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Archive for the ‘Teacher Autonomy’ Category

Student report cards are a critical point of contact with parents and that’s why they attract more critical scrutiny than other aspects of K-12 education.  Most parents seek clear, intelligible, individualized, regular student progress reports with understandable grades, while student assessment consultants come up with wave-after-wave of changes modeling the latest proposed innovation in assessment practice.  That explains, in many ways, why the subterranean issue never seems to disappear.

Every five years or so, school authorities from Canadian province to province attempt to revamp their student report cards, usually aimed at challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Introducing outcomes-based student assessment in the 1990s produced a new impenetrable language accompanied by “competencies” and hundreds of “micro-outcomes.”  Repeated attempts were made to replace letter grades in elementary schools and percentage marks in high schools with outcomes-based reporting and newly-constructed scales of development in learning. That initial wave produced what have become standardized, digitally-generated provincial or school district report templates.

Most top-down report card modernization plans end up imposing heavier reporting loads on teachers and leaving most parents baffled. Six years ago, Nova Scotia parent Marshall Hamilton spoke for perhaps hundreds of thousands of parents: “I don’t see my child in the comments.”  “The language doesn’t really give the parent or the child any idea of critical feedback,” he explained to CBC News. ” I can probably figure out more about what the curriculum is meant to do than to understand my daughter’s performance in that current curriculum.”

Student report cards in Canadian school systems are, in theory, intended to provide ‘meaningful information” to parents and guardians on “how their child is progressing in school.” Since that wave of parent criticism six years ago, Nova Scotia’s student reports have become far clearer and more intelligible with actual marks from Grade 7 to 12 , but there are still a few missing pieces.

Legitimate concerns about teachers’ classroom conditions and workloads sometimes prompt initiatives to “streamline” reporting that have unintended consequences.  Surveying his daughter’s November 2018 Grade 6 Nova Scotia report, former teacher Kristopher Snarby was surprised to see that it provided no feedback on subject courses representing over half her weekly schedule. Report cards from Grades P to 6, Snarby discovered, only contained marks and comments on Language Arts and Mathematics, providing no marks, comments or attendance for any of her other subjects. The standard provincial report template simply did not fit his daughter’s school, where multiple teachers taught a variety of subjects.

Those report card changes originated back in March 2018 as one of the recommendations to “streamline” November reports from a provincial teacher advisory body, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The problem, as framed by the Council, was “time-consuming” reporting processes and reports that were “confusing to parents.” The solution: reduce “data entry for teachers” and provide “integrated comments” for only two subjects, Language Arts and Math.

Making reports less comprehensive with fewer subject specific comments would never fly with parents who, after all, are the main consumers of those reports. If they were ever asked, they would also likely favour reports with more definitive feedback, including individual student assessment test results in Grades 3, 6 and 8.  Elementary student progress reports that provide feedback on integrated subjects also tend to obscure how students are actually performing in two critical areas, reading and numeracy.

Providing parents with reports including their own child’s provincial assessment scores would remedy that omission. That is not such an outlandish idea when one considers the latest teacher-friendly innovations (Christodoulou 2017) in student assessment reporting. Most North American school authorities are actually providing more and more information not less on both school standards and individual student performance.

Take Ontario, for example. Students in Ontario are all tested in grades 3 and 6 and, while they do not appear on school progress reports, the independent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) provides parents with a detailed individual report on their child’s progress, benchmarked against provincial student performance standards.

The EQAO individual student report card for Primary Division (Grades 1-3) provides incredibly detailed feedback on reading, writing, and mathematics, reflecting four distinct levels of achievement. It’s also relatively easy to identify how students actually measure up in their performance.

The Grade 9 EQAO math test is a component of the regular school report, accounting for up to 10 per cent of a student’s math mark. Ontario students are also required to pass a Grade 10 Literacy Test or remedial Literacy course to secure a secondary school diploma.

Parents in Ontario are encouraged to work together in partnership with their teachers to improve student learning. “Talk to your child’s teacher,” the EQAO report advises, “about how these results compare to your child’s daily classroom work and assessment information.”

Providing parents with individual student reports on provincial assessment results would be a step forward, but integrating them into Grade 3, 6, and 8 school district reports would be even better. Then parents would be able to see, on one report, how students were performing not only in local schools, but in relation to provincial standards.

What Canadian education needs is more parents like Kristopher Snarby keeping an eye on changes in the system. As a former teacher, he is particularly alert to “teacher-speak” on reports that are “not really intelligible for parents.” “Feedback is critical for parents,” Snarby says, and “that’s why what’s on student reports  really matters.”

