Fair is Not Equal

Fairness and equality are not the same thing, and at times really represent opposing value systems.  I’ve found myself having often to weigh fairness and equality in the context of education, and in most instances fairness has won out.  Allow me to provide three examples from athletics, student discipline and supporting complex student needs.

At Handsworth, our basketball program has tried to encourage as many students as possible to participate in grades 8 and 9.  At the bantam level in particular, equality of opportunity is prized most, and is even included in the rules of play across the North Shore.  During the first three quarters of games in grade 8, players are rotated in and out every 4 minutes.  This gives every player an equal opportunity to participate during the first three quarters and to develop their skills in a game situation.  Once players hit grade 10 our program focus moves from participation to competition.  At the junior and senior levels we try and field the most competitive team possible.  Playing time is no longer necessarily equitable, but rather determined by attendance & effort at practice, maintaining an acceptable academic standing, demonstrating sportsmanship, adherence to the student code of conduct and, ultimately, skill.  Competitiveness and fairness for all become the modus operandi of the team.  Students who do not attend practice regularly are not given the playing time that those who do attend are.  That’s fair.  Students who have dedicated more time and effort to developing themselves as players are given a greater opportunity to perform, because it’s fair.  Students at any level who are unable to demonstrate good student citizenship may have their extra-curricular privileges curtailed, which is also fair.

A big part of being fair as a coach is providing transparency.  There’s nothing more frustrating as a player than not being given an opportunity, but also not understanding why.  Student – teacher, and coach – player relationships work best when there’s a mutual understanding of fairness. Providing clear instruction at the beginning of a season or school year about expectations can help provide a sense of fairness for all.

Student discipline has taken up a greater portion of my time than I had hoped or anticipated this year.  And the conversation around discipline has, in many instances, turned to a conversation about what is perceived as fair or equitable.  In almost every instance of student discipline I end up referring back to our school’s Student Code of Conduct.  This is a document created and revised regularly with input from not only staff, but also parents and students themselves in order to enhance its quality of fairness.  One section of the code that is particularly relevant for this discussion goes as follows:

“Disciplinary action, whenever possible, will be preventative and restorative, rather than merely punitive. The administration will take into account factors such as the severity and frequency of the offence(s), as well as the age, maturity, and ability of the student in question.”

By factoring in these variables, we can see that that spirit of the Student Code of Conduct is really to provide discipline that is fair before it is equal.  Expectations for student behaviour and decorum increase as students (hopefully!) mature in the later grades.  And students who repeatedly break the code of conduct should be dealt with using progressive discipline.  A first time offender is typically not treated with the same level of discipline as someone who makes a habit of poor decision making.

We should always endeavour to treat students fairly, to support them, and assist them in making good decisions for themselves.  A similar, yet different, system that comes to mind with thinking of equality vs fairness is the justice system.  This system, despite providing progressive consequences for repeat offenders, I would argue, prizes equality before the law above fairness.

A final example of equality versus fairness in the education system is the way we support our complex learners.  Many of our students have unique learning challenges that require additional support.  If we were to prize equality for all, then the supports offered to all students would be the same.  But this is not the case.  The value we place on fairness is seen in the additional supports in terms of personnel, and adaptations or modifications provided to students that help them to find success at school.  While not equal, this is certainly what is fair.  In a just and democratic society, we should endeavour to see that all our students find success, not just some of them.  Our communities will certainly be stronger for it.  The support we offer our learners with unique challenges is a prime example of the education system demonstrating the value it places foremost on fairness.

Fairness and equality are two very different things.  In education, I think fairness more accurately represents the value system we want to prize.  Equality, while ostensibly a noble virtue, doesn’t always provide our students with the support they need to excel in extra-curricular areas, promote positive decision making, and support their academic success.

