Cellphones: Alice’s Looking Glass in the 21st century

alice looking glass

I’ve been haunted by the images in the videos taken in the classroom at Spring Valley High  while a police officer, called to the classroom because a student refused to give up a cellphone, is seen violently throwing the student around.  That the student had been recently placed in foster care made the event that more tragic. In one of the videos, one can see the back of the teacher who had supposedly called on the principal when the student refused to put her cellphone away. When the principal could not convince the student to give up her phone, the police officer was called.

The incident made international news on Monday, 26th October, a day after Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence released a study that revealed that 75% of students in Grades 9 – 12 felt either tired, stressed or bored at school.

Did the student who refused to give up her phone feel bored or stressed or was she just feeling lonely?

I had long been aware that students would use their cellphones when they felt bored but it had never occurred to me that they may also do so because they felt lonely. But loneliness was one of the reasons my students gave for why they use cellphones in the classroom when I asked them to respond to a totally unscientific survey I conducted after a classroom discussion about the Spring Valley incident.

Although there are many discussions within education about whether teachers should or should not allow students to use cellphones in the classroom, and despite there being a growing awareness of the connection between emotions and learning, what may be missing is a conversation about connections between students’ emotional experiences in the classroom and what could be called students’ addiction to their phones.

While some students told me that they use their phones to “look up” something or to check spelling or for calculations, many students told me that they use their phones as an escape out of the classroom when they’re feeling bored or lonely. As this student says:

I use my cell because even though it might not be allowed in my class, I get the urge to check it because I always think there might be a message from a friend. But sometimes I guess I’m so used to it, I just automatically assume that I need to use it. Sometimes when there’s nothing to do in class because I’ve done my work or my test, I’ll use it for entertainment or to seem like I’m not just sitting there with nothing to do.

Like when I go to French 10, I don’t really talk to a lot of the grade 10s and so I go on my phone to distract myself or to make it seem like others think I actually have a life. … I can’t live without a social life. I need people to converse with so I can have a better time in class or school itself.

So it appears that, apart from all the features normally advertised, a smartphone can also act like Alice’s Looking glass and transport students out of the classroom into another world, one where they have a social life and are not bored or lonely.

But why can’t classrooms be places from which students do not want to escape? Why can’t they be places of excitement and engagement, the way they look to a 5-year-old on the first day of kindergarten?

What is being revealed about what is happening in  high school classrooms when a police officer is called to discipline a student? Not because she had a gun, not because she was being violent, but simply because she refused to give up her cellphone, her escape route from boredom and loneliness.  

What will it take to create classrooms that students want to run to, not escape from, classrooms that are the entry into a world on the other side of the Looking Glass? 

Laughter is the true test of success

Credit Chris Huggins/flickr creative commons

I have a confession. I am a high school teacher who doesn’t care about how many As my students get or how many are on the Honour Roll.  In fact, I dislike high stakes tests as much as my students do. If we do have tests, they’re frequently open book. I tell my students that tests test how well you can do tests.  And so I do not “teach to the test” but I do teach my students how to do tests. Much of the lesson relates to how to combat test stress.

What do I care about most is how my students feel when they’re in my classroom. This is the most critical indicator of whether my students are learning or not. It’s the ground upon which I build my teaching practice.

On my recent trip to Italy, I was surprised and thrilled when Tullio De Mauro, a former Minister of Education expressed a similar idea. We were in a moderated dialogue during Internazionale a Ferrara 2015 when he said that the evaluation that teachers should be concerned about most is their students’ evaluation of their time in the classroom. We agreed that the physical space of the classroom did not matter as much as the emotional space that was created.

It’s wonderful to have a former Minister of Education in Italy espouse the importance of a hospitable classroom but what will it take to have all current politicians here in North America realize this truth? All across Canada and the United States, the powers that be insist on testing as a way to increase student achievement despite innumerable studies that reveal the failure of this approach.  I wonder if anything will change now that the White House recently called for limits on the number of tests that students are subjected to?  

I suspect it will take many more years before the stress of tests is a thing of the past for students.

But tests are not the only source of students’ stress in school. Most of us have vivid memories of a whole range of situations and experiences that made school a place we didn’t always want to be. When I was a student, I was frequently afraid or bored or tired even though I achieved many As. Turns out not much has changed over the decades since my high school graduation. A study released last week, reveals that 75% of high school students (Grades 9 – 12) feel either bored or tired or stressed.

