Category Archives: Blog

The Power of Posing Problems

This TED video is the jumping-off point for this entry:

This video prompted the following comment on the TED website:

  • John Burrell 2 hours ago: The teaching profession are falling over themselves to embrace the ‘new paradigms’ advocated by this teacher, repeated by amongst Ken Livingston and written about by Steven Johnson + the endless retweets on Edchat. Each and everyone of these individuals places a greater value on ‘creative thinking’ than on content to the extent that they wish to see content abandoned. Yet the process of producing a new synthesis requires that the student be able to connect their new ideas to the old, this is to give the new idea value to others. Content is still king! It allow the connections to be made, it is the basis of synthesis and the bed rock of creativity. Unconnected thinking with no reference point has no value and would perhaps be better characterised as madness. Content still matters. Gardner covered all this in ‘Five Minds for the Future’ (sic)

The reason I share this video and particular comment (there are many other comments as well) is because it nicely (and, some may argue, too simply) illustrates the shift taking place in North American schools right now.  The shift is one where the traditional emphasis on content is moving to an emphasis on conceptualization and problem solving.  Content is cheap (Wikipedia); a problem solver is worth millions.

I take issue with this video’s comment.  The issue I take with the comment is not because I feel that content is unimportant but because it values content incorrectly.  Content in our current economy performs the function that bricks and mortar play in the construction of a home; they are fundamental tools required for the proper completion of the task at hand.  Like content, however, they themselves are not the task at hand.

I was once asked which World War was “…the one with the Nazis” by a high school graduate.  Being a person who sees this kind of thing as important, I was surprised that someone would have to ask.  It was, however, an honest question and I answered it as such.  This example says a lot about exactly what can go wrong in instruction.  This person knew that there was more than one World War and he was aware that there was a group of people named Nazis involved in one of them.  These bits of important content were floating about in his mind like remnants of flotsam following a U-Boat attack.

Why?  He had no reason to put them in the correct place.  The problems of his life did not require him to know which war the Nazis were in so he didn’t know it.  I knew it because it was my job to know it.  If I would have asked him to properly seat a restaurant during the dinner rush hour, though, he would have been like Ike on D-Day plus 1.   Being able to do this would be arguably more profitable in his immediate life than would be knowledge about a relatively distant international conflict.

For those who may at this point fear that I am merely suggesting that all education be vocational, I propose caution.  This is where I will return to what I believe to be the message of Ms. Laufenberg’s talk: traditional content is more effectively communicated and better understood by teachers posing problems to their students in a way that forces them to create something larger than the sum of its parts.  Teachers must ask their students what they can do with content in the same way that most of their future employers or clients will ask them to do.  I would wager that if you think back to one of your favorite times in school, it would involve the agency and excitement with being entrusted to pull something off.  I would further wager that you would remember exactly which order you’d do things in and what you’d do differently if you had to do it again.  Building a volcano, making an infographic, organizing a volleyball tournament, and writing an opinion paper all require a person to summon a variety of skills and knowledge into one time and place in a way rote memorization of which war had the Nazis never can.  How would I get this person to remember which war had the Nazis?

I’d ask him how he would have prevented their rise to power and see what he comes up with.  That’s a problem worth solving.

The Critical Inch

I apologize for the long writing absence.  I have been spending a great deal of time adjusting to the realities of my role as Principal.  I am blessed to work with one of the most dedicated group of professionals I have known.  I am also blessed to serve such a delightfully creative and inspiring group of youth.  It is in respect to these two groups that I write today.

In my short time in the office, I have learned that, before anything else, I must determine the “Critical Inch” of any situation.  This term, first encountered by me in the words of late inspirational author Richard Carlson, refers to the one thing or process that is most important to any project’s success.  Without the determination of this critical person, process, item, or activity, the entire matter at hand may fail.

