Learning Character – Openness

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment in thinking that “now, more than ever, the world needs more…tolerance, more openness, more dialogue, more shared problem-solving…” Recent events in North America and beyond have prompted me to think that openness – openness to trying new things, to meeting new people, to considering viewpoints different from one’s own – was needed now more than ever. My social media feed is as refined as it has ever been to share news stories suggesting that.

In reality, considering many countries’ histories of colonization, inequality, segregation, sexism and war, the need to be open to others has always been necessary in order for diversity to be a strength rather than a dividing and oppressing weakness.

At BICS, our school goal is for students to strengthen their learning character including becoming more responsible, open, ambitious and resilient. While this second character trait, open, maybe is not needed now more than ever, it is perhaps the most important character trait of a learner. After all, learning is about trying new things, considering multiple viewpoints and negotiating one’s own understanding, and welcoming opportunities to meet new people, learn about them, learn from them, and perhaps even be changed by them.

Openness is not taught in a week but we are calling the week of February 20-24, 2017 “Openness Week” at BICS and we are holding several events that we hope will inspire students to recognize the value of being open and encourage this important aspect of their learning character.

On Monday, our intermediate students will participate in a ROAR (Responsibility, Openness, Ambition, Resilience) Assembly. The key message will be the link between self-regulation and openness. Typically, as someone becomes upset, or dysregulated, less and less of their brain is activated, particularly the reasoning parts of the brain which might actually be open to considering alternate perspectives. To the extreme, in a survival situation when fight or flight is activated, little more than the amygdala is controlling actions.

On Tuesday, BICS will celebrate International Mother Language Day. BICS students whose mother language is one other than English will meet with our English Language Learner (ELL) teacher Ms. de Boer and me to create a bulletin board that will display the word “Welcome” in as many Mother Languages as we have at BICS. Learning a second (or third) language is an incredible accomplishment and our ELL students deserve credit for their efforts. It will also be interesting to raise the profile of diversity of languages at BICS and share the vital connection of language and culture.

On Wednesday, students and staff are encouraged to wear pink shirts to school. Pink Shirt Day, occurring all across Canada and in other countries, originated after a high school student was made fun of for wearing a pink shirt. The next day, two peers wore pink shirts and started providing them to others as well. Wearing a pink shirt is a statement by anyone who wears it that they are someone who will not stand by and allow bullying to happen; rather, they are someone who will support someone being bullied. Our primary students will also have an assembly that celebrates the idea, “It’s OK to be different.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Diversity Group will meet. The group, consisting of parent/guardians and BICS staff, has formed this year and discusses racial diversity at BICS and beyond. The goal of our group is to become more aware of systematic racism in Canadian society and to be open to the role we as citizens play in this system.

Whether it is being open to fun experiences like participating in band, joining the cross country team or Destination Imagination, or whether being open is more difficult – like working with someone new, or challenging one’s perspective and beliefs – openness is central to a successful approach to learning. Encouraging openness in students is a responsibility we share with families and we take this responsibility seriously. This week and beyond, openness will continue to be an essential aspect of learning character that we encourage and rely upon for students to be successful.

Who’s the Boss?

With the title, “The collapse of parenting: Why it’s time for parents to grow up,” it is no surprise that this Maclean’s article is getting a lot of attention. In it, the author Cathy Gulli, often citing the works of psychologists Dr. Leonard Sax and Dr. Gordon Neufeld, argues that while guided by the best of intentions, many parenting styles are doing children no favors.

The article is worth reading but I will do my best to summarize it as follows:

(Common) Parenting beliefs and interests

Parents want…

  • the best for their children.
  • their children to feel listened to and respected.
  • their children to be independent and think freely.
  • to avoid conflict and be liked by their children.
  • their children to be assertive and able to stand up for themselves and others.

Parenting behaviour

Guided by the beliefs above, parents…

  • ask their children to make decisions over major and often seemingly minor things (to finish eating green beans) which become significant things (parent’s control, child’s nourishment).
  • negotiate with their children; e.g., “If you finish your green beans, you can have dessert.”

