Learning to listen

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
– G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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If you’ve been following the fallout from Donald Trump’s election, one designation has been increasingly prominent in the analysis: “progressive.”

Perhaps you have long been familiar with this term (in the sense I am using it) but I first encountered it a couple of years ago. Progressives commonly define who and what society should champion, defend, promote, even believe. They commonly hold that they are beyond meaningful challenge by virtue of their positions’ intrinsic righteousness and, in fact, they are seldom challenged (at least until recently) because they tend to be on the “politically correct” side of many issues we commonly encounter in the press and other public forums.

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And the thing is, I commonly agree with their core assertions: climate change is real; LGBT rights are human rights; Islam is a religion, not a terrorist organization; women, for all the strides they have made, are still subject to misogyny, double standards and sexism; etc.

Unfortunately, for all of their good intentions, the progressives or, perhaps, the “liberal left” are victims of their own conviction and certainty. Any number of analysts have pointed to the tunnel vision of those who felt that Donald Trump was unelectable. While I share their despair at Trump’s election, I was never convinced that he couldn’t win. I fear those who were entirely disbelieving haven’t paid enough attention to history.

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And while we are fellow travelers in so many ways, the progressives and I diverge at a fundamental level. Progressives are too often, to my way of thinking, ideologues. As an idealist myself, I think it is important to recognize that someone can share many of the ideals proclaimed by progressives without falling into the ideologue trap, a trap that prevents the ideologue from carefully considering a reality that is, perhaps, staring you in the face.

The ideologue claims a position on an issue, commonly social/political, that is essentially unassailable, a secular version of fundamentalist religion you might say. Watching mainstream media outlets, particularly CNN, on election night in America was fascinating. I had been watching CNN in the weeks and months leading up to the election far more than I ever had.

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And make no mistake, the preference for and expectation of a Clinton victory was predominant. However much the various anchors tried for balance, each and every segment involved those who were defending Trump being exactly and exclusively that: defenders. And to be clear, I get it. Everything about Trump, his campaign, his rallies trended toward the repulsive – for me! At the same time, attention needed to be paid to the reality that a huge segment of the population found Trump to be preferable. The New York Times – giving credit where credit is due – has gone so far as to admit that they need to get out of the newsroom more and talk to people on the ground.

Progressive ideologues play easily into the hands of the so-called alt-right. The progressives’ ideological righteousness and the accompanying dismissal of any point-of-view that diverges from theirs contribute to the radicalization of what might otherwise be simply different opinions.

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Listening for and seeking to grasp differences, however, have become casualties of our preference for being pseudo-informed. When the public forum is dominated by 140-character tweets, headlines and sound-bites, the effect is insidious. Increasingly, few have time for a lengthy consideration of anything. Slogans take the place of arguments, positions become hardened and unassailable, and extremes become the norm.

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Canada, so far, has avoided this trap but we cannot be complacent. Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch – she of the “Canadian values test “ who wants to eliminate the CBC – has her followers and dismissing those who are sympathetic to the positions she brings forward will not convince them to give either consideration further thought. If we don’t learn to listen to one another, we risk outcomes a great many prefer not to imagine.

Let’s meet, before it’s too late

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. – Dante

Recent events in the U.S. as well as an interview with one of the federal Conservative party leadership candidates has convinced me all the more that we need to see the emergence of a truly Progressive Conservative option in this country. I know this will distress an equal number of friends on either side of this paradoxical descriptor but it remains my preferred position.

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Kellie Leitch, federal Conservative MP and leadership hopeful, spoke with the host of Sunday Morning on CBC, largely trying to defend/avoid her position on a “Canadian values” test for prospective immigrants. According to her, some two thirds of Canadians are in favour of such a test. Really? I would need to see the question that led to that result or some other kind of evidence before I would even begin to believe it but I won’t make the mistake of dismissing such a claim.

That’s where the results of the U.S. election come into the picture. I was among the many here in Canada, the U.S. and around the world who just couldn’t believe that someone as apparently vile and unsuitable for high office as Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. At the same time, for all of my personal revulsion, I am enough of a student of history to know that people can make choices, to put it mildly, that are not necessarily in their best interest.

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So I’ll pause right there. Chances are I’ve offended someone by now. Trump’s victory tells us that some 60 million people in the United States were able either to embrace whatever it is he stands for or, at the very least, to see him as preferable to the alternative, regardless of his flaws. So I’ve potentially ticked off 60 million. Perhaps someone who agrees in general with Kellie Leitch’s idea will see me as elitist. Someone else might think I’m going too easy on Trump and his supporters. Who knows.

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What I absolutely believe, however, is that the only way forward is to walk the middle ground. While Canada has not succumbed to the drastic polarization that we see in the U.S., I fear that we could be subject to the same forces as led to the rise of Donald Trump. I was never confident that he couldn’t win, however much, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe that he couldn’t. Through my experiences in politics, I know there are people who are quietly applauding a Trump victory (or, like Kellie Leitch, not so quietly). I don’t fully understand how anyone could but then neither can I fully understand much of what has happened in the world that I consider horrifying.

