Timeless and Timely Learning

With the exception of mass extinctions, many would argue that the world is changing more quickly now than ever before; climate, as well as technology changing the way people live, are two of the most obvious examples.

In the late summer, West Vancouver Schools principals and vice-principals participated in a workshop with Discovery Education’s Hall Davidson. Mr. Davidson spoke about some of the technologies that are, and will, change the way students learn including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR).

Disruptions to the status quo that prompt change are often a good thing, but they can also distract from an organization’s or a system’s true purpose. The disruption could also be significant enough to alter an organization’s or system’s purpose.

In an elementary school, when evaluating the benefits of new tools and ideas in education, and trying to gauge how much prominence, if any, such tools and ideas should have in the learning of 5-13 year olds, a lens or framework is helpful. Over the summer, I’ve been thinking about learning that is timeless, timely or both.

In an elementary school, there is still plenty of room for teaching timeless skills: reading, writing, numeracy and social and emotional learning. The value of these skills has never diminished and many would argue that with the internet providing access to abundant and potentially overwhelming information, as well as providing platforms (blogs, social media such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) for self-expression and an audience, literacy skills are becoming even more valuable.

There is also great value in teaching timely skills and concepts. The increasing role of technology in our lives makes learning the basics of computer programming timely; coding is interesting to many students and is becoming another part of understanding the world.

As one evaluates the prominence that coding or any other timely learning such as VR and AR should play in a young person’s education, it is worth examining if that timely learning has timeless roots. For coding, there is much to be learned about the concepts of computational thinking such as (1) breaking a problem down into parts or steps, (2) identifying patterns, (3) developing instructions to solve a problem, and (4) generalizing patterns into rules. Such concepts of problem solving are applicable for areas of learning unrelated to technology and possibly fall into the timeless category. If in the future machines come to do almost all of the coding and coding becomes a far less valuable skill, or less valuable for many people to have, the skills and concepts of computational thinking will endure and continue to be taught.

Even without timeless roots, however, there is room for timely learning. In addition to it (usually) being interesting, timely learning also helps students understand what it means to be a learner. Thriving in a period of rapid change requires curiousity and open-mindedness to try new things, agility to adapt to change, and pivoting to work around roadblocks. Sometimes what is learned (content, skill, or competency) is less important than developing key traits of a learner’s mindset such as open-mindedness.

The overlap between “Timeless” and “Timely” learning continues to expand. Timeless learning such as developing literacy skills should, whenever possible, incorporate timely enhancements such as using tools like Google Read & Write to help with comprehension, or Discovery Education Techbook to access vetted, developmentally appropriate, resources.

I don’t have the answer for how much learning should be timeless, timely, or both, only that learning should be in all three zones.

In 1920, the artist George Bellows said,

Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful. Be painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities.

Learners – whether they be educators or students – can be many things, whether it be a teacher very carefully crafting a well-developed year plan of how a student is going to learn to read or at other times, they can be spontaneous, maybe even “abandoned”, in trying something new simply because learners should try new things. Such is the mindset of someone, or the culture of an organization, with great possibilities.

Thinking Like a Designer

How will people get around 20 years from now?

Answering this difficult question is part of the challenge BC Ferries is facing in redesigning one of their busiest ferry terminals, Horseshoe Bay. Ferries are usually an “in between” form of travel: rarely is the area immediately surrounding a ferry terminal the destination, and so, BC Ferries’ terminals must synergize with how people get to the departure terminal and leave from the arrival terminal.

Is large car capacity needed in the next generation of ferries to accommodate electric, autonomous vehicles, or are smaller, more pedestrian-focused ferries needed to serve as intermediaries for a public travelling almost exclusively by public transit? What terminal design can accommodate these different, and equally plausible visions? (Perhaps our obsession with travel will diminish and an interest in virtual reality will increase to such an extreme that ferries, and terminals, will get smaller and less busy with people living more sedentary, virtual lives. (Hopefully not, though I say that not yet being acquainted with the merits of virtual reality as it would be 20 years from now…))

Unlike a smartphone, which is somewhat nimble in adapting to new technologies (for a few years anyway), designing a ferry terminal intended to last decades is a little more of a commitment; especially the parts of the terminal made of concrete. How does one design something with such a lifespan?

BC Ferries is currently consulting with various stakeholders and trying to get a sense of what its passengers (commuters, domestic vacationers, foreign tourists) hope for and need from a redesigned terminal. When BC Ferries requested that students participate in the consultation process, we jumped at the chance: what a terrific, real-world, opportunity for students to apply their understanding of some aspects of the design process to share ideas with BC Ferries and also learn a little bit about what factors BC Ferries is considering in their redesign.

BC Ferries – factors to be considered in making decisions about the HSB Terminal redesign.

Embedded in the practical considerations of how the terminal will accommodate various vessels are ethical decisions: what is the most sustainable form of transportation both on the water (electric ferries coming soon?) and to and from terminals? How will the terminal be accessible for all passengers? And how will the terminal be respectful of its neighbours? Students have the opportunity to apply some of their learning from the Future City Project that students participated in earlier, where they imagined, researched, and designed, cities of the future that attempted to solve issues of sustainability and accessibility.

