So How’s This Going To Work? – Learning Sciences and Schools of the Future

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by SomeDriftwood

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

Well our professor Dr. Michele Jacobsen talked about how there may be a reading that really speaks to you, and that it may create a very enthusiastic response. I believe I have found my reading and this post will try to capture my response. I can tell you that it was one of those moments where I debated putting the paper down and start writing before I was finished, and I had trouble sitting still until the end.

In our second reading from Sawyer, his 2009 paper entitled Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research I found myself with a better handle on a lot of what I read in our first reading from his  Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. He outlined a shift to an innovation economy, he highlighted key learning sciences findings and how they contradict with the “standard model” of schooling and then he put forth a discussion of design principles from the learning sciences that he thought could:

“…be used to guide the development of new models of schooling that are more closely aligned with the innovation economy.”

These design principles included:

  • Customized learning
  • Diverse knowledge sources
  • Distributed Knowledge
  • Curriculum
  • The role of the teacher
  • Assessment

From this discussion he suggested four key findings:

  • The importance of learning deeper conceptual understanding, rather than superficial facts and procedures
  • The importance of learning connected and coherent knowledge, rather than knowledge compartmentalized into distinct subjects and courses
  • The importance of learning authentic knowledge in the context of use, rather than decontextualized classroom exercises
  • The importance of learning in collaboration, rather than isolation

And he suggested four characteristics that effective learning environments will have:

  • Customized learning – Each child receives a customized learning experience 
  • Availability of diverse knowledge sources – Learners can acquire knowledge whenever they need it from a variety of sources: books, web sites, and experts around the globe.
  • Collaborative group learning – Students learn together as they work collaboratively on authentic, inquiry-oriented projects. 
  • Assessment for deeper learning – Tests should evaluate the students’ deeper conceptual understanding, the extent to which their knowledge is integrated, coherent and contextualized. 

He goes on to suggest that some of these changes will be harder than others, citing that schools now are introducing collaborative learning, but to provide personalization means breaking free from long-standing structures of standardization, maybe alluding to age-based grouping as he mentions previously in the section on customized learning.

My reaction to reading this was one of excitement, as he suggests these changes are coming and talks about new curriculum based in research of the Learning Sciences in the next 10-20 years. I also recognize that there are great challenges to overcome and that it will require people to let go of long held ideas of what school is and what it looks like. I also thought that there are already places where these type of changes are starting.

Two years ago I was able to make a trip out to Vancouver and visit some schools to connect some educators and learn about their practices. One school I was able to visit was the Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, B.C. and I was able to meet with David Truss, the lead administrator on site. This is a brief description of the school from their website:

The Inquiry Hub provides grade 9-12 students an innovative, technology driven, full-time program which allows them to pursue their own learning questions by shaping their educational experience around their interests instead of structured classes. Go to:

In this building I saw collaborative learning, with students working on projects, and I saw customization, as I saw them choosing inquiry projects based on their passions and interests. (See this blog post for a detailed account of the Green Inquiry school garden project developed by Grade 9 students at the Inquiry Hub, and see this site for the student portfolio site of their work.)

On the same trip I was able to visit Georges Vanier Elementary School in Surrey, B.C. to meet with Gallit Zvi and Hugh McDonald and sit in on their Genius Hour class that they team taught with two classes of Grade 6 students. (Gallit is now at Simon Fraser University but remains very involved in the Genius Hour community). In this class of buzzing young minds I saw again customized and collaborative learning at work but also the connecting with diverse knowledge sources, as some students from the class had made connections with real world experts to assist in their projects.

Now I realize that measured against what Sawyer talks about when it comes to the types of changes required to the system, these examples might be seen as change in its infancy, but we should definitely look to find examples and share them, to help prepare the public, the professionals, our students and ourselves for changes that, we hope, will be coming very soon.