Do Student Report Card reforms make matters better – or worse — for parents and students?  Can we find the right balance between providing meaningful, individualized reports while easing teachers’ workloads? What can possibly be wrong with giving teachers more autonomy to make more personal, pointed comments about actual student performance?  Would it be helpful to see both teacher assessments and provincial test results on those reports?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ontario now aspires to global education leadership in the realm of student evaluation and reporting. The latest Ontario student assessment initiative, A Learning Province, announced in September 2017 and guided by OISE education  professor Dr. Carol Campbell, cast a wide net encompassing classroom assessments, large scale provincial tests, and national/international assessment programs.  That vision for “student-centred assessments” worked from the assumption that future assessments would capture the totality of “students’ experiences — their needs, learning, progress and well-being.”

The sheer scope whole project not only deserves much closer scrutiny, but needs to be carefully assessed for its potential impact on frontline teachers. A pithy statement by British teacher-researcher Daisy Christodoulou in January 2017 is germane to the point: “When government get their hands on anything involving the word ‘assessment’, they want it to be about high stakes monitoring and tracking, not about low-stakes diagnosis.”  In the case of  Ontario, pursuing the datafication of social-emotional-learning and the mining of data to produce personality profiles is clearly taking precedence over the creation of teacher-friendly assessment policy and practices.

One of the reasons Ontario has been recognized as a leading education system is because of its success over the past 20 years in establishing an independent Education Quality and Accountability Office  (EQAO) with an established and professionally-sound provincial testing program in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10.  Whether you support the EQAO or not, most agree that is has succeeded in establishing reliable benchmark standards for student performance in literacy and mathematics.

The entire focus of Ontario student assessment is now changing. Heavily influenced by the Ontario People for Education Measuring What Matters project, the province is plunging ahead with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assessment embracing what Ben Williamson aptly describes as “stealth assessment” – a set of contested personality criteria utilizing SEL ‘datafication’ to measure “student well-being.” Proceeding to integrate SEL into student reports and province-wide assessments is also foolhardy when American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that the ‘generic skills’ are ill- defined and possibly unmeasureable.

Social and emotional learning is now at the very core of Ontario’s Achieving Excellence and Equity agenda and it fully embraces “supporting all students” and enabling them to achieve “a positive sense of well-being – the sense of self, identity, and belonging in the world that will help them to learn, grow and thrive.” The Ontario model is based upon a psycho-social theory that “well-being” has “four interconnected elements” critical to student development, with self/spirit at the centre. Promoting student well-being is about fostering learning environments exhibiting these elements:

Cognitive: Development of abilities and skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and the ability to be flexible and innovative.

Emotional: Learning about experiencing emotions, and understanding how to recognize, manage, and cope with them.

Social: Development of self-awareness, including the sense of belonging, collaboration, relationships with others, and communication skills.

Physical: Development of the body, impacted by physical activity, sleep patterns, healthy eating, and healthy life choices.

Self/Spirit:  Recognizing the core of identity whieh has “different meanings for different people, and can include cultural heritage, language, community, religion or a broader spirituality.”

Ontario’s new student report cards, proposed for 2018-19 implementation, will incorporate an distinct SEL component with teacher evaluations on a set of “transferable skills” shifting the focus from organization and work habits to “well-being” and associated values, while retaining grades or marks for individual classes. The Ontario Education “Big Six” Transferable Skills are: critical thinking, innovation and creativity, self-directed learning, collaboration, communication, and citizenship.  Curiously absent from the Ontario list of preferred skills are those commonly found in American variations on the formula: grit, growth mindset, and character

The emerging Ontario student assessment strategy needs to be evaluated in relation to the latest research and best practice, exemplified in Dylan Wiliam’s student assessment research and Daisy Christodoulou’s 2017 book Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning.  Viewed through that lens, the Ontario student assessment philosophy and practice falls short on a number of counts.

