Monday, 30 November 2015

Remembering Education Past

As part of Connections-based Learning, I made a challenge to those around called #familybloggingmonth.  My desire was to not only bring an awareness of student digital portfolios to parents but also to create a culture where people young and old are sharing with those who are most important to them: their families.  In honour of #familybloggingmonth here is a post from my father, Brian Thomas Henry Robinson. It illustrates what education looked like in a different time and place.  It celebrates the power of story.

Never spend any time behind a horse during fly season

It was often on dark and stormy evenings that the story teller would drop by.  He would stand in the small living room in our farm house and spin his yarns.  Neighbours would come over after supper to sit with us and stay for a tale or two.  This was a part of our education living in the 1940's near Tempo, Northern Ireland.  We had little to offer the “story man” as we kids called him but he had his supper and a place to lie down before he moved to the next village.  His stories carried us to worlds unknown.  The tales were riveting to all who came.  The small room was in a fog of pipe and turf smoke.  There was only light from a single kerosene lamp and the glowing embers of the hearth.  There we small children sat on our wee stools and listened.  We had no electricity or running water.  In fact, it was my job was to carry water to the house each day.  During the late hour listening to the story, sometimes my grandparents would curl up in a nook built into the fireplace that had a small bed with a drawstring curtain.  Then soon the snoring would start and we would have our laugh.
Our school was one room about a mile from the 34 acre farm named Edenmore.  We never travelled far and if we did it was by horse cart or by bike. Education was very directly played out by a teacher who handed out corporal punishment without a second thought.  I recall the older boys telling us to make sure we carried a horse hair in our back pocket in case we got into trouble. It must be, they would say, a tail hair from a white or beige horse.  Sure it was then we were to sneak it out and place it across our palm prior to getting the cane, a trick that would render even the hardest whack painless.  The punishment was dealt out if you got two wrong in spelling or whatever was decided by the teacher. No need to say that that type of "hurt-protection" never did anything but to make those watching laugh that another young one was duped.  It was another early lesson in life. 

Every day we continued to learn from our parents about the value of work, the value of  listening before you speak and to enjoy stories and music.  These lessons I bought back to Canada.  Many years later I graduated from Concordia then went on for my masters at UBC. It was almost seventy years when I first travelled back with my young brother and renewed our wonderful heritage.  We found our old farm and the school that is a heritage building.  We got to sit on the same benches as we did and the memories came rolling back like the time the teacher fired his rifle from inside the school at a rabbit that was helping itself to his cabbages in his garden. 

Being able to read the newspaper was an avenue to the world outside but that was often the end of education for farmer's children.  Learning was more about life experiences than the usual study lessons.  For instance: standing behind a horse anytime is not good but much worse during fly season ... you either get hit by its tail or kicked in the head by one of its back feet.  Basic learning: quick and absolute.     Helping to birth a cow or shoe a horse was often more important than school homework. Learning was basic back then.  And the learning continues even for an old 79er like myself.

I'm not saying we need to go back to all that.  But I am saying we would do well to remember.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Connections-based Learning in Living Education eMagazine

This post by Sean Robinson was originally published on p.31 in: 2015 Fall Edition Living Education eMagazine (Vol. XIV)
2015 Fall Edition Living Education eMagazine (Vol. XIV)

We are all looking for something to base learning on. We see it in the contemporary educational titles: project-based learning, passion-based learning, competency-based learning, inquiry-based learning.  These titles may seem like buzz words but they are important; they set the tone for teacher conduct, curriculum foci, and student actions.  Should we base our learning on projects?  Passions?  Competencies?  Student inquiry?

Each of these educational titles is a way to guide the priorities of our pedagogy.  “Blank”-based learning methods, in particular, are an attempt to describe a learning process that is meaningful to students.  With project-based learning, genuine reality-based projects become the vehicle for learning. With passion-based learning, students’ passions are leveraged for learning.  In competency-based learning, learners focus on progressively mastering smaller elements of a greater learning objective.  And with inquiry-based learning, students form skills around developing great questions that can’t simply be “Googled”.

With all these methods of structuring learning, it begs the question: do we really need another ‘blank’-based learning? 

