Tag Archives: lifelong learning

Drawing a Lesson: Familiarity Breeds Creativity

Putting herself in an unfamiliar learning setting, Christiane Dufour experienced first-hand what happens in the “making” process when one is unfamiliar with the materials and the techniques associated with them. It brought home what three teachers discovered when they implemented STEAM the Kindergarten Way through Play.
Be sure to scroll all the way down to the video at the end.

I have a confession to make: I envy the creativity and ability of those who can imagine something and then give form to it. Whether they draw it or make it, it seems to spring easily from within to be translated into the medium of their choosing. That’s an illusion of course: they learned their craft through a lot of experimentation over time.

I’ve never experienced that apparent ease. But, as a teacher, I must and do believe that you can learn anything when you set your heart to it. So, listening to the admonitions of the adage that you’re never too old to learn, I decided to take art classes, starting with learning how to draw.

Drawing Materials
Drawing feet by hand (count the iterations!)

Pencils and paper; lots of paper and a good assortment of pencils! I’m in familiar territory. The teacher is great, creative. He has a road map in his head but many ways to take us along. He listens, adapts to our abilities and interests. I’m learning to draw, to manipulate these familiar pencils along with a few other simple tools to create the effects I see in my head or in the models he gives us to reproduce or to inspire us.

Every week, he enriches our toolkit of gestures and expands our capabilities by building on the previous lessons. When he shows us a technique or corrects our work, he tells us what he is doing and, while doing that, he provides us with a language for shapes, forms, gestures, tools, space and more. All good! I’m still in friendly territory. I see where this is going and, more and more, I imagine things that I could do along with an ever greater variety of ways to do them. I think my drawings are sometimes quite nice. It feels good.

After weeks of learning all kinds of techniques and eventually practicing how to draw hands in all sorts of positions, the potter’s hands emerged from my page by bringing together many of these techniques.

Reaching my potential

Setting my skills into motion

Then he throws us (me!) for a loop. He says he’ll show us a technique that will allow us to marry drawing and painting. This time, he proceeds with the lesson in steps.

  1. Apply paint to this canvas. (Voice in my head: is any particular way better than another?) Now wait to let it dry.
  2. Apply this gel to the canvas in this way. (Ok, what does the gel do? Thick or thin coat? What will it look like when it dries?)

    One of the Cheshire Cat’s Dreams
  3. Sprinkle this powder over the gel. The powder prevents the gel from drying too quickly, we are told. (OK, but my brain still wants to know what the powder will look like when gel and powder dry.)
  4. Now take this bamboo skewer and draw by scraping away the gel and powder. (Draw? What, how, why?)

This is not the end of the process; there will be a few other steps to the finished product but I don’t yet know what they are. So I draw the way I do with pencils: lines to create a shape and a few details to give it volume.
I scrape away!
I feel lost.
It doesn’t look like anything I can relate to! I can’t imagine what this will end up looking like. I can’t even think of other things I could do that would give an interesting effect. It just looks like a mess!

I have no idea what I’m doing with these materials!

This is an “ah ha!” moment for me. I feel lost.
I can’t even imagine what I could do because these materials are so unfamiliar. I don’t know what they will let me create.

And, there and then, I’m brought back to what we discovered in our STEAM in K one-year experimentation. Namely, how important it is for children to be given ample time to play with and explore materials, tools and techniques freely and with no end-product in mind. Well, this doesn’t apply just to preschool children, does it? It certainly applied to me! And it’s true for any learner at any level. It‘s true also for anything we learn, from art to coding and for all the other letters in STEAM.

LEARN by doing!

In our year-long project in which three experienced teachers implemented STEAM in Kindergarten, this fact was spectacularly brought home the day clay was introduced in the class. It was a totally new and unfamiliar medium which just shouted to be explored. Their exploration started with the medium itself.

How does it feel? How does it let itself be manipulated? What different gestures can be used to shape it? What can be done with these shapes? Then, what tools can be used to refine manipulation? How do you change its texture? How do you stick pieces together? And so much more!

After having played with clay in many ways and used different tools and techniques over several sessions, the children discovered how this material works and what they could do with the tools. It also gave the teachers time to provide them with the language associated with this medium, the vocabulary of clay, its tools and gestures. Having worked with it many times with no particular goal in mind, the children were finally able to imagine what they would like to MAKE with it AND they were able shape their idea into the clay and obtain an intentional result.

The lesson I draw from this experience is that when we are introduced to new, unfamiliar materials, practices or techniques, we need to be given the opportunity to explore the potential of the materials multiple times before we make something with it whether it be a picture, a “thing”, or a program.

I am reminded that when we observe children inventing and making things with wooden blocks, with LEGO or with cardboard boxes, we tend to forget that they are quite familiar with these materials which have been part of their environment since daycare. They can turn them into any number of wondrous creations or use them in unsuspected ways to serve their goals. Add a few new materials into the mix, such as cars, balls, PVC pipes or cardboard tubes, tape, and they will be able to imagine new things to do and to make.

Without that, we are only following instructions without much understanding or transferable learning, very much like I experienced in my fateful lesson. Familiarity breeds creativity as well as proficiency.

Observe the exploration and creativity that is possible when Kindergarten students familiarize themselves with new materials without having to worry about creating a single product.

Born to Learn: Life-long learning as a goal for schools

Guest post by Anne-Marie De Silva, ERC Consultant at the English Montreal School Board

Will our students need to rediscover the joy of learning in spite of school, rather than because of it? What do you think? Tweet @learnquebec or share your thoughts below.

When I first began teaching, my father quipped, “Don’t worry, the kids will learn in spite of you.” His joke refers not only to my questionable skill as a teacher, but also to the innate human drive to learn, the brain pre-programmed from birth with a need and hunger to learn; what Maria Montessori referred to as “The Absorbent Mind” (Montessori, 1906). We are all born learners, yes, but the question is, do schools capitalize on this natural human capacity, or inhibit it? Will our students need to rediscover the joy of learning in spite of school, rather than because of it?

