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“Wow!,” “Fantastic,” and “Inspirational”were words that filled the Twitter feed coming out of the latest Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Innovation in Teaching Day (#HRCEID2018), held November 2 and 3, 2018.  The primary cause of the frenzied excitement was a keynote talk by Brian Aspinall, author of the edtech best-seller Code Breaker, a teacher’s guide to training-up a class of “coder ninjas.”  The former Ontario Grade 7 and 8 teacher from Essex County honed his presentation skills at TEDx Talks in Chatham and Kitchener and is now the hottest speaker on the Canadian edtech professional development circuit.

Mr. Aspinall, the #CodeBreaker, is a very passionate, motivational speaker with a truly amazing social media following. He built his first website in the 1990s before graduating from Harrow District High School, earned his B.Sc. and B.Ed. at the University of Windsor, and learned the teaching craft in the local Windsor Essex school system. In 2016, he won a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Watching him in action on You Tube, it’s obvious that he’s a real showman and fairly typical of a new breed of North American edtech evangelists.

Like many edtech visionaries, Aspinall experienced an epiphany, in his case while teaching his Grade 8 class. “Someone brought to my attention that every grade 8 in our building was born in 2000 or 2001, ” he recalls. “You could hear the brain matter shift, turn, implode and explode in my head. I had never thought of it like that. My mind was blown.”  Then Aspinall remembered: “I have only taught in the 21st century…went to university in the 21st century!  And I’ve been teaching for nine years now!!”

Edtech evangelists like Aspinall have multiplied rapidly in the 2000s as provincial and school district authorities have pursued a succession of “21st century skills” initiatives. The leading motivational speakers, closely aligned with Google, Microsoft, or Pearson PLC, develop their own personalized brands and can be very persuasive engaging users without any overt marketing. The first and perhaps best known 21st century skills evangelist was Gary Kawasaki, the marketing genius who launched Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the one who popularized the use of the word “evangelist” to describe this marketing approach. The TED Talks back list is not only edtech dominated, but a ‘who’s who’ of ed tech evangelism.

Aspinall is an open book and connected almost 24/7, judging from his personal  MrApsinall.com Blog and rapid-fire Twitter feed. With 60,400 tweets to his credit, @mraspinall has amassed 40,900 followers and recorded 43,100 likes. Reading his tweets, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an unabashed educational constructivist who firmly believes in student-centred, minimal guidance, discovery learning.

Speaking on stage, Aspinall has a messianic, 21st century cool presentation style. “I’m on a mission to expose as many kids as possible to coding and computer science, ” he declared in June 2016 at TEDx KitchenerED.  That’s popular in provinces like Nova Scotia and British Columbia where coding is being implemented in elementary schools — and where teachers are hungry for classroom-ready activities. He’s filling a need, particularly among teachers in the early grades with little or no background or training in mathematics, science or computer science.

What’s contentious about the edtech evangelists is their rather uncritical acceptance of constructivist pedagogy and utopian belief that “students learn by doing’ and require minimal teacher guidance.  A few, like Brian Aspinall, are ideologues who believe that “knowledge is readily available” on the Internet, so teachers should reject teaching content knowledge and, instead, “teach and model an inquiry approach to learning.”

Aspinall’s educational philosophy deserves more careful scrutiny.  In his teaching guide and TEDx Talks, he embraces a distinctly “21st century learning” paradigm. In his 2016 TEDx talk “Hacking the classroom,” he distills his philosophy down to four “hacks” or principles: 1) focus on content creation; 2) embrace failure so kids take risks; 3) free up time and avoid time-limited tests/assignments; and 4) embrace the “process of learning” rather than the pursuit of knowledge-based outcomes.

