Revisiting: How Schools Learn

Four years ago, I had the pleasure of joining a CAIS accreditation committee at a school in Bermuda. Fuelled by my conviction that the exercise in earning CAIS accreditation was a story worth telling, I wrote the following blog from my hotel room overlooking Hamilton Harbour. This coming Sunday to Wednesday, I’m heading out west to join the committee for another school visit. CAIS and the accreditation process help make KCS and other CAIS schools outstanding places to teach and learn. Here’s how:

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Our website, newsletters and social media channels explain in detail how our students learn. A nod to how our teachers are learning was given in the recent blog ‘Embrace Learning’. There’s one more pocket of learning worth knowing about. A critical part of the value offered by independent schools, it’s a process that would bring untold value to all if this practice could only spread.

I’m rarely away from school. This week, however, I’ve joined a Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) Visiting Committee, where six peers from across Canada and I will play a part in one school’s learning. It’s a process required for CAIS accreditation and represents the high bar in demonstrating school-wide commitment to excellence in education. All told, it’s a process that takes about two-and-a-half years and repeats itself every seven.

CAIS has identified 12 Standards which together cover every area of functioning within a school: vision, mission and strategy; learning environment; academics; facility; finance; health and safety; and commitment to school improvement, to name just some of the Standards. Within each Standard, undeniable effective practices are listed. Under effective practices are questions designed to prompt and provoke schools into being accountable for their efforts.

One year prior to the visit such as I’m on, schools mobilise their whole community to collect evidence on their effective practices. The preparation of the Internal Evaluation Report includes feedback from all staff and faculty, parents, students, board members and administration. The document is rarely less than 200 pages and can be hundreds more. Designed to be an exercise in thorough and honest reflection, the report includes not only an account of strengths but also self-identified challenges and next steps. By design, this exercise is about school-wide learning. This process identifies schools which demonstrate an exceptional commitment to learning and makes note of their achieved excellence.

During our official visit, the committee will spend four days meeting with teachers, administrators, parents, board members and students, verifying what’s in the school’s Internal Evaluation Report and asking about any unreported areas of note. When we leave, we’ll be writing up our observations, and include commendations, suggestions and recommendations. Our report then goes to the school, where they will have 18 months in which to respond to the recommendations. It also goes to CAIS for a decision on accreditation.

Two-and-a-half years of every seven spent answering to the profession’s highest standards fuels an undeniable engine for learning. It sets in motion work and learning that fills the interim four-and-a-half years. And by mobilizing the whole community, and bringing in professionals from outside the school, all involved learn and become better able to serve the students in their midst.

Parents with children in CAIS schools can be confident that they have invested in a school which strives for excellence. Wishing all children could be so lucky, parents with children in non-CAIS schools are encouraged to ask the question, “How do their schools learn?” It’s the kind of provocative question that our entire profession should be accountable for answering.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

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Mr. Logan’s Four Tips for Surviving Back to School

For me, September means three things – the start of the school year, getting into a suit and tie again, and the Leafs training camp.

While I’m not sure what advice I could offer to my long-suffering Leafs (except to sign Sidney Crosby), I do have a few tips for families struggling to make it through what can be a bumpy month back at school.

Tip #1 – Go to Bed!  

I know it can be hard to break the staying-up-late habit that many kids get into over the summer, but nothing sets you up for success at school like a good night’s sleep. Get your bedtime routine started nice and early. If you have a younger child, wind them down with a quiet storybook. And – most importantly – put away all those sleep-disrupting screens at least an hour before bedtime.

Sleep

Tip # 2 – Avoid the Lunch Crunch

Mornings are busy enough as it is. You don’t want to be making sandwiches before you’ve had your first cup of coffee. Make your life easier by packing lunch the night before. Or, if you really feel like promoting independence, have your child make it themselves! It will be a little messy the first few times, but it will save you hundreds of hours in the long run and teach your child some essential life skills.  Or, if it works for your family, consider trying our new hot lunch program, Kidssentials.

