October 13, 2015

Schools Should Have Open Policy With Technology

The Egypt revolution in 2010 has brought about a revolution in youth and educators in their own way. Atif Hussain, an ICT specialist who teaches grades 6 to 12 at Hayah International Academy in Cairo, details his school’s transformation in the new Egypt in his column, the Cairo Diaries.

students on the web

King's-Edgehill School – Photograph by Scott Munn

Challenge 20/20 Project

This is the second year that our school Hayah International Academy in Cairo is participating in the challenge 20/20 collaborative project, which is organized by the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) in the U.S.

As stated on their website, “Challenge 20/20 is an Internet-based program that pairs class at any grade level (K-12) from schools in the U.S with their counterpart classes in schools in other countries; together the teams (of two or three schools) tackle real global problems to find solutions that can be implemented at the local level and their own communities.”

It’s a program that is, “Recognized by the U.S Summit and initiative for Global Citizen Diplomacy as one of its 10 best programs for K-12 education.”

The program has such potential, especially when it encourages young minds from around the world to study, research, evaluate and find solutions for real-life problems. It’s a concept taken from High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them by Jean Francois Rischard.

A Limited Experience

However, our experiences with the projects have been a little less exciting. Many schools that we have collaborated with have restricted so much of the Web 2.0 technologies to the extent that it actually limits and hinders creativity and 21st-century skills. The problems are mostly with the school districts that control the policies of schools in their respective areas. I am sure the intentions of such districts are good, just as is the case in the UK, where local councils have greater role in policies of the schools than the school management.

As an example, some schools have limited their students with no access to school email, Web 2.0 collaborative tools such as Twitter, and Google Apps for Education are blocked from the school/district firewalls. Each school or district has decided how and what online apps or skills their students will be allowed to develop.

Positive Views On Student Technologies

Such policies not only restrict the development of the 21st-century skills but also fail to address and educate young minds on how to utilize such technologies in a positive manner. Restricting access to such technologies not only alienates students from technologies, which they are most probably using already or thinking about using, but also makes learning outdated, especially the technology classes.

Rather than shy away from such technologies, I believe schools and districts need to have a positive view to adopting such technologies. Surely monitoring is better than restriction and educating is better than restriction.

Open Collaborations For Unique Circumstances

During our challenge 20/20 projects, the students from the U.S and Egypt working together in teams not only live in different countries but also have over seven hours of time difference. Surely in such situations the best tools for such circumstances should be used, rather than having to make do with restrictive polices set by districts, which will only restrict the collaboration and learning of the students.

Applications such Google Apps for Education are a fantastic set of tools that in many schools are restricted for access. Google Apps for Education allow the teacher to assign emails, documents, and websites to students, as well as assign classes to work collaboratively on the same document or site. It allows the teacher the full control to see what each student is doing and review the full history of each work from start to finish. To top it all off, all this is within a secure school domain, which the teacher can have full control over.

The end result is that students will be engaged, learning and solving real-life problems while connecting with their global community at the same time.

Opening Communication in Schools

At district level, schools should be allowed to decide on which 21st-century skills that they would like their students to obtain by the time they leave school. Surely schools are better placed at a local level to decide their individual needs for their own students. The one-policy-fits-all is an outdated view regarding the use of technologies in education.

At the school level, the teachers should have greater say in what happens in their classrooms. Just as other teachers are allowed greater control in their classrooms, ICT/Computer teachers should have greater say. The IT departments either at school or district level should be there to ensure that ICT in education facilities are there to facilitate the teaching and learning of students rather than play a role of police officer.

At Hayah International Academy, our relationship between the ICT/Computer department and the IT support department is beginning to be one of a team, rather than one of opposite sides of a legal battle where each side has to try and convince each other who should have rights where. Although it was not smooth sailing at the beginning, we as a department have a say in what applications are installed on the machines and which websites we need access to. The choice of installing Open Source Software was a tricky compromise. All ICT/Computer teachers are made admins to the local machines to allow further freedom in our classrooms. This is a relationship that is still a work in progress and we are working for greater rights for ICT/Computer/Technology teachers within their classrooms.

