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Archive for the ‘Boredom in Schools’ Category

A model Grade 6 classroom in Sherwood Park, Alberta, now comes fully equipped with every imaginable solution to coping with fidgety kids, including spin bikes, exercise balls, rotating stools and stand-up desks. The latest classroom pacifiers, ‘Wiggle stools,’ are being hailed as a godsend by a harried Grade 2 classroom teacher in a Sackville, NB.

jumpyclassroomsherwoodparkSchools across Canada went to great lengths to re-engage fidgety students in what will likely always be known as the Year of Self-Regulation. Coping with today’s restless generation of kids now requires every conceivable pacifier, including spin bikes, exercise balls, wiggle stools and stand-up desks.

That is why in any Canadian survey of the top five K-12 education issues in 2016, coping with today’s antsy students would top the list.

Mindfulness and Self-Regulation

High anxiety educators have also embraced the latest panacea known as ‘mindfulness’ and are going whole hog into ‘self-regulation’ of their students.  It’s the brainchild of American advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn who transformed ‘Buddhist mindfulness’ into teaching practice and his Canadian apostle York University’s Stuart Shanker. That approach has emerged in 2016 as the latest wave in what has been characterized as a pseudoscience reform movement.

wobblechairsdallastx“It helps with their focus, helps with their creativity, helps promote problem-solving, gives them some way to self-regulate as they have a place to burn-off energy or to gain energy as they need it,” Alberta teacher Kurt Davison told Global TV News Edmonton. Eleven-year-old Connor Harrower heartily agreed: “In other classes, I’m sitting at desks and I’m bored.”

Teacher Misconduct and Discipline

A CBC-TV Marketplace investigation into ‘Teacher Discipline’ in Canada’s provincial school systems aired in April 2016 and immediately drew attention to glaring weaknesses in  professional evaluation, regulation, and discipline. It revealed that only two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, provide public access to teacher discipline records, and most of the others continue to conceal information from parents and the public, including cases of serious misconduct, incompetence and sexual abuse

Fewer than 400 teaching certificates were revoked in Canada (outside Quebec) over a ten year period from 2005 to 2015, which represented one in every 5,780 teacher certificates each year. In the U.S., the revocation rate was about 30 per cent higher. According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, the American figure in 2015 was one certificate out of every 4,360.

The Marketplace investigation raised a fundamental question: If your child’s teacher was punished for a serious offence such as sexual, physical or verbal misconduct, would you be able to find out about it? Depending on where you live, the answer was ‘probably not.’

Chronic Student Math Woes

Ontario students, like those in most Canadian provinces, continued to struggle mightily in mathematics. Grade 4 Ontario students lagged behind their counterparts in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and 25 other jurisdictions in mathematics, landing them in the middle of the pack in the 2015 TIMSS assessment, a U.S.-based global study of math and science.

Those startling TIMSS results came on the heels of a dismal showing from Grade 3 and 6 students on the latest provincial test by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), with scores dropping to the lowest levels in more than 15 years. Only 63 per cent of Grade 3s met the acceptable standard, dropping to half in Grade 6.

Math standards advocates such as Teresa Murray of @FixONTmath claimed that pumping $60-million more into a math strategy might not make much of a difference without a return to teaching the fundamentals in the early grades.

B.C. ‘Class Composition’ Court Ruling

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) won a critical Supreme Court of Canada decision in November 2016 that ended a union legal battle that began in 2002. That ruling immediately restored clauses removed from the B.C. teachers’ contract by the Gordon Campbell Liberal Government dealing with class size, the number of special needs students in a class, and the number of specialist teachers required in schools.

The BCTF court victory was forecasted to have far-reaching ramifications for contact negotiations across Canada. Teachers in Nova Scotia embroiled in a contract dispute of their own took heart from the decision prohibiting the ‘stripping’ of ‘working conditions’ and denying teachers the right to bargain on those issues.

PISA 2015 Test Results Fallout

Crowing about the showing of Canadian students in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report was widespread and the current Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC), P.E.I. Education Minister Doug Currie, was first-off-the mark on December 6, 2016 to hail the student results in the three subjects tested: science, reading and math.

The real devil was evident in the details and more clearly portrayed in the OECD’s own “Country Profile” for Canada. Yes, 15-year-olds in three Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) achieved some excellent results, but overall Mathematics scores were down, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and students in over half of our provinces trailed-off into mediocrity in terms of performance. Our real success was not in performance, but rather in reducing the achievement gap adversely affecting disadvantaged students.

Final Words of Wisdom

Looking ahead to 2017, we can find some solace in the April 2016 comments of Dr. Stan Kutcher, one of the world’s leading experts on teen mental health. “We are not facing a mental health crisis in schools,” he pointed out, but we do have to learn to distinguish between “the daily slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and those “more serious conditions requiring treatment.”

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond? 

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An 18-year old Texas student at Duncanville High School, Jeff Bliss, simply had enough — and could not take it anymore.  After being dismissed from class for asking a question and being told to “quit bitching” in Grade 12 World History class on May 6, 2013, he launched into a ninety second condemnation of his teacher’s uninspired attitude and habit of “packet teaching” depriving students of the opportunity to actually engage in learning.

JeffBlissRantAs the son of a teacher, and a student who returned to high school after having dropped-out, he expected more from teachers in his school.  Caught on video by an “undercover” student, his outburst went viral and discussions broke out over both the appropriateness of  his behaviour and the critical education reform issue he raised in the classroom rant. When the teacher, Julie Phung , was placed on leave with pay, a fierce public furor erupted over whether the outspoken Bliss may have a point.

