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Archive for February, 2019

Student achievement varies a great deal across the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Good teachers can have a significant impact upon their students’ learning and achievement and there is now research to support that contention.  What makes some teachers more effective than others is less clear.  It remains one question that cries out for further in-depth study.

A comprehensive research study reported in the latest issue of Education Next (Vol. 19, Spring 2019) tackles that fundamental question on an international comparative scale. Three American researchers, Eric A Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold, not only demonstrate that teachers’ cognitive skills vary widely among developed nations, but that such differences matter greatly for student performance in school.

Developing, recruiting and training a teacher force with higher cognitive skills (Hanushek, Piopiunik, Wiederhold 2019) can be critical in improving student learning. “An increase of one standard deviation in teacher cognitive skills,” they claim, “is associated with an increase of 10 to 15 per cent of a standard deviation in student performance.” Comparing reading and math scores in 31 OECD countries, teachers in Finland come out with the highest cognitive skills. One quarter of the gaps in average student performance across countries would be closed if each of them were to raise the level of teachers’ cognitive skills to that of Finland.

What’s most fascinating about this study is the large role Canadian teachers play in the comparative data analysis for teacher cognitive skills.  Of the 6,402 teacher test-takers in 31 countries, the largest group, 834 (13 per cent), were from Canada. Based upon data gleaned from the OECD Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), we now know where Canadian teachers rank in terms of their numeracy and literacy skills (See Figure 1). We also have a clearer indication of how Canadians with Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s or Doctoral degrees rate in terms of their core cognitive skills.

Teachers from Canada fare reasonably well, in the top third, in the comparative analysis of cognitive skills. In literacy, teachers in Canada perform above average, with a median score of 308 points out of 500 compared to the sample-wide average of 295 points.  If there’s a problem, it’s in terms of numeracy skills, where they perform slightly above the teacher-wide sample with a median score of 293, compared to the average of 292 points. Adult Canadians with Bachelor’s degrees actually outperform teachers in numeracy skills by 7 points. Teachers in Finland and Japan, for example, perform better than Canadians with Master’s or Doctoral degrees.

Since the September 2010 appearance of  the McKInsey & Company study “Closing the talent gap,,” American policy-makers have considered teachers’ own academic performance as “a key predictor” of higher student achievement, based upon teacher recruitment practices in countries that perform well on international tests. High scoring countries like Singapore, Finland and Korea, for example, recruit their teacher force from the top third of their academic cohorts in university.

Securing sound data on the actual quality of recent Canadian teacher education cohorts is challenging because of the paucity of reported information. One claim that Canadian teachers come from the “top one third of high school graduates” put forward in a 2010 McKinsey & Company OECD study looks highly suspect.

A September 2008 review of Initial Teacher Education Programs  (Gambhir, Evans, Broad, Gaskell 2008), reported that admission cut-offs ranged from 65 per cent to over 90 per cent, depending upon the faculty of education. Most of the Canadian universities with Faculty of Education programs, to cite another fact, still have grade cut-off averages for acceptance in the Arts and Science that hover between 70 per cent and 75 per cent. With the exception of OISE, Western, Queen’s and UBC, teacher candidates are not drawn from the top third of their academic cohort, particularly in mathematics and sciences.

Differences in teachers’ cognitive skills within a country also seem to have a bearing upon student performance. Plotting student performance difference between math and reading ( at the country level) against the difference in teacher cognitive skills between numeracy and literacy yields some intriguing results (Figure 2). An increase of teacher cognitive skills of one standard deviation is estimated to improve student achievement by 11 per cent of standard deviation. The data for Canada shows a teacher test-score difference between numeracy and literacy of -12 points

The brand new American study (Hanushek, Piopiunik, Wiederhold 2019) also demonstrates that paying teachers better is a possible factor in attracting and retaining teachers with higher cognitive skills. In terms of wage premiums, teachers’ earnings in higher performing countries are generally higher, as borne out by Ireland, Germany and Korea, where teachers earn 30 to 45 per cent more than comparable college graduates in other jobs.

