Curriculum Transformation: No Shrink Wrap Required


Before September school bells rang, many educators were engaged in a complex and productive dialogue about THE WHAT/THE PURPOSE of public education. That narrative continues; it revolves around curriculum revisions that go far beyond updating learning outcomes and changing resource materials.  It is about the commitment to deep transformational learning rather than tired efforts to sustain the status quo by cycling through minor  tweaks and calling them significant/game changers.

Why is this so crucial? There is a “real-time” global context in today’s classrooms, courtesy of social media, 24/7 news cycles, increased social conscience, and competing pressures and priorities. That should compel us to design learning pathways that maximize engagement by addressing those complexities.  We live in an  “Ethical Dilemmas Are Us society, so currency and relevance are essential.  Simply put, it’s not a black and white world, so we can’t have a black and white curriculum with the answer key at the end of the chapter.

Today’s learner acquires and demonstrates knowledge, skills and attitudes in very different ways than when the schoolhouse foundations were laid more than a century ago.  The 19th and 20th century framework was built to accommodate yesterday’s certainties, social norms, communication capacities and beliefs about learning.   Compliance and memorization were highly valued. But yesteryear doesn’t equip young people to deal with tomorrow, and a simple binary construct of right and wrong answers laid out in old school print resources doesn’t cut it. Real learning doesn’t link to worksheets, quizzes & tests and rewarding out-of-context retrieval of facts is so “Pre-Google…”

A key condition for transformation to take hold is our acceptance that we (the system) can no longer “sanitize” the school experience to keep John and Jane insulated from controversial, values-laden, politically or culturally sensitive issues.  If they don’t grapple with those matters at school, in a scaffolded, skillfully supported environment, where and when will they confront what really matters.

While our approach to a curriculum/learning framework is transformational, it’s not all new.  The difference today is that skilled teachers are encouraged to keep doing what they have always done, but now with system support. They need that as they build from the what of the core competencies to the how those skills are applied in ways that are light years beyond answering the questions at the end of the chapter.  The problems or challenges students engage with are far more real and important than the old standbys. Remember this one?:

A train traveling on the track from Toronto to Vancouver departs at the same time as a train heading from Vancouver to Toronto.  At what point will the trains pass each other, moving at an average speed of 95 km/hr?

Challenging problem?  Maybe.  Interesting/engaging?  Not so much.  There better more relevant and topical ways to demonstrate core skills.

Today’s newscrawl can lead to tomorrow’s lesson and followup problem-based activity.  It’s not a stretch to see how we can teach and reinforce all of the CORE areas through artful navigation of real-world themes like these:

  • environment and global warming;
  • world responses to the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa and Europe;
  • intergenerational damage done to the Aboriginal people following First Contact;
  • post-industrial workforce realities;
  • economies and realistic expectations of home ownership for an emerging generation;
  • impacts of social media on a civil society…

You can see numeracy and literacy, science and social studies, the Arts, economics, social justice and more in those few examples.

Of course, bringing real world issues into the classroom requires sensitivity and skill.  It’s not without risk, but inertia is an even greater risk if we want to change the perspective shared by students quoted in John Abbott’s Battling for the Soul of Education.  In Abbott’s call to action, he cites a forum where students commented to their teachers:

“You treat education like a TV dinner. You tell us to go to the freezer, pull out a box, read the instructions carefully, take off the wrapping, puncture the cellophane, then set the microwave for the right time. If we’ve followed the instructions carefully, we’ll get full marks.”  Full marks for honest perspective, anyway!

We know better.  We have to do better.  That’s at the core of transformation. Quite a journey.


Beliefs, Certainties and System Renewal

When our ancestors believed the world was flat, their reference points and expectations were based on a flat earth reality.  They could rationalize whatever they saw on the horizon or in the heavens in relation to their flat earth.  It all made sense given the certainties of the era.  One indisputable fact led to another and reality was established.  At some point, a few brave souls began to consider and speak of different possibilities, ones that caused them some trouble as they challenged the infallibility of the flat earth truth.  And when their wondering took flight and their voices gained confidence, evidence became more visible and new realities emerged.  Goodbye old certainties as everything changed – and no one fell off the edge.

When the 4 minute mile and the 10 second 100 yard sprint were unconquerable feats, great athletes simply couldn’t break through those standards.  It wasn’t possible and many world-class runners tried and failed.  The certainty that it couldn’t be done, that it was beyond human capacity, defined  reality…until someone believed differently, someone ran faster and then it was done.  Once the records were broken, the “impossible” barriers were conquered over and over again. Now there are high school runners achieving those standards.

