June 25, 2019

Getting Better Together

Digital Action Plan. New courses. New partners. New projects. New people.

It has been a busy year and if there is one word to describe the past 180 days, it has to be collaboration.

Four smiling people sitting cross legged on a field with text: What is collaboration?

Collaboration in education usually invokes images of smiles and people getting along while working on projects. When we say collaboration, maybe this is the picture we have in our head. And when we don’t want to collaborate with people, maybe it is because we think that it will be really difficult to attain that image with the particular people involved – if not impossible.

I think collaboration needs to be so much more than getting together (smiling and getting along) to achieve a pre-set something – whether it be a learning resource, an evaluation situation, a video, a set of ideas, a workshop, or an article.

Years ago, I read an article that I keep coming back to, Conflict amid Community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration by Betty Achinstein. Her research demonstrated that, too often, what was missing from collaboration and community was conflict. (Not the yelling at each other and fighting kind of conflict, the opposing viewpoints kind of conflict.)

Now, we might think that to be a good thing. But, really, it is not. Conflicting opinions exist in community. When we ignore that, when we think there is only one way to do things, then we get into dangerous territory of privilege and oppression. When we focus on only one way of doing things, then we lose out on a diversity of ways of doing and being that, when put together,  become something new, something great. 

And that is what Betty Achinstein found. That when teachers collaborated on various projects, they very often met with conflict. The knee-jerk reaction to conflict is to make it go away – to smooth things over, to concede to something that we may not agree with, or to choose to exclude diverse viewpoints from the conversation. But, when conflict was allowed to happen, when teachers listened to each others different points of view and worked together anyways, they were able to achieve great things. Together. And the community got stronger. And individually, people felt better because they were heard and together they were contributing to the betterment of their community.

This year, I worked on many projects with many different people. Our Adult Education RECIT team in the English community doubled in size, beyond that, the RECIT network more than tripled in size. There was a demand for more resources to support the English network and so I have been starting to work with more people across it – from the youth sector into the adult sectors – and we each have our ways of doing and being that become part of our collaboration process.

And so of course – conflict occurs. When it is talked about and worked through and accepted as a part of the process, I believe that what we are working towards is better. Universal Design in education is steeped in empathy – the designing of learning environments and products with the greatest possible potential users in mind. How can we do that without listening to, considering, and integrating opposing viewpoints? 

Each year around this time, as I start to think about the year to come, I ask myself – how are we getting better? When my ideas were challenged this year during collaboration, the end results were always better because they included multiple points of view. It wasn’t always easy for me and sometimes it took longer than I wanted, but it was always better. So my wish for next year, is that we continue to challenge each other so that we can continue to get better. Together.

June 19, 2019

From differentiation to accessibility through Universal Design.

I have been thinking and talking a lot about accessibility this year. As teachers, we want our students to be successful in our classrooms, in our schools and centres, in whatever their goals are. But how do we do this? Concretely, what do we do to ensure that this happens?

For many, the quick answer is through differentiation – when we tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of our students.

With differentiation, we get to know our students needs and/or learning styles so we can create lessons, activities, or environments that cater specifically to those needs.

Focusing solely on differentiation can be problematic on a variety of levels:

  • Differentiation is reactive – it begins after meeting our students
    • …(What happens when we have continuous intake of students like we do in many adult education centres?)…
  • Differentiation entails a lot of work that happens while we are with our students in order to modify lessons and instruction to accommodate a variety of individual needs as they are presented to us.
  • Designing lessons based on individual learning styles is not backed by evidence of improved learning – in other words, if we focus on individual learning styles it is a lot of work that is not proven to be worthwhile.

Where does accessibility come in? Well, it doesn’t. At least, not right away. In fact, I’d even argue that with differentiation, we are looking more at accommodation than at accessibility.

When we train our focus on accessibility, we can use frameworks like Universal Design to anticipate possible obstacles to learning in our lessons and environments and then design them away before the students can encounter them.

I think that both universal design and differentiation have similar motivations:

  • Empathy for the learner experience
  • A focus on choice and flexibility
  • An understanding and acceptance of multiple access points to learning

Their differences lie within their approaches.

With differentiation, we respond directly to individual needs. But we have to wait until these needs are presented to us in order to respond so it is a reactive approach.

With universal design, we anticipate obstacles and get rid of them so that the largest number of people can access the learning. It is not directly focused on the individual but on the collective, yet in a way that honours the individual.

I found differentiation exhausting as a teacher. Mainly because so much of the work had to happen once I met my students. When I started to move my focus towards creating learning environments and situations with multiple access points from the get-go, before I even met my students, I found that I was actually better at meeting individual needs than when I was working so hard trying to differentiate based on them! It was still a lot of work but much of the work could happen before I was ‘live’ with the students, which made things much easier.

As I wrote at the top, I have been thinking and talking a lot about these ideas lately. How we widen access to learning – especially in a context like adult education where we may only be with our students for a short while – is becoming increasingly important for me and the people I work with. I see accessibility being directly tied to empathy and, ultimately, respect for our students and their learning experiences.

Here are two videos I made recently based on some workshops I gave this year, some on my own and one with my colleague Sandra Laine of the RECIT service national, domaine des langues.

