STS Head of School Blog

As the educational landscape around us changes, our Head of School, Dr. William Jones, provides his perspective on the latest news in education, independent schools, and 21st Century learning. Be sure to follow Dr. Jones on Twitter for the latest updates.


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Global Citizens
October-14-16

As I write this, I am in Louisenlund, Germany attending the Round Square International Conference with a delegation of STS students. Firstly, I must say how proud I am of our students and the way that they are interacting with other students and adults from countries around the globe. They are thoughtful, open-minded and respectful delegates and they are representing our country and our school brilliantly, whether they are hiking on a glacier or engaged in a discussion group.

The theme of this year’s conference is The Journey that Makes Us. During their time here, students have listened to inspiring speakers, like Ben Saunders who is the only person to have walked/skied to the South Pole and back, 100 years after Shackleton’s failed attempt, and Souad Mekhennet, a highly-respected journalist who has spent time analyzing and writing about terrorism, including interviewing high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They have also participated in local service projects and adventure activities during their time at this interesting school in northern Germany.

Much of the conference is intended to develop a generation of young people who are tolerant, understanding, well-informed and inclined to take ethically-grounded action in the world. I can recall no other time during my life when this has been more important. As we consider what is happening around the world today, there are some disturbing signs to indicate that our progress toward a more peaceful and sustainable existence is stumbling or even regressing in some ways/places. Some of the fearmongering, intolerance, racism and xenophobic rhetoric that is spewing from the mouths of world leaders (or aspiring leaders) is deeply troubling and we need to develop a new generation of leaders who can reverse this trend and set us on a more productive path to global harmony. Experiences such as this conference, are an important part of developing the character, values and intercultural literacy, which give us hope in the next generation. When I hear the discourse among students and presenters at this conference, it does inspire hope for a brighter future and it fills me with optimism about their ability to act and to lead. 

The Benefits of Time Spent in Nature
January-22-16

The Benefits of Time Spent in Nature

It has been enjoyable to observe students spending time cross-country skiing on campus in recent weeks and our first group of Grade 7s are out for their Grade 7 Ski Week. I have always believed, and it has been a part of my personal experience, that being out in natural settings improves the mindset, lowers stress and clarifies thinking. Until now, I have not seen any scientific evidence to support this intuition.

An STS parent (thanks Sean) recently sent me a link to a National Geographic article presenting research that actually quantifies many of the benefits of being surrounded by or even looking at nature. Below are a few of the findings from different studies and some of the hypotheses being tested by ongoing research:

    • after three days in the outback, students’ performance on creative problem-solving tasks improved by as much as 50%;
    • time spent in nature appears to allow the prefrontal cortex to “dial down and rest;”
    • people living within blocks of green space experience lower incidences of mental distress (including depression and anxiety), heart disease, diabetes, asthma, migraines and have lower mortality rates and fewer stress hormones circulating in their bloodstreams;
    • nature appears to relax people and improve their performance as indicated by measures of the central nervous system such as lower levels of stress hormones, respiration, heart rate and perspiration;
    • looking at natural versus urban scenes reduced blood flow and activity in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety;
    • walking in natural settings for 50 minutes improved executive attention skills such as short-term memory.

Taken together, these findings are encouraging given the physical location of our campus and the emphasis that we place on outdoor learning experiences in both our curricular and co-curricular programs. Overall, they suggest that exposure to nature enhances both mental wellness and cognitive functioning. This work also supports many of the principles that our architects have incorporated into our campus modernization project, including extensive sight lines and easy access to the outdoors. Aspen Lodge, our outdoor classroom is also surrounded by forest and supports learning in a natural setting. And so it seems that we are on the right track with respect to leveraging our beautiful natural setting to enhance learning and mental wellness.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School 

Living Our Mission Each Day
January-12-16

Living Our Mission Each Day

The mission of Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School is to develop well-balanced students for a life of purpose by inspiring excellence in scholarship, leadership and character. This week, I would like to comment on the aspect of “well-roundedness” as a key tenet of our mission. Unlike some schools that might have a narrower focus on academics or athletics or fine arts, STS has always believed that developing graduates who are capable of excelling in any field and fully enjoying all that life has to offer means exposing students to a wide range of opportunities. Even when that means stretching students beyond their comfort zones by requiring participation in things that may not come easily (perhaps speaking in public or participating in a difficult hike), we believe that students experience more personal growth and a stronger understanding of themselves than they otherwise would if simply allowed to avoid those activities in which they feel uncomfortable, uncertain or not naturally talented. It has often been said the greatest personal growth is experienced on the margins of the comfort zone and beyond, even though we may be programmed to avoid taking such risks.

