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Archive for the ‘Education Research’ Category

The title of the late Denis John Cassivi‘s 1981 book, Education and the Cult of Modernism, caught my eye.  I spotted it referenced  in my well-worn copy of  Andrew Nikiforuk’s  School’s Out and that’s what first piqued my interest. After obtaining one of the few remaining copies from a local rare bookstore, Dustjacket Books and Treasures, it quickly became apparent that this was not a quick read, but rather a deep, philosophical and probing exploration of the nature and purpose of education itself. Brilliant, incisive, idiosyncratic and sadly forgotten.

“What difference  do elaborate buildings, nifty class schedules and computerized timetables make if the children are not learning?”  That’s a pretty fundamental question and typical of the multitude of insights to be gleaned, even today,  from this little book, published by Cassivi’s research institute and modestly sub-titled, “A Personal Observation.”  We learn, through the book, that such things, the products of “modernism,” are impoverishing education. He sees them as mere ‘bobbles’ or surface preoccupations that exemplify the “destructive impact” of an “educational experiment” he labels “modernism.” No wonder Andrew Nikiforuk (above) was drawn to his ideas.

His extended essay attempts to identify and explain “modernism” as a new ideology and to alert us to its excesses and warn us of its destructive capabilities. Cassivi sees it as “a cult” because in the 1980s, in his view, it was the “dominant force” which had gained “widespread acceptance in the face of countless rational limitations.” It was a form of ideological “theism” which he described as “secular-narcissistic.” Much like radical cults in the Ancient world or the Jonesvile Cult in Guyana, the predominant thinkers were possessed of their vision and viewed everyone else with suspicion (pp, 1-2).  While “modernism” claimed to be a further evolution of Enlightenment ‘liberalism,’ it was not at all — but rather an irrational mutation borne of the present age.

“Modernism” was, in Cassivi’s reading, a false god which had “become an end in itself.”  The purpose and aims of today’s education were being subsumed by it and we were losing our way.  “What we are doing in schools, and why?” was no longer being asked because modernization was an end in itself. One can only imagine what Cassivi would have thought of “globalization” or “21st century skills.”

The “Cult of Modernism” was far from benign because it was corrosive in the world of education.  According to Cassivi, it was destructive of western educational tradition because it exhibited eight rather destructive characteristics: the perversion of democracy, intolerance, relativity of knowledge, realivity of values, rejection of personal responsibility, narcissism, process orientation, and rejection of the old (pp. 7-24).

The aims and purposes of contemporary education were now, in his view, subordinated to modernism.  Leading “education progressives” were completely enraptured with modernism. Instead of steering a steady path and respecting past legacies, they “foster a relativity of knowledge and belief often manifested in the justification of bizarre programs and activities” (p. 39).

Cassivi’s analysis of modernist excesses extended to nearly every corner of education: administration, teaching, teacher education, curriculum priorities, special education and career education (pp. 57-129. Every section of the book contains searing insights and observations.

Educational research did not escape his attention. As a leading education researcher at the time, his critique carried quite a sting. ” Education researchers, ” he observed, ” are that breed of mankind who have made a career out of pursuing senseless questions with a vigor and technical precision that makes the exercise both bizarre and extravagant.”  He thought they only asked questions that had self-evident answers: “How many people in _____ like universities and to what extent?” “Do teachers in _____ use overhead projectors in their classrooms and how often and under what circumstances?”

Today’s researchers can still fall into that trap with rather predictable research questions.  A few possible examples of the mindset: “Does IT assist teachers in ‘personalizing learning?” and “What are schools doing to adversely affect “student well-being”?  Perhaps you can spot real examples.

The author himself could not quite bring himself to conducting such research. His Saint Mary’s University M.A. Thesis on teacher training in Nova Scotia stands out, even today. “What do teachers think about the quality of teachers’ college training?”  The short version of his  answer: “bloody awful.”  It was a worthwhile project, but it depressed him because it was “the stuff of which careers are made.”

Cassivi’s book was simply one small chapter in an incredibly diverse and active professional career in secondary schools, adult education and community development. Ten years ago, on November 11, 2008, Cassivi of Howie Centre, passed away in Sydney, Cape Breton, following a long battle with cancer.  He was a true life-long learner. His early teaching career included various high schools throughout the province, as well as St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent University and McGill University in Montreal. His studies landed him a post as visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, where he was associated with Clair College and the Cambridge Institute of Education.

Cassivi was a true innovator in adult and career education. In 1979, he was appointed program director of continuing education at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, N.S., and completed a 20-year career with the university. During this period he was appointed research assistant for the Royal Commission on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia. He became registrar at UCCB in 1994 and founded many lighthouse programs of teacher and leadership development across the Maritimes. In his sixties, he was awarded a doctoral fellowship for study at the University of London, England.

