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Archive for the ‘Teacher Education’ Category

A recent visit to the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) in Potomac, MD, opened my eyes and forced me to confront my preconceived notion about the efficacy of “brain science” in guiding teaching practice. Director of the CTTL Glenn Whitman and his Research Head Ian Kelleher are leaders in the “neuroteach” movement deeply committed to applying sound, research-based principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience in the real life classroom. Their new book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, also attempts to sort out the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in this burgeoning field.

neuroteachcttlcoverSince my faculty of education days, the critical pedagogical concept of “crap-detection” introduced in Charles Weingarten and Neil Postman’s 1969 classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity has loomed ever larger in my thinking about education. The whole notion actually originated with the great novelist Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” For at least two decades, listening to various and sundry travelling education consultants promoting “brain-based learning” has tended to set-off my own internal crap-detector.

That perception was further cemented by reading Daniel T. Willingham’s 2012 book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. The field of teaching and learning , he warned us, is “awash in conflicting goals, research ‘wars’, and profiteers” and we need to be vigilant in critically evaluating new pedagogical ideas and less persuaded by “bad evidence” drawn particularly from neuroscience. He provided us with a helpful shortcut to help in assessing the latest panacea: “strip it and flip it, trace it, analyze it, and make your own decision about whether to adopt it.”  In short, become an informed consumer of initiatives floating on unproven theories or based upon dubious research evidence. 

Whitman and Kelleher’s book Neuroteach and the CTTL both venture into contested terrain in the larger debate over the value of neuroscience in informing and guiding classroom teaching. Like many such cutting-edge ventures, the CTTL is housed in an impresssive state-of-the-art learning centre and comes beautifully packaged in booklets exhorting teachers to “think differently and deeply” about their practice.  Upon closer examination, however, there is more to this initiative than meets the eye.

Whitman and Kelleher are plainly aware of the wall of skepticism aroused by pseudoscience and expressed in hushed tones in today’s high school staff rooms. British education gadfly David Didau (@LearningSpy) put it best: “While cognitive psychology is playing an increasingly important role in how teachers understand their craft and how students can best learn, neuroscience has, for the most part, remained the realm of quacks and snake-oil salesmen.” In such a field, Whitman and Kelleher are a breath of fresh air – playing an important role in bridging the gap between sound research and classroom practice.  They also use “crap-detection” in helping us to understand “the complexities of the science of learning.”

The CTTL is school-based and focused specifically on improving teaching practice by applying the best research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Some readers of Neuroteach may be put-off by the optimistic, aspirational tone and tendency to appropriate “transformational” rhetoric. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine teachers caught up in the euphoria as they “begin to rewire each other’s brain, to develop neural pathways and connections informed by mind, brain and education science.” Not everyone possesses an “ambitious brain” and will be easily convinced to either stop teaching as they were once taught or to abandon teaching to their own “learning strengths.” ( p. 7).  Some outstanding teachers, we all know, do both.

neuroteachpcknowledgeWhitman and Kelleher, to their credit, do deliver more than the usual messianic educational progressivism. Educators familiar with Tom Bennett’s ground-breaking work with researchED will heartily approve of certain sections of this book.  It’s encouraging to see British teacher-researcher Carl Hendrick’s classroom wisdom brought to a North American audience. The doctor who still uses leeches to treat his patients and, when questioned on it, replies “it works for me” is, as Carl reminds us, simply not good enough these days. Research-informed teachers will also be pleased to see Professor Robert Coe, head of Britain’s College of Teaching, cited for his penetrating observation: “The problem with what’s obvious is that it is often wrong.”  This applies not only to the traditional “leeches” but to supposed 21st century psuedoscientific curatives.

The proposed CTTL teacher research agenda is a welcome contribution to the field of teacher growth and development.  Focusing on two different strands makes good sense: 1) mastering MBE (mind-brain-education) science and 2) curriculum understanding ( p. 153).  The primary objective, according to Whitman and Kelleher, is to marry curriculum understanding and teaching strategies informed by MBE science to achieve pedagogical content knowledge. 

