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A recent New York Times commentary by American engineering professor Barbara Oakley has, once again, stirred up much public debate focused on the critical need for “Math practice” and why current “Discovery Math” methodologies are hurting students, and especially girls. “You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making paper-mache volcanoes, “ she wrote,but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure that she has a solid foundation in math.”  Mathematics is “the language of science, engineering and technology,” Oakley reminded us. And like any language, she claimed, it is “best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice.”

That widely-circulated commentary was merely the latest in a series of academic articles, policy papers, and education blog posts to take issue with the prevailing ideology in North American Mathematics education, championed by Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University’s School of Education and her disciples.  Teaching the basics, explicit instruction, and deliberate practice are all, in Boaler’s view, examples of “bad math education” that contribute to “hating Math” among children and “Math phobia” among the populace. Her theories, promulgated in books and on the “YouCubed” education website, make the case that teaching the times tables and practicing “multiplication” are detrimental, discovering math through experimentation is vital, and making mistakes is part of learning the subject.

Boaler has emerged in recent years as the leading edu-guru in Mathematics education with a wide following, especially among elementary math teachers. Under the former Ontario Kathleen Wynne government, Boaler served as a prominent, highly visible member of the Math Knowledge Network (MKN) Advisory Council charged with advancing the well-funded Math Renewal Strategy.” Newsletters generated by the MKN as part of MRS Ontario featured inspirational passages from Jo Boaler exhorting teachers to adopt ‘fun’ strategies and to be sensitive to “student well-being.”

While Boaler was promoting her “Mathematics Mindset” theories, serious questions were being raised about the thoroughness of her research, the accuracy of her resources, and the legitimacy of her claims about what works in the Math classroom. Dr. Boaler had successfully weathered a significant challenge to her scholarly research by three Stanford mathematics professors who found fault with her “Railside School” study. Now she was facing scrutiny directed at YouCubed by cognitive science professor Yana Weinstein and New York Math teacher Michael Pershan.  Glaring errors were identified in YouCubed learning materials and the research basis for claims made in “Mistakes Grow Your Brain” seriously called into question. The underlying neuroscience research by Jason S Moser and his associates does not demonstrate the concept of “brain sparks” or that the “brain grows” from mistakes, but rather that people learn when made aware of their mistakes. 

Leading researchers and teachers associated with researchED are in the forefront of the current wave of evidence-based criticism of Boaler’s theories and contentions.  Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman, author of The Truth About Teaching (2018), was prompted by Jo Boaler’s response to the new UK math curriculum including “multiplication practice” to critically examine her claims. “Memorizing ‘times tables,’ “she told TES, was “terrible.” “I have never memorised my times tables,” she said. “I still have not memorised my times tables. It has never held me back, even though I work with maths every day.”  Then for clarification:” “It is not terrible to remember maths facts; what is terrible is sending kids away to memorise them and giving them tests on them which will set up this maths anxiety.”  

Ashman flatly rejected Boaler’s claims on the basis of the latest cognitive research. His response tapped into “cognitive load ” research and it bears repeating: “Knowing maths facts such as times tables is incredibly useful in mathematics. When we solve problems, we have to use our working memory which is extremely limited and can only cope with processing a few items at a time. If we know our tables then when can simply draw on these answers from our long term memory when required. If we do not then we have to use our limited working memory to figure them out when required, leaving less processing power for the rest of the problem and causing ‘cognitive overload’; an unpleasant feeling of frustration that is far from motivating.”

British teachers supportive of the new Math curriculum are now weighing-in and picking holes in Boaler’s theories. One outspoken Math educator, “The Quirky Teacher,” posted a detailed critique explaining why Boaler was “wrong about math facts and timed tests.” Delving deeply into the published research, she provided evidence from studies and her own experience to demonstrate that ‘learning maths facts off by heart and the use of timed tests are actually beneficial to every aspect of mathematical competency (not just procedural fluency).” “Children who don’t know their math facts end up confused,” she noted, while those who do are far more likely to become “better, and therefore more confident and happy, mathematicians.”

Next up was University of  Pennsylvania professor Paul L. Morgan, Research Director of his university’s Center for Educational Disabilities. Popular claims by Boaler and her followers that “math practice and drilling” stifle creativity and interfere with “understanding mathematical concepts” were, in his view, ill-founded. Routine practice and drilling through explicit instruction, Morgan contended in Psychology Today, would “help students do better in math, particularly those who are already struggling in elementary school.”  Based upon research into Grade 1 math achievement involving 13,000 U.S. students, his team found that, of all possible strategies, “only teacher-directed instruction consistently predicted greater first grade achievement in mathematics.”

