My Community of Practice

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by davelocity

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

Reading academic articles is not something I am well practiced in. I find myself feeling very confused and, at times, even distraught over my lack of understanding of what the author(s) is trying to convey. I am trying to use all the tools I have to deal with the difficulties but it has been harder than I expected.

Take for example this quote from Chapter 4 in Illeris’s book Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words written by Yrjo Engestrom entitled Expansive Learning where he presented this about the insensitivity of a version of Activity Theory to cultural diversity:

Michael Cole (1988) was one of the first to clearly point out the deep-seated insensitivity of the second-generation activity theory toward cultural diversity. When activity theory went international, questions of diversity and dialogue between different traditions or perspectives became increasingly serious challenges.

I had trouble with this, because I needed an example. I thought why not provide an example right there in the text? That’s probably not something that often happens in academic writing, maybe because the people reading the journals don’t need the analogy and probably even find it patronizing. One of the tools I believe I learn well with is analogy, and find that an analogy can help me understand the concept being put forth more easily. I was really pleased when I saw an article from the journal Cognitive Science by Joel Chan and Christian Schunn about the impact of analogy on creative concept generation. (of course I found it a lot easier to understand in the article that summed it up on Business Insider.) Here is a quote from the journal article:

In technological innovation, analogies have been associated with innovative outcomes in protocol studies and retrospective studies of expert and prominent inventors and designers , experimental studies of design processes, and computational models of design.

Luckily for me, my classmate, Kate, had wrote an amazing reflection about an experience she had while teaching in Northern Ontario, that worked very well as an analogy for difficulties in understanding that can arise from cultural diversity:

I had just finished my Bachelor of Education and had taken a job teaching grade one in a remote, fly-in reserve community in Northern Ontario. I thought we would start the day off with a read-aloud, so I brought out a classic, Stone Soup. The book’s opening page had an illustration of some soldiers walking through the woods, and the text said something about how the soldiers were very hungry and had no food to eat. A six-year-old in the front row raised her hand timidly.
“There’s a bird right there,” she observed when called upon. “If they have their slingshots, they can eat that.” I tried my best to keep the puzzled look off my face, acknowledged her idea, and started to turn the page. A young man near the back piped up: he pointed out that, though it wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice, there was also a dog in the illustration. If they had to, he told us, they could always eat that. I was flustered and confused. This worldview was completely contradictory to my own, and probably to that of the illustrator of this folk tale. Yet, to my students, it made perfect sense. How could the men be starving if they had sources of food right there in the forest? The punchline of this book (namely, that the three desperate soldiers tricked the townspeople into cooperating and feeding them a hearty meal) was completely lost on these students, who couldn’t understand why the three men – presumably capable hunters – weren’t fending for themselves.

In another instance, I was having difficulty with a reading by Robert Kegan What “form” transforms – Chapter 3 from Illeris’s book, when he talked about the difference between the self-authoring mind and socializing mind, like in this paragraph:

But when the adult education experts tell us they want students to “understand how to separate what they feel from what they should feel, what they value from what they should value, and what they want from what they should want,” do they take seriously enough the possibility that when the socialized mind dominates our meaning-making, what we should feel is what we do feel, what we should value is what we do value, and what we should want is what we do want?

I couldn’t separate this from my thinking of a person maturing or developing, I wasn’t making the connection to learning. Then in discussion today, my classmate Andrea made the connection to how Jarvis talks about the impact of learning on a person, in Illeris’s book as well (Chapter 2):

Fundamentally it is the person who learns and it is the changed person who is the outcome of learning…

This really helped me understand, and her assistance in making this connection was pivotal to my moving past this difficulty in my thinking. In Illeris’s own chapter of his book he talks about how social interaction plays a major role in learning, making up an integral piece of his learning diagram below:

Illeris Learning Triangle

And he describes the role in learning that this interaction dimension plays:

The interaction dimension provides the impulses that initiate the learning process. This may take place as perception, transmission, experience, imitation, activity, participation, etc.. It serves the personal integration in communities and society and thereby also builds up the sociality of the learner.

This really connected to our readings for today’s class when the topic of community of practice was brought up and Engestrom cites:

Recent theories of situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) and distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995) tell us to look for wellbounded communities of practice or functional systems, such as task-oriented teams or work units, to become collaborative subjects of learning.

