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Archive for October, 2015

Introducing computer coding in the early grades is now emerging as the favoured strategy for ‘seeding’ entrepreneurial skills in the schools. Since former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed in his famous 2012 New Year’s resolution to learn code, digital industry leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have rallied around Code.org, a movement to get school children to learn about programming. Every year since, in early December, millions of students world-wide have participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code, a week-long event designed to promote the renewal of computer science education.

CodingKidsInitiativeThe so-called CodeKids movement, inspired largely by Microsoft-funded Code.org, is spreading like wildfire in and around North American school systems. Acadia University president Ray Ivany’s 2014 Now or Never report, effectively declared the Maritime province of Nova Scotia an economic ‘basket case” and called for urgent action to stoke-up “entrepreneurship” and implant it in the rising generation. It then emerged as one of six major “action points” branded as “our ICT Momentum” hoisted up by the subsequent One Nova Scotia Coalition as key strategies to revitalize the province’s struggling economy.

Computer coding for students is seen by One Nova Scotia zealots as a critical part of the teaching entrepreneurship agenda. With the support of New Brunswick CodeKids champion David Alston, younger Nova Scotians such as Jevon MacDonald of Volta Labs, succeeded in September 2015 in bringing “Brilliant Labs” promoting STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) to a first cohort of pilot schools. In late October 2015, Nova Scotia Education minister Karen Casey went one step further, announcing that “mandatory coding” would be taught in every grade from Primary to Grade 12 in the province’s 400 public schools.

The Nova Scotia curriculum initiative, purportedly the first in Canada, presented “coding” as the primary means of implanting entrepeneurial skills. “We know that coding promotes problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation and creativity,” Casey claimed. “And we know that these skills are directly related to industries like computer programming, manufacturing, communications and more.”

Education Minister Casey’s implementation plan proved less convincing.  Mandatory coding courses would start in a few months, September 2016, and be implemented by existing teachers retooled to teach introductory computer science. That professional development training, she added, would be provided by staff from IBM and Google brought in to instruct the prospective teachers.

However laudable the initiative, the Nova Scotia implementation strategy left a lot to be desired. No specific reference was made to the existing Brilliant Labs pilot project, to the current competencies of teachers, the state of the school-level technology infrastructure, or the potential for ongoing business partnerships. While the plan was lauded by Nova Scotia’s relatively small private business class, including Jordi Morgan and the CFIB Atlantic, it was presented as yet another ‘inside the system’ project.

Many national and local businesses actively promote technology education and specifically programming in the schools.  Most promoters of teaching code are convinced that ICT (Information Communications Technology) is not only the wave of the future but the gateway to most jobs for today’s students. Mesmerized by the Internet revolution, they see an urgent need for teachers and their schools to finally get on board.

Nova Scotia is in economic decline and ripe for urgent action. In the province, ICT accounts for 8.2 per cent of the business sector and is considered a potential future growth sector. To retain young Nova Scotians, the province is scrambling to support its fledgling, mostly grant-funded “start-up” community, seeing them as sources of future employment. The strategy is one of necessity, given the slow decline of traditional private sector employment industries like pulp and paper, fishing, and resource development.

Computer coding may be a rather narrow base upon which to launch the needed entrepreneurial transformation. Computer Science died out as a credit subject in Nova Scotia schools over the past two decades, as it did in most other provincial school systems. It was approached as a branch of Mathematics where students were barred from entering without first acquiring higher level Math competencies. Faculties of education stopped training Computer Science teachers because demand dried up while industry and commerce was becoming more and more driven by the latest technology. Students resorted to learning programming on their own or later in the changing workplace.

Technology is here to stay but as a tool to unlock new knowledge not an end in itself.  Current teachers “assigned” to teach computer coding may not be the best ones to actually deliver the new program. Judging from the Ontario SNOW program, focusing on providing Special Education teachers with the latest assistive learning technology, employing technology tends to introduce new challenges in class management. Planning for successful implementation will involve supporting teachers in new and unfamiliar pedagogical terrain outside their normal teaching comfort zones.

The private business sector has been crying, in recent decades, for more graduates with computer science knowledge or higher level technological competencies.  Former teachers like Halifax technology expert Ari Najarian have been sounding alarm bells and even presenting new curriculum for junior and senior high schools. It was next-to-impossible to get those inside the system to pay much attention until Gates, Zuckerberg and Alston forced their way onto the public agenda.

The American promoters at Code.org and the annual Hour of Code attracted millions of students and thousands of teacher converts. In Nova Scotia, it took the “shock treatment” administered by Ray Ivany’s dire economic forecast.

