Content knowledge is the foundation of quality education

September 1, 2017

Published by the Waterloo Record

Content-rich instruction may not be as flashy as some of the educational alternatives but it’s a whole lot more effective.

Educators have long debated the importance of specific content knowledge in the curriculum. Progressive educators generally favour a non-content-specific learning process. Traditional educators say all students should master a defined body of knowledge.

The 21st century learning movement, with its emphasis on non-content-specific skills, such as critical thinking and creativity, is the latest manifestation of the progressive approach. A number of provinces — notably Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario — are making substantial curriculum changes to reflect the priorities of the 21st century learning movement. If this trend continues, content knowledge will get less emphasis in schools.

This shift away from content knowledge should give all Canadians cause for concern because such knowledge is essential in all subject areas and at all grade levels. There are several reasons why.

First, content knowledge is needed for reading comprehension. Give students an article to read about a topic they know nothing about and they’ll struggle to understand it. But they’ll have little difficulty reading an article or book when they possess background knowledge about the topic. The more they already know, the more effectively they can read and understand. Reading comprehension depends on background knowledge.

Second, content knowledge makes critical thinking possible. In many schools, the development of critical thinking skills is considered more important than the acquisition of specific content knowledge. However, this overlooks the fact that critical thinking can’t take place in the absence of specific content knowledge.

As a case in point, consider the recent proposal by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools. Is this a good idea or not?

In order to think critically about this question, you need to know a lot of things about John A. Macdonald and the cultural context he lived in. Macdonald is considered a Father of Confederation because of the very important role he played in bridging the divide between anglophones and francophones in mid-19th-century Canada. He also spearheaded the construction of the CPR railroad, which brought additional provinces into Confederation, and fiercely protected our country from American military aggression. These are significant accomplishments.

At the same time, Macdonald was a deeply flawed man. He drank too much, took bribes from railroad companies, brazenly handed out plum patronage jobs to his political cronies, and created a residential school system that harmed many Indigenous people. These flaws cannot be ignored. Rather, they must be weighed against his accomplishments.

People can’t think critically about something they know nothing about. While subject-specific content knowledge doesn’t guarantee critical thinking, it’s a prerequisite for critical thinking to take place.

Finally, content knowledge empowers students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Far too many students come to school from low socio-economic homes where they haven’t had the same learning opportunities as their more affluent classmates. They enter school at a significant disadvantage. However, schools can largely compensate for this gap by ensuring that all students receive content-rich instruction from an early age. Content-rich instruction is key to empowering students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Protecting content knowledge in schools begins with provincial education departments. Instead of reducing or downplaying the subject content, those who write curriculum guides must ensure that content at all grade levels is substantial and logically sequential. Whether the subject is math, science, English language arts or social studies, there’s no excuse for providing teachers with nearly content-free curriculum guides.

At the local level, superintendents and principals should set a tone of support for content-rich instruction.

Students deserve the best education teachers can provide. Knowledge is powerful, and good teachers know how to make their subjects come alive. By restoring knowledge to its rightful place, we can help ensure that all students receive a top-quality education.

Improve teacher working conditions by dumping bad ideas

February 15, 2017

Published in The Telegram (St. John’s)

Newfoundland and Labrador teachers are stressed. In a recent presentation to the Premier’s Task Force on Improving Education Outcomes, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association presented compelling data, both scientific and anecdotal, showing that the working conditions for classroom teachers are not good.

Teachers have classes of many students with severe behavioral problems, significant cognitive disabilities and diverse academic skills. With only limited support, teachers find it difficult to provide adequate instruction. They are pressured to develop multiple lesson plans for each class to accommodate the variety of individual needs.

Frankly, this expectation is unrealistic — it sets teachers up for failure.

Over the last 30 years, Newfoundland and Labrador, like other provinces, has moved to an inclusive education model. In principle, this makes sense. Students deserve to be educated with their peers. While some students require specialized support, there are good reasons to include all students in regular classrooms to the greatest degree possible.

