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A Thunder Bay Ontario coroner’s inquest report into the deaths of seven First Nations students, issued on June 28, 2016, seemed to inject a sense of urgency into the whole debate over the sad state of Indigenous education. It also gave fresh impetus to public calls for concrete, meaningful changes in First Nations high schools, particularly in northern Ontario. Six months later, my latest Northern Policy Institute report, After the Healing, explores why so little has happened and proposes an immediate action plan.

dfchsexteriorcbcGoing well beyond its strict mandate to rule on cases of death, the five-person jury, presided over by coroner Dr. David Eden, delivered a total of 145 far-reaching recommendations and even set out the laudable goal of building a high school in each of northern Ontario’s mostly small, isolated reserve communities. That alone is a monumental undertaking that would take massive investments and years to achieve.

The state of education on most of Canada’s reserves is dire, but outside observers, including C.D. Howe Institute researchers Barry Anderson and John Richards, tend to reach sweeping conclusions that do not apply to all First Nations-run schools, particularly the two largest Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) schools in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, covering much of northern Ontario.

Over the past seven years, 2009-10 to 2015-16, graduation rates at the two NNEC high schools, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFCHS) and Pelican Falls First Nations High School (PFFNHS) have risen steadily from 53.6 % to 76.0% this past year. Out of 424 students registered in Grade 12 over that period, 261 (61.5 %) achieved a high school certificate, better than most on-reserve high schools.

In the 2015-16 school year, while the Thunder Bay inquest dominated the news, both DFCHS and PFFNS recorded their highest graduation rates ever, at 64.7 % (33 of 51) and 100 % (24 of 24) respectively.

Given a funding gap of 25 to 30 per cent per student and the adverse media attention, the label of “failing” schools does not seem to square with the facts.

Yet much more needs to be done to immediately improve the quality of education and student life for First Nations students attending Thunder Bay’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and other First Nations-run schools in the Ontario North.

My earlier September 2014 NPI policy paper Picking Up the Pieces supported the full transition to First Nations control of education through Community-School Based Management vested in Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC.

dfcriverceremonyporterInvesting in First Nations high schools remains the best way to capture the true “Learning Spirit,” to embrace a more holistic, community-based philosophy of lifelong learning, to raise student performance levels, and prepare graduates for healthier, more satisfying and productive lives.

Fixing the problems threatening the very existence of the NNEC First Nations high schools, DFCHS and PFFNHS, is the new imperative. Taking action now will not only ensure that First Nations teens attending NNEC high schools will return home alive, but better prepared for successful lives.

The Thunder Bay Coroner’s Jury bit-off much more than can be digested and implemented in a timely and effective fashion. My report focuses more explicitly on addressing the needs of students making the transition to high school in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, and other northern Ontario towns and cities.

My latest report, After the Healing, presents a five-point action plan, urging policy-makers to:

  • close the funding gap for NNEC and NAN schools;
  • design, fund and build Dennis Franklin Cromarty transition lodgings to be known as the Student Living Centre;
  • re-build and expand student support services to smooth the transition to city/town life;
  • establish a Race Relations Commissioner and officers in cities and larger towns with sizable populations of First Nations youth and students; and
  • expand and fortify ‘Student Success’ curriculum initiatives based upon Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.

‘Focus, focus, focus’ is now what’s needed as we embark on renewing First Nations education. Fewer and more immediate concrete actions are the best guarantor of a brighter future for First Nations students attending band-operated high schools.

Why is there so much talk and so little action on the First Nations high school education front?  Who is coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the Thunder Bay inquest recommendations?  After six months, what has changed at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, the prime focus of the inquest? Is it because the mere mention of “residential school” (whatever its form and leadership) sends people running off in the opposite direction? 

 

When my policy research report, Education on Wheels, was released by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in January 2015, the official reaction was totally unexpected in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick.

New Brunswick is currently facing a significant financial challenge with public discussion animated by books like Richard Saillant’s 2014 title, Over the Cliff?: Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy. It’s also a fully bilingual province with a dual school system where students are educated in either Anglophone or Francophone schools. Every proposed change, we learned, is assessed in relation to its impact upon the duality of educational provision.

AIMSEDonWheelsFew among the political class noticed that our report was subtitled “Seizing Cost and Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Student Transportation.” Instead of seizing the initiative in controlling student transportation costs now consuming up to 7 per cent of the education budget, policy-makers became side-tracked in a time consuming, fruitless debate over maintaining dual busing services.

As the lead author of the first comprehensive review of Atlantic Canadian K-12 student transportation, it was disappointing, to say the least, to see two N.B. cabinet ministers pluck one recommendation, rip it out-of-context, and turn the whole public discussion into a test of the province’s commitment to duality in student busing.