Ponder how these meaningful learning approaches include interpersonal connection.  In project-based learning, we see collaboration as an important element.  Students often work together as part of a group while completing projects.  Imagine how better the process might be if the focus of student activity includes fostering effective collaboration among team members, building relationships with community partners and topical experts, and sharing learning with the world.  It would take project-based learning to the next level.
We also see connection in passion-based learning.  An environment where students feel connected to one another provides the safety to reveal passions.  Is it possible to take this further? As student passions are discovered, embraced and leveraged during the school year, could groups with common passions work together with outside organizations to achieve common goals?
The mastery focus of competency-based learning requires a good teacher-student connection.  Understanding where students need to work is a key component.  Students who have mastered a certain concept shouldn’t be inundated with its lessons.  Students need to work on concepts that are tailored to their needs, not a one-size-fits-all shotgun approach.  Without a great teacher-student connection, these needs can go undiscovered.  Imagine the effect of a teacher focused on making a strong connection with each student and supporting students as they discover their own target zones for learning.
And connection is also found in the tenets of inquiry-based learning.  A sense of community and connection is crucial as students develop and share their genuine questions.  Could the students build a connection with others outside the school who are also working on finding the answers? Could students partner with those around the world who have the same concerns, the same wonderings, the same dreams?
The idea of connection is weaved throughout these four approaches and the many others that are popping up.  In some cases interpersonal connection is already a part of the process but could be developed further.  In other cases, adding a focus on connection changes the whole dynamic of the learning.  Could it be said that what underlies the meaningfulness of these approaches is the human connection?  Connecting with the teacher.  Connecting with the class.  Connecting with the community.  Connecting with experts.  Could there be a method of educating that is based on these connections?

What is Connections-based Learning?
Connections-based Learning is a not a new way of doing education.  It’s a new way of seeing education.  It celebrates the way connections are formed and leveraged through education.  It reminds us to seek ways of learning that facilitate the building of relationships.  It declares that significant learning requires a significant relationship.  Connections-based Learning makes it a priority to leverage interpersonal connection at each step of the learning process.  Whether it is the teacher-student connection, the connection with members of the class, school, and community, or the connection with experts in the field of study, thought is given to maximizing these relationships.
Teacher-student Connection
Fundamental to learning is the teacher-student relationship.  Good teacher-student connections help students learn.  It has been found to be true time and time again.  In her NYU Steinhardt article, “The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students”, Emily Gallagher gives a plethora of studies that support this idea:
Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005). - Gallagher (2013)
While working with inner city schools, James Comer found that the strong social bonds that help students develop the proficiencies to learn were missing.  He created the School Development Program in 1968 to help schools recreate those social bonds.  It worked.  The students he worked with began to thrive.  Students flourish in a positive teacher-student relationship.  Asking questions, seeking to understand, treating students as individuals, and making time to build relationships are crucial to building that connection with a class. As James P. Comer says: "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship".  Robinson, S. (2015)
Connections within the Class, School, and Community
But learning through connections doesn’t stop there.  Why does the student, who never writes more than a few sentences, write pages to the buddy or the pen-pal?  It is the human connection.  Why does the learning seem to become galvanized for the student who tutors another?  It is the human connection.  Why is the whole of a group working together greater than the sum of its parts.  Human connection.
Picture a class studying Aboriginal Education.  The class looks at culture, customs, and artwork.  They draw pictures. They hear stories.  And they never once talk to an aboriginal person.  That is a missed opportunity to get firsthand information, to build a relationship, to honour another.
Now picture a Home Economics class developing cooking skills.  The teacher has made a connection with a local homeless shelter and once a week, the students cook there.  Picture how that one connection will impact the students.  Picture how it might affect those at the shelter.  Connections add meaning and they provide opportunities to make a difference.
Connections with Experts
As Lee Crocket, Ian Jukes, and Andrew Churches state in Literacy is not enough: 21st-century fluencies for the digital age:
Electronic technology in wired, and wireless communications has quite literally meant the death of distance.  There has never been a time in which distance has meant less than it does today.  Students learning about civil war could be talking directly with kids in Serbia or Afghanistan.  Kids trying to understand the impact of oil spills could talk with students in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Florida.  Students want to understand the impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis could talk to students in Japan or New Zealand. – Crockett, L. (2011) p. 69
Learning in the 21st Century must take advantage of the connected world we live in.  We are no longer confined to study other countries from afar.  They are only an email, text, tweet, Skype-chat, Google Hangout away.  And whether it is space, politics, animal behavior, or dinosaurs, there are numerous experts to contact.  All the students need to do is ask; they might be surprised who responds.
Human connection leads to well-being.  In Kelly McGonigal’s TEDtalk on "How to make stress your friend", she states:
And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. – McGonigal, K. (2013)
If we were to base our teaching on anything, I believe it should be developing connections.  The classroom becomes a thriving environment of learning.  We make local or global contributions that can in turn teach others.  We become healthier people.  With a focus on developing relationships, there is no need to teach good citizenship.  As they work on these connections, students are being good citizens.
Connections are accessible to all.  Anyone can get an email address.  Anyone can ask a question.  As I have been having my students make connections, I have found the reception to be excellent.  Researchers, academics, agency leaders have responded to a simple question: “Could you help us learn?”  And what a difference it makes when students are asking real people questions.  They are engaged.  They bring their best.  They feel important.  They become part of a global process to advance understanding.  And they learn.