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Tip # 3 – Dress for Success

Get your child in the habit of laying out tomorrow’s clothes before going to bed. This prevents those last-minute scrambles for clean shirts or missing socks. It also helps kids take more ownership over their belongings and routines – a practice that will help them find success both at home and at school.  I even try to figure out what tie I will wear with what shirt and suit the night before!

Dress for Success

Tip # 4 – Be Kind to Yourself

This is an exceptionally busy time of year for parents, which means mistakes will be made and stress levels will rise. Don’t beat yourself up over missed homework or uniform mishaps. Unwind with some unstructured downtime as a family. Take a breath. Get some takeout for dinner. Relax. Because take it from me – before you know it you’ll be dropping them off at university, as I did with my youngest last month. So enjoy the ride.

Be Kind

Have a great year!

Mr. Logan

A Great Year to Come, By Design

I make no secret of my enthusiasm for what happens at KCS, and what’s happening in the profession. I have an exciting vantage point, in the midst of determined teachers and students as they embrace learning, within a profession that is evolving in notable inspiring ways. The evolution I witness daily isn’t always smooth – “messy” is the word often used in professional dialogue. Like the work of a sculptor, through (responsible) mess, beautiful things emerge.

Last week, all KCS faculty were introduced to design thinking. Blog readers may recall that we introduced design thinking two years ago in the form of a unique model of student-staff collaborative leadership, called KCS By Design. This initial experience with design thinking made clear that it was worth adopting school-wide.

While design thinking has origins in the late 1960s, it has gained increasing attention since the turn of the century for contributing to remarkable innovation, both in the corporate world and in addressing some of the world’s most challenging social issues. One remarkable article published by the Harvard Business Review shares how design thinking helped create a middle class in Peru. Impressive indeed! In schools, design thinking not only equips educators with a problem-solving tool, it equally develops in students mature critical and creative thinking skills, and so much more.

Design thinking insists on certain mindsets. Based on the work of the international driver of design thinking, IDEO, here are the mindsets shared with faculty last week:

Creative confidence
Make it (Bias for Action)
Learn from Failing
Empathy
Embrace Ambiguity
Optimism (love the problem!)
Iterate, iterate, iterate (small actions, big change)

Fuelled with those mindsets, design thinking requires a disciplined multi-step process. Also based on the work of IDEO, here is the process we’re following:

What is the design challenge?

  • What problems are you aware of that need fixing?
  • What challenges are you aware of that are worth addressing?
  • What opportunities have occurred to you that are worth pursuing?

What do you need to know?

  • Who is affected?
  • What are their perspectives?
  • What research can inform you?
  • What can you learn from others’ experiences?

What ideas address your design challenge?

  • What can you think of?
  • Which are win-win for all?
  • Get feedback from a larger group

Act

  • Pilot at a small scale
  • Reflect and iterate
  • Expand to address the challenge

Annette Diefenthaler’s TEDX talk ‘Teachers as Designers’ was part of last week’s introduction. This was followed by a creative brainstorming exercise that was rooted in KCS survey results and research. The design challenge for all was to find new ways to do better in various areas.

Most gratifying were the comments from faculty that “this is how we’ve done things for years – now we have a name for it.” What was also gratifying was to see the buzz among faculty. Optimistic bias for action was fuelled.

The world has complex problems. So does education. As all schools, so does KCS. Equipping all faculty with the mindsets and tools of design thinking is one big reason for my excitement as we begin this new school year. Mindfully embracing challenges is how we’ve gotten better year after year. And it’s why we can confidently look forward to a great year to come.

My Blue is Happy

My sister says that blue is sad, like a lonely song, but my blue is happy like my favourite jeans and a splash in the pool on a hot day.

This is the opening line in the book My Blue is Happy by Jessica Young. A lyrical ode to colours and the unique way we as individuals perceive them.

We have been working hard with the JKs this year to help them recognize the many different emotions they experience throughout the day. We want to teach them to recognize when they are feeling happy, sad, frustrated, worried, calm or silly. We want to teach them that it is okay to have these feelings, and give them the resources and strategies to help regulate them.

