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

A Framework for Student Motivation?

Ms. Hammond’s post “Igniting the Fire of Learning” powerfully illustrates the connection between motivation and success, based on Matthew Kelly’s explanation of “the differences between highly engaged versus disengaged people”. But that begs the question, if the connection is so clear, and the results so dramatic, why are some students not motivated for success in school?

Ms. Hammond and the admin team at JH regularly discuss matters of concern for our students, and this post comes out of a conversation we had following her most recent post. In our school leadership positions, we see the broad spectrum of student work, from the highly engaged and successful, to the discouraged and disengaged. We know that our students work hard, and their families encourage their efforts. In spite of this, sometimes students still struggle with their motivation. Sometimes even those who are successful are going through the motions; they are getting the work done, but they are not finding that school motivates and energises them. As school leaders we have to consider the reasons for this, in the hope of finding ways to change it.

Some critics of the school system believe that the school system itself decreases motivation.  Testing, grades and external rewards focus our attention on the rewards and grades, rather than on the learning itself.  In the past, school was designed as a industrialized sorting mechanism for students, each categorized by their ability. Even though we now view school as a place where ability is developed, with success for all students as the goal, we still use some of the methods from the sorting system.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions as teachers, our presentation of the knowledge and skills in our subject area doesn’t connect with the reality that our students experience. Students don’t see the purpose in what they are being presented with. (Students sometimes complain that a class is ‘boring’, but that’s too easy to say.  We’ve all seen young people patiently work through a ‘boring’ activity of their choosing because it helps them meet a personal goal, and in school we’ve seen students disengaged even from highly interesting classroom activities).  Sometimes students may be interested in the class work, but are unable to succeed on the assignments teacher gives, and so they become discouraged.

Sometimes, what a student wants is just too different from what the school system wants.  Students are engaged with school to the extent that their goals match the goals of the school system.  The more those goals match, the more motivated the student will be.  The more those goals diverge, the more a student’s motivation may flag or fail.

This past Saturday at Science World in Vancouver, a friend of mine, Goran Kimovski, organized TEDxKidsBC, an event focused on spotlighting and developing the ways that young people can be successful at a high level.  The stories are fantastic and inspiring.  They show young people being supported to blend their passion, skill, and leadership into amazing accomplishments.  School sometimes intersects with what they are doing, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Somewhere along their journey these young people found or were given a framework that helped them focus their purpose and develop their personal clarity.

So the big question for us is, how to we make the school system a motivating place to be for more students? The system has tended to focus on producing standardized achievement results.  Could we shift our system so that individualization is possible?  What if school were a framework where every teacher and every student could focus their purpose and develop their personal clarity for themselves?  What would that framework look like? How would it engage the passion and motivation of all our students?

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Posted in Education

Twitter Hygiene

I’ve been made aware of some concerns among our Johnston Heights twitter users (many of you signed on during our JH Twitter Workshop).  If you are following some of our JH staff, you may have been getting some unexpected messages.  Worse still, you may have been sending out messages unawares.  The first thing I recommend if you are having this trouble is to change your password.  This will immediately fix any problems.  I’ll explain why below.

Various people use twitter to advertise, either by posting tweets that endorse their product, or through spam, or both.  Advertisers are legitimate, and their tweets are clearly labeled.  However, a spammer may get access to the account of someone you know and send out a message under their name, usually with a worrying message (“I can’t believe what people are saying about you..”, “You’re in this video LOL”, “Didn’t you see them taping you…”) and such messages. 

When you open the message or the tweet, there is a link.  Given the worrying message, you click the link.  A box or a new page with the twitter then opens, saying that you need to sign in to twitter again.  THIS IS NOT FROM TWITTER. This is a fake page that links to an external site. 

If you type in your information to this site it saves your twitter name and password to a list on the spammer’s computer.  When you return you are shown advertising.   Your information is then used by the spammer to send out messages (appearing to be from you) to people on your followers list. This is sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as “getting your account hacked”.  It’s actually a form of “phishing”, which is basically tricking people online into giving out their personal information.

To solve this problem, change your password, and it will stop.

Prevention – to avoid falling victim to these problems, try the following:
1. Consider the content of the message.  Is it likely that that person would send you that message?
2. If you are asked to provide your username and password by a site you navigate to, don’t. Only type your password from the twitter.com page or from an official twitter app on mobile devices.
3. If you are not sure about a message, contact the person directly through email or in person.

Basically, it is the same as regular internet safety.  Twitter is another way of posting information to the net, but it is formatted so that you can use it to connect to topics of interest.  You still have to take the same care as you would when you open a regular email or message.

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Posted in Social Media, Technology

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