Mission statements that are proudly displayed in the entrance of most schools promise commitment to “developing life-long learners”. But what does that mean? How are life-long learners created? Are teachers really aware of their commitment to this goal?

I have been pondering these questions in light of my recent experience taking a self-defence class, along with ten other middle-aged, out-of-shape women; all of us learning something completely new to us. The teacher would demonstrate a move, allow us all to try it slowly along with him, and then immediately began to differentiate. Some of us required the teacher to reteach the move, others needed him to watch them practice it to see if they were doing it correctly; still others felt ready to practice on their own. However, what really struck me was that the teacher didn’t presume to tell us what we needed in order to learn; rather we articulated our needs to him and he responded accordingly.

Granted, we are adults and not 6 year old children, but nevertheless, we knew our own learning styles, knew how to articulate our needs, and knew how to use the resources available to us if we needed help. Hallmarks of life-long learners, it seems to me. So presumably, these are the skills we should be developing in our 6 year olds and on up, to create future life-long learners.

Moreover, the women in this class knew something intrinsic about learning, which was motivating us to try something out of our comfort zone: learning is satisfying, empowering, self-esteem boosting, worthwhile, and most of all, fun.

Yet from my teenage daughter’s perspective, learning is hard, boring and pointless. When I asked how she was doing in a certain class, she responded, “I don’t know, we’ll see when the marks come out.” This struck me as a typical answer from a high-school student, but the more I reflected on it the more strange it seemed. Was she not present when the learning took place? I knew what I had mastered in my self-defence class, and what I was struggling with. Of course my daughter probably knows more than she is letting on, and could gauge her learning in other classes; but it was that disconnection from her learning that struck me as both sad and yet strangely typical. Waiting for the teacher to tell her if she has successfully learned something seemed backwards, given my recent experience in learning something new.   In that context, I have to agree with her: learning for the sake of a number on a paper is both boring and pointless. How does relying on a summary of one’s learning from an external source develop the ownership, autonomy, authenticity and love of learning that are the prerequisites of life-long learners?

Of course Quebec’s Educational Reform was an attempt to address these issues, encouraging cooperative learning, student portfolios, peer and self-evaluation, etc. And yet, somehow, ownership of student learning still seems to be firmly in the grasp of the teacher rather than the learner. This is not meant as a critique of individual teachers, whom I know are doing their best in a system fraught with obstacles to success; but rather a commentary on how difficult it is to bring about real and lasting change to an institution designed centuries ago.

If we are really committed to developing life-long learners, as opposed to ten-month learners, schools and teachers must make a conscientious effort to engage students in their own learning, to allow them to understand their own learning styles, to help them to recognize their own success in learning and to articulate their needs when they encounter obstacles. Students need to experience the joy and empowerment that learning brings, to celebrate their successes and to feel the benefit of having persevered when things got difficult. Keeping these goals in mind from kindergarten on up will help develop the skills necessary for students to learn independently long after graduation. Schools can and will become the catalyst for life-long learning, but not without this conscious, collaborative work on our part.

If all else fails, keep in mind: the kids can still become life-long learners in spite of us.

3 a.m. blogging, and why social sciences (/school) should be social, and public!

Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff
Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff

First I will partially explain the title, as NOT being because my new baby boy woke me up earlier at 2 a.m.  It’s about what kept ringing in my head afterwards, and the fact that it continued to ring at all. In part it was because I knew I was going to be writing this blog entry for others, for public consumption.  That’s what made it important enough to keep me awake, to drag me out of bed, again, to seek out tea and cookies and finally a keyboard. And likewise, it certainly was not because I was being marked on it, or because my job depended on it.  It was instead because I had an idea I thought was worth sharing. And also, it was because something of me was about to end up “shared” on the web, and I wanted that something to be made up of my ideas, or at least in this case my slant on a lot of other people’s ideas.  I wanted to represent myself.

These two profound ideas resurfaced for me recently during a highly inspiring workshop I attended by Tanya Avrith, a Digital Citizenship Teacher for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and a pioneer of their Digital Citizenship Program. On the one hand, she helped me reflect on why my other (teenage) son’s school assignments always ended up in the garbage. They were for marks, nothing more.  And as to the other idea, she alerted me to something very important that I hadn’t ever considered, to the fact that my older son already had an extensive digital/internet footprint, mostly made up things he wouldn’t be proud of, and more often than not of things others wrote about him, pictures he didn’t take, etc.  Not an ideal situation for someone searching for schools and jobs, whose college registrars and future employers would be Googling my older son’s unfortunately uncommon name.

For a Better Online Reputation, from LifeHacker
Better Online Reputation @ LifeHacker

The question is, why does this happen to him and so many others, this accumulation of embarrassing memories? It’s not for lack of information, not because he hadn’t been warned about the risks and told about the complexities of  life online. It was because, and I agreed with Tanya on this, that no knowledgeable adults regularly followed him there, to guide him and set examples.  And also… it was because none of his good work, his school work let’s say, followed him there either, to offset all the questionable traces left by others.

Already 5 a.m. and my work day about to begin, so that brings me back to thinking about my main dossier at LEARN, and if and how ideas like this might apply to the Social Sciences (History, Geography, Economics, Ethics in some programs, etc.). These subjects are “academic disciplines concerned with society and human nature” and as such they do serve to engage past and present events and issues, but usually from within the school walls. Obviously you can see from what I presented above I don’t think avoiding the internet during student activities is fair to our students on a personal and on a career-related level, but more than that, I think it is especially ineffective and inappropriate in the Social Sciences.

The Social Sciences Perspective

Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC
Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC

Let’s start with what I mean by ineffective. In the social science competencies we examine, establish and balance the facts, we interpret realities then we learn ways to voice our opinions. For me these basic skills read like a list of things one cannot do effectively, not in this day and age, by avoiding the digital, social and public space that is the Internet.

