The state of the union for STEAM

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the Texas Science Teachers meeting in Houston. I loved the theme, “Houston, we have a solution”. I was there as part of a group that is investigating education at the intersection of the Science, Arts and Humanities. “What is the state of Arts integration in STEM?” We have been talking about STEM and STEAM for a while. There are whole schools that identify themselves in their name with one of these two labels. Many started their presentations with , “Hi I am Frank and Sally and we are from X school. We are are a STEM or STEAM school.”

While this conference was a focus on science, not on STEAM. a fantastic benchmark for STEAM will be when Arts integration happens every where, not just at a STEAM specific conference of people preaching to the choir. Are we there yet??

There were many sessions that advertised STEAM and I certainly did not get to most of them. The ones I was privileged to attend had some great educators dong excellent work. They were all working hard, trying to be creative, and had the best interest of the kids in mind. However, I wonder if the superficial, add on level of arts integration that seemed to pervade the sessions I attended is indicative of teachers wanting to do something cool with STEAM, perhaps because it is the buzz word of the brings funding, but not really having any idea what that might look like in the classroom. Even more disturbing was that as you got to the higher grades, there was less and less integration.

For instance,:

  • One science museum was very proud of their arts integration by providing coloring books and crayons to the young participants who finished the museum tour early.
  • A middle school example had students draw their view through a microscope rather than using a camera. The intention here was that drawing fulfills the arts compenet of STEAM.There did not appear to be any discussion about the drawing slowing down a learner to take time to really focus on your subject, gradually seeing more and more. It is one thing to integrate arts at a low level because you are a STEAM school. It is something completely different for the teacher knew why they were doing a particular integration so that they can maximize the positive effect and not ruin the effect by not considering the small nuances. It is the PROCESS of drawing that slows the mind and focuses the observations.

In the future I hope to see art and science so intertwined that it is impossible to do one without the other. I do believe that this will be harder, although not impossible, in a high school at the class level because for of course selection, bells, periods and prerequisites. One example is the Insulin project.

I am looking forward to the day when schools and conferences and grants will not need to differentiate between STEM and STEAM, because everything will be so nicely integrated with purpose so that students won’t confine themselves to only being math or science or art students. So much of the creativity and innovation in the 4th industrial revolution will come from the intersection and interplay of the arts, sciences and humanities.

What does it mean to be human?.. Three Cogs

We are planning three different initiatives that should work like cogs of a machine to change the way high school works, at least for a portion of the day. Each cog by themselves are not very valuable, but together they may have power to change kids.

Cog #1- WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN? We hope that students and teachers will discover that multidimensionality is a key part of what makes them individually human. I hope that students and teachers will better view themselves not solely as an “Arts, or Language or Science or Trades etc..” – person. A renaissance of transdisciplinary education in a system of silos.

The whole school, every discipline, every teaching style will be able to contribute to a mass understanding of what it means to be human? The First phase will be to explore. What does literature, art, science, poli sci, geography, computer science etc… say about what it means to be human?

The second phase is to communicate our new understanding to the general public and the world. We hope this will result in multiple trans-disciplinary projects. Sometime at the end of May, We would like to close traditional classes and turn the school into a museum, symposium, display of what it means to be human, open to the general public. We would like science fair, Art exhibitions, Ted-style talks and art/museum instillation.

The narrowness of curriculum documents, the idea that high school teachers are content experts, the architecture and the bell schedule all conspire together to make collaboration and trans-disciplinary projects nearly impossible. How can we teach the Whole-Multifaceted-Child in a world of silos? Surely personalization of learning is larger than hoping a student likes on silo during the course of the day. How do students currently get to uncover passions that are outside the few silos presented to a student in a handful of curriculum documents? Perhaps while students are pondering what it means to be human, they will discover what makes THEM individually uniquely human?

We want to change the way that HIGH SCHOOL students interact with themselves, the  public and the world. While this may be not so new from k-8, there are NOT many good examples at a high school level.

Cog #2- O365 How do we coordinate the multitude of connections, knowledge gathering, logistics, and projects that will come from inside our building, out into other schools and to the global community. Until the time we can actually tear down walls and eliminate time tables with groups of co-teaching educators, I wonder if cloud services like O365 will be a step forward to providing a trans-disciplinary work that allows students to use their strengths to explore uncomfortable areas of learning. I believe this the best path forward for technology integration. Rather than finding ways to use technology, often just at the substitution or augmentation levels of SAMR, we are reconsidering the pedagogy first and foremost and then finding the tools that are needed to make it happen. Technology integration for purpose other than expose students to tech. Hopefully this will be a show case of what school might become and give homegrown concrete evidence of the power of technology to allow new forms of learning.