However, problems arise when faulty educational theories are pushed on teachers who have little choice but to comply. The worst, without a doubt, is that teachers should replace structured, whole-class teaching with project-based discovery learning. Even though there is a wealth of evidence supporting traditional teaching techniques, school administrators, Department of Education officials and Faculty of Education professors often push an ideological agenda against traditional methods.

Interestingly, traditional classrooms are exactly what many students with learning disabilities benefit from the most. A structured classroom with desks facing the front and a clear and focused lesson delivered by a competent teacher is an excellent environment in which to learn. Instead, teachers are told to seat their students in groups, facing each other, and let them learn together at their own pace.

This is a recipe for disaster, particularly in classrooms with students who have behavioral challenges.

Differentiated instruction is a fad often pushed on teachers. Based largely on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, differentiated instruction tells teachers to adapt their lessons to the individual learning styles of each student. While this sounds good in theory, it falls apart in practice since it is impossible for teachers to design multiple effective lessons for each course they teach every single day.

What ends up happening is teachers divide their classes into groups and try to give mini-lessons to each of these small groups, while hoping that the remaining students remain focused enough on their independent assignments to not cause too much distraction. It is a horrendously inefficient way to teach and it creates an impossible workload for teachers. Teachers burn out in short order. To make matters worse, there is no empirical evidence that differentiated instruction actually works.

For example, Bryan Goodwin of Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning stated in his 2010 report, Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most, that there is a “dearth of evidence supporting differentiated instruction” and that “(the) extent to which teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms is not a key variable in student success.” Unfortunately, teachers rarely hear about this evidence.

One of the key faults of differentiated instruction is that it is based on the even faultier notion of individual learning styles. While many teachers accept the gospel that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners and others are tactile-kinesthetic learners, there is not a shred of evidence supporting this theory.

Dr. John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, reviewed thousands of studies about student achievement. In his 2012 book, “Visible Learning for Teachers,” Hattie bluntly states there is “zero supporting evidence” for learning styles.

The damage caused by this failed theory is substantial. Instead of providing well-designed whole class lessons, teachers waste hours trying to adapt to the so-called learning styles of each student. As a result, teachers end up working harder, getting worse results, and burning themselves out.

Things need to change in Newfoundland and Labrador. Instead of forcing teachers to adopt failed theories and foolish fads, teachers should be empowered to use the most effective methods. Dumping bad ideas and bad practices would go a long way to improving the effectiveness of teachers in the province.

Ghosts of flawed teaching techniques threaten to haunt Alberta classrooms

January 13, 2017

Published in the Calgary Herald

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education policy.

Education gurus come up with new ideas, temporarily retreat from them when they prove to be a flop, and then rename them and try again with a new crop of unsuspecting teachers and principals.

Perhaps the worst of these “new” ideas is the notion that specific content knowledge doesn’t matter a whole lot. Since knowledge is changing more rapidly than ever before, the gurus argue that students should not waste time memorizing a bunch of useless facts. Hence, the move away from teacher-directed instruction to various manifestations of inquiry- or project-based learning.

In 2009, the previous Alberta government unveiled its Inspiring Education initiative, which was replete with edu-babble. The report that ushered in the brave new world of education emphasized that students need to “learn how to learn,” become “life-long learners” and “apply multiple literacies.”

Not surprisingly, Inspiring Education said that schools should move away from the “industrial model,” become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.”

However, there was nothing new about Inspiring Education, as it did little more than repackage some very old ideas. In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a well-known American education professor, wrote an article for the Teachers College Record entitled The Project Method in which he outlined the approach.

In true progressive fashion, Kilpatrick made sure to explain that the process of learning is far more important than any specific factual content. Had Kilpatrick not written this article nearly 100 years ago, one might have thought he plagiarized it from the Inspiring Education report.

Despite an avalanche of criticism from academics and other subject-area experts, the government pushed its Inspiring Education agenda forward. The department of education even went so far as to create a two-minute promotional video that proclaimed “Everything is changing.”

