Category Archives: Leading a Learning Community

Where’s the evidence?

This is one of those posts where I might just ramble on but I am trying to clarify some thoughts in my head…

When talking about new and innovative ways to teach students, a question that I constantly get is “where is the evidence that this works?”  The problem with trying something new, there is rarely evidence to support it because it is new.  That being said, I am seeing many educators be the “guinea pigs” themselves and trying out new strategies for learning on themselves and with staff.  If there engagement and learning is improving from their own experience, it is more likely to make an impact on students.  We have often believed that teachers should be experts on “teaching” when the reality is that they should be experts on “learning” first.  Immersing themselves into learning opportunities will help them get closer to that standard than simply reading about teaching techniques.

As I have started to think about the “where is the evidence” question, I am wondering if it should be asked right back.  Where is the evidence that what we used to do was knocking it out of the park for all of our kids?  When I went to school, many students struggled then in school and it wasn’t the utopia that so many people have made it out to be.  Are grades the measure?  If they are, do we look at factors such as socio-economic status and their impact on test scores?  Do we believe that any one thing is a direct result to improved grades?  If you look at any school division that has improved, do they usually only have one initiative that they can directly correlate to a numerical improvement, or are there multiple factors?  Does critical thinking improve learning? Does helping students make healthy choices improve learning?  Or would a combination of both have an impact?  Or would one make an impact on one student, while the focus on another might be the different for another student?  It is tough to make standardized assessments on individuals; each person is unique and needs different things.

This brings me back to a conversation this morning that I had with one educator who had mentioned that her admin “didn’t think that kids would do well with this type of learning”.  What I told her is that we should never limit a kid to what we, as adults, think that they can or can’t do.  There is a saying that “whether you think you can or you can’t, you are usually right.”  It is one thing to have this mindset for ourselves, but when we decide our kids “can’t” before giving them a chance or showing a belief in them, their opportunities to grow and achieve something great are limited.

So I guess the next time when I am asked, “Where is the evidence that this works?”, my response might be that nothing works for all people. It never has and it never will.  Some kids will do better with pen and paper, and some adults will do better with a laptop; we have to be able to provide options that work for our students, not just ourselves.  I also believe that sometimes our faith in our kids could be as important (if not more) as some of the evidence we collect.  If we believe we can help our students do amazing things, continuously grow, and make the world better, isn’t it more likely to happen?

A conversation starter…

I saw the following image online: Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 7.50.43 AMWhat surprised me about the conversation about it was that most educators (that I connect with) thought the student was ingenious for this “invention” and applauded them.  They were “fighting the power” and found a way to snuck in their device to a classroom. A couple of questions I have when I see this picture… Why would the kid have to create something like this? Why would adults not have to do this?  (I know that if I am disengaged I might gravitate to my device, but I also know that if I am engaged, I also tend to gravitate to my device.) Do you think this is wrong by the student, or cheer them on for their subversiveness? What do you think?

“Leveraging” is the new fluency

I needed some help for a project I was working on this morning, and wasn’t sure how to exactly to do something.  Instead of “googling” for an answer, when I wasn’t really sure of how to word the search, I simply tweeted out the following:

Within five minutes, I received the following answer (I actually received other ones before as well) from Jeremy MacDonald:

That was it…problem solved.

Then I saw this tweet from Derek Hatch that gave me an “A-Ha” moment:

What I thought about is the idea of “literacy to fluency”, and how with something like Twitter, the parallel idea to that would be “use to leverage”.  For example, if I simply would have tweeted out the question, the likelihood of receiving an answer would have been lower than if I didn’t use a hashtag, or not connecting with people that I knew had the answer.  I increased the opportunity to get an answer by doing some very subtle things within a tweet and ensuring that I was able to get what I needed.

Instead of simply emailing Jeremy MacDonald the question and only having one chance to receive the answer, I used an open network that increased my chances exponentially, but also targeted someone I knew who used the technology and the company that created the software in the first place.  By the time HaikuDeck actually responded (and they responded quickly), I already had the answer and did what I needed to do.

One of the NCTE “21st Century Literacies” is, “develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology”, and I thought about how we move people to the next step in their use of social networks.  Obviously having a large network helps in leveraging, but creating that network is also part of “leveraging”.  My network did not develop over night and neither would “fluency” in any language.  Simple use of a network should be a minimum now.  “Leveraging” technology is the new “fluency”.

