September 4, 2019

Innovation without Innovation

That title totally doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, it does. We are at the beginning of a new school year and with that comes new initiatives and new focuses. Schools have Welcome Back! PD days where we are told we have to design and deliver explicit direct instruction through high impact practices or use blended learning to revisit mastery-focused literacy solutions within professional learning communities or use design thinking to collaborate on innovative solutions for competency development in our 21st century at-risk learners!

Differentiate, design, 21st Century, Innovate: What does it all mean?

Ok. Full disclosure – those sentences were created with this Educational Jargon Generator. They make us laugh (maybe) and that is because they are so close to the truth of what we hear maybe a little too often in education. (And those didn’t include any acronyms! How’s about we PLC about RTI with CCBE and DBE teachers in FGA and FP? We can submit a PDIG application for that.)

We so often throw around these words and phrases without really thinking about or clarifying what it is we actually mean. I think we use jargon because it is much quicker to throw out a catch-phrase than to spend time talking about what we really mean by it. And when are quick to identify THE solution, THE key to all of our problems then we assume that it won’t take long to fix whatever it is we think our problem is.

And we can say we ticked the box next to this year’s must-have professional development about innovation or technology or whatever.

But, then, what happens when our problem isn’t fixed? We give up, go onto the next theory or catch-phrase, and start all over again.

Oh, Flexible Spaces, we tried that last Fall. It didn’t work.

The thing is, the downside of using buzzwords or jargon too often is that they lose meaning. You just may end up with a group of people who all say they are “differentiating” or “innovating” or “designing flexible spaces with UDL” or “using design thinking” or “leveraging technology” or “insert buzzword here” without actually checking in with each other that we all carry a shared understanding of what each of those words or phrases mean. Even worse, the word can end up ruining the practice:

“[Buzzwords] are a dangerous mechanism to lose sight of things that bring value to organizations and affect the bottom line. Buzzwords make us tired of hearing about it. They make us crave the day before we heard about it. They solidify patterns that hold firm on the status quo. Sometimes that buzzword may be something you actually need to do, and dismissing it puts your business [or practice] at significant risk.


Beyond Buzzword: Innovation and Design Thinking by Erika Bailey

Each of those buzzwords originated in a practice built on respect for student learning and the teachers who work with students every day. Any of those things, when given time and space and clarification (and…more time and space and clarification!) CAN be a solution. They CAN be a key. But none of them are THE key or solution.

I think if anything comes close to THE key or solution, it would be the time and space to talk about and act on what matters to us as educators – and to include students in those conversations. This quote is almost cliché, it has been used so often, and it is so true:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead – disputed citation

So my focus this school year will be on innovation without “innovation”. 

In other words, I don’t want to innovate without having conversations with my colleagues and with students about why and what and how. This process takes longer because, well, change and planning for great things takes time.

I feel this way because I love my job. I care about learning. I care so much about the people I work with and the students we all work for. 

And really, I don’t want to tick an innovation box, even if we leverage technology to do so 😉 

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

February 6, 2018

Some questions about digital portfolios

This post starts of with a personal experience and ends with a series of questions for adult educators.

Last week, while I was at a conference focused on our new programs in Quebec adult education, I received this via a portfolio app called SeeSaw that my son’s teachers use to share news from the classroom.

image of dictee with red pen corrections and stickers

I usually love to see pictures of him working on different projects or singing songs but this image affected me differently. After a few days, I sent a message to his teacher to let her know this (I shared this article with her before publishing it).

I was thinking, Way to go, Jack! at the same time as I thought about all of the work I have been doing with teachers and consultants over the past number of years to move away from the celebration of weekly quizzes, at the same time as I thought about the role of educational technology and how this app brought this image to me along with all of what I just described.

I love the idea of digital portfolios. I have my own all over the place, most recently here:

image of portfolio webpage, click to access

Jack even has one that I started for him and that he added to through most of Kindergarten.

As a technology consultant, I love the premise of using technology to share learning with others. One of my central beliefs about the use of technology has to do with its power to share our stories. I love seeing pictures of Jack during the day, they lift my heart. But when this picture came in, it didn’t have the same effect.

One of SeeSaw’s selling points is that “Seesaw gives families an immediate and personalized window into their child’s school day.” (from their website).

Do we need this? Is this what a portfolio is?

If I wanted an immediate and personalized glimpse into my child’s school day… shouldn’t I be homeschooling?

Part of it is that I just don’t celebrate weekly tests and quizzes. Especially when I received this image completely out of context, in the middle of the day, while I was at a conference in another city. And I guess that is it. A system like SeeSaw doesn’t really give us a personalized window into the school day. It gives us tastes, as determined by the teacher.

A big part of it is my own fault for not changing the settings on the app. I now have it set to notify me only once a day for any updates. (Not sure what time of day that is, guess I will find out!)

I know that some of you have used apps like SeeSaw with adult students – either in adult ed or higher education. What do you feel about it? What do your students feel about it? Do you find that it gives you more work? Are you using it in ways that encourage students to self-assess? To assess their peers? To assess their teachers? What is amazing about it? What are its downfalls, if any? Have you ever received feedback like what I just wrote?

And what is our responsibility as educators when we use apps to share things with our students and their families?

I don’t claim to know all of the answers. This is a new line of questioning for me. Help me out.

February 17, 2017

Remembering the Citizen in Digital Citizenship

Making the digital scary

I can’t wait to walk into a conversation or presentation about digital citizenship that does not include the words risk and dangers or even ‘pornification’ (for real, just saw that one at a conference the other day).

A few months ago, I saw this on my twitter feed:


I still hear people (in education) talk about the real world vs the online world.

What?

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