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Beginning teachers like me were totally unprepared to manage a class of students.  Walking into my first class at St. Andrew’s College in September 1974, my exposure to “classroom management” consisted of watching my own teachers in survival mode and a few passing references to ‘the problem’ in my University of Toronto Faculty of Education courses.

ClassMgmtDickGibbAn early and rather unorthodox teacher-mentor, the legendary Geography master Richard (Dick) Gibb (The Gibber) came to my rescue with this sage advice: “Stay one step ahead of the little nippers, and fire questions at them to straighten them up every once in awhile.”  After observing him teaching Grade 10 boys how to make wine during a Unit supposedly on the “Wine Districts of the Paris Basin,” Mr. Gibb stunned me with his Yorkshire-bred honesty: “Blast ’em…Lighten up, my boy. Forget what you learned in that FACULTY of education.”

Dick Gibb was partly right: Catcalls, pranks, and ribbing tend to loosen you up. Throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass during my Under 15 football practice might have saved me. Schoolmaster Roger Allen, Head of the Upper Canada College Mathematics Department, offered more conventional advice: “Be tough and firm at the start, then ease up a little.” That’s known as “don’t smile until second term — or second year.”

Following that advice to be firm meant that many of my students in the early 1980s, such as newspaper editor John Stackhouse and Canadian democracy watchdog Duff Conacher, keep their distance, to this day.  Two future lawyers, Derek Ground and Kirk Baert, saw through my “hard ass” ruse.  It took me a decade to relax and just be myself, and then become nearly as eccentric as the infamous Mr. Gibb.

Practical guidance on how to deal with unruly students is, to my amazement, still hard to find in initial teacher training (ITT) programs. A pivotal British report produced by Sir Andrew Carter in January 2015 identified the chronic problem and recommended that “behaviour management” be core content for all UK ITT programs. Such practical training, UK government teacher-advisor Tom Bennett recently claimed, remains  “a glaring omission” in teacher education. Even a cursory review of American and Canadian education school curriculum reveals that it’s also an “add on ” at best in our programs.

ClasMgmtBoysFightingWhy all the fuss about class management and student behaviour ?  Frontline teachers are struggling to keep students focused and maintain control over their classes.  It is a major public issue in Britain and now being raised by teacher unions around the world.  In the most recent OECD report on Teaching (TALIS 2013), new data (Figure 6.14) was produced documenting “time spent keeping order” in 32 different countries, including  Australia, Canada, England, and Finland, but not the United States.  

A September 2014 report for the UK ‘s Ofsted found that children were losing up to an hour a day of teaching because of a pronounced culture of “low-level disruption and disrespect” in schools. Chatter, calling out, swinging on chairs, play fighting, using mobile phones, and quietly humming was disrupting classes, resulting in lost time equivalent to 38 days of teaching each year.  Most shocking of all — England is not among the top countries in OECD teacher-reported time spent in maintaining class order.

ClassMgmtTomBennettBritain’s chief student behaviour advisor Tom Bennett has done much to voice the real concerns of working teachers and to generate practical, teacher-validated ‘survival’ strategies. His regular TES columns on Student Behaviour Management are loaded with practical, no nonsense advice on how to deal with class disruptions, including the risks of turning your back on an unruly class, coping with wasps flying in the window, and catching boys peeing in buckets in the corner. Some handy stratagems: check notebooks for torn-out projectile pages, tame the lone wolf, seek reinforcements, and reward good output belong in every teacher’s student discipline toolbox.

Bolstering behaviour management content in education school ITT is long overdue in most education systems. Addressing the problem in North America is perhaps more complicated because it will involve dismantling school-wide Positive Behavioural Systems (modelled after PBIS) that provide positive reinforcement “carrots” and spare the “stick” in student discipline.

The Ontario model, championed by Dr. Alan Edmunds of the Behaviour Management Network, is typical  of the PBIS approach which attempts to impose a school-wide regime of rewards for “good behaviour” and aims to reduce suspensions and provide make-up course credits. Under such a system, teachers inclined to “nip misbehaviour in the bud’ think twice before doing so. Top students complain under their breath about the reformed “baddies” collecting so many gold stars.

