Browsing articles in "Thoughts"
Mar 23, 2011
Comments Off on Piece by Piece – The Puzzle of Knowledge

Piece by Piece – The Puzzle of Knowledge

Whenever I see kids out in the hallways cramming for tests, quizzing each other about the content that they’ll be asked for, I cringe.

Why are we still worried about content?  Why does it matter? If it can be Googled, it should no longer be our focus.

The obtaining of content is no longer a big deal.  Before when you couldn’t instantly search the world’s bank of information it was critical.  You need to seek out someone who could share that knowledge with you. They would tell you everything they knew.  That teacher existed as a wealth of proprietary information.  That teacher’s job was to give you easy access to that information.  That teacher is now Google.

The teacher we now need is someone who shows skills, demonstrates, supports, and facilitates the finding of information and the compiling into meaning and the creating into something new.

Linton Weeks on National Public Radio states, “there is so much information out there, for free, so that obtaining it — even in bits and pieces — is not the challenge, rather integrating it into a coherent whole is.”

This is being a teacher in a new era.  This is the education revolution. If we aren’t teaching students how to integrate information, social media, social connectedness, digital citizenship and innovation/creativity, what are we doing?

Let the technological tools help students find the pieces of the puzzle. Let teachers help students put them together.

Mar 16, 2011

Accomplishing More by Doing Less

I am asked often, “Where do you find the time to do everything you do?”

I often hear from students and teachers alike, “I just don’t have the time.”

My typical response is, “you get the same 24 hours everyone else does.”

It shouldn’t be a battle of time vs. efficacy. Instead it is a battle of policy/procedure vs. efficiency/efficacy.  We are so worried about rankling the wrong person/colleague/parent, that we fail to make things better for our students.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  As teachers, if we learn to work better, not harder, not longer, we’ll accomplish more.

Too often we think we’ve got to do it all.  The rubrics, the scaffolds, the structures, the strategies.  Truth be told, I’m not sold on the virtues of all these educational cornerstones. Too often teachers think that the more we do, the more we accomplish with our students.  I disagree.

I suggest that the more we get out of the way by supporting, promoting, facilitating student-centred learning the more is really done.  The more we actually accomplish.

It is about prioritizing what we do. I suggest:

My Four Priorities in the Classroom:

1. Building relationships and culture.

2. Feedback, constant and constructive.

3. Answering student questions, if deep inquiry.

4. Getting out of the way.

That is what I do. Accomplish more by doing less.

We are trapped in a middle-managment world that wants middle-management decisions.  Let’s do away with the policies and procedures that do nothing for students.  Let’s stop thinking the answering to success is through standardization. Let’s stop forcing structured, lecture driven, teacher centred lessons.

Let’s accomplish more learning by doing less.

Mar 10, 2011

Should school be a game? An early reflection on Civic Mirror.

The game of school is so easy to play.  Just ask a Gr. 12 student. Even better, don’t let a Grade 12 student and watch the reaction.

The game of school is so easy to play.  Just watch a teacher who is showing up, but not buying in.

What if school was a game?  A well-designed, challenging, feedback-oriented, game?

My Futures Forum class (Gr. 10 English/Civic/Careers) is currently working through the beginning stages of a simulation/game called Civic Mirror.  I’ll be honest, when I was told about it, I was hesitant.  I cringe at working through ‘inauthentic’ scenarios that someone away from the classroom put together.

This has me, almost, convinced.

Civic Mirror allows a class to create a country, define its culture, understand it’s constitution, govern it and then participate in its economy by selling, trading and trying to achieve success.  Each student is given money, status, opportunity and a ‘hidden agenda’.  Each student makes choices that affect them as individuals and the country as a whole.  They battle for power, both official (in the form of political or judicial) or unofficial (economic or hidden factions).

Now although we have just started, my students are participating with zeal.  They enjoy it.  They are challenged by it.  The feedback of their actions comes immediately, the complexity of civic life is uncovered.  It is self-directed.

A content heavy concept (the running of the Canadian government) is being learned through experience and gamesmanship.  Very intriguing thus far.

I’m left wondering and asking more and more, how do we bring in the culture of gaming into other subjects?  How do we create the challenges, the feedback, the gamesmanship for subjects like English and Math, while still requiring the rigour?

As Jane McGonigal shows in her TED talk; gaming can change the world.  Now it is up to us as teachers to consider the framework of gaming and work together to create more simulations that engage our students.

