Do schools need rules?  Does Canadian society promote bullying?  Why is it that humans are the only species that produce garbage?

These are a few of the questions that are guiding learning at BICS as our staff begins to provide inquiry-based learning opportunities for our students.

Teachers have always understood the importance of asking good questions but what is becoming a more prominent feature of learning is providing opportunities for students to own their learning by asking their own questions; and having the pursuit of these questions guide their learning.  When this happens, students become more engaged.  This process is central to inquiry-based learning, a core objective of our school’s “head” goal.

Increasing student’s capacity, ability and willingness to effectively exercise critical thinking skills is our school’s second goal.  Attached to this goal is the objective, to increase students’ ability to independently engage in an inquiry cycle that extends knowledge and deepens understanding.  An inquiry-cycle can briefly be described as asking a question, investigating it, responding to the question, discussing it with others, reflecting upon it, and then asking further questions to deepen inquiry.

Increasing student engagement is one reason to provide more opportunities for inquiry-based learning, the synergy between our school’s second goal and first objective, the development of critical thinking skills, is a second.  The Critical Thinking Consortium describes the habits of mind of a critical thinkeras being open-minded, fair-minded, and independent-minded, among others. These attributes can be developed as students engage in the inquiry cycle.  As students ask their questions of inquiry, they will need to be open-minded to the potential outcomes of their questions.  As they inquire, they must be fair-minded as their investigation exposes them to perspectives that may conflict with their biases.  And when they discuss the findings of their inquiry, they must be independent-minded in supporting their opinions with the evidence they have gathered rather than submitting to other opinions.

In addition to developing critical thinking skills, inquiry helps deepen understanding by focusing on big questions and enduring understandingsrather than facts and details.  While knowledge of facts is important and is acquired through inquiry, what is remembered in the long run, and what teaches students how to think about a topic, are enduring understandings. Understandings are foundational in the way one thinks about a subject and they are transferable to other subjects.  So what does an enduring understanding look like?  One example is, “Human body systems work together to create energy.” While students may not remember the name of the tube that connects the mouth and nose with the lungs (the trachea, which allows one key ingredient for energy, oxygen, to enter the body), students will remember the understanding this fact is attached to, namely that systems work together to keep a larger system alive.  This understanding is foundational for students to understand the human body as well as the interaction of other systems they will learn about in future studies.  This understanding can be pursued through questions of inquiry such as, What is the difference between a body that is alive compared to one that is not?

Much is made of companies like Google offering employees opportunities to pursue their own learning for part of their work week. Inquiry-based learning allows students to personalize their learning and pursue their passions, engaging them in their study, furthering their critical thinking skills and deepening their understandings.  We have much to learn about this goal, but the benefits of inquiry-based learning are clear.

The Purpose in Grit

It’s been said, “Nobody likes a quitter.”  Young people would typically be shielded from such statements today, but many of us hold very strong beliefs as to the importance of persistence and self-discipline – in other words, of stick-with-it-ness or grit.  So if grit is important, what are educators and parents doing to promote it?

While on a three day backpacking trip with my grade six and seven students in outside45, I noticed the literal grit building on my hands and reflected upon a presentation to West Vancouver Teachers in August by author Jennifer James and follow up discussions and readings with colleagues. Dr. James spoke on a number of topics but the two that most strongly resonated with me were the importance of grit and the energizing effect of having purpose and reminding ourselves of our purposes often.  The topic of grit in particular has spurred follow-up discussions led by Superintendent Chris Kennedy which included readings of Paul Tough’s ideas on grit, featured in the Globe and Mail (in Margaret Wente’s article), Tough’s article in The New York Times and an article by Grant Wiggins on motivating intellectual grit.

So what is grit?  What factors and experiences develop grit?  What erodes it?  And what is the connection, if any, between the development of physical and intellectual grit?

Many people regard an individual with a high level of grit as also possessing the following attributes or virtues:

  •  Persistence – not giving up, even when something is challenging and not fun;
  • Resilience – facing setbacks and moving on without being (too) discouraged;
  • Toughness – having an ability to deal with uncomfortable conditions for a long period of time, often thought of as endurance;
  • Self-Discipline and Excellence in pursuing long-term goals– holding the belief, as a former professor of mine said, that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

So what experiences or factors motivate persistence, resilience, toughness, self-discipline and a pursuit of excellence?  It would seem these qualities are not hard to possess when one is doing something they find enjoyable.  But grit is often identified with doing what needs to be done when enjoyment is absent.


