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The rise of autism poses one of the biggest current challenges facing North American families and school systems everywhere. The latest education jurisdiction to step into the breach was the Canadian province of Ontario. In response to the mounting pressures for expanding services, the Ontario government announced a new $333 million, five-year autism program initiative packaged as good news.

AutismAndraFelsmanSonRiellySudburyInstead of being welcomed by parents of autistic kids, the move sparked a firestorm of provincial and local community protests. Hundreds of parents descended upon the Ontario Legislature to protest on April 12 and, three days later, local groups carrying signs reading “Autism Does Not End at Age Five” rallied in more than half a dozen smaller centres, including Ottawa, Kitchener, Aurora, Sudbury, Mississauga,and Waterdown, near Hamilton.

Young children with autism spectrum disorder in Ontario were promised shorter wait times for intensive therapy covered by the province, but those ages 5 and up will no longer be eligible as part of a revamped Ontario system. The New Ontario program aimed to cut wait times in half for Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) within two years, and then down to six months by 2021, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

The decision meant that 2,200 children ages 2 to 4 would be removed from wait lists over the next two years, while some 1,378 in treatment after age five, over half of the 2,000 currently served, would be transitioned out with an $8,000 grant intended to subsidize the less intensive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy.  Denying access to children over age five left many near desperate parents completely “heartbroken” and some totally outraged over being denied the needed services.

Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, Tracy MacCharles, broke into tears when faced with the barrage of opposition, and Irwin Elman, the provincial Child and Youth Advocate, sided with the aggrieved parents, urging the government to postpone its plans. “The debate is not about waitlists,” He added. “It’s about children. It’s about people, and it is about their possibility and futures.”

Addressing the growing incidence of children with autism is now such a critical public policy issue that it recently attracted the attention of The Economist, one of the world’s most widely read business magazines. Since 2000, the share of eight-year-olds diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger Syndrome, has doubled to one in every 68 children or 15 in every 1,000 kids.
AutismIncidence2000to2012Autism affects different people in different ways, ranging from severe communications impairment and compulsive repetitive movements to milder forms of social anxieties with a few intense, almost obsessive interests.  School can be extremely difficult for autistic children, and they are three times more likely to be bullied or ostracized by peers, and many withdraw before graduation.
In Canada, the United States and Britain, they tend to be educated in mainstream classrooms with Special Education supports, which is considered less expensive than providing intensive programs. Regular classroom teachers in all three countries regularly report that they lack the training and resources to properly serve children with autism.

The Canadian province of Alberta stands out as an exception.  Since the mid-1990s, Alberta Education has embraced more school choice, especially in special education services.  Alberta’s direct funding system provides grant support for kids with developmental disabilities, based on each child’s needs, to pay for whatever services suit them best. Options include special needs schools, a range of behavioural, speech and occupational therapies, respite care, camps, and personal support workers to accompany children to recreational activities.

Children are assessed through the Family Support for Children with Disabilities program, which determines the amount. Wait times are minimal. Parents have choices, unlike in Ontario, where IBI is the only sustained treatment covered by the province. While Nova Scotia has a Tuition Support Program, it is limited to children with diagnosed SLD attending three designated schools enrolling fewer than 230 students. Financial support to attend specialized programs is extremely rare elsewhere in Canada.

One example of such a school program is Janus Academy, a Calgary, Alberta, school for children with autism. It’s a specialized private school where parents pay $12,000 in tuition each year for a program that costs $40,000 per student to operate. In other words, providing access to a specialized IBI program at a quarter of what parents would pay in Ontario.

Teaching autistic children using IBI can be expensive, but it can produce noticeable gains., especially if started in the early years. The Alberta government underwrites most of the difference, and the school also fundraises to support the tuition subsidies. “We don’t have to fight the schools (for what the children need), they’re partners with us. And I know they are learning,” reports Janus Academy parent Tim Ingram, formerly of London, Ontario.  The intensive and wrap-around support, he adds, helps the whole family function, but it takes some extra effort to secure a place in such a school.

School can be tough for autistic children and teens, but many have a worse time once they leave the system. A study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia found that only 19% of American autistic people in their early 20’s lived independently, away from their parents. Wherever they live many are isolated: one in four said that they had not seen friends or received invitations to social events in the past year. Some autistic people prefer their own company, but many are unhappy.