The CTTL approach aligns well with Rob Coe’s recent Sutton Trust research review identifying six “research-backed components of “great teaching,” all cast within the context of assessing “teacher quality.” Coe’s top two factors match the two strands underlying the CTTL program philosophy: 1) content knowledge; and 2) quality of instruction, both of which show “strong evidence of impact on student outcomes.”  In essence, “knowing your stuff” still matters and applying the lessons of MBE science can make you even better as a teacher.

Cutting through the accretion of “crap” in cognitive psychology and neuroscience is not easy. What can be done to develop in new teachers and everyday classroom teachers what Postman termed a “built-in crap detector”?  Is it possible to transform teacher development into something approaching immersion in research-informed practice?  How can we separate initiatives like the CTTL from the commercial and trendy purveyors of pseudoscience? 

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Beginning teachers like me were totally unprepared to manage a class of students.  Walking into my first class at St. Andrew’s College in September 1974, my exposure to “classroom management” consisted of watching my own teachers in survival mode and a few passing references to ‘the problem’ in my University of Toronto Faculty of Education courses.

ClassMgmtDickGibbAn early and rather unorthodox teacher-mentor, the legendary Geography master Richard (Dick) Gibb (The Gibber) came to my rescue with this sage advice: “Stay one step ahead of the little nippers, and fire questions at them to straighten them up every once in awhile.”  After observing him teaching Grade 10 boys how to make wine during a Unit supposedly on the “Wine Districts of the Paris Basin,” Mr. Gibb stunned me with his Yorkshire-bred honesty: “Blast ’em…Lighten up, my boy. Forget what you learned in that FACULTY of education.”

Dick Gibb was partly right: Catcalls, pranks, and ribbing tend to loosen you up. Throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass during my Under 15 football practice might have saved me. Schoolmaster Roger Allen, Head of the Upper Canada College Mathematics Department, offered more conventional advice: “Be tough and firm at the start, then ease up a little.” That’s known as “don’t smile until second term — or second year.”

Following that advice to be firm meant that many of my students in the early 1980s, such as newspaper editor John Stackhouse and Canadian democracy watchdog Duff Conacher, keep their distance, to this day.  Two future lawyers, Derek Ground and Kirk Baert, saw through my “hard ass” ruse.  It took me a decade to relax and just be myself, and then become nearly as eccentric as the infamous Mr. Gibb.

Practical guidance on how to deal with unruly students is, to my amazement, still hard to find in initial teacher training (ITT) programs. A pivotal British report produced by Sir Andrew Carter in January 2015 identified the chronic problem and recommended that “behaviour management” be core content for all UK ITT programs. Such practical training, UK government teacher-advisor Tom Bennett recently claimed, remains  “a glaring omission” in teacher education. Even a cursory review of American and Canadian education school curriculum reveals that it’s also an “add on ” at best in our programs.

ClasMgmtBoysFightingWhy all the fuss about class management and student behaviour ?  Frontline teachers are struggling to keep students focused and maintain control over their classes.  It is a major public issue in Britain and now being raised by teacher unions around the world.  In the most recent OECD report on Teaching (TALIS 2013), new data (Figure 6.14) was produced documenting “time spent keeping order” in 32 different countries, including  Australia, Canada, England, and Finland, but not the United States.  

A September 2014 report for the UK ‘s Ofsted found that children were losing up to an hour a day of teaching because of a pronounced culture of “low-level disruption and disrespect” in schools. Chatter, calling out, swinging on chairs, play fighting, using mobile phones, and quietly humming was disrupting classes, resulting in lost time equivalent to 38 days of teaching each year.  Most shocking of all — England is not among the top countries in OECD teacher-reported time spent in maintaining class order.

ClassMgmtTomBennettBritain’s chief student behaviour advisor Tom Bennett has done much to voice the real concerns of working teachers and to generate practical, teacher-validated ‘survival’ strategies. His regular TES columns on Student Behaviour Management are loaded with practical, no nonsense advice on how to deal with class disruptions, including the risks of turning your back on an unruly class, coping with wasps flying in the window, and catching boys peeing in buckets in the corner. Some handy stratagems: check notebooks for torn-out projectile pages, tame the lone wolf, seek reinforcements, and reward good output belong in every teacher’s student discipline toolbox.

Bolstering behaviour management content in education school ITT is long overdue in most education systems. Addressing the problem in North America is perhaps more complicated because it will involve dismantling school-wide Positive Behavioural Systems (modelled after PBIS) that provide positive reinforcement “carrots” and spare the “stick” in student discipline.

