Inquiry and ICT: Inquiry in Curriculum

July 4, 2012

University of Calgary logoI’m tickled pink to be teaching an intensive Master’s of Education course this summer at the University of Calgary. Here’s an excerpt from the course outline that describes the cool content we get to do:

Course description

This examines fundamental questions related to Information Communication Technology (ICT) and education in the 21st century. Through this course, students will examine:

  • the ways in which inquiry and digital technologies open new possibilities for representation, creation, expression and engagement;
  • the ways in which fundamental conceptions of learning, pedagogy and design reflexively influence one another;
  • the links between these conceptions and current issues in technology integration in schools;
  • the necessity of teachers of 21st century learners to be designers of learning;
  • issues of instructional design for the meaningful integration of technology in K-12 settings, including the use of Web 2.0 environments;
  • and a model of instructional design that fosters individual and collaborative searches for meaning in ambiguous, multi-dimensional environments.

Via inquiry and technology, students will explore visions of an education that not only informs learners but also equips them with knowledge, attitudes, and thinking and learning skills for nimble adaptability and responsible participation in a complex world.

Yesterday was our first day and I can’t wait to get back at it today.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Inspiring: Schools in Australia join forces to rescue languages

February 9, 2012

Sarah Eaton, speaker, keynote, second languages, literacy, Canada, foreign languagesIs the language program at your school gasping for its last breath? If so, you are not alone. Language programs across the globe are suffering from decreased enrollments, diminished interest from students and perhaps most frustrating, lack of money to keep the program going.

Schools in Victoria, Australia, have banded together to turn all that around after enrollment in language programs plummeted in the area. The stats look something like this:

Primary students taking languages in Victoria, Australia

1999 – 89%

2010 – 69%

Secondary students taking languages in Victoria, Australia

1999 – 54%

2010 – 41%

That is an alarming drop in enrollment. The new program, Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), is slated to change all that. The initiative is so innovative, it made the local paper. The new program takes a content-based language teaching (CBLT) approach to second languages, teaching core subjects such as math, science and humanities in a second language. Schools will share resources and even share teachers, to ensure that children have access to the best quality learning experience possible.

The article reports that:

The government so far has funded 14 language clusters involving 102 primary and secondary schools across the state to trial the system over 18 months until the end of this year.

The languages chosen are Italian, Indonesian, German, Japanese, French, Chinese and Auslan, with schools offering one to three of those. Each cluster has a lead school that works to ensure standards are met and to co-ordinate the distribution of resources.

The government is also chipping in for 25 annual professional development scholarships for language teachers who want to upgrade their skills, and 45 scholarships for undergraduate students studying to become language teachers.

This is a brand new program, so there is no way to tell yet if it will be successful. What is inspiring though, is the collective commitment on the part of the schools and supported by the government, to make language learning a priority. The fact that they are also offering scholarships to teachers-in-training shows that they are not only thinking about today, but they are also thinking about tomorrow by investing in the education of aspiring language teachers.

Kudos to you, our friends in Victoria, Australia. You are finding creative ways to collaborate and turn a dismal and down-spiraling situation into inspired education for the 21st century.

Check out the original article, by Amanda Dunn, published in The Age.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


21 Characteristics of 21st Century Learners

December 7, 2011

Whether you are a teacher, a parent, an aunt or an uncle, it is important to know that today’s students are wildly different in some ways, from past generations.

