November 3, 2013

Thinking Through the Awards Debate

Every once in a while something I care a lot about comes up in the media and is massively misrepresented. It often becomes pretty difficult for me to let it go. Last Sunday's Calgary Herald article on St. Basil's School moving away from traditional award ceremonies allowed one voice to dominate the conversation. No perspective was added from the teaching staff or students attending the school, and the substantial research in support of the school's shift away from honour roll ceremonies was virtually ignored. Most regrettably, the over-simplification of a complex issue resulted in many public contributions to the conversation that were reactionary and ill-informed. The primary arguments in favour of an honour roll seemed to be that it provides recognition for hardworking students, as well as motivation for them to do great work. Both perspectives deserve to be thoughtfully examined.

October 21, 2013

My Story of Change in Education: Student Voice and Physical Space

This story was put together as part of the Canadian Education Association's "What Standing in the Way of Change in Education" Conference in Calgary, October 21 - 22, 2013.

I only remember a few specifics from my first few weeks in the classroom. I had big ideas but the execution was definitely messy. I remember trying to keep track of things that worked and didn’t in those first few months and the second category was certainly larger than the first. I remember the first time I gave the students a math problem that asked that they apply an understanding of place value. Within ten minutes, three children were crying because they didn’t understand and were afraid to get the wrong answer. Somehow I hadn’t anticipated that my fifty students from all over the city would have such varying experiences and attitudes towards learning.

October 17, 2013

Re-thinking inquiry-based practice in physical education

While conventional education is often criticized for either segmenting learning into smaller pieces without ever giving kids the whole picture, or for letting kids read all about something without ever having an opportunity to engage in the process or "play the whole game" as Harvard School of Education Professor writes in his book Making Learning Whole, physical education does not often suffer the same criticisms.  Kids play the whole game all the time - PE teachers might argue, whether it be basketball, volleyball, baseball, badminton or floor hockey.

My challenge to "traditional" PE programs however, would be that the games they are playing are the wrong ones. If the purpose of "playing the whole game" is that students are able to engage in real work

September 11, 2013

When Winning is the Dominant Discourse

A hilarious post from the satirical CBC news show "This is That" made the rounds on social media late last week claiming that an Ontario Soccer Club had decided to eliminate the ball from soccer in an effort to curb competition. The article cites a pseudo spokesperson as saying:
"We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it's about using your imagination. If you imagine you're good at soccer, then, you are."

August 28, 2013

Retrospect and Reinvention

Looking back, I can without a doubt acknowledge that what has emerged most significantly from my early experiences in teaching is the idea that the most important measure of my pedagogical practice is the degree to which it has persisted in evolving.

I used to believe that the only alternative to structure was chaos
I used to believe winning was material
I used to believe in quantitative acknowledgement of learning and data-driven assessment
I used to believe that ambiguity was the enemy
I used to believe that learning could be bottled and finite

June 3, 2013

How To Build an Awesome Car (Engineering Thinking in Grade 4)

Traditionally, Grade 4 "Wheels, Levers and Devices that Move" units involve hands on investigations in which students have the opportunity to build something. Often however, these building opportunities are heavily regulated and have students follow a specific set of instructions, put pieces together sequentially and then showcase a collection of virtually identical products.

While I can't pretend to know a whole lot about engineering, I am pretty confident that if the discipline were focused on building from instruction booklets, Chris Hadfield wouldn't have spent the last 6 months in space. As Dr. David Perkins' mentions in Making Learning Whole, kids don't learn to play the game if all they ever get are the pieces...

April 14, 2013

On Light, Shadows and Experience

Co-authored by Jenna Callaghan
Cross-posted on the Calgary Science School's Connect!

