Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“All that glitters is not gold” is a famous proverb plucked from William Shakespeare‘s play The Merchant of Venice that may well apply to recent international appraisals of K-12 education in Canada. Such rosy assessments tend to put a shiny lustre on what is essentially a sound and ‘pretty good’ school system that has lost ground to competing nations over the past decade.

Five years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) produced a rather rosy Education Policy Outlook for Canada as part of a series of reports offering comparative analysis of education policies and reforms across the world’s developed countries. Canada’s overall performance, aggregated from widely varied provincial assessment data, looked good, in comparison with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Most significantly, the OECD assessors brushed aside concerns about “plateaued student achievement” on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and the decline in the proportion of top performing students.

Emerging concerns were most clearly expressed in Dr. Paul Cappon’s final 2010 report for the Canadian Council on Learning. Student scores on the 2009 PISA test had revealed that Canadian 15-year-olds demonstrated relatively strong sets of skills in reading, math and science, but they were already slipping relative to high performing Asian countries and in some cases in absolute terms. “What I’m hoping,” Cappon said at the outset of his final cross-Canada tour, “is that when people realize that Canada is slipping down the international learning curve we’re not going to be able to compete in the future unless we get our act together.”

OECD Education Policy Outlook assessments and Country reports are based upon templates that tend to favour diverse and well-funded school systems like that of Canada. The six identified policy levers in 2015 were: 1) equity and quality of education; 2) preparing students for the future; 3) school improvement; 4) evaluation and assessment; 5) governance; and 6) funding.  Such public policy forecasts, based upon conventional criteria and historic trends, also tend to demonstrate “path dependency” which limits the capacity to capture radical shifts in context or dynamic changes in educational direction.

Fifteen-year-old students in Canada, based upon triennial PISA tests from 2000 to 2018, continue to perform above the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science. Our most economically and socially disadvantaged students, in aggregate, do relatively better than those in competing countries, demonstrating more equity than in most other countries.  A considerably higher proportion of Canadian K-12 students proceed to post-secondary education in universities and colleges. That much has not changed across time.

Three significant changes can be identified from the accumulating OECD student assessment and survey data and they deserve far more critical scrutiny:

Downward Trend in Student Performance:  The performance trends for Canadian fifteen-year-olds are consistently downward from 2000 to 2018 in READING,  from 2003 to 2018 in MATHEMATICS, and from 2006 to 2018 in SCIENCE.  While the OECD average scores are also in decline as more countries are included in PISA, the descent is more pronounced among students from Canada. Students in Canada’s top performing provinces of Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec (Mathematics) tend to buoy-up the lagging results produced by students from New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Deteriorating Classroom Disciplinary Climate:

The 2015 Education Policy Outlook for Canada flagged one measure, based upon student survey responses, where Canada simply met the OECD standard – the index of classrooms conducive to learning (Figure 5, OECD Canada, 2015).  That largely undiagnosed problem has worsened over the past three years.  Canada ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the OECD’s 2018 index of disciplinary climate, released on December 4, 2019.  According to a global student survey conducted in the spring of 2018, one in five students, 15 years-of-age, report that learning time is lost to noise, distractions, and disorder, so much so that it detracts from learning in class. A relatively high proportion of Canadian students say the teacher is not listened to and it takes a long time for the class to settle down. In addition, students regularly skip school and report late to class.

High Incidence of Fear of Failure:

Personal anxieties may also run higher among Canadian students when they confront writing standardized tests and experience a fear of failing the test. In Canada, the OECD 2019 Education GPS report states, “15-year-old students have a strong fear of failure”ranking 6th among 77 national student groups participating in the survey.  Fear of failure runs highest among students in Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Macau, Japan, and Germany, but is less pronounced in high performing countries such as Korea. Estonia, and Finland.  Such fears are present to the same degree among students in the United Kingdom, but less so in the United States.  No analysis whatsoever is offered to explain why fears run so comparatively high among teens in Canada.

The initial report on the Canadian Results of the OECD PISA 2018 Study, released by the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) in early December 2019, are of little help in evaluating these rather striking trends.  Like previous reports in the CMEC series, the report puts a positive spin on the aggregate results by casting them within a broad, global context, lumping together countries with radically different commitments to education in terms of spending and resources. It is possible to ferret out anomalies and to conduct province-by-province comparisons, but only with time, effort, and attention to detail. That is sufficient to keep it either buried or accessible only to education assessment specialists.

