Category Archives: Thoughts and Questions

A Problem with Problem Solving?

A common area of focus for schools right now is “problem solving in math”. Math has been identified as a problem in the province, as even though our PISA scores and EQAO assessments are comparatively high, there is a trend of decline in recent years.

I had the pleasure of attending the Ontario Education Research Symposium last week and was present for two presentations by Francesco Avvisati of the OECD, the body who oversees PISA testing. In both presentations the issue of ‘problem solving’ came up. What was most interesting about this was that it was never framed as a math issue. As obvious as it sounds, problem solving is a skill unto itself, not merely something we engage in with math concepts. Many examples were shared of how higher performing jurisdictions focus on problem solving outside of math, and then look to transfer these skills to the math context, but they never look at problem solving just in the context of math. The OECD has also noted that there is no correlation between socio-economic status and the ability to problem solve, but strong correlation between socio-economics and math, another indicator that they are different skills. This all sounds very obvious, but served as a great reminder that in our work with schools who are focusing on problem solving in math, we really are having two very distinct yet related conversations.

These presentations reminded me of the thinking that went in to deciding which apps we would pay for centrally to go on the almost 1000 iPads we distributed to our elementary schools this past September. One of the apps that generated the most discussion was “Where’s my Water?”.

Where's my Water?

Our rationale for including this app was exactly the type of thinking presented by the Dr. Avvisati during his presentation. Students who use this app must solve a problem (the crocodile needs water) by guiding water through a series of obstacles to the shower plumbing. Engaging in this requires students to plan a course of action, respond to the lessons they learn along the way and learn from their mistakes, and, more than anything, persist to reach a solution. They need to come up with often creative and imaginative solutions, to follow a course of action to its conclusion, and to reflect on the efficiency of their choices.

Linking back to the work we are doing in schools, it left me to reflect that when we say “problem solving in math” is an issue, are we saying the main issue is problem solving or is it math? How are the students at solving problems outside the context of math? Is their ability to problem solve holding back their ability to show their mathematical understanding, or vice versa?

Dr. Avvasati shared a story about one of the highest scoring countries they work with. They have developed a period of time every week they call “integrated learning”. During this time students are required to work on projects based on improving their local communities. The conclusion was that this was a major factor in supporting students’ ability to problem solve. They are seeing great success and correlation between the students’ ability to problem solve and their success throughout their learning.

How are you looking at developing problem solving skills with your students? How do you do this both inside and outside the context of mathematics?


A Context for iMovie

In common with most school districts in the world, mine has been struggling with how to support iPads in a shared environment of a system level. We have also made considerable efforts to ensure that the use of technology in the classroom is embedded in the curriculum and student learning experience, not merely an add-on or a flash new toy. The SAMR model continues to be valuable tool in guiding this conversation.

One of the benefits of the iPad in the classroom has been the ease of use, and nowhere is this more evident than in iMovie. This is my preferred “introduction to the iPad” app during PD session, simply because it gives novice users a sense of how to handle the iPad, how to use the camera features, and the confidence surge at the end in terms of how professional the finished product can look. I also make it very clear that simply making a movie is not necessarily addressing curriculum, and that a lot of context and conversation is needed to take this from being a fun to use app to being an app that positively impacts learning outcomes. Teachers understand this and we often move quickly to a conversation about how movie trailers support that same strategies we look to develop in our readers. For example, it is very difficult to make a movie trailer without summarizing a bigger idea, and implying certain details. At the same time when viewing a movie trailer, we engage in prediction, inference, and visualization.

At this point the search is on for “context”. By this I mean a valuable link to curriculum, or a defined purpose for the trailer (which addresses expectations around purpose, form, and audience from the media curriculum). I have seen many great examples from our system of iMovie trailers based on books being studied in literature circles or class novel studies, to create previews or summaries of units such as Medieval Times in grade 4, or to promote events within the school such as the Eco-Team, intra-murals, or extra-curricular clubs.

This week I was sent two great examples from Anderdon Public School. These student-created videos were made for Kindergarten open house and show not only the professional-looking product the students are able to make using the iMovie app on the iPad, but also the quality of work they can produce when given a meaningful context for their media creations.

