When it’s right to be wrong

DSC_7565Do mistakes make us human or foolish? Do they make us learners, or simply wrong? I was recently discussing this with a colleague reflecting on the importance of “getting things right”. Of course, as school administrators there is a logistical “getting it right” that is important, and my colleague was speaking of this. That is, the organizational aspects, such as implementing the events of school startup, timetable scheduling or report card distribution, for example, should be carried out with care, precision and attention to detail so that teachers and students can focus on the learning experience. These events should be ‘gotten right’.

But in a leadership position, while I believe that a leader must carry the vision that the community grows toward, that vision must include adults as learners too. In an undertaking as large, complex and varied as the leadership of a school community, no one can know everything about everything. The leaders of the community must take responsibility for learning as a members of that community. If I am totally focused just on “getting it right”, I will not be able to open up to learning from others.   I must be willing to bring problems of significance to the community and get the perspective and wisdom of the teachers, support workers, students and parents who experience that same challenging reality so that it can be solved together.

In my view, a leader who learns as a member of their school community, who has the strength of character to pursue better learning with its inherent risk of making a mistake, and is willing to share what they find in the process, is walking the path to a more connected community, one that deeply and visibly values learning.

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Grade 9 Timetable

The timetable is the frame for all aspects of school life, and a well designed timetable lays the foundation for a quality learning experience for students and for teachers. Designing a change to a timetable is a significant challenge, and not one that should be taken on hastily, alone or without significant, thoughtful reflection. The changes that we are developing come out of several years of conversation and experiment based on the Design Principles of The Learning Project. We are also facing change from the BC Ed Plan, which forms the core of our curriculum design. The day to day implementation of the principles of the Learning Project and the BC Ed plan will be guided by MYP.

The timetable design would be impossible without the hard work of a group of about 20 teachers who got together every Tuesday afternoon for an hour and a half. The group started by developing a set of values that would guide our work together.

The values that the Grade 9 timetable is based on are that the timetable design should support and enable:

  • Subject and Grade Collaboration
  • Create and model community
  • Self regulation – learning skills and strategies

These values formed the foundation of the rest of the discussions. The session that followed was a review of what is involved in the timetable decision making process, to make clear what the constraints are and where the opportunities lie. The remainder of the sessions were a series of discussions and debates on how to develop a Grade 9 timetable that embodied the values.

The challenge that this group has really embraced is the challenge of looking at time and space differently. There are constraints that are created by length of the school day and space in the building (labs, gyms, specialized rooms, etc). Within those constraints, there is an enormous amount of flexibility, and the Grade 9 group began some amazing professional dialogue on the possibilities and opportunities that we have to design structures that better support student learning and deepen their learning experience.

The one key change is that the timetable is linear for all grade 9 classes. After that, the rest is up to us. Some have said, “Why not just let it be linear, then, and not bother with the groupings?” It is critical to understand that the structure matters. We connect with the people that we see on a regular basis. When a group sees each other more often, the opportunity to build relationships and collaborative skill is present. When two teachers are working with the same group of students, there are opportunities that simply don’t exist in other arrangements. In a traditional structure, whether linear or semestered, the groupings of students change every block. This means that the students don’t have a consistent peer group that they see, and opportunities to build community are limited, because each group will be different from all the other groups a teacher sees in the course of a year. Colleagues don’t have the opportunity to build on what another does with their students, whether in terms of building relationships, specific learning skills, organizational skills, or skills for resilience and self regulation.

The work of the Grade 9 timetable group was to design a timetable where these opportunities are present.



This change has also raised a lot of questions. Below are some attempts to answer the questions that have come up so far. If you have additional questions, please email me and I will add them to the list.

1. Why is it so complex?

– Timetables are complex, period. Even explaining a traditional timetable is complex. Our plan for the Grade 9 timetable is, at its heart, simply a linear timetable. The values that the Grade 9 timetable group developed are made visible in the student groupings (the Pods and Pairs).


2. Can I have a linear prep?

– if you are teaching grade 9, we will do everything possible to provide you with a linear prep.


3. Will I end up teaching 4 or more different classes in a year?

– as with any timetable, we always work to ensure that teachers are not teaching too many different classes. This will be no different. Further, if we want teachers to truly reflect on their practice, we need to reduce the number of preps so teachers can focus on making real change in their lesson design.