Spending almost two years pursuing a court reference to curtail one rural area (Kent County) involving eight buses out of 1,200 in the province and affecting only 92 students speaks volumes about misplaced provincial priorities. The only real benefit was to raise the profile of law professors seeking to turn this into a test of French linguistic rights.

Now that the New Brunswick Government has wisely abandoned its almost two-year quest to seek a court ruling on the question of dual busing, it’s time to actually get on with tackling the bigger issues, most of which can be done without venturing into that political minefield again.

Under the newly announced provincial policy, N.B. District Education Councils are now free to secure a better deal on bus services for local ratepayers and to reinvest the savings where it counts – in the classroom. To suggest that the recent decision means the “status quo” remains in place is simply indefensible when the AIMS report demonstrated that shared administrative services, contracting out, and energy efficiencies could save New Brunswick taxpayers millions in the years ahead.

Leaving aside dual busing, my report (co-authored with Derek M. Gillis) revealed that the number of school buses in N.B. increased to 1,237 in 2014 from 1,156 in 2009, despite the fact that the total student population declined to 74,055 from 85,000 during that time. Unlike other provinces, over 90 per cent of the province’s school buses are owned and operated by the government with little or no integration or shared agreements with municipal transit services.  The entire system is ‘grant-driven’ without any real competition to help achieve better cost efficiencies.

New Brunswick student transportation costs, we found, were largely driven by capital replacement cost recovery and government employee contracts with little or no private contracting. Consolidating schools only compounds the problem by extending daily routes and piling-on additional, incremental busing costs.

schoolbusstopsignIf student transportation research in Ontario and Alberta are any guide, the absence of competitive bidding for bus contracts, over time, results in higher per student costs that take a bigger and bigger bite out of education budgets.  Since the late 1980s, leading Canadian school boards, beginning in Ottawa and York Region, have, on their own, created regional transportation authorities. Since 2006, all of Ontario’s 72 boards have integrated, shared bus services, managed by twenty-two “consortia” with a mandate to contain costs and achieve energy efficiencies.

Mounting provincial deficits and tightening education budgets suggest that New Brunswick and its school districts should look first to educational support services in pursuit of cost savings. There is much that can be achieved in student transportation reform without compromising student safety.

Combining government-run and contracted services and providing incentives to form joint transportation service authorities is a proven success, as demonstrated in both Alberta and Ontario. Once that is achieved, the harder work begins in implementing improved transportation cost management systems and a whole range of new business practices based upon the latest advances in data collection/analysis, route scheduling software, energy efficiency, and improved point-of-service daily operations.

We are now calling upon the N.B. government and school districts to act upon the following practical, no-nonsense recommendations: embrace a province-wide joint services strategy, permitting School Districts to jointly manage their own student transportation services; review potential cost efficiencies in rural busing and special education services; utilize the latest technology to improve route management and reduce duplication of services; adopt a ‘walkable schools’ plan encouraging active transportation; initiate two pilot student services consortia (urban and rural) to model best practice; and implement reliable performance metrics.  Once these initiatives are underway, authorize regular provincial audits to benchmark and track student transportation service levels.

Where does bilingualism begin for students in public education — at the doorstep or the school entrance? What’s the real impact of bilingual duality on the capacity of school districts to achieve cost and energy efficiencies? If separate transportation is official provincial policy, then is co-mingling on the sidewalks and bike trails subject to that same policy? Is New Brunswick alone in facing such public policy challenges? 

 

A recent visit to the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) in Potomac, MD, opened my eyes and forced me to confront my preconceived notion about the efficacy of “brain science” in guiding teaching practice. Director of the CTTL Glenn Whitman and his Research Head Ian Kelleher are leaders in the “neuroteach” movement deeply committed to applying sound, research-based principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience in the real life classroom. Their new book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, also attempts to sort out the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in this burgeoning field.

neuroteachcttlcoverSince my faculty of education days, the critical pedagogical concept of “crap-detection” introduced in Charles Weingarten and Neil Postman’s 1969 classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity has loomed ever larger in my thinking about education. The whole notion actually originated with the great novelist Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” For at least two decades, listening to various and sundry travelling education consultants promoting “brain-based learning” has tended to set-off my own internal crap-detector.

That perception was further cemented by reading Daniel T. Willingham’s 2012 book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. The field of teaching and learning , he warned us, is “awash in conflicting goals, research ‘wars’, and profiteers” and we need to be vigilant in critically evaluating new pedagogical ideas and less persuaded by “bad evidence” drawn particularly from neuroscience. He provided us with a helpful shortcut to help in assessing the latest panacea: “strip it and flip it, trace it, analyze it, and make your own decision about whether to adopt it.”  In short, become an informed consumer of initiatives floating on unproven theories or based upon dubious research evidence. 

