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Progressive education and its principal banner-bearer John Dewey remain popular in Canadian and American faculties of education and within the teaching profession, particularly among elementary school teachers. Educational theories based upon Dewey’s voluminous writings still hold great appeal among a wide swath of professors within education schools, encompassing educational psychologists and teacher educators. Citing Dewey in your work is common; less common is delving into the intellectual underpinnings and tenets of Deweyism.  While the Philosophy of Education is withering as a field, Dewey scholarship remains a bright spot and a gathering place for the so-called “romantics.”

A recent analysis of John Dewey and the state of educational philosophy dared to suggest that the father of modern progressivism may be “doomed to fade” in the galaxy. The short 2019 essay, authored by Dewey scholar David I Waddington, Professor of Educational Philosophy at Concordia University, posited that the “romance” showed signs of coming to an end.  That decline and ultimate fall, he forecast with a twinge of sadness, was foreshadowed by the decomposition of “modernity” and the “accelerating failure of the progressive movement’s social project.” The progressive movement’s current difficulties, he concluded, did not bode well for the future of Dewey scholarship in education schools and, by extension, research-informed practice in the schools.

Education schools carry the burden of a reputation for occupying a “low academic status” in the university. In the course of explaining that lowly status David Larabee (The Trouble with Ed Schools, 2006), attributed it in large part to the tendency of American schools of education to embrace Dewey’s progressivism with something approaching a religious fervour. He claimed that education schools exemplified a “romance with progressivism” forged in the early 20th century as teacher education moved decisively towards a strong professional training orientation. On the teaching side, this tied-in with preparing teachers for the classroom; on the research side, it was exemplified in the focus on developing new testing systems and building the bureaucratic administrative structure of the modern school system. Faculties of education became, in Waddington’s words, “handmaidens to the public school system” absorbed in training teachers and administrators, and later, higher-level consultants.

John Dewey’s progressivism filled a vacuum by providing a serviceable educational philosophy.  Few teacher educators gravitated to educational philosophy and most were satisfied with a general understanding of Dewey’s theories. A significant number of education professors, then as now, were deeply committed to “social justice education” and found in Dewey an aspirational philosophy that accorded with their own commitment to the “liberal reform project” of schooling.

Most education professors were pragmatic educators with surprisingly little interest or passion for matters of theory, cognitive science or discipline-based curriculum. Teacher educators had some control over classroom practice, so this became their primary focus, and curriculum was ceded to the policy branches of education departments. Dewey’s writings fit the orientation because they focused on how to teach rather than what to teach. Studies conducted from 1993 to 2006 revealed that alarming numbers of education professors were poorly read and, in some cases, unable to cite a single book or author in their field.

Schools of education needed all the credibility they could muster and they found that salvation in Dewey, widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.  Many with a narrow focus on teacher preparation, psychology, or technical education latched onto Dewey and claimed him for what Waddington aptly describes as the “sad-sack home team.”

While the ghost of John Dewey still haunts teacher training schools, his influence is definitely on the wane.  The American education philosopher still has a hard core of camp followers, but his ideas embodied “the modern project” of reconstructing society through the reform of public institutions is in disrepute in the academy. “We are living amidst the wreckage of the modern project,” according to Waddington, and the “grand modern Deweyan metanarrative of education as the liberator of humanity now rings increasingly false.” Supporting modernity and the renewal of the liberal state is, after all, incompatible with “critical social justice scholarship” leaving Deweyites on a lonely academic perch.

Prominent critics of education schools are now piling-on with fresh evidence that those institutions are disconnected in other ways. Manitoba teacher and education policy analyst Michael Zwaagstra claims that most education faculties remain wedded to Deweyism and resistant to change.  “Education schools continue to downplay subject-specific knowledge and promote many of the same fads, albeit under new names,” he points out. “Today’s education students are fed useless platitudes such as the need to be a ‘guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.'” 

Zwaagstra’s critique has a familiar ring:  “Instead of empowering future teachers with the confidence they need to effectively manage their classrooms, education professors promote theories that have little practical use in actual classrooms with real students.” Teacher candidates give high marks to classroom teachers in their practicum sessions, but  ‘one of the most common sentiments expressed by classroom teachers is that their education classes taught them little about how to teach.”

Hopeful signs are appearing as some practicing teachers have begun to take matters into their own hands. Zwaagstra and a growing band of researchED supporters draw hope and strength from the British teacher research movement founded in 2013 by Tom Bennett and slowly spreading (teacher-to-teacher) throughout Canada and the United States. In sharp contrast to education school approaches and education guru-led school change, researchED is “entirely teacher-directed and gives teachers an opportunity to directly engage with the research literature.” Freed-up from the ideological conformity expected by modern day Deweyites, teacher presenters come from a variety of perspectives and disciplines and teachers are left to make up their own minds regarding what they hear.

Why does John Dewey and his brand of progressivism still pervade so many faculties of education?  Will Deweyism survive the decline and fall of modernity and be exhumed from ‘the wreckage of the modern project’?  Where do today’s teacher training programs fall short?  Does the emergence of researchED in North America provide a glimmer of hope?  