I’ve written, in other contexts (mostly surrounding education), of the dangers of fanaticism. While “progressives” might not like to hear it, I happen to think they fall into that category far too often. They believe that they occupy a moral high ground to which others might hope to ascend and, filled with the warmth of righteousness, disregard those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to climb that mountain with them.

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Conservatives (most Trump supporters, Tea Party and Kellie Leitch variety) are equally ideological. They contend that their view is sacrosanct, and that they alone represent what is righteous and good. Too often, especially in the U.S., a somewhat bizarre form of Christian fundamentalism is mixed in. Whatever the case, in the same manner as the progressives I’ve mentioned, they alone possess the “truth”.

Hence my affection for the “progressive conservative”. Some will, no doubt (some already have), argue that I am simply remaking the designation. I choose to leave that argument for another time. For now, I simply want to suggest that the paradoxical quality of the Progressive Conservative brand points to a much-needed balance. A great deal of ink has been spilled in the U.S. crediting Trump’s victory to the deafness of the progressive left to any voices but their own. Personally, I think that is overstating the case but I might take that up at another time as well.

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For now, suffice to say that I think that tunnel vision has become the order of the day all across the political spectrum. Sadly lacking just about everywhere are nuance and an acknowledgement of divergent positions that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. When you ignore the FELT opinions of millions of people, don’t be surprised by a backlash.

Can we move to a middle ground? Can we imagine ourselves as progressive in some things (socially is the most commonly mentioned) and conservative in others (fiscally being the usual)? Such a clear division is, itself, an oversimplification. I would rather think of “progressive conservative” as a state of mind, one where you are always open to new information, hoping to clarify situations and understand more thoroughly and deeply.

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As an idealist, I refuse to adopt a stance which demonizes either the left or the right. I do not think anyone possesses some absolute truth to which all others must ascribe. Canadians rightly pride themselves on their overall fairness and respect for difference. At the same time, complacency fueled by a sense of moral superiority is a sure way to alienate lots of people. If Kellie Leitch’s claim to have 2/3 of Canadians supporting a “Canadian values” test is even somewhat true, then we need to have a national conversation. If someone objects to the designation “progressive conservative” then I’ll put it this way: please, let’s meet in the middle. And let’s do so before it’s too late. If you need an object lesson, consider this: you can’t unelect Donald Trump.

Education: understanding what it is (and isn’t)

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.
― Albert Einstein

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As a retired teacher, I have been profoundly frustrated by the current government’s approach to education in New Brunswick, although I recognize they are simply following the example set by governments through many decades. The current state of education – reflected most recently in the Department of Education’s assessment results – requires a complex response to a complex issue.

 

Instead, typically, Premier Gallant offers the simplistic recommendation that we need to “invest in education”, with no reference to or recommendation regarding where such an investment should be targeted. As someone who has watched any number of initiatives implemented and later abandoned at a cost I would not want to calculate, I contend that such vague pseudo-optimism is distracting and fundamentally irresponsible. Rather than contributing to an analysis of the ever-escalating cost of public education in the face of continuing failures within the system, this simplistic approach stifles real and frank debate of where we have gone wrong.

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I say “where we have gone wrong” because of a distressing reality. Even as we have, year-to-year, increased spending in education, literacy has seen little sustained improvement among adults (those who have completed their formal education) and numeracy is notoriously problematic at virtually every level. While the recent assessments reinforce this reality, I don’t want to overstate their significance as a benchmark for success (or lack thereof) in schools. To emphasize my central concern, New Brunswick’s educational system has been in crisis for many years and throwing more money at it isn’t going to solve anything.

Temporary solutions often become permanent problems.
― Craig Bruce

During my time as a teacher, I saw the virtual elimination of vocational education; the institution of semestering in high schools; the implementation and abandonment of the “Foundation Program”; the marginalizing of physical education, literature, art and music courses; a focus on technology as a teaching methodology as well as a necessary component of the daily, in-class experience of students; a demand for evidence of ever-shifting “best practices” (shifting because the research that supports such practices frequently changes opinions regarding what is “best”) in classrooms; the division of high school into the foundation years (grades 9 and 10),where there are no credits, and the graduation years (grades 11 and 12) where there are credit requirements; a denigration of the idea of teachers as experts in a subject discipline which has intrinsic value (in favour of numerous administrative oversight positions that seek to educate teachers in the above-mentioned “best practices”); a corresponding demand that teachers abandon the idea that they should be imparters of knowledge in such areas.

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Any one of the above deserves further elaboration but, hopefully, the sheer volume of items suggests the ongoing demand for change in education; consider further that each of the above involved an “investment” of some kind, whether through curriculum changes, material acquisitions, additional administrative staff or other costs.