Examining what? Balancing exactly what facts? When it comes to subjects like history and geography, are we really talking about facts in textbooks alone? Are we meant to avoid current sources and interpretations, meant to ignore the news and the myriad opinions of the non-experts, the young and the old, and the stories from those who “were actually there”?  Sure, the number of sources in our digital world is vast, and many are even unreliable, but is that a reason to filter them out or avoid them altogether? Shouldn’t we be teaching students how to sift through them, how to use search engines effectively, how to compare online sources?

Interpreting, but how?  Voicing our opinions, but how, where, and for whom?  When we talk of creating good citizens, do we really mean to create citizens who avoid interpreting events, past and present, based on current representations of those events? Do we want to form students who can only write their opinions in a laboratory, for their teacher’s eyes only? In the real world, modern historians … Okay, I will get to that one a bit later, for now let’s say…people. In the real world people balance and reflect on all kinds of sources. They might read the Gazette, catch a clip from CNN, then watch a feature documentary on CBC. They might actually look it up in a library. In Quebec even Anglophones check out La Presse occasionally, or watch half of  Tout le monde en parle on Sunday nights.

From flickr user cliff1066™
Fleeing Kosovo. Flickr user cliff1066™

The world has opened up, and mobile devices help.  BBC and Al Jazeera now offer great English-language news services on devices like the iPad, and following a link from any of the above sources can now lead you to unexpected places, to bloggers and tweeters on the ground in Israel, Africa, China or Iran, to powerful and personal images shared via Flickr that scatter a thousand words worth of information across your screen in an instant.

Okay, not all people balance and reflect. In the real world, people also read short articles recommended by friends on Facebook. Are those documents the best sources of information too? Maybe, and maybe not. But either way this is one way people, probably even academics, get information, by sifting through even these social sources, through all sources.

So, given all that, then where do people, or let us now say citizens, effectively voice opinions?  Perhaps not on Facebook, which doesn’t lend itself to “reasoning historically” and doesn’t encourage one to really develop an articulate argument. But maybe, maybe even on Facebook, and that possibility is key here to what I am trying to say. What guides educators should be this:  any forum that allows and inspires students to articulate their opinion, and encourages and allows them to examine, establish facts, compare, accept and understand difference, any forum that does that is good.

For whom?

Okay, now it is a few days later and I am in the café across from my local, public library, and I am thinking about a conference I went to mid-April, which had also been what had inspired me to stay up all hours blogging this all down. To write, for whom?  That was the question.  For you, of course, is the answer! But also and in general terms for the larger public domain, to scratch out thoughts that inevitably become a small part of a larger history, that might take part in a dialogue, or that might completely disappear (but that’s okay, really) like the slow fire of so many old books printed on acid paper. Now, I am indeed talking about a kind of historian, and the conference that inspired me was the National Council on Publish History’s annual meeting in Ottawa, and in particular a workshop series I attended entitled “Connecting Communities: Social Media and Public History Practice.”

What is public history? Okay, I am going to swipe this one from the NCPH site directly:

“Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. […] Public historians come in all shapes and sizes. They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many, many other job descriptions. All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.”

Relevant, useful, local.  Archivists, curators, and jobs!  I really like those words.  In my eyes, this conference was about social science students (albeit life-long students) actively being citizens by “doing” history, and actually making a difference in the real world.

Here are a few quick examples I caught at the conference:  University students develop content for a mobile application that maps the history of Cleveland, process repeats for Spokane and other cities, regular users of the application can submit their stories and history becomes on-going and active. Facebook is used to disseminate unidentified photos of a ghost-mining town, so as to identify the places, people and experiences in them.  Twitter is used to present the diary entries of an individual farmer and soldier during the War of 1812, in daily entries that coincide with the same dates in 2012, in order to better represent the timing and sequence of events that occur in actual economies of war today.  Tumblr is used to reflect on historical ideas themselves, and on how social media techniques and popular culture are used to disseminate information in public life.


Public life=my students’ social world,  the community, their small tribe as connected to other small tribes, along paths I absolutely need to dare to cross.

And that’s it.  These are some of the many reasons why in the middle of the night I woke up thinking that school really should be more social, and that social sciences (and maybe all subjects) should be more public, and why now, finishing up this blog entry over a cold coffee across from the library, I might just walk across the street to see what that cryptic exhibit poster in the window really means to me, and what treasures I might find there to take home and read, contemplate, pass on.



Videoconferencing: Pitfalls, Pedagogy and Possibilities

by superkimbo
by superkimbo

I have a love/hate relationship with videoconferencing (VC). Ok, hate might be a tad strong. Love/irritation? Love/frustration? You see, living in a rural community here in Quebec, I get to use VC a lot. Granted, it’s incredibly convenient NOT to have to get up in the darkness of early morning and drive for hours in order to attend a meeting or do a presentation in Montreal. But more often than not, I feel that I’m missing out on something by not being physically present: the backchannel conversations that take place out of range of the microphone, the informal discussions around the lunch table, the more subtle body language of participants and colleagues. So, I was very happy to meet Craig Bullett (via VC no less!), as he made me see that this oft-maligned technology as I know it can be used effectively, and not just for something as pedestrian as a meeting, but for the highest of purposes…for teaching and learning.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and experience?

Craig: For the past 4 years, I’ve coordinated videoconferences for the Community Learning Centre initiative that make links to the Quebec curriculum. The CLC concept is a MELS project, with over 37 centres across Quebec, which are dispersed through all 10 English School Boards in the province. These centres serve as hubs for English-language education and community development in their respective communities. We also partner with various local organizations and help them bring their resources to the educational community. I have taught many high school subjects over a 10-year teaching career with specializations in computer & technology and FSL. I also have a Masters in Educational Technology with experience in Distance Ed and e-learning.

Would you share a specific classroom project that you feel was particularly successful in terms of both effective use of VC and student learning outcomes?

