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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? 

 

 

The prevalence and use of electronic cigarettes has increased rapidly over the past decade, particularly among youth.  The extraordinary growth of e-cigarettes has also raised significant public health concerns about the emergence of a new generation of teens with nicotine dependency.  Changes in the design and marketing of vaporizers with the introduction in 2015 of more stylish, sleekly-designed, discreet high-tech devices, known as JUUL, have proven irresistible to teens and become the latest ‘nightmare’ for today’s high school principals and teachers.

School authorities in Canada as well as the United States are coming rather late to the challenge of combating vaping and its associated health risks.  Advance promotion of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device may have contributed to the initial ambivalent, almost helter-skelter, response.  A May 2019 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report confirms that schools were caught off-guard by the surge of vaping among never-smokers and responded with interventions once used to combat smoking or imported from the United States, where the craze is far more advanced among youth.

Five years after the arrival of JUUL, public concern has reached a panic stage with the spread of fear over a recent spate of lung-disease cases involving teen users of e-cigarettes. Breathing in flavoured aerosol that contains nicotine was already a worry of doctors, parents and schools.  Over the past few months, some 380 people in 36 different American states have been struck by a mysterious lung infection linked to chemicals inhaled through e-cigarettes, and seven of those affected died.  Shortly after Health Canada issued a September 6, 2019 advisory, a London, Ontario, hospital disclosed that a local high school student suffering from vaping-related illness had been placed on life support before recovering and being sent home. It could become worse in mid-December 2019 when the sale of vaping liquids containing cannabis compounds becomes legal in Canada.

Schools are on the front lines of the current teen health scare. Since entering the Canadian retail market in 2009, e-cigarettes have morphed from a smoking-cessation aid to a full-blown health concern among today’s youth. Ten years ago, Health Canada greeted e-cigarettes with an advisory warning of the dangers of the new nicotine delivery devices, expressing concern over the lack of scientific research to support claims that they were safe for adults and teens. More recently, Canadian health authorities monitoring the spread of e-cigarette use have been echoing the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine research finding that ” e-cigarettes are not without biological effects on humans” and, rather than aiding in cessation, can lead to further dependency.

Vaping devices and products containing nicotine are now flooding the Canadian market and readily available in local convenience stores and gas stations. Since September 1918, JUUL, the San Francisco-based company that controls over 50 per cent of the market, has been selling its sleek devices that look like a computer flash drive and are re-chargable at a USB port. They have proven more popular that the Imperial Tobacco brand Vype, released Canada in the Spring of 2018, and Japan Tobacco‘s Logic brand released in early 2019.

First introduced by Juul Labs in mid-2015 as a smoking-cessation device, JUUL became the so-called “iPhone of e-cigarettes.” The extraordinary sales growth of the product was driven by a variety of effective, wide-ranging and engaging campaigns reaching youth through social media, particularly on You Tube, Twitter, and Instagram. Five million Canadians, mostly aged 15 to 34, had tried e-cigarettes by 2017 and 300,000 reported using it every day. One more recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, reported that the proportion of Canadian teens (aged 16 to 19) vaping rose from 8.4 per cent in 2017 to 14.8 per cent in 2018, a 74 per cent increase. 

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit conducted an environmental scan of current harm reduction programs and quickly recognized that there were, as of the Spring of 2019, no studies of the effectiveness of such interventions. Most intervention programs were public education and school-based efforts, typically aimed at teaching children and youth about the dangers of vaping in the hope of reducing or eliminating the practice. Three of the programs reviewed were E-Cigarettes: What You Need to Know (Grades 6 -12, Scholastic), CATCH My Breath (Ages 11-18, CATCH), and School E-Cigarette Toolkit (Grades 6-12, Minnesota Department of Health).  The report also examined interventions outside of schools, including community-based initiatives, public health efforts, health-care programs, and public policy strategies such as advertising and promotion restrictions, age restrictions, labelling and health warnings, flavouring restrictions, and safety requirements.

