Saturday, December 12, 2009

Facts vs Thinking

About a week ago the Ottawa Citizen published an editorial called "In Defence of Facts". In it, the argument goes roughly that you cannot have good thoughts unless you start with facts.

It is not that I dislike facts. I have a very good memory and I know tonnes of facts. It is one of the reasons I was a good student in school and it is a small part of my strengths as a teacher. The problem I have is the idea that students cannot do anything useful until they know all the facts. A couple of months ago I was reading a book called Making Learning Whole by David Perkins. Perkins is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. One of Perkins' first points is that one simple way of trying to approach complexity by teaching the elements (typically the facts) first and fitting them together later. The problem is that this approach leaves the learner wondering what the point of learning all these facts is. They get told "you will need this later", as if that is actually going to motivate a learner. The end result is that most learners in this method compartmentalize their learning and fail to make useful connections later when they actually need all those facts.

This leads to the second problem, which is that teaching facts to our children is not going to get the job done. There are enormous numbers of Chinese and Indian children learning facts in their schools just as well as our students learn their facts . Since these Asian learners are willing to work for less money than our learners, learning facts will not let our children compete in the new global environment. To compete with China and India and the other emerging nations Canada must focus on value above and beyond the knowledge of facts. Thomas Friedman makes this quite clear in his book, The World is Flat. Creativity, problem solving, entrepreneurship, and other skills that raise people above the average in their professions are the kinds of skills that Canadians need to succeed in the flat world that is happening right now.

If we want our children to succeed, we need education that works with big ideas, that helps students learn to make connections, be creative, solve problems, and more. Fixating on facts will only create a Canada where fewer and fewer of our learners are able to compete and win against the massive numbers of students in Asia.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Schools and Censorship II

So, I spent about two hours this morning doing something that would have been useful and educational for my Computer Technology students, except that the school board will not let them do it at school.

My Technology students are working on Power Point type presentations about various topics in the Society and Technology strand of their course. The topics are quite relevant and potentially interesting, such as Internet Safety, Privacy Issues, Assistive Technology, Health Issues and Computers. This assignment was given out before I arrived and one of the expectations is that the students will embed a video into their presentation. The best way I know to embed a video is to have the video file on hand and insert it in the presentation. This means that the students need to be able to get to relevant video files. No problem there, YouTube is full of great videos on the topics they need, and you can easily use Mozilla Firefox's Download Helper to get the movies onto a drive. Unfortunately, school computers do not have Firefox, it cannot be installed, and students' access to YouTube is blocked. There are reasons for all of these choices by the school board but the net effect is that a potentially interesting and educational trip through relevant YouTube videos was impossible for my students to do in class.

In the end, I spent a couple of hours finding and downloading videos that my students can use. What makes me sad is that had been students been able to do this work at school I probably would have been able to get at least an hour of looking, learning and thinking out of each student in the class. But, they were not allowed to do this work in class because of the board's decisions, so we have to be satisfied with my two person-hours of work versus the 15-20 or more hours that the students would have put in as a group.

This is not meant as a diatribe against the school board or anyone who works for it. I understand that YouTube is blocked because it is usually a huge distraction. I am told that Firefox is a security risk for a network. There are valid reasons for each individual decision that was made. It is just that the cumulative effect is a loss of learning, and that always makes me sad.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time to get past the reputations of high schools.

The Ottawa Citizen printed an editorial about a week ago that I felt pandered to the prejudices of parents in terms of high school choice.

The Citizen seems to have chosen not to print my letter to the editor disagreeing with the editorial, so I will do so here:

I would like to comment on the “Transferring Blame” editorial of November 18. The editorial talked about how the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is planning to make it more difficult for students to transfer from one school to another. The article's main point rests on two ideas, first that “ there is in this city a perception that some public high schools are better than others”, and secondly that “It's important to be honest, and admit that parents' perceptions are often true.”

I must disagree forcefully with the second statement. The reputations of schools as good vs bad and smart vs tough are all out of proportion to the actual teaching and learning being accomplished at local high schools. Recent research shows that individual teachers affect student results far more than any effect that can be attributed to the school or the school environment. Students will have great educational experiences when they are in the classes of great teachers.

Some would suggest based on my previous statements that Lisgar's superior test results, for example, must come from superior teaching. Again, I must forcefully disagree. I taught at Lisgar several years ago and I worked with many excellent teachers. But the three best I worked with at Lisgar also all taught at Rideau at some point in their careers. My colleagues at Lisgar have worked at many other high schools including Brookfield, Glebe, Rideau, Ridgemont, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and West Carleton, just to name a few. Recently, as a supply teacher I have worked at eleven OCDSB High Schools and I have found excellent, innovative, creative, caring, and passionate teachers at every one.

There are fantastic teachers who can give Ottawa's students great learning experiences at every high school in the city. We need to get past the reputations and prejudices that exist and let students learn together at their local high schools.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lisgar, school transfers, community schools, and school choice

You are almost guaranteed to get a post from me when the Ottawa Citizen publishes stuff about Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa's oldest high school. I taught at Lisgar for three years and, while I worked with many excellent teachers and students there, I did not find that the school lived up to its self-image as the be-all and end-all of high school education in Ottawa. The story today talks about how cross-boundary transfers affect schools. Just to clarify, in Ottawa each student is supposed to go to the high school in whose area they live. However, for various reasons (I remember my friend needing to transfer so that he could take Typing in French) some students are allowed to attend a different school instead.

