Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Inner Sanctum: My Visit to the LNS

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat as part of a think tank on thinking. I have entered the inner sanctum of curriculum in Ontario.  :D  News alert to frightened teachers - there are no curriculum police ready to swoop in to see that every single expectation has been met.  I thought you should know that. The LNS really is filled with nice and knowledgeable people wanting to help teachers become better at what they do.

It was an odd place to find myself in given that I'm a classroom teacher with no formal position of leadership in my board - an awkward position that I'm finding myself in more and more frequently these days.   I felt incredibly privileged to be sitting at that table with 25 or so other people looking at where the province is going next with thinking and inquiry. I suppose that what I and the other classroom teacher present yesterday represent are those in the trenches. We have insights about practice and the shift to inquiry that are useful to the province as it works to provide tools to support teachers.  The LNS understands that teachers are struggling because they are being asked to work in ways that are often in conflict with how they see their roles and responsibilities. It is attempting to develop tools to help teachers better understand how they should be working in their classrooms. They are trying to make it simple. They also don't have all the answers.  Ontario is a leader in this shift to knowledge building classrooms. The LNS, just like the rest of us. is learning as it goes.

Many topics were  explored and questions asked during the meeting that helped me better understand the big picture. For that I am so grateful!


What it means to move from Instructivism to Shallow Constructivism to Deep Constructivism to Connectivism.

How can we help educators make visible, deeply understand and assess student thinking as it is revealed through the inquiry process?

The standards of critical thinking.

The stance of a teacher in a knowledge building classroom.

The role of a teacher within inquiry.

The places of Integrative and Systems Thinking, Critical and Creative Thinking. (I have to say I was thrilled to see Integrative Thinking make its way into the plan for Ontario students).

What does assessment look like in inquiry? How do we get teachers to move beyond the idea that a test is necessary?

What barriers are teachers facing in this shift? What are educators struggling with?

It was a fascinating afternoon that left me with much to think about and realizing yet again that I have only scratched the surface of what it means to be a teacher.

Ideas for projects were explored and I am looking forward to working more closely with the LNS. Film crews will return to my classroom this spring.  One never knows what turns the path will take!

One final thought. I mentioned that one of the barriers to interdisciplinary inquiry is how our schools are structured and timetabled. Language is a separate discipline. Scienceis often taught in isolation. There is a rigidity to the structure of school that needs to be addressed.  The response I received was, "Yes, administrators are going to have to structure their schools differently." My eyebrows shot up!  Silos are not an expectation. It seems we've tied our own hands. That was interesting. So now I am wondering. Are there public schools in Ontario that have completely revamped their structure to meet the needs of learning today?  How is our teacher's union working to adapt to this new reality?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thinking and Changing Career Paths

On April 16 I will be at the LNS for a Think Tank on thinking.  The LNS has developed a fantastic Co-Learning Thinking framework - I had a peek at the graphic this week- and is bringing together a number of people to discuss thinking and assessment of thinking in knowledge building classrooms.

As I was reading through the materials we've been provided with in preparation for the meeting, and saw how closely the vision aligns with the work being done in my classroom, it struck me that I have developed a body of knowledge and expertise that comes only from having been willing to question my deeply held assumptions about teaching and learning, to take risks, to connect through social media with those on a similar journeys and to seek learning outside of traditional forms of teacher education. Several years ago after realizing I could no longer teach in the system as it existed, I started working as if the one I wanted to work in already existed and started building it first in my classroom and then through my blog. Documenting my practice helped me process and learn, but sharing what I do and seeing that others could take those ideas, learn from them and make them better has been exceptionally rewarding.  Helping to organize events such as Edcamp Toronto and Edcamp Hamilton, the Inquiry Working Group, and the HWDSB West Cluster Integrative Thinking Initiative has allowed me to connect with remarkable people who've had a profound impact on my practice.   Seeking learning outside of traditional providers of teacher training has been key. Talk about a disruptor!  Eyebrows often shoot up when I mention Rotman IThink.  What is a business school doing messing about in elementary education?  Or the workshops and explorations of learning organized by Exhibit Change. Why is a social entrepreneur/architect/design thinker bothering with elementary education?  For those who've participated in their trainings, you know why I would seek learning there.

