Looking to next year……

It is that time of year when we have our feet in two camps.  We are fully engaged in the work before us this year, and we are gathering insights from all over our system to plan for next year!

Our direction for next year is that we are “staying the course”.  This course though is not a static one; rather, we are deepening the important work in which we have been engaged over the last few years.

As we continue to focus on improving student achievement and well-being, we know that our learning environment in HWDSB makes all of the difference.  We continue to focus on the collaborative inquiry process to change instructional practice. This process means that we plan effectively, we act with dedication and commitment, we assess the results and observe what has taken place, and we reflect on what just happened and what needs to happen next!  All staff are expected to learn in teams.  This is our primary vehicle for supporting the learning.

We are also committed to supporting our learning culture in HWDSB by training many of our staff to be effective coaches and facilititators.  We are also sharing leadership in coordinated ways…this cordination is not meant to be stifling; rather this coordination means that we are able to improve because the leadership offered by many within the school influences action.

We continue to grow as an intelligent and responsive system; a system which sets clear direction and yet responds to the local realities that exist in each school and department.

We are also looking at the evidence we gather and the measurements we are using to really determine if a school is improving.  We plan to focus our attention to this part of the cycle next year.

We are grappling with our understanding of personalized, collaborative, inquiry-based learning environments.  We know that learning is changing.  We understand that digital resources and technology are assisting this change.  We accept that our students needs to be prepared for our constantly changing world and in concrete ways we need to strengthen our students’ creative and critical thinking abilities.  Deepening our understanding of personalized, collaborative, inquiry based learning environments so that instructional practice changes is a clear goal for next school year.

We know that positive learning conditions are important for students to achieve.  Further, the culture of the school also makes a huge difference to student achievement and well-being.  To this end we will continue focusing on building a positive school climate for our students.  By integrating what we know about mental health, safety, equity and inclusion, we believe we will support our students to become the best they can be.

And finally, we have focused over the least few years on creating a culture of academic optimism throughtout our system.  A culture of academic optimim means that staff feel a sense of collective efficacy, that trust exists in the school and that a culture of high expectations is emphasized so that all students are successful.  In the context of academic optimism, we will be focusing on the notion of creating a culture of high expectations, an aspect of academic optimism that has been known to have a greater impact on student achievement.

As mentioned previously, we will be focusing on these things in the context of the work we are already doing.  Every school and department will engage in an authentic self-assessment process to determine focus.  Professional learning opportunities will respond to the capacity building needed for improvement to take place in terms of this focus.  Leaders will be supported through their learning to determine if improvement is actually happening.

In conclusion, I invite you to take a look at the 10 minute video below that captures the essense of  our work, our goals, and our commitments.  I would like to close these reflections by simply saying that all of the planning in the world will not take the place of passion and dedication….two qualities that effective educators need to make a difference in the lives of their students.


We are making a difference for our students in each classroom and school in Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board!  We will definitely continue on this road……Thank you!!


Dr. John Malloy

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Our Secondary Program Strategy…..continued!

We are engaging our community in our Secondary Program Strategy consultation.

We believe we are on the road to insuring that all of our secondary schools are great schools that offer all pathways to our students so they can remain in the secondary schools which is closest to their home.  We are expanding the course selection process so that student voice informs the creation of the option sheet.  We are also being more strategic regarding where we place specialty programs that we are calling Tier 3, programs that need a special facility or a certain number of students.

We also understand that socio-economic diversity in our schools supports our students’ learning.  And yet, we know that the majority of our students do not travel far from their home schools which impacts the socio-economic diversity in our schools.  We also understand that the reputations that schools possess may hurts the “system of great schools” we are trying to create.  We are examining our boundaries, our program placement and most importantly our beliefs and attitudes towards our students.  We have to believe that each and every student WILL succeed because we are providing a learning environment that meets their interests, strengths, and needs.

This student success is also grounded in changes that we are making to the learning environment.  We are grappling with what personalized learning means and how technology and digital resources support the type of learning that I have described in my previous blogs.

We are in the midst of a major change, and this is may be challenging to our community.  And yet, there is a  opportunity before us to revitalize our secondary schools so that our students achieve. This revitalization may challenge us to confront some of our preconceived notions about our students, our schools and our neighbourhoods.   As a school system, we cannot bring about all of the changes that may benefit our students, our families and our community on our own.  Together we can make the difference for our students.

The following piece appreared in the Spectator last week. http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/2877760-reimagining-secondary-education/

I also created a very brief video that explains our strategy.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3asJlxbWWc&feature=youtu.be

By the end of June, our Board will be making significant decisions that will impact secondary students for many years to come.  It is important for your voice to be heard!!


