Learning Labs: Incubators of next practice

Innovators inspire....learning labs Ryan 2In our school district, secondary schools have been invited to participate in the Learning Lab Project. The Learning Lab is designed as a learning laboratory where teachers are able to creatively innovate and explore new forms and structures for learning. Learning Labs are an opportunity to commit to being innovative in practice and to share that learning with others across the district. These are not “lead” schools but places of experimentation and incubators where good ideas can come alive.

The Learning Labs concept is more than creating or developing a space–it is about the people connected and committed to the concept. Upon googling the term, many are directed to ideas for makerspaces, breakout rooms with equipment, design spaces, etc… that have been created by many different organizations as part of their buildings. However, the Learning Lab concept can include these types of spaces but the intention and focus is on a larger picture school-wide, where what we would call “learning studios” (individual classrooms where innovative practices may be happening already) can be philosophically connected to a larger “learning lab,” where a group of teachers is committed to incubating innovative practices with collective visions.

At the end of the day the motivating factor is the needs of our learners for the future (and as many are seeing the redesigned curriculum as fuel to propose structural changes)  – the learning lab invites (and in some way gives permission) for us to manipulate the structures (for some this may be timetabling, courses in subject areas, class schedules, etc…) and tools that exist in schools. We are interested in “next practice” – connected to our district priority practices and district vision – so the learning lab concept is a model to scrutinize some of the boundaries or roadblocks that may sometimes get in the way of innovation.

What does this vision of the Learning Lab look like?

The Learning Labs provides an opportunity for educators to co-create redesigns of learning environments over a two-year period, intentionally manipulating the variables of tools, structures, and learning to design new opportunities for learning for both students and teachers. The term ‘lab’ implies practice and experimentation, not perfection. “The lab classroom is an in-house professional development model that takes place in a host teacher’s room during the normal school day” (Houk, 2010). It provides a context for all teachers to experience in-depth, sustained professional growth within a collaborative learning community.

Dream Big 2Innovative edge practices (like learning labs, learning studios, on-site coaching, demonstration schools and departments) become the seeds which with participation and acceptance flourish, moving these practices from the edges of the organization into the centre. The skillful role of teacher-leaders as builders of these inclusive learning structures is paramount to transformation. Teachers are architects of the learning environment, creating innovative structures and making use of tools that invigorate the learning process and deepen student engagement.

Guiding questions as those in our district consider a Learning Lab application for their school (secondary focus):

  • Do we have a core team (at least five teachers from multiple disciplines and one administrator) who will work closely to create a Learning Lab proposal for our school and make a formal commitment to this project?
  • Will our core team work together to connect our practices in accordance with our co-created Learning Lab proposal?
  • Is our school community ready to accommodate the flexibility required for potential structural changes?
  • Are we dedicated to being edgeplayers by demonstrating, sharing, and innovating openly outside the perceived norms of our school?
  • Are we committed to documenting our learning process, reflecting on our practice, and sharing our learning, both successes and failures?
  • Are we committed to promoting a collaborative culture – one that opens the doors of our classrooms to visitors, encourages others to apply “next practices,” and provides ongoing professional learning opportunities.

What is the school team committing to?iStock_000019906938XSmall

Phase 1: Creation of Anchor Design 

Schools commit to adopting a learning lab structure, an ideal incubator for testing new instructional methods and structures that more closely examine personalized learning and enhance deep student learning and engagement:

  • Schools pursue “better” and “next” practices that align with district priority practices of curriculum design, quality assessment, instructional strategies, and social and emotional learning.
  • Schools scrutinize past and current structures of instruction and engage in shared learning where the expectation is peer-to-peer coaching as a normative practice in the school.

Phase 2: Showcasing and Embedding Learning

  • Schools commit to an open door environment, hosting outsiders and colleagues to enable others to participate vicariously in the learning journey. The open door can provide alternative pathways to new understandings through unstructured visits for others to “see practice in action.”
  • Schools commit to offer structured visits, allowing opportunities for educators to question practice, observe learning, debrief learning, apply new strategies, and connect through ongoing networked touchbacks.

Structural Supports: Time, Resources, Expertise, Research

  • Time: The most valuable support that teachers can have is time to focus directly on their own learning as professionals and together with their colleagues. The school is encouraged to find ways to institutionalize and formalize learning time into the school’s structure. In addition, the school and the district may jointly provide funding to release teachers to focus directly on the learning lab concept.
  • Resources: The district may provide start-up materials and resources to support the use of alternate “tools” for learning. The district will also supply supplemental funding for the team to deploy in support of their model.
  • Expertise: The district may provide some expertise to support the Learning Lab but the Learning Lab is designed to build capacity at the school level so that the expertise resides among the learning lab team who will support each other in their learning journey. A helping teacher (instructional coach) may support the school team with conversations and planning.
  • Action Research: The school is expected to participate in the district’s Action Research program in order to provide an opportunity for school groups to engage in self-reflection, examine their impact on student achievement, and share their school’s learning across the system. Schools will explore and investigate measures of impact in consultation with a Helping Teacher.

The Learning Lab concept has been in development in the district
for over a year.  We are just now launching it at the Secondary level. In district focus groups held over the last two years, we heard over and over from educators that they want to see how the Redesigned Curriculum looks implemented in schools. We now have four Elementary Schools experimenting with this Learning Lab idea, with Cambridge Elementary actively up and running as a host school.  These Learning Labs provide educators with the opportunity to see some of these new ideas in education in action.

What would be really unique is if there were one or two other secondary schools in other districts that would consider adopting this model as well so we could network across our districts. Our learning would be amplified as we expanded our network with other innovative educator teams in other districts. Just a wild dream–but what a great opportunity for learning and pushing us all forward in transforming the learning agenda. Anyone in?

