Friday, December 21, 2012

A school board trustee hits the nail on the head.

Today's Ottawa Citizen published a very well-informed op-ed piece today about the issues around bill 115.  The piece, written by public school board trustee Pam Fitzgerald makes some excellent points that the real issues of Bill 115 are not really about money or democratic rights but about the educational initiatives that have been launched over Dalton McGuinty's time in office.

Ms. Fitzgerald talks about how changes to processes involving student responsibility (plagiarism, incomplete work), increases to teacher responsibilities (testing, record-keeping, report cards), and the addition of many at-risk and special needs students to the classroom without sufficient support have greatly affected the role and workload of teachers.

Here are three insightful paragraphs from the article.

"Many of these initiatives appear to be laudable but they are frequently implemented with undue haste and perhaps with a sense of political expediency. There is little say on the viability, and the process of implementation and collaboration is frequently lacking.

New initiatives with unforeseen consequences for students, teachers and school administrators often simply serve to stretch teachers to the limit at the expense of time, creativity, and flexibility in the classroom. (my italics)

While it’s recognized that differentiated instruction and a little student autonomy improve learning, teaching itself has become more standardized.(again, my italics) Unlike other professions where a standardized approach might improve the product and despite some improvements in test scores, standardization in education has led to frustration for students and teachers alike. As the world-renowned and well-respected educator Sir Ken Robinson might say, we are using the 19th-century factory model to teach 21st-century minds."

Later on in the article Ms. Fitzgerald makes the point that that the government continues to use a "do as I say, not as I do approach".  Any teacher can easily name a half-dozen policies, programs, or initiatives that fit that mold.  We are to try to provide individualized instruction to our students but the principal wants all teachers teaching the same lessons.    Or we are forced to attend professional development about the value of giving students choices.  We are told that, despite our experience and judgement that some students cannot handle it, we must give all students more responsibility around assignment due dates and then also put in the time and effort to deal with lapses but our marks had better be in by 9am Monday even if exams were only written on Friday.

I could go on for a long time, but I think you get the idea.

In the end, I cannot recommend highly enough that anyone interested in education or the issues around Bill 155 should read Ms. Fitzgerald's article in its entirety.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why a No Zeroes policy is good for learning

Recently in Alberta there has been a large to-do over the suspension and subsequent dismissal of high school teacher Lynden Dorval.  The main issue involved in the disciplining of Dorval was his refusal to follow his school's No Zero policy for student assignments that did not get handed in.  Many people are referring to Dorval as a "hero" for standing up to what they view as watered-down, permissive education. 

Ken O'Connor, an internationally recognized expert on evaluation and grading wrote a good defence of No Zero policies in the Edmonton Journal in June.  I want to explain and expand on some of the issues he raised.

The first thing that Dorval's supporters do not realize is that teachers following best practices do not use averages to calculate final grades.  When you don't use averages, then giving a zero or not becomes irrelevant.  A student who has done work to demonstrate the learning demanded by the course curriculum deserves to be recognized for that learning even if he or she has not done all the work.  A student whose missed work means that he or she has not met all course expectation should not be granted the credit, even if an average of his/her marks would give a grade above 50%. 

Secondly, allowing a teacher to give zeros allows both teachers and students to avoid responsibility.  A student can choose to not do work and "take a zero", avoiding his/her responsibility to do school work.  A teacher can give a zero to  that student and avoid the responsibility that I feel a teacher should have to follow up when a student has a problem so significant that work does not get completed.  I ask parents out there, if your child did not do a school assignment, would you want the teacher to give a zero and forget about it or instead follow up with the student (and maybe you too) about what the problem was and how it can be fixed?

The third point that Dorval's proponents seem to be missing is the idea that grades and marks should try to accurately reflect student learning.  If a student does not produce work, assigning any mark to it actually makes no sense.  It would be a little bit like a meteorologist saying "On Thursday it rained most places in the city but because of a technical problem I did not get a rainfall reading so I will treat Thursday's rainfall as zero".  Assuming that a measurement should be zero because you were unable to take the measurement is going to skew your data.

Now that you have read this post (and Ken O'Connors piece as well, I hope) you should have a better understanding that No Zero policies are not about watering down education or being permissive with students.  No Zero policies are about trying to provide the best educational and learning opportunities possible to our young people based on what we know right now.  If you are looking for more information on current best practices in assessment and evaluation, checking out Ken O'Connors books is a great place to start.