It is one thing to include something such as well-roundedness as a part of a school’s written mission and quite another to enable students to fully develop it. It requires a dedicated and unselfish faculty to truly support such a principle and I witnessed a great example at STS over the last few months that I would like to share here. I have been in many schools where students are told they must make difficult choices between activities. For example, you cannot be in the band and on the rugby team because they both practice on the same days. It is certainly easier for teachers/coaches to say that than to accommodate a particular student’s interest in doing both. This term I observed a wonderful collaboration between our Senior Varsity Volleyball Team coaches and our musical directors. This involved both groups cooperating and making concessions so that students could play on the volleyball teams and take a role in the musical,Big Fish – both of which required major commitments running from September through November. The challenge was even greater as we knew that the play and ASAA Provincial Volleyball Championships would occur on the same weekend and that we would be hosting the boys’ Championship here at STS on the same days as the musical presenting certain facilities challenges. Mr. Stockton even went so far as to double cast more than one lead role, partly to enable a student to participate in both the Provincial Finals and the musical. This degree of collaboration is somewhat rare in schools, and although I have used a single example here to illustrate the point, it happens daily at STS. I am extremely proud of the lengths to which our faculty and staff go to accommodate well-roundedness in our students and to honour and enable the mission of STS in all that they do. It is inspiring to behold and our students benefit enormously from their collective efforts.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

 

How Our New Facilities Will Support 21st Century Learning
October-20-15

How Our New Facilities Will Support 21st Century Learning

There are many different expressions and definitions of 21st Century learning/learners found within the current educational literature. A few years ago, we developed our own definition of 21st Century learners which states: At Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, we believe that 21st Century learners and citizens embrace the values of the School and the IB Learner Profile. 

    • Intrinsically motivated and persevering, analytical and reflective, they seek innovative solutions to challenges.
    • Effective communicators and lifelong learners, they are adaptable to change.
    • Grounded in their communities, they collaborate as part of their responsibilities as ethical citizens of an interdependent world. 

Another framework (see below) developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) shares common elements with the STS definition including the concepts of collaboration, critical thinking, communication skills and creativity (often expressed as innovation or creative problem solving). Most models of 21st Century learning also include these so-called 4 Cs.
21st Century Learning Framework
An additional feature of the P21 Framework is the rings below the desired student outcomes that represent the support systems required for the development of 21st Century skills. At STS, the further development of three of these rings (learning environments, professional development, and curriculum and instruction) constitute two of the key tenets of the STS Inspiring Possibilities campaign. The fourth (standards and assessment) is already firmly embedded in the IB and Alberta curricula and the internal and external assessments (PATs, IB Exams and STS internal assessment tools) associated with those. Excellence in teaching, which targets enhanced instructional strategies and curriculum delivery, has been an ongoing goal within our strategic plan along with the modernization of facilities to enable teachers to incorporate current knowledge and best practice in the development of 21st Century skills.

Five years ago, STS very intentionally engaged architects who are knowledgeable about 21st Century teaching and learning. Fielding Nair International is world renowned for their work in school design and more specifically for translating educational research into architectural design principles. They literally wrote the book on the subject (The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools, 2009). A visit to their website (http://www.fieldingnair.com/) will reveal the depth of their knowledge and expertise in this area. The new elementary and fine arts facilities are specifically designed to facilitate excellent teaching practices and help students to achieve the 21st Century target learning outcomes. For example, multiple break-out rooms in each learning community enable learning activities that foster the development of collaboration skills. Teachers will also have shared collaboration spaces rather than the isolation of separate offices. Each learning community will have a Da Vinci studio to allow for creative, project-based learning that does not require constant reconfiguration of classroom space and resources – a huge time waster in daily instruction. A new design and innovation studio will facilitate the MYP Design Program where students undertake innovative projects and creatively solve problems in very hands-on activities using a variety of technologies such as robotics and 3D printing. Each learning community will also have an adjacent learning commons that together with the features mentioned above, will enable a single teacher to oversee multiple learning activities in different, purpose-specific spaces.

