Baby and the Bath Water

Okay, so I just had a short Twitter conversation with a colleague in the western portion of Superior Greenstone.  It was prompted by my retweet of Marc Prensky, on the idea of letting kids arrive at expectations in their own way.  With apologies to Marc if I should not be quoting him in this forum, his tweet read:  “Outdated: Having students all do the same thing at once. Better: assigning goals & letting each kid reach them in their own way.”  Marc Prensky, Twitter, April 18th, 7:30 AM.  @marcprensky.  (No idea how I should be citing this…when I graduated from Western in 1991, Jack Dorsey and his gang were in high school, likely unaware of their impending role in the development of social media sites…).

The resulting conversation, while short and to the point as only Twitter talks can be, was interesting, because while I wholeheartedly agree with Marc, Jenni also made an important point that I often think about too.  That point, I think, can be part of a “baby and bathwater” conversation.  Jenni correctly pointed out, that depending on the subject, the type of assignment, the goals of the project, the assessment, and many other variables, that theory may not sit as well.  Her example was related to an accounting course.  Accounting being a relatively exact science (to the best of my knowledge, but please keep in mind, in my house, I “don’t balance the books”…..and we will leave it at that) I agree with Jenni.  There are surely very specific skills that have to be learned in very specific manners.  I cited a similar thought in a tech course and tweeted, with typos and all, that really there is only one way to cut a large piece of lumber in a shop and that is on a table saw. Now, I could not examine this further in Twitter, but I do realize that this statement is not completely true.  If one wanted to rip a large piece of plywood, (if that was the task assigned, and the kids could choose their method), there are multiple ways.  A student could grab a hand saw and do it by hand, use a skill saw, or a jig saw, and complete the task.  However, assuming all those tools are there, the table saw makes the most sense.  It is the most efficient method, and in my limited experience, by far the method that will most likely result in the best product at the end.  One could argue for using a flush bit on a router on a router table and the outcome could well be similar, however, the table saw is designed to do many things, and in particular is an excellent tool for ripping and cross cutting large pieces of wood, as well as making more exact and fine cuts.  So, in a tech class, it would not make a lot of sense to suggest to a group of students that they each rip a piece of plywood into a very specific dimension, but to choose how to do it.  (unless it was a discovery activity, but I do not think the “discovery method” is probably the safest in a shop….)  While it might be interesting and fun, if the goal is to do it as well as possible, as efficiently as possible and theoretically to do something further with it, then the table saw is the real deal….Plus, one must practice using the table saw to get good at it too…

Now, woodworking is just my hobby, not my teaching area, so I will examine something for a moment before finally getting to my point.  As a former history teacher, and lover of history, I can see how it would work in my class if I was in one.  I would ask myself:  “what is the goal I am trying to get at here”.  Let’s say we were looking at a topic like Canadian Confederation, or the Russian Revolution.  Let’s pretend we had gone through the information and the students should have an understanding of the “factors that influenced Canadian Confederation” or the “events that led to the Russian Revolution”, and my goal is now to have them demonstrate their understanding.  This is really a simple task, low on the taxonomy and hardly more than recall.  However, as a history teacher, I need to know that kids understand the basics of these topics and can explain them.  So, I could tell them they have some choices as to how they do it.  Essay for the writers….oral presentation for the speakers, visual presentation for the visual ones.  So long as I had made it clear to them what I want them to be able to communicate, then it does not really matter to me.  Now, keeping that in mind, I am being very simplistic in my goal here.  The goal is recall of facts, and some explanation.  However, if my goal is to see how well they can put these thoughts into writing, and I am evaluating the writing as part of the activity, then creating a diorama is not going to cut it, and neither would creating a “Confederation Song” song for the musicians in my class.  It would be the same if I wanted them to create a multi-media presentation (assuming I taught them how to do it and gave clear expectations about what I wanted in the product….you know, a learning goal, success criteria, descriptive feedback along the way…) I would be evaluating not only their information, but also the delivery of it, the medium they have chosen.  In that case, again, choosing the medium would not work.  However, would it not make more sense, that if I wanted to evaluate their ability to create something in a given form (essay, oral presentation, media presentation, etc), that the topic is no longer that relevant?  If it is a history class, give them some leeway within the realm of the class and course, but go to town on whatever you want to do, but show me you can make a really kick-ass presentation, or write a ridiculously fantastic essay about a topic that excites you!

