Archive for the ‘Ontario Education Reform’ Category

Fifty years after its appearance, the June 1968 Ontario Hall-Dennis Report lives on in the philosophy and pedagogy that it seeded in the schools of Ontario and right across Canada. In its ringing endorsement of child-centred learning, its imagery of playful school children, its spirit of experimentation, and its flirtation with gradeless education, the Report left its mark and defined the limits of so-called “progressive education” for a generation or more. It also ushered in a student-centred philosophy harkening back to days of the renowned American educational progressive educator John Dewey that remains deeply ingrained in elementary education.

The “progressive education” mantra bequeathed by Hall-Dennis exposed deep divisions over core philosophy and preferred teaching practice.  Education professor Ken Osborne perhaps put it best in his 1999 guide to the Canadian education debate:  In its day, the Report was revered as “the shining star of educational reform,” but two decades later it was considered passe — and “painted as at best wholly-minded idealism and, at worst, reckless irresponsibility.” 

Child-centred teaching, teacher as facilitator, and learning centres many not have originated with the Hall-Dennis Committee, but all were sanctified in the Report and became preferred methodologies associated with ‘good teaching.’ From that time forward, child-centred approaches did become like a “Holy Writ” among elementary school teachers, while high school educators considered it symptomatic of “dumbing down” subject teaching.  A few smaller elementary schools, even today, like the Halifax Independent School, are explicit in their adherence to Hall-Dennis inspired progressive ideals.

One Toronto elementary school, Alpha Alternative School, founded in 1971, continues to hold a candle for the educational philosophy and approach to education espoused in the Hall-Dennis Report.  It also provides a lens through which to examine and take stock of the Report’s key principles.  The first line of the 1968 report “The truth shall make you free” remains today as the essential mission of Alpha and its 2007 satellite site, Alpha II.

Student-directed education inspired by Hall-Dennis springs from Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations enshrined in the 1968 report. Based upon that Declaration, the Report proposed fundamental principles for Ontario school education:

  1. the right of every individual to have equal access to the learning experience best suited to his needs, and
  2. the responsibility of every school authority to provide a child-centered learning continuum that invites learning by individual discovery and inquiry.

While the principles conveyed a spirit of openness, it was firmly committed to “progressive education” and surprisingly prescriptive about “how child-centred learning should take place.” The key tenets of the Hall-Dennis Report convey a sense of certitude that implies imparting a “new wisdom” in education:

The Child-Centred Curriculum

“The curriculum of the future must be child-oriented and must provide opportunities for choice within broadly defined limits. Teachers at every level, supported by qualified counselors, will be required to guide each child along his own critically determined path, far more flexible than a computer guide, but critical in the sense that the learning programs initiated and developed will best meet the needs of each child at the time best suited to his development. ” (H-D R, p. 52)

The Open and Flexible Learning Environment

“There is increasing evidence that children are often better taught in groups centered around interests, and as individuals, than in classes consisting of 30 or 40 pupils. Group teaching and individual learning programs break down the old formal class organization. But despite advocacy of clustering children around interests, supported by appropriate resource teachers, children, particularly young children, seem more relaxed and at ease when identified with at least one home teacher…., so that she may be aware of the child’s changing moods and responses. “(H-D R, p. 56)

The Student- Attuned Curriculum for Young People

“A good curriculum must meet the needs and expressed desires of pupils. It creates in the school a pleasant and friendly environment in which young children know that they are appreciated and accepted; in which maturing young people will find that they and their ideas are respected; and in which all pupils find interest and satisfaction in learning. It gives a realistic and objective exposition of society and its institutions. It encourages pupils to ask questions, to contribute further information, and to express their opinions freely, and it encourages teachers to answer pupils’ questions truthfully as often and as fully as possible. At the same time, such a curriculum provides for studies related to institutions of higher or further education or which are needed to obtain specific qualifications.” ((H-D R, p. 56)

Eliminate Grade Promotion and Curtail Examinations

“The curriculum must provide for the individual progress of pupils. To make this possible, two major innovations are indicated: complete abolition of the graded system throughout the school; and the use of individual timetables at the senior level. The introduction of graded textbooks and the placing of pupils in ‘books’ or grades undoubtedly improved education in Ryerson’s day…. But during the last fifty years, as it has become increasingly difficult to retard and eliminate pupils at an early age by failure, the graded system has become an anomaly…. [Formal examinations are] “arbitrary measures of achievement” and “concepts of promotion and failure” should be “removed from the schools not to reduce standards, but to improve the quality of learning. The evaluation of pupils’ progress should be a continuous part of the learning process, not a separate periodic exercise….” (H-D R, p. 72)

