A Time and a Place for Elsewhere: The Role of Context in the Social Science classroom

How do you help your students discover local and global contexts in History and Geography classes? Tell us by commenting below, or tweet to @learnquebec

In the Quebec education system the notion of the “elsewhere” society appears in several programs, and especially the social sciences: Students are encouraged to “compare here and elsewhere, past and present, thus making them aware of change and diversity.” However, for teachers making this happen is far easier said than done. It’s a question of time (class time, but also time periods) and of place (but sometimes we forget about location). But before we get to all that, let’s ask if and why it might be interesting and useful for students to learn about places and cultures other than their own.

Historical events presented “in context” can certainly help to explain things (causes, effects, reasons), but one could also add that most contextualization can be extended to a global scale: geographical and historical realities happen in the world, one area’s disasters affect another area’s success and growth, and vice versa. Always a compelling notion — that we are not alone in our suffering or success — but does that make learning interesting or fun? My own experience as a teacher of history tells me that, if anything else, “difference” is something that students do appreciate.  Learning about other areas of the world, completely new areas I mean, offers them a break from the mundane, the routine. And, importantly, it serves our educational goals, by giving students a fresh perspective on our own region, our culture, our story, which refines and deepens their understanding of what they are learning in class.

Recently I approached a certain teacher with these questions on my mind, after being intrigued with how he using was our Cartograf mapping tool in his history classes. Daniel Martin teaches the secondary cycle 1 ancient and world history course at Chambly Academy (RSB).  Granted, compared to other more Quebec-centered programs, this course already permits (and allows some time for!) an exploration of world histories, other societies that informed and contributed to our own (Greek democracy explaining our political system, the Christian reformation the roots of our religions, etc.). But as Daniel showed me, just learning about these few societies for comparative purposes isn’t enough. What was happening all around the world is also essential to fully understanding each era, each place:

[Below I paraphrase some thoughts Daniel and I shared, along with pics of his Cartograf maps.]

When you don’t show students what else was going on in a given time period, they begin to believe nothing else was happening at all at that time. If you teach only certain “important” civilizations, students get the impression that no other civilizations existed at the same time. This gives them a skewed and incomplete representation of the era, of the time period. Other cultures must have existed in other time periods, they say.

Secondly, in terms of location, students not only misunderstand distances and placement in a global scale, but they also don’t realize there were different peoples and cultures “in between” the two or three societies they study. They conceive of the world as a mostly empty and disconnected patchwork of selected societies, which it never was and never will be.

2000 BCE. Urban kingdoms, farmers, hunter gatherers and nomads

And finally, when neglecting to consider other cultures in distant places, students easily loose sight of the varied evolutionary paths that different societies follow. They get the false impression that everyone changed at the same time and same rate. When instead you show them certain evolutionary steps (sedentarization, for example) on a more comprehensive world map, they quickly see that during any given period some societies were still nomads while others were living in cities while others were trading across the seas.

Not just classical Greece in 500 BC. Other cultures worldwide

In 500 BC, while the Greeks were developing city-states, the first democracies and various other aspects of what became our culture, throughout the world other peoples were changing too. Democracy happened, philosophy happened, all at a time when Greeks were in contact with a wide range of cultures in different stages of evolution, but also when they were completely unaware of other cultures. Change and culture happened everywhere, just differently and at different rates. And that should remind us how some aspects of our culture arrived via completely different routes too:  think about aboriginal influences on New France, about Eastern influence now through immigration, about a growing African influence in an inevitable global future.

A complacent and superficial acceptance of traditional terms and approaches to history is sometimes the cause: The Middle Ages were called “middle” by 19th century scholars who saw it as a culturally empty time between two periods of enlightenment. But were these so called Dark Ages dark for our whole world? During this same period Islamic cultures were living their golden ages, expanding on the sciences and logic of the Greeks, eventually passing it all back to Europe via translations of their texts that sparked our own Renaissance! And what is more, even during that same time period of so-called darkness Europeans themselves continued trading to the east, and cities developed at home and along those routes.  But again, don’t imagine easy paths through empty lands all the way to China. Across those same years the Mongol Empire expanded to cover most of that known world!