Sometimes people ask why I'm being so generous on my blog in giving away my discoveries about learning. They suggest I write a book. It is funny that other people are writing books with my work in it or travelling to other countries sharing what I do. After watching Clive Thompson's book writing process and all that's involved, I'm not sure that book writing is for me. I don't really feel ownership of my ideas. They come because of work other people do. They are causing others to create their own good ideas. I may change my mind. You never know.

One of the incredible luxuries I've had during this process is to not be constrained by a formal position of leadership. Being a consultant, principal or superintendent, particularly these days when decisions end up under the microscope or exploding in social media, is no easy task. Working in an innovative way somewhat outside of the traditional hierarchy has allowed me to accomplish things and even cause change within my board that I might not otherwise have been able to.  Not that I haven't sought positions of leadership. I've been turned down twice, which while disappointing, did allow me to stay in my classroom and continue refining my practice. This year I've made enormous leaps in my understanding of the assessment piece in inquiry, particularly how to structure self-assessment so that learners think deeply about their own learning and consider independently where to go next in a thoughtful way. I am a better teacher now than I was even one year ago.

I'm now at a point where I'm considering where to go next in my career, but wanting to do so in a way that allows me to continue developing my vision in a meaningful way.

Do I begin a masters?
Do I even need a masters to move my vision forward?

Do I stay in the classroom because there I have a lab that allows me to continue developing my understanding of inquiry and integrative thinking?

Do I move into teacher training? I now know so much that could really help my colleagues become better at what they do.

Do I move into policy making and curriculum design?

Do I call up the administrator from Sweden who handed me his card and said,"If you ever want to come work in Sweden, let me know."  An offer that was probably casually and politely made, but still, did make we wonder about possibilities.

Linkedin has certainly been an eye-opener. Although I have an account and occasionally remember to log in and accept connection requests, it is not a social media platform that I have explored or taken advantage of. I'm surprised at the number of opportunities and paths that are now laid before me. It is wonderful to see the many different directions that educators take their careers in. I can't believe what my colleagues around the world are up to.

Where might I go next?

It's time for thinking and decision-making. I am curious about directions others have chosen to go in and why they've made those choices.  What is an interesting place to go next?  If you have ideas or suggestions please let me know.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gratitude and An Unusual Week

I received an invitation in my inbox a few weeks ago from The Canadian Education Association asking if I'd be interested in meeting, along with a few other Ontario teachers, a delegation from Sweden to discuss Ontario education. Of course I said yes. It was an honour to be asked and so, on Tuesday I found myself along with Aviva Dunsinger, Stephen Hurley and Brenda Sherry sitting at a table discussing education with politicians, bureaucrats, school administrators, a journalist and a Microsoft representative from Sweden. I hadn't met with my colleagues in a while and it was lovely to have the chance to hear as they shared their expertise and insights. Ontario teachers are exceptional and I was in awe listening as they shared their thoughts, practices and current projects with the guests from Sweden.

The Swedish education system is under the microscope at the moment as their PISA scores continue to fall. Part of the purpose of the visit was to explore how technology is being used to enhance learning in Ontario. We soon diverged from that topic and entered into a much deeper one on pedagogy, thinking, creativity, and of course .... standardized testing.  It was a singular opportunity and one that I am grateful to have had.

That delightful afternoon was followed by a scheduled meeting at Rotman IThink. RIT is in the process of developing Tier 2 Integrative Thinking training for educators and over the winter I along with a number of educators have been meeting with the IThink Team to assist in that process. This has been like no other planning method that I have ever experienced. I've tasted bits and pieces through the work we've been doing in integrative thinking but what I've been able to witness through this think tank is how those who are deeply immersed in the practices of integrative and design thinking, use them to generate innovative solutions. I've seen abductive reasoning at work!

