Tag Archives: Jesse McLean

Inquiry Based Professional Learning

What if we created professional learning opportunities that were not only engaging, but also empowered educators in the change process?

“Inquiry Based Learning” is something that I have been spending a lot of time looking into lately, not only from the perspective of how it could be done in the classroom, but for staff professional learning.  I found a great document from Alberta Education on the topic, and although I am not probably saying something new, I was thinking about how if we want schools to do this type of learning with their students, it is more likely to be successful if teachers had the opportunity to participate in this type of professional learning. (If you do “Inquiry Based Learning” in your professional learning, I would love for you to leave a link in the comments.)

Here is the quick introduction on “Inquiry Based Learning” from Alberta Education:

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply.”

Let’s modify it for the purpose of this blog post:

“Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students learners formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learnings to others to create real solutions to improve learning and the environment of the classroom(s) and school.  In classrooms a school where teachers administrators emphasize inquiry-based learning, students staff are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage and empower students staff deeply.”

As I thought about the potential for this process, it was not only to have teachers understand deeply the potential of inquiry based learning for students by immersing themselves in the process, but it was also to tap into their knowledge and wisdom to be a part of the change process of a school or system.

This tweet from Andrew Campbell reminded me of how often we don’t listen to the people that are in the system on ways that we can move it forward.

So what could this look like in the context of professional learning?

I was thinking about having an overlying question to guide other questions.  This question would be, “Why do we…?” For example, a question that could be created by a group of staff based on interests is, “Why do we have student awards?”, or “Why do we use report cards as our main assessment tool?”  Not all of the questions necessarily need to start with “why”, but it is mainly to challenge the assumptions that we have about the process of school.  They could also be along the lines of, “Does the process of school impede on deep learning?”  The importance of this process is that we start to look at ideas with fresh eyes, ask questions that we are passionate about, actively research new ideas and solutions, and have staff be crucial in the change process of school.  Change is more likely to happen when we are active contributors to the change process; it is not something that can be done to us. 

As my friend Jesse McLean would say, this goes beyond simply looking at best practice, but it is looking at creating innovative solutions and ideas for what school could look like.  Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant talk about the block that “best practice” can sometimes have on innovation:

“Innovation has an inherent distaste for best practices because it is about new solutions, not copying existing solutions.”

What is imperative in this process is to empower staff, not only by providing time to create this type of work (this could be an example of a 20% time initiative in your school/district), but also that if they are willing to go deep into the research and provide powerful new solutions, looking at how they can be implemented at the school or district level.  If their question that they start with is a “non-negotiable” and something that you will never be able to change, that needs to be communicated up front.  If the group or individual still wants to pursue their question, then at least they know the drawbacks at the beginning.

As I see, there are several benefits to this type of professional learning:

  • Experiencing a powerful learning opportunity as an adult to understand what it could look like in the classroom.  To be a master teacher, you must first be a master learner.
  • Unleashing the innovative potential of the adults in the building and creating an environment where risks are not only encouraged, but time is created to actively take them.
  • Focusing on the importance of research based on passions as an important element of learning.
  • Empowering staff in the creation of improved learning environments and giving them real opportunities to lead in the change process.

This is not meant to be an idea that is taken and implemented as is, but a starting point of something that you could do to transform professional learning and provide autonomy to staff, the research that is necessary for mastery and deep understanding,  while also tapping into the importance of purpose in developing the future of schools.  Three elements (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) that Dan Pink would state are crucial to motivation. This might be something that is risky as an administrator, but if we want to create an environment that staff take risks in their learning, we need to not only encourage it, but more importantly, model the process.

To think different, we need to create  opportunities that immerse ourselves in new experiences that make us act and feel different first.

What do we lose?


“We must never assume that an appeal to the masses represents illiteracy. In fact, it implies a high degree of literacy. And in the new century, that increasingly means visual media.” Stephen Apkon

Greystone Centennial Middle School is hosting their fifth “Innovation Week” (if you want to learn more, connect with Jesse McLean on Twitter), where students suggest things they want to learn, create, make, during the week, and have time to explore and develop.  In the last week before holidays, it is amazing how engaged the learning is within the school.  It is a pretty powerful experience for students and it is a glimpse in what school could look like all of the time, not just  a couple of weeks.  From the work that is happening at the school, I know the experience has shaped and reshaped the learning that is happening year round.

