Sunday, November 24, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 5 (Questions 6 and 7): Technology and Partnerships

Here is my answer to Questions 6 and 7 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)

Question 6: How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning? 

I think technology is a bit of a red herring in the debates about the future of schooling. Systems that do very well internationally (such as Finland's) are quite low-tech. I'm not anti-technology, but given the expense of introducing new educational technologies, we should keep a close eye on the evidence of their effectiveness. Often there is none. I'm also concerned about the corporatization of schools that the introduction of technology makes possible (or perhaps inevitable). After all, no one stands to gain more from schools' wholesale adoption of technology-reliant pedagogy than huge tech companies. The question is, what will the students gain and at what expense?




Question 7: In summary, what are the various opportunities for partnership that can enhance the student experience, and how can they benefit parents, educators and our partners too?

 I can’t be certain, but I suspect that by “partnerships,” the writers of this question mean corporate partnerships. If that is the case, my position is that there should be no partnerships with schools. Corporations are in the business of making money; schools are public spheres where we set aside the money-making goals of the surrounding corporate world so that our children can be educated, as opposed to trained.  (Let the corporations train their own employees—why should taxpayers foot the bill for such training?) I think if politicians and administrators keep in mind this essential distinction between education and training when making curricular and other policy decisions, education in Ontario would start to move in the right direction. The title of this consultation project is From Great to Excellent, but nowhere is “excellence” defined. For me, an “excellent” education system is not one that trains excellent corporate employees, but rather one that educates future free-thinking citizens. Maybe hoping for a truly “excellent” education system is a bit utopian, but I’d choose utopian over Orwellian any day.



Monday, October 28, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 4: Student Engagement (Question 5)

Here is my answer to Question 5 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)


Question 5: What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?

I’m not sure how we can keep students engaged, when we haven’t actually engaged them in the first place. Part of the reason schools fail to engage kids is that school isn’t really about kids. Kids in our current educational system are viewed as a means to whatever social end adults in power (within ministries of education and in the corporations that have policy-makers’ ears) have deemed appropriate and necessary. At the moment, kids in this country are burdened with task of learning the skills that will (we hope) enable Canada to remain competitive in the global economy. In our anxiety over whether the next generation is acquiring these skills—STEM skills, in particular—we subject students to near constant measuring and testing; after all, we need to make sure they’re keeping up their end of the social bargain to which they never consented!

True engagement cannot occur until we stop treating kids in this instrumental way—until we stop treating childhood and adolescence as merely preparation for a specific type of adulthood, rather than as its own phase of life, worthy of its own goals and desires. If we were to do that (which is a huge “if,” I realize), we would begin to see that the question should not be “how do we engage kids” but rather “how do we provide the conditions that would allow kids to self-engage”?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to such an admittedly abstract question, but I do think it’s pretty clear that engagement, creativity and a love of lifelong learning are unlikely to be fostered in an educational system that deprives kids of all power. Coercion and engagement would seem to me to be incompatible processes. So on a practical level, maybe we can move towards allowing kids to self-engage by giving them some power over their own schooling. We could begin by taking small steps towards democratizing schools: for example, we could solicit students’ opinions and involve them in decision-making, not only about how school is run, but also about the content of the curriculum and the means (or necessity) of evaluation.* Only when students are given at least partial control over their learning will they be able to figure out their true interests, and only when they are truly interested will they be able to self-engage.

Of course, just as coercion is incompatible with genuine engagement, genuine engagement on the part of kids may be incompatible with a society’s social and economic expectations of education. And therein lies the intractable paradox at the heart of any project of progressive education reform (of which this Great to Excellent survey is an example): it may be that individual traits like “creativity” or the kind of curiosity that leads to engagement and “life-long learning” cannot be readily harnessed to serve non-individual, socio-economic goals.

Nonetheless, it's important to at least begin the conversation about how to change school environments so as to allow for the possibility of kids discovering their true interests and passions. The alternative is to keep treating students as a means to an end, which will not only continue to demoralize them (and ruin their childhoods), but is pretty much guaranteed not to produce the adaptable twenty-first century learners and workers that governments dream of. If you insist that kids be sheep, you will end up with . . . adult sheep. I'm not sure how interested in lifelong learning sheep are. I could be underestimating them.

*Or we could turn the evaluation tables around by, for example, making course evaluations in elementary and secondary school mandatory.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Answers To Government Survey, Part 3: Equity and Full-day Kindergarten

Here are my answers to Questions 3 and 4 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)


Question 3: From your perspective, what further opportunities exist to close gaps and increase equity to support all children and students in reaching their full potential?

Homework is also part of the answer to this question. (See my response to Question 2 for more about homework.) Consider that, starting in the early grades, a child who has support at home to help him or her navigate the vast amounts of often age-inappropriate homework (i.e., homework that requires an adult's input) is at an academic advantage. And when, with a parent's help, such a child begins to do well on assignments, he or she gains confidence, which then fuels more success. So what might start out as a small advantage is amplified as the child progresses through the grades, by virtue of the boost to self-confidence and cognitive development that parental support provides. For this reason, homework is as much an equity issue as it is an issue of student well-being. A level playing field requires that kids be able to succeed in school without a great deal of family support, for the simple reason that not all kids have it.

Another phenomenon to consider is "streaming," which occurs in our officially non-streaming system through the back door—i.e., via "special" programs like French Immersion and "gifted" programs. We should keep in mind that Finland's system has managed to close achievement gaps based on economic background by focussing on supporting all students in regular classes—no "gifted" classes or special programs, but a lot of local flexibility with respect to how schools are run and how curricula are implemented. We could take a page out of the Finnish book on this subject.* (Oh, and Finnish kids have very little homework, even in high school!)


Question 4: How does the education system need to evolve as a result of changes to child care and the implementation of full-day kindergarten?

I don't know. I’m not sure I support full-day kindergarten for all kids because I think it can be exhausting for four- and five-year-olds to be in school all day, even in so-called play-based kindergarten classes. If we had an adequate, fully subsidized day care system—like Québec’s, for instance—would we need full-day kindergarten? Why confuse education and daycare? (And maybe consider bringing back naps in kindergarten. I remember quite enjoying the naps.)


*There actually is a book on this subject and many other facets of the Finnish education system: Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg.

