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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fifty years 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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Fifty years ago, in June of 1968, an Ontario government report, entitled, Living and Learning, captured the experimental flavour of the late 1960s and rocked the Ontario educational world.  While that report created a major creative disruption, it disappeared like a meteorite and, a decade later, was widely dismissed as a passing phase. Its influence in reaffirming progressive education’ ideals cannot be over-estimated and, in many ways, the ghost of Hall-Dennis haunts K-12 education still.  It remains the one report that sparked progressive thinking in provincial school systems right across Canada.

Looking back at the Hall-Dennis Report, is rewarding and opportune because it demonstrates the enduring value of historical-mindedness and provides a few lessons for present day education policy-makers. We can learn much from the excitement of its arrival, the fierce debate it provoked, and  its long-term impact on “progressive education.” Many ideas labeled ‘innovative’ in teaching and learning can be traced back to the pages of Living and Learning and the influence of those ideas can be seen in most elementary school classrooms to this day.

 When it first appeared, the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, named after its co-chairs, Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis, was greeted with lavish praise, mostly generated by the Toronto popular media. Unlike previous dry and formalistic government reports, it conveyed a powerful message with catchy slogans such as “the truth shall make us free” and images of smiling children at play in the schools.

The attractive and well-packaged report was so impressive that even Ontario Education Minister William G. Davis was initially swayed by its charms.  Even though it was not formally endorsed by the Ontario government, it was essentially the brainchild of Deputy Education Minister J.R. (Jack) McCarthy and his freshly-recruited band of “progressive education” acolytes within the Department.

When the Report was released on June 12, 1968, the Toronto media were effusive in their praise for the three-year study with its 258 sweeping recommendations.  It was “a revolutionary blueprint for education,” The Toronto Daily Star proclaimed, and nothing short of “a radical program to liberate our school system.”Even the normally dour Toronto Globe and Mail jumped on the bandwagon.  With a big splash, The Globe’s news team of Barrie Zwicker and Douglas Sagi welcomed the Report as one that recommended “Ontario’s educational system be turned upside down and all the old ways of doing things be shaken from it.” Education Minister Davis’s mere presence at the official announcement was interpreted as an endorsement, even though he cautioned that it was only  “a step in the right direction for planning.”

 The initial editorials were equally rapturous and reflected the irreverent spirit of the times. In its lead editorial, The Globe and Mail heralded the Hall-Dennis Report as truly revolutionary in the sense that, unlike other commission or inquiry reports, it would not be “retired to gather dust.”  Its ringing endorsement of the report was total and unqualified:

The school system it envisions would abolish all the multiplicity of rigidities that now dominate the child, and set him free to search, with assistance, for the truth….What the report does is to set a goal –creative, conscienceful (sic), human –away out ahead of the solemn strivers in the present educational prisons. It may frighten and infuriate, but by degrees, it will also force, by its sheer rightness, the changes that we all know must be made.

Not to be outdone, The Toronto Daily Star appropriated “the language of the hippies” and noted that the Report “advises us to let every schoolchild ‘do his own thing.’” Conscious of how it sounded, the editorialists hastened to add that the “carefully reasoned recommendations of this excellent report” would never “stoop to such ‘pop’ language.” But it was too late for such qualifiers. Most of the popular commentaries latched onto the line that the Report was an open invitation for students to “do their own thing” in Ontario’s public schools.

The Globe and Mail’s influential and widely-read columnist Richard J. Needham quickly emerged as one of the Report’s champions. He was, in the mid-to- late 1960s, a popular but quixotic Toronto cultural figure, a balding, pipe-smoking and a ‘pied piper’ for the rising youth culture. Viewed by most parents as an aged “hippie,” he paid close attention to, and gave voice to, the young and restless.  Needham’s daily newspaper ramblings were wildly popular with school teachers and even read by more studious teens, like me.

