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One of the Doug Ford Ontario education reform proposals that’s attracted relatively little attention is the June 2018 election pledge to ban cellphones in class. In the immediate aftermath of Ford’s election, education observers would be wise to take a serious look at the sweeping promise to “ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.” While it is tempting to dismiss it as just another example of “back-to-basics” thinking, that would be most unwise. That is because it is inspired by openly expressed teacher concerns and policies now being implemented and debated in France, the United Kingdom, and a number of North American school districts.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is the latest to take action in the form of a National Assembly bill to ban cellphones at school before school resumes in September 2018. Deeply concerned about the phenomenon of “phone-addicted children,” he claims that the bill is a “detox measure” to combat classroom distractions and cyberbullying. More than 90 per cent of French children aged 12 years or older posess a mobile phone and teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to capture and hold the attention of their students.

“Mobile phones are a technological advance but they cannot monopolize our lives, ” Blanquer told LCI TV News. “You can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others and work in a team.” Supporters of the French legislation say smartphone usage among children of junior and middle-school age has also aggravated cyberbullying, made it easier to access pornography, and interfered with social interactions in schools. Teachers, caught up in the proposed blanket ban, succeeded in being exempted from the cellphone prohibition.

Since the French cellphone ban was first proposed in December of 2017, school authorities in Britain and Ireland have been debating taking similar measures. The founder of London-based researchED, Tom Bennett, claimed, back in September 2015, that children should not be allowed smartphones until they were 16-years-of-age.  Teachers, he advised, should not allow them unless absolutely necessary, given the many challenges of managing modern classrooms.

The new Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, reports that “pupil behaviour” is “the number one concern of parents” and that steps must be taken to reduce the “low-level disruption,” including the inappropriate use of mobile devices in class. ” I am yet to be convinced of the educational benefits of all day access to ‘Snapchat” and the like, and the place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best.”

One of the most influential studies, “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance, produced in May 2015 by London School of Economics researchers Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy, is usually cited by those favouring restrictions or bans on classroom cellphone use. Based upon a study of moblile phone use in high schools in four English cities (Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester) in the Spring of 2013, the researchers found that banning mobile phones produced an improvement in student performance of 6.41% of a standard deviation, and rising to 14.23% among low-achieving students. The net effect of banning mobile phones, according to the researchers, added up to the equivalent of an extra week of school each academic year.

The critical question of whether mobile phones are a necessity or a distraction had resurfaced here in Canada long before an outright ban ended up as a key plank in the Ford Nation education agenda. One very active and informed Ontario elementary school teacher, Andrew Campbell, presented a very thorough review of Ontario cellphone policy and practice on April 14, 2018, at researchED Ontario.  Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in January 2007, mobile phones have proliferated among children and teens, necessitating changes in school policies. Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, reacted by introducing a system wide ban in April 2007, only to reverse it four years later.

Much  of the mobile phone proliferation was sparked by the adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, formally recognizing their acceptance as tools for learning. While BYOD proved to be bad policy, school systems were simply unable to curtain the technological tide or properly regulate the use of such devices.  In 2013, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) passed a resolution proposing that cellphones be “turned-off and stored during school hours,” unless authorized for use by a teacher. By 2014, some 60 per cent of Ontario schools had adopted BYOD policies and allowed students to use their own devices, in most cases, for cost-efficiency reasons. One Quebec English school board, in the Eastern Townships, went even further, distributing tablets to all students in Grade 5 and up while maintaining a rather open and permissive smartphone policy.

Mobile phone policies have tended to be reactions to technological innovations. Thierry Karsenti, Canada Research Chair on Technologies in Education and professor at the University of Montreal, told Maclean’s Magazine students will find a way to bring phones into the classroom regardless of the rules. A survey of more than 4,000 high school students showed that while 79.3 per cent of respondents owned a cellphone, they did not figure prominently in day-to-day teaching and learning. Cellphones were widely used in and around schools, even though some 88.4 per cent of student respondents claimed that the devices were banned either in class or at school altogether.

Defenders of cellphone use in class tend to cite research based more upon student attitudes than on the perceptions of their teachers. One online survey conducted for Verizon with 1,000 students in grades 6-8 claimed to show its positive effect on student learning.  Students who used smartphones in the classroom were more likely to ‘feel smart,’ be happier, and show interested in pursuing STEM subjects. More affluent students were more likely to be allowed to use smartphones in the classroom.   “Our research supports the fact that mobile technology can inspire and engage students today. We need to meet children where they are and leverage their use of mobile devices to increase their interest in STEM” claimed Rose Stuckey Kirk, President of Verizon

Another September 2014 Stanford University study focussed on “at risk’ students and purported to demonstrate how technology aids in learning when there is at least one device per student and the devices are readily available for multiple uses by the student throughout the school day. A 2017 study conducted by Dr. James Derounian at the University of Gloucestershire found that 45% of students in a small-scale 100 student group believed that the use of phones in classrooms aided in their education, making it easier to access online text resources.