(See also my answers to questions 1 and 2 of the survey here and here.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Answers To Government Survey, Part 2: Student Well-Being

Here is my answer to Question 2 of the Ontario government survey on the future of education in the province. (For an explanation of the survey and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)


Question 2: What does student well-being mean to you, and what is the role of the school in supporting it? (1000 word-limit)

Student well-being is an important topic, given that we know that most students do not feel "well" while at school. School felt like prison to me, and several decades later it feels the same way—actually worse—to my own kids. Why? Well, for one thing, schools are anti-democratic. Still. One rarely feels good in an environment in which one has no real voice or power. So why not give kids some actual power over how their own schools are run? Do they want late start days? How many? How do they feel about the physical environment of the school? I know my own kids have yet to encounter a school lunchroom in which they feel comfortable eating. No care is taken to make sure kids feel good about the spaces they are forced to inhabit every day. It's not as if it would be impossible to take this aspect of school life into consideration. For instance, in Finland many schools have student lounges with comfortable sofas where kids can relax and socialize before and after school, as well as between classes. Some of these lounges actually have wood-burning fireplaces! Sound outrageous? Well there's your answer as to why many kids feel ill at ease in school. (Also, as an experiment, go check out the girls' or boys' bathroom in an average elementary, middle or secondary school. Would you want to use it? No, you wouldn't. Kids don't either.)

So one part of supporting student well-being is moving towards a more democratic model of schooling. (Cf. the Sudbury School model.) The other part—equally important, if not more so—is reducing the homework load. The amount of homework assigned to kids has more than quadrupled since I was a kid. (Okay, I made that statistic up, but I have researched this topic, and I know that homework has greatly increased over the last several decades.) And one has to ask, why? Are kids smarter or more academically prepared for life after school as a result of all this homework? Not necessarily. In fact, most of the evidence points to homework having very little appreciable effect on "achievement," however that is defined. Research also suggests that homework is a huge source of stress and strife in families. So why does it continue to be assigned in unreasonable amounts? When did we decide that it's okay for kids to put in more work hours (when one includes the "second shift" of homework) than the adults in their lives? It's actually unconscionable that we continue to immiserate the vast majority of kids in this way, throughout their entire childhood. We got rid of child labour, but we continue to believe that kids working on "fun" projects until midnight when they're ten years old is okay? It doesn't make sense.

So: the second simple way to enhance student well-being? Abolish or greatly reduce homework. Concentrate on work that takes place in the classroom. That is where improvements can and should be made.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 1: Student Success

The Ontario government has recently initiated a process of public consultation about the future of education in the province. The different ways groups and individuals can participate in this initiative–called "From Great to Excellent: The Next Phase in Ontario's Education Strategy"–are explained on this ministry of education website,* but the easiest way to contribute, especially for individuals, is to fill out the online survey. The survey consists of seven questions about various aspects of Ontario's education system, including questions about  equity, student well-being, parent engagement and technology in schools.

I've decided to fill out the form and post my answers here as I complete them. I believe the consultation process is a good idea–in theory, at least. Questions have been raised about how much impact the consultations will have, whether certain contributions will be more welcome than others, and whether the process is in reality simply an exercise in public relations. I don't know the answers to these questions, and I have no idea who will read my submission or even if it will be read. Nonetheless, filling out the survey has been worthwhile for me, as it has allowed me to clarify my thinking about the issues being addressed. It has also allowed me to vent a little and have some fun with my answers. Below is my answer to the first question.


Question 1: What are the skills, knowledge and characteristics students need to succeed after they have completed school, and how do we better support all learners in their development? (1000 word-limit)

First, I think we need to define what we as a society mean by "succeed." What does "success" mean? How is it measured? I think the wording of this question assumes that "success" equals economic success. (I could be wrong.) But that is a very narrow understanding of success. It also reduces education to training for the job market. The problem is that the question "what do we mean by success?" is not primarily an educational one. It is moral and philosophical. In fact, it is the type of question I wish kids were exposed to more often in school. But an education that sees itself as equal to "training" has no room for this sort of question.

Personally, of course, I have opinions about what types of skills, knowledge and characteristics I want my own kids to acquire during their years of schooling. For instance, I want them to learn to think critically, but not in the amorphous edujargon sense in which the term is often used these days. To me, critical thinking isn't just thinking about pragmatic problems "outside the box" so you can make a lot of money like Steve Jobs (who, ironically, dropped out of university). To me, it means being able to apply a critical, questioning eye to everything, including the systems in which one finds oneself at any given time–i.e, including school. I want my kids to learn to think critically so they can make informed decisions as citizens in a (flawed) democracy, not so that they can become model employees in the global economy.

As for skills, I disagree with the emphasis on soft computer skills, such as how to use PowerPoint or create spreadsheets. I think the curriculum should be geared to encouraging students to read and write critically and to reason logically. Currently, the emphasis on cross-curricularity and on "presentation" skills (often colouring–even in grade 9!) in every subject distracts from this goal. Even if one sees education as training, it's impossible to try to predict which specific skills kids will need when they enter the job market. If they have a solid grounding in reading, writing and thinking analytically (which includes thinking mathematically), they will be intellectually adaptable and able to "succeed" at university and in most jobs.

To be clear, though, I'm not advocating a "back to basics" approach. I believe students should be offered a lot of choice and that arts should be given as much weight as the much-touted STEM subjects. What I am advocating is intellectual seriousness–no matter the subject, and for all students–in place of the incoherent whorl of "concepts," "21st-century skills," and cross-curricular "connections" that fills (to bursting!) the current curriculum.


*See also Sheila Stewart's informative post about the consultation process.

(Answer to question 2, about student well-being, can be found here.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The New K-8 Ontario Sex Ed Curriculum: Too Far or Not Far Enough?

Last month the Toronto District School Board suspended a middle school teacher for displaying a sexually explicit safe-sex poster in his Grade 7 and 8 classroom. The board has since overturned the suspension, but the media interest in this case, and others like it, would lead one to believe that Toronto public school children are exposed to too much sexual information in the classroom, too soon. If my experience is any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. During their four years of school-based sex ed, my twin daughters–now in Grade 8–learned too little, too late.

Part of the reason for this is that their teachers have been working from what many professionals in the field of sex ed—including members of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea)–consider to be a flawed and obsolete curriculum. In 2010 the McGuinty government, in consultation with parents, students and experts in children's physical and mental health, overhauled the health and physical education curriculum. But the sex ed portion was shelved after conservative religious groups–most vocally, Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College–protested against its explicitness and its frankness about LGBT issues. Currently, the curriculum in effect throughout the province is the "interim" 2010 document, which is the new physical and health education curriculum with the sex ed portion cut out and replaced with the 1998 version.

