Feeds:
Posts
Comments

A model Grade 6 classroom in Sherwood Park, Alberta, now comes fully equipped with every imaginable solution to coping with fidgety kids, including spin bikes, exercise balls, rotating stools and stand-up desks. The latest classroom pacifiers, ‘Wiggle stools,’ are being hailed as a godsend by a harried Grade 2 classroom teacher in a Sackville, NB.

jumpyclassroomsherwoodparkSchools across Canada went to great lengths to re-engage fidgety students in what will likely always be known as the Year of Self-Regulation. Coping with today’s restless generation of kids now requires every conceivable pacifier, including spin bikes, exercise balls, wiggle stools and stand-up desks.

That is why in any Canadian survey of the top five K-12 education issues in 2016, coping with today’s antsy students would top the list.

Mindfulness and Self-Regulation

High anxiety educators have also embraced the latest panacea known as ‘mindfulness’ and are going whole hog into ‘self-regulation’ of their students.  It’s the brainchild of American advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn who transformed ‘Buddhist mindfulness’ into teaching practice and his Canadian apostle York University’s Stuart Shanker. That approach has emerged in 2016 as the latest wave in what has been characterized as a pseudoscience reform movement.

wobblechairsdallastx“It helps with their focus, helps with their creativity, helps promote problem-solving, gives them some way to self-regulate as they have a place to burn-off energy or to gain energy as they need it,” Alberta teacher Kurt Davison told Global TV News Edmonton. Eleven-year-old Connor Harrower heartily agreed: “In other classes, I’m sitting at desks and I’m bored.”

Teacher Misconduct and Discipline

A CBC-TV Marketplace investigation into ‘Teacher Discipline’ in Canada’s provincial school systems aired in April 2016 and immediately drew attention to glaring weaknesses in  professional evaluation, regulation, and discipline. It revealed that only two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, provide public access to teacher discipline records, and most of the others continue to conceal information from parents and the public, including cases of serious misconduct, incompetence and sexual abuse

Fewer than 400 teaching certificates were revoked in Canada (outside Quebec) over a ten year period from 2005 to 2015, which represented one in every 5,780 teacher certificates each year. In the U.S., the revocation rate was about 30 per cent higher. According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, the American figure in 2015 was one certificate out of every 4,360.

The Marketplace investigation raised a fundamental question: If your child’s teacher was punished for a serious offence such as sexual, physical or verbal misconduct, would you be able to find out about it? Depending on where you live, the answer was ‘probably not.’

Chronic Student Math Woes

Ontario students, like those in most Canadian provinces, continued to struggle mightily in mathematics. Grade 4 Ontario students lagged behind their counterparts in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and 25 other jurisdictions in mathematics, landing them in the middle of the pack in the 2015 TIMSS assessment, a U.S.-based global study of math and science.

Those startling TIMSS results came on the heels of a dismal showing from Grade 3 and 6 students on the latest provincial test by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), with scores dropping to the lowest levels in more than 15 years. Only 63 per cent of Grade 3s met the acceptable standard, dropping to half in Grade 6.

Math standards advocates such as Teresa Murray of @FixONTmath claimed that pumping $60-million more into a math strategy might not make much of a difference without a return to teaching the fundamentals in the early grades.

B.C. ‘Class Composition’ Court Ruling

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) won a critical Supreme Court of Canada decision in November 2016 that ended a union legal battle that began in 2002. That ruling immediately restored clauses removed from the B.C. teachers’ contract by the Gordon Campbell Liberal Government dealing with class size, the number of special needs students in a class, and the number of specialist teachers required in schools.

The BCTF court victory was forecasted to have far-reaching ramifications for contact negotiations across Canada. Teachers in Nova Scotia embroiled in a contract dispute of their own took heart from the decision prohibiting the ‘stripping’ of ‘working conditions’ and denying teachers the right to bargain on those issues.

