“Hey, Dad…thank-you”

Back in December of 2012 I wrote this post about my dad, Bob Gilson. Almost 10 years later as I ponder Father’s Day 2022 tomorrow I find myself reflecting on Dad passing away on June 28, 2014 just a few days after the last time I was able to visit him. We saw him two days in a row, the first day he was pretty out of it, Randy (my brother) had said it wasn’t looking good so Chauna and I hurried up to Edmonton for a quick visit before wrapping up what was my first of five years working for Westwind School Division in Southern Alberta. As we sat with Dad he was tired, sleeping most of the day, and not responding more than a few nods and “uh huh” type comments.

The next day we were pleasantly shocked to enter the common area to see he was up, dressed, bantering with the nurses, as he turned to say hi to both Chauna and I. It wouldn’t last. Grey’s Anatomy had an episode once where they referred to the “bump” some patients experience as the days are winding down, an exhilarating brief return to a level of alertness that certainly gives hope…for that visit it was great. We watched as he greeted other patients, called us by name and generally was pretty with it, though he asked how I was doing teaching Jr High, something I hadn’t done since June of 1989, but that’s how Alzheimers works, no use correcting just roll with it and enjoy the conversation.

My dad, Robert (Bob) Matthew Joseph Gilson gave big chunk of his life to helping others. I covered a great deal of it back in 2012. As I write this I’m reminded that among all the coaching he did, high school volleyball as a community coach at Sir Winston Churchill in Calgary in the 70’s and Bitty-ball (8 ft rims for little guys/gals to learn the game) for years in Edmonton, he would be particularly upset today reflecting on his two years in Ukraine. Mom and Dad served a mission in Ukraine and while there he was instrumental in facilitating the delivery of child’s size wheelchairs and instituting a full Bitty-Ball Basketball league for the youth he served in the Ukraine while on his mission there for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I can’t help but think that Dad would be concerned for the young people he coached, for the all the people that he served as Ukraine fights for its survival today fending off someone who mistakenly thinks he’s a modern day Peter the Great, in an era where conquering others is not really all that great.

In a little more than a week Chauna and I will head to Vancouver Island to celebrate the graduation of our oldest grandchild from high school. Masen was dad’s first grandchild, he would have loved to be there.

Last night, June 17, 2021, I was honoured to receive the ASAA’s highest honour, the Robert H. Routledge Award. My life path has been greatly impacted by Dad. He helped support my involvement in sports as an athlete, he modelled the commitment required of a coach. He flooded the backyard to make a hockey rink, somehow managed to sneak a homemade basketball standard into the backyard another year on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure he was always quite as sportsmanship minded as I would have liked, one historic outburst toward a volleyball official coming to mind. He attended the games I coached, particularly when my Grande Prairie teams would come down to Edmonton for Provincial Playoffs. I think even my players from the 1995 team would remember dad on the sidelines as we went into quadruple overtime and he would haul exhausted linemen up from the snowdrift and help them get back into the game. Dad would have loved to be there in person last night. Mom made it, Alzheimers now manifesting it’s challenges for her, my brother and youngest son and daughter-in-law representing the family on this occasion. It was a great night.

At the 2022 ASAA Awards Banquet

My dad was not perfect. Neither am I. Perhaps there are perfect dads out there but I doubt it. However it is always a good thing to pursue perfection knowing in the pursuit there will be days of excellence along the way. My dad loved that idea espoused by Coach Lombardi, he expected it of his players and he encouraged all of us boys to work to be our best selves. Any “I wish…” statement I made drew a quick reply from dad, “wish in one hand, spit in the other see which one fills up faster”…the point being if you want it, get to work. Plain and simple truth.

Thank-you Dad, I will see you again, but I’ve got lots of work to do first. Take care.

Character Counts….

Over the Christmas Break I was asked to write an article for the CIAAA (Canadian Interscholastic Athletic Administrator Association) Newsletter. I thought I’d post it here as well.

