Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario, is among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against fidget spinners, the latest craze among children and teens world-wide. On May 23, 2017, he visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds. Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, the spinners had become a “major distraction” interfering with teaching and learning affecting everyone in the classroom.

FidgetSpinnerCloseUpThe North Bay principal’s letter to parents, issued May 24, 2017, directly challenged the claim of the commercial product’s marketers that a fidget spinner “helps people focus and concentrate.”  He was crystal-clear about the real “issues with this toy”: 1) it makes noise; 2) it attracts attention; 3) most kids require two hands to make it spin; and 4) it distracts the user and others. For this reason, it was “banned from the school and the day care” and “must remain in the student’s school bag at school.”  What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – it was driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.

Most Canadian school authorities and far too many principals were simply asleep at the switch, compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, New York State, Southern California, and New Zealand.  By May 10, 2017, 32 per cent of America’s 200 top rated high schools had banned the spinners from their premises. With the exception of a few Western Canadian school boards, provincial educational leaders seemed to be taken-in by the latest student pacifier and the pseudoscience offered in support of such panaceas. How and why did it get so advanced, and take so long, before a few courageous school principals saw fit to weigh in to put a stop to the classroom disruption?

Fidget spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.” They are one of a series of such tools, including fidget cubes, squishy balls, fuzzy rings, tangle puzzles, putty and even chews — colourful, tactile objects to meet the special needs of ASD children.  Fidget spinners, she adds, “can prevent kids from chewing on their fingers, from picking at their hands, picking at their clothes” and actually help them to concentrate more in class.

Serious problems arise when the fidget spinners are employed to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. One leading clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, but is not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms.  In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.

School authorities in Maritime Canada appear to have initially accepted the claims of the marketers and been swayed by their special education program consultants.  Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Shanker, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies.  In the region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order. New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms accepted spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their wiggle stools. In rural school communities such as Nova Scotia’s Shelburne and Pictou counties and towns such as Summerside, PEI, the craze popped up in schools totally unprepared with policies to deal with students fixated with the gadgets.

Prominent education critics and teacher researchers are now having a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of fidget spinners into today’s regular classrooms.  A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, finds little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.”  Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, sees “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warns parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.

British teacher Tom Bennett, founder of researchED, is more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in our schools.  The latest fad – fidget spinners – he sees as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.”  Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress.  Misdiagnoses, he claims, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.

“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett points out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “fidget spinners,” he adds, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”  In spite of the inflated claims of the marketers, “magic bullets and magic beans” won’t provide the solutions.

Why are today’s schools so susceptible to the inflated claims of marketers promoting the latest educational gadget?  Do popular inventions like the fidget spinner answer some inner need in today’s fast-paced, high anxiety, unsettled popular culture?  To what extent have Dr. Stuart Shanker and his student behaviour theorists made us more receptive to tools which are said to relieve stress and promote “self-regulation” in children?  Why do so many education leaders and school principals go along with the latest trend without looking deeper at its research-basis and broader impact? 

 

Advertisements

One of Canada’s provincial premiers, Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, has waded into the Catholic Separate School question and brought the issue of school choice, once again, to the fore.  In Late April 2017, he announced that, in direct response to a recent Court of the Queen’s Bench decision in the controversial Theodore Catholic School case, the province would be invoking the Charter “notwithstanding” clause to support the right of non-Catholics to attend the province’s Catholic schools.

A tiny local dispute, as is often the case, erupted into a  full-blown debate over the right of parents to choose the best school for their children.  It was sparked by the decision of 42 multi-denominational parents in the village of Theodore, fifteen years ago, to resist a public school closure and instead create a Catholic School Division and open their own publicly-funded Catholic school.

Premier Wall staked out his ground in defense of the right of parents to school choice encompassing public, separate and faith-based schools. It was a courageous decision given the complexity of the issue and the passions aroused by the Catholic question in public education.