At the same time, the government announced its intention to scrap many of Alberta’s top-notch standardized exams and replace them with assessments that focused on the process of learning and not on the content.

And then the election happened. In a surprising development, the Progressive Conservative dynasty was toppled by Rachel Notley’s NDP.

Initially, there were some encouraging signs that newly minted Education Minister David Eggen would scrap the Inspiring Education agenda and bring back a much-needed academic focus. His decision to add a 15-minute calculator-free component to the Grade 6 provincial math assessment was a welcome rebuke to the failed discovery math approach that has taken hold of Alberta schools.

Sadly, despite this positive step, there are many indications that the ghost of Inspiring Education lives on. The Alberta government is currently in the midst of a curriculum review process that has every indication of moving away from specific content knowledge and focusing more on the nebulous process of learning.

The public survey being used to gather feedback consists of a series of questions that talk about various “ways of knowing” and various “21st century competencies.” The phrasing of these questions certainly makes it appear that parents are being led to a predetermined conclusion. The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum, which was recently published by Alberta Education, shows that the fix is in.

This framework is long on the values it wants students to adopt and short on the importance of content knowledge. Even worse is the three-minute promotional video on the department’s website that promotes “student-centred” learning and describes teachers as learning facilitators. It dismisses textbooks as “artificial constructs” and suggests that classrooms need to be more like the real world. William Heard Kilpatrick would have been proud.

While the government might have changed last year, the same bad ideas are still alive and well in Alberta Education. Until the education minister fully renounces the Inspiring Education agenda, Alberta’s world-renowned education system will continue to decline.

Manitoba schools need to get back to basics

December 19, 2016

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Once again, Manitoba students have ranked near the bottom in Canada in the areas of science, math and reading. The Program for International Student Assessment, an international assessment of 15-year-olds conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, showed Manitoba students are six months to one year behind students in top-performing provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.

Anyone who tries to dismiss these results as a one-time anomaly must grapple with the fact results dating back to 2003 show a slow but steady decline. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, a different assessment protocol completed by Grade 8 students across Canada, shows a similar decline for Manitoba. In fact, the latest round of Pan-Canadian tests placed Manitoba students dead last.

If the Manitoba government is serious about raising the academic performance of Manitoba students, it needs to do three things.

First, Manitoba should follow the example of nearly every other province and re-establish standardized tests at a variety of grade levels. British Columbia’s Foundation Skills Assessment for students in grades 4 and 7 and Ontario’s tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students are good examples of effective testing programs.

Standardized tests are important because they provide a provincial benchmark that can be used to determine how students are faring. Well-designed standardized tests highlight areas of strength and also point out areas of weakness. Unfortunately, the near-total absence of standardized tests in Manitoba has resulted in a dearth of information about student academic performance.

It did not help matters when the previous NDP government refused to release what little performance data it had to parents and the public.

Second, the province needs to place a much stronger emphasis on the academic basics — and it needs to send a much clearer message that curricular knowledge matters. For example, despite some limited moves in the right direction in recent years, the math curriculum still remains tilted much too far in the direction of the discovery approach to learning. The other curricular areas, unfortunately, are also tilted in that direction.

As math professors and WISE Math co-founders Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen have pointed out, students must learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as early as possible if they are going to succeed at higher levels of math.

Students also need to spend significant time practising and memorizing their math facts. Multiple research studies confirm that mastering the basics makes deeper learning possible.

When it comes to reading, schools need to do more than help students decode the words on a page. Students need content knowledge, which is the key to reading comprehension. All too often, teachers think of reading as something that can be taught in isolation from specific content. However, research is clear that reading comprehension soars when students have background knowledge about the topic. By contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the material and will probably not even try reading it.

Well-known education author E. D. Hirsch Jr. makes this point abundantly clear in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Hirsch presents substantial evidence showing reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place they can get this required knowledge. It is, in fact, the only path to success for the many poor children in Manitoba.