The Ontario model, championed by Dr. Alan Edmunds of the Behaviour Management Network, is typical  of the PBIS approach which attempts to impose a school-wide regime of rewards for “good behaviour” and aims to reduce suspensions and provide make-up course credits. Under such a system, teachers inclined to “nip misbehaviour in the bud’ think twice before doing so. Top students complain under their breath about the reformed “baddies” collecting so many gold stars.

ClassMgmtUnrulyKidsDeterrence is making a comeback after a couple of decades as an underutilized approach to managing students in schools. Teachers are crying out for help and Tom Bennett is responding with practical, concrete strategies and tips. His proposed Behaviour Management course content is desperately needed by classroom teachers seeking to cope and stay afloat in today’s distraction-ridden classroom.

Teachers – in this day and age — should not be left on their own to fend for themselves. Today’s digital kids are far more challenging to teach than preceding generations. Computer-based Murison classroom mixed-reality simulator training may help, but there’s no substitute for “useful knowledge” taught by skillful veteran teachers.  Establishing classroom routines, developing student relationships, and mastering in-class discipline strategies need to be explicitly taught in B.Ed. ITT programs.

What’s stopping teacher education programs from implementing direct action Student Behaviour Management programs? Will ITT in behaviour management help to reduce the teaching time lost to student behaviour disruptions? Do school-wide Positive Effective Behaviour Intervention Systems (PEBIS) help or hurt the cause of maintaining orderly, purposeful classroom environments? Who will emerge in North America to take up the cause blazed by Britain on this education front?  

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The public cries of “crisis” are in the air, especially when it comes to child/teen mental health in the schools. Britain’s government-appointed Mental Health Champion, Natasha Devon, rang the latest alarm bell in The Telegram (April 29, 2016) claiming that the “child mental health crisis is spinning out of control.” In issuing her “Mental Health Manifesto” for Britain’s schoolchildren, Devon frequently cites a scary figure to buttress her public claims — the statistic that “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.”

TeenDepressionUKNot everyone accepts her public pronouncements at face value — and a few are looking more deeply into the nature, definition, and prevalence of the so-called “child public health crisis.” Devon’s further claim that it constitutes an “epidemic” has sparked even more skepticism. Is this the proverbial twenty-first century equivalent of “crying wolf” or just a manifestation of our contemporary tendency to ‘pathologize’ social-psychological trends?

One of Canada’s leading teen mental health experts, Dr. Stan Kutcher, devotes his life to educating teachers, students and families about mental health disorders, but he is very skeptical about overblown claims. When asked about the purported “crisis” at St. Francis Xavier University a few weeks ago, he startled a local newspaper reporter with this statement: “there is no mental health crisis for crying out loud.”

Dr. Kutcher was not minimizing  the severity of the problem, but rather questioning the veracity of some of the recent public claims. “We have the same proportion of mental illness in our society now that we had 40, 50, 60 years ago,” he explained. “There is no epidemic of illness, there is better recognition of illness, which is good but what we’re seeing now is an epidemic of ‘I think I have a mental disorder when I’m just really feeling unhappy,’ and that is a direct reflection of poor mental health literacy.”

Like many health professionals, Dr. Kutcher sees the popular media as contributing to the public misunderstanding about the nature and prevalence of mental disorders. He’s critical of those who exaggerate the “crisis” and equally concerned about others too quick to dismiss
it as a ‘teenage fad.’“Now the depression happens in adolescents and depression is a serious disease and if you have depression you need the proper treatment for depression, but feeling unhappy, that’s not depression,” he said.“So I think a lot of people have become confused with all the talk about mental health and mental illness without the literacy to understand what they’re talking about.”

TeenMentalHealthDrStanStress and distress is not all bad, according to Kutcher. “People do have daily distress, that is normal, ubiquitous, necessary and good for you,” he said.“And all of us are going to have a mental health problem like the loss of a loved one, moving to a new city, losing your job – those are substantive challenges in our lives and we need extra help for that. But those two things aren’t mental illnesses and they don’t need to be medicalized, they don’t need medications, they don’t need specialized psychotherapy, they don’t need access to the mental health care system.They can be dealt with, the first one, mental distress, by yourself with your friends. The second one with special support, sometimes counselors, sometimes your clergy, whoever.”

