Forgo failed education fads

June 5, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Nova Scotia schools could be in for some major changes. The Minister’s Panel on Education, struck by the Liberal government, will review public education and make recommendations. But if it embraces contemporary education fads, it will do more harm than good.

For parents eagerly awaiting the panel’s report, here’s a prediction of what’s likely to appear.

The panel will begin by pointing out that the world is changing rapidly while schools are still mired in “factory-model” education of the 19th century. Instead of getting students to memorize facts that will soon become outdated, the panel will recommend that teachers must focus on “helping students learn to learn.”

This will lead to the central theme in the panel’s report — the need to move Nova Scotia to a 21st-century learning model. It will recommend rewriting curriculum guides to focus less on content, and more on the process of learning. In addition, it will stress the need for schools to do a better job of integrating technology in classrooms.

How can I be so confident about what’s going to appear in the panel’s report? Because the same empty philosophy and shallow platitudes appear in similar reports from other provinces. The most obvious example is Alberta’s “Inspiring Education” initiative.

Released in 2010 with great fanfare, Inspiring Education suggested that Alberta’s education system needs a fundamental transformation. It trumpeted the importance of 21st-century skills and spoke about “the role of the teacher changing from that of a knowledge authority to an architect of learning.” And, for good measure, Inspiring Education concluded that “technology should play a broader role in the classroom.”

However, while the Alberta government appears enthusiastic about this new direction, this is not true for Alberta parents, teachers, and students.

For example, more than 14,000 parents signed a petition expressing their unhappiness with Alberta’s fuzzy math curriculum. They want the education minister to ensure students learn standard algorithms and memorize their math facts.

Currently, the math curriculum does none of this. Instead, it places a strong emphasis on the so-called discovery approach. Students are supposed to figure out ways of solving math problems by themselves while teachers are discouraged from providing direct instruction. Unfortunately, this is exactly the learning environment envisioned for all grades and subjects in Inspiring Education.

The Alberta education minister recently reinforced this direction with the release of his Task Force for Teaching Excellence report. In it, the task force insists that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

The task force also wants principals to evaluate teachers based on the degree to which they adopt this philosophy. Teachers would need to get re-certified every five years and, presumably, could lose their licences if they use a more traditional teaching approach.

It should come as little surprise that the Alberta Teachers’ Association is against these recommendations. Over 450 teacher delegates took the unprecedented step of unanimously voting no-confidence in the education minister at their annual meeting.

Clearly, Alberta’s Inspiring Education agenda is far from universally supported.

Despite the train wreck in Alberta, other provincial governments are moving in the same misguided direction. British Columbia’s education department is promoting the B.C. Education Plan, which similarly trumpets the need to change everything in schools because “the world is changing.”

Like Alberta, it wants to make teachers “shift from being the primary source of content to focus on helping students learn how to learn.”

Fortunately, Nova Scotia still has the opportunity to avoid these misguided educational reforms. Instead of copying empty slogans from the 21st century education movement, the Minister’s Panel on Education should examine ways to help teachers do their jobs more effectively. Less top-down micromanagement by bureaucrats, fewer useless education fads, and more empowerment of classroom teachers would be good places to start.

Nova Scotian parents and students deserve more than failed approaches and empty platitudes. Hopefully, the panel’s upcoming report will prove my pessimistic predictions wrong, and will propose evidence-based recommendations that would actually improve this province’s schools.

Unfortunately, it is more likely we will see more of the faddish and misguided policy advice that has emerged from similar review processes in other jurisdictions.

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.

Everything is changing — except education fads

March 7, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

“Everything is changing.” So states the two-minute promotional video on the Alberta government’s Inspiring Education website. It describes the need to “prepare Alberta’s students for this unknown and unknowable future” and notes that “we cannot predict what work will look like in ten years, let alone what skills will be required.”

In other words, the Alberta government now wants to prepare students for an “unknowable” future. Because traditional learning no longer meets this goal, the narrator cheerfully concludes, “We’re changing everything.”

