Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Are We Visualizing the Same Thing?

Iris_-_left_eye_of_a_girlI recently gave a presentation to the entire staff at my old school.  It was a message about embracing change and the importance of understanding our students better.  The presentation went well, and it was nice to be presenting in a room of “frolleagues” (friend-colleagues).  After the presentation, one of the teachers emailed me to open a dialogue.  He wondered, “if most teachers love technology in their lives, where is the disconnect or lack of teacher initiative for wide-scale use in education?”  It’s an important question, and one that many in the EdTech leadership community would probably have different answers to.

This teacher had an insight that got me thinking about the assumptions I bring when presenting to a group of teachers.  The gist of his insight was that teachers may believe that technology undermines relationships (which most would agree is the heart and soul of teaching and learning).  His thought was that when teachers picture “teaching with technology,” they still see themselves in a computer lab.  Viewed from this lens, the disconnect for teachers between the use of technology in their lives and the use of technology in their classroom, is an issue of visualization – Teachers lack a clear sense of what a 21st century classroom looks like.  And of course, without a clear vision of where you’re heading, it’s hard to make any progress.

My vision of 21st century learning environments doesn’t really involve a computer lab at all.  It was always interesting for me to look over the statistics of the computer lab booking system at my school and compare my use of the lab to others.  Although I was probably one of the teachers at the school who made the most use of technology in my classroom, I was among the lowest users of the computer lab spaces.  Computer labs were, for the most part, a terrible way to integrate technology in my curriculum precisely because it was not embedded.  When my class makes a trip to the computer lab, the use of technology becomes an “event”, rather than part of the necessary background of every day learning.

In terms of relationships, it might very well be the case that teachers see the use of technology as something that is alienating them from their students.  Once again, my experience and the imagery in my mind is the complete opposite.

Reflecting on my own journey as a classroom teacher, I can remember the investments I made into building better relationships with my kids.  What started with “classroom management” turned into “classroom community”, and sent me on a learning journey into cooperative learning, “tribes”, character education, and ultimately shifting my role from a teacher in the traditional sense to that of a mentor or coach.  This became the foundation of my professional practice, and not something that I would ever allow to be compromised through the use of technology.  On the contrary, I believe that my investment in technology has only ever sought to improve my relationships with students – opening conversations that were not possible before, giving me a greater insight into who my students are, giving a platform to help all students find their voice, and opening up new spaces for learning beyond the walls of my classroom.  In my experience, technology considerably improved relationships.

Overall though, I think that teachers are often far too fixated on the image of technology hardware devices in their classrooms, as though that was what defined a 21st century learning environment.  Once again, the use of hardware is only one part (and in my opinion, a small part) of what it means to be a 21st century educator for 21st century students.  The great shift for us is not from “technology-poor” to “technology-rich” environments, but from the “teacher as purveyor of knowledge” to the “teacher as the lead-learner.”  A lead-learner is a mentor and a coach; a lead-learner takes risks and is prepared to fail; a lead-learner is a role-model in the positive use of technology.  Most importantly, a lead-learner does not know all the answers, but is very skilled at asking the right questions, and accessing avenues/resources to answer questions.

In my experience, many teachers might like to think of themselves as a “lead-learner”, but their classroom practice is in fact fairly stagnant and devoid of ongoing progress.  How many teachers do you think take risks on a regular basis (with lesson design, or assignments, or technology, or empowering students, or professional development, etc.)?  How many make new developments on an ongoing basis to push their professional practice to the next level?  Probably not enough.
The implications are important.  How can we ever expect our students to embrace challenge and change (and sometimes failure) if no one is modelling for them what that looks like?  In my opinion, this is what it truly means to be a 21st educator and build 21st century learning environment – teachers need to embrace challenge and change, and they need to learn openly for students to see.

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Another Look At Engagement


“Engagement” is one of those things in education for which teachers often have different perspectives on how important it is.  On one hand, there is the sense that without engagement, there is no meaningful learning happening (which is probably true).  On the other hand, there are many who argue that “fun” is definitely engaging, but that having fun does not necessarily imply learning (also true).  Ultimately I think that all educators want the same thing: to maximize learning.

The way I am currently seeing it, there are a variety of elements to engagement that will facilitate greater learning.  I discuss each one below, starting from the aspects that I think have the highest impact on learning:

Meaningful and Relevant

Completing tasks that students see as meaningful and relevant will produce the greatest foundation for engagement.  In this state, the learning becomes self-directed and inwardly motivated.  Students are learning about something that they think will benefit them (beyond getting them a good grade), or that they are personally invested in.  In the best case scenario, the task will also benefit others.  Clay Shirky talks about participating in projects that are of communal value (useful to a community of peers – e.g. your class, or school) or of civic value (useful to society at large).  From this perspective, teachers can ask themselves, “is the world (or our city/school/class) a better place from the investment of time that my students put into this assignment?”


