Tag Archives: Society

#G2EChat Question 1: Recap

29 Sep

On September 28th I invited anyone interested to join me online and participate in the Ministry of Education’s “From Great to Excellent” public consultation process. Over 4 weeks we’ll consider all seven questions, discuss them and prepare something for submission to The Ministry. This is my effort at capturing some of that discussion:

We started our first G2EChat with a restated version of the first question:

The first response identified that learning skills are what students need to be successful, not content knowledge, a thread that was supported throughout the discussion:

We also recognized that there’s a tension between meeting the needs of students now and preparing them for their future:

And that this ‘future’ is increasingly uncertain:

We acknowledged that curriculum needs to support the view that content is really just a vehicle for learning these important learning skills and in Ontario, this change is starting to happen:

But the curriculum needs to continue to evolve to a point where traditional subject divisions are less important than student passion:

After 30 minutes of discussion these were the responses submitted to Question 1.  Here is the complete discussion in its entirety.

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Teaching Lessons From The Wire

16 Jul

The Wire may be the greatest TV show of all time. It’s included in most “top five”  lists and  was anointed number one by Entertainment Weekly when they published their list of  The Greatest TV Shows of All Time in June of 2013.

The irony of this popular acclaim isn’t lost on long-time fans of The Wire because for years it seemed that this amazing show was destined to be ignored by most TV viewers. When the show aired (2002-2008 on HBO) it had famously low ratings and despite being critically lauded never won an Emmy award. Creator and “show runner” David Simon attributed this to “…the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast”.

The Wire differs from many TV shows by having a complex, multi-layered plot that makes comment on modern society.  TV critics compare it to the best works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the way it uses narrative to explore social problems, especially the problems of urban poor in North America. One of the issues explored at length (mostly in season 4) is the role of schools and the education system in perpetuating many of  these problems.

I’ve watched The Wire multiple times and feel it has a lot to say about education and teaching. Here are five lessons I’ve spotted:

  1. Juking The Stats: One of the themes through all 60 episodes is the how politicians and bureaucrats rely on statistics to justify policy decisions. The Baltimore police department is concerned not with solving crimes, but rather with making sure that crime statistics show they’re doing their job. The emphasis on statistics changes how they approach their job. In season 4 Roland Pryzbylewski, a detective who becomes a teacher (as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns did) discovers that things are much the same in public schools. I’m always a little surprised by how accurate a depiction this scene is of what happens in schools.

The Lesson: Test scores aren’t about learning, they’re about politics, and as such they make learning in our schools worse.

  1. The King Stay The King: Despite our efforts the hierarchy of societies doesn’t change much. Drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches ‘corner boys’ Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. They want to know how a pawn can become a king and win. D’Angelo explains that no matter what, a pawn can never become a king, just like in real life.

The Lesson: We may see education as a path for students to move out of poverty, but the opportunities are few and the chances are slim. Often in society “…the king stay the king” no matter what we do or how hard we try.

  1. It’s All In The Game– The drug trade subculture, as depicted in The Wire, is referred to as “the game”. People do horrible, awful things to each other in pursuit of their goals but justify it as being ‘all in the game’. It makes sense within the rules and codes of the subculture. Similarly schools are subcultures, and there are many things in schools that don’t make sense outside that subculture.

The Lesson: Schools are separate places with separate rules. Sometimes there’s a disconnect for students between the world of their school and the world outside. They might be from different ethnic culture or economic circumstances. We need to recognize and allow for the fact that for many students schools don’t make sense and are disconnected from the ‘real world’ they and their families live in.

  1. Caring When It Isn’t Your Turn (paraphrased): Police detective and anti-hero Jimmy McNulty points out in the first episode of The Wire the dangers in taking on a challenge when you don’t have to. Detectives who try to ‘change the world’ end up feeling frustrated and ineffective. Addressing complex problems is difficult and requires a collective effort.

The Lesson: There’s a long list of outside factors that affect a child’s learning (poverty, family circumstances, previous learning, etc.). If we try to ‘fix’ all of them we end up spread too thin and unable to do focus on where we’re most effective. We need to accept students as they are and do our best to help them move them forward, and not get distracted by the multiplicity of things we can’t control. Care deeply about the things that really matter.

  1. “The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”: Police lieutenant Cedric Daniels has been assigned to investigate a crime neither he nor his superiors want investigated. He feels he’s in a ‘no win’ situation when his wife points out to him that this is only true if he accepts success as others have defined it. If he thinks ‘outside the box’ and redefines the situation there’s a way forward.

