Giving teachers a voice in professional development

November 17, 2017

Published in the Brandon Sun

Teaching is a challenging job. Anyone who has spent a few days in a school knows that teachers have a lot of demands placed upon them. Their responsibilities often go far beyond basic classroom instruction. From dealing with disruptive student behaviours to organizing extracurricular activities to supervising hallways and playgrounds, the workload of teachers is extremely demanding.

In order to face these and other challenges, teachers must continually improve their skills through professional development. This is far from easy, particularly since teachers must sort through the myriad of competing claims in the education world. Education fads are a dime a dozen, and they are becoming more prevalent.

Much of the problem stems from the substandard training provided by university education faculties, where preservice teachers are exposed to a plethora of fads, most of which are really bad ideas. Education fads such as individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, no-zero policies and 21st-century skills are but a few examples. Sadly, these and other fads are often reinforced at their professional development sessions after they become full-fledged teachers.

Fortunately, some teachers are pushing back against these bad ideas. One such group of teachers met recently in Toronto at the ResearchED conference. This is a new type of professional development conference that is put on by teachers for teachers. It began in Britain under the leadership of Tom Bennett, a well-known teacher and education writer. Since its first event in 2013, it has expanded to nine other countries and continues to grow every year. None of the organizers or speakers at ResearchED receives any compensation for their work. They participate because they believe in what they are doing — helping other teachers improve their teaching.

Teachers from across Canada came to hear from a variety of experts. Among the presenters were Dr. Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neuroscience at Western University, Dr. John Mighton, mathematician and founder of JUMP Math, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c, and Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Chair of Mental Health at Dalhousie University. In addition, a variety of classroom teachers led workshops about how they integrate the best research into their classrooms.

What makes ResearchED different from typical professional development conferences is that teachers are given a real voice in the discussions. Teachers are not simply expected to give lip service to the latest fad but are actually encouraged to openly challenge any claims made by the presenters. For many teachers, ResearchED is their first real opportunity to engage with the research in an environment that actually encourages critical thinking and honest debate.

I led a session at the Toronto ResearchED, so I had the opportunity to intellectually engage with teachers from all over the country. Sadly, many of them are under such pressure by school administrators to conform to the latest fads that they cannot make their identities publicly known.

In a desperate attempt to get their voices heard, they often resort to anonymous Twitter handles or anonymous blog posts.

Thankfully, ResearchED gave these teachers a chance to meet like-minded teachers and researchers from across Canada. Now they know that they are not alone.

During one of the sessions, Sachin Maharaj, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, delivered an excellent presentation about teacher professionalism and career development. He made it clear that in order for teachers to become full-fledged professionals, they must take an active role in their own professional development. He also argued that it should be possible for teachers to enhance their pay and their status without moving out of teaching and into consulting or administration. After all, the best teachers belong in classrooms, not in offices.

Imagine what improvements we might see in Canadian education if all teacher professional development sessions were like ResearchED. Instead of listening to canned presentations and hearing about useless fads, teachers would actively review the latest research evidence and debate the pros and cons of using these strategies with their colleagues. Considering how much emphasis is put on critical thinking in schools today, it is ironic that so many teacher professional development sessions minimize debate and emphasize conformity.

Hopefully, conferences like ResearchED become the norm rather than the exception in teacher professional development. No teacher should have to create an anonymous Twitter account in order to be heard.

Let’s treat teachers like they’re professionals

May 28, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald

It’s not easy being a teacher. Teachers receive most of the blame when things go wrong, but they are powerless to make real changes in the system. That’s because they have little choice but to follow the directives of administrators who impose unproven fads on them.

Perhaps the most pervasive fad is that a teacher should be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.” In other words, teachers are encouraged to let students discover facts and concepts on their own and avoid direct instruction. This approach is known as constructivism. Though popular with school administrators, good evidence for the effectiveness of constructivism is severely lacking, as former Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall documented in her comprehensive book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom.

Despite the lack of evidence for constructivism, many teachers are under enormous pressure to use this ideology in their teaching. In fact, their professional evaluations often hinge on adopting student-centred methodologies. Thus, a teacher who delivers clear, tightly focused math lessons to her students may receive a worse evaluation than a teacher who encourages students to come up with their own ways of solving math problems — even if students learned better under the first teacher.

