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Archive for the ‘Education Research’ Category

Students and parents in the Pontus school in Lappeenranta, one of the first  Finnish schools to implement the “phenomenon-based” digital curriculum, are now disputing the broad claim made by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. Concerned about the new direction, parents of the children have lodged a number of complaints over the “failure” of the new school and cited student concerns that they didn’t “learn anything” under the new curriculum and pedagogy. For some, the only recourse was to move their children to schools continuing to offer a more explicit teaching of content knowledge and skills.

The Finnish parent resistance is more than a small blip on the global education landscape. It strikes at the heart of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s 2016 plan to introduce “phenomenon’ problem-solving — replacing more traditional subject-based curriculum in mathematics, science, and history with an interdisciplinary model focusing on developing holistic skills for the future workplace. Perhaps more significantly, it blows a hole in the carefully-crafted image of Finland as the world leader in “building tomorrow’s global citizens.”

The basis for Finland’s claim to be a global future education leader now rests almost entirely upon that 2018 global ranking produced by the World Economic Forum, based upon advice gleaned from an ‘expert panel’ engaged by The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.  While Finland has slipped from 2000 to 2015 on the more widely-recognized Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, that educational jurisdiction remains a favourite of global learning corporations and high technology business interests. A close-up look at who provides the “educational intelligence” to the World Economic Forum demonstrates the fusion of interests that sustains the global reputation of Finland and other Western nations heavily invested in digital technology and learning.

The 2018 World Economic Forum future education index was a rather polished attempt to overturn the prevailing research consensus.  The PISA Worldwide Ranking – based upon average student scores in math, reading and science — place Asian countries, Estonia and Canada all ahead of Finland in student achievement.  The top five performers are Singapore (551.7), Hong Kong (532.7), Japan (528.7), Macau (527.3), and Estonia (524.3). A panel of seventeen experts, selected by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sets out to dispute the concrete student results of an OECD study of 70 countries ranking 15-year-olds on their scholastic performance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit index runs completely counter to the PISA rankings and attempts to counter the well-founded claim that student mastery of content-knowledge and fundamental skills is the best predictor of future student success in university, college and the workplace. Upon close examination, the World Economic Forum index seeks to supplant the established competencies and to substitute a mostly subjective assessment of “the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape”( p. 1). It focuses on the 15 to 24 year-old-age band in some 50 countries around the world. Setting aside how students are actually performing, we are provided with a ranking based almost exclusively on compliance with so-called “21st century learning” competencies – leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, global awareness, and civic education skills.

The poster child nation for the World Economic Forum rankings is Finland, now ranked 8th on its PISA scores, because it has now embraced, full-on, the “21st century learning” ideology and invests heavily in technology-driven digital education. The balance of the Top 5 World Economic Forum nations, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada, rank 15th, 16th, 26th, and 5th on the basis of their students’ PISA scores. Most problematic of all, the future education ranking downgrades the current global education leaders, Singapore (7th), Japan (12th), and Hong Kong (15th).  Mastery of academic competencies is, based upon the assessment criteria, not relevant when you are ranking countries on the basis of their support for technology-driven, digital education.

Who produced the World Economic Forum rankings?  The actual report was written by Economist Intelligence Unit contract writer Denis McCauley, a veteran London-based global technology consultant, known for co-authoring, a Ricoh-sponsored white paper, Agent of Change, alerting business leaders to the urgent necessity of embracing Artificial Intelligence and technological change.  Scanning the seventeen-member expert panel, it’s dominated by the usual suspects, global technology researchers and digital education proponents. One of the more notable advisors was Chief Education Evangelist for Google, Jaime Casap, the American technology promoter who spearheaded Google’s Apps for Education growth strategy aimed at teachers and powered by online communities known as Google Educator Groups, and “leadership symposiums” sponsored by the global tech giant.

Most of The Economist Intelligence Unit advisors see Finland as the ‘lighthouse nation’ for the coming technological change in K-12 education. Heavily influenced by former Finnish education ambassador, Pasi Sahlberg, they are enamoured with the Finnish model of phenomenon-based learning and its promise to implant “21st century skills” through structural changes in curriculum organization and delivery in schools.  It’s not surprising that it was actually Sahlberg who first tweeted about the Pontus school uprising, likely to alert Finnish education officials to the potential for broader resistance.