Craig: One of the most memorable classroom VC experiences I’ve helped to coordinate was a writing workshop with “The Joy of Spooking” author PJ Bracegirdle. He was in Montreal and the participants were at an elementary school in Magog. This session was good because it was on time, it was on topic, it was on task and…it was interactive! The presenter was teaching a lesson about character development. For the ice-breaker, the author read an excerpt from his novel, a spooky book for young readers. Then, he and the students shared strategies for creating a character’s name. Once the students had a name, they were asked to draw their characters and each student was invited to walk up to the camera for a brief show and tell of the drawing. The final activity involved further development of their new characters and the writing of a sequence of events. The post-event feedback from all involved was highly positive and the teacher reported having difficulty in getting the students to stop writing when it was time to work on other subjects. I was also informed that the school library had to create a waiting list for students requesting spooky books!

Explain how you approach a VC event when working with teachers and others to create engaging learning opportunities. What are some of the conception phase considerations that determine whether VC is an appropriate medium?

Craig: My main caveat is this: If you don’t need interaction/reaction from your participants…DO NOT VC! Unlike face-to-face presentations, with VC you actually need to design the interactions. VC interactivity is more like a game-show or talk show than an infomercial. The host and the participants need to be equally prepared. So, when teachers consider using VC for an event they should be asking themselves:

  • What is the purpose of my event?
  • Who is my audience? (Location and numbers are important.)
  • Why will I use VC? (Think about outcomes. Can VC get me there?)

Once you’ve decided that using VC is the right choice, if you are the organizer some of the pre-planning involves:

  • Setting a date.
  • Inviting participants  (don’t forget to get confirmations or send reminders).
  • Booking a venue(s).
  • Sharing material, resources and links with all involved.
  • Reserving bridging and technical support as needed.

If you are the classroom teacher you will need to:

  • Reserve the VC room.
  • Preview and modify content for your students.
  • Create buzz for learners about the upcoming event.
  • Prep the class to introduce themselves at the beginning and make closing remarks or “thank you’s” at the conclusion.

And once everything is over, evaluating the session is of the utmost importance. Follow-up to confirm successful outcomes and critical reflection on the experience are essential in order to integrate improvements into future events.

Where can interested teachers find resources to help with the ideas stage and planning for a VC event?

Craig: I thought you’d never ask! No, seriously there are tons of great resources listed on the LEARN site and you can find specifics in terms of CLC collaborations and educational videoconferencing here: www.learnquebec.ca/clc

As well, the 2Learn.ca Education Society has some amazing resources that support teachers who are interested in VC opportunities. These are mostly within Alberta but there are many collaborations with Quebec partners: www.2learn.ca/VC

And of course, I’m always available if people want to connect directly!


Have you been involved in any interesting classroom or professional development VC experiences that you’d like to share? Please don’t hesitate to school me in the comments section below 🙂










Happy Valentine’s Day from a Life Long Learner

(c) Karen Horton
(c) Karen Horton

I have spent the past twenty years of my life entrenched in the Elementary school system here in Quebec. My roles and responsibilities may have shifted and evolved over the course of time but my underlying focus and driving impetus have remained constant; to discover ways to engage and expand children’s understanding and love for literacy.  My dedication and passion for literacy began at the start of my teaching career in developing critical literacy lessons for my own classroom in the English Montreal School Board inner city and has deepened through my work with pre-service teachers at McGill University in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education as I encourage them to consider how their choice of resources and pedagogical approaches will have a distinct effect on their ability to create a community of readers and writers in their future classrooms.  My time spent traveling across the province as a consultant for English Language Arts Elementary Education at the Ministère de l’Éducation du Loisir et du Sport with our team’s fundamental intent on assisting in the understanding and implementation of the Language Arts competencies of the Q.E.P to now working for LEARN in generating and supporting dynamic and enriching literacy experiences for students and teachers of all ages has allowed me to remain an active participant in the field of education and literacy.

All my life I have loved school.  As a child, I remember with fondness the excitement of a backpack filled with school supplies, a new dress for the first day, the smell of autumn leaves, the sound of the entry bell and best of all the anticipation of all that would be accomplished that year. As an adult working in the field, I remember that feeling of excitement once again when the Q.E.P. was introduced with an English Language Arts curriculum dedicated to the study of literacy.  I have prided myself in trying to be a true role model of lifelong learning for my students. I have always done my utmost to better my teaching abilities and my own professional knowledge.

As I strive to advance my understandings and perceptions on how literacy might be best taught in today’s elementary classrooms, I am once again filled with those same feelings of excitement and anticipation as I find myself a few nights a week in the classrooms of McGill’s education building…not as teacher but as a student.   It is because of the children and teachers with whom I have had the good fortune to meet and speak with throughout my educational career that I know I am ready to continue on to the next steps of my own academic journey of discovery.

Our world is changing and evolving at an extraordinary rate. We now live in an increasingly diverse, globalized, and complex, media-saturated society.  In order for our students to be prepared to navigate this 21st century world, they must become literate in 21st century new literacies that include, but is not limited to, critical, multicultural, digital, and media literacies.  If we are to encourage them to be passionate literacy learners then we need to meet them where they are at and engage them in a way that they too will discover a love of literacy that will last a lifetime.

Literacy instruction has traditionally referred to the teaching of basic literacy skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, in today’s digital world, technology has contributed to an expanded understanding of literacy. Besides having basic literacy skills, 21st century students also need technology skills for communicating, analyzing, accessing information, thinking critically about messages inherent in the media, understanding data, and developing strong opinions. If students do not sufficiently learn these new literacy skills, there is a distinct possibility they will be unable to properly process information they are presented within the very near future.

What sends the blood pumping through my heart at this moment is the possibility of looking at literacy from a different perspective; of re-inventing the way I have been used to seeing literacy in action.  I want to explore deeply and sincerely the actual impact of incorporating the new literacies into an elementary English Language Arts literacy curriculum. This venture will contribute to a more holistic understanding of teaching multiliteracies within Quebec’s elementary classrooms.  It will provide a greater depth and breadth of understanding of how the new literacies can be implemented in unison with the traditional literacies, look at the contribution that these pedagogies and practices can have on teachers and students alike, and draw conclusions that will be important to the English Language Arts educational community province wide, and beyond.

