Failure, Something to Ponder

Earlier today I Tweeted this:

For contextual purposes I include a definition of failure:

“fail·ure [feyl-yer]

1. an act or instance of failing  or proving unsuccessful; lack of success.
2. non-performance of something due, required, or expected.
3. a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency.”

This tweet led to an exchange of messages that centred around my choice of the word “failure”.  Most of the responses agreed with the sentiment as defined above, that in education, in order for us to learn, we need to experience setbacks en route to achieving greater success.  In fact, some have even retweeted my original message (even with my missing word error!).

However, even when people agreed with the sentiment, several messages challenged  whether we should use the word “failure” in Education.  There were a lot of compelling arguments for why we shouldn’t use this word and many of them were rooted in what the connotation meant to the responder.  For many the concern with using this word is the fact that it can evoke a sense of completion, an end point (and not a positive one).

A consistent theme evident in the arguments against using the word failure is a concern that those who are not actively engaged in discussions about education won’t have the experiences to make the connection of the word with the sentiment intended when it is used today.  I certainly agree that this is a valid concern.  I also agree that we need to be careful which words we choose.

There is a lot of dialogue around the evolution of education. This growth is not limited to what is happening in schools but extends to our conversations about school.  If the concern is that some, even many, people may misconstrue the sentiment of a word like failure based on their past experiences, then I see this as an opportunity for those people to learn.

In our attempts to move education forward, we need to challenge the thinking of those rooted in the past. In education we know what we mean when we use the word fail.  It is commonly accepted that we fail all the time, in fact I recently wrote a Blog about a failure  of my own. When I re-read it (you can read it here), I never used the term – probably because at the time of writing it was easier to use softer language but the reality is I fell short, I failed and just as I wrote, that was okay.

I am happy to see the dialogue that my Tweet has inspired.  In our attempts to evolve the way people think about and view education, we also need to address how people speak about education.  To do this, we can’t avoid words that carry connotations from the past, we need to use them – when appropriate – and teach to them.

Be yourself…better

Very recently I have been fortunate enough to attend two conferences; one that focused on Targeting Technology, the other at the BCSSA Winter Conference.  It’s such an opportunity to participate in events like these as they are opportunities to move my thinking forward. I leave with my head swimming in ideas and it takes some time to filter through these thoughts (probably the reason I never seem to get a good night’s sleep – picture the hamster spinning in the wheel).

While there were many, many worthy ideas put forward, there was a common message  by Chris Kennedy, echoed by Bruce Beairsto; Both spoke of the merits of systems like Finland and schools like High Tech High.  Both acknowledged the success of others and both encouraged us to have our own goal:

This resonated strongly with me because it is at the core of what I believe education is about.  As we collaborate, whether as a Student, a Teacher, a Parent or an Administrator, we are coming from a point in our own continuum of growth in that role.  None of us participates in these conversations consciously trying to be someone else. In the end, we don’t want to be considered as good as someone else, we want to be ourselves…only better.

This is particularly relevant in light of the current BC Education Plan.  As Beairsto points out, this is not a plan yet.  This is a blueprint to create a plan.  The key to the evolution of this plan lies in collaboration.  Making education better in BC lies in our collaboration of what is important to us now and what we believe will be important in a future we cannot predict.

As education evolves across the Province, we aim to improve upon the areas identified as needing growth, while keeping all of the things that we do so well.  Narrowing this focus and applying this thinking to my own experiences, I believe this is something that helps me to grow and expand my thinking.  When collaborating with others, discussing, planning, debating, sharing, I move forward. When participating in these experiences with others, I am being myself, sharing what I have to offer. I want to walk away saying “hey, that conversation really clarified my thinking, I have a better understanding of the issue now.” Walking away myself…only better.

Feeling Puzzled?

As the New Year is upon us, I am hopeful that everyone was able to enjoy some time with family and friends over the holidays. I was fortunate to spend the holidays with my wife and daughter, and some of my close friends. Also squeezed in there was the tradition of the World Jr Hockey Championships (Go! Canada Go!).