I think my class is acting as a community of practice, one that is making learning possible for me. I feel like I’m living the analogy for what we are studying and it is the ultimate connection to aid in my understanding. Reflecting on my learning and myself as a learner is really helping me connect more easily with the material, and I need all the help I can get.


Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge.

Chan, J. and Schunn, C. (2014) The Impact of Analogies on Creative Concept Generation: Lessons From an In Vivo Study in Engineering Design. Cognitive Science, 1(1), 1-30.

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So How’s This Going To Work? – Learning Sciences and Schools of the Future

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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

Well our professor Dr. Michele Jacobsen talked about how there may be a reading that really speaks to you, and that it may create a very enthusiastic response. I believe I have found my reading and this post will try to capture my response. I can tell you that it was one of those moments where I debated putting the paper down and start writing before I was finished, and I had trouble sitting still until the end.

In our second reading from Sawyer, his 2009 paper entitled Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research I found myself with a better handle on a lot of what I read in our first reading from his  Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. He outlined a shift to an innovation economy, he highlighted key learning sciences findings and how they contradict with the “standard model” of schooling and then he put forth a discussion of design principles from the learning sciences that he thought could:

“…be used to guide the development of new models of schooling that are more closely aligned with the innovation economy.”

These design principles included:

  • Customized learning
  • Diverse knowledge sources
  • Distributed Knowledge
  • Curriculum
  • The role of the teacher
  • Assessment

From this discussion he suggested four key findings:

  • The importance of learning deeper conceptual understanding, rather than superficial facts and procedures
  • The importance of learning connected and coherent knowledge, rather than knowledge compartmentalized into distinct subjects and courses
  • The importance of learning authentic knowledge in the context of use, rather than decontextualized classroom exercises
  • The importance of learning in collaboration, rather than isolation

And he suggested four characteristics that effective learning environments will have:

  • Customized learning – Each child receives a customized learning experience 
  • Availability of diverse knowledge sources – Learners can acquire knowledge whenever they need it from a variety of sources: books, web sites, and experts around the globe.
  • Collaborative group learning – Students learn together as they work collaboratively on authentic, inquiry-oriented projects. 
  • Assessment for deeper learning – Tests should evaluate the students’ deeper conceptual understanding, the extent to which their knowledge is integrated, coherent and contextualized. 

He goes on to suggest that some of these changes will be harder than others, citing that schools now are introducing collaborative learning, but to provide personalization means breaking free from long-standing structures of standardization, maybe alluding to age-based grouping as he mentions previously in the section on customized learning.

My reaction to reading this was one of excitement, as he suggests these changes are coming and talks about new curriculum based in research of the Learning Sciences in the next 10-20 years. I also recognize that there are great challenges to overcome and that it will require people to let go of long held ideas of what school is and what it looks like. I also thought that there are already places where these type of changes are starting.

Two years ago I was able to make a trip out to Vancouver and visit some schools to connect some educators and learn about their practices. One school I was able to visit was the Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, B.C. and I was able to meet with David Truss, the lead administrator on site. This is a brief description of the school from their website:

The Inquiry Hub provides grade 9-12 students an innovative, technology driven, full-time program which allows them to pursue their own learning questions by shaping their educational experience around their interests instead of structured classes. Go to:

In this building I saw collaborative learning, with students working on projects, and I saw customization, as I saw them choosing inquiry projects based on their passions and interests. (See this blog post for a detailed account of the Green Inquiry school garden project developed by Grade 9 students at the Inquiry Hub, and see this site for the student portfolio site of their work.)

On the same trip I was able to visit Georges Vanier Elementary School in Surrey, B.C. to meet with Gallit Zvi and Hugh McDonald and sit in on their Genius Hour class that they team taught with two classes of Grade 6 students. (Gallit is now at Simon Fraser University but remains very involved in the Genius Hour community). In this class of buzzing young minds I saw again customized and collaborative learning at work but also the connecting with diverse knowledge sources, as some students from the class had made connections with real world experts to assist in their projects.

Now I realize that measured against what Sawyer talks about when it comes to the types of changes required to the system, these examples might be seen as change in its infancy, but we should definitely look to find examples and share them, to help prepare the public, the professionals, our students and ourselves for changes that, we hope, will be coming very soon.