Fair is Not Equal

The Innovator’s Mindset

This past month I read George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset. It was a book that came a good juncture in my professional growth as I move from teaching to administration. The book walked a nice line between both a teacher and administrator’s perspective on how to foster a culture of innovation in classrooms and a school as a whole. As with any book on education, I try to see if what I read simply reinforces my existing beliefs, or if it challenges me to see things differently. While much of what Couros writes was already in line with my beliefs, there was a lot of food for thought in the book and moments where I paused to reflect on my own experience and ways I could try to reframe some of the work we’re doing at Handsworth. I thought I might share a few notes and highlights from the book that really resonated with me.

This year our overarching goal at Handsworth has been deeper student engagement, inspired by our work the previous year with Design Thinking. In The Innovator’s Mindset, Couros says that engagement is good, but empowerment is better. I have had a confluence of inspirations between my experiences at High Tech High with exhibitions of student learning, the self-assessment piece coming with BCs New Curriculum and now reading Couros’ comments of moving beyond engagement. I’m excited to see how we can move towards real student empowerment next year. One idea we are working with is to possibly restructure our twice-yearly parent-teacher interviews to have them be, rather, led by students who will share what they’ve been learning, perhaps with a portfolio of work.

One of the quotes Couros cited early in the book was from American educator and author, Stephen Covey, who talks about the speed of trust. As someone who subscribes completely to the idea that any organization is only as strong as its people and the relationships between them I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that things just get done, and get done faster, where there is an established culture of trust. This culture is developed, as Couros says, “by the expectations, interactions, and, ultimately, the relationships of the entire learning community.” But, even more importantly, relationships are built first on a one-to-one basis. I like Couros’ suggestion that as an administrator it is important to work with smaller staff groups of 2 to 4 people to create an intimacy that is lacking with larger assembly style groups. I have been fortunate to work with some great district administrators in North Vancouver who have also worked hard to create relationships with other staff in those types of smaller working groups. Networking is so important, because, as is mentioned in the book, “alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” Strong relationships create an environment for innovation.

I had to laugh when the example of Blockbuster was brought up when illustrating the notion that organizations must “innovate or die”. I actually worked for Blockbuster all through my high school and university years. I was an employee there in the year 2000 when a small, little known company named Netflix began its mail order DVD program.

In what is now a fairly well known monumental business blunder, Blockbuster’s CEO had the opportunity to buy Netflix but decided to pass on it because he considered video streaming to be a niche market. Education is also a “business” that is experiencing a rapid transformation. Our students, as “clients”, have higher expectations than ever for how they will be served. It’s on us, collectively, to make sure we aren’t delivering a VHS experience where a digital one is required.

So how do we foster this innovative change we are so earnestly pursuing? Couros says that to inspire change, we must make a connection to the heart first before making a connection to the mind. And again, this really speaks to the importance of relationships – both between staff, and also staff and students. Inspiration comes from embracing possibilities. And as an educational leader, it is going to be incumbent upon me to help create those conditions where creative risk taking and positive change is more likely to occur. A culture of compliance is anathema to fostering innovation. Moreover, it’s important to realize that the improvement of our practice will never really have a finish line. We’re in education after all. If, as a discipline, we’re not constantly adapting and improving, then we aren’t truly living what it means to embrace that culture of learning.

Today, more than ever before, there seems to be this pronounced push and pull between innovative, personalized, big idea learning practices, and the forces of testing, compliance and traditional learning. Thankfully it seems that new thinking is beginning to win the day. School shouldn’t be about “what’s on the test”. It should be a safe and welcoming place where students have permission to make mistakes; to fail quickly and fail often so they learn to find success, not just in the classroom, but also in life. In reading The Innovators Mindset I was reminded of a John Green quote I love. To paraphrase, it goes, “About the test… The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, will make your life yours. And everything, everything, will be on it.” Whether or not we prepare our students to be productive, happy and engaged citizen is the real measurement, I believe, of quality of the learning happening in our schools.