Preparing and training autistic young people for the workforce is emerging as a priority in the new economy.  While academic studies on global employment rates for adults with autism are rare, the UN estimates that 80% do not work. A survey by Britain’s National Autistic Society, a charity, suggests that only 12% of higher-functioning autistic adults work full time. For those with more challenging forms of autism, only 2% have jobs.

Job training, life-skills coaching and psychotherapy could really help in tackling the problem. An American study found that 87% of autistic youngsters who were given assistance to find a job, got one. Only 6% who did not receive support were successful. But in most countries, services disappear the moment autistic people finish full-time education.

There is hope that the life prospects for those with autism will improve in the future. More progressive business leaders and enterprises, as reported in The Economist, are stepping-up and providing more flexible employment arrangements to take fuller advantage of the truly unique skills and aptitudes of autistic people. Providing early treatment and effective intensive behavioural intervention is where it has to start.

Why is autism considered one of the biggest school challenges of our time? Why is Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) so much in demand– and so rationed in our public school systems?  What’s standing in the way of provinces and states adopting the Alberta model of school choice and tuition support for intensive programs? What more can be done to properly “transition” autistic students into the workplace?  

“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.

MinecraftFatherSonA ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children.  Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools.  A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.

One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.

“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”

After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.

ChildUtopiaThe Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.

Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”

MinecraftJuneauClassMicrosoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”

The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory.  In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance. 

Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds?  Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools?  What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports?  Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past? 

 

 

 

 

 

A five month-long CBC-TV Marketplace investigation into “Teacher Misconduct” aired on April 8, 2016 —and it  confirmed much that we already know about the current state of the Canadian teaching profession. Fewer than 400 teachers have been dismissed over the past ten years, out of a teacher force that now exceeds 400,000 in our 10 provinces and 3 territories. Only 1.7 out of every 1,000 teachers was “weeded out” of the profession over the past ten years. That begs the fundamental question – who is really served by the current teaching profession regulation and discipline regime?

TeacherMisconductCBCThe CBC Marketplace National Report Card also revealed that teacher discipline decisions are often kept secret, can take years to resolve and that credentials are rarely revoked. In nine of the 13 educational jurisdictions, no information is publicly available, including past disciplinary measures. Even guilty findings are kept private across most of Canada by bodies responsible for keeping students safe.

The two major cases highlighted in the CBC Marketplace investigation are perfect examples of what happens and why in too many cases of serious teacher misconduct.  As a 12-year old girl, Carmen North and twenty other teen girls in Oakville, Ontario, were “tracked” on MSN by Mr. Gavin Bradford, a “cool teacher” with a sexually-charged  ‘food fetish.’ While he was removed from the school, it took five years to remove his teaching certificate, allowing him to teach for two more years in Scotland.

Eleven year-old Fredericton girl, Karley Merrill, was bullied by a mean woman teacher so much that she missed 41 days of school and had to be sent to the hospital during one particularly bad spell. Unable to get any response at the school level, her mother wrote directly to the New Brunswick Minister of Education. One day an official-sounding letter arrived stating only that the teacher had been disciplined for “Category 2: Misconduct.”  You can only imagine how upset the Merrill family was to discover, the next year, that the same teacher was doing it again at another school across town.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should be– because I was invited by CBC TV’s Marketplace to assist with their Teacher Discipline research and we started with my February 2014 AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, with the intriguing title “Maintaining Spotless Records.”  It was particularly heartening for us to learn that, for the most part, the CBC investigation corroborated our findings and embraced our principal recommendation for significantly ‘beefed-up’ teacher regulation and accountability.

Since the release of our report and the recent CBC Marketplace investigation, the issue of teacher discipline has gained considerable policy traction. The new BC Teacher Regulation Branch, replacing the teacher union-dominated BC College of Teachers, has proven far more effective, most recently clamping down on the flagrant abuse of “teacher sick days.”  Saskatchewan has acted upon Dr. Dennis Kendel’s November 2013 report and is now publishing teacher records, albeit disclosing only infractions since the start of the registry.

