Different or Just New? Communicating Student Learning

Recently, BICS Vice-Principal Laura Magrath and I hosted a Communicating Student Learning Information Evening. In response to major changes to BC’s curriculum, the way teachers communicate student learning has also been changing over the last two years.

We started the information session by soliciting parent’s recollections of their own report cards. These recollections ranged from dread to excitement and they highlighted a number of things we should avoid (letters csl-reflections-2016or numbers that make people feel labelled) and what we should strive for (“specific feedback, made me feel special”; “they were a good measure of where to improve”) in our newest iterations of written reports.

In my mind the new Communicating Student Learning written reports which will be sent home with students on December 16 are a vast improvement over our previous report cards. When reading and using the report card, I hope families notice acc-csl-2016nd find useful these five elements of the CSL documents.

 

First, the reports are very clear on the foundational skills. For primary reports (Kindergarten to Grade 3) and intermediate reports (Grades 4-7), students are given clear descriptors for a student’s abilities to read, write and use numbers to solve problems. In the primary report, the terms beginning, developing and acquired are used as descripcc_csl_2016_2tors referring to varying levels of support required for a student to demonstrate the skill assessed. The descriptors are based on the idea that all students can be successful; it is a matter of how much support they require to be successful with our goal of students becoming independent. At the intermediate level, the terms beginning, developing, acquired and exceeding are used. The terms are designed for parents to know precisely which areas of learning the student needs to focus on in the terms ahead.

Second, the reports focus to a greater level on what students can do. Many of the learning objectives identified in the primary report as Concepts and Content and in the intermediate report as Curricular Competencies refer to the skills needed for a specific subject; i.e. what skills does a scientist or a historian need? This focus on what the child can do aligns nicely with our feeder school Rockridge Secondary School which uses a report which places a strong focus on what students can do, with limited focus on what the student knows.

Third, the reports also give a clear picture of the big ideas and concepts students know about and understand. Transformational learning is learning that will affect how a student approaches, processes and understands future experiences. Transformational learning is often perspective shaping. When a student develops a deep understanding of big ideas, which are chosen because they are timeless and transferable, the learning can often be transformational. Therefore, while the most important and longest lasting takeaways from elementary school are skills (personal and social, reading, writing and using numbers to solve problems), understandings are still vitally important and readers of the report will see the topics and content of students’ inquiries clearly stated.

Fourth, the reports continue to include information on a child’s social and emotional development. In the opening comments, in Core Competencies (for intermediate reports), and in other fields, teachers share information on the child’s social and emotional development. Schools share the role with parents of supporting a child’s well-being and development of personal and social skills. In the opening comments, teachers also refer to an aspect of our school goal of students developing their learning character so parents will find comments related to a child’s development of Responsibility, Openness, Ambition and Resilience (ROAR).

Fifth, areas of growth for each student to help foster a child’s independence and confidence are very clearly identified. The Supporting Student Learning (primary) and Ways to Support (intermediate) sections of the report give a concise explanation of learning that the child needs to focus on as well as some strategies for school and home to support these needs.

In addition to the comments from teachers, the reports also include reflections from students. BICS teachers will be refining student reflections throughout the year so as to accurately and authentically capture student voice on the process of learning. Our hope is for students to thoughtfully reflect on the process of their learning: were they committed to the strategies identified to achieve their learning goals? Were they successful not just in achieving their goals but more importantly in having the responsibility and resilience to stick to a plan to achieve them?

Teachers, school administrators and school district staff have worked hard to develop written reports that add to the strategy of communicating student learning. We hope these documents, in addition to parent/teacher conferences, student-led conferences, and ongoing feedback in the form of assignments sent home, phone calls and emails, help families understand the progress of their children. This year, all of our K-7 reports are considered pilots so we will be seeking further feedback throughout the year to ensure we are providing the most useful tools to communicate student learning.