Sawyer, R. K. (2009).  Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research. Paris, FR: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Our Secret Weapon

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by carolynhack

Ok, clearly its not meant to be a secret, and its not really a weapon either. I just loved the idea for the title and the picture.

I have been thinking lately about how one decision that was made at our school has had beneficial effects on so many other areas of what we do. It was really reinforced for me when I was out in BC meeting with some fantastic educators doing awesome stuff. In the conversations I had with David Truss, Gallit Zvi, Jess Pelat, Parm Brar and Chris Wejr, we were able to share what we were doing in our schools and how we were able to make positive changes happen. When the conversation turned to the work we are doing at Greystone, the conversation kept ending up back at the one aspect of our school that is key to so much of the work we do.


Common Planning Time


If any of you reading this are administrators, I am sure you are working on plans for next year’s timetable, staff assignments, and your school schedule. Our building is Grades 5-9 with roughly 550 students, so in the wide world of difficult timetabling, I know ours is pretty tame, but it still can offer some struggles. We have to worry about getting all of our kids into the gym, we have to worry about ensuring French and Music for our younger students, and we have options classes for the older students. Add to that staff on varying contracts, some with part time or half time schedules, and you get quite the Rubik’s Cube to figure out.

What our school decided, long before I got there, was that if we were able to make common planning enough of a priority that it occurred regularly in our timetable, we would see growth in the areas we had made a priority. This past year, we were able to ensure that each teaching team had at least one of their two preps together with their entire grade-level teaching team (we call them learning communities). We saw a real impact on our school in a number of different areas and with a number of initiatives.


Learning Coach

This year our division participated in the learning coach initiative that was a push from our provincial government. This meant that we had a teacher with half of her time dedicated to working closely with teachers to help them improve their practice. She is a veteran teacher with a ton to offer, especially in the areas of Inquiry and Critical Thinking. In our planning for the year, we timetabled the learning coach purposely to ensure her attendance at each of the team meetings. This initiative is obviously beneficial in any building, but I believe it is maximized when the learning coach gets to sit in on the common planning times for each grade level team. As the team plans lessons for the coming weeks, they have the advantage of not only utilizing their fellow team members, they can also work with the coach in those meetings. If the team feels they have an area they need to work on collectively, the learning coach is there to offer advice and direction.



When it comes to assessment, it can be difficult to know if our assessments are effective, if they are assessing what we want them to. As professionals, we review our students’ work on assessments and we try our best to adapt them and make them fit our needs and the needs of our students. This process obviously becomes more effective when we utilize similar assessments across numerous classes and then as a group come together to compare them. Having common planning time gives our teaching teams the opportunity to bring in sample student work and discuss the validity of their assessment practices.


Assisting Struggling Students

Getting together on a regular basis, our teaching teams can discuss how to assist struggling students from their learning community. Students often struggle with similar material or tasks, and strategies can be shared amongst team members on how to best help students with those challenges. We are also able to find groups of students and target them for small group activities with a teacher in a pull out or assign Education Assistant support to a group of students from different classrooms.


Meaningful Learning Experiences

Our school has been focused on inquiry and critical thinking for some time now, and each year we improve in these areas as we look to bring the most impactful and beneficial learning experiences to our students. Having the opportunity to bring teams together to plan the inquiries on a regular basis, and then to have our learning coach who is very strong in these areas join them, means that our inquiry projects have become more numerous and more effective. If teams have teachers who do not teach all core courses but rather have a couple specialties, as our LC7, LC8 & LC9 teams do, it means we are giving them an opportunity to ensure cross-curricular inquiry projects can happen even at our highest grade levels.


Common Planning Time exists at Greystone because our administration and staff agreed that it would be the most effective way to ensure that our school priorities were met. Every building, every division has priorities. So many talk about how they want collaboration, they want rich learning for their students and staff, they want professional reflection and growth. Its really easy to have goals and a vision, but shouldn’t your vision live in the way you plan for your school? Whatever your vision is, whatever your goals are for your school, does your timetable support it? Do you plan meaningfully for a school year that will align with your vision? Everything from classroom spaces/design, room assignments, supervision scheduling, professional development and even the way we communicate with our staff can have an impact, and I believe that we should be mindful of the impact each decision can have to add or take away from our vision or our goals.

