Jun 242013

It has been 21 hrs since the end of EdCampWest and I think I have digested all that there was to offer. The topics discussed were diverse and well received by the attendees and everyone seemed to leave wanting for more.

First session topics

  • Why twitter
  • iPads in the classroom HELP!
  • 21st Century learning
  • Project based learning

Second session topics

  • Critical thinking skills using new media & devices
  • The flipped classroom 
  • Tech for communication
  • What does tech enable us to do that we couldn’t before?

Third session topics

  • Digital responsibility and citizenship
  • Personalized learning vs individualization vs free agent learner
  • Best ProD practices

Twitter goes Star Trek

Of these topics, Twitter seemed to be the darling of the dance. We had a whack of people whose resistance faltered and they were quickly assimilated into the continuum of twitter.

For the most part people wanted to know how they could use it to build their own personal learning network or PLN. There was some discussion around classroom use but it was secondary to the discussion about the Power of Twitter as a ProD tool.

The second big topic of the day was ProD. By the end of the EdCamp people were setting sights on next year and what they could do for their own schools using an EdCamp model or were planning to encourage colleagues to attend one of the many EdCamps being planned for next year.

It was good to see so many educators feeling good about a ProD event. What’s more, there was a call for further EdCamps and SOON! The positive energy in the room was palpable, something that is kinda foreign to me.

As we came to a close, some of the statements people shared included: “I am going to get more involved in ProD next year…” or “I am going to get involved with my school’s ProD committee again!” or the most flattering for the organizers. “This is the best ProD I have attended in years!”

The third favoured topic seemed to be “Critical thinking skills in the age of digital media” People were discussing how to get kids to think critically about all the information they are bombarded with these days. Although we didn’t come up with any definitive answers the group seemed to come to agreement with the notion(s) that in today’s world, critical thinking is attached to ownership of learning and that being a producer of digital content rather than a consumer of digital content encourages critical thinking. At that point I got up and left the discussion because I couldn’t stop “contributing” to the discussion.

Undoubtedly there were other topics which were “hot” but I could only circulate so much and probably missed a couple of things.

The other thing I found interesting, was the dynamic that combining K-12 with Post Secondary created. I found that the Post Secondary educators approached the discussion topics from more of a theoretical angle, “What does this mean for learning?” and the K-12 educators approached the topics from a more pragmatic angle, “What does this look like in my classroom?” Both equally valid approaches but I was taken aback by the distinct difference of views.

With that said however, I think that having these two groups together was valuable and should continue to be a guiding principle of EdCampWest. Next year I think it might be a good idea to try and engineer some bridging-topics that force participants to take a common viewpoint.

That is all I got. Hope it was useful.

Jul 282012

Smack dab in the middle of my summer break, a disturbing thought came to me the other day. Actually it wasn’t the thought so much as the thinking part that was disturbing. Sitting pool side dozing in and out of lucidity, I thought to myself… “Kids need Personal Learning Networks as much as teachers or any other professionals do”

With a shake of the head, that brief but disturbing thought scampered away and I quickly settled in for a nap, only to be rudely awakened 30 minutes later by a drippy teenager, begging for money to go chase the ice cream truck.

All squinty eyed and muddled, my wily money-grubbing thirteen year old instantly sensed disorientation and robbed me of every last cent I had and booked it out down the street. Before I realized what had happened, that horrible thinking thing happened again. “If we want kids to effectively use technology for academic purposes, they need a Personal Learning Network”

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking. This mid summer mental malady could only mean one thing! My red meat and beer levels had gotten too low and for that there is only one solution, so I gathered my things and headed back to the house to fire up the barbeque.

Unfortunately, even after a 12 ounce porterhouse and an undisclosed number of beer, the thinking didn’t stop. I realized that the only way I am going to be rid of this nagging brain activity, is by hammering out a blog post to cleanse out the thought hopper. After which, I will pour concrete in there so nothing else can slip in.

So here goes… My mid summer blog post on Personal Learning Networks.

Personal Learning Networks or PLN’s are another one of those hip and happening thingies that has recently taken the educational world by storm. Actually there has always been PLN’s, just that they were usually school or district based and required seeing the whites of someones eyes. Certainly, the face to face PLN is still important but with the advent of twitter and other social media, ones PLN has the potential to be global.

Over this past year, I have grown my own digital PLN by leaps and bounds through this very blog and the use of twitter and quite frankly, it has quickly become far more valuable to me then my face to face PLN. This is not because my colleagues aren’t fabulous, brilliant people but because in the digital world, I am free of the institutionalized hierarchies and protocol which can hinder ones professional growth. But I digress…

My thinking is thus… If a digital PLN has been so good for me, then it might be something we should be encouraging our students to create. I thought I might have an original idea here! I might become famous or something but alas… Others had beaten me to the punch. I did a little research expecting to find nothing on the notion of a digital PLN for students but unfortunately, there have been people saying this very thing since 2008 but in my humble opinion, not as well as me. 😉

See what others say

The idea of a digital Personal Learning Network actually goes hand in hand with a recent post I did on the importance of creating a Personal Digital Learning Space. It is all part and parcel of a creating a positive digital footprint and using the technology to enhance our learning opportunities. Over the past couple of school years, I have stumbled upon a couple of kids who are way ahead of the curve and have done an outstanding job creating a PLN for themselves (Check out Joey Ahmadi and see how he has crafted his own digital identity and PLN) but by in large, kids make poor use of technology as a social learning tool. There are a couple of reasons for this but I will reserve comment for now.