Critiques of Jo Boaler’s theories and teaching resources spark immediate responses from the reigning Math guru and her legions of classroom teacher followers. One of her Stanford Graduate Education students, Emma Gargroetzi, a PhD candidate in education equity studies and curator of Soulscrutiny Blog, rallied to her defense following Barbara Oakley’s New York Times piece.  It did so by citing most of the “Discovery Math” research produced by Boaler and her research associates. She sounded stunned when Oakley used the space as an opportunity to present conflicting research and to further her graduate education.

Some of the impassioned response is actually sparked by Boaler’s own social media exhortations. In the wake of the firestorm, Boaler posted this rather revealing tweet: “If you are not getting pushback, you are probably not being disruptive enough.” It was vintage Boaler — a Mathematics educator whose favourite slogan is “Viva la Revolution.”  In the case of Canadian education, it is really more about defending the status quo against a new generation of more ‘research-informed’ teachers and parents.

Far too much Canadian public discourse on Mathematics curriculum and teaching simply perpetuates the competing stereotypes and narratives. Continued resistance to John Mighton and his JUMP Math program is indicative of the continuing influence wielded by Boaler and her camp. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Government is out to restore “Math fundamentals” and determined to break the curriculum gridlock.  The recent debate over Ontario Math education reform on Steve Paikin’s TVOntario program The Agenda featured the usual competing claims, covered familiar ground, and suggested that evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived in Canada.

What explains Professor Jo Boaler’s success in promoting her Math theories and influencing Math curriculum renewal over the past decade? How much of it is related to YouCubed teaching resources and the alignment with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ framework? Do Boaler’s theories on Math teaching work in the classroom? What impact, if any, have such approaches had on the decline of Math achievement in Ontario and elsewhere?  When will the latest research on cognitive learning find its way to Canada and begin to inform curriculum reform?

 

 

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The Putting Children First report, produced by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and released August 16, 2018, drew attention, once again, to the challenges facing children and youth caught up, province-to-province, in Canada’s crazy quilt child welfare system. Commissioned by professional social workers, it tended to focus on the mounting caseloads and shortage of resource supports. It, quite rightly, highlighted the growing needs and plight of children and youth in care and the ‘battle fatigue’ affecting those entrusted with their care. Where it fell short is in proposing a larger, more pro-active role for engaged parents and provincial child welfare advocates.

“We’re damaging children every single day, ” says Debbie Reimer, Director of the Kids Action Program and a CASW executive board member, based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. “The needs of families and children are more complex and becoming more complex every day, ” she told Star Metro Halifax, “and so there wasn’t any sort of thing that jumped out as particularly surprising.” What is surprising is that, in a Canadian province without a Child and Youth Advocate Office, the depth of these concerns has to be expressed in reports emanating from the Ottawa-based CASW.

Child welfare workers are under stress everywhere, and that is conformed in the recent CASW report.  Some 75 per cent of social workers surveyed nation-wide testify to the existence of “unmanageable workloads” and some 72 per cent claimed administrative responsibilities prevented them from spending adequate time with clients. The report also did a good job outlining how demanding caseloads, the complexity of issues, and the “unsupportive work environment” contributed to various trauma, burnout, and high turnover in the ranks.

The report demonstrates the tremendous value of a report giving voice to professional concerns about the everyday stresses faced by front-line professionals in the child welfare system. Some 3,195 Canadian social workers completed the survey, representing about 10 per cent of the total workforce, so the results are reasonably reliable and to be taken seriously. It also reflects the direct feedback from some 19 members of an expert panel, representing recognized leaders in the field, but including no one from Nova Scotia. 

Surveying the 100-page CASW report, two discoveries jump out at you. First and foremost, the focus is almost exclusively on the crushing demands faced by professionals and the contention that they are “leaving in droves” because of the adverse working conditions. Second, and by no means least, the relative absence of input from Child and Youth Advocacy Offices across the country, with the exception of the former Manitoba Child Advocate, 2011-2017.

The almost total absence of comprehensive, reliable data on the needs of families and children is particularly striking in the report.  It is clearly acknowledged that practitioners have “limited knowledge about the needs of families, of youth and children living with their familiy, or of foster families and kinship caregivers.” More unsettling is the open admission that child welfare authorities have “little information about how youth and children in care are doing in their placements, how they are progressing in school, what are their health needs or their talents, aspirations and accomplishments.” The CASW also conceded that child welfare officials do not actually know “what services and programs are effective and for whom those programs are effective and what conditions are optimal to achieve effectiveness,” (CASW 2018, 78).

