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Archive for the ‘Discovery Learning’ Category

Two Dutch classroom teachers, Jelmer Evers, and René Kneyber, have teamed up with Education International to produce a stimulating book with a great title, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. It originated as a project inspired by a genuine classroom teacher-driven movement in the Netherlands where Jelmer, an education “progressive,” and  René, a self-declared “traditionalist,” joined forces to “reclaim our beloved teaching profession ourselves.”  So far, so good.

FliptheSystemCoverA funny thing seems to have happened to that grassroots project on its way to publication. The teacher initiators decided that “neoliberalism” was the source of “top-down” education managerialism and turned to its sworn enemy, Education International, the global coordinating organization for teachers’ unions. While classroom teachers like Evers, Kneyber and Brit Tom Bennett ignited the movement, they turned to EI for funding and the ‘usual suspects’ for added credibility in an attempt to go global.

With a little help from EI’s Fred van Leeuven, a few familiar professional education change promoters began to surface, including Finnish “Fourth Wave” proponents Andy Hargreaves, Dennis Shirley and Pasi Salhberg. .Professor Gert Biesta, editor-in-chief of Studies in Philosophy and Education, 1999-2014, also joined the cause. It’s a real credit to the two editors that they actually found a place for the founder of ResearchED, Tom Bennett, a refreshingly forthright, independent voice for today’s teachers. His chapter on “The Polite Revolution in Research and Education” explains the origins of ResearchED and testifies to his commitment to put teachers “back in the drivers seat’ of the system. 

Bennett’s 2013 book, Teacher Proof, was a direct hit on educational orthodoxy supported by flimsy explanations resting only on questionable social science theories. After a decade of teaching in East London, he knew something was amiss because a succession of pedagogical panaceas such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Brain Gym, learning styles, and ‘soft persuasion techniques’  simply did not work in the classroom.

TomBennettHis teacher training and PD programs promoted the latest methods of educating children and directing their behaviour as if they were holy scripture. “It took me years, “Bennett now says, ” to realize that the thing I smelled was a bunch of rats in lab coats.”  Defenders of such pedagogical science justified such initiatives with little more than the common phrase ” the research shows.”  Digging into the research behind such schemes, he discovered that whole movements like “Learning Styles” were “built on quicksand.”  Freeing regular teachers from the “intellectual bondage” and “Cargo Cult Science” sustaining these orthodoxies became the whole raison d’etre of what became the British teacher-led movement for reform.

The ResearchED founder is notably more independent in outlook than many of the contributors to Flip the System. Co-editor Evers, in particular, sees neo-liberalism not only behind accountability testing but concealed in a whole range of initiatives threatening teacher autonomy. Judging from the introduction and his writings, he’s a committed education progressive viewing education though a very explicit ideological lens. Collected works sometimes make for strange bedfellows. In this case, Evers  writings exhibit the same “bias confirmation” difficulties that so trouble Bennett and the key members of ResearchED.

Two very independently minded teachers, Andrew Old and Greg Ashman , are conspicuous in their absence from the collection. British secondary school teacher Andrew Old, creator of Scenes from the Battleground Blog, is a ResearchED supporter who is vigilant in exposing “fakery” in British schools and a staunch defender of tried-and-true teaching methods. For his part, Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman, host of Filling the pail Blog, is an effective voice for teachers ‘sick-and-tired’ of  teacher forums that sound like a “share this idea” educational echo chamber.

In two recent commentaries, “The Trendiest Arguments for Progressive Education,” Old skillfully deconstructs four of the hollow claims currently made by ‘romantic’ progressives: 1) firm discipline and setting exams adversely affects children’s mental health;  2) “traditional” vs. “progressive” debates are stale, irrelevant and meaningless; 3) defenders of higher academic standards and knowledge-based curriculum perpetuate “white privilege” in schools; and 4) every new ‘reform’ initiative is an example of the “free market conspiracy” enveloping the system. Like Bennett, he decries the absence of plausible evidence supporting some of these outlandish claims.

Ashman specializes in exposing fallacies perpetuated by educationists and bureaucrats that complicate and frustrate the lives of working teachers. He’s a serious educational researcher pursuing his PhD at UNSW and his posts draw upon some of the best recent research findings. In his July 31, 2015 commentary, “Nothing to prove (but I will, anyway…),” he zeroes in on research that demonstrates “explicit instruction” is superior to “constructivist” methods such as “discovery learning’ and ‘maker-space’ activities. He really digs into the research, citing twelve different studies from 1988 to 2012, ranging from Project Follow Through to Barak Rosenshine’s  2012 “Principles of Instruction” study. Where, he asks, is the hard evidence supporting the current constructivist approaches to teaching and learning?