4. Why do we have a different daily schedule?

– the daily schedule is still the same. Within that schedule, however, there are many opportunities to use time and space differently. The day schedule presented at the staff meeting was an example, not as a requirement, and would form a starting point for further professional dialogue.


5. How will students with special needs be supported?

– we are currently planning for this. We will continue with our Inclusion model that will now be implemented in grade 8 and 9. Embedded classes and attached teachers are support staff who make it more possible for us to realize the aims of the Grade 9 program.


6. We are putting the things we learned from grade 8 into improving the grade 9 timetable. What about improving the grade 8 timetable?

– next years Grade 8 timetable does include some of the things that we have learned. The timetable is a balance of priorities. Having the Rotation structure (which provides students with the opportunity to see all aspects of the Arts and Design areas) means that the Grade 8 Pods only include traditional academic classes.


Key Elements, Possible Teacher Schedules

Below are images from the staff meeting presentation, with key elements of the timetable, including examples of possible teacher schedules.      
Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15

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Posted in Education, Timetable

Aboriginal Education: Truth and Reconciliation

My family are news junkies, and we usually have the radio news on when we are home in the afternoon. This past spring when an article on Residential Schools came on, my curious children (9 and 6 years old) asked what that meant. We explained that from the 1870s until the later part of the 20th Century, many First Nations children were required by law to leave their families and attend boarding school. There they were not allowed to speak the language that they grew up with. My children had trouble understanding this, so I asked them to imagine our family in this situation, to imagine a situation where our country had been invaded, to imagine that they had to attend school far away from us, and were not allowed to speak English to each other at all. That they could be punished for speaking the language they knew best.

At this point my children became very upset, and asked me to stop talking about it. The idea of being taken from their family, and being unable to communicate, or to be themselves, was highly distressing. They could feel how awful this would be, and as parents, we could feel how awful it would be to have our children taken from us, to have no choice in the matter, and to have no control or influence over what they learned and how they were treated at school.


My children are young, and so we didn’t even talk about some of the more terrible things that happened to children at the residential schools, the poor conditions, illness and abuse. But at the same age many Aboriginal children experienced these issues personally.

When the Aboriginal Department at Johnston Heights (where I am the administrative liaison) was discussing our plans for our week of events on Aboriginal Education: Truth and Reconciliation, Fern Gabriel, our Aboriginal Youth Care Worker, commented that the history of residential schools in Canada is part of the history of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and that we can’t understand where we are today without understanding that history. By the same token, residential schools are part of Canadian history, not just Aboriginal history. We as Canadians need to understand this part of our history

There are many aspects of being Canadian that I am proud of: our strong international reputation as peacekeepers, our fantastic hockey players (male and female); the amazing Vancouver Olympics. Even though I take pride in these accomplishments, I didn’t have anything to do with making them happen. In the same way, I feel ashamed that Canadians made the decisions that led to the residential schools. As Canadians, and as educators, we have the responsibility to recognize, and to help our students understand, this ugly part of our past. To ignore it is to make it harder for those in our community who were affected by it.  As we tell the truth about what happened, we can help ourselves and our Aboriginal citizens to make peace with this awful piece of Canadian history.

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Johnston Heights Web Design Challenge

STAFHow many of us would trust the design of your business’s website to a 15 year old? This past month, I met some JH students who could do exactly that.

Mr. Post invited me to his class for a most interesting challenge. Rather than be an observer to see the wonderful things that his students were doing, I was to be a participant in the class. For the past three months his students have been learning to build web pages from the code level on up. This project was to be judged by myself, Ms. Lambe and Brian Yan Muk (a former JH grad now working in the web design field).

Web Design is a new course at JH this year, and Mr. Post and his students have taken on the challenge of the new with relish.  No simple “drag and drop” editing for them – they headed straight to using HTML code and the powerful Adobe Dreamweaver editing software. By the time they presented to us it was clear that they had a strong understanding of what is “under the hood” of a quality website.

BCAAP.pngA key part of The Learning Project this year is sharing our learning, both as adults and students. Mr. Post has been exemplary in this regard, discussing what he is learning with others, and demonstrating to his students that they don’t need to know everything, but that if they are curious and take risks, it will pay off with deep learning.

