Posts Tagged With: Inclusive Education

Parents Said No to the Test

Two months ago, before Alberta Education announced that the province will be phasing out grade 3, 6 and 9 Provincial Achievement Tests, I was approached by a couple of parents at my school. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to respond to their question. They wanted to know if what they had heard was true. “As parents, do we have the right”, they asked, “to excuse our children from writing provincial achievement tests.” I’ve known the answer to this question for years but quite honestly have been reluctant to openly share it with parents. The odd time a parent had asked me about “excusing their child” I’ve encouraged them not to “for the good of the school.” A great deal of emphasis has been placed on Provincial Achievement Tests as the primary measure of student and school success in our province and each time we excuse a student it negatively reflects the overall school and jurisdictional results. The idea has always been to get as many students writing as possible. I applaud our superintendent Chris Smeaton for encouraging educators to maintain a focus on learning and student engagement instead of PATs. “Excellent learning is the important thing”, he says, “then the assessments will take care of themselves.” He has blogged about Provincial Achievement Tests here and here.

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What’s not really known is that parents can excuse their student from writing the tests; and it’s written right there on the Alberta Education website. The problem is that it’s like solving the Rubik’s Cube to find it, and there’s an unwritten rule that school leaders should refrain from engaging in that kind of conversation with parents. My fellow blogger Joe Bower has written about this.

So as I was standing there with these two parents contemplating an answer, this question kept racing through my mind, “Should I be concerned about my school results or should I be working with parents to determine what’s in the best educational interest of their child?” So, after what seemed like forever I answered and a lengthy and engaging conversation ensued…

Here is a short description provided by Alberta Education about the Provincial Achievement Testing Program:

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(This year we had 52 grade 3 and 6 students in our English stream eligible to write provincial achievement tests. More than half of those students had been approved for some sort of accommodation – reader, scribe, and/or extra time. A great number of them were reading well below grade level and some were English Language Learners. Most of those students would be forced to take hours’ worth of standardized tests in a format mostly foreign to them throughout the school year.)

…the day after our conversation the two parents mentioned above presented me with a letter excusing their children from participating in the Provincial Achievement Testing program this year. Not only did they feel their decision was adequately informed, they also knew their children’s teachers would provide them with other forms of evidence that the curriculum would be effectively assessed as had been the case throughout the year.

The next day 3 more parents dropped off letters excusing their children from writing as well. Apparently, parents started having the achievement test discussion with one another and the word was travelling fast. By the end of the week almost half of the 52 students had been excused by their parents.

As parents approached me for advice I did what my role as school principal calls for me to do. I assisted each parent in making an informed decision for their child. I directed them to the Alberta Education website, encouraging them to review the Achievement Tests link on the Parents Page. I shared the Framework for Student Learning which outlines the future direction for education in our province and demonstrates the need for a more relevant form of assessment for today’s learners. I even encouraged them to speak with other parents who were also struggling with the decision about what to do. It was not my role to decide for them, rather to arm them with as much information as possible in making the decision for themselves (and their child). A few common questions surfaced, like “If they don’t write will it affect their mark in any way” and “If they don’t write will it affect their placement next year.” The only answer I could give was no. Another reoccurring comment was, “I never knew I had a choice.”

When all was said and done the parents said no to the test – all 52 of them. Each and every one provided me with signed consent excusing their child from writing the 2012-13 Provincial Achievement Tests.

And in place of the PATs the students experienced some amazing learning:

Genius Hour Proposal – idea borrowed from Kirsten Tschofen (@KirstenTP) and her blog post at SOMEWHERE FROM HERE

Genius Hour Animoto Clip

Categories: Community Engagement, Education Transformation, Inclusive Education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Alberta’s New MO on Student Learning

On May 6, 2013, with little or no fanfare, ministerial order #001/2013 (Student Learning) was signed by Alberta Education Minister, Jeff Johnson; bringing into full force all aspects of Inspiring Education and repealing a very dated ministerial order #004/98 (Goals and Standards Applicable to the Provision of Basic Education in Alberta). It was last updated on February 10, 1998.