Needham’s pronouncements on the Report carried some weight at the time. “It’s a good report,” he told his readers, because it reflected “what he had observed visiting hundreds of public schools over the previous three years.” In Needham’s familiar overblown rhetoric, it promised an end to “fear, threats, humiliations, beatings…”  He went even further. The “Ontario Establishment,” he wrote, “lives by fear, threats, humiliations, beatings; being anti-people, It doesn’t know any other way to run things…” He then offered this memorable prediction:

…the schools will keep right on being at worst operated like grim penitentiaries and at best like cloistered monasteries – cut off from the real world of life, strife, adventure, change, triumph, disaster, action, beauty, glory, and poetry. Stop thinking about the Taj Mahal and get your nose into that algebra book! Don’t you want a good job in the glue factory?

Inciting rabid debate and stirring a reaction was his stock-and-trade and the Hall-Dennis Report provided him with plenty of fodder.

Socially aware Ontario teens and ‘hip’ high school English teachers simply ate up Needham’s regular comments, especially on the subject “doing your own thing” over the objections of stuffy, old-fashioned parents. One of those receptive teens was Fred Freeman, a politically-active Grade 11 student at Toronto’s Bathurst Heights Collegiate.  He wholeheartedly agreed with Needham. There was “something wrong with the way high schools are run,” he told  The Toronto Daily Star. “Who else can decide what a student is to learn except the student himself,?” he asked, before complaining that being forced to study Latin from Grade 10 onward squelched his enjoyment of learning. Such viewpoints only echoed those of Needham and fixed, in the public mind, the distinct but rather misleading impression that the Report was a colourful recipe book for an “anything goes” brand of  education.

 The Report did not spring out of nowhere.  It was actually an outgrowth of the progressive educational philosophy inspired by American educator John Dewey then being espoused by Deputy Minister McCarthy.  A student-centred, team-teaching, open concept school model had been seeded in 1962 with a few pilot schools, including Pleasant Avenue Public School in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale, Ontario.  What had begun in 1965 as a modestly conceived elementary curriculum review had gradually morphed into a full-blown committee of inquiry into the aims of education with an ever-expanding mandate.

The Committee, as education researcher Eric W. Ricker demonstrated, was a classic example of a bureaucratically-driven consensus-building exercise. It was structured in a fashion recommended by McCarthy and the Department; its agendas and working papers were drafted by Department staff; almost all of the initial expert testimony was provided by the ‘educrats’; and , finally, a number of its key members were “insiders’– close associates, or former teachers and professors, of members of the Department’s curriculum branch.  Although the Committee of 22 appointed members was described by Lloyd Dennis as a group of “all sorts” chosen from a “grab bag,” it was, in Ricker’s words, “clearly biased before its work even commenced.”

In the three-year-long study, McCarthy and his officials skilfully steered the Committee in the direction of “progressivism.” While the Committee had its share of traditionalists, as well as a number of Catholic members, both French and English, the progressives gained the upper hand in its internal workings. The predominantly child-centred philosophy conveyed in the briefs was reinforced by the” professionals” relatively unencumbered by the usual teacher federation pressures and constraints. The addition of Charles E. Phillips, the reputed dean of Canadian educational history,  to the Committee strengthened the hand of progressives.

Most significantly, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which favoured a reformed traditionalist approach, was effectively marginalized on the Committee.  The OSSTF’s one lone representative was, in fact, no longer a high school teacher by the time the Committee got down to serious work. Under such favourable conditions, the progressive educators were able to seize the initiative in not only planning the Committee’s work, but also in drafting its recommendations. That decision would turn out to be a critical mistake when, within weeks, a furious and determined opposition began to take shape among high school teachers, university academics, local chambers of commerce, and captains of industry.

 What caused the Great Disruption associated with the arrival of the Hall-Dennis Report?  Where did the progressive ideas espoused in the Report actually originate? What can be learned about the shaping of a “broad consensus” in education politics? To what extent was the over-hyping of the Report responsible for the fierce debate that ensued in education circles? 

First in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, Fifty Years On

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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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American education professor Peter W. Cookson, Jr., currently President of Ideas without Borders, recently set the education world atwitter with a futuristic October 10, 2017 Education Week commentary.  Under the eye-catching title, “Ten Disruptions That Will Revolutionize Education, Dr. Cookson proclaimed with declaratory certainty that “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology will prove significant for education” in the not-too-distant future.