The idea of making lessons and assignments purposeful has a strong relationship to being meaningful and relevant.  But even if we scale back the picture a little bit (after all, not every lesson or assignment can change the world), it is still very useful to focus on how what you are doing right now relates to what students will be doing in the future.  In other words, do students understand how this lesson/activity/discussion/quiz/work period is part of the larger “roadmap” of the unit and course?  If not, they are likely to see their investment of time as busy-work.  I think it is often the case that, though the teacher has a clear understanding of the big picture, they often fail to articulate the process well enough for students to become invested.  Better yet, can your students help you create the roadmap?


Long ago, Vygotsky brought clarity to the idea that learning is a social experience, steeped in cultural and institutional contexts.  Since then, the amazing research that has been done on Cooperative Learning reinforces the idea that we learn better when we talk and interact with others.  In my experience, if you want engagement, you have to learn how to effectively implement cooperative learning strategies (which takes time and practice – a journey I am actively on).  When students have meaningful conversations with each other, they will be engaged, and they will be learning.


If nothing else, try to engage students with fun.  ”Fun” does not have to mean playing games, though “gamification in education” is probably something worth giving some attention to, as it goes far beyond creating “Jeopardy review” games.  Fun can also mean telling stories, drawing/animating, building things (or breaking things), moving around, acting out, and exercising creativity in general.  As teachers we all know there is content that just needs to be covered because it is important to the broader body of knowledge in a subject. If you can’t find a way to make the content meaningful, relevant, purposeful, or social … at least try to make it fun.


Ultimately, engaging classrooms are not built on only one of the elements above, but incorporate many (or all) of them at different times and to different levels of use.  It’s also important to remember that students understand that not every lesson, activity, or assignment is going to be unbelievably engaging.  The problem is when your default state is, “I know it’s boring, but you have to do it anyway.” Students will let you get away with that to some degree, but too much of it and they will turn their brains off at the door … so you can throw the learning out the window!

Image credit:  mikhoohkim

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

If you do what you’ve always done …

Anthony Robbins has a quote that resonates with me:

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

I think the quote is very appropriate to promote reflection in classroom teachers in terms of what we hope to get from our students.  If you find that your students aren’t being successful, what are you going to do differently to change that?  If you find that your students don’t work as hard as they used to, what changes will you make to address that?  If you feel your students do not have critical thinking skills, or research skills, or communication skills, or a passion for learning, or … the list goes on.  Ultimately, we need to be asking ourselves, what am I doing to bring about the change I want to see in my students?

This past Friday was a Ministry of Education professional learning day — Every teacher in the province of Ontario was receiving some form of professional learning that day.  I was privileged to present sessions at two different high schools in my district, both of which I feel did a great job of facilitating an engaging professional learning day for their teachers.  Thinking about the Anthony Robbins quote in terms of professional learning is equally valuable.  For example, if you’re an administrator, were you happy with the learning that happened on Friday?  Do you believe that your teachers were inspired, or took away practical skills, or changed their mindset, or contributed meaningfully to some initiative?  If so, keep up the great work.  If not, why not?  And, more importantly, what are you going to do differently next time to produce different results?

Photo Credit:  jeffsmallwood

Friday, September 13th, 2013

What Stops Some Teachers From Moving Forward?

In my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, I have the opportunity to meet many teachers from all across the school board. In only the first two weeks, I have met some amazing educators who are really pushing the envelope of what classroom teaching can look like. Obviously though, not all teachers are moving forward at the same pace.

As I was driving home the other day, I was trying to understand what it is that stops some teachers from moving forward. From my perspective, there are three reasons that teachers may be resisting productive change:

1. They don’t believe the THEORY

In other words, these people have not been sufficiently convinced that moving forward in one direction is the right thing to do. A simple example from assessment and evaluation is one that has been around for at least 10 years (since I started teaching). It is the concept that assigning zeros to a student who has not submitted an assignment is generally bad assessment. Although there is a lot of great research and many case studies to clearly indicate that using zeros is more harmful to learning than it is helpful, many teachers simply reject the notion outright. It is their conviction, regardless of what research shows, that assigning zeros to students is a good motivator.

So, if a teacher doesn’t believe the theory, they will not change.