~ • ~ • ~ • ~ • ~ • ~

Blog Post Notes: The Learning Lab concept was developed by Elisa Carlson with the consulting support of Donna VanSant (Healthy Ventures). Thanks to Helping Teacher Joe Tong for his editorial assistance in refining the concept and whose words are also part of this post. As well, we want to acknowledge the contributions and feedback of Helping Teachers Alicia Logie and Iain Fischer for pushing our thinking on this topic. Appreciation goes to Helping Teacher Karen Fadum for helping supporting the embryonic development of the concept at the Elementary level. Thank you to Antonio Vendramin (Principal) and Kelli Vogstad (Vice-Principal) at Cambridge Elementary School for being the test case of early adopters.

Engaging the Digital Learner: Learning by Design

Design creates culture Quote
Our district continues to push the boundaries in understanding how to engage the digital learner in more effective ways. We have not achieved success but acknowledge and appreciate that this is a on-going journey. This is the notion behind our district’s vision of “Learning by Design.” We are the intentional architects and designers of these new learning experiences, places, spaces, and endeavours. Our work is deliberate, meaningful and challenges the status quo. Teachers takes risks, try, experiment, and repeat. What a privilege to learn from their stories.

At our dinner series in February, we were fortunate to hear from three outstanding educators, and a student, as they shared their passions in trying to make their classrooms and learning more meaningful. You can find their stories here:

Communicating Student Learning featuring teacher Beverley Bunker from Crescent Park Elementary School. Great comments, including this one: “Student voice was no longer optional, it was assumed.”

Applied Learning = Fun! featuring Zale Darnel a technology teacher from Princess Margaret Secondary School but now most recently hired to the Education Services as a Helping Teacher for Curriculum & Innovation.

You can also read his guest post here: Maker Day at Princess Margaret.

Our third presenter was a 13 year old grade 8 student from SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning). She provides a snapshot of what it means to be in the STEMX program through her presentation on Learning by Design.

Our fourth presenter was from Fraser Heights Secondary, teacher Jessica Gonsales “Ownership: I put that shift on everything!”

Jessica’s courage to design learning in new ways continues to be an inspiration for others across our district. We are grateful for the leadership she provides!

Bill Rankin PictureAs part of our dinner series, we were also fortunate to hear from Bill Rankin, one of Apple’s premier educators. His presentation is available to Surrey educators on the SS.ca hub at my internal blog Engaging the Digital Learner 2016: Learning in a New Age. Staff must be logged in to access this video.

A big thank you to all our #sd36learn educators for joining us at our February session. We look forward to May’s event with Jennie Mageira (@MsMageira) and more of our own Ignites.

Thank you to the Education Services Curriculum & Innovation Helping Teachers for organizing this event!

My Top 3 for 2015 (with apologies to Chris Kennedy)

îáåçüÿíêè 1


The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.

Arthur Miller

I tried not to do it but I couldn’t resist. I have parodied Superintendent Chris Kennedy on two previous occasions, taking his masterful Top Three List and brutalizing it a bit with my own satirical Top Three. I did this in 2012, and 2013. In 2014 I wrote a half-baked caricature but did not have the nerve to publish it. Now we are in 2015 and he has published his Top Three again (see here and read his first). I was waiting for it. I cannot keep my cheek in check. Even in this form, please note, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Charles Colton).

My Top Three Blog Posts

Here are most read posts for 2015, as gleaned from my followers.

  1. Reporting in a Digital Age
  2. A Window into Learning
  3. Innovation in Action: Learning by Design

But, I have to tell you the stats are absolutely pathetic. It is a wonder I post anything at all. The social media honeymoon just might be over. I note that the second most read post this year (2. A Window into Learning) was even published last year, in December 2014. At that, the post Treasure Wild Ducks: The Flight of Innovation continues to be the most popular piece and that was published way back in November, 2013.

Top Three Blog Posts I Would Like to be Writing

Chris seems disappointed more people are not blogging. He gives no explanation for why there is less blogging but leaves us hanging for a “next post” (unintended irony) on that topic. With no excuses–I expect to find him unpacking it for us in the New Year. And I would like to point out, I, at least, have excuses. I have not even started the blog posts that I would really like to finish. I would if I had time. I would if I could think clearly. I would if I didn’t have an inbox full of email. I would if I didn’t have four children underfoot (even Chris could have used that one). Posts that keep swirling in my head:

  1. Scaling Up: Chasing the Unholy Grail of Transformation
  2. Research Results from a District-Wide Learning Commons Implementation
  3. Passion, Purpose and People: The Interlocking Keys to Excellence

The Top Three Regularly Used Education words (that show we still don’t really know what we are talking about)

  1. Transformation
  2. Innovation
  3. Personalization

See also “scaling up” referred to above. Pardon my cynicism.

Top Three Videos I Have Watched

First of all, I would like to know when people have time to watch all these TEDx videos? I am still relishing the same animated movies from previous years.

  1. How to Train a Dragon
  2. How to Train a Dragon 2
  3. Despicable Me

I feel better AND I am inspired by the sheer art and beauty of them. Sometime I will find a list of the Top 10 videos for Educators, make some popcorn (or melt some butter and sprinkle it with popcorn) and then watch them all.

The Top Three1 Stories People will be talking about in BC in 2016 (see also above category regularly used education words)

  1. Reporting (aka Communicating Student Learning).
  2. Transformation.
  3. Innovation.
  4. Personalization.
  5. Scaling Up.

