Special Report
Education

A Canadian Critique

By Sean Cavanagh — May 06, 2004 14 min read
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The temperature outside is topping out at 22 degrees below zero, but within the warm belly of Banded Peak School, a classroom full of 4th graders is trying to imagine a time before textbooks, handheld calculators, and even (shudder) central heating. On this January morning, their assignment is to piece together facts on the lives of Alberta natives, using a nearby collection of Pentium 400 computers.

That technological voyage, however, will wait a minute or two. First, teacher Vicki Hardage is prepping her class with a few bedrock rules about the task ahead, independent of mouse pads and webcasts.

“What’s the point of note-taking?” Hardage asks her students. “Why write all this stuff down?”

A boy in a hooded sweatshirt begins an answer that bumps along for a bit, before landing: “Because you don’t want to have to keep going back to the Web site.”

That’s right, Hardage says. And she asks, why use more than one Web site?

Because those sources could say different things, another child calls out.

After a few more questions, the teacher is satisfied. The students head in all directions, many of them to the computers in the nearby hallway, where they begin accessing Web sites and scrawling notes on worksheets.

It seems like a natural assignment for this 364-student, K-8 school in the wooded foothills outside Calgary, which opened in 1997 and quickly developed a reputation for technological prowess that resounded across Canada. Yet today’s task—like today’s Banded Peak—is less likely to awe visitors with computerized wizardry than offer them a workaday example of a school that revamped its focus in an effort to use technology as one classroom tool, among many.

Over the past few years, Banded Peak has pared back much of its technology, teachers and administrators here say, as the burden of sustaining a cycle of innovation—and keeping up the school’s prodigious reputation—increased. Some supporters of the school, though not all, also began to worry that technology was causing Banded Peak to lose sight of more fundamental classroom methods.

“We became known as a techie kind of school, and we couldn’t keep it up because other things were suffering,” recalls Hardage, a teacher for more than 30 years, who joined Banded Peak when it opened in 1997. “I don’t think everything you do can be through technology. You need the basics, too.”

Not everyone at the school offers the same interpretation of what Banded Peak was years ago, or what it has become today. Some backers of Banded Peak’s early efforts say changes were caused as much by reluctance among those within and outside the school to continue advocating new, and in some cases, unconventional, forms of instruction, even if they were proving effective. Those observers say that despite the school’s weighty reputation, computer innovation always operated as only a single piston firing within Banded Peak’s academic engine, and not the motor itself.

“It was never about the technology—it was always about the learning,” says Sherri Rinkel-Mackay, a former full-time teacher at Banded Peak, who now works at the school as a substitute. “It’s not about the building. It’s not about the tools you have. It’s about the people and the disposition they have.”

From the first time it took shape in an architect’s drawings, Banded Peak School suggested an eclectic blend of the primitive and the futuristic. Built to accommodate a cluster of growing, mostly upscale towns and communities southwest of Calgary, the school opened after a series of meetings that included input from parents and district and community leaders. That process would help shape everything from the school’s design to its academic philosophy, including its heavy support for technology.

Today, getting to Banded Peak begins with a drive west from Calgary, an oil-enriched boomtown of skyscrapers and subdivisions, then continues along Highway 22 for a straight shot south. Acre after acre of fenceposts, forest, and prairie is broken by roadside signs for elk crossings and the wide-frame view of the Rocky Mountains’ eastern slope.

The highway bends past a small, well-kept collection of stores that makes up the heart of Bragg Creek, before leading up a gradual hill. Near its crest, a visitor will come to a short driveway leading to the school, a one-story, wood-and-brick structure with a front end like a massive ski lodge, flanked by more traditional-looking corridors on both sides. On days when the temperature falls well below freezing, motorists can keep their car engines warm by plugging them into electrical outlets in the parking lot.

Built for about 5 million Canadian dollars, Banded Peak School is set on a 40-acre stretch of forest, ponds, and trails. On a clear day, students and teachers heading home can make out the 9,626-foot Rocky Mountain peak with dark horizontal bands from which the school takes its name. The area is home to engineers, geologists, and others connected with Calgary’s renowned oil industry and lured by the region’s outdoor splendor.

Natural themes also color the school’s interior. Light descends through tall windows in the Banded Peak’s front atrium, and wood and brick run throughout its corridors and offices. That rustic exterior belies the school’s hightech underpinnings. School officials and architects installed “cable drops” in individual classrooms and hallways to make them Internet-ready. In addition to having two or three computers in every classroom, Banded Peak officials also set up machines in two clusters in the hallways. The idea, espoused by then-Principal Brant Parker and others, was for students and teachers to think of computers as a common resource to be used continually throughout the school day, rather than as special tools, utilized for an hour or two, then forgotten.