Most of the actual school-based interventions were embedded in existing tobacco control programs and sought to counter the marketing messages of companies claiming it is a safe, smoking cessation activity. The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit recognized the scattered approach being taken and recommended considering interventions that proved successful at reducing rates of regular cigarette smoking among youth. They also identified the need for a more coordinated and planned anti-vaping strategy.

Vaping has overtaken smoking as the favoured health-risk behaviour of high school students.  Some 15.8 per cent of Ontario Grade 9 students vaped in 2017, and only 6.2 per cent smoked cigarettes. As many as one out of every three high schoolers may now be regular users of vaporizers with nicotine-laced fluids. The recent health scares may have jolted users and curbed the growth in usage, but it remains the biggest, mostly unaddressed health issue in our high schools.

Why have health agencies and school authorities been so slow off-the-mark in combating the spread of vaping among adolescents? What more can be done to regulate and curtail the marketing of e-cigarettes among the youth market segment?  Where are the research initiatives aimed at identifying the real health risks for teens of vaping nicotine and cannabis products?  Should vaping cessation programs simply mimic smoking control strategies and programs?  What can be done to develop more effective student-centered vaping cessation programs? 

 

Biting, kicking, spitting, scratching, punching, throwing objects, and threatening harm are on the rise in Canadian elementary classrooms from coast to coast. More and more educators are not only reporting the violent incidents, but being hurt on the job in our classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. Whole classrooms are being evacuated to allow disruptive children to calm down. That escalating crisis was recently highlighted in a fine September 7, 2019 piece of investigative journalism by The Globe and Mail’s national education reporter Caroline Alphonso.

Her investigation of how school districts are actually managing children with behavioural challenges and complex needs is eye-opening for those unfamiliar with teaching on today’s frontlines. Periodic surveys of teachers and education assistants have identified an escalating crisis, but — until now–provincial school authorities and local school districts have been slow to collect the data and most reluctant to share violent incident report information with parents or the public. Indeed, Alphonso and her Globe team found it impossible to secure the data from some provinces and major metropolitan school districts.

The facts are gradually emerging and harassment and violence against educators is becoming commonplace.  One September 2019 study, conducted by University of Ottawa researchers Darcy A. Santor, Chris Bruckert, and Kyle McBride, showed a sharp spike in the level of violence teachers face in Ontario elementary schools. In a December 2018 online survey of 1,600 educators, they found a seven-fold increase in reported incidents over the past 12 years. While only 7 per cent of Ontario elementary teachers reported experiencing bullying in 2005, some 54 per cent now report encountering violence perpetrated mostly by students, but also by parents, and administrators. Furthermore, some 72 per cent reported experiencing explicit verbal insults, putdowns, or obscene gestures from a student during 2017-18.

Out of ten provincial ministries of education, only Nova Scotia provided Alphonso and the Globe and Mail with comprehensive data.  In the 2014-15, school year, there were 631 recorded incidents of violence against an educator by a student, and the following year, 2015-16, there were 683, the vast majority of which occurred in the elementary schools. The Ontario government turned down the Globe and Mail Freedom of Information request and other provinces either claimed not to have data or unable to access it without going through school boards or other government agencies.

Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU) president Paul Wozney expressed concern over the problem and provided what amounted to a worst case scenario. In Nova Scotia, one classroom was evacuated 12 times in a month — and students were forced to find sanctuary in another room until the disruptive child calmed down. He also reported that Nova Scotia educators, like their New Brunswick counterparts, were now wearing bite-resistant sleeves and Kevlar vests in certain high risk classrooms.

What can be done to address the problem? Most teacher union surveys and research reports, including the University of Ottawa study, are stronger on diagnosis than on prescription. The most common policy solutions, investing in more classroom resources, more teaching assistants, or more specialized professional development, are predictably in every set of recommendations and strongly favoured by school districts, teachers’ unions, and parent education funding lobby groups.