Overall, the new learning spaces will be flexible, transparent and inspiring. They will enable teachers to better accommodate different kinds of learners and provide a safe, healthy and comfortable environment in which to learn. We are already organizing professional development opportunities for teachers to learn more about how to make optimum use of the new facilities. I am confident that the new learning spaces will not only support the acquisition of 21st Century learning skills, but also attract excellent teachers and students in the years ahead.

 

The Importance of Play
May-12-15

The Importance of Play

As I was walking over to Aspen Lodge one morning this week, I encountered two Elementary School students who were playing a game of their own design on the edge of the Forever Woods. They were each holding imaginary devices of their own creation and appeared to have a shared understanding of how those functioned and the rules for their use. It was a classic example of what unstructured play looks like. 

As I extended my gaze over the playground I noticed some students playing on the playground structures, others engaged in vigorous physical games and some just talking with other students. The full expanse of the terrain was being utilized – fields, asphalt, play structures and forest. Above it all rose a gentle roar of enthusiastic chatter, non-linguistic vocalizations and laughter. In the distance, there was a clear view of the snow-covered Rockies framed by the cloudless blue sky and that brilliant shade of green that characterizes the first growth of trees in the spring. I must admit – I paused and stood there in awe for a few moments.

Later, I reflected on my childhood experiences on the playground in elementary school. We were also running and playing our own games. But the setting was a completely paved playground with no grass fields. In the distance, I could see the smoke stacks of the local industries and the traffic that constantly streamed past the school yard. It was crowded too and we were much more restricted in our movement than the “free-range” version of kids. To get to a forest of any sort we would have had a half-hour bike ride or an hour walk. These memories were nostalgic but also caused me to reflect on some of the known benefits of unstructured play – particularly in natural settings like the STS campus.

Play is vitally important in child development and unstructured play offers even more value. We all understand the benefits of physical activity; downtime, fresh air and natural sunlight. But unstructured play offers much more than that. It causes students to engage their imaginations, to negotiate with others (for space, use of equipment, inclusion) and to interact socially in different ways, to solve problems presented by the natural environment (like that temporary stream intersecting the play area after a spring downpour) and to take certain risks – both socially and physically. Left to their own devices in a stimulating, natural environment, students invent structures and systems (rules) and scenarios as well as interesting ways to communicate, monitor and modify these. They sometimes experience scratches and bruises and even the odd broken bone, but even these offer lessons on self-care and self-management that are impossible to replicate in more structured environments.

Over time, evolving elements of our society like technology, fear of crime, space restrictions, social structures (like play dates)  and other features have eroded opportunities for outdoor, unstructured play. In many ways, we have tried to sanitize both the play environment and play activities themselves in order to “protect” kids and to keep them focused. These efforts may, in the end, do more harm than good.

Quite coincidentally, after my playground observations this week, I came upon this article in the Calgary Herald, which reinforced what I had been thinking. It also made me realize and appreciate how the unique and beautiful STS campus allows us to provide extraordinary developmental opportunities for our students – even at recess.

Can Diet Affect Academic Achievement?
January-16-15

Can Diet Affect Academic Achievement?

Happy New Year! I hope that the winter break provided quality time with loved ones as well as some rest and relaxation.

Judging by the increase in weight loss product ads that predictably follow every holiday season, one gets the impression that good eating habits tend to deteriorate during times of celebration and relaxation. That’s probably not the end of the world as long as we are more disciplined during the rest of the year. But what about kids who eat fast food regularly?