It is not enough for schools to teach “critical thinking” skills, as if they exist in a vacuum. In far too many cases, schools attempt to get around the need for knowledge by teaching students generic comprehension strategies such as “finding the main idea,” “drawing logical inferences” and “close reading.” Hirsch clearly shows these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Finally, the government needs to promote teaching methods and practices that are supported by research, as do faculties of education. Obviously, students and teachers differ, and there is little to be gained from trying to force everyone to teach exactly the same way.

At the same time, some methods are more effective than others. As a case in point, there is a wealth of evidence supporting direct whole-class instruction by teachers and considerably less evidence supporting the “guide by the side” methods currently in vogue in education faculties and in too many classrooms.

Manitoba can do better. It will take a lot of hard work and a willingness to make changes, but Manitoba students and teachers are prepared for the challenge.

There’s no critical thinking without a base of knowledge

November 18, 2016

Published in Troy Media.

The recent presidential election campaign was one of the worst in American history. Two sides entrenched themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, slugged it out, and showed little interest in intelligent engagement.

In many ways, it was a campaign of ignorance. Fortunately, there is a remedy for ignorance—promote knowledge.

Knowledge is powerful because it combats ignorance. It is a lot harder to hold on to misguided beliefs or inaccurate stereotypes when presented with hard, cold facts. Ignorant election campaigns are likely to become the norm because public schools in the United States are more interested in trendy fads than in the knowledge that students so desperately need.

However, Canadians cannot be complacent. While our situation is better, surveys commissioned by Historica Canada reveal significant gaps in young people’s knowledge about history. As a case in point, last year more than one in four Canadians could not identify the name of our first prime minister and a similar number did not know that Confederation took place in 1867. This is unacceptable.

All Canadian high school graduates should have a clear understanding of the key events, dates, and people in Canadian history. For example, everyone should know about the treaties made between the First Nations and the Crown, the circumstances that led to Confederation in 1867, and Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars. We must identify the core knowledge that all students need to possess when they graduate and then we must structure the curriculum around this knowledge.

The concept of core knowledge extends beyond Canadian history. There are also specific scientific facts and theories that all students must know. It is unconscionable that anyone would graduate from high school without at least a basic understanding of meteorology, plate tectonics, and astronomy.

Similarly, students must learn how to do basic math and be able to use these skills to solve everyday problems. As for social studies, students should at least understand what is parliamentary democracy and how it works in Canada.

Unfortunately, the obsession that many ministries of education have with the 21st Century Learning fad has led to a reduced emphasis on knowledge. Trite phrases such as “the world is changing faster than ever before” and “we need to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist” are used to defend an educational philosophy that de-emphasizes factual content and replaces it with a nebulous process of learning.

While the 21st Century Learning advocates claim to value critical thinking, they fail to recognize that critical thinking can only take place in the context of understanding that requires knowledge about which to think critically. It is impossible to think critically about something you know nothing about. This is why core knowledge is important.

Knowledge is also the key to reading comprehension. All too often educators think of reading as a transferable skill that can be taught in isolation from specific content.

However, research is clear that reading comprehension soars when students have background knowledge about the topic. In contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the article, and probably would not even try reading it.

Well-known education author E. D. Hirsch, Jr. makes this point abundantly clear in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Hirsch presents considerable research evidence showing that reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place where they can get this required knowledge. It is the only path to success for poor children.

It is not enough for schools to teach so-called critical thinking skills, as if they exist in a vacuum. In far too many cases, schools attempt to get around the need for knowledge by teaching students generic comprehension strategies such as “finding the main idea,” “drawing logical inferences,” and “close reading.” Hirsch shows that these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Frankly, 21st Century Learning advocates, in both the US and Canada, are promoting a misguided approach to learning. Facts and knowledge are not obsolete in the 21st Century—they are more important than ever. The best way to help students become critical thinkers is to make sure they acquire as much knowledge about as many subjects as possible. This will only happen when schools put knowledge at the forefront.

If we want students to become productive, mature citizens, we need to help them become knowledgeable. That is the cure for ignorance.

