| | the impact of paradox – Why less is more | If it is dialectical then lets look for the synthesis | Why do Teachers Remain the Focus of Attention? | Black line masters and a little cut and paste | Getting tangled in my own feet | Putting my money where my mouth is… | Models and reality | When does a young person own their learning? | They are owning their learning, when they work on their own terms | Who will be in the driver’s seat as we integrate technology? | The chronicles of an overly obsessed individual | The Sanctity of the Teacher’s Desk(top) | The Folly of Rubrics and Grades | Ecology of Education | The ecology of public education | Summerhill School | The Hard Path | For the Love of Learning: Distracted Intentions | “Choice theory” and student success. | Awards Night | Creating An Environment for the Master Teacher | The way of differentiated classrooms | Breaking the grade | Greater than words | A Foot in Each Door | How to Plan Your School Year | The Gentle Way | Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything | Flexible Learning Space | Addicted to Adulation: | Celebrating Diversity | Hundreds of Kilos of my 2 Cents Worth | Grok | Three ways TV changed everything

the impact of paradox – Why less is more

Posted on January 1, 2010 by Alan Stange

John Spencer, Musings from a Not-So-Master Teacher

I work hard as a teacher and I believe in the notion that “there are no shortcuts.” Yet, I have also found that often “less is more.” Trite, perhaps, but true nonetheless. I call it the Impact Paradox. It’s the idea that I have more of an impact as a teacher when I am trying less hard at having an impact. For example, when I focus on behaviors, kids misbehave. But when I focus less on behavior and instead of quality teaching, the behaviors improve. When I try really hard to impact my students’ lives, I drive them away. Yet, when I simply show compassion, I end up making a difference.

It does not take many years at some great institutional purpose to begin to appreciate the Catch 22 principle and the paradoxes John Spencer lists in his latest blog entry. For years I have lived mindful of my own: Every approach or strategy works for a while and then it doesn’t. What a thoughtful list Spencer has presented. I have to find a way to keep connected to it. Authenticity, humility, transparency, flexibility, and empowerment are key words he uses to describe the most rewarding and successful approaches to teaching. I think we struggle with the empowerment the most because we are pressured by accountability to many different stakeholders in education. This might be the greatest contradiction we must resolve; how do we share control of the learning process while maintaining ownership for the student learning outcomes?




If it is dialectical then lets look for the synthesis

Posted on January 2, 2010 by Alan Stange

I followed David Cushman’s blog to Rob Paterson’s The End Game for Traditional Media discusses the imminent collapse of traditional media like newspapers. He makes some predictions for the next few years and speculates about whether the old model needs to be swept away to make room for the new model. The diagram above informs me about the process of change; however, I don’t think it an entirely useful one. It presupposes fundamental paradigm changes. In the context of education, I don’t think we are approaching that sort of change. Too much of what I see, too much of what I am asked to do as a classroom teacher is still positioned in the education’s 20th Century paradigm. The traditional curriculum prevails. The unintended curriculum is not being critically examined much in my experience. Our system of public education remains firmly embedded within our larger society and therefore radical change is thwarted by society’s agenda for public education. Too much of what we do meets the preexisting standards of institutions like universities.

We do seek shifts in in the nature of public education. New communication technologies will transform what we now do and when and where learning takes place. Twenty years ago I oriented my students toward resource-based learning and flexible learning contracts that accounted for learning styles and readiness. I used the resources of the day. The new resources are still being applied to the old goals.

I don’t expect to see some antithetical paradigm of education supplant the model we follow today as information technologies transform learning. I think that the potentials of this technology and the way it transforms knowledge and empowers decision-making about personal learning in even the youngest of us will bring about a synthesis between old and new. We may have our printing press, but how much was really changed and how long did it take?

I find myself listening to the discourse on technological innovation in the classroom. I wonder if I need to reconnect with the more important discussions on education goals. Shifting the focus of student, teacher and parent to assessment of learning outcomes and away from strict productivity (assignment completion and attendance) is a more fundamental change than the media.




Why do Teachers Remain the Focus of Attention?

Posted on January 7, 2010 by Alan Stange

Over coffee this morning I had an epiphany. In the first decade of teaching I amassed a collection of professional periodicals and did my best to keep up with the reading. I could never manage that. Further, the journals were never able to encompass the range of interests and needs generated by my work. I have a good deal of respect for the people who invested their time and energy in creating those journals but their efforts often failed to satisfy me. Under deadlines, they had to fill an issue with meaningful articles. That is is difficult to do. Over time I let all the expensive journals slip away. Now I read blogs and forums. My professional reading is back!

Chad’s article The 4 Intents at Classroots.org caught my attention this morning. His four intents are: Make all learners great, Promote change to promote learning, Involve students in professional development, and Think instruction.

We classroom teachers set ourselves and our students up for conflict by strategically planning units when our classroom interactions are based on strategic thinking. It’s our shared human nature to make discoveries and connections as we learn. When we insist on one path or outcome – when we coerce students to learn one thing or to learn one way – we truncate learning opportunities and short circuit students’ curiosity. I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately: is it better to redirect a student back to my plan, or to investigate with the student how a new path can lead to or past the day’s lesson?

His discussion begins with a graphic analysis of teacher planning and the the resulting frustration and conflict in the classroom as the teacher”s careful strategic planning is confronted by the organic strategic thinking occurring moment by moment in the classroom. His opening seven paragraphs resonate with decades of my own lived experience as a teacher. I imagine he articulates all our lived experience. Chad remarks: Even when the lesson becomes an obstacle to learning, I’m not sure what to do without it.

In the age of testing, can you create a public school classroom of learning without delivering specific content? Is it ever desirable to do so? What is teaching anyway anymore? Are we delivery people or models? Do we give students what they should study, or do we ask them to study us? Do we insist on a role apart from students’? Are we willing to become co-learners and to design classrooms that reflect a single intent: to learn alongside students?

But here again I’m caught in strategic planning, trying to imagine a definite role for myself – a way to maintain my expectations of what I should do each day in the classroom. That’s such an attractive notion. It’s captivating; it’s the history of public schooling – the history of how can teachers remain the focus of attention?

Time and time again I am confronted by the cross currents in education. How can we bring about authentic, autonomous learning in public schools when curriculum expectations and the assessment intended to measure the achievement of those expectations creates barriers and not opportunities? I am not sure Chad finds his way through this dilemma but his four points are thought-provoking. We all acknowledge that resolving this fundamental disconnect between intention and practice, strategic planning and the lesson playing out in the classroom, will not be simple. In the meantime I think we should relinquish the sense of failure, frustration and guilt we feel when we allow students to hijack our best laid plans and trash our carefully considered timetables.

I thought this link that Chad provided helpful. It contrasts Strategic Planning and Strategic Thinking nicely.

Strategic thinking vs. strategic planning
According to J. M. Liedtka, strategic thinking differs from strategic planning along the following dimensions of strategic management.

Strategic Thinking
  • Vision of the Future
  • Only the shape of the future can be predicted.
  • A future that is predictable and specifiable in detail.

Strategic Formulation and Implementation
  • Formulation and implementation are interactive rather than sequential and discrete.
  • The roles of formulation and implementation can be neatly divided.

Managerial Role in Strategy Making
  • Lower-level managers have a voice in strategy-making, as well as greater latitude to respond opportunistically to developing conditions.
  • Senior executives obtain the needed information from lower-level managers, and then use it to create a plan which is, in turn, disseminated to managers for implementation.

Control
  • Relies on self-reference – a sense of strategic intent and purpose embedded in the minds of managers throughout the organization that guides their choices on a daily basis in a process that is often difficult to measure and monitor from above.
  • Asserts control through measurement systems, assuming that organizations can measure and monitor important variables both accurately and quickly.

Managerial Role in Implementation
  • All managers understand the larger system, the connection between their roles and the functioning of that system, as well as the interdependence between the various roles that comprise the system.
  • Lower-level managers need only know his or her own role well and can be expected to defend only his or her own turf.

Strategy Making
  • Sees strategy and change as inescapably linked and assumes that finding new strategic options and implementing them successfully is harder and more important than evaluating them.
  • The challenge of setting strategic direction is primarily analytic.

Process and Outcome
  • Sees the planning process itself as a critical value-adding element.
  • Focus is on the creation of the plan as the ultimate objective.

Strategic Thinking, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia




Black line masters and a little cut and paste

Posted on January 12, 2010 by Alan Stange

Sometimes, immersed in a discourse on instructional technology and constructivism, it seems as if I am walking the leading edge of education. John Spencer commented recently on the need to step away from “the dust of vapor existence.” I appreciated his thought and it reminded me of a moment in class this week when I introduced a new health unit and distributed a handout summarizing the systems of the body. It was the quintessential purchased black line master and my only effort was coaxing our grumpy photocopier into producing a sufficient supply of copies. I was struck by the student’s almost immediate lapse into a contented silence. They needed a break I guess but not from a steady diet of cutting edge learning. The fourth and fifth grade classroom at Sunningdale School always move through alternating patterns of learning. I’ll steal a line from a favorite author and suggest that at least these nine and ten-year olds are not subjected to the blandness of meat and potatoes. It is becoming something of a curry and the students are not always used to the different flavors. I think there are times when the majority of them are relieved to lapse back into simplicity and a familiar routine. There are times when the crayon curriculum suits the students just fine. It is not just four-year olds who need to go to their rooms to lie on their beds or simply decompress with a solitary activity.

We are like that too. As much as I rail away at the inanities of keynote speakers and the extended period of passive lecture, the truth is I am often relieved to have a quiet moment where initiative passes to others. In some activities we circle the classroom taking turns to respond. The students are allowed to pass (“Allowed”, that sounds pretty teacher-centered). The ideas, directions and goals are not alway there within us and we are content to go with the flow.

I set up Skype on the two laptops in my classroom. Are three Skype accounts in one room excessive? A couple of my students chatted freely with students from South Carolina this morning. Others stood by watching with interest, but not anxious to take the boy’s places. I want more of the class to feel these boys comfort level with something new. It is important to acknowledge that resistance to change is not the exclusive malady of ossified educators. Our students feel it too. Tomorrow the young people will be back in the computer lab for a bit of 1-1, textbooks and worksheets will slip across their desks, some will find time for a challenge at a center. They will work alone and be in groups. We will do a bit of drama and they are going skating for gym. After that they may need some quiet time. I will make that decision when they get back to class. Not so very cutting edge I think.



