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.

Preparing Students for Anything

This post was originally published on the BICS Blog.

It is not easy to predict the future.

BC’s School Act asserts, “the purpose of the British Columbia school system is to enable all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.”

It is very possible to determine what skills and attitudes are needed in society now. What is more difficult is predicting the skills and attitudes needed for society many years from now.

One example:  How will people use technology? I have some concerns with the amount of screen time for children and adults who often disengage from their immediate environment  and instead connect online with others. Will people tire of staring into the screen and will there be a major pendulum swing back to living in the immediate world: less Wii baseball, more baseball, less online messages, more phone calls, less Guitar Hero, more guitar. Or, will technology become even more engaging, entertaining and successful at connecting people to others?

Will the ecological imperative to consume less impede access to technology? Instead of buying electronic goods and other items, will people need to not just buy locally but also build locally and grow locally? Will gardening skills, carpentry skills, sewing skills etc., trump all others? Should these skills be prioritized in schools?

These are all very challenging questions that as an educator, I can’t answer and fortunately don’t need to. Even if the future was predictable, human interests and possibilities are so diverse that there is no singular future we could possibly prepare students for. There may be some similarities, but “the future” will look different for everyone.

It is therefore impossible to prepare students for everything so we must prepare students for anything. What that means is that the most important role of a school is to increase students’ capacities as learners so that whatever the future looks like, they will have the literacy and numeracy skills, problem solving skills and most importantly the motivation and confidence, to learn whatever is needed.

In speaking with a colleague recently, I shared my puzzlement at the current trend of teaching coding to elementary school children. Coding seemed like a waste of time: I figured by the time students would actually need coding skills, the coding system students were learning would be replaced so what was the point? He shared that while his students are encouraged to code really what he was encouraging was problem solving.  I understood what he meant:  I’ve taught students to use PowerPoint, a program that may very well not exist by the time students are giving presentations for work, but I was not really teaching PowerPoint, I was teaching how to summarize and how to present – timeless, transferable skills like problem solving.

It is a relief to know as an educator of students entering a quickly changing world of immense diversity and possibility, that it is not my role to prepare students for everything but instead help prepare students for anything.  We do not know what a student’s lifelong learning journey will look like, but we do know that there are core skills and attitudes that must be identified and developed in students to build their capacities as learners so that whatever the conditions of the world they live in and whatever diverse passions they pursue, they can adapt – which is to learn.

In British Columbia, the “core skills and attitudes” students need have been identified and articulated as Core Competencies as part of British Columbia’s draft curriculum. When students learn coding, PowerPoint, or gardening, they will be developing core competencies. The competencies are helpful in virtually all settings and while perhaps nothing is change-proof, the Competencies should stand the test of time for they increase a person’s capacity as a learner which increases a person’s capacity to adapt.  I will write about the competencies and what they look like at BICS throughout the school year. These competencies, including students feeling inspired and confident to make use of them, are at the heart of what we do: preparing students to be learners, helping prepare students for anything.

“Wrong Thoughts” and Other Things to Consider

Nearly at once, both icons have fallen from grace in ways that were unimaginable just months ago.  They are forcing a reckoning with ourselves and our history, a reassessment of who we were and of what we might become.Blog July 2015

So begins Isabel Wilkerson’s New York Times review of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, referring to the lowering of the Confederate Flag and the identity of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman character Atticus Finch.

In the review, Wilkerson writes about the complexity of Atticus Finch as portrayed in Go Set a Watchman, as a “gentleman bigot, well meaning in his supremacy.  In other words, he is human, and in line with emerging research into how racial bias has evolved in our society.  He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.”

In his review of Go Set a Watchman for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik sates, “beneath Atticus’s style of enlightenment is a kind of bigotry that could not recognize itself as such at the time….  The problem is not people who think wrong thoughts, since we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts about something or other. The problem is people who give their implicit endorsement to violence or intolerance in the pursuit of wrong thoughts.”

So, as an educator in British Columbia, why am I referencing articles about the soul searching America appears to be in the midst of in response to horrific hate crimes, police violence, and the release of a novel reexamining a beloved character.  As an educator, I believe that the most transformational learning is so foundational to the learner’s identity it just becomes who they are and is not recognized as learning at the time.  The articles are a reminder to me to scan my biases and attempt to identify how they may be reflected in my practice.  And beyond scanning biases, it is worth noting that we may be, as Gopnik writes, unable to recognize our “wrong thoughts,” so ingrained are they from our upbringing including what we learned in school.

In recent years, including Stephen Harper’s 2008 statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Canadians have begun the process of recognizing historical and current “wrong thoughts.”  We are at the beginning of, what Justice Murray Sinclair notes, “forging and maintaining respectful relationships.”  How else does one go about scanning some of the messages educators and systems (classrooms, schools, Districts, Provinces) share with students and shape their perspectives often in such an ongoing way as to be unrecognizable?