Keep in mind, I am looking at the digital PLN from a high school perspective. When we look at this idea from what it means for primary and intermediate grades, there are some very different considerations to be taken into account. I am also making the assumption that high school students, have the maturity to begin creating a digital PLN which will be a positive representation of who they are and what they are all about.

Digital PLN Starter kit

In my opinion the following three items are must haves for a digital Personal Learning Network

  • Information source – We all need a source of information which meets our academic and professional needs. For generations of learners, this source of information has been the teacher, textbooks and classmates. Although these are still valid and important sources of ideas, opinion and yes even answers, in today’s world this is sometimes not sufficient and quite frankly rather static.

Personally, I still use traditional sources of information such as texts, talking to colleagues and on occasion attending a lecture but for my day-to-day professional development and information gathering, I have come to rely rather heavily on RSS feeds. Ever changing and dynamic, I have access to a wealth of information from reliable sources delivered to me on my digital device. Every morning I grab a coffee, fire up the ipad and peruse the latest in #edtech #education #politics #cycling

I currently favour an app called Zite which is infinitely customizable and more often than not delivers reliable content. When I find something I like, I can share it with my PLN, ponder what it means to me and my teaching practice, use it in my classroom… Sometimes it triggers a new thought which then turns into a blog post. The possibilities of how I use this information for my own professional development is endless and I see no reason to think a student’s experience would be any different.

  • Personal Blog – This is your home base, the place where you present your ideas to the world and where the world can share their opinion of those ideas. It is a representation of your interests and skills and it is the way you attract people to your PLN. It is amazing how a single blog post on a topic you feel passionate about, will bring out like-minded folks who are more than happy to help you further your academic or professional goals.

A blog is the foundation of your digital identity and its power for both good and evil is immeasurable.

  • Twitter account – I have to admit, I didn’t get twitter in the beginning. A site where you could share nothing but drivel in 140 characters or less… Wat Up Wit Dat? It wasn’t until I turned a class of 30 grade 10’s loose on the BCPSEA conference (A meeting of all the educational big wigs in the Province of British Columbia) that I came to understand the power of twitter. Thirty 15 year olds, engaging our provinces most powerful educational leaders in 140 characters. It was magic! Some of these kids took it to the suits and hammered them with smart relevant questions about their education and the big wigs answered back.

It was fantastic! In that 80 minute period, I immediately saw that twitter was a window to the world for these kids. Real people answering real questions in real-time and from that point on, I began using twitter to engage real people, with real questions, in real-time about my profession and interests.

Digital PLN’s are definitely not just for adults. In fact, I believe that in order for a digital revolution to occur in our schools, it will be imperative that we encourage and teach kids how to create a learning network that extends beyond the walls of our schools. In today’s world, information is ubiquitous and learning opportunities are but a click away. Lets help kids create and use a Personal Learning Network which will be with them through life.

Now back to my regularly scheduled barbecue induced oblivion.

Mar 312012

You may remember a little while ago, I wrote a post called Whoa Nellie – Are we getting ahead of ourselves?“, where I took a brief look at three problems I have encountered recently in my efforts to move toward a Twenty First Century Learning environment. Following that post I tossed up a second called Whoa Nellie… Now what?Where I discussed how creating personal digital learning spaces could be a solution to some of the hurdles we are encountering as we move toward a Twenty First Century Learning model. Now that I am done with my Union Rabble Rousing for this year, I have some time to do a follow-up post and expand my thoughts on Personal Digital Spaces or PDS’s.

A PDS is simply a place where you can store “stuff” in a digital environment. It could be a piece of writing, video, drawing, presentation… Anything that you can record digitally can be put in this space. The most common of these types of spaces are Blogs but there are all sorts of different platforms you can use to create a PDS. My personal favourite is a blog, simply because you can do so many things with it. Once you create one, the only limitation as to what you can create is your imagination and your willingness to learn.

This very blog is an example of a PDS. I write and share what I have learned over my career and what I am learning on a day-to-day basis. I am proud of it and I go to great lengths to ensure that what I put up is a genuine reflection of who I am as a person and a professional. Sure, somethings I put up are complete nonsensical drivel but for the most part, I feel that I share some pretty decent stuff. Stuff that I want people to see, which leads to an other important point about Digital Spaces.

This blog is a part of my digital footprint. It is the first thing that comes up when people Google my name. It is my digital persona and therefore it is critical that I take great care in ensuring that I am putting my best foot forward when creating this digital footprint. This space is mine, it represents me and I want it to be as close to perfect as possible.

So why is this important?

If you are creating a digital space that is a quality representation of yourself, it takes effort, it takes thought and you cannot cheat the system. The act of creating this space and creating content for it, goes beyond the simple memorization of meaningless facts, theories or ideas. It forces the individual to be engaged with the topic or material they are sharing AND they have to learn to use the technology they are presenting it with.

How does this translate when we are discussing the three “problems” mentioned in the first of this series of posts? Well lets take a look.