Getting tangled in my own feet

Posted on January 15, 2010 by Alan Stange

Despite it all, I still underestimate my own efforts to integrate technology into my classroom. Yesterday during silent reading one of my boys slipped away from his desk and took a laptop to the study carol. In a cohort of enthusiastic computer users his dedication reduces 70% of his peers to the status of Luddites. I think of him as a reluctant reader so I checked his activity after five minutes and discovered him re-immersed in a book on line. Across the room a classmate was reading the same book in print. There was nothing inherently superior about either option. It was just the option he chose. I offered him some fatuous praise and he rolled his eyes (I mean he really did that) and with an exasperated tone pointed out that I had supplied him with the link over the Christmas break. I slunk away feeling embarrassed. I returned to take a picture of him, “Are you going to Blogger that?” he asked. We think alike at times.

I have an appointment this morning and quickly threw a plan together for the ‘guest teacher’ (something is apparently wrong with the word ‘substitute’). That was a relatively simple task, unlike my chess play I do plan my moves well ahead. As I was printing off the plan I remembered I had a Skype call scheduled for this morning. My counterpart has installed Skype on a laptop following my lead. We are now set to send students off for independent conversations now. Only I am not going to be there this morning to orchestrate that. I left a note to the substitute with two student’s names and now I have to leave it in the hands of a nine year old and a ten year old. I think that is what we are working for here. We have to be aware of our student’s activities and guide them toward valid learning outcomes, but we have to stop being technology gate keepers, allow independence and for gosh sake, stop responding to their activities as if they were miraculous. Its just all in a day’s work now.



Putting my money where my mouth is…

Posted on January 24, 2010 by Alan Stange

Should teachers and students be ‘friends’ on social networking sites?
Classroom 2.0 Discussion

I notice this morning another class member has tried to ‘friend’ me on Facebook. I’ll probably add her to my limited list. She is nine so I don’t think I will see too many drunken parties on her wall. She will see none on mine. This is a shy girl who contacts me through our school email accounts, Ning Network, Twitter and wiki discussions. I think in almost every case she has simply said, ‘hi’.

There is a great deal of concern over the propriety of having contact with students outside of the classroom. Documented, open contacts on popular social networking sites are compared to clandestine chat rooms and shady encounters in discrete locations. This is not the case. What is really being debated I think is an erosion of privacy in our professional lives.

I am a product of my generation of teachers. When I began teaching in rural Saskatchewan in the 1980’s I was reluctant to enter the local bar or be seen leaving the liquor store. My life was so private that I was finally called into the principal’s office where I was confronted by a school trustee who apologetically confided that there were rumors I had a private drinking problem. I was surprised. The community was more relaxed about teacher behavior than I thought. I became more open about myself. I enjoyed the staff parties until I had one of those likely all too familiar moments when a drunken colleague decided that it was time to have a frank discussion with our administrator. After that I was back to discretion. We talk about teaching our five hours and needing to return to privacy; keep things separate. Facebook is a billboard beside the freeway folks. Nothing you do there is private and the world tags you. You’re in the mall so if you decide to share a tantrum with your three year old be aware someone not so very close to you is watching. As soon as I open my browser I am out in public.

I’m a product of my environment. How small was your town? My town was so small the main drag was a transvestite. My town was so small the local bar was the town’s only restaurant so if you went out for a drink your fourteen year old student might be at the next table with his parents scarfing chips and gravy chased with a coke. You really have only once choice in that circumstance: be a responsible adult.



Models and reality

Posted on February 11, 2010 by Alan Stange

He is holding up a model of the human spine. I know, it looks like a coral of some sort. The foam cartilage looks like the vertebrae and the sections of straw seem like the cartilage. He has a nice curve on it though. He gets the structure anyway because he built it. Twenty-seven donut-shaped bones separated by cushioning rings; the essential spinal cord threading it all. Someone tweeted the question, “how do you survive the February blues?” (to paraphrase). The answer as usual, engage the learner in meaningful activity. This one worked, but teaching is full of miss-steps.

About a week ago I had a nightmare. It was an all too familiar one where I had a class ignore me as my careful plan disintegrated. No chance to wake from this one, it was real. We were working on Heritage Fairs and we had spent all of our research time in the computer lab. That did not sit right, so I shifted the class to our library. It is a reasonable collection with a great librarian. I began my explanation of encyclopaedia indexes. I have been the teacher librarian and research begins with a good dictionary, followed by encyclopaedias (general reference), books and other media. Well that was back in the day. You should have seen my nine and ten year olds. I might as well have been demonstrating Morris code to a group of people clutching iPhones. Their lack of enthusiasm frustrated me overmuch. I tried to re-engage them by asking them to share their topics. Momentarily I had them back. Three topics in a row, no entries in the 2004 World Book Encyclopaedia: Google 3, World Book index 0. I was able to find the fourth. With that dubious success, I set them to work researching. Having only one index for nineteen learners was a problem. I was saved by lunch.

Fast forward to Monday. I am field testing our school’s set of ActivExpression hand-held voting gadgets. My kids were very excited the first time we pulled them out until I admitted they were not cell phones and they would not be able to text each other. Still, it was something new to try and they like that. They became very excited. ActivExpressions are a step up from the old gadgets because you can enter text. I thought it would be interesting to use them to respond with phrases about the character of various animals – what words come to mind when you see a mouse, beaver, eagle, etc. The activity proceeded glacially as we waited for some students to thumb out their responses. We completed two of the eight animals. I hesitate to think what the handhelds cost. I could have completed it with a show of hands and volunteered answers in a fraction of the time. It was not the right moment for the technology, albeit we were just testing it out. On other occasions they have worked well, but they are hardly essential to assessment. My current experiment is to leave them distributed and in the student’s desks. I pull them out at appropriate moments for a quick response and they then store them away again. Distributing, registering and naming them is time consuming. It is a tool best kept at hand.

World Book indexes and ActivExpressions; these two stories illustrate the necessary assessment we need to make at every step. What is the right tool? What is the appropriate technology? Sometimes it is simply a pipe cleaner, a straw, and some discarded foam wrapper.



When does a young person own their learning?

Posted on March 6, 2010 by Alan Stange

Perhaps we need to reiterate people reach mastery in different ways. Most of my grade four and fives approach creative writing by ‘remixing’ familiar stories from their lives: books, movies, and always TV shows. The characters tend to be their friends. A few draw on familiar literary narrative archetypes to tell unique stories with imaginary characters.

I think most young writers are hesitant to work without a scaffold such as a familiar tale. Their perception of ownership lies in their ability to give the template their own flavour and also lies in the success they feel in matching the model. We were studying the skeletal system this month. I planned to dump some materials on my students and ask them to design their own models. I backed away from this and we built a model of the spine together. The results pleased them quite a bit. If one of them had formulated their own model design, or if some of the writers had presented alternative plans to my suggested writing, I would have encouraged them to try.

I wonder what we are prepared to accept when we speak of ownership. When we set a student learning outcome for our students, write it on the white board, clarify goals, and set them to it; what is our response when a student suggests they don’t want to do the math at all. Do we explore alternative learning outcomes or do we exert authority, influence or power to redirect the young person back to our selected outcome? Nobody seems to want to engage me in a discussion of what student “ownership” means to them. If it simply means engagement with the goal of mastering curriculum outcomes, then I think the word ownership is misleading.




They are owning their learning, when they work on their own terms

Posted on March 7, 2010 by Alan Stange

I found this at John Pederson’s blog, ijohnpederson but I found Dunlap’s reminiscence more to the point. I think it comes closer to what I think people mean by students owning learning. He seems to be describing what was referred to as Free Schools in my Madison, Wisconsin childhood of that same time. Teachers encouraged the students to design their own curriculum. Teachers then mentored the students through their individual program plans. Like Dunlap, I think these memories have influenced my conception of owning learning.

Darius Dunlap Says:
September 15th, 2007 at 11:20 am

When I was in Fourth Grade, my family moved and I found myself in a new school in a new part of the country. I’m sure this effected me in many subtle ways, but at school it was all about the different teaching approach.

The school was an “experimental school” (well, for 1972) that taught using a self-paced method. I was there just for fourth and fifth grade, but this counts as probably the one learning experience that sticks with me to this day.
David Warlick references owning learning in a blog entry when he speaks of transferring responsibility for learning to the student.
One of the ideas that Clarence [Fisher] shared that resonated with me was about how he has his own students do their quarterly reading evaluations. This is important, because to switches the responsibility to the student. Their learning contract becomes an arrangement with themselves, rather than a responsibility to the teacher. They are owning their learning, when they work on their own terms.
Learning contracts are a common vehicle for transferring responsibility to the learner. The learning contract defines what is to be learned and also the basis for assessment. I am quite familiar with learning contracts from my own practice. They energize learning and foster exactly the responsibility we are seeking in our students. This differs from Dunlap’s brief description though. Perhaps I read this into the learning contract, but I expect the benchmarks for success and curriculum content largely remain controlled by the teacher. Students take ownership for the means of learning and as the word contract implies, there is a mutual agreement about the mode of assessment. Dean Shareski alludes to this in his comment to my last post.

Own You: to win repeatedly against an opponent. When something (general a band) is the best – to the point where you are not worthy.

Own It: Taking pride in what you’ve got.

Own It: When you walk into a bathroom after someone has just taken a terrible shit and it smells completely disgusting. You now “Own it”. That smell belongs to you even though you didn’t produce it. If someone sees you leaving the bathroom they are going to assume you did it. It’s not even worth explaining, just except the fact that it now belongs to you. Urban Dictionary

Owning learning struck me as a bit of contemporary jargon. Not in itself pejorative, its slang nature sent me to the Urban Dictionary. I invite Canadians to see what it has to say about the recent “own the podium” phrase. “I own you” is a familiar phrase still; it does not connect with what we are thinking when we say owning learning. I turned to own it. Taking pride in what you have appeals to me. Taking pride in learning. The definition informs us about the attitude a student might take when they are in control of their own learning. I think the concept of student ownership goes beyond young people taking pride in their learning. The concept rests on Fisher’s point that students own their learning when they work on their own terms.