Those principles may sound familiar because they are among the first principles of not only constructivist thinking on education, but the corporate movement driving “21st century learning” and its latest mutation, “personalized learning” enabled by computer software and information technology.   In the case of Aspinall, he’s clearly an educational disciple of the late Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who invented “logo” programming and championed ‘discovery learning’ in mathematics and science.  If Aspinall has a catechism, it is to be found in Papert’s 1993 classic, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Aspinall has also latched onto the writings of Janette M. Wing, chair of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. One of his favourite axioms, quoted regularly, is extracted from Wing: “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists.” She goes further: “To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.” Indeed, like Wing, Aspinall sees “coding” as a way of teaching mathematics in a more holistic curriculum.

EdTech evangelists such as Aspinall stir interest in learning coding, but fall into the trap of assuming that constructivism works in every class, irrespective of class composition, size, or capabilities. Utopian conceptions of teaching and learning bequeathed by Papert are now being seriously challenged by evidence-based research. Classroom conditions and student management concerns conspire to limit the applicability of “makerspace learning” and teachers rarely have the resources to make it work in practice.

More fundamentally, Papert’s model of “minimal guidance” has been effectively challenged by Paul A . Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark (2006). “Prior knowledge, ” they found, is essential in providing the “internal guidance” required in truly learning something. High quality, engaging and explicit instruction is necessary, in most instances, to ‘bootstrap” learning,  While personal exploration is useful, the most effective teaching and learning approach combines teacher guidance with exploration woven into a child’s education.

Teachers dazzled by Aspinall’s presentations are most likely immersed in edtech culture. Computer software apps and tools such as “Makey Makey” and “Scratch” are bound to make teaching easier for educators and more pleasurable for students. Few question Aspinall’s promotion of Tynker coding programs or his corporate affiliation as a “Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert Fellow.” In his TEDx Talks, he is quite open about his admiration for Microsoft philosophy. “Microsoft believes every child should be exposed to coding,” he tells audiences. “Because you don’t know you like broccoli until you try it.” While he’s not pedaling 21st century ‘snake oil,’ such statements do raise suspicions.

Why have edtech evangelists come to dominate the ’21st century skills’ professional development circuit?  What explains the popularity of, and excitement generated by, TED Talk edtech speakers such as Brian Aspinall? Is coding emerging as the “4th R” of 21st century learning and what’s its impact upon the teaching of mathematics in the early grades? Should we be more leery of champions of coding who see it as a way of introducing “computational thinking” throughout the elementary years? 

 

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Quebec students head the class when it comes to mathematics. On the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests of Grade 8 students, written in June 2016 and released in early May 2018, those from Quebec finished first in Mathematics (541), forty points above the Canadian mean score of 511 and a gain of 26 points over the past six years.

The latest national results solidified Quebec’s position as our national leader in mathematics achievement on every comparative test over the past thirty years. How and why Quebec students continue to dominate and, in effect, pull up Canada’s international math rankings deserves far more public discussion. Every time math results are announced, it generates a flurry of interest, but it does not appear to have encouraged other provinces to try to emulate that success.

Since the first International Assessment of Educational Progress (IEAP) assessment back in 1988 and in the next four national and international mathematics tests up to 2000, Quebec’s students generally outperformed students from other Canadian provinces at grades four, eight and eleven. That pattern has continued right up to the present and demonstrated impressively on the most recent Program of International Student Assessment (PISA 2015) where Quebec 15-year-olds scored 544, ranking among the world’s  top education jurisdictions.

One enterprising venture, launched in 2000 by the B.C. Ministry of Education under Deputy Minister Charles Ungerleider, did tackle the question by comparing British Columbia’s and Quebec’s mathematics curricula. That comparative research project identified significant curricular differences between the two provinces, but the resulting B.C. reform initiative ran aground on what University of Victoria researchers Helen Raptis and Laurie Baxter aptly described as the “jagged shores of top-down educational reform.”

Over the past thirty years, the reasons for Quebec dominance in K-12 mathematics performance are coming into sharper relief. The B.C. Ministry of Education 2000 research project exposed and explained the curricular and pedagogical factors and subject specialists, including both university mathematics specialists and mathematics education professors, have gradually filled in the missing pieces. Mathematics education faculty with experience in Quebec and elsewhere help to complete the picture.