Sorting out such a thorny educational-constitutional issue should not be left to the lawyers because it has far-reaching implications for parental school choice far beyond Saskatchewan.  That is why The National Post invited me to take a much closer look at the whole controversy.

The court decision to end funding for non-Catholics to attend such schools had great potential for massive disruption. Some 10,000 students and their parents province-wide were left in limbo facing the prospect of being forced out of their Catholic schools.

The Saskatchewan Catholic schools dispute is, for better or worse, a critical “test case” that may well determine the fate of the Catholic school option in Saskatchewan and perhaps elsewhere. It’s also about far more than the funding of Catholic schools in that province. School choice in Saskatchewan, as in Alberta and Ontario, rests, in many ways, on having parallel public and separate school systems, both in English and in French. Such options, freely accessible to everyone, provide more choice than is commonly recognized.

In spite of what look from the outside like uniform bureaucratic structures and curricula, such denominational and language options do allow for variations, particularly in core philosophy, academic focus, and student discipline.  One out of five Saskatchewan students (21.1 percent), 22.9 per cent of Alberta students, and 30.3 per cent of Ontario students were enrolled in fully-funded, principally Roman Catholic schools, in 2009-10, the most recent data.

Separate religiously oriented schools within the public education system not only offer choice but a measure of competition. Students and parents can opt for schools with provincially-approved religious instruction as an alternative to the predominantly secular, non-denominational public schools.

Saskatchewan is not the only province where the religious walls have recently come down. In many Catholic school districts across the three provinces, the relaxing of strict religious expectations and admittance of non-Catholics (or students of different faiths) has effectively expanded the range of choice, since such schools are no longer available exclusively to more religiously oriented families.

CharterSchoolCalgaryGirlsAlberta is hailed as Canada’s undisputed leader in the provision of a wide range of school choices. A February 2014 Fraser Institute report only bolstered that claim by demonstrating that Alberta offered six different publicly-funded options: regular public, francophone public, separate Catholic, separate francophone, separate Protestant, and charter schools.  The report’s principal author Jason Clemens noted that “Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system.”

Next to Alberta and Ontario, Saskatchewan offers the most school options: regular public, public francophone, separate Catholic, and separate Protestant schools. The continued vitality of one of those options is imperiled by that Theodore school court decision.

School choice should not be simply taken for granted. The vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have only one real choice. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of the total student population. About 2,600 First Nations students in Nova Scotia (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK) schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Public fears about charter schools in Alberta are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order— and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Under that province’s  1993 Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. Safeguards do need to be built-in to prevent a mass exodus and to provide some recourse in the case of under-performing schools.

Putting a stop to the removal of non-Catholics who have chosen to exercise their option of choosing an alternative to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ system is not only defensible, it’s advisable, especially in Saskatchewan. One can only hope that it derails any movement to further restrict parental choice in education.

What’s causing all the ruckus over the Saskatchewan separate school question?  Who gains when provinces move to “one big English language system” for all? How fundamental is the right to parental choice in Saskatchewan as well as Alberta and Ontario?  Should non-Catholics continue to have free, unimpeded access to Catholic separate schools?  Wherein lies the danger of broadening the range of choice in our provincial school systems? 

“All that glitters is not gold” is one of the better known English proverbs. It means that not everything that looks glittery and precious turns out to be.  That pearl of wisdom is also a tiny piece of true knowledge, found in Aesop’s Fables, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and it readily comes to mind when confronted with Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy‘s recent conceptual invention, New Pedagogies of Deep Learning.

Since the launch of its first installment, A Rich Seam, with Sir Michael Barber at Pearson Learning in London, UK, back in January 2014, Fullan and Langworthy have been preaching the new gospel of Deep Learning at education conferences around the English-speaking world. “New teaching partnerships between teachers and students are the essential foundations of effective new pedagogies,” they claim, and are “beginning to emerge as digital access opens the door to broader and more varied sources of content knowledge.”  These new pedagogies are capable of not only motivating “bored students” and “alienated teachers,” but “blowing the lid off” learning in the 21st century classroom.

