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Stationary bikes are now appearing in Canadian classrooms in the latest wave of the  North American “self-regulation” movement.  Frustrated , angry and fidgety kids and stressed-out parents are driving many teachers almost crazy and they are grasping for life preservers in today’s classrooms.  That may explain why principals and teachers in the Halifax Regional School Board and far beyond see spin bikes as almost magical in their powers.

SpinBikeSelfRegHRSBIs this becoming the latest ‘cure-all’ and where’s the scientific research to support its widespread use in regular classrooms? Since the publication of British teacher Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, more and more classroom teachers are raising a “skeptical eyebrow” and confronting the succession of teaching fads that have come and gone over the past twenty years. It’s becoming acceptable to ask whether “self-regulation” with or without bikes is destined for the same fate.

The current expectations for Self-Regulation and Spin Bikes are sky high. Discovery of the latest ‘cure-all’ has sparked incredible media interest with recent CBC-TV short documentaries and CBC Radio The Current feature interviews.

The sheer excitement created by spin bike frenzy is captured well in Aly Thomson’s March 9, 2016 Canadian Press story: “Frustrated at her inability to draw a sofa, five-year-old Mylee Lumsden began to cry. She liked her drawing of a TV, but the couch confounded her, and so she grew increasingly upset. Her teacher, Mary Theresa Burt, looked at the brewing storm, and suggested the little girl take a turn on the bright yellow stationary bicycle at the centre of her primary classroom at Ian Forsyth Elementary School.” Within minutes, Mylee was “bright again, cheerful, and smiling widely.”

That tiny yellow bike was simply working miracles — calming rambunctious kids down, quietening the class, getting restless boys to sit still, and making teaching life liveable again. “Now, amid a shift in how educators shift and embrace various styles of learning,” Thomson wrote, “such bikes are helping to boost moods, relieve stress and regulate energy in students of all ages.”

“Learning styles” simply won’t go away long after it has been exposed as fraudulent educational practice.  It’s the best known of the myths recently exposed by Tom Bennett, co-founder of ResearchED and Britain’s 2015 Teacher of the Year.  A year ago, in the Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that many such theories that fill classrooms in Britain have little grounding in scientific research.

“We have all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he stated. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying kids only learn when you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it’s indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

Bennett is far from alone in challenging the research basis for a whole range of initiatives floating on unproven educational theories. According to a research scan by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), trillions of dollars are spent on education policies around the world, but just one in 10 are actually evaluated.

Commenting on the research, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education and skills, said: “If we want to improve educational outcomes we need to have a much more systematic and evidence-based approach.” Speaking at the 2014 Education World Forum in London, Schleicher added: “We need to make education a lot more of a science.”

Cutting through the hype surrounding Self-Regulation, it’s difficult to find independent, validated research support. A very perceptive October 2012 feature in The Tyee actually bore down into the British Columbia self-regulation movement looking for the research basis while 3,000 teachers were being taught the strategy.

While much of Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work is compromised by his promotion of his own particular program, Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, of UBC’s Human Development, Learning and Culture research unit, has studied MindUP , an alternative approach to teaching self-regulation as the basis for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Over a period of six years, she only found one large-scale independent research study, a CASEL study of 270 programs, that documented its actual benefits.

“So little(in education) has actually been formed by rigorous research, as opposed to the medical field, Schonert-Reichl claimed. ” I heard someone compare where we are with understanding well-designed educational studies to where we were with clinical drug trials in the early 1900s.”

Self-regulation definitely holds promise, but the research basis is quite limited and teachers are wise to be skeptical until there’s more evidence that it actually works and is sustainable in the classroom.  A new study by Shanker and his associates, Child Development (September/October 2015), may add to the puzzle by demonstrating the the meaning of the term ‘self-regulation’ is still unclear and therefore expandable to accommodate an array of some 88 different concepts, including  self-control, self-management, self-observation, learning, social behavior, and the personality constructs related to self-monitoring.