His official obituary is very extensive, but makes no specific reference to his classic work, Education and the Cult of Modernism.  It ends with these lines: “His special interest was in promoting critical thinking for active, mature participation in the community by confronting superstition, bigotry, prejudice and greed. Denis will be sorely missed by the educational and academic community.” Now you know why.

What was Cape Breton educator Denis Cassivi’s sadly forgotten jeremiad getting at?  Why did former Globe and Mail education columnist Andrew Nikiforuk take note of the book? What has changed in Canadian education since the early 1980s?  Is it too late to absorb some of his lessons and apply them to today’s challenges? Or is it all better, left forgotten? 

 

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A sweeping Nova Scotia education reform report, Dr. Avis Glaze’s Raise the Bar, is now attracting an incredible amount of scrutiny in the regional media, among academics, and flocks of tweeting ‘parakeets’ on social media.  As one of Canada’s outstanding educators with impeccable Ontario Institute for Studies in Education credentials, the controversy might strike most Canadian education researchers as downright bizarre. In a field – provincial education policy- not known for stellar, evidence-based research, it is also peculiar and unusual enough to warrant some serious investigation.

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Two external assessors, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski, have now weighted-in with a 3 1/2 page typed “third party review” commissioned by the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU).  Its arrival was announced in an NSTU News Release (February 20, 2018) with a proposed headline: “Third party review calls into question the validity of the Glaze report.”  The release date is significant because it was timed to arrive as the province’s teachers were about to vote on whether to take “strike action” to slow down or derail the Nova Scotia government’s plan to proceed with legislation to implement most of Glaze’s recommendations.

The “third party review” was presented by the NSTU as not just a critique of Glaze’s research methodology, but as evidence that the whole initiative was somehow based upon “flawed research” and should be paused or perhaps abandoned. Education research conducted by and for teachers unions is not necessarily suspect or bad for that matter — and much that is conducted by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) stands up well and contributes to informed public policy discussion.

One of the biggest problems confronting education research everywhere is what is termed “bias confirmation.”  Once you are attuned to the logical fallacy, it’s relatively easy to spot.  In this case, the evidence jumps right out in the first paragraph of the short piece. “When embarking on a radical, systematic restructure, we expect policy makers to use the best information available to inform their policy decisions.,” Thompson and Rutkowski state, before adding a qualifier worth examining: “That said, education has become a “marketplace of ideas’ with policy soothsayers plying their trade in a lucrative international market.

Clearly the two academics are framing the work of one of Canada’s leading educators as that of one of those “policy soothsayers” engaged in a “lucrative” international business.  They also describe the proposed reforms, several times, as “radical” rather than “transformative” and summarize the contents of the report in a way that highlights its disruptive-ness.  “Disbanding school boards,””setting up a College of Teachers,” and “removing principals and vice principals” from the NSTU  are the only three of the 22 recommendations actually referenced in their review.  They also happen to be the three major sticking points for the union.

The NSTU commissioned “third party review” focuses rather narrowly on Glaze’s survey research methodology rather than the substance of her documentary research based upon more than 70 written submissions and NSSBA research conducted by David MacKinnon of Acadia for the Nova Scotia School Board’s Association (NSSBA). The researchers are, indirectly, slagging all those who submitted briefs informed by research evidence.  What’s most interesting about the short type-script is that it provides an analysis of the methodology in a short piece with no academic references. Most scholarly reviews at least cite sources and provide parenthetic references to supporting documents.

The two researchers are quite effective at picking-apart the survey research methodology and many of their points are well taken and legitimate, even if such quantitative lapses are quite common in public policy research.  The Glaze Report survey was rather simplistic and the results hard to quantify, but — in fairness– the wording was easy to understand and accessible to most Nova Scotians. You can also argue that open-ended questions are more likely to elicit honest, straightforward answers. It was, keep in mind, just one aspect of Glaze’s primarily research-driven project.

Being parachuted into Nova Scotia for such an assignment is not a problem in and of itself, if the researchers demonstrate some grasp of the total context and larger policy environment.  In this case, Thompson and Rutkowski, approach the report as a document in isolation and not part of a continuum of education policy debate and development.

A few examples demonstrate how imKids&LearningFirstportant it is to properly “read” a policy environment before weighing in to render a judgement on one particular document. If Thompson and Rutkowski  had compared the Glaze Report with the earlier Nova Scotia NDP policy plan, Kids & Learning First (February 2012), they might have reached different conclusions.  That education reform plan came in a glossy, 35-pager with lots of photos and  containing no bibliography. Little or no direct reference was even made to Dr. Ben Levin’s 2011-12 education policy “literature review.”