I don’t think it was by accident that Dr. James featured the topics of gritand purpose in the same presentation.  For someone to have grit, they do not need to find the task enjoyable, just meaningful, purposeful.  And to find something meaningful, they must also be able to “connect the dots” in seeing how small, perhaps tedious tasks and practice, fit into the larger scheme of things.  For example, a hockey player practicing wrist shots understands they aren’t practicing that skill because they want to become great at taking wrist shots, they want to become great at playing hockey.  The same must be the case with learning.  As the saying goes, not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done.  So learning must not simply be purposeful, it must be seen by the leaner as purposeful.

Failure and Reflection

To develop resilience, students must be allowed to fail.  Tough notes in The Globe and Mail:

There is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.

But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.

Failure must be seen, as said by WV School District’s Director of Instruction Lynne Tomlinson, as a learning tool.  Excuses must be replaced with reasons, those reasons can be addressed and through that process students learn they can improve.

As I continued to hike with my students, I began to understand the expanded purposes of taking students backpacking.  The main intention was to take students to a stunning part of the world, to let them be wowed by its beauty and give them some questions to wonder about.  The other intention was to challenge students with carrying all of their personal items (food for three days, clothing and shelter) up a challenging trail where discomfort was inevitable.  I noted before the hike that the students who would find the hike the most challenging would also find it the most rewarding, and my hope was that after pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do, they would develop a greater sense of self-efficacy in knowing that they can accomplish hard things if they stick with it.

As a teacher, my goal is to make that experience as meaningful and transferable as possible, so a worthy question to consider is does enduring physical hardship translate into developing intellectual persistence?*  Many people, when asked to reflect upon what past experiences developed their grit refer to practising for sports teams or preparing for dance or music recitals.  It would seem possible, and hopefully likely, that there would indeed be transfer as long as the athlete/dancer/learner, possesses the same growth mindset for physical and intellectual tasks, in other words, they believe they can both improve their physical and various intelligences through practice and training.  If one is of the mind that practising makes them a better athlete, they will practice, but if one is of the mind that the various intelligences are fixed and they cannot become more intelligent, perhaps there will be less crossover and grittiness will not transfer.

Students must have opportunities to accomplish more than they thought they could and not be allowed to settle for anything else while at other times students must be allowed to fail and learn from it.  Students must understand that they can develop their physical and intellectual capabilities, that neither are fixed, and both require a tremendous amount of effort to improve.  And students must be given some level of independence so that they can attribute their persistence, their grittiness, to their character, to their development, not an extrinsic motivation.  While none of these insights are new, they are worth remembering just as Dr. James implores us to remind ourselves of our own purpose often.

What else can educators and parents do to develop grit and facilitate the transfer of grittiness from physical activities, which seem to be common to many people, to intellectual rigour?

* Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is an interesting read about, among other things, intellectual persistence.

Anchors to Learning

We retain 90% of what we teach someone else or use immediately, 50% of knowledge gained and used in group discussions, 20% of what is learned in an audio-visual format, 10% of what is learned from reading, and only 5% of what is learned from lecture.

These often cited facts form the “Learning Pyramid,” which were studied in the 1960s by the National Training Laboratories (NTL) out of Bethel, Maine. They raise a number of questions not the least of which is if 50% of what is “learned” is not retained, can any of that 50% really be counted as learning? And more interestingly, from a practical standpoint, how can teachers create learning experiences where what is learned is retained for the long run.

This latter question lies at the heart of what schools are attempting to do with inquiry-based learning, a topic I have written about previously here. Teachers are attempting to attach learning to “big ideas” and “enduring understandings,” that shape students’ perspectives on concepts and topics. But, while big ideas and enduring understandings form a framework, perhaps even a story, for students to organize learning and shape thinking, this is still a very cerebral, abstract process and therefore invites a question:   Are there other, perhaps more tangible, things to anchor learning to?

Anchoring Learning to Places and Experiences

An answer to this question forms part of the rationale for outside45.  Our goal is to anchor learning to various experiences and learning environments. The goal is for students to make associations between places and experiences and the knowledge and understandings acquired in those places and during those experiences.  Our aim is that if the place and the experience in that place can be recalled easily, this will open the door to recalling all of the learning that occurred in that place as well.