Confused? You should be. The government plans to scrap the top-performing education system in the country and replace it with a system that helps students develop unknown skills for jobs that don’t yet exist in some unknowable future. Only in education is such claptrap accepted as sensible policy.

Imagine if another government department featured such a ridiculous video on its website. Would anyone take Inspiring Health seriously if a video proclaims “we’re changing everything” because “we cannot predict what medicine will look like in ten years”? Or how about an Inspiring Justice video that states that the justice system must “prepare Alberta’s criminals for an unknown and unknowable future”?

For some reason, education is the one profession where it is acceptable to regularly throw out proven practices and replace them with new—but unproven–theories that have no evidence to support them.

Remember open area classrooms? In the 1970s, Alberta constructed elementary schools without walls. Classes met in open areas separated by dividers. The theory was that open classes would create exciting new “team teaching” opportunities and create a buzz of learning throughout the school.

In reality, many students couldn’t handle the noise and disruption so governments eventually built classroom walls at great expense. Despite the obvious problems with open area classrooms, this theory still dominated North America for years—and did great damage to the learning of millions of students.

For a profession that allegedly values critical thinking, it is remarkable that such a misguided theory was adopted so uncritically.

Failed education fads are not simply a thing of the past. Right now, Alberta students and their parents are suffering from the discovery math approach. Instead of making students memorize multiplication tables and learn the most efficient algorithms for solving math problems, discovery math encourages students to invent their own strategies and techniques. As a result, parents spend hours at home helping their kids figure out convoluted word problems that don’t make sense. Not surprisingly, the math scores of Alberta students have steadily declined since the formal introduction of discovery math in 2008.

What do Inspiring Education, open area classrooms, and discovery math all have in common? They are manifestations of the same failed educational philosophy—progressivism.

Progressives have a naively optimistic belief in the ability of students to direct their own learning. They dislike teacher-led classrooms and want each teacher to be “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” They prefer to focus on the process of learning and de-emphasize specific curriculum content.  In their minds, any rote learning is derided as “drill and kill.”

Inspiring Education proposes another version of this failed philosophy. Parents who are frustrated with discovery math can look forward to other subject areas becoming equally confusing. For example, science courses will focus less on learning key scientific facts and theories and more on students discovering things for themselves, while history courses will focus more on social justice activism than on providing students with an accurate understanding of the past.

Equally concerning is the Inspiring Education video’s nonsensical claim that we have no idea what skills will be required in the future. In reality, virtually everyone agrees that students will still need to learn how to read and write, do math, and have a basic understanding of Canadian history and governance. These disciplines and skills will be just as useful twenty years from now as they are today and as they were 100 years ago.

If the Alberta government is determined to stick with its mantra that “everything is changing”, it should change its Inspiring Education campaign into something useful. Building on Alberta’s proven strengths would be a much better strategy than tearing everything down just for the sake of change.

Textbooks are still important

February 20, 2014

Published in The Windsor Star

The lowly textbook is under siege by progressive educators. Again.

Why waste money on textbooks, these educators argue, when all the information students ever need is available with the click of a mouse? Besides, they add, textbooks are hopelessly outdated and very biased.

These and other arguments were recently made by history teacher David Cutler in The Atlantic magazine. Predictably, Cutler claims over reliance on textbooks early in his career resulted in apathy and boredom among his students.

Cutler also pointed to his experience as a graduate student. None of his history professors relied to any significant degree on textbooks. Rather, they provided students with relevant primary sources and realistic case studies which helped him understand the information better than memorizing facts and dates from textbooks. Cutler argues that the same holds true for high school students.

While these arguments may initially seem compelling, they are actually fallacious.

For example, it is misleading to compare high school students with graduate students. University students, particularly those at the graduate level, are highly motivated and come into their courses with substantial background knowledge in their discipline. Often these students can already recite hundreds of facts and dates by memory. As a result, there is little need to review basic timelines and key events. Rather, graduate students can dive right in to more advanced topics.