Problem 1: Students who just wanted to know “what to study for?”

If we use PDS as a place to showcase what we have learned or perhaps share some opinions about what we have learned OR god forbid, come up with an original thought about the topic du jour.  The simple act of  creating the content for our digital space and sharing it with the world, in and of itself…  Is studying. Assuming the content is original, well presented and shows an understanding of the curriculum, perhaps a test is not necessary.

What is more, when a parent wants to see where their child is at or what they have done. The PDS will speak for itself. There is no more hiding behind artificial test results, garnered from the efforts of an all night study session. Theoretically the PDS is an accurate representation of how the student is doing is school and considering it is a public representation of what the student knows or is capable of, you would hope it is an individuals best work.

Finally, a PDS is a GREAT way to present yourself to the world beyond the hallowed halls of high school. In today’s world, grades are becoming less and less significant. Sure good grades are important, but the attitude of “just tell me what is going to be on the test” no longer cuts it. A student NEEDS to create an online presence that they can market to prospective post secondary schools and employers. Raw numbers from test results no longer make the grade.

Problem 2: A general resistance toward accepting digital devices as legitimate learning tools.

When it came time to start making plans for next years iPad integration cohort, I was shocked that we were having difficulties recruiting individuals to participate. I figured that we would have at least one additional group of kids in a school of 1500, who wanted to participate. I was at a loss for words but really it isn’t all that surprising.

It became crystal clear why this is the case when I gave my Work Experience & Graduation Transitions students the task of creating a digital space of their own to represent what they have accomplished in their first 12 years in the education system. Only 1 student out of 26, had a web site & understood what it was I wanted. Of the remaining 25, only 3 managed to put together a site that had any kind of evidence that they were  involved or interested in anything. The problem is that I know that this is not the case for these students. They are all amazing in their own right but they have never been directed to collect or create something which represents what they are all about in a digital format.

By incorporating the use of PDS’s into the learning environment as a part of the learning experience, we create a situation where the use of digital tools as a way to demonstrate learning is part and parcel of the school experience. There would be no question as to whether a student should be carrying a digital device, they would be as common as a binder or pencil crayons. Recruitment would no longer be an issue because carrying a Digital Device would be common place.

Problem 3: Use of digital spaces are restricted to the geeky minority.

When I was given the privilege of doing 3 guest lectures at my old Alma matter about iPads in the classroom, I went in assuming that the new and up and coming teachers would be on par if not beyond what I had to share with them. I was genuinely nervous because I figured they would be part of the digital elite and might expose me for the fraud I am but it wasn’t the case.

I was, in every way, more versed with digital technology in the classroom than they were. I quickly realized that a 45-year-old dinosaur such as myself, knew more about digital spaces then new teachers just entering the profession were. Once I completed my three lectures,  I immediately went to do some research on some of these students and none of them had a significant Digital Footprint. I was astonished! People who we assume are “digital natives” have no significant presence in the digital world, yet we are expecting them to teach our children to be good digital citizens. This is not to say Universities are not trying. The professor who asked me to speak to her classes is trying desperately to get new teachers up to speed, but the use of digital spaces is simply not seen as something “we” do as teachers.

As for my colleagues, who are actively teaching in the system today. I work with amazing people, one of which just got accepted at Oxford to do a PhD, but using Digital Spaces is not part of what she does. If we want teachers to use digital spaces and digital tools, we need to make them available and provide the  TIME to do it. Personally I LOVE the stuff and getting the likes of me to bring digital spaces into their teaching is easy but not everyone has bought into the digital frenzy.

If you want teachers to use digital tools to create digital spaces, you have to make it accessible for them. You need to encourage & FUND the use of digital spaces by the professionals you employ. Once teachers are using them for themselves, they are far more able to include them in their curriculum AND advise their students on how to create them for themselves.

Personally I am out-of-pocket in the neighborhood of $2000.00 a year hosting my own blogs and blogs of other teachers FOR FREE in an effort to help teachers create their PDS’s. In a sense I subsidize our school system so that we (as a profession) can move toward the “ideal” 21Century Learning Model. Unfortunately for my pocketbook, I think it is important enough so I take the financial hit but it shouldn’t be that way. If the school system want teachers to use digital spaces as a learning tool, they need to facilitate its use.

To conclude

PDS’s are the learning space of the future. They can be so much more than they currently are AND they are woefully under utilized as a legitimate learning tool. It is obvious that I LOVE the medium for many reasons but from a practical and professional perspective, Personal Digital Spaces are so important for our students. The medium is so powerful, that I believe it is short-sighted of us to not teach our children how to create their own Personal Digital Space and use these spaces as evidence of learning.

Life is no longer simply about grades or the reputation you have, it is also about the rock solid, concrete digital space you create.

Feb 162012

Smiley with Ringeye Nellie

I have had three Whoa Nellie! Moments this past month, which made me realize that this BC ED PLAN world I live in is still pretty isolated from the main stream of educational thought. All the tech here and tech there and personalize this and personalize that talk, is lost on many. It is like no one has even invited them to jump on the bandwagon or perhaps, people might not want any part of the new and improved vision of education I have been immersing myself in.

