7

Flexible Seating: What’s the Point?

I realize it is summer but some educators are have been reflecting on their current classroom set up or changes they have recently made to decide on what their classroom will look like next year.  I recently read a couple of articles from Mindshift and Edutopia (here and here) about flexible seating and it caused me to tweet out the following:

I have been critical of Twitter as it very rarely seems to create dialogue but for some reason, this tweet caused a number of different deeper conversations of which I thoroughly enjoyed and helped with my thinking.

As with any changes we make in education, it must come from a place of purpose. I like the question: What problem are we trying to solve?

So what is the point of flexible seating? What do we even mean by “flexible seating”? From the people I have talked to and those who responded on Twitter, it seems that the main purposes (yes, there are more but these were the main ones) of these changes in classrooms are:

  • comfort
  • decor
  • student ownership of the classroom
  • collaboration
  • self-regulation

Last year, we had 4 teachers decided to create pretty significant changes to their classroom set up. The district encouraged us to make these changes and because we had to get the orders for new furniture in by a deadline to get the stuff for September, we spent some money and ordered what we felt would help with classroom design. The error I made in this is that we actually never discussed the purpose for each classroom. We ordered it because we thought it would help but because we didn’t define the purpose, we were not able to see if “it worked” as a school (knowing the teachers that made the changes, they put a ton of thought into it and likely had a clear purpose in mind but I never asked the question). Whenever we make changes, we should have a clearly defined purpose or a problem we are working on; when we have this, we can assess at various points of the year if our solutions are hindering or helping.

For our school, some teachers made the following changes:

  • one classroom that kept the desks but added in some comfort areas and standing desks
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used regular rectangular tables with chairs, shorter tables so students could sit on the floor, bucket seats, hokki stools, lap desks, and carpets. Lighting was also changed to a more natural light.
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used smaller tables that could be put together and pulled apart for various reasons, standing desks, bucket chairs, and stools. Less fluorescent lighting was used as well as some aromatherapy.
  • one classroom that kept 2/3 of the desks but had options of couches and tables of various heights as well as some floor seating options.
  • one classroom that removed the desks and had tables of various heights. A carpet area was also added.

Throughout the year, we discussed how things were going with the new design.  For those teachers who made pretty significant changes, it was a struggle for 2-3 months to help students to understand their seating options and the responsibilities that came with this (helping students to purposely choose the best fit for them). After Christmas, some teachers felt that students started to settle in and they felt that this really had a positive impact on classroom community (care, collab, social-emotional). Some felt that students who needed to wiggle and move could do this and this helped with their focus and behaviour. For another teacher, the removal of desks was not working for her class. Students had significantly more self-regulation struggles and teaching a lesson posed a large challenge (students were very distracted at tables, struggled with not having their own space, and there was less calm, learning time for individual students) so a few tables were kept but desks were brought back in. Talking to a few students, they actually preferred the desks as they had their own space and were less distracted by those at their table.

As stated, we were not able to actually tell if the redesign helped or hindered students because I had not asked for clarity around purpose so we were not able to assess the impact.  The only thing we could go on was how it “felt” or “looked” to staff members. As a school, I think overall that the teachers liked the moves but there were some challenges.

Moving back to the aforementioned reasons that people choose to redesign their classroom, there are some questions/thoughts I now have:

  • Comfort: Comfort is important but does a more comfortable classroom lead to better achievement or more success? Classrooms need to be safe with a sense of belonging but we need to be careful that we are not putting comfort ahead of teaching and learning. I am more comfortable sitting on the couch or in bed but I get a lot less done than if I am at a desk. If comfort is the key reason for making these changes, keep in mind that some/many students need their own space and can become dysregulated if they have to share space or have too many options. How do improve comfort while also improving self-reg and/or achievement?
  • Decor: We all want our classrooms to look nice for students, parents, and colleagues. It feels great when we have a classroom we can be proud of.  When we shift the decor we always have to keep student learning at the forefront. Many people have said they are trying to model their classroom after a cafe – the “Starbucks” way of design. My concern with this is that people using Starbucks as a place of learning have a much different purpose than those in a classroom. People going to Starbucks are not learning from a teacher and are all self-directed. A high school learning commons area can use Starbucks as a model but for a classroom, there should still be an effective way for the teacher to teach a lesson (content knowledge is so important!) and having so many different areas with students facing so many different ways can be a real challenge. Even if we are just trying to change the look of our classroom so it is more trendy, we still need to be aware of these changes in achievement.  Are we assessing the effect of our changes on the classroom? What if these changes actually hinder learning in the classroom?
  • Student Ownership of the Classroom: Similar to the comments above, if student ownership is the problem we are trying to solve, how can we create solutions that not only help this but also benefit (or don’t take away from) student achievement? Ownership is important but this can be done in many smaller ways first to see if they make an impact (before changing the entire classroom design).
  • Collaboration: Creating more collaborative learning spaces is not something new as teachers have been getting students to push their desks together for years. I do see the benefit of tables but I also see the drawbacks. If a classroom goes to all tables, this could actually make it less flexible as tables cannot be taken apart and moved around for individuals or smaller groups. Collaboration only works if students have enough content knowledge to actually contribute to the dialogue. Ensuring that the classroom works in a way that the teacher can still teach content knowledge is important so how do we create environments that allow for instruction, individual practice and reflection, as well as collaboration?
  • Self-Regulation: For me, this is the most important reason to reflect on classroom design (and one that I have seen the most success). Beneficial changes in the classroom to help “down-regulate” and “up-regulate” can be done without having to throw out all the desks and bring in new furniture. Changes in lighting, adding calm areas of the room, and providing various seating options (actual seats like wobble stools and standing desks) can help with the whole learning environment and thus, help achievement. A few years ago, we brought in a couple standing desks and a few Hokki stools and then looked at the effect of written output. For some students, allowing them to stand or use a wobble stool helped them be able to write significantly more with a higher quality. For other students, the wobbling became a real distraction and actually hindered writing achievement. This creates a challenge as what works for one student may not work for others. What we did well was look at a specific way of assessing success/failure when we implemented a few ideas. When designing a classroom for self-regulation, seating options is just one thing to consider as there are multiple strategies that can be used with students to help them regulate themselves for effective learning. If a child is better regulated, their achievement should increase so this is an area that can be assessed throughout the year.

