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.

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

Anchoring

In his fascinating book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes of “anchoring.”

His and others’ research has shown that when people are given a starting number about a topic they know little about and then asked a question about the topic, they have a tendency not to drift too far from the given figure. The figure serves as an anchor.

An example he uses:

Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet?
What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?

Even though 1,200 feet is a ridiculously large number for the height of a redwood, asking question 1 (Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet?) ahead of asking the latter question primes the respondent with some information about the topic and this has a major impact on what their best guess about the height of the tallest redwood will be.

The person being questioned may assume that the person asking the question has some knowledge of redwoods and therefore use 1,200 as their starting place. Knowing enough to assume the given number is too high, they would most likely drop below the initial figure, but not too far below. Rather than starting with their own guess, they use 1,200 as a starting place and as they drop below the starting place, they settle on a number before dipping too far into the uncertain zone. The number then ends up far closer to the starting place than were the person to have come up with a guess all on their own.

The implications of this for teaching are immense. We often ask students to share their thoughts on topics they are just forming opinions on. While exposure to others’ ideas is helpful, it is also helpful for teachers to be aware of the priming effect peers’ responses might have on students. The teacher may also wish to help students identify this effect.

Kahneman notes that even after identifying the effect of “anchors” they still have an impact. Choosing when to have group discussions and being mindful of giving students time to find their own starting place is essential.

I’m in the midst of Kahneman’s book and literally enjoying every page. As we strive to thinking-fsteach students to think critically and creatively, learning more about psychology and the way the brain work is important. There are many tools to assist students with evaluating the perspective and biases of others; what is more difficult is evaluating the way we process information and form conclusions.

 

So let’s be more realistic this time. Did the tallest redwood even exceed 200 feet? What’s your guess?

To Our 2015-2016 Grade 7s, Farewell

We had our year-end assembly yesterday to celebrate the school year but this assembly grade 7s is just for you.

Last night, parents spent time making the gym look terrific, your teachers have written speeches for each of you, the whole school and many family members have come to watch.

This ceremony is a statement that this transition in your life is an important one.

I know the transition from elementary to secondary school is significant because I can still remember my transition to high school 25 years ago.

 

In June of 1991, I was finishing at Caulfield Elementary School and moving on up to Hillside Secondary School.

I remember my first day: after years of walking, biking and being driven to my elementary school, for the first time in my life I rode the school bus.

I was wearing a white Vuarnet France long sleeve t-shirt that had been given to me by an older cousin. I thought she was cool so figured the t-shirt was too. Cool enough that I also wore it to the first dance we had a few months later.

 

 

It bothers me that I remember trivial details of dress; it speaks to me being overly concerned about what others thought of me. How I wish I could have gone into high school not worrying so much, rather trusting myself to be myself. If I had some advice for you, it would be to be yourself but I am not here to give you easier said than done advice.

Little I say now is going to affect your attitude in this transitional period so I am simply going to summarize some key themes that I know have been a feature of your experience at BICS, things you’ve learned already.

 

Your education is partly about skillset – writing skills, reading skills, being able to make use of numbers to solve problems.

Your education is also about mindset – how you approach change, how you think about new situations, meeting new people and how you greet opportunity.

 

So I will now share some long-learned lessons, likely begun in Kindergarten and earlier with your family , which have hopefully inspired in you a confident and optimistic mindset for making the most of the many opportunities that lay ahead.

 

Lesson Number One: You are special but no more special than anyone else.

Yes, that is possible – special doesn’t have to mean better or only. The quantity of special people in the wold does not devalue your uniqueness and worth. Soon your teachers will describe your unique strengths and possibly even a quirk or two. Be proud of who you are.

 

Lesson Number Two:  Be confident in yourself. Confidence is believing in yourself – not just your abilities but your potential. You may be good, very good or even exceptional at certain things. But you are also 12 or 13. You very likely have a long way to go until you reach your peak. Your education has been designed for that purpose, for the long haul.

Your experience here at BICS, and I know your next school will be the same, is designed to be a virtuous cycle, one where the more you learn the greater is your capacity to learn more, to be able to do more.  This is education inertia – when we learn, we become better learners and more capable people. So I encourage you to be confident, particularly in your potential.

Lesson Number Three, and following from lesson two: set ambitious goals for yourself.

Confidences allows ambition.

Be aware that committing to ambitious goals guarantees hard work and challenging times ahead. Help may be needed. Failure may occur. Fortunately you have the capacity to learn from both so hopefully you will have the modesty and confidence to do so.

 

You don’t need to remember the words I say, I hope these lessons have been learned and earned growing up with your families and attending BICS. I think you are well prepared for what lies ahead.

 

Whether you have been at BICS for one year or eight, it has been wonderful having you in the school Grade 7s. You will certainly be missed but as you venture East on your future academic endeavours and in all kinds of directions on your many adventures, know that we will be thinking about you, rooting for you and wishing you all the best wherever your passion and purpose takes you.

 

Good luck.

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.

Experience, Stories, Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The BICS Aboriginal Education Plan is here.

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.