Character counts…unless it doesn’t.  Sportsmanship matters …unless it means I must accept an outcome I don’t like or am convinced is unfair.  In Shakespeare’s Hamlet there is scene where King Claudius, who has come to the throne and all places in his life through murder and deceit is kneeling, presumably in prayer, at the appropriate place in the castle.  (Stay with me on this weaving a bit of English class into an Athletic Director/Administrator conversation) Initially he is expressing a bit of remorse for the poor actions he has taken.  Hamlet, unaware of Claudius’ words or thoughts, is out of sight but pondering how he might seize the moment to exact revenge and kill the murderer of his father, the rightful king.  As the scene closes Claudius does not speak or hold thoughts of true remorse, his true character is pleased to be king, pleased to be married to his brother’s wife, overall pleased with the outcome of his poor choices.  He recognizes his lack of sincerity in his prayers with the line, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below, words without thoughts never to heaven go.” If we are ever going to see character development and sportsmanship that sticks, we must be willing to cement our words and expectations with our actions, acknowledging that when we fail in that connection we have failed, and MUST do better moving forward, no excuses.   

I have been involved with high school athletics as a player, coach, administrator, and Alberta Schools Athletic Association Board member, Commissioner, President and Past President spanning almost 50 years now from those days as a grade 10 playing volleyball in Calgary and have coached close to 80 teams total in football, volleyball, and basketball.  It is extremely easy to see where character and sportsmanship receives Claudius like lip service and where cultures of character and expectations of behaviour and appropriate response have been taught and acted upon on a consistent basis.  Is there really a “good technical foul” a necessary “unnecessary roughness” or a sportsmanlike, “unsportsmanlike penalty”?  I will never believe there is.  Our language, our actions, our instructions to our team in terms of how they will carry themselves, in fact how we will carry ourselves, win, lose, or draw in every moment sets the course for what we will do, how we will respond under pressure. 

These are sports we are involved with, high school sports for the most part, and while it’s a wonderful thing to win and we all believe that sports provide great lessons for life, too often we fail to acknowledge that many of those lessons are how to properly respond when it doesn’t go the way you wanted or believed it should go.  I have heard some form of the phrase, “Character isn’t developed in times of pressure, that’s when it used” on many occasions.  I do agree in the immediate moment of response that is where our character is at that moment; but believe further that we learn in that moment and from that moment refining our understanding, polishing the practice of great character when we have chosen well and reflecting on how we might choose a better way when we have chosen poorly.  We can all continue learning every day.  We are all role models – sometimes we are role models for what people shouldn’t do, sometimes for what they should.  There are much harder things going to happen in our lives, and in the lives of our players than anything that will happen in sports. 

I want every shot to go in, every serve to be good, every play to succeed.  I’d prefer my team to be ranked as high as I see them, I want to win every game, but the Rolling Stones nailed it years ago, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find…you get what you need.”  What we need is to be resilient, you hear that word a lot and resilience is directly tied to being a person of great character under pressure.  A resilient person can celebrate the success of others even in a situation where it means the other person wins the moment at their expense.  Live it. Lead it. Don’t just speak it or think it.   You always have a choice…choose wisely align your words with your actions in private and public, your coaches, athletes, friends and family will follow. 

“It Wasn’t All Bad…”

Shortly after the media announcement on May 28, sharing the discovery at the Kamloops Residential School site I found myself in conversation with a couple in my region.  While expressing sadness as a grandfather and father at the news my friend made the comment, one I’ve heard on many occasions, that “I’ve heard that Residential schools were not all bad”.  There is a possibility you’ve heard it too as it relates to residential schools it is even possible that you’ve heard it directly to your ears from a former residential school student. 

To be clear, it is vital to honour the opinion of each residential school student, that is their lived experience.  Personally, as a descendent of settlers to this land, as a non-First Nations, Métis, and Inuit citizen of Canada it is important to acknowledge that whatever good may have come the price was too high.  The intent, indeed the unequivocally stated intent, of the Government of Canada and those who ran the schools was to destroy families and the culture of the Indigenous people of Canada.

In “A Knock on the Door” (Craft, 2016) we read, “Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883: When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”  

In 1920 Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs doubled down on this intent when he stated, “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” (Craft, 2016). Wiping out the culture, was the government objective and for at least some of those supervising the Residential School operations across the country the stated goal as phrased by Bishop Vital Grandin in 1875 was, “We instil in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin.  When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood.” 

I openly acknowledge that I yet do not have the level of understanding of all that occurred from the first contacts, north, south, east and west across this land to the present day.  I believe firmly in the adage that the more I know, the more I know I need to know more.  I do believe, particularly when I close my eyes and capture an image of any of my children or grandchildren in my mind and imagine a knock on my door as officials come to take that child away, that this was “all bad”.  Residential Schools as established Canada was bad from the start, bad to the end.  Anything even remotely good or praiseworthy in the Residential school setting could have been accomplished in a manner that supported and empowered a people, their culture, and traditions.  All affected by Residential schools needed the public, all the citizens of the land who knew, to say no to the government, to say no to all the organizations and individuals who suggested this was best for Canada and best for the Indigenous people of the land.  