What are the ways you use iMovie linked to curriculum? Feel free to share in the comments!

Focusing on “Next Practice”

I spent two days this week attending the London West Regional SIM (System Implementation and Monitoring) sessions. As is often the case, the conversation and debate at these sessions had a direct parallel with our work with integrating technology.

My team spent the first day of the meeting pondering school and system monitoring, and what it looks like when it is done well. The same as when we have this conversation about technology integration, the goal always seems a long way off, and the route to get there paved with hurdles and uncertainty. For the most part, these conversations lead to participants trying to define “best practice”. The work of Steven Katz is an essential anchor to conversations like this, as “best practice” really shouldn’t be how we define a plan, rather focusing on “next practice” to make the steps more manageable and to ensure that at every step of the process we are acting upon what we learn, rather than continuing to pursue a “best practice” vision devised at a time when we knew less about the work. The second day of our meetings was a lot more introspective and focused on the question of “what will I do next now that I know this?”. This allowed my team the chance to turn our lofty conversations into a realistic, focused next step. The continuum of “next practices” will take us to our “best practice”.

Steven Katz – Leaders in Educational Thought

The link I made throughout this was to technology use in the classroom. People always ask for examples of where things are “done well”. What is the impact of the classrooms, schools, or practices that we showcase? Do we sometimes hold up examples of “best practice” for people to aspire to and set the bar too high? Instead of encouraging people to visit places “where things are being done well”, should we be encouraging them to visit places where “we are learning about…”? Our choice of language is powerful, and as much as visiting other classrooms or schools can be inspirational, it can equally be intimidating. Do we focus on “best practice” rather than “next practice”, and if so does that set a standard to aspire to or make success seem so far away as to be unobtainable?

At the end of the second day, my team left with a very clear next step in the work that we do. There is an overall goal of being better at monitoring our work, but we are going to focus on our “next practice” rather than trying to define the “best practice”. Once we have done this, we will know a little more and then look again at our “next practice”. One day we will reflect on how far we have come and realize we have achieved what we set out to do, but until then we need to keep focusing on what we will do next rather than what we will do ultimately. There is a valuable lesson in this for all learning, and for leading and participating in change – a commitment to a cycle of continuous, incremental learning and reflection will get you further than aspiring to a lofty goal and trying to achieve it all at once.

What Should We Measure?

Over the last two years my board has conducted detailed reviews of many of our programs, from divisional review to specific areas such as French and Library. These reviews take a random sampling of classrooms and essentially run an environmental scan to see the strengths and areas of growth in the programs we offer. The effective integration of technology in the classroom is a component of these reviews, and consistently comes out with the highest level of “no opportunity to observe” ratings.

There are reasons for this return, however the main one is that we provide schools with a ratio of technology based on enrolment – one laptop or iPad per seven students in the school. This would suggest that in any random sampling of classrooms the probability is that you won’t see much technology, other than that belonging to the students.

This has been part of the impetus to develop a technology review. We know the equipment is out there, several thousand devices in total throughout the system, and that it is being used all day and every day in the vast majority of our schools, but what exactly are we doing with it and is it making a difference? We have long held focus groups meetings and gathered anecdotal observations and evidence that the use of technology is deeply impactful on student learning, but we have never comprehensively tracked the what, why, and how of that equation.

As I worked today to begin to develop the observation tool that we will use, and the process we will follow (it should be said that this is an extensive undertaking with a large number of internal and external audits and drafts before we administer anything, rather than one person deciding, “OK, this is what we will do”!), the question of what specifically we would like to know, and why that is important, kept coming up. It led to some deep reflection on what is truly important when it comes to integrating technology and the belief system we have around student learning.

