Reflections on Learning and the Brain – San Francisco


Almost three years has gone by since posting on this blog.  I’ve since taken a position as a Vice Principal and worked in two different elementary schools.  With an 80% teaching role I of have learned loads about teaching, learning and being a school leader.  I am humbled by how much I still have to learn but happy to be on the journey.  Having only taught high school and university aged students prior to this I can now add grades 4 – 7 to my teaching resume.

While in this constant state of new learning, I am fortunate to have opportunities to join network groups with other principals and vice principals.  This past week I had the good fortune of heading to sunny San Francisco to further support my learning journey with one of these groups.  It has been a fantastic weekend of learning, connecting and collaborating and one worthy of reigniting this blog.

At the conference there were many speakers of all different backgrounds.  While I could reflect on each individually I wanted to capture some of the sound bites that have spoken to me and will help inform my own practice moving forward.  Much of the conference was focused on creativity; what it is and isn’t, how to find it, how to develop it, how to support students in being more creative and how we might be inadvertently killing creativity in our school systems.  Lots of grist for the proverbial mill.

Here’s some of the speakers and my take-aways:

David Eagleman

We must teach the past as treasured but not untouchable.  Imitating a model is a jumping off point for creativity.  We need to proliferate options and come up with many solutions to a problem.  Always be asking ourselves, what else?  As teachers we need to get students do something after they have the “answer in the back of the book.”  Finally, we need to teach students to be skeptical and seek out other points of view.  The world needs people who do this.

Larry Robertson

Creativity comes from the breakthrough space.  Who?  The practiced noticer.  The most creative people talk about making a habit of noticing things that don’t seem to fit and look for patterns.  Creativity happens in the ‘adjacent possible;” a place where the known meets the new.  Creativity is the between the known and the new as new intersections are made.  This is what teaching is.

But the key message I took from him is the need for play.  Play is essential.  How do we make room for play?

Todd B. Kashdan –

What happens when we fear difficult questions? We need to be able to ask difficult questions.

Inducing Curiosity
Give a little information between what they know and what you think they want to know. We need to manufacture curious moments.

Three Pillars
Intelligence, perseverance, hungry curious mind.

When curious there is a 20% bump in perseverance.

More variety and intrigue in life prevents brain decline rate.

Our vantage point changes our curiosity.

To become curious

1.  Novel and complex “Is this new or unexpected?”
2.  Coping potential “Can I handle this?” – self efficacy is key. – formative feedback.

I’m a university prof. “What ever you’re doing your not increasing their engagement by the time they get to me”

Dimensions of Curiosity

1.  Joyous exploration.
2.  Deprivation Sensitivity
3.  Social Curiosity – eavesdropping on conversation.
4.  Thrill Seeking – willingness to take risk to try something new.
5.  Stress Tolerance

The world needs relentlessly curious leaders.

Jo Boaler

With math for many fear centres light up (like spiders) and problem solving goes down.

We need to erase myths about math brains.

8 week math interventions can rewire the brain

Value creativity and depth rather than speed.

Anxiety impedes the working memory. Feeling of the mind going blank.

When we ask a question and then take the first hand up it gives the message that speed is important.

Embrace challenge and mistake.

Struggle is good for the brain. Get into the pit. Don’t help them get out of it. Ask them what resources they need.

Encourage Multiplicity in student ideas.

Productive Practice = seeing an idea in different ways, not the representation of one idea over and over.

Group work * rests in the multiplicity of ideas. All group members have to share their thinking. Solve it in a different way.

What if we taught big ideas rather than methods?


As a school leader there are many opportunities to support teachers in our schools to provide opportunities for students to develop their curiosity.  Our job is to continue to support the great work that already exists in our schools and then bring new ideas that encourage each of us to rethink and reflect on what we do in order to put some new ideas in place to move each of us forward.  This is key as our students will see us as learners, inspiring them to continue to be learners to.  Ultimately anything we do as teachers and leaders to better ourselves and our practice will have a direct impact on our students.  And this is the reason we do this work in the first place.

Let’s hope it’s not another three years before posting on here again!