As I walked around looking at what the students were doing, I saw one student using a program that I had never seen before called “Blender” in which he was designing a prototype for a car.  It kind of blew me away to see what he was doing and how he was doing it, because I guessed that no one showed him how to use the software before.  When I asked him how he learned to use it, he just simply replied with one word; “YouTube”.

I was quickly reminded of this Will Richardson quote:

I don’t disagree that a lot of professional development monies are wasted. And truth be told, teachers should be responsible for their own PD now. Kids wouldn’t wait for a blogging workshop. Adults shouldn’t either.

The student wanted to learn about the program, so he went and learned about the program.  This is not in this case, but in so many, whether it is learning how to play an instrument, do a dance, or build something new.  There is a ton of learning opportunities out there, they just might not all be related to the curriculum.  Is our job to teach students how to learn a curriculum, or our students how to learn?  Maybe it is more a combination of both, but more importantly, it is the latter.

I then started to think about how so many schools have blocked sites like YouTube because of all the “distractions” that are on the site.  I admit, I can get lost surfing the web and it is easy to get sucked into something totally different than what you first started looking for, but we lose so much when we take such a robust platform full of information away from our kids.

“Among the more than three billion videos watched each day on sites such as YouTube, there is undoubtedly a lot of garbage. But in what medium is there not?” Stephen Apkon

(As I wrote the above paragraph, I thought about how we have so many books in a library that are simply there for the pleasure of the reading, yet we wouldn’t pull out every novel and replace it with non-fiction, because we see reading is directly correlated to learning, whether it is for the purpose of school or not.  Is there a parallel to the videos we consume as well?)

I know that video sites can become a distraction, not only for kids, but adults as well.  It is rare that there are only positives with any form of technology and I wonder what we lose when we block sites like YouTube (and a myriad of other sites that have a lot to do with learning and maybe not so much to do with school), not only from the perspective of preparing kids for the world we all live in,  but also for the powerful learning that can take place. I can guarantee that if I looked hard enough today, I could have found a student using it and being totally off-task from what they were working on. It is obvious that still exists. But if we looked at sites like YouTube as a library filled with knowledge that we still have to teach our students to navigate, would schools still thinking about banning it from their students?

What “Digital” Accelerates #LeadershipDay14

This post is my contribution to Leadership Day 2014.


The term is thrown around in circles often and it is something that I have focused on in my work with students.  What I concluded around the term was “the opportunity to use technologies to make a significant impact on the lives of others.”  In schools, we have focused on the notion of “digital citizenship” for years, but the term seems to be very neutral.  In reality, if I live in a city, I am a citizen in that area.  Is talking about the mere existence of “being online” enough for our students?  Are we really setting high expectations or as educators, have we set a rather low bar for what our students do online because we are unsure of the space and how to use it ourselves?  And really, is it “digital citizenship” anymore in a world where every single student in our school has grown up in a world with Internet?

Not settling for the “status quo”, many administrators have jumped into the space to experiment, themselves, on how social media can make an impact in the work that they do in schools.  Starting off as “citizens” in the space, many educators have played around with technologies to see how it could impact learning and relationships amongst both peers and students.  The transition for many though, has gone into the leadership space, where they are sharing some of their learning in an open space to focus on making an impact on the lives of not only those students in their school and classroom, but helping teachers help students across the world. Although “Digital Leadership” has been a quote that has been used often in this type of work, the main components of leadership have not changed, but only amplified and accelerated.  From experimenting myself and observing others, I have seen how “digital” has made a significant impact on not only the notion of leadership, but also the work that is underway in schools.

Accelerating Innovation

Innovation can simply be defined as doing things “better and different”, yet it is often used to replace the term (mistakenly) for technology.  Innovation and technology are not necessarily synonymous although some organizations simply replace the word “edtech” with “innovation” in job titles, without really changing job descriptions.  Innovation is a human endeavour and is really more about a way of thinking than it is about the “stuff”.  Yet, the way we use technology now can really accelerate the process of innovation in schools and districts.

