Archive for August, 2012

Thinking deeply about the story of public schooling can land you in trouble. That’s why Zander Sherman’s first book, The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of the Enlightenment could well be the most stimulating Canadian contribution to the Great Education Debate in decades.  It came from out of the blue — and has hit the world of public schooling with the impact of a Molotov cocktail.

The Curiosity of School is a searing indictment of every aspect of schooling, from kindergarten to university, offering penetrating insights and packing a powerful message.  Since the days of the Ancients, Zander Sherman contends that education as learning stemmed from our natural curiosity and desire to know the world around us. Acquiring knowledge will never be out-of-fashion, Sherman argues, because it is the very essence of education, and “a good unto itself.” Today’s schools are driven by curriculum serving other purposes, mistaking rigour for vigour, killing curiosity, and robbing learning of its enjoyment. http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670066438,00.html

Sherman is the agent provocateur that public schooling in Canada has been sadly lacking since Andrew Nikiforuk’s “Fifth Column” disappeared in the mid-1990s from Friday edition of The Globe and Mail.  Raised on the rural fringes of a town in Muskoka, north of Toronto, he was home-schooled and, as a by-product of that experience, developed a fierce spirit of intellectual independence.

Like many inventive minds, Zander Sherman found his Canadian high school terribly deadening and very conducive to radical thinking.  Bored to death in Grade 12, so accelerated that he enjoyed many “free periods,” Sherman began to question archaic school policies which limited the freedom of students.

When his high school barred students from sitting on the floor, he began writing and distributing his own pamphlet, The Anarchist, catching the attention of his principal. The cover featured a cartoon showing “a sinister administration puppeteering students forever unable to sit down.”  When the principal ordered him to give out the pamphlets across the street, he complied but “looking menacingly in the school’s direction.”  The principal finally relented, and the PA announcement was greeted with a chorus of cheers.

Sherman’s The Curiosity of School provides a sweeping and contentious survey of the origins of public schooling. Like American education gadfly John Taylor Gatto, he traces the modern bureaucratic education state back to Prussia in the early 19th century.  Under the Prussian model, the state established a curriculum focused on “social control” and imposed it on everyone. The success of the Prussians in molding a disciplined youth and supporting the industrial system inspired system founders like Egerton Ryerson of Canada West (Ontario) and Horace Mann of Massachusetts to import that model into their own countries.

Sherman contends that the bureaucratic education state remains well entrenched in public schooling. Even today, he finds plenty of evidence that schools exist primarily to achieve state-defined outcomes, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and other testing regimes. Behind it all, he sees an institutional commitment severely limiting students’ ability to find and pursue their own interests.

The science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) -based curriculum is a particular bugaboo, because it demonstrates the system’s real priorities. It is, he claims, a government-driven curriculum that favours technology and science to the detriment of the arts and humanities, measures proficiency in these disciplines through standardized tests, and focuses university research in these disciplines. He is also critical of the corporatization of higher learning, reducing education to a ‘consumable product’ and promoting ‘required irrelevance.’

Sherman’s case goes a little wobbly when he turns from diagnosis in a search for prescription.  The father of North American education progressivism, John Dewey, is panned for favouring “pragmatism” over intellectual pursuit, and A.S. Neill’s experimental school Summerhill is dismissed as a 1960s pipe dream.  Yet Sherman still turns to Finland, the exemplar of progressivism, when looking for a means of salvation. http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/books/Thinking+about+education/7071701/story.html

The popular fixation with Finland’s so-called “education miracle” is misplaced. Its national model of free education at all levels is attractive, but that country’s system is not without its imperfections, including the rigid streaming of high school students.  Curriculum is more flexible, but teacher certification requires teachers to have Masters Degrees and they are more closely monitored, limiting their autonomy.  For a system supposedly without standardized exams, Finland sure puts a heavy emphasis on winning the PISA international test sweepstakes.

Sherman raises all the right issues, but steps back from embracing an obvious option – public charter schools and smaller, human-scale alternative schools. That’s a little odd because he strongly favours precisely that type of schooling. If he feels that Wuthering Heights is far preferable to Harry Potter, that Latin and Greek teach mental discipline, and everyone can be a polymath, then it’s surprising that he doesn’t turn to the very schools that continue to uphold that educational legacy.

What’s really driving today’s public school systems?  Why do public schools tend to kill curiosity in students?  What explains the continuing fascination with the Finnish education model? What impact will Sherman’s The Curiosity of School have on education reform in Canada? 