As the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University Medical School, Kutcher’s assessment carries considerable weight and he makes the critical distinctions that the popular media tend to completely miss: “Mental illnesses are different; they need specialized treatment like a treatment for any illness. But one of the challenges we have is that socially we’re tending to confuse mental distress and mental health problems with mental illness. So, because I feel unhappy today I feel like I should have therapy, because I take umbrage at what you said to me I have an anxiety disorder, that’s not true at all.”

Dr. Kutcher seems to dispute the whole approach taken by Britain’s Mental Health czarina and ‘body health’ counsellor, Natasha Devon. While Devon and her Self-Esteem Team (SET) target standardized tests and exams as “stress-inducers,” Kutcher and other specialists, including Dr. Michael Ungar, see value in competitive activities in developing “resilience” in teens.  Dr. Kutcher puts it this way: “We have to be very careful to differentiate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life which we have to learn to deal with and overcome, and for which we don’t need treatment, and those things which actually require treatment.”

Mental health disorders are serious and providing more accessible, effective and sustainable services should be a top public policy priority, inside and outside of schools. “Teenage angst,” as Ella Whelan recently pointed out, “is not a serious mental health issue.” It is important to carefully consider all public claims for their veracity and to be skeptical of mental health charities seeking to “normalize mental illness.” We must also recognize that “not all of the kids are all right.” Nor are mental health services accessible or available when and where they are needed in and around the schools. Therein lies the real problem.

What ‘s driving the public call to address the “child mental health crisis” in schools? Are school authorities and educators equipped to make the critical distinction between normal ‘mental health stresses’ and serious disorders requiring treatment?  Is there a danger that those ringing the alarm bells are ‘pathologizing’ teenage anxieties and stress?  Is it possible to identify and support those in serious personal crisis while recognizing that competition and stress develops ‘resilience’ and is part of healthy preparation for life? 

 

 

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Every September a fresh crop of hundreds of mostly novice teachers head North to teach in remote, mostly First Nations populated communities. Hired by northern public school districts or aboriginal education authorities, the recruits arrive flush with excitement and prepared to ‘sink or swim’ on a mostly unfamiliar educational terrain. This year is different for one reason: Teach for Canada (TFC) is a new ‘wild card’ on the educational scene and it’s an independent NGO committed to addressing the teacher shortage, filling vacant teaching posts, and ‘closing the education gap’ affecting Ontario’s northern First Nations communities.

RoxanneMartinTFC“By working with First Nations elders and educators and better preparing teachers, the program is filling a void,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault, Lakehead University’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives. “That’s why we hosted the four-week long Teach for Canada summer enrichment training session here at Lakehead.”

All eyes are on that one specially trained group of thirty-one teachers who have just taken up their posts in seven different communities in the Ontario North. They are, after all, the first cohort of emissaries recruited, selected and supported by Teach for Canada, co-founded by three energetic former Action Canada fellows, Kyle Hill, Mark Podlasly, and Adam Goldenberg

Although welcomed by most First Nations chiefs and lead educators, TFC has received an icy reception from the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and vocal teacher union activists. When teacher unionists see the Teach for Canada logo with its quintessentially Canadian flying geese, they see its big bad American counterpart, Teach for America, and the thin edge of the wedge of creeping “privatization.” They are also leery of TFC recruits signing on with First Nations schools for salaries off the public school grid.

Since its inception, TFC has not only sparked a series of openly hostile teacher union blog posts, but prompted the CTF to issue a “Briefing Document” and greet the new TFC graduates in August 2015 with a condemnatory media release.

Close observers of First Nations communities are downright puzzled by the reaction of teacher unionists to the Teach for Canada pilot project in northern Ontario. “We currently do nothing to train and acclimatize new recruits entering First Nations communities,” notes Wesley-Esquimault, “and so it’s definitely an improvement.”