Launched in 2016 with a flurry of favourable ed-tech friendly research, the Finnish curriculum reform tapped into the rather obscure academic field of phenomenology.  The new curriculum adopted a phenomenon-based approach embracing curriculum integration with a theoretical grounding in constructivism. All of this was purportedly designed to develop student skills for the changing 21st century workplace. The ultimate goal was also spelled out by Canadian education professor Louis Volante and his associates in a World Economic Forum-sponsored April 2019 commentary extolling “broader measures” of assessing success in education. Peeling away the sugary coating, “phenomenon learning” was just another formulation of student-centred, project-based, 21st century skills education.

The daily reality for students like grade 6 student Aino Pilronen of Pontus School was quite different. “The beginning of the day was chaotic,” she reported, as students milled around developing study plans or hung-out in the so-called “market square.” “It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves.” Her brutally honest assessment: ” I didn’t learn anything.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit not only ignored such concerns voiced by students and parents, but brushed aside evidence that it would not work for the full range of students. A Helsinki University researcher, Aino Saarinen, attributed the decline in Finland’s PISA education standing to the increasing use of digital learning materials. Investing 50 million Euros since 2016 in training teachers to use digital devices and laptops, she claimed was not paying-off because “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were” in math, science, and reading. The most adversely affected were struggling and learning-challenged students, the very ones supposedly better served under the new curriculum.

What can we learn from taking a more critical, independent look at the actual state of Finnish education?  If Finnish education is in decline and 21st century learning reform encountering parental dissent, how can it be the top ranked “future education” system?  Who is providing the educational intelligence to the World Economic Forum?  Is it wise to accept a global ranking that discounts or dismisses quantitative evidence on trends in comparative student academic achievement? 

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Every school year seems to herald the arrival of a new crop of education books seeking to “fix the education system.”  Some champion the latest educational panacea, others target the supposed causes of decline, and a select few identify a possible pathway for improving teaching and learning or making schools better. Despite significant investments in remedial programs and ‘learning supports,’ a yawning “achievement gap” persists between students from marginalized or low-income families and their more affluent counterparts and, with few exceptions, it has not closed much over the past fifty years.

Two new education reform books, Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap, and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage, raise hope that the sources of the problem can be identified and actually addressed in the years ahead. Each of the two books, one American, the other Canadian, offer markedly similar diagnoses and urge policy-makers and educators alike to shore-up the rather emaciated content knowledge-based curriculum. 

Prominent American journalist Wexler demonstrates that elementary school teaching and learning, once considered a bright spot, is so undernourished that most teachers now teach as though it doesn’t matter what students are reading or learning, as long as they are acquiring skills of one kind or another.  Manitoba high school teacher Zwaagstra, in one commentary after another, shows how teaching content knowledge has been downgraded at all levels and overtaken by constructivist experiments embedded in the latest “foolish fads infecting public education.”

Forays into American elementary schools, during Wexler’s field research, produce some alarming lessons.  First graders in a Washington, DC, inner city school are observed, virtually lost, drawing clowns or struggling to fill-in worksheets in a class supposedly based upon a rather dense article about Brazil. Teachers jump wily-nily from topic to topic asking students to read about clouds one day, then zebras the next, completely out of context.  Few elementary teachers seem aware of the science of learning or the vital importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension. Equally disturbing is the general finding that so many elementary teachers simply assume that children can acquire content knowledge later, after they have a modicum of skills. Such ‘progressive education’ assumptions prevail in most elementary schools, public, private and independent, almost without variation.

Zwaagstra’s book, composed of his best Canadian newspaper commentaries over the past decade, takes dead aim at the prevailing ideology fostered in faculties of education and perpetuated by provincial and school district armies of curriculum consultants and pedagogical coaches. Beginning teachers are trained to resist the temptation to be “a sage on the stage” and instead strive to be “a guide on the side.”  Zwaagstra completely rejects that approach on the grounds that it undermines teacher content knowledge and devalues the expertise of professionals in the classroom. He is, in this respect, speaking the same language as most secondary school teachers who have never really given up the notion that prior knowledge matters and that knowing your subject is critical to higher achievement in colleges and universities.

