An education agenda, please! (part four)

confusion in education

Returning to the stated theme of this multi-part post: One of the premises of the Learning Agenda initiative is that, as a province, New Brunswick does not value “learning”. This assessment was offered – in a manner infuriatingly confident – as an evident truth. Hence, we need to enhance that appreciation so that we might create New Brunswick as that rather nebulous entity, “the learning province.”
Looking beyond the difficulty inherent in any definition of such a thing, I question the core assumption that New Brunswickers do not value education (a term I much prefer to “learning”). I believe we, as a province, absolutely value education as an abstract notion. The problem arises when people assess their own experiences with the system that is the centrepiece of our educational efforts: the k-12 public school system. Again, I am forced to depend on my largely anecdotal thirty years of experience in that system.
As a teacher who dealt primarily with students in Grades 11 and 12, I was meeting young people at the end of their journey. Additionally, I was dealing with the parents of a number of those students. Through students and parents both, I became acquainted with “stakeholders” who were largely discouraged and disillusioned as a result of their experiences in the system. It wasn’t that anyone disparaged learning and its value; rather, a common theme was that the system had failed in some indefinable way to provide those skills that one and all seemed to realize were lacking. And yet, because of the obscurity surrounding method and practice in the system, it