A new study released by Dr. Kelly Purtell, Assistant Professor of Human Sciences at Ohio State University, indicated that students who regularly consumed fast food had test scores gains up to 20 percent lower than those who did not. The study examined test scores for about 12,000 students across the United States comparing their achievement test scores in Grades 5 and 8 and cross-referencing them with questionnaires regarding their consumption of fast foods. While the study did not identify a specific cause, the author speculated that food additives, high sugar and fat contents, and the lack of important nutrients in junk food impede learning and cognitive processes as demonstrated in earlier studies.

So it turns out that the phrase “you are what you eat” applies not only to physical well-being, but also to cognitive development, particularly in children whose brains are still developing.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

The Diploma Exam Debate
November-20-14

The Diploma Exam Debate

This week the news feed carried stories about the weighting of Alberta’s Provincial Diploma Exams, which currently account for 50 percent of a student’s final grade in all of the examinable core courses. The Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) voted overwhelmingly at their conference this week to reduce that weighting to 30 percent. This position is congruent with those of the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). The new Minister of Education, Gordon Dirks, has agreed to take “a closer look” at the issue and to review the research as well as the practices of other jurisdictions. The decision is ultimately in the hands of Alberta Education, who may be influenced by any of the aforementioned groups, but is not accountable to any of them.

Opponents of reducing the weighting of the exams present various arguments. These include the following ideas:

    • exams on the full year of work cause students to review all of the course content, which reinforces learning;
    • high-weight exams are a reality in university and thus good preparation;
    • Diploma Exams give integrity to Alberta marks by leveling the playing field and mitigating against school mark inflation and this has been recognized by universities (some of whom add a small percentage to Alberta students’ grades);
    • Alberta students’ first year university grades are much closer to their Grade 12 grades compared with students from other provinces;
    • Diploma exams provide important performance data that allow Alberta Education to measure the overall performance of the education system and provide accountability to tax payers.

Proponents of reducing the weighting of exams point to the following concerns:

    • 50 percent is an inappropriately high weighting to place on a single, two-hour, multiple choice exam that tests only a portion of the course content;
    • the stress induced by such high stakes exams can negatively affect performance on those exams;
    • no other jurisdictions in Canada have such exams, which statistically lower Alberta students’ final averages by about 3.5 percent;
    • 50 percent is too much for a single, summative assessment when compared with a full term of evaluation  that includes a variety of formative and summative assessments (essays, tests, quizzes, projects, presentations, multi-media assignments, etc.) that reflect a more comprehensive assessment of their knowledge and skills;
    • the current Diploma Exams do not accurately measure or reflect the target competencies of 21st Century learners prescribed by the curriculum (which no single, two-hour test could hope to do) nor do they reflect current thinking and best practice in assessment for learning.

Predictably, these arguments are laden with educational jargon, coloured by political wrangling and emphasize opinion over research. At STS, we believe that exam writing is an important aspect of summative evaluation and that students need to learn to prepare for exams and learn to manage the anxiety that these can produce if they are going to succeed given the current forms of assessment being deployed in post-secondary settings. We also understand that standardized tests are a reality with respect to graduate school admission (e.g. LSAT, MCAT) and in seeking professional designations. With that being said, 50 percent does seem like a disproportionately high weighting for a single test given the significance of Grade 12 mark transcripts in the high-stakes university admissions and scholarship processes. Since most Canadian universities consider only Grade 12 marks, it is also difficult to comprehend that a single exam could so heavily represent the 12 years of study leading up to it.

We will have to wait and see what Alberta Education decides to do. It has been suggested that any change could be implemented as early as this year. Given the significance currently being placed on these exams, we will continue to do our best to ensure that STS students are well prepared to write them.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

The Evolution of Educational Environments
November-04-14

The Evolution of Educational Environments

As we contemplate modernization of our school facilities to better facilitate progressive, research-based instructional models, one of the questions that often arises is how well these facilities and teaching strategies will serve students when they encounter more traditional forms of university instruction such as the extended lecture. This is a relevant question. And having recently hosted a number of alumni reunions, I am very mindful of the fact that our alumni consistently report being very well prepared for their university studies. This is not something that we want to mess with.

