“The first and MOST important element that any leader must have when integrating technology and change in the classroom: courage. Simply put, no courage and no change.” – Canada

Ron Canuel is one of Canada’s leading authorities on innovation in teaching and learning, and he came by that authority by fighting for change. Canuel was the principal architect of Canada’s first — and, nearly 10-years later, still the only,  — district-wide one-to-one computing environment. In the process of implementing that ground-breaking innovation, he learned a lot about what it takes to influence change in education. “Education really doesn’t like change,” Canuel said, “whether it is “top-down” or by “local consensus.” But Canuel, who has been an educator for more than two decades, persisted. Today, as CEO of the Canadian Education Association, Canuel is able to leverage his hard-earned experience to help foster a spirit of innovation and change in his country’s schools. Here, he shares with us his experiences as an early adopter, and where the integration of technology in the classroom is leading.  

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

My most important contribution was truly a team effort, in which we provided free wireless laptop computers to our entire school district (Eastern Townships School Board), Grades 3-11 (last year of high school in Quebec) in 2003.  This initiative had two main strategic themes: Enhance the teaching environment and engage the students in their learning.  We were, and still remain, the only Canadian public school district to have accomplished this and the results have been fantastic.  Since 2003, over 54,000 students have benefitted from this experience, as well as all teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and communities.  This experience is unique to the world of public education in Canada and is only mirrored in a few US-UK educational jurisdictions. In effect, while I was the Director General of the Eastern Townships School Board, in 2003 we set the pragmatic vision of integrating technology into the classroom.  We moved beyond the “philosophical” support that so many people articulate when technology in education is discussed to actually making it a reality for our students.   We also didn’t “pilot” the initiative but made it a systemic deployment and created a sense of urgency.  All of this work was accomplished via the integration of an inquiry-based curriculum and related assessment rubrics.

What has changed as a result of your efforts? 

Improved academic results, drastically reduced dropout rates, the positive culture of change, leading the integration of technology in education, and the attitudes of an increasing number of educators regarding technology in the classrooms.  Sadly, the world of education is very slow moving and that inertia has prevented much more innovation from happening, but when you provide opportunities for educators and students to grow and reach new heights, the use of technology becomes an imperative and not an option.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

I have spent the 10 years giving conferences, keynote speeches, writing articles, giving workshops on how to go about successfully integrating technology into the classroom.  But the first and MOST important element that any leader must have when integrating technology and change in the classroom: courage.  Simply put, no courage and no change.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work? 

Technology has played an extremely important role in my beliefs on change, which is what is most important. Understanding that change needs to be supported does not mean that it must be slow.  As I have observed, educators are not against change, but they are against poor professional development models that are continuously used.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Very simply: adults’ needs coming before childrens’ needs

What is your country doing right to support education?

There is a new shift regarding the integration of technology into the classroom.  One has to make an important determination, that is, is this new reality due to innovation or capitulation?  Have school districts simply capitulated to the ever-increasing presence of technology in the lives of students or have they finally recognized the potential that technology can bring into the classroom?  This is an important nuance to understand since it will have a profound effect on the type of support given to teachers and principals in our schools.  Will technology be used to create innovative environments or will the technology be used to simply replicate old traditional teaching methods and outcomes?  We are also seeing an [increased] understanding of the need to have curriculum and assessment that supports inquiry-based instruction, that fosters creative and critical thinking, to name a few.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

There needs to be a profound change in paradigm about trying to “change” education.  The prevailing mentality about change in education, amongst senior ed leaders, policy-makers,
and politicians, remains simplistic in nature, that is, keep doing what we do best, plain and simple.  The mentality embodies the focus on rote skills and little else.  Technology has created a new paradigm for these individuals and it is making them increasingly uncertain, that is, the voice of students is taking on a greater role and having a greater impact.  Listening to the voice of students will provide a very new and dramatic perspective of how learning can be altered in ways to enhance the classroom.  Research is clear on this matter: When students are engaged in their own learning and are active participants in the design of such learning contexts, results go up, significantly.  Motivation goes up and drop-outs go down!

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

In my opinion, it is by the inclusion of the student voice in our attempts to re-design a very old education system.  Therefore, when technology is properly and effectively integrated and teachers are properly and effectively trained and school leaders are properly and effectively prepared for these new realities, we will then begin to see the emergence of innovative thinking and increased risk-taking.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Simple: Never forget the reason why you chose to become a teacher, and that is, to make a difference for children.  If you remember this, your moral imperative, it will guide you, inspire you and actually “teach” you to do what is always best for students.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

The current approach to inquiry-based instruction is possibly one of the better ways to engage students in the learning process.  I state inquiry-based and not project-based, since the latter has been present for decades and only produces moderate effects on achievement. I believe the trend that is getting in the way of learning is standardized testing and how such a basal approach to education is creating much more stress and harm for both students and teachers alike.  There is absolutely no correlation between the results of a standardized test and real learning, none.  However the accountability measures that are now in place across many nations only serve as a barometer of performance for fiscal analysis and nothing related to constructing knowledge and creating learning experiences that are meaningful and relevant for children.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give them a smartphone. Why? Because it is easy to handle; allows for spontaneous communication; allows for children to create new dimensions of life; allows for a greater democratization of learning such that geographical and political boundaries are rendered meaningless; allows every child to be an active participant in their learning; allows the voices of children to play a part in the design of their learning environment; allows for the abolition of the traditional school building as we know it now; allows for teachers to be more engaging and interactive with their students; and most of all, allows for the abolition of the “learning environment” and now suggests that learning is mobile, on-going, and not restricted to a specific location.

To hear more from Ron Canuel, listen to this podcast of his CEA keynote.

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About Ron Canuel
Chief Executive Officer,  Canadian Education Association (CEA)

Birthplace: Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Current residence: Bromont, Quebec, Canada
Education: Bachelor of Education, Graduate Management Diploma (McGill University)
Website I check every day: www.cea-ace.ca
Person who inspires me most: Every student that I have met and worked with
Favorite childhood memory:  Fly fishing in a stream with my father
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): China
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Last night, watching a funny movie
Favorite book: The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre
Favorite music: Rock-Jazz-Blues
Your favorite quote or motto: Told to me in 1973, Professor Martin O’Hara at the Faculty of Education, McGill University: “When a student fails, you failed.”

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