On Tuesday evening the team revealed their key insights uncovered from all the 'thinking made visible' that we undertook. I have to say it wasn't what I expected. Their insight dealt with what would have to be addressed and what their training would have to be developed around for it to be truly meaningful. Their insight was so human-centered and simple that I wondered why I hadn't seen it myself previously.

It is not, however,  my place to reveal what the team has uncovered through their months of work. I will say this though:  when I was first introduced to solving problems through integrative thinking, I remember hearing that because we don't know how to frame complex problems, we often end up developing solutions for the wrong problems. We waste a great deal of money, time and resources doing so.  In education we spend billions of dollars trying to improve our systems. It struck me on Tuesday that there is an enormous gap in how we purpose those dollars and there is an area of teacher education that is not being addressed. Because of that we've been developing solutions to the wrong problem. We bring in new curriculum and methodologies but never fundamentally address what is at the heart of effective teacher training. If this aspect of teacher training was addressed systematically, I think we'd see the kind of transformation we've been looking for.

Design Overhaul

My blog is about to undergo a design overhaul. You may see things disappear for a bit as I consider where I want this blog to go next. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mary Ann Reilly Responds

Mary Ann Reilly, an American/Irish educator whose work I deeply admire, has written a very thoughtful post about my work and in particular, my post Creative Solutions are No Accident . Words of praise are always lovely to hear and I thank Mary Ann for that. More significant is what she has to say about learning, teaching and the teaching of teachers. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Knowledge Building: Ontario Continues to Move Forward in Education

The province of Ontario continues to move forward in education. We have left behind the idea of best practices and the assumption that we have nothing left to learn. The release of the new Social Studies, History and Geography curriculum marks a shift to inquiry and student-led learning. Play-based learning has returned to kindergarten. We are moving to classrooms as places of knowledge building.

" In KB/KC classrooms, students work to identify problems of understanding, create theories, carry out research and investigations in order to refine their theories over time, revise their problems and strategies, and share and monitor the progress of the community towards its goals of advancing knowledge."

To support this shift, the LNS has created a Knowledge Building site where educators can see what knowledge building classrooms look like, learn about knowledge building practices and access the pedagogy.

On the site you will find a number of videos from my school where students, my former vice-principal and I share how learning happens in a knowledge building classroom. Elements of integrative thinking such as the ladder of inference and causal modeling are discussed. Students share how they have come to value and listen to each other more carefully because of how we learn. Some of our inquiry practices are presented. The culmination of our work last year - meaningful feedback - is also there.  You will also find video from other Ontario classrooms and educators who illustrate various elements of knowledge building. The site will continue to be updated. Feel free to join and contribute to the discussions on knowledge building.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Creative Solutions are No Accident

Constraints Lead to Creativity

The idea of deliberately structuring tasks in certain ways so that they cause creativity has made me consider more carefully the kinds of constraints I place on students. I have spent the past few weeks reading, discussing and experimenting with constraints, creativity and problem-solving.  What I have come to realize is that for teachers to successfully transition to effective inquiry-based, student-centered classrooms, a deeper understanding of the function and role of constraints is needed.

It's important to know:

1. Constraints are important for new ideas to emerge.  Patricia D. Stokes work in creativity shows that when there are no constraints, we tend to default to conventional thinking and solutions that are already known.

2. Stokes also reveals that there are only 2 kinds of constraints.  The first are ones that define a domain. They involve mastery and require conformity. The second are "novel" constraints which allow a domain to expand and are how new ideas are generated.

3. For creative thinking to happen in classrooms, educators must think carefully about the purpose of the learning and what kind of constraints are needed at that moment.

"The creativity problem ... (becomes)  strategic and structural". Patricia D. Stokes

These thoughts were at the forefront as I designed our art lesson. We began learning about value by viewing The Virtual Instructor. Students then had to create a 7 step value line.

Next, I deliberately structured a lesson with carefully considered constraints so that students would have to become creative problem solvers to complete the task.

1 brush
1 white paint
1 black paint
1 colour
1 sheet of paper

Constraints: Transition from white to black.
                  Make the transitions subtle.
                  The main colour must appear in the middle.