These moments have by no means, dissuaded me from forging ahead and becoming more entrenched in the world of digital driven personalized learning movement but they have certainly made me stop and think about where I am at, in relation to where the real world resides in their thinking.

The first Whoa Nellie! moment was when a parent of one of my International students popped in to see me about their child’s first term mark. I had given “Johnny” an “I” because very few of his assignments were completed. The parent was puzzled because I had not given any tests and that, “where they come from”, the test is all that matters. Assignments are essentially ignored, seen as “extra” work if the student doesn’t understand. Johnny was waiting for me to tell him what to study for the test and had no intention of doing the assignments. It would have been nice if he had expressed his view of how learning is achieved during the term when I asked him “what is up?” but…

What I realized at that moment, is that there are still people who subscribe the old school ways of learning. Take notes – memorize material – take test. Up until that moment, I had naively thought everyone had at least moved past this very Old School view of education but apparently I was wrong.

The second Whoa Nellie! moment was when I popped my head into my school while on medical leave. I wanted to make sure that everything had gone to hell in a hand basket without me … Which of course it hadn’t. In fact, I think the kids enjoyed having a real teacher for a change.

When I popped my head into my office, Stewart Baker and Alex Kozak (co heads of the iPad cohort) told me that 6 students signed up for next years incarnation of the iPads In The Classroom project. Only 6 kids out of a student body of 1500+ had put their name down for our iPad cohort. I was gobsmacked! After all the work we had done getting this thing rolling and now, come course planning time for next year, we manage to scrounge up a paltry 6 kids? What in god’s name did we do wrong?

Once we look into things a little more, I am sure we will have a clearer picture of why kids have not signed up in droves. Undoubtedly there will be a long laundry list of things which brought about this overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for the project. What it does tell me right off the bat however, is that 1494 students and their parents have not bought into, what the likes of me are selling. The panacea of a digitally driven classroom is not a part of most people’s view of education, even when the opportunity is right there in front of them.

The Final Whoa Nellie! moment came from three guest lectures I did for an Educational Technology class at the University of Victoria. One secondary and two elementary cohorts of up and coming teachers, had to listen to me drone on about iPads in the classroom. I was thrilled to do it. I felt like I had made it to the big leagues, called up from the minors to take three short shifts for my old Alma Matter.

In the short time I spent with these new teachers. I quickly realized that although I was talking to an Educational Technology class, these young teachers were not as technologically savvy as one might think. Once again I fell for the false notion that under 20 = digital native. Now I freely admit, I didn’t spend enough time with these students to truly gauge their level of competency but they definitely were not operating at the level of competency and acceptance as seen at the BCEDSFU conference, held at the same time I was doing the lectures.

Together, these three Whoa Nellie! moments, brought me back to reality. They made me realize that those of us who are behind the move toward the digitally driven, Twenty First Century learning space, are living in our own little world.

Each of these moments made clear a single very important issue which needs to be addressed before Twenty First Century learning environments ever become a reality.

First issue is that, many people still view education in very traditional ways. A place where teachers are seen as the gatekeepers of information, rote memorization is central to “learning”, testing measures understanding & percentages are seen as the only measure that matters. These old school hallmarks of what education should be are still very much a part of the general public’s understanding of what good teaching and evaluation is all about.

As long as the traditional educational paradigm remains as part of what the majority believe in, the Twenty First Century learning model will continue to be a fringe educational concept

Second issue is that, digital tools have not been fully accepted as part of the learning environment. They are still seen primarily as a means of communicating and being entertained. If devices such as laptops and tablets were considered a critical part of the educational experience, we would not be having difficulty getting kids signed up for next years iPad cohort. Second to that, if digital tools were truly seen as essential for learning, we wouldn’t need to create a cohort at all. Kids would just simply have them in their back pack as commonly as kids carry binders or pencil cases.

We are slowly seeing more and more kids bringing laptops and tablets into the classroom on a regular basis but at this moment, digital tools are not seen as must have classroom accouterments. In time this will change but at this moment, we are struggling to make it a reality.

Third and final issue is that, if things like the BC ED PLAN are going to succeed, it can’t simply be a decree from above on a glossy image rich document. All levels of education need to be in on the changes necessary, to create the learning environments we are envisioning. It can’t simply be assumed that everyone is on board and everything will fall into place from Kindergarten to University. As it stands, the drivers behind the 21st CL movement are a small enthusiastic group of educators who think they have it right but most people are on the outside looking in.

This is where I feel that the Fin’s have it right. Their education plan has involved everyone from the ground up.What is more is that the Government has clearly stated their plans and outline their commitment to students, to teachers and to the Nation. This is not to say every school jurisdiction needs to follow Finland’s lead but it would be wise to at least come to understand how it is they came to have the best education system in the world.

There is certainly much that can be learned and experienced as we move toward a new educational paradigm. Undoubtedly there will be some bumps along the way but those of us who are galloping fast and furious into unknown pedagogical pastures, might want to reign in good old Nellie and take a look around and see who is on board. If we keep riding Nellie full speed ahead, we might end up flogging a dead horse.

Dec 232011

I was kinda feeling left out this past week. I did my Christmas Reflection post and was going to leave it at that until the new year but then everyone started to release their Top 10 of 2011 lists or Ed Trends for 2012. I figured that since I am not doing anything anyhow, I should join the club.