The problem with this particular approach is that schools with a good reputation disproportionately attract more good students. Schools with poor reputations disproportionately lose good students. Reputations and standardized tests results are maintained even though the quality of teaching, and the actual student improvements, may well be better in the "bad" school.

But the transfers hurt more than just the "bad" schools. For example Lisgar, which accepted 80 transfers this last year, is over-crowded. Many Science classes are not held in Science labs and it is extremely difficult to get computer time for non-Computer classes. Every student at Lisgar has his or her learning opportunities reduced because of the overcrowding.

The brouhaha of the Citizen article is that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is planning to make it more difficult to transfer away from the "home " school. In particular, some parents are worried that this will make it harder to get their kids into Lisgar. The change to transfers makes sense in line with the fact that the OCDSB uses a community schools model where each school serves the needs of its community, and so transfers should not really be required. However, what the board seems to have missed is that having specialized arts programs and gifted programs at only some schools takes away from the community model. Once you start putting special students in only some schools, the rest of the schools are left with the less-special students. Not exactly true community schooling.

Even if the board allowed no transfers at all there would always be wealthy parents who move so that their children can attend the school of choice. Given that the OCDSB does not fully abide by the community school model and that some parents already can choose schools, I feel that the smartest thing to do would be for the OCDSB to move to a model where everyone can choose which school they go to and each school can choose which segment of the population will be its specialty.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Censorship in schools

I had an interesting conversation at dinner on Friday night that turned to the topic of censorship in schools. Unfortunately, the conversation was cut short by a need to get home to our sick daughter, so I thought that I would explore the issue a little bit here.

First, I have to say that in general I am against censorship. From a moral viewpoint, I feel that governments should not be allowed to block access to information. From a practical viewpoint, censorship almost never works in the long run, and mostly serves to draw attention to the information being censored. With the flattening world and the proliferation of information technologies, censorship is becoming even more difficult.

Now, the question arises of whether censorship of a mild kind can or should be practised in schools. From a legal perspective, students are mostly under the age of 18 and so are not considered full citizens under the law. As well, teachers and schools have de facto parental roles for the students and so can reasonably be allowed control over what the students may see and hear. From a moral perspective it makes sense to protect students, younger students especially, from information and images that they can not be expected to understand or process in a useful way. Various kinds of propaganda, pornography, and advertising come to mind (although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between those three). From an educational perspective it seems reasonable to try and limit distractions so that students are more likely to concentrate on learning.

So, having said that some censorship is reasonable, the million dollar question is "how much?". This is where my answers get a lot fuzzier. When I am teaching, I feel that I have a legitimate role in asking students to avoid distractions when they are meant to be learning. As such, listening to iPods during a lesson, texting on cell phones instead of working, playing computer games instead of doing research are all activities that I feel I can rightfully work to curtail. Still, I do not believe that it is useful for me to try to ban iPods, cell phones, and laptops from the classroom because these can all be tools for learning when used properly.

A trickier question is whether school boards should prevent YouTube, Facebook, and similar web sites from being viewed from school computers. Ideally, I feel that those sites should not be blocked. But, from a practical point of view as a teacher, I know that trying to police computer use if everybody can be checking their Facebook page and watching the latest viral YouTube video would be close to insane. I wonder if it is feasible to block access to only those students who have abused it. That would be a good solution, in my opinion.

Censorship and schools is an area where there are no easy answers. I can only hope that as technology evolves schools can stay on the side of using technology to teach, rather than trying to ban technology as a distraction.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fitting Education reform into real life

I came across this story today about problems with a reform effort in North Carolina. The idea is to find some time for teachers to talk to each other about students and teaching. Typically, teachers have their prep time at different times from other teachers in the same department so opportunities to communicate and share information and knowledge are very limited. Promoting more and better communication is a good thing.

There are a couple problems with what is happening in Wake County. The first is that the school day has been disrupted every Wednesday to make time for the teachers to do this. So every family with a school age child has to change their routine on Wednesdays to adapt to the teachers. Not a good way to get community support. The second problem is that there are teachers who are not using the time to best advantage. Once the community hears that at least some teachers are the wasting the time created by inconveniencing the community, you know people are going to be very unhappy.

This program sounds like a good idea to me but my take is that it needs to be set up and executed in a way that minimizes disruption to life in the community. Perhaps different departments could have their scheduled communication times on different days while the remaining teachers supervise students. That way, there would not need to be any disruptions of the school day. Also, the program might work best on some kind of opt-in model where it would be used only in schools where the administration supports it. That would minimize the amount of wasted time.

In the end, when looking at education reforms, the practicalities of life and the school's place in the community have to be considered. Otherwise, the reforms fail and then there is a backlash against reform, which is the last thing we need.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More thoughts from Edreformer

In personal news, I managed to get a Long-Term Occasional job teaching Computer Technology and Math at Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute. It means I have less time to read and blog but I will see what I can do.

I was just reading Tom Vander Ark and Edreformer and he has a post that resonated with some of my thoughts.

Vander Ark says:
Today I spent an hour with a defense contractor that probably runs the biggest simulation and training business in the world. I found the conversation about creating ‘rapid pathways to mastery’ at a whole different level than most K-12 conversations. They get paid on outcomes (like certification to fly expensive jets) and use the most efficient mixture of classroom, simulation, and flight experience possible to get to mastery.

To me, the key idea is that the contractor gets paid on outcomes of the students actually learning what they need to learn. I think that possibly THE biggest challenge for the public education system will be to determine relevant, useful, measurable outcomes that can be used to gauge the efficiency of our school system. If we can nail down these outcomes and measure them, then school boards, administrators, and teachers can all start to make choices that make best use of resources to support those outcomes. Until we have something like that, everything is a political mess that is not going to get better in a hurry.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Single Gender Schooling in the news

The Ottawa Citizen had an editorial today on the Toronto District School Board looking at opening an all-boys public school.

