Category Archives: Education

A piece of my childhood returns

Since my Mom passed away earlier this year, my Dad has been going through boxes of stuff that he and my Mom have accumulated over the years. Bit by bit, pieces of my childhood have been slowly migrating out to the west coast with each family member who makes the trip from Saskatchewan to Victoria.

A few days ago my sister arrived at my door with the latest bounty – a box chock-a-block full of informal learning circa 1976.

Wikipedia for kids circa 1976

The complete Childcraft collection circa 1976. Published by World Book Encyclopedia (which we also had, and which I also cherished), I spent hours pouring over the books from the time I was 8 or 9 until I lost my way as a teenager to other vices. But for my formative learning years, this was how I got my info fix when I wasn’t in school.

Wikipedia for kids circa 1976

I loved these books, and going through them over the last few days made me realize just how much these books taught me. These were my gateway to the world. These were my Internet.

Wikipedia for kids circa 1976

A favorite of mine was the special section of the Human Body book which had a transparent overlay of a boys and a girls body. Flip the transparent from page to page and you could overlay it like an onion skin over top the various systems of the body. I thought it was the coolest thing ev-ah!

Wikipedia for kids circa 1976

Each year Childcraft would release a new volume. 1976 was a banner year. It was the year the dinosaur issue arrived.

Wikipedia for kids circa 1976

The only thing that would have been cooler is if they would have had a Star Wars yearbook.

As I pour over these, I am again struck at what an amazing time we live in, and how our kids won’t really know it as an amazing time because for them, it will just be a time. They will have no frame of reference for what life was truly like PI (pre-Internet), just like I have no frame of reference for what life was like pre-TV, pre-telephone or pre-power. And I wonder if someday my daughter or son might wander over to the Internet Archive and view the Martha Speaks or National Geographic Kids website from 2011 with the same kind of nostalgia for learning that I have experienced over the past couple of days flipping through these books.

Funny, though. Since these things have arrived, my daughter has kept this dog-eared yearbook close at hand.

Wikipedia for kids circa 1976

Which goes to show, no matter how much things may change, little girls will always want a puppy.


How digital technology is changing the rhythm of family life

Earlier this summer, the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre released a study called Families Matter which documents how families with young children are integrating digital media into the rhythm of daily life.

800 parents of children ages 3-10 were interviewed for the study which examines how parents feel about raising children in a digital age.

The study found that most families are in a period of transition when it comes to digital technologies in our homes as we try to adjust to these new technologies that are profoundly changing our world. I had originally written both ours and our kids world, but then realized that our kids world isn’t going to be “changed”. For them, it will just be the world they live in.

Not surprising, when it comes to the media we participate in with our children, we prefer the older stuff. 89% of us say we like watching TV with our kids, 79% of us read books with them, and 73% of us play board games (really?). But the one media our kids really love – video games – is the one that only half of us are doing with them, which is even more interesting to me when the research shows that the majority of us  believe that video games help children foster skills that are important to their academic achievement.

While parents believe that video games can be powerful educational tools, we are not quite so fond of the educational potential of mobile technologies with many of us viewing mobile phones as the least educational device our kids can use. Yet many educators, such as the New Media Consortium in their 2011 New Horizons report on educational technology, are predicting that mobile technologies s will be a major force in education in the very near future. Clearly there is a disconnect with how parents perceive mobile technologies and how educators perceive them when it comes to their role in education.

Other findings of the study include:

  • More than half of parents are concerned about the effect of media usage on their children’s health, but fewer than 1 in 5 of us think our kids spend too much time with digital media.
  • More than a third of us have learned something technical from our kids.
  • Lack of exercise and online privacy are our biggest concerns.


Schools – the heart of the community


There are some things that I don’t think you truly get until you become a parent. For me, one of those things is the role of schools in our society.

Before becoming a parent, I thought schools were simply a place where kids went to learn the curriculum, and, perhaps, participate in a few extra-curricular activities.  However, now that The Girl has almost completed her first full year at public school, I am beginning to realize that schools have a much bigger role to play in our society. Not only are they a place where kids go to learn, they are also places where communities form and develop.

Each morning I have the opportunity to drop my daughter off at school has become a community building opportunity. In the schoolyard waiting for the morning bell to ring, I connect with the people in my neighbourhood, some of whom I have known since their kids and The Girl began daycare together 6 years ago. This has become my social circle. The parents of my daughters friends have now become my friends, and the school and the activities that happen there have become spaces for us to connect and kindle our friendships. To develop our community.