If a physicist from a millennium ago were asked about the possibility of traveling to the moon, the answer would have been that it couldn’t be done, never would be and such foolishness shouldn’t be spoken of again.  That was absolute, based on all the available science.  Eventually, new curiosities led to new theories that infiltrated old certainties and different realities began to emerge, born of a wonderful combination of curiosity and perseverance.

How does any of this resonate in our educational galaxy? How many “old knowns” continue to rattle around our corridors and how many have we finally stopped believing and relegated to the archives, just like a flat earth and the unbreakable 4 minute mile?

Here are a few to check on for starters:

–     there are smart kids and not so smart kids and “levels” of intelligence are pretty much set before we ever see kids at the schoolhouse door;

–     gender and ethnicity influence areas of strength: eg. boys are better at Math and Science than girls…;

–     the Arts are a nice frill if we can afford them but important learning happens in the core academic areas;

–     a school’s role is primarily to impart knowledge and content and to make judgments based on the ability to recall facts;

–     the 8 X 5 timetable rules supreme and learning has to be organized within that framework;

–     the bus schedule trumps any educational rationale for change;

–     the kid needs to fit the system rather than the system fitting the kid;

–     the reward and punishment dyad is central to motivation and the infallibility of school house rules;

–     discipline motivates.  Misbehaving kids are just being willful, not dysregulated;

–     if it can’t be measured by a standard test, it can’t be very important;…

…and so it goes. Your list may be different, longer or shorter. But there is a list and we work through it to create environments where new curiosities challenge old/stale certainties.  Here are two thought leaders who cultivate some rich conversation as we hold current practice up to the light of what human potential can achieve:

  •  John Abbott’s Battling for the Soul of Education is a clarion call, worthy of study with a pencil and highlighter (real or digital) for margin notes and professional dialogue.  His perspective challenges us, and we have miles to go, even in places where we hold forward-thinking beliefs about every child’s capacity to thrive.  Abbott’s piece is both an affirmation and a reminder of the hard work ahead.  He takes us back in time to revisit some of the fundamentals of universal education and then forward to new times full of the authentic power of rich and meaningful learning environments;
  • Another discussion piece presenting a very different look at system norms is Andreas Schleicher’s Five Things I’ve Learned  It honours the spirit of curiosity and the potential of new understandings to shift old myths to the past tense.  Schleicher challenges assumptions that remain as building blocks of our education system even when flaws in their structural integrity have been exposed.

In educational renewal work, we are finding ways to nurture new curiosities and bid adieu to those old certainties beyond their expiry date.  Let’s continue to apply that when we engage in curriculum and overall system redesign; learner-focused assessment processes; multiple ways to engage kids’ interests and talents; relentless efforts to support our most vulnerable students; and, activating & applying emerging knowledge about neuroscience.  It’s a long journey, but we won’t fall over the edge.


“No Child Left Behind”: Great slogan for school buses…



…but it never did make the grade as a call to action for an education system needing something more authentic, substantial and current.  It contaminated a progressive concept of accountability, one that we are still refining to support real progress.

First, let’s acknowledge that no caring/compassionate society would tolerate the notion of throw away kids or abandoned cohort groups. Communities of integrity don’t ignore, punish or marginalize struggling populations under the flawed assumption that “motivators” like sanctions and scarcity will promote redoubled effort and a greater likelihood of success. It just doesn’t work. Never did.

We should also recognize that educators today more fully understand, value and nurture human potential in all its forms as we hold ourselves to the highest standard: every child, every chance, every day. It is tremendously challenging work, but that is the professional commitment educators make. Not for the faint of heart; absolutely for the big of heart.  Never simple to measure; always important to track.

Moving from the individual educator’s beliefs and passions to the systems level, it’s fair to say that 21st century learning organizations are becoming more nimble and flexible in designing, monitoring and adjusting the multiple pathways needed to activate, engage and extend kids’ unique intelligences and gifts. It’s a big task. It’s what we do. The discard pile is out of bounds.

While we are at it, operating as we do in a results-driven world, let’s finally get to a place where accountability isn’t a bad word, in spite of the angry reaction it still attracts from some people.  Yes, there’s more work to be done in moving beyond some stale understandings around it. But we are making progress: taking it far from the blame and shame, high praise/high punishment regime that was born in less enlightened times.  Accountability today  adds value as it has us declare our most important/highest priorities, share how we develop and activate plans to address those highest priority needs, and ensure that we monitor, adjust and inform about our progress. Those three simple declarations are at the foundation of accountability going forward:

  • What’s most important?
  • What are we doing about it?
  • How do we know how well we are doing?

