We Wanted To Be a Thinking School

I went to a great elementary school in Richmond BC, it’s called Westwind Elementary.

The teachers there were really progressive, and I remember everything we did involved community building, cooperative learning and project based learning. This is back in the mid-eighties, when I was in grade 5 and rockin’ a hockey hair mullet and dressing up like Crocket and Tubbs was cool. The staff there were ahead of their time, and I look back at those formative years as a real cornerstone of my desire to always be a learner.

Recently I was lucky to run into one of the teachers from the Westwind staff at Edcamp leadership BC, in Delta. Mr. Ayres was a young teacher back then, and I remember he taught grade 4-5 and I remember him being really tall. When I ran into him this past weekend, he was more mature, and he didn’t seem as tall and he asked me to call him Garnet. He is now a Deputy Superintendent and in pursuit of his own life long learning, was attending Edcamp on a Saturday.

We spoke briefly after the intro session, and although our conversation was short, many things that he shared about the Westwind days deeply inspired me as a educational leader. He said:

The teachers were lead by an inspirational Principal, Mrs. Chiba, who was a different kind of Principal.

The teachers used to sit around in the staff room after school and share their graphic organizers, “look at this one, look what this kid did with this one, how could I use that one?”

The teachers at our school were passionate about learning.

You know how some school are “reading schools,” we wanted to be a “thinking school.”

Thanks Garnet, for being part of a progressive staff, lead by an innovative leader, in pursuit of teaching kids how to think.

ps. Thanks to Mrs. Oldfield , my grade 5 and grade 6 teacher, for teaching me to learn about things I am passionate about, I was lucky to be one of your students, RIP.

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Students should make pots for people who need pots

Since the days of my teacher training, I’ve been a fan of John Dewey. John Dewey believed that education should be experiential. That is, educational should be real and authentic. Students should not read from a book about how to make pots, they should  actually sit at a wheel and make pots! At my school, I see my staff trying to create opportunities for our students to make pots daily.

This weekend I came across the following video, and it challenged me to take my learning and thinking about Dewey’s work a little further.

Freire and Holt’s work add a social purpose to learning. If people are learning to make pots by actually making pots that’s great, but, maybe even better is making pots for people that actually need pots. This will most likely improve the quality of your learning because now the pots have a purpose. They are for something. It naturally leads the learners to think critically and to go deeper in their learning.  “What kind of pots do they need? What are the pots for? What are the best materials to use? What are the resources available?”

With our learners we should always strive to create tasks that are based on real problems. Then, together, with our learners, we can explore, think critically about, and create meaningful projects and solutions to problems that actually need to be solved.

Lets go make pots for people who actually need pots.

Aboriginal Learners and Motivation

Recently I was a part of an introductory meeting for my district’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement Committee, and the theme: “how do we motivate our Aboriginal students?” came up again and again.

This theme assumes that this group of students are skills yes, motivation no. That is: they can do it, they just don’t want to.  This puts us in the “motivation business.” Now we need to come up with a suite of motivational strategies to get them to be successful. We will create and apply incentives and punishments to motivate them to do what they need to do.

What if we are wrong? What if these learners are skills no, motivation yes? That is: they lack the skills to do it, so they can’t do it.  Now our role just changed, we are now in the “problem solving business.”   We can work with each individual to find out what the missing skill or unsolved problem is and get to work on fixing it. Once the student has the skills they will do well because they are already motivated to do well.  This is collaborative problem solving, where we do things with students instead of doing things to them.

I’m a kids do well if they can guy. I believe that all people are motivated to do well. Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks to themselves “I want to do poorly today.”  There is usually a lacking skill or unsolved problem that is getting in the way of people doing well.  Our job is to work with the learner to dig down and find the unsolved problem and then get to work on fixing it, together.

If these ideas pique your interest, go to Ross Greene’s Lives in the Balance website for more information about kids do well if they can.

Give them an inch….

I was watching a presentation online this morning by Alfie Kohn. Although familiar with Kohn’s work, I have never seen him speak before today. What an excellent and passionate speaker he is! One idea that he spoke about really resonated with me and I would like to look at it a little more closely.

Alfie talks about the old saying “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” This saying from folk wisdom implies that there is something intrinsically wrong with kids…and by extension with people. It says that people have a naturally tendency to be dishonest, greedy, selfish and are not deserving of trust. Therefore, people need to be controlled.  This is Theory X and Theory Y stuff from Douglas McGregor that I came across in my masters courses.

Kohn argues in his presentation that in his experience, people only take a mile when they are  consistently given inches in their lives. That is, only when they are over-controlled do they tend to take advantage.  The last thing they need is more control, tighter regulation, harsher consequences and less trust, which is how we tend to respond.

Out in the real world, I have worked with many staff. They have acted across the continuum of Theory X to Theory Y.  It is not one or the other, but we all have tendencies.

