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Archive for the ‘Teacher Autonomy’ Category

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).

pblgroupwork

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.

pblhandsonlearning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A British grassroots, teacher-led movement, known as researchED, is emerging as a new player in the rather closely-knit, education school-centred, internally-referenced world of education policy research.  It originated, almost by accident in 2013, when Tom Bennett (no relation) with assistance from  Helene O’Shea, came up with the idea of holding a conference exploring school-level and system-wide research into “what works in education.” What a revolutionary idea!

ResearchEdlogoOn the first Saturday after school opened in September 2013, over 500 British educators, policy wonks, and researchers came to Dulwich College simply to “talk, listen and learn.” With the support of former UK policy advisor Sam Freedman and The Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, the incipient movement took-off and spread across Britain. The movement founder, Tom Bennett, who ran Soho night clubs before entering teaching, became its passionate emissary and pied piper, sponsoring follow-up events in York and Birmingham. When both were sell-outs, researchED began to develop even more expanding throughout 2014 , far beyond the wildest dreams of its pioneers.

Tom Bennett and ResearchEd have tapped into the creativity, energy and ideas of regular teachers and “ideas people’ from outside the normal cloistered world of academe and the “fad-prone” educational bureaucracy. While accepting the critical value of “educational experience,” Tom and his supporters see “huge areas” that are “amenable to scientific investigation” utilizing insights from other subject disciplines, not just psychology. “It’s time teachers started insisting upon evidence,” Tom declares, “before being expected to accept every claim and magic bullet sent their way. It’s time for a quiet revolution.”

The ResearchEd movement has not only expanded, but amassed considerable brainpower — mostly from outside the established OECD Education circles.  Surveying the ResarchEd contributors, now numbering well over 60 individuals, it’s a very eclectic, diverse group of thinkers ranging from Founder and Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust David Weston and Times Education Supplement editor Ann Mroz to Science Education specialist Mary Whitehouse and well-known Head Teacher Tom Sherrington.

The UK’s Teacher Conference success story of 2014 comes to the USA in early May of 2015.  The first North American ResearchEd conference will be on Saturday May 2, 2015 at the Riverside School in the Bronx area of New York City. One look at the line-up of speakers and you can see that it will be a ground-breaking day for teachers, academics, and anyone interested in finding out what the latest research really says about how to improve classrooms and schools. Some of America’s and the UK’s most prominent thought leaders, academics and educators will be there, very few of whom were invited to the recent ISTP2015 Conference in Banff, Alberta, dominated by education ministers, union leaders, and hand-picked ‘friendlies.’

One example of ResearchED’s iconoclastic spirit appeared in the April Issue of its online magazine.  “Only one in ten education reforms,” Gemma Ware of The Conversation reported, is ever “analyzed for their impact.” Based upon an OECD study covering 34 member countries from 2008 to 2013, that was worth reporting. So was OECD education director Andreas Schleicher’s comment that the education world needs a “more systematic and evidence-based approach to reforms.” Most significantly, Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg is quoted as conceding that education authorities have little appetite for spending more studying “failure.”

In today’s education world, ResearchED is a breath of fresh air with a commitment to bringing the UnConference to the neglected field of education policy research. Inspired partly by the progressive EdCamp movement. it may pose a threat to the ‘usual suspects’ like education experts Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Pasi Sahlberg who tend to identify trends, feed-off one another,  and tap into the educational treasure chest of  OECD Education and state education authorities. Not to mention plowing those resources into the very traditional pedantic, OISE-centred graduate student KMb (Knowledge Mobilization) research movement.  What’s appealing about Tom Bennett’s grassroots insurgency is it’s cheekiness and willingness to tilt at the windmills propelling the modern education state.

Does the ResearchED movement have the potential to challenge popular ‘fads and fetishes’ that constantly wash over public education?  Can regular teachers be engaged in assisting to develop research-based, workable solutions to the system’s chronic problems? Will Tom Bennett’s little ‘quiet revolution’ move beyond simply stirring the pot? Will the North American education establishment even notice the little disturbance in the Bronx?

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