ClassMgmtUnrulyKidsDeterrence is making a comeback after a couple of decades as an underutilized approach to managing students in schools. Teachers are crying out for help and Tom Bennett is responding with practical, concrete strategies and tips. His proposed Behaviour Management course content is desperately needed by classroom teachers seeking to cope and stay afloat in today’s distraction-ridden classroom.

Teachers – in this day and age — should not be left on their own to fend for themselves. Today’s digital kids are far more challenging to teach than preceding generations. Computer-based Murison classroom mixed-reality simulator training may help, but there’s no substitute for “useful knowledge” taught by skillful veteran teachers.  Establishing classroom routines, developing student relationships, and mastering in-class discipline strategies need to be explicitly taught in B.Ed. ITT programs.

What’s stopping teacher education programs from implementing direct action Student Behaviour Management programs? Will ITT in behaviour management help to reduce the teaching time lost to student behaviour disruptions? Do school-wide Positive Effective Behaviour Intervention Systems (PEBIS) help or hurt the cause of maintaining orderly, purposeful classroom environments? Who will emerge in North America to take up the cause blazed by Britain on this education front?  

Educational talk about “grit” – being passionate about long-term goals, and showing the determination to see them through –seems too be everywhere in and around schools. Everywhere, that is, except in the rather insular Canadian educational world. Teaching and measuring social-emotional skills are on the emerging policy agenda, but “grit” is (so far) not among them.

GritFaceGirlGrit is trendy in American K-12 education and school systems are scrambling to get on board the latest trend.  A 2007 academic article, researched and written by Angela Duckworth, made a compelling case that grit plays a critical role in success.  Author Paul Tough introduced grit to a broad audience in his 2013 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which went on to spend a year on the New York Times bestseller list.  And in the same year, Duckworth herself gave a TED talk, which has been viewed more than 8 million times online.

Since then, grit initiatives have flourished in United States school systems. Some schools are seeking to teach grit, and some districts are attempting to measure children’s grit, with the outcome contributing to assessments of school effectiveness. Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is one of the hottest North American non-fiction titles this publishing season.  In spite of the flurry of public interest, it has yet to register in the Canadian educational domain.

GritDuckworthBookCoverOver the past three years the Ontario-based People for Education (P4ED) advocacy organization has been pursuing the goal of broadening the existing measures of student success to embrace “social-emotional skills” or competencies. With a clear commitment to “move beyond the ‘3R’s” and redefine the established testing/accountability framework, P4ED founder Annie Kidder and the well-funded Toronto-centred research team have been creating a “broad set of foundational skills” and developing a method of “measuring schools’ progress toward those goals.”

The Ontario P4ED initiative, billed as “Measuring What Matters “(MWM), proposes a draft set of “Competencies and Skills” identified as Creativity, Citizenship, Social-Emotional Learning, and Health — all to be embedded in what is termed “quality learning environments” both in schools and the community. The proposed Ontario model makes no reference whatsoever to cognitive learning and subject knowledge or to the social-emotional aspects of grit, perseverance or work ethic.

The P4ED project has a life of its own, driven by a team of Canadian education researchers with their own well-known hobby horses. Co-Chair of the MWM initiative, former BC Deputy Minister of Education Charles Ungerleider, has assembled a group of academics with impeccable “progressive education” (anti-testing) credentials, including OISE teacher workload researcher Nina Bascia and York University self-regulation expert Stuart Shanker.

A 2015 MWM project progress report claimed that the initiative was moving from theory to practice with “field trials” in Ontario public schools. It simply reaffirmed the proposed social-emotional domains and made no mention of Duckworth’s research or her “Grit Scale” for assessing student performance on that benchmark. While Duckworth is cited in the report, it is for a point unrelated to her key research findings. The paper also assumes that Ontario is a “medium stakes” testing environment in need of softer, non-cognitive measures of student progress, an implicit criticism of the highly regarded Ontario Quality and Accountability Office system of provincial achievement testing.

GritGrowthMindsetWhether “grit” or any other social-emotional skills can be taught — or reliably measured — is very much in question. Leading American cognitive learning researcher Daniel T. Willingham’s latest American Educator essay (Summer 2016) addresses the whole matter squarely and punches holes in the argument that “grit” can be easily taught, let alone assessed in schools. Although Willingham is a well-known critic of “pseudoscience” in education, he does favour utilizing “personality characteristics” for the purpose of “cultivating” in students such attributes as conscientiousness, self-control, kindness, honesty, optimism, courage and empathy, among others.