In order to take sharing the learning of himself and his students to a new level, Mr. Post organized a competition set up in the same way that a company might take proposals for a web design contract (or any contract). It ran a bit like an episode of Dragon’s Den, in that the student’s were given a brief for a fictional animal support company and given time to put the product together.  They were to plan a presentation to the executives (in this case myself, Ms. Lambe and Brian Yan Muk). For the students this is a solid piece of “real world” experience. If you are a business seeking to sell your services to client, you are often in competition with other agencies. In the classroom, students get the best of the both the education and business worlds. They experience the process of a business competition, but they also get feedback on how to improve their next proposal, which you rarely get in a traditional tender process or RFP.

We reviewed the proposals based on how closely they adhered to the brief, the quality of the Web Elements (images, mailto, rollover, and several other key feature) and design elements (well organized main menu, clear purpose, ease of navigation, and so forth).

In the end there were three that stood out in a field of high quality proposals.

The winners of our competition were the Siberian Tiger Awareness Foundation, or STAF, and the group was composed of  Alvin, Teresa, DevaanshPFAC, Zeshan. Jacob and Donny.   Their site was clearly laid out with an organised color scheme, single page navigation and great use of current web tools, including embedded video.

The second place group was the BC Animal Adoption Program, presented by Jules, Angelo, Bridget, Jed and Taranjit.  Their bright header, clear navigation and engaging information catches the attention of the view and draws them into the website.

In third place came the Paws for a Cause team, with an innovative header and background.

For me it was thoroughly enjoyable experience, and a chance to be part of the essential feedback process that students need to experience in order to improve in their work.  Well done to all the teams, and to Mr. Post’s innovative approach to learning.

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Posted in Education, Social Media, Technology

The Best Learning…?

The plane bounces in the air after a delayed departure. I look at my colleague and we wonder if we’re in for a rough flight. It takes a few minutes, but the turbulence starts to settle down, and we each turn to our books and iPads.

After three days of intense conversations about inquiry and innovation, of presentations from passionate teachers about their learning experiments, and fascinating observations in the classrooms at the Calgary Science School, my thoughts are in a similar state – bouncing around full of turbulence (though the five Starbucks runs might have something to do with that too). The flight smoothed out quickly, but my thoughts will take a few more days and weeks to come together on this experience.

The conference and visit to the school have left me with vivid impressions and ideas. I’ll figure out what they all mean later, but for the moment I’d like to put some of them down in print.

From Calgary Science School

1. When we started our tours, school staff told us just to ask students about what they were working on. These were amazing conversations. What stands out most for me was ability of the students to articulate the purpose behind any aspect of their learning, whether talking about the goal of the learning activity, where that activity fits in the process of their learning, what they need to do to take the next steps, how they would solve problems they encountered, and how they were being assessed. They were even able to assess the quality of their own work according to the expectations set by their teacher.

Students who are able to speak this clearly about their learning have a huge advantage. They can present their work and skill clearly to any employer, and they will be able to manage their own learning in any situation they are presented with. In our world where people have multiple careers, the ability to learn, to unlearn and to relearn is an essential survival skill. These students are ahead of the game. But there isn’t anything special about the students themselves. They’ve been taught to think about their learning in this way by their teachers.

From the ConnectEdCa Conference:

2. Just like the inquiry based classroom, the ConnectEd conference is based on the idea that everyone in the room has valuable insights to contribute. Growing out of a network of adults who are deeply committed to making their own learning visible to each other and to their students, this is a community of experts. Some workshops are conducted by recognized leaders in their field, some by teachers who are trying out new ideas in their classrooms, but everyone in the room is expected to contribute. There is no passive learning; every adult learner is active and engaged.

Even the leaders in the group are taking part in workshops like everyone else, deeply engaged in the sharing of ideas, extending their own understanding of the topics they are passionate about.

The flights attendants on the plane to Calgary reminded us that in an emergency we should put our own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else. So too with teachers. We need the oxygen of learning ourselves if we are to be able to help our students learn at the deepest levels.

From my final workshop, Assessment in the Inquiry Classroom
(facilitated by David Scott, Amy Park and Deirdre Bailey, of Calgary Science School)

3. It sometimes seems that what we do in schools and what we do in our worlds outside schools is disconnected. Students can reach the end of their 12 years of education feeling scared and unprepared for life after high school. But they shouldn’t. They should feel like they have the experience and training to enter into the next phase of thier life. So why don’t they?