There is little to no clear research of the impact of classroom design on student achievement and with so many variables to consider, I don’t think there is a single optimal classroom design for all students and educators. Having said this, based on what I have read and the conversations I have had with people I work with and online, I think I will try to keep the following in mind when I work with teachers to redesign or reflect on classroom design:

  • Be specific on the problem, purpose of the change, strategies to implement, and markers for success. Without doing this, how will we know our time, efforts, and money are making a difference?
  • Keep some desks*. I am not saying you need to keep all of them but before making big changes, switch up a portion of the class and leave a good number of desks for those students who need their own personal space. *Note that this is more for grade 2/3 and above as many early primary classrooms have not used desks for years and lessons/instruction take place at the carpet.
  • Use small tables. Large tables actually take away from flexible seating as they present only one or two options for students. With smaller tables, you can put them together or move them apart as needed. If you are buying tables, you can also get tables that can be raised or lowered based on the need to stand or sit.
  • Offer comfortable areas. When starting small (in elementary/middle), for quiet reading, students may enjoy a bean bag chair or a bucket chair. Be clear with students the purpose of these areas so that when there is instruction or individual or small group work occurring, these are not used.
  • Offer seating options (stools, standing desks). You need not change your whole classroom to offer some seating options for students who may benefit from self-reg tools. Start with a few stools and some standing desks (or small, tall tables) to and see if student learning and achievement benefits from this. If we have evidence of increased success for an individual with a certain tool from past years/teachers, please embrace this as to go back to a standard chair may make the learning more difficult for the student. We can build on evidence from past success/struggles.
  • Fail small*.  One of the most common mistakes I have made is making significant (large) changes and waiting too long to see if it is working.  If you have a clear understanding of the purpose and the strategies, use the defined success markers to see if what you are doing is effective. After a short time (weeks or 2 months), check to see how the strategy is working. If it is working… keep going, if it is not, stop and pivot.  I have tried and observed classroom design that actually hindered learning so it is important to know the impact of the strategy.  *HT to Simon Breakspear for helping me with this.

If you are a teacher that does well (and whose students do well) in a classroom with all desks, don’t feel pressured to make significant changes unless there is clear evidence that it will positively impact your classroom. Some of the best teachers I have observed had classrooms with all desks while others had a variety of seating options. We are often quick to judge a teacher by what the classroom looks like at a point in time instead of moving deeper to look at the pedagogy and learning tasks that take place over a period of time. Be respectful in understanding that what works for one teacher and group of students may not work for someone else. Find what works for you and your students. Desks are not likely the enemy that some people seem to think they are.

I have seen success in a variety of classrooms (yes, even desks in rows! 😉 and I would argue that the success is due to the teacher rather than the furniture or set up. At this point, I am not for or against classroom redesign; what I am for is us reflecting and sticking with what works and/or trying ideas to see if there is a benefit to our students. As educators, we have very little time so when we put in time and effort, we need to be aware of the changes we make and the evidence of the impact of these changes on our students. With not much research out there yet on the impact of flexible design, we need to be clear on the POINT (our why) of the changes and then check to see if our HOW is making a difference.

As I am mostly thinking out loud on this one, if you have thoughts on why we should promote or be cautious of flexible seating, please share. Thank you to all those people at school and online who have pushed my thinking on this one.

6

Avoid Binary Thinking. Go To The Grey.

Much of what we do in education falls into grey areas. Yet, many of the conversations we have regarding education seem to use black and white statements and fall into the category of binary, or dichotomous, thinking. Binary thinking leads to look at ideas in education as right or wrong and good or bad. It can create an ‘us vs them’ mentality – “You are either with us or you are not!”  It can also prevent engagement in the conversations we need to have.

(I originally wrote about this topic a couple years ago in “The Problems With Black and White Statements in Education”

I think within our staff/district (and face to face) discussions, we try to go to the grey more often.  It is safer and people respectfully understand that most ideas and strategies we discuss fall on a continuum and we can explore the middle ground to seek to understand, reflect, and create change.  However, on Twitter and at conferences I seem to see/hear way more black and white statements – tweets or quotes that either say something is completely good or something is completely bad.  These polarized statements often get many retweets, yet I find that the big topic and issues in education are rarely so simple that they can be stated (and solved) in a single tweet.  Here are some examples of issues off the top of my head (I understand tweets are rarely stated like this but there are many examples that share a similar message):

Content is bad. Competencies are good.  Hold the phone… if we shift away from content to focus on critical thinking (for ex.), what the heck do we critically think about? How do we critically think about… nothing? How do we provide creative ideas on topics without an understanding of some content. We need BOTH! Yes, there have been times when a focus has been too much on content (I am definitely guilty of this) but I worry that there are educators shift so far away from content that students are missing out on key learning that can help with communication, critical thinking, creative thinking, etc. Find the sweet spot between content and competencies… that’s where the real learning happens. Learn competencies WITH content.

We need to end the use of worksheets.  Are ALL worksheets bad?  Doesn’t it depend on what is on the worksheet?  Doesn’t it depend on the task? Perhaps we need to talk about tasks rather than worksheets.

Grading harms kids and is bad practice.  Perhaps we should first discuss balanced assessment that includes effective practices in summative and formative assessments.  Is the problem more about how grades are used rather than the grades themselves?  Too often, we move away from grades (this is a ‘sexy’ idea that draws the attention of others and makes it seem like we are progressive) without changing our assessment practices. If all we do is move from a 6 point scale (grades) to a 4 point scale (performance standards) on report cards but we do not change our formative and summative assessment practices, it makes very little difference to student learning. I am not a huge fan of grades but I believe the conversation needs to first focus on balanced assessment… this is where we get the most impact on student learning.

We must stop lecturing in our classes.  I am not sure about you but I love a good storyteller or speaker. There is also a role for direct instruction. It is all about balance (and the grey) – if all we do is lecture, we likely have a problem; if we avoid direct instruction, the learners may not be clear on the content. A constructivist approach can help with engagement but as teachers and coaches, we need to lead the learning and this can include direct and explicit instruction based on key learning intentions.

Extrinsic motivation is harmful. (I have said this before).  Is ALL extrinsic motivation harmful? Hmmmm…. so feedback is bad?  Inspiring others through modeling is bad?  Motivation is on a continuum and there are areas (bribes) that pose problems but it is generalized statements like this that further encourage binary thinking that one is good, while the other is bad.  I believe we definitely need to move away from a focus on rewards (prizes, tickets, incentives) in schools and work to create more intrinsic motivation.  However, by using binary thinking around motivation, we miss out on the key conversations we need to have to make the shift toward more intrinsic (check out the research by people like Deci and Ryan who provide a balanced, informed perspective).

Homework hurts kids and does nothing for learning.  Homework is an important conversation. Maybe, though, we should talk less about the amount of homework and talk more about the tasks we are asking our students to do at home (and at school)? What if we get a student all jazzed up about a book and they rush home to open it up and dive in? What would happen if a student is so engaged in a topic or learning activity that they cannot wait to get home to do more? What if we work to bring the outside world into our kids’ learning so that when they spend time outside of school, they make strong connections to their learning inside of school? Still hurting kids? Does this do nothing for learning?

Desks in rows…. from the 19th century.   Are desks in rows always a bad thing? All the time? Not so sure. Do we need time for focused attention and quiet reflection? I would go nuts if I had to face the same person 4 feet away from me for 6 hours every day. Perhaps we should have more flexible spaces in the class that might be in rows and some in groups?

Leadership – good; management – bad.  Somewhere along the line, management got a bad rap. I have made the mistake of focusing too much on leadership and not enough on the management piece. Here is what I know now: if you cannot manage effectively, you will not be able to lead well. As Bruce Beairsto once told me, “Leadership and management are like the yin and yang… management builds the house and leadership makes it a home.”  We need to do both well.

