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What Do We Mean By Learning Anyway?

A Connected Educator Month 2015 Event starting on October 1st!

Join Brenda Sherry and me in a collective, month long, discussion to:Cloud Computing Small text

  • extend and deepen our understanding of the term learning
  • participate in a knowledge building approach to collaboration
  • model deep practices for our professional learning environments (colleagues and/or classrooms)

Brief Description (see full site for details)

We will spend the month exploring, unpacking, and discussing what we mean by the term learning. This will include:

  • building background knowledge through sharing and reading resources related to the topic
  • introductory Twitter Chat
  • co-creation of a slidedeck of our ideas
  • reflective Twitter chat
  • contemplative rewriting of our slides
  • culminating creation of reflection statementsVector illustration of two communicating people

We will use a knowledge-building approach to this event.

“If Knowledge building had to be described in a single sentence, it would be: ‘giving students collective responsibility for idea improvement.  In Knowledge Building, students work together as a community to build and improve explanations of problems of understanding that arise from the group itself.” (We will be the students in this project!)

So please join us! Go to What Do We Mean By Learning Anyway? for all the details to get started!


Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry with the support of OSSEMOOC


Headline Madness: Myths & Misrepresentation!

Actual Headline:

New approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential in schools


Sample News Headline:

Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results

Yesterday, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report entitled: “Students, Computers and Learning: Making The Connection

Are there computers in the classroom? Does it matter? Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection examines how students’ access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT) devices has evolved in recent years, and explores how education systems and schools are integrating ICT into students’ learning experiences. Based on results from PISA 2012, the report discusses differences in access to and use of ICT – what are collectively known as the “digital divide” – that are related to students’ socio-economic status, gender, geographic location, and the school a child attends. The report highlights the importance of bolstering students’ ability to navigate through digital texts. It also examines the relationship among computer access in schools, computer use in classrooms, and performance in the PISA assessment. As the report makes clear, all students first need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so that they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitised societies of the 21st century. “

OECD Headline

New approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential in schools

This headline does not bash technology. It suggests that we need to have a reasoned approach to its implementation.

Those of us who have been immersed in this field of educational technology for nearly four decades have been advocating for the approaches described in the report. So let’s not be blaming the technology or disregarding the incredible potential of technologies embedded within a rich pedagogical approach!

Other Media Headlines!

The OECD headline is a far cry from many headlines around the world which inferred a totally different set of findings! Here are some samples of the damaging misrepresentations from the international press.

Help us Out!

Come on reporters, editors and publishers!! Help us out here!

This one just ticks me off.

Empower Your Students!

And, teachers, all the more reason to empower your students to be both media and digitally literate!

Resources (Ontario/Canada)

  • 21st Century Teaching and Learning, Digital Citizenship and Digital Literacy: What Research Tells Us…

  • Digital Citizenship (OSAPAC)

  • MediaSmarts


Learning Out Loud

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 8.28.52 AMAn e-Book from TeachOntario

This thoughtful e-book, Learning Out Loud, is a collection of thoughts written by Ontario teachers and produced by TVOntario.

Lest you think it is all text—it isn’t! In addition to links to many relevant blog posts, there are many video clips included—it is produced by TVO after all. :-)

There are four chapters:

  1. Shifting from Teaching to Learning
  2. Who Owns Learning?
  3. What Conditions Support Learning?
  4. How Do We Share Learning with Others?

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 8.34.56 AMIt is not possible for me to even suggest selected snippets from this book because it would be unfair to highlight some people and not others.

You have to read it yourself!

I am proud to be an Ontario educator—and to have been part of this (r)evolution into digital age learning since the early 70s.

SEPT TeachOntario-e-Book


Neil Postman Had It Right—Back in the 80’s

Childhood in the Technological Era

Another blast from the past. This time from 1987.

Many of the world’s best known educators were together at the Second International Congress on Early Childhood Education held in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1987. The major theme of the congress was caution versus enthusiasm in using computer technology with children.

Speakers included:

  • Neil Postman
  • Gavriel Salomon
  • Seymour Papert
  • Hubert Dreyfuss
  • Bruno Bettleheim
  • et moi! ;-)

How fortunate I was to be presenting with such distinguished and influential thinkers and educators. In addition, Apple Canada asked me to write about the experience in their Minds in Motion journal.