This failure to catch the stones cast by those bent on destroying a culture and a people is our collective failure. It is a legacy for which we must apologize and work to redeem.  It hurts the heart but embrace every opportunity to know more.  Knowledge is the path to a better nation for everyone.  There are excellent books and resources to help gain that vital knowledge. One place to start, a collection of quick reads with links to dive deeper can be found here https://bit.ly/3g2QzwW .  We must also remember that we should be vigilant, that as citizens of our nation and citizens of mankind across this planet we should have our eyes open to ensure we catch the stones of racism and oppression cast today.  It’s not enough to not throw stones, the anti-racist step is to catch those stones cast by others.  I find myself pondering this point when I think, I’m positive I would have stepped up and said, “This is wrong” had I been alive when Residential schools were championed.  Did I catch stones, stand up and say no today?  

Craft, A. (2016). A knock on the door: The essential history of residential schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.

Taking on resistance with Tim Ferris’ “Fear-Setting” approach

In recent posts, I’ve talked about habits and B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits and James Clear, author of Atomic Habits.  I’ve come to believe in the sustainable power of habits to achieve our aspirations achieving goals or milestones along the way.   I’m very confident in saying that working through those two books and the ideas they present will positively impact your wellness and success rate in closing the gap between where you are today and where you aspire to be in any aspect of your life.  Strategies that help me stick to the process, establish easy routines and see a way forward are key.  Strategies that help me restart as quickly as possible and get back at it that’s where the gold is found. 

I’ve enjoyed much of Tim Ferris’ writing Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans provides a wealth of resources and ideas drawn from the interviews with a spectacular spectrum of individuals. Still, it’s an interesting twist on goal setting that Tim refers to as fear-setting that I’d invite you to ponder today.   Woven into Tim’s explanation of Stoicism (I recommend the writings of Ryan Holiday for a deeper dive into Stoicism) is the notion of working through your fears in advance. We waste a lot of energy in worry, ultimately suffering twice, once in the worry and once IF the event occurs.  

I’d suggest that fear-setting invites us to confront the possibilities on the other side of our fears, opportunities we can only realize fighting through the resistance that inevitably exists when we try to improve.  Whatever you are pondering, write it down by asking, “what if I….” and fill in the task.  First, define all the worst-case consequences or outcomes if you do what you are contemplating.  Second, ask yourself what you can do to prevent those worst-case scenarios and finally, what you can do to repair the situation should the worst case occur.   

I love the idea that Tim then suggests we give ourselves some room by contemplating not what happens if we succeed beyond our wildest dreams but instead invites us to answer the question, “What might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success?” Think of how often we stop because we only lost 10 pounds when the goal was 30 pounds; failing to acknowledge the 10 made a difference and is a start, not an end. The principle can apply to any challenge we undertake. 

Finally, where the first what-if exercise invited us to define worst-case consequences, steps we’d take to prevent and repair those situations, the last question in the process invites a reflection on “The cost of inaction” 6 months out, one year, three years and perhaps beyond.  This is a challenging opportunity cost exercise that admittedly is not an exact science but give it a try. Positive and negative possible outcomes over that span help establish the acceptable risk of what we’re contemplating. 

Our choices define our life.  This exercise provides another way to reflect on some of the uncomfortable, risky decisions that come into our lives, push the “fear button,” and sometimes stop us when great rewards are just beyond the challenge or fear.   Give it a try. 

Tim’s Ted Talk – https://youtu.be/5J6jAC6XxAI

Tim’s Blog post: https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & provin way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York, NY:

Avery.Fogg, B. J. (2020). Tiny habits: The small changes that change everything. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“The more I know….”

“The more I know, the more I know I need to know more.” This has been a personal motto for a number of years now.  In teaching and learning, I’m comfortable with the idea that I won’t know everything there is to know about even one subject at any point in this life.  That said, the pursuit of knowledge, particularly if it helps me better support those in my life, my classroom, my team is worthy of attention, energy, and time.  I’ve used a slide and saying in many of my presentations it shows a lady with a horse by the stream, the saying I invite everyone to complete is, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him/her …”  Most of us naturally finish with “drink.”  I invite folks to ponder what changes if rather than making a horse drink, we work at creating the environment where the horse is thirsty.  Presented with water, a thirsty horse will always drink. 

