Category Archives: Leading a Learning Community

We Integrate Language Development and Critical Thinking

I believe my “French Immersion appreciation” roots began to grow during the first 15 years of my teaching career; working alongside my French Immersion colleagues at Legal School, I began to see the benefits of the program. My roots grew even deeper with my daughter’s K-12 schooling in the French Immersion program in St. Albert Public Schools. These experiences laid the foundation for my work of supporting the French Immersion program in Parkland School Division. My own limited ability to communicate in French drives my desire to support French Immersion programming, wishing that I, too, would have had the French Immersion experience in my formative years.

Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year, Parkland School Division Grades 6-12 French Immersion teachers and students were deeply engaged in year three of our project, We Integrate Language Development And Critical Thinking (WILDACT). As the Curriculum Facilitator, I have the honor of leading and coordinating this 5-year project.

WILDACT has two main outcomes: increased student engagement (through critical thinking and assessment as learning) and increased French language acquisition. These two outcomes are interrelated in supporting student achievement in French Immersion classrooms.

This video captures the highlights of this year’s WILDACT journey.


Cooperative Learning: Just a Fancy Way of Saying Group Work?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Thomas Galvez

Every time you call on one, you can call on everyone.” Dr. Spencer Kagan, February 2013

So, what did you learn today over the past 30 years?

Vygotsky suggests that “learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and other experts. Consequently, teachers can create a learning environment that maximizes the learner’s ability to learn through discussion, collaboration, and feedback.” Learning Theories Website

It may have been Vygotsky’s research, or the misrepresentation of it, that lead to the group work bandwagon in the mid 80’s.  This prompted many of us (including me) to change our classrooms from rows of isolated students, to clusters of desks where students worked together in groups. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out for me as intended.  It lead to… a student or two in the group dominating the task while others sat back and let the learning take place around them ; some students finding more engaging tasks to occupy their time; a lot of noise that wasn’t always productive. Because “group work” didn’t produce the results I had expected, I decided that pairs would be the extent of my students’ group work experience, where they could work with their assigned partner some of the time.  Unfortunately, my classroom was a “learn by yourself most of the time; work with your partner when I say it’s okay” environment.  Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

At the time, I didn’t understand Vygotsky’s research AT ALL and I didn’t know about the brain research that helps explain why cooperative learning helps students process their learning.  These 2 quotes in Eric Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, have helped clarify this research for me:

  • “Either you can have your learners’ attention OR they can be making meaning, but never both at the same time.” p 36
  • “What doesn’t make sense is constant one-way learning.” p 55

I also didn’t know about the teachings of Dr. Spencer Kagan or The Critical Thinking Consortium, but now I do…

Cooperative learning moved to the forefront of my professional growth in February of 2012, when a colleague and I attended the 4 day Kagan Cooperative Learning Institute. Spencer Kagan and his wife Laurie, a former school teacher, have developed a multitude of Cooperative Learning Structures that can be used to support student conversation that enables them to process their learning and articulate their thinking. Kagan’s research suggests that in order for cooperative learning to truly be occurring, 4 basic principles must be in place.

The 4 principles of cooperative learning, also known as PIES, are:

Positive interdependence- 

  • Positive= one doing well helps others
  • Interdependence= task completion depends on everyone doing their part

Individual Accountability- Students can’t hide; your success influences the success of others; everyone must perform the task

Equal Participation- Participation is approximately equal

Simultaneous Interaction- Highest percentage of students as possible are performing at any given time

The Critical Thinking Model also embraces cooperative learning. When we began our work with the Critical Thinking Consortium in 2009, I hadn’t realized that cooperative learning would be playing a role. I did know that when critical thinking is embedded into teaching and learning, students are engaged in solving a problem and as a result, they learn the content in a much deeper way. I also now know that one of the strengths of the model is that many of the Thinking Strategies that support critical thinking have students learning cooperatively. This can happen through students justifying their decisions to their peers in light of pre-established criteria. It can happen through peer coaching, where students provide specific feedback to each other in light of the criteria. It can also occur through Thinking Strategies that provide structures where students each express their own ideas, and then listen to the ideas of others in order to re-evaluate and expand their thinking.

