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The Balance

Sometime ago, I was told “balance” is a weasel word when I used it to describe both my orientation to teaching and learning and my practice in the classroom. I don’t really worry about being called names by anonymous Twitter folks, but what struck me is the negativity that suggesting teachers use a balanced approach to teaching and learning received.

More recently, I was “called out” again on this position and was told that it was responsible for reduced scores on international standardized tests. Further, some individuals suggest that the position is dangerous as it promotes and, in fact, exacerbates the divide between wealthy students and those in poverty.

Many of those who question my position advocate for teachers using scripted, Direct Instruction lessons, which are supposedly rigorously tested to ensure consistent teaching results time after time. As I have never used such lessons, I cannot attest to the veracity of that claim.

Finally, some commentators on social media, who have little to no experience in a K-12 classroom, suggest that saying we are “student centred” is a euphemistic way of casting off responsibility for educating our students.

I have said many times throughout my career as a classroom teacher and administrator, that many individuals should have a voice in how education is conducted in our schools. But, that doesn’t mean they should shape teaching and learning in our classrooms. Honestly, that is the job of the professional teacher in the room. Sometimes those teachers should use direct instruction – I don’t think they should ever use pre-scripted lesson plans but that is my opinion – and sometimes they should use other pedagogical approaches. Teachers should incorporate technology into their lessons where it is appropriate but it should never be used as a babysitter. Teachers should stay on top of professional research and adopt an orientation as a continual learner. However, they should be very cautious of accepting advice from those who have not actually taught in a K-12 classroom.

Some people would like teaching and learning to be boiled down to an exact science whereby results are replicable across all learning situations. I don’t believe that is a possibility. Teaching is not an exact science – I would argue it is more of an artform. The truly master teachers will have an understanding of the science of teaching and learning, and be artful in their craft knowing when and which approach to use.

But, those are just my thoughts.

Have a great day,

Sean

When is a Teacher not a Teacher

I no longer teach everyday – what am I?

That is the riddle I’ve been thinking about for a while. I am no longer in a classroom full time. Can I call myself a teacher? I still teach. Actually, I spend a lot of time in classrooms working with students from grade 1 through 12. But, do I get to still call myself a teacher?

A while ago, someone online told me that I was no longer a teacher in the true sense of the word. That got me thinking about what the true sense of the word teacher is. If you want to conduct an interesting social experiment, ask people to define “teacher.”

In Alberta, there is a legal definition of a teacher – a person who holds a valid teaching certificate. In order to obtain this certificate, you must hold a teaching degree and meet the requirements of the Teaching Quality Standard. I have such a certificate. However, if you asked me where it is in my house, I couldn’t tell you. But, trust me, I have one. So, step one taken care of. But am I a teacher.

When I asked people to tell me how they define the word “teacher,” many said: someone who works with kids. That’s a pretty broad definition but, that still describes me. I work with kids a lot. Another definition included: “works in a school.” Again, fairly general but I do work in a school. Actually, I work in 13 schools which is great. A further definition: “teaches kids stuff.” Not the most articulate, but I get it. Teachers are responsible for promoting learning in their classroom. Again, I meet this criteria. I teach students how to utilize digital resources so as to promote their learning and, hopefully, make their lives a bit easier. But am I a teacher?

 

Removing the Wings

When we remove the wings from airplanes, we render them incapable of flying. In the case of teaching and learning, in order to fly, we need to remove the wings.

The Spectrum

As a Social Studies teacher, I spent many lessons going over the political spectrum and the core features of the left and right wing with my students. Generally, ideologies which are right of centre value tradition and the status quo. These ideologies value individualism and limited government intervention in the lives of the people. As well, equality of opportunity where every individual has the opportunity to succeed without the help of the government, is a key feature. In addition, competition plays a key role in these ideologies.

Ideologies to the left of centre are often viewed as progressive due to their desire to see change to society. These ideologies value equality of condition where the government plays a larger role in society to ensure the needs of the populace are met. Consequently, these ideologies value collective responsibility. That is not to say that individualism and competition are absent left of centre. It does mean, however, that government structures are used to promote the greater good.

