Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Power of Believing!


If you believe you can, you probably will.  If you believe you can't, you probably won't.

If you believe students can, they probably will.  If you believe students can't, they probably won't.

Believing in someone is extremely powerful. Believing in someone can inspire him/her and also motivate oneself to do great things.  We all know this from experience...when someone believed in us and when we believed in someone.

When I pose a challenge for a student, I pose it believing the student is capable of accomplishing it and reaching a certain level of proficiency.  I work hard to ensure the student is successful in meeting this expectation.  This may include providing encouragement, offering smaller prompts, redirecting, spending extra time working with the student and most importantly, not letting the student off the hook when he/she is capable of better.

When students know their teacher believes in them and is willing to takes the steps to ensure they reach  their potential, they do their utmost not to disappoint that teacher.  Students also begin to believe in themselves and their abilities.  It is this internal belief and self-confidence that leads to resilience when they experience challenges and setbacks.

For those of you who have experience coaching kids, I'm sure you can draw from some of your experiences when you led a group of kids to an accomplishment that very few others believed they were   capable of.  Why were they able to rise above other people's expectations? They most likely reached the level they did because you believed in them, instilled confidence in them, challenged them and worked with them.  So despite the fact that people around them may have been doubting their chances, you demonstrated your belief in them and in return they believed in you and believed they could.

I reflect on my experiences coaching basketball, softball and soccer to both boys and girls of many different ages. In all of the cases where we accomplished more than others thought we would, it was because we believed in ourselves.  Whether it was rising to the challenge and defeating a team that we had lost to many times that year, playing without a key injured player or simply hanging in and competing when others gave us no chance, these were some of the most rewarding and gratifying experiences as a coach.

I also recall a memorable experience when I taught a very reluctant learner who, after years of negative experiences at school, saw himself as having little chance of success in my Science class.  I remember thinking to myself, somehow I have to keep him interested, hopeful and gradually build his self-confidence.  In one of the first conversations I had with this student that year, I told him 'You are going be successful in this class this year'. He was surprised to hear this, probably because for the first time one of his teachers had said this to him.  As the year progressed it was obvious that the class was challenging for him.  He experienced moments when, just as he had done in the past, he was ready to give up.  The most powerful thing I did was to tell him that we weren't going to focus on his marks, rather we were going to focus on him improving each day.  We spent many mornings, lunchtimes and afterschools working together.  He would explain concepts to me while I constantly assessed his progress. I did my best to fill the gaps in his learning by explaining concepts differently and a little more slowly. We constantly reviewed, I would re-teach and he would re-learn.  Somedays I was so encouraged by the progress he was making and other times I was frustrated at the fact he couldn't seem to grasp a concept.  But, as long as I demonstrated to him that I believed in his ability to learn, he continued to put in the effort. Although I can't claim that he ever became extremely proficient in Science, I can say that he successfully completed the course and easily surpassed his original goal of 'passing'. More importantly, this accomplishment boosted his self-confidence and he became a more committed, more determined and more resilient learner.  This once reluctant learner went on to have considerably more success throughout high school and continued on to pursue a post-secondary education.

As I head back to school in January I am making a point of not just saying to students that I believe in them, but demonstrating it to them.  I encourage you to do the same!


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Becoming a Tweep!

Back in October @terryainge introduced me to Twitter and the idea of starting a blog.
Until this time, I viewed Twitter as a forum for people to post very short comments and descriptions about what they are currently doing, how they are feeling and whatever thoughts came to mind.  My familiarity with Twitter was limited to hearing about the tweets of actors/actresses and athletes.
I admit it took a bit of an explanation for me to see how I could benefit from Twitter.  Somewhat understanding the possibilities but more so, just choosing to be fearless and dive in, I signed up for a Twitter account and became a Tweep.

Tweep: definition 'Peeps using Twitter'

Upon signing up, I immediately started following other local educators who I am aware of.  Initially, I remained a passive Tweep, reading others' tweets, visiting their blogs, and gradually adding to the list of people I chose to follow.  After a few weeks, inspired by other Tweeps and Bloggers, I started blogging. I soon saw that I was connecting with others who are equally passionate and interested in education as I am.

