Thursday, May 31, 2012

Where are we heading in this handbasket?

Since I have been delinquet (OK, absent) in blogging I thought I would get back in the saddle by posting a guest blog.

In my travels I meet lots of smart people. Gerry Varty has the unique ability to understand the "ivory tower" thoughts and the reality of every day teaching. Recently he shared a few thoughts about a favourite topic of mine, the currrent state of education vs the good old days. Jamie Vollmer calls this "nostesia", a combination of amnesia and nostalgia. 

Anyway here is Gerry's communication...........

Every so often, somebody spends a few moments telling me about how the world is heading straight to Sheol in the proverbial handbasket.

 Mostly, I wonder if they're right.

 From those conversations come new thoughts, affirmations of old thoughts, amazing insights and usually, more questions.  It's when I go looking to find some answers that I get a chance to hear about others struggling with the same ideas... this little note is about just such an occurrence.

 The other day, I had a conversation (with somebody I respect) about the state of mathematics education.  "Kids don't know their basic facts", he said.  "It's handicapping them when they try to do more complex things.  I don't think they should have taken basic facts out of the curriculum."

That got my attention.  'They' removed basic facts from the curriculum?

How dare 'They'?

 It connected with another conversation I had (about a month ago) where (another person I respect) mentioned that it might have been a mistake to not teach division and 2-digit x 2-digit multiplication in this new curriculum. 

In that case, I sent them on a treasure hunt through the Program of Studies to find where those concepts were indeed taught, and connected them with somebody who teaches them.  They seemed surprised to discover that they had a misconception about what was in the curriculum, but remained confused about why they thought it wasn't there.

I lost a lot of sleep over that one... Was it the resources?  Was it the activities?  Was it the focus on 'developing personal strategies', or 'making sense and meaning' that replaced 'rote learning'?

While we're on the topic, why DID we replace rote learning, since it worked so well for all of us?

All of that came back to me when my friend asked me the question about Basic Facts, and it has been bubbling around in the cauldron since then.

Until last night, when I read these lines on another teacher's blog...

"I'm not opposed to memorizing facts. Somewhere along the line, I've memorized the various spells in Harry Potter, the positions on a football field, and the lyrics to my favorite songs. I've memorized lines from conversations, verses from the Bible, and "facts" regarding Social Constructivism, Social Constructionism and Social Connectivism. I never crammed for a test. I never wrote out the facts in isolation under the watchful gaze of a teacher with a timer.

I learned these things through immersion, critical thinking, context and play."

( From a Blog post written by John Spencer:

The insight that came to me last night wasn't a blinding flash of inspiration; it was more like one of those things you have always known, but never really thought much about that just sneaks up on you and whispers in your ear ...

 "The problem isn't that complicated, dummy.  Neither is the answer."

See, the new Program of Studies doesn't 'do away with' Basic Facts, Times Tables, Multiplication or Division, or Algorithms.  The new Program of Studies recognizes that those things are important enough to learn them well, in context, and that there is a need to understand the 'Magic' of mathematics, from numbers and arithmetic all the way through to Algebra, and beyond that to Calculus.

Math isn't a series of disconnected and discrete routines, any more than a bunch of parts flying in close formation is an airplane.  Mathematics is about generalization, about inductive thought, about pattern and order, about abstract relationships, and yes, it's about basic facts and algorithms. 

In fact, it's the THINKING that goes into basic facts and algorithms that creates the more complex and interconnected parts of mathematics.

Without that thinking, you just can't get to higher math, and that's the lesson here.  'Rote Learning' wasn't good enough for us, either.  That's why so few of us understand polynomial algebra, motion trigonometry, functional relationships, and related rates.  We all took enough math to understand those things, but very few of us know enough math to TEACH them well, and most of us gleefully bailed on math the first chance we got ...

At the end of the day, it's still important that kids can DO multiplication and Division, and KNOW their basic facts.  But it's more important than ever that they UNDERSTAND those things and can extrapolate them to new situations, make conjectures about possible solutions, and generalize what they have learned to form the base for learning new ideas.

 The contradiction here is that memorization just might not be the best way to LEARN those things.

 We're teachers. Learning is our ballpark.  Designing the methodology to help kids learn is tough work, requiring our best thinking.  If parents could just buy flashcards at Walmart and accomplish that goal, they wouldn't need us... that alone tells me that memorization is probably necessary, but not sufficient.  At least, I hope that's the case, or we're all out of a job.

 As always, just something to think about.