Reflections on Writing my First Elementary School Report Cards

Two weeks ago I was placed in a grade 4 class in at Bear Creek Elementary school in Surrey, B.C..  The classroom teacher was unexpectedly absent and will be until the end of the year.   As she is on an official leave of absence, the teacher is not able to write reports for the students she’s taught since September… leaving writing the report cards (with her assessment data and anecdotal comments, plus my observations) to me.  Having previously only completed report cards at the high school level I looked at this ‘gift’ as a timely learning opportunity.

Next year I am taking on two new roles.  I will be teaching a grade 5/6 class in addition to being Vice Principal at Berkshire Park Elementary School.  As such, I will be responsible for writing report cards for my students.  As you know, report cards in elementary schools are quite different to the ones I was used to as a high school teacher.  In Surrey we are looking at other ways to report student progress or communicate student learning.  I know the report card template I used this year is nearing the end of its existence, but I wanted to take some time and reflect on the process and offer an opportunity for conversation with many of you that have been writing report cards like these for years.

Here’s some things I noticed:

I didn’t feel great about assigning letter grades to students in grade 4.  I realize that soon teachers won’t have the option to assign letter grades to students at this age.   Having now done so, my support and advocacy for assessment practices that support a growth mindset and don’t label students in to grade categories is further solidified.  I am also thinking that whatever we move to also can’t be just another way to give letter grades (ie. having a student fully meeting expectations = B, and so on).  Students compare their grades with each other, they decide if they are ‘good’ at something based on them, and they often use them to define their ‘success’ as students and as humans.  I am not interested in opening the ‘grade debate’ with this post but I cannot support reporting processes that leave some students demoralized and feeling ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid.’

I liked that learning outcomes were included in the report.  We all know that clear learning intentions are important for students and teachers when designing and participating in learning activities.  I liked that I could communicate to parents what it was that we were covering and what I was reporting on.  I found the Math and Social Studies outcomes most helpful… hmmm… come to think of it I, found the ‘content’ PLOs the most helpful.  The PLOs around Language Arts (which are excellent and I use as foundational to my planning) were less easy to choose and there were so many to choose from.  Bottom line… A ‘report card’ needs to report on learning and I was glad that the elementary report card allowed me to do that in a way that I wasn’t able to as a high school teacher.

The learning outcomes that I had to choose from will be difficult for some parents to understand. As teachers we use, and understand, educational jargon.  We throw around terms like, ‘grade level‘ and assume that every one else knows what we mean.  What are grade appropriate expectations or what does it mean to edit text for conventions?  (I continually question why we group students based on the year they arrived in the world and expect all of them to be at the same ‘level’ in the same year – anyway).  Many of the students at the school come from homes where English isn’t the primary language spoken.  It occurs to me that a report card needs to be read and understood by the intended audience.  Most parents aren’t well versed in the language we use to describe learning; some struggle with the basics of the English language.  How can we write a report card that accurately assesses student progress and learning, while at the same time is easily read and understood by our students’ parents / guardians?

Ranking student progress on a four point scale and giving a letter grade was confusing and lacking in accuracy.  The four point scale on this report card had 4 levels.  However the language used was not the same as the language I was familiar with (used on the BC Ministry of Education Performance Standards).  They were:

Not Yet Meeting Expectations
Approaching Expectations
Meeting Expectations
Exceeding Expectations.

To me Not Yet and Approaching are basically the same thing; if we are approaching something aren’t we not yet there?  Now because two levels of the scale were taken up with the same idea, I felt that Meeting Expectations had to cover everything from a C- to a B.  There seemed to be no way to make a student’s actual performance level clear other than with the letter grade.  At that point why not just give a letter grade and list the learning outcomes covered?  In this case the letter grades did a better job of describing varying levels of performance.

Having the opportunity to write a short paragraph about each student might be seen as overwhelming by some, but I welcomed the opportunity for a place to write personalized anecdotal comments about each student.  Even after working with these students for only 2 weeks I can see their strengths and stretches as learners.  I have gotten to know their personalities and how they approach school and learning.  I felt that the opportunity to write about each student individually was the most authentic piece of the whole report card.  I recognize it is a significant amount of work, but somehow, what ever way we decide to use to communicate student learning in the future, it needs to include a place for personalized commentary on student learning progress and their social interactions.  I know for high school teachers this seems impossible, but somehow we need to communicate authentically to parents of high school students as well.  Comments out of a comment bank are woefully inadequate.