We began a recent investigation into Light and Shadows in Grade 4 by posing the question “What is Light?” to our students. Before beginning the conversation, we reminded students that the world is not nearly as concrete or easily-understood as over-simplified statements of "fact" might often imply. We talked about how scientists are by nature inquisitive, always open to possibility and a reinvention of old ideas. We suggested that throughout our inquiry, they too might have the potential to share a completely new perspective, contribute to making new discoveries and either support or disprove current thoughts. With two of us in the classroom, we were able to capture some of our students’ opening ideas about 'Light' and have embedded them below.

April 9, 2013

Kindness - A Recurring Theme

Every once in awhile all the pockets of spark that I come across intersect and whether it's true or not it really feels like the universe is pulling together to communicate something important. Today I had to write about it. The trigger was an impromptu conversation with my student teacher about how sometimes, teaching core curricular outcomes gets set aside for a period and this is okay. Because sometimes it's important to have a conversation about how to be a good person; about what it means to be kind, to make a thoughtful decision, to show compassion or respect. If real teaching is inspiring the hearts and minds of children, then taking time for these conversations, creating space and modelling the kind of brave compassion that leads to hope and change is the most important thing we do.

April 3, 2013

Mentorship and Collaboration in Student Teaching: A Video Reflection

Co-authored by Jenna Callaghan 
Cross-posted on the Calgary Science School's Connect!

Working with a student teacher these past few months has been an exciting and rewarding experience. From our first meeting, it was evident that Jenna and I shared a similar pedagogical philosophy; with a strong focus on reflection and discipline-based inquiry. Jenna’s early ideas and questions were guided by an honest vulnerability that allowed for a number of frank conversations around assessment, engagement and lesson design in an inquiry based classroom. My understanding of collaboration - developed and deepened through a powerful team-teaching relationship with Amy Park - had led to a familiarity with how professional collaborative relationships might evolve and I was excited to incorporate my prior understanding and experiences.

March 19, 2013

Outside the Lines: Student Perspectives on Inquiry Learning

Sometimes it gets to me that my classroom is noisier and that my students’ work is messier. Why am I in constant negotiation with nine and ten year olds over quality, clarity, detail, what’s worth the effort and when it’s reasonable to expect to move on? Wednesday morning as I sat at my desk feeling uncertain and frustrated at the messiness of not having everything nailed down, categorized and properly evaluated, I decided to have a conversation with the kids about learning. I have to hand it to inquiry, it has made them good conversationalists and I have yet to regret asking students for their perspective in solving problems. This particular conversation was no exception...

Conversation originally recorded/documented on the white board and transcribed below. 

March 13, 2013

Random Thoughts from a Student Teacher

by Jenna Callaghan

I had my first education board screening interview a few days ago. The majority of the questions were designed to gain an idea of my overall philosophy and views on teaching.  Many were “what would you do in this scenario” questions.  In the final months of my Bachelor of Education, I feel confident that I am well on my way to having a strong sense of my values and who I am as a teacher.  One question on the interview, however, left me feeling stumped. 

March 6, 2013

iPads for Learning

At the start of our first year with a 1:1 iPad program in Grade 4, Jon Van de Raadt made a comment that resonated and has set the tone for our year. "I think you'll find that iPads are not a junior version of the MacBook and should not be used as such. The iPad is a significantly different tool, and if you are prepared to embrace it, you might even find it more useful than the laptop has been." Two thirds of the way through our grade four pilot year with iPad 3's, I can say with certainty that I agree wholeheartedly. iPads belong in the classroom. I cannot imagine a more useful tool for representing, consolidating, expanding or creating understanding on the fly. I have no doubt that the rapidity with which app and software developers react to user feedback and update accordingly makes it one of the few technological tools out there that can effectively react to the ever-changing needs of youth in education and the evolving 21st century classroom. 