My biggest problem was trying to figure out a title. First I came up with Keith’s Sexy Six of 2012 but there is nothing about me that is remotely sexy so then I thought how about Keith’s weighty wonders of 2012 but that didn’t work either, apropos or not.

After a several seconds of thinkin reel hard, I came up with Digital Learning in 2012 – My Predictions. None of them are all that sexy, weighty or even earth shattering but hey it got me out of bed this morning. I hope you enjoy them.

Proliferation of Personal Digital Devices

When I say proliferation of digital devices, I mean laptop, net book or tablet in K – 12 institutions. I was actually predicting this last year but it didn’t really come to fruition. Although I have a couple more kids packing their own device to class, there isn’t anywhere near the number I was predicting.

The reason I am still predicting this, isn’t because K – 12 learning environments require them, it is simply that the drop in the price of laptops and net books, makes it possible for more kids to own one. In fact, I would venture to say the clothing many kids wear on any given day, cost more than an entry-level laptop. Really, why wouldn’t a kid have one?

Edruminate Blog Post on Personal Devices in School

Use of Twitter as a classroom tool

Over the past year, Twitter has evolved rapidly as a tool for use in the classroom. It gives unprecedented real-time access to the outside world for research and information gathering. I used it for the first time last year, when I set my class loose on a group of unsuspecting superintendents and principals (back channelling using twitter) during their annual convention. It was a ton of fun and generated some great conversations between the Educational bigwigs and a motley group of grade 10’s.

Although we are far from any sort of tipping point, I think we turned the corner in 2011. More teachers are becoming curious about how they might use it in their classes and are willing to give it a go.

2012 will be the year when discussions around the staff room will transition from “why in god’s name would I use twitter” to “You should see what I got the kids to do on twitter today”

Mashable article on Twitter in the Classroom

On-line Universities – 60 Ways to use Twitter

Flipping the Classroom… Light

Flipping the classroom is a great idea and there have been some outstanding reports of how well this new classroom dynamic works but not every teacher has the skills, time or desire to create digital lessons for preview from home. What almost every teacher CAN do, is use some of the fantastic resources already out there for flipping the odd lesson or two.

In 2012, I think we will see more teachers looking at the flipped classroom model and they will see some value there. As a result, more kids will be going home to prepare for assignments as homework, instead of completing assignments for homework.

 Aaron Sams’ Flipped Classroom Video (Inspiring)

Salman Kahn – Ted Talk on Flipping the Classroom

Edmodo Will Become # 1 Distributed Learning Platform

The rapid rise of Edmodo as the go to content management system for education will continue. The reasons for this are simple. It is Free, Easy to use and has multiple language support. It is also scalable so it is as useful and easy to use for an individual teacher as it is for big school district or institution.

Backed by Union Square Ventures, the people who funded web giants such as Twitter, Foursquare, Zanga, Boxee and dozens more, Edmodo is positioned to take over digital learning environments the world over in 2012.

Good little Post on ITBabble.com

News item on Edmodo’s 15 million dollar influx of cash

Concerns about wi-fi in schools will grow

In order for digital assisted learning to take off in our classrooms, we need access to all the good stuff web has to offer and if we are all using personal digital devices to access this information, we need WiFi. As a result schools have been installing WiFi in schools all over the country. This year however, the concerns about the health risks associated with WiFi in schools started to gain some traction and parents began to push back against WiFi in schools.

In 2012 we will see the movement to ban WiFi in schools gain momentum. As a result, more schools and school districts will outright ban WiFi in favour of wired web access only.

National Post Article on Ridding Classrooms of WiFi

Round One Google Vs Apple

Yes you heard it here first folks. Google will go toe to toe with Apple in 2012. It won’t be a knock down drag em out fight to the death or anything but the first round of many to come will happen this year but first one proviso.

Round one will only happen IF Google’s new Tablet comes out and starts to take away enough business from Apple. This is a real possibility, if Google makes its new device integrate flawlessly with Google docs, Google + network and allows easy access to the files saved on the device. Assuming Google’s new tablet will also have all the functionality of the iPad, I think one can safely say that the Google’s tablet will be a far superior device for education.

We know that Apple is more than happy to go to court to protect its intellectual property as it has with Samsung so there is no reason to believe it won’t happen with Google as well. I for one look forward to seeing these two digital titans clash. Apple might be forced to start to produce products that work in the real world not just in the Apple world.

Samsung Vs Apple

Google Intellectual Property Acquisitions 

So there are my predictions. Like I said, none of them are sexy, weighty, earth shattering or even unpredictable but that is the best I can do. We shall see how it all shakes down in the coming months.


Oct 272011

In my previous post, I did bit of a “look at me, ain’t I wonderful because I overcame some learning difficulties and managed to succeed in spite of the odds being staked against me” kind of thing. Apparently it didn’t really resonate with anyone but hey that is life. Hopefully I can get some people riled up with this post with my off kilter view of education’s latest movement, Engaging Learning.

