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Education

In Search of A+ Teaching

One teacher's quest to learn from the best educators he can find. First in a Tyee reader-funded series.

Nick Smith 2 Sep 2008TheTyee.ca

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. This series was made possible by those readers who gave to the Tyee funds for Investigative and Solutions Reporting. Donations are tax deductible and you can find out more about the Tyee Fellowship Funds here.

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Tyee Fellowship recipient Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher. Photo by Christopher Grabowski.

Our comprehension of how people learn has accelerated immensely in the past several decades. Yet change within our public education system moves as slowly as students dragging themselves to their most boring class.

As I prepared my series on education reform in British Columbia that begins today, I was driven by this question: How can we address the growing chasm between what we do in schools and what we know we should do?

It matters to all of us because we depend on inspired learners to move our society forward, make it more fair and dynamic.

It matters greatly to me because today I begin my 16th year as a teacher in British Columbia's public schools.

I knew there must be visionary educators out there who were empowering students rather than controlling them, gearing classrooms around how students were learning rather than what they were learning, and who were offering their students an education that worked on the child's terms rather than the institution's. I wanted to find these people, to learn from them and share their insights with readers of The Tyee and beyond.

A teacher's progress

When I completed PDP, the teaching program at SFU, in the early '90s, I was as fired up about the new ideas in education as the rest of the crew with whom I graduated. We were going to be a new type of teacher, guiding students who were constructing their own knowledge by engaging in dynamic, interdisciplinary projects with their peers. The face of education would change once we got into schools and started designing instruction that would excite students while challenging them, acknowledging that their own experiences of the world were worthy of investigation.

Then we all got our first jobs. Without the support of one another and of our university instructors, the daily routine in schools shattered our lofty ideals just as surely as the alarm clock breaks a dream.

I taught English, Social Studies and Learning Assistance at one of East Vancouver's big high schools for five years before defecting to a small alternative school in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood, where I was referred to as the English teacher, but found myself showing students how to make pizza, bind books, interview for jobs and engage in online discussions.

I hiked the Stein Valley with one group, took another to a stream where salmon were spawning and sailed the Gulf Islands with yet another. I felt as though I was inching closer to realizing my ideals in education mostly because there was no one there looking over my shoulder telling me what I could not do. When my wife and I decided to move to the Sunshine Coast a few years ago so that our two boys could have forest and beach in their backyards, I jumped at the opportunity to join the staff at the Sunshine Coast Alternative School. I was just finishing my Master's in Educational Technology, and had joined a school that encouraged me to try out the ideas I had been studying.

Pushing the edges

By now, I'm no idealistic neophyte. And as you read this series, I hope you will see that my interest is not in taking any swings at the system: that is a fight I could only lose, knowing that B.C.'s students are some of the best educated in the world, scoring as a group near the top of almost any international test thrown their way.

Rather, my goal has been to find other educators who have built on this solid base to push towards the most creative and effective edges of teaching.

I spoke, for example, with Drew Williams of Campbell River, who, rather than quitting teaching out of boredom, decided that he would do whatever it took to make school interesting for his students. This year his Grade 9 students will be writing historical plays that they will perform for elementary students, they will publish a magazine, and they will work at a seniors' facility.

Williams put me in touch with his mentor, Sharon MacKenzie of Vernon, whose Grade 5 students are too busy meeting the people who make up their community and finding out what they can learn from them to ever get bored at school. When MacKenzie's students do math, it is because they have raised thousands for charity and have to figure out who gets how much.

Jeff Hopkins, superintendent of the Gulf Islands School District, took the time to tell me how he saved Saturna Elementary School, with an enrollment of nine, from shutting its doors, by turning it into an ecological centre.

I had another impassioned conversation with Catherine Murray, a parent who fought to save her son's small school, but lost, with both her and her son learning a valuable lesson the hard way.

I spoke with many teachers who are breaking down the notion of what we think of as school, by teaching lessons that don't end at the classroom door, but continue online in the form of discussions, collaborative projects and online portfolios that allow students to see and comment upon one another's work. Visionary teachers such as West Vancouver's Alex Kovak are using technology to address big issues such as how technology changes who we are as individuals and how we relate to one another.

You will meet all of these people in the weeks to come. Here are some themes that emerged from our conversations:

Students know what they love. In order to make an educational system work for young people, we have to trust students to help guide us forward. We have to stop telling them what to do and begin asking them what they would like to learn.

Create smaller, more democratic places of belonging. We must create schools that feel like places where young people belong by giving them their say in how schools are run, so that they feel more like second homes and less like institutions. This will involve scaling them down, so that schools comprise communities of learners who all know one another. Each school will take on its own identity rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

And then, in order to provide students with as many opportunities as possible, we can use technology to link these small, autonomous schools into networks, so that students can learn together and can access the best resources available in the world, wherever they are, whenever they need to. In other words: Make a flexible, diverse world of learning.

To breathe life into this vision, we will have to overcome some big hurdles. Restructuring the education system is a daunting challenge. Overcoming our attitudes, however, will be the far bigger task. If we expect today's youth to be able to navigate the uncharted territory of the 21st century, then we have to put them at the helm of their own learning.

The most inspirational educators out there are not merely instructing and directing students, but asking where they want to go and how they want to get there.

The future is doable

Taken together, I hope the articles in this series will help us to understand what is possible.

This Friday's piece will explore the educational philosophy of Constructivism, which asserts that people cannot receive an education passively, but must be active agents in constructing their own understandings of the world.

The following Tuesday I take on the topic of small schools, and why small learning communities where everyone knows each other allow for a much better education than large institutions where many children can go unnoticed.

I then look at how teachers are using technology to create "blended learning" environments that allow classroom activities and interactions to continue beyond the walls of the school building.

In the fifth piece, I take on the subject of how we train teachers and keep them in top shape. Here I explore the disconnect between the universities with their cutting edge methods, and the schools, where hard working teachers often just need to get through the day.

For the sixth and final article, I challenge traditional school timetables, questioning assumptions about when and where we learn. I investigate the notions of year round schooling and continuous progress models, looking at how they might work for B.C. students.

Thanks for the opportunity

It has been a privilege to be able to explore this exciting landscape of learning and, with the aid of a Tyee Fellowship for Solutions Reporting, to share my findings with you. As a committed public school teacher, I believe that it is imperative that my colleagues and I stay in top form, rather than resting on our laurels. Such innovation may, in fact, be the best way to stave off the unravelling of public schooling. I don't believe that private schools pose the same threat to our public system as they do in the United States, but if we remain complacent for a few more years, they could do.

What it seems to come down to is this. We need to think about education as a process, not a product. When we do that, education becomes a quality, like health, to be maintained over one's lifetime, rather than a task to be completed. Having a positive attitude toward learning becomes more valuable than knowing a lot of facts. Asking the right questions becomes more important than having the right answers. Knowing how to learn becomes, perhaps, the most important skill of all.

On Friday: Meet master teacher Sharon MacKenzie. And what's 'Constructivism' got to do with loving school?

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