Consider a New Year With No-Marking Time

What would happen if students weren’t marked?

I’ve heard too often that the assumption is little learning would happen, so this post starts with a sad state of affairs. Thankfully, the true answer is both heartening, and possible.

Marks are an imperfect reality in formal education. While feedback is a valuable part of learning, marks wield power that is disproportionate to their brevity. Their power reinforces the notion that learning is something externally imposed. Marks judge, and regularly remind too many students that they simply fall short. From the attention they get, it too frequently appears that marks have usurped learning as the reason for school.

Contrary to what might be assumed, it’s not necessarily better for those earning high marks. Understandably, these students are lulled into liking favourable judgment from others and commit themselves to this model. Both the successful and struggling alike have a relationship with marks that has little to do with the resilience, curiosity, independence and internal drive needed to be successful beyond a mark-driven world. Taking risks, like the ones needed for leadership, creativity and innovation, has no place when marks are on the line.

Outside of school, it’s very evident that children and youth will readily learn without being marked. While marks are here for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason why schools can’t make room where students learn for learning’s sake. Give them time to choose what to learn and how. In these cases, let them set the standards and expectations. Let them share this learning with others without judgment, simply to create an environment of learning for the love of it. Let them take risks. Support the process and leave it in their hands, as these are the hands that need experience if the end goal is lifelong learners. I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen what students will learn when marks aren’t involved. It takes nothing but a willingness among teachers to make some time for it, then let it grow.

To teachers looking forward to a well-deserved Christmas holiday, consider starting the new year with time for unmarked learning. It’s a risk worth taking. And no marks are on the line.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Embracing Learning

As expected, lots of learning is underway at KCS.

What you might find interesting is to learn about what our teachers are learning.

Every year includes ongoing professional growth for faculty. Much of the learning is individual in nature, as all faculty are encouraged to identify areas in which they feel they want or need to grow, and then to pursue that learning. Some learning is common to groups of faculty, such as when we collaboratively address a challenge or pilot a new initiative. On top of all this activity, each year has school-wide areas of learning.

So, what faculty learning is taking place this year?

  • Many are receiving formal training in teaching Reading Mastery, a Direct Instruction program that has proven very effective since our pilot the year before last.
  • Among those who are proficient in teaching Reading Mastery, two are now working on becoming certified trainers in Direct Instruction programs.
  • We have teachers taking additional Faculty of Education courses in areas such as math and special education.
  • One teacher is working on her PhD.
  • Many of us have attended conferences and workshops on best-practices in kindergarten.
  • Six are in the midst of a ten-module Leadership Institute with CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools).
  • A number of teachers are currently receiving professional development in the area of mental health, and sharing what they learn with all faculty.  In addition, we are developing our own professional development in this area for all our staff which will begin early in 2014.
  • All teachers are learning about new applications in technology, from self-study, in-house training and by attending conferences.
  • Many teachers are learning from global professional networks on Twitter and Pinterest; an increasing number of teachers are learning to use these tools so they can develop their own network; a few teachers are learning how to leverage Twitter as a classroom tool.
  • Many teachers have signed up for external workshops specific to their subjects.
  • All are advancing their abilities to offer Project-Based Learning (PBL) opportunities in their classes, using the books PBL Starter Kit and PBL in the Elementary Grades that we all read over the summer as a common planning tool.
  • All are growing as a result of the collaborative planning and problem-solving inherent in making the most of every student’s day.

Our students have days full of learning. Our teachers do too.  Developing lifelong learners is what we do at KCS. Whether young or old(er), embracing learning is a Habit that applies to us all.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

In Case You’re Wondering: Curriculum Planning By Design

LearningI recall as an elementary student admiring the coiled manual my teacher held in her hand. Believing that book held the key to my learning, I ambled through my young non-teaching years thinking good teaching was pretty straight-forward.

Boy was I wrong.

Optimal teaching is anything but straightforward. It doesn’t come from a book, but grows thanks to the endless efforts of the teachers who deliver it, and thanks to a culture that supports them.

