Coherence Building – A Student Numeracy Gap with a Teacher led Response

Much has been written about the helpfulness of having coherence in systems, including education systems. A Living Systems approach has the potential to grow and sustain this kind of coherence. At present, this occurs in some individual school settings, but I have yet to see this done effectively at a district or provincial level.

This is not because district level education leaders are not well-intentioned. Our current structure continues to be top-down in many ways, and this inhibits the kind of coherence that districts are seeking. There is a friction that exists between what is and what could be. It is often helpful to let go, as leaders, of what we think should happen, and listen carefully to what ‘those on the ground’ (often teachers) are saying. The leaders’ role is to facilitate the structures needed in order to support helpful initiatives (these structures should be agile, not fixed). Not only does this build the capacity of all within the system, it allows us to tap into people’s passions while they serve the greater good.

Further to this, it is the role of district level leaders to seek ways in which to connect and sustain (within the broader setting) noted pockets of growth for possible coherence building (without requiring people to serve a structure put in place, as this is not growth oriented). This perspective has at its core, leadership from the middle.

Here is our story and what our teachers were noticing….

Does this sound familiar? Some of our students are struggling with Numeracy basics, and as they get older, this is preventing them from fully participating with their peers.

Teacher leader Shelley Houle wrote the following, with input from the rest of the teacher leadership team:

Two questions got us thinking….

  1. How can we reduce the number of intermediate students who are still struggling with their basic math skills?
  2. How can we help our students develop a more positive attitude towards Math, while understanding that making mistakes is a natural part of learning?

Our  Learning Support Teacher team spent time collaborating in order to come up with a proactive approach called MMI (Middle Math Intervention) – an additional support program targeted at upper primary students who are needing more instruction and practice with developing number sense. Our hope is to minimize the widening gap that we are observing as students move into the intermediate grades.

Using assessments (PRIME), we identified grade 2 and 3 students who were still struggling. We created groups of four students to receive forty minutes of math instruction, in a game like setting, three times a week (in addition to what these students already receive in class).

We have been collaborating to create a series of lessons that focus on improving number concepts. Each lesson includes a variety of activities targeting a specific skill. All materials are included along with an easy-to-follow lesson plan. Stories are read, games are played and students work with a variety of materials to boost their ability to count and work with numbers. All the while, students are also learning that they can all get better at math with practice, and have fun doing it!

We look forward to assessing the impact that this initiative has on growing student success!

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A Living System – A way to develop lasting learning communities

Please follow the link below to read about a way to develop lasting learning communities. This article is posted on the Canadian Education Association (CEA) site and can also be found in hard copy in the March 2015 Education Canada magazine.

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Math Ambassadors – Students as Curriculum Leaders

Principal’s forward: Leadership that is growth oriented, appropriate, and distributed widely within the school community has a real likelihood of positively affecting all members of the community in a lasting way.  (This is an important facet of a living systems learning community.)

I am at a new school this fall, and because I am new I began to explore with the staff the actions taken with the school wide curricular Math goal set in the previous year.  Our Teacher Inquiry Coordinator, Marnie Hunter, was working/leading alone and I could see that doing the work alone was daunting.  This gave us the opportunity to begin adding a living systems learning community perspective – to share the leadership and the learning while honouring the work that had been done already.  Grade 7 teacher leaders were also expressing the desire to have more meaningful student leadership opportunities for their students.  So Marnie, along with teacher leaders Sharon Cruz and Janet Henri began working hard with eight grade 7 student leaders this year on a new school initiative.

See Marnie’s words below:

In the words of Confucius, “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand”.blue

Here at Richardson Elementary, we are embarking upon a significant and exciting learning journey into the realm of numeracy. As a staff, we have begun to really focus on deepening and strengthening our own pedagogical understanding of the big math ideas in the new math curriculum. We have worked to develop optimal learning situations for our students using various lessons and manipulatives. Overall, our goal is to increase student engagement and achievement in mathematics. What better way to accomplish this task than to involve our students in the process?

Therefore, we 2015-02-17 13.47.15have devoted time, energy, and various resources to create a student group of math teachers. This group of grade 7 English and French Immersion students are Richardson’s “Math Ambassadors”, and their role is to collaborate with teachers and other students in order to facilitate numeracy skills.