Another activity I have come to enjoy over the winter break is to sit down to the challenge of a puzzle. For no other reason, but that working on a puzzle over the course of a few days provides some mental relaxation and time with my family. I haven’t done this every year, but this year left me with some down time between Christmas and New Years.  I was excited to begin after I poured the contents of the puzzle onto the table.

The beginning of a challenge

After a couple of days Angela and I were beginning to wonder if we were stumped or the puzzle makers had made an error!  We felt stumped, as many of the pieces just did not seem to fit. But the drive to finish kept us working on it.

Trust me: The fish on the right is not right!

Finally, after a few days of attempting to fit the differently shaped pieces into the remaining spaces, I realized that I needed to take a step back.  We were down to the remaining 20 pieces but they just wouldn’t fit!  Looking at  areas of the puzzle that didn’t seem quite right, I discovered that we needed to move an entire section of the puzzle towards the middle.  We had the pieces together correctly, but the entire section was misplaced. With that move, we were then able to complete the rest within a few minutes.

Aaahhh the feeling of accomplishment

At the end of the day, doing this puzzle afforded us some much needed relaxation and time at rest together. We had absolutely no reason to keep working for days.  There was no Letter Grade or Percentage to be assigned, we simply wanted to overcome the challenge presented; the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment. This one was rewarding because at one point it was tempting to force the remaining 20 pieces into spaces they didn’t fit just to finish.

Because tomorrow is the first day back after a restful break, my mind is already getting “back into the swing of things”.  Intrinsic motivation is an invaluable gift; one that is very relevant to the world that I am about to dive back into tomorrow and ultimately, what many educators strive to bring out in our students everyday.

It’s also reminder of the importance of “double-loop” thinking when considering perceived challenges. We could have sat and forced the pieces into spaces that did not fit properly.  This certainly would have been the easy and quick fix.  Even though stepping back and trying an entirely different approach to our last few pieces added time, it afforded us the ability meet our challenge and complete the puzzle properly.

Given that I’m now linking completing a puzzle with broader thinking and our education system, I have come to a couple of conclusions: (1) that my time off was a success – I’m obviously feeling rested, and (2) that my wife is right – it’s time for me to get back to work!

Wishing everyone a great 2012!

What does Bikram have to do with it?

I have just returned from my first Bikram yoga class, where I was inspired to write this post.  As I usually connect my posts to learning and education, I can understand you may be wondering how I am going to connect detoxifying my body in 140 degree heat while holding, what are often painful poses, with our school systems.

To begin, Angela has been encouraging me to try a Bikram yoga class for many weeks after discovering the benefits of this exercise regime.  I rebutted these requests, insisting that playing hockey once a week and the universal gym in our garage are all I needed to keep fit.  Her persistence paid off today; I relented to try.

As I lay there in the room on my mat and towel before the class, my mind wandered to school and a conversation I will be having with a student tomorrow.  I know I will be saying one of the things I find myself repeatedly saying to students in a variety of circumstances; that they must try things in order to make an informed decision. As the class began and I lay there really beginning to sweat, I realized that I had been guilty of not living up to my own advice.  I had been refusing to go and I never really knew what I was turning down.  This was the moment I started to think about this post (in between torturous poses of course!).

Despite the heat and the pain of contorting my body in ways that it hadn’t moved previously, I lay in the room at the completion of the class and realized something else. As I looked over at my wife I realized that my motivation was far greater than the ethical drive to “walk my talk”.  I went because it was important to her that I give this a try.  I went because it was about my relationship with her.

In so many ways, schools are all about relationships.  I consistently discuss with students the conflicts they have with other students and teachers.  We talk about ways to approach these conflicts and how different approaches can impact the relationship with the other party.  In my experience, I have found that students are more likely to be engaged in the topics where they feel they have a strong relationship with the teacher. Further, students who have the support of their peers are often more engaged in being in our building than those who feel isolated.