The New Pedagogues funded by Pearson International, the world’s largest “learning corporation,” exude great faith in the power of learning technology. Fresh from Microsoft and its global research team, Langworthy sees “exciting things” happening in schools world-wide when teachers set aside  knowledge “content delivery” and engage students using “collaboration” facilitated by the latest technology. While Fullan’s latest research partner holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Boston University, she introduces herself  with the phrase “I am a learner” (rather than a teacher), and claims that A Rich Seam is “trying to put some substance and conceptual rigour” around the theory.

Fullan and Langworthy’s grand theory is heavy on imaginative thinking and incredibly light on content. Tapping into the “rich seam” of the new pedagogies involves “deep collaboration” to “learn from and with your students.”  Deep Learning seeks to develop what are termed Fullan’s Six Cs: character education, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, so, one is left to assume, the fundamentals of reading, writing and mental computation are just as passe as teaching content knowledge in the classroom.

The New Pedagogues, much like John Dewey and the old-school Progressives, tend to see factual knowledge in opposition to the kinds of abilities and thinking they seek to develop in students. While teaching isolated facts is clearly unhelpful, they go far beyond that in assuming that teaching facts is somehow opposed to teaching meaning and essential context. Indeed, as Daisy Christodoulou shows in Seven Myths about Education (2014), mastery of bodies of factual knowledge actually allow creativity, problem-solving and analysis to happen.

Exciting discoveries can happen spontaneously, but thinking well requires knowing facts.  That’s the considered view of one of America’s leading cognitive scientists, Daniel T. Willingham. Based upon cognitive science research over the past 30 years, knowing things actually facilitates deeper thinking and learning.  In Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), Willingham put it succinctly: “The very processes that teachers care most about –critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving –are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” So intertwined are they that one London English teacher, Joe Kirby, likens the development of knowledge and skills to a “double helix.”

Distinguishing between “deep” and “”surface” approaches to study is certainly not new and can be traced back to original empirical research in the 1970s.  A 2013 literature review of “deep and surface learning” by J.S. Atherton clarified the differences and provided a useful comparison chart.  Although learners may be classified as “deep” or “surface,” they are not necessarily attributes of individuals and are often found in combination with one another. They do correlate fairly closely with motivation, since “deep” tends to be associated with intrinsic motivation and “surface” with extrinsic. What is abundantly clear, however, is that knowing something is absolutely critical to “deep learning” and reflected in its first three characteristics: finding significance, relating previous knowledge to new knowledge, and relating knowledge from different courses. 

Michael Fullan’s The New Pedgaogies of Deep Learning may well turn out to be yet another 21st century learning illusion. He’s now riding high on global rocket fuel provided by Sir Michael Barber and Pearson International. It is well advanced in Fullan’s educational ‘sandbox’, the Ontario school system, where he commands seemly unlimited research dollars and seems to appear on every “educational leadership” conference program. After four decades of “new initiatives” now long-forgotten, it’s incredible to read his rousing January 2014 call for “new pedagogies” capable of unleashing “rich futures” where “students and teachers” are “always learning” and it makes the whole “system” go round.

What’s really driving Michael Fullan’s latest project funded by Pearson Learning? Is it possible to truly learn deeply without a sound foundation in factual knowledge and subject content?  How much of the New Pedagogies rests upon “21st century learning” conceptual thinking and false assumptions about the place of knowledge in student learning? 

Surveying the education public as well as ‘stakeholders’ for their opinion is the latest trend in Canadian K-12 education policy. Two recent Canadian education surveys conducted in Nova Scotia and Alberta provide some recent examples worthy of further discussion.  The recent release of Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s curriculum survey results (April 13, 2017) also demonstrates that unsuspecting citizens may need help in penetrating through the official spin to get at the actual results.

Facing deep divisions in P-12 education over future directions, and not inclined to follow the research evidence, provincial authorities are going, more and more, to soliciting public opinion utilizing surveys with pre-determined outcomes.  Upon closed scrutiny, the Alberta survey seems wholly designed to confirm intended curriculum directions.

