Education Visionaries Robert Gardner-02

The Rules Have Changed: An Interview with Robert Gardner | By Claire Edwards

Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of articles highlighting educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole.  By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.

Robert (Bob) Gardner is Department Head of Social Studies at McNally High School. With a focus on global citizenship, McNally has fostered worldwide connections that allow students to experience globalization first hand. Through partnerships with schools all over the world, students are working on environmental, human rights and developmental projects as part of the curriculum.

When we arrived, Bob sat us down in his office: a couple chairs with a table and plant in the middle of a busy high school hallway. As a teacher, he aims to “tear down the walls and throw away the clocks.” Bob doesn’t just bring the outside world into the classroom, he brings his students into the outside world – and for that, we are proud to celebrate him as an education visionary.

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Claire: So, Mr. Gardner, why did you decide to become a teacher?

Bob: I had a couple of really good teachers when I was in high school. I was not a good student. In fact, I was a terrible student. But I happened to really admire two or three of the teachers I had. So when I was able to recover, get my high school education and eventually get into university…they were partly why. It took a long time but I really enjoyed it. It was the right choice.

Claire: What were the qualities in those people that made them good teachers?

Bob: They were interesting and they made the world interesting. As I said I was a horrible student and so it was pretty hard to get me motivated to do any kind of work or attend. I think I skipped the last two months of grade twelve.

Claire: Do you think that gives you a perspective on some of the students that you teach today? How do you work with students that aren’t very motivated?

Bob: Well, it’s always a problem to try and motivate people, but at least I get it. So the guys who hate school, I can say yeah, I know what you mean. School is a secret code that you have to figure it out. If you don’t get the code, then it’s hard.

Claire: As a former student of yours I can attest to the fact that you have a unique style of teaching. I remember a lot of independent work. Can you talk about that?

Bob: This has been evolving and you got an early version of it – sort of the 1.0 of how my class operates. I used to be very traditional, structured: stand in front of a room and tell people what to do. I’ve revisited that quite a bit. Increasingly now, students are responsible for their own work. I still translate the curriculum, but more and more of my students are becoming independent. Some of the students in this building are taking two courses at the same time, in the same block. They go to one class one day and another class another day, depending on what their personal needs are. That has a lot to do with Alberta Education’s high school redesign project. There are about 150 schools across Alberta that have been given permission to change the way things work in their schools. They say: innovate, create, do things differently. Get more students through school and more students prepared for a world that is changing quite rapidly. McNally doesn’t look like the way schools did a few decades ago. I’m able to do a number of things: bending, shattering rules.

Claire: You mentioned preparing students for a more global world. We have here, the Exploring Globalization Social 10 textbook, which you wrote. Can you talk a bit about your emphasis on global citizenship and how that plays into Social Studies?

Bob: One of the phrases I use around here is: Let’s tear down the walls and throw away the clocks. Let’s get students more connected to the world in a variety of ways.” In grade 10 you can really do that because it’s part of the curriculum. Globalization is the name of the course, but it’s also part of what we try to do in all courses. We connect students with opportunities outside of the school to be involved in. The Ainembabazi Children’s Project was here twice this week to get students involved and engaged in fundraising for schools in Uganda. I also have sort of a virtual classroom where students can sign up for webinars and live video conferences from different parts of the world on projects. It’s in the early stages right now, but with a little luck I’ll be able to say to students, “Here’s an interesting event happening in South America or Europe and if you get to school early enough in the morning you can be part of it.” We also connect with students in other parts of the world who are working on similar projects, so that’s really exciting.

Claire: Can you talk about your partnership with schools in Finland?

Bob: There’s five schools in Alberta which developed formal partnerships with seven schools in Finland though the Alberta Teachers’ Association. They set it up and funded the project. Students and teachers travel back and forth between schools to learn what we can from one another. It came about because Finland and Alberta are regarded as the top performing schools in the world on international exams. So what are we doing that’s so different? Could we learn anything from each other to prepare for the next level? We’re really good at these things – so what’s next?

We started three or four years ago. We’ve had a number of teachers and students travel to schools in Finland to observe and talk with one another, and they’ve come here as well. We’ve gotten to know each other quite a bit. McNally did a really interesting project with two schools in Finland. The three of us raised money to donate to one of Ainembabazi’s school projects in Uganda. Instead of buying desks or used books or atlases, we bought them a computer lab and had it set up. So now those kids who live and go to school in rural Uganda can connect with the rest of the world and with us. We’ve started an exchange with the students there to learn a little bit more about them and develop a different understanding of what it’s like to be a young person in Africa today. What are the issues surrounding development? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? We still maintain that connection. We might be going back to Finland this year but we’re not sure yet. We’re in the process of writing books and reports about what happened and what we learned.