What follows is by no means a comprehensive or complete overview of what the iPad might be used for in the grade four classroom, but just a few brief exemplars from some of the artifacts we have had students create and present with the use of their devices. All apps (with the exception of the iWork apps) were free purchases. All investigations were co-developed with Amy Park and have been posted and archived in Edmodo and Google Apps

March 5, 2013


I've got a turtle in my classroom. She's 25 years old and will outlive me. She likes to climb things, even though she's not built for it. She falls a lot but it never stops her. Once, earlier in her life, someone tried to drill a hole in her shell, maybe to flag her so they wouldn't lose her in the grass... It must have hurt. They probably thought she couldn't feel it. Maybe they never had the opportunity to get to know her so they didn't understand. Sometimes children forget that she can't see them properly and they try to pat her face. It's probably terrifying. She always comes back out though. Game face on, ready to forgive, adapt, and continue with her investigation, carefully negotiating her next obstacle; balanced, careful, determined.

February 19, 2013

Crowd Sourcing the Fourth Graders

I've got a novel on iPads in the grade four classroom waiting to be written. Lots of discoveries, ideas, struggles and triumphs. I just need to find the time to document it all properly. This brief gem, however, is too awesome not to share.

Earlier this year, our teaching team's excited discovery of the Edmodo app as an excellent resource for collecting and organizing student work digitally and providing an avenue for ongoing feedback was stinted by the limitation of only being able to upload images or links from the iPads. Our optimism was recently renewed by updates to the iWork apps which made it possible to upload pagesnumbers and keynote documents directly to Edmodo. The latest struggle has been with how we might be able to have students download iWork templates we post to Edmodo and open them using the associated app. It seemed that the only way to open a doc from Edmodo was as a preview and frankly, I was beginning to think it wasn't possible any other way.

Nevertheless, while driving home from the mountains yesterday I posted a sample template for students to track their mousetrap car results to Edmodo via the numbers app with the comment "let me know if any of you figure out how to open this document as a numbers template!" Honestly, I didn't expect much. This morning I woke up to 17 replies...

Problem solved, instructions posted. Clearly I wasted way too much time trying to solve this problem myself. I should have asked the fourth graders in the first place.

I love my job.

February 11, 2013

It's Hard

It's easy to want something.

And of course we want it handed to us. I'd often prefer to look at it from afar, talk about it hypothetically as though I know, or copy someone else's version.

Sometimes we even try to buy whatever it is as though purchasing is possession.

But in the end it's only ours if we work for it. As frustrating as it is to bump up against something challenging over and over again until we've figured out how to adapt or overcome, that is work worth doing.

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don’t. I divide the world into learners and non-learners.
Benjamin R. Barber

February 5, 2013

Work that is Real

Just over a week ago today, Chris Lehmann concluded a conversation at #Educon with a question that struck me as really important:
What else will change if our pedagogy becomes more inquiry-driven... if it is authentic, does it live only in the classroom? 
The answer is no; but it’s also not that simple which might be the point. Inquiry isn’t how we learn in the 21st century classroom, it’s how learning is.

In a consumption driven economy, education conversation inevitably revolves around the insistence that the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for the ‘real world’. Why? Because everyone needs a car and a house and a reliable job that makes good money when they grow up, ask any kid in Calgary. Reliability is synonymous with dependability making inconstancy and ambiguity the enemy. We can’t prepare for what we can’t predict which terrifies us. So though living itself is chaotic by nature, we lose ourselves in the idea that we can, if bureaucratically diligent enough, assure a utopian future with no risk or uncertainty, no need for further thinking, negotiating or venture. “Just do your homework so you can get a good job and have a good life when you grow up.”

This attitude inescapably precedes the idea that a didactic fractured pedagogy is the best tool for cultivating competence, security and safety. It worked for Ford’s cars. Right? At least if it didn’t, the process was simple, measurable, easy to follow and creditably efficient. It also lends itself to the notion that we can get ahead simply by speeding up, adding time to a growing list of commodities we presume to possess. It is hardly unexpected that as we negotiate the system, we learn to account for every minute and live in fear of ‘wasting’ them. Our work becomes inexorably detached from fun because with the proverbial clock always ticking away in the corner we’re scared of losing this made-up race we’re in; and when our species feels embattled we try to tack things down. How often do we rationalize with ourselves or with our children that if “we just get down to it” we’ll have fun after work?

