Let’s treat teachers like they’re professionals

May 28, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.