Will introducing mandatory computer coding at all grade levels drive the change? Are school systems awakening to the need to fully embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in slow growth regions? Where will the capable, qualified teachers of computer science come from? Will the focus on developing fundamental reading and numeracy skills be helped or hurt by the ICT initiative? How long will it take to produce a new generation of computer savvy, technologically proficient graduates?

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A recent news segment on CTV National News, aired October 7, 2015, focused on the outrage expressed by parents of a British Columbia boy with Down Syndrome upon discovering that their son, Deacon, age 7, had been repeatedly been confined to a so-called “quiet room” – a small, windowless space designed for disruptive students. “I think it’s awful,” said father Kirk Graham. “It breaks my heart for my son.” He and his wife Jackie were so upset that they pulled their son out of school in protest. “This needs to stop,” Mr. Graham added. “Nobody should be put in a lockdown room.”

TimeOutBoyBC2015QuietRoomBCSchoolThe Salmon Arm, BC, case is not an isolated instance. A British Columbia report, Stop Hurting Kids, commissioned by Inclusion BC and the Family Support Institute in November 2013, identified 200 examples of children being left alone in everything from windowless offices to padded rooms to a gym equipment closet. Roughly half of the examples involved “seclusion” for periods as long as 3 hours; about one-in-three of the examples involved imposing physical restraints. An estimated 72 per cent of parents reported that their child suffered “emotional trauma.” Most concerning of all, somewhere between half and three-quarters of the parents only learned about the “isolation” through someone outside of the school.

Many Canadian schools now have “time-out” rooms to accommodate students engaging in repeated inappropriate or disruptive classroom or playground behaviour. Those segregated school spaces go by a variety of names ranging from “time-out” to “quiet corner” to “isolation” depending upon the province and particular school district.  Most, if not all, education authorities now have “guidelines” for the use of “designated time-out” rooms.  In the Atlantic provinces, for example, a set of formal guidelines, developed first in 2002 in New Brunswick, have essentially sanctioned such “behaviour-modification” actions.

Intervening in the classroom to curb misbehaviour or ‘acting-out’ by calling a “time-out” is commonly accepted professional teaching practice.  In most instances, it is the appropriate strategy, and Special Education research (ABA) tends to show that it can be effective in reducing problem behaviours, including those exhibited by students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and behavioural disorders. Faced with students demonstrating aggressive or potentially dangerous behaviours, teachers need to have a range of means to assist in settling students down in school.

Having recognized that practical classroom reality, the “time-out” strategy can lead to more intrusive and potentially damaging measures involving “restraint” and “seclusion.” The Canadian Council for Exceptional Children recognizes restraint and seclusion as “an emergency response, not a treatment.” The Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA) recommends carefully planned, monitored and limited time-out sanctions and restraint and seclusion as “a last resort” in an “emergency situation.”

American professional organizations such as the APBA, faced with far more lawsuits, are far more explicit in setting limits. “The misuse and abuse of restraint and seclusion procedures with vulnerable people is intolerable,” according to the APBA (2009), ” an represents a clear violation of ethical principles and accepted professional practice.”

Over the past decade, “isolation rooms” have come to light as a direct result of some well-publicized and disturbing cases. In March of 2009, the parent of 8-year-old Dylan Gale went public over the confinement of her son in a the “storage closet” of a Windsor, NS, public school. A Nova Scotia Education Department survey found that 42 such unregulated rooms existed in provincial schools and that revelation led to the implementation of an August 2009 set of guidelines.

Even with policies in place, alleged abuses continue to happen across Canada. Last school year, a 9-year-old autistic boy attending Ottawa’s St. Jerome Catholic School was handcuffed by police officers on school premises and Toronto-area parent Karen Thorndyke launched a $16 million law suit against the Peel District School Board for confining her autistic son to an “isolation room.”

Schools are not intended to be prisons or young offender’s centres, so time-outs, restraints and seclusion tend to arouse very strong feelings. In Britain, vocal critics of “isolation rooms” campaign for their abolition because they tend to be applied against Special Education students who find themselves “frightened and alone” in such enclosed spaces. Since the 2006 report, “The Costs of Inclusion,” the issue has been hotly-debated. That report’s findings demonstrated that the real purpose of seclusion was to “remove the disruption” so that “teachers can get on with teaching.”

Seclusions have only short-term impact and only solve an immediate problem for a teacher attempting to cope with a class of 27 to 30 other students. A 2010 U.K. Bernardo’s report, “Not present and not correct, concluded that isolating a student “usually neither addressed the issues leading to discipline problems, nor provided any guidance that would help the young person learn to control themselves.”

