Tag Archives: school culture

Innovative Learning: School-Based Exploration

The real problem is not adding technology to the current organization of the classroom, but changing the culture of teaching and learning.

Alan November

Last week we announced the forty elementary schools that were awarded our Innovative Learning Designs Grant (ILD, Phase 2) for the upcoming school year. The ILD project is an opportunity for teachers to explore how to best prepare students for the future. The National Council of Teachers of English (2008) defined twenty-first century readers and writers as those that need to:
•  Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
•  Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
•  Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
•  Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
•  Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
•  Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments These specific needs set the context for our challenge. How do we move forward to equip our students with these skills, fluencies and understandings to navigate their future? Schools in the project have the opportunity to explore that very question.

The Learning Design project provides an opportunity for educators to work together over a two-year period to create transformative learning experiences for their students. Using an inquiry approach, school teams will design an instructional plan that is built upon the foundational elements that best support student learning. These include:

  • Learning tasks that are authentic (e.g. project and problem-based), relevant and cross-curricular
  • Assessment that is ongoing, performance-based, equitable and guides instruction;
  • Constructivist instructional models that engage students in inquiry
  • Diverse learning needs are met with differentiated content, process and product
  • Collaborative learning opportunities that are incorporated into both physical and virtual spaces
  • Use of technology as a learning tool
  • Creative and critical thinking skills are pervasive across all curricular area
  • Students are able to influence and actively participate in shaping their learning.

The following questions were used to help guide school conversations as staff explored what the project might mean for their school:

  • Where are we now, and what would we like our story to be?
  • What promising practices or initiatives do we currently have in our school that guide our work? What is their impact on student learning? Upon what evidence do we base our decisions?
  • How might we reshape, redesign or rethink existing structures to further engage and sustain students in learning?

 Schools that indicated an interest in being part of the project made a commitment to work together within some guiding principles.

  1. Collaborative Inquiry:
    •  Creating a collaborative team that is engaged, over a two-year timeline, in inquiry into critical questions about teaching and learning using key research and sharing reflections on evidence of student learning
    •  Sharing out to a wider audience at the end of each school year
  1. Instructional Design:
    •  Designing a wide variety of differentiated, student-centered learning activities which integrate technology
    •  Using ongoing formative assessment of student needs to inform the action plan
    •  Using summative assessment periodically throughout the two-year plan to determine the effectiveness of the innovations and to set future directions
  1. Structural Support:
    •  School team dedicating a non-instructional day to supporting the project
    •  School team members meeting regularly to reflect, debrief, and plan next steps
    •  School team members networking with other schools involved in the project to share successes and challenges

The project is grounded in collaborative inquiry and is teacher-driven and school-based. No school project will look the same. Each school and the staff that embark on this journey will be exploring this future through their collaborative lens. We look forward to the shared learning!

Special thanks to the Surrey School District Helping Teachers who wrote the original grant and its revised versions. This post is based on that grant application.

A Movement for Radical Social Innovation

Think of yourselves as a movement not attached
to the union or the government.
Charles Leadbeater

I was fortunate to attend the BC School Superintendent’s Winter Conference along with over 425 other attendees. I heard from Charles Leadbeater, Larry Rosenstock, John Abbott, Geoge Abbott and Bruce Beairsto. It was Charles Leadbeater’s comments, however, that were the most provocative. His presentation was called Innovation at Scale: Strategies for Radical Social Innovation. I also heard him speak at a CoastMetro session earlier in the morning. There were 150 people, including teachers and parents, in attendance at that morning event. Some key thoughts from all three of his sessions resonated for me.

Your vantage point determines what you can see…” was the opening slide. Our own organizational and system blinders often insulate us. Much like horses, we keep our focus away from the crowds and anything that might distract us from our purpose. He encouraged us to take ourselves out of education and have conversations about innovation with others. When we are consumed by racing down our own tracks, we fail to see what is happening around the world. Education and innovation look different elsewhere. The conversations with others in other professions, in other fields, in other business, and in other places, can enrich our own understanding. As tweeted by Cale Birk, “When we innovate, need to look sideways at other fields. We are too protected in our Ed cloistered life.” A wider vantage point, as we consciously and intentionally remove our blinders, allows us to create a more compelling and urgent vision. Leadbeater emphasized, “Just doing more isn’t enough. You have to do more, better and different. It is the different that is key.” It is strikingly different elsewhere.

See yourselves as mobilizers of the community rather than administrators of the system,” urged Leadbeater. He challenged us to move beyond pockets of innovation to transforming the whole field. He proceeded to ask us, “How do we increase this community’s capacity to learn?” How do we create large-scale system change? What are the tools at our disposal? Radical social innovation is most successful when it is a movement connected to a committed community that is driven by a compelling vision. Think of yourselves as a movement and not a system. We are the mobilizers of that community.  Who is leading this transformation? Our movement will be educators in the field that are engaged in shifting their pedagogy and collaborating with other educators in this pursuit.