So, in getting to the point after a long and drawn out build up, what I believe is that as teachers we all have to make the commitment to always be thinking about the products we are asking our students to produce.  If in our expert opinion, all students need to create a certain type of product, and we can justify it and explain it and the reasons are clear, then this is not a problem.  Perhaps if in the entire semester there are no choices or options, then maybe we have to think further.  As well, courses that have a 4 and U in them, are often courses that directly prepare our kids for universities.  The last time I checked, introductory English courses at university do not suggest to first year students that they can “make a diorama to exhibit their understanding of Macbeth” instead of an essay, so in these cases, it is our responsibility to ensure that kids are prepared and do these things.  Likewise, first year chemistry requires lab reports in a typical paper form, not an iPhone video with music to explain the reactions of magnesium and water, so we cannot forget these things either.  However in these two isolated cases, the reasons for the same thing done by everyone easily defensible and even more importantly, part of our moral duty to teach and evaluate.

As well, some subjects as mentioned above, especially in introductory courses, may lend themselves to the rigidity of very similar assignments.  It is all about professional judgement and openness of teachers to always consider varying the products we ask for, when it suits the situation.  All classes are different, subject areas lend themselves in different manners to these theories, but so long as teachers are willing to open their thoughts and apply it as best as they can, then that is what makes a professional.  Furthermore, reflecting on our experiences is also important.  We may have decided a certain approach works, and then fails miserably.  We have to think about how and why and make changes.  In a similar manner, just because a group of kids hit it out of the park in one activity, by choosing their products and methods of learning, does not mean that it will work in the next activity/lesson/topic.  There is so little of this job that can be put down to a template, so it all about thinking about what we are doing…and collaborating… to one another….seek out the optimistic one on the staff and talk about it and also seek out the “less than optimistic one” on staff because those ideas hold value too and may help you to frame your own attempts and thoughts.

I think if we empower teachers to make these decisions based on their professionalism, so long as there is a willingness to always be open and to work differently when appropriate, then those who are in a subject area, or grade, or even a certain class who require more of the “everyone does the same thing” will be okay and will not feel as though they are somehow not living up to the new standards.  It really is all about thinking about what we are doing, being able to justify it and keeping it as varied as possible, to suit our students’ needs, when appropriate.  

Well at least that is what I believe.  Alas, my less than interesting and engaging duties are once again calling me away!  I wish there was another way to get laundry done, get bathrooms clean and floors washed, other than the traditional ways, but despite my attempts to find such alternative ways, the final products, as evaluated by someone in my house, never live up to the standards that were clearly laid out in front of me prior to attempting the task… I must rely on the old ways and actually do what has to be done!



After attending OTRK12 for a second year in a row, I wrote earlier about my struggles with finding an entry point upon all of the surfaces I had scratched.  I suggested that moving forward with the VLE, D2L in our case in Algoma, was a starting point.  I have received several encouraging messages (essentially all through Twitter..seriously how can any teacher not have a Twitter account?  [for some reason I really dislike the phrase "do you have....{insert appropriate social media here}], like “do you have Facebook?”  I always want to answer “no, Mark Zuckerberg has Facebook”, however as usual, digressions abound.

So, I have thought a little bit more about engaging all of the kids and staff, from JK-12 in the D2L system.  Some of the areas are obvious.  We have a 4-5-6.  How convenient it would be for the teacher to have his grade 6 kids working, with the netbooks, on grade 6 Science and Technology, while he was teaching to the 4-5 class?  The Blended Learning opportunities are pretty good, even though we still have a lot of kids, especially in our high school, who are not fond of the Blended Learning model, or Elearning at all.  Then again, not everyone was fond of air travel in the 50′s either.