His Education Week commentary provides a fine example of what Canadian journalist and author Dan Gardner has aptly termed Future Babble.”  In his 2011 book of the same name, he demonstrated that “experts” in any given field were just slightly better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. In addition, the more certain an expert was of a predicted outcome, and the bigger their media profile, and the less accurate the prediction was likely to be.

Reading Dr. Cookson’s rather ‘edutopian’ musings and mindful of the past record of modern day soothsayers, it’s fair to ask whether any of the ten “disruptions” will ever “revolutionize education.”

Let’s start by summarizing his hypothesis and reviewing his list of “creative disruptions” forecasted to “revolutionize” schooling. The advance of machines, according to Peter Cookson, was to be embraced rather than resisted like the plague. “The development of advanced artificial intelligence, or super-intelligence,” he contended,”opens up doors to discoveries never before imagined. While opinions vary about the speed with which superintelligence will develop, there is little doubt that within the next decade, the cognitive landscape will be very different than it is today.”

Here is the full list of purportedly positive “disruptions”:

1. Digital learners will rebel against intellectual conformity.

2. Learning avatars will become commonplace.

3. Participatory-learning hubs will replace isolated classrooms.

4. Inquiry skills will drive learning.

5. Capacities will matter more than grades.

6. Teachers will become inventors.

7. School leaders will give up their desks.

8. Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators.

9. Formal credentials will no longer be the Holy Grail.

10. Policymakers will form communities of continuous improvement.

His summation amounts to a declaration of faith in the new gospel of “21st century learning.” “If education stays stuck in the past, generations of students will be miseducated,” Cookson claims. “They (students) won’t be equipped to thrive in a world of new ideas and technologies. The current task of educators should be to embrace these changes with an open mind and consider how new disruptions can aid, rather than hinder, learning for all students.”

Cookson’s vision of a digital learning future proved tantalizing to leading education education observers and, whether intended or not, was seen as a provocation.  University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham responded tersely on Twitter: “My bold prediction: none of these 10 will disrupt education. None.”

All but one of the 16 comments on the post on the Education Week website dismissed Cookson’s forecast as either sheer nonsense or a threatening forecast of a dystopian future where teachers were supplanted by robots.  Most of the teacher respondents considered the commentary the hallucinations of a “21st century education” futurist.  Canadian education blogger and Math/Technology teacher David Wees rejected Cookson’s forecast entirely and provided a ‘reality check’ list of his own, pointing out the real obstacles to American educational advance, including the status and salaries accorded to teachers, inequitable funding and resources, and the stark inequalities facing students from marginalized communities.

Cookson’s forecast is so problematic that it is hard to decide where to start and whether there is enough space in a short blog commentary to take issue with each of his prognostications.  Since Cookson provides no research evidence to support his claims, you are expected to accept them as unassailable truths. If one thing is abundantly clear, Cookson exhibits a significant blind spot in his total neglect of the “knowledge domain” in his brief in support of embracing technology-driven. “21st century learning.”

Dr. Willingham is essentially correct in his critique of the education futurists. Since 2008, he has been sounding the alarm that the pursuit of “21st century skills” will prove unwise because the acquisition and application of knowledge still matters and will continue to matter in the future.  Without sound background knowledge, students have more difficulty mastering reading and are susceptible to online hoaxes such as the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus activity. He goes further in pointing out that mathematics, science, reading, civics, and history are more critical in K-12 education than what are termed “21st century skills.”

Being attuned and open to new research and pedagogical advances is desirable and but so is applying a skeptical eye when confronted with unproven theories. Willingham, for example, is not opposed, per se, to developing critical capacities in students, particularly in new media literacy.  Yet, he and other prominent edutopia skeptics, still worry that futurists are leading us astray and they certainly have past experience on their side.

Where are North American edutopian educators like Peter W. Cookson, Jr. leading us?  Where did he come up with the purported “creative disruptions”?  Is there any evidence, that such changes will improve student achievement or produce better informed, more productive citizens? Without radical changes in the socio-economic conditions of, and schooling provision for, marginalized students, can we expect much of an improvement?  And finally, is it sound thinking to put so much faith in the transformative powers of technology? 