PISA 2015 Test Results Fallout

Crowing about the showing of Canadian students in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report was widespread and the current Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC), P.E.I. Education Minister Doug Currie, was first-off-the mark on December 6, 2016 to hail the student results in the three subjects tested: science, reading and math.

The real devil was evident in the details and more clearly portrayed in the OECD’s own “Country Profile” for Canada. Yes, 15-year-olds in three Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) achieved some excellent results, but overall Mathematics scores were down, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and students in over half of our provinces trailed-off into mediocrity in terms of performance. Our real success was not in performance, but rather in reducing the achievement gap adversely affecting disadvantaged students.

Final Words of Wisdom

Looking ahead to 2017, we can find some solace in the April 2016 comments of Dr. Stan Kutcher, one of the world’s leading experts on teen mental health. “We are not facing a mental health crisis in schools,” he pointed out, but we do have to learn to distinguish between “the daily slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and those “more serious conditions requiring treatment.”

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond? 

High school English language arts teacher Merion Taynton took “a leap of faith” in November 2016 and jumped in “with both feet” into Project-Based Learning (PBL).

pblgroupwork

While teaching Goethe’s Faust in her Grade 10 class in a Chinese independent school, she adopted PBL in an attempt to “grapple with the ideas” within the text rather than “the text itself.” What would you sell your soul for? How much are your dreams worth? Those were the questions Ms. Taynton posed, as she set aside her regular teaching notes on 19th Century European Literature. Students would complete their own projects and decide, on their own, how to present their findings. “I’m going to do a video,” one said. “I’m going to produce a rap song” chimed in another, and the whole approach was ‘anything goes’ as long as the students could produce a justification.

Ms. Taynton’s project-based learning experience was not just a random example of the methodology, but rather an exemplar featured on the classroom trends website Edutopia under the heading “Getting Started with Literature and Project-Based Learning.”  Better than anything else, this learning activity demonstrates not only the risks, but the obvious pitfalls of jumping on educational fads in teaching and learning.

After spreading like pedagogical magic dust over the past five years, Project-Based Learning recently hit a rough patch. Fresh educational research generated in two separate studies at Durham University’s Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) in the United Kingdom and as a component of the OECD’s Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of PBL and other minimal teacher-guided pedagogical strategies.

The EFF study of Project-Based Learning (November 2016) examined “Learning through REAL projects” involving some 4,000 Year 7 pupils  in 24 schools from 2013-14 to April 2016, utilizing a randomized control trial. The research team found “no clear impact on either literacy..or student engagement with school and learning.” More telling was the finding that the effect on the literacy of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) – a measure of disadvantage – was “negative and significant.” Simply put, switching to PBL from traditional literacy instruction was harmful to the most needy of all students.

explicitinstructionpisaThe 2015 PISA results, released December 6, 2016,  delivered another blow to minimal teacher-guided methods, such as PBL and its twin sister, inquiry-based learning.  When it came to achievement in science among 15-year-olds, the finding was that such minimal guided instruction methods lagged far behind explict instruction in determining student success. In short, the increase in the amount of inquiry learning that students report being exposed to is associated with a decrease in science scores.

Much of the accumulating evidence tends to support the critical findings of Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark in their authoritative 2006 article in Educational Psychologist.  “Minimally-guided instruction,” they concluded, based upon fifty years of studies, “is less effective and less efficient than instructional methods that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” The superiority of teacher-guided instruction, they claimed, can be explained utilizing evidence from studies of ” human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences, and cognitive load.”

Project-Based Learning, like inquiry-based approaches, may have some transitory impact on student engagement in the classroom. Beyond that, however, it’s hard to find  much actual evidence to support its effectiveness in mastering content knowledge, applying thinking skills, or achieving higher scores, particularly in mathematics and science.