The movement to assess students for social-emotional skills has also raised alarms, even among the biggest proponents of teaching them. American education researchers, including Angela Duckworth, are leery that the terms used are unclear and the first battery of tests faulty as assessment measures.  She recently resigned from the advisory board of a California project, claiming the proposed social-emotional tests were not suitable for measuring school performance.  “I don’t think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” she told The New York Times.

Why are leading Canadian educators so committed to developing “social-emotional” measures as alternatives to current student achievement assessment programs? Should social-emotional competencies such as “joy for learning” or “grit”  be taught more explicity in schools?  How reliable are measures of such “social-emotional skills” as creativity, citizenship, empathy, and self-regulation? 

Bridge building can provide a rather unconventional source of educational reform insights. All bridges built over water –and constructed with the expert advice of a construction engineer — need “a foundation which is rested on the bed.”  Solid foundations, therefore, are critical to successful bridge-building projects.

School, college and workplace are far too often islands separated by hard to traverse expanses of water. Building bridges for high school leavers involves far more than simply clearing a path and creating easier off-ramps. It should involve paying far more attention to the cardinal principle of bridge building science — sound foundations matter.

BridgeBuildingPhotoA recent Nova Scotia Transition Task Force report, From School to Success: Clearing the Path, released June 21, 2016, looks well-intended, but appears to have missed the most critical piece — shoring-up the foundations on both sides of the bridge.  With youth unemployment hovering above the Canadian national average, the task force focused mostly on repairing the bridges, providing more program supports, and better career counselling.  It even proposed that high school graduates take a “gap year” on their own, presumably to acquire the requisite job-ready skills and work ethic.

How well prepared students were for success in college and the workplace was not really addressed in the Task Force report. When pressed to explain what employers were looking for, the notable silence was filled by one Task Force member. Andrea Marsman of the Nova Scotia Black Educators Association. “There are issues around deadlines and attendance and work ethic,” she told CBC Nova Scotia News. “They were saying that over the past several years they’ve seen a decline of respect for those particular principles of work ethic.”

Boring into the report, the problem with the educational foundation of the K-12 level pillar comes into sharper relief.  While high school graduation rates soar above 85%, only four in 10 university students complete their degree within four years. Thirty per cent never complete their university studies at all. At the community college level, 32 per cent don’t come back after their first year of study.

Raising graduation rates has been the priority in Nova Scotia , Ontario, and elsewhere for the past decade or so.  School promotion policies and “no fail” student assessment practices have significantly raised retention levels.  In spite of this, about five per cent of Nova Scotia students drop out in grade 11, unable to collect a graduation diploma. Those who do leave before graduation, it is clear, are totally unprepared for the daily discipline/grind and rigors of the workplace.

The Nova Scotia Task Force report simply accepts the current status quo — trying to help high school dropouts to graduate. While it is true that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, and college dropouts are have 3 % higher unemployment rates, the report does not really confront the the quality and preparedness of students leaving the system.  Instead, the Task Force recommended making it easier to graduate and funding more school-to-workplace bridge programs.

BridgingNSedReviewThe Transition Task Force recommendations completely flew in the face of the most recent evidence on employer satisfaction with Nova Scotia student graduates.  In the Nova Scotia Education Review survey, released in October 2014, only 38% of the 2,309 community members surveyed felt that students were “well prepared” for college or university, and fewer still, some 18%, felt they were well prepared for the workforce (p. 35).  Only one of three of the community respondents found students “well prepared” to move onto the next grade, so that is hardly an earthshaking revelation (p. 31).

The answers to the critical questions of preparedness and what today’s workplace demands may not be squarely addressed in the Nova Scotia report, but they are in a pertinent American study, produced in January 2014 by Bentley University researchers.  Just as in Nova Scotia and other provinces, the business sector concerns that today’s college graduates aren’t properly prepared are not going away.  What is changing is the willingness of U.S. colleges and universities to grapple with and address the core issue – improving the core competencies, skills, and work ethic of graduates.

