Browsing articles in "Thoughts"
Jun 8, 2011

Is it ever time to give up?

I had a student come up to me the other afternoon, after class, and earnestly ask me, “Should I just give up?”

He was talking about the course we were embroiled in.  He was talking about whether or not he had enough time to get the credit.

This isn’t the first time. In fact, this happens so often with our struggling students.  At some point in time, this year or last, they’ve been told, “Maybe it’s time to give up.” They’ve been made to believe there comes a time in school when their best isn’t good enough.  The pile of zeroes they’ve gotten themselves is too tall to climb. And I think, man, what a shame.

Despite my explicitly motivating words, “You can do it!”, the student walked away unsure whether the time had come to call it a day.

I addressed many of the same issues at the end of last semester in a post I wrote, Slogging It Out.

Yet here we are with students, who need more time to demonstrate the required outcomes, being told, implicitly as well as explicitly, you’ve run out of time. You might as well give up.


Separate, yet connected, I’ve been thinking alot about mastery. My own mastery and my relentless pursuit of learning new things, which I often abandon after a stretch.

I can strum a guitar, play a few riffs, sing a few campfire songs.  But I haven’t mastered it.  I don’t prioritize the time to really master it. So, should I stop seeking mastery?

My math skills are weak.  Not “can’t give you change” weak, but definitely there are no sine laws in my future.  There wasn’t real calculus in my past either. (This is an assumption that the sine law is connected to calculus, which I vaguely remember). I scraped through my senior level Math classes when I was in high school.  My brain can’t figure the figures. Why bother learning them? The amount of time that is needed to build that base knowledge alone.

At what point, do I not have enough time to learn something?

After trying something, struggling in the pocket of learning, at some point, is it alright to quit learning?  I don’t mean learning completely, just that little aspect of life you are trying to master?

Is this what this student is struggling with?

I’m wrestling with the ideas that I live a passion of learning, yet, I find myself hitting the wall of learning in various parts of life because they are too hard, too onerous, or just too much time.  I find myself quitting paths of learning all the time.

The student and I are struggling with the idea of quitting. No doubt about it, they are different pursuits. His for a course, a credit he must earn in an allotted time frame. Mine for a lack of passion, clarity, time, support, whatever. Yet, we both find ourselves asking the same question:

Is it time to give up?


I know I’m a little all over here. Thanks for following and reading. Comments / Responses / Answers are very welcome.

I am quite clearly not a master of anything yet, although I continue to pursue mastery.

Today’s Challenge: Go back to something I’ve quit learning and try again.

Tonight, I will pick up the guitar or maybe, just maybe, do a little trigonometry.

Jun 7, 2011
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What Are You Learning?

Because if you aren’t something’s wrong.

For a profession filled with learners, we don’t do near enough learning.

Yeah, I know, we aren’t given the time to put into our learning.  We spend so much of it prepping lessons, planning killer assignments, and marking papers and tests.  But how much time are we actively learning?

And for those who are learning, how much of that learning do you share with your students?

Do they see you struggle with the concepts you’re wrestling with? Do they see the hard, messy work that is learning?

I’d suggest that this is critical to being an effective teacher.

Two reasons:

1. A love for learning is contagious. Just talk to someone who is passionately engaged in learning the guitar, studying history or in the process of writing and if you are truly a learner, you can’t help but feel that pull.  I’ve been engaging in conversation with multiple colleagues who are actively learning about leadership, poetry, and writing. Listening to them talk about what they are learning, how they are learning, why they are learning and listening to them speak passionately encourages me to keep pushing.

2. The fallacy that the teacher knows everything must end. The jig is up.  And I’d suggest admitting your limitations is not enough.  Learning must be active. We must revel in the messiness of learning and show students that learning doesn’t end after school.  Learning is constant.  Real learning, not just required PD sessions.

So, I ask again, what are you learning? I want to share in it.

May 28, 2011
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The Need for Failure

A friend of mine just wrote a very interesting blog post, Can’t See The Garden For the Dill, that explores the nature of success and failure.