Whitman and Kelleher’s book Neuroteach and the CTTL both venture into contested terrain in the larger debate over the value of neuroscience in informing and guiding classroom teaching. Like many such cutting-edge ventures, the CTTL is housed in an impresssive state-of-the-art learning centre and comes beautifully packaged in booklets exhorting teachers to “think differently and deeply” about their practice.  Upon closer examination, however, there is more to this initiative than meets the eye.

Whitman and Kelleher are plainly aware of the wall of skepticism aroused by pseudoscience and expressed in hushed tones in today’s high school staff rooms. British education gadfly David Didau (@LearningSpy) put it best: “While cognitive psychology is playing an increasingly important role in how teachers understand their craft and how students can best learn, neuroscience has, for the most part, remained the realm of quacks and snake-oil salesmen.” In such a field, Whitman and Kelleher are a breath of fresh air – playing an important role in bridging the gap between sound research and classroom practice.  They also use “crap-detection” in helping us to understand “the complexities of the science of learning.”

The CTTL is school-based and focused specifically on improving teaching practice by applying the best research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Some readers of Neuroteach may be put-off by the optimistic, aspirational tone and tendency to appropriate “transformational” rhetoric. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine teachers caught up in the euphoria as they “begin to rewire each other’s brain, to develop neural pathways and connections informed by mind, brain and education science.” Not everyone possesses an “ambitious brain” and will be easily convinced to either stop teaching as they were once taught or to abandon teaching to their own “learning strengths.” ( p. 7).  Some outstanding teachers, we all know, do both.

neuroteachpcknowledgeWhitman and Kelleher, to their credit, do deliver more than the usual messianic educational progressivism. Educators familiar with Tom Bennett’s ground-breaking work with researchED will heartily approve of certain sections of this book.  It’s encouraging to see British teacher-researcher Carl Hendrick’s classroom wisdom brought to a North American audience. The doctor who still uses leeches to treat his patients and, when questioned on it, replies “it works for me” is, as Carl reminds us, simply not good enough these days. Research-informed teachers will also be pleased to see Professor Robert Coe, head of Britain’s College of Teaching, cited for his penetrating observation: “The problem with what’s obvious is that it is often wrong.”  This applies not only to the traditional “leeches” but to supposed 21st century psuedoscientific curatives.

The proposed CTTL teacher research agenda is a welcome contribution to the field of teacher growth and development.  Focusing on two different strands makes good sense: 1) mastering MBE (mind-brain-education) science and 2) curriculum understanding ( p. 153).  The primary objective, according to Whitman and Kelleher, is to marry curriculum understanding and teaching strategies informed by MBE science to achieve pedagogical content knowledge. 

The CTTL approach aligns well with Rob Coe’s recent Sutton Trust research review identifying six “research-backed components of “great teaching,” all cast within the context of assessing “teacher quality.” Coe’s top two factors match the two strands underlying the CTTL program philosophy: 1) content knowledge; and 2) quality of instruction, both of which show “strong evidence of impact on student outcomes.”  In essence, “knowing your stuff” still matters and applying the lessons of MBE science can make you even better as a teacher.

Cutting through the accretion of “crap” in cognitive psychology and neuroscience is not easy. What can be done to develop in new teachers and everyday classroom teachers what Postman termed a “built-in crap detector”?  Is it possible to transform teacher development into something approaching immersion in research-informed practice?  How can we separate initiatives like the CTTL from the commercial and trendy purveyors of pseudoscience? 

Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the regular classroom may be a worthy goal, but it makes teaching far more challenging and cannot satisfactorily meet the needs of all children.   A few Canadian provincial school systems, following the lead of New Brunswick, have elevated “inclusive education” to an exalted status. For many children and teens with severe learning disabilities or complex needs, it is not the most enabling learning environment. It’s also rendering today’s diverse classes, at certain times, nearly impossible for regular teachers to teach.

spedclasscompositionTeacher surveys identify class management as a fundamental problem and “class composition” as the biggest obstacle to professional satisfaction.  Building upon Canadian school research, it’s clear that special needs policy, designed by theorists, is not working and needs rethinking to achieve a better educational environment for teachers and students alike. That was the theme of my recent researchED presentation, October 29, 2016, in Washington, DC. 

Class size is a well-diagnosed and much studied question with much of the research driven by teacher unions. Back in September 2013, Gordon Thomas of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), used a class of 37 students as an example of the challenges facing stressed-out high school teachers. In his worst case scenario, out of the 37 students, four had learning disabilities, five were in transition from other provinces, one exhibited serious behavioural issues, three were repeating the course, seven were functioning below grade level, and one was chronically absent because of a dysfunctional home life.