Awards are good/bad. Yes, I am pretty passionate about rethinking awards in schools. Does this mean that I oppose all awards? No. Does this mean I am opposed to competition? Nope. Does this mean I think there should be a focus on participation trophies? Definitely not. We need to have the conversation… are awards ceremonies the best we can do to honour the efforts and abilities of our students? If we simply say awards are always good/bad, we may miss out on the chance to have the conversation about rethinking how we honour students.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes I see an old tweet or slide that I wrote and I shake my head at how polarizing (and sometimes arrogant) it was. Here’s the thing… it is EASY to tweet a dichotomous statement in a succinct manner that gets people’s attention and gets 100s of retweets; but we often lose out on the grey and miss out on the opportunity to engage.  If we do feel the need to make a polarizing statement, we need to be willing to engage when someone challenges us.  Keep the social in social media; respond when we are respectfully challenged so the conversation can move deeper and move to the heart of the statement. We need to continually reflect, be willing to be challenged and open to others’ ideas and opinions.

Some argue that binary thinking often elicits emotion and therefore, can initiate dialogue and I can appreciate that view.  We need to be careful, though, that our polarizing statements do not cause people to disengage. Yes, a less polarizing statement may get fewer retweets but maybe we will get more engagement and cause more people to actually reflect and discuss the topic instead of simply disagreeing and disengaging. If we are using polarizing statements to create conversation, once we engage, we need to avoid binary thinking and be open to other views, be open to life in the middle… and go to the grey.   The grey is where we find deeper reflective dialogue that helps create real change in education.

 

12

What PROBLEM are we trying to solve?

This is a post in which I am sort of “thinking out loud” so I would love your thoughts.

I went for breakfast with a great critical friend of mine, Brian Kuhn, a few weeks ago. Brian is the CIO of the Vancouver School Board and we were discussing the many changes taking place and how we manage these changes (with technology but also other areas of change in BC schools).  I am reading Friedman’s “Thank You For Being Late” and within it, shares how our rate of change in society has surpassed the extent to which we can actually adapt to change. This reading, with the conversation with Brian, certainly got me thinking.

We discussed things like redesigned curriculum, collaborative software/apps (Google, Office 365, etc), online report cards, communicating student learning, phone systems, device management, MyEDBC, and online attendance. I was stating that with so many changes coming from outside, it is hard to encourage schools and educators to make positive changes on their own (in addition to the changes that are mandated).  Brian then said something that is simple but I cannot get out of my mind and have used many times already since being back in the buildings this year.  He said, when looking at new ways of doing things, we cannot look at the tools, new procedures, devices, etc without asking…. “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Once he said this, I went back to my sharing of the many changes that have been mandated or presented as options and asked this question. I have been sold on many “shiny” things and ideas in the past few years.  In my early years as an admin, I wanted to try everything because it looked great and someone had sold it well. As I gained experience (and hopefully wisdom), I have become more cautious of the new and shiny things and reflected more on the purpose (the WHY) of the tool or new idea.  When I use the question, what problem are we trying to solve, it can rule out the new and shiny unless it is helping us solve an agreed upon problem.

An example of the problem first approach would be what we did for our staff meetings. I initially started using Google Docs with staff because it was the “cool thing to do”… all the “cool kids” seemed to be doing it. Before I left my last school, I had a few staff members share with me that they felt there was too much tech and not enough face to face. When I arrived at my new school, we spent time discussing effective staff meetings. The problem that was stated by many staff members in an anonymous survey was that there was an inequity of voice in staff meetings – some staff member’s voices were heard much more often than others. We had defined our problem.  Now, if inequity of voice is the problem, then we can explore solutions that can help solve this problem. We can and do use tools like collaborative documents (ex. Google docs, Office 365) to provide an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and build off of the ideas of others without having to speak in front of people, we can use survey apps (ex. Google forms, Office 365 Forms) to get input from people (either anonymously or with name), or we can use strategies such as Pair-Share and Chalk Talk to have people share their voice in a small setting or in writing so it is more of a safe place.  Using Google Apps because it seems fun to try is much different than using Google Apps as ONE of the solutions to solve a problem.  We implemented a few different strategies to solve our problem and all have been effective at providing more equity of voice.

So when we look at the many changes and ideas that are presented to us as educators, it is important to engage in the dialogue around the WHY: what problem are we trying to solve?  Here a few initial thoughts based on my discussion with Brian:

  • If we are doing online report cards (vs sending home a paper copy), what problem are we trying to solve (environment? ease of access? time?)? Who is defining the problem? What is the current user (parents) experience with paper reporting? What will the user experience be with online reporting (are we asking)? What other problems arise as a result of this (new formats, new language, etc)? Is the problem big enough that it is worth making the change right now?
  • If we want teachers to do online attendance, what problem are we trying to solve? Who is defining this problem? What problems may arise with moving to online attendance (vs paper attendance)?
  • For Office 365 in our district, I believe the problems are clear: we do not have a central location to store documents that can be accessed by staff and we need to have a cloud-based storage solution that aligns with FOIPPA (stored in Canada).  Office 365 has been an effective solution for the issue of central storage and collaboration.
  • For solutions like the redesigned curriculum, the WHY and stated problems with the previous are vast but a key one for us is that in the previous curriculum, there was very little flexibility to dive deeper into topics and for teachers to have the autonomy to tap into students strengths and interests.
  • For communicating student learning, we have had numerous discussions with admin and teachers and I believe that the problem can be summarized as: report cards being sent 3 times per year does not provide parents with enough information to be fully aware of their child’s learning and work closely with the school to support development. If we then phrase it as a question, we can begin to explore the potential solutions. HOW can we use technology to provide a (parent) window in to student learning so they can become more engaged in their child’s education? OR If we use [WordPress, FreshGrade, Edmodo, or another preferred platform], will parents become more informed of their child’s learning so they can work more closely with the school to support their child’s education?

In the last example above, we move from stating the problem to framing the problem as a question to gather as many solutions as needed. This has been very helpful for us to create specific solutions once the problem has been stated. After all of this, we have to remember to always look back and seek evidence to see if our solutions are actually solving the problems we stated.

Too often we are drawn in and sold on solutions to problems which we have not even defined. Effective sales people do this very well as you walk away with something new that you didn’t even know you needed! In schools, we have so much change right now.  I love Brian’s idea of defining the problem first and then seeing if we can find potential solutions as I believe this will help us filter and manage the changes more effectively.

I am still working through this so I would love your thoughts or successes or challenges with managing change.

Image: Pixabay

10

Reconsidering the ‘Celebration’ of Canada’s 150 Years

As we near July 1 and have the opportunity to join millions of Canadians celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, I cannot help but think about those who will not exactly be celebrating the past 150 years.

I am a settler of European descent and I currently reside on the unceded traditional territory of the Matsqui First Nation and work in the traditional territories of the Kwantlen, Katzie, Matsqui and Semiahmoo First Nations.

As a school, we have been discussing and learning about history from an Aboriginal perspective – a perspective that was not taught to so many of us adults as we went through school. When I was in school, I learned about the colonial perspective and how Canada was “discovered” and how our “peaceful nation” was built.  I grew up knowing that my family was a settler but I was not aware that I was living on lands that were taken nor did I know about the many atrocities that have been done to Indigenous Peoples of Canada. I actually work near “the Fort” in Fort Langley but I have never taken the time to hear the stories of the Kwantlen People who have to stare across the river at this Fort, which represents so much loss to their families, lands, culture, and language.

