Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why learning should not be like playing video games

I was reading, recently, a conversation between Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, and Sebastian Thrun, founder of another online education platform, Udacity. Thrun talked about the directions he hopes to go with online learning and asked: Can we make learning truly addictive in the same way we make video games addictive? If so, how do we get there?

The question is in keeping with a constant refrain in education, demanding we find ways to allow students to follow their passions (something I've argued against before), to get them excited and engaged in learning, to make learning FUN. Like video games.

But I’m wondering if we are heading down a dangerous path. Addictive things, it seems to me, are not what we want to chase in the first place, and our methods to achieve this state are worrisome: we use games, excitement, action and play to hook kids and sweeten the “bitter pill” of learning. Learning, surely, is in and of itself, delicious, but it is a taste that needs to be acquired over time. It’s hard work, focussed attention; it demands learning things you didn't know you didn't know (not just what you’d like to know) and pushing yourself to stick with hard things longer than you ever imagined you’d want to, past the fun part, past the easy part, past the frustrating part, past the part where it becomes easy again until it becomes a part of the way you think and know the world. Perhaps learning is addictive, but not in the way video games are, not in the way sugar and drugs and alcohol are - instant, easy. It’s only addictive years after the hard work has been done, after difficulties and failures and pain and frustration have allowed you to understand that the end is just a signpost, that the journey, including – maybe especially – the hardest parts (the parts that aren't fun at all, in fact) are what make it worthwhile.

I don’t think that means learning needs to be dull drudgery, but it’s certainly hard and it’s always slow. It’s possible to entice people into learning something hard for the short term with games and gimmicks, but since sticking with it is always an inner struggle against the lure of easy and instant distractions, that method is like encouraging children to eat vegetables with the promise of dessert. It too often leads to a desire for the prize rather than for the good thing we wish to instill.

Indeed, it seems to me that our current efforts in education are designed to thwart deep learning, to create a mindset that waits for learning to arrive custom-fit, always fun, easy and engaging. No wonder so many of our children now are bored in school. The problem, we are told, will be solved if we make learning more FUN, if we personalize and tailor the experience so it is just right for each child, if we infuse play, inquiry and choice into our lesson design, if we add tents and bouncy chairs to our classrooms. I’m worried that our solutions are crippling our students rather than helping them, atrophying their capacity to sift, sort, figure out, struggle, seek, fail, restart, persevere, and find their own way. Surely, a better question than how we can make learning fun might be – how can we support our students to do hard things?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Remembering why I’m grateful to be a BC teacher

Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all the things I can’t change as a teacher. Which is a lot. The size of the classroom. The number of books to meet the needs and passions of my new students. The in-class support. The adverse conditions at home.

But there are even more things I can change. Small things: noticing a student, adding a visual, acknowledging effort. I know how much small things can make a difference. What’s more, what I do have, when I lift my eyes to think into the past or across the world is extraordinary. On a trip to Uganda I visited a school. They had children of all ages in one room – very big girls who had never been to school before a law requiring attendance sat alongside very small children. When I asked to see the library, I was shown a book room with a handful of worn and out-dated textbooks. I have so much.

It’s easy, too, very easy, to get lost in all the things I do wrong as a teacher. Which is a lot. Every day.The small things I didn't change. The student I didn't notice again, the conversation that went sideways, the lesson that slid into chaos. But there are at least as many things I’m pretty sure (I’m hoping) that go well, small “aha” moments, students who realize their extraordinary potential as they learn, a child who feels a sense of accomplishment at last, a kindness that lands.

Dear Ms. Beleznay: 
I have learned so much about English and Literature but more about life. I promise never to ‘bury my gift.’ You have taught me so much and I will be forever grateful. No words can express how thankful I am to have had you in my life.  I will never forget all I have learned (or you).  

Dear Ms. Beleznay:
I like the way you teach. In all my other classes I would never state my opinions aloud, and by doing things as a class, I've gained more confidence in my thoughts and opinions. I think that each and every person should have a chance to realize that their thoughts are valued as much as the next. You helped me realize that, so I thank you very much!

Dear Ms. Beleznay:
I've never really been smart, but you make me feel like I’m glowing. Thank you for everything. I’m truly grateful.

No matter how often I get lost, I am grateful that I always find my way back through the astonishingly kind words of children who routinely forgive my blunders, or if they are silent (and most are), in their shining eyes, in a frown of concentration, a surprised “I get it!” I am grateful to be a teacher. I am grateful for the extraordinary resources available to me, for the open hearts of the students I teach, for the impossible generosity of the teachers I work with, and most of all, for the opportunity to do work that matters every day.

Friday, September 19, 2014

On Kindness

I have a quote above my desk by Vaclav Havel: “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” The other day someone sent me a kind note to say how much she appreciated my work. It was one of those days when I was feeling low, when I was thinking that my work was not only unsuccessful, but perhaps not even good. How can we be certain? But those kind words lifted me up again. While it’s been said often enough to be a cliché, it doesn't diminish the truth: a small act of kindness can make an enormous difference to us.

During the teachers’ strike so many people were kind in small ways, honking, waving, bringing cupcakes, pizzas, notes of appreciation. Now that the strike has ended and we return to our ordinary hurry, it’s more important than ever to think about kindness, especially when bitterness, hurt feelings and anger against colleagues has been inevitable in this battle. Each of us does what we believe is good. Who can know for certain? The only certainty is that our bitter words hurt and our kind ones heal. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The surprising advantage of larger class size, dyslexia and losing your parents

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, he tells the always appealing story of the underdog – the little guy who wins despite the odds - from a seductive standpoint: our disadvantages are often the advantage that allow us to win. For example, he tells of dyslexics whose very struggle with reading allows them to win in the world by conferring some advantage – the capacity to listen carefully in one story, in another, the capacity to take risks, because frequent failure numbs fear. He shares stories of people who have gained an advantage – again, a kind of fearlessness – from losing a parent before the age of 20.  A researcher reviewed the lives of people whose lives merited more than one column in the Encyclopedia Britannica or Encyclopedia Americana. By the age of 10, 25% of these high-achieving people had lost a parent; by the age of 15, 34.5% had had a parent die; by age 20, 45%. On the other hand, Gladwell also points out that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have had a parent die in childhood and the number of dyslexics in prisons far exceeds the average.  When I was telling my very practical youngest son about the people whose disadvantage gave them an advantage, he said that he had no doubt that the number of dyslexics and people with early childhood loss in prison far exceeded the number that excelled. And quite likely, he added, the high-achievers had other advantages that factored more importantly in their success.

Yes, but we are always so easily seduced by the story of the underdog, especially the story of an underdog whose very disadvantages are the weapon against the established top dog. The vast majority of us, after all, are underdogs with a full gamut of disadvantages. (Gladwell lists some of them in Outliers; simply being born after March, for example, is a disadvantage.) Surprisingly, one of the disadvantages that turns out to be an advantage in Gladwell’s book is class size, a topic of great interest in British Columbia right now, where schools are shut down for a teacher’s strike that includes a demand for a more thoughtful approach to class size and composition. According to the research that Gladwell shared, class size falls into a category of things that follow “inverted-U” logic. For example, too little food is detrimental to health, but at some point, adding more food to our diet becomes as harmful. So, too, he writes, too many children in a class is a disadvantage, but at a certain point, too few children is equally disadvantageous.

Any teacher would agree. As Gladwell writes, “It is a strange thing, isn't it, to have an educational philosophy that thinks of other students in the classroom with your child as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?” Indeed. That’s why BC teachers never speak of class size without composition; diversity in a classroom also falls on the inverted-U:  too little does not spark creativity and divergent thinking; too much causes chaos. (How do you know when you've reached the tipping point from advantage to disadvantage? Ask the teacher. But of course that would mean we respected teachers’ understanding of the complex dynamics in their classrooms. We prefer to find a mythical mathematical formula.) Gladwell argues that wealthy people who send their children to expensive private schools with small classes may be conferring an unwitting disadvantage. I find it hard to believe. I’d argue that a larger class size is like the “advantage” of dyslexia and losing a parent, helping a few (perhaps) and harming countless others.

The most disturbing part of the book for me was how many of the stories showed that disadvantages in early life allowed the person to be ruthless or deceptive enough to win – and these qualities, serving a “win,” were renamed an advantage. Of course, that’s how the Davids win. And really, when you think about it, that’s how the Goliaths stay on top (or the Davids, once they've beaten Goliath).

I keep wondering, lately, if there are different stories to grip our imagination, that don’t focus on who wins or who loses or how to gain an advantage over our enemies. Today, thousands of years after David took out his sling shot, in what seems an endlessly perfect summer of blue skies and gentle breezes, the tragic battle continues in the land of David and Goliath and the bitterness deepens in the decades-long dispute between the BCTF and the government. No new ending seems possible in either story. The rhetoric of peace and negotiations, fair deals and settlements are merely maneuvers to gain advantage. It seems to me that as long as we continue to focus on how to be or remain the winner, we lose the story of good.  That’s a story I’d love to hear.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Counting the Blessing of Wrinkles

My home is filled with family this week.  My youngest is getting married on Saturday, so we’re all gathering to laugh and play and be merry together.  Today, though, I’m taking some time to remember my brother, who is missing.  He died ten years ago today. How he would have loved all the family festivities and the wedding, his youngest son the Master of Ceremonies, his “other son,” as he often referred to Will, the groom.  We are taking advantage of the gathering of so many family members to also celebrate my daughter’s becoming a dermatologist last month, a profession that her uncle had recommended to her when she first told him she was going to be a doctor.  We are all getting older, he told her; you go to school, I’ll set up your office and we’ll make a killing off all the people who want to look young again.