What I love about the Thinking Strategies is that they are structured to push the thinking further; they go beyond just having students articulate their thinking, but are encouraged to allow the thinking of others to push their own thinking as well. Some powerful Thinking Strategies on the website that align with the principles of cooperative learning are: Four Corners Discussion and Placemat Activity  .

A current approach to teaching that many teachers are embracing is “collaborative inquiry”.  How can we ensure the PIES principles are in place as students learn “collaboratively” through inquiry? Perhaps we could explicitly teach the PIES principles while providing students with experience in Critical Thinking Strategies or Kagan Structures that embed the principles. Through a scaffolded approach, eventually students would have the skills to determine themselves ways of ensuring the principles are in place in any collaborative inquiry projects in which they engage.

I have come to realize the reasons why cooperative learning wasn’t successful in the way I had attempted to implement it. In my classroom, group work was about demonstration of learning in the form of a summative group project after independent learning; it wasn’t about learning together. In my classroom, group work was unstructured; I expected the students to know how to work together cooperatively when I hadn’t actually set them up for success in doing so. In my classroom, class discussion involved asking one student at a time to share their thinking. I now understand what Dr. Kagan means when he says, “Every time you call on one, you can call on everyone.”  Class discussions take on a different meaning when they are treated as cooperative learning opportunities and structured accordingly.

Ultimately, it has taken me the better part of my career to fully appreciate Vygotsky’s work. It has taken much continued professional learning and deliberate reflection to develop my current understanding that “learning is a social process”. I am now able to articulate ways that we can build classroom environments and implement teaching pedagogies to capitalize on this foundational knowledge. And my learning is not over yet! I continue to learn from the teachers with whom I have the opportunity to work. Several teachers in Parkland School Division have recently participated in Cooperative Learning PD opportunities, and have shared some of the impacts they have noticed. I have documented their responses in this google doc.

So what have I learned over the past 30 years? Cooperative learning is NOT about putting students into groups to create a product to demonstrate their learning after the teaching and learning. It IS about putting students together to LEARN TOGETHER, and having structures and thinking strategies in place to facilitate the learning. Cooperative learning stimulates thinking; it is the means through which the learning takes place, and when cooperative learning is combined with critical thinking, oh… it makes my heart sing!!

Math Minds- An Innovative Project


Math Minds is a project committed to enhancing the development of numeracy skills in early years’ students. This post reveals some of the components of the Math Minds project, which I’m certain we’ll be  hearing more about as the project progresses.

Canadian Oilsands Limited has invested $3 million as part of a 5 year commitment in this initiative to enhance numeracy competencies in young students, and to build teachers’ capacity to do so. Much of the $ is being used to fund teachers’ professional growth. The participating school(s) will use Jump Math as the lens for instructional practice and programming. Jump Math is also learning along the way, and will work to enhance their program based on the findings.

The goal is for Calgary to become an “excellence in math centre”, and if successful, Canadian Oilsands hopes to be able to replicate this model in other areas of the country. The project is working to create a model school(s) where guests will be able to visit to see promising math practices in action. They also hope that the model school(s) can be place(s) where teachers can participate in a possible residency program for a year to build their capacity, after which time they would go back to their own school and be a lead math teacher.

In addition to providing the model school(s) with the Jump Math training and other professional development, part of Math Minds initiative also trains volunteers (pre-service teachers from the University of Calgary as well as members of the community) to tutor students after school using the Jump Math Tutor program, through the Boys and Girls Club. During the conference, I was sitting with 2 people who are math tutors at the Boys and Girls Club. They shared some of the successes they are seeing through the use of Jump Math.

Jump Math is a not for profit organization that has developed grades 1 – 8 math programs, for classroom teachers, tutors and parents.

Several speakers at the MathConnect Conference spoke about their work with Jump Math.

The University of Calgary is endorsing Jump Math, saying it is a good blend of discovery learning and explicit instruction. It breaks down the concepts and teaches the teachers themselves the concepts, so they can understand them in a deeper way, and in turn, teach them in a better way. It helps teachers determine what early skills the students are missing, so those skills can be developed to enable students to learn skills further along the developmental continuum. It supports the research that shows that early deficits have a cumulative effect, and that success in early math skills are a better predictor of success in later years, than success in early literacy skills.

