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 Qu├ębec’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.)