It was on a day like any other that we decided to read, My Blue is Happy. As I sat there reading, I didn’t know how much it would mean to the JKs sitting, listening so quietly on the carpet, or to be honest how much it would affect me.

We live in a world that is so rich with colour I think sometimes we forget to appreciate it. Eventually each colour seems to bleed into the next, and before you know it when you think of colour you think of them as society has inadvertently taught you to: “I’m green with envy”, “I feel blue”, “I’m so angry I see red!” and so on. When you really think about it, it is actually quite sad.

So, when the story was finished we asked our students to close their eyes and think of a colour and how it makes them feel. The next day we read the story again and afterwards put on quiet music, and put out white paper and watercolour paints. We asked them to explore with the colours, and to think about how they felt with each colour they used.

Afterwards one student told me “blue makes me feel like an ocean; calm and relaxed”. Another told me that green makes them feel brave. Each student saw these colours in a way completely unique to them.

My hope for my students is that they never stop appreciating the beauty that is around them, and that they never stop seeing these colours in the way that is meaningful to them.

It was later that day as I sat in the hall waiting for one of my students to wash their hands that I found myself staring out the window, watching the snow falling and thought:

My white is peaceful, like slowly falling snow and clouds floating across the sky.

I encourage you to close your eyes now and think of a colour. Do you have one? Good! Now tell me, how does it make you feel?

The Sesame E-Portfolio: An Exciting Addition, Nine Times Over

Last year we launched Sesame, a secure e-portfolio (or electronic portfolio) that captured the detailed learning journey of our PK, JK and SK students through photo, video and captions. This year, Sesame is capturing the journey of all students from PK to grade 3. As we continue to roll out this new tool, Sesame will follow our students from their first day at KCS until the day of their graduation.

This is an exciting step forward for many reasons. Here are nine of the more obvious ones:

  1. Sesame opens up the classroom to parents, colleagues and students. Through photos and videos, we’re able to share exponentially more about the world of learning happening at school. Homework doesn’t tell that story. Nor do tests, projects, assignments or report cards, at least not directly. The process matters. Sesame captures and shares it.
  2. By opening up the classroom to parents, they have a means to see the play presentations, the Show and Tell, the showcases and multiple other events that busy parents can’t always attend. On top of that, these banner days are captured to share with grandparents, friends and extended family – all who would love to see it in person, but often can’t.
  3. We now have a tool to measure and honour the attributes that matter most in life. Yes, the standard curriculum matters, and practices are in place to make sure this curriculum (and more) is effectively learned. What most of the profession still struggles with, however, is how to teach and measure growth of the equally critical soft skills, what we know as our Habits of Mind, Body and Action at KCS. Our students are taught about the Habits, and we see evidence of the Habits being practised daily. But how to measure this? By capturing evidence of the Habits in action. Sesame is our tool for the job.
  4. As an electronic portfolio, Sesame is unsurpassed in its clean, minimalist look. Suitable for all ages, it’s devoid of the distracting extra features that bog down too many tech products and take away from the pleasure of a tool that simply does its job well.
  5. It couldn’t be easier to use. With a tablet, sign-in via a personal QR code requires just one tap. One more tap and you’re adding content. It’s easy enough for our youngest students and busiest teachers. We’ve resisted adopting other e-portfolios because ease of use and efficiency matter. Sesame offers it like no other product we’ve seen.
  6. With Sesame, our students will increasingly assume ownership of the Habits they’re developing. Our students, as they become able, will take on the role of populating their portfolios with what they see as evidence of the Habits in their personal learning journey. Seeking, capturing, and commenting on these moments will reinforce their understanding and awareness of these vital attributes.
  7. Teachers have a powerful new tool to promote self-awareness and provoke behaviour-changing reflection. Having a great class? Teachers can take video to show the students later, and get their thoughts on the evidence for why it worked well. Having a class that didn’t work as well? Teachers can have the students watch that one too, and ask them to identify what the problems were. Video evidence is a powerful medium for personal growth.
  8. With photos and videos regularly updated and easily accessible at home, parents and children can have richer conversations about what their child is doing at school. These conversations both reinforce and extend the learning that’s happening in the classroom. That’s parent involvement which directly makes a difference in their child’s learning. As such, that’s an exercise we’re directly asking families to engage in.
  9. Last but not least, we now have a tool to easily capture, store, and share memories. From the Teddy Bear picnic to raucous House challenges in assembly, and all the showcases, French plays, concerts, student-led projects, and infinite other experiences that make up their days at KCS, the Sesame portfolio will follow our students from PK to graduation. Upon leaving KCS, the content will be given to students to enjoy, and even use, in their lives after KCS. As universities and employers increasingly express interest in seeing portfolios, Sesame will be ready with students’ stories of leadership, responsible risks, creativity, persistence and more.

