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Archive for January, 2020

Taking time to really get to know students sounds like good common sense for teachers.  The best teachers, in every school, have always done so while challenging students with high expectations, engaging learning activities, and an intellectually stimulating curriculum. The philosophy, espoused in Dr. David Tanters 2018 Nelson Educators textbook, The Third Path, prescribes something completely different for today’s individualistic and anxiety-filled generation. It also appears to have turned the heads of the educational thinkers mobilizing under the banner of Ontario ASCD, a northern frontier branch of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The central tenets of the The Third Path have also given rise to the “Third Path” movement to promote Relationship-Based Education (RBE).  That movement elevates “teaching through relationships” to a “core value” and proposes a third way forward – what amounts to a 21st century fusion of academics, well-being, and mindfulness.   The “Relationship-based Approach to  Well-Being and Achievement” teacher education program, funded by Nelson Education, features conventional workshops, You Tube videos, podcasts, and weekend conference retreats.

The Third Path pedagogical catechism envisions an imagined educational universe with three distinct paths: Path 1 (academics); Path 2 (well-being); and Path 3 (relationships). Prospective teacher-supporters are exhorted to “Do different, not more. Go deeper, not wider.” The Third Path integrates everything by “shifting the classroom focus from tasks to relationships, from check-lists to check-ins.” Then, the hook: “It views education as a journey of human development, not just for the student, but for the educator too. The Third Path focuses on the how of education.” All of this sounds, feels and looks strange and familiar at the same time.  Strange in its aspirational almost spiritual tone; yet with the familiar ring of romantic progressivism.

The Relationship-Based Approach

Focusing on the student-educator relationship is the first step in “following the Third Path.”  “Caring, intentional and responsive relationships are at the heart of learning and growth.” The focus is almost exclusively on the individual student, and “understanding each student, and truly knowing their strengths, struggles, and needs.”

The Eight Conditions

Third Path educational theory rests upon eight hierarchical conditions that are said to support student well-being and academic achievement. Together these conditions are supposed to “create an environment for students to flourish”:

1. Safety: Students need to feel emotionally safe in order to explore and learn

2. Regulation: Students need regulating relationships and supportive environments.

3. Belonging: Belonging comes from all the moments of connection with others.

4. Positivity: Every student has unseen potential. Positive feelings lead to optimal functioning.

5. Engagement: Engagement is about being fully open to learning, connected to others, able to take on complex challenges, and reach accurate conclusions.

6. Identity: School is important for students’ exposure to a variety of ways of being, and for them to develop a stronger sense of who they truly are.

7. Mastery: A feeling of accomplishment is essential to help motivate students to continue to learn.

8. Meaning: Meaning is a powerful force for ongoing motivation and personal fulfillment.

Surveying this rather dogmatic theoretical framework, encumbered with the label “The Third Path,” informed and engaged educators are bound to wonder if they and their students are being “led along a garden path” to the promised land. The fact that the theory is backed by teachers’ testimonials in the George Lukas Foundation’s education e-magazine Edutopia does little to assuage your natural skepticism about “magic beans” in education.

The principal author of The Third Path, Dr. David Tranter, Professor of Social Work, Lakehead University, is touted as the Third Path movement’s guru and guarantor of the authenticity of its research basis. It all originated, it turns out, in 2014 when the Ontario Ministry of Education released Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, and identified “well-being” as one of the envisioned new pillars of the system.  That was a tribute to the influence of Dr. Stuart Shanker, a York University professor championing “mindfuness” and “self-regulation” as the latest classroom management panaceas.

Tranter’s claim to being a leading researcher rests principally upon a February 2016 Ontario Ministry of Education research note focusing on “self-regulation” and why “stressed students struggle to learn’ in our classrooms. The short, 4-pager, summarizes the academic literature in favour of mindfulness theory and its educational step-child “self-regulation.” “For students who experience ongoing stress,” Tranter concludes, ” learning self-regulation can be a difficult challenge; teachers have an opportunity to make a tremendous difference in these students’ lives.” Virtually all of his references are to the work of leaders in mindfulness research, including Stuart Shanker and John Ratey, author of Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain (2008).