The irony is that while rushing to stay a step ahead of life’s impending chaos, boxing things neatly so they can’t escape us and driving a wedge between passion and education in the process, we have completely forgotten that the trivialization of joy in learning isn’t the real world. In our rush for scholarship and superficial memorization of out-of-context data, we unthinkingly absorb the message that this just is the way things are. It isn’t the way things are, it’s the way we’ve made them. History has handed us over to a way of living and learning that doesn’t allow us the opportunity to know things properly. We have been born into a world within which the prevalent impression is that “knowing” can be bottled giving it an end and that the first man to the destination wins, but we are not born with this perspective.

Our nature is inherently inquisitive. A child’s first instinct is to search for understanding by questioning and exploring the collective memory of what is. We are all familiar with a toddler’s search for meaning through which every seemingly simple object becomes worthy of investigation. They answer every statement with a “why” which almost inevitably leads to the eventual acknowledgement by a besieged adult that they “don’t know”. Then, conventional schooling tends to forego in-depth inquiry for the sake of broad ground cover because “OMG more and faster is totally better” (see curriculum in general) and as a result children eventually come to accept that questioning has an end. The great tragedy of our school system is that it fails to clarify that circumscribing knowledge does not make it finite.

What if instead of “because that’s just the way things are,” the prevailing response to the relentless “why” question became “because that’s how things have turned out, but I wonder...”  I’d like to imagine that how we learn and how we live might be different if we were more often encouraged to consider that today’s realities are often but a consequence of decisions that have been perpetuated throughout human history. Imagine if we were to shift from talking about what things are or what they aren’t, to talking about how they appear. Instead of what and how, we would have to ask why, on who’s behalf, in relation to what, in support of what, using what language and from where? What if we were comfortable enough to allow the multiplicity of a thing’s appearance to count as what it is?

My experience with inquiry-driven pedagogy began with asking kids what they wanted to know and how their questions could be effectively investigated. As I listened to their ideas, the dawning realization that they were capable stole gradually into my conscience until I was increasingly aware of the ways in which nature was almost asking to be questioned by this next generation, provided I was willing to hold the door open for them. I found myself purposefully turning worlds of knowledge over to children, offering them an opportunity to call things like additive systems or the scientific method into question and their impassioned investigations led to heartfelt articulation and re-interpretation of ancient ideas.

When we allow kids to write something, to read something or to mathematize, we provide language or mathematics with a future. Students who have managed to grasp regrouping in addition as a procedural series of algorithms will never invest in a defense of place value with the passion and conviction of those who have become sure of it, not thanks to columns and alignment but thanks to a researched conceptual understanding of base ten, expanded notation and equivalence. They have re-constructed mathematical ideas and discovered their conjectures to be supported by century-old findings and in so doing, have breathed life back into the world of mathematics. This reality has vertigo. Kids will lean in.

The work of the world is common as mud. 
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. 
But the thing worth doing well done 
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. 
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, 
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums 
but you know they were made to be used. 
The pitcher cries for water to carry 
and a person for work that is real.”

excerpt from To Be of Use
Marge Piercy (1973)

January 22, 2013

Fire Building With 9 Year Olds

Deirdre Bailey

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”

Jack Kerouac

The more I learn as a teacher, the more I marvel that I was any "good" at school as a student. As I come to understand learning more deeply, I realize with increasing clarity that through most of my own schooling, I never really learned anything.

It is impossibly hard to explain to former high school or university classmates that I have learned more about mathematics teaching grade 4 than I did studying matrix algebra or vector calculus. This point is often met with dismissive assumptions that I must not have done well in school, that I had bad teachers, or that my brain capacity has deteriorated since. However, this realization is more a comment on the shortcomings of educational systems than of myself. To consider as fact the suggestion that I am now challenged by mathematical discourse with 9-year-olds would require the acknowledgement that in our school systems, it was perfectly possible for me (and countless others) to gain university credit in math for attention, obedience and careful reproduction without any real depth of understanding.

