Archive for May, 2021


Fifteen months into the pandemic, alarm bells are ringing from province-to-province right across Canada about the state of student learning, achievement and well-being. Active parents, learning experts, and pediatricians report that “the kids are not alright.” While some provinces are faring worse than others, real concerns are being registered about the “snowball effect” of learning losses in literacy, skill development lags, and the truncated preparation of graduating students. These are all tell-tale signs of a school system turned upside-down.

Shutting schools forces students, teachers and parents to make abrupt ‘pivots’ to hastily imposed online learning or various mutations of hybrid learning, combining some in-person teaching with e-learning activities. What’s most peculiar about ‘Home Learning 2.0’ is that schooling is now in a strange kind of limbo without much in the way of public oversight or accountability, particularly from parents weathering the Third Wave of COVID-19 school disruptions.

Conventional school-home boundaries, both physical and socially constructed, have blurred as home learning becomes more common.  Teacher-student-family relations now exemplify what American human relations expert Pauline Boss termed “family boundary ambiguity.” Under stressful conditions, “schooling has been integrated into the household” where parents are expected to establish regular routines and take on the instructor role. In the case of teachers, it’s meant adapting to radically different, mostly unfamiliar tech-enabled teaching and re-asserting their positional authority on a different terrain. Venturing outside of those comfort zones has also been fraught with dilemmas, tensions, and unexpected discoveries. 

Most of the Canadian public, including a majority of parents, have been left in the dark about the impact of pandemic learning loss, particularly on the development of Canada’s youngest learners. One of the few Canadian literacy impact studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou is very alarming. Reading deficits among primary-aged students, since March 2020, in grades 1 to 3 amount to about eight to 12 months below their grade levels.

Since the pandemic descended upon us, more and more students are disengaging from school. Spending hours a day online and repeated scheduling changes, particularly in Greater Toronto Area ‘hot spot’ school districts, have contributed to worsening student absenteeism rates. Thousands of students in school districts as far north as Thunder Bay have missed 16 or more days, the benchmark of chronic absenteeism. Record numbers of students are missing attendance checks or not reporting-in at all under the home learning regime.

One year after the Spring 2020 system-wide shutdowns its hard to fathom why school administration is still tying to sort out how to measure student attendance and participation. Without clear, definitive expectations, students can sign-in every day, but keep their camera and microphone off so there’s no way of monitoring their level of engagement.

American research into student participation rates has already flagged the growing incidence of students working in the retail sector while still on the school enrolment books.  Daily behaviour routines are becoming ingrained and do not include logging into or attending classes. Some researchers like Wilfrid Laurier education professor Kelly Gallagher-Mackay express the fear that a whole cohort of students mat well “deeply disengage” to the point that it will prove impossible to bring them back.

            Serious research into the impact of school closures on parents and families does exist, but its limited here in Canada.  One incredibly significant December 2020 study, conducted by Bonnie Stelmach for the Alberta Schools Councils’ Association, unearthed unreported problems associated with the repeated “pivots” to home learning and the incredible burden it shifts to parents. Based upon a survey of 1,067 parents and 566 teachers, plus twenty in-depth interviews, the study demonstrated the profound impact, assessed in terms of “pulse points” in parent-teacher relations.

            Stelmach’s findings identify underlying issues that need further scrutiny and attention, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes. Widespread confusion was evident in the interpretation of “Ministry directives” when it came to expected time on task (hours per week), real-time online instruction, and student outcomes. Suspending student assessment grading from March to June 2020 was panned by parents, teachers and students. It removed any incentive, especially in high schools, to work through to the end of the year.

Home learning was, and is, an eye-opening experience for parents and teachers.  While more parents clearly appreciate today’s teaching challenges, they are also far more aware of deficiencies in current elementary curriculum, the poor integration of e-learning platforms, the unevenness of teaching, and irregularities in expectations, even from class-to-class in their own local schools.

Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), has just announced what, a short year ago, might have been unthinkable. Following a similar move by Ottawa education authorities, the TDSB will offer a two-track system again in 2021-2022, allowing parents to choose between in-person and virtual learning for their children. School choice has arrived through the back door.

Lifting the hood on ‘Learning at Home’ and its impact on students is long overdue.  Now that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces are weeks into home learning again, it’s time to study the prevalence of learning loss, the socio-psychological impacts, and the burdens being borne by the parents of school-age children.

Fifteen months into the pandemic, some fundamental questions need to be asked about what’s happening on a larger scale. Is “Topsy-Turvey Education” the beginning of an epochal social transformation or the end of an era defined by binary and contradictory debates? Is home learning/e-learning here to stay as a permanent feature of schooling?  Will K-12 education ever be the same again?