  1. The Generic Skills Approach: Adopting this approach reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how students learn and acquire meaningful skills. Tacking problem-solving at the outset, utilizing Project-Based Learning to “solve-real life problems” is misguided  because knowledge and skills are better acquired  through other means. The “deliberate practice method” has proven more effective. Far more is learned when students break down skills into a ‘progression of understanding’ — acquiring the knowledge and skill to progress on to bigger problems.
  2. Generic Feedback: Generic or transferable skills prove to be unsound when used as a basis for student reporting and feedback on student progress. Skills are not taught in the abstract, so feedback has little meaning for students. Reading a story and making inferences, for example, is not a discrete skill; it is dependent upon knowledge of vocabulary and background context to achieve reading comprehension.
  3. Hidden Bias of Teacher Assessment: Teacher classroom assessments are highly desirable, but do not prove as reliable as standardized measures administered under fair and objective conditions. Disadvantaged students, based upon reliable, peer-reviewed research, do better on tests than of regular teacher assessments. “Teacher assessment is biased not because they are carried out by teachers, but because it is carried out by humans.”
  4. Unhelpful Prose Descriptors: Most verbal used in system-wide assessments and reports are unhelpful — tend to be jargon-ridden, unintelligible to students and parents, and prove particularly inaccessible to students struggling in school. Second generation descriptors are “pupil friendly” but still prove difficult to use in learning how to improve or correct errors.
  5. Work-Generating Assessments: System-wide assessments, poorly constructed, generate unplanned and unexpected marking loads, particularly in the case of qualitative assessments with rubrics or longer marking time. In the U.K., for example, the use of grade descriptors for feedback proved much more time consuming than normal grading of written work Primary teachers who spent 5 hours a week on assessment in 2010, found that, by 2013, they were spending 10 hours a week.AssessmentMarkLoadCrisisWhat’s wrong with the new Ontario Assessment Plan and needs rethinking?
  1. The Generic Skills Approach – Teaching generic skills (SEL) doesn’t work and devalues domain-specific knowledge
  2. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) models — carry inherent biases and are unmeasurable
  3. Breach of Student Security – Data mining and student surveys generate personality data without consent
  4. Erosion of Teacher Autonomy – Student SEL data generated by algorithms, creates more record-keeping, more marking, cuts into classroom time.

The best evidence-based assessment research, applied in deconstructing the Ontario Assessment initiative, raises red flags.  Bad student assessment practices, as Wiliam and Christodoulou show, can lead to serious workload problems for classroom teachers. No education jurisdiction that lived up to the motto “Learning Province” would plow ahead when the light turns to amber.

A summary of the researchED Ontario presentation delivered April 14, 2018, at the Toronto Airport Westin Hotel. 

Where is the new Ontario student assessment initiative really heading? Is it a thinly-disguised attempt to create a counterweight to current large-scale student achievement assessments? Is it feasible to proceed with SEL assessment when leading researchers question its legitimacy and validity? Are we running the risk of opening the door to the wholesale mining of student personal information without consent and for questionable purposes? 

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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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“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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A hard lesson in public education is being learned in one of the most unlikely places, the Canadian East Coast province of Nova Scotia, better known by license plates emblazoned with the motto “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”  The earth has shaken. That province has just survived its first protracted teacher dispute and the first teachers’ strike in the 122-year history of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Here’s the backstory and a few questions raised by the bitter, divisive teacher dispute — where there are no clear winners and the provincial school system with 400 schools, 118,000 students, and 9,300 teachers shows few signs of recovery.

nsteachersstrike2017After 16 months of negotiations, three rejected teacher contracts, a 6-week work-to-rule, and a one day province-wide strike, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil Liberal government finally brought the teachers’ dispute to an end. Under Bill 75, the province’s 9,300 unionized teachers were legislated back to work on February 22, almost a week ago.

With Nova Scotia Teachers Union supporters in the streets, the province’s reputed ‘Education Premier’ made a rare and startling admission: “decades” of education policy errors – including his own – had contributed to a full-blown education crisis.  Limiting teacher salary increases to 3% over 4 years was a key factor, but somehow did not factor in his thinking.

Reversing the former NDP Government’s education cuts helped catapult the Liberals into office in October 2013, and it was not supposed to work out this way.

Since 2013, McNeil’s government had invested almost $59-million in P-12 education to restore the depleted “learning supports” model. Reducing Grade 4 to 6 class sizes, hiring 59 math mentors, reactivating 114 Reading Recovery teachers, and adding more math and literacy supports simply band-aided the system’s endemic, festering problems.

Now the Premier was conceding that his own rather scattered “classroom investments” had “missed the mark.” Yet, amidst the education chaos, it appeared to be happening again.

Frustrated and angry teachers, emboldened by a few thousand placard-carrying NSTU protesters, came before the N.S. Law Amendments Committee not only seeking to block the back-to-work legislation.

They were also demanding immediate cures for a whole raft of legitimate complaints: a broken inclusion model, ‘no fail’ social promotion, chronic absenteeism, ‘do-over’ student assessment, increasing violence in the classroom, bulging high school class sizes, time-consuming data collection, and managerial excesses eroding teacher autonomy.