By now, KCS parents, you’ve already met many of the outstanding teachers at KCS. You might be wondering, however, about the culture that drives what we do. It’s worth wondering about. It explains how these teachers grow from each other’s strengths and create learning experiences that surpass anything a single teacher could deliver on their own. Here are the elements of a culture that leads to a curriculum where 1 + 1 = 3:

  1. A foundation rooted in knowing each student’s needs, aspiring to our school mission, and a broad awareness of the tools and techniques that will help us meet both
  2. Regular collaboration and frank conversations
  3. A framework that meets or exceeds Ministry expectations
  4. An environment free of practice based on doing what’s comfortable, unsupported opinion, what’s in fashion, how we were taught or what we’ve always done
  5. An atmosphere saturated in the Habits of Mind, Body and Action, so teachers and students exercise and strengthen them through their work (Embrace learning, think flexibly, take responsible risks and do what is right are some of the stand-out Habits required in curriculum development.)
  6. A balance between Direct Instruction, Project-Based Learning, and other learning experiences, as deemed worthy
  7. An ever-present search for how to enrich learning, inspire a love for learning, inject critical and creative thinking, and differentiate instruction

I sure wasn’t aware of this as a young student, and don’t know that many outside of KCS faculty would be aware of it either. I do know you care a lot about what we do with your children, and thought I would share how we determine what we do, just in case you were wondering.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Teacher, Meet Brain.

Teaching with the Brain in MindThat’s how it felt to read Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jenkins. While the bond between the brain and learning has been known for centuries, the two have been notably coy. It is only recent research which has started sharing and subsequently sparking the intimate side of this complex relationship. And like the rush of first love, it will blow your mind.

My measure of a great book on education is the degree to which it ends up highlighted. Barely a page of Jenkins’ book escaped my yellow swipe. Starting with Neuroscience 101, Jenkins addresses many of the major areas related to learning and highlights the research and implications it has for teaching. From birth and beyond, he looks at preparing the brain for school; the connections between movement, emotions, and one’s physical environment with learning; managing the social brain; and optimizing motivation, engagement, critical thinking, memory and recall. Clearly affecting a significant chunk of the school experience, Jenkins is devoting his career to having teachers ‘teach with the brain in mind’.

Some insights include:

  1. The brain changes and can even grow new neurons throughout life. Nature and nurture both clearly play a role in defining who we are, with growing evidence revealing that nurture can override some nature, even to the degree of changing the impact of our genes.
  2. Exercise offers much more than just physical health. If you desire a denser and better brain, make regular exercise a lifelong habit.
  3. Much of what distinguishes teenage behaviour is rooted in the enormous changes taking place in their brains. Teens even temporarily regress in a number of abilities, such as their ability to recognize emotions in others.
  4. While collaborative learning gets most professional press these days, brain research supports the integration of group activities with traditional learning tasks for optimal learning.
  5. Emotions play a central role in learning and can hinder as much as enhance the brain’s ability to remember. Teachers would benefit from mindfully leveraging them.
  6. Frequent opportunities for movement, and breaks where no new learning happens, are important for long-term storage of learning.

Teachers, indulge in the intimate details of the learner-brain relationship. Meddle even. This is one couple that needs you in the middle.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

This article was first published in SNAP Etobicoke, May 2013.

How Technology Increases the Personal Touch in School

The notion shared in the title may not be obvious. Because the personal touch matters, it’s worth understanding and, for the benefit of students, acting upon.

Of course, technology isn’t a person. It won’t ever replace the power of a teacher who knows and cares for his or her students. It won’t bring the creativity and professional judgment the teacher applies daily in his or her class. So how could technology possibly increase the personal touch?

First, let’s take a hard look at the familiar. The traditional “sage-on-the-stage” approach to teaching unfolds at the pace decided by the teacher. It covers content decided by the teacher, and is delivered in a manner decided by the teacher. While appropriate at times, this approach is imperfect and, for many students, impersonal. These students require a different pace, be it faster or slower. They respond better to a different level of content, whether more simplified or complex, or would understand concepts better with different choices of content.

Technology personalizes school because it brings flexibility in pace, level and content like a teacher alone cannot. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of completing the same math fact sheet, students can use websites like to practise the math facts they need to practise, at the right pace and level of challenge for them. Similar tools exist for all basic skill development.
  • Instead of learning through the lens of textbooks, students can use technology to roam the world for relevant content. Under teacher supervision, students can create their own multi-media “texts”, in the form of wikis, that they and their classmates can study from with pride.
  • Instead of sitting through a lesson that many students may not need (because they already know it) or not follow (because they’re lost), teachers are leveraging technology to personalise instruction. Technology can deliver introductory instruction at a pace controlled by each student (you can pause, rewind, rewatch at will). Students who need different levels of instruction can get that too. Watching instructional videos the night before class makes the in-class lesson more effective and efficient, and leaves more class time for real teacher-student interaction.

The personal touch matters and having a great teacher matters. Technology can help make the most of both.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

This article was first published in SNAP Etobicoke, November 2012.