What do you do to ensure your school’s goals are realized when you plan for the next school year?


Take A Trip!

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Dave Greebe

Wow. What a couple days! I spent Monday and Tuesday in Coquitlam, Surrey and Agassiz learning from some very smart people about all sorts of things. I was in BC for some coaching related work, and was able to extend the trip to spend some time at my parents and get down to the Lower Mainland for these meetings. While it meant a few more days away from my wife and daughter, I am really glad I made the trip, and that these kind and brilliant people had the time to spend with me.

I started at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, and he and his students toured us (Gallit Zvi was also there) around the school and talked to us about their Inquiry coursework, their alternate delivery of curriculum and their very unique school. I was amazed by his students and their familiarity with the language of their school. One Gr. 9 student talked about her “Self Pace” program, another about their “Inquiries” and the students scoffed at how much work they would have had to do to complete an I.D.S. (Independent Directed Study). The school only opened in September, and they have clearly done a great job of educating their kids on the work that they will do and how they will be experiencing their education. After the tour, David, Gallit and I went for some Pho (never had it, not sure I’ll be running out to have it again! haha sorry David) and had a chance to really talk. David told us about the grant that one of his Gr. 9 students applied for and received for a considerable amount of money, which was to be dedicated to her group’s inquiry project in which they were building a school garden. These three girls have been planning and working on this for some time, and they already have plans to bring primary aged students in to experience the garden and grow some plants themselves. It was an amazing story to hear, and I hope for David it was a nice chance to share just a few of his many successes from his school. The topic opened up to what Gallit and I were doing in our buildings and we had some great conversations about infusing innovation experiences into our students’ learning and how to get the most meaningful learning out of those opportunities.

Next it was off to Fraser Heights School to meet with Parm Brar and Jess Pelat, two very bright young ladies teaching an Inquiry 8 curriculum, one where all four core subjects are blended into one program full of project learning and powerful questions and challenges. In typical teacher fashion, the two were very modest about their accomplishments and really didn’t feel they were doing something special, which after 90 minutes of discussing I had heard they clearly were. We discussed what they found challenging and what they found rewarding about this first-time experience developing and teaching this class. We talked about how best to create cross-curricular learning activities and the impact it has on student engagement and motivation. I found myself very excited to know that many of our staff would be at the same conference as Parm and Jess in little over a month and I am hopeful they will be able to connect and share with these two amazing teachers.

Tuesday morning I had a brief but very impressive experience watching Genius Hour in action with Gallit Zvi and Hugh MacDonald. Three groups from their classes were presenting completed projects and sharing how the project went for them. After that, the kids broke out into groups in various learning spaces and went to work on their projects, and I was able to sit with many groups and ask the students about their experience with Genius Hour. It was great to see how proud the students were of Genius Hour and their teachers, and how much pride they took in the work they were doing. I asked one student why they chose to work on a video project and he said that he “had been inspired by the work of his classmate”… no lie, he actually said that. Another student said the best part of Genius Hour is that it “Let’s us all be creative in our own ways”. Before this visit I loved Genius Hour, but now I am not prepared to wait any longer to get it started at Greystone.

(The Genius Hour board in Gallit's class)

(The Genius Hour board in Gallit’s class)

On my way back to Kamloops to catch my flight I was able to stop and meet face to face (finally) with Chris Wejr, someone I have been connected with on Twitter from almost the first day I signed up. Chris is a smart guy, and the one thing you notice when you hear him speak is his desire to make his school better for his staff and for his students. We talked about some shared struggles we have had with technology in our buildings, he toured me around and showed me the amazing view he has from his school field (see pic below) and then over lunch we talked about our shared passion for getting teachers connected via Social Media. It was a quick lunch, as I had to make my flight, but the one thing I knew as I dropped him off at his school was that we will definitely connect more now, both online and hopefully in person.

