Technology shouldn’t change what we teach

It is Easter morning and I carry on a tradition that my father started, and I write clues that my kids have to solve that will lead them to their Easter bunny. Last year they complained to me – and worse to their cousins – that my clues were too easy. And since that makes my brothers very happy, I ramped it up a bit this year.

One clue asked them both to figure out who inspires my husband. Kevin’s screen saver shows a slideshow of the three men who inspire him: one colleague from McGill, the principal of Queens, and the Governor General.

They first had to figure out that this screen saver existed, then they had to research their names. This was fascinating to watch because even an internet search wasn’t straight-forward. My son initially reported that the Governor General was the Queen…. It took a minute for him to realize that impossibility, given that the three photos were men. Eventually, Kevin went downstairs to help them. But I could hear frustration. Jacob came back upstairs and reported that Kathleen was completely upset, and even Dad’s help with an advanced google search wasn’t fast enough. He said to me, “There must be a better way,” then he took my iphone and spoke to it:

“Siri, who is the governor general?”

When he flew downstairs to show off, his ecstasy matched Kathleen’s anger. She started to cry. Happy Easter morning….

My first point is that technology is changing the way kids learn, and our schools need to teach kids to access information differently.

Back to Kathleen who is now crying on Easter morning and the bunny is yet to be found. I whispered to her, “See how your brother does on this next clue.”

Jacob read his clue out loud. It went something like this – If you lifted me up every morning, as we all remind you to do, your sister would not scream at you.

Kathleen smiled. She knew immediately that the clue was hiding under the toilet seat. But Jacob was miffed. It was one of those great gotcha moments.

My favorite line that morning was Kathleen’s immediate ability to stop crying and say this – “Why don’t you ask Siri?!”

Easter morning made me think about two things: Firstly, technology is changing everything and we need to adapt.

But secondly, technology is not changing everything, so we need to continue to teach thinking skills and problem solving and, of course, resilience and humour.

This Easter, my kids learned some important lessons about problem solving – and I, thankfully, regained my credibility with my brothers.

P.S – If you attended the Junior and Middle School Heads Conference in Ottawa last weekend, you can find some helpful resources on our website.

The Future of K-12 Online Education

About 15 years ago, I took an online course from Athabasca University. I needed one more course to be eligible to take my Principal’s Qualifications, but I had to complete the course – a full year university credit – in one summer.  I didn’t think it was possible to pull it off as I was already taking a summer education course in July and traveling across Canada in August.  My holiday was already booked!  But I signed up, got a box of books in the mail, and registered to take my exams in August in Calgary and Vancouver. 

It was unlike anything I have ever done.  I would call my assigned tutor from pay phones in camp grounds en route.  One day, Kevin and I hiked at Yellowstone National Park by day, then took turns reading to each other while we drove all night.  Another day, my Dad and my husband edited my essays while my brother typed the pages I hand-wrote. All true.  It was an intense summer, and I loved that I could get so much done in that short period of time. Did I learn more? Or retain more?  Not sure. But the experience was worth it and so was the convenience.

The fact is, online education – even back then – had an important role to play. And the truth is that most everybody does some kind of online education: for example, yesterday, we placed a number of online learning resources in our new PD Resources section of our website, and we will continue to add to the list. I’d call that online education.

But recently, there has been a lot of attention on one newer form on online education:  MOOCs.  For those of you who are not hip (like me!!!), let me enlighten you – experts are saying that the advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium.  (A January HBR blog highlights a panel of experts discussing the future of education, or watch the whole thing here.)

Why the recent buzz?  Loads of people are attracted to loads of content delivered to loads of students via MOOCs.  (Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera confirmed, 
”We’re at 2.4 million students now”.)  This popularity means that for American universities that traditionally charge a lot of tuition, MOOCs offer a reasonably priced way to educate students.  And the technology exists to ensure that the delivery mechanism will never be an inhibitor.  So this cheap educational option is highly attractive to a nation of young people stressed by student debt loads in America. 

So when you’ve covered the supply side with reasonable quality and competitive prices, and you’ve got demand from students around the world, you’ve got a disruptive innovation.

What is the impact on CAIS schools?  I believe it is threefold.

1.  As our tuitions continue to outpace inflation, we need to address opportunities that will sustain our schools.  Can schools integrate the online model with the on-campus experience and save – or even generate! – money?

