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.

TEDx West Vancouver Ed – The Heart of the Matter

I had the great privilege of attending TEDxWestVancouverED Rethinking Education yesterday (Saturday, September 26, 2015). After several talks, my friend, West Vancouver Schools colleague, and TEDx Curator Craig Cantlie invited the audience to determine what the essence of the day was; in other words, among the very diverse talks,what was (or were) the key theme(s)?

Jeff Hemmett’s talk resonated with me greatly. Jeff spoke about the similarity between classrooms and business start-ups. He shared that in a fast-changing world, a start-up’s culture is extremely important: the culture needs to be one that encourages creative and nimble thinking so as to not just keep up with change, but create change.

Not just keep up with change, create change.

Education systems are often criticized for not changing quickly enough and while incredibly innovative projects are alive and well all over West Vancouver Schools and in districts across BC and Canada, innovative practice and new ideas are not the only examples of keeping up with change but creating it.

Part way through the day, the TED Talk from space scientist Will Marshall (below) was shared. In it, a group of scientists created a satellite the size of a shoebox that could be deployed far more easily and cheaply and therefore in greater quantities than the massive satellites that came before them, all with comparable or superior performance in capturing images of the earth.

The technology was amazing but what was most impressive was the selfless spirit of the scientists: their goal is to give universal access to all of the data that is collected from the satellites to assess climate change and monitor the health of the earth through daily images.

Aristotle’s famous quotation, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” came to mind.

As I listened to more and more TEDx talks, it became increasingly obvious that the heart of most ideas shared was to make the world a better place: for individual learners, society generally, and the planet we depend on. For example, Walter Mustapich spoke about helping boys through the Boys Club, Starleigh Grass about reconciliation, Kristi Blakeway about learning the stories of homeless people, helping them reunite with family members and demonstrating care for people who are often craving connection.

Character education is a critical element in all school experience where an attitude of care for self, others and the more than human world is taught, either deliberately through programs such as Roots of Empathy, or indirectly, constantly and unavoidably through the cultures of classrooms, schools and school districts. This part of education is invaluable and timeless and fundamental to school systems not just keeping up with change, but creating it.

Jeff Hemmett noted the world’s most important startup is the classroom. Culture matters.

So, in our ever-changing world, educators must be innovative. At the same time, we must maintain our commitment to long-understood beliefs in the importance of caring classrooms. Rethinking education is always helpful both to recognize what needs to change (and change to what!) and to understand what lessons remain the same. TEDxWestVancoverED was helpful for both.

Further Reading:

For a wonderful argument on the merit’s of character education, see Bruce Beairsto’s article “Saving Spaceship Earth,” here.

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.


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.

Moving or Wandering?

Tolien ImageIn a recent blog post, I referred to Bowen Island Community School as a “moving school.”  As I was writing the post, I shared it with my colleague Laura Magrath for her input.  She suggested I clarify the word “moving.”

Her concern was that “moving school” might suggest simply moving from trend to trend without taking the time and expending the required energy to implement anything of substance.   If schools are planes and educators are its passengers, this would be like flying around the world, touching down on various runways but taking off before anyone has had a chance to disembark and learn about a place beyond what they could see in brief moments below the clouds.  Lots of energy is expended in such sightseeing but little is gained.

The ambiguity of the word moving encouraged me to clarify between moving and wandering.

As individual educators, it pays to wander broadly:  to read blog posts, learn of the latest trends, experiment with strategies.

It is best, however, for schools not to wander.  Implementing change in a school requires a significant amount of time, energy and inertia, and if not done well or without follow-through, innovation too often feels like adding to practice rather than evolving practice, of increasing workload without increasing student achievement.  A wandering school means that broad changes may be made, but likely not deep ones.

So, with all of the opportunities to improve the education we offer students – new curriculum, insights into brain research including executive functioning and self-regulation, access to new tools for learning – how does a school ensure it does not, in an effort to “keep up with the times,” wander from one great initiative to the next without spending enough time to do any of these initiatives well?

I have far more thinking to do on this and it is central to my professional growth plan for at least this year but my first thinking on this suggests there are three keys that help a school move rather than just wander.

