Stephen Hurley?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, in my five year-old voice. (I really do remember this.)
“Oh, yes, here you are!”, as if I had been lost and suddenly found.
(That first experience of school has had a lasting effect on me; to this day, I’m still secretly afraid that my name won’t be on the list. Whether I’m at an airport, attending a conference or showing up for a dinner reservation, there’s always this tiny moment of anxiety when I approach the counter or registration desk. )
Fast forward several years and I’m having a tough time keeping up with life in Grade 8. At the time, I was attending a junior highschool that had been inspired by a stroke of insight: “Let’s gather all of Grade 7 and 8 students from right across the District into a single building.”
It was the early ’70’s and, at 12 years of age, I was looking desperately for a way to fit in. Coming from a rather conservative family, I wasn’t permitted to wear long hair or blue jeans. I didn’t play sports, but I did play the piano—rather well. There was nothing that set me apart academically; I was an average student with a tendency to struggle in Math class. I didn’t have a dirt bike, but I did have a paper route!
You get the picture!
In January of my grade eight year, I decided that it would be better if I took a little time away from school. I managed to get my parents to believe that the brief flu bug that kept me home for a couple of days was a little more serious than we first thought. It only took a little imagination and the occasional groan to get my mom to buy into the fact that I wasn’t well enough to go to school. Miraculously, I started feeling better on the weekends, only to have the aches and pains return Sunday night, usually near the end of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
For two and half weeks, I managed to stay at home, read books, watch TV, drink flat ginger ale and eat dry toast. On the Wednesday of the third week, my teacher finally called to see how I was doing. She told my mom that she would be sending work home for me that evening.
Guess what? I was back at school the next day! It had taken a couple of weeks, but someone finally noticed that I wasn’t there.
In a few days, children and adolescents from all over the country will be heading to school, some for the very first time and others for their final year. I have come to believe that, regardless of their age, their academic or their social standing, each and every student who walks through the doors of our schools and classrooms makes one fundamental request:
“Please recognize me.”
Recognition. It’s about more than noticing the things that they are good at, or even the things that they are not so good at. It’s about more than looking at the way that they behave, their test scores or their extra-curricular accomplishments. It’s about more than qualifying for an Award of Recognition.
The recognition that they are seeking is more fundamental than that. It comes before curriculum, and it comes way before marks. It precedes things that we normally consider noteworthy and of importance. It is rooted in the fact that they are human beings.
In requesting, if not demanding of us, “Please recognize me,” our children are really saying, “Please don’t allow me to be ignored. Please don’t let me disappear. Please, let me come to life before your very eyes!”
Anyone familiar with today’s classrooms will be aware of how the demands of the job can, at times, cloud our vision, preventing us from responding to this basic call for recognition. Add to that the increasing tendency to want to reduce and simplify things, resulting in rather monolithic conceptions, if not ideals, of Student, Teacher—even Parent.
For a large number of us, answering the call for recognition is what brought us to this work in the first place. Many who leave the profession early cite being frustrated and discouraged by their inability to adequately respond to that same call. To be sure, it is what grounds the sense that a life in education is a vocation.
Ensuring that every child hears their full name called on the first day of school, or is noticed when they are absent, are really just my own proxies for recognition—based on my own personal story. I know that many of you have experiences of your own. I also know that I’m not the only one thinking about this as we approach the first day of another school year.
The request to be recgonized is an essential part of what it means to be human, as is the desire to respond. I would love to hear your own stories of recognition and the deeper ways that you struggle to answer the call that your students will present to you in the days and weeks to come.
Recognition: “Yes, here you are!” “Yes, here I am!”
A great deal of how we perceive the world and the perspectives that we take on what we perceive can be atttributed to the cognitive frames that we develop throughout our lives. Frames help us make sense of a very complex world and, in a very real sense, allow us to move through our days without going absolutely bonkers!
As Sanda Kaufman, Michael Elliott and Deborah Shmueli point out frames can help to explain why we two people can see the world in such different ways:
“Because frames are built upon underlying structures of beliefs, values, and experiences, (people) often construct frames that differ in significant ways.”
The different roles that we have in life can have a strong influence on the frames that we develop. To his hockey coach, Graham might appear to be a disciplined and highly skilled team leader. But to his grade eight teacher, the same child might be seen as an unmotivated, highly disruptive student.
And both may feel very justified in making the assessments that they do. Modern society forces all of us to become actors on many different stages and in many different scripts. Not only are our roles different, but the individuals and institutions responsible for “directing” us in those scripts have different expectations, needs and views of our potential.
Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, you’ve probably had at least one experience where, sitting at a report card interview you’ve wondered whether you’re actually discussing the same child!