Getting older is a blessing we don’t count often enough these days.  Today I’m grateful for the wrinkles and grey hairs, for the grown children and for Jack, our grandchild, filling the house with squeals of delight as uncles toss him in the air – and for the memories of my brother who will never grow old.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Anna Karenina: Too Long; Read it Anyway

I've just finished rereading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  It’s a revelation to me on a number of fronts. I read it first when I was 19, a lifetime or two or three ago. I remembered it only vaguely, except that I loved it. On rereading I wonder why. What did I think of the great swaths of the book dedicated to Russian politics, the long passages describing hunting trips, the chapters about farming? Did I admire the, to me now, overblown emotions of Anna and Levin?
Yet although I finished reading the novel over a week ago, I can’t stop thinking about it. Perhaps it is the slow painting of a life and time sketched out in such close details that, even now, I feel like I've been there, that the people of the story are part of my life. Perhaps is the awful way that Tolstoy strips his characters for us to view the vulnerability that we skitter away from, even from our own selves, particularly from ourselves. Perhaps it is the unhurried unfurling of ideas, revealed through lives and moments.

Too often, now, I skip from idea to idea; if a book doesn't interest me quickly, I read a different one; if an article drags, I click to another. When I first read Anna Karenina, however, there were no bookstores nearby; the Internet did not provide an endless supply of reading material. I wonder if it is new for me to become frustrated with passages that don’t meet with my tastes. Perhaps with no unlimited supply of reading to turn to when I became uncomfortable, I was more patient in my youth, savouring the story as it unfolded. We so routinely set aside anything too long now, that we use an acronym – tl;dnr – too long; did not read.

I wonder what in my life, in our lives as a community, is being lost in abundance. I am grateful that, despite its being too long, I read Anna Karenina anyway.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to get an education: grit or slack?

The most difficult thing about teaching is finding a way to serve the children who give up before they've even started. They shrug. They put their heads on the desk. They shut down and shut you out.

Perhaps that’s why I was so interested in the research about grit. Researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” and her findings suggest that grit is the key component of success. It isn't surprising. Certainly grit is required to get an education, which is always a long-term goal. The hard part is to see past this difficult section of math or that essay to understand each as an adventure on the journey that is education. A journey is not only marked by the photos that we post on Facebook, the beautiful sunsets, the view of the city from a tower, the charming lanes, the majestic mountains, but is also the frustrating delays, the tedious flight, the cramped hotel room with musty sheets. But how do we ensure the children do not turn back at the first difficulty? How do we entice them to embark at all? Because one thing is certain: we cannot learn without sustained effort. And we cannot sustain effort without some vision of a life worth working for.

The irony is that the children with the least grit in school seem to be, as Ira Socol puts it, “the grittiest kids on earth.” They support parents whose suffering make them dependent on their children; at a very young age, they raise younger brothers and sisters, scavenge food for them, organize them for school, make them safe; they move from home to home to the streets and into the houses of strangers. They survive in the midst of chaos and even violence. They have nothing left for school.

But if grit is, as Angela Duckworth phrases it, “sticking with your future,” then I’d have to disagree with Ira Socol. These children are so overwhelmed with the present that the future is the next meal. They are strong, courageous, extraordinary problem-solvers (often we mistake their solutions for the problems – like their refusal to put energy into something they don’t believe will make a difference to them), but they seldom have the luxury for grit.   How do we teach grit to children whose everyday lives already demand constant effort?

Paul Thomas argues, though, that it isn't grit they need: “Children from affluent homes and attending affluent schools aren't succeeding because of grit, but because of the slack created by their relative privilege. And children from impoverished homes, attending high-poverty schools, are not struggling because they lack grit, but because they embody the consequences of scarcity.” Both Socol and Thomas agree that the debate about grit is another way to pass off the problems of poverty onto the individual (they should just get grit) rather than seek solutions; Thomas writes, "we must shift our accusing gaze away from the people trapped in scarcity and toward social and educational inequity—the conditions of living and learning that drive the outcomes.”

But how do we teach children in poverty while we wait for the world to change? Surely, educating children is changing the world. For me, the importance of grit is that it rests on two key beliefs: the belief that you can do what you dream of doing (otherwise why try?) and the belief, even more important, that once you've done it, it matters in some way, that things will get better because of your sustained effort, that these efforts, in fact, will lead to your goals for the future. Without grit, children from poverty will continue to drop out (and dropping out takes many forms; many children stay in school, but they solve the problem of hopelessness by refusing to learn). Without asking for sustained effort, deliberate practice, engagement in difficult tasks and hard thinking, even from children whose lives are difficult, we may encourage them to stay in school, but we will not educate them. We collude in the cycle of poverty. For me, education ought to be the slack that allows for grit. Slack is provided through safe places with calm expectations and reasonable, consistent boundaries in which children can lean in to learning, where they can begin to believe in their own capacities and in a world that can be reshaped by their efforts.

Sometimes I worry that, because we can see how difficult the journey of education will be for some of our children, because we cannot imagine how to prepare them for it, we simply show them pictures of the highlights, get them to walk about the room and pretend to catch flights. We have no faith in their capacity to take flight on their own, to find unique ways to travel that we can’t even imagine, to forge new paths to destinations we dare not even dream of. But if we don’t believe in the children and their capacity – enhanced through a powerful and empowering education – to alter the landscape of the future, what is the purpose of our schools?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What difficulties are desirable in our classrooms today?

What I love best about summer is that I finally have time to think. As a teacher the rest of the year is a constant doing. You are always on, acting in the moment, or preparing to act. You reflect, of course, but it’s always about what you've done, not the kind of sideways meandering that thinking demands. When I spend too much time staring directly at the problem, I seem to lose sight of it entirely, so whenever I can I read off topic. My mind always comes back to education, but with new eyes, I think.

That’s why I’m reading philosophy, right now, John D. Caputo’s Truth: Philosophy in Transit. He’s touring me through history, sharing the ideas that led to a postmodern concept of truth. He pauses on Kierkegaard, of course: “The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.” In other words, it’s difficult. But Kierkegaard is an advocate for difficulty. He writes:
…wherever you look in literature or in life…you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful …when all join together to make everything easier in every way, there remains only one possible danger, namely the danger that the easiness would become so great that it would become all too easy.  So only one lack remains, even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty.  Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1844). 
What would Kierkegaard, already concerned about the easiness of life in 1844, have thought of our lives today? How could he even imagine cars, planes, smart phones, instant messaging, and information streaming to us in 140 characters or less? How could he have foreseen our enormous capacity for making our lives easier? Our world is awash, now, in clicks and dials and buttons that turn on a machine to do our work or to entertain us; an endless supply of pills and an industry of self-help gurus ease us when we are sad, angry, depressed or spiritually lost.

And yet, we are not happier, if that’s important. We focus on eradicating difficulties as though we would then be satisfied, but perhaps Kierkegaard is right – perhaps what we feel now is the lack of difficulty. Perhaps it is only in living with and through difficulty that we understand our own strengths and gifts. What is a life without difficulty, but a kind of cardboard existence?

But there is, of course, no dearth of difficulties today. While the individual daily lives of many of us is easier, we have not yet eradicated the great social difficulties: war, poverty, hate and subjugation, violence against each other. I teach children whose lives are so wrought with difficulty that our impulse is simply to ease their lives – to provide food, clothing, comfort. It’s hard to focus on teaching fractions when students are hungry, when they have seen and heard and lived in the darkest of places. Yet an education is the best we can offer, so that the children can find ways to use the gifts that difficulty has forged in them to make different choices in the world and for the world.

But educating children whose lives are difficult is, well, difficult. Our tendency is to help. A lot. We yearn to erase the difficulties of learning, scaffolding each step, creating visuals, games and manipulatives to explain abstract concepts, connecting, supporting, aiding, so that the children are not burdened with yet another difficulty. But the truth is, learning is difficult. In our efforts to remove the difficulty from learning, are we, at the same time, reducing the opportunity for learning?
Consider the research by Christof van Nimwegen: two groups of volunteers work on a difficult logic puzzle on a computer - transferring coloured balls between two boxes according to a set of rules. One group had software that was designed to be as helpful as possible, providing clues and hints. The other group had a bare-bones software. Who learns best? If our assumptions about what is best in a classroom hold true, the answer should be the helpful software.