21st Century learners…

  1. Want to have a say in their education. They’ll respond better when their voices are heard.
  2. Often have higher levels of digital literacy than their parents or teachers. They don’t know a world without computers.
  3. Expect transparency in their parents, teachers and mentors. They’ll see right through you. (Makes it really hard to plan a surprise birthday party for them!)
  4. Want you to tell them when you have messed up, apologize for it, and move on. Everyone messes up. No big deal. Just don’t try to hide it. If you do, they are likely to post it on Facebook.
  5. Don’t care as much about having a job as they do about making a difference. The very concept of a “job” has changed so much in the past decade, the future is about making a difference.
  6. Demand the freedom to show their wild creativity. 21st century learners balk at rote learning and memorizing. They’ll do it if you make them, but be prepared to let them loose to be creative, too.
  7. Want to connect with others in real time on their own terms. They want their social media, their phones and their mobile technology. They want to be connected. All the time. In a way that makes sense to them (not necessarily to you).
  8. Collaborate amazingly well. They love teamwork and figuring things out with their friends.
  9. Really can multi-task. To do other wise is… yawn! Bo-ring!
  10. Appreciate a “trial and error” approach to learning new skills. Thank you, video-game industry.
  11. Learn by doing. Just try making them sit down and learn from you by watching. See what happens.
  12. Have a “can do” attitude. Of course, they can do it, silly! There is nothing to be afraid of.
  13. Thrive in an atmosphere of controlled challenge. They must be challenged or they zone out, but they need structure, too.
  14. Have multicultural awareness and appreciation. This generation is more aware of a variety cultures, countries and ways of life than any generation before them.
  15. Open to change. Really, what’s the big deal?
  16. Are equal parts “consumer” and “creator”. Today’s learners download their own songs and apps from iTunes… and then they create their own stuff and upload it to share with others.
  17. Increasingly aware of the world around them. From the environment to politics, today’s learners are asking questions and demanding answers.
  18. Know where to go to find information. Google was first incorporated in 1998. 21st century learners have never known a world without Google.
  19. Are better educated than any generation before them. (See #17.) 21st century learners really do know more than their parents (but that doesn’t necessarily make them wiser!)
  20. Expect inter-disciplinarity. It is we, the older generation, who organize topics into “subjects”. The 21st century learner understands that subjects are inherently interconnected. Like, duh!
  21. Know that they are the future. They look at their parents and their peers and understand that the world’s future rests in their hands. (Wouldn’t it make you just a little bit cocky, too?)

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


4 ways to engage learners without losing your mind

December 5, 2011

StudentsThere’s no doubt about it. Schools, universities and adult education training classrooms of today look very different than they did half a century ago.

Heck, they look different than they did 20 years ago. Twenty-first century learning is all about “engaging” the learner. What does that mean, exactly? There is not a single, concrete definition (at least as far as I have found). Here are a few common characteristics:

  • The teacher’s authoritative role is downplayed. Teachers are expected to be guides and collaborators, rather than the “ultimate authority” on a subject.
  • The “lecture” style of teaching is considered ineffective. Instead, group work and models that involve learners interacting with each other are preferred.
  • Students are encouraged to share their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate information. In an ideal situation, students also learn to back up their arguments with data and research.
  • Students discover meaning for themselves (often through a process guided by the teacher).
  • The one-way transmission of the teacher imparting knowledge and the students madly writing down everything the teacher says in order to absorb it all, is considered outdated and ineffective.

Let me be honest about my bias and say that I believe whole heartedly in engaging learners in this way. However, this way of teaching requires a substantial “re-wiring” of an instructor’s brain. If you were raised during a time or in a place where teachers could — and did — use the strap or a ruler to discipline students who misbehaved, you know what I am talking about. When I went to school, the strap had been outlawed, but rulers were still used.

Certain nuns in my school were particularly fond of whacking a ruler on a desk to grab the attention of a student who was daydreaming. Instantly, 25 students felt fear rush through them. I may be dating myself a bit here, but really, I am not as old as that statement might lead you to believe I am. My point is that education has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades.

The problem for many people like me is that we find it hard to reconcile 21st century ways of teaching and learning with the model that we know. Not only do we know it, it is all we knew growing up. Teaching in a way that supposedly “engages learners” seems “airy fairy” or “a waste of valuable classroom time” to some people. Some of those same people are very well educated. They have taken years to develop their expertise and they know their stuff darned well.

