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Archive for the ‘EDucational Theory and Practice’ Category

Every weekday morning, students across the nation arrive at school and file into their classrooms. Most students are ready and prepared to learn, but increasing numbers are reportedly anxious, “stressed-out” and hyperkinetic. Teachers everywhere find today’s students distracted by mobile devices and texting, wrestling with family issues, bothered by bullying, easily excitable, or simply anxious about academic expectations.  Child psychologists and parenting experts provide plenty of advice on how to help “stressed-out” kids cope in our schools and homes.

YogainClassBCMore children and teens claim to be “stressed” than ever before, but — strangely enough– the research evidence to support such assumptions is spotty at best. One of Canada’s leading authorities on teen mental health, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, observes that they are under “different kinds of stress” and perhaps less resilient than in the past. Why some kids can “handle the pressure” of competition while others “fall apart” is now attracting more serious study. Close observers of classroom culture are also noting the recent trend toward promoting the philosophy of “mindfulness,” including “Breathe In, Breathe Out” daily yoga exercises.

Stress is a normal part of everyday life and resilience is what allows students to not only survive, but to thrive.  The idea that “all stress is bad,” Dr. Kutcher insists, is a popular myth and “completely untrue.” In a March 2011 interview with CBC-TV health reporter Kelly Crowe, he clearly explained why without resorting to inaccessible medical terminology:

“Stress is useful for us, it helps the body tune itself, it is a method by which we learn how to adapt to our environment either by changing ourselves or by changing our environment.  There is good stress, which is positive, it helps kids learn how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and start all over again. That’s part of resilience.  That’s part of learning how to deal with life, but sometimes there’s also stress that is bad for you and part of the deal is understanding which is which.”

When does stress become harmful to children and youth? Here’s Dr. Kutcher’s answer, based upon the best research:

“Stress which is very prolonged or very intense can be harmful to people and the times in life when that stress comes on can also be more harmful than other times.  For example early in life; severe and prolonged stress early in life such as maltreatment or abuse can have impact not only at that point in life but also well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development. Severe and prolonged stress is not good for you.”

Reading recent news articles endorsing “Mindfulness in Class” and “Self-Regulation” made me wonder if advocates of such approaches made any distinction between types of stress, and whether “competition” was, once again, a bad word in elementary classrooms.  One Grade 5 class in Abbotsford, BC, taught by Julie Loland, addressed the problem with a “Mindfulness” initiative. In her “high needs” school, Ms. Loland utilized Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhism-inspired strategies to calm the children down and get them to focus on learning. “I felt kids came to school and were not ready to learn; they were battling stressful life situations,” she said. “Many students didn’t care about learning” and simply came to school to escape “their poverty.”  Regular yoga exercises were introduced to ensure “kids were open to the learning of the day.”

A Toronto region school, Massey Street Public School in Brampton, is implementing Dr. Stuart Shanker’s prescription from Calm, Alert, and Learning, a variation of “Mindfulness” known as “self-regulation.” In teacher Shivonne Lewis-Young’s Grade 3 and 4 classes, children sit on a blue carpet and padded balls rather than at desks and the day begins with passing a “talking stick” and asking each child “how do you feel today?”  Calming the kids down and teaching them how to control their behaviour with “self-regulation zones” is seen as the panacea. “It appears to be working” anecdotally, according to The Globe and Mail’s Education reporter, Caroline Alphonso.  It definitely makes the kids feel better, but where’s the evidence that it’s building confidence, strengthening resilience, or improving their grades?

More discerning education analysts and researchers, particularly in Britain, consider such “feel-good” strategies as mostly  harmless as school-based elementary-level experiments but possibly detrimental if scaled-up to a system-wide initiative.  Utilizing them in socially-disadvantaged schools might be doing more harm than good by further “degrading” the curriculum and lowering student performance expectations.  On this score, Dr. Kutcher has some further advice:  “We’re not here as a species and still surviving those millennia because we couldn’t adapt to stress. On the contrary, our brains are wired to adapt.  I don’t think we actually do anybody a service and we may actually do young people a disservice by trying to protect them from stress and trying to make everything nice and everything rosy and having a Pollyannish approach to life.  I don’ t think that does anyone any good.”