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A ministerial order is a decision made by a minister that does not require the approval of cabinet, or the Lieutenant Governor in Council. The power to issue a MO is typically written into an individual piece of legislation, and the MO itself must make reference to the authorizing legislation. MOs have the force of law. Unlike orders in council, ministerial orders are not automatically made public in Alberta. It is not clear why: given that they have the force of law, it seems they should be.

So how many Albertans know this new ministerial order has come into effect? How many know that the goal of this ministerial order is to ensure that all students achieve an extensive list of outcomes that will enable them to be contributing members of 21st century society? How many know that this order is in stark contrast to what was previously expected of the educated Albertan? This is big and it seems to have slipped in virtually unnoticed.

For awhile now I’ve been urging my teachers to familiarize themselves with documents such as the Framework for Student Learning and this ATA Transformation Document – A Great School For All, both of which align with the new vision for our education system. I’ve even suggested that they would be positioning themselves well going forward by referring to these documents when planning, teaching, learning, and assessing. “You’ll be ahead of the wave”, I’ve told them, “if you start making small changes now.”

I wonder how ministerial order #001/2013 will play out in the weeks and months to come. It looks really good on paper. It’s easy to write it down on paper; a bit more difficult to infuse it into daily practice, especially when curriculum, PATs and DIPs remain the same.

What an exciting time to be involved in education.

Categories: 21st Century Competencies, 21st Century Learning, Education Transformation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Oh How Things Have Changed – A Reflection

After 21 years as a teacher and administrator there has never been more to consider. As the societal context continues to shift, a focus on appropriate and relevant skill building in an inclusive environment has become an extremely important role of the school. Researchers around the world have identified the need for competencies to be more central in the education of young people if they are to be active participants in an increasingly knowledge-based and globalized society. Competencies enable students to understand their world, engage fully in their education, relate well to others, manage their lives wisely, and contribute positively to their communities. These important competencies include, but are not limited to:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Creativity and Innovation
Social Responsibility and Cultural, Global and Environmental Awareness
Communication
Digital Literacy
Lifelong Learning, Self-Direction and Personal Management
Collaboration and Leadership

Many people ask why we need a different model of education for the 21st century. Aren’t many of these skills the same ones that have been important throughout history as civilizations moved forward? And do we, only 13 years into the century, really know what skills our students will need for their future? The answer to these questions is that the past few years have seen a very different world than before, especially in the area of globalization, which has been magnified by exponential advances in technology. We have moved from the industrial age to the service age and the students who are now entering our schools will end up in the service sector, having jobs in many different fields over the course of their working lives. While we don’t know what new jobs will emerge, our students will need to be able to learn new things and adapt to new situations as the world continues to change. They will need to innovate and create while employing critical and divergent thinking.

Oh How Things Have Changed

Oh How Things Have Changed

The biggest difference between today’s education and that which went before it is the embedding of the important competencies into the curriculum. A few short years ago teachers didn’t engage in much problem solving or decision-making with their students. Those skills were not seen as important because when students left school and went to work most of them expected to be told what to do – if a problem came up or if a decision had to be made they were expected to take that to someone higher up rather than make it themselves. In today’s world there is more scope for autonomy and decision making at every level – employees are expected to be self-directed and responsible for their own work. This emphasis on autonomy, mastery and purpose leads to more personal satisfaction with our careers, and this, in turn, leads to more motivation and ultimately a better performance. Teaching and learning should reflect this reality.

The competencies listed above were not emphasized in yesterday’s schools. Academic rigor was defined by the “3 R’s” and the coverage of a large amount of content – and knowing this content was more important than understanding it. With information more accessible than ever, students must instead be able to apply previous experiences to new situations. If schools place an emphasis on lifelong learning, students will be better positioned for the world they will enter.
The implications for teachers are tremendous. There is a need to engage students in more inquiry and project-based learning in order to support the development of higher-order thinking skills. There is a need for teaching to be less about the dissemination of information and more about guiding students as they direct their own learning. There is a need for every student, regardless of their limitations, to both learn and demonstrate learning in their own way, at their own pace, and from any location. There is a need to engage students in a way that is relevant to them, supporting (not replacing) strong pedagogy with the tools of technology. All of these are important, however the attitude and mindset of the teacher continues be the greatest indicator of student engagement and success.