My eyes widened when I read the final definition. The exposition of a young person implicated in the bad smell produced by someone else. Responsibility for someone else’s undertaking has been thrust upon an innocent. Are the students herded into our classrooms at the bell and offered the opportunity to negotiate a contract to master our predetermined student learning outcomes? How comfortable are we with our curriculum and these assessments for and of learning that students cannot seem to avoid. Is there room for genuine student ownership of learning? Will this learning really be on their terms or are we asking them to own our shit?



Who will be in the driver’s seat as we integrate technology?

Posted on March 11, 2010 by Alan Stange

I think we are unnecessarily anxious about technological integration in learning. It is happening. I was in a meeting this week puzzling out how to move my school division colleagues forward toward integrating a variety of technologies into our classrooms. We were all educators so our arsenal of strategies is pretty good. At times, the discussion reminds me of a personal struggle: physical fitness. That struggle informs my attitude toward integrating unfamiliar technologies. You know fitness is good for you but you don’t think you have the time to focus on the problem. If I started training I know I would feel better and it would gradually become easier. How does a gym teacher invite a reluctant student into physical activity? I imagine the response to that would be varied. Some approaches would be direct and others indirect. Force the poor kid to run laps or include her in a game? The goal in either case is to embed physical activity into the life of the child. I reflect our common bias. If you are reading my reflections then you likely feel a little technological integration would be healthy in the classroom.

Like learning, technological integration is not something we have to do, it is something we need to let happen. We are discussing the height of the dike and wondering how much water we can handle as the unstoppable waters rise. We will have some opportunity to influence the flow and some sound advice about how each individual might maneuver in the turbulence, but we will not stop the flood. The young people are not going to stop surfing simply because we tell them it is dangerous either. The ocean cannot be ignored. It will find a way around or over us.

Learning and creativity will find a way around or over us. We are working on Heritage Fair projects in the grade four and five class. Yesterday one of my students asked me if I thought it would be be acceptable for him to present a slide show using his Nintendo DSI. “I think the ‘I’ stands for image,” he offers tentatively. He has the DSI, it made sense to use it. I have to applaud his effort to add value to an expensive toy. He is by no means the only student integrating technology in his learning.

In the course of the last two days students initiated evening Skype calls to my home laptop. One was a girl in my class who decided she should add me to her contacts. She connects with friends and it must have seemed natural to add me. The other was more interesting. This was a girl from South Carolina. Her class has been talking to my class and I guess she had the same impulse as my own student. The young people see the practicality of this all and they will do it. I’m not worried about technological integration.



The chronicles of an overly obsessed individual

Posted on March 13, 2010 by Alan Stange

School is vaguely about learning why things are the way they are and more about seeing how much you can remember. Too often do i ask “why is this?” only to get an answer along the lines of “you don’t need to know that for the test, just remember bullet points 1 and 2 and you will be just fine”.Society wants cogs, and it’s beating the scientists right out of us to get them. What would people think about an Einstein if he were born today? Would we put him on Ritalin because he’s just another trouble maker not agreeing with the curriculum? Would a Da vinci just be another hyperactive kid that needs to calm down? Education is a very important and necessary part of society, however, we are losing the value of our creativity and curiosity for the replacement of efficiency. In the end you are forced to adapt in order to be successful and for society to be successful. The Educational System is the cost of a clockwork society.

via videogamerchronicles.blogspot.com

My son Daniel wrote this two years ago as he was finishing his last year in high school. He attended a small rural school with about 160 students. I was his teacher off and on since he was in grade seven and an ever-present fixture in the schools he attended since he was in kindergarten. For much of his schooling I was the principal. School was a struggle for Daniel and he now pays the price for his own disability to learn in the limited environments we offered him for twelve years. His teachers recognized his predilection for convergent and divergent thinking but I have to confess none of his teachers had more than an inkling that they were working with an articulate and thoughtful person. Nothing he wrote for school matched the organization demonstrated in his blog entries.

I did not know Daniel was writing a blog in grade twelve. His teachers did not know he was writing a blog. I desperately wish I could find one comment left by a teacher. Perhaps it might not have made a difference to the academic outcome but then perhaps it would have. It is sad that he had to meet a teacher playing World of Warcraft to hear the phrase, “You are wise.”

Are we making progress? I hope so. I recently posted pictures showing how we can adapt our classrooms to the real needs of students. Rather than resort to drugs, I let students stand now. We give them cushions to sit on and rubber bands to push their feet against as they sit. One student can wear a weighted vest. It all helps.

Are we making enough progress? I don’t think so. Differentiating learning matters and we have known this for a hundred or more years. Every impulse to move in that direction is met by the systemic ethos of normative evaluation and its unwitting tool standardized assessment. Learning remains a distorted product of necessary economies of scale, our Education Acts, and core curriculum. Some of us hope instructional technologies will help shift the prevalent paradigm of education. I am less sanguine.

At twenty-one, Daniel blogs less than he used to. I learned about his blog some time ago when he shyly mentioned it. He is kind to me in his occasional references and I am grateful for that but I remain at some level just another teacher who triaged him in school as needing help, but not quite nearly enough for the available resources. I’m lucky there are other levels to our relationship.

I easily lose track of the number of years I have been in this community of purpose. Thirty soon; so easy to become jaded by what you do. I’m grateful that the passion has been increasing thanks to my connections with this wider community and always the young people who come into my life.



The Sanctity of the Teacher’s Desk(top)

Posted on March 15, 2010 by Alan Stange

One of the principles I have wavered about over the years was the sanctity of my desk within the classroom. At the beginning of my career it sat front and centre. In time it moved to the back and finally it has been relegated to a corner. The size of the desk varies with allocation. This last move, I requested the smallest desk available. It is still a teacher’s desk. I remember the stony gazes I offered students who dared sit in my comfy chair. A confiscated item was to remain tucked away in the security of an inviolate drawer until I chose to return it. The well-worn zip-binder containing my teacher’s daybook was not to be touched. It is hard to untangle the impulses of privileged status, privacy and confidentiality. In a confined space like a classroom, people need some personal space and a recognition of ownership. In a contemporary classroom governed by flexibility personal space can be difficult to establish.

The impulse to protect the teacher’s space is eroded by pragmatic considerations. Sometimes I invite trespass when I ask a student to retrieve something from my desk; the classroom’s digital camera, a spare scissor or ruler. My Les Nessman-like artificial walls tend to be ignored by all at such moments. The desk and chair are not so much the teacher’s personal space as they are the classroom command centre. The increasing importance of the teacher’s desktop and its hardwired peripherals in the classroom routine shifts everyone’s perspective of ownership significantly.

Consider the picture above. My student obligingly re-enacted his movements (raising the flag on Iwa Jima as it were) so I could illustrate my point. He is shifting the learning center groups and resetting the clock on the ActivBoard flipchart displayed at the front of the room. His body is blocking the Tuner and DVD/VCR hooked into the black tower on the filing cabinet. He got there first. Across the room another boy is frowning at him. He wanted to do the same thing on the ActivBoard. It is hard to control a computer needed by all. Students sit in my chair chatting on Skype or viewing videos and flipchart pages. They take over the computer for classroom presentations. I think I am describing something familiar to you all. If so, then you may also be aware of a growing problem.

The teacher’s desktop has become the management tool for much of my instructional technology. It is also the administrative tool for the school. Students are tracked through the computer through SIRS. Outlook connects staff throughout the division and parents to the classroom teacher. My grades and assessments are compiled there. I am told in the next six months the phone system will be connected to this computer. There will be some issues. I think the teacher’s desktop is going to become the classroom desktop. It may mean a classroom account to replace the teacher’s account for daily operation. I should shift administration to a different computer. This transformation is part of the changes we see in the classroom now. The centre of gravity shifts. The teacher is not the primary around which the students orbit like satellites. We are building a different structure.



The Folly of Rubrics and Grades | Ecology of Education

Posted on March 19, 2010 by Alan Stange

Before I abolished grades, I went through my rubrics stage. I was convinced I could solve my assessment problems if I could just fine-tune my rubric production. I struggled for months trying to create ’student-proof’ rubrics that would allow me to consistently assess their learning. I can’t say that the time I spent on rubrics was a waste – because I learned a lot – but what I learned is that rubrics have little to no place in the classroom.
via ecologyofeducation.net

A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material. I like Paul Dressel’s quote on grades. They serve a function in society and before you discard them for their imperfections you need to be sure everyone is more or less on the same page for how we will structure assessment after the revolution. The French aristocratic regime certainly warranted replacement, what replaced their rule likely needed a sober second thought. Joe Bower is right to point out people’s predilection for seeing any and all forms of assessment, including rubrics themselves, as some variation on grades. A-B-C-D-F, 5-4-3-2-1, Ex-M-B-NY, or whatever; people persist in reading that as a percentage. “Meeting” expectations is what we use in the Prairie South School Division. Colleagues want to also have M+ and M- on the report card.

I think rubrics (hate the word actually) exist in a teacher’s head as that teacher critiques and workshops student work. The goal of articulated rubrics is to invite students into the evaluation process. I loved high school comprehensive final exams in June. It was a moment I could indulge in connoisseurship: judgment informed by intuition. I was not required to explain my evaluation. I’ll stand by those assessments too but they frustrated my students on the rare occasion when they had a chance to review their marked exams.

One of my practices was to offer a flexible weighting on student work. My students might prefer to redistribute the values on an assignment to capitalize on a strength. There is a logic to this that is manifest in a connoisseur’s evaluation and rarely in a rubric. Rubrics habitually weight criteria evenly or in an inflexible formula (We grade the same way). As a creative writing teacher I know the merits of a composition do not rest on a balanced formula of effect, setting, characterization and plot. Rubrics virtually collapse in an ineffectual heap when it comes to poetry. These are times when we must abandon our beloved little systems of charts and numbers and approach something on its own merits.

Report cards come out in seven days and my nine and ten year olds are beginning to think about their grades. I love the freedom of elementary school. We have worked to benchmarks and reflected on work in the context of rubrics. I have never mentioned grades throughout the term. It never seemed to matter.




The ecology of public education

Posted on April 5, 2010 by Alan Stange

I conceive of public education as a complex ecology like a reef with competing-cooperation interdependent organisms.The living reef, for better or worse, is shaped by the dead structure of previous development and the turbulence generated by the surrounding ocean. Catastrophic change is possible but disrupts the ecology. Policy makers imagine that they can reshape the reef or rebuild it with ease simply by adjusting a few limited factors, but it is a great reef that sustains itself.