It led me to thinking about my own failures and the joy we should take, although we don’t, in failure.

It’s tough to think too long about your failures.  It’s tough because usually we hide them.  We cover them up somehow, so no one else can see them.

Well, I have failed, many times.  I have failed courses (yeah, I’m looking at you Grade 7 Home Economics).  I have failed tests, too many to mention. I failed to communicate effectively leading to hurt feelings from family, friends and colleagues.

Some of these failures led to some very specific learning, some led to silent reflection, some led to nothing at all. But I kept at it.

I’m trying to embrace the aspects of my life, personally and professionally, where I failed and learn from them, build from them, become something better because of them. I’m trying to model good failure.

And for our students, if we build a culture devoid of failure, teaching students to be ashamed of failure, scared of failure, where only success and achievement is celebrated, have we built a solid disposition for learning?

Is there not an inherent need for failure in education? Failure in learning?

Without some level of failure we never move forward.

So, yeah, I’ve failed.  And I’ll continue to fail.

It provides the litany of things I need to keep working on.

It often points me in the direction of success.

May 19, 2011

A Communication Deficit

We are running a deficit, every day I am witness and party to this need that our competence does not have enough.

We are running a communication deficit.  A loss of understanding and ability to openly and authentically communicate with each other.

We no longer know how to communicate in authentic conversations.  The increase of passive aggressive means of communication (Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc) is allowing people to hide from communicating openly and face to face.

Our collective interpersonal competence is weakened.  It goes hand in hand with the sound bite news cycle and the Twitter-length quip. By being sarcastic, sharp and witty, we can avoid those uncomfortable conversations that we need to have real, authentic relationships.

And I’m not sure what we are afraid of.

We risk being called out. Being scrutinized. Being recognized.  We risk honesty and sincerity.

I am as guilty for it as anyone.  I am quick to the “chirp” of someone else’s misfortune to build a fragile sense of community. My sarcasm and one-liners are often used as a barrier to authentic connection and a way to the easy answer. Despite my attempt to be open, I sometimes avoid these conversations for fear I will be isolated or insulated.

But I must change.

We are building a community of teens that rip on each other as friends.  They no longer know how to take authentic conversations where they must reveal vulnerability. They question the need. They walk with their arms in front of their face blocking themselves from that which they fear, rather than walking with arms open ready to receive.

We are running a deficit.  And I am afraid of who will eventually have to pay.

Today’s Challenge: Have an uncomfortable, authentic conversation with someone whom you don’t usually talk.

May 16, 2011
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Inviting Scrutiny

I suppose when you are in the process of pushing an education revolution, you invite scrutiny. And so I do.

I invite scrutiny.

When someone questions the process I follow, I allow it.  I accept it.  I encourage it.  Because often, it begins a conversation that is needed for my own process, but also to hopefully push the thinking of whomever is bringing the scrutiny.

Some colleagues think I should be afraid of opening my door and allowing students to express themselves without moderation.  Hide what I’m trying from administrators and parents. They believe that it is too risky to get feedback unfiltered.  They think that perlustration is a recipe for inviting trouble.

Seth Godin writes, “If you’re insulating yourself from these conversations, who benefits?”

But alas, it does’t worry me.  I don’t feel threatened.  I believe it is an open desire for scrutiny and authentic feedback that allows me to continue learning. It ensures that I am incredibly thoughtful about every step in the process, but it also allows students, parents, administrators and colleagues to be part of the student learning.

And so I believe ultimately, the kiss of death for an effective teacher is the thought that they have nothing left to learn. So, if you aren’t open to scrutiny, I have one question: What are you afraid of?

Apr 9, 2011
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The Ebb and Flow of Shift – Thanks @PinkneyMichael

I saw this great tweet the other night, one of the best I’ve seen in a while:



@PinkneyMichael sums up so clearly and succinctly, the way good tweets do, how many in education feel.  How I feel.  There is no way of knowing where this revolution ends. And yet, we continue.