 

Click below to see the slide deck from Laura Magrath for our presentation to parents on November 30.

csl_2016

Bigger Ideas: Connecting the Dots of BC’s New Curriculum

In BC’s Know-Understand-Do model, the “Do” is very clearly connected from grade to grade. In each grade and in various subjects within each grade, students will further develop their abilities to communicate and think. The grade three teacher can rest assured that teaching students to read is something they are carrying on from previous grades.KUD

But how about with the “Know” and “Understand” aspects of the curriculum? What is it that students know and understand that is to be carried on from year to year?

How is the teacher to know what students know and understand from previous learning experiences and how is the teacher able to connect what is being taught to what is already known and understood?

It seems a bit much to expect BC teachers who continue to transition to new curriculum to also take note of each of the Big Ideas and concepts and content from previous grades. Even if they were able to do so, students, even those coming from the same class, have vastly different experiences and interpretations from their year, particularly when given opportunities for self-directed inquiry. Nevertheless, beyond simply asking students what they know about a topic, there are at least three ways to connect learning from subject to subject and grade to grade.

Firstly, teachers can, despite challenges, connect Big Ideas from grade to grade. In fact, many Big Ideas repeat. For example, in Language Arts, the Big Idea, “Stories help us learn about ourselves and our families” is used in Kindergarten to Grade 3, with the addition “and our communities” in Grade 3. Clearly, that is a big idea that can connect several years of language arts together, and students will develop a deep understanding of the concept and importance of storytelling.

Secondly, the curriculum has been redesigned so that certain topics that were once found in just one subject and grade – for example structures and functions of the human body systems – are now found in two or more grades.

Thirdly, there are bigger ideas than the “Big Ideas” identified in BC’s new curriculum.  These “bigger ideas” can connect learning from grade to grade by offering a concept to which learning can be anchored. When I first heard the term “big idea,” it was in 2007 when a cohort of West Vancouver Schools teachers met with pro-d guru Sue Elliot to discuss Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s Understanding By Design. This approach to teaching/learning suggested big ideas were “broad and abstract,” “represented by one or two words,” were “universal in application” and “timeless.” They present a “conceptual lens” for any area of study.

In my twelve years of teaching, my early years looking mostly at Grades 5-7 and my latter years as an elementary school administrator looking at K-7, one “big idea” meeting the criteria above sticks out more than any other, the biggest idea (in my mind!) of them all: relationships. Much of what students learn about develops this very idea: cause and effect, systems within systems, interacting with each other and students understanding who they are in the world. In using the Curriculum’s Search Tool and typing in “relationships,” the concept comes up in dozens of Big Ideas, and hundreds of content phrases and curricular competencies.

When I shared my thinking with other educators, some agreed and some had other big ideas – change, systems, integration, conflict and identity are all big ideas with the potential to unify curriculum.

I don’t know if there is a biggest idea in BC’s curriculum, but I think an overarching concept that unifies learning from subject to subject, and grade to grade, can help students make connections between what is known and what is about to be known.

In doing so, I hope that students see past learning as helping prepare for what is being learned in the present; and, as importantly, what is being learned as enriching what may have been learned long ago. If learning, past and present, can be mutually reinforcing, how powerful it would be for a student to leave their elementary school with an inter-connected story of their learning.

A Survey of Student Learning

The maxim, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,”* holds much truth when it comes to “report cards,” but what teachers are mandated to report and also choose to report suggests to parents what many of the priorities are for student learning at each grade. Similar to the way a school’s blog reveals what is important to the school, so does the report card reveal key areas for student learning.

What follows then, is both of those things: a blog post surveying some of the learning outcomes found in reports ranging from kindergarten to Grade 7.

Prior to the conclusion of each term, I review each report, something I have done enough times now to be impressed by the extraordinary diversity and depth of learning at BICS but not surprised by it. The reports capture just a little of the remarkable experiences students have in their classrooms and beyond learning about interesting and often complex things and using what they’ve learned to, among other things, learn more.

In reviewing reports this term, I’ve pulled one learning outcome from each grade as well as an outcome from our wonderful music and learning assistance programs. My hope is that it offers the reader a very brief look at the breadth of what is learned at BICS.