We are very excited about our school’s new vision. And our ambassadors are key players in creating an energetic, fun atmosphere for Richardson students where numeracy is promoted as being a valuable, lifelong skill. Students and teachers alike are on this learning journey in mathematics. We are only at the beginning of our quest, and we eagerly look forward to what unfolds.

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Secret Garden – Keys to Success

Gardens by their very nature are messy. They are complex at a micro level and can seem orderly at a macro level, because of the work that goes into the garden at the micro level. Our school (Heath, in Delta BC Canada) is a little like that.

We are a school community (enrolling kindergarten to grade 7 students) that practices as a living systems learning community (for more information on what this means please see here, here and here).  This means we continually pay attention to what is working well in terms of student learning (and also adult learning-as this is what supports student learning).  We also try to involve all in helping to make our school community better….staff, parents and more importantly, students.  We continually seek and question in order to find evidence that helps us to grow. We are not particularly concerned with being right the first time.  We embrace the messiness that is essential to harnessing the thoughts, ideas and forward thinking of all within the community (using our school and district visions as our foundation).  We are a traditional school in terms of dress and deportment, but our teaching and learning is very forward thinking, based on current research and innovative practice.

Many schools have adults working on initiatives to help move their schools forward, and this is a great first step.  Involving students in those initiatives however, is far more powerful, and this has been our focus this year.  There are examples of involving students in meaningful ways elsewhere in the province as well.  For example, we have some school districts who  involve students at the school board level by having student trustees (i.e. Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast).

Last year we had our students present our School’s collaborative work at our District celebration.  We were the only school to have students present (see here to listen to our students from last year).  This year our students became even more involved in helping with our school’s growth work (related to: SRL, SEL, AfL, Academics, Inquiry, LiD, Genius hour, Reggio… over the past four years).  We had a grade 7 focus group that worked regularly throughout the year with our adult leaders.  These students presented lessons to their peers, co-taught with teachers and worked alongside our staff in regard to the direction we took this year.

ImageWe were thrilled to be asked to present at the provincial Network of Inquiry and Innovation (great province-wide work being facilitated by BCs Judy Halbert and Linda Kaiser) symposium, in order to share with others, what can happen when students are directly involved in shaping the direction that the school takes.  The adults in the audience were blown away with how articulate our students were and by the personal stories they shared.

So why “Secret”? – because we are always adding new things to our garden, some we keep year after year, others we discard and some we adjust-just like finding a better location for a plant. Visitors to Heath tell us that what we are doing is not happening anywhere else that they have seen. (Our most recent visitors – from a secondary school in Surrey – are pictured below)


So Why Garden? – because our central statement is that “We are a flourishing Learning Community”… part because we are a living systems community where everyone – staff, students and parents play a part in ensuring the growth of all within the community.  This has been enabled by both collaborative patterns and structures put in place over the past four years.

We’d be interested to know if there are any others out there working in a similar fashion to us, or if there are others out there who might have questions for us, as questions help us to refine and grow our thinking.

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Student Inquiry Leaders

Principals’ forward:

In a living systems learning community, all members develop and share their leadership talents, using those talents to work with others in order to facilitate positive, forward moving growth. This year our adult school inquiry leaders (Ericka Brugge and Sherrie Bennett) have begun to work regularly with a small group of student leaders in order to ensure we are weaving our students’ perspectives into our forward moving development.

 Our student leaders write:

At Heath Traditional Elementary we have a Self Regulated Learning Student Ambassador Group. In this group we have five grade 7 students that come together to help make sure that the kids at our school know how to be mindful and self regulated. We are the students from the SRL group: Raheem, Angelina, Dominic, Balaram and Kisa. We feel that if students don’t know how to be self-regulated at a younger age, they won’t be as successful in life.


 One of our big tasks in helping students learn SRL is to teach lessons to small groups of fellow students. Once we divide our students into groups, the four of us create lessons that are age appropriate for each group.