And the group with the helpful software did learn more quickly, but the proficiency of the other group increased more rapidly. (How often do we stop thinking and wondering about what’s best after the quick gains?) In the end, the group with the unhelpful software did better. Those using the unhelpful software were able to plan ahead and plot strategy, while those using the helpful software tended to rely on simple trial and error. That is to say, the group without help developed their own strategies that made sense to them and improved their ability to perform. And more important, eight months later the unhelpful software group were able to solve the puzzles twice as quickly.

This idea of what researcher Robert Bjork calls "desirable difficulties" is counter-intuitive. I’m sure Kierkegaard would like the phrase. We continue to think that easier is better. But it turns out, at least in learning (and perhaps in life), that we are wrong. Bjork posed this question to a group of students. Before the lecture you are given either a lecture framework (Ia,b,c; IIa,b,c and so on) or a different article on the same topic. Which would you prefer? Students both preferred the framework and thought that it was more helpful. (How often do we stop here, after everyone agrees on what is best?) But then the researcher tested it. Half the students got the lecture framework; half got an article that dealt with the same material. He lectured and then gave them the same test. In the recall questions, both groups performed the same, but in the inference questions that tested their understanding of the information, students who read the article did better. Why? Bjork argues that it injects the "desirable difficulty" necessary to learn (think) rather than merely perform (memorize).

I keep wondering why we still have suffering in our world today, why in BC, a land of such abundance, in a time of such ease, one in five children suffer in poverty. I keep thinking that education is our best path, that our children, given the tools they need, will find the way that we have not yet. But lately I've been wondering if I have spent too much time thinking about how to make learning easy. In doing so, will I therefore aid in perpetuating the cycle of difficulty that we most wish to prevent for our children?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In Another Universe the Premier Tweets About Teachers

I noticed Christy Clark’s tweets of support and congratulations to Genie Bouchard, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil. That was nice. Last weekend was exciting for sports. Like me, Ms. Clark was watching both the Wimbledon finals and the World Cup match between Netherlands and Costa Rica. In soccer, she cheered for the underdogs; like her son, I cheered for Netherlands.  

I was watching the big events between games at the ClearlyContacts.ca Beach Volleyball Open at Kits beach. My son was playing. He and his partner lost a hard-fought battle in the quarter finals. I was cheering from the sidelines as I've done for many years for many sports for many kids as a mom and as a teacher. I’m a big fan of the power of competitive sports to inspire kids through passionate experiences. I add this so no one thinks I’m against sports or don’t understand their importance.

Certainly our premier thinks sports events are important enough to tweet about. She’s not alone of course:  hours and hours of TV and radio time and pages and pages of newsprint have been dedicated to sports, along with millions of social media mentions. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't know what happened at Wimbledon or hasn't followed at least some of the highlights at the World Cup. And compensation is commensurate with the attention we pay. As a runner-up at Wimbledon, 20-year old Genie won $1,492,000. The World Cup winning team in Brazil will win $35,000,000. This is just the icing on the cake for someone like Netherlands winger Arjen Robben who makes $7,500,000 a year in his day job.
I would argue, however, that there are many much more important things that we don’t seem to be paying attention to at all. Buried in the tweets about sports and celebrities, for example, you might find some about the amazing work of the incredible teachers around the world. I didn't find one in Christy Clark’s feed. Maybe I missed it. But if we pay wages according to what’s important to us and what’s important is revealed through what we pay attention to, it isn't surprising that we are still quibbling over wages for teachers in BC. Indeed, our premier has castigated teachers for their greediness in desiring a wage increase. What she means, really, is that she thinks the work teachers do doesn't matter enough to the people of BC to deserve more. Choices need to be made.

When I imagine an alternate universe, I don’t really wish teachers made millions. Disproportionate wages are always at the cost of someone in the community.  But In my alternate universe the premier would tweet about teachers - and the many other extraordinary people who contribute to the health of our community - at least as often as she tweets about the White Caps or the Canucks. Perhaps under such leadership we might begin to rethink what's most important.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Beyond More and Less

At some point, more can’t be the answer. Here’s a simple problem: there is too much traffic. Answer: more roads and bridges. Problem solved. Sort of. For a while. As soon as you answer more, you lose the possibility of different. And we are desperately in need of different in our world today. More is no longer sustainable.

The answer, however, is not therefore less. You hear that a lot from corporations and governments now. They have reached the limit of more and relentlessly cry out for less. But less is simply the new more. Less waste (more profit), less staff to do the same work (more profit), less money for the same work (more profit). Nothing changes except the cost of more is more and more the burden of the workers who get less and less.

The current teachers’ strike is locked in a battle between more and less. I am yearning for the conversation about different.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

If I were in charge: another way to resolve the teachers' dispute

The way is not in the sky.  The way is in the heart.  

After reading my last blog post about why I am opposed to the teachers’ strike, my daughter Katie said it was good – with that particular inflection that lets you know there is a ‘but’ coming – but when you disagree with people about their action, it’s just annoying unless you at least outline a concrete alternative. What would you do right now, she said, if you were in charge?  
If I were in charge, Katie, I’d start by seeing this as an opportunity instead of a problem. There is no doubt that teachers are dissatisfied. They are repeatedly saying that they cannot do the job they love adequately anymore. They are demanding change. This dovetails perfectly with the Ministry of Education’s expressed desire for change. The current system, the introduction to the new BC Education Plan argues, is good (you can almost hear that inflection), but built on skills, practices and models of a previous century. To become great, “we need a more nimble and flexible one that can adapt more quickly to better meet the needs of 21st century learners.”

If were in charge, I would begin by seeking nimble, flexible and innovative ways to approach the current dispute, rather than inflexibly repeating refrains about affordability zones and fiscal plans. I’d begin by finding a way to orchestrate an agreement with teachers that not only fits a plan for the future, but lifts it from words to action. 

In the BC Education Plan, five key elements are identified to move our education system from good to great. One is quality teaching and learning: “A great teacher has always been the key to creating outstanding educational experiences.” Yet teachers today are saying that, given the working and learning conditions they face, they can no longer do great work. It's hardly surprising since, for years, teachers have met 21st century expectations in a 20th century model. If the government really plans to change the education system, then now is a perfect opportunity to take a real step forward.  Indeed, it may be the only opportunity: if the strife and acrimony continues, meaningful change will be thwarted by broken trust. How can we work together toward change in the future, when we can’t work together at this important crossroad today?

So if I were in charge, I’d begin by setting aside the endless back-and-forth about numbers, scarcity, limits, deadlines and deficiencies. I’d say, let’s think about possibility instead, about what needs to change in changing times so that together we can transform education, the stated purpose of the Education Plan, and embed those changes into a new agreement for working together. 

How? I’d start with dialogue. Yes, we have already been “talking” at the “table” but a dialogue is something else. Indeed, dialogue is distinguished from debate in one of the Education Plan documents: “a debate assumes there is one right answer (and you have it) and attempts to prove the other side wrong” while in a dialogue “you assume that others have pieces of the answer and you attempt to find common ground.” A dialogue is surely exactly what we need right now. Our debates have gotten us nowhere.

Who will engage in this dialogue? Anyone who wants to participate. That might seem unwieldy but so far a handful of men and women at the bargaining table have not been the answer. We live in an age where mass participation is possible; if teachers are dissatisfied, even anxious, about teaching and learning conditions, there is nothing more important than hearing them and using that information to revise the system. Who knows better than they, after all, what is necessary to move us from good to great?

The process for dialogue the Ministry used recently to engage people to review the Plan – World Café – would work for our purposes. Café conversations, as the co-originator Juanita Brown says, “are designed on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges.” Can you ask for a more magnificent assumption? In the café process, a facilitator gathers a group of people for conversations around questions. The ideas are recorded.  That’s it. It’s that simple. 

Cafés could be held in every local, co-hosted by representatives for the government and BCTF members. In addition, people unable to participate in face-to-face sessions could join a digital session. The information could then be organized for a final “harvest” of all the ideas from across the province. To what end?  Margaret Wheatley writes, “We need many eyes and ears and hearts engaged in sharing perspectives. How can we create an accurate picture of the whole if we don’t honour the fact that we each see something different because of who we are and where we sit in the system? Only when we have many different perspectives do we have enough information to make good decisions.” I’m convinced that from the harvest key trends and alternate ideas would emerge to illuminate the path to an agreement that is a win for both sides, for the many other sides who have been losing in this strike, and for the future that is always created by our actions today.

The only thing left to do is to consider which questions to ask. Peter Block says, “Getting the question right may be the most important thing we can do. We define the dialogue and, in a sense, our future through the questions we choose to ask.”

