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Archive for the ‘Education Decade in Review’ Category

On the eve of the 21st century, a seasoned British educator John Abbott challenged us with a perplexing Core Question and a Big Idea. In an incredibly rambling and thought-provoking speech in Sunderland, U.K., entitled, “”Battery Hens or Free Range Chickens,”  he asked an unsettling question: “What Kind of Education – for What Kind of World?” Even though politicians in many nations were claiming that public education was a top priority, the system was in crisis, Abbott declared, because schools had ceased to be about learning and were not really preparing students for an uncertain future.



Why was public education mired in a protracted crisis?  The essential answer, according to John Abbott , could be found in a rare nugget in David Perkins’ Smart Schools (1992): “Learning is a consequence of thinking.”  In direct, unvarnished English fashion, he was saying that there could be no real learning without thinking  and that the schools were failing today’s students, and particularly adolescents, on that score.

John Abbott’s amazing speech hit me like a flash of revelation. It wasn’t exactly a “Eureka” moment, but as close as I will ever come to such an experience. After three decades as an educator, spent in some outstanding schools, I couldn’t get that question out of my mind: What were we really teaching students — and why were most teachers seemingly content to “instruct” in ‘egg-crate’ classrooms and resigned to “going with the flow”?

Public education is driven, as you well know, by the Bureaucratic Education State, and not only encrusted with competing ideologies, but overflowing with meaningless edu-babble. In such a strange world, a metaphor is worth far more than a thousand words.  This potent metaphor will always be John Abbott’s greatest legacy. Public education, he proclaimed, in Britain and elsewhere, was “floundering for lack of really clear thinking.” Then came the pearl of distilled wisdom: “By default we will end up in a world of battery hens. Such hens hardly know how to stand on their own feet when their wire cages are removed…Those reassuring cages that now support us won’t be around in twenty years time… the survivors will surely be free range chickens.”

Since the advent of modern educational psychology, Jean Piaget and John Dewey, have successfully focused most educators on “the child” and the early years in child development. We needed to be reminded that the schools also seek to educate adolescents. It was John Abbott who issued the wake-up call. ” Adolescence is currently seen as a ‘problem’ in Western society,” he said,  and the schools were falling short in what he termed ” intellectual weaning” or providing the independence needed to become critically aware and independent in outlook.  Touche!

The historic tensions in public education — is education about content or about process? — continue to bedevil us.  It absorbs far too much of our air time and psychic energy.  Neither of these polarities is good enough and it’s time to lay it to rest.  That explains the rock star popularity of Sir Ken Robinson and the lesser known, but more profound writings of Kieran Egan, best expressed in The Future of Education (2008).  Sir Ken is big on “creativity” but I’m puzzled by the contradictions in his message. Pursuing “inventive education” which respects the intrinsic value of “core knowledge” would be far more constructive than trying to re-invent John Dewey for the 21st century.

Today John Abbott’s educational philosophy is being promoted by The 21st Century Learning Institute. What started out as an exciting breakthrough has produced mixed results, including the 2008 book,  Overschooled but Undereducated.  Abbott has attracted a loyal following, but his prescriptions now sound much more consistent with those of the educational psychologists than the thoughtful educationists. Today’s schools have taken the “factory model” too far, but the ingenious ideas of Abbott seem to have been appropriated by futurists without his grounding in our own educational tradition. “Tomorrow has been abolished and Today will be re-enacted as if Yesterday had never been…”  That chilling message is not new; it was sprayed on the walls of a Cambridge college more than half a century ago.

Rome, it is said, was not built in a day. Thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson do provide a glimmer of hope.  In his TED Talks, he reminds us that not much has changed since John Abbott issued his call to action two decades ago.  Today’s school systems still promote conformity, uniformity, and industrial habits of mind. We still face the formidable challenge of re-engineering schools so that they foster creativity and innovation, encourage divergent thinking, and teach the way children learn.

We need to find our bearings and resist the temptation to Ride the Next Wave.  A recent Atlantic Canada Conference (April 23-24, 2012), sponsored by Bridgeway Academy, had it right. It is time to begin Turning the Tide in education. Over the next decade, let’s try to move the yardsticks in education closer to a system capable of educating more “free-range chickens” and fewer automatons, in the teaching profession as well as the millennial generation.

What kind of an Education do we need — and for what kind of world?  Whatever happened to turning “battery hens” into “free range chickens” in our schools? Where —and when — will we find our bearings?