What has inspired me to want to really gaze intensely at the new literacies was actually the following piece of traditional poetry.

Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.


This is my Valentine to you all in hopes that you will find love and passion in everything you do by simply looking at what is around just a little bit differently.  After all, that is the life force of a poet…to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.  Poets do indeed see with the heart; maybe we can too.

Online PD or What I’ve Learned In My PJ’s

On the laptop in pyjamas
photo by Sharon Drummond

It was our last class together as senior seminar students with Dr. Anderson. For most of us, the moment represented the penultimate step in completing a rather lengthy graduate degree and…we were elated. Together, we shared virtual eggnog and recounted stories of how our families traditionally celebrated the holidays. A number of students were located in Eastern Canada, a few on the West Coast, one in the Bahamas and another in Dubai.  We were teachers, administrators, two emergency room doctors, a nurse, a web developer and an instructional designer. During the previous three months, once a week, we had all come together at the same time, to explore the then current trends in distance education.

On this particular night, I remember Dr. Anderson cheekily asking us to fess up and tell him what we really did while we participated in his class. He knew that we weren’t always sitting there, glued to our computers, pen and paper in hand, waiting for an epiphany. For nearly five years of my life, I had spent what could have been my daily downtime chillin’ in front of the TV or zoned out with a good book, revved up and thinking about distance ed practice and pedagogy. And yes, I’ll admit it now, sequestered in my basement office, I sometimes had one ear on a baby monitor, a stack of laundry at my elbow, and was often sporting my flannel jammies! Nonetheless, I was still able to actively engage with the process, the people and the content.

I am an online learning convert, but why do I love it so much? Well, there are some pretty obvious benefits to learning at a distance (beyond the accepted garb!) that have been widely discussed. Here are the ones that I can relate to with the most enthusiasm:

Learning online provides freedom and flexibility.  The notion of anytime, anywhere learning is pretty intoxicating for somebody who loves to discover new stuff all of the time, or wants to master what he or she already knows. You don’t have to travel farther than the nearest laptop to be able to actively participate in an online session with master teachers and a group of diverse and invested peers.  For me, the ability to maintain a busy professional and personal life while pursuing graduate studies, without the hassle and expense of travelling to the nearest urban centre, is liberating. Also, with the myriad of available platforms that support both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration, the task of scheduling group work, organizing follow-up sessions, and even attending an impromptu meeting becomes much less cumbersome.

Learning online enables community building on a large scale. I love meeting people who share my professional interests, in the hopes of both learning with them and from them. What better way to open up a community to as many stakeholders as possible than via the net? During my years at Athabasca University, I met people from all over the world, and together we supported each other’s learning and created some pretty cool content that I can still readily access. Of course, sustaining communities of practice or professional learning communities is yet another challenge, but one that is again potentially less difficult to overcome without the constraints of having to be physically present somewhere.

Learning online encourages accountability. This means a couple of different things to me. Online learning helped me be accountable to myself in terms of taking ownership of my learning and development as a professional…in a province where no formal requirement is made of teachers to upgrade either skill set or knowledge base.  Being accountable as a student in an online setting is another aspect.  It’s really hard to hide in an online class with only a dozen or so participants.  Individual participation is easily noted, and it can also be quite obvious when someone doesn’t come prepared or isn’t really “there”.

As much as I appreciate the many benefits of online learning, I acknowledge that in order for online PD to be embraced by more teachers and school boards, it has to be effective, and not just in terms cost savings. So, the question you may be asking is what does GOOD online PD look like? Well…it should probably look like GOOD traditional PD! It should meet the needs of the individual, positively impact on practice, and ultimately improve student outcomes.  But how? The research literature in the field suggests that high-quality PD has to:

  • be content/subject-matter focused with an understanding of student learning needs
  • provide opportunities for active learning around authentic tasks
  • encourage collaboration
  • occur over time
  • allow for feedback and follow-up
  • be supported in order to allow for continued growth and change

Now, all we have to do is figure out how to meet all of these benchmarks,  using the best-suited technology at our disposal. What does THAT look like? Is it a blend of both online and offline learning experiences? I strongly suspect that it is, but what’s the magic combination?

This year, LEARN is offering a series of web events which we hope will respond to a need from within the milieu. We aim to target a different topic or practice each month, across curricula and communities. To me, these initial monthly online sessions are only the very beginning of a grand experiment in which we will collectively discover a model that might help us to systematically implement meaningful PD for our educators.  And, we invite you to please join us as we engage, explore and exchange.

I’ll make sure to keep you posted!

Kristine Thibeault

For more information on LEARN Web Events, click here.

Connecting the Virtual Dots: An interview with Dr. Terry Anderson

by Luc Viatour

I have an admission to make. (Wait for it.) I am a proud alumna of Canada’s Open University, Athabasca U. Back in early 2001, on maternity leave from a high school in Western Quebec, I started a graduate degree in distance education at AU.  I had long searched for a program that would speak to my professional interests and suit my personal circumstances. AU was a great fit and afforded me the opportunity to connect with professionals of all description, from all over the world, who were equally committed to learning…online and off.

Since then, things have obviously changed, not just in terms of technology but also in terms of pedagogy. So, I thought, who better to re-connect with and ask about the latest evolution of distance education (DE) and technology enhanced education than one of my former teachers at AU, Dr. Terry Anderson. Dr. Anderson is not only a professor, a widely published author, Canada Research Chair in Distance Education, and the Director of the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research (CIDER),  but he’s also a genuinely nice guy who allowed me to interview him from his home in Edmonton a couple of weeks back. Here are the salient bits…about third generation DE pedagogy, technology and building networks:

Can you break it down for us? What is connectivism and how is it different from constructivism?