Open Policy in Technology

In conclusion, schools need to have a more open policy when it comes to technologies in education. A simple black-and-white approach does not work in a time where Web 2.0 technologies allow the teachers to have a more individual approach to teaching and learning. Schools should adopt a more open and flexible policy. Schools should be open and should go open.

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Do you think your school or schools in general should adopt an open policy when it comes to technology? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Cairo Diaries: Atif Hussain


Open Education: 8 Free Open Source Tools for Every Classroom

Dialogue Magazine: New Literacies

Building 21st Century Skills: Collaboration in the Digital Classroom

What’s Thwarting Online Learning in Schools?

More articles by Atif Hussain

IT for Every Classroom (A column by Paul Keery on technology news, trends and best practices)

How Black History Month Can Be a Powerful Teaching Opportunity

To have students honestly ask the question: “Why do we celebrate Black History Month?” is in and of itself a great exercise in historical thinking. If planned effectively, Black History Month and all of the incredible resources, exhibitions, art shows and the like, can be a powerful way to focus on the History and Geography curriculum, develop school and community values, and get students connected with their own history.

How Black History Month Can Be a Powerful Teaching Opportunity

Black History Month can be a powerful way to focus on the History and Geography curriculum, develop school and community values, and get students connected with their own history. JEFF VINNICK/OUR KIDS MEDIA

Black History Month originally began as a weeklong celebration in the United States in 1926. It was moved to span the month of February, and February was chosen to honour the month that both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were born. Now, however, Black History Month is a North American tradition celebrating, as Rob Ford proclaimed in Toronto recently, “the achievements of Canadians of African descent and their contributions to the social, economic, cultural and political life. . . . It provides an opportunity to learn about and be inspired by the history, pride and strength of African Canadians.” Indeed, cities across Canada have a rich history of African-Canadian pride and innovation.

Like Rob Ford has done in Toronto, it is important for educators to make their own proclamation on what Black History Month means to them, their curriculum, and school culture. At Greenwood College School, students of the diversity committee have been highlighting art exhibits, lectures, film festivals and other cultural events throughout the city. Their stance has been to use Black History Month as a way of “reconnecting and getting out there, into your own city.” How can you understand multiculturalism if you don’t experience it?

Reflection Highlights History’s Importance

In History classes, the Ontario curriculum requires students to understand historical continuity and change. Using WWI and WWII experiences of African-Canadians, teachers can set a backdrop upon which to compare treatment and inclusion in the armed forces of cultural minorities in today’s armed forces. Also, using Canada’s Immigration and Citizenship website students can explore the war of 1812. Minister of Citizenship Jason Kenney stated: “This year, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 affords a chance to reflect on the key role that black soldiers played in the fight for Canada.” It is this act of reflection that makes the study of history so important and current. Understanding the ethical dimension of history is a key 21st-century skill for historians, and by investigating the history of African-Canadians we can ask ourselves and our country: “What actions of the past impose a responsibility on us today?” This type of inquiry better prepares our students to tackle the ethical questions that they will face both today, and in the future.

In Geography classes, students can combine their work with Parks Canada to understand better the role that the commemorating space as culturally significant plays in reflecting the values of Canada. The Parks Canada website has much to offer in studying the geography of the Underground Railroad. Students can explore the significant sites, as well as better understand the role that Parks Canada plays in commemorating this “particular chapter in the history of Canada’s many ethnocultural communities, an area of interest that is currently regarded as under-represented within the system.”

As teachers, we must put our students in the position to question, explore and synthesize concepts as complex as change and continuity over time. This type of critical thinking and synthesis of concepts allows them to better understand our world today and sets them up well to handle the future. So “Why do we have Black History Month?” is one of the most important questions our students can ask of their teachers, their country and themselves.


Black History Month: Kids on Freedom and Secretly Saving Slaves

Read more columns by Garth Nichols on Dialogue Online

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How did your school mark Black History Month? How can students better understand the contributions of cultural minorities on this month and throughout the year? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below. 

Watch for Garth Nichols’ article on the Gay-Straight Alliance at Greenwood College School in the upcoming Dialogue magazine issue about diversity.