Routes around Europe and to Asia. Mongolian Empire covering half the ( known) world!

This exchange of thoughts with Daniel helped me reflect on my own teaching and curriculum design at LEARN, which has always been highly suspicious of the language in the provincial programs, of all programs really. I remember how I questioned the way Native peoples were all said to share the same spiritual outlook, all said to share the same relationship to the land. While certain commonalities were obvious, I admit, I couldn’t help but think that the program de-valued the many distinct societies that existed at the time.  And so I helped students to discover those unique cultures and experiences through research, and as such to fill in the timeline, to fill in the map.

And finally, the exchange also helped me to reflect on how we view our world of the present day, on how easy it can be to compartmentalize according to what makes the news, or according to what language or culture is more familiar or reachable. We don’t consider the details about what or who is actually there, we don’t investigate what is beyond or between the disaster zones and the clashes of belief, will and power. But I do now, I can’t help it, when I see a map of the world I see it differently. Immediately I ask questions about what is not highlighted, about what is not shown, about what is elsewhere. I zoom right in, and what I find there becomes uniquely my own discovery.  The process itself is fun and revealing. And I can’t help assume that it would be the same for students too. What are your thoughts?

Beyond the Textbook: Gamifying Classroom Management


 Would you consider using a gaming model of classroom management even if you yourself are not a gamer and don’t really get gaming? Tweet @learnquebec or reply below.

What if the engagement level of students in your classroom increased simply because they felt responsible for overseeing their virtual team of avatars? What if your students naturally police unfavorable behaviour while creating opportunities to build team-building skills? What if classroom noise levels were self-monitored by students? What if effective collaboration with peers gave you more time on a test? Well, ponder no longer. Every classroom in the world can now imitate gaming experiences in which students and teachers play and learn together.

Education is continually, albeit slowly, innovating with new technology. Many teachers are expanding beyond our standard and static textbooks, notes, worksheets, paper and pencil test routines to develop new research, writing, and analytical skills in students. We are now seeing the emergence of classroom management tools that incorporate gaming philosophies to managing classroom life; in essence teachers are turning their classrooms and their daily routines into an engaging real-life game. This is because in a game, natural consequences for transgressions are built into the system. For example, student collaboration will increase if students feel they will gain a token reward for their efforts, or will more likely try to keep their noise level down if they can see their noise level is off the chart!



One such ingenious tool, available since September 2014 is called ClassCraft (http://www.classcraft.com)Already with over 160 000 users, thousands of involved educators, in 60 countries, and in eight different languages, Classcraft is improving classroom management. In a recent interview, co-creator, Shawn Young describes his innovative product as a “behaviour game, which acts as a layer on top of standard teaching” to manage student conduct and to amp up engagement. In fact, games like Classcraft place student engagement and classroom behaviour at the epicentre of its’ learning management system (LMS). The teacher’s dashboard is rich with an integrated clicker system, timers and stop clocks, random student “pickers”, the ability to post assignments, test dates, and to interact with student avatars like never before by adding or removing points depending on their classroom behaviour.

What would this look like in your classroom? Let’s follow a student in a Classcraft class and witness the adventures that unfold throughout physics period.

Our student, Willy Common, better known as “Merlin Cool” in physics class, strolls in 5 minutes late, provoking the teacher to subtracting 5 “life points” from his character for being late. However, a fellow teammate, a healer called “Sara Health” heals him with one of her powers she earned through long-term positive behaviour, essentially erasing Merlin’s lateness. She immediately gets rewarded with XP for helping out her teammate. As she levels ups, she also gets gold pieces that now gives her enough money to add a cool new cap on her avatar. As the class rolls along, “Merlin Cool” lifts his hand up twice to answer a question about significant figures and is rewarded 50XP for his involvement from their game master (the teacher). He uses to gain a power that allows him to hand in his homework a day late. This is great for him, because he has a basketball game, and knows he’ll not have enough time to complete it all. As Merlin leaves class, he high fives his team, called the Labyrinth Gypsies, and gives an extra thanks to Sara for healing his lateness.