 Here’s what we have to say about being student leaders:

 “The feeling is great.  At first you don’t know what to expect, but all kids have great imaginations”-Kisa

 “I felt nervous at the start but…it got me more open to teaching the kids”-Raheem

 “I think it’s amazing to teach other kids about SRL”-Angelina

 “It’s nice to be able to take the place of the teacher” –Dominic

 Another interesting part about working in the SRL group is working with the adults/teachers.  They are very helpful and have cool ideas, and adults who are teachers really understand what students need and have great tips to make sure kids learn while having fun. We are hoping with our leadership and guidance that kids at our school will become self-regulated people and help make a difference in the world.

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Growing a school – like an onion!

Growing a school community is like growing an onion.  In order to flourish, both require for example: care, attention and perseverance over a period of time…and both are multi-layered.  Furthermore, although students are the very reason for which schools exist, this post will focus on the actions of the adults in the schoolhouse, and represents some but not all of the journey we have taken.

In my last post I used a Capra quote to illustrate the importance of nurturing what is helpful and being careful as you move forward, not to destroy that which is already good.  (see quote at the end in blue if interested)  You see, not all that is new is best and not all that is old should be discarded….and conversely, not all that is old is best and not all that is new should be ignored.  Often times, it is tweaking what was, and adding in what is new that is most helpful (keeping in mind evidence shown by current research, as well as a deep understanding of the children who are entrusted to us).

I see the staff at the school as “the centre of the onion”, having the propensity to affect the condition (health) of all the other onion layers.  (If the core of the onion is “healthy and strong”, then it is more likely that the onion will grow well.)  There is much both inside and outside the schoolhouse that impacts this “part of the onion”…..and it is not the point of this post to unpack this layer (the centre).  (see for more thoughts in regard to this, if desired)

Year 1

  • a visioning process
  • purposeful and fluid collaborative time
  • a community question

As most principals do, I spent most of my first year at the school observing and working with teacher leaders to put in place a foundation to build from.  Part of this was to begin a visioning process in September to make sure we were all “on the same page”.  Students, staff and the community were involved in this in a myriad of ways.  As luck would have it, our district began a visioning process mid way through the year as well, so we were able to fold our work into the district’s process.

Secondly, teachers began to ask questions about why students seemed to be having difficulty with their self-regulation.  Much of our collaborative time in year 1 was spent on our visioning process and on beginning to investigate this question. (I have written about helpful collaborative structures in a previous post).

Thirdly, our community was asked to consider whether or not we wished to become a “traditional school-as defined by the school community ” within the parameters of our visioning process (traditional pieces like uniforms with progressive teaching practices)….. and the overwhelming answer from families and staff was yes.

Year 2-4

  • expansion of collaborative patterns
  • expansion of collaborative structures

Both patterns and structures are important aspects of a living systems style of learning community (see quote below).  By harnessing the positive, forward thinking, collaborative thoughts of the school community, we were able to expand both helpful patterns of thinking and helpful school wide structures.

Pattern examples – Over time, increasingly more staff were seeing all students as their collective responsibility (not primarily the responsibility of one classroom teacher).  Teacher leaders began to teach self-regulation strategies to students (and fellow teachers observed and participated in these lessons).  Co-teaching and planning was embraced by a number of staff.  Collaboration time was being used well by all staff to move learning forward in a positive way for students.  Staff saw themselves as explorers of what might be, and were not as concerned about having to “know all the answers” (comfort with discomfort).  Staff continue to be highly respectful of each other, and of students and their needs within the questioning (inquiry) process.  (This does not mean Utopia – but it means that staff know how to move forwards in a helpful, rather than unhelpful fashion – it is not the purpose of this post to unpack this way of interacting.)

Structural examples – We have chosen to have periods of time during the week that are common to all so that students can sometimes be grouped according to their interests or according to their “zone of proximal development”.  (These groups are often multi-age or multi-grade.)  This also ensures that students have more than one staff member helping them with their growth, and more than one staff member to connect with.  The following is a list of some (not all) of the common times/structures we have put in place:

  • Intermediate (all grade 4-7s) leadership groups/activities.
  • Grade 1-7 direct reading instruction groups (we are  a school with a high ELL population)
  • Intermediate LiD (Learning in Depth) (from Egan’s work)
  • Primary challenge math
  • Kindergarten (all classes) “Reggio” inspired afternoons
  • Grade 7 inquiry focus group (students who partner with lead staff in the work of the school inquiry question)

Not all of these groups/structures have existed in all four years.  Some have been maintained each year, and some have existed for a year or two or have changed in configuration over time.  A living systems LC allows for critical and timely analysis of systems (by those who are enmeshed in them) that are in place in order to make sure they are best serving students’ needs.