In September 2015, an Ontario Education What Works: Research into Practice  Monograph, authored by David Hutchison of Brock University, provided a rather mixed assessment of PBL. While the author claimed that PBL had much to offer as a “holistic strategy” promoting “student engagement” and instilling “21st century skills,” it faced “challenges that can limit its effectiveness.” Where the strategy tends to fall short was in mastery of subject content and classroom management, where time, scope and quality of the activities surface as ongoing challenges.

Implementation of PBL on a system-wide basis  has rarely been attempted, and, in the case of Quebec’s Education Reform initiative, Schools on Course,  from 1996 to 2006, it proved to be an unmitigated disaster, especially for secondary school teachers and students. The “project method” adopted in the QEP, imposed top-down, ran into fierce resistance from both teachers and parents in English-speaking Quebec, who openly opposed the new curriculum, claiming that it taught “thinking skills without subject content.” In a province with a tradition of provincial exit examinations, PBL cut against the grain and faltered when student scores slipped in 2006 in both Grade 6 provincial mathematics tests and the global Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments.

pblhandsonlearning

None of the critical research findings or claims of ineffectiveness have blunted the passion or commitment of PBL advocates across North America.  With the support of the ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine and web platforms such as Edutopia, a handful of PBL curriculum and program experts, including Jane Krauss of International Society for Technology Education (ISTE), Suzie Boss of Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation, and Dr. Sylvia Chard of the University of Alberta, have been effective in planting it in hundreds of school systems from Oregon and California to New York State and Ontario, in New England and the Maritime Provinces.

The PBL movement in North America is propelled by progressive educational principles and an undeniable passion for engaging students in learning.  Powered by 21st century learning precepts and championed by ICT promoters, it rests upon some mighty shaky philosophical foundations and is supported by precious little research evidence. Lead promoter Suzie Boss is typical of those advocates. “Projects make the world go round,” she wrote in a 2011 Edutopia Blog post, and “Confucius and Aristotle were early proponents of learning by doing.” That may be quite imaginative, but it is also completely fallacious.

Most of the PBL “research” is actually generated by one California organization, the Buck Institute for Education, where the lead promoters and consultants are schooled in its core principles and where PBL facilitators develop teaching units and workshops. It’s actively promoted by ISTE, Edutopia, and a host of 21st century skills advocates.

Even Canadian faculty of education supporters like Hutchison concede that implementing PBL is “time-intensive” and fraught with classroom challenges. Among those “challenges” are formidable obstacles such as a) managing the significant time commitment; b) ensuring that subjects have sufficient subject depth; c) balancing student autonomy with the imperative of some teacher direction; and d) keeping projects on track using ongoing (formative) assessment instruments. When it comes to implementing PBL in ESL/ELL classrooms or with larger groups of Special Needs students those challenges are often insurmountable.

What works best as a core instructional approach – explicit instruction or minimal teacher guided approaches, such as PBL and Inquiry-Based Learning?  Which approach is best equipped to raise student achievement levels, particularly in mathematics and science?  Are the potential benefits in terms of promoting student engagement and instilling collaborative skills enough to justify its extensive use in elementary schools? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Canadians can be proud of our showing in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report,” declared Science consultant Bonnie Schmidt and former Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) director Andrew Parkin in their first-off-the mark December 6, 2016 response to the results. “We are, ” they added, “one of only a handful of countries that places in the top tier of the Oganization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) in each of the three subjects tested:science, reading and math.”

pisa2015cmeccover“Canada” and “Canadian students,” we were told, were once again riding high in the once-every-three-years international test sweepstakes. If that that effusively positive response had a familiar ring, it was because it followed the official line advanced by a markedly similar CMEC media release, issued a few hours before the commentary.

Since our students, all students in each of our ten provincial school systems, were “excelling,” then it was time for a little national back-slapping. There’s one problem with that blanket analysis: it serves to maintain the status quo, engender complacency, obscure the critical Mathematics scores, and disguise the lopsided nature of student performance from region to region.