Summerhill School

– An enduring example of democratic education for the end-times
Posted on April 9, 2010 by Alan Stange

Summerhill is noted for its philosophy that children learn best with freedom from coercion. All lessons are optional, and pupils are free to choose what to do with their time. Neill founded Summerhill with the belief that “the function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.”

In addition to taking control of their own time, pupils can participate in the self-governing community of the school. School meetings are held three times a week, where pupils and staff alike have an equal voice in the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives, discussing issues and creating or changing school laws. The rules agreed at these meetings are wide ranging – from agreeing on acceptable bed times to making nudity allowed at the poolside. Meetings are also an opportunity for the community to vote on a course of action for unresolved conflicts, such as a fine for a theft (usually the fine consists of having to pay back the amount stolen).

In creating its laws and dealing out sanctions, the school meeting generally applies A.S. Neill’s maxim “Freedom not Licence” (he wrote a book of the same name); the principle that you can do as you please, so long as it doesn’t cause harm to others. Hence, you are free to swear as much as you like, within the school grounds, but calling someone else an offensive name is license.

It is upon these major principles, namely, democracy, equality and freedomthat Summerhill School operates.
via en.wikipedia.org

A good friend drew my attention to this. I think people generally associate democratic schools with unwieldy Utopian philosophies. The reality is that anything that endures is the result of a functional culture. That culture is dynamic; evolving over time. Summerhill in 2010 is likely a transformation of Summerhill in 1921. The state of North American education, particularly from the discourse I follow in the United States, seems turbulent and raises deep concerns. Things seem off track. If the train wreck unfolding around us endures, it will be because it too evolves into something functional. Functional in the sense that it meets the needs of all the stakeholders in society. The formal cultures of schools have always been in tension with the informal culture of the primary stakeholders: students and teachers. There is a complex dialectic between the theory and practice of policy makers and practitioners. Our decision-makers seem out of touch and guided largely by mistrust. It is easy to position ourselves with the practitioners and learners assuming their lived experience with learning is somehow more authentic than the seemingly more peripheral stakeholders inhabiting homes, businesses, universities and legislatures. I don’t think that is wise. We should not dismiss managers, decision-makers and philosophers too quickly. They contribute to our perceptions of and goals for education.

Decision-making is about power. We know that not every stakeholder shares equal power. In Saskatchewan we teach fourteen-year-olds that power comes from resources, organization, and numbers. It may seem that legislators and school boards control the resources and organization in education. This is not entirely true. Information is our currency and resource in education. At the grassroots, in the classrooms (whatever they look like, however they function) teachers and students organize and share resources. As it always has, the numbers involved in the informal culture and practice of education shape the experience children have. We worry that fundamental changes are happening that will distort education. I am not convinced. Ours remains the greatest impact within the system.

Which brings me back to the complex interaction between competing theoretical visions of mission and practice, functionality, sustainability, and practicality. Memes evolve. The dialectic results in a synthesis (Marx was so right about that). Summerhill School reminds me that this is an old story. We have a tendency to see our moment as the most significant. The events unfolding around us are the transformative ones eclipsing the past. There is an urgency in the discourse. As one relative reminds me constantly, these are the end-times when we must align ourselves according to absolutes. Again, I am not convinced. We are not at the brink. The thousands of classrooms will ripple with each new turbulence. The complexity of it all will not be transformed so easily by an over-ambitious piece of legislation in Florida.

I’m an optimist though; I do think education is evolving. Schools like Summerhill capture the imagination. I have my own Summerhill. Help me please Seattle and give me the name of the open-education school I visited in the late 1970’s as an eighteen-year old. That school captured my imagination and still serves as a dreamy model of how learning should be.



The Hard Path

Posted on April 30, 2010 by Alan Stange

Why don’t we have schools that make people happy? That asks too much of any institution and I think society has as much right to the place of primacy in education as young people do. There is ephemeral pleasure and then there is the life well lived. We build for the future ever mindful that the quality of the present should not be sacrificed. We have our excuses for the strictures and narrowness of the schools we work in. Some of them are very good. Despite our earnest intentions we may not unravel the knot and create a coherent system of learning that satisfies the need for happiness we all have. Yet we need to remain critically reflective. The question must always be, “whose interests are being served by this?” When we become complacent with the status quo or argue vigorously for radical change, the question remains the same. The answer will not be simple because educating a generation is complex. We know this.

Kirsten Olson is spot on with her comment about explicit limits. Too much of the educational industrial complex is structured around a scarcity of educational resources. What is making this enduring structure tremble is the transformation of information access. There is no scarcity and the commodity is being traded freely. For those with access, learning has become viral. The predictable response is to see the open sources as cancerous and the resulting learning suspect. The “real” knowledge, the “safe” knowledge and modes of learning remain controlled and limited. The dispensing or management of information remains the province of specialists. The independent learning of young people (and the rest of us) is patronized as extracurricular or marginal. There are too many who do not learn but the connected learning around us is phenomenal now. It defies our careful, well considered curriculum and measuring the resulting learning moves us out of our comfort zones. We don’t always know what we are seeing. Easier to narrow the visible spectrum with standardized assessments. Those assessments speak of benchmarks rather than normative curves but always manage to maintain the all too useful ranking. Elitism and merit are rewarded by the result.

Society does have a stake in education. It is a stronger, healthier society if the outcome of education was whole people approaching their potential. Happiness comes from having our needs met. It is not simply “fun”. We need our physical needs met, security, empowerment (achievement? power?), a sense of belonging and a chance to be who we think we should be. Old ideas now, but I think if we keep this in mind, the young people may reflect back on their school experience as happy.



For the Love of Learning: Distracted Intentions

Posted on May 25, 2010 by Alan Stange

Peter Bergman warns us to not get distracted by our plans:

Every once in a while there happens to be a trail that travels in the same direction we’re traveling so we follow it. It makes for easy walking.

But a dangerous thing happens when we follow a trail: we stop paying attention to the environment. Since the trail is so easy to follow, we allow our minds to wander and neglect to observe where we are.

Then we forge ahead, moving with speed and purpose, right to the point where we look up and realize, like I did that day, that the environment around us is no longer recognizable. Our focus blinded us.

This is not just a hiking thing.

When schools cut recess for academics – our focus blurs.When teachers give up on the weakest students to help the bubble kids – our focus dissipates.

When parents bribe students to learn – our focus crumbles.
When whole teaching staffs are fired – our focus decomposes.
There’s a lot wrong with education reform – no wonder people like Sir Ken Robinson talk less about the need for evolution and more about revolution.

via joebower.org

I like the trail metaphor. I don’t think I entirely agree. I suppose that is largely the weakness of analogies. Trails usually follow the geography rather than cut across them like a Roman road or our modern interstates. Interstates rush past the points of interest in their hurry to move large numbers of people to predetermined destinations. National initiatives in the States like Race to the Top seem good examples of that. Teachable moments and differentiation seem lost in the single-minded obsession with preparing for tests.

Trails are well traveled because they make sense. There is also rarely a single path. Following a trail, you see other paths braiding in and out as people seek better paths to follow or make detours to interesting points. I’ve always followed trails. There is no rush, you can stop to look at the geography, you can detour easily. Trails are cooperative experiences when they are not solitary journeys. A person does not mind so much when they stop to examine something of interest. I feel a sense of urgency when I stop by the highway to look at something. Cars and trucks speed past and you are left with this unpleasant feeling that you are falling behind in some way. Interstates are too much like race tracks and so is our testing mania.

Moving without a path has little to recommend to me. There is adventure I admit, but I am not sure you make better progress. Moving through the brambles, fighting the undergrowth drains energy and leads easily to misdirection or deflection from your goal. It leads to circular motion too. You can be a trail-blazer though. Create a path for others to follow. When you do that, you are discovering the contours of an unfamiliar geography.

Joe might speak for himself, but I think he was clear that the danger of familiar paths – familiar teaching strategies from our own educations – is they support unreflected teaching. If you are reconstructing your methodology, freeing yourself from a priori assumptions that young people are irresponsible, anarchistic, incompetent learners requiring micro-management and manipulation, then I think you will also become a more reflective person. Trail blazing takes thought.
My blogging and commenting tends to abstractions. I suppose this is because it takes effort to build the context of my teaching and in no small measure because I am cautious about story telling (oh the stories I have to tell too!). My comments above are shadowed by the current state of my classroom and methodology. I am feeling very much like a risk-taker at the moment and if failure is a part of growth then I am likely growing robustly.

This morning I discovered I have an intern for the fall. My last intern was prior to my decade in administration, some 15 years ago. That is a huge responsibility and it comes at just the moment when I am rediscovering and refining some differentiated methodologies. I am bringing someone into my risk-taking and that gives me pause.

I am replacing my rows of traditional desks with tables and chairs. I preferred more flexible flat-topped desks. They would be safe. I could shift them from groups to rows. I decided I needed to make a total commitment to a studio classroom and keep the temptation at bay. I’m trying to make the commitment to differentiated and connected learning.

The long weekend was not so nice, Joe can attest to that. It rained prodigiously around here and Tuesday morning brought more ugly weather. The students did not go outside at all and had no gym (art became very athletic). They were not all their responsible best. My attempt to introduce a daily planning log for my grade fives while the grade fours were involved with an independent station did not go very well. That happens; it helps explain why my comments turned to the problematic structure of public school classrooms. I had twenty-two people and not everyone was buying into autonomous learning. Centers generally work better than that. I wonder if it is a full moon? I forgot to check.



“Choice theory” and student success.

Glasser, W. | We Teach We Learn
Posted on May 30, 2010 by Alan Stange


Glasser makes a case for choice theory to combat the common reinforcement of a stimulus/response (SR) psychology in today’s classrooms. He asserts that “SR is completely wrongheaded and totally destructive to the warm, supportive human relationships students need to succeed in school” (16). With choice theory, students take ownership and responsibility for their actions. “Accepting that you can control only your own behavior is the most difficult lesson choice theory has to teach,” states Glasser.

via weteachwelearn.org

I should preface my remarks by saying I teach grade four and five. That informs my response to the topic of needs, management and learning. Maslow presented his hierarchy of needs and I have been reading Tomlinson’s The Differentiated Classroom (1999) and she offers the premise that human beings share the same basic needs for nourishment, shelter, safety, belonging, achievement, contributing, and fulfillment. These are variations on a theme. I tend toward Glasser because it is simple. I like Maslow’s because he acknowledged learning and self actualization as needs. In education it is worth differentiating learning needs. In my own belief statement I limited it to Glasser’s power: the ability to do something. learning accomplishes that.