The area that I am beginning to think about though, is how to go further with D2L and the entire school?  Items as simple as each teacher using it as a site to post news to students and parents, and each teacher having students use Eportfolio as a really simple method to display progress.  Parent -Teacher interviews:  Parents preview their child’s portfolio and speak to the teacher about it during the interview.  A sort of “flipped Parent Teacher Interview”…Am I the first to coin that?  Think of it? (not likely Einstein…)….do I get an award?  Furthermore, school staff can use it as a communication tool with each other.  Instead of the “curriculum wall” in the staff room, staff post their successes, failures, goals and everything in between on the D2L site. 

As well, a natural extension is administration using it to post information, letters, memos, PD items, thoughts of the day, agendas and minutes for meetings. How can PD be delivered better with a VLE?   Are the possibilities endless?  Probably.  However as with every human adventure, only as endless as the humans involved are willing to make it.  

So, the question in my mind now is, how far will I take it, what sort of resistance will I encounter and what resolve will I have?  I guess it all remains to be seen, doesn’t it?



Oh, where to start?

Okay.  So I have now been to two OTRK12 sessions in a row.  We will not mention the adventure that getting home was yesterday, but, in the year between last year’s and this year’s, I have increased my Twitter use dramatically, begun blogging again (I used to have a photo blog, check it out if you want:,) closed my Facebook account (no longer needed to know colour of socks people were wearing, and nor did I believe if I forwarded a prayer, some poor soul may be cured of cancer.  Sorry, call me helplessly lost soul of the Enlightenment) and learned a lot more about educational technology.  Also I have apparently unlearned lessons long ago acquired in regards to the shame and pitfalls of run on sentences.

So, now the question is what is next?  Where do we go from here?   I have personally taught now three successful Elearning courses using the LMS and am currently running a coop course through blended learning.  I have retweeted about 200 links and ideas that I have not had time to go back and investigate.  I have chatted with many teachers and educational technology leaders (thanks to @wallwinS for her work in giving me ideas with coop!) and have learned a lot.  However, I am not in the classroom, and this is where all this stuff needs to be, right?

So, what next, I say?  I remember this feeling last year after OTRK12.  I remember as the realities of administration eroded the minutes I had at my disposal, I remember thinking in June:  “wow, what did I do with what I had?”.  Sadly, the answer was:  “not enough”.  So, as I was drifting to sleep in a motel in Wawa, Ontario (a long story), I was brought back to a conversation I had with our ADSB team as we traveled to Billy Bishop and were stuck in the Lakeshore traffic.  We were all talking about what next, and our thoughts could easily be summed up in one sentence:  Let’s start somewhere.  Just start something.  Begin now, begin somewhere.  Much like the Leafs have to start tonight with the first shift, and then move on to the second shift, etc, what is my first shift going to be?

Well, I have decided.  What all of this needs is a unifying force, a way to get everyone started somewhere, and that central pillar, that must anchor the tech movement of teachers in Hornepayne, Ontario can be the LMS system we all have access to.  Does not mean everyone has the same starting point, end point or journeys on their way, but, it means we are all drinking the same kool-aid and using the same highway.  

So, I am resolved.  we are all going to start looking at the LMS as a tool that everyone can use for something.  It might mean that a teacher in 4-5-6 has his grade 6 kids going through science and technology material while he teaches a lesson to grades 4-5.  It might mean that an ENG1D teacher uses the LMS as her class website, and does nothing more than post news there.  It could mean that an ENG4C teacher uses it as his entire entry point for all kids and parents.  It could mean many things.  However, because it is one system, with one expert out there (@bgrasley…:D) and perhaps most importantly, one system for kids, that is where we are going.  Not sure where we will end up.  The dreamer in me sees many possibilities.  The realist in me has already tempered my dreams.  I am hoping we land somewhere in between for now.