Does the Canadian Education Policy Outlook ventured in 2015 stand up under close analysis. five years on?  What’s missing from the OECD and CMEC assessment reports for Canada over the past decade?  Should the Canadian public be concerned about the downward trend in the demonstration of core skills in reading, mathematics and science?  Is disciplinary climate now a real concern in Canadian classrooms? And why are Canadian students so afraid of failing in our schools when grade promotion and graduation rates are at record levels?

Canadian classrooms may well have an undiagnosed problem with students’ time-on-task. According to a global student survey conducted in the spring of 2018, one in five students, 15 years-of-age, report that learning time is lost to noise, distractions, and disorder, so much so that it detracts from learning in class. It’s also a problem that has worsened since the previous survey three years ago.

Canada ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s 2018 index of disciplinary climate, released on December 4, 2019.  The index is based on an international survey of 600,000 15-year-old students’ views about the state of student discipline in their classes. A relatively high proportion of Canadian students say the teacher is not listened to and it takes a long time for the class to settle down. In addition, students regularly skip school and report late to class.

While most mainstream media and education commentators focus on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 test student achievement rankings in reading, mathematics and science, critically important survey data on the lived experience of students tends to get overlooked. Most Canadian educators are so totally wedded to current positive progressive discipline principles that there’s a blind spot when it comes to connecting deteriorating class climate with the stalling of student achievement.

Noise and disruptions are relatively common in Canadian language of instruction classes, and well above the average among the 77 jurisdictions completing the survey.  This is significant because students who report being unable to work well because of such distractions in most or every class scored 25 points lower in reading on the 2018 PISA test.

For most countries, classroom discipline improved between 2009 and 2018, the OECD report said.  Comparing student behaviour in 2015 in science classes with 2018 behaviour in English classes, student discipline has deteriorated with more students reporting that the teacher has to wait a long time for students to settle down, that students cannot work well, and don’t start learning until long after the beginning of the lesson.

Students are best behaved in school systems focused more on providing orderly, purposeful teaching, such as Korea, Japan and China, and other authoritarian countries. Classroom unruliness is far worse than in Canada in Argentina, Brazil, France, Greece, Spain, the Philippines, Belgium and Australia.  Concerns run so high in Australia that it’s been publicly described as an “entrenched behaviour crisis.”

A total of 38.9 per cent of Canadian students reported there was noise or disorder in most or all of their classes, compared with 31.5 per cent across the OECD participating states. That’s far higher than in Korea (7.9 per cent), Japan (9.7 per cent), and top European performer, Estonia (23.6 per cent). It’s also more prevalent than in the United Kingdom ( 33.7 per cent) and the United States (28.2 per cent).

Student bullying among Canadian 15-year-olds is also reportedly higher than in the United States school system. One out of five students (19.2 per cent) report “being hit or pushed around by other students.” Only 2 per cent of Korean students report being bullied, and some school systems’ classrooms are downright dangerous places. In the Philippines, for example, three out of five students (60.2 per cent) claim to have been roughed-up during the course of a year.

Skipping school and arriving late to class are more common in Canada than in either the U.K. or the U.S. In the two weeks prior to the PISA test, some 23 per cent of Canadian students skipped between from 1 to 5 or more school days. One out of three skipped some classes and over half (52.3 per cent) arrived late for school from 1 to 5 or more times.

Speading ‘nasty rumours’ is an unpleasant aspect of student life. One out of four Canadian students (27.5 per cent) report being on the receiving end of such psycho-harassment by other students, similar to the situation in  U.S, schools.  It’s far more prevalent in both U.K. and Australia schools and relatively rare in Korea, where only 9.6 per cent report being the victim of personally damaging rumours.

Connecting changes in school disciplinary climate with students’ academic achievement challenges is long overdue in Canadian K-12 education. Struggling students in noisy and regularly disrupted classes, according to the OECD, do pay a price in terms of their scores in reading and presumably in other core subject areas.

School-wide Positive Behaviour Intervention Systems (SW-PBIS) have eclipsed other approaches to student behaviour management in Canada and in many of the countries where students report poor disciplinary climate.  It’s exemplified in schools with regular noise, distractions, and disorder where students skip school and regularly miss classes.