Twitter has also facilitated some in-person introductions and meetings with other educators.  At a recent B.C. Principals & Vice-Principals Association gathering and Phi Delta Kappan meeting, I had the pleasure of meeting some fellow Tweeps in person.  Twitter has also enabled me to connect with a group of local educators that is planning for the upcoming EdCampVancouver 'unconference' in April.  It is amazing that the idea for starting this unconference originated through Twitter, resulting in a TweetUp! I look forward to participating in a TweetUp in the future.

Unconference: definition 'a facilitated, participant-driven conference centred on a theme or purpose'

TweetUp: definition 'a meet up of people who us Twitter'

My PLN (Personal Learning Network) continues to grow as I am exposed to the thoughts and perspectives of different people from all over the world.  Twitter continues to be a tool through which I can share my ideas with others, read others' ideas and engage in conversations. Regularly, the ideas of others challenge me to reflect on my own beliefs and practice.  In particular, I must thank local BC educators @gmbondi, @birklearns, @chrkennedy, @remi_collins, @MrWejr and @terryainge for influencing my thinking.

The beauty of creating my PLN is it is always there, at my convenience for me to tap into whenever I want to. Unlike a workshop or conference I am not forced to attend at a specified time.  My PLN has also made my world smaller, allowing me to communicate with like-minded individuals globally who I would not otherwise be able to do so with if I was limited to conversing with them in person.  I am not advocating that my PLN replaces face-to-face contact but it is a perfect supplement to the discussions I have with colleagues in my Professional Learning Community.

I have used twitter to:

  • establish a PLN
  • ask questions
  • answer questions
  • share resources (teaching & leadership tools, blogs, video clips)
The following video "Twitter for Teachers " is from the Learning Blog. It describes simple ways that educators can use Twitter as part of their own personal professional development as well as to directly support their students' learning.

Undoubtedly, I attribute my PLN with broadening and deepening my thinking.  It is a form of personal professional development that I envision myself accessing regularly.  I recommend that all educators move beyond their hesitations and take the plunge to establish a PLN through Twitter.  Once you do, you'll find it hard to turn back!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Distracted Students or Distracted Educators?

Apple iPhone 3G S

Nowadays almost all students arrive at school with a cellphone or smartphone in their pockets.  Sit in most high school classes and you will witness students secretly checking text messages or emails without the teacher realizing.  Even parents are sending their children messages  when they know their children are in class.  It is no wonder many of us are becoming increasingly more frustrated by what we see as a distraction from student learning.

Distracted this actually a new phenomenon? Didn't students used to write notes to each other and secretly pass them to others in the classroom? Weren't other students composing notes to pass on to friends later on in the day? I would argue that distracted students are nothing new.  No, our students may not be writing notes to each other with a pen and paper anymore.  But the reality is our students are simply using new tools to communicate with each other.  Instead of pens and paper, our students are now using phones to compose their messages. Yet, suddenly we are using technology as the scapegoat for a problem that has always existed.

The better question to ask is 'Why are our students so distracted?'  The simple truth is they are more interested in communicating and interacting with their peers than they are in some of the things they are doing at school.  Unfortunately, there are some students who probably feel as though what they are doing in class is distracting them from their ability to interact with their friends.

Students, much like ourselves, are social beings.  They want to interact with each other and the majority of them are quite willing to interact with each other about the topics covered in their classes.  In most cases, it's not the content of a lesson that they find boring.  More often than not, the reason our students tune us out is because we have not given our students an adequate opportunity to interact with each other about the material.  In some instances, technology may be a useful tool that enables our students to interact with each other, but again, I'd like to focus on the fact that the incorporation of technology or social media into a lesson isn't necessary in order for our students to interact with each other and engage in the content.

The point I'm trying to make is that we shouldn't focus on the digital tools as the distraction.  Schools can create policies banning cellphones from the classroom and we can micro-manage our students in an attempt to police them, but in the end is this where our energy is best spent?

I believe it is time for us to accept the fact that the reason our students' attention gives way to distractions is because they are not engaging in their learning.  The tools that our students bring to school are not the distraction.  We should derive some comfort from this because the reality is that our students are not going to stop bringing these tools with them to school.  We must take responsibility for the fact that as educators we hold the power to engage our students in their learning, thereby minimizing their tendency to be distracted.  Much like our students, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the prominence of cellphones.  Our focus should be on improving our pedagogy in an effort to increase student engagement.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Encouraging, not banning Social Media in schools

Everywhere you turn nowadays, you see evidence of the popularity of social media networks.  They are on our laptops, Ipods and Smartphones.  

