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Archive for the ‘COVID-19 Education’ Category

Learnification has finally been exposed and classroom teachers everywhere are gradually awakening to its debilitating effects on their professional autonomy and teaching practice. It took a global education system shutdown to reveal that all things educational had been, over the past forty years, redefined in terms of “learning” and reducing “teaching” to the “facilitation of learning.” Warnings from Dutch-born education philosopher Dr. Gert Biesta, the recognized leader of the reclaiming teaching movement, went unheeded; it took an education crisis to bring about that awakening.

Dr. Gert Biesta, Dutch-born education philosopher, and author of The Rediscovery of Teaching (2017) who identified the dominance of learnification in contemporary education

The gradual shift from teaching to learning from the 1980s onward transformed far more than the language of education, and significantly altered the role, position, and the identity of the teacher. A whole generation of teachers were schooled to shift from teacher as ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’ and, in the eyes of some, to ‘peer at the rear.’ System change theorists and progressive education reformers socialized and in-serviced classroom practitioners to blend-in as a learner among learners in a ‘learning community,’ to the point where many were almost indistinguishable from their students.

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic essentially turned the K-12 education world upside down. Suspending in-person schooling in March 2020 for three months, followed by a pandemic-haunted summer break, then a radically altered crazy-quilt pattern of schedules, has shaken-up our provincial school systems. Today’s generation of teachers has been thrust into technology-enabled distance learning and given a crash course on managing the complexities of hybrid blended learning. Video conferencing and live streaming are emerging as the primary survival tools for educators faced with teaching a combination of in-person and virtual classes.

School systems are still reeling from the COVID-19 impact and it has dealt a serious blow to what I have identified in my new book The State of the System as the modern bureaucratic education state and for the most part disabled its pedagogical companion, learnification. That dramatic development has also thrown school system change theorists and progressive pedagogues for a loop.

With schools closed and traditional classrooms gone, teachers were left on their own to deliver the curriculum and interact, mostly-one-on one, with students. Facing a gallery of students with cameras on logged into Zoom or Microsoft Teams or a system-sanctioned platform changed the terms of engagement in COVID-19 education times. Conventional progressive pedagogical practices such as cooperative learning activities, facilitating group discussion, and project-based learning were far more challenging, if not impossible to implement. Many and perhaps most teachers defaulted to simply assigning homework and hoped for the best. Over the course of the first three months, student participation rates plummeted and an estimated one out of four students went missing in public education.

The new normal in K-12 education is not conducive to the simple resumption of past teaching practices, and particularly elementary learning centres, process-driven activities, and interactive group learning. A whole generation of educators, steeped in progressive pedagogy, is coming to the realization that post-pandemic education may well be defined by physical distancing, spaced-out student desks, plexiglass partitions, and ‘keeping your distance’ education. Standing and delivering a lesson, live-streaming presentations, and whole-class teaching are much more practical and pragmatic responses to post-pandemic educational realities.

Even before the pandemic, teachers were clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools.  That spirit was captured well in a 2016 collection of essays, Flip the System, edited by two Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber, which made the case for teachers to take the lead in reforming education. Like most of the book’s contributors, the co-editors saw education under threat on a global scale by the so-called “forces of neoliberalism,” exemplified in “high stakes accountability, privatization, and a destructive language of learning” ( Evers and Kneyber, 1-7).

Instead of “being told what to achieve and how to achieve it,” Evers and Kneyber urged fellow teachers to “show leadership in regard to the how and the what” of education. What did it mean in practice?  Reasserting teacher agency in an educational world where many advocating “teacher leadership” were, in fact, appropriating the term as “another tool for domestication” rather than “an instrument for deregulation and professionalization.” Flipping the system would move teachers to the centre of the enterprise and resemble more of “a process of emancipation than a ‘system intervention.’” The voice of teachers would be given a meaningful place, instead of being just part of the ‘noise’ reverberating through the system (Evers and Kneyber, 7).