To put it into personal terms, many people come into my office with something that is bothering them.  This would be fairly simple to deal with if everyone always knew or was willing to admit exactly what was bothering them.  More often than not, however, what a person reports is not ultimately the matter that is bothering them.  In order to best aid the person in my midst, my job is one of determining that “Critical Inch” that is holding the person back from miles of harmony.

I raise this issue not because I am exhausted by the sussing-out process, but because I have to remember that whole organizations have Critical Inches with regards to their missions.  Our school’s mission is, simply, to inspire and enable the educational success of high-risk youth.  These youth may have had many interruptions to their formal learning for a variety of reasons.  Because the needs of the youth and the staff that work with them are often so great and so many, it is often difficult to determine what, exactly, the critical process in our path to successfully achieving our goals.

After some watery thought (I often think better when I am swimming, in the sauna, or in the shower), I have determined that our school’s “critical inch” is student engagement through relationships.  The students we serve have not been adequately served in other educational spaces.  For whatever reason, when they come to us, they come with the basic understanding that education is a necessary means to some other end but not something that is intrinsically fulfilling or meaningful.  Why would they?  Schools have been places of hardship, ridicule, embarrassment, isolation and, in some cases, violence.  While our school should definitely be appropriately challenging to our youth, creating an environment where they are heard through their experiences of hardship and violence should be our most critical step.  The school itself should ensure a safe, stable, and relevant place to explore ideas and opportunities.

Are we all the way there, yet?  No, we aren’t.  Are we well along the road?  Yes we are.  We have wonderful student services in place and an unparalleled process of determining individualized program plans for each student.  We have strong staff dedication to professional development and great relationships in the community to draw upon for relevant student experiences.

And now, in the Socratic tradition of knowing oneself, I know our “Critical Inch!”


What is a PLC? Why are we talking about this?

In Alberta, Professional Learning Communities are the recommended method of delivering learning to students in K-12 schools.  What this means has been subject to a lot of interpretation, but below are some of the best and most useful descriptions of the practice.  Our school is currently in the process of re-organizing itself to reflect this recommendation and, thus far, the progress is promising.  I think one of the most important things to remember when shifting to a PLC model for your school environment is that much of the stuff PLCs are developed for already happen every day.  The difference between your particular school and a functioning PLC is that, in the PLC environment, nothing happens by accident.  Instead, all of the people who have a stake in the success of the youth take a critical look at what they do well and make systematic efforts to do them on purpose.
View more presentations from Mike Parent.

Case Study: Coallition of the Willing

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

This video is an interesting example of a few different things that I think we’d like to see in our classrooms.  While it’s true that this was produced by a network of some of the best people working in motion graphics, it is still the result of an ethically motivated, thoughtfully engaged, and entrepreneurial group.  It is a product that we can point to as being both a learning experience and an active statement.

We have the technology available for our students to create such videos and networks.  I would say that the vast majority of them are already very capable with the collaborative tools and networks necessary to participate*.  Our job, to paraphrase Mr. Holland’s Opus, is to give them something to collaborate about.

* I should note that I am not just concerned about making videos.  I am interested to see teachers creating opportunities for students to develop skills, knowledge, and values via problems posed by the real world (see Inquiry Method).

Just Because

I was going to try justifying posting this trailer because some of my students are reading the Scott Pilgrim series and I want to make a connection between graphic novels and their often flimsy film adaptations.  The fact of the matter is that I do not believe that this film adaptation will be flimsy and I am just excited about it because it’s awesome.


G-Portfolios – My Two Cents

I regularly love posts from Will Richardson’s blog Weblogg-ed, but one that George Couros tweeted today is particularly prescient.  Will’s post, called “The G-Portfolio,” is exploratory inasmuch as he is seeking feedback about the subject of online portfolio management for students.  He intends to write an article with the help of the responses he receives via his blog.  The conversation has caught my eye because my school is looking seriously at having all students leave our school with an electronic/Google-able portfolio.  Here are my two cents with regards to the questions posed in the blog:

  • What types of literacies should be displayed in this Web portfolio?

