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.

Good teachers matter most

May 20, 2016

Published in The Guardian (Charlottetown, PEI)

MLA Sidney MacEwen made headlines earlier this month after he challenged the Minister of Education to enforce class-size limits. Mr. MacEwen zeroed in on supposedly large kindergarten classes, and called on the government to place a hard cap on the number of kids in them.

Politicians mean well when they call for smaller classes. But the evidence-based, educational research shows that capping class sizes has only limited effectiveness and often makes it more difficult to improve student achievement.

John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Education Research at the University of Melbourne, is recognized as one of the world’s top educational researchers. He has analyzed hundreds of research studies to determine the factors that most influence student achievement, and found that capping class size brings a huge cost but has only a small benefit.

In the “International Guide to Student Achievement” (2013), Hattie concluded, “there is a voluminous literature that does not support the claim that learning outcomes are markedly enhanced when class sizes are reduced.” One of the most commonly referenced research studies on class size took place in the state of Tennessee from 1985-89. It found that while students in the smaller classes generally displayed modest academic improvement, this factor’s effect on student achievement remained quite small. This is a point that various studies agree upon.

Reducing class sizes is expensive, as government has to hire additional teachers and construct new classrooms. It is important to ask whether it makes sense to allow the education budget to be eaten up by an initiative with such little effect.

Instead of reducing class size, P.E.I. should focus on reforms that actually improve student achievement. One thing the education research is clear about is that the quality of the teacher in the classroom matters more than almost anything else. A class of 30 students with a great teacher is far better off than a class of 15 with a poor teacher.

When it comes to improving instruction, the evidence is clear: traditional, teacher-centred methodologies such as direct instruction are considerably more effective than student-centred methodologies such as discovery learning. That was the conclusion of Jeanne Chall, a former professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founder of the Harvard Reading Laboratory.

Her final book, “The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom” (2000), concluded, “traditional, teacher-centred schools … are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children.” Teacher-centred education was especially beneficial for “children of less educated families, inner-city children, and those with learning difficulties at all social levels.”

It is unfortunate that many schools across Atlantic Canada continue to promote ineffective discovery learning practices. As long as schools remain in the grip of this misguided trend, class sizes are basically irrelevant. Improving classroom instruction may not be as simple as reducing class size, but it would be a whole lot more effective.

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.

Distractions are sometimes good for learning

August 27, 2015

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Most teachers and students know the conventional do’s and don’ts of proper studying habits. For example, students should find a quiet environment free of distractions. Don’t play any background music, and don’t let your mind wander. And above all, don’t stop working when you are making good progress.

These do’s and don’ts exist because conventional wisdom has it that distractions are bad for learning. For a long time, this made intuitive sense and fit my notions about proper learning. But then I began to realize something—it didn’t always match my own work habits or my experiences with students.

In fact, I’ve found that I often do my best work when I start and stop frequently. For example, when writing a column, like this one, I will often stop to check Facebook or surf the internet for a few minutes. Then I get up and walk around and mull things over in my mind.

These interruptions happen most frequently when I’m right in the middle of a critical point of my work. And yet somehow I always manage to finish my columns on time and to an appropriate standard. Either I never learned how to work properly or something is wrong with the notion that distractions are always bad.

It turns out that my gradually shifting views about the merits of distraction now have significant scientific support. A new book by New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey does an excellent job of skewering many of the most common misconceptions about learning. How We Learn summarizes the research findings of cognitive psychology and applies them to everyday life.

For example, Carey describes an experiment that compared students who studied for a test in a quiet room versus those who studied with jazz or Mozart playing in the background. Surprisingly, students who studied in the quiet environment did worse on the tests.

Carey suggests that music and other background noises can actually enrich the study environment as students form valuable associations that help them remember the material. Apparently it is possible for students to study effectively and listen to their ipods at the same time.

Even interruptions may not be as bad as previously thought. Carey describes a major experimental study in which 164 students and teachers were given a series of short tasks to complete. However, instead of letting them proceed uninterrupted, researchers interrupted the participants at random intervals before they could finish some of their tasks. After the time was up, participants were then asked to list as many of the tasks as they could remember.

Researchers were surprised to discover that participants remembered the interrupted tasks with almost twice the frequency as the uninterrupted tasks. Apparently something about being interrupted caused participants to remember that task more vividly. This was particularly true when the interruptions took place when participants were most engrossed in the task at hand. In other words, one of the best ways to remember a task is to be interrupted right when you are in the middle of it.