The Lesson: Many outside the system try to define what success means in education. Politicians define it in terms of test scores and graduations rates. Some educators find themselves in difficult situations with inadequate resources to meet those external definitions of success. When faced with this educators should redefine what success in the classroom means to them. Perhaps it’s progress or maybe it’s making a difference to a student in a non-academic way. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that “success” is defined in ways that are personally meaningful.

What Are Schools For?

8 Jul

In her “Education Memo” Simona Choise asks “Do Employers Belong in High School?“. Canada introduces students to vocational education much later than others and countries such as “Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovenia” have partnerships that allow students to begin vocational or apprenticeship training before leaving school.

It’s a pressing issue as the recent economic downturn has left millions of young people unemployed or underemployed and left politicians and policy makers scrambling for solutions. But it raises the bigger question of whether it’s schools’ role in our society to train students for employment?

Ask someone why we send kids to school and their answer will accurately predict their position on most other educational issues. Education and schooling are often seen as synonymous, but they are not the same. Education begins at birth (and maybe before) and persists until we die. Teachers may express frustration that students can’t or won’t learn, when what they mean is that students aren’t learning what they want them to. What they mean is that some students won’t or can’t “school”.

Schooling is different from education. It’s process of formal education designed to achieve a specific purpose. In “The End of Education” Neil Postman argues that the main purpose of schools is to create a cohesive society by communicating a shared narrative. He argues that  schools no longer do this and schools and society are poorer because of it.

Mortimer Adler suggests that there are three main objectives of modern schooling:

  1. Citizenship: To equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to participate fully as members of society. Since all citizens can participate in decisions we should try to equip them with what they need to make good decisions. Citizens should be able to think critically and effectively express their opinions. This is what Postman suggests was the original ‘narrative’ of schooling. 
  2. Self-Actualization: To equip students to follow their dreams and achieve their potential. Learning is a life long process and schools should give students the skills and opportunities they need to pursue their hopes and dreams.
  3. Preparation for Work: To prepare students for their economic future. Students should emerge from school with a clear career path and skills that allow them to support themselves and their family and contribute economically to society.

These objectives aren’t exclusive. A student can be educated to be a good citizen, self-actualized and ready for work. Conflict arises, however, when we must choose which objective is most important. If we have to choose which of them to emphasize, which one comes first? Teaching cursive writing may be useful, but if it isn’t required for employment should schools continue teaching it? Should schools take from developing language and math skills and instead devote it to civics or discussing current issues?

The gap between those who think schools’ main function is to prepare students for work and those who have other, “loftier” goals is the great divide in educational discourse. Many educators are attracted to the profession by the thought that they are making the world a better place. They see schools as places for students to better themselves, maximize their potential and go out to make the world better. Other are dumbfounded by this “wooly headed idealism”. What the point of being self-actualized if you can’t feed yourself?

The balance between these objectives shifts over time and responds to changing conditions. During times of economic prosperity we don’t worry about job preparation as much. As unemployment rises there are calls for schools to do a better job in preparing students for work by teaching the basics.

The focus of our school system is increasingly preparing students for work. In early July the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) met in Nunavut. Their statement after their meeting began:

The best way to address Canada’s growing need for an educated and skilled labour force and ensure a sustained economic recovery is to expand education opportunities and improve learning outcomes in early childhood learning and development, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, adult learning and skills development.

No mention about improving citizenship or self-actualization. Increasingly, non-essential “employment” skills are marginalized or removed from the curriculum. Less arts and physical education and more language and math. Students aren’t taught cursive writing because it’s not required by the curriculum.

Most of the discussion about education policies and practices for the last 20 years (and perhaps before that) has been about this central issue. What are schools for? Rather than discussing the relative merits of standardized testing or various instructional methods or the many other proxy debates let’s begin to address the real issue. It’s time to open up the debate and talk about what schools are for and why we have them. It’s a debate that should include everyone, because our views will have a huge impact on our collective future.

Shhhhh!! Ontario’s “Secret” Public Consultation into Education

4 Jun

Next Phase

June 30th 2013 marks the end of the most turbulent year in Ontario Education in over a decade. The imposition of Bill 115 has, for better or worse, politicized education in Ontario. Parents, students, educators and members of the general public are discussing education issues with passion and conviction.