This is hard.  The trick will be to not have a student’s portfolio be a container for everything he or she creates in school; it’s more important to have the students choose their best work based on criteria that are relevant to their career goals*.  Without going on forever, the literacies demonstrated by the portfolio ought to be the ones that are the most relevant to areas of interest or aptitude as selected by the youth and critical advisors (teachers, counselors, parents).  The bottom line is that the portfolio must demonstrate the best examples of a student’s work (and students need to be taught the ability to constructively critique their own work).

  • What role will this play in “reputation management” or the personal brand of the student?

The portfolio doesn’t play a role in this; the portfolio is reputation management.  When a person takes ownership over his or her web presence, that person is making a commitment to cultivate the message sent by all content online that is associated with their names.  It’s a big step but it’s worth noting that a digital footprint will exist for everyone anyway, so you might as well be in control of what yours looks like.

  • What are the challenges and complexities of the process?

The biggest challenge for me is logistical.  There are a million things to do in your senior year.  Unless a student has time set aside to dedicate to cultivating his or her portfolio, it very easily gets shifted to the back burner (don’t roll your eyes…when was the last time you updated YOUR portfolio or CV? :)).  Time needs to be built into peoples’ days or weeks for students to critically consider their content.

  • To what extent should educators have their own “g-portfolios”?

My answer to this is connected to my previous answer.  As lovingly as I speak it, the truth is that educational pros are among the worst out there for saying, “do as I say and not as I do.”  It is difficult to sell the importance of personal brand management when we don’t pursue it actively ourselves.  I would say that regularly examining one’s own portfolio (electronic or otherwise) is as necessary to professional development as flossing is to dental hygiene (when was the last time you did THAT?).

  • What are the best tools, sites, etc. to create and organize these portfolios?

As with all things, the tool is best chosen after you know what you want to do.  But, for my ease of use and flexibility, I would look to WordPress as the glue for this.  It’s just dead easy and free.  It can be connected to a million things and easily display images and video.

* I am writing this with a prejudice towards secondary education.  This is not to say that portfolios aren’t a good idea for younger students.  In fact, a lifelong and “evergreened” portfolio would actually be the best of all results in our web-focused world.

Inspiring Education in Alberta: The Way Forward

This is exciting: a great, informed educational plan from the Alberta Government!  What’s exciting to me is that the focus for the future of Alberta Learners is going to be about these three E’s:

Engaged Thinkers

Entrepreneurial Spirits

Ethical Citizenship

In order to attain these graduates from Alberta’s schools by 2030, the steering committee report identifies three shifts that need to take place in our schools:

1) Schools need to establish partnerships within the communities they serve to create relevant and realistic learning opportunities.

2) The needs of each student must be the ultimate objective of any learning or assessment strategy.

3) Interdisciplinary study in the form of inquiry and discovery learning must be used to ensure that students can demonstrate competence in the “attitudes, skills, knowledge, and values required for lifelong learning” (Steering Committee Report, June 2 2010).

What does that mean for our school?

Educational stakeholders across the province are asking themselves this question in the wake of this long-term vision.  What does it actually mean for our school to be suddenly shifting its focus to “community involvement,” “student-focused” decision making, and “competency-based” assessment?  Many educators reading the report and hearing the discussions may feel that these things are already taking place in their schools (and they may be correct).  So what does this really mean for your school?

Some of the things I have featured in past posts play very well into this vision of Alberta’s learning future.  Dan Meyer’s TED talk about real-world mathematics is a great example of how a teaching strategy can create a situation for real “hands-on” experiences for youth.  Jane McGonigal talks about how we can use games to really go to where the students are spending a lot of time and use gaming for transforming the world.  Greg Ferenstein discusses how a community connection like Twitter can increase engagement among students if used at appropriate times.  These are just some of the great ideas that people are employing to make the 2030 learner a reality today.