With that being said, it is very obvious to me that universities are also re-examining their instructional practices and the learning facilities that support them. For it is difficult for these institutions to ignore the research and knowledge that they themselves are generating in the fields of education, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. And so while it may be happening gradually, there is change afoot in our institutions of higher learning and they too are responding to new knowledge about how students learn. Today’s university students are so-called “digital natives” and even universities whose instructional practices are deeply entrenched in the culture and traditions of post-secondary education cannot ignore the new learner who has grown up with the internet and knows how to access and evaluate information – with or without a professor. Change is inevitable.

I recently read the article entitled Rethinking the Classroom for Active Learning in the Globe and Mail’s Canadian University Report, which alludes to this transformation. The author, Jennifer Lewington, states, “Canadian universities are exploring new ways to harness space, in existing classrooms and new buildings, to promote flexible physical environments that encourage students to take charge of their learning” (p. 24). The article, available here, also quotes a number of professors, university leaders and even one of the architects who worked on the STS Campus Master Plan who all indicate that both instructional practices and learning spaces are evolving to reflect new knowledge and accommodate a new type of learner.

These ideas convince me that STS is on the right track and that we can thoughtfully move forward with confidence knowing that changes in the post-secondary learning environment for which we are preparing our students, are congruent with our thinking and planning.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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The Value of Experiential Learning
September-24-14

The Value of Experiential Learning

In an age of accountability, test writing and test scores tend to take centre stage and the value and benefits of experiential learning are sometimes underestimated or undervalued. Perhaps this is because the data-driven orientation of modern society makes us suspicious of things that cannot be measured by a simple test – even when those things have value.

The term “experiential education” has been defined in many ways. Malcolm McKenzie, the Head of The Hotchkiss School (a Round Square school in Connecticut) describes it as education that, “promotes learning through direct experience, often outside of the classroom, at times not directly related to academic courses, frequently not graded, and sometimes not mediated through language or academic discourse and practice.” That’s a mouthful.  In the simplest terms, it refers to learning that takes place by actually doing things as opposed to reading about them, hearing about them or observing them. At STS, experiential education includes community service, international travel, outdoor and physical education, athletics, speech and debate, fine and performing arts, clubs and other activities wherein students are actively engaged.

An early proponent of experiential education was Kurt Hahn; a German philosopher and educationalist. Hahn was the founder of Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Awards and his work also figured prominently in the development of Round Square and the International Baccalaureate Programmes. Hahn’s philosophy arose from his respect for adolescents whom he believed to be inherently decent and moral beings ultimately corrupted by society as they became older. He believed that such corruption could be avoided if students were provided with opportunities for leadership from which they could observe the positive effects of their actions. He also believed that exposing students to challenging and exciting experiences would help them to develop courage, compassion, imagination and a strong moral compass. In rather striking examples of this, the students at several of the schools which Hahn founded or served played vital roles in their communities. At Salem School in Germany, students were responsible for firefighting and at Gordonstoun in Scotland they were responsible for sea rescue. According to Hahn, “the passion of rescue reveals the highest dynamic of the human soul.”

While today’s risk-averse society would certainly frown on involving students in fire-fighting, one has to admit that it was an experience that enabled students to directly observe the positive impact of their actions. Our students can also experience this by helping a senior, volunteering at the soup kitchen, rehabilitating a mountain trail, building a school in a developing country, or mentoring a younger student. These experiential learning experiences are vital to the development of their leadership and character, and they help to shape their understanding of their places in the world.

A final point on this subject is that academic or scholastic learning and experiential learning are not at odds with one another. On the contrary, one complements the other. Malcolm McKenzie captured this beautifully when he said, “This type of learning builds confidence, encourages risk taking, reduces fear of failure, gives oxygen to collaboration, nurtures imagination, promotes problem solving, allows reverie, and grows a taproot from which scholastic learning flowers.” This is why we view experiential learning as such an integral component of our educational program at STS.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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The Basics
July-21-14

The Basics

In recent months we have seen a re-emergence of the “back to basics” debate in education. Most of this centres on the mathematics curriculum and the importance of the memorization of basic facts (such as multiplication tables) versus the discovery approach to problem solving. A recent editorial in the Calgary Herald lauded the announcement by Education Minister Jeff Johnson that the memorization of multiplication tables will be part of any new math curriculum. Indeed, many politicians may respond to the pressure of petition-waving constituents in this way and time will tell whether or not that serves the best interest of our students who face a rapidly changing world.

