“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.

Teacher Reflection: Questions to process the barrage of student feedback

9781118575239.pdfI recently read Michael Fullan’s book, The Principal, Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, where he argues the importance and methods of the Principal as instructional leader.  He does not suggest the Principal individually mentors and/or provides feedback for each teacher in the school.  Doing so would stretch the Principal’s time too thin and also not leverage the many other professionals in the building who can provide feedback to teachers.  Instead, the Principal should create a learning culture among teachers with high expectations and openness to receiving and responding to feedback from peers.  Helping set the conditions for a truly effective professional learning community is paramount.

The book’s purpose is to share why and how Principal’s should do this and while I fully support the conclusions of the book and learned from the process of implementation, I also kept thinking about the varied forms of feedback teachers receive on a daily, even period by period, basis from their students, rather than colleagues.  So, rather than attempt to summarize Fullan’s argument in 700 words in this blog post, I will share some questions educators can ask to take advantage of the feedback they receive from students.  Creating a culture of collaboration where teachers can inspire and learn from each other is important.  As is creating culture of reflection, where teachers have the motivation and capacity to reflect on their practice by recognizing and taking advantage of the potentially overwhelming amount of feedback teachers receive from students.

Before diving in, it is useful to note what objectives for which the teacher is looking for feedback.  While teachers may have their own goals, I have found the three goals below, simply stated but anything but simple, summarize what I hope for my students:

  1. Love learning – be engaged in learning and eager to learn more
  2. Learn a lot – develop understandings and competencies that make them more thoughtful and capable.
  3. Find learning purposeful – be interested in putting their learning to use for their benefit, the benefit of others and for the natural world.


1.  Love Learning

The focus of my growth plan is to measure student engagement in a less subjective way but teachers can ask the following questions to determine levels of student engagement:

  • Were my students on task and self-directed? Did they need frequent redirection to focus on the task?
  • Were students surprised or disappointed to find out the period was almost over?
  • Did students do their best work?
  • Were students keen to share their learning with others, such as their peers, their teachers, and their families?


  1. Learn a Lot

The proof is in the pudding.  The traditional feedback for whether we are doing a good job as teachers is student achievement.


  1. Find Learning Purposeful

“Not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done.”  The aphorism is true of education as well.  Educators know that student learning is purposeful, but it must be seen as purposeful by the learner as well.  Asking students the following questions is helpful in finding out if they understand that their learning is purposeful:

  • What do you know now that you didn’t at the start of the day? Why does it matter?
  • What can you do better now than at the start of the day? How is this helpful?
  • What do you want to do with your learning?


And a few questions not for students but for the teacher him or herself:

  • What did I do today that ensures my students know I care about their well-being and growth as learners?
  • What did I learn today? How will I put this learning to use?

Being a member of a professional learning community that shares innovative ideas and helps educators reflect on their practice is of vital importance.  The incredible work of the Network of Innovation and Inquiry in BC, the work of Innovation Teams in West Vancouver, and the continuous work of colleagues in schools has made this clear to me.  But as teachers are exposed to unceasing feedback from students, being mindful, reflective and open to this feedback is also of essential importance.

What other questions are helpful to make the most of student feedback?

Why Do You Do What You Do?

Most educators frequently reflect on their practice including why and how they do things. They are constantly refining their pedagogy asking themselves the questions: Why am I doing it this way? What am I achieving? What outcomes are my actions leading to?  Why do I do what I do?

It may be just as enlightening for educators who wish to create engaging learning environments to ask this last question, “Why do I do what I do?” of how they spend their leisure time.  As a child, why did I enjoy playing hockey so much?  Why do I enjoy kayaking? What is so exhilarating about skiing in powder?

It is usually pretty obvious to us what we enjoy and don’t enjoy so the question might seem unnecessary. But digging further and determining what we enjoy about activities can enlighten some key elements of an engaging learning environment.

So, as fall arrives and I start dreaming of the ski season, I’ll examine this last point, “Why do I enjoy skiing in powder?” and try to pull out some insights about engaging learning environments.Winter in Whistler

Despite the immense amount of technology needed to ski in powder comfortably (boots, bindings, skis, clothing…) there is also a synergistic connection one has with the natural world – of working with gravity, rather than against it, of playing within gravity’s rules but with just a little room to bend them. Like catching a wave on a surfboard or laughing uncontrollably, skiing can capture my complete attention so that nothing else – nothing stressful, nothing negative, not more than one thing – occupies my mind and I escape time. Falling in soft powder is of little worry and even necessary as I try to push my limits in order to enjoy the inherent satisfaction of improvement. There is a little bit of freedom to choose my path, even if the saying is true that, Skiing is a dance, and the mountain always leads.” And to be outside all day, in cold fresh air, scanning vast mountain ranges which are on such a grander scale than what I normally see during the week.

I pull from this that I, and I assume most other learners too, crave entering a state of flow; want a challenging and supportive learning culture where mistakes have soft landings; where improvement happens and is recognized as happening; where there is synergy, whether among participant and nature, or among participants; where we are pulled away from what we normally see or get to do; and where there is some level of choice, some decision making, even – because life is like this – if factors like gravity or a mountain guide the way.  