My own person beliefs, which won’t show through in any of the review as we draft and re-draft to remove bias, includes a number of realizations that I have garnered over time and through experience. I believe that a 1:1 ratio is not something to aspire to if it means the students have more of a relationship with a device than one another. Conversation and face-to-face collaboration are essential components to learning. These can easily precede online relationships and collaborations, but in my view cannot be skipped over. I believe that our use of technology in the classroom needs to be transformative, rather than just replicating or replacing old methods. The SAMR model (see below) is a great guide to me for this. Not all technology use is effective, a worksheet downloaded from the internet and annotated on an iPad before being handed in is still a worksheet and misses all of the components mentioned that I believe underpin learning, despite requiring an element of technological understanding and skill. Students using the technology to be creative and innovative is where it is at for me. They must be using it for things that are unattainable without it.


I believe students learn best through inquiry and experiential learning. Technology can help support this but is not the driver for it. Google and Wikipedia are both great, but if our children don’t know how to discern truth from fiction, or relevant from irrelevant, their inquiry is heading toward a dead-end. I agree deeply with students having a voice, and sharing it with the world, but if their blog is driven by assignment rather than personal interest and curiosities, it is not reaching its potential, nor is it genuinely their voice.

I hope the review, when we have it complete and can conduct it, will help me and everyone in our system to learn more about effective technology use in the classroom. I hope it confirms or contradicts the things I believe to be true, so that I can grow as an educator. But the question still remains – what do we measure?! My initial thoughts led me to a few areas that I think we need to understand more about to grow our effective use of technology:

– How are the students using technology in the classroom? Research? Productivity? Creativity? Publishing? Social Media? Gaming?

– Which devices are students using and does it make a difference?

– Are the activities we are asking the students to do transformative? Again, see SAMR!

– Do we see evidence of critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration in the students digital work? Is this important?

– How does technology allow us to learn and demonstrate understanding of curriculum more readily than traditional methods? Is this more true in some curriculum areas than others? Why?

– Is the ratio of computers:students sufficient? What can be done to enhance it if not?

– What is the level and type of support necessary for teachers to feel comfortable and competent with their use of technology?

What are your beliefs? What do you think we should ‘measure’? What do you think school systems need to grow the effective use of technology (beyond being given sufficient funds to do it!)? Leave a comment and suggest some ideas – the first draft is the best time to give input!

Our Approach to Blended Learning

I was fortunate enough this past week to attend the Ontario Education Research Symposium. This annual event shares the latest in education research, reform approaches and innovations in education.

The keynote address on the final day, delivered via Skype, was from Michael Horn, co-founder of the Innosight Institute.The presentation focused on disruptive innovations in education, and specifically shared several models being adopted for blended learning.

This started me to reflecting on the Ontario approach to blended learning. . I think there is universal agreement that blended learning is something we need to explore and incorporate into our classrooms to meet the needs of this generation of learners. My concern is the the Ontario approach requires teacher to “uses the tools of the provincial learning management system (LMS) to teach and support learning in a face-to-face class”. My question is why?

The Ontario outline, much like the work from the Innosight Institute, goes on to give what I think is a pretty strong definition of what blended learning is. My concern is that I can do all of these things without the “provincial learning management system”. So, am I still “doing” blended learning?

When I use Edmodo, Schoology, any number of blog and wiki services, my board SharePoint platform, or even a different LMS, am I still “doing” blended learning? Of course I am. So why are we promoting, or working to implement, a single platform for this rather than a philosophy with multiple approaches and entry points? Why are we trying to turn what Horn describes as “a disruptive innovation” into the standard implementation of a platform or program? To me, this is a 20th century implementation (everyone do the same) hoping for 21st century outcomes (innovation and creativity). There is so much more nuance and refinement to an effective blended learning model than simply implementing use of an LMS. While everyone using the same tools and approach undoubtedly has benefits for widening the scope of the implementation, I would question if the depth of understanding is there that makes it truly effective.

To be clear, I have nothing against our platform, which is good at what it does, but rather I have a fear that linking the concept of blended learning to one specific platform is a recipe for conformity and limitation rather than innovation and empowerment. My contention is why does the definition of blended learning require one certain LMS (one which is arguably not even the best one out there)? As someone who spends every day supporting schools with the effective use of technology in the classroom, I’d far rather my conversation be framed in the concepts of blended learning and the various forms and entry points that has than what it looks like within one platform. We spend so much time encouraging our students to use the right tool for the right job, are we affording our educators this same support and freedom?