Concerned Nova Scotia parents and teachers are both demanding immediate correctives without really addressing the structural sources of what American social planner Horst Rittel  once termed a ‘wicked problem.’

A wicked problem is one that defies quick fixes and proves difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the range of people and opinions involved, the prohibitive costs of resolution, or the complications presented by its interconnected nature.

Today’s school system is the product of a steady, repetitive stream of ‘progressive’ curriculum initiatives, overlaid since the mid-1990s with managerial reforms such as student achievement testing and school quality accreditation.

The P-12 public school system, like most in Canada, is now completely riddled with contradictions.  Curriculum innovations are almost constantly at odds with new system demands for managerial efficiency, student testing, and public accountability.

Curriculum and pedagogy or favoured teaching practices tend to support student-centred learning and incredibly labour-intensive practices, such as differentiated learning, authentic assessment, and ‘coding’ special needs students with ‘adaptations’ and individual program plans.

School authorities, ensconced in the Education Department and regional boards, now impose many external mandates, almost always delivered “top-down” on principals as well as classroom teachers. Vociferous complaints about “data collection” are code for the groundswell of school-level resistance to the system-wide imposition of technological initiatives (Power School and TIENET) or time-consuming provincial tests.

Inclusion is a ‘wicked problem’ of the highest order.  While the vast majority of parents and teachers claim that “the current model is not working,” they persist in believing that investing more in the regular classroom will make things better for special needs students, including those with severe learning challenges and complex needs.

Class composition not necessarily class size was the biggest concern of Canadian teachers in the Canadian Teachers Federation 2012 national survey, but it took a teacher contract upheaval to get Nova Scotia teachers finally talking out of school. Most are clamouring for more “learning supports” rather than holding out for a more permanent fix – a total re-engineering of Nova Scotia special education services.

After sixteen months of negotiations and three recommended agreements, the Bill 75 settlement will likely survive a court challenge. That was NSTU lawyer Ron Pink’s preliminary assessment. Unlike the Nova Scotia context, much of the British Columbia Teachers Federation decision turned on the B.C. government’s aversion to bargaining and arbitrary removal of class size and composition limits.

Establishing provincial commissions or committees to address inclusion and classroom conditions cuts little ice with frontline teachers, accustomed as they are to conflicted mandates and pointless paper exercises. Hashing out “working conditions” with or without an arbitrator is met with understandable skepticism.

Switching premiers every four years has not worked, so far. Education ministers come and go, but the so-called “iron cage” of education, protected by layers of bureaucracy and regulation remains essentially unchanged.

Looking for a better path forward?  Be bold enough to: Go to the root of the “wicked problem” and do not settle, once again, for watering the tree and rearranging the branches. Get on with undoing the failing program initiatives and rebuilding the system from the schools-up for the sake of today’s students.

What are the hard lessons to be learned from the Nova Scotia teacher dispute? How well are students served when Work-to-Rule ends, only to be replaced by Work-to-Contact?  Will other education authorities study the conflict in order to avert similar consequences?  Who will be the first to stand up and tackle the “wicked problem” of internal contradiction and self-defeating policy initiatives? 

 

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High school English language arts teacher Merion Taynton took “a leap of faith” in November 2016 and jumped in “with both feet” into Project-Based Learning (PBL).

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While teaching Goethe’s Faust in her Grade 10 class in a Chinese independent school, she adopted PBL in an attempt to “grapple with the ideas” within the text rather than “the text itself.” What would you sell your soul for? How much are your dreams worth? Those were the questions Ms. Taynton posed, as she set aside her regular teaching notes on 19th Century European Literature. Students would complete their own projects and decide, on their own, how to present their findings. “I’m going to do a video,” one said. “I’m going to produce a rap song” chimed in another, and the whole approach was ‘anything goes’ as long as the students could produce a justification.

Ms. Taynton’s project-based learning experience was not just a random example of the methodology, but rather an exemplar featured on the classroom trends website Edutopia under the heading “Getting Started with Literature and Project-Based Learning.”  Better than anything else, this learning activity demonstrates not only the risks, but the obvious pitfalls of jumping on educational fads in teaching and learning.

After spreading like pedagogical magic dust over the past five years, Project-Based Learning recently hit a rough patch. Fresh educational research generated in two separate studies at Durham University’s Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) in the United Kingdom and as a component of the OECD’s Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of PBL and other minimal teacher-guided pedagogical strategies.