Our students are even more connected and engaged in various forms of social media websites. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, the list goes on and on. Our students are far more confident at navigating their way through social media sites than the average adult is.  As educators, many of us fear social media and shudder at the thought of incorporating it into our classes. Why do so many of us hesitate to use social media with our students? Are we worried that our students will be off-task, more engaged socially than educationally? Are we concerned that our students are so advanced that we may no longer be the expert? Or, do we believe that social media is not a part of educationally sound practice?

Some schools ban access to social media sites. Why?  Students still find ways to connect to social media networks despite the fact they are supposedly banned.  Furthermore, a 'social media-free' world is not our students' reality.  Each day, at lunchtime and afterschool there is a big spike in our wireless internet usage at school. This is because when students leave our classrooms, where they are often prohibited from using their smartphones, they immediately connect to social media websites.

Social media has become so popular that some students no longer have email addresses. Many students no longer communicate in that way.  Facebook is by far the most popular network used by students.  Kids use Facebook for social reasons because it is one of the easiest ways to contact their network of friends.  Facebook also provides students the ability to control who views the information they post. Unquestionably, high school students have all had their taste of social media.  Elementary students have been born into a world of social media.  One thing is for certain, they are not turning back!  Banning these websites and completely prohibiting the use of smartphones in classes means we are creating an artificial environment in our classes, an environment that does not resemble our students' worlds outside of school.  We musn't shy away from our responsibility to teach students how to be respectful digital citizens, how to use social media appropriately and in a positive way.

Often times, we work with students who have posted inappropriate photos, comments or messages on Facebook or other social media networks.  I'm not advocating for social media to become the content or to be included in every lesson of every class, but when and where it is approrpriate as a learning tool for students to engage in the curricular content, we should encourage the use of social media in the classroom.  Examples include using Twitter as a forum for a class discussion around an open-ended question or topic.  Twitter could also be used as a way for students to request ideas and thoughts of others. Facebook can be used by students as a way to promote or market an idea to the student body or the local community.  It is through using these tools to accomplish these types of projects that students will learn to use social media in not only an appropriate way, but also a way that promotes positive change.  Where else are our students going to learn how to communicate properly and effectively in a digital world if they don't learn it at school.  Schools should be safe places for students to make mistakes.  If we don't allow our students to make mistakes at school, where we can guide or redirect them, where else or who else will they take their cues from?  Who will model for them what we consider appropriate digital communication?

Our students already know how to operate the technology. What many of them don't know is how powerful a tool it can be and how to use it to inspire positive change in their local and global communities. Students are growing up in a shrinking world, where people from all over the globe are being drawn closer and closer together through the use of technology.  Social media can facilitate a reciprocal sharing and learning process between students from distant parts of the world. Our students of today are going to become our leading thinkers of tomorrow.  They are the ones who will be asking the challenging questions and collaborating to solve the world's problems.  If they aren't already doing so, in the future our students will be drawing the attention of people worldwide by publishing thought provoking questions, statements, pictures, videos, etc.  The information they publish has the potential to initiate local and global change.

I know many of us are hesitant when it comes to using social media in the classroom, but we must be willing to take the risk.  We can't hold our students back any longer.  It's time to let our students communicate and influence the world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How do you address late work?

Students submitting late is not a new phenomenon and is not something that will go away anytime soon.

People hold a range of opinions on how to respond to late work.  Some people say we should not accept late work at all, others say we should accept it and attach a consequence and finally, others believe that we should accept late work without consequence at all.

I believe we should accept late work from students without applying any consequence.

Here's why...

First, every task or challenge that we pose for our students is an important learning opportunity.  If we believe in the value of our students completing these tasks, we should engage in practices that motivate them to complete the work.  We should avoid providing students a reason or motivation not to complete the work.  Assigning a '0' or deducting marks for late work provides students just that...the motivation for  not completing the work.

As teachers, how do we know the length of time it will take each individual student to learn something new?  We establish arbitrary timelines all the time, but how do we know if these timelines suit the pace of learning of our students? Establishing timelines is necessary so that students have a guideline, but the timelines that we create must be flexible enough to meet the needs of all of our learners.  Surely we aren't going to demand that every student learn at the same pace as everyone else?

