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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report

 

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Four years ago a British teacher, Ms. R. Clifford, ventured outside her specialty of religious education to tackle the subject of Racism and Sexism in the imaginary children’s world created by Walt Disney. While teaching a class of older children and teens, she produced a lesson plan seeking to alert students to the “darker side of Disney,” the depiction of young women as princesses and potential victims of domestic abuse. With the best of intentions as a Millennial Generation teacher, Ms Clifford then uploaded it to a popular resource-sharing  website, along with the 122 other lessons.

snowflakebeautybeastsnowflakerealprincessesWith 2016 winding down and the raging “Generation Snowflake” controversy very much alive in the U.K.,  Ms Clifford’s Lesson Plan generated a mainstream news and social media firestorm. “Bonkers school lesson plan claims Beauty & the Beast promotes domestic violence,”  The Sun proclaimed on November 16, 2016, warning scandalized readers that the “loony lesson plan” was now available in “thousands of classrooms” and a graphic example of ‘political correctness’ desecrating beloved Disney children’s tales. One British Tory MP, Phil Davies, went so far as to describe Clifford’s lessons as brainwashing and urged his own government to “stop this idiocy and ensure schools teach things that parents expect.”

Vocal critics of Ms. Clifford’s Racism and Sexism in Disney lesson attributed her perspective to being a member of the Snowflake Generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are regularly lampooned as protected, coddled and easily offended, or worse, labeled as ‘censorious cry babies.’  For a teacher whose lessons and resources have been downloaded over 300,000 times, it was a huge shock to be drawn-and-quartered in the national media. It also illustrated just how much resistance was building in opposition to the prevailing beliefs of a younger generation with a growing influence as teachers in the classroom.

snowflakeGenerational fragility is, of course, a real phenomenon, especially in schools and on college campuses. Many teachers and students today are made nervous and uneasy by advocates espousing strong opinions contrary to their own or by vigorous debate pushing at the boundaries of acceptable discourse. The anti-bullying industry in and around schools has mushroomed over the past two decades. Whereas once “bullying” meant having your’head kicked-in,’ your money stolen in the schoolyard, or subjection to horrible cruelties, today’s students are protected from most, if not all, ‘slings-and-arrows,’ including  relatively innocuous “teasing and name-calling,” “insensitive jokes,” and “bullying gestures.”

Outspoken British writer and founder of the Institute of Ideas  Claire Fox worries that today’s kids and teens have been socialized to be “too soft” and “aggrieved” by even the smallest of “micro-aggressions.” Banning outdoor games like tree climbing, leapfrog, marbles, or Red Rover are commonplace, and one school head changed the colour of her school’s red uniform because of obscure research connecting it with ‘increased heart and breathing rates.’ Teachers and students talk about “safe spaces” where classrooms are protected against the rough edges of the real outside world.

A healthy public debate is underway in the United Kingdom, but has yet to really surface inside most North American school systems. Back in February 2016, London teacher Tom Bennett, Student Behaviour Advisor to the U.K. Government, waded into the public debate.  The prevalence of “mollycoddled students,” he told The Daily Mail, began in school when too many children were protected from the “harsher realities of the world” and then had trouble confronting challenging and unsettling ideas in college and university.

The ‘No Platforming’ movement barring controversial speakers from uttering “offensive views,” according to Bennett and other defenders of free speech within limits, may well be a reflection of “Snowflake” sensitivities. While it’s mainly a college campus issue, there are clear signs that today’s classroom teachers are more careful than ever about steering clear of controversial social issues. It was “irresponsible” for adults, including teachers, Bennett added, to pretend that offensive views do not exist and it would be better to “create a kind of healthy space — not a safe space –for debate to appear” in our high schools and colleges.

Does “Generation Snowflake” exist or is it merely an artificial construct? To what extent has a kind of “Snowflake Generation” outlook and approach emerged in teaching and the education world? Have schools and colleges gone too far in insulating older children and teens against unpleasant encounters with life’s harsher realities?  If Walt Disney’s imaginary fantasy world is now deemed harmful to kids, what comes next? 