I liked this approach for many reasons. Many students don't like art as a subject because their work never turns out according to the model. By approaching the task as a problem to be solved rather than a work of art to be created, students took on a problem-solving stance.

Before moving to work stations, we took time to consider the Achievement Chart which we had begun using last week. It was a quick discussion, prompted by my questions. "In this activity, what is Knowledge and Understanding? What will the problem-solving look like? How will we know that you've communicated appropriately? What should we see? and so on.

Then students began. Their approach to this art lesson was certainly different from lessons where they are shown how to do something and then try to replicate the model.  The level of focus and discussion as well as the careful experimentation, showed they were in a problem-solving stance.

Peer Feedback

We used the product to develop skills in peer feedback.  James suggested that the works remain anonymous so that students would not be influenced by knowing who had created the works.

As a class we discussed one of the first attempts at painting a value chart to identify success criteria.

Next students undertook a gallery walk to see what stood out for them once they had the opportunity to see all the paintings.

Finally, students were given an organizer structured on the Achievement Chart for recording their feedback.

Finally, I asked them to consider the challenge of assigning marks. Assigning a mark is not easy and often takes away from a student's sense of achievement. Most of our work this year has been assessed through descriptive feedback. Being required to put a mark on the work made many students uncomfortable.

In perusing the feedback, I noticed that some students were very specific and others wrote vague statements such as, "I could tell you understood what you were doing". When we met at the end of the day, I placed several statements on chart paper so we could discuss useful feedback. We had an open and honest conversation. I asked if they had ever received feedback from teachers that wasn't particularly useful. All hands were raised. We explored thoughts and feelings about feedback and why it is so hard to ask teachers to be more explicit.  Power relationships, personalities and the challenges of communicating effectively came into the discussion. I knew it was time to bring out The Empathy Toy. The game requires blind-folded players to complete a building task while the rest of the class watches silently. It is frustrating and challenging and requires players to communicate clearly in order to meet with success.  The bell rang before we had time to debrief, but tomorrow we will explore what leads to good communication.

Between the by-Road and the Main Road
Creativity From Constraints, The Psychology of Breakthrough

Friday, March 28, 2014

Building Ladders

For the past week my grade 7s have been working intensely with the Ladder of Inference. I drew from the lesson I had learned from by grade 6s about how important it is that teachers and students understand each other's ladders. 

We also read the short story The White Owl by Hazel Boswell. After reading it to explore the topic of superstitions, students constructed the villagers' and Felix's Ladders of Inference. This was done in groups of 4.

Today I introduced the idea of salience and that what one considers salient is influenced by one's beliefs. I adapted a lesson from Karl Adamczyk and Cheryl Patterson for this. Students read an article from The Los Angeles Times about the shooting of Jordan Davis, a teen, by Michael Dunn. After carefully reading and annotating the text, students were first asked to identify what beliefs each would have held before the confrontation. (Yeah to Jamie, who asked, "Aren't we going up our Ladders when we do this?)

Finally, students built the Ladders for Michael and Jordan.

This was a challenging task for many students in the class, but they worked their way through. As each handed in the assignment, I asked them to reflect on what they had learned from the Ladder. Comments were similar:
1. It's useful.
2. You can use it to understand someone else.
3. People shoot up their ladders all the time.
4. People are mostly at the top of the Ladder.
5. You can use it to remind yourself to back down.
6. I'm on my Ladder a lot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Using the Ladder of Inference to Improve Student-Teacher Communication

Because I teach both grades 7 and  6 Language, Social Studies and Computers, I have the benefit of seeing how the junior grades prepare students for middle school.  Our junior grades are focused heavily on inquiry, The Thinking Matrix and setting a strong foundation for writing so that when students come into middle school, they are ready to take on the challenges of Integrative Thinking. The Ladder of Inference is a tool that I reserve for grade 7, simply because learning the process of inquiry already provides such deep thinking opportunities for my grade 6s that I haven't felt it necessary to introduce the ladder.