Part 1 answers the question Why Universal Design for Learning?:

Part 2 answers the question What is Universal Design for Learning? And it addresses some differences between UDL and Differentiation.

These videos were originally created for an article I wrote with Emilie Bowles, RECIT regional service to general adult education, for a special edition of the Carrefour FGA newsletter on Universal Design for Learning (pp. 11-13)

For more discussion about UDL and Differentiation:

UDL and Differentiation and how they are connected

Distinctions between accommodation and accessibility

Similarities and differences between Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction

November 12, 2018

Flexible spaces for individualized classrooms

A place for everyone.

I taught a multi-level French Second Language course a number of years ago. The students were following a mix of Pre-secondary through Secondary five programs – and I had one student studying math. The students were part of a special program offered through Tewatohnhi’saktha and Nova Career Centre and they had one morning of French class  a week. The work was immense. And there was one French class a week. 

When I think about multiplying the work 3, 4, or 5 times a week, I start to shake. Yet this is what many teachers in Adult Education in Quebec do on a regular basis. The longer I work in Adult Ed, I am seeing that individualized classrooms are more the norm than the exception. I am humbled by teachers like Janie Lamoureux and Karine Jacques (and so many more!) who strive to make their classrooms work for all of their students, regardless of level, background, or course they are taking.

…& they do this through flexible learning environments.

But of course, flexible learning is SO much more than just a pretty space! And this is what Janie & Karine spoke about at the first après-cours for individualized teachers of the year, November 6, 2018.

An après-cours for individualized teachers.

Avi Spector, Véronique Bernard, and I decided to create an online community for Individualized teachers so they could have a place to meet with others and talk about the unique challenges and opportunities that come with an individualized classroom. 

The theme for the first meeting was changing things up in the classroom and I think the best thing we did was to hand the content over to two master teachers – Karine Jacques & Janie Lamoureux. They spoke about how their flexible classroom environments help their students as well as their teaching. The meeting was completely bilingual and it was great to see the chat box blow up in both English and en français!

Their presentation/conversation was nothing short of inspiring. Below is a video of the meeting and some links to other resources from the après-cours. Enjoy – and I hope to see you at our next meeting! We will announce the date soon.

Resources

A huge thank you to Janie and Karine!


October 3, 2018

New E-book – Giving a Shift: Sharing classroom practice around change

Kish Gue (EMSB, youth sector), Avi Spector (RSB, adult sector), and I (CSSMI, adult sector) are excited to launch our new, self-published, e-book, Giving a Shift.

http://bit.ly/givingashift

In it, we describe how we organized a day-long workshop for teachers… a little bit differently. We describe what we planned and our intentions behind it. We also share images and videos that we took throughout the day as well as our reflections after the fact. Some of my favourite parts of our book are the videos of teacher testimonies taken throughout the day. They give me hope in the work I do.

Both the workshop and the book were labours of love for us and our hope is that it can inspire others as well! It is available here – please share with your colleagues and friends!

Posted in: News
May 1, 2018

More than just a pretty space

A recent edsurge article talks about how the race to buy fancy furniture is turning flexible classrooms into a fad.

What then happens is instead of designing classrooms that positively impact students, we are decorating classrooms, celebrating the new, and then moving on to the next shiny thing. Pinterest-pretty classrooms bring instant gratification, but little else.
from: How Furniture and Flexible Seating Is Turning Classroom Design Into a Fad by Robert Dillon, Jan 4, 2018, on EdSurge

And that is true.

As I like to say – flexible classrooms are so much more than just a pretty space.

Flexible learning is so much more than just a pretty space

If we focus on good pedagogy and design our classrooms according to that, we can stay away from jumping on a fad that will soon disappear when we ultimately discover that it isn’t a magic bullet on its own, just like any number of other education fads – remember differentiation, flipped classrooms, multiple intelligences, teaching to learning styles, technology infused learning, *insert education fad here*…

But what is good pedagogy? Even the term pedagogy is thrown around so much that its become jargon.

I think that terms like pedagogy and ideas like good teaching and learning are fluid. My belief is that good teaching and learning need to be based on theory, yet are then made very personal as they relate to each teacher’s classroom and practice.

It is no secret to those who follow my writing here or who have been to my classroom or workshops, that I define ‘good pedagogy’ as access to learning for our students. And for me, that is closely connected to how we design our learning environments.

The way I see it, it comes down to these things:

As long as we keep our goals in mind when we begin to design our learning environments we are off to a good start – and these goals need to be strongly intertwined with whatever program goals we are committed to teach

Then, if we ensure that the largest number of our students can access these goals we are off to an even better start. We can do that by providing diverse resources, diverse ways for students to see the course goals, and examples of how we can achieve these goals (processes and strategies). Actually, it is not enough to just provide them. Explicitly teaching students how to access all of this (and/or getting out of their way when they figure it out!) is an important step.

I can’t just expect success to happen. I explicitly design for it.

Build it and they will come? No. We need to change the conjunction –> Build it SO they will come.

—-

My ideas are heavily influenced by this article by CAST as well as the experiences of teachers across Quebec, some are seen here: bit.ly/qcspace and on PD Mosaic – UDL + flexible environments. A special thanks to Avi Spector, of course – we explore these ideas together a lot!