The problem with this older sex ed program is that it is . . . well, old. It was conceived before widespread Internet access, thus before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, sexting, cyber-bullying and online porn. But socio-technological outdatedness is not its major shortcoming in my view. The 1998 curriculum, written in the politically and culturally conservative Mike Harris era, is a document of its time in more fundamental ways, as well. Consider, for example, that it does not mention puberty or menstruation until grade 5 (by which time a growing proportion of girls will have started their periods), that it steers almost entirely clear of LGBT issues, despite the fact that, as my daughters have attested, "gay" starts being used as schoolyard slur as early as Grade 1. When it broaches sex and sexuality in middle school it does so primarily in relation to STI prevention and abstinence. In Grade 7, the learning expectations in the Growth and Development strand are as follows:

– identify the methods of transmission and the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and ways to prevent them;
– use effective communication skills (e.g., refusal skills, active listening) to deal with various relationships and situations;
– explain the term abstinence as it applies to healthy sexuality;
In the Grade 8, students are introduced to sex and contraception, but again the emphasis is on abstinence, with students expected to "explain the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents" as well as "apply living skills (e.g., decision-making, assertiveness, and refusal skills) in making informed decisions, and analyse the consequences of engaging in sexual activities and using drugs."

One can debate the merits of "abstinence-is-best" as advice for pre-teens and teens, as well as the wisdom of equating sexual activity with using drugs, but it would be difficult to argue that this approach to the subject of sex in middle school is strictly educational. In fact, the abstinence message has little to do with the realities of adolescent sexuality; rather, it is a moral interpretation of human sexuality derived from specific interpretations of Judeo-Christian teachings on marriage and family life.

But although abstinence-is-best is a moral message, its presence in the 1998 curriculum is primarily political. At the time, the Christian right was in ascendance in the US both politically and culturally. In 1996, federal funds to the tune of 50 million dollars a year were made available to states teaching abstinence-only sex education programs. (George Bush more than doubled the spending on these programs in his 2003 budget.) Culturally, it was the era of teenage purity balls, chastity rings and abstinence pledges. In Ontario, the Harris conservatives represented the watered-down Canadian version of this cultural zeitgeist. And so the term "abstinence," which was not a part of my own sex ed vocabulary, wended its way into the Ontario sex ed curriculum.

Between 1998 and 2010, a  lot changed in Canadian culture. Gay marriage was legalized in 2005. Access to the Internet grew steadily in the naughts, reaching approximately 80 percent of Canadian households by the end of the decade. It was clear to educators as well as legislators in the liberal McGuinty government that sex education in the province's schools was in dire need of an overhaul. And the 2010 Physical and Health Education curriculum is quite the overhaul. Undertaken while current premier Kathleen Wynn was education minister, the 2010 curriculum is, at 211 pages, five times longer than the 1998 version it was meant to replace. It is also considerably more complex, covering a wider range of topics, with a greater emphasis on mental health, specifically on cultivating "resilience" in adolescents as they bumble towards adulthood. On balance, it appears to be a stronger, more relevant curriculum for elementary kids living in the 21st century. Unlike its predecessor, for example, it addresses the intersection of technology and sexuality head on, beginning in Grade 7, with discussions of online bullying, sexting, sharing photos online, etc.

It is its relevance in other areas that triggered the religiously-inflected criticisms that resulted in the new sex ed strand being shelved before it could be implemented. The purported problems begin in Grade 1, with kids being introduced to proper names of their body parts, including vagina and penis. From the teacher and student prompts (a new feature in this curriculum) :
Teacher prompt: “We have talked about the body parts that everyone has. What body
parts do only boys have and what body parts do only girls have?”
Student: “Boys have a penis. Girls have a vagina.”
Teacher: “We talk about these body parts, like all body parts, with respect.”
One wonders what critics of this section think children should call the body parts between their legs that they are aware of possessing from toddler hood. ("Wee wee", "down there"?) After all, other body parts are studied and referred to by their scientific names in early grades; to my knowledge there have been no objections registered against the naming of the uvula.

But of course, in our culture not all body parts are equal; some are designated "private." Vaginas, penises and breasts are only allowed to enter the public realm in controlled, mostly sexualized ways, most often packaged for consumption (think pornography). The ordinary functions and processes of these parts, such as vaginal lubrication, wet dreams and erections, all of which are covered in the new sex ed curriculum in Grade 6, are not to be mentioned publicly or discussed matter-of-factly–at least not according to McVety et al. If we don't name certain experiences, the argument seems to go, we can pretend they don't exist; we can pretend that children don't, for instance, already possess bodies and budding sexualities, and that they won't one day (sooner rather than later, perhaps) be sexually active persons. It seems superfluous to point to the ample evidence suggesting that comprehensive sex education leads to later initiation of sexual activity and safer sex when initiation occurs. Critics of sex ed in general, and Ontario's new curriculum in particular, seem determined to believe the opposite. It's difficult not to suspect that the real objection is to sex education, full stop–an objection to bringing the private and familial into the public (educational) sphere where its meaning becomes unfixed and up for negotiation.

In a similar vein and for similar reasons, religious groups objected to the LGBT content of the 2010 revised curriculum, specifically the teaching in Grade 3 about "visible and invisible" differences such as sexual orientation. In later grades, the curriculum lays out for kids the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. The expectation for Grade 8 is that students will:
demonstrate an understanding of gender identity (e.g., male, female, two-spirited, transgendered, transsexual, intersex) and sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual), and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop a positive selfconcept [six].
Not surprisingly, this section riled the McVetys of the province with its suggestion that human sexuality is a more complex and fluid phenomenon than the version of it on display in other parts of the culture, in mainstream movies and TV shows, for example–and in evangelical churches.

That's not to say this portion of the curriculum is beyond critique. The careful, culturally-sensitive language is potentially problematic not because it is symptomatic of a "radical sex ed" agenda, but because such language runs the risk of dating the document and restricting kids' understanding of sexuality. There is, after all, no scientific or even cultural consensus as to the number and nature of human gender identities. Meanings and definitions of sexuality are continually being contested, which is as it should be. The sex ed classroom is as good a place as any for robust, open debate about the complicated interrelationships between sex, gender and sexual orientation. Nonetheless, with homophobic bullying and cyberbullying showing no signs of easing up in middle and high schools, any curriculum that gets kids thinking critically about such issues is a good start and long overdue.

The true flaws of the new sex ed program lie elsewhere, in my opinion. Its controversial LGBT content notwithstanding, the 2010 curriculum strikes me as still too timid a document in key areas. Certain problems seem to have been carried over from the 1998 curriculum. For instance, although sex ed now starts in Grade 4, one year earlier than in the 1998 program, menstruation and spermatogenesis are still not taught until Grade 5, which is far too late given the age at which many kids now reach puberty. And, in the 2010 version, as in its predecessor, contraception is not taught until Grade 8.

