Adjusting the sails

Ship's sails

‘Sails’ by Chris Seward (cseward /Flickr)
Licensed under: Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

“When you can’t change the direction of the wind — adjust your sails.” – H. Jackson Brown

I came across the above quote this past week as I was thinking about how I move to include in my practice the ideas that were synthesized in my mind at ConnectEd Canada and help spread those ideas in my school. There is currently a lot of fear and suspicion between the different participant groups in the BC Education System highlighted by a very tense and adversarial relationship between the current BC Liberal government, as represented by BCPSEA, and the BCTF. Any proposals of change in schools is met with careful scrutiny for its ideology, backers and motives. Yet as a teacher, I don’t feel the current labour relations situation should stop me from doing “what’s best for the kids” in my own practice and with colleagues at my school. This is not to say there aren’t systemic challenges that make implementing those practices more difficult. Support for our most needy students, a shortage of specialist teachers (librarians/learning assistance), and class size and composition are all real issues that make providing a high quality education that is responsive to the needs of the student more difficult.

During the time at ConnectEd Canada we had the opportunity to visit the Calgary Science School (CSS) and talk in-depth with staff and students about the structure and educational experiences at the school. I was familiar with the work being done at CSS before the visit because of their excellent school blog, but I was curious to get a sense of what makes it so “innovative” and how it compares and contrasts with my current school. Five main qualities stuck out for me.

  1. Confident able learners – Every student that I spoke to at CSS was willing and able to talk about their projects, learning activities and educational experiences. Our two guides, grade 6 and grade 8 students, spent about 20 minutes taking questions from my colleague Craig Suttonand I about the school, how it is organized, what being a student there is like and their perceptions of their educational experiences. On top of being completely open and honest, the student guides were extremely articulate and thoughtful in their descriptions and analysis. When one of their teachers joined the conversation, the tone didn’t change, nor did the openness. It is clear that the students are comfortable sharing and supporting their opinions and talking to adults.The staff at CSS have a framework that is used throughout the school to define the qualities and skills of exemplary learners. This framework is reinforced through a learning strategies class and repeated referencing in class activities. The students I talked to exuded an understanding of the how, what, when and why of exemplary learning and a confidence in their abilities as learners. It cannot be overstated how powerful it is to have the belief that given the time, space and access to resources you can learn about, or how to do, anything that interests you. If I could impart one thing to my students it would be the desire to learn, the skills to do it and the confidence to know they can. Yet, we give very little time to these pursuits in a way that isn’t integrated into the curriculum. I think they need explicit attention if we are going to develop them in a meaningful way.
  2. Collaboration to the max – Staff, students, admin and parents at CSS collaborate with each other on a regular basis. The collaboration takes place in an environment that appears from the outside to be respectful, supportive and have clear guidelines about the terms of that collaboration. Two important factors seem to enable that collaboration to be productive: a willingness to recognize and value the contributions from anyone in the school community and allocated time for it to take place. As Gary McKinnon, superintendent of CSS, put it during a session on collaborative teaching at ConnectEd Canada,
    “Where do you start with collaboration? You start with your students – collaborate with your students.”That seems like sound advice for starting collaboration that pervades all levels of a school and builds a culture where there is value placed on our shared understandings and creations where ideas meld together and connections are made. Finally, the culture of collaboration is encouraged by connections to the world outside the school and venues for sharing those shared products.We used to have a scheduled collaboration block at our school every second Wednesday morning that originated out of teacher desire to work together and was a venue for active collaboration. Unfortunately that time became politicized through a mandate about how it should be spent and it slowly devolved to “extra” prep time with minimal collaboration before being eliminated completely from the timetable. I would love to see a return to scheduled collaborative time directed by teachers that also actively involved students in a meaningful way. I see that shared time for reflection, meeting and sharing as crucial to a collaborative, reflective practice. It is very difficult to find that time to meet with other teachers in the normal school day without it.
  3. Connecting outside
    Man on a ladder looking in window

    “Education is relevant when people outside the school become interested in what’s going on in the classroom.”
    “Wanna have a look inside?’ by Hindrik Sijens (hindrik/Flickr)Licensed under: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

    I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but it has stuck with me as a great benchmark for evaluating the quality of a project or curriculum. There were a number of examples of this connection to the world outside the school walls at CSS. Science projects in the local nature reserve, a live streamed debate between mayoral candidates and follow-up street level campaign to increase voter turnout, and an augmented reality playground where monuments come to digital life are all examples of this connection. One role of public education seems to be to develop active, engaged and thoughtful citizens. By helping students establish community connections and dialogue about relevant issues we are helping prepare them develop a voice to advocate and participate in their community. Connecting learning to “real” world experiences also communicates that school is not a game, but rather an opportunity to explore and develop their understandings of society and the world around them. It might also limit the number of times students ask, “Why do we have to study this? When will I ever use it?” By allowing our schooling to reach out the community, we draw in experts and a more diverse range of views that can contribute to our students’ understandings. A final benefit of learning that connects outside the school is it keeps the community aware of the value of schools as community institutions and refreshes the stereotyped perceptions of adolescents.

