Learning Organizations

What is a school?  What do we do?  What are we here for?  The answer, I am sure, seems obvious.  We are here to teach. However, is it that simple?  Here is what is behind my thinking.  Teachers are all professionals.  We go to University, get two degrees and then hit the schools. We are, arguably, intelligent people.  Of course, like any organizations, there are ranges.  I have met many, many teachers who simply amaze me with their obvious high intelligence and I often wonder why they did not seek to teach in organizations like universities.

But, if it was just about “teaching” would it not be the case that our schools would all be high achieving institutions?  If the only factor was the intelligence and skills of teachers, to “teach” we would all be doing wonderfully.  However, that is not the case.  In many years of thinking about this stuff, I have come realize more and more it has never been about the teacher.  Well, it is a bit, because teachers have to have the great repertoire of teaching strategies, solid foundations in assessment and behavioiur management, but there is a factor that is so absolutely fundamental to what we do:  The kids and how they view school, and more importantly, how they view learning.

Our kids have to want to learn.  Ultimately, they have to want to learn for the sake of learning.  As soon as that happens, then learning will be unbounded.  If I can offer a rather ineffective analogy, if a student is a very rough piece of hardwood, and all you have is one sheet of very high grit sandpaper, all the great sandpaper skills in the world will not get that piece of wood smooth.  The great “wielder of sandpaper” not only does not have the correct tools (i.e. teaching strategies) but the wood itself is just not ready to be sanded, in its current state.  The best techniques will simply have no effect.

I am afraid I did not really think out that analogy too well, but I hope it offers a small glimpse into what is going on in my mind.  We have spent, in Ontario, lots of money and time in investing in developing the best strategies to work with our students.  We have had many, many successes as our staffs learn to take advantage of the success of other jurisdictions and a the wealth of educational researchers out there.  However, as with the rough piece of maple, or oak, or purple heart, or whatever wood you want to imagine, what if the wood is not ready?  What if the students are stuck in a mindset that does not respond to their natural learning desire?  What now?

In our practice, we are finding that students who do not show a great desire to learn, who do not want to put in the extra effort, are also at times very focused on marks.  “Will this count Miss?” is a very common question. So, when we offer descriptive feedback, extra practice, when we use spaced and mass practice, and work towards mastery learning, these kids are shutting off.   They seem to be losing, or in some cases never really developed the intrinsic understanding that learning for the sake of learning, and learning to learn, are the most important enduring elements of schools.

So, what do we do?  We need to develop a culture in our schools, where marks are the final byproduct of learning, and are important only as a guide to how much a student has learned.  They need to view marks as currency.  The higher the mark, the more they have learned, and how do we impress on the kids, the value of the formative stage of marking?  If they do not see the formative marks, and conversations, and observations as leading to an eventual high mark, which is what they all seem to only want to focus on, then how do we change that?    And, in conjunction with this, what do we do, how do we motivate when marks and the magic “50+1” has been something that is acceptable to a student, or a group of students for a long time?  If one can envision marks as currency, in our world, there are those we all know, who due to their capacity and intelligence and skills could probably earn more in their lives, but are satisfied with where they are.  We often wonder about these people, but we let them go on in their own way, telling ourselves they are happy with themselves.  Many years ago, I met an older gentleman on a plane coming home from Kyiv, Ukraine.  He had immigrated to Canada as a young man in the 50’s and had been trained as an electrical engineer in Soviet Ukraine.  Now, if we reflect on the space race in the 50’s and look back upon Soviet science and technology, we can be pretty sure that an electrical engineering degree from a university in Kyiv was probably close to equivalent to an electrical engineering degree in Canada.  He probably would have had to do some sort of upgrading, etc, but he probably could have worked as an engineer in Canada, after a fairly short period of time.  For whatever reason, though, he preferred to work as an electrician.  He willingly lowered his potential income for his entire life, for whatever reason, but to me that was not even close to something different or abnormal….it was what he wanted to do.  Sadly, we have students who, for a whole host of reasons, some of which we can control, many of which we cannot, do not at this point in their lives, want to do better.