Maybe school should be a game?

Mar 10, 2011
Comments Off on Little BIG Thing #3: Surprise Changes Culture

Little BIG Thing #3: Surprise Changes Culture

I believe that classroom culture is of the utmost importance.  It defines the learning.  Some people would argue that classroom culture is determined within the first week.  Some say, “you must set it early.”  I tend to disagree.

Classroom culture in my estimation is constantly in flux.  Events that happen within the context continually change culture.  I think surprise is one of the most powerful tools of classroom culture.

Although routine is important to a student’s ability to deal with the ‘learning’ work, the unease of not knowing what will happen raises awareness and I believe engagement.

This speaks to the idea that lessons should not be planned weeks in advance.  Not for the reason that you might not get through the material, but because surprise is as powerful for the teacher as it is for the student.  Surprise lets teachers be in the moment.

Sometimes the surprise comes when a student who thinks he’s going to be in trouble finds the teacher laughing alongside him.

Sometimes the surprise comes when the expectation is altered mid-stream.

Sometimes the surprise is nothing but a change in the routine.

I think by allowing for surprise, using surprise, and maintaining the will to be surprised, classroom culture will be rich, trusting and effective for learning.

Mar 2, 2011
Comments Off on My Grammar Mistake

My Grammar Mistake

I posted a Tweet in the middle of class today.


It contained an error.  A grammar error.  A small error, none of my students picked up on it.

My friend did though.  She picked it up almost instantly.  She corrected me for all my students to see.


The real story is that she corrected me instantly, from Ghana.  From around the world, she was able to see what I was doing in my class and be a part of it.

It was that simple.

Anyone who tries to say that the internet and our connectedness hasn’t changed things is completely wrong.

My classroom door is open.  Radically open.

The possibilities for my students are immense.  They have an opportunity to stream the TED conference happening in Palm Beach live, in class.  They can hear and learn from experts in the field.  They can hear new ideas and witness what is happening anywhere in the world.

On the other hand, the world can be part of my class.  They can ‘walk’ right in.  I’m hoping to have @erinantcliffe join my class as she talks about the work she is doing in Ghana with Engineers without Borders.

For many teachers, that might be the scariest of thoughts.  You never know who is watching.  For me, it’s liberating. It allows my students access to the world.  Connection and community.

The only thing I have to worry about is … my grammar.

Mar 1, 2011

The Room is Quiet, The Learning is Turned to 11

Today, the room is quiet.  Silent, really.  I have no clue why.

I haven’t told them to focus on their work.  I haven’t told them to sit and be quiet.  They just are.

The reason I suspect is that they are choosing their work today.  They have been given an opportunity to ask a question and uncover the answer.  The only thing I ask of them is to document the process.  Keep track of their pathway to learning.

One student is asking the question, “Why do we play video games?” He is on his way to discovering the relationship between challenge, exploration and accomplishment.  He will probably start looking differently at school too.  I’m going to send him the way of Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk.

One student is asking the question, “How do we determine who the greatest in a sport is?” He is on his way to discovering the relationship of criteria, statistics, media and the power of heroes.  He will hopefully start looking at celebrities and athletes differently, more analytically, while still being swept up in their brilliance.

One student is asking, “Why is school important?” She is on the way to establishing her own criteria of effective learning and in doing so will demand more of teachers she encounters.  She will take this and rethink every assignment, every lesson and become more of an active participant in her own education.

These questions are just a sampling of what my students are learning.  With this process, they are learning communication skills, reading critically, writing, connecting.  They are learning how to be active in their world and not passive citizens.  They are questioning to establish what interests them for their future.

Each student is exploring their own interests.  It may be the first time that some of them have been given the time, resources and support to self-select their learning.

The room is quiet, but the learning is turned to 11.

Feb 25, 2011
Comments Off on If I Don’t Share, Is It Because I Don’t Own?

If I Don’t Share, Is It Because I Don’t Own?

Yesterday, a colleague I respect, took me to task on my lack of sharing in my department and my lack of discussion I’ve engaged in about the course I’m teaching, the Futures Forum Project.  He challenged my notion of “who owns the course?”

It was great feedback.  Pretty accurate and deserved.

So I reflected.

He is right.  I probably share more online then I do in the department office.  Why is that?  Great question.  There are probably many factors.  Even online, I talk little about the day to day operation and more about the larger philosophical implications of my choices.