The problem is that no one really cares what teachers know any more. The whole concept of “teacher” has changed. Now, the person leading a class guides their students along a learning journey that neither begins, nor ends in their classroom. The model is unsettling and uncomfortable for educational professionals who feel that their worth and value as teachers is undermined unless they are imparting and actively transmitting their knowledge they carry within them.

So, what is the solution? Here are some easy ways to begin to transform your teaching practice, while still being true to who you are:

1. Start in the hallway. This may seem counterintuitive, but if the classroom is your sacred space where you teach and students learn, then acknowledge that bias and begin your exploration of new ways in a more neutral setting. Instead of rushing from your classroom to the teacher’s lounge or your office right away after a class, linger in the hallway. Ask students what they thought of the class today. Ask them how they might apply what they learned in the real world. Engaging students in these kinds of conversations gives you insights into your students’ abilities to engage in reflective thinking. It will also give you an idea of how they are making sense of what they learn.

2. Temporarily relinquish control of the chalkboard. Traditionally, the chalk board or white board is where the teacher writes down the information they want students’ to copy into their notebooks. It is part of the teacher’s “sacred space”. Traditionally, a teacher’s desk is located in front of the chalk board and there is an invisible field of authority around this space that includes the chalkboard or white board. Try this review activity in the last 20 minutes of class. Ask students to form teams of 4 or 5 students. Give the teams 2 minutes to write down the 10 most important aspects of the lesson. Draw vertical lines down your board so that the number of columns equals the number of teams (5 teams = 5 columns). Give each team a piece of chalk or a white board marker. Have them simultaneously go to the board and write down their 10 points. Then, have them find the common denominators among their lists. Talk about why those points rose to the top as being the most important. Then, review the points the teams did not agree on. Do all this while students are gathered at the front of the classroom in front of the board. At no point in this activity does the teacher write on the board. Let the students do the writing and circling of common denominators.

3. Include a group “discovery” or “creativity” project or activity. The project should not include going through a rote set of exercises and coming up with standardized answers. Instead, choose an activity that forces students to think “out of the box” and use their resourcefulness to create something new, using what they have learned. For example, in a foreign language class, group work might traditionally be done read through a dialogue. Each student would read the part of a different character. Together, students figure out the meaning of the conversation and answer standard questions. Instead of that traditional activity, an alternative would be to give students a list of key words or phrases in the chapter they are studying and have them create sentences using their new words. Groups trade copies of their work with each other and correct one another’s sentences. The teacher used to traditional classroom instruction needs to be aware that this type of activity will take much longer than a traditional group activity. A brief verbal survey after the activity is over will let you know which type of activity the students prefer more. Encourage them to articulate why they prefer one over the other.

4. Incorporate metacognitive activities. One aspect of creating “engaged” learning is challenging students to become more self-aware about their own learning process and increase their levels of personal responsibility. In order for this to happen, learners must become aware of the processes involved in acquiring new knowledge. Then, they can determine which methods are most effective for them. An example of how to do this in a language classroom would be to give pairs or small groups of students an assignment asking them to determine what is the most effective method to learn new verb conjugations. This activity begins with the assumption that there is more than one method. Students then embark on a journey of discovery to determine what those methods are. Part of the assignment might include testing a variety of different methods to determine which they feel works best. Then, they must use analytical thinking and research skills to determine which method is most effective. This not only helps them learn their verbs while focussing on the effectiveness of their method, it also increases their awareness of themselves as learners.

Evangelists of 21st century learning will tell you that traditional ways of teaching are bad and that your methods are arcane and do nothing to help students learn.

There may be some truth in that, but if you have been raised and trained to think and teach a certain way, becoming a 21st century teacher is not something that happens overnight. If you are interested in learning what will keep your students engaged, incorporating small, incremental changes to your teaching practice might be the most effective way to go. You don’t have to throw away everything that has worked for you over the past ten, fifteen or more years. Take stock of what you do very well and take pride in it. Incorporate new strategies slowly, in a way that makes sense for you. Observe how your students react and most importantly, if they are learning and absorbing new material in an effective manner.