DisciplinePBISClassCode

Whether you favour SW-PBIS programs or not, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a breakdown in effective classroom management. Far more attention has to be paid to responding to “behavourial violations” (where positive praise does not work) with planned and systematic strategies, including “brief, concise” correctives,  ‘planned ignoring,’ and the appropriate use of explicit reprimands.

Why do we focus so much on PISA student achievement rankings and tend to ignore the contextual analysis explaining the contributing factors?  Should we pay more attention to the OECD PISA survey data on student experiences?  How big a factor is “disciplinary climate” in creating optimum conditions for student learning and achievement?  Is it time to look at alternatives to school-wide positive behaviour supports and associated programs? 

“DO NOT USE” signs plastered all over school drinking fountains have a way of getting the chilling message across. For the past thirty years, those signs have appeared, periodically, on fountains in thousands of Canadian K-12 schools. Most of us walk by, unaware – until recently — of a simmering public health crisis.

What was a largely dormant issue has come back with a vengeance.  The November 4, 2019 release of the findings of the massive year-long Canadian investigation, spearheaded by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, has raised new concerns over exposure to lead in home tap water and school/daycare drinking water supplies.

The “Tainted Water” series of news reports were alarming because many in education had assumed it was behind us. The benchmarks changed in March of 2019 when federal health authorities reduced the acceptable levels of lead from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb. Out of 12,000 tests conducted since 2004, in 11 different Canadian cities, one-third – 33 per cent—exceed the new health. safety standard. The latest investigation, based upon some 260 water tests conducted in 32 cities and towns and validated in accredited labs showed that 39 per cent of samples, or two out of five, exceeded the 5 ppb guideline for healthy water.

The current health alarm is serious, but needs to be considered in proper North American context.  Three to four million American children were found to have toxic levels of lead in their blood back in the 1980s. Levels of contamination were far higher in those days. The U.S. EPA reported that thirty-three of the 47 states testing drinking water had levels exceeding the then acceptable standard of 20 ppb.  Back then, most people, including young children, were exposed to multiple environmental sources, including paint on old housing walls, drinking water, ambient air, dust, soil, and food, particularly canned goods.

The 1988 U.S. Lead Contamination Control Act imposed strict new regulations on American schools requiring them to clean up their act by testing drinking water, abandoning lead-lined water coolers, and remedying any contamination found in taps and water intake pipes. It faced stiff legal challenges and a great deal of non-compliance and was eventually struck down in 1996 by a federal appeals court.

The first real school drinking water scare did produce a ripple effect and reactive responses which reverberated in school districts, from province-to-province, across Canada. What survived was a 1991 EPA established standard that required periodic tests for lead and copper levels in public water systems virtually excluding schools and day cares drawing water from their own wells. While the limit was reduced to 15 ppb, it applied to municipal water feeds rather than internal sources of contamination. In the case of schools, most of the lead still originates in lead pipes, water-cooler linings, and in led metal fountains and taps.

Medical science has advanced significantly over the past three decades, but implementation of health regulations lags, especially when it comes to testing for lead contaminants in schools and daycares. Coast-to-coast, the Canadian investigators identified a patchwork of lead regulations, weak oversight, laxity in conducting tests, and the relative absence of regular testing of homes, schools or daycares drawing water from wells.

When Health Canada cut the acceptable level of lead levels in half, it sent provincial and school district authorities scrambling, particularly outside the major metropolitan centres,  The new regulation came with warnings that, even at concentrations as low as 5 ppb, high levels of exposure can damage the prefrontal cortex, cause prenatal growth abnormalities, and contribute to anti-social behaviour and child behavioural problems. It has also been identified as a risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease and tremors in adults.

Thousands of Canadian children in schools and daycares are at risk of ingesting lead in drinking water and most were totally unaware of that until the release of the latest journalistic expose. Provincial authorities, with the possible exception of Ontario and British Columbia, are playing catch-up, compared to a number of American states more proactive in testing and public disclosure.

The EPA promotes its “3Ts” approach – Training, Testing and Taking Action, complete with home and school water quality testing kits.  Since August 2016, New York State has required all school districts and boards to “test all potable water outlets for lead contamination, to remediate contamination where found, and to notify parents of children and the public of the results.”

The 2016 public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, intimately connected with the toxicity of water did not seem to register up here in Canada. Periodic warnings were issued to no avail by provincial public servants, according to newly-released government documents obtained through formal freedom-of-information requests.