So, while this has rambled on much longer than I wanted it to, I am getting to the point, I think.  I am continually asking myself now, how do we change this?  How do we make this a learning organization, instead of a school?  How do we change the culture, so that our kids, want to learn, and understand learning for the sake of learning?  I know we have to look at everything we do….what are we teaching them?  What are we asking them to do?  How are we asking them to do it?  We have in our practice, looked at all these questions and are constantly working on answering them in different ways.  However, at the end of the day, I believe humans want to learn, instinctively.  We are only a few thousand years removed, at best, from our days as cave people, where learning, was literally the difference between life and death.  Perhaps not cell phones and computers….but much of what we have in our modern lives has essentially come out of the need to survive.  From agriculture to clothing to shelter, it all developed because we needed to stay alive.  I am pretty sure that evolutionary biologists will tell us that 2000 years will not wipe out the instincts of the previous 10 000 years, so there must be an instinct in us to learn.  And, there is!  We see it in our lives all the time.  Sometimes a young person will pick up a guitar, and learn, or be taught by someone, a chord…..and then BAM….they are unstoppable!  They are fascinated with music and spend hours and hours and hours learning the next chord, and the next, and the next and the next.  We can apply this to anything…..video games anyone?  So, how do we harness this?  It is not just curriculum.  We know that some of our curriculum is just not interesting to kids, even with the best and most dynamic teachers.  We know that we can look at Big Ideas and overall expectations and be creative and provide learners the opportunity to learn something differently, however if we can develop in our students a greater desire to learn, a recognition that the learning, is learning for itself, not just for the currency of the day, the marks, or whatever other currency we can think of to use!

I want to change my school from being a school, with all the connotations that the word “school” has, which have been developed over the last 150 years in Canada and Ontario, and make it a learning organization.  How about, when I retire, in less than 5 years, my last act as principal is to join the staff and students in renaming this building we are in, from Hornepayne High School and Hornepayne Public School, which make up the collective Hornepayne Elementary and Secondary School to:  The Hornepayne Learning Organization?  A place where every person in the building, sees learning for learning sake as the only thing we do here.

However, how do we do it?  How do we effectively change this culture?  Where do we start?  We have done lots and have made great improvements, but what if we are trying to build on top of a foundation, a culture that does not look at things from the perspective of learning?  With the improper foundation, can we still do it, or do we have to start with a new foundation?

The Hornepayne Learning Organization.  Imagine the possibilities!

 

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Where to now?

 

How life can be interesting.  How life can just sort of flow on by.  I have always been the kind of person who at times, does not always live in the moment.  I mean, I enjoy good moments, but when they are gone, I often think to myself: “I could have enjoyed that more, or made better use of it.”  A perfect example, is travelling.  I love to travel and am fortunate enough to have travelled a lot, and I have more travels in my future. My first time in Paris, I was in awe, and when I returned, I wished I had done more….felt more.  However, it also encouraged me to return so that I could chase that feeling again.  I am also not sure that I squander time.  I might just think I do.

So, here I am.  49 and almost 50.  I have passed through some stages of life, and at a new, sort of old one again.  The teenage years are too far gone to reflect on, however, this year marked a change, as  after 22.5 years of living with children in my life, they are both off on their own, so I find myself living the life of a 25 year old, with 50 year old knees.  So, where to now?

In the last 22.5 years, there were times when I made choices in my activities and lifestyle based on our family dynamics.  Please do not interpret this as regret, it could not further from the truth, but now I find myself with more time, to concentrate on other things.  I have longed over the years to do more things with my time….more hobbies…more writing music, more performing music….more recording music….more language learning (francais et  Українська), more photography,  more woodworking….more history books, more exercise….more learning how to make dry saucisson……more house cleaning!

So, here I am.  I have arrived.  In five years, will I feel like I squandered the time, as I sometimes felt I have in the past, or will I have recorded my CD and posted in iTunes, completed the two podcasts I want to do, built better cabinets, have 25 000 more photos and speak passably in three languages, and of course, have a cleaner house and be ripped?

I guess time will tell. And, if any of you are silently, or not so silently ranking these plans based on likelihood of success, I would not hold my breath about the ripped part, nor bet the bank.