This year, the primary school my daughter is attending turns 100 years old, and the celebrations have ramped up as the year comes to a close. In the past few weeks, my wife and I have attended a school musical celebrating the centenary performed by 150 students, a school sponsored community picnic attended by scores of families, and a special 100th anniversary Victorian tea party at which each class in the school dressed up in costumes representing each of the decades in the school’s 100 year history. Tomorrow, we are marching in a local parade with other families from the school, proudly wearing our red school colours. Each of these events have become shared events in which kids, parents and grandparents have gathered, mingled, talked, danced, laughed, shared food and stories, and played together.

These events have nothing at all to do with the curriculum, but have everything to do with learning. I see it in my daughter as she speaks about her school with pride, singing songs that were composed for the school musical, and feeling like she is at a special place. She is learning about citizenship, civic pride, and the importance of community. I can almost see the roots growing as she moves out of our house and begins connecting to a larger world.

I didn’t get it. But now that I am a parent, I do. I feel like this year I have had my eyes opened, and truly see just how important schools are to our communities – not just for teaching kids the basics of reading, math and science, but the role – the crucial role – that they have in  developing caring and compassionate human beings by nurturing in them a sense of belonging.

I think I get it now.

A safe and sterile playground for who?

When it comes to playgrounds, a 5 year research study from UBC recommends municipal park planners dump the pricey playground equipment in favour of designing more natural spaces for kids to play.

We found that outdoor play spaces that contain materials that children could manipulate — sand, water, mud, plants, pathways and other loose parts — offered more developmental and play opportunities than spaces without these elements.

The report seems to suggest that playground equipment is designed more for adult piece of mind rather than to challenge and aid kids in their development. Such an emphasis has been placed on safety that it has sucked all the challenge out of most contemporary play spaces.

The playground equipment industry has a very aggressive marketing campaign going on that is largely based on putting fear and guilt into the minds of parents. Landscape architects are under a lot of pressure to simply install equipment because its easier and more recognizably accepted by adults as a place to play compared to [a more natural environment].

My own experience has found this to be mostly true – that more often than not my kids will tend to favour natural play settings over playground equipment. At my daughter’s school, there is a playground which is surrounded by a thick cedar hedge along the fence line. Over the years, kids have worn trails through the hedge and have created caves and hiding spots in the hedge. On any given day there are just as many kids zooming in and out of those trails and trees as there are climbing on the playground equipment.

Our backyard is another example on the natural side. We have both a backyard climbing structure/fort thingy, and two apple trees and an empty garden plot full of dirt. Guess which get played with more? Yep, mud and tree climbing wins the day, with the playhouse structure taking more damage from the weather than from kid use.

However there are some exceptions. My daughter, for example, is a monkey bar freak. She regularly blisters her hands on the things, and can spend an hour just swinging. And give my son one of these things:

Playground Climbing Web

and he is good for a morning.

I think that some playgrounds are becoming sterile environments because playgrounds are often spaces for parents moreso than kids. Sure, we want our kids to be safe, no question. But sometimes I wonder if that emphasis we put on safety is really an excuse for us to not pay attention.

I am not talking about hovering and preventing our kids from exploring the boundaries of their physical bodies in a safe way, but rather how many times I have been at a playground and see parents chatting away to each other, completely oblivious as to what their kids are doing. The playground has become a social center for parents and a kind of babysitter.

Not that parents shouldn’t socialize and visit – playground conversations with other parents has often been some of the most productive parent networking I have done. But I have seen many an oblivious parent use the playground as a babysitter, completely abdicating the responsibility of making sure their kid is safe to the municipal park planners, who in turn take their marching orders from lawyers and risk assessment professionals who always err on the side of caution. Meaning our kids get sterile playgrounds.

Photo credit: Playground Climbing Web used under Creative Commons license

Calgary School Board gets it right: Our kids need internet access in school

According to the CBC, the Calgary Board of Education is beefing up their wireless networks in order to allow students access to the Internet in school. After reading the comments, it seems I am one of the few who believe that this is a good thing.

I’ll go beyond that statement, actually, to say it makes me feel profoundly sad to read the comments and see so many people think of the Internet as something that is unimportant and a waste of time. That the immediate thought of most is that students will do nothing but abuse the access they are given. Yes, some will. Yes, this move will not be easy and yes, it will require that some things within the school and teaching change. It will be disruptive, but in my opinion, we have no choice and the longer we delay giving students this kind of access in schools, the bigger we fail them.

In 1953, Child psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, “The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”  We have moved far beyond a world where teaching “the basics” is enough. To not bring this type of access to students in our schools does a grave disservice to our children and their ability to work and live in THEIR world, not our world.