Technology was not meant to be an “event,” says Pat Clifford, who taught 2nd, 6th, and 7th grades at Banded Peak during its first three years. Nor was it supposed to be like visiting a “computer lab, where you had to take a field trip,” she says.

Banded Peak also became an important laboratory for the concept known as inquiry-based learning. That approach encourages students to constantly investigate, question, and re-evaluate classroom material, as teachers guide them through that process.

The idea is to nurture lifelong problem-solving skills, rather than simply employing rote recitation of facts and mastery of one lesson after another; one description of the inquiry-based model likens it to promoting “how we come to know,” as opposed to “what we know.”

Technology, through resources such as the Internet, can serve as a vital tool for inquiry-based learning by offering students new ways of researching subjects, and kindling interest in new topics, its supporters say.

The school’s technological foundation brought numerous rewards, teachers recall. Maureen McCashin, a 7th grade instructor who recently took a leave from the school, recalls how computers gave students access to vast pools of otherwise tough-to-find scientific research.

“You couldn’t afford [many of the] books,” McCashin says. “The Internet is invaluable in science.”

In addition, the school also launched the Galileo Net program, in which Canadian teachers were invited to spend a year at the school, studying how to use technology in the classroom. Teachers at Banded Peak could use Galileo for their own professional development, too.

There were other, unexpected benefits. Parker remembers how skeptics warned him early on that grade school students lacked the maturity to care for computers and use them responsibly. Banded Peak proved the doubters wrong, he says. During the first few years, the former principal remembers, he called an assembly when some of the balls inside computer mouses began disappearing from computers all over the school. Fifteen minutes later, a student approached Parker, confessing to having taken them.

“Everyone understood it was a shared responsibility,” Parker recalls. “[We] wanted to bring a mentality that these computers are ours.”

As the school’s catalog of technology-rich programs grew, so did Banded Peak’s reputation as a pioneer. In 2001, a Time magazine article described a student project at Banded Peak to create an online forum to discuss school bullying. That story called Banded Peak “one of the most innovative learning institutions in the country” and a “pioneer in the use of leading-edge technology.” Few observers at the time could have disputed the claim. Yet even as Banded Peak gained renown, the school’s approach to using computers and other resources had begun to shift. Over time, staff members, parents, and district officials began to question technology’s place at the school, current and former teachers say. Today, Banded Peak is a much different place from what it was five or six years ago, many of those observers say. Some changes are obvious. Today, computers can be found clustered in only one of Banded Peak’s hallways, instead of two. Most of the educators who oversaw the school’s early innovations have since left. And in recent years, at least two schools in the 15,000-student Rocky View School Division, scattered across the Calgary metro area, have “gone wireless,” allowing the students and staff to work with laptop computers, a feature that Banded Peak lacks.

“Many of our schools do the same or more than Banded Peak with technology now,” says Lyall Thomson, the Rocky View superintendent.

Yet Thomson also credits Banded Peak with sparking interest in technology and inquiry-based learning across the district (though some teachers and administrators refer to it as strategy- or project-based learning).

Those who remember Banded Peak’s early years offer different interpretations of what sparked the school’s movement away from technology. Some say the loss of the school’s most technologically savvy staff members, such as Parker and Clifford, forced changes. Others point to more basic causes. Computers and printers broke down. Teachers grew frustrated. New employees had to be trained in how to use software. Keeping up with technology and figuring out ways to incorporate it into the classroom, resulted in long days for Banded Peak’s staff.

“We had two polarizing ends,” McCashin recalls, referring to both parents and school staff members. “The ones who said we need to get on the bandwagon for technology, and those who wanted to get back to basics— much like you had within the school.”

In 1999, the Galileo project, already making inroads across Canada, left the school for a new location at the University of Calgary. Some Banded Peak staff members continued to receive help through Galileo (which now employs Clifford and a few other former Banded Peak staff members) but the program’s departure left a void, many of them say.

To outsiders, some of the classroom methods used at Banded Peak during its early years would have seemed like a sharp turn from educational norms, former employees say. Clifford, for instance, recalls how she organized her 7th grade class into small groups of students sitting at tables, rather than individually at desks.

On any given day, those groups might have been working on different projects at different times, with Clifford and her teaching partner assisting them. There was no traditional “front” to the class, she says. While she says that novel approach had broad support, Clifford acknowledges that for “people walking by, it didn’t look like a classroom they recognized.”