The Top Three2 Things I Learned This Year

  1. Hard Work Isn’t Always Enough
  2. Excellence is in the Eye of the Beholder
  3. Timing is Everything
  4. Professional Learning is Never Done
  5. Sometimes You Need to Let it Go

Top Three People/Things That Inspire Me

  1. Good Friends: They help me to “let it go”
  2. My Staff: They are amazing at what they do
  3. The Quiet: Silence in the swirl of work & home is treasured

The Top Three Books I Am Still Working On

  1. The Genius Hour Guidebook by Denise Krebs & Gallit Zvi
  2. The Innovators Mindset by George Couros
  3. Accelerate (XCR8) by John Kotter

Top Three Professional Highlights for 2015:

  1. New Staff Members: Karen Fadum (@mrsfadum) and Joe Tong (@teachertong), both Communicating Student Learning Helping Teachers, Shauna Nero (@MmeNero), Modern Languages Helping Teacher and Maryanne Kempthorne (@Maryakem), new Manager of Learning Resources. You should follow them all on twitter–they are great additions to an already amazing #sd36learn Education Services Team!
  2. A Window into My Child’s Learning: Having my own son get a digital portfolio (via @freshgrade) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve been working on this partnership for three years and when it reaches  my own child who attends school in another district–that’s personally and professionally rewarding. I get my own parent view!
  3. Learning from Others: Finding out how other leaders do their work  in other districts in B.C. and across Canada, inspires me.

Leaders I Admire:

  1. Dean Shareski (because I won a coveted #deanie award and he is a most gracious and giving man)
  2. Chris Kennedy (I continue to be inspired and learn from his work)
  3. Many Woman Leaders (some identified in this provocative post)

To sum up the 2015 year can be a daunting task. To follow the high bar set by Chris Kennedy in his blog Culture of Yes is impossible. I have blogged, though, at last.

And a big thank you to those of you that take the time to read my posts. Thanks for your patience with me as I continue to learn what it means to push the boundaries of innovation, attempt to transform education, personalize learning for both students and teachers, communicate that learning to wider audiences and scale up these changes across our district and beyond.3

I will be, forever, a dreamer.


1Did I mention I have a Numeracy problem?
2Numeracy continues to be a challenge.
3Guilty, I am.

Producing Quality Assessment in Digital Portfolios


The digital portfolio embraces the challenge of making learning visible and mirrors quality assessment where the learning and student choice, voice and ownership are central and core. How does one capture quality assessment evidence and produce an ongoing digital portfolio for every student? The point is not to regulate but to re-orientate what we know about quality assessment practice and to systematically uncover and capture what is essential in communicating student learning. It is no longer about standardization of reporting but about the personalization of the learning journey. Where are students now? Where are they going? And how are they going to get there?

Back to schoolDigital Portfolio: Fit for Purpose
A central purpose of all assessment is to understand where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment with the objective of improving their learning. https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/assessment. The digital portfolio is an ideal “fit” for this purpose. At its best it is formative, relevant and accessible. The crafting of the digital portfolio provides meaningful, collaborative learning and feedback and invites active involvement and engagement for both student and parent. (Karen Fadum, 2015. FRAME https://mrsfadum.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/where-is-the-learning-guidelines-for-using-digital-portfolios-to-communicate-student-learning/)

Guiding Principles for What Teachers and Students Include
Throughout the learning process, teachers and students intentionally focus on gathering evidence of learning that demonstrates student growth and helps to guide both instruction and learning moving forward. “What is captured and shared should show students’ learning over time, changes and growth in their ability to communicate, think and build their capacities of self as a learner.” http://abvendramin.com/2015/07/09/digital-portfolios-moving-beyond-the-glorified-scrapbook/

My GoalsIn collecting evidence the teacher role is thoughtful observer, listener, and designer. Quality documentation reflects the design of teaching/learning tasks which are well constructed, process-centered and open-ended inviting students to think, question, reflect and assess their own learning. Together teachers and students engage in setting criteria and uploading exemplars which allow for ongoing, timely, descriptive feedback for students and parents. The carefully shared decisions about WHAT to make visible not only helps students assess their growth but also helps them understand how to improve and move forward toward their learning intentions and goals.

Three important guiding principles should be considered when selecting documentation, artifacts and evidence (http://kellivogstad.com/2015/08/31/digital-portfolios-making-the-learning-visible/). It is important that what is made visible links with quality assessment practices and demonstrates student growth and learning.   Vogstad recommends: (1) Documentation which shows growth over time through revisited curriculum tasks or experiences, demonstrates concrete change in abilities, skills, behaviours, attitudes, and understanding; (2) Artifacts which invite student reflection and analysis of student learning incorporating the thinking operations of observing, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, hypothesizing, imagining, and making conclusions; and (3) Evidence that demonstrates student behaviour and growth in the three core competency areas: thinking, communicating ideas, and personal/social development, reflects meaningful and relevant learning across all curriculum areas and provides opportunities for students to show their learning in a variety of ways.

iStock_000058616460_SmallThere are four practical ways for teachers to categorize and organize
documentation (see Vogstad above). Two of the Same – Student completes two of the same tasks which are documented over a period of time. For example, an impromptu write completed in October, and one completed in January; the two similar artifacts invite observations and comparisons, demonstrating student’s growth and learning. Showing the Knowing – Demonstrations/process-based sharing: student presents or “walks” through an activity, task, or process, explaining thinking, strategies, connections, decision making, problem solving skills, and understandings. Celebrating the Learning – Documented student artifacts show skill and ability reflecting criteria of success. May include performance standard descriptors or task generated criteria; comments are made based on observed evidence that meets criteria. Communicating the How and Whys – The fourth component documented by the teacher provides parents accessing the documentation a lens through which they can understand and support their children’s learning. Descriptions and explanations about the curriculum activities are documented which inform, instruct, and communicate the big ideas, learning intentions, purpose, and goals behind the artifact. 