When it comes to sex itself, echoes of the old abstinence-is-best-agenda remain. For instance, in Grade 7 you find this expectation:
explain the importance of having a common understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity until one is older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from having oral-genital contact). . . .
And in the next paragraph, the term abstinence is explained in a "teacher prompt":
The term abstinence can mean different things to different people.
People can also have different understandings of what is meant by having or not having sex. . . .  Having sex can be an enjoyable experience and can be an important part of a
close relationship when you are older. But having sex has risks too, including physical risks like sexually transmitted infections . . . and getting pregnant when you don’t want to.
The ideal student responds (in the accompanying "student prompt") as follows:
“It’s best to wait until you are older to have sex because you need to be emotionally ready, which includes being able to talk with your partner about how you feel, being prepared to talk about and use protection against STIs or pregnancy. . . . 
Abstinence rears its head yet again–albeit in attenuated form–in Grade 8, when students are expected to:
develop their understanding about sexual health (e.g., about issues such as abstinence; the choice to delay first intercourse; setting sexual limits; safer sex and pleasure; use of contraception, including condoms, for pregnancy and STI prevention), using knowledge of self and of safe-sex practices and contraception (including condom use), seeking additional information and support as needed, and practising (e.g., through role play) the communication, assertiveness, and refusal skills that may be needed for decision making in real-life contexts.
There is, buried within the long parenthesis, a mention of pleasure, and to be fair, the pleasures of intimacy are discussed in other parts of the Grade 8 expectations, especially in a section outlining the pros and cons of being in an intimate relationship. On balance, however, when it comes to sex, the pro side is given short shrift. There is very little detail about sexual pleasure, masturbation or orgasms, and quite a bit of information about scary STIs, unwanted pregnancies and the negative social consequences of being in a relationship (alienation from friends, for example).

It is true that this is an elementary curriculum, and a more "sex-positive" element may emerge in the new high school curriculum, which I have not seen. Still, it is fair to ask whether it is appropriate or necessary for children's introduction to sex ed to contain so much implicit moralizing, so many preachy and condescending warnings against sex. It seems that in an (obviously futile) effort to appease its potential critics, the writers of the curriculum have lost sight of what a truly progressive sex ed program might look like. I do not pretend to know what the details of such a program would be, but I don't believe it would be quite so fear-based. Instead of emphasizing abstinence, it might focus on consent, a concept conspicuous by its absence in the 2010 curriculum, despite the welcome inclusion in the Grade 8 expectations of a discussion of gender-based violence.

I think, too, that a progressive sex education would engage kids, and nothing is less engaging or easier to dismiss than sermons about the dangers of sex. This is especially true given that we live in a culture in which there exists, for adults and kids alike, a parallel, free and nearly universally available alternative to sex ed: namely, pornography. A progressive sex education must be at least as interesting as its pornographic rival. Unlike its rival, school-based sex education need not–and ideally, would not–have anything to sell or promote beyond knowledge of and interest in a vital component of human experience.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 2: Science Fact and Fiction

This is the second part of a three-part post on the "boy crisis" in education. Read the first part here.


If we want to describe what happens in an atomic event, we have to realize that the word "happens" can apply only to the observation, not to the state of affairs between two observations.
               Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (1958)

The most glaring fictional element in the "boy crisis" story is the science on which it is based. The story begins, factually enough, in the womb, where the male-to-be fetus is immersed in testosterone produced by its own inchoate testes in response to the dictates of DNA. That this testosterone bath–or its absence in female fetuses–results in genital and other physiological differences between the sexes (discrepancies in average body size and muscle mass, for instance) is not in dispute. But the rest of the story, the rhetorical leapfrogging from these differences to structural or functional differences in the brain and thence to distinct boy and girl psychology and behaviour–in other words the interpretive leap from sex to gender–is not warranted by the evidence.

Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young (researchers in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and sociomedical science, respectively) have pointed out the myriad ways in which neuroscientific evidence has been cherry-picked, misinterpreted or–in the case of conflicting findings–ignored by popular writers such as Michael Gurian and Christina Hoff Sommers who are intent on proving the gender difference theory. As an example, Fine has traced the way in which a single fMRI study of language processing in men and women became part of the "evidence" supporting the theory of the lateralized male brain–i.e., the notion that in men's brains there is less communication between hemispheres, and more specialization for certain functions than in women's brains. The study, conducted by four researchers at Yale and published in the journal Nature in the mid-nineties, involved imaging the brains of 19 men and 19 women while they performed three language tasks. Two of the experiments documented in the study showed no difference in lateralization, whereas the third (a rhyming task) showed a slight difference, with brain activity concentrated on the left side in men, but more evenly distributed between the hemispheres in women. Subsequent meta-analyses negated the findings of the one experiment, demonstrating its statistical irrelevance when placed in the bigger picture of studies of language lateralization. Yet, as Fine documents in lectures and in her book, Delusions of Gender, the Yale study has been cited 600 times in the scientific literature, and continues to be cited by popular writers (Hoff Sommers, for example) as evidence of girls' and boys' innately different verbal skills.

Other examples of misuse or cherry-picking of the science are not hard to find. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, for instance, popularizers of the difference theory claim that the corpus callosum, a band of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, is larger in females than males and that this difference is responsible in part for girls' and women's greater facility for empathy and multitasking. Here is what Michael Gurian and his colleagues Kathy Stevens and Kelley King have to say about this brain structure in in their 2008 book Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls:
In females, this bundle of nerves tends to be denser and larger than in males, resulting in increased "cross-talk" between the left and right hemispheres . . . And this means–girls are generally better at multitasking than boys, including watching and listening and taking notes at the same time. This gender difference may also help explain why girls tend to tune into their own and others' feelings and move emotional content more quickly into thought and verbal processes.
The authors helpfully go on to explain:
Combined with the hormonal changes during adolescence, the increased connections between thinking and feeling may account for the hypersensitivity and tendency to be dramatic that girls exhibit during adolescence.
There are two things to note here: first, the repetition of the claim that the corpus callosum is larger in females than in males, despite the fact–confirmable by even the most cursory Google search–that there are no sex-based size differences in this brain structure. But perhaps more troubling is the ease with which Gurian et al. pass from (pseudo-) scientific statement to analogy, to tired gender stereotype. It seems to me that there is a kind of weak metaphorical thinking going on in these kinds of leaps: interconnectivity is like multi-tasking, therefore girls who have interconnected brains must be better at multi-tasking. But one could just as plausibly assert that since (or if) boys brains are more lateralized, they should be better at performing separate tasks simultaneously in different "rooms" (my metaphor–you're welcome) of the brain, without disturbance or "noise" from other rooms. Bingo: boys are better multitaskers!

