Shifting to Critical Thinking, Simplexity and Boiling the Frogs

There is a parable that states that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will immediately jump out.  However, if you place the frog into cooler water, and slowly turn up the heat until the water boils, the frog will remain until it is too late.

(The above parable is a little graphic, but it I find it compelling as it summarizes the challenges of helping to bring about change.  By the end of this post, you hopefully will see where I’m going with this.)

Today I had the awesome privilege (for the third time but who’s counting) of  hearing Garfield Gini-Newman speak to Principals and Vice-Principals in our board.  Garfield is a lecturer at Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and a Senior Consultant with the Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2).

It was a fabulous morning discussing and examining the concept of critical thinking through the lens of our district’s instructional framework of the Big Five*, and how we can shift the instructional practices in our building to one that is based in inquiry and thinking challenges, from those that are rooted in superficial rote memory skills.  This was the most intriguing part for me.  To an extent Garfield was preaching to the choir today, but I understand that as the instructional leaders in our buildings it is our mandate to nurture, invite and support this framework with our staff. 

I am not naturally a patient person. My instinct is to run through the halls of my building tonight after hours and pitch out every workbook, cursive writing sheet and piece of chalk in the place, and announce triumphantly that we will be doing business differently from now on, deliver a stirring speech on the wonders of critical thinking and engaging tasks, wait for the applause, and isn’t this exciting everyone?

But no.  So how do we support a shift in practice that is so monumentous in its core beliefs regarding learning without reluctant staff members throwing up the barriers, locking their classroom doors and shutting me out?  Well, I learned a new word today – simplexity.  The key is simplexity, the interrelationship of the simple and the complex (I Googled it when I got home and got Angela Maier’s 2008 post  as one of the top hits).  Garfield suggested that the key factor to moving your more reluctant teachers along is to accept it as a process, and invite and encourage staff to “tweak” what they are currently doing in the classroom by taking a task that is a recall-based (“look-it-up”) question/task and by changing the wording, or the timing, you’ve completely changed what is expected of the students with regard to the level and complexity of their thinking and what they produce.  For example: Who is the protagonist in Macbeth?  Simple.  If you’ve read the play (or even if you haven’t), you’ll most likely regurgitate a one-word answer.  But what if you’ve first explored the concept of protagonism, then asked the same question before reading the play?  Now you’ve got the background knowledge to set criteria for what a protagonist is, and the students are then investigating, accepting and dismissing ideas as they read, making a judgment and supporting it.  And they may argue that it isn’t Macbeth!

Another example from my own life.  My niece has been given the task of building (her sheet said create, but I disagree) a model of the solar system.  Low-level engagement and at best she’ll learn the order of the planets (and perhaps a clever mnemonic).  Now, by simply tweaking the question to something along the lines of, “If you had to colonize any planet in our solar system to sustain human life, which one would you choose?” and by asking  it at the outset, you’ve set up a critical thinking challenge.

The above hopefully illustrates a deep and complex shift in practice via a simple method, hence the simplexity. And it is simplexity that will hopefully “boil the frogs” in our building.

*For more information on our district’s Big 5, specifically our initial focus on the task, please visit Shannon Smith’s blog post.

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Why I Love Being a School Administrator

My office prior to the "Big Clean"

Today is a professional development day in my school district, and all my staff is busily working away on report cards.  I too have report cards to write, being a half-time teacher as well as VP, but today is my day to be here and available to support staff should they need me with questions on assessment, etc.  My staff is proving to be quite knowledgeable as I’ve hardly heard from anybody!

So, I went to plan B: reconnecting with my online PLN, blogging, and (ugh) clearing out some stuff.  However, sometimes in the mundane we find some treasures.  I found an old poster on “Why I Would Remain a Principal” – nothing fancy, just a goldenrod-coloured 11×17 piece of paper with 18 points on why this unknown author would not want to leave the profession.  I think it was probably written around the time I was born from the looks of it, but even given it’s age, it got me to thinking: these are many of the reasons why I love working as a school administrator, and thought I would share these points here.  I would love for others to add to the list!

  1. Education is both challenging and rewarding.
  2. Changes provide an incredible opportunity for leadership to make changes with staff, students and community (original says for, and doesn’t include the community).
  3. A Principal can make  a difference in the lives of staff and students (the original said values rather than lives – thought that was a bit strange).
  4. Principals have positive contributions to make to the education of young people.
  5. We’ve built an excellent education system and I’m excited to carry it on into the future (and oh, what a future it will be!).
  6. We really care and advocate for children.
  7. A Principal has the most impact on the community, the staff and therefore, the students.
  8. I enjoy what I’m doing.
  9. I have a vision and the motivation to achieve many goals.
  10. This is my opportunity to have an impact on society and to give service.  It is the best match with my skills, abilities and desires.  It is a challenge that I need to meet.
  11. I never thought being  a Principal would be an easy job but I still love it as I make a difference.  I get lots of hugs just by walking down the hall.
  12. I have a strong belief and commitment to public education, high standards, and rich learning opportunities for children.  I like what I’m doing and I’m good at it (I would add that I also love the fact that I’m always growing as a professional).
  13. I have gained the trust and credibility of my community.
  14. This is my opportunity to do some positive things with kids despite all the doom and gloom stuff.
  15. I can make a difference at the staff and student level.
  16. I’m proud of the public education system that we have all worked to build, and I thrive on the challenges that it still presents.
  17. It is my destiny – that is, where the sum total of my life experiences and talents have directed me thus far.  To this point, I have found this path exceptionally rewarding.
  18. I followed my heart.

What can you add?

Our Moral Obligation

I was on a search for videos on YouTube that I could share with my staff and came across Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s 2008 talk in Christchurch,  New Zealand. While it is not new to say that teachers have the moral obligation to prepare students for their future in the job world, it is provocative (at least with some) to throw down the gauntlet and fuse this obligation with the use of social media and other technologies within the safety nets of our classrooms. We are doing students a huge disservice if we ignore, criticize and/or fuel the fear-mongering that surrounds the use of SM and tech in our schools.

Gone (for a while), but hopefully not forgotten…

I’m embarrassed to say that it’s been approximately 6 months since I last posted on my blog. I gave myself a small break over the summer, then the school year started and I got swept up in day-to-day events at my site; so much so that it dominated my working life and left me exhausted at the end of the day.  Pyjamas and my couch were all I could manage for a while (I know there’s a lesson in balance there – slowly re-learning it).

I’ve been back with my online PLN and catching up.  Two great finds (among many) were @L_Hilt’ s post on the PLP Network site here, and @Justin Tarte ‘s PD blog for his staff.  Justin has been kind enough to share with me his experiences on building a PD blog for his staff to support them in reflecting on their growth as educators and learners, and I wanted to reach out even more to my PLN. I too would like to create a weekly list of engaging blog posts on teaching, learning, leading, achievement, technology, you name it! If you have a great blog post, or know of a colleague’s please go to this Google doc to help me begin to compile a list.  With this resource, I’m hoping to get a conversation started with a somewhat reluctant staff in the areas of teaching and learning.

My thanks to you!