Sad teacher

A social media interaction with a school board trustee clarified for me why we need teachers who fail. I suggested that we should be encouraging a more innovative culture in our schools. The trustee snarled “Parents don’t send their children to school to be experimented on” at me. “We need to use proven methods, not just make it up”.

His attitude symbolizes a significant contradiction in schools today. We want schools to be world leaders, and use the latest most effective methods. Simultaneously, we don’t want educators to take chances, to try something new and unproven. However risk and failure are essential for learning.

We know intuitively that failure is necessary for learning. The first time a child tries to walk, they fail. After repeated failures they take their first step. “Iterative learning” is evident in everything babies do. Through repeated trial and failure they learn how to feed themselves, control their impulses, communicate and thousands of other tasks.

Eventually we understand that failure means a lack of mastery, and we start to feel shamed and to hide our failures. Students don’t raise their hands in class because they’re afraid of looking incompetent. The older a child gets, the more they work to hide their failures.

When we’ve reached adulthood, we’re supposed to know what we’re doing. This is especially true of experts. We don’t want incompetent doctors, police officers, politicians, educators or any of the other important people we rely on. The wrong order at the drive through annoys us, but an incompetent professional scares us.

This is misguided thinking. Professional expertise is based on understanding, but knowledge is growing exponentially and it’s impossible for anyone to keep up. Professionals encounter ways to better understand and do their work on a daily basis. Because of the explosion of information we are all in perpetual beta, and that’s why the belief that teachers shouldn’t fail needs to end.

Classrooms and schools using the best and newest practices are going to have some failure, and that’s good. Failure is a sign that we’re taking risks and trying new things. That’s exactly what schools should be doing, because the downside of staying safe is greater than the cost of a few failures.

I often challenge myself to take risks in my teaching, and I understand now that my failures are unpredictable. One time, the new approach I try works perfectly, and I am surprised and feel like a genius. The next it falls flat and I have to stop everything, apologize to the class and walk us all back to safer ground.

There was a time when having a lesson fail would have killed my confidence, leaving me with recriminations and admonitions. That changed when I stopped pretending I knew exactly what I was doing. When I removed my ego and accepted that I wasn’t in charge of the learning process, but instead just a part of it, teaching became more fun.

Now classes unfold like a mystery novel and I’m fascinated to see how they turn out. I see failed lessons the way skaters see the scars they gained perfecting a new trick. They’re badges of honour. A spectacular flop is more exciting than a resounding success, because there’s way more learning in failure.

I’ve slowly brought my students into the process. I admit to them “We’re going to try this, I’m not sure it will work. Let’s try, and tell me how it goes”. When something doesn’t work I admit to them “Wow! That didn’t work at all, did it?” And we discuss what happened.

Sharing my thinking helps them manage their expectations and understand that the goal isn’t perfection. It also models the importance of taking risks and learning from failure in their own learning. As their teacher I ask them to take risks in learning all the time, to do things they aren’t comfortable with. Shouldn’t I also model for them what that taking a risk and sometimes failing looks like? Shouldn’t I show them what it looks like to persevere after a set back? None of that is possible without risking failure.

If we want our educators and classrooms to be cutting edge, we must welcome failure in our teaching and learning. Our students deserve the latest, newest ideas to maximize their learning, and we can’t use those methods unless we’re willing to risk failing. In our fast changing world things move very fast. The proven, safe ideas, are already out of date.


If you just woke up to the impending student data crisis…welcome. It’s good to have you aboard. What may surprise many is that the issues raised by the NY Times article about Class Dojo aren’t new. They’ve been around for a while and a few individuals have been trying in vain to sound the alarm.

Schools have been slow to respond to the changes brought on by the digitization of education. Information about and generated by students is increasingly recorded and stored digitally but many schools aren’t ready for this. Students and parents are not aware that data is being collected and stored, informed consent isn’t asked for required and the data is often not secure.

The writings of Audrey Watters informed my early misgiving about these issues, and more recently Jessy Irwin and Bill Fitzgerald have flagged more and more concerns.

Ontario teacher Heidi Siwak raised similar concerns two and a half years ago and in response heard, in her words “crickets”. Royan Lee and Tim King both wrote extensively about the need for greater discussion about student data and The Association for Media Literacy supported dialogue and critical thought. I added my voice, writing about my concerns here and here. None of this had any noticeable effect.