 

 

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Why do so many “Digital Age” Ed-Tech initiatives run aground in the classroom? That was the critical question that I tackled on September 10, 2016, at the researchED 2016 National Conference in London, UK.  My short presentation set out to confront the significant challenges posed for classroom teachers by initiatives attempting to usher in what is now termed the “Brave New World” of 21st century learning. It also attempted to pick-up and further develop insights gleaned from Tom Bennett’s thought-provoking 2013 book, Teacher Proof, an indispensable little handbook for every teacher who’s been introduced to an ‘innovative’ teaching strategy or ‘new’ curriculum and been told that it is “based upon the research.”

elearningred2016coverThe current 21st Century Learning mantra likely found its origins in a very influential November 2000 OECD Schooling for Tomorrow address by Sir Michael Barber, British PM Tony Blair’s chief education advisor. In his sppech, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Re-conceptualizing Public Education,” he provided the essential narrative, replicated in most of the derivative education initiatives:

The explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning, combined with the growing power of technology, creates the potential to transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of the teacher and the learner. Moreover, huge social changes, such as growing diversity and population mobility, present educators with new and constantly changing circumstances. As a result, the characteristics which defined the successful education systems of, say, 1975, are unlikely to be those which will define success in the future.”

Barber and his disciples unleashed what I term “Big Idea mimmickry” that popped up in a whole series of top-down education policy spin-offs ranging from the infamous June 2009 UK “Your Child, Your Schools,Our Future” declaration to New Brunswick’s short-lived 2010 “21st Century Learning” initiative (NB3-21C) with its bizarre CRT2 formula, with C standing for “Creativity,” R representing “Relevance,” the first T signifying “Time” and the second one “Technology.” In the case of New Brunswick, it provided a convenient new pedagogy to accompany the mass distribution of laptops to all of the province’s teachers. While the NB plan fizzled and died, its initiator, Deputy Minister John D. Kershaw, resurrected it and took it nation-wide rebranded as C21 Canada: Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, championed by the Council of Ministers of Education and bankrolled by Canadian branches of the world’s leading learning corporations.

Most “Digital Age Revolution” plans, like the September 2015 North Carolina version, promote “binary thinking” pitting the “old” against the “new,” analogue vs. digital, and traditional vs digital age/progressive.  It all rests upon the purely theoretical assumption that constructivist learning is better than explicit instruction, and proceeds to perpetuate such false dichotomies. The latest iteration, Michael Fullan’s “New Pedagogies of Deeper Learning,” hatched with Barber and Pearson Education, is the most recent example of Digital Age pedagogical theory rooted in such fallacious thinking.

cyclinguphill21ctrilling2009Twenty first century learning advocates set out to “Shift Minds” utilizing You Tube videos mimicking Colorado IT teacher Karl Fisch’s 2006 smash hit, Shift Happens.  Riding that 21st century bicycle has proven difficult, facing an uphill climb against stiff headwinds emanating from resistant classroom teachers and legions of concerned elementary school parents.

Three dominant ideologies have recently arisen to propel the latest phase of high-tech education: personalization, robotization, and Goolization. Mass introduction of ICT is now packaged as a way of “personalizing” education for today’s students, allowing them to work more independently and to proceed at their own pace.  Preparing pupils for a life “dancing with robots” is now accepted uncritically as a necessity in the 21st century workplace.  School districts once cautious about technology integration are turning to Google for single-source agreements to get free or heavily discounted access to Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Few  education bureaucrats seem to question these priorities or the implications of such technological initiatives.

Education policy analysts like Stanford Education professor Larry Cuban and Hack Education blogger Audrey Watters have issued periodic warnings about the impact of “machines” on teachers in the classroom. In Teachers and Machines, Cuban examined previous cycles of classroom technology from film strip projectors to calculators. Every new innovation, he shows, has followed the same pattern in the classroom: adoption by teachers, inflated claims by enthusiasts, deflated expectations, then followed by a new technological panacea.