Hold on, not so fast, CMEC — the devil is in the real details and more clearly portrayed in the OECD’s own “Country Profile” for Canada. Yes, 15-year-olds in three Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) achieved some excellent results, but overall Mathematics scores were down, and students in over half of our provinces trailed-off into mediocrity in terms of performance. Our real success was not in performance, but rather in reducing the achievement gap adversely affecting disadvantaged students.

Over half a million 15-year-olds in more than 72 jurisdictions all over the world completed PISA tests, and Schmidt and Parkin were not alone in making sweeping pronouncements about why Canada and other countries are up and others down in the global rankings.

Talking in aggregate terms about the PISA performance of 20,000 Canadian students in ten different provinces can be, and is, misleading, when the performance results in mathematics continue to lag, Ontario students continue to underperform, and students in two provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, struggle in science, reading, and mathematics.  Explaining all that away is what breeds complacency in the school system.

My own PISA 2015 forecast was way off-base — and taught me a lesson.  After the recent TIMSS 2015 Mathematics results released in November 2016, an  East Asian sweep, led by Singapore and Korea, seemed like a safe bet. How Finland performs also attracts far less attention than it did in its halcyon days back in 2003 and 2006. The significant OECD pivot away from excellence to equity caught me napping and I completely missed the significance of moving (2012 to 2015) from pencil-and-paper to computer-based tests. 

Some solace can be found in the erroneous forcecasts of others. The  recent Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) “Brace Yourself” memo with its critique of standardized testing assessment, seemed to forecast a calamitous drop in Alberta student performance levels. It only happened in Mathematics.

Advocates of the ‘Well-Being’ curriculum and broader assessment measures, championed by Toronto’s People for Education, will likely be temporarily thrown off-stride by the OECD’s new-found commitment to assessing equity in education. It will be harder now to paint PISA as evil and to discredit PISA results based upon such a narrow range of skills in reading, math and science.

The OECD’s “Country Profile” of Canada is worth studying carefully because it aggregates data from 2003 to 2015, clarifies the trends, and shows how Canadian students continue to struggle in mathematics far more than in reading and science.

Canadian students may have finished 12th in Mathematics with a 516 aggregate score, but the trend line continues to be in decline, down from 532 in 2003. Digging deeper, we see that students in only two provinces, Quebec ( 544) and BC (522) actually exceeded the national mean score. Canada’s former leader in Mathematics performance, Alberta, continued its downward spiral from the lofty heights of 549 (2003) to 511 (2015).

Since Ontario students’ provincial mathematics scores are declining, experts will be pouring over the latest PISA results to see how bad it is in relation to the world’s top performing systems. No surprises here: Ontario students scored 509, finishing 4th in Canada, and down from 530 on PISA 2003. Excellence will require a significant change in direction.

The biggest discovery in post-2015 PISA analysis was the positive link between explicit instruction and higher achievement in the 2015 core assessment subject, science. The most important factor linked with high performance remains SES (soci0-economic status), but teacher-guided instruction was weighted close behind and students taught with minimal direction, in inquiry or project-based classes, simply performed less well on the global test.

The results of the 15-year-olds are largely determined over 10 years of schooling, and not necessarily the direct consequence of the latest curriculum fad such as “discovery math.’’

It’s better to look deeper into what this cohort of students were learning when they first entered the school system, in the mid-1990s. In the case of Canadian students, for example, student-centred learning was at its height, and the country was just awakening to the value of testing to determine what students were actually learning in class.

Where the student results are outstanding, such as Singapore and Estonia, it is not solely attributable to the excellence of teaching or the rigour of the math and science curriculum.

We know from the “tutoring explosion” in Canada’s major cities that the prevalence of private tuition classes after school is a contributing factor, and may explain the current advantage still enjoyed in mathematics by Pacific Rim students.

Children of Chinese heritage in Australia actually outperformed students in Shanghai on the 2012 PISA test, and we need to explore whether that may be true for their counterparts in Greater Vancouver. The so-called “Shanghai Effect” may be attributed as much to “tiger mothers” as it is to the quality of classroom instruction.