People have to be pulled to innovation. You have to craft activities that draw people to innovate.” Are we doing that in our district? Your district? Who is crafting these activities that will draw educators—administrators and teachers alike—into the movement? Are we creating a pull to a new way of leading? Teaching? Learning? It isn’t about a push; it is about a pull because it is connected to a meaningful, authentic, moral purpose. We are creating a future for our own children. My son in kindergarten loves school. His favorite activity is “centre time.” My son in grade 3 loves math and gym. My two oldest boys, however, in grade 8 and 10, have “mixed emotions” about school and sometimes find it “boring.” The love for learning that characterizes young children—needs to be replicated for all students. Who will do that for my two oldest? Must we wait until it is too late for them?

Leadbeater made reference to the C’s in Innovation. These are composed as a series of questions, causing us to reflect on our own leadership practice.

Crisis: Is there a crisis–a sense of urgency for this change?

Curiosity: Have we created a space for educators to be curious and explore?

Connections: Are we working in combination with others? Are we creating connections with others, with ideas, with the past and the future?

Conversations: Are we having a conversation with others about this? Who is in the conversation? Who is hosting it? Where do we have our best conversations?

Challenge: Are we prepared to challenge ideas, ask stupid question, pursue useful deviants, and support the move to the future?

Commitment: And have we (that would be both you and me) made a commitment?—“You don’t learn to swim standing on the side of the pool.”

Co-creation: Can we co-create? Are we open to innovating for, with and by others? Who can you adopt? Who do you follow? And who is following you?

The C’s allow us to think strategically about our efforts.

I had the privilege of attending a powerful conference with world-class speakers. For that I am deeply grateful. But along with that privilege comes the responsibility to do something with the knowledge I have gained. If it doesn’t change my practice, then it has merely been a fascinating, titillating but somewhat empty intellectual exercise. That simply isn’t good enough for me. I want to create the movement. Are we creating mere pockets of innovation or can we scale it up to a radical social movement? I am committed to jumping in the pool. Will you join me?

Innovative Learning—For Teachers, For Students and For Me

I have the privilege of visiting schools. Once a week I head out for a site visit with Dan Turner, the Director of Information Management Systems (IMS), to the Innovative Learning Designs schools. We send a list of questions out to the principals ahead of time. For example, Where is the integration of technology working well? Do you have any evidence it is impacting student learning? Are you and your students using social media? Is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) happening at your school? If not, help us understand what the barriers might be to encouraging this practice? And, how can you move BYOD forward at your own school? How are you (as administrators) using technology to accelerate your own learning? How are you using your own use of technology to impact your staff? The district has created a potential cadre of digital coaches (technology facilitators, teacher-librarians and administrators) at every school in Surrey. How can you use this cadre to help push practice forward? What are the challenges, if any, from a technical point of view (equipment maintenance, wireless, internet speed, technical support)? Although we send out a list of questions ahead of time, we also let the administrators know that the visit is intended to be a “learning conversation.” They are welcome to invite any staff member to join us or to have us take a tour of classrooms instead. Sometimes the conversations supersede the questions with the exciting stories of staff and student learning.

There are so many things I have learned. I have been amazed at the work of our teachers–their excitement, their enthusiasm and their willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of their own learning. I also have a much greater appreciation for my administrative colleagues. Their leadership, sometimes seemingly silent in the current political context, is still so clearly evident.  Both teachers and administrators are anchored in keeping student learning at the centre. Truly, I am humbled by the work and dedication of both.

1. Teachers are learning.
Although I have only visited about half a dozen schools, already themes seem to be emerging. Here is what I have noticed:
The Hillcrest Elementary grade seven teacher was clear, “It has totally revolutionized how I teach. I am not at the centre. The kids are at the centre.” As she further described it, “Being part of the project has forced us to be accountable for our learning.” “The younger generation has inspired us to play.” And, they are “bringing their world to us.” For many teachers, it has revitalized their passion for learning and their love for teaching.
2. Teachers are learning, together.
We have discovered that teachers are leading the learning. The strength of this teacher-leadership was clear at MJ Norris Elementary. Teachers are sharing their learning in collaborative sessions.  The same is true at other schools. They are meeting afterschool, at lunch or in the morning to explore their questions, together. They are inquiring into their work and how they define their best practice, together. The opportunity to be part of the initiative has created the impetus to ask the key questions, together: What are the learning intentions? What do we want the students to know and do? In what way might the technology help us achieve this? Teachers are owning their own learning as they help their students to own their learning. They are all doing it together.
3. Students are engaged.
At Cindrich Elementary, the students were described as “leaning into” their learning. The intense engagement was “incredible.” “Teachers have not had a single behavior problem.“ The output of students has been remarkable. George Vanier students have been experimenting with Genius Hour (you can read about it on twitter). At Hillcrest Elementary, students have created amazing websites for their Science projects. Perhaps, however, what is most remarkable is that the students, after creating the rubrics for their assignments, have asked to revise their rubrics as they have discovered they no longer describe their learning. The power of assessment and descriptive feedback is clearly at work; student ownership of their learning is profound. At George Vanier Elementary, after the students learned how to create their own websites, one of the students even built a website for his dad’s company. That’s authentic and practical learning that has clearly transferred to the real world!