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The seemingly unending battle between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education thrives on tired old stereotypes, caricatures, and cartoonish images. ‘Old’ versus ‘new,’ ‘knowledge-rich or ‘well-being’ informed, ‘teacher-centred’ versus ‘student-centred,’ ‘rigorous’ or ‘flabby’? Veterans of the Edu-Wars liken it to a “Punch and Judy Show.” As British education guru, Sir Michael Barber once said: “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.”

So, when a new book comes along, every so often, promising to bridge the chasm or transcend the battle, it is welcomed by those in the educational trenches or watching the ‘sham battle’ from a safe distance.  The latest such offering, Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching (April 2021), promises to put an end to the seemingly interminable conflict, but utterly fails to do so. Instead, he serves up a “straw-person” in the form of Direct Instruction (DI) and Knowledge-Rich (KR) curriculum for the singular purpose of shooting it down. That’s most disappointing because Professor Claxton purports to be a conciliator and a proponent of marrying knowledge and skills.

Claxton’s The Future of Learning sets the right tone at the beginning. Renowned student assessment researcher Dylan Wiliam raises our hopes with his trademark balanced and judicious forward and Australian education giant John Hattie provides a ringing cover-jacket endorsement. It promises to make you think, re-examine your assumptions, and consider changing your mind. Most of the initial section of the book covers the competing theories, then it devolves into a very public flogging of the apparent infidels at the gates, identified and labeled as the “DI-KR lobby-bubble.” 

Highly respected educators such as Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, classified as members of the “DIKR” dissidents, are rightly perturbed by a book pretending to be conciliatory, while casting out education researchers, mostly based in schools, who have the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the education professorate. Working directly with teachers in schools across the U.K., Sherrington disputes Claxton’s assertions. “The ideas embedded in a knowledge-rich curriculum and the use of instructional teaching,” he wrote,” make a massive difference to teachers and children—especially when they are grappling with challenging concepts.” Dismissing DI and KR research out-of-hand, according to Sherrington, does not show an openness to learning from or building upon the latest cognitive science, or a “consensus-building style” but rather a “melodramatic take-down approach.”

The growing acceptance of the Long-Term Memory/Working Memory (LT/WM) model advanced by John Sweller, Paul A. Kirschner, and UK teacher-author Carl Hendrick, clearly gets under Claxton’s skin. He chooses to grossly oversimplify the concept and misinterpret the explanatory schematic as if it depicted “a physical space that fills up” and “the bottleneck effect” as something afflicting each and every student.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) should not be so easily dismissed because it addresses one of the biggest inhibitors to student learning. Throwing complex problems at children without the requisite prior knowledge has long been identified as a problem and we now know so much more about “how learning happens” in the minds of students and teachers. Schematics like the LT/WM model are extremely helpful as easy to understand explanatory tools for us. We need to know how much information/knowledge children can handle and what’s their capacity to handle complex abstract things. Knowing this is essential to your teaching/instruction and a key to your effectiveness in the classroom.

Claxton is exceedingly careful in evaluating the cognitive research and writing of one particular academic associated with the so-called “DIKR” camp.  The author and his entourage are unprepared to challenge Daniel T. Willingham. Now that his work is widely recognized and respected in the United Kingdom, as it is in the United States, Claxton has given it a “closer reading” and sees its subtleties. Professor Willingham’s classic work, Why Students Don’t Like School? (2010/2021) and his corpus of cognitive research make him unassailable, even by authors out to discredit those sharing similar views in academe and the classroom.

The popularity of Tom Sherrington’s presentations on “Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction” and the accompanying researchED instructional guide must be wreaking havoc out there with beginning teachers as well as regular practitioners in the schools.  It’s a refreshing change to see a teacher resource spreading like wildfire without the imprimatur of the education schools. Speaking in a teacher’s voice it captures well what real teaching in real classrooms involves – effective questioning, modelling, scaffolding, and independent practice. In other words, it’s not entirely about facilitating programmed activities, facilitating play spaces, and letting kids figure things out in minimally-guided classrooms. 

 Regular working teachers do tire of the sham battle and Claxton’s book will only perpetuate it by denigrating those who challenge the prevailing education school orthodoxy. His recent Book Launch interview with Kath Murdoch made that clear to everyone. A wider range of voices, mostly research-informed, school-based educators, have forced their way into the vital global conversation about improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching. While Claxton applies labels to supposed factions, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that what caused the most recent disruption was a remarkably spontaneous teacher-research movement. It’s clear that the author has yet to grasp the catalytic effect of researchED on research-awakened teachers everywhere.

Leading advocates of Instructional Teaching and a Knowledge-Rich curriculum will not be disbursed or denied because the ideas they have seeded are already influencing teaching and learning in schools. Highly original works like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c, Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching, and Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s How Learning Happens, have filled a vacuum created when Claxton and his education school colleagues became absorbed in promoting school change theories and essentially abandoned the field. Ideas that expose the prevalence of “Zombie Ideas in Education” are threatening to the status quo. That is essentially what Claxton’s book seeks to sustain. The genie is out of the bottle and rank and file teachers are unlikely to return to the cocoon.