Whether Canada and Canadians continue to exhibit high PISA self-esteem or have simply plateaued does not matter as much as what we glean over the next few years from studying best international practice in teaching, learning, and assessment.

Surveying PISA student results, this much is clear: standing still is not an option in view of the profound changes that are taking place in life, work, and society.

 

A Thunder Bay Ontario coroner’s inquest report into the deaths of seven First Nations students, issued on June 28, 2016, seemed to inject a sense of urgency into the whole debate over the sad state of Indigenous education. It also gave fresh impetus to public calls for concrete, meaningful changes in First Nations high schools, particularly in northern Ontario. Six months later, my latest Northern Policy Institute report, After the Healing, explores why so little has happened and proposes an immediate action plan.

dfchsexteriorcbcGoing well beyond its strict mandate to rule on cases of death, the five-person jury, presided over by coroner Dr. David Eden, delivered a total of 145 far-reaching recommendations and even set out the laudable goal of building a high school in each of northern Ontario’s mostly small, isolated reserve communities. That alone is a monumental undertaking that would take massive investments and years to achieve.

The state of education on most of Canada’s reserves is dire, but outside observers, including C.D. Howe Institute researchers Barry Anderson and John Richards, tend to reach sweeping conclusions that do not apply to all First Nations-run schools, particularly the two largest Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) schools in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, covering much of northern Ontario.

Over the past seven years, 2009-10 to 2015-16, graduation rates at the two NNEC high schools, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFCHS) and Pelican Falls First Nations High School (PFFNHS) have risen steadily from 53.6 % to 76.0% this past year. Out of 424 students registered in Grade 12 over that period, 261 (61.5 %) achieved a high school certificate, better than most on-reserve high schools.

In the 2015-16 school year, while the Thunder Bay inquest dominated the news, both DFCHS and PFFNS recorded their highest graduation rates ever, at 64.7 % (33 of 51) and 100 % (24 of 24) respectively.

Given a funding gap of 25 to 30 per cent per student and the adverse media attention, the label of “failing” schools does not seem to square with the facts.

Yet much more needs to be done to immediately improve the quality of education and student life for First Nations students attending Thunder Bay’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and other First Nations-run schools in the Ontario North.

My earlier September 2014 NPI policy paper Picking Up the Pieces supported the full transition to First Nations control of education through Community-School Based Management vested in Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC.

dfcriverceremonyporterInvesting in First Nations high schools remains the best way to capture the true “Learning Spirit,” to embrace a more holistic, community-based philosophy of lifelong learning, to raise student performance levels, and prepare graduates for healthier, more satisfying and productive lives.

Fixing the problems threatening the very existence of the NNEC First Nations high schools, DFCHS and PFFNHS, is the new imperative. Taking action now will not only ensure that First Nations teens attending NNEC high schools will return home alive, but better prepared for successful lives.

The Thunder Bay Coroner’s Jury bit-off much more than can be digested and implemented in a timely and effective fashion. My report focuses more explicitly on addressing the needs of students making the transition to high school in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, and other northern Ontario towns and cities.

My latest report, After the Healing, presents a five-point action plan, urging policy-makers to:

  • close the funding gap for NNEC and NAN schools;
  • design, fund and build Dennis Franklin Cromarty transition lodgings to be known as the Student Living Centre;
  • re-build and expand student support services to smooth the transition to city/town life;
  • establish a Race Relations Commissioner and officers in cities and larger towns with sizable populations of First Nations youth and students; and
  • expand and fortify ‘Student Success’ curriculum initiatives based upon Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.

‘Focus, focus, focus’ is now what’s needed as we embark on renewing First Nations education. Fewer and more immediate concrete actions are the best guarantor of a brighter future for First Nations students attending band-operated high schools.