My thinking about this debate focuses on three elements. The first is the highly polarized nature of the arguments, the second has to with the instructional methods used to achieve the target skills, and the third has to do with what constitutes “the basics.”

To the first point, it seems to me that memorization and exploration can coexist harmoniously in the classroom. They are not mutually exclusive as the opposing sides to this debate might suggest. To use multiplication tables as an example, I doubt that you would find many math teachers who would argue that these are of no value in solving problems and performing a wide range of mathematical calculations. The key is finding instructional methods that balance the focus on memorization with opportunities to employ creative and exploratory problem solving techniques. Creativity and innovation are seen as essential skills for the 21st Century learner and these are not readily acquired through rote memorization.

If we assume that memorization of certain facts (including things like multiplication tables) is desirable, then we need to examine the methods or the learning activities through which this knowledge is constructed. Traditional methods like the “drill and kill” worksheets and repetitive exercises that people of my generation experienced in schools work for some percentage of students. But other students find these tedious and for some they thwart the natural inquisitiveness and curiosity that support continuous learning. Motivation is a key factor in the learning equation and students who are bored and disinterested in the methods of teaching can be expected to achieve less than those who are motivated and enthused about the learning activities. So if it is possible to learn multiplication tables through an interactive game or computer application as opposed to repetitious drills, it is more probable that student motivation and interest will be higher and effort more sustained. At STS, we are leveraging technology for these very purposes.

The third point has to do with how we define the “basics” that today’s students will need to thrive in a future where many of the careers for which we are trying to prepare them do not even exist today. If we target the same basic facts and knowledge that served the previous generation, we will do our students a disservice. I can think of an example from my own schooling to illustrate the point. In my own high school chemistry courses, we were required to memorize the periodic table, which, at the time, included 103 elements from hydrogen to lawrencium, their atomic weights, classifications (metals, non-metals, liquids, gasses) and so on. Like multiplication tables, the periodic table was seen as foundation knowledge worthy of spending countless hours memorizing. In my first year chemistry course in university, I found the periodic table displayed on the wall of every laboratory. It was also distributed with every chemistry exam. I also note that it now contains 118 rather than 103 elements. Like the periodic table posted on the wall in every lab, technology has now made a great deal of information readily accessible. For this reason, it may be more important for students to develop deeper conceptual understanding that can be applied to new and different situations as opposed to the rote learning of a set of basic facts that has become much more fluid. To use my previous example, having a conceptual understanding of the periodic table and how it is applied to problem solving and other constructs in the field of chemistry is far more important than having memorized the table itself. And so it is essential that the discourse around basics in education includes a critical assessment of what those basics are for today’s generation of students rather than an assumption that the basics of a previous generation will suffice.

At STS, we are committed to providing students with the basic knowledge that they need to solve problems understanding that this content must constantly be re-evaluated. We also develop in our students the skills to access, evaluate and synthesize information using technology. Our professional development program provides teachers with opportunities to develop concept and inquiry-based learning strategies that promote conceptual understanding and student motivation. And finally, we are continuously engaged in a critical discourse at all levels about what knowledge, skills and attributes will position our students to thrive in an uncertain future.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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High School Graduation is a Major Milestone
July-21-14

High School Graduation is a Major Milestone

For many university-bound students and their parents, high school graduation may seem somewhat insignificant given the post-secondary studies that lay ahead. However, I see it as a much more significant event in the lives of students for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has taken most students 13 years to complete this component of their education (starting in Kindergarten). That is significantly longer than the next phase, even for those who complete graduate and professional degrees. For most students, K-12 represents the largest chunk of their education. Secondly, many of the less tangible attributes of character that are predictors of academic performance in university are thoroughly developed by the completion of high school. These include work ethic, resilience, determination, persistence, confidence, motivation and so on. In addition, it is during the K-12 stage that students have developed their core values and these guide their actions and behaviours throughout their lifetimes. Lastly, K-12 education builds the foundation for further learning, including an understanding of how to learn and the basic core knowledge for many disciplines on which post-secondary education builds. 