Response of children to parenting behaviour above

The result of this parenting behaviour is role confusion: children question whether the parent is going to make decisions and as a result take on this responsibility. Children begin to see themselves as the decision maker and take on the “alpha” role in the family hierarchy.

Consequence of role confusion

  • Children will make decisions on important matters such as food choices and thus, despite often having limited experience or information, have control over their nutrition and physical development.
  • Children control access to technology and may, due to lack of understanding and/or discipline, not prioritize sleep over screen-time.
  • Same age peers will become more important and influential to children than their parents and other adults.

The crux of the argument is that the world is becoming less hierarchical but hierarchy is still needed in families, and classrooms too, where the relationships involve people with vast differences in knowledge and experience.


I feel quite lucky as a teacher and now principal that prior to becoming a parent myself I have seen a tremendous amount of remarkable parenting. I have also seen that sometimes small moments – a child throwing his backpack at his parent as he runs to the playground whilst barely acknowledging them – are really big things but could quite easily be overlooked by the parent who has just been at work all day and wants nothing more than to see his son play on the swings rather than telling his son to take care of his own backpack. In that instance, who is in control?

And issues of hierarchy are not exclusive to parenting. An example in schools: Self-regulation has been a major focus of BICS and many schools for several years. Self-regulation differs from regulation in that the goal in self-regulation is for the student to take control. Parents regulate a child with a scraped knee with a kiss on the cheek or a hand on the shoulder. Self-regulation involves the student identifying their emotions and self-regulating so that their behaviour matches their environment and/or activity. Dependence is therefore a key element of regulation while independence is the key for self-regulation. This is a worthy goal: parents and the school have an interest in students becoming independent and self-regulation is about self-control, not control of others.

But how about when self-regulation includes taking a break from the classroom and learning activity? Most schools have self-regulation spaces in classrooms or rooms where the student can take a break from the busyness of a classroom. The spaces are great: they are usually quiet, with subtle lighting and comfortable furniture. As classrooms are potentially the most stimulating learning or working environment most people will ever be in, it makes sense that students might need a change of environment at times other than scheduled (and often stimulating) recess and lunch times.

However, like a child avoiding their greens with the result of malnourishment, too many breaks from the classroom may come at the cost of learning. One might argue that the dysregulated student who feels they need a break won’t be learning anyway, but what happens when student decisions take precedent over reasonable expectations from the teacher. If the student feels the expectations of the teacher take precedence over their decisions to need a break, might that student be more likely to rise to the occasion? Balancing authority and control with honouring student/child voice and independence is not easy but is important.

The key element in who should have most control of decision making is whether the decision is best informed by personal preference or life experience. For example, if it is a matter of a child wearing a red or blue sweater to school on Thursday, it is a matter of personal preference. If, however, the question is about wearing a sweater at all, the parent’s life experience, knowing that the child has soccer after school at 4:00 PM and that the temperature outside will drop when the sun goes down, trumps. Clarity and comfort as to who is in charge and why is essential for parents, educators and of course children/students. A child’s trust that the parent or educator has their best interest in mind when applying their life experiences to a decision is essential.

This balancing act is not easy and the article concludes with the idea that it is OK to make mistakes; in fact, it has to be OK as mistakes will be made. Ideally, awareness of who is making decisions and why will be helpful in the relationships so that students/children feel heard and so that adults can look out for the long-term interests of students.

The Immeasurables

Each year, many students in Grades Four and Seven around British Columbia participate in the Foundational Skills Assessments (FSAs) which is followed in the springtime by a report by the Fraser Institute ranking schools based on the results. Each year, there is plenty of talk among parents and educators as to how the school rankings capture only a part of what elementary students learn and the effectiveness of schools.

While foundation skills of reading, writing and numeracy are inarguably fundamental to the purpose of elementary education, there are frequent conversations as to the many “immeasurables” schools are responsible for that foster the well-being of children related to their social, emotional, and physical health.

In my years in education, I have noticed an increase in expectation and appreciation for schools’ roles beyond primary levels in developing the whole child, focusing not just on academic success but social, emotional and physical development as well. Experiential evidence and academic research suggest that educating the mind cannot be done effectively without a strong social and emotional foundation.