In the past 10 years, I have learned a narrative that has made me seriously question the story of Canada as a peaceful nation. Through my work in education, I have had the chance to listen and learn from Indigenous leaders both directly involved in education (teachers, support workers, education committee members, etc) and in local communities (particularly from members of the Sts’ailes, Seabird, and Kwantlen First Nations). I have learned more about the horrific genocide that has taken place in which Indigenous families had their children taken from them along with their language and culture (and the incredible resiliency of the survivors). In the past 150 years (and longer), the Canadian government used tools of oppression such as Indian Residential Schools (in which children were kidnapped from their families and sent off to a school run by the government with the goal of “killing the Indian in the child”) and methods such as the 60s Scoop (in which Indigenous children were taken from families and placed in foster care); these violent acts in our history move us far away from having the identity of a peaceful nation that has been embraced by so many of us.

CC Image from Nichworby – Fort Providence Indian Residential School https://flic.kr/p/cwR2zf

We need to continue learning our history as a nation and reflect more deeply on the past 150 years.  National Aboriginal Day is on Wednesday, June 21 and I believe this is a great opportunity for educators, students, and families to ask the following questions:

  • What might the past 150 years look like from an Indigenous perspective?
  • Why might Indigenous Peoples NOT be celebrating 150 years?

  • How have the past 150 years been for Indigenous Peoples?

If there is evidence to show that people have been here for over 10,000 years, combined with the effects of colonialism (including the fact that Indigenous Peoples were not even invited to the “birth of Canada” in 1867), you can see why some may not be so big on celebrating “150 years”.

Many of us are proud to be a Canadian but we must also understand that not everyone has lived the privileged Canada that we have experienced; there is a significant portion of our history, some of which continues today, that is not respectful, peaceful or equitable. As a nation, we have much work to do on the journey towards reconciliation. This starts with acknowledging that a settler perspective of our history is vastly different than an Indigenous perspective. We must build an understanding of our real history as a nation and then move to action to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

I realize that for many people there is much to celebrate on July 1 and many will still be excited to attend festivities for Canada’s 150th Birthday.  Having said this, I encourage you to take the time to not only attend the celebrations, but ask the aforementioned questions, and learn more about historical oppressive practices like forced moves to “reservation land”, stealing children to send them to Residential Schools, and removing children from families through the 60s Scoop. For regrettable aspects of Canadian history like these, it is no longer ok for us, as Canadians, to say that we didn’t know. If we fail to acknowledge and understand the Indigenous perspective of Canada’s 150 years we continue to promote a colonial culture and further marginalize Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Enjoy July 1 but please work to be more wide-awake to a different perspective of the past 150 years in Canada.

See below for videos that share some history from a perspective adults were not taught. A powerful quote, “we cannot cling to our ignorance”. (Thank you to Bonnie VanHatten for sharing and for her continued mentorship)

3

5 Reasons to Rethink Awards Ceremonies

CC image from G. Grossmeier https://flic.kr/p/7Es433

As we near the end of March, many schools have moved into the final term of the year and this often leads to discussions about awards ceremonies in schools.

I recently had the honour of travelling to Red Deer, Alberta to present on the topic of rethinking rewards and awards in schools (view slides here). This was such an honour as Red Deer is the hometown of a late friend of mine, Joe Bower, so I was able to meet his father, brother, and wife during my time there. Joe was a strong critic of the use of rewards and awards in schools and he and I had regular dialogue on the topic. My keynote was a tribute to all Joe taught me and all he stood for as an educator. A special thank you to David Martin for bringing me there; it was wonderful to finally meet him and his wife and to see that he is an even better guy in person than he is online. 

Jim and Jeff Bower – father and brother of the late Joe Bower.

When I say that we need to rethink awards in schools, many people immediately think that I believe in awards for every child. This is far from the truth; when I share that we need to rethink awards, I think we need to move away from awards altogether.  I have been privileged to work at two schools that have moved away from awards (I acknowledge that this is an easier move at elementary school than high school) to a system that works to honour all students for their strengths and growth. The lack of awards has not taken away from our academic achievement and has helped to create a more supportive and collaborative school community. Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools.

Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools:

  1. Awards shift the focus from the process (learning) to the result (award).  Whenever we offer a reward or an award for doing something, we risk shifting the focus to this extrinsic offering. There are over 50 years of research in the world of social sciences that have shown this over and over again. By focusing on the award, students use skills that give them the best chance to win the award: compliance (no risk-taking), point-gathering (and grovelling), getting noticed, and beating others. Why be creative and take risks when this can lessen your chances of getting an award? We also risk defining value of our students based on awards. If they win, they are valued… if they do not win, then what?  Also, if we feel that awards motivate students, we have to consider that awards only motivate those students who have a chance of winning. Seeing that a similar group of students win each year, do we really think that awards motivate a good number of our students? Are awards the best tool we can use to “motivate” students?
  2. Awards are not always about excellence. They are mostly about simply being better than those around you.  One argument that schools often make is that awards portray excellence. My argument is that they might highlight excellent results for a select few students in a certain area but they are more about excellence relative to those peers around you. Awards are often for the “top” student in a certain category so in order to win, you simply need to be better than your peers. If you are in a school that believes that awards are essential, why not have a standard? Why not have multiple winners if multiple people achieve that bar? Also, I often wonder what population of students deems the “top student” award acceptable – a class of 5? 50? 100? A student in a smaller school/class will have an advantage as they have to “beat” fewer classmates. It is also important to remember that even at Harvard, 99% of students are not in the top 1% of their class (HT to Todd Rose for this reminder). If awards were so crucial to excellence and success, why do we not have awards in our families for the best child? Parent awards in schools and communities? Teacher awards in schools?
  3. Awards encourage a culture of competition and inhibit a culture of collaboration. I am not opposed to competition; I play sports, I have coached sports for a number of years and I hate to lose. I believe there is a role for competition in life but we need to be careful when we add competition into learning and education. Success in a competitive culture is about defeating others at all costs.  Why would we collaborate when it could build success in those around us and lessen our chances of winning? We can also create an attitude of superiority in that we have students that, even if they do not say it, they may believe that they are better than others… and why would they think this? Because we tell them this with the awards! Why would a student collaborate with a “lesser student” if this could risk bringing their own achievement down (in their eyes)? In the end, education is not a zero-sum game (winners and losers); if we try to truly personalize education for our students, how can some be winners and others be losers? If we believe competition is important, make it a choice – encourage students who enjoy competition to enter contests so at least those who have no desire to compete are not forced into a contest. Competition for awards in schools is nothing like the world outside of school. Outside of school, we CHOOSE to enter competitions and often choose to enter competitions that we have a chance at being successful. With awards, we force kids into a competitive game and then we create the criteria and select the winners (and losers) in learning.  If you are a strong believer in competition in the classroom, perhaps use more ‘competitive collaboration’ that occurs when students work together (stealing ideas is encouraged) in healthy competition against other groups and learning/innovation wins (see more on this from George Couros here).
  4. Awards assume that ALL students learn at the same rate and have the same opportunities. In this awards game, we assume that students all start at the same point when they come to us in September and then reward the person that finishes best. If a student comes in to the school year way ahead of his/her peers and they finish only slightly ahead of their peers, is this the best learner? Has this child achieved the most growth?  There are so many factors that affect a child’s achievement (beyond his/her control) such as: family and home life, mental health, date of birth, genetics, parent education, socioeconomics, income and educational opportunities, language, and parent social and cultural capital. So, in saying this, are awards (particularly those in elementary schools) more for the students… or the parents? I also often wonder at what age is it appropriate to start offering awards – preschool? primary? intermediate? middle? high school? Why at this age?  Each child is different so it is important for us to honour each student’s educational journey throughout their time with us.
  5. Awards offer a narrow criteria of success.  By only offering awards for select criteria and for a select few students, how many students are missed? Again, I am not saying we should give awards to every student, I am trying to show reasons to rethink. How many students have strengths or show awesome growth but then are told that they are not valued at the year-end awards ceremony?  What kind of hierarchy of education do we create when success in certain areas of learning are valued more than others. As we move away from a focus on percents, how do we decide the winner? (I have been part of some intense debates as both an intermediate and high school teacher as staff fight for their student to be named the winner). If we believe ALL students have strengths and ALL students can learn, how do our awards ceremonies align with this belief?