Crockett, L., Jukes, I., & Churches, A. (2011). Literacy is not enough: 21st-century fluencies for the digital age. Kelowna, B.C.: 21st Century Fluency Project.

Gallagher, Emily. (2013). "The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students" Applied Psychology Opus. Fall issue. Accessed July 2, 2015 on the World Wide Web:

McGonigal, K. (2013). Transcript of "How to make stress your friend" Retrieved July 27, 2015 from TED IDEAS WORTH SPREADING on the World Wide Web:

Robinson, S. (2015). “What Relationships do for Learning” Retrieved August 28, 2015 from ON THE SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY on the World Wide Web:

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Meaningful Comments: How?

In Meaningful Comments: Why, I shared the power of commenting.  I looked at the idea that we must get beyond comments like "Great post!" and move into leveraging the potential a comment has to propel learning.  I used the idea of "comment" in a general sense: not just blog post comments but any kind of comment on student work from anyone, parent, peer, or teacher. I then shared actual peer, principal, and parent comments from student blogs to illustrate why commenting is so crucial.

In this post I want to take some time to talk about some commenting guidelines.  This again is a post for teachers, parents and students alike.

I remember reading a twitter stream started by Tom Whitby.  He asked:

He went on to say:

What I believe he was getting at was the idea that people misunderstand the purpose of a blog.  It is not just for reading but for interacting.

So what does that interaction look like?  Is it something that is intuitive or something that needs to be taught?  

I recently spent some time in classes talking about what good commenting should look like.  I was finding that when I asked students to comment on each others' blogs, the comments were really only two or three words.  The comments were like a rubber stamp, basically saying: "Yep. I commented.  I did what you asked.  Now Robinson, get off my back." I couldn't tell if the post was even read. I wanted to change the culture of commenting at my school. 
So I brought up this idea with my grade 9's: what makes a good blog post comment?

At first it was like my students were brainwashed with the old "Two stars and a wish" concept. There was talk of helping the other person with their grammar and spelling, of constructive criticism.  It was as if commenting was like peer editing. 
For each class I visited, I asked them to dig deeper. I would share with them what I remember hearing George Couros say recently about the "I can help you with your grammar" comment. He said something like: "If someone reads a blog post of mine and tells me that I ended with a dangling participle, they've missed the whole point."

Then I asked my students to read a blog post of mine, Who needs a digital portfolio,  paying particular attention to the comments at the end of the post.  I wanted them to tease out some guidelines for good commenting.  Basically, now that we know why we should comment, how then shall we do it?

I kept track of the student answers.

This group had a lot of focus on the form of the comment. It should be relevant, specific, appropriate, on topic. The part that seems to propel learning though (and I'm getting at propelling learning for the author, commenter, and the following reader of the post and comments) is:

"Ask questions"

Once one question is asked, the post becomes alive. The author has to defend, clarify, utilize, explain his or her ideas. The commenter gets a chance for personalized learning. The conversation begins. I have written whole posts (in fact a series of posts) because of one question in a comment. 

I got some great answers with this group.   There was some focus on "what could be changed" here but I really like where we were getting to with:

"Expand on what they are saying and add your own ideas"

With this thought, it was like the comment discussion moved from how can I help you, to how you can help me, to how can we help the world?  How can we move ideas forward?

