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The impending arrival of the researchED movement in Canada is no longer a closely guarded secret. In the current issue of Education Forum magazine, Randy Banderob, Executive Assistant to OSSTF president Harvey Bischof, does a truly fine job introducing Tom Bennett and his British grassroots teacher-research organization to thousands of teachers across Ontario and far beyond.  It captures well the independent spirit of its founder and the appeal to classroom teachers skeptical about initiatives regularly being “foisted upon them”by those far removed from the classroom.

Live heads (i.e., independent educational thinkers, research-informed teachers, and serious education researchers) are attracted to researchED for many different reasons. Few are completely comfortable spouting “positivism,” living in “research bubbles,” or carrying out provincial mandates that are not “research-based” or are demonstrably ineffective in today’s challenging classrooms. Many of them are featured in the first Canadian researchED conference program, November 10-11, 2017 at Trinity College, University of Toronto.

“Working out what works” for teachers and students in the classroom sounds like common sense. Reaffirming that priority and empowering teachers to challenge cherished theories and largely unproven teaching practices is what gives researchED its raison d’etre and what has sparked hundreds of teachers over the past four and a half years to attend its Saturday conferences in eight different countries on three continents.

researchED founder Bennett comes across, in Banderob’s Education Forum interview, as a straight-shooter in a field overflowing with ‘happy talk,’ ‘edubabble,’ and obfuscation. “I launched researchED,” he said, “because I wanted a safe space where people could come together… and have a (frank) conversation.” He was surprised that it was seen as “quite radical” at the time. Then he recalled a real zinger from George Orwell: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Bennett  and his researchED conferences give educators license to challenge prevailing orthodoxy, new venues to present research, and opportunities to network with educators across the English-speaking world. The founder likes to say that “researchED was launched with a tweet” back in 2013 and immediately attracted a groundswell of support right across the U.K.  That’s mostly true, but Tom Bennett’s book, Teacher Proof was a catalyst, and the time was ripe for a movement of resistance to education mandates based upon unproven theories.

Bennett’s researchED is a real breath of fresh air capable of firing up today’s frontline teachers, attracting leading researchers, and re-energizing education reformers everywhere.  For most, approaching educational change initiatives with a more skeptical eye comes naturally; for others, new to K-12 public education,  it’s nothing short of an epiphany. Once educators get a taste of researchED, it is much harder for the usual cast of global gurus, TED Talkers, and theorizers to to gain much traction.  The current emperors appear scantily clothed and less omnipotent and educational organizations (“stalking horses”) dependent upon provincial grant funding experience an existential crisis.

With the Canadian arrival of researchED, running with the herd becomes less fashionable and potentially less opportune for up-and-coming educators.  Educational platitudes, unverified statements, pet theories, and buzzwords, all part of the official lexicon, are put under the microscope and stand, or fall on the merits of their research base. Utilizing John Hattie‘s ground-breaking Visible Learning research, educators embracing researchED will, over time, be far more inclined to assess teaching methods in relation to “effect size” findings.

  • The mantra “21st Century learning” begins to look like high tech futurism without the rigour of the trivium.
  • Technology-driven innovations like “Personalized Learning” and “virtual schools” lose their lustre.
  • Pseudoscientific Theories supporting Multiple Intelligences, Learning Styles, and Brian Gym are exposed as examples of “voodoo teaching.”
  • The Science of Learning and cognitive research assume a much larger prominence in improving the effectiveness of teaching and levels of student achievement.
  • Explicit instruction gains new credence based upon recent research findings, including “effect sizes” on the latest PISA  tests.
  • Measuring what matters without making any reference to cognitive learning or subject knowledge has much less appeal, particularly for secondary school teachers.
  • “Mindfulness,” “self-regulation,” and “wellbeing” seem comforting until they are subjected to in-depth, evidence-based analysis and critical links made to the discredited “self-esteem” movement.

What can we learn from researchED now that it has arrived in Canada? Can researchED bridge the current divide between educators of differing ideological persuasions? Will Ontario teachers seize the opportunities afforded by the spread of researchED into that province? Over the longer term, will the Canadian teaching space be inhabited by fewer ‘battery hens’ and far more ‘free-range chickens’? 