“Teach for Canada is filling a hole,” says Wawatay News reporter Rick Garrick, “so how can you complain?” In addition, he adds, “they are building a network of teaching colleagues to help with the feelings of isolation and provide ongoing support in the transition.” The highly acclaimed principal of Thunder Bay’s First Nations high school, Jonathan Kakegamic, winner of a 2013 Learning Partnership Outstanding Principal’s Award, is also supportive of the initiative. “I just found out about it this August,” he says, “but it looks like a step in the right direction. It’s hard to find qualified teachers, especially in high school, so it fills an immediate need.”

Northern Ontario public school boards have been slow to react to the TFC initiative. This is perhaps understandable because, right from the beginning, they too have been reluctant to embrace Teach for Canada. True to form, they have been disinclined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this initiative from outside the system.

The initial Teach for Canada project only got off the ground in the Ontario North when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, jumped at the opportunity to secure motivated, committed and eager new teachers for their remote, far-flung elementary schools.

One of TRC’s most impressive recruits, Roxanne Martin, an Anishinaabe raised in Toronto, is effusive in her praise for the project. Growing up in Ontario’s teeming metropolis, she longed to know more about her cultural identity and is delighted to be a pioneer for Teach for Canada teaching this fall at the Lac Seul First Nation school. “Knowing that we have a great support system and being able to incorporating First Nations culture into our teaching is great,” she told CBC News. “I don’t think you could find it anywhere else.”

Fresh from a four-week training session, including a five-day stay at Lac Seul First Nation, Martin and the first cohort of Teach for Canada recruits are better prepared than any previous group of teachers destined for teaching in First Nations communities.

Sweeping condemnations of educational innovations originating outside the system are all too common. From the ground level, it looks like a positive development, if only as a transitional program.  The ultimate goal is, of course, to provide First Nations education by fully qualified indigenous teachers. It will not happen if we keep shooting down promising teacher recruitment and training projects.

Why have First Nations communities in the Ontario North embraced Teach for Canada?  What’s really driving the resistance mounted by the Canadian Teachers Federation and outspoken teacher union activists? Who can complain when previous teacher preparation for teaching on First Nations reserves was so limited?  Is it possible that Teach for Canada is what is needed to spark the transition to First Nations education delivered by indigenous teachers?

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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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Teaching all children Mathematics may well be possible. That’s the inspiring lesson delivered by Dr. John Mighton at an April 24 Public Lecture, sponsored by the Mount Saint Vincent Faculty of Education, and attended by 150 curious educators and concerned parents.  He is the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), a Toronto-based charitable organization that seeks to “multiply the potential in children” and to instill in them the joy of truly mastering mathematics.

MightonJUMPMathMighton is an incredibly talented mathematician on a mission.  Founded as a kitchen-table tutoring group in 1998, JUMP Math is presently challenging  the prevailing math education “discovery math”  ideology  embraced by North American curriculum consultants and reinforced in textbooks and online resources published by giant learning industry multinationals, Pearson and Oxford/Nelson. Since June of 2013, JUMP Math is breaking out with new adoptions in Manitoba, Calgary, and Vancouver where teachers are looking to significantly improve elementary level student math performance.

The founder of JUMP Math shot to prominence in 2003 with the publication of his book, The Myth of Ability.  Leading mathematicians like Dr. Robert Dawson, Editor of the Canadian Mathematical Society Notes, sat up and took notice.  In the Newsletter, he compared Mighton to the classroom teacher Jaime Escalante in the inspiring feature film, Stand and Deliver.  Both educators, he noted, embraced the idea that mathematics was “something that everybody can learn to do.”  His book, he added, “may be a big step in that direction.”

The Mathematics Education Wars are fought on contested pedagogical terrain and Mighton’s JUMP Math is emerging as a logical and welcome middle ground. In his recent lectures, he makes a persuasive case for a “balanced’ approach, starting with fundamentals and then empowering students to engage in creative problem-solving activities. He’s clear in explaining the limitations of both “drill and fill” traditional teaching and “fuzzy Math” promoted by romantic progressives.

“Students must be empowered to succeed” is his consistent message.  Beginning math instruction is broken down into tiny and carefully-structured chunks, that any student, working with any teacher, can learn thoroughly.  It’s teacher-guided but also exploratory and provides elementary students with the scaffolding needed to possess the knowledge and skills to eventually tackle creative problem-solving.  “Teachers are my heroes,” he says, because they are the ones who have driven the spread of JUMP Math, not the math consultants.

