Nov 102012

Well it is over. Months of prep and anticipation leading up to the Ed Tech Teacher – iPad Summit USA 2012, has come to pass. By all accounts it was a roaring success and in spite of what the title might suggest, it wasn’t an unrestrained orgy of apple awesomeness. Sure I have never seen so many apple products in one place at one time in my life and PC users hid in the shadows so’s to not attract attention to their digital deviance but the discussions were rarely about the hardware.

Although it was impossible to for me to attend all the sessions, there were some common themes that seemed to thread their way through most of the presentations. It was as though all the experience gained from two years of iPad use, had come to a confluence at this conference. Everyone seemed to have come to the conference with the same conclusions about the state of education and the role of technology… thus far. Some of it good, some of it bad and some of it, people didn’t really know what to make of it.

So here is what I am calling my Stuck in an airport, missed my connection, sleeping in Dallas, conference take aways. None of which I am endorsing or panning, it is purely my read on the conference.

  1. Best practice has yet to be established. No we have not gotten it right yet and it is going to take time and mistakes will be made. “Failure is inevitable” had become the unofficial slogan of the conference. The Conference Keynote speaker, Tony Wagner, uttered these words right out of the gate and it seemed to catch on. We are only just beginning to create this new paradigm for learning and so we need to expect mistakes to occur but perhaps more importantly, attendees came away with the understanding that we need teachers who are willing to make those mistakes, if we are going to get anywhere.
  2. How can I teach differently using technology was the single most significant question being asked. Without exception, everyone came to conclusion that in order for technology to truly reshape the learning environment, our teaching practice had to change. Without a change in teaching practice, technology will continue to be ineffective and relegated to a position of novelty item. Now the trick is to figure out what different looks like and the people at this conference are up to the challenge.
  3. Being a slave to test hampers innovative teaching, including innovative use of technology. I tweeted this out during a session and it seemed to resonate. This is where I am glad to be a Canadian teacher. From my point of view, standardized testing has handcuffed many of my colleagues south of the border. Much of teaching revolves around making sure their kids will “pass the test” first and foremost and if they have time they can try some innovative teaching using technology. I am not sure how a teacher can be expected to “teach differently” – “make mistakes” and “be innovative” if their students have to demonstrate their learning using a century old method. What is more, a teacher’s performance is measured with the results of these outdated tests. It makes no sense AT ALL.
  4. We have to let go of the traditional view of teacher. This discussion had a bit of an elephant in the room feel to it. How do you tell a teacher they have to change their practice or make a teacher change their practice? On more than one occasion I had heard the chilling “time to cut loose those who can’t or are unwilling to change”. In one session I suggested that it might not just be an “old teacher problem” as many young teachers have the same struggle with letting go of the “look at me model”. By the end of one session in particular, the issue wasn’t seen as just a teacher problem but instead a systemic problem. At one end we have people saying we need to get back to basics and the other we have people saying we have to change everything. All the while, teachers are evaluated and judged by old school criteria, just as their students are. Want teachers to change their practice. Change their job description.
  5. The age of the “Free Agent Learner” is upon us. I love this label. I have been trying to come up with an explanation for those kids who take control of their learning and these three words encapsulate it perfectly. Keeping in mind that access to information does not an education make, those people who are able to “educate” themselves using the information at their disposal are truly Free Agent Learners. With the advent of MOOCS, iTunes university and masses of FREE courses being offered via the internet, we are going to soon be faced with the problem of how do we accredit this type of learning.
  6. We have to give teachers the support needed to become comfortable with using technology in the classroom. Although there was a lot of talk about “not fearing technology” one tweet in particular by @sjunkins “I’ve yet to have student tell me they can’t use technology in class because they haven’t received any PD on it…” sort of rubbed me the wrong way a bit. The general consensus was that you can’t just hand out a bunch of devices to students and teachers and expect magic. “Give teachers time!” seemed to be the view of most but not time to adapt, if we did that it would take decades. If you want teachers to adopt technology into their practice, you need to Give teachers time to learn, to prep and to experiment. Someone even suggested adopting Google’s Twenty Percent Time so that teachers would have time to change their teaching practice. I liked that idea very much!
  7. Teachers who are using tech need to share! the phrase “pockets of innovation” was used repeatedly at this conference. Although there were some people who were coming from schools that had made some significant changes across the board using technology, most people were in situations where tech use is isolated. Teachers need to share their experience and expertise with others. Simple as that.
  8. PLN’s are a must for tech using teachers. I have spoken about this very thing more than once in this very blog. It would seem that the Personal Learning Network is a MUST for today’s tech using teacher. There is just so much going on and so much to learn that the traditional face to face learning network of days gone by just isn’t going to cut it. Whether you start by trolling on twitter, taking an iTunes U course, using a Zite for news and views… it doesn’t really matter. Educators who are looking to change their practice, need to actively seek information about the new world of education, if they hope to keep up.