Sawyer, R. K. (2009).  Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research. Paris, FR: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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Authenticity, Motivation, and Adolescents

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by Mr. Physics

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

So the readings from Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words by Illeris along with a reading required for my morning course Design Based Learning from Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media by Ito have come together to form a thought for me that was cemented by a discussion my table group had with our professor Dr. Sharon Friesen.

First here is the relevant quotes from the Illeris text:

The incentive dimension provides and directs the mental energy that is necessary for the learning process to take place. It comprises such elements as feelings, emotions, motivation and volition. Its ultimate function is to secure the continuous mental balance of the learner and thereby it simultaneously develops a personal sensitivity.

However, the incentive function is also still crucial, i.e. how the situation is experienced, what sort of feelings and motivations are involved, and thus the nature and the strength of the mental energy that is mobilised. The value and durability of the learning result is closely related to the incentive dimension of the learning process.

And the quotes from Ito:

These difficulties in translating recreational media engagement into school-based forms point to persistent tensions between peer-based learning dynamics and genres and those embedded in formal education.

Simply mimicking genre or sharing an assessment dynamic is not sufficient to promote the forms of learning that youth are developing when they are given authority over their own learning and literacy in these domains.

So the Illeris quotes speak to what he calls the incentive dimension of learning, and he talks about how learning involves three dimensions – the content dimension, which refers to “knowledge and skills as well as opinions, insight, meaning, attitudes, values, ways of behaviour, methods, strategies etc”., the incentive dimension, comprised of “feelings, emotions, motivation and volition”, and the interaction dimension, which “provides the impulses that initiate the learning process… and may take place as perception, transmission, experience, activity, participation etc.”. The incentive dimension is where the content is considered from the scope of what is at stake, and what is driving the learning, what is motivating the learning.

This is an area of interest for me, as I very often try to look at whatever learning experience we are trying to bring to our students from the perspective of “why will they be engaged?” and “why should they care?”. This learning theory from Illeris dedicates one third of his triangle of dimensions to this idea, and so I can connect with it easily.

When we were discussing the readings with the table group I was reminded of Ito’s quotes that seemed to speak to authenticity, at least that’s how I took them. She talks about how the informal learning that was going on in the online communities was difficult to recreate in a formal school setting and that mimicking the learning wasn’t successful. I believe that this speaks to our students not seeing the mimicry as authentic, and that the learning that occurs in online communities outside of school is meaningful to them because the participants are motivated to seek out their interests and passions and that is difficult to force in a formal setting.

My final inspiration for this post, as I said was from my professor, who was talking to us about how adolescent brain development made for some very specific conditions that need to be accounted for. She spoke about how they crave a connection, they are prone to emotional outbursts (similar to two year-olds) and that they need a personal link to the learning or they will check out quickly. She said that the teenage brain is “full speed, no steering” (the inspiration for the photo choice above).

So with the ideas of motivation being an integral component of learning (Illeris), and authenticity being key to personal learning (Ito) and finally the characteristics of the adolescent brain that we need to account for (Friesen), I find a great deal of validation for focusing on student connection to the learning. Whether it is connecting to student interests or passions, connecting to their lives in a meaningful way, or providing them an audience that for them brings authenticity, these resources have helped bring a confidence for me that we are probably right to keep making this a priority in our teaching and our students’ learning.


Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. 

Ito, M. (2009). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.


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Metacognition & Feedback – Concerns and Questions

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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

The following are excerpts from Chapter 1 of “How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school” by Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000)   

A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

In research with experts who were asked to verbalize their thinking as they worked, it was revealed that they monitored their own understanding carefully, making note of when additional information was required for understanding, whether new information was consistent with what they already knew, and what analogies could be drawn that would advance their understanding.

These meta-cognitive monitoring activities are an important component of what is called adaptive expertise (Hatano and Inagaki, 1986).

Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal conversation, it can easily be assumed that individuals will develop the internal dialogue on their own. Yet many of the strategies we use for thinking reflect cultural norms and methods of inquiry (Hutchins, 1995; Brice-Heath, 1981, 1983; Suina and Smolkin, 1994).

Research has demonstrated that children can be taught these strategies, including the ability to predict outcomes, explain to oneself in order to improve understanding, note failures to comprehend, activate background knowledge, plan ahead, and apportion time and memory.