The Wings in Education

What I find interesting about this is how the left win and right wing find their way into discussions about teaching and learning. As I see it, individuals who hold a more right of centre view about education value traditional teaching methodologies and want to see little change to the system. In addition, they value a system built on competition and individualism, where the role of teachers and schools is to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed without specialized supports (think equality of opportunity).

Individuals who approach teaching and learning from a left of centre approach value collaboration over competition. THey want to see the education system change and move away from traditional teaching practice. There is also a desire to ensure all students have what they need to be successful by providing individual supports (equality of condition).

The Middle Ground

It is time we remove the political spectrum and the wings from teaching and learning. We need to focus on what is best for the students we have in our classrooms. On some days for some students traditional, explicit instruction approaches may work best. At other times, more progressive non traditional methods may be the best approach. But this decision should be left to the teacher in the room. They know their students and what they need.

The debate raging about traditional vs. progressive teaching and learning draws attention away from the real issue which is the student. I can quote research to support both progressive or traditional teaching practices but that isn’t the point. The point is, education leaders and teacher educators need to ensure teachers understand both sides so they can best meet the needs of the kids in their rooms. After all, we are all in this together.

Have a great day,

The War of the Worlds

Without a doubt, the past week on Twitter has been one of the most interesting I have been a part of since joining in 2009. I have always said that Twitter is an excellent source of professional development if you allow it to be. That was definitely the case this past week.

Some Background

Two weeks ago, a fax circulated around Alberta schools. I wrote about it when it was released. Among other things, it invited people to participate in a forum on math and curriculum to be held on May 29 at the University of Alberta. The organizers brought in number of speakers including both local and out of province mathematicians and former, educators. One expert invited to speak was Robert Craigen. This all coincided with the release of a CD Howe report written by Anna Stokke titled: What to do with Canada’s Declining Math Scores (http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_427.pdf). Finally, the CBC Radio program Cross Country Checkup had the author of the CD Howe Report on with other guests to discuss math in Canada (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/checkup/is-there-something-wrong-with-the-way-math-is-being-taught-1.3093910).

Tieing It Together

All of these pieces came together on Twitter as the various voices in the debate began airing their views and staking their claims. What ensued was a week’s worth of points and counterpoints related to the teaching of math, not only in Alberta or Canada, but around the world. I won’t go through and list of the tweets as there are many. But some of the voices involved were: Dan Myer (@ddmeyer), Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman), John Golden (@mathhombre), Anna Stokke (@rastokke), Robert Craigen (@rcraigen), and David Coffey (@delta_dc).

I became involved when I asked Robert Craigen a question about one of his tweets. That resulted in quite a lengthy exchange between the two of us, which consisted of me mostly trying to gain a better understanding of Dr. Craigen’s position and Dr. Craigen patiently answering my questions. Dr. Craigen’s position is that all students in Canadian schools should memorize a canon of mathematical knowledge consisting of standard algorithms. According to Dr. Craigen, these algorithms should be learned in a very sequential way with little deviation and should be memorized by the students so they are able to recall them quickly when needed. The argument here is that through memorization, the cognitive load required by the students is reduced because they do not need to spend intellectual horsepower on remembering the algorithm. Dr. Craigen’s contention is that “normal” (his word) students, without impairments will be able to do this. He points to Jump Math as an example of a program that teachers could employ to achieve this goal.

What is interesting to me about this, is not all mathematics education professors agree with Dr. Craigen. When asked, Dr. Craigen suggested that the acceptance of his position was almost completely universal in the mathematics world. However, the debate that continues to go on would suggest otherwise.

So What?