For my part, though, I need to step once back from the tools and look at what is really going on.  This report represents for me (admittedly just one teacher out of thousands) an understanding that real learning must come from having experiences and reflecting on them.  I am so excited to read in a report from the government that the teacher’s role is one that must shift from being one of “knowledgeable authority” to one that is an “architect of learning.”  Hearing that there should be less focus on content and more focus on competency with content is like music to my ears because it means that, finally, we will focus on what students can be and can do rather than what they can recall and recite.

Is 2030 here yet?  No.  What could kill this vision is a failure to follow through on the development of assessment practices that continue to demand students to remember and recite things.  Worse yet, however, is for educational stakeholders to blithely say, “oh…student focus?  We do that already…” without taking the time to examine their practices with a critical eye.  Talking with people in the community, discovering where learning is due for some disruption, and sharing what you learn in the process are all part of this.  It’s time for us to take risks with our practice and to, as Sir Ken Robinson says, create a “learning revolution.”

We must no longer see ourselves as intellectual gas-jockies; we must now become experiential curators.



Drinking and Deriving: Passionate Math Teachers Bring the Sexy Back

I am bad at Math.  A lot of people will make this confession wholeheartedly, but I would bet that few of those people have ever had to TEACH Math to people.  I took on such a challenge and found two things:

1) Teaching Math is like teaching anything else: be clear about what the learner must accomplish, demonstrate it, get the learner to do it, assess, repeat.

2) I liked it a lot.

The second thing is more important for me than the first.  It’s important because I was scared to do it.  When I did it, though, I found myself really reaching back into my troubled Math past (the teary-eyed nights of struggling through long division) and my toolbox of real-world situations that I swore would NEVER involve math of any sort (just order too few pizzas one day if you want to see what I mean).

A few things have happened recently that have made me see that my little epiphanies are old news for the seasoned Math pros.  These things have also shown me that there is something going on in Math education that the rest of us (yes…even in the humanities) should be paying attention to.

Thing 1

I recently had a great talk with a new, passionate Math teacher who just can’t wait to get kids pumped about polynomials.  Now, new teachers like Tara (on Twitter at @tleipert ) often are the manifestations of both piss and/or vinegar, but what was great was about the conversation was that I could see her evaluating ways to take Math out of the textbook and into the real world.

Next, as is my tendency, I was looking for an interesting TED video to show to my homeroom class and I stumbled upon this talk by famous Math teacher Dan Meyer (you KNOW you are special when you are a famous Math teacher).  You can see the video for yourself here, but the main thrust is that Math classes and textbooks take STUDENTS out of the equation by giving them all the information they need to solve problems.  He espouses a type of Math study that asks simple questions as a starting point for a conversation about how to solve them.

Finally, I came across Shawn Cornally’s blog about being on a constant quest to be a better teacher.  The things he tries in his classroom are really out of the box thinking for getting his youth excited about exponents.  He awards game-like experience points for successes in his classes.  He then allows the students the opportunity to “win some back” when they make mistakes.  Take a look at this excerpt from his blog about how he allows students to re-try concepts they missed on before:

Cherub: “Mr. Cor nally, I was look ing at my grades, and I see that I don’t really under stand how to draw the graph of a function’s deriv a tive, I have a 5/10.”
Cor nally: “Did you review the con cept with your notes, the book, and or try some by yourself?”
Cherub: “Yes, I tried a few from the book, and I think I get it now. Can I show you?”
Cor nally: “Sure.” The stu dent draws a func tion (sim ple parabola) and then draw its deriv a tive fairly accurately.
Cherub: “Is this correct?”
Cor nally: “Yes, but I need you to show me with a func tion that may not have already been in your head.” Cor nally draws com pli cated func tion. Stu dent draws deriv a tive fairly well. “Ok, you didn’t quite get this part … but you’ve def i nitely shown improve ment on some of the basic ideas behind this stan dard, I will change your score to a 7.5/10, a ‘C.’”
Cherub: “OK, thanks. I’ll be in tomor row morn ing to try again.”
This. Actu ally. Happened.