The model for using the meta-cognitive strategies is provided initially by the teacher, and students practice and discuss the strategies as they learn to use them. Ultimately, students are able to prompt themselves and monitor their own comprehension without teacher support.

The teaching of metacognitive activities must be incorporated into the subject matter that students are learning (White and Frederickson, 1998).

So this collection of excerpts all speak to metacognition and its power, its validity and its importance for our students. This has been an area of interest to me from the first conversation I had with Katherine Mann about student journaling in Math. From there, I read other interesting perspectives including this one from David Coffey about “Metacognitive Memoirs” which was based on a keynote he gave at the MCATA (Mathematics Council of the Alberta Teachers Association) conference in Edmonton in 2011. The session description spoke about metacognition and written reflection:

Metacognition is the awareness of one’s thinking. Memoir is a genre usually referring to a piece of autobiographical writing focusing on some problematic event. Together they represent a powerful tool for helping learners experience what it means to do mathematics by thinking about and communicating their efforts to others. In this session we explore how creative writing supports creative thinking in mathematics – certainly a road less traveled.

So for some time, I have had a great interest in helping our students work on metacognition, but struggled with how to introduce it, how to help teachers feel comfortable with it, and generally feeling ready and confident to push it.

This past spring, our school’s Design Team met after our Ed Planning Session for next school year to decide what our focus and goals would be for 2014-2015. After a great deal of discussion we came to the conclusion that a lot of what we want for our students – peer and self assessment, reflection and metacognition, deeper learning – required us to take a long hard look at our ability to provide meaningful feedback. We felt that if we ever wanted students to be able to provide feedback to their peers, they would first need to be shown what strong feedback speaks to, and sounds like. They needed to know that feedback was not a comment on a finished product (i.e. Great work!), but rather meaningful and corrective language that helped students IMPROVE. Students need to be motivated to return to their unfinished work, and inspired to enhance it using the feedback we provide. Only after we know that we are providing the necessary modelling, can we expect students to know what peer assessment or self reflection might look, feel and sound like.

So my comment about these excerpts and to the topic of metacognition itself is that I believe we should aspire to fostering metacognition in our students because, as stated above, it is powerful and it is worth it. My concerns/questions though are that shouldn’t we consider that to model this for our students we need to put in the time and energy to reflect on the quality of modelling we are actually providing? Should we not consider the quality of the feedback we give students on formative and summative assessments, and in our daily interactions?


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded edition). Washington, DC: National Research Council.


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Innovation Week 4 – Day 2/3/4

What a great three days we had this week as students put their plans into action, working hard to make their visions for their projects a reality. These three days are always the most impressive, as projects that seemed lofty suddenly become reality in front of your eyes, and students blow expectations out of the water. If there is one thing that has stayed true in all four Innovation Weeks we have run, it is that we don’t challenge students they way they challenge themselves when given the opportunity.

After a weekend away from their projects, there was a great deal of energy in the building as the students got back down to work. Now because our students in Gr. 6 & 9 had to write Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s – government exams in Alberta) during Innovation Week, we waited until after the tests were completed to start our days. Students had brought the vast majority of their supplies in and were laying them out and finalizing plans in their Innovation Rooms. It wasn’t long before you heard the buzz of tools, the music from performance groups, and lots of conversation as groups worked together to get their projects underway.

After running three of these in the past couple years, our organizing committee was committed to improving the quality of learning, and we did so on two fronts. The first was incorporating a Design Thinking process that we learned from Ewan McIntosh (and he documents on his site here) and the other was improvements to our Proposal Forms. Spearheaded by Claudia Scanga and Katy Rogal, these forms had added spaces for feedback and reflection as well as better questions to help shape the process for students. They were photocopied on BRIGHT pink paper, and students were expected to have them at all times during the week (see in picture above). As I went around from room to room over these three days, I asked groups about their process, about their guiding question, and about how they met the criteria for the week, and the vast majority could all answer the questions I had for them, and I am quite certain it had a lot to do with our improved forms.

One thing I noticed when talking with students this time around was how much better our students were at managing the time, tackling projects that were achievable, and troubleshooting their own issues. In previous weeks this was definitely a struggle as students were not used to being on their own to guide their learning. We’d see groups choose projects too complex or too simple, we’d see groups struggle when they ran into difficulty, and we definitely saw groups have trouble with managing their own time. I am sure that most schools that would try Innovation Week would see similar issues their first couple times through, but I also see great power in the learning those difficulties provide. There is no doubt our students have learned from their adversity, or the adversity of others, and the improvements in this week are a testament to the three we have run before.