Lying there, after losing about 5 lbs of body weight from water loss, twisting my body until the pain would not let me go any further, I thought about the connections that my personal experience today had with the importance of the decisions I ask students to make everyday.  Today for me this experience was all about reminding me of two things I hold close:  1) Life is about choices – always make your choice with as much information as possible.  2) Relationships are key in our lives – so do whatever it takes to make them as strong as possible.

And that’s what Bikram has to do with it.

Individual Success

I am a firm believer in individual success.  Each person is on an individual continuum and we each find success relevant to where we are at along that continuum.

Thanks to my daughter’s swim meet, I had the pleasure of witnessing this belief in action this morning.  I watched as my belief was reinforced time and again as competitors found their own successes.  This swim meet could have been a model for the vision that many have of our education system. Each event was divided into heats that were created based on the swimmers’ previous times.  Regardless of age or gender, they competed relative to their own development.  Not one child seemed to notice the age of the other competitors in their heats, they simply wanted to go out and put in their best performance.

A perfect example of finding personal success came from a young boy who might have been 6 years old.  He was swimming in the 25m freestyle.  One length.  The competitors in this heat were all relative beginners.  When the starter said “Go” there were variations of diving and jumping into the water and then the boy in lane 2 turned his back on the lane and lowered himself into the water.  Pushing off the wall he was already a good 5 metres behind the competition.  He started with his version of a front crawl.  By the time he was half-way through his race the others were finishing. Two-thirds of the way through, his crawl had turned into a solid “dog paddle” and he kept going.  Nearing the finish and the shallow end of the pool, he bobbed up and down.  He would drop slightly beneath the water, touch the bottom of the pool, push off and his head would reappear above the surface.  He surged like this for the last 5 metres or so.  Each time that he would drop under the water, I honestly wondered whether he would make it back to the surface or if one of us would need to jump in and rescue him.  As I had these concerns, he kept going, you might have thought that the cheering and encouragement of the crowd was inching him closer to the finish.  When he finally touched the wall, it didn’t matter how far behind the others that he was, nor did it matter that he appeared so exhausted that he really did swim those last few metres for his life.  The smile on his little face told the story.  He had just achieved his Gold medal, his “A”, his “exceeds expectations” on his personal rubric.

For every heat in this swim meet there was a story that matched this one.  Some told stories of personal setbacks, those failures that are necessary to help us improve and learn, while others showed those moments of personal successes.  Regardless, every moment was a moment where those children defined themselves on their personal continuums.  Being there to witness this has made me reflect on where I am at with my growth, I hope that in sharing this with you, that you can do the same.

What do you see in the forest?

There is an idiomatic expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” that is defined by as:

To discern an overall pattern from a mass of detail; to see the big picture, or the broader, more general situation.

I am not sure if it just a coincidence that I have heard this expression several times lately, but it seems oddly appropriate for an observation I have made.

I am extremely interested in creating opportunities for students to make their learning personal.  Personalized Learning has become a main topic of many professional development sessions over the past year.  One of the things I hear consistently is that the idea behind this educational approach is brilliant BUT…after this comes a series of reasons why it is difficult for us to create opportunities for students to personalize their learning.

I have heard how we need to change before we can create a system that allows students these opportunities.  Other things I have heard include: A systemic change from the Ministry level down.  Change the way post-secondary institutions admit students.  Change the way teachers view their roles.  Change the way we organize classes.  Change the way parents see education.

When I hear how many people believe in the importance of creating personalized learning opportunities, I am stumped at how many see the obstacles to achieving what is perceived as a good thing for students.  I have heard educational leaders, whom I respect as fantastic teachers and leaders espouse the same objections to these challenges.  In many settings with many people, I have heard comments and observations that focus on the challenges to implementing these changes.

I agree that much needs to change, but isn’t that our role, to promote positive change, especially in the face of adversity?  We could easily be mired in details, but I see it as my role to push the envelope when it means a positive, better outcome for our students is possible.  I believe that making learning personal to each student is important to help each of them be successful.  Therefore, I believe I need to create an environment where this can happen.