Canadians tend to be slow to embrace their own heroes and seek validation of their talents elsewhere. Mighton holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Toronto, completed NSERC  postdoctoral research in knot and graph theory, teaches Mathematics at U of T, and in 2010 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He’s also a playwright and script writer, known in Hollywood for his star turn in the feature film Good Will Hunting.

Mighton’s JUMP Math has evolved significantly over the past decade and now boasts supportive classroom effectiveness research, including studies at Toronto Sick Kids Hospital. in Lambeth, UK, and at the Mabin School.  While he was once “the nation’s math conscience,” Manitoba Education Minister James Allum now sees his approach as giving that province an edge over provinces like Alberta, wedded to the standard Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCAP) curriculum and continuing with “less successful methods”.

What’s standing in the way of Mathematics education reform?  Two key factors jump out as the obvious explanation – the established “Discovery Learning” ideology and the preponderant influence of its proponents, the late Richard Dunne (1944-2012), creator of Maths Makes Sense, and his Canadian counterpart, Dr. Marian Small, purveyor of Nelson mathematics problem-solving books.  They are a formidable force backed by the Pearson and Oxford/Nelson publishing conglomerates and a small army of textbook author replicators here in Canada.

Richard Dunne and his Canadian camp followers talk about mathematics but their real agenda is to promote a “whole school approach” to discovery learning.   His distinctive teaching style,  initiated at Reading Boys’ Grammar School in the late 1960s, uses concrete “manipulatives” to help kids understand math concepts.  Based upon his theories rather than research, Dunne cut a plastic cup into 10 pieces to demonstrate the meaning of decimals and then developed other dramatic demonstration techniques to introduce children to abstract ideas.

Dunne was a teacher and math consultant rather than a mathematician.  His earlier version of Maths Makes Sense published in the 1980s proved popular with teachers who were non-specialists, but was resisted by many university based mathematicians and then rejected by the British Government in 1989 with the introduction of a more rigorous National Curriculum. Panned in the U.K., his teaching methods enjoyed greater popularity in North America and his version of “Discovery Math”  made a comeback in 2007 with the re-publication of Maths Makes Sense.

Dunne’s “whole school approach” was embraced by North American math consultants education schools seeking to promote “discovery learning” in all subject areas.  Secondary school mathematics specialists remained skeptical and most stayed true to traditional methods, but Discovery Math made deep inroads among regular elementary teachers, often with little or no mathematics training.  It achieved the height of its influence in Canada when the WNCP Math curriculum spread across the provinces, supported by the Pearson Canada Math Makes Sense series of books and online resources.

Declining Mathematics achievement levels from 2003 to 2012, on PISA and Canadian national tests, began to raise red flags.  A WISE Math movement, sparked by Winnipeg math professors Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen, demonstrated the direct relationship between declining scores and the spread of  Dunne-inspired WNCP curricula.  In September 2013, Manitoba re-introduced Math fundamentals and approved JUMP Math for use in the schools.  Over the past year, the number of students studying JUMP Math has jumped from 90,000 to 110,000 as more and more schools are breaking with the entrenched Discovery Math methods and adopting a more systematic, teacher-guided, step-by-step progression in their teaching of early mathematics.

What’s standing in the way of Math correction in North American elementary schools?  Why has the “total school approach” made such inroads in the teaching of Mathematics in the early grades?  Can all or the vast majority of students be taught Mathematics? Will Dr. John Mighton eventually be vindicated for promoting fundamental building blocks?  Which of the Canadian provinces will be next in abandoning the core philosophy of the Discovery Math/WNCP curriculum?

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The state of  the teaching profession is a critical public policy issue — and one that rarely gets addressed unless, and until, periodic revelations surface of “professional misconduct” involving a small minority of so-called “bad apples” who besmirch the reputation of committed, caring and upstanding teachers everywhere.

TeachingProfessionDozens of Canadian teachers in Nova Scotia were recently revealed to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars, acquiring additional credentials by taking “bird courses” offered through a distance learning program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Drake course debacle became a full-blown controversy when Shelley Morse, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Over the previous three years, some 41 teachers were discovered to have taken Drake courses, mostly in sports coaching and not acceptable for admission as graduate credits, to secure teacher salary upgrades of from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, and 505 teachers, in total, had initiated similar plans, representing two out of every three registered to take out-of-province courses.