There was, however, one assertion Couros made that I wanted to challenge. He asks what is a student more likely to need to know how to write: an essay or a blog post, suggesting that the latter was more important. I understand the irony of questioning this within a blog post, but I have to say that any good piece of persuasive writing, be it an op-ed piece, a blog post or even an online review requires some understanding of ethos, pathos and logos – elements of persuasion that are the foundation of a good essay. This is in addition to understanding the importance of quality evidence and establishing a good structure. This is not to say the essay is the be all and end all, but it gives young writers a great foundation; a platform from which they can propel to all other forms of writing, including blog posts. But maybe that’s just the English teacher in me. Blogging is certainly important. Couros discusses what a fantastic professional development tool it can be, and I have to agree. While I know what I write is read by very few people, it encourages me to refine my thinking on topics in education – something I will increasingly be challenged to do as I navigate the world of administration.

As a budding administrator, Couros reminds me that the higher up any one person is in an organization, the more people they serve. I’m looking forward to serving more people than ever, and hopefully in the process being a force for innovation and change that can affect even more students. One of the most profound questions that came up frequently in The Innovators Mindset was, “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” I will be serving many classrooms now; albeit in a different capacity, so I feel there is an enhanced responsibility to ensure that all classrooms in the school are safe and caring spaces for learning. But beyond that, I think for me, it’s also going to be important for me to ask, “Would I want to be a staff member in my own school?” The Innovator’s Mindset has given me some good inspiration in helping me make that a positive reality.

You can find The Innovator’s Mindset online at Amazon.ca.

The Innovator’s Mindset

My First Slice of Raspberry Pi

My First Slice of Pi: Discovering Raspberry Pi with my Class

Raspberry Pi is an exceptionally small, inexpensive and simple computer used to help teach students about hardware and programming. My former principal first introduced it to me, suggesting that Pi might be a neat activity to try with one of my computer classes. Not knowing anything about, I started researching what it was all about.

What is Raspberry Pi?rpi2b

To quote Wikipedia, The Raspberry Pi is a series of credit card–sized single-board computers developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intent to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools and developing countries. 

How I Got Started

I decided that the curriculum of my Business Communications course, a precursor to senior programming classes, best fit the intent of Pi. Funds to purchase 16 Raspberry Pi 2, Ultimate Starter Edition, were generously provided through my school PAC, and my school administration.  I got 16 of them so I would have at least 1 for every 2 students, as well as one Pi as a teacher demo model. Not knowing anything about Raspberry Pi I began by watching a number of different YouTube videos on how to get started. There are countless videos out there, but here’s an example of one I watched:

Growing Pains

I took the opportunity on one of our professional development days to figure out how exactly to have my students dive into Pi. Here’s a summary of what I learned:

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.33.18 PM

Despite purchasing the “Ultimate Starter Kit” for my Pis, I didn’t have the proper adaptor to enable the Pi to be plugged into our Dell monitors. The Pi has a built in HDMI port, and an HDMI cable was included, but I had to also purchase HDMI to VGA converters so we could use our monitors. It also only came with only male-to-male breadboard jumper wires. A few of the projects students found online later required the use of male-to-female wires that we didn’t have. My first lesson was to never assume all the hardware needed will be included! There are always additional costs to consider.

I spent a considerable about of time learning about how to format the SD card and download the NOOBs (New Out Of the Box operating System). Because I don’t have the proper administrative privileges on our school computers, I had to request that our district IT team install special formatting software on a few of the computers. I only realized later that because I had ordered the Ultimate Starter Kit that the SD cards included already have NOOBs on them.

My first time turning the Pi on was anticlimactic. I had the monitor, USB mouse and keyboard, Ethernet cable, and power plugged in, but nothing appeared to be working. I realized after that I had to have the power cord plugged in last, not first. I unplugged everything and plugged it all in again, attaching the power last, and it finally fired up!

Starting with Students

First Lesson

My first “lesson” with the students was spent looking at the different components of the Pi. After all, one of the great educational aspects of the Pi is the opportunity to identify different hardware pieces. Next we had to insert the mini SD card and install the operating system Raspbian and Scratch. In order to do this we had to start attaching some peripheral hardware to interact with the Pi. This involved taking all the mice, keyboards and monitors from our classroom computers and plugging them into the Pi. This was tough because everything is tied together so securely for fear of theft that some of the cables were difficult to access. Installing the operating system took about 25 minutes, but because the students were in pairs I could have them shift to another computer to continue working on another class project. At the same time we were also working our way through Codecademy, so I had them work on that. Providing sufficient time at the end of each class was important as it took some time to plug all the mice, keyboards and monitors in again and ensure they were working properly for the next class.