It is fortunate that as awareness and expectations of the importance of schools doing more to educate the whole child increase beyond academic development, many of the “immeasurables” are now being measured and shared with the schools, districts and communities that are responsible for the development of children.

Some of the work of measuring is being done by the Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia. For several years, the Partnership has been utilizing the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to measure core areas of early (pre-kindergarten) child development that predict adult health and positive social outcomes.

More recently, the Partnership has started implementing the Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) for children ages six to twelve. Recently, the Director of the Partnership, Professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, spoke to school leaders in School District 45 about the MDI and the focus of this post will be on some of the results of the MDI for the community of Bowen Island.

A survey was administered to Grade Four students at BICS last spring with the intention of measuring children’s overall health and well-being. The phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is recognized in the survey so it analyzes assets within a child’s community, including at the child’s school, that support their overall health and well-being.

The assets within the school and the community that are recognized as supporting overall health and well-being are summarized (not in order of importance) as (1) supportive relationships with adults, (2) supportive relationships with peers, (3) participation in enriching after-school activities, and (4) proper nutrition and sleep.

As the community of Bowen Island considers how we are setting our students up for success, it is worth analyzing the data from the MDI – available here. The rest of this post will be divided in three sections: first, assets that promote development; second, some of the results of these assets on students’ well-being; and third, my conclusions from reading the report.


Asset 1 – Supportive Relationships with Adults

  • 97% of students report having medium to high connection to adults at school (86% high; 11% medium)
  • 86% of students report having medium to high connection to adults in the neighbourhood (67% high; 19% medium)

Asset 2 – Supportive Peer Relationships

  • 84% of students report having medium to high sense of peer belonging (68% high; 16% medium)
  • 84% of students report having medium to high level of friendship intimacy (67% high; 17% medium)

Asset 3 – After School Activities

  • 94% of students report watching less than 2 hours of television per day (22% report watching no television at all)
  • 98% of students report being on the computer less than 2 hours per day
  • 89% of students report participating in an organized activity (sports, music, arts) 2+ times per week

Asset 4 – Nutrition and Sleep

  • 97% of students report having breakfast (3 or more times per week)
  • 81% of students report having meals at home with family 3 or more times per week
  • 84% of students report having a good sleep 3 or more times per week (68% high; 16% medium)

The MDI summarizes the percentages of children reporting each of the assets in the form of a puzzle. In the puzzle to the right, the percentages include students who report “a little true” or higher to questions related to each of the assets.

Overall Health & Well-Being

The well-being index shared below summarizes student responses related to feeling happy and optimistic, having high self-esteem, general health, and little sadness. Students were asked to share their sense of these attributes on a scale of 1-5 (1 = disagree a lot, 5 = agree a lot) where average responses less than 3 were considered low, and average responses 4 and greater were considered high.

My Conclusions

In reviewing the data, there were few surprises and few alarm bells as to the assets BICS and the community of Bowen Island are offering children. The community is, in comparison with the neighborhoods in the rest of the School District of West Vancouver and the other districts in the province I reviewed, doing well. However, one cannot help but have some concern that 25% of students report low well-being.

In considering what to do with the MDI report, there are no glaring deficits or assets needing particular attention but the high percentage of students reporting low well-being suggests there is plenty of room for improvement, and regardless of result, we may as well always be oriented toward improvement.

The key takeaway for me though is not just in the results. It is that the school and community generally should be reminded often of the key assets that have been identified as promoting the positive development of children and to ensure we as a community are deliberate in promoting these assets. In many ways, the statements that students were asked to respond to are more enlightening than the answers as it is the statements in the survey (“At my school there is an adult who really cares about me.” “In my home, there is a parent or another adult who listens to me when I have something to say.”) that reminds us of our purpose and the importance of our roles in schools and communities.

It will be interesting as the survey is implemented in coming years to track progress, note trends, and identify needs of varying cohorts. It is fortunate that the “immeasurables” are being measured.


This blog is not intended as a summary of the MDI report (its results or how the results were acquired) for Bowen Island or School District 45. MDI results for various districts can be found here.