The BC Ministry of Education’s Applied Design, Skills and Technologies (ADST) Curriculum, touted for providing hands on learning opportunities such as sewing or woodworking, also provides opportunities for more abstract thinking, such as offering input on the design of a ferry terminal intended to accommodate, and seamlessly integrate with, several generations of transportation methods. Students will be submitting design ideas to BC Ferries which will be featured in some of the upcoming consultations they are doing with communities.

Opportunities to learn about real-world design are limited only by one’s initiative and capacity to think as a designer. A developed and deliberate method of observation can allow almost any object or system to be examined, both for its form and function. Another class at BICS, not engaged in the BC Ferries consultation but engaged in other aspects of the ADST curriculum throughout the year, is learning about universal design. They have been working with Javier Estebecorena of Hermanos Estebecorena Design Studio. Mr. Estebecorena is a designer and mechanical technician, and fortunately for our school, a parent of children at BICS. He has been volunteering his time with students to teach them design thinking, sharing his insights of universal design and assisting them to make observations based on functional, aesthetic, social and economic perspectives and to expand their responses to products and systems beyond simple judgements of like and dislike. His hope is that from their earliest learning, students think of design universally, in other words, they understand that the same principles and many of the same processes apply to all forms of design.

Mr. Estebecorena also hopes for students to feel empowered to be doers, to be more than just people who use things created by others, but become creators themselves, whether that be by creating physical items, or by creating ideas that challenge traditional perceptions or ways of doing. This is the essence of the ADST curriculum and I look forward to sharing more of this work in future blog posts as students continue to work with Mr. Estebecorena.

Mr. Estebecorena will also work with our Community School Coordinator, Sarah Haxby, on our “slug art” by designing eye-catching signage that encourages cars to slow down in the school zone. These designs will be featured as part of our Bike to School Week, May 28 – June 3.

BICS students are very engaged in the ADST curriculum, whether it be through creating (knitting, sewing, some classes even doing woodworking) or thinking like a designer in order to understand complex systems and propose solutions to some of the challenges we face. In a variety of ways, the ADST curriculum is proving to be one of the most interesting additions to BC’s revised curriculum and aspects of this curriculum will be featured in future blog posts.

Originally Posted on the BICS Blog

At the start of our Curriculum Night last Wednesday (Sept. 13), Vice-Principal Laura Magrath and I shared a fifteen minute presentation which had two intentions: summarize the layers of learning that happen at BICS in every subject, in every classroom, every day; and second, to provide some questions that parents could ask their children that would prompt a dialogue about these layers of learning. This blog post is a summary of that presentation.

Layers of Learning

We are in year 2 or 2+ of many provincial, district and school initiatives. While we are at a stage of continuing to do things differently (and always will be), we are also in a stage of consolidation; of ensuring that our work from the last several years stays current in our minds as we plan learning environments and learning experiences for students.

And so, to integrate these initiatives, we shared the graphic to the right with families. It summarizes four layers of learning:

  1. Engagement – If students are not engaged in the task, nothing else matters. Our staff use an “Engaged Learner Profile” to provide learning experience for students that engage them with (1) the curriculum, (2) the social environment (peers, school staff, guests), and (3) the physical environment. Students can reference this profile as they begin to take greater responsibility for their learning.
  2. Curriculum – Between units, subjects and often over years, students develop understandings of big ideas and relatedcurricular content and develop curricular competencies related to their subject. More simply, students understand, know, and do.
  3. Learning Character – Our school goal is for students to strengthen their learning character including becoming more responsible, open, ambitious and resilient. We use the “Circles of Care” framework to help students understand how they can develop their learning character; for example, being open-minded in challenging ones opinions, open-minded to the perspective of others, and open to new experiences at school and beyond.
  4. Core Competencies – While part of the curriculum, the Core Competencies are in a separate layer of learning quadrant as they transcend the curriculum. Core Competencies are not specific to any subject or any grade, they are instead a set of competencies that one relies upon and develops throughout life. The competencies incorporate many of the foci of our school and district: self-regulation (Personal Awareness and Responsibility Competency), critical thinking (Critical Thinking Competency), and digital access (Communication Competency).

Surrounding the quadrants is the First Peoples Principles of Learning. The Principles, set out by the First Nations Education Steering Committee, outline an approach to learning that will be inclusive of all learners. While they are “First Peoples Principles” the wisdom of these principles applies to the learning of students of all cultures.

Underlying, but visually missing from this framework, is the emotional side of learning. Happiness at school and in the classroom is foundational to learning.

 

Family Discussions of Learning

“How was your day?”

“Fine.”

Some children may provide more than a one word answer about their school day; most others will need a little more prompting!

By sharing with families the Layers of Learning, we hope that questions from parents/guardians can prompt a dialogue, rather than a discrete question and answer session. And in this dialogue, in addition to students sharing what they are learning about, they can also talk about how they are learning, who they are learning from, and why.Layers_Questions

Similar to the layers of learning frame, we introduced the frame with topics related to engagement, curriculum, learning character, core competencies and the First Peoples Principles of Learning.

The layers of learning are not hierarchical. One quadrant is not deeper than any other. Each quadrant is ever-present, to varying levels of importance, in everything students do at school. Our educators do a magnificent job incorporating effective practices in their approach to learning and our hope is that the frameworks above help summarize these effective practices (layers) and provide families with a greater understanding of what students learn about and how, as well as some questions to ask about learning.

These questions are just a start. What other questions prompt a dialogue about learning? Please consider commenting below to add your response or tweet us: @bics_news.

Thank you for reading.

 

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.

WA

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.