“If you screw up…”

I heard a story about an administrator saying that he now had the ability to deal with teachers that were sharing “inappropriate tweets”.

And we wonder why so many teachers are terrified to use social media or try something new.

So many people share the messages, “If you screw up, we will…”, and then wonder why their organization doesn’t embrace change?

Change comes at a risk, and with that risk, comes the opportunity to screw up.  It is not “if”, it is “when”.  New paths lead to mistakes; it is part of the process.

How do you deal with it?  Better yet, how do you encourage it?

I still believe that many administrators continuously blame teachers and say they don’t embrace change, but I continue to see that many “leaders” are just simply terrible at selling change in the first place.

Easy to blame, hard to do the work.

It’s not me, it’s you.

Really?

Oh and by the way, if you are an administrator and this is your mantra and behaviour with teachers, what do you think the trickle-down effect will be with students?

Nothing amazing will ever happen when you continuously build a culture of fear.

4 Types of Leaders You Shouldn’t Be

First of all, I am going to challenge my own title in this writing as the qualities that I am about to list are not usually people with influence, but people with titles and authority.  Leadership and administration are sometimes not synonymous and if an administrator does not make those around them better, they are not leaders, they are bosses.

Working with many different organizations, I have heard either the frustration from educators within the organization that feel like they are running on the spot, while also working with administrators that are more focused on holding down the fort as opposed leading with vision.

Here are some styles you should avoid being or working for if you want to really move forward.

1.  The “Blame Everyone Else” Leader

Ever tried to do something that is new to an organization only to be stopped by an administrator saying that “others” are holding things back?  Often times, they will say things like, “if it were up to me, I would love for this to happen”, or even act as if they are a martyr and trying to save you from getting in trouble from others.  Whatever the case, if someone is blaming others in the organization for not “allowing” you to move forward, trust will be at a minimum.  Most administrators are part of a team and although they might not always agree with one another, they will never blame others for a lack of opportunities for educators.

If you think about if, if  they are going to throw someone else under the bus, including someone on their own administration team, what do you think that they do when you are not around?

2. The “Driven by Policy” Leader 

Policies are often put into place to ensure that students and teachers are safe, yet the process to create them is often long and arduous.  With education moving so quickly, some policies are simply outdated and they are not in the best interest of organizations, and more importantly, students.  Sometimes policy interferes with doing what is right, but sometimes, doing what is right is hard.  It is easy to hide behind policy in this case.

Sometimes obviously we have to stick with policies to ensure safety and I am not saying that we throw them all out the window, but when policy trumps common sense, there are issues.

3.  The “Dead-End” Leader

You come up with a great idea that is new to an organization that you are willing to put in the work and effort.  You approach your boss and share it with you and they tell you why it probably won’t work.  You wait for suggestions.

Waiting…waiting…waiting…

Nothing.

There is nothing that can kill enthusiasm for someone at work when they are simply told “no”.  Great leaders want people to take risks, and although they are trying to protect others, a simple “no” can have harsh repercussions on an individual and ultimately school culture.

This does not mean you need to say yes to everything.  But you should ask for further explanations and help people look for ideas, alternatives, or give them the opportunity to take risks.  A yes rarely needs an explanation, but in my opinion, “no” always does.  But even with the explanation, it is still important that we try to create opportunities to keep that creative flame burning in others and getting involved with an idea or project, or at least offering guidance, says much more than “no”.

4.  The “Lack of Knowledge is Power” Leader

With all of the changes in our world, society, and culture, schools need to change.  With many administrators, this change leads to not only differences in the classroom, but in their own practice.  If administrators do not continuously learn and grow, students lose out.

Yet learning and growth take time and effort, and for some, doing what is comfortable is an easy option.  Some of my best administrators were not people that believed they knew everything, but those that actually showed vulnerability and that they actually didn’t know.

Yet when we admit that we don’t know everything, that means we have to trust others and give our “power and authority” away.  This model of distributed leadership is very tough on some and they end up hiring great people only to micromanage them.  A person that pretends that they know something is much more dangerous than those who can fully admit that they don’t.