2. They believe the theory, but they don’t think it will work in PRACTICE

This group of teachers understands the theory and even agrees that it works in a philosophical sense, but believes that the theory does not apply to them in their school. For example, a teacher may feel that assigning zeros is a bad idea in general, but that it is necessary for the type of students he has.

So, if teachers don’t believe the theory will work for them, they will not change.

3. They just don’t WANT to change

This category is simple enough – change is hard work, and sometimes (for any number of reasons, sometimes good ones) people just don’t want to change what they’re doing.

If you have a problem with number 1, then you probably need to do more reading/learning. The research is out there. Assessment, classroom community, literacy, numeracy, technology, instruction, leadership, brain science, and on, and on – these are areas of teaching and learning that are either highly developed, or becoming more refined each year. MORAL: If you resist change because of number 1, you have more work to do.

If you have a problem with number 2, then you probably need to talk to the people who are actually making it work. I have always enjoyed the quote by Elbert Hubbard, “the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” The reality is that many teachers are having tremendous success in all areas of teaching and learning. MORAL: If you resist change because of number 2, you have more work to do.

It is my fear that most resistance to change is actually because of number 3, though teachers likely convince themselves they don’t change because of numbers 1 and 2. Moving forward in education is as much a personal journey as it is a professional one.

Photo credit: KimManleyOrt

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Excitement is Building

The eve of another school year is an exciting time.  As a classroom teacher, and edtech enthusiast, I always have big plans and new ideas for how I am going to develop my teaching strategies and classroom practices.  This year is a bit strange for me because it is the first time in 8 years that I am not returning to the classroom in September.  Instead, I will be starting in my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, and will likely spend my first week in meetings and professional development.  Although different school boards use various terms for this type of position, the mandate of the job is simply to work with classroom teachers (and schools in general) to build the capacity of teachers with the use of instructional technology.  In practice, this could mean anything from helping a teacher get acquainted with a particular tool (such as a Smart Board, document camera, etc.) through to helping teachers redevelop their assessments to engage and empower 21st century students.

If you have read my blog before you will likely know that the ITRT position is very well suited to my interests in education, technology, and leadership.  But, what makes this job so exciting for me is that I feel lucky to be transitioning into this leadership role at an amazing time.  There is an enthusiasm building in my school board, and teachers are embracing the concepts of 21st century classrooms now more than ever before.

Last week, I was a conference put on by the Peel Board called Teaching and Learning in a Digital World (#TLDWpeel).  The amazing thing was that the organizers were planning for 350 attendees, and over 600 teachers came!  I have been to many edtech-y conferences over the years, but this one had a different energy in the air, and there was an enthusiasm that many people commented on.  I believe that energy came from the fact that the attendees were not “edtech enthusiasts”, but were teachers who have slowly been recognizing that an evolution is taking place, and they want to be a part of that change.

The conference reminded me of the Technology Adoption Cycle shown here from Wikipedia:

While it may still be too early to tell, I believe we are at the beginning to see the wave of the “early majority” rising up.  And for me, in my new role, that is very exciting!

Thinking about this blog post, I went online to watch this fun video from a few years back:

Watching the video I was reminded about the risk-taking involved in being an innovator/leader, and the important role of the early adopters who give credibility to the leader’s vision.  But, what really stuck out to me this time was seeing the enthusiasm of the early majority as they run into the scene to be part of the action.

Now, if we can only get a room full of teachers to dance around like this … that would be something!

Image credit Jim Renaud

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Fear of Technology

Often I hear teachers say, “technology never works for me,” or “every time I touch a computer, it breaks.”  I can’t even count the number of times a teacher has asked me to help fix a computer problem, and when I perform the same action with them, the problem seems to have gone away.  They say, “of course it works now that you’re here!”

No doubt if you are the resident go-to person for technology at your school, you have heard similar proclamations.

It is understandable why teachers develop a fear of using technology, as there are many things that can go wrong!  Computers and technology actually do a fantastically good job of pointing out the gaps in our understanding.  Moreover, when technology fails in a lesson, you have 30 pairs of eyeballs watching you fumble your way around!  It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to have your lesson fall apart on account of a simple computer issue.

However, my ability to resolve tech-related issues quickly has little to do with my inherent skill with technology, and more with the fact that I have already experienced an incredible number of mistakes, mishaps, and malfunctions using technology.  As it is with learning any new skill, the only way to get good at something is by making all of the mistakes that make you feel like you’re bad at it!