Five major factors can now be identified to explain why Quebec students continue to lead the pack in pan-Canadian mathematics achievement:

  1. Clearer Curriculum Philosophy and Sequence:

The scope and sequence of the math curriculum is clearer, demonstrating an acceptance of the need for integration and progression of skills. The 1980 Quebec Ministry of Education curriculum set the pattern.  Much more emphasis in teacher education and in the classroom was placed upon building sound foundations before progressing to problem-solving. Curriculum guidelines were much more explicit about making connections with previously learned material.

Quebec’s Grade 4 curriculum made explicit reference to the ability to develop speed and accuracy in mental and written calculation and to multiply larger numbers as well as to perform reverse operations. By grade 11, students were required to summon “all their knowledge (algebra, geometry, statistics and the sciences) and all the means at their disposal…to solve problems.” “The way math is presented makes the difference,” says Genevieve Boulet, Mount St. Vincent University Mathematics education professor with prior experience preparing mathematics teachers at Université de Sherbrooke.

  1. Superior Math Curriculum

Fewer topics tend to be covered at each grade level, but in more depth than in B.C. and other Canadian provinces. In Grade 4, students are generally introduced, right away, to Numbers/Operations and the curriculum unit on measurement focuses on mastering three topics– length, area, and volume  — instead of a smattering of six or seven topics. Concrete manipulations are more widely used to facilitate comprehension of more abstract math concepts. Much heavier emphasis is placed on Numbers/Operations as Grade 4 students are expected to perform addition, subtraction, and multiplication using fractions. Secondary school in Quebec begins in Grade 7 (Secondaire I) and ends in Grade 11 (Secondaire V) and, given the organizational model, that means students are more likely to be taught by mathematics subject specialists. Quebec’s Grade 11 graduation courses, Mathematics 536 (Advanced), Mathematics 526 (Transitional) and Mathematics 514 (Basic), were once quite different, offering the same range of topics but covered to a different depth. More recently, Quebec has revamped its mathematics program, and now offers three streamed courses, designated 565 Science Option, 564 Technical and Science Option, and 563 Cultural, Social, Technical and Science Option.

  1. More Extensive Teacher Training

Teacher preparation programs in Quebec universities are 4-years long, providing students with double the amount of time to master mathematics as part of their teaching repertoire, a particular advantage for elementary teachers. In Quebec faculties of education, elementary school math teachers must take as many as 225 hours of university courses in math education; in some provinces, the instructional time  averages around 40 hours.

Teacher-guided or didactic instruction has been one of the Quebec teaching program’s strengths. Annie Savard, a McGill University education professor, points out that Quebec teachers have a clearer understanding of ‘didactic’ instruction, a concept championed in France and French-speaking countries. They are taught to differentiate between teaching and learning. “Knowing the content of the course isn’t enough, “ Savard says. “You need what we call didactic [teaching]. You need to unpack the content to make it accessible to students.”

Teacher pedagogy in mathematics makes a difference. Outside of Quebec, the dominant pedagogy is child-centred and heavily influenced by Jean Piaget and behaviorist theories of learning. Prospective teachers are encouraged to use ‘discovery learning’ and to respond to stimuli by applying the appropriate operations. In Quebec, problem-solving is integrated throughout the curriculum rather than treated as a separate topic. Shorter teacher training programs, according to Boulet, shortchange teacher candidates and can adversely affect their preparedness for the classroom. Four-year programs afford education professors more time to expose teacher candidates to the latest research on cognitive psychology which challenges the efficacy of child-centred approaches to the subject.

  1. Secondary School Examinations

Students in Quebec still write provincial examinations and achieving a pass in mathematics is a requirement to secure a graduation (Secondaire V) diploma.  Back in 1992, Quebec mathematics examinations were a core component of a very extensive set of ministry examinations, numbering two dozen, and administered in Grades 9 (Sec III), Grade 10 (Sec IV), and Grade 11 (Sec V).  Since 2011-12, most Canadian provinces, except Quebec, have moved, province by province, to either eliminate Grade 12 graduation examinations, reduce their weighting, or make them optional. In the case of B.C., the Grade 12 provincial was cancelled in 2012-13 and in Alberta the equivalent examination now carries a much reduced weighting in final grades.  In June of 2018, Quebec continues to have final provincial exams, albeit fewer and more limited to Mathematics and the two languages. Retaining exams has a way of keeping students focused to the end of the year; removing them has been linked to both grade inflation and the lowering of standards.