So instead of showing humility and a willingness to learn, they often pretend they have an understanding of things that they don’t, which often leads to poor decisions that impact many.  The interesting thing is that those that are willing to get into the trenches and admit that they don’t know always have more credibility than those that pretend they do.

Weakness is not knowing, it is not being able to admit it.

I am sure that everyone of us (including myself) that is in a position of authority has done this.  No one is perfect.  But when these things become the norm, any one of them can be highly detrimental to the culture of a school.  It may not impact students directly, but long term, they will lose out the most.

 

Myths of Technology Series: “Technology Will Replace Face-to-Face Interaction”

For ISTE 2014 in Atlanta, I will be presenting on the “Myths of Technology and Learning”. As I am really thinking about what I will be sharing at the conference, I wanted to write a series of blog posts that will help myself and others “rethink” some of these statements or arguments that you hear in relation to technology in school.  I will be writing a series of blog posts on different myths, and will be posting them on this page.  I hope to generate discussion on these topics to further my own learning in this area and appreciate any comments you have on each idea shared.

A fear for many is that the continuous interactions that we have with one another through technology will replace face-to-face interaction.

Sometimes it seems that we forget our own childhood and that we had many peers that had trouble with interactions before mobile devices were the norm.  Technology did not inhibit them from speaking to others, nor do we need to necessarily think less of someone who may be an introvert.  People have different strengths and some actually thrive in isolation.  Their issue or our issue?

What some teachers have done is use technology to actually give students a voice and options that they didn’t have before.  I thought it was brilliant to see one teacher use Google Forms to do a simple “check-in” with students to give them the opportunity to share what is going on in their lives to ensure that she could help them in any way possible.

What this actually facilitated was the opportunity for the teacher to get to know her students better through the use of technology and she saw it as a way of actually enhancing their face-to-face interactions.  Some students are fine going up to a teacher and sharing some of the struggles that they have in their lives, but from my experience, those students would actually be in the minority.

Instead of accepting that some people are more open than others, we have often tried to force students talk to a point which would be our ideal.  Many educators, including myself, used to give marks for “participation” in class discussions to push our students to talk.  What this would often do would force some kids to speak when they are totally uncomfortable, and not facilitate anything that would be beneficial outside of the classroom.  With others that continued to not talk, tying marks to their “lack” of participation, only makes them feel worse and punishes them for sometimes being shy.  Is this really helping the problem?

We have to see that for some students, technology actually can provide them the voice that they have never had before.  I spoke to one student that said the use of social media actually inspired them to start speaking publicly because they developed confidence through a medium that worked for them.  I think of how many students would benefit and feel more comfortable talking in public when they would be allowed to use a medium that works for them first.

Then you have the other argument that the constant use of technology actually takes away the ability for some students that are already social.  The reality with many people are social, means they will actually connect both online and offline.  Social media has not made me any less social when in an “offline” environment.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  I now feel that I am always comfortable going to any conference on my own as I will know people there that I have connected with through Twitter.  Instead of simply going to workshops and being by myself, I now can easily find a group of friends and connect with them in person.  This only started happening for me when I started using social media and if anything, it has actually made me more social in face-to-face settings.  Before I would have never gone to a conference on my own, and now, I don’t even think twice about it.

What I have also seen is that technology and social media has actually given people the opportunity to connect with others that have similar interests or experiences.  I was moved, as many were, by the video of two girls that were both born with one arm, connecting continuously through Skype.  Although they had never met, they considered each other “best friends”, and talked constantly, even though they were on opposite sides of the world.  The moment they finally met was inspiring, and to say that this relationship is lesser because it started and grew online, would most likely be an insult to these two, as it would be to others who have met some of their best friends and partners online.

It is pretty amazing to see the opportunities we have to connect, see, and learn about one another because of technology, but sometimes the ease of use leads us to take it for granted.  As I see my nephews and nieces grow up through my brother’s sharing of their lives, our conversations are much richer and deeper each time I see them.  I know more about their lives and feel that even though I am living far away, I am still able to watch them grow up.  I would take opportunities to see them in person over online interactions, but since I do not always have that option, I will continue to enjoy connecting with them through technology in-between visits.

Technology can give us the opportunity to enhance face-to-face interactions, not replace them.  We just have to take advantage.