Team play provides on-going interaction, instant and direct feedback, second chances, opportunities to navigate challenges so students can learn from their mistakes while being reinforced by their successes – the philosophy of good video games. These gaming principles are embedded in some amazing digital tools that can easily be applied in any classroom, influencing student learning across the board… social, interpersonal and cognitive.

Now not all behaviour management tools are as elaborate as Classcraft, but can be just as effective. For example, Classroom Dojo (https://www.classdojo.com) is an immediate feedback tool that rewards or removes points for positive or negative classroom behaviour, for a plethora of reasons from participating in class to encouraging group work. This feedback can produce reports for teachers and parents to share with the students, reinforcing the good, providing a place to dialogue about effective behaviour to get your goals met.

Too Noisy (http://www.academyapps.net/toonoisyliteonline/), helps student self-monitor their noise level when collaborating in class, a great reinforcement tool for keeping noise down to acceptable levels.

Remind 101 (https://www.remind.com), another cool app, allows the teacher to quickly notify students and parents through text about behaviour, assignments, tests, pyjama day activities and so on.

Have a look at the infographic below to see how digital behaviour management tools can readily gamify classrooms and change student behaviour in an exciting, meaningful way. Find examples of simple tools that remind you of important classroom information, similar to getting a second chance in a game, to Classcraft, a complete classroom gamification platform which can turn your whole classroom experience into a fun, engaging game.

Infographic BM



Many interesting digital tools are now turning classrooms into interactive game-like environments, blurring the lines between school and the larger community: between school and home, and between school and communities beyond the classroom. Students learn to be part of a motivated team with a common goal. Positive behaviour, as in life, advances the team. The teacher builds token rewards into the system as added incentive to engage with him/her and the team… hey, we all need our cookies!

Here is the main conundrum of this whole gaming-as-behaviour-management: as educators, we have the wistful desire for our students to exhibit positive behaviours just because. We would like them to be intrinsically motivated to be “good”. This very adult desire casually leaps over the powerlessness and lack of control that many teenagers struggle with at school. Using games or gamifying the very structure of the learning scenario are ways of balancing the power dynamic and giving some control back to the students, in a positive way. By applying simple gaming principles, students become a functional part of the classroom, experience how their actions affect their peers… and create communities of learners.

Skidoo Adventures and Other Tales: A consultant’s travelogue

What are some of your consultant travel stories? Tweet @learnquebec, or leave a comment below!

The next time that I’m tempted to complain that my commute is too long, my cell phone call was dropped, or the local coffee shop lacks good WiFi , it will be tempered by my experiences working with remote schools on Québec’s Lower North Shore.

“Normal” is different enough in the Littoral School Board’s territory to be eye-opening for a guy who has lived in an urban or suburban setting his entire life. And despite the all-to-familiar frustrations and roadblocks we face working with technology in a school setting, so many things that we take for granted where I live are still challenges the farther you move away from major cities.

Many people are unaware, for instance, that if you travel along Highway 138 on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, the road ends 418 km east of Sept-Îles at Kegaska. The road picks up again another 300 km further east near the Labrador border at Blanc-Sablon. The coast between is dotted with small villages, most with populations under 500. This area forms the territory served by the Littoral School Board (along with one school in Port-Menier on Anticosti Island).

Travel between these communities is by boat, air or snowmobile during the winter months. Travel is not a given either, and is frequently affected by the vagaries of the weather. On my last visit to the territory in early March 2015 to work in three schools, I experienced firsthand what my colleagues at the school board and the people living in those communities often deal with.