(The beautiful view from Chris's school field)

(The beautiful view from Chris’s school field)

So as I sat in the airport in Calgary waiting for my connecting flight to take me home to my wife and daughter who I missed a great deal on my 5 day trip to BC, and while I was excited to see them, I was also relishing the invigorating energy my trip has provided. I am really looking forward to meeting with our staff and sharing all the great learning I did and to work with them to find ways to put some of that learning into action in our building.

Now I was able to make this trip happen due to circumstances falling into place, but I am sure there are some of you reading this who have never even gone to visit another school in your own division. When we spend time in other buildings and conversing with other professionals, we are opened up to their perspectives, their knowledge and their passions. It doesn’t take long to find schools that are exploring similar ideas to your own, and coming together to discuss these ideas is mutually beneficial for all involved. This is true of visiting another province, state or country but I also believe this to be true of visiting another school in your own division. I know that spending time just 15 minutes down the road in Travis McNaughton‘s Muir Lake School opened my eyes up to a number of things we could do at Greystone.

When it comes to connecting I will always be a big advocate for using Social Media (every link on this page is to a twitter page!), and I would never have been able to connect with David, Gallit, Hugh, Jess, and Chris if it wasn’t for twitter. But I believe there is a great deal of power in making an effort to go to other buildings and go to meet with people so that the conversation can be deep and meaningful and not limited by the number of characters. Take a trip, either somewhere outside of your division, state, province or country, or even just a trip down the road to a school near you. Go and listen to what people do in other buildings and share with them what you do. I bet you’ll feel just as energized as I do.

Engagement is Enough!

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ad@mK

I love when a metaphor is so clearly portrayed in a picture. We have all heard this one… parent spends an exorbitant amount of money on a toy for their child only to have the child get more out of the box itself. The parent always tells the story as a funny but frustrating anecdote, and with a sigh, laughs at the silliness of it all. In the end, they have a happy baby, excited to play and that’s all that matters.

I have been spending a lot of my free time reading and discussing a number of innovative projects being done by people all over the place. I’ve spent time discussing Genius Hour on the hashtag #geniushour and today, was lucky enough to hang out with the first lady of Genius Hour, Gallit Zvi (tomorrow I am spending the morning in her class for their Genius Hour!). I have been reading about Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days, and of course Innovation Day/Innovation Week. My morning today was spent at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, hearing how they are able to provide students with the time and space to really take ownership of their learning. Speaking with Gallit and David, you can see their pride in their students and the amazing projects they are doing. They are eager to share just how driven their students are when working on work they care about.

As I read and converse more and more with other people considering these projects, I often hear questions about how the projects are assessed and how they connect with curriculum, and while these are valid questions, they always seemed to irk me a little. I felt like people needed to experience these projects for themselves to see the real power they possess, and if they did, they might not be so worried about the assessment or curricular ties. You see the real power in these projects is the engagement that results in our students when they are given the power to direct their learning. I saw it during our Innovation Week, and I have read about the same reaction is students experiencing Genius Hour, Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days. Kids get excited about learning.

To me, that is reason enough to try one of these projects. After our innovation week, there was excitement residue all over the place. Students talked about their projects, and what they were going to do for the next innovation week. Innovation-style activities started popping up all over our building as teachers embraced the energy from the week and re-created it in their rooms. If we can do projects that get students excited to come to school then we are creating a culture in our buildings of eager students who value learning. Isn’t that a good start for any building?

Eventually, we can add the curricular connections we want our students to make, and we can find appropriate ways to assess their learning, but it doesn’t have to be the driving force behind every learning experience we provide our students. Creating a passion for learning, an engaged young person will pay dividends for us in every lesson we teach so for now Engagement is Enough. We get our excited student the same way we get the excited baby happy just to play with the box, and we can be ok with a student who is just excited to learn as well. If having students excited to learn and engaged in the process is something important to you, think about giving one of these projects a try. While it may not hit the outcomes or end up with a grade on it, I am willing to bet it will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll ever have as an educator.