This issue of single gender schooling and classrooms has been in the news a bit over the last few years as parents, teachers, and administrators try to find ways of reducing the "achievement gap" between boys and girls in school. Now, as I blogged about earlier, we need to be a little bit careful when we talk about gaps. Still, there is quite a bit of anecdotal and research evidence that at least some boys are not being well served by our current education system.

One idea that comes up is the idea of single gender classes (in coed schools) or single gender schools. I did some reading today about single gender classes and the overall research seems to be mixed. I think the best quotes that I saw talked about the need for teacher training if single gender classes are to have an effect.

from Gender based courses:
Dr. Leonard Sax, director of the National Association of Single Sex Public Education, a nonprofit organization that supports the availability of same-sex educational programs when appropriate, said segregating classes without extensive teacher training and parental input can quickly backfire on administrators.
“You can engage girls in computer science. You can engage boys in art and creative writing. But that doesn’t happen automatically,” he said. “Just putting girls in one room and boys in another accomplishes very little. In can actually have adverse effects if teachers don’t have appropriate training.”
Without the proper training and without enough parental and administrative involvement, Sax said, the classes can reinforce society’s gender norms, not circumvent them.
“If you simply put girls in one room and boys in another, and teachers have not had appropriate training, the result is that you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes,” he said. “You end up teaching girls with shopping analogies and boys with sports analogies. That’s not helpful, because not all boys like sports and not all girls like to shop.”

Another point that I remember reading several years ago, but could not find when I went looking, is that many teachers naturally connect better with either boys or girls. I wish I could find the article where I first read this, but personally, it seems to be true. Our first assumption would likely be that men are better at teaching boys and women are better at teaching girls, but this is not always the case. I know that in my teaching, I have typically had a better teacher-student connection with the girls in my classes than with the boys. I have also run across an all-girls class taught by a woman where there was clearly a major lack of connection between the teacher and the students. This means that schools looking at staffing single gender classes need to be aware of the fact that it can be tricky to put the right teacher in front of a room full of boys or girls.

A final point goes to my wife's experience teaching English this year. She has embraced a lot of technology in the form of using wikis and a SMARTBoard interactive white board. Using technology, along with some other ideas she picked up from professional reading, has allowed her to bring in more interesting resources (e.g. Google Earth instead of a photocopied map), get students doing different activities than they normally have in an English class, and offer more choice to students. The response has been that several parents of boys have told her "For the first time, my son is enjoying English class." Now, typically, my wife has not connected super well with boys, but her differentiated teaching as well as adoption of useful technologies has let her get a lot more interest, enthusiasm and participation out of the boys in her class. So, in the end, maybe the way to fix the "gender gap" is just better teaching, not anything structural or administrative.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Looking at the States

Another New York Times column of interest, "The Quiet Revolution". David Brooks talks about what Obama is doing for education reform in the United States.

The most interesting part of the article for me is where Brooks talks about teacher unions as one of the main obstacles to education reform. This makes me uncomfortable, because I am a member of a teachers' union, but I feel like I am a strong proponent of education reform. I fully recognize that teachers' unions can be stupid and short-sighted when it comes to changes and reforms. But one thing that I think education reform advocates miss is that a lot of reforms in the past have been poorly executed and have hurt teachers in ways that hurt the education system. The teachers' unions are all, to some degree, trying to prevent those kinds of mistakes from happening again.

Brooks says:
The changes also will mean student performance will increasingly be a factor in how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs. There is no consensus on exactly how to do this (my italics), but there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores, and that teachers who do not need to be identified and counseled. Cracking the barrier that has been erected between student outcomes and teacher pay would be a huge gain.

The problem with making a reform when "there is no consensus on exactly how to do this" is that the reform can easily be done poorly. And teachers have too many experiences of short-sighted, foolish, or politically motivated administrators and politicians shoving lousy "reform" down their throats to be sanguine that this particular reform will magically come out all right.

For my part, statements like "there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores" sound great, but what exactly does that mean in terms of dealing with teachers. Are three years of bad results evidence of bad teaching? Five bad years? Two good years, then three bad ones? A good year, two bad ones, another good year, then another two bad ones? It seems like no one knows, yet the reformers want programs in place NOW to link student results to teacher pay and job security. Pardon my cynicism, but I find it hard to believe that a program put in place with this little understanding has much of a chance of working fairly or properly or efficiently.

If education reformers want to get the majority of teachers on their side, the reformers need to come up with some valid and verifiable ways of linking student outcomes to teacher pay. Anything else is going to harm and infuriate the teachers who are the ones who will truly be implementing any reforms.

Friedman on the link between education and the American Depression

I just read a piece by Thomas Friedman called "The New Untouchables" where he links the weakness of the American education system to the Depression they are currently experiencing. (For the Americans it is a capital D Depression, it seems.)

Friedman says:
Just being an average accountant, lawyer, contractor or assembly-line worker is not the ticket it used to be. As Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind,” puts it: In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper “and just as well,” vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

This is why our schools have to keep trying to improve. Even though the media and a lot of the public scream when the schools and boards try and adopt more modern methods of assessment and evaluation, we (teachers and other educators) have to keep trying to make good changes, even if the changes seem too "newfangled" to the casual observer. Going back to the "tried and true" methods of education is not going to work because we live in a different world now.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I did not realize the money situation was this bad

I just read a piece by Roger Martin talking about how funding for education in Canada, and particularly Ontario has been lagging compared to the US.