Page 93—Developing a Sense of Responsibility in Students

“Teachers can take definite steps to develop a sense of responsibility in children, such as: Have pupils plan and manage their own routines of study; Encourage pupils to suggest ventures in learning which they would like to undertake;Encourage joint or group undertakings; Reduce assigned homework in favor of pupil-planned study or practice; Apply only those rules that are necessary for the maintenance of a healthy, invigorating and pleasant learning atmosphere; Give pupils practice in making decisions of a personal and social nature. ” (H-D R, p. 93)

The Teacher as Guide at the Side

“The modern professional teacher is a person who guides the learning process. He places the pupil in the center of the learning activity and encourages and assists him in learning how to inquire, organize, and discuss, and to discover answers to problems of interest to him. The emphasis is on the process of inquiry as well as on the concepts discovered.” (H-D R, p. 93)

Innovative Learning Environments – Cooperative Learning, Study Centres, Learn Through Doing

“In the future a school will contain various kinds and sizes of learning areas, including classrooms, small study centers, and large open areas. In a well-organized schoolroom efficient, flexible use is made of available resources, and routines proceed with a minimum of confusion and interference….. The organization of schoolroom routines should be regarded as a co-operative activity of teachers and pupils, operating within the general organization of the school. The establishment of routines should be an exercise in democracy in which pupils establish and maintain as many as possible of their own ‘rules,’ evaluating and revising them as conditions demand. This exercise provides for the development of self-discipline and responsibility….

The spotlight in the school is shifting from methods of teaching to experiences for learning, and the truly professional teacher now employs in each situation the methods that will enhance the quality of the learning experience of the pupils in his care….In establishing the atmosphere for learning the professional teacher remains sensitive to the interests and problems of pupils, and allows the direction or pace of the lesson to change as the situation demands. He realizes that for an individual child the sequence of steps in the lesson may be less important than a word of praise or kindness, or a sign of recognition or reassurance; indeed, such actions are themselves part of teaching ‘method.’ A teacher may actually be teaching very well when he is apparently doing little more than observing pupils at work; he does not believe that effective teaching demands constant activity on his part.” (H-D R, pp. 139-40)

Student Evaluation – and Assessment for Learning

“With the introduction of a child-centered program, evaluation is changing in both function and form: its function is to determine the effectiveness of the program in the pupil’s development; it takes the form of day-by-day observations of the pupil’s interests and activities, difficulties and achievements. Evaluation is part of the learning program, is often planned jointly by the pupils and the teacher, and provides for self-evaluation as well as for diagnosis. The process may involve a discussion of the effectiveness of a learning situation, of the degree of participation of the pupils, and of suggestions for improvement of study habits, research and discussion procedures, and use of reference materials.”(H-D R, pp. 142)

Democratic Schools and Teacher Autonomy

“The structure of the system and of the school itself should be a democratic one-one where the teacher has freedom, not one that is so rigidly bound by rules and regulations that he feels his freedom is being questioned. The teacher’s loyalty to the system will be conditional upon the degree to which the system and the individual school serve to make it possible for him to do his best work. The system that meets the professional needs of its teachers will usually have the highest teacher morale. “(H-D R, p. 157)

The Principal as Curriculum Leader

“The principal who sees himself as the curriculum leader of the school acts as a consultant, adviser, and co-ordinator, and spends most of his time with children and teachers in psychological, sociological, and curricula activities. He subscribes to the theory that the aims of education are determined philosophically, and he realizes that striving for uniformity through standardized tests, external examinations, and other devices and controls has little to do with the attainment of objectives in education. Subjectivity is his accepted mode for educational endeavor; objectivity is desirable only in specific instances, subordinate to the major purposes of education. “(H-D R, p. 170)

Looking back, it is striking to see how much of the so-called “progressive orthodoxy” was articulated and extolled in a document that is all-too-often forgotten, especially among teachers born after its appearance. Few who lived through the Hall-Dennis era would miss the connective tissue linking contemporary “innovations” with concepts and ideas espoused in that Report.

What contemporary educational principles, concepts and pedagogical approaches find earlier justification in the Hall-Dennis Report?  Which of the Hall-Dennis reform proposals proved the most successful?  Which of the proposals simply fizzled and went nowhere?  Will there ever come a time when the vision is fully realized in K-12 education? 

Third and Final commentary in the Series.


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Fifty years ago, the Ontario Provincial Education Committee headed by Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis released Living and Learning (1968), one of the most earth-shaking reports in Canadian educational history. It  proposed a bold and provocative progressive reform prescription for the perceived ills afflicting the Ontario public school system. While it was initially welcomed by education progressives and the Toronto media, it aroused fierce and determined resistance, mainly voiced by leading academics and high school subject specialists. Many academic teachers considered it a virtual declaration of war on subject disciplines and the knowledge-based high school curriculum. Fifteen years later, the pendulum of pedagogical and curriculum reform was swinging in the other direction.