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“Asking the right questions” is what most of our best teachers encourage and expect from our students. It’s also what our leading education researchers do when trying to grapple with a particularly thorny or “wicked” problem besetting students and teachers in the schools. Yet far too many teachers across Canada remain reticent to do so because they are essentially trained to carry out provincial mandates. Raising the difficult questions is not always welcomed or appreciated where it counts — among those who set education policy, prepare teachers, and implement curriculum in our K-12 school system.

Working out what works in education is not as simple as it seems, particularly when it comes to improving student learning and deciding upon the most effective pedagogical approach for widely varying cohorts of students. Unfreezing fixed positions, both “progressive” and “traditionalist,” is what opens the door to more meaningful, productive conversations.  We see that in the recent success of Stephen Hurley’s VoicED radio conversations, introducing passionate educators representing differing perspectives to one another for the first time in living memory.

Since its inception in September 2013, researchED has championed creating space for regular classroom teachers in “working out what works” in their classrooms.  Posing those difficult questions can ruffle a few feathers, especially among curriculum leaders and in-house consultants. It’s not easy to venture outside the safe confines of social media “echo chambers” and to consider research generated outside the established “research bubbles.” It’s most encouraging to see Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation president Harvey Bischof and his Provincial Executive actively supporting the movement.

Grassroots, teacher-led organizations can also, at times. be messy  Teachers are given a new platform to express not only their real life frustrations but also to share their discoveries during forays into the education research world. Independently-minded teachers are free to speak for themselves, but do not speak for researchED.  Debates can get overheated, especially on social media. We do need to be reminded that educators, whatever their persuasions, have to be prepared to listen, consider divergent viewpoints, and treat each other with respect.

The Internet and smart technology has changed the rules of engagement, bringing the latest research within a few keyboard clicks.  One would think that providing a forum for asking deeper questions would be more widely accepted in assessing province-wide and school board-wide initiatives before they are rolled out every September in our K-12 school system.  It can, however, be a little threatening to those promoting theory-based curriculum reform or pedagogical initiatives. Questioning such initiatives, most teachers sense– at least in some school systems –is not always conducive to career advancement.

We should all welcome the arrival of the latest book on Canadian education, Pushing the Limits, written by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer and published August 29, 2017.  In many ways, it’s a hopeful and encouraging book because it identifies well-funded “lighthouse projects” in the GTA and a few other Canadian jurisdictions.  While the title is somewhat puzzling, the sub-title is far more indicative of the books real intent, i.e., explaining How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. For Canadian educators and parents looking for a  popular, well-written, fairly persuasive brief for the defense of current policy directions, this is the book for you. For serious education researchers, it will be a goldmine of information on recent initiatives sparking further inquiry into the state of evidence-based teaching practice.

Teachers familiar with researchED will immediately spot a few contentious assertions in Pushing the Limits. Success stories abound and they serve to provide credence to provincial curriculum initiatives underway, particularly in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. The overriding assumption is that schools exist to “prepare our students for the future” and to equip them with “21st century skills.”  Grade 7 teacher Aaron Warner, creator of the two-hour per week  “Genius Hour,” repeats a very familiar claim: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.” That buttresses the overall thesis that lies at the heart of the book.

As leading members of the Ontario People for Education research team, Gallagher-Mackay and Steinhauer, as expected,  do make a case for broadening provincial student assessments to include SEL, short for “Social and Emotional Learning.” That’s hardly surprising, given the Ontario Education- P4E partnership  driving that initiative across the province. Digging more deeply, it will be interesting to see what evidence the authors produce that it is either advisable or can be done successfully.

The wisdom of proceeding to adopt SEL system-wide and to recast student assessment in that mold remains contentious. On this particular subject, they might be well advised to consider Anya Kamenetz‘s recent National Public Radio commentary (August 16, 2017) explaining, in some detail, why SEL is problematic because, so far, it’s proven impossible to assess what has yet to be properly defined as student outcomes. They also seem to have overlooked Carol Dweck’s recently expressed concerns about using her “Growth Mindset” research for other purposes, such as proposing a system-wide SEL assessment plan.