 

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The new world of Artificial Intelligence is upon us and teaching may never be the same.  That’s the upshot of a new report by Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan for Education International focusing on Pearson’s Plan for 2025 and its implications for teachers everywhere.  The two researchers see dangers ahead with the introduction of AI into the teaching domain and warn of the further expansion of private interests, while embracing the need for technology-enhanced learning and implicitly accepting 21st century student-centred teaching pedagogies. 

The world’s largest learning corporation, Pearson International, is pursuing a visionary plan to advance the “next generation ” of teaching and learning by developing cutting-edge digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIEd).  It is now piloting new AI technologies that will, in time, enable “virtual tutors’ to provide “personalized learning” to students, much like Siri or Alexa. The Pearson Plan for 2025 calls for this technology to be integrated into a single platform — Pearson Realize — that has been integrated into Google Classroom. The ultimate goal is to forge direct and lifelong relationships with Pearson product educational users to whom it will provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.

Pearson’s Plan for 2025 does raise alarm bells for teachers. The corporate strategy is premised upon causing “educational disruptions” with respect to 1) the teaching profession, 2) the delivery of curriculum and assessment, and 3) the function of schools, particularly those in the public sector.  Such changes are unsettling for Sellar and Hogan, but they still laud the potential benefits of technology enhancements and their “combination with new kinds of teacher professionalism’

The underlying philosophy was expressed in a December 2014 Pearson policy paper prepared by Peter Hill and Michael Barber with a grandiose title, “Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment.”  While Pearson marketing is decidedly teacher-friendly, the Hill and Barber paper belies that image, making a strong case for improving “teacher quality” as a pre-condition for “transforming teaching”  and achieving better student outcomes.  Here is how they described the desired transformation:

from a largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionised, bureaucratically controlled semi-profession into a true profession with a distinctive knowledge base, a framework for teaching, well defined common terms for describing and analysing teaching at a level of specificity and strict control by the profession itself, on entry into the profession (Hill and Barber, 2014, 20). 

Teaching, according to Hill and Barber, is also bedeviled by classroom practitioners who guard their autonomy.  The problem was that teaching was an “imprecise and idiosyncratic process  that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers” (Hill and Barber, 38). That implied that most teachers cannot be trusted, despite their university education, professional registration, teaching certification, continuous professional learning, and professional standards of practice.

Teachers, it seems, were “the problem” in the eyes of Pearson education experts Hill and Barber.   Transforming teaching for 21st century learning, it followed, required the “overthrowing” and “repudiating” of the “classroom teacher as the imparter of knowledge” and replacing them with “increasing reliance on sophisticated tutor/online instruction.’ ( Hill and Barber, 23). Computerized “personalized learning,” in their view, was the answer and the way of the future.

The Pearson Plan for 2025 does not, as the Education International researchers repeatedly point out, call for “replacing teachers.” They do recognize that the introduction of new technologies does carry certain risks such as the “routinisation of teaching tasks,” but also seem to accept the benefits of the new technologies for developing complementary skills. What is flagged is the dangers posed by the routinisation of teaching by Pearson and its subsidiaries in “low fee” private schools in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and parts of South-East Asia.

The Education International critique, oddly enough, gives the philosophy, program and assessment dimension of 21st century learning a free pass.  “Many have called for the reform of schooling,” they note, ” to modernize this nineteenth century institution, particularly in regards to the provision of homogeneous curriculum, age-based learning, and traditional models of teacher-led instruction.” Such changes are fine with them unless they lead to the automation of teaching and the replacement of teachers with robots or virtual tutors.

Much of the rest of the Sellar and Hogan critique of Pearson 2025 is predictable and essentially well-founded.  Technology-enhanced teaching and learning is part of the emerging “infrastructure of modernity” and, as such, needs to be confronted and tamed.  While there is a place for Global Education Industry(GEI) giants like Pearson and Google, we do need to guard against potential problems and encroachments that further erode teaching as a profession. Their critique would have been considerably strengthened by citing the critical research of Ben Williamson, author of Big Data in Education, and a leading expert on the OECD’s plan to introduce “stealth assessment.”

Technology-driven education can lead to greater social inequalities, creeping privatization, displacement of teachers, spread of routinized teaching models, the illicit corporate collection of data, and the  degradation of teaching into a personalized experience focused almost entirely on individual knowledge and skills.

International education researchers such as Sellar and Hogan still seem mesmerized by the allure of the “21st century learning” panacea, the new pedagogy of deep learning, and technological enhancements in the class room. There is still no real recognition that the purveyors of learning technology actually stand in the way of “future-proofing” the next generation.

What’s the real agenda of Pearson International’s global education plan for 2025?  Where do classroom teachers fit in the “next generation” of teaching and learning?  To what extent will teachers be displaced by robots in the friendly guise of “virtual tutors”?  Should teachers put their faith in Pearson Education experts who are out to reduce the influence of “idiosyncratic” classroom practitioners and particularly those who favour explicit instruction and a “knowledge-rich curriculum”? 

 

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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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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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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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