Think Tank

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by ToddMorris

When I was a kid, I felt I was pretty smart, and I was secretly proud of that. While I put up a front that I was really all about sports, I liked being good at Math and Science. I remember once hearing about a Think Tank, and asked what that was. I remember a teacher telling me that it was a group of smart people that got together to come up with solutions to problems or inventions or something like that. For some reason, I pictured these geniuses meeting in actual tanks, big metal bunkers with doors like on a submarine, locking themselves away from potential idea thieves. I know, I was a weird kid. Even as I got older, I thought the idea of being part of a Think Tank might be the coolest thing ever. To date, I have never been part of a Think Tank, but to me the idea still seems great.

Today I went for a coffee with my friend George Couros. I always enjoy our conversations, George is one of those people who is always a few steps ahead of the rest of us and challenging the status quo. What I enjoy most about our conversations is that they always bring the best out of me. We talk, we come up with ideas for my school and for our division, and I leave feeling energized and empowered. It was on the drive home that I realized that meeting with George is like having my own personal Think Tank. Earlier this school year I was able to spend time with Travis McNaughton, an Assistant Principal in my division. We spent some time in his building and at a conference. With our conversations, I had a similar experience. Travis is a dynamic and brilliant administrator and in our time together we helped each other develop ideas for each of our buildings and even some ideas of how we might help others in our division. There are many others in my division and in my school with whom I have shared these invigorating conversations.

I am sure that in most divisions, people have groups of colleagues they share conversations with that change their practice and the direction of their schools. We all have the potential for our own Think Tanks, but are we doing whatever we can to have these Think Tanks assemble?

I am bad for relying on Social Media to be my connection to the smart people. I am on Twitter, posting and reading blogs, and sharing whatever I can to those conversations, but there is something about meeting with George and Travis and others from my division that brings more to the conversation. Whether it is a shared understanding of where we work, our students, our parent community etc, for some reason those conversations have so much more meat to them.

I propose that regardless of whatever excuse we use to avoid these meetings from happening, we make them happen anyway. No money for subs, no time in the day, conflicting schedules, these are no reason to stand in the way of these meetings when we all know the power that lies in these connections.

I  am unsure if the power of the face to face meeting only exists when people work in the same school or division. In fact, I plan on putting it to the test. I am going to be traveling in less than  three weeks to BC, and while there I am going to make my way to Surrey, Coquitlam and Agassiz to meet with Gallit Zvi, Jess Pelat, David Truss, Neil Stephenson, and Chris Wejr for face to face meetings to discuss various education issues. While the five of them don’t work in the same division or even same province as I do, I know from our connections on Social Media that we do share a lot in common. I have great faith that might be all you need for a face to face meeting to have the potential for great things to come from it. I’ll let you know.

Do you have your own “Think Tank”? What does meeting with your “Think Tank” provide for you? Where do you meet? When do you meet? What structure do your meetings take on? I would love to hear from others on this topic so leave a comment and get the conversations started!

Let Them Discover

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Tinkerbots

I spent some time on my spring break going back over things I favorited on Twitter or put into my “read later” places. One of them was a great interview by Jeff Herb on his podcast Instructional Tech Talk, where he interviewed Jessica Pack and John Stevens about their 20% projects. It was great to hear the two of them discuss how they set up and ran the 20% project in their buildings and the wonderful results they saw with their students. I was lucky enough to attend a Google Apps For Education Summit in Edmonton in February and saw a session by Sean Williams on Google 20% time. He shared stories of people doing similar projects and had a teacher from California connect with us over Google Hangouts to share his story as well. Their are a number of great posts out there on why Google 20% time is beneficial in education (here and here) as well as posts about how it is going in schools all over the place (here and here).

