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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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A recent New York Times commentary by American engineering professor Barbara Oakley has, once again, stirred up much public debate focused on the critical need for “Math practice” and why current “Discovery Math” methodologies are hurting students, and especially girls. “You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making paper-mache volcanoes, “ she wrote,but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure that she has a solid foundation in math.”  Mathematics is “the language of science, engineering and technology,” Oakley reminded us. And like any language, she claimed, it is “best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice.”

That widely-circulated commentary was merely the latest in a series of academic articles, policy papers, and education blog posts to take issue with the prevailing ideology in North American Mathematics education, championed by Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University’s School of Education and her disciples.  Teaching the basics, explicit instruction, and deliberate practice are all, in Boaler’s view, examples of “bad math education” that contribute to “hating Math” among children and “Math phobia” among the populace. Her theories, promulgated in books and on the “YouCubed” education website, make the case that teaching the times tables and practicing “multiplication” are detrimental, discovering math through experimentation is vital, and making mistakes is part of learning the subject.

Boaler has emerged in recent years as the leading edu-guru in Mathematics education with a wide following, especially among elementary math teachers. Under the former Ontario Kathleen Wynne government, Boaler served as a prominent, highly visible member of the Math Knowledge Network (MKN) Advisory Council charged with advancing the well-funded Math Renewal Strategy.” Newsletters generated by the MKN as part of MRS Ontario featured inspirational passages from Jo Boaler exhorting teachers to adopt ‘fun’ strategies and to be sensitive to “student well-being.”

While Boaler was promoting her “Mathematics Mindset” theories, serious questions were being raised about the thoroughness of her research, the accuracy of her resources, and the legitimacy of her claims about what works in the Math classroom. Dr. Boaler had successfully weathered a significant challenge to her scholarly research by three Stanford mathematics professors who found fault with her “Railside School” study. Now she was facing scrutiny directed at YouCubed by cognitive science professor Yana Weinstein and New York Math teacher Michael Pershan.  Glaring errors were identified in YouCubed learning materials and the research basis for claims made in “Mistakes Grow Your Brain” seriously called into question. The underlying neuroscience research by Jason S Moser and his associates does not demonstrate the concept of “brain sparks” or that the “brain grows” from mistakes, but rather that people learn when made aware of their mistakes. 

Leading researchers and teachers associated with researchED are in the forefront of the current wave of evidence-based criticism of Boaler’s theories and contentions.  Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman, author of The Truth About Teaching (2018), was prompted by Jo Boaler’s response to the new UK math curriculum including “multiplication practice” to critically examine her claims. “Memorizing ‘times tables,’ “she told TES, was “terrible.” “I have never memorised my times tables,” she said. “I still have not memorised my times tables. It has never held me back, even though I work with maths every day.”  Then for clarification:” “It is not terrible to remember maths facts; what is terrible is sending kids away to memorise them and giving them tests on them which will set up this maths anxiety.”  

Ashman flatly rejected Boaler’s claims on the basis of the latest cognitive research. His response tapped into “cognitive load ” research and it bears repeating: “Knowing maths facts such as times tables is incredibly useful in mathematics. When we solve problems, we have to use our working memory which is extremely limited and can only cope with processing a few items at a time. If we know our tables then when can simply draw on these answers from our long term memory when required. If we do not then we have to use our limited working memory to figure them out when required, leaving less processing power for the rest of the problem and causing ‘cognitive overload’; an unpleasant feeling of frustration that is far from motivating.”

British teachers supportive of the new Math curriculum are now weighing-in and picking holes in Boaler’s theories. One outspoken Math educator, “The Quirky Teacher,” posted a detailed critique explaining why Boaler was “wrong about math facts and timed tests.” Delving deeply into the published research, she provided evidence from studies and her own experience to demonstrate that ‘learning maths facts off by heart and the use of timed tests are actually beneficial to every aspect of mathematical competency (not just procedural fluency).” “Children who don’t know their math facts end up confused,” she noted, while those who do are far more likely to become “better, and therefore more confident and happy, mathematicians.”

