Reflections about Education

In the world of education, reflection is an important and yet sometimes overlooked action.  Educators are busy people and because of the hectic pace of our lives, we may find ourselves planning and acting without taking the important step to learn from our actions and to assess the impact of our efforts so as to inform our next steps.  As I prepare to transition from being Director of Education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) in January, I have plenty of reasons to reflect. Seven key insights have emerged for me over the last five and a half years and in my last blog post as Director of Education, I would like to share them.

My first insight is Culture is a powerful force.  No matter how talented people are or how effectively they are implementing various strategies, the culture in classrooms, schools, departments and entire districts can enhance effectiveness or it can be an obstacle to effectiveness.  In terms of HWDSB, we have been focusing on creating an effective learning culture that honours the professional contribution of each staff member.  At the heart of this learning culture is a commitment to collaborate, to persevere in the face of challenges, to share expertise and to work together to answer difficult questions in terms of improving student learning.  We have focused on creating high expectations for students and staff, and we have worked explicitly with our parents/guardians so that they hold high expectations for their children as well.  Trust and positive relationships are at the core of our culture. Being willing to admit what we do not know is equally important to sharing our expertise. We do not always agree in HWDSB, but our norms allow us to work through any disagreements in a constructive way.  Our culture invites professionals to take risks, in the safety of their community of colleagues, with a powerful commitment to improving student learning and well-being.  This improvement cannot happen in a prescriptive culture; rather, improvement can only happen when all staff own the learning, the direction and the goals of the organization.

Student learning, school improvement and district effectiveness rely on focus and precision.  In terms of focus, Achievement, Engagement and Equity Matter in HWDSB.  Further,  in order to improve achievement and engagement, and to ensure equity, we have made a commitment to “know our students, know our staff and know our parents and communities.”  This “knowing” is not simply being aware of our students, staff, parents and communities; rather, we know each student individually and we provide what is needed so that each student learns successfully in a caring and supportive learning environment that also enhances well-being. This is the precision part.  Within this focused and precise context, we expect that each staff member will learn in teams, that everyone in the organization will engage in a collaborative inquiry process focusing on how instructional practice will improve, and that each teacher, principal and superintendent determines together what evidence will be accepted showing how learning has improved in the area of focus determined for each student in the classroom, each staff member in the school, and each school in the district.  In other words, we expect everyone to engage in a process leading towards improvement rather than expecting that every school will be working on the same system outcome goals.  We describe our system as being intelligent and responsive. We describe “intelligent” as clear and focused system direction which provides a strategic way forward and we are “responsive” in terms of ensuring that the focus of all system support is the classroom and the school, not central office. Focus and precision may sound like clinical terms that conjure up images of rigidity or even top-down prescription, but in reality, without some clear parameters, innovation and creative practice might never be able to have the impact on student achievement and well-being that we desire.

This focus and precision extends to our service departments.  We ask all staff in our service departments to learn together and to engage in the type of inquiry that allows them to tackle challenging issues in service of our strategic direction.  All of our service departments reflect on their efforts using the question “How is our work supporting achievement, engagement and equity?”  Our service departments are now engaged in the focused and precise work expected of all staff in HWDSB.

The importance of innovation and creativity in the context of clear and strategic parameters is the next significant insight I would like to speak about.  We speak often about “Transforming Learning Everywhere” in HWDSB, and we use the word “transforming” very intentionally.  I would suggest that in the world of education we most often make adjustments to our plans as opposed to creating real transformation.  We struggle to make changes that depart too much from the way that education has always happened.  I surmise that the reason for this reticence to transform, may come from the fact that our identities as educators  are very much connected to those amazing teachers we have known from our childhood who inspired us to follow them into education.  Innovation is not changing things for the sake of change; rather, innovation respects long standing practices that help students learn better and understands what our world may require from our students today and tomorrow that warrants change to our practice.