What’s Thwarting Online Learning in Schools?

Ontario’s flagship program, e-Learning Ontario, proclaims that “The sky is the limit!” in its marketing message, but the reality is markedly different.

Online learning is very much in vogue, as are futuristic calls for public schools everywhere to embrace “21st Century Learning Skills.”  A small band of Information  Communication Technologies (ICT) innovators, inspired by futurists like Toronto author Don Tapscott, New Brunswick IT guru William Keirstead and Vancouver teacher David Wees, are certainly out there championing the cause.

Online Learning in Canada: The Sky Has Limits ReportA brand new Canadian study covering all provinces and territories, commissioned by the Toronto-based Society for Quality Education,  demonstrates that, with the exception of British Columbia, the spread of online learning and virtual schools has stalled and, for the vast majority of Canada’s five million K to 12 public school students, “the sky has limits.”

Whether it’s Ontario or anywhere except for B.C., ministry of education authorities still remain wedded to modes of teaching and learning circumscribed by the “brick and mortar” model of public schooling.  New online learning initiatives are viewed as potential threats to the prevailing status quo, buttressed by a resistant organizational culture, public sector contract entitlements, and regulations designed to contain the spread of e-learning.

After enjoying an initial advantage, Canada has been overtaken by the United States in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years.  In 2010-11, Canadian distance education plateaued at 207,096 students or 4.2 per cent of all students. While online learning continues to grow in British Columbia, the provincial leader with 88,000 enrolled students, those gains are offset by static numbers and losses in other provinces such as New Brunswick and Quebec.

America’s leading private enterprise promoting online public schools, K12 Inc., founded in 2000, has expanded into 28 different states, boasts of having delivered over one million online courses to students, and foresees skyrocketing  growth. A newly acquired Division of Pearson Education, Connections Education, now operates in 21 states and forecasts unlimited growth potential. In late 2011, The New York Times also flagged the tremendous proliferation of full-day virtual charter schools.

Online learning is now accepted in Canada as a critical component of the future in K-12 education. So why the hesitancy to move forward?

The first instinct of educational policy-makers, senior administrators, and teacher unionists is to monitor, regulate and control the educational domain.  While other factors come into play, that reflex reaction is particularly pronounced when it comes to the dynamically changing field of e-learning and the frontier of mobile social media.

Educational officialdom is inclined to speak glowingly about the potential of unlocking “21st Century Skills” in our classrooms.  Yet the same key system stakeholders are consumed with promoting educational equity and few recognize the fact that federal infrastructure investments have already ensured that Canada’s poorest communities, such as Labrador, actually enjoy the best access to ICT.

Whether it is Ontario, Nova Scotia or even Nunavut, educational researchers tend to focus on the so-called “digital divide,” promoting quality of access to ITC and seeking to close the “competency gap” faced by students in lower socio-economic or remote communities. Research ventures such as that of Dianne Looker at Mount Saint Vincent University tend to support policy initiatives directed more at bridging the divide  than on generating prosperity and unleashing the creative potential of learning technologies.


Most provincial teacher unions show tepid support for online learning, holding fast to labour contract agreements which effectively limit online learning to a supplemental role in the K-12 public system. Even in B.C., where “distributed learning” is well-advanced, the provincial teachers’ federation remains torn on the question.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union collective agreement, running to 191-pages, limits innovation with its 11 different clauses specifying the number of days of instruction, program hours, group sizes, and working conditions. Union activists, such as those in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF),  pass resolutions to block virtual school initiatives and to hold the line until “equality of service “ can be guaranteed  for all students.

Free from public sector constraints, private educational ventures like Virtual High School (Ontario) and Christian Heritage Online School (B.C.) have jumped-in to fill the need for innovative, online learning school options and are growing by leaps and bounds.

The recent successes of VHS (O) and more than 14 such schools in B.C. directly challenge the “one-size-fits-all” public system in districts where school options were once strictly limited for students and parents.  Such “lighthouse school” ventures  offer a glimmer of hope that school choice, innovation, and quality, first seeded in Alberta, may yet spread to other Canadian provinces.


