When Taking Risks – Do You Stand at the Top or the Bottom of the Stairs?

These days, I have lots of time for reflection. This really helps with my writing and new ideas are coming all the time. Today, I found myself with my bike at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the top of Parliament Hill. The pathway is blocked due to construction so it was either up or back the way I came.

I never like going back so up I went, 286 stairs. The view looking up was a bit daunting, the view from the top was beautiful.

I thought maybe this would work as a metaphor for how to deal with the risks one takes throughout life. Here, I am talking more about professional risks. Sometimes these risks leave you looking up wondering what went wrong and other times you can survey success from the top of the hill.

What are some of the factors that determine success and failure?

Sometimes I think it has everything to do with the people you find yourself working with. One project that I had been working on for the past few months collapsed entirely yesterday. I wrote about the venture here. The project had real potential, but I lacked partners who shared a similar view of the potential of this program. I do blame myself for this. I should have seen the signs – lacklustre response to the proposal, e-mails seldom returned, long bureaucratic notes on why certain things couldn’t happen – the list goes on. It’s a pretty standard list.

Why didn’t I just cut and run, I have seen all these signs before – I have been in education systems for over 31 years!

So, this is the bottom of the stairs looking up. These things happen, if you are not willing to take some risks you will never have the chance to get to the top of the stairs. You need to be at the bottom sometimes so you can savour the top!

There is so much to celebrate when you do get to the top of the hill. I think as you gain experience you get a little bit better at finding projects that bring out the best in everyone involved.

I put voicEd Radio in this category.

It is so wonderful to work with people who encourage and empower you! My wife and I both work on a show for voicED and we have received nothing but enthusiastic encouragement from Stephen Hurley, the creator of this great project.

Here a risk paid off. We had never done a radio show before, now we have a bunch of broadcasts – including a half-hour live show – that we did as part of an amazing full-day live broadcast featuring most of voicEd Radio’s regulars.

My point is, you have to keep taking risks, even when your plans fall completely flat. Over time, the failures are no longer very important and you learn to move away and take whatever lessons you can. Then you find some real pearls like voicEd Radio where you meet great, positive educators and you take your learning to a whole new level.

So keep climbing, don’t look back, move away from the negative nellies and get to the top of the hill!

Can Ontario fix its maths curriculum – Not Yet: Response to Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman seems to be one of the few people writing in opposition to the ongoing disaster that is math instruction in Ontario. This week, he wrote another great article on what is not working with math in Ontario – Can Ontario fix its math curriculum.

Great article and really interesting comments. I agree that Ontario’s obsession with Michael Fullan is misplaced and he needs to move on. However, from what I have seen, Fullan is still the hero of the Ontario education scene and he can do no wrong. The solution to the problem of low scores in Ontario is just to train teachers harder in the inquiry-based system. You can get a good sense of this in this recent interview with Dr Mary Reid of OISE http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1041393219874/

True enough, no one will listen to the critics as we have been marginalized and to speak out against Fullan and the dominant ideology in Ontario is a huge risk to your career in education. As Greg Ashman writes,

There are a few prominent Canadian voices on Twitter but, as far as I can tell, they hold no positions of authority in Canadian education and will be easily marginalised as eccentric, old-fashioned conservatives.

I have felt this way for awhile and as an administrator here in Ottawa, I knew that to publically speak out about the inquiry obsession would have been very unwise from a career perspective. Now as a retired educator I can speak out, but it is not likely that what I write will have any impact.

The trend will continue to be to emphasise inquiry over explicit teaching and results will continue to go down. Senior administrators and ministry officials will continue to drink to constructivist kool-aid because there is little critical thinking going on and school boards demand conformity from their educators and conformity to some really bad thinking is actually the way to guarantee an advancing career for an administrator.

How many years will this silliness continue? How long will we put the blame on teachers who just don’t get inquiry? How long with Ontario’s math curriculum be directed by people who do not need to face its consequences in the classroom?

Thank-you Greg Ashman for your clear perspective on math in Ontario. We can only hope that someone here is listening!