In such overcrowded classes, Thomas asked, how can we expect teachers to provide constructive and rewarding learning experiences, let alone introduce innovative practices? Coping in such diverse classrooms goes far beyond class size and raises the hidden issue of “class composition.”

Most Special Education researchers concur that “smaller classes have the greatest positive impact on students with the greatest educational needs.” (OISE-UT/CEA, 2010). It is now clear that both class size and diversity matter.

spedintensivesupportspedovercrowdedteacherToday teachers try to adapt their teaching to address the individual needs of the learners in their regular classrooms. As the classroom becomes larger and more diverse, this task becomes increasingly onerous. All of this has obvious implications for inclusive education. The success of “Inclusion” is, in large measure, determined by the extent to which teachers have the necessary supports and services to be able to effectively integrate students with special educational needs into their classrooms and schools.

Class size reductions from K to 3 and possibly beyond can produce student achievement gains (Canadian Council on Learning 2005), provided that the total context is conducive to such improvement. Three critical factors have been identified:

1.Complementary policies and practice supporting higher student achievement (i.e., raised expectations, positive discipline, regular assessment, teacher PD);

2. Contradictory policies and practice that undermines the potential benefit of class size reductions (i.e., full inclusion, social promotion, student competencies gap, language challenges);

3. Rising class sizes at higher grade levels – from grades 7 to 12 (i.e., removal of class size caps, integration of learning disabilities and ELL students).

Class sizes have actually dropped in all Canadian provinces except British Columbia over the past 15 years. At the macro-economic level from 2001-o2 to 2010-11, student enrollment has dropped 6.5%, the number of educators rose 7.5%, the student-teacher ratio declined by 12.9%, and spending per pupil rose by 61.4%. Class size reductions and caps from K to Grade 3 or Grade 6 may explain the overall smaller class sizes.

In the Spring of 2011, the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (CTF) conducted a national teacher survey on the theme of The Teacher Voice on Teaching and Learning to seek input from across Canada on teacher concerns. The CTF survey provided a snapshot of what class size and composition looked like across the country. The survey secured responses from  nearly 3,800 teachers representing 9,894 classes in English and French schools.  The sample teacher pool was drawn from 12 participating CTF member organizations.

Class Size Analysis: Average class size was 21.3 students, ranging from 22.1 students for grades 4-8 to 19 students for junior kindergarten or kindergarten (JK-K). English schools (including French Immersion) had an average class size of nearly 22 students, while French as a first language schools had a slightly smaller average class size of just over 19 students.

spedavpergradelevelctfClass Size by Grade Level: Over a third of the classes for all grade levels combined contained 25 students or more (8.3% contained 30 students or more). For grades 4-8, nearly 39% of classes contained 25 students or more (6.5% contained 30 or more); for grades 9 and over, 40.3% of classes contained 25 students or more (13.5% – over 1 in 7 classrooms – contained 30 or more students); for grades 1-3, just over 14% of classes contained 25 students or more; for JK-K, nearly 12% of classes contained 25 students or more.

Average Number of Special Needs Students: Students with identified exceptionalities (i.e., designated behavioural problems or mental or physical disabilities, as well as other special needs students including gifted students); and English Language Learners and French Language Learners (defined as students whose first language differs from the school’s primary language of instruction, and requiring supports).  The average number of students with identified exceptionalities per class was 3.5, ranging from 3.8 students for grades 4-8 to 1.9 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten.

Class Composition – Grade 4 and Over: Students with identified exceptionalities accounted for 16.3% of total students in the surveyed classrooms, ranging from respective shares of 17.1% for grades 4-8 to 10% of students for junior kindergarten and kindergarten. Of classes surveyed, over 81% have at least one student with formally identified exceptionalities, and 27.7% contain 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities. In grades 4 and over, not only were class sizes generally larger but almost 1 in 3 (30.6%) classes contained 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities.

Students with Language Learning Challenges: The average number of English Language Learners and French Language Learners (ELL/FLL students) per class was 2.6. The prevalence was higher the lower the grade, ranging from 4.7 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten to 1.7 students for grades 9 and over. ELL/FLL students accounted for an average 12.2% of total students in the classroom, ranging from respective shares of 24.7% for junior kindergarten / kindergarten to 8.2% for grades 9 and over.