Dissonance and Hard Work
The exploration of communicating student learning using the digital portfolio is not without its challenges and has created some uncomfortable feelings of dissonance. At this stage there are probably more questions than answers and yet, educators are attracted to the opportunity to develop better and more meaningful ways to motivate students and communicate with parents using the digital platform.

The “hard work” is to continue the search for learning which is visual, fresh and aligned to elements of quality assessment. This forces teachers to think deeply about the design of activities and the ways they document, assess and share what they see. As designers, teachers are key to transforming the learning.

IMG_5313The Search for Delight
As teachers and students become more comfortable with using digital portfolios, students learn to search for their own evidence of their learning, upload artifacts and provide their own reflections on their growth–signalling the opportunity for them to have choice, voice and ownership and to produce their own brand of creativity.

The personalized learning journey depicted by visible artifacts and essential documentation produces quality moments which quite frankly register delight. On the part of the student, parent and teacher there has been powerful recognition of the influence of the well-crafted digital assessment. The evidence is formative, relevant, accessible, meaningful, and engages students in live, authentic action. And, the personalized learning journey has only begun.

~     ~    ~   ~  •  ~   ~    ~     ~

Research Note ~ Elements of Quality Assessment Pertaining to Digital Portfolios.

It is no longer about standardization of reporting but about the personalization of the learning journey. Where are students now? Where are they going? And how are they going to get there?
•  “What is captured and shared should show students’ learning over time, changes and growth in their ability to communicate, think and build their capacities of self as a learner.”
•  Communicating student learning to students and parents is for the most part formative and demonstrates student growth and learning.
•  Effective feedback is timely, ongoing, specific, descriptive, relevant, accessible and engaging.
•  The student role is an active one. Students assess and celebrate their own learning and understand steps toward improvement. Student choice, voice and ownership are central and core.
•  Assessment has a profound impact on motivation and well-being of student.
Results of assessment are used to monitor and adjust teaching and learning.

Note: Special thanks to Dr. Donna VanSant (@vansantd) for assisting in the consolidation of the thinking and contributions of myself and the others identified in this post. Thank you to the many #sd36learn teachers who have been embracing this learning journey and contributing to our understanding as an organization.

Reporting in a Digital Age

If you change the way you teach, you change the way you assess, and if you change the way you assess, you change the way you teach.

Tammy Hartmann, Principal, Ocean Cliff Elementary School

Problem Report Cards Glass Shattering 2Our district has been looking at and changing the way we communicate student learning for several years now. We recognized in an evolving societal context that our current reporting system was antiquated, not reflecting the realities of new research on assessment practices nor the possibilities offered in an expanding digital landscape. Our problem was multi-faceted: an antiquated report card platform, an archaic checklist approach to learning, misalignment with the BC Ministry of Education’s Redesigned Curriculum and changing understandings of quality assessment practices. Nor did our current system take advantage of a socially networked and connected world with new possibilities for sharing information.

Which train do you want to catch? 2Since 2012 we have been using digital portfolios in partnership with the company FreshGrade. In our first year we were part of their beta pilot, giving them our feedback as they developed the platform. In our second year, it became a pilot for teachers to use as an alternative form of communicating student learning. Last year, and this, we gave teacher’s the freedom to use it as one of three reporting options available in the district. We have a very exciting new non-digital template available as well so teachers have the opportunity to choose which new practice they want to try on. We made a commitment to not force change but to give teachers opportunities to learn more about assessment and reporting practices both digitally and non-digitally. The former, however, is the focus of this post.

As we explored sharing student learning through a digital window, we had key questions that drove our learning. In today’s context, we wondered if we could…

  • communicate student learning in more powerful ways?
  • communicate student learning to increase student success & engagement?
  • use technology to highlight student learning & thinking?
  • change “reporting” to fit with what we know about quality instruction, learning & assessment?

We wanted to consider, what are the possibilities in a new world?

  • How can we leverage this digital tool to transform learning?
  • How can we encourage & direct the conversation?
  • Who is telling and shaping the story?
  • Can we create a new story and a better way of “reporting?”

It is important to note that central to our thinking has been keeping the role of the teacher clear: We know that no web 2.0 tool, no program, no paper template transforms learning. Teachers transform learning.

As we engaged in our learning journey as a district, more and more questions would emerge to push our thinking. Are we making learning visible? What is the evidence of learning? Full stop. These latter two questions are perhaps most significant for those embarking on this journey.

Once you begin to look at digital portfolios, it creates the opportunity to examine student learning and explore what quality assessment looks like in a digital context. For us, it is not about posting cute pictures or entertaining videos, nor is it about overloading a portfolio with endless artifacts that fail to communicate the learning journey. The focus is on evidence of learning that demonstrates student growth and helps to guide both instruction and learning moving forward. We recognize that as teachers, we are learners on a continuum of understanding as well. There is the first step of accomplishment from uploading an artifact and conquering the technical piece of the platform to progressing to understanding how to gather artifacts that actually show student learning and incorporate important descriptive feedback. As teachers and students become more comfortable with using digital portfolios, students can actually learn to search for their own evidence of their learning, upload artifacts and provide their own reflections on their growth–signally the opportunity for them to have choice, voice and ownership. Student engagement quickly accelerates the motivation and interest in learning.

We have shared our journey with others internally, locally and abroad at evening sessions, workshops, and conferences as well as through social media. Our most recent event is at the Learning Forward Conference in Washington, DC. As part of sharing our journey—imperfect as it is—we wanted to include some of the learning that has taken place while growing in our understanding of this new form of digital reporting. To learn more about what it means to actually show the learning, we have several helpful blog posts that we reference in our district (click on the title to access):

Where is the learning? by Karen Fadum, a Communicating Student Learning Helping Teacher (Instructional Coach) with Education Services.

