Culture of Learning and Wisdom

“If you weren’t here for the kids, this wasn’t the place for you.” Lessons from a Public School Turnaround  

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Minchau School with Edmonton Public Schools, to take a look at some of the work students were doing with green-screen technology and video creation.  Although this was the main reason for my visit, I also really believe in looking at the culture of a school and seeing not only what people do, but how it feels.  I was extremely impressed with the environment and culture that has been developed in this school; it was beyond powerful.  No matter what technology, pedagogy, or teaching practice that you try to implement in your school, relationships and culture are at the forefront of any school being successful.

As I walked into the school, the first thing that I noticed were teachers spending their own time getting together before school to do some work on learning how to use iPads.  Now I am not sure if this was time that was designated, but what I knew for sure was that these teachers were extremely interested in what they were doing.  As I, a stranger to all of them, sat down and offered a few tips, they were eager to listen and pick up anything that I was willing to share.  They wanted to learn and they wanted to learn together.  Something that we expect from our kids, but do we always model it in ways that they can see?

Then I went to see the students.  I could talk about how amazing they were with the technology, but that was not the thing that impressed me most.  It was that every single student in the room that I came to visit actually came up to me, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and shared some of the work they did for the school.  This was not just these students, but every classroom had students that walk up to any visitors to the school and shake their hand and offer them a tour of their classroom.  I often talk about how important that kids own their learning, but I also believe in how important it is that we hold students to a high standard, especially when it comes to dealing with others.  I saw both elements in full with these students and I know that this will serve them long into their future.  All I could think of was this Barry Schwartz video on our loss of wisdom.  The kids had expectations, but they dealt with new people in a way that honoured not only the visitor, but themselves.  That takes wisdom and it is something that we need to continually promote and work to attain in our world:

“A wise person knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation. To be wise, we need cognitive and perceptual machinery that picks up on similarities without being blind to differences.” Barry Schwartz

As I had a chance to sit down with Principal Pat Davidson (you should follow her if you are on Twitter), we talked about their professional development plan that builds upon the leadership of their own school by having certain teams that focus on four different areas for improvement in the school, and then having those teams come back to their grade levels so that they bring that expertise back to their own classrooms.  We did something similar at Forest Green, but Pat’s idea of actually bringing this back to the grade level is something that we could have definitely added to our own plan.  I have challenged Pat that with all of the great work they are doing in their school, this is something that we all could benefit from.  As Pat also acknowledged, they are all still learning, and by sharing the work they are doing, it will only help them to improve it by getting feedback from the greater education community.  There is so much we can learn from each other.

Here are some of my big ideas that I took away from this visit:

  1. Willingness to learn.  This is something that has to be modeled and visible to kids.  Staff at Minchau quickly shared what they have learned in the past year but were always open for any suggestions to get any better.  Teachers need to be learners first.
  2. High expectations. Personalized learning, technology, inclusion, assessment, and all of the words that factor into 21st century learning mean nothing if kids do not treat each other well. The expectation from the staff is that the kids are always respectful and caring to themselves and each other.  Culture begins with this and it was modeled by kids and adults.  You could feel it when you walked into the building but it was reinforced through every interaction.
  3. The expectation of collaboration.  Working together was just part of the culture of the school.  Pat ensures not only that this is an expectation, but she is thoughtful and creative with the way she provides time for teachers to do this.  You do not have to change calendars to make time for your staff to collaborate; there are ways you can do this now.  Instead of continuously bringing in outsiders, put money into subs consistently and tap into the expertise of your own people while also helping them to build relationships with one another.
  4. Share openly.  This was my challenge to the school as I left.  When I see amazing environments like this, it only continues to push my thinking that we need to share the work that we are doing. We help all kids when we do this.
As many visits are known well ahead of time, and schools put on a show, my visit was unannounced to the staff and this was just a normal day; that was what was so amazing about it.  It was just the way it is.  The other thing that I noticed was that Minchau still had desks, they still taught the curriculum, and they dealt with all of the things that we talk about getting in the way of good teaching and learning, yet they were still innovative and progressive.  Proof that we can work with in what we consider the strains of our buildings and curriculum and still do amazing things.

No school is perfect, but when you see learning from every person in the building, you are definitely on your way.

Thanks for the visit and inspiration!

P.S.  Although I mention Pat often in this post, she acknowledged that the school would not be like this at all if it wasn’t for the amazing teachers of their school.  Every great leader knows that greatness comes from those that they serve, and Pat emulates that.



  1. All of your 4 big ideas are fantastic – I especially like the comments of "high expectations". I've found that the second you raise the bar for academic and social behaviour, the kids get there.

    On another note, I've just created a green screen for my school, and we're using it for reading responses and newscasts. Do you happen to know if any of these teachers are sharing their resources, successes, or ideas for green screens in education?

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. "When I see amazing environments like this, it only continues to push my thinking that we need to share the work that we are doing. We help all kids when we do this." — and thanks for doing just that! Are you working on any new ideas to further that environment back at the school where you teach?

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