I have heard many say that it is okay for students to be wrong, to fail at certain tasks in order to discover how to be right, how to find the answer.  In this instance, even if I am wrong about how to personalize learning, I think it is my job to try something, anything to give them a chance.

We cannot ignore the details, but it is important to keep our eye on the big picture.  We need to try new and different ways for students to achieve personal success. I have tried to achieve this by creating opportunities for students to get credit for pursuing what they are passionate in.  When you see the forest, what do you see?

A Stereo Story: For the Love of Learning

As schools return to session this fall I have noticed a renewed interest in what learning “looks like”.  With this in mind, it seems fitting that I sit down to write this story the evening before I go back to work.  Indulge me as I explain how I spent the weekend trying to install a stereo in my vehicle and I have found myself reflecting about this experience.

Yesterday was a beautiful Saturday.  I have had a stereo and cd changer from a previous vehicle that I have been meaning to install for a couple of years but simply never made the time.  With little else planned I figured I could enjoy the sun and install the stereo myself.

from pyoorkate:

There are two pieces of knowledge that this experience has reinforced for me.  The first, is just how easily one can access so much information on the internet.  After a few variations of my Google search I had all the instructions I needed to remove the existing stereo and install the new one.  Finding these instructions so easily has reminded me about the need for us as educators to ask the right questions.  Much has been said about questioning in our classrooms and it reminds me of something I have heard more than once: if our students can answer our questions using Google, then maybe we need to rethink our questions.

I have to admit, that the process wasn’t quite as easy as reading the instructions and simply taking action.  I have only a small amount of experience working on cars and as a result I probably could have prepared myself with all that I needed before starting to work.  As the process evolved I found myself getting stumped, needing a specific tool or piece that would help with the next step.  As a result of these needs there was more than one trip to different stores to retrieve the required materials.

As I drove the first time I was proud of myself for the progress I had made and felt that the purchase was a small price to pay for the feeling of satisfaction I would get a completing my task.  The second trip, I was asking myself if I should just book an appointment to have someone install this for me.  I talked myself out of that, determined to finish what I had started.  While driving out for the third time, I became convicted to complete this job because I had learned so much as a result of running into problems, trying to solve them, then moving on to the next step and repeating the routine.

The thrill of learning something new, as I was experiencing it, despite the set-backs along the way, kept pushing me to get this installation finished.  I worked until it was dark, ensuring that all the wiring was correct, I didn’t want to stop but was forced to without the light.  First thing in the morning I had done all I could do and yet I couldn’t get any sound.  Finally, I had to get some installation advice from an expert. What I learned was that somewhere along the way, the amplifier had blown and the stereo would never work.

When I returned home I went back to work to re-install the original stereo.  This process was much quicker than the previous day and although I was disappointed about the stereo not working, I felt strangely proud at how adept I had become at working with the car electronics and components.

This brings me to the second thing that this experience has reminded me of…the process of learning is so much fun.  Even though I did not get the final outcome I originally set out to achieve, I felt that I had learned so much that I enjoyed the entire experience.  When I heard the sound coming out of the speakers I had a strange sense of accomplishment.

I opened this post thinking about the question of what learning “looks like” and I hope that my Stereo Story gives you a glimpse of what it can look like.  As schools return to session, let’s look at beyond the end result of a finite answer and provide opportunities for students to have experiences that give them a love of the process.

Day 2

Having a lot of fun developing this site so far and I haven’t really even told anyone I have it! I do need to thank many educators out there who have led the way for me by creating their own sites.  I have had the opportunity to follow your development and take much from those sites in determining what I want to include here.

To name just a few of those whose work has inspired me I have to recognize the work of Chris KennedyGeorge CourosJabiz Raisdana, Chris Wejr, Chris LehmannDavid Wees…there are many more but if you are in the position I was a few months ago and you are considering adding to your professional profile, I found these sites helped guide me in my decisions and in some cases I find my template is evolving to look similar to those I have used as inspiration.

One rewarding part of this process is knowing that the evolution of my own site means that as I continue to work on it, it will develop a look and a feel of my own.