Schools have been traditionally very good at teaching students about things. But the inquiry based approach assumes that students learn better by taking on a real world role. They can learn to think like a scientists or jounalists, not just write tests on biology or five paragraph essays in English. Teachers can help students learn how a scientist thinks, not just what she knows. What are the kinds of questions she asks when confronted with a problem? How does she go about finding answers?

The best way to learn what a scientist does (or a journalist, mathematician, historian, chef, artist, or metalworker) is to do it. While students may not become scientists in one class a day, they will develop confidence and understanding of what it is to think like a scientist.

Bit what about the rigor? Can they learn enough about the subject by acting like a scientist or journalist?. They can, according to Larry Rosenstock (High Tech High), who says that, “Rigor is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that discourse”.

These are three intriguing ideas about my own learning, and what the learning of my students can become. I plan to learn more.

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Posted in Education

Looking back at old ideas

The book I’m currently reading, “The Clockwork Universe” (by Edward Dolnick) rides along with the scientists and thinkers whose ideas made our modern world possible, in both it’s philosophical and technological forms. These pioneers and thought explorers didn’t live in the early 20th century, or even in the Victorian Age of Industrial development. They lived in the Seventeenth Century, less than 100 years after Shakespeare wrote his last play, chasing their curiosity toward ideas that are used in the greatest human achievements. Our satellites and rockets could only be launched because Sir Isaac Newton calculated the speed that a projectile must travel in order to orbit the earth. And he did this in 1687.


But their greatest achievement is not the gains in knowledge, massive though they are. Their greatest achievement was the continuing development of a process of scientific inquiry, first championed in Europe by Roger Bacon (who died in 1294). The process is inquiry, where questions are formed, answers are hypothesized, tested, reviewed and reformed as new questions. Sometimes the questions lead to amazing discoveries, sometime they lead down a side road, but they always lead to learning and growth.

The point I’m making is that when we talk about new ideas in education (or in anything), most of the time we are not talking about a new idea. We are talking about an old idea that we want to start using in the educational world, or to change how it is being used.

Our current educational system is based on the idea of 19th Century mass production. A product (in this case, learning) is broken down into it’s component parts, each part is made in a large batch, and assembled at the end. In our current system all our areas of knowledge are broken down into disciplines (English, Science, Math, etc) and and delivered to students in small chunks. Teachers then check to see if students have kept the knowledge in their heads (through tests). Students are organized into groups by age, and taught the same thing at the same time. The idea is that breaking things down into small, interchangeable parts, whether they are bolts on a car or math skills, and then delivering them in an organized method will produce an efficient, organized product. The intended product was a citizen who had a certain body of knowledge, and could read and calculate well enough to be successful in work and society at that time.

Ms. Hammond’s post hits the key question. “What is the change in education?” Or, to put it another way, why do we need to apply different ideas to education? As she explains, our students today are different, and the education they need in order to be successful is different. When all the information in the world is at your fingertips, and when students are used to asking their own questions, they need to be taught how ask better questions, questions that move their learning forward.

The old idea that we are applying to education is inquiry. For the students of the 21st century, it is a better one.

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Posted in Education, Project Based Learning

Who’s the teacher?

If you’d been in the Johnston Heights Learning Commons Wednesday afternoon, you’d have seen a strange reversal. As you looked at the bustle of intent young faces working through mathematical puzzles, you would have asked “Who are the teachers here?” Another minute of looking would have made the answer clear – the students.


These grade 8 students in Ms. Nagra’s class, led by their student teacher Ms. Venkataya, have been working on a project in their math class where they take math puzzles (all the way from Sudoku type number games to logic and geometry), and recast them as real world type problems with cars, pyramids, biospheres, and so forth. A field trip to Science World provided the real life example of how to create puzzle stations. So far it seems like a solid class project, with real life connections and hands on work, helping to bring math to life.

But they didn’t stop there.