Why is there so much talk and so little action on the First Nations high school education front?  Who is coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the Thunder Bay inquest recommendations?  After six months, what has changed at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, the prime focus of the inquest? Is it because the mere mention of “residential school” (whatever its form and leadership) sends people running off in the opposite direction? 

 

When my policy research report, Education on Wheels, was released by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in January 2015, the official reaction was totally unexpected in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick.

New Brunswick is currently facing a significant financial challenge with public discussion animated by books like Richard Saillant’s 2014 title, Over the Cliff?: Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy. It’s also a fully bilingual province with a dual school system where students are educated in either Anglophone or Francophone schools. Every proposed change, we learned, is assessed in relation to its impact upon the duality of educational provision.

AIMSEDonWheelsFew among the political class noticed that our report was subtitled “Seizing Cost and Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Student Transportation.” Instead of seizing the initiative in controlling student transportation costs now consuming up to 7 per cent of the education budget, policy-makers became side-tracked in a time consuming, fruitless debate over maintaining dual busing services.

As the lead author of the first comprehensive review of Atlantic Canadian K-12 student transportation, it was disappointing, to say the least, to see two N.B. cabinet ministers pluck one recommendation, rip it out-of-context, and turn the whole public discussion into a test of the province’s commitment to duality in student busing.

Spending almost two years pursuing a court reference to curtail one rural area (Kent County) involving eight buses out of 1,200 in the province and affecting only 92 students speaks volumes about misplaced provincial priorities. The only real benefit was to raise the profile of law professors seeking to turn this into a test of French linguistic rights.

Now that the New Brunswick Government has wisely abandoned its almost two-year quest to seek a court ruling on the question of dual busing, it’s time to actually get on with tackling the bigger issues, most of which can be done without venturing into that political minefield again.

Under the newly announced provincial policy, N.B. District Education Councils are now free to secure a better deal on bus services for local ratepayers and to reinvest the savings where it counts – in the classroom. To suggest that the recent decision means the “status quo” remains in place is simply indefensible when the AIMS report demonstrated that shared administrative services, contracting out, and energy efficiencies could save New Brunswick taxpayers millions in the years ahead.

Leaving aside dual busing, my report (co-authored with Derek M. Gillis) revealed that the number of school buses in N.B. increased to 1,237 in 2014 from 1,156 in 2009, despite the fact that the total student population declined to 74,055 from 85,000 during that time. Unlike other provinces, over 90 per cent of the province’s school buses are owned and operated by the government with little or no integration or shared agreements with municipal transit services.  The entire system is ‘grant-driven’ without any real competition to help achieve better cost efficiencies.

New Brunswick student transportation costs, we found, were largely driven by capital replacement cost recovery and government employee contracts with little or no private contracting. Consolidating schools only compounds the problem by extending daily routes and piling-on additional, incremental busing costs.

schoolbusstopsignIf student transportation research in Ontario and Alberta are any guide, the absence of competitive bidding for bus contracts, over time, results in higher per student costs that take a bigger and bigger bite out of education budgets.  Since the late 1980s, leading Canadian school boards, beginning in Ottawa and York Region, have, on their own, created regional transportation authorities. Since 2006, all of Ontario’s 72 boards have integrated, shared bus services, managed by twenty-two “consortia” with a mandate to contain costs and achieve energy efficiencies.

Mounting provincial deficits and tightening education budgets suggest that New Brunswick and its school districts should look first to educational support services in pursuit of cost savings. There is much that can be achieved in student transportation reform without compromising student safety.

Combining government-run and contracted services and providing incentives to form joint transportation service authorities is a proven success, as demonstrated in both Alberta and Ontario. Once that is achieved, the harder work begins in implementing improved transportation cost management systems and a whole range of new business practices based upon the latest advances in data collection/analysis, route scheduling software, energy efficiency, and improved point-of-service daily operations.

