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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? 

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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? 

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?