  4. Technology is embedded– Prior to visiting CSS, I had seen the school referenced in blogs and online writing for its use of technology in teaching and learning. To be sure there was lots of technology present at CSS, and a few applications that were new to me. However, the majority of what was being done with technology was not what I would term cutting edge, innovative or even complex. For the most part, it centred around students presenting and sharing their ideas, writing, projects and educational experiences. The students seemed to be enabled to access the technology as and when they needed it, and were trusted to use it responsibly for the task at hand. The result was an environment where the technology seemed embedded in the learning process in an almost seamless way. Also, there seemed no inherent preference in the teaching practice for using technology over “more traditional” methods. Technology is used where it adds something or enables something that isn’t possible without technology.It is important to stress that the use of technology doesn’t in and of itself make a lesson better. I think a lot of teachers feel a pressure to use technology in their teaching, but don’t know where to start or find it intimidating to get going. A reassurance for these teachers that a strong educational experience is in the design rather than the technology skill it involves might go some way to relieving that pressure and apprehension. I see technology as vital to education now and in the future, but only because it facilitates and extends connections, access to information, and presentations in ways or scope that wouldn’t be possible without it. Helping teachers see the potential to extend what they’re interested in doing will work much better in getting them to use technology than simply telling them they need to use it.It must be said that the same goes for students. It is often assumed that because students have had access to computer and mobile technologies for their entire lifetime that they are natural users or “digital natives” (a term I dislike greatly, but that’s another post). What I have found is that students don’t carry the same fears and perceived self-limitations into their use of technology and they are generally more literate at navigating and interacting with digital devices. However, they often don’t know how to explore and experiment to test a device or application’s capabilities, struggle with connecting to uses outside their personal experience or interest, and need guidance on aesthetics, analysis, critique of sources and composition. Schools have a role to play in mentoring students to use technology for their own learning and development in an appropriate manner. Students must also be shown that the use of technology isn’t inherently better, but has its own context, advantages, disadvantages and aesthetics.
  5. We can do this – The inquiry learning projects and educational experiences that I witnessed at CSS were interesting and creative. However, I work with a fabulous group of educators that do amazing things everyday at Frank Hurtand none of the projects I saw were anymore impressive than type of activities going on at our school like:
    • YouTube channel where students post instructional videos on how to fix different car problems and receive views, comments and feedback from around the globe
    • Class where students write and edit a digital school newspaper in group blog format – FHWordsmith
    • Students designing and building their own wood furniture
    • Students design, edit and create all the content for the school yearbook in a class
    • Grade 8 Humanities students developing a repertoire of analysis and critical thinking techniques while becoming prolific writers and engaging with classic texts
    • Art students developing exhibits for the local art gallery
    • Physics lessons where students design their own experiments, test and model the results to develop understanding of the laws of physics
    • Student run theatre company that puts on multiple productions per year with students filling all the roles on and backstage
    • Rec Leadership course where students volunteer, and organise and run events in the school
    • Game Design course where students design, program and present their own computer games and receive feedback along the way from experts & peers

    There are some important differences that lead to CSS being held up as an innovative school and I think those are primarily in the overall culture of the school. The cultural differences that I see are a much more frequent and broad use of inquiry learning across all curricular areas, a high value placed on learning, a commitment to collaboration and sharing, and a school-wide focus on developing learning strategies and skills. Cultural change is not easy to bring about, but it can be done with time.

    Boats adrift in a storm

    ‘The Storm Caught Up With Us’ by CameliaTWU (Flickr)
    Licensed under: Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

    The idea of institutional change often gets peoples’ guards up because they worry about where they’ll fit or what role they’ll play in the new version of the institution. The need for changes also suggests an implied problem with current practice. It is important to bring everyone involved along with the changes and reassure them that they have a role in the future while communicating a positive vision of the future organisation. The need for change in our schools and educational system is ongoing because they should reflect our society and environment and those are constantly shifting and changing. Our educational practices should also reflect our most current researched understandings about learning and development. Schools have changed over the last 100 years, just not fast enough to keep up with the winds of change in society, technology, educational research and our environment. So, we find ourselves drifting wondering where the next change will blow us. It’s time for a pro-active approach…we need to our adjust our sails catch the winds and move briskly into the future.

    At Frank Hurt, I know the frame of our ship is solid and the crew is skilled and able. We need to get together, look at our charts and sight our course. Let’s get on those ropes and start pulling…we’ll be sailing with the wind before we know it.

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