Flying to some of the smaller villages from Montreal involves connecting on a series of increasingly smaller airplanes. On my first day, my transfer to a Twin Otter in Chevery was foiled by a mechanical problem, and I ended up in Blanc-Salon instead of La Tabatiere, where I was to begin my visit. I finally arrived in La Tabatiere the following day to work at Mecatina School. After a day working with the staff I was supposed to visit nearby Mutton Bay to work at the school there and then continue by air to St. Augustine to work at the school there. A snowstorm scratched the 20 minute snowmobile trip to Mutton Bay, and as the day progressed it looked increasingly as if my flight to St. Augustine was grounded. I was faced with a week in the territory with only one school visit.

The principal of the three schools, Melissa Irving, decided to send the caretaker from St. Augustine, Hubert, by snowmobile from St. Augustine to La Tabatiere along the winter snow road (La route blanche, 60-70km) to ensure that I made it to St. Augustine School. I returned with him on the back of his snowmobile with my luggage in a small trailer through the snow and wind that day. It was probably the most interesting “commute” that I have ever had!

Along with the transportation challenges, the connectivity that we often take for granted is not a given along “The Coast.” There is no cell phone service from Kegaska to the Labrador border. Internet service is in the process of being upgraded as a result of the village branchés project. But like travel, Internet service is often subject to the weather or local conditions, and in the schools is frequently “rationed” to prioritize services such as LEARN online courses.

It all serves as a wakeup call to be appreciative of those things that we tend to take for granted and more patient with some of those minor annoyances we face from time to time.

Please don’t come away with an impression of schools that I work with as being deprived. The schools of the Littoral School Board are modern, staffed with experienced professionals, and equipped with interactive white boards and tablet computers just like many of their less remote counterparts. It is a testament to their resourcefulness that they are able to balance the world “out there” with their own geographic reality, infusing it with a unique local flavour.

Photos © Robert Costain. Used by permission.

Science Fairs: Yea or Nay?

science_fairThis post was co-written with Heather McPherson.

What has been your experience with science fairs? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.ca

Traditionally winter is science fair season and students here in Quebec and all across North America were busy putting the finishing touches on their projects – pasting their results on their display boards, rehearsing their presentations for the judges, and making sure that their design works properly or their experiment produces the required data. By mid-winter most schools have had their local fairs and the best projects are being honed for regional, national and international fairs.

We can’t imagine schools without their science fairs – they are a poster-board fixture on the school science scene. But are science fairs actually good for student learning of science? Do they motivate students to want to do inquiry-based science and pursue further studies in science? Are they worth the teacher, student and parent time and effort required? Is there research to back up the value of participation?

By its nature, science fairs require students to engage in the process of inquiry learning. Students choose a topic based on their interest. Throughout this process, the student is in complete control of the process with guidance from teachers and mentors. This is the basic precept of inquiry learning. According to Yeoman et al (2011), learning through inquiry is closely linked to high-quality practical work. Science fair projects demand inquiry skills, and they do produce high quality results from students. Every year newspapers report on the extraordinary scientific work done by young boys and girls as a direct result of the inquiry processes undertaken during their projects. Over lunch or coffee listening to the judges at the Montreal Regional Science and Technology Fair (MRSTF) or the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF), discussing the projects they have evaluated, one gets a sense not only of the high level of the inquiry work done but also of the palpable enthusiasm of the student scientists.

Frank LaBanca (2008) however reported that there was almost no published research on inquiry and problem learning associated with science fairs. So what do we know? Literature reports that student involvement in science fairs promotes positive attitudes about science. Laura Fisanick (2010) found that teachers believe science fairs promote students interest in science and provide opportunities for students to learn. Science fairs do have their critics however. According to a study by Abernathy and Vineyard (2001), detractors criticize:
• problems with subjective judging,
• an overemphasis on competition,
• lack of clarity with the rules,
• too much teacher control,
• too much parent control,
• mandated competition
Syer, Cassidy A. & Shore (2010) also point out that the pursuit of extrinsic rewards of marks and prizes and the often-compulsory nature of the participation can undermine any intrinsic motivation the student may have had at the outset.