Who is really being served by ‘self-regulation’ is particularly unclear. Much of the rationale has its underpinning in neurocience and that’s what is being debated rather than its efficacy for the majority of students.  Some like former BC Education Minister George Abbott see it as a way of serving severely learning-challenged kids and getting rid of the extensive, expensive Special Education system with all those individual program plans.

Child psychologist and elementary teachers, as The National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff  anticipated three years ago, are latching onto self-regulation believing that you can ‘teach kids to behave properly in schools’ because the job is not being done in today’s family homes. The real reason it’s needed, in other words, is because too many kids aren’t getting the “psychological stability and support” they need from their own families.

Is Self-Regulation — with or without Spin Bikes – another unproven educational initiative that will come and go without a discernable impact on students? Should researchers marketing their own programs be relied upon to provide the supporting research? Will ‘self-regulation’ end up resembling mother’s version of  “sit in the corner,” “go to your room” or “get down and do five push-ups, now” ? Should we intervene if kids riding those bikes ever come to look like hamsters on wheels in the Cage?  

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The McTutor World is on the rise. Private tutoring is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s now the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, the tutoring business has rebounded, particularly in major Canadian cities and the burgeoning suburbs. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. It’s estimated that one in three city parents in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary now hire private tutors for their kids.

PrivateTutorsSylvanMy recent radio interviews on CBC Radio Drive Home shows (September 4-5, 2014) focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents are turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. That’s a question that begs for a more thorough, in-depth explanation.

The expansion of private tutoring is driven by a combination of factors. The world is changing and, for good or ill, we now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues play a critical role in convincing parents to turn to tutors. Promoting “Success for All” has come to signify a decline in standards and the entrenchment of “social promotion” reflected in student reports overflowing with edu-babble about “learning outcomes” but saying little about the pupils themselves.  When parents see their kids struggling to read and unable to perform simple calculations, reassurances that “everything is fine” raises more red flags.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics only compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

The tutoring business is definitely market-driven and more sensitive to public demand and expectations. Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini have shown the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

Hiring private tutors can be costly, but parents today are determined to come to the rescue of their struggling kids or to give the motivated child an extra edge.  Today it’s gone far beyond introducing your child to reading with “Fun with Phonics” and some Walmart stores even stock John Mighton’s tutoring books for the JUMP Math program. An initial assessment costs $99 to $125 and can be irresistable after reading those jargon-filled, mark-less reports. For a full tutoring program, two nights a week, the costs can easily reach $2,o00 to $3,000 a school year.  Once enrolled, parents are far more likely to look to private independent schools, a more expensive option, but one that can make after-school family life a lot simpler and less hectic.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  That  is likely to be at the centre of a much larger public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling.

What explains the phenomenal growth of private tutoring?  With public schools closing at 3:00 pm, will today’s parents turn increasingly to online, virtual education to plug the holes and address the skills deficit?  How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are forced to respond to the competition?  

 

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The Toronto Globe and Mail’s six part series, The Daycare Project, has put Early Years Education back where it belongs on the public policy agenda.  From October 19 to 26, Erin Anderssen and her team did a masterful job presenting the challenge facing the Canadian and provincial governments attempting to provide safe, secure, high quality daycare and early years education.

Since the federal child education initiative, developed by the Hon. Ken Dryden (costed at $5 billion over 4 years), was abandoned in 2006 by the incoming Stephen Harper government, provinces have been scrambling to come up with plans of their own.  Access to high quality, affordable child care presents serious problems for ordinary working families.  Even today, the shortage of government-regulated space remains among Canada’s most pressing child-care problems. Across the country, families are forced to rely on the “grey market” – and, Anderssen discovered, “leaving their children with caregivers who may not even have first-aid training, paying whatever is asked, and hoping for the best.”