Respecting the pupil and challenging them to do their best remains the soundest, proven, and research-based approach, especially for kids who come to school with few social advantages.  School classrooms are populated by “Warriors” and “Worriers” and some of that outlook and attitude, whether high motivation or paralytic anxiety, is definitely parent-driven. American psychiatrist Douglas C. Johnson of UCLA, San Diego, a leader in the OptiBrain Center Consortium, specializes in training pilots and favours “stress inoculation” as a strategy: “You tax them without overwhelming them. And then you allow for sufficient recovery.”  That, Johnson claims, ‘helps diffuse the Worrier’s curse.’

If that sounds a little harsh and perhaps overly competitive, then Dr. Kutcher’s approach might be more palatable. “We have to learn how to deal with stress,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that giving kids techniques… or showing them how to deal with it is a bad thing. I think it’s probably a good thing but doing it over and over again and providing cocoons for kids I don’t think works.”

Are kids more stressed today or are we just more sensitive to it in our schools and homes? Do educational prescriptions such as “Mindfulness” and “Self-Regulation” help or hurt today’s students? Where’s the evidence that calming them down sharpens their intellect and produces improved performance? Is there any danger that mainstream elementary classrooms are becoming “therapeutic” rather than educative in their focus? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thirty-five years ago Peter McLaren’s memoir Cries from the Corridor not only exposed the gritty underside of Canada’s inner ring suburbs, but disrupted much of the complacency afflicting education authorities everywhere. The young Toronto-born, 32-year-old teacher published his personal diaries describing, in considerable detail, his real life school experiences in “The Jungle,” as North York’s Jane-Finch corridor was labeled in those days.  It was a totally authentic, brutally honest little book that attracted rave popular press reviews and was recognized as a surprise 1980 Canadian bestseller by The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine.

PeterMclarenMcLaren was breaking the established rules and telling tales out-of-school. Today, reading the original version, a heavily used 1981 PaperJacks edition, is to marvel at the young teacher’s graphic descriptions, searing insights and honest portrayal of life in the middle school trenches. Sensationalist magazine writers ate it up and, rather predictably, seasoned education faculty members like Gordon West pronounced the book of “limited academic utility” because it portrayed “individualized and isolated students” and stopped short of analyzing the total context of “working class life.”

McLaren’s little diary account did more to raise public consciousness about the plight of inner city schools than any Canadian education book ever written. Yet, as an aspiring academic, McLaren was troubled by the sensational media treatment labeling kids and communities as “losers” and stung by the theoreticians and what amounted to academic carping. Within five years, he had acquired a University of Toronto PhD in Education, been released from a Brock University lecturing position, and disappeared from the Canadian scene.

Writing Cries from the Corridor and pursuing graduate studies radicalized Peter McLaren and he gradually shed his reputation as a ‘hands on’ veteran inner city teacher insufficiently schooled in critical theory, Marxist literature, cultural studies, and feminist research.  He was essentially rescued in 1985 by an American-born radical scholar Dr. Henry Giroux who invited him to Miami University of Ohio to help start a Cultural Studies Center dedicated to advancing “critical pedagogy”and exposing the dangers of global capitalism dressed up in the guise of “neo-liberalism.”

Gradually, McLaren was transformed from a disciple of critical postmodernism into a secular prophet of Marxist-infused revolutionary pedagogy. He renounced his original venture, Cries from the Corridor, saying that he “grew to dislike the book” and went so far as to sate that it now “disgusted” him because it totally lacked “a coherent philosophy of praxis.” For the next thirty years, through six rewrites, as a key component of a larger book, Life in Schools, he managed to expunge the bad parts and generate a radical textbook to prepare teachers for resistance against global capitalism and its attendant problems.

If Giroux was has mentor, then the Brazilian radical scholar Paulo Freire became his North Star.  While at Miami University, Freire invited him to a conference in Cuba and he came into contact with Brazilians and Mexicans that shared his vision and ideas. After several sojourns to Latin America, McLaren grew disenchanted with postmodern theory and was drawn to Marxism. “I was haunted by the realization, ” he recalled in 2003, “that I had not sufficiently engaged the work of Marx and Marxist thinkers.”