Two of the detailed University of Ottawa study findings got short shrift and deserve closer scrutiny.  Workplace violence is likely being under-reported because of fears of blame (from administration) and reprisal ( from students) in “an organizational culture” which is “ill-equipped to deal with the issue.” More importantly, in school boards which espouse “progressive discipline” under provincial mandates, there are “few consequences for students’ harassing or violent behaviour” (p. 34).

Digging deeper, it’s clear that two fundamental components of prevailing student behaviour philosophy and practice need to be seriously re-examined and likely replaced with more effective strategies: the cure-all of Positive Behaviour Supports Programs (PEBIS) and the misapplication of school restorative justice. From province-to-province, right across Canada, few educators seem to be either aware of, or attuned to, growing evidence that positive, progressive discipline has unanticipated negative long-term consequences for school principals and frontline teachers in classrooms.

Clamouring for more resources, increased staff levels, or better training has not worked, to date, so it’s surely not the ultimate answer. It’s time to adopt a completely new strategy, more in tune with the latest research on student behaviour and effective school management.  School leaders and principals need significant training in creating a culture of respect and responsibility and it’s time to look at alternatives to progressive, positive discipline and its step-child, restorative justice. It’s captured nicely in one of the University of Ottawa study recommendations calling for the “consistent application” and “implementation of student consequences that are appropriate and effective”(p. 35).

Why are teachers and education assistants facing increased violence in elementary schools?  How much of the increased student violence is the result of the rising incidence of students with severe learning challenges and complex needs? Will investing more in the prevailing student behavour programs make any real difference?  Is it time to rethink school leadership and to properly equip principals and teachers with strategies and programs that are research-proven and far more effective in ensuring safe, secure and purposeful learning for everyone? 

 

 

 

 

 

Students and parents in the Pontus school in Lappeenranta, one of the first  Finnish schools to implement the “phenomenon-based” digital curriculum, are now disputing the broad claim made by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. Concerned about the new direction, parents of the children have lodged a number of complaints over the “failure” of the new school and cited student concerns that they didn’t “learn anything” under the new curriculum and pedagogy. For some, the only recourse was to move their children to schools continuing to offer a more explicit teaching of content knowledge and skills.

The Finnish parent resistance is more than a small blip on the global education landscape. It strikes at the heart of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s 2016 plan to introduce “phenomenon’ problem-solving — replacing more traditional subject-based curriculum in mathematics, science, and history with an interdisciplinary model focusing on developing holistic skills for the future workplace. Perhaps more significantly, it blows a hole in the carefully-crafted image of Finland as the world leader in “building tomorrow’s global citizens.”

The basis for Finland’s claim to be a global future education leader now rests almost entirely upon that 2018 global ranking produced by the World Economic Forum, based upon advice gleaned from an ‘expert panel’ engaged by The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.  While Finland has slipped from 2000 to 2015 on the more widely-recognized Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, that educational jurisdiction remains a favourite of global learning corporations and high technology business interests. A close-up look at who provides the “educational intelligence” to the World Economic Forum demonstrates the fusion of interests that sustains the global reputation of Finland and other Western nations heavily invested in digital technology and learning.

The 2018 World Economic Forum future education index was a rather polished attempt to overturn the prevailing research consensus.  The PISA Worldwide Ranking – based upon average student scores in math, reading and science — place Asian countries, Estonia and Canada all ahead of Finland in student achievement.  The top five performers are Singapore (551.7), Hong Kong (532.7), Japan (528.7), Macau (527.3), and Estonia (524.3). A panel of seventeen experts, selected by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sets out to dispute the concrete student results of an OECD study of 70 countries ranking 15-year-olds on their scholastic performance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit index runs completely counter to the PISA rankings and attempts to counter the well-founded claim that student mastery of content-knowledge and fundamental skills is the best predictor of future student success in university, college and the workplace. Upon close examination, the World Economic Forum index seeks to supplant the established competencies and to substitute a mostly subjective assessment of “the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape”( p. 1). It focuses on the 15 to 24 year-old-age band in some 50 countries around the world. Setting aside how students are actually performing, we are provided with a ranking based almost exclusively on compliance with so-called “21st century learning” competencies – leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, global awareness, and civic education skills.