We know that people learn in different ways and at different rates.  Despite this, the factory model of schooling favors kids who 'get it' first or 'get it' right away.  In a rush to cover the curriculum, we often present material to our students and shortly afterwards, follow it up with a test.  Students who learn quickly perform well while those who don't learn quickly enough perform poorly. If we don't use these results to inform our practice and improve student learning then the test simply becomes another piece of summative assessment data that is used to generate a numerical mark or letter grade.  Unfortunately, this type of practice leads to major gaps in student learning, especially for those students who require more repetition and reinforcement.

As teachers, we help our students set reasonable expectations for themselves based on the progression of their learning.  So, following this same line of thinking, shouldn't we have different standards for late work for people who have already mastered a skill compared to people who are still learning a skill?  Should we be holding students, who aren't yet proficient or are still learning something to the same standard as people who are already proficient?

In the professional world, it is allowable and understandable to hold professionals to adult level competencies.  Adults possess greater maturity and are better able to establish earlier deadlines for themselves so that they ensure they will have their work completed on time.  This maturity comes from having made mistakes in the past.  On the other hand, when professionals are attempting to learn a new skill or develop a new idea, they are often afforded a considerable amount of flexibility when it comes to timelines.  The reason for this is quite simple, learning takes time and in order for deep learning to occur it cannot be rushed.

Many teachers say that they are preparing students for the 'real world' by not accepting late work or by deducting marks for late work.  The reality is that in the real world, one is allowed to be late more often than not.  Meetings, appointments, deliveries and flights all suffer from delays.  In the real world, we accept delays and do our best to understand these situations.  Whether we did not know how to complete some work, ran short of time or simply forgot, we have all been in the position where we have missed a deadline.  In these situations, we are still forced to get the work done in addition to the current work we are responsible for.  Did we lose our job? No.  Did we lose pay? No.  But, we did learn to prepare so that we can avoid similar situations in the future.

Allowing students to recover in full from 'not knowing' or being irresponsible about time management teaches more than if teachers slap a '0' on for late work.  For a student to have to re-do work or do work for the first time that he/she didn't do initially, while doing everything else that he/she is responsible for, he/she will truly respect and appreciate deadlines.  Students will come to realize that it is much easier just to keep up.  

So, how should we respond when students don't submit work on time?

First, we need to understand WHY our students did not complete their work.  Did they not understand how to do it? Did their schedules not allow them the necessary time? Did they mismanage their time? Were they lazy?

Our students' answers to the above questions should determine our response.

This may require that we spend some extra time to help our students understand the material.  It may mean insisting that a student stay in outside of class time in order to finish off their work.  Or it may be as simple as allowing them the opportunity to go home and complete the work on their own.

Regardless of how we choose to respond, we must insist that they complete the work because allowing students not to engage in a learning opportunity is unacceptable!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

From the Coach's Perspective - Questions for Educators

This year, I am once again fortunate to be coaching the Grade 8 Boys Basketball team at Delta Secondary.  Last week, WE held our first practice of the season.  Tired after a full day, I found myself energized by an evening of coaching. Afterwards, I found myself thinking that there are a lot of lessons from coaching that could be applied to teaching.

In the past, I have been a part of many different coaching arrangements.  I have been a head coach, an assistant coach, coached on my own and coached with others.  Coaching by myself was never a situation I favored.  It is a very lonely, isolating feeling when you don't have anyone with whom you can share and discuss your ideas.  This season, for the third consecutive year, I have been fortunate to be part of a team of coaches.  It is a very positive experience to co-plan practices, challenge each other's ideas and assess our team's progress together.  As I eluded to in a previous post, 'OUR ideas are better than YOURS and MINE'.

A number of years ago, I was fortunate to have a couple of my former players join my coaching staff.  It was a tremendous experience to work with them, hear their ideas and incorporate their thinking with mine.  Soon after, they took on their own teams.  Interestingly, my phone continued to ring as they would share their successes and challenges with me. The difference was that I was now the one offering my ideas and suggestions to them, only some of which they would choose to incorporate.  Most importantly, having a support network with whom they could share ideas, look for advice and receive some reassurance from was critical to their being successful early on.  For so many reasons, this was a rewarding experience: inspiring former players to become coaches, watching the influence they had on young people, learning with them and finally, mentoring them.