  1. Preparedness Philosophy and Graduation Rates

Academic achievement in mathematics has remained a system-wide priority and there is much less emphasis in Quebec on pushing every student through to high school graduation. From 1980 to the early 2000s, the Quebec mathematics curricula was explicitly designed to prepare students for mastery of the subject, either to “prepare for further study” or to instill a “mathematical way of thinking” – reflecting the focus on subject matter.  The comparable B.C. curriculum for 1987, for example, stated that mathematics was aimed at enabling students to “function in the workplace.”   Already, by the 1980s, the teaching of B.C. mathematics was seen to encompass sound reasoning, problem-solving ability, communications skills, and the use of technology.  Curriculum fragmentation, driven by educators’ desires to meet individual student needs, never really came to dominate the Quebec secondary mathematics program.

Quebec’s education system remains that of ‘a province unlike the others.’  While the province sets the pace in mathematics achievement, a February 2018 report demonstrated that it lags significantly behind the others in graduation rates. Comparing Quebec’s education system with that of Ontario, Education Minister Sebastien Proulx points out, is “like comparing apples to oranges.”  The passing grade in Quebec courses is 60 per cent compared to 50 per cent in Ontario and the requirements for a graduation diploma are more demanding because of the final examinations. When the passing grade was raised in 1986-87, ministry official Robert Maheu noted, the decision was made to firm up school standards. Student achievement indicators, particularly in mathematics, drove education policy and, until recently, unlike other provinces, student preparedness remained a higher priority than raising graduation rates.

Quebec Math and the Rest – Vive le Difference

School systems are, after all, not always interchangeable, and context is critical in assessing student outcomes. As David F. Robitaille and Robert A. Garden’s 1989 IEA Study reminded us, systems are “in part a product of the histories, national psyches, and societal aspirations” of the societies in which they develop and reside. While British Columbia and the other English-speaking provinces have all been greatly influenced by American educational theorists, most notably John Dewey and the progressives, Quebec is markedly different. Immersed in a French educational milieu, the Quebec mathematics curriculum has been, and continues to be, more driven by mastery of subject knowledge, didactic pedagogy, and a more focused, less fragmented approach to student intellectual development.

Socio-historical and cultural factors weigh heavily in explaining why Quebec continues to set the pace in Mathematics achievement. Challenging curricula and final examinations produces higher math scores, but it also contributes to lower graduation rates.

* A revised version of this post was published October 22, 2018 by the IRPP magazine, Policy Options.

One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 

School Advisory Councils (SACs) have been around since the mid-1990s in most Canadian provincial school systems. A 2012 Ontario People for Education review of their equivalent, Parent Advisory Councils (PACS) found that most lack clarity and show signs of confusion when it comes to fulfilling their role, particularly with respect to providing local input into school decision-making.  In the case of two provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, they exhibit the same glaring deficiency – they are given little to do and simply revert back to their natural inclinations, to run bake sales and support school fundraising.

ParentAdvocacyOshawaActive parents supportive of their local public school are drawn to serve on SACs, only to discover that they are ‘creatures’ of the principal and totally dependent upon his/her support. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for SAC positions. Created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, they normally end up doing nothing of the sort and hosting ice cream socials.

Far too many SACs provide cover for school principals, keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding them from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies.  Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically inert of the two groups.