I'm not saying that I never thought in school, or that the odd piece didn't stick; just that I never really thought for myself. As a “quantitatively successful” product of the system, I grew-up viewing academia as a checklist to be memorized and regurgitated, not the abstract world of interconnected patterns and possibilities it is. I spent a lifetime happily checking imagination and personality at the door of each classroom for the sake of a grade. In the words of John Dewey, I put "seeming before being."

I now know the difference. I ask "what if?" and "how?" to questions I don't know the answer to. I lead investigations into uncovering exceptions to conjectures, ponder the concept of zero, inquire into the function and origin of place value or the properties and applications of prime numbers. Most days are spent in awe of the ideas, connections, and revelations that come from students as they explore the freedom to reorganize and reflect. "WHAT!?" "HOW have I never noticed that before?" "OH MY GOD that's CONNECTED to THIS!" "THAT. Is the BEST idea I've ever heard...” “DUDE!"

That's inquiry; it's not the topic, or the problem, or the technology, or the answer. Inquiry is engagement in the question, a connection with the community, and a nongoogleable search for truth and meaning. Real inquiry fuels a fire.

 © Deirdre Bailey 

January 15, 2013

Trees, Roots, Water

Deirdre Bailey

Reflecting on inquiry and ecological consciousness for University of Calgary EDER 693, Interpretive Study of Curriculum with David Jardine and Jacquie Seidel

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” 
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”  (Wallace, 2005)

Humanity has evolved to seek meaning, to find beauty that stirs the soul and attempt to connect with it. We were born to experience, to understand from experience, to gain knowledge directly through the senses and the gut. But our sense have dulled. We have transformed beauty from a place to an object, confused it with pretty or attractive, mistaken it for happiness and assumed it can be possessed. “We suffer from being focused on “the wrong things” and from being without much focus” (Sewall, 2012, p. 15) and slip easily into diversion and distraction; our default settings. 
And the so-called real world will not discourage [us] from operating on [our] default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. (Wallace)

It is an anesthetized existence. One in which more is better, and skepticism is safety, and power is success. It is a world in which we criticize rodeos for cruelty while gnawing on a McDonald’s hamburger, or condemn the oil sands for endangering ducks while fueling our SUVs. It is an existence in which questions become infuriating because their hollowness lays bare an appalling absence of wonder in youth who only want to know how to minimize effort, maximize comfort, and win a prize at the end.
The Lorax says he speaks for the trees and we watch as nobody listens and we say to ourselves that WE will speak for OUR trees but nobody really looks at the trees and nobody listens. Nobody notices that they already speak of solitude and fortitude and persistence, and that if we could only cultivate the ability to see them as they are, we would not find ourselves always so desperate to speak. And we might even find peace in their quiet confidence. 
In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves… And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow… (Hermann Hesse, 1984)

I don’t want to teach plants, poetry or politics. I want to teach perception and awareness and sensitivity and vulnerability. I want to teach youth to deliberately exercise control over how and what they think and help them focus their attention on what matters. I want to teach trees and roots and waterBeauty is not a possession or an attribute. It is a perspective. How we look at things or choose to construct meaning can create beauty in the space around us. It is not a simple task, but we owe it to humanity to dig deep, take root, be still and grow hope..
...while reminding ourselves over and over:
This is water. (Wallace)

Flores Island, British Columbia 2010

Hesse, H. (1984) Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte Retrieved from

Sewall, L. (2012). Beauty and the Brain. In Kahn, P. H. & Hasbach, P. H. (Editors), Ecopyschology : Science, Totems, and the Technological Species. (pp. 15). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Wallace, D. F. “This is Water.” Kenyon College Graduation Address. Gambier, OH. May 2005 Retrieved from