Today it’s fashionable in K-12 education to attribute all that ails the system to globalization and so-called neo-liberal education reform. Standardized testing and accountability did play an instrumental role in promoting and entrenching efficiency and managerialism, while eroding teacher autonomy in the school and community. It was not, however, the main impetus behind the new technocratic educational language of learnification. That shift was promoted by education change gurus and reformers of all persuasions, and — most notably– by education progressives wedded to student-centred learning.

The educational status quo has clearly experienced a major disruption. Self-styled progressives continue to describe students as “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” broader education is “lifelong learning,” and school is a “learning environment.” The dominance of such a language, promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, has served to subvert what Gert Biesta identified as the real point of education – to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone. It may turn out that it took a global pandemic to demonstrate the wisdom of bringing teachers back to centre stage and putting teaching back into K-12 education.

What has happened to teaching in our learnification-driven school systems? To what extent did the almost exclusive focus on “learning” lead to the virtual disappearnance of the teacher? How has the COVID-19 pandemic education crisis impacted upon the teaching practices of classroom teachers? Are “teaching-centred-classrooms,” by definition, always instruments of control or can they be places of emancipation for children? Is the time ripe for reclaiming teaching in education?

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School systems across Canada, from province to province, are in crisis.  The massive school shutdown during the first phase of COVID-19 was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in Canadian K-12 education.

EmptyClassTorontoLifeWhat emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

Charitable observers described emergency home learning as “Doing Our Best Education” under impossible circumstances. It was so sub-standard that harsh critics applied the label “a failure of pandemic proportions.”

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The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders played for time and eventually took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. The famous German sociologist Max Weber provided us with the very helpful metaphor of the “Iron Cage” capturing well the nature of a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a system of order, rationality, predictability, conformity and control.

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Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives.  Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Hardening of the Bureaucratic Education State

The modern bureaucratic education state has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep.  Since the rise and expansion of the modern bureaucratic state over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with students, families, teachers, and communities. Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.

Voicing concerns about the state of our public schools can be exceedingly frustrating – and more often than not, an exercise in futility. Parents advocating mathematics or reading curriculum reforms, families seeking improved special needs programs, or communities fighting small school closures regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. During the COVID-19 school shutdown the fragility of the impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. What my new book provides is a reality check on what’s happened to Canada’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools and a plan to reclaim them for students, parents, teachers, and communities alike.

Sources of Unease and Stress

Today’s schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K–12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the System over students, parents, teachers, and the engaged public  Putting students first has little meaning in a system that gives priority to management ‘systems,’ exemplifies top-down decision-making, thwarts community-based schools, and processes students like hamburgers in a fast-food operation. Graduation rates have risen so dramatically that high school diplomas are awarded to virtually everyone who meets attendance requirements.

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The System, originally conceived as a liberal reform enterprise aimed at expanding mass schooling and broadening access to the populace, largely achieved its goals twenty-five years ago. Having achieved near-universal access, school authorities in the 1980s began to pivot toward introducing bureaucratic managerialism in the form of “instructionally focused education systems.”

In a North American wave of structural reform, the systematizers saw the ‘incoherence’ of instruction from one classroom to another as a problem and teacher autonomy as an obstacle to further modernization. School change came to mean supplanting didactic instruction, knowledge-based curricula, and the teaching of basic skills, while embracing “ambitious instructional experiences and outcomes for all students.” At the school district level, it was reflected in new forms of school consolidation aimed at turning loose aggregations of schools into school systems.

Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, big-box elementary schools, and super-sized high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of local education democracy, are now considered simply nuisances and fast becoming a threatened species.

The teaching of foundational skills and knowledge was subsumed in a new school system improvement agenda focused on ‘educational excellence and equity.’ The shift also exemplified the logic of standards-and-accountability, resisted by classroom teachers as another encroachment on their prized autonomy as professionals.

Centrally established accountability infrastructure continued to encounter resistance when it came to penetrating what American education analyst Larry Cuban termed the “black box” of classroom practice. That may well explain why growing numbers of classroom teachers are drawing the line in defense of what’s left of teacher autonomy and breathing life into a movement for education on a more human school-level scale.

Education – What Kind and for Whom?