So… being new to elementary reporting, and starting as grade 5/6 teacher next year, I welcome your ideas and comments to my observations, wonderings and reflections on reporting in elementary schools.  What have you noticed?  What do you like and what are wishing could be different?  This is top of mind for all teachers right now as we wind down and have the end of June in our sights.  Your comments are much appreciated.

Backwards Design for Life-Long Learning and Engagement

This post is a response to a colleague of mine, Ron Dorland, and a blog post he wrote called Frameworks for Thought.  It sparked some thinking on my part and I decided to take the time to craft a response which you will find below.  I encourage you to add to the discussion either on this blog, or on Ron’s original post.


I read your blog post with some interest. Normally I read posts and move on, but something about yours made me sit and think a few things through that I wanted to add to the conversation with you and your readers. Writing this has been an interesting form of reflection for me and I hope it deepens both our understandings of the framework I would hate to see be thrown away. I fear we might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we were to rid ourselves of this form of curriculum design. Understanding by Design has played such an important role in my practice as both teacher and teacher educator that I want to highlight some of its merits; some of which I think will also support your desire to have students more engaged, honoured for their diversity, leaving schools as life-long learners.

In your post you state that a backwards design model doesn’t support a 21st century classroom. We’re 15 years into the 21st century and still many have different ideas on what that exactly means. The best definitions of a 21st century classrooms in my opinion are ones in which students are taught how to learn, how to think critically, how to be creative, how to collaborate, how to problem solve, and how to reflect on their individual learning process so that eventually they become self sufficient learners. I find too often a 21st century classroom comes with the idea that it needs to be online, blogging, twittering and posting accomplishments on Youtube etc. etc. I also find that there are a growing number of teachers who believe that not being online puts teachers and their students at a disadvantage. While I maintain an online presence (heck, I’m commenting on a blog), I believe that one doesn’t have to make their practice public to be an effective teacher. This is still a tension of mine. I believe in the importance of understanding technology and social media, but I don’t believe it needs to be top priority in the average classroom. Thinking trumps technology everyday in my classroom. We are teaching students for an unknown future and if we aren’t helping students develop cognitively I don’t believe we’re making the best use of our precious time with them. I believe a backwards design curriculum framework can effectively develop the skills needed for success in the 21st century.

You also make the distinction between a ‘final destination’ and ‘process,’ which I don’t believe are as mutually exclusive as you suggest. What if the final destination was the process, or the final destination wasn’t a content piece such as ‘Vancouver’ but was the thinking skills, strategies and processes needed to exist in the ‘21 Century?’ Wouldn’t then a backwards design framework be useful for educators who are trying to teach these skills and processes to students? If we want students to think critically, how do we design our instructional strategies and techniques to teach them how to do so, then how will we know if they have thought critically enough and how will we describe the criticalness of their thinking if we don’t have some language around what good critical thinking looks like? As you can see I am making the argument that using backwards design, identifying the desired skill, and language to describe that skill (assessment), is key in helping students develop skills to be successful in their life, which for many of them will exist solely in the 21st century.

You ask, ‘So then why do we create a final destination?  Why can’t we have students create and hand in their own objectives and then become accountable in following their own pre-made paths? Why have an end point, when we have so much diversity in our classrooms?’ In my experience when students are given this kind of autonomy over their learning they are lost as to where to start. I have seen teachers use ‘20% time’ or ‘passion projects’ or other forms of inquiry projects with their students with the best of intentions, only to have students struggle to pick topics and when they do create projects that lack real depth of inquiry and understanding and are little more than the modern day version of the poster project copied and pasted from somewhere else. With other students they create beautiful projects that are what we’d hope they’d produce.

Both these scenarios make sense if we use Daniel Pink’s research to help us understand why motivation is lost in some projects and not in others. We give the students autonomy but we don’t help them find purpose (the ones who excel are ones that find the purpose on their own or create their own purpose). Clearly identifying the purpose of what we are asking students to do in the classroom is an important part of backwards design. Too often though the purpose becomes ‘get to Vancouver,’ know this fact, write this 5 paragraph essay, answer these questions on The Outsiders. If this type of objective is the purpose then yes, I agree with you, get rid of backwards design. But if we help students identify a purpose that is grander and more applicable to them learning how to learn, then we can’t abandon a curriculum design framework that supports both teachers and students in reaching this goal. To continue with Daniel Pink’s argument, he also writes about the importance of mastery; getting better at something. The only way we know we are getting better at something is if we know what getting better looks / sounds like; we need to know the criteria, which is where the all important assessment piece comes in.