This is not to say I don’t buy into the latest and greatest ideas and theories that today’s educational innovators/leaders are offering up. I LOVE the modern classroom with all its new fangled digital tools to enhance the learning environment. In fact my classroom has gone completely paperless. Virtually everything is, well… virtual. However, as much as I like the new,  I also like to take a look over my shoulder once in a while to see what we might be leaving behind. As Newton said “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  To disregard the experience of those who went before us both teachers and students is just plain foolish.

I believe that the “Engaging Learning” or “Personalized Learning” movement is one of these things that fall into the category of moving ahead, without holding onto or at the very least considering what worked in the past.

On the surface, it would seem that the goal of the Engaging Learning movement, is to create a world where every kid has a tailor made program created just for them. The idea being that if a child has an education that fits their unique needs, skills and personality traits they will naturally be more inclined to engage in learning. A pretty wonderful goal and I have no bones with the logic behind it. I would love for my own children to be able to take advantage of such an wonderful learning opportunity but then I stop and think…

What is wrong with making kids do things they don’t want to do and learn things that are outside their areas interest or god forbid just plain boring? I want my kids to struggle and succeed. I want them to be frustrated and overcome and hell ya, I want the to fail once in a while and be horribly disappointed because that is what life is like!

The Engaging Learner movement appears to be all about eliminating any sort of unpleasantness in our kids academic lives. Now instead of helping kids “find their way” we are “paving their way” toward a pothole free existence but there is one problem. Life’s highways and byways are fraught with bumps detours and some big assed potholes along the way. It makes sense that people learn how to deal with these “bumps” along the way and it would make sense that it occurs before adulthood.

Recent brain research even tells us that adolescents are incredibly adaptable, in fact their brain requires the stimulation that adversity and challenge provides. This is the prime time for developing the higher order thinking and problem solving skills required to overcome adversity in ones life. Pave out all the bumps and we are left with a young adult that can’t cope with the real world.

So let’s go back to my pity party that was my last post. I managed to become a useful adult in spite of being a product of an education system that neither accommodated my learning needs or even acknowledged that I had a brain worth salvaging. Yet somehow I engaged in learning in spite of the piss poor pedagogy I was subjected to.  Therefore, it stands to reason that there had to have been some value in the education system I was a product of.

I say yes, lets continue to try and engaging kids in learning. Yes lets try to personalize the learning experience for all kids but lets take a look back and figure out why kids were able to succeed in the bad old days. It certainly wasn’t because school was catered to our needs so there is something in the way things were done not so long ago, that bred success as much as it resulted in failure.

Perhaps it didn’t even have anything to do with school or is inapplicable in today’s world but I say it is worth a look back as we forge ahead.

Next post: What worked


Oct 242011

I have been batting this blog post around in my head for some years now. The reason I took so long to put it down, is that I could never quite find the right way approach what I had to say and the reason for this is two fold. One, in order to lend some credence to what I had to say, I would have to have a bit of a coming out and second, what I have to say will probably offend or perhaps even anger some folks.

First, lets get to the coming out part.

Most people who know me, are aware that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Actually, all it takes is abut five minutes of conversation with me to come to this realization but my close friends know that I have a couple cognitive deficits which have made me the bumbling but lovable fool, I am today. In today’s world we refer to deficits like mine as “Learning Disabilities” but the pedagogical term for it back in the day was “dumb as a post”. In keeping with this less than flattering label, I regularly joke that my nick name when I was a kid was Special K. but in actual fact, most things I have been called over the years are far worse.

Fortunately we have come a long way in education since the 1970′ & 80’s and today most people realize that there are any number of legitimate neurological reasons that can make learning difficult for some. We also have a myriad of instruments with which we can identify cognitive deficits today and as a result, we treat kids who don’t learn nun too good with a little more respect and understanding. What is more, it is from this place of respect understanding, that educators have become much better equipped to address the learning differences of all the kids they teach. Unfortunately, even with everything we have learned since the dark ages of education, we still struggle with ensuring kids engage in learning.

I can’t help but ask myself, how did I manage to make it through in spite of my difficulties? and why, in this amazing world of advancements in brain research, educational innovation and technological tools, are kids still struggling in school?

I would like to think the answer can be found along the long and winding road I have travelled to my mediocre but happy place in this world. It is not just one thing but a collection of people and events which allowed me to become a functional person in this world, in spite of what were my learning issues. What follows are what I consider to be the key people and events in my life, which allowed me to engage in learning and move forward, while others did not.

Failing Grade 4 was a biggie but I will be the first to admit it was necessary. Had I not been held back, I am certain I would have suffered far more significant issues in my life then the slightly bruised self esteem I suffered for all of about 2 weeks into grade four part II. To this very day, I tell my students at the beginning of the year that without failure there is no learning and that failing once in a while is good for them… It builds character.

Mrs. Macdonald Was a lovely woman. Based on my foggy memory, she was about 90 years old and use to work with me and another kid who was “dull” like me. She was the first person to mention the term Dyslexia to my mother and I and suggested that this might just be the reason I have so much trouble reading, writing and doing arithmetic. It was the early 70’s and although Dyslexia had been identified decades before and considered a medical condition, it wasn’t until around this time that it was considered a learning issue which should be addressed in the education system.

My Mother worked tirelessly at all things, including me. She spent hours every week, drilling me on spelling, math and reading. Never did she illustrate her frustration with my inability to grasp the simplest of facts, even though she had to be dumbfounded at how thick I seemed to be. This was long before the notion of don’t try harder, try differently so it was a long hard haul to grade 12.