I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about how summer vacation allows us to give our kids a chance to escape from some of the frames that are placed on them throughout the year. Currently, we’re spending some time at a little cottage resort just outside Algonquin Park. It’s a pretty safe place for Luke and Liam. There are natural boundaries that let them know how far they can wander. There are a whole bunch of other families who, in addition to keeping their eyes open for each others’ children, also help us to see our own boys in different ways.
But many of the frames that are placed on them at home don’t exist here. In this place, the frame of baseball player, student, grandson, nextdoor neighbour and “best friend” have been temporarily removed. Here, the frame of “you need to be in to bed by 8:00”, or “you need to be up and out of the house by 8:30” have, for now, dissolved.
And, slowly, many of the frames that I, as a father, place firmly around their lives have started to fade. The result has been a wonderful opportunity to see and appreciate my children in a different way. I am quicker to welcome the silly, the gross, and the downright hilarious. I’m more open to walking beside them, meeting them where they are, doing what they’re interested in doing (it almost always involves ice cream) and listening. I’ve re-engaged with the people they are, and not the people that I (and others) expect them to be.
I know that when we return to routine of home, it will be natural for frames to be built once again but these two weeks in July have allowed me to become more conscious of the many different frames that are active in the lives of my own children.
There’s a popular radio spot here in Ontario for an organization called The Boundless School. Offering the opportunity to earn high school credits through outdoor, team-oriented activities, their rather clever tagline encourages parents to “send us your kid, and we’ll send you back a new one.”
Instead of sending my kids off for a couple of weeks on their own, however, the past couple of weeks have alerted me to the power of giving them the opportunity to be free of some of the perspectives that frame their lives for most of the year. I sense that Luke and Liam really haven’t changed that much during this vacation time.
But watching them in what is likely pretty close to their “natural state” sure has had an effect on me!
When my first son was about three or four, I started to introduce the ideas of reading and writing to him. I thought it would be great if he could have a head start and go into Kindergarten ahead of the game. I thought since I was fortunate enough to be home with him and had chosen not to send him to preschool, it was my job to teach him these things. He had loved being read to since he was a baby, so I thought it would come easily to him. I thought wrong. It turned out to be quite a struggle. He wasn’t interested in being “taught.” He wasn’t interested in having me choose the activities he engaged in throughout his day. We ended up in a power struggle that wasn’t working at all.
I decided to take a few steps back and follow his lead. It was then that I began to read about un-schooling, life learners, and alternative education. It all made sense to me! If children were self-motivated and following their interests, they would learn the necessary skills.
I found a school whose philosophy was right on par with our new beliefs. We were very excited to have our children (who are now three, five and seven) attend as they would spend the majority of their day learning how to communicate, work together, pursue their interests and passions, and become educated in a way that traditional schooling could not offer.
In today’s world, all the information we need is a finger’s click away. It does not make sense to mindlessly memorize facts and learn how to obey in a classroom and neglect other, more important, lessons in life.
More than anything, I want my children to learn how to be compassionate, communicate respectfully, and follow their passions in life. I don’t want them to be forced to learn useless information. I believe that by offering my children the power to be in charge of their own learning, they will find something they are truly passionate about and be successful and happy throughout their lives. If they choose a career that requires a very academic schooling, I believe they will have the drive and determination to succeed in the necessary program as they themselves will have chosen that path. They have not been pressured to do so. If they find that they desire a more artistic path in life, then I believe they will have learned the necessary life skills and practicality to follow through with their desires.
We started homeschooling because my husband Matt was homeschooled and he wanted that experience for his own kids. Through him I met other adults who had been homeschooled and I could see it had been positive for them, so I said we could give it a try. We have five children now, and so far none have been to school.
I’ve really learned the benefits along the way. One thing I think is important is that my children get to learn at their own pace. My oldest son, Sebastian, didn’t start reading until he was eight – and then he was very quickly reading novels. His sister Callista started reading when she was four. They are both avid readers today, and Sebastian never felt like he was “behind” or not keeping up. He even had one of his short stories published in a contest last year!
We do a lot of interest-based learning and field trips where they can learn by doing. I’ve learned that one theme or topic can actually cover many things that would be separate subjects in school. Callista, for example, is interested in reptiles and has a pet snake. Before we got it, she did research on snakes and had to do math to calculate how much space he would need (to buy the right cage), how much he needs to eat, and what it would cost. That’s reading, science and math.
It’s also easy for me to adapt to the children’s different learning styles. Again, to use reading as an example: Callista just needs to see a word and she remembers it, but Sebastian really benefited from learning phonics. I’m always creating new games and activities for them to help them understand a concept or practice a skill.
I think it’s important for kids to have lots of time to be active. My whole family is very involved in scouting and we do a lot of camping, and my kids really like to be outdoors as much as possible. Homeschooling lets me maximize that. Because we’re available during the day, we’re often able to take part in activities such as music classes, gymnastics, art classes and theatre groups at a much cheaper rate than if we had to go after school. In our city (Guelph), there are quite a few homeschooling families, so we organize activities and field trips together. Sebastian has been part of a boy’s creative writing group that he got a lot out of as well.