Unfortunately, the Alberta government is poised to take the coercion of teachers to the next level. Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence recently released a series of recommendations regarding teacher certification and evaluation. What stands out is the task force’s insistence that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

In other words, the task force wants teachers to adopt constructivist methodologies. It will do this by having principals evaluate teachers on the degree to which they conform to Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which is built on constructivist ideology. That is, ideological commitment will become more important than teaching effectiveness.

The coercion of teachers can also be seen in other areas. When grading students, teachers across the country are forced to follow the dictates of assessment gurus who advocate against awarding zeros for incomplete work, oppose reducing grades for lateness, and insist that all report card marks and comments reflect curricular outcomes and not student behaviour or other important criteria. As a sign of how seriously school administrators take these recommendations, Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval lost his job in 2012 for refusing to comply with his school’s no-zero policy.

In Nova Scotia, teachers must follow onerous guidelines when writing report card comments. Instead of letting teachers use their professional judgment, they are expected to identify, for each student, an area of strength, at least one required improvement, and a suggested next step. Teachers have to do this without commenting on the student’s behaviour. In order to ensure teacher compliance, principals spend time reviewing all report cards and making teachers rewrite comments that do not reflect the guidelines.

In a recent blog entry, Halifax teacher Grant Frost noted that these guidelines resulted in “an edu-jargon based report that, although satisfying the criteria, does almost nothing to tell parents how their kids are doing in schools.”

Frost is frustrated because teachers are no longer trusted to do something as simple as write their own report card comments. This frustration is understandable since teachers, particularly good teachers like Lynden Dorval and Grant Frost, deserve to be treated as professionals.

While provincial governments should hold teachers accountable, they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of micromanaging teachers and forcing them to teach the same way and write the same mundane comments on report cards, administrators should give teachers considerably more autonomy. In other words, let teachers teach in the way they think best — as long as they can prove that their students are learning.

This is where standardized testing, when designed properly and administered in a balanced way, plays a key role. Teachers should welcome standardized testing as a way to objectively demonstrate the effectiveness of their teaching. Give teachers a specific target that is based on their students’ past performances and let them use their professional judgment to determine the best way to get them up to that level.

The professional status of teachers would be greatly enhanced if administrators focused less on process and more on actual results. Instead of imposing burdensome regulations and dubious fads on teachers, administrators should set them free and let them teach.

Put students first when hiring substitute teachers

March 3, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Every spring brings the predictable spate of stories about the shortage of teaching jobs for new teachers. Declining student numbers mean the problem is particularly pronounced in Nova Scotia. As a result, many graduates languish for years on oversubscribed substitute lists.

Then in the fall comes a series of stories about how new teachers aren’t getting enough substitute days. Invariably, the blame is placed on retired teachers who continue to work as substitutes. According to the Nova Scotia Pension Agency, retired teachers can substitute up to 69.5 days in a school year without any reduction to their pensions.

Because of their proven experience, many principals prefer to bring in retired teachers rather than untested new teachers.

This doesn’t sit well with a considerable number of new teachers. They argue that retired teachers have already had their chance to teach and are being selfish by taking positions that could be filled by new teachers. Some school administrators in neighbouring provinces agree with this concern.

For example, the Anglophone East school district in New Brunswick officially excludes retired teachers from its substitute list. During a CBC interview last December, superintendent Gregg Ingersoll defended his district’s policy. “They (retired teachers) have already done their career, whereas these new people, this is their only income,” explained Ingersoll.

On the other side of this issue, retired teachers claim that banning them from substitute lists amounts to age discrimination. This was the argument put forward by Fred Hall, a 67-year-old retired teacher, who recently launched a human rights complaint against the Anglophone East school district. The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has yet to rule on his case.

Thus, the issue is often presented as a choice between the interests of new teachers versus those of retired teachers. Lost in the shuffle is the one group whose interests should receive the most weight: students.

Substitutes are called in to fill in for regular teachers for reasons ranging from professional development sessions to illness to personal leave days. This means students can expect to see substitute teachers many times throughout a year. When calling in a substitute, the first thing school administrators should consider is the impact on student learning.