TeacherLicesesRevokedCBCThree other Canadian provinces are making audible noises about changing their teacher discipline regimes. After beating back the Alberta Teaching Excellence initiative and forcing-out Education Minister Jeff Johnson, the Alberta Teachers Association has opened the door a tiny crack on teacher records. Nova Scotia’s January 2015 Three Rs Reform Plan proposed — for the first time – to actually discuss the novel concept of establishing “teacher standards” and plugging the holes in teacher regulation with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. In New Brunswick, the CBC Marketplace investigation was such an eye-opener that Education Minister Serge Rousselle conceded that the province was now “looking at” more public disclosure.

My comments on the CBC Marketplace revelations perhaps warrant repeating: “We should be able to find information about whether teachers have had any current or past indiscretions, whether they’ve been found guilty of any offences and what steps have been taken to try to remediate those….We also need to know if there are teachers teaching in the system who shouldn’t be, and [if they] should be removed from teaching positions or … given much more stringent disciplinary measures…Right now, teachers are better protected than students.”

Public access to more serious disciplinary decisions in provinces where there is little available would improve the system “significantly,” I told CBC Marketplace. “It would make everyone much more attuned to the importance of performing well and it would give those teachers that are doing a great job­­ — and that’s the majority of them­­ — some confidence that they were actually in a profession.” ­

A positive first step might be to actually articulate a clear set of teaching quality standards, before proceeding to significantly upgrade teacher accreditation, regulation, and de-certification. Weeds left unattended, after all, tend to take over the garden.

Weeding out the few “bad apples” in the profession would seem to be in everyone’s interest – students, teachers, parents, and the public. So what is standing in the way of introducing more effective teacher evaluation and discipline in Canadian schools?  

Climate change is becoming the biggest public policy issue — closer to home and in our junior and senior high schools.  A recent CBC News Nova Scotia series, Making the Grade which aired in February 2016, not only looked at the plight of classroom teachers, but ripped the lid off of growing teacher concerns about, and frustration over, the deterioration in academic tone and school climate. It also exposed the leading symptom of the malaise – chronic student absenteeism and “school refusal behaviour” in our high schools.

AbsenteeismEmptyDesksOne Nova Scotia teacher, Christine Emberley of the Bedford Education Centre, finally broke the silence.  Teachers have lost the ability to enforce deadlines while they are being told by school authorities to “teach real-world skills,” Ms. Emberley told CBC News, and that’s a big contradiction. Professional teachers and parent who recognize  deadline importance, she explained, are up against educators who insist, quite wrongly, that “consequences of any kind equals punishment.”  School should be the safe pace to make mistakes — like missing deadlines or skipping classes –and experience consequences.

Student absenteeism is a complex problem because it has multiple causes and is deeply embedded in a contemporary high school culture which can be almost consequence-free for so-called ‘floaters.’  A young woman taught by Ms. Emberley knew there was a problem when she arrived at high school.  “Pushed through with no effort –sometimes missing weeks at a time for behavioural incidents or because she just didn’t feel like going — she knew she lacked the foundational skills to succeed and the work ethic to catch up.” Giving students every opportunity to succeed, she concluded, does not mean “bypassing the lessons that teach work ethic so they can pass grade levels.”

Some 25 to 30 per cent of today’s student population are ‘turned-off’ and disengaged from schools. That was the principal finding of leading UNB social science researcher Dr. J. Douglas Willms in studies conducted five years ago. Interviewed in the Summer 2011 Ontario Education newsletter, in conversation, he pointed out that in a school of 500 students that meant that perhaps 125 teens were disengaged, frequently absent and drifting around the fringes of school life. If engaging the students is “not our job” as principals or teachers, Willms had the temerity to say, “then whose job is it?”

While high school graduation rates are climbing, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes, one out of four students is still not completing secondary school on time. Entering high school, these struggling students lapse into chronic absenteeism and ‘school refusal behaviour’ that tends to mask their disengagement and alienation. “we don’t call them dropouts anymore,” Willms noted, “we call them ‘fade-outs’ or ‘push-outs.’ ”  In their final school years, few if any fail, but they do ‘check-out’ and are screened-out through course selections and post-secondary admissions selection processes.