The poster child nation for the World Economic Forum rankings is Finland, now ranked 8th on its PISA scores, because it has now embraced, full-on, the “21st century learning” ideology and invests heavily in technology-driven digital education. The balance of the Top 5 World Economic Forum nations, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada, rank 15th, 16th, 26th, and 5th on the basis of their students’ PISA scores. Most problematic of all, the future education ranking downgrades the current global education leaders, Singapore (7th), Japan (12th), and Hong Kong (15th).  Mastery of academic competencies is, based upon the assessment criteria, not relevant when you are ranking countries on the basis of their support for technology-driven, digital education.

Who produced the World Economic Forum rankings?  The actual report was written by Economist Intelligence Unit contract writer Denis McCauley, a veteran London-based global technology consultant, known for co-authoring, a Ricoh-sponsored white paper, Agent of Change, alerting business leaders to the urgent necessity of embracing Artificial Intelligence and technological change.  Scanning the seventeen-member expert panel, it’s dominated by the usual suspects, global technology researchers and digital education proponents. One of the more notable advisors was Chief Education Evangelist for Google, Jaime Casap, the American technology promoter who spearheaded Google’s Apps for Education growth strategy aimed at teachers and powered by online communities known as Google Educator Groups, and “leadership symposiums” sponsored by the global tech giant.

Most of The Economist Intelligence Unit advisors see Finland as the ‘lighthouse nation’ for the coming technological change in K-12 education. Heavily influenced by former Finnish education ambassador, Pasi Sahlberg, they are enamoured with the Finnish model of phenomenon-based learning and its promise to implant “21st century skills” through structural changes in curriculum organization and delivery in schools.  It’s not surprising that it was actually Sahlberg who first tweeted about the Pontus school uprising, likely to alert Finnish education officials to the potential for broader resistance.

Launched in 2016 with a flurry of favourable ed-tech friendly research, the Finnish curriculum reform tapped into the rather obscure academic field of phenomenology.  The new curriculum adopted a phenomenon-based approach embracing curriculum integration with a theoretical grounding in constructivism. All of this was purportedly designed to develop student skills for the changing 21st century workplace. The ultimate goal was also spelled out by Canadian education professor Louis Volante and his associates in a World Economic Forum-sponsored April 2019 commentary extolling “broader measures” of assessing success in education. Peeling away the sugary coating, “phenomenon learning” was just another formulation of student-centred, project-based, 21st century skills education.

The daily reality for students like grade 6 student Aino Pilronen of Pontus School was quite different. “The beginning of the day was chaotic,” she reported, as students milled around developing study plans or hung-out in the so-called “market square.” “It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves.” Her brutally honest assessment: ” I didn’t learn anything.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit not only ignored such concerns voiced by students and parents, but brushed aside evidence that it would not work for the full range of students. A Helsinki University researcher, Aino Saarinen, attributed the decline in Finland’s PISA education standing to the increasing use of digital learning materials. Investing 50 million Euros since 2016 in training teachers to use digital devices and laptops, she claimed was not paying-off because “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were” in math, science, and reading. The most adversely affected were struggling and learning-challenged students, the very ones supposedly better served under the new curriculum.

What can we learn from taking a more critical, independent look at the actual state of Finnish education?  If Finnish education is in decline and 21st century learning reform encountering parental dissent, how can it be the top ranked “future education” system?  Who is providing the educational intelligence to the World Economic Forum?  Is it wise to accept a global ranking that discounts or dismisses quantitative evidence on trends in comparative student academic achievement?