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With the 2017-18 school year on the horizon, British English teacher and research lead Carl Hendrick produced a feature for The Guardian with the alluring title “Ten books every teacher should read.” Most of the ten books published over the past decade and listed as must-reads for teachers bore mighty familiar names, such as Daniel T. Willingham, John Hattie, Daisy Christodoulou, and Dylan Wiliam. On that list is one wild card offering, Martin Robinson’s highly original and intellectually stimulating 2013 book, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past.  It’s a courageous book that tackles the biggest issue of all – what is the true purpose of education and how does contemporary schooling measure up?

The author of Trivium 21c is an unusual fellow, a drama teacher-turned-teacher-philosopher, with an unmistakable independent streak. After struggling at school himself, he turned to teaching and joined the profession in his late twenties. Upon entering the classroom, he thrived as a highly motivational teacher of Drama and the Arts.  His initial Twitter handle was @SurrealAnarchy and that gives some indication of his willingness to engage in creative disruption. He wrote the book as a way of responding to his young daughter’s queries about the meaning of Latin terms and innate curiosity about the real purpose of schooling.

As a classroom teacher, Robinson was troubled by the tide in favour of a utilitarian education to prepare students for assessments and success in the 21st century workplace. “Kids were more focused on exams, grades and learning how to pass, ” he observed, “and were becoming less independent and less creative.”  “The new breed of students were customers demanding a service,” in his view, and increasingly expected to be “fed, some of them force fed” with lessons served up “ready cooked.”

In a field overflowing with inspirational educational leadership guides and magic bullet curriculum reform books, Trivium 21c occupies what headteacher Tom Sherrington described as “different ground altogether.”  It stands out as a manifesto for reforming and revitalizing educational practice, our discourse and our system based on a set of core principles that speak to what education means to individuals, communities, and society.

Trivium21cIdlerMotif

Robinson’s explorations lead him back to the Trivium, the essential construct of liberal education dating from the time of the Ancients. The Trivium consists of three core components: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Here’s a capsule summary of what each element entails:

Grammar: The need for core knowledge — the cultural capital that we accrue through transmission, essentially the things that we all must know to function in the modern world;

Dialectic: The need to question, debate and discuss ideas, to form our own opinions, to engage in authentic experiences, and to grow in our capacities and build character;

Rhetoric: The need to be able to communicate our ideas and knowledge in a variety of forms,  to create and perform with flair and confidence.

 

Moving from Ancient Greece to the present day, Trivium 21c proposes a contemporary trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric) with the potential to unite progressive and traditionalist pedagogy and approaches among teachers, politicians and parents in the common pursuit of a better education. ‘The three ways of the trivium– knowing, questioning, and communicating — ,” Robinson claims, make for “a great education.” What he wanted for his own daughter was schooling that actually gave her “the grounding” to lead “the good life.”

Education policy and practice in Canada is, as in Britain and the United States, a subterranean battleground. Traditionalists argue for the teaching of a higher order of hard knowledge and deride soft skills. Progressives deride learning about great works of the past preferring ‘21c skills’ (21st century skills) such as creativity and critical thinking.  The bridge, in Robinson’s view, can be found in the trivium because it provides a framework that facilitates “preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past.”

Frustrated by a prevailing educational orthodoxy that seems incapable of  marrying respect for knowledge with creativity, to foster discipline alongside free-thinking, and to value citizenship with independent learning, Robinson favours what might be termed “progressive traditionalism.” Drawing from his work as a creative teacher respectful of the liberal education tradition, he finds inspiration in the Arts and the need to nurture learners with the ability to not only cope but surmount the uncertainties of our contemporary age.  His follow-up 2016 volume, Trivium 21c in Practice, provides a range of exemplars of best practice in a cross-section of U.K. schools.

Author Robinson will soon become better known in Canada for his provocations.  He will be making his first appearance on this side of the pond at researchED Toronto, November 10-11, 2017, at Trinity College, University of Toronto.  It’s not too late to reserve a seat to see him in action with more than two dozen leading educational thinkers and teacher-researchers from Britain and right across Canada. .

Why is Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c such a refreshing education book?  Can the schism that divides so-called “traditionalists” and “progressives” be bridged through a reinvention of the trivium?  Is it possible to both walk on the shoulders of giants and to make giant creative leaps (from those shoulders) in the pursuit of better education for today’s students?  

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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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