VERNONIA, OR - January 9, 2014 - An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn't in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

VERNONIA, OR – January 9, 2014 – An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn’t in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

School absenteeism is a prevalent problem for today’s schools with tremendous long-term social, economic and human costs. While American school data shows that elementary school absenteeism has remained virtually unchanged since 1994, high school attendance rates have significantly deteriorated. A 2003 American study, based upon 230 youths in 4 high schools and 1 middle school found that many students “sometimes” (29.1%) or “often” (9.1%) deliberately or completely miss school. In addition, 54.6% of students sometimes skipped classes and 13.1% often did so.

Skipping school or refusing to attend for days on end is now being described in some U.S. states as a massive but overlooked “absenteeism epidemic.” In 2012, the estimated national rate of chronic absenteeism was pinpointed at 10 per cent, representing the percentage missing 21 or more days of school each year.  In February 2014, a feature story produced by Betsy Hammond for The Oregonian and aptly entitled Empty Desks”  revealed that one in five Orgeon students missed at least 10 per cent of the school year, equivalent to 3.5 weeks of school or more.

One Canadian province that has clearly identified student attendance as a serious problem is Nova Scotia. Five years ago, an NS Education Advisory Commission report, produced by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommended extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants.  Along with those measures, the committee proposed a range of inducements to keep students in school.  In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.

By 2009-10, chronic absenteeism, assessed in ten different N.S. high schools, was already rampant. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, was a deeply entrenched problem.  Permissive discipline approaches such as the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program and high school exam exemptions had contributed to the problem, so the proposed response was compulsion  in the form of compulsory schooling to 18. Extending compulsory school age was ultimately rejected by Education Minister Marilyn More, but a few band-aids were applied, including credit recovery programs and a two-year pilot project to deny course credit for non-attendance with a 20% threshold level.

Five years on, student absenteeism was still so rife that it surfaced again as a major unresolved problem.  An October 2014 Provincial Review of Nova Scotia Education, with the peculiar title Disrupting the Status Quo, found that  “student responsibility” was  sadly lacking, reflected in their laxity in attending classes, meeting deadlines, and making a genuine effort to do their best. Such factors, including disruptive students, warranted “stronger consequences than is currently the case in some classrooms.” Under School Climate, the renewed goal was to create learning environments where “respectful behaviour is an expectation for students, teachers, and parents.”(pp. 47 and 49).  The NS Education Department’s Action Plan for 2016 promises to introduce “a new student attendance policy.”  Another official proclamation is now in the offing.

What’s the fundamental cause of rampant student absenteeism and disengagement, particularly in high schools? How important are the major “risk factors” identified by leading American expert Christopher A. Kearney – poverty and socio-economic status, psycho-social and mental health issues, teen pregnancies, school climate, family structure, and parental involvement? In the case of school climate, what works to develop a higher level of student commitment, belonging and connectedness?  Will a student attendance crackdown be enough to change the current trajectory? 

Five years ago, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion rocked the K-12 education world by demonstrating that mastering effective teaching methods was critical to improving student achievement. His latest book, Reading Reconsidered, co-authored with his Uncommon Schools colleagues Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, tackles one of the thorniest education policy issues – improving the effectiveness of reading instruction in schools. Furthermore, Lemov sets out to demonstrate that teaching subject knowledge and reading fluency go together in educating and producing the best-prepared high school graduates.

ReadingReconsideredCoverLemov’s Reading Reconsidered is a direct response to the potential unleashed by the adoption of the U.S. Common Core State Standards and, as such, will generate a lot of ill-informed education noise.  That will be a shame because this book actually explains what works best in teaching reading, particularly at the middle and high school level.  It is not only very practical, but based upon what the best teachers in his network of 44 urban charter school actually do to teach reading with rigour, independence, precision, and insight. 

Academically-inclined junior and senior high school teachers will readily embrace this book and its tremendously valuable lessons, if they ever get to see it or succeed in spiriting it into their desk drawers. Most of the ideas in the book are, in the words of Education Week  contributor Liana Heitin, “inarguably good practice” and deserve to be emulated and implemented right across the board, especially from grades 7 ro 12. Instead of promulgating learning theory, Lemov and his team draw upon lessons learned “visiting high performing teachers,” observing their classrooms,  interviewing them, and piloting best practice.