Looking at the Glaze Report as a continuation of the Myra Freeman Commission of 2013-14 also casts the whole exercise in a different policy context.  The Freeman Report (October 2014) was actually based on a province-wide survey that netted over 19,000 responses and recommended (R 2.6 and R 2.7) that the Government introduce a more robust “performance management system” and “consider” removing “supervisory staff” including principals from the union.  Even though one out of every three teachers (3,167) completed the survey, leading members of the NSTU criticized the Freeman Committee for poor research methodology and the wording of its survey questions.

NSTeacherReformThreeRsThe recent third party review also makes no reference whatsoever to the most critical piece in situating this particular set of proposed reforms. One would expect that the academics might make some reference to the Nova Scotia Education plan known as The Three R’s, the most recent statement of education policy. If they had consulted that document in their research, they would have discovered that the Department publicly declared its intention to negotiate the key points in contention at the bargaining table.  We understand that the NSTU (behind closed doors) refused to discuss the proposals now featured in the Glaze Report.

All of this does raise the larger question about the state of Canadian education policy research and why organizations such as the NSTU might go further afield in search of researchers. Teaching and learning research lags significantly here in Canada where – with few exceptions – faculties of education are simply not producing ground-breaking, evidence-based research on critical curriculum and pedagogical issues. Compared to Britain and the United States, where the education debate has spawned hundreds of government and independent research institutes, Canada continues to show a dearth of research activity, especially outside the University of Toronto orbit of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). 

The authors might want to do a little more research on Dr. Avis Glaze. If and when they do, they will likely discover that this so-called “policy soothsayer” is revered (outside of Nova Scotia) as an outstanding OISE-trained researcher who, as Ontario Superintendent of Student Achievement, introduced and led the province’s first “What Works” Research-Informed Policy program, producing dozens of research briefs aimed at improving teaching and learning. She will survive a three page type-script note with no supporting references.

Educational research is improving, in part because of Dr. Glaze and a small group of education scholars, but it still has a bad name.  Instead of attacking education issues and problems, conducting evidence-based research, and letting the evidence suggest solutions, many practitioners continually engage in research driven by “bias confirmation.” We all have to guard against it in our work.  One of the most popular topics featured in Educational Leadership is the scourge of “politically-driven” education research.  It’s challenging to rise above it and Dr. Glaze is one education researcher who exemplifies the kind of research that Canadian K-12 education needs more of.

What’s the problem with most Canadian K-12 education policy research?  Should education policy documents be more closely scrutinized and assessed through a research lens?  What constitutes a legitimate “third party peer review”?  Should researchers analyzing documents be well grounded in the evolving education policy world? How can we separate “good” education research from the regular fare of commissioned studies? What needs to be done to clean up the field? 

 

 

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Teachers are talking and raising alarm bells about the impact of marijuana legalization on students and our high schools – and the real daily challenges that lie ahead. This is a head’s up – we should all be listening to those on the front lines of education.

Seven American states and the District of Columbia have followed the early adopter, Colorado, in legalizing the recreational use of cannabis and the movement is spreading to other states. Four of the seven states legalized its use in November 2016, and the Canadian government has established its implementation date later this year.

Looking across Canada, province after province has been announcing its implementation policy, focusing almost exclusively on the control and regulation of the previously illegal substance, provoking fierce debates over who will reap most of the the exise tax windfall and  whether cannabis will be sold in government stores or delegated to heavily regulated private vendors. All of the provincial policy pronouncements claim that the policy will be designed to protect “public health and safety” and safeguard “children and youth”  from the “harmful effects.”

Marijuana legalization policy across Canada is a top-down federal initiative driven largely by changing public attitudes and conditioned by the current realities of widespread use of marijuana, purchased though illicit means. Setting the age of restriction, guided by the proposed federal policy framework, has turned out to be an exercise in reaching a “compromise” rather than heeding the advice of leading medical experts and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). The CMA proposed age 25 and then accepted age 21 as more “realistic.” It’s going to be 18 year-of-age in Alberta and Quebec, and 19 years-of-age in most other provinces. Getting it “out of high schools” was a critical factor in bumping it up to age 19 in most provinces.

Every Canadian province is complying with the federal legislation, but — in our federal system – it’s “customized” for each jurisdiction. The Canadian Western provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan have opted for regulating private retail stores, while Ontario and the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.), are expanding their liquor control commissions to accommodate retail sales of cannabis.

My home province, Nova Scotia, tends to find the “middle ground” in public policy and has done so once again. That’s why Nova Scotia provides perhaps the best point of entry into the Canadian situation.

On top of chronic absenteeism, ‘accept all excuses’ policies, and bureaucratic paperwork, most of Nova Scotia’s high school teachers will soon, as of September 2018, be battling a spike in marijuana use and greater peer pressure to smoke pot on the mistaken assumption that it is “harmless” at any age.