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This blogpost follows my last two posts that I created after speaking to the K-12 on-line learning conference.  This third post focuses on creativity and innovation.

We hearing a lot about the importance of creativity.  Questions abound regarding how schools enhance or even sometimes hinder students’ creativity.

We also hear often about the importance of innovation.  It is suggested that without innovation, student learning will not improve.  I would suggest that we are not clear about how to teach creativity, how to nurture creativity and how we leverage innovation to support our primary goal to improve student achievement and well-being.

Lucas, Clayton and Spencer in an article titled “Progression in Student Creativity in School” (2013) state that there are five creative dispositions: inquisitive, persistent, imaginative, collaborative, and disciplined.  These dispositions need to be explicitly taught and the learning conditions in each classroom need to nurture their development.  A further challenge is how we measure improvement in these areas?  We know that what we measure holds priority in terms of what we value, but the ways we presently measure improvement in student achievement may not lend itself to measure improvement in these dispositions.  Again, another invitation for education policy makers to be creative!!

Drawing upon Lucas, Clayton and Spencer’s work (2013) I would like to pose some questions that I have created around these dispositions:

How do we invite our students to question, explore, investigate and challenge assumptions?  (inquisitive)

How do we support our students to take risks, persevere, deal with a lack of clarity while learning and be willing to think and act differently? (persistent)

How do provide opportunities for our students  to use their intuition, to make connections that are not readily obvious, and to develop and consider new and different possibilities?  (Imaginative)

How do we create conditions for students to share their thinking with one another, to cooperate, to provide feedback to each other, and to build new ideas and develop new projects together?  (collaborative)

How do we encourage our students to reflect, to be critical, to improve their work, and to devise strategies and techniques to support their own learning? (disciplined)

When I walk into schools and classrooms, I pay close attention to the tasks in which students are engaged.  I also observe how the students are working and learning. Further, I observe the teacher as he/she interacts with students.  A classroom that teachers and nurtures creativity has some of the following characteristics from my experience:

Students are leading the learning within clear parameters determined by the teacher.This leadership is evident when students have created the questions they are exploring as opposed to simply “filling in a blank”.  In these classrooms, students create multiple ways to solve a problem, develop strategies, and to complete a task.  Students believe in themselves and their abilities to fulfull expectations and be successful in their learning.  They use many tools and different resources to support them.  They  are able to work independently as well as collectively and there is clear evidence that they have learned something new or created something new when they fulfill the expectations of the curriculum that the teacher helps bring to life.

Teachers have a significant role to play as they focus their attention on each student.  Instead of supplying all the information, these teachers invite students to find information and to critique and analyze that they find.  Instead of standing in the front delivering factual based information for an entire class, these teachers balance direct instruction, with collaborative opportunities as well as independent work.

I would like to offer a concluding word about innovation.  A learning environment is continuously changing as new ideas are generated and new knowledge is created.  One could argue that a true learning environment is an innovative one.  Andy Hargreaves reminds is in his new book “The Global Fourth Way (2012) that schools need to be innovative and they need to be improving.  Student learning is at the heart of what educators do.  Therefore, innovation must serve improved student achievement and well-being.

I believe in the voices of students.  This article in the Toronto Star from Kourosh Houshmand, student trustee from Toronto District School Board emphasizes some of the points I have outlined here.


When I addressed the On the Rise K-12 Digital Learning Conference I shared with the participants that “Learning is changing-whether we like it or not!”  I would suggest that the only way to provide what our students need is to collaborate together, to learn from one another,  to take risks, ask questions, experiment and respond to what are students are saying, creating, and doing. As educators, we are very fortunate to serve our students in a dynamic learning environment!!!

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Learning is Changing whether we like it or not!

Learning is changing – whether we like it or not!

As I mentioned in my previous blogpost , I had the privilege of presenting at the On the Rise K-12 Digital Learning Conference last week. I focused on the following points in my presentation:

A vision of our Students
The culture in classrooms, schools, and Boards
Understanding learning differently
Grappling with 21st century skills and implementation issues
Innovation, Improvement and Creativity

In this post I would like to discuss learning and 21st century skills. I will leave my reflections on innovation, improvement and creativity to my next post.