Teachers in Canada earn 17 per cent more than their comparators, while those in the USA and Sweden earn 22 per cent less. Increasing teacher pay has potential value in the United States where salaries discourage the ‘best and brightest’ from entering teaching. There is a caveat, noted by Hanushek and his research team:  Changes in policy must ensure that “higher salaries go to more effective teachers.”

Do smarter teachers make for smarter students? How sound is the evidence that teachers who know more are actually better teachers? Why do we put so much stock in improving student learning in literacy/reading and mathematics?  What potential flaws can you spot in this type of research? 

 

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Major snow storms raise public anxieties and have given rise to a relatively new phenomenon known as “Snowpocalypse” or “Snowmageddon.” It’s now a widely-used term referring to the sensationalist reaction of popular news stations to the approach of a snow storm, coupling “snow” with the mythical doom and gloom of a 21st century “Armageddon.” Whether the public hype associated with such language feeds the ‘crowd psychology’ contributing to the closing of schools is a hot topic worthy of investigation.

SnowDayVancouverThe term “Snowcopalypse” was first used in media reports in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest to refer to a snowstorm in December of 2008. The Canadian press and social media began using the two terms interchangeably to describe a snowstorm in January of 2009. It popped up in a 2008 children’s book entitled Winter Blast and written by Chris Wright who used “snowmageddon” in the storyline of his book.  Today it is almost routinely used interchangeably with “snowmageddon” conjuring up fears before, during, and after a storm hits.

Twice during the month of February 2019 the popular press and social media lit up with sensational, over-the-top, and hilarious reports appropriating the terms and bearing scary news headlines such as Polar Vortex Storm and the hashtag #Snowmageddon2019 It came in two distinct waves with the arrival of a “Polar Vortex” (February 4-7, 2019) bringing frigid cold to large swaths of central Canada and the United States Mid-West and then a full-blown “Snowmageddon” from February 10 to 13 coming in a storm blast from the Pacific Coast to the the Atlantic provinces.

The peak of “Snowmageddon” hit the Maritimes on Wednesday February 13, 2019 and brought the whole region to a halt, closing every school in all three Maritime provinces. For three days leading up to the storm, regional news reports contained dire warnings of the coming snowstorm as it advanced from central Canada eastward into Quebec and the Maritimes. The region’s leading storm tracking and advisory network, known as the CBC News Storm Centre, pumped out regular reports by their staff meteorologists adding further to the hype surrounding the coming storm event.

Every school district in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island was on storm alert the day before the event — and all jurisdictions, like clockwork, announced full-system shutdowns. Initial forecasts of snowfalls ranging from 15 to 30 cm ( 6 to 12 inches) were enough to trigger school closure protocols and, as of 6 am on February 13, 2019, school was cancelled in three provinces, impacting some 733 schools, 18,000 teachers, and 235,000 students and families.

The three Maritime provinces have a well-deserved reputation for closing schools with great regularity during the winter months. The pronounced tendency of school authorities to declare “snow days” and shut down entire districts was well documented in two reports issued almost ten years ago, James Gunn’s School Storm Days in Nova Scotia (November 2009) and my own April 2010 AIMS report, School’s Out, Again.  Both studies were prompted by the high incidence of closures in Nova Scotia during 2008-09 when boards shuttered schools for a record number of days, averaging more than 8 days across the province.

Full days of school were being cancelled for anticipated storms, road conditions, and forecasts of freezing rain. Comparing Maritime school districts with comparable jurisdictions outside the region, it was revealed that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were all more inclined to close their schools during winter storms. In some cities, such as Calgary and Winnipeg, schools never close and, even in districts like the Quebec Eastern Townships, cancellations averaged fewer than three a year.