Moving Beyond the Glorified Scrapbook by co-authors Antonio Vendramin, Principal, and Kelli Vostad, Vice-Principal, Cambridge Elementary School.

Making the Learning Visible by author Kelli Vostad, Vice-Principal, Cambridge Elementary School.

e-Portfolios in Language Classes by author Shauna Nero, Modern Languages Helping Teacher (Instructional Coach) with Education Services.

For more information about e-portfolios for language teachers, you can read Le portfolio numérique et FreshGrade by Shaun Nero.

If you want to know more about how we started off when it was first a pilot, the description is found here: The Pilot: Communicating Student Learning.

A Window into Learning, is adapted from an Executive Briefing presented to the District Senior Team and co-authored by myself and with Dan Turner, Director, Information Management Systems, and describes our adventure and rationale for moving into digital portfolios.

Thanks to Kelli Vogstad for the helpful descriptions for ways to make learning visible using portfolios. Her document of Guiding Principles is an easy one pager for teacher reference. You can download it here: CSL Making Learning Visible Guiding Principles Vogstad.

This video uses the words of famous thinkers, leaders in the field of assessment and the words of those who have lived the experience in our district. We often use this at the end of a session as a way to encourage new thinking about assessment practices. (Music Credit: “Shadow by Lindsey Sterling).

We have a multitude of other documents that we have developed to support the scaling up of this project, everything from powerpoints to a planning tool for teachers and even a guide for parents. (Click here to download the Digital Portfolio Parent Guide). A big thank you to the #sd36learn educators in our district (many are mentioned above) who have been creating these documents “just in time.”

There are other educators across our province who are also doing significant work with Digital Portfolios. You can read more from Ian Landy, Principal of Sorrento Elementary, on his website. You can read more about Kindergarten/Grade 1 teacher Michelle Hiebert’s journey with e-portfolios on her website as well.

Innovation is messy signpost 2Your are welcome to contact us if you would like more information.

The more we can do to help travel this uncharted path together, the lighter the load for all.

Maker Day at Princess Margaret Secondary

Guest Post: Thank you to Zale Darnel, and his colleagues, for contributing this guest post.

On September 28, 2015 Princess Margaret Secondary School held a “Maker Space” workshop and it was amazing! Here is our story and some pictures.

With ninety educators in attendance, some from our school and some of our local elementary schools the learning commons was buzzing with people and excitement. What made the day even more fun was that not everyone was familiar with what “Maker Space” meant.  As teachers arrived and saw the tools, materials and supplies, you could feel the enthusiasm in the room. This was going to be a hands on day and right away everyone was enthused.

StoryboardThe process started with us forming our groups and looking at our design scenarios. For our challenge we gave the groups a choice of two scenarios, “Mobility in an aging society” and “Food in a cold climate.” We spent the first hour talking design and finding the issues with the problem.   This on its own was interesting as different people in the group brought their perspectives and ideas. The teams worked to find the problem and ideas that worked toward solutions and, once a “design” was settled on, the work of “Making” could begin. Each group was given a “kit” with objects that they needed to work into their design as well as access to group materials and a tool station.

teachersattableThis is where the real fun began!! Everyone was so excited and engaged in learning. The learning commons was alive with people moving, creating, cutting, building and just having fun. For two plus hours everyone worked expressing their creative ideas and having a great time. I saw colleagues drilling and cutting that had never use a drill or a saw before, people sitting on the floor building like little kids and people helping each other express their ideas for others to see. I even saw our administrators getting into the fun using a rotary tool and passionately searching for supplies. Everyone was engaged and having fun, we could have worked at “Making” all day, no one wanted to stop! However, as our two hour build time wound down everyone frantically worked to finish their prototypes and make any last minute improvements.

BoxNext came a chance to look at everyone’s creations. I thought the building part was the most fun until I saw what everyone made. WOW–was I amazed! Out of the two scenarios that were given the room was split about 50/50, which made it even cooler to see all the different ideas. We all had a chance to walk around and talk to each group about what they built and why and was I impressed!!! People came up with designs and ideas that I would never have thought of; it was fascinating to see. I found myself absolutely enthralled looking at everything and touching it to see how it all worked. I had so many questions, but I wasn’t the only one. Each “prototype” creation had large crowds gathered around asking questions and commenting on how awesome their ideas were.

FruitsVegetablesAs the day finished, several teachers’ commented that it was one of the best professional development days ever! Many even said they could see themselves using the ideas of “Maker Space” in their classrooms.   But the best comment I heard at the end of the day was, “I didn’t know this was so much fun, I thought we would be listening to someone else speak or be on computers all day.”

ThumbsUpOur Maker day was a huge success! I would like to thank our Pro-D committee, our Administration, the ITA for helping fund the event and Susan and Deb from UBC for presenting and leading the day.  We are all looking forward to using the concepts more in our secondary classes and having visits from our local elementary schools to have younger students learn in our maker space as well.

Thank you to everyone who participated and to everyone that made this possible. What a great experience!

The Structures of Innovation


Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.

Steve Jobs

Historical ruins in Philadelphia

Historical ruins in Philadelphia

I have a fascination with structures. Whether these are the physical structures of cityscapes, the formal systems in organizations or the informal structures hidden in organizations, how they are created, used, morph, disappear and replaced, intrigues me. The structures, in schools and districts, are the patterns and frameworks through which innovation and system change move. There is the visible and the invisible—each part playing a powerful role in system transformation. In the work we do, it is the structures that can give us opportunities for change, coherence, meaning and, ultimately, reorganization. Never underestimate the power of an intentional, strategic and well-designed structure to transform the learning environment.