One of the studies unearthed by Ashman is an October 2011 research report, “All students fall behind,” providing a critical independent assessment of the Quebec Ministry of Education progressive reform, Project-Based Learning initiative from 2000 to 2009. The Reform was implemented top-down and right across the board in all grade levels with little or no input from classroom teachers. Comparing Quebec student performance in Mathematics from Grades 1 to 11, before and after the “constructivist” Reform initiative, Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre, and Philip Merrigan document a steady decline in scores, compromising that province’s status as the leader in Mathematics performance. “We find,” they concluded,” strong evidence of negative effects of the reform on the development of students’ mathematical abilities.”

Reinventing education from the ground up will, of necessity, involve engaging and listening to teachers.  The education domain is littered with failed initiatives driven by totally unproven pedagogical theories. Following research where it leads instead of riding ideological hobby-horses would be a much sounder basis for education policy initiatives. In that regard, the researchED pilistines have much more to offer than many of the contributors to the hottest new book in education reform.

Turning the education upside down has its appeal, especially if you are a working teacher in today’s school system. Why do educational orthodoxies like traditional teaching and constructivism have such staying power? Why are teachers too often on the outside looking in when the latest education panacea comes down the pipe?  If teachers were truly engaged and empowered, would explicit instruction again rule the school day?

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The McTutor World is on the rise. Private tutoring is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s now the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, the tutoring business has rebounded, particularly in major Canadian cities and the burgeoning suburbs. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. It’s estimated that one in three city parents in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary now hire private tutors for their kids.

PrivateTutorsSylvanMy recent radio interviews on CBC Radio Drive Home shows (September 4-5, 2014) focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents are turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. That’s a question that begs for a more thorough, in-depth explanation.

The expansion of private tutoring is driven by a combination of factors. The world is changing and, for good or ill, we now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues play a critical role in convincing parents to turn to tutors. Promoting “Success for All” has come to signify a decline in standards and the entrenchment of “social promotion” reflected in student reports overflowing with edu-babble about “learning outcomes” but saying little about the pupils themselves.  When parents see their kids struggling to read and unable to perform simple calculations, reassurances that “everything is fine” raises more red flags.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics only compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

The tutoring business is definitely market-driven and more sensitive to public demand and expectations. Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini have shown the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

Hiring private tutors can be costly, but parents today are determined to come to the rescue of their struggling kids or to give the motivated child an extra edge.  Today it’s gone far beyond introducing your child to reading with “Fun with Phonics” and some Walmart stores even stock John Mighton’s tutoring books for the JUMP Math program. An initial assessment costs $99 to $125 and can be irresistable after reading those jargon-filled, mark-less reports. For a full tutoring program, two nights a week, the costs can easily reach $2,o00 to $3,000 a school year.  Once enrolled, parents are far more likely to look to private independent schools, a more expensive option, but one that can make after-school family life a lot simpler and less hectic.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  That  is likely to be at the centre of a much larger public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling.

What explains the phenomenal growth of private tutoring?  With public schools closing at 3:00 pm, will today’s parents turn increasingly to online, virtual education to plug the holes and address the skills deficit?  How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are forced to respond to the competition?  

 

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Teaching all children Mathematics may well be possible. That’s the inspiring lesson delivered by Dr. John Mighton at an April 24 Public Lecture, sponsored by the Mount Saint Vincent Faculty of Education, and attended by 150 curious educators and concerned parents.  He is the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), a Toronto-based charitable organization that seeks to “multiply the potential in children” and to instill in them the joy of truly mastering mathematics.

MightonJUMPMathMighton is an incredibly talented mathematician on a mission.  Founded as a kitchen-table tutoring group in 1998, JUMP Math is presently challenging  the prevailing math education “discovery math”  ideology  embraced by North American curriculum consultants and reinforced in textbooks and online resources published by giant learning industry multinationals, Pearson and Oxford/Nelson. Since June of 2013, JUMP Math is breaking out with new adoptions in Manitoba, Calgary, and Vancouver where teachers are looking to significantly improve elementary level student math performance.

The founder of JUMP Math shot to prominence in 2003 with the publication of his book, The Myth of Ability.  Leading mathematicians like Dr. Robert Dawson, Editor of the Canadian Mathematical Society Notes, sat up and took notice.  In the Newsletter, he compared Mighton to the classroom teacher Jaime Escalante in the inspiring feature film, Stand and Deliver.  Both educators, he noted, embraced the idea that mathematics was “something that everybody can learn to do.”  His book, he added, “may be a big step in that direction.”

The Mathematics Education Wars are fought on contested pedagogical terrain and Mighton’s JUMP Math is emerging as a logical and welcome middle ground. In his recent lectures, he makes a persuasive case for a “balanced’ approach, starting with fundamentals and then empowering students to engage in creative problem-solving activities. He’s clear in explaining the limitations of both “drill and fill” traditional teaching and “fuzzy Math” promoted by romantic progressives.