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On Thursday August 2, hundreds of Calgary Catholic school students cut short their carefree summer vacation and headed back for the first day of class. While most students could look forward to a month more of summer holidays, students and teachers at Monsignor Neville Anderson School in Sandstone, AB, returned to school during one of the most glorious Calgary summers in recent memory. Yet a feature story in the Calgary Herald (August 1, 2012) painted a very positive picture, carrying the message that teachers found their “pupils” returning early far “more eager” than those on traditional September to June school calendars.  http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Summer+ends+early+Calgary+Catholic+year+round+students/7026505/story.html

The glowing endorsement of Year Round Schools running on the so-called Modified School Year (MSY) Calendar flew in the face of most of the accumulating evidence.  Extending the School Year, by simply spreading out the holidays, once considered a means to improve student performance and to reduce classroom overcrowding, has produced mixed results since the advent of the MSY concept in the early 1990s.   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/debate-over-yearround-ver_n_1668482.html

Over the past two decades, only about 100 public schools across all of Canada have adopted and implemented the Modified School Year Calendar, reducing the length of the 9-week summer break and spreading the 180 to 185  instructional days  more evenly throughout the year.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/does-year-round-schooling-make-the-grade/article4261901/  The first of those was the Calgary Board of Education’s Terry Fox Public School in Falconridge, initiated in 1995.  Today the original pilot school still runs on a modified calendar, with students due to return in mid-August on a 45 days on, 15 day break schedule. In the Toronto region, Roberta Bondar Public School, Peel Region District Board, Brampton, enjoys similar notoriety. South of the border, some school districts that adopted the extended schedule, like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, have actually turned back to traditional school calendars.

Modified School Year supporters claim that extending the school year directly addresses what is termed “summer learning loss.”  Reducing the summer holidays from 9-weeks to 5-weeks or less, they believe prevents students from falling behind academically and keeps troubled kids off the streets. Some of the more  reliable U.S. research has also shown that students in high-needs districts and students with special needs tend to do better in schools with extended calendars.

Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, remains unconvinced.  Appearing recently on Fox-TV News with Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, he insisted that extending the school year was “not for everyone” and without significant improvements in teaching, such a move might make little difference for student learning. “We want to extend the school year for kids for whom it would benefit them and for kids who are attending schools where we’re confident the time’s going be used well and it’s going to be used effectively.” http://video.foxnews.com/v/1775447053001/

A strong case can be made to offer the choice of a Modified School Year schedule, particularly if it is targeted for children and families in lower socio-economic communities  Less educated, low income families, according to Hess,  are more likely to experience summer learning loss, but mandating a longer calendar for all students will not prove beneficial. “Even when children start school at age six in more or less the same space, kids from low income or less educated families are a few years behind by the time they get to high school,” Hess said. “I think we owe it to those kids to do something about it.”

Expanding actual teaching time may well make a difference. The U.S. National Center on Time and Learning reports that more than 170 schools around the United States have extended their school year to more than 190 days, including at least two schools in the state of Missouri. Both schools in Missouri and the majority of schools across the United States that are opting for longer days or longer years are charter schools.
The renowned national charter network Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) lists “more time” as one of their strategies for delivering a high-quality education to their students. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVi07IxmVkg  Students at KIPP Inspire Academy in Saint Louis attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every other Saturday. Additionally, students are required to attend summer school. Their efforts to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged students are now attracting widespread attention and even imitations, like the Citizen Schools.  Ardent supporters of KIPP schools will tell you that it’s as much about what is actually taught in school as it is the length of the school year.
Extending the School Year is not popular with students and parents for lots of reasons and a sound case has to be made that there will be real gains in terms of student learning and performance.  Why is the Modified School Year producing such mixed results?  Will simply dividing-up the year differently make much of a difference?  What really explains the remarkable success of the KIPP schools in the United States?  What’s stopping Canadian provinces and school boards from extending learning time and building more flexibility into the school day and annual schedule?

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Technology and the Social Media are growing like a weed almost everywhere except inside the schools.  Prominent digital learning advocates like Alberta’s George Couros (@The Principal of Change) and New Yorker Tom Whitby (@My Island View) have both recently expressed exasperation with school districts and teachers who remain oblivious to the potential for learning unleashed by the spread of social networks. With traditional institutions like the churches taking advantage of Facebook, Twitter and You Tube, education observers are beginning to wonder whether the schools will be the “last hold-outs” in the 21st century digital learning revolution.