According to Carey, interrupting our work at a critical moment and letting it percolate in our minds can help with the learning process. Carey explains that when we stop in the middle of a difficult problem and do something else for awhile, we give our brains the opportunity to ponder it further and look for alternative solutions. So maybe it isn’t the end of the world when a student responds to a text message or walks around the classroom for a moment before moving on to the next math problem.

There is, however, one important caveat. It is one thing for students to briefly distract themselves; it is another thing entirely when they are regularly distracted by the actions of others. Some distractions make it hard to concentrate and are very bad for learning. As a result, teachers must still remain in control of their classrooms and provide students with a focused learning environment.

A balanced approach is needed. Students deserve a learning environment that is both structured and flexible. Some distractions are good for learning while others are not. It’s time to update the standard do’s and don’ts of proper studying to reflect the findings of modern cognitive science.

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.

No-zero policies just as misguided as ever

January 14, 2015

Published in The Telegram (St. John’s, NL)

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea, especially in education. The no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is a prime example.

It’s been almost four years since the former Eastern School District officially implemented a no-zero policy. Teachers were no longer permitted to give zeros when work never came in, deduct marks for late assignments, or penalize students caught cheating on tests or assignments.

Despite widespread criticism from parents and teachers, school district administrators held firm to this bad idea. The neighbouring Western School District quickly followed with its own no-zero policy. Now, with the recent amalgamation of all English language school districts into a single province-wide school board, a de facto no-zero policy appears to be in effect across the province.

The philosophy underlying no-zero policies is quite simple. Proponents believe teachers should always separate behaviour from achievement when grading students. Since cheating on tests, handing in late work, and refusing to submit assignments are all examples of behaviour, they should not affect students’ academic grades. Instead, they argue, teachers should correct poor behavior in other ways.

Like many other education fads, this one sounds great in theory but quickly falls apart when implemented with real high school students. Once students find out about their school’s no-zero policy, it doesn’t take them long to conclude that assignment due dates have become mere suggestions. Without the ability to seriously penalize tardiness, teachers end up pleading with students to hand their assignments in.

No-zero policies became popular because they have been promoted by assessment consultants who lead professional development workshops. Ontario-based assessment consultants Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper are two of the best-known advocates of no-zero policies. It should come as little surprise that both men spoke at education workshops in Atlantic Canada shortly before Eastern School District’s no-zero policy was formally adopted.

No-zero policies have also appeared in other provinces. In 2012, Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired by his school board for disobeying his principal’s no-zeros edict. Dorval went public with his concerns and steadfastly refused to budge from his position that the no-zero policy was a very bad idea.

Things did not go well for no-zero supporters. Not only did Dorval receive overwhelming public support for his stand, the Alberta Board of Reference recently ruled that his termination was unjust. In other words, Dorval had the professional right to challenge his school’s misguided policy.

Shortly after Dorval’s case became public, I analyzed the arguments used to support no-zero policies. The case for no-zero policies turned out to be very weak.

For example, Ken O’Connor regularly argues that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning and, to back up this claim, cites an article written by Thomas Guskey, an American education professor. When I looked up Guskey’s article, I found that he uses only one research study to support this argument — a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy.

In their article, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in a mainstreamed classroom.

These students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks. While this might be true for the students in this study, it is patently absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the whole student population.

Clearly, parents are right to be skeptical when assessment gurus claim that “decades of educational research” support no-zero policies.

It should come as little surprise that regular classroom teachers are some of the strongest opponents of no-zero policies. They know what it is like to work with real students, and they are not beholden to theories concocted by ivory tower academics.

Fortunately, there is a way for the English school board to extract itself from the no-zero quagmire. It should simply allow teachers to use their professional discretion when dealing with late or incomplete assignments. Sometimes students deserve an extension and sometimes they don’t. Since teachers are trained professionals, they are capable of making these decisions themselves.

No-zero policies are just as misguided now as they were four years ago. It’s time to end this province’s failed experiment with them.

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.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan

September 18, 2014

Saskatchewan parents who are frustrated with fuzzy math assignments, confusing report cards, and low academic standards are about to get some much-needed help. Today, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy has released A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan. This handbook, written by Frontier research fellow and classroom teacher Michael Zwaagstra, shines a light on the many education fads promoted by the Department of Education.

“Parents are tired of the endless stream of failed education fads that keep resurfacing in our schools,” explains Zwaagstra. This handbook shows parents that, contrary to what they hear from superintendents and curriculum consultants, there is compelling research evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies.

Zwaagstra sifts through the research studies and shows that many of the most common education fads (i.e. discovery learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, etc.) lack empirical evidence. “It’s time we stop wasting our time on useless fads and start focusing on actually improving instruction in our schools,” concludes Zwaagstra.