Elisha Bonnis, an elementary school teacher with Vancouver Board of Education shared how Jump Math helped her overcome feelings of inadequacy in math. It helped her learn the basic skills and knowledge she was missing, and helped her to realize she CAN indeed DO and TEACH math. The philosophy behind Jump Math reflects Dr. Dweck’s Mindset research. Elisha offered the advice that if teachers do decide to use the program, to follow the teacher’s guide, as its explicit teaching method helps uncover the skills that students are missing, and helps them develop those skills so they can be successful in learning and growing from the discovery activities.

If you’re interested, all the teacher, tutor and parent Jump Math lessons are available, for free, on their website.  The student consumable books are available for purchase.

All in all, Math Minds sounds like a very worthwhile project!  I know I’m going to be keeping tabs on its progress. What do you think?

Why do we Resist the Evidence?

Sunrise at Haleakala 1

Sunrise at Haleakala, Maui- the dawning of a new day…

The MathConnect Conference  in Calgary on February 2 hosted a colorful spectrum of speakers

The following write-up summarizes messages about teaching math that I took away from some of the presentations.

Dr. Carol S. Dweck

As noted near the end of my Mindset blog, many students have given up on math because they believe they are not good at math, and will never “get” math.

Teachers and parents are supporting a fixed mindset when they tell students, “Don’t worry, not everyone is good at math.”  This kind of feedback writes kids off, gives kids lower confidence that they could ever do it, releases them from the responsibility of ever doing well in math.

On the other hand, teacher who are developing a growth mindset would say, “Let’s break this down even further and try some strategies together to see how you can get better.” When teachers and students believe skills can be developed, it opens students up to learning.

The highlight of my day definitely was meeting Dr. Carol Dweck in person. I got to tell her about our Learning Services’ team’s Mindset book study, how we involved ourselves in examining our mindsets, as individuals and as a team, and how we continually reflect on our growth.

Dr. Rafael Núñez

Dr. Núñez’ presentation worked to uncover the topic, “Where does math come from; making sense of human ideas.”

“Mathematics is a paradoxical conceptual system.”

  • Math concepts are not directly perceivable through the human senses. For example, we cannot see infinity…
  • Mathematical entities are imagined by humans, not visible in our environment, so how can we make sense of them?

Can we relate mathematics to other kinds of perception? If we can, maybe we can use those relationships to help us teach math. Conceptual metaphors help fictive motions make human imagination possible.

Metaphors– For example we can perceive the domain from a cold heart to a warm heart, so maybe numbers are also perceived as a domain, as if they have a location in space.

Fictive motion– “We often talk effortlessly about static objects as if they were moving.” For example, “The fence stops after the tree.” The conception we construe in that the fence is moving may provide the inferential structure required to conceive mathematical functions as having motion and directionality.

Gestures– we use hand and body gestures to enhance communication; to help the speaker express him/herself, which in turn, help the listener make meaning. Perhaps the intentional use of relevant gestures in teaching mathematics could support students in construing meaning as well.

Are there any mathematics that are hard-wired- the basic number line perhaps? Is this an embedded part of the brain, or something we need to learn?  Núñez’ Yupno Study concluded that mapping a number to a point in space doesn’t come naturally-it seems that something as simple as a number line is not inherent, it is learned, and so, we need to intentionally teach it. If this basic simple model in math is not understood, concepts that depend its understanding will not be understood.

Núñez’ summarized his message by saying that “the portrait of mathematics has a human face”; articulating meaning is necessary because mathematics is such a complex conceptual system.

Also, like development along a continuum, the understanding of mathematical concepts relies on the understanding of previous concepts. If we do not understand what comes before, we will not understand what comes after.

Diane Chang

Diana is the Program Coordinator of the Robertson Program for Inquiry-based Teaching.  During her presentation, Diana shared the “Math for Young Children: A Lesson Study Research Project” that she is working on. The driver behind this project is current research showing that success in early math skills are a better predictor of success in later years, than success in early literacy skills.

The lesson study involved a step-by-step approach.