Integrating educational technology is not easy:  It requires innovation, patience, and tenacity.  Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to teachers about a technology that may be new to them, I like to start by emphasizing the role that resilience will play in our eventual success.  By reminding teachers (and students) that some failure is a necessary part of the learning process, we encourage them to embrace the challenge of it, and not lose sight of the end goal.

Of course, sometimes technology even fails for so-called experts.  If lesson 1 for integrating educational technology is to be resilient, then lesson 2 must be to always prepare a backup plan!


Photo Courtesy: Bjorn1101

Thursday, February 21st, 2013


A lot of wonderful things have changed in my life in the past few years, both personally and professionally.  Most notably, I now have a little baby girl with whom I can’t seem to get enough of.  Consequently, I have had far less time available to continue writing this blog.  Although life is as busy as ever, I’ve been thinking it was about time to take another run at blogging.  For those who are still subscribed, thank you for your patience!

As part of my renewed commitment to blogging, I have changed the theme.  You may not even notice the difference as it’s not a major change, but it’s something, and I like it!

I really look forward to sharing my thoughts and experience and I continue to learn and grow in this amazing profession.

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Limits on Creativity

Creating something new is challenging.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles to “creating.”  The first is having creativity - you actually have to think creatively to create!  The second is skill – you need certain skills to go from an idea to a product.  For example, if I wanted to draw a picture, I need to be able to envision what I want to draw in my mind (creativity), and then I need to have drawing ability to actually produce the work (skill).  The same can be said for producing music, or writing a short story, or landscaping your backyard, or designing and building a shed, or preparing a delicious meal.  Each of these examples requires having creativity and skill.

I have often felt that I have a desire to be creative but lack the skills to actually produce quality work.  Recently it occurred to me that technology has improved my ability to create because it lowers the barrier on skill.  Technology makes creation more accessible.  For example,  with only a rudimentary level of skill in digital photography, my DSLR camera helps me take (some) great photos.  In addition, programs like Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom have allowed  me to turn great photos into stunning images that I am incredibly proud to share with friends.  These technologies help me to produce a level of quality that I never could have attained with my limited skills.

Over the past 2 years, I have been thinking a lot about fostering the creativity of my students.  I continue to look for opportunities for students to be creative in my lessons and assignments.  Since technology lowers the barrier to creativity, it has often been the conduit through which my students express themselves.  For example, I have had great success with student blogging, film making, and designing infographics.  My students have started poking fun at me saying,

“Sir, none of our other teachers have ever used the word ‘infographic’, and you say it at least twice a week!”

These days, I am excited to explore  more low-tech forms of creativity in my classes (such as creative writing and drawing).  Sunni Brown gave a great 5 minute TED talk called, “Doodlers, unite!”  In it, she explains the benefits of doodling for brain processing.  I found the talk inspiring  and I am already making plans to incorporate doodling into my Physics lessons on a regular basis this coming semester.  My hope is that doodling encourages a deeper (or more concrete) understanding of concepts in Physics.  And, as a bonus, I might be able reuse some of their cartoon gems to teach concepts to future classes!

Photo Credit: Kim Petersen

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Thoughts on Plagiarism

As you can imagine, teenagers often look for the best way to maximize results, while minimizing time and effort.  This is no surprise because it’s what we all do.  However, when it comes to academic integrity, the “easy way” can often get students in trouble.

This is not to say that students plagiarize maliciously, only that copy/paste is often too easy not to do.

In an attempt to cut back on plagiarism, many high schools have started using as a way of comparing student work to assignments submitted by other students and to sites across the web.  The truth is, is effective in reducing plagiarism, mostly because it makes students scared.  In my opinion, making students fearful every time they submit an assignment leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, which I think is harmful for inquiry-based learning in the long run.

Just to be clear, what I am talking about in this post is the type of plagiarism that most high school teachers deal with, namely copy/paste.  I am not talking about more serious issues of academic integrity like paying other people to do your work for you.

I think that the problem of plagiarism in high school stems from two bigger issues:

  1. We are not taking the time to teach students how to conduct research properly.
  2. Assignments that teachers give are often too simple to be called “research.”

In general, we need to be doing a better job to educate teenagers as to WHY referencing is so important.  Most importantly, it needs to be taught, not from a place of fear for getting caught, but from a place of character education.  It is important to be academically honest because it is the right thing to do!  In my experience, appealing to students’ sense of right and wrong is actually quite effective because everyone has been on the receiving end of “wrong” before, and knows what it feels like.