The System, as exposed during the COVID-19 disruption, is not working for students or teachers in the classroom. Educational gurus spawned by the school improvement industry have succeeded not only in commandeering school districts, but in promoting a succession of curricular and pedagogical changes floating on uncontested theories and urban myths. This trend is most visible in the development and provision of resources by commercial purveyors closely aligned with learning corporations, curriculum developers, and faculties of education. Challenging unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Re-engineering the System in the wake of COVID-19 has never been more urgent. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for student learning and the quality of public education. The time has come for us to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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Slowly but surely the evidence is gathering that the three-month-long 2020 experiment with “emergency home learning” was an “unmitigated disaster.” A recent Toronto Life feature story by investigative journalist Raizel Robin painted an alarming picture of the Toronto District School Board’s rollout of online learning in March and April of 2020. “Teachers flailed, parents lost it, and kids suffered,” the article summary declared. “Chronic squabbling between Queen’s Park (the Ontario Government) and the unions” was “mostly to blame — and that all spells a chaotic school year ahead.”  While the TDSB may be an extreme example, the general pattern was repeated from province to province, school district to school district, right across Canada.

The rapid and unplanned transition to distance learning turned the Canadian school system upside down and disrupted the lives of some 5 million children and families, and their teachers. Our system, reputed to be one of the world’s best, experienced a power outage, leaving educators scrambling to master new technology and the vast majority of children to “do their own thing” in family isolation operating, for the most part, under a vague and changing set of home learning guidelines.

Student surveys, school district reports, and investigative journalism are beginning to reveal where distance learning went off track and what needs to be corrected the next time. What follows is a brief diagnosis of what went wrong and a proposed prescription for getting the most out of the online learning experience.

The School Shutdown and its Impact  — A Diagnosis

Slapped together distance learning was a mass application of the triage system in the educational Emergency Room. Provincial authorities produced hastily assembled Learn at Home programs and posted broad student homework expectations with a dramatically reduced number of “hours of work” per week. In actual practice, these programs took on a crazy-quilt pattern ranging from high tech to low tech to no tech, highly dependent upon a student’s school district, individual school or classroom teacher. Deciding to guarantee students their March grades removed most of the incentive to work until the end of the year. The most vulnerable children and neediest students living in poverty or facing severe learning challenges lost their “system of supports” and, without in-person education, their families were left to fend for themselves.

Normal student attendance and achievement tracking appears to have mostly evaporated. TorontoDSB’s outgoing director John Malloy put such trust in his teachers that he considered it “very inappropriate” to keep track of how much time teachers were spending in direct contact with their students because it would demonstrate a lack of confidence in them as professionals. He and other system leaders, we have learned, did not think it was their job to establish or enforce teacher-led activity guidelines or track student work completion.

Many students, an estimated one out of four in junior and senior high schools, went missing or completely unaccounted for, according to the CBC News Investigation unit in the Maritime provinces.  No school authorities, including the TDSB, have yet produced a reliable, comprehensive report on student participation rates, attendance at scheduled sessions, achievement levels and graduation rates.

Getting it Right the Next Time — A Prescription

Concerned parents and the vast majority of students were so  poorly served that, by June 2020, most clamoured for a full return to in-person school in September 2020. Once school was dismissed for the summer, organized parent groups surfaced demanding full-time school for all grades under safe health conditions. Lobbying for a hybrid model combining in-class and remote learning, popular among teachers, gained little traction and, aside from some implementation in high schools, gradually died down. Seven provinces eventually opted for a full resumption of regular classes, and the remaining three, Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba, continued with some form of online learning from Grades 9 to 12. In most provinces, the near exclusive focus of debate was on implementing “COVID-19 health and safety” regulations to address residual parental fears and anxieties.

The biggest lessons , based upon my own “rapid response” analysis, were:

Teacher-guided instruction:  Be far more explicit in setting out teacher expectations when the system defaults to distance learning.