Instead of naming a student who is THE best, our goal as a school should be to work to bring out the best in EVERY student.

Does an awards ceremony at the end of the year that honours a select few students based on narrowly defined criteria bring out the best in every student? The concerns around awards far outweigh the benefits so I encourage you to start the conversation to rethink awards in your school.

For more posts similar to this on rethinking awards ceremonies, click here. For an example of a different way of honouring students, see below. 

Thank you to David Martin for the opportunity to share! (pictured with his wife, Jenn)


At our school, although we do not have a “replacement” for awards at our school, we have chosen to honour every grade 5 (we are K-5) in the school during monthly assemblies. At some point through the year, students are selected (alphabetically) to be honoured by standing up in front of the school and having the principal share their strengths, interests, and virtues. (Students complete a survey in which they share what they believe are their strengths (character strengths and talents) as well as a few interests. Teachers also share what they believe are the students’ strengths and interests.) 

  • Example: Teachers believe Tim is 
    • an enthusiastic and engaging student who gives the impression he is always mulling something over –  has a very active mind
    • just as able to work independently as he is with a partner or in a small group
    • a “hands on learner” who is quick to begin work on assignments and check for understanding if he is unsure of himself
    • creative thinker
    • very capable student in Mathematics – he seeks to master and apply concepts and really enjoys tackling challenging problems and finding multiple solutions
    • enjoys sharing his learning during class discussion 

    Tim says that:  

    Inside of school, loves: P.E, Math, Art
    Outside of school Loves: Piano, Video games, Swimming
    Character strengths: Creativity, Curiosity
    Skills: Math, Video games
    Wants to be a Scientist Architect Engineer
    Wants to people to know he LOVES ice cream
    Advice: anybody can be anything if you try hard enough


 

 

 

 

0

Moving Beyond the Sit ‘n Git Model of Professional Development

This post was originally written for the Canadian Education Association in 2015. I believe it is still relevant and important today. 

I often wonder if what we see as teaching at professional learning events would be acceptable in a high school classroom. If the purpose of professional development (Pro-D) is professional learning, then what is our evidence that learning does, in fact, occur? Are we using effective teaching practices in Pro-D?

Although Pro-D is evolving, the “Sit‘n’Git” way of learning seems to still be alive and well in many conferences and workshops throughout Canada and the U.S. In the past five years, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in a large conference room for a number of hours with hundreds of other dedicated educators and not been provided with the opportunity to even talk to the person beside me. People are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to attend these events to listen to a series of lengthy lectures without the opportunity to network and wrestle with the presented ideas. I’m not opposed to a keynote address to start off the day with some inspiring, thought-provoking ideas; however, if there is no opportunity to take these ideas and move deeper, many of the thoughts that are initiated in the keynote get lost as I move on to the next session or listen to the next presenter. It’s no secret that in order for deeper learning to occur, we must DO something with a new concept; we must apply new learning to take it from an idea to implementation. Our current typical model of Pro-D makes deeper learning a challenge and often only leaves participants with a few ideas that are unfortunately left on the shelf with the many glossy white binders from workshops of years past. At some point we need to stand up and say that a high volume of “Sit‘n’Git” style of Pro-D is no longer acceptable and is an insult to those who have spent money, time, and effort to attend. While doing this, we also need to rethink the conference model and professional learning so that it better aligns with what we want to see in classrooms.

There are many articles written about rethinking professional learning (for example – http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/20/is-the-pd-day-broken/ and http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea_fone_teacherpd.pdf) For me, the experience needs to be relevant, continual, and collaborative. As educators, we need time to take an idea, wrestle with it, discuss it, and then plan for implementation. Ideally, there should also be time for follow up with reflective dialogue either as a staff or as a group.

In B.C., the current learning model for teachers is five to six separate (often not aligned, surface level) PD days, monthly staff meetings, and (optional) after school workshops. Is this the best we can do? We know the importance of professional autonomy, so how do we offer this and also ensure that professional learning moves beyond surface level workshops or lectures that give participants the chance to mentally opt out? What is our collective responsibility as schools and districts to create the conditions for deeper learning that affects positive change?

It will likely be some time before we completely rethink Pro-D, so how do we make the best use of our current model?

One of the most effective ways to create change is to focus on the bright spots and build from there. There is a powerful movement of professional learning opportunities that have moved away from the “Sit’n’Git” model to one that taps into the strengths of participants and creates more opportunities for networking. All of these require TIME and it is important for us to change the question from “CAN we provide time for Pro-D?” to “HOW CAN we provide more time for effective, ongoing professional learning?”. 

Here are eight ideas to move us beyond the “Sit’n’Git”:

1. NETWORKING/COLLABORATION TIME AT CONFERENCES – We don’t have to blow up our system; we can start small and ensure that there is important “blank” space in between workshops or following keynotes for teams or groups of people to move the learning deeper. Within workshops, always provide time for participants to DO something with their learning; move from the “sit’n’git” to the “make’n’take”. We can use models that encourage inspiring ideas (keynote, workshop) as well as the time to take the WHY of ideas and move to the WHAT and HOW. I am excited to present in Red Deer next week at the Central Alberta Teachers Convention and they have the Thursday planned for presentations and workshops and the Friday planned for networking – a great way to take the new ideas and dive deeper the following day. 

2. TEACHER ACTION RESEARCH – B.C. teacher, Jennifer Delvecchio, shared a grassroots concept of a“growing learners/pedagogy from within” group of teachers that used some of the allocated Pro-D days – along with school supported time (and some of their own time) – to take a concept and spiral deeper over time. Teachers looked at published research and then reflected on their own practices to question and implement change to benefit student learning. By continually analyzing practice in their own classrooms and making the time to meet a priority, they were able to use the published research in a way that actually created positive change in their classrooms. By tapping into teachers’ curiosity and providing small bits of time for reflective dialogue based on gathered evidence of student learning, we can drive powerful professional learning forward. I have seen the power of this in the past 2 schools in which I have served as principal. Teachers (and staff) have used professional development days, after school workshops, and collaboration time (in addition to their own time) to continually meet with a partner or small group and spiral deeper in their learning. This has a significant impact on student learning and the learning conditions in the classroom (see #3).