One of the most strident critics of the Hall-Dennis Report was Dr. James Daly, a little known 36-year-old McMaster University English history and classics professor. After being presented with a copy by History Department Chair, Professor John H. Trueman, Daly started reading the document and could not believe his eyes. “You ought to see this. It’s everything we might have feared!, ” he told Trueman, and needs to be exposed as dangerous educational thinking.  It was that brief encounter that gave rise to Dr. James Daly’s little pamphlet, Education or Molasses?, a stinging critique of the Hall-Dennis Report, and a resistance movement determined to expose the fallacies of its unabashed “child-centred philosophy” and to rid the educational world of its deleterious influence.

As a former Ontario secondary school teacher and a classicist, Dr. Daly saw the Report as a dangerous utopian panacea and “an assault on civilization as we know it.” For Daly, the campaign against the Report amounted to a modern-day crusade in defence of a knowledge-centred curriculum aimed at resisting “the supine acceptance of fashionable piffle.”While Daly’s little book echoed the essential message of Hilda Neatby’s So Little for the Mind (1953), it never attracted the same popular acclaim. Many Canadian educators from regular classroom teachers to academics sympathized with Daly, but few rallied to his defence in the ensuing public debate.

The standard history of Ontario’s modern educational system, R.D. Gidney’s  From Hope to Harris, offers a compelling re-interpretation of the Hall-Dennis Report and its legacy, recognizing the profound influence of the Department’s eminence gris, Jack McCarthy, and cutting Lloyd Dennis down to proper size.  When it came to discussing the “dissenting voices,” Gidney consigned them to a mere footnote.  While describing Daly’s little book as “one scintillating and scathing jeremiad” that was “not to be missed,” he wrote him completely out of the public debate.

Leading education progressives tend to have a blind spot when it comes to considering the Hall-Dennis movement in the round. Canadian history specialist Ken Osborne is a case in point.  His 1999 historical primer entitled Education: A Guide to the Canadian Debate ignores Daly’s critique, even though it found tremendous support among Ontario secondary school teachers. Indeed, Osborne looked back wistfully on the Report as “the shining star of educational reform” and, without referencing Daly, bemoaned those who “painted” progressivism as “at best woolly-minded idealism and at worst reckless irresponsibility.”

 Daly was not alone in raising such strenuous objections to the Report’s progressive philosophy and program. Within a week of the Report’s release, three senior university academics had written scathing Letters to the Editor, each published in The Globe and Mail:  Chairman of York University’s Physics Department, R.W. Nicholls, economics professor Ralph Blackmore of Waterloo Lutheran University, and Professor D.J. Dooley of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. Each of them registered strong objections to “the apparent naivete” of many of the recommendations, questioned  “removing the structure from the school system,” warned about school years being “squandered on trivialities and fads”; and the “watering down of standards” and “elimination of grades.”

Daly’s pamphlet flew in the face of the Hall-Dennis Report’s promotional campaign.  From the time of its release until June 1969, Co-Chair Lloyd Dennis embarked on a “road show” to promote the Hall-Dennis Report and its recommendations. His zealous, super-charged message capitalized upon the initial favourable reviews and buoyed the spirits of educational progressives across Ontario and in every other province and territory. Hired by the Department under contract, he delivered a folksy, entertaining talk and gave “285 speeches in 180 working days” over nine months promoting the Report.

With this active promotion, the glossy Report became a bestseller with 60,000 copies either sold or in print.  It was deemed required reading in all of Ontario’s teachers’ colleges and education faculties. One year after its release, The Toronto Daily Star reported that Committee members had given over 600 speeches reaching live audiences approaching 250,000 persons; in addition, some 100 conferences had been held and special committee were at work in almost every Ontario school system

 The periodic murmurs of misgiving began to turn into signs of protest, in spite of Lloyd Dennis’s strenuous missionary efforts. . Many Ontario teachers felt threatened by the call for a fundamental change in methods and even potential allies, such as Toronto’s George Martell of This Magazine is About Schools,found fault with the supposedly “liberalizing” education manifesto.  To Martell and more radical progressives, the emphasis on “individualized” learning was seen as corporatist idea threatening to undermine the “sense of community” in public schools

School trustees, departmental officials and even Education Minister William Davis became irritated by Dennis’s unrelenting attack upon the existing system as rigid and stultifying for students. After nine months, his contract was not extended, and he was told that there was no job for him in the Department. At age 44, he found refuge as a Director of Education in Leeds Grenville County Board, a frontier regional board with 50 scattered schools and only 1 psychologist serving 17,000 students.