Connectivity is spreading rapidly and fundamentally altering the way we live and learn outside the system. While Social Media is fast becoming dominant in every facet of society, including the 2012 London Olympics, Couros still sees “many schools and school districts fearful of what social media can do” to impact negatively on their “business” or on their “reputation.” http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3108   Both he and Whitby are concerned about the stubborn resistance to Internet connectivity and digital learning among administrators and teachers in the regular public school system. http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/teachers-are-poor-consumers-of-learning/

Leading Canadian school change wizards such as Michael Fullan and Ken Leithwood have, until recently, remained curiously silent, perhaps assuming that digital technology was a fad that might blow over.  After spending decades espousing educational change theory and promoting “teacher-driven, system-wide reform,” one would expect them to be on the leading edge. The publication of Michael Fullan’s latest book, Stratosphere (June 2012), makes it abundantly clear that the Fullanites are coming late to the digital learning movement. http://www.amazon.ca/Stratosphere-Integrating-Technology-Pedagogy-Knowledge/dp/0132483149

Michael Fullan may be late on arrival, but his new book has been heralded as the 21st century  ‘New Testament ‘ by Toronto’s digital technology crowd.  In a June 2012 MindShareLearning promo video, Dr. Fullan was lauded for being “Canada’s leading school change expert ” and given free reign to explain his latest theory.  “System-wide reform” was now passe, and a little boring, he conceded, so he was turning his attention to the “Stratosphere” — that land beyond the clouds –where information was flowing freely and can now be accessed with our own portable devices.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYimGuToREU

Fullan’s “whole system change” initiative has, by his own admission, plateaued and the book signals his determination to get back “ahead of the curve.” What Stratosphere really signifies is his discovery of “connectivity” and an attempt to get back in the game of meaningful school reform. It’s clear that the “wild growth” of technology and online learning has shaken him to the core. “Motion leadership” was going nowhere on planet earth and he’s awakened to the need for “change managers” to gain control of the powerful forces reshaping how we grow and learn outside of school.

Where have we gone wrong?  The latest Fullanite revelation is that the chasm between technology and educational change can be bridged by bringing pedagogy, change management, and technology together.  It forms a “triad,”, according to Fullan, and “change management” can bring technology under control, making it more palatable to educators and useable in his flagging schemes of “system-wide” reform.

Fullan’s Stratosphere is worth studying because it will likely be adopted in Ontario where Fullanites tend to command most of the educational resources and drive the school system.  Whatever his motives and agenda, the book does zero -in on some critically important criteria for embracing 21st century digital learning. It must be: 1) irresistably engaging for all stakeholders; 2) elegantly efficient and easy to use; 3) technologically ubiquitous 24/7; and 4) steeped in real-life problem solving.

Fullan is warming to the idea that children can and do learn a great deal from Social Media and free access to the Internet.  Though still a child of the print culture, he’s awakened to the excitement of Web 2.0 and its enormous potential to reshape the way we live, play, and learn. Having said that, Canada’s renowned school change wizard  continues to inhabit what George Couros termed the “culture of fear.”  He’s plainly worried about the “weed-like growth of technology” and fears that “our brains” are being “distorted” into “a permanent state of hyper-distractionism.”  Recent ed-tech crazes have left a legacy of what he describes as “Digital Disappointments” and “Digital Dreaming.” http://mindsharelearning.ca/2012/06/06/book-review-stratospher-by-michael-fullan/

For Fullan and his camp followers, the best defense of the existing Ontario “change management” system is to mount a good offense.  Technology will only improve learning if it can be reined-in and harnessed for “teacher-driven, system-wide” reform focusing on “improving learning outcomes for all.”  American public school reform, focusing on school choice, testing, and accountability, scares him to death and so does the rather vacuous pursuit of generic “21st century learning skills.”  He even takes a totally unwarranted pot shot at Alberta Education’s “Inspiring Action in Education” mandate, labelling it “inspiration with no perspiration.”

Fullan’s book Stratosphere signifies that he and his OISE entourage will be wading into the so-called “technology malaise” in public education. True to form, he’s trying to recapture the “leading edge” and to put his “system management” stamp on the “wild, irregular, spreading weed” of technology.  He’s even trying to apply his familiar systematic “change agent skills”: knowledge and skills; a plan to action; strategies to overcome setbacks; a high sense of confidence;  monitoring progress; a commitment to achieve; social and environmental support; and freedom, control and choice.(Fullan, 67)”

Sincere advocates of Social Media and digital learning will likely be skeptical about Fullan’s conversion and attempt to bring systematic change theory to the digital learning revolution.  What explains Dr. Michael Fullan’s entry into the public policy debate over the purpose and future direction of digital learning?  To what extent is the rise of virtual learning and connectivity threatening Ontario’s  patented “system-wide” but “system-bound” reforms?  Will Fullan’s intervention help or hurt the advance of online learning in Canada and the growing diversity of alternative learning programs?

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