Two key components that are necessary to innovation are networks and remix.  Great teachers have done this for years without social media, but with the ability to now connect with people all over the world, innovation can definitely be amplified. Networks are crucial to innovation, because they increase the ability to learn and share ideas with people.  Concentrations of people in a specific area (known as “spikes”) already exist in our world.  In North America, if you want to be a movie star, where do you go? If you want to become a country singer, where do you go? If you answered “Hollywood” and “Nashville” (in that order), you have identified a “spike”.

So where do “spikes” exist in education?  Until now, there has been no real place since schools are all over the world.  But with the thoughtful use of social media by educators all over the world, “spikes” have been created through a ton of teachers connecting through mediums such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.  These types of networks are crucial to this accelerated growth and though often people complain that they can become an “echo chamber”, the changes and iterations to many ideas are really creating some great ideas that are impacting education.  Things such as “Genius Hour”, which gives students the time to explore and create based on their own passions (paraphrased), are going viral, and although there are many that would suggest this type of learning should be the norm for the majority of time in our schools, implementing some of these ideas in small steps, are usually crucial to major changes.

As Chris Kennedy stated in his recent #LeadershipDay14 post, “you cannot microwave change”, that being said, change can happen a lot quicker now than it has before.  This social sharing through these vast networks has been the spark for many great ideas.

That is where remix comes in.

Again, great teachers have always done this, but now, they just have a greater opportunity and community to tap into.  Finding the idea is one thing, but making it applicable and work for your community, situation, and more importantly, your students’ needs, is where this is crucial.  Seeing Josh Stumpenhorst share the idea of “Innovation Day” in Illinois, I watched as Jesse McLean made it into “Innovation Week” within Parkland School Division in Alberta.  Remixes and iterations of this day/week, have been shared, remixed, and made applicable to kids of all ages all over the world.

The network is where the information has been found, but the ability to remix it for your own context is where innovation happens.  This becomes a massive game of “telephone” where the idea starts off one way, but by the time it ends up in a specific spot, it could look totally different.

A Flattened Organization

This used to be done in our schools through an administrator seeing a great practice in a classroom, having the teacher share it in a staff meeting, and then others implement it in a way that they have seen makes sense for their students.  It worked, but it was a much slower process and often relied on teachers being empowered to shared by their administrators.  What “digital” provides is often an instant look into the classroom without waiting for those “once-in-awhile” meetings.

I remember in my first year of leadership, one of my mentor principals had shared how she believed that she was a better teacher now as a principal, because she saw teachers “teach” all of the time through visiting their classroom.  I made this something that I implemented often in my work as an administrator, but my instructional leadership alone could only go so far.  I wanted other teachers to see what I saw.

Having teachers watch other teachers in action is probably the best professional development any educator could get, but the reality is that because of time, space, and funds, this opportunity is often limited.  What I wanted to see was the teachers creating this visibility into their classrooms through the use of social spaces.  Instead of waiting for the meeting, a teacher can simply blog, create a video, or even tweet ideas of things that are happening in their classrooms.

This “visible learning” shared by the teacher, shows that learning and leadership can come from anywhere within your school.  Many leaders have challenged this idea with the reasoning that teachers should “just talk to each other” and that digital shouldn’t replace that.  From what I have seen, it has actually been the opposite.  Conversations are often initiated from these “quick shares” that go on in the staff room, or after school.  I have seen greater face-to-face connections because of this sharing, not only at the school level, but at the district level as well.  It also shows that anyone can learn from anyone, the kindergarten teacher can make an impact on the principal, and vice-versa.

When we truly flatten our organizations this way, it makes us all better, because we not only better appreciate one another, but we tap into the “wisdom of the room”.  We can do a lot more together than we ever could do apart.

Empowering Voice

There are many things wrong in the world of education today.  Initiatives are often changed and it seems politicians are more concerned with “making a name” than “making a difference”.  Traditional media has also hurt education in many ways by focusing on the bad stories that come out of school, rather than the good.  It is not the idea that as educators we need to speak up now more than ever; education has always been in need of good public relations.  It is just now the opportunities to share our voice are numerous, and we need to take advantage.