The old reflected in the new

The old reflected in the new

At the start of this past summer I travelled to Philadelphia. The city has a unique backdrop of historical and contemporary significance. It has deep roots with one of the oldest original settlements together with the home of Benjamin Franklin in juxtaposition with contemporary skyscrapers such as the Comcast building. Wikipedia described it citizens in the early twentieth century as “dull and contented with its lack of change”, but the city, and the people, as demonstrated at the International Society of Technology Education (ISTE) Conference, has been transformed into one of the top 10 US cities to visit and a hub of 21st century learning.

Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction and Dan Turner, Director of IMS
Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction & Dan Turner, Director of IMS

This year’s conference brought the added excitement of our district receiving the ISTE 2015 Sylvia Charp Award for District Innovation in Technology for our commitment to technology planning focused on transformative learning. We are the first school district in Canada to win this prestigious award. In early summer, we were recognized on an international stage among 20,000 peers. It took intentional and strategic structures—both formal, informal, and hidden–to get us to that place in the spotlight. Our technology ecosystem incorporates the key structures that allow the organization to become a learning place of significance.

Surrey Schools is considered a national leader by educators and Chief Technology Officers alike for its initiatives in planning, building, and integrating technology into education. Whether it is our Innovative Learning Designs strategies, our Learning Commons conversions, our Makerspaces movement, the Making Learning Visible e-portfolio partnership with FreshGrade, or our social media branding, our learning is carefully crafted in organizational structures, requirements, and guiding principles that create the conditions for learning to flourish.

Our technology ecosystem aligns to a shared technology vision that replaced isolating silos with collaborative cross-discipline teams and, more recently, to a refreshed transformative district vision for learning: Learning by Design (LbD).

The Ecosystem Structure

The Ecosystem Structure

The ecosystem emphasizes collaboration and engagement within a progressive governance model, integrating five essential components: Leadership, Professional practice, Schoolhouse, Technology toolbox and Partnerships. At the heart and centre of our ecosystem is the learner.

The technology ecosystem infuses and promotes innovation in the classroom, professional inspiration and learning, building school communities and networks, the transformative use of technology tools, and optimal planning efforts tied to appropriate resource allocation.

Our teachers transform learning in their classrooms and schools. Through technology, they are creating personalized opportunities for authentic student engagement and deep learning that go beyond the cursory completion of prescriptive learning outcomes. Technology has helped teachers create fresh opportunities for student voice, choice and ownership that are grounded in the core competencies of critical and creative thinking, contemporary forms of communicating and real ways of expressing personal and social responsibility.

Organizational design + Infrastructure

Organizational design + IT Infrastructure

Our transformative change was fueled in 2010 by the district’s strategic requirement for school-site specific learning plans to accompany any hardware requests. These plans included learning-focused questions, professional learning opportunities, collaborative inquiry teams of teachers and the explicit sharing of learning through social media. All of those requirements were predicated on an Information Technology (IT) infrastructure that was foundational for these organizational changes. The IT department, beginning over a decade prior, had worked systematically to create the hidden structures, networks, wiring closets, bandwidth and more, which made new forms of learning possible.

The Sylvia Charp Award acknowledges our systemic approach to the diffusion of pedagogical practices that are underpinned by teacher-led inquiry and embedded learning. It also recognizes the professionalism and commitment of teachers engaged in the process of continuous improvement, supported by the districts nurturing ecosystem. And finally, the Award acknowledges the collaborative work of the Education Services department’s focus on learning with an IT department that is committed to both anticipating and removing the barriers to that learning.

IMG_5367 (1)What’s next for us? We will build capacity within the system to create new and ever evolving structures, provide appropriate tools and experiment with new forms of learning. We will continue to share our stories, learning and inspiration with each other (#sd36learn) and our peers around the globe. We will provide opportunities for teachers to “see” into each others’ classrooms, observing, reflecting, exploring and playing with new notions of teaching and learning. These classrooms and schools will act as Learning Studios and Learning Labs where the exploration, play and sharing of practice on a peer-to-peer level is nurtured.

The district’s strategic organizational structures, together with the tools we use, the technology infrastructure, resources and learning support, will help us to further understand, embrace and expand this intentional learning by design across the system. Surrey School’s technology ecosystem – with our learners firmly at the centre – continues to create and build the capacity for our continued learning evolution.


Note: For more information on the District’s strategic work on transforming learning, see cover article in October issue of T.H.E. Journal. Thank you to Dan Turner (@dj_turner), Lisa Domeier (@librarymall), and Jeff Unruh (@unruh_j) for participating in with T.H.E. Journal photoshoot. For more information on the district’s IT department, see wickedproblems.ca.  See Superintendent Dr. Tinney’s (@jordantinney) blog at jordantinney.org for related stories. Big thanks to the #sd36learn tribe who are creating, designing and living the change. You have been my cheerleaders.

Our Journey into Pedagogical Documentation

Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning,
observe carefully what children do, and then,
if you have understood well,
perhaps teaching will be different from before.
Loris Malaguzzi

Some Investigations Last Minutes
“Inquiry shaped our belief that pedagogical documentation furthers a strength-based image of children, makes their thinking visible, provides for student and teacher reflection and helps drive a co-constructed responsive curriculum . . . Pedagogical documentation is powerful and important when put into practice with our students.” Those are the words of Surrey elementary teachers Hilary Wardlow, Kerri Hutchinson, Laura Verdiel, Lora Sarchet, Niki Leech, and Courtney Jones as they recently celebrated their journey to better understand and implement pedagogical documentation.