Glasser’s point that we can only control our own behaviour has remained a central tenant of my own classroom management. Our school does focus of Ronald Morrish’s Real Discipline http://www.realdiscipline.com/index.html. At first glance it seems like behaviourism because it starts with compliance to responsible and cooperative behaviour. The goal is to help young people learn how to handle independence. “Today’s popular discipline concentrates on this part to the exclusion of the other components. What we have forgotten in our rush to provide children with freedom of choice is that adults are supposed to prepare children to handle choices and make sure they are ready. It is well-trained, well-taught children that handle choices responsibly and with respect for the rights and needs of others.” This process does not have to be an unreflected one. Glasser is right, we cannot control other people, we need to influence them.

What does this look like in my grade four and five classroom? It would be an imperfect vision. I teach trailing the chains of my past practice: bad habits learned through watching other teachers, my own lizard-brain impulses. Things go awry still. I am moving learning in room 7 ever closer to a differentiated model. I have no faith in unschooling models. Student-centered learning demands student-centered discipline: Self discipline. This means good learning habits. I believe there is a functional logic to self-discipline and in many cases the traditional norms of our society translate well into the classroom. Never-the-less I am a student of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and thirty years has offered me some insights into the ways young people meet their needs for fun, power, belonging, and security. Things can fall apart in unstructured groups.

Young people need mentoring in successful learning habits. It comes down to compliance in my classroom at times. Compliance is a dirty word it seems. It sounds rather totalitarian. I suppose it can be. Ronald Morrish offers some simple illustrations to support the idea that we need helpful habits. An example he gives is driving. Commuters depend on mutual compliance to traffic rules. In the 1980s I drove my motorcycle in Central Nigeria. I have some experience with how even minor non-compliance led to chaos. The reasons for compliance to a particular habit need to be discussed.

We do this at the beginning of the year or when a new procedure is being introduced. Critical reflection is paramount. Flexibility is also a value in my classroom. Compliance is valued, but our decision making is also situational. There are appropriate moments to break habits. Compliance is also for the big picture. Habits like sharing, respectful dialog and behaviour, and safety. In my differentiated classroom we do not disrupt others (you know this happens with my ten-year-olds), but I am moving away from micro managing things that interfere with connected learning and learning style. I tolerate discrete movement and collaboration. Negotiating the details of learning is encouraged.

Next year I will be take a few more steps (its happening now). I will need to think through what it looks like, feels like and sounds like in my classroom. I will boot-camp the new class and we will reflect on the habits we need and agree on where compliance is necessary. Then we will trip up so often I think I might scream — except that was one of those bad habits I picked up along the way and it does not comply with the culture of respect we need to share. Last week a student said I never get mad and she wondered what it would be like if I did. I said it was very ugly. You have no idea how much it means to me that she thought I never got mad. She is wrong of course. I have been angry this year. Perhaps I am just breaking some old habits.



Awards Night

Posted on June 16, 2010 by Alan Stange

I stumbled into a conversation about awards nights on my division Yammer. It is not my place to speak for my colleagues, but one raised a valid question about whether inclusive awards nights simply devalued the academic excellence in our schools or watered down the expectations for learning. They are reasonable concerns.

In my mind it is a matter of validating a few people’s effort to learn versus validating the learning effort of everyone. Awards assume achievement is closed rather than open and that one person’s learning is more valued than another’s. We might prepare our student’s for this sort of grading by either only posting the top three products (by whatever criteria we use) on the classroom wall and not acknowledging the rest. We might add a fourth and call it the most improved product. The other twenty or so products are certainly valued by us, we will be sure to tell them we appreciated them trying, but they did not measure well against the three “best” products. Better luck next assignment. This is a discussion about competitive social paradigms I suppose. It may also be a discussion about learning theory and and the way we organize learning in our classrooms.

I have been challenged to differentiate instruction this year and as I approach next year I plan to take the risk and approach learning in my classroom with better differentiation than I have done this year. My elementary classroom will become a studio classroom with flexible learning spaces and configurations. Collaboration will be welcomed because I have bought into the idea that all learning is connected. That does not mean that people ‘may’ learn collaboratively. It means people ‘always’ learn collaboratively. If you gave your top students an opportunity, like actors do at the Academy Awards, to speak briefly about who helped them achieve their recognition, what would they say? Would they not acknowledge the learning connections they benefited from over the year? Which adults and fellow students contributed to that award?

To what extent did the lack of differentiation happening in our classrooms influence the outcome of our student’s performance I wonder? One glaring discontinuity in our current educational practice is the contradictory currents of learning differentiation and assessment standardization. I saw that clearly this year as students who had a taste of ownership in way they consume content, produce and publish their learning stumbled when confronted with the structure and rigidity of our math, writing and reading assessments. Assessment selects for a narrow demographic and that demographic defines excellence. I have a problem with that.



Creating An Environment for the Master Teacher

| The Principal of Change
Posted on July 11, 2010 by Alan Stange

In your remarks about ‘trust’ you allude to your efforts to become a familiar presence in your teacher’s (and student’s) classrooms. For an administrator I think that is critical. It builds mutual transparency and helps to dismantle the unnecessary privacy and territoriality of learning and teaching in our public schools. My immediate reaction was this word ‘transparency’ but I abandoned as inexact.

I imagine style or methodology varies from one master teacher to another; however, I like to think learning in an effective master teacher’s classroom is not cloistered nor is the teaching an individual enterprise. The open flexible classroom is not a phenomenon of technological change. It has a long history in education. Good teachers have always recognized the limitations of their classrooms. If students move outward for their learning, then it is also true that the world moves inward. Bad teachers are territorial. Like captains on a ship theirs is the last word and they expect their superiors to respect their immediate authority over their domain. This extends to the courtesies of access to the classroom. For some teachers, visitors of any sort are supplicants at the door and principals transgress propriety with unexpected visits. You can see the teacher visibly stumble and rapidly assess their classroom and its occupants for issues. Principals can enable this response by acknowledging territory.

It is easy to remember the times an administrator or colleague stepped into my classroom, or a group working elsewhere to manage some breakdown in learning. There is the familiar mortification. You feel inadequate. Often your colleague will actually apologize for intervening. I have had colleagues and administrators apologize for mentoring my students in my absence. As an administrator I recall my own hesitancy to interrupt the flow of a lesson. It was almost as if I was some anthropologist avoiding cultural contamination; Star Trek’s ‘Prime Directive’ perhaps, intervention only in extremis. I think we can do better than this.

Good teachers are collaborators. They collaborate in planning and they invite a team approach during learning. We acknowledge each other’s expertise but too often pay lip service to sharing responsibility for our student’s learning. Master teachers invite colleagues to learning. I recall meeting my current administrator in the hallway when I went to check on a group. He was perched on the table (did we have a rule about that?) guiding them through a thorny patch, helping them to focus. I felt the familiar twitch of angst. He was doing my job. The feeling of angst past quickly, he was doing his job: teaching. We are partners. Students in the classrooms of master teachers today need to have a sense that they have many teachers at their disposal and that depending on the need, one might be better than another. Master teachers do not impede the learning of others.



The way of differentiated classrooms

Posted on July 20, 2010 by Alan Stange

I’ve been reading C.A. Tomlinson’s 1999 work The Differentiated Classroom and Alan Watts‘ slender volume titled What is Tao? I’ve begun using Watt’s work as a means to meditate on differentiation. Perhaps it is best that I have no real sense of the history or progress of the movement to differentiate. The educational philosophy of differentiating education is not new and Taoism predates antiquity. It might be safe to say the rationale to differentiate learning is ancient as well. I have no illuminating memories of differentiation in my own public education beyond art, industrial arts, and an interlude with special education intended to ameliorate my abysmal spelling. My undergraduate training at the University of Regina in the 1970’s prepared me for differentiated instruction. To varying degrees, it has been present in my classroom. Reading Tomlinson, and participating in contemporary discourse, I realize the limits of what I have been doing, and recognize the need to revitalize what I have been doing. Differentiation has been a presence in education for some time. It leads me to wonder why it has not been able to transcend the contrary educational currents. I think the call for differentiation endures because there is something organically right about it.

Our current educational model is about pressure, engineering and compliance. We establish hierarchical benchmarks tied to schedules approximating average learning rates. We have designed hierarchical institutions to cultivate learning and methodologies to force the pace and direction of learning. Because the result is synthetic, we depend on cooperation from all stakeholders. This has been a very successful approach despite arguments to the contrary. I think it has been successful in part because there has always been room within the loosely controlled system for a measure of authentic learning. As the system becomes more tightly controlled we see diminishing returns

Alan Watts speaks of this when he contrasts Western and Eastern paradigms of our relationship with nature. In the West, I think we are only beginning to attend to the concept that we are not separate from nature. I see a resonance to this in our approach to learning. Our approaches to learning demonstrate distrust for the individual’s inherent drive to learn independently. Self directed learning is suspect. Self directed learner’s waste time and their finite capacities on the wrong sorts of learning. Assessment for learning is an incredibly successful response to this, but our careful assessments seem designed to make all learners resemble each other.

Watts writes, “If we think of goals in life as destinations, points to which we must arrive, then we cut out the journey that makes a point worth having.” I wonder if our educational strategy standardizes learning to such a degree that there is little room for creativity. We are so anxious to get students to benchmarks that the learning journey loses its meaning.

The strategy for differentiated classrooms begins to position learning in a more natural environment. Like Taoism, it is based on the premise that human nature can be trusted. Watts explains that nature is that which happens of itself and is not fundamentally under our control. By definition, it is that which happens all on its own, like breathing. Learning is acknowledged as natural; yet adults think they have to dominate and shape it. It will be a chaotic force without external control and structure. In the differentiated classroom the teacher trusts and offers autonomy. Tomlinson suggests six hallmarks of the differentiated classroom:

  • Learning begins where the students are, not in the front of a curriculum guide.
  • Learners compete against the self to grow and develop.
  • Learns follow personal growth plans that challenge and provide success.
  • Learning time is flexible.
  • The learner helps shape the environment.
  • Instruction is not standardized or mass produced.