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The best to worst lists for 2010 have all appeared, but you will look in vain for any relating to breakthroughs, disasters, or trends in Canadian education. South of the border, the public schools were aflame with controversy, the hard-hitting feature film Waiting for Superman stirred up a frenzy,  and The New York Times heralded the abysmal 2010 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) results as a “Sputnik moment” or game-changing crisis.

Yet here in Canada critical issues in education continue to elicit something approaching a collective shrug. While education zealots bombard the blogs, most of the “live talk” about the state of education is confined to animated conversations in the school parking lot or chit-chat around the staff coffee machine.

Why does Canadian education get a free pass, drifting into the future without much of a national debate? Out of 70 participating countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we are the only one without a federal presence in education. More regrettably, the recent gutting of the Canadian Council on Learning promises to render cross-national as well as international comparisons a problematic venture.

Undaunted by the challenges, here’s my personal list of the Best and Worst in education news, just to  to incite a little discussion:

The Best of 2010

The most promising and potentially important events and developments were:

1. Pathways to Education

The dramatically successful Canadian stay-in-school initiative, launched in 2001 by Carolyn Acker in Toronto’s Regent Park, has now spread to 12 high dropout areas in three other provinces, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba. Students-at-risk are rewarded with $1,000 a year for four years towards PSE tuition for successfully completing the program.

2. The PISA Results Plateau

Alberta and Quebec 15-year olds set the pace ensuring that Canada held its own on the 2009 PISA international tests in mathematics, science and reading. Young Canadians finished 10th in math, 8th in science, and 6th in reading, while their American counterparts slid to 31st, 23rd, and 17th, respectively, in math, science, and reading.

3. Rising Graduation Rates

Provincial departments of education began to see some return on their concerted efforts to raise the high school “attainment rate.” In Ontario, the graduation rate rose from 68%  in 2003 to 79% in 2009. Oddly enough, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.  boast rates from 80 to 83% (10% above the national average)

4. High School Rankings Go Westward

Eight years after introducing the High School Report Card, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies teamed up with the Winnipeg-based Frontier Institute in early 2010 to produce the first comprehensive school-by-school rankings in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C.  The major breakthrough in public disclosure was only marred by the hostile reaction in the most resistant “dark ages” province, Manitoba.

5. Toronto’s School Choice Initiative

Toronto Education Director Dr. Chris Spence challenged the status quo in 2009-10 with his “Vision for Hope” to shore up the system against private school student losses. He proposed four new alternative schools, an all-boys school, an all-girls school, and a choir school for the musically talented, before encountering resistance from nervous trustees and a vocal minority of parents.

The Worst of 2010

The most widely discussed  public disasters or major setbacks were:

1. The Ken Fells Fiasco

Principal Ken Fells’ forcible takedown of a 15-year old boy in a March 2010 disciplinary action was captured on security video for the world to see. The infamous “Dartmouth Handshake” split the Halifax School Board, prompted the Chief Superintendent’s husband to leak the tape, and finally forced a belated RCMP investigation. When Fells was restored, the HRSB boss suffered lost credibility and principals everywhere were left wondering what was now permissible.

2. Gutting of the Council on Learning

Federal funding for the respected national educational research institute, the Canadian Council on Learning founded in 2004 at $85 million for 5 years, was eliminated in January 2010 by Stephen Harper’s government. CCL head Dr. Paul Cappon, the architect of Canada’s strategy for raising international standards, cried foul, but the plea was dismissed by a cost-conscious cabinet looking to vacate provincial jurisdiction.

3. Ontario’s Early Learning Program Reversal

Ontario’s “Education Premier” Dalton McGuinty announced a December 15, 2010 “flip-flop” by abandoning plans to fully implement a seamless, wrap-around, year-long Early Learning Program, integrating full-day kindergarten with child care services. After creating inflated expectations, he backed-down amid intense local opposition and mounting concerns about run-away ELP costs.

4. Blackout on Waiting for Superman

The American feature film, Waiting for Superman, produced by An Inconvenient Truth’s Davis Guggenheim and praised by Barak Obama, was trashed in September 2010 by former OISE Dean Jane Gaskell as a “teacher-bashing” movie and then virtually blacked-out across Canada, with the exception of a few Toronto cinemas. Never underestimate the influence of our educational establishment.