What pushes me forward in the shift is the clarity of my WHY.

Without fail, the more evidence, studies, and statistics I encounter WHAT I do in the classroom is changed.  It is shifted.  HOW I approach each class is different. As I read, think and reflect more on my practice, I make the philosophical and the realistic approaches needed to respond more clearly to my WHY.

What I also admire and respect about this tweet is that it reminds me that the most authentic responses are often those of vulnerability.  Belonging to a community, especially one online, is to offer thoughts, questions, reflections and ideas which often are at the scrutiny of many.

Apr 6, 2011
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Changing the Order of Questions

In Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why”, I came to change my perspective on how to think about, act upon and stimulate the education revolution.  The book’s core concept has re-defined my thinking.

The common precept of the book is the “Golden Circle” of leadership which define the three principle ways we think about what it is we do and the order in which we think them.  He connects the nature of the golden circle to the biology of the brain.

Essentially, he argues that we tend to start by defining WHAT it is we do, then HOW we do it and finishing with WHY we do what we do.  He uses various examples to show how success is often garnered by those who think about things in the opposite direction.  The have a clear understanding of WHY they do something, which drives HOW they do it and WHAT exactly they do.  The concept is quite clear when put into an educational context.

From teachers to students, we engage in the activities of school, professional development and community in various degrees, however, whenever we hit a difficult patch we can revert to one of those questions.  The clearer our understanding of WHY we are doing something, the easier it is to proceed.

Just this week a colleague of mine was having a stressful time.  She was feeling over-extended in the various activities she was involved in and was becoming disheartened in the process.  Her thought pattern was to bail on one of the activities that made her most frustrated.  However, while in discussion we came around to why she had signed up, why she was doing it.  With this her answer was clear, “I wanted to help give students an opportunity to be involved and to follow their passions.”  Once the statement was clear, she gladly was re-committed.

Sinek also provides some helpful quotes about the nature of education and how we resolve issues, one quote outlines quite clearly my apprehension with the over-use of data in education and its connection with standardized testing and grades.

“We understand that even with mountains of data and good advice, if things don’t go as expected, it’s probably because we missed one, sometimes small but vital detail.  In these cases, we go back to all our sources, maybe seek out some new ones, and try to figure out what to do, and the whole process begins again.  More data, however, doesn’t always help, especially if a flawed assumption set the whole process in motion in the first place.”

The outline for a teacher is to constantly be reviewing what is taking place in the classroom under the pretext of WHY, HOW and WHAT.  If students are given the WHY as the key ingeredient and it is clear, they will buy in if it aligns with their WHY.  In the same breath, if the WHY does not align with their thinking they will disengage.  I think that this ultimately connects to our requisite search for authenticity in learning.  When something is authentically learned, the WHY can clearly be defined.

The next step is to be disciplined in HOW we approach the lesson and our belief.  The final piece is the consistency of WHAT we do.

As Sinek states, “The only way people will know what you believe (Why) is by the things you say and do, and if you’re not consistent in the things you say and do, no one will know what you believe.”

In the perspective of a student, if a student learns for achievement (which is to say that we manipulate her WHY into things like grades, or scholarships, or the like), then she will stop once she’s reached it.  Her learning will cease to be important.  However, if we can help frame her learning into her belief (WHY) of school, she will never quit learning and it will become less important HOW she is learning and WHAT she is learning as those will be ever-changing, based on her passions.

Essentially, we as teachers need to talk more consistently about WHY we are doing what we are doing.  We have to stop defining ourselves by WHAT we do, and rather frame the work by the WHY.

This frames education in a more meaningful, profound way and scrutinizes more appropriately the teaching profession.

The conversations we have too often talk about WHAT we do in class, HOW the technology is going to improve learning, WHAT students are doing to push the boundaries.  Instead, we should be asking WHY.

This book has had a profound impact on me, I believe it to be an essential mind shift for teachers.