With 414 students participating, 81% of our eligible students (Gr. 9’s couldn’t participate due to PAT’s), it meant we also had most of our teaching staff participating as well. It is a unique interaction for teacher and student as the teacher is not there to do any instruction, but to simply be a resource for support and guidance, and it is often with students from other grades or classes that they don’t get a chance to work with. During the three working days, we had a lot of great feedback from teachers, with common themes including high quality projects, great work ethic and excited, focused learning.

As we wrapped up Day 4 on Wednesday, the prospect of the showcase and assembly the next day made for a lot of excited, and some nervous students as they prepared to share all their great work with family, friends, and visiting guests from our division. I’ll post the Final Day reflection soon, so stay tuned to see how this great week finished up!

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Innovation Week 4 – Planning Day and Day 1

So here we are again, time for our fourth Innovation Week as we wrap up another great school year. This time around our theme is “Invent, Improve, Innovate!” with the goal for students to:

  • Invent something new
  • Improve an existing object/practice
  • Innovate how something is done/used

We also included some detailed information on how the week connected to the 10 Cross-Curricular Competencies from Alberta Education, which I think we will explore in more depth for Innovation Week 5.

So this time around we did a lot of work up front with our Application Form, with our planning for providing feedback and for checking in with students, all with the purpose of setting higher expectations for the learning that would occur during the week and the quality of the projects being worked on. Probably the biggest addition to this Innovation Week was the addition of Design Thinking for the student planning of projects.

In May we were lucky enough to see Ewan McIntosh at the Ideas Conference in Calgary and he put us through a workshop on Design Thinking. The process followed four steps – Immersion, Synthesis, Ideation and Prototyping, and was a powerful tool for thinking, learning and problem solving. We loved it so much that the week after we returned from the conference, we used this process with our staff to tackle our annual Education Plan (documented on video, look for that post this summer).

We decided to use this process with our students, but we broke it up with the first two steps (Immersion & Synthesis) done last Tuesday for our Innovation Week 4 planning afternoon, and the third and fourth steps (Ideation & Prototyping) were carried out on Day 1 of Innovation Week 4, this past Friday. I want to provide a little snapshot into how that went:

Innovation Week 4 Planning Afternoon

For the afternoon we had students use the Immersion and Synthesis steps of the Design Thinking process to create their guiding question for their Innovation Week 4 projects. The process required groups of 3 (or as close as possible), which meant some groups were mixed with members doing different projects. The groups then interviewed each other, asking questions about the student’s project, why they chose it, what they hoped to accomplish etc. . One group member was the interviewer, one was the recorder and one was interviewed. We rotated the jobs each interview, which differs slightly from Ewan’s plan, but was necessary given our mixed groups. Each interview was 4 minutes long, with the recorder writing down EVERYTHING they heard. (12 minutes)

After the first round of interviews we addressed the idea that many of the interviews sounded more like conversations than interviews (common happening I’m sure). We did some coaching to help them understand that an interviewer needs to provide space (and silence) for the interviewee to think and process, and that they need to be patient and not jump in and start a conversation. We then suggested some deeper questions to ask, and challenged them to get more out of the next 4 minutes. We repeated the interview cycle one more time. (12 minutes)

We then took 4 minutes each to allow the recorders to review what they heard, to circle or highlight key words or things that were repeated, so that the person could really see what they talked about, and what was important to them.  (12 minutes)

From these highlighted/circled and reviewed notes, students were than challenged to come up with a big question, phrased as follows: “How might we/I…?”. They were asked to look closely at what they said in their interview so that they could formulate a question that was clearly important to them. The questions had to meet the following criteria:

  1. New to You
  2. Original to the Audience
  3. Important to Others (What is the Impact?)                     (10-15 minutes) 

As a group we then shared some of the questions and tried to provide feedback (students & teachers) that was helpful, specific & kind to make the questions even better. The goal was to remove jargon and have the question have a clear expectation and developed focus on what the students would be working on during Innovation Week. We then sent the students back to try and improve the questions by doing the same work on their own question. (15-20 minutes)

Once the students were happy with their question, they worked to complete the rest of their Proposal Form to take home and get signed by a parent. These proposal forms stay with the students, and are to be used to guide their process and to record feedback from teachers/students. They also have a place for their own reflections on how they used the feedback to improve their work. (10-15 minutes)

With the proposal forms ready, students were done the planning day and were all set for the opening day of Innovation Week 4 on Friday.