The biggest tragedy of this for me is how much we are wasting the creativity of our adolescents. Just when their brains are developing the ability to think abstractly and to be creative, we bore them with forced memorization of facts we already know and that they can instantaneously access on the phones. Despite this travesty, there are growing numbers of teens who are simply going ahead and solving problems we adults had not been able to.

Ken Robinson’s  Do Schools Kill Creativity? talk has over 35 million views. Clearly there are many people around the world aware of what we are doing to our students’ creative potential so why do we continue to do this?

My students’ creativity constantly amazes me. I am often in awe of how they respond to assignments where their imaginations have free reign. I love evaluating those assignments because each one is unique, each student’s interpretation an expression of how alike and unlike they all are. When a final exam response includes the performance of a spoken word poem along with a brilliant talk punctuated by laughter, stress and boredom are simply not in the room.

But laughter does not come easily to me. I am by nature rather serious and so I’ve had to work hard at creating circumstances in my classroom where laughter is a frequent and welcome visitor. I have taken a course about laughter in which I learned about how well our bodies and minds respond to laughter.  I discovered that laughter is actually quite a serious matter!

In fact, it turns out there is a link between laughter and creativity. The more you laugh, the more creative you are when solving problems. Wouldn’t it be great if students could have a laughing session before each test? There’s a research study that needs to be done!  

Each school year many of my students make it onto the Honour Roll, many also achieve the coveted As but what I care about the most is how they felt and how often they laughed when they were in my classroom. They’ll remember that for much longer than they’ll remember what was on a test.

What’s old is new again: thoughts on the new curriculum


If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d think that students in this province were all under the supervision of clones of Thomas Gradgrind who saw students as empty pitchers to be filled with the right type of knowledge. If you read between the lines of the new curiculum, teachers have apparently been stuck in the “content delivery” mode and are in need of adjustment into their new role of “guide, coach and mentor” so that students’ learning can be “personalized”.

I don’t even know where to begin to unravel this fallacy and all the other false assumptions threaded through the entire project.

Let’s start with what I do as part of my job of teaching:

I research, analyze, evaluate, discern, strategize, judge, plan, learn, improvise, lead, monitor, assess, decipher, negotiate.

I synthesize, prioritize, demonstrate, create, observe, administer, calculate, arrange, construct.

I empathize, organize, engage, motivate, support.

And when I’m not doing all that, I guide, mentor and coach.

So I’m completely confused about the emphasis on how teachers need to change their roles in the classroom. What did they think we were doing all this time?

As for personalized learning, I do not know what other kind of learning there is. All learning is personal!  That’s the way we humans are wired. We are personal meaning makers,  each of us making unique sense of the world around us.

If 30 students are presented with the same information, they will all learn that information differently, personally, based on who they are, where they’ve been, and what they’ve previously learned. Teachers already know this.

I have been giving students course credits for personalized projects since I began teaching decades ago.

I once had a student who hated to read but loved doing graffiti art. To make up for much of all the work he didn’t do in class, I asked him to research the history of graffiti, to plan and present information about all kinds of graffiti and to demonstrate to the class how to do graffiti. He did an amazing job, I would have let him spend the entire semester exploring even more aspects of graffiti art. He could have studied it through geography, law, anthropology and psychology if I didn’t have to also get him ready for the mandatory Grade 10 English provincial exam.

Teachers adjust assignments and projects to better suit students’ personal needs. They invite students to personalize their learning. This is not new.

But the BC ED plan doesn’t mean personalization in this way. When the new plan mentions personalization, it actually means “technologization”.

It’s no secret that multinational corporations see lots of profit to be made in the “education sector”. And governments who see themselves as bookkeepers like the idea of not having to spend money on teachers’ salaries when students are “learning” from online courses, sitting in front of their personal computers.

To think that this was a good idea, you’d have to completely disregard all the research that reveals all the negative effects of excessive screen time on the brains and bodies of children and teens. You’d have to also ignore the fact that we are social beings, hardwired to be connected to other human beings. What kind of students will graduate from an education system that has encouraged them to “learn” in isolation of other human beings?

Whenever I take my students to our school’s computer lab, even though they each have access to their own computer, they will gather in groups around a computer so that they can discuss what they’re watching. They like to learn together.

Teachers have been embracing change and innovation long before “21st century teaching” became a buzzword.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, you could ask the superintendent of our district who wanted to learn first hand about what was happening in classrooms. He sent out a request to all teachers in the district, asking to be invited into classrooms.