For example, a retired math teacher with 30 years of successful teaching experience will often be the right person to step into a high school teacher’s math class. On the other hand, a newly minted teacher who shows initiative and enthusiasm may be the right choice to take over a group of rambunctious Grade 8 students for the day. In all cases, the interests of students must be paramount.

As a result, substitute lists should be open to all qualified teachers, whether retired or not. Substitute teachers who know their subjects and can effectively manage classrooms should be called in as frequently as possible. Ineffective substitutes should be removed from the list entirely. The age of substitute teachers should be irrelevant; their ability to teach the students should be the only criterion.

Furthermore, school districts should avoid policies that unreasonably restrict the ability of administrators to hire the best substitute teachers. Forcing school principals to give an equal number of substitute opportunities to all teachers on an official list may benefit newly minted teachers, but isn’t in the best interests of students. When the regular teacher is absent, students deserve the substitute teacher who best provides a quality learning environment.

As for the plight of newly minted teachers unable to find a job, there is no easy solution to this problem. Education faculties continue to graduate far more teachers than needed in Nova Scotia schools. The ongoing decline in student numbers makes this problem even worse. Until things change, new graduates can expect to enter a difficult job market.

However, we cannot allow our sympathy for these new teachers to override the needs of students. Banning retired teachers from substitute lists may help some new teachers get a few extra days of work each year, but at the cost of depriving schools of many of the best available substitute teachers. This is not an acceptable tradeoff.

When this year’s news cycle brings with it the predictable stories about the plight of new teachers getting too little work, let’s remember whose interests matter the most. Principals should always put students first when hiring substitute teachers.

Schools focus too much on individuals and not enough on groups

January 23, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald

“Every student deserves a personalized learning experience that matches his or her unique learning style.” This summarizes the obsession many schools have with individualized instruction. Heaven forbid that a teacher should prepare a lesson without considering the needs of each student.

As a result, instead of standing in front of the classroom and giving one explanation to all students, teachers often divide their classes into smaller groups and repeat the same lesson multiple times. In fact, teachers are often evaluated based on the degree to which they make use of “differentiated instruction” techniques. Unsurprisingly, this places enormous stress on teachers as they strive to meet the impossible goal of providing personalized instruction for each of the 25 or more students in their classrooms.

Not only is this obsession with individualized instruction stressful on teachers, it isn’t particularly effective at improving student achievement. In her comprehensive analysis of the research literature published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013), Catherine Scott noted that tailoring instruction to students’ so-called learning styles is “…a waste of precious teaching and learning time.” Other experts, such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, have come to the same conclusion.

Much of the problem stems from an excessive focus on educational psychology in teacher training and professional development. Teachers learn all about the psychological needs of individual students, but precious little about how to effectively manage a classroom with 25 or more students. What teachers really need is a little less psychology and a lot more sociology.

Teachers aren’t hired as private tutors; their job is to teach groups of students. The best way for teachers to meet their needs is to engage the entire group with effective, whole-class lessons. Of course, this is easier said than done because it is not easy to manage the behaviour of 25 students while simultaneously providing engaging lessons. Unfortunately, despite the obvious importance of this skill, prospective teachers learn precious little in university about how to effectively teach large groups of students.

As Mike Schmoker points out in Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011), a great deal of research has been conducted on what effective lessons look like. Teachers need to clearly explain new concepts, model how to solve problems, give students multiple opportunities to practice, and make sure students have mastered a new skill before moving on to the next level. In other words, they should make regular use of traditional, large-group, teacher-centred, teaching methods.

Jeanne Chall was a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory for more than 30 years. In her final book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom (2000), Chall examined the research evidence and compared the effectiveness of progressive student-centred education with traditional teacher-centred education. Her conclusion was clear. “Traditional, teacher-centred schools, according to research and practice, are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children.” Not only that, teacher-centred education was especially beneficial for “children of less educated families, inner-city children, and those with learning difficulties at all social levels.”

According to Chall, one of the advantages of teacher-centred classrooms is that they focus more “…on preventing learning difficulties than on treating them with special procedures when found.” Because teacher-centred instructors make regular use of whole-class instruction, they seek out methods and materials that are optimal for the entire group. When problems arise, these teachers can spend more time with the relatively few students experiencing difficulty while the other students work independently on their assignments.

