Dear Parents, Be Less Involved

Okay, there’s a title to raise some eyebrows, but hear me out.

As a kid, I never really thought about my parent’s involvement in my education. Like most parents, no news was good news. Neither of my parents had a high school diploma and like many parents of that era, teachers were more educated and placed in relatively high regard as experts and professionals in the community. As more people become college educated and society, in general, became less compliant towards authority, schools and teachers were now more accountable for their actions. That was certainly an important and useful change.

As a teacher, I soon was able to see categorize the levels of involvement of parents. As a first-grade teacher, parents generally were fairly involved and interested in their child’s education. Particularly if this was their first child, they were anxious to know if their child was having success as a reader and learner, if they were developing social skills and if they were enjoying school. Most parents already knew the answer to these questions but appreciated affirmation. Yet while this was generally true depiction, there were some differences among parents. A small percentage of parents never showed up for interviews and I had little or no contact with them. The majority attended parent-teacher conferences, read notes from school and stay in good communication with me. Another smaller percentage were more involved. These parents volunteered in the classroom and field trips, baked cookies for class parties and had more in-depth and specific questions about their children’s education. A few of these folks challenged my teaching methods on occasion and some were a strong source of encouragement. As a young parent at the time, I could relate to parents and how busy their lives were and tried not to place undue pressure or expectations on them. From an academic perspective, I mostly wanted them to read to their children and talk to them every day about school and learning. Even though I did some things I wouldn’t do if I were teaching now (reading logs, homework) I didn’t ask much of these parents. You love on them, I’ll look after the academics. That’s somewhat simplistic but also an accurate synopsis of our working agreement.

As I moved to a district leadership position, parent engagement became a bigger priority. As public support for education diminished, getting parents to become partners in education and accept that role would be important. We began to use the internet and social media to share our stories and show that schools were vibrant learning spaces that parents would be proud of and advocate for.

I still believe all those things. But I also think parents need to consider exactly what their role is. As a parent my involvement with my own children’s education was limited. I personally knew many of them and trusted them as professionals. I also wanted the same courtesy and trust given to me. That doesn’t mean I thought all my kid’s teachers were amazing. They certainly had a number of teachers who were less than amazing. Sometimes they made decisions that I disagreed with but for the most part, I gave them grace. But mostly as a parent, I didn’t have the time or energy to give to my kid’s education. I don’t know if that sounds callous or privileged but my kids had abilities and no learning issues so I let them manage school.

I’m thinking about our current political climate. I wonder what kind of a person would enter politics? While I’m sure it’s always been a challenging job, I can’t imagine waking up each morning knowing so many people will despise every decision you make. Part of the challenge is the access we have to their daily work. 20 years ago, most of us didn’t scrutinize our politicians so regularly. There was a level of trust. We elect you to do a job. We don’t have time, energy or expertise to monitor your daily habits, conversations and decisions. You do your job, I’ll do mine and in 4 years we’ll decide if you should keep it. Now many will say people should be more informed to make a better decision about who the elect. Certainly, but I”m not convinced that information people are getting today on a daily basis through social media and 24-hour news cycles make them more informed. It does make them angry and disillusioned but I”m not sure if they are more informed.

Education is facing similar challenges. Parents are getting louder, more vocal and in many cases misinformed about many things. Teachers don’t have the time or energy to debate many of these issues. They become distractions to doing the real and important work of learning. In part, I believe it’s contributing to teacher attrition.

So what I’m suggesting is that we begin to put a little more trust in teachers and experts in general. I realize that’s a broad statement and everyone will cite many examples where that’s a dangerous idea. My belief is that for the good of our mental health and sustainability as a society, it may be an essential step. There will always be watchdogs and those people are necessary parts of a high functioning, healthy society but that means that for most of us, we can focus on our work and expertise and let others look after theirs. When the COVID-19 vaccines were introduced, the majority of folks had enough faith in their doctors to take the vaccines without having to do crazy amounts of research. We realized we were never going to be smart enough to understand all that goes into that amazing creation and accepted with gratitude how it would help us. If you think about it, society is built on a great deal of trust. We trust that the food we buy is not going to harm us, that there are standards and systems in place to ensure our safety. We trust banks to make sure our money is looked after. The list goes on.