A little acknowledged truth of educational technology is that most involved in it are proponents. They are excited by the possibilities that educational technology provides and rarely stop to consider some of the potential pitfalls. Skepticism and critical thinking is badly needed, but often in short supply, at Ed Tech conferences.

The watershed moment for US Education and student data privacy arrived in Spring 2014 with the shutting down of inBloom.  InBloom, a non-profit company that was set up with a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was to function as a repository for all student data, that schools could use to improve instruction. Under parent pressure schools backed away and eventually the endeavour was mothballed.

Ontario schools are less willing to formally collect digital data on students, so there’s never been an “inBloom” moment in the province. But that doesn’t mean that copious data about Ontario students online academic activity isn’t being collected, stored and analyzed.

A 2014 report by People for Education showed that Ontario teachers are increasingly using free online tools and resources in their classrooms. The main reason appears to be “budget cuts”. Teachers who can’t find what their students need at school, turn to the internet.

This is encouraged throughout the system. Education conferences are predominately opportunities for companies and educators discuss online tools. Education leaders encourage teachers to use these free online tools. They are a way to be progressive without spending any money. For example, Ottawa Superintendent Tom D’Amico publicly encouraged the use of Class Dojo. And, of course, The Minister encourages educators to use technology to make learning “more compelling”.

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Prodigy Math Game, an Ontario based educational start-up, is used in “dozens of schools and boards across Ontario”, often at the encouragement of school leaders. Yet few (any?) of those leaders, teachers, students or families are aware that Prodigy collects and stores student data and analyzes that data for marketing purposes. The Terms of Service for Prodigy say simply “SMARTeacher (the provider) respects the privacy of its users.”. Nothing else. No assurances of what data is collected, how it used, whether it will sold, or any other vital information.

I wish that Prodigy and Class Dojo were the exception, but they aren’t. There are hundreds of similar online educational tools being used in Ontario classrooms that collect and use student data. And there are often no protocols in place to ensure that students and families are informed, that they consent to data collection and that accommodations be made for students who opt out of using an online tool.

Ontario must address this issue, and quickly. Hopefully the public awareness brought on by the Class Dojo article will help push things along.

What needs to be done?

  • Raise awareness of privacy concerns amongst educators. Julia Hengstler, an Educational Technologist & Instructor at Vancouver Island University developed a guide for teachers to posting student work online. Her work is BC specific, but each jurisdiction needs a similar resource for teachers. Teachers and educational leaders must know what to do and what not to do about student data. Teacher federations and the privacy commissioner need to step up.
  • Create a set of standard protocols ensuring informed consent before students use an online tool in class. This must be an “opt in” process. Unless parents consent, the student doesn’t go online. An alternative “offline” program must be provided for any student that chooses to stay analog.
  • Greater transparency for students and families about what data is collected by online services. Students and families should be able to go online, see what data is stored and be able to delete any data they choose. Data created by students belongs to that student and should be their’s (or their family’s) to do with as they wish.



The commercial and cultural success of the “Harry Potter series” of books is well know. Less well-known is that the books were written in a coffee shop.

J.K. Rowling, then a single mother on income support, would set out pushing her child through the streets of Edinburgh. When the infant fell asleep, she’d dash to a coffee shop and start writing.

Rowling remains a fan of creating in coffee shops. “The idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss,” she said.

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One of the biggest popular culture cliches around is the horror movie villain that won’t die. The other characters are unaware that the zombie, or the guy in the mask, isn’t really dead, so they let down their guard, opening themselves up for another attack and for gallons of fake blood to be sprayed across the screen.

I know how those hapless victims felt when on the day before Halloween (coincidence? I think not!) Education Minister Liz Sandals announced that the Health Curriculum was being re-reviewed and would be re-released in September 2015. What? Noooooooo!!!

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In September 4th, 2014, LizSandals, The Minister of Education for Ontario, visited Dr. J. Edgar Davey Elementary School to announce the creation of a $150-million technology and learning fund. The money will be spent over 3 years and will be used to purchase tablets, software, cameras and other IT resources, to help schools share innovative teaching approaches and provide professional development to help teachers integrate technology into the classrooms.

Any kind of spending on education in Ontario is welcomed, and in times of tight spending and shrinking budgets, educators shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. However, that’s a long list of goals for a fund that only provides $25 per student, per year. With no firm plans for implementation (school boards will get the details “later this year”) this simply appears to be a public relations exercise. Something to get The Minister in the media, talking about education and technology, at the beginning of the school year.

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