Portfolios aren’t new at KCS, and e-portfolios aren’t new in the profession. Sesame, all it offers, and how we’re using it, however, is quite new. We’re always striving to do better. Nine times over, Sesame is one exciting example of how.

Everything a School Should Be – Part 2

Teachers join the profession to do their best for students. Doing one’s best includes a vast array of efforts, a sample of which were shared in Part 1 of this post.

Doing one’s best also means a determined, responsible commitment to constant improvement, wherever merited and as manageable.

At KCS, we’re constantly looking at what we do, identifying where we wish to grow, and taking measured steps forward from year-to-year. Many steps are identified by individual teachers, or grade partners, or divisions of teachers. Some steps are school-wide. Some are new initiatives; while others are ongoing efforts that began in previous years and continue to be an area of focus.

Here is some of what we’re focusing on this year:

  1. Living the Mission – Always our #1 focus, our mission is to be the defining force in developing lifelong learners. Currently, this effort includes Project-Based Learning; direct efforts to teach questioning skills; the growth of KCS as a Makerspace, with our new Innovation Lab and increased “making” throughout the school; the use of design thinking for deeper thinking, learning and problem-solving; and the launch of a new program called “High Resolves” in our senior grades as part of our global education efforts.
  2. Assessment – This is a multi-year area of focus. We launched a new report card last year and some adjustments will be made this year. We also launched our new secure electronic portfolio, Sesame, and we continue our roll-out to include all students from PK to grade 3. A blog will soon follow to explain why this is an exciting addition to KCS!
  3. Movement Project – This is also an ongoing area of focus under the leadership of our Director of Student Life, Tamara Drummond. Standing desks, chairs that allow for movement, fidget toys, and new practices that invite more frequent movement in the school day are becoming increasingly widespread throughout the school.
  4. Reading Evolution – A number of years ago we introduced a reading program that helped many of our students better consolidate the fundamentals of reading. The cumulative effect of this program is now a very noticeable increase in the reading skills of all of our students. Driven by internal data, reading instruction is evolving to meet the growing readiness for greater challenge.
  5. ELP and Reggio-inspired programming – Following widespread professional development, visits to other schools, and engagement of a consultant, the PK, JK and SK faculty have enthusiastically embraced Reggio-inspired programming as a strong complement to the Ministry of Education curriculum. While direct instruction on core skills will continue, students will also be given more time to practise being deep thinkers and learners through self-directed inquiry.
  6. Professional Development – PD has always been a regular feature of employment at KCS. All teachers have a generous budget for PD and they pursue various opportunities of relevance to their role. This year we launched a new means of sharing PD that allows all staff to see what others have done, and get a glimpse into what they learned. This is an efficient and effective new way to share professional learning and encourage greater awareness of the various PD offerings available to all.
  7. Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS preparation) – This merits a blog of its own, and one will follow later in the year. CAIS oversees a comprehensive accreditation process for independent schools that aspire to excellence. KCS is CAIS-accredited, and all staff will be working this year on an internal review in preparation for our upcoming accreditation review in November of 2017.