The PreparedU Millennial Preparedness Survey questioned 3,000 respondents across nine audiences and examined skills, traits, use of technology, workplace attitudes and expectations, along with opinions of executives about millennials and vice versa, and much more. It directly addressed the preparedness problem and found a surprising consensus around the source of the problem – a lack of focus on developing strong character, determination, resilience and work ethic. It also found students’ self-perceptions, fostered in schools, to be out of line with those of employers.  Most alarming of all, businesses surveyed found graduates unprepared or unemployable, but seemingly confident in their own abilities.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed U.S. business leaders reported recent graduates they have hired would get a “C” or lower for preparation, if graded. However, they didn’t believe the fault rested entirely with students. Many businesses claimed that “soft skills” were highly valued, but their hiring decisions demonstrated otherwise, showing a clear preference for those with “hard skills,” such as technology training or apprenticeship certificates.

Just over half of business decision-makers and 43 percent of corporate recruiters surveyed said the business community itself deserves a “C” or lower on how well they are preparing recent grads for their first jobs. They also acknowledged that many businesses are not training new hires like they used to, leaving career colleges and private companies to fill the gaps.

School-college-workplace bridges will not be built in a day, nor will they be repaired by tinkering with, or extending, existing programs. Education department reports, like the June 2016 Nova Scotia Task Force study, tend to avoid going to the root of the preparedness problem. Looking at the membership of the Transitions Task Force, it is easy to see why.  Of the seventeen appointed members, the vast majority have a stake in the current system, only two were from business or industry and only one was a teacher in the K-12 school system.

What can school authorities wrestling with school-college-workplace transitions learn from bridge building science?  Why is the preparedness problem so difficult to tackle?  How can you assess the preparedness of high school and college graduates without systematically surveying job seekers or prospective employers? 

 

 

Walking or biking to school is making a little comeback in one traffic clogged neighbourhood in North Vancouver.  On a sleepy Friday morning in late April a steady parade of kids and parents, accompanied by the mayor and local councillor, on foot and on bike, streamed down the boulevard sidewalks on their way to Canyon Heights Elementary School.  The festive  “Freedom Friday”  public event has become a hit with families and has helped to spike the numbers of kids walking or biking to school.

WalkableSchoolsFeedomFridayParent groups like the North Vancouver North Shore Safe Routes Advocates have been front and centre in a “movement afoot” in North American cities and towns to reclaim school communities from the “me-first car culture.”  Community wellness and active transportation advocacy groups are springing-up, mostly in cities, in places as diverse as Hamilton, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The proportion of people who use active transportation – getting around without the use of a car –  has been on a steady decline for decades and it’s particularly evident in and around local schools.  ParticipAction’s 2015 report card on children’s physical activity gave Canada’s kids a D-minus for the third consecutive year. Fifty-eight per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were kids. Only 28 per cent of their kids walk today.

The streets around our local schools become totally gridlocked when, in the words of a recent Toronto Globe and Mail editorial,  “legions of dutiful, well-meaning parents perform the mandatory drop-off and pick-up.  The school run has turned into a frustrating crawl as distracted chauffeurs bob and weave for a prime piece of curb-blocking real estate so their offspring don’t have to make too long or dangerous a trek from the car door to the school entrance.”

WalkableSchoolsGTADataA 2011 report by Metrolinx surveyed parents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It showed that 53 per cent of children walked to school in 1985 and 15 per cent were driven. As of 2011, 36 per cent of children walk to school and 32 per cent are driven in cars. In Hamilton, 29 per cent of parents now drive their kids to school and 21 per cent drive them home. Eight per cent of those students live less than two kilometres from school.  Another 35 per cent of students take a school bus in the morning and 37 per cent take it on the way back. Thirty-one per cent walk to school and 36 per cent walk home.

Local health authorities and active transportation groups are attempting to turn back the tide. Metrolinx’s Big Move project aims to have 60 per cent of children walk or cycle to school by 2031. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, under fire for recent school closures, endorsed a 2015 Active and Sustainable School Transportation (ASST) Charter and now works in partnership with the city and its sister Catholic board.

School boards and education ministries have been instrumental in contributing to the decline in walkable schools.  School closures lead to regional consolidation, moving kids further and further away from their designated school. Establishing  speciality academies, French Immersion, and international baccalaureate schools have also contributed to the withering and disappearance of neighbourhood schools.