Personally, I believe that most teaching methods have some merit. Certain methods work better with certain students. There is no absolute right way. Having said that, the teaching profession has changed… and continues to change. Our students and our world have changed. If we are to be not just teachers, but also role models, it is up to us to challenge ourselves to try new ways of doing things, too.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How ESL and other Language Schools Can Use Webinar Technology

April 30, 2011

The word webinar is being used today to refer to all kinds of online training and virtual presentations.

More and more literacy and language schools are adding a component of e-learning to their programs. It’s the 21st century way to learn!

Webinars are relatively easy to put on. Some of the language is a bit different from face-to-face environments, so it’s helpful to know that instructors, facilitators and teachers are mostly referred to as “presenters” in the webinar environment. Students, learners and clients are generally called “participants”.

Both presenters and participants need to have basic technology and computer literacy in order to take part in a webinar. This may mean that your current teachers and facilitators require some training before moving into an e-learning environment. Your participants may benefit from an orientation prior to the content to familiarize them with how webinars work.

Assuming that both parties have the technology literacy to move forward, here are some ideas on how you can make the most of webinar technology in your organization.

For Participants

Online group classes

Bring participants together in an e-learning class not only to teach them new content and skills, but also to learn how to work together in an online environment.

Online tutoring

Do you have learners in rural and remote areas? Or single parents who find it hard to get a sitter? Online tutoring provides a way for otherwise isolated learners to connect with tutors from the comfort and convenience of their own home. This is a super way to reach out to people who might otherwise not engage with learning.

Information sessions

If you offer information sessions about your programs in a live setting (your office space, a public library or elsewhere), you can adapt your content and host virtual information sessions. Information sessions are for prospective students and have a slight marketing component. A word of caution though… don’t try to “sell” in a webinar. Instead, demonstrate your expertise and what makes you unique.

Orientation sessions

When you bring new students into your organization, do you give them an orientation on  what to expect and how things work there? Photos, maps, and other materials can also be used in an online environment to give a virtual orientation. Though I’m a big fan of doing live webinars, this is one that you could record and use over again.

Pre-arrival workshops

If you offer classes for international students coming to learn English as a Second Language, an online pre-arrival workshop can be very helpful. Using photos, you can demonstrate what kind of clothes to bring (e.g. warm sweaters and winter boots), photos of the airport and what it will look like when they arrive, photos of what a typical airport arrival day looks like, and whatever other information you’d like them to know before they get to the program.

Follow-up workshops

Webinars are a great way to keep relationships going once the opportunity for face-to-face interaction has passed. A value-added webinar one month after the course ends is a super way to stay connected. Use the next upcoming holiday as a theme for your class and have everyone learn about it in the virtual classroom. In cases where participants already know one another, the online interaction is usually fun and very dynamic.

For staff and volunteers

Volunteer information sessions

Do you like the idea of having virtual teachers or tutors? Then set the stage by offering online information sessions for prospective teachers and volunteers about your organization. Review the programs that you offer, the opportunities you and the benefits of working with your organization. This is a great time to have current staff members and volunteer tutors chime in with what they love about working with you!

Volunteer training

Do you train your staff in intensive sessions that jam in loads of information? You can break it up into a series of online training workshops. The material is easier to absorb if you divide it into “chunks”. If you have ongoing workshops, your volunteers get ongoing training, which keeps building their skills. As an organization, ongoing training for them means you give offering them something back for their time and expertise.

Staff development workshops

Do your staff currently get all their professional development at an annual conference? I love conferences because of the chance to connect with old friends. But wouldn’t it be great to offer ongoing training and development for your staff throughout the year? The cool thing about this is that you don’t have to organize all the sessions yourself. Check out the Centre for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC). They specialize in  offering online PD for educators. They have literally hundreds of programs to choose from, ranging from free to expensive.