Cleaning-up school drinking water standards is back as a top education priority. Whether it will last in a system best by competing immediate demands for reduced class sizes, more resource supports, and improved working conditions remains to be seen. Deferred maintenance has a way of coming back to bite school systems.

*An earlier version of this commentary was published in The Chronicle Herald, November 16, 2019 

Why is lead still in school and daycare drinking water, thirty years after the initial revelations?  Was the 2019 lead in the water scare the result of Health Canada’s decision to dramatically reduce the acceptable standards? How effectively did school and day care authorities respond?  Without a nation-wide investigative report, how much would we have known about the extent of the problem? 

recent CBC News series featured heart-breaking stories of violence — physical, psychological and sexual — inflicted on students in today’s schools. All of this came hard on the heels of the horrendous stabbing death of 14-year-ol Devan Bracci-Selvey in front of Hamilton’s Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School.

Raising our consciousness about the dangers students face is much easier than grappling with why Canadian schools are falling short in addressing the chronic problem of violence, bullying, and sexual harassment in the first place. That challenge has confronted us for more than a decade since the release of Julian Falconer’s massive January 2008 report The Road to Health, which looked at tackling student violence in the Toronto District School Board.

School authorities from province to province, we learned from the CBC investigation, still collect incident reports on student violence in vastly different ways. The result is a crazy-quilt patchwork of data with far too many schools and regions that file no reports at all. Only two of the provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, require schools to share their school violence statistics with their education ministries. Even so, in the case of Ontario, that data was found to be incomplete and inaccurate.Given the paucity of reliable statistics, it’s next to impossible to analyze this disturbing social trend in our schools.

To get to the bottom of the problem, CBC’s Marketplace commissioned a nationwide survey of 4,000 young people, ages 14 to 21, in September of this year. The results were startling: Two out of five (41 per cent) of boys reported being physically assaulted in high school; one in four girls (26 per cent) experienced unwanted sexual contact at school; and one in four students first experienced sexual harassment or assault before Grade 7 in elementary school.

Five key factors can be identified, based upon the CBC investigation and credible research on violence in schools:

  • ‘Head-in-the-sand’ denial: Much of the school violence experienced by students is treated by officials as isolated incidents, or events requiring too much time-consuming investigation in order to assign blame or responsibility. In the absence of required reporting, it goes unacknowledged and, all too often, is swept under the rug.
  • Ineffective oversight: Even where reporting of student violence incidents is expected or required, it’s often not deemed a priority unless or until a publicized incident hits the media and arouses parental unrest. School-by-school reports may be filed, as in Ontario, but oversight is weak or non-existent and the absence of reports is not questioned, even in some cases when it involves incidents featured in local media reports.
  • Under-reporting: Many principals and administrators under-report the number of actual school violence incidents, as revealed when compared with student-reported data. In American states, where student violence reporting is more established, data generated from the victims is incorporated into the official statistics.
  • Fear of reputational risk: School administrators are often protective of a school’s reputation and reluctant to report higher counts, which might result in them being labelled a “dangerous school” if their numbers are high or rising from year to year.
  • Feeble public accountability: Educational oversight by elected school boards and district educational councils is woefully inadequate.

Illustrating that last point, Manitoba provincial school boards association president Alan Campbell says that maintaining “a safe learning environment” is the “No. 1 priority.” However, public disclosure of data is non-existent there, and levels of sexual harassment and hateful name-calling are higher than any other province in Canada. Why elected boards do not insist upon full public disclosure is hard to fathom, especially when it’s their responsibility to identify critical needs and allocate district resources.

Much can be learned from American school research, which includes critical analysis of how Ontario has collected violence statistics over the past eight years. UCLA Professor Ron Avi Astor, co-author of Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time, has published more than 200 academic studies on violent behaviour in schools. In the CBC News series, he confirmed that Canada has no real system at all for collecting data, exemplified by uneven provincial policies, lack of consistent definitions for offences, varying collection systems, and inaccurate or incomplete statistics.

StudentViolenceCBCGraphOntario deserves credit for requiring mandatory reporting, but the system does not stand up to close scrutiny. The most recent data documented 2,124 violent incidents in 2018-19, averaging about 10 incidents province-wide each day. That simply does not stack up, because 18 of Ontario’s 76 school boards have reported zero incidents for several years, eight show radical variations from year to year, and four boards are in non-compliance for having failed to file reports at all for some years.

While the CBC News report documented serious levels of violent incidents in the province when it surveyed students, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of Ontario schools reported having no incidents of violence during the previous year.