In the scramble to meet the federal July 1, 2018 implementation date, provincial authorities, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, are grossly underestimating the potential harm to student health, safety, and life outcomes. That much is clear after carefully examining the best background research, the October 6 to 31 survey consultation, and the December 7 policy pronouncement.

The Nova Scotia government, guided by the steady hand of Minister Mark Furey, has done a reasonably good job in responding, under tight timelines, to the immediate challenge of establishing a strict control and distribution regime, albeit dependent upon the traditional public sector apparatus and the NSLC stores.

The essential problem is that control and regulation is only half of the challenge – and it sends out implicit signals that, after the failure of the ‘war on drugs,’ softened public attitudes will now dictate policy, irrespective of the health harms inflicted on children and youth.

One in five young people between 15 and 24 years of age, according to a recent national study, report daily or almost daily use of cannabis. They also see marijuana as “much safer than alcohol and tobacco” and “not as dangerous as drunk driving.” Few either know about or seem concerned over the clear linkage between heavy use and early onset psychosis.

Three major education policy concerns are not being addressed, all of which are identified in the current research on the harmful effects of marijuana on children and youth up until age 25.  With the legalization of marijuana, evidence-based policy needs to recognize that:

  • Heavy marijuana use can, and does, damage age 13 to 18 brain development: A 2016 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse study confirmed the direct link to loss of concentration and memory, jumbled thinking, and paranoid psychosis.
  • Marijuana users perform more poorly in quantitative subjects requiring precision, like mathematics and senior science: Clear evidence was presented in 2017 by Dutch researchers Olivier Marie and Ulf Zolitz that ‘liberalizing’ rules also led to decreased academic success among Maastricht University students, and particularly for struggling students.
  • Legalization of marijuana increases the number of teen users: Early initiators increase their use significantly and overall reported use rises by about 10 per cent to one out of three teens, including previously low-risk students (New York University 2014, Oregon Research Institute 2017).

Medical researchers and practitioners have warned us that legalization carries great dangers, particularly for vulnerable and at-risk youth between 15 and 24 years of age.

One of the leaders in the medical field, Dr. Phil Tiboo, initiator of Nova Scotia’s Weed Myths campaign targeting teens has seen the evidence, first hand, of what heavy use can do at the Halifax QE II Infirmary Early Psychosis clinic. We will pay a price for not heeding the warnings of Dr. Tiboo about popular and rather blasé notions that marijuana is “harmless” to teens and “recreational use” is somehow “fun” and “healthy.”

One glaring example of the mixed messages was the November 2017 CBC Nova Scotia televised debate, entitled “Joint Venture,” a media production that actually made matters worse. It was all framed as a “cool” public policy about to propel us into the “green frontier. Watching and listening to the four panelists must have been terribly upsetting for doctors and high school teachers. Ill-informed comments went unchallenged, and no one spoke for educators who have daily encounters with students “high” on drugs.

High school principals and staff are facing a real test with the legalization of marijuana.  The old line of defense that using marijuana is illegal will have disappeared. Recreational marijuana will be more socially acceptable. The cannabis industry will be openly marketing its products. High school students who drive to school will likely get caught under new laws prohibiting motor vehicle use while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Fewer students will be abstainers when it is perfectly legal to smoke pot when you reach university, college, or the workplace.

We have utterly failed, so far, in getting through to the current generation of teens, so a much more robust approach is in order.  “Be firm at the beginning” is the most common sage advice given to beginning teachers. Clamping down on teen marijuana use during and after school hours will require clarity and firm resolve in the year ahead – and the support of engaged and responsible parents.

Legalization of recreational marijuana is bound to complicate matters for Canadian high schools everywhere. Busting the “Weed Myths” should not be left to doctors and health practitioners. When it comes to meeting this serious challenge, let’s get behind those on the front lines.

What’s really driving the move to legalize the recreational use of marijuana?  Where does that leave education authorities, school principals and high school teachers?  What works, if anything, in deterring teens in the absence of a law prohibiting open public use? Is it possible that teaching in high schools is about to get far more challenging? 

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Canada’s most populous province aspires to education leadership and tends to exert influence far beyond our coast-to-coast provincial school systems. That is why the latest Ontario student assessment initiative, A Learning Province, is worth tracking and deserves much closer scrutiny. It was officially launched in September of 2017, in the wake of a well-publicized decline in provincial Math test scores and cleverly packaged as a plan to address wider professional concerns about testing and accountability.