Specifically, when we think about transformation in HWDSB, we are focusing on transforming classrooms, relationships  and learning opportunities.  The classrooms of the past positioned desks in rows, with students working independently or participating in whole class instruction with the teacher often standing in the front of the room.  Today in HWDSB, we are creating classrooms that facilitate the learning tasks that students are engaged in, sometime individually, sometimes in groups, and sometimes as a whole class.  The classroom needs to be flexible so that the structure of the classroom supports student learning. Transforming relationships is also key to the learning that is happening in our classrooms.  Teachers play a pivotal role in this process, but their relationships with students is changing so that the voices of students influence the learning process in the classroom.  The teacher’s expertise is important, and  the teacher helps students access the global experience that may be found through the use of technology and digital resources. Further the relationship between students is significant because together, students are able to create, evaluate, synthesize, and learn from each other in ways that can only happen when the teacher provides opportunities for this type of collaboration between students to occur. The final focus in terms of our transformations is transforming learning opportunities.  Historically, education meant that you were taught what the teachers decided based on the curriculum, you memorized facts, you may have engaged in reading or writing tasks individually or in groups and then you were evaluated through quizzes, tests or exams.  By transforming learning opportunities, we are inviting students to engage in learning that is connected to their interests, that allows them to develop skills and attitudes that are necessary for the world in which we live, and we are inviting them to create new knowledge that may have a significant  impact on their school, community, nation and beyond!  Learning is not a static process where we invite students to regurgitate already existing facts; rather, transforming learning means that in the context of clear parameters and strategic directions, students are invited to create new learning and new knowledge on the foundation of existing learning.  This new learning and new knowledge may impact the world outside of the classroom, which makes the experience more relevant for students.  I would argue that there is nothing more engaging and exciting than this type of learning opportunity.

Technology is an important accelerator for this transformation, but not the driver.  We live in a physical and digital world.  It is imperative that schools join together with parents and guardians to assist our students to be healthy citizens in the world that presently exists, not in the world that once existed.  Being healthy citizens means that sometimes we need to ask students to set their technology aside in order to engage in a rich classroom discussion for example.  Regardless of our own
personal perspectives about technology, its presence is causing change. Preparing our students to engage this change is crucial. Further,  technology broadens learning opportunities for students because they have access to information and experience that extends beyond the walls of the classroom while still being supported by teachers in the classroom.

This discussion about transformation relates to my fourth insight that effective instruction is imperative for student learning to improve.  I am sure that no one would disagree with this statement, and yet I am not sure we collectively articulate how complex it is to provide effective instruction and learning opportunities for each student.  This means that the teacher understands each student’s interests, strengths and needs.  It means that teachers know how to program effectively for students in order to maximize learning, they understand how to diagnose where students are in relationship to what is expected, and they know how to intervene when the students need more support to achieve.  Effective instruction includes the power and importance of effective assessment. I believe that every educator understands intellectually what I am  saying about effective instruction, but in reality, providing effective instruction to every child is about educators engaging in a process of inquiry individually and collectively that allows them to expand their own tool kit to maximize student learning.

Student voice is at the heart of this transformation and is the fifth important insight I learned as Director of Education.  We speak often about the importance of student voice, and yet if we look at our experiences in schools, how often do we give our students authentic choices in terms of how they learn, when and where they learn and even what they learn?  I do believe in the importance of standards and expectations, and I agree that students may not know what they need to learn which is why the role of educators is so important in this process.  Having said this, we need to provide opportunities for our students to create significant questions that they wish to answer and identify important problems they wish to solve, and in this context teachers “deliver” the curriculum.  We know how important engagement is to achievement, and when students have voice and ownership in the learning process, engagement improves leading to more successful outcomes for students.

My sixth insight is that school districts possess an important responsibility to provide equitable opportunities for all students that contribute to their achievement. Further, the system needs to be sure students have access to these opportunities.  In many ways, equity of opportunity, access and outcome might be one of the most difficult goals to achieve.  As I reflect on why this may be the case, a few thoughts come to mind.  As a society, I am not sure we believe that all students can learn. This commitment to equity necessitates that everyone believes that all students will achieve given the proper conditions.  I also believe we, as a society, are used to creating separate spaces for those who have unique needs, and we are influenced by the reputation that develops around various schools which could potentially exacerbate exclusion. Specifically, some schools become known as the school for university bound students, or students with special needs or students who are new Canadians.  A system is moving toward being more equitable when it listens to the voices of all, not just those who are the loudest.  Another example of an equitable system is that all students may find their place in all of our schools as opposed to having to go to a special school that offers what they need in a separate way.  When we start with each individual student, understand who he/she is and what he/she needs, and do our best to provide this programming in their community school, we have created an environment where each student may achieve.  I am not suggesting we have realized this goal entirely, but an equitable system continues to strive for this.