The CTF survey looked at students “identified” as Special Needs, but did not include students who were undiagnosed or those with other glaring needs such as students from low-income families (with poverty-related issues of hunger, illness, instability), students with mental health problems, or immigrant and refugee students.

spednbclassroomMy researchED 2016 Washington  presentation also delved into two Class Composition case studies – Inclusive Education in New Brunswick, 2006 to 2016, and Class Size and Composition in British Columbia, 2012 to 2016. In the case of New Brunswick, a province recently honoured by Zero Project for its “legally-binding policy of inclusion” in Feburary 2016, Guy Arsenault and the NBTA are now demanding a full Special Education review to secure “positive learning environments” and come to the aid of teachers forced to “don Kelvar clothing in the classrooms.”  Out west, in British Columbia, a five-week 2015 BCTF teachers’ strike has produced only meagre gains in containing class sizes, while more and more classes have four or more and seven or more Special Needs students.

The real life classroom is not only far more diverse, it’s increasing challenging to manage let alone teach anything substantive. Class Size based upon Student-Teacher Ratios has long been accepted and used in staffing schools, but its utility is now being questioned by front line teachers. Student diversity, driven by “Inclusion” and the growing numbers of severely learning-challenged and disadvantaged kids is the new normal. The rise of “Coddled Kids” and “Helicopter Parents” has compounded the challenges. Tackling Class Composition is emerging as the top priority in teacher-led school reform.

Why is class composition emerging as the biggest problem facing front line teachers?  Why do we continue to focus so much on simply reducing class sizes? What’s standing in the way of us tackling the ‘elephant in the room’ — class composition in today’s schools? 

With the release of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) on the horizon,  the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Education Office has stoked-up the “Math Wars” with a new study. While the October 2016 report examines a number of key questions related to teaching Mathematics, OECD Education chose to highlight its findings on “memorization,” presumably to dispel perceptions about “classroom drill” and its use in various countries.

mathsubtractionboardThe OECD, which administers the PISA assessments every three years to 15-year-olds from around the globe, periodically publishes reports looking at slices of the data. It’s most October 2016 report,  Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers and How PISA Can Help Answer Them, based upon the most recent 2012 results, tends to zero-in on “memorization” and attempts to show that high-performing territories, like Shanghai-China, Korea, and Chinese-Taipei, rely less on memory work than lower-performing places like Ireland, the UK, and Australia.

American Mathematics educator Jo Boaler, renowned for “Creative Math,” jumped upon the PISA Study to buttress her case  against “memorization” in elementary classrooms. In a highly contentious November 2016 Scientific American article, Boaler and co-author Pablo Zoido, contended that PISA findings confirmed that “memorizers turned out to be the lowest achievers, and countries with high numbers of them—the U.S. was in the top third—also had the highest proportion of teens doing poorly on the PISA math assessment.” Students who relied on memorization, they further argued, were “approximately half a year behind students who used relational and self-monitoring strategies” such as those in Japan and France. 

Australian education researcher Greg Ashman took a closer look at the PISA Study and called into question such hasty interpretations of the findings.  Figure 1.2: How teachers teach and students learn caught his eye and he went to work interrogating the survey responses on “memorization” and the axes used to present the data.  The PISA analysis, he discovered, also did not include an assessment of how teaching methods might be correlated with PISA scores in Mathematics.  Manitoba Mathematics professor Robert Craigen spotted a giant hole in the PISA analysis and noted that the “memorization” data related to “at-home strategies of students” not their instructional experiences and may wel;l indicate that students who are improperly instructed in class resort to memorization on their own.

mathpisateacherdirectedgraphWhat would it look like, Ashman wondered, if the PISA report had plotted how students performed in relation to the preferred methods used on the continuum from “more student-oriented instruction” to “more teacher-directed instruction.” Breaking down all the data, he generated a new graph that actually showed how teaching method correlated with higher math performance and found a “positive correlation” between teacher-directed instruction and higher Math scores. “Correlations,” he duly noted, “do not necessarily imply causal relationships but clearly a higher ratio of teacher-directed activity to student orientation.”

Jumping on the latest research to seek justification for her own “meta-beliefs” are normal practice for Boaler and her “Discovery Math” education disciples. After junking, once again, the ‘strawmen’ of traditional Mathematics — “rote memorization” and “drill,” Boaler and Zoido wax philosophical and poetic: “If American classrooms begin to present the subject as one of open, visual, creative inquiry, accompanied by growth-mindset messages, more students will engage with math’s real beauty. PISA scores would rise, and, more important, our society could better tap the unlimited mathematical potential of our children.” That’s definitely stretching the evidence far beyond the breaking point.