Some other minor themes came up as well but I won’t flesh them out.

  • Tech HAS to be school supported. You can’t expect teachers to fund it.
  • Admin has to be as innovative as teachers.
  • Politicos have to stop making bad education decisions.
  • Innovation is incompatible with back to basics.
  • Kids can write, they just don’t write with a voice anymore.

I am sure I missed some things here and I would hope other attendees who happened to read this will pipe in as it was a lot to take in. In addition to the above, I would like to add what I found was missing from most of these discussions. I know this is my own personal opinion but I am sure others would share it.

With all this said however, there seemed to be one thing missing. One little but significant piece of the puzzle, without which all is for not. There was surprisingly little if any discussion on the role of student in this little learning revolution. We talked about how teachers have to change, education systems have to change, teaching practice has to change, the physical aspects of school have to change but NOTHING about how the student will have to change. Sure we talked about what kids should be able to do when they walk out the door but we did not discuss how the learner has to change their practice but there is no need to worry…

I think I stumbled upon a little hint as to how learners will have to change as we move ahead. It lies in the single most important thing I took away from this conference. People need to become “free agent learners” It does not matter if you are student or teacher. Those who will excel in the Twenty First Century Learning environment, will take on the responsibility for their own learning. The days of being a passive recipient of the information that comes your way is over. Those who don’t, will be left in the dust.

Thanks to the team at for inviting me to an outstanding conference.

Check out the conference Back Channel #ettipad

iPad Summit Wordle

Aug 242012

With only a few glorious sunny days left in summer and the start of a new school year looming large, I figured I should get up to date on the wild and woolly education scene in British Columbia. My go to source for what is “hip and happanin” in education is the Vancouver Sun’s very own @jsteffenhagen. Janet seems to keep people interested in education regardless of political leanings and always fosters some heated discussion that riles up left-wing nut-bars like me.

You would think after returning from a two month-long, Five Star summer vacation in such exotic climes as Prince George, Vernon and South Surrey, there would be something new and exciting being discussed in the press. it would seem however, that the @bcedplan is still the topic du jour.

This week, the Ministry has released a new BC Ed Plan document which “is a summary of the comments people made on the @bcedplan site”. (@mikesher) and I have to say, that it is a really pretty document. It is also pretty light weight and lacks in any sort of functional detail or “plan”

As it seems to be turning out, the BCEdplan isn’t really a plan as of yet. It is more of a mish-mash of theory, ideas and opinion, not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. I just feel I was sold a bill of goods. The BCEdplan was presented as the document that would guide us to a Twenty First Century education system but it is far from being that document.

In reality, we have a long way to go before we reinvent our education system and it will take time, effort and useful dialog, which I think the Ministry is trying to do. The problem is that, from the outside looking in, no one can figure out what is going on?

As a contentious naysayer, I am just trying to do my part in ensuring we reinvent responsibly. The following is a page out of the new “what you’ve said” annotated with the first things that came to my mind as I read Theme 4: Digital Technologies in Schools. As you will see, there are far more questions than answers, therefore much work needs to be done.

