“I am a learner and I am a teacher. Simple. The two, for me, are inseparable and part of the whole.” – Peter Skillen, Canada
After teaching K-12 for four decades, most educators would take a well-deserved break to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Peter Skillen isn’t one of those teachers. Now leading professional learning at the YMCA of Greater Toronto and deeply involved in advancing the role of technology in education, Skillen is more active than ever.
“I have been involved in using computers with kids and teachers since 1978,” Skillen says. “This gives me an interesting perspective on things.” Indeed, that perspective is exactly what makes him a visionary educator and leader.
Skillen was part of a team that opened the YMCA Academy of Greater Toronto, a school created to address the needs of young people who weren’t succeeding in traditional schools. This innovative school focuses on a “holistic, constructivist and equitable approach to learning and teaching.” It’s also proved to be an ideal backdrop for Skillen’s expertise in teaching with technology.
“I advocate models of learning that engage a student’s natural ‘desire to know’ and, therefore am focused on social-constructivist uses of ICT in education,” he says. “One of the fascinating and most beautiful aspects of effective computer use is that students have the opportunity to acquire mental models that they can use in other aspects of their learning.”
Today, Skillen not only makes a difference in the lives of his students, he also contributes his considerable talents to organizations that align with his vision. Skillen serves on the Board of Directors of iEARN-Canada, the conference committee of the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario, and is global ambassador with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). He is a community leader with Powerful Learning Practice, a co-founder of Minds On Media, and sits on the steering committee for Global Dignity.
In additional to that long list of organizations Skillen supports, this tireless innovator maintains a blog and a website to share his insights on teaching and learning with other educators. Today, Daily Edventures honors the lifework of Peter Skillen – work that seems to know no bounds. Enjoy!
What inspired you to become an educator?
My original goal in life was to become an ethologist—a student of animal behavior. Since I was a young child, I studied animals and was mesmerized by the works of Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen and Desmond Morris. Somewhere along the way, however, my mother suggested to me that I was “good with children.” It dawned on me, in a flash of insight, that there were incredible parallels between my fascination with animal behavior and interest in how children learn. My love of psychology, people and learning theory built the bridge from ethology to teaching.
What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?
In recent years, I was very fortunate to be invited as a founding teacher of the YMCA Academy of Greater Toronto. This secondary school was created to serve young people who learn differently. They didn’t fit in, nor were they successful in, large, traditional secondary schools.
These students arrived at our doorstep with varied issues—everything from diagnosed learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, self-esteem challenges, socio-economic or other systemic life barriers. They were, for the most part, feeling defeated, inadequate, and doomed to failure. They had lost faith—both in themselves and in the education system. Their parents and/or guardians were also feeling desperate.
As staff charged with building a new school, we were determined to put some of our shared beliefs into place. These included a Harm Reduction approach versus a Zero Tolerance approach, a strengths-based appreciative inquiry approach, social inclusion, a project-based learning framework and we also embraced Universal Design for Learning (UDL). These beliefs are difficult to implement at the best of times—so the excellent student-teacher ratio in the school helped us greatly. It gave us wonderful opportunities to build relationships with the students and to make the time for deep and necessary conversations.
The absolute proudest moment was the night of the first graduation ceremony. Although I am not one for pomp and ceremony, we decided to embrace the more traditional rituals of a secondary school graduation including gowns, mortars, and processionals. I am so thrilled that we did. Each graduate wore a gown with pride and each made a speech. Parents cried. Teachers cried. Students cried. This was an event they thought would be for others to enjoy—that it had escaped their grasp.
That evening was my proudest moment. A difference had been made.
Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
I have always been interested in discovering how students can use computers in ways that will lead to the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are transferable to other situations.
I used to wonder at the end of a day just what my students had learned while working at the computers and so I considered the following simple model. Gavriel Salomon (1992) posed an analysis of the difference between effects with and effects of computers.
Effects with are the changes that take place while one is engaged in intellectual partnership with peers or with a computer tool, as, for example, is the case with the changed quality of problem solving that takes place when individuals work together in a team. On the other hand, effects of are those more lasting changes that take place as a consequence of the intellectual partnership, as when computer-enhanced collaboration teaches students to ask more exact and explicit questions even when not using that system.
In other words, the effects with are the enhanced ability one gets from the use of technology. Salomon elaborates: “The combined product of human-plus-machine yields a higher level of performance.” The effects of are the lasting individual changes resulting from the computer-supported collaboration, the cognitive residue, one might say, the transferable knowledge or skills.
I wanted to teach transferable skills so I looked for tools or features that might provide mental models for kids. Programming, or coding, has been one such environment.
Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?
In the same way that power tools extend the capabilities of the physical self and make possible actions that are impossible by oneself, so do digital technologies. They are power tools for the mind—cognitive partners, as Gavriel Salomon has said.
However, they are not merely tools. They have the potential to create a new culture. Paul Levinson, as referenced by Derrick de Kerckhove in The Skin of Culture says, “The addition of a drop of blue dye to a glass of water results not in blue dye plus water, but in blue water: a new reality.”
In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future?
What excites me most these days is the return of constructionism and its integration with theories of knowledge building.
Constructionist learning theory has evolved from constructivist theories of learning that recognize that learning is an active process in which learners construct mental models and theories of the world in which they live. Constructionists believe that deep, substantive learning and ‘enduring understandings’ occur when people are actively creating artefacts in the real world.
Seymour Papert, while at the MIT Media Lab, coined the term constructionism. He suggested, that “children learn best when they are in the active role of the designer and constructor.”But the theory goes a step further.Constructionism, Papert adds,“is the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”
In a constructionist approach, it is not merely the act of constructing that is essential.
Constructionism relies on visible and discussable thinking. Powerful things happen when that act of constructing mediates deep conversation with others. The very act of articulating ideas, sharing thoughts, confusions, a-ha’s, questions, potential solutions makes knowledge building explicit.
Sometimes words are spoken. Oftentimes facial expressions and body language communicate. We might draw diagrams or build prototypes. All of these serve to make the thinking visible and, therefore, discussable—not only with others but for oneself. We learn our subject matter well as we think hard about it and are very intentional about constructing not only the artifact at hand but also our knowledge and success. Constructionist learning is very powerful due to the rich texture of this public creation of artifacts.
The current ‘maker movement’ has given new life to constructionism. Research and development into knowledge-building classrooms, visible thinking strategies and the Reggio Emilia approach are on the rise.
My biggest hope for today’s students is that they will not just be given agency over their learning, but that they will be nurtured to acquire the skills necessary to be active, intentional learners within a constructionist, knowledge-building school environment.
About Peter Skillen, Manager of Professional Learning
YMCA of Greater Toronto
- Birthplace: Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Educational background: M.Ed. Educational Psychology
- Website I check every day: Hootsuite!
- Favorite childhood memory: Walking the hills in Ireland with my family—off the beaten path.
- Favorite book: Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: I enjoy choreographing PowerPoint into a multimedia accompaniment.
- What is the best advice you have ever received? I have been extremely fortunate to work with Jim Milligan, who taught me about taking the pause. He encouraged me, when faced with a conflict or face-to-face issue, not to react—but rather to take a short pause, to reflect on the intention of the individual in front of me, and then to respond. This advice has served me well with students and colleagues because it gives one’s ego and emotions a chance to settle and to really hear and understand the message that has been presented to you.