The CASW report, Putting Students First, is very effective in voicing the concerns of social workers on the frontlines and strongly suggests that professionals, overburdened with heavy caseloads are too often reduced to policing and enforcing family protection orders. Nowhere in the report is this state of affairs analyzed in terms of its direct impact upon families and children and youth under care. Nova Scotia social worker Reimer provided a more satisfying explanation of the actual impact. If scocial workers are “leaving in droves, ” she claimed, it’s because “their jobs feel less like supporting families and more like disinterested policing. ” What are practitioners actually concerned about, at least in Nova Scotia? In Reimer’s words,  “They are saying that right now the system is reactionary, punitive and under resourced.”

Social work professionals have raised the alarm bells, but the voice of parents and the public is strangely absent from the whole public discussion. It is clearly a big part of the problem in Nova Scotia and perhaps elsewhere in Canada. In the case of Nova Scotia, it is likely compounded by the fact that no one in the provincial government has a clear mandate to oversee the protection and support of children and youth.

The province of Nova Scotia is finally, after five years of lobbying efforts, finally considering the creation of a self-standing Child and Youth Advocacy Office. The current Deputy Minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell, is beginning to see the light and told a N.S. Assembly Legislative Committee in January 2018 that something was in the works. While the provincial Ombudsman’s Office currently has responsibility for youth in care, Hartwell sees the need for a more active presence.

Hartwell remains exceedingly cautious and sounds reluctant to open the purse strings:  “That level of interaction has given us some comfort that there’s been a child advocacy-type role, but what I’ve learned and what I’m understanding is that role of child advocate in other jurisdictions goes beyond sort of an ombudsman-type role,” she said. “Someone who’s really advocating for public policy that is child-focused, child-friendly and so on.”

“So we absolutely are looking at it. People will know here that with everything else going on, we’re trying to determine, ” Hartwell told the Committee, “is this the best place for limited resources or is it somewhere else? So I think the onus is on us to finalize that review and then bring it forward.”

The recent CASW report may be just what is needed to light a fire under provincial officials in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.  If “children’s lives are being damaged every day, ” surely one would expect more of a sense of urgency. Perhaps the passive resistance has more to do with the general aversion of governments everywhere to independent bodies mandated to secure the needed supports for children and youth, to oversee the effective use of resources, and to ensure proper public accountability in child welfare services. 

What deeper problems are raised by the recent Canadian Association of Social Workers report on the state of child welfare services? Are the tremendous pressures and stresses experienced by frontline practitioners a symptom of bigger problems? Where is the voice of parents and families in this whole debate?  How can a province, in this day and age, continue to function without a particular office or agency entrusted with the welfare and protection of children? 

 

 

Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous boom in the past decade and has recently begun to spring up in Canadian school systems. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, are hotbeds for promoting “student well being” through broad application of ‘mindfulness training’ and its step-child ‘self-regulation ‘ beginning in the earliest grades. Under the former Liberal Government of Kathleen Wynne, the heavily promoted Student Well Being Strategy’ attempted to integrate ‘mindfulness’ through what is known as the MINDUP curriculum.  The recent change in government presents a rare opportunity to critically examine the whole initiative, its assumptions, research base, and actual impact upon schoolchildren.

“Student Well Being” has acquired something of an exalted status in Ontario schools ever since the appearance of a fascinating November 2016 policy paper,’ entitled “Well Being in Our Schools, Strength in Our Society.’ The whole concept of  Student Well Being was rationalized using a popular narrative promoted by its leading Ontario advocates, Dr. Jean Clinton, a McMaster University clinical psychiatrist, and Dr Stuart Shanker, a York University psychologist who doubles as the CEO of the MEHRIT Centre, a Peterborough-based organization holding a patent on the term “Self-Reg” and marketing “self-regulation’ in schools.  While labelled an “engagement paper,” the educators and the public were invited to “provide your insights and considerations on how best to promote and support student well-being throughout Ontario’s education system.

Promoting “Student Well Being” sounds like the educational equivalent of motherhood, so it has, to date, attracted little close scrutiny. That may explain why the whole provincial strategy sailed through the normal process of review and was immediately embraced by educators, particularly in elementary schools. Few Ontario educators, it seemed, were troubled by the initiative and parents were, as usual with curriculum initiatives, presented with a fait accompli.

Growing concerns among leading researchers in the United States, the U.K., and the Netherlands about the widespread adoption of positive psychology, the implementation of the Goldie Hawn Foundation’MINDUP program, and the mindfulness and happiness movement. failed to register.  Judging from Ontario Ministry of Education and school board conferences held in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the provincial school system was totally enamoured with an approach that promised salvation and relief from stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, and today’s frenetic school life.