Declining Math test scores among public elementary school students in Ontario were big news in late August 2017 for one one good reason- the Ontario Ministry’s much-touted $60-million “renewed math strategy” completely bombed when it came to alieviating the problem. On the latest round of  provincial standardized tests — conducted by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)only half of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math, unchanged from the previous year. In 2013, about 57 per cent of Grade 6 students met the standard  Among Grade 3 students, 62 per cent met the provincial standard in math, a decrease of one percentage point since last year.

The Ontario government’s response, championed by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, was not only designed to change the channel, but to initiate a “student assessment review” targeting the messenger, the EQAO, and attempting to chip away at its hard-won credibility, built up over the past twenty years. While the announcement conveyed the impression of “open and authentic” consultation, the Discussion Paper made it crystal clear that the provincial agency charged with ensuring educational accountability was now under the microscope.  Reading the paper and digesting the EQAO survey questions, it becomes obvious that the provincial tests are now on trial themselves, and being assessed on criteria well outside their current mandate.

Ontario’s provincial testing regime should be fair game when it comes to public scrutiny. When spending ballooned to $50 million a year in the late 1990s, taxpayers had a right to be concerned. Since 2010, EQAO costs have hovered around $34 million or $17 per student, the credibility of the test results remain widely accepted, and the testing model continues to be free of interference or manipulation.  It’s working the way it was intended — to provide a regular, reasonably reliable measure of student competencies in literacy and numeracy.

The EQAO is far from perfect, but is still considered the ‘gold standard’ right across Canada.  It has succeeded in providing much greater transparency, but — like other such testing regimes – has not nudged education departments far enough in the direction of improving teacher specialist qualifications or changing the curriculum to secure better student results.  The Grade 10 Literacy Test remains an embarrassment. In May 2010, the EQAO report, for example, revealed that hundreds of students who failed the 2006 test were simply moved along trough the system without passing that graduation standard. Consistently, about 19 to 24 per cent of all students fall short of acceptable literacy, and 56 per cent of all Applied students, yet graduation rates have risen from 68% to 86% province-wide.

The Ontario Ministry is now ‘monkeying around’ with the EQAO and seems inclined toward either neutering the agency to weaken student performance transparency or broadening its mandate to include assessing students for “social and emotional learning’ (SEL), formerly termed “non-cognitive learning.”  The “Independent Review of Assessment and Reporting” is being supervised by some familiar Ontario education names, including the usual past and present OISE insiders, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Carol Campbell.  It’s essentially the same Ontario-focused group, minus Dr. Avis Glaze, that populates the International Education Panel of Advisors in Scotland attempting to rescue the Scottish National Party’s faltering “Excellence for All” education reforms.

The published mandate of the Student Assessment Review gives it all away in a few critical passages.  Most of the questions focus on EQAO testing and accountability and approach the tests through a “student well-being” and “diversity” lens.  An “evidence-informed” review of the current model of assessment and reporting is promised, but it’s nowhere to be found in the discussion paper. Instead, we are treated to selected excerpts from official Ontario policy documents, all supporting the current political agenda, espoused in the 2014 document, Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario. The familiar four pillars, achieving excellence, ensuing equity, promoting well-being, and enhancing public confidence are repeated as secular articles of faith.

Where’s the research to support the proposed direction?  The Discussion Paper does provide capsule summaries of two assessment approaches, termed “large-scale assessments” and “classroom assessments, ” but critical analysis of only the first of the two approaches.  There’s no indication in A Learning Province that the reputedly independent experts recognize let alone heed the latest research pointing out the pitfalls and problems associated with Teacher Assessments (TA) or the acknowledged “failure” of Assessment for Learning (AfL).  Instead, we are advised, in passing, that the Ontario Ministry has a research report, produced in August 2017, by the University of Ottawa, examining how to integrate “student well-being” into provincial K-12 assessments.

The Ontario Discussion Paper is not really about best practice in student assessment.  It’s essentially based upon rather skewed research conducted in support of “broadening student assessments” rather that the latest research on what works in carrying out student assessments in the schools.  Critical issues such as the “numeracy gap” now being seriously debated by leading education researchers and student assessment experts are not even addressed in the Ontario policy paper.

Educators and parents reading A Learning Province would have benefited from a full airing of the latest research on what actually works in student assessment, whether or not it conforms with provincial education dogma.  Nowhere does the Ontario document recognize Dylan Wiliam’s recent pronouncement that his own creation, Assessment for Learning, has floundered because of “flawed implementation” and unwise attempts to incorporate AfL into summative assessments.  Nor does the Ontario student assessment review team heed the recent findings of British assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou.  In her 2017 book, Making Good Progress, Christodoulou provides compelling research evidence to demonstrate why and how standardized assessments are not only more reliable measures, but fairer for students form unprivileged families.  She also challenges nearly every assumption built into the Ontario student assessment initiative.

