Monday, December 12, 2016

A Great School for ALL - This is The Work of Students and Teachers Supported by Principals

I wrote earlier in this blog space about work with some 100 students from across Alberta in Canmore this week. The key ingredient of this work is trust and respect. Treating students, teachers, and principals as colleagues who each have different parts to play in our schools, but whose voices need to be heard, understood and acted upon.

What was impressive was how mature the student voice is. I have been engaged in educational research, policy ,and teaching related activities since 1972 (not 1066, as one student kindly pointed out). I have talked with cabinet ministers, senior policy advisors, superintendents, principals, teachers and students all over the world – in some 70 countries in fact.  My conversations with some students this week were as informed, provocative, insightful and mindful as many of the conversations with senior policy makers and deep thinkers about education.





At the heart of the concerns students have are just four things: authenticity, engagement, respect, and challenge. Let me elaborate.

What many of the students seek in their learning are what is called authentic learning tasks. They want to work on issues, ideas and challenges that matter to them or that they can see are genuine and real in some way. While they are perfectly capable of abstract thought and of historical analysis, they want to focus their learning on the world in which they live. When I talked to three students about the work we are doing on a project called 9 Billion Lives – how will the world support enriched and meaningful lives for the nine billion people who will soon live on the planet – they were engaged and wanted to learn, contribute and make a difference. They understand that they need to know more about science, mathematics, technology, creativity and other things to be able to contribute, but they are looking to do so. In terms of the work of Victor Frankl, they are engaged in an authentic search for meaning. What is interesting is how articulate they are about that search and what it means for learning, curriculum, and collaboration.

This leads to the second issue – engagement. Each school present (and some schools had several groups present) described action research projects they were intending to work on. Almost all were focused on the same thing: increasing, expanding and deepening student engagement in the work of the school. Whether this was making better use of flexible learning times, strengthening peer to peer learning or going deeper into ideas that matter, the students in Canmore want to be deeply engaged in the work of the school. They want engaging relationships with peers for learning; engaged teaching and learning activities; engagement with others around the world. For these students, engagement was not a “buzz word” – it reflected their search for a meaningful, intelligent relationship with other students and with the adults in the school. So as to enable their search for meaning, they were looking for meaningful, thoughtful and enabling relationships.






Which in turn leads to the third issue – respect. What they were articulating, to my ears at least, was a call to be respected for who they are right now. We can all learn, grow and develop. But being shown respect helps us on this journey. Respect can come in many ways:  being actively listened to; being given more responsibility; being given feedback which helps understanding and development (e.g. on an assignment); being given a challenge which demonstrated trust and respect. When these students have been shown respect – for example, when some of them traveled to Finland last year and were trusted and respected both by their parents and teachers, but also by their host families and Finnish peers – their personal growth was remarkable. One student said to me that traveling to Finland made her reflect on “just how she treated other people and that she need to show the care, compassion and concern shown to her by her Finnish billet parents and friends”. It was life changing for her.

Finally, most of the students in the room in Canmore were ready to be challenged to do the next thing to move along the agenda of building a great school for all. They genuinely want  to help other students be successful since, they have worked out, this will help them too. Canada is good at the work of equity – these students want to  be challenged to make it better. They had a great many ideas – lots of small things – which could make a difference.


I came away from my three days with these young people with a strong sense that the future of my adopted country is in good hands. Impressive minds, articulate and fun young people with a commitment to an inclusive future. Let’s help them “make it so!”.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Alberta's Student Voice - "What Math Crisis?"

In Canmore these last few days over 100 students, teachers, and principals from across Alberta sat together to explore how they could leverage international partnerships between Finland, Alberta, New Zealand and Norway to improve Alberta schools. The question they were asking was not “how can we improve our ranking on PISA”, but “what else can we do to make schools in Alberta great places to be, learn and enjoy for ALL students?”. The so-called “math crisis”, manufactured by our own Education Minister,  did not come up once.

Six years ago schools in Alberta partnered with schools in Finland to explore these questions. The partnership not only continues but has grown and expanded its reach. Norway came on board two and a half years ago and now New Zealand is in the mix. These partnerships involve exchanges, explorations, and collaborative projects between students, teachers and schools.

This work involves exploring questions like these:
  • Why do we do what we do the way we do it?
  • Why don't we do what we do differently?
  • Is what we do and the way we do it helping and making a difference for all students or just some?
  • How we can we engage, show care and concern and make a difference for all students?
Key to the way this work is undertaken is the task of helping students find and share their own voice. It is their understanding, ideas and suggestions that make the difference.

Teachers matter. But when they treat students as colleagues and partners, the work teachers and students do together can “change the game”. Across all of the schools involved, it is the student's voice, peer to peer networking within and between schools and the authentic partnership with teachers that makes a difference to what happens in schools.

The visits to Finland have, according to the students, been transformative. Students who went as shy, quiet individuals come back with confidence and they have found their voice.  Many have found that their time away helps them better understand their own community and place in it.  The visits are not “educational tourism” they are powerful, life-changing opportunities for self-discovery and development. One parent told a participating Principal “I don't know what happened to my daughter over there, but I tell you, she is a much better person for it and we need more of our students to have the opportunity to grow and develop the way she did in such a short time…”.


When the students from Finland come here their experience is the same. Being billeted with the “home” family, sharing meals and leisure time with the family, being at a different school, asking seemingly innocent questions – all open up opportunities for change and development for all concerned.

There are all also powerful developments as a result of this work in Alberta. Schools in Calgary co-operating in ways they had not done before; a school in the Crowsnest Pass collaborating with other schools across the Province to support student learning; accelerated use of ideas for high school redesign.
One reason Alberta does so well on PISA – we rank 8th in the world – is this kind of work. Helping students help their teachers so that the system can improve, one school at a time.