Increasingly influenced by Freire and “Marxist anti-colonial projects” in the Americas, McLaren’s Marxism deepened and he saw “the Marxist critique” as the key to confronting “the differentiated totalities of contemporary society and their historical imbrications in the world system of global capitalism.” After eight years at Miami of Ohio, he taught as a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1993 to 2013 and is now Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project at Chapman University, Orange, CA.

LifeinSchoolsCoverProfessor McLaren has lost none of his zeal and is the author of nearly 50 books and his writings have been translated into over 25 languages.  Five of his books have won the Critics Choice Award of the American Educational Studies Association.  His most influential text, Life in Schools: An Approach to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, is now in its sixth edition, and contains his revised version of Cries from the Corridor. Among global radical scholars, he is now mentioned and considered alongside Freire, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and E.P. Thompson. Much like Freire, he embraces “revolutionary critical pedagogy” and seeks to “create pedagogical spaces and contexts for the oppressed to fashion their own understandings of their shared history of struggle.”

McLaren is what university students would describe as a strange bird with the unmistakable style of an ‘aging sixties radical.’  An April 2006 UCLA News story described him as “a cross between a rock star and a motorbike enthusiast.” When a foolhardy conservative UCLA grad posted a Hit List of the “Dirty Thirty” left-wing faculty, he topped the list and achieved even greater notoriety across the United States.

McLaren is an engaged scholar who devotes his teaching life to awakening students to the potential for radical social change. His faculty office at UCLA was crammed with revolutionary memorabilia and objects of art, including busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao.  His right shoulder bears a tattoo of Cuba revolutionary Che Guevera and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata is tatooed on his left shoulder. “Both struggled for peasants,” he told a wide-eyed UCLA reporter, and “I will die with them someday.”

What if — Peter McLaren had stayed in Canada and capitalized on the public awakening unleashed by his ground-breaking 1980 book?  No doubt his intellectual journey might have been different and perhaps less consumed by the internal doctrinal battles on the intellectual Left. In the company of critical education theorists Freire and Giroux his focus has shifted from the “real life experiences” of working class youth to more rarified debates over “revolutionary praxis, ” the “Achimedian fulcrum,” and enlisting educators in the “war of position.”   No wonder renowned American education researcher Michael Apple finds the language of McLaren and the “critical theorists” so “abstract and confusing.”

Reading and attempting to fathom Peter McLaren’s recent writings reminded me of a critical issue raised by the late British social historian E.P. Thompson in his famous 1978 essay, The Poverty of Theory. While Thompson was responding, at the time, to Stalinism and the preponderant influence of Louis Althusser on European Marxism, he also exposed the excesses of “mechanical Marxism” and “ideological totalitarianism” that tends to obscure rather than shine light on the real lives lived in working class communities.

Working people and youth, Thompson, claimed “made their own lives” and were not simply the victims of “a series of interlocking events” that amounted to “a post-facto determinism.” Getting absorbed with dialectical materialism, according to Thompson, can become “an excuse for not studying history.” He also reminded us of one of Leon Trotsky’s philosophical gems: “an ignoramous, armed with the materialist dialectic….inevitably makes a fool of himself.”

Try to imagine what the inner city children and youth in McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor would make of some of his recent writings on “critical revolutionary pedagogy” and the “totality” of “neoliberal hegemony.” Speaking the same language might be a good starting point if we are ever to really confront the very real, deeply rooted problems facing youth in today’s inner city and rougher suburban schools.

What really happened to the Peter McLaren who wrote Cries from the Corridor?  Why did he later renounce his role in  producing a brutally honest, unvarnished record of a young teacher’s struggles to reach students in a tough suburban school? What if — McLaren had encountered E.P. Thompson and focused more on exposing and documenting the real lives of struggling students?  Thirty years on, would McLaren have been less inclined toward guarding “proletarian science” and less absorbed the rather esoteric world of “academicism”?

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