“Whenever we have used technology to allow a student or teacher to have a voice that they didn’t have before — that’s been a meaningful innovation.” – Calvin Armstrong, Canada

Sometimes, a relatively simple innovation — using widely available tools — can make a big difference. As an Education/Technology advisor for Appleby College, Cal Armstrong is combining several familiar tools in an innovative way to keep track of student work and enable collaboration with other teachers, parents and the students themselves. Using Microsoft OneNote (along with Sharepoint, Office and the cloud) to connect everyone who plays a role in a student’s academic achievement, Armstrong, with colleague Kevin Pashuk, created a structured “Binder” that allows for the collaborative work teachers and students do. Where it stands apart is that it’s also well documented, conveniently and securely distributed, and easily organized and assessed.  According to Armstrong, “Its introduction has had the largest impact on technology use by faculty and students since the beginning of our 1:1 program fifteen years ago.”

Armstrong got interested in teaching as a child, helping fellow students in his rural, mixed-grade classroom. That rewarding experience taught him to value the learning process – mistakes included. And his early experiments with technology in the classroom, like using online chat nearly 20 years ago to help give a student a voice in the classroom, convinced him of the value technology can have in changing students’ lives.

Creating meaningful change takes focus and discipline, Armstrong says. “I try to avoid large or numerous goals – it’s easier to keep things in mind to change if they fit on a post-it note.” It’s a good reminder that transforming education, though it seems like a daunting task, is made up of many small efforts. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Calvin Armstrong.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

Growing up in an isolated, rural area, I went to a very small school where we used to have classrooms with more than one grade.  As I found little difficulty with the content, the teachers would often sit me with a student experiencing challenges.  It was a great experience to help others improve their understanding of mathematics or literature, trying to express things in ways that would allow them to “get it.”  That reward of seeing the eyes light up is more addictive than any drug.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

Murray Sharp was my teacher in Grades 6-8; the first male teacher I had at school.  He passed me real questions in mathematics that prompted inquiry; this wasn’t textbook math, but questions in graph and number theory.  He encouraged my love of science fiction and let me follow my passions so long as I also kept up with the “standard” work.  I remember him as a huge man (from the perspective of a middle schooler) with a great laugh; his expectations were always clear, he held us to high standards both in terms of academics and social interaction and his pragmatism is a hallmark that I still remember.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

Generally, my work with students and teachers has been to ask them to think deeply on the simple things they do. If we ask a better question, that will lead to better lessons, better assessments, better schools. If we spend time reflecting on what has happened, writing it down, discussing it, then we can find the space, the capacity and the energy to improve schools in the ways that are needed.

Most recently and specifically, the development of the OneNote Binders at our school has opened up access to teacher and student work in a way that’s not really been experienced before.  The Binders have increased the use of formative assessment and the use of written comments and audio/video feedback to improve learning.  The OneNote web app has opened the Binders to the parents and involved them in the discussion of content and evaluation.

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

Whenever we have used technology to allow a student or teacher to have a voice that they didn’t have before — that’s been a meaningful innovation.  I remember using online chat back in 1994 and it gave a voice to a student who, for cultural reasons, couldn’t bring herself to ask questions in class.  That was the touchstone moment for me in why we must use technology.  And that continues with our recent project with OneNote. The student and teacher voices are captured and shared within the digital space that OneNote provides in ways that paper or whiteboards can’t.  And it ends up encouraging face-to-face interactions in the classroom and beyond with students, teachers and parents.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

There is a conversation happening about education, teaching and learning that is not limited to administration, district leaders, etc., nor to a particular geography. Teachers are engaged in a discourse with other teachers around the world on how to improve the learning of students in their own classrooms outside the bounds of any hierarchy – they’re sharing ideas, empowering each other and their students to envision a brave new world.  I think we underestimate the impact that this opening of the classroom door is having on motivating positive change from the ground up.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

They really are not 21st century skills; it’s a bit of a temporal chauvinism.  They were equally 15th century skills for Michelangelo and his ilk; 19th century skills for Edison, etc.  And in the same way, there is no primacy amongst them; a table needs balance. I try to think of them like the themes in a novel – their use and development should be apparent as you read through any curricular document, assessment or policy.

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

A teacher that truly hears them.  It is tough growing up.  Beyond learning the academic content of school, teachers are called upon to provide the student with assistance in becoming an adult and a valued member of society. Students don’t always remember what subject we teach them but they remember the character lessons that help to make them who they are in the future.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

Ontario has really taken the lead in looking at assessment as a continuum, valuing the conversation that occurs throughout the course rather than just focusing on the assessment at the end.  That has really changed the discussion amongst teachers on how to design curriculum to work with the students on learning throughout the year. It’s not just about regurgitating knowledge on a one-shot exam but instead experiencing learning as a process rather than a product. While not yet obvious or clear to students (or parents), it’s a good first step.

How must education change to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

We really need to break the bonds of an age-delineated approach to education.  To reach real differentiation, to really thrive in an environment whose hallmark is flexibility in the face of change, we need to make the boundaries of grade levels and courses fuzzier.  It will change the way we view the academic year and the physical space we know of as “school,” but it’s paralleling the disaggregation we see in other areas.

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

In far too many educational environments, especially in mathematics, students (and faculty and parents) often think that success is the result of following the “rules” to get to the answer, when true and lasting learning occurs when the student works outside of the comfort zone of the box that the rules, the textbook, the curriculum, etc., places them in. The most valuable moment in learning mathematics is when you get a wrong answer and need to analyze where you went astray.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

As an educator, and as a leader, I try to never say no when asked a reasonable request.  There are a lot of processes that most people go through that finally brings them to ask the question, so you have to find a way to move them forward.  Saying “no” too often or too quickly (or even downplaying the idea) brings not just what they asked to a stop but also other things they may only be imagining.  Say “yes” and it opens opportunities to discuss and evolve.  This is true for students and teachers.

The other important point we have to remember is that we all have to go through the learning curve.  For those of us who were early adopters, we can’t assume that others will leap through all we have gone through to end up at the same place – they, too, have to experience the same challenges.  We can’t get rid of adolescence for others just because we are now adults.  If we try to short-circuit the process in a naïve attempt to help them, we won’t get a personal buy-in and we’ll experience far more resistance than is necessary.

About Calvin Armstrong

  • Birthplace: Canada
  • Current residence: Burlington, Ontario
  • Education: Ongoing. BSc, BEd, MSc, PhD (2015, fingers crossed)
  • Website I check every day: twitter.com
  • Person who inspires me most: Richard Feynman. The quintessential teacher and learner; he always exhibited a sense of play and questioned everything.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Writing negative numbers to the left of zero on the number line the teacher had put on everyone’s desk, much to her displeasure.  Can’t take 5 from 3, eh? The awareness that folks in authority were deliberately hiding things from me created a lifelong critical approach to “knowledge” that was just delivered to me.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Los Angeles, for the Workshop on Pen & Touch Technology in Education.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I laugh continually; life is too short to frown through.
  • Favorite book: Carry on Mr. Bowditch. It’s a children’s book, a Newbery Award winner from way back.  For a mathematics-oriented child on a rural farm pre-Internet, the story of Nathaniel Bowditch, born in a large family and apprenticed off for nine years instead of being able to attend school, helped me to understand that you could learn anything from any situation if you looked deeply at it.  The metaphor “Sailing on an ash breeze” that was present throughout the book continues to resonate today.
  • Favorite music: Country music. You can take the boy off the farm…
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  When you pray, move your feet.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: See above.

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