After fifteen hours of intense conversation, activity, planning and collaborative work it was still the case that no one mentioned the “crisis in mathematics” in Alberta. Maybe that is because those closest to the work – and there were maths teachers in the room – do not see a crisis in the way that bureaucrats under the dome do. They see young people seeking to make sense of their different futures and just want to help them have a successful journey.

Alberta is focused in this work on equity - ensuring that all students have success in what matters to them. Equity, in this conversation, is not about equal opportunity, but more about outcomes - enabling that outcomes that matter for the student.

When we look at PISA 2015, Canada performs exceptionally well because of its focus on equity. Tied first in the world for reading, second in the world for science and eight in the world in mathematics. This high performance is combined with a high level of equity. Let's put this another way: our high performance is because of our commitment to equity. No crisis there, whatever the Minister of Education and his staff may think.  PISA matters little to teachers, students and parents. Letting PISA results drive policy, my friend and colleague Pasi Sahlberg points out, is not only a mistake - it's dangerous.





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We can do better. We will do better when we learn to collaborative, engage, respect, trust and challenge in ways that help schools become better for all students. Rather than inventing a crisis, we would be better to make investments in equity for our students. That's what the students say too..




Friday, October 21, 2016

How will Donald Trump Cope with Being a Loser?




How does someone who has a severe case of narcissistic personality disorder deal with humiliation? I think we will know much more about this around November 10th – 15th when Donald J Trump loses badly the US Presidential election.

He is already preparing the ground for coping. His argument that the election is “rigged” is focused on ensuring that he himself cannot be blamed for the loss. It is everyone else’s fault – the “corrupt media”, “spineless losers” leading the GOP, the “criminal” Clinton campaign, poor advice. He was fine, it’s just everyone around him and those against him that cause the problem.

As recently as this week, after a very poor showing in the third Presidential debate in Las Vegas, he was still telling his faithful followers that he was going to win and that the polls are part of the conspiracy against him. [Whatever happened to the rule that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas - if there was ever a time this should have applied, it was to this debate!]. Rudi Giuliani, now his prime surrogate given that Governor Christie has backed away, tries to sell a line that there is massive voter fraud at the election and that some 1.8 million “dead” people will vote for Clinton.  This is all part of the plan to explain away the loss and why Trump is not to blame.

Let us remind ourselves of the clinical conditions for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The Mayo Clinic’s definition of NPD is:

“A mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism. If you have NPD, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious, you often monopolize conversations, you may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior, and you may feel a sense of entitlement (when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry). At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior.” 

The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 5 (DSM-5) criteria for NPD includes these features:

  • Expecting to be recognized as superior.
  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents.
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people.
  • Requiring constant admiration.
  • Having a sense of entitlement.
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations.
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want.
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you.
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.

 Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.

Psychologists may dispute that all of these features have been seen in the behaviour of Trump since he entered the Presidential race, but these features have been seen and observed by many. Several were on show at his exceptionally poor performance at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Catholic charity dinner this week.

But he still thinks he has a chance of winning, despite most of the serious analysts giving him no chance at all. His thinking – fantastical though it may seem – is that he was written off so many times in the primaries and look at what happened there. What he is discounting is that the way the US system works is not about the popular vote, but where these votes are and their impact on the electoral college. Hilary needs 270 college votes to win. The betting is on her getting closer to 350. Nate Silver – who has the strongest forecasting record of any analyst – suggests that she is 87% sure of getting 341. There are 538 votes in the college – Silver sees Trump getting no more than 196.

The bad news is not likely to be just that Trump loses. There is also a 73% chance that the Democrats will take the senate, given Hilary a fantastic opportunity to stack the Supreme Court, push through major tax changes and improve Obamacare. Meantime, the combination of both a Presidential loss (the third in a row for the GOP) and a senate loss, should it occur, would be devastating for the GOP. The party would dump all over Trump as the “cause”, despite the fact that they were his enablers throughout the process.

But let’s return to the question: how would someone with a severe case of NDP react to such a massive loss of face?

Trump will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is often confused with NDP. But for him, PTSD will be severe:

  • There will be more angry outbursts – his twitter account will go wild with accusations.
  • He will lash out at people by name and cause a pile of lawsuits, either filed by him (defamation, libel) or filed against him.
  • He will be abusive to those who advised him, especially those closest to him.
  • He will seek revenge on those “who did this to him”, not accepting that he did “this” to himself.
  • He will be even more distant in relationships, especially with family members.
  • He will tell even more lies and untruths based on his version of events, many of which come from his “alternative universe”.
  • He will relentlessly pursue conspiracy theories about who “was out to get him”.


He will be more difficult to live with, so his wife and children will need support and help in coping with the “tiger in the tank” ready to explode.

This will especially be true if cases of sexual assault are pursued and if he loses the Trump University lawsuit.

It will not be pretty. There is talk of him pursuing a new avenue of interests – Trump TV (which might be better named Deplorable’s TV). This would provide an outlet for all this anger, but will probably not be a wise investment for him (or anyone else) to make. It will likely go the same way as his Casino investments, which ended in one of the many Trump business bankruptcies.

What will make all of this even worse is that the Trump business will also suffer, as it is doing now, from the scrutiny it will receive. Trump hotels are losing customers and his staff in some hotels have unionized. He would be smart to sell the empire and retire – he is 70 after all.

As a psychologist, I can also pretty well guarantee that he will not seek help for his PTSD/ NPD conditions. He doesn’t “do advice”, as his several campaign managers will attest. Nor does he follow advice, once given, as his performances on tour and on the debates show.


I wouldn’t like to be around him come November 10th when it will be clearly all over, bar the shouting.