A couple of weeks ago, I was inside the “big black box” also known as the British Columbia Ministry of Education. If you know that I am a teacher from Surrey, B.C. you might jump to the conclusion that I was there picketing, slashing tires or doing the ol’ “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” switcheroo. Well, none of that is actually the case. My adventure was a little more bland, but I still felt cool like Harriet the Spy.
Students and education are number one for me, so if I thought I could make a larger impact from with in the Big House (you know, Trojan Horse-style), then I felt it was my duty to explore that possibility.
I, like so many teachers, have no idea what really happens behind the very secure wall of the M.O.E. (It was near impossible to get back inside to retrieve my forgotten umbrella–several people including security had to be called). For some, the Ministry is like Bin Laden’s cave circa 2002 or neo-libralist puppeteering convention.
I’ve got to say, it was a fascinating experience to see first hand the environment, the people that work there, the tone, the types of conversations had in the hallways. Of course, I got the tourist-eye view of things, but I felt what I saw changed a bit of how I view the Ministry. There are some fabulous, caring individuals who work there, but the Ministry is not the sum of its parts. The thing that troubled me most was that as it is now, from what I gathered through informal conversation, not enough of the decision-makers are very closely or personally linked with real classroom life in a very recent, real way. (Time to do a new episode of Undercover Boss maybe!?)
As you know, these are very tense times between the government and our teachers’ union, the BCTF. There are some critical issues that the government must address to improve education for our students and teachers. I know this. I feel this. I want to do my part. And I wanted to gather as much information as I could.
I met with several key figures in curriculum and assessment who I felt were very candid with me about their own perspectives and the direction of the ministry as they see it.
I will be writing more reflections about “the inside” in the coming weeks–I am still trying to make sense of it all. But let me start with one point: as a part of my interview, I was given a computer with no internet connection, a quiet room, and one hour to write my response to the question:
How can we personalize learning for all students
while maintaining equity and fairness within the education system?
Great that they chose this question, right? (Or does this question need more unpacking?)
Understand that I was a little nervous to begin my writing–perhaps somewhat like a fish out of water flopping around at the Cat Show. Well, not that bad. But I was still processing for myself other questions like, “Do I want this job?” “Are these people sincere in working towards real change?” “Am I a traitor?” “Am I in line to become the next straw man?” “Is this the opportunity of a lifetime to offer what I have to make a real difference for students?”
So, basically for the first 20 minutes, my mind was just blank. Then the next 10 minutes, I was frantic. I only actually wrote for the last 30 minutes.
Imagine: a genie pops out of a bottle and you have one wish…we always say we would ask for more wishes, but you have to take that off the table this time (Keep in mind I KNOW the gov’t isn’t going to listen to my voice if I just type in 100pt bold font “For Pete’s sake reduce class sizes, support students, and pay teachers properly.”). I kind of felt like I was a student writing a grade 12 English examination. I had to keep in mind my audience, while at the same time being true to my beliefs and style…but I also wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be writing from my own true perspective or from my imagined voice as a possible future Ministry of Education employee or a George Orwell 1984 character.
So what did I actually write? Well, I was just emailed my copy of the writing sample. I post below what I wrote, word for word, errors and all, not edited. Here is my answer as I wrote it on Feb. 24th, 2012:
As custodians, advocates and representatives of public education in B.C., it is our mandate, duty, and deep honour to serve this province, ensuring that all students, parents, and teachers and educational leaders in British Columbia have equitable access to the benefits of personalizing learning. It is a matter of social justice that the transformation occurs as a result of collaboration with the polyphony of voices in B.C. and that the benefits of personalized learning are fairly distributed to all geographical locations, to every school, to every grade level, and to students of every ability, cultural and socio-economic background, gender, and sexual-orientation.
Taking a broad perspective, we can identify key areas on which to focus in this task of ensuring a fair and equitable transformation:
(1.) Relationship Building: Building positive relationships through open communications with all of the various stakeholders ; especially reaching out to under-identified groups.
(2.) Thorough Research: Gathering input from available current data and supporting new research initiatives in areas impacted by personalized learning.
(3.) Meaningful, Productive Collaboration: Providing opportunity for authentic exchange and consideration of ideas from the broadest spectrum of voices.
(4.) Strategic and Balanced Distribution of Resources: Determining where there are existing gaps and working to correct these.
(5.) New Research & Development: Exploring new technologies and methods that can make the most of existing resources and support personalized learning initiatives for all.
SEEING THE PERSONAL FACE OF PERSONALIZING LEARNING:
As we move towards personalizing learning, we are mindful that imbalances in each of these abovementioned areas have a very personal, individual face. When a high school library in Prince Rupert does not have funds to pay for subscriptions to valuable online learning programs that West Vancouver students have been using for over a decade, inequality exists. When a South Surrey elementary school has mobile icarts, smartboards, and ipads for every class because these were paid for with PAC funds, while an East Vancouver elementary school has fewer than fifteen operable computers, inequality exists. When some parents are able to attend PAC meetings and parent-teacher interview scheduled midday, while other working parents cannot, inequality exists. These are the stories we need to hear, reflect on and respond to with supportive and measureable plans of action.
PROVIDING MULTIPLE PLATFORMS:
Driven by a desire to co-create change that is meaningful and impactful for all, we can harness new technologies to offer a variety of platforms from which people will be able to share their personal stories. This has already begun through the BCEDPLAN forums and beyond.
EXPLORING THE RESEARCH:
We partner with all stakeholders to code the data that emerges and then present and reflect on findings. It is an iterative process we engage in as we move towards identifying the scope and causes of current challenges to providing fair and equitable access to personalized learning opportunities. We must consult the wealth of knowledge offered by research occurring in our universities, and colleges, through the BCTF, teacher-initiated projects, student and parent contributions and beyond.
In this era of transformation in education in B.C., matters of equity and fairness must be forefront. Personalized learning comes at a time when we need to put social justice issues at the top of the list. We need to re-imagine and redefine to ensure a first-class education system, our greatest public good and one that is accessible to all.
Okay, so…? Not terrible. Not very groundbreaking. Mostly rhetoric. Looking back, I wish I had taken a harder line, been even more direct, had more examples. You know what irks me the most is that I played it safe and started to sound like a politician myself here. Sure, there are reasonable important ideas here that could be developed, but it’s not an actionable plan which is what we need right now. (But, hey, I only had 60 minutes and was nervous as a nacho on Superbowl Sunday!). But really, I could have done better if I was prepared…I believe I will get prepared by dialoguing more with like minds.
So the take away lesson from for us all is BE READY! Be ready for the genie! Be ready for the microphone because it may pop in front of you at any time! Be ready! I have more thinking to do on how I will refine my answer to these and other critical questions.
I would love to hear from you, what would YOU say we can do “to personalize learning while maintaining equity and fairness within the education system?”
Oh, wait, I just picked up on something I never saw before: why did they frame the question to say “maintain” as if fairness and equity were the present state of affairs?! Hmmmm…