During his visits, he discovered that there was lots of innovative teaching happening all around the district.  He did not come across a single Gradgrind clone. He now has a very clear idea of not only what teachers are doing to prepare students for their futures, but he also knows what teachers need for the work that they do.

A new curriculum is not on the top of that list.

I wish the people from GELP who are behind the “education reform” all over the world could visit the classrooms of even a fraction of the teachers in this province. If they did, they would see that there is no need to tell teachers that students’ learning should be personalized. There is no need to tell teachers to integrate technology into their teaching. Or that they need to prepare students for the 21st century.

They would know that teachers are already doing all this despite a dearth of resources due to massive cuts to funding.

Imagine what teachers could do if schools were funded the way they were when the current graduating class was born.

Students entering Grade 12 next week have the misfortune to have entered kindergarten soon after the formula for funding public education was changed.

They will graduate in June 2016 having spent 13 years making do with overcrowded classrooms, outdated resources, and obsolete technology. Some of them will have waited years to see a school psychologist. Many of them with learning disabilities would have gone through exhausting struggles to get to Grade 12 without any education assistant support. Many of their peers in kindergarten didn’t survive those struggles.

Where was all the  fanfare about personalized learning when they needed personal help with their learning?

Re/drawing the System

how to help you draw

I don’t know how to help you. I know what you need but I don’t know how to get it for you. You’re an artist. You see the world through a cartoon lens. While I talk, you draw crazy creatures. You should be in an art class, all day, every day. Instead you are slotted here to study what you’re not interested in.

Next to you sits your friend who loves to dance. She skips class often, finding it unbearable to sit for long hours each day. I don’t know how to help her either. I wish I could have her submit a dance instead of an essay on what it means to be Canadian.

Every now and then I find a fissure within the restrictions of the curriculum into which I can slip assignments that allow you to creatively show what you know. But those fissures are few and far between, crowded out by what has to be done to prepare you for the mandatory government exam.

I know that you want to learn. I know you want to think about more than what’s in the textbook. I know you want to be able to create the things that roam around in your imagination.

I know you are numbed by the mediocrity of daily routines in the classroom.

I would love more than anything to be able to completely change them for you. To redraw the boundaries, or perhaps to erase them.

But it doesn’t matter how innovative I can be with what I teach, we are both still caught in a system that resists transformation. Its very structure stifles.

The San Diego zoo is the most innovative in the world, recreating natural habits for the animals, but it is still a zoo. There are still walls that restrict and confine. No matter how innovative teachers are in classrooms, for as long as you are examined and tested and age-batched, nothing has really changed.

If I could design your learning experiences, I’d have you spending time with all kinds of artists, shadowing them through their day, helping when you can. I’d have you teaching younger children what you know. I’d have you sharing what you know with other students, with parents, with your community. And every now and then I’d have you tell me what you’ve learned about yourself through all that you did so that together we could plan what you should do next.

You once asked me why teachers asked so many questions, why you had to answer so many textbook questions. I used to have an answer for that. I used to say that you needed to know the answers so that you could be an informed citizen, understanding why things are the way they are today.

But I realized that that is impossible. How are you supposed to memorize all that has happened in the past, from all the different points of view that are witness to today’s news? Your brain is simply not designed to do that. If you wanted to understand anything at all happening in the world today, there are a myriad ways you could find out. A few swipes on the device in your pocket can take you anywhere that human knowledge is.

So my answer to your question is that I don’t know why you are asked so many questions. I don’t know why teachers ask you questions whose answers they already know.

What I do know is that you’re going to have to know the stuff we adults don’t know: how to live in a world of climate change; how to have an economy that does not destroy the environment; how to make a living in a way that feeds your soul; how to find love, and how to find where you belong.

You certainly don’t belong here, sitting in classrooms for six hours each day, desperately trying to feign interest in what a teacher is saying.

Where you do belong is in a school that is more like a library, a place you would go to exchange information with others, a place of conversation and connection, a place where teachers are like midwives, supporting students to become who they are meant to be, helping them to find their place in the world.

Just as you turn those images in your mind into pictures on a page, I wish I could transform my ideas of what schools should be into reality.

I wish I could draw the way you do.



The learning professionals within the learning environment are highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement”  http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

I was very excited to see the concept of “attunement” included in the OECD document that currently seems to be guiding the direction of education reforms in countries like Canada. But my excitement was followed by concern that this would be yet another great idea that dies soon after launch because of a lack of practical understanding of it. For those who would prefer an academic analysis of attunement, I recommend this paper by Heesoon Bai. This post will hopefully illuminate the concept in a practical way.