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Claire: What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Bob: The high school redesign has freed me up to do all kinds of stuff. Mostly its a better chance to develop relationships with students, because they are more independent and I can allow them to be more flexible. That’s turning into a lot of fun. So here’s my office (in the middle of the hallway); we’re doing a lot of work out here. I sit and chat with students. Sometimes they use this space. Two teachers down the hallway copied this idea actually. I should charge royalties or something. It’s turned out to be a good idea.

The model from Alberta Education was that students can learn any time, any place, any pace. That frees up a lot of constraints. We’re still in an old building that looks like a prison. There’s still classrooms and bells, but we’re starting to get rid of some of those. Another thing the redesign allows us to do is to get rid of the so called “carnegie unit.” Your classes give you x amount of credits. A hundred years ago somebody decided it takes 25 hours to learn something. Therefore in Math and English you learn five things in 125 hours.This is an ancient idea and it’s ridiculous. In 1908 that was dubious and today it’s preposterous.

So you get rid of that. We learn more than five things and it doesn’t take 125 hours. Our calendar is shifting. I don’t have to hold classes from September until the end of January. I can cancel days. I can say, “I don’t need to see you today. You can do some writing and we’ll come back and talk about it together.” It becomes a little bit more real life. In the real world, people work on contract. They work at two o’clock in the morning if that’s what they’re good at. They don’t go into work and punch a clock anymore. Those days are gone. We make schools more open. That’s what I’m doing.

Claire: So how has the education system changed? Do you think that the work you’re doing is becoming more accepted by other teachers or is there still pushback?

Bob: There’s still this belief that “whatever school was like when I was in school is the way it should be.” People in their 40s, 50s, 60s, look back with some sort of fondness on the old days and assume that’s just the way school should be. There should be homework every night. There should be unit tests, and so on. Well, that’s just not true any more. Things have changed.

Technology is completely different. In the old days you used to take the sum of human knowledge and divide by twelve and people were supposed to remember it all for a test. Now, you have a universe right at your fingertips in your cell phone. So you don’t have to memorize in the same way you used to. You still need to read and write but now it’s not about remembering information, it’s about what to do with information. It’s liberating for students. I don’t have to have 30 people in a room all to write an essay or a test at the same time.

One of my grade 10 students is not coming to school today. Her and her family are driving to Vancouver, so she will write her essay on her laptop in the car and email it to me later this morning. I had a student last year who went to Vienna. Her individual Social Studies project was on ethnomusicology. So she studied music in Vienna for a week and sent it to me from there so I could edit it.

Claire: What’s your main objective? If you did everything right what sort of skills would you want students to leave with?

Bob: One of the things I’m doing right now with time management is with grade tens. I give them several tasks at the same time: read this chapter from the textbook, here’s an extra article, there’s some group work involved and a presentation. You guys look at the calendar and sort out how you’re going to make it work. And they’re pretty good. It’s not always perfect, but if they can start to do that in grade 10, think of how they’ll be once they’ve got a few years under their belt.

So I suppose the way I would describe it would be more like a grad student and their supervisor. The students can come to me and we’ll talk about their needs and how they are progressing. I still need to be in a classroom, teach specific content and show students how to use information, but I’m there less often. It’s less focused on me and more focused on what students are learning. They have the freedom to learn different things. Not everyone in the room needs to learn the same thing at the same time. If things work really well, I turn into a conductor of an orchestra. These people over here are playing this, these people in the middle need to be quiet for a second, I need to hear more from this group over here, and so on.

Claire: Do you have any particularly memorable or meaningful experiences related to teaching, or anything you’re really proud of?

Bob: I’ve got the best job in Alberta right now. I get to do some travelling, learning about other schools in different parts of the world. I get to do a huge amount of professional development. I should give huge credit to our principal Dale Skoreyko because he allows that to happen, not just for teachers but students too. We have a great relationship with the Faculty of Education at the U of A. Sometimes they come here; professors and instructors come to visit us. I also get a chance to write. I’ve written a book, a couple articles. I get to experiment. It’s been very rewarding.

Claire: What advice do you have to students graduating high school today?

Bob: What I say to the grade twelves is that the rules have changed. You used to go to postsecondary and then apply for a “fill in the blank” job. Today, people are far more mobile. Their jobs change. They have contract work. They need to be agile and flexible. Therefore, schools need to change to prepare students.

Schools today do a very good job of preparing students for the past. I’m trying to change that.

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Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.

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