We use those questions to focus individual and system accountability on identifying the ends we commit to and the means we use to get there.  Further, declaring priorities and developing a game plan to achieve them invites more openness, transparency and accessibility.  It isn’t so lonely when people in our communities – education professionals, parents and our public – understand and have confidence in what we are all about and how we are progressing. Such understanding builds support and momentum.  21st century schools need both.

In refreshing our approach to accountability, let’s make the first port of call our most vulnerable learners, those kids who are the outliers in a system that delivers many overall successes and positive trends.  In the “old” accountability process, we aggregated individual and cohort group stories into larger data fields, obscuring lack of success with the kids who need us most.  Accountability for progress with at risk learners eliminates any ambiguity about our priority commitment to their life chances. Attention to those youngsters’ learning leads to us to activate research-based practices that are successful in changing learning trajectories. Monitoring and adjusting at the classroom, school and system levels helps us to refine our approaches so the environment fits the kid rather than the other way around.  It’s a pretty clear three-step approach, far more progressive and less convoluted than the myriad compliance-type accountability processes that have tied schools and districts in knots for too many years.

To those who are inclined to rally in support of making a first priority of “all the other kids” who aren’t in the at risk cohort, we have some good news. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, it is equally true that application of quality practice, addressing individual needs and attention to learning science benefits all kids. Good learning design works across subjects, learning styles and abilities/challenges. No one suffers. Everyone thrives.

Focus…clear priorities…alignment of resources and efforts… adjusting practice in response to evidence: that’s how we activate human potential, one child at a time. It’s where we need to be and it’s happening.



More from “When Will What We Know Change What We Do?”

What do Screen TimeSitting Time and Adolescent Marijuana Use have in common?  And how does it all connect with self-regulation and youth mental health?
I often bump into my When will what we know change what we do query. It has had a fair bit of play over time and yes, it’s easier to say than to activate. Sometimes it’s not that important when we know something and choose not to act on that knowledge (this cookie is too tempting to resist even though I know it isn’t good for the body’s chemistry…) But there are other times when it’s far more important to act on knowledge, even when it means challenging routines, beliefs and comfortable norms.
Here are three areas to explore because action on them can and should make a difference.  Stuart Shanker says “There is not a single kid whose trajectory we cannot change,” but that change can’t just be founded on hope and optimism. It has to involve us individually and as a society making different decisions, establishing new norms and acting on current science and research. Then, it really does become possible to increase healthy brain function, good mental health and a capacity to self-regulate for that kid and that kid and that kid…
1) The Screen: In a world where TVs, tablets and laptop computers have become part of the standard furnishing in bedrooms, helping us to “relax and unwind,” we now know more about their impact on our brain function than we did when they first moved beyond the living room. Screen time and the absorbed light rays – more intense in a darkened room – play havoc with our brain patterns and our ability to go into a deep and healthy sleep. Experts suggest that it takes up to 90 minutes after the screen is shut off and your head hits the pillow for the brain to “quiet down.” That’s 90 minutes subtracted from an already too brief sleep time. It’s 90 minutes when the brain doesn’t get into its repair and growth cycle that happens during restorative sleep. What is that doing to the developing brain of a young child? Is the iPad as a toddler’s bedtime companion a good idea? For older brother or sister, the impact is equally significant. Think about an already late, frequently re-negotiated bedtime. Add in screen time resulting in shallow sleep, interrupted by an alarm clock that jolts the adolescent up for a too early school day. For good measure, throw in a “no breakfast scramble” to get out the door. Think about the cumulative impact on a kid’s brain health and growth. And then the school day begins.
We know that healthy brain development is the most precious down payment we can make in a youngster’s trajectory. We now know more about what screen time – its amount and timing – does to brain development. I wonder how many screens will come out of bedrooms and how many bedtime routines will be adjusted when what we know collides with what we do.   Need more evidence?  Read this:
2) The Seat: You have seen the brain scans of kids who are active versus those who are sedentary. It’s a pretty remarkable contrast and the areas of the brain that are firing during physical activity include those that light up during learning. Knowing that, let’s think about what the school day typically looks like. We take the most energetic and kinesthetic segment of our human population (our kids) and put them in seats for 5+ hours/day, with occasional, standardized breaks. We sustain a social reward system, represented in report card comments that laud kids for sitting still and paying attention and call out those kids who are otherwise disposed. If children “misbehave” (perhaps acting out because of the prolonged lack of physical action??), a traditional penalty has been to keep them inside and sedentary during recess or lunch time when energy expended and restored could help bring a more balanced state of self-regulation and calm.
Eric Jensen’s Teaching With the Brain in Mind (yes please), does a wonderful job of making the case for physical activity and sounding a call to action:
We are now also seeing research that gives adults some bad news about our own sedentary habits. If you spend an hour in the gym or on the track every morning, the good outcomes of that commitment are more than undone by hours of sitting – as many of us do for much of our day. Take a look:
With that new knowledge, are we making serious attempts to restructure our learning day, our work day and the routines and furnishings that enable healthier environments? Have purchase standards changed for schools and for office spaces to allow for standing desks and more mobile work stations and classroom layouts? Is the stand up or walking meeting just a fad in a few “out of the box” organizations? Such options aren’t neat and tidy, but if health trumps uniformity, it seems like a pretty good investment.
3) Adolescent Marijuana Use: Another in the Knowing/Doing connection. No comment here.  Just an opportunity to think about this current science, laid out in a series of Globe and Mail articles with the attention-grabbing headline Your Kid’s Brain on Pot. It’s an interesting read and a good survey of the issues related with the intersection of drug use and brain development.
Knowing…Doing. It’s hard work to stay current and to implement change, but surely we owe it to our kids at home, at school, and on the playing field. They are our future.