Whether school is cancelled depends, to a surprising degree, on where you happen to live in Canada. The most recent snowstorm, starting on February 10 in Vancouver and rolling across the country for three days, provided a stark reminder of how different the responses are to heavy snowfall and storm conditions.

Freak snow storms hitting Vancouver and the B.C. Lower Mainland are a total rarity and the one on February 10 dumped 10 cm of snow and 4.8 mm of rain, enough to cause mass panic, school closures on the South Coast, and massive traffic jams involving cars, mostly equipped with summer tires. In the Prairie West, the storm barely registered and schools everywhere operated as usual through every type of weather condition, including deep freezes of -30 degrees or lower Celsius. Hypothermia and frostbite are two conditions that do warrant special instructions for parents and children.

A big snow dump in Ontario and Quebec, hitting on February 12 and 13, forced education authorities to either close schools or suspend student busing and leaving student attendance up to “parent’s discretion.”  Canada’s biggest school system, the Toronto District School Board, closed its schools when 7 cm of snow and 18 mm of rain fell on February 12 and that shutdown was only the third time (1996, 2011, and 2019) in two decades. A heavy storm bearing 30 cm of snow and rain forced Ottawa public schools to be closed that day for the fist time in 23 years. Quebec school districts in and around Montreal were buried by two days of 40 cm of snow and rain — and followed suit by closing their schools.

In spite of all the advance media hype, ‘Snowcopalypse 2019,’ never delivered the forecasted snowfall in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island. Meteorologists employed by CBC News and CTV Atlantic projected heavy snowfalls of 15 to 40 cm across the region, issuing storm warnings, and predicting hazardous road conditions. The public, and especially children, were warned to stay home and off the roads.  A featured CBC TV News report, originating in New Brunswick, aired on the eve of the storm seeking to demonstrate how effective and systematic school managers were in executing full system shutdowns.

School superintendents, acting on the advice of school transportation managers, acted almost in unison on February 13 in shutting down all schools, urban and rural, in all parts of the region. When the fast-moving storm passed, the snowfall and rain totals fell far short of the projections. Moncton Airport, according to Environment Canada, did register 26 cm of snow and 22 mm of rain, leaving 14 cm on the ground, Some 20 cm of snow also fell on Prince Edward Island, as registered at Charlottetown.

The latest Snowcopalypse proved to be a paper tiger in Halifax and much of Nova Scotia, Halifax Airport got 21 cm of snow and 22.4 mm of rain, leaving just 7 cm of snow on the ground. That was about one-third of the totals recorded on February 13, 2017, when all schools were closed in Halifax and elsewhere. Closing the schools left the streets and access highways nearly abandoned and an eerie quiet descended upon the Halifax downtown.  By the next morning, the sun was beaming and the streets remarkably clear.

Are public fears of Snowcopalypse grossly exaggerated and, if so, is it the work of the popular press or over-zealous social media commentators?  To what extent do the radically different responses to winter storms and frigid temperatures reflect regional and or cultural differences? Is the proclivity to shut down all schools an indicator of more fundamental differences in public attitudes toward the value families place on school attendance and student learning?   

 

 

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Equipping the rising generation of students with what are termed “21st century skills” is all the rage. Since the fall of 2010, British Columbia’s Ministry of Education, like many other education authorities, has been virtually obsessed with advancing a B.C. Education Plan championing the latest iteration of a global education transformation movement – technology-based personalized learning.

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The whole concept of 21st century skills, promoted by the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), rests upon widely-circulated global theories about our fast changing, technology-driven, unpredictable future. Leading proponents of the new dogma contend that it is now essential to ensure that our youth are “equipped with the right type of skills to successfully navigate through an ever-changing, technology-rich work environment’ and ready to “continuously maintain their skills, upskill and/or reskill throughout their working lives.”

Much of the 21st century learning mantra went unchallenged and escaped critical scrutiny until quite recently. Today many of the education researchers challenging the 21st century learning orthodoxy are charter members of researchED, a British grassroots teacher research organization, founded by teacher Tom Bennett five years ago.