My professional growth plan this year focuses on learner engagement: What is it? What are the key factors? And how do we truly know that learners are engaged and not just compliant? I’m keen to learn more and will share it in blog posts throughout the year.

The What, Why and How of Open Minds at BICS

How have Great White Sharks evolved?

Has soccer equipment improved player performance?

What does it take to survive on Mars?
I’d love to spend a day researching each of these questions from our Grade 6-7 students.  If only I had the time!
The Grade 6-7 teachers at BICS understand that students likely feel the same way:  They have interests that they would love to learn more about, if only they had the time.   Although we provide opportunities within the BC curriculum for students to follow their passions, we felt it was important to truly honour, encourage and celebrate our students’ curiosity by offering them a day to inquire into any topic that interested them.
This idea is not new.  For years companies and schools have been providing “genius hours” which allow employees and students time to pursue their passions.
We tried to balance making this an open day of learning with a format that would achieve the objectives below.  There is usually more structure behind inquiry than what first meets the eye.  We wanted students (and for #3, parents as well) to:
1.      Enjoy curiosity
2.      Practise their critical thinking and digital literacy skills in acquiring, evaluating, and synthesizing information
3.      Gain greater familiarity with the cycle of inquiry
4.      Have an opportunity to share their interests and learning with classmates, parents and teachers
5.      See that adults love learning too

The Format

Step One – Ask an “important“ question that is worthy of your time.
We gave students a strategy called the Question Formulation Techniqueto pick a “big” question that would sustain inquiry.  Students were asked as a class to create criteria for what constitutes important
Step Two – Share your question.
Students shared their question on the website padlet (http://padlet.com/wall/openminds2013).  This allowed other students and parents to see and respond to the questions of all 75 students participating.  In one instance, a parent shared a student’s question with a professor and head of the Criminology Department at Simon Fraser University.  The professor emailed the student’s teacher a page worth of fascinating questions that the student could consider.  More importantly than receiving the questions was that the student understood that her learning was important enough to society that a complete stranger took the time to respond, in depth, to her learning.
Step Three – Explore
A handbook for each student provided a timeline for the day, a guide to evaluating website credibility, the location of technology (75 ipads and laptops), and a description of quiet and silent workspaces available. Students were also given three rules:
1.  Love learningPicture1.jpg
2.  Learn a lot
3. Make your learning purposeful.
Within five minutes of being released after instructions, all 75 students were fully engaged in their research.
Step Four – Share Your Learning
The focus of the day was on learning, not sharing.  But, we believe that engaged learners want to share their learning so we used the afternoon for students to visit with other students to learn about their topics. Many parents joined in for this process.  Students were given a marker and a piece of large chart paper as the only tools, other than talking, to share their learning; the focus was on content not presentation.
After students spent the morning largely on computers, we wanted them to understand the importance of sharing their learning with others:  not all information is on the internet and information that is available online is often scattered.  It takes a person, a student, to synthesize this information into a format that makes sense for them and perhaps their context.
Step Five – Reflection
For the last half hour of the day, students were given a reflection sheet which asked several questions related to their learning and the learning of others.  Students were asked what they found challenging, what was something they did that they will use again, when and how they did their best work as well as what they would do next time.  In response to the learning of others, students were asked what the most surprising thing they learned was, the most interesting thing, and something they learned that they want to remember.

Our Reflection

In observing students, reading their reflections, and speaking with some of the parents who attended, we learned a number of things:
·         We may need to give students more time to work with their topic and questions prior to the actual Open Minds day:  finding relevant learning materials, creating a mind map, engaging with each other’s questions on Padlet
·         Parents enjoyed the opportunity to engage with their child`s learning and the learning of other children.  About twenty parents came for all or parts of the day; we even had a parent come to learn about her own topic, nicely modeling her passion for lifelong learning.
·         The involvement of parents and our school’s Principal heightened students’ beliefs that this day, this celebration of their curiosity, was important.
·         Our students need more digital literacy skills; accessing and synthesizing information
·         We have a truly remarkable group of grade 6-7 students who worked hard throughout the day with little prompting from their teachers. 
·         Most students, not all, really enjoyed Open Minds.
While teachers often see themselves as confined by time, it is refreshing to see ourselves as controllers of time as well.  We have the ability to prioritize and make time for what we think is important.  Open Minds has been a great way to make time for students to celebrate curiosity and explore their passions.
Thank you to the grade 6-7 team of Mrs. Magrath, Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Wilcott and Ms. Layzell (on mat leave) for helping plan Open Minds and with the writing of this blog post.
Further Information
If you have an interest in some of the ideas shared in this post, some of the links and documents below might be of interest:
1.  Click here for a post by West Vancouver Teacher Darren Elves for more information on student questions and the Question Formulation Technique.
2.  Click here for other posts on inquiry at BICS.
3.  Click on the files below to access some of the documents we shared with parents and students for Open Minds.  If you are an educator, feel free to use/modify these documents.
Open Minds 2013.pdfOpen Minds 2013.pdf  – Information for Parents (what it is and how to get involved)
Open Minds 2013 Pamphlet.docxOpen Minds 2013 Pamphlet.docx Pamphlet for students for research and shape of the day
Open Minds Notes.docxOpen Minds Notes.docxOpen Minds Cornell Notes + Reflection

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.