Conducting public surveys is not without its risks. In the case of the 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey, a largely unvarnished, no-holds-barred instrument actually backfired on the Education Department. When the N.S. Review Committee headed by Myra Freeman polled 18,500 residents, the results published in October 2014 proved a real jolt and sent the provincial teachers’ union into a tizzy, mostly focused on being excluded from shaping the survey and serving on the commission.

One half of Nova Scotians, the survey found, were “not satisfied with the public school system” and teachers as well as parents identified plenty of reasons why. The report, Disrupting the Status Quo, generated very high expectations — never honoured — that major reform was on the way.  A three-month NSTU teacher work-to-rule in 2016-17 effectively sunk the quality education reform plan and generated a completely new set of teacher-driven demands for improvement in “working conditions.”

Alberta Education had no desire to see that pattern repeated.  Minister Eggen’s curriculum survey looked, and sounded, skewed in the Education Department’s preferred direction – toward more of what is loosely termed “21st learning.” In Alberta Education futuristic doubletalk, the overarching goal is to produce students who “are agents of change to create the globe that they want to be part of.”

The survey, conducted in October and November 2016 succeeded in attracting some 32,390 respondents, of whom only slightly over half (57%) might be classed as ‘outside the system.’The proposed directions were presented as amorphous curriculum “themes” where respondents are clearly led to certain conclusions. You are, for example, asked whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “Through learning outcomes curriculum should support the development of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.”  It is impossible to answer if you think basic numeracy and literacy should take precedence over the ill-defined futuristic skills.

Conducting the survey was also further confirmation of the provincial strategy to thwart mathematics education reform. With the Alberta “Back to Basics” petition, initiated by parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, AB, piling up 18,332 signatures, the survey attempts, in clumsy fashion, to override that hardened opinion.

The Department’s summary of responses does its best to conceal the extent of resistance to current K-12 Mathematics teaching and curricula.  Sifting through the Mathematics responses, teaching math facts, restoring step-by-step algorithmic thinking, limiting the use of computers, and mastering mental math far outweighed any preference for “21st century competencies” or its step-child, discovery math.

Instead of addressing these findings, Minister Eggen  ‘cherry-picked’ one example of the desire for ‘relevance’ – support for including financial literacy in grade 4 to 9 classes. That too is a clear sign that parents want their kids to be able to balance a set of sums.

Albertans’ written responses to the open-ended questions are the clearest indication of their true inclinations.  Out of the 15,724 respondents committed enough to do more than tick boxes, the largest segment, again (10 %), favoured refocusing on “math basics” and singled out “discovery math” as a problem. Combined with “learning the basics” (6%) and teaching practical skills (7%), one in four who made comments targeted the lack of rigour in the curriculum.

Judging from the wording of questions, the entire survey also skewed in the direction of student-centred teaching methods. That’s strange because the recent PISA 2015 global results report demonstrated conclusively that “explicit instruction” produced much better student results than “minimally-guided instruction.”

The inherent bias pops up elsewhere. “This survey,” it reported, “was intended to focus on the ‘what’ of current provincial curriculum not ‘how’ teachers teach it.”   Serious curriculum analysts know it’s now virtually impossible to separate the two in assessing program effectiveness.

Provincial education authorities were, at one time, given explicit mandates based upon either firm political policy positions or best practice research. When governments are lost and searching for direction, they may turn to the public to find their bearings. In the case of Alberta, it looks more like surveying for confirmation of the ‘educrats’ own pre-determined direction.

*A condensed version of this Commentary appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 2017.

Why do school systems survey the public?  Are Canadian provincial governments totally lost on K-12 education and simply looking for direction? Do our Education Department’s  harbour a secret agenda?  Or are they looking for public confirmation of pre-conceived plans for curriculum changes? 

Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament? 

School systems tend to be leery of trailbrazers, especially when it comes to instilling rigour and improved student behaviour.