In contrast, most high school students know little about history. Consequently, a well-designed textbook is an invaluable tool. Not only does it serve as a useful reference guide, it shows key events in their proper chronological sequence and puts facts and dates into a broad historical context.

Shaping Canada by Linda Connor, Brian Hull and Connie Wyatt-Anderson is an excellent Canadian example. As the recommended textbook for Manitoba’s grade 11 students, Shaping Canada provides a chronological overview of Canadian history and contains many excerpts from primary sources to give students a better understanding of life in the past.

While history teachers can and should go beyond the information provided in textbooks, it helps if they provide students with a book that has most of the concepts and information they are expected to learn. Furthermore, high-quality textbooks such as Shaping Canada are extensively reviewed by subject matter experts and representatives from various ethnic groups, who together identify and weed out errors and misrepresentations. The result is a book that, while still imperfect, reflects more than one author’s perspective.

As for the suggestion that widespread internet access makes textbooks obsolete, the reality is that the quality of online information varies widely. While websites are a hit-and-miss collection of good and bad sources, a well-written textbook synthesizes the most important information in a way students can easily understand. Unless students already have substantial knowledge and considerable discernment, they are unlikely to find the same quality of information on the internet.

In addition, students need to be regularly challenged by their readings. As Mike Schmoker notes in his book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, textbooks provide “the kind of content-rich, semantically rich prose that… students need to acquire and critically process essential knowledge.” So not only does reading the dense, challenging prose found in well-written textbooks improve content knowledge, it also helps students improve their reading skills.

Unfortunately, not all teachers are equally conversant with the subjects they teach. While it is desirable for all history courses to be taught by teachers with a strong history background, the reality is that some teachers lack this expertise. For these teachers, textbooks are even more essential. It would be a shame to deprive them of this valuable tool.

That being said, while textbooks are undoubtedly useful, teachers should never rely exclusively on them. A good history teacher will, for example, use outside sources and ensure that students learn much more than what is written in their textbooks. Teachers should neither overly depend on textbooks, nor be too quick to dismiss them.

Despite the substantial attacks on textbooks by progressive educators, it is far too soon to consign them to the dustbin of history. Textbooks continue to play an important role in educating students.

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.

Alberta schools are getting worse, not better

December 20, 2013

There is an old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. By this standard, the Redford government must be insane—at least when it comes to public education reform.

Over the last decade, the Department of Education has initiated a radical overhaul of public education in this province. Less reliance on standardized testing, a discovery-based math curriculum, reduced emphasis on academic content, and new grading schemes are but a few examples. But, the results have not been encouraging.

In fact, recently released data from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) paints a grim picture of a province in academic decline. Nowhere has the decline been more precipitous than in math. While Alberta students used to lead the country in math scores, they are now merely average. Without a dramatic shift back to the academic basics, this downward trend will almost certainly continue.

Education minister Jeff Johnson paid lip service to the problem last week but gave no indication that he plans to reverse course. Of course, there was little reason to expect otherwise. As one of the key architects behind the 2009 Inspiring Education report, Johnson has a vested interest in continuing his department’s current direction.

However, once you strip away his report’s soaring rhetoric and cut through the edu-babble, Inspiring Education was merely a recycled presentation of the failed progressive ideologies of the past. Its pledge to move education away from learning specific knowledge and skills to a process of inquiry and discovery has been the typical rallying cry of progressive educators for more than a century.

For example, back in 1918 educational theorist William Heard Kilpatrick outlined his “project method” in an article published in the Teachers College Record. Just like Inspiring Education, Kilpatrick advocated the integration of subject areas and downplayed the importance of academic content. In fact, Inspiring Education is so similar to Kilpatrick’s philosophy that it could have been written by him if he were still alive.

Sadly, Kilpatrick’s progressive philosophy had a profoundly negative impact on public education in North America. While a small number of education professors opposed Kilpatrick’s philosophy, most education schools adopted his ideas and passed them on to future generations of teachers.