(We used this presentation to walk our students through the process.)

Innovation Week 4 Day One

For Friday, we placed the students into the rooms for Innovation Week based on their project. We had 5 “Hands-On” rooms, 3 “Building” rooms, 2 “Research” rooms, 2 “Tech” rooms and a “Performance”, “Music”, “Arts/Writing” and “Crafts” room. Here the students were surrounded by students doing similar work, with a teacher prepared for that type of project, and ready to dive in to the next two steps of the Design Thinking process: Ideation & Prototyping. 

For Ideation, the students were challenged to come up with 100 ideas that would answer their guiding question in 10 minutes. Now this was challenging, so I went a little nuts and tried to go classroom to classroom to get kids fired up about ideas…sorry the coach in me came out a little bit:

For 10 minutes they tried to get everything they could down on paper and we instructed them if they ran out of good ideas, to start coming up with silly, off-the-wall or impossible ideas. In some rooms we got a lot of ideas, and some not as many, but in the end our 414 students came up 8,684 ideas!!! (10 minutes)

From here they needed to select 5 great ideas and 3 silly ones, and rate them on a 10 point scale in three categories (See pictures above):

  1. New
  2. Useful
  3. Feasible

When all was said and done, they were to choose their top rated idea and move on to the prototype stage. (10 Minutes)

In the Prototype stage, students were asked to create a visual representation of their project. Some chose to make mind-maps (which I would recommend against) but many actually sketched out their project. Ewan has a great quote on his webpage about the process:

Sketching one’s ideas, instead of writing them, is a great way to both ideate and create your first prototypes. It tends to lead to higher quality feedback.

Once the students were done their prototype visuals, we were ready to open the floor up for feedback. (10-15 minutes)

Students were asked to provide feedback to the group next to them, and the feedback again needed to be helpful, specific and kind. Students were then told to go back and use the feedback to make improvements to their drawings. At the end of this process, it was lunch time, but the students were then set with a great picture of where they wanted to go. (10-15 minutes)

In the afternoon, students got down to work and finished their Friday by getting their plan together and beginning the initial work on their projects.

It was a great start to this Innovation Week, adding the Design Thinking process definitely helped students prepare and start to be creative before they even started work on their project, which will be very beneficial. We wanted to up the quality of learning going on in our building during this Innovation Week and with the work our staff put in well in advance of the week, along with the addition of the Design Thinking, I believe we are well on our way to seeing some really quality projects and really exciting learning.

Here is one more video, an interview with Kiana and Sara about their thoughts on the addition of the Design Thinking process to Innovation Week 4.



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So a few weeks ago I attended the Innovate West Conference at the Connect Charter School in Calgary, with a team of 7 teachers from our school. Along with Claudia Scanga, our school’s learning coach, Lynn Lang and Ashley Solomon, teachers from our school, we facilitated a discussion we called “Collaborative Teaching Models”. My hope, as I put our presentation together, was that we would share our story and what we do at Greystone Centennial Middle School, and then open up the floor to hear about other models, and maybe discuss how we could create more opportunities for teacher collaboration in all schools. It didn’t end up going that way.

We shared how we embed three blocks of collaborative time for each teaching team into our timetable,

screenshot 2

how our school design team put together a planning document that guides the conversation in those blocks,


and how our staff choose to use the time provided to collaborate with their teams rather than grab a coffee, photocopy work or mark assignments. From there the conversation ended up being focused on how we are able to do this in our building and how we got there. A couple people dismissed what we told them as “too pie-in-the-sky” and walked out of the session, while others wanted to ask us question after question about how it’s possible.

By the end of the session we did get to talk to teachers from BC who shared with us all the issues they are currently dealing with that limit their ability to create collaborative models. We talked with teachers from small schools who spoke about limited resources and limited numbers of teachers, and how that can hinder their collaboration. We also heard from a group of high school English teachers, who talked about the massive size of their department, and how that made collaboration difficult.