(Source Cornally’s Blog, Think Thank Thunk)

The point of all of this is not that I want to go teach Math.  I would still generally suck at it.  The point is that the approach of creating relevant, accessible material in an area that has historically been such a huge block for people should be an inspiration to us all.  In short, if Math can do it, why aren’t we all striving to make our classrooms THIS exciting?


S/c *M

Twitter – The Site That Needs NO Introduction (?)

I recently popped my school up onto Twitter.  And by recently, I mean within the last eight hours.  This is not, however, the first time I have used twitter.  I have been using it on my own for the better part of a year now and, as my friends and family will tell you, I love it.  Facebook is soooo “last-decade” for me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Twitter, it is a website that allows its users to send out short messages to other users often and for free.  It has allowed people to quickly and easily share resources, ideas, and even (in at least one case I know of) life-saving information.  I have thus far used the service for a nice balance of business and pleasure (there’s no reason you can’t laugh at the latest episode of The Guild while searching for SMART resources, is there?)

Twitter is for me like a garden…but a garden where you can plant a seed at three o’clock and have a flourishing blossom before dinner.  As the remarkably forward-thinking Principal of a school in Stony Plain, George Couros (@gcouros on Twitter) has embraced Twitter as a professional development tool for his staff.  In this article, he tells a tale about how the great educational community tweeting away out there actually made believers out of each of his staffers.  Long story short, he planted a seed and, with just the slightest action on his part, an incredibly leafy and robust result was (and is still) before him and his co-workers.

Perhaps I carry this metaphor too far.  The important thing, however, is that even though this service can be seen as a colossal waste of time, I have thus far only found it to be so when I let it be.  I get what I put into it.  With putting the school onto Twitter, I am focusing much more specifically on jumping into the thriving community of educators who are using it as a tool to make their schools the best places they can be for both staff and students.

Sound like something you are interested in?  Drop in an get an account.  Meet some people.  Tell people what you are doing and why it’s important to you.  Come to a Tweetup.  I guarantee it will be worth whatever you put into it.

You can follow me @ScottMeunier.  You can check out my school’s feed @BoyleStreetEd.



Review of Teaching Graphic Novels by Katie Monnin

Teaching Graphic Novels

Cover - Teaching Graphic Novels

The subtitle of Dr. Monnin’s book is, “practical strategies for the secondary ELA classroom” and I am happy to say that she has definitely placed her emphasis on “practical.”  Ready-to-use materials are the best for the weary classroom teacher looking to liven things up.  What’s great, though, is the accessible theoretical basis for how using graphic novels can and should be a seamless experience in an ELA context.  Bottom line: if you are looking for a few back-pocket activities to spice things up, they are here.  However, a systematic use of the activities and theories described herein will engage your students in ways you, your administrators, and their parents want them to be.

There is nothing technologically amazing here.  There are no links to SMART activities.  There are no gadgets.  What you get here are soundly-designed instructional activities meant to scaffold students of all literacy levels into a critical engagement with visual and print based texts.

What I love: The direct approach and accessible language.  Dr. Monnin may have fancy credentials, but she is a reader at heart and wants to help other people love reading.  This fact is evident in how simply she has designed the activities and the handouts that support them.  I am happy to see that many of the novels and artists that Dr. Monnin recommends are already in use in my classroom – in fact, this external support has encouraged me in the knowledge that I am on the right track with building parallel visual and textual literacies.

What I’d love to see made better: A purely nerdy part of me wished for easier signposting for the different activities.  Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if I was in a new section or in another part of the previous section.  I figured it out, but I had to think about it (this, I think, is not a fault of Dr. Monnin as much as it is a design issue to be discussed with the book’s publisher.

All in all, I intend to put this book into the hands of my ELA and literacy specialists at the school as soon as possible.  There are a lot of possibilities for our population in graphic novel study.  Buy it, read it, use it!