In the Learning Commons Wednesday, what I also saw was several classes of Grade 7 students from our family of schools, being guided and led through the activities and challenges set by our grade 8 students. The students and their teacher had made arrangements to invite both younger students from grade 7 and older students from grade 11 to try their hand at the problems set by the grade 8’s. The grade 11’s would not have had an easy time either. At least I hope not! Both Ms. Hammond and myself had our brains challenged by the mathematical puzzles developed by Ms. Venkataya’s students. They worked hard to make the puzzles both real and really difficult!

At the beginning of this year, we articulated the principles of what we called “The Learning Project”, with three principles:
1. Learning should be transparent and shared
2. Adult learning improves student learning and engagement
3. Curriculum from various areas is integrated

This project is a wonderful demonstration of the Learning Project principles because it:

– makes the math content real and concrete
– engages other curricular areas (science)
– has students making significant decisions about how they share their learning with others outside the classroom – a real audience
– involves adults learning from each other – first, Ms. Nagra and Ms. Venkataya, the teachers of the grade 7 teachers, then Ms. Hammond and myself, and the other JH teachers who visited.IMG_0280

For me, the reversal of roles from teacher to student was a little uncomfortable, but I could also see how much the students appreciated seeing us struggle through the challenges they set. How will students truly learn how to learn unless we model it too? As we look toward next year with the development of our new grade 8 program, Ms. Nagra and Ms. Venkataya have provided a great illustration of how projects and assignments might develop their students’ learning. So much to look forward to!

Posted in Education, Project Based Learning

My daughter turned six in January.

My daughter turned six in January.

Like most kids, she loves the whole experience of birthdays – inviting friends, having cake and cards, and especially gifts (“Can I invite three more friends? Then they’d each bring a present too!”). She loves gifts, both to give and to receive. She’ll spend hours creating things to give other people, and when friends come by she’ll happily send them home with one of her favorite toys.

The other reason she is excited about being older is school. She started kindergarten this year, and she is loving it. She’s discovering her gifts for storytelling, she enjoys the kindergarten activities, and she loves creating things. She likes creating stories. She fills notebook after notebook with drawings and “curvy lines” representing writing, and she will sit us down in the evening and tell us he “stories” she has written. As I watch her develop I can see her skill with letters, numbers and words increase in parallel to the development of her creativity. As she becomes fluent with the written word, in the same way that she is with the spoken word, she will incorporate writing into her creative storytelling as well.

All this is happening without sacrificing either academic growth or creative development.

But in my role as a secondary school VP, the situation seems different.

The enthusiasm, creativity and optimism that I see in my daughter seems more buried in my students. Do they feel that same joy in learning, the same natural flow of growth that my daughter and her kindergarten peers experience?

In secondary school I see even our most successful students “walking a tightrope” between meeting the demands of the requirements of courses and graduation criteria on the one hand, and the development of the essential skills of creative and critical thinking and growth on the other. Many other students don’t even bother trying to find creativity and personal interest in their schoolwork, they just try to get to the end of the school day, and then do the things that stimulate their interest outside school.

Sir Ken Robinson asserts that in the early years of school nearly all children qualify as highly creative individuals, but that by the time they finish school very few would meet that same criteria.

I want my daughter to be as enthusiastic and creative after ten years of school as she is right now. Part of the challenge is that as secondary educators we believe that rigor and content must come before creativity. But without creativity there is no growth, no progress, no science, no iPhones, no social change, nothing that makes human society a great place to live. Without creativity our students don’t engage as much in deep, authentic learning. Our challenge as educators is to find a way to redesign our system so that we develop creativity and foster student interest, while at the same time we keep the rigor and the quality content.

Are we creative enough for this challenge?

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Posted in Education, Project Based Learning

Connecting students and online tools – JH Learning Commons

This post is awesome! If you are a JH teacher and you are wondering how to engage with the new Learning Commons, take a look at this! If you want to help your students integrate their learning with online tools, this can get you started.


Posted in Education

Evernote and iBooks Seminar

This post is based on a seminar presented to Surrey School District administrators on the use of the Evernote and iBooks apps. You may find it useful if you are a regular user of the iPad.


Please make sure that you have downloaded both apps from the app store. If you have already got these apps on your iPad, please make sure that they are both the latest version.  Some features, such as changing the name of a document in iBooks, will only work with the current version of the app.


There is also an excellent app called OneNote, that will synchronize with Office applications such as Outlook.




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Posted in Education, Technology