Even after Education Minister Karen Casey called for a full investigation of the Drake courses, Morse remained undeterred. To the union president and her provincial executive, it was not a question of professionalism, but rather an unprovoked assault on teachers and another episode in the education “blame game.”

My latest AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005, pointed out that this seemingly isolated episode revealed deeper problems besetting the teaching profession.

Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach turns professional matters over to the employers (school boards) and results in professional bodies like the NSTU propping up particularly loose regulations, virtually guaranteeing “spotless records” for teachers.

The province has about 9,400 P-12 public school teachers, all of whom are members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Today the Nova Scotia government has abrogated its responsibility to uphold teaching standards by leaving matters to the province’s school boards. Under the Teaching Profession Act , the province essentially delegates to the union its responsibility for both professional development and upholding teaching standards. The province also has five university faculties of education, each offering B.Ed. and graduate programs leading to a teaching certificate and advanced degrees.

While Nova Scotia conducts periodic reviews of teacher education, the universities operate in an autonomous fashion. No independent body exists either to oversee or to accredit the province’s university teacher education programs or out-of-province added qualification programs.

Utilizing Nova Scotia as a test case, our AIMS policy paper makes the case for adopting a more robust provincial policy regimen to ensure the highest teaching standards as well as to “weed out” under-performing teachers and so-called “bad apples” who pose risks to students.

The four-year-long battle (2009-13) to remove New Germany school teacher Peter Speight in the wake of his sexual offence case drove the point home. It cost taxpayers well over $250,000 in settlement fees and revealed, albeit in exaggerated form, the damage inflicted by failing to set and uphold professional ethics and standards in Nova Scotia schools.

Promoting, maintaining and enforcing professional standards now falls between various horses — the Education Department’s certification branch, the school boards, and the professional committee of the NSTU, the teachers’ union also entrusted with protecting its members from moral and “criminal allegations.”

The NSTU staff manual does contain a “code of ethics,” but it is not a public declaration, nor does it appear to be applied when cases are before the courts or arbitration tribunals. The professional committee operates in a closed and private fashion, shielded by a regimen of publicly displayed “privacy principles.” That committee, overseeing all matters of “professional misconduct” and behaviour “unbecoming a teacher,” publishes no minutes and is not required to disclose any data with respect to any and all teacher resignations, retirements or dismissals.

We are left completely unaware of cases such as that of Peter Speight until parents mount local school board protests or the criminal case goes to court and appears in public proceedings.

One reform option is to establish a fully independent College of Teachers with a clear provincial mandate to ensure Teacher Quality (TQ) and identify, establish, and enforce professional standards of practice. In the report, we reconstruct the rise and fall of the B.C. College of Teachers from 1988 until its demise in 2011 amid controversy over  internal conflicts and public revelations of keeping “bad teaching records spotless.”

After assessing the recognized strengths and critical shortcomings of two earlier College of Teachers ventures in Ontario and British Columbia, we proposed a better model for Nova Scotia and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces – the establishment of a teacher regulation branch with an independent board capable of upholding and enforcing professional performance and conduct standards.

The AIMS report really set the cat among the pigeons in Nova Scotia’s rather inward looking provincial school system.  When the NSTU refused to comment and went into hiding, the Minister of Education finally responded with the explanation that disciplining teachers was the role of school boards, implying that the union was not a professional body at all. The Halifax Regional School Board was then compelled to make public its disciplinary practices and record, reporting that only 1 teacher out of 4,000 was disciplined for performance issues each year.

The teaching profession is facing a crisis of confidence and the situation now calls for a major reform of teacher certification and regulation. Starting in Nova Scotia and following the lead of B.C., we called for the establishment of a new, more independent teacher regulation branch with a clear mandate to raise professional teaching standards, rebuild public trust, properly vet teacher education programs, and safeguard students in the schools.

Whatever happened to Teaching Standards upheld by members of the profession themselves?  Are teachers’ unions like the NSTU (focusing primarily on “protective services”) capable of  honouring their commitments under the Teaching Profession Act to deal with “conduct unbecoming a teacher”? In view of the collapse of the B.C. College of Teachers, has the potential for a truly self-governing profession been lost here in Canada?

 

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