The first is to clarify what the drivers of change are – goals for students – and what the strategies are to achieve goals.  In other words, to start, as educators have long known, with the end in mind and then look at strategies to achieve those ends.  To move, alignment of strategies towards well-articulated goals is needed.

Regarding being clear on goals for students, the new BC Curriculum, currently in draft form, clearly articulates what students are to know and understand as well as the skills – or competencies – students are to develop.  The core competencies – Thinking CompetencyCommunication Competency and Personal and Social Competency, as well as a focus on foundation skills – literacy and numeracy – provide an ideal starting point for any discussions as to the validity of instructional strategies or tools for learning.

The second key is to identify whether professional learning is an evolution of practice or a revolution of practice.

Evolution, as I am referring to it, means doing similar things better; revolution means doing things markedly different.  Evolving practice is, inherently, constant and there is a tremendous capacity among educators as learners for evolving practice.

If it is a revolution in practice, doing things markedly different, it is worth assessing what existing practices are being replaced and can be discarded to “make room” for significant changes.  It is not common where entire practices are so far off the mark as to be discarded outright but changes in how students are assessed, and how student progress is communicated as related to the core competencies noted above, will likely involve a revolution in assessment as educators do more than simply adapt to the profiles of the core competencies, but instead change significantly.

It is important, through the measurement of school goals, to recognize a staff’s capacity for revolutions and to engage in evolution constantly, but revolutions infrequently.

A third key is recognizing that the crucial element of innovation is follow-through and that follow-through takes time.  A school’s growth plan may be in place for several years and this does not suggest stagnation.  Engaging an entire staff to pursue an initiative – and to do it well – is a far less facile process than individual learning and the inertia generated through collaboration takes time to develop and even more time for the benefits of this inertial to be fully realized.

As a new principal, I have been asked what kind of stamp I will put on the school.  I will work with our school community on the evolving vision for BICS and school-wide initiatives, keeping in mind our goals for students and where we are at in achieving those goals.  I believe it is important to find a balance between incorporating insights into learning and being responsive to the changing world we are preparing students for, with ensuring that educators have sufficient time to truly move on the agreed upon core strategies.

Similar to how students are encouraged to learn deeply and how teachers offer time and space for that to occur, schools must also take time to go deep.  Often, continuity in change is needed.

I am interested in learning more about the keys to moving on innovations rather than wandering between innovations.  Please consider commenting below on how this is done.
Further Reading and Viewing:

For an interesting perspective on the art of wandering, click here to read Sean Nosek’s blog.

Click here to read Chris Kennedy’s post, “Less But Better.”

And for an example of a true revolution in education related to student discipline shared with me for a laugh recently by a BICS parent while I happened to be writing this post, click here.

A New Beginning?

In January of 2005, I started my teaching career at Bowen Island Community School.  It was a temporary assignment, just six months, teaching Grade 6-7.  After leaving BICS, I taught Grade 5 for several years at Ridgeview Elementary School before returning to BICS as vice-principal in 2010 to carry on my teaching career and begin my career as a school administrator.  Now, in January 2015, I have the honour and privilege of leading BICS as principal.  So, in many ways, BICS has been a place of beginnings for me.

But will the change of principals at BICS be a new beginning for the school and, if so, a beginning of what?

At first thought, it might seem ungrateful and naïve to suggest that the school will carry on just fine without the thoughtful guidance and inspirational leadership of BICS’ now retired principal, Jennifer Pardee.  But so much of Jennifer’s work at BICS was to create a shared vision for the school involving students, educators and the community and to build capacity in staff to pursue innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  So, while Jennifer will be deeply missed by the BICS community, professionally and personally, much of her leadership has been to foster conditions for continued success after her retirement.

Over the years, I have heard BICS described as a “moving school.”  A moving school is one that has very clear priorities and where there is buy-in from staff to develop and implement strategies and tactics to achieve those priorities.  In other words, a “moving school” is an improving school.  Current research, insights from experience, as well as technological innovation, have created many opportunities for schools to move forward on several key initiatives.  At BICS in recent years, there has been a greater focus on social and emotional learning, aboriginal education, self-regulation, and a restorative justice approach to student conduct; there is increased access to digital technology, and our school iswell on its way to an inquiry-based approach to learning where students practise and develop critical thinking skills and mindset.