Poor Math Scores – Should We Really Blame the Teacher?

I am listening to a rebroadcast of a CBC Ottawa interview on the Ontario Math curriculum with Mary Reid from OISE. This is one of a series of interviews and articles seeking to understand why students, especially in elementary school, are doing so poorly in math. You can hear the full interview here.

The interview was really nothing new until around the 5-minute mark when Mary Reid makes the classic argument that I always find misses the mark. At this point, Dr Reid dismisses any problem with EQAO and squarely puts the blame on teachers and their training for low math scores in Ontario.

Teachers, she says are not ready for inquiry-based learning. Teachers have high anxiety and low content knowledge when it comes to the inquiry approach. Professional development takes a ‘one size fits all approach’ whatever that means. So, because of the teacher’s high anxiety levels, we are failing at the inquiry-based approach.

These ‘highly anxious’ math teachers then pass this anxiety on to their students.

Then the argument takes on a bizarre note – research shows, according to Dr Reid that it really is the female teachers who are to blame. Female teachers especially pass on this anxiety to their female students, not the male students. This is what the ‘research’ shows. How do you even test for that?

We have been doing inquiry-based math in Ontario for a long time. Over the years, math results in grade 3 and 6 EQAO tests have steadily gone down. During this same period of time, teachers have been continually blamed for not being strong and skilled enough to effectively teach math.

The human factor always comes out – if you are really skilled and somehow ‘get’ the inquiry approach, your kids will do well. If not, your kids will do poorly. I only thank my lucky stars that I never had to teach math in such a poisoned atmosphere. How do elementary teachers do this when they are continually blamed by OISE professors and senior administrators for failing their students?

Why do we not look at the tests? Why do we not examine the curriculum or the inquiry approach?

As long as we see our teachers as lacking something we will continue to have problems when it comes to the math curriculum. It is now time to stop this fruitless blaming and look critically at EQAO and the curriculum.

We certainly need to look at how we assess learning in our schools. Today in the Globe and Mail, Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed and came much closer to a true assessment of our current system.

We need to recognize that children have a huge range of natural abilities and they all have them differently. Our education systems are designed to focus on a small band of those. If you have a narrow conception of ability, you end up with a very big conception of disability.

Sir Ken Robinson, Globe & Mail, September 8, 2017

The sooner we take a really creative approach to how we do education in Ontario the sooner we will be able to liberate our teachers and students to learn, live and grow in our schools. We really need to learn to stop blaming our frontline educators and move on to something much better.

 

Community Response to Five Ways to Damage a Good School

A week ago, after Doug Peterson’s suggestion, I came up with a brief survey to see if I could gain any more insight into actions that might damage a good school. No survey on Twitter is going to elicit much response. Even so, I have received 10 responses to my survey. The results are summarized here.

To be honest, I don’t know if we moved the discussion much beyond Greg Ashman’s original post. He is provocative and he comes up with excellent points to ponder on a regular basis. He has another post on education and non-conformity and I really want to read this and look for more writing prompts based on his thoughts!

There were a few suggestions that are certainly worth mentioning here from the survey. The one comment that dominates has to do with developing positive relations with staff, students and parents.

Build a community & relationships. If you don’t have positive relationships with your students, then nothing you do in class really matters. The same applies to admin. If you don’t take the time to build relationships with your staff, then it will be difficult to get staff buy in for positive changes.

I agree with this comment. If you do not engender positive relationships with the people you serve and work with, no infusion of educational technology or educational theory will make a wit of difference in your school.

In education, we all seem to love the newest fad or upcoming idea, whether it be social-emotional development, deeper learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning – the list goes on and on.

We often fail to see the enduring importance of developing and maintaining a respectful relationship with all the people in our buildings. It is almost as if developing a community of respect and caring is a second-tier idea that should be seen as a given and not worthy of discussion.

I don’t think this is the case and I do believe we need to reexamine how we treat the people we work with.