Martin's comments about how governments typically choose to consume current prosperity rather than investing in future prosperity is very interesting. I had not looked at policy choices in those terms before. It is an informative way to look at policy. Obviously it is a bit too sacrificial to solely invest in future prosperity, but just as obviously it is blind and selfish to solely choose to consume current prosperity.

I knew that Mike Harris had screwed over teachers as much as he possibly could, but I did not realize the degree to which education cuts have put us in a bad position. The new flat world means that we need knowledgeable citizens. If we fall behind in the knowledge economy, our children or grandchildren will be limited to working as call center reps answering technical questions for the really well educated people in India and China.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Edreformer looking at teacher evaluation

Edreformer has two blog entries today looking at teacher evaluation. Frequent conversation as teacher evaluation and Rhee-engaged. The entry about Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC laying off teachers who were poor performers rather than lowest on the seniority list is quite interesting.

Both entries and their links talk about the need to improve teacher evaluation, and I agree completely. Teachers who are weak need to be told that and they need to be helped to get better or they need to be removed from the system. And evaluations simply CANNOT be once a year or once every two years if they are to be effective. The evaluations need to be regular and positively focused. As well, teachers who are doing a good job need to be publicly praised, materially rewarded, and set up as role models for other teachers.

The one thing that I did see missing from the talk about teacher evaluation was proper support for all teachers, both weak and strong. So many teachers who try to do good jobs are told that they cannot have the resources (books, computers, movies, etc.) that they need, typically for budgetary reasons. But how can we expect teachers to be excited and passionate about teaching when almost all their ideas are shot down for non-pedagocial reasons? It is so easy for those teachers to give up on doing a good job and just inhabit the system. As part of any modified system of teacher evaluation, the education system needs a complimentary system to make sure that needed resources.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Math education in the news

Today, The Ottawa Citizen ran two stories about Mathematics and Math education. One story talks about fear of math and the other story talks about how much math people actually need. Reading the stories in the Citizen got me to another link "You will never use this Math again".

These stories are interesting to me since Math is what I used to teach and is also where I get most of my supply teaching work.

The "You will never use..." story is interesting in that it asks some valid questions about just how useful is our math teaching program? I was pleased to note that of the less useful topics referred to in the story, imaginary numbers and conic sections are no longer on the Ontario high school curriculum and rational functions is part of the optional Advanced Functions Grade 12 course. It is completely possible to graduate from high school, and even to get a grade 12 math credit (Math of Data Management) without being forced to learn any of those abstract subjects.

One point that Citizen's stories make is that in the past high schools and universities have often used mathematics results for the purposes of screening students, deciding who gets into what program. But Bill Byers, a retired math professor makes the point "...unless we can assure that the teaching of mathematics is really top rate, then what's the point of using mathematics to screen students?" This point becomes particularly troublesome when you think about Byers anecdote of the PhD female biologist who said that she could not do math. I have to agree with Byers' assessment. Of course she can do math! Someone, or several someones over the years, have brainwashed her. How many other students are we brainwashing?

"Now consider the fact that the vast majority of elementary school teachers are women, many of them raised before the math enlightenment. " from the fear article.

"The teachers who teach math should be trained in the teaching of math. If it turns out that the people teaching math hated math as students, then you are only adding to the problem." (Byers says)

People are already too prone to think that they are flat out good or bad at things, and that those strengths and weaknesses cannot be modified. Worse, people assume that if they are weak at something, they should just avoid it, instead of working harder. Our education system, and the teachers in it need to work extra hard to not reinforce those harmful beliefs. We need to teach all students that they can learn any subject, and that difficulty in a subject requires more work, not avoidance.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why we need a new school model

I was sitting in the Staff Room of Lisgar Collegiate Institute the other day and the conversation turned to the stresses and expectations placed on teachers by the students. In particular, one French teacher commented on how hard it is to teach when, in a class of 25 or so, you have a half dozen students who complete work quickly and ask for more while at the same time you have a half-dozen students who are struggling with the material and need help.

Thinking about this conversation supported my belief that the school model needs to change to allow more individualized instruction. In particular, I think we need to use computers and other technologies to make it possible for students to learn at their own pace. There is no reason other than practicality that all students in a course have to take 5 months (in a semestered system) to learn the material. The reality is some students can learn the material in a month or two and other students may need 7 or eight months. Putting everybody on a 5 month time frame bores the most talented students and forces the weakest students to struggle. This is not a recipe for good education.

Here are some quotes from a speech by Jeb Bush reported on the EdReformer blog. I am no Bush fan of any kind, but what Jeb is saying makes sense and fits with what I have seen about the education system.
" an individualized system, students wouldn’t necessarily take the same test on the same day. Testing would occur when a student had mastered the required skills."
"...students could take more advanced classes and dually enroll in college before even graduating from high school."
"How could we possibly do this for 50 million students? We need to harness technology to tailor lessons to each child’s learning style and ability. This concept was only a dream a generation ago. Now it can be accomplished."
"We have the ability to create the iTunes of the education world where teachers and students could access rich and rigorous content from different sources to create a learning experience that meets the individual needs of the students."
"Technology wouldn’t replace the teacher but it would redefine their role. Lectures might be given online to thousands of students, while classroom teachers might become more like coaches or tutors available to provide one-on-one support, again based on whatever the student needed."