Diagnosis: ADHD; Prescription: Nature

For an interesting read, try these two Angela Hanscom Washington Post blog articles linked below.  They do a thought-provoking job of highlighting one of the key issues in our self-regulation learning journey.  Too often, the adult world, including its schools, expects kids to exhibit what is often referred to as “self-control” – a label that puts too many eggs in one basket, believing that willpower and effort can and should trump neurophysiology and evolution.  For youngsters,  sitting still, compliant and attentive in school for 5+ hours/day isn’t anywhere close to being connected to human development and how we are hard-wired.  We are all built to move, especially children whose overall development depends on the constant feedback that comes from physical action.  Juxtapose that reality with the shape of the school day and then add to that our increasing willingness to allow those same kids to lock into “screen time” once they get home.  For many children, the dominant state during their waking hours is one of physical inactivity.  Many parks are empty but the household bandwidth is crowded.  It is no wonder that in an increasingly sedentary population, “Diagnosis ADHD” gallops on.


The Washington Post blogs present another of those “when will what we know change what we do?” moments.  Thankfully, more and more people are asking that question, becoming engaged at the awareness level, then building (through curiosity and reflection) into understanding, eventually getting to a place where we are able to take on responsibility for change.  It is a long and non-linear path, one step at a time and it requires us to discard some old certainties and embrace curiosity combined with a good dose of non-conformity to system norms and expectations.
While you’re in curiosity mode, here’s a video clip featuring a school in Australia that has begun to address the sedentary/sitting challenge by introducing a stand up classroom.
It’s a good reminder for all of us as we fold ourselves into cars, desks/workstations and then back home to recline on the living room couch.  Just like the kids, we’re wired to move.

Youth Mental Health – Today’s Challenge

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working with a group of parents of young people with mental health issues.  They are part of an organization called F.O.R.C.E. and  I was honoured to speak at their spring conference and share the self-regulation framework and its potential application to their children and the challenges they face.  The session went well; people were engaged with the self-reg story, saw the links to their lived experiences, appreciated the neuroscience research behind self-regulation and its application at the individual, family, classroom, and community levels.  It was clear that the conditions that promote or inhibit good mental health are equally evident at home, school and in the community and that a tie-in to the self-regulation framework is helpful.

Since that event, I have thought a great deal about what I learned from those parents and the stories they shared: the challenges, the necessary courage and the unwavering love and commitment they have for their children. Subsequent discussions with resource people from F.O.R.C.E. have deepened my awareness of the journey these kids and their parents are engaged in,  sometimes with and sometimes without the system alignment, support and understanding they need.  Think about a highly anxious and “dysregulated” child whose parents have worked hard to establish the best possible conditions at home.  They have been tireless in their efforts to create a place where the child feels safe and nurtured, where she feels confident and competent to take risks, move out of a comfort zone and then activate strategies to return* to a “set point” of calmness and focus.  *Remember that self-regulation is the capacity to expend energy in dealing with stressors and then replenish/restore energy to be ready for the next of life’s daily challenges.  For that child, think about what happens when that she ventures out to the neighbourhood school and its community.  When things go well, it is often because of the school staff’s professional capacity, founded in a culture of kindness and understanding, and a non-judgmental commitment that supports the young person’s journey.  We don’t blame the dysregulated and overstressed/overwhelmed child; we get curious as to the conditions that led to such a state and we work with the child and family to alter some of the variables.  Together, we are learning detectives.  Thanks to teamwork and a positive home-school connection, we develop strategies to support self-regulation and, as necessary particularly for younger and more dependent children, to encourage co-regulation.  That’s a good news story about highly committed supportive systems.