 

Memorization, practice and critical thinking go hand-in-hand

August 31, 2016

Published in the Telegraph Journal (Saint John)

All students should become critical thinkers. This goal is agreed upon by virtually all educators. The ability to synthesize and evaluate information and come up with new ways of looking at things is highly prized in education circles from kindergarten to graduate school. As it should be.

Given the importance of critical thinking, it’s not surprising that schools across the country proudly trumpet the progress they make in developing this skill. It’s also become increasingly common for provincial education departments to rave about “21st Century skills,” one of which is critical thinking.

As a case in point, the New Brunswick government recently released its 10-year education plan entitled Expecting the Best from Everyone. In the section on student learning, the document places critical thinking at the top of its list of 21st Century skills. Critical thinking, together with other 21st Century skills, are deemed so important that they “must be embedded in expectations for students.”

Yet, in its rush to downplay the importance of curriculum content, New Brunswick’s education department is falling for the glitzy and over-hyped promises of the 21st Century skills movement and discarding tools we know work.

The reality is that if we want students to become critical thinkers, they need to memorize facts – lots of them. They also need to spend lots of time doing rote learning – consolidating knowledge and skills by practice and repetition – so that the facts become embedded in their long-term memories. This is not the focus of the 21st Century skills movement, but it is supported by a wealth of research evidence.

Dr. John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s foremost experts on educational research. His findings do not support the claim that critical thinking skills can be taught in isolation from content.

Hattie makes this clear in a recent Npj Science of Learning journal article: “These [21st Century] skills often are promoted as content free and are able to be developed in separate courses (e.g., critical thinking, resilience). Our model, however, suggests that such skills are likely to be best developed relative to some content. There is no need to develop learning strategy courses or teach the various strategies outside the context of the content,” explains Hattie.

The reason for Hattie’s conclusion is simple; students cannot think critically about something they know nothing about. Surface learning, which includes the memorization of basic facts and vocabulary, is just as important as deep learning since deep learning cannot take place in the absence of knowledge. Students need to acquire lots of knowledge, most of which needs to be taught directly by competent teachers.

Once surface knowledge has been acquired, students need to consolidate it so it becomes part of their long-term memories which they can automatically retrieve later when they want to think critically. As Hattie explains, “Although some may not ‘enjoy’ this phase, it does involve a willingness to practice, to be curious and to explore again, and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty during this investment phase.”

Critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation because it depends on content. For example, there is a huge difference between applying advanced mathematical principles and analyzing the factors that led to a major historical event. Both require critical thinking, but there is no reason to assume that students can do either of these things without first acquiring substantial background knowledge and then consolidating it through practice.

Proponents of 21st Century skills may think of critical thinking as an isolated skill that does not depend on specific content, but research from Hattie and many other psychologists shows otherwise. It is a huge mistake to downplay curriculum content and replace it with critical thinking strategies.

If we want students to become critical thinkers, we need to make sure they acquire and consolidate as much surface knowledge as possible. Only then will deeper learning take place.

Education fads do our kids no favours

March 18, 2016

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Student achievement is declining in Nova Scotia. The 2014-15 accountability report from the Department of Education makes that abundantly clear.

Barely half of Grade 8 students are meeting expectations in math while the writing skills of Grades 3 and 6 students declined by nearly 20 points in the last two years. Nova Scotia students also score below the Canadian average on national and international assessments.

Surprisingly, Education Minister Karen Casey is doubling down on cosmetic reforms. As a case in point, the minister plans to bring in provincial teaching standards, in partnership with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

But these standards are unlikely to do anything other than create more paperwork for teachers and administrators. They represent process over substance.

Because of the union’s involvement in creating the standards, it is certain that ironclad teacher tenure provisions will remain in place. There is no way the union is going to agree to anything that could potentially make it easier for school boards to fire ineffective teachers.

Instead, teachers will likely spend more time filling out questionnaires, creating useless portfolios, and implementing the latest meaningless education fads. They may even get more coaching in how to write edu-babble on report cards or take professional development sessions featuring assessment gurus who promote no-zero policies or other useless fads. One thing Casey’s new teaching standards will not do is improve student achievement.