Next up was University of  Pennsylvania professor Paul L. Morgan, Research Director of his university’s Center for Educational Disabilities. Popular claims by Boaler and her followers that “math practice and drilling” stifle creativity and interfere with “understanding mathematical concepts” were, in his view, ill-founded. Routine practice and drilling through explicit instruction, Morgan contended in Psychology Today, would “help students do better in math, particularly those who are already struggling in elementary school.”  Based upon research into Grade 1 math achievement involving 13,000 U.S. students, his team found that, of all possible strategies, “only teacher-directed instruction consistently predicted greater first grade achievement in mathematics.”

Critiques of Jo Boaler’s theories and teaching resources spark immediate responses from the reigning Math guru and her legions of classroom teacher followers. One of her Stanford Graduate Education students, Emma Gargroetzi, a PhD candidate in education equity studies and curator of Soulscrutiny Blog, rallied to her defense following Barbara Oakley’s New York Times piece.  It did so by citing most of the “Discovery Math” research produced by Boaler and her research associates. She sounded stunned when Oakley used the space as an opportunity to present conflicting research and to further her graduate education.

Some of the impassioned response is actually sparked by Boaler’s own social media exhortations. In the wake of the firestorm, Boaler posted this rather revealing tweet: “If you are not getting pushback, you are probably not being disruptive enough.” It was vintage Boaler — a Mathematics educator whose favourite slogan is “Viva la Revolution.”  In the case of Canadian education, it is really more about defending the status quo against a new generation of more ‘research-informed’ teachers and parents.

Far too much Canadian public discourse on Mathematics curriculum and teaching simply perpetuates the competing stereotypes and narratives. Continued resistance to John Mighton and his JUMP Math program is indicative of the continuing influence wielded by Boaler and her camp. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Government is out to restore “Math fundamentals” and determined to break the curriculum gridlock.  The recent debate over Ontario Math education reform on Steve Paikin’s TVOntario program The Agenda featured the usual competing claims, covered familiar ground, and suggested that evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived in Canada.

What explains Professor Jo Boaler’s success in promoting her Math theories and influencing Math curriculum renewal over the past decade? How much of it is related to YouCubed teaching resources and the alignment with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ framework? Do Boaler’s theories on Math teaching work in the classroom? What impact, if any, have such approaches had on the decline of Math achievement in Ontario and elsewhere?  When will the latest research on cognitive learning find its way to Canada and begin to inform curriculum reform?

 

 

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Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous boom in the past decade and has recently begun to spring up in Canadian school systems. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, are hotbeds for promoting “student well being” through broad application of ‘mindfulness training’ and its step-child ‘self-regulation ‘ beginning in the earliest grades. Under the former Liberal Government of Kathleen Wynne, the heavily promoted Student Well Being Strategy’ attempted to integrate ‘mindfulness’ through what is known as the MINDUP curriculum.  The recent change in government presents a rare opportunity to critically examine the whole initiative, its assumptions, research base, and actual impact upon schoolchildren.

“Student Well Being” has acquired something of an exalted status in Ontario schools ever since the appearance of a fascinating November 2016 policy paper,’ entitled “Well Being in Our Schools, Strength in Our Society.’ The whole concept of  Student Well Being was rationalized using a popular narrative promoted by its leading Ontario advocates, Dr. Jean Clinton, a McMaster University clinical psychiatrist, and Dr Stuart Shanker, a York University psychologist who doubles as the CEO of the MEHRIT Centre, a Peterborough-based organization holding a patent on the term “Self-Reg” and marketing “self-regulation’ in schools.  While labelled an “engagement paper,” the educators and the public were invited to “provide your insights and considerations on how best to promote and support student well-being throughout Ontario’s education system.

Promoting “Student Well Being” sounds like the educational equivalent of motherhood, so it has, to date, attracted little close scrutiny. That may explain why the whole provincial strategy sailed through the normal process of review and was immediately embraced by educators, particularly in elementary schools. Few Ontario educators, it seemed, were troubled by the initiative and parents were, as usual with curriculum initiatives, presented with a fait accompli.

Growing concerns among leading researchers in the United States, the U.K., and the Netherlands about the widespread adoption of positive psychology, the implementation of the Goldie Hawn Foundation’MINDUP program, and the mindfulness and happiness movement. failed to register.  Judging from Ontario Ministry of Education and school board conferences held in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the provincial school system was totally enamoured with an approach that promised salvation and relief from stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, and today’s frenetic school life.