We could start, I think, with ones already designed by Ministry staff to help them think about how to effectively implement the Education Plan.
  • What do teachers need to feel supported and valued?
  • What support and opportunities might be provided to teachers to improve their practice and ultimately the learning experiences of their students?
  • How do our schools and school districts need to change to support more flexibility and choice in student learning?
We could consider others:
  • What’s possible now that we've agreed to try this together?
  • What issues do people keep returning to? 
  • What can we do to reduce suffering? 
  • What are we doing right?
  • What’s my contribution to the difficulty I’m experiencing?
  • How else can we create the resilient, nimble and flexible organization that we require? 
If I were in charge, Katie, I would get us off the treadmill of winning and losing and begin again with dialogue. Certainly it would be difficult. Certainly the media mud-slinging, the broken agreements, the bad-faith bargaining and many years of strife stand between us. But what other options do we have that allow us to move from continued hostility to a hopeful future? If I were in charge, I would begin by listening to the passionate educators who are yearning to be heard. I have enormous faith in my colleagues; I know that, as they talk and listen, as they share their convictions, and hear those of others, they will seek a peaceful conclusion to the teachers’ strike that will, more importantly, stand as the beginning of a new way, which is, after all, already here in our hearts, of working together beautifully for our children.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Finding another way to resolve the teachers' dispute

The easiest thing in the world to do is agree. It’s a way to be invisible. No one really notices the people who nod and go along. Disagreeing makes you stand out. Some people, of course, love to be noticed. They disagree, as the saying goes, just to be disagreeable. You notice them.

I hate being noticed.

I had hoped, in fact, to be largely silent on the ongoing strike. I am deeply opposed. That puts me in disagreement with the majority of my colleagues. Disagreeing is difficult enough; disagreeing with people you admire and respect, especially disagreeing with them on a topic of strong, even impassioned conviction is painful.

However, my silence implies that I agree with what is happening or that I am indifferent. Neither is true. Although I can soothe my conscience by the thought that my opinion is insignificant, that one dissenting voice in a sea of consent is irrelevant, Martin Luther King’s words ring in my mind: “Our lives begin to end when we are silent about things that matter.” This matters.

I am opposed to the strike.  This is why.

The moment you decide on a strike or lockout (and both are in place right now) you go to war. You divide into two camps, setting up an enemy, demonizing the other, and destroying the possibility, even into the future, of co-designing peaceful options. The longer the war goes on, the more firmly entrenched each side becomes, sitting on their side of the line day after day, whipped up by the propaganda of their leaders, not to think deeply about alternate options or better ideas, but to dig in deeper, to chant derisively about the other as though we are not, ultimately, on the same team.

All that is left is a possibility of “bargaining in good faith” as though that is a good dearly to be wished for. The important issues are left behind. We can only compromise and focus on numbers: wage packages, class size limits, composition requirements. The best we can hope for is the possibility of a “settlement," neither side satisfied and the third way – not my way or your way but our way – obliterated.

Once you wage war, it is almost impossible to turn back. Once you have suffered losses for your cause, once you have marched and chanted and carried signs, once you have slung accusations across the divide, once you have built the camaraderie of shared struggles against a common foe, it takes extraordinary courage to say – perhaps we were wrong. You have to believe that your actions counted, that your losses led to victory.

We lost, the minute we decided to go on strike, the opportunity to re-imagine our work. It isn't as though I don’t think the working conditions for teachers are increasingly untenable. It isn't as though I don’t think teachers need a wage increase or reduced class size or adjustments for class composition. But adjusting the numbers won’t transform education. These issues are not the problem; they are the result of years of losing our way in changing times.

Here’s the one simple change we must make: we can no longer put teachers in isolation in a classroom with many children, not if our purpose is to educate each child beautifully. Reducing the number of students by one or two or five will help but it won’t transform the classroom. Finding a formula for class composition, even if it were possible (children notoriously defy categories) may help some of the time, but it won’t make the difference we need. Adding educational assistants and specialist teachers will help, but it isn't enough. Paying more money to teachers simply acknowledges their contribution. It will help, but it won’t change practice. Truly, you cannot pay teachers what they are worth. The longer we haggle over wages, the more likely it is that teachers will work less. Who gifts their time and more important, their commitment, when they are under-appreciated and, even, during this war, despised and scorned?

Now what? A “fair deal” in the “affordability zone” may get us back to classrooms, but it isn't enough.

We need to start again differently. We need to stop advocating and start listening. We need to remember our shared purpose, to reflect on what matters to all of us. We need to ask some common questions to jump-start conversations that re-imagine education. We need to roll up our sleeves to work, think, dream, create together and find a path beyond numbers and deals and zones to where the children are.

If educators cannot find peaceful, imaginative, transformative solutions to complex problems, who can? And if we don’t, what hope can we offer for the future, which we hold in our hands with the hearts and minds of our children?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

To Kathie McGregor: A Great Teacher

Perhaps I didn't say this to Kathie when I could. I hope I did. I hope she knew how much I admired her, how grateful I was for her energy, passion, commitment, willingness to learn, lead, share, pitch in. Kathie embodied the learning teacher: she always questioned, wondered, explored, applied new ideas, struggled to understand, engaged in hard conversations; she was always willing to join in, to jump into a study group, to lead learning sessions, to try new things. Her work using literacy strategies in socials studies, her experimentation in peer editing and assessment, inquiry, historical thinking and technology infused teaching have played a significant role in transforming practice in our community. She was a passionate advocate for public education.

I have been looking through my pictures. Her work is woven through the fabric of my professional life. I have dozens of pictures of Kathie - leaning forward, intense concentration, listening hard or deep in conversation, standing in front of kids to connect them to big ideas, sitting beside to them to encourage next step thinking, working with colleagues to assess or share ideas or lead conversations. Or laughing. Learning and laughing, I think, should go together like salt and pepper. They did for Kathie.

I often worry that we only notice the big and noisy things, that the extraordinary work of teachers like Kathie passes almost unseen. I suppose it doesn't matter, really. I see it. Her students and colleagues know. Her friends and family. She worked passionately, individual to individual, changing lives, changing the way we teach, changing our path. Our lives are richer for walking with her; our possibilities for the future are brighter for her committed action. Kathie was a great teacher.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

When am I volunteering and when am I teaching?

The current labour dispute between BCPSEA (acting for the government) and the BCTF (acting for the teachers) has escalated to rotating strikes and a partial lockout. Teachers are locked out of the school at lunch hour, recess and may only be at school 45 minutes before the first bell and after the last one.  Unless we are volunteering. For example, although I can’t help my students with math at lunch, I may coach the football team.

At first, I was confused by priorities. Why are exceptions made for extra-curricular activities? Are they more important than the curriculum? But the priorities are simply political, I realize. Technically, we aren’t paid to volunteer. The reason for the lock-out, from what I gather, is to justify the wage cut that is part of BCPSEA’s efforts to return pressure on BCTF in retaliation for the rotating strikes. I understand that. Tit for tat. It’s the sort of thing I deal with constantly in my grade 7 classroom. Don’t hit. He hit me first. It doesn't solve anything, I say. But no one remembers that lesson, even as adults.

I remain confused, though, by what it means to volunteer in my role as a teacher. Teachers, we are told, are welcome on school property despite the lockout to support student extracurricular programs and other voluntary activities, but not for paid work. To me, this is an imaginary and unhelpful line. As teachers, we contribute our strengths in whatever way we can. The colleagues I know who coach, for example, extend the lessons of their classroom to the field or court, helping students to lead, learn, do their best. They know that if students have success anywhere, they can help them translate that success to math, to writing, to disciplined effort in the classroom. When my colleagues offer after-school drama or lunch-hour chess, they know that rich and diverse experiences help connect students to school, especially those who struggle academically or socially. Once connected in one place, they can begin to weave more connections around the student to support them in the classroom. Teachers who “volunteer” know that they can’t teach students they don’t have a relationship with. They build the relationships in any way they can. Near the end of the basketball season this year, one of my students said, “You've never missed one of our games, have you?” Of course not. More than a dozen of my students played on the team. I’m their number one cheerleader. Is that volunteering? I don’t think so. For me, it’s teaching. That doesn't mean I think watching students play basketball should be required of every teacher. It means that this year with these students it works for me as part of my plan to support them in the best way I can.

I'm even more puzzled by this: when does my work that is directly related to the classroom become volunteering? Here’s an example. For art, as we review the elements and principles of design, we’re applying what we know to the creation of our yearbook. To facilitate this, I've been spending hours at night organizing pictures and then putting them into student folders. Although it’s extra time for me, it means we can spend more class time thinking about design. First, I sorted the pictures that had been taken of them over the years. Now they are taking their own photos that use line in interesting ways, that experiment in perspective, light and shade; they've used an online editing program to play with colour and shape. Each day, I upload and sort these latest photos, so the next day we’re ready for another lesson.  Next we are going to choose photos to insert into the page layout they designed. None of this extra preparation is required.  I could give students a handout on the elements and principles of design. They could copy notes, study them and take a test. Done. I am paid in both cases, but currently I am spending more hours for the same (reduced) pay. Am I volunteering my time?

I worry about a lot of things as this dispute continues. I worry about the disruption and tension for children. I worry about the erosion of public confidence in education. I worry about the disrespectful attitude of the employer and the long-term effects it will have on employee work. I worry about bitterness between teachers as individual values clash with collective goals. But here’s what worries me most. When we begin to count teaching in hours, as if we were widget-makers in a factory, when we outline the tasks that count as teaching as if teaching can be slotted into a fixed set of activities, when we prescribe the methods for teachers as if one-way-fits-all, then I am sure that we might as well shift to online education. The infrastructure to make it happen is ready.