Aug 092012

Well, it looks like another school year is on a collision course with my summer vacation, so I guess I better start being useful again. Since my usefulness generally doesn’t go much beyond the 9.7 inch dimensions of an iPad screen, I figured I should pen a preseason post on using iPads in the Classroom.

As I type this post, truckloads of iPads are being delivered and prepared for use in classrooms all over the world. Educational institutions are jumping on board the runaway train called the Apple Express, even though we have yet to prove that the iPad is the best personal electronic device for the classroom.

Undeniably, these are exciting times for tech geeks like me but what about my colleagues who are not sold on iPad mania but feel they need to step into the fray?

The devices are sitting in the principal’s office primed and ready to use but there has yet to be any Pro D on how to use these $500 paperweights?

What do you need to know before you start dolling them out to the inquiring minds sitting before you?

What follows are a few things I think every iPad using teacher needs to know, before being absorbed into the continuum of the iPad.

Plan your iPad time – I know it sounds a bit redundant but iPads do not a lesson make. Sure there are days when you can say “Go Crazy!” and students can spend the class exploring everything the iPad has to offer (within appropriate use guidelines) but they are not a replacement for good lesson planning.

This is something we learned very quickly in our little iPad experiment last year, not that we depended on the iPad to do the teaching but it didn’t take long to see that the iPad was more of a hindrance then a help in certain situations.

  • Kids don’t listen very well with an iPad in hand.
  • Class discussions are difficult to get going with an iPad in hand.
  • Group work does not always go well when each kid has an iPad in hand.

Cover your FOIPA – Not to be rude or anything but the Freedom Of Information & Privacy Act (Canadian) is nothing to mess with and can get you into a heap of trouble if something should go sideways during your class time, so you have to cover your vulnerabilities.

What people seem to misunderstand about the iPad, is that it is not the device itself which makes it a powerful educational tool. What makes it powerful is the immediacy with which students have access to relevant, real time information from anywhere at anytime. What the iPad is allowing teachers to do is break the traditional mold of using tired old, sanitized, static sources of information to deliver our educational gospel. In a way, the iPad is the tool of the pedagogical heretic.

Certainly, you can’t go out and let the kids use the iPad all willy nilly and may even need to engineer its use at the primary and intermediate levels but by the time students hit high school, we need to be able to turn kids loose and expect that they have the knowledge and the maturity to use any electronic device for academic purposes both effectively and responsibly.

So… To cover your FOIPA, ensure that parents are aware and approve of their children interacting with the real world on the internet before you turn kids loose with their iPads. Also ensure that parents and kids understand that students are expected to use the iPad in an appropriate manner in the classroom. Last year I sent a hard copy explaining what their child will be doing along with the expectations and safe use guidelines but I will also send a digital copy this year to ensure parents get the document.

Create Routines – Elementary teachers are really good at this and I should know! With a wife who is an elementary school teacher, I sometimes feel I am in grade 3. Everything has its time and place and in an iPad classroom, regardless of grade, it is a really good idea. Managing the use of the iPad is hard work but if the work you do with the iPad has been routinized, things become a bit easier.

The most common way to go about routinizing iPad use, is to tie it to a regularly scheduled task you do as part of your daily classroom activity. There are dozens of different tasks you can use for this purpose. What follows are three quick and easy possibilities.

  • Journaling – First 10 minutes of class have kids jot down some thoughts or a response to a prompt.
  • Twitter Time – Use twitter feed to follow a current event and have kids participate with comments and opinion.
  • Collaborate – Use a community sticky board to collaborate and share ideas after direct instruction.

Have a class set of Apps – Last year in our iPad pilot, we quickly discovered that in a BYOD classroom, Apps can be a pain in the backside. For any giving task, there can be as many Apps as there are kids in the classroom. It can be a logistical nightmare when they don’t all work as expected and you spend your class time troubleshooting App issues. This situation should be averted at all costs.