Finally, I am a firm believer that teachers must be at the centre of education transformation and not at the outer edge. They have to be given the opportunity to try new approaches and build capacity within a trusting, risk-taking, and collaborative culture. Jurisdiction and school leaders are charged with the responsibility of building a shared vision, values and goals. If this is done through the collective efforts of all stakeholders, the foundation is laid for a community of learners. This foundation is further enhanced over time when the formal leaders consistently allocate resources and make decisions in support of the vision. Given the right conditions, teachers will, as informal leaders, lead the charge toward the kind of schools we want for our children.

Categories: 21st Century Competencies, 21st Century Learning, Capacity Building, Education Transformation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Technology is an Equalizer

Last week I watched intently as a grade 2 child with autism exhibited great delight while navigating his way through an exercise that challenged everyone in his class. Using the school’s internal hard drive we were setting up sub folders for each subject in their individual accounts. I demonstrated on the Smartboard and they followed along. Eventually, it was hoped, they would be able to create files themselves. This was a necessary scaffolding of learning because our students are asked to use their folders to store documents, images, and other files, then revisit them as needed. In a sense, they are beginning the process of building an electronic portfolio of their learning.

Creating files may sound fairly straightforward for us adults, but for any 7-year-old this kind of work usually requires a great deal of support and guidance. And many would expect that a highly autistic child who requires the one-to-one support of an educational assistant probably wouldn’t even be able to complete this task, right. Wrong. That’s not what was happening at all. The student not only completed the task effectively, others in the class approached him for help. His educational assistant spent most of her time assisting others as he beamed with pride while demonstrating independent learning.

I’ve read a number of articles and blog posts that engage in the debate on whether or not the use of technology makes school more inclusive for all students. I’m also of the opinion that more than anything else, excellent teaching has the greatest effect on the success of each individual student. But the tools of technology, which are used every day by great teachers, definitely have a place in making learning more inclusive for many. We witness this every day:

In the struggling reader who use apps like Elmo ABCs, Reading Raven, and Super Why to reinforce concepts that challenge them.

In those who can best demonstrate their learning through tools such as iMovie, ShowMe, or Popplet.

In the student who requires a quick refresher in a math concept and can visit the Khan Academy for assistance.

In learners who require voice to text support by incorporating Dragon Dictation and Voice Thread.

Through blogging, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, online school libraries, iPods, Smartphones, Gaming, Smartboards, etc., etc. 

Let’s not forget that inclusive education really is all about engaging each and every student in their learning, every day. If any of the tools available to us can help, we should be using them. By the way, the most effective teachers (as I alluded to above) are doing this already.

Categories: 21st Century Competencies, 21st Century Learning, Inclusive Education | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Ask and Listen – An Inclusive Approach

We need to do a better job of asking and listening to our students.  Asking students how they would like educators to support them communicates respect and value for their choices.  All teachers would benefit from learning about a student’s preferred type of support; not just when learning but also in their social interactions at school.  By working with students to determine their need for support we are not assuming that we know exactly what the student needs.

This past week I was assisting my grade 5 teacher with a challenging student who was exhibiting some reoccuring poor behavior.  In the past we have tried various strategies, all of which involved the teacher and I deciding what we thought the student needed.  Each time, after a couple of days the strategies stopped working and the students’ behavior returned.  This time we decided to take a different approach.  We sat down with the student and asked him what he needed from us in order to improve.  At first he wasn’t sure but after thinking about it for awhile he came up with a few ideas.  Working together the three of us developed a plan we could all live with and will implement it next week.  We left the meeting feeling more encouraged than before.  Perhaps the simple gesture of asking the student what he needed will pay dividends going forward.  We’ll see what happens. 

Reflecting on this, I think educator need to specifically teach students the self-advocacy skills necessary for them to receive the support they need in school.  We also need to allow students to make choices about the support they recieve.  They are the most powerful resources in determining how to provide helpful support.  When students engage in behavior that is challenging, they are often trying to communicate something (e.g., I am angry, upset, scared, frustrated, or bored), or they have an unmet need (e.g., independence, control, power, or self-regulation).  The best response is to recognize the behavior as communication and work with the student to determine and meet the unmet need.

Categories: 21st Century Learning, Inclusive Education | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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