Cog #3. BYOD- Bring Your Own Device. What good is digital infrastructure without hardware to access it. I have been seriously considering BYOD since 2013, but the stars had never aligned between policy, infrastructure and pedagogy. We are in the middle of updating all of the work we did back in the day to make this a reality and change learning at RHS. It feels we are on the precipice. 

Many people believe that we should be making small steps, gradual evolution, and take one cog at a time. In this case, I politely disagree. I believe this is a case of Punctuated Gradualism… a bit like sailing- hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror. In order to hit high on the SAMR model, the cogs are interdependent by design and therefore the introduction of one cog at a time is ineffective.

Suppose we were to introduce one cog at a time….

  • If we try to introduce the project without the technology support, the trans-discipinary and outer connections are in jeopardy. Will people stay in their silos. It will be a nice little project that looks great on the outside with little transformative or persistent change. We are looking at this project as a two year theme to help cement a transformation of change rather than a finite one hit wonder project.
  • If we try to introduce BYOD without a pedagogical purpose or a cloud solution, students will have little educational purpose for their devices and may choose to use their new access for distracting and non-educational purposes. This will become a classroom management issue with a resulting backlash.
  • If we try to bring O365 without the pedagogy or the devices, students will not use O365. It is my personal experience in my classroom, that when students use cloud services in the classroom (the early years of the ILF Teach-nology project) with devices, that they will continue their work at home with the digital resources. It is just an extension of the regular classroom work. However, over recent years, while students still have access at home to the cloud digital resources, because we are not using them individually in a class, they are not accessing it at home either. I am forced to photocopy the digital content for students.

So, it sounds like we need a bold an ambitious project to try and implement all of these at once. This is has potential to be transformative and so many ways to fail. If we fail, we are in exactly the same spot we are now. So it seems we have everything to gain and little to lose. We will need lots of help to provide an education to not only catch up to many places in the world, but to leap frog and show the rest of the world a glimpse of what high school education might be in the fourth industrial revolution.


less of a class, more of an experience.

A student’s reflection on Science 12.

              Science 12 was much less a class and more of an experience. Science only being one of the focuses of the class. Science was only the focus for a portion of the class, exploring lenses, mirrors, light and color. We also spent time looking into the science behind cancer research and the look for a cure. I much more enjoyed the science portion of this class compared to the other science classes I have taken.

The fact that our mark was generated by us allowed for a more open mind to think about the science behind what was happening and what we were doing, instead of simply trying to memorize as much as I can as fast as I can. We had choices over what science we explored as well so we looked into thing that interested us as a class.

              The other very interesting thing we had the chance to do this semester was to look into the design process and problem solving, then apply them to the problems around the world. As a class we tried to solve world hunger in a week. This was a very interesting experience for us. Trying to solve such massive problem, within such a time constraint is impossible, but we as a group had an attempt. It showed us as a group how to think in the bigger picture, and to explore the dynamics of the group, embracing the abilities and weaknesses of every member.

We had complete control over how we could do this, and in the beginning things were slow because we were unsure of what was expected of us and how to move forward in such a class setting. Overall this experience felt like a reflection of the real world and how the “real” world may work outside of the classroom.

              We were given an immense amount of power over the semester. We had around 90 percent control over the class; the topics we explored, the marks, whether our teacher was in the room or not, due dates, even our exam. The amount of control we were given changed the way I viewed this class dramatically. We had the opportunity to shape this class into what we wanted it to be and what we wanted to gain from it.

Other than science there are many other topics we had the chance to explore. Personally in our group projects, I had the chance to explore economics/real estate and architecture (finally), among others. For our group project we surveyed members of the town to decide whether our facility would be of interest of the town, and what would be the most desirable things to include in the structure. We then spent the next few months, designing the building itself, finding the perfect place to put our building, doing a cost analysis of the land, and the building. This was a very interesting project for me, finally having the ability try being an architect (my hopeful future career). This was a very useful experience in terms of figuring out what it is I would like to do with my life. We also looked into the design process and group dynamics, which is something that I think every person in our class benefited from.

Personally I think the ways I grew the most was in terms of my personal ability in a group, and my experience working in a field of my choosing. My group for the projects started off fairly well rounded with people I believed I could work well with, but slowly people began to find other things, so I was left with three people I barely knew, so I had little faith in my ability to work well with these people. We very quickly overcame most issues with the exception of some slacking.

The other place where I believe I grew quite significantly was my proficiency using Google Sketch up. Before this class I had very little experience with it, which was unfortunate given my hopeful future career, but through this class I had the opportunity to use the software to create something I designed, and I loved it.