While I already knew that we were lucky in so many ways at Greystone, this reminded me of so many more ways. So much of our collaboration model works because of A) The size of our school B) the grade levels we work with C) and a culture that it took 9 years to build (I had nothing to do with it, I joined the staff 3 years ago). But whether its presenting at a conference or hosting visitors from other schools, we know people are looking for advice when it comes to making teacher collaboration a reality in schools.

So rather than talk about our model of collaboration, I believe it would be more helpful to talk about what can be more easily re-created in other buildings, by highlighting the important keys.

1. Start with a Shared Vision  

Teachers collaborating are going to come to the table with their own perspectives, shaped by their experiences, their education, their passions and their beliefs. When it comes down to a discussion without a shared vision, it becomes a battle of two (or more) people’s perspectives and someone is more right. The shared vision brings all conversation back to what is agreed upon as the most important focus, and then its not a battle of competing perspectives but rather how to best realize this vision. So if you don’t have a vision, create one… together. Our time at the Connect Charter School (formerly the Calgary Science School) inspired us to create a visual representation of our vision at Greystone and it is mounted on the wall of every classroom in our building.



2.  Challenge Each Other to Grow

Collaborative conversations can’t just be about watering each other’s gardens, they have to also be about pointing out the weeds. If the conversations start centered around a shared vision, then we have to be able to call each other out when we aren’t doing what we need to get there. That shared vision means we are not pointing out flaws or claiming some sense of superiority over our colleague, but rather helping each other to ensure we are always improving and always doing what’s best for our students. I wouldn’t say we have completely gotten to this point, but we continue to talk about the importance of pushing each other and identifying moments for growth. This is easier said than done, but in the end it is important enough to work towards.

3. Find Ways to Validate the Importance

If collaboration is important to you as a school leader, you have to be doing everything you can to help facilitate it. Maybe you can only afford a collaborative block once a week, or once a month, but whatever it is, it shows you are committed to the importance of collaboration enough to help make it a reality. I was talking recently with a senior executive member of another division, and her concern was that embedded collaboration might not be achievable in the next school year. My first thought was Twitter and Social Media, and I recommended providing staff with a day where they bring in a facilitator to help get their staff on Twitter, to work on developing an online PLN. If you can’t immediately implement collaboration into your timetable, at least provide another avenue to experience the power of collaboration. In doing so, you help people see that you believe its worth the time and the money. It was definitely the leadership at our school who professed their firm belief in the power of collaboration for the past 9 years, namely our Principal Carolyn Cameron, and this no doubt led to a culture where people readily spend their entire prep time working with colleagues instead of doing all the housekeeping they could be doing.

4. Celebrate the Successes

There are so many aspects of our building that the collaboration of our teachers impacts in a positive way. Having new teachers on a team helps them get acclimated to the building, get to know our culture, and support them through the first tough couple months. Having teachers on teams helps veteran teachers of all ages and experience levels keep pushing to bring the best to students as they are opened to new ideas from their team. The way our teachers collaborate is modelled daily for our students and I can’t help but believe it helps them see the importance as well. In our “team times”, as we call them, our teachers work not only on planning great projects and assignments for students, but also they share important information on students so that everyone is on the same page, they reflect on assessments and how to improve them, and next year our focus will be on providing quality student feedback. I have no doubt the conversations in those team times will be deep and meaningful as we explore what great feedback looks and sounds like. We celebrate these successes with our staff and our school community, and we share them with every school that comes to visit our building and in every presentation we do at conferences. Collaboration is an idea that needs to spread, first in your building of course, but then everywhere it can, so that more and more schools and divisions will work to support it.

What do you do in your buildings to facilitate collaboration? What gets in your way from making it a reality? What do you find the most beneficial part of Teacher Collaboration? I’d love to hear from people, and whether or not you agree with these four points.

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What You Value…



A quote I heard from a friend but have no idea who to credit for, which I use all the time is

“What you value, you dedicate time and resources to”

I mostly use it to call out current practices, and call attention to not backing up what we say with the actions necessary to truly show our support. As I sat down to write my professional growth plan reflection for 2013-2014, I found another instance where this quote applies.

I had two goals for this school year, one was to put together and facilitate a group of teachers to take a long hard look at our practices when it comes to mathematical instruction, and to come up with a long term plan and solution to improve said instruction. The other goal was to work to spend more time in classrooms, observing and working with teachers, to do some informal observations of our teachers on temporary contracts and to work on my role as an instructional leader.