When I agree with Jeb Bush society needs to pay attention. The model of schooling and education in North America needs to be modified and updated.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friedman on the "New Sputnik"

Another post not directly related to education, but I think this issue is going to change the world soon, so we better start thinking about it.

Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat) recently wrote a column about China's move towards green technologies.

I was struck by a couple of Friedman's points. First, he says "China’s leaders, mostly engineers, wasted little time debating global warming. They know the Tibetan glaciers that feed their major rivers are melting." The contrast with our leaders, who are lawyers and economists, jumps out at me.

Then Friedman adds "But they also know that even if climate change were a hoax, the demand for clean, renewable power is going to soar as we add an estimated 2.5 billion people to the planet by 2050, many of whom will want to live high-energy lifestyles. In that world, E.T. — or energy technology — will be as big as I.T., and China intends to be a big E.T. player."

The bottom line is that countries that want to be important in the world in 2050 had better set up their political, education, and economic systems to produce and support energy efficiency and renewable energies. Countries that do not will be the Third World countries of the mid-21st century.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Changing models of education, part II

Just found this article about the School of One, a pilot project in New York City.

Here is another attempt to change the school model to better fit modern students. Interesting to note that the program seems to not reduce the number of teachers or the cost of education, but rather to redirect the resources in a way that allows for more individualized instruction.

Very interesting.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Responding to the response to my response

The Citizen printed a letter in response to my letter of yesterday (see yesterday's post).

Read the response, by Rick Garber, if you wish.

It is always interesting when people manage to undercut their rebuttal with poor grammar. I can see at least two grammar errors in the three sentences.

He also misses the point of my letter. Stern spends almost his entire piece implying that liberal views do not mesh with reality. My response was to show how "illiberal" views also do not mesh with reality. Stern wants to use force to "restrain" people like the boy in question rather than trying to prevent the creation of more boys like this one. How does that make any sense in the context of limited resources? If your boat is leaking, the smart thing to do is to patch the hole instead of spending all your time bailing.

As for Stern's thesis, that evil exists, I don't disagree. But I firmly believe that you cannot decide that this 16 year old boy is evil based on one single account. Also, when it comes to confronting evil, I am much worried about evil in positions of power. There are plenty of dictators, warlords, and terrorist leaders in the world. It seems much smarter to me to worry about confronting them than some kid on Chicago's West Side. But, I guess it is easier to talk about "restraining" a 16 year-old in Chicago than dealing with some of the torturers who are the "good guys" in the War On Terror.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mind the gap

News stories often give statistics on gaps, differences in achievement or performance between different groups. The comparisons are often based on gender or ethnicity but can look at anything. Over the last little while, articles on education in media often look at various gaps between boys and girls in school.

One thing to watch out for when looking at gaps is that there are different ways to look at a discrepancy between two groups. For example, if we have a group of people who make $20,000 a year and another group who make $100,000 a year, we clearly have a gap. One way of defining the gap is to say that the difference is $80,000 a year. Another way of defining the gap is to say that the second group makes five times what the first group does.

Why does it matter how the gap is defined? To answer, I will continue with my example. Suppose after a series of government programs intended to close the income gap between these two groups that the first group's income has been increased by 50% to $30,000. During the same time the second group's income increased by 20% to $120,000 a year. Let's look at the gap again.

If we look at the gap as an absolute we now see that the difference in income is $90,000 a year. The gap is getting bigger! Does that mean that the government programs were a waste of time and money? Maybe not. If we look at the ratio of incomes, the second group no longer makes five times the income of the first group, the ratio has been reduced to four to one. So one way of looking says the gap is getting worse, another way says that the gap is being reduced. Which one is correct? Well, like most things in life, the answer is "that depends".

And what it depends on is the context of the information. If we are looking at which group is going to be purchasing more luxury vacations, then maybe the straight difference of $90,000 is the more important figure. If we are looking at more basic purchases such as housing or food, the ratio might tell the story more accurately. And, to make things more complicated, there are lots of other factors that probably should be considered before we can accurately talk about the gap. What about taxes? The high income group does not get to keep all of its $20,000 a year gain but taxes will be lower for the other group. That will affect the difference and the ratio too.

The critical thing is to recognize that there are multiple ways of looking at any statistical information and to try and find the one that makes most sense. If you want to improve your knowledge of statistics, I listed some possible websites in the comments section of my blog entry We want everyone to be above average?

Responding to the "illiberals"

This is not directly related to education, but I am proud that the Ottawa Citizen printed my letter to the editor.

I was responding to this piece. My response can be found here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Canada, child poverty, and education

An article in the Citizen today highlights a study showing Canada's worsening rate of child poverty. In terms of child poverty, children under 17 living in households with less than half the median income, Canada was 15th out of 17 countries, beating only the United States and Japan.

This matters to teachers, schools and the education system because poverty makes it harder for kids to do well in school. In the article, Brenda Lafleur, the lead author of the study says "So there are children who don't have enough food, shelter ... but then (the data) looks at how much it costs to go to school," she said. "What does it mean for a kid who can't go on a field trip or join a book exchange or have runners to take gym? All these add up."

The quality of the education that we give our children will be critical to the future economic development of our country and so all levels of government should be working hard on trying to reduce child poverty. But, our federal government is spending its resources on security (not poverty reduction) in the North, home renovation tax credits, and belittling the opposition. Our provincial government, while rightly banning the use of handheld communication devices in cars, is spending its time talking about banning the use of handheld devices while walking and dealing with financial scandals in government-run health and lottery programs. Meanwhile, the local school board is cutting budgets in schools because they are not getting enough money from the province to do everything that needs to be done.