 

Kindergarten – Speaking and Listening

  • use speaking an listening when engaging in imaginative play; such as problem solving and working co-operatively

 

Grade 1 – Attitudes, Effort, Work Habits, Social Responsibility

  • consistently models respectful behaviour and acceptance of others’ differences

 

Grade 2 – Fine Arts

  • began to use simplification effectively, to create artwork in the styles of Lawren Harris & Ted Harrison

 

Grade 3 – HACE/Physical and Health Education

  • describes practices contributing to healthy living (e.g. exercise, healthy eating, friendships, sleep)

 

Grade 4 – Thinking Competency

  • reasons and uses logic to explore, make connections, predict, analyze, generalize and make conclusions

 

Grade 5 – Language Arts

  • recognizes oral traditions in First Peoples’ culture and identifies how story connects people to land

 

Grade 6 – Socials Studies

  • evaluates how geographic challenges and opportunities affect the development of societies

 

Grade 7 – Math

  • competently uses mathematical operations to determine a monthly budget

 

Performing Arts – Music

  • can create, notate, and perform rhythmic solos while following a musical form

 

Learning Support reports

  • Segmenting, manipulating, and blending vowel and consonant sounds in words

 

In selecting the learning outcomes above, I tried to pull diverse outcomes – math, language arts, performing arts, etc. In reviewing the reports, however, I looked for some patterns that might reveal how our school is doing with some key priorities identified in our School Growth Plan and Aboriginal Education Plan: inquiry-based learning, self-regulation, critical thinking and aboriginal education. There are far more effective ways of determining how the school is doing in these areas – visiting classrooms and speaking with students being one of them – but what did the general scan of K-7 reports reveal to me about these priorities?

Learning outcomes about timeless and transferable concepts and references to “Fascination Time,” “Genius Hour,” and “Passion Projects” made it clear that students were pursuing inquiry, whether it be teacher-led or open inquiry, often. In opening comments and in various sections, it was obvious that not only is self-regulation a key feature of each classroom at BICS, it is also being reported on frequently. Whether it be found in socials studies or explicit references to the “Thinking Competencies,” it was obvious that developing students’ skills as critical thinkers and asking them to uses these skills is a key area of learning. Lastly, students are learning about Indigenous Peoples frequently. Whether it is in Language Arts learning about oral stories teaching about the land, or learning about cultural characteristics and traditional ways of life in Socials Studies, the many references to Aboriginal Education found in BC’s new curriculum were also obvious in the K-7 reports.

I am proud of our School’s progress. And in reading reports, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of satisfaction in knowing that each of the many bullets on a report card, simple words on a page, had some powerful learning experience behind it – perhaps a beautiful work of art, a field experience to a National Historic Site, a memorable visitor, help from a dedicated staff member, or simply a student’s persistent effort – and that each of these experiences provided a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of learning.

 

*This quote is attributed to both Albert Einstein and the sociologist, William Bruce Cameron.

How many times can a problem be solved?

How many times can a problem be solved?

If the answer is available to everyone, can it be solved more than once?

Is there any point in asking students to solve problems where not only has the answer been found but it is available to anyone with digital access and the skills to find it?

Should efforts in education be directed more towards students developing their skills to locate previously found answers than to solving problems for which solutions already exist?

Surely students should be problem solvers too so should students spend their time solving problems that already have available solutions or apply these solutions to the next step of the problem or to some unique situation?

 

These are the questions I was left with after listening to Daniel Pink’s keynote address and Alan November’s session at the FISA BC 2016 Convention.

Pink suggested that problem solving is a useful skill but that problem finding is a more useful skill.

November suggested that internet tools exist to share not just information but knowledge and more of students’ time should be spent using this knowledge to solve new and unique problems rather than simply rehearsing the solutions and steps identified by previous learners.

November spent much of his presentation discussing the power of the knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha which doesn’t just access information as stored (as a search engine does) it re-sorts it, remixes it. Essentially, November suggests, it turns information into knowledge.

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So with such tools as Wolfram Aplpha, the question arises: What aspects of the knowledge base are suited toward archiving and accessing when appropriate and what aspects are essential for students to know and understand so that they can understand themselves and the world?

In other words, what learning should be repeated, generation after generation, and when is it appropriate to simply start with what is already known and go from there? Is it necessary for students to always start at “square one”, or is it possible to enter the subject at a later point and find the knowledge that has been created before and take it further.