Through the constant sharing of not only what happens in school, but the way things are changing, we have the ability to not only connect on a global scale, but also locally.  When I grew up, the sole concern of my parents was safety, but with a mass sharing of knowledge, comes a higher expectation from the public.  The more we are informed, the more we expect.  It is human nature for not only education, but for all organizations.  This, in my opinion, is so positive to what we are trying to do with schools.

School websites have often shared things such as sporting events or concerts at schools, but they have not focused on conversations with our community.  As many schools are trying to move forward in a much different time than many of us grew up in, it is essential that we not only share what is happening in our schools, but engage in true, two-way conversations with our communities.  The more parents are brought into the learning that is happening in the classroom, the more likely their children will be successful.  We have an opportunity to not only share our voice as educators, but we have many more avenues to hear the voices of our community, and more importantly, our students.

For example, Leyden High Schools, located in a suburb of Chicago, has recently turned over their Twitter account to an individual student in their school, one week at a time (found at twitter.com/LeydenPride).  You are able to hear the experience of students in the school from their viewpoint, not the view of a school that is trying to “brand” it’s message.  What this school has displayed (on several occasions) is that a school is defined by the experience the students have, and that they should not only engage them in conversation, but empower their kids to share their voice openly.  They are not focusing on developing the “leaders for tomorrow”, but by empowering student voice right now, they are developing the leaders of today.  Any great leader knows that their legacy is not defined by creating followers, but by developing leaders.

Empowering our teachers to share their voice and open the doors to what they do in the classroom, also gives our community a new perspective on what it is to be an educator, and how we are willing to go above and beyond for our kids.  There are bad teachers in schools.  You will find this to be true in any profession.  Yet those teachers are in the minority, while the stories that were shared about them, through the media, were in the majority.  What has changed is that many of our great educators are changing the narrative by sharing the incredible work that they are doing with students.

Unfortunately, there is still the mindset in many organizations that administrators need to “control” the story that is sent out about their schools.  The feeling is that with every blog post, tweet, website, etc., approval must be obtained before it is shared.  This is not leadership.  Our job is to not control talent, but to unleash it.  If you hired the teacher to work with children in a classroom, shouldn’t we be able to trust them to send out a tweet?

A teacher sharing their voice publicly, is often deemed risky.  Although there are pitfalls and negatives that can happen, the positive far outweigh the negatives.  As leaders, we can not simply ask our teachers to take a risk and share their voice with others, but model it ourselves.  Often we promote that our staff “take risks”, but unless they are willing to see their leader “put themselves out there”, they feel it is not a chance that they are willing to take.  Through these stories from our schools, we make a connection with people that “data and numbers” simply cannot convey.  Stories from the classroom, are the ones that touch the hearts of our communities and other educators, and often lead to meaningful change.

Our voice as an education community is more important now than ever.  How are you as a leader empowering others to share their voice?

Concluding Thoughts

The main components of leadership have not changed in the past few years because of the “digital revolution”, nor will they change in the future.  Perhaps we just have a better understanding of the definition of “leadership” and how it differs from “management” (although both are crucial components to successfully leading an organization).  The difference digital makes is that we can accelerate, amplify, and empower in a way that we couldn’t before.  Great leaders take advantage of every opportunity in front of them, so that they can empower those that they serve.  Cale Birk, a principal in Kamloops, BC, recently said that “better is not easier”; as leaders, we shouldn’t be looking for an easy way out.  This work is tough, but the most important element is not necessarily where we are, but that we are moving forward.

It is pretty easy to say “do this”, but it is much better and more valuable to say “let’s do this together”.  If we can show that as leaders we are willing to embrace change, and jump in to many of these new opportunities for learning with our communities, the impact we can make not only with our staff, but more importantly, our students, could be monumental.

Want to be successful? Be a sponge.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by George Couros

I have worked with some brilliant leaders and educators and I have noticed the same things about all of them.

They listen.

No matter their position, they are successful because they see every opportunity as an opportunity to learn.  Even when they are in a higher position than myself, they see an interaction with myself and others as an opportunity for them to always stay on top of their game.  The other things that I notice is that although they know they do not have all of the answer, they sure have a lot of questions.  

Leaders continue to ask questions.