Only two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, attempted to include teacher expectations in the March-April 2020 home learning guidelines.  In Alberta, the student work guidelines specified that the hours of work would be assigned by teachers. Ontario’s guidelines described the work as “teacher-led” activities. Initially, there was no mention whatsoever of any explicit requirement for time commitment on the part of teachers. In the midst of the pandemic, the conventional administrative “span of control” was relaxed and teachers, for the most part, left to exercise their professional judgement, heeding the advice and counsel of their unions.

Synchronous Learning: Focus on maintaining daily contact with students and give a much higher priority to sustaining real time interaction and engagement with students on an individual and small group or class basis. Interacting twice a week in half-hour sessions proved insufficient to securing and maintaining student attention, participation, and meaningful engagement.

Simulating, as much as possible, in-person teaching involves giving a much higher priority to synchronous learning or real time online teaching utilizing video, interactive media, or text messaging. During the initial trial run, most teachers turned to assigning regular homework and continuing, where possible, with their preferred strategies, short posted or e-mailed assignments and project-based learning (PBL). This is known as asynchronous learning because it involves assigning work to be completed later in a day, week, or term. It is not generally interactive or engaging for students, especially after a few weeks of uninterrupted home learning. Ontario’s August 2020 education directive (Regulation 164) addresses the problem with an explicit mandate for utilizing synchronous learning strategies in the online learning environment.  Assuming 300 minutes of instructional time a day, it’s likely unwise to require, in Grade 1 to 12, exactly 75% of the time to be allocated to synchronous learning activities.

Supporting the Neediest and Marginalized:  School systems exist to support everyone and especially those children and teens living in poverty or struggling with learning challenges or complex needs — and that definitely needs to be addressed the next time.

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Inclusive education needs to be factored into future plans during the default to distance education because far too many students, some 15 to 20 per cent in most school districts, are dependent upon either “learning supports” or intensive “special education services.” While congregated classes are not ideal for every special needs child or teen, they tend to be smaller in size and small enough to classify as ‘classroom bubbles’ meeting most public health pandemic guidelines. Some educational jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, for that reason, opened schools in June 2020  for the expressed purpose of supporting both special needs students and the children of essential workers. This policy option should be on the table next time around in the current pandemic cycle.

Student Assessment and Reporting: Establish and maintain a fair, consistent and predictable system of student evaluation irrespective of the mode of curriculum delivery and continue to issue student progress reports with clear, easy to understand marks.

Student marks and grading are ingrained in the system and form a critical part of the terms of engagement. Suspending grading of term tests and assignments affects student motivation and makes it even more challenging to hold and sustain their participation in an online environment. Abandoning grades or reverting to pass-fail marking systems sends out the implicit signal that somehow the work does not count or is of lesser importance to their overall academic performance. It also fuels the widespread phenomenon of grade inflation widening the gap between student performance and rewards for that performance.

Provincial Testing and Accountability:  Commit to maintaining provincial and national student testing systems so students, parents and the public can assess student achievement and have some gauge of how the school shutdown actually impacted the acquisition of knowledge and the development of academic skills.

Three months of school shutdown is bound to have affected student achievement, particularly in the development of fundamental skills in Grades 1 to 6 and in academic preparation for higher education and the modern workplace. Suspending provincial testing, as Ontario has done in 2020-21, is unwise because it will deny educators, parents and the public of one of the most objective and validated forms of student assessment. Shortening the advance preparation time for such tests makes good sense, but not suspending the evaluations altogether. No one expects students to perform as well after a prolonged absence from regular in-person classes. We do need some kind of reliable yardstick to identify learning loss and to provide us with a benchmark for remediation.

Educators everywhere are committed to doing better the next time with their newly acquired knowledge and skills in education technology. Coming out of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will all be better prepared and educators have every right to expect enhanced support in terms of training, resources, and ongoing professional support. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on “COVID safety” and health protection, it’s time to give more attention to what ultimately matters — teaching and learning — the core function of K-12 education.

What are the biggest lessons coming out of the COVID-19 school shutdown and that frightening pandemic?  Was the radical and abrupt transition to distance learning a failure of pandemic proportions?  Should we be focusing on the positive and highlighting examples of its “silver linings”? Is it possible that educational conditions could get worse in the coming year? What’s the best way to build back our shaken and fractured K-12 school system? 

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