Why I don't average student marks

A short while ago Janice Kennedy of the Ottawa Citizen wrote a piece about teachers ignoring what she called "educational kookiness". Reading that piece, I realized that she was looking at the process of determining marks for students as if it had not changed since she was a teacher.  In particular, she is assuming the teachers determine a student's final grade by averaging all the marks that student has earned.  This prompted me to come up with an example of why current best practices recommend against using averages to determine student grades.

Imagine that two students have written the same series of tests in a course.  Each test reflects the cumulative knowledge of the student for the whole course at that point.  Student A scores 80% on the first test, 70% on the second test, then 60%, 50%, 40%.  Student B scores 40% on the first test, then 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%.  If we determine final grades based on averages, then both students get the same grade, 60%.  But clearly student B is improving his/her learning while it looks like student A is understanding less and less.  There are more statistically sophisticated methods than simple averages that can be used to try and capture the trend being shown, but they are tricky and have potential flaws.  The reality is that any given statistical method for calculating final grade will have weaknesses, so Ken O'Connor, a recognized expert in student evaluation, offers this as Guideline #6 in his book How to Grade for Learning K - 12: "Crunch numbers carefully, if at all."

So instead of crunching student results into an average, best practices call for teachers to use their judgement based on the most consistent student results, with the emphasis on the most recent.  In the example above, the lack of consistency would mean that a teacher should focus on the most recent results which are 50% and 40% for student A and 70% and 80% for student B.  These most recent results suggest that student A may not have learned enough to pass the course while student B's learning can fairly be evaluated as being in the low 70s.  That is a big difference from giving both 60%.

Monday, September 24, 2012

No voluntary activities, now what?

For those of you reading this in "real time" you may know that as a result of the Ontario Provincial Liberal Government's Bill 115 (supported by the Conservative Party) all teachers in Ontario have lost the right to bargain contracts or go on strike.  My response to my MPP about Bill 115 is posted on this blog.  This left "withdrawal of voluntary services", not doing activities or events that are not in our contract or the Education Act, as the only method of protest for teachers.  The union has only recommended that teachers not participate in voluntary activities as the union is not allowed to order such job action without a strike vote.  As a side note, the strike votes are happening pretty much as I type.  However, for the moment the decision to withdraw voluntary services is being made teacher-by-teacher or sometimes school-by-school.  This means that some schools in the Ottawa public board (Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, OCDSB) are offering all sports and clubs, some schools are offering none and some schools are offering a partial selection.

This has made students unhappy as some of them have been more affected than others and many are annoyed about being "pawns" in a teacher-government dispute.  However, teachers are also unhappy.  First of course, we are unhappy about losing bargaining rights.  But many teachers are unhappy about how losing extracurricular activities means losing opportunities to connect positively with students and opportunities to help students who may be having difficulties at school or at home.

As I was thinking about this problem, an idea came to me.  It will not work for every teacher but if it works for any, it is better than nothing.  The idea is this: take some of the time and energy that would ordinarily be devoted to extracurricular activities and devote it to helping a student or students in a different way.  Maybe find some more time to offer extra help.  Maybe find a way to offer extra, extra help for someone who really needs it.  Maybe make an extra phone call to a parent every day just to stay in touch and keep lines of communication open.  Maybe help a colleague with their prep or their marking so that they have more energy for their students.  Anything you can do with that "extracurricular" time will be some small improvement in someone's life.  And if you are anything like me as a teacher, then that is why you are in the profession.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My email to my MPP

The government of Ontario passed Bill 115 yesterday called "The Putting Students First Act".  This followed several months of spin by the government that depicted teachers as overpaid and did its best to tap into the idea that teachers don't work that hard and should be grateful for all the great perks and benefits they get.

Bill 115 takes away teachers' ability to negotiate pay or working conditions and removes benefits like sick leave and retirement gratuities that had been freely negotiated between school boards and teachers.  You may feel that those benefits are unreasonable since most other professions don't get them but please remember that those benefits come from negotiated agreements.  If teachers received those benefits, it means they gave up something else, maybe salary, maybe some other benefit.  So taking away those benefits is a unilateral removal of money from teachers.  I can't see how unilaterally taking money away from people who negotiated in good faith is ever going to be fair.

All this is to set the stage for the email I wrote to my MPP, Bob Chiarelli.  I am going to post it here because I think it does a decent job of saying what I feel about this situation.