Good books tackle big issues and raise fundamental questions, whether intended or not. Teachers imbued with the researchED spirit will be well equipped to not only tackle and effectively scrutinize Pushing the Limits, but to bring a broader and deeper understanding and far more scrutiny of the book’s premises, contentions, and prescriptions. That, in turn, will  hopefully spark a much better informed discussion within the Canadian K-12 educational community.

What’s causing all the buzz in the rather small Canadian teacher education research community? Is it the appearance of a new player committed to raising those difficult questions and to assessing initiatives, through a teachers’ lens? Is it our seeming aversion to considering or supporting evidence-based classroom practice? And is there room for a new voice in Canadian teacher-led education research and reform? 

 

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The educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational innovations come in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Education research is rarely applied where it is needed in challenging the assumptions of current orthodoxy and teaching practice. Only one out of every ten curriculum or pedagogical initiatives is ever properly evaluated, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ‘s Education Office, managers of the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA).

Growing numbers of classroom teachers, as well as serious education researchers, are looking for evidence of “what works” before jumping on the latest educational bandwagon. That’s the spark that ignited the British teachers’ movement known as researchED challenging prevailing myths, questioning entrenched theories, and demanding evidence-based teaching practice.

                            researchED founder Tom Bennett’s 2013 book, Teacher Proofwas 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 learning styles, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Brain Gym, and ‘soft persuasion techniques’ simply did not work in the classroom.  His work and that of leading researchED apostles like Daisy Christoudoulou and Martin Robinson has now spawned an international movement to demand research-informed teaching practice.

“We believe that the teaching profession is poised and ripe for change,” says Tom Bennett. “It should be a change where teachers and schools are guided by the best evidence available, not just the latest theories. That’s what propels our new, teacher-led organization.”

Surveying the state of Canadian K-12 education and the current alignment of research priorities, Bennett’s prediction may well bear fruit. North American and Canadian education research, mostly the preserve of faculties of education, once described as a “black hole” still gets little or no respect among policy-makers. High-quality research on the effectiveness of reforms is either weak, inconclusive or missing altogether. Is the mindfulness and self-regulation strategy the latest example of that phenomenon?

Much of the field is driven by political or ideological agendas where action research is used to mount a case for province-wide funding of ‘pet projects’ or unproven technology-in-the classroom innovations. Where education projects are supported by sound scholarship and evidence-based research, it too often has little influence on what is mandated for implementation in the classroom.

elearningred2016coverSchool system leaders and their provincial ministers tend to embrace broad, philosophical concepts like “21st century learning” and to mimic initiatives promoted by Pearson Learning, Microsoft and other international learning corporations. Top-down education policy and curriculum mandates like this tend to run aground when they are introduced to teachers as the latest innovation in teaching and learning. Without the active support of committed and engaged teachers they simply die on the vine and wither away, soon to be replaced by the next panacea.

Out of the testing and accountability movement of the 1990s and early 2000s emerged a ‘new managerialism’ – a whole generation of education management that mastered the rhetoric and language of “outcomes” and “accountability” with, sad to say, little to show for the massive investment of time and talent.  With standardized testing under fire, education lobby groups such as Ontario-based People for Education, are mounting a determined effort to implement ‘school change theory’ and broaden student assessment to include uncharted domains in social and emotional learning.

researchED is now in the forefront in blowing the whistle on innovations floating on untested theories. Popular notions that “schools are preparing kids for jobs that won’t exist” have been found wanting when held up to closer scrutiny. Current fashionable teaching practices such as “Discovery Math,” and “Personalized Learning” ,at least so far, simply do not pass the research-litmus test. It is, by no means certain, that introducing coding in elementary schools will work when so few teachers in the early grades have any background or training in mathematics or computer science.

Since September 2013 researchED has attracted droves of teachers to conferences in the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia, and the European Union. Next stop on this truly unique “British education revolution” is Canada.  The movement’s founder, Tom Bennett, will be the headliner of the first researchED conference to be held in Canada on November 10 and 11, 2017 in Toronto. 

