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K-12 Education; Trust and Compliance in Learning

compliance vs trust

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TedX; Power in the Classroom

Power in the Classroom

Power in the Classroom

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Classroom Experiments #2

What Students Do Well Venn

I handed out a 12-day schedule, with three items for each class. One topic, one question, and resources for further investigation.


My classes use Portfolios, and target students to produce one artefact per class, about twelve classes per unit. Whether they are in class or not, whether they are engaged or not, each student will at some point focus their attention if they are going to meet requirements. An element of the requirement is to have someone else give feedback on the work they’re submitting. There’s a common framework tool, but my basic aim is to encourage someone else to grade so I can serve to audit. This practice encourages student voice, and incentives students to choose how they learn.


Students are learning that what they choose to bring to class will shape the seven-five minutes that follow. Last Friday, one Grade 12 started class to cite a statement he’d developed since last class:


One cannot stay continuous motivated until they learn to embrace failure.


I put the statement up on the board for the class to consider. Someone else had another one she wanted to share.


One cannot live creatively until they lose the fear of being wrong.


I remembered how last class we’d heard Daniel Pink’s RSA video, and put up his basic summary: Because of automation and outsourcing, future jobs will be shaped by working through complex problems. Motivation to deal with complex problems requires Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.

I don’t recall how we got there, but students started complaining about school. Why school is the way it is, and how much it sucks that they’re teachers are unreasonable.


Another of my classes had showed me Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud, and his opening four minutes does an outstanding presentation of the history of our school system. Mitra concludes that schools aren’t broken, but obsolete.

Schools are obsolete

Several students voiced they wanted to keep watching, and after Mutra’s twenty-minute lecture was finished, students led themselves through a seemingly engaged conversation.

I also had lots I wanted to say, but I believe student voices are often more valuable. Towards the end, I claimed the stage to share my own experience on what I’d heard, and then left class with a few minutes Production Time to make artefacts for their Portfolios.

These days I often feel like I don’t know what we’re doing, so it was encouraging to hear one student say to another, as they left class for the day, “that was a really good class.”

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Classroom Experiments #1

It was the start of first period class, and students seemed lethargic after the long weekend. I made a couple attempts at conversation, but few expressed interest. More directly, I asked students what they wanted to do today.

“I’m easy,” said one teenager. “I’m open to whatever.”

The general desire was to be told what to do, preferably something easy and relaxing. I was reluctant to assume the lead. Instead, I wanted the impetus to come from the voice of students. So I pressed further, going student by student in hope of finding some spark of interest.

One student asked, “Can we do yoga?”

I said that if she were able to organise the activity, then the class was welcome to do yoga. Among the sixteen students in the class, a few expressed interest, and this group congregated at the centre of the room. They strategised among themselves, and before long, had slipped into a chat about their weekends.

I waited a few moments before calling for student attention. Then I presented them with a choice; either take on some textbook work, or suggest another productive activity. Yoga was reaffirmed as an area of interest, and another said he wanted to listen to music.

“Why don’t we do yoga while listening to music,” suggested another student.

I asked students to say whether they were in or out. On first call, several students expressed interest, and none objected. Then I made clear that keeping silent is also a choice, and with no dissention, all students would be expected to participate.

On second call, two students voiced that were not into yoga. They offered instead a desire to free write to the meditative sounds in the room. A third student suggested that this was good music for doing Slam Poetry, and if they wanted, he could teach them how to do it.

And so it was that my students cleared space in the classroom, found a YouTube video called Yoga for Dummies, and led themselves through a 45-minute yoga session. The level of engagement seemed high, and I was able to participate, as well as check in with individual students.

I expect most teachers would ask what this “lesson” had to do with the curriculum. After all, these students are enrolled in a Grade 11 Marketing class, and we were scheduled to learn about Brand Identity.

At the start of each unit, I provide students with a daily schedule, which list the learning topic, and a couple of investigative questions. Today those included ‘how do I see myself?’ and ‘how do I want others to perceive me?’

We spent the last fifteen minutes of class in classroom dialogue, using the questions as platforms for discussion. Students pointed out that, while doing yoga, it was uncomfortable to stand in front of the group, because it felt like you were being watched. That led to a few comments about presenting yourself, and that the way you see yourself influences the way others see you. Then I wrapped up with my own thoughts about Identity and how they relate to the world of Branding.