When I think of thought leaders in my school district, I think of people like Jesse McLean and Travis McNaughton, and the amazing ability they have as well as their insights regarding education.  They are leaders that make a huge difference in their communities and the one word that I think of when I think of either one of them is “sponge”.  They soak in everything they can, but eventually they release they learn and share it with others.  They also do not learn only from people that are “above” them in the organizational hierarchy, but they learn from every person they interact with.  They focus not only on the knowledge of that person, but they soak in the characteristics of that person and learn about them as people, which is imperative in the change process.

“Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process…human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.” Atul Gawande

Even when they disagree, they don’t jump in and start defending their beliefs, they continue to listen. They think. They absorb. They think of what they are learning, how they can adapt it, and how they can share.

This does not mean that they agree with everything that they hear.  Not at all.  In fact, many people simply regurgitate what they hear from someone else and agree openly although deep down, they don’t agree with what is being said.  Leadership takes a back-bone to stand up for what you believe in, but it also is imperative to focus on what you can do better.  Leaders know that it is not about being right but about doing right.

The next time that you have an interaction with someone, ask them questions, see what you can learn, see what you can take, and see what you can share with others.  That is what a “sponge” does and it is a characteristic that is crucial to effective leadership.

Gladwell and Innovative Leadership

One of the school boards that I spoke to this year (Sir Wilfrid Laurier), has an interesting focus on the objective of “Leadership and Innovation”.  The description is below:


1. To promote, support, and increase the implementation of innovative approaches in teaching, learning, and problem solving through leadership

2. To recognize and celebrate innovative approaches

The first point to me is imperative, as in my travels I have come to believe that innovative schools or districts are a reflection of leadership.  If the “leader” is not innovative or does not believe in challenging the way things “have always been done”, the ceiling for innovation is much lower.  If leaders are not comfortable with the inherent risk that comes with “innovation”, that will be reflected in organizational practices.

As to what “innovation” is, I love the definition provided by Notter and Grant in their book “Humanize” (one of my favourite books I have read this year):

Definitions of innovation vary by guru, but they revolve around two words: change and new. Innovation implies change and doing things differently, but it has to achieve some new level of performance, or create some kind of new value. It is not enough just to be different; it has to be better. It is about creation, not copying.

As I talked about this notion with Jesse McLean as his school undertook “Innovation Week“, I thought back to Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point“, and thought about some of the key people that he describes that push forward “social epidemics”, I wondered how they fit into our notion of innovative leadership in schools.  The three people listed by Gladwell’s “Law of the Few”, as described in this Wikipedia article, are described below:

Connectors, are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions. A connector is essentially the social equivalent of a computer network hub. They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles. They are people who “link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”

Mavens are “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.”[4] They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell cites Mark Alpert as a prototypical Maven who is “almost pathologically helpful”, further adding, “he can’t help himself”.

Salesmen are “persuaders”, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them.

As we are seemingly are at the “tipping point” in school reform, I wonder if leadership has to not only possess one of these characteristics, but essentially all three?  If we are actually moving to a place where people don’t just accept change but embrace it (as change is always the constant), I see all three of those elements being crucial in school leadership.  To effectively “promote, support, and increase the implementation of innovative approaches in teaching, learning, and problem solving through leadership”, those characteristics would be essential.

Thoughts?  Obviously there are other essential characteristics that make a good leader (value on relationships and building trust being the most important), but where do Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” now fit in where a world is more social than ever?

Ideas Into Action

“Organizations that can access the most brains will win. Its not what you know but how quickly you can access knowledge of others.” Liz Wiseman

There are some really awesome things happening in our schools right now and I just wanted to share some simple ideas that may spark some others.  The interesting part about the work that is happening is that many administrators are looking through social media at what is happening at other schools around the world and implementing them in some fashion within their own schools.  If these educators were not connected, I am not sure that they would be trying these out but they are all very active while also willing to share their work with others both within our division and the entire world.

1. Memorial Composite High School Facebook Page – Facebook is not necessarily an innovative idea nor new to schools, but I was extremely impressed watching the school principal, Shauna Boyce, doing all of the updating and creating of this page, as well as the Memorial Composite Twitter feed.  Now the principal doesn’t have to be the one updating this page, but I know that because of Shauna’s understanding of how this could be used she would encourage and be able to model this for her staff.  Instead of killing innovation because she is scared of “Facebook” (as outlined in this post), Shauna is modelling an effective way she can be using this technology to connect with students.