For the community

A Virtual Open House

Share what you do with the community, your stakeholders and donors through a virtual open house. Include photos of your facilities and your staff. A video that uses digital storytelling to celebrate the success of your learners makes it even more dynamic.

These are just a few ideas for literacy and language programs to use webinars in their organizations. I’m a big fan of using this technology in the non-profit and educational sectors. It offers a lot of value for everyone – staff, volunteers, learners and students, as well as community stake holders. How many non-profits still lag behind when it comes to their own technology literacy? Implementing the use of webinars positions your organization as a leader in terms of technology. You lead by example, showing others how virtual and online learning is an important part of 21st century of education and professional capacity building.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


10 Tips for Success as an Online Learner

April 15, 2011

Some of the same principles that apply to face-to-face learning also apply online, but the activities are different:

1. Arrive early

In the same way that you would budget time to find a parking space, walk to your classroom and get settled for a face-to-face training session, you need to arrive early for an online learning session. Your “arrive early” activities include:

  • Logging on
  • Testing your audio and mic
  • Saying hello to fellow participants and the facilitator

Plan to arrive 10 to 15 minutes ahead of your scheduled start time. That way, when the session starts, you’re ready to go.

2. Just say “No” to distractions

In a face-to-face learning environment, you can’t do laundry, answer the door, cook lunch, deal with staff questions, answer inquiries, staff the front desk or do any number of other activities that would detract from your learning. Create a “learning sanctum” that is free of distractions and allows you to be fully present during your e-learning session.

  • Turn off your telephone(s).
  • Put a sign on your door that says “Do Not Disturb”.
  • Go to the bathroom before the session starts.

3. Be An Active Learner

What are the qualities of an active learner in a bricks-and-mortar classroom? Someone who pays attention, doesn’t distract other learners, doesn’t allow themselves to be distracted and seems genuinely interested. The same thing applies on line:

  • Listen actively
  • Ask questions
  • Take notes (See the next point…)

4. Take notes – in a way that makes sense for you

Whether you use  a traditional notebook and a pen or a word processing program, taking notes is an important part of learning. It helps you capture the main ideas and embed them in your brain. Notes also give you something to refer back to later on.

Not everyone is comfortable taking notes on a mobile device or hearing a keyboard click as they’re listening. Other people may get hand cramps if they hold a pen too long. Don’t get too caught up in the idea of using technology for everything. How you choose to take notes is incidental. The important thing is to do it. Write down key points to help you remember them later.

5. Engage with other participants

You wouldn’t sit in a classroom and not speak to anyone else would you? Make a point of engaging with other participants. Ask questions, make comments, give kudos where they’re due. Remember that, just like you, those are human beings who are sitting in front of their respective screens. More than anything, humans crave connection. Try to connect personally with at least one other person in your session, if you can.

6. Go Green

E-learning provides a tremendous opportunity to be environmentally responsible. Experiment with reading on line. Test different font sizes and document sizes to find what works for you. Try not to print out every single handout, or .pdf file.

Digital materials are often meant to be interactive. If you print them, you lose the interactivity and web links may not show up in your print out.

7. Organize Your Stuff

In the same way that it’s frustrating to have a messy bookbag or a binder with papers falling out, it can be just as frustrating to have your digital materials scattered all over the place.

Set up folders and sub-folders on your computer to organize and store your files, course materials and handouts. Not only will this help you find it more easily later, it will also help to “make it yours”. Synch between devices to keep everything current.

8. Share and be social

Share online links to other resources. Explore online bookmarking sites (e.g. Diigo or StumbleUpon) to store and share interesting resources you find. If you’d like more resources or information, ask others to share with you. Be sure to thanks others who share interesting and helpful resources with you.

9. Be patient and kind

As in a traditional classroom, there are likely to be learners who are less capable than you… and others who are more capable. In an online environment, this applies as much ability with technology, as it does to the content. Think of comfort and ability with technology as a continuum. People will be scattered all along the continuum. Be patient with those who aren’t as far along as you.