Overall this class was ten times more beneficial than I believed it would be. And I think everyone in the class benefited from this experience. I personally have seen the growth in myself and my fellow class mates and I think that this class has helped many to explore future careers and opportunities and passions.

“Learning to be a leader and not a boss” – Student reflects on 2020 Skills

We started the Science 12 semester talking about what they wanted to learn and it included many 2020 skills. I designed a class to specifically, deliberately practice these skills while they also learned the role of science in society. At the end of the semester, students reflected on their growth. This student gave me permission to post his response.

People Management:

So, I had a lot of chances to improve on this skill. An example of this was the World Hunger assignment. I’m sure you can remember or go look at my self-reflection for that, but long story short, I tried to manage people. Keeping people on track and such was what I largely tried to do and I felt that I did a good job at that.

For the project, I was in a leadership position without asking for it. I was voluntold or just voted to be group leader. I remember a moment where Sally came up to me and asked me a question, where I answered “Why are you asking me?” and she responded with “You are the group leader”. This was interesting because until that moment I had no idea that that was a role I had. I learned about people management and how to be a better leader. I suddenly had 7 people I had to lead and they were looking at me for help.

Now, I think a great place I learned in this process was learning to be a leader and not a boss. I could easily have made all the decisions, gone to all the presentations, taken all the credit, called it my project, and told everyone where to meet and when and all that. I tried to avoid that, propelling the group forward but never solely deciding, never telling someone what to do but suggesting, always keeping everyone informed, etc. I think I did good and I certainly learned how to manage people better.

Judgement and Decision Making:

I think we all grew in this. We were off to a very rocky start because we couldn’t make decisions on how to proceed and how to move forward, pick a solution, etc. As the semester went on we got a lot better at this and could make decisions as a group so much quicker and easier, like who go to presentations and such, it started off totally brutal trying to decide and with us all going to Sustainapaloosa (bad idea) to being able to decide who is going where quite easy. We also had troubles trying to find a hive design to follow and had a hard time making the decision, but eventually figured it out and found out a democratic method that worked well for out group when it came to making decisions. These are only a few of many examples.

“Wonder while you Wander” in Science 12

Science 12 students were asked to submit a portfolio and a reflection of the semester. I gave them some guiding questions. This student gave me permission to post some of his reflection.

Quote that stuck with you?

“Wonder whilst you wander.” This quote stuck with me because I think it is a great motto to live by, and that I will be wandering my entire life and that I should never forget to wonder.

What did you learn in Science 12?

  • Science things I learned:
  • Lenses
  • Mirrors
  • Color
  • Biology of the human brain
  • Electronics
  • Heat
  • Computer science (a bit)
  • Non-science things I learned
  • I learned about graphic design through the design process of making business cards
  • I learned about business modelling through making business canvases
  • I learned about carpentry through building three bee hives from scratch
  • I learned about the biggest problems in our world through our stats day
  • I learned about public speaking and English through having to write pitches and presentations
  • I learned about bee keeping through our efforts and mentors
  • I learned about the dynamics of teamwork and how to be a better leader through our project
  • I learned

Do you feel you have been a real person? How does that make you feel? Is it different from other classes?

I feel like I was more of a real person in this class. I was doing real work, of all different fields and not simply taking notes and making Bristol board presentations that end up in the garbage afterwards. It made me feel good to do real work, and work towards fixing a world problem instead of just learning about it. I decided to tackle to problem of bee decline. It was a cool aspect of my education, where my learning benefited the business and potentially the bees. It was cool knowing that the learning I did would for sure be benefiting my future self; knowing a business plan, and how to cooperate with others will help my future self, which I sometimes question when learning how to do logarithmic differentiation of an equation with more functions than fingers I have. Never in science 12 did I ever feel that my learning was not beneficial for my future self.

Did you feel you had freedom? What was it like?

Yes, I felt we very much had freedom. It was awesome! We could move our tests around and do the work as we wanted. A day was busy with a calculus test or so on, we had the freedom to use science 12 class time to study and such as needed. Having freedom allowed us to follow what we wanted; someone was learning about trees and the environment, I was learning about bees, electronics, and carpentry, while someone else was learning about personal health through fitness, etc. Having the freedom made the class the exception to my other classes, when it should be the standard.

Raising 21st Century Learners

One week ago today, we dropped of the twins at their residence for their 1st year of university. It has me thinking, wondering, and reminiscing. I stumbled upon this blog post from their grade 8 year and the trip we took to China.

Raising 21st Century Learners, Progress Report #3.