Teachers of English/Language Arts in North American schools tend to provide students with a steady diet of fiction, not only in the early grades, but right through to high school. That has been a serious problem because it limits the potential for integrating reading into history and social science classes. Indeed, one of the prime goals of the Common Core Standards was to correct this imbalance by providing students with more exposure to high quality non-fiction books and resources.

While there has been an increase in non-fiction reading in K-12 education since the adoption of Common Core standards, most U.S. students—specifically in high school—aren’t reading at their grade level, and worse, aren’t ready for college reading either, all documented in a 2015 report, What Kids Are Reading, from Renaissance Learning. In Reading Reconsidered, Lemov and his team see a way to change this trend, and it starts with asking the right questions, such as “Does What Students Read Matter?,” “Should Students be Re-Introduced to Classic Texts?”  and “Do More Challenging Readings produce Better Informed, More Well-Rounded Graduates?”

The book is also soundly based upon some of the best research on improving education standards. The recommended techniques are informed by the work of well-known researchers, including educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, University of Pittsburgh education professor emerita Isabel L. Beck, and E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the author of several books on cultural literacy.

Scanning the book’s chapters provides a tour de force of best practice in teaching reading.  Chapter 1: Text Selection – what we choose to read matters as much as how we read it; Chapter 2: Close Reading – providing a set of tools that can help teachers close read with rigor and insight; Chapter 3: Read More Non-Fiction – the importance of non-fiction; Chapter 4: Writing — specific ways to teach it to help students read more effectively; Chapter 5: Varieties of Reading  — ensuring students read a lot in a variety of ways – silently, aloud and being read to;  Chapter 6: Building Vocabulary –implement a two-part approach using both explicit and implicit vocabulary instruction; Chapter 7: Be Consistent — make good use of time to make the literacy classroom more efficient, productive and autonomous; and Chapter 8: Reach the Goal –the ultimate goal is intellectual autonomy, the best preparation for university and college.

Armchair critics wedded to conventional approaches, focusing disproportunately on promoting a “love of reading” and pandering to popular cultural tastes will be threatened by Lemov’s latest offering. He’s clearly out to raise educational standards while improving reading instruction in K-12 schools.

The book is up against formidable forces that have, over the past 30 years, dumbed-down high school reading lists. The Renaissance Learning Study demonstrates how far its gone from K-12 when it comes to the most popular books. During the 2014–2015 school year, 9.8 million students from 31,327 US schools read over 334 million books and nonfiction articles and the pattern is clear. Only two non-fiction books, Raina Telgmeier “s Sisters (Grade 4 and 5) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (Grades 7, 9, and 12) even crack the top 16 list in each grade level.  The reading level of the most popular books, especially above Grade 7, supports the Reading Reconsidered book’s assessment.

Lemov and his associates make a persuasive case for using challenging texts and pushing student readers beyond their comfort zones. That used to be the prime motivation of our best high school teachers, and with this book in hand, it could make a miraculous comeback in North American schools.

Does what students are asked to read in K-12 schools matter? Should we introduce more Non-Fiction into the current English/Language Arts curriculum? Does “pick your own book” and “self-paced learning” encourage too many students to take the easy route? What can be done, if anything, to raise the reading sights and levels of today’s junior and senior high school students? 

Stationary bikes are now appearing in Canadian classrooms in the latest wave of the  North American “self-regulation” movement.  Frustrated , angry and fidgety kids and stressed-out parents are driving many teachers almost crazy and they are grasping for life preservers in today’s classrooms.  That may explain why principals and teachers in the Halifax Regional School Board and far beyond see spin bikes as almost magical in their powers.

SpinBikeSelfRegHRSBIs this becoming the latest ‘cure-all’ and where’s the scientific research to support its widespread use in regular classrooms? Since the publication of British teacher Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, more and more classroom teachers are raising a “skeptical eyebrow” and confronting the succession of teaching fads that have come and gone over the past twenty years. It’s becoming acceptable to ask whether “self-regulation” with or without bikes is destined for the same fate.