Maybe we need to give the backwards design framework to students as part of their inquiry projects? Obviously within this framework there needs to be space for students to experiment and take risks. This too can be supported when the goals and objectives of our units and lessons aren’t as scripted as to ‘get to Vancouver.’ The new BC curriculum allows for planning that is focused on big ideas that endure throughout subjects and over time. I think there is still too much focus on the content, which I know we need as a vehicle to higher-level thinking. My concern is that too many teachers still want to get all their students ‘to Vancouver’ and are focused on the content that is covered at each grade level. It is easier to identify if students have been successful in remembering and regurgitating content. If backwards design is being used to accomplish such goals then, I agree, a conversation needs to be had; not about the framework, but what we are valuing within the framework.

So I think that your desire to put students at the centre of their learning is noble and should continue to be a priority in all teachers’ practice. However I would invite you to re-examine a backwards design framework and see how it can be used to teach students to be more skillful, more independent, more critical thinkers and take more ownership of their learning rather than a way to cover ‘objectives.’ I think that you could accomplish your goals supported by a framework that encourages us to visualize what we want for our students, and a way to know they have arrived.

Inquiry Is Really About Getting Kids To Think

In education circles today, inquiry based learning is gaining popularity and support by teachers all over the world.  Personally I feel there is much value in examining these approaches to learning, which sometimes play second fiddle to traditional notions of school and learning.  I truly feel there is value in many approached to teaching and learning.  But, I am pleased to see the idea that students ‘inquiring’ into topics and ideas that they are personally interested in, taking root in many classrooms and schools in many different jurisdictions.  One doesn’t have to go to far down the inquiry rabbit hole to find a plethora of examples of inquiry based initiatives.  My only fear is that ‘inquiry’ is going to get lost in its own celebrity of sorts!

Let me explain, a number of years ago, I wrote a post called Buzzwords, Jargon or Just What Things are Called in Education in which I cautioned teachers not to throw out or dismiss ‘new ideas’ that come with certain labels.  We can get lost in the language of ideas and lose sight of the idea.  Regardless of the words we use to label ideas, the ideas must still be considered and examined by teachers and policy makers.  While inquiry based teaching increases in popularity, it is important for the pedagogy embedded in the ideas behind the label is not lost because of the label.   In short, I hope inquiry is here to stay and that we continue to teach our students how to learn and how to think.  Inquiry is really about getting kids to think.  It’s All About Thinking!

Last week, I was approached by The Center For Authentic Inquiry for my thoughts and reflections on inquiry-driven teaching and learning.  I appreciated an opportunity to take an hour out of my schedule and reflect on where I have been, where I am and where I see my self going with inquiry; not only for my self as a teacher, but also as a learner and a person.

Highlights of the interview can be found by clicking here.

Thank you to @lindadarco1 for a great conversation!

Learning on the Job: Reflections on Being a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University

I have recently completed a two-year contract as faculty associate at Simon Fraser University. Working in Professional Programs, I was responsible for teaching and supervising pre-service teachers in K – 12 classrooms. I worked in schools from Surrey to Chilliwack and everywhere in between. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with and talk to teachers in various districts and in diverse communities. Through these experiences I have learned a lot about education and even more about me. The FA experience is described as an experience “rich in human drama – full of conflicts, dilemmas, successes, and failures, all lived intensely in a short time” (Beynon, Grout & Wideen, 2004, pg. 18). Truer words might not be written!

I can honestly say I have never worked harder or felt more rewarded than I did working as a faculty associate.  I couldn’t have imagined the personal and professional growth I would experience as a result of the job. I was given new perspectives to look from, new ideas to reflect on and new people to learn with, and from. All of my colleagues came with an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge about teaching and learning, and my students came with a thirst for new learnings and new understandings about teaching and learning. It was a place where the lines between being a teacher and being a learner were significantly blurred. I often feel I took from the experience more than I put in!

Ultimately, it was a transformative experience, both personally and professionally. I am now left looking to reintegrate into the Surrey School District and take what I have learned over the past number of years to serve the students I will teach in September. The next adventure on this journey awaits!

Below are some musings / reflections on some the things I’ve learned working as a faculty associate. Enjoy!