If you've ever coached kids, you can attest to the fact that kids connect differently with you when you coach them.  Why is this the case?  First, as players and coaches on the same team, we share a common goal.  We develop closer and more personal relationships with each other.  As coaches, we publicly demonstrate that we are pulling for our players and in return, our players try as hard as they possibly can not to disappoint us.  Most importantly, our players know regardless of whether they have a great game or make a mistake, that we care about them and will care for them, not just as athletes, but as people.

As a team, WE challenge ourselves to improve everyday.  Each practice we expect our players to take a step forward and further develop specific skills.  We design drills that challenge our players to execute a skill that they are not fully comfortable in doing yet.  At a recent workshop, Dr. Dennis Shirley said 'learning happens when we dive into an area we aren't comfortable in'.  Nowhere is this more applicable than in any one of our practices.  To ensure that our players are willing to take the risks necessary to learn new skills, we emphasize to them that practice is a safe place to make mistakes.   

The same applies for us as coaches.  Each season, we challenge ourselves to adapt to new situations and new players, devise new strategies and continue our learning of new coaching philosophies and techniques.  Whether it be developing our own new ideas, improving old ideas or incorporating ideas we have learned from others, we strive to be lifelong learners.  Similar to our players, in our quest to improve, we know we will make mistakes however.  As players and coaches, it is important to remind ourselves that often, the best learning come from making mistakes.

At this point I will return to the initial reason for this post...lessons for teaching, or should I say questions for educators?

What common themes or topics are you and some of your colleagues interested in improving? Would it be more effective if you worked together with others?  Where could you collaborate? When could you collaborate? How could you collaborate?  At school, common prep time, collaborative planning time, PLN...

Do you know a colleague who is teaching a new course, is new to the school or new to teaching?  How might they be feeling? How might you be able to support them?  Have you even connected with them? How might you learn from mentoring a colleague?

Nobody doubts you care about your students.  But, do your students know you care about them? How have you demonstrated to your students that you care?  Is there a student who you haven't been able to establish a positive relationship with?  What could you do to improve the relationship?

Are you meeting your students where they are? Are you providing appropriate level challenges for each of your students?  Have you created an environment where it is safe to make mistakes? Are you challenging yourself to continue learning?

I am committing to asking myself these questions on a regular basis with the goal of improving student learning.  Are you asking yourself these questions?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Are the students not suited for the learning environment or is the learning environment not suited for the students? How are you personalizing learning?

Consider this scenario...
A young teenage boy is walking through the hallways of a busy high school, textbook, binder, pencil case and calculator in hand.  He momentarily pulls the headphones from his ears in order to talk with a couple of close friends.  They are discussing what time they will meet online tonight to play video games with each other.  After the short conversation, the student puts his earphones back in his ears and pulls his smart phone from his pocket to check how much time remains before the bell will ring to start class.  He notices he has received a text message from a friend so he continues to read the message as he begins walking to class.  As he reaches the entrance to the classroom he is typing a message back.  
The bell rings as he drops his textbook, binder, pencil case and calculator on his desk.  He sits down on his chair, wedging himself into the small seat that is attached to his desk.  He checks to make sure his phone is on 'vibrate' and quickly shoves it into his pocket.  He yanks the earphones from his ears, allowing them to dangle from the collar of his shirt and then reaches into the pocket of his hoodie to switch off his MP3 player.  He turns to see what the excitement is that's coming from the crowd of students sitting in the rows of desks at the other end of the room.  They are watching a classmate post a comment on another student's Facebook wall.  

The teacher approaches the front of the classroom and the room becomes quiet as students focus on the teacher. Today's class is similar to most other days with the teacher providing instruction using a combination of a whiteboard and overhead projector.  Following this, students begin working on an assignment, periodically reading sections of information from their textbook and using their calculators to answer specific questions.  At multiple points during the 80 minute class, students' concentration levels dip and their attention shifts. They converse with classmates, turn to listen to a fellow classmate, daydream about what they will do after school and occasionally they leave the classroom to walk down the hallway to the bathroom.

Recently I had a conversation with a teacher about some students who he was concerned about.  He described them as restless, fidgety, easily distracted, occasionally disruptive and generally disinterested in their learning.  He explained that he is frequently forced to redirect these students to their seats to do their work and even when he does so, the students do not accomplish nearly what they are capable of.  Finally, he said "I just don't think these kids are suited for this environment, sitting in desks, listening to a teacher and working on pen and paper tasks."