One of the largest conferences held on the Hall-Dennis Report, “Re-Thinking Education,” held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) on April 17-19, 1969, proved to be a major letdown for Dennis and his allies. Education Minister Davis opened the Conference by distancing himself and the Department from the Report. The final Conference report, prepared by James M. Paton, concluded that  “No longer will it be regarded as Holy Writ, the pure Milk of the Word….” The Hall-Dennis document, Paton added,  may well have “performed a useful function in stimulating the desire to change by exposing specific weaknesses; but it also raised more questions than it provided answers.”:

Daly’s pamphlet knocked the wind out of the sails of the flagging Hall-Dennis reform movement. His first 500 copies, printed by Cromlech Press in Ancaster, Ontario, sold out in one week.  In an influential October 1969 commentary, Toronto Telegram columnists Douglas Fisher and Harry Crowe welcomed Daly’s potent little jeremiad with open arms. After reading the document in mid-1968, they had become, in their own words, “sworn enemies of the report.” Their terse assessment: “We think it windy and dangerous.”

 The stinging critique, summarized in the Fisher and Crowe column, was taken up by teachers who took exception to Living and Learning.  Many educators saw the Report, in the words of the Telegram columnists, as “a blanket slander of Ontario teachers.”  Abandoning structured approaches to learning, giving students a broad menu of course choices, and phasing-out grades and examinations were not popular, especially with seasoned secondary school teachers. Most felt threatened by the rapidity of the changes and saw their ability to control classes gradually slipping away.

Attempting to disassemble the prescribed curriculum provoked genuine outrage.  Seeing the Report’s evidence drawn mostly from the early grades, academically-inclined teachers instinctively agreed with Daly that the proposed Hall-Dennis curriculum as a “melange of mush” organized around little more than “general areas of learning.” With the proposed abandonment of prescribed curricula, teachers would be left on their own to design new curricula without any training in the field.  Academics and classroom teachers alike claimed that the Report utterly failed to make adequate provision for certain “core subjects,” such as English, Mathematics, and Science, which were essential for an effective, balanced curriculum.

A province-wide “Hall-Dennis PD Day” scheduled by the Ontario Teachers Federation (OTF) for October 8, 1969 planned so elementary and high school teachers could meet to discuss Living and Learning was scuttled by Ontario school boards over the objections of the OTF and Department.

Ontario’s History and Social Studies teachers complained about the proposed curriculum’s presentist bias and seeming acceptance of the assumption that “the present and the future are all that matters.”  After viewing the resulting Ontario History Guidelines, John Ricker, Chairman of History at Toronto’s Faculty of Education, confirmed their worst fears, declaring the Hall-Dennis-inspired changes “an invitation for teachers to do their own thing.”

 While Daly was writing Education or Molasess?, the Ontario secondary school system was in a state of upheaval.  Eight months after the release of Living and Learning, in March 1969, Minister of Education Davis announced a brand new system of organization.  The so-called Credit System, first proposed in Circular H.S.1 for 1969-70 and completely adopted in 1972-73, was significantly advanced by means of the Hall-Dennis Report. All of these changes went forward amid the public controversy generated by the Report and Daly’s stinging response.

 After some initial flirtations with Hall-Dennis reform, most of the other provinces absorbed the lessons of the bitter divisions aroused by forcing the progressive educational agenda. Education observers in Maritime Canada were totally unmoved by the excitement generated by Living and Learning. In Nova Scotia, Deputy Minister of Education Harold M. Nason remained extremely cautious, even after being prodded by his Ontario counterpart, Jack McCarthy. In May 1971, Maritime educator Russell Hunt put it more bluntly in a review of Satu Repo’s This Book is About Schools. “ The crest of the liberal education reform wave in Ontario was marked by the establishment of OISE… and by the publication of the splashily- produced Hall-Dennis report,” he wrote. That very report, he added, provided a clear sign that “liberal reform of public education was to prove a failure.” Senior academics like John Trueman, a renowned history textbook author, considered the Hall-Dennis report to be “the beginning of the slide” in education standards.

The bloom was completely off the Hall-Dennis rose by June of 1983, fifteen years after its appearance.  The Globe and Mail published a news feature by Judy Steed entitled “Crisis in the Schools.” West Toronto history teacher and OHASSTA spokesperson John Sheppard told Steed that teachers held the Hall-Dennis Report responsible for “destroying education in Ontario.”  The full-page feature story proclaimed the Hall-Dennis era finally over. “Now, it’s the eighties,” Steed stated, “and it’s back to the basics with more structure.”