Tips and Tools for Managing the E-Learning Classroom

Collaboration in the Digital Classroom

Are Computers in the Classroom Doing Kids a Disservice?

More articles by Paul W. Bennett

Paul W. Bennett, Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, NS., is the author of “The Sky Has Limits”: Online Learning in Canadian K-12 Public Education (Society for Quality Education, January 2012).


Backward Design: An Education for Understanding

William Butler Yeats so aptly once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This prominent 20th-century poet and playwright was wise to the vast difference between knowing and understanding. To simply know facts is not to understand what makes those facts knowledge.

“To understand is to be able to wisely and effectively use– transfer– what we know, in context; to apply knowledge and skills effectively, in realistic tasks and settings.”  (From the book Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins)

Photograph by Yvonne Berg

So how can today’s education system help students achieve this type of “education for understanding?” Teachers– as collaborators and guides– must find creative ways to stimulate their students’ natural curiosities and allow them to make connections between theories, while building the skills and attitudes they will need for life-long learning. Child-centered and retrospective curricula design, combined with inquiry-based learning, will allow schools to foster authentic student learning experiences, by providing students with opportunities to engage in meaningful learning experiences; to explore, investigate, discover, collaborate and communicate with others in an experiential and ‘minds-on’ learning environment.

Backward Design Methodology

In order to lead students to a deeper understanding of the content, teachers must highlight the “Big Ideas” that uncover the value of learning opportunities. “Backward Design” involves looking at the end results in order to coherently design curricula and assessment. In doing so, teachers “identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence, and plan learning experiences and instruction” (Wiggins). Enduring Understanding– the “Big Ideas” that propel the planning and assessment process– and Essential Questions are a part of the curriculum development that assists teachers in planning pertinent and authentic learning units, and are clearly established before the learning unfolds. ‘‘So what?” teachers often ‘ask’ in order to determine what they would like students to be able to explain, interpret, apply, have perspective on, empathize, and have self-knowledge about a given topic.

“Backward Design” involves looking at the end results in order to coherently design curricula and assessment.

New Curriculum: Teachers as Designers

To help each student achieve a successful and relevant education, schools must begin with what matters most, keeping the authentic learning experience in mind. For instance, when designing an advertisement, we first think about our desired result: How do we want the finished product to look? What message do we want our target audience to walk away with? Then we begin to plan and organize the images, the fonts, the colours, and the placement of details, such as our logo and contact information. Like so, when teachers plan their curricula, it also makes sense for them to start with the end result in mind: What do we want the children to know and understand, including attitudes and transferable skills? Why and how is this relevant to their learning experiences? The students themselves must also understand the purpose of specific experiences and to what they relate, as well as how these experiences will enable them to achieve their goals as active and responsible learners.

As a method of understanding, the ‘Backward Design’ model is largely compatible with the Core Knowledge curriculum and Reggio Approach to inquiry learning richly embraced by Richland Academy. By combining these viewpoints, and regarding children as creative and capable protagonists, teachers are able to take on the role of researchers for the learning that cultivates real-life application beyond the classroom. Richland’s ‘Big Ideas’ include Community and Structure & Function, to which many of the curriculum concepts are filtered. As a Reggio-inspired, 21st-century learning community, our child-centered, experiential and intellectually-stimulating environment fosters life-long learning skills and attitudes, where our students are challenged to extract multi- faceted ideas from their learning interests. This deeper understanding allows our students to experience meaningful and relevant learning opportunities; thus, truly achieving an “education for understanding.”



The Reggio Philosophy

Conceptual Learning at Richland Academy

Transforming Schools Through Action – Poke the Box Book Review

Curriculum and Teaching Methodologies

Maria Montessori: A Hero for Educators and the Most Important Woman in History

My first encounter with the iconic Maria Montessori was as a young writer/researcher for TV station CHCH in Hamilton, Ont. I was in my twenties. I was fascinated by her humane approach to education and, apparently, the influence was profound.

Maria Montessori: A Hero for Educators

I was working on an interview series with Donna Soble Kaufman and, as the researcher-writer on the program, I had to familiarize myself with the work of the great Italian educator. I was mesmerized by what I read. What Dr. Montessori had to say about the enormous capacities of the child stayed with me over the years.