An even more important factor in the decline of kids on foot has been the nagging but totally unfounded perception that it’s not safe for kids to walk. “Something happened along the way where ‘stranger danger’ took over,” says Carol Sartor, a Vancouver safe route advocate and school travel planner.  The reality is quite different: The RCMP estimate the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger are about one in 14 million.

WalkingSchoolBusActive transportation programs are not immune from budget cuts in times of austerity.  A year ago, the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre slammed the Nova Scotia government for cutting funding for their walk to school programs across the province.  The budget cut, EAC’s Janet Barlow said, not only cut “longstanding and highly successful walk and bike to school initiatives,” but “hurt kids across the province.”

The EAC initiative had been provincially funded for 12 years and its funding had grown from $50,000 to $105,000 per year in the previous three years. Under a Nova Scotia Health and Wellness strategy, known as THRIVE,  the EAC programs had spread to 24 urban and rural schools reaching and over 2,000 students. In addition to helping kids become more active, the programs were also designed to encourage pedestrian and biking safety.

Student transportation often emerges as a bone of contention in the school review for closure process.  When the Hamilton-Wentworth school board was considering the closure of 11 more of its schools in May 2014, City Council weighed in, endorsing the safe school routes charter in an attempt to stave-off or delay the proposed closures.  Safe transportation, walking and bus distances became a critical factor, activating a joint city-board committee that had been moribund for years.

School closures definitely compound the problem of declining walkability for school children and teens. In the case of the 2014 Hamilton school closure controversy, Dr. Bill Irwin, a professor in economics and business at Huron University College in London, presented his findings on the impact of closures.

“School closures cause a loss of community identity,” Dr. Irwin said. And they’re based on a provincial funding formula established 17 years ago, “when the demographic makeup of the province was significantly different than it is today.” He suggested boards press for a funding formula used in some areas of Europe that’s based on individual student needs to meet a knowledge-based economy rather than “a head count.” The Hamiliton ASST Charter embraced that position affirming the city and school board’s longer-term and ongoing commitment to “active and sustainable school transportation.”

The walkable school movement faces an uphill battle against school consolidation and a car-driven culture. What’s standing in the way of implementing school-wide active transportation programs?  How can school boards professing support for active student transportation justify closing schools and forcing more families to either bus or drive kids over longer and longer distances?  Will it take “traffic gridlock” around schools to produce a change in school siting and planning policies? 

The high-sounding North American vision of “21st Century Learning,” actively promoted by educational leaders and global learning corporations, has had real trouble taking-off in Atlantic Canadian school systems.

C21CanadaVision2012New Brunswick was first out of the gate in May 2010 embracing “21st Century Learning,” but that province’s flirtation with technology-driven school reform amounted to a flash in the pan. Four years later, an upbeat and visually attractive Nova Scotia “21st Century Learning” discussion paper appeared parroting, virtually word-for-word, the “technology shift” vision of our national education technology lobby group C21 Canada — and its dramatic call to action merely floated above the schools.

How and why the “21st Century Technology Shift” plan ran amok and what can be learned from that whole venture is the prime focus of my latest AIMS research report, E-Learning in P-12 Schools: The Prospects for Disruptive Innovation.

Since the bold, top-down New Brunswick initiative to introduce 21st Century Learning capsized five years ago, the region’s leading educators have been leery of the pan-Canadian movement promoting 21st century learning and technology-driven education.

Nova Scotia’s flirtation with “21st Century Learning” did not really register with students, teachers or parents, nor did it figure in either the October 2014 Education Review or the eventual Three Rs Education Reform Plan, released in late January 2015. A well-funded attempt to introduce the innovative ideas of American education technology guru Salman Khan into the teaching of Grade 7 Mathematics and Science in Nova Scotia schools did not fare much better.

Instead of promoting technology innovation, a January 2016 Nova Scotia Education CANeLearn presentation extolled the virtues of the centrally-managed Nova Scotia Virtual High School, enrolling just 500 of the province’s 118,000 students. It also chose to highlight Article 49 of the Nova Scotia Teachers Contract, limiting online classes to between 22 and 25 students and confining instruction to regularly scheduled school times.