In the BYOD classroom, I would suggest providing a list of approved apps for use in your classroom and stick to it for the year. If a kid says “But I like this one!” Hold the line… You will be happy you did. If the kid insists… Don’t be their class time trouble-shooter.

In a setting where the iPads are school based this is not so much of an issue because you control the Apps that get installed but regardless of how kids are getting access to the device, MAKE SURE YOU ARE ALL USING THE SAME APP!

Take a risk – Now when I say “take a risk” I don’t mean push the boundaries of what might be considered acceptable use in the classroom… What I mean is that the iPad is in its infancy and it is front line teachers like you who are leading the way in discovering how it can best be utilized in the classroom. Forget the self-proclaimed iPad Gurus out there and cook up some hair brained idea of your own to try out in your classroom. Who knows, at this stage of the game, you might become an almighty iPad Guru yourself.

Roll with it – Here is the thing with iPads in a classroom… Things can go to hell in a hand-basket in a heartbeat but in the same breath, the opposite is true too. Because the information used in an iPad classroom is often dynamic, you never really know what might come up. Twitter feeds are a great example of an information source can send your class in a direction you did not plan for and sometimes it is a FANTASTIC learning opportunity which you just roll with.

For an example, you decide you need to do some current events in your Social Studies 10 class and the topic de jour is Arab Spring. You spend your entire evening researching and planning the perfect class and the next morning you are ready to enlighten the unwashed masses. You throw up the topic on the projector and put your flawlessly planned lesson into action. Not 10 seconds later the kid in the back of the room, who has only spoken once all year-long yells, “HEY TEACH! THIS IS SOME CRAZY STUFF… YOU GOTTA SEE!”

Cautiously you take a look at what is on his iPad screen and he has a live twitter feed of what is happening in Egypt live and uncensored. Tweets from a revolution on the other side off the world! How can your perfect lesson plan compare? So you throw up the feed on your projector and you follow and discuss what you are seeing unfold in your classroom live.

Compatibility – Although the whole idea of an iPad is that it runs Apps which do everything you need or want to do, every once in a while you will head to the web. Like most poor teachers who can’t afford an iPad of their own, you will find the websites you need to visit on your computer at home and assume everything is just ducky.

Next day, you show up at school – grab the iPad cart – get everything set up – the kids roll in – you start your lesson – send the kids to the great websites you found for this lesson and then you find out the iPad only works with one of the three!

You curse under your breath and frantically change gears. The only thing you can think of before your first coffee takes effect, is to have the kids pull out paper and pencil crayons and kick it old school.


So there you have it… My two bits worth. If you are venturing toward an iPad classroom, I hope you find my advice useful. It is an adventure for us all and things are changing on a daily basis. I also fully expect to make dozens of new errors over the coming school year, so check back often as I may have more advice to offer you.

Cheers & Happy New School Year

Nov 092011

As I stumble out of my 15th year of teaching and look ahead to the last half of my career, I can’t help but marvel at the changes I have seen in the classroom. It is really quite amazing how quickly our education system has changed. I can still remember the first day of my teaching practicum at Spectrum High School 1993. I thought it was just so cool when I saw one of the teachers, printing out a crossword he created using a new fangled program on his Apple II. The only problem was that he could only create a few every month because the ribbon for the dot matrix printer was too expensive and office staff got mad at him for wasting it on his silly crosswords. Today I find myself part of an iPad pilot where I have essentially gone completely paperless. The classroom is being revolutionized and turned upside down by the digitization of information and curriculum delivery. So much is changing so quickly , it is difficult to keep up at times.

The pedagogical wisdom I was imbued with during my university years has become a faded memory. In part because of the distance between then and now but also because, much of what was dispensed in the 90’s as educational gospel, just doesn’t apply any longer. In 18 short years it seems like I have been transported from the good old days of education and deposited in the middle a brave new world in the digital classroom. These are uncertain times for education but there is also great excitement for what lies ahead and I for one, look forward to being a part of what is shaping up to be an educational revolution.