Again here we hit the idea of good grammar, formatting, paragraphs, not from the author's point of view but from the commenter. And that is important.  It is a good habit to read over what you are about to post.  But the guideline that propels learning is:

"Share your own story"

My story is affected by hearing your story?

I love when a commenter shares about what they're doing in their class as it relates to what I am doing.  It's not just sharing information; it's like we are working together on something.  Instantly we become partners in this thing called teaching. Both our worlds expand.

Ask your questions.  Add your ideas.  Share your story.  Three guidelines for commenting that propels learning.

In some sense, good commenting is intuitive. These ideas were all student generated with minimal instruction.  But in another sense, the power of commenting must be switched on in people. It has to move from "it's for you" through "it's for me", to "it's for us".

That culture is building in my school. It is fun to watch. Sure, I see the odd "S'up" and "Great post, Bobby".  But more often than not, I see students interacting with each others' ideas.  "Show the class" is one of the tenets of Connections-based Learning.  It is crucial as we spur on the collaborators of the future, to have our students develop habits that propel learning in each other.  Growth here becomes exponential.  And I'm excited to see where it goes.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Meaningful Comments: Why?


Meaningful commenting is a crucial skill.  Teachers must learn it; students must learn it.  I can't emphasize enough how important this is.  But I'll try.

We all know that feedback reigns supreme over numbers to propel learning. In No Grades: coming to a school near you, I shared a Ruth Butler (1988) study showing the effects of comments over numerical grading.

On both convergent (single answer) and divergent (idea generating) tasks, giving grades or grades with comments didn't just stop the students from improving.  The act actually made students do worse than they did before.  I finished that post with this statement:

Grades seem to beget the need for grades.  They are not as effective as comments in improving learning.  And adding comments to grades seems to be about the worst thing you can do.
- No Grades: coming to a school near you
I think this study, and my own experience, is in the back of my head as we look at developing a school-wide digital portfolio strategy within my school and embark on #FamilyBloggingMonth in November.  Something is keeping me focused on the idea that creating a culture of commenting in a class (and in a school) is crucial.  I don't want to focus on grades vs. comments here.  I thoroughly discuss it in that post.  Here, I just want to discuss how comments fit into the big picture of learning.

Some might be asking: so what are you talking about, Robinson? Feedback on student assignments or blog commenting?

Are they that different?

If the point is learning: a comment is a comment. 

It doesn't matter if it is:
- a teacher commenting on a student work handed in
- another student commenting on a student's work
- a parent writing a comment at the end of a student-led conference

So what can a comment do?

I had my Digital Literacy students do a review of a Science App of their choice.  I am going to use a few of the comments that ensued to illustrate "what a comment can do".  I will let the comments speak for themselves.

A comment can:

Help the reader get more information.

Student to Student

Start a learning conversation
Student to Student

Improve the post

Student to Student
Encourage the student

Parent to Student

Encourage the student to dig deeper
Principal to Student
This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Meaningful comments can do so much.

Simply saying "Great post!" really doesn't extend the learning at all.  So much more can be done when we take the time to make meaningful comments.  I would like to encourage us all to take that time and include more meaningful commenting into our practice.  There's no telling what a comment can do.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

What they're saying about the #digitalfootprint


I spent the last week talking digital footprint with hundreds of students at my school.  As they develop their digital portfolios, we wanted make sure our students had a conversation about digital footprints, particularly their own.  We asked students to Google themselves, to picture how their footprint is seen by others, and to reflect on some strategies to keep a good digital footprint.

I shared several videos on digital footprints with the students.  This one showed the sheer vastness of information present online about us these days.  From ultrasound pictures to RIP notices, our "digital dossier" grows at an alarming rate and sticks with us throughout our lives.

After sharing this video, I would relate true stories about online interactions that got people into hot water.  A politician who had to step down, an employee who lost her job, all through online behaviour that that they had no clue would come to haunt them.

Another video, by Michelle Clark, included an excellent Spoken Word on the digital footprint.  I emphasized this line in it.

"Whether its Youtube, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, before we upload, download,
type on those keys, press enter; we need to slow down, take time, think, consider; how will this instant information impact our hopes and our dreams, how could this careless communication be interpreted or released?"

And I think my students got the message.  Here is a shot of their Padlet response to my presentation.

And while some might look at that and think: Good work Robinson, you got the job done, you got your point across, something inside me said otherwise.  In fact, I think I missed the whole point.