ChildCareCostsProponents of universal state funded early learning, championed by Margaret McCain and the Canadian Council for Early Child Development, are doggedly determined in making their case.  While The Globe and Mail series had a universal publicly-funded early learning tilt, it also demonstrated quite conclusively that the Quebec model of $7.00 per day early learning costing $2.3 billion annually is cost prohibitive in other provinces. Indeed, Quebec’s current plan accounts for two-thirds of the $3.7 billion now being spent by all governments.

The Daycare Project series went beyond simply analyzing, once again, the public policy conundrum, and attempted to look for successful models that might be applicable in other countries or provinces.  A survey of daycare regimes in seven different countries seemed to give the nod to that of Sweden, a universal, affordable, education-based system developed over a 20 year period from 1970 until the early 1990s.  The Swedish model is highlighted, but no mention whatsoever is made of Finland where early education begins at age 7.  Most educational comparisons of Sweden and Finland  tend to highlight the superior performance results achieved by Finnish students.

When it came to Canada, The Globe and Mail, for once, looked to a province other than Ontario for its exemplar.  “For a top-notch child care system close to home,” Anderssen stated, “Canadians should look to the nation’s smallest province.”  In choosing PEI as the best Canadian model, the series ruled out Quebec as being too expensive and instead endorsed a model combining public and private services, but largely architected by Kathleen Flanagan, an OISE student of Dr. Charles Pascal. In short, the PEI model is Ontario, modified and improved.

The Ten Lessons presented by Anderssen to guide the national policy discussion pay lip-service to the $7 a day Quebec model, and are drawn overwhelmingly from the PEI experience over the past two or three years. “Good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten,” she concludes, before presenting this laundry list of lessons:

1. Make the economic case clear

2. Call it education

3. Create enough regulated care spaces

4. Make fees affordable, consistent – and capped

5. Train the teachers – and pay them for it

6. Location, location, location

7. Infant care is complicated

8. After-school care shouldn’t be an afterthought

9. Parents are part of the system

10. Set a target, track your progress

Most of the identified “lessons” are sound, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that the PEI model is scalable.  It’s a tiny province with a population of 140,000, one-tenth the size of Montreal, with fewer than 6,000 children under five years of age. The total cost of its early childhood education initiative is only $7 million, compared to the more than $2.3 billion Quebec child care system.  Declining school enrollments also mean that PEI schools have plenty of surplus space, unlike most of Canada’s fast growing suburban school districts.

Omitting Ontario from the cross-national comparison was quite instructive.  While the Ontario Liberal Government has been quick to proclaim the success of its $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. By imposing full-day kindergarten, that province has incited much opposition, mainly centred on its full steam ahead bulldozing strategy.

Why did Ontario become such an early learning battleground? Private and coop day care operators facing dislocation have found common cause with the Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada. The universalists, spearheaded by Dr. Pascal, hit a brick wall in the form of Don Drummond whose 2012 Austerity Report dismissed full-day kindergarten as an unaffordable social program.  In addition, family values advocates have found the weak spot in the Ontario plan – the by-passing of the family in the continuum of early child care. In many ways, there is much more to be learned from Ontario than from Quebec and PEI on the matter of achieving better early childhood education.

Where might Canadian education policy makers look for models of how to improve early childhood education in Canada?  Why are the Quebec and Ontario models no longer seen as viable, affordable policy options?  Do provinces like Nova Scotia have more to learn from Ontario and Finland than from PEI?  Where do parents and families fit in the proposed childcare models? In simplest terms, who is framing the national early learning debate, and for what real purpose?

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A recent Ontario study of some 700 children attending the new Full-Day, Two-Year Kindergarten program claimed that the first cohort was better prepared to enter Grade 1, showing  strong language development, improved communications skills, and better social skills.   That report was welcome news for an Ontario Liberal Government, now headed by Kathleen Wynne, that has staked its reputation on a $1.5 billion program that critics characterize as an expensive form of government controlled day care.  If the gains are real, then the key questions become – do the gains justify the enormous costs and will the head start last?