Last week I had a student in my office complaining that a teacher wanted him to sign a contract saying he was going to be on time for class that was upcoming next semester.  The student did have a past record of not showing up for class on time.  However, the student was excited about the new, more advanced class and was now upset because they had not been given a chance. No one else was signing the contract (not fair), and the class had not even started yet. I agreed with student and told them to approach the teacher with their solid arguments. I spoke with the teacher as well on the student’s behalf, explaining their concerns.  The teacher changed their mind, no contract needed.

This was a bullet dodged, I can only imagine the reaction to the contract if it was put in place. Starting with mistrust is extremely difficult as we all know.  Students need to know from us that we believe that they want to excel and that we will provide them with autonomy not control.  This teacher’s heart was in the right place, they thought the contract would help them be more successful through control. But more control is not what people need. They need a chance to show us that they can exceed our expectations if only we start by giving them a mile.

Mastery is an Asymptote

One of the VP’s responsibilities at my school is updating the school’s road-side sign. When I came to the school this past August, I was excited to take this on. It has always been a beef of mine that school road-side signs are so often out of date, displaying PT Meetings and Pro D Day dates from two months ago. I took this beef to a higher level when I actually wrote a short essay about it for a masters course. The assignment was to write about something that bothers you about schools today.  It was kind of a tongue and cheek paper saying: here we have an opportunity to communicate with the public a message, beyond announcing band concerts, a chance to say what education and this school are about, what we stand for and what we believe.

As I look back on the year so far and how it’s gone with the sign, it has been both an opportunity and a pain. I can now say that I understand why messages from months ago are still there, as changing the sign moves down the priority list each day because more pressing VP duties step in front. I’m not making excuses but….ok, I’m making excuses.

It all started off great this year.  I used one side of the sign to give the dates to remember, and on the other side I put up inspirational quotes. I tried to pick quotes that reflected the ideas of our school mission statement. These were ideas about creating community, life-long learning and motivation to achieve our potential. First I used a Dewey quote:

“Education is not the preparation for life; Education is life itself.”

Then there was one from Martin H. Fischer:

“All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.”

And finally one of my all time favorites about education from William Butler Yeats:

“Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

Like I said, updating the sign has become a chore in a lot of ways, one that hangs over me and smacks me in the face every time I arrive at and leave from school with an outdated message displayed. These old messages look at me as I walk by and scream change me! What are you waiting for? It’s December and the Hallowe’en Dance on Oct 28 is so long gone. But, the quotes were inspiring students and teachers, who would come up to me at random times to share that they loved the quote, to ask where it’s from, or tell me a story that relates to the quote. The quotes and their reaction have been a joy that offsets the chore of updating the sign.

So, over the winter break, I had time to catch up on a few books that I had started this fall but could never seem to find the time to finish. One book was Daniel Pink’s Drive, an excellent book about what motives us these days. Pink argues that three things are essential to motive us today; autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you can increase these factors, people’s intrinsic motivation to perform will be maximized.

On the chapter on mastery, I came across the quote:

“Mastery is an Asymptote.”

Being a math teacher at heart, this quote really “spoke to me” as it were, and it has been going through my head for weeks since I read it. Immediately, I knew I had a new inspirational quote for the road-side sign.

I shared this genius idea with my girlfriend, (who by the way just called me nerd for using the saying “as it were” in my writing) who said “that’s great, but what does that mean?”

First thought: Ah, a problem…what if people don’t get it?

Next thought: Ah, an experiment…I’ll put it up to see what the reaction is. I bet a ton of people will see the sign and come up to ask me what it means, and I can explain it to them, ask them what they think, and can they think of something in their life that they strive to master. Something they steadily work towards, always approaching but never quite touching, like a function and it’s asymptote.

You see, mastery is like an function (the blue line) approaching an asymptote line. You keep getting closer to the thing you are trying to master but there is always more to learn, you can refine, improve, reflect, change strategy, you get infinitely closer, but you never really get there.

And the realization that you cannot get there keeps you pursuing, it is so alluring…

So I changed the sign this past Monday, as “Happy Holidays” did not cut it anymore as we had already been back at school for a week.  I put “Mastery is an Asymptote” up.  I grinned like a scientist who waited for the unknown results of his experiment.  How many people would ask? I expected them to come flooding in the next day, eager to learn about the quote, and discuss motivation and mastery.

And I waited,
and waited,

and waited.

By Friday only one person had asked. Only one.

Oh well, sometimes exciting experiments do not work out like we had imagined. There could be many reasons that no one asked: most people knew what it meant, people were afraid to ask, people didn’t care enough to ask, or no one pays attention to the sign.

Whatever the reason, I will still look for the chance to communicate to the public a message from the school, about education, community, life-long learning, and motivation to achieve our potential, even if the message follows dates to remember from last month.