ResearchED Toronto aims to attract a brand-new audience of teachers, policy researchers, and reform-minded parents  Tickets for the full conference are available at https://researched.org.uk/event/researched-toronto/  Batten down the hatches, the British are coming, and, once teachers get a taste of the experience, there will be no turning back.

Part Two of a Series on the researchED Movement.

Will the researchED movement find fertile ground in Canada?  Are there signs of a willingness to come together to “work out what works” for teachers and students? How entrenched are the ‘core interests’ upholding the current orthodoxy and inclined to inhabit their own echo chamber?  Will our “urban myths about education” continue to obscure our understanding of what really works in the classroom? 

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researchED, the grass-roots, U.K.-based organization propelled by teachers, may be the first launched by a single Tweet on social media.  Since its creation in 2013 by two British teachers, Tom Bennett, and Helene Galdin-O’Shea, it has attracted droves of teachers to its Saturday conferences and spread to Australia, the European Union, Scandinavia, and the United States. On November 10-11, 2017, the “British education invasion” arrives here in Canada.

From its inception, researchED has been like a spontaneous combustion.  A chance discussion with Sam Freedman (Director of Research and Impact at Teach First) and Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma, columnist for The Guardian) provided the initial spark.  It also prompted Tom to post a late night Tweet suggesting that he was putting together a conference to explore and assess the notoriously dry subject of educational research. That post floated the idea and asked if anyone wanted to help with the venture.

Four hours later, by 2 am, Tom Bennett was inundated with two hundred offers of help, moral support, venues and volunteer speakers. ‘I didn’t build researchED,’ Tom says, ‘it wanted to be built. It built itself. I just ran with it.’ After puzzling over the venue offers, Tom settled on Dulwich College, and on the first Saturday after the beginning of the new school year in September 2013, over 500 people came to talk, listen and learn. What started as a one day event just exploded and is now a full-fledged international education research reform movement.

Teacher leadership was more critical than Tom Bennett acknowledges.  Fired up by his own passion for education research reform and armed with his own provocative book, Teacher Proof (2013), he is every inch a teacher and his co-conspirator, English teacher Galdin-O’Shea is the kind of organizer that makes things happen.

The most amazing aspect of researchED is that the movement is driven entirely by teachers, thinkers and educational experts who volunteer and give freely of their time and talent.  It’s been that way right from the beginning. Reflecting on what actually transpired at the first researchED conference, Tom put it this way: ‘It was genuinely moving, people offered their time and skills for nothing, without hesitation. From the logo design, to the name, to the people making up the name badges on the day, we were propelled by an army of the willing and able. I have never witnessed such organised, coherent, yet spontaneous kindness in my life.’

reasearchED came across my radar three years ago when I discovered Tom and a few of his compatriots, including  Andrew Old, Daisy Christodoulou, and Martin Robinson on my Twitter feed.  Their independence of spirit, critical awareness, and commitment to applying the best research to teaching practice caught my attention. I was completely captivated by their courage in questioning the established orthodoxy and commitment to improving teaching life and practice.

When I got wind that researchED was coming to New York in May of 2015, I literally moved heaven and earth to get there. Flying from a Canadian Business College conference in St. John’s Newfoundland to Toronto, then on to New York, I was one of the first to arrive at the Riverside Country Day School, site of the first U.S. conference. The first person I met there was New York education blogger Tom Whitby, founder of #edchat, and  then Dominic A.A. Randolph, the Head of Riverdale School featured in Paul Tough’s best-seller, How Children Succeed.  Next, I bumped into Tom Bennett in conversation with none other than the renowned University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, the keynote speaker.  I left researchED New York 2015 completely captivated by the excitement of competing ideas and hooked on the whole philosophy behind the venture.

