Jump Higher

Last night when I finished my Governance Focus Group in Winnipeg, I noticed that I had three missed calls from home and a series of text messages. The last one from my husband was sent at 9:55 pm and said: “You there? Kathleen is at 185. Crying.”

I stared at my phone from a province away and thought: What could this possibly be about?

Soon it became clear. Two weeks ago, our daughter Kathleen came home with a Jump Rope for Heart sponsorship sheet, but she was not enthusiastic. She is a competitive little girl and she wanted to get the top prize: if you raise a certain amount of money, you get a lunch box. (Really? A lunch box? In another blog, let’s discuss the ethics of this sort of extrinsic motivation.) She was discouraged because her friend’s mom gave her a cheque for $200. Kathleen has a strong sense of justice. She knew I wouldn’t just write a cheque, so life was not fair. Without much thought, but not to be out-done, I made her an offer: if she raised $200 herself, I would match it. (Who did I say was the competitive one?) She thought my challenge was unreasonable, and that seemed to be the end of it.  Or so I thought…

So yesterday was the day before the Jump Rope for Heart. I knew she had raised a bit of money from some family members on Mother’s day, but I didn’t know she was serious about raising $200. Since I was in Winnipeg, I didn’t know that yesterday after school, she went door to door in our neighbourhood collecting donations. Most people gave $5-10 so she had a busy evening. But she came up short by $15 and she wasn’t allowed to knock on any more doors after dark.

There were tears, but Kevin wouldn’t top it up. Jacob came to her defense, demanding that Kevin give her 15 bucks. But he wouldn’t rescue his daughter. What a parent dilemma – we raise the bar higher, but if it is too high, do we let them fail? And how should we approach this dilemma in our schools – we want our students to succeed but we know important lessons come from failure.

Kevin decided that this was a good learning moment. We talk a lot about the need to make our kids resilient, and he thought this was an opportunity for her to fail, so he refused to solve her problems, and Kathleen sobbed.

Just before 10pm, she had a solution: a call to her Papa. (In another blog, let’s discuss the role of grandparents in teachable moments).

By the time I called home after 10pm, I heard the play-by-play from all three perspectives. But I had a very proud daughter. “Ignore my upset voice messages, Mom. You owe me 200 bucks.”

I told her that I was proud of her…that I believed she could do it all along… that I need to be the sort of Mom who pushes her because she will succeed. Then I told her, “I wish I had said $500.”

I couldn’t see it, but from Winnipeg, I could hear her smile. She knew that I knew she would have jumped higher.

ps – As you know, my kids approve anything I write about them. Kathleen wanted one addition: The lunch box includes a radio!

The 60 million dollar (online) university

TV-watchers of my generation will remember “The 6 Million Dollar Man”. After an accident he had been rebuilt with robotic parts, and as a result he had super-human strength and abilities. Now we’ve got the 60 million dollar online university. That’s the price tag on the new joint venture of EdX, a partnership between The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University to offer online learning to anyone with an internet connection. EdX will supply Harvard and MIT classes online for free. According to Anant Agarwal, edX President, “There is a revolution in Boston and beyond that has to do with a pen and a mouse…online education will change the world.” The vision is that the experimental online experience “is designed to improve, not replace, the campus experience.”

David Brooks, of the New York Times, reminds us that online education is not new, but predicts there will be a “campus tsunami.” Sure enough, just days after the EdX announcement, Purdue University joined the ranks of universities that are experimenting with online courses. PurdueHUB-U promises modular on line courses with video lectures, interactive visualizations, and tools for students to interact with their peers and the professor. The project’s leaders hope it will improve face-to-face classes and bring in revenue by attracting students around the world.

Purdue doesn’t have the deep pockets of Harvard-MIT. According to Purdue’spress release, their initiative will be seeded with $2 million over four years. They predict that it will break even, with revenue covering expenses, within five years.

As we watch the tsunami from Canada, how should we respond?

For starters, we should pay attention to the price tag. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, other elite universities, including Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, attempted online-education programs but closed these after experiencing financial woes. If Harvard and MIT think it will take $60 million to make online learning work, can others invest less?