History

So, I have watched with great interest the events in the United States.  We are living in an unprecedented time.

I remember in the early fall of 1989, I was at Western, studying history.  One course, was the history of Russia, and we were speaking and learning of a time in Russian History called the “Time of Troubles”, which was an almost 20 year period of serious challenges, between the changes of the Rurik dynasty and the ascension of the Romanovs.  I remember saying to my professor (Professor Ruud, a great professor) that we lived in such boring times…..the Soviet Union had been in place for a long time, detente was common (not that I wanted war….) but we spoke a lot of how things had not changed much…..then BAM, it all fell before the end of the year, and we entered a new world.

Well, we are living in these times once again.  I have to admit, I greatly dislike reality tv.  I have never watched Survivor, even once.  I do like spoofs of reality tv, like TPB, but I have felt for the last 15 years or so, that reality tv would change our society, and maybe just a wee bit of me was correct, as the type of voters who Trump could appeal to, seemed to have challenges distinguishing truth from reality.  I know some just simply agree with him, but his complete onslaught against mainstream media, and his supporters willingness to believe a guy on youtube over a highly trained journalist puts us squarely in the “interesting times” epoch.

I am not sure we can equate, however the argument over Confederate monuments and our own challenges with our  history.  General Lee, was not only a soldier who fought to keep a race of people as subhuman, but he was also a traitor.  He openly took up arms against his own country.  I wondered as I watched the arguments over the symbolism of a General Lee statue, it seemed a no-brainer.

But, now, it has come to Canada, and we have movements suggesting that some of our historical people, who accomplished great things and helped build this great country, should not be honoured due to their actions, specifically in relation to Aboriginal Peoples and Asians.  This is a challenging discussion.  While it is true that Sir John A. MacDonald did not lead a rebellion against Canada, he did enact policies that were clearly racist, by our standards, and that were clearly intended to physically damage a specific race of people, for the benefit of the country.  Many point to the fact that he was only acting as everyone else did then, which is true, but that does not make it better, in our own eyes, does it?  Perhaps a difference with the US Civil War, is the Confederate belief in race, was opposed by millions, but I fear that too is a weak argument.

My feeling tells me that we need to find a way to somehow still recognize the important roles played by historical figures in building a country that we now have and are lucky to be in, and balance it with the reality of other elements of their lives.  We need to recognize that these people were operating in the culture and expectations of their time (as we are now) but recognize the evils of their ways, as well.   How do we do that, without igniting flames of controversy?  I think that is a good question, and it should be an interesting fall as we discuss these ideas more.  I think as a country, we have to find a way to deal with these questions otherwise we risk whitewashing history.

Stay tuned, I am sure it will be some interesting times!

Solemnity

As I sit here numbly, thinking about the events last night in Quebec City, I feel compelled, to take a few moments of time to reflect on where it appears our world is going, including our own country.

I have not taken the time to frame my thoughts, organize them or even think them out.  I am just going to write a bit.  In the last few years, I have watched with horror, the events that have resulted in our current state of affairs in the world.  Where do I even begin?  The troubles in the middle east, leading to migrant crises, leading to xenophobia in cultures that are never too far away from that mind-frame.  The civil war in Syria, the challenges in Ukraine, the millions of people all over the world, who are living unspeakable lives, while in Canada and the western world, we worry about how we are ever going to lose weight, and fret about not being able to afford the SXT instead of the SLT of whatever new vehicle we are looking at.  I am no different.  Then, I watch with equal horror, how so many of us believe that the answer lies in solutions like those proposed by Mr. Trump, the Brexit crowd and Marine Le Pen.  We have seen this play before, many times, and it never, ever works out.  It only takes us backwards and fuels the rhetoric and activities of those we want to stop.  It is utter nonsense.