The question is directed more towards content than foundational skills. Each generation needs to learn to read and write; there is no mechanism to pass that on through the internet. But when there is a mechanism, the question of whether what is being learned is actually helpful must be asked.

For years, not just in the Big Ideas of BC’s new curriculum, a shift has been underway to develop understandings, not just acquire knowledge. But with the development of tools to access the learning of others, and more importantly the ability of students to, in Daniel Pink’s phrase, curate this information, the speed of the shift may accelerate.

So beyond inquiry-based learning and developing understanding, what does that look like?

November suggests that students should spend less time solving problems and more time learning about topics that involve a concept or idea. He notes this idea has been foundational to the teaching of the US Military Academy at West Point for decades. The difference is that instead of solving a problem related to volume, the student creates their own problem that involves volume. Doing so allows the student to take what is already known to both create and solve a unique problem, essentially building on the knowledge of others rather than simply repeating it. More time is spent applying knowledge; less time is spent recreating it.

Clearly a level of general knowledge is needed to understand the world. Nevertheless, as we become increasingly confident in the internet’s ability to store information and knowledge (think about Gmail and Outlook archiving emails instead of deleting them) and students develop greater abilities to access information and knowledge, educators may become increasingly comfortable with students using what is already known to solve new and unique problems rather than simply repeating the steps established by others to solve a problem.

In the age of the knowledge engine, the question, “Do students really need to learn this?” has become even more complicated and pertinent.

Experience, Stories, Identity

My family chose the same summer vacation spot for 25 straight years. It was right on Okanagan Lake and for two weeks we would rent a tiny cabin along with fifteen other families. During this time, it would not be inaccurate to describe my twin brother and I as amphibious: We spent many hours of each day swimming, windsurfing, waterskiing, paddling and snorkelling. Okanagan Lake is known for many things but snorkelling is not one of them; there was little to see beyond a muddy bottom and the odd carp which would immediately dart away when approached. But each day, we spent hours snorkelling usually in search of the golf balls our friends would drive into the water. Sometimes, we were contracted to find a lost pair of sunglasses.

Despite a delusional fear of sharks, I developed an extraordinary comfort with water. It may be that my dad was an Olympic swimmer or it may be that my brothers and I grew up on Okanagen Lake and within reach of Howe Sound, my experiences as a child have had a profound influence on how I live my life: where I have chosen to live, who I choose to spend time with, and my understanding of my interests and abilities.

I share this because my experiences as a youth have shaped my identity. The stories of my childhood that I tell myself, and others, help me understand who I am and what I believe in. Our experiences become the stories we tell and our stories shape our identity.

For several years now, BICS, along with all other BC public schools, has created an Aboriginal Education School Plan. The plan’s purpose is to ensure our school, including each of our classrooms and the culture of our school generally, is a welcoming space for aboriginal students and also provides programming – both in content and approach to learning – that teaches students about the First Peoples of Canada. As West Vancouver Schools are on the traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh stelmexw (Squamish People), there is a particular emphasis on learning about the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation).

Our plans have often focused on storytelling and that is the case again this year. One of the First People’s Principles of Learning is that, “learning is embedded in memory, history and story,” so this seems like a natural focus. Another principle of learning is that “learning involves exploration of one’s identity,” and so, our focus for our 2015-2016 Aboriginal Education Plan is for students to create and share stories with others that relate to their identity.

It is our hope that through composing personal stories, in the form of writings, illustrations, dances, or some other medium, students will come to understand three key ideas.

First, that our experiences become the stories we tell ourselves. Second, that our stories, along with our sense of belonging and place, shape our identity. And finally, that some people have the courage to share their stories with others while other people have the courage to carry their stories alone.

Students will likely have little difficulty pulling events from their past that they think are likely to affect the rest of their lives: witnessing a Sea Lion off the coast of Tunstall Bay is likely to encourage a student to look for something similar each time they look into the ocean. When a moment like that happens, a nature lover is “born” or transformed. A student may wish to create a story about their experience performing in our school’s upcoming Winter concert, and perhaps developing an identity as a performer.