Teachers don’t need provincial guidelines for writing report card comments. Nor do they need to waste their time learning how to use the latest technological gadgets in their classrooms.

They also don’t need onerous assessment rules that make it nearly impossible to hold students accountable for late or incomplete work.

Unfortunately, the union has been complicit in the promotion of such useless fads. Twice in the last two years, the union brought in American education speaker Alfie Kohn to indoctrinate elementary teachers in the latest progressive education fads.

Some of Kohn’s more radical ideas include the abolition of all grades for students, the removal of virtually all direct instruction and prohibiting teachers from praising students when they do something good or correcting them when they get an answer wrong.

These harebrained ideas are not what Nova Scotia teachers need to hear at their professional development sessions.

If we really want to improve student achievement, the people who run our education system need to cut out the edu-babble and focus on what actually works.

Mike Schmoker, a former teacher and administrator, makes this abundantly clear in Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011).

In Schmoker’s view, schools should focus on three simple things: a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. Get these three things right and student learning will improve. It’s that simple.

When it comes to classroom instruction, the last thing students need is more flashy hands-on activities and “project-based learning.”

Innovation is no guarantee of student learning. In fact, lessons can be quite effective with a minimal amount of technology so long as the teacher sets specific learning objectives, provides direct instruction focused on those objectives and regularly checks for student understanding.

A big part of the problem is that school boards, education departments and teachers’ unions keep bringing in professional development consultants who promote the same failed education fads.

From Alfie Kohn’s anti-grading ideology to Marian Small’s fuzzy math to Ken O’Connor’s no-zeros approach to assessment, teachers are bombarded with a host of bad ideas.

No wonder student achievement is suffering.

Instead, teachers deserve to know that research supports traditional methods such as direct instruction and that there is nothing wrong with standing in front of the classroom and showing the whole class the correct way to solve a problem.

Similarly, there are good reasons to make students memorize basic facts and practice basic skills until they become automatic. Content knowledge is far from outdated in the 21st century.

Karen Casey may think that imposing a new set of teaching standards on teachers is going to improve student achievement. However, these standards will only be useful if they promote what actually works in the classroom.

Meaningless education fads have got to go.

Technology should not drive education reform

October 22, 2015

Published in Troy Media

A recent OECD report dropped a bombshell on those who view technology as the driving force of education reform. The report found that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

The report was authored by Andreas Schleicher, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Hopefully this report slows down the mad rush to equip students of all ages with the latest computer gadgets.

Not only is this mindset incredibly expensive, it often undermines student learning.

At the same time, it is important not to react too far in the opposite direction. Schleicher does not advocate removing all computers from schools–they do have some benefits. For example, computers make it possible for teachers to provide up-to-date information to students, particularly in subjects like science where new discoveries happen regularly. Banishing computers from classrooms, particularly in high school, would be an unfortunate overreaction to Schleicher’s report.

So why does technology have such a poor track record in improving student achievement? After all, the OECD report is not nearly the first time education researchers have pointed out the limited benefits of technology in schools. Larry Cuban, for example, an education professor at Stanford University, has said for years that technology manufacturers regularly make overhyped and unsubstantiated promises about the latest gadgets.

Even researchers who believe that technology is beneficial in classrooms have warned against implementing it uncritically. In the International Handbook on Student Achievement (2013), Peter Reimann and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney, reviewed a number of research studies and found that technology has “a positive, albeit small, impact on students’ achievement across many content areas.” They go on to caution that “claims that any particular technology will necessarily bring large, radical, or revolutionary improvement in academic achievement should be met with skepticism.”