Presented this way, differentiation seems to challenge the whole notion of a curriculum for each cohort, cohorts themselves, and a standardized assessment. I see this in the differentiation premise offered by Tomlinson. Human beings share the same basic needs. Identity is respected. All learners grow. Learners are individuals who differ in important ways; they are engaged through varied modalities so there is no single ‘right’ way. I agree with this. Differentiation acknowledges our natural propensity to grow in unique ways even if it operates within the paradigm of adult intellectual authority. Differentiation is the root of potentially authentic learning threading its way through the unyielding monolith of our industrial educational system. I wish it could crumble it.

Differentiated instruction needs more currency and support. It runs in opposition to so much and it is not really effective at reaching the current educational destination of standards in a timely manner. I expect differentiation will largely reside in the pragmatic impulses of the moment. I noted a thread of the conversation on Twitter’s #edchat about meeting the needs of the ‘average’ student; more of the resources drained by the gifted and learning challenged. I think in the differentiated classroom these distinctions are irrelevant. That is a hard sell still.



Breaking the grade

Posted on July 24, 2010 by Alan Stange

Okay that was a pun, sorry; Joe Bower offered me a challenge (he was initiating a dialog) to articulate my position on assessment. Learn more at his site, for the love of learning. He has summarized his own story there but to really understand what he is doing you should follow his blog and follow him on twitter (@joe_bower). Grades have not been abolished in my classroom. They have been rendered largely irrelevant by differentiated learning and an emphasis on student learning outcomes. I’ve been supported in this by administration and an organization that is systematically dismantling traditional hierarchical grading in elementary and middle years. It will be interesting to see how they face the challenge of high school and elitist expectations of post-secondary institution entrance requirements. Here are my thoughts.

At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

  • I think I am in an early stage. I provide a summative grade on each course (or aspect of the course) on the term report. Prairie South School Division reports as follows: Exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, beginning to meet expectations, and not yet meeting expectations. I am comfortable with that, but it remains a grade in my mind.

Why do you want to or why did you abolish grading?

  • About ten years ago I was assigned to middle years arts education. It was the first class I taught where differentiated learning and assessment seemed practical. I began developing marking schemes and contracts. Learning outcomes became more important to me and percentages less credible. I could talk about student art projects more easily than I could rank them against each other. It was harder for me to see how this transferred over to 7-12 language arts and social studies. Four years ago I made the shift to elementary and gathering marks suddenly seemed irrelevant. To begin with, I was working in a community school. We had to take the young people from where they were and simply move forward. That school was transformed further when the English as a second language program was relocated to my school. Half my students were recent immigrants to Saskatchewan. Differentiation and a focus on learning outcomes made sense. I am now in a new school, but my progress away from grades continues.

What do you do in replace of grading?

  • I identify correct and incorrect answers to basic facts with a very traditional check or X. No grade is assigned to this sort of formative work. I have even discontinued summarizing numeric results at the top of the page. If a student asks me for a percentage (rare), I show them how to calculate it. Other forms of publication receive anecdotal responses. I do think there is value in rubrics and checklists. I use them as I find time to develop or adapt.

How do you establish a grade if you have no grades?

  • Establishing a grade always comes down to some sort of average. Term reports require a one or two character symbol of achievement supplemented by perhaps one compound, complex sentence. Prairie South School division includes an assessment on effort. I arrive at both fairly subjectively I think. I attempt an average based on my recorded observations on progress attaining benchmarks we have been working on. In all honesty, the distinctions between not yet meeting, meeting, and exceeding curriculum expectations seem highly subjective. I think that is why most teachers still prefer to obscure the underlying subjectivity of curriculum benchmarks and assessment strategies behind the glittering curtain of numbers. One recalls the mesmerizing stream of green numbers and symbols in The Matrix. I recall a reference to assessment as connoisseurship in graduate school. I think the analogy has merit.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?

  • Oddly, I have felt little anxiety. Report card time used to be a huge stress. I’m an elementary teacher in a system that no longer gives much credence to the idea of repeating grades. My focus of stress has shifted to student led interviews rather than the cryptic marks and superficial statements I can compile on three sheets of Excel form. I stress how well my young students can convey their own sense of their learning to their parents in five minutes.

What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?

  • The most significant challenge to abolishing grading remains my own ingrained assumption that quantified data is superior to qualitative data or that one crisp label is ultimately more useful than a fuzzy scattering of generalizations. Parent expectations can raise challenges. Letter grading and percentages are embedded in our culture. Despite that, I think families have been happy to keep a healthy focus on personal progress. I might need to reflect on this question more.



Greater than words

Posted on July 25, 2010 by Alan Stange

Watts, in What is Tao, explains that human beings will always be greater than anything they can say or think about themselves. If we judge or describe ourselves, those ideas are always going to be qualitatively inferior, “that is to say, far less complicated and far less alive than the actual author of the ideas themselves, and that is us. There is that about us that we can never define.” Apply the thought to assessment of learning. Most educators understand the inadequacies of assessment. Students and parents certainly react to grading’s insufficiency, often with a vehemence.

A memory that keeps me real: About my second year as an undergraduate I ran into the language requirement wall for my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Regina. Second languages and I have a long and unsuccessful relationship. My mother assures me I was bilingual in English and Indonesian at the age of five, otherwise it has been not so good. My German is begrenzt im besten. Despite living in a bilingual country, my French is gênant de penser à. Failing French 100; I sought the counsel of my professor. She spoke gently to me as if I was not performing with distinction in the remainder of my courses and recommended I transfer to an easier faculty – Education. I was not pleased with the way her assessment tainted Education. My mother was on the faculty, education was a family business and I had already elected to take two degrees (my son Joel is now a teacher). Moreover I resented her quickly labelling me on the basis of one outcome. In retrospect I should resent her for suggesting I give up instead of offering the sorts of solutions we habitually use today. My learning French was not really her concern at that moment. The memory sticks with me and with a sickening despair, I am certain I have created similar memories for young people in my care.

Educators are aware that there are limitations to assessment. We must take them for what they are worth. What I am not so clear on is the degree of awareness proponents of grading and standardized assessment have. It must range from denial to some sort of functionalism: a compromise where proponents acknowledge grading’s limitations but see the practicality on balance as a necessary injustice. Research on people’s propensity for denying facts and evidence tends me to the less optimistic conclusion. Educators prefer to see grading as equitable and valid.

I want to return to Joe Bower’s question in my previous post; what have I done to replace grading? The first thing I do in conversation with parents and students is to maintain a conversation. The document distributed each term may be a report, but the topic of progress is always a conversation. That conversation is continuous. It happens as often as possible given time constraints and my own chronic disorganization about such matters. This is elementary school. Parents stop by frequently. I use email. There are student support meetings for a number. My students are engaged.

The second thing I do is continually emphasize the limitations of the information the students and I have collected. I think assessment is at best impressionistic. We are trying to expand portfolios by making them digital and reflective. Portfolios are representative rather than exemplars of best work. I rely heavily on a few post assessment instruments developed or acquired by my school and division. It is no longer best practice in my mind because such assessments support differentiation poorly. Since we need to be respectful of learning differences we need also to be respectful of assessment differences.

I suppose you cannot replace grading. What we need to do is stop grading. Tomlinson asserts that assessment is ongoing and diagnostic. “Assessment is today’s means of understanding how to modify tomorrow’s instruction.” Though I would prefer to say, modify tomorrow’s learning. Back in the days of marking everything from a test to a sneeze I advocated a teacher’s readiness to offer a report on student progress. I liked my electronic spreadsheets (AppleWorks 3.0 if anyone remembers) because the data was accessible. I would say a parent could ask you at the end of the first day of school how their child was doing. Given the limitations of the data available, some assessment could be offered. I still think that is true. I am just being more attentive to learning outcomes and more aware that I have not come close to empowering students to select their own criteria and measures of learning. There is no compelling reason why I should be able to do that personally and they should not.



A Foot in Each Door

Spencer’s Scratch Pad: a foot in each world: why digital natives are becoming earthy immigrants
Posted on July 31, 2010 by Alan Stange

It seems that anyone who really takes the time to get to know the complexity of technology will see both how it humanizes and dehumanizes. Any true technophile who takes the time to think will become at least part Luddite.I’m noticing this trend that I once called the “vinyl paradox.” It’s the notion that the generation first raised on technology is going backward, not out of nostalgia, but in order to move forward. Watch a dialog on education reform and you’ll notice talks of mentoring and apprenticeship – in other words, finding ideas from the past that are more relevant now than ever. Watch how often folks my age cringe at the church PowerPoint and yearn for candles and incense and a simple stained-glass window.

It’s not that we leave the techno-world for good. It’s more like we take the pill and then go back to the Matrix with the knowledge that it’s still pretend. We see the Brave New World for what it is, but unlike the protagonist, we don’t attempt to go savage so much as seek out a third way, a paradox of two extremes rather than a moderate middle. So Christy tends to the chickens and crochets and then takes a picture with her iPhone and writes a blog post once a week.

If we are, indeed, digital natives, we are also terrestrial immigrants, search for soil, rediscovering the wonders of bare feet. If we are “hooked” on our smart phones, we are finding intelligence in the complexity of our back yards, realizing that the touch of a tomato is more profound than any touch screen.

via jtspencer.blogspot.com

We might talk passionately about integrating technology into our lives but this does not mean we are substituting technology for our lives. We are all whole people. In a particularly earthy moment I just took the garbage outside. I had to pause as I walked back across the lawn to appreciate the flower garden and freshly mowed grass. Everything looks good in the early morning light. Some time later I broke free of my garden meditations to make coffee. An uninvited cat stopped in approximately the spot where I had paused. She sat back and seemed to duplicate my moment absorbing nature.

I want technology to augment my reality, not mediate it. That may be a fine line of distinction. The cell phone augments my conversation with my three children. Facebook strengthens my extended family relationships at a time where distance has fragmented them.

Fundamentalism refers to a belief in a strict adherence to a set of basic principles and an inability to experience or interpret anything outside that paradigm. There are certainly technological fundamentalists who filter all human endeavor through the lens of high tech. Most of us are more eclectic (if that is the best term). We are open to new solutions, even if those solutions are actually old. An educational fundamentalist might embrace the time tested strengths of the industrial model, or advocate some new design. What makes them fundamentalists is their inability to consider incorporating an alternative such as apprenticeship. You can see the possibilities in divergent methods of learning. You can differentiate.