So far, ed-tech has not transformed how teachers teach in the classroom. That’s the firm assessment of Larry Cuban in a June 2015 piece posted on the Education Week Digital Learning Blog. It also prompted me to dig a little deeper to find our why there is such teacher resistance to initiatives seeking to introduce widespread e-learning in K-12 schools.

Based upon my own recent research, conducted for an upcoming chapter in the Springer Guide to Digital Learning in K-12 Schools (September 2016), the explanation is deceptively simple. Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels tend to falter and rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. The potential of e-learning will only be realized when initiatives enjoy the support of regular classroom teachers and engage those teachers from the school-level up.

sheepdippingukTop-down initiatives simply do not work in education, and a succession of struggling high-tech education initiatives are proving this every school day in classrooms world-wide. Four critical factors come into play in undoing such initiatives: great teaching still matters most, “sheep dip” tech-ed training does not last, new pedagogies are merely ‘warmed-over’ constructivist ventures, and teachers integrate IT only when it demonstrably improves their teaching effectiveness.

All is not lost when it comes to introducing technology and e-learning in the classroom, if the hard lessons are absorbed by wise education policy makers and head teachers, capable of tuning out 21c learning missionaries and IT zealots. It will take what I describe as a “flexible, agile, responsive approach” starting with teachers themselves.

To that end, at researchEd 2016 in London, I proposed four strategies with a better chance of succeeding in winning over today’s teachers.

1: Support Early Adopters committed to Technology Integration and initiating Blended Learning Programs

2: Strengthen and expand Existing and ‘Seed’ New Self-Directed Online Learning Programs

3: Focus on building the A La Carte  Model of Blended Learning Programs in Junior and Senior High Schools

4: Build School Leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation

5: Develop and test (before proceeding large-scale) more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations.

What is really needed is a much more strategic, longer-term Technology Integration plan in our school systems. Teachers must be in full control of the technology— to produce true deeper knowledge of much greater benefit to students.  Students and teachers are yearning for more stimulating and engaging classroom instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning. We deserve much more from our schools.  My presentation was intended, in a small way, to demystify e-learning in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Why do high-sounding 21st century learning initiatives fail to gain traction among classroom teachers?  When will high-tech education advocates begin to demonstrate that their have absorbed the hard lessons?  Is my modest set of proposals worth pursuing?  Would it work – where it counts – with teachers and students in the classroom? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Safe School initiatives and “No Tolerance” policies have been around since the mid-1990s, but school boards and provincial education authorities across Canada are now collecting and beginning to publicly report on acts of school violence.  It’s also headline news because of startling figures, inaccurate reports, and hair-raising tales of violence against teachers.

SchoolViolencePhotoNova Scotia Teacher’s Union president Shelley Morse topped them all in February 16, 2015 in a CBCNews Nova Scotia report. “I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me, ” she said. “I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me. They have destroyed my office, because I’m a vice principal as well.” Teachers, Morse claimed, call the NSTU in fear of their students it gets so bad at times.

Cracking down on school violence is not new. It goes back to 1994, when American President Bill Clinton passed the Gun Free Schools Act banning guns from public schools and cracking down on school violence. After the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, the majority of U.S. schools adopted “No Tolerance” policies for violence, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, firearms, and weapons other than guns.  Since then, Canada’s provincial school systems have adopted their own versions of such policies aimed at combating bullying, managing youth violence, and controlling unwanted aggression.

Twelve years ago, when British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was Education Minister, a government task force called for province-wide policies for dealing with bullying, harassment and intimidation in schools, including annual reports from school boards on how they handled violent incidents. Since then, safe school policies in many urban schools in Ontario have featured security guards, electronic surveillance, student identification tags, discipline, and zero tolerance.