2. As university preparatory schools, we need to prepare students for online learning.  Should K-12 schools require an online course?

3.  As schools that are passionate about learning and preparing kids for a changing world, we need to be very intentional about time.  If kids are already engaged in the online world, and they are, how can our schools do what we do even better?  In other words, can we use online learning to enhance learning through even more authentic face-to-face experiences that cannot be found elsewhere?  For instance, could we move some of the information transfer that happens in a classroom online, and instead use that class time for dialogue and debate, or hiking in Yellowstone Park? 

We must be proactive in the opportunities presented by online education.  Sustainable schools must make a commitment to seeking out new business models.  But I believe that the best business solution will always come from the best education solution.  Starting with what is best for kids must remain at the core of all we do, and that won’t change.

p.s.  Last week, Queen’s University joined the ranks of other universities trying to find their future in this new arena.  Their approach – town hall on online learning – is worth examining.  So too is their draft report.

This week, Forbes magazine chimed in:  MOOCs aren’t likely to solve the fundamental student learning challenges that colleges and universities face, and they certainly won’t take the place of a college education.

Independent School Research Summit

Imagine this – it is 8:30pm on the evening before a long weekend.  A woman wearing a business suit, lugging a laptop bag and purse while pulling a suitcase, is skipping stairs up the escalator and sprinting through the Atlanta airport.  Her heart is racing.  She knows that there is not another flight this evening because she has already done that research in the first airport when she knew her first flight was delayed.  She knows that she does not have a moment to spare.  She is desperate to get home because her 12 year old daughter is having a birthday party sleepover with her friends and cousins.

Do you wish this story ends a certain way?  I know I did.  Sadly, last Thursday night, despite my best efforts, I got to my gate six minutes after my connecting flight had shut the doors and so I spent an unexpected night in Atlanta.

Somewhere just after 8:30pm, when I had texted my husband and kids with the update that I wouldn’t be home, I got a text from my colleague Sarah who asked if I made my connecting flight.  With all of her international travel, she knows this scene all too well.  I replied, “PPP.”  This has become our code for rotten news.  It means: Pity Party Please.

The whole concept of living in the moment does not seem to apply at these times.  In fact, travel mishaps are actually some of the most challenging parts of my job – flight delays can leave you in a strange city, late at night, alone, and homesick – how do you snap out of wallowing in that woes me whine?

That night provided another reminder of the need to focus on what is good.  And I mean to really train your brain to shift from that unbecoming state and instead think about gratitude.  In Thursday’s case, I had had an amazing day.

A group of educational leaders of national and international organizations met in Ashville, North Carolina this week for an Independent School Research Summit.  It seems that all schools are hungry for research and some schools are in trouble, so there is a sense of urgency for associations to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of collaborative research.  At this time, all of our associations – even the big ones! – recognize this challenge:  we have big questions and small shops.

As those of you who work with me know, I really believe that we can do things better together, so I was grateful to be invited to participate.

In our next news letter, I will give you a summary of the great work underway with my colleagues at NAIS, TABS, NCGS, CASE, NBOA, CSEE, AISAP, SSATB, INDEX.  There is an exciting new initiative, and CAIS is proud to participate in this North American effort to identify possible opportunities for larger-scale research about independent schools.

Our next meeting will be in Washington.  I might drive.  And I will definitely bring the kids with me.

p.s.  Two articles you need to read:

1.  NYT on Tony Wagner (Who will be at our Summer LI along with the CWRA)

2.  The amazing case of Hotchkiss’s international travel legal case

Hanging Out

Jacob and I reacted differently to our March break activities.  Jacob spent one day in a community garden with my Dad and sent this text to Kevin:  “Well I had to get rid of a moldy wet smelly slippery broccoli plant without gloves.”  (I love that he had to do that.)  On the day he spent in a JK class with my brother, I got a text-photo of Jacob on a rocking chair with two boys climbing on him as he read to them.  It was beautiful.  I wondered if Jacob had found his calling and would become a teacher like most of our family?  Not.

That night, we heard this:  the kids “were all over me… and they don’t even wash their hands!”  I asked him what he thought of teaching, and he scolded, “Do you know how tiring that job is??!!”

(Naturally, I really loved this reaction too. Maybe he won’t become a teacher, but he did get a taste of the real world.) 