Why did the 1968 Ontario Hall-Dennis Report inspire such passions?  Who supported the campaign for Hall-Dennis-style “student-centred learning”?  Why did leading academics and academic high school teachers line up against the Report and its core philosophy?  What came out of the furor stirred up by the controversial report? 

Second in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting next year, students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, will be bringing home report cards that showcase six “transferable skills”: critical thinking, creativity, self-directed learning, collaboration, communication, and citizenship. It’s the latest example of the growing influence of education policy organizations, consultants and researchers promoting “broader measures of success” formerly known as “non-cognitive” domains of learning.

Portrait of Primary Schoolboys and Schoolgirls Standing in a Line in a Classroom

In announcing the latest provincial report card initiative in September 2017, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter sought to change the channel in the midst of a public outcry over continuing declines in province-wide testing results, particularly in Grade 3 and 6 mathematics. While Minister Hunter assured concerned parents that standardized testing was not threatened with elimination, she attempted to cast the whole reform as a move toward “measuring those things that really matter to how kids learn and how they apply that learning to the real world, after school.”

Her choice of words had a most familiar ring because it echoed the core message promoted assiduously since 2013 by Ontario’s most influential education lobby group, People for Education, and professionally-packaged in its well-funded Measuring What Matters‘ assessment reform initiative. In this respect, it’s remarkably similar in its focus to the Boston-based organization Transforming Education.   Never a supporter of Ontario’s highly-regarded provincial testing system, managed by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the Toronto-based group led by parent activist Annie Kidder has spent much of the past five years seeking to construct an alternative model that, in the usual P4E progressive education lexicon, “moves beyond the 3R’s.”

Kidder and her People for Education organization have always been explicit about their intentions and goals. The proposed framework for broader success appeared, almost fully formed, in its first 2013 policy paper.  After referring, in passing, to the focus of policy-makers on “evidence-based decision making,” the project summary disputed the primacy of “narrow goals” such as “literacy and numeracy” and argued for the construction of (note the choice of words) a “broader set of goals” that would be “measurable so students, parents, educators, and the public can see how Canada is making progress” in education.

Five proposed “dimensions of learning” were proposed, in advance of any research being undertaken to confirm their validity or recognition that certain competing dimensions had been ruled out, including resilience and its attendant personal qualities “grit’/conscientiousness, character, and “growth mindset.” Those five dimensions, physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate, reflected the socially-progressive orientation of People for Education rather than any evidence-based analysis of student assessment policy and practice.

Two years into the project, the Measuring What Matters (MWM) student success framework had hardened into what began to sound, more and more, like a ‘new catechism.’  The Research Director, Dr. David Hagen Cameron, a PhD in Education from the University of London, hired from the Ontario Ministry of Education, began to focus on how to implement the model with what he termed “MWM change theory.” His mandate was crystal clear – to take the theory and transform it into Ontario school practice in four years, then take it national in 2017-18. Five friendly education researchers were recruited to write papers making the case for including each of the domains, some 78 educators were appointed to advisory committees, and the proposed measures were “field-tested” in 26 different public and Catholic separate schools (20 elementary, 6 secondary), representing a cross-section of urban and rural Ontario.

As an educational sociologist who cut his research teeth studying the British New Labour educational “interventionist machine,” Dr. Cameron was acutely aware that educational initiatives usually flounder because of poorly executed implementation. Much of his focus, in project briefings and academic papers from 2014 onward was on how to “find congruence” between MWM priorities and Ministry mandates and how to tackle the tricky business of winning the concurrence of teachers, and particularly in overcoming their instinctive resistance to  district “education consultants” who arrive promising support but end up extending more “institutional control over teachers in their classrooms.”

Stumbling blocks emerged when the MWM theory met up with the everyday reality of teaching and learning in the schools. Translating the proposed SEL domains into “a set of student competencies” and ensuring “supportive conditions” posed immediate difficulties. The MWM reform promoters came four square up against achieving “system coherence” with the existing EQAO assessment system and the challenge of bridging gaps between the system and local levels. Dr. Cameron and his MWM team were unable to effectively answer questions voicing concerns about increased teacher workload, the misuse of collected data, the mandate creep of schools, and the public’s desire for simple, easy to understand reports. 

Three years into the project, the research base supporting the whole venture began to erode, as more critical independent academic studies appeared questioning the efficacy of assessing Social and Emotional Learning traits or attributes. Dr. Angela L. Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who championed SEL and introduced “grit” into the educational lexicon, produced a comprehensive 2015 research paper with University of Texas scholar David Scott Yeager that raised significant concerns about the wisdom of proceeding, without effective measures, to assess “personal qualities” other than cognitive ability for educational purposes.