Eventually my career path led me to formal academic study. Peculiarly, in my research at Ryerson, McMaster and the University of Toronto, I never heard Maria Montessori mentioned in any of my lectures. In my years at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (where I completed a doctorate in curriculum), the great Italian educator was completely ignored. I’ve wondered many times about that particular void and I’ve come to the conclusion that what Montessori demands is too difficult. It is far easier, for administrators as well as teachers, to simply create a set of lectures and to endlessly talk to a captive audience. We are paying a terrible price for taking that “easy road.”

It was during my teaching career at Ryerson that I had the chance to test Montessori’s concept of experiential learning. I was dissatisfied with the standard lecture format. It occurred to me that we extended adolescence far too long in a type of unforgiveable intellectual dependency. I sensed that students actually wanted to engage in activities that would test their ideas and skills in a real setting. They were tired of platitudes and untested theories. They wanted to work with colleagues in a collective act of creation.

At that time I revisited books about Montessori and I began to change the standard curriculum in all of the classes I taught. In a sense, I did not know—with any assurance—what I was doing. But the results were breathtaking and even inspiring.

In the television production classes, I gave the students a degree of autonomy they had never before experienced, and they thrived. Instead of arid exercises I allowed them to select from original scripts. I further encouraged them to choose roles in the television production for which they had aptitudes. Access was provided to necessarily limited production resources and stringent deadlines were set. Absenteeism dropped, skill levels rose, and students happily worked around the clock on projects that were completely of their design.

In my coordination of the internship program, I created a “self-management” model that treated the students as capable adults who could deal with accountability. Students actually found their own internships, negotiated with the host company, and set up a contract outlining expectations on the part of the student and the sponsor. The students had maximum autonomy with a minimum of supervision. However, expectations were high and the final report from the sponsor and the student disciplined the entire experience.

How Montessori’s Concepts Made the Greatest Difference in Class

It was in my media-writing classes, however, where Dr. Montessori’s concepts made the greatest difference. Students studied existing dramatic models and then were brought in touch with front-line writers from Los Angeles to actually have their work adjudicated by “readers” who were, themselves, accomplished writers. The results were explosive and profoundly encouraging. Suddenly we found that students in the classes were being hired on front-line shows as junior writers. They had absorbed the theory and the craft from masters in a type of aesthetic apprenticeship. They were stunned to find that their work was being looked at by people of the calibre of Peter Mehlman (Seinfeld), Michael Schwartz and Al Joiner (The Simpsons), and prominent writers from Canadian dramatic series.

The CTV television network was so impressed with the progress of the students that they placed under my direction the expenditure of $200,000. The money was available as part of what is called a “public benefit” when CTV applied to the  Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) for an extension of their system. CTV felt that Canadian television needed more skilled dramatic writers and they decided that our program of study could meet that objective. With the new financial resources I hired professional writers to guest lecture and to review scripts. Contact was established with major shows in Los Angeles, and I set up a process where students would deconstruct existing series and then have their research assessed by writers on the shows they had analyzed. The students had never worked harder in their lives. They also felt confident and assured in their newfound, and profoundly tested, skills.

Recently I’ve been working with Clanmore Montessori School as an educational consultant, and I have become reacquainted with Dr. Montessori in a deeper way. The results have been two seminal articles for Dialogue Online. (Read “The Maria Montessori No One Knows” series, the most popular posts of 2011.) The first deals with Dr. Montessori’s reaction to having a child out of wedlock, and how she turned tragedy into triumph. The second follows Mario and Maria Montessori’s challenges when they were declared enemy aliens in wartime India. As part of my research I had the opportunity to look closely at the Montessori classroom experience and I have emerged from my practical experiences and my theoretical research with a deep conviction. I believe, completely, that Maria Montessori is the most important woman in history. I challenge my colleagues to nominate another candidate for this place in the whole range of development.

The Dialogue articles have clearly touched a nerve. The reaction has been amazing. There’s so much that we do not know about Montessori. Even today no one really understands her. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with very senior academic leaders and not one of them had any significant knowledge of Dr. Montessori. Myths abound and her system has been distorted out of all recognition.