As much as I agree that these students are not particularly well suited for their learning environment as it currently exists, I believe the better questions to ask are:  Is the learning environment suitable for these students? And, what changes need to be made to the learning environment and the learning opportunities to make them more suitable for these students?

This has made me reflect on the importance of meeting our students where they are, differentiating our instruction for all learners and personalizing the learning for our students.  There are pockets of innovation occurring in many schools that are personalizing the learning experience for students.  Unfortunately, many of these innovations are tied to specific teachers and quite often these ideas are not shared with the larger educational community.

So, if you are involved in or have witnessed an innovation that is personalizing learning for students, I encourage you to share it with others by commenting on this blog.  Thanks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rewind, Reflect, Redesign - OUR Ideas are better than YOURS and MINE

The inspiration for writing this entry comes from a recent conversation I had with a teacher.   Last week, she expressed concern that some of her students were struggling to grasp a specific concept.  I'm happy to say that despite some frustration, instead of blaming her students for failing to understand the concept, she was questioning aspects of her own practice.
As we talked, it was clear that she was rewinding her recent lessons and reflecting on the informal formative assessments she had conducted. By the end of our conversation she didn't have all the answers, but she did walk away with some ideas.  She continued to contemplate these ideas before redesigning her next lesson to ensure that she met her kids where they were.

A few days later she said "I have to tell you something great! They get it now.  My students really understand it."  Her assessments definitely supported what she said!  While it was obvious that she was very excited for her students' success, I was equally excited for her success.

While this is a celebration of a committed, caring teacher experiencing success with her students, it also points to an important process of what I call rewinding, reflecting and redesigning. What improved the process in this case is that rather than conduct the process in isolation, we worked through it together.  I credit this teacher with having the courage to share her concerns and frustrations with me.  It was her initiative that led to some powerful professional dialogue and ultimately to gains in her students’ learning. 

Teachers all have busy schedules and a myriad of responsibilities.  It’s easy to use a lack of time as an excuse to continue with the status quo. However, if we place a priority on student learning, we must also make the time to rewind, reflect and redesign collaboratively.

As school-based administrators, we also have busy days.  A day can easily be consumed fighting fires, dealing with the immediate issues of the day and simply trying to keep our heads above water.  And once all of the fires are extinguished, the pressing issues have been dealt with and the dust has settled, ultimately what will we have accomplished? Will we have taken any steps towards improving student learning?  Probably not.  At best, we will just have managed to maintain the status quo.

Each of us has a vision for how we can improve student learning. Realizing this vision requires forward progress.  And as we all know, change is not easy. The path to realizing a vision is never simple. It requires planning, commitment, hard work, patience and coordination in order to generate positive momentum. It often takes unexpected twists and turns.  And so, it is important that we too, collaborate with our colleagues and stakeholders as we rewind, reflect and redesign.  After all, OUR ideas are better than YOURS and MINE.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is this for marks? A need for Engagement!

"Is this for marks?"   This is a common question asked by many students in today's classrooms.

"It's worth a lot of marks, so it's important you do the work!"  This is a frequently used line by many teachers in order to motivate their students.  I too, can admit to having used similar lines in the past.

And what is the result of applying these extrinsic motivational strategies?  We have created a majority of students who are compliant learners.  Some of our students are reluctantly compliant.  They complete just enough work and study just hard enough to achieve a bare passing grade.  Others are obsessively compliant and spend countless hours striving to achieve a perfect grade.

As educators, we must not be misled by our students' compliance.  Even though students are performing well on all assessments, we must not get fooled into believing they are deeply engaged in their learning.
At a recent workshop I attended, Bruce Beairsto said that 'the use of marks is abused often in schools' and 'marks aren't always being used in a way that induces deeper engagement or increased intrinsic motivation'.   We need to help students believe that they can accomplish things so that  they have the confidence to step into and take control of their own learning. 

So just how can we use assessment practices to support student engagement?
First, we need to provide students with challenging but reasonable tasks that our students can experience success on and build their own perceptions of  competence from.  We should focus more on formative assessment and less on summative evaluation.  We should assist students in their areas of difficulty and provide constructive, encouraging and specific feedback about what they can do, rather than what they can't do.  Our goal should be to increase our students' self-efficacy beliefs and avoid the impression of incompetence. (Beairsto, 2010) Students who believe they can change and improve their abilities are far more likely to deeply engage in their learning.