10. Find reasons to celebrate and have fun!

Remember when you were a kid in school and you got a gold star from the teacher? Humans respond well to positive reinforcement, regardless if it is face-to-face or online. Successful online learners look for opportunities to compliment and notice others’ progress. They are also self-aware and self-realized learners who acknowledge their own progress. Cheer on others when you see them making leaps and bounds and give yourself a pat on the back when you do a good job. Remember, learning is supposed to be fun!

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Petition Saves Second Language Programs at University of Saskatchewan

April 14, 2011

A recent news release from the Academia Group gave highlights from this article in the Star Phoenix by Sean Tremblath: “U of S language program cuts re-examined after petition“. The article starts with this punchy first line:

“A University of Saskatchewan language program is being overhauled after speculation of major cutbacks sparked a student petition with almost 2,000 names.”

The article goes on to talk about scheduled cuts to language programs at the University of Saskatchewan, and in particular to the German program. The result was a petition to save the program that received 2000 signatures – in 3 days. The article quotes David Parkinson, Vice Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, a man I’ve met in my professional travels and have a great deal of respect for. He can see “the big picture” and can balance students’ needs with high level administrative pressures. I’ve admired his work for a long time… and don’t envy him one bit right now.

Language programs are being cut or having their funding reduced at alarming rates in North American schools and universities. Really, it’s shameful.

Here’s my response, in the form of a Letter to the Editor of the Star Phoenix:

I’m writing in response to Sean Tremblath’s article “U of S language program cuts re-examined after petition”, published on April 13, 2011.

Three cheers for the students at U Sask, who evidently know the value of learning languages in the 21st century and were willing to petition to keep language courses alive and well.

Cutbacks to second and modern language programs in North American universities is very troubling – particularly when all of Europe, as well as countries on other continents are encouraging – even mandating – the study of additional languages.

I’ve met David Parkinson, Vice Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, who is quoted in the article and I have a great deal of respect for him. He’s a man who can see “the big picture” and can balance students’ needs with high level administrative pressures.

I’ve admired his work for a long time… and don’t envy him one bit right now. He now faces a situation that language program administrators across North America face: Advocating for the viability of modern language programs in a system that has changed its criteria for what it will support based on bottom-line numbers and a philosophy that says “bums in seats = program success”.

Across Canada and the US, we seem preoccupied with cutting programs that have lower enrolments or those for which there is less financial justification. As a specialist in the integration of business practices and philosophies into higher education management, and in particular, the marketing and management of language programs in Canadian universities, I am saddened when I see this. My own research in this field has shown me that the bottom line is not the only indicator of success in education. In fact, it’s probably one of the least powerful indicators of success of an educational program. Better questions to ask are: What skills are needed by 21st century professionals and leaders? How do we, as educational institutions, ensure that we are building the capacity of our students to set them up for success as global citizens in a digital age?

Language learning programs don’t need to be cut from educational institutions. They need to be updated. Get away from literature-based programs that revolve around faculty interests and focus on the students. It’s time to incorporate real-world language skills that students can carry with them into their future professional and personal lives. Focus on global citizenship, technology, mobile language learning (MALL), and other aspects of learning that actually make sense and are relevant for language learners of today.

If we updated the programs with a focus on making them truly learner centred, rather than focussing on the traditional literature-based programs that reflect the specializations of current or soon-to-retire faculty, then we might be better at engaging our students and increasing our enrolments.

Kudos to the students and all those who signed the petition at U Sask for having the vision to see the benefits of language learning in the 21st century. The challenge goes back to the institution to create relevant programs that keep learners engaged, provide them with real world skills and develop courses that fill the seats because they’re so darned interesting and relevant that students will beat down the doors to get into them.

I encourage you to read the original article and send your own Letter to the Editor to support the continuation and growth of second language programs at Canadian universities!

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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