November 21, 2011

I'll Learn What I Want to Learn

Guest post by Scott Bailey

If the goal of schooling and teaching is truly that students experience and engage in learning, then it is the absolute responsibility of teachers to connect and dismantle any and all distinctions between “school” knowledge and “real” knowledge.  Grumet’s (2006) argument that “schooling is about schooling” (p. 47) and Eisner’s (1994) acknowledgement of criticism that schooling merely “foster[s] compliant behavior” (p. 89) illustrate how problematic this categorization of knowledge is.  The stigma that permeates high schools in organizing Math, English, Social Studies and the sciences into levels such as 20-1, 20-2, et cetera is one example of the false priority and privilege that “scholarly” and “academic” knowledge enjoy over “practical” and “how-to” skills.   Learning is best accomplished when students recognize, embody and value a need for any aspect of knowledge – facts, theories or applications among many.  Teachers must recognize and actively respond to the reality that if students are the agents expected to learn, then for the greatest results, they must also be the primary drivers of their own learning.  School content must be relevant to ensure that students see this value and importance.  This relevance will only arise when students play the leading role, in collaboration with their teachers, in determining and executing the learning process.

Rather than beginning with “curriculum acronyms” or “academic disciplines” (Grumet, 2006, p. 47) in determining schooling content and methodology, teachers must establish the needs, interests and passions of their students and place them at the forefront of the lesson plans.  Grumet (2006) re-phrases Scheler’s notions of “persons” and “the world” as “correlate” as “completely interdependent,” declaring “a person who knows is a person who is engaged with the world” (p. 49 – 50).  When schools and schooling makes curriculum and academics disparate from the world that their students live within, this disparity interferes with learning and knowledge.  For centuries, teachers have fielded the question “when will I ever have to use this?” from students.  This question stems from students’ embodiment of the separation of schooling from their worldly context.  An inquiry approach to teaching and learning – for both teachers and students – bridges this gap.  Inquiry, defined by Grumet (2006) as a shift from “teaching what we know, to teaching what we want to know” (p. 53) places the root of academic planning and designing with the learner (the student) and their questions and learning needs.  From this beginning, all teaching considerations that follow will always be real; nothing could possibly be artificial.  As teachers, we should strive to create situations where students ask “now that we understand this aspect, can we learn about? or look into? or find out why? …”  Students should drive the content and teachers should guide the process so that curriculum objectives are achieved.  This process not only connects “real” knowledge to “school” knowledge, it dismantles this distinction and orients learners and teachers around a new culture of schooling that values all knowledge as relevant, meaningful and lasting.


Eisner, E.W. (1994).  The three curricula that all schools teach.  In E.W. Eisner, The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs.  New York: MacMillan College.

Grumet, M.R. (2006).  Where does the world go when schooling is about schooling?  Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 22(3), 47 – 54.

First Attempts In Learning

Deirdre Bailey

I used to think exclusively in black and white. I have a sincere appreciation for the clear-cut, precise and absolute and have argued that those who are not 100% sure of their accuracy should not be entitled to an opinion. I have spent most of my life infuriated by indecisiveness and I cringe to acknowledge that I have stormed off in irritation at people who would answer questions with questions instead of concrete opinions. I have been an equally harsh critic of my own confusion and have been guilty of rushing a process in order to arrive at a conclusion I could stand behind.

Recently, my thinking has changed. At a conference last week, when I was asked to choose an object to represent myself, I chose colored crayons. "Black and white are too singular, there just isn't enough room for progression in them," I reasoned, "you've got to have room for the process when you're learning. You've got to be able to make use of all those colors and their ability to blend, to mask and to complement." What I am recognizing is that absolutes are finite where learning is infinite and if you are open to it, then you can never be finished with it.