  1. With the support of facilitators, teachers did a lot of reading and professional learning about some key concepts in mathematics. They then chose a topic they wanted to focus their work on.
  2. Students’ strengths and needs were assessed in this chosen topic. Teachers interviewed students and got them to work on some activities to see where their development was at in that concept area.
  3. Based on the findings from the work with students, the team of teachers and facilitator co-designed exploratory lessons to help students develop their skills and overcome some misconceptions. During the exploratory lessons, the teachers observed each other’s students.
  4. After debriefing to determine explicitly what needed to be taught to move the students forward in their development, the teachers built “public lessons” that they would all teach.
  5. Teachers taught the public lesson.
  6. Teachers debriefed the lesson and determined next steps.

The “public lessons” the teachers co-developed, as well as a summary of the Lesson Study can be found on Math for Young Children space on the Trent Math Education Research Collaboration website.

Why do we Resist the Evidence?

At the end of the day, the presenters assembled as a panel to address questions from the audience. A question one person asked was, “Why do we resist the evidence- why do we ignore the research and continue to use teaching methods that are not always the most effective?” Should we not embrace new evidence just as we embrace the dawning of a new day?

The panel offered several indirect responses to the question, and I also have some theories of my own, but I’d love to hear your response to the question, “…so why DO we resist the evidence?”

Growth Mindset – So much Promise for Education

wildflower_May 2012_Lac La Nonne_ Diane Lander

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the MathConnect Conference in Calgary. The first keynote speaker of the day was Carol S. Dweck Ph.D., author of Mindset.

Dr. Dweck’s “research focuses on why students succeed and how to foster their success. More specifically, her work has demonstrated the role of mindsets in success and has shown how praise for intelligence can undermine students’ motivation and learning.” (

Although I learned a lot about her work through the Mindset book study our Learning Services team participated in last year, it was great to hear her story in person. I am using this blog post to share some elements of the presentation that stood out most for me.

Dr. Dweck told us that Alfred Benet originally developed the IQ test to see which students weren’t succeeding with the current curriculum, and used the results to change that curriculum. Like other theories and concepts that have been applied out of context (e.g. Bloom’s Taxonomy, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences), educators have misconstrued the intent of the IQ test, and the result has led to the idea of intelligence being a fixed trait.

Current research shows “the brain can be developed like a muscle”; every time you stretch out of comfort zone, neurons grow new connections. So intelligence CAN be developed.

2 Opposing Beliefs

Fixed mindset– intelligence is a fixed trait

Growth mindset– intelligence is a malleable quality; a potential that can be developed

As a result of her research, Dweck has developed several “mindset rules” which help us differentiate between fixed and growth mindsets:

Rule 1:

Fixed mindset– look smart at all costs; tell me when I’m right

Growth mindset– learn at all costs; tell me when I’m wrong

Students with a growth mindset care more about learning than about grades. Good grades are the bi-product of effort and a successful learning path, not of an innate intelligence.

Rule 2:

Fixed mindset– learning should come naturally; if you have ability you shouldn’t need effort

Growth mindset– work hard, effort is key; ability is increased over time

Geniuses are a result of the work and effort they put in over time- building on successes and addressing their shortcomings, over and over again; continually trying until they succeed.

Rule 3:

Fixed mindset– hide mistakes: In the face of setbacks, these students said they would spend less time on the subject from now on, why spend time on something I’m not good at?

Growth mindset– capitalize on mistakes, formulate new strategies to address the problem. In the face of setbacks, these students said they’d spend more time studying and work harder in class.

Rule 4:

Fixed mindset– Praising intelligence develops a fixed mindset- in Carol’s research, these kids wanted a task that they could easily be successful on.

Growth mindset– Praising process and effort develops a growth mindset- these kids wanted a harder task that they could learn from.

Human beings are born as natural learners, so how do we make sure our students remain learners? Kids are tuned in to what the environment values; if we value effort, hard work, and progression of skill development, they will, too. Growth mindset has kids embrace learning and growth, and understand the role of effort in creating talent; it can be taught everyday in our classrooms.

How can we help students develop a growth mindset?

  • Praise effort, struggles and persistence despite setbacks.
  • Praise the strategies they try and choices they make.
  • Praise choosing difficult tasks, praise learning and improving; do not praise marks
  • Use the word YET- “not yet” puts you on a learning trajectory- “I’m not there yet, but I will get there.”