Negligence in reporting and underreporting simply compounds the problem. When the violence statistics go unreported or are full of zeros, it becomes guesswork when allocating resources — not just funds, but counsellors, psychologists, and social workers to rectify school problems with student behaviour. Transparency in identifying problems is, after all, the critical first step in developing more effective, evidence-based harm reduction policies and in implementing school-level programs that work in reducing the incidence of student violence.

Why does the stubborn problem of student violence persist in our schools?  How can such school challenges be addressed when the data on student violence is either unreported or concealed from parents and the public?  When we do identify the extent of the problem, how well are we responding with harm reduction programs?  

Re-posted commentary, originally published on CBC’s Opinion section on November 10, 2019. 

 

Measles outbreaks in the spring of 2019 in the American Pacific Northwest and British Columbia were part of a global revival of an infectious disease that had already affected thousands in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. In the wake of that outbreak, the BC Ministry of Health under Adrian Dix acted to require all parents to provide local public health units with their child’s immunization record before beginning school in September 2019. Twelve measles cases in Saint John, New Brunswick, in June 2019, prompted the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell to intervene to protect as many as 2,000 people exposed to the disease, ordering up 20,000 more doses of MMR vaccine, protection against measles, mumps and rubella.

Lagging childhood immunization rates are emerging as a major public health concern.  Periodic outbreaks of measles and mumps have alerted the public to the fact that childhood diseases, once virtually eradicated by vaccines, are reappearing in and around schools.

Vaccines remain one of the safest and most effective tools we have to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from infectious diseases. Those are not my words, but those of the Public Health Agency of Canada. The current reality is that we are not meeting our national immunization goals and too many children as well as adults remain unprotected and liable to experience illnesses from vaccine-preventable diseases that can cause serious health complications, some of which carry a risk of death.

Each year in April Health Canada raises the alarm during National Immunization Awareness Week and education programs are announced in an attempt to raise vaccination rates. Our Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, makes regular appeals, most recently in August of 2019, to encourage parents to keep their children’s immunization records up-to- date.

The current strategy is not working in Nova Scotia where only 71 per cent of 7- year-olds are immunized for measles and mumps, some 15 per cent lower than the national provincial average and ranking last among the provinces. In New Brunswick, where it’s considered a “crisis,” the measles and mumps coverage rate at age 7 is 92.3 per cent.

While provincial health and school authorities in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Ontario are tackling it head on, Alberta and Nova Scotia are still vacillating on how to improve its abysmal childhood immunization rates. While Health Minister Randy Delorey dithered, PC Leader Tim Houston introduced a private member’s bill to try to force the government’s hand.

Sparked by the spring 2019 measles scare in the Saint John region, New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy has championed legislation that would make vaccinations mandatory for children without medical exemptions in provincial schools and day cares.

Taking a proactive approach to combating the resurgence of childhood diseases is becoming common right across Canada. Three years ago, Ontario introduced stricter childhood vaccination regulations and in British Columbia legislation requires the reporting of immunization records. Ontario has far higher rates of reported childhood immunization at age 7 than Nova Scotia. Yet, since 2016, that province has required student vaccinations be up to date unless a parent or guardian can provide medical, religious or philosophical reasons why their child has not received a vaccine. Even when exemptions are granted, families are required to watch a 30-minute video on the importance of vaccines and then sign a document saying they viewed the presentation.

Public health authorities hold sway in Nova Scotia, unlike in New Brunswick, where a proactive Education Minister is leading the charge to meet childhood immunization targets so schools do not become sources of contagion.

Nova Scotia Health Minister Delorey may be deterred by fears of stirring-up the radical anti-vaxxers and setting back the cause. He should be taking his cue from New Brunswick’s courageous Education Minister. Confronting a posse of opponents, Cardy called out the group as conspiracy theorists who “influence, mislead and deceive” parents into thinking their children are at risk if they are vaccinated.

Prominent among the N.B. protesters were former Halifax chiropractor Dena Churchill who recently lost her licence to practice because of her anti-vax campaigning, and California pediatrician Dr. Bob Sears, a well-known anti-vax advocate funded by Vaccine Choice Canada.

Vaccine adverse reactions do happen, but, on balance, immunizing children prevents far worse harms caused by the unchecked spread of childhood infectious diseases. School attendance is compulsory and, in that context, so should immunization aimed at safeguarding children’s health.