What this means for learners is that the process of moving ever closer to your goal will, at some point, necessitate feedback which might recognize and identify that you are not yet "there." That is the hard part. Inquiry is an elastic framework within which you have room to expand, to reach out and explore. But that elastic will recoil if you push too quickly or forcefully in one direction. The question will keep bringing you back, sometimes harshly if you run with an idea too "absolutely." I have recognized for a while now that feedback is necessary to the learning process. What I have recognized recently is that it can be a tough reality check when you are at your most excited; it is difficult to believe you have perfected a drawing, only to discover that your red needs to deepen to purple.

The lesson however, is not that the excitement should be tapered because recoil hurts. Neither is it that you should always expect a recoil. The lesson is that you should always be grateful for the added beauty of the re-direction, change in perspective or supplementary color. The challenge, as Maya Angelou so beautifully puts it, is that:

"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."

As a society, we so rarely celebrate those moments in which we realize that our learning has hit a roadblock, that we are at risk of avoiding them entirely as we do not effectively value their worth. My first reaction to critical feedback is to defend myself. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because I have been conditioned to see this feedback as critique of my ability and self worth? After all, traditional education has effectively perpetuated a grading system in which academic standards are an implement with which we are encouraged to measure ourselves. 

Perhaps shockingly, it is only recently that I have come to realize that no one has it all figured out, especially not the people who are acting like they do. Part of the inquiry process has to be understanding that you can never have all the answers. Part of never having all the answers has to mean that sometimes, you just might not be able to conclude a conversation with an absolute that blows all criticism to pieces and puts the argument to rest forever. Terry Pratchett has a great quote that states:

"The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it."

The beauty of inquiry is that this trouble becomes an advantage as it adds to, conflicts with, redirects or refocuses what you already know and you, ultimately, become more colorful for it.

F.A.I.L.; First Attempt In Learning

Cross-posted on the Calgary Science School's Connect! blog

November 15, 2011

The Candy Problem

I mentioned the Candy Problem in a previous post in which I alluded to having provided the kids with a challenging math problem that even teachers had been taking a significant chunk of time to solve. We presented the problem as part of an end-of-semester formative assessment. We had had many conversations previous to presenting them with this problem about multiples, factors, common factors, number patterns and multiplicative relationships. Our goal was not to evaluate the kids based on whether or not they could complete the problem but to provide them with a means of generating conjectures and demonstrating their thinking process.

Having started the year with a diverse group from very different mathematical backgrounds, we were inspired by their concentration, perseverance, and the unique strategies they developed in order to solve the problem. What most impressed us was the number of students that approached us to share tentative solutions at the end of the period. They each had individual interpretations of how the problem should be solved and were eager to share the conjectures that had led them to their solutions. Since first introducing the problem, we have taken it up more in depth as a larger group. Kids have been working in teams based on original ideas they had in common for how a solution might be reached. They are excited, motivated, and eager for our next math class so that they can continue to develop and connect their understanding. Our Grade 7 and Grade 9 students have also since taken up the problem, inspired by the mathematical reasoning skills of their younger peers. If there was ever any doubt about the power of inquiry in a math classroom, these last few weeks have put it to rest for our team. Check out our video!! We'd love your feedback...

November 14, 2011

Community of Practice

Amy Park

As the school year began, I was excited not only to be teaching at CSS again and teaching a new grade, but to wear the moniker "mentor." I thought, albeit naively, that I had a great deal to offer my new teaching partner, who with just one year under her belt was considered a newcomer to the profession. After nine years in the classroom, I assumed I would share all that I know about teaching and in return, she would learn. I have never made a worse assumption in all of my career. My belief about "mentoring" and what my role would be was completely outdated. From various academic journals and through countless discussions, I quickly realized how wrong I was.

The "old school" mentorship model partners an experienced teacher, me, with a ‘protégé’ teacher, Deirdre. It places all knowledge and expertise in the hands of the mentor, while discounting any expertise the protégé may have to offer. This relationship is based solely on a passing of knowledge, which means new strategies and approaches are not being developed, discovered, or explored. After our first couple of days of planning, I began to recognize the many faults in my assumptions about mentorship. Deirdre has a wealth of knowledge, a plethora of ideas, and an enthusiasm for teaching that is nothing short of contagiousCombined. In partnership. As equals - we have so much more to offer. This is when I began reading and researching more on the concept of "communities of practice".