Our work in the classroom, grade 2, 2nd year of university, post-graduate or just ongoing professional and personal learning is about supporting a healthy thirst to know more, improve upon what we do to reach and help those with whom we work.  On a personal level, everything we do to learn a little more should help us in our interactions.  There’s no reason for any of us to hold back on the good stuff, the fine china reserved for special guests.  If we have something that can help; a book, a resource, a video, a Learn N Go, a presentation, we look for every way we can share that work.  If there’s something we think can help, we’re going to do all we can to share it.  If there’s something we’ve seen or heard from you that is awesome, and we see lots of that around the region and the province, we’re going to do all we can to share that as well.  IF there is something about which you are THIRSTY to know more, please don’t hesitate to call or e-mail us and we’ll find a way to help you drink.  Ok, that’s the extended metaphor for this week.  To borrow a line from a commercial series on TV – stay thirsty my friends, to which I’ll add stay safe, stay awesome. 

Reset, Reinvent, Reload —Go!

I don’t know that any of us desires to be average, certainly Todd Rose in his Ted Talk, The Myth of Average and his book The End of Average (2015) would suggest that when we design for the average we design for no one.  Normal is another word that has been used a lot lately, as in I look forward to things getting back to normal.  I am not sure that anything really has been normal for quite some time and it’s fair to question whether normal is really what we want.  

In 1959 the first-time head coach in the NFL, Vince Lombardi, stood in front of his team for the first time, a team that had won one game the year before, and said, ““Gentlemen we’re going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we won’t catch it because nothing is perfect. But we’re going to RELENTLESSLY chase it because in the process we will catch excellence.  I’m not remotely interested in being just good.”  Over the next nine years they would play in 6 championships winning 5 including the first two Super Bowls in NFL History.  The reset and reframing of expectations in word and in deed set the path. Vince Lombardi reset and reframed the expectations and then ensured the coaches, players and organization worked toward those expectations. The pursuit of perfection indeed led to excellence. 

Jerry Kramer and Coach Vince Lombardi

Let’s look for opportunities to reset and reframe what we do in the circumstances that are presented before us.  It can be in what we read, in what we watch, and of course it’s witnessed by what we do. One such opportunity is the upcoming Student focused Impact Leadership Conference in Alberta, for Alberta student leaders and their teacher/coach advisors that runs the afternoon of May 3 and the morning of May 4.  Earlybird registration ends April 15 ($5 dollars a participant the rate bumps up to $10 on April16)  Student leaders grades 9 – 12 and their teacher mentors can help reset and reframe their own focus and that of the school and their peers.  Check it out here https://www.sapdc.ca/conference/130

Rose, T. (2015). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins.

What a 365, and now for tomorrow…

Three hundred sixty-five days each of them with 24 hours and each of us presented with the opportunity to decide how those hours, and the minutes and seconds inside each, will be used.  And that’s a year.  Typically, we go from January 1 to December 31 and count that as one.  Educators and students might wind the clock from September 1 to June 30 and define that as a school year, September to April for university, but each is a frame for how time passed.  One year ago, Thursday, March 12, 2020, Julie Stern presented a session on Teaching for Conceptual understanding live and in person at the Enmax in Lethbridge.  North America began closing down during Julie’s presentation.  Alberta started to close down.  

Before the end of the weekend, schools across Alberta cancelled classes on a Sunday afternoon, no less.  Schools closed to students, and suddenly “pivot,” a fundamental basketball skill (all games cancelled, so no need for the word there), became an operative phrase for all endeavours.  We will; we did, pivot from one to another form of instruction, engagement, assessment, connection, living, communicating, greeting new ones to the family and saying goodbye temporarily and in this life to some young and too many old ones across many families.  

It has been a year, not so much to celebrate, yet there is so much to celebrate individually and collectively that it’s essential to find a way.  