Hello Mr. Chiarelli,
I am a High School teacher for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.  My home is in your riding and I voted for you last election.  I would like to tell you a bit of my story as it is representative of the difficulties faced by teachers.
I graduated from Engineering Physics at Queen's University (with first class honours) in 1993.  In 1994 - 95 I attended the Faculty of Education at Queen's.  When I graduated I did some supply teaching and other teaching-related work and I became a contract (permanent) teacher with the OCDSB in 1998.  The frustrations of teaching, partly compounded by the government of the time, led me to move into high technology as a Software Designer with Mitel in 2000.  However, I eventually realized that software design did not give me the feeling of helping that I got when I was teaching. 
In 2007 I returned to teaching and I am now in my sixth year of trying to get a permanent job.  This is the reality that faces all new and returning teachers at this time.  It takes years of hard work followed by some good luck to land a job that does not go away at the end of June every year.  The teachers who persevere through these difficulties are committed, caring professionals who put students first every day.  Teachers like me are not in this for the money, not in this for the bankable sick days, not in this for the summers off.  By the way, at Mitel I could have taken a two month unpaid leave in the summer and still made more than I would have as a teacher.
Teachers like me are in this because we love teaching, we love the students, and we love trying to help build a better society one student at a time.  I don't know why your government has chosen to attack us.  I don't know why your government has chosen to act like we are lazy, greedy, and selfish.  I don't know why your government has chosen to take away our ability to have any control over our working conditions.
I do know that your government has treated all my hard work and efforts, and those of my colleagues, as unimportant and of low value.  If I ever treated a student the way your government has treated me and my fellow teachers I would be ashamed.  I hope you will hear and understand some of the pain and difficulty your government has caused me.  I hope that you will lobby and act within your caucus and the Cabinet to mitigate what your government is doing to us.
Because if an election was held right now I would be voting for the NDP because you voted to take away my rights and they voted to uphold my rights.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Behavioural struggles

Again and again as I talk to other teachers about students' (problem) behaviours, one idea is never too far from the surface.  Give any conversation 5 to 10 minutes and you'll hear "There are no consequences any more.  No wonder the students don't behave."  And this sounds pretty reasonable.  After all, of of the reasons most of us usually behave in the way that society expects is because we do not like the consequences of behaving outside society's expectations.

But the problem with this idea is that it assumes that all students are capable, right now, right this instant, no matter what is going on in their lives, of behaving the way we expect them to.  We are assuming that the reason they are not behaving in the expected fashion is because they can behave properly but they are not making the effort, presumably because they lack the motivation of consequences.  Apply consequences, the thinking goes, and those behaviours will clear up like that.

But what if they cannot, actually mentally, emotionally cannot, behave the way we want them to?  I would like to get you thinking about the fact that behaviours can be hard to control, no matter how old and/or experienced you may be, let alone if you are a teenager.

My tough behaviour is eating.  I love eating.  I love the taste of food.  When I am tired, or stressed, or unhappy eating good food makes me feel better.  And there are consequences to this.  I am six foot 2 (around 187 cm) and at one point I weighed 280 pounds.  Now, I wasn't a candidate for the Biggest Loser but at age 37 my doctor started me on large doses of Niacin, a B vitamin that helps reduce cholesterol.  I understand the consequences of love of eating.  Extra weight damages joints, my cholesterol level, combined with my family history, puts me at greater risk of a heart attack, of dying young.  Extra weight saps my endurance, making it harder to do physical activity with my family.  I know all this.  I am motivated.  What could be more motivating that the risk of death?

Yet motivation is not enough to help me control my eating.  My eating behaviours have been put in place over 42 years of my life.  I cannot motivate them away.  I have to try and be smart about them, figure out when and why and what I eat and figure out ways to reduce my calorie intake while still being happy.  I have to find ways to get more physical activity into my life.  Making these changes requires "skillpower, not willpower", as an anti-smoking expert once told me.

Do you have any behaviours that are negative but you have trouble controlling?  If not, then you are one lucky SOB.  But if you do, then please take a minute to think that at least some of the student behaviours that bother you come from a lack of "skillpower" rather than a lack of motivation.  Please take the time and energy to work with them on their behaviour management skills so that they can behave the way that we want them to.

If you are looking for tools to help students improve their "skillpower", have a look at the Collaborative Problem Solving ideas of Dr. Ross Greene.  I have found those tools to be tremendously helpful in dealing with all kinds of students.  You can get more information at the Lives in the Balance web site.

Should learning be fun?

Note:  I started this post about a year ago.  Here I am finally getting around to finishing it.  I hope the links still work.

A few days ago I saw an email from a Math teacher with whom I have previously worked. She was pointing her colleagues to an article about the riots in Vancouver after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The article, by Naomi Lakritz (one of my least favourite newspaper columnists), is critical of how teachers and society deal with children and teenagers. The author of the article is critical of, among other things, the idea that learning should be fun. She makes fun of an article by Larry Williams where he puts forward some good ideas about the value of fun in creating motivation and the value of motivation to help people learn.