3. COLLABORATIVE TIME AND INQUIRY – For the past 2 years in the Langley School District, time that was previously allocated into two learning days in the year has been spread out over the year in the form of six collaboration mornings (80 minutes each). This model is more organic and teacher-driven than the typical professional learning community (PLC) model as educators are encouraged to choose an inquiry question with a small group of colleagues and then take the time to spiral deeper into their inquiry (see Spirals of Inquiry by Halbert and Kaser).  Another example of providing small bits of collaboration time at a school level (based on the passions and curiosities of staff) can be read here.

4. IGNITE EVENTS – Ignite sessions can feel kind of like an “underground” professional learning experience where a number of people meet and listen to others share a story, an idea, or an experience through a short series of slides (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide). There is some sit’n’git but the best part about the events is the networking that occurs before, during, and after the series of five-minute presentations that plant seeds of conversations.

5. EDCAMPS – More and more districts and even some schools are offering Edcamps as a way to tap into the strengths and knowledge of participants. With no formal set agenda and no formal lectures, participants bring their topics to the day and help facilitate conversation on participants’ areas of interest. The challenge with Edcamp, along with many of these participant-driven events, is keeping the passionate dialogue going beyond the event.

6. RETHINKING STAFF MEETINGS – Many schools are making professional learning the focus of staff and department meetings. If information can be sent out in a memo/email, leave it off the agenda and free up time for engaging discussions and reflections on student learning. Something as simple as “what have you tried since the last workshop/conference/collaboration that has had an impact (small or large) on student learning?” should be discussed at staff meetings. Cale Birk is doing some great work on Learner-Centered Design (LCD) that shows the power on redesigning the time we spend together learning as a staff.

7. INSTRUCTIONAL ROUNDS – The Kamloops School District has been exploring the use of Instructional Rounds (based on the work out of Harvard as a way to provide ongoing dialogue and reflections based on non-judgmental observations of educators by educators). The challenge is providing release time for rounds to take place but if a district is willing to consider HOW money is spent on professional learning, instructional rounds should be on the table.

8. SOCIAL MEDIA – There are many different platforms (Twitter, blogging, etc.) that can continue conversations past the event (and also help with the sharing of good ideas). Social media can help to connect people in areas of passion or curiosity who can have conversation that can lead to deeper dialogue in other platforms. Dean Shareski challenges us to connect with one person at an event and keep the conversation going beyond that event.

The Sit’n’Git, single event idea of Pro-D does not align with what we know about teaching, nor about professional learning. We need a sense of urgency to create change in this area. Start small. Build on what is working. Let’s work together to making professional learning more relevant and continual so it leads to deeper change in education.

4

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student (a slightly cynical post)

It is no secret that I have concerns with the focus on awards in schools. For the past 9 years, I have been privileged to work as a principal in two different school communities who have both moved away from traditional awards ceremonies. As someone once told me, “we need to be hard on ideas and soft on people” – this is a satirical criticism of the IDEA of traditional awards ceremonies in schools and is meant to highlight issues with (and challenge people to rethink) the use of these in schools, and is NOT meant to be a criticism of parents nor educators. 

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

Defeating others is crucial to the success of our children, and it is our role, as educators and parents, to prepare our students for the big bad real world that is out there that will eat you up and spit you out. I was having trouble sleeping last night so I came up with a list that will help me raise my kids as well as my students to become better than others and win more traditional awards at school.

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student:

  1. Have parents with a post-secondary education. There is much research to support a correlation between parent education and student achievement. This is not really a secret so, if you want a student to win academic awards, it is important that the child’s parents have something beyond a high school education. (I realize there is exceptions to this but the correlation is pretty clear)
  2. Have parents with higher income. There is also a correlation between socioeconomic status and traditional achievement in schools so, again, it makes a difference if the parents have more financial and cultural capital to access more support and educational opportunities.
  3. Be born in the first 3 months of the year. Schools organize students by date of birth (or as Sir Ken says, “date of manufacture”) so being born in at the start of the year can give a student a significant advantage. In Canada, a child born in January could have almost 12 months of advantage through growth and development as compared to a peer born in late December (some states use September as the cut-off so it would be a similar comparison to a child born in September and a child born in August).  Although the date of birth has less of an impact as the student get older, it makes a difference in schools for early learning opportunities and resulting student confidence and self-efficacy.
  4. Place the majority of the focus on getting good grades. Many awards are decided based on who has the top marks in the grade level so getting a good percentage and/or GPA is essential to cleaning up the awards. Therefore, it is important to pay less attention to soft skills and the process of learning and more attention to getting good grades. The 0.1% in the grade book can make the difference between an award-winner and an award-loser so it is important to ask for bonus marks and do everything to collect the most points in school.
  5. Avoid collaboration. Remember that the people around your child/student stand in the way of him/her winning the award. Awards are only won by defeating those around you so, by collaborating, you could be hurting your chances as you may be making those around you that much better.
  6. Avoid courses that challenge the student. As was stated in #4, the goal is to get top marks so by enrolling in courses that are not an area of strength and that are challenging for the student could result in lower marks. Also, I have heard that students can enrol in courses with “easy-markers” (I am not sure what this means though) so this could help their chances at winning as well.
  7. Self-promotion is key. Decisions on awards are sometimes made as a team so it is important that academic accomplishments are shared so everyone knows the top grades and other achievements that have been attained. Also, awards are heavily based on short-term extrinsic motivation so self-promotion, along with the focus on grades, will help keep the emphasis on the extrinsic (rather than intrinsic).
  8. Attend a small school.  Winning awards is not about achieving some standard or level, it is simply about being better than those around you. If you attend a smaller school, you have a much better chance of winning as there are fewer students around you.
  9. Give awards out in the home and community.  Because awards mean that we stand for excellence, it is important to also give awards in your home to your top child. This will not only highlight excellence but also help teach the other child that loses the award how to cope in the big, bad real world. Outside the home, work with the community to give top parent awards and top children awards so families and community members can also compete with each other in the promotion of excellence.
  10. Comply, comply, comply. A great way to getting top marks is to colour inside the lines and think inside the box. Do not question the way things are done or try to be creative and do things in new ways as this may mean that you will not do exactly what the school is asking and, therefore, risk getting lower grades. There is a game within in school and those who learn the rules of “doing” school well and comply, collect the most points, and beat those around them… win!

As you can see, there are so many variables that are beyond the control of our students that impact who wins the traditional awards in schools.  Parent education, parent financial and cultural capital, student month of birth, school size, etc all provide some students with an advantage and leaves others with a disadvantage. We, as educators, often express concerns about school rankings because of these aforementioned factors yet we rarely question the ranking (well, ranking by placing at the top) of students in schools that are affected by these same factors.  Most of the time, parents and students are doing the best they can but face hurdles outside their control which can affect achievement at school. As a community, we need to help ALL students go over/around these hurdles so we can create the conditions to bring out the best in each of them. Having said this, we need to ask ourselves, as a school community, if traditional awards ceremonies actually promote excellence and bring out the best or if they simply promote achievement using narrow criteria defined by adults within the building. Are awards the best we can do to highlight student learning and growth in our schools?