Now would be a perfect time to tap into that engagement and open a dialogue about what Ontarians really want from their education system. What do we value? How should it be working? Coincidentally there WILL be a public consultation about Ontario education, but if the Ministry of Education really wants to hear from all Ontarians they have a funny way of showing it.

On May 30th Liz Sandals, The Minister of Education, “announced” that there will be a consultation into ‘building the next phase in Ontario’s education strategy’. Announced is an overstatement, because news of this ‘public consultation’ wasn’t widely shared. Whispered is more apt. There was no press conference and no press release. A search on the Ministry of Education’s website will not uncover any mention. However some Ontarians got personal invitations to participate (hint: not me).

On June 1st I got the digital equivalent of a brown manilla envelope stuffed into my e-mail box directing me to a dusty page on the Ministry of Education’s website that lists ministry policy memos. Posted there is a letter from the minister to ‘education stakeholders’ and a document titled “Building The Next Phase in Ontario’s Education Strategy” that explains what a great job the government is doing with the education system, how the public consultation process will take place and giving seven ‘key questions’ to guide the discussion. Stakeholders are encouraged to ponder these questions over the summer and be ready to discuss in the Fall.

I was confused. As an educator, a parent of three children in the education system and a writer about education don’t I count as a ‘stakeholder’? If not me, who does count and why?

After reading the document a few questions and reflections coalesced:

  • Why The Secrecy? If the ministry is truly interested in “…feedback from a broad range of individuals and groups…” why wasn’t the process publicly announced? I understand the document was sent to trustees and directors of education. Why? What about everybody else?

  • What is an “education stakeholder”? I see everyone as an education stakeholder. Our collective future depends on our public education system so isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to have the best possible system? Apparently the ministry sees education stakeholders as a few select people on their mailing list. If only there was some sort of mass information system they could use to inform everyone about the consultation process. Hmmm…

  • Why Do We Have EQAO? For anyone who asked me this question over the past month, you need wonder no more. The main function of EQAO is to allow the ministry to make statements like this:

“Ten years ago, only 68% of our students were graduating, and only 54% of children in grades 3 and 6 were achieving at the provincial standard in literacy and numeracy. Today, those numbers stand at 83% and 70% respectively, and they continue to climb.”

  • Any discussions about using EQAO to improve learning is merely window dressing. EQAO is a tool that allows the government to show how well (or in the case of the Mike Harris government how badly) public education is doing. EQAO scores are the primary evidence of how Ontario’s public education system has improved. And we know how accurate and reliable EQAO scores are.
  • The Process: The document discusses wanting to hear from “…education stakeholders, parents, students and members of the business, research and innovation, not-for-profit and Aboriginal communities…” and mentions “groups and individuals”. However later it mentions the minister will be holding consultations in Toronto for provincially focussed groups and regionally for regionally focussed groups. It also mentions that there will be some ‘digital only’ sessions and an opportunity to participate via e-mail. It seems as if the minister is really only interested in meeting with groups. That’s too bad. Groups homogenize opinion and reduce the breadth of possible input. There’s many individuals who want to make their voice heard and not have to funnel it through an organization to give it legitimacy.

The Seven Questions:

Here are the seven guiding questions for the public consultation with my initial reflections:

1) What are the skills, knowledge and characteristics students need to succeed after they have completed school, and how do we better support all learners in their development?

The first question in our education strategy is about preparing students to be workers. It could be reworded as “Are we producing good future employees?”. Is this really where we should be starting? Is this the first thing we should be considering about our education system? Not maximizing students’ potential or helping them to fulfill their dreams but will they meet the province’s economic needs. I’m disappointed.

2) What does student well-being mean to you, and what is the role of the school in supporting it?

I’m glad to see this as part of the discussion. We need to better address student’s mental and physical health needs and understand their impact on learning. We don’t educate children in isolation and an unhealthy child is not able to learn well.

 3) From your perspective, what further opportunities exist to close gaps and increase equity to support all children and students in reaching their full potential?

 Another critical discussion we need to be having. We must move away from a system of equality to one of equity. In an education system where resources are limited, why are we directing the same resources to all students regardless of need? Students aren’t equal so why do we fund them that way? A student from a middle or high income family doesn’t need the same level of support as one from a low-income family. We need to address this on a provincial, systemic basis. I’d like to see the introduction of a weighted funding formula for education in Ontario.

4) How does the education system need to evolve as a result of changes to child care and the implementation of full-day kindergarten?