The problem is that once you depart from what is known–and in the case of neuroscience, a discipline still in its infancy, even what is known is often in dispute–the possibilities for wild extrapolation are endless. So you have Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, arguing that because of purported differences in adult women's and men's performance on a test of spatial navigation, the following is true:
[M]any middle-school boys seem to learn algebra better when you start with numbers, whereas many same-age girls seem to be more engaged if you start with a word problem. For example, if you are teaching equations in multiple variables, the typical 7th-grade boy will do better if you begin by asking "If x + 2y = 60, and 2x + y = 90, how do we solve for x and y?" But the typical 7th-grade girl will be more engaged if you begin by asking "If a sweater and two blouses cost $60, and two sweaters and a blouse cost $90, how much does each blouse and each sweater cost?"*
Reading this, one can't help but wonder which comes first, the "science" or the gender stereotype.

It's not as if there is no science, as opposed to "science," that might actually shed light on how both boys and girls learn or perform certain tasks. It's just that it's . . .  well, complicated, and not amenable to tidy gender-based generalizations. One complication is the inconvenient possibility, raised by some researchers, that sex differences in brain activity (for instance, in degrees of interconnectivity) may represent separate routes to the same behaviour. Another problem is that the research is continually evolving and yielding complicating or even contradictory answers to questions involving sex differences and learning. Take math and science ability, for instance. One supposed advantage of the testosterone-exposed, lateralized male brain is that it gives men a leg up in the more "systematizing" disciplines such as math and engineering. It's no coincidence, according to Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (author of The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism) that "professions such as maths, physics, and engineering, which require high sytstemising, are also largely male-chosen disciplines." But there's one not-so-slight problem with this argument: It turns out that that the brains of mathematically-gifted children and young adults exhibit higher degrees of hemispheric interconnectivity than their non-gifted peers. (See this review study.) So if brain differences were the reliable predictors of life trajectories that Baron-Cohen claims them to be, one would expect more girls–with their purportedly interconnected brains–to grow up to be mathematicians than boys. That this is not the case, suggests that something other than differences in brain structure or organization is at play.** And this something–call it experience, nurture, or socialization–is the missing piece in the "boy crisis" story and the science on which it relies.

The assumption underlying the gender difference story, as Cordelia Fine has pointed out, is that "in the brain" equals "natural" or "hard-wired." The question that gets elided by such an assumption is why a given ability or deficiency exists. Are the differences between the brains of men and women, or between those of any two individuals for that matter, innate in the sense of being genetically-determined, fixed, and immutable? It is increasingly clear to people who study the brain that the answer is, for the most part, no. That is not to say that boys and girls or men and women are neurologically identical. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, has identified three minor behavioural or cognitive differences that are presumed to result from the fetal brain's testosterone exposure (or lack thereof): differences in activity levels in boy and girl babies and discrepancies in spatial and verbal ability. In almost all other ways brain function does not differ according to sex. But these differences, which are exceedingly small when children are young, are amplified by experience. And as it turns out, experience trumps nature when it comes to the still mysterious workings of the human brain.

Or, to put it more accurately, experience becomes part of a particular brain's nature. This is not an entirely new idea: neuroscientists have long acknowledged the role that environment plays in brain development. Babies who are not spoken to will not learn to speak, for instance. But the older neuroscientific model held that after critical periods of change, the brain pretty much stayed the same throughout an individual's life. Advances in neuroimaging techniques, which allow for a more accurate (though still indirect) picture of brain structure and activity, have been able to demonstrate that the brain remains malleable or "plastic" throughout life, and that specific experiences can have lasting effects on brain function. So we now know that daily meditation induces both structural and functional changes in the brains of Buddhist monks; similarly, the brains of London taxi drivers, who have spent four years memorizing the intricate patterns of the capitol's streets, show measurable growth of gray matter in a part of the hippocampus associated with spatial navigation and memory.

What then, it is fair to ask, is the effect on girls' and boys' brains of years spent in a culture in which gendered expectations and experiences begin seconds after birth, with the donning of blue caps and pink caps and the proffering of girl toys and boy toys? How is it possible that children's brains would not be affected by a social environment in which any resistance to such dichotomization of human experience, exemplified by occasional stories of "genderless babies," provokes widespread cultural anxiety?

Which leads to the final point to be made about the "boy crisis" narrative: namely, that its conclusions, like the science on which it is based, are all wrong. Girls and boys are not the same, but the truly innate differences between them are few and small; to parent and teach them differently is to enable these small differences to be exaggerated and amplified. In order to close achievement gaps–which are the only non-fictional element of the "boy crisis" (and which will be discussed in part 3)–girls and boys must be taught in a manner that minimizes their respective differences and provides, as far as possible, true equality of opportunity, independent of gender.


Next: The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 3: Sex, Lies and Statistics


* From the website for Sax's book Why Gender Matters. Interestingly, this section is quoted as part of a series of corrections for his book, but although Sax points out the weakness of the scientific evidence, he stands by his point about the differences in the ways boys and girls learn algebra. Ironically, the more recent study he cites to back up his claim, concludes as follows: "Taken together, these results provide further support for the gender similarities hypothesis . . . and argue against the notion of innate gender differences in mathematical calculation."

** In the case of math ability, evidence of the effect of socialization is readily available. A recent study showed, for example that mothers talk about numbers and mathematical concepts far less frequently with their daughters than with their sons. Moreover, research conducted in the nineties, and confirmed by subsequent studies, has proven the statistical reality of "stereotype threat": that is, the situation wherein women informed before a math test that men usually score higher than women on the test actually perform less well than women told that there is no sex difference in test results.




Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 1

A funny thing happened while I was researching the widely-bemoaned "boy crisis" in education. I discovered that it may not exist, or that if it exists, it has been vastly overblown. Not only that, I uncovered the rather surprising fact–though it shouldn't be surprising, should it?–that there is still a girl crisis in education, one that has been overshadowed in recent years by the attention paid to the possibly spurious boy crisis.

The current iteration of the story of boys' struggles in a"feminized" school system dates back to the late nineties, and roughly coincides with the publication of Michael Gurian's influential book, The Wonder of Boys. In the book, Gurian details the ways in which the new myths of masculinity, those derived from feminist debunking of the old myths, have damaged boys' self-esteem and adversely affected their social and economic prospects in post-industrial societies. Gurian was one of the first authors to marshal the new "brain science" to bolster his argument that boys and girls are innately different and should be parented and taught accordingly. Since the publication of Gurian's clarion call to action, many other authors, educators and journalists have added their voices to what amounts to a collective lament over the performance and status of boys in contemporary schools. Among the most influential of these authors are single-sex schooling advocate Leonard Sax, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a revised edition of whose book, The War Against Boys (2000), will be released this spring.