The opportunity for anyone to take courses from two of the most prestigious universities in the world is amazing. And for free? The price-tag couldn’t be better. (No cheap shots at my frugalness, please.)

Yet while Harvard and MIT are world-class institutions, they do not have a monopoly on the best university instructors. We need to make sure that we seek out the best wherever it is, and not simply focus on the biggest names.

At the same time, the opportunity to use great lessons to enhance the K-12 classroom is amazing. And I love that both universities have made a commitment to use Ed-X as a research opportunity to improve their teaching on campus.

This I know for sure. Great schools will always need great teachers. In the past, great teachers worked hard to find great resources. Thanks to Khan Academy, Harvard and MIT, and undoubtedly others who enter the fray, teachers will have easy access to great resources, for free. (Did I mention the free part?)

What does the future hold for teaching? I believe that there will always be value in old fashioned, face-to-face learning environments where teachers and students learn together in classrooms and other co-curricular programs. The good teachers will find the great resources.

But the best teachers will use them to enhance teaching and learning for students.

Asking Good Questions

CAIS piloted a commitment this year to address all of the CAIS Partnership Conferences. So in the past few weeks, I have been on the road to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, addressing five groups: Junior and Middle School Heads, Admissions Directors, Assistant Heads, University Counsellors, and Business Officers). At each gathering, I focused on questions. I often say that I am in the business of asking good questions – be it accreditation, professional development or research questions. (In fact, the Board Chair at West Island College in Calgary told his Board that in his years with CAIS, he felt that asking good questions was one of the main roles of the national office.)

I asked Junior, Middle and Senior School Directors to consider this question: what is special about your program? As all schools are increasingly competitive, everyone talks about the challenges of admissions. But the challenge of admissions is partly a challenge of program. All of our CAIS schools offer the provincial curriculum. But what ties our CAIS schools together nationally is an ongoing commitment to improvement and an ongoing commitment to focus on what is above and beyond the minimum requirements in each province. I call it the CAIS school stretch. (Incidentally, in my CAIS school visits, I see the best Division Leaders focusing like a laser beam on program, specifically, on differentiating their program from their competition.)

Our Governance Research project is also asking important questions. Our CAIS schools depend on Boards who recognize that their focus must be on today’s children’s children. In order to ensure that agendas include time for rich conversations, our National Standards include a focus on Generative Discussions. So, as part of our research, we asked, ‘What are the Generative Questions that Boards have discussed and should discuss?’ Here are some of the questions that CAIS Boards have told us they are discussing:

  1. What are useful KPIs for a school?
  2. What makes an effective board?
  3. What skills and characteristics does a grad need to be effective in today’s and tomorrow’s world?
  4. Is there an upper limit to tuition levels?
  5. What is the relationship between tuition levels and accessibility in our community and what are the implications for schools?
  6. What will the supply of really good educators look like over the next 20 years and what are the implications for schools?
  7. What can a board do for a school that no one else can?
  8. What is the desirable balance between institutional memory and fresh blood?
  9. What will the best schools look like in ten years and why?
  10. What will the big themes in education be over the next ten to twenty years?

I was able to ask questions of students last week while touring three Montreal schools. At Yechiva Yavne, a K to 11 school founded in 1992 by the Sephardic community of Montreal where they offer both Orthodox Jewish and general studies, I was once again reminded of the value of questions. I asked students, ‘What is special about your school?’ Two classes stood out for me.

A grade one class of boys came to life. Every hand shot up to answer my question. First answer? The Torah. Next? Writing class…Our Rabbi…prayer time… Are you as surprised as I was? It was only after five or six more answers that I heard ‘Recess’ and the class erupted with laughter. Now I have never taught this age group, so I can only reference my son at that age who once told me, “You don’t understand boys – we like recess and gym.” The energy in this class was infectious.

It was in a small grade ten English class that the girls answered my question with two words: our teachers. I asked a follow-up question, naturally, to better understand what made their teachers unique. One girl quietly spoke, “Our teachers speak with the heart. And when anyone speaks from the heart, you listen, and you learn more.”

I’m glad I asked the question.

And I will end with another: What other questions should we ask of our Directors, Boards and Students?