Reggio PD TeamWhere did their learning begin? Hilary, Lora and Niki attended Pedagogical Documentation as a Professional Development Tool sponsored by the Vancouver Reggio Consortium Society in October 2014, which sparked their interest in pursuing their learning further. They decided to put forward an application to the Britich Columbia Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) Teacher Inquiry Program to explore pedagogical documentation and extended an invitation to other SD36 Reggio inspired educators: Courtney, Laura and Kerri, to join them. They were awarded the BCTF Program for Quality Teaching grant in late November, jointly sponsored by the BCTF, the Surrey Teachers’ Association (STA) and Surrey Schools (SD36). BCTF Inquiry Facilitators Henry Lee and Catherine Quanstrom provided their expertise in guiding the team in monthly ½ day sessions.

In addition to release time for inquiry sessions, the group used grant funds to observe classes at Meadowbrook Elementary School, the Reggio inspired elementary school.  Classroom teachers, Harpreet Esmail and Shannon Bain, hosted the team’s visit to observe student-led inquiry and pedagogical documentation, generously debriefing their learning.  As well, the team attended four evening dinner sessions focused on pedagogical documentation which were facilitated by Bev Superle, Director of Vancouver Reggio Consortium Society and hosted by SD40.

The team connected regularly through release-time, self-directed Pro-D, Twitter (#sd36reggio) and Facebook as they explored numerous digital and non-digital ways of documenting learning. Their celebratory slideshow below provides a brief summary into their learning.

Simultaneously, many of these same educators, with the addition of Sandra Ball, (Inner City Early Learning Helping Teacher), Sarah Schnare, Carrie Donahue, Julia Thompson from Surrey and teacher teams from four other districts (Richmond, Delta and Burnaby) were engaged in a Cross-District Reggio-Inspired Mathematics Project. Based on the BC Association of Mathematics grant proposal submitted by Richmond teacher consultant, Janice Novakowski, the participating districts asked the question, “Beyond problem-solving which is inherently inquiry-based, are there other practices that nurture mathematical inquiry?” In total, twenty teachers were involved in this pilot.

Janice Novakowski articulates,”Reggio-inspired practices, drawing upon the pedagogy of the early learning schools in Reggio Emilio, Italy, are becoming an area of professional interest to teachers in BC. Many teachers are weaving Reggio-inspired practices into their early primary programs having students share their learning through their “hundred languages” and bring in natural materials, authentic experiences and a focus on the child as being capable.”

The BCAMT pilot focused the teachers’ inquiries around several key questions: “How might Reggio-inspired practices be used in the area of mathematics? What does mathematical inquiry look and feel like in early primary classrooms? How can we ‘make learning visible’ for our youngest students?”

image1How did this transformation of the teaching experience look in the classroom? Janice Novakowski provides specific ways to create the conditions to focus the learning through an inquiry lens: “For example, the teacher may pose the question ‘What is a pattern?’ or ‘How many different ways can yo represent 7?’ and lay out a variety of materials for students to choose from and investigate as they think about the inquiry question. Wondering, observing, thinking, representing, sharing and reflecting are all practices embedded in an inquiry approach and are foundational to Reggio-inspired practices.”

This group also intentionally set  out to foster the creation of an active reggio-inspired professional learning community through “encouraging an online presence and sharing experiences through twitter and blogs.” Share, share, share. Whether it was through workshops, release days of active face-to-face learning, teachers were engaged in deep learning around their own professional practice and widening the circle to include others across the province.  Just as they explored how children could document their learning, these teachers were equally committed to documenting and making their own learning visible for others.

Both of these professional inquiry groups used Reggio Emilio practices as a foundation from which to explore, build and renew their learning journey as teachers. As these educators were encouraged to create joy and wonder in their own students’ learning, they found unanticipated joy and wonder in their own learning as well.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Teacher Consultants Sandra Ball and Janice Novakowski and Reading Advocate Courtney Jones for their contributions to this article.

Making, Math and Mother’s Day: A Belated Post

Family Motto 3In the short time I was out, I return to a disaster. Right on schedule, for Mother’s Day. My husband says this happens every day.

After being served breakfast in bed by the two youngest, we go for a family walk. The 19 year old is over the top with end of term exams and group projects as he wraps up his first year at BCIT. He barely notices me as he heads back for yet again another day on the campus to get it done. He has no time for a family walk. I am fortunate that he texts me from the campus to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. I reiterated the family motto.

Science in Progress ElijahAnd then, I escape on the road bike to ride out to Fort Langley to the end of River Road. I wasn’t really gone that long. Honestly. I rode the bike for just over 60 minutes and came home to a super-big mess. The first thing I noticed was the tub of canola oil on the drive way surrounded by empty Alka-selszer wrappers and assorted kitchen items. “What happened here?” I asked the 11 year old. Of course, he is already on to the next best thing, “You know, we were blowing up stuff.”

Mini-Golf with FeetMini Golf Front YardMini-Golf Soccer Net Front YardMini-Golf Hole In GardenHe and his neighborhood buddies are too busy to explain more because they are preoccupied with getting golf balls to their designated holes. Yes, the front yard and every assorted item they could yank out of the garage has been converted into a mini-golf course. It covers the front yard and back. It includes holes made from play dough and empty flowerpots buried slightly into our flower garden.

I wasn’t sure about the crochet set. The 11 year old was waiting to mow the lawn and then was planning to set it up. Still, it was staggered across the front lawn. He assists in mowing the back lawn. They drag the crochet out to the back. I call out to the 16 year old, “Come and play crochet.” He laughs, shakes his head and replies, “I’ll pass. And mom, it’s not called crochet. It’s croquet!” His dad explains the rules to the 11 year old. They play a bit. Then his dad explains the concept of poison. And gets him. Game over. My child is clearly not impressed with the rules of the game.