There has been suffering and, if not suffering, trials.  Economic trials, holding on to jobs, homes, offices, yoga studios, restaurants, small businesses and large and over 2.5 million deaths accredited to the pandemic worldwide.  So yes, I would suggest stick with suffering.  The year Covid was and is much more than a trial.  And loss.  Any days we might have had with a loved one we didn’t have because of Covid is a loss.  Christmas Dinner was delicious and lonesome.  Zoom could bridge the gap somewhat, but a hug has an extraordinary power, the absence of which is…a loss. 

The Maui Habit might be a little easier with a memory of being in Maui but try it anyway

There is magic in a calendar.  The truth is every day starts a new three hundred and sixty-five.  B.J. Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits, has one foundational habit I just love and frankly plan to use every day as long as I can speak, and then I’ll just think it but still do it.  He calls it the Maui Habit.  I love the name.  It’s simply this, your trigger for the habit is the very first time your legs move out from your bed.  As your feet touch the floor and you begin to rise, you say (out loud), “Today is going to be a great day” (Fogg, 2020, p. 20) then congratulate yourself for saying it.  Obviously, saying doesn’t make it so, but it is absolutely a start.  Building from there, we look at each day for the opportunity it presents to work at achieving all you can to achieve your aspirations, to learn a little more, be a bit more grateful, a day wiser, friendly, connected, fit, to live that day and Sisyphus like push that rock a little bit further up the hill. 

In his book, The Leader Who Had No Title, Robin Sharma (2010) suggests that there are seven fundamentals of personal leadership, the first of which is the importance of learning. I’ve determined in these last 365 that learning is an eternal round, everyone, every day.  There will be “Resistance” (Pressfield, 2002) to any learning; the resistance presents a form of learning itself. Embrace it, look for it and invite learning from every aspect of your life.  Look for people and organizations that can help, read, listen, watch, experiment, try and try again tomorrow.  Inventory the last day and the 364 before that, plan for the next day and the 364 after that but start small and remember as you go to get out of bed tomorrow, the Maui Habit is a great place to start.  It’s going to be a great day.

ps. Any learning day would be a good learning day with a bit of reading from any or all of the three books below:

Fogg, B. J. (2020). Tiny habits: The small changes that change everything. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Pressfield, S. (2002). The war of art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. Los Angeles, CA: Black Irish Entertainment.

Sharma, R. (2010). The leader who had no title: A modern fable on real success in business and in life. New York, NY: Free Press.

Taking the Road …not taken

I think for most of my life I’ve called this poem, “Two Roads Diverged in a Wood” I didn’t even get the first line right, never mind the title but I suspect that only matters if someone else tried to look it up, though Google will get you there even if you’re only close.   Choice, both as an opportunity and actually making a choice, has long been the point of the poem in my life.  There is regret in not being able to do everything.  Not necessarily in the choices we make, but in the fact that we can’t do it all right away.  Right now.  That reality doesn’t mean we can never, but then again as Frost suggests, “knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back” it does present a consequence that closes off one path with the taking of another.  A sense of loss swallowed up in the prospects of the possibilities and outcomes you do have as a result of the choices you make. 

In the end, to see, perhaps that should read seize, the road, to walk it, and live your life as it comes is the key.  Learning along the way, sharing with no regrets, seeking to draw from the interactions with the land, the people, the ways, to live deep as Thoreau suggested that seems to be the key.  I would suggest that it’s critical that we find opportunities to share what you learned on your road and thrill in the stories others learned on their path.  Not a bad way to spend a moment or two. 

So the poem is here…take a read, it’s unlikely it’s the first time but ok if that’s so.

DevinSupertramp, the youtube artist and filmmaker, has put the poem to a bit of a video tour of Ireland narrated in part by this classic poem – I’ve included the link to his video below, I think it’s rather spectacular.

The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Searching for Clarity in the Muddy Waters of our Lives

This past summer (June/July 2019) Chauna and I had the opportunity to spend a bit of time in the Canyonlands of southern Utah and northern Arizona.  As we worked our way to Arches National Park, we found ourselves spending the night along the great Colorado River as we stayed the night in Moab.  The river was very high for late June, the locals were excited as the year before river tours had basically ended that same weekend.


I like my river, lake and ocean water clear, the Colorado that day was anything but clear. The river water, brown and silt-laden, flowed quite rapidly past us as we boarded a riverboat for a sunset – early evening cruise up the canyon.  Earlier that day we’d driven up the canyon and observed more than a few people floating downstream, they certainly didn’t seem disturbed or distracted by what I saw as dirty water.