We are certainly not at the beginning stages of any of these initiatives but they will each continue to guide the work we do for years to come.  I will use this blog space, as Jennifer and I have done over the last several years, to write about our school’s progress.

So there is much to be continued, but there are other changes on the horizon in BC education; there are new beginnings.  The BC Ministry of Education has released a new curriculum, currently in draft form, that BICS will transition to in coming years.  The curriculum is a major redesign that articulates what students are to know and understand in a way that supports inquiry-based learning (I have written on this aspect of curriculum here), and will change the way student learning is communicated with a focus on three core competencies – Thinking Competency, Communication Competency and Personal and Social Competency (I have written on this topic here).  Our school is well-positioned to transition to this curriculum as we have been focusing on many of its core elements – inquiry, critical thinking, flexible learning environments – for years.

What students need from their education to be successful in a rapidly changing world and insights into how people learn means that the vision for BICS will continue to evolve as we strive to provide students with the most relevant and effective learning experiences we can.  But as the BICS staff is deeply invested in many initiatives, at this time of transitioning principals, at this time of a new beginning for me, consistency for the school in pursuing the initiatives in which we are immersed, in doing them as best we can, is needed.

Change is certainly upon us at BICS, but change is nothing new in a moving school.

What are the Attributes of an Ideal Environmental Educator?

Photo:  Jeff Morales

Photo: Jeff Morales

Bowen Island Community School recently shared a job posting for an environmental educator teaching outside45, an ecological education program based on Bowen Island.  Interested applicants can apply on Make A Future until Wednesday November 19th 2014 at 1 p.m.

The purpose of this post is to share the attributes we highlighted we were looking for in an ideal candidate and invite readers to share what they feel are the most important attributes of environmental educators.  What would you add, remove or prioritize from the posting below?

The successful candidate possesses a Certificate of Qualification from the Teacher Regulation Branch as well as a recognized Wilderness First Aid Certificate (typically at least 50 hours) and demonstrates the following:

  • a strong background in environmental and experiential education with elementary school-aged children;

  • high level of outdoor skills for a variety of activities including, but not limited to, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, camping in all seasons, and orienteering;

  • interest in cultures of coastal First Nations of BC and, more generally, Traditional Ecological Knowledge including learning from the environment and pursuing the goals described in School District 45’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement;

  • excellent planning skills, both of curriculum and to coordinate the logistics of field experiences;

  • clear understanding of risk management and the ability to work with other staff, parents, and students, to implement a risk management plan;

  • ability and experience to plan, teach, differentiate and assess an educational program building on the goals and outcomes as described in the Ministry of Education’s Provincial Learning Outcomes and Integrated Resource Packages and knowledge of BC’s Draft Curriculum;

  • an ecological and inquiry-based approach to learning, including integrating learning from various subjects for the purpose of developing big ideas, conceptual understandings and Core Competencies;

  • proven ability and interest in working in a very collaborative teaching and learning environment; this position involves working very closely with several colleagues and parents;

  • a clear understanding of the characteristics of intermediate-aged children and the ability to develop a positive learning environment addressing the intellectual, physical and emotional needs of students of this age;

  • ability to seamlessly integrate digital access into teaching and learning;

  • an understanding of self-regulation strategies;

  • proven effective written and verbal communication skills with students, colleagues and parents.

What’s Standing in the Way of Change? It better not be culture.

The CEA’s What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education workshop series across Canada brings together a variety of stakeholders and innovators including students, parents, university deans, teachers, trustees, K-12 and university administrators, superintendents, and Ministry of Education administrators, and tasks them with determining what is standing in the way of change in education, and how to work around or eliminate the barriers.

In the Vancouver session, which I had the privilege of attending on Wednesday May 14th, it seemed most participants agreed on three challenges in particular.  Below, I share what I took from these discussions.