Gerry Varty

Friday, October 7, 2011

Redefining Professional Learning in Lethbridge School District

“This is what PD should look like!”
Lethbridge School District teacher, April 2011

This holy grail of comments about professional learning was written last spring in recognition of the success teachers in Lethbridge School District have experienced in redefining their professional learning to become more personal, ongoing, collaborative and purposeful.

The catalyst for this radical change, however, has been two major shifts at the district level.  For AISI Cycle 4, the district entered new territory by moving to a single district-wide project, having had individual school-based projects for the first three cycles; 15 project in Cycle 3.  Coupled with this change in project structure, the district calendar was redesigned to have common professional learning days for all schools.  How can such significant change “from the top” result in the positive personal change expressed by the teacher quoted above and by so many others in Lethbridge School District?  Fullan has noted that there is a very real challenge for teachers and districts in “balancing top-down and bottom-up forces.”(Fullan, 2001) We believe we have found that balance in Lethbridge School District. 

In Year 1, the district changes were met with some skepticism and a degree of tension between schools and the district’s Education Centre. Some teachers argued that the project felt top down.  Richard Dufour has written about this response to district based approaches: “The term top-down is uttered with disdain, a pejorative phrase…and they expect me to be appalled at this affront to the autonomy of educators.” (Dufour, 2007) However, as the project progressed, teachers increasingly identified the alignment of purpose in teaching and professional learning that was developing because of the district-wide approach.  They were able to benefit from the time provided for collaboration and guidance to improve their teaching practice.  Coming together was allowing them to deconstruct jargon and to develop common language.  By establishing collaboration as a norm, teachers could more readily focus on talking to each other about their teaching and about improving students’ learning

Results of our research study (Gunn & Hollingsworth) on the effect of the district-wide project showed “significant changes” occurring in teacher practice regarding the implementation of 21st century learning methods and approaches.  As well, results from Year 1 showed that student learning was positively impacted as teachers pursued their personal learning within the district-wide project.

Concurrently with the AISI project, Lethbridge School District was part of the CASS project Moving and Improving.  The opportunity this participation gave us to pose specific questions about the AISI project to Leithwood, Levin and Fullan brought the research literature to life and helped us guide the project.

The involvement in Moving and Improving validated for us the directional change we had made to a systemic project, but it also reinforced the importance of teachers being the “locus of change”.  While a directional change at the district level has made our move forward possible, it is teachers who are the actual agents of change.  The realization is growing in Lethbridge School Division that professional learning is not something that happens to teachers, but is something that teachers own.  It is increasingly seen that professional learning is not limited just to district learning days or school based learning days, but is an ongoing part of our professional life together.  Trust has grown in district leaders and principals that teachers are continually learning and improving their practice.  Never ones to have been afraid of working hard and of learning, teachers are increasingly recognizing the power of professional learning that is collaborative, focused, purposeful and meaningful.

The necessity described by Fullan and Levin of a district being part of teachers’ professional learning has becoming evident  [1]  Our model of a district guided project and common professional learning days has shown tangible results.  We have discovered together that increased autonomy of professional learning can occur in a district guided project. It has provided the opportunity for teachers in Lethbridge School District to radically change their professional learning. 

As we move into the third year of the project, we anticipate continued growth in teachers’ ownership of their professional learning, a continued improvement in teaching practice and, consequently, a continued improvement in student learning.

Works Cited

Dufour, R. (2007, November). In Praise of Top-Down Leadership. The School Administrator, p. 38.

Fullan, M. (2001). The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College.

Gunn, T., & Hollingsworth, M. (2011). The Implementation and Assessment of a Shared 21st Century Learning Vision: A District Based Approach.

Fullan and Leven eloquently detail effective strategies of professional learning that include the district, the school and the teacher.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"The Kids Are All right"

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up daintiesat the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

A great principal that I had used this quote all the time. He is a youth advocate and in his new role of Human resources cooridnator for my school district, ensures that all of his actions are done with kids in mind. He used this quote to point out to teachers that the negative opinion of youth is centuries old....the quote above is attributed to Socrates!