What could possibly be wrong with making Student Well Being a system-wide priority? It sounded harmless enough until you bore down into what it actually entails and begin to examine the promotional videos and classroom resources generated by the initiative. An early warning was issued by British Columbia teacher Tina Olesen  in November of 2012 on the Scientific American Blog. Her concerns about the potentially harmful effects of Hawn’s MINDUP program were prophetic. Early studies in British Columbia (K.A. Schonert-Reichel 2008 and 2010) extolling the virtues of MINDUP curriculum have now come in for heavy criticism, challenging the validity of the findings.

Mindfulness and meditation recently took a big hit in “Mind the Hype,” a January 2018 peer-reviewed article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. An interdisciplinary team of scholars, led by N.T. Van Dam, found that the benefits of “mindfulness and meditation” have been over-hyped and that the research evidence to support its widespread use is mostly shoddy. They are very critical of the “misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology” that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.

“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors wrote. They also pinpointed a number of flaws in the supporting research, including  using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.

“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago told Newsweek. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, he is one of the study’s authors. “A lot of the data that’s out there is still premature,” he said. Educators are not the only ones overstating the benefits of mindfulness.  “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover,” Vago said. “And they’re labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”

Mindfulness has spawned a completely new “mental health and happiness” industry. Mindfulness and meditation are a popular practice that brings in around $1 billion US annually, according to Fortune. The booming industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.  That’s what concerns Canadian mental health researchers such as Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health, at Dalhousie University. “Being happy all the time without feeling any stress,” he reminds teachers, is not normal.  Contrary to the claims of Mindfulness promoters, Kutcher points out that  “Anxiety Disorder is not the same as being stressed before an exam.  Handling such normal stress is, in fact, essential to being in good mental health.”

Where’s the research to support mass application of Student Well Being training based upon mindfulness?  Two leading University of Wisconsin  researchers , Richard J. Davidson and Alfred W. Kaszniak, addressed the problem squarely in their October 2015 American Psychologist research review.  Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, they found, lack a proper research base. “There are still very few methodologically rigorous studies, ” they concluded,  that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being.”

Studying the effectiveness of Canadian social and emotional learning (SEL) school programs is still in its infancy. One of the first such studies, conducted by Dr. John LeBlanc of Dalhousie Medical School and a team of researchers, systematically assessed over a dozen school-based SEL programs, including both “evidence-based” and “non-evidence based” programs. Five evidence-based programs (PATHS, Second Step, Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, The Fourth R), and 6 non-evidence-based programs (DARE, Lion’s Quests: Skills for Adolescence, Options to Anger, Room 14: A Social Language Program, Stop Now and Plan (SNAP), Tribes) were identified.

A systematic literature search was conducted for all evidence-based programs, and each program underwent qualitative analysis using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Implementation recommendations were then developed for all 13 programs. PATHS and Second Step received the strongest recommendations for school-based implementation, due to high quality empirical evaluations of the positive outcomes of these programs. Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, and The Fourth R showed promise and received provisional recommendations for implementation. Those five programs were recommended for use in Nova Scotia public schools. Eight other noteworthy programs were discussed. but deemed to require empirical evaluation before evidence-based recommendations can be made. Based upon the evidence gathered in subsequent Dalhousie Medical School studies, MINDUP would also fall into that category – not yet suitable for school implementation. The research study or toolkit for educators underlined the critical need for proper program evaluation to ensure that such SEL programs are “cost effective and yield maximal benefits for students’ behaviour.”

Why did the Ontario Ministry of Education adopt Social Well-Being in January 2017 as a system-wide priority?  Where is the evidence to support the implementation of a mindfulness-based initiative in schools across Ontario? Were Ontario parents ever properly consulted on this provincial curriculum initiative?  Given the recent research findings, is it time to halt the Student Well Being Strategy and to seriously look at the wisdom of proceeding on the current set of assumptions? 

The raging Ontario controversy over Sex Education has, once again, raised the whole issue of what constitutes meaningful parent engagement.  Vocal supporters of the 2015 Ontario Health Education Curriculum maintain that the public consultation process was extensive, broadly representative, and ticked off the boxes in terms of  recognized “stakeholder groups.” Following the traditional, well-practiced model, a “group consensus” was forged and, in that respect, it might be considered exemplary.

 

On a critical matter like sexual health affecting family life, it may simply not be good enough. Far too many Ontario parents were marginalized and it’s hard to find evidence of anyone embracing what Dr. Debbie Pushor has termed a “family-centric school” philosophy or “meaningful parent engagement.” Instead of defending the results of the consultation, it may be time to look at how the next round can be conducted to answer those deficiencies.

The 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum changes may well have been timely, professionally-validated, and reasonably neutral in terms of language. That’s not really what’s in question — it is the process and the means used to forge that document touching on issues central to healthy adolescent development and family life. Given the nature of the curriculum, it would seem to be a situation tailor-made for “family-centric” consultation. 

