Progressive ideology a failure

January 24, 2013

Published by The Chronicle Herald (Halfax)

One of the most common sayings prospective teachers hear in university is that a classroom teacher should be “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” This pithy quote sums up the progressive approach to education that dominates our public schools.

The progressive approach de-emphasizes subject matter knowledge and encourages students to construct their own understanding of the world around them. Teachers who make their students master basic math and reading skills through drill and practice are dismissed as old-fashioned, while teachers who involve students in open-ended inquiry projects are hailed as innovators.

While progressive educators claim their approach is supported by educational research, the reality is quite different. In fact, research evidence makes it clear that students benefit greatly from teachers who use traditional teaching techniques.

John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s leading experts on student achievement. His recent book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, is based on a synthesis of more than 60,000 research studies.

Hattie does not shy away from critiquing the cherished dogmas of progressive ideology. Most notably, Hattie rejects the notion that teachers should act primarily as non-intrusive facilitators, arguing instead that teachers must assume an active role directing learning.

One thing all teachers should do is require students to develop their skills through practice. While progressive educators deride practice and repetition as “drill and kill,” Hattie argues that deliberate practice is an essential part of learning. He cites a number of research studies that demonstrate the importance of many hours of practice in order to develop expertise. Hattie even goes so far as to say that, in some cases, learning “is simply doing some things many times over.”

Progressives strongly support open-ended activities in the classroom in which students direct their own learning. However, Hattie cautions against too many open-ended activities (such as discovery learning, searching the Internet, and PowerPoint presentations) because students are easily distracted from what is important. Once again, teachers need to do far more than act as mere guides on the side.

While Hattie acknowledges the importance of helping students develop critical thinking skills and gain greater self-awareness, he differs starkly from progressives in his emphasis on content. “All of this depends on subject matter knowledge, because enquiry and critical evaluation is not divorced from knowing something,” concludes Hattie.

As for the progressive mantra that all students have their own individual learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, etc.), Hattie bluntly states there is “zero-evidence” for this theory. Hattie concludes that identifying learning styles is a “modern fad” and a “fruitless pursuit.” Other well-known experts, such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, back up his assessment.

Unfortunately, education officials in Nova Scotia seem blissfully unaware of these findings. As a case in point, the government’s Kids & Learning First document calls on teachers to identify the individual learning styles of each student. Similarly, the Halifax regional school board’s formal assessment policy requires teachers to design “multiple assessment and evaluation strategies that meet the learning styles of students …” Clearly, the individual learning styles fad remains firmly entrenched in this province.

As a result of this unproven theory, many teachers burn themselves out trying to adapt their lessons to every student’s so-called learning style. Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time. Students would learn more and teachers would have more time to focus on things that really matter.

Similarly, the provincial government could significantly improve math instruction if it adopted a curriculum that required students to learn the basic math facts and master the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, the government’s plan to adopt the math curriculum used by provinces in Western Canada is woefully inadequate since that curriculum is heavily influenced by progressive ideology. With this curriculum, Nova Scotia can expect more of the same poor results.

If the government is serious about improving education, it needs to reject the failed progressive ideology that maintains its stranglehold on public schools. Real change means empowering each teacher to be far more than a mere guide on the side.

Common sense needed on school safety

January 8, 2013

Published by the Winnipeg Free Press

The horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, sparked a continent-wide discussion about school safety. This renewed interest in security is understandable — everyone wants students to be safe at school. Unfortunately, common sense seems to be in short supply as many proposed measures are not particularly helpful.

For example, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty reacted to the Newtown massacre with a hasty pledge to implement a “locked-door policy” in all elementary schools. Along with requiring schools to lock their front doors when classes are in session, McGuinty’s government will spend $10 million to make sure all schools come equipped with security cameras, buzzers, and locking doors.

Turning schools into miniature fortresses, however, will not guarantee student safety. The front doors at Sandy Hook Elementary were already locked — the killer simply shot through the front door and forced his way into the building. Short of turning every school into Fort Knox, it is nearly impossible to keep out a madman intent on inflicting damage.

Any public place, whether a movie theatre, shopping mall, church, or school is a possible target for someone determined to harm as many people as possible. No amount of planning can make any of these locations absolutely secure against intruders. The public needs to guard against politicians overreacting to tragedies that, fortunately, remain extremely rare, particularly in Canada. The last thing we need is to turn our schools into virtual garrisons.

There are more immediate safety concerns. Rather than obsessing about the remote possibility of deranged gunmen entering schools, administrators should instead focus their attention on student discipline. Cracking down on bullying, maintaining orderly classrooms, and preventing physical altercations in the hallways are the types of things on which all school administrators should focus, which would have impact on safety. Students have the right to a safe and orderly learning environment.

Sadly, when it comes to student discipline, schools often veer into one of two extremes, neither of which is particularly helpful. At one end, some school districts implement draconian zero-tolerance policies that remove all discretion from students, teachers and principals. While zero-tolerance policies may look good on paper, they often lead to absurd disciplinary actions.

For example, a public school in Maryland recently suspended a six-year-old boy for pointing his finger at another student and saying “Pow.” It is unlikely that his fellow students feel much safer knowing their school is cracking down on dangerous finger guns!

Other zero-tolerance absurdities abound in the public school system. Students have been suspended for things ranging from bringing a butter knife to school to drawing a picture of a gun. In 2009, a six-year-old boy in Delaware was even ordered to attend reform school for 45 days for bringing a camping utensil to school. These incidents demonstrate how zero-tolerance removes the ability of teachers and principals to use their professional judgment and leads to ridiculous decisions that make a mockery of the rules.

At the opposite extreme, some schools bend over backwards to accommodate troublemakers, even those who persistently disrupt the learning environment of others. Progressive educators often place so much emphasis on keeping troublemakers with their peers that they refuse to punish students who repeatedly disregard the most basic rules.

Alfie Kohn, a regular speaker at teacher professional development sessions, is a key proponent of this soft approach. In Kohn’s view, schools should be fully egalitarian communities where rewards and punishments for students are nonexistent. According to Kohn, behaviour problems in schools disappear when teachers provide students with engaging lessons.

However, Kohn’s permissive idealism is based on a hopelessly naive understanding of human nature. Some students intentionally choose to disrupt class, bully their classmates, and destroy property, regardless of the quality of instruction they receive. Teachers who fail to enforce clear boundaries from the outset often end up with unruly classrooms.

In order to provide safer settings and more stable learning environments, schools must avoid the equally misguided extremes of zero tolerance policies and permissive idealism. Rather, school administrators should set and enforce clear standards of behaviour for all students, and do so in a way that allows teachers to use their professional judgment. Rules need to be carefully designed, clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

While no school can devise a foolproof plan to protect against every outside violent attack, all schools can and should establish effectively safe and orderly environment learning for their students. When it comes to school discipline, common sense is needed now more than ever.