Friday, May 30, 2014

Starting with Relationships, Focusing on Learning

Yet another new beginning....

For those that have not heard - next school year brings a new and exciting job opportunity - this time as Principal of Vancouver College - a K-12 Catholic school in Vancouver.

Of course with a new beginning come thoughts of transition.  Lots of thoughts - coming at me at all hours of the day and night!  Needless to say, these past few months have been full of joy and self-reflection.

There have been no shortage of colleagues, family and friends who have expressed their congratulations and best wishes.  There have also been no shortage of questions, such as:

What is your plan?
What are you going to implement?

or the famous.....

What is your plan for technology at the school?

My response to each of these questions has been fairly consistent - my first order of business is to immerse myself in the community and establishing trust in relationships while maintaining a focus on learning.

Like I've said before - I believe that trust is the currency of leadership.  To earn and distribute trust I must immerse myself in relationships.

Of course what I'm actually saying is that I need to immerse myself in the culture of the school  - to become fully absorbed in its mission, vision and values.  I need to experience how the mission and values intersect with the underlying assumptions and actions of students, parents and teachers.

I need to hear, see and experience what students, parents and teachers are proud of.  I need to see and witness the successes of students and staff.  I need to bear witness to challenges and triumphs.

And throughout it all - maintain a focus on learning  -  my own learning but of course student, teacher and parent learning.

And so, the relationship building process begins in earnest.

I have already had to the pleasure meeting with a few teachers, parents, board members, trustees and students in casual and social settings.

In the near future I will formally meet each staff member (close to 80 people) for a short 15 minute conversation.

In preparation for these conversations I have distributed a short survey (using Google Drive) for each staff member to reflect upon and respond to.   Here are the questions:
  1. What do you like best about teaching/working at the school?
  2. What "learning" are you currently engaged in? Think about teaching and working in service of our students.   What do you want to learn more about?  What excites you?  What are you passionate about?
  3. How would you describe "learning" for teachers and staff at the school?  Secondary questions to think about: How is the school supporting your learning?  Is the learning relevant to your needs? Describe collaboration among staff members? 
  4. How would you describe "learning" for students at the school?  Some secondary questions: Think about the students you work with.  When it comes to "learning" -  what's working?  What may not be working?   Predict how your students might respond to this question.  How are students making their learning visible to you, each other and the community? 
As next year progresses, I look forward to asking students and parents a variation of these same questions.

Needless to say, I am very excited to be joining such a dynamic, passionate, and faith filled community.  I am equally exciting to be working with teachers, staff  and parents in humble service of the students we serve.

Said another way - I am looking forward to "figuring it out" in a vibrant Catholic school community.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The "This Too Shall Pass"...Stall in Education Reform"

I recently attended  a Canadian Education Association regional workshop (facilitated by Stephen Hurley and Ron Canuel) at the University of British Columbia.  It was a gathering of passionate and talented people tasked with answering one question:

What's standing in the way of change in education?

This was one of a series of events, held across Canada, to study and explore answers to the aforementioned question (for more information on this exciting research click here).

The day began by exploring some of the barriers to change in education.  Participants shared many insights and ideas - identifying barriers such as:  funding models, policy decisions (school, organizational and government) , institutional memory (by all stakeholders), societal expectations, assessment models (and many more).

As we shared the many barriers to change I couldn't help but think about the long history of (failed?) education reform in Canada and British Columbia.

On a personal level, I can think of the many conversations I've had regarding BC's latest education transformation initiative (The BC Education Plan, Curriculum Transformation) and the inevitable "conversation stopping" sentiment:

This too shall pass.

The proverbial “we tried that back in..(insert year)" can be a little demoralizing when in comes to school improvement and change in education.

And yet these sentiments do cause me to pause and think about some "recent" failed reform initiatives here in BC.  For example:
  • In 1987 the government of BC commissioned Barry Sullivan to review the BC education system and make recommendations for improvement.  The Commission came down with sweeping recommendations for BC's education system including such things as: cross curricular integration of content, a shift in focus from content to "learning to learn", child centered instruction, multi-age grouping of students, emphasis on school within community, more authentic performance based assessment of students and anecdotal reporting of student learning.  I came across this pdf version of the report here: It is both a fascinating and sobering read. 
  • Open Classrooms.  Talk to a teacher who was around in the late 1970’s early 1980’s. They will tell you this was a good idea gone bad. The walls went up shortly after they were taken down.
  • School Portfolio’s. In 2005 the government initiated a mandatory graduation portfolio for every student in British Columbia.  By 2007 the program was scrapped. More fodder for the "been there done that" camp.
These examples can teach us a tremendous amount about reform and change in education. Bottom line – it is not easy.

And yet I am hopeful that we can we learn from the past.  This is why I am excited to hear about the work that the CEA is undertaking in understanding the barriers in education reform and change.

Despite any "mistakes" made in the education reform past,  I will suggest that there may be different forces at play today that are providing a different type of momentum to the school reform movement:

This election of Pope Benedict (2005) vs Pope Francis (2013)
Mobile, Web-Based, Social Technology
The proliferation of mobile, web based, social technology is giving us access to an abundance of diverse information and people. Accessing the information is not solely dependent on "school" or the educators that work in them.

There is a growing amount of brain research that is dispelling myths about how the human brain learns best. This article does a nice job summarizing some of the recent research: Neuroscience: Brain Based Learning Myth Busting

Shrinking, Shifting, Connected World
Many have written about how world has changed -economically, strategically and socially.  In a compelling and informative TED talk, Paddy Ashdown talks about the Global Power Shift. One of his more compelling arguments is that:
In the modern age where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing you can what you can do with others.  
Ashdown emphatically states that the paradigm structure of our time is the network.  If we buy Ashdown's argument, then as educators we need to ask ourselves how equipped our students are to navigate this shifting world.

Some enduring constants....
Yet, despite these momentum generating forces, I would argue that there are some enduring constants in education and school that will continue to positively serve our students.

Namely that teachers, working in relationships (with students and colleagues) matter immensely and that learning is personal (individual) and social and it needs to be shared and made visible.

So moving forward I have a few questions for reflection:
  • What will be the compelling reason for school as a place, moving forward?
  • Will, what many see as “extra” in schools, actually become the compelling "core" of what will make school relevant?
  • Will we look back twenty years from now and see this time as yet another failed attempt at change in education?
I am still figuring it out.  Your thoughts and comments are welcome......