Zwaagstra speaks up for regular classroom teachers who focus on what works in the classroom and have learned, over the years, to be skeptical of the latest fads. Most regular teachers reading his stinging critiques of ‘discovery math,” whole-language-founded “balanced literacy,” and  incomprehensible “no zero” student evaluation policies will likely be nodding in approval. Not content simply to pick holes in existing theories and practices, he makes a common sense case for strategies that do work, especially in high schools —explicit instruction, knowledge-rich curriculum, and plenty of practice to achieve mastery.

Both Wexler and Zwaagstra go to considerable lengths to spare teachers from the blame for what has gone wrong in the school system. Prevailing pedagogical theories and education professors are identified as the purveyors of teaching approaches and practices floating on uncontested progressive education beliefs. When it comes to teaching reading comprehension, Wexler carefully explains why teachers continue to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills instead of being founded on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary. It is, in her analysis, “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even mention it.”  In Zwaagstra’s case, he’s very sympathetic to hard-working teachers in the trenches who cope by carrying-on with what works and developing ‘work-arounds’ when confronted by staunch ideologues or impossible mandates.

What’s really significant about these two education reformers is that both are strong advocates for, and supporters of, the international researchED movement out to challenge and dispel popular myths that have little or no basis in evidence-based research or cognitive science. Zwaagstra is a very popular presenter at researchED Canada conferences and Wexler is one of the headliners at the upcoming American researchED conference, November 16, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. 

The two authors are very much part of the great awakening made possible by the flourishing of social media conversations, especially on EduTwitter, where independently-minded educators from around the world now go to debate education reform, share the latest research in cognitive science, and discuss ways of grappling with common problems in everyday teaching.

Slowly, but surely, the global edu-gurus are losing their single channel, uncontested platforms and facing more and more teachers equipped to call into question prevailing teaching approaches and fashionable education fads. Moving forward is now less about finding and embracing education evangelists or grabbing hold of,  and riding, the latest fad, and far more about interrogating accepted truths and trusting your teacher colleagues to work out what works in the classroom.

What’s significant about the two books — Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage?  Now that the call for content-knowledge curriculum is back in vogue in the United States, will Canadian policy-makers and educators  begin looking more critically at their policies and practices?  With more educators embracing a knowledge-rich curriculum, what would it take to successfully challenge the the sugary progressive education consensus in elementary schools?  

 

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Progressive education and its principal banner-bearer John Dewey remain popular in Canadian and American faculties of education and within the teaching profession, particularly among elementary school teachers. Educational theories based upon Dewey’s voluminous writings still hold great appeal among a wide swath of professors within education schools, encompassing educational psychologists and teacher educators. Citing Dewey in your work is common; less common is delving into the intellectual underpinnings and tenets of Deweyism.  While the Philosophy of Education is withering as a field, Dewey scholarship remains a bright spot and a gathering place for the so-called “romantics.”

A recent analysis of John Dewey and the state of educational philosophy dared to suggest that the father of modern progressivism may be “doomed to fade” in the galaxy. The short 2019 essay, authored by Dewey scholar David I Waddington, Professor of Educational Philosophy at Concordia University, posited that the “romance” showed signs of coming to an end.  That decline and ultimate fall, he forecast with a twinge of sadness, was foreshadowed by the decomposition of “modernity” and the “accelerating failure of the progressive movement’s social project.” The progressive movement’s current difficulties, he concluded, did not bode well for the future of Dewey scholarship in education schools and, by extension, research-informed practice in the schools.

Education schools carry the burden of a reputation for occupying a “low academic status” in the university. In the course of explaining that lowly status David Larabee (The Trouble with Ed Schools, 2006), attributed it in large part to the tendency of American schools of education to embrace Dewey’s progressivism with something approaching a religious fervour. He claimed that education schools exemplified a “romance with progressivism” forged in the early 20th century as teacher education moved decisively towards a strong professional training orientation. On the teaching side, this tied-in with preparing teachers for the classroom; on the research side, it was exemplified in the focus on developing new testing systems and building the bureaucratic administrative structure of the modern school system. Faculties of education became, in Waddington’s words, “handmaidens to the public school system” absorbed in training teachers and administrators, and later, higher-level consultants.

John Dewey’s progressivism filled a vacuum by providing a serviceable educational philosophy.  Few teacher educators gravitated to educational philosophy and most were satisfied with a general understanding of Dewey’s theories. A significant number of education professors, then as now, were deeply committed to “social justice education” and found in Dewey an aspirational philosophy that accorded with their own commitment to the “liberal reform project” of schooling.

