March 2008

I was just reading Ewan McIntosh’s post about Finland, and his discussion about why they seem to be so ahead of the game with regards to education. While I haven’t read about Finland extensively myself, it’s no secret that they are world leaders when it comes to education. Ewan brings to light some key points -namely the flexibility that students and teachers have, and the trust that is placed with them, using a particular Helsinki secondary school as an example.

Some points that particularly stuck with me were:

  • No two timetables are the same… There are core lessons, but also huge flexibility… They do 90 courses over three years, in 14 of which they are free to do as they wish – if a student wants to fill it entirely with maths or art, that can be done.
  • Another factor in the school’s quietly productive feel is the structuring of the day into three two-hour periods (similar to Stovner School’s two four hour seshes).
  • Classes can sometimes have students of different ages.
  • As I read through these points, I was reminded of some of the comments Stephen Downes made during his session with us around the network approach to learning, and the idea that what counts as “good” varies from person to person. He discussed how the wisdom of networks is people doing things their own way, rather than trying to come to aggregation of ideas. It seems to me this is somewhat the approach taken by students and teachers in this school. No two timetables are the same…isn’t that an interesting concept?

    And students of different ages may be in different classes? Another interesting concept. Under our current structures having students in multi-grade settings usually poses a huge challenge for teachers, although I know from my experience there is great potential in them. As always, curriculum, timetabling, physical environment, etc. seem to hamper efforts at innovation. And yet, this Helsinki secondary has clearly tackled some of these issues, with apparent success.

    I think one of the most telling points made, though, was the following:

  • Pupils lead and teachers play a supporting role.
  • Again, not a new concept, but one that really scares us as educators. I loved the question Stephen posed to us when he started his presentation, “How do you teach when you no longer have power over the students?”. I would love to throw that out to a group of educators and see what kind of discussion ensues. I think it needs to happen, sooner than later. 


    Just came across an exciting post in Leadertalk, about a school that is working towards developing student learning expectations (SLE’s) – with the intention of encouraging school reform. They have developed 5 key areas:

    STUDENT LEARNING EXPECTATIONS What a student should know and be able to do when they graduate from 8th grade. (based on NETS)

    1. St Elisabeth students will apply creativity and innovation to the development of new perspectives as they interpret and remix previous knowledge and pursue new learning.

    2. St. Elisabeth students will be effective communicators who practice 21st century literacy skills, model digital citizenship, and global collaboration.

    3. St Elisabeth Students will demonstrate effective research and information fluency by developing original conclusions, re-evaluating and interpreting their assumptions, and assessing the reliability and validity of their sources.

              4. St. Elisabeth students will apply high level critical thinking skills, effective problem-solving strategies, and content specific   methods of data interpretation when exploring curriculum content.

              5. St. Elisabeth students will demonstrate behavior reflective of our faith and the Six Pillars of Character in all aspects of their school work and in interactions with their peers, teachers and the global community.

          As I read through them, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to our CELs, which I think should be the driving force of our curriculum. This school seems to be on the right path to creating environments for students to engage in authentic learning experiences, as the author, Barbara Barreda also mentioned how they have been discussing topics like 21st century literacy, moving beyond textbooks, classroom as studio, etc. Some really innovative thinking going on…and I’m anxious to see how things go on for them.

          Somewhat disconcerting, though, was the very first comment she received to her post. This individual, who chose to remain anonymous, immediately found fault with their five key areas because of the lack of reference to what kids actually have to “know”. I’ve inserted it here because I think it is indicative of the mindset of many…

          “What a student should know and be able to do….” Funny, but I don’t see any evidence of actual required knowledge — in the traditional sense of knowledge — in any of these five expectations. The goals you’ve outlined are excellent habits of mind and personal characteristics, but they ignore the “what a student should know” aspect of school.

          School improvement will remain a unattainable goal until administrators and school boards are willing to tackle the curriculum question specifically: What, exactly, do we want our students to learn? Ignoring this important component of education is foolhardy.

          Still stuck on the content…how will we ever move beyond it??

          I recently watched “Stupid in America“, a documentary which basically questions why American students performed so poorly compared to Belgian counterparts – and quite readily points the finger at teachers. It’s a bit scary, in many ways – as I think there were some gross generalizations, but I must say I was intrigued by the discussion on teacher competence and the power of the unions. The fact that New York District and several other states didn’t seem to want to open their doors to the public (granted, the media isn’t exactly Joe Public) rings alarms for me. I thought the comment by the teacher from one of the charter schools was really telling when she stated, “I’m a good teacher. I don’t need tenure to protect me. I need to get rid of tenure to protect kids.”

          I’d have to say in some respects, I agree with her. While controversial, I think it’s safe to say that anyone involved in the education system could identify teachers who simply shouldn’t have been in the profession – for a myriad of reasons. And so in many ways, I think transparency and accountability are not all bad.

          But how do we decide who is and isn’t competent? Is student achievement our sole marker? Should it be? And who makes those decisions? And what happens if someone isn’t competent? Do we simply close the school, as is the case in the U.S.A.? Fire the headmaster, or teacher, as was my experience overseas in England? Is more money to schools the answer?

          While I don’t think any of these are a suitable response, I also think it’s equally irresponsible to have NO response in situations where teacher competence comes into question. It’s not fair to kids. I am very intrigued to see the Competence Code that our STF is developing. Right now, especially after amalgamations, teacher competency issues are falling on the shoulders of our administrators. As a former administrator, I can say this is not a comfortable place to be. Hopefully this competence code will offer a framework that will encourage teachers to be reflective practitioners, as opposed to posturing on the defense, and help to support administrators with the task of teacher supervision.

          Teaching is complex; students are diverse. There are no silver bullets, certainly, but I think one of the first steps we need to make is to be upfront about what we’re doing in our classrooms, in our schools, in our divisions…is it really meeting the needs of our kids? If it’s not, we better be open to at least having the conversations about what IS best for our kids.

          Dean Shareski shared this article with everyone in our division just last week. In light of our discussion last night about Media Awareness, I thought I’d share it…

          “How Dangerous is the Internet for  Children?”

          Essentially, the author David Pogue points out that despite what is portrayed on the media, there is really very little threat to most kids who are online. I must admit, as a fan of the Law & Order t.v. shows, I figured online predators must be a dime a dozen…but apparently not!! Imagine, television not reflecting reality…:)

          I’m totally of the camp that we need to teach our kids how to use the tool…rather than simply ban them from it. I chuckled when I thought about the mother who dove across the room trying to stop her child from seeing pornography, as opposed to Pogue’s reaction. Cripes, most of our prime time television is inappropriate for kids – but you don’t see people banning Grey’s Anatomy and Nip/Tuck, do you?

          I was reminded me of a discussion I had with a tour guide while I in Amsterdam a few years ago. Obviously renowned for it’s liberal practices with sex, drugs, and alcohol, I asked him what impact such freedoms had on adolescents?

          I expected, that given that amount of freedom, alcoholism, teen pregnancy and drug addiction could be pandemic for them, so was shocked when he indicated quite the opposite.

          Really, though, it makes sense. The more taboo a topic/issue is, the more adolescents want to engage with it. In Amsterdam – nothing is taboo – so these things we often make a big deal of is just not really an issue for them.

          While I’m not advocating teenagers engaging in any of these behaviours, at the same time, I think it’s foolish to bury one’s head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. So just as we educate teens about the dangers of drinking, drugs, and unprotected sex – we better do the same about internet safety. Seems pretty simple to me.