I’m not sure how effective a curriculum administrator I was today, but I’d like to think I helped sixteen teenagers take a step forward in taking ownership of their learning.

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Suggestions from the Frontlines

Ontario’s Ministry of Education has requested public input as they develop a strategy leading up to next year’s election. Called From Great to Excellent, the intent is produce a renewed vision for Ontario’s public schools.

My participation in the Mississauga leg of the in-person consultations encouraged me to contribute my experience and ideas to the province’s effort.  What started out as a brief memo has now turned into an informal white paper – a combination of both my research and practice in this sector. I’m calling my paper Suggestions From the Frontlines, and invite you to have a read for yourself.

Regardless of what the current administration proposes this spring, I believe we will continue to see a shift towards learning models that incentivise cultures of trust rather than the culture of compliance that permeates so many of contemporary education institutions.

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Seat at the Table

In a few weeks, I’m scheduled to take part in a weekend retreat for applicants to a Youth Training program. This morning I daydreamed about a conversation I hope to have while there.

‘Ten months from now, none of you will be in this Youth Training program. You will either have graduated, or have taken another path. At this point, you may believe that one option is better than the other.

As someone who has had a few applications accepted, and many more that have gone unrealised, I want to suggest that being invited in the program is not a key to success, but merely one opportunity in a world of opportunities.

By example, last week I had an interview for a high school teaching contract. There are few jobs available, and I was fortunate to get the interview. In meeting the school principal, I learned details of the job that made me think I would have fun while earning good pay. As an underemployed, innovative educator, this seemed like an exciting opportunity. I later learned the school went with someone else. I was disappointed. I was holding a vision for myself that emerged through the particular portal of this job. And it was not to be. I felt outside the realm of success.

Of course, the vision of myself through the particular framing of this job fails to realise the whole picture of my reality. Taking the job would have cut down my writing time, something I very much enjoy, and added responsibilities that I don’t otherwise carry. The vision I had attached myself to was limited my ability to discover a different approach.

Knowing that we only walk one path in this life, I wonder what hopes you have for yourself? If you could speak to that person ten months from now, in a Back to the Future sort of way, what would you say? Having failed to receive the job offer, I reminded myself that there’s difference between my work and my job, and not to lose sight of doing things I care about just because someone else says they don’t have a seat for me. I remembered that there are other seats to sit in, and in time, this particular one may again become available.

I’ve learned that success and failure is less a matter of having the right doors open, and more about persistence with intention. For certain, this Youth Training program is an opportunity to develop a terrific set of tools, but it is by no means the only portal to that experience. Unless you’re engaged in projects that require those tools, you’re just walking around with a shiny new tool belt, looking for someone else to set you to task.

Because, before you know it, whether you’re in the program or not, ten months will pass, and you’ll be another person navigating their way through the open waters of the world. Where are you trying to go? How many ways can you get there?’

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Learning 2030

TVO has produced an ongoing series which explores education in the year 2030, when this year’s newborns are expected to graduate from high school.

What’s Necessary? What’s Possible? wrapped up the findings of the Equinox Summit, where leading thinkers congregated to describe best practices and promising initiatives aimed at empowering students in their creativity and potential, the results summarised in this six-page blueprint.

Earlier in the year, The Agenda hosted a panel exploring What Do We Need to Know?. The consensus here seems to be there exists some common knowledge that one must possess in order to access the opportunities of privilege, and that these ‘experts’ have some sense as to what this content might be. By example, they look at a history teacher’s mash-up of a music video to describe an innovative way to engage kids in learning. However, they fail to make a distinction between “teaching history” and “learning history”. The whole premise of the conversation, and of conventional approaches to curriculum design, is teacher-centric. When teachers design programs, no matter how ‘creative’, we compete with Nintendo and Sony and DreamWorks, with the added challenge of having kids eat their spinach. A deeper opportunity, and one neglected by this particular panel, is the experience that flows when kids drive the bus of their own learning. Had it been a student who made the video mash-up, instead of their teacher, that would have been a learning experience worth talking about.