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals who can go it alone.” Margaret Wheatley (2009)

The key thing I take away from the FA experience is the importance of relationships; all relationships. As Margaret Wheatley says, relationships are all there is; after experiencing two years as faculty associate I am convinced she couldn’t be more correct. The relationships started with my module partners, then to the coordinators, to other faculty associates and then continued out to my students, their school associates and the principals in the schools; each relationship requiring a different approach, a different type of nurturing. All of these relationships provided me with feedback about how I was performing my roll as a faculty associate as I experienced seemingly hundreds of interactions a day! As expected not every interaction worked out as I might have wanted, but all of them allowed me to learn more about me and how I can best interact with those I am working with. I’ve learned a lot about people and how different contexts and conditions can change the way we interact with one another. But ultimately I’ve learned that working together we’re better than going at it alone.

“As non-Aboriginal educators, we have come to acknowledge and appreciate that Aboriginal education is for all learners – of all ages… We need to build curiosity about our history as well as increasing our knowledge of Indigenous principles of learning, which we can incorporate into our inquiry work.” (Halbert and Kaser, 2013)

I started as a faculty associate in the same year the TRB mandated a required course or course equivalent in Aboriginal Education and Canada’s colonial history. Working with Dr. Susan Dion I was challenged to examine my relationship with First Nations People and how I, as a settler, have benefited from Canada’s colonial relationship with Aboriginal Peoples. What this marked for me was the beginning of an odyssey that allowed me to explore my relationship with, and assumptions of, First Nations People, and begin the work of critically examining where my perspective came from. In working with K’aui Kellipio and others in the SFU community I allowed myself to be vulnerable as I reflected on my story and how it connects to the stories of Aboriginal People. I see there is much work still to be done and will continue to be an ally as our school and classroom communities continue to take up this important work.

Learning From vs. Learning About

In her text, Susan Dion also makes the distinction between ‘learning from’ Aboriginal people versus ‘learning about’ Aboriginal people. From my experience in public schools I was taught about historical Aboriginal people and learned nothing of the more recent history of Residential Schools and the more recent post-colonial history of Canada. I learned ‘about’ Aboriginal people. This past year I had members of our module read novels written by Aboriginal authors with the stipulation that students’ purpose for reading was to ‘learn from’ aboriginal people. In one reflection a student of mine wrote:

“As I began my novel, “As Long as The Rivers Flow”, I began hearing and feeling rather than looking. As soon as I was emotionally invested in the story I decided to just read the novel and see what came up for me. I was simply reading, nothing more and nothing less. To my surprise I heard the story and felt the pain of the heroine in my novel. Although, the story is much the same as others I have read, I stopped looking for something new and began listening to the characters I was meeting throughout the novel.”

“In law, it is commonplace for historical agreements to impose a burden on upon succeeding generations. As a result, the successors of those who signed the original agreements face many dilemmas. In the past, the Canadian government has pretended that treaties belong to some obscure prehistory” (Battiste and Barman, 1995, pg. 255).

This idea of being burdened by the history of our country is one that I acknowledge and work to address in my context and my practice. I acknowledge the land that I work on and that I have benefitted from the historic relationship our government has had with Aboriginal people. I will continue to work alongside those working towards reconciliation. For I know that it is not my responsibility to right the historical wrongs, but rather work with others towards a better future.

“I was with it down there; I just couldn’t see it.” (Goldsworthy, 2001)

Finally, I want to end with a metaphor that really highlights my beliefs about learning. The following is a passage out of a paper I wrote in December of 2013. I was inspired by the artist Andy Goldsworthy to see reconstruction as a way to understand things that didn’t go as expected. It speaks to the notion of learning from one’s mistakes.

Failure, reiteration, recursion are all fundamentally important to the work as they are to my research and my discovery of self. Ultimately through failure and setbacks one can come to understand themselves. Goldsworthy states, “For the moment when something collapses it is intensely disappointing… each time, though, I got to know the stone a little more. It got higher each time. So it grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone… and that is one of the things my art is trying to do. I obviously don’t understand it well enough… yet.”There is hope in these words. Through a continuing reconstruction of self through a variety of experiences with our medium and ourselves, we can come to understand ourselves, our motivations. And he states, “the real work is the change” (Goldsworthy, 2001). I have experienced the change.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope to cross paths with you in the future.