Coming from the leading SEL researcher and author of the best-selling book, GRIT, the Duckworth and Yeager research report in Education Researcher, dealt a blow to all state and provincial initiatives attempting to implement SEL measures of assessment. While Duckworth and Yeager held that personal attributes can be powerful predictors of academic, social and physical “well-being,” they claimed “not that everything that counts can be counted or that that everything that can be counted counts.” The two prominent SEL researchers warned that it was premature to proceed with such school system accountability systems. “Our working title, ” she later revealed, “was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way.”

The Duckworth-Yeager report provided the most in-depth analysis (to date) of the challenges and pitfalls involved in advancing a project like Ontario’s Measuring What Works.  Assessing for cognitive knowledge was long-established and had proven reasonably reliable in measuring academic achievement, they pointed out, but constructing alternative measures remained in its infancy. They not only identified a number of serious limitations of Student Self-Report and Teacher Questionnaires and Performance Tasks (Table 1), but also provided a prescription for fixing what was wrong with system-wide implementation plans (Table 2).












Duckworth went public with her concerns in February of 2016.  She revealed to The New York Times that she had resigned from a California advisory board fronting a SEL initiative spearheaded by the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), and no longer supported using such tests to evaluate school performance. University of Chicago researcher Camille A. Farrington found Duckworth’s findings credible, stating: “There are so many ways to do this wrong.” The California initiative, while focused on a different set of measures, including student attendance and expulsions, had much in common philosophically with the Ontario venture.

The wisdom of proceeding to adopt SEL system-wide and to recast student assessment in that mold remains contentious.  Anya Kamenetz‘s recent National Public Radio commentary(August 16, 2017) explained, in some detail, why SEL is problematic because, so far, it’s proven impossible to assess what has yet to be properly defined as student outcomes.  It would also seem unwise to overlook Carol Dweck’s recently expressed concerns about using her “Growth Mindset” research for other purposes, such as proposing a system-wide SEL assessment plan.

The Ontario Measuring What Matters initiative, undeterred by such research findings, continues to plow full steam ahead. The five “dimensions of learning” have now morphed into five “domains and competencies” making no reference whatsoever to the place of the cognitive domain in the overall scheme.  It’s a classic example of three phenomena which bedevil contemporary education policy-making: tautology, bias confirmation and the sunk cost trap.  Repeatedly affirming a concept in theory (as logically irrefutable truth) without much supporting research evidence, gathering evidence to support preconceived criteria and plans, and proceeding because its too late to take a pause, or turn back, may not be the best guarantor of long-term success in implementing a system-wide reform agenda.

The whole Ontario Measuring What Works student assessment initiative raises far more questions than it answers. Here are a few pointed questions to get the discussion started and spark some re-thinking. 

On the Research Base:  Does the whole MWM plan pass the research sniff test?  Where does the cognitive domain and the acquisition of knowledge fit in the MWM scheme?  If the venture focuses on Social and Emotional Learning(SEL), whatever happened to the whole student resilience domain, including grit, character and growth mindset? Is it sound to construct a theory and then commission studies to confirm your choice of SEL domains and competencies?

On Implementation: Will introducing the new Social Learning criteria on Ontario student reports do any real harm? Is it feasible to introduce the full MWM plan on top of the current testing regime without imposing totally unreasonable additional burdens on classroom teachers?  Since the best practice research supports a rather costly “multivariate, multi-instrumental approach,” is any of this affordable or sustainable outside of education jurisdictions with significant and expandable capacity to fund such initiatives? 


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“Asking the right questions” is what most of our best teachers encourage and expect from our students. It’s also what our leading education researchers do when trying to grapple with a particularly thorny or “wicked” problem besetting students and teachers in the schools. Yet far too many teachers across Canada remain reticent to do so because they are essentially trained to carry out provincial mandates. Raising the difficult questions is not always welcomed or appreciated where it counts — among those who set education policy, prepare teachers, and implement curriculum in our K-12 school system.

Working out what works in education is not as simple as it seems, particularly when it comes to improving student learning and deciding upon the most effective pedagogical approach for widely varying cohorts of students. Unfreezing fixed positions, both “progressive” and “traditionalist,” is what opens the door to more meaningful, productive conversations.  We see that in the recent success of Stephen Hurley’s VoicED radio conversations, introducing passionate educators representing differing perspectives to one another for the first time in living memory.

Since its inception in September 2013, researchED has championed creating space for regular classroom teachers in “working out what works” in their classrooms.  Posing those difficult questions can ruffle a few feathers, especially among curriculum leaders and in-house consultants. It’s not easy to venture outside the safe confines of social media “echo chambers” and to consider research generated outside the established “research bubbles.” It’s most encouraging to see Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation president Harvey Bischof and his Provincial Executive actively supporting the movement.