When the next federal and provincial elections come around, I will be asking the candidates in my riding what their party is going to do about child poverty.

Standardized tests: analysing the analysis

In the Ottawa Citizen today there was an editorial that was critical of the performance of the local school boards in the recently released results of testing done by the Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) in Ontario.

This surprised me since yesterday I was blogging about a story in the Citizen talking about the same results. That story put a positive spin on the results, even though I felt the analysis was simplistic.

For those who want to look at the actual data instead of the simplistic summaries in the papers, go here and select a grade and year.

I wrote a letter to the editors of the Citizen, pointing out the flaws in the editorial, and I am also going to publish that letter here:

I would like to make a few comments about the editorial “Rising to the Test” in the Citizen on Friday, September 18. For the record, full disclosure: I am a public school board High School teacher in Math and Science (currently supply teaching).

My first comment is about interpretation of the test scores. All the results talk about the percentage of students who meet or exceed the provincial standards. For example, the Grade 3 reading test had 63% of students meet or exceed provincial standards. This makes it sound like 37% of Grade 3 students are failing in reading. However, when you look at the full results, you find that 27% of students achieved a Level 2 result, which is below provincial standards but is about the equivalent of a C. So, 90% of students are either within striking distance of provincial standards, have met the standards, or have exceeded them. Furthermore, in Grade 3 reading 8% of students scored at Level 1, which is approximately a D. In total, 98% of students got a result which would be a pass at school. Looked at one way, only 2% of are Grade 3 students are failing in reading. Yet the result that is put out by the Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is 63%. Could that be because if EQAO published a 98% pass rate then people might suggest that we don't need the EQAO?

Another comment I have deals with media interpretation of the results. The editorial states that “most Ottawa schools are underachieving.” Yet an online story in the Citizen yesterday had the headline “Area schools outperform provincial average in reading, writing, tests reveal”. So how did Ottawa area schools go from beating the provincial average to underachieving? The editorial mentions that for the public board “only 73 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in reading.” But 26% scored a level 2, Meaning that 99% of public board Grade 6 students are at least close to the standard. That does not sound like underachieving to me. If you want to truly claim that our schools are not up to snuff, you need to offer a better explanation than “ Many students in the nation's capital come from homes where the parents have high levels of education”, a statement that offers nothing to show how much better Ottawa should be doing based on this factor.

A third comment is about the statement “Strangely, some critics respond by questioning the value of standardized tests.” There is plenty of reason to be wary of standardized tests and their results, especially when that seems to be almost the only facet of education on which the media report. As an example, look at the statistic for primary math results published in the editorial. Ten years ago the primary math results were 56% (44% below standards) and now the result is 70% (30% below standard). So, in ten years we have gone from 44% to 30% below standards, almost a 1/3 decrease in poor results! Is this because math is taught so much better now than ten years ago? Not a chance.

Sure, some of the improvement is the result of improved teaching practices, but I am willing to bet a large sum of money that most of the improvement is because teachers have learned how to prepare their students for the test. I believe this is true because as a High School Mathematics teacher I see and hear about the Grade 9 EQAO Math test. A common refrain from teachers is that their students understand the questions quite well but have trouble answering them in the form that the test demands. The result is that teachers are forced to spend time teaching their students how to deal with the test format instead of teaching course content. So, results improve not because of more learning of content, but simply because of teaching to the test. If that does not raise at least some questions about the value of standardized testing, I do not know what will.

I agree that the results of standardized testing offer information that can be valuable when looking at how our well schools and boards are educating students. But the results need to be treated with care because the tests do not cover the whole curriculum, there are issues of teaching to the test, and there are issues with interpretation, especially as the results are often presented in a simplistic manner by the EQAO.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The old models of education are truly starting to be challenged

Here's an interesting article about a new thrust in online education.

The article postulates that it may be a decade or two before online courses really shake things up for universities. I'm guessing that some time after that a similar model for High School education is going to rock High Schools across North America, if not the whole world.

What is a cash-strapped school board going to do when a company like StraighterLine offers to teach all the Math classes for a flat fee per student that is way less than it costs that board to teach those classes? I'm pretty sure a bunch of the school boards are going to grab those savings. And once several boards prove that the online classes are as good as the old-style classes, then the dam is truly going to burst.

I had been thinking that my job as a High School teacher was recession and technology proof. Looks like I was wrong.

We want everyone to be above average?

The online version of the Ottawa Citizen just published a story about how well local school boards are doing relative to the provincial average.

As I read through the article, just about every statistic was compared with the provincial average. Essentially the article is saying "above average good, below average bad." This is not completely unreasonable, but it is simplistic and makes education look like a competition between school boards when it should be about simply doing what is best for the students.

The big problem with using average as the yardstick is that, no matter how you slice it, approximately half the school boards are going to be below average. That is how average works. Currently the province has a goal to have 75% of students score at the provincial standard or above on the EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) tests. As a reference, the provincial average for Grade 3 Math results is 70%. However, even if schools across the province made massive gains and all scored better than the 75% goal, still there would be about half the schools below average. Would that mean that those below average schools are bad? Nope, but that is probably what the media would report.

So, the moral of the story is that if you want to truly understand stories in the media, it is important to know about statistics and how the various statistical measures work. Otherwise you may end up trying to figure out a way to achieve the impossible of making everyone above average.

Breaking down barriers

In the Ottawa Citizen today, Elizabeth Payne wrote about a dance program being introduced in elementary schools in Ottawa. Her piece is unfortunately short on specifics but in general, I like the idea.