So what, according to these authors, does the boy crisis consist of? The first thing to note is that it rests upon an essentialist understanding of gender, that is, on a collapsing of the distinction that psychologists and sociologists have drawn between biological sex on the one hand, and cultural manifestations of masculinity and femininity–gender–on the other. (A more recent book on the subject by Simon Baron-Cohen, is tellingly entitled The Essential Difference.) The feminist contention that, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, feminine and masculine are made not born has, according to the boy-crisis proponents, met its Waterloo in the new brain science, which shows that girls and boys are neurobiologically from different planets. (Venus and Mars, one assumes.)

The brain research that writers such as Gurian et al. adduce to support their message of innate differences between boys and girls is highly complex; much of it has been debunked or disproved by subsequent studies, and almost none of it supports the extrapolations made by non-scientists writing for popular audiences, such as Gurian, Hoff Sommers, and Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain and The Male BrainMore on that later. For now, here in rough outline is what, for convenience sake, I'll call the "difference argument": male and female fetuses are exposed to differing amounts of the hormone testosterone in the womb, which leads to structural differences in the brain, which in turn lead to feminine and masculine behaviour in girls and boys. Brain science, then, according to this view, proves that our understanding of what is natural is not culturally determined as feminists would have us believe. On the contrary:

Culture has always been very much the communal refinement of biology, the practical expression of nature. Even our complex network of socializing influences are created as outgrowths of biological imperatives. We create sports structures for boys, boys create gangs for themselves, more boys go into science than girls, boys communicate through certain male-specific verbal patterns–the list of boy-specific "cultural" patterns is very long, and few, including male violence, do not begin in brain and hormonal biology. (Gurian, The Wonder of Boys, p. 28)

The post-feminist denial of this uni-directional relationship between nature and nurture has, according to Gurian and other proponents of hard-wired gender difference, led to a widespread suppression of boys' natural instincts and behaviour, and nowhere so flagrantly than in the feminized, "verbally-drenched" environment of schools.

So, the second part of the boy crisis consists of an indictment of modern schooling as contrary to boys' nature. In school, boys must sit still in rows rather than move around constantly as is their natural wont; they must listen to and respect female teachers rather than the absent male role models they naturally crave; they must express themselves verbally rather than spatially; they must work collaboratively rather than competitively; they must suppress their natural aggression, and so on. All of this, according to the boy crisis rhetoric, comes naturally to girls, but is crushing to boys, and has led to their educational demise, as evidenced by their worsening results on standardized tests, by dropout rates which surpass those of girls, and by their diminished presence on university campuses.

There's no denying that it's a depressing story, one capable of generating reams of attention-grabbing copy, but the problem is that it is for the most part just that: a story.


Next: The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 2: Science Fact and Fiction


Monday, March 25, 2013

Evidence-based . . . or not

During the course of researching my post on the purported boy crisis in education (coming soon!) I came across a fascinating book by John Hattie, an educational researcher from New Zealand. The title is Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge 2009). By "Visible Learning" Hattie seems to mean some combination of transparent pedagogy, feedback from teachers to students and students to teachers, and evidence-based innovation. But for me the real fascination of the book is the sheer amount of data underpinning Hattie's review of the 800 meta-analyses. Together, the 52,637 studies included in the book represent over 83 million students. That's a lot of data and a lot of "effects"–146,142, in fact–correlated to 138 variables affecting learning.

"Evidence-based" is a popular buzzword in education, as it is in many other spheres of research. But as Hattie points out, the vast number of studies about "what works" in education can be overwhelming to teachers and administrators. Perhaps more damagingly, the abundance of disparate and sometimes contradictory findings can lead to the justification of certain pet practices on the basis of one or two studies that may suffer from small sample size or design flaws. This is where the power of of meta-analysis comes in. Meta-analysis overcomes or neutralizes potential distortions in the results of individual studies–caused by sample size, design or methodological problems–through the aggregation (and sophisticated statistical manipulation) of data from multiple studies. That's the theory anyway, but as with any theory, meta-analysis has its critics. In the case of this particular synthesis (or meta-meta-analysis), the most salient problem–one acknowledged by the author himself–is that it concerns itself solely with research measuring effects on "achievement," and achievement is invariably measured via some form of testing. But many educational policies, including choice of curricular materials, pedagogical approaches, and integration of technologies, are justified by appealing to these very measures. So the information presented by Hatti is extremely useful to anyone trying to evaluate such programs on their promulgators' own terms.

And the results are quite surprising. Contrary to expectation–mine, anyway–many popular "progressive" pedagogical approaches have low "effect sizes," whereas practices that have been mostly discredited and discarded turn out to have large effect sizes. For instance, the practice of problem-based learning, wherein a teacher acts as a facilitator while students work through "authentic" real-world problems has an average effect size of 0.14; in Hattie's scheme, an effect of 0.40 or greater is considered one that rises above the baseline achievement due to teacher influence and students' year-to-year development. By contrast, the practice of Direct Instruction (which, in this review, means something quite specific) has an effect size of 0.59. In his discussion of the studies of Direct Instruction, Hattie usefully points out the ways in which constructivism–a theory of knowledge–has been confused with certain types of inquiry-based teaching strategies. He rightly stresses that constructivism is not a pedagogy, and that constructivist epistemological views are not incompatible with teacher-directed pedagogies. Certainly, my own experience with my daughters' elementary curriculum leads me to believe that more direct instruction, especially in math, would not be amiss. (See here for my take on the problems inherent in so-called constructivist approaches to math instruction.) And in fact, when it comes to math instruction, Hattie's data show that direct instruction methods have more positive effects on achievement (0.55) than other methods, such as technology-aided approaches (effect size 0.07).

Other results are less surprising to me, but still may be controversial or difficult for administrators to accept. The effect of homework, for instance, is low (. 29), as is that of extracurriculars (.17). This latter figure may be of interest to parents and teachers in Ontario, where extracurriculars have been curtailed by teachers protesting government-imposed contracts. (See my post on the protests here.) But this is also an example of the weakness of this type of study: the effects of extracurricular programs in schools may not be measurable by tests of achievement, but that does not necessarily make them less worthwhile than programs that can be so measured. It might, however, explain, why they are considered "extra" as opposed to part of the curriculum.