Who participates in science fairs in Quebec? According to Hydro Quebec, in 2014, more than 15,000 young people took part in local, regional or in the pan-Quebec finals. Interestingly, Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that women were underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – that only 39% of STEM university graduates aged 25 to 34 were female. However in the 2013 MRSTF fully 66% of participants were female! So perhaps participation in science fair competitions can help address the gender gap in STEM disciplines in post-secondary studies. In fact some research does show that there is a positive correlation between science fair participation and future enrolment in STEM-related studies (Sahin, 2013).

Quebec has a very active science fair scene. The Educational Alliance for Science and Technology (EAST) has been organizing the MRSTF since 1983. In fact EAST also organizes robotics competitions at junior and senior levels in the Montreal area. In May 2016 EAST will be joining with the Ministry of Education and other Quebec-based groups to host the Canada Wide Science Fair at McGill University.
Science fairs require effort, time and dedication from students, teachers, mentors and organizers. They provide a real showcase for aspiring young scientists to demonstrate their inquiry skills.

Abernathy, Tammy V. and Vineyard, Richard N. (2001). Academic Competitions in Science; What Are the Rewards for Students? The Clearing House.

Czerniak, Charlene M., and Lumpe,Andrew T. (1996): Predictors of Science Fair Participation Using the Theory of Planned Behavior. School Science and Mathematics 96 (7) 355-61.

Fisanick, Laura. (2010). A Descriptive Study of the Middle School Science Teacher Behaviour for Required Student Participation in Science Fair Competitions. Thesis. Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

LaBanca, Frank. (2008). Impact of Problem Finding on the Quality of Authentic Open Inquiry Science Research Projects. Thesis. Western Connectiticut State University.

Yeoman, K. H., James, H. A., & Bowater, L. (2011). Development and Evaluation of an Undergraduate Science Communication Module. Bioscience Education, 17.

Sahin, Alpasian. (2013). STEM Clubs and Science Fair Competitions: Effects on Post-Secondary Matriculation. Journal of STEM Education Innovations and Research, 14 (1) 5-11.

Syer, Cassidy A. & Shore, Bruce M. (2010). Science Fairs: What Are the Sources of Help for Students and How Prevalent Is Cheating?, School Science and Mathematics, 101 (4) 206-220.

More on Leadership Style: Passing thoughts of a newbie one-year flash-in-the-pan principal

Photo by Eric E. Castro (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Eric E. Castro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This post follows this one by new Principal Neil MacIntosh, as he reflects in real time on his first year on the job. What are some of your leadership challenges? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec

January is a time for new approaches, quickly broken resolutions and some introspection. That month I was at an all day workshop at our ESSB office with all the other principals and Al Rochon, our coach/animator.   We had all filled out a questionnaire prior to this, and it revealed that my nature is one of “acceptance and warmth” while being a “fast-paced and outspoken” personality.   This landed me as the ‘I” of DISC – influence – a people person – self-described fun person.   So, while not trying to get all zodiac on the world and reduce people to 12 types, well, we were reduced to four types, Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness – all of which are good.   Actually, I was in the middle of Influence tilting towards Steadiness – hopeful of people while liking steady environments.   Folks can work in each of the quadrants, but it takes more energy.   I have to work at it to be more dominant in the leadership vein (but in a professional, non-bossy way) or conscientious in report making, but to my surprise, I do enjoy those tasks, churning out MESAs and Bill 56 – Anti-Bullying Reports, Governing Board minutes, financial statements. Later the next week I did another self-questionnaire while I was covering for an Entrepreneurship teacher, and it actually stated that I should be in teaching – lucky me.