Most education professors were pragmatic educators with surprisingly little interest or passion for matters of theory, cognitive science or discipline-based curriculum. Teacher educators had some control over classroom practice, so this became their primary focus, and curriculum was ceded to the policy branches of education departments. Dewey’s writings fit the orientation because they focused on how to teach rather than what to teach. Studies conducted from 1993 to 2006 revealed that alarming numbers of education professors were poorly read and, in some cases, unable to cite a single book or author in their field.

Schools of education needed all the credibility they could muster and they found that salvation in Dewey, widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.  Many with a narrow focus on teacher preparation, psychology, or technical education latched onto Dewey and claimed him for what Waddington aptly describes as the “sad-sack home team.”

While the ghost of John Dewey still haunts teacher training schools, his influence is definitely on the wane.  The American education philosopher still has a hard core of camp followers, but his ideas embodied “the modern project” of reconstructing society through the reform of public institutions is in disrepute in the academy. “We are living amidst the wreckage of the modern project,” according to Waddington, and the “grand modern Deweyan metanarrative of education as the liberator of humanity now rings increasingly false.” Supporting modernity and the renewal of the liberal state is, after all, incompatible with “critical social justice scholarship” leaving Deweyites on a lonely academic perch.

Prominent critics of education schools are now piling-on with fresh evidence that those institutions are disconnected in other ways. Manitoba teacher and education policy analyst Michael Zwaagstra claims that most education faculties remain wedded to Deweyism and resistant to change.  “Education schools continue to downplay subject-specific knowledge and promote many of the same fads, albeit under new names,” he points out. “Today’s education students are fed useless platitudes such as the need to be a ‘guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.'” 

Zwaagstra’s critique has a familiar ring:  “Instead of empowering future teachers with the confidence they need to effectively manage their classrooms, education professors promote theories that have little practical use in actual classrooms with real students.” Teacher candidates give high marks to classroom teachers in their practicum sessions, but  ‘one of the most common sentiments expressed by classroom teachers is that their education classes taught them little about how to teach.”

Hopeful signs are appearing as some practicing teachers have begun to take matters into their own hands. Zwaagstra and a growing band of researchED supporters draw hope and strength from the British teacher research movement founded in 2013 by Tom Bennett and slowly spreading (teacher-to-teacher) throughout Canada and the United States. In sharp contrast to education school approaches and education guru-led school change, researchED is “entirely teacher-directed and gives teachers an opportunity to directly engage with the research literature.” Freed-up from the ideological conformity expected by modern day Deweyites, teacher presenters come from a variety of perspectives and disciplines and teachers are left to make up their own minds regarding what they hear.

Why does John Dewey and his brand of progressivism still pervade so many faculties of education?  Will Deweyism survive the decline and fall of modernity and be exhumed from ‘the wreckage of the modern project’?  Where do today’s teacher training programs fall short?  Does the emergence of researchED in North America provide a glimmer of hope?  

 

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Equipping the rising generation of students with what are termed “21st century skills” is all the rage. Since the fall of 2010, British Columbia’s Ministry of Education, like many other education authorities, has been virtually obsessed with advancing a B.C. Education Plan championing the latest iteration of a global education transformation movement – technology-based personalized learning.

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The whole concept of 21st century skills, promoted by the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), rests upon widely-circulated global theories about our fast changing, technology-driven, unpredictable future. Leading proponents of the new dogma contend that it is now essential to ensure that our youth are “equipped with the right type of skills to successfully navigate through an ever-changing, technology-rich work environment’ and ready to “continuously maintain their skills, upskill and/or reskill throughout their working lives.”

Much of the 21st century learning mantra went unchallenged and escaped critical scrutiny until quite recently. Today many of the education researchers challenging the 21st century learning orthodoxy are charter members of researchED, a British grassroots teacher research organization, founded by teacher Tom Bennett five years ago.

A growing number of outstanding education researchers, including Daniel T. Willingham, Dylan Wiliam, and Paul A. Kirschner, have been drawn to researchED rEDONTWillinghamCloseUpbecause of its commitment to scrutinize prevailing theories, expose education myths, and encourage more evidence-informed curriculum policy and teaching practice. That is precisely why I took the lead in bringing researchED to Canada in November 2017.

British Columbia teachers have given the futuristic B.C. Education Plan a cool reception and are, by every indication, ripe for teacher-led research and curriculum changes that pass the evidence-based litmus test.