On the other hand, there can be a troubling version of the same story,  one where the system rolls on, overwhelming the child with inflexible approaches, using louder and harder exhortations and increasingly anxiety-inducing reward and punishment. That approach is from a different era and we now know that overwhelming a child who is already anxious and off-balance doesn’t make things better.  Which approach works?  Ask the parent, the child and the teacher – there’s no doubt that building understanding, compassion and greater sophistication in strategies (in a post-behaviourist world), changes that youngster’s life chances dramatically.

The query “When will what we know change what we do?” is not the same as “When will what is known change what is done.”  The former exhorts us to engage, to learn and to apply that learning.  It requires new curiosity over old certainty.  The latter gives us a free pass; we can wait for someone else to take charge and create an answer.

There are no free passes and there is no time to wait for someone else to solve this issue. Every day, we see and hear about examples of youth mental health crises and we know the range of stressors visiting themselves upon kids is exponentially greater than what was experienced in past generations.  Kids with extreme anxiety, depression, social disconnection and other vulnerabilities are here now, in numbers greater than ever before.  As our systems are asked to adapt to the emerging realities of the people they serve – especially the most vulnerable – the voices I heard at the F.O.R.C.E. session said “Thank you” to those who are on this journey with them, and “Please Hurry” to all of us as we turn our attention to their children’s needs.  There is great work being done by experts in this field, and their discoveries have to become our promising practices.  It is a powerful calling, with no time like the present.


The Capacity-Building Agenda, North and South


It is fascinating to be immersed in another culture and to have begun to understand its education and human services systems.  We see our own realities with fresh eyes and learn from colleagues on the same journey as they seek out promising practices to build capacity…one child at a time.

Stuart Shanker and I were in Perth, Western Australia for two weeks engaging with school and early childhood educators, social service agencies, Aboriginal and other community leaders.  We were there at the invitation of a remarkable organization, Western Australia Council of Social Service (WACOSS).  Their work is to develop an aligned, sustainable and coherent voice and action plan for the many agencies whose mission is to support those who have the greatest needs and whose voices are often most distant from places of influence. WACOSS is in the early stages of activating self-regulation theory (see as a common framework for their programs and initiatives.  Our visit involved teaching, learning and hearing others’ stories, many of which are remarkably similar to our own in BC and across Canada.  Here are three compass points in our common ground:

1) The better the start, the better the trajectory…Western Australia is increasingly paying attention to how they construct their early childhood initiatives, parent support programs and effective transition from home to school.  In some of the places we visited, accessibility and flow of programs and services was beautifully clear to the clients.  That’s the key and we can learn from the best of what our Australian friends are doing.  They have gone beyond the fairly typical program design, one that makes most sense to those who built it.  In WA, it was encouraging to see the goodness of fit for the parent and the child, especially those who already deal with multiple barriers as they navigate systems.  In BC, our StrongStart Centres are a big step in the right direction, but there is more to achieve.  Every step we take to be warm and welcoming, caring and compassionate is another support for the anxious family toward feeling safe and secure and beginning to see hope;

2) Smarter together rather than harder alone…In the human services sector in Western Australia, various agencies are aligning efforts to maximize the cumulative impact of their resources, ensuring a positive difference for their most vulnerable populations. That was apparent in many meetings and presentations where was excitement about activating self-regulation theory as a common touchstone for their programs. It was clear  that this wasn’t the first time these people had played well together in the same sandbox.  They are embracing emerging science around the human condition as they strive to make the biggest possible difference to the people and communities they serve.  An essential element of their commitment is the voice of the Aboriginal community in the collaborative planning.  There is a clear understanding that reconciliation includes acknowledging the past and building a shared future; and,

3) Evidence over ideology…In difficult times for social agency resourcing (both government and non-government), staff are engaged in reviews around the currency and research-based validity of their programs.  They are taking another look at  “old school” reward and punishment norms that used to be part of institutional culture. Caring, quality programs don’t extinguish hope by excluding those who struggle.   There are better ways to support individual growth, hence the WA interest in self-regulation.

Our experience in Western Australia was tremendously engaging, every day filled with exciting learning and great promise.  There are so many people doing fine work there, as is true of their contemporaries at home.  North and south, these professionals are more curious than certain.  They work scientifically, artfully and always with good heart to understand the human condition and to reframe individual and system responses to dysregulated kids and families.  Shame and blame don’t build capacity.  There is a better way.   



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