My  seventh and final insight is the importance of leadership.  I have always defined leadership as creating conditions for wonderful, effective, brilliant and powerful things to happen for our students, our staff, and our communities.  I also believe leadership is about influence as opposed to being about authority.  In terms of creating conditions, effective leaders know that expertise exists at every level of the organization.  In order for this expertise to influence system direction, those in formal leadership positions coordinate this expertise and provide opportunities for the insights, experience, and contributions of many to have impact.  Another important contribution of those in formal leadership positions is to assist with the creation of a common language and to work towards common understanding so that there is a coherence and a cohesion in the system leading to improved outcomes for students.  Many systems have wonderful experts working to improve things, but unless there is a coherent, cohesive and aligned framework, these experts may only have the ability to influence in very small ways, not systemic ways.  Effective leaders influence others to work strategically and effectively.  Their leadership offers clear direction and still supports innovation, creativity and the expertise of many to flourish.

As I reflect on my tenure as Director of Education in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, I have realized the key insights I have described above.  In order for student achievement and well-being to improve, I have learned the following insights:

Culture matters.

Focus and precision are necessary.

Innovation and creativity need to be exercised in strategic environments.

Effective instruction is at the core of our achievements.

Student voice needs to be a powerful influence in our work.

Equity of opportunity, access and outcome is at the heart of our mission.

Leadership matters.

I have learned so much as Director of Education and much of this learning comes from our strategic trustees, our amazing staff, dedicated parents and community and of course our talented students. My closing message to HWDSB may be found here

The insights I have shared here highlight what I believe are the important considerations when providing effective learning environments for our students.

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Exciting celebration of “Transforming Learning Everywhere”

Last week we had the opportunity to celebrate the work in which we have been engaged in Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to “Transform Learning Everywhere”.  Students, staff and families came to our new HWDSB Education Centre to share their learning, to celebrate this exciting vision, and to provide examples of what happens for students when we think differently about our classrooms, the learning relationships in the classrooms and the learning opportunities provided to students in our schools.  This vision is based on a number of important beliefs:  Learners are able to own their learning.  They are able to work independently and collaboratively to engage real life issues and ideas.  Our learners are creative and innovative if we give them the opportunity to be these things. They are champions of social justice and willing to challenge the status quo if we create the conditions for them to do so.  Our learners do not solve problems in only one way and their ability to identify and assess issues from complex perspectives supports their creativity and their resilience.  They are able to evaluate what they learn, make important connections, and communicate effectively about their learning, which implies that they understand how to reflect upon their learning process.  And finally this vision allows our learners to use technology in ubiquitous ways to change  learning, not simply to support learning.  We believe this change to learning flows from the fact that technology connects us to the global world beyond the classroom, provides different ways for students to communicate and create, and it provides an equitable opportunity for all students to engage, not just those who can afford to do so.  Our Transforming Learning Everywhere vision will put tablets in the hands of every teacher and every student in grades 4 to 8 by 2019 and it will help us make changes to how we view our roles as educators.  These are lofty beliefs, but beliefs that are definitely worth working towards.

Specifically, here are some of the lessons I learned last week at this celebration.  Kindergarten students wrote and illustrated descriptions of their families, recorded these descriptions and provided me with the opportunity to listen to this video record through a telephone receiver attached to their tablet.  High schools students shared with me how they are applying concepts and theories to a real life problem regarding the amount of traffic congestion that exists around their school, using science, math and geography in an interdisciplinary way to create possible solutions.  They told me that they are glad to be in Grade 11 because they are finally able to apply their conceptual and theoretical learning.  My response was to ask how they would have felt if they were able to apply their learning in every year of school.  Needless to say, they were quite excited about this possibility which is becoming a reality in HWDSB.  Throughout the room I listened to students confidently articulating their learning process captured in different ways through their tablet.  I observed parents beaming with pride and teachers who were clearly passionate about their students’ success and their role to create the conditions to make this so.  I experienced the beginning stages of transformation and the excitement that goes along with this transformation.

Dean Shareski from Discovery Education ended our morning by offering some reflections about how much our world has changed over the last few decades. He discussed our responsibility we have as parents and educators to engage this change with our students so our students have the opportunity to excel in the world as it is today and in the world of tomorrow that has not even been created yet!  And when I refer to tomorrow, I literally mean tomorrow since the speed of change is mesmerizing!  The momentum is forming in HWDSB because learning is transforming, and engagement is increasing, always with our students at the centre.