At KCS we’re constantly learning so that we can keep improving in all ways that matter, each and every year. Creative thinking is inspired when multiple challenges synergize into innovative solutions. Progressing thoughtfully and responsibly, changes aren’t always immediate. They’re discussed, and if considered worthy they’re piloted. If successful, they spread. When imperfect, they’re tweaked. And they’re not limited by the notion that we can only focus on a few areas. Collectively, there are positive changes happening throughout the school, based on what teachers feel needs improvement, and what they can manage well. Being everything a school should be includes constantly trying to do better. Doing our best means we won’t accept anything less.

Everything a School Should Be (Part 1)

Let’s take a moment and think about everything a great school should be doing for students. There’s the curriculum – collectively many hundreds of pages of content and skills, wrapped up in subjects, that schools need to make sure all students learn. Then there’s tailoring the curriculum, because ensuring all students learn requires adjustments for each and every one. On top of that there’s enrichment programming, character education, learning skills, collaboration skills, critical and creative thinking, leadership and citizenship, appreciation of nature and the arts, and so much more. Schools need to engage minds, inspire physical health and activity, develop resilience, and nurture the artistic spirit. Direct instruction matters. Project-based learning matters. Clubs, teams, field trips, inspiring speakers, cross-grade integration activities, and spirit-raising events matter. Throughout the delivery of all of the above, a school needs to help students with the inevitable bumps – social, emotional, mental, academic, physical – that happen and directly interfere with everything else if not well addressed. And all of this, and more, needs to happen in an aligned, whole-system manner so it’s optimal both in how it’s experienced and in the difference it makes. Without a doubt, a great school must do many things exceptionally well.

Yet to follow the dialogue, one might think it’s otherwise.

We hear boasts of schools that are outstanding on singular measures, but left wondering how these feats are achieved without sacrifice in other areas of the school. We read that schools should focus improvement efforts on only a small number of areas at once, as if all other important things can wait, for years. We learn of exciting new programs that have great appeal, but represent just a tiny fraction of what’s needed for deep, longstanding impact. This is fine reading, but none are the story that students most need. None are the story we should want for our children.

At KCS, we’re transparent in our unrelenting commitment to being everything a school should be. Our Four Doors to Learning program in academics, arts, athletics and citizenship reflects years’ worth of creative, collaborative effort so that our story is the full story students need. Our faculty are constantly adding new professional learning so that this effort reflects the wisest judgment we can muster. And we’re constantly striving to improve in as many ways we can, and in all ways that matter.

KCS is committed to being everything a school should be. If there’s anything singular about where we strive to be outstanding, that’s it. We know that other schools strive for this as well, but it’s a story we don’t hear often enough. It makes for a long story, with many lengthy chapters. In a busy world and crowded social media space, it’s a story that takes time to tell and time to hear.

That’s okay. Children love long stories. So should we.

Part 2 of this post, to be published shortly, will share the story of how KCS is constantly striving to improve in its effort to be everything a school should be.

Four Doors Collage.jpg

Best Ever Teaching and Learning

“During my Driver’s Ed, I was so nervous the instructor had me drive to Tim’s. I learned how to go through the drive-through and ordered a jelly donut.”

“My grade 9 history teacher claimed he had many past lives and would tell the stories of those lives for the period we were studying. It ignited my passion for history.”

August may seem like a long time ago for many. As for me, one memory from August continues to warm my soul.

The last week of August, all faculty returned to school, joining the non-teaching staff who remained busy over the summer preparing for September. It’s a huge week of learning, meeting, and planning. This year, it was also the week that all faculty and non-teaching staff engaged in an exercise to define excellence in teaching and learning. It started with a partner activity to share our personal answers to the following:

  1. What is the best learning experience you’ve ever had at school?
  2. What is the best learning experience you’ve ever had outside of school?

Take a moment. What would your answers be? We all have them, and would do well to remember.