When we asked the kids what they wanted to do this March break – and travelling was not an option for us – they said they wanted to “relax.” (This made me feel everything BUT relaxed. But I gave it a try and only scheduled three days.)

When I got home from work on their first “day off”, they were in front of the TV in their PJs, with their iPods in their hands. (I was miffed.)

Mom:  Did you read today?

Kids:   Not yet.

Mom:  Did you make muffins with the bananas I left out?

Kids:   Forgot.

Mom:  Did you fold the laundry? 

Kids:   You didn’t ask.

Mom:  Did you eat anything other than cereal?

Kids:   There is no food in the house.

Mom:  But I told you to make home-made pizzas and everything is in the fridge!

Then I decided to share what was really bothering me: “You cannot live your life like this! You need to do something useful with your time!”

Seems like this is an age-old debate in our house – how much do we schedule our kids?  And how much do we try to influence their down time?  I believe that kids should have unscheduled time.  I believe that some of life’s best learning comes when days are full of nothing.  Don’t you then discover your real self?  But I would like them to choose books and hikes…. not TV and iPods.

So I asked Jacob how he planned to spend the next day. I thought if I encouraged him to think it through, he would make good choices.  He looked bewildered and said, “I’m going to hang out.” I tried to explain that time is precious and he should use it wisely.  He questioned, “Are you telling me that doctors and lawyers didn’t hang out when they were kids on March break?” 

On our way home from skiing yesterday, I asked the kids to name the highlight of their break.  We did some great things – but their list didn’t resemble my list.  At all.  Both agreed that what they liked most was “hanging out”.  And that made me crazy. 

But then they also agreed:  they are looking forward to heading back to school.  And that makes me wonder if they might know best….


Are conference passé?

I am at NAIS in Philadelphia and I got a text from a family friend in Halifax. My daughter wrote this to her:  If you have an idea of what I should be when I grow up then text me back because I need something by tomorrow.

When I spoke with my daughter, she was in tears. I tried to calm her with the classic – you are 11 years old and have a long time to figure this out.  She cried: But I need it for homework today!  So I told her what I did in school – just say you want to be a lawyer.  And that is exactly what she did.

But the point is that when she needed help – and fast! – she texted.  This reflex reminded me of my son before Christmas. He reminded me of his research process to find a new video game.  He texted me:  Well I made a post on Facebook that said “Which games should I get for my Xbox?” Then I took the top 5 and did internet research on them and narrowed it down to the ones that I liked best.

When kids grow up with immediate access to information and people through social media, what is the role of schools?  Sometimes I get worked up thinking about blended learning and how best to incorporate technology into learning in the classroom.  But the fact is, kids are growing up with hand-held devices and can use them with or without schools.

So the answer to how to change is sometimes not to change.  There will always be a real need for face-to-face time together. I would argue that schools need to get better at teaching values of how to get along and how to be kind to each other. (Today we call them 21st century learning skills but many are just good old fashioned values.)

I feel the same way about conferences. I can – and do! – learn from listservs and webinars and internet research.  But I value more the opportunity to join my NAIS colleagues here in Philadelphia.  Since CAIS is part of the International Commission on Accreditation and the Independent School Association Network, I spend a full week engaged in listening and talking with colleagues from all over the world.  This is an international network of smart people who share my passion for accreditation, advocacy, professional development and research.  As CAIS is the only organization in Canada to focus on this combination of programs, this network is critical.  (I am joined by my friend Jan at CIS Ontario too!)

Sometimes I joke that I learn more from the hallway conversations, but it was pretty amazing yesterday to hear Jim Collins and Bob Evans.  And last night at Canada Night, people wanted to talk about them and Daniel Goleman and the other sessions they attended (including one on marriage and Headship by Sue Groesbeck and Hal Hannaford and their spouses!)

tweeted all about it, but I bet you would agree, that the real value is being here to hear and debate the ideas in person.


I often hear from members about the value of accreditation, but I don’t always get the chance to share the feedback.  It is one thing for me to promote the fact that accreditation is an effective continuous school improvement process, but it is another thing to see others describe it.  So when I saw Bob Snowden’s blog, I got pretty excited…. In the past 8 years, I have been on more accreditation reviews than anyone in Canada; in fact, because of our unique model where a CAIS staff is on-site during the visit, I have probably been on more reviews than anyone in the world.