So parents, trust your teachers and educational leaders. There are lots of checks and balances in place to ensure they are doing their job. Go to your child’s scheduled interviews and ask all the questions you have. But please let them do their job. They likely aren’t trained to do your job and most of you aren’t trained to do theirs.

One last note. I write this as a privileged Canadian with healthy children and means. I am fully aware of my bias but may not always see them. I write to think and learn. I welcome pushback, that’s why I share this publicly. Please share your thoughts.

Deep Learning and the Curriculum Disconnect

Disclaimer: I write this knowing I may be off or am missing some perspectives. In other words, it’s why I blog. That’s why comments are open.

Tweeting is easy:

Backing up what you tweet is harder. But tossing out a statement like this I realized that was only right to clarify and expand the thought. The genesis of the tweet comes after seeing many tweets referencing deep learning or similar concepts, I immediately saw the disconnect between devotion to the curriculum and the actualization of deep learning.

The term “deep learning” is rooted in problem-solving, connected learning and personal relevance. I’m not sure if it was coined by Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn but they are certainly the most prominent names around the term. The New Pedagogies for Deep Learning movement has been around for a few years. The purpose is to change teaching and learning by shifting from a traditional model of mastery to one that creates new knowledge by the learner. Here’s another way to view deep learning.

The goals of deep learning are that students will gain the competencies and dispositions that will prepare them to be creative, connected, and collaborative life-long problem solvers and to be healthy, holistic human beings who not only contribute to but also create the common good in today’s knowledge-based, creative, interdependent world.

How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning

While Fullan utilizes this term, it could be argued that it is a variation on a theme that includes things like, Project-Based Learning, Inquiry and Problem Based Learning. While each would claim and focus on their differences, they all represent a shift to more student empowerment, more choice, more personalization and deeper learning. They are generally a framework for learning with the learner at the center.

If you’re looking for examples, the paper cited above provides a few. Most of you can think of PBL examples which may all be considered deep learning. To varying degrees, they have curricular expectations and components. But I think it requires great skill to ensure those curricular expectations and constraints interfere with the learning. We may at times get fooled into thinking deep learning is occurring when it may be masked as compliance. Given a requirement of assessment, presentation and accountability is most often part of any learning in school, these can easily take away from ownership and engagement. If nothing else, it’s hard to see these contributing to deep learning. While I know some may argue this, keep in mind I’m not suggesting they are wrong but think about your own learning. When people learn outside of school, they don’t think about being evaluated, they don’t necessarily think about presenting their learning or meeting anyone else’s expectation but their own.

Back to my tweet. While many of these pedagogies are intended to be student-driven, the reality is they are often heavily orchestrated and driven by teachers. I’m not saying that’s bad or that it shouldn’t be used but it’s difficult to call it deep learning. I’m not sure deep learning can occur without full engagement and ownership by the learner. Part of that means that if students own it, it may not align with the curriculum or at least curriculum becomes an afterthought that the teacher may need to reference to determine what alignment exists. In other words, it’s difficult for curriculum to drive this. It matters what we emphasize and what we lead with. Contrast this to the objective-driven classroom where teachers are encouraged to write learning outcomes on the board. Again, not to suggest this is wrong or unnecessary but certainly not deep learning as most definitions state. It seems that in some instances, educators want both the curriculum and deep learning to exist in concert. I’m not sure they can and that may not be a bad thing. Just because something is directed and owned by the teacher, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable but it isn’t what I would call deep learning. Getting “lost” in learning means you aren’t concerned with time (most curricula allocate time to disciplines), disciplines, (all curricula works around subjects) or outcomes (summative assessment and evaluation remain a priority for most).

I’ve had my own struggle with the personalized learning movement and student choice. You can read a few posts here and here but essentially the idea is school has an obligation to as Gary Stager says “introduce to children to things they don’t yet know they love” Particularly in the early years and even into adolescence students should be exposed to a wide range of ideas and opportunities led by adults  with rich and diverse backgrounds. In addition, students should also be able to share their experiences and knowledge with their peers.  

And at some point and at every age range students ought to engage in deep learning. I see school learning in 3 buckets. 

  • Introductory Learning directed and chosen by the adult…Taking advantage of the skills and interests of teachers
  • Mandated Learning (basic reading, math which could be embedded into other learning) ….the curriculum
  • Deep Learning and deep learning tasks chosen by students. 