A Revolutionary, But Bizarre, Figure in Education

That distortion, however, is completely understandable. By any measure Montessori is a bizarre creature. She was born in a conservative Italy when Queen Victoria was in the very middle of her reign. She was a friend of Alexander Graham Bell, the first female medical doctor in Italy, and a woman who continued to write and study until the very end of her life in 1952. She had a child out of wedlock, was abandoned by her lover, and forced to deny the existence of her son. She was a superstar in America and then she was ignored. She was considered a revolutionary figure in education, and then she was lampooned as out of date. Through all of this she focused her whole being on addressing the educational needs of the child as it moved towards autonomy. In this she was unrelenting and she accumulated a range of knowledge (through study and observation) that is almost superhuman. Only now is modern science coming to terms with her findings. The tragedy is that so much of what she saw so clearly has been forgotten and, continually, has to be rediscovered. Over and over again I see her insights regurgitated as astounding new information. Occasionally this “new information” was completely understood by Montessori in the early years of the twentieth century.

Her critique of education at primary, secondary, and—perhaps particularly— university, deserves reconsideration. In the field of pedagogy, I would insist that we are “error prone.” One of the best ways to set our professional compass, as educators, is to read (and re-read) The Absorbent Mind. It is pure Montessori: pugnacious, trenchant, disturbing and compelling. You cannot read this book without feeling that, even today, we are all wandering in the wilderness.

Some misguided souls think that Maria Montessori was somehow complicit with Mussolini in the educational system in fascist Italy, not realizing that Dr. Montessori spent the entire duration of the war in India as a “enemy alien” who was loved and admired by the people who, ostensibly, were her captors.

Others think that The Absorbent Mind was written early in the 1900’s, not realizing that it was published in 1949 when she was 79.

Ultimately, what I find fascinating is that Montessori is a truly tragic figure who was buffeted by life and alternately wooed and abandoned by her sometimes admiring public. Nothing of this diminishes the fact that she is a towering figure in the field of education whom we ignore at our peril. I suspect, though, that we will continue to rely on the jaded lecture model not realizing the energy that can be released when young people work in a cooperative way in tasks that have a recognizable relationship to real life.


The Maria Montessori No One Knows: A Heartbreaking Betrayal (Part 1 of 2)

The Maria Montessori No One Knows: ‘Enemy Alien’ in India (Part 2 of 2)

The Montessori Method and Philosophy

Wikipedia: Montessori Education

The Freedom to Learn in the Conceptual Age of Schooling

From Camp to School And Back Again

Top Education Trends: Environment

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How were you influenced by Maria Montessori or other educational heroes? Post your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Toronto Camp Expo 2012

Summer and March Break Camp Expo – 2012
Canada’s largest camp fair and your opportunity to meet with and speak with 50+ of the best day and overnight programs.

February 26, 2012
Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Ontario.

2012 KMT Learning Child Development Conference

Why Attend

  • Find top March Break, Summer and Holiday Camps for kids and teens
  • Attend free information seminars to help you choose and prepare for camp
  • Learn about charities, discounts, bursaries and tax credits for camp
  • Enter for a chance to win $500 voucher to any participating camp (50+ to choose from)

For families looking to find summer activities for their children, this is an event not to be missed..

Camp Expo from Our Kids Net on Vimeo.

SEMINAR: How to choose a camp
Learn a step-by-step approach to choosing the right camp for your child. There are many factors to consider when choosing a camp, and what may be a great camp for your neighbour’s child may not be the best fit for yours. Gain insider information on how to assess your child’s style against your families ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, and get advice on where to start, research tips and must-ask questions.

SEMINAR: Safety at camp
Many families rule out camp because of the cost or outdated stereotypes. Today’s camps offer tremendous benefits and advantages that should not be overlooked. Don’t miss this session that takes a peak into life at camp and identifies some of the common myths and concerns that cause some parents to miss considering what might be the greatest gift they could ever offer their child.

Pre-Register for FREE Admission for your family
Register today to download free admission vouchers for your entire family at www.ourkids.net/campexpo