Critics of the 2015 sex education curriculum continue to maintain that the public consultation was structured to marginalize the vast majority of parents as well as certain parent advocacy groups, rural and small town communities, and urban immigrant families.  Four thousand parents were consulted, but the vast majority were parents serving in official capacities on local school councils. Indeed, the consultations were, for the most part, conducted on school grounds. Public input was weighed, but it came mostly from “friendlies” vetted by principals who served on their school councils.

The Ontario health education model of consultation appears to violate the criteria set out by Dr, Peshor in her proposed “family-centric school” framework demonstrating “meaningful parent engagement.” Her recent keynote address to the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (June 2018), part of a three-day, “Walk Along with Parents” forum, drives that point home. In it, she called upon educators to rethink their conventional approach and to embrace a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities.

We need that voice at the table, and it’s important to understand that expertise is a critical piece. We need to do a better job of talking with parents rather than for them or at them. That’s what I’m hoping we can achieve,” Pushor said in an interview prior to her keynote, which elicited a standing ovation.

As a mother of three sons, as well as a teacher and principal in Pre-K – 12 education, Pushor sees the school-parent relationship through both lenses. Since embarking on her PhD. in Education, it has been the focus of much of her research.

Walking into her son’s school on his first day had a profound effect upon her, even though she was herself an experienced teacher and principal. It struck immediately “how schools were not necessarily inviting places for parents” and sent powerful signals that they “did not encourage their participation.”  She describes this as the “colonialism” of schools in their dealings with parents.

Her key message: “We need to move from school centric to family centric. Teachers need to remember it is not your classroom; it is a public building. Most parents place their trust in the teacher and they aren’t looking to push the boundaries that exist, but we need to make some fundamental changes and unpack the story. Teachers claim the space at school and then we tell families how it is going to work.”

“By having authentic family involvement,” Pushor told the Saskatchewan teachers,”we can have the best of both worlds. As teachers, we don’t have to give one up to get the other.” 

Most provincial education authorities, school districts and schools fall far short of genuine parent engagement. “We just keep doing the same thing and we don’t see that as problematic, but our world has changed and in education we’re not changing at the same pace,” she said in calling for that “gentle revolution.”

Two important building blocks, as Pushor sees it, involve doing a better job of preparing teachers at education faculties and then later incorporating home visits into a teachers’ regular routine. “This comes right back to what we do in this building [Saskatchewan College of Education]. We are sending teachers out there without the required background in terms of this type of engagement.” Then she added: “I’m a big proponent of home visits because too often in the current model, we–teachers and family members–sit around and are scared of each other. We need to build trust, and we need to do this in a different, more meaningful way.”

What Pushor has done to demystify engaging regular parents, Hong Kong born Calgary professors  Shibao and Yan Guo are doing for Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian parents sidelined in most education consultations. Respecting parent knowledge, seeking to understand differing religious values, and respecting stricter codes of morality would go a long way to engaging the Thorncliffe Park schools scattered throughout contemporary urban Canada.

High sounding speeches are commonplace in education, but Peshor’s vision now comes with plenty of evidence-based research conducted over the past decade. It’s all neatly summarized in her splendid article in the Winter 2017 issue of Education Canada.  Instead of managing parent consultation, she proposes the kind of engagement that breaks down barriers, particularly in marginalized communities: When schools and school bodies work in culturally responsive ways, parents do not have to have the words of the school or of unfamiliar governance structures to participate. They are able to join the circle, to speak from their own knowing, to share their own wisdom and insights, and to positively influence outcomes for their children and their families.”

Do conventional education public consultations measure up as legitimate parent community engagement exercises? With the prevailing model of working with recognized interest groups and selected parents ever bring us closer to “family-centric schools”? Does the much celebrated 2014-15 Ontario consultation on sex education bear close scrutiny? What lessons can be learned about getting it right, the next time? 

Today’s public school teachers are expected to serve a number of masters — provincial education authorities, regional school boards, students and parents, and teachers’ federations. Traditionally, under Canadian education law,they have been seen to stand in loco parentisto have within the area of their responsibility the same authority over students as would a reasonable, kind and judicious (careful) parent and to be expected to act, at a minimum, in that manner.  Today, Canadian education law expert Dawn C. Wallin has noted that teachers act more and more as “educational state agents.”

The initial expectation of teachers acting in loco parentis has been substantially supplemented and, in some cases supplanted, by legal duties and requirements of teachers acting as agents of the state. The role of parents has also changed, as governments have come to play a more active role in shaping the framework and terms of engagement in family-school relations. The raging controversy over Ontario sex education curriculum reform in June and July of 2018 has, once again, brought the struggle for dominance in this “contested terrain” to a head.

