Ghosts of flawed teaching techniques threaten to haunt Alberta classrooms

January 13, 2017

Published in the Calgary Herald

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education policy.

Education gurus come up with new ideas, temporarily retreat from them when they prove to be a flop, and then rename them and try again with a new crop of unsuspecting teachers and principals.

Perhaps the worst of these “new” ideas is the notion that specific content knowledge doesn’t matter a whole lot. Since knowledge is changing more rapidly than ever before, the gurus argue that students should not waste time memorizing a bunch of useless facts. Hence, the move away from teacher-directed instruction to various manifestations of inquiry- or project-based learning.

In 2009, the previous Alberta government unveiled its Inspiring Education initiative, which was replete with edu-babble. The report that ushered in the brave new world of education emphasized that students need to “learn how to learn,” become “life-long learners” and “apply multiple literacies.”

Not surprisingly, Inspiring Education said that schools should move away from the “industrial model,” become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.”

However, there was nothing new about Inspiring Education, as it did little more than repackage some very old ideas. In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a well-known American education professor, wrote an article for the Teachers College Record entitled The Project Method in which he outlined the approach.

In true progressive fashion, Kilpatrick made sure to explain that the process of learning is far more important than any specific factual content. Had Kilpatrick not written this article nearly 100 years ago, one might have thought he plagiarized it from the Inspiring Education report.

Despite an avalanche of criticism from academics and other subject-area experts, the government pushed its Inspiring Education agenda forward. The department of education even went so far as to create a two-minute promotional video that proclaimed “Everything is changing.”

At the same time, the government announced its intention to scrap many of Alberta’s top-notch standardized exams and replace them with assessments that focused on the process of learning and not on the content.

And then the election happened. In a surprising development, the Progressive Conservative dynasty was toppled by Rachel Notley’s NDP.

Initially, there were some encouraging signs that newly minted Education Minister David Eggen would scrap the Inspiring Education agenda and bring back a much-needed academic focus. His decision to add a 15-minute calculator-free component to the Grade 6 provincial math assessment was a welcome rebuke to the failed discovery math approach that has taken hold of Alberta schools.

Sadly, despite this positive step, there are many indications that the ghost of Inspiring Education lives on. The Alberta government is currently in the midst of a curriculum review process that has every indication of moving away from specific content knowledge and focusing more on the nebulous process of learning.

The public survey being used to gather feedback consists of a series of questions that talk about various “ways of knowing” and various “21st century competencies.” The phrasing of these questions certainly makes it appear that parents are being led to a predetermined conclusion. The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum, which was recently published by Alberta Education, shows that the fix is in.

This framework is long on the values it wants students to adopt and short on the importance of content knowledge. Even worse is the three-minute promotional video on the department’s website that promotes “student-centred” learning and describes teachers as learning facilitators. It dismisses textbooks as “artificial constructs” and suggests that classrooms need to be more like the real world. William Heard Kilpatrick would have been proud.

While the government might have changed last year, the same bad ideas are still alive and well in Alberta Education. Until the education minister fully renounces the Inspiring Education agenda, Alberta’s world-renowned education system will continue to decline.

Despite promises, fuzzy education agenda endures

November 14, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

During the Progressive Conservative leadership race, Jim Prentice said that Alberta schools needed to focus on the academic basics. He even appointed Gordon Dirks as minister of education, someone known to be sympathetic to traditional education ideas.

In this appointment, Prentice signalled a willingness to change course from the previous government’s disastrous Inspiring Education initiative.

Parents looking for change had further cause for hope when Prentice, once he became premier, shuffled Greg Bass out of the deputy minister of education portfolio. With Bass’s removal, Alberta Education lost its most prominent discovery learning evangelist.

However, despite a new premier, new minister of education and a new deputy minister, the old Inspiring Education initiative still remains intact. Its nonsensical Everything is Changing video can still be viewed on the department’s website, while the supporting documents also remain. If Prentice genuinely wants to change direction in Alberta Education, he must remove this material from his government’s website.

Even more concerning is the government’s lack of action on the provincial math curriculum.

While the former education minister, Jeff Johnson, reluctantly agreed to revise the math curriculum by requiring students to memorize basic math facts, he did not go nearly far enough. Fuzzy math textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense, remain in use and there is still no requirement for students to learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In a recent letter to Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, the Calmar mother who initiated the widely popular back-to-basics math petition, Education Minister Gordon Dirks declined to meet with her and referred her to Amaya Ortigosa, the team leader for mathematics K-9 with Alberta Education. Considering that Ortigosa is a strong proponent of discovery learning, Tran-Davies is unlikely to get very far with her concerns.

To make matters worse, Dirks noted that even with the recent revisions, the math curriculum would not require students to learn the standard algorithms. Instead, it will continue to expect students to use a variety of problem-solving strategies, some more effective than others. In other words, nothing is going to change, and students and their parents and can look forward to fuzzy math homework assignments for many years to come.

Unfortunately, there are other ways in which the Inspiring Education agenda is moving ahead. Alberta school boards are continuing with their plans to eliminate percentage grades from report cards and promote no-zero policies. The Calgary Board of Education, for example, recently removed percentage grades from all K-9 report cards and may soon do the same with Grade 10 to 12 report cards.

Parents of K-9 students in Calgary must now wade through a series of checklists for various outcomes in each subject area in order to find out how their children are doing. With no percentage grades and only four achievement levels for each outcome, it will be difficult for parents to help their children set goals for improving their performances. More importantly, students will only receive two formal report cards each year. As a result, parents will get only one opportunity to review a formal report card and help their children before year-end.

On its website, the Calgary Board of Education notes that, “Alberta is shifting toward a new vision for education based on the information gathered through Inspiring Education.” Like many other school divisions in the province, the CBE is still redesigning assessment and reporting practices to reflect this old policy direction. In other words, the CBE still acts as if there has not been a new mandate.

The CBE’s commitment to fuzzy assessment policies goes even further. Its recommended reading list for parents includes, among other things, an article by Alfie Kohn, who says that schools should not give students any grades at all, and an article by Thomas Guskey, who says there are good reasons for no-zero policies.

Obviously, the CBE would not recommend these articles to parents and teachers if they did not reflect the direction the board wishes to take its schools. All parents should be concerned about this direction and they should let the new premier and minister of education know what they think.

Despite initial positive signs, Premier Jim Prentice and Education Minister Gordon Dirks have yet to make meaningful changes to the misguided Inspiring Education initiative. Until they do, Alberta Education bureaucrats and school board officials will continue dismantling this province’s once top-performing education system. This does not bode well for students or their parents.

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.