The Google 20% model has a lot in common with what Gallit Zvi is doing with her Genius Hour projects, and what Josh Stumpenhorst is doing with his Passion Projects and Innovation Day. Students having choice in what they learn about, freedom to learn in their own way, not limited by schedule or structure, and students excited about the learning. Josh’s Innovation Day inspired us to run our own Innovation Week this past December. It was an overwhelming success and every day I am at school I am asked by at least one student when our next Innovation Week will take place (Innovation Week 2 coming this June!).

I don’t think there are many educators out there that are surprised by the success of any one of these initiatives. I believe most of us are well aware of the power in transferring the responsibility for learning to our students, and the impact that it has on the engagement of our students when they are given the responsibility. I do think that some educators are afraid of giving up so much of the control of the learning in their classroom. Most have made the transition from stand and deliver to guiding the learning, but this goes even further. We have gone from providing the information to providing the right questions, but with initiatives like these, we want the students to be asking the questions as well.

So what is it that we do as teachers when we undertake one of these learning initiatives?

What I believe we do is we help students to discover whatever it is they are passionate about and are excited to learn about. I believe our job goes from crafting the powerful questions that challenge our students to helping students find ways to challenge themselves. Katherine von Jan recently wrote in her post entitled “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:

Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.

I believe this includes us when it comes to the “others expectations”. We can’t judge what our students are passionate about, but we can help shape the experience to improve the chances it will have real depth and meaning. Katherine speaks eloquently to this idea as well when she says:

For example, if a child is inspired by bridges, why not start there and let the learning follow their curiosity? They may need to learn calculus to build a bridge, but then they have a reason to love and seek calculus, rather than calculus being a requirement. They may need to understand the history, policy and politics of getting a bridge approved. Or team-building to get all the right talent on board.

Our job can be to find the connections to deeper learning in the questions that come from each development in the project. During our Innovation Week, the single greatest commonality among all of the best projects was a shared moment of struggle. Every group that was able to take their Innovation Week project to amazing places found some time where they were stuck. What each of these groups also found was that they were able to overcome this impasse and stagnation by finding a way to solve the problem. It was in these moments that they sought out a new solution, consulted teachers, classmates, websites, pictures etc and they developed a plan.

Our group that built the functioning hovercraft began with a plan to use a lawnmower engine to power it. When they constructed the hovercraft and found it would not float, they tried increasing the number of airholes on the bottom, and they tried altering the position of the engine, but nothing worked. They realized after multiple tests and failures that the engine was too heavy, and in developing a new plan to use a lighter leaf-blower engine they learned far more than just physics. When our students choose topics they are truly passionate about, they will show greater resiliency than we could have ever expected. They will seek out further understanding and they will find solutions to problems that we may not have thought our students could solve.

We talk all the time about how our students can show us so much when given the chance, but then we subject them to learning that never provides that chance. What these projects all share in common is the ability to provide our students with as a great a challenge as they are capable of. Sure, it also provides us with just as many opportunities for our students to fail, but we all know these experiences are just as important as the successful ones. I think this is even more powerful when we distance the assessment as far from the project itself, as we can. We should assess our students skills and competencies during these projects but through observation and through the assessment of their reflections NOT by assessing the actual success of the project. If we can help our students understand that we want to assess their learning, and that failure is just as much a part of learning as succeeding, hopefully these projects can instill a passion for risk-taking, creativity and innovation.

I know how powerful these activities can be. Our innovation week was the most eye-opening and invigorating 5 days of my education career. I also know from experience that it can be a bit scary to undertake one of these activities. It all comes back to the idea of modelling for our students that we are learners too, and that we aren’t afraid to take risks and to chance failure if it is going to provide us the chance to grow. I know that if you are reading this, you are someone who wants to see the best education for our students, and knowing what these initiatives can provide them is reason enough to give them a try.