I am not saying that the answer is to “give awards to everyone” (which I oppose) as this creates a whole different issue; I am saying, though, that we need to rethink how we honour our students and we need to create new ways of promoting excellence and celebrating learning that goes beyond our traditional awards ceremonies in schools.

Please do not tell me thoughts like these are creating this “enabled” generation of millennial adults (whatever that means.. apparently I just missed the cut-off to being a Millennial). The vast majority of schools still use traditional awards and millennial adults went through schools that used awards… so if a lack of responsibility and independence is a concern (which is a valid concern), let’s talk about this and discuss strategies we can use every day to improve this for our children and community.

The late Joe Bower and I had many conversations on this topic and I feel like these thoughts are a tribute to him. Check out one of his posts on this topic here.

 

1

Sports Day: Shifting From Competition to Inclusion

IMG_6764Last year at James Hill, we made the decision to move away from points and 1st-4th place finishes for our annual elementary school Sports Day. We felt that the focus on points and winning was misaligned with the goal of the day. Seeing students and parents arguing with grade 6/7 student facilitators about who finished 2nd and 3rd in the “Rubber Chicken Relay” made it fairly clear that something needed to change.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to competition (ask anybody I have coached or played with or against) and there is a role for healthy competition in youth development. I am not the guy that thinks we should give out participation trophies for everyone for just showing up at a tournament but I do think that we often put the focus on winning when the focus should be on development (that is for another post.. in the meantime, check out Changing the Game Project). I do think that our school’s “Sports Day” (which does not really involve a single “sport” and could be renamed) is a day in which the main purposes are fun, teamwork, and movement.

Last year, I did have some questions from parents asking if not focusing on competition was ill preparing our kids for the “real world”. I understand this concern and we do provide opportunities for our older students to compete in floor hockey, track, cross country, basketball and other artistic and academic competitions. For Sports Day, I strongly believe we need to align our activities with the purpose and goals of the event. I am not sure, though, if winning the “Bottle Fill Relay” is the real goal of sports day and helps to prepare our six-year-olds for when they are 18 and entering the world beyond school.  I do know that focusing on movement, fun, and teamwork is a great way to spend a day together as a school community.

When we moved away from the competitive nature of the day, we saw some significant improvements in teamwork, inclusion and fun. People were cheering each other on right through the duration of the activity and often there became a side-event that created even more fun for our students. For example, in our Bottle Fill Relay, rather than the only goal being to fill up the bottle the fastest, our grade 5s started splashing each other as they participated in the event and this resulted in more cheers, laughs, and smiles.  A teacher also recently shared this story with me:

Not having the points and placings has really helped to create more of an inclusive sports day. In the past, when a child with any type of physical or mental struggle(s) was placed on a team, there were statements whispered like, “now we are never going to win.” or “there goes our chances”. She went on to say that this year, not having the overt competitive aspect created the conditions that brought out the best in teams. Students were working together and cheering each other on more than in past years. The goal was not to finish first but, for some students, to simply finish with smiles. Those teams that had a child with physical and/or mental disabilities on their team looked to him/her as an asset rather than a liability (it bothers me to say that students looked at others as a liability in the past but for some, it was unfortunately true). Students with struggles were cheered MORE for their efforts and their accomplishments. Nobody said “oh man, we have Steven..”, they said, “let’s go, STEVEN, we can do this!”. More kids cheered. More kids participated. This was the most inclusive sports day ever.

The key lesson for me is that our purpose needs to guide our actions. Is there a role for competition in schools? I believe there is but elementary sports day should be about movement, fun, teamwork, and creating the conditions to bring out the best in ALL our kids.  Kids will still be competitive with each other in a fun way; however, when we shift our focus away from competition, we get more collaboration, more fun, and more inclusion.

2

Working With Children With Challenging Behaviours? This Changes Everything

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

There is a simple mistake that the vast majority of us as parents and educators make when dealing with challenging behaviours: we focus on the behaviour.

When we focus on the problem behaviour, most of our theories and strategies involve attempting to get less of this behaviour. We bribe with rewards for when the behaviour might not be present and we punish when the behaviour does occur. This type of “behaviour intervention” makes a HUGE assumption… that the behaviour is a motivation problem.  We assume that if we can “motivate” (bribe/punish) the child to the thing we want him to do, after enough intervention, he will do it more often. Dr. Ross Greene says this is the philosophy that “Kids do well if they wanna [do well].”  This often “works” for the kids who don’t really have any significant challenges with behaviours (although when we try to “catch kids being good”, we end up teaching many kids to be good at getting caught being good and create further problems of kids wanting something in return for doing the right thing) but I have yet to see this work for the students who need the intervention the most.  In fact, I have often seen this approach work against students with behaviour challenges; we put a carrot out there (if you do this, we will give you this), the student then realizes he/she is not going to get the reward, and this actually brings out the problem behaviour that we do not want to see. If all we focus is on the challenging behaviour, we miss the most important part: the opportunity to create collaborative solutions for the underlying problems.

By assuming that challenging behaviour is a motivation problem… we forget that behaviour is a SKILL. Behind every action in kids (and adults) are numerous skills that people have learned over the years.  Skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, listening, critical thinking, empathy, academics, and many others all play a role in how we behave. This is the BIG idea that changes everything about working with kids with challenging behaviours: “Kids do well if they CAN… if they could do well, the would do well. Something must be getting in the way” (Dr. Ross Greene). This lens changes our role as educators and parents; our role then becomes members of a team that has the task of finding out what is getting in the way.

Kids do well if they can…. NOT kids do well if they wanna. When we make this shift in philosophy, we see that behaviour challenges are a result of a lagging skill and/or unsolved problem. By focusing on the lagging skills, we can actually teach kids the needed skills in a way that prevents the behaviour from occurring. I have used the philosophy for a number of years and it has been proven more effective than any other behaviour support I have used; this should not be shocking because when we view behaviour as a skill, our most important job is to teach!  If a child struggles with reading, we teach. If a child struggles with behaviours, we don’t simply bribe and punish… we teach.

Greene shares with us a few keys to working with kids with behaviour challenges:

  1. Kids do well if they can. Focus on determining the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are causing the behaviour.  Challenging kids are challenging when the demands of a task outstrip their skill level. We need to stop obsessing on behaviour.  Instead, we should be emphasising problems (and solving them) rather than on behaviours (and modifying them – when we solve the problems the behaviours are modified).  Expectations are important so we need to reflect on what our expectations so we can determine what our student may be having problem meeting. We also need to ensure that the bar for these expectations are close to the skill level of our students… much like we do with other aspects of teaching.
  2. Solutions must be collaborative and proactive. Too often, solutions we (as adults) come up with are done TO the child and what we need to be doing is coming up with solutions to unsolved problems (and lagging skills) WITH the child. This does not mean collaborating on consequences… this means collaborating on solutions to problems. (Note: I am not opposed to consequences that are logical and restorative but I think we too often believe that this will solve the problem when, if it is due to a lagging skills or unsolved problem, it rarely solves it and actually exacerbates the problem). Nobody likes a plan done to them yet we do this to kids with behaviour challenges all the time… and it often makes it worse.
  3. Model empathy and care.  When determined the lagging skills and unsolved problems and we work collaboratively as a team with the child, we show we care and can empathize with his/her struggles in certain skill areas.

