Picture This

The BC Education Plan.  The VSB Sectoral Review. Personalized education. The flipped classroom. Hybrid courses that blend technology in the service of quality instruction.  The plan, the review and the ideas: all building upon an already exceptional education system here in Vancouver. Now, as a school leader, I look at all of this and in focusing upon my parent community, I begin to see an issue: in putting forward new ideas meant to build upon an already great product, we are asking these parents (at PAC Meetings and weekly updates) to trustingly move from the known to the unknown.  We’re asking them to explore possibilities; however, what I’m finding is that in continually discussing these possibilities we are meandering within a labyrinth of multiple interpretations that serve to divide what should be a critical mass united around supporting and contributing to developing educational programs of distinction.  The whole situation can take on a Pythonesque absurdity:

Forget for a moment that during the Easter long weekend “Life of Brian” is requisite viewing in my household (“Come all ye who call yourself Gourdeness”). Instead focus on the fact that in this scene the subsequent split in direction is predicated on the multiple interpretations put forward by these characters.  The subtext is that personal experience can impact the interpretation of an event and inevitably impact the directions that we take in moving forward with any initiative.

Take this thought and apply it to the sentiments that many parents have towards formal learning. Their ideas of schools and education have been forged through their own years within the system:  “We woke up, went to school, learned a lot and every now and then we had an interesting class.”

How then do we introduce new ways of doing without scaring anyone?

How do we ensure we move future discussions from this can’t be done to wow, I never looked at it that way?

How do we stop meandering in the labyrinth of what could be and start revealing what is?

How do we stop getting caught up in the learning of the new and start doing the now?

A part of the answer lies in the hands of the school-based administrator. In his recent article, Picture This, Robert Dillon makes clear that it is the responsibility of school leaders to “tell compelling stories to promote more authentic pictures of their schools” and in doing so construct a narrative that tells of the real, personally relevant and rewarding learning that is taking place for both students and staff.  Dillon explains:

Images can be powerful tools for change, but without compelling images of the future of education, everyone will be forced to use images of the past. The problem is that schools can’t be built on old images: they must reflect current best practices that infuse technology, relationships, background knowledge, culturally responsive texts, and cooperation and collaboration with partners around the globe.

Dillon sees the role of school leader to include the art of journalism and storytelling.  Principals must

  1. See a story (they happen everyday);
  2. Shape the story (develop narrative threads that go beyond the data to include the stories and success of individuals and groups of students)
  3.  Convey the story (the power of social media)

So, let’s take an outdated perception of a typical high school subject and tell a story of how it’s changed in a way that speaks to personalized learning and technology integration – something that would be extremely foreign to most parents’ own recollections of high school.  Let’s look at a new way of learning that is happening now.

It starts with a story from my past. The year is 1996: my first year of teaching is drawing to a close and I am facing the possibility of a lay-off that is driven by budgetary constraints in Vancouver. In the end, I do not get laid off but my teaching load for the upcoming year includes a block of Grade 9 Girls Physical Education.  How great, I thought.  I’ll be able to go for runs, work out, be active . . . oh, how wrong I was.  I quickly realized that there was nothing more difficult than trying to motivate 30 fourteen-year old girls to be physically active for eighty minutes every other day.  Wrestling? You must be joking!

Now, take that same class composition (30 grade nine girls), the same topic (wrestling) and place them in a class at John Oliver in 2012.  What you will see is something totally different.

Look at the assignment.  The curricular learning outcomes, sixteen years apart, are still the same: the demonstration of one take down, one breakdown from referee’s position, one escape and one turn from prone position.

What has changed for these 14 year old girls is the following:

  • they are not only doing school but are engaged, having fun and putting together a creative “project based learning” product using flipcams, macbooks and imovie;
  • they are becoming effective collaborators and developing the soft skills that are essential if they are to become confident and active participants within the oft-mentioned ‘real world’;
  • they are immersing themselves within the world of technology – critical if we as parents want our children to become engaged and informed 21st century citizens;
  • in posting their movies, they are reframing social networking as academic networking;
  • they are being offered new ways to research, create and learn through the evolving world of Internet communication – blogs, podcasts, wikis, tags, file sharing;
  • they are beginning to realize that the acquisition of knowledge is now an open, transparent, non-hierarchical, interactive and real-time process.

In all these discussions about moving forward, we as school leaders need to remember that we have to combat the misunderstanding that many will have about what schools are really like.  Let’s continue blogging about the learning that is taking place in our schools so that, to borrow from Dillon, we can provide hope, optimism, and clarity about the road forward for the education system as whole.” Let’s stop solely asking parents to explore possibilities with us; let’s start showing them where we are going by letting them see what is happening