Six weeks ago, I uprooted my wife and 14 year old twin sons from a perfectly average Canadian small town suburban life to go live in Beijing, China. My sons were attending the same middle school that I attended and we were living in a house less than 1 km away from my old homestead. We moved as far away as geographically and culturally possible as we could to Beijing.

My kids will need different attitudes and experiences than I did to be successful in the near future and a disruptive event was required to snap them out of the comfortable lull of suburbia. We are half way through our adventure, and like any good tale, there are lots of lessons, some pleasant, and others more trying. This blog entry is about the Communication and Media Literacy aspects of 21st Century Learning. Other aspects will follow.

Communication, Media Literacy and Critical thinking are such difficult things to instill in students with authentic examples. Technology has had an almost unfathomable influence on communication and that communication has changed our world. One could argue it started in earnest in Egypt with Papyrus, followed by Roman roads of communication, to the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone, the internet and most recently mobile phones. Communication has been the key to many recent world events. Some examples include the invasion of Iraq, the capture of Osama Bin Laden, The Arab Spring movement, and the current unrest in Syria. A multitude of governments fell and history changed in a short period of time because of communication. Who would have thought that the strong holds of Iraq, Egypt and Libya would change?

The ability to communicate and distinguish yourself from those around you will be crucial going forward. When I was in high school, I only had to compete against some 2000 classmates in a small province in order to find a good job and make a good life. Today, my sons classmates and neighbors  number 1.5 billion. I was hoping that our trip to China would help them realize that they need to compete with so many more, and different kinds of people,  as well as provide unique opportunities for then to learn about different aspects of communication such as twitter, essay, video, Youtube and blog. I thought there would be some authentic prompts to discuss.

There are 52 different countries represented at the school with all of their different languages and cultures. It is like going to Epcot everyday. Although it is true that English is the language that binds them all together, as you sit in a classroom and walk through the halls, there are a myriad of new words, accents and languages being spoken. At first, it is difficult to understand some students even though it is English. But shortly you get to expect the accents.  As Seth and Fin are walking around the corner, there is a Russian conversation happening and my kids are starting to understand what Russian sounds like. But as they walk by, the two Russians turn around and say Hello in English. The ability to switch from one to another seamlessly is important.

Learning languages in a classroom and by individual interactions are very different. My kids are learning some Korean, not because they are in a class, not because someone set up a language program, but because they have met a Korean friend and they ask questions like, “how do you say…?” The twins are taking Mandarin as part of their course work. They are not new to learning other languages in class as they were enrolled in French Immersion their entire school lives. However, they seem to have a passion for learning Mandarin. Although I am certain their Mandarin teacher is wonderful, I do not believe that their newfound desire to learn a new language came from the classroom. The largest mother tongue at the school is Mandarin, so if they want to talk to their friends, understand jokes, be involved in the gossip, order ice cream and barter for their new favorite pair of shoes, they need to learn a different language. Although they learned French, it was only because their parents and teachers tell them it is important. But even living in Moncton where it is almost 50% English and French, there is no real need to use it. Where can you go that they do not speak English? But here is China, there are enough situations that knowing Mandarin gets you things that you want, like friends, connections, ice cream and shoes. There is a synergy required between the need to communicate and the desire to learn a new language.

Communication is a two way street, requiring both a speaker and an audience. I was hoping that “The Twins” would use Twitter, Facebook and a Blog. It was hoped that kids would follow “The Twins” and there would be a two way conversation. This is not what happened thus far. There are three major distractions. Firstly, most of those services are blocked by the Chinese Government. There is a way around it by using a VPN, but our whole family is sharing one VPN. By the time all the members of our family are done talking to friends and family, there is virtually no time left in the day to post and read online. Secondly, there is not nearly enough time in the day to do their significant amount of homework, interact with people and have time left to produce digital content. Students who said they would follow, they quickly lose interest because the boys are not posting. And if their followers are not posting, why would the twins curate and contribute to their social networks. You need to have good content to have followers, and having followers is instrumental for the motivation of creation. There is a synergy required between having content to deliver and an audience for whom to create.

One of the 21st Century Learning Skills centers on media literacy and media critical thinking. While I was in Shenzhen, across the pond from Hong Kong, I found it most interesting. Hong Kong was absorbed by the Central Chinese Government in 1997 when the British Lease of Hong Kong expired. However, they were so used to free speech, democracy and capitalism, that they basically have declared themselves a semi city state. A trip to Hong Kong is considered a new entry into China on my Visa. Just to add to the issue, the Bird Flu outbreak is in full stride. In Beijing, it does not look like the Bird Flu is very dangerous, but our television is far away from the outside world. Watching the news in Shenzhen, you get Hong Kong news. It is curious that in the middle of a story, all of a sudden the news reporter gets cut off and they go to a commercial break. But somehow, the commercial break is interrupted when a new news article begins.