One U.K. school head, Katharine Birbalsingh, stands out in this regard. Over the past three years, as headteacher at Michaela School in Brent, North London, she has earned a formidable reputation for her “no excuses” approach that has turned an inner city school serving largely ‘deprived children’ into a model of striving for excellence and ‘optimizing student behaviour.’  That reputation will only be enhanced by March 2017 U.K. Government report, Creating a Culture, authored by researchED founder Tom Bennett issuing a clarion call for school leadership to address the deplorable state of student behaviour in far too many state schools.

As the U.K.’s  leading behaviour expert, Bennett (much Younger and unrelated to me ) puts great stock in school leadership to set the course and  spearhead needed changes in tackling student behaviour and discipline, including setting high standards, being crystal clear about expectations, and having the courage to create effective “inclusion units” in higher level schools. Among his key recommendations are:

  • revise the certification for all headteachers, so that it includes a requirement to demonstrate knowledge of how to create a good behaviour culture;
  • introduce the use of a national standardised method that captures data on student behaviour which can then be used to compare schools;
  • fund schools to create internal inclusion units for direct intervention with a goal of returning special needs students to mainstream classes;
  • provide greater guidance for schools on how to manage and support the most challenging pupils.

Running through Bennett’s report is one consistent message: the importance of a strong culture of behaviour  initiated by the headteacher and running through the school.  It is also a message that needs to be heard on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada and the United States.

All of this leads us back to Birbalsingh and her Michaela School. “Are school leaders born or made?” is a question difficult to answer.  Yet, some educators with a courage of conviction like Birbalsingh do seem destined to lead.

Decried by some as Britain’s “strictest head teacher,” she is definitely breaking the mold and winning converts to the so-called “Michaela Way” of educating children. Born in 1973 in New Zealand, while her father York University professor Frank Birbalsingh was teaching there as a visiting professor, she was raised in Toronto, moved to Warwick, England at age 15, and went on to graduate from New College, Oxford in French and philosophy studies. Education was certainly a high priority in her Guyanese-Jamaican family, going back to her grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, former head of the Canadian Mission School in Better Hope, Guyana.

Birbalsingh was imbued with that same passion for education. Upon graduating,  she chose to teach and write (as ‘Miss Snuffy‘) about life in inner-city schools, producing a lively blog, To Miss With Love After reading E.D. Hirsch‘s classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999),  she was absolutely convinced about what was wrong with today’s schools and that public education should be about teaching children to pursue knowledge, not ‘learning skills.’  In October 2010, as head of a south London school, she spoke out at a British Conservative Party Conference, lambasting the education system exhibiting a “culture of excuses, of low standards” marooned in “a sea of bureaucracy” and contributing to “the chaos in our classrooms.” Forced to step down in the wake of the controversy, she bounced back in 2014 as the founding head of Michaela, one of London’s newest’free schools’ with alternative programs.

The Michaela Way, pioneered by Birbalsingh at the state-funded school, exemplifies, in many ways, the kind of model envisioned in Bennett’s student behaviour report. The school’s head is, to be sure, larger than life, in that school community.  Her book on the school, subtitled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers,” is definitely radical by today’s mushy liberal education standards. “This book should be banned,” says New Schools Network Director Toby Young, because if the parent of any teenager gets hold of it, they would demand the same for their son or daughter.

In her book’s Introduction, “Free at Last,” Birbalsingh outlines her school’s mission this way: “‘Where’s the rigour?’ was what my friend and inspiration Michaela used to shout. Michaela loved to teach from the front. She liberated herself in her classroom by closing her door so that she could get on with what worked. She dis things differently, and so do we.” 

The Michaela School rises to most of the challenges cited in Tom Bennett’s report by essentially clearing away most of the obstacles that “impede improvement.” The vision articulated by Birbalsingh and her carefully recruited staff of youngish teachers is not only clearly articulated but put into action in class, the lunchroom, and in the halls.  Since the school head is skeptical about current teacher certification programs, most of the teaching staff have advanced subject specialist degrees (without official teaching papers) and are taught proper teaching and classroom management skills through a mentorship training program. High expectations pop out at you in school assemblies, on wall posters, and in classroom routines. The school, under Birbalsingh, exhibits consistency from top -to-bottom in a fashion that is inspiring to visiting educators and parents.