Dr. Anderson answers: Well, it has been argued that it is just an enhancement and isn’t that much different. In fact, there are articles that say that is just good constructivism.  But George Siemens, who coined the term “connectivism” in an article from 2004, basically says that it’s premised and based upon there being an active network, both in the hardware sense and the resources/people sense, AND that the learning happens when you set up the network so that it can be used to apply to real life problems, or for study.  The theory also states that machines can have intelligence as well.  Really, it goes beyond the idea of a constructivist environment, which is often group based, and people are either working collaboratively or individually, constructing their own knowledge… sort of all within their own heads. Connectivist pedagogy is really a Net pedagogy because it suggests that it’s more important to have a connection and to be able to ask somebody about something or consult a resource, than it is even to know it or learn it. Accessibility and currency are critically important these days. So, what a connectivist pedagogy does is to help students build networks that expand beyond their classroom and beyond their teacher. It allows and encourages them to create artifacts that they share on the Internet. They can contribute to, comment on, and take care of these resources and collections.

What is expected of teachers and learners in order to be successful using a connectivist pedagogy model?

Dr. Anderson answers: First of all, there’s a technical side. You need to have self-efficacy so that you’re not intimidated. You have to have some trouble-shooting skills, because there are blockages and there are half-formed networks and nodes…all over the Internet. One has to be able to start and re-stop, stop and re-start, and just be a good Google searcher amongst other things! Secondly, you have to have a comfort level such that you’re willing to expose limited parts of yourself in order for others to be able to make connections with you. The people who think that their sense of themselves has to be hidden in a private world are really turning away from opportunities and from learning. And thirdly, you need media literacy skills, because of course the Internet isn’t just text, there’s a growing interest in animation, movies…you name it.  The instructional design for connectivism is really now just starting to evolve. People are creating learning activities which usually contain (in some way) the creation of artifacts and the development of social capital through building networks but this new model has been criticized because it doesn’t have any built in learning designs. They’ve been created afterwards from a psychological theory of learning. And that’s where we’re at now.

Let’s talk technology for a minute. What have you been using lately to connect with your students?

Dr. Anderson answers: I’ve been trying to wean people off of Moodle (e-learning platform) to use the Landing (AU’s social networking site) for a number of reasons, but mostly because it’s persistent. It doesn’t go away at the end of the semester, and it allows students to establish a social presence and to try to do some learning that goes beyond just the course. That way they have a chance to meet some other people both in their own program and in the university at large…and possibly to join other groups like LinkedIn, for example.  We’re focusing on what we call a “boutique” social network, which adds a level of control, privacy and exclusiveness (which are not things the web is great at!) so that it’s not Facebook. It’s under the control of the university. But what really differentiates environments like the Landing is that you can confine the data to a group, or a selection of friends, or to two teachers, or to the whole world including Google search engines. So, you get to control who gets to see it, whereas if it’s in Moodle, nobody gets to see it except people in that class and then it disappears. So, you can see how that fits in with the notions of connectivism. Building that social capital within the course but allowing the tentacles of the Landing to reach out, as people are comfortable doing. Students are getting the practice and at least serendipitously meeting other AU students…because that’s what DE has really lacked. Now, it hasn’t reached critical mass, I’ll admit that, but if and when it does, it could be quite revolutionary for DE. Currently, AU has about 3000 people registered but only 800 are truly active.

Lastly, do you have any tips or ideas on how to build and sustain online community?

Dr. Anderson answers: Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d probably go public and be a zillionaire by now. No, really…it’s hard! The analogy we often use is that of a gardener. You can’t just walk out into a field and throw around some seeds, you have to dig the ground and make it soft, and then you have to put the seeds in the right place. Then, you just can’t walk away from it and hope that it’s going to live. You have to keep fertilizing it and watering it. You need strong leaders, you need content, and you need a really good push system. When you join a group, the Landing allows you to turn off the email notifications but by default they stay on (we learned that early on!). It used to be the other way around, but then people would join a group and there would be some activity there, and then they would forget about it because it wouldn’t get pushed to their email. It builds that way. If you go in there and it feels like a ghost town, then it’s kind of hard to generate initial enthusiasm.

And then, (like the dedicated gardener that he is), Dr. Anderson encouraged me to join the Landing, have a look around, make some connections, give my feedback, tell my story. He seemed convinced that the work we do here, at LEARN and within the larger community, would surely inform practice somewhere else and vice-versa. 


References for further exploration:

Anderson, T. and Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Vol 12 (No 3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/890/1663

Schwier, R. (2011, Aug 5). Interview with George Siemens about connectivism. Retrieved from,

Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.  Retrieved from, http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Terry Anderson’s Blog: The Virtual Canuck




Telling It Like It Is: Action research and asking the right question

Art (c) Todd Berman

I was animating a short morning session on the practice of Action Research last week. It was Friday, to be exact, the kind of rainy morning you wished you were cocooned in a bathrobe somewhere or sipping a nice mug of tea.The attendees were all teachers participating in a formal research study conducted by Concordia University here in Montreal. I had long thought that one of the things that would round out this research in the eyes of practitioners was the voice of the participating teachers themselves. What was it like in the classroom when they introduced the new computer-based tools? What did they do about little Johnny who can’t sit still long enough to write his name, never mind do his Daily Five? And what about the noise? People love stories. Teachers love classroom stories.

But is it enough to tell a good story? For a story to be compelling for educators, it has to answer a question or, perversely, to ask one. This is where qualitative approaches to educational research come in. I decided to go with Action Research because of its simplicity and straightforwardness. In fact, rather than providing my work-session teachers with a definition of the  term action research, I asked them to brainstorm what it might be, based on the two words that comprise the term. I noted their responses on a slide in the Keynote presentation we were working from:

Real Action Research Brainstorm

Intuitively, working with what they knew, the teachers were able to come up with the basic salient features of action research in about two minutes flat. Together, we found that

“Action Research is a fancy way of saying: let’s study what’s happening in our [classrooms] and decide how to make [them] a better place.” (Calhoun, 1994)

One of the main goals of Action Research is to lead to changes and improvements in teaching practices, and thus make schools (or online classrooms) better places to learn. More powerful than the most sophisticated workshop PD, action research is the cornerstone of reflective practice. Teachers who ask questions about their own practice and then decide on ways to take action are taking a mighty leap into self-driven learning (the kind we wish for all our students, no?). And if those same teachers follow up their planning with concrete action and the gathering of data about what they did, with reflection and sharing rounding off the cycle, they are engaging in the same kind of professional learning practiced by members of other professions, such as doctors. After all, why should they have all the fun 😉