I was unable to achieve either.

Add to that I never once participated in the School Admin Virtual Mentor Program  (#SAVMP) which I signed up for, and was assigned a fantastic mentor in Jason Markey, who could have helped me in my professional growth immensely. And add to that I blogged considerably less this year, spent less time on twitter, and lost touch with a great deal of my PLN.

Don’t get me wrong, I got a lot done, and a lot of my year was fantastic, but now as the year comes to a close, and I reflect on goals for my year that were supposed to be a priority, I realize I lost track of what was supposed to be my focus. As I fumble through this post, I can physically sense the loss of connection to something that was so dear to me and important in my professional learning.

So while I am quick to call others on saying one thing and then not backing it up with what it takes to make it a reality, it is only fair I call myself on the same behavior. What I supposedly valued I didn’t dedicate time or resources to. There was always something else to do, some excuse like being tired or busy, or even justifications like doing what was needed at the time. I did nothing to place any type of deadlines for myself. I created no reminders, no string around my finger, to keep myself on task. I failed miserably and did nothing to improve my chances for success.

So when it comes to my growth plan, and my reflection as a professional on my learning, I can truly say I learned a lot. I learned from what I failed to complete, from what I didn’t focus on, and what I must have hoped would just happen on its own. I learned that nothing I want to make happen will in fact come to be if I don’t dedicate my time and my resources to these goals. I learned from the way I feel staring at the document, that I WILL NOT again put down a goal (or two) without being sure I am committed to making it a reality.

While this wasn’t my intended learning, it will no doubt be valuable, and when I sit down to write next year’s plan, it will include at least one of my goals AGAIN, only this time I hope it also includes some conviction behind the words.

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I Just Had To Share


I’m sorry I just had to share these…

Yesterday one of our new teachers was teaching wrestling with some younger students and having them explore ways to tip over someone who was on all fours. After they experimented for a while he asked the kids what worked? The first boy said “I pulled one of his arms and pushed him over.” The teacher thought that was good and then asked a second boy who responded “I tickled him”.

Today during a Skype session our Grade 6 students had with Diane Cockle, a lead crime investigator from Vancouver, a student asked her what the weirdest piece of evidence she has ever found and her answer was Cheese. She explained that a serial break and enter case was solved because at each house the robber would pull the cheese out from the fridge and take a bite. The fingerprints they got off the blocks of cheese were used to convict him.

Later on in the Skype interview a student came up and asked “Do you use the scientific method and if so, what parts do you use”. Diane chuckled and said “Great question, you’ll make a great defense lawyer!”

I have such a great job.

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Educator Innovation Day #2

Innovate | Flickr – Photo Sharing!Noah Scalin Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I am very excited to share that we will once again be running an Educator Innovation Day on Saturday May 3rd, at Greystone Centennial Middle School. The idea behind Educator Innovation Day is two fold: 1) to explore ways to improve education by pursuing a project that you are passionate about and 2) to live the innovative, risk-taking experience so that when we have our students undergo a similar experience, we can speak from a place of understanding rather than just conjecture.

In our first Educator Innovation Day this past August, we had over 20 participants explore projects that included literacy assessments, timetable models, and course design, along with many other topics. It was a good first attempt, but the timing definitely made it tough as it was the last day before we all went back to work. We are hoping that with the early May date, people will be able to focus a little more on their project. If it is something they are hoping to implement into their schools immediately, there will still be 2 months left to give it a try, if it something they are hoping to implement in September, it will give them a good start to continue working on over the summer.

There is no cost for Educator Innovation Day – we will provide the space and, if necessary, the technology you need to assist you with your project. Lunch will be on your own and the only requirement is that we come together in the afternoon and share the work with the rest of the participants. We have the support of Parkland School Division in coordinating this event, as well as Parkland Teachers ATA Local 10, but this day is open to educators from outside Parkland School Division as well. We will meet in the gymnasium at Greystone at 9:00am and should be done by 3:30pm that afternoon.

We would love to have you join us for the event, and the registration form is embedded below, or can be accessed at the link Share the link with any educator you think may be interested in attending, the more the merrier. Also, we will be tweeting to the hashtag #psd70eid before, during and after the event so keep an eye out for these tweets and to get the conversations started well in advance of the big day.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have, and we hope to see you this May.

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