It is up to our leaders in education to clearly define the WHY of the system, when we clarify our belief about education, our actions of HOW and WHAT we do to make that happen should essentially improve.

These are some initial thoughts.  I continue to reflect on the impact of the book.

Mar 31, 2011
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OSSLT and Why I Won’t Feel Guilty for the Role I Play

I don’t like the literacy test. Big surprise.

I don’t hide it from my students.  I don’t put on a gingerly smile and talk about its intrinsic value.  Mainly, because I think it is an exorbitant waste of time and money.  Attempting to determine someone is literate in one day with one method seems a recipe for misused data in my mind.  The high-stakes approach to learning is wrong.  Plain and simple.

The OSSLT, the OCA and other similar data-mining exercises in testing do nothing more than placate those that don’t understand how literacy works and have no interest in talking about real learning.

Literacy is a complex understanding of the language of the world. It is not something that can be captured using multiple choice questions and structured writing responses.  The lack of nuance is frightening.

And yet,

I am sitting in a room with eight at-risk students proctoring their test writing.  These same students have been working with me over the last few months dissecting the literacy test.  We have ravaged through the carcass to ensure we know how each body part functions.

I hate what the literacy test has become for these students; a harbinger around their necks. So, I help, I cajole, I “teach to the test”. I attempt to get these students through the hoop they must jump.

“This test is not really built good if it wants to see what skills I have, is it?” — Grade 10 student

Part of the lesson for these students is understanding that being subversive is one thing, but putting up with bad ideas is part of life too.  The literacy test for these kids is just one more thing that undermines their role in their learning.

I don’t and won’t feel guilty for explicitly helping these kids jump through this hoop and hopefully pass the OSSLT.

I do feel guilty that a system I’m part of continues to perpetrate this on kids.

For further reading on the myth of standardization and the havoc they continue to ensure:

Mar 28, 2011

What We Can Do vs. What We Do Do

We are ready.

I can feel it in the classroom when I give my students choice, when I centre the learning and the students.  They are ready.

And yet…

There seems to be a big challenge between what we can do to help students learn (the research, the information, the tools) and the reality of what we do do.

We can set up classrooms that are connected.  Invite the world into our classrooms, build in authentic audiences and tasks.  Ensure problem solving skills are honed by using real world problems.  We can get computers in each classroom, with cheap netbooks or even desktops.  We can get them talking with each other, building a school that ensures each student is positively building their digital footprint.

And yet…

We can ensure that each teacher has adequate professional development.  We can encourage and give time for teachers to get together and truly collaborate. Have them build of the talents and thoughts of colleagues both locally and globally. We can re-build the profession to one of nobility, one where we do not accept mediocrity amongst our ranks.

And yet…

We can maintain academic rigour, without undermining learning to a series of tests and numbers.  We can rid the system of quantitative inaccuracies.  Stop belittling the integrity of the learning our students do by enforcing numerical end points and instead build the responsibility for evaluation onto both students and teachers working and discussing together.

And yet…

We can provide parents with better feedback, better information and better connections. We can stop allowing report cards and discipline to be the connective tissue we offer to parents.  Instead, we open the classroom door, invite them and their expertise to help teach their children.  We can create a community of learning, changing parents’ focus away from marks and onto the authentic learning and thinking that is required of our citizenry.

And yet…

I don’t do it all, the way we can.  I know that.

But little by little, we need to be pushing harder to ensure we do what we can for our students and not rest on what we do.

Mar 28, 2011

Tactics of Success

It is always good when you are acknowledged for doing something well.  But so often, we reflect very briefly on those moments.  More often, we think about and remember the moments things didn’t go well. We consider learning opportunities to be the moments were we risked and failed and provided ourselves with things to work on.

We focus on the failures.  We focus on the mistakes.  We don’t give time to the things that are successful.  We are worried about talking successes for fear it will be bragging.

Dan Heath, in an interview on “The Salaried Entrepreneur” says, “rather than focus on why something failed, we should focus on why something was successful.  Focus on the elements that made something work.”

So, what’s working for you?

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