People often ask about socialization. I think one of the problems with school is that there is only one kind of socialization: kids of the same age all together. In our homeschooling activities, there’s usually a wider range of ages, and the older kids or the ones who know more about whatever we’re doing will help the others. I think having more adults around helps prevent bullying and other issues as well.
Sebastian is fourteen now, and he’s thinking about going to high school in the fall – mostly because he’s interested in doing some of the extra-curricular activities. We’re really taking things year by year, always evaluating what will be the best options for each child.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
That’s how I feel about my life and my education. My name is Brittney McKinney; I am 18 years old and currently attending Mahone Bay Alternate School in Nova Scotia. I loved going to school in my elementary years, but once I went into middle school things changed. I was at an age where I was more focused on the social aspect of school instead of my education.
I started going to a regular high school for Grade 10, but soon realized I might not be successful in that environment. There were too many kids, and the teachers were always too busy to help me when I needed it the most. I dreaded going to school almost every day and had bad anxiety over it. I just felt like I needed more one-on-one time and understanding, but I wasn’t getting it.
The Mahone Bay Alternate School is an amazing school because there is a 10:1 ratio of students to teachers, which gives teachers more time to work one-on-one with students and to have more personal relationships with us. Our teachers are willing to help on their own time when we show them that we are determined. They are very understanding, and no matter what the situation, they will still accept us and want to help us. The atmosphere in our school is very peaceful and laid-back, yet still provides enough structure and expectations on students to drive them to do their best.
Physically, our school is located in the Mahone Bay Centre, which was built in 1914. It used to be a school and now it’s a community centre, so we share the building with the community of Mahone Bay and the seniors. There are plenty of activities that go on in the centre every day, such as exercise classes, yoga, Tai Chi, dog obedience classes and seniors helping seniors. We help out the seniors by carrying heavy boxes upstairs; we helped build our community garden and we do garbage pick-up in and around our community.
Now every morning when I wake up, I actually look forward to going to school and starting my day of learning. I believe if I did not have the option to attend an alternate school, it would take me longer to graduate, or I might not complete school at all. School boards need to continue to support these programs so that students like me, who suffer from anxiety and struggle with school, have an opportunity to graduate high school and have a better future.
We’d read about Montessori years before our kids were school-aged. The philosophy spoke to us as parents. Still, our kids started in the public system. By the time our daughter was in Grade 3, we were exasperated with the hours of homework she brought home and the weird math concepts that weren’t like what we’d learned. We were also getting a little tired of being told her brother was “unfocused” – in Grade 1. We are a middle-income family so the choice to send our kids to Montessori was difficult. It meant sacrifices. There were fewer luxuries like trips. We sold one of our two cars. In the end, preparing our children to become the best adults they can be trumped all.
When we visited a few schools, we were impressed by how independent and well-spoken the students were. The staff spoke passionately about how Montessori manipulatives connected the theoretical lessons to practical applications. The scientific research on how hand-mind imprinting optimizes learning meant that cursive writing and tactile learning was a big part of the classroom. In one classroom we experienced Montessori principles around social justice for six- to nine-year-olds. In a discussion, each and every kid had a voice that was encouraged and respected. The teacher wasn’t even part of the discussion – she was working with three students at the other end of the classroom.
In Montessori there are no worksheets and no homework. The teachers explained that they allowed students to work without interruption in the morning. The result was greater productivity, and no need for homework. Both our kids are very creative and the enriched curriculum encouraged initiative, independent thought, choice, and time management. We felt these skills would translate well in life as an adult. We especially loved that the learning process and kids were respected. Every Montessori teacher we spoke to stressed this idea. It was very different from the “sit down, listen and do what I tell you” approach that our kids had experienced in public school.
However, Montessori isn’t for all kids. Freedom of choice and self-direction was advantageous for our focused daughter; she developed amazing time management and self-discipline. However, I think my son would have benefited from firmer direction: Turn to page 18 and do Exercises 1-3. That type of structure won’t be found in a Montessori setting. For the child who, like my son, doesn’t have self-initiative or self-control by the 3rd grade, Montessori can be a struggle.
When our kids transitioned to public education in high school, the biggest hurdle was test taking. We discovered that it’s a learned skill. Though they’d been exposed to tests and exams in Montessori, it wasn’t something they’d mastered. My daughter had tremendous anxiety over test taking. She was fortunate to have patient Math teachers who accommodated the extra time she required to complete tests. Yet my son adapted quickly.