So, ideas and thoughts on where I want to go.  Now to get the rest of the people and animals on the Ark.  Haven’t really thought that one out yet!  Stay tuned.

The intersection of curriculum and individual student interests and engagement

So, I have always struggled with the idea that as a society, we need curriculum to guide us. We want our citizens to have certain knowledge and be able to do certain things. Reading, writing and ‘rithmitic (my little wee tiny jab at back to basics provocateurs…) for example. Okay, so I am going to go off on a tangent right away, but it occurs to me that as a society we religiously (nope, not starting down that road…) want our kids to read and write and do math, and hopefully think…we hear the clamouring all the time. I do not disagree. However, what percentage of our lives do we spend engaged in something that lives in, or uses technology and computers? 80% 100%? Yet, very few of us are clamouring to have our kids learn to write computer programs….that is for the specialists, isn’t it? Could it be because none of us know how to do it, never learned it and of course do not need it? We all learned to read and write and do ‘rithmitic, but we did not learn to write computer programs. And, despite the fact that all the computer programmers could take over the world tomorrow, it simply does not occur to us, or we run from it, “cause it’s too hard”…..however, as I said, I digress. Back to my original point…hopefully.

I agree with curriculum resting at the provincial level, guided hopefully by experts who know what we all need to know. However, how much flexibility is there in that curriculum? Does it allow students and teachers to branch out and go their own way? Should it? Can it? I am not sure. I will use a history example to make my point, hopefully.

I am a lover of history. I download podcasts (Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is amazingly well done) and I download university lectures from iTunesU. They are brilliant. I have even made connections with some of the professors from Yale, Harvard and Berkeley, just to tell them how much I enjoyed their lectures. I always started the email with “I am not a freak stalking you, but…). I can now learn amazing stuff, taught to me by experts who know, at my leisure, while I cycle, ski, fish, drive, or whatever. I can also tailor my learning. In listening to a fantastic series on Western Civilization by John Merriman from Yale (check him out on youtube, he is very engaging), I can skip the lecture on “social conditions early in the British Industrial Revolution” because I really am not interested. However, I can listen to his lecture on the early stages of the Bolshevik Revolution a hundred times if I want. Perhaps part of why I am so interested in the Bolshevik Revolution is because I have personal ties to it. My father and his family emigrated from Western Ukraine (Slave Ukraina, by the way) in 1928, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and many of our relatives were affected by Communism for the next 75 years, including perishing in the Gulag.

However, the point is that I can be a consumer of history in this manner. If I was listening to a lecture on Medieval History in Europe, I would be attracted to anything related to the Knights Templar, the Church, their conflict, Philip the Fair, etc. So, if a student takes CHW3M and is more interested in the Knights Templar, does it really matter that they skip a unit? I would argue, as a student of history, that one often “skips” certain elements of a history program to concentrate on another, and then the questions raised often lead you back to where you deviated in the first place. Often to really understand something, you need to understand something else, even if it is not that interesting originally. It is information that adds to the overall topic and it spreads like a root system.

So, in the end, we ask our teachers to find things that inspire our kids, motivate them to learn more and get involved, yet we often as administrators and as a “system” we do not give them enough freedom and leeway. However, how do we balance it all, so that the “important” knowledge is still learned? The “Roma” in me wants to scream that really there is no “important knowledge” and what right do any of us have to deem there to be? However the university trained teacher in me also bristles at the thought of a laissez faire system of curriculum. Yes, if all students were engaged in learning, perhaps it would not matter, but they are all not, are they now? If only we could really know if decentralizing curriculum would really lead to significantly higher engagement, then we could just do it, couldn’t we? Because, you know, all three political parties would agree with that,,,
Great day at OTRK12 today. Thanks to all the presenters and contributors who kept the thoughts flowing on Twitter. Looking forward to tomorrow.

Engagement, yet again

Wow, so long since I have posted, and “contributed” as I said I wanted to do, versus always being in consumption mode….well, I was busy…no excuse, I know…kitchen reno…(did I mention I hate renovating?)  I do not even want to think about blogging about renovating as I will use all my storage space in one blog…but I digress.

