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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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Today’s public school teachers are expected to serve a number of masters — provincial education authorities, regional school boards, students and parents, and teachers’ federations. Traditionally, under Canadian education law,they have been seen to stand in loco parentisto have within the area of their responsibility the same authority over students as would a reasonable, kind and judicious (careful) parent and to be expected to act, at a minimum, in that manner.  Today, Canadian education law expert Dawn C. Wallin has noted that teachers act more and more as “educational state agents.”

The initial expectation of teachers acting in loco parentis has been substantially supplemented and, in some cases supplanted, by legal duties and requirements of teachers acting as agents of the state. The role of parents has also changed, as governments have come to play a more active role in shaping the framework and terms of engagement in family-school relations. The raging controversy over Ontario sex education curriculum reform in June and July of 2018 has, once again, brought the struggle for dominance in this “contested terrain” to a head.

Fundamental questions supposedly laid to rest with the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum have resurfaced, much to the chagrin of former Queen’s Park education insiders, politically-active teachers, and allied health professionals.  Who speaks for the majority of today’s parents? For which parents, in urban school settings –and rural/small town school settings?  And in which of Ontario’s diverse range of etho-cultural communities?  Do “teachers know best” what today’s children and teens need to know about sex, gender identities, and leading healthy lives? 

The Doug Ford PC Government, judging from Education Minister Lisa Thompson‘s latest statement, is preparing to review the 2015 health curriculum and to maintain the 2014 status quo until the Ministry of Education has conducted a new round of parent consultations. That’s a watering down of its 2018 “For the People” election promise to revert back to the 1998 curriculum, but still honours a commitment made to the public. The revised policy position makes considerable sense, since only some 10 per cent of the curriculum deals specifically with sex education and is really in contention.

Much of the populist opposition to the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum is rooted in the deep distrust engendered by the final term Kathleen Wynne Liberal Government. For those swept up in Ford Nation, it was a glaring example of Ms Wynne’s ideological adherence to costly progressive solutions, close connections with well-healed downtown Toronto do-gooders, condescending manner in telling parents what was good for their children, and preference for moving forward without listening enough to everyday concerns. 

Ontario’s 2015 sex education curriculum was always based upon what might accurately be termed a ‘forged consensus,” patched-together after Premier Dalton McGuinty ditched the proposed 2010 reforms in the face of fierce opposition from Catholic parents and boards as well as vocal social conservatives. Current claims that the Wynne round of consultation was all-inclusive does not stand up to close scrutiny. Her government relied heavily upon the usual OISE-Toronto insiders and appendages, well-known progressive education experts, 2,400 teachers, and some 4,000 parents drawn from the notably friendly confines of elementary school PACs.

Manufacturing consent can work to block populist educational ventures, as it did in staving-off British Columbia traditional schools, but it relies upon marginalizing opposing forces and can unravel after achieving the target objective. Shaming old-fashioned “moral traditionalists” and labelling “Christian fundamentalists,” and hidden “homophobes” might have worked again. It was the groundswell of new Canadians, mainly Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian, families with more conservative values in Toronto’s suburbs like Thorncliffe Park and the GTA, that upset the best-laid plans of the Liberal-dominated Ministry of Education.

‘Common sense’ seems to be is short supply, possibly because the term bears the stigma of the earlier incarnation of Ontario conservatism during the wrenching and divisive Mike Harris years. That’s a shame because it’s exactly what Ontario needs right now to resolve the sex education conundrum.

With respect to sex education, finding a more stable, common sense resolution starts with a different assumption – that parents are every child’s first educators and have to be meaningfully engaged because they are sill primary responsible for raising and rearing children, albeit in close partnership their child’s teachers. Acknowledging the critical role of parents and families is the first step to winning over skeptical traditional and ethnic minority parents and setting Ontario on the road to a more satisfactory resolution.  It’s also a good reminder that the teacher is, after all, still expected to act in loco parentis and, where possible, with the consent of parents and families.

Any new Sex Education task force should be composed of a new set of players, as much as possible independent of the ideologues and activists on both sides. It should be carefully constructed so as to achieve a legitimate balance, involving liberal and conservative-minded parents, recognized scientific authorities, and respected members of religious communities. Sorting out the differences will not be easy, but will only happen if proponents of more conservative views, rooted in character education, morality, and modesty in sexual matters have a legitimate place at the table.