“Students must be empowered to succeed” is his consistent message.  Beginning math instruction is broken down into tiny and carefully-structured chunks, that any student, working with any teacher, can learn thoroughly.  It’s teacher-guided but also exploratory and provides elementary students with the scaffolding needed to possess the knowledge and skills to eventually tackle creative problem-solving.  “Teachers are my heroes,” he says, because they are the ones who have driven the spread of JUMP Math, not the math consultants.

Canadians tend to be slow to embrace their own heroes and seek validation of their talents elsewhere. Mighton holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Toronto, completed NSERC  postdoctoral research in knot and graph theory, teaches Mathematics at U of T, and in 2010 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He’s also a playwright and script writer, known in Hollywood for his star turn in the feature film Good Will Hunting.

Mighton’s JUMP Math has evolved significantly over the past decade and now boasts supportive classroom effectiveness research, including studies at Toronto Sick Kids Hospital. in Lambeth, UK, and at the Mabin School.  While he was once “the nation’s math conscience,” Manitoba Education Minister James Allum now sees his approach as giving that province an edge over provinces like Alberta, wedded to the standard Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCAP) curriculum and continuing with “less successful methods”.

What’s standing in the way of Mathematics education reform?  Two key factors jump out as the obvious explanation – the established “Discovery Learning” ideology and the preponderant influence of its proponents, the late Richard Dunne (1944-2012), creator of Maths Makes Sense, and his Canadian counterpart, Dr. Marian Small, purveyor of Nelson mathematics problem-solving books.  They are a formidable force backed by the Pearson and Oxford/Nelson publishing conglomerates and a small army of textbook author replicators here in Canada.

Richard Dunne and his Canadian camp followers talk about mathematics but their real agenda is to promote a “whole school approach” to discovery learning.   His distinctive teaching style,  initiated at Reading Boys’ Grammar School in the late 1960s, uses concrete “manipulatives” to help kids understand math concepts.  Based upon his theories rather than research, Dunne cut a plastic cup into 10 pieces to demonstrate the meaning of decimals and then developed other dramatic demonstration techniques to introduce children to abstract ideas.

Dunne was a teacher and math consultant rather than a mathematician.  His earlier version of Maths Makes Sense published in the 1980s proved popular with teachers who were non-specialists, but was resisted by many university based mathematicians and then rejected by the British Government in 1989 with the introduction of a more rigorous National Curriculum. Panned in the U.K., his teaching methods enjoyed greater popularity in North America and his version of “Discovery Math”  made a comeback in 2007 with the re-publication of Maths Makes Sense.

Dunne’s “whole school approach” was embraced by North American math consultants education schools seeking to promote “discovery learning” in all subject areas.  Secondary school mathematics specialists remained skeptical and most stayed true to traditional methods, but Discovery Math made deep inroads among regular elementary teachers, often with little or no mathematics training.  It achieved the height of its influence in Canada when the WNCP Math curriculum spread across the provinces, supported by the Pearson Canada Math Makes Sense series of books and online resources.

Declining Mathematics achievement levels from 2003 to 2012, on PISA and Canadian national tests, began to raise red flags.  A WISE Math movement, sparked by Winnipeg math professors Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen, demonstrated the direct relationship between declining scores and the spread of  Dunne-inspired WNCP curricula.  In September 2013, Manitoba re-introduced Math fundamentals and approved JUMP Math for use in the schools.  Over the past year, the number of students studying JUMP Math has jumped from 90,000 to 110,000 as more and more schools are breaking with the entrenched Discovery Math methods and adopting a more systematic, teacher-guided, step-by-step progression in their teaching of early mathematics.

What’s standing in the way of Math correction in North American elementary schools?  Why has the “total school approach” made such inroads in the teaching of Mathematics in the early grades?  Can all or the vast majority of students be taught Mathematics? Will Dr. John Mighton eventually be vindicated for promoting fundamental building blocks?  Which of the Canadian provinces will be next in abandoning the core philosophy of the Discovery Math/WNCP curriculum?

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The ‘Big Test’ has hit us and rocked our education world. The sliding math scores of Canadian 15 year-olds outside Quebec have just captured all the headlines and a series of PISA news stories and commentaries identified the “discovery learning” approach to teaching mathematics as the source of the recent, and continuing decline. Columnist Konrad Yakabuski , a close observer of the American education wars, saw the declining math scores as a “damaging legacy” of discovery learning. We are falling backward, he claimed, in both excellence and equity raising the fundamental question – “Has the education elite learned its lesson?”

PISAMathKidsIn the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) rankings released December 3, 2013, , Canada  dropped out of the top 10 in student mathematics scores, a decline that raised alarms about the country’s future prosperity. Canadian students placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, in the highly anticipated test conducted every three years and which measures how 15-year-olds around the world are doing in math, reading and science. Canada ranked behind many Asian economies, including Shanghai (China), Singapore, Korea and Japan, while the United States lagged far behind and 36th out of 65 participating countries.