The aesthetic and meaning associated with a well designed church matters to me. I should be able to worship in a factory, disco or ditch. Sad to say, I meditate best in only a few environments. People spent a lot of time considering what environment pulls the spirit free of its limited concerns and sends it upwards. Its not surprising if we respond to these sacred places as we do.



How to Plan Your School Year

– Evan-Moor Educational Publishers
Posted on August 4, 2010 by Alan Stange

Check out this website I found at evan-moor.com

Setting Up Your Room
  • Create work areas in your classroom that match your instructional style and focus.
  • Work areas are a great way to give your room a feeling of warmth, while also defining spaces for specific activities. Here are some quick ideas for different work spaces you can integrate into your classroom.
Independent Reading Area
  • Bookshelves, lawn chairs, pillows, and most of all books—baskets, piles, stacks, or towers of books—create an inviting spot for independent reading.
Reading and Listening Area
  • A recliner, small table, large rug, and bookshelf create a great area for reading aloud.
Readers’ Theater
  • Add a few pillows and a carpet to a platform or some porch steps. You’ll have a multilevel reading area, as a well as a stage for performances.
Science Work and Storage Area
  • Organize science lab materials in labeled tubs with lids, then slip the tubs under a table. Add an easel or small whiteboard for recording observations.
A Writing Area
  • Hang panels to illustrate the different steps in the writing process, and define this area as reserved for eager writers. Include a readers’ chair for authors who choose to share their work.
A Research Station
  • Encourage research with a designated station. Include print resources—an atlas, a dictionary, and collections of appropriate nonfiction books, as well as electronic resources—a computer with an Internet connection, CD’s, and interactive games.

These ideas came from, How to Plan Your School Year.

I picked this put of an advertisement but thought how like a studio classroom it was. It is also like a kindergarten room. I’ve heard the discussion for years; why do the rooms transform from the excitement and joy of kindergarten centers to the grim factories of later grades? Every child should have a learning garden I think.



The Gentle Way

Posted on August 8, 2010 by Alan Stange

Alan Watts spends some time in his book What is Tao? describing Judo. It is a familiar martial art to many but I know little about it. My exposure to martial arts has been the movies and the many years watching my three children learned and practiced Karate. Karate is the ‘empty hand’ and Judo is the ‘gentle way’. Watts explains that the most basic element of Judo is an understanding of balance (a fundamental idea of Taoist philosophy). “If you are sensitive you don’t upset balance. Instead you try to find out what [is natural], and go along with it.” (page 55) The second principle is not to oppose strength with strength. In combat, you use the opponent’s strength and the principle of balance to bring about his downfall. We can understand something about artful teaching from this.

For a number of years I have nodded in agreement when an exasperated colleague dismissed the impracticality of differentiated learning with a complaint about limited time and resources. Setting up a classroom and curriculum for differentiation is time consuming. Change is always seen as time consuming. So much to organize! Yet, is there that much more to organize? Our common practices are time consuming; delivering a teacher centered lesson to a large class is draining. We struggle with the young people who won’t fit in or can’t get it. So much of what we do in the classroom is fighting strength with strength. In my first Ed Psych course at the University of Regina, a professor warned us, “Never get into a power struggle with your students. They are more powerful than you are because you must follow rules and they do not. You must not let them discover this.” There is truth in this, but it did dispose me to think of my students as young untrustworthy anarchists. It also introduced a measure of deceit into my practice. Transparency and metacognition were weaknesses. Learning became a matter of overcoming children’s nature.

My kids broke boards. This is a standard Karate thing. It seemed a little like cheating or a trick once I understood the technique. You always split the wood along the grain. Imagine the force required to splinter it across the grain. “Oh, that’s easy,” I concluded. The wood parts along natural lines. It is easier to learn along natural lines too. Differentiated Learning is the gentle way. Learning follows natural lines and frankly, it is less work. I experience this in the classroom last year. Given some basic resources, my young people were more at ease with the choice of varied approaches. The two examples I could give might be a math class where some happily slogged through verbiage and diagrams of the text on their own, others huddled together at the board, and many resorted to manipulatives of one sort or another. Then there was the product our virtual tour of a Missouri museum. Students wrote essays and stories and made models and charts. One created on the now hoary PowerPoint platform. It was easier for me to facilitate and mentor their plans than it would have been to create a well designed unit and force the reluctant to participate. It was harder for me to stop micro-managing everyone than it was to intervene when learning stopped. That seems to contradict the dictum that we need to be proactive about management. I don’t mean to assert that.

Learning in your classroom needs to have a familiar structure. Learning calls for skills and habits. Appropriate structure and effective habits are contextual. Our primary goal is to develop the student’s capacity to take control of their own lives and learning. Tomlinsonsees the teacher as the inevitable leader in the classroom. Our responsibility is inferred by professionalism, tradition and law. I need to know my student’s learning needs and interests. They are not a puzzle I will decipher months into the school year. It will take that long if I dismiss the young people as unmotivated, unreflective anarchists trapped in a room with me. Learning in my classroom is not a martial art and children are not opponents to be tricked into going the way you want them to: they like technology so I’ll try PowerPoint. Empowering students in the classroom means listening to them; they will be more than willing to help us understand. When a child tells me they want to work in the hallway or work with a partner, and please, can we do it a different way; this is not oppositional behaviour. This is collaborative learning.

It was an unexpected struggle to come to terms with this in my own classroom. I still remember standing in a swirl of students moving into centers. Five simple exited the classroom without a word. I recall a moment’s panic, where were they going? They needed a table and some space. They found it just down the hallway. I built the expectations into my centers earlier in the year. I admit I micro-managed a good deal at first. Then I was able to let it go. It is exhausting keeping three boys quiet, in their seats, and apart. It is exasperating trying to reach every stretched hand and murmured “Mr. Stange”. I tried that for years. It was so easy reminding the three boys to be a little quieter as they connected their learning together over at the standing table; young bodies shifting constantly against each other, heads bowed over their work. I’m ready to get back to that.




Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything

– The Energy Project
Posted on August 27, 2010 by Alan Stange

Ritualized practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualized them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

via theenergyproject.com

I have been focusing on my health this year. Tony Schwartz’s point connects with my experience. My exercise plan has been extremely modest. My wife and I simply walk in the early evening. This began in the winter. You can imagine it was a struggle to sustain the habit at the beginning. It quickly became a ritual for us and now it is simply part of our routine. The only thought required is the direction we might take.

I’ve been reading Alfie Kohn this summer. Joe Bower and a few others gave me a short course through Twitter and I decided to add him to my Kindle reading list. Subsequently I have been trying to reconcile his views on management and discipline with Ronald Morrish’s Real Discipline program.

“The easiest way to think about real discipline is to view it as having three parts.

The first part is called training. With these techniques, children are taught to comply with rules and limits and do what they are told to do by people in a legitimate position of authority.

The second part of real discipline is the teaching component in which we teach children the skills and attitudes for being responsible and cooperative. This part is also omitted from today’s popular discipline which assumes that children will learn their skills from the consequences provided by adults.

The third part is called managing in which we provide children with more and more choices as they get older so they learn how to handle independence. Today’s popular discipline concentrates on this part to the exclusion of the other components. What we have forgotten in our rush to provide children with freedom of choice is that adults are supposed to prepare children to handle choices and make sure they are ready. It is well-trained, well-taught children that handle choices responsibly and with respect for the rights and needs of others.”

Remember, Morrish’s web site suggests, “If you bargain for compliance now, You’ll beg for it later.” From the book, “Secrets of Discipline“.

I have found Real Discipline effective and it holds considerable sway over my practice still. You might say that within the tightly controlled environment of our industrial education it works very well. As I try to establish a different sort of learning culture Real Discipline seems to remain a useful tool. Schools are a community of purpose. They are learning communities. Connected learners in flexible, democratic classrooms; classrooms where students are offered autonomy and ownership in their differentiated efforts to learn, still need good habits. Not just habits directly facilitating learning, but also habits that facilitate community. I’m still struggling with this. Real Discipline does not encourage dissent or choice in those domains teachers (or schools) have established. The authoritarianism has never sat well with me, but I recognize I parented my young children that way and it is highly effective in elementary schools. Morrish claims adults prepare children to handle choices responsibly and with respect for the rights and needs of others.” I haven’t reconciled my conflict between Morrish and Kohn yet. I sometimes wonder if they are not so far apart.



Flexible Learning Space

« Cooperative Catalyst
Posted on October 2, 2010 by Alan Stange

We recently articulated our school’s learning principles. The new learning spaces should support these beliefs admirably:
  • Everyone has the potential to learn.
  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning takes place when we make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • Learning for understanding occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure and valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.
  • Learning is continuous, lifelong and ever-evolving.

The days of the teacher closing the door and doing her own thing are over. There is no door. I can’t wait to hear more about it. Watch this (flexible learning) space!

via coopcatalyst.wordpress.com

The phrase “flexible learning space” drew me directly to this because studio classrooms are my current project and passion. I tell the unwary, those who have not heard this, that my ideal classroom is an open library with conference room and science lab attached. That will never come to pass. School design remains locked in a tragic design. It is tragic because the implicit understanding is teachers need to contain their inattentive groups and focus them on the carefully crafted teacher-centered activities. So the walls go up. We leave the doors open much of the time these days. I think we do that because we acknowledge we need openness. Beyond the walls of my classroom are all the facility and resources my students need. I just ignore the walls these days and send them out When I can, I send them out of the school and around the world. I am not alone in my school, others are doing this too. It makes it much easier to send my students around the school and into others classrooms when they reciprocate. We can build an open learning culture in our school this way.

But the dream and desire for an open classroom remains because setting does matter. Just removing the rows of desks from my traditional room and replacing them with tables made a big difference. This made some students uncomfortable and two of the twenty-three young people were not able to make the transition. They need a defined sense of personal space so I reluctantly relinquished it to them. The rest have comfortable patterns of movement and favorite spots. I think that is a human response. They have embraced the idea that I am not essential to their learning and that the school facilities are theirs. Habit and tradition make me something of a gate keeper still. I’m not uncomfortable with that. There is an important shift in my room. I no longer direct them to learning spaces. They come to me to consult about learning spaces and increasingly, they move to where they need to be independently.

The space might shape learning but thankfully, learning can defy the space. I think the learning principles articulated above influence our use of existing space. They certainly have influenced me. I’ll still dream of my perfect classroom though. In my mind, the walls in my end of the school evaporate.