Reforming the sex education curriculum now means listening harder and working to resolve the fundamental objections over a few critical pieces of the sex education program and applying an more nuanced “age-appropriate” lens to the contentious components.  Imposing a state-mandated curriculum without further consultation is out-of-the question. That’s why there’s so little consistency in what is taught and when, from province-to-province across Canada.

Without a consistent federal presence in education, assessing the state of sex education province-to-province can be quite a challenge.  The best we have is a fairly reliable survey conducted in 2015 for Global TVNews , illustrating the full spectrum of variations in ages when the key topics are introduced:

Proper Names of Body Parts: British Columbia and Manitoba required children know in kindergarten, while PEI and New Brunswick wait until Grade 6.

Sexual Orientation:  It was taught in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia in Grade 3, but Newfoundland only taught LGBT awareness in grade 9 (Manitoba had no clear agenda.)

. Sexual Consent: Nova Scotia introduced the topic in 2011, in advance of Ontario. It is also part of the Quebec curriculum, but it makes only a passing reference to reproductive rights, described as the risk of “going through an unwanted pregnancy.”

Sexually Transmitted infections (STis) and Prevention: Taught in Nova Scotia starting in Grade 5 but New Brunswick avoided the topic until Grade 10.

Birth Control:  Taught in Grade 6 in BC and in Grade 9 in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. While N.S. taught STI prevention in Grade 5, it waits until high school to introduce birth control.

When Ontario introduced Gender Identities and LGBT concerns in 2015, they were in the vanguard with Nova Scotia and Quebec, but  in some provinces like Saskatchewan it was still not mentioned at all. Alberta followed Ontario with sex ed curriculum changes that included sexual consent, sexual orientation, and cyberbullying/ sexting.

Love and Intimacy: The only province to teach love, attraction and intimacy is Quebec. Its curriculum is closely aligned with teaching human biology and makes a clear distinction between love and the purely physical aspects of puberty and reproduction.

Central to the newly-announced Ford sex education curriculum review will be a careful study of the readiness of children to learn certain topics in the early grades, Children can and should be taught the biological facts in the early grades, but it’s hard to justify teaching sexual preferences before children understand the nature of sexual desire. Warning young children about sexual pornography, internet porn, and sexting cannot be postponed, nor can teaching about same-sex couples when children see that for themselves among parents in their own school.

A Ford Government sex education curriculum will, in all likelihood, leave teaching more contentious and contested topics until the later elementary and junior high years. Exploring the full range of sexual desire in all its diversity is still best left to adolescence. Newly created teaching resources such as the “Genderbread Person Charts” fall into that category and should not be employed when students are simply too young to fully understand the complexities of gender identity, sexual preference, and biological sex types.

Teaching about sexual fluidity remains a radioactive topic, especially when the biological science is so contested and there is still a risk of doing harm by exposing young children to unproven, possibly harmful theories. In the case of one Sacramento, California, charter school kindergarten, a teacher’s well-intended strategy to demonstrate transgenderism backfired badly when children came home in distress, with some five-year-old boys left “afraid they were turning into girls.” Children can be taught to accept and respect peers who are different without applying labels at such an early age.

Parent knowledge, wisdom and counsel are critical in finding a better way forward and one, as Calgary professor Yan Guo reminds us, that respects the very real diversity among families in contemporary Canadian society. It presents a fresh opportunity to find a more flexible approach, making reasonable accommodations consistent with differing community and family values. State-mandated sex education without accommodating differences does not accord so well with the time-tested “Canadian way” of finding a workable consensus.

Should sex education curriculum be essentially family-centred or state-mandated on the basis of changing child rearing theories and practices? What’s wrong with an “age-appropriate revision” postponing certain topics to the later grades? Is it still possible for Ontario to proceed with most of the 2015 curriculum revision, with the exception of a few hotly-contested topics? How prepared are we to take the time to get it right by accommodating more of the unresolved concerns, and especially those expressed by new Canadian families from other religious, cultural and family traditions? 