Isolation of students does not really address the root causes and merely hides it away from sight. It also raises fundamental policy questions: What is the impact of restraint and seclusion on our most challenged and vulnerable children and youth? How can we support teachers confronting significant behavioural problems without entrenching such potentially damaging practices? Is it right to remove one child from the room so that others can learn? Is this chronic issue one of the unintended consequences of imposing “fully inclusive classrooms” on everyone?

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Every September a fresh crop of hundreds of mostly novice teachers head North to teach in remote, mostly First Nations populated communities. Hired by northern public school districts or aboriginal education authorities, the recruits arrive flush with excitement and prepared to ‘sink or swim’ on a mostly unfamiliar educational terrain. This year is different for one reason: Teach for Canada (TFC) is a new ‘wild card’ on the educational scene and it’s an independent NGO committed to addressing the teacher shortage, filling vacant teaching posts, and ‘closing the education gap’ affecting Ontario’s northern First Nations communities.

RoxanneMartinTFC“By working with First Nations elders and educators and better preparing teachers, the program is filling a void,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault, Lakehead University’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives. “That’s why we hosted the four-week long Teach for Canada summer enrichment training session here at Lakehead.”

All eyes are on that one specially trained group of thirty-one teachers who have just taken up their posts in seven different communities in the Ontario North. They are, after all, the first cohort of emissaries recruited, selected and supported by Teach for Canada, co-founded by three energetic former Action Canada fellows, Kyle Hill, Mark Podlasly, and Adam Goldenberg

Although welcomed by most First Nations chiefs and lead educators, TFC has received an icy reception from the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and vocal teacher union activists. When teacher unionists see the Teach for Canada logo with its quintessentially Canadian flying geese, they see its big bad American counterpart, Teach for America, and the thin edge of the wedge of creeping “privatization.” They are also leery of TFC recruits signing on with First Nations schools for salaries off the public school grid.

Since its inception, TFC has not only sparked a series of openly hostile teacher union blog posts, but prompted the CTF to issue a “Briefing Document” and greet the new TFC graduates in August 2015 with a condemnatory media release.

Close observers of First Nations communities are downright puzzled by the reaction of teacher unionists to the Teach for Canada pilot project in northern Ontario. “We currently do nothing to train and acclimatize new recruits entering First Nations communities,” notes Wesley-Esquimault, “and so it’s definitely an improvement.”

“Teach for Canada is filling a hole,” says Wawatay News reporter Rick Garrick, “so how can you complain?” In addition, he adds, “they are building a network of teaching colleagues to help with the feelings of isolation and provide ongoing support in the transition.” The highly acclaimed principal of Thunder Bay’s First Nations high school, Jonathan Kakegamic, winner of a 2013 Learning Partnership Outstanding Principal’s Award, is also supportive of the initiative. “I just found out about it this August,” he says, “but it looks like a step in the right direction. It’s hard to find qualified teachers, especially in high school, so it fills an immediate need.”

Northern Ontario public school boards have been slow to react to the TFC initiative. This is perhaps understandable because, right from the beginning, they too have been reluctant to embrace Teach for Canada. True to form, they have been disinclined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this initiative from outside the system.

The initial Teach for Canada project only got off the ground in the Ontario North when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, jumped at the opportunity to secure motivated, committed and eager new teachers for their remote, far-flung elementary schools.

One of TRC’s most impressive recruits, Roxanne Martin, an Anishinaabe raised in Toronto, is effusive in her praise for the project. Growing up in Ontario’s teeming metropolis, she longed to know more about her cultural identity and is delighted to be a pioneer for Teach for Canada teaching this fall at the Lac Seul First Nation school. “Knowing that we have a great support system and being able to incorporating First Nations culture into our teaching is great,” she told CBC News. “I don’t think you could find it anywhere else.”

Fresh from a four-week training session, including a five-day stay at Lac Seul First Nation, Martin and the first cohort of Teach for Canada recruits are better prepared than any previous group of teachers destined for teaching in First Nations communities.

Sweeping condemnations of educational innovations originating outside the system are all too common. From the ground level, it looks like a positive development, if only as a transitional program.  The ultimate goal is, of course, to provide First Nations education by fully qualified indigenous teachers. It will not happen if we keep shooting down promising teacher recruitment and training projects.

Why have First Nations communities in the Ontario North embraced Teach for Canada?  What’s really driving the resistance mounted by the Canadian Teachers Federation and outspoken teacher union activists? Who can complain when previous teacher preparation for teaching on First Nations reserves was so limited?  Is it possible that Teach for Canada is what is needed to spark the transition to First Nations education delivered by indigenous teachers?

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