What could possibly be wrong with making Student Well Being a system-wide priority? It sounded harmless enough until you bore down into what it actually entails and begin to examine the promotional videos and classroom resources generated by the initiative. An early warning was issued by British Columbia teacher Tina Olesen  in November of 2012 on the Scientific American Blog. Her concerns about the potentially harmful effects of Hawn’s MINDUP program were prophetic. Early studies in British Columbia (K.A. Schonert-Reichel 2008 and 2010) extolling the virtues of MINDUP curriculum have now come in for heavy criticism, challenging the validity of the findings.

Mindfulness and meditation recently took a big hit in “Mind the Hype,” a January 2018 peer-reviewed article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. An interdisciplinary team of scholars, led by N.T. Van Dam, found that the benefits of “mindfulness and meditation” have been over-hyped and that the research evidence to support its widespread use is mostly shoddy. They are very critical of the “misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology” that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.

“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors wrote. They also pinpointed a number of flaws in the supporting research, including  using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.

“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago told Newsweek. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, he is one of the study’s authors. “A lot of the data that’s out there is still premature,” he said. Educators are not the only ones overstating the benefits of mindfulness.  “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover,” Vago said. “And they’re labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”

Mindfulness has spawned a completely new “mental health and happiness” industry. Mindfulness and meditation are a popular practice that brings in around $1 billion US annually, according to Fortune. The booming industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.  That’s what concerns Canadian mental health researchers such as Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health, at Dalhousie University. “Being happy all the time without feeling any stress,” he reminds teachers, is not normal.  Contrary to the claims of Mindfulness promoters, Kutcher points out that  “Anxiety Disorder is not the same as being stressed before an exam.  Handling such normal stress is, in fact, essential to being in good mental health.”

Where’s the research to support mass application of Student Well Being training based upon mindfulness?  Two leading University of Wisconsin  researchers , Richard J. Davidson and Alfred W. Kaszniak, addressed the problem squarely in their October 2015 American Psychologist research review.  Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, they found, lack a proper research base. “There are still very few methodologically rigorous studies, ” they concluded,  that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being.”

Studying the effectiveness of Canadian social and emotional learning (SEL) school programs is still in its infancy. One of the first such studies, conducted by Dr. John LeBlanc of Dalhousie Medical School and a team of researchers, systematically assessed over a dozen school-based SEL programs, including both “evidence-based” and “non-evidence based” programs. Five evidence-based programs (PATHS, Second Step, Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, The Fourth R), and 6 non-evidence-based programs (DARE, Lion’s Quests: Skills for Adolescence, Options to Anger, Room 14: A Social Language Program, Stop Now and Plan (SNAP), Tribes) were identified.

A systematic literature search was conducted for all evidence-based programs, and each program underwent qualitative analysis using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Implementation recommendations were then developed for all 13 programs. PATHS and Second Step received the strongest recommendations for school-based implementation, due to high quality empirical evaluations of the positive outcomes of these programs. Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, and The Fourth R showed promise and received provisional recommendations for implementation. Those five programs were recommended for use in Nova Scotia public schools. Eight other noteworthy programs were discussed. but deemed to require empirical evaluation before evidence-based recommendations can be made. Based upon the evidence gathered in subsequent Dalhousie Medical School studies, MINDUP would also fall into that category – not yet suitable for school implementation. The research study or toolkit for educators underlined the critical need for proper program evaluation to ensure that such SEL programs are “cost effective and yield maximal benefits for students’ behaviour.”

Why did the Ontario Ministry of Education adopt Social Well-Being in January 2017 as a system-wide priority?  Where is the evidence to support the implementation of a mindfulness-based initiative in schools across Ontario? Were Ontario parents ever properly consulted on this provincial curriculum initiative?  Given the recent research findings, is it time to halt the Student Well Being Strategy and to seriously look at the wisdom of proceeding on the current set of assumptions? 

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Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford swept into power at Queen’s Park  on June 7, 2018 with an explicitly populist agenda in K-12 education. Campaigning with the slogan “Ford for the People,” he pledged to reform the school curriculum, defend provincial testing,introduce a moratorium on school closures, and consult more with disaffected communities. Most of these planks in the Ontario PC education “promise package” were presented in plain and simple language that appropriated “back to the basics” philosophy and “common sense” reform.