Last year, through circumstances that were both serendipitous and synchronous,  I was fortunate to participate in a three-day workshop with Victor Wooten,  unquestionably the best bass player in the world right now. No, I don’t play the bass and have not played the piano since I was a teen! I felt quite comfortable in the workshop, not only because Wooten was very welcoming but also because there were  a few of us there with no other instrument but our voices.

Wooten is a master teacher and amazing to watch in action. One day during the workshop I watched in awe while he “taught” the concept of attunement without once mentioning the word.  At that point he had been talking for a while and I suppose sensed that people were not fully getting what he meant.

He went into the centre of the circle and called up 5 people, 4 who played instruments and one who sang. Without any further instruction, he began to play a bass riff. After about a minute, he nodded to one of the musicians who then began to play his instrument in harmony with the bass riff. After another minute Wooten nodded to yet another musician and then another and then to the singer. Each of the 5 people joined in, adding their instrument to the music, in complete harmony. And right there, before our eyes, an amazing piece of music was performed, a piece that had never existed before that moment. A piece that just emerged from the attunement of one musician with another. No one musician dominated the piece; each listened carefully to the others while creating sound that wove between, above and below each other’s notes.

Teaching in a 21st century classroom is about being attuned to the “music” each of your students brings into the classroom and helping them to play their instrument well while at the same time playing in harmony with everyone else in the classroom.

What is critically important to being able to do this is for the teacher herself to be attuned to her own music. To know herself well, to know her own strengths and to know where she needs help and support.

The singer in that circle with Wooten had no idea what she was being called up to do in the centre of the room. She did however know what she could do. She also knew  how what she did could complement what others were doing.  She could not provide the same sounds that the bass or the saxophone did but this was true for all the musicians in the centre. Each could use their instruments as individuals but what they could create together, when they listened carefully to each other, was magical and more than any one could do.

A teacher who is attuned to her students sees each of them as individuals and yet also part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Attunement is not about what usually happens when a group of musicians get together and one  starts to play a known song and others follow along.  It’s also not the same as when one musician dominates an impromptu piece, leading the others.

Attunement requires a dissolution of the sense of separation between yourself and the other. It requires paying attention to something greater than you. Something that has to be felt to be truly known.

Which is why I’m concerned that this concept is going to be ignored or downplayed even though it is so critical in teaching and learning.

Teachers are most comfortable being “in charge” but to be attuned requires teachers to follow more often than to lead.

Teachers who want to be more attuned to their students will need courage to step down from their positions of control and to bravely step away from being  at the centre of  the classroom, literally and metaphorically.

I know how disquieting this can be and have previously written about my experience in a decentred classroom.  But I also know that going through the  discomfort is a necessary step to creating a learning environment for the 21st century.

Be the Change

Like Water

You’ve watched Ken Robinson other education revolutionaries on TED talks. You’ve attended numerous professional development workshops on the “new” way to teach. You know something has to change but when you enter your room each morning, you are overwhelmed by the demands made on you by the students and the system. You don’t know where to start.

Start here.

Realize that this change, this transformation will not happen overnight. It will also not be easy. It will not unfold in simple, linearity from point A to point Z. It will be messy. You will be frequently frustrated. You will want to give up.


Your students need you to not give up. They are desperately waiting for something more than they’re getting. Some of them have given up waiting and have dropped out. Their numbers keep growing. The ones who are still in classrooms are hoping that this year, something will be different.

Take baby steps.

First change the things you can easily change. Notice how you feel when you make those changes. Notice what happens in the classroom when you introduce the changes. Be like a scientist observing an experiment.

Try titration.

Add something to the way you collect data about the students.

Add something to the way students interact with each other.

Add something to the way time is used in your classroom.

Add something to the way you see yourself as teacher.

Then watch what happens.

Make adjustments.

Evolution is a slow process.

Be patient.

There are many of us out here, working like water flowing over rock, changing the system from within.

Soon all our little molecules of change will coalesce into a stream and then into a river and the system will have been transformed, not by political decree but by the work of teachers like you and me.

Learning to Fly


When I’m not pondering how much knowledge and what kind of knowledge I should have as a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m thinking about what ‘good’ teaching is. Reams have been written over centuries about what makes a teacher ‘good’ but I confess that I find the whole debate utterly exhausting. What is ‘good’? For whom? When?  What does it even mean to ‘teach’?