Minister Cardy stood his ground defending his legislative changes aimed at achieving the goal of 95 per cent coverage. Growing anti-vaccination sentiment, he claimed, was being fed by social media, and threatened to discourage parents from vaccinating their children, reducing immunization rates below a critical threshold that allows a community to resist an outbreak.

Playing nice does not seem to be working at raising childhood immunization rates. Scare stories spread by anti-vaxxers should not go unchallenged. Claims that vaccines are harmful, in Cardy’s words, are “not supported in fact.” “If you believe in evidence-based decision-making, you have to look at the evidence and the evidence is incontrovertible.”

Childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, diphtheria, pertussis, and rubella can do great harm if left unchecked by regular vaccination. With childhood infectious diseases making a comeback, is now the time to be vacillating on child immunization? Does the school system have some responsibility to ensure that immunization rates are high enough to prevent mass outbreaks in the community?  Should it all fall on provincial and local health authorities? 

  • An earlier version of this research commentary appeared in The Chronicle Herald, October 31, 2019.

One of the world’s most infamous digital visionaries, Marc Prensky, specializes in spreading educational future shock.  Fresh off the plane from California, the education technology guru who coined the phrase “digital natives” did it again in Fredericton, the quiet provincial capital of New Brunswick.  Two hundred delegates attending the N.B. Education Summit (October 16-18, 2019) were visibly stunned by his latest presentation which dropped what he described as a series of “bombs” in what has become his ongoing campaign of creative disruption.

His introductory talk, “From giving kids content to kids fixing real world problems,” featured a series of real zingers. “The goal of education,” Prensky proclaimed, “is not to learn, it is to accomplish things.” “Doing something at the margins will not work” because we have to “leapfrog over the present to reach the future.”When you look out at a classroom, you see networked kids.” Instead of teaching something or developing work-ready skills, we should be preparing students to become “symbiotic human hybrids” in a near future world.

Having spent two breakfasts, totaling more than two hours, face-to-face with Marc Prensky, a few things became crystal clear. The wild success of his obscure 2001 article in On the Horizon on “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” totally surprised him. He is undaunted by the tenacious critics of the research-basis of his claims, and he’s perfectly comfortable in his role as education’s agent provocateur.

Prensky burst on the education scene nearly twenty years ago. His seminal article was discovered by an Australian Gifted Education association in Tasmania, and it exploded from there. Seven books followed, including Digital Game-Based Learning (2001), From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom (2012), and Education to Better Their World (2016).

While riding the wave, he founded his Global Future Foundation based in Palo Alto, California, not far from the home of TED Talks guru Sir Ken Robinson. He is now full-time on the speaking circuit and freely admits that he seeks to “drop a few bombs” in his talks before education audiences. Even though he writes books for a living, he confessed to me that he hasn’t “used a library in years.”

Assembled delegates at the recent Summit were zapped by Prensky in a session designed as a wake-up call for educators. About one-third of the delegates were classroom teachers and they, in particular, greeted his somewhat outlandish claims with barely-concealed skepticism.

Listening to students is good practice, but idealizing today’s kids doesn’t wash with most front-line practitioners.  How should we prepare the next generation? “We treat our kids like PETS (capitalized). Go here, do that… We don’t have to train them to follow us. Let’s treat them as CAPABLE PEOPLE (capitalized).” Making such assumptions about what’s happening in classrooms don’t go over with professionals who, day-in-day-out, model student-focused learning and respect students so much that they would never act that way. Especially so, with teachers struggling to reach students in today’s complex and demanding classroom environments.

Striving for higher student performance standards is not on Prensky’s radar. “Academics have hijacked K-12 education,” he stated. Nor is improving provincial test scores. “We’re not looking to raise PISA scores. That test was designed by engineers – for engineers.” There’s no need to teach content when information is a Google click away, in Prensky’s view.  “All the old stuff is online, so the goal of education is now to equip kids with the power to affect their world.” 