I have tried to use this philosophy for a number of years with great success, but for some reason, I seemed to have recently sidetracked myself about it. This year, I have continually focused on the behaviours and dealing with what seemed to be crisis management without working hard to understand the underlying unsolved problems. As Greene says, “The more crisis management you do, the more crisis management you do.”  We have done a ton of crisis management this year and have done very little of focused discussions on determining lagging skills and unsolved problems and then working collaboratively to help teach the skills and solve these problems. Four members of our staff recently attended a 2-day workshop with Greene and it all came back to me; we realized we have made a number of decisions at school that have not helped with our students struggling with behaviours. We have been focused on behaviours and doing our “solutions” TO kids rather than with them. In the coming weeks and into next year, I look forward to our core team working to use Greene’s approach and working with staff and families to create more success for our students.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes so long. It takes so much time. It requires time for collaboration with staff and collaboration with the struggling students. The other side of this, though, is that our other attempts to provide intervention (that have not worked) have taken tons of time yet they have got us not much further ahead (and maybe even further behind) than we were at the start of the year. So the question is: how can we NOT make the time to work together to do something that has proven to work? Much like when a child struggles with reading, we make the time as best we can. The added challenge to problem behaviour (which is often tied to academics) is that it can affect the learning environment for staff and students… which is why it is that much more important to make the time to engage in this process.  The least that we can do is consider shifting our philosophy. If we don’t, we will simply continue to spin our wheels and end up with students and staff who are more stressed with bigger struggles that we had before. (an important additional comment by Steve MacGregor on Twitter: there needs to be a core group or a team approach to make this truly effective.)

We need to rethink how we approach behaviour in our schools. We need to move away from a program that focuses on behaviour (and attempting to change with carrots and sticks) and move toward a philosophy that seeks first to understand the unsolved problems and/or lagging skills, then help solve the problems and teach the needed skills.  This changes everything.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s workshops and books (particularly Lost at School). You can also do a “walking tour” of his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions and get tons of free resources (like the ALSUP – Assessment of Unsolved Problems and Lagging Skills) on his Lives in the Balance website

NOTE: I understand that life is full of choices and there are times when behaviour is a choice. I am writing primarily about significant behaviour challenges in this post that we often assume are choices (but have been shown in my experience and many that Greene has worked with) to be caused by underlying unsolved problems. Also, Greene is very clear that PBIS (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports) does not align with this philosophy as the focus is often on changing behaviour (with positive rewards/prizes/tickets) rather than determining lagging skills and working collaboratively to solve them.

I also like the term “unexpected behaviours” (rather than problem or challenging behaviours) that my friend Karen Copeland has encouraged me to use. The goal of the approach in this post is to make these behaviours more expected because when we know what is causing them, we can work collaboratively to prevent them from occurring. 

For a quick preview to Greene’s approach, watch the video below.

 

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Inclusion Through Strengths: Learning With Logan

Note: this story of inclusion is shared with the encouragement and permission of Logan’s mother.

Logan has been at James Hill Elementary since kindergarten. During this time, it has been easy to pick out all of his challenges – his struggles to read and write, self-regulate emotions, say the right things (and not swear), and his struggles to build real friendships. He has Autism and Tourette Syndrome and the journey n school has been a roller coast of emotions for Logan and his family as he faced a few good days combined with many, many challenging ones. (There was a time when we almost made the mistake of planning a half-day program because he was not having successful afternoons – thankfully, we listened to his family andworked together to create an afternoon plan that tapped into his strengths and interests and created success.)

As Logan has grown, his interests in things like animals (particularly reptiles and insects) were noted and encouraged by staff and his family to be used in school through a variety of projects. One of his grade 3 teachers saw a snake she had never seen before near her home so she took note of the characteristics, came in to the school on the following day and ran it by our expert, Logan, and he was able to identify they type of snake it was. Another staff member embraced his love of animals and ran a school-wide fundraiser, led by Logan, to bring in Canadian Tire money to donate to the Langley Animal Protection Society to help out local rescued cats. During this fundraiser, Logan went around to all the classrooms to share details about the initiative. Because Logan had struggles in communication, he used an iPad to read out the information to the students.

IMG_5095Fast-forward to grade 5. In the past few years, although Logan still has a love for Kingdom Animalia, he has developed a keen interest in communicable diseases, nuclear disasters, and safety from these and all sorts of disasters that can be harmful to humans. His parents have embraced this and Logan can often be seen walking around the grocery store or the school with a gas mask and hazmat suit. He has almost become our leader in pest control at the school. Although Logan has been physically floating in and out of the classroom, his participation in class has been fairly minimal… up until a few months ago. At this time, his teachers and support staff started to notice that his strengths and passions could be used in the classroom more often.

Although there has been much effort over the years to include Logan more effectively in the class, during a unit on communicable diseases, Logan’s experience at school shifted to a much more active, positive experience. He then became a classroom expert on the topic. He participated more in class discussions, he was engaged in the tasks, and walked with more of a “swagger” at school. One of his teachers, Colleen Giddings, then asked him if he wanted to share his vast knowledge of viruses with the class. The next day, Logan waited patiently and then when it was time, brought out his iPad and didn’t just share a few bits of information, he actually taught a mini-lesson on viruses! He walked around with his iPad and showed pictures and shared his knowledge and passion for the topic. Rather than trying to get him to participate, the challenge then became how to teach him timing – when and where to share his knowledge!

As the class is a shared classroom, his other teacher, Kathy Lambert, continued to chat with Logan about other areas of interest and asked him if he wanted to bring his hazmat suit in to share his knowledge about safety.   Not only did he just bring in his suit… he taught a full 30 minute lesson on nuclear disaster and radiation safety! He lectured and shared his knowledge, asked questions, answered questions from peers and also used a variety of tools like pictures, maps, stories, and even finished with a historical video on nuclear safety. This same student that struggled to be in class, speak to peers, read, write, self-regulate emotions… gave a 30-minute engaging lesson to his classmates. Logan is on a new streak and for the past few months, showed his story and identity at school has changed.

Inclusion is not just about helping certain students be more involved in a class; it is a mindset about how we do things. Over the years, Logan’s family and staff at his school have embraced who he is and what he loves. They have started with his strengths and when these strengths were brought into the school, he became more confident, active and engaged in class. His struggles are still there but these have been overshadowed by his strengths.

When we start with strengths, students flourish.
When we start with strengths, we use these to build on our struggles.
When we start with strengths, we work to INCLUDE.

Thank you to Logan, his family, as well as the staff and students at James Hill for showing the power of using strengths in inclusion.

Check out the 3-minute video clip below of Logan in his element… teaching his classmates about nuclear disasters and radiation safety.