This confuses me. I assumed that given the commitment and money spent on Full Day Kindergarten there was some sort of long-term plan in place. This suggests a sort of “Oh, we’ve got FDK, now what?” approach. That’s concerning.

5) What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?

This should be the first question, not the fifth. This is the mission statement of a progressive education system. A foundational idea. If we can accomplish this, everything else will fall into place. Bravo!!

6) How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning?

This is the mandatory Ed Tech question. It is now illegal to discuss education unless you mention technology once. I suspect this is something The OPSBA pushed hard for at the round table seeing as they’d spent money on their new report. I support the vision presented but ask the same question as when the report was published. Who is going to pay for it? Digital technology should be an essential part of our education system but it requires an investment and nobody seems willing to make that investment. If you want to put tech in schools you’ve got to show me the money.

7) What are the various opportunities for partnership that can enhance the student experience, and how can they benefit parents, educators and our partners too?

Not sure what this really is but it feels like a discussion of how can we involve private enterprise more in public education. The reason we seek partnerships is that we want to do things but don’t have the necessary resources. We must remember that, as the old saying goes, “There’s no free lunch”. Enterprises we enter into partnership with aren’t primarily interested in students or their learning. They’re interested in making money. Effective partnerships result from an exchange of value. Let’s be clear and aware of what we’re giving up and what we’re getting in return and remember it’s our job to put students first.

What’s Missing?

Some questions I’m surprised not to see there:

  • What is the role of standardized testing in Ontario’s education system?
  • What is the role of school boards and trustees in Ontario’s education system?
  • What is a fair and effective system of collective bargaining in Ontario’s education system?
  • What role should faith play in Ontario’s public education system?

Those are my first, off the cuff, reactions and responses. I’ll keep discussing and pontificating and prepare myself to participate fully in the government’s “public consultation”. I urge all Ontarians to do likewise. It’s time for an “Education Spring” in Ontario. This may be our opening.

Boyz II Men: Hiring Male Teachers Won’t Improve Boys’ Learning

23 Feb

It’s a common mistake. We understand that schools and education can be used to change society and try to solve a social problem through education. We ask educators to change the near future and blame them when they don’t.

What we forget is that schools don’t just remake society, they also reflect it. Schools aren’t islands, they’re microcosms, connected to their communities. We ask schools to solve childhood obesity, forgetting that families control most of a student’s diet and activity. We keep schools safe with bullet proof glass and armed guards but forget about the violent perpetrators sitting in the classrooms.

The Toronto District School Board has fallen into this fractured thinking. Their recently released memo indicated that the board will give preference to certain groups when recruiting new teachers, and among those preferred groups are males. This precipitated cries of outrage from women and led others to ponder whether the education system is too ‘feminized’.

The logic seems to be that since schools are dominated by women, male teachers are needed to ‘connect’ with the many struggling boys and raise achievement. Male teachers are familiar with this thinking. I wish I was paid for every struggling boy assigned to my class because they needed a ‘strong male role model’. I’d be a rich man. Why don’t the struggling boys ever need more mothering? Why don’t any of the kind, well-adjusted boys or girls need male role models? But I digress…

That the education system is dominated by women is beyond dispute. Over 80 % of elementary teachers and over 50% of secondary teachers are female. I don’t know why this disparity exists and it confuses and amazes me that it’s never been addressed. Male dominated professions are targeted and women recruited into them but teaching remains female dominated and has for decades (centuries?). My local federation (and I assume most others) have committees with budgets dedicated to supporting and elevating women in the profession but no similar program for men. Huh? The current situation is clearly inequitable, and if the goal of the TDSB hiring practice was merely to redress this inequity, I’d understand it.

The suggestion, however, that hiring male teachers will improve the achievement of boys or address the feminization of the educations system is clearly misguided.

Teachers provide opportunities for students to learn, and foster and support that process. Their ability to do that has very little to do with gender. Boys can and do learn very successfully from female teachers and girls from male teachers. The gender of a teacher is irrelevant for the vast majority of students. What most students need are good teachers of any gender.

The feminization of the education system is also, I think, beyond dispute, but this shift isn’t isolated to education. Traditionally “male” behavior is no longer socially acceptable, an increasing number of boys are raised without fathers (a third of all children now) and more women are taking leadership roles. This represents a significant shift in values and attitudes over the last few decades.