A peeve I have is that many of my colleagues continue to talk of the current generation in increasingly negative terms. They claim that kids today have no respect, can't read or write and are addicted to silly activities like texting and gaming. They claim that students today don't want to work at all.
In my work as a school improvement agent (I made that title up) I am advocating that classrooms are places in which learning is encouraged and EXPECTED and can happen. If we continue to have negative beliefs about our students we are prejudiced and doomed to re-create an educational system mired in mud. Techniques and practices of teaching and also grading need to be changed. Students today are different...they demand more of the educational system than my generation did!
My alma mater is University of Lethbridge and I am proud to say it is a great school. One of it's luminaries is Dr. Reginald Bibby who is a reknowned and famous sociologist. His work is very important for teachers to read. His current release puts many myth of youth today out the window. He points out that many people, "don't want to be confused by facts". I think he is right. These facts point to the current generation as being bright, balanced and articulate. This is also the same message that Don Tapscott comments on consistently.
As Dr. Bibby says, "To quote a famous baby boomer lyric: the kids are all right" Now, can we stop worrying about the kids so much and worry more about our actions in schools?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Behind Closed Doors

Educational reformists have been talking for a while now of the need and importance of making teaching less private. For far too long teachers have ruled the roost in their classroom behind closed doors. Now, to be fair to many of my colleagues, I do know that many teachers are willing to share. And I know that the reasons for teaching behind closed doors are not sinister. Indeed the vast majority of these teachers are reluctant to open up their doors as they are afraid of being judged. Nontheless though it is still important that we continue to teach in a more public manner. We need to let our practice be guided (and judged) by Professional research.

The notion of professional research is much different than simple "professional judgement." I have heard colleagues defend poor practice using the battle cry of "it was my professional judgement". As Khym Goslin has written we (teachers) need to act more like the law profession (no, not that side of the law!.), but rather that we must, like court judges, act within a certain boundary. The teaching profession has changed and we can not continue to insist that we teach like we were taught, it is simply not enough. Our actions need to be guided by current widespread knowledge guided by research.

The doors of our schools also need to be open. This openness needs to be within the practice of schools and make this more public. Certainly recent guidelines for Cycle 4 AISI projects point to this need. This call was suggested by critical friends of the AISI project (i.e. Hargreaves) who suggest that more "networking" needs to be done between schools. They even calls for this networking to increase to include more consistent dialogue between school districts.

We need to make Public Education, public!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Role of mentoring

Benefit Of A Mentor: Disadvantaged Teens Twice As Likely To Attend College

ScienceDaily (2009-11-05) -- Two findings from a new national study reveal the power of mentors, particularly those in the teaching profession: for all teen students, having an adult mentor meant a 50 percent greater likelihood of attending college; for disadvantaged students, mentorship by a teacher nearly doubled the odds of attending college. ... > read full article

Looks like there is plenty of support of the advisor system that is in place in our middle and high schools in Lethbridge School District1.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What levels of students does DI work with?

In my move from junior high school to high school and back to middle school I often hear teachers comment that various teaching styles work or don't work in various levels.
The comments have never sat well with me as I think that there are unique situations for each class. It also strikes me that good teaching techniques are not unique to any level. The level of use may vary for each unique context but they are not mutually exclusive.
In the June issue of Educational Leadership, Dianne Brederson, writes of her journey with this issue. Specifically she writes of using DI techniques for the college level.

Article is here

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summer Reading

With summer coming to a close I thought it a good time to reflect on my summer reading. With three weeks of my summer chewed up with my university course work it left little time to read as much as I wanted.

Over the last few years I have read less and less fiction. I know I need to get back and read this genre but I am really hooked on so called "pop economics" style books. Freakonomics started this for me. I also find that Malcolm Gladwell's books are fun and thought provoking. I noted that even my university professors were using ideas and thoughts from Gladwell. I avidly follow his blog on The New Yorker and would suggest everyone read his latest, "Outliers".

This summer I read "Sway" that tries to explain why we make irrational decisions and how we can easily be manipulated from rational decisions for a variety of reasons. The concept of being more aware of rational decisions and the pyschological forces that push us to poor decisions is an important one for educators and educational leaders to consider. How many decisions have been made in schools or school districts in which a psychological "sway" pushes people into poor decisions. Common sense tells us that this happens all the time and is oftern, the result of group dynamics at meetings. Appeasement of bullies at meetings is common, or losing site of the purpose of education is easy to do. We must be vigilant to guard against these irrational decisions.

Having previously read two of Donald Tapscott's books, I picked up his latest book, "Grown Up Digital" which examines how the "Net Generation" of people have changed society and provides insight into how they have been POSITVELY impacted by technology. He is not myopic about some of the negatives of technology but is an avid supporter of technology, but more importantly he is a staunch supporter of the "Net Generation". He clearly paints rebuttals to those who cry that today's kids are "dumber" previous generations. His arguments flow together and use data gleaned from a wide number of sources to lend more than anecdotal evidence to his points. Tapscott devotes a whole chapter to education in which he condemns the current stand and deliver method of instruction. With the AISI/ETL project hitting the ground this fall for the Lethbridge School District we will have a great chance to discuss many of the points that he raises. It certainly is the intent for the project to address his concerns and deal properly with our students by engaging them more fully in their schooling.