The “Math Wars” do generate what University of Virginia psychologist Daniel T. Willingham has aptly described as “a fair amount of caricature.” The recent Boaler-Zoido Scientific American article is a prime example of that tendency. Most serious scholars of cognition tend to support the common ground position that learning mathematics requires three distinct types of knowledge: factual, procedural and conceptual. “Factual knowledge,” Willingham points out, “includes having already in memory the answers to a small set of problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.” While some students can learn Mathematics through invented strategies, it cannot be relied upon for all children. On the other hand, knowledge of procedures is no guarantee of conceptual understanding, particularly when it comes to complexites such as dividing fractions. It’s clear to most sensible observers that knowing math facts, procedures and concepts is  what counts when it comes to mastering mathematics.

mathtimestableimageSimply ignoring research that contradicts your ‘meta-beliefs’ is common on the Math Education battlefield. Recent academic research on “memorization” that contradicts Boaler and her entourage, is simply ignored, even that emanating from her own university. Two years ago, Shaozheng Qin and Vinod Menon of Stanford University Medical School led a team that provided scientifically-validated evidence that “rote memorization” plays a critical role in building capacity to solve complex calculations.

Based upon a clinical study of 68 children, aged 7 to 9, studied over the course of one year, their 2014 Nature Neuroscience study, Qin, Menon et al. found that memorizing the answers to simple math problems, such as basic addition or multiplication, forms a key step in a child’s cognitive development, helping bridge the gap between counting on fingers and tackling more complex calculations. Memorizing the basics, they concluded, is the gateway to activating the “hippocampus,” a key brain structure for memory, which gradually expands in “overlapping waves” to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math.

The whole debate over memorization is suspect because of the imprecision in the use of the term. Practice, drilling, and memorization are not the same, even though they get conflated in Jo Boaler’s work and in much of the current Mathematics Education literature. Back in July 2012, D.T. Willingham made this crucial point and provided some valuable points of distinction. “Practice,” as defined by Anders Ericsson, involves performing tasks and feedback on that performance, executed for the purpose of improvement. “Drilling’ connotes repetition for the purpose of achieving automaticity, which – at its worst, amounts to mindless repetition or parroting. “Memorization,” on the other hand, relates to the goal of something ending up in long-term memory with ready access, but does not imply using any particular method to achieve that goal.

Memorization has become a dirty word in teaching and learning laden with so much baggage to the point where it conjures up mental pictures of “drill and kill” in the classroom. The 2016 PISA Study appears to perpetuate such stereotyping and, worst of all, completely misses the “positive correlation” between teacher-directed or explicit instruction and better performance in mathematics.

Why does the PISA Study tend to associate memorization in home-study settings with the drudgery of drill in the classroom?  To what extent does the PISA Study on Mathematics Teaching support the claims made by Jo Boaler and her ‘Discovery Math’ advocates? When it comes to assessing the most effective teaching methods, why did the PISA researchers essentially take a pass? 

 

Regional school boards in Atlantic Canada like the Quebec English language boards are slowly dying of natural causes. The province of New Brunswick abolished elected school boards in March 1996, and they were eventually replaced by greatly weakened elected District Education Councils. More recently, Newfoundland/Labrador and Prince Edward Island (PEI) sacked elected boards and reverted to two provincial authorities, one each for English language and French language schools. In November 2015, PEI eliminated the one remaining English-language board and replaced it with an alternative parent consultation process.

schoolboardelectionsnssbaEight elected regional school boards are still standing in Nova Scotia, but their days may be numbered.  With the October 15 2015 municipal election on the horizon, the election of regional school board members has dropped completely off the public radar. That’s mostly because of the virulent spread of a potentially terminal democratic condition – acclamation disease.

Since 2012, when less than 40 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots for school board members, it’s much further advanced, especially outside Halifax. Surveying Nova Scotia’s eight school boards, 61 out of 97 school trustee positions (62.7%) will be uncontested and settled by “acclamation.”  Without the Halifax Regional School Board, some two out of every three (65.9%) of the seats failed to attract more than one candidate.

The Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) 2016 campaign to drum up interest in school board elections has been a complete bust. A recent round of School Board candidate sessions, run by NSSBA independent of N.S. Municipal Affairs, for some reason, has netted fewer candidates than the last time. That glitzy website, School Board Elections.ca, intended to showcase democratic vitality, merely advertises the extent of the acclamation disease from board to board.

The drying-up of interest in running for school board seats could not have come at a worse time for those, like me, who still believe in local education democracy and legitimate public accountability.

Sparked by the November 2015 P.E.I. decision to completely eliminate the English language board, a 2016 N.S. Liberal Party AGM resolution on abolishing boards, presented by Halifax Region Liberals, not only passed, but attracted notable media attention. The official party policy calls upon the McNeil government to take immediate action to “eliminate our English Language Boards and replace them with a single provincial board with responsibility to advise government on matters related to public schools and education of importance to parents and the people of Nova Scotia.” It also upholds democratic principles in urging the Liberal cabinet to “study and implement other mechanisms to ensure that parents find avenues to have their voices heard within the management of their local school.”