How does this relate to teaching math?

Many students have given up on math because they believe they are not good at math, and will never “get” math.

Fixed mindset– Teachers comfort students who are doing poorly, telling them, “Don’t worry, not everyone is good at math.”  This kind of feedback writes kids off, gives kids lower confidence that they could ever do it, releases them from the responsibility of ever doing well in math.

Growth mindset – Teacher says, “Let’s work to understand what you are not getting, and try some strategies to see how you can get better.” When teacher and students believe skills can be developed, it opens students up to learning.

Mindset Website

Students are very interested in how their brains work and how they can get smarter. I’m really excited about the Brainology application Dweck’s team has developed. “Brainology raises students’ achievement by helping them develop a growth mindset.” Guided by Brain Orb, students learn how the brain works, how we learn, and some brain-based learning strategies.

The website also has a teacher toolkit to support teachers in developing a growth mindset in their classroom.

Our students are so fortunate that our school division is embracing Dr. Dweck’s work. Won’t it be great when all of our students demonstrate a growth mindset!!

Critical Thinking as a Way of Teaching

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein

What should I write about for my first post, the post that by the very nature of its hierarchical position, indicates that the topic is of utmost importance to me right now? It would be remiss of me to write about anything other than critical thinking!

Critical thinking has been identified by researchers as one of the competencies that students need in order to be successful in the 21st century. In its Framework for Student Learning publication, Alberta Education has identified critical thinking as one of the 7 Competencies for 21st Century Learning.

With so much talk about critical thinking, it seems odd that there is still so much confusion around how to teach students to be critical thinkers. “Critical thinking” conjures up such misconceptions as teaching students to criticize, or to look for flaws in everything they read and view. When you come to know critical thinking, you realize that it has nothing at all to do with criticizing!

When people discuss critical thinking, it tends to have as many definitions as there are people in the discussion. The definition I have come to champion is that critical thinking is about “making a judgement in light of relevant factors or criteria.”  I love how Roland Case, co-founder and CEO of The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2), defines critical thinking in the first minute of this video clip from

Critical Thinking as an Effective Way of Teaching

A misconception of the critical thinking approach is that it is about teaching skills rather than content. In fact, the critical thinking approach is about teaching and assessing both skills and knowledge outcomes, along with the thinking tools, resulting in students learning the content more deeply.

Over the past three years, Parkland School Division (PSD) has embarked on a journey to embed the TC2 Critical Thinking Model into teaching and learning. At first, it did not come naturally for us to teach using the model; it was a huge shift in our way of teaching… in our way of thinking. When we are teaching students to think critically, we are no longer transmitters of knowledge, but instead, designers of learning experiences; we ask questions and design tasks that have children make judgments in light of relevant criteria that we co-create, and we have them support their judgment with evidence from the content.

Are we all experts in the critical thinking approach at this point? No, absolutely not, and we’re not expected to be; we’re all at different places in the implementation journey, and that’s absolutely okay. I concur with the advice Roland Case gives us in this video clip:

Advice to Teachers

Through my work in supporting implementation of the TCCritical Thinking Model in PSD, I have seen several significant shifts in practice:

  1. Increased use of criteria to help make judgements
  2. Increase in intentional collaborative work as a way of learning
  3. Shift from reliance on pencil and paper tasks, to teachers posing authentic problems to engage students in learning subject area content
  4. Shift in assessment practice; greater focus on self-assessment and peer coaching
  5. Intentionally teaching the tools of critical thinking

Along with changes in teacher practice comes growth in student outcomes. Our teachers are reporting these things:

  1. All levels of thinking are supported through the Critical Thinking Model
  2. Less academic students are experiencing noted success and are becoming leaders in classroom conversations
  3. Vocabulary development is enhanced
  4. Students are more creative and more willing to take risks
  5. Assessment for and as learning are becoming more prevalent

Upon considering the huge potential this approach has in supporting the educational shift – moving from the left side of the continuum where teachers “cover the outcomes”, over to the right side where teachers engage students in “uncovering the outcomes”-  how can one NOT be excited about critical thinking as a way of teaching!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with teaching critical thinking. Do you have any gems to share or any lessons learned?