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Readiness to learn upon entering school is now recognized as critical to the success of students. Since 1998-99, an Early Development Instrument (EDI) has been used to measure child development across five domains: physical health and well-being, social knowledge and competence, emotional health/maturity, language and cognitive development, and general knowledge and communications skills. Yet recent Canadian national and provincial surveys, conducted by McMaster University’s Offord Centre for Child Studies, continue to show that one in four children (26%) are ‘vulnerable’ in one or more areas of development before entering Grade 1.

ECEKidsThe latest province to embrace the Early Child Development movement is Nova Scotia.  In late November 2014, its recently renamed Department of Education and Early Child Development became the nineth (second last) province to conduct and release its EDI survey results. To virtually no one’s surprise, some 26.8% of pupils entering primary school face learning challenges. Physical health and well-being posed the biggest hurdle for kids and in three of the province’s eight school boards, Tri-County RSB , South Shore RSB, and the Strait RSB, one in three primary schoolers (33.6 to 40.8%) showed vulnerability in at least one area of development.

The Nova Scotia statistics, based upon teacher surveys in 2012-13, only confirmed what many previous reports have shown — that Canadian provinces lag behind other developed countries when it comes to the state of early childhood development and care. It also begged the critical question –what’s standing in the way of tackling this fundamental educational policy matter?

Early childhood education across Canada is still mostly provided in piecemeal fashion.  In most provinces, except for Quebec, their is a gap between the end of parental leave and the start of formal schooling, during which parents are left on their own. Where private day care is available, it is often prohibitively expensive and alternative cooperative day care is usually in short supply.  The quality of “child care” is highly irregular, judging from provincial regulatory reports and periodic shutdowns.

While the federal and provincial governments in 2011 provided over $11 billion of funding, spending on the ECE sector still lagged behind that of other advanced nations. In November 2012, TD Economics estimated that it would take another $3 to $4 billion in investment to bring Canada up to the average of other industrialized countries.  Across Canada, of the $7.5 billion spent by provinces and territories,  the allocations averaged only 1.53% of their total budgets, ranging from 0.59% in Nunavut to 4.67% in Quebec.

Passionate advocates for universal ECE are fond of claiming that it works miracles and has substantial long-term dollar benefits.  Most studies, largely funded by Child Development or Child Welfare organizations, estimate that the benefits of early learning far outweigh the costs. For every dollar invested, the claimed benefits range from roughly 1.5 to almost 3 dollars, with the ratio rising to double digits for disadvantaged children. Such investments do save us later in terms of the longer-term expenses for juvenile justice, jails, welfare and income supports. Even so, quantifying these benefits is not an exact science, in spite of the claims of advocates.

Early childhood education initiatives tend to be expensive and run into cost over-runs. Ontario’s full day Kindergarten program, beset by escalating costs and overcrowded sites, is a case in point. A more modest venture in Prince Edward Island is proving to be more successful. The soaring costs of Quebec’s universal program are, however, enough to deter late adopters like Nova Scotia.

Quebec’s current $7-a-day early childhood program is so costly that it may not be sustainable in its current form.  Since its inception in 1997, the $2.7 billion program has become what Konrad Yakabusky recently termed “a sacred cow.” Proposing to raise the daily rates to $20 for those earning over $50,000 has recently sparked a political firestorm.  Pointing out that Quebec’s subsidized daycare sites have much higher child to staff ratios ( 5:1 vs. 3:1 to 20:1 vs. 12:1) compared to other provinces gets you nowhere with young working parents. It’s also hard to prove that the Quebec program has improved the employment rate of women of child-rearing age.

Early childhood development still deserves to be identified and acted upon as an educational priority. Public spending on early childhood care and education continues to lag and we still rank last (at 0.5% of GDP) among comparable European and Anglo-speaking countries.  Looking at total spending, including child payments, parental leave benefits, and child care support, we remain 17% below the OECD average. Parents, except those in Quebec, pay 50% of the program costs, fourth highest among the OECD countries.  Now that our federal treasury is back to surplus, early learning should be a much higher national priority than doling out special, targeted tax exemptions, expressly designed to snare votes.