Two days later and some 270mi/439km later we pulled into Page Arizona, the southern-most tip of Lake Powell a man-made lake filled by that very same Colorado river.  I’m not sure I can describe just how clear the water was in that lake, the colour, temperature, the entire experience was beautiful.  It’s obvious of course but it was essentially the same water.  I can’t tell you how long it takes the water to travel from Moab to Page, or how long it takes for a specific cup of that water to make its way through the dam at Page and continue on through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead.


It is not rocket science, it’s pretty elementary stuff really, given time to settle, to calm down, if I’d scooped a bucket of water out of the Colorado River in Moab and let it sit, I’d eventually see the water for what it is, separated from the noise, silt and particles that clouded my view as it rushed by. Ryan Holiday (2019), in Stillness is the Key, wrote of this when he suggested, “The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle. We can’t be disturbed by initial appearances, and if we are patient and still, the truth will be revealed to us” (p. 47)

In our lives, well at least in my life, there are times where the flow of the day, the conversations with others their messages and directions leave you thinking you cannot see clearly.  It’s easy to say they are the problem but really folks do what they do.  It can be a boss, an organization you work with or for, your players, coaches, parents, teachers, students their actions and choices present a less than clear path in the moment.  They muddy the water in the relationship and in the work.  They may even be demanding an “immediate” decision or action on your part.

In the rush and pressure of the world, there’s no doubt that some decisions must be made in the immediate, but not most.  There is so much that some suggest has an urgency when really a bit of time for the dust to settle, adjust the pace, expand the depth of understanding for all involved and you’re likely to arrive at a much better position.  I’d say a better position for all but really sometimes folks seeking a decision for their own advantage will resist the push back that invites greater clarity. Push back just the same.  Legendary basketball coach John Wooden was fond of the adage, “Be quick, but don’t hurry”.  I suspect coach Wooden liked to be able to see clearly and had prepared to the point that even when others thought they saw chaos he saw structure.

As with the Colorado river – Lake Powell experience search for ways to slow down.  Seek a level of stillness that actually comes from depth of understanding.  Sure, it can be fun in the roiling river with category 5 or 6 rapids at times, but not for long, and not without some serious expertise.  Lake Powell has a maximum depth of 170m, over 500 feet, that depth contributes to the clarity of the water.  If you don’t have the depth of understanding to decide or take action, slow it down and dig for depth.


One last point to ponder, all this moving water rushing, rising, settling works with everything it encounters to create the landscape in which it resides.  Antelope Canyon, just outside of Page, is created by all that interaction with water and wind.  As you push back on those pressing for decisions when your head is above water with a straw in murky water, remember that all this is part of the journey, everything is contributing to the final product that is you for that day, week, year and ultimately life.  Embrace the flow.


Holiday, R. (2019). Stillness is the key. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.

On my bookshelf …Conceptual Understanding and Transfer of Learning Related

Over the past couple of years, Alberta has been engaged and continues to be so, in a large scale curriculum review and restructure for its k-12 curriculum.  Foundational to the work has been a determination to work toward a concept-based or concept-focused approach to instruction with an eye to supporting greater levels of engagement and transfer of learning over time, place, subject throughout life.  This work is research-based and certainly not isolated to Alberta. Many of the authors listed below are travelling the world sharing their work.

The work draws upon specific pedagogical approaches, work on enhancing thinking in the classroom, sound assessment practices and all aspects of what should make learning visible, teaching with greater clarity, and from a student’s point of view greatly enhancing the value of learning over time carrying over far beyond the grade or course completion date.    I will provide a link to some deeper dives into each of these books in the near future as part of the ARPDC (Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia) work in support of Curriculum and Instruction.  You can click here to access further resources at ARPDC related to the work in Alberta.


John Almarode’s “From Snorkelers to Scuba Divers” provides an extended metaphor of the process of taking students deeper into their learning and helping them make the connections from concept to concept as they expand their understanding.  A math science focus across all three books John’s also provided writing and a couple of videos on the importance of clarity, from the teacher, for the students to better succeed.  John’s website includes handouts, articles and blog posts – well worth the visit.


Lynn Erickson, Lois Lanning, Rachel French’s work is perhaps the foundational work in the field of Concept-based focused curriculum and instruction.  Lynn Erickson, in particular, pioneered the work and teamed up with Lois Lanning specifically as it connected with literacy.  Concept-based as a term has been foundational to their work, curriculum and unit planning.