The big question I have been asking myself after being involved in a variety of these discussions is why is there such a disagreement amongst mathematicians and mathematics education professors? I have yet to come to an answer for this question. The other larger implication to this debate is the teaching of math in schools and, the teaching of any subject in schools. Some people are very passionate about their beliefs on the teaching that should take place in classrooms. Anna Stokke’s CD Howe report recommended that there be an 80/20 split with 80% of the time dedicated to direct instruction and 20% of the time allocated to other teaching methodologies. For me, the bottom line to this, and the “so what” answer, is balance. I believe teachers should use a variety of teaching and assessment practices and not rely strictly on one approach. The reason for this is that students learn at different rates and attach meaning/develop schemas in memory in different ways. Therefore, if we present material in a variety of ways and provide students with a variety of ways for them to demonstrate what they know, we can maximize the success of all our students. Which, in my opinion, is the ultimate objective in our classrooms.

The Next Steps

The debate currently going on is nothing new. People are passionate about their particular areas of expertise. Parents are passionate about their children and only want what’s best for them. I’m sure, this will not be the last time this debate comes up. I only hope that we all can wade through the rhetoric and park our egos long enough to remember that we are trying to help kids. As my wife said “if only students loved math/learning as much as adults love debating how to teach.”

Thanks for reading,

Sean

Changing Contexts

Yesterday, on Twitter, I read about a fax that was received at various schools around the province. The individual who wrote the fax is a passionate parent who obviously wants the best for her child. I disagree with the methods she is using to achieve this and I disagree with the message she is sending. You can see an image of the fax at the bottom of my post. Rather than refute the content of the fax that was sent out yesterday, I thought I would write about why I am in favour of the many changes that have been undertaken by teachers and Alberta Education.

Historical Context

For hundreds of years, western society has valued an education system which enabled students to memorize a cannon of information. Those students who were successful in this system attained a high level of mechanical memorization of facts, formulas or ideas. Success meant the capacity to memorize material and recreate the material when requested. Many people, myself included, refer to this as the factory model of education. Students were given information through direct instruction from a teacher. Not everyone was successful with this model but that was deemed to be satisfactory. After all, the prevailing belief was that not everyone could be successful in school.

However, this industrial or factory model of education has changed over time. There have been many attempts at revamping the system, some more successful than others. However, the advent of the Internet; the widespread adoption of technology, both personal and school based; and the proliferation of high speed, broadband connections have immensely altered the education landscape. Now, more than at any point in human history, individuals have access to a wealth of information about any topic. That is not to say they know what to do with that information. It does however mean that we need to reexamine the value we place on mechanical memorization of information.

Mechanical Memorization vs. Memorization with Understanding

John Hattie’s name is synonymous with research in education. In 2002, Hattie coauthored a paper with Australian researcher Nola Purdie titled: Assessing Students’ Conceptions of Learning. In this paper, Purdie and Hattie (2002) suggest, through research from various cultural groups, that there are six conceptions of learning (p.27). They are:

  1. Learning is gaining information
  2. Learning is a duty
  3. Learning is for social competence
  4. Learning is for personal change
  5. Learning is for remembering, using and understanding information
  6. Learning is a process not bound by time or place

The traditional concept of mechanical memorization valued in western education can be seen in learning as gaining information as well as learning as a duty. Those that were able to give information back during testing situations were the ones who were traditionally the most successful and who saw a duty in learning in this way. Western society valued this capacity and therefore the institutions of learning reinforced this process. This idea is brought up by Purdie and Hattie (2002) and the research of others (Säljö, 1979, 1989): “Different educational environments will define learning according to different socially and culturally established conventions with respect to what counts as learning” (Purdie & Hattie, 2002, p.18). Our environments valued mechanical memorization so that is what was defined as learning. However, as access to information has increased, the value of simple mechanical memorization is diminishing. Now, more emphasis is being placed on learning as remembering, using, and understanding information as well as a process which is no longer bound by time or place.

Students have access to an immense amount of information. However, they do not always know how to use this information. In addition, some of the tasks they are asked to complete require a certain amount of memorization. I am not suggesting that memorization of certain processes should be removed. I believe that we need to continue to promote environments where students have strong foundational literacy and numeracy and have a deep level of understanding. I want students to think, problem solve, build networks, create, and share their work. To do so, they need teachers who can help them activate their foundations. That is the crux of Inspiring Education, the Ministerial Order on Teaching and Learning from May 2013, and the High School Redesign program. All of these pieces are designed to create environments where learning is valued and defined as remembering, using and understanding information and where learning is a process which is not bound by time or place.