In contrast, teachers in student-centred classrooms are expected at the outset to adapt their instruction to the individual learning styles of each student. As Chall points out, this is a highly inefficient way to teach because each student only receives a small amount of direct instruction time each day. In addition, it is difficult to give additional time to academically weak students while also providing individualized instruction to all the other students.

Thus, schools should focus less on individualized instruction and more on teachers delivering effective, whole-class lessons. This will help teachers truly meet the needs of all students in their classrooms, especially those who are having difficulties with the lessons.

More grammar and less edu-babble please

November 28, 2013

A group of graduate students recently staged a sit-in during Professor Val Rust’s course at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They did this to protest an allegedly “toxic” racial climate in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

What terrible thing happened in Rust’s class that precipitated this drastic behavior? Did he belittle minority students with racist epithets or openly defend white superiority? No, he didn’t.

According to UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, some students didn’t like the spelling and grammar corrections Rust made on their dissertation proposals. During their demonstration, these students described Rust’s corrections as “micro-aggression.”

However, in a letter sent to his colleagues, Rust explained his side of the story.  “I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don’t feel that is appropriate,” wrote Rust.

That explanation sounds reasonable to most people outside of education schools. All university students, regardless of their racial background, need to use proper spelling and grammar. This is particularly true in graduate school where students are pursuing masters and doctoral degrees. A student who cannot write properly is unlikely to experience much success in the academic world. One might think graduate education students, most of whom have been teachers, would understand this requirement better than any other students.

However, it is no accident that this protest happened in an education school. Education schools have long been obsessed with issues of race and culture to the detriment of the academic basics. I experienced this personally during an education graduate course I recently completed. Throughout the course, the professor and students made repeated references to “white privilege” and frequently bashed Western civilization for being racist and sexist.

During one of our discussions, the professor even suggested that there is too much focus on reading and writing in public schools. In her opinion, reading and writing was only one form of literacy and other forms deserve equal attention. Many students backed up the professor’s position. One of them went so far as to argue that the excessive focus on print-based literacy is an unfortunate example of the so-called neo-liberal agenda.

Education professors at other universities have long expressed similar points of view. Two years ago, The Globe and Mail published a letter from Heather Lotherington, an education professor at York University in Toronto, arguing that “grammatical knowledge and mastery of spelling and punctuation” are the “literacies of a half century ago.” But she didn’t stop there.

“Literacy now requires mastery over digital tools for collaborative, dynamic, multimodal communication. Continuing to test children’s formal spelling using handwriting is a speck on the team-oriented strategizing and programming abilities they will need to succeed,” wrote Lotherington

For those who don’t speak edu-babble, here’s the rough translation: “Students don’t need to learn how to spell because their computers have spell check.”

Fortunately, some teachers are pushing back against this nonsense. Last year, Jim McMurtry, a high school English teacher in Surrey, BC, wrote an op-ed that appeared in the newsmagazine of the BC Teachers’ Federation. In it, McMurtry bemoaned the removal of grammar from the provincial English curriculum. He noted that it was possible for students to “score a 100% on the English 12 exam with grammatical and spelling errors in their writing.”

McMurtry also correctly points out that it is unrealistic to expect students to use proper grammar in their writing if they never learn the components of sentences or the proper use of punctuation marks. Each of these things needs to be directly taught, but most English curriculum guides pay only minimal, if any, attention to grammar and punctuation. As a result, students may never learn basic grammar skills.

The root of the problem is that education schools, and the professors who teach in them, have long been obsessed with things like social justice and racial perspective and not basic knowledge and skills. Education schools have lost sight of what actually matters in the real world.

It doesn’t help when political leaders parrot the same edu-babble. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s recent comment to the Toronto Star that schools should focus less on numeracy and literacy and more on “higher-order skills like creativity, collaboration, community and critical thinking” is a case in point.

In reality, students would benefit from less edu-babble and more spelling and grammar in our schools. Contrary to what many education professors argue, basic knowledge and skills aren’t obsolete.

Wrong medium for this student’s message

May 18, 2013

Published in The Carillon (Steinbach).