I’d like to say it is because I’m in the experimental phase.  I don’t really know what works yet.  I see reaction, but it takes time for me to see results, connect with students, get their feedback.  And while I thought about this idea more, it hit upon the other question.

Who owns the course?

Do I?

Does the department? A little more complicated as it is a merged credit including three departments.

Is it the school?

Is it the school board? It is a board wide initiative.

And then it hit me.

Part of my reluctance to share, part of my hesitation to talk day to day, is because I don’t own it.

The students do.

I have made a major change in philosophy to try to truly give power and control to the students as a body, but also as individuals.

It’s not something I can share easily.  It is a complete pedagogical shift of philosophy.

So, in all this, I’m still reflecting on what I can share.  I agree with his feedback, but I’m not sure the next step.

Feb 24, 2011
Comments Off on Leadership Questioned…

Leadership Questioned…

Just read a thought-provoking blog post about leadership in education today.  His blog post at Avoiding Cookie Cutter Syndrome really got me thinking about the nature of leadership in general.

It is perceived that leadership is connected with title.

It is perceived that “to make a real difference” you need to “move up”.

But what of the leaders who don’t have the fancy titles?

Derek Sivers, in his famous TED Talk, isolates the nature of leadership and talks about  the nature that it is often over-glorified.  Also, it is often the first follower who truly makes the difference, taking “the one lone nut and making him a leader.”

As Mr. Ballantyne suggests, the qualities that make someone a leader are not exclusive to those in positions of added responsibility, but I would suggest more often they are the silent risk-takers; only sometimes willing to open the door to their classroom knowing what they are doing is worth sharing.

I’d like to suggest that leaders are not always the gutsy ones. They are not always the loud and proud ones.

These are the educators that we need to nurture and we need to be their first followers.

These are the educators that will keep pushing the edububble, maybe even popping it.

I reflect often on the role I play in the education revolution.  Am I doing enough?  Am I rattling enough chains?  But maybe that isn’t the right tactic.  Maybe the right tactic of helping lead the change is through silent, patient change?

What’s my role in the leadership of the revolution?  Maybe it is in the education revolution where we redefine what it is to be a leader, maybe we start looking to those “lone nuts” more often, maybe we follow, rather than lead?

Many question, few answers.  Thanks Mr. Ballantyne for getting the questioning juices flowing…

Feb 22, 2011

What Learning Cycle Do You Teach?


If we forget to try or we get stuck in our failure, we do nothing.  If we try and fail, and celebrate being wrong we will learn and ultimately win.

The choice is easy.

Let’s celebrate failure, not shy away or complain about it.


Photo courtesy:

Feb 21, 2011
Comments Off on Gaming Classroom Culture

Gaming Classroom Culture

After having read, “Everything Bad is Good For You” by Steven Johnson a few thoughts jumped out that are directly related to how we teach and why kids game.

“We absorb stories, but we second-guess games.”

As an English teacher especially, this thought resonated.  We love our stories.  As teachers we often think, if we relate something to a story, if I can frame the story correctly, it will engage students.  Johnson is right; absorbing is not what where we are looking for our students to finish.  We want them to second-guess, become critical thinkers.  We want them to own the process of their learning. This only happens when we re-frame the story as a challenge/game/problem/question.  But it goes further than that…

Johnson says, “Better to have minds actively composing the soap opera of their own lives than zoning out in front of someone else’s.”

This is where personalized learning as the context for all learning is required.  We, too often, ask students to put their lives away and focus on our lives.  Our academically minded, subject-focused lives.  The ones we’ve planned, scripted, rehearsed and sometimes, done before.  It is a reminder that we must forget our plans and be willing to work with the lives the students bring to the room.

When it comes to gaming and integrated-game learning, Johnson says, “It’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re playing a game, it’s the way you’re thinking that matters.”

This is an especially important distinction.  This is the distinction that is needed.  Student engaging in video games are extremely rich, cognitively.  They use reasoning, logic, problem solving, creativity and many of the skills we want in our students.  Too often we see this play as frivolous. This is what we should want them to do.  Now it is the task of the teacher to frame games and frame learning in the same way.  To make it challenging, rewarding, skill-building, yet offer continuous feedback.

In the next little while, I’m trying to focus my cognitive faculties towards gaming culture.  Steven Johnson’s book was a great place to start.

How do we create a learning environment where the benefits of gaming structure are achieved?

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