Although I have only been to one third of the schools involved in this initiative I am already amazed at the learning—for both students and staff—that is taking place. I am not naïve to believe that this is the result of the project, or the result of the technology—it is actually about the passionate commitment of teachers working together to improve student learning.  I am just privileged to be a witness.

The Paradox of Work & Joy

I just want time to do my one life well.
Ann Voskamp

What does it mean for me to set my sights upon the coming year? My commitment as an educator, whether teacher, principal or Director, has always been to make a difference from where I stand. I do not want to wait for some better opportunity, for some day when the grass is greener or when I can be on the other side where the pastures are more fertile. I want to make the difference now. It is never a tomorrow ideal. We choose each and every day to make a difference regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Regardless. No excuses. No second chances. No waiting for a better day. Or, dare I say it, a peaceful political context. Or a less toxic work site. Or when relationships are better. Whatever the circumstance, real leadership digs deep, strategizes, pursues alternative courses of action, and finds a way toward the better future.  Real leadership does not let the vision go stale. No excuses. Real leadership creates opportunities for others to flourish and become the best they can be…as educators, as students, as colleagues. For me, it is all about leadership. My leadership. The leadership of those around me.

I want to create an environment where others can excel at what they do. I want to give people the support they need to do their best learning. When educators are learning they become excited about their new understanding and it becomes contagious, an enthusiasm that spreads to others. I believe that means creating opportunities for teachers to be inventive, to experiment, to create and to play with their teaching. (And, yes, I said play). Being engaged in our work is just as important for us as it is for our students.

If we look at the ideas of Daniel Pink (Drive), Martin Seligman (Flourish), and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Flow), the same threads are woven through their writing. Daniel Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose as being key to motivation. In Seligman’s theory of well-being, he refers to positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning (purpose) and accomplishment as being central in allowing people to flourish. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) goes as far as to say this:

It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life.

While some may find his notion of work and joy paradoxical; it doesn’t have to be so. It is about defining your purpose, and pursuing it with passion. We can do that in an organizational context. We find the match between our personal passions and the organization’s goals. It is what creates organizational health, a place where people want to come to work, want to do their best, and want to make a difference. I think that when teachers are given the opportunity to focus on their learning, refine their craft, ultimately students benefit.

What will be my focus? What do I want to do? And you? What will be your focus? Will it be a year of excuses? Waiting for a better time? Or will you make a difference each and every day?

Ipads: Six weeks in the classroom

How are the iPads being used in our district? I sit on the District Technology Advisory Committee (DTAC), which makes key decisions about directions in technology. The Superintendent posed the question and I needed to find the answer. We have twelve schools in the Innovative Learning Designs (Digital Focus) pilot. I did a quick email survey of the principals. The responses represent the perspective of the principals of the schools–as seen from their vantage point. At the time of the survey, we were just six weeks into the school year.

1. Are the mobile devices being used on a regular basis (defined as 3 to 5 times a week)? If so, please give a short description of how. If not please indicate why?

The devices were being used regularly in 11 out of the 12 schools. In some schools, such as Frank Hurt Secondary, the students were using them daily. At Johnston Heights, the iPads were also being used daily by the students in the 21st Century Learning Module. These students use them in an integrated program of studies that includes SS 11, Math 11, English 11 and Theatre/Leadership. At a site visit to this school, the principal made the opening statement, “ The teachers say they can never go back.”  The teachers’ experience of teaching, using an integrated curriculum and collaborating as a team, has totally changed their teaching.  The teachers’ experience is not a result of the iPads, but the technology has created a leverage point for change in the design and delivery of student learning. As Sheila Hammond explained, “It is having a huge impact on all the teachers involved in the project. The iPads are the technology tool, but the integration of curriculum and collaboration time is having a more significant impact. The iPads have broadened the teacher’s perspective on teaching for the 21st century.” Thanks to Rob Killawee, JH Vice-Principal for preparing the following video.

Each of our elementary schools uses the iPads differently, depending on the educational focus of the school team. For George Vanier Elementary, the iPads are being used with the younger primary students and special needs individuals. At Hillcrest Elementary, the intermediate students are using them to create personal collages while one of the classes is embarking on a personal inquiry project.