John Nelson, who was hired as Banded Peak’s principal in 2002, says that sharpening the school’s technological edge wasn’t his first priority upon arriving at the school. More important, he says, was encouraging teachers and students to be “learning leaders,” who would take initiative in seeking out fresh approaches to classroom material. Inquiry-based learning, he says, should play a role in that process.

The principal, who began his career teaching English and theater in Peace River, a small oil and lumber town 400 miles northwest of Edmonton, admits astonishment at the computer wizardry of today’s students. Some can beat the school’s Internet security safeguards almost as soon as they’re installed, he says. Others can have four Web screens up at once.

“These kids have no fear of technology, because they’ve grown up around it,” he says. “They don’t have to make any kind of leap.”

That’s why Banded Peak should be teaching them to “learn how to think, and learn how to learn,” says Nelson. “That’s the most important thing at this school: creating a learning family and giving kids the power and skill to make a change. That’s where technology can come in.”

Technology is a required piece of the curriculum in the province of Alberta. Guidelines set expectations for what technology skills students should pick up in different subjects, and give examples of lessons that can help teachers meet those goals.

Today, several Banded Peak instructors say one of their biggest challenges is coming up with technology projects that meet those curricular standards. Other hurdles are of the variety understood by teachers everywhere: finding Internet sites appropriate to age groups; helping the youngest pupils with the simple task of making a click-click with a mouse.

Third grade teacher Kevin Zentner recalls his frustration in having his students use the Internet for a project earlier this year. Too many of them simply sought out pictures, rather than written information that would challenge them.

This semester, Zentner’s trying a different tack with an ongoing social studies project. The pupils’ task is to research foreign cultures and choose particular subtopics within that assignment. He has arranged to have the youngsters e-mail questions to a family making a boating trip along Central America, and through the Panama Canal.

The students will type out questions about the culture, habitat, or general region of areas where the travelers are sailing, or making landfall, and use the responses in their research. The sea voyagers have created a Web site with updates on their trip, which Zentner’s students peruse regularly for useful information. In addition, the teacher is having them supplement their computer work with books, films, and other resources. Students from an 8th grade class are mentoring them throughout the process.

Zentner, 40, says he was drawn to Banded Peak by the school’s willingness to accept different styles of teaching. He also saw a commitment to professional development. (The nearby setting of forests, trails, and steep slopes wasn’t bad either, the avid mountain-biker admits.)

“There’s nobody saying, ‘Well, the whole school has to do this,’” Zentner says. “[This project] is way more interesting for me. If it’s way more interesting to [me], chances are it’s going to be of more interest to your kids.”

For some students, technology’s benefit is obvious. Chris Hodges, 13, is allowed to work with an AlphaSmart 3000 portable keyboard. While visiting the school’s resource room, he also uses a voice-recognition program known as DragonSpeak, which automatically types words on the computer screen as he reads them into a microphone. The 8th grader says that without those technological supports, he struggles to get his ideas down on paper.

His parents got him the software program, which he brings from class to class. School staff members help him use it. “I get things done faster, and easier, and better,” Chris says.

Second grade teacher Donna McLeod organized a project last year in which children were assigned problems and worked in groups to come up with visual presentations for their parents at a math fair. She regards the fair, which she learned of through the Galileo project, as an inquiry-based lesson.

“You don’t need a lot of top-of-the-line technology stuff,” says McLeod, in her third year at Banded Peak. “You just need a few connections. You need to ask the right questions.”

Vicki Hardage is trying to do just that. As her 4th grade students sit in small groups at tables and computers, pulling together information about Alberta’s native people, she leans over to observe two girls at work. She asks: What resources have you used so far?

“We got some from the Web site, and some from our book, and some from the poster,” one girl responds, referring to an educational pinup on a nearby wall. One of the girls writes down new terms in a blue folder.

The first girl asks a series of questions: How did the native people use gooseberries? How about rose hips? Sweetgrass?

And what about marrow, one of the students asks, turning to Hardage.

“You’ve got some right here,” the teacher responds, running her hand up and down her upper right arm. One girl reaches for the Gage Canadian Dictionary. “The soft tissue that fills the cavity of most bones,” one student reads aloud. “And they ate it uncooked!” one of the girls blurts out.

A few minutes later, the two students have moved to a Pentium 400, where they’re looking up descriptions of dried smoked meat. They pull up a Web site devoted to Native history. A photo appears on the screen, with a few sentences of text alongside it.

It’s a simple piece of information, easily found. And on this day, it’s exactly what they need.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week

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