While students certainly advance their knowledge and skills in university, much of their success there depends upon the development of these critical learner attributes that are developed by the end of Grade 12. High school graduation is often overshadowed or trumped by post-secondary graduation. However, if we think about the deep significance of those K-12 years, I believe that graduating from high school is still a defining event that we should celebrate with great enthusiasm.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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Interesting Times in Education
July-15-14

Interesting Times in Education

I have spent almost my entire life in school. And for at least a third of my career, I have been simultaneously a teacher/administrator and a student as I have been enrolled in university courses and programs while practicing in the field of education. Having one foot in academia and one foot in the real world of education has given me a broad perspective on the evolution of education, both in Canada and abroad. It has exposed me to the everyday practice of running schools, to changes in government educational policy, and to the theoretical frameworks and research emerging from our institutions of higher learning. I say these things to qualify my next statement.  There has never been a more challenging time in education. And by challenging, I mean exciting, confusing, uncertain, hopeful, and intriguing all rolled into one.

The educational ground beneath our feet is shifting. This is not simply a matter of pendulum swinging. We are truly experiencing a transformation in education, brought about by technology and an explosion of new knowledge that is unparalleled in our history. And there is no turning back (or swinging back as in the pendulum analogy). A better analogy would be that we have launched a rocket, incapable of returning to earth, that will explore unknown aspects of the universe for an undetermined period of time.

Technology is unlike previous innovations in education, such as the open concept classrooms of the 60s. When the pendulum swung back on that innovation, schools were quick to replace the walls and return to previous designs. That is not going to happen with technology because providing students with direct access to the knowledge base via the internet has fundamentally and irreversibly altered the interactions among students, teachers and knowledge and at the same time research is providing new insights into how students learn. And in the world of education, there is a pervasive discourse ongoing about how best to prepare students for 21st Century living and an era in which most of the jobs we are preparing them for do not exist today.

The best minds in current educational thinking are telling us that the new “basic skills” for students are things like: creativity and innovation; digital literacy and citizenship; collaboration; research and information fluency; critical thinking; technology-based communication skills; intercultural understanding, and so on. This is difficult for people in my generation to digest. We have been taught that the basic skills were numeracy, literacy and subject content knowledge.

In times of rapid change and uncertainty, we tend to cling to the things that have served us well in the past. Standardized testing is one of those lingering elements of measurement designed to assess the target skills of an earlier era. And even though organizations such as the Fraser Institute would like us to believe that such tests provide appropriate data for ranking schools, they must certainly be thinking about schools of the past. As usual, the development of instruments to measure the 21st Century skills are lagging behind the efforts to instill these skills and so we find ourselves at that interesting juncture where we must admit that we are uncertain about how to effectively evaluate and measure the new target skills. As new assessment tools are being developed, we also continue to use the old measures (standardized tests) and organizations like the Fraser Institute will continue to use those measures in ways that do not serve our students, schools or society well.

There is mounting evidence to demonstrate why standardized tests are no longer serving our needs. For example, Dr. Zong Zhao, internationally renowned scholar and author has juxtaposed international test scores in mathematics (PISA) against the General Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) to look at how a country’s standardized test scores align with its entrepreneurial attitudes and endeavours (an indicator of innovation). The findings indicate that those with high mathematics scores have low entrepreneurial scores. Zhao also points to the Brown Center Report on Education (2006) which indicates that students who do well on standardized mathematics tests have lower confidence in their math abilities and lower enjoyment of mathematics. The point here is not that mathematics is unimportant – the opposite is true. However, standardized testing of basic skills fosters teaching strategies that thwart students’ creativity and natural curiosity, which are seen as important elements of innovation and entrepreneurism – the very skills that we believe will be important to their success in the new economy.