If I ask most people to think about their experience of learning in schools, they tell me about sitting in rows, working quietly at their desks while the teacher was directing things from the front of the room. When I probe further, and ask them about what they remember from school, they will often speak about friends they made or activities they engaged in more then their learning experiences. When I ask them what they created in school, or what they invented many will offer me a strange look or even start to laugh. The learning these former students remember should be very different compared to what our present students would say….but would our present students be able to share different reflections?

I notice how angry or frustrated some parents will sometimes become if their child does not have a textbook. Even if we provide the student access to technology and digital resources, some parents do not believe it is really school unless their child, our student, has a textbook, reads the chapters and answers the questions. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with a textbook, I am using this example to indicate how resources should not be the focus in the classroom; rather, learning is the focus and the tools and resources we use must intentionally support student learning. ….which is driven by the student!

We speak often about differentiated instruction and personalized learning. In fact, I believe that most educators could explain what these concepts are, and yet, we do not always see evidence of this type of instruction and learning in action. There are many reasons for this, and I would suggest that a primary reason is that differentiated instruction and personalized learning are hard to implement. The good news is that educators are usually willing to accept challenges!

The Calgary Board of Education has been focusing on personalized learning over the last number of years. They define this concept as “a highly intentional and responsive learning experience that attends to each student’s learning so that all students can participate, progress, and achieve.” If students are listening to the same lecture, reading the same chapter from the text, engaging in the same learning task or participating in the same discussion, how can we be sure that we are providing a “highly intentional and responsive learning experience”? How are our student’s taking the lead in their learning? Where is their voice in terms of making choices about their learning, exploring problems they wish to solve, and creating new concepts and ideas individually and collaboratively ?

Personalized learning lends itself to our students’ achievement in what we have been calling 21st century skills. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) defines these skills as creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, research and information, critical thinking, digital citizenship and technology operations.

Students need resources and tools to engage in personalized learning, supporting achievement in the skills outlined above. Further, achievement in these skills will look different then the type of achievement that we can measure through most tests and exams! In HWDSB we are exploring digital conversion, bring your own device, and 1 to 1 technology programs. We are also in the process of making all of our learning spaces wireless. Though digital resources and technological tools are important, we know that teaching and learning are the focus. Dr. Mark Edwards, Superintendent from Mooresville NC taught me this most recently at a conference when he said “we believe that relevant, personalized, collaborative and connected learning experiences drive effective teaching and student engagement, which in turn drives student achievement. Our digital conversion has taken this to an entirely new level”. If we wish to move to a new level, we will need to let go of some of the things that are familiar to adults in order to embrace those tools and resources that are more familiar to our students.

Our learning environments will need to change, and our students will take the lead. Digital resources will open up our students’ world beyond any one author’s reflections and our students will be taught how to meet their own learning needs in the context of clearly defined parameters. The teacher’s role remains exceptionally important. The teacher provides direct instruction at times, facilitates learning at other times, offers insight and advice but most importantly, the teacher provides the parameters in which students will work and as Michael Fullan states in his book “Stratosphere” teachers are “activators” of learning. And within these parameters which are wide enough for student exploration but still defined enough so that students consolidate their learning, great things can happen.

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Sharing the responsibility for learning

Sharing the Responsibility for Learning.

I had the privilege to present at the On the Rise K-12 Digital Learning Conference two weeks ago. It was a privilege for me to meet so many educators whose focus and commitment are to provide rich learning environments and opportunities for all of our students. Though we discussed technology and digital resources, we focused on how learning is changing and how we leverage technology and digital resources to support this change.

My presentation focused on the following five areas:

A vision of our students
The culture in classrooms schools and Boards
Understanding learning differently
Grappling with 21st century skills and implementation issues
Innovation, Improvement and creativity

I wish to offer a few key reflections here on the first two areas of focus, and my next post will focus on the remaining three areas of focus.


I have been influenced by the work of Thomas and Brown (2011) “A New Culture of Learning”. In fact my executive council in Hamilton-Wentworth is using this book to deepen our own understanding and practice. Thomas and Brown state in this book “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion and operate within the constraints of a bounded environment”. This quote is meaningful to me as we think about our students because sometimes people believe that innovation and creativity in learning somehow means that there are no parameters to this process. I would argue like Thomas and Brown do, that we need to provide focus and expectations for student learning but not so much focus that they are forced to follow the teacher’s prescribed course of action. Our vision for educating our students needs to include knowing our students, engaging our students, serving our students and learning from our students. This vision changes a traditional model of teaching and learning, but the change demands intentional planning and decision-making on the part of the teacher, assisting students to follow their passion and increase their learning in a context that is “bounded enough” but still responsive to each student. Our vision for students changes how we think about learning.