Out of that initial New York conference emerged a group of Canadian educators, including JUMP Math founder John Mighton, Winnipeg mathematics professor Robert Craigen, and Okanagan College instructor Brian Penfound,  determined to bring researchED to Canada. Gradually, others joined us as word spread about the growth and expansion of researchED.  Dalhousie teen mental health expert Stan Kutcher joined me at the September 2016 researchED National Conference in London and came away a believer.  Many of us gathered again at researchED Washington in late October 2016, where we decided to produce a proposal to bring researchED to Toronto.

We are all drawn to researchED because of our undying and undiminished commitment to learn what the latest research tells us about the best ways to teach, lead schools, and help children learn. Having attended researchED conferences in the U.K. and the U.S., I came away completely energized by the excitement generated by teachers and researchers passionate about dispelling enduring myths, challenging unproven theories, and putting the best research into practice in our schools.

The growth and expansion of researchED has astounded not only its pioneers but even the most hardened education reformers. Regular teachers gave rise to the movement and it is, at heart, a movement built from the classroom up.  One of the greatest challenges is in reaching teachers and conveying the message that they are free to innovate outside the confines of curriculum and pedagogical mandates. Whether it catches fire among Canadian teachers is yet to be seen. If they get a taste of researchED, it will change their teaching lives and there will be no turning back.

The first Canadian researchED Conference is scheduled for November 10-11, 2017, in Toronto and you can register today at the link to researchED Toronto

Part One of three in a Series on the researchED Movement.

What really sparked the British teacher insurgency known as researchED?  How critical was fiercely independent teacher leadership in getting the U.K. teacher research movement off the ground? Are British schools more open to, or conducive to, free and open discussion about established practices floating more on theory than on serious research? What stands in the way of Canadian teachers learning about — and embracing—researchED? 

 

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“Mini-crises” in Canadian K-12 education come and go, but some leave a lasting aroma and continue, quite unfairly, to shape public perceptions of teachers and the entire school system.  Across Canada, the mere mention of “Drake University” and “bird courses” evokes vivid memories of Nova Scotia’s 2014-15 raging controversy over five hundred experienced teachers finding a loophole and securing certification and salary upgrades by taking DVD video courses (including many in coaching) through the Extension Department of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) leadership rallied to the defense of the Drake University course registrants and that made matters far worse, in the eyes of close education observers and the informed public. How and why the NSTU leadership felt compelled to come forward to defend such inappropriate actions was the fundamental question addressed in my March 2014 AIMS research report, Maintaining Spotless Records, 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. In that report, we showed that the Drake University controversy was a symptom of a bigger problem – the fact that “teacher oversight bodies were for the birds” in Nova Scotia and a few other Canadian provinces.

The infamous Drake University “bird course” fiasco simply will not go away. A June 2017 teacher arbitration case only demonstrates, once again, that the province’s teacher’s union still does not get it – cutting corners and taking ‘quickie’ courses is no way to ether enhance teacher professionalism or improve graduate teacher education in Nova Scotia or elsewhere.

Labour arbitrator Eric K. Slone’s recent arbitration ruling on the Drake University DVD courses upheld the NSTU’s claim that former Education Minister Karen Casey erred in rescinding prior approvals of the aptly labelled “bird courses.” All it really proves is that such bodies exist to enforce the terms of the contract. Carefully reviewing the 59-page report, we clearly see how the union utilizes the process to achieve its ends. It’s made easier when the Education Department mounts such a feeble defense of the Minister’s actions.

The essential facts are clear: From January 2008 until February 2014, a surge of 546 teachers secured approval from the then Registrar of Teacher Certification, Paul Cantelo, to complete Integrated Programs based upon Drake University video correspondence courses. On April 15, 2014, following a CBC-News investigation report, Minister Casey advised former NSTU President Shelley Morse that the Department would no longer recognize such courses as “approved studies for an increase in teacher certification’ (i.e., teacher salary upgrades). Upon further investigation, the Minister announced on March 3, 2015 that the Department would no longer recognize such programs to be completed after that date and would require the candidates to complete their studies through a recognized university, pre-approved by the Department.