Until recently, Alberta stood out as a beacon of common sense against the onslaught of this progressive ideology. Its commitment to parental choice, rigorous standardized testing, and solid academic content made Alberta unique in Canada. Alberta students had the highest PISA scores in Canada and one of the best in the world. Unfortunately, as the Redford government continues to dismantle the best features of Alberta’s once proud school system, students pay the price.

Teachers frustrated with the decline in academic standards shouldn’t expect any help from the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). In its 2012 research update entitled A Great School for All: Transforming Education in Alberta, the ATA praised the province’s Inspiring Education report as “a positive first step.” Incredibly, the ATA wants to go even further down the progressive path of education reform.

Much of the ATA’s report is an endorsement of Finland’s education system and the so-called “fourth way” paradigm of American educator Andy Hargreaves.  This admiration of Finland stems from the way its schools incorporate aspects of progressive ideology in their practice. As a result, the ATA seeks to remake Alberta’s education system in the image of Finland.

Unfortunately for them, Finland dropped from its once high standing on PISA. While still one of the higher performing nations, Finland’s results have declined over the last decade and now scores at almost exactly the same level as Canada. Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Shanghai, all of whom use traditional methods of instruction, have significantly surpassed Finland. As a result, Finland has lost its lustre as a model of school reform; Alberta should be looking to countries like Singapore instead of Finland.

To make matters worse, as the Redford government continues to water down academic standards, some school boards are replacing percentage grades on report cards with confusing and imprecise letter grades. This makes it difficult for parents to understand how their children are doing. Acting on the advice of misguided assessment gurus, some schools even adopted rigid no-zero policies, as Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval found out last year.

If the Redford government continues on the failed progressive path of reform, academic achievement will continue to decline. Without a major course correction, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.  Insanity, as they say, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alberta’s parents deserve better.

Course correction needed in math

December 18, 2013

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

When it comes to math skills, Canadian students are getting worse, not better. That was the finding of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released Dec. 3. Among the 65 nations that participated in the OECD study, Canada’s overall standing in math fell to 13th from 10th in 2009 and 7th in 2006.

Nova Scotia is no exception to this trend. The province has steadily declined since 2003 and its students scored significantly below the Canadian average. Clearly, something is wrong with the way Nova Scotia schools teach mathematics.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education chose to downplay this problem with a news release entitled, “Nova Scotia students perform well in international assessments.” While the release acknowledged a decline in math scores, it suggested that a newly introduced math curriculum in Nova Scotia schools would fix this problem.

The new math curriculum stems from a commitment the previous government made. Last year, former Education Minister Ramona Jennex announced that Nova Scotia would import and adopt Alberta’s math curriculum. The reasoning behind this announcement was that since Alberta students have some of the best test results in Canada, adopting their curriculum would lead to similar results in this province.

At a superficial level, this announcement made sense. After all, if Alberta’s math curriculum improved student achievement in that province, why wouldn’t it do the same here? There’s just one problem with this approach — it did nothing of the sort.

The reality is that Alberta’s math scores, as measured by PISA, have been in a free-fall since 2003. In fact, next to Manitoba, Alberta experienced the biggest decline in math skills over the last decade. While Alberta students used to perform well above the Canadian average in math, they are now merely average.

Alberta’s decline coincides with the adoption of a new math curriculum known as the Western and Northern Curriculum Protocol (WNCP). The WNCP downplays the importance of practice and memorization and encourages students to invent their own ways of solving math questions. Instead of learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, students invent their own.

This approach to teaching and learning, often called romantic progressivism or constructivism, is widely pushed within faculties of education. “A teacher should be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage” is its mantra. The WNCP math curriculum was heavily influenced by this philosophy. Considering the large number of provinces that follow the WNCP, it should come as little surprise that math scores across the country are declining.