Anchor BP.jpg

Field experiences are a large component of many classes at BICS.  Grade One-Two teacher, Mrs. Brind-Boronkay takes her students outside as often as possible.  She notes, “I find, for young children in particular, if they have something tangible, it helps them to retain information.” A recent trip to

Chinatown offered a wonderful experience for many primary students because many of them had never been there and not only did they get to eat Chinese food in a local restaurant, they were able to explore the streets and shops using all their senses and get a taste of another culture.  Visiting a place, and people within that place, even for just for one day, offers an immersive experience which simply can’t be simulated in the classroom.  I recently took my grade six and seven students on a field trip of downtown Vancouver and heard from many of my students – some of Mrs. Brind-Boronkay’s former students –that their experience visiting Chinatown in grade two was one of the most memorable experiences of their primary years.

Learning Anchored to Imagination

BICS’ library is far more than a room.  It has also become an imaginative space where students can utilize their creativity.  BICS` librarian, Mr. Marquis, is the voice behind several mascots that he notes, “Personify an area of curriculum and have slogans and identities as such.”  For example, the much-loved mascot Kwil is for writing, Kwillette for art, Leef is a lover of literature and reading, and Renai Research.  Students

become more interested in their learning when they are invited to play in a fictional world that teaches them core literacy skills attached to memorable mascots.  Many students engage in a Digital Dialogue (more information here) by writing to Kwil who always writes back, so a dialogue is created which encourages students to write, often a lot!

Learning Anchored to Emotion

Ms. DeReus shared that students in grades four and five at BICS recently completed a unit on immigration which created an “emotional anchor” for learning.  In the unit, students receive a passport and participate in an activity where they are let into Canada, refused entry, or even deported through the different time periods of immigration waves.  This form of experiential education emotionalizes learning and allows students to develop a sense of empathy for immigrants.  It seems likely that students will remember their feelings and the causes of these feelings far more than had they just read about people’s experiences.

Learning Anchored to a Product

Many of us still remember our favourite projects from school, particularly if we were proud of them.  Students demonstrate learning in a variety of ways and when students are proud of what they produce, the emotional element of learning is triggered and thus learning can be retained more easily.  In Mrs. Rogers Grade Six and Seven classroom, students are constantly engaged in projects that include students demonstrating knowledge in unique ways all of which are added to their “Traveller Booklets” that act as a portfolio of learning.  At the beginning of the year, students created an avatar who travels around the world and around curriculum compiling artifacts, sometimes literal, of what they have learned.  The creation of such a portfolio creates a wonderful keepsake for students and helps organize learning into a memorable framework, that, when reviewed, opens the door to all that was learned.SB ANCHORS NEW.png

In the examples above and other conversations I had with teachers, a common relationship between learning that is retained and learning that is memorable is quite clear.  While this insight is simple, making learning memorable when students receive five hours of instruction, five days a week, 182 days per year, is not.  Anchoring learning to places, experiences, emotions, creativity, and creative portfolios, are just some of the tactics teachers use to make learning memorable and meaningful.  Please share in the comments below what other “anchors” to learning you think are effective to make learning experiences meaningful and worthy of remembering.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth it? 