KindergartenKidsBritish Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec also offer all-day Kindergarten,  but Alberta has delayed its planned implementation because of financial pressures.  In Nova Scotia, the Darrell Dexter NDP Government  has followed a curious, meandering course.  On August 22, 2013, on the eve of a provincial election, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex  announced the plan to open  four little bundles of joy – in the form of spanking new Early Years Centres  for young children in elementary schools scattered across the province.  Initial indications are that universal early learning in Nova Scotia, if it materializes, will most likely be implemented piecemeal, in stages.

Early learning advocates, inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and his Council on Early Child Development, have long identified Nova Scotia as a laggard among the Canadian provinces.  In November 2011, Dexter and his cabinet were stung by the CECD’s Early Years Study 3 ranking Quebec and P.E.I. as tops and giving Nova Scotia low marks (five out of 15 points) for its current patchwork of programs. Since then pressure has mounted on the NDP government to embrace universal, publicly-funded ECD starting at age two in Nova Scotia.

Universal, publicly funded programs like that in Quebec, where parents pay $7.00 per day per child, have proven to be enormously expensive.  Former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden made an initial effort, but it stalled in 2006 at the federal level and the campaign was, until 2010, sputtering in both Ontario and Nova Scotia.

With the passing of its legendary champion Dr. Mustard, philanthropist Margaret Norrie McCain started carrying the torch for universal, state-funded early learning programs, utilizing the considerable influence of the Margaret and Wallace Family Foundation.

Eighteen months ago, with Ontario’s Liberal government threatening to scale back on its $1.5 billion full day junior and senior kindergarten (FDK) spending, McCain and the universalists began focusing on Nova Scotia. On February 9, 2012, she secured a private audience with Dexter. That’s what finally swayed the cautious-by-nature Premier.  

One Thursday in late May 2012, Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre and—without any warning—announced that Nova Scotia was embarking on Early Years programs in a big way. He unveiled a discussion paper, Giving Children the Best Start, and local media scrambled to report that a previously unannounced advisory committee would be producing a go ahead plan within a month’s time.

The policy paper recycled CECD research and claimed that one out of every four Canadian children “arriving at school with vulnerabilities” was “more likely to fail” out of school with limited life outcomes. Not surprisingly, it strongly endorsed a universal, school-based, state-funded early childhood education program for children as young as two years.

When Dexter and Jennex welcomed the report, it looked like the NDP government was preparing to buck the national trend to austerity by embarking on a costly public spending program.  In July of 2013, the McCain Foundation greased the wheels by investing $500,000, at $100,000 a year, to kick-start the program and fund Early Years Centres.

AffordableEarlyLearningThe McCain campaign for universal pre-school education is not about winning widespread support from daycare operators, parents or families. In early February 2012, Kerry McCuaig, a Toronto-based CECD research fellow, let the cat out of the bag. “It’s political leadership that matters,” she told a Halifax Public Forum, and the Ontario FDK initiative showed that there is “no real need to seek a public consensus.” What about the existing private and non-profit day cares spread across the province?   “There’s a dog’s breakfast of programs out there, “ McCuaig stated. “ Let’s reorganize it. It costs us nothing to do so.”

Nova Scotia’s bold plan for universal Early Childhood Development will, it is now clear, be entering the province through the back door.  That way the government can side-step and delay the whole thorny issue of accommodating the 220 existing private day cares and 160 non-profit day cares currently operating here in the province.

Going to the top is the preferred mode of operations for those promoting single platform publicly-funded programs for every child. The lighthouse universal ECD program, after all, was initiated by the late Dr. Mustard and fully implemented in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  Top down leadership worked in Quebec, Ontario and P.E.I.  Here in Nova Scotia it has – so far– produced a typical ad hoc, staged implementation policy response.

How beneficial is universal, government-run Early Learning?  Should such universal programs begin as early as age 2?  Are such universal programs affordable for governments facing long-term financial challenges? What’s the impact of introducing such programs on families, as well as private and coop (not-for-profit day) cares?  What is gained – and lost- in implementing a single platform system? 