Prensky has survived waves of criticism over the years and remains undaunted by the periodic salvos.  Since inventing the term “digital natives” and becoming their champion, six points of criticism have been raised about his evolving theory of preparing kids for future education:

  1. The Generational Divide: The generational differences between “digital natives” and pre-iPod “digital immigrants” are greatly exaggerated because digital access and fluency are more heavily influenced by factors of gender, race and socio-economic status. Millennials may use ‘social media’ technology without mastering the intricacies of digital learning and utilizing its full potential (Reeves 2008, Helsper and Enyon 2009,  Frawley 2017)).
  2.  Video-Game Based Learning:  Unbridled advocacy of video-game based learning tends to ignore its negative impacts upon teens, including the glorification of violence, video game addiction, and the prevalence of “digital deprivation” as teens retreat into their private worlds (Alliance for Childhood 2004).
  3. Brain Change Theory: Claims that “digital natives” think and process information differently are based upon flimsy evidence, and trace back to work by Dr. Bruce Perry, a Senior Fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, TX. It actually relates more to how fear and trauma affect the brain. This is often cited as an example of “arcade scholarship” or cherry-picking evidence and applying it to support your own contentions (Mackenzie 2007).
  4. Stereotyping of Generations: Young people do not fit neatly into his stereotype of “digital natives” because the younger generation (youth 8-18) is far more complex in its acceptance and use of technology, ranging from light to heavy users of digital technology. Boys who play video games are not representative of the whole generation. (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005, Helsper and Enyon 2009)).
  5. Disempowering of Teachers: Changing methodology and curriculum to please children may help to advance student engagement, but it denigrates “legacy learning” and reduces teachers to mere facilitators of technology programs and applications. Dismissing “content knowledge” is unwise, especially when the proposed alternative is process learning and so vacuous (Mackenzie 2007)
  6. Digital Deprivation:  Expanded and excessive use of video games and digital toys can foster isolation rather than social connection which can be harmful to children and teens. Some prime examples of those adverse effects are exposure to violence, warped social values, and ethical/moral miseducation  (Turkle 1984, Alliance for Childhood 2004))

Most critical assessments of Marc Pensky’s case for pursuing “digital wisdom” call into question its efficacy and even its existence. “Digital technology can be used to make us not just wiser but smarter” is his more recent contention. Knowing how to make things is “know how” but it is only one type of knowledge and hardly a complete picture of what constitutes human wisdom.

Combining technology with human judgement has advanced through AI (artificial intelligence), but it’s probably foolhardy to call it “digital wisdom.” It implies, to be frank, that only things that can be qualified and turned into algorithms have value and denigrates the wisdom of the ages.  Championing the inventive mind is fine, but that can also lead to blind acceptance of the calculating, self-interested, and socially-unconscious mind. Where humanity perishes, so do the foundations of civilizations.

Why does digital evangelist Marc Prensky stirr up such controversy in the education world?  Where’s the evidence to support his case for the existence of “digital nativism”? Does “digital wisdom” exist or is it just a new term for useful knowledge or “know how”? Should teaching knowledge to students be completely abandoned in the digital education future?  

Curriculum and pedagogy have become captives of the Machine and a few brave souls in the education world are challenging the new orthodoxy. When Leo Marx’s 1964 classic of American literary criticism The Machine in the Garden first appeared, it met with a cool reception, especially among those enthralled with the modernizing forces of the urban-industrial order. Today, that book is hailed as “the most stimulating book in American studies and the one most likely to exert an influence upon scholarship.”

Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (Crown House Publishing, 2019) makes a bold, imaginative and compelling case for rediscovering the foundations of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Confronting the “deep learning” supposedly facilitated by machine learning, we are reintroduced to a sadly forgotten world where knowledge still matters and teaching is about making human connections and future-proofing today’s students.  It is, predictably,ruffling feathers in conventional progressive educational curriculum circles and even sparking the odd superficial, reactive drive-by assessment.

Robinson’s latest book is a worthy sequel to his ground-breaking 2013 education philosophy and teaching classic, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Thought-provoking and enlightening books like Trivium 21c are rarities in a field littered with turgid, politically-correct and impenetrable philosophical tombs or ‘how to’ curriculum manuals designed to advance the careers of school-system consultants.  Resurrecting the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric has a way of exposing the frail foundations and ideologically-driven research sustaining the prevailing progressive consensus, seemingly threatened by the dialectic and comfortable in its presentist assumptions.

Robinson’s highly original work is so fresh that it breaks the conventional categories and binary thinking that readily applies “progressive” or “essentialist” labels to every new contribution to the field. While Trivium 21c and Athena versus the Machine testify to the centrality of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom, it is all in the service of vanquishing machine-learning and restoring the human element in today’s classrooms.  It is a brilliant fusion of two traditions previously considered to be polar opposites and contradictions impossible to bridge in curriculum, teaching, and learning.