We assess the value of things constantly.  Is it worth the cost?  Is it worth the time? 
For teachers, the latter question, “Is it worth the time?” is an ongoing concern. 
Teachers look for a balance between spending enough time on topics so that students can thoughtfully and thoroughly understand concepts, and retain this understanding for the long-term, with obligations to teach many learning outcomes deemed important by the BC Ministry of Education. 
Students are also asking the question is it worth it?  Is it worth my attention? Is it worth my effort?  If a teacher spends too much time on a concept, student interest might decrease; if they do not spend enough time, retention may not occur.
As a teacher and program builder of outside45, a program that involves numerous field experiences that take up significant amounts of curriculum time to learn important concepts, I get asked this question a lot, both from parents and from other educators:  Are the field experiences worth it?
In answering these questions, it’s helpful to first note the purpose of the experiences.  The goals of outside45 are articulated here and, like other education programs, within the Ministry of Education’s Integrated Resource Packages.  But, after ten years as an educator, my beliefs in the purposes of schooling, and field experiences as part of this schooling, can be simplified into three goals.  They are for students to:
1.  Love learning.
2.  Learn a lot.
3.  Be motivated to put their learning to use for the benefit of the human and more than human world.
Bamfiel.jpgOutside45 has had two major field experiences this school year:  One excursion to Garibaldi Provincial Park and another to Bamfield Marine Sciences Center.  Together, the excursions have occupied eight of the 180 precious days school is in session each year plus preparation time for the excursions, totalling about 6% of the school year.  When one considers that these trips may have involved the use of, but not direct instruction of math or digital literacy skills, and included large amounts of time in simply getting to Garibaldi and Bamfield, one should ask if these are worthwhile uses of instructional time.  I have certainly asked these questions.
But in assessing the value of these field experiences based on the learning goals noted above, I am reassured.  In outside45’s recent trip to Bamfield, I overheard several students say, “I love this.” In one instance, the words were uttered while students measured the temperature and salinity of an inlet, in another they were studying marine invertebrates in the lab, and yet another while examining an intertidal zone on the exposed West coast.  And even when it was not verbally articulated, interest in learning was obvious with the way students eagerly engaged in tasks and remained focused from 8:30AM to 9:00PM with few breaks in between.  It was obvious students loved learning, and by visiting the Marine Sciences Centre, where parent volunteers expressed equal enthusiasm in learning and where graduate students conducted long-term studies, students saw others who demonstrated lifelong learning and a love of learning as well.
As for learning a lot, at Bamfield students engaged in numerous experiments that introduced for some, and reinforced for others, the scientific method for conducting experiments.   Students got to use tools, and see and touch a variety of organisms, both in labs and in natural environments often, and I suspect they will not soon forget this experiential learning.  The learning activities at Bamfield, and the journal reflections facilitated by outside45`s masterful teachers Andrea Layzell and Laura Magrath, make this learning clear.
Lastly, like every generation it seems, this generation of students will face significant challenges.  Visits to Garibaldi and Bamfield, which are incredibly diverse learning environments, makes clear the diversity of life that exists just within British Columbia’s south coast.  One cannot help but come away from these environments with an appreciation for the complexity and importance of the natural world, and an interest in understanding our relationship within it and possibly an interest in taking our obligations as stewards seriously.
When I consider the other benefits of major field experiences, such as the social benefits of travelling, learning, and living as a close group, the possibilities of sparking a future career, the accomplishment of doing things for the first time, and the lessons that impress upon students how much our province has to offer in terms of recreational and learning environments, I’m convinced this time is well worth it.
The conversations within British Columbia’s education communities often focus on students “going deep,” of understanding concepts and developing and practising skills through an inquiry-based approach.  The Ministry of Education, as described in BC’s Education Plan and in the first drafts of the redesigned curriculum, is on a path of reducing the learning outcomes students must learn so that they can learn in depth.  Taking the time, through experience and critical reflection upon experience, is proving to be a valuable way for students to do this.
As BC’s curriculum undergoes redesign, empowering teachers with greater flexibility to provide opportunities for learning in depth, the question “Is it worth it?” seems more important now than ever.

What inspires you?

I was recently involved in a talking circle where members of the group were asked to consider the question, What inspires you?

In this circle, an eagle feather was passed from participant to participant.  Only the person holding the feather could speak and the feather could only go in a clockwise direction.  Participants could choose to speak or pass.  The circle would only be closed when the feather was passed around the entire circle without anyone saying anything.  Talking circles are often helpful to ensure all people have a chance to speak, to speak thoughtfully, and to be heard.

In this talking circle, our group had no conflict to resolve, no decision to make. In fact, the question seemed to be posed randomly.  It may have been posed in response to winter sometimes being the least inspiring season, or in the context of teacher job action.  At any time, it seems to me, the question of what inspires you is worth asking.

Our families, our environments, our colleagues, our friends.  One needn’t look far for inspiration.  And as an educator at what I consider to be a remarkable school, I can think of numerous and daily occurrences of things that inspire me.

I received an email from a parent recently.  This parent and her husband acquired supplies, took time away from work and did an amazing job inspiring students about the everyday uses and importance of chemistry to all of our grade 6/7 students.  When it was over, she thanked me for the opportunity.

Recently, Jennifer Pardee and I presented ouside45 to the West Vancouver Board of Education.  Not only did the Board enthusiastically approve the program, Board Chair Cindy Decker volunteered to participate in some of the field experiences.

In speaking with a parent about outside45, he noted that if parents could find out whether their child was accepted into the program early enough, it would give keen parents enough time to learn some new skills to share with students.

At a recent Volleyball game, I saw tremendous leadership, not just from their exceptional coaches but from the students as well, in keeping their team’s spirits high and doing their best.  I was reminded of the notion, “A leader is anyone who moves their team towards its objectives.”  I see leaders in my classroom and in our school every day.

What inspires you?