That sparked a “policy grievance” filed by the NSTU objecting to rescinding prior approvals and led, eventually to hearing from April 4 to 12, and the arbitration award released on June 19, 2017. The testimony makes it clear that the deck was stacked in favour of the union.  Six hand-picked teachers who took Drake University DVD upgrade courses testified that they found them of value, including two who already held Masters of Education degrees.

Former Executive Director of the Centre for Learning Excellence, Monica Williams (PhD, St. Francis-Xavier, 2014), attempted to defend the Minister’s actions and provided fresh evidence supporting claims that the courses “lacked rigour,” but was deemed, by the arbitrator, to not be an expert.  She left her position in July 2016 and is now a member of the provincial Inclusion Commission. None of the leading faculty of education experts, including MSVU professor Robert Berard and SFX Physical Education professor Daniel Robinson, were even called to give evidence.

Part of the problem for the Department is the revolving door of departmental responsibility. The Registrar who actually approved most of the courses is no longer with the province and now working at MSVU and the architect of the provincial Teaching Excellence agenda has also moved on to other responsibilities.

The arbitrator claims that he is not evaluating the quality of the courses, but then accepts anecdotal evidence from Drake U course teachers and uses it as the basis of his ruling. Why he did not insist upon expert testimony on the validity of the courses is hard to fathom.

The whole Drake University “bird course” episode is a truly sad spectacle.  Some five hundred Nova Scotia teachers found a certification loophole and utilized it to secure certification to upgrade their salaries by between $6,000 and $8,000 annually. The Minister and her Department investigated and found those courses deficient in four critical areas, as reported to a Ministerial Advisory Council.  Williams, the former Director in charge of Teacher Excellence, was appalled at the quality of the applications, the “lack of rigour” of those courses, and the fact that most, if not all candidates, secured perfect scores.

Claiming that the labour arbitration was a victory for anyone is just as preposterous as the claim that video correspondence courses offered by the Drake University extension department are in any way equivalent to legitimate graduate courses in our region’s universities.  What a sad day it is for the profession when this decision is celebrated as a win for anyone.

What does the Drake University “bird course” fiasco demonstrate when it comes to the state of teacher professionalism? Why would a provincial teachers’ union stake its credibility on defending the actions of such teachers?  Is the Nova Scotia labour arbitration ruling representative of decisions emanating from such proceedings?  What’s standing in the way of teachers standing up for higher standards in defense of the profession? 

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Ontario elementary school teachers are now being totally immersed in the new pedagogy of Social Justice Education. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s newish resource, Social Justice Begins with Me, is being rolled out as a teaching resource for the Early Years to Grade 8.  It’s a prime example of the deep inroads being made by “social justice educators” in transforming “character education” into a vehicle for addressing social injustices through the schools.

The EFTO promotes Social Justice Begins with Me  as an “anti-bias, literature-based curriculum resource kit” that is designed for year-round use and is aligned with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.  The ten monthly themes are explicitly aimed at inculcating nine core “social justice principles”: acceptance, respect, hope, empathy, inclusion, diversity, human rights, and equity. It also targets some identifiable 21st century ‘evils’: anti-Semitism, ageism, heternormality, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, prejudice and faith.

EFTOSocialJustice

The EFTO teaching resource, like the SJE movement, thrives in a culture dominated by ‘political correctness’ and has found a comfortable home in Canada’s largest education graduate school, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in Toronto.  That movement now has its own exclusive research unit, replacing what was left of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education. Full disclosure – I’m an unrepentant graduate of that now defunct research department.

Social Justice Education has now taken on a life of its own in many Canadian urban elementary school divisions. Serious concerns raised by the infamous June 2012  Maclean’s Magazine cover story, “Why are schools brainwashing our Children?” have done little to derail the movement. Nor has North American education research lending support to an alternative version of “character education,” founded on a different set of core principles aimed at developing student resilience.  Curriculum-informed parents will also spot the complete absence of critical success attributes, labelled ‘old school,’ such as grit, perseverance, resilience, and accountability for actions.