Critical education analysts quickly spot that Third Path theory carries an implicit bias against teaching knowledge and focusing on student achievement. On the cover of the book and between the covers, Path 2 (Well-Being) precedes Path 1 (Academics/Achievement) in order of precedence. Upon closer scrutiny, Path 3 (Relationships) is actually code for student-centered individualized teaching drawing heavily upon mindfulness and self-regulation practices.

All educators today should be skeptical of such simple formulas for success in connecting with, and effectively teaching,  students. Something like “The Third Path” with a strong whiff of mindfulness should raise cautions.  Mindfulfulness has not only gone mainstream, it has emerged as the magic elixir of our present age.

Presented as a peculiar hybrid of science and meditative discipline, its real founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), claims that mindfulness has “the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance.” He has bigger ambitions than just conquering stress. Mindfulness, he claims, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next two hundred years.”

Mindfulness is a recognized therapeutic strategy for individuals properly diagnosed with severe anxieties or debilitating stress. While the leading researchers know its limitations,it has now become a cure-all being introduced and spread to the broader mass of adults through self-help magazines and workshops and to students through the schools. Although derived from Buddhism, it has mass appeal to people seeking spiritual answers outside the church.  Some of the simplified versions. in the hands of amateur enthusiasts, amounts to little more than “concentration training” for hefty professional service fees.

The Third Path movement in Canadian education did not emerge fully formed, out of nowhere.  It’s a small piece of a booming global wellness industry worth over $4-billion. More than 600,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variation of “mindfulness’in their titles, such as Mindful Teaching, Mindful Schools, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Finance, and, believe it or not, Mindful Dog Owners. There is, of course, a Mindfuness Coloring Book, for kids as well as smartphone apps, bells, bracelets, and beauty products. Millions of dollars are being raked-in by educational celebrities on the speaking circuit and by facilitators at adult workshops. Mindfulness based programs have now proliferated in schools, district-after-district, particularly in Ontario, British Columbia, and the Maritimes.

A team of respected British psychiatrists registered major concerns in December of 2016 in a widely-read scientific research paper published in the journal of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The proliferation of academic literature on mindfulness was, in their view, sustained by incomplete or inconclusive evidence-based research and “pervaded by a a lack of conceptual and methodological self-criticism.” Their two primary concerns were:

(1) the uneven benefits of mindfulness meditation: While “some people may benefit” from the meditation, “others will not be affected in a substantive way, and a number of individuals may suffer moderate to serious negative effects.”

(2) the insufficient of inconclusive evidence for its benefits, particularly when mindfulness-based interventions are compared with other activities or interventions.”

“Something has gone wrong with the science of mindfulness,” the British psychiatrists maintained.  “Orange robed gurus” had been replaced by “white-collared academics” who speak of the benefits of “being in the moment.” It was, they contended, “a social phenomenon” most likely “rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.”

Mass application of mindfulness worried the British psychiatrists. While the psychiatrists stopped short of condemning the practice, they urged “caution” about “its widespread use as a therapeutic technique”  (i.e., McMindfulness)  and warned against the”assembly -line’ approach based on “a reductive understanding of the human mind.”

Much of this mindfulness obsession might turn out to be another passing phase and possibly a harmless one providing comfort and meaning to some.  What’s worrisome is the scientific evidence mounting of its potential to do harm if mass applied to larger populations, including students and teachers.

What’s driving the Third Path movement surfacing in Canadian schools?  Does “Relationship-Based Education” simply mean “get to know your students” or is it code for “Mindfulness” practice?  How much of the Third Path is inspired by Mindfulness and Self-regulation?  Are leading psychiatrists on the right track– has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? 

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“All that glitters is not gold” is a famous proverb plucked from William Shakespeare‘s play The Merchant of Venice that may well apply to recent international appraisals of K-12 education in Canada. Such rosy assessments tend to put a shiny lustre on what is essentially a sound and ‘pretty good’ school system that has lost ground to competing nations over the past decade.

Five years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) produced a rather rosy Education Policy Outlook for Canada as part of a series of reports offering comparative analysis of education policies and reforms across the world’s developed countries. Canada’s overall performance, aggregated from widely varied provincial assessment data, looked good, in comparison with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Most significantly, the OECD assessors brushed aside concerns about “plateaued student achievement” on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and the decline in the proportion of top performing students.