MartinRobinsonrED17Inspiring teachers like Robinson rarely posses the gift of being able to translate their discoveries and secrets onto the written page let alone witty, thought-provoking, elegantly-written, soundly researched books. The author, a seasoned London high school dramatic arts teacher, actually personifies what he is espousing — a stimulating, intellectually engaging, mischievous cast of mind that ignites your interest in a classroom.  Watching him in action at researchED conferences, he is a truly riveting teacher and his books further enhance that reputation.

Robinson tackles what is perhaps the central educational issue of our time — the contest between Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and the Machine (mechanical thinking and the quantification of learning). His metaphoric imagery breathes real life into the educational debate and reminds us that the “beating heart” of the school is its curriculum and it should not be subsumed by globalized conceptions of the function of education or attempts to reduce it to a vehicle for social justice. “Bringing the human back” into education has found a champion.

Reading Robinson’s book one is struck by how it is informed by, and builds upon, the cutting-edge social criticism of the late Neil Postman.  Searching for a way of reconstructing a “transcendent narrative,” he shares Postman’s despair over “life with no meaning” where “learning has no purpose.” Preparing students for success in the 21st century technological world or to challenge class inequalities fill the vacuum, but further accentuate utilitarian or instrumentalist conceptions of promoting social mobility or social justice.  Fully-educated students possessing a liberal education, Robinson argues, recognize the true value of knowledge and enjoy the significant advantage of cultural mobility.

The author delights in challenging prevailing curriculum assumptions and in tweaking educators absorbed in student-centred learning who invent the curriculum in response to passing fancy or children’s immediate interests. “Curriculum,” according to Robinson, “is a dialectical pursuit framed around great narratives” and should be respectful of our “subject disciplines” which are our “great muses.”

Parroting progressive education philosophy and echoing the popular dogma of “21st century learning” are more alike than recognized by many of today’s school change theorists, curriculum consultants and their followers.  Going along with prevailing currents associated with technology-driven learning, Robinson reminds us, means succumbing to mechanized processes that feed off quantifiable outcomes. Succumbing to the “doctrine of child-centred learning” or “project-based miasma” runs the risk of producing a generation of “little Napoleons” who are “conned into thinking that they are central to the culture in which they find themselves.”

Robinson has the courage to expose some oft-forgotten educational truths. Powerful, life-altering lessons should not be reserved for upwardly mobile families attuned to the benefits of liberal education. True wisdom comes from pursuing knowledge for its own sake. “Knowledge is,” in Robinson’s words, ” not a pick ‘n’ mix smorgasbord of consumerist passions” and is “understandable within contexts — for example, words are most useful in sentences, paragraphs, stories, and books” (p. 142)

Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine does pay homage to the wisdom bequeathed by Western civilization without making apologies for doing so. Athena is a cleverly-constructed proxy and conduit for Robinson’s own thinking on the purpose and role of education. He points out that dismissing the traditional humanist curriculum as “white or middle class” may be easy, but it is also ill-considered. The so-called Western education tradition has deep roots going back to Muslim scholars and pre-Christian thinkers. It has also been challenged, over the centuries, and proven itself capable of thriving on argument and emotion, reason and debate, and equipping students so that they can “make up their own minds.”

Martin Robinson’s new book stands out because it is so unlike the current crop of curriculum books pouring out of California-based Corwin Publishing and featured in Educational Leadership, the flagship magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  “Computer-aided inspiration,” envisioned by Seymour Papert in his seminal work Mindstorms (1980), gave way to “computer-aided instruction” and has now morphed into digital surveillance, data collection, and measurement of outcomes. That transformation goes unrecognized in too many books offering up curriculum panaceas.

The breadth and depth of  Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine sets it apart in the field of contemporary educational philosophy and criticism. It deserves to be discussed along with some of the most influential radical education texts, such as French philosopher, theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul‘s The Technological Society (1954), Paul Goodman‘s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), Neil Postman‘s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), and Ivan Illich‘s Tools for Conviviality (1973). We are sometimes slow to recognize books that shatter perceptions and significantly alter our understanding of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

What makes Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine such a compelling and original education book?   Can it be properly understood without reading and digesting its prequel, Trivium 21c?   Why is the book so difficult to categorize, label and dismiss? How does the current crop of system-bound curriculum books stack up against this piece of work? Will the book, like Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, live on as an influential contribution to understanding societal transformation?