I cut the 16 year old’s hair. I cut the 11 year old’s hair. It is Mother’s Day and they want their hair cut. I threaten the 11 year old with the Mother’s Day special: a Mohawk. He gets excited. He wants it. I do it (the hair cut, not the Mohawk). I always cut their hair. And it shows. Clearly, I am not a hairstylist. But get this, they are happy. That’s what matters.

Ocean Lightning Ellis 2015Why the rocks and the planks were hiding the cul-de-sac drain, I don’t know. I don’t know about the water guns either but the 8 year old changes his soaking wet clothes and retreats into the house. He is drawing pictures. He has been preparing for an art sale for several weeks. (I don’t know–where does all this come from?). He wants to make copies and sell them. He has over 42 originals tucked in his folder. We discuss the concept of originals and reprints so he knows that originals are much more valuable. He draws most of the afternoon. I go and lift weights. I come home and he has now decided to broker a deal. It is Mother’s Day. He will let me buy all his drawings for $40.00 but because it is Mother’s Day I can have 25% off. The deal expires today.

Bird Ellis 2015I feel some pressure. We talk more, he draws more, we negotiate, and we discuss the deal with his dad. We talk about 50% off and then he comes up with a creative solution: I can have all the drawings (there are now 57) for $10.00, which is 75% off, provided I take him to Toys-R-Us within the next 5 days to spend his money. I explain to him that in order to close the sale he will have to do portraits for each member of the family (all 6 of us). He suggests instead that he draw portraits that have half of each members face on them. Then he only needs to draw three portraits. He draws half of my face and half of my husband’s as a portrait. I agree and the deal is closed. He lets me know, however, that if I do not get him to Toys-R-Us within the next five days then I must pay $20. This has been a long and exhausting negotiation but we have it squared.

The 11 year-old now begins drawing as well. He wants his own deal. He draws cartoons and jokes. He is working on a humorous collection.

I get my choice for dinner. Do I want a barbecue at Crescent Beach? The 16 year old is immersed in homework. He has missed a lot of school for all sorts of school events (track, leadership, mediation training) and begs off doing anything but homework. The 19 year old is still on campus (but I can see he has loaded new files into our Dropbox folder–he must be making progress). There is no point, however, in having a Mother’s Day barbecue at the beach with their schedules. I opt for turkey burgers at home. I know it is easier. It is Mother’s Day. It doesn’t really matter.

To Mom from Mystery GuyThe 11 year-old takes my iPhone, my ear buds and heads out with the sound of music to clean up the yard. The 8 year-old has sold his complete art collection. The 16 year old has his haircut and the 19 year-old has uploaded his projects into Dropbox.

For me it’s been a simply good day.

Celebrate the Tribe


Tribe Seth Godin Quote 2Me: I have a crazy idea. You would be perfect. Would you consider doing something to honour #sd36learn teachers and their innovation as a community? If I needed you, would you consider doing an Ignite?

Dean: Yes and yes.

Me: The idea is that your Ignite would thank all the teachers in the district for being innovative and recognize the #sd36learn COMMUNITY.
Think about it…..
You are all about joy.
It is a fit for you.
This is our last night of the series so I wanted it to be celebratory. You could honour people. I tried to organize a flash mob and video but have run out of time. I wanted: youtube.com/watch?v=mytLRy…

Dean: I’ll figure something out.

Me: Not a mention of district staff. Just about celebrating the wonderful work. About learning. About sharing. About joy.

Dean: Whatever you need…

Me: Hope you are good. Looking forward to connecting tomorrow. I hope I haven’t made you feel pressured.

Dean: Nope. I like a good challenge. Hope you’ll like it. Nothing fancy but celebrates your tribe.

Me: Perfect. I like that: Celebrates your tribe. That is exactly what it is….

Honoured to have you in the room to do it. Can’t think of a better person. You know, understand and build community (tribe).

Thanks to Dean for sharing the joy of the #sd36learn tribe!

And that wasn’t all. We continued to celebrate as teachers and students shared the joy of the learning journey.

See Lisa Domeier de Suarez, known affectionately as @librarymall, share her joy of the “Maker Space.”

In case you don’t know, it was Lisa, with her colleagues, that gave birth to the #sd36learn hashtag four years ago after being inspired at ISTE. You can see the Birth of a Hashtag slideshare here (pretty great slides!):

Our district is forging ahead with changing structures, places, tools and ways of learning, all by intentional design. The educators in our very own backyard who are experimenting and putting it into action are our inspiration. Jennifer Jenkins, Sarah Amyotte, Dolkar McBride, and Edward Ewacha, a teaching team from Earl Marriott Secondary School shared their Ignite: StEMs- Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning. Seeing our own educators in the unfinished journey of innovation, and the willingness to share it with their colleagues, is what others find inspiring. So glad they came to the evening to share!

Arjin and Taziya, grade 6 students from Pacific Heights Elementary shared how Students Taking Charge of Their Learning has changed “school” for them. Special thanks go to first-year teacher Danielle Peters for creating the conditions for these learners to flourish. Their confidence, enthusiasm, passion and ownership of their learning is really quite amazing.

Our keynote speaker, Lance Rougeaux, challenged our thinking with his presentation: STEMulating Minds Want to Know and Do. He helped us redefine our thinking about STEM and what it means now in 2015.

 We had a wonderful evening with the #sd36learn tribe, both those inside and outside our organization. Thank you to all for learning with us and sharing the journey together. Seth Godin captures it best in the title of his book: Tribes: We need you to lead us.


Author’s Note: Special thanks to all our Igniters! Thanks to Dean Shareski for letting me share excerpts from our Direct Messages over Twitter.