I’m not sure the time that should be dedicated to this but it would likely be a sliding scale with deeper learning time increasing as the student ages. By the time they are 16, it should hopefully be nearing 75% of their day. 
To be clear I don’t believe all learning needs to be deep or even hard. We’ve long romanticized learning and some deep struggle. As I’ve written before “hard” isn’t the mark of important learning. Maybe deep is always necessary either. Learning can be easy, delightful and still important. For many, they can’t concede that learning might be easy. Perhaps it makes them feel less valuable. I watch my grandaughter engage in her own version of deep learning that is not hard but very meaningful. At age 2 I realize her cognitive ability is very much emerging but I watch her become immersed in a task that is for her very much deep learning but I would not characterize it as full of struggle.

Will Richardson has long debated the need to categorize learning with adjectives like “digital” “inquiry” “immersive” et al. It’s all just learning. I’ve also argued that we tend to overcomplicate learning. But in the end, I think I’m writing this to have us be honest with ourselves. “Deep learning” sounds like it’s the best and most meaningful way to learn. It may well be. I do think the framework is useful and recognizes the changing nature of knowledge and takes advantage of networks and technology to amplify and modernize the learning. But our long-standing need and love of curriculum aren’t as neatly aligned as some might think. Curriculum may have its place but trying to marry it to deep learning, might be a round peg, square hole kinda thing. My tweet and this post challenges any notion that curriculum and deep learning can be in balance and if fact might even be in conflict. That’s not to say they both can’t exist in a learning context but I believe they need to be understood differently.

“Whatever it Takes” I’m not sure…

This post was born out of a conversation I had with teachers a few weeks ago. I was sitting in a computer lab with about a dozen top-notch educators who had either been using Discovery Education’s Science Techbook or were just being introduced to it. After exploring it for an hour or so and having lots of dialogue one teacher said something to the effect of, “I don’t see why any teacher wouldn’t use this. It’s got everything you need, aligned to the new curriculum. Not only is it an amazing resource, but it’s also a real time saver.” To which another teacher replied. “It is a time saver but in order to get there, you likely need a couple of days of PD or just time.”

I suddenly had an image in my cost benefit analysis scale.

It occurred to me that this is essentially what humans are doing constantly as they explore and entertain new ideas. Is that cost worth the benefit? Also, what is the cost and what is the benefit? Whether it’s software or a new initiative or policy, professional learning or teaching strategy, this is what we all do intuitively. Most often in education and likely any organization, new ideas begin with the benefits. After all, why even explore something if we don’t see or think there may be benefits. Many times innovative ideas are the most challenging because the benefits are largely perceived and speculated rather than proven. In addition, the process of exploring new ideas has benefits even if it’s not as successful as we might have hoped. The other challenge is cost. While implemented a new app or strategy might appear to have zero cost but that’s false. The time and energy devoted have a real cost and must be considered.

There are many things that are introduced and expected of teachers that are not innovative and yet the costs and even the benefits are somewhat nebulous. What’s the cost of adding 3 students to a class? What are the benefits and who benefits? Difficult to measure no doubt.

The reason I’m writing this however is to address a common mantra from many education pundits and leaders. “Whatever it takes”. This line conjures up images of athlete sweating profusely or playing through an injury to win. Win at all costs. This idea assumes that you should have no regard for yourself and sacrifice everything. After watching a few documentaries on brain injuries from football and hockey, I can tell you many who regret the “whatever it takes” sentiment.

While I don’t think teachers are facing CTE, I do think that teachers and leaders need to be more aware of the cost/benefit ratio. I’ve often heard it said that “if it’s good for kids then we should do it” On paper that sounds good and right but again it ignores the fact that some ideas are very costly. For example, let’s say a school recognizes that students could use more attention and care outside of class. So it would be good for kids to have after-school programs. It might be good if the same teachers who teach them all day could spend an hour after school with them in a less structured format. They would strengthen their relationships and potentially help students flourish more. But there are human costs. Whatever it takes?

Providing strony bukmacherskie students with access to the best technology, furniture, musical equipment, having class sizes of 15 are all good for kids. But there are financial costs. Whatever it takes?