Michaela is different from the vast majority of public high schools in three significant ways: the laser focus on student discipline, the traditional style of teaching, and the explicit character education. “We teach kindness and gratitude,” Birbalsingh says,” because we think that children should be kind to each other and and to their teachers and be grateful for everything we do for them.”  That’s her way of describing the consistent focus on educating for respect and responsibility instead of pandering, far too often, to student whims and desires.

Michaela School is only three years old, so it has yet to face the biggest test of all — it’s first full U’K. school inspection and, in two years time, its first GCSE examination results.  With 30 per cent of students in the Michael school district of Bent on free school meals, all eyes will be on how Michaela fares on those national school and student assessments.  If Tom Bennett’s report is any indication, it will pass the ‘student behaviour’  test with flying colours.

How important is school leadership in setting the tone and improving student behaviour in schools?  Does Tom Bennett’s prescription for U.K. schools have significance as a possible guide for Canadian and American public high schools? What can be learned from the success of Michaela School in inner city London?  Would the Canadian system benefit from having a model school like Michaela to help break the cycle of eroding student discipline? 

Developing a Growth Mindset in students and their teachers is perhaps the hottest trend in the education world outside of Canada. Originating in psychological science research conducted by Carol S. Dweck, starting in the late 1980s , and continuing at Stanford University, it burst upon the education scene in 2006 with the publication of Dweck’s influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  The next great thing, growth mindset, became an instant buzzword phrase in many education faculties and professional development sessions.

The so-called Mindset Revolution, like most education fads, has also generated its share of imitations and mutations. Two of the best known are  the Mathematical Mindset, promulgated by Mathematics educator Jo Boaler, and a more recent Canadian spin-off, The Innovator’s Mindset, the brain-child of George Couros, a division principal of  Teaching and Learning with Parkland School District, in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. While Growth Mindset 1.0, got little traction in Canada, the second generation iteration dreamed up by Couros is increasingly popular among technology-savvy Canadian and American educators.

CarolDweckBannerLegions of professional educators and teachers in the United States, Britain, and Australia, have latched onto GM theory and practice with a real vengeance. One reliable barometer of ‘trendiness,” the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, Edutopia, provides a steady stream of short vignettes and on-line videos extolling the virtues of GM in the classroom. The growing list of Growth Mindset pieces @Edutopia purport to “support students in believing that they can develop their talents and abilities through hard work, good strategies, and help from others.”

What is the original conception of the Growth Mindset?  Here is how Carol Dweck explained it succinctly in the September 22, 2015 issue of Education Week: “We found that students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.”

GrowthMindsetModelDweck’s theory of Growth Mindsets gained credibility because, unlike most educational ‘fads,’ it did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in case studies with students in the schools. Leading education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings and applied them to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment.  He adopted this equation: Talent = Hard Work + Persistence (A Growth Mindset) and offered this endorsement: “The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

Ten years on, cracks appeared in the Growth Mindset movement when some of the liveliest minds in education research began to probe more deeply into the theory, follow-up studies, and the supposed evidence of student success. An early skeptic, Disappoined Idealist, hit a nerve with a brave little commentary, December 5, 2014, wondering whether the Growth Mindset described a world as we wanted it to be, rather than one as it is, and likened it to “telling penguins to flap harder( and they would be able to fly like other birds).  Self-styled ‘education progressives’ have taken their cue from American writer Alfie Kohn who weighed in with a widely-read Salon commentary in which he argued that Dweck’s research had been appropriated by “conservative” educators trying to “fix our kids” when we should be “fixing the system.”