The Myth

Opponents of these documents such as the individual who sent faxes around the province will suggest that the documents and programs mentioned about promote a focus on discovery learning in that students will be left to their own devices to discover information and build knowledge on their own. This is simply not true. In an environment where mechanical memorization of information is valued, direct instruction as the only pedagogical approach is acceptable. However, in an environment where learning is for remembering, using, and understanding information and where learning is seen as a process not bound by time or place, a variety of pedagogical approaches is necessary. This approach will include direct instruction because there are times when that is the most appropriate approach. But it will also include a wide array of other pedagogical approaches because that will ensure we can maximize the success of all students, not just those who can memorize and regurgitate.

Final Thoughts

As a teacher, I want my students to be able to think. I want them to be curious about the world and find their passions. I want them to be successful and engaged. I believe schools should be environments where all students find success. I want a system described by Piaget: Education for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society…But for me, education means making creators…You have to make inventors, innovators, not conformists.”

 

Tran Davies Letter

 

Promoting Learning

Last night, I had the opportunity, and indeed the pleasure, of speaking to the Parent Council in one of my district’s schools. The focus of the presentation I gave was on changes our district is proposing for our reporting process and information related to Alberta Education’s initiative: Moving Forward with High School Redesign.

When I finished my presentation, the parents in attendance had many thoughtful and thought provoking questions. We had an excellent discussion about the rationale behind the changes and what it would mean for students, teachers, and parents. One item that came up during the discussion was in relation to honour roll and academic rewards. It made me think back to a blog post I wrote in November 2013. While I don’t often repost my own blog, I thought it was worthwhile. I still feel the same way I did when I wrote this in November 2013. I would be interested to know how others feel as well. As an update, the original Calgary Herald article is no longer available, however this link will take you to a Huffington Post article about the issue: http://goo.gl/AvVSTX.

Recognition vs. Reward

November 1, 2013

This week, in Calgary, there has been a great deal of media coverage of a school within the Calgary Catholic school system. St. Basil’s Junior High school eliminated academic awards for all students. Here is a link to the story in the Calgary Herald: http://bit.ly/1asItpK. I felt this was a good topic for this week’s blog for a number of reasons. I know it is a contentious issue but, as a functioning society, we should not shy away from contentious and sometimes uncomfortable discussions.

My first thought about this issue revolves around the comparison between academics and sports. One is meant to be a competition where one team or individual wins and one does not. The other, is meant to be an environment where people learn. School should not be a competition. As a teacher, I do not establish systems in my classroom where students are pitted against each other in the hopes one will emerge victorious. On the contrary, I want my classroom to be an environment where students collaborate and create networks to solve problems. I encourage my students to work diligently. If they fail it is not a setback, rather it is an opportunity for them to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes again – and they can try again, multiple times. Classrooms should not be environments where students are pitted against each other. My question to parents advocating this type of environment would be: are your homes filled with competition? Do you constantly compare your children to one another and reward the best child? Or, do you attempt to foster effective communication and teamwork to ensure things run smoothly?

My second thought is in regards to evidence. There is an immense body of academic research which suggests the use of academic “carrots” does nothing to motivate students. In fact, the vast amount of research indicates that reward systems actually have the opposite impact. Students who are high achievers and relish success for success sake do not require rewards to reinforce their behaviour. Conversely, students who are not high achievers and who struggle, are negatively impacted by academic reward systems. The response to this in the mainstream media and on social media is to suggest that by doing away with reward systems we are in fact promoting mediocrity in our systems. People suggest the real world is about reward and competition and we must reward hard work. However, I would be willing to bet if you asked these same people whether they would employ someone who is intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated, they will always go for the person who has internal motivation. If this is the case, why then should schools provide extrinsic motivation to their students when the research overwhelmingly suggests it does not benefit any of the students.