Further Reading

Click here to read about the importance of sleep from Catherine Ratz, principal of Irwin Park Elementary School.

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.

The Year Ahead

This post was originally shared on the BICS Blog here.

At BICS’ first Parent Advisory Council (PAC) meeting of the school year, I had the privilege of sharing my excitement for the year ahead by speaking about BICS’ 2014-2015 Growth Plan.School_Growth_Plan_2014-2015_Visual

This is a tremendously exciting time to be in public education.  More than any other point in my ten years as an educator, I feel there are incredible opportunities to improve learning for students.  Below, I share some of the strategies in our school’s Growth Plan as well as the provincial context.

To a greater degree, our work is being influenced by developments in brain research and a deeper understanding for the varied needs of students.  Teachers are utilizing self-regulation strategies so that students can be, in the words of Stuart Shanker, “calm, alert and learning.”

The Ministry of Education and teachers across the province have also worked together to develop a new curriculum, still in draft form, which was introduced in the fall of 2013.  The curriculum supports teachers to utilize an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning.  Teachers now have access to planning documents that organize the understandings students are to acquire around big ideas that are in many ways transferable from subject to subject.  Furthermore, curriculum is designed to develop previously gained understandings and lay the groundwork for subsequent learning.  And students are able to support their inquiry by connecting with people, places, print and digital media.  BICS is filled with passionate educators and volunteers who inspire students. Bowen Island has incredible opportunities for students to learn from their environment.  The BICS library is filled with a broad range of resources, and our school has 80 portable devices. This year, students in Grades six and seven have been encouraged to bring in their own devices so that student can access a vast and current variety of resources to support their inquiries.

In speaking to the BICS PAC, it was hard not to overuse many of the buzzwords in education that I used above which are core to the work of BICS and the West Vancouver School District: Inquiry, Digital Access, and Self-Regulation.  But these words, which represent pedagogical strategies and tools, quickly lose significance if they are not connected to the goals they are to achieve.

In my ten years as an educator, I have distilled three simply stated yet anything but simple goals for students:  that students love learning, learn a lot, and see and seek opportunities to put their learning to use.  These goals guide my decisions as an educator but they are too vague for planning purposes.  More specifics as to the objectives for student learning, particularly what “learning a lot” means, is offered in the new draft curriculum.  In addition to supporting teachers with utilizing an inquiry-based approach to learning, the new curriculum articulates very clearly the concepts and big ideas students are to understand and also the competencies students are to develop.  In an information rich society, it is becoming less important for students to know a plethora of facts and details.  What is becoming increasingly important are competencies that help students make sense of the ubiquitous information they are surrounded by and to provide them with the skills necesseary to adapt to an ever changing world.

The Ministy of Education has articulated three Core Competencies which the Ministry asserts, “are vital to personal and social success, life-long learning, and to the changing workplace,” so a student’s development of these abilities are core to their quality of life.  The Competencies include Communication, Thinking and Personal and Social Competencies and I have written on these competencies here.  While it is still important that students acquire a general level of knowledge that allows them to understand the world they live in, the essential goals of the curriculum are the “Core Competencies.”  Reporting is likely to shift in the next year to reflect the changes in the curriculum.

With a greater understanding of how people learn, access to traditional and new tools for learning, and with the introduction of a curriculum that assists teachers with planning and effectively articulates the goals for student learning, change is very much upon us in BC education and very much so at BICS.  Change is challenging, but is far more comfortable when we recognize and understand the goals we are working towards.

With a greater understanding of how people learn, access to traditional and new tools for learning, and with the introduction of a curriculum that assists teachers with planning and effectively articulates the goals for student learning, change is very much upon is in BC education and very much so at BICS.  Change can be challenging, but is far more comfortable when we recognize what all this change is for and be clear about our goals for students.  When immersed in change, there should still be room for asking why and not just how.​

Prezi for PAC Presentation

Anchors to Learning

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

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

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

Anchoring Learning to Places and Experiences

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

Anchor BP.jpg

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

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

Learning Anchored to Imagination

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

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

Learning Anchored to Emotion

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

Learning Anchored to a Product

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

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

Recipe For Engagement

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