Although I reminisce with fondness the past and feel great excitement about the possibilities that lay ahead, it cannot be said that everything in our school systems are rosy. All anyone needs to do is flip on their local new cast and see that education systems all over North America are struggling with major issues around achievement and engagement of our students. To complicate matters, major discord between policy makers and educators has completely stalled any sort of cooperative approach toward making positive changes to our education system.

Policy makers feel that today’s teachers are not committed enough, don’t do enough to engage their students, spend to little time on professional development and expect far too much in compensation. In short, they feel teachers care too little about the job and expect too much in return and naturally teachers are taking great offense to this affront on their professionalism.

Now as someone who is smack dab in the middle of their career, I get to see our past move on and our future take its place. It is a weird place to be at times but I believe it affords me a clear view of what is really at issue here and it really isn’t all that complex.

My colleagues who are leaving are dong so after 30 years of outstanding service. Not a single one of them would I dare criticize for the work they have done and the lives they have influenced. They are the foundation on which our public school systems were built and flourished for decades. The new teachers who replace my esteemed colleagues are outstanding in their own right. Bright, energetic and well-educated, they all show extraordinary promise and are excellent additions to the profession BUT…

Where my retiring colleagues were able to focus their energy on their job, own a home, raise a family and have a relatively comfortable living over the course of their career, up and coming teachers haven’t a prayer of doing the same. The standard of living which the profession once enjoyed is retiring right along with the teachers who enjoyed it. What we are seeing today, are teachers struggling to just to make ends meet. Most young teachers I encounter are working 1 or 2 additional jobs over and above their teaching assignments just make rent, never mind supporting a family or buying a home.

Now some might say: “As it should be! If those lazy teachers want more money then get another job and quit robbing the tax payers pocket!” but the ramifications of this attitude are rather significant. Instead of teachers investing time and effort in their careers and the school for which they work, they use their time outside of the classroom to simply pay the bills. All those things that my retiring colleagues use to do outside class time, are falling by the wayside out of economic necessity.

The result is that you are left with teachers in our schools who simply can’t put the time in that society has come to expect from their teachers. What we are seeing ever more frequently, are young teachers leaving the profession in very short order. They hardly stick around long enough for a cup of coffee in the staff room.

My last student teacher bailed on the profession after only two years. This young man was a phenomenal talent and made me look like an itinerant Sunday school teacher right out of the gate. He loved teaching and would have been an asset to any school he set foot in but he saw no financial future in it so he left. When discussing his departure over a pint he said, “To be the teacher I would want to be, I would have to invest too much of my time and effort in exchange for too little money. It simply doesn’t make good economic sense to continue.”

This is but one example of many and part of a growing concern about the future of the teaching profession. The equation is simple. We can’t expect teachers to be as vested in their careers and their students as our retired colleagues were because they simply can’t afford to?

The question then is, will this situation continue to get worse? Unfortunately I can’t see any improvement coming down the pike and there are a few reasons for this.

  • The tax dollars are simply not there to pay teachers in a way which would make much of a difference to anyone’s bottom line. To give teachers a raise that would create a lifestyle similar to that our predecessors would be intolerable for most taxpayers.
  • As long as North American kids continue to fall in international rankings, there will be no impetus to pay teachers anything more than what they all ready get.
  • Public opinion toward teachers is hostile, in large part because teachers can no longer do the job as it was once done.
  • Paying teachers in a way which allows them to do the job as their predecessors did, would be political suicide for anyone who dare step up and made it happen.

What it all comes down to is that in spite of entering an exciting new age in education, moving ahead will be difficult. The good old days, where teachers could afford to invest in their careers and countless hours to their students, have come to and end and they are not coming back any time soon.

It is a sad state of affairs and I am sure I will get spanked for this post but it is just the way a teacher who has a clear line of sight to the past and the future, sees it.

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.