Was it the right choice? As I look back, I can’t be sure that it was the better choice over traditional education. It was an educated gamble. I personally felt less stressed as a parent in a Montessori setting because the kids came first. That wasn’t always the case in public. Our kids, now teenagers, are considerate, concerned citizens who are respectful of everyone’s opinion and have a great deal of confidence in their abilities. I truly believe Montessori had a lot to do with that.
En Bref : Pourquoi les parents et les élèves regardent-ils au-delà de leur école de quartier? Les raisons varient autant que les personnes. Certains cherchent quelque chose de « mieux » ou qui se rapproche davantage de leur propre philosophie éducative. Certains enfants ne s’épanouissent pas (sur le plan scolaire ou émotionnel) dans les écoles ordinaires et requièrent une autre approche pour favoriser leur réussite. Quoi qu’il en soit, il très important pour ces familles d’avoir des choix. Nous avons demandé à quatre « consommateurs d’éducation », soit trois parents et un élève du secondaire, pourquoi ils ont choisi un autre type d’école.
Photos: courtesy of authors
First published in Education Canada, June 2016
The Canadian Education Association (CEA) is celebrating 125 years of advancing powerful ideas for greater student and teacher engagement in public education. One of the ways in which the CEA accomplishes its mandate to support and promote innovation in education is through its awards program for educational researchers.
I don’t think that I would be revealing any secrets if I told you that my mother has always been a better baker than a cook. Even to this day, she will call me when it comes to cooking the Sunday roast, but no one in the family—and I mean no one—can hold a candle to her butter tarts or rhubarb pie.
As a child, my ears were keenly-tuned to all sounds associated with baking: mixing bowls being stealthily removed from cupboards, the special flour sifter with the red wooden handle, the electric mixer—these were all cues to drop what I was doing and head to the kitchen to investigate. Sometimes, my curiosity would be rewarded with the chance to act as “batter taster”. But mostly it was all about the opportunity to watch Mom effortlessly (and without a recipe in front of her) mix, blend and knead to perfection!
I was always amazed at how efficiently she was able to work. She didn’t like wasting anything. In fact, some of my favourite treats were the ones that were created with the extra dough, filling and icing sugar that Mom collected prior to clean-up. These would be molded into no particular shape, tossed in the oven and put on a plate to cool. For Mom this, no doubt, resonated with the way that she was brought up, born as she was in post-depression/pre-WWII Hamilton. For me, however, there was something creative about her ability to see the potential in what wasn’t used as part of the main recipe.
These images came back to me last weekend, inspired by a couple of seemingly unrelated experiences. First, this past Sunday was Mother’s Day, and I always enjoy sharing these “growing up” stories with my own children. But these memories enabled a second type of connection.
There were two occasions in the past week where I was asked to make use of an assessement/evaluation rubric to, on the one hand, evaluate performances at a Battle of the Bands competition and, on the other, to help my seven year-old son prepare for an upcoming culminating task at school. (I realize how far apart these strands of thought might seem!)
In both “rubric” cases, I experienced a certain level of frustration, not because of what I was being asked to look at in terms of student performance. As rubrics go, both were clear, concise and well-constructed.
My frustration came from what might be missed if I focused only on the descriptions in the rubric categories. What subtleties or nuances in a particular musical performance might be filtered out? What do I do with the fact that the drummer had a unique way of holding the band together? What might my son’s teacher miss about his enthusiasm for a particular part of the assignment? What happens with the connections that he was able to make with other elements of his life? How do we account for the “spaces” that exist in between levels on the rubric?
I realize that these are not new questions. People have been asking them ever since the use of rubrics came into vogue in the mid-90’s. And, hopefully, we won’t stop asking them. To be sure, the idea of clearly defining for students, educators and parents what quality performance looks and sounds like has pushed the conversation on assessment forward a great deal.
At the same time, howevever, I’ve allowed these questions to bump up against my reading of Stuart Kauffman and, in particular, his work on emergence. The wonderful quote with which I ended my last entry resonates:
Not only do we not know what will happen, we often don’t even know what can happen.
Granted, Kauffman is talking about much larger systems than our classrooms and schools. But I think that there are some parallels that might be helpful in pushing our thinking a little. Just as we are, slowly but surely, being forced to admit that classical physics doesn’t hold all of the answers (or questions) when we start talking about the universe in terms of complexity, I also wonder whether we need to start attending to the fact that there is a lot more than can happen in the learning lives of our students when we loosen up the boundaries set by our curriculum expectations, our success criteria and, yes, our rubrics.
How do we hold true to the importance and value of establishing performance standards and criteria for our students while, at the same time, being aware of the wonderful things may be filtered out of our assessment and evaluation processes? How do we ensure that our efforts to inspire and guide our students do not become a type of cookie cutter template that leaves lots of good stuff on the baker’s table? How can we use more dotted lines to draw our rubrics, opening our assessment processes up to what can happen?
Are we ready for that? Are you already doing that? I would love to hear your stories!