Taken together with previous ventures, the CAN-e-Learn presentation confirmed that not much had changed in the Maritimes. Containing and managing online learning and limiting the creative potential of “disruptive innovation” remained the prevailing mode of operations.

Skepticism about passing educational fads is healthy and perhaps understandable, but structural barriers and resistance to technological innovation in the schools are now holding us back.

teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown....AJEKXM teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown.Elementary school student and teacher look at computer

My AIMS report sought to spark the needed “disruptive innovation” in our school system and to incite deeper learning for students. Such a strategy, initially built around supporting core innovation teams in each school, would include demonstrations of effective blended learning activities, the introduction of A La Carte model school courses, lifting of provincial restrictions on online classes, establishing reliable measures of “learning competencies,” and transforming our ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system into a “portfolio” of schools offering the full range of face-to-face, online and blended school programs.

The official reaction of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to my report was totally bizarre. Turning teaching and IT services over to Google and partnering with Pearson International/Power School are perfectly fine, but– according to a peculiar May 18, 2016 media release—the “sentiments” expressed in my policy paper were downright dangerous. Teaching innovations, it appears, are welcome as long as they follow the prescribed curriculum within the ‘brick-and-mortar’ school model.

What’s really strange about that NSTU release was that the report was actually a call for teacher autonomy and freedom from the constraints inhibiting technology innovation in the schools. It all looked very much like the latest example of an all-too prevalent form of cognitive dissonance known as “bias confirmation.” That’s the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms preconceived beliefs and to rule out other alternative explanations.

Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. Introducing Google Apps for Education, piloted last year in Nova Scotia schools, broke the mould and could well be a step in the right direction, but it’s still too early to tell.

The potential of e-learning will only be unleashed if we work with regular classroom teachers, and mobilize those teachers from the school-level up.  My nine school-based, teacher-friendly policy recommendations may bear repeating:

  1. Support early adopters committed to initiating Blended Learning Programs, giving them the freedom and resources to innovate outside the framework of the traditional classroom;
  2. Strengthen, expand and seed self-directed Online Learning Programs, especially in areas such as elementary literacy and mathematics, remedial tutoring, high school credit recovery, Advanced Placement coursework, and co-curricular gaming activities;
  3. Focus on building the A La Carte model of Blended Learning Programs in junior and senior high schools, offering engaging, substantive, and meaningful courses otherwise unavailable to students;
  4. Clear away the current structural barriers and regulatory constraints, like Article 49, to encourage more flexible, responsive online learning program initiatives outside the normal boundaries of brick-and-mortar schooling;
  5. Build school leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation, providing principals and instructional leaders with the competencies and skills required to nurture, support and protect innovations in Blended Learning;
  6. Develop and test more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations, including more reliable ways of measuring “learning competencies,” assessing the acquisition of core knowledge, and improving levels of student performance;
  7. Broaden the range of E-Learning Innovation policy initiatives through expanded school program choices, greater teacher autonomy, more flexible staffing formulas, expanded student learning time, and accredited, autonomous virtual high schools:
  8. Foster the development, school-by-school, of more agile, flexible and adaptable alternative school programs, including incubator (e-learning) schools;
  9. Transform traditional top-down school management systems into true “communities of schools” providing face-to-face, online and blended learning program choices.

Students and teachers yearning for more stimulating and engaging high quality instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning, deserve much more from the school system. Skillful teachers properly supported and equipped need to be feed-up and given more scope to innovate in our schools.  That might well be dangerous — to the status quo.

What’s standing in the way of teacher-led initiatives in e-learning that incite deeper learning? How can we transform school systems into “communities of schools” offering face-to-face instruction, online learning, and blended learning program options? Where do the constraints originate and how can they be cleared away?  What would it take to empower skillful teachers equipped with educational technology to go deeper with students? 

The Chinese city of Shanghai has a school system that produces students who soar far above the rest.  On the 2009 and 2012 Programme of International Student Achievement (PISA) tests, administered to 15-year-olds worldwide, Shanghai-China students ranked first in all three major domains –mathematics, reading and science.