As I question my biases, I’m drawn to some of the work I participated in with several colleagues last year.  We studied learner engagement and came up with an Engagement Profile that educators could use to help learners engage themselves in learning experiences (more on that can be found here).  Engagement_2015

Our Engagement Profile (still under development) asks learners, prior, during and after a learning experience, to ask several questions.  The Engagement Profile could also act as an assumption profile and be a good starting point for examining biases.  So, some thoughts on assumptions follow each question.

1.  Who are you learning with and who are you learning from?

Parker Palmer notes, “We teach who we are.”  An examination of “who” we are teaching includes:  What biases do I reveal to students? What topics/subjects do I show enthusiasm for; what not?

2.  What are you learning about and what are you learning to do?

Provincial policy decisions regarding curriculum guide what students learn about when but classroom policy decisions guide how much time is given to various topics of study and send messages to students about what skills and understandings are important and what are not.

3.  Where are you learning and what are you learning from your surroundings?

This question is perhaps examined the least.   Too often when we think about where we learn, we think about whether the environment is conducive to learning (appropriate lighting, quiet, comfortable…) rather than whether the environment has something to teach us about the topic and or our relationship with the topic.

Gopnik notes that, “we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts,” and I know in 20 years that I might disown and possibly even feel ashamed of some of my current “wrong thoughts.”  But, by asking questions, I can examine some of my biases and, knowing that I will be unable to recognize them all, use these articles as yet another reminder of the importance of not just being open-minded to other perspectives, but to actively seek them out.

Who are you learning from?

We learn most from those whose views are most unlike our own.

Do you agree?

I would answer, “It depends,” but over the years I have become more convinced that there is great value in deliberately seeking the opinions of people whose views, I anticipate, conflict with my own.

Ten years ago, I attended a weekend sustainability symposium on an island in Howe Sound with about fifty other people.  We started the weekend with introductions – who we were, where we were from, and what we hoped to get from the weekend.

As is often the case in situations where fifty people respond essentially to the same questions, the responses sounded similar.  Except one.  The individual, dressed in visibly filthy cotton trousers – which I deemed hardly appropriate for a weekend being outdoors – and a tan trench coat – equally embedded with dirt – stepped forward and introduced himself as Derrick Jensen, from an unceded territory in California.  His unkempt hair and unshaven face added to the, “I don’t care about the way I look,” appearance.  I remember all of these details, all of these judgements, to this day.

It turned out that Derrick Jensen was invited to the symposium to catalyse conversations.  The organizers felt that his perspective would stimulate discussions, whether people agreed with his views or not.

Put simply, Jensen argues for the deconstruction of civilization.  By any means necessary.

Such a view put him in contrast with others in attendance, some of whom were more pacifist in their activism.

I learned that Jensen authored many books, and after listening to his thoughtful views, his passion for urgent change to live more sustainably, his value of learning from cultures who have managed – and manage – to live more sustainability than “western” cultures, I ended up reading many of them:  A Language Older than Words, Walking on Water, and most profoundly, Endgame, Volumes One and Two, where he articulates the means to the end of living sustainably.  

I did not always agree with his views as they often exceeded my comfort level, but because they exceeded my views, they stretched and clarified my thinking.  Even when my beliefs were not stretched, my understanding was.

His thoughts have profoundly effected my beliefs about how to live and more than any other experience, encountering Derrick Jensen has made me more open-minded.  The judgements I had about his appearance have long been replaced with admiration: his tired clothing was an indication he did not want to burden the environment with buying many new things.  He had the courage to withstand judgement from others, live his beliefs and change minds.  With his words.  With his clothes.  With his actions.

I recently stumbled upon a blog written by an “unschooler.”  I occasionally bristled at the blog’s criticisms of public education, something I believe in and dedicate a large part of my life to.  Soon, I realized though that bristling was not particularly useful and I recalled my experience with Jensen.  Although I disagreed with many of the views shared in the blog, as I disagreed with some of Jensen’s views, the ideas in the blog were thoughtfully presented and thus worth listening to and learning from.

There is more purpose in finding the nuggets of truth that stretch thinking than simply being frustrated that the author seems to have got many things – in my opinion(!) – wrong.

I feel lucky to have stumbled upon numerous people, books, blogs and documentaries that challenge my thinking and beliefs but have realized I could and should spend less time stumbling and more time deliberately seeking views I predict challenge my assumptions.

Who are you learning form that challenges you?


Purpose-Giving People & Places

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Paddling in another purpose-giving place, the Johnstone Strait. Photo: Chris Parslow

Laura Magrath, a teacher of West Vancouver School District’s environmental education academy outside45, concluded a thoughtful blog post with the following statement:  “Ensure that your own educational journey is conducted with purpose.”

