Let Them Discover

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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.

We Have No Excuse

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I have been very lucky. I have had so many people help me in my career, so many mentors who have helped me shape my philosophy, sharpen my pedagogy and given me the confidence in myself to tackle projects and take on different positions. It was a conversation with one my mentors last week that helped me past a bit of writer’s block. I have had some trouble with deciding about what to share and how to share it. As we talked about a big project we are starting to work on, he asked me why I thought it would be successful in my school at this time. At the end of our conversation, he advised me to share on my blog what I shared with him. Sounded like a good idea…

We are looking at doing some work along the lines of innovation, something similar to Josh Stumpenhorst’s Passion Projects and Matt Bebbington‘s Innovation Day. To take something like this on, and expect it to be successful, you would of course need to be confident in the timing, the people involved and leadership supporting it. We are ready for this project for three reasons:

Our Teachers

I could spend multiple blog posts bragging about my colleagues. We have a staff that is driven by its desire to help students learn, not for a test or a statistic but for the joy and importance of learning. They model this in their openness to try something new if they believe it will help their students. Our staff prides itself on pushing their pedagogy and collaboratively working to improve their teaching together. What goes on in our building is student-driven, messy and impactful learning. For this reason we know we will have their support, their belief and their passion when we roll out each phase of our project.

Our Leadership

Our principal is an inspiring, committed and driven leader who has no desire to continue worn out practices or resting on her laurels. Her school has won awards and drawn a great deal of positive attention in the past few years, yet she continues to preach progressive thinking, innovative teaching practices and constant improvement and growth. While technology isn’t always her best friend, she is always trying to learn and grow and understands that technology will never replace good teaching, but will work to assist it. For this reason, we know we can move forward with her support, and whether it is a successful endeavour or not, she will insist it was worth the experience.

Our Students

The students in our building are creative, engaged and enthusiastic about learning. Of course a lot of their exuberance is a product of our amazing staff, but they deserve a great deal of credit as well. We are constantly amazed by what they are capable of and the directions that they can take an experience when given the flexibility and freedom to lead their learning. We want to provide them with more opportunities to direct their learning,  as they have shown that this type of challenge is a beneficial one. I believe our students are ready to really flex their creative muscle and that it is the right group of kids at the right time.

So when I was done my long winded rant about how ready our school is for a project like this, I realized that we really have no excuse. With a staff as dedicated and driven as ours, with a leader always pushing for growth, and with a group of students so excited about learning, we have no excuse but to do everything we can to help make their educational experience the best we can. If self direction, risk taking, and critical thinking are our goals for our students, we have no excuse but to try to take our teaching to new places, whether we succeed or not. We owe it to everyone already doing all they can, to do everything we can ourselves. We have no excuse, so now its time to get to work.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by orkomedix

We are back! Schools are open, kids are registered and in classes and teachers are eagerly setting up their classrooms for an exciting year. I am excited as well for yet another new job (Will I ever have the same job for more than one year!?) and one of the big things that got me excited was our first three days back for professional development. The first day was spent with an opening presentation by our division and then two and a half days spent with our own staff on a retreat. I was pleased to hear how often the topic of sharing what is going on in our classrooms came up.

Most of you will know the name George Couros, he is Division Principal in my division and he gave the Keynote address at our opening day. His presentation was amazing, and one of the big take-aways for me was the idea of giving our students an audience. He talked about how students who practice weeks and weeks for the Christmas concert always seem to fool around, not take it seriously, and make you think they may just bomb, but when the day comes, they are amazing. The difference of course being that you provided them an audience, and they performed.

At our school’s retreat, we discussed at great length the importance of home school communication and meeting our parent community needs by providing multiple avenues for connecting. Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, text messages, email and of course phone calls and school visits all came up. It is great how creative and flexible our teachers are with finding and utilizing all these methods of communication. Keeping our parents aware of what is going on in our building is an important part of what we do.

But George’s speech and our time at retreat had me thinking about who our audience really is. With our students, we know that any blog post, project or tweet is going to be aimed at their friends or their parents. With our staff, their number one concern will always be the parents of their students. If this is the concept of audience our students or staff have, then it will definitely shape, and more than likely limit the message they share.

The advantage technology provides us when it comes to sharing is that there is no limit to how far our message can reach. It is for this reason that we need to start considering this when we write a blog post, send a tweet or post a video clip. When our students blog or tweet, we should emphasize that they are speaking to anyone and everyone. We of course need to facilitate an active audience, both by sharing their work ourselves and using support like the hashtag Comments For Kids (#comments4kids). It is when someone they DON’T know comments on their blog or responds to their tweet, that the power of their audience can really impact them.

With our colleagues, the same is true. We do want our teachers sharing with the parent community as often and effectively as possible, but they too have so much more to offer than that. Sharing what is going on in our classrooms with our local community can garner support, can inspire involvement/volunteerism, and can model transparency in education. Our community pays the taxes that fund our schools, and involving them through sharing only seems right. Sharing with educators in our division and province/state can facilitate collaborative endeavours, can improve teacher practice (ours and others), and can promote sharing from others. Sharing with educators all over the world can help us all learn and grow as we collaborate across time zones and borders to grow education everywhere.

Last summer, as the school year came to a close, I read a tweet and blog post by Matt Bebbington about Innovation Day, a day where the students are given the entire day to work on whatever they choose after making a proposal and having it approved. Matt had his Innovation Day at his school March 8th, 2012 and took the time to share the process of planning, putting on and reflecting on the entire endeavour. Matt is a PE teacher in England, and while he had a big impact on the students of Wilmslow High, he had an even bigger impact as his sharing has led to Innovation Days all over the globe. We plan to run our own Innovation Week this coming December.

By blogging and tweeting with a global audience in mind, Matt had a huge impact on a number of teachers and schools. This year, as you and your students use technology to share what is going on in your classroom, keep in mind who your audience is. There are hundreds of stories of students and teachers creating huge movements all over the world, but that isn’t the only reason we should share in this manner. Knowing who your audience is shapes the message, and inspires the author of the message to produce the best work they can. If you and your students share every message like its show time at the Christmas Concert, your audience will get what they deserve, and your audience will have had an impact on the learning of your students and you.