Grassroots, teacher-led organizations can also, at times. be messy  Teachers are given a new platform to express not only their real life frustrations but also to share their discoveries during forays into the education research world. Independently-minded teachers are free to speak for themselves, but do not speak for researchED.  Debates can get overheated, especially on social media. We do need to be reminded that educators, whatever their persuasions, have to be prepared to listen, consider divergent viewpoints, and treat each other with respect.

The Internet and smart technology has changed the rules of engagement, bringing the latest research within a few keyboard clicks.  One would think that providing a forum for asking deeper questions would be more widely accepted in assessing province-wide and school board-wide initiatives before they are rolled out every September in our K-12 school system.  It can, however, be a little threatening to those promoting theory-based curriculum reform or pedagogical initiatives. Questioning such initiatives, most teachers sense– at least in some school systems –is not always conducive to career advancement.

We should all welcome the arrival of the latest book on Canadian education, Pushing the Limits, written by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer and published August 29, 2017.  In many ways, it’s a hopeful and encouraging book because it identifies well-funded “lighthouse projects” in the GTA and a few other Canadian jurisdictions.  While the title is somewhat puzzling, the sub-title is far more indicative of the books real intent, i.e., explaining How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. For Canadian educators and parents looking for a  popular, well-written, fairly persuasive brief for the defense of current policy directions, this is the book for you. For serious education researchers, it will be a goldmine of information on recent initiatives sparking further inquiry into the state of evidence-based teaching practice.

Teachers familiar with researchED will immediately spot a few contentious assertions in Pushing the Limits. Success stories abound and they serve to provide credence to provincial curriculum initiatives underway, particularly in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. The overriding assumption is that schools exist to “prepare our students for the future” and to equip them with “21st century skills.”  Grade 7 teacher Aaron Warner, creator of the two-hour per week  “Genius Hour,” repeats a very familiar claim: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.” That buttresses the overall thesis that lies at the heart of the book.

As leading members of the Ontario People for Education research team, Gallagher-Mackay and Steinhauer, as expected,  do make a case for broadening provincial student assessments to include SEL, short for “Social and Emotional Learning.” That’s hardly surprising, given the Ontario Education- P4E partnership  driving that initiative across the province. Digging more deeply, it will be interesting to see what evidence the authors produce that it is either advisable or can be done successfully.

The wisdom of proceeding to adopt SEL system-wide and to recast student assessment in that mold remains contentious. On this particular subject, they might be well advised to consider Anya Kamenetz‘s recent National Public Radio commentary (August 16, 2017) explaining, in some detail, why SEL is problematic because, so far, it’s proven impossible to assess what has yet to be properly defined as student outcomes. They also seem to have overlooked Carol Dweck’s recently expressed concerns about using her “Growth Mindset” research for other purposes, such as proposing a system-wide SEL assessment plan.

Good books tackle big issues and raise fundamental questions, whether intended or not. Teachers imbued with the researchED spirit will be well equipped to not only tackle and effectively scrutinize Pushing the Limits, but to bring a broader and deeper understanding and far more scrutiny of the book’s premises, contentions, and prescriptions. That, in turn, will  hopefully spark a much better informed discussion within the Canadian K-12 educational community.

What’s causing all the buzz in the rather small Canadian teacher education research community? Is it the appearance of a new player committed to raising those difficult questions and to assessing initiatives, through a teachers’ lens? Is it our seeming aversion to considering or supporting evidence-based classroom practice? And is there room for a new voice in Canadian teacher-led education research and reform? 


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Ontario elementary school teachers are now being totally immersed in the new pedagogy of Social Justice Education. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s newish resource, Social Justice Begins with Me, is being rolled out as a teaching resource for the Early Years to Grade 8.  It’s a prime example of the deep inroads being made by “social justice educators” in transforming “character education” into a vehicle for addressing social injustices through the schools.

The EFTO promotes Social Justice Begins with Me  as an “anti-bias, literature-based curriculum resource kit” that is designed for year-round use and is aligned with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.  The ten monthly themes are explicitly aimed at inculcating nine core “social justice principles”: acceptance, respect, hope, empathy, inclusion, diversity, human rights, and equity. It also targets some identifiable 21st century ‘evils’: anti-Semitism, ageism, heternormality, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, prejudice and faith.


The EFTO teaching resource, like the SJE movement, thrives in a culture dominated by ‘political correctness’ and has found a comfortable home in Canada’s largest education graduate school, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in Toronto.  That movement now has its own exclusive research unit, replacing what was left of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education. Full disclosure – I’m an unrepentant graduate of that now defunct research department.