Several weeks ago, students in outside45 paddled from Bowen Island to Gambier Island for three days of kayaking, camping, and celebrating being outside in a beautiful part of the world.

I was not on this trip but paddled over from Bowen to Gambier with my partner one evening to join outside45 for some camp fire time before returning to Bowen later that evening.

This short paddle and time with the group reminded me of part of my purpose as an educator in helping develop outside45.

Cooperation, inclusion and appreciation were clearly visible in watching students interact.  It was apparent that students understood that one of the great joys in life is to be in beautiful places with people they care about.

Returning home, in our hour long paddle back to Bowen Island we slowed our kayaks several times and dipped our hands into the warm water to pull plastic bags from the ocean.

In just three hours on the water and in spending time with the group I was reminded quite powerfully of why experiential environmental education matters, I was reminded of the purpose of outside45 and my role in it.

I believe strongly that schools should create opportunities for students to develop deeply supportive relationships with classmates.  I believe strongly that students should be given every opportunity to love learning and that they should be exposed to learning environments that teach them about the world and who they are in it.  And we should all give ourselves frequent opportunities to connect with the natural world as such experiences remind us of how important it is that we be positive participants in the natural systems we contribute to and rely upon.

This last point particularly resonated with me.  If we deliberately and mindfully connect with the natural world, how does this affect our understanding of who we are in the world and how we are to act?  Conversely, If we do not mindfully and frequently connect with natural environments, how does this affect our understanding of who we are in the world and how we are to act?

So, in thinking of my purpose both as an educator and as a participant in the natural world, I endeavour to frequently ask myself these two questions:

(How) Did I connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect my understanding of how to live?

Jackie Hildering, a naturalist behind the website, The Marine Detective, noted after one of her seemingly daily reverential experiences observing whales, “If only more of us could feel the connection to our life-sustaining sea, no matter how far we are from her shores. We’d care more, consume less, better use our electoral and consumer power and – live happier and more meaningful lives.”

(How) Did you connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect your understanding of how to live?

Seeing Stories

Who are the storytellers?

Often, stories come from someone else, we’re told them in a variety forms.  Sometimes we tell them ourselves, often based on our experiences.  At other times, we see them.

Recently, I listened to Wes Nahanee, whose ancestral name is Chiaxten, speak about storytelling to my students as part of our school’s Whale Day Celebration.  The theme of the day was storytelling and students in my class told stories through drawings.  As they shared them with Wes, he spoke about how he looks closely at the natural world, particularly the behaviour of animals, and this helps him understand his mood and what he wants from the day.  What struck me was how closely observation and mindfulness are tied together and how their synergy tells the stories of ourselves, or perhaps just a moment of our day.

So tomorrow morning, after I wake up I will deliberately observe my surroundings, make observations and inferences, and try to understand myself in my environment.  I will see a story and myself in it.


For more information on Whale Day at BICS, please click here.

Types of Learning

In speaking with students of outside45 shortly after they constructed canoe paddles with master boat builder Ian Magrath and their teacher Laura Magrath, it occurred to me that many students found their paddle instantly precious.  As soon as they planed and sanded their paddles, it became something they knew they would keep for a long time.

The phrase, “We keep what we make,” occurred to me, and I began to think of learning.  Do we keep our learning, meaning do we retain the knowledge, skills and understandings we develop, when we make meaning ourselves rather than this knowledge, skills, and understandings simply being transmitted to or at us.


Educators often describe three approaches to teaching and learning:  Transmission, Transaction, and Transformation.

Transmission is where, in the words of John Miller, “the student receives and accumulates knowledge and skills.”[i]  The knowledge and skills may be transmitted from the teacher, a textbook, a website, a documentary or other source.  The information flows one way and is largely seen as fixed; in other words, while knowledge may be gained by others, what is known is not increased through transmission.

Transactional teaching typically includes inquiry-based learning where students ask questions about a topic and acquire information to come to an understanding of the topic, and problem-based learning, where students are given a challenge they need to solve.  The focus, according to Miller, is on thinking rather than feeling.  This type of learning is linked to “constructivism” where students create their own meaning.

Transformational learning often connects with students emotionally, it challenges and shapes their attitudes and beliefs and through reflection upon experience,  shapes their worldview or perspective on a topic.  Beyond developing understanding and thinking skills, transformational learning teaches students about who they are in the world and as it affects their worldview and may influences the way they approach, perceive and synthesize future learning.[ii]

My next blog posts will be on BC’s new Draft Curriculum and the transactional and transformational opportunities it offers teachers and students to construct meaning and keep their learning.

[i] John P. Miller, Whole Child Education, some of which is available here.

[ii][ii] More information on transformational learning as described by Andrew Kitchenham can be found in his article “The Evolution of John Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory,” in the Journal of Transformative Education here.