A 2017 BCTF survey of teachers gave the B.C. Education Plan mixed reviews and has already raised serious concerns about the province’s latest iteration of a “21st century skills” curriculum. Teachers’ concerns over “personalized learning” and “competency-based assessment” focus on the “multiple challenges of implementation” without adequate resource support and technology, but much of the strongest criticism was motivated by “confusion” over its purposes, concern over the lack of supporting research, and fears that it would lead to “a less rigorous academic curriculum.”

Such criticisms are well-founded and consistent with new academic research widely discussed in researchED circles and now finding its way into peer-reviewed education Vo Raad/Magazine, Blik van Buiten, Paul Kirschner, Heerlen, 12 12 2013research journals. Professor Paul A. Kirschner and his Open University of the Netherlands team are in the forefront in the movement to interrogate the claims and construct an alternative approach to preparing our children for future success.

Research-informed educators are now asking whether the so-called 21st century skills actually exist. If these skills do exist, to what extent are they new or just repackaged from previous generations of attempted reform.  Why, they ask, have the number of identified skills ballooned from four in 2009 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) to 16 in 2016 (World Economic Forum).

What students need – and most teachers actually want – is what Kirschner has termed “future-proof education.” Based upon recent cognitive science research, he and others are urging teachers to take action themselves to ensure that evidence-informed practice wins the day.

The best way forward may well be deceptively simple: set aside the “21st century skills” paradigm in favour of the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continue to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing world.”

Kirschner and his research team propose a new “future-proof” basis for preparing students for success and fulfillment: 

  1. Cognitive and metacognitive skills are critical. Five of the identified GCM clusters emphasize such skills and suggest emphasizing a progression from concrete cognitive skills to more generic personality competencies.
  2. Authentic learning situations should be a high priority and the driving force for teaching, training, and learning. Such tasks help learners to integrate knowledge, skills, and attitudes, stimulate them to develop coordinate skills, and facilitate transfer of what is learned to new problem situations.
  3. Redesigning schools and professionalizing teachers in 21st century learning strategies are not likely to make much of a difference. Shift the focus to cognitive and metacognitive skills, linking learning with authentic, real-life situations and matching teaching methods with educational contexts and goals.

DidauTaxonomyRushing head-long into 21st century skills makes little sense to Kirschner and fellow researchers because the most effective and durable initiatives are those that are planned and staged over a longer span of as much as 15 years. He proposes a three-stage approach: 1) laying the building blocks (i.e., concrete cognitive knowledge and skills);  2) develop higher-order thinking and working skills; and 3) tackle Bigger Problems that require metacognitive competencies and skills. Much of the underlying research is neatly summarized in David Didau’s 2017 Taxonomy demonstrating the connection between long term memory and working memory in teaching and learning.

All of this is just a small taste of my upcoming researchED Vancouver 2019 presentation on the B.C. Education Plan.  It will not only analyze the B.C. version of 21st Century Learning, but attempt to point the province’s education system in the right direction.

Where did the “21st century skills” movement actually originate?  Where’s the evidence-based research to support 21st century skills projects such as the B’C. Education Plan? How much of the Plan is driven by the imperatives of technology-based personalized learning and its purveyors? Can you successfully prepare students for careers and jobs that don’t exist? Would we be better advised to abandon “21st century skills” in favour of “future-proof learning”? 

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University of Kentucky student assessment guru Thomas R. Guskey is back on the Canadian Professional Development circuit with a new version of what looks very much like Outcomes-Based Education.  It is clear that he has the ear of the current leadership in the Education Department of Prince Edward Island.  For two days in late November 2018, he dazzled a captive audience of over 200 senior Island school administrators with has stock presentations extolling the virtues of mastery learning and competency-based student assessment.

GuskeyThomasSpeakingP.E. I’s Coordinator of Leadership and Learning Jane Hastelow was effusive in her praise for Guskey and his assessment theories. Tweets by educators emanating from the Guskey sessions parroted the gist of his message. “Students don’t always learn at the same rate or in the same order,” Guskey told the audience. So, why do we teach them in grades, award marks, and promote them in batches?

Grading students and assigning marks, according to Guskey, can have detrimental effects on children. “No research,” he claims, “supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder. More often, low grades lead students to withdraw from learning.”