ShanghaiTeacherUntil recently, the secret of that astounding student achievement success was essentially shrouded in mystery.  With the release of the May 17 World Bank study, “How Shanghai Does It,” the answers are beginning to emerge, providing vitally-important lessons for education policy-makers in Canadian school systems and far beyond.

The World Bank report on Shanghai education, issued by World Bank research director Harry Patrinos, provides a counterpoint to the prevailing narrative that North American school systems should look to Finland for lessons on school improvement. It demonstrates, in incredible detail, what lies behind Shanghai-China’s rise to ‘education super-nova.’

The report, based upon SABER, a comprehensive World Bank system for benchmarking school system performance, delves deeply into how and why Shanghai students achieve excellent learning results. In the process, it smashes a few stubborn stereotypes and dispels the image of a mechanistic, test-driven, joyless educational enterprise.

Shanghai’s student successes stem, according to the World Bank, from a focus on teaching excellence. What’s unique about Shanghai-China is the way it “grooms, supports, and manages” teachers to raise educational quality and to a culture which accords great respect to the “teaching profession.”

We know that Shanghai students break records for extraordinary test scores, but lesser known is the success achieved in raising the floor for overall student achievement. The city has the highest share of disadvantaged students in the top 25 per cent range on PISA tests, and that is no accident. Educational equity is becoming a higher priority, especially targeting children of migrants.

Teachers in Shanghai are, by all accounts, well-trained and mentored after they become licensed to teach in schools. Ongoing professional development is not only offered, as in Canada, but integrated into a “collegial and supportive” professional growth process.  Subject mastery and pedagogical training go together in developing skilled and accomplished teachers.

Teaching time is organized far differently than in Canadian schools.  The Chinese teachers spend only one-third of their time actually teaching and far more emphasis is placed on preparation of demonstration lessons. Teaching effectiveness is the clear priority, not scattered efforts spread across a range of classes.

Teaching is also rewarded far differently.  Instead of being paid on a lock-step grid based upon seniority, Shanghai teachers move up the ladder based upon merit and guided by principals who are trained as instructional leaders not building administrators.

The biggest surprise is how Shanghai’s school system works to reduce educational inequalities. While education funding is vested in the school district, a proportion of the ‘education tax’ is specifically allocated to poor and low performing school districts.

ShanghaiSchoolBBCOne educational innovation worth emulating is what is known as the “entrusted school” management model to help raise up underperforming schools.  High-performing Shanghai schools are “twinned” with struggling schools within the state system. Instead of establishing private schools or creating charters, the Chinese use “twinning” to extend management, training, and resource support to teachers and students in the struggling schools.

Since 2006, the world of education has been enraptured with the so-called “Finnish Miracle,” while Shanghai-China has surged far ahead in student achievement. Instead of hitching our school improvement wagon to Finnish education promoter extraordinaire Pasi Sahlberg and his Finnish lessons, we should be looking at best practice anywhere and everywhere.

Let’s start by finding out where exactly we rank and what might be the areas that need improvement.  We generate lots of national, provincial and international student performance data, so why not put it to better use?

A really bold initiative would be to invite the World Bank to assess one Canadian provincial school system in relation to the SABER benchmarks.  The State of Maryland in the United States has already done so, and the SABER report for Maryland demonstrates just how incredibly valuable it can be in planning for, and advancing, school improvement.

The Finnish Education Miracle has begun to lose its lustre. Perhaps it’s time to consider edutourism junkets to Shanghai instead of Helsinki – in search of educational excellence as well as innovative teaching-learning ideas.

*An earlier version of this Commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, based in Saint John, NB.

Will the World Bank report on Shanghai’s Educational Success be a wake-up call for North American educational leaders? Do popular stereotypes about Chinese education obscure our vision of Shanghai’s remarkable student performance achievements? Should we be producing more detailed studies of “Shanghai Lessons” for educators? And which Canadian province will be the first to follow Maryland in stepping-up to participate in the SABER assessment of school system effectiveness? 

 

The public cries of “crisis” are in the air, especially when it comes to child/teen mental health in the schools. Britain’s government-appointed Mental Health Champion, Natasha Devon, rang the latest alarm bell in The Telegram (April 29, 2016) claiming that the “child mental health crisis is spinning out of control.” In issuing her “Mental Health Manifesto” for Britain’s schoolchildren, Devon frequently cites a scary figure to buttress her public claims — the statistic that “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.”