Here is a link to my opening comments at our “Transforming Learning Everywhere” celebration:

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Homework: From the Student Perspective

The Grade 7 class at Dundas Central wrote to me about why they do not enjoy doing homework.  They offered a few suggestions that could potentially change this reality.

They wondered why homework never included outdoor physical activity in light of the fact that physical health and well-being are so important.  They requested that they could solve real life problems when doing their homework.  They dreamed about doing homework collaboratively, something that might become easier to do as we effectively integrate technology into the learning process.  They wondered about music and art, two subjects that are seldom assigned for homework.

One student suggested that instead of assigning homework in those areas where students struggle to learn and comprehend, leave this to school time; rather, assign work in an area where students are most passionate and interested so that they can deepen their skills in this area.

A common response was “why are our interests not regarded when the teacher is assigning homework, and why does most homework have to include writing?” I would certainly acknowledge that writing is important, but these students do have a point if most of our homework does include writing.  How is this challenging a student who already writes effectively?  How might a teacher intervene when students are struggling with their writing if everyone is expected to engage the same learning task?

They also discussed their interest in doing homework that was project-based learning that spanned a number of days, something that would allow them to go deeper in terms of certain critical questions that they were exploring.

And lastly, some students wondered why there was not one school day where no homework would be assigned, in order for the students to forge positive bonds with their friends, parents and family members or explore other interests.  In other words they are asking me about how we as adults support students to create balance.

The homework debate has been occurring for a long time.  Often this debate does not include the voices of students.  I believe that these wonderful students in Ms. Dunford’s class at Dundas Central Elementary School have provided me with rich insights, and through this post I am sharing their insights with you.

The fact that we assign homework may not be the issue.  What we assign may be the bigger issue.

How might the voices from this school, Dundas Central,  continue to make a big difference for all students.  How do we invite all of our students to reflect on their learning and make suggestions regarding how we might meet their needs?  If we ask, then we are obligated to respond.

Learning happens in many ways and it is important for educators to create learning opportunities with this fact in mind. Whether we are speaking about learning in classrooms or in the community, about class work or homework, the voices of our students will always give us something to consider.  If we invite them to contribute their ideas and issues, if we involve them as we create learning opportunities and if we respond to what they say, I believe achievement and engagement will improve.

My questions:

  • What support do educators need to effectively share leadership in the classroom with students?
  • What challenges or obstacles exist to sharing leadership in ways described in this post?

Thank you to the Grade 7 students in Ms. Dunford’s class.  You have given me plenty to think about!!!!

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My End of Year Message for HWDSB

Please click the Read More link below to view my end of year message for students, staff, parents and community members across HWDSB.

Have a great summer!

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Education Week and Mental Health Week in HWDSB

We are celebrating Education Week and recognizing Mental Health Week in HWDSB. This week gives us the opportunity to reflect upon what is most important as we provide engaging learning opportunities for our students.

There is so much to celebrate in HWDSB. I visit schools regularly, and I see many examples of our students learning and thriving in classrooms with caring staff who know our students and respond to our students effectively. I experience students working collaboratively with one another, reaching new heights, thinking deeply about new ideas, being creative and inventive, and really learning. Students tell me what they love about school. They tell me about their teachers who care about them. They tell me about their friends who they look forward to seeing each day. They get excited when they succeed at new learning tasks. They are proud to share their work, and they are very willing to communicate what they want to learn and why.

We have been focusing on student voice in HWDSB. “Student Voice” is sometimes an overused term and I worry that it may not change the way we support our students unless we really respond to what our students are telling us. We are changing the learning environments in HWDSB so that students own their learning supported by technology. We are calling this direction “Transforming Learning Everywhere“. This direction will honour our students, their interests and learning styles, respect their talents, and provide appropriate supports in environments that are exciting and engaging, making our students want to come to school every day! If you walk into HWDSB classrooms you will experience this passion, and this energy, something that we celebrate this year in Education Week!!

We are also recognizing Mental Health Week. I believe a quote from the Mental Health Association website says it best . “We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Mental Health is more than the absence of mental illness. It is a state of well-being”. We are committed to improving student achievement and well-being in HWDSB and our work in mental health is a major component of this commitment. We work closely with our families and our community partners to enhance our students’ self-esteem, to build resilience, and to ensure that our learning environments are characterized by positive relationships that provide a rich foundation for our students’ well-being.