The official Action Research cycle often looks something like this:

My version of an action research spiral

If you want to do some action research in your own practice, whether you are a classroom teacher, a consultant, a pre-service teacher or any other type of educator, you will probably want to begin by asking a question. A good question has the following attributes:

  • It comes from your own practice
  • It is in your sphere of influence (i.e. you can do something about it)
  • It assumes that you are where you are

A question from your own practice

Often we are told what is important by others. Equally often, some issues become trendy and frequently discussed. But these might not be important to you at this time. So ask yourself: “What is important to me? What do I care about? What do I feel will make the most difference?” and choose a question that speaks to your teacher’s heart, no matter what the pundits tell you is important. Your school is different from other schools and your group of students is unique. You have the best insights as to where you need to put your energies and you will approach the issue with more zeal if it comes from you.

A question that is in your sphere of influence

Asking a question like: “I wonder if a shorter school day would be beneficial to my very active cohort of students” might be very interesting indeed, but might not be possible to explore. Your question needs to be something that you can answer by taking action. You could ask instead: “How can I use the very active nature of my students to help them learn math?”

A question that assumes that you are where you are

It’s no good asking a question whose scope is so far beyond you that just looking at it makes you break out into a cold sweat. A novice computer user should not, for instance, ask: “How can I integrate a variety of Web 2.0 tools into and across my curriculum?”. He or she might be better off with: “How can I set up and use a classroom blog?” which is more focused and manageable for a novice. (And speaking of classroom blogs, here is a great one from Mary Ellen Lynch’s Cycle 1 classroom).

The challenge

“Action research happens “in the swamp” where we live our day-to-day successes, frustrations, disappointments, and occasional miracles.” (Russell, 1997). I’ll be adding additional posts about action research between now and January. My challenge for you today is to ask a question from your practice and take the time this school year to engage in some action research of your own. Share your questions here! I would love to see them! We might discover some miracles along the way.


For more about Action Research:

Russell, Tom. (1997). Action Research: Who? Why? How? So What? An Introductory Guide for Teacher Candidates at Queen’s University. Found at http://resources.educ.queensu.ca/ar/guide.htm on October 7th, 2011

e-Lead: Leadership for Student Success – Action Research section. Found at http://www.e-lead.org/resources/resources.asp?ResourceID=9 on October 14th, 2011.

McNiff, J & Whitehead, J.  (2005).  Action Research for Teachers: A Practical Guide.  London, David Fulton Publisher


Sylwia Bielec

24/7 Learning

As money gets scarcer, it becomes harder to get to conferences and other professional development events. In the twenty-first century, this is not a reason to miss out on professional development.  There are more and more alternatives both synchronous (you meet in a virtual space at a specified time) or asynchronous (the session is recorded and may be watched / listened to at any time). Each has advantages. All the virtual conferences listed below are free – and in this case the price does not reflect the value. Top educators from around the world have contributed to these conferences.

Preconference Keynote: November 21
Week 1 sessions: November 28 – December 2
Week 2 sessions: December 5 – 9

For the past five years, I have been participating in the K12 Online Conference. I have learned so much from the many educators who have freely shared their practice.  Most of the sessions are asynchronous – not more than 20 minutes long. All sessions have been archived from 2006 to the present. You can watch at your leisure, learning from teachers and other educators from around the world. You can download them or watch online. It’s great to watch some sessions with fellow educators to spark discussion. This year the sessions will be posted, starting with the keynote on November 21. The following two weeks will feature 4 new presentations each week day with sessions aimed at every level of technology user. The thrust is pedagogy and education in general and how technology can help provide powerful learning situations. (Disclaimer – this is the second year that I have been on the organizing committee).

 November 14 – 18

The Global Education Conference will be held for the second year between November 14 – 18 in Blackboard (a kind of virtual classroom).  Sessions are synchronous, but all are archived so they can be watched later, but, or course, you would not be able to participate in the chat room to ask questions. From their site ” Sessions will take place in multiple time zones and multiple languages over the five days. The 2010 Global Education Conference had 15,028 unique logins and presentations from 62 countries.” I managed to attend some sessions last year and they were of very high quality. The chat room also gives you the opportunity to interact with other educators and perhaps, find partners for projects. Last year’s archive is still available.

November 2 – 3

A new conference this year is the Library 2.011, taking place on November 2 and 3. It is sponsored by the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. Although it is not aimed specifically at K12 Education, I am sure there will be many sessions of interest to school librarians. The schedule should be available shortly.

LEARNING 2.0: The Future of Education January 2012
A new conference is on the horizon, spearheaded by Steve Hargadon. It will be held in January. I’ll keep you posted as I learn more. Steve Hargadon hosts a series of interviews with educational leaders. You can learn about upcoming interviews and  listen to the archives of past shows here.

 Classroom 2.0 Live is not a conference, but a weekly show (though it is on hiatus for the month of October). Each week there is a guest educator who shares classroom practice often around the use of technology. All shows are archived as well as all the resources the guests provide. I know there are some Quebec educators who have participated (I’ve met them when I have been there) and whose students have profited from what their teachers have learned.

Learning can now take place any time, anywhere. It can be done in small increments (20 minutes for a K12 Online session) so you don’t get overloaded. You can watch a session more than once if you missed something or just need a refresher. I know I have watched a few several times as I have either needed a refresher, a boost, inspiration or wanted to share with a colleague. You can pick and choose the sessions that are of interest to you and watch them at a time convenient to you.

One teacher in Shanghai held a LAN (local area network) party, inviting his colleagues to watch sessions together along with food and drinks. It was a great way for colleagues to learn together in an informal atmosphere and to have discussions about education and about changes they wanted to see in their own schools. I have used his model and invited colleagues – it resulted in some great conversations. We want to help our students become lifelong learners. What better way to show them that learning doesn’t stop when you leave school, than to model it ourselves.

