Archive for March, 2016

Five years ago, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion rocked the K-12 education world by demonstrating that mastering effective teaching methods was critical to improving student achievement. His latest book, Reading Reconsidered, co-authored with his Uncommon Schools colleagues Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, tackles one of the thorniest education policy issues – improving the effectiveness of reading instruction in schools. Furthermore, Lemov sets out to demonstrate that teaching subject knowledge and reading fluency go together in educating and producing the best-prepared high school graduates.

ReadingReconsideredCoverLemov’s Reading Reconsidered is a direct response to the potential unleashed by the adoption of the U.S. Common Core State Standards and, as such, will generate a lot of ill-informed education noise.  That will be a shame because this book actually explains what works best in teaching reading, particularly at the middle and high school level.  It is not only very practical, but based upon what the best teachers in his network of 44 urban charter school actually do to teach reading with rigour, independence, precision, and insight. 

Academically-inclined junior and senior high school teachers will readily embrace this book and its tremendously valuable lessons, if they ever get to see it or succeed in spiriting it into their desk drawers. Most of the ideas in the book are, in the words of Education Week  contributor Liana Heitin, “inarguably good practice” and deserve to be emulated and implemented right across the board, especially from grades 7 ro 12. Instead of promulgating learning theory, Lemov and his team draw upon lessons learned “visiting high performing teachers,” observing their classrooms,  interviewing them, and piloting best practice.

Teachers of English/Language Arts in North American schools tend to provide students with a steady diet of fiction, not only in the early grades, but right through to high school. That has been a serious problem because it limits the potential for integrating reading into history and social science classes. Indeed, one of the prime goals of the Common Core Standards was to correct this imbalance by providing students with more exposure to high quality non-fiction books and resources.

While there has been an increase in non-fiction reading in K-12 education since the adoption of Common Core standards, most U.S. students—specifically in high school—aren’t reading at their grade level, and worse, aren’t ready for college reading either, all documented in a 2015 report, What Kids Are Reading, from Renaissance Learning. In Reading Reconsidered, Lemov and his team see a way to change this trend, and it starts with asking the right questions, such as “Does What Students Read Matter?,” “Should Students be Re-Introduced to Classic Texts?”  and “Do More Challenging Readings produce Better Informed, More Well-Rounded Graduates?”

The book is also soundly based upon some of the best research on improving education standards. The recommended techniques are informed by the work of well-known researchers, including educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, University of Pittsburgh education professor emerita Isabel L. Beck, and E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the author of several books on cultural literacy.

Scanning the book’s chapters provides a tour de force of best practice in teaching reading.  Chapter 1: Text Selection – what we choose to read matters as much as how we read it; Chapter 2: Close Reading – providing a set of tools that can help teachers close read with rigor and insight; Chapter 3: Read More Non-Fiction – the importance of non-fiction; Chapter 4: Writing — specific ways to teach it to help students read more effectively; Chapter 5: Varieties of Reading  — ensuring students read a lot in a variety of ways – silently, aloud and being read to;  Chapter 6: Building Vocabulary –implement a two-part approach using both explicit and implicit vocabulary instruction; Chapter 7: Be Consistent — make good use of time to make the literacy classroom more efficient, productive and autonomous; and Chapter 8: Reach the Goal –the ultimate goal is intellectual autonomy, the best preparation for university and college.

Armchair critics wedded to conventional approaches, focusing disproportunately on promoting a “love of reading” and pandering to popular cultural tastes will be threatened by Lemov’s latest offering. He’s clearly out to raise educational standards while improving reading instruction in K-12 schools.

The book is up against formidable forces that have, over the past 30 years, dumbed-down high school reading lists. The Renaissance Learning Study demonstrates how far its gone from K-12 when it comes to the most popular books. During the 2014–2015 school year, 9.8 million students from 31,327 US schools read over 334 million books and nonfiction articles and the pattern is clear. Only two non-fiction books, Raina Telgmeier “s Sisters (Grade 4 and 5) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (Grades 7, 9, and 12) even crack the top 16 list in each grade level.  The reading level of the most popular books, especially above Grade 7, supports the Reading Reconsidered book’s assessment.

Lemov and his associates make a persuasive case for using challenging texts and pushing student readers beyond their comfort zones. That used to be the prime motivation of our best high school teachers, and with this book in hand, it could make a miraculous comeback in North American schools.

Does what students are asked to read in K-12 schools matter? Should we introduce more Non-Fiction into the current English/Language Arts curriculum? Does “pick your own book” and “self-paced learning” encourage too many students to take the easy route? What can be done, if anything, to raise the reading sights and levels of today’s junior and senior high school students? 