Addicted to Adulation:

Are We Raising Praise Junkies?
Posted on October 10, 2010 by Alan Stange

Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.

“How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised?
“Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”
When kids are lavished with praise for being great, terrific, smart and special, they latch on to these labels and don’t want to risk losing them. They quickly divide their world into two realms—things they do well, and things that don’t come easily to them. They survey challenging situations and surmise that they either have the natural talent to tackle the task or they don’t.
Students who are showered with praise when they do well at those things that come naturally to them, often see no reason to risk their secure status by applying themselves to tasks that don’t come with a guarantee of success. When facing the threat of failure, many students stop trying—ironically in an effort to protect their self-image.

via vision.org

I resisted this notion of praise as binding and counter-productive for many years. I have adopted a more critical stance now. I would not abandon praise completely. I think we need to be reflective on the context of our praise. I still praise specific things about my students’ learning and behaviour. I recognize the potential impact of my praise. I try not to praise compliance to routine or citizenship. I simply acknowledge these behaviours with a polite thank you.

In one of my previous schools we established a board where good behaviour, acts of citizenship were acknowledged. The “Shadow” was out and about watching everyone’s behaviour. It sounded like a good idea. Very quickly students began to demand recognition for their actions. They were discouraged if an act of kindness was not noted by the staff. They reminded us to write them up before they helped in some way. Many students realized the favoured really were noticed more. It became very toxic for school culture.

I think we need to recognize the complexity of motivation and not reduce praise to a simple stimulus that will evoke a reliable response. Praise impacts some students more than others. We praise to acknowledge success; however carefully that might be phrased in objective terms. “That solves the problem perfectly. Your actions helped prevent an accident. Max was upset, but you did a good job of calming him down….” We praise to open doors to for the reluctant or uncertain. Such comments ‘bind’ students or influence their behaviour. There are times when it is appropriate to do so. Newsflash – all conversation is intended to evoke an effect. The lack of conversation evokes an effect. That is one reason we recognize exclusion or shunning as a form of bullying. The praise is needed by some.

Praise has the same effect as grades. Maybe grades really are just praise and censure: generalized judgments, shorthand analysis. Like praise, grades are coercive. Like praise, some students begin to behave strategically to maximize grades. Learning becomes subsidiary to the measured achievement. I have taught these power people. If they cannot be successful, then the activity is pointless. Failure is not an option.

There is an art to teaching and we are always managing context and effect. Generalizations, routines and principles assist us but I think it always comes back to the moment two people interact.



Celebrating Diversity

Education Week 2010
Posted on October 22, 2010 by Alan Stange

This month we contemplate Saskatchewan’s 2010 Education Week theme; celebrating diversity. This generated a diverse interpretation by teachers. I have an interest in differentiated learning spaces within and extending outward from the studio classroom I am trying to establish in Room 7, Sunningdale School. Last year I created a VoiceThread illustrating the different places and ways my students liked to learn. For me, diversity means differentiation. Our contribution to the school assembly this week was a (badly made) video illustrating learning around the school from the orientation of the common eight multiple intelligences.

Others interpreted the theme as referring to cultural diversity. We rarely achieve much depth during these provincially mandated activities. If we did, it would be interesting to explore the import of cultural diversity on learning. Sunningdale is a middle class suburban school and cultural diversity is a minor theme compared to a community school like Prince Arthur where I taught two years ago. That school confronted the significance of cultural diversity moment by moment in a multicultural mix of immigrant children, First Nations, and subtle variations on the familiar European mix of North America.

It might have been very interesting if someone had had the courage to approach celebrating diversity from the perspective of economic differences and how they have an impact on learning. That might have been too sensitive for many. It might have been very challenging to the staff if a class had explored classroom diversity. I imagine there would have been a pointed discussion amongst the students about the differences between teachers and their approaches to learning. Like multiple intelligences, this sort of discussion could focus on the strengths of each teacher’s approach. That sort of open critical reflection is not welcomed I think.

All of the above brings me back to the counter currents in Saskatchewan education. Diversity, differentiated learning, and adapted curriculum are examples of a strong current sweeping us along. Moving against this current is the hard blunt force of standards. Common assessments presented in a common manner to a diverse body of young people. The contradiction is a frustration. Perhaps I am supposed to accept the idea that we do everything in moderation. Perhaps we are striving for a balance in education. That is consistent with my long standing philosophy; however, I wonder now. If you paddle your canoe against the current maintaining a balance of forces, don’t you just stay in the same place? Where do we journey? I am an eternal optimist, but there are moments when we do seem to be simply static. The current pulls us one way and we apply our common assessment paddle and negate the movement.

When I think about the Tao of learning, I recognize that diversity and the differentiation it demands is the path to follow.



Hundreds of Kilos of my 2 Cents Worth

Posted on November 2, 2010 by Alan Stange

I may have shared this anecdote before on this blog so indulge me. When I was fifteen and taking a confirmation class I had what seems like a transformative experience. I define myself as an introvert. Certainly I need solitude daily in order to recharge. I cannot recall the last time I was bored being alone. Web 2.0 social networking probably appeals to me because I can control the connections. That sounds anti-social perhaps. Teaching is an extrovert’s gig so I have transformed myself over the years. It will be interesting to see what I am like in retirement.

I digress. I was fifteen and in my confirmation class. My chief interest in the class was a blond girl with a variety of attractions. The youth pastor was gamely trying to invite involvement in the topic and the fifteen or so young people assembled were inarticulate or disinterested. I recall a moment came when he asked us all some question and a protracted silence followed. Either he was discouraged or he had far better questioning skills than any person I have met barring Dr. Paul Antrobus (University of Regina). The silence drew out painfully until I began to feel exasperated. I said something. I have no idea how I responded. I do know I was not certain about my comment. It was not the spark that ignited an adolescent theological conversation but it did ignite me. I began sharing.



Grok

– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Posted on December 1, 2010 by Alan Stange

To grok something is to both comprehend (relate intellectually) and apprehend (relate emotionally and spiritually)its quiddity, its essence, its being.
In an ideological context, a grokked concept becomes part of the person who contributes to its evolution by improving the doctrine, perpetuating the myth, espousing the belief, adding detail to the social plan, refining the idea or proofing the theory.

Robert A. Heinlein originally coined the term grok in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land as a Martian word that could not be defined in earthly terms, but can be associated with various literal meanings such as “water”, “to drink”, “life”, or “to live”, and had a much more profound figurative meaning that is hard for Earthers to understand because of our assumption of a singular reality.

According to the book, drinking is a central focus on Mars where water is scarce. Martians use the merging of their bodies with water as a simple example or symbol of how two entities can combine to create a new reality greater than the sum of its parts. The water becomes part of the drinker, and the drinker part of the water. Both grok each other. Things that once had separate realities become entangled in the same experiences, goals, history, and purpose. Within the book, the statement of divine immanence verbalized between the main characters, “Thou Art God“, is logically derived from the concept inherent in the term grok.

via en.wikipedia.org

The word grok resurfaced this evening in an exchange on twitter between @johntspencer and @wmchamberlain (follow them please). I tracked down this explanation on wikipedia. Stranger in a Strange Land is one of a number of fictional books that informed my youth and helped shape my contemporary values and beliefs. Now that I have been reminded of the term, I think I need to meditate on how it can inform my teaching.

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.” (Wikipedia)

Is it reasonable to try and grok our students? What would that mean and what would our classrooms look like, feel like and sound like if we did? I think democratic learning, authenticity, differentiation, and autonomy might help us grope our way closer to the point where we can connect intellectually, emotionally and spiritually with the young people we learn with.



Three ways TV changed everything

Seth’s Blog: Three ways TV changed everything (and what’s next)
Posted on December 23, 2010 by Alan Stange

… TV isn’t what it used to be. No more three-channel universe. That means that the cable/internet virus changes everyone in a very different way. Call it the million channel world (mcw).

The mcw brings addressability. There is no mass any more. You can’t reach everyone. Mad Men is a hit and yet it has only been seen by 2% of the people in the USA.

The mcw bring silos, angry tribes and insularity. Fox News makes a fortune by pitting people against one another. Talking points memo is custom tailored for people who are sure that the other side is wrong. You can spend your entire day consuming media and never encounter a thought you don’t agree with, don’t like or don’t want to see.

And finally, I have no idea if the mcw is making us happy. Surely, a substantial use is time wasting social network polishing, and that’s not really building anyone’s long-term happiness. And the mcw makes it easier to get angry, to waste time (there’s never ‘nothing on’) or become isolated. Without a doubt, the short-term impact of mcw is that it makes it easy to spread terror and harder to settle on the truth. At the same time, there’s no doubt that more people are connected to more people, belong to more tribes, have more friends, and engage more often than they did before it got here. We got rid of some gatekeepers, but there’s a race for some new ones. In the meantime, a lot of smart people are fending for themselves, which isn’t so bad.

via sethgodin.typepad.com

I think a part of what it means to be educated is to be able to successfully reconcile the tension between participation in mass culture and our personal and more narrow communities of purpose; what I think Seth Godin refers to when he says “tribes” A term like “community of purpose” may be fifteen to twenty years out of date but I am still comfortable with it.

Godin is right, there are positives and negatives here. Society as a whole benefits from a common narrative and a common paradigm. We need this sort of glue. As tribal beings we have an individual need to belong to the mass culture. Conversely, we recognize diversity is a sign of health. As unique beings we have an individual need to find smaller personal communities that reflect us more closely.

We convey the tension between these two forces into public education: a unified curriculum with measurable standards and individualized inquiry characterized by autonomy, differentiation, and self expression. Neither direction seem to quite meet our needs, so we struggle to understand the correct balance. I’m not prepared to abandon public schools with common curriculum outcomes in favor of an anarchic alternative (home schooling, private and parochial schools, no schooling). I feel this way not because I have particular faith in our system or the curriculum choices we have made, but because I do believe we need collective narratives and paradigms.

There may be no balance between mass culture and tribe. I think we are engaged in an ongoing dialectic with no expectation of synthesis to resolve the tension. The best analogy I can give is the one I think most teachers are comfortable with. We lead the students down a long road to the point where they can chose their own branches to follow. Along that road we encourage them to take side paths that will enhance their current lives and prepare them for future choices. I think despite the divergences of the paths and the multitude of branches they might follow, the convergences will keep us connected. In some sense we are part of a collective journey. I think he educated person comes to see this.