The culture of our classrooms, schools and Boards is significant as we think about how we help our students achieve. Is the culture where you are learning and teaching one that supports risk-taking? Is there evidence that change is welcomed? Is there less power, authority and control in this culture and more collaboration, cooperation and shared leadership? An effective learning environment needs these qualities. Professionals need to be supported in the same type of learning environment.

In Hamilton-Wentworth, we talk about creating an Intelligent-Responsive system. This type of system provides clear direction that guides our work , but this guidance supports rather than hinders creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. In other words we are supporting an effective learning culture, by providing the “bounded environment” that Thomas and Brown speak about. An intelligent-responsive system provides clarity to those matters that really should not distract us, so that we can focus on helping our students achieve. For example, an intelligent- responsive system gives clear direction about operational matters so that educators can engage in a process of collaborative inquiry to serve our students better. This collaborative inquiry stems from what teachers determine students need, not what the system may direct.

As a system we expect that all staff will engage in learning teams focusing on a significant challenge or question related to student learning. We expect them to make effective instructional decisions and reflect collaboratively on how students achieved. We expect staff to determine the evidence they will use to show that their students are improving. This is the key to an intelligent -responsive system. There is a clear direction that all staff will engage in this process. It is the responsibility of the grade team, department or staff to determine the focus and the evidence. All central office resources support this focus and offer their support in the context of what the schools determine they need. School leaders are trained to facilitate this process so that all staff are engaged in an authentic learning experience based upon their students’ needs.

The result of this process is shared ownership at school level for student learning and staff capacity building as opposed to prescription coming from the centre.

Michael Fullan states in his recent book “Stratosphere” (2013), “If theories of action do not include the harder questions-Under what conditions will continuous improvement happen and How do we change cultures?- they are bound to fail. ” I would argue that in order to insure continuous improvement for our students, then the cultures where teaching and learning happen, have to continuously change! For those who like things to remain the same, education may not be the appropriate field.

My two closing thoughts:

Our focus must be on each student. Educators learn from their students as much as they learn from us.

The culture in classrooms schools and Boards must promote risk-taking, a willingness to make mistakes and authentic collaboration in order for learning to occur.

Though change may be challenging, educators are being invited to share the responsibility for learning with their students as opposed to believing they need to do everything themselves. Though it may be hard at first to share this responsibility, it is the only way for our students to succeed.

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An Intelligent, Responsive system

In the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, we have made a commitment to become an intelligent, responsive system. An intelligent, responsive system believes that the system needs to create a clear, enabling direction, a parameter for the work that needs to be accomplished for our students. Within this parameter, each school and each teacher respond to their students effectively. This parameter provides enough direction without hampering the important work that needs to take place at each school. Further, the system insures that all central supports such as consultants focus on what the school needs, not what the system expects.

In order for our system to be intelligent, we needed to be sure that a few things were in place. We needed to create system level focus, clarify roles and responsibilities, build capacity so that we can achieve our goals, implement, monitor progress, reflect on what has happened for students because of our efforts, and determine next steps. We also needed to communicate effectively so that all of our stakeholders understood what we are doing. This clarity provides the support that our schools need to focus on what their students need.

Our system focus in HWDSB is to improve student achievement and well-being through effective instruction and appropriate interventions in positive school climates. The main vehicles we are using to fulfill this goal are learning teams throughout the system and at every level of the system. In order to do this, we ask each school to create their own focus through a self assessment process, and to develop a professional learning plan for staff to build capacity so that the staff can meet their students’ needs. We also ask staff to engage in collaborative inquiry in learning teams so as to become more precise in terms of our instruction and more effective in terms of our intervention for our students. We are building capacity in terms of coaching and facilitation that supports this learning process, and we are determining the protocols which assist us in this important work. Again, just as we do at the system level, we monitor progress, reflect on our learning and determine next steps. We understand that our students will not learn effectively unless they are engaged, and the learning focus determined at every school takes this important consideration into account.

Our “intelligent” expectation is that each student will improve in the area of focus determined by the school. Each school, working with their learning team and their superintendent will bring forward the evidence that this improvement has occurred. Our system level focus requests that every staff member engages in this process that will allow each school and department to grapple with what they need to learn in order to better meet the learning needs of their students. We are supporting our staff to create learning environments where our students have the opportunity to think deeply and to develop questions that guide their own learning, to work together and to solve problems collaboratively and creatively. We know this is a paradigm shift, and for many of us this shift may make us uncomfortable. Our learning teams can assist with this potential discomfort.