Implementing simple “No Tolerance” policies ran into unexpected difficulties. In 2000, the Ontario Ministry of Education passed the Safe Schools Act, which set out a list of offences that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary responses. Interestingly, it did not define safety. In a parallel move, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) adopted The Equity Foundation Statement in 1999 – a comprehensive commitment to equity and a rally against racism, homophobia, sexism, and oppression based on class. Those two initiatives have, in effect, exposed differences in students’ and teachers’ perceptions of safety and equity, and how they experience bulling and harassment on a day-to-day basis.

Public disclosure of violence and bullying is now far more common. In 2011, Ontario’s Ministry of Education responded  to public concerns by amending the Education Act and requiring the 73 school boards to report the numbers for incidents like weapon possession, serious assaults and sexual assaults in its schools With the passage of the Nova Scotia 2012 Respectful Schools Act, reporting acts of violence became mandatory in public schools.

The official figures for acts of violence in school can be alarming. Last year teachers, principals and school staff in Nova Scotia recorded 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with only 400 schools, 122,000 students and 9,300 teachers.  So shocking, in fact, that Minister of Education Karen Casey attempted to downplay the figures. “I think it’s misleading to suggest that 4,700 of those are truly violent acts,” she told CBC News. She thinks there’s a distinction to be made between students with emotional or mental difficulties acting out and students who are intentionally violent or aggressive.

Winnipeg public schools have their share of violence and bullying, directed against students and teachers. Over the past two years, CBC News revealed that 931 physical assaults took place, 797 attacks against students and 137 on staff. Affter learning that 15 per cent of the assualts were on teachers, Winnipeg School Division trustee Mike Babinsky replied, “Wow. That’s high.” The Manitoba Teachers Society claims that the numbers are even higher. “You are discouraged from reporting,” says MTS president Paul Olson, “for fear it’ll blight the reputation of the child or the student.”

The posted data from the Ontario school boards has generated much controversy. In 2011-2012, 2,659 violent incidents were reported from almost 5,000 different schools. In 2012-2013, 2,188 incidents are listed. Judging from the Nova Scotia disclosures, those figures look to be remarkably low.

The Ontario school boards were later found to be under-reporting or inaccurately reporting their incidents of violence. The Peel District School Board, appears to lead the pack with 641 total incidents in 2011-2012 and then again in 2012-2013 with 478. The largest board in the province, the Toronto District School Board reported only 177 incidents in the first year and 178 in the second year of tracking the incidents. York Region, which is around the same size as Peel, reported 30 incidents and 38 incidents. In all, 10 of Ontario’s 73 school boards reported no incidents in 2011-2012, and 11 reported no incidents in 2012-2013. Twenty boards reported less than 10 incidents in 2011-2012 and 22 boards report less than 10 incidents in 2012-2013.

After Stu Auty, founding president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network, raised concerns about the accuracy of the reporting, and the Ministry of Education eventually conceded that the numbers were problematic for comparative purposes. Trafficking drugs the Peel public schools, for example, was reported to the province as a violent incident, even though it lay outside the reporting guidelines. A quick look at the figures highlighted a number of other irregularities. In 2011-2012, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board reported 191 violent incidents. The next year, it reported zero.

Educational experts from Pedro Noguera (1995) and J.A. Baker (1998) to Stephen Jull (2000) tend to dispute claims made by school officials and teacher unions about the incidence of, and motivations behind, acts of school violence. Declining enrollments and recent crime statistics suggest that violent conduct and behaviour may not be as prevalent as reported, and that the student interactions are inseparably connected to the “learning climate” and rigidity of school discipline policies. Scare stories about student violence, experts claim, tell only part of the story and may reveal more about the level of coercion in schools and the effectiveness of school policy in promoting social and cultural acceptance and inclusion of those who are severely challenged or marginalized

A series of school disciplinary policy changes have been implemented over the past 20 years in an attempt to curb violence in schools and to stamp out bullying in hallways and playgrounds. Whatever happened to the Zero Tolerance and Safe Schools policy initiatives? Are acts of school violence and bullying escalating as much as is being reported? If one out of ten acts of violence are directed toward teachers, is that a worrisome trend? How reliable are the current school violence reports as a basis for framing school discipline policy?