Being Polite, Respectful & Trustworthy opened doors for me which would not have been opened even if I was smart. People liked me because of these three things and with that, I got opportunities to prove myself in other ways. I remember having to work a BINGO for my high school cycling club along with a dozen other 16 – 17 year olds. Some nights when our teacher sponsor wasn’t there to take home the deposit for the night, I would be given the task to take it home and bring it to school the next day. Some nights it was in excess of $20,000 and I was trusted with it! In my mind that was saying something about me, which was far more important than an A on a report card.

Mrs. Arnold had been teaching in my high school forever. She taught my eldest brother who was 14 years my senior and he said she was ancient when he was there. She was mean, tough and from what I had been told a damn good math teacher but I never got to find out. On the second day of class she met me at the door and told me that I was not welcome in her class, that I would be nothing more than a labourer and that I didn’t need math to dig ditches so I needed to go and drop her class. Although I despise that woman to this very day, this was perhaps the single most motivating experience of my life.

A Different Time & Place had a big part in the direction I took. I had two no Bull Shit parents and I knew that I would not be living out of their back pocket for long if I wasn’t in school. Simply put, counting on them to look after me was not going to fly. I also grew up in a time when it was still possible to make a living with a shovel in my hand or working in the oil field as a Rig Pig. Because of this dynamic I knew that doing nothing was not an option but if I tried something and failed school wise, I could always make my way as a labourer some place.

University of Alberta LD Guinea Pig, After a year of upgrading Chemistry and Math at Alberta College while working at Tip Top Tailors, I got accepted as an unclassified student at the University of Alberta. I was only allowed to take one course and ONLY if I participated in the University’s new Learning Disabilities Project. I was interviewed, tested and participated in two evening group sessions every week for a year. It was here I learned that I did not actually have dyslexia but there were a couple other issues that were causing my problems. Most importantly, there were people who I met that were far more “LD” than I and they were getting their degrees so why not me?

The Introduction of word processing was HUGE for me and my academic success. I am convinced that without it, I would have never made it. As clumsy as the early computers were, anything was better than the illegible scrawl that I called writing. Although I was never tested for dysgraphia at the University of Alberta, (not sure it existed as a label at the time) I am sure this would have been added to my list of challenges.

My Parents, although they are bringing up the end of this list, they are certainly not the least important. Although they never gave up on me, they did something even more important. Even though they knew I had difficulties learning. They never made excuses for me, they never allowed me to give up and most importantly, they praised effort over marks. The last one is of critical importance and waaaaaaaaay ahead of their time. As research now tells us, praising effort is more important than the grade. I learned that effort, is the single most important element to success. It didn’t matter if I brought home an F or a C+, if I tried my hardest then it was all good.

So what is my point?

Well as the Blog post title would suggest, at some point, we are going to talk about why kids are failing to Engage In Learning? It is a question which I consider daily and I firmly believe that part of the answer can be found in my own experience as a “Learning Disabled” kid who bumbled through a school system that did not identify, never mind accommodate learning differences in students.

Now that I have established where it is I come from, the next post will be about some of my thoughts on Engaging Learning in what is a much better school system then I ever knew.

May 042011

Ever hear of the term Academic Inflation? It became a household phrase after it was used by Sir Ken Robinson in his now famous Ted talk Schools Kill Creativity. Academic inflation certainly isn’t a new concept but it was with this talk that its use crossed into the vernacular of the general public and out from behind the pedagogical curtain.

Academic inflation can be best described as the devaluing of the various markers with which we measure someones educational achievement. Most commonly associated with higher education, where once a bachelors degree was a ticket to the good life, we have seen its value decline and become little more than the minimum level of education one needs if they hope to be “gainfully employed”. The High School Diploma, societies previous academic minimum, is virtually useless as a gateway into today’s work world.

Now this devaluation has even extended into the sacred rhelm of Post Graduate Degrees. At one time  having or needing a Masters or PhD was a rare thing but today you can’t pitch a rock down the street without hitting someone with one of these high falutin documents thumbtacked to their workspace wall. Back in the day, attaining a Post Graduate Degree was something special, an indication of lofty academic achievement, something that set you apart from the unwashed masses but today these degrees have simply become part of the common currency we use for acquiring gainful employment.

At this point you might be asking yourself, “So what is wrong with that? People getting educated is a good thing!” Well nothing I suppose but here is the problem as see it.  At one time experience stood for something, frequently more than education. In fact experience was so important in acquiring a job back in the day, that getting a Masters or PhD without spending some time in the trenches was a major no no. No one wanted to higher a high priced know it all that had no practical experience but that was then.

In today’s world, kids power on through their education, attaining high levels of education with nary a bead of sweat on their brow from actual work. Now these twenty somethings are parachuting into senior management positions with out a clue as to how things roll in the real world.  They use phrases like “research says” and “studies have shown” but haven’t a clue how this research and or studies translate when the rubber hits the road. Where once, the phrase “experience tells us” was something to listen too and the people who use it respected, now workplaces are awash with pie eyed, inexperienced leadership with nothing but book learnin to guide the ship.