So this morning, Bob Snowden, Head of SMUS, gave me permission to post his blog here:

One of our Senior Math teachers, Deanna Catto, just returned from a four-day accreditation visit to another member school of CAIS, the national organization to which we belong, Canadian Accredited Independent Schools. Tomorrow morning, I and our Director of Junior School, Nancy Richards, leave for a similar accreditation visit to a school in Toronto, Bishop Strachan School. SMUS had its last accreditation visit in the fall of 2007, and will be due for another one in the next couple of years. We are strong believers in this process, which involves a thorough self-examination by staff in every sector of the School – including academics, extra-curricular life, finances, athletics, and even Board, Alumni and Parents Association. It is a comprehensive and integrated examination of how effectively we fulfill our Mission in all ways, and it is conducted over four days by a team of about twelve staff and Board members from other Canadian schools, usually with a couple of independent professionals thrown in. No stone is unturned, so to speak.

In explaining the process, I regularly refer to Socrates’ line, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Likewise a school: it is useful to examine what we do and have others participate in the examination to provide an external and unbiased point of view. We want to open ourselves up to the scrutiny of eyes not our own, recognizing that the pursuit of excellence does not end in a destination you arrive at; it is the journey itself, and it never ends. For those who are curious, our last accreditation report was very positive, the visiting team finding a School where the staff engaged in their work in a spirit of continuous improvement. Music to my ears.

When the shoe is on the other foot – that is, when staff members of ours are on accreditation teams to other schools, the benefits are also significant. To go into another independent school and examine its efforts, with the aim of recognizing what works and recommending improvements where we can, does take us out of our focused and intense SMUS bubble and compel us to see how other institutions are grappling with the same purposes we pursue: the challenge of preparing young people for a dynamically changing world. Both exercises – either as the visitor or as the visited – are exercises in humility since you recognize that there is always something that needs improvement or new emphasis. And also in aspiration, since you recognize that seeking the best environment for the current generation of leaders is all about the world of tomorrow.

p.s. I encourage you to follow “Vivat! The Head’s Blog”:

A blog is not a newsletter

I am tempted to write about last week’s conference on ‘Strategy and Sustainability’ – I have heard from many people that it was valuable and some have even said it was the best gathering ever.  But a blog is not a newsletter, so I will include the updates on our website.

I also want to write about the value of accreditation – our third review of the year started this afternoon, and I have enjoyed reading the email exchanges between the Visiting Committee members before and after the visits.  But rather than blog about them, I am going to include those in the November newsletter.

I really want to describe the tour with the ten agents in 18 of our boarding schools – they said things like, “I used to send students to the UK but now I will encourage them to choose Canada first” and “I had no idea that CAIS schools were so amazing.”  I had a great time with them, especially when we got to fly in a float plane from Vancouver to Shawnigan Lake, and I mean we landed on the dock of Shawnigan.  But I will include a photo and link to social media for those updates.

Why not write about three great happenings with CAIS?  Because Sarah Milligan often reminds me that a blog is not a newsletter.  It is supposed to be a personal online diary, and she doesn’t want me to bore anyone with CAIS updates.  Communications should be appropriate to the medium.

So what do I blog about on this rainy Sunday afternoon?  Sometimes I get carried away with work and need to focus on other things – so here are a few other things in my life:

Two weeks ago, right before the conference, agent tour and reviews, Kevin and I went on a four-day road trip with two other couples.  That’s six adults in one car for ten hours each way.  I was reminded that I should take time to do something crazy… even when life is busy – maybe especially when life is busy.

We went to Charlottesville Virginia.  In the downtown area is an outdoor mall with a chalkboard wall with two words at the top:  Practice thinking. I loved it.  Then we went off to Blenheim, the winery that Dave Matthews started. Not only is he an amazing musician – we blasted his music for most of the trip – but he is creative.  My favorite lines from ‘You and Me’ are still in my head:  ‘When the kids are old enough, we’re gonna to teach them to fly.’  Sometimes we need to go on a search for what is beautiful.

Our friend Lisa, who inspired our little trip, is about to go through another round of chemo.  Her cancer has spread to her lungs and liver, and yet she is the most positive person I have ever met. We talked and laughed – and sang – all weekend.

That’s what I feel like writing in my online diary.  Thank goodness I blog because I would hate to spend my afternoon doing work…