Winning Back Our Students

Originally published June 5, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 10.36.57 AMI had the honour of attending a keynote presented by Dr. Gordon Neufeld a few weeks back. Dr. Neufeld’s work focusses on “attachment” and the power of relationships in the development of a child. We know intuitively that when a child has a strong bond with a parent, a teacher, or another trusted adult, they will do almost anything for that person. We also know that when that attachment is not present, children can be defiant, do the opposite of what is requested, and start to orient themselves towards their peers. One of the most profound statements Dr. Neufeld made during his keynote was, “We have to win our students back!” This statement resonates for me because I increasingly see students that schools have clearly lost. There are a few reasons why I think this is so.

In these times of increased accountability in education and with teachers saddled with the overwhelming pressure to “cover the curriculum” and prepare for standardized tests, school has become irrelevant to many students and disconnected from their reality. For these students, school is tolerated, school is something that is done to them, and school is something they try to survive. In fact, as a teacher reflected back on his schooling experience during a recent conversation I had with him, he said, “I didn’t really enjoy elementary or high school, and when I got out…” His words struck me. He was talking about his schooling experience as if he had just finished a prison sentence. He then went on to share that his educational experience changed after high school because then, he actually had some input regarding his learning. We clearly need to do a better job of incorporating student passions into the work we do in schools. Students do a great deal of incredible learning on their own, but because it doesn’t take place between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at school, we don’t seem to value it. Learning that takes place at school represents only a small part of the total learning a child does.

This phenomenon was illustrated in a recent fine arts performance at Cambridge Elementary titled, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. The play was about a magician and his assistant. Several times, the magician would send his assistant off with a task, such as preparing props, or finding items. Each time, the assistant would get side-tracked practicing and learning magic tricks because in reality, the assistant really wanted to be a great magician as well. The assistant learned so much each time she was sent off to do a task, but inevitably, the magician would return and become very upset because the tasks were never completed and because the assistant appeared to be doing nothing. I couldn’t help but feel that schools are very much like the magician in this play. We seem to think the learning opportunities we provide are the only ones that are valuable. The good news is that at the conclusion of the play, the Sorcerer acknowledges all the learning the apprentice had done and agreed to include one of her magic tricks in his performance. We need to make sure learning is relevant to students, places value on student passions, and that students are given the opportunity to learn through play.

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Another reason “we have to win our students back” is that in our frenzy to “cover the curriculum”, “teach content”, and be accountable, we have lost sight of the fact that children need to be connected to people who care about them. Dr. Neufeld stated, “humans don’t do separation.” If a child comes from a busy home with working parents, has no other adult to attach to, and is surrounded by teachers who only focus on delivering content, that child will quickly seek help from people who are unable to really provide that support – peers. Dr. Neufeld shared that all children need to have a “home-base” at school –  a caring and trusted adult.

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CC Image courtesy of Bill Ferriter on Flickr:

Thankfully, all hope is not lost! I believe that schools are beginning to understand the important messages communicated by Dr. Neufeld. Some say that there is too much change in education. But really, can we afford to not change? Can we continue to live with the fact that almost half of high school students wait to “get out” of school so that the real learning can start? We are starting to see curriculum reform that focuses on the development of key competencies such as communication, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking, rather than a curriculum that is inundated with content that overwhelms students and teachers alike. Teachers are hearing the message that part of the important work they do in schools is connecting with students before directing them. And most important, those who work in schools are beginning to value and tap into the wide range of skills, talents, and passions that learners bring with them. Clearly, there is much more work to be done, but thankfully schools have started to fight the important battle to win back our children!

Where Is The Learning?

Originally published April 24, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

img_5149Cambridge Elementary is two years into a journey of documenting and sharing student learning electronically through digital portfolios. One very important thing that this process has done is essentially reflect back to the viewer a clear picture of the learning that is (and sometimes isn’t) taking place. The documentation forces one to ask the very important question, “Where is the learning?”

In the work I do daily, I have the opportunity to visit many classrooms. These visits allow me to not only connect with and support students and staff, they give me the opportunity to have a strong sense of the learning taking place. Like when I visit digital portfolios, my class visits always take me to the same question, “Where is the learning?” And when I talk about learning, it’s important to know that I don’t just look at specific curriculum connections, but also the development of core competencies and “soft” skills.

A phenomenon that has stormed into Cambridge and many other schools throughout SurreySchools this year is 3-D design and printing. Everyone seems interested in the possibilities of this new technology and students are spending hours of their own time at home designing and testing items. As students become more proficient with their design, we gradually grow closer to the point where they begin to think of how they can harness the power of 3-D design and printing to actually solve real-world problems. We know students everywhere are doing this already! A great example of this is a wonderful project completed by outstanding local Teacher-Librarian Anna Crosland and the students over at my previous school, Georges Vanier, who used 3-D design to create and print braille tags for doors to help a visually impaired student navigate safely from place to place within the school. Read more about this work here!