A quote from Hannah Beach, a dancer who created this program, is very telling:"I really think that we offer children such narrow ways to express themselves. Not all children have the capacity to use language in a way that helps them express themselves. Dance gives them those skills."

I agree. People are often limited by beliefs and barriers that have at least been partially imposed by outside forces. Beliefs like "I can't sing", "I'm no good at math", "I'm a lousy dancer" are usually started by other people. Over time, the beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies as people avoid the practice, trial and error that they would need to beat those limiting beliefs.

If this dance program can teach people to be creative and try things even when they don't feel confident, then I am all for it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tweaking to make things relevant II

My wife, Tania, told me this story yesterday.

Her Writer's Craft class is working on a research assignment where they find information about a certain historical period. The goal of the assignment is for the students to improve their research skills as writers often need to do research before writing, whether they are writing fiction or non-fiction. Tania has done this before and she and the teacher-librarian collaborate to put together the assignment and instructions for the students. As a side note, the teacher-librarian at my wife's school is terrific and exemplifies the combination of teacher and librarian that is so helpful to a school, its students, and its staff.

The best part of the story was how good use of technology allowed Tania and the teacher-librarian at her school to make the assignment more personalized and thus relevant and interesting for the students. Tania did sign ups for the various historical periods on Monday on her interactive whiteboard, which she saved as a PDF (Adobe Acrobat) file and emailed to the librarian. He then took the information from the PDF and added the student's names and chosen historical periods to his instruction sheet.

On Tuesday, when the students arrived at the library to begin their research, they received an up-to-date instruction sheet including the list of who had signed up for what. The students were impressed, which probably motivated them to work a little harder on their research.

Oh, speaking of technology, the results of the students' work will be posted to the class wiki. This means that anyone on the Internet can come across the students' work, read it, and use it. Compare that to a student handing in the research and only having the teacher read it, after which the work likely gets thrown out.

Stories like this are why I am such a big fan of appropriate use of technology in education.

The world is catching up

Well, you can sure tell which days I am not supply teaching. If you need a hint, try looking for days with multiple posts. :)

Anyway..., I was looking at some information from Statistics Canada on educational attainment, the percentage of people who have obtained a university degree. The good news is that "Canada surpassed 23 of the 30 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2007 regarding the proportion of its population aged 25 to 64 that had a university degree." Further good news is that more young Canadians are getting university educations than older Canadians did, 29% of Canadians aged 25 to 34 versus 21% of Canadians aged 55 to 64.

The bad news is that though our attainment rates are rising, they are not rising as fast as those in other countries. The 21% rate for ages 55 to 64 ranks us fourth out of thirty but the 29% for the age 25 to 34 bracket only ranks us twelfth out of 30. Other countries are catching up. This is worrisome.

Even more worrisome to me is that China and India, with about 20% of the world's population combined, are not listed because they are not members of the OECD. How fast are their university graduation rates rising?

All this makes me feel even more strongly that our education system has to keep working towards fully educating every student. Competition for jobs and opportunities is now world-wide because of the "flattening" of the world (read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman if you want to know more). We cannot afford to be in the position of having a population where a larger percentage than other countries cannot compete for jobs and opportunities because of a lack of education.

The issue of homework

Well, last night my wife and I ran into our first piece of "homework from Hell". Our seven-year-old daughter who has just started Grade 2 in the regular, English stream brought home a review sheet about patterns. The sheet was double sided and contained approximately ten questions where the students were asked to work with patterns. Each question required the student to do more than one thing, for example in one question the students had to identify the pattern as increasing or decreasing, fill in the next two numbers, and write down the pattern rule. Each individual question was very reasonable but with all the questions and all the parts, this was a lot of work.

The upshot of all this is that after 40 minutes of work supervised by either me or my wife (we switched off twice because of how hard this was for us) the sheet was only about 2/3 finished. As my daughter asked plaintively if she could stop, I agreed. I wrote a little note to the teacher in my daughter's agenda about how long she had worked and how much got done. We will see how the teacher responds, if at all.

Now, the big deal about this is not the piece of homework and how long it took. I suspect that this will be an isolated incident. However, if we repeatedly get pieces like this, my wife and I will deal with it.

The big issue that I recognized is that my wife and I are both teachers. Not only do we have a good sense about how much homework is too much or too hard (most parents do, in my opinion) but we have the confidence and the means to express our opinions and make sure that they are heard by the teacher and the school. Just for starters, my wife and I are both on the school board email system so it is dead easy for us to fire off an email to the teacher.

But I started thinking about parents who do not have as many links and insights into the school system. What happens with them and their children if the teacher starts sending home too much homework, or work that is too hard? And I suspect that the answer is not good. I am willing to bet that when parents do not have the knowledge and/or the confidence to talk and negotiate with the teacher and the school about homework their children get buried under the mound of work they are told to do.

All this reminds me that, as a teacher, I need to be really careful and thoughtful about homework. There is a lot of debate in educational circles about the value of reducing homework. In my Honours Specialist upgrade course we had to do some research on the pros and cons of homework. Not every student benefits from homework while at the same time some students definitely do. If we want our students to get the maximum value out of their education we teachers need to find a way to build in some flexibility.

I am working on an idea to offer students choice in homework while still making sure that the homework is helping them. That however, is a topic for a future post.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The value of having technology in place

In the Ottawa Citizen this morning was a story about Bruce Cockburn playing concerts for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. In particular, the article mentions "Cockburn sang his classic antiwar song If I Had A Rocket Launcher at every stop."