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Public education systems tend to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that does not fit everyone.  Children who are highly gifted, severely challenged, or being raised in devout Christian homes often do not fit easily into the standard model, particularly in rural and small town Canada where few school alternatives exist for families. An estimated 100,000 Canadian children from 6 to 16 years of age are being educated outside the system in a variety of home education settings.  Most are being educated in traditional homeschool  fashion, and about 10% by parents committed to the philosophy of “unschooling” or deprogramming their children.

HomeschoolingChildOne of the best known parents who chose another option – homeschooling – is Quinn Cummings, author of The Year of Living Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling (2012). Her motivation, in homeschooling her 8-year old, grade 4 daughter, four years ago, was more mainstream. Like a growing number of home education families, she wanted her child “to work hard and be challenged without it meaning two to three hours of homework every night.”  “I wanted our daughter,” she says, “to learn how to learn. I suspect this is a skill school should give you, but i didn’t want her to look back on her childhood as an extended meditation on worksheets.”

Parents in the 21st century are becoming more adventuresome in finding new ways to educate their children. Traditional homeschooling is evolving from one-on-one home tutoring to online learning tapping into resources like Khan Academy and the latest electronic educational games.  It’s now possible to offer blended learning combining home instruction, online learning, and community-based programs. It’s a combination that allows parents to “custom build a curriculum” for each student using  “a mix-and-match approach” best suited to the individual child.   Cummings calls it “made to order education” for the 21st century.

Not every Canadian province “gets it” when it comes to home education. Wide variations exist across Canada in how school authorities respond to, and support, parents and families seeking to homeschool their children. Canada’s leading education province, Alberta, is officially committed to “school  choice” and the most receptive to homeschooling. Provincial funding is available, through a transfer of fees, and varies according to the program of studies you are offering. If you choose basic/traditional you usually get about $700. Blended is anywhere from $900-1200 and fully aligned you can receive as much $1500.00 per child.  Some variations do exist between the various school boards.  Provincial authorities in British Columbia and Ontario are open to homeschooling, albeit without such generous financial supports.

The most restrictive province may well be Nova Scotia, especially after a November 2012 Auditor General’s report proposing tighter regulation and more rigorous supervision. While only 850 out of 124,000 school age children are registered for homeschooling, AG Jacques Lapointe reported a “lack of adequate systems” to ensure a minimum of supervision, including proper registration records. Out of 120 files reviewed, he found 102 did not specify what a child was expected to learn and five had no information on the study program. It was a major embarrassment for the Education Department and may precipitate a backlash against homeschoolers.

Supporters of homeschooling in Canada were quick to react to the Nova Scotia Auditor General’s report.  Paul Faris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, charged that the AG’s proposed changes would make Nova Scotia “the worst place in Canada” to home-school children.  Nova Scotia, he pointed out, already has plenty of regulations, albeit some that are not currently being enforced.  The Auditor General, according to Faris, was “completely ignorant” of the research on homeschooling and was “trying to fit it into a public school model.”  Caught off-guard by the AG’s report, Education Minister Ramona Jennex responded by saying she was “open” to looking at changes.

A former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto created a sensation when he quit his decades-long teaching career and announced it in a 1991 Wall Street Journal column entitled, “I Quit, I Think.” Until encountering recent health problems, Gatto has been a major education critic and a proponent of homeschooling and unschooling children.  His two best known books, Dumbing Us Down (1992) and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008), provide the most searing radical critique of the impact of “compulsory schooling” on the creativity and imagination of children.

In a Homeschooling Magazine interview a few years ago, Gatto praised homeschoolers for showing “courage and determination” on “the front lines”  and for “making the right choice.”  “You’ve made a choice to free your children to be the best people they can be, the best citizens they can be, and to be their personal best, ” he said. ” But had you allowed those kids to remain in the grip of institutional schooling, the kids would have become instruments of a different purpose.”

Why do increasing numbers of Canadian parents choose to homeschool their own children?  Are home-schooled children more likely to be independent trailblazers or are they at risk of becoming ‘free floaters’ in life? What’s the secret of successfully homeschooling children?  And what is the real purpose of imposing tighter regulations on Canada’s home education families?