FullSizeRenderApologies to those with screen readers. I do not have this converted to text—only images. However, I’ll highlight some of the points here for ease of reference. I ask you, ‘What resonates with you? What’s changed? What hasn’t changed?’

I will outline the points made by Neil Postman. Read the whole article below and the thoughts of the other speakers.


Faustian Bargain

  • “All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage technology brings, there is always a disadvantage…and one may outweigh the other…New media create new centres of power and influence…the computer will provide our students new ways of thinking. Who will benefit—the children The schools? The state?”

The Technology of Marks is a Mathematical Concept of Reality

  • Embedded in every technology is a powerful idea. Some of these ideas are hidden from view. As an example, he cited the seemingly harmless practice of assigning grades to children’s work. Assigning marks is a tool or technology to judge a person’s behaviour. It is a mathematical concept of reality.

Philosophical Wars

  • “The philosophy embedded in a new technology always makes war with the philosophy embedded in an old technology.” Since the invention of the printing press, the written word (and its accompanying concepts of logic, sequence, history, and objectivity) has been the basis of our educational system. The new technologies of television and computers rely on immediacy, visual transfer of information, and subjective interpretation. Media wars are in effect in our world now. This is, of course, evident in our world now. Students who are on the wrong side of this war are the ones who are failing.

A New Medium Does not Add Something—It Changes Everything

  • “Technological change is not additive but is ecological.” Many people presume that when a new technology is introduced, it merely adds to the store of existing technologies. Postman suggests that this is not always the case. “A new medium does not add something—it changes everything.” He described Europe before the advent of the printing press and pointed out that Europe afterwards was not just Europe plus the printing press. It was, in fact, a new Europe. (Read Blue Dye plus Water? Or Blue Water? for another McLuhanist example of this concept. Also remember Seymour Papert’s words“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”

Mythic Media

  • “Media tend to become mythic.” It is a common tendency to think of our own creations as God-given, part of the natural order. Because of this, our society doesn’t question the larger social, psychological ramifications even though we should. (Read It’s Not About the Tools? Really? for another view.)

Electronic Workbooks. Really?

  • “A technology is to a medium like the brain is to the mind. A technology is a tool to be used in various ways. One could, but would not, use a 747 to take commuters from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. One could, but would not, use a television to present printed words on the screen. One could, but should not, use computers as an electronic workbook.”

Soooooo I ask you again, ‘What resonates with you? What’s changed? What hasn’t changed?’

(Click on the pictures below to see larger.)







Students ‘Making Up’ Their Own Minds

“The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”

–Marvin L. Minsky (from Society of the Mind, 1986)

Human Brain Drawing itself

I want students to be busy building their own minds.

As an educator, this is my main goal. I want students to be in charge of their own learning—to be effectively constructing their brains. We must focus our work so that they have both the opportunity, and the skills, to do so. This is the professional mission in my life.

Ethereal? No.

Although it may sound rather ethereal if we talk about students building their own minds, it is not. The reality is exactly that! Whether we take an historical view based on Jean Piaget’s work or adopt a current neuroscience perspective, the reality is the same—brain structures are being altered as we learn and we can control that both quantitatively and qualitatively—to a greater or lesser degree.

Don’t worry! I’m not going to get super technical about all that. I’ll leave that to those more expert than I.

Jean Piaget and ConstructivismPiaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied learning in children. He articulated various stages of development and developed a theory of constructivism. He spoke of schemas or mental structures. If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into a previous pattern of ideas and knowledge—our schemas—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore adding a new schema. Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

…we either assimilate or accommodate new information…or toss it out…

Consider, for example, a schema that a young child might hold for a fish. Fish live in water and have tails and fins with which to swim. She then sees many different kinds of fish—large, small, single coloured, multi-coloured and assimilates them all into her schemas for fish thus increasing the richness and texture of the fish schema. The first time that this child encounters a whale, she might call it a fish. Once her caregivers explain that it is a different animal called a whale and that it breathes air by coming to the surface of the water and that it is a mammal, the child will accommodate it by creating a new schema for whale. All of this is driven by the human need for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium or balance with no dissonance.