The current expectations for Self-Regulation and Spin Bikes are sky high. Discovery of the latest ‘cure-all’ has sparked incredible media interest with recent CBC-TV short documentaries and CBC Radio The Current feature interviews.

The sheer excitement created by spin bike frenzy is captured well in Aly Thomson’s March 9, 2016 Canadian Press story: “Frustrated at her inability to draw a sofa, five-year-old Mylee Lumsden began to cry. She liked her drawing of a TV, but the couch confounded her, and so she grew increasingly upset. Her teacher, Mary Theresa Burt, looked at the brewing storm, and suggested the little girl take a turn on the bright yellow stationary bicycle at the centre of her primary classroom at Ian Forsyth Elementary School.” Within minutes, Mylee was “bright again, cheerful, and smiling widely.”

That tiny yellow bike was simply working miracles — calming rambunctious kids down, quietening the class, getting restless boys to sit still, and making teaching life liveable again. “Now, amid a shift in how educators shift and embrace various styles of learning,” Thomson wrote, “such bikes are helping to boost moods, relieve stress and regulate energy in students of all ages.”

“Learning styles” simply won’t go away long after it has been exposed as fraudulent educational practice.  It’s the best known of the myths recently exposed by Tom Bennett, co-founder of ResearchED and Britain’s 2015 Teacher of the Year.  A year ago, in the Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that many such theories that fill classrooms in Britain have little grounding in scientific research.

“We have all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he stated. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying kids only learn when you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it’s indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

Bennett is far from alone in challenging the research basis for a whole range of initiatives floating on unproven educational theories. According to a research scan by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), trillions of dollars are spent on education policies around the world, but just one in 10 are actually evaluated.

Commenting on the research, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education and skills, said: “If we want to improve educational outcomes we need to have a much more systematic and evidence-based approach.” Speaking at the 2014 Education World Forum in London, Schleicher added: “We need to make education a lot more of a science.”

Cutting through the hype surrounding Self-Regulation, it’s difficult to find independent, validated research support. A very perceptive October 2012 feature in The Tyee actually bore down into the British Columbia self-regulation movement looking for the research basis while 3,000 teachers were being taught the strategy.

While much of Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work is compromised by his promotion of his own particular program, Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, of UBC’s Human Development, Learning and Culture research unit, has studied MindUP , an alternative approach to teaching self-regulation as the basis for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Over a period of six years, she only found one large-scale independent research study, a CASEL study of 270 programs, that documented its actual benefits.

“So little(in education) has actually been formed by rigorous research, as opposed to the medical field, Schonert-Reichl claimed. ” I heard someone compare where we are with understanding well-designed educational studies to where we were with clinical drug trials in the early 1900s.”

Self-regulation definitely holds promise, but the research basis is quite limited and teachers are wise to be skeptical until there’s more evidence that it actually works and is sustainable in the classroom.  A new study by Shanker and his associates, Child Development (September/October 2015), may add to the puzzle by demonstrating the the meaning of the term ‘self-regulation’ is still unclear and therefore expandable to accommodate an array of some 88 different concepts, including  self-control, self-management, self-observation, learning, social behavior, and the personality constructs related to self-monitoring.

Who is really being served by ‘self-regulation’ is particularly unclear. Much of the rationale has its underpinning in neurocience and that’s what is being debated rather than its efficacy for the majority of students.  Some like former BC Education Minister George Abbott see it as a way of serving severely learning-challenged kids and getting rid of the extensive, expensive Special Education system with all those individual program plans.

Child psychologist and elementary teachers, as The National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff  anticipated three years ago, are latching onto self-regulation believing that you can ‘teach kids to behave properly in schools’ because the job is not being done in today’s family homes. The real reason it’s needed, in other words, is because too many kids aren’t getting the “psychological stability and support” they need from their own families.

Is Self-Regulation — with or without Spin Bikes – another unproven educational initiative that will come and go without a discernable impact on students? Should researchers marketing their own programs be relied upon to provide the supporting research? Will ‘self-regulation’ end up resembling mother’s version of  “sit in the corner,” “go to your room” or “get down and do five push-ups, now” ? Should we intervene if kids riding those bikes ever come to look like hamsters on wheels in the Cage?  