2. Muir Lake Ninja Program – Adopted from Jeff Utecht’s program that he has run with his own students and shared openly with others, Muir Lake School Assistant Principal Travis McNaughton has implemented this same initiative with the students of his school.  In a kind of a neat way to connect with students, Travis has explained the program:

“Welcome to the Google Apps Ninja Dojo! In JapaneseDojo means “place of the way”. Here you will find your way to becoming a Google Apps Ninja Master.

There are a few Google Apps categories that you must master in order to become a true Google Apps Ninja Master at Muir Lake School. In each category there are four belts to achieve in order to becoming a Master Ninja.”

Kind of neat hey?  The admin team at Muir Lake has effectively used their school blog to connect with parents and share information openly, such as their “Google Chromebooks” initiative.

3. Innovation Week Jesse McLean, as part of the amazing administration team at Greystone Centennial Middle School, is looking to host their first “Innovation Week”, an idea that has been shared by Josh Stumpenhorst and others. As this has been a first time for the school and will be implemented in late December, Jesse is actually looking to endeavour in his own innovative project before the students give it a try.  He has told me that he believes for him to be able to successfully share this with others, he will have to experience it himself to understand both the positives and negatives.  Here is a small snippet of what Jesse is sharing:

“During this week, students will be given the time, space, support and necessary materials to work on a project of their choice. Our hope is to provide students with a meaningful experience that will help develop a passion for learning by giving them the chance to pursue their own learning interests. Similar projects have been run in the United States and England and have been met with great success when it comes to student engagement and impactful learning experiences. The students will not attend their classes during this week, instead they will work in the Innovation Week area for the entirety of their school day. Staff members from our school will be supervising and assisting in the Innovation Week area all week. We are hoping every staff member will get the chance to be in the Innovation Week area for at least one school day. On the morning of final day, we will have each individual/group present their project and give a summary of their learning that occurred during the week.”

It will be great to see what the students will be creating during this week and how it is further implemented on a daily basis at Greystone school.

Although there are some great ideas here, what I am most impressed with is that these individuals and schools are openly and willingly sharing their work as the default.  They are not being asked to put their stuff out there, but are doing it because they know that they can learn from others and others can learn from them.  Innovation is not about technology, but technology does afford us the opportunity to easily and openly share ideas in a way that we were not able to before.

I will end with the quote and image listed below which was continuously stuck in my mind as I wrote this post:

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by gcouros

Mobile Devices and Mindset; My Visit to Greystone

This morning, I had the opportunity to visit Greystone Centennial Middle School and watch a few classes in action, while also meeting with Principal Carolyn Cameron. It was a great opportunity to see some of the amazing things that are happening in the school, while also reflecting on some of my own learning. Last night I read a wonderful article entitled, “Is Your School A Comfortable Place to Learn“, and with that post in my mind, I looked with a critical eye at the environment that students were in. When I have looked at many classroom or school environments, I am not sure if I would be an effective learner in that space, and this was reiterated in the article:

Essentially, Nair says that if adults demand comfort, why shouldn’t we demand the same for our students? Why subject them to dull schools with hard chairs, bad air, anonymous loud spaces, and enormous meeting rooms? Why not make the schools cheery, clean, quiet (environmentally speaking, not library quiet) with comfortable places to meet on the outside as well?

When looking outside of the classrooms, you see these large common areas, that have an array of seating, for students who prefer different places to learn. It is nice, clean, bright and provides an environment where students could be comfortable in different settings. I think every week when I am at Starbucks that I always prefer sitting at a high table, with a stool, which also gives me the opportunity to stand and read if I need to be. I was always fidgety in class, which did not mean I wasn’t learning, it was more likely that I was uncomfortable. Having a “one size” fits all environment simply does not work. When I was in the classroom, I thought about comfort in a different way. Watching students have hats on, food at their tables, holding mobile devices, the classroom looked a lot different from what I have been accustomed to seeing. I asked one of the teachers about the “hats” which has always been a favourite item on staff meeting agendas, and he shared his own insecurities as a student about his hair in the classroom. I thought a lot about that and how that would negatively affect any students learning. I also thought about how nice it was students were able to eat when they were hungry and not at designated times. From personal experience, if I am sitting in a room with you, and I am hungry, I am not listening to a word you are saying. My mind is in my stomach.