Says David Perkins, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “90% of what we typically teach is a waste of time” and yet “curriculum is one of the most resistant fronts of education”. If we are truly to realise the visions described at the Learning 2030: Equinox Summit, I believe we must step back from our position as all-knowing guardian and stand aside our young as learners seeking “large understandings that can help us code the unexpected”.

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21st Century Learning for 21st Century Learners

Patrick Newell is an educator and activist who recently posted a terrific video online. He makes the simple case that the current attitude in education is preparing kids for the past, and he offers a basis for education that is oriented towards the future. At 21 minutes, I wonder how many will be able to sit through the entire piece, but for those who do, I hope you find inspiration in what’s already happening and motivation to help realise the possibilities still to come.

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Morning Routine

Each morning, towards the end of first period class, the national anthem plays and announcements are read over the school PA. Most students stand for the anthem, though several fuss with their phones or papers or friends. Once the announcements begin, no one listens. Even if you wanted to hear the announcements, the noise from student chatter would render it impossible. To me, this is the moment that represents the state of our high school classrooms.

Playing the national anthem seems a worthwhile tradition, a brief moment in the day when the school community comes together. Recognition that we are part of something greater than ourselves; it’s a chance for gratitude and connection and reflection.

Announcements are an extension of that sentiment. They offer a window into the happenings at school and a way for students to get involved. Announcements are a portal for new friends and a guarantee on having fun. Those of us in post-adolescence know that the best high school has to offer happens in moments beyond the classroom.

Except students have little connection to this experience. They tend to see the morning routine as a hassle and waste of time.

I sometimes deliver a speech to neglectful students. I ask them to consider why we do this same routine every day. Most remain silent, though a few have said things about indoctrination into a soulless system. I then answer my own question, saying that the opportunity to connect to something beyond oneself has value, because few among us are so important that we can’t interrupt what we’re doing. Even if the routine is contrived, it’s a path towards something meaningful.

Of course, in staff rooms and admin offices and places where students don’t go, few adults adhere to the morning routine. They continue with their business when they out of students’ view.

Are these morning routines, ubiquitous in public high schools, one of those ‘you’ll understand when you’re older, just do it because I said so’ sorts of things? Or is it that routine is important for youth, even if we’re exhausted by enforcement?

Perhaps we have common interest, adults and students, in that we want to build community. But we need to rethink how we’re going about doing it. As it stands, we’re just going through the motions, and as a result, doing a lousy job of building authentic school communities.

Consider that the announcements are read by an upperclassman, someone who knows no one is listening. “I do it because someone has to, and because it looks good on my resumes”, he once explained.

To me, this is the epitome of conventional high school; administration driving forward with traditions, students complying in so much as they ‘have’ to, and each bypassing this moment in hope of something better.

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Hall Duty

I had hall duty today. I walked around with a badge and a walkie-talkie, inviting wandering students to make their way back to class, or if they had spare, to make use of the cafeteria and library. Towards the end of the period, the national anthem played, and then a series of school announcements. Standard school policy is for those of us in the halls to hold our place for the duration of these announcements.

For the most part, I perform the job as required. I ask students if they have a class to get to, and if not, I invite them to make use of the cafeteria. During the national anthem, I gesture for students to set aside their distractions, and during announcements, I offer reminders to hold their spot.

One particular student, a guy wondering the halls for lack of anything else to do, started to chat me up during the announcements. “Do we really need to know about wearing our helmets? I mean, isn’t that something obvious to everyone?”

I asked if he’d ever met a victim of brain trauma, in hope of prompting deeper consideration for the importance of the message. “I’ve met people who won’t wear their helmet because they think it musses up their hair.”

The announcements went on, and we continued chatting, a good conversation with a kid who seems at odds with school. Though most of the other students were waiting for the announcements to end, I noticed a couple of others walking along. Then I noticed one of the school administrators call out to those truant students, in an effort to keep them in place. Then I noticed the administrator noticing me in conversation with a student.

It’s in moments as these that I become aware of my strength as an enabler and challenge as a guardian. I imagine that the administrator thought I was neglecting my duty, ensuring that the rules are understood and implemented. Because I see my role as fostering self-determined students, the chance for meaningful dialogue trumps a chance for reluctant compliance.

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