A growing number of outstanding education researchers, including Daniel T. Willingham, Dylan Wiliam, and Paul A. Kirschner, have been drawn to researchED rEDONTWillinghamCloseUpbecause of its commitment to scrutinize prevailing theories, expose education myths, and encourage more evidence-informed curriculum policy and teaching practice. That is precisely why I took the lead in bringing researchED to Canada in November 2017.

British Columbia teachers have given the futuristic B.C. Education Plan a cool reception and are, by every indication, ripe for teacher-led research and curriculum changes that pass the evidence-based litmus test.

A 2017 BCTF survey of teachers gave the B.C. Education Plan mixed reviews and has already raised serious concerns about the province’s latest iteration of a “21st century skills” curriculum. Teachers’ concerns over “personalized learning” and “competency-based assessment” focus on the “multiple challenges of implementation” without adequate resource support and technology, but much of the strongest criticism was motivated by “confusion” over its purposes, concern over the lack of supporting research, and fears that it would lead to “a less rigorous academic curriculum.”

Such criticisms are well-founded and consistent with new academic research widely discussed in researchED circles and now finding its way into peer-reviewed education Vo Raad/Magazine, Blik van Buiten, Paul Kirschner, Heerlen, 12 12 2013research journals. Professor Paul A. Kirschner and his Open University of the Netherlands team are in the forefront in the movement to interrogate the claims and construct an alternative approach to preparing our children for future success.

Research-informed educators are now asking whether the so-called 21st century skills actually exist. If these skills do exist, to what extent are they new or just repackaged from previous generations of attempted reform.  Why, they ask, have the number of identified skills ballooned from four in 2009 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) to 16 in 2016 (World Economic Forum).

What students need – and most teachers actually want – is what Kirschner has termed “future-proof education.” Based upon recent cognitive science research, he and others are urging teachers to take action themselves to ensure that evidence-informed practice wins the day.

The best way forward may well be deceptively simple: set aside the “21st century skills” paradigm in favour of the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continue to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing world.”

Kirschner and his research team propose a new “future-proof” basis for preparing students for success and fulfillment: 

  1. Cognitive and metacognitive skills are critical. Five of the identified GCM clusters emphasize such skills and suggest emphasizing a progression from concrete cognitive skills to more generic personality competencies.
  2. Authentic learning situations should be a high priority and the driving force for teaching, training, and learning. Such tasks help learners to integrate knowledge, skills, and attitudes, stimulate them to develop coordinate skills, and facilitate transfer of what is learned to new problem situations.
  3. Redesigning schools and professionalizing teachers in 21st century learning strategies are not likely to make much of a difference. Shift the focus to cognitive and metacognitive skills, linking learning with authentic, real-life situations and matching teaching methods with educational contexts and goals.

DidauTaxonomyRushing head-long into 21st century skills makes little sense to Kirschner and fellow researchers because the most effective and durable initiatives are those that are planned and staged over a longer span of as much as 15 years. He proposes a three-stage approach: 1) laying the building blocks (i.e., concrete cognitive knowledge and skills);  2) develop higher-order thinking and working skills; and 3) tackle Bigger Problems that require metacognitive competencies and skills. Much of the underlying research is neatly summarized in David Didau’s 2017 Taxonomy demonstrating the connection between long term memory and working memory in teaching and learning.

All of this is just a small taste of my upcoming researchED Vancouver 2019 presentation on the B.C. Education Plan.  It will not only analyze the B.C. version of 21st Century Learning, but attempt to point the province’s education system in the right direction.

Where did the “21st century skills” movement actually originate?  Where’s the evidence-based research to support 21st century skills projects such as the B’C. Education Plan? How much of the Plan is driven by the imperatives of technology-based personalized learning and its purveyors? Can you successfully prepare students for careers and jobs that don’t exist? Would we be better advised to abandon “21st century skills” in favour of “future-proof learning”? 

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