Fundamental questions supposedly laid to rest with the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum have resurfaced, much to the chagrin of former Queen’s Park education insiders, politically-active teachers, and allied health professionals.  Who speaks for the majority of today’s parents? For which parents, in urban school settings –and rural/small town school settings?  And in which of Ontario’s diverse range of etho-cultural communities?  Do “teachers know best” what today’s children and teens need to know about sex, gender identities, and leading healthy lives? 

The Doug Ford PC Government, judging from Education Minister Lisa Thompson‘s latest statement, is preparing to review the 2015 health curriculum and to maintain the 2014 status quo until the Ministry of Education has conducted a new round of parent consultations. That’s a watering down of its 2018 “For the People” election promise to revert back to the 1998 curriculum, but still honours a commitment made to the public. The revised policy position makes considerable sense, since only some 10 per cent of the curriculum deals specifically with sex education and is really in contention.

Much of the populist opposition to the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum is rooted in the deep distrust engendered by the final term Kathleen Wynne Liberal Government. For those swept up in Ford Nation, it was a glaring example of Ms Wynne’s ideological adherence to costly progressive solutions, close connections with well-healed downtown Toronto do-gooders, condescending manner in telling parents what was good for their children, and preference for moving forward without listening enough to everyday concerns. 

Ontario’s 2015 sex education curriculum was always based upon what might accurately be termed a ‘forged consensus,” patched-together after Premier Dalton McGuinty ditched the proposed 2010 reforms in the face of fierce opposition from Catholic parents and boards as well as vocal social conservatives. Current claims that the Wynne round of consultation was all-inclusive does not stand up to close scrutiny. Her government relied heavily upon the usual OISE-Toronto insiders and appendages, well-known progressive education experts, 2,400 teachers, and some 4,000 parents drawn from the notably friendly confines of elementary school PACs.

Manufacturing consent can work to block populist educational ventures, as it did in staving-off British Columbia traditional schools, but it relies upon marginalizing opposing forces and can unravel after achieving the target objective. Shaming old-fashioned “moral traditionalists” and labelling “Christian fundamentalists,” and hidden “homophobes” might have worked again. It was the groundswell of new Canadians, mainly Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian, families with more conservative values in Toronto’s suburbs like Thorncliffe Park and the GTA, that upset the best-laid plans of the Liberal-dominated Ministry of Education.

‘Common sense’ seems to be is short supply, possibly because the term bears the stigma of the earlier incarnation of Ontario conservatism during the wrenching and divisive Mike Harris years. That’s a shame because it’s exactly what Ontario needs right now to resolve the sex education conundrum.

With respect to sex education, finding a more stable, common sense resolution starts with a different assumption – that parents are every child’s first educators and have to be meaningfully engaged because they are sill primary responsible for raising and rearing children, albeit in close partnership their child’s teachers. Acknowledging the critical role of parents and families is the first step to winning over skeptical traditional and ethnic minority parents and setting Ontario on the road to a more satisfactory resolution.  It’s also a good reminder that the teacher is, after all, still expected to act in loco parentis and, where possible, with the consent of parents and families.

Any new Sex Education task force should be composed of a new set of players, as much as possible independent of the ideologues and activists on both sides. It should be carefully constructed so as to achieve a legitimate balance, involving liberal and conservative-minded parents, recognized scientific authorities, and respected members of religious communities. Sorting out the differences will not be easy, but will only happen if proponents of more conservative views, rooted in character education, morality, and modesty in sexual matters have a legitimate place at the table.

Reforming the sex education curriculum now means listening harder and working to resolve the fundamental objections over a few critical pieces of the sex education program and applying an more nuanced “age-appropriate” lens to the contentious components.  Imposing a state-mandated curriculum without further consultation is out-of-the question. That’s why there’s so little consistency in what is taught and when, from province-to-province across Canada.

Without a consistent federal presence in education, assessing the state of sex education province-to-province can be quite a challenge.  The best we have is a fairly reliable survey conducted in 2015 for Global TVNews , illustrating the full spectrum of variations in ages when the key topics are introduced:

Proper Names of Body Parts: British Columbia and Manitoba required children know in kindergarten, while PEI and New Brunswick wait until Grade 6.

Sexual Orientation:  It was taught in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia in Grade 3, but Newfoundland only taught LGBT awareness in grade 9 (Manitoba had no clear agenda.)

. Sexual Consent: Nova Scotia introduced the topic in 2011, in advance of Ontario. It is also part of the Quebec curriculum, but it makes only a passing reference to reproductive rights, described as the risk of “going through an unwanted pregnancy.”