What makes teachers impossible to replace with machines is the “voluntary” part, the part that is a unique teacher using his or her strengths and passions and observations-in-the-moment to meet the right-now needs of children. I hope we won’t forget that.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why we keep wasting money in education and how we can stop

Budget time is always illuminating.  If you follow the money, you begin to get a clear picture of what we value.  In education, for example, even when millions of dollars need to be cut, there is always money for new positions: in our district we now have “Instructional Coordinators” whose job it is to implement RTI, a new method – not a program we are repeatedly reminded – to assist students who struggle with learning.  In previous years we've had Literacy Lead teachers; in other districts they have technology integrationists or learning catalysts or curriculum support teachers.  In each case the purpose of these new positions is to apply and spread a “new and improved” method for teaching.

It’s understandable when you consider that, as a society, we are infatuated with “new and improved” (we put these words together as if they belong in a pair like “salt and pepper”).  Despite our criticism of the factory model in education (kids in rows with a teacher churning out the same lesson with the same worksheets to be completed in the same way by all children), our values continue to be firmly industrial: we believe in constant improvement, that everything can get better through the application of scientific principles. We don’t even ask the question – do we want to continue to improve what we’re already doing? Improvement is good.  And “new” is so tangled with “improved” in our mind that new is good.

Why do we need a new position for these new ideas?  Couldn't we simply introduce them to the existing staff?  That’s connected to another value: we want to improve quickly.  The industrial ideal sets great store by immediate results – quick profit.  We have no patience for the traditional understanding of time, of nurturing, of patience, of slow.  This value, applied to education, is revealed in our obsession with data collection to “prove” that our methods are yielding results, as though learning can be manufactured, as if it occurs in tidy lock-stepped increasing increments that can be neatly charted, as if, like big agriculture, we can find the equivalent of grow lamps and fertilizer to maximize our yield. We don’t question speed.  “Fast,” like “new” and “improved,” is always good.

But how do we get all teachers to learn, understand, accept and apply new methods quickly?  Learning, at least learning beyond rote repetition, is a slow process as teachers know better than anyone.  Teachers can “learn” new methods sufficiently to put up the posters, use the vocabulary, rearrange their classrooms - but to apply them takes time and deep understanding. A quick solution is a work-around: create a new position and hire people who already know how to use whatever method we are espousing as the “fix” for education. These new people will then inspire others by showcasing the new methods and train the rest of the staff over time.
It sounds like a good idea.  After all, the results should yield new and improved fast.

The first difficulty arising from this solution, however, is the budget: to afford the new positions, we need to eliminate some traditional ones. The second is that times change again. There are always newer new things. Then what?  Eliminate that new position. Create a new new one. Rehire.
That’s when the cost of change begins to balloon. The continuous destabilization of staff causes collateral damage. “Reorganization” always pits one group against another, strips the commitment and passion away from those who are deemed unimportant and sets them against the new group. What’s more, the new position is usually in the charge of the school district (another work-around to allow districts to rehire who they deem appropriately versed in the new and improved methods) rather than based in schools where the students are. Unfortunately, no matter how research-based our methods, in the end, it is only in relationship with children that learning happens. Every cut to schools and classrooms is a cut to student learning.

But in true industrial fashion, we might dismiss these costs if the benefits outweigh them.  Are the people in these new positions able to effect the change they are hired to implement?  Do teachers change their practice?  

A few do, of course. However, they are the ones who are already teaching in a similar way: the new method is just a variation easily adopted. For the rest, I've rarely seen it. First, learning happens in relationship. That is true for adults as well as children. Yet these new positions are set up in opposition to the rest of the staff, set up as “special,” created at the expense of some other position or program, created, in fact, because management doesn't believe teachers can change or learn without “special” support, set up, because teachers need to be fixed and aren't worthy as they are. No matter how powerful these “special teachers” are, they are put in an untenable position.

And the children?  Does all of this reshuffling of resources change their learning? No. Not one bit. As our education budgets focus on “new and improved,” students receive less and less support, since money is syphoned out of schools to pay for a constant round of changes.  And a hidden cost: teaching is an emotionally draining position. (This is very easy to understand. Simply imagine yourself in a room with 30 children for six hours five days a week.) If the environment of the teacher is stressful, negative, and frustrating, their reserves are reduced. It’s harder to remain positive and patient. And to learn, children need both in limitless supplies from their teachers.  

Despite continued failure, we still believe that new and improved ideas will fix education so that each child can learn faster and better. We simply need to do more (another industrial value). We now have “Principals of Innovation and Change” in a number of school districts (as though we can manufacture innovation). We know that teachers are the fulcrum for whatever idea we espouse, so all plans center on reshaping teachers to fit the ideas. It hasn't worked. We are now considering putting more pressure on teachers to make them more pliant. Look to our neighbours to the south. It won’t work.
What we need is a shift in values.

Every year we are reminded that most of our budget goes to pay staff, the biggest portion going (unsurprisingly) to teachers. What makes most sense, then, is that we value our richest resource: teachers. That doesn't mean we don’t need and want teachers to learn new methods. It means that the process starts with teachers, whose expertise and understanding of the teaching context in their school is our most valuable asset.

Here are some simple budget strategies based on valuing teachers, which at the same time, provide opportunities for learning new ideas.
  • Eliminate the budget line for new positions designed to teach new methods as well as the one used to fly people in from around the world to spend an hour or two telling teachers how to teach in new ways. Instead, use the funding to provide release time in schools for teachers to learn together about what they need to know when they need to know it, to follow their curiosity, to discover, to challenge themselves, to explore together. When our learning is connected to the problems we are facing we are motivated not only to learn from others, but to create new ideas that directly meet student needs.
  • Provide a budget line for what teachers want to learn. Ask them. Use that information to develop (with teachers by teachers) after-school, evening and online workshops, do-shops, making and sharing sessions. When we are part of the planning and engaged in the experience, when it matches what we need, we are excited to attend, even after a long day’s work.
  • Organize meeting opportunities for people teaching the same courses – grade 7 teachers, for example, or Math 10 –  and people who are passionate about the same idea – using technology to meet the needs of diverse learners, let’s say. Do not use the time to tell them what to think. Instead, provide time for teams to co-develop lessons and resources that meet curricular objectives, to share ideas and to build a strong network of support across the district. When the experience is directly related to our work or our passion, our commitment sky-rockets, our contribution doubles.
  • In the current paradigm of changing and fixing, discouragement drives shut doors and passive non-compliance. Instead, spend money gathering, organizing, sharing and celebrating the extraordinary work of teachers in the district. Not only will the school district have valuable resources and inspiration for all teachers, but simply being appreciated for the long hours, the hard work, the deep commitment, is a strong motivator to continue to do excellent work.  
Even adding the small costs that I've suggested, the savings would be enormous. The results, I’m confident, would be impressive. Not immediately, though. It would take some time. There are no quick fixes for important things. But imagine the strength that would come from not squandering the money spent on “improving” teachers.  Instead of telling them what to do – constantly retraining them to fit into some factory teaching design using the same method in the same way – we would ask them what they can contribute to our common goal, which is always the same: to educate children beautifully.

I’m not against new ideas in education. On the contrary. But in valuing ideas first, we run roughshod over people and the ideas die. If we value people first, the best and strongest ideas can spread from person to person and grow to meet the needs in schools for children.  

Imagine the power.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Waiting for the Trustees’ Decision - by Kate Girard

Guest blogger Kate Girard is a teacher-librarian in SD68.  She is a change-maker and a passionate educator who inspire kids - and me. 

“Every person deserves a place furnished with hope.”
                                                                    Maya Angelou

What do you do when you’re waiting to hear if your job is going to be cut?  Panic, talk to others in the same boat, seek the support of colleagues and family, rail against the system, defend yourself, despair?  Yes—all of these.   As a secondary teacher-librarian in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district, I’ve been through a gamut of emotions in the past few weeks.

But about a week ago, I made a choice:  I would not let the decision of the school board define my work.  I think of the words of the Canadian writer Alastair MacLeod who died on Easter Sunday.  MacLeod’s son Daniel recounted at the funeral his father’s advice when times got hard:  “He’d say, ‘Well, I s’pose we’ll all have to keep going.’”

MacLeod was also famous for writing the last sentence of a story when he was about half-way through:  It acted as a kind of lighthouse, he said, to guide him to his destination.  Well, I too know the last sentence of my story as a teacher-librarian.  I know where I’m going.  And I suspect most of my colleagues do as well.

Libraries are in the midst of radical change.  The technological era has transformed not just the nature of library materials but the very way we all interact with knowledge, stories, and each other.  Schools too are on the edge of a revolution in learning.

This past week, I was excited to read a presentation by Stephen Harris, founder of the Sydney Centre for Innovation and Learning in Australia.  Called “Factories No More,” it is a 2013 slideshow that suggests most schools are practicing a 19th-century model of learning.  (You’ll find the slides on his Tumblr blog called Imagine Learning.) In the factory model of education, the teacher stands at the front, dispensing knowledge and controlling the activities of students arranged in rows.  Whether a Smartboard is behind the teacher or iPads are on every student’s desk, the basic relationship of teacher-learner is unchanged.