The latest research and best practice in student assessment cut in a direction that’s different from where the Ontario Ministry of Education appears to be heading. Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress cannot be ignored, particularly because it comes with a ringing endorsement from the architect of Assessment for Learning, Dylan Wiliam.  Classroom teachers everywhere are celebrating Christodoulou for blowing the whistle on “generic skills” assessment, ‘rubric-mania,’ impenetrable verbal descriptors, and the mountains of assessment paperwork. Bad student assessment practices, she shows, lead to serious workload problems for classroom teachers.  Proceeding to integrate SEL into province-wide assessments when American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that it’s premature and likely to fail is simply foolhardy.  No education jurisdiction priding itself on being “A Learning Province” would plow ahead when the lights turn to amber.

The Ontario Student Assessment document, A Learning Province, may well be running high risks with public accountability for student performance.  It does not really pass the sound research ‘sniff test.’  It looks very much like another Ontario provincial initiative offering a polished, but rather thinly veiled, rationale for supporting the transition away from “large-scale assessment” to “classroom assessment” and grafting unproven SEL competencies onto EQAO, running the risk of distorting its core mandate.

Where is Ontario really heading with its current Student Assessment policy initiative?  Where’s the sound research to support a transition from sound, large-scale testing to broader measures that can match its reliability and provide a level playing field for all?  Should Ontario be heeding leading assessment experts like Dylan Wiliam, Daisy Christodoulou, and Angela Duckworth? Is it reasonable to ask whether a Ministry of Education would benefit from removing a nagging burr in its saddle? 

 

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The impending arrival of the researchED movement in Canada is no longer a closely guarded secret. In the current issue of Education Forum magazine, Randy Banderob, Executive Assistant to OSSTF president Harvey Bischof, does a truly fine job introducing Tom Bennett and his British grassroots teacher-research organization to thousands of teachers across Ontario and far beyond.  It captures well the independent spirit of its founder and the appeal to classroom teachers skeptical about initiatives regularly being “foisted upon them”by those far removed from the classroom.

Live heads (i.e., independent educational thinkers, research-informed teachers, and serious education researchers) are attracted to researchED for many different reasons. Few are completely comfortable spouting “positivism,” living in “research bubbles,” or carrying out provincial mandates that are not “research-based” or are demonstrably ineffective in today’s challenging classrooms. Many of them are featured in the first Canadian researchED conference program, November 10-11, 2017 at Trinity College, University of Toronto.

“Working out what works” for teachers and students in the classroom sounds like common sense. Reaffirming that priority and empowering teachers to challenge cherished theories and largely unproven teaching practices is what gives researchED its raison d’etre and what has sparked hundreds of teachers over the past four and a half years to attend its Saturday conferences in eight different countries on three continents.

researchED founder Bennett comes across, in Banderob’s Education Forum interview, as a straight-shooter in a field overflowing with ‘happy talk,’ ‘edubabble,’ and obfuscation. “I launched researchED,” he said, “because I wanted a safe space where people could come together… and have a (frank) conversation.” He was surprised that it was seen as “quite radical” at the time. Then he recalled a real zinger from George Orwell: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Bennett  and his researchED conferences give educators license to challenge prevailing orthodoxy, new venues to present research, and opportunities to network with educators across the English-speaking world. The founder likes to say that “researchED was launched with a tweet” back in 2013 and immediately attracted a groundswell of support right across the U.K.  That’s mostly true, but Tom Bennett’s book, Teacher Proof was a catalyst, and the time was ripe for a movement of resistance to education mandates based upon unproven theories.

Bennett’s researchED is a real breath of fresh air capable of firing up today’s frontline teachers, attracting leading researchers, and re-energizing education reformers everywhere.  For most, approaching educational change initiatives with a more skeptical eye comes naturally; for others, new to K-12 public education,  it’s nothing short of an epiphany. Once educators get a taste of researchED, it is much harder for the usual cast of global gurus, TED Talkers, and theorizers to to gain much traction.  The current emperors appear scantily clothed and less omnipotent and educational organizations (“stalking horses”) dependent upon provincial grant funding experience an existential crisis.

With the Canadian arrival of researchED, running with the herd becomes less fashionable and potentially less opportune for up-and-coming educators.  Educational platitudes, unverified statements, pet theories, and buzzwords, all part of the official lexicon, are put under the microscope and stand, or fall on the merits of their research base. Utilizing John Hattie‘s ground-breaking Visible Learning research, educators embracing researchED will, over time, be far more inclined to assess teaching methods in relation to “effect size” findings.