“The medium is the message.” That prescient observation was made in 1964 by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Basically, McLuhan meant that the way in which a message is transmitted was just as important as the message itself.

For example, those who watch a political leader’s speech on television may react very differently from those who listen to the same speech on the radio. As a case in point, people who watched the famous Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates on television judged Kennedy the winner while those who listened to the radio version preferred Nixon. Kennedy looked better on television and, for many viewers, this outweighed the substance of what he and Nixon had to say.

McLuhan died in 1980, long before the advent of the internet. Were he still alive today, he would probably be amazed at how the internet has confirmed his theory. Release one video on Youtube that goes viral and you can achieve instant worldwide fame. In fact, a young person’s entire future could end up being determined by one video clip.

Last week, Jeff Bliss, an 18-year-old Texas high school student, found out just how easy it is to become famous. Frustrated with the quality of instruction he was receiving in his world history class, he challenged his teacher in front of the class and let her know that he thought she was a terrible teacher. One of his classmates recorded the exchange and uploaded it to Youtube. In only a few days, the 90 second video clip was watched more than 1.7 million times.

To be fair, much of what Bliss said during his rant makes sense. He talked about the need for teachers to be more active with their teaching and engage students face-to-face. He also correctly observed that simply handing out worksheets and expecting students to figure out everything themselves is not a good way to teach. Bliss apparently wanted to take a more active role in his own learning and this is commendable.

However, the way he went about expressing his views was not commendable. In fact, his poor attitude and disrespectful tone overshadowed the good points he made during his rant.

“And if you would like, I’ll teach you a little more so you can actually learn how to teach a freakin class,” said Bliss as he left the room. These types of statements made Bliss look arrogant and rude. No matter how upset Bliss was with the quality of instruction, insulting the teacher in front of the class was the wrong way to express his concerns.

During an interview on the Roy Green Show, Bliss acknowledged that he did not discuss any of his concerns with the teacher before his public outburst. If Bliss really believed in the importance of face-to-face interaction, the least he could have done was meet with the teacher privately to express his concerns. Publicly attacking her without warning displayed poor judgment and undermined the point he wanted to make.

Will this 90 second video clip lead to a serious examination of teaching practices in schools or will it simply provide further confirmation that too many young people no longer respect authority? I think the latter is more likely than the former. In contrast, had Bliss met with his teacher privately to express his concerns, registered a formal complaint with the school principal, or written a thoughtful op-ed in his local newspaper, his message might have been taken more seriously.

In the internet age, it is more important than ever that we choose our medium carefully. For Jeff Bliss, this 90 second video clip was the wrong medium for his message.

Content should be king in schools

April 2, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Sun.

Suppose you join a discussion about something you know nothing about. How much weight will your opinion receive? Probably not much.

Even if you follow proper conversation strategies such as remaining on topic and keeping your comments respectful, your input will not be valued when you are completely ignorant about the subject at hand. Most people recognize that content knowledge is essential in most discussions.

Knowledge is also important in areas such as reading. If you read a newspaper or magazine article about hockey, you are likely to understand it if you are familiar with the rules of hockey. In contrast, someone who knows nothing about hockey will probably not benefit much from reading about last night’s game. If you need to Google basic hockey terms such as offside, icing, or penalty box, your background knowledge of hockey is likely insufficient to understand the article properly.

The importance of content is strongly supported by experts such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. He regularly conducts research on the role of consciousness in learning and found that background knowledge makes it easier for us to learn as it frees up space in our working memory for tackling new concepts.

Given the importance of broad-based factual knowledge, it is imperative that schools ensure students become knowledgeable citizens. However, this is unlikely to happen when some of the best-known thinkers in education regularly downplay the importance of knowledge and focus instead on the so-called process of learning.

For example, Alfie Kohn is a well-known author and speaker who opposes any attempt to make content the focus of the curriculum, which he derides as the “bunch o’ facts” approach to education. His books are widely influential among teachers and he is regularly invited to speak at teacher professional development sessions. Last month, for example, he presented his ideas to educators in Red Deer, Alberta at an event sponsored by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The romantic progressive ideology Kohn promotes is widely taught in the education faculties that train teachers. It should come as little surprise that romantic progressive ideology influences the standards contained in provincial curriculum guides. As a case in point, English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum guides have lots of edu-babble in them but not much content.