We are heading for interesting times as the boomer population begins to retire on mass and academic achievements continue to be devalued.  We are bound to get more of this kind of scenario occurring in public service and private industry but is this a good thing? Fresh thinking is one thing but theory in the absence of experience is a disaster waiting to happen.

I think what is actually going to happen as the baby boom retirement crunch starts to take hold is that we will see more hands on training by companies themselves. As man power becomes short in supply, companies will have to attract workers with on the job skills training and pay for any academic education an employee needs just to hold onto them.

Only time will tell but until then Research says…


May 012011

I am so tired of hearing this line. “The problem with school is…” It prefaces every discussion anyone has about education these days. Whether it be politicians, parents or even teachers, when ever people gather to discuss education, the discussion inevitably turns to how horrible things are in the classroom and how things have just got to change!

Now if you have been reading my blog at all, you know I have a little different view of things so it won’t be surprising that my opinion on this issue will be something between curmudgeonly and downright miserable. I hope to rattle some cages and create some discussion whether it be in agreement with Old School Parenting or not.

Continue reading »

Mar 262011

I was recently tasked with the daunting responsibility of reading a chapter about Trust in a book called, The Truth About Leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Now as surprising as it might be to some, the reading part was not daunting but the purpose for which I am reading the chapter is.  After digesting this riveting chapter, I am to present my thoughts to a focus group on Leadership and Education, of which I am a part.

Now anyone who knows me understands the issue at hand here. My personal mantra is “Life is too short to be taken seriously”. For me to muster up an opinion that is anything beyond a cynical, flippant, off the cuff and smart ass’d is, well… daunting. Not to mention that the the room will be filled with administration and respected educational leaders who spend their lives thinking about this stuff. Me?! I am just a run of the mill teacher who likes to fly under the radar and not attract to much attention, so yes the task at hand is daunting.

At first, I figured I would be hard pressed to come up with anything that might be of use to any of those assembled at our next meeting, never mind interesting. I mean really, a chapter on trust and I have to present it as it applies to education? What could I possibly say about trust and education that could not be readily assumed by a fifth grader. The truth is however, that after reading the chapter, I found that there seems to be a lot to say and some of it might even be interesting. What is more, some of it might even be a tad controversial and I love nothing more than stirring the pot.

Before getting into this chapter, I had some superficial assumptions. Yes teachers had to be trusted by parents and students. Yes it had to be trusted that the curriculum is relevant and purposeful. Yes teachers had to trust that parents were supportive at home… The list of “trust” items is endless but when you apply trust to education, as it pertains to leadership, things begin to get interesting. There are a number of things that crop up when trust, leadership and education are placed together and much of it seriously effects education on all levels and quite frankly I could write forever on the topic. For this post, I will discuss only one which is probably the most significant of the bunch.

Adversarial Structure of Public Education

I will preface this first item by saying that, I realize there are good people working on both sides of the Education system who want nothing more than what is best for students. Unfortunately, when it comes to leadership in education, there is a very big elephant in the room and without discussing it, there is no hope for building strong working relationships based on trust.

When reading this chapter, the first item of trust that came to mind had to do with the structure of the education system itself. In British Columbia, there are two sides in the education system, the Ministry and all its various agents & Teachers. A logical division I know but the problem is that most of the time, these two sides are at odds and distrust between them reigns supreme. In the fifteen years I have been teaching, there has been virtually no common ground between these two entities and it is unlikely there will any common ground between them in my last fifteen.

How this pertains to Trust, Leadership & Education is that we find ourselves working in a school system stands divided. Two sides peering across a pedagogical no man’s land unable to agree on the simplest of things. What complicates matters even more when discussing Trust, Leadership & Education is where the dividing line is drawn. If the battle ground between these two sides were out beyond the boundary of the school district, or even just outside the doors of the school itself, there would at least be an opportunity to create a  feeling of “we are all in this together” within a school community. The problem is that the dividing line between these two sides falls at the very threshold of our classrooms, creating an awkward and sometimes unworkable division within the school itself.

Administrators are pitted against teachers from the outset because ultimately, administration acts on behalf of the Ministry and therefore are not “trusted” by teachers. This makes it very difficult for administrators to be anything more than educational managers rather than the educational leaders they are suppose to be. In the end what happens is that leadership roles in education are usually taken up for the purpose of doing battle with the other side rather for the purpose of improving the education system.

This is not to say that Administrators are not trustworthy, in fact I have friends who are administrators with whom I would entrust with my own children’s lives.  The reality is however, that administrators are an extension of the Ministry and therefore they will, at some point, be asked to breach the trust of those they are expected to lead. The unfortunate result is that in British Columbia, educational leadership from an administrative perspective cannot be based on a relationship of trust because the system puts them at odds with the very people they are suppose to be leading.

So where does this leave us? Well to think that one side will roll over and expose their throat to the other is wishful at best. The cynic in me says we will be in this position for generations to come. As a result, true leadership where we have a community of professionals who trust each other and work towards a common goal, is unlikely to happen within my career. Teachers will continue to go about their daily lives, adopting new ideas, technology and methods as it suits them and administrators will continue to manage their schools as best they can.

It is an unfortunate place we have come to but until we can all trust that “we are all in this together” Leadership in education will remain fragmented.