A community of practice, according to Crafton and Kaiser (2011), occurs when teachers interact with each other on a regular basis; they participate in something that matters and because of this, their practice improves and often changes. It also requires teachers’ willingness to share, develop and adapt in the company of others. Examining the relationship between teacher practice and student learning is essential. Especially if teachers want to develop and have an even greater impact on the students who show up in classrooms every day. Establishing collaborative, learning cultures for teachers is necessary in order to meet the ever-changing needs of students. Deirdre and I, as a team, have created a community of practice where together, we are far more effective than we would be alone.

“When teachers participate as knowledgeable professionals, capable of engaging in reflective practice and collaborative inquiry, that is who they become” (Crafton and Kaiser, 2011, p. 212). This, in and of itself, is the essence of the model and it accurately describes our professional relationship. If more first year teachers had the opportunity to engage in this form of quality professional development, I think the result would be far reaching; in that fewer teachers would feel isolated, the attrition rate would be significantly reduced, and teachers would have increased job satisfaction (both experienced and beginning). In my opinion, the practicality, strengths and benefits of communities of practice, if done properly, are endless.

I have been in the classroom for nine years, yet this is one of the first times where I have felt competent and confident of having a positive and significant impact on other teachers’ practices, while simultaneously improving my own practiceThrough team-teaching, collaborative planning and ongoing, reflective conversations with Deirdre, I am - correction - WE are learning and growing as educators. Through digitally documenting the process of learning (for both our students and ourselves), I am confident we will gain a great deal, both personally and professionally and additionally, we will be able to share the process with others. Communities of practice are clearly a critical component to sustaining a collaborative culture at my school or at any school for that matter.

The journey we are on is one that is hard to describe. It is why I became a teacher and why I wake up every morning excited and happy to be going to "work."

Crafton, L. & Kaiser, E. (2011). The language of collaboration: Dialogue and identity in teacher professional development. Improving Schools, 14(2), p. 104-116. DOI: 10.1177/1365480211410437

November 13, 2011

The future belongs to those who can see past the number...

Deirdre Bailey

Report cards equal debate. So should anything that requires reflecting hundreds of hours worth of conversation, research, invention and developing ability in a number. Imagine asking a parent to describe (or rate?) their child with one number. Wouldn't it depend on the day?... On their activity? On their level of interest? On the task and their experience with it? I can't convince myself that a parent who has watched their child grow, smile, learn to crawl and speak for the first time, wants their ability or potential to be reduced to a single number... To what end?

Who then, is the number for? The child? Is it intended to motivate them? To reward them? To "prepare them for the future?" Daniel Pink suggests in his latest book, Drive, that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay adults enough to "take if off of the table" as an issue. For children, school grades are what come in life before money. Historically and theoretically, they serve the same purpose. But do we honestly believe that we can motivate students by assigning them a number every 3 months? "You're a 3 Billy... but with more work, you could be a 4." Does 13 year old Billy honestly care if he's a 4? Is he genuinely likely to engage more in learning for a 4 on the piece of paper we hand him in January? More likely to discover his passion? To create? To understand even? Recent research and innovation in the business world increasingly suggest that when tasks require creative conceptual thinking, rewards don't work. Sure, if you give a group of people an algorithm to apply and a bonus for speed, bonuses will make a difference, but not if we're looking for innovation or invention. Would we rather our children apply procedural knowledge with speed, or think deeply and redefine conventional assumptions? We have all had goosebumps listening to someone sing, reading an incredible novel or watching an extraordinarily skilled athlete perform? Do we honestly believe that their success was a direct result of, motivated or inspired by a quantitative assessment?