And of course personal stories of experience often connect with something bigger. The opportunities we are privileged with often relate to the cultures we belong to.  This aligns with the new curriculum’s Personal and Social Competency. The Competency notes, “Students who have a positive personal and cultural identity value their personal and cultural narratives, and understand how these shape their identity.” A goal of this Competency is therefore that students understand how personal and cultural narratives shape their identity.

The last understanding I noted, “That some people have the courage to share their stories with others and other people have courage to hold their stories alone,” relates in particular to the residential school system. For decades, many survivors of residential schools carried their stories alone, or shared them with just a few people. Others tried to share but often found unwelcome audiences. In recent years, more and more people are willing to share their stories – with families, with friends, and even publicly. It is truly a remarkable act of courage to do so.

Our hope is that through developing sensitivity to the difficulties in telling personal stories, our students become a receptive audience to learning more, when developmentally ready, about the residential school system. As young children, they are ready to learn a little of the experiences that children of the same age experienced not so long ago. But learning about residential schools will be a long journey and our goal is for students to become reflective members in that journey.

And all of us, storytellers and story receivers, have been shaped through the years, subtly but profoundly, by what we have not experienced. I personally have never experienced hunger, or disconnection from my family or my culture. I will continue to reflect on how this has shaped who I am and how I think of myself in the world. Storytelling – writing my own stories and listening to others– will help.  We are grateful to work with members of the Squamish Nation and members of the community of Bowen Island in doing so.

 

The BICS Aboriginal Education Plan is here.

Ideas of Happiness

“Open Happiness.” “Comfort in every bar.” “Every dinner should feel this good.”

Our highest priority at BICS is to inspire our students to be lifelong learners.

BICS helps students develop literacy, critical thinking and social skills to increase their capacity as learners and prepare them to make the most of a lifetime of learning opportunities. These skills, or competencies, have been articulated in the Core Competencies of BC’s New Curriculum. Beyond having a highly developed capacity to learn, however, to encourage lifelong learning, students need to love learning. It is therefore important that students are happy at school and so creating happy learning environments is something our school takes very seriously. Happy learning environments mean that students feel safe and connected with peers and adults in their classroom and school. Research shows that students learn more when they are happy and of course, happiness is an end in itself. By my calculation, students spend about 12% of their lives and 18 % of their waking hours during the time they are in school from Kindergarten to Grade Twelve.* School is a big part of life and therefore a big part of a happy life.

In addition to fostering conditions of happy learning environments, I am becoming increasingly convinced of the need to directly teach about happiness, specifically what it is and how to pursue it.

Happiness is not something that happens to us but in many ways something we choose. Convenience and consumerism are prominent features of our society and it is becoming increasingly easy for people to confuse the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of convenience; or pursue happiness through consumerism. There is no shortage of messaging – the slogans of Coca-Cola, Mars Bar and Stouffers Foods being the examples noted at the beginning of this post– implying that happiness is found in consuming an item, be it food, fashion or other items. While eating food and buying items that allow for the pursuit of hobbies can be satisfying, it is worth being clear of other ways of fostering happiness that make the world better for ourselves and others.

The organization Action for Happiness recognizes that there are external and sometimes uncontrollable factors that affect happiness but assert that happiness can often be pursued through the choices we make. Most of these choices are small and occur almost constantly so a framework that will help recognize opportunities to make choices that lead to happiness is helpful.

So what are these daily choices we can make?

Action for Happiness has broken them down into ten keys to happier living:

  • Generosity – do things for othersGreat_Dream
  • Relating – connect with people
  • Exercising – take care of your body
  • Appreciating – notice the world around you
  • Trying Out – keep learning new things
  • Direction – have goals to pursue
  • Resilience – find ways to bounce back
  • Emotion – take a positive approach
  • Acceptance – be comfortable with who you are
  • Meaning – contribute to something bigger

These ten keys align extremely well with virtues noted in the Virtues Project that our school has focused on for many years.