We are now calling upon the N.B. government and school districts to act upon the following practical, no-nonsense recommendations: embrace a province-wide joint services strategy, permitting School Districts to jointly manage their own student transportation services; review potential cost efficiencies in rural busing and special education services; utilize the latest technology to improve route management and reduce duplication of services; adopt a ‘walkable schools’ plan encouraging active transportation; initiate two pilot student services consortia (urban and rural) to model best practice; and implement reliable performance metrics.  Once these initiatives are underway, authorize regular provincial audits to benchmark and track student transportation service levels.

Where does bilingualism begin for students in public education — at the doorstep or the school entrance? What’s the real impact of bilingual duality on the capacity of school districts to achieve cost and energy efficiencies? If separate transportation is official provincial policy, then is co-mingling on the sidewalks and bike trails subject to that same policy? Is New Brunswick alone in facing such public policy challenges? 

 

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? 

Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the regular classroom may be a worthy goal, but it makes teaching far more challenging and cannot satisfactorily meet the needs of all children.   A few Canadian provincial school systems, following the lead of New Brunswick, have elevated “inclusive education” to an exalted status. For many children and teens with severe learning disabilities or complex needs, it is not the most enabling learning environment. It’s also rendering today’s diverse classes, at certain times, nearly impossible for regular teachers to teach.

spedclasscompositionTeacher surveys identify class management as a fundamental problem and “class composition” as the biggest obstacle to professional satisfaction.  Building upon Canadian school research, it’s clear that special needs policy, designed by theorists, is not working and needs rethinking to achieve a better educational environment for teachers and students alike. That was the theme of my recent researchED presentation, October 29, 2016, in Washington, DC. 

Class size is a well-diagnosed and much studied question with much of the research driven by teacher unions. Back in September 2013, Gordon Thomas of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), used a class of 37 students as an example of the challenges facing stressed-out high school teachers. In his worst case scenario, out of the 37 students, four had learning disabilities, five were in transition from other provinces, one exhibited serious behavioural issues, three were repeating the course, seven were functioning below grade level, and one was chronically absent because of a dysfunctional home life.

In such overcrowded classes, Thomas asked, how can we expect teachers to provide constructive and rewarding learning experiences, let alone introduce innovative practices? Coping in such diverse classrooms goes far beyond class size and raises the hidden issue of “class composition.”

Most Special Education researchers concur that “smaller classes have the greatest positive impact on students with the greatest educational needs.” (OISE-UT/CEA, 2010). It is now clear that both class size and diversity matter.

spedintensivesupportspedovercrowdedteacherToday teachers try to adapt their teaching to address the individual needs of the learners in their regular classrooms. As the classroom becomes larger and more diverse, this task becomes increasingly onerous. All of this has obvious implications for inclusive education. The success of “Inclusion” is, in large measure, determined by the extent to which teachers have the necessary supports and services to be able to effectively integrate students with special educational needs into their classrooms and schools.

Class size reductions from K to 3 and possibly beyond can produce student achievement gains (Canadian Council on Learning 2005), provided that the total context is conducive to such improvement. Three critical factors have been identified:

1.Complementary policies and practice supporting higher student achievement (i.e., raised expectations, positive discipline, regular assessment, teacher PD);

2. Contradictory policies and practice that undermines the potential benefit of class size reductions (i.e., full inclusion, social promotion, student competencies gap, language challenges);

3. Rising class sizes at higher grade levels – from grades 7 to 12 (i.e., removal of class size caps, integration of learning disabilities and ELL students).

Class sizes have actually dropped in all Canadian provinces except British Columbia over the past 15 years. At the macro-economic level from 2001-o2 to 2010-11, student enrollment has dropped 6.5%, the number of educators rose 7.5%, the student-teacher ratio declined by 12.9%, and spending per pupil rose by 61.4%. Class size reductions and caps from K to Grade 3 or Grade 6 may explain the overall smaller class sizes.