Arguably, sport is an industry in which we are on the cutting edge of "producing results" and "achieving success." In fact, spend twenty minutes listening to highlights and analysis on a Sunday afternoon football post game show and you'll be amazed at how many synonyms for results and success you'll hear.  Athletics is as outcome-oriented as our society can get: you win or you don't. You do not get a special mention for hard work: "second place = first loser." Yet, four-time Olympic speed-skating medalist Kristina Groves was interviewed by Duff Gibson on her evolving motivation and what ultimately resulted in her first world championship, and she specifically identifies the turning point in her career as the moment where she stopped identifying 'the number beside her name' as an evaluation of her achievement. She includes the observation:

"The funny thing about it... is that I can remember standing on the podium and not giving a crap about the medal. I can, to this day, tell you exactly how I felt in that race. And that, was when I was like 'Oh my God I hit that feeling!' That's what I want in my races, and that's what leads to good performance." 
(3.48 min)

In his TED talk, Daniel Pink offers a perfect analogy on how we might motivate adults in the workforce. We can either approach them with "If you do something cool... I'll give you $2,500," or we can try "you probably want to do something cool, let me just get out of your way." The latter capitalizes on what we are coming to understand about education in so many ways. First, we assume that kids will do well if they can. Second, we understand that providing them with some autonomy to undertake self-directed learning is of key importance in constructing an engaging learning space.

The revolution in education is slowly recognizing that cultivating 21st century thinkers leaves no space for assigning kids numbers as a way of assessing or improving their learning process. It will no doubt prove challenging to convince present social bureaucracy that numeric data will provide little to no help in painting a clear picture of what our future citizens are capable of - this system has been privileged for years. It will be infinitely more time consuming to rely on conversation and interaction to convey student success and needs, however, there is no way that numbers can, in any case, give us the complete picture. We need a future in which people do not associate success or achievement with a quantitative figure but engage in conversation, debate and collaboration about their growth through the process of learning. It is the only way to build the best version of a better world.

November 5, 2011

This is how it's supposed to feel...

Deirdre Bailey

The start to my day today was hectic at best. Snowy roads, a forgotten laptop and a first class full of glue and tissue paper. I asked the kids if they could do their best to be purposeful and respectful as they shredded piles of paper and painted white glue onto massive provincial cardboard cut outs. I handed a few of them some cameras and asked them to interview each other on the artistic process as I rushed around gathering materials. They generated their own questions, found their own space, and got to work. Twenty minutes before the end of class it was a disaster area. Ten minutes later it was spotless. Eight of them stayed back at recess to help wash glue cups. I hadn't asked.

In our classes after recess, we finished with an incredibly challenging math problem that they were tackling on their own in order to develop unique conjectures to contribute to a class discussion the following week. It was a really hard problem. We had worked through it as teachers earlier in the year and were averaging 45 minutes to arrive at solutions. We encouraged them to take their time and reminded them that partial solutions and questions were what we were really looking for. Their persistence and perceptiveness blew me away. We had 5 kids solve the problem.

I am away from school all next week.  As I planned for my absence at the end of the day, all I could think about was how I really just didn't want to miss any of their moments... Where the light goes on and their faces light up. Where they walk out to recess mumbling about math because they're genuinely excited about being on the verge of a discovery... 

Then it occurred to me, that this is what it's supposed to feel like.. When you figure out what you're supposed to do with your life and how to live it. When your 'work' is the only place you really want to be on a Monday morning. Ask me about 'how finding your passion changes everything.' I just figured it out. 

"They ask me why I teach and I reply, 'Where could I find such splendid company?' There sits a statesman, strong, unbiased, wise; another Daniel Webster, silver-tongued. A doctor sits beside him, whose quick steady hand may mend a bone, or stem the life-blood's flow. And there a builder... And all about a gathering of teachers, farmers, merchants, laborers: those who work and vote and build and plan and pray into a great tomorrow. And I may say, I may not see the church, or hear the word or eat the food their hands may grow. But yet again I may. And later I may say, I knew him once, and he was weak, or strong, or bold or proud or gay. I knew him once, but then he was a boy. They ask me why I teach and I reply, 'Where could I find such splendid company?'"
John Wooden's TED Talk on 'True Success'