Ron Ritchart’s work on Visible Thinking and Creating Cultures of Thinking are must-read books as you enter into the process of helping students see their thinking and wrestle through the relationships of various concepts across all subjects.  Visit Ron’s website to access many more articles and resources. Visit Project Zero – the deep dive into thinking classrooms – here.

Julie Stern has written two books, the first for elementary the second with a secondary approach that helps teachers with the operationalizing of concept-focused work in the day-to-day work of the classroom with examples across multiple subjects and a chapter in each book on assessment models.  (Another book is on the way as Julie’s writing a Social Studies edition for the Visible Learning series discussed later) One of the real strengths in these two books and Julie’s work is the focus on layering the work of concept-focused conversations within some of our other existing pedagogical approaches such as project-based work and the workshop model.  I particularly enjoy the notion that with a sound conceptual understanding (and all the aspects of learning that works from surface to deeper learning and transfer of understanding) students are better positioned to succeed in their project work with finished products they truly “own” and understand.  This makes the process of striving for conceptual understanding in anything we’re studying a key part of the engine of learning that is owned and operated by the student(s).  Come back to this idea when/if you find yourself reading, Ron Berger’s book “An Ethic of Excellence” discussed below. Visit Julie’s website “Education to Save the World” here.

Tiffanee Brown literacy

Tiffany Brown co-wrote this book with Lois Lanning helping teachers design lessons and units specifically with a literacy lens to the work of concept-based practice.   The grade range is a rather unique 4-10 providing middle school teachers with great work but foundational practices up through high school as well.  Tiffanee’s Website 

Inquiry French Marschall

Carla Marschall and Rachel French teamed up on this book which looks to merge Inquiry-based learning with Concept-based learning.  Foundational to this merger is the conversation around active questioning to drive the learning on the inquiry side of the merger while using the concept-based focus to help take the learning and discoveries of inquiry and better transfer that learning or understanding to a variety of new or related environments or situations.  As you work through parts of all these books you find common threads, which stands to reason naturally, I think the near and far transfer conversations in the visible learning books really help clarify that some of our advances on any concept or subject are very natural – rollover to crawl to pull yourself up to stagger a step  -baby steps of learning and some really challenge us to see how one idea bridges a large gap to connect to another.

Concept math

Secondary Math teachers here’s one just for you, Jennifer Wathall’s Concept-Based Mathematics: Teaching for Deep Understanding in Secondary Classrooms.  I freely acknowledge I’m much more of a humanities background soul but Jennifer provides concrete examples and guidance for teachers of Mathematics as they work at identifying concepts, building generalizations, assessing what students understand and can transfer with additional information on integrating technology thrown in for good measure.

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 10.16.20 AM

James Nottingham’s The Learning Challenge provides further understanding on the nature of teaching conceptually.  I enjoy his expended metaphor of the learning pit and the challenge for students to get into the process of their learning.  There are a couple of videos James has posted on YouTube included on my playlist linked below.  James’ Website is here.

John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey

The Visible Learning “franchise” has three primary authors leading the way, John Hattie, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.  These books provide excellent specific examples that enhance one’s understanding of how to operationalize learning for deeper understanding and transfer across and within-subjects.  Julie Stern is currently writing a Social Studies focused Visible Learning book for the series.   Doug and Nancy’s Teacher Clarity Handbook is an excellent resource with each chapter providing specific activities for educators.  Visit their website for further resources here.

Assessment brookhart

Julie Stern recommends Susan Brookhart’s How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom as the go-to book for assessment practices in support of a concept focused lesson, unit or curriculum.  Susan has written several books and articles on the subject of assessment over her career as an educator and author.

ethic of excellence

Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence

And then there’s Ron Berger’s work that I believe really can be leveraged through a concept focused approach to take our collective learning to another level.  As a bit of an aside, I should point out that IB programs’ early years, middle school and IB at the high school level embrace much of what is foundational to a concept-based/concept focused approach to learning.  IB was not, and the early and middle years being school-wide programs highlight this, intended as an honours program, it’s a way of thinking, of teaching and learning.

Don’t try to eat the whole elephant in one bite – chapters – passages, even keyword searches if you’re reading the books on your e-reader, kindle etc.   There is a lot to digest but you’ll love the information and your students will benefit from the work.

Check out my YouTube playlist of concept-based/concept-focused videos here.