Professional learning, in Guskey’s world, should be focused not on cognitive or knowledge-based learning, but on introducing “mastery learning” as a way of advancing “differentiated instruction” classrooms. “High-quality corrective instruction,” he told P.E.I. educators, is not the same as ‘re-teaching.’” It is actually a means of training teachers to adopt new approaches that “accommodate differences in students’ learning styles, learning modalities, or types of intelligence.”.

Guskey is well-known in North American education as the chief proponent for the elimination of percentage grades.  For more than two decades, in countless PD presentations, he has promoted his own preferred brand of student assessment reform. “It’s time, “ he insists, “ to abandon grading scales that distort the accuracy, objectivity and reliability of students’ grades.”

Up and coming principals and curriculum leads, most without much knowledge of assessment, have proven to be putty in his hands. If so, what’s the problem?   Simply put, Dr. Guskey’s theories, when translated into student evaluation policy and reporting, generate resistance among engaged parents looking for something completely different – clearer, understandable, jargon-free student reports with real marks. Classroom teachers soon come to realize that the new strategies and rubrics are far more complicated and time-consuming, often leaving them buried in additional workload.

Guskey’s student assessment theories do appeal to school administrators who espouse progressive educational principles. He specializes in promoting competency-based education grafted onto student-centred pedagogy or teaching methods.

Most regular teachers today are only too familiar with top-down reform designed to promote “assessment for learning” (AfL) and see, first hand, how it has led to the steady erosion of teacher autonomy in the classroom.

While AfL is a sound assessment philosophy, pioneered by the leading U.K. researcher Dylan Wiliam since the mid-1990s, it has proven difficult to implement. Good ideas can become discredited by poor implementation, especially when formative assessment becomes just another vehicle for a new generation of summative assessment used to validate standards.

Education leaders entranced by Guskey’s theories rarely delve into where it all leads for classroom teachers.  In Canada, it took the “no zeros” controversy sparked in May 2012 by Alberta teacher Lynden Dorval to bring the whole dispute into sharper relief. As a veteran high school Physics teacher, Dorval resisted his Edmonton high school’s policy which prevented him from assigning zeros when students, after repeated reminders, failed to produce assignments or appear for make-up tests.

Teachers running smack up against such policies learn that the ‘research’ supporting “no zeros” policy can be traced back to an October 2004 Thomas Guskey article in the Principal Leadership magazine entitled “Zero Alternatives.”

Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra analyzed Guskey’s research and found it wanting.  His claim that awarding zeros was a questionable practice rested on a single 20-year-old opinion-based presentation by an Oregon English teacher to the 1993 National Middle School conference. Guskey’s subsequent books either repeat that reference or simply restate his hypothesis as an incontestable truth.

SpadyWilliamOBEGuskey’s theories are certainly not new. Much of the research dates back to the early 1990s and the work of William Spady, a Mastery Learning theorist known as the prime architect of the ill-fated Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) movement.  OBE was best exemplified by the infamous mind-boggling systematized report cards loaded with hundreds of learning outcomes, and it capsized in in the early 2000s. in the wake of a storm of public and professional opposition in Pennsylvania and a number of other states.

The litmus test for education reform initiatives is now set at a rather low bar – “do no harm” to teachers or students.  What Thomas Guskey is spouting begs for more serious investigation. One red flag is his continued reference to “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences,” two concepts that do not exist and are now considered abandoned theories.

Guskey’s student assessment theories fly mostly in the face of the weight of recent research, including that of Dylan Wiliam.  Much of the best research is synthesized in Daisy Christodoulou’s 2014 book, Making Good Progress. Such initiatives float on unproven theories, lack supporting evidence-based research, chip away at teacher autonomy, and leave classroom practitioners snowed under with heavier ‘new age’ marking loads.

A word to the wise for  P.E.I. Education leadership – look closely before you leap. Take a closer look at the latest research on teacher-driven student assessment and why OBE was rejected twenty years ago by classroom teachers and legions of skeptical parents.

What’s really new about Dr. Thomas Guskey’s latest project known as Competency-Based Assessment? What is its appeal for classroom teachers concerned about time-consuming, labour-intensive assessment schemes?  Will engaged and informed parents ever accept the elimination of student grades? Where’s the evidence-based research to support changes based upon such untested theories? 