5. School Closure Debacle

Community school advocates lost ground, often in small town and rural areas suffering severe declining enrolments. Small victories in Nova Scotia’s Antigonish and Colchester counties were offset by the relentless march of school closures elsewhere. The Ontario scene was marked by the forced closure of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s only high school and the fizzling of two Ontario citizen’s action groups, Save Our Schools, and the Middlesex-based Community Schools Alliance.

Over to You

Why are Canadians so averse to “telling it like it is” in our education system?  What’s your reaction to my highly subjective list?  Looking back over 2010, what has Educhatter missed? What do you think of his rankings?  What value, if any, do you see in compiling such year-end-lists?

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The initial post-mortems on the “Oh-Ohs” have now appeared. Celebrity couples, rogues, fraudsters, technology, pop culture, and even the new lexicon dominated those conventional end-of-decade features. Yet curiously absent from such rather cheeky appraisals was any direct mention of the world of education, one inhabited by millions of Canadian families.

Although the state of education consistently ranks high in opinion polls on Canadians’ list of public concerns, especially among the young adult (19 to 35) age group, it still flies largely below the radar screen.  Personal and family concerns, it seems, do not always find their way onto the public agenda.

A major reason for this scant national attention is, as pollster Nik Nanos recently pointed out, the fact that education in Canada remains the preserve of the provinces. And it’s not easy to take the pulse of a system spread over 10 provinces with some 5 million students, 375 different school boards and about 15,000 schools.

Throwing caution to the wind, here are my choices for the top ten “tipping-point” events over the past ten years, in no particular order:

  • Advent of Google and Wikipedia

Google provided finger-tip access to all types of information and online “Open Source” resources like Wikipedia replaced library encyclopedias and revolutionized the whole concept of student research.

  • 9/11 and School Security

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought the “War on Terrorism” home and the schools responded with stricter security policies, entrance door buzzers, and cameras – and parents armed their children with cellphones, citing personal security concerns.

  • Public Acceptance of School Rankings

Public education authorities gave ground in the ongoing struggle over standardized student testing and the ranking of schools, responding to the Provincial Report Cards, initiated by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute and extended, in 2003, by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) ranking all public high schools in Atlantic Canada.

  • The Harry Potter Phenomenon

Schoolchildren were captivated by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter seven-book series, culminating with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) and the series may not only have created a new generation of readers, but given the printed word a second chance with our children.

  • The SMART Board Craze

Schools and school districts experimented with “one-to-one” laptop systems, pioneered in New England , Ontario’s Peel Region Board, and ritzy private schools, but, with the introduction of SMART Boards in the early 2000s, many more jumped on the latest bandwagon, attracted by the snazzy “interactive whiteboard” technology and the much more affordable one-per-classroom model.

  • Addiction to Social Networking

The 2000s saw the emergence of “digital teens” armed with smartphones and living a so-called “online adolescence,” best exemplified by a virtual addiction to sites like Facebook, which enjoyed  its highest penetration rates in Canadian cities like Toronto.

  • The Opening of Toronto’s Africentric School

Less than two years after a fierce public debate, the Toronto District School Board opened Canada’s first Africentric Alternative School in September 2009, aimed at reducing the alarming 40 per cent dropout rate among black students and modelled after earlier projects in the United States and North Preston, NS.

  • The Revival of All-Boys Schools

Single sex boys’ education was long considered quite unusual (and limited to a group of traditional Canadian private schools supported by a small worldwide Boys’ Schools Coalition), but in late October 2009, Toronto District School Board director Chris Spence unveiled a proposal for the first all-boy school in Canada’s elementary public school system.

  • The Homework Backlash

Piling on the homework became more popular in the 1990s and educational progressives, sparked by Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999) and an influential 2008 OISE/Toronto research report, convinced many school boards to back off on homework demands, particularly in the early grades.

  • The Spectre of School Closures

The most recent wave of school closures was the hottest local education issue, spawning major province-wide “Save our Schools” resistance movements in Ontario, British Columbia, and English Quebec and provoking intense local skirmishes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Vancouver, Halifax, and Bass River, NS.

Education remains too often an afterthought in the mainstream media. Even though a 2007 Canadian Education Association survey reported that Canadian’s level of confidence in education had fallen dramatically since 1994, that alarm bell has gone largely unheeded. The Globe and Mail’s decade review provided yet another classic example of this blindspot. Although revered by a whole generation of Canadian kids and their parents, the September 2001 passing of CBC-TV’s Mr. Dressup, Ernie Coombs, received no mention whatsoever.

Reprinted from The Globe and Mail, January 6, 2010. (Web Exclusive Commentary)

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