The EFF study of Project-Based Learning (November 2016) examined “Learning through REAL projects” involving some 4,000 Year 7 pupils  in 24 schools from 2013-14 to April 2016, utilizing a randomized control trial. The research team found “no clear impact on either literacy..or student engagement with school and learning.” More telling was the finding that the effect on the literacy of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) – a measure of disadvantage – was “negative and significant.” Simply put, switching to PBL from traditional literacy instruction was harmful to the most needy of all students.

explicitinstructionpisaThe 2015 PISA results, released December 6, 2016,  delivered another blow to minimal teacher-guided methods, such as PBL and its twin sister, inquiry-based learning.  When it came to achievement in science among 15-year-olds, the finding was that such minimal guided instruction methods lagged far behind explict instruction in determining student success. In short, the increase in the amount of inquiry learning that students report being exposed to is associated with a decrease in science scores.

Much of the accumulating evidence tends to support the critical findings of Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark in their authoritative 2006 article in Educational Psychologist.  “Minimally-guided instruction,” they concluded, based upon fifty years of studies, “is less effective and less efficient than instructional methods that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” The superiority of teacher-guided instruction, they claimed, can be explained utilizing evidence from studies of ” human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences, and cognitive load.”

Project-Based Learning, like inquiry-based approaches, may have some transitory impact on student engagement in the classroom. Beyond that, however, it’s hard to find  much actual evidence to support its effectiveness in mastering content knowledge, applying thinking skills, or achieving higher scores, particularly in mathematics and science.

In September 2015, an Ontario Education What Works: Research into Practice  Monograph, authored by David Hutchison of Brock University, provided a rather mixed assessment of PBL. While the author claimed that PBL had much to offer as a “holistic strategy” promoting “student engagement” and instilling “21st century skills,” it faced “challenges that can limit its effectiveness.” Where the strategy tends to fall short was in mastery of subject content and classroom management, where time, scope and quality of the activities surface as ongoing challenges.

Implementation of PBL on a system-wide basis  has rarely been attempted, and, in the case of Quebec’s Education Reform initiative, Schools on Course,  from 1996 to 2006, it proved to be an unmitigated disaster, especially for secondary school teachers and students. The “project method” adopted in the QEP, imposed top-down, ran into fierce resistance from both teachers and parents in English-speaking Quebec, who openly opposed the new curriculum, claiming that it taught “thinking skills without subject content.” In a province with a tradition of provincial exit examinations, PBL cut against the grain and faltered when student scores slipped in 2006 in both Grade 6 provincial mathematics tests and the global Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments.

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None of the critical research findings or claims of ineffectiveness have blunted the passion or commitment of PBL advocates across North America.  With the support of the ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine and web platforms such as Edutopia, a handful of PBL curriculum and program experts, including Jane Krauss of International Society for Technology Education (ISTE), Suzie Boss of Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation, and Dr. Sylvia Chard of the University of Alberta, have been effective in planting it in hundreds of school systems from Oregon and California to New York State and Ontario, in New England and the Maritime Provinces.

The PBL movement in North America is propelled by progressive educational principles and an undeniable passion for engaging students in learning.  Powered by 21st century learning precepts and championed by ICT promoters, it rests upon some mighty shaky philosophical foundations and is supported by precious little research evidence. Lead promoter Suzie Boss is typical of those advocates. “Projects make the world go round,” she wrote in a 2011 Edutopia Blog post, and “Confucius and Aristotle were early proponents of learning by doing.” That may be quite imaginative, but it is also completely fallacious.

Most of the PBL “research” is actually generated by one California organization, the Buck Institute for Education, where the lead promoters and consultants are schooled in its core principles and where PBL facilitators develop teaching units and workshops. It’s actively promoted by ISTE, Edutopia, and a host of 21st century skills advocates.

Even Canadian faculty of education supporters like Hutchison concede that implementing PBL is “time-intensive” and fraught with classroom challenges. Among those “challenges” are formidable obstacles such as a) managing the significant time commitment; b) ensuring that subjects have sufficient subject depth; c) balancing student autonomy with the imperative of some teacher direction; and d) keeping projects on track using ongoing (formative) assessment instruments. When it comes to implementing PBL in ESL/ELL classrooms or with larger groups of Special Needs students those challenges are often insurmountable.

What works best as a core instructional approach – explicit instruction or minimal teacher guided approaches, such as PBL and Inquiry-Based Learning?  Which approach is best equipped to raise student achievement levels, particularly in mathematics and science?  Are the potential benefits in terms of promoting student engagement and instilling collaborative skills enough to justify its extensive use in elementary schools? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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