Harris argues we have to “disrupt” this model.  He quotes Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” (italics mine). How can we teachers unlearn the paradigm of the factory model and relearn a new kind of interaction with our students?  Harris proposes we re-design our learning spaces so we cannot revert to old roles and methods.

His own school is a flagship of modern design for 21st-century learning.  In fact, I used several photos of it when the Barsby Learning Commons Vision Team went through our initial design process.  At that time, we imagined a space that would support us in “disrupting” our pedagogy and at the same time welcome all who entered it.

However, as we know, funds for re-design are short right now.  Our process was stalled as I tried to find ways of paying for a renovation. But last week, my hope was rekindled when I saw some photos near the end of Harris’s presentation. These images showed an empty parking garage transformed into a learning commons, furnished with piles of reinforced cardboard boxes, with spaces defined by paper-covered walls.  This learning commons was created for the 2012 Sandbox Global Summit in Lisbon.

When I saw these pictures, I knew our team at Barsby could follow our vision.  We too can be creative and design a space that will challenge us to learn in new ways.  It might not be fancy, but our library can become a true learning commons—a place created by all of us, for all of us, and for the best of education for our students in the coming decades.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about as I wait to hear if my job will be cut.  I want this vision to come true, whatever happens to my teaching position.  In these hard times, I’ve decided, like Alistair MacLeod, “we’ll all have to keep going.”

Saturday, April 26, 2014

We Need Teacher-Librarians Now More Than Ever

Every year for the last many in our school district and many others across our province, librarians have been on the list of “fat to be trimmed” at budget times. Perhaps it’s because the idea of libraries and librarians is connected to the past, to hushed spaces and painstaking research copied out of aging encyclopaedias.  They no longer fit in the 21st century. We have technology now. Research? Students can Google it! Books? They can download them. And the books we still have in libraries? Check them out electronically! Indeed, our district proposes streamlining the business of libraries to a half-time district librarian to order books and organize digital resources, the purchase of a new library system to allow students more flexible electronic access to all our libraries and a library clerk to open the doors, oversee students and re-shelve the books. Who needs librarians?

We do.  More than ever.

You would think that we've had enough time to learn that technology in and of itself changes nothing. You need people to think of ways to use the technology in meaningful ways, to apply their deep understanding of pedagogy and curriculum to technological possibilities. Developing a collection of digital resources, for example, is as complex as curating a physical collection. Finding relevant, stable and accurate resources, keeping them constantly up-dated and organizing them to meaningfully support curriculum and classroom teachers in a way that is easy and consistent is not a task that can be done by an assistant. It can’t even be done by district personnel. Each school, each teacher, develops unique curricular perspectives based on their students need, their own expertise and passion, and what's already available in the school. Gathering resources to meet the individual needs of teachers and students in classrooms – and oh, how important this is! – is the work of teacher-librarians. Now, with the diversity in our classroom demanding a range of resources on every topic (in shifting proportions every year), with yet another change of curriculum looming in BC, with cuts to district resource centres and classroom budgets, we need teacher-librarians. More than ever.

And because of technology, we need them to support student research more than ever. In schools with ready access to the technology, we are moving toward personalized, passion-led student inquiries, student choice and big ungoogleable questions rather than “find and record” research. We are moving from the inevitable essay to videos, websites, and digital presentations through a variety of ever-changing tools from Prezi to Voicethread. How can a teacher alone support this transition? How can they ensure students have the skills and strategies necessary? Yes, technology has changed the game in libraries, but not so we can eliminate them; we need them now more than ever. Their lessons on citing resources have morphed from correct punctuation to discussions of creative commons, how to acknowledge video clips and what music you can use for your presentation and where to find it.  They have had to be on the front line of learning about technology tools, about digital safety and cyber etiquette, about credible sources and how to help students find relevant information – the needle in the proverbial haystack of cyberspace. In our current budget proposal, library skills would now be the responsibility of the enrolling teacher. Of course. I’m just curious to know when and how they are going to learn all of these new things along with continually updating materials and pedagogy in their own subject areas. Because one thing is certain: kids need to learn these skills now more than ever. Just handing students laptops and telling them to “do research” is like giving a ten-year old the keys to a car to pick up milk at the supermarket. We definitely still need teacher-librarians. More than ever.

But it is perhaps the traditional role of the teacher-librarian that is most important now more than ever: putting the right book in the right hands at the right moment. The just-right resource (today we include, of course, a vast variety of carefully chosen digital artifacts as well, which expands the role of the teacher-librarian rather than shrinking it) can make a profound difference, moving a student inquiry from frustration and disengagement to excitement and passion, connecting students to a complex topic, inspiring new thinking and – this might seem like hyperbole, but I've seen it with my own eyes – changing lives. I have watched teacher-librarians coax even the most reluctant reader, showing him first one book, then another, watching carefully for his eyes to light up and then pouncing, stacking similar books until a match is made. I have watched them go to the bookstore in the evening to buy the next book in a series if they've caught the imagination of a reluctant reader. “Look what I've got,” I hear them say to these students who, over the course of a year or two or three, with the teacher-librarian setting the bait, become hooked at last on reading. And reading, we all know this, changes lives. But this work can’t be done by an assistant or district personnel or a new electronic library system. This is the intimate, personal (personalized) work of teacher-librarians, quiet behind-the-scenes life-changing work. And it’s more important than ever as the attention of children is seduced by the many, many choices that technology offers.

I heard someone say, and I can’t remember who now, that librarians are stewards of important things. It seems ominous that we are proposing their elimination. In this rapidly changing world where new things flash and fade continuously and abundance threatens to bury us in trivia, we need teacher-librarians. More than ever.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Danger of Groupthink in Schools

As much as I continuously tout working together as a positive solution for education, there is a dark side that we are more vulnerable to than many other profession: groupthink. It explains what I think may be our gravest obstacle to progress: a continuous leaping from bandwagon to bandwagon rather than simply moving forward.

Groupthink, as explained by workplace psychologist Dr. Jennifer Newman on CBC earlier this month (Early Edition, April 3), is a kind of group peer pressure that leads to bad, even unethical or immoral decisions. Teams that lack diversity are most in danger of falling into groupthink and educators, given their very similar education and mindset (by and large, a certain kind of person chooses the profession), are a fairly homogenous group. Add a strong leader, either a charismatic or autocratic one, and the danger of groupthink increases. This is further exacerbated, in education, by the fact that most of us have never left school – high school to university and back to school as a teacher – because we are good at “doing school”, that is, doing what we’re told.

Groupthink begins, of course, from a positive position. We want to do the right thing. We want to improve. We want to get beyond talking in circles, dithering, and scattering our energies to move forward. Perhaps where the switch to groupthink occurs is at the point where we believe that to work together effectively we must have consensus and cohesion above all else. Dr. Newman points out that this focus leads to “dehumanizing others”: it is “us” – the cohesive team – against “them” – the dissenters.

The team then builds its coherence around a set of beliefs about what’s right and what actions ought to take place, gathering information and opinions that shore up their beliefs – and ignoring what doesn't. As the “evidence” stacks up, the team begins to believe that they have right on their side and grow what Dr. Newman calls “unchecked arrogance.” They have no need to listen to the dissenters: they are right. Even if some people on the team have a niggling feeling that something is wrong, they don’t speak up.  They want to be team players.  And more insidious, they fear rejection or even job loss. In fact, instead of dissent, the opposite happens: the team starts to hold back any information that doesn’t fit, and what pioneering groupthink researcher Irving Janus termed a cadre of “mind-guards” actively keep dissenting information back from the leader or team.

It’s hardly surprising that another symptom of groupthink is an illusion of invulnerability – whatever the team does will work because they are in the right! They succumb next to collective rationalization: if something doesn't work out as envisioned, it can be explained by the fact that “the others” are not being team players. After a while, as the group continues to shut out, exclude and guard against dissenting voices, the illusion of unanimity grows: “everyone” agrees (at least anyone who is anyone – or wants to keep the job).

Perhaps it isn't so dangerous in times of plenty. But now, “in difficult financial times, when hard decisions must be made” (the pat phrase), continued lavish spending on the in-group’s projects and special positions means deeper cuts everywhere else, even at the expense of foundational programs: libraries, for example, special education, the basic support for classrooms from secretaries to educational assistants to custodians, books, teaching supplies.

It is unsurprising that after a while, when the wildly optimistic promises are unfulfilled and the unchecked bad decisions (these deep cuts made to key programs, positions and resources to continue to fund the team’s vision) begin to erode the well-being of the enterprise, the in-group is dismantled.  Unfortunately, all too often, they are replaced by yet another strong leader who promises that the problem will be eradicated:  he or she will build a cohesive team!

And we begin again.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Powering Education by Unplugging

Working together isn't easy. It is more often awkward, frustrating, time-consuming and humbling than it is meaningful, joyful or inspiring. But the trouble is, when you’re doing big things like teaching children, you simply can’t do it alone. You either give up (you still go to work each day, but you’re only going through the motions) or you deplete your energy in the effort.

