Failed education fads should be buried, not resurrected

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Link.

The 1970s was a memorable decade. Judging by yearbook pictures from that era, it seems like everyone wore polyester, bell bottoms, platform shoes, and long hair. And while it may be a fun way to dress up at Halloween costume parties, virtually everyone recognizes that fashions from the past belong in the past.

And while poor fashion choices from the ‘70s have been mercifully retired, the same cannot be said of failed education fads. In fact, open area classrooms, one of the worst education fads from that era, are making a comeback in schools across North America.

The theory behind open area classrooms is relatively simple—schools should have as few walls as possible in order to facilitate collaboration among teachers and students. By making school designs open, students are exposed to learning all around them. The buzz of learning would permeate throughout the school as students eagerly construct new knowledge and work together to build a collaborative professional learning community.

However, things didn’t quite work out that way in real life. Open area classrooms proved to be an unmitigated disaster. They were too noisy and distracting. Teachers and students alike found it impossible to function effectively in an environment that prevented them from getting some peace and quiet. By the 1980s, most open area schools were retrofitted with classroom walls and the failed experiment seemed to come to an end.

It seems that in the field of education, however, fads never actually die out. Rather, they disappear for awhile and reappear later under new names. When they do, school administrators jump on the “new” idea and seek to impose it on as many schools as possible. As more schools adopt the latest fad, it gains the appearance of inevitability. Eventually, after it acquires near-total dominance, the fad comes crashing down when everyone finally realizes it doesn’t work. It then lies low or dormant until it is once again re-invented and foisted on an unsuspecting new generation of students and teachers.

The reappearance of open area classrooms under the new label of open concept schools is the newest example. Fielding Nair International, an architecture firm that specializes in this approach, has designed more than 400 schools around the world, along with approximately a dozen in Western Canada. About half of those schools are located in Regina, where the public school board appears to have put all its eggs in the open concept basket.

Earlier this month, Douglas Park Elementary School opened with great fanfare in suburban Regina. As proof of its fidelity to an open concept layout, this school has huge open spaces, lots of windows, and movable walls. During the opening ceremonies, the school’s principal praised the random abstract layout of the building as “innovative.” Director of education Julie MacRae dutifully added that the new school was not merely a building, but rather a “community of learners.” If only the guests had thought to bring their bell bottoms and platform shoes, the trip back to the ‘70s would have been complete.

It’s remarkable that any school board would invest so heavily in an approach that lacks supporting evidence. When Prakash Nair, one of the lead architects with Fielding Nair International, makes grandiose claims about classrooms being obsolete in the 21st century, many educators rightly view his work with skepticism.

Nair’s design has ideological motivations. As he himself acknowledges in his writings, his advocacy of open concept schools is closely linked to his belief in the constructivist approach to teaching.

Constructivism holds that, instead of passing on a defined body of knowledge, teachers should help students construct their own understanding of the world around them. Open concept schools go hand-in-hand with this approach. Interestingly, whole language and the “new math” are examples of two other failed fads that also stem from constructivism. Considering its dismal track record, there are good reasons to be skeptical of any approach based on constructivism.

To cap it all off, there is no empirical research establishing that open concept schools lead to improved student achievement. However, there is a lot of evidence that students and teachers alike find it difficult to function when their learning environment is noisy and filled with distractions.

Far from being on the cutting edge of innovation, open concept schools merely recycle a failed fad from the past. School boards should leave this concept in the ‘70s, where it truly belongs.

How to make math education worse in Nova Scotia

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax) on October 3, 2012. Link.

Parents have good reason to be concerned about the state of math education in this province. According to the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, Nova Scotia students score significantly below the Canadian average in mathematics.

Earlier this year, the Nova Scotia government pledged to improve math instruction by adopting the Alberta math curriculum. Presumably, this means the purchase of new textbooks and lots of professional development seminars for teachers. Many of these training sessions will likely be co-ordinated by the Mathematics Teachers Association, an affiliate of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

However, the cure may be worse than the disease. Consider the decision of the Mathematics Teachers Association to have Dr. Marian Small give the keynote address at its upcoming conference on Oct. 25.

Dr. Small is the former dean of education at the University of New Brunswick and one of the foremost proponents of the “new math” approach in Canada. We can only assume that the Mathematics Teachers Association shares her perspective since it chose her as its keynote speaker.

Math Focus, the textbook series authored by Dr. Small, reflects her random abstract approach. For example, the standard algorithms for arithmetic, such as long division and vertical addition with a carry, are almost entirely absent. In their place, we find convoluted word problems, confusing instructions, and complicated diagrams. No wonder many parents find it difficult to help their kids with their math homework.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Small for myself. On Sept. 24, she gave an evening presentation to approximately 80 parents at an elementary school in Winnipeg, Man. Because of her prominence in the field of math education, I assumed she would be able to make an intelligent case for her position. I was wrong.

During her presentation, Dr. Small emphasized that there was more than one way to get the correct answer, and encouraged teachers to assign more open-ended and ambiguous math questions to their students. This way, she argued, all students would be more likely to get a correct answer on their questions. She added that all ways of solving math problems were equally valid and teachers should not make a student feel bad for using a different method.

At this point, I put up my hand and asked Dr. Small whether she felt teachers should include the standard algorithms as a component of math instruction. She replied that she did not. When I asked how she reconciled this with her earlier statement that all ways of solving math questions were equally valid, she insisted that the new math techniques were still better. The message I took from that exchange was that all methods are equally valid unless she didn’t personally agree with them.

I wasn’t the only audience member frustrated by the obvious logical inconsistencies in her presentation. Several math professors in the audience challenged some of Dr. Small’s claims about math instruction. At this point, Dr. Small shut down the questions and said that she was simply going to proceed with her presentation.

It was ironic that Dr. Small emphasized the importance of acknowledging the validity of other perspectives, but did exactly the opposite with her own presentation. She gave a one-sided lecture and refused to seriously dialogue with anyone who expressed an opposing view. This is what Nova Scotia math teachers have to look forward to on Oct. 25.

As for the much-vaunted decision of Nova Scotia’s Department of Education to adopt the Alberta math curriculum, there is much less to this change than meets the eye. Alberta actually has the same math curriculum as the other Western provinces, as evidenced by their shared Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP). Throughout the implementation of this new curriculum, Alberta has actually seen its math test scores decline.

The WNCP is heavily influenced by Dr. Small, as evidenced by the fact that her textbook series, Math Focus, is a recommended resource for teachers. In fact, the Mathematics Teachers Association proudly trumpets Dr. Small’s experience with the WNCP on its conference website.

Largely in response to the inadequacies of the WNCP curriculum, a group of math professors recently formed the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math). Their website contains links to peer-reviewed research studies that provide solid evidence for a more traditional approach to math instruction.

If the Nova Scotia government is serious about improving math instruction, it needs to move away from a nebulous, feel-good curriculum and adopt a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes the necessary knowledge and skills.

Until then, we can expect math education to get worse in Nova Scotia.