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Stationary bikes are now appearing in Canadian classrooms in the latest wave of the  North American “self-regulation” movement.  Frustrated , angry and fidgety kids and stressed-out parents are driving many teachers almost crazy and they are grasping for life preservers in today’s classrooms.  That may explain why principals and teachers in the Halifax Regional School Board and far beyond see spin bikes as almost magical in their powers.

SpinBikeSelfRegHRSBIs this becoming the latest ‘cure-all’ and where’s the scientific research to support its widespread use in regular classrooms? Since the publication of British teacher Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, more and more classroom teachers are raising a “skeptical eyebrow” and confronting the succession of teaching fads that have come and gone over the past twenty years. It’s becoming acceptable to ask whether “self-regulation” with or without bikes is destined for the same fate.

The current expectations for Self-Regulation and Spin Bikes are sky high. Discovery of the latest ‘cure-all’ has sparked incredible media interest with recent CBC-TV short documentaries and CBC Radio The Current feature interviews.

The sheer excitement created by spin bike frenzy is captured well in Aly Thomson’s March 9, 2016 Canadian Press story: “Frustrated at her inability to draw a sofa, five-year-old Mylee Lumsden began to cry. She liked her drawing of a TV, but the couch confounded her, and so she grew increasingly upset. Her teacher, Mary Theresa Burt, looked at the brewing storm, and suggested the little girl take a turn on the bright yellow stationary bicycle at the centre of her primary classroom at Ian Forsyth Elementary School.” Within minutes, Mylee was “bright again, cheerful, and smiling widely.”

That tiny yellow bike was simply working miracles — calming rambunctious kids down, quietening the class, getting restless boys to sit still, and making teaching life liveable again. “Now, amid a shift in how educators shift and embrace various styles of learning,” Thomson wrote, “such bikes are helping to boost moods, relieve stress and regulate energy in students of all ages.”

“Learning styles” simply won’t go away long after it has been exposed as fraudulent educational practice.  It’s the best known of the myths recently exposed by Tom Bennett, co-founder of ResearchED and Britain’s 2015 Teacher of the Year.  A year ago, in the Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that many such theories that fill classrooms in Britain have little grounding in scientific research.

“We have all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he stated. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying kids only learn when you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it’s indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

Bennett is far from alone in challenging the research basis for a whole range of initiatives floating on unproven educational theories. According to a research scan by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), trillions of dollars are spent on education policies around the world, but just one in 10 are actually evaluated.

Commenting on the research, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education and skills, said: “If we want to improve educational outcomes we need to have a much more systematic and evidence-based approach.” Speaking at the 2014 Education World Forum in London, Schleicher added: “We need to make education a lot more of a science.”

Cutting through the hype surrounding Self-Regulation, it’s difficult to find independent, validated research support. A very perceptive October 2012 feature in The Tyee actually bore down into the British Columbia self-regulation movement looking for the research basis while 3,000 teachers were being taught the strategy.

While much of Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work is compromised by his promotion of his own particular program, Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, of UBC’s Human Development, Learning and Culture research unit, has studied MindUP , an alternative approach to teaching self-regulation as the basis for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Over a period of six years, she only found one large-scale independent research study, a CASEL study of 270 programs, that documented its actual benefits.

“So little(in education) has actually been formed by rigorous research, as opposed to the medical field, Schonert-Reichl claimed. ” I heard someone compare where we are with understanding well-designed educational studies to where we were with clinical drug trials in the early 1900s.”

Self-regulation definitely holds promise, but the research basis is quite limited and teachers are wise to be skeptical until there’s more evidence that it actually works and is sustainable in the classroom.  A new study by Shanker and his associates, Child Development (September/October 2015), may add to the puzzle by demonstrating the the meaning of the term ‘self-regulation’ is still unclear and therefore expandable to accommodate an array of some 88 different concepts, including  self-control, self-management, self-observation, learning, social behavior, and the personality constructs related to self-monitoring.

Who is really being served by ‘self-regulation’ is particularly unclear. Much of the rationale has its underpinning in neurocience and that’s what is being debated rather than its efficacy for the majority of students.  Some like former BC Education Minister George Abbott see it as a way of serving severely learning-challenged kids and getting rid of the extensive, expensive Special Education system with all those individual program plans.

Child psychologist and elementary teachers, as The National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff  anticipated three years ago, are latching onto self-regulation believing that you can ‘teach kids to behave properly in schools’ because the job is not being done in today’s family homes. The real reason it’s needed, in other words, is because too many kids aren’t getting the “psychological stability and support” they need from their own families.