Clearly defined class expectations and procedures are essential if teachers are to see benefits from cellphone use in class. Strict rules, established at the outset, work best and, without them, student attention is hard to establish and maintain. Many of the most effective teachers now use some form of check-in and check-out system for devices. The “Stoplight System, ” developed by two Halton DSB teachers, Troy Tennant and Cindy Cosentino, shows potential and is being mimicked elsewhere in Ontario.

Maintaining good student behaviour is becoming more of a priority and that explains the renewed popularity of restricting mobile phone use by students in schools and classrooms. Tom Bennett’s School Report blog post, June 23, 2018, again identified mobile phones as a major contributor to the discipline challeges teachers face in today’s classrooms. “Low level disruption sounds cute,” he wrote, “but it’s kryptonite for any lesson. It normalises rudeness, laziness, and grinds teachers down over weeks and months. It is no small issue. It is the most common reason for classroom behaviour to disintegrate.”  The Guardian concurs with the stance taken by Bennett and Ofsted boss Spielman.  A recent  editorial argued that schools would be better places for learning without the constant and distracting presence of the devices.

Should schools continue to welcome mobile phones in class? Why has France taken the lead in banning mobile phones at school? Who is promoting and supporting the continued and expanded use of cellphones in the classroom?  Is it possible to enforce a ban on the use of such devices in schools? Where is the evidence-based research supporting the widespread use of mobile phones in class? 

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Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario, is among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against fidget spinners, the latest craze among children and teens world-wide. On May 23, 2017, he visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds. Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, the spinners had become a “major distraction” interfering with teaching and learning affecting everyone in the classroom.

FidgetSpinnerCloseUpThe North Bay principal’s letter to parents, issued May 24, 2017, directly challenged the claim of the commercial product’s marketers that a fidget spinner “helps people focus and concentrate.”  He was crystal-clear about the real “issues with this toy”: 1) it makes noise; 2) it attracts attention; 3) most kids require two hands to make it spin; and 4) it distracts the user and others. For this reason, it was “banned from the school and the day care” and “must remain in the student’s school bag at school.”  What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – it was driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.

Most Canadian school authorities and far too many principals were simply asleep at the switch, compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, New York State, Southern California, and New Zealand.  By May 10, 2017, 32 per cent of America’s 200 top rated high schools had banned the spinners from their premises. With the exception of a few Western Canadian school boards, provincial educational leaders seemed to be taken-in by the latest student pacifier and the pseudoscience offered in support of such panaceas. How and why did it get so advanced, and take so long, before a few courageous school principals saw fit to weigh in to put a stop to the classroom disruption?

Fidget spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.” They are one of a series of such tools, including fidget cubes, squishy balls, fuzzy rings, tangle puzzles, putty and even chews — colourful, tactile objects to meet the special needs of ASD children.  Fidget spinners, she adds, “can prevent kids from chewing on their fingers, from picking at their hands, picking at their clothes” and actually help them to concentrate more in class.

Serious problems arise when the fidget spinners are employed to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. One leading clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, but is not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms.  In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.

School authorities in Maritime Canada appear to have initially accepted the claims of the marketers and been swayed by their special education program consultants.  Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Shanker, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies.  In the region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order. New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms accepted spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their wiggle stools. In rural school communities such as Nova Scotia’s Shelburne and Pictou counties and towns such as Summerside, PEI, the craze popped up in schools totally unprepared with policies to deal with students fixated with the gadgets.

Prominent education critics and teacher researchers are now having a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of fidget spinners into today’s regular classrooms.  A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, finds little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.”  Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, sees “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warns parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.

British teacher Tom Bennett, founder of researchED, is more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in our schools.  The latest fad – fidget spinners – he sees as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.”  Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress.  Misdiagnoses, he claims, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.

“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett points out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “fidget spinners,” he adds, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”  In spite of the inflated claims of the marketers, “magic bullets and magic beans” won’t provide the solutions.

Why are today’s schools so susceptible to the inflated claims of marketers promoting the latest educational gadget?  Do popular inventions like the fidget spinner answer some inner need in today’s fast-paced, high anxiety, unsettled popular culture?  To what extent have Dr. Stuart Shanker and his student behaviour theorists made us more receptive to tools which are said to relieve stress and promote “self-regulation” in children?  Why do so many education leaders and school principals go along with the latest trend without looking deeper at its research-basis and broader impact? 

 

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Beginning teachers like me were totally unprepared to manage a class of students.  Walking into my first class at St. Andrew’s College in September 1974, my exposure to “classroom management” consisted of watching my own teachers in survival mode and a few passing references to ‘the problem’ in my University of Toronto Faculty of Education courses.