PISA12RankingsThe PISA test jolt comes on the heels of declining math scores nationally and a surprisingly poor showing from youth on a recent OECD literacy and numeracy test. The Canadian math curriculum, ushered in over the past decade, catching the blame for lower scores for good reason.  Curricula like the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) is out-of-sync with high performing Asian countries because it  places far more emphasis on real-world concepts  than on abstract thinking, standard algorithms, and practice. The accompanying OECD report, in fact,  noted that the top performers had more exposure to formal mathematics than word problems. That may explain why Shanghai students topped the rankings and performed three grade levels above those of most other nations.

Topping the PISA student performance rankings attracts international acclaim, school system imitators, and increasingly scarce public education dollars. Once reviled by Canadian anti-testing advocates, the PISA test results are –oddly enough –what provides the ammunition for much of what now passes for informed debate over quality, equity, and accountability in Canada’s provincial school systems. They also bred a certain Canadian complacency until the recent release of the 2012 student results.

National and provincial reputations now ride on the PISA results. From 2000 to 2006, the PISA test results catapulted Finland’s education system to star status, and that ‘Finnish infatuation,’ essentially swept the Canadian educational establishment off its feet, blinding us to the Quebec’s success in mathematics and Ontario’s progress in improving reading and closing the socio-economic education gap.

Between 2000 and 2009, Canada plateaued in overall student performance and Canadian students posted a 10 per cent decline in reading scores. This week’s PISA results confirm that 15-year-old Canadian students, with the execution of those in Quebec, are losing ground, particularly in mathematics.

The rise and fall of Alberta, Canada’s former top performing province, contains a few valuable lessons. Two decades ago, Alberta was the first province to really confront the global learning gap, forecasting that, if trends continued, Albertan and Canadian students were going to be left behind.  

Dr. Joe Freedman, a Red Deer radiologist, and Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based Globe and Mail columnist, raised the first alarm bells and founded Albertans for Quality Education.  In 1991, they convinced the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR) and the Conference Board of Canada to produce a truly ground-breaking study,  International Comparisons in Education, comparing Alberta math and science curriculum with that in Japan, Germany and Hungary.

Alberta’s mathematics and science curriculum was then virtually re-written and bench-marked against that of the top performing nations. Under Education Minister Jim Dinning, the province built its rock solid reputation on raising standards, student testing, school choice and charter schools.

While Alberta ranked first on the PISA tests and topped the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) tests in literacy and science for most of two decades, it has slipped precipitously since 2006. Adopting the WNCP math curriculum with its “discovery learning” focus and the Finnish infatuation have been key factors in the decline.

The ‘Finnish solution’ began to lose its lustre after the 2009 PISA test when Finland saw its reading scores drop by 11 per cent. Outside of Canada, education policy analysts have now become far more enamoured with Asian school systems like Shanghai and Korea.

None of this seems to matter to Canadian ‘progressives,’ sponsoring a Canadian tour for Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, promoting Finland as the “Global Fourth Way,” and seeking to curtail standardized testing. They are bent on turning back the dreaded “GERM,” the Global Education Reform Movement, supposedly carrying the plague of “neo-liberalism” and its principal strains — higher standards, school choice, and competition in public education.

The Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), armed with a 2012 report written by Sahlberg’s North American ally, Andy Hargreaves, now talks of “transforming Alberta education” with “The Fourth Way, “ and is out to dismantle provincial testing, curtail expanded classroom learning time, and block teacher assessment tied to student performance. More recently, the Finnish wave of “personalized learning” has reached British Columbia.

Finland, like Canada, got a jolt from the 2012 PISA test results. That will finally prompt education observers to acknowledge that Finnish education is fuzzy on standards.  It is, after all,  light on standardized testing, soft on homework, and promotes a “culture of trust” instead of accountability.

Looking deeper, Finland is also a “one provider” system with little or no choice for parents, delays the start of school until age 7, and streams students after Grade 9  into two tracks, academic and vocational, based upon arbitrary average-mark cut-offs.

The Canadian attraction to “discovery learning” and the rush to abandon standardized testing have both hit a significant bump in the road. In the wake of the 2012 PISA results, Canadians are awakening to the dangers of turning back the clock to the days of ‘accountability-free’ public education. Without PISA and the OECD follow-up research studies we are left almost completely in the dark on critical educational quality issues that matter for students and our public schools.

What are the powerful lessons of Canada’s recent decline in PISA test scores?  When will Canadian mathematics educators face reality and come to accept the need to develop a more rigorous, soundly-based curriculum providing a solid grounding in the fundamental skills?  Will Canada come to accept the need to stop being what Paul Cappon aptly termed “a school that never issues report cards”?  And finally, is the real message sinking in?

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