I have come to a number of schools where administrators didn’t seem to have a clue how to work in a constructive manner with their staff. This lack of ability needs to be addressed because failing to deal with an uncaring attitude can really damage staff members. I have often worked with gifted administrators who truly understood the importance of empowerment and I really think their contributions need to be recognized and celebrated.

I think one reason why the work of George Couros gets so much attention is that he really gets this. Throughout his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, George continually focusses on the importance of developing positive relationships with the people you work with. This is such an essential point it can’t be overemphasized. Everything needs to start with the promise that the administrator will honour and respect the people they work with. If this is the starting point, all manner of innovative and wonderful things can happen at a school.

As we enter another school year, let’s try to remain positive and keep in mind what truly makes for a wonderful school – a group of people who strive to respect, honour and empower every person in their building.

Second Response to Five ways to damage a good school

One of the roles I took very seriously as an administrator was that of the gate-keeper. The administrator needs to shelter staff from unnecessary distractions that take them away from the important job of teaching.

I took this to mean that I had a responsibility to protect staff from the many ‘edufads’ that continually rained down on us from our school board and the ministry. My most recent favourite is Deep Learning, something that still defies any logical explanation. Michael Fullan, Ontario’s education guru has written volumes on this concept and his ideas have filtered down to all the schools in my former board. There is no debate about this concept, all schools are expected to follow the Deep Learning mantra even though most of us have no idea what it is and how the concepts improves or even impacts the learning of our students.

The second of Greg Ashman’s ‘howlers’ that have the potential to damage a school has to do with this ongoing trend in education – Lock yourself into the latest novelty

It is almost impossible for schools to filter out all of the bad ideas. Often, senior managers will have a pet project or enthusiasm that seems pretty reasonable at the time.

We don’t need to belabour the point about Deep Learning, it is simply an example of another fad that needs to play out in our system until it exhausts itself. Then we can all go back to what we were trying to do before – offering an excellent education, devoid of distractions, to our students.

The most recent recruiting poster for the Ottawa Public Board plays on this idea of the deep learner. The poster is based on the idea of the 6C’s another Fullan concept that is usually put out there along with Deep Learning.

While all this looks wonderful on a poster, isn’t this what good teachers have always done? Don’t we want all educated people to collaborate and be globally aware? Would it not be more honest and appropriate to say that the goal of education is to teach concepts in math, science, language arts, history etc that people need to be competent and literate in t0day’s society?

I really like writing that provokes critical thinking and Greg Ashman is doing what good educators have always done. He thinks and he challenges the standard orthodoxy which calls on educators to accept ideas without challenge.

Maybe educators along with their students need to adopt a goal of really thinking critically for the academic year ahead.

Thanks for the challenge Greg!

 

Response to: Five Ways to Damage a Good School

There are just some posts you have to read. Last week, I came upon this post by Greg Ashman, Five ways to damage a good school. As a former school principal, I am a sucker for lines like that.

His ‘five things’ were really interesting, and if I can, I will try to comment on some of these factors because, from my experience, he makes lots of good sense.

The first one is not something that you would think would make a top five list, but it is interesting.

Focus on the furniture

I admit that this is a bit of a pet peeve, but I think Greg is on to something here.

The most efficient physical arrangement is to have individual classrooms with tables that are laid out, or at least can be laid out, in rows, yet you will struggle to find a consultant or architect who will recommend this.

It might even be politically incorrect to agree with this point, but as a principal, I got so tired of ‘experts’ telling me how terrible it was that some teachers still had their students in rows. How terrible, how lacking in creativity how 1920’s!
To me, it was important to remember that this supposed expert had not taught in a regular classroom for at least a decade.

Another consultant whose feet were a bit more firmly planted in the classroom noted that rows were important for kids. Sometimes a student needed to know that they had their own safe space in the classroom, something they would be able to count on. This makes lots of sense and as a principal, I never told any teacher how to arrange their classroom and never made any judgement on the quality of instruction based on the design of the room.