However, it appears as if a fraction of what is transpiring in the middle east and Germany and France, as well as the US has firmly arrived in our land.  Early reports suggest, a home-grown attack on the Mosque.  The last report I read, indicated that of the two people originally arrested, one was released, and the person in custody has, at the very least, a Francophone name, suggesting he is a Canadian citizen.  Again, I do not know that for sure, as the information seems to be changing, but if it is so, then all the border walls and background checks and xenophobic behavior in the world, would not have stopped this mass killing.  Much like the deaths of two Canadian soldiers at the hands of home grown jihadists, this may be the same thing.  Of course, information may change as the day moves, on but it is looking more and more like this is the case.  So, it has arrived on our shores too.  No one can say for certain at this time, the motives of the killer.  However, I cannot help but to believe that mood that has been exploited by the forces of extreme right in the western world, would certainly have done nothing to discourage such an act.  The reasons for such an act will of course be so much more complex than that, however every little element that might add to justifications and reasoning, must be considered.

So, it has arrived, and everything has changed.  I was in Quebec City this summer, I marveled at the European feel to the city and loved its joie de vivre.  Quebec city is a bastion of Quebecois culture, and ancient French city, but is also vividly cosmopolitan and multi-cultural.  Quebec city is now bleeding because of that quality, and there will be those who will argue loudly and vociferously, that events like this happen because of multi-culturalism and our desire to build such a society.  They will want to retreat behind the walls, both literal and figurative, to protect what we have.  Wanting to protect it is understandable.  However, that will only increase the challenges down the road.  It is a classic Band-Aid solution.  It will not work.  Ultimately, it is a medieval reaction.

I have my own theories about the reasons behind the type of hate that brings people to do these things, but they are not relevant.  They are just my ideas and are not going to amount to anything.  However, I wonder, where it all goes from here?  I wonder what changes in my own life will be brought about by these events in my own country?  I have been in the undergrounds of both London and Paris, and while the heavy presence of the military and police was a little bit unnerving (my daughter and I played an open piano in the Gare Austerlitz in the summer, while three soldiers with automatic rifles watched us) it was somehow reassuring, but more than anything it felt like we were somewhere else in the world, which of course, we were.  How long until our subways and train stations and city streets have a similar presence?

It is all so sad, and regrettably, the forces that have combined to create this world, are so complex and have been in place for so long, that there is no quick solution, no easy solution, and even the best possible solution, will leave some outside of the sandbox, quietly fuming about being remainders in the equation.  They will harness their rage and eventually direct it in a violent manner, trying to ensure they will never again be remainders.  There are so many factors. Religion, politics, culture, language and deeply antagonistic views of the world.

Where do we begin?

Broken Record

I am a broken record, I know.  Oh, wait, how many people even know what a record is?  Sigh….I age myself.

It is always about engagement, in my mind.  If you have engaged students, and you can instill even a touch of growth mindset in them, they will soar, most times with or without us.

However, not all of our students are engaged. We know that, and we live it everyday.  The reasons are multi-fold, but it does not really matter what the reasons are.  We only need to know them, so they can serve as a diagnosis for us and lead us in our efforts to change.  Not easy.  Quite difficult in some stages.

My daughter, who is engaged, at least in the game of earning marks to get into university, so she can get into a program she is interested in, within which she needs to be engaged, or she will falter, had a conversation with one of her friends the other day.  A young man, grade 10.  He is disengaged.  Many reasons, however disengaged.  He was quizzing her about how she gets good marks, and even more so, why she gets good marks.  She told him about an experience she had, where she set a goal of a grade 11 average of over 85%.  She worked at it and actually achieved it.  Then, in conjunction with some learning she has been doing on her own with Growth Mindset, she set higher goals for grade 12, assuming that there was a correlation between working harder, staying engaged and results.  It also does not hurt that she has recently discovered she is allergic to many foods and beverages, which sort of takes her out of the “party circuit”…so she has more time than she might have if she was participating in more diversified “social” activities.  However, as usual, I digress.

So, she as I said, explained this to him.  His answer was simple.  Something along the lines of :”I could never do that”.  Now, this young man is 12 years into his education experience, assuming he was in JK.  Can we change that?  Does he have to want to change it? Can we find a way to create an epiphany?  I am relatively satisfied my own two children are engaged in learning.  My eldest, in her last year of a Chem degree and Faculty of Ed on the horizon, will have to be an engaged learner if she wants to have a career in education, so she is in.  My youngest, about to head to University in the fall, will have to find a new level of engaged when she arrives there.