What’s standing in the way of a more committed, robust investment in Early Child Development at both the national and provincial levels? Given the countless reports demonstrating the learning challenges facing young children, how much longer can it be ignored or subject to underfunded, piecemeal public fixes?  Whether we decide to go universal or to target our early years investments, isn’t it time to take on the fundamental public policy issue?

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School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion.  Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids.  A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of  unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.

RecessBoyRecessSceneThree years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban.  Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”

Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds.  A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”

Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized.  Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure  Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.

Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago.  In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so.  Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.

School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time.  Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of  school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.

Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments.  More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote  in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and  productive lives.

New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse.  Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors.  While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times.  Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.

Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect.  The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction.  With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8.  Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”

School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether.  What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools?  Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society?  Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?

 

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Anxiety and the jitters are winning the Back-to-School internal tug-of-war with excitement and exhilaration.  Today’s schoolkids are full of worries, feeling threatened by cyberbullying and being diagnosed with new forms of childhood and teen anxiety and depression. “Typical” Parents are hovering in helicopter formations waiting for schools to open, and a few are fretting about, and envious of,  Finnish education.  Pencil, pen and paper teachers wedded to chalkboards are quietly derided as throwbacks for resisting mobile learning devices and shunning the latest Apps.  While all of this is a gross distortion of reality, it does reflect the impressions and perceptions conveyed in Back-to-school media reports, including the recent series of articles featured in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

BacktoSchoolHigh anxiety clearly consumed Canadian news columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.  In “Back-to School Stress,” The Globe and Mail, 31 August 2013, she grabs our attention with this lead: “The week before school begins is often filled with a special anxiety.  Every night is dominated by the hour of the wolf, the sleepless time of dread: What will class be like this year? Pass or fail? How to keep up? When it’s all over will there be any jobs left that don’t require a polyester uniform?”  That’s just the pretext for apiece about Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.  Reading it will only generate more worries about why our kids are falling behind those in Finland in the international race to the top.

One Back-to School news story produced by CTV News, aired on September 4, 2012, is back and posted on “Back-to-School” section of The Globe and Mail website.  The news clip, “Nerves and Excitement on the First Day of School,” is enough to rattle even the most seasoned parent and educator.  It focused on the first anxious day for kIndergarten kids at Carlton Village School in Toronto and was followed by a Metro Toronto Police news story warning parents about the child safety dangers of dropping-off their kids at school.

Letting your kids walk to school is now a practice that can produce deep parental angst.  “Just as exciting as your kid going to first grade is your kid walking to first grade,” advises Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a daring mother who achieved infamy by allowing her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway on his own.  She recently told The Globe and Mail that “letting go of the leash” can be liberating for today’s helicopter parents.  “It’s only in this moment in time that we are paralyzed with fear about what’s normally a lovely part of childhood.”

Today’s parents are bombarded and innundated by professional experts and well-intentioned elementary school educators dispensing advice.   THe videos posted on The Globe and Mail website tell the story.  The titles speak for themselves:  “Why jittery kids feel stressed this time of year.“Getting gadget ready for school.”  “Is your kid a picky eater? Try packing these lunches.”   My favourite recent advice piece, Kate Carraway’s “A letter for your locker,” is an aunt’s idea of what it takes to survive and thrive in the veritable jungle of the Middle School. It ends with this honey-coated line: “I want you to have an incredible life, but more than that, I know you will.”

Even today’s teachers are feeling the pressure.  For educators, trying to keep pace with technology is daunting. After all iPads have only been on the market since April 2010, and now they are the all-in-one device that is insinuating itself into every corner of daily life, including the schools.  Social media inspired educators like Thomas Whitby, founder of #edchat, are a constant reminder of how much more teachers could be doing to integrate technology into teaching and professional learning.  Shutting the classroom door and carrying on the usual “chalktalk” routine are getting harder when your SMART Phone Twitter feed contains a stream of links to pieces like those aggregated on  Edutopia.

SchholKidsatDesksFew education observers or policy analysts dig a little deeper trying to fathom and explain why going back to school has become such a source of  ‘over-the-top’ anxieties for kids, parents, and teachers. Buried in those Back-to-School stories is one that does, a September 2012  interview with Zander Sherman, author of The Curiosity of School. In that interview with Chris Berube, Sherman argues the changes in the nature of The School are the source of the problem.