One other finding is worth pointing out: by Hattie's calculations the effect size of gender on achievement is a paltry 0.12. He writes:
The . . . question . . . is why we are so constantly immersed in debates about gender differences in achievement–they are just not there. The current synthesis shows that where differences are reported, they are minor indeed.
 This is a good question, and one which provides a perfect segue to my next post on the supposed "boy crisis" in education. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Teachers: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!) Part 3b




(This is the final section of the third installment of a post on teachers. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and the first part of of Part 3 here.)

The Sexy, Part B

It was near the end of September, not long after the discussion about the Vietnam War, that I began to linger in Mr. S's classroom after dismissal. At first our conversations were trivial and impersonal—discussions of assignments or continuations of classroom debates—but they soon evolved into more relaxed, personal exchanges about all manner of topic. I took these conversations seriously, occasionally even prepping for them! They had become the highlights of my week and I consistently skipped math class so that I wouldn't have to forego them. At some point, Mr. S expressed concern about my math grades but after I reassured him that I was doing well, he stopped worrying and accepted my decision to skip. I can't imagine a teacher doing that today, but it was a different era, one whose spirit was more conducive to respecting kids' inclinations and choices. Even then it was a Zeitgeist on its way out, but Mr S, with his irreverence for convention and rules, seemed to embody it perfectly.

In our after-class chats we talked a lot about books, with him recommending and lending, and me acting like an eager sponge. In the first few weeks alone, he introduced me to Susan Sontag's I, Etcetera Joan Didion's Play it as It Lays and The White Album, Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Proust (whom he adored but recommended I hold off reading until I was over thirty), and poetry by Rimbaud, Verlaine and Éluard. One day he brought in his copy of Violette LeDuc's classic of lesbian lit,  La Batarde; I'd asked to borrow it after reading about Simone De Beauvoir's interest in Leduc. As I flipped through it, I jokingly said I was going to show it to my parents and ask them what they thought of his taste in literature. He grabbed the book out of my hand, tore out the page where he'd written his name and handed it back to me. This gesture (which I assured him was unnecessary) was a springboard to talk about homophobia, a new-ish term at the time, whose meaning he explained to me. This in turn led to a discussion of "projection"—a concept that interested him. People who fear homosexual urges in themselves, he explained, will often project that fear onto another, thus relieving them of the burden of confronting the true source of their fear.

Books were not the only conduits to such discussions. Music and movies played a similar role. Mr. S would recommend movies that were playing at the local rep cinemas, alerting me to foreign films that he thought might interest me, especially classics of the French New Wave. (He shared my Francophilia, though in his case it was more understandable—his mother was Swiss French.) But he surprised me by praising certain popular movies as well. I remember him pronouncing Saturday Night Fever a "well-made movie." At the time, I was firmly in the "disco sucks" camp; such praise coming from him was a significant challenge to my adolescent snobbery.

Other topics I remember discussing included: the legalization of marijuana—I was in favour, he did not disagree; the jock-ish culture of high school; Canadian and American politics; and suburbia, against which I chafed but which he defended as a quiet place where people understandably chose to raise kids. "How can you defend it?" I asked. "It's soul-destroying." He shrugged. "Living here is part of why you are who you are." But the next day he brought in his copy of Cheever's Bullet Park for me to read: "My favourite suburban novel," he said.

What surprises me when I look back on those chats is not their breadth and occasional depth, but that they occurred at all. My own participation is not particularly surprising: the student "crush" is a familiar trope in both popular and literary culture, though I would argue that the trivializing term (often applied to unsanctioned attractions, especially those of the young) does not do justice to the potent mix of sexual and intellectual attraction I felt towards Mr. S. More difficult to understand from my perspective is Mr. S's motivation. I wondered then and I wonder now why he was willing to forgo so much of his prep time to engage in an ongoing conversation with a student. The more I think of it, though, the more I realize that what is important is not that he didn't feel anything inappropriate—though I believe he did not—but that if he did, I didn't know. He did not let it show. There was no physical contact between us, with one minor exception. On a spring day when I was the last to leave his classroom, he followed me out, and as I moved through the doorway, he took hold of my braid and let it run through his fingers. It was in all likelihood an innocent, affectionate gesture—which didn't stop me from wandering around for the rest of the day in a thrilled daze, thinking to myself, he touched my hair, he touched my hair!

But the point is, regardless of what he may have felt, and what I clearly did feel, nothing (beyond hair-touching) happened. Or rather what happened was entirely positive, from a pedagogic perspective: feelings rippling beneath the surface of our interaction acted as a catalyst for engaged teaching and learning. It's no accident that I produced better work and learned more in Mr. S's class than I had in the previous three years of high school English.

As I mentioned in Part A of this post, Eros has been recognized as an inducement to learning since antiquity. In the Platonic model, however, love or desire for a person is only the beginning of a process which, if all goes well, ends with the learner transferring her affection to Beauty or Knowledge itself. Human love, of the sort a student might feel towards a teacher, is merely a means to a "higher" end. (See the Ladder of Love.) It's a nice idea, but I don't think one has to view this progression as inevitable or necessary, in order to appreciate the role that Eros can play in learning. A love that remains focussed on a person or that is mixed with desire is a feeling that can produce intense and pleasurable learning. What is there to object to in that? (I'm not saying this is the only way to motivate students!) Love between student and teacher cannot be acted on under most normal circumstances; but it needn't be denied or suppressed either. As long as there are teachers like Mr. S, there will be students who love them. I say let the kids love and learn.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Teachers: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 3




(This is the third installment of a three-part post; read part 1 here and part 2 here.)


The Sexy, Part A [that's right, a part divided into further parts . . . ]

I confess that the writing of this segment of my three-part post on teachers has been a bit of a struggle. Like all of you, I'm aware that we're not supposed to mention teachers and love, or teachers and sex, in the same sentence—not supposed to do so outside the context of porn, that is. (Google "sexy teacher," and see what comes up.) Which goes to show how deeply conflicted we are as a society, not only about teachers as human beings, but also about human beings (including teachers and adolescents) as sexual beings. All I'll say here, as a preface to my story about the "sexy" teacher in my life, is that there is a rich history and philosophy going back to ancient Greece concerning the role of Eros in teaching. Eros as a concept (derived form the god of the same name) is much more broad and powerful than sex. It is conceived (by Plato, for instance) as a primal force and motivator, which incorporates but is not reducible to love, desire, passion. Its role as a spur to learning has been recognized in both ancient and modern educational philosophy, but it remains unacknowledged and controversial in our culture. And yet . . .