ClassMgmtDickGibbAn early and rather unorthodox teacher-mentor, the legendary Geography master Richard (Dick) Gibb (The Gibber) came to my rescue with this sage advice: “Stay one step ahead of the little nippers, and fire questions at them to straighten them up every once in awhile.”  After observing him teaching Grade 10 boys how to make wine during a Unit supposedly on the “Wine Districts of the Paris Basin,” Mr. Gibb stunned me with his Yorkshire-bred honesty: “Blast ’em…Lighten up, my boy. Forget what you learned in that FACULTY of education.”

Dick Gibb was partly right: Catcalls, pranks, and ribbing tend to loosen you up. Throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass during my Under 15 football practice might have saved me. Schoolmaster Roger Allen, Head of the Upper Canada College Mathematics Department, offered more conventional advice: “Be tough and firm at the start, then ease up a little.” That’s known as “don’t smile until second term — or second year.”

Following that advice to be firm meant that many of my students in the early 1980s, such as newspaper editor John Stackhouse and Canadian democracy watchdog Duff Conacher, keep their distance, to this day.  Two future lawyers, Derek Ground and Kirk Baert, saw through my “hard ass” ruse.  It took me a decade to relax and just be myself, and then become nearly as eccentric as the infamous Mr. Gibb.

Practical guidance on how to deal with unruly students is, to my amazement, still hard to find in initial teacher training (ITT) programs. A pivotal British report produced by Sir Andrew Carter in January 2015 identified the chronic problem and recommended that “behaviour management” be core content for all UK ITT programs. Such practical training, UK government teacher-advisor Tom Bennett recently claimed, remains  “a glaring omission” in teacher education. Even a cursory review of American and Canadian education school curriculum reveals that it’s also an “add on ” at best in our programs.

ClasMgmtBoysFightingWhy all the fuss about class management and student behaviour ?  Frontline teachers are struggling to keep students focused and maintain control over their classes.  It is a major public issue in Britain and now being raised by teacher unions around the world.  In the most recent OECD report on Teaching (TALIS 2013), new data (Figure 6.14) was produced documenting “time spent keeping order” in 32 different countries, including  Australia, Canada, England, and Finland, but not the United States.  

A September 2014 report for the UK ‘s Ofsted found that children were losing up to an hour a day of teaching because of a pronounced culture of “low-level disruption and disrespect” in schools. Chatter, calling out, swinging on chairs, play fighting, using mobile phones, and quietly humming was disrupting classes, resulting in lost time equivalent to 38 days of teaching each year.  Most shocking of all — England is not among the top countries in OECD teacher-reported time spent in maintaining class order.

ClassMgmtTomBennettBritain’s chief student behaviour advisor Tom Bennett has done much to voice the real concerns of working teachers and to generate practical, teacher-validated ‘survival’ strategies. His regular TES columns on Student Behaviour Management are loaded with practical, no nonsense advice on how to deal with class disruptions, including the risks of turning your back on an unruly class, coping with wasps flying in the window, and catching boys peeing in buckets in the corner. Some handy stratagems: check notebooks for torn-out projectile pages, tame the lone wolf, seek reinforcements, and reward good output belong in every teacher’s student discipline toolbox.

Bolstering behaviour management content in education school ITT is long overdue in most education systems. Addressing the problem in North America is perhaps more complicated because it will involve dismantling school-wide Positive Behavioural Systems (modelled after PBIS) that provide positive reinforcement “carrots” and spare the “stick” in student discipline.

The Ontario model, championed by Dr. Alan Edmunds of the Behaviour Management Network, is typical  of the PBIS approach which attempts to impose a school-wide regime of rewards for “good behaviour” and aims to reduce suspensions and provide make-up course credits. Under such a system, teachers inclined to “nip misbehaviour in the bud’ think twice before doing so. Top students complain under their breath about the reformed “baddies” collecting so many gold stars.

ClassMgmtUnrulyKidsDeterrence is making a comeback after a couple of decades as an underutilized approach to managing students in schools. Teachers are crying out for help and Tom Bennett is responding with practical, concrete strategies and tips. His proposed Behaviour Management course content is desperately needed by classroom teachers seeking to cope and stay afloat in today’s distraction-ridden classroom.

Teachers – in this day and age — should not be left on their own to fend for themselves. Today’s digital kids are far more challenging to teach than preceding generations. Computer-based Murison classroom mixed-reality simulator training may help, but there’s no substitute for “useful knowledge” taught by skillful veteran teachers.  Establishing classroom routines, developing student relationships, and mastering in-class discipline strategies need to be explicitly taught in B.Ed. ITT programs.

What’s stopping teacher education programs from implementing direct action Student Behaviour Management programs? Will ITT in behaviour management help to reduce the teaching time lost to student behaviour disruptions? Do school-wide Positive Effective Behaviour Intervention Systems (PEBIS) help or hurt the cause of maintaining orderly, purposeful classroom environments? Who will emerge in North America to take up the cause blazed by Britain on this education front?  

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