Second Lesson

When in doubt, read the instructions. The students and myself were both a little mystified when we were asked for a username and password during the next book up, even though we had never previously set one up. Thankfully in the accompanying instruction manual we found that the username was ‘pi’ and the password ‘raspberry’.

During the second lesson we made sure everyone had installed the operating system properly. It took some time to set up the devices again with the monitors and other peripherals but once we were all booted up the students finally had a chance to start interacting with the device. From the main menu there are basically 2 options – you can go to the command line Raspbian or to a program called Scratch, which is a free visual programming language. If you go to the command line and type in “startx” the Pi launges a graphic user interface which has a few other programs you can easily access, including a version of the popular game Minecraft.

During this class, students familiarized themselves with the boot up process, and how to access some of the different programs both through scratch and the GUI. Students who were comfortable with the interface could go and try out the Scratch website also, which has a great tutorial.

Third Lesson

During lesson three we began looking at Raspberry Pi projects that the students could try out. Raspberrypi.org has a bunch of neat simple projects as options, but there are many other more sophisticated ones to be found on the web.

Because we had a breadboard included in the kit, I printed off instructions for students to do some simple breadboard – LED activities. As previously mentioned, all the wires we were given were male-to-male, so I had to also order a bundle of male to female wires off amazon for $10. Students were encouraged to do a more ambitious project if they wanted.

IMG_0032A friend of mine had taken a Raspberry Pi and turned it into a Super Nintendo simulator. I brought that into the class and plugged it in for the kids to see. It’s one thing to tell them what they can do, but being able to show them a finished product was even cooler. This inspired some students to research how to make one themselves. Because some projects that were larger may have needed students to buy other peripheral hardware like controllers, I provided an added incentive saying that if anyone came up with a substantial project that required some personal investment on their part, that they could take the Raspberry Pi home permanently when they were done their project.

Work on their projects consumed our third and fourth lessons.


One of the biggest questions I got was “How are we going to be marked on this?” Lesson 5 was spent addressing assessment. Although the formative assessment that was ongoing throughout the project classes was also remarkably evident. Students with a more proficient skill set had the opportunity throughout the lessons to provide peer support… and I even noticed some scaffolding of their classmates learning!

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.41.34 PMDuring lesson 5, students were required to do a reflection and discuss to what extent were they successful in completing the project they set out to do. They were asked what they learned and what they’d do differently.

My Own Reflection

As a type A teacher, a complete lack of instructional structure was a bit terrifying, but with the recent push for more personalized and project based learning, I thought this experience represented an excellent opportunity to loosen the reins a bit.

The next time I do this project, I’d like to have more self-paced mini-projects to provide the students, so those with few ideas can at least feel like they did something substantial with it. I feel like some students viewed the Raspberrypi.org projects daunting despite their apparent ease. I’d have more wires etc. so the class would be less limited by the hardware constraints.

Providing a working example of a successful video game emulator really captured the students’ attention. If I have access to the same system next time, I’ll certainly be sure to make use of it again.

The administrative privileges on our computers make it incredibly difficult or impossible to download or install anything. We needed to download and install different card images on the SD cards depending on the project the students wanted to do, but couldn’t because we didn’t have the necessary permissions. There was a program we needed to use to reimage the cards, but we weren’t able to download it. I tried to download it onto my school laptop, but the same restrictions were in place. That was probably the most frustrating part of the experience and one that is common to many projects we try and do with technology.

I think it’s important to always try new things. Failure is okay. Some of the students I know have been inspired to try and do bigger and better things with the Pi on their own time / during lunch hours, which I think is great and has to be considered a success. 5 lessons as an introduction were perfect for this year and I hope to be able to build on this ‘first slice of Pi’ with my new understanding of the device in the years to come.

My First Slice of Raspberry Pi