This seeming discrepancy of playing an antiwar song for soldiers made me think of how I would bring this into a classroom if I were teaching English or History. I thought about how I would want to show students the newspaper story and then I would want them to look at the lyrics of If I Had a Rocket Launcher. It might even be nice if I could play the song for the students. The quickest and easiest way to get the article, the lyrics, and the song is on the Internet. What is the quickest and easiest way for me to show students what is on the Web? Having an LCD projector in the room so that I can project what is on the computer onto a big screen. Unfortunately, most classrooms do not have a projector. Sometimes a department will have one that you might be able to sign out, but that means that you may not be able to get the projector on short notice.

If I don't have a projector, I have to print out the information and make photocopies or overhead sheets. That takes time, uses school resources (paper or acetates), and might mean that I can't teach this lesson until the next school day. Since today is Friday, that means not until Monday. Well, on Monday the lesson is not so topical and fresh and I am not as excited about it. On Monday, this is not as good a lesson as it would be today.

If technology is not in place, then teachers are forced to either ignore opportunities to produce topical lessons, or else teach those lessons later, likely not as effectively, when they can finally sign out or sign up for the technology that is required. When schools have technology in place, teachers can seize opportunities to use current information in their lessons to help make the lessons more relevant, meaningful, and interesting to the students. Which kind of school would you rather have?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How is a teacher like an NFL Quarterback?

Wow, Malcolm Gladwell continues to blow my mind!

Most Likely to Succeed compares the difficulty of finding a good NFL quarterback with the difficulty of hiring a good teacher. How are the two similar? "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired."

Some more quotes from the article:

"Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher."

"A group of researchers ... have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom."

Gladwell shows that good teaching trumps almost any other factor in education. My question is, "how do we use this"? His suggestion for the education field is to hire teachers without tenure and pay them based on performance, letting go those who are not good enough. An interesting suggestion, but determining teacher performance is always problematical.

How do you decide which teacher brings the most value to the school? How do you mesh teaching performance with contributions to the school like coaching sports teams, directing school plays, or supervising the student's council? How do you score quality versus quantity? Is it better to coach five mediocre sports teams or one National Champion?

If Malcolm can write an article about that, then he will REALLY blow my mind.

Old vs. new

Doing some reading I came upon this blog entry about our school system: School Year.

The author, Kateland, finds a lot of problems with our current school system and the way it is going. She singles out the Ministry of Education as being the major cause of the problem. Without agreeing or disagreeing with her assessment of the Ministry, I would like to look at one of her thoughts.

Here is one of her comments: "Apparently it is considered much improved to visualize a group of seven things filled with 8 items each and then count out the answer but I cannot imagine solving algebra equations when I do not know instantly that “X” times “Y” equals “N” without a moment’s thought."

As a Math teacher, I hear what she is saying, and certainly in the past many people have memorized their multiplication tables and learned to solve algebraic equations. But today anyone can do any multiplication on their calculator, or for most students, their cellphone, and I can teach people to solve algebraic equations using algebra tiles in a way that does not require knowledge of multiplication tables. So it does not seem necessary to me that we force all students to memorize their multiplication tables.

I want to be really clear here. I definitely recognize that for many students, memorizing multiplication tables will be useful. But education today has to be about trying to teach every student in the class in the best way possible. Teachers can no longer teach any skill just one way. We need to use all the tools at our disposal, multiplication tables, calculators, algebra tiles, computers, and more to find a way to teach students in ways that they will understand, value, and remember.

To me the key thing as a teacher is to recognize which students would really benefit from memorizing multiplication tables and which students will be fine doing everything on their calculators. Or who should learn to solve equations with algebra tiles and who will simply be faster with the old, more abstract way. That is what teaching has to be about in the new, flattening, globalized world.

The times they are a changin'

My wife is also a High School teacher, and she mentioned how hard it is to book a computer lab for a class at her school. That got me thinking about how computers are becoming more and more necessary to education.

Currently, I would say that if a school of 1000 students has 300 computers for those students, some for students taking computer or computer technology courses, some for use by classes, that school is doing pretty well. What is going to happen when a computer becomes indispendable and all 1000 students need one? How are schools going to afford it?

Having a computer for every student is almost certainly not in the budget for any school board, but like I think the day is coming when every student will need a computer to get the best possible value out of his or her education. Maybe we, as a society, need to move away from a model of education where every High School student is in every class every day.

Many of these students have computers at home that are sitting idle while the student is at school. If the student was allowed to be at home while "attending school" through webcams, Second Life, or other technology, then he or she would have a computer without the school board having to pay for it.

Maybe the day is coming when students will be able to telecommute to school in the same way that some adults are telecommuting to work.

Tweaking to make things relevant

Yesterday I was supply teaching in a Technology class. The students were working with HTML and were given an assignment to complete a table of the top 5 Billboard songs, by adding artist and a picture of the album cover.

I have seen lots of assignments like this over the years, but what was neat about this one was that the list of songs was an actual current list from this week. Most of the time these types of assignments still use the information from whenever it was made (6 months ago, a year ago, two years ago...) which means the assignment seems stupid to the students. By taking the time to make the information current, this teacher made the assignment more relevant and more interesting to his students.

It is worth noting that tweaking the assignment was easy for the teacher because there was no physical handout. The assignment was stored on the school's server in a "handout" folder. To make the change, the teacher only had to edit the file. He did not need to then go and photocopy a class set. When technology makes it easy to keep assignments up to date, that means more teachers can do so and students will be a little more interested. Gotta love technology!