Their extensive length and verbosity notwithstanding, most ELA curriculum guides are little more than empty shells. While these guides encourage students to “enhance the clarity and artistry of communication” and “celebrate and build community,” most do not prescribe any specific books or authors for all students to read. As a result, schools miss out on the opportunity to ensure all students share some common background knowledge.

Fortunately, some educators are pushing back against this worrisome trend. In his book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, former school administrator Mike Schmoker skewers ELA curriculum guides for their “bloated, confusing, (and) poorly written” standards. He concludes that “Language arts, more than any other discipline, has lost its way.” He proposes the removal of meaningless verbiage from ELA curriculum guides. In its place, curriculum guides should list the titles of books and articles each student must read, specify the number and length of papers required from each student, and identify the evaluation criteria for student work.

It does not mean teachers should lose all teaching discretion. In fact, Schmoker and other advocates of core-knowledge, such as E. D. Hirsch, suggest that only about half of the reading materials and assignments need be prescribed by the curriculum. Teachers would select the other half. This approach appropriately balances teacher professional autonomy with the need to uphold a consistent standard for all students.

Schmoker offers a similar critique of curriculum guides in science and social studies. He notes that the excessive use of hands-on experiments in science means students spend too little time reading and thinking about important scientific concepts. As for social studies, Schmoker contends curriculum guides in that subject are often filled with meaningless verbiage that obscures important historical content. This is unacceptable.

The best way to prepare students for the 21st century is to make sure they are immersed in a content-rich curriculum that provides them with the background knowledge they need. This will only happen if we move away from the failed romantic progressive ideology and adopt an approach that restores content to its rightful place.

When it comes to 21st century education, content should be king.

More education courses are not the solution

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, September 15, 2011. Original Link

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty thinks teachers don’t spend enough time in education faculties. That much is apparent from his recent pledge to double the length of teacher training programs in Ontario.

Currently, prospective teachers in Ontario need to complete a bachelor’s degree and then apply for admission to a faculty of education at any major university. The teacher training program consists of eight months of classes along with at least 40 days of a classroom teaching practicum. Anyone who successfully completes this program can then apply for a teaching certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers.

At first glance, it’s not clear why the government feels teachers need more education courses. John Milroy, Ontario’s education minister, admitted the length of the practicum appeared to be sufficient already. When pressed for evidence that a longer program would be beneficial, he pointed to Finland’s intensive teacher training in which all teachers are required to earn master’s degrees.

However, while it is true that Finland has higher training requirements for its teachers, most of that training takes place in a specialized subject area such as math or history. In Finland, most teachers complete a bachelor’s and master’s degree in their subject area, and then apply for admission to a faculty of education. This bears virtually no resemblance to Premier McGuinty’s proposal that prospective teachers spend more time taking education courses.

In addition, there is very little evidence that more time spent in a faculty of education results in better teachers. John Hattie, a professor of education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, analyzed the results of hundreds of studies about effective teaching in his 2009 book, Visible Learning. Hattie found that additional years of teacher training in education faculties produced only a minimal impact on student achievement.

When asked about the most useful part of their training, many teachers cite their subject area courses or their teaching practicum. They rarely mention their education courses. The usual comment made by teachers is that these courses were impractical, outdated, and useless. Education faculties are not held in high repute by many members of the teaching profession.

In addition, education faculties often provide training that runs directly counter to the research evidence. For example, John Hattie’s synthesis of research studies about student achievement found that traditional methods such as teacher-directed instruction significantly outperformed progressive methods such as inquiry-based learning (where students decide for themselves what they wish to explore). However, students in education faculties regularly learn the exact opposite and are encouraged to be a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.”

After months or even years of indoctrination in failed teaching strategies and outmoded ideologies, prospective teachers can actually emerge as less effective and discerning teachers than they were prior to their enrolment in the program.

Considering the minimal impact teacher training in education faculties actually has on teacher effectiveness, it makes little sense arbitrarily to double the length of their programs. A better approach is to focus on enhancing something virtually all teachers agree forms a critical part of their education—the teaching practicum.