But what about the bevy of kids we have who are not overly engaged?  Not failing, and all going to succeed in getting a high school diploma, and many will go on to successful careers and university and college programs, but the potential could be so much more.  As well, this is not just in Civics, or in grade 10 applied English.  It is there entire approach.  Even in Outdoor Ed and shop, they are less engaged than they could be.  In gym class, fit athletes, who like sports, will often participate for 20-30 minutes, then expect a short break.  Many old-timers like myself, are tempted to use the “L” word, but I think it is more than that.  I think it is an entire approach to life, that somehow my generation of helicopter parenting and the social environment we have created in the Western world, has created this generation.  They are just not too into anything.  Some or many are, but I fear it is getting less.

So, do we even understand it?  If we do not understand this generation, how can we possibly find solutions, to the problems we see?  And, as a last thought, are we only labeling it a problem, because it does not meet with our expectations?  Is it possible, that this generation, that I feel are even more disengaged, are simply different than us, and will create a brave new world that when I am really old, I will marvel at, and not understand, but have to admit, works?

Oh, BTW (my kids taught me that one) I thought for a while on finding a way to integrate Trump, Brexit and the shifting European political spectrum, but I could not.  So I am just going to end with:  A large portion of the upper management of the US State Department resigned today leaving a huge vacuum in a brutally important department.  It reminded me of the Stalin purges, and the resulting chaos in the Soviet Military in WWII.  Not the same violent purges, but the same result.  Wow, how are the next 4 years going to turn out?  Fasten your seatbelts.

 

The New (old, recycled) World Order

While I admit to being a political junkie, I also admit to the fact that I have tuned out much of what is happening in the US.  It is not that I do not think it is important, I just have had enough.  I cannot, at this point, watch it.  It is so predictable and such a farce.  It also demonstrates so well, what happens when you allow free democracy, to a culture that is not highly educated.  I do not just mean the US, I mean most of the free, western world.  We asked for it, and we got it.  While we have done a pretty good job in the western world of “training” people, we have not done a great job of educating them.

We have created a culture in which material wants generally drive us, and many of us, while we are in careers we are passionate about, the reality is, the dollar is almighty and there is a lack of desire in this culture to be intelligent, critical thinkers.  We have a bias towards education and training that gives people good job opportunities.  I get that, and understand it.  I admit, I fear for my daughter who is in a faculty of education, because of the job market. For me this is two fold.  Yes, I want her to get a job and be self-sufficient, but I also want her to get a job and experience all there is to experience in the world of education. I want her to feel fulfilled in her life and her life work.  However the job is important so that she can also live and make money.

I am not at all suggesting we put less emphasis on job training.  In fact, we probably need more, but we also need to find a way to create people who are thinkers and who understand the bigger picture.  We have Brexit and Trump, I think, because of too many people focusing on the small picture.  Donald Trump is not going to revive the rustbelt in the US.  He may revive coal mining for a while, but it will not last.  However, he and his spin doctors will find a way to spin his failures into successes and when necessary, he will yell and make noise and belittle anyone who challenges him.  Does art imitate life, or vice versa?  I would say the reality tv genre, has created a world that now lives its life, as a reality show TV, and the US elected the worst of them all, as its president.  At least our version of “reality star PM wannabe” admits much of his comments on TV were because he was on TV…..they were not real.

And now, we turn our attention to Europe.  Anyone remember the last time there was a swing towards the right in Europe?  I personally do not remember it, but I know when it was, and I know that it unleashed the worst demons of the 20th century, including fascism, and ironically Communism.  Just this past weekend, leaders of right wing parties from France, Italy, and get this….the Netherlands met in Europe to decide exactly how they could capitalize on Brexit and Trump, how they could manipulate the migrant crises to their advantage.  The Netherlands?  Really?  Is it really that long ago, that Canadian troops liberated the Netherlands from these exact type of forces?  My, how we have failed.  I could be wrong, because I have not looked it up again, but I thought I read that the leader of the far right in the Netherlands is polling around 25%….wow.  Who would have thunk it?  But then again, when Adolf was in jail for his failed coup, who would have thought it would have ended up like it did?  Hyperbole?  I hope so.