A few summers ago, my friend Skylark and I were on one of our regular  walks through a nearby fragment of forest when we noticed a baby bird on the pathway.  The bird still had downy feathers and seemed quite content to be just sitting there.  But sitting where it was would put it in the direct path of any one of the many dogs that also love to walk the trail. And so we had a dilemma on our hands.

I immediately announced that I did not know how to look after a baby bird but Skylark’s childhood had included experiences with her father rescuing birds and butterflies.  She began talking softly to the bird while she thought about what to do. After a few minutes, she gently picked up the bird the way her father had taught her, and placed her/him in her purse.  We walked on. When we came to a stream, she dipped her finger into the water and fed the bird droplets of water, all the while patiently talking to the bird.  Then she decided we had to find some worms so that we could feed the bird.  So there we were, scratching around the dirt looking for worms to feed the baby bird all the while mosquitoes were having quite a midday meal on us. We didn’t find any worms and so continued our walk, wondering all the way if the bird would be okay.

When we got home and Skylark went on the Internet to find out what to do about the bird, she quickly realized that we had done all the wrong things.  A bird-rescue website had helped her to identify the bird (a cedar waxwing), corrected her on what the bird actually needed to eat (berries, not worms) and advised that the bird should be returned to the place it was found so that its mother could find it and show it how to get back to the nest.

And so we followed the advice which included setting the bird back in the same area but not the same spot and waiting from a distance for the mother so show up.  We did as suggested and after waiting about 20 minutes, we realized that the bird had been safely rescued by its mother.

For me there are so many dimensions of learning and teaching revealed in this incident. There is the learning and teaching between the baby bird and its mother.  Apparently baby cedar waxwings learn to fly by first dropping to the ground which is why it was not scared to be where it was. It had not, of course, realized that its forest home also accommodated lots of humans and dogs. Although it had been born with the instinct to fly, it still  needed guidance from its mother. The ‘teaching’ by the mother bird and the ‘learning’ by the baby bird were processes that had evolved over millennia so that there are specific skills learned and taught for a specific environment.  Baby birds need to learn to  fly in order to feed themselves so that they can go on to do more bird-like things: sing, procreate, participate in an ecosystem.

To gather data about the bird as an entity separate from its environment (temperate rain forests) would provide a poor and incomplete picture of the bird, its bird behaviour (eating berries) and bird skills ( flying, nest building).  In addition, to gather data about how the bird learns and is taught without looking at the environment would be a ridiculous notion. And yet proponents of standardized teaching and testing use just such a lens when they look at students in classrooms.

What the bird needs to learn is directly connected to specific needs in a specific environment.

And when that environment changes, as it is currently for many Arctic birds, there is a level of change in that learning in order to adapt to the new environment. Many birds have adapted to living and thriving in urban environments. How did they learn how to do this? How long did the learning last?  Who/what  were the teachers of that learning? How did they realize that their environment was changing and that they would need to adapt?

Ecologists tell us that we humans too are inextricably part of an ecosystem, that without our environments, we would die; spiritual mystics tell us that there is no boundary between what we see as our separate selves and what we call our environment.  And yet we persist in seeing teaching/learning as a separate issue, extricated from the multiple places and spaces to which we belong.

Each morning we all awake to different selves (biologically, chronologically, psychologically) in a different world (seasonally, technologically, historically, politically) both outside and inside the classroom.  And yet we continue to rely on textbooks that captured what was true in an environment long-changed by new discoveries, and new ways of seeing the world.  We continue to focus on the past to prepare students for the future. If birds did this, they’d never survive!

The Information Age has exponentially generated not only vast oceans of information but also a multitude of possible places of belonging and ways of being. What determines what is ‘good’ to learn and teach in an ever-changing world?  Is it enough to know how to navigate oceans of information?  Should we learn how to live in a world of imminent nuclear devastation?  How to live in a world of dramatic weather events and climate change?  Should we teach our children how to live in a world of perpetual war? How to make a living during economic recessions and depressions? Should they know how to thrive in whatever economic system is going to replace capitalism?

What do we prepare the next generation for when we are not even certain what the future looks like?  Whose agenda do we choose and what are the implications of that for the child, for society,  for our collective future?

Next September schools will begin to educate 6 year olds for the world of 2028… who knows what they’ll need to know for the world they will face when they enter adulthood?Will we have prepared them enough so that they know how to fly in the forests of the future?