3 Things

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When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.  ~Victor Frankl~

I started teaching almost 20 years ago, in a world that no longer exists. As I reflect upon what has changed since 1991, I realize that many things have changed, many things have not. I’ve also come to understand that we are now at a place in education where, due to some significant shifts that have occurred in the world beyond our schools, we are at a point where things could possibly become very different, very quickly.

What’s changed? I’ll focus just on literacy instruction. When I started my career, teaching practice followed a fairly prescribed pathway, whole class instruction was the norm, with a focus on skill-based reading and writing instruction, lots of spelling and grammar workbooks, lots of whole class novel studies from grade 3 and up.

12 years ago I became a teacher/librarian, many of these practices were still in place, but with a lot of push and support, we started to use literature circles for reading instruction and create response tasks for our students to complete students and kids were actually given chances to write about their ideas and thoughts in journals.

As one of our district’s literacy consultants 5 years ago, we worked with teachers to help them understand the impact that daily, sustained independent reading of self-selected text, along with regular expository writing through blogging could have on student learning and engagement. We also supported teachers to develop routines that would allow for small group instruction sessions that would address the specific learning needs of their students.

I visit classes now in my role as a vice principal. I see so much more reading, thinking and talking, and writing!  For the most part, kids are writing more (and for greater audiences) now than at any time in our history. And they do so using a richer array of tools than I ever could have imagined 20 years ago. The diversity of texts (paper and digital)  that I see students reading is compelling, as are the conversations students have about what they are reading (face to face and online). We all ought to be proud of this, it has been a huge, collaborative and stunning accomplishment. This work however has only set the foundation for the change that is to come.

I see three things that have influenced, and will continue to impact, teaching and learning over the next 20 years:

Brain Research- advanced scanning tools such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) are not only helping diagnose brain-based illnesses, they are also allowing us to study and observe the brain at work and play, as it constructs knowledge. The knowledge that is being revealed is fundamental to solving the great puzzles of pedagogy and underpin much of the current research on differentiated instruction. We all will have to learn about, and act upon this knowledge.

Networked Technologies– Communication tools, mobile, cloud-based computing, social networking, all of these tools are the norm in the ‘real world’. Since school is the place where students learn what they need to live in the ‘real world’ we will have to set aside our reservations in this area and adopt a learner’s stance. Attrition, and the shift in the demographics of our profession should help ease this process, but we will have to learn about, and act upon this reality.

Globalization- Thomas Friedman’s ‘Flat World’ is becoming flatter, and more compact. As mediated and face-to-face interactions become more liquid and draw a more diverse range of people together; our understanding of what it means to value and respect diversity will not just be politically correct, it will be an economic imperative. We will have to learn to engage the world beyond our schools and model this disposition.

These three influences didn’t really exist 20 years ago the way they do now. For those of us who work in schools, there really is no turning back. The world has changed our context and our situation; our challenge now is to adapt.


  1. John Burrell said:

    I would echo your observations (also from a 20+ year experiences /secondary schools) the trends and patterns you identify are the same as I have seen in the British schools secondary sector and also more recently in International schools. I’m also with you on the network technologies which I think has begun to change our perception about the nature of communication, this blog being an example. We part ways on the issue of ‘Brain Based Research’ where I read many claims of the impact of fMRI studies but I am unable to find the empirical based studies that might justify a change in pedagogy. Perhaps an exception would be the development of the frontal lobes which seem to indicate that completion of adolescent intellectual development (as distinct from puberty) occurs in the mid twenties rather than late teens. Nevertheless the limitations of fMRI resolution currently limited to broad associations rather than casual relationships. On globalisation we have the same opinion but I would add that the accrued benefits are there for the connected world. In the unconnected world the communication distances are increasing not decreasing and this has to be an important factor for the education of our global citizens. Regards John

    July 26, 2011
    • bharrison said:

      Hi John,

      Thanks so much for the response and for the feedback. Your point on brain research is well taken; one of the things I appreciate about blogging is the conversational flow of it. Adding and refining ideas, and looking at them from different perspectives is so important. In the area of brain research, I was making some broad associating; and also thinking about the impact that myelinization has on impulse control and emotional responses from children as well as the links that Eric Jensen is drawing between creative/artistic learning tasks and the development empathy and higher order thinking.

      I appreciate you taking the time to honour me with your response:)


      July 27, 2011
  2. An excellent observation on this road map of life. A physical representation of what you outline above is that i recently saw a guest speaker on a talk show. He displayed a driod phone and commented that it was a million time smaller than the original computer built some 60 odd years ago and — a million times more powerful. He commented that in 50 years it too will be a million times smaller and yes even a million times more powerful. The world is moving exponentialy, and what about our academic institutions–where and how are they moving. Where are they (or we) on this road map of life? What is the direction we will navigate? I think all of this makes the quote mentioned above worth repeating:

    When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. ~Victor Frankl~



    July 26, 2011
    • bharrison said:

      Hi Fred,

      I remember listening to a talk by Bill Daggett during which he claimed that if Rip Van Winkle fell asleep 100 years ago and woke up today, the only place he’d feel at home would be a typical elementary or secondary classroom. Changing ourselves is what we deeply need.

      I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond 🙂


      July 27, 2011

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