Then I started to look at the mobile devices in the classroom (by the way, all of my notes for this post were written on my iPhone using Evernote). I asked students how many had either an iPhone, iPod, Blackberry, or some type of mobile device and it was basically a 100% within the room. When I asked what the “rules” were for the devices, both teachers in the room basically said that common sense ruled the land. As I am not a big fan of creating policies for everything that could happen in a day at a school, I was so relieved to hear that students were treated on an individual basis. When we create all of these rules, when enforcing them, we become more like police handing out tickets as opposed to teachers working with individual kids. I was quite impressed with how these teachers handled this situation and the kids were so respectful. Treat me with respect, and you are likely to get it back. Seems to be a pretty easy idea.

Now with the mobile devices, I could not honestly say that they were being implemented into the practice of learning as of yet. Many educators have this idea that it is an “all or nothing” idea with these devices, where I really believe that there is a middle step that we have to become comfortable with. Students have to be comfortable having them in their hand before they are going to leverage them for learning. I sat down with one student and asked her if she ever used her iPhone for learning in the classroom and she had said no. I asked her about even the thought of Googling something the teacher was discussing and the idea was not there yet. This actually wasn’t that surprising as, let’s face it, many people do not see an iPod touch for much more than communicating and playing Angry Birds or Zombie games. There has to be a transition. It was nice though that as I was still in the school, Jesse McLean (one of the teachers in the room) sent out a tweet with a visual of a student using his iPhone for learning. There is no way it is going to be used for learning, if it is not even in the classroom in the first place. As I toured a few other classes, I was lucky enough to see a teacher teaching a middle years class (presumably grade 6) the ideas shared in the book Mindset, regarding fixed and growth mindsets. I thought this was absolutely amazing, as there is no way this located anywhere in the Alberta Curriculum, but would definitely be beneficial to all learners. Here is a short summary from a Wikipedia article on the growth mindset:

  1. those with the growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning and improving,
  2. those with the growth mindset found setbacks motivating because they’re informative and are a wake-up call, and
  3. people with the growth mindset in sports took charge of the processes that bring success and maintain it.
No matter the prescribed curriculum, are these not lessons that are valuable to students not only for their future, but their today?

I really enjoyed my visit at Greystone and seeing some amazing things that are being implemented in the school.  That being said, what I appreciate the most about the school, is that for all of their success, they still know that there is much room to improve and grow.  Is it not easier for our students to embody the growth mindset when the staff and organization embrace that same belief?

Thanks for a great morning!

Close to the tipping point?

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by iliveisl

“The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them.” Malcolm Gladwell from the Tipping Point

Sitting down with a professor at a conference last spring in Calgary, we were talking about education reform.  He told me he was in his late 60’s, and I thought to ask him, “How long have you been talking about this ‘reform’ for?”.  He said he could not remember a time when he wasn’t having the conversation.  That scared me.

Thinking about so many things that we know are right about practice (smart assessment practices that focus on each child, personalized education, connected learning, and so on), I thought “will these practices ever become the standard?”  Soon after though, I thought about how many things we now see in many classrooms, must have become the standard at some point.  I don’t know when, but they did.  That actually gave me hope.

This is in no sense saying that I have all the answers.  I don’t think anyone in education is saying that.  I do however know that the more I connect to others, the clearer some answers are becoming.  It is their expertise that I am tapping into and helping me improve my own practice.

As we have started the 2011-2012 school year here in Parkland, I have seen something hugely different from years prior.  It is not that these things weren’t there, but I am now seeing people connect across the division to share and truly become teachers of our division, as opposed to only their school.

Here is a little snippet from the Parkland School Division website:

Serving over 58,000 residents in an area of over 3,995 square kilometers, our division operates 21 schools and several alternate sites.

No matter the unique planning that you could do for the division, it is near impossible for our entire staff in this area to meet face-to-face for any amount of time that would really push the envelope forward, but even more importantly, create solid relationships in such a large geographical area.