In the Spring of 2011, the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (CTF) conducted a national teacher survey on the theme of The Teacher Voice on Teaching and Learning to seek input from across Canada on teacher concerns. The CTF survey provided a snapshot of what class size and composition looked like across the country. The survey secured responses from  nearly 3,800 teachers representing 9,894 classes in English and French schools.  The sample teacher pool was drawn from 12 participating CTF member organizations.

Class Size Analysis: Average class size was 21.3 students, ranging from 22.1 students for grades 4-8 to 19 students for junior kindergarten or kindergarten (JK-K). English schools (including French Immersion) had an average class size of nearly 22 students, while French as a first language schools had a slightly smaller average class size of just over 19 students.

spedavpergradelevelctfClass Size by Grade Level: Over a third of the classes for all grade levels combined contained 25 students or more (8.3% contained 30 students or more). For grades 4-8, nearly 39% of classes contained 25 students or more (6.5% contained 30 or more); for grades 9 and over, 40.3% of classes contained 25 students or more (13.5% – over 1 in 7 classrooms – contained 30 or more students); for grades 1-3, just over 14% of classes contained 25 students or more; for JK-K, nearly 12% of classes contained 25 students or more.

Average Number of Special Needs Students: Students with identified exceptionalities (i.e., designated behavioural problems or mental or physical disabilities, as well as other special needs students including gifted students); and English Language Learners and French Language Learners (defined as students whose first language differs from the school’s primary language of instruction, and requiring supports).  The average number of students with identified exceptionalities per class was 3.5, ranging from 3.8 students for grades 4-8 to 1.9 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten.

Class Composition – Grade 4 and Over: Students with identified exceptionalities accounted for 16.3% of total students in the surveyed classrooms, ranging from respective shares of 17.1% for grades 4-8 to 10% of students for junior kindergarten and kindergarten. Of classes surveyed, over 81% have at least one student with formally identified exceptionalities, and 27.7% contain 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities. In grades 4 and over, not only were class sizes generally larger but almost 1 in 3 (30.6%) classes contained 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities.

Students with Language Learning Challenges: The average number of English Language Learners and French Language Learners (ELL/FLL students) per class was 2.6. The prevalence was higher the lower the grade, ranging from 4.7 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten to 1.7 students for grades 9 and over. ELL/FLL students accounted for an average 12.2% of total students in the classroom, ranging from respective shares of 24.7% for junior kindergarten / kindergarten to 8.2% for grades 9 and over.

The CTF survey looked at students “identified” as Special Needs, but did not include students who were undiagnosed or those with other glaring needs such as students from low-income families (with poverty-related issues of hunger, illness, instability), students with mental health problems, or immigrant and refugee students.

spednbclassroomMy researchED 2016 Washington  presentation also delved into two Class Composition case studies – Inclusive Education in New Brunswick, 2006 to 2016, and Class Size and Composition in British Columbia, 2012 to 2016. In the case of New Brunswick, a province recently honoured by Zero Project for its “legally-binding policy of inclusion” in Feburary 2016, Guy Arsenault and the NBTA are now demanding a full Special Education review to secure “positive learning environments” and come to the aid of teachers forced to “don Kelvar clothing in the classrooms.”  Out west, in British Columbia, a five-week 2015 BCTF teachers’ strike has produced only meagre gains in containing class sizes, while more and more classes have four or more and seven or more Special Needs students.

The real life classroom is not only far more diverse, it’s increasing challenging to manage let alone teach anything substantive. Class Size based upon Student-Teacher Ratios has long been accepted and used in staffing schools, but its utility is now being questioned by front line teachers. Student diversity, driven by “Inclusion” and the growing numbers of severely learning-challenged and disadvantaged kids is the new normal. The rise of “Coddled Kids” and “Helicopter Parents” has compounded the challenges. Tackling Class Composition is emerging as the top priority in teacher-led school reform.

Why is class composition emerging as the biggest problem facing front line teachers?  Why do we continue to focus so much on simply reducing class sizes? What’s standing in the way of us tackling the ‘elephant in the room’ — class composition in today’s schools?