Whether intended or not, Jeff Bliss happened to hit on many of the hot button issues in the American Education War.  “If you would just get up and teach ‘em instead of handing them a frickin packet, yo, there’s kids in here who don’t learn like that,” he said. “They need to learn face to face.”  When Phong, sitting at her desk, repeatedly admonishes him to leave and says he’s “wasting” her time, Bliss unloads with his own lesson about teaching:

“You want kids to come into your class, you want them to get excited for this? You gotta come in here and you gotta make them excited,” the tall student with flowing blond hair and red high tops says in the video, standing at the front of the class and gesticulating to further emphasize his point. “You want a kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his freakin heart. You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell them.” His closer: “This is my country’s future and my education.”

Local Dallas TV news affiliates quickly picked up the video, and by May 14, it  exceeded 1.8 million views and had gleaned international attention. The Innovative Educator, Lisa Neilsen, a strong advocate of “student voice” defended the student’s right to voice his opinion in a school where that was not normally encouraged or even permitted.   But public commenters were quick to point out the disrespectful nature of the outburst in an environment where teachers are supposed to be respected. They also warned this video doesn’t show us the full story.

The official response from the Duncanville Independent School District  was rather instructive.  “As a district with a motto of Engaging Hearts and Minds we focus on building positive relationships with students and designing engaging work that is meaningful,” the district said in a media statement. “We want our students and teachers to be engaged, but the method by which the student expressed his concern could have been handled in a more appropriate way. We are and will continue to be open to listening to students.”

Many educators were upset because it fed public perceptions of the “bad teacher.” One well-known American educational blogger, high school English teacher Tom Panarese, expressed his profound discouragement in a post entitled Why the Jeff Bliss story makes me want to quit.

” I’m probably just seeing end-of-the-school-year exhaustion manifest itself “, Panarese  wrote, noting that stressful June testing was about to begin.  Then he added: ” But it seems that the conversation about education as it is via social media has been happening this way for years and as noble as Jeff Bliss’s champions might think his “I Am Spartacus” moment might be, it won’t really change anything except get a black mark on his history teacher’s record.”

Was Texas high school student Jeff Bliss justified in speaking out against mediocrity in teaching?  Do we know enough about conditions in the school or that class to pass judgement on the teacher’s approach or the student’s behaviour?  Should students have more of a voice in shaping what is learned and how they are taught, especially in senior high school?  Are educators expressing legitimate concerns about the dangers of “trial by underground You Tube clip”?

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Teachers sense when students are bored in the classroom.  Eyes glaze over, their minds drift off, and a pall descends upon the class.  The tendency is to drone on, repeating your points, perhaps even answering your own questions.  A phrase, vividly recalled from childhood, is etched on their faces: “I’m bored!”

ShawiniganHandshakeCherrySeeing that happening before my very eyes, during a Grade 10 History Exam Review period, in late May 2009, I resorted to extraordinary measures.  Spotting the term “Jean Chretien Liberalism” on the review sheet, I walked up to an unsuspecting Grade 10 boy, asked him to stand, and administered “the Shawinigan Handshake.” It certainly grabbed the classes’ attention, and, thankfully, the startled boy was a good sport — and didn’t report it to his parents.

That’s definitely an unorthodox antidote to boredom in the classroom, but it speaks to a much larger issue. Although boredom has been viewed as a rather trivial and short-lived discomfort relived by a change in circumstances, it can be pervasive in high schools, where one period follows another, featuring mostly didactic instruction.

Today’s students are also finding it increasingly intolerable because virtually everything outside of the classroom is on speed dial and “teacher talk” seems to be in slow motion.  It’s also clear that engaging student minds is getting harder and that boredom is becoming an unfortunate and pervasive stressor that can have significant consequences for future health and well being.

Although it’s clear that boredom can be a serious problem, the scientific study of boredom remains an obscure field, and boredom itself is still poorly understood. Even though it’s a common experience, boredom hasn’t been clearly defined within the scientific community.

Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University and colleagues at two other universities, Waterloo and Guelph, are emerging as leaders in the new field.  The September 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science featured their latest study.   It was designed to understand the mental processes that underlie our feelings of boredom in order to create a precise definition of boredom and to begin looking at how teachers and instructors might respond with new strategies designed to ease the silent pain endured by boredom sufferers of all ages.

Drawing from research across many areas of psychological science and neuroscience, Eastwood and the Canadian research  team defined boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.

Specifically, students become bored when they:

  • have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
  • become aware of the fact that they’re having difficulty paying attention
  • believe that the environment is responsible for their aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).

Eastwood and his researchers are confident that integrating the disparate fields of cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and clinical psychology will produce a more thorough understanding of boredom and attention.

My History class was often a social laboratory for measures designed to interrupt the boredom.  Surveying Dr. Eastwood’s experiments in inducing boredom had me laughing at similar boring activities. Taking daily attendance, the homework take-up routine, and showing instructional videos of any kind come readily to mind. Supervising study periods was absolute torture, especially in the past decade when students simply refuse, or are unable to, stop fidgeting and chatting. No wonder creative teachers go a little haywire sometimes!

What comes next for the researchers?  Eastwood and his colleagues hope to help in the discovery and development of new strategies that ease the problems of boredom sufferers and address the potential dangers of cognitive errors that are often associated with boredom. That cannot come soon enough for countless numbers of students — and a great many socially-aware educators.  After all, even wiz-bang Power Point presentations and You Tube videos are starting to wear thin with today’s generation of students.

Why are today’s students so easily bored?  Are students, particularly in high school, being challenged enough — or simply being entertained?  Why are the Canadian researchers focusing so much on on defining boredom when what we really need are strategies to improve the quality of teaching, revitalize student learning and foster student re-engagement?

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