…the human need is for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium


Let’s consider new learning from a perspective of neuroscience—that of brain plasticity. Neurons sprout dendrites and send and receive thousands of signals with other parts of the brain thus creating neural pathways. Any new experiences and new learnings reorder neural pathways in the brain. In the same way that a piece of film must change in reaction to an image coming through the lens, our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences. Any neural pathways that are not frequently used simply disappear and new ones are continually being created as we develop new skills and knowledge.

…our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences…

Dr. Norman Doidge defines neuroplasticity as: the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function in response to thinking and acting in response to mental experience—in other words, in sensing and perceiving and what we do.

We are literally building our brains

Regardless of whether we think about this in Piagetian or in neuroscientific terms, when we are learning, we are literally building our brains.

We, as human beings of free will, have the option to build, and to mold, the structures of our brain.

I have spent a career questioning, exploring, discovering, and predicting how technologies can assist students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’. What ideas do you have?



It’s NOT about the Tools? Really?

It is very much about the tools:

and their impact—both intended and unintended.

Once again, as a result of the ISTE conference, the issue represented by statements such as, “It’s not about the tools, it’s about the pedagogy” has come to the fore. (See Stop It Already by @dougpete and Not Everyone is You by @gcouros.)

I have spoken about this before in “It’s Not About the Tool”—A Naïve Myth.” In that post I share some thoughts related to computers as cognitive partners, ‘effects of’ vs ‘effects with,’ drip effects of technology, blue dye plus water or blue water and other McLuhanist-type thoughts.

As I mentioned there, I understand the intent of these kinds of statements. I believe they arise from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the learning at hand. So, yes, that would be an issue. I totally understand that problem. That’s why, in 2002, I presented a session at a CUE conference titled Mindstrokes—Not Keystrokes.

However, it is very much about the tools.

As described in that post, tools shape behaviours. Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.

caveman-159359_640Let’s face it, eras of humankind have historically been defined by tool creation and use (the Three Age System)! We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Then came the Industrial Age, and, now, the Digital Era. In fairness, these descriptors vary regionally and are constantly under revision as many cultures use reference to other types of technologies.

So to simplistically say that it isn’t about the tools, is in my opinion, digital age doodoo.

“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”

Seymour Papert in Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, 1987


Teaching is a ‘Way of Being’ — Part 3

Implications for Professional Learning

So what might be the implications for professional learning? There are four points that stand out for me.

1. Learning Stance

A major difference between Cynthia and Margot (hypothetical teachers referred to in my first blog of these series) is their learning stance. Margot is a progressive problem solver – a seeker of new learning, a questioner. We need to always encourage and cultivate these attitudes and behaviours.

2. Both Pedagogy & Practice

All professional learning opportunities should deeply embed both learning theory and practical applications. Providing techniques and recipes devoid of context – or with a cursory overview of pedagogy is ill-advised. We need to focus on pedagogy and develop deep understandings and beliefs in our teachers. The exemplars and strategies should illustrate and demonstrate excellent practice and should be the basis for teachers to generate their own strategies.

3. Differentiation

Both of these models really focus on individual growth. So, as with our students, we must differentiate! This can be a challenge if we are offering ‘sit‘n’git’ or ‘drive-by’ workshops.

And, who decides how to differentiate? Who decides what professional learning that I, at this particular time, for this particular purpose, should get? Likely me. So learner agency and metacognitive skills are important.

4. Both Collaborative and Individual Opportunities

I have been an enthusiast of substantive collaboration for many years – so it is with that caveat that I say the following. Provide both individual and collaborative professional learning opportunities. Don’t negate the individual in reaction to the collaboration as holy grail phenomenon we are currently experiencing.

David Thornburg, in his book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck, suggests that ‘learning institutions should offer a balance of Campfire spaces (home of the lecture), Watering Holes (home to conversations among peers), Caves (places for quiet reflection), and Life (places where students can apply what they’ve learned).’

There are many excellent initiatives and I will briefly introduce two Canadian examples: Teacher Learning & Leadership Program (TLLP) and Minds On Media (MoM).

Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP)

File 6179

TLLP is an annual project-based professional learning opportunity for experienced Ontario classroom teachers.

“The three goals of the program are to create and support opportunities for teacher professional learning, foster teacher leadership and facilitate the sharing of exemplary practices with others for the broader benefit of Ontario’s students.”

In a nutshell, teachers receive funding to pursue an action research style project in an area that is meaningful to them. All participants in the program are provided with professional learning sessions that will help them develop the skills necessary to manage their project and effectively share their learning with colleagues. They go through the year-long process out loud in that they share their process, learning, results, and promising practices with fellow TLLP educators and others (intra/inter-board and provincially) via conferences and through the online platforms provided.

The TLLP model develops ‘Margots’ by supporting teachers in generating and researching problems at the edge of their expertise – at the cusp of their competence.

The project overview, project archives, support materials, research results and stories, and videos can be found on the TLLP website.

Although TLLP is only open to Ontario teachers, it is a well-documented model that invites replication in other jurisdictions.

Minds On Media

 File 6180

Minds On Media (MoM) is a model of professional learning that also respects the learner’s desire to knowBrenda Sherry and I developed this model based on theories of expertise and knowledge-building blended with anappreciative inquiry and evocative coaching mindset.

It has been implemented mainly in professional learning related to constructionist approaches to information technology use in classrooms.

Imagine a room full of educators who are experts in information and communications technologies (ICT) and learning theory. Each of these facilitators manages a centre on a particular topic – one that is pedagogy focused. They spend some time before the event thinking about practical ways to support self-directed learners at a hands-on session.  As mentioned earlier, differentiated learning is equally important for adults as for our students. This requires the creation of a wide variety of materials, strategies and access points and so, facilitators create a wiki replete with tutorials and classroom exemplars.  This is useful for the Minds On Media day but also serves the teachers well when they return to their schools.

Teachers come to a conference to learn and we respect their choices in how they wish to do that. We want them to take a minds on approach. They choose what to learn based on their own needs, learning styles, interests, levels of expertise and are able to move freely throughout the day from centre to centre if, and when, it suits them.

They might be absolute beginners or comfortable with technology. They choose their entry point. Teachers build their own plan for the day or may seek guidance from one of our facilitators or pedagogistas. Pedagogistas also serve to keep the thinking and learning at a higher level—to keep tying the skill learning to the pedagogy and to help bridge to classroom practice.

The facilitators at the centres have the skills to support all learning styles with awesome classroom projects as exemplars! (Click on one of the Events in the sidebar on the site to get a flavour of a MoM event.)

What are our core beliefs?

We believe that:

  • the locus of control for learning should be in the hands of the learner
  • the facilitator must be aware of, and respond to, the learner’s desires, needs and expertise
  • the learner should leave empowered to learn further—beyond the MoM event
  • there are always experts among us

Note: MoM is not a commercial program at all. We simply developed it in response to how we believe people learn and our experiences with most professional learning models didn’t match up. It is our intention to more fully document the process so that it can be easily replicated. In the meantime, feel free to contact us if you’d like to run such an event.

A Shout Out to Powerful Learning Practice

I would like to give a big shout out to Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall of the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP). They both had a significant influence on our thinking in the area of evocative coaching and appreciative inquiry. PLP is an excellent professional learning experience based in these principles.


So this is one of the challenges of professional learning activities. Do they develop expert teachers or skilled nonexperts?

TLLP and MoM are working hard to develop expert teachers rather than experienced nonexperts by supporting and empowering them to take charge of their own learning.  There is a genuine effort to help teachers to learn significant educational theory and practice that is relevant to each person. Both programs are grounded in knowledge-building theory and are using appreciative inquiry and evocative coaching methodologies to build capacity.

What professional learning programs are you seeing that help teachers to develop a way of being rather than merely transferring a set of skills that doesn’t really develop expertise?

Related Reading

Teaching is a ‘Way of Being’ – Part 1
Developing Expert Teachers vs. Experienced Nonexperts 

Teaching is a ‘Way of Being’ – Part 2
So How Do We Develop Expert Teachers?

This blog post was first published as part of CEA’s focus on the state of Teacher PD in Canada, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Teachers as Learners theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, What is Effective Teacher Professional Development? 


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