Educational orthodoxy these days seems to be firmly planted in the ‘flexible seating’ mode. Take this article in Edutopia – Flexible Seating and Student-Centered Classroom Redesign by Kayla Delzer:

Our classroom environments should be conducive to open collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This simply cannot be done when kids are sitting in rows of desks all day.

When I returned to the classroom a few years ago, I had rows. I was able to create this flexible seating arrangement simply by asking the kids to move their desks – they were quite capable of doing this, allowing for some increase in physical activity, another benefit of going to flexible seating.

Here’s the thing. Too often, educators get caught up in the latest fad – flexible seating and the expense that comes with this is one of the newest things. In schools with limited resources (I would say most schools in Canada), the purchase of new furniture means that something else will not be bought.

I one school that I had worked in, the new administration decided to purchase flexible seating rather than provide computers for kids. How can that be seen as a good thing? In many schools, the arrival of a new principal means that new office furniture is in order – how can we justify these expenses when we still rarely see 1:1 schools in Canada? Where are our priorities?

Thank-you Greg Ashman for making such an interesting observation. Let’s try to keep our focus on empowering our students, not the latest edufad.

 

Response to George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

So what do you do if you feel you have outgrown your leadership to ensure that your own growth doesn’t stagnate?

George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

A terrific question and not an easy one to answer.

I find I get my best prompts from George Couros’ posts and this is a really good one. One pause first- it is really important when considering an answer to this question not to think that you are better than the leadership you need to get away from. I believe you have to do all three things that are mentioned in George’s post –  find mentorship outside your organization. (online and offline), disrupt your routine, and certainly, leave. I have done all three and have been very critical of my former employers since I have left working for a school board. While they have reacted poorly to my posts, I think it is important to understand their point of view.

It is extremely difficult, maybe impossible to be innovative when you represent a large district. Their role is to preserve and to protect – how can you be expected to be innovative and creative at the same time? Is this even possible? Maybe it isn’t and my criticism, therefore, has not been completely fair. So, maybe the best response is as George writes in this post – look elsewhere for your inspiration, disrupt the routine that is holding you down and most certainly leave and start over.

This can allow for an outpouring of creativity and I have found this to be the case. I believe I have continued to grow as an educator and especially as a blogger since I have left my district. I am no longer held down by institutional leadership and this has freed me up to question some of the practices we take for granted.

To allow yourself to become overly frustrated by a leadership structure that is no longer growing is not useful for anyone. The beauty of developing your own personal learning network is that you can free yourself up from institutional thinking and find inspiration from leaders and writers who are moving in a new direction.

Eventually, this may not be enough and you may leave a structure that is holding you down. This is not easy for educators to do, but it is important to consider if you are being stifled by leadership that is no longer growing.

You may also need to ask yourself – what will be the consequence for staying put?

 

 

A School Essential for the New Year? Create a Vision

On Satchat this past Saturday, the first question for us was ‘What is a CLASSROOM essential you must have to start school year?’ The question was the first of three focusing on education essentials for the upcoming school year. It was a great conversation, it always is, and it got me thinking, is there something that is a classroom or in the case of the administrator, a school essential for the beginning of the new year?

For me, there is one essential that you need to start with – what is your vision for your school for the year ahead?

Vision gets overlooked in the rush to get the school year going. Vision, however, is essential and when it is lacking it can colour the entire school year. If the vision for the upcoming year is something that all staff members can agree with, a well-articulated vision can be the start of a wonderful school year.

So, what goes into creating this vision? First, comes a conversation with staff – what is it that we need to achieve this year? What do our students, our parents and the wider community need from our school over the next ten months?

I really think vision should not be as pedestrian as increasing math scores or some other mundane goal. We are all in the business of teaching a set curriculum to our students. It’s what we are paid for. Of course, we want higher scores, a culture of high expectations leads to better student performance. That’s not vision, it’s common sense.

Vision should be something beyond what we are expected to do by our district or school board. Vision should bring everyone together and it should be clearly understood and articulated by everyone in the school community.