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The Rehteah Parsons Case has drawn global attention to the twin horrors of teen sexual assault and re-victimization in cyberspace.  Since the 17-year-old Dartmouth teen’s death by suicide on Sunday April 7, 2013, a torrent of outrage and widespread public anger has dominated the media and left Nova Scotian and federal policy-makers scrambling for explanations and policy fixes  It is indeed a cruel irony that Rehteah was a Nova Scotian, born and raised in the Canadian province that has blazed the trail in the recent  counter-offensive against cyberbullying.

RehteahParsonsProtestThe depth of public outrage left Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and his Education Minister Ramona Jennex  completely reeling.  It was bad enough that the Cole Harbour High School teen had been sexually-assaulted by four boys , 17 months before , at age 15, without charges being laid.  The fact that photos of her alleged rape were posted online and widely circulated were shocking.  Hearing that the Cole Harbour HS administration knew of the rape allegation and left it all to the police compounded the problem. To make matters even worse, no one representing the school claimed to have seen or heard anything about the photo posted all over the Internet.

Over the first few days, the Nova Scotia Government expressed its heart-felt sorrow, but then attempted to contain the issue using its standard methods. The Justice Minister Ross Landry, at first, hesitated before calling for a fuller investigation of the whole matter.  Education Minister Jennex was caught so much off-guard that she had to summon the Halifax Regional School Board Chair Gin Yee and Superintendent Judy White in for a briefing on what had actually happened.  None of the lame explanations offered would survive the maelstrom of intense public scrutiny exerted by glare of the North American media and the pesky Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper.

The Canadian public demanded action and Nova Scotian authorities reacted with uncharacteristic haste.  Spurred by Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘s public reaction, the threats of Anonymous to go public with the names of the boys, and signs of vigilanteism, the RCMP re-opened the case, investigations were launched, and new laws materialized almost over the weekend.

The provincial response, when it came, was head-spinning.  The Education Minister appointed two Ontario consultants, Penny Milton, and Debra Pepler, to conduct an independent review of the HRSB and its response to the case. Premier Dexter accompanied Rehteah Parson’s parents on a pilgrimage to Ottawa seeking changes to the Criminal Code to better combat cyberbullying.  After dragging its feet for a year, the N.S. Government introduced a proposed Cyber-Safety Act creating a new police investigation unit and toughening rules, including seizing devices and holding parents responsible for the online conduct of their children.

What does all of this reactive decision-making amount to?  A Halifax Chronicle Herald Editorial put it this way: The demand for change is overwhelming. “Whether that change comes from tweaking laws, procedures, responsibilities or other areas — or some combination of the above — what’s important to the public is that whatever measures are taken, they must be effective in helping to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.”

Winning over a skeptical public will not be an easy task.   After a spate of  recent teen suicides, including the Californian 15-year old Audrie Pott, precipitated by persistent, horrific cyberbullying, the public will wait to judge those efforts by what actually gets accomplished.  Closing loopholes in the  laws may help, but what about enforcing the laws and discipline codes?

The independent reviews will be judged by what actually gets fixed as a result of them.  If Rehtaeh’s case was mishandled  by the Halifax police, that needs to be identified and fixed.  School officials do have to be held to account for their actions — or rather, lack of action — while one of their own students was allegedly being ceaselessly tormented by her peers. Parents in Nova Scotia and elsewhere affected by such incidents are simply tired of excuses for why cyberbullying is so difficult to stop and do expect tangible results.

One concrete action would be to implement all 85 recommendations of the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying task force that reported a year ago.  Chair Wayne MacKay has made no secret of his disappointment with the lack of action, until now, on a number of effective, immediate measures, including tougher enforcement, more guidance counsellors, and teaching digital citizenship in schools.  Mental health services must also have the resources they need to effectively help teens cope with personal crises and the stresses of life.