 

The evidence (including but not limited to assessments) we do have suggests that any of the above-noted changes have had, at best, a negligible impact on student achievement. The dollar cost of the many initiatives I have enumerated is more than I could calculate. Hopefully, my point is obvious: rather than calling yet again, without offering any specific direction, for additional “investment”, we need to look carefully at what we are doing. More specifically, I believe we need to look at our system and ask the most fundamental question: what do we want this system to accomplish? Until we know clearly what we are trying achieve in public schools, every decision we make will be little more than a shot in the dark; inevitably, it will also be very expensive.

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We all agree that the future depends on education (or “learning” if you prefer), but without a better and clearer idea of what we hope our schools can achieve, we will simply be throwing more money aimlessly at a system that has shown very little real improvement when it comes to the most fundamental of its tasks: graduating literate and numerate young people capable of moving along on their path of lifelong learning. If the future matters to us as much as we claim, we must take the time to know better how we plan to get there. Before we spend more, we need to know what we are paying for.

Vaguely seeking clarity: assessment in education 2016

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
—Jacques Barzun

Assessment in education (primarily within the public system) has become a political football unlike any other. Through any number of assessments – whether local, provincial or international – various constituencies either live in fear of, or celebrate, the release of the latest “results”.

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“Results” is in quotation marks here to indicate how difficult this term has become. To be fair, perhaps it has always been a more complicated term than was once allowed but the modern determination to parse and to dissect the achievement (or lack of the same) on any number of standardized assessments is both strenuous and relentless.

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Those who are old enough might hearken back to a supposed golden age where students were assigned a letter grade or a percentage. I say “supposed” because it doesn’t take a great deal of argument to convince someone that such a method of reporting can mean a great many different things. One persons “A” is another person’s “C” you might say.

While this clearly indicates the developing sense over the years of a need to offer a more precise and objective evaluation of student progress, as with so many things, the net result, in my estimation, has been negative. To put it another way, as I’ve watched what has unfolded re evaluation and assessment throughout my career and beyond, the cure has proven, again and again, to be far worse than the disease.

Objectivity has about as much substance as the Emperor’s new clothes.
-Connie Miller

While this situation can be blamed on any number of factors, a key element, I believe, is the ascendancy in the popular imagination of all things “objective”. In essence, a move has been afoot for a very long time to supplant human expertise and the exercise of judgement for what is held to be objective measures of just about anything. As a side note, one of the last redoubts of human judgement is the court system where the onus is on a judge to determine – in anything but a jury trial – the guilt or innocence of an accused as well as the sentence imposed should an accused be found guilty.

Conservative forces throughout the U.S. and Canada have been great proponents of mandatory minimums for any number of crimes, the explanation being variations on the “tough on crime” mantra. While that might sound good to some ears, all I hear is an ideological unwillingness to accept the informed judgement of those best placed to make judgements, namely, JUDGES! If it should happen that a given decision is deemed truly objectionable, it can be appealed. And so it should be.

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As for education, time was that the assessment of student progress was left exclusively to teachers, largely at the classroom level. Students came to class, teachers taught to a quite rigidly prescribed curriculum, teachers tested in various ways, a “grade” was assigned.

The unfortunate truth (and yet, an unavoidable one, I would argue) is that not all teachers are created equal. But then, neither are doctors, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, wait staff – add anyone you would like to the list! Seemingly we allow for such differences in every other instance. Education alone, it seems to me, has reached a place where every child is somehow supposed to be provided a uniquely tailored experience where, regardless of teacher, school, or any other factor, he/she can achieve certain “outcomes”.

Reality should be intruding by now and, if you are reading this, you are saying (hopefully) something along the line of “well that doesn’t seem realistic; not everyone can be expected to be the same (add or alter where needed but I suspect the point is clear).

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Perhaps the greatest irony at the heart of so much theory in education these days is the assertion that all children are unique even as schools seek to ensure uniform “outcomes” for all students.

Which brings us to “outcomes”, the vagary at the heart of modern assessment, at least the assessment we see in New Brunswick. I can’t comment on Math results on provincial assessments since I do not pretend to have any expertise in the area. As for English, I taught high school English for 28 years (the same at summer school for 7), worked on development teams for the Grade 11 English assessment for a number of years, “assessed those exams (as well as the current grade 9 English Language Proficiency Assessments) for more than half my career – you get the picture.

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So, as one professional no longer working in the system, I would like to say: “outcomes” are so vague and open to interpretation that they do not provide the kind of guidance a teacher needs when it comes to devising a curriculum. I believe with my heart, mind and soul that young children, especially, need clarity when it comes to expectations. “Outcomes” breed a vagueness in assessment that does not allow a student to know clearly where weaknesses need to be addressed. Conversely, they fail to provide an understandable account of strengths and “success” if you will.

However much modern educational theorists like to decry “grading” as harmful to self-esteem, failing to account for the “multiple intelligences” in each of us, etc., human beings do better when expectations are clear and the bar they have to reach is well-defined. Currently, one of the few indicators we have of such a measure even being allowable is the provincial assessment program. Even then, all we have is a statement of percentage deemed successful. Good luck to anyone trying to figure out just what it means to BE successful. That determination has be to left to the “professionals”. The rest of us simply wouldn’t understand.