This censorship has been going on very long. If I do a Google search for Tiananmen without my VPN turned on, I get no Youtube video, I get some recent tourist videos and some text about Mao’s mausoleum.  When my VPN is tuned on, then I get Youtube videos and Wikipedia about all of the same things in addition to raw video and BBC video of the student massacres. When we talk to Chinese students, they are unaware of what happened at Tiananmen Square. I had forgotten I was in China and I was hoping that there would be some information at the square about the student violence. Why was I surprised when there was nothing? So on our return to the apartment, the first thing I did was tell the twins to research the happenings. Now that they are aware, I would like to return so that they can focus on the political and the free speech, rather than being distracted by the mobs of girls wanting their pictures taken with the blond haired twins and the Forbidden City.

In tech class, their teacher is asking them to do a project on photo tampering. They are learning that even before Abraham Lincoln, people have been using media to put a twist on things. They are learning how to photoshop their own pictures. The censorship in China, the historical past of using media to twist perspectives and the knowledge of how easy it is, perhaps will make them think carefully about media and their sources.



STEM and a Framework for Learning is published!!

Chris and I were published the chapter in a Masters level textbook. It describes who we took the research on assessment, applied it to our day to day classroom activities. We used the essentials-extensions model of assessment, Passion Projects and a “no-grades-till-the-end” policy to maximize learning and provide integrity between the research, our educational philosophies and our classroom practice despite the confines of the structures of public high schools.

STEM and a Framework for Learning by Ian Fogarty  and Christopher Lee Ryan, a chapter in Creative Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century by Jill Cummings and Mary Blatherwick. Advances in Creativity and Giftedness,  pg 219-228. Sense Publishers, Aug 2017. 3276_855_855 Screenshot (62)

Brainstem screens “Most Likely to Succeed”

IMG_8127Thanks to Michael Fox, we were able to show the video, “Most Likely to Succeed”. There were ten of us tonight. Not bad considering it is the last week of classes.

It started out talking about how AI is going to fairly quickly make the middle class obsolete and then what? It talked about the conflict between getting good grades and scores on SATs to get into college vs having the skills to perform once you are there and/or in the work force. If you don’t have the scores, will you get in? What good does it do to get in if you can’t perform when you are there? Do you have to take one option or the other?

This conflict of grades is one of the reasons why we have purposefully eliminated all enriched science classes and created a new system of essentials and extensions. Previously, there were student who should be in the enriched class, but chose not to in order to take the easy way to an inflated grade. Likewise, there were students who would sign up for the enriched class, but quickly figured out that they were over their heads and were now stuck in a class. Our Essentials-Extensions model makes is possible to anyone to get what they need to just pass for those who are struggling and forces ALL students to perform at an enriched level should they want to get their high mark. There is no easy way to an inflated grade anymore.

At High Tech High, the idea of students getting their variety of topics and disciplines comes not from their choice of a variety of classes but rather in a more personalized way by carefully assigning tasks to students within a multidisciplinary project. So one gets to behave like a director, while another gets to behave like a graphic artist and still another gets to be a mechanical engineer, all inside a history project.
I like how they started taking video at the start of a year and then periodically returned to get the whole picture. I truly think we should do this with a couple of students coming from the middle school. I think that the new sequence we are preparing for them as they travel from our new Math-Science 9 and 10 and the new way we are doing English 9 to Armand’s Modern History and my chemistry in their grade 11 year, and finally Armand’s world issues, and my physics 11, 12 and Science 12 in their grad year, will provide a step towards the right direction while staying inside the confines of our current system. Someday, maybe I will get asked to help us be free of the current system. Until then, we are looking for some steps in preparation.

The Science 12 class has been trying to do this multidisciplinary project for a while. The Science 12 classes entered two projects into the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. One of them placed third. They did not really need the money, but they did need the mentorship. Next time, we will make sure that the mic is on before their time starts and that everyone is paying attention so that they do not have to drop their most important sentence that they actually engineered their own automated hive that should help combat the pesticide and mite problem experienced by the bees.

The documentary talked lots about skills versus knowledge. I believe that there are lots who are on the bubble who would switch to competencies/skills IF there was some way to measure them and assess them, more that just a gut intuition “feels like”. When I can measure it, then I will teach it.

The documentary stirred a great conversation that lasted almost 1 hr afterwards on a school day, past supper time on the last week.