Combating the posting of sexually explicit photos and cyberbullying will require the schools to step up to the challenge and get involved rather than shying away from anything with a hint of controversy. Parents also have a responsibility to teach their children right from wrong.  Everyone has a personal responsibility to call out bullying and to take a moral stand when the situation warrants a response.

Will the flurry of new Cyber-Safety laws and school regulations succeed where previous measures have failed?   With teen culture saturated with sex, can civility and propriety be restored by laws, rules, and curriculum alone?  Why do school officials, in particular, come up so short in stamping out outrageous student conduct and insidious cyberbullying in, around, and after school?  Are we simply expecting too much when it’s an ingrained societal problem?  

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Since the advent of the iPad in April 2010, younger and younger children have been drawn to the bigger and brighter version of the iPhone.  In many North American family homes that new piece of mobile digital technology instantly became part of the family and, in some cases, was mixed-in with the other children’s toys.  Toddlers were fascinated by the iPad and its magical touchscreen technology. Swiping a live screen produced an immediate electronic response that made shaking a rattle or knocking over a pile of blocks seem pretty tame.  It quickly became, what American children’s media expert Warren Buckleitner has described as “a rattle on steroids.”

ToddlersiPadsToday parenting and educating young children tends to involve some form of interaction with digital technology. Gone are the days when homes only had one television, reserved for the parents or rationed with scheduled viewing times.  Now smartphones and iPads can be found on most tables and kitchen counters within easy reach of those little arms and impossible for very active toddlers to resist.  Thousands of kids’ apps have flooded onto the market. Awash in digital devices, childhood is undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes.

Like every other new medium since the dawn of the TV age, the touchscreen device has been roundly condemned by many parents and a host of early learning specialists. One of the earliest critics of the proliferation of computer screen technology was Dr. Jane M. Healy, author of the 1990 best seller Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It.  She is famous for coining the term “zombie effect” and for raising serious concerns about exposure to television and later to computers in the early years of education.  The much revered TV show “Sesame Street” attracted her critical eye, and she took a dim view of the program because it encouraged “a short attention span” and “failed to address the real educational needs of preschoolers.”  Her 1999 book Failure to Connect extended her critique and raised alarm bells about the dangers of exposing young children to computers.

Early digital technology skeptics like Healy were gradually overtaken by the digital revolution.  Back in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics still discouraged television viewing by children under 2 years of age.  Childrens’ doctors strongly advised that time was far better spent  in “direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers.”  Pediatricians continued to urge caution, but by 2006 some 90 per cent of parents reported that their children younger than 2 consumed some form of electronic media.  That was before the spread of “iPad” app pacifiers and even iPad toys for toddlers.

Technology popularizer Marc Prensky, the IT zealot who coined the term “digital natives,” has encouraged young children to experiment freely with iPads and other mobile devices.  “The war is over. The natives won” says Prensky in explaining why he lets his own 7-year-old son watch unlimited amounts of TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and play to his heart’s content with iPads and every other conceivable form of media.  More common is the approach taken by Sandra Calvert of the Georgetown University Children’s Media Centre who allows young children to experiment, but tries to guide them “to make best use of it.”

More than two decades after the appearance of Endangered Minds, Jane M. Healy, has slightly adjusted her thinking and now advises caution and using digital technology in moderation. “Meaningful learning — the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future , ” Healy writes, ” occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today’s youngsters, at all socioeconomic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes.”  Schools of the present and future, she now recognizes, need to come to terms with the reality of IT and close the gap between traditional teaching and personal digital learning.  “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning.”   That sounds like promoting a convergence of old ways with new the digital technology world.

Children are becoming “digital natives” at younger and younger ages.  What’s the impact of increasing exposure to touchscreen technology on the brain development and behaviour of the tiny tots?   How wise is IT guru Marc Prensky in allowing his young son to play with technology at any time with few if any limits?  Why has Dr. Jane Healy changed her position on the dangers of early exposure to TV and digital technology?  Is moderation and responsible use still possible in our touchscreen mad world?

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