Perhaps the best way to address this issue is to ask what actually has the biggest impact on student achievement. The answers are not hard to find. Strong teacher-student relationships, direct instruction, coherent curriculum, focused practice, and timely feedback from teachers all have large positive impacts on student achievement. Each of these can take place in the presence or absence of technology. So neither implementing nor removing technology is the key to improving student achievement.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest advocates of integrating technology in the classroom are simultaneously pushing education reforms that go against the research evidence. One of the most obvious examples is Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which downplays the need for teachers to impart specific knowledge and skills to students. Nowhere is this blind adherence to ideology more apparent than in the province’s stubborn refusal to abandon discovery math, despite mountains of research showing the superiority of direct instruction and focused practice.

The age-old saying that a teacher should be a “guide by the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” is not only bad poetry, it is bad advice. Teachers should be front and centre in the classroom teaching, explaining new concepts, showing students how to solve problems, and providing immediate, corrective feedback so students can fix their mistakes right away and not two weeks later. Thus, teachers should be encouraged to set the direction of learning and provide clear, focused lessons to their students.

All too often, technology is used to push teachers off to the side and deemphasize direct instruction. It is no coincidence that the wholesale adoption of technology in the classroom is a central component of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative. In fact, the Inspiring Education blueprint goes so far as to say that students need to “use these new technologies as designers and creators of knowledge.” In other words, teachers should just get out of the way and let students get on with the business of creating new knowledge—a surefire recipe for educational failure.

When technology leads to a greater reliance on ineffective instructional practices, it is bound to have a negative impact on student achievement. The recent OECD report serves as a poignant reminder that it is a mistake to put all your educational eggs in the technology basket. Instead, schools should focus on doing things the evidence actually supports. The quality of teaching is far more important than the type of technology used in the classroom.

Handwriting is still an important skill

January 22, 2015

Published in the National Post.

Many progressive educators believe that handwriting is obsolete in the 21st century. It isn’t hard to see how they came to this conclusion. Computers are everywhere and an increasing number of schools expect students, even those in grade 1, to do their work on handheld tablets. So why bother teaching students how to handwrite?

Unfortunately, much of the debate about handwriting tends to dwell on minor issues. For example, supporters and opponents of handwriting argue about how often students will find themselves in situations where computers are not available. They squabble over whether handwritten signatures on legal documents will eventually be replaced by electronic signatures. Finally, they differ on the need for students to read historical documents in their original, handwritten, form.

However, as important as these questions seem, they miss the bigger picture. The more important issue is whether learning how to handwrite helps students to master important skills such as reading, and whether writing words on paper is better for learning than typing them on tablet. If the answer to these questions is yes, then it makes sense to keep paper and pencils in the classroom.

Fortunately, research gives us a clear answer. Dr. Hetty Roessingh is a professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary and an expert in the field of language and literacy. She has found that making students print letters by hand, particularly before the end of the second grade, plays an important role in their reading development.

According to Roessingh, printing creates memory traces in the brain that assist with the recognition of letter shapes. Typing on a keyboard does not have the same impact. In other words, handwriting helps students move information from their short-term memories into their long-term memories, while typing does not.

When students practice printing by hand, they learn how to read and write more quickly and more accurately. Contrary to popular myth, repetition is not a bad thing. Only by committing foundational skills to long-term memory can students move on to more advanced tasks. Students who get insufficient practice in printing letters by hand invariably develop weaker writing skills than students who regularly practice the skill.

In the upper elementary grades, it is still important for students to learn cursive writing. Roessingh notes that connecting letters together in a script makes it possible for students to write more quickly and this contributes to the quality of the writing outcomes. “When writing by hand becomes both legible and fluent, reflecting a sense of automaticity, the writer is able to generate more text. Precious, scarce working memory spaces becomes available to select better vocabulary and get it into the page in interesting, organized ways,” explains Roessingh.

The importance of automaticity is strongly supported by cognitive psychologists. As Drs. Jeroen van Merriёnboer and John Sweller note in the June 2005 edition of Educational Psychology Review, our working memory has a very limited storage capacity. In order to make proper use of it, we need to transfer information to our long-term memory. We then organize this information into various “cognitive schemata” that help us solve more complex problems. Thus, students who handwrite fluently can engage with more challenging text than students who still struggle with basic vocabulary because more information has been transferred to their long-term memories.