With these personal stories captured on post-it notes, larger groups assembled and identified the features of these experiences that made the cut. All features were then shared with all staff. Of the 39 different features, all staff then identified their top six. Collectively, here are some of the features that were most chosen by all staff:

  • “Out of our comfort zone”
  • Hands-on
  • Inspiring
  • Meaningful
  • Challenging
  • Involved responsible risks
  • Real-life experience
  • Collaborative
  • Fun, Humourous
  • Passion-driven
  • Creative
  • Empowering

There are many ways to learn, and while not all are exciting enough to be remembered as “best learning ever,” they all add up to making a difference. However, learning that is so special that it remains a powerful memory years later is learning that clearly matters. This exercise was a great kick-off to a new year meant to inspire unforgettable learning.

May the learning in your lives be full of what we aim to bring to your children.

The Numbers Have It

mathAs classrooms across Ontario echo with the sounds of excited students, the hot topic making waves in Ontario has been math scores. The news for many, unfortunately, has not been as sunny as our summer weather.

At Kingsway College School, our approach to math (and everything else) is proactive, based on proven practice, tailored to our students, and built through teamwork.  For example, in our first week of school, I observed a few of our grade 3 and 4 students completing a math placement activity with one of our specialist teachers, Mr. Graham Marshall.  Working in small groups, the students tackled a range of challenging questions.  Once evaluated, these assessment results will be used by both Mr. Marshall and his Primary and Junior colleagues to support differentiated instruction and a tailored curricular course for these students.

Math doesn’t come easily to some. And it comes very easily to others. A school’s job is to make sure all these students learn. KCS continuously strives to uncover the most effective strategies to support and if need be, accelerate students as they all navigate the ins and outs of the math curriculum.  Standardized test results make clear that we’re doing our job. Though fall will soon be here, we’re delighted that the KCS math story is the sunny one that all students deserve.

The Call to Be a Defining Force

Goodness, these are unusual times. Anyone following world news, regardless of political leanings, knows that remarkable things are happening. For years now, it’s been said that the future will be increasingly unpredictable; that global interdependence will be increasingly entrenched and often uncomfortable; and that the challenges we’ll all have to face will be increasingly complex. It’s looking like the future is here.

That’s why we all, increasingly, need to step in.

Eight years ago, KCS made its intentions clear. Our vision and mission statement, adopted then, captured our aspirations:

To be a defining force in developing lifelong learners
By stewarding a learning environment that inspires us to reach our ultimate potential.

This statement is rooted in our longstanding determination to do our best for our students. It’s equally rooted in something else, something that many of our families may not have thought much about, and something worth pointing out.

Teachers join the profession to do their best for students. All KCS staff share that dedication to the children and families we serve. Doing our best means we also need to help realize the potential in education as a whole. There is a tremendous effort that goes into the education of every child. And while there is much that is sound and good in the profession, there has always been significant room for growth. As the world becomes increasingly complex to navigate, the room for growth expands. KCS is not a school that simply strives to offer what other schools, even great schools, offer. We’re a school prepared to push the boundaries of the profession, in ways that are balanced, impactful, and progressive. KCS is a school prepared to wrestle with challenges, be patient when the time for change isn’t right, and to act when creative, valuable ideas are ready. We are willing and able to be a defining force in developing lifelong learners.

Over the past eight years (and more, to be honest), KCS faculty have introduced many new practices that, to our knowledge, were either unique or rare in the profession. The small-group instruction in our Super Skills and Workshop classes; our Wall of Service; our Habits of Mind, Body and Action; our Young Authors of KCS program; our multiple approaches to Student Leadership and service; Wake Up with the Arts; our use of design thinking for innovative learning and student-staff collaboration; and more came to be because our faculty wanted to go further. Pushed by pioneers in the field, remixing promising practice, and following the inspiration from others to create brand new solutions, we keep pressing forward.

Students have always deserved the best education. What’s best is changing and the need for growth is imperative. And it’s not about one school. Our vision statement “To be a defining force in developing lifelong learners” makes clear that it’s not about KCS being ‘the’ defining force. Frankly, such a limited vision would underserve students. Our wish is that all educators work together to make education the best it can be for now and for this increasingly unforeseeable future. We’ll keep doing our part. And we look forward to another year of learning and inspiration from all others who heed the call.