How do we teach students to become critical thinkers in an information age when we shield them from information?

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that web is the greatest educational tool ever created, and to not figure out how to appropriately use it within education is amazingly short sighted. We need to help students figure out how to appropriately use this tool or else we risk abdicating it to the likes of Perez Hilton and mass infotainment. If educators do not stake a claim on the web, it will become exactly the devoid educational environment that those posting negative comments at the CBC site fear.

I am not naive to believe that this will be easy.  Teachers will have to develop new skills. New problems will arise that we need to find solutions for. New methods of teaching developed that exploit the affordances of technology. But as a parent, I will firmly support and actively advocate for the appropriate use of technology in the classroom for my children. And I will also actively support any initiative that helps teachers learn the skills to teach my kids how to appropriately use the web.

To the teachers who are pushing for access to technology in the classroom and running into barriers (and I work on the periphery of the K-12 education system and know many of you do run into resistance), keep up the fight. I am with you. And if you are a teacher who cannot understand or see the potentials of the web – who believes that the Internet is a useless time waster full of nothing but LOL and OMG, please consider retiring and opening up a space for teachers who want to teach my kids to live in THEIR world, not yours.

What should I ask my kids teacher?

I have my first parent teacher night later this week with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher and am looking for some input (particularly from any teachers who may read this) as to what makes a good parent teacher interview?

This won’t be the first time we have met the teacher. Both my wife and I have gone on a few field trips with the class, and have volunteered in the classroom so we already have a relationship with her. But this will be the first  “formal” evaluation where we can sit down for 15 minutes and talk specifically about The Girl and her learning.

So, as a teacher, what do you hope will happen in those 15 minutes? What are you going to try to get across and what do you like to see a parent ask when they are sitting across the desk from you during the interview? And for parents who have done this a few times, what do you think makes a good parent teacher interview?

Image: v2.194: September 10th (Good Day for Mommies) by Phony Nickle. Used under CC license.

Hi Tech Cheating – Do Your Kids Do It?

Is this cheating?

Does your teenager have a cell phone? If they do, there is a good chance they are using it to cheat at school according to a new report by Common Sense Media.

Key findings from the report say that more than 1/3 of teens with cell phones admit to having used them to cheat at school, while over 1/2 of all teens admitted to using some form of cheating involving the Internet.

According to the report, we parents are living in denial. Not that this practice exists in schools – 76% of us believe that cell phone cheating is happening in school – but only 3% of us believe our kids are doing it.

Hmmmm, 35% of kids admit to doing it, but only 3% of their parents believe they are doing it. That is a big digital denial divide.

But really the question we as parents need to be asking is not whether our kids are cheating or not (although that is a very important question), but rather what is cheating? Perhaps it is time to take a long hard look at what we think cheating is in the digital age. If we do, then we might come to the conclusion that how we define cheating may actually be hurting our kids.

For example, is it cheating for students to collaborate with their peers to find the answer to problems? 1 in 4 of the students in the survey don’t think so and I tend to agree with them. After all, is this not what we “grownups” do in real life? When we need to figure out a problem, what do we do? We tap into our personal networks and fire up the web. Isn’t collaborating to figure out a solution to a problem something we want to foster in our kids?

And is it so wrong for students to use the most game changing educational tool called the Internet to find answers? I mean, why do we ask kids to  pretend that this massively useful tool does not exist? Why do we insist that they need to be able to work inside a bubble to solve problems?

What I do have a problem with is a student taking someone else’s work and turning it in as their own. That, to me, is my moral threshold. But collaborating with their peers using technology to solve problems? That is something we should be rewarding, not punishing.

I realize this may seem like an extreme position to take, and it is fraught with a whole can of worms that educators have to deal with (not the least of which is how do teachers really assess learning), but I think we need to take a long hard look at how we define cheating in a digital age. If we do then we might just discover that what we think of as cheating is actually an essential skill our kids are going to need to thrive in a digital world.

Photo: Poor Marc Has No Idea She CHEATS! by Mr_Stein used under Creative Commons license.

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Stanford offers free Facebook course for Parents

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Stanford University is offering a free class called Facebook for Parents. The course is being offered by Stanford psychologist Dr. BJ Fogg and his sister Linda Phillips.

It is not an online course, and right now the content on the website is a bit sparse (I suspect it will evolve and become much richer as the course progresses). And the 5 tips, while sound first steps, are basic. But they do give parents new to Facebook a starting point.