You might be saying “that’s not whatever it takes means” But that statement does not acknowledge the costs and benefits. Lots of things are good for kids but that doesn’t mean we should enact them. One problem we have is if a teacher suggests they may not want to devote extra time to learn something or do something directly for a student, they are labeled or thought of as selfish, uncaring or resistant to change.

Speaking out against something that seems inherently good for kids is taboo. But sometimes that argument is valid either because of the financial or emotional cost and sometimes because the benefit is relatively small. The “Whatever it takes” message suggests it’s about valour when I might suggest it’s a bit hyperbolic. Not only is this statement used to prop someone up as if to tell everyone how much they care about children but it also assumes that perhaps others don’t. Whatever it takes might be a belief my wife and I hold for our own children but we don’t need to remind ourselves of this or hear a motivational speaker tell us we should care for them. I’m not sure teachers do either. I never held the same depth of care and love for my students and I don’t think we should. Yes, we have many students who don’t have that kind of love but we still can’t extend the same love for our students as we do for our own. That’s not an uncaring statement, it’s just the truth. Managing our time and energy is critical for long-term success of ourselves AND our students. It’s possible to be PRO-teacher and PRO student. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I’m not usually one for data but I think weighing the cost/benefit of anything we do is natural and perhaps we just need to better articulate and examine those costs and benefits. Maybe we need to hear from teachers I visited with who had some clear sense of the benefits but also recognized the costs. “Whatever it takes” seems to imply unlimited resources. If you’re the one suggesting “whatever it takes” be clear in what the benefits are and acknowledge and listen to those that may see and have to bear the costs that you don’t see. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about kids, often they’re just trying to take care of themselves.

Stop Being Bad with Names

Stop Being Bad with Names

“I’m terrible with names.” It seems like a very common statement. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. I’ve always prided myself with knowing people’s names and yet I’ve never been as intentional as I ought to be.  There have been 3 sources that I’ve found recently that have addressed this theme to the degree that it’s now become a personal mission of mine to pay better attention to people’s names. 

The first is a reading of a classic book by Dale Carnegie “How to Win Friends and Influence People” The book, while focused on business, offers some simple, timeless truths about relationships. Most of it seems like common sense but the depth and specifics stated in the book are great reminders not only for business folks but anyone who works with people. 
Specifically the chapter on names. Here are a few quotes:

“Most people don’t remember names, for the simple reason that they don’t take the time and energy necessary to concentrate and repeat and fix names indelibly in their minds. They make excuses for themselves; they are too busy.”

Of course, I could go into a whole diatribe about busy. But I’m also guilty here. I need to make a better effort. 

“…the average person is more interested in his or her own name than in all the other names on earth put together…. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

This is pure science.  Hearing your name activates unique brain activity that can have hugely positive results. Conversely, not knowing someone’s name can signal a lack of interest in that person. I’m not saying that’s always the case but in the same way being late is often a sign of disrespect, so is not knowing someone’s name.

This led me to a second source. ‘It means something’: When to correct people who get your name wrong
Typically newer immigrants to Canada and the US face this all the time. Lazy people, myself included, who just want a name they’re familiar with want others to change their name to something easy. Sadly immigrants and anyone with a unique name most often comply. This article is about a girl upset with her name and how often people struggle with it. Like many, she is uncomfortable with others discomfort and her solution is to anglicize her name. Her mother’s response is spot on;

“Aduba argued no one at school could pronounce her name. Her mother replied, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

That one hit home. I’ve been guilty of this one. After reading this, I visited my daughter in Toronto and met her roommate “Cher”. I knew that wasn’t her name and asked her what her given name was. She said “Sayitia” but quickly went into an explanation that excused anyone from using her name because it was hard to pronounce. I wrote her name down and said it back to her 3-4 times till I got it right. When I call my daughter now I ask “How’s Sayitia”? She thinks it’s a bit silly but I just determined that if her parents gave her that name, she ought to be able to hear it once in a while. Selfishly in this instance, it’s about my own learning as much as anything but hopefully, it will remind me to do better particularly with more challenging names. 