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 11.42.29 AM

Myths of Technology Series: “Don’t Talk To Strangers”

For ISTE 2014 in Atlanta, I will be presenting on the “Myths of Technology and Learning”. As I am really thinking about what I will be sharing at the conference, I wanted to write a series of blog posts that will help myself and others “rethink” some of these statements or arguments that you hear in relation to technology in school.  I will be writing a series of blog posts on different myths, and will be posting them on this page.  I hope to generate discussion on these topics to further my own learning in this area and appreciate any comments you have on each idea shared.

As kids, we were continuously told “don’t talk to strangers”, and this generation has been told the same thing.  Times have changed and we have to really rethink this notion.

If you really think about it, everyone you are close with now was a stranger at one point.  Not only does that notion come to play, but as adults, we have to realize that it is much more common for people to meet someone online first.  Online dating has moved away from being “taboo”, it has become the norm.  If you took it even further, many people probably meet friends online first.  My time connecting online, has actually helped me to connect with some of my best friends in the world.  Similar to online dating, many of these friends that I have become closest with have a list of qualities that I was drawn to that I may not have necessarily met if I was only open to “offline” connections.

Kids are also starting to create those environments for themselves as well.  Danah Boyd discusses in her book on “Networked Teens”, how kids are using social media to connect with peers that have similar interests.  One example I have seen was a student in a small community who had a unique interest in gaming, use his Instagram account to connect with other gamers.  None of these people were in his class, and could have lived in different countries, yet they were all people that this student identified with and gave him a sense of belonging.  There are many kids in our schools that would benefit from a sense of belonging.

As I continue to do workshops with students, I have continuously asked them, “How many of you have met someone online first, and them met online.  Years ago, my guess would be that the percentage would be very low, but I consistently get above half of the room raising their hands.  I would also guess that several students chose not to raise their hands because they have been continuously told that this is something that they shouldn’t do, while we as adults, continue to do this ourselves.  Safety should always be our number one concern, so if we are going to help kids be safe in a networked world, we have to think differently.

One suggestion that I have given students is that they have connected with someone online that they want to meet in person, they should talk to their parents first and arrange a video chat with their mom or dad in the room.  Not hovering over their shoulder, but so that it is obvious that the parent is present.  They could arrange to meet somewhere where their parent drops them off, and is around.  Obviously this depends upon the age of the child, and some still might scoff at the idea, but it is a lot safer than pretending this could never happen and covering our eyes.  We have to start thinking about different approaches to keep our kids safe in such a networked world.

Many educators, such as Kelli Holden from Parkland School Division, understand the power there is connecting with “strangers” and has focused on modelling the power of social media with her students, which has made a tremendous impact on their learning.  Using a classroom Twitter account, Kelli will ask questions of the “world” that are often developed with her students, and they will learn a great deal about the rest of the world.  Using the hashtag, #whatsdoesyourspringlike, her students displayed a picture of the weather outside in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada, and received responses from around the world, including Palm Springs, Washington,  Norway , Tokyo, amongst many others.  If we want our students to have a “global awareness”, we have to teach them how to safely connect with others.

If I think about my experience with a subject such as science, I remember losing interest quickly.  This lack of passion for the subject probably spilled over to my own students in my first few years of teaching, as I never really understood or developed a love for the subject.  But now, with the ability to connect with biologists, physicists, astronauts, or even classes around the world, there is an opportunity to learn about science from “scientists”.

If we let our notion of what a “stranger” is and decide not to connect with these people, we are taking away tremendous opportunities from our students.  Instead of the idea that we “shouldn’t talk to strangers”, maybe we need to focus on Bill Nye’s notion that “everyone you meet knows something you don’t” and teach our students how to be safe in a world that is powerfully connected.

Would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?

There has been a lot of talk about this video that was anonymously shared by a teacher from Chicago Public Schools:

The outrage shared by many educators is that this is a terrible way of professional learning and it really undermines teachers.

It is almost like we are treating them like children…right?

I just wonder how many hits that video (over 130,000 at the time I am sharing it on this blog) would have received if it was a classroom full of students doing the same thing? Would people have cared as much? They should. I also wonder if someone in that session will use the same techniques with their own students? Often we teach the way we were taught and if we do not change the experiences teachers have in their own professional development, we can’t really expect them to change anything in their own classroom.

The question I have been asking a lot lately is, “would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?