Education Minister Karen Casey, clearly caught off-guard by the party uprising, was quick to comment that such resolutions were not binding upon the government. When the Legislature’s Public Accounts Committee reviewed serious concerns raised by the Provincial Auditor General over board accountability, the Liberal majority on that committee made no mention of the life expectancy of the boards themselves.

The NSSBA is proving utterly incapable of making the case for local democratic control over what goes on in our P-12 public schools. The NSSBA’s School Board Candidate training kit contained a Q and A resource sheet that did not include the most important question of all – “Why do we need Elected School Boards?”  Nor is anyone prepared to provide a clear, coherent answer.

Consolidating school board administration would produce significant savings, if it focused on reducing the regional board  bureaucracy which costs more than $36-million (2006-07) and employs 8 superintendents and 195 district administrators and consultants. Cutting all 97 elected trustees would only net about $1-million in savings, roughly equivalent to the cost of six senior administrators.

Public school electors tend to lump regional school administrators and elected trustees together when advocating for the abolition of school boards. Outside of Halifax, they also seem to have given up on “elected school board members” who no longer act like “trustees” accountable to the public.
Closing schools as a “school board member” does not win you many friends and, in rural and small town Nova Scotia, can land you in purgatory. Prospective candidates considering a run at office are simply driven-off by long serving incumbents, quietly derided as “board members for life.” Those unsinkable veterans are the strongest argument for “term limits.”

Saving local democratic control in education is worth fighting for, in spite of the example set by the current remote and largely unaccountable regional boards.  The current model has outlived its usefulness and needs to be completely schoolboardearmuffsreformed, root and branch.

It might help if the Education Minister and the NSSBA took the time to read and digest Dr. David McKinnon’s May 2016 study of School District Governance. His 92-page report identifies the real crux of the structural problem – the “role ambiguity” that plagues elected board members and renders them completely ineffective. He likens the existing elected regional board to a “rudderless ship” that “still floats, but wherever the winds and currents take it.”

Who represents the public in the K-12 school system is as clear as mud.  Constrained by the current School Board Governance model, elected members occupy ‘no person’s land’ and have been completely muzzled when it comes to speaking up for parents and local taxpayers.

Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer want to run for school board office? Elected school board members who dare to propose needed policy reforms or break ranks are sanctioned or disciplined for doing so.  For a measly stipend of $10,000 or so a year, you spend most of your time approving staff reports and implementing school reviews for closure. If elected boards are scrapped, the foreclosure sign will read “School Board Elections cancelled for lack of interest.”

Why are elected school boards imperiled in Nova Scotia and extinct in most of Atlantic Canada ? Is local democratic control worth preserving and rebuilding in the provincial school systems? Would turning the governance system upside down and investing in elected school-community councils improve the situation?  If so, where might we look for viable models of local democratic education governance? 

Why do so many “Digital Age” Ed-Tech initiatives run aground in the classroom? That was the critical question that I tackled on September 10, 2016, at the researchED 2016 National Conference in London, UK.  My short presentation set out to confront the significant challenges posed for classroom teachers by initiatives attempting to usher in what is now termed the “Brave New World” of 21st century learning. It also attempted to pick-up and further develop insights gleaned from Tom Bennett’s thought-provoking 2013 book, Teacher Proof, an indispensable little handbook for every teacher who’s been introduced to an ‘innovative’ teaching strategy or ‘new’ curriculum and been told that it is “based upon the research.”

elearningred2016coverThe current 21st Century Learning mantra likely found its origins in a very influential November 2000 OECD Schooling for Tomorrow address by Sir Michael Barber, British PM Tony Blair’s chief education advisor. In his sppech, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Re-conceptualizing Public Education,” he provided the essential narrative, replicated in most of the derivative education initiatives:

The explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning, combined with the growing power of technology, creates the potential to transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of the teacher and the learner. Moreover, huge social changes, such as growing diversity and population mobility, present educators with new and constantly changing circumstances. As a result, the characteristics which defined the successful education systems of, say, 1975, are unlikely to be those which will define success in the future.”