School is something you dread when it’s associated with unpleasant experiences.  In Sherman’s words: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters, today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”

What’s gone wrong? Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning,”   Without the capacity to instill that curiosity,  Sherman points out that schools can have a deadening effect on children and teachers. Going to school should be like going to the gym for personal fitness — an experience people actually look forward to.

What’s the real cause of Back-to-School stress for students, parents and teachers?  To what extent do professional experts and well-intentioned educators contribute to the hype and apprehensions?  Do schoolchildren today dread school anymore than their parents — or grandparents?  How legitimate is Zander Sherman’s claim that changes in The School itself are heightening the natural anxieties?

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Public education systems tend to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that does not fit everyone.  Children who are highly gifted, severely challenged, or being raised in devout Christian homes often do not fit easily into the standard model, particularly in rural and small town Canada where few school alternatives exist for families. An estimated 100,000 Canadian children from 6 to 16 years of age are being educated outside the system in a variety of home education settings.  Most are being educated in traditional homeschool  fashion, and about 10% by parents committed to the philosophy of “unschooling” or deprogramming their children.

HomeschoolingChildOne of the best known parents who chose another option – homeschooling – is Quinn Cummings, author of The Year of Living Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling (2012). Her motivation, in homeschooling her 8-year old, grade 4 daughter, four years ago, was more mainstream. Like a growing number of home education families, she wanted her child “to work hard and be challenged without it meaning two to three hours of homework every night.”  “I wanted our daughter,” she says, “to learn how to learn. I suspect this is a skill school should give you, but i didn’t want her to look back on her childhood as an extended meditation on worksheets.”

Parents in the 21st century are becoming more adventuresome in finding new ways to educate their children. Traditional homeschooling is evolving from one-on-one home tutoring to online learning tapping into resources like Khan Academy and the latest electronic educational games.  It’s now possible to offer blended learning combining home instruction, online learning, and community-based programs. It’s a combination that allows parents to “custom build a curriculum” for each student using  “a mix-and-match approach” best suited to the individual child.   Cummings calls it “made to order education” for the 21st century.

Not every Canadian province “gets it” when it comes to home education. Wide variations exist across Canada in how school authorities respond to, and support, parents and families seeking to homeschool their children. Canada’s leading education province, Alberta, is officially committed to “school  choice” and the most receptive to homeschooling. Provincial funding is available, through a transfer of fees, and varies according to the program of studies you are offering. If you choose basic/traditional you usually get about $700. Blended is anywhere from $900-1200 and fully aligned you can receive as much $1500.00 per child.  Some variations do exist between the various school boards.  Provincial authorities in British Columbia and Ontario are open to homeschooling, albeit without such generous financial supports.

The most restrictive province may well be Nova Scotia, especially after a November 2012 Auditor General’s report proposing tighter regulation and more rigorous supervision. While only 850 out of 124,000 school age children are registered for homeschooling, AG Jacques Lapointe reported a “lack of adequate systems” to ensure a minimum of supervision, including proper registration records. Out of 120 files reviewed, he found 102 did not specify what a child was expected to learn and five had no information on the study program. It was a major embarrassment for the Education Department and may precipitate a backlash against homeschoolers.

Supporters of homeschooling in Canada were quick to react to the Nova Scotia Auditor General’s report.  Paul Faris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, charged that the AG’s proposed changes would make Nova Scotia “the worst place in Canada” to home-school children.  Nova Scotia, he pointed out, already has plenty of regulations, albeit some that are not currently being enforced.  The Auditor General, according to Faris, was “completely ignorant” of the research on homeschooling and was “trying to fit it into a public school model.”  Caught off-guard by the AG’s report, Education Minister Ramona Jennex responded by saying she was “open” to looking at changes.

A former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto created a sensation when he quit his decades-long teaching career and announced it in a 1991 Wall Street Journal column entitled, “I Quit, I Think.” Until encountering recent health problems, Gatto has been a major education critic and a proponent of homeschooling and unschooling children.  His two best known books, Dumbing Us Down (1992) and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008), provide the most searing radical critique of the impact of “compulsory schooling” on the creativity and imagination of children.