Learning does not come automatically. For most students, it is genuinely hard work as our brains are not naturally wired for the foundational skills of reading and writing. To achieve mastery, these skills need to be explicitly taught, regularly practiced, and constantly reinforced. Learning how to write individual letters and words by hand, and doing so fluently, is essential to entrench reading as an automatic skill.

In contrast, primary grade students who do their assignments on keyboards and tablets miss out on this valuable skill development. Instead of training their brains to memorize particular letters each time they painstakingly print a word, they simply press a button to get the letter they want. Often the spell-checker feature supplies the correct spellings so students never learn how to independently spell more challenging words.

Far from being obsolete, handwriting remains an important skill in the 21st century and beyond. Paper and pencil may not be as flashy as the latest handheld tablet, but it will help students learn a lot more. Sometimes the simple things really do work best.

Knowledge is more important than ever in schools

December 10, 2014

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Imagine that you are a fly on the wall in a faculty of education classroom or in a teachers’ professional development session. What would you hear?

Chances are that you would hear about the need for teachers to establish a student-centred classroom environment in which a hands-on discovery approach prevails. In fact, teachers are regularly told to focus more on the so-called process of learning than on specific academic content.

The degree to which factual knowledge is de-emphasized and even disparaged in educational circles usually comes as a surprise to most parents and taxpayers. After all, school is generally assumed to be as a place where students learn specific knowledge and skills so they eventually become productive citizens.

Instead, teachers are told in faculties of education and professional development sessions that they are simply “guides on the side” who facilitate the creation of new knowledge by students. This is where failed innovations such as fuzzy math, whole language, and open-area classrooms find their root. At the heart is a bizarre notion that there is little need to impart specific factual knowledge to students.

However, despite the widespread acceptance of this ideology by education professors and education department officials, there is remarkably little evidence supporting it. In fact, the weight of the research evidence comes down squarely on the side of those who advocate for the direct instruction of specific factual knowledge.

For example, educational researcher John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Gregory Yates do not mince words in their 2014 book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, when they say:

“But there is little basis to suggest that personal discovery within itself assists a person to actually learn…. The discovery learning process demands a high level of non-productive mental effort, which could be more profitably directed to genuine knowledge building.”

Far from being irrelevant pieces of trivia, factual knowledge provides students with the essential building blocks that make higher-level learning possible. It is not hard to see why this is so. Take two students, one who knows many facts about Métis leader Louis Riel and another who has never heard anything about him. It shouldn’t take too long to figure out which student is more likely to develop a deep understanding of the historical grievances of the Métis people.

The same principle holds true in other subject areas. Mathematics is an obvious case in point. A student who knows his multiplication tables by memory is far more likely to succeed at solving algebraic equations than a student who needs a calculator to answer basic questions such as 5 x 6. This is because the student who does not know the multiplication tables is more likely to become bogged down and confused by sequential, multi-step problems.

Cognitive psychologists have developed a term for this important concept—cognitive load, which means there is a limit to the amount of information that can be easily stored in our working memory. This is why, for example, we usually struggle to remember a newly introduced seven-digit phone number.

However, once a phone number has been committed to our long-term memories through frequent repetition, we no longer have difficulty remembering it. Because this phone number now comes to mind automatically, it produces a very low cognitive load. The same holds true with the subject matter knowledge that is taught in school. Students who know their basic math facts experience less cognitive load when solving advanced math problems than students who do not.

In his 2009 book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham summarizes the importance of factual knowledge. “The very processes that teachers care about most—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).”

In other words, students cannot think critically about a major historical event if they know nothing about the event in question. Nor can they solve multi-step algebraic equations without knowing the correct order of operations. A broad knowledge base is absolutely essential to the development of critical thinking skills.

Thus, despite what prospective teachers may hear from their education professors, students benefit greatly when their teachers directly impart knowledge to them. In order for students to think critically, they must become knowledgeable first.