Why does Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching completely miss the mark?  For a book purporting to chart a middle course, why is it so dismissive of those holding divergent views on the science of learning?  To what extent does it reveal the extent of the educational divide between education school academics and teacher- practitioners? Simply put, is it possible for a mature leopard to change its spots?  

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The abrupt departure of an Ontario Director of Education in early April 2021 was a shocker.  That newly-appointed chief superintendent, Robert Hofstatter, lasted only five weeks on the job and may well be the shortest tenure on record. He was also the first ‘top dog’ in the Ontario regional school board system to be hired after the July 2021 adoption of changes in the requirements to hold such executive positions in K-12 education. The firestorm of resistance at the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) brought him down.


Chief Financial Officer Carlene Jackson

What happened? On February 1, the YCDSB announced the appointment of a “new tech savvy director of education.” The incoming director, then the program head of computer science and engineering robotics at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, assumed office at the YCDSB Aurora Education Centre, effective March 1. While he was a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, what drew attention was his 20 years of experience in business, including time as vice-president, global information security operation systems at Scotiabank. On April 7, five weeks after arriving, educators and parents were shocked to receive a system-wide message that he was gone.

Ontario is confronting a massive turnover in its top education ranks and an identified shortage of top candidates prepared to take on the contemporary challenges of COVID-19 era district leadership. In June of 2021, fourteen of the 72 provincial boards were attempting to fill vacancies at the chief superintendent level.  Out of the sitting Directors of Education, fewer than half were women and only 2 or 3 were people of colour. Education Minister Stephen Leece supported a change in the regulations to “diversify the hiring pool” so that boards could seek candidates with wider skills. In the midst of a Pandemic, considerable expertise in technology might qualify as a mission-critical consideration.

Ontario’s teacher unions and their allies were dead-set against broadening the qualifications, fearing that it would open the door to the appointment of Directors without teaching qualifications and experience.  A leading public education funding lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, sided with the critics, claiming that it would “make Ontario an anomaly across the country.”  An online petition opposing the new regulations attracted 30,000 signatures in its first week and claimed that it was a “substantial change” introduced with “no consultation with experts,” including CODE, the Council of Directors of Education, representing the 72 top ranking educators in the system.  

Teacher union advocates were adamant that Directors of Education should be certified teachers and former members of the unions. A tweet from ETFO president Sam Hammond made their position crystal clear: “The Toronto fire chief is a firefighter. The Police Chief is a police officer. The President & CEO of Sick Kids is a doctor, and the Director of Education should be a teacher.”  Some alleged that it was an attempt to privatize public education. Another rationale then surfaced: “Lack of education experience means that directors will not understand the anti-racist and anti-oppressive considerations necessary to align resources and supports across the organization to support marginalized populations.”

Lost in the furious reaction was the fact that the then interim Director of Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Carlene Jackson, was a Chief Financial Officer (TCDSB), trained as a chartered accountant with a master’s degree in business administration. Neighbouring Peel Region had also employed an interim Director who was not a teacher, with provincial approval, and barely a ripple of opposition. That suggests other factors must have come into play in the York Catholic District School Board situation.

Internal candidates are rarely happy when school boards go external and educators leapfrog over them into the CEO’s office. We now know that Hofstatter was toppled, in part, by an internal revolt within the top administrative ranks. The local media, led by the Aurora-Newmarket online papers, revealed what actually went on behind the scenes. Senior administration at the Board Office started retiring in protest, including the board’s Chief Financial Officer. Some thought they were more qualified for the job, others murmured quietly to teachers about “a white guy” being the first example of greater diversity.

Few outside the higher echelons of K-12 education know much about how the system of school leadership succession actually works. Supervisory papers are the entry passport and the system is explicitly hierarchical as you move up the ladder step-by-step from principal to assistant district superintendent to central office superintendent to the pinnacle, Director of Education. The term “superintendent” is a relic of the “command-and-control” school of leadership. Someone, anyone, from the outside faces a long odds in that kind of organizational culture.

Greater diversity in that applicant pool would certainly be welcome, especially by regular teachers, active parents, and local employers. Former TDSB trustee Howard Goodman was correct when he advocating opening it up to outstanding educators without SO papers, including Deputy Ministers of Education, Faculty of Education deans, and community college presidents. The reality is that CODE operates like a small, exclusive club of 72 individuals, all drawn from the same milieu with remarkably homogeneous views and experiences.

What can be done to meet the educational leadership challenge going forward?  What harm would it do to break the mold – and introduce new blood representing different life experiences?  What would diversity in the ranks of chief superintendents look like?  How can we ensure that what happened in York Region Catholic School Board does not send out a chill – and deter outstanding and capable future leaders from coming forward?

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