The Growth Mindset ‘magic dust’ is wearing thin in the United Kingdom. British education gadfly David Didau,The Learning Spy, initially “pretty psyched” by Dweck’s theory, has grown increasingly skeptical over the past year or so. In a succession of pointed commentaries, he has punched holes in the assumption that all students possess unlimited “growth potential,” examined why more recent GM interventions have not replicated Dweck’s initial results, questioned whether GM is founded on pseudoscience, and even suggested that the whole theory might be “bollocks.”

Intrepid Belgian education researcher, Pedro De Bruyckere, co-author of Urban Myths About Learning and Education,  has registered his concerns about the validity of research support, citing University of Edinburgh psychologist Timothy Bates’ findings. Based upon case studies with 12-year-olds in China, Bates found no evidence of the dramatic changes in Dweck’s earlier studies: “People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.”

For much of the past two years, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie have been alerting researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what is termed a false growth mindset” in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as Britain and the United States. Too many teachers and parents, they point out, have either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept, reducing it to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it’s educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.”

GrowthMindsetFalsityDweck’s greatest fear nowadays is that Growth Mindset has been appropriated by education professionals to reinforce existing student-centred practices and to suit their own purposes. That serious concern is worth repeating: ” It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement.” In a December 2016  interview story in The Altantic, she conceded that it was being used in precisely that way, in too many classrooms, and it amounted to “blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not.”

A “false growth mindset” arises, according to Dweck, when educators use the term too liberally and simply do not really understand that it’s intended to motivate students to work harder and demonstrate more resilience in overcoming setbacks. She puts it this way:  “The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.” Far too many growth mindset disciples, Dweck now recognizes, reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” in the learning process and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”

One of Dweck’s most prominent champions, Jo Boaler, may be contributing to the misappropriation of Growth Mindset theory in her field.  As an influential Stanford university mathematics education professor, Boaler is best known as an apostle of constructivist approaches to teaching Mathematics in schools. She saw in Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory confirmation that a “fixed mindset” was harmful to kids convinced that they “can’t do Math.” It all fit nicely into her own conception of how children learn Math best – by exploration and discovery in classrooms unleashing childrens’ potential. It became, for Boaler, a means of addressing “inequalities” perpetuated by “ability groupings” in schools. It also served to advance her efforts to “significantly reposition mistakes in mathematics” and replace “crosses” with “gold stars” and whole-class “opportunities for learning.”

The Canadian mutation, George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset, seeks to extend Carol Dweck’s original theory into  the realm of technology and creativity. Troubled by the limitations of Dweck’s model and  its emphasis on mastery of knowledge and skills, he made an “awesome” (his word) discovery –that GM could be a powerful leadership tool for advancing “continuous creation.” In his mutation of the theory, the binary “fixed” vs. “growth” model morphs into a more advanced stage, termed the “innovator’s mindset.” In his fertile and creative mind, it is transmogrified into a completely new theory of teaching and learning.

GrowthMinsetCourosModelTaking poetic licence with Dweck’s research-based thesis, Couros spins a completely different interpretation in his fascinating professional blog, The Principal of Change:

As we look at how we see and “do” school, it is important to continuously shift to moving from consumption to creation, engagement to empowerment, and observation to application. It is not that the first replaces the latter, but that we are not settling for the former. A mindset that is simply open to “growth”, will not be enough in a world that is asking for continuous creation of not only products, but ideas. “

Promising educational theories, even those founded on some robust initial research, can fall prey to prominent educators pushing their own ‘pet ideas’ and pedagogical theories. While a 2016 Education Week report demonstrates the GM initiatives produce mixed results and British education researchers are having a field day picking apart Carol Dweck’s research findings, another version of her creation is emerging to make it even harder to assess her serious case studies being replicated around the world.

Which version of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory and practice are we assessing – the original conception or the “false” conception?  How and why did an educational theory intended to motivate students, instill a work ethic, and help kids overcome obstacles get so debased in translation into classroom practice?  Is the fate of the Growth Mindset indicative of something more troubling in the world of education research?