Have you taken part in an online session – synchronously or asynchronously? How did it contribute to your learning? Please recommend some sessions you have watched.

Susan van Gelder

Learner Motivation: A Wannabe Runner’s Musings

woman running
by sean dreilinger

I started running again at the end of August. Now, for those of you who don’t know me well (or at all), this may not sound like a big deal. I mean, I’m not a sloth. I’m a relatively fit individual who tries to stay healthy by working out regularly and watching what I eat. However, I’m not what one would describe as an athlete and certainly not a “natural” runner. I wouldn’t even say that I have an aptitude for the sport. I don’t glide effortlessly through the dewy country air with an unbearable lightness of being. No. My feet hit the pavement with an audible thud and my legs move with a heaviness that I try to conceal. For me, running is a struggle. It’s hard, sometimes it hurts, BUT when I’m done I feel lighter. I feel a sense of accomplishment that pushes me to continue.

So…what does all of this whining have to do with education? Well, a lot actually. The question I ask myself as I’m plodding along, hoping that my lungs don’t explode is: Why am I doing this? And more pressingly, why do I keep doing it? These cries of anguish got me thinking (and my neighbours too) about what motivates me to learn, and in turn, how and why the students I’ve tried to teach over the years are motivated to learn things that are potentially difficult for them.

In my opinion, one of the great equalizers in the classroom, if not in life, is motivation. But how do we as parents, educators and students harness its power? How do you motivate yourself or others to want to learn something and to keep on coming back for more? The literature in the field is ripe with theories. My particular area of interest is motivation as a variable in the acquisition of a second language or language learning motivation (LLM). So bear with me, fellow FLS/ESL teachers, as I try to make the connections between what motivates me as a learner, what I have observed when teaching kids a second language, and some of the research that supports this dialogue.

Here are my top 4 motivators for learning:

1. A goal. Not a big one, just something to set my sights on. My current goal is to complete a weekly “couch to 5K” running program by the end of October and then compete in a fun run for charity. Having to prepare for my goal gets me moving, and knowing that the goal is attainable pushes me to not only make an effort but to sustain that effort over time. In a classroom context, goals can be individual or defined by the group. They can be personal in nature or related to a learning situation. According to theorists, goals help to direct our attention toward relevant activities, they encourage students to regulate their effort, and they positively affect persistence (Locke and Latham, 2002). Of course, having too lofty a goal can backfire. For example: I’m finally going to learn to speak French this year and ace my finals. Baby steps people!

2. Regular, positive feedback. I’m not only talking about corrective feedback here. Right now, I don’t have a running buddy. I have to rely on the kindness of Robert Ullrey (see below) and his free podcasts to get my fix of the warm and fuzzies. He provides just the right combination of enthusiasm, running tips and jazzy music to keep me going. In my experience, just being an accessible, attentive and enthusiastic teacher, who provides a safe learning environment, garners points for positively affecting the motivation of students. If we revisit the notion of goal setting, feedback has been proven critical in showing progress and influencing performance. (Locke and Latham, 2002). Feedback encourages students to think about what they are doing in order to make adjustments, get better and stay invested. In a quick exchange with a physical trainer two weeks ago, I learned that I was a classic “heel-striker” and that my running form had a critical flaw that was causing me some pain. So, I changed my stance and I’m now back on track….literally.

3. A little success is always a good thing. Three years ago I completed my first 10K. This small victory has given me the courage to take on more athletic pursuits. I suppose you could classify this type of causal thinking under the attribution theory of motivation. Dörnyei (2001) hypothesizes that the reasons to which students attribute their past successes and failures in learning a language impact and shape their motivational outlook. In a school setting, these reasons (or causes) include: ability, effort, luck, task difficulty, mood, family background, and help from others. The locus of control is super important here. If students attribute failure to something they perceive to have little control over, like natural ability, their motivation for learning decreases. For a learner then, maintaining a positive self-image and a belief in his/her potential is critical to learning. In the language classroom, experiencing small successes also helps to increase self-confidence in a learner’s ability to communicate and lessens the anxiety of making mistakes.

4. Choice. Making choices gives me the feeling that I’m in control of my life. Nobody forced me to start running again. I’m the captain of my destiny! Of course, being cajoled into learning a second language is not ideal – but that’s what most of the FLS teachers I know deal with in the real world. Providing students with choice within the context of the classroom, as well as in the design of our courses and lessons is a good start. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t include a nod here to the theory of self determination and how it applies in a larger sense to motivation and learning. To be self-determined implies that learners have a choice in terms of their own actions…in both the initiating and regulating of what they’re doing. Another word for this would be autonomy. Deci and Ryan (2000) distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. When we are intrinsically motivated to do something it is for the internal rewards we get out of it: happiness, satisfying our curiosity, the shear joy of running, etc. Extrinsic motivators might include things like: praise from a teacher, good grades, well-defined calves, etc. What theorists suggest is that when self-determination is shaped by intrinsic motivation and autonomy, that’s when the learning outcomes are the most beneficial. Which brings us full circle: How do we get students to motivate themselves to learn?

I have to admit that motivation is both an ill-defined and complex concept. LLM interplays with a myriad of factors including attitude, aptitude, context, content, and the list goes on. I’ve only tapped into a few of these. I’m currently working on compiling concrete how-to’s, strategies, tips or anecdotes that have to do with intrinsically motivating students. And you, how do you handle motivation in your classroom?

I’ll see you after my run!

Kristine Thibeault

References (for your reading and listening pleasure)

Locke, E. & Latham. J. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57 (90), 705-717. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11 (4), 227-268. Retrieved from

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, England: Longman. (Sorry – this one is not available online)

Dörnyei, Z. (2003). Attitudes, orientations, and motivations in language learning: Advances in theory, research, and applications. Language Learning, 53 (1), 3-32. Retrieved from

Robert Ullrey’s Couch to 5K Podcasts (http://www.c25k.com/podcasts.htm)