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Alberta’s most unlikely hero, Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, has finally been vindicated.  Two years after he was fired in September 2012 by the Edmonton Public Schools for giving his high school students zeros for incomplete work, an Alberta appeal tribunal ruled on August 29, 2014 that he was “unfairly dismissed” and restored his lost salary and pension. There is justice, it seems, in the education world.  The bigger question is – how did it happen and will it encourage more teachers to stand-up  against eroding educational standards?

LyndenDorvalEPSPhotoThe Physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, was a 33-year veteran with an “unblemished” teaching record.  He stood his ground when a new Principal arrived and intervened to end the common practice of teaching students a valuable life lesson – failing to hand in an assignment or missing a test without a valid reason – would result in a mark of zero. In Dorval’s case, he even gave students fair warning and a second chance before taking that step.  It worked because Dorval , according to the tribunal, had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.”

The “no zeros” issue  came to a head when the school’s computer generated reports were programmed to substitute “blanks” for zeros, eliminating the practice.  Dorval considered banning zeros “a stupid idea” and said he “simply couldn’t follow it.”  Two other teachers did the same but escaped any repercussions.

The Alberta tribunal’s decision supported Dorval because he had raised very legitimate questions about whether the policy was good for students.  In the wording of the decision, “the school board did not act reasonably in suspending the teacher. The implementation of the new assessment policy has several demonstrable problems.” Specifically, since there was “no accountability or penalty for missing assignments in the new policy, there was little incentive for a student to actually complete the assignment.”

The written ruling was particularly harsh in its criticism of the principal and former superintendent Edgar Schmidt.  It agreed that Dorval was made an example for challenging the principal’s authority and found that the policy was imposed without proper consultation with teachers, students, or parents. Even more telling, the tribunal was very critical of the Edmonton board for denying Dorval due process during its September 2012 dismissal hearing.

The sheer idiocy of the Edmonton Public Schools student assessment policy was clear to most outside the system. Faced with a groundswell of resistance, the Edmonton board of elected trustees itself backtracked, approving a revised student assessment policy (protecting the Lynden Dorvals) and explicitly allowing zero as a possible mark.

School system Student Evaluation policy remains a total mystery to most parents and to tuned-in high school students.  Over the past two decades, provincial testing programs and school-based student evaluation have been moving in opposite directions.

Provincial tests such as the Ontario EQAO assessments hold students accountable for measuring up to criteria-referenced standards, while school board consultants promote the new “Assessment for Learning” (AfL) theories, pushing-up graduation rates through a combination of “no fail” and “do-over” student evaluation practices.  Defenders of such ‘soft, pass everyone’ practices like AfL consultant Damian Cooper   tend to see enforcing higher standards as a dire threat to student self-esteem.

Public school authorities have a way of silencing independently-minded teachers and many pay a professional price for openly expressing dissenting views. A small number of those educators stumble upon Canadian independent schools which generally thrive on giving teachers the freedom to challenge students and to actually teach.  Thousands of public school teachers just accept the limits on freedom of expression, soldier on and mutter, below their breath, “I’m a teacher, so I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”

Why did Lynden Dorval become an Alberta teacher hero?  It comes down to this: He said “No” to further erosion of teacher autonomy and standards.

 

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Today’s North American Education Debate is so circular that it’s getting to be tiresome. Surveying the Education Wars at a distance, it begins to resemble a “merry-go-round.” Recent serious contributions such as David L. Kirp’s New York Times column “Teaching is Not a Business” seem to get it half right. Peeling away the layers to get at its complexity is even posing a challenge for perceptive analysts like Frederick (Rick) Hess, curator of Education Week’s Straight Up blog. Few education observers in Canada have the temerity to even attempt a diagnosis let alone offer a prescription.