  • The mantra “21st Century learning” begins to look like high tech futurism without the rigour of the trivium.
  • Technology-driven innovations like “Personalized Learning” and “virtual schools” lose their lustre.
  • Pseudoscientific Theories supporting Multiple Intelligences, Learning Styles, and Brian Gym are exposed as examples of “voodoo teaching.”
  • The Science of Learning and cognitive research assume a much larger prominence in improving the effectiveness of teaching and levels of student achievement.
  • Explicit instruction gains new credence based upon recent research findings, including “effect sizes” on the latest PISA  tests.
  • Measuring what matters without making any reference to cognitive learning or subject knowledge has much less appeal, particularly for secondary school teachers.
  • “Mindfulness,” “self-regulation,” and “wellbeing” seem comforting until they are subjected to in-depth, evidence-based analysis and critical links made to the discredited “self-esteem” movement.

What can we learn from researchED now that it has arrived in Canada? Can researchED bridge the current divide between educators of differing ideological persuasions? Will Ontario teachers seize the opportunities afforded by the spread of researchED into that province? Over the longer term, will the Canadian teaching space be inhabited by fewer ‘battery hens’ and far more ‘free-range chickens’? 

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American education professor Peter W. Cookson, Jr., currently President of Ideas without Borders, recently set the education world atwitter with a futuristic October 10, 2017 Education Week commentary.  Under the eye-catching title, “Ten Disruptions That Will Revolutionize Education, Dr. Cookson proclaimed with declaratory certainty that “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology will prove significant for education” in the not-too-distant future.

His Education Week commentary provides a fine example of what Canadian journalist and author Dan Gardner has aptly termed Future Babble.”  In his 2011 book of the same name, he demonstrated that “experts” in any given field were just slightly better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. In addition, the more certain an expert was of a predicted outcome, and the bigger their media profile, and the less accurate the prediction was likely to be.

Reading Dr. Cookson’s rather ‘edutopian’ musings and mindful of the past record of modern day soothsayers, it’s fair to ask whether any of the ten “disruptions” will ever “revolutionize education.”

Let’s start by summarizing his hypothesis and reviewing his list of “creative disruptions” forecasted to “revolutionize” schooling. The advance of machines, according to Peter Cookson, was to be embraced rather than resisted like the plague. “The development of advanced artificial intelligence, or super-intelligence,” he contended,”opens up doors to discoveries never before imagined. While opinions vary about the speed with which superintelligence will develop, there is little doubt that within the next decade, the cognitive landscape will be very different than it is today.”

Here is the full list of purportedly positive “disruptions”:

1. Digital learners will rebel against intellectual conformity.

2. Learning avatars will become commonplace.

3. Participatory-learning hubs will replace isolated classrooms.

4. Inquiry skills will drive learning.

5. Capacities will matter more than grades.

6. Teachers will become inventors.

7. School leaders will give up their desks.

8. Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators.

9. Formal credentials will no longer be the Holy Grail.

10. Policymakers will form communities of continuous improvement.

His summation amounts to a declaration of faith in the new gospel of “21st century learning.” “If education stays stuck in the past, generations of students will be miseducated,” Cookson claims. “They (students) won’t be equipped to thrive in a world of new ideas and technologies. The current task of educators should be to embrace these changes with an open mind and consider how new disruptions can aid, rather than hinder, learning for all students.”

Cookson’s vision of a digital learning future proved tantalizing to leading education education observers and, whether intended or not, was seen as a provocation.  University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham responded tersely on Twitter: “My bold prediction: none of these 10 will disrupt education. None.”

All but one of the 16 comments on the post on the Education Week website dismissed Cookson’s forecast as either sheer nonsense or a threatening forecast of a dystopian future where teachers were supplanted by robots.  Most of the teacher respondents considered the commentary the hallucinations of a “21st century education” futurist.  Canadian education blogger and Math/Technology teacher David Wees rejected Cookson’s forecast entirely and provided a ‘reality check’ list of his own, pointing out the real obstacles to American educational advance, including the status and salaries accorded to teachers, inequitable funding and resources, and the stark inequalities facing students from marginalized communities.

Cookson’s forecast is so problematic that it is hard to decide where to start and whether there is enough space in a short blog commentary to take issue with each of his prognostications.  Since Cookson provides no research evidence to support his claims, you are expected to accept them as unassailable truths. If one thing is abundantly clear, Cookson exhibits a significant blind spot in his total neglect of the “knowledge domain” in his brief in support of embracing technology-driven. “21st century learning.”

Dr. Willingham is essentially correct in his critique of the education futurists. Since 2008, he has been sounding the alarm that the pursuit of “21st century skills” will prove unwise because the acquisition and application of knowledge still matters and will continue to matter in the future.  Without sound background knowledge, students have more difficulty mastering reading and are susceptible to online hoaxes such as the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus activity. He goes further in pointing out that mathematics, science, reading, civics, and history are more critical in K-12 education than what are termed “21st century skills.”