In many ways young boys are getting squeezed by the shift. They get in trouble for ‘rough play’ despite the fact that active play is normal for boys. Many boys have few or no male role models to guide them as many traditional avenues for boys to connect with non-parental male role models are declining or disappearing altogether (extended family, community, organized activities, etc.). There are fewer and fewer ways for boys to learn how to be male.

The feminization of the education system is simply a reflection of a wider societal shift. If we’re interested in improving the achievement of boys it will take a broader effort than just hiring more male teachers. We need greater understanding and acceptance of what it means to be male and a greater appreciation of the value of male role models in all areas of boys’ lives. Unless we restore some balance to our current attitudes towards gender the problems of boys will only get worse.

Where Are The Beautiful Learning Spaces?

8 Jan

Rome1

In the summer of 2011 I had a glorious trip to Rome. It was hot (I love it) and I was alone, so I got to travel in my preferred mode. I set out each morning with a vague plan and mostly wandered around searching for cool stuff.

I saw breath-taking historical sites like The Coliseum. I ambled through museums and art galleries. I saw incredible archaeological sites and ate great food. I discovered that I really like fountains 🙂

Once home, I reflected on the trip, and was surprised by how much time I spent in churches. Rome is full of amazing churches packed with renaissance art, and it seemed that around every narrow cobbled street corner was yet another undiscovered gem housing something by Bernini or Raphael.

I’m not a religious person so there was no spiritual dimension to this for me, but each day I found myself wandering church to church, slack-jawed again at the beauty, gazing at statues and madly reading the history of “St Somebody of the Something”.

I could easily understand the inspiration a believer drew from these incredible buildings. And I’m a jaded citizen of 2013 who isn’t impressed by much anymore. Casting back hundreds of years its easy to see why the church was the dominant institution of the time.

I pondered the power of buildings to inspire us and wondered what the implications of this are for education. People visit churches on vacation because they tell us about the places we visit, their history, culture and what they value.  I wondered what our schools say about us and whether they too could be places of inspiration.

Typically schools are utilitarian buildings, “factory like”. Their function is to support the learning happening within those walls in the most cost-effective manner and facilitate the production of graduates who are ready to take part in society.

As society is rapidly changing so is the function of schools. The need for the standardized production of workers is fading. Increasingly schools are being asked to produce citizens who think creatively, know and follow their passion and change the world with innovative ideas. If the function of schools is changing, shouldn’t the form be changing too?

I’ve never heard of anyone travelling to Rome, or the other great cities of the world, and touring its schools. I’m a bit of a “school geek” and I’ve never done it. Why? Are there no great ‘Cathedrals of Learning’?

I don’t believe that. I think that there are beautiful, inspiring learning spaces in the world. Spaces that educators would see and know that this was the pinnacle, something to aspire to.

But where are they? Where is the Sistine Chapel of Education? The Blue Mosque of Learning? The St Paul’s Cathedral of Understanding?

I want to find them and hold them up as inspiring models. To show what’s possible in a learning space and encourage educators to think more creatively about the spaces we create for learning. I want to use them as we go forward and remake our learning spaces to better meet the changing needs of our students.

Tough Times For Teachers, But Also Some Hope

18 Dec

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
― Thich Nhat HanhPeace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

It’s a tough time to be a teacher.  It’s been a long year.

We’ve had major strikes by teachers all over the world: ChicagoVictoria (Australia) British ColumbiaOntarioZimbabweSouth AfricaUnited Kingdom, etc. Teachers have waged a battle against the encroachment of standardized testing and unfair teacher evaluations systems and public opinion of teaching as a professions seems very low. It’s led some to call this a “War on Teachers“.

Then last week we had the unspeakable horrors and incredible acts of heroism of Sandy Hook.

As I prepared to greet students on Monday morning I realized I’d not only need to reassure them that school was a safe place to be, but also confirm that school would be closed because of a strike. The real world was “shaking the snow globe” of our classroom and I didn’t like it.

Being an effective teacher is challenging, even at the best of times. When “the world” conspires to make it harder I question what we were doing and why. I’m good at looking for the light inside the darkness, but it seems we’ve arrived at a very bleak place.

Sometime today, as I walked with a picket sign, the clouds cleared and a path opened.

We need to make this world better. A place where people are respected and valued, get what they need and don’t live in fear. The most effective and honorable way I know to help make that happen is for me to be a teacher. To help my students to become the best they can so they can go out and create that world.

I’m rededicated to that. The hope that we can will sustain me.