In education, small groups joined by common interests, goals and passions often work together. The hard work, though, and the work that matters most to our children who can only rarely pick and choose their teachers, is to make sure that we all work together even when we don’t exactly agree, when our methods differ, our personalities clash. What matters most is that the community where the children learn is one of connection, that if their teacher is overwhelmed, someone in the next room is ready to help; if a teacher is sad or frustrated, there is a team on hand to buoy them up; if a teacher struggles to support a particular child, he can reach out to say, I don’t know what to do; if a teacher’s methods are no longer supporting the students, the team can provide side-by-side help for learning new approaches. And the teachers each know it will be all right that they don’t know everything, that they find things difficult, that they need help. They know that they, too, are needed to support colleagues who don’t have all the answers, who struggle where they are strong, who need a shoulder once in a while.

The problems that most need to be solved so that each child has a teacher who is working at an optimal level are never ones that can be fixed by clicking for answers on Pinterest. In fact, I’m beginning to think it’s the opposite, a way to bury ourselves in busyness, so that we don’t have to think about hard things. I’m even beginning to think that an educator’s global connections, our twitter conversations, on-line seminars, Google hangouts, blog feeds and Facebook follows matter only marginally for our kids. Worse, I worry that these virtual communities have seduced our attention away from the connections in our schools that do matter. And who can blame us? When we can work with the whole world, we need only pick people who think like us. There is none of the frustration of diversity. We can turn our connections on and off as we get busy. We can “support” our global colleagues with a simple “like” or happy face. And if a particular group or individual no longer inspires us, we just delete them from our feeds. Best of all, in the virtual world, we can be polished and interesting as we craft our replies and showcase the good moments. In real life, we can’t air-brush out the stack of unmarked papers at the back of the classroom, the boy with his head on his desk refusing to work, the failed lessons, the exasperation and weariness: we can’t pretend that we are fine.

Working together day-to-day is hard and humbling. But I’m not sure there is anything more important. In fact, I'm almost certain, despite my continued infatuation with the promise and possibilities of technology, that the answers to our complex problems won’t be found by plugging in to the global community, but by unplugging to join hands with the people nearby.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Is it possible that being bored is a good thing for kids?

When I was a girl, I lived “off the grid.”  We were raised in small logging communities: no TV – or at best, one fuzzy channel on a clear day – no movie theaters or malls and even the radio reception was spotty. What’s more, I lived miles away from my friends – a long bike ride unless we could cajole our mother into driving us. Our world was slow. And quiet.

But now, even I wonder what we did all day. Weren't you bored, my youngest son often asks when I tell him about my childhood. I do remember sometimes telling my mom I was. Are you, she’d say in her dangerous tone of voice. Then I’ll find you something to do. And we’d scurry off, because of course she meant that she’d send us out to weed the garden or stack wood or pick up sticks in the newly plowed field.

I remember long, long stretches on a rainy weekend playing gin rummy with my brother or hours and hours of complicated Barbie play with my sister that included using the Sears catalogue, cardboard and my mother’s box of fabric scraps to create additional props. I’m reading Why School by Will Richardson right now. He extols the creative capacity and independence that virtual game play facilitates in our children. He shares the story of his son who, one boring rainy morning, learned how to play the online game Minecraft, creating, by the end of the day, a beautiful house, completely furnished, on top of a mountain. He marvels that his son figured it out on his own by reading online manuals, watching videos, connecting with friends. But, thinking back, no one taught Kim and me how to design our Barbie houses and we cobbled them together, not from pre-fabricated parts in a digital space, but from whatever we could find. It seems to me that the play we engaged in, even though it wasn't tweeted about, posted on Facebook or immortalized as a YouTube video, was at least as creative; we were certainly independent in our play in a way that gamers can’t possibly be. We created the game. We designed (and revised at our convenience) the rules.  We built the game pieces.

Richardson acclaims the digital world where “real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like.” Certainly, given a choice, my brother would never have played with sisters and I wouldn't choose to play with a little girl three whole years younger than I. Our game play would have been much more sophisticated. Who would choose scraps of paper, fabric and cardboard if you could have virtual castles and luxurious furniture in any colour you wanted. But thinking back, learning to play with whoever is in the room and creating with whatever you've got are important skills, that even now, in the 21st century, I use daily.

On the other hand, I rarely have to fill long empty stretches of time. I have emails to respond to, a twitter stream to read, Facebook posts to ponder, Pinterest boards to peruse. I listen to the beeps and chirps from my phone, the notifications from my computer; I have a stacks of book everywhere and if the one I want isn't available, I download it instantly. I am connected to everyone, everywhere; I have instant access to everything. There are no quiet moments.

It’s easy to get used to being always busy. Just recently, while waiting for a ceremony to begin, I was sitting with a table of people I didn’t know well; I was peripheral to the desultory conversation and itched to take out my phone to scan my twitter feed. The wait was too slow. I was…bored.

Kids today, of course, have no qualms about taking out their devices. In Ontario, a school board recently moved to block Netflix and YouTube. One third of their bandwidth was being used by students to stream their entertainment, rather than for education. One girl said in the interview, that yes, she often watched her favourite shows on Netflix whenever things got dull in class or when she was finished whatever she was meant to do.

I hear it often from students. I’m “done.” What do I do now? They are uncomfortable in the quiet space between activity, the space of day-dreams and doodling, wondering, reading, adding, extending, pondering, consolidating, rethinking, and creating a whole new world with from nothing more than scraps of paper or bits of wood and whoever is nearby to imagine with you. And while the Internet is certainly a place of connection, creativity and passion, it is more often used to effortlessly consume, to fill time, to pacify our mind’s search for meaning and meaningful activity.

One of the great criticisms of school is this: it’s boring. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a bad thing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Should children listen more and talk less in school?

Recently, a Snuneymuxw elder came to speak to my students. She softly insisted that they keep still, sit up straight, remain silent. You cannot listen if you are moving or talking, she said. She gently removed the pencils they were doodling with, placed her hand on tapping fingers, gestured slouching students to straightness and soon, like some sort of sorcerer every teacher wishes she could keep, she had lulled the class into quiet, calm and still. They listened. A student tried to ask a question, but she stopped him: now it is time to listen, she reminded him, not to talk. 

Such a classroom, one of an elder sharing her wisdom and the children, silent, still, attentive, listening – is now, according to the latest pedagogical theories, considered outdated at best and at worst, detrimental to the students. We are told to be a guide on the side, a facilitator, a coach with the children constantly talking, experimenting, discovering concepts rather than listening, following their passions rather than receiving information or ideas. If we must talk, we are to give students doodle paper, fiddle toys and special bounce or wobble chairs so they never need to be still. Every 20 minutes, we should have them run, dance, skip, jump, clap.

Yet anyone who knows children knows this: they can sit silent and unmoving for hours in front of a television, computer or game system.

What, I wonder, is the wisdom they are absorbing as their attention is thus captured? What values are instilled as they stare at the screen, attention complete, watching reality shows and playing first person shooter games?  

And what wisdom from their years in school - or do we now believe there is none - do we hope they may take with them into the future? Do they have to listen, I wonder, to hear it?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Taking Time to Notice

I've been thinking about what we notice. Mostly it’s the noisy moments, like the Olympics, when athletes in obscure sports like bob-sleighing get a chance to shine and then sink back into obscurity for another four years, eking out a living to follow their passion. Or the noisy people like Justin Bieber or the Kardashians (I’m still not sure who they are, but they keep coming up in the magazines I read while I’m waiting at the supermarket checkout).  

In smaller circles, the noisy people are those willing to tell their story. When you think about it, most people simply do things, rather than tell about them. They don’t even think they have a story to tell. When I was working with teachers to use technology, I fought an uphill battle with social media, not so much because they were technophobes, but because they didn't like to express themselves in such a public forum. They didn't feel that what they thought ought to be shared widely. Who wants to hear about us, they’d say.

So we are told only a handful of the stories worth telling and we listen to even fewer. It isn’t surprising, since most of us are busy with our own tasks and trials, that we lift our eyes only when there is sufficient noise. When I first started at my new school in my new position teaching in an entirely different world (elementary verses secondary), I was hit by the tsunami of new things that left me reeling. I scarcely noticed anything except the challenge directly in front of me.

But lately, I’m starting to lift my head a little.  I watched the Olympics. I read a few books. I paid attention to some of the things my colleagues do. And I was reminded of how much I wish we would make more noise about their work.

Here’s one small story.

Every Friday after school (on Friday – after a gruelling week of teaching hard-to-teach students), my colleague runs an open gym for basketball. Anyone can come, but the grade 6 and 7 boys are the most regular attenders, along with a scattering of girls and little boys, some only in grade one. They split into teams and play a game, the big boys, learning that a team is whatever you make of it, become coaches themselves as they pass to their smaller and clumsy team-mates, yell at them to run forward, to fall back, to hold up their hands, to follow their check. It's loud and raucous; there are often quarrels and drama, hurt knees and bruised feelings, but the gym is open. Every Friday. For two years.