Celebrating Educating Week provides us with an important opportunity to celebrate our students and our staff and our families and communities with whom we partner. Recognizing Mental Health Week reminds us that we all have a part to play in supporting the well-being of our children. Together we are making a difference for our children!!!

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Transforming Learning in HWDSB

Our Board will be making a decision today (Monday, March 31) about how we will support changes to our learning environment in Hamilton-Wentworth. This vision speaks to creating learning opportunities in every classroom where students take ownership for their learning, both collaboratively and individually, and where teachers support these learning opportunities in different ways. Sometimes a teacher’s role will be that of a facilitator, sometimes as an observer, always as the professional whose expertise provides each student with what he or she needs to think, create, evaluate and communicate in the context of new learning.

This learning environment requires giving students access to different tools. The textbook and the notebook have been the common tools in every classroom for many years. Though there is nothing wrong with these tools in and of themselves, they do not provide our students with access to the world in which we live, in the same way that technology and digital resources can. Because our world is both digital and physical, it is imperative that parents, guardians and schools assist our students to live in both realms. This does not mean that students will always be staring at tablet screens or using the Internet to complete learning tasks; rather, this means that students will have access to our global world at any time through technology because we will provide individual tablets to make this happen.

This work is not about technology in an of itself. Instead, it is about creating new forms of classroom instruction and learning environments. We are working very closely with a smaller number of schools over the next two years to learn how to support teachers to use technology to create, with their students, the type of learning experiences I describe. Our goal is to learn from these schools so that we may then apply this learning to the entire system. This is a major undertaking, but certainly an important one if we are going to achieve one of our Board’s Strategic Directions – Equity Matters. In this way, each student in every classroom has access to technology and digital resources and an opportunity to learn in an environment characterized by inquiry, curiosity, interest and engagement so that they are able to “achieve their full potential,” which is our Board’s vision.

I introduced these concepts at a recent gathering of system leaders. Please take a look at the video below or YouTube link! When we support great teachers to engage students, amazing things happen! This is our goal in HWDSB!

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An Exciting Collaborative Inquiry Project

Yesterday I invited 40 high school educators to think about how we might invite students to engage in inquiry based learning. I asked them to consider different ways of delivering credits. We discussed what it means to think in an interdisciplinary way. We discussed opportunities and barriers to thinking about teaching and learning differently.

What inspired me about this meeting was that this group of teachers was willing to think way outside of the box.

We began our discussion with student voice. What are the interests, strengths and passions of our students? From there we moved to the notion of critical questions. How might we create opportunities for students to ask complex questions that they really want to explore…..deeply!

Once students have the opportunity to name their questions, the role of educators is to figure out how to offer learning opportunities where students may earn credits in creative ways.

This concept is foreign to us as educators because for more than a century the “Carnegie Unit” had dictated how high school credits are offered in secondary schools…… Back in 1909, a group of professors at Carnegie discussed why it was important for secondary schools to mirror the university. What this meant was that high schools needed to prepare students for university by offering courses in very distinct ways. In other words, students would study each subject in an isolated fashion without any understanding of how these subject areas were actually related. Students are scheduled to take so many courses a semester, and each course consists of a certain number of hours, and for the most part, connections are not being made between any of the courses that students are studying.

In Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, we would like to provide opportunities for students that do not mirror the “Carnegie Unit”…..We would like to provide opportunities where groups of students engage in discussion with educators and have the opportunity to ask critical questions, identify what they really want to learn, and then educators determine how they might support students in their learning. This may mean that students are able to earn multiple credits because their questions span multiple disciplines, and educators who possess the expertise to support students in their inquiry, work collaboratively with one another to engage students in an interdisciplinary approach to learning.

The group of educators I met with yesterday were excited to create possibilities for students……..they also named some of the barriers that exist in our culture and practice that mitigate against this type of learning……

I am inspired by these educators and I know that many educators in our system reflect this passion to engage our students. We are on a very important journey in HWDSB to be sure that each of our schools is a great school; that students have expanded opportunities as well as voice in terms of how they learn. We are exploring how digital resources might expand the learning environment. We understand that learning happens in the physical world called the classroom, the experiential world called the community and the virtual world that extends to every corner of the globe.

This group of 40 secondary educators has made a commitment to take a few steps forward in terms of student voice, student questions, collaborative inquiry and a multi-disciplinary approach to credit delivery.

This is one step closer to “all students achieving their full potential”, our board’s mission!

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