How Far Does Paper Travel?

About 600 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg created what became known as the Gutenberg printing press allowing for the written word to spread ideas to those who could read as well as help the illiterate by providing texts for practice. 

The printing presses in Europe and Asia were revolutionary because they facilitated the circulation of ideas by producing, quite efficiently at the time, large quantities of paper copies. 
The printing press is a contrast to a student printing out a solitary piece of paper for an assignment at school.  The students’ ideas don’t spread very far.
In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how students in intermediate classes at BICS were using their Student Dashboards and that one useful feature of these dashboards was the opportunity for students to blog.  In this post, I will share how, to make the most of this new feature, Ms. Layzell, Ms. DeReus and I sat down to plan a persuasive paragraph writing unit, one that allowed for the spread of ideas.  Our goal was for students to understand that:
  • The writing process can shape the opinion of the author and his/her audience;
  • A fact can be proven whereas someone must be convinced of an opinion;
  • Persuasion is a call to action or a challenge to change the audience’s thought/emotions.
At this point, you might be wondering if these goals could be met without the use of technology and Student Dashboards and I would argue that they could; but not as effectively.  The Dashboards aided us as teachers and our students in two ways.
First, the teachers involved were able to create our own blog posts that gave information about various topics that students could choose to write about. Students could visit Ms. DeReus’s blog and read about Attawapiskat, or Ms. Layzell’s blog about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline or my blog about screen time.  All students at BICS using dashboards have access to any teacher’s blog, therefore when team teaching, it is easy to give students choice as to what they wish to research, students simply need to visit various teachers’ sites to see a variety of options.  Modelled after blog posts from our District’s Digital Literacy Support Teacher, each of our blog posts provided videos, links to credible websites for students to research, and an outline of the writing process including links to graphic organizers. The teacher blog posts were therefore jumping off points for students to do research and were a far more engaging, interactive and useful method of presenting a writing assignment than a piece of paper which doesn’t take the student very far.
Once students had done their research for their persuasive paragraph, either on one of the teacher options described above or on one of their own topics, the Student Dashboards provided a second benefit:  Students were able to publish their work.  What good is a persuasive paragraph if there is no one to persuade?  The Dashboards provide students with an audience, and like copies made from the Guttenberg press, students’ ideas were able to travel a lot farther than one piece of paper dropped into the teacher’s marking tray.
In addition to the benefit of writing for an audience, students have the benefit of being that audience.  They can learn about what their classmates have written, and they can share how their classmates writing made them feel or what connections they made during their reading.  The network created from students blogging  reinforces an important lesson for students:  that learning is a collaborative process and that ideas spread to form new ideas.
Good ideas need to spread and we all search, in our personal and professional lives, for efficient and meaningful networks to facilitate this. With Dashboards, students gain a greater sense of what their classmates are writing about, and they create another space for something all people need, to be listened to.