The students, of course, don’t thank her. Parents don’t really think about her commitment when they pick up their children. It just seems like another thing schools do; they don’t realize that she could be sitting at home with her feet up reading a book, at the pub drinking an end-of-the-week pint with colleagues or even just in her classroom reorganizing and planning so that she has one less hour to work on the weekend.  Instead, she’s running up and down the basketball court.

Earlier this month, our intermediate boys had their first basketball game of the season. They won handily. The best part for me, watching them, was the full bench of players from our small school rotating onto the court regularly, the way they played as a team, the way the strong players passed the ball or ran a screen to let others get the glory – and, above all, the stories they told about themselves the next day.

Behind the scenes, not even a part of the stories they tell – what do they understand, after all? – is Twila. Thank you.  I just wanted to say I noticed.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Dream Team for Education

I've been thinking about football.

Photo by Craig Letourneau
This season the John Barsby Football team won the BC High School AA Championship. Again. Against the odds. A tiny high school in a low socio-demographic area. How? “We’re a resilient team,” says player Kyle Vollet, "We could be down by 20 and this team, we're going to come back to the huddle, we're going to look at each other and say, we've got this, we can do this." Team-mate Brody Taylor tells us, “With this team…we never, ever lose focus. We never give up and we play to the last play.” And I dream of a team like that for education: that day by day, year over year, bouncing back from losses, never losing focus, we make it possible for students, all students, to win the big cup in their final year – graduate at the top of their class and have every door to future paths flung open for them.

Why can’t school be more like football, one of the Barsby Bulldog players asked me one day as I tried desperately, fruitlessly, to engage him in a task for English. I wonder, too – or, at least, I wonder if the teams’s ongoing success and latest victory can yield fresh insights into possibilities for education. I know that if it weren't for football, the student wouldn't even have been sitting in my class at all.  Sitting isn't quite the word – lolling, perhaps. Every day (when he showed up), it was an enormous effort to cajole him to pick up his pen, write a sentence, read a page, engage in a conversation. Yet I watched him arrive at school before light even broke to practice football. He committed to long extra hours every day, to pushing himself to the limit, to team play, to fierce competition.

Of course, football has two strong advantages: students choose to play and the coach can choose to remove the player if he acts inappropriately or does not participate fully. But there’s more than that. I keep trying to figure out the magic, that something that I can take and use for education.

I have thought that the key is simply being a team – working together – in schools and across school districts. I worry that the extraordinary efforts in each classroom aren't enough: after all, the game for each child is 13 years long. If we were a team, gains made in one year could be built on in the next as we reviewed game tapes and players’ notes together, solidified winning plays, honed successful practice routines. By the time I met the football star in grade 11, he had shut down so thoroughly that it seemed improbable that our five months together could open new vistas of learning for him. (But I tried.  Hard. As did each individual teacher before me.)

I just don’t know how we can make a cohesive K-12 team possible. After all, it’s not as though we don’t make the effort to work together in education. We are endlessly creating visions, mission statements, goals, and strategies. We are asked to adopt the same programs, administer the same assessments, use the same language, attend the same workshops, so that students can build on each year and we can track student progress over the years, intervene, support, and enhance learning gains effectively to make the “big win” possible. It makes sense, but it never seems to work.

The trouble, we’re most often told, is that teachers aren't team players. And it’s true – at least it’s true that a good portion of teachers don’t “buy in” to the “game plan.” But lately I've begun to suspect that many of us feel like we’re pieces on a game-board being played, rather than part of a team that plays. It’s hard to put your heart into another set of plans that, at best, do nothing to improve the day-to-day experience of our work in classrooms, and at worst, exhaust our energies through demands to attend yet another series of workshops to learn yet more strategies, to organize yet more resources, and to spend yet more hours in our evening and on weekends to revamp lessons.

It seems possible that we are missing some key ingredient for building a team that wins.  Coach Stevenson, in talking about his team’s success, shares some of his practices – goal setting, embedding your message in everything you do, hanging your hat on a good drill, finishing strong each day, and remembering “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals” – but emphasizes that we need to first be clear about the difference between a strategy and a tactic.  A strategy, he says, must answer the following questions:
1.  Who are we?
2.  What are we trying to do ultimately?
3.  How will we do it?
4.  What resources and means will we employ in doing it?

If you get the strategy right but tactics wrong, he says, you can remedy the tactics and succeed.  If you get the wrong strategy, you can refine forever, but still "lose." Or as Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

So who are we and what are we trying to do ultimately? If our efforts don’t enhance our work in the classroom, it’s hard to understand what the goal of the game is anymore. Certainly we can’t be a team and we don’t have strategies. Instead, we relentlessly employ tactics and the noise is deafening. We rush madly off, it seems, in all directions, depending on the latest government initiative – exhausting ourselves as we run the ball from back-to-basics to passion-driven education – and then around in circles with ongoing district “innovations”. We pause now and then to notice a pocket of excellence somewhere and relentlessly borrow their tactics to shift directions once again, dashing down the field toward yet another goal, leaving behind us the assorted debris of abandoned plans:  phonics cards, literacy texts, hands-on science kits (with most of the pieces missing), math texts (a new set for every new approach), giant blocks (we found some in our storeroom recently and no one could identify their purpose), colour-coded booklets to support a program we no longer have, kits, rows and rows of binders.

Yet while education leaders in university think tanks, ministry boardrooms and district offices may have lost sight of the goal of the game in the noise of initiatives, roll-outs, glossy hand-outs, expensive speakers flown in from around the world to show us all the latest research, teachers haven’t. They go to work each day, no matter what goes on around them, despite cut-backs in resources, new demands or changing policies, to do their best to coach a diverse group of students to do their best each day.

That’s who we are, after all, and what we are trying to do.  And despite all the sound and fury, we know, too, how we will do it. What, says Sir Ken Robinson, is the irreducible minimum of teaching and learning? The answer is simple:  the relationship between the teacher and the learner.
So how do we ensure the final win for each child? Maybe the extraordinary work of classroom teachers is enough. Indeed, perhaps it is the only thing that matters. Learning, after all, is intimate, individual, even quirky. Each day is a new game and any teacher with a modicum of experience will tell you that sticking with the game plan created the previous day, never mind one drafted in a board office by people who have never met the students, is impossible if you mean to meet the changing needs of students in a dynamic group. There is no magic and the diversity of students is surely met best by diverse teachers.

But what would happen, I wonder, if we put all our time, resources and energy into the game that matters? What if teachers weren't distracted and exhausted by all the noise of “change” while they focused on their classroom needs? What if they were given the autonomy and power and resources they needed? What if, instead of asking teachers to do more, to add, extend, change, improve, we changed and improved everything around the teacher and ensured that everything that was not directly related to learning in the classroom was provided by a community of support. What if she had only to say – I’d like to show a series of engaging video clips about different careers – and the clips arrived, ready to use. (This is something I actually spent several hours working to find, download and save; how wonderful to imagine that done for me.) What if the structures for ensuring student health were seamlessly integrated, the organization for parent connection designed and maintained, access to data and information at our fingertips, help for problem-solving a call away, time to work with colleagues available in an “as needed” basis, flexible spaces for team teaching a priority (my colleague and I recently squeezed two classes into our multipurpose room so we could work and learn together, wedging tables for our students between extra TVs, storage boxes, a popcorn maker, a piano and trolleys for the lunch program).

I still get stuck on my worry that students need connected coaching over time. Yet perhaps, free from the need to implement plans that don’t mean anything, free for the burden of doing everything from planning lessons to assessing students to organizing field trips and extra-curricular activities, to filing, photocopying, phoning, finding resources - classroom teachers will reach out to build a systematic and intentional network to support students and each other, to share practice, to create meaningful connections for students, with students and as learners ourselves. Perhaps, free to focus on work that impacts their students, teachers will build connections that are flexible enough to meet in-the-moment needs, dense enough to support a wide variety of needs over time. Indeed, I don’t doubt it.

Coach Stevenson, in his interview after the Bulldogs' big win said, "I'm bubbling. I feel like I could be Maria, swinging around in the meadows of the Swiss Alps right now singing the Sound of Music theme."  I can begin to imagine that teachers, buoyed by meaningful support, might want to sing with joy at the end of the day – and even in June – rather than dragging themselves out, exhausted and discouraged.  And outside the school building, I can even picture reporters vying to interview them, asking how they managed to get Jimmy to read this year when he didn't even recognize letters until November and Tom to engage in collaborative tasks without hitting anyone, and Joanne to find a way to love learning when at the beginning of the year she sat under her desk and cried.

Perhaps this is our best hope: each teacher in her own room, never giving up, never losing focus, doing her best to coach the team in her class, then passing the students on to the next teacher who does his best to coach them. Each of us has an eye on the main prize: ensuring that each child builds the knowledge, skills and attitudes to reach their potential and to contribute to the world we all dream of. Each of us uses our strengths and gifts to build on the work of the previous coach and support the efforts of the next coach. And all around us, a team of support stands ready to help with whatever we need – and fans cheering wildly.

I’d love to be a part of such a dream team.