The 5 tips Fogg and Phillips put forth are:

  1. Join Facebook
  2. Friend your kids
  3. Review your kids’ profile page
  4. Review who is “Friends” with your kid
  5. Select “More About” your kid

I would think the earlier you can Friend your kids the better, simply because a younger child would probably be more likely to friend you back when they are younger than when they hit their teen years.

Social networks are here to stay and for some parents that is a pretty scary thought. After all, most of us didn’t grow up in this world with social network tools like IM, MySpace and Facebook. Figuring out how our kids use these tools to communicate with their peers can sometimes seem like a daunting task, but one that is neccesary for a couple of reasons.

First, we need to protect our kids. Despite the current perception, the biggest threat to our kids on social networks does not come from the anonymous, unknown predator lurking in the shadows but from their peers. In no way do I mean to downplay the seriousness of child predation, but when you take a long hard look at the facts, the vast majority of kids that run into problems with social networks do so with their peers, and not strangers. Just like in real life, we need to know who our kids friends are.

Second, understanding their tools of communication means we can use them to communicate with them. And I have never met a parent (especially once their kids get into their teen years) who wants to communicate less with their child.

Initiatives like this course at Stanford help us understand these tools and ultimately help us both  protect and communicate with our kids better.

17,325 kids – 5150 childcare spaces

There are 17,325 kids aged 5 and under in the city I live in, and room for less than 1/3rd of them in child care. That’s the finding of the 2008 Victoria’s Vital Signs report released this week by the Victoria Foundation, a local non-profit group dedicated to strengthening the community in the city I live in.

These number both illustrate and quantify the problem parents are having finding child care in Victoria. I suspect if this type of analysis was done in other regions, the findings would be similar.

Granted, not all of those 17,325 kids are going to require child care. Some will be at home with Mom, Dad or other relatives, usually supported by federal maternity and paternity benefits. But it’s hard to deny that the gap between what is out there and what is needed is significant.

What is even more alarming are these statistics, pulled from a recent PLAY Victoria study.

Within less than a 10 month period (March 2007 to January 2008), our region has witnessed:

  • a decrease of approximately 60 spaces for children aged birth to 5
  • no new Group Child Care (Under 36 Months) centres created
  • a net loss of 9% of Group Child Care spaces for infants and toddlers
  • a decrease of approximately 133 spaces for children aged birth to 12

And while there has been an increase of 53 preschool spaces, the fact that the rest of the numbers are dropping, especially the 9% drop in infant toddler spaces, will added further anxiety to the families currently looking for childcare in Victoria.

Have we given up on public school?

Across the street from my house sits an empty brick building that used to brim with youthful energy. It’s a closed public elementary school now sitting vacant and empty, a victim of provincial budget cuts due to declining enrollment.

2 blocks away, a private elementary school is bursting at the seams with students, desperate to find bigger digs for their burgeoning population. It seems that this trend of declining enrollment does not extend to private schools.

A recent study by the province of Ontario (reported in the Globe and Mail) shows that enrollment in private schools is booming.

The study, titled “Ontario’s Private Schools: Who chooses them and why?” and released last May, notes that private school enrollment in the province grew to nearly 6 per cent of students in 2006, from 1.9 per cent in 1960.

Are we giving up on public education?

Neither of my kids are in school yet. But I worry about this, not only as a parent, but as a member of society. 6% of students represents a huge number of kids and parents who have chosen, for whatever reasons, to opt out of public education. And, if the numbers in the article are correct and consistent, if it does indeed cost $15,000 per year for private education, then you can bet that the population of private schools is predominantly upper/upper middle class. A massive block of high socio-economic people disengaged from the public system means that those in lower socio-economic classes become over represented in the public system. AS a gross generalization, lower socio-economic status is related to higher rates of challenging students, which places an increasing burden on limited public sector resources.

It’s a vicious circle. Take out the people who have the most resources to solve some of the problems in the public sector and leave those with the least resources available to struggle. Which then makes the private route seem even more attractive to those left in the public system.

I could be way off base here. I am not a social scientist, or an expert on primary education and demographics. I’m drawing broad conclusion based on anecdote and a single article. But my thoughts have been confirmed by a number of parents I speak with who are now beginning to ask themselves the question: private or public? And it is distressing to hear so many choose private.

So again I ask. Are we giving up on public education? Or is my perception being clouded by the fact that I am now just starting to examine these issues because my kids are getting closer to school age? Perhaps this is the way it has always been and I am again a victim of that myopic parent trap where things that have been a certain way for a long time suddenly have relevance now that I am a parent?

What kinds of conversations are you having at your house as your kids get closer to going to school?