Sexually Transmitted infections (STis) and Prevention: Taught in Nova Scotia starting in Grade 5 but New Brunswick avoided the topic until Grade 10.

Birth Control:  Taught in Grade 6 in BC and in Grade 9 in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. While N.S. taught STI prevention in Grade 5, it waits until high school to introduce birth control.

When Ontario introduced Gender Identities and LGBT concerns in 2015, they were in the vanguard with Nova Scotia and Quebec, but  in some provinces like Saskatchewan it was still not mentioned at all. Alberta followed Ontario with sex ed curriculum changes that included sexual consent, sexual orientation, and cyberbullying/ sexting.

Love and Intimacy: The only province to teach love, attraction and intimacy is Quebec. Its curriculum is closely aligned with teaching human biology and makes a clear distinction between love and the purely physical aspects of puberty and reproduction.

Central to the newly-announced Ford sex education curriculum review will be a careful study of the readiness of children to learn certain topics in the early grades, Children can and should be taught the biological facts in the early grades, but it’s hard to justify teaching sexual preferences before children understand the nature of sexual desire. Warning young children about sexual pornography, internet porn, and sexting cannot be postponed, nor can teaching about same-sex couples when children see that for themselves among parents in their own school.

A Ford Government sex education curriculum will, in all likelihood, leave teaching more contentious and contested topics until the later elementary and junior high years. Exploring the full range of sexual desire in all its diversity is still best left to adolescence. Newly created teaching resources such as the “Genderbread Person Charts” fall into that category and should not be employed when students are simply too young to fully understand the complexities of gender identity, sexual preference, and biological sex types.

Teaching about sexual fluidity remains a radioactive topic, especially when the biological science is so contested and there is still a risk of doing harm by exposing young children to unproven, possibly harmful theories. In the case of one Sacramento, California, charter school kindergarten, a teacher’s well-intended strategy to demonstrate transgenderism backfired badly when children came home in distress, with some five-year-old boys left “afraid they were turning into girls.” Children can be taught to accept and respect peers who are different without applying labels at such an early age.

Parent knowledge, wisdom and counsel are critical in finding a better way forward and one, as Calgary professor Yan Guo reminds us, that respects the very real diversity among families in contemporary Canadian society. It presents a fresh opportunity to find a more flexible approach, making reasonable accommodations consistent with differing community and family values. State-mandated sex education without accommodating differences does not accord so well with the time-tested “Canadian way” of finding a workable consensus.

Should sex education curriculum be essentially family-centred or state-mandated on the basis of changing child rearing theories and practices? What’s wrong with an “age-appropriate revision” postponing certain topics to the later grades? Is it still possible for Ontario to proceed with most of the 2015 curriculum revision, with the exception of a few hotly-contested topics? How prepared are we to take the time to get it right by accommodating more of the unresolved concerns, and especially those expressed by new Canadian families from other religious, cultural and family traditions? 

One of the Doug Ford Ontario education reform proposals that’s attracted relatively little attention is the June 2018 election pledge to ban cellphones in class. In the immediate aftermath of Ford’s election, education observers would be wise to take a serious look at the sweeping promise to “ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.” While it is tempting to dismiss it as just another example of “back-to-basics” thinking, that would be most unwise. That is because it is inspired by openly expressed teacher concerns and policies now being implemented and debated in France, the United Kingdom, and a number of North American school districts.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is the latest to take action in the form of a National Assembly bill to ban cellphones at school before school resumes in September 2018. Deeply concerned about the phenomenon of “phone-addicted children,” he claims that the bill is a “detox measure” to combat classroom distractions and cyberbullying. More than 90 per cent of French children aged 12 years or older posess a mobile phone and teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to capture and hold the attention of their students.

“Mobile phones are a technological advance but they cannot monopolize our lives, ” Blanquer told LCI TV News. “You can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others and work in a team.” Supporters of the French legislation say smartphone usage among children of junior and middle-school age has also aggravated cyberbullying, made it easier to access pornography, and interfered with social interactions in schools. Teachers, caught up in the proposed blanket ban, succeeded in being exempted from the cellphone prohibition.

Since the French cellphone ban was first proposed in December of 2017, school authorities in Britain and Ireland have been debating taking similar measures. The founder of London-based researchED, Tom Bennett, claimed, back in September 2015, that children should not be allowed smartphones until they were 16-years-of-age.  Teachers, he advised, should not allow them unless absolutely necessary, given the many challenges of managing modern classrooms.