In a Homeschooling Magazine interview a few years ago, Gatto praised homeschoolers for showing “courage and determination” on “the front lines”  and for “making the right choice.”  “You’ve made a choice to free your children to be the best people they can be, the best citizens they can be, and to be their personal best, ” he said. ” But had you allowed those kids to remain in the grip of institutional schooling, the kids would have become instruments of a different purpose.”

Why do increasing numbers of Canadian parents choose to homeschool their own children?  Are home-schooled children more likely to be independent trailblazers or are they at risk of becoming ‘free floaters’ in life? What’s the secret of successfully homeschooling children?  And what is the real purpose of imposing tighter regulations on Canada’s home education families?

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Since the advent of the iPad in April 2010, younger and younger children have been drawn to the bigger and brighter version of the iPhone.  In many North American family homes that new piece of mobile digital technology instantly became part of the family and, in some cases, was mixed-in with the other children’s toys.  Toddlers were fascinated by the iPad and its magical touchscreen technology. Swiping a live screen produced an immediate electronic response that made shaking a rattle or knocking over a pile of blocks seem pretty tame.  It quickly became, what American children’s media expert Warren Buckleitner has described as “a rattle on steroids.”

ToddlersiPadsToday parenting and educating young children tends to involve some form of interaction with digital technology. Gone are the days when homes only had one television, reserved for the parents or rationed with scheduled viewing times.  Now smartphones and iPads can be found on most tables and kitchen counters within easy reach of those little arms and impossible for very active toddlers to resist.  Thousands of kids’ apps have flooded onto the market. Awash in digital devices, childhood is undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes.

Like every other new medium since the dawn of the TV age, the touchscreen device has been roundly condemned by many parents and a host of early learning specialists. One of the earliest critics of the proliferation of computer screen technology was Dr. Jane M. Healy, author of the 1990 best seller Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It.  She is famous for coining the term “zombie effect” and for raising serious concerns about exposure to television and later to computers in the early years of education.  The much revered TV show “Sesame Street” attracted her critical eye, and she took a dim view of the program because it encouraged “a short attention span” and “failed to address the real educational needs of preschoolers.”  Her 1999 book Failure to Connect extended her critique and raised alarm bells about the dangers of exposing young children to computers.

Early digital technology skeptics like Healy were gradually overtaken by the digital revolution.  Back in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics still discouraged television viewing by children under 2 years of age.  Childrens’ doctors strongly advised that time was far better spent  in “direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers.”  Pediatricians continued to urge caution, but by 2006 some 90 per cent of parents reported that their children younger than 2 consumed some form of electronic media.  That was before the spread of “iPad” app pacifiers and even iPad toys for toddlers.

Technology popularizer Marc Prensky, the IT zealot who coined the term “digital natives,” has encouraged young children to experiment freely with iPads and other mobile devices.  “The war is over. The natives won” says Prensky in explaining why he lets his own 7-year-old son watch unlimited amounts of TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and play to his heart’s content with iPads and every other conceivable form of media.  More common is the approach taken by Sandra Calvert of the Georgetown University Children’s Media Centre who allows young children to experiment, but tries to guide them “to make best use of it.”

More than two decades after the appearance of Endangered Minds, Jane M. Healy, has slightly adjusted her thinking and now advises caution and using digital technology in moderation. “Meaningful learning — the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future , ” Healy writes, ” occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today’s youngsters, at all socioeconomic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes.”  Schools of the present and future, she now recognizes, need to come to terms with the reality of IT and close the gap between traditional teaching and personal digital learning.  “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning.”   That sounds like promoting a convergence of old ways with new the digital technology world.

Children are becoming “digital natives” at younger and younger ages.  What’s the impact of increasing exposure to touchscreen technology on the brain development and behaviour of the tiny tots?   How wise is IT guru Marc Prensky in allowing his young son to play with technology at any time with few if any limits?  Why has Dr. Jane Healy changed her position on the dangers of early exposure to TV and digital technology?  Is moderation and responsible use still possible in our touchscreen mad world?

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