This week, though, something happened in class that made it necessary to introduce students to the Ladder of Inference. We wrote a quiz. We were reviewing sentence structure - subjects, predicates and fragments - because the author of our novel, The People of  Spark, often uses fragments for effect. After leaving a lesson on this with a supply teacher and knowing we had gone over sentence structure at the beginning of the school year, I wanted to quickly determine which students understood the concepts.

As I began marking the quizzes, a student casually walked past me, looked at them and said, "I know I failed that. I thought it was going to be all about the definitions." There were no definitions on the quiz. All the questions were about application. Could students identify a fragment, tell whether it was a subject or a predicate and then write it as a complete sentence? I knew I needed to introduce the Ladder.

We did a number of preliminary activities to understand the Ladder and then we turned to the quiz. In the data pool is all the information that was available to us about our work on and the topic of Fragments. Next we constructed my Ladder. I showed the students everything that I had paid attention to in the data pool that caused me to create a quiz with only application questions. Then we constructed the student's ladder:

Interpretation:   1. The worksheets had many definitions 2. Teachers often test definitions.
                                                          Definitions must be important.

Conclusion: If I study definitions, I will be successful on the quiz.

Today, we went deeper into assessment. I wanted students to think about their work in terms of the Ontario Achievement Chart so that they are better able to construct their teachers' ladders. I put the chart into kid-friendly language. We discussed the quiz and figured out that the student was anticipating Knowledge and Understanding questions and I was thinking about Application questions.

Next I gave students a copy of an assessment they had been given in Science earlier in the year. They worked in partners to figure out where each question fit on the achievement chart, including combinations (for example, K & U, and Application)  It was fascinating to listen to the quality of discussions as students worked their way through this task.

After we debriefed, I pointed out that they need to become comfortable with the language of the Achievement Chart so that they can better understand the work they are being asked to do and what causes them to miss or hit the mark. I gave an example from a high school student who was very frustrated in her math class but didn't have the language of the Achievement Chart to understand what was causing the frustration.  It turns out that the math instruction centered only on knowledge and understanding - students were being shown formulas - yet the assessments were all about application of the formulas. There was a disconnect between instruction and assessment. Being able to break down a task in terms of the Achievement Chart will help them communicate better with their teachers and allow them to become more successful in school.

Open Response Questions, Self-Assessment and Inquiry

Much about grade 6 Language instruction in Ontario centres on encouraging students to engage with text, make inferences and interpretations, use evidence from texts to support opinions and then express one's thinking with clarity. At this point in the year after spending a great deal of time developing research, critical thinking, inquiry and problem-solving skills, we are zeroing in on writing with the goal of students being able to self-assess independently whether or not their written work is meeting or exceeding expectations and then set goals for improvement or next steps.  Students shouldn't need a teacher to tell them that work is up to snuff. This is part of the "yes ... and ..." of teaching. As we shift to inquiry, we must also address skill-building so that students are able to express their new learning in ways that are understood by others.

After reading aloud the first chapter of People of Spark, students were asked to answer two open-ended questions:

1. Describe Torren's personality. Use evidence from the text to support your ideas.

2.Torren has a variety of reactions to the refugees. Explain how he reacts using transition words to connect your ideas.

What I wanted to see was what students would do without reminders and instructions. How much of what they'd learned about answering Open Response questions in previous years and through the work they've undertaken this year would be reflected in the structure of their writing?

Once they had written their responses I put a model answer under the document camera and we tore it apart. As we analyzed the structure of this response, students were thinking of their own responses, comparing them mentally, to what they were seeing. This was done deliberately. In the past I might have shown the modeled answer first, but I have found it more effective for students to have their own work in mind so that they can see their starting points and identify their next steps without me having to point them out.

Students then took highlighters and markers and tore their own answers apart.

Once students had assessed their own work, I met with them one on one to discuss their observations about their skills and goals.

By entering into such a structured activity, we aren't abandoning inquiry.  The word refugee sparked a discussion about current events and the Syrian crisis. Students spent their computer period constructing  knowledge of what it means to be a refugee. They went in many directions for this. Some used google maps to figure out how far refugees had to walk and what routes they had taken. Others learned about the lives of refugee children; some were curious about the country of Syria - its anthem, capital and history. 


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