No survey has ever been published in Nova Scotia on the effectiveness of SACs, as presently constituted. In the case of Ontario, People for Education found that their PACs spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events, but only 10 per cent of their time on their assigned function – helping to shape School Improvement Plans.  That is also clearly the case here in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia has just abolished its eight elected English school boards and that has threatened to further erode democratic accountability in the school system. Replacing elected school boards with an appointed Provincial Council for Education (PACE) without any public transparency or accountability sent out that signal. “Enhanced School Advisory Councils” sounded fuzzy and now we know why. Any hope that SACs would fill the void left by the abolition of elected school boards has been dashed, for now.

NSedZachCurchillEducation Minister Zach Churchill and his officials recently confirmed that SAC’s will get more of a voice in advising on policy, but little or no substantial change in their powers. Genuine school-governing councils and expanded school-based management are not in the cards.

Planning for, and consultation to, strengthen “parent engagement” was carefully managed to steer participants in a pre-determined direction. It was all decided by education staff, working with small regional “focus groups” and vetted by principals through a Principal’s Forum held in early May of 2018.

The School Advisory Council consultation broke many of the accepted rules for genuine parent engagement. Embracing new ways calls for a complete “rethinking of the conventional approach” in what leading Canadian expert Debbie Pushor aptly describes as   a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities. “We need to do a better job,” Pushor recently said, “of talking with parents rather than for them or at them.”

Instead of truly engaging parents in rebuilding the whole N.S. model, the Department reverted to past practice in consulting with small, carefully selected “focus groups” and leaving it to the Principal’s Forum to settle unresolved issues.  Limit the consultation parameters, carefully select consultation group participants, and ensure that educators, in this case principals, settle the unresolved issues.

Contradictions abound in the Department’s summary of the focus group consultation. Invited participants identified two major problems with existing SACs: “low parent involvement and difficulty recruiting members,” especially independent community representatives. They also demonstrated how SACs are kept completely in the dark when it comes to province-wide issues, policy matters, or future policy directions.

Why will SAC powers continue to be limited and contained?  Several times we are assured that “participants did not want to see the responsibilities of SACs greatly increased” because they were “volunteers” and it was a lot to expect more from them.

The Department report paints a rather skewed picture of parent attitudes. ‘Participants expressed degrees of anxiety around the potential new role of SACs.” That sounds, to me, more like the voice of principals and parents surprisingly comfortable with the status quo.

The Nova Scotia report demonstrates that at least one of our eight regional school districts, Annapolis Valley RSB, merged the SACs with existing Home and School Associations contributing further to the confusion of roles.

“Supporting student learning” is a mandate fraught with potential confusion. Principals and teachers bear that primary responsibility, so SACs are reduced to junior partners in that enterprise. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.

Existing SACs provide a wobbly basis for true parent engagement. Run under the thumb of many principals, they serve, for the most part, to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.”

Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils are strictly advisory. Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 400 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.” Former HRSB board member Linda MacKay discovered that upon her election to office. Nor do they have a web presence and most remain all but invisible to community members.

Re-engineering School Advisory Councils will require more substantive changes. School-based budgeting would give SACs a significant role. Providing a base budget of $5,000 per council plus $1 per student is a pittance and far short of what is required to compensate SAC chairs for participating at local, regional, and provincial levels.

Today’s School Advisory Councils are, we have learned, totally in the dark when it comes to engagement in initial policy discussion, school improvement initiatives, and community accountability reporting. There is currently little or no two-way communication on most school-related issues.

Parent advocates get turned off when they discover that School Advisory Councils are weak and without any real influence. Defenders of SACs support the neutering of parent activism, then fret about why so few want to serve on such bodies.

Perhaps it’s all just a façade. While announcing enhanced roles for the SACs, Nova Scotia’s Education Department issued a new notice advising parents and the public with school concerns to raise them with the teacher, principal, and district administration. There’s no mention whatsoever of taking it up with your local school council.

Whatever happened to the critical policy advisory mandate of School Advisory Councils? Do active, informed, and policy-attuned parents shy away from joining today’s school councils?  Who rules the roost on most SACs — the school principal, a small clique of parents, or no one because it exists only on paper?  Are we missing out on an opportunity to engage parents in the challenge of school and system improvement? 

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?

 

 

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?