I have posted before about travelling with my own family, as well as with students.  I have just returned from London and Paris with a small group of kids.  Excursions included Stonehenge and Bath, as well as Versailles outside of Paris.  What does this have to do with engagement, you ask?  Let me continue.

This one is short, but it once again highlights my own personal struggle to engage young minds in the things my old mind is engaged in, and things I think they need to be engaged in (which is rather patronizing of me, I know.)  One of my students on my trip was a typical 17 year old girl.  Young and not overly versed in much outside of her own personal world and what has been taught in school.  My own children are the same.  

However, we were in Chateau Versailles and we toured the living quarters of the kings and queens, the Hall of Mirrors, etc.  On a few occasions during our time in Paris, Napoleon was mentioned and he seemed to pique the students’ curiosity a wee bit.  We saw the two versions of the “Coronation of Napoleon”, painted by Jacques Louis David, which hang in the Louvre, and surprisingly enough, in Versailles.  

I say surprisingly because on several occasions it was noted by various tour guides that Napoleon did not appreciate Versailles, saw it as the ultimate representation of the Ancien Regime and never spent a single night in the opulent and glorious building.  However, During a restoration of the Monarchy under Louis Philippe, a room in Versailles was dedicated to the memory and history of Napoleon, so he shares space with the likes of Louis XV, the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  

So, we were on the bus leaving Versailles heading back to the commercial streets of St. Michel and downtown Paris and this same young lady, who I would not call an avid lover of history, wanted to know why Louis Philippe would dedicate a room to Napoleon in Versailles.  A good question.  One of the simple answers is Louis had turned Versailles into a French Military Museum of sorts, as well as a cultural museum, but alas that explanation is inadequate and does not really get into the reasons.  I do not know them.  I am not a French historian and my knowledge of French history is sketchy at best and features bits and pieces here and there.

However, I did know some stuff about Napoleon, in terms of general context, general French Revolution history, the response from the conservative monarchies of Europe, etc.  I begin to lose interest in about the 1830′s as history winds its way towards the revolutions of 1848 that ultimately restored conservative power bases all over Europe.

But the ultimate point was, a student who is not a student of history, who has probably never read a book about Napoleon or the French Revolution or the Revolutions of 1848 had her curiosity piqued and began asking questions.  That is the important point of it all.  Something clicked.  Furthermore, as I was explaining some historical details, others chimed in, asking questions, that lead to other paths, etc.  I even had some kids from the other tour groups (both from Texas) get involved.

So, now I ask, how do we recreate these conditions in our classrooms?  As much as I would love to be able to travel the world with kids for months at a time, learning about the world right in the midst of it, it will not happen, will it?  So, how do we structure our classrooms, our schools, our boards and most importantly, our provincial education system, to capture our students’ interests?  None of my students on that trip will become history professors, or at least I do not think they will.  However, along with the sights of Piccadilly Circus, Camden Town, Central London, Versailles, Paris, Montmartres and everything in between, some curiosity to know more was ignited.  Will it last?  I do not know?  Will they go deeper and further?  I have no idea.  However, they were engaged in learning something they wanted to know about.  

Above all else in my days as an administrator, above the reports, and the discipline and the parent calls, and SO business, there is nothing more important than student engagement.  As a matter of fact, successfully engaging students will ensure that I have few reports to complete, no discipline to worry about, few parent calls, and wonderful discussions with SO’s.  So, how do we do it?

Joyful blogging in response to @brandongrasley

Okay, here we go.  Challenge accepted.  I cant help but to think I will screw this up somehow….but hey, I got this far, eh?

Acknowledge the nominating blogger….Brandon Grasley included me in a nomination to give this a try….so, @brandon grasley, here we go!

11 random facts about myself.

1.  I consider myself partially fluent in 4 languages…Ukrainian, Russian, French and English….:D

2.  I love music…playing and singing and performing in front of others, but listening too.

3.  I wish I could make my own clothing…I would love to sew..

4.  I am a travel junkie.  Have been to:  Ukraine, France, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Caribbean, USA and Canada. Am travelling to Paris and London in March.