This handbook also makes the case for report cards that make sense to students and parents. Zwaagstra shows that the reasons school board officials often give for removing percentage grades from report cards fail to withstand scrutiny. Parents have a right to demand that their children receive report cards that make sense.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan will empower parents and other concerned citizens by providing the information they need to push back against public education’s foolish fads.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta

September 11, 2014

Alberta parents frustrated with fuzzy math assignments, confusing report cards, and low academic standards are about to get some much-needed help. The Frontier Centre has released A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta. This handbook, written by Frontier research fellow and classroom teacher Michael Zwaagstra, shines a light on the problems with the Alberta government’s misguided “Inspiring Education” initiative.

“Parents are tired of the endless stream of failed education fads that keep resurfacing in our schools,” explains Zwaagstra. “This handbook will show parents that, contrary to what they hear from ‘Inspiring Education’ advocates, there is compelling research evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies.”

Zwaagstra sifts through the research studies and shows that many of the most common education fads (i.e. discovery learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, etc.) lack empirical evidence. “It’s time we stop wasting our time on useless fads and start focusing on actually improving instruction in our schools,” concludes Zwaagstra.

This handbook also makes the case for report cards that make sense to students and parents. Zwaagstra shows that the reasons school board officials often give for removing percentage grades from report cards fail to withstand scrutiny. Parents have every right to demand their children receive report cards that make sense.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta will empower parents and other concerned citizens by giving them the information they need to push back against public education’s foolish fads.

Knowledge should still matter in BC schools

May 15, 2014

Published in the Times Colonist (Victoria)

Big changes are underway in British Columbia’s education system. The traditional emphasis on imparting specific knowledge and skills to students will soon take a back seat to helping students “learn how to learn.” This reflects a fundamental change in educational philosophy.

Parents have good reason to be concerned about this planned transformation. B.C.’s Ministry of Education plans to make teachers “shift from being the primary source of content to focus on helping students learn how to learn.” This sends the unfortunate message to students and parents that content knowledge is less important than it has been in the past.

An overview of the department’s plans — displayed prominently on its website — claims that the old curriculum’s “focus on teaching children factual content … is exactly the opposite of what modern education should strive to do.” This will likely come as a surprise to parents who value factual content and consider it an important component of their children’s education.

In addition, the Ministry of Education has set up a false dichotomy between knowledge and understanding. While department officials claim to value critical thinking and deeper understanding, this is impossible when people are uninformed about a topic.

For example, students unfamiliar with the basic timeline of the Second World War and the countries involved are unlikely to possess a deeper understanding of how the war began and ended.

Furthermore, the government’s recent announcement that it will refashion the K-12 curriculum to emphasize job training is shortsighted and inconsistent. While it makes sense to provide vocational options to high school students, the basic literacy and numeracy skills students need to master haven’t changed. Unfortunately, the government’s plans will lead to less emphasis on traditional academic subjects.

Besides, if we want students to be ready for the work force when they graduate, they need to be knowledgeable and skilful. While this means students need to master the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, it also means much more. They should understand key scientific concepts and possess a broad knowledge of our country’s history and system of government. Familiarity with literary classics is also important in a well-rounded education.

Learning traditional subjects isn’t about helping students win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Rather, it’s an essential component of developing them into critical thinkers and problem solvers that employers will hire. An ignorant person is rarely a critical thinker. Rather, someone with a well-rounded education is in the best position to critically analyze a problem and come up with creative solutions.

Incidentally, being knowledgeable is also one of the best ways to improve reading comprehension. For example, a student who is familiar with the rules of hockey is almost certain to have a better understanding of a newspaper article about last night’s game than someone who has never heard of hockey. Similarly, people are far more likely to understand an article about politics, or even about the latest business developments, if they have a solid knowledge-based education.

Thus, schools do students a disservice when they focus on learning strategies and downplay academic content. As students become less knowledgeable, their comprehension declines. This is why the Ministry of Education needs to encourage teachers to be content experts.

As for the notion that students should construct their own knowledge through inquiry-based learning, the evidence is clear that this approach is ineffective. In 2006, Educational Psychologist published a study by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark that analyzed many years of educational research. They found that inquiry-based strategies are “less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.”

In his 2009 book Visible Learning, educational researcher John Hattie analyzed thousands of research studies about student learning. He found considerable evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies such as direct instruction. Naturally, Hattie recommends educators use the most effective teaching strategies.

If the B.C. government wants to improve its education system, it can start by adopting a common-sense approach that emphasizes traditional academic subjects. In the 21st century, knowledge matters more than ever.