The migrant crisis, much of it is not well known to the western world.  We just know it is happening.  How many of us understand why it is happening, and how our own governments contributed to it, with their middle east policies?  Yes, it is complex, and I am simplifying it, but alas, it is true.

So, how can we, in our education system, continue to train our kids with the skills they need to go out and be productive members of society in producing GDP, while seriously increasing their knowledge of the world, and their ability to see through what is not real?  I know in my experience, part of the problem is there is very little passion to learn it. It is boring to them.  I am not sure how to change that?  Start it earlier?  I just do not know.

Truth is an elusive concept isn’t it?  When does a lie become the truth?  Perhaps when it is believed by a whole bunch of people?  I hope not, but I fear that is the case, and is becoming more so.  I like to consider myself a critical consumer of media and am an avid learner of history, but I would bet money, that I have so called “knowledge” that is probably simply not true.  When does the lie become the truth?  And, if a lie can become the truth, isn’t the truth then quite a shifting concept as well?  If there is a process to turn a lie into the truth, versus truth being a solid concept that cannot change, then we are at the mercy of those, who have the tools to change truth to their own ends.

My learning in history over my life has also told me that governments that are on the extreme of either side of the political spectrum, are the ones who tend to use the power they have, to alter truth.  As we move toward a political reality that is just that, it is even more important that school systems do everything they can to teach kids to not fall prey to this, otherwise, we will find troubling times down the road.

 

 

 

 

As the year comes to a close….

As the calendar year comes to a close, and brings to an end 2016 (our dating system always makes me smile….we ascribe so much to it and use it as a basis for understanding our world, but it is a very random date….anyway, maybe some other time I will reflect on that..) I am faced with mixed emotions as I always am at this time of year.

We always seem to find so many ways to name the year that was.  We tend to focus on negative aspects, but also positive ones too.  Personally, there were challenges in 2016 both personally and professionally.  However there were also great highlights too, that will surely go down in my memory banks as fantastic times.  As a musician and lover of music, I saw 2016 as the year we said goodbye to Prince and David Bowie among others, but also the year that I happily downloaded a new Rik Emmet CD, worked on some of my own compositions (coming someday to an iTunes near you…) and had the opportunity to play with some other great musicians and let music provide the relief to my life it always does.

While my travel itinerary was not as active as it has been in past years, I was able to travel to a part of Quebec I had only seen briefly many years ago, and renew my love of rural Quebec culture and life.  I was also thrilled to host some friends from France and allow them to understand firsthand the beauty that is Canada and our part of the world.

However, as the year comes to a close, and I think of the challenges that lie ahead in 2017 as well as the joys I hope to experience, I look around at a world that is just a bit crazier than it was 365 days ago.  From a macro, geopolitical point of view, how many of us, on December 31st, 2015 truly envisioned a successful Brexit campaign, a turning to the right in much of Eastern Europe and of course, the Donald?  Really, not many saw those things coming.  As a student of history, I do believe that humanity is on a constant path of improvement and an inevitable march towards a better world, but that it will always ebb and flow.  I think we are in an ebb and only entering it.  However, while it is easy to look at it and suggest in the long march of history it is not much more of a blip than the Terror during the French Revolution was, there is the undeniable fact that during all of these historical “blips” or dips along the path towards and enlightened society, many people suffer.  I suggest we all pay closer attention to Syria and Aleppo to see the harsh reality in that statement.

So I am left to wonder to myself where it will all go.  I routinely try very hard to focus only on positive and let the negative go, but I know I am not always successful.  So, moving into 2017 I have many things to be thankful for, and there are many more things that I can consciously do to make my life even better, but at times it is a struggle to not allow oneself to fall into the boiling cauldron of negativity that is perpetuated by so many of the institutions we have in our world.  Furthermore, connectivity and social media have made it almost impossible to hide from it, without completely leaving the modern world.

So, how will I fare in 2017?  Will I manage to be a beacon of inspiration, hope and positive thoughts, surrounded at times by the vortex of the world we live in?  I hope I am and I will pledge to continue to do so.  Stay tuned.  Fare thee well, 2016, welcome 2017 and stay tuned!

David