There he was on the first day of class, the epitome of English-teacher cool, in black shirt and tight pants, book in hand, leaning back in his chair with one knee bent, foot against the edge of the desk. A cynosure. I hovered by the entrance of the classroom affecting an attitude of bored indifference, but I was secretly excited. Mr. S's reputation, and that of the unusual course he'd designed, preceded him. Pretending not to notice him, I picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in a corner of the blackboard, "Make the rich pay!" Just as I finished writing, Mr. S stood up. With a flick of his longish, dirty-blond hair, he surveyed the space and the kids occupying it. He glanced briefly at what I'd written on the board and reached for the blackboard eraser; as I took my seat at the back of the class, he shot me a ghost of a smirk that seemed to say "really?" then put the eraser down, leaving the Marxist-Leninist party slogan on the board. "This course is World Literature in Translation," he said in a voice that silenced the room. "I'd like to start by reading a poem by Sappho."

The material in the course was rich and eccentric by today's standards. We began with the Classics: Aristotle's Poetics; plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles; poetry by Sappho, Horace and Catullus; excerpts from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Then we jumped to pre-modern and modern lit (I don't remember studying anything in between), reading short stories by De Maupassant, Chekov, Kafka; plays by Ibsen, and Jean Anouilh; essays by Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.

Mr. S expected us to read these texts carefully and write serious responses in the form of essays or reviews; but the selections also served as conduits to some of the most exciting discussions I'd ever had in a classroom setting—discussions about philosophy, psychology, art, feminism, politics. Mr. S moderated these discussions expertly, encouraging open, flexible discussion amongst the students, but he was also willing to express his own opinion as the need arose. He almost never lost his cool, which is probably why I recall one occasion early in the school year when he did. I can't remember the literary context, but we were talking about about war, specifically the Vietnam war. A boy commented that "if the US had won the war, we wouldn't have had to deal with the problem of 'boat people' in North America. Mr S said, "The problem of the boat people. Hmm. Are we all a 'problem' then? Aren't we  all immigrants in this country?" "No, sir," the boy said. "Oh, I see," Mr S said." So way back before the English and French arrived, there were the native peoples—and the Johnsons. Just your family skating around on the glaciers with the Inuit, right?" "No," the boy said.

An awkward silence followed this exchange, but I remember being secretly thrilled. For the first time in my life, I'd witnessed a teacher challenging the unthinking, petty racism that I saw and heard daily in high school. My half-Jewish, WASP-resenting, self-hating white soul was stirred. I was in love.

Next: The Sexy, Part B

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Teachers, the Good, The Bad, the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 2

(This is the second installment of a three-part post. Read Part 1 here.)


The Bad

Trust, of the sort that teachers earn and students give, is always fragile and provisional, based as it is on a delicate negotiation of the inevitable power imbalance between adult and child.  It took one bad teacher to destroy that trust for me. Mr J, my grade seven teacher, was everything the "good teachers" I'd had before were not: dour, humourless, needlessly authoritarian. Unlike Mr H, he seemed to have no passion for teaching any subject at all, though I do remember him frequently extemporizing on the topic of the superiority of the Scandinavian peoples. This memory raises red flags in my adult mind, especially when I consider that he seemed to take a particular dislike to me, the only child in the class who stayed home for Jewish holidays. But at the time, I was more alarmed by the way he massaged the shoulders of the "developed" girls as he moved through the rows of desks while supervising our work. Also disconcerting was his temper, which he often seemed to direct my way, even though by the second week of Grade 7 I'd transformed myself from mild shit-disturber to taciturn rule-follower. One day, he saw me working on a speech in what I thought was my free time; he swooped over to my desk, grabbed my only copy, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the garbage can. "I did NOT say you could work on your speech!" he bellowed. The class was silent; I fought back tears. After class, I snuck back into the room (hurray for open classroom design!) and retrieved my manuscript from the garbage can. To him, work done at inappropriate times was garbage; my stealth retrieval of my work implies that I didn't quite buy that, but I do know that Mr J had the power to make me feel like garbage. I felt like garbage every time I walked into his classroom for the entire year.


The Good, Redux

By the time I entered Grade 8, I was greatly changed. The cheerful, mischievous child who told a classmate that she foresaw a sex change in her future was gone. In her place was a mopey, mildly depressed young teen who professed a profound dislike of school. By sheer fluke that miserable young person was placed in a classroom run by a teacher who was in many ways the polar opposite of Mr J. Mrs L was an exuberant woman of Dutch origin with a passion for grammar. As it turned out, she was passionate—in a non-creepy way—about her students as well. One afternoon in late September, when I was the last kid to leave her classroom, she surprised me by asking a rather blunt question. "What's your deal, K?" (She had the neo-hippy lingo down pat!) "Why so down on school? Did someone give you a bum deal? A teacher, a kid?" This last question shocked me; it implied that she thought my bad attitude stemmed not from some defect of mine, but from an experience I might have had in school. I was a typical enough teenager to hide my true feelings and to offer only the most perfunctory of responses, "I just hate school." Mrs L looked at me as if she wanted to interrogate me further, but said only "Well, don't."

This conversation, brief though it was, had a profound effect on me. It wasn't so much what she said, but the fact that she'd said anything at all, that she had seen me, read me correctly. I perked up almost overnight. I took an interest in my school work, including the grammar that Mrs. L was so enthusiastic about, becoming in the course of a few short weeks her "best grammar student." (I confess my retention of this material has been sub-optimal.) Slowly I recovered my rebellious streak as well, possibly because Mrs L, while not encouraging it, did not discourage it, either. Somewhere in the middle of the school year, a friend and I staged a mini-revolt against the reciting of the Lord's Prayer during announcements, refusing to stand for it, as was the custom. Mrs L was tolerant, but arranged for us to talk to the Vice Principal. The VP was also tolerant; she urged us to stand during the prayer to show respect, but did not insist that we say the prayer ourselves. (Such a compromise seems unsatisfactory in a public school—but at least we were not punished!) I remember many things about Mrs L, including the fact that she was the first teacher I encountered who discussed homosexuality in a positive way (amid a chorus of snickers). I also remember the hug she gave me while handing me my Grade 8 diploma, and her whispered advice: "Don't hate school anymore." But what stands out for me when I think about my year in her classroom is how important the personal—the person—was to my ability and willingness to learn. When I hear educators wax enthusiastic about tech or flipped classrooms or YouTube learning, I can't help but think of the look of genuine interest and concern on Mrs L's face when she asked, "Did someone give you a bum deal?"

Next upPart 3, The Sexy!

(See also, Part 1, The Ugly and the Good)