If this wouldn’t work for me (which it wouldn’t), then it is not going to work for my students.

3 Things That Should Never Change in Schools

Although I often speak about the things that we need to do to develop and further the way we teach and learn in schools, I would still consider myself a little “old school”.  Brought up by very traditional parents and being a part of a community that I loved, there are things that I believe should never change in the school environment and will be vital to educational institutions in the future, although they are rooted in the past.

1. The Focus on Relationships 

My best teachers during my time in school, are people that I still hold dear to my heart to this very day.  Was it because they inspired me by a test that I had to write in the classroom? Never.  What I appreciated was how they made me feel valued as a person, and not simply a student.

I had a science teacher when I was young, and since I struggled with the subject, I was quite a handful in the class.  The next year when we had a different teacher lead the course, the connection that I had with the teacher was different and I put much more effort into the course and my work.  I still never did truly well in the subject, but I cared a lot more, because I was cared for as a person.

As the old adage goes, students will never care to know, until they know you care.

In 100, 200, 300 years, relationships will always be the foundation of a good school.  Without that focus, schools would surely become irrelevant.

2. Opportunities Outside of the Classroom 

As schools continue to cut budgets, often programming outside of the classrooms tend to be one of the first things to go (unfortunately, mostly in the fine arts).  This is not a good thing for our students.

In my own experience, the opportunity to play sports in school led me to develop leadership skills, as well as understanding the importance of being on a team and working together.  The opportunity to take part in the drama program, gave me the confidence to speak in front of others.  Both of these programs have had more impact in what I do today than anything else than I have ever done in school.

It is great to see districts like Chris Kennedy’s in West Vancouver not only promote these opportunities, but give kids different opportunities that are new to school.  If schools are to develop well rounded individuals, there is a huge importance in offering different programs to our students outside of the classroom.

(By the way…many teachers around the world provide these opportunities on a volunteer basis!)

3. Learning in a Respectful Environment 

I have to admit that I have walked into schools and have cringed at some of the words that I have read on clothing.  Surprisingly, it was not only by students but sometimes even staff.  It is important that as an educator or student you feel comfortable, not only physically but mentally as well.  I believe in the importance of relationships (as outlined in this post), but also of being able to work in an environment where people’s differences are respected and free from derogatory remarks.

Schools should be a “safe” place, and safety also deals with the notion of being comfortable to share ideas and be respected by one another, no matter who you are.

The idea that we need to continuously prepare kids for their future is something that always sits in the back of my mind.  Pedagogy often needs to change as we continue to see different ways of learning and understand how the brain works.  That being said, there are some fundamentals they should never go away and will make schools a place that students want to be.

Some ideas will never get old.

A Focus on Consumption

I’ve hit a slump.

Blogging has been slow and an arduous task as of late, and I seemingly have struggled to find inspiration to write.  I have committed myself to continuously write in this blog because it helps me to focus not only my growth as an educator, but as a person.  Thinking and sharing out loud has truly made me grow in my thinking and has helped to clarify my thoughts.  The process of blogging has been extremely helpful.

So why the slump when once it was so easy to write?

Probably one of the reasons is that I am trying to spend more quality time with those that I care about, and putting down the phone, hiding the computer, and just valuing someone else’s presence.  Finding balance is key so I have been comfortable with writing less.

I don’t think thats’ it though.

To me, one of the biggest reasons that I have had trouble with writing is that I have focused on creating and sharing more, and consumption less.  I attribute this to not only having less time to read the work of other educators, but also I have been spending a lot of my time on the road, preparing and delivering presentations, not having the time to simply sit and get.

Yup, I need more sit and get.

The importance of creation in schools is something that I truly believe in and should be a huge focus, but I also believe that there is still a huge value in the delivery of content and information.  Learning from hearing others, reading, viewing, watching, and simply consuming information, often gives us the inspiration to create.  Several years ago, John Medina, writer of “Brain Rules”, talked about the idea that creation without consumption would be similar to playing “air guitar”; you would have an idea of the motions, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to create any meaningful.  That makes sense to me.

So I am going to make more of a concerted effort to try and get to other sessions at conferences, spend more times in classrooms when I am home, read more educator blogs, and happily consume some information.  WIthout that focus on consumption, the ability to connect, create, and develop my own thoughts will continue to be a struggle.