I really believe that the ability to bring people together begins with leadership.  Our Superintendent, Tim Monds, started off our year by having a wonderful speech discussing the path that lies ahead while sharing how :

As we learn together in PSD, we will continue to focus on literacy and numeracy and prepare our children to be critical thinkers who are connected to one another more than we can imagine.  We will model this for our students. I recently set up a blog for our Lead Team.  It was new for me and I was not ready to go beyond the Lead Team at that time.  I am now.  I was learning and needed to feel comfortable with blogging.  In July, our Future Planning Team attended a 21st Century Learning conference in Niagara Falls.  At that conference I began tweeting.  Me – tweeting?  I’m a busy guy.  Who has time for that?  However, I have been following a few people and looking up recommended articles and I am realizing the connections are making me a better educator.

His words set the tone for our division to not only learn openly, but connect with one another.  I watched as people shared their renewed excitement for teaching, blogged about listening to their students, and shared their exuberance for their first days as a new teacher. Our Deputy Superintendent, one of the people that I have been lucky to connect with so often, blogged for the first time.  Her work has always impacted me and now it can go to a much wider audience:

It’s a wonderful feeling for parents to walk away from our schools trusting that their children are in good hands – that they will be cared for, well beyond their academic needs.  Every interaction, every day with every child needs to reinforce the value that we place on students. Many times it is the little things that make the biggest difference.

No one is talking about technology, but they are all using it to connect their learning. Pretty powerful stuff.

Recently reading “The Power of Pull”, John Seely Brown talks about the “spike”, and how people go to the places where they are most likely to be successful in their career paths (go to Hollywood if you want to be an actor, Nashville if you want to be a country singer, etc.).  He talks about the impact on individuals when they find this “spike”:

In a world of intensifying competition, people seem to be seeking out environments where they can get better faster. These geographic spikes offer a wealth of employment options where ambitious and passionate employees can quickly change jobs and find employers more willing than the previous one to develop their talent. These cities also become geographic gathering spots for specialized service providers and other resources that can help talented people become even more successful.

Our (educator) spike is not in any one city or area.  In fact, with a profession so traditionally isolating, it would be incredibly hard to create this.  Our spike however can now be easily created through the means of social media.  This is not only talking about educators connecting throughout the entire world, but within our school division.  The really powerful thing is that we are not limiting the conversation to only our educators.  We are open to the world to help us along this journey, along with parents, and most importantly, our kids.  As mentioned earlier, Jesse McLean talked about getting students involved in the conversation, but when we use “closed” portals, are we really giving them that chance?  Yes, schools do surveys and ask kids for their feedback, but do we really create opportunities for our kids to be in on the conversation?  By openly communicating, sharing, and getting more people in on the conversation, how could we not improve our practice while making the world of education smaller and less isolated?

I am feeling we are on the edge of something big and I know if we can continue this momentum and make this sharing practice a habit, best practices can become standard.  Some are stuck on the idea that this is only about tweeting, blogging, and google apps.  If they are willing to look, there is so much more.  This is about connecting, sharing, and learning together in a meaningful way.  It is about bringing people together behind a vision and helping them find purpose, their why, as we move forward.  It is about sharing the expertise of people and getting better because of it.

We need to take advantage.

Learning From Success Works Too

cc licensed flickr photo shared by epSos.de

I have recently read some fantastic  blog posts from Jesse McLean and Eric Sheninger that talk about the importance of learning from our failures.  As educators, we have to be able to take risks and learn from our mistakes to role model this to our students.  Not everything works the first time.

In the past week I have been reading a very interesting book called Rework. Now some of the messages are very strong, and some even controversial, but this quote really stuck out for me:

Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you…Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked—and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better. Failure is not a prerequisite for success. (Rework)

The truth is that many educators are very modest and do not always like to share their success.  Some even feel guilty. The way I see it, there are a TON of great things happening in our classrooms right now, that have never failed.  They were awesome from the start.  As much as we have to learn from our failures, we need to be able to share and learn from our success as well.  Those good ideas that you have already implemented in your classroom will only steamroll and help build momentum to effective change for our students.  Share those successes with others to inspire them as well.  You were probably successful because it was a well thought out plan that you put into place.  Be proud of that!

Sharing this success may feel like bragging, but if you share it, it will probably work for someone else as well.  Sometimes we knock out of the park on our first swing.  You can learn just as much from that as you can striking out.