1. Mindset

Those who are in positions that can implement change may not have the mindset to do so.  They may be married to what they currently do, either to maintain tradition, to please parents who might resist change, out of fear of the unknown of might lay ahead, or fear that adopting new practice will make “old” practice and the practitioner look bad.  The idea of “best practice” is not helpful.  It suggests that there is one best way of doing things and switching the term “best practice” to “effective practice,” is perhaps a small but important step in inviting change.  Bruce Beairsto noted this Mindset is not so much a barrier or roadblock in the present or future, but an anchor dug into the past that slows or halts change.


2. Process

The BC Education Plan articulates many important goals for education:  personalized learning, flexibility and choice, learning supported by digital access, etc.  Even if the goals of change were understood to mean the same thing and agreed upon by all 40 000 teachers in BC, as well as administrators, School Board Office staff and Trustees, there is no clear process to implement change, and the process might look different depending on what form of change it is.  One of the strengths of education in BC is that teachers, schools, and districts, have a high degree of autonomy to personalize and contextualize learning experiences to best meet the needs of unique students and communities; needs that might be different elsewhere.  Interestingly, this strength is a weakness in implementing change rapidly.  This decentralized system is thus designed to satisfy context-specific needs, but also makes implementing systematic change difficult.

Further, innovators have relatively small spheres of influence.  An innovative teacher in a classroom has a huge impact on the many students they teach, and a district with a culture of innovation has a major impact both on students and educators, but classrooms, schools, school districts, and even universities, are relatively small spheres compared with the system as a whole.  For systemic change, who is to bridge these spheres?  The Ministry of Education’s Education Plan makes no connections, that I am aware of at least, between K-12 education and university, and coordination, particularly with respect to changing assessment practices, must occur between grades 11 and 12 and university entrance requirements. There is a separate ministry, the Ministry of Advanced Education, responsible for Universities.  Who is responsible for bridging the gap between K-12 and University?

While there are great benefits to a decentralized, diffusion model of change (described by Chris Kennedy here), it does not promote the quick implementation of systematic change.  In my opinion, it is better to do things well than do things quickly, so if speed is the cost for well-implemented, personalized and contextual change, perhaps it is worth it.

Peter Drucker noted that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and Jordan Tinney has written on this topic in relation to the hit television show Downton Abbey, explaining culture’s inescapable role causing change. The show shares the change of the place of the aristocracy in the UK, including how an aristocratic family interacts with each other and with servants and other “commoners.”  There are some major events like World War One that accelerate change, but for the most part, change happens in small decisions:  a daughter’s decision to wear certain clothing or disagree with her father, a butler’s tolerance of certain behaviour, a decision to marry a commoner, and for the family to slowly accept that commoner into their circles.  Occasionally, important laws such as female suffrage cause major changes, but it is for the most part, small decisions happening among relatively small actors that slowly shift and are then shifted by culture.  In a decentralized system, culture, more than process, shapes change.


3. Support

A third inhibitor of change is that many believe there is not sufficient support for educators to develop their skillsets, perhaps in inquiry, assessment, and self-regulation.  This support might include time for professional learning, support from collaborators or mentors/coaches, or learning resources such as books or technology tools that support professional learning or student learning.  Further, if class composition is becoming more challenging, even if an educator hones their skillset, there is, or might be the perception, that educators cannot make full use of their skillsets because they simply do not have enough time to offer their skills to such diverse learning needs.  If educators do not feel supported, financially and with sufficient human resources to meet the needs of learners, this third inhibitor of change – Support – can lead to the development of a mindset resistant to change.



It seems clear to me that if mindsets, process and support are identified as challenges to change, it is absolutely vital that classrooms, schools, districts and the Ministry of Education in general, must support a culture of innovation, written about by Chris Kennedy here.  Culture shapes mindsets, it permeates all spheres of influence, and it inspires educators to overcome limitations of support.  In a Downton Abbey model of change, which we seem to have, all innovators with influence must develop their convictions and take action if they wish to be leaders. And as this work cannot be done alone; educators must work together to develop shared convictions and take shared action to implement change.