Instead of adopting a math curriculum that led to worse student achievement, Nova Scotia should consider better options. One is to look at the only province to maintain its high standing in math — Quebec. Unlike many other provinces, Quebec still has a math curriculum that places a strong emphasis on the mastery of fundamental skills.

In addition, at least one province using the WNCP math curriculum has made steps to reverse course. Manitoba’s education minister recently announced a new back-to-basics approach in math. Students in K-8 will now be expected to memorize their math facts, solve math questions without a calculator, and use traditional algorithms for basic math operations. Given that Manitoba is one of the lowest achieving provinces in the country, this announcement came not a moment too soon.

However, if Nova Scotia wants to make significant improvements to its math scores, the education minister should take even bigger steps than Manitoba. John Mighton’s JUMP math program could be just what this province needs.

The JUMP approach to math instruction is almost exactly opposite from WNCP. Instead of leaving students to figure out their own ways of solving math questions, JUMP helps students break a math problem down to its component parts. Students are taught math concepts sequentially and must practise a skill until it becomes automatic.

Several years ago, a research team from the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, conducted a randomized controlled study of JUMP math’s effectiveness. It divided approximately 300 students into two groups, one taught WNCP-style math and the other JUMP math. Students in the JUMP math program significantly outperformed students in the other group.

The widespread adoption of JUMP math, or something like it, could revolutionize math instruction in this province. It’s time for Nova Scotia to take bold action and reverse its longstanding decline in math skills. The status quo is unacceptable.

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.

More edu-babble than substance in new BC curriculum

November 4, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Sun

Educational theorist William Heard Kilpatrick once wrote: “If people face a rapidly shifting and changing world, changing in unexpected ways and in unexpected directions, then what? Why, their education would stress thinking and methods of attack.”

If it wasn’t for the fact that he wrote these words in 1925, one might think he was describing the new curriculum just published by British Columbia’s Ministry of Education.

Kilpatrick consistently downplayed the importance of academic content, and emphasized the so-called process of learning. In other words, Kilpatrick thought it was more important for students to learn how to access information than to master a body of knowledge. Considering the speed at which the world was changing in 1925, Kilpatrick thought schools should focus on concepts and critical thinking skills rather than specific facts which he thought would soon be obsolete.

Apparently the BC Ministry of Education agrees with Kilpatrick. In fact, the overview of the new curriculum provided on its website explicitly downplays factual knowledge. “In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.”

This anti-knowledge approach has clearly influenced the major subject areas. For example, the draft social studies curriculum is almost totally empty of specific historical events and dates but is chock full of references to overarching concepts such as nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism. It’s difficult to imagine how students can grasp such complex concepts without knowing specific historical facts. Some teachers will obviously fill in these knowledge gaps but others may not and that is a serious problem for students.

In order to think deeply about a topic, students need to know something about it. Someone who used Google to find out when Confederation took place, who the key players were, and which provinces were involved, is unlikely to provide much insight into the factors that led to the formation of Canada.

Critical thought cannot take place in a knowledge vacuum. If we want students to understand the country they live in, we must ensure they learn about specific people and events from our past.

Proposed changes to BC’s math curriculum are equally concerning. Instead of requiring students to memorize math facts and learn the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, the new curriculum expects students to “engage in multiple strategies to solve problems.” In other words, students and their parents can look forward to more frustrating evenings trying to solve fuzzy math problems. Parents can expect to see even more private tutoring agencies sprout up.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to the dumbed-down curriculum proposed by the BC government. With the help of many subject matter experts, the Core Knowledge Foundation (coreknowledge.org) has created a content-rich curriculum that actually helps students think critically and deeply. More than 1,200 schools in the United States and even a few in other countries use this curriculum.

The Core Knowledge Foundation was established by well-known education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor emeritus of English at the University of Virginia. In his 2006 book, The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch points out that students with a broad knowledge base almost always read at a higher level than students with a limited knowledge base. Given this fact, the Core Knowledge curriculum helps students acquire the background knowledge they need to read more effectively.