The overarching picture here is one of multi layers and multi dimensions, or of lush growth within a life-giving environment.  This requires the autonomy of staff within a framework of positive interconnectedness.  I am interested to see if this sustains over time……and am hopeful that it will.

I shall argue that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of two very different approaches, the study of substance (or structure) and the study of form (or pattern). In the study of structure we measure and weigh things. Patterns, however, cannot be measured or weighed; they must be mapped. To understand a pattern we must map a configuration of relationships. In other words, structure involves quantities, while pattern involves qualities.  The study of pattern is crucial to the understanding of living systems because systemic properties, as we have seen, arise from a configuration of ordered relationships. Systemic properties are properties of a pattern. What is destroyed when a living organism is dissected is its pattern. The components are still there, but the configuration of relationships among them–the pattern–is destroyed, and thus the organism dies. (Capra, p. 81, 1996)

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What’s Standing in the way of Change in Education?

I was fortunate enough to attend the recent CEA (Canadian Education Association) conference in Calgary Alberta last week, with a team from my district (Delta – in British Columbia, Canada).  I say fortunate because the question we were being asked to ponder/interrogate/delve into (see title above) is one of interest to many of us in education who are looking to help education “grow forwards in a positive direction”… and I am particularly interested in larger and broader educational system change.

A quote by John C. Maxwell comes to mind in regard to this, “Change is inevitable.  Growth is optional.”  The key here is, as a society we are undergoing vast changes, yet in education, while there are pockets of positive forward growth, these pockets are not widespread or systemic.  This perception comes to us from a variety of sources (for example the What Did You Do In School Today? data – see

Some of the following ideas were discussed/presented at the conference:  the explosion of technology in mainstream society and how this impacts society generally and therefore meaningful experiences in schools as well (see thoughts of Charles Fadel here,  how the brain works, the importance of ethics and social/emotional learning, the impact of student engagement on the success of learning….to name a few).

Alma Harris, a leading education writer and international researcher from the UK recently wrote the following ( ).  In a nutshell, she recommends that we consolidate rather than innovate in order to have successful educational reform at scale.  She has a point in that educators have been engaged in the “change” conversation for a while.

At the conference there was time devoted to examining and discussing the desire to move forwards and the barriers in place making it difficult to do so.  This information is being collated and will then be the focus of further discussions and hopefully action as well.  I humbly suggest that a more living systems( ) way of moving forwards (developing interconnected learning communities that involve individual educators, students, parents, schools, broader communities in which schools are embedded, districts, provinces…in an iterative process – more inquiry focused in nature) will be more helpful than a mandated way of moving forwards.  This would allow those who are part of the education process to consolidate as needed (Harris) as well as to move forward in a way that makes sense within the particular system….to encourage continuous positive growth. (Halbert & Kaiser’s Spirals of Inquiry For equity and quality [2013] is a good Canadian source in regard to positive growth using an inquiry stance.)

In moving forwards, it is important to not destroy those patterns that are helpful (life giving).  The following words from Capra are illustrative of this notion within a living systems lens.

I shall argue that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the
synthesis of two very different approaches, the study of substance (or
structure) and the study of form (or pattern). In the study of structure we measure
and weigh things. Patterns, however, cannot be measured or weighed; they must
be mapped. To understand a pattern we must map a configuration of
relationships. In other words, structure involves quantities, while pattern involves
The study of pattern is crucial to the understanding of living systems because
systemic properties, as we have seen, arise from a configuration of ordered
relationships. Systemic properties are properties of a pattern. What is destroyed
when a living organism is dissected is its pattern. The components are still there,
but the configuration of relationships among them–the pattern–is destroyed, and
thus the organism dies. (p. 81, 1996)

While my words above do not explore all that was discussed at the conference, this is what is resonating with me at this point in time.  I look forward to continuing to be a part of helping education systems to move forwards in a positive, growth oriented way, and welcome the thoughts of others on this topic as well.

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