EdReformFuturesNorth American school reformers now routinely declare that “schools are broken and need to be fixed.”  Some committed school reform warriors seek to promote charter schools to introduce competition; others embrace “disruptive innovation” to unfreeze a monopolistic education system. Defenders of the status quo in public education respond that students are graduating at ever higher levels and, besides, “education is not a business.” A new breed of futurists wedded to technological transformation are attempting to use machines to implement system-wide “personalized learning.” It’s tempting to say “a pox on all their houses.”

The sad state of the Education Debate is most dramatically revealed in British Columbia public education, where the system is experiencing a protracted ‘crisis’. The gulf separating the Government and the BC Teachers Federation is now a canyon and the total breakdown has all the elements of a “class war” with students as the victims. In this game of brinkmanship, BCTF militants like Tobey Steeves are attempting to depict the conflict as “an encounter” with what Naomi Klein termed the “shock doctrine,” a cruel by-product of world-wide “disaster capitalism.”

It’s time to reclaim the sensible middle ground. More thoughtful educators like Kirp are correct in claiming that “teaching is not a business” and system-wide reforms based upon the business model are bound to fall far short of expectations. Failing to build professional relationships and organizational capacities can and do make or break any —and all –well-intentioned, clearly needed, school reforms.

The real lesson is that system-wide reforms live and die in the classroom.  “It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” Kirp wisely points out. “All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”

Education policy reformers have been very slow to grasp what American educator Robert Evans once termed “the human side” of school change.  Here’s how it works: School reform initiatives come in waves and seasoned teachers do have a built-in “crap detector.”  Most veteran teachers have learned to be skeptical about “faddism” and can often be heard muttering, particularly in secondary school staff rooms , that “it too will pass.”  Change in education is threatening because it always signifies “a loss” of some kind, usually infringing upon teacher freedom or autonomy.

Waves of reform disappear as quickly as they arise at school level.  When provincial testing, or destreaming, or differentiated learning, or one-to-one student laptops fall short of initial expectations, policy-makers and school managers tend to blame it on “confusion” or “implementation problems.”  The severity of the implementation problem, as Rick Hess recently observed, is rarely acknowledged, and even then only when it is too late to turn back.

School reform breaks down and falls apart for a variety of interconnected reasons.  It is determined by how complex and technocratic the measure is (blended learning); whether it’s imposed from the top-down (provincial testing); whether the plan is fully baked (personalized learning); whether incentives exist for effective execution (teacher evaluation); or whether, in Canada, the teacher unions are fully on board with the change.

School leadership is a critical factor, particularly in school systems where superintendents and principals play musical chairs. Block scheduling, destreaming, outcome-based-learning, gradeless schools, and the holistic curriculum were all passing fads that attracted rather opportunistic champions.  Superintendents and principals who embraced them were promoted upwards, leaving others to make it actually work.  More problematic are the “serial champions of reforms” who move from one faddish initiative to another, swinging from student accountability to esteem-building, without missing a beat.

What matters in Canadian education is what happens in our 15,500 schools, spread over 10 provinces and three territories, educating some 5 million children. It is, as Rick Hess reminds us, all about implementation.  “Good policy” is too often stymied by poor implementation because we should be paying more attention, at the outset, to the visible and subterranean implementation challenges.  Introducing charter schools in Canada outside Alberta is perhaps a good example. What if that good, well-intentioned idea is best not pursued because the “winning conditions” are not present and, in any case, broadening parental school choice can be achieved more effectively through other means.

Why have a succession of North American school reform initiatives  since the 1970s come in waves and then disappeared?  In pursuing school reform, are we drawing the right lessons from the business world?  What can be done to find a sensible middle ground in the struggle to improve the performance of both schools and students? Is it possible for us to overcome that hardy perennial – “bad implementation”?  How critical are “organizational capacities” and the teacher-student-parent relationship?

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