Beairsto spoke of four levels of engagement: compliant, attentive, connected and fulfilled.
In order to move students along this continuum we must get our students interested in what they are learning, help them connect what they are learning to their lives and help our students see the importance of what they are learning.  

Students who care about what they are learning and continue their learning beyond the classroom...isn't this our goal?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

To Change or Challenge?

Education has undergone many shifts throughout time.  Likewise, the notion of 'effective teaching' has changed as well.  So, just what qualifies as 'effective teaching'? And more importantly, how would one identify examples of it?

Traditionally educators were seen as imparting knowledge to their students.  Their responsibility: take a group of students, transmit as much information to their students as possible and send them into the world more knowledgeable than when they arrived at school.  It was seen as the role of the teacher to ensure that the students who left their classrooms were different than when they entered.  In other words, teachers were responsible for changing their learners.  Teachers were the ones who caused the learning to occur.

But, is this really the case? Of course not.  While we would all agree that student learning is dependent on their teacher's teaching, we also know that a teacher's teaching does not determine student learning.  To take this a step further, the teacher does not cause his or her learners to change.  Students, like any set of learners are self-determining individuals who draw from their own history of experiences. (Sumara & Davis, 2010, Education Canada, Vol 50)

So, if effective teaching isn't about changing students, what practices are common to the classrooms where the greatest and most powerful learning is occurring?

I would argue effective teachers are consistently challenging their students.  These teachers are not relying on a teacher-centred approach where the 'filling up of students' brains' is the common practice. The most effective teachers are stimulating learning and inquiry by posing relevant challenges for their students.  They are challenging their students to look at the world in ways they may never have previously done so.  They are forcing them to ask and answer the deeper questions of 'why' and 'how'.

Today, we live in an information and knowledge-based society.  Knowledge remains important, however with the overabundance of information that exists and the fact that it is growing at an exponential rate, it is impossible for an individual to ever know enough.  When we need to know something, what do we do? We turn to our laptop, BlackBerry or iPhone and let Google find the information for us in mere seconds.

With so much information at our fingertips, our focus should be on challenging our students to analyze and think critically about the information in front of them.  We should be encouraging our students to create new information and to share this information with others.

So, why do so many educators continue to apply such a traditional approach, overloading students with photocopies and handwritten notes that include more and more information?  We know that newer and more progressive student-centred approaches exist, yet step inside many classrooms and you can still see teachers at the front conducting class.  Are we afraid of taking a risk and altering our approach? Or do we hesitate because we feel we may lose some control when we turn the focus over to our learners?

At the end of the day, we all want what is best for our students and we all want what is best for the global community.  So I urge us all to reflect on our current practice and ask ourselves whether our teaching is preparing our students for a 21st Century world that will require them to be adaptable, creative problems-solvers who can lead our world forward amidst the countless challenges they will face in their lifetimes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Celebrating our Successes

Over the weekend I was reminded of the importance of celebrating our successes.  So, as much my comments are about the need to emphasize 21st Century skills, they are also about highlighting the excellent work of the staff in Delta Secondary’s Work Options Program.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to observe a class in the Work Options Program.  The program consists of a small group of students who take their lead from one teacher and two educational assistants.  The consistent grouping of students and close contact with staff allows students the opportunity to develop trusting relationships with each other and with staff.  This was very evident today, as the students and teacher engaged in a deep discussion that was relevant to students ‘real worlds’ and can only happen in an environment where there is a high degree of trust and confidence. It was a great example of the type of learning environment that we should be striving for at all times.

What intrigued me most was the students’ discussion about the skills, characteristics and competencies that they feel their future employers would be looking for in them.  The students shared words such as social skills, work ethic, technology skills, working with others, initiative, motivation, responsibility, resilience and problem-solving.  As I reflected on their discussion, I realized that much of what the students identified as key skills, characteristics and competencies are similar to the new 7 C’s (critical thinking, creativity and innovation, collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, communication skills, computing skills and career and learning self-reliance) suggested by 21st Century skills proponent Bernie Trilling (Author of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in our Times).  

How could one disagree with the value in students developing these skills?  As educators, we are preparing students for a rapidly changing and rapidly evolving world.  It is our responsibility to intentionally provide opportunities for students to develop these 21st Century skills so that they are equipped for the challenges they will face in the future.