Is Self-Regulation — with or without Spin Bikes – another unproven educational initiative that will come and go without a discernable impact on students? Should researchers marketing their own programs be relied upon to provide the supporting research? Will ‘self-regulation’ end up resembling mother’s version of  “sit in the corner,” “go to your room” or “get down and do five push-ups, now” ? Should we intervene if kids riding those bikes ever come to look like hamsters on wheels in the Cage?  

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Canada’s tiny province of Prince Edward Island, ancestral home of Anne of Green Gables, is all abuzz with the latest news. Two groups of Amish families from Woodstock and Waterloo County, Ontario, are heading east to P.E.I. and plan to establish not only a new colony of farm settlers but a traditional one-room schoolhouse to educate their children. Friendly Islanders in Eastern P.E.I. are preparing a hearty spring 2016 welcome and the P.E.I. Government has amended its School Act to smooth the way.

AmishPEIThe courtship of the Amish began two years ago.  An Ontario farm-equipment salesman specializing in horse-drawn vehicles, Tony Wallbank, was the key player in the planned Eastern Migration.  A few years ago, he began seeking new, affordable land for the growing colonies of Ontario Amish and explored prospective properties in Northern Ontario and various places in the northern United States. That ended when he toured eastern P.E.I. in 2014 and discovered rolling fields and landowners anxious to sell their properties for a fraction of the $20,000 an acre cost in Ontario.

Wallbank and the Amish elders found, in eastern P.E.I., perhaps the last vestige of unspoiled rural life in the settled region of southern Canada. The reception committee of Islanders, including Paul MacNeill, publisher of The Eastern Graphic and local realtor Brad Oliver of Montague, P.E.I., laid out quite a welcome mat.  In this region of the Island, it was not hard to find landowners anxious to retire and citizens enthused about seeing their properties farmed rather than sitting idle or being sold-off as acreage for expanding agribusinesses.

The prospect of attracting Amish settlers did what no amount of lobbying by P.E. I. home schoolers could ever have achieved.  Canada’s least receptive province to school choice and home schooling, P.E.I., almost overnight underwent a tremendous conversion. A formal request from Wallbank and the Amish in the fall of 2015 to amend the School Act regulations was hurried into law.

A critically-important P.E.I. School Act provision limiting Home Schooling to groups with a “certified teacher-advisor” was lifted.  That restrictive provision, enacted in 2009, to limit and control any expansion of home education,  was suddenly deemed unnecessary by provincial school officials.

The official Education Department line was rather interesting. “It wasn’t really a barrier,” Education Minister Hal Perry told CBC News PEI in October 2015. “It was a bit of a hurdle,” he added, and an issue for the newcomers. “(The Amish) felt it was important that they home school their children in their own tradition. We as a government, respect that.” Deputy Minister Sandy MacDonald, when asked about the change insisted it was not a big issue because the Amish were proposing to home school their children without any expectation of provincial funding.

The impending arrival of two colonies of Amish, numbering perhaps 50 families, was enough to secure a small sliver of “school choice” in Canada’s least receptive province. Virtually all students in P.E.I. have only one school choice — and 98.8 % of the 21, 516 students in 2009-10 attended the public system. In a 2015 report on Home Schooling in Canada, P.E.I. was identifed as restrictive in its regulations with only 81 students (or 0.4% of the total school enrolment) home schooled in 2011-12.  By 2005-16, the numbers had dropped to 77 students from some 45 families — all with an approved teacher-advisor.

The Amish are firm in their belief in traditional education delivered by lay teachers who are members of the Christian religious sect.  For Old Order Amish families, schooling ends in Grade 8 and children are then generally expected to join the family farming enterprise. Children are expected to master the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics and to observe Amish ways, including leading simple lives without modern conveniences such as electricity or indoor plumbing.

Amish education represents a complete rejection of the modern, pluralistic and religion-free secular school system.  The rights of the Old Order Amish to freedom from public schooling was guaranteed in a landmark U.S. legal decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). It granted the Amish the right to limit their children’s education to eight grades in parochial, one-room schools operating in traditional fashion and further held that such an education was “as effective ” as that provided by modern public elementary schools. That right, once secured, has been vigorously defended by Amish elders and educators in Canada as well as the United States.

Why did it take an Amish migration to open the doors a little more to school choice in Prince Edward Island? Now that Old Order Amish have the right to home schooling their children in groups, does that right extend to other families and groups with alternative school plans?  To what extent would P.E.I. and other parts of rural Canada benefit from opening the doors to groups seeking to establish alternative schools? 



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