A quote from Lakritz: "But learning cannot always be fun; it often requires long hours of mental effort, perseverance and hard slogging. Insisting that learning must be fun teaches children to expect that everything in life must be fun, that they are always entitled to fun, and that if something isn’t fun, they don’t need to bother with it."

I think Lakritz is missing the point about learning. For example, she is a writer and learning to be a good writer (I dislike Ms. Lakritz's opinions, but I can find no fault with the technical aspects of her writing) can certainly involve "long hours of mental effort, perserverance and hard slogging". But I would be willing to bet any amount of money that writing for Lakritz involves elements of joy and/or satisfaction. I am sure that she felt happy and satisfied that her column about the Vancouver riots was picked up as a guest column for the Sports section of It would have been positive feelings like those that sustained her though all the "hard slogging" of many years of learning the technical skills of a good writer.

And the fun/excitement/joy satisfaction of doing something well is what motivates anyone to keep working and learning at a skill. As an example, every year, thousands of amateur athletes make massive sacrifices of time, money and energy to compete in sports that our nation pays attention to only at Olympic time. Do those athletes do it to get rich, to be famous? No, they do it because they love their sports and they love doing those sports and they love the challenge of trying to be the best in the world. In other words, they have fun and they enjoy what they are doing. I doubt they enjoy every minute of what they are doing. Working at being a world-class athlete demands a level of "hard slogging" that most of us cannot even contemplate, let alone do.

But the fun, the joy is there.  Clara Hughes has been one of Canada's most successful Olympic athletes ever. I remember her winning medals at the Atlanta Summer games in cycling.  Then she won multiples medals in long distance speed skating.  She has been through more hard slogging so far than the vast majority of humans.  But here are some of Clara's comments about it all.   From August 21, 2007 "With all of this fun, it’s easy to forget the pain and work that this job entails." From March 2005 " was so beautiful to go and skate ‘just for the fun of it’."  How about this one from June 21, 2011? "...why the heck I am still doing this sport thing. I realized the reason is exactly that. Joy. The potential as a human being to experience the sensation of joy has been possible for me because of sport. Because of competing. It is my form of self-expression and beyond any satisfaction, any success, well beyond those moments of winning or perfecting performance…the emotion that has lifted me up and urged me time and again to return to the arena of competition is joy."

So, maybe if students found learning as fun as Clara Hughes finds distance cycling and skating, then maybe learning wouldn't be such hard slogging after all.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The wood stove model of teaching

About a week ago I read an article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail talking about how liberals and conservatives operate on two different moral systems.  The article is based on ideas from Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind (Globe and Mail review), where Mr. Haidt says that liberal thinkers are concerned with care, harm, and fairness but conservative thinkers are concerned with loyalty, authority, and sanctity. 

This struck a chord with me recently.  On Friday I was at a Professional Development day activity looking at restorative practices.  One part of the presentation was comparing restorative practices to traditional school discipline.  The traditional discipline practices were really about authority, and sanctity, with maybe a bit around loyalty.  Roughly speaking, in traditional discipline, if a student does not show respect for authority and those things authority sanctifies, then the student is punished.  A classic example: student swears at a teacher.  The student has shown a lack of respect for authority and the teacher's role, so we suspend the student.  After the suspension the student comes back to class, usually angry about the suspension, while the teacher is still angry at the student for the disrespect shown that has not been addressed.  There is a good chance another incident will occur.

The restorative practices are focused around care, harm, and fairness.  The main thrust is that if a problem occurs then at least one person has been harmed and the fair response is to try to fix the harm as much as possible and restore a working community.  In restorative practices, if a student swears at a teacher then there is recognition that the teacher has been hurt by that.  However, if the student can be helped to understand that he/she has hurt another person and then the student can make honest amends through an apology and/or other actions, then the student can be accepted back into the classroom with no hard feelings and possibly with both student and teacher having a better sense of how to work together in the future.

I feel that I can say fairly that in my experience, discipline that is more restorative around fixing a problem works better than traditional discipline.  If you are treated fairly, cared for, and protected from harm it is quite easy to develop loyalty and respect for authority and sanctity.  But if you are harmed, not cared for, and not treated fairly, it is almost impossible to develop the traits valued by conservatives.

I think an analogy that I heard many years ago fits this situation.  The analogy was the idea of a person telling his/her wood stove "I will give you some wood as soon as you give me some heat".  We all know that a wood stove will not give any heat until we put some wood in.  In the same way, young students will not show respect and loyalty until they have been cared for, treated fairly and protected from harm.

So teachers, the next time you are looking for "heat" from a student think about whether your best choice might be to stoke the stove by offering some caring and fairness first.