Canada’s tiny province of Prince Edward Island, ancestral home of Anne of Green Gables, is all abuzz with the latest news. Two groups of Amish families from Woodstock and Waterloo County, Ontario, are heading east to P.E.I. and plan to establish not only a new colony of farm settlers but a traditional one-room schoolhouse to educate their children. Friendly Islanders in Eastern P.E.I. are preparing a hearty spring 2016 welcome and the P.E.I. Government has amended its School Act to smooth the way.

AmishPEIThe courtship of the Amish began two years ago.  An Ontario farm-equipment salesman specializing in horse-drawn vehicles, Tony Wallbank, was the key player in the planned Eastern Migration.  A few years ago, he began seeking new, affordable land for the growing colonies of Ontario Amish and explored prospective properties in Northern Ontario and various places in the northern United States. That ended when he toured eastern P.E.I. in 2014 and discovered rolling fields and landowners anxious to sell their properties for a fraction of the $20,000 an acre cost in Ontario.

Wallbank and the Amish elders found, in eastern P.E.I., perhaps the last vestige of unspoiled rural life in the settled region of southern Canada. The reception committee of Islanders, including Paul MacNeill, publisher of The Eastern Graphic and local realtor Brad Oliver of Montague, P.E.I., laid out quite a welcome mat.  In this region of the Island, it was not hard to find landowners anxious to retire and citizens enthused about seeing their properties farmed rather than sitting idle or being sold-off as acreage for expanding agribusinesses.

The prospect of attracting Amish settlers did what no amount of lobbying by P.E. I. home schoolers could ever have achieved.  Canada’s least receptive province to school choice and home schooling, P.E.I., almost overnight underwent a tremendous conversion. A formal request from Wallbank and the Amish in the fall of 2015 to amend the School Act regulations was hurried into law.

A critically-important P.E.I. School Act provision limiting Home Schooling to groups with a “certified teacher-advisor” was lifted.  That restrictive provision, enacted in 2009, to limit and control any expansion of home education,  was suddenly deemed unnecessary by provincial school officials.

The official Education Department line was rather interesting. “It wasn’t really a barrier,” Education Minister Hal Perry told CBC News PEI in October 2015. “It was a bit of a hurdle,” he added, and an issue for the newcomers. “(The Amish) felt it was important that they home school their children in their own tradition. We as a government, respect that.” Deputy Minister Sandy MacDonald, when asked about the change insisted it was not a big issue because the Amish were proposing to home school their children without any expectation of provincial funding.

The impending arrival of two colonies of Amish, numbering perhaps 50 families, was enough to secure a small sliver of “school choice” in Canada’s least receptive province. Virtually all students in P.E.I. have only one school choice — and 98.8 % of the 21, 516 students in 2009-10 attended the public system. In a 2015 report on Home Schooling in Canada, P.E.I. was identifed as restrictive in its regulations with only 81 students (or 0.4% of the total school enrolment) home schooled in 2011-12.  By 2005-16, the numbers had dropped to 77 students from some 45 families — all with an approved teacher-advisor.

The Amish are firm in their belief in traditional education delivered by lay teachers who are members of the Christian religious sect.  For Old Order Amish families, schooling ends in Grade 8 and children are then generally expected to join the family farming enterprise. Children are expected to master the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics and to observe Amish ways, including leading simple lives without modern conveniences such as electricity or indoor plumbing.

Amish education represents a complete rejection of the modern, pluralistic and religion-free secular school system.  The rights of the Old Order Amish to freedom from public schooling was guaranteed in a landmark U.S. legal decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). It granted the Amish the right to limit their children’s education to eight grades in parochial, one-room schools operating in traditional fashion and further held that such an education was “as effective ” as that provided by modern public elementary schools. That right, once secured, has been vigorously defended by Amish elders and educators in Canada as well as the United States.

Why did it take an Amish migration to open the doors a little more to school choice in Prince Edward Island? Now that Old Order Amish have the right to home schooling their children in groups, does that right extend to other families and groups with alternative school plans?  To what extent would P.E.I. and other parts of rural Canada benefit from opening the doors to groups seeking to establish alternative schools? 

 

 

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