Being attuned and open to new research and pedagogical advances is desirable and but so is applying a skeptical eye when confronted with unproven theories. Willingham, for example, is not opposed, per se, to developing critical capacities in students, particularly in new media literacy.  Yet, he and other prominent edutopia skeptics, still worry that futurists are leading us astray and they certainly have past experience on their side.

Where are North American edutopian educators like Peter W. Cookson, Jr. leading us?  Where did he come up with the purported “creative disruptions”?  Is there any evidence, that such changes will improve student achievement or produce better informed, more productive citizens? Without radical changes in the socio-economic conditions of, and schooling provision for, marginalized students, can we expect much of an improvement?  And finally, is it sound thinking to put so much faith in the transformative powers of technology? 

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The educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational innovations come in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Education research is rarely applied where it is needed in challenging the assumptions of current orthodoxy and teaching practice. Only one out of every ten curriculum or pedagogical initiatives is ever properly evaluated, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ‘s Education Office, managers of the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA).

Growing numbers of classroom teachers, as well as serious education researchers, are looking for evidence of “what works” before jumping on the latest educational bandwagon. That’s the spark that ignited the British teachers’ movement known as researchED challenging prevailing myths, questioning entrenched theories, and demanding evidence-based teaching practice.

                            researchED founder Tom Bennett’s 2013 book, Teacher Proofwas 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 learning styles, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Brain Gym, and ‘soft persuasion techniques’ simply did not work in the classroom.  His work and that of leading researchED apostles like Daisy Christoudoulou and Martin Robinson has now spawned an international movement to demand research-informed teaching practice.

“We believe that the teaching profession is poised and ripe for change,” says Tom Bennett. “It should be a change where teachers and schools are guided by the best evidence available, not just the latest theories. That’s what propels our new, teacher-led organization.”

Surveying the state of Canadian K-12 education and the current alignment of research priorities, Bennett’s prediction may well bear fruit. North American and Canadian education research, mostly the preserve of faculties of education, once described as a “black hole” still gets little or no respect among policy-makers. High-quality research on the effectiveness of reforms is either weak, inconclusive or missing altogether. Is the mindfulness and self-regulation strategy the latest example of that phenomenon?

Much of the field is driven by political or ideological agendas where action research is used to mount a case for province-wide funding of ‘pet projects’ or unproven technology-in-the classroom innovations. Where education projects are supported by sound scholarship and evidence-based research, it too often has little influence on what is mandated for implementation in the classroom.

elearningred2016coverSchool system leaders and their provincial ministers tend to embrace broad, philosophical concepts like “21st century learning” and to mimic initiatives promoted by Pearson Learning, Microsoft and other international learning corporations. Top-down education policy and curriculum mandates like this tend to run aground when they are introduced to teachers as the latest innovation in teaching and learning. Without the active support of committed and engaged teachers they simply die on the vine and wither away, soon to be replaced by the next panacea.

Out of the testing and accountability movement of the 1990s and early 2000s emerged a ‘new managerialism’ – a whole generation of education management that mastered the rhetoric and language of “outcomes” and “accountability” with, sad to say, little to show for the massive investment of time and talent.  With standardized testing under fire, education lobby groups such as Ontario-based People for Education, are mounting a determined effort to implement ‘school change theory’ and broaden student assessment to include uncharted domains in social and emotional learning.

researchED is now in the forefront in blowing the whistle on innovations floating on untested theories. Popular notions that “schools are preparing kids for jobs that won’t exist” have been found wanting when held up to closer scrutiny. Current fashionable teaching practices such as “Discovery Math,” and “Personalized Learning” ,at least so far, simply do not pass the research-litmus test. It is, by no means certain, that introducing coding in elementary schools will work when so few teachers in the early grades have any background or training in mathematics or computer science.

Since September 2013 researchED has attracted droves of teachers to conferences in the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia, and the European Union. Next stop on this truly unique “British education revolution” is Canada.  The movement’s founder, Tom Bennett, will be the headliner of the first researchED conference to be held in Canada on November 10 and 11, 2017 in Toronto. 

ResearchED Toronto aims to attract a brand-new audience of teachers, policy researchers, and reform-minded parents  Tickets for the full conference are available at https://researched.org.uk/event/researched-toronto/  Batten down the hatches, the British are coming, and, once teachers get a taste of the experience, there will be no turning back.

Part Two of a Series on the researchED Movement.

Will the researchED movement find fertile ground in Canada?  Are there signs of a willingness to come together to “work out what works” for teachers and students? How entrenched are the ‘core interests’ upholding the current orthodoxy and inclined to inhabit their own echo chamber?  Will our “urban myths about education” continue to obscure our understanding of what really works in the classroom? 

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