My final comment is in relation to a blog post I wrote earlier this year. I asked my social networks to tell me what they thought excellent schools should look like. I received many responses from teachers, administrators, and parents. The overwhelming response was they wanted schools to promote leadership, collaboration, communication, and create an environment of safety. In the over 50 responses I received, nowhere did anyone say they wanted a school which pitted students against each other in an environment of academic competition.

I realize students enjoy receiving recognition and I am a supporter of recognition. However, I am not a supporter of academic competition. Recognizing students for their individual efforts and achievements is important. But this can be done in such a way so as to foster an environment built on mutual success. I would appreciate your thoughts and feedback and would welcome comments to continue this discussion.

I Too am That Teacher

A few months ago, this post http://missnightmutters.com/2014/11/dear-parent-about-that-kid.html describing “that kid” went viral. It was picked up by journalists, bloggers, and the general public alike. It was largely met with compassion and understanding. The story described resonated with thousands of people. If you haven’t read the blog post, take a minute and read it.

While the entire piece resonates with me and is a reflection of my teaching reality for 15 years, one line stood out very clearly for me: “You see I worry all the time. About ALL of them.” I read the blog when it originally appeared in November. But, I was reminded about the post because of a number of events which have taken place in Alberta over the past few weeks.

I Too am That Teacher

I believe that all students who come into our classrooms want to learn, even THOSE kids. The funny thing is, they don’t always want to learn what we are teaching. That doesn’t mean we should give up on them. That doesn’t mean that, just because they didn’t complete our homework, they don’t want to be successful. It doesn’t mean they are lazy or incapable. It means they are human.

I don’t give zeros. A zero is an assessment of behaviour not of learning or student understanding – end of story. That doesn’t mean I don’t have high standards for my students – feel free to ask any of my former students that question. It means that I respect them and am willing to have a conversation about the tasks I assign to them. It means that I recognize that sometimes, more often than not, it is really hard to be a kid. It means that I am willing to admit that sometimes, my course is not the most important thing going on in their life. It also means that I don’t give up on them (see above).

I allow students to redo their assignments for full grades. I believe that learning is a process and does not stop when the test/quiz/essay/project is complete. I believe, as Guskey (1994) does, that the best assessment of learning is a current one. If a student can demonstrate they understand the concepts we covered in January, but it is now May, does that mean it is any less valid? Does that mean we shouldn’t accept it? Remember, I don’t give up!

I provide multiple means of representation and utilize a variety of teaching methods. You know what, sometimes, using a lecture is a valid teaching method. As is inquiry based learning, problem based learning, project based learning, online learning, blended learning, flipped learning, experiential learning, service learning, etc. The point is that not everything works all the time for every student. We need to utilize a variety of approaches as we have a variety of students in our classes. Do you want to know why there is variation in marks between the same course taught in the same school? Students are all different  – end of story. As such, we need to use different assessments and teaching methods to help them find success.

I care about all my students. That doesn’t mean I like being around them everyday – ever spend an entire day with kids? It can be mentally and physically exhausting. But that doesn’t mean I quit on them because it can also be uplifting. And it definitely doesn’t mean that when they are “good” and “behave,” they receive preferential treatment. It means I do my best to ensure they all receive what they need, when they need it, whether it is in regards to assessing their work or helping them manage their lives. If they need a bit of a push, they get it. If they need a softer approach they get it. If they need a shoulder to cry on, they have it.

But, I’m not unique. There are thousands of teachers like me. We care about ALL of our students and are concerned about their learning.

People can disagree with me and tell me I’m wrong or can say that I promote “edubabble.” Quite frankly, I’m not concerned with that – I’m not looking for their approval. I am more concerned about the learning that goes on in and out of my classroom. I’m more concerned with ensuring that everything I do is done to benefit the students in my room.

So, to ALL THOSE TEACHERS, well done! Keep it up! You are making a significant difference in the lives of your students – end of story!

Have a great day,

Sean