Finally, the last source is a bit of research I came across a few years back and have incorporated it into a few keynotes. Alan Levine first made me aware of this study

The study essentially tracks the lives of 1st graders to becoming adults. They all are from the same school and had 3 different 1st-grade teachers. The students who had the greatest success as adults were from one particular teacher. Among many things, one very specific difference was noted: Of the students from the 2 classes with lesser success, less than 50% remembered their teachers’ names. 105% of those in Miss A’s class, the teacher who had more success, remembered her name. The reason it was more than 100% was that students who weren’t even in her class thought she was their teacher. 

Eliminating the words rigor and busy from our educational vernacular are perhaps my most proud contributions to education. I want to add “I’m bad at names” to that list as well. I have some work to do on this I hope you’ll join me.

Are All Voices Equal?

“Voice and Choice” “Equity” “Student Voice” These are words that dominate the educational change conversation today. They are important ideas but like so many words, they can lose their meaning and specificity as they permeate the lexicon. 

The short answer to the question “Are all voices equal?”  is “No”.

The better answer is “It’s complicated”. 

Without going down too many rabbit holes I’d want to explore a few elements. First the student/ child to teacher/adult relationship and more broadly the idea of expertise.

The Question of Student Voice

We certainly are doing well to provide students with more say, more choice and more power to own their own learning. For too long, they have been relative pawns in education where adults made all the decisions about when what, where and how they learned.  We’ve now entered a more enlightened time where things are beginning to shift. In some places, this shift is well underway and in other places, much work is left to be done but there are few places where this isn’t a conversation. 

But providing increased say and power to students shouldn’t negate the knowledge, wisdom and dare I say, the authority of adults who provide the structure and foundation of education. I believe that adults and those with experience ought to be given greater say and voice when it comes to education and probably most things related to working with children. Education, like parenting, is not a democracy.  Children lack the maturity, experience, and knowledge to make all the decisions in their educational careers.  Children are certainly equal to adults in terms of rights and opportunities. They are not equal in terms of their decision-making skills. 

When it comes to students I’m fine with hearing what students want from their education. However, they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s why I object to a full-on personalized learning experience if that’s being interpreted as students make all the decisions. That’s just a bad idea. Should students voices matter in how their schooling looks? Certainly. Students can provide us with insights we might be missing. We should be asking them for input into decisions that impact themselves and education more broadly. Should their ideas matter the same as the adults? I don’t think so. Again, if you’re struggling with this statement, think of yourself as a parent. If you let your children make all the decisions about their lives, you’d likely have some pretty selfish and poorly adjusted kids. Our role isn’t simply to provide them with whatever they need but also to guide and direct them into what it means to develop into healthy, happy and productive humans. If we truly care for children, we’ll offer them our wisdom and lead them as an act of love. 

Not Every Voice Counts the Same

All voices can be heard but not all voices should be given equal value. Many educators speak of the frustrations when leaders cower to overly vocal parents and media when the comment about things like “discovery math” or lack of homework and other areas that they do not have the knowledge to speak of intelligently. Consider your own development and growth. If you believe you are a lifelong learner and a growth mindset then presumably, 10 years ago, you knew less than you do today and thus others were likely in a better position to make decisions that impacted you.  Acknowledging that some folks do know more than you do is a sign of maturity. 

Expertise matters. I’d much rather have the support of 10 people who know about my topic than 100 people who don’t. But #socialmedia promotes the fiction that all opinions should have equal value. And increasingly that belief system is influencing all our public debates.— Andrew Campbell 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 (@acampbell99) September 9, 2018

I’m grateful for the advent of the web and social media by providing me with a voice. I’ve been able to publish many ideas over that last 12 years that previously would have only lived in my head. Through that publishing, I’ve been able to think through some things and had the benefit of others to add their thoughts as well. However, as much as this has democratized knowledge, it has also diluted the importance of expertise. The barriers of the previous publishing world lacked the ability to include all voices but it did help identify expertise. As adults and educators, I think we have to work harder to identify the smart people and allow their ideas to be heard over the din of social media.  Expertise is not found in followers but on the quality and evidence of ideas that have proven the test of time. 

I also understand that many marginalized groups have not had their voices heard. This is where the power of the web has helped bring those voices into more conversations. This is a good thing. We need to find the new experts in these groups.

In the end, we need to have more reverence and value for wisdom, experience, and knowledge even as we invite other voices into important conversations. We need to listen to children and the voices of those that haven’t always been heard. But all voices are not equal.