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Quebec students head the class when it comes to mathematics. On the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests of Grade 8 students, written in June 2016 and released in early May 2018, those from Quebec finished first in Mathematics (541), forty points above the Canadian mean score of 511 and a gain of 26 points over the past six years.

The latest national results solidified Quebec’s position as our national leader in mathematics achievement on every comparative test over the past thirty years. How and why Quebec students continue to dominate and, in effect, pull up Canada’s international math rankings deserves far more public discussion. Every time math results are announced, it generates a flurry of interest, but it does not appear to have encouraged other provinces to try to emulate that success.

Since the first International Assessment of Educational Progress (IEAP) assessment back in 1988 and in the next four national and international mathematics tests up to 2000, Quebec’s students generally outperformed students from other Canadian provinces at grades four, eight and eleven. That pattern has continued right up to the present and demonstrated impressively on the most recent Program of International Student Assessment (PISA 2015) where Quebec 15-year-olds scored 544, ranking among the world’s  top education jurisdictions.

One enterprising venture, launched in 2000 by the B.C. Ministry of Education under Deputy Minister Charles Ungerleider, did tackle the question by comparing British Columbia’s and Quebec’s mathematics curricula. That comparative research project identified significant curricular differences between the two provinces, but the resulting B.C. reform initiative ran aground on what University of Victoria researchers Helen Raptis and Laurie Baxter aptly described as the “jagged shores of top-down educational reform.”

Over the past thirty years, the reasons for Quebec dominance in K-12 mathematics performance are coming into sharper relief. The B.C. Ministry of Education 2000 research project exposed and explained the curricular and pedagogical factors and subject specialists, including both university mathematics specialists and mathematics education professors, have gradually filled in the missing pieces. Mathematics education faculty with experience in Quebec and elsewhere help to complete the picture.

Five major factors can now be identified to explain why Quebec students continue to lead the pack in pan-Canadian mathematics achievement:

  1. Clearer Curriculum Philosophy and Sequence:

The scope and sequence of the math curriculum is clearer, demonstrating an acceptance of the need for integration and progression of skills. The 1980 Quebec Ministry of Education curriculum set the pattern.  Much more emphasis in teacher education and in the classroom was placed upon building sound foundations before progressing to problem-solving. Curriculum guidelines were much more explicit about making connections with previously learned material.

Quebec’s Grade 4 curriculum made explicit reference to the ability to develop speed and accuracy in mental and written calculation and to multiply larger numbers as well as to perform reverse operations. By grade 11, students were required to summon “all their knowledge (algebra, geometry, statistics and the sciences) and all the means at their disposal…to solve problems.” “The way math is presented makes the difference,” says Genevieve Boulet, Mount St. Vincent University Mathematics education professor with prior experience preparing mathematics teachers at Université de Sherbrooke.

  1. Superior Math Curriculum

Fewer topics tend to be covered at each grade level, but in more depth than in B.C. and other Canadian provinces. In Grade 4, students are generally introduced, right away, to Numbers/Operations and the curriculum unit on measurement focuses on mastering three topics– length, area, and volume  — instead of a smattering of six or seven topics. Concrete manipulations are more widely used to facilitate comprehension of more abstract math concepts. Much heavier emphasis is placed on Numbers/Operations as Grade 4 students are expected to perform addition, subtraction, and multiplication using fractions. Secondary school in Quebec begins in Grade 7 (Secondaire I) and ends in Grade 11 (Secondaire V) and, given the organizational model, that means students are more likely to be taught by mathematics subject specialists. Quebec’s Grade 11 graduation courses, Mathematics 536 (Advanced), Mathematics 526 (Transitional) and Mathematics 514 (Basic), were once quite different, offering the same range of topics but covered to a different depth. More recently, Quebec has revamped its mathematics program, and now offers three streamed courses, designated 565 Science Option, 564 Technical and Science Option, and 563 Cultural, Social, Technical and Science Option.

  1. More Extensive Teacher Training

Teacher preparation programs in Quebec universities are 4-years long, providing students with double the amount of time to master mathematics as part of their teaching repertoire, a particular advantage for elementary teachers. In Quebec faculties of education, elementary school math teachers must take as many as 225 hours of university courses in math education; in some provinces, the instructional time  averages around 40 hours.