One teacher in particular at Cambridge Elementary, Peter Beale, has demonstrated a genuine passion for learning about 3-D design and printing and has opened up this new world of learning to his students. Recently, they were given the opportunity to reflect back on their 3-D experiences and they were encouraged to go back to the all important question, “Where is the learning?” Sure we knew students were engaged and had a great time designing and printing their objects, but could they articulate their learning?

Kiera, a Grade 6 student shared:

3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner
3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner

“I created a 3D model of the Eiffel Tower. Later on I added two more towers like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Seattle Space Needle. You might be wondering how I made the Seattle Space Needle, Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower. Well, I searched up tinkercad models of these towers to try and find the right shapes. Somehow I was able to create these towers. I was pretty impressed myself.

Creating the Eiffel Tower wasn’t easy. I really didn’t know what shape to use for the base, until I started experimenting till I finally found it. I really only needed to use 3 shapes. Pyramids, Cubes, and the shape called a Round Roof. Once I was done, I thought it turned out pretty good but I thought I needed more things. You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t add the criss cross like the real Eiffel Tower in Paris. I tried making it but it was complicated. Some things would pop out and it just looked like a big mess.

Now the Space Needle was a different story. It was the hardest one. It took me days just to find the right shapes. I had to combine shapes just to have the right shape. I also searched up a model of the Space Needle and tried to make my Space Needle like theirs. The base wasn’t that hard until I got to the point where there were details that were almost impossible to figure out how to make. In the end, I was able to make it and I was proud of my self.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was probably the easiest one to make. I didn’t really need to search up a model of it from tinkercad cause somehow I was able to just experiment with a bunch of shapes and create the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I duplicated a lot of things and didn’t add much detail as the real one does. I was really happy on how it turned out.

Notice the powerful language…

  • I created
  • I searched
  • I really didn’t know
  • I started experimenting
  • I thought I needed more things
  • I had to combine shapes

mistakesThis learning story talks about critical thinking and problem-solving, not knowing and searching, trying again in the face of failure, and most importantly that mistakes help us learn. The student above communicates clearly where the learning is!

So if you were wondering if students actually learn anything in the process of 3-D design and printing, this student helps us respond to this question with a resounding “Yes.”

The Power of Relationships

Originally published April 10, 2016 on

I am fascinated by schools and school culture, and by the question, “What makes a school great?” I’ve written about this topic before, and a couple of events from the past week prompt me to dig into this topic again.

The first event was the yearly publication of BC Schools Ranking by the Fraser Institute. While I maintain that this sort of ranking based on one standardized test is superficial, my curious nature forced me to have a look at the publication. I was happy to see that the students at our school did well on the Foundation Skills Assessment, which provides a snapshot in time of a student’s ability in reading, writing, and numeracy. But, it continues to disappoint me that this data is used to rank schools. It makes me wonder if parents think private schools are “better” because of these rankings, or that children receive a more rich learning experience at a private school because of these rankings.

Anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time in a school knows that these places are vibrant, alive, and complex in nature and can’t be reduced to a single number. I believe the purpose for all schools is to build the human capacity of all community members – students, parents, and staff members. This doesn’t just mean reading, writing, and numeracy, but includes:

  • physical and mental wellness
  • developing perseverance, work ethic, and a growth mindset
  • confidence
  • superior communication skills
  • competencies of creativity, critical thinking, problem solving
  • caring for others with a “servant heart”
  • fine arts skills

Schools build this capacity through exemplary teaching and learning, and meaningful collaboration. However, none of this capacity building takes place in the absence of meaningful relationships. This brings me to the second event. Late Friday afternoon as teachers were saying their good-byes and heading home for the weekend, I asked one teacher about her weekend plans. She mentioned that she was off to take her son to a baseball game. When I asked her where he was playing, she said, “Walnut Grove” which happens to be where I live. I don’t necessarily believe in “signs”, but I took this conversation to mean that I should probably go catch part of the game. Shortly after, off I went to head home, get changed, and walk over to the baseball diamond. I found out four of my students were on the team and that two of the coaches were parents at our school. Siblings, parents, and grandparents were in the stands and needless to say, the players were a surprised to see me in the stands.

I mention this event because I think in order for us to expect students to take a genuine interest in school, the people who work in schools need to take a genuine interest in students, their passions, and their world outside of school. When schools do this, the important message, “YOU MATTER” is communicated to students.

Relationships are the foundation of all work done in schools, and is one very important part of helping a school be great!

How is the power of relationships reflected daily at your school or workplace?