Our intelligent system defines the parameters for our work and communicates clear expectations about the process each school will participate in. Our system responds effectively to the needs determined by the school. Our learning teams help each principal and school remain focused on the important work they need to accomplish for their students. Though there are clear expectations in our intelligent responsive, system, there is no prescription; however, the learning process in which we expect each member of our staff to engage is the non-negotiable. What emerges from this process may be different in each school depending upon the interests, strengths and needs of the students and staff in that school. The responsive part of our intelligent, responsive system can only operate when authentic focus for student and staff learning is determined at each school and in each classroom.

Wisdom exists in that space between what the system expects (intelligent) and what needs to happen in each classroom, school and department to serve our students (responsive). This is a healthy tension because we are not allowing these “two sides of the same coin” to become separate, which often happens in our world of education. Rather, in HWDSB we expect engagement in this learning process as THE system priority. Within this clear parameter, effective and creative instruction, supported by educators, school administrators, and central office staff all learning together, will make the difference for our students.

One final note about an intelligent, responsive system: We sometimes allow ourselves to become distracted by matters which should not take the majority of our time. For example operational issues may fill our days and we sometimes believe that there is no time to focus on the type of learning that changes instructional practice so that student learning improves. An intelligent system understands the importance of removing these types of distractions. Once again, it is not prescription when a system defines certain matters after consulting and collaborating with stakeholders. An example would be when administrators are grappling with the best ways to fulfill health and safety requirements, hire staff, or purchase supplies for their school. The system must create intelligent expectations, clear processes that all must follow, so that these matters do not consume too much time, which in turn would impact on the important learning that must happen in every school. An intelligent, responsive system knows when to communicate a decision from the centre and when to stand back so that schools and departments have the room to respond. An intelligent, responsive system never loses sight of this primary direction that all staff, learning in teams and engaging in collaborative inquiry will improve student achievement and well-being.

We are becoming an effective and intelligent system in HWDSB. Our system determines a high-level, direction, clarifies parameters, and provides responsive support to our teachers and principals who have determined an authentic focus for their students and staff and engage in continuous learning.

This system direction coupled with our responsive, collaborative learning commitment will improve student achievement and well-being in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. In some ways we are just beginning this journey; however, signs are emerging that we are on the right road!

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Literacy, numeracy, creativity and critical thinking

I often hear the concern that our focus on Literacy and Numeracy in the province of Ontario is too narrow and that it hinders our students’ creativity or their ability to develop critical thinking skills. I have never understood this concern and the dichotomy that is sometimes created between literacy, numeracy and creativity or literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.

Dr. Michael Fullan’s recent paper regarding education in Ontario challenges us to think beyond narrow definitions of literacy and numeracy. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/fullan.html

All would agree that our students need strong literacy and numeracy skills. These skills are foundational and include reading, writing, and math, the skills that everyone thinks about when they hear the words literacy and numeracy. Literacy and numeracy also include the ability to communicate, to problem-solve, to analyze and critique and to create.

Our focus on literacy and numeracy is only too narrow when we do not invite our students to think critically and deeply and to create possibilities, ideas and expressions. When we examine the tasks we ask our students to complete and when we assess the culture of our learning environments, do our students have the opportunity to think? Are they able to build on their interests and strengths to fulfill curriculum expectations? Do we invite our students to ask complex questions that together with fellow students they can explore? Do our students have options in the classroom? These questions are important, guiding us to personalize the learning for our students each day.

Standardized assessments in literacy and numeracy are sometimes blamed for making the curriculum too narrow. I have never understood this connection. It is my experience that when students develop literacy and numeracy skills in the broadest sense of the term as described above, they perform effectively on these assessments.

The expectations outlined in the Ontario curriculum state what students need to learn by the end of each year. These expectations do not suggest that students in a classroom are always learning the same thing at the same time, or that they are all completing the same task. These expectations do not tell teachers to ask all of the questions and to design how students will answer these questions. These expectations do not demand that teachers test students to memorize facts and ignore the processes they use to solve problems, create ideas, explore uncharted territory and to communicate their thinking.

We can create engaging learning environments that offer students opportunities to achieve because their interests converge with the curriculum expectations. In these learning environments, our students are thinking and writing, collaborating and exploring, developing and creating, presenting and evaluating.

We want our students to read and write effectively and to excel in math. We also want our students to think and create. Our focus on literacy and numeracy need not be considered in a narrow fashion, and this focus does not need to exclude creativity and critical thinking.

Literacy and numeracy, creativity and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive terms!

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