Teacher-guided or didactic instruction has been one of the Quebec teaching program’s strengths. Annie Savard, a McGill University education professor, points out that Quebec teachers have a clearer understanding of ‘didactic’ instruction, a concept championed in France and French-speaking countries. They are taught to differentiate between teaching and learning. “Knowing the content of the course isn’t enough, “ Savard says. “You need what we call didactic [teaching]. You need to unpack the content to make it accessible to students.”

Teacher pedagogy in mathematics makes a difference. Outside of Quebec, the dominant pedagogy is child-centred and heavily influenced by Jean Piaget and behaviorist theories of learning. Prospective teachers are encouraged to use ‘discovery learning’ and to respond to stimuli by applying the appropriate operations. In Quebec, problem-solving is integrated throughout the curriculum rather than treated as a separate topic. Shorter teacher training programs, according to Boulet, shortchange teacher candidates and can adversely affect their preparedness for the classroom. Four-year programs afford education professors more time to expose teacher candidates to the latest research on cognitive psychology which challenges the efficacy of child-centred approaches to the subject.

  1. Secondary School Examinations

Students in Quebec still write provincial examinations and achieving a pass in mathematics is a requirement to secure a graduation (Secondaire V) diploma.  Back in 1992, Quebec mathematics examinations were a core component of a very extensive set of ministry examinations, numbering two dozen, and administered in Grades 9 (Sec III), Grade 10 (Sec IV), and Grade 11 (Sec V).  Since 2011-12, most Canadian provinces, except Quebec, have moved, province by province, to either eliminate Grade 12 graduation examinations, reduce their weighting, or make them optional. In the case of B.C., the Grade 12 provincial was cancelled in 2012-13 and in Alberta the equivalent examination now carries a much reduced weighting in final grades.  In June of 2018, Quebec continues to have final provincial exams, albeit fewer and more limited to Mathematics and the two languages. Retaining exams has a way of keeping students focused to the end of the year; removing them has been linked to both grade inflation and the lowering of standards.

  1. Preparedness Philosophy and Graduation Rates

Academic achievement in mathematics has remained a system-wide priority and there is much less emphasis in Quebec on pushing every student through to high school graduation. From 1980 to the early 2000s, the Quebec mathematics curricula was explicitly designed to prepare students for mastery of the subject, either to “prepare for further study” or to instill a “mathematical way of thinking” – reflecting the focus on subject matter.  The comparable B.C. curriculum for 1987, for example, stated that mathematics was aimed at enabling students to “function in the workplace.”   Already, by the 1980s, the teaching of B.C. mathematics was seen to encompass sound reasoning, problem-solving ability, communications skills, and the use of technology.  Curriculum fragmentation, driven by educators’ desires to meet individual student needs, never really came to dominate the Quebec secondary mathematics program.

Quebec’s education system remains that of ‘a province unlike the others.’  While the province sets the pace in mathematics achievement, a February 2018 report demonstrated that it lags significantly behind the others in graduation rates. Comparing Quebec’s education system with that of Ontario, Education Minister Sebastien Proulx points out, is “like comparing apples to oranges.”  The passing grade in Quebec courses is 60 per cent compared to 50 per cent in Ontario and the requirements for a graduation diploma are more demanding because of the final examinations. When the passing grade was raised in 1986-87, ministry official Robert Maheu noted, the decision was made to firm up school standards. Student achievement indicators, particularly in mathematics, drove education policy and, until recently, unlike other provinces, student preparedness remained a higher priority than raising graduation rates.

Quebec Math and the Rest – Vive le Difference

School systems are, after all, not always interchangeable, and context is critical in assessing student outcomes. As David F. Robitaille and Robert A. Garden’s 1989 IEA Study reminded us, systems are “in part a product of the histories, national psyches, and societal aspirations” of the societies in which they develop and reside. While British Columbia and the other English-speaking provinces have all been greatly influenced by American educational theorists, most notably John Dewey and the progressives, Quebec is markedly different. Immersed in a French educational milieu, the Quebec mathematics curriculum has been, and continues to be, more driven by mastery of subject knowledge, didactic pedagogy, and a more focused, less fragmented approach to student intellectual development.

Socio-historical and cultural factors weigh heavily in explaining why Quebec continues to set the pace in Mathematics achievement. Challenging curricula and final examinations produces higher math scores, but it also contributes to lower graduation rates.

* A revised version of this post was published October 22, 2018 by the IRPP magazine, Policy Options.

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One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 

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