Over the coming months of the school year, BICS will focus on these keys so that students have a shared understanding and language that allow them to become better at noticing opportunities to increase their happiness and the happiness of others. I will write about some of these keys in more detail in future blog posts but hope that parents will also learn more from the understandings students bring home and talk about as the year progresses. “Open Happiness,” associates happy with easy. As we strive to develop capable, hard-working and inspired lifelong learners, a greater understanding of happiness is needed.

*My figures are based on 6 hours at school 180 days per year. Waking hours = 16 hours per day.

What is new in BC’s New Curriclum

This post was originally published on the BICS Blog.

It has been said, “The only constant in life is change.”

That statement certainly holds true in education, perhaps now more than ever.

Last week, BICS Vice-Principal Laura Magrath and I spoke to parents about BC’s New Curriculum as part of our BICS Open House. Our staff has been learning about and working with what until recently has been termed the “Draft Curriculum” for two years and I have been sharing information with our BICS PAC and writing blog posts on the topic since November 2013. But the “Draft” stamp has recently been removed from the curriculum and it is now referred to as the New Curriculum so we felt it was a particularly important time to share aspects of the New Curriculum with parents; particularly three important changes.

This post summarizes some of the key messages of that presentation. For the 2015-2016 school year, both the “old curriculum” and New Curriculum are usable documents. In 2016-2017, what is taught in Kindergarten to Grade 9 classrooms will be based on the New Curriculum only.

Prezi_15

For purposes of explanation, the curriculum can be divided in two parts:

1. What students understand and know à this is termed Content in the New Curriculum

2. What students can do à this is termed Core Competencies and Curricular Competencies in the New Curriculum

 

Three Key Changes

1. Content – What Students Understand And Know à Start with the big picture.

The “old curriculum” was organized by themed learning outcomes. For some time, teachers who have taught with an inquiry-based approach to learning have tried to discern the essence of the learning outcomes. Teachers would find themselves asking, What’s the big idea here? Beyond facts and figures, what is the concept or understanding that students will take away from this unit of study that they can apply to future learning situations?Big_Ideas

The New Curriculum starts with the big picture. Ideas and theories are presented as Big Ideas and from there the content, which is used to develop an understanding of the Big Ideas, is articulated. As suggested by the name, Big Ideas are greater than what can be covered in one subject in one grade. So, many Big Ideas are repeated throughout many grade levels as students develop more sophisticated understandings of theories and ideas.

2. Competencies – What students can do à Competencies are key.

While all people need a level of general knowledge to understand themselves, others and the world, knowledge is easily lost; skills less so. For example, most people likely have forgotten many of the facts, figures and ideas they learned in Grades 1 and 2, the age when they were learning to read. But people don’t forget how to read.

2015-03-19_0946In the New Curriculum, Competencies are key. The content, while still worthy in its own right, is a vehicle to develop two types of competency.

The first type of competency are the Core Competencies – Communication, Thinking and Personal and Social. The Core Competencies are not subject or grade specific. It is thought any learning activity can demonstrate and develop some or each of the competencies. As learning is a lifelong endeavour, the competency continuum is also lifelong.

The second type of competency is Curricular Competencies. These are subject specific skills; for example in Science, Questioning and Prediction as well as Planning and Conducting experiments, are curricular competencies

3. Communicating – How Student Learning is Communicated

As part of our transition to the new curriculum, in terms two and three of the 2014-2015 School Year, many BICS teachers used language from the Core Competencies in their opening comments. However, the report card looked identical to previous terms and did not reflect the changes that have been made to the curriculum. Kindergarten and Grade 4 reports will look very different in 2015-2016 offering space for Core Competency and Curricular Competency assessments. Further, as reflecting on learning is essential, there is space on the new reports for student voice and reflections. Further information will be shared by Director of Instruction for West Vancouver Schools Lynne Tomlinson regarding a change of reporting for Kindergarten and Grade 4 students in 2015-2016, and a change for all elementary school students in 2016-2017.

While this curriculum signals a major change in BC education, it is also a response to the innovative work being done in classrooms across BC including BICS. The Curriculum will support the work we started long ago – inquiry, self-regulation and critical thinking – and also push us to examine and evolve in other areas of practice. Change truly is the only constant in life, and so to in education.