What's missing?

What is missing is that yet again I had focused on the "Do Not's", the "Watch Out's", the "Caution's".  Where was the inspiration?  Where was the delight of sharing thoughts with people around the world?  Where was leveraging the portfolio for global good?  Nowhere.  True, the students seemed to get the message of be careful online.  But could I have sent them that message couched in an idea that their portfolio could have amazing potential?

As I returned to the classes to follow up, I felt I had to start things off differently.  I first showed this video below by Bethanie Gourley a grade 11 student from Arkansas.

I love the message here.  It wasn't just that Bethanie got to hear from Casey Neistat, her favourite filmmaker.  It was that she used her portfolio for what she was passionate about.  It showed the power of the digital portfolio.  And her experience was such that she just had to share about it, and make this video.  Showing this video to my students was a great jumping off point to have them consider their passions and how their digital portfolio could be meaningful to them.

I showed them my idea of "Random Acts of Commenting" where they could make an encouraging comment on a post that pops up on their reader.

I let them develop their portfolio, change the theme, make it their own.

I let them to embed a video meaningful them, work on their About Me page, and customize.

Then I let them play.
Really, in some ways it's out of my hands now. I may think I can control my students' portfolios ... but it's their portfolio.  The more I hand it over to them, the more they'll manage it with care and attention. And the more I'll be surprised with where their footprints go.


Digital Portfolios: Where to start? #3

 Digitalportfolios: Key #3: Teach Differently
This is the long awaited third and final part in a series on digital portfolio first steps.  In this series, I have been sharing what I call keys to starting digital portfolios.  In Digital Portfolios: Where to Start Part #1, I share that teachers need to have a digital portfolio themselves to have any credibility when asking students to develop theirs. In Digital Portfolios: Where to Start Part #2, I share that the second key is to take a look what others are doing with digital portfolios.  I shine a light on portfolio platforms such as Freshgrade,,,, and and the teachers who are using them.

The final key to starting digital portfolios will maximize the potential of the portfolio.  It is the real game-changer.  Through this key you will realize that the portfolios are going to ask as much from you as they ask from your students.  Student work is now on display and that work has to be individual, meaningful, and show growth over time.  It's not business as usual.

Key #3: Teach differently: Ask yourself how digital portfolios will change your teaching.

The digital portfolio is not just a place where students can display their work.  They can also demonstrate their understanding of an idea or their proficiency in a skill.  They not only can give answers, but explain reasoning.  And they now have to defend their ideas as others comment on them.  This is no static summative display board.  This is a dynamic learning and growing space.

How does that change my teaching?
     - now that I know that parents are looking at this, how does that change what I do in the classroom?
     - now that I know prospective employers are looking at this, how does that change what our projects look like?
     - now that I know that these are student portfolios (not teacher hand in boxes) how does that open the door for choice?

Let's think about that for a second.  Would a completed integers worksheet be the best to demonstrate competency in a certain area, or would a video of the student explaining their understanding of integers be better?  Furthermore, could that video in turn help a younger buddy class with their understanding?

And again, would a completed lab where students have followed the instructions to a tee be the best activity to show that students understand the scientific method or would students' own inquiry into their own question, creating their own experiment and data, best demonstrate understanding?

I saw this play out today as I looked at the reader that updates every time a student in our school posts.  Here are two of the posts that came up from Bree Mireau's Science 10 class (although I could have picked any number of excellent posts flowing through the reader).

Kinga and Mona: "Magic Science"

Matty and Jaron: "Science is Magic"

These student videos show so much more than a lab handout with all the parts filled in.  The students got to choose an experiment that interests them.  They got to show their competency in carrying out the experiment.  They were able to explain what happened.  There is no question that they know what happened during the experiment; they are teaching it!  These videos are now a permanent part of their digital portfolios.  If you were interested in hiring a lab assistant, would seeing something like this have an impact on your choice?  I think it would.  But portfolio content like this can only happen if the teacher opens the door for it.  What will you open the door for with your digital portfolios?

This bookends Digital Portfolios: where to start? Thank you for walking through this with me.  More than providing a step by step method to starting digital portfolios, I hope that you found something here to cause you to think, that you will move ahead in your digital portfolio journey--possibly not in the way you thought but maybe in the way you hoped, and that these posts have inspired you.  And where our inspiration leads, our feet follow.