2. What impact do you perceive it is having on teacher practice (your personal perspective)?

The iPads are creating an opportunity for teachers to engage in “professional dialogue and sharing.” Antonio Vendramin reflected, “It’s definitely getting people to think about alternative approaches—effective and transformative integration rather than simply doing the same activity but with a different tool. The project has also enhanced discussion and collaboration, since there are no true experts, and we are all venturing into unchartered territory. There is much to be learned from everyone.” Another principal concluded that, “Teachers are working and learning together.”

3. What impact do you think it is having on student learning (your personal perspective)?

One principal described the iPads as “absolutely motivating.” The same theme came from many other schools with students identified as “very excited and eager to use these devices.”  One principal noted, “It is forcing them to think and act differently.”  Another principal analyzed it this way,  “This technology allows many points of access. The children ‘satellite’ their discoveries and bring each other (and their teacher along as they discover new and engaging ways to demonstrate their learning…”

Throughout the comments, the themes that emerged were increased teacher collaboration, teacher exploration and student engagement.  The project design, along with the iPads, were creating an opportunity for individuals—both students and teachers—to explore learning in new ways. For only six weeks into the school year, the journey has been pretty amazing.

What’s Most Important?

What is the most important message principals need to hear? As educators we are driven by the passion to make a difference in the lives of others. How might we best do that in the schoolhouse?

A principal’s job, like a teacher’s, is huge and complex. Where do we direct our energy? How do we focus on important notions like action research, differentiated instruction, co-teaching, collaborative inquiry, lesson-study approach, or book studies in the midst of PACS, concerts, assemblies, scheduling timetables, balancing classes, newsletters, supervision, broken arms, and more. Ultimately, our primary goal is to ensure, “Every student receives excellent instruction every day in every class” (Knight, 2011). But how do we do it? Where does professional learning fit in the midst of all this?

Decades ago, Peter Senge asked managers, “If people imagine their organizations as an ocean liner and themselves as the leaders, what is their role?”  How would you reply to that question? Responses ranged from the navigator, social director, captain, to engineer. However, Senge posits that there is a role that eclipses them all, “The neglected role is that of the designer of the ship. No one has a more sweeping influence on the ship than the designer…it’s fruitless to be the leader in an organization that is poorly designed.” This speaks to the necessity of using “design thinking” to create the architecture within the schoolhouse. Principals, and teachers too, need to think about creating the systems that ensure we can maximize the learning of everyone in the schoolhouse (as discussed in Knight, 2011).

Foundational to this system is creating a culture of learning that permeates the organization. Learning is “la joie de la vie” and it is the lifeblood of educators. Schools that are vibrant, alive and growing are grounded in a culture of learning. For educators, learning is a social enterprise. We do our finest learning in relationship with others. As Peter Benson underscores, “Relationships are the oxygen of human development.”

Our optimal learning occurs when we do it together. We establish a focus together. It’s not my focus, but a shared focus. The voice of teachers and their ownership in the work of the schoolhouse is honored. Shared goals, in response to the identified needs of the students, are meaningful to all. It has less to do with a school plan and more to do with the process that helps us identify where we need to go. As Doug Reeves declares, “The size and prettiness of the plan is inversely related to the quality of action and the impact on student learning.” Michael Fullan is more succinct: “Fat plans don’t move.” The question to ask, “Is everyone committed to moving in the same direction?”

Critical to creating this learning culture and having a focus together is to actually find and make time to examine practice. One of the biggest challenges for teachers, and administrators, is finding time to focus on improving classroom instruction. If we think about the design of the ship, we can create the opportunities for finding time together.  In Powerful Professional Development, the authors devote a whole chapter to exploring ways to find time to engage in dialogue in the schoolhouse.

Finally, when we create a learning culture, have a shared focus, and provide time for thoughtful dialogue…we need to consider how we might structure that time to leverage its effectiveness. We want to move beyond the single event professional development to a lived culture of professional learning. We can find tools that provide greater leverage for learning. Having a variety in our toolkit allows us to find the right tool for the right time and context. The tools are not just for principals; any staff can pick a tool for their purpose. We are mindful, however, that some tools (eg. the lesson study approach) can be more powerful for improving student learning.

If our goal is to ensure, “Every student receives excellent instruction every day in every class” then we need to create a system that maximizes learning for all. Whether it is teacher or principal or student or parent, when we establish a community of learners, focused together, and engaged in productive dialogue, we will maximize everyone’s learning. And really, isn’t that the responsibility of each and every one of us in the schoolhouse?


Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction by Jim Knight (2011) is a must-read and informed both my thinking and writing.

Dana & Yendol-Hoppey’s (2010) Powerful Professional Development: Building Expertise with the Four Walls of Your School has lots of practical applications.

Thank you to Chris Kennedy for inspiring my Slideshare and blog.

My learning was amplified through twitter sources.