Social Justice Education has now taken on a life of its own in many Canadian urban elementary school divisions. Serious concerns raised by the infamous June 2012  Maclean’s Magazine cover story, “Why are schools brainwashing our Children?” have done little to derail the movement. Nor has North American education research lending support to an alternative version of “character education,” founded on a different set of core principles aimed at developing student resilience.  Curriculum-informed parents will also spot the complete absence of critical success attributes, labelled ‘old school,’ such as grit, perseverance, resilience, and accountability for actions.

True believers in social justice education see elementary teaching through an engaged sociopolitical lens. Working for social justice in the schools requires “a deliberate intervention” that challenges society’s “fundamental inequalities” and seeks to advance the cause of “better educational and economic outcomes” for “marginalized children.” Social justice pedagogy aims to develop in teachers and students an understanding of “critical literacy” and its key dimensions: 1) disrupting the commonplace; 2)interrogating multiple viewpoints; 3) focusing on sociopolitical issues; and 4) taking action and promoting social justice.

Pursuing social justice in the early grades stirs up considerable controversy, especially among parents more focused on raising standards and improving student performance. Maclean’s writer Cynthia Reynolds certainly unearthed some outlandish, and undoubtedly extreme examples, of actual “social justice education ” activities:

During the 2011-12 school year, first graders in Toronto brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. The  Durham Board of Education in Ontario came under fire for discouraging the terms “wife” and “husband” in class in favour of the gender-neutral “spouse,” and the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in favour of “partner.” And in the name of inclusiveness, some school boards include Wiccan holidays in their school calendars.

Such examples of how Social Justice Education can go awry cut little ice with surprising numbers of Education School faculty entrusted with training elementary school teachers. Deeply committed to social justice reform, they believe that the classroom is the front line in the battle to address social ills and establish “safe spaces” for the children of marginalized families. It’s really just the latest battle over the age-old question: who gets to decide on the best way to educate the very young?

OISESocialJusiceEd.jpgMiddle-school teacher David Stocker, author of the textbook  Math That Matters: A Teacher Resource for Linking Math and Social Justice, for Grades 6 to 9,is in the vanguard of the movement. His math problems include items focusing on issues like  workers’ rights, racial profiling and homophobia.  “All material carries bias of some sort,” he writes in the introduction. “Really the question is whether or not we want to spend time educating for peace and social justice. If we do, let’s admit that bias and get to work.”

Psychologist Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World,takes a far more balanced approach, recognizing the inherent risks in imposing a social justice perspective in the early grades. Getting too political in elementary school, where the power differential between teacher and student is vast, verges on manipulation. “You can’t use children as fodder for your cause,” says Grille.

Nor is Grille afraid to pose the right questions: “How do you know these young kids aren’t just parroting what their teacher is telling them? How easy would it be to get them to protest, say, abortion? How much are the young truly able to make up their own minds?”It’s particularly true in classrooms where kids are being graded. So what does she recommend? Children, she points out,  need to develop emotionally before they can develop politically.

The controversial 2012 Maclean’s feature story provided a few of what be termed teacher survival tips. Elementary school teacher and Simon Fraser University education professor Rhonda Philpott identified one of the biggest risks: You can’t walk into a classroom and just start a social-justice activity. It takes trust.” Not all parents appreciate the politically-driven pedagogy either. Professor Ng-A-Fook of the University of Ottawa urges practitioners to “know your students” and “prepare your parents” so you do not “offend families or traumatize kids.”

Social justice education is fraught with difficulties and tends to narrow the focus of classroom activities around issues drawn solely from a rather narrow, albeit well-intended sociopolitical perspective. More recent education research tends to focus on addressing student underperformance and ways of instilling resilience in children.

Character is now seen as the “X-factor” in explaining why some children succeed and others get left behind in and out of schools. Toronto-born writer Paul Tough,author of How Children Succeed, influenced by Angela Duckworth’s research, called the character-based X-factor “grit,” but parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba favours the term moral intelligence. 

Character education also tends to be broader and more inclusive in its reach than social justice education, particularly as exemplified in the EFTO Social Justice curriculum. The Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, embraces a “character education” model that embraces six different character attributes and seeks to educate children who are caring, cooperative, honest,inclusive, respectful and responsible. That approach is not only broader, but includes two factors related to “grit” – respect and responsibility. It’s no accident that the PDSB credo ends on this note: “Demonstrate initiative and perseverance in overcoming difficulties.” 

What is driving the movement to introduce Social Justice Education into elementary schools in Ontario and elsewhere? What are the risks of implementing a Primary School curriculum with such an overt sociopolitical agenda?  Are the fears that kids are being “brainwashed” all that exaggerated?  What’s wrong with pursuing a more balanced approach in the pursuit of character education? 

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