5.  I profess no faith.  

6.  Am a history major/history freak, but I believe science will set us all free.

7.  My wife and kids are my world.

8.  Photography is just cool.

9.  I crave both solitude and social interaction.

10.  I love the good things in life…food and drink in particular.

11.  I have a very restless mind.

Answer 11 questions

  1. Who is the “most famous” person you’ve ever spoken with?  Les STroud
  2. What’s one thing you’ve learned recently for pleasure but not for work?  Level Kitchen cabinets
  3. What’s your favourite type of exercise?  tied…cycling and xc skiing
  4. What is something you love to do in each season of the year (name 4 things)? bike (spring), travel (summer), hike (fall) ski (winter)
  5. What’s something you have to do that you feel self-conscious about?  speak in front of colleagues
  6. Who helps you to “overcome”?  my wife
  7. If you could magically change one thing (and only one!) about the state of technology in education, what would it be?  all teachers to be passionate about using technology in education
  8. What do you appreciate?  my health
  9. Who have you thanked today? For what? my server, for being very nice to me.
  10. Is “unplugging” a good thing for you, or a bad thing, or …?it is good when I want to be unplugged, but bad when I do not want to be.
  11. How did you feel when you were nominated?  Confused….

list 11 bloggers–I have to copy and paste…ashamed to say I do not know that many….get with it David

  1. Kerri Grasley (@KerriGrasley
  3. Doug Peterson (@dougpete
  4. Peter Anello (@PJAnello
  5. Steve Wilson (@GeraldtonSteve
  6. Lisa Donohue (@Lisa_Donohue,
  7. Brian Aspinall (@mraspinall
  8. Danika Barker (@danikabarker
  9. Eva Thompson (@leftyeva
  10. Colleen Rose (@ColleenKR,
  11. Mark Carbone (@markwcarbone

11 Questions

1.  list 5 indispensable albums/cds…

2.  List 5 indispensable books.

3.  List 5 indispensable people in your life.

4.  If you did not live where you do, where would you live?

5.  If you did not do what you do, what would you do? 

6.  List one place you HAVE to see.

7.  List one place you have no interest in ever seeing.

8.  Do you like onions?

9. Can you whistle?

10.  Do you whistle?

11.  What inspires you to get out of bed everyday?

Curriculum….where do we go from here?

I had a much longer post I wrote last night, but have determined it was too long…I reflected on the changing educational landscape since the Common Curriculum in the early 90′s, yadda, yadda, yadda.  However it was too long.  The entire point was to make it clear that in my mind, curriculum has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and it is in response to the changing world.

My concern though, the question I wanted to ponder was really much more succinct, so I have distilled (one of my favourite words) the point to a much more condensed version.

Our world is changing so rapidly, how do we determine what we should teach our kids?  Before a government can consult on curriculum, write it, publish it and train the educational world, it is already too old.  

I know there are basic skills:  collaboration, numeracy, literacy (whatever that really means in a rapidly changing world) and just plain and simple what I call “thinking”.  But what is the material we use?  Who decides?  Why would I teach a history course in school when a kid can watch a renowned professor from Harvard on her iPad, for free?

Knowledge is vast and entirely accessible to everyone.  How do we decide what is important?  What skills are going to be needed in ten years, not now or ten years ago?  I want to say it is is simple as saying we have to exercise our brains, so we can be sharp when necessary, but man oh man, that is soooo simplistic.

I love history and loved teaching it.  I liked to think I brought elements to it that cannot be had in an LMS or by in a podcast, but….the basic material is now here for everyone at the drop of a hat.  And, I personally enjoy iTunes History Lectures and have learned a lot from them, and not just basic knowledge, but I have thought a lot about things I learned.  I did not write about them, but I discussed them with people and sharpened my own intellect by engaging my mind with them.

So, where do we go from here?