What could that vision be? It may involve developing a stronger presence in the community. It could be developing a strong environmental awareness amongst the school community. Maybe it is the collective decision to advance the digital literacy of staff, students and parents.

Whatever it is, make it big. Make it something that staff members can get behind. Make it something everyone can be proud of. Make it something that looks to the bigger picture and does not get caught up in the minutiae of the education machine.

So, there is still time, what vision would you like to introduce to your school community as the next year starts up?

A Coding Robot in Every School

Students should have access to free education

Coding and Robotics is a necessary 21st-century skill

If everyone does a little together we can have robots in every school

from CodeMyRobot.ca

 

Here is a really interesting initiative you certainly want to consider if you are interested in bringing coding to your school. A group of educators in the Ottawa area have come up with the idea of supplying every school in Canada with a robotics kit for students and teachers. There is no cost for the kit which is incredible when you consider how much it can cost to bring coding technology into your school.

To receive your kit, all you need to do is register on the website.

This project has the potential of opening up coding and robotics to students and communities throughout the country. Coding certainly qualifies as a true 21st-Century skill and all students can benefit from learning about and creating their own programmable robot.

The next big step in this project is getting the word out. If you are interested in getting kits for your schools, simply complete the registration form and your students can begin to learn about coding and robotics. After this, the sky is the limit!

http://codemyrobot.ca/

 

 

Customer Service Matters – Even in Education

Over the past few days we have been in the market for a new car – always a joy in the middle of the summer!

We actually enjoyed the first part of the experience. We met a great salesperson who talked to us, found out who we were, listened to our concerns and then took us for a really fun test drive.

Everything was going beautifully and for a moment I thought this might not be a terrible experience. We agreed on a price, I had my card out ready to pay the deposit then things went south. Our salesperson called over his manager to confirm the deal. He took one look at the paperwork and quickly bumped up the price by an additional $10.00 a month.

We were stunned – not so much by the added price, but by the way the manager totally disregarded his salesman and decided on his own that he could squeeze another $10.00 a month out of us.

Of course, we left. But the money was not the issue. It was the total disregard the manager showed to his potential customers and his staff. They tried to get us back in later in the day, but the total lack of customer service and common decency was enough for us.

On to the next dealer. In this case, I had been in correspondence with the saleswomen for two days. We had texted about price, model all of that sort of stuff. We went in to meet with her to start coming up with a final price. She then excused herself and the manager returned. He took her seat – she wasn’t even allowed to sit down – and quoted us a price that was way beyond what we had discussed with our salesperson.

Again we left, the woman looked apologetic about the total brush off we had received from her boss.

So, dealerships 2, family 0.

But was that really the case? We had spent the better part of the day talking in good faith with dealerships and had encountered people who didn’t have a clue how to treat employees or customers.

It made me think that actually, maybe things are not so bad in education. I have seen so many teachers become administrators and turn into multi-headed monsters, showing little regard for their staff and the parents they serve. I assumed in the business world things would be better, but I don’t think that is the case.

It seems to me that our modern society has lost a certain amount of civility. How you treat the people you work with and your clientele doesn’t seem to count for much these days. I know of instances where the principal had no problem disregarding the interests of their parents because they were certain they knew the best way to get things done. Such leaders pass this arrogance on to their staff creating a toxic atmosphere in the school.

This should never happen and these leaders need to be called to account if they don’t know how to manage people.

In the case of the dealerships, I had calls apologizing for the poor behaviour of their managers. In each case, they wished us well and there were no hard feelings. What would happen in education if we treated our parents with this level of care and respect when a manager missteps?

Customer service is everything. I have written about this before, and there are excellent examples of organizations with great customer service out there and they need to be celebrated. For years, I have worked and volunteered for Discovery Education mainly because they never miss an opportunity to thank those who work with them. It almost seems a little countercultural, but they always act with grace and do their utmost to make sure their clients are receiving the service they deserve. We need more Discovery Education these days.

By the way, we did find a car – excellent customer service!