These conflicting messages make it challenging for today’s teachers and schools as we transition from teaching strategies and assessment tools whose origins are found in the industrial era to those that will prepare students for life in the knowledge economy. The way forward is not articulated by a clear roadmap or a reliable body of expertise that can illuminate the pathway. Instead, we are faced with carefully picking our way through unknown territory, combining the best of our experience and knowledge with emerging research and international trends. In order to navigate this uncharted terrain, we will need to significantly invest in the ongoing professional development of our teachers to enable them to stay abreast of important developments. The journey is not straightforward, but it certainly is interesting.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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Organization Challenges
July-15-14

Organization Challenges

This is a good time to check in with your son or daughter and to see how they are managing their organization of time and activities. Organization and time management are often real challenges for students since these are executive functions of the brain managed by the prefrontal areas, which we now know do not fully developed until students reach their mid-twenties. So it is quite normal for students to struggle with forward planning and the organization of tasks and calendars. Students use different planning tools depending on their age and stage and parents can support their use of these by periodically checking in to see if they are anticipating upcoming assignments, co-curricular commitments, family events and so on. Parental involvement in this area should diminish as students get older and assume greater responsibility for managing their lives. But even senior students can benefit from the occasional parental probe as to what is coming up in their lives and how they are tracking and preparing for things.

I understand that students do not always appreciate such parental interventions. You may have noticed other things that they do not appreciate that you feel are essential responsibilities of your parenting roles. Oh well. I have no specific advice for you as you know your children better than I do. However, I suggest that you find strategies that allow you to engage in such discussions since avoiding the discomfort sometimes associated with them can often produce unpleasant surprises. I wish you well.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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Do Teaching Facilities Matter?
July-15-14

Do Teaching Facilities Matter?

As I have mentioned during many community meetings and presentations over the last few years, STS and most other schools are based on design principles that emerged in the industrial era. A typical design includes a long corridor that connects a series of boxes (classrooms) and students move from one space to another after a pre-determined period of time indicated by the ringing of a bell. These are the same concepts of scientific management that informed assembly line construction and labour practices in the factories of that era.

Traditional classrooms were designed to have students sitting in rows (in rather uncomfortable seats) facing the teacher at the front of the room who was expected to dispense his or her knowledge to students who would somehow passively absorb it like some sort of a sponge. STS and other schools have attempted various design work-arounds by reconfiguring desks and furnishings to better serve student learning. But it is still very challenging to overcome the initial intentions of the design.

These school design principles, which have dominated school construction for more than a century, were also based on assumptions about learning that we now know to be incorrect. We know this because of research in the areas of environmental psychology and neuropsychology - two fields that did not even exist during the formative years of school architecture. Research in these fields has revealed that students learn better when they are more actively engaged in the construction of their own knowledge rather than sitting and listening to teachers for hours. And yet research by environmental psychologists has revealed that traditional classroom designs in elementary classrooms result in more than 80 percent of verbal communication coming from the teacher and preventing the kind of student-teacher and student-student interactions required for the development of creativity (Hunter, 2005). This is merely one example of how facility design can negatively affect educational outcomes.

The kinds of school designs that support effective, research-based teaching practices are those that are flexible and offer a variety of learning spaces to accommodate large group, small group and individual learning activities. Research has also demonstrated that building variables such as colour, lighting, classroom shape, sightlines, acoustics, air quality, furnishings and other environmental factors have an impact on student learning as well as instruction practices. When optimized these design principles and the instructional practices that they enable can significantly enhance student learning.

In looking at new school construction around the world, we are finally beginning to see school designs based on learning principles instead of assembly line principles. For a more media-rich discussion on the topic, take a look at this short video that highlights several new schools:  

As we look forward to modernizing some of our aging facilities at STS, we are very excited about the potential to embrace modern school design principles in the development of facilities that truly support student learning. We believe that this will be essential if we are to remain leaders in independent school education.

Dr. William Jones
Head of School

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