The new Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, reports that “pupil behaviour” is “the number one concern of parents” and that steps must be taken to reduce the “low-level disruption,” including the inappropriate use of mobile devices in class. ” I am yet to be convinced of the educational benefits of all day access to ‘Snapchat” and the like, and the place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best.”

One of the most influential studies, “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance, produced in May 2015 by London School of Economics researchers Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy, is usually cited by those favouring restrictions or bans on classroom cellphone use. Based upon a study of moblile phone use in high schools in four English cities (Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester) in the Spring of 2013, the researchers found that banning mobile phones produced an improvement in student performance of 6.41% of a standard deviation, and rising to 14.23% among low-achieving students. The net effect of banning mobile phones, according to the researchers, added up to the equivalent of an extra week of school each academic year.

The critical question of whether mobile phones are a necessity or a distraction had resurfaced here in Canada long before an outright ban ended up as a key plank in the Ford Nation education agenda. One very active and informed Ontario elementary school teacher, Andrew Campbell, presented a very thorough review of Ontario cellphone policy and practice on April 14, 2018, at researchED Ontario.  Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in January 2007, mobile phones have proliferated among children and teens, necessitating changes in school policies. Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, reacted by introducing a system wide ban in April 2007, only to reverse it four years later.

Much  of the mobile phone proliferation was sparked by the adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, formally recognizing their acceptance as tools for learning. While BYOD proved to be bad policy, school systems were simply unable to curtain the technological tide or properly regulate the use of such devices.  In 2013, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) passed a resolution proposing that cellphones be “turned-off and stored during school hours,” unless authorized for use by a teacher. By 2014, some 60 per cent of Ontario schools had adopted BYOD policies and allowed students to use their own devices, in most cases, for cost-efficiency reasons. One Quebec English school board, in the Eastern Townships, went even further, distributing tablets to all students in Grade 5 and up while maintaining a rather open and permissive smartphone policy.

Mobile phone policies have tended to be reactions to technological innovations. Thierry Karsenti, Canada Research Chair on Technologies in Education and professor at the University of Montreal, told Maclean’s Magazine students will find a way to bring phones into the classroom regardless of the rules. A survey of more than 4,000 high school students showed that while 79.3 per cent of respondents owned a cellphone, they did not figure prominently in day-to-day teaching and learning. Cellphones were widely used in and around schools, even though some 88.4 per cent of student respondents claimed that the devices were banned either in class or at school altogether.

Defenders of cellphone use in class tend to cite research based more upon student attitudes than on the perceptions of their teachers. One online survey conducted for Verizon with 1,000 students in grades 6-8 claimed to show its positive effect on student learning.  Students who used smartphones in the classroom were more likely to ‘feel smart,’ be happier, and show interested in pursuing STEM subjects. More affluent students were more likely to be allowed to use smartphones in the classroom.   “Our research supports the fact that mobile technology can inspire and engage students today. We need to meet children where they are and leverage their use of mobile devices to increase their interest in STEM” claimed Rose Stuckey Kirk, President of Verizon

Another September 2014 Stanford University study focussed on “at risk’ students and purported to demonstrate how technology aids in learning when there is at least one device per student and the devices are readily available for multiple uses by the student throughout the school day. A 2017 study conducted by Dr. James Derounian at the University of Gloucestershire found that 45% of students in a small-scale 100 student group believed that the use of phones in classrooms aided in their education, making it easier to access online text resources.

Clearly defined class expectations and procedures are essential if teachers are to see benefits from cellphone use in class. Strict rules, established at the outset, work best and, without them, student attention is hard to establish and maintain. Many of the most effective teachers now use some form of check-in and check-out system for devices. The “Stoplight System, ” developed by two Halton DSB teachers, Troy Tennant and Cindy Cosentino, shows potential and is being mimicked elsewhere in Ontario.

Maintaining good student behaviour is becoming more of a priority and that explains the renewed popularity of restricting mobile phone use by students in schools and classrooms. Tom Bennett’s School Report blog post, June 23, 2018, again identified mobile phones as a major contributor to the discipline challeges teachers face in today’s classrooms. “Low level disruption sounds cute,” he wrote, “but it’s kryptonite for any lesson. It normalises rudeness, laziness, and grinds teachers down over weeks and months. It is no small issue. It is the most common reason for classroom behaviour to disintegrate.”  The Guardian concurs with the stance taken by Bennett and Ofsted boss Spielman.  A recent  editorial argued that schools would be better places for learning without the constant and distracting presence of the devices.

Should schools continue to welcome mobile phones in class? Why has France taken the lead in banning mobile phones at school? Who is promoting and supporting the continued and expanded use of cellphones in the classroom?  Is it possible to enforce a ban on the use of such devices in schools? Where is the evidence-based research supporting the widespread use of mobile phones in class?