Emerging concerns were most clearly expressed in Dr. Paul Cappon’s final 2010 report for the Canadian Council on Learning. Student scores on the 2009 PISA test had revealed that Canadian 15-year-olds demonstrated relatively strong sets of skills in reading, math and science, but they were already slipping relative to high performing Asian countries and in some cases in absolute terms. “What I’m hoping,” Cappon said at the outset of his final cross-Canada tour, “is that when people realize that Canada is slipping down the international learning curve we’re not going to be able to compete in the future unless we get our act together.”

OECD Education Policy Outlook assessments and Country reports are based upon templates that tend to favour diverse and well-funded school systems like that of Canada. The six identified policy levers in 2015 were: 1) equity and quality of education; 2) preparing students for the future; 3) school improvement; 4) evaluation and assessment; 5) governance; and 6) funding.  Such public policy forecasts, based upon conventional criteria and historic trends, also tend to demonstrate “path dependency” which limits the capacity to capture radical shifts in context or dynamic changes in educational direction.

Fifteen-year-old students in Canada, based upon triennial PISA tests from 2000 to 2018, continue to perform above the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science. Our most economically and socially disadvantaged students, in aggregate, do relatively better than those in competing countries, demonstrating more equity than in most other countries.  A considerably higher proportion of Canadian K-12 students proceed to post-secondary education in universities and colleges. That much has not changed across time.

Three significant changes can be identified from the accumulating OECD student assessment and survey data and they deserve far more critical scrutiny:

Downward Trend in Student Performance:  The performance trends for Canadian fifteen-year-olds are consistently downward from 2000 to 2018 in READING,  from 2003 to 2018 in MATHEMATICS, and from 2006 to 2018 in SCIENCE.  While the OECD average scores are also in decline as more countries are included in PISA, the descent is more pronounced among students from Canada. Students in Canada’s top performing provinces of Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec (Mathematics) tend to buoy-up the lagging results produced by students from New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Deteriorating Classroom Disciplinary Climate:

The 2015 Education Policy Outlook for Canada flagged one measure, based upon student survey responses, where Canada simply met the OECD standard – the index of classrooms conducive to learning (Figure 5, OECD Canada, 2015).  That largely undiagnosed problem has worsened over the past three years.  Canada ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the OECD’s 2018 index of disciplinary climate, released on December 4, 2019.  According to a global student survey conducted in the spring of 2018, one in five students, 15 years-of-age, report that learning time is lost to noise, distractions, and disorder, so much so that it detracts from learning in class. A relatively high proportion of Canadian students say the teacher is not listened to and it takes a long time for the class to settle down. In addition, students regularly skip school and report late to class.

High Incidence of Fear of Failure:

Personal anxieties may also run higher among Canadian students when they confront writing standardized tests and experience a fear of failing the test. In Canada, the OECD 2019 Education GPS report states, “15-year-old students have a strong fear of failure”ranking 6th among 77 national student groups participating in the survey.  Fear of failure runs highest among students in Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Macau, Japan, and Germany, but is less pronounced in high performing countries such as Korea. Estonia, and Finland.  Such fears are present to the same degree among students in the United Kingdom, but less so in the United States.  No analysis whatsoever is offered to explain why fears run so comparatively high among teens in Canada.

The initial report on the Canadian Results of the OECD PISA 2018 Study, released by the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) in early December 2019, are of little help in evaluating these rather striking trends.  Like previous reports in the CMEC series, the report puts a positive spin on the aggregate results by casting them within a broad, global context, lumping together countries with radically different commitments to education in terms of spending and resources. It is possible to ferret out anomalies and to conduct province-by-province comparisons, but only with time, effort, and attention to detail. That is sufficient to keep it either buried or accessible only to education assessment specialists.

Does the Canadian Education Policy Outlook ventured in 2015 stand up under close analysis. five years on?  What’s missing from the OECD and CMEC assessment reports for Canada over the past decade?  Should the Canadian public be concerned about the downward trend in the demonstration of core skills in reading, mathematics and science?  Is disciplinary climate now a real concern in Canadian classrooms? And why are Canadian students so afraid of failing in our schools when grade promotion and graduation rates are at record levels?

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