I also think that students fail to site their work, simply because it’s a lot of extra work to do it.  I remember being in university and being told that my APA formatting had to be perfect or I would lose marks.  But who can really remember if you’re supposed to put a comma after the date or a period, or whether or not the title should be underlined or italicized?  Even for someone like me, who wants to be academically honest, referencing properly is annoying.  The inconvenience of creating citations is one of the reasons why I like the web tools so much (easybib, bibme, Citation Maker, etc.)  Although these tools are not perfect, they make the process of creating references so much faster and and easier for students.

The second reason that students plagiarize is because they have been asked to do meaningless work.  The teachers who are teaching now did not grow up in the same type of world our current students are living it.  We grew up in a time of information scarcity; our students have an abundance of it (and maybe an overabundance!)  Finding the name of the Prime Minister and a list of his duties is now so ridiculously easy that the task becomes a joke.  Even looking for more complex information, such as the pros and cons of nuclear energy, may have been difficult at one time, but can easily be found these days with a simple Google search.  No wonder students copy/paste from the internet!

Teachers need to be redesigning their assignments to make them plagiarism proof.  One of the key ways of achieving this is to ensure that the method of output is not the same as the method of input.  That is to say, requiring that students transform their learning into a new format or medium.  For example, if students are researching the pros and cons of nuclear energy, don’t ask them to write a report (text in, text out); instead, ask them to put together a public service announcement, or write a song about it (text in, audio/video out).  Even more important though, is asking students questions that are not easily googlable.  If the answer can be found in one of the top sites in a Google search, then the question does not require any higher order thinking skills and should not be considered research to begin with!

Photo Credit: Nisha A

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Getting Kids Excited About Books

The post that follows is a guest blog from Elaine Hirsch.  Elaine is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames.  This makes it difficult for her to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

I was happy to see the topic that Elaine chose because I think that it is a nice compliment to the last post I wrote about how I struggle reading books in an era of blogs, twitter, and TED talks. Elaine offers some insight into the value of having kids become avid readers, and offers some suggestions of how to encourage them to read. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

In an era of unprecedented access to digital texts, it’s becoming less and less common for young people to actively engage in reading books. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Books require a level of attention and long-term commitment absent among the growing variety of digital media sources such as Facebook, online schools (including even PhD programs) and the Blogosphere. While this is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book as an literary medium, it is also one of the factors contributing to young people’s aversion to them.

Easy access to internet-based text media has created both an explosion of access to information and a convenient way for people to distract themselves from information they are not necessarily interested in. This fact, coupled with the unfortunate truth that the American school system has consistently undervalued literacy in its educational focus, has led many young people to completely abandon recreational book reading in favor using text for online social interaction with peers. It’s not hopeless, however, to get young people to read books, and the benefits for doing so are immense.

According to Kim Medaris of Purdue University, children who read books recreationally display superior writing skills. Greater writing ability leads children to higher achievement academically, and professionally later in life. The question we must ask is: what is the most effective way to interest children in books?

Introducing books to children in their earlier years can be extraordinarily important and not terribly difficult. Before children achieve basic literacy, it’s a huge benefit to read to them whenever possible. Children are masters at learning by imitation, and if you read aloud to them on a regular basis it will encourage them to follow your example. It is also greatly advantageous to acquaint children with libraries at an early age. With a library card, books are one of the few sources of absolutely free entertainment, and this can help encourage children to continue reading later in life.

Some libraries have had success organizing children’s book clubs, and these can provide a fun environment where children not only develop literacy but also socialize with peers. another important factor in developing a child’s interest in reading is simply having books around the house. Books can inspire curiosity in young children, and even before they can read there are great benefits to exposing children to the look and feel of books. After literacy has been developed, however, the strategies for keeping children hooked and reading change from merely encouraging learning how to read to encouraging children to find reading exciting and stimulating.

Getting children hooked on popular book series has proven very successful in the past. Young readers develop relationships with characters as the series progress that lead them to be more interested and keep them reading further. As children’s reading skills improve this will lead them to explore other, more challenging books to seek ongoing literary satisfaction. Like any skill, literacy becomes stronger with practice and continuing to read opens access to successively more rich and valuable texts. Knowing this, it is certainly not impossible to elevate a child’s comprehension from Harry Potter to Hamlet over the course of a few years.

Ultimately, however, the decision of whether to become an active book reader lies with the children themselves. It is the responsibility of parents and communities to develop environments where reading books is encouraged and rewarded. If good reading habits are instilled in children early on, particularly in a sociable and fun way, it will be nearly impossible to stop them from becoming engaged readers for the rest of their lives.

Image Credit:  ooh_food

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