Instead of making teachers take more education courses, university graduates with a solid academic background should be eligible to move directly into the classroom. There are many people with solid academic training in hard-to-staff subject areas such as math, science, and French immersion. Someone with a master’s or doctorate in math should be eligible to teach high school mathematics without taking a bunch of useless education classes.

These types of individuals could be matched up with experienced mentor teachers and apprentice with them for a full year before being given sole responsibility for a classroom. This extended practicum would be an excellent way of identifying who really belongs in the classroom.

A program in the United States known as Teach for America has attracted a great deal of attention. Teach for America recruits college and university graduates to teach for at least two years in some schools that are most difficult to staff. These teachers receive on the job training and extensive mentorship. Although the program is controversial among teachers’ unions, it has seen enormous success and many of its alumni have gone on to become excellent teachers.

Prospective teachers should spend less time in education faculties, not more.

Traditional teaching methods supported by research

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, June 1, 2011. Original Link

If there’s one thing drilled into the heads of prospective teachers, it is that traditional teaching approaches are hopelessly outdated. Our future educators are told that it is wrong to think of classrooms as places where students acquire knowledge from teachers.

Instead, prospective teachers are immersed in a philosophy known as constructivism. In essence, constructivism encourages students to construct their own understanding of the world around them, and reduces teachers to mere learning facilitators.

While this philosophy finds its roots in the writings of 17th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there are many modern proponents as well. Paulo Freire, a well-known educational theorist, criticized the “banking” theory of schooling in his classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire and his disciples saw education as an inherently political act of liberation rather than as the transmission of essential knowledge and skills to students.

This stands in stark contrast to the traditional view that schools exist for the purpose of ensuring students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to function effectively in society. Unfortunately, the constructivist approach disavows this belief and minimizes the importance of academic content.

It was this philosophy that inspired the replacement of phonics with the whole language approach for reading instruction. Phonics reflects the traditional approach of teaching children letters and sounds while whole language encourages children to construct their own meaning from what they read. Although most current reading programs incorporate aspects of phonics, significant components of whole language remain prevalent in elementary classrooms.

Constructivism has made its presence felt in other subject areas as well. Math teachers are often encouraged to do less direct instruction of specific number concepts and more real life application of math principles. Some textbooks and curriculum materials even recommend that teachers turn their math classes into social justice indoctrination sessions.

One example of this is Math That Matters by David Stocker. This teacher resource written by a Toronto educator contains 50 suggested math lessons for teachers. The lessons address controversial topics from a decidedly left-wing perspective. Students learn to promote the union movement, challenge the dominance of evil corporations, and blame industrialized countries for the world’s hunger problems.

It should come as little surprise that this propagandistic piece was published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a self-styled “progressive” think tank. Math That Matters forms part of the CCPA’s education project which was designed as a response to concerns about the influence of corporations over public education. The political inclination in this type of resource should be obvious.

Advocates of constructivism assert that research proves their methods are superior to more traditional approaches. However, a new book written by New Zealand education professor John Hattie challenges this claim.

Visible Learning was born out of Hattie’s fifteen-year synthesis of thousands of research studies about what makes the biggest difference to student achievement. He found that constructivist approaches did not produce the promised results.

“The role of the constructivist teacher is claimed to be more of facilitation to provide opportunities for individual students to acquire knowledge and construct meaning through their own activities… These kinds of statements are almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning…” states Hattie.

In contrast, traditional methods made a significant positive impact on student learning. As an example of this, Hattie found that phonics outperformed whole language by a huge margin. Hattie concluded that phonics was “powerful in the process of learning to read” while the effects of whole language on reading instruction were “negligible.”

One of the largest studies cited by Hattie was Project Follow Through, a long-term study involving more 72,000 students over 10 years. This study contrasted direct instruction (a traditional methodology) with constructivist approaches such as whole language and open education. Even though researchers found direct instruction was the only approach to have significant positive effects for student learning, the study simply led to more money being spent on failed constructivist approaches.

Hattie is right when he describes education as an immature profession that often places ideology ahead of evidence. Even though the actual research evidence supports traditional teaching methods, constructivist ideology remains dominant in teacher training institutions.

It’s time we place evidence ahead of ideology and adopt teaching methods that actually enhance student learning.