Screenshot 2015-03-31 14.04.40

I have also found that when you soft-analyze your co-workers, upperlings, equallings, lowerlings, etc, it gives insight into how to deal with them.   The questioning Steady type merely wants answers to his/her questions to satisfy their need for knowledge – they are not necessarily poking sticks in your spokes – although you may think that is what they are doing.   How you set up a meeting with a teacher can have a major impact on how they perceive you, the meeting, and the work at hand.   Having a rushed meeting in the hallway maybe convenient for one person, but a big-turn off for the other.   It was a very useful workshop.

When it comes to meetings, nobody complains when I have to postpone a meeting until later, especially one during which I’m merely imparting information. Combining staff and school council has been a good move. Now there is no excuse for someone not knowing of an event, their input is received, and one meeting has been cancelled. There is a greater chance at shared understanding.

I recently received a copy of Michael Fullan’s Motion Leadership – The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy.   The book is small in size, tapping out at 84 pages, index included.   Lite stuff for sure, and it reads like a prelude to another heavier book, but with my busy schedule, I found it an approachable and easy read – no tome this.   And that’s a good thing.

I was especially drawn to the chapterlettes titled “Capacity Building Trumps Judgmentalism” and “Love, Trust, and Resistance.”   I am hopelessly hopeful about my staff.   So I do follow the Theory Y of Douglas McGregor’s “The Human Side of Enterprise,” wherein he states that staff will put in the extra work if it is meaningful to them, and they feel supported by their leaders and peers.   This is in contrast to Theory X in which staff are considered lazy and need to be micro-managed.   So the love angle is covered there.   Trust is also a necessary ingredient.   Staff need to see repeatedly that their leader is sincere, reliable, and honest, as well as effective and competent.   You need to build up a bank of goodwill and trust. My former principal, and now Director of HR at WQSB, Mike Dubeau, told me once that the one way to change people’s resistance to change is through success.

Having done all that, you can still get resistance from staff who do not want to change for various reasons. They do need to be heard because no one person has a handle on all aspects of the truth. I have learnt that, while grinding my molars at times. Listening, and I mean actively listening, not so that you can get your word in, does build faith as well. If the staff member still does not want “to get on the bus,” then the principal has to be more assertive, which has happened to me at times.

Capacity building means to build the skills, knowledge, and attitude. I have been working with my staff since the year’s start. Because I have delegated authority in certain areas, staff have learned how to be more independent in terms of understanding school finances, SmartBoards, scanning documents, to name a few.   I have encouraged my staff to collaborate more on projects themselves and to participate more in our Community Learning Centre activities, and this is bearing fruit.   There have been a few bumps along the learning curve, but it is working.   In terms of attitude, I sense a more positive attitude – not just on Fridays.   Our enrolment is up (slightly) which creates a buzz among staff -better to be gaining students than losing them.

More importantly, teachers are starting to take more initiative on projects.   This reminds of the quote on page 35 – “People resist when leaders try to tighten things up…The best way to tighten things up is to get peers to do it.”   I do not have the time to micro-manage.   I can manage the teachers; if they succeed with their project, great; if they fail, well, we can learn from it for next time.     The failed project can be judged as having not worked without throwing attitude, judging without being judgmental.   If a teacher is willing to take a chance on a new project – a reasonable project, the principal should support the initiator, good or bad the results.

Bringing parents more into school is an important goal. However, they do not come to school so often now, except for games or bean suppers, not even always for parent-teacher interview.   My morning period 1 commute around the school now includes about 10 minutes on our school facebook site.   We have to bring the school to the parents.   I am finding that I am spending more time on this as I recognize all the activity that our school is going through.   I also post important notices and interesting educational articles.   Many schools do this now, with a set of guidelines to be seen, acknowledged, and liked.  Our site is closed so that only members can see the contents.

My last challenge is procrastination and managing my tim….



Fullan, Michael.  (2009). Motion Leadership: The skinny on becoming change-savvy. Corwin Press Inc.

Theories X and Y. The Economist – Oct 6, 2008, accessed April 1, 2015.

McGregor, D.,  The Human Side of Enterprise,  McGraw-Hill, 1960; annotated edn, McGraw-Hill, 2006