There is substantial research evidence for the effectiveness of the Core Knowledge curriculum. For example, a three-year evaluation of twelve Core Knowledge schools conducted by Sam Stringfield, Amanda Datnow, Geoffrey Bornan, and Laura Rachuba of Johns Hopkins University found significant positive effects with the implementation of the Core Knowledge curriculum. Not only did the math skills of students improve in these schools, so did their reading ability.

Far from being an exciting new innovation, British Columbia’s new curriculum is little more than a rehash of the failed anti-knowledge approach of the 1920s. There is no reason to believe this approach will be any more effective now.

Students and teachers alike would benefit from less edu-babble in BC and more substance. A content-rich curriculum would be a good start.

The flipped classroom has it all backwards

October 29, 2013

The one constant in the teaching profession is the regular introduction of new education fads. Whole language, open-area classrooms, and “new math” are a few examples from the past.

Sadly, the lack of hard evidence for these and other fads did little to prevent them from being widely adopted.

Now another education fad, flipped classrooms, is making its way into schools. In flipped classrooms, students watch instructional videos at home and complete their assignments during class time. Advocates claim students in flipped classrooms are more engaged in their learning than students in traditional classrooms. .

Carolyn Durley, a biology teacher in Kelowna, BC, recently appeared on CBC Radio to expound on the alleged benefits of flipped classrooms. Durley first heard about flipped classrooms at a professional development conference two years ago in Colorado and was so excited by this concept that she completely revamped her instructional approach. In her view, the change was beneficial for her students.

According to Durley, students in the 21st century acquire content knowledge from a variety of sources and may not look to their teachers as experts the same way they did in the past. As a result, Durley believes class time is best used providing one-on-one tutoring to students who can then learn new content at their own pace by watching instructional videos at home. This is a way for teachers be “a guide on the side” and not “a sage on the stage.”

However, Durley’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical about this approach. First, flipped classroom advocates place too little emphasis on the subject matter expertise of teachers. While students can use their computers and smartphones to access content, this does not take away from the ongoing importance of teacher directed instruction during class time. No amount of online reading or video watching can match the effectiveness of a history or science teacher who knows her subject well and can communicate it clearly to students.

Second, flipped classrooms become impractical when used with multiple subjects. A high school student with several teachers using the flipped classroom approach could find himself spending several hours in the evenings watching a variety of instructional videos. This excessive use of screen time becomes even more problematic with young students.

Aside from the testimonials provided by advocates, there is no evidence this approach is any more effective than other instructional methodologies. While there is a great deal of evidence for the effectiveness of direct instruction, a decidedly traditional approach, the same cannot be said for many innovations such as flipped classrooms. Thus, the wholesale adoption of this approach is premature, to say the least.

That being said, there are times when it may make sense to flip the classroom, especially if the videos provide better instruction than the textbooks or teachers. For example, a pilot project in Nova Scotia is currently providing free tablets to approximately 300 grade 7 students. One of the purposes behind these tablets is to enable students to access math videos from the Khan Academy’s website.

These videos will almost certainly have a positive impact on the math skills of these students. Unlike the fuzzy math found in most textbooks and curriculum guides, the Khan Academy videos actually show students the simplest and most efficient way to solve math problems. In fact, all of the standard mathematical algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division feature prominently in these videos. Ironically, Nova Scotia students with the newest technology will learn math the old-fashioned way—and will benefit from the experience.

Of course, all of this could be done without bringing a single tablet into a classroom. Teachers could teach the standard algorithms using textbooks that actually contain proper step-by-step directions. While watching a solid instructional video about a math technique is good, getting the same lesson from a teacher in the classroom who can answer questions at the time she is teaching the subject is even better.

For a small number of teachers, the flipped classroom has a certain amount of appeal. However, it is premature to push for the wholesale adoption of this approach. Better to stick with proven methodologies than chase after the latest fad solely on the basis of a few enthusiastic testimonials.