TeenDepressionUKNot everyone accepts her public pronouncements at face value — and a few are looking more deeply into the nature, definition, and prevalence of the so-called “child public health crisis.” Devon’s further claim that it constitutes an “epidemic” has sparked even more skepticism. Is this the proverbial twenty-first century equivalent of “crying wolf” or just a manifestation of our contemporary tendency to ‘pathologize’ social-psychological trends?

One of Canada’s leading teen mental health experts, Dr. Stan Kutcher, devotes his life to educating teachers, students and families about mental health disorders, but he is very skeptical about overblown claims. When asked about the purported “crisis” at St. Francis Xavier University a few weeks ago, he startled a local newspaper reporter with this statement: “there is no mental health crisis for crying out loud.”

Dr. Kutcher was not minimizing  the severity of the problem, but rather questioning the veracity of some of the recent public claims. “We have the same proportion of mental illness in our society now that we had 40, 50, 60 years ago,” he explained. “There is no epidemic of illness, there is better recognition of illness, which is good but what we’re seeing now is an epidemic of ‘I think I have a mental disorder when I’m just really feeling unhappy,’ and that is a direct reflection of poor mental health literacy.”

Like many health professionals, Dr. Kutcher sees the popular media as contributing to the public misunderstanding about the nature and prevalence of mental disorders. He’s critical of those who exaggerate the “crisis” and equally concerned about others too quick to dismiss
it as a ‘teenage fad.’“Now the depression happens in adolescents and depression is a serious disease and if you have depression you need the proper treatment for depression, but feeling unhappy, that’s not depression,” he said.“So I think a lot of people have become confused with all the talk about mental health and mental illness without the literacy to understand what they’re talking about.”

TeenMentalHealthDrStanStress and distress is not all bad, according to Kutcher. “People do have daily distress, that is normal, ubiquitous, necessary and good for you,” he said.“And all of us are going to have a mental health problem like the loss of a loved one, moving to a new city, losing your job – those are substantive challenges in our lives and we need extra help for that. But those two things aren’t mental illnesses and they don’t need to be medicalized, they don’t need medications, they don’t need specialized psychotherapy, they don’t need access to the mental health care system.They can be dealt with, the first one, mental distress, by yourself with your friends. The second one with special support, sometimes counselors, sometimes your clergy, whoever.”

As the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University Medical School, Kutcher’s assessment carries considerable weight and he makes the critical distinctions that the popular media tend to completely miss: “Mental illnesses are different; they need specialized treatment like a treatment for any illness. But one of the challenges we have is that socially we’re tending to confuse mental distress and mental health problems with mental illness. So, because I feel unhappy today I feel like I should have therapy, because I take umbrage at what you said to me I have an anxiety disorder, that’s not true at all.”

Dr. Kutcher seems to dispute the whole approach taken by Britain’s Mental Health czarina and ‘body health’ counsellor, Natasha Devon. While Devon and her Self-Esteem Team (SET) target standardized tests and exams as “stress-inducers,” Kutcher and other specialists, including Dr. Michael Ungar, see value in competitive activities in developing “resilience” in teens.  Dr. Kutcher puts it this way: “We have to be very careful to differentiate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life which we have to learn to deal with and overcome, and for which we don’t need treatment, and those things which actually require treatment.”

Mental health disorders are serious and providing more accessible, effective and sustainable services should be a top public policy priority, inside and outside of schools. “Teenage angst,” as Ella Whelan recently pointed out, “is not a serious mental health issue.” It is important to carefully consider all public claims for their veracity and to be skeptical of mental health charities seeking to “normalize mental illness.” We must also recognize that “not all of the kids are all right.” Nor are mental health services accessible or available when and where they are needed in and around the schools. Therein lies the real problem.

What ‘s driving the public call to address the “child mental health crisis” in schools? Are school authorities and educators equipped to make the critical distinction between normal ‘mental health stresses’ and serious disorders requiring treatment?  Is there a danger that those ringing the alarm bells are ‘pathologizing’ teenage anxieties and stress?  Is it possible to identify and support those in serious personal crisis while recognizing that competition and stress develops ‘resilience’ and is part of healthy preparation for life? 

 

 

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