True believers in social justice education see elementary teaching through an engaged sociopolitical lens. Working for social justice in the schools requires “a deliberate intervention” that challenges society’s “fundamental inequalities” and seeks to advance the cause of “better educational and economic outcomes” for “marginalized children.” Social justice pedagogy aims to develop in teachers and students an understanding of “critical literacy” and its key dimensions: 1) disrupting the commonplace; 2)interrogating multiple viewpoints; 3) focusing on sociopolitical issues; and 4) taking action and promoting social justice.

Pursuing social justice in the early grades stirs up considerable controversy, especially among parents more focused on raising standards and improving student performance. Maclean’s writer Cynthia Reynolds certainly unearthed some outlandish, and undoubtedly extreme examples, of actual “social justice education ” activities:

During the 2011-12 school year, first graders in Toronto brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. The  Durham Board of Education in Ontario came under fire for discouraging the terms “wife” and “husband” in class in favour of the gender-neutral “spouse,” and the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in favour of “partner.” And in the name of inclusiveness, some school boards include Wiccan holidays in their school calendars.

Such examples of how Social Justice Education can go awry cut little ice with surprising numbers of Education School faculty entrusted with training elementary school teachers. Deeply committed to social justice reform, they believe that the classroom is the front line in the battle to address social ills and establish “safe spaces” for the children of marginalized families. It’s really just the latest battle over the age-old question: who gets to decide on the best way to educate the very young?

OISESocialJusiceEd.jpgMiddle-school teacher David Stocker, author of the textbook  Math That Matters: A Teacher Resource for Linking Math and Social Justice, for Grades 6 to 9,is in the vanguard of the movement. His math problems include items focusing on issues like  workers’ rights, racial profiling and homophobia.  “All material carries bias of some sort,” he writes in the introduction. “Really the question is whether or not we want to spend time educating for peace and social justice. If we do, let’s admit that bias and get to work.”

Psychologist Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World,takes a far more balanced approach, recognizing the inherent risks in imposing a social justice perspective in the early grades. Getting too political in elementary school, where the power differential between teacher and student is vast, verges on manipulation. “You can’t use children as fodder for your cause,” says Grille.

Nor is Grille afraid to pose the right questions: “How do you know these young kids aren’t just parroting what their teacher is telling them? How easy would it be to get them to protest, say, abortion? How much are the young truly able to make up their own minds?”It’s particularly true in classrooms where kids are being graded. So what does she recommend? Children, she points out,  need to develop emotionally before they can develop politically.

The controversial 2012 Maclean’s feature story provided a few of what be termed teacher survival tips. Elementary school teacher and Simon Fraser University education professor Rhonda Philpott identified one of the biggest risks: You can’t walk into a classroom and just start a social-justice activity. It takes trust.” Not all parents appreciate the politically-driven pedagogy either. Professor Ng-A-Fook of the University of Ottawa urges practitioners to “know your students” and “prepare your parents” so you do not “offend families or traumatize kids.”

Social justice education is fraught with difficulties and tends to narrow the focus of classroom activities around issues drawn solely from a rather narrow, albeit well-intended sociopolitical perspective. More recent education research tends to focus on addressing student underperformance and ways of instilling resilience in children.

Character is now seen as the “X-factor” in explaining why some children succeed and others get left behind in and out of schools. Toronto-born writer Paul Tough,author of How Children Succeed, influenced by Angela Duckworth’s research, called the character-based X-factor “grit,” but parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba favours the term moral intelligence. 

Character education also tends to be broader and more inclusive in its reach than social justice education, particularly as exemplified in the EFTO Social Justice curriculum. The Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, embraces a “character education” model that embraces six different character attributes and seeks to educate children who are caring, cooperative, honest,inclusive, respectful and responsible. That approach is not only broader, but includes two factors related to “grit” – respect and responsibility. It’s no accident that the PDSB credo ends on this note: “Demonstrate initiative and perseverance in overcoming difficulties.” 

What is driving the movement to introduce Social Justice Education into elementary schools in Ontario and elsewhere? What are the risks of implementing a Primary School curriculum with such an overt sociopolitical agenda?  Are the fears that kids are being “brainwashed” all that exaggerated?  What’s wrong with pursuing a more balanced approach in the pursuit of character education? 

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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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