Barber and his disciples unleashed what I term “Big Idea mimmickry” that popped up in a whole series of top-down education policy spin-offs ranging from the infamous June 2009 UK “Your Child, Your Schools,Our Future” declaration to New Brunswick’s short-lived 2010 “21st Century Learning” initiative (NB3-21C) with its bizarre CRT2 formula, with C standing for “Creativity,” R representing “Relevance,” the first T signifying “Time” and the second one “Technology.” In the case of New Brunswick, it provided a convenient new pedagogy to accompany the mass distribution of laptops to all of the province’s teachers. While the NB plan fizzled and died, its initiator, Deputy Minister John D. Kershaw, resurrected it and took it nation-wide rebranded as C21 Canada: Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, championed by the Council of Ministers of Education and bankrolled by Canadian branches of the world’s leading learning corporations.

Most “Digital Age Revolution” plans, like the September 2015 North Carolina version, promote “binary thinking” pitting the “old” against the “new,” analogue vs. digital, and traditional vs digital age/progressive.  It all rests upon the purely theoretical assumption that constructivist learning is better than explicit instruction, and proceeds to perpetuate such false dichotomies. The latest iteration, Michael Fullan’s “New Pedagogies of Deeper Learning,” hatched with Barber and Pearson Education, is the most recent example of Digital Age pedagogical theory rooted in such fallacious thinking.

cyclinguphill21ctrilling2009Twenty first century learning advocates set out to “Shift Minds” utilizing You Tube videos mimicking Colorado IT teacher Karl Fisch’s 2006 smash hit, Shift Happens.  Riding that 21st century bicycle has proven difficult, facing an uphill climb against stiff headwinds emanating from resistant classroom teachers and legions of concerned elementary school parents.

Three dominant ideologies have recently arisen to propel the latest phase of high-tech education: personalization, robotization, and Goolization. Mass introduction of ICT is now packaged as a way of “personalizing” education for today’s students, allowing them to work more independently and to proceed at their own pace.  Preparing pupils for a life “dancing with robots” is now accepted uncritically as a necessity in the 21st century workplace.  School districts once cautious about technology integration are turning to Google for single-source agreements to get free or heavily discounted access to Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Few  education bureaucrats seem to question these priorities or the implications of such technological initiatives.

Education policy analysts like Stanford Education professor Larry Cuban and Hack Education blogger Audrey Watters have issued periodic warnings about the impact of “machines” on teachers in the classroom. In Teachers and Machines, Cuban examined previous cycles of classroom technology from film strip projectors to calculators. Every new innovation, he shows, has followed the same pattern in the classroom: adoption by teachers, inflated claims by enthusiasts, deflated expectations, then followed by a new technological panacea.

So far, ed-tech has not transformed how teachers teach in the classroom. That’s the firm assessment of Larry Cuban in a June 2015 piece posted on the Education Week Digital Learning Blog. It also prompted me to dig a little deeper to find our why there is such teacher resistance to initiatives seeking to introduce widespread e-learning in K-12 schools.

Based upon my own recent research, conducted for an upcoming chapter in the Springer Guide to Digital Learning in K-12 Schools (September 2016), the explanation is deceptively simple. Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels tend to falter and rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. The potential of e-learning will only be realized when initiatives enjoy the support of regular classroom teachers and engage those teachers from the school-level up.

sheepdippingukTop-down initiatives simply do not work in education, and a succession of struggling high-tech education initiatives are proving this every school day in classrooms world-wide. Four critical factors come into play in undoing such initiatives: great teaching still matters most, “sheep dip” tech-ed training does not last, new pedagogies are merely ‘warmed-over’ constructivist ventures, and teachers integrate IT only when it demonstrably improves their teaching effectiveness.

All is not lost when it comes to introducing technology and e-learning in the classroom, if the hard lessons are absorbed by wise education policy makers and head teachers, capable of tuning out 21c learning missionaries and IT zealots. It will take what I describe as a “flexible, agile, responsive approach” starting with teachers themselves.

To that end, at researchEd 2016 in London, I proposed four strategies with a better chance of succeeding in winning over today’s teachers.

1: Support Early Adopters committed to Technology Integration and initiating Blended Learning Programs

2: Strengthen and expand Existing and ‘Seed’ New Self-Directed Online Learning Programs

3: Focus on building the A La Carte  Model of Blended Learning Programs in Junior and Senior High Schools

4: Build School Leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation

5: Develop and test (before proceeding large-scale) more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations.

What is really needed is a much more strategic, longer-term Technology Integration plan in our school systems. Teachers must be in full control of the technology— to produce true deeper knowledge of much greater benefit to students.  Students and teachers are yearning for more stimulating and engaging classroom instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning. We deserve much more from our schools.  My presentation was intended, in a small way, to demystify e-learning in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Why do high-sounding 21st century learning initiatives fail to gain traction among classroom teachers?  When will high-tech education advocates begin to demonstrate that their have absorbed the hard lessons?  Is my modest set of proposals worth pursuing?  Would it work – where it counts – with teachers and students in the classroom?