Presenting these policies in such unvarnished “populist language” made it easy for the Ontario media to caricature “Ford Nation” and earned him the derision of the Ontario education establishment.   On what The Globe and Mail  aptly termed “the mourning after,” the core interests who dominated the 15-year-long Dalton McGuinty- Kathleen Wynne era sounded traumatized and completely disoriented.  Premier Doug Ford clearly scares the Ontario education “elites,” but such straight talk only endears him more to “Ford Nation” supporters committed to “taking back” the public schools.

Doug Ford’s PC Education promises, once dismissed as “bumper sticker” politics, will now get much closer scrutiny.  The fundamental challenge facing Ford and his new Education Minister will be to transform that reform philosophy and list of education promises into sound and defensible education policy.  It not only can be done, but will be done if Ford and his entourage seek proper advice and draw upon the weight of education research supporting the proposed new directions.

The overall Ontario PC education philosophy rests on a complete rejection of the Wynne Liberal Toronto-centric vision and education guru driven brand of “identity politics” in education.  “At one time, Ontario schools focused on teaching the skills that matter: reading, writing and math. This approach helped to prepare our kids for the challenges of work and life. Today, however, more and more of our schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.”

Premier-elect Ford’s campaign captured well the groundswell of public dissent over top-down decision-making and the tendency to favour “inclusion” in theory but not in practice. It was expressed in this no-nonsense fashion: “By ignoring parents and focusing on narrow agendas or force-feeding our kids experimental curricula like ‘Discovery Math’ the Liberals are leaving our children woefully unprepared to compete with other students from across Canada and around the world. And instead of helping our kids pass their tests, the NDP want to cancel the tests altogether.”

The Ford Nation plan for education appealed to the “little guy” completely fed-up with the 15-year legacy of “progressive education” and its failure to deliver more literate, numerate, capable, and resilient students. Education reform was about ‘undoing the damage’ and getting back on track: “It’s time to get back to basics, respect parents, and work with our teachers to ensure our kids have the skills they need to succeed.”

The specific Ontario PC policy commitments in its 8-point-plan were:

  • Scrap discovery math and inquiry-based learning in our classrooms and restore proven methods of teaching.
  • Ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.
  • Make mathematics mandatory in teachers’ college programs.
  • Fix the current EQAO testing regime that is failing our kids and implement a standardized testing program that works.
  • Restore Ontario’s previous sex-ed curriculum until we can produce one that is age appropriate and broadly supported.
  • Uphold the moratorium on school closures until the closure review process is reformed.
  • Mandate universities to uphold free speech on campuses and in classrooms.
  • Boost funding for children with autism, committing  $100-million more during the mandate.

Most of the Ford Nation proposals are not only sensible, but defensible on the basis of recent education research.  Ontario Liberal Education policy, driven by edu-gurus such as Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves and championed by People for Education was out-of-sync with not only public opinion but education research gaining credence though the emergence of researchED in Canada.   The Mathematics curriculum and teacher education reforms, for example, are consistent with research conducted by Anna Stokke, Graham Orpwood, and mathematics education specialists in Quebec.

Provincial testing, school closure reform and addressing autism education needs all enjoy wide public support. Former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education Charles Pascal, architect of EQAO, supports the recommendation to retain provincial testing, starting in Grade 3.  The Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, led by Susan Mackenzie, fully supports the Ontario PC position on fixing the Pupil Accommodation Review process.  Few Ontarians attuned to the enormous challenges of educating autistic children would question the pledge to invest more in support programs.

The Ontario PC proposal to reform sex-education curriculum is what has drawn most of the public criticism and it is a potential minefield. The Thorncliffe Park Public School parent uprising and the voices of dissenting parents cannot be ignored, but finding an acceptable compromise will not be easy.  Separating the sex-education component from the overall health and wellness curriculum may be the best course of action.  Tackling that issue is a likely a “no-win” proposition given the deep differences evident in family values. Forewarned is forearmed.

How will the Doug Ford Ontario PC Government transform its populist electoral nostrums into sound education policy?  How successful with the Ford govenment be in building a new coalition of education advisors and researchers equipped to turn the promises into specific policies? Where are the holes and traps facing Ford and his Education Minister?  Can Doug Ford and his government implement these changes without sparking a return to the “education wars” of the 1990s?  

 

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