Recipe For Engagement

The famous command – in my childhood anyway – of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise.
After this simple utterance, his ship instantly accelerated to warp speed.  Easy.  Or so it looked.
Warp speed is perhaps only slightly more complicated than ensuring students, of vastly different abilities and interests, are engaged learners.
Entering a classroom, you can see, hear and feel when students are engaged.  They are focused in their work:  loud during group work and silent during individual study; at times eager to be left alone when reading or viewing while at other times eager to listen to and share their ideas with groups to develop understanding.  They ask questions and are keen to answer them. They believe that what they are learning about is important enough that others should be aware of it too, so they are keen to share their learning with peers and adults.
Engagement is so essential to teaching and learning that a short blog post could only scratch the surface of what factors encourage it.  So below, I will share just a few of the ingredients of engagement I learned about in conversations with BICS parents, students and educators.
Saffron Gurney has taught at BICS formally as an Artist in Residence, and informally, working with her daughters’ classes teaching art.  When one enters a classroom setup by Mrs. Gurney, the mood is in stark contrast to the busy hallway from which students enter.  A change in lighting, a projected image to capture attention, sounds from a stereo, the teacher taking on the role of a famous artist (Emily Carr for her role as Artist in Residence in 2013), artefacts that allow the mind to focus and wonder, all suggest to the learner that something different and interesting is happening.  In designing learning, Mrs. Gurney considers, “Is there an emotion that could move the student: Humour, compassion, sadness, playfulness?  Can the student imagine themselves in a story, a scenario, a scene, a setting, a time?”  This shift in mood encourages the learner to adapt to a new situation and this adaptation engages the brain in figuring out what is happening, how it is different from normal and develops a sense that something special and worth paying attention to is happening.  In the words of Grade 6-7 teacher Laura Magrath, “Engagement equals variety and multi-faceted learning. Adding surprises to how we teach lessons, changing the usual to the unusual, embracing alternatives, engaging students as teachers,” all help to captivate and sustain students’ attention.
At other times, familiarity stimulates engagement.  In the Reggio Emilia approach to education, which BICS teachers Elizabeth Watson and Heather Stephens are learning more about, the classroom is designed with natural elements that students innately connect with and find familiar – natural light, neutral colours, learning materials from nature that allow opportunities for self-expression such as sticks, stones and leaves.  Such elements create a calm environment where a subtle invitation to learning, such as the teacher asking students to ask questions about a new artefact in the classroom, is enough to pique students’ interest in a topic, especially when students are given opportunities to reflect upon past learning and make connections to current study.
When the teacher documents past learning of students and shares this learning with them, the learner begins to see themselves as being engaged in a learning journey, of acquiring experiences that they can utilize to process new information, making them increasingly comfortable and capable in responding to new situations as it connects with what they are already familiar.
There is far more to write about this approach, but what was most interesting in my conversations with Mrs. Watson and Mrs. Stephens was how engaged they were as learners.  In addition to the joys of working collaboratively together and with BICS Principal Jennifer Pardee, I suspect their engagement had something to do with how obviously relevant their learning was: they could see the direct impact their learning had on something important – improved student learning.
One can argue that students do not have enough life experience to find all of their learning relevant.  For example, most students have not had enough exposure to carpentry to understand the importance of measurement and geometry.  But teachers share with students “real world” applications of their learning and some learning is hands on where students learn by doing and therefore cannot help but see that this learning makes them capable of doing more, a satisfying feeling that leads to engagement, particularly if students believe what they can do is useful and relevant to their lives.  Sarah Haxby, our school’s Community School Coordinator notes, “Through the BICS Garden Program we grow a lot learning; both in the classroom, and in the BICS garden.  Students really engage with the activities from planting seeds to every Kindergarten student picking and eating a sun-warmed, ripe apple to Grade 7 students discovering new flavours such as asking if they may please eat more kale flowers because they are yummy!”  This type of learning is not just relevant for the future, but applicable now. While students may not fully appreciate the importance of food security, they can see the very real applications of their learning on understanding where food comes from and are learning to grow their own food; a skill not just useful in the future, but relevant now.
Most students like to be challenged, but not too challenged.  In speaking with many Grade 4 and 5 students, it was obvious that students liked subjects they considered challenging but that they were good at.  When I asked one student about times when she wished class would never end, she responded: “Writing.  Writing makes me think.  It is challenging.”Flow.png
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “Flow,” a state where learners are captivated in the task at hand, learners typically have high skill level and significant challenge.  The diagram to the right is Mr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work.  To engage students, the teacher must create the conditions for learners to be challenged enough to cause improvement which seems to be an inherently satisfying feeling, while not being overly challenged so that they will be frequently or constantly unsuccessful leading to a belief they are not good at a task or subject.  The goal in finding this balance is not that students reach a feeling of being good at something, rather that students understand that with hard work, they will get better at something.
Students performed brilliantly at BICS’ Winter Concert.  No doubt, they didn’t start off sounding so great.  For students to engage in the early stages of learning, they must trust their teacher that if they practise their role and do their very best, over time, their learning will pay off with a rewarding result, in this case, performances of which they were proud.  Steve Karagianis, one of BICS’ music teachers, notes when someone is trying something new, the teacher must, “Help the students believe they can do it and they will.”  Not all students are born with a high level of self-efficacy, and when playing a new instrument for the first time, guidance is needed from a trusted teacher to get students through the times when they themselves can’t see or even envision success.
Designing an engaging learning environment is a complex and dynamic process.  At times, there are opportunities to make learning explicitly relevant and at other times the teacher must rely upon the trust students place in them that learning will be interesting and will become relevant.  Many students need a familiar learning environment where they can focus their attention and at other times they need variety to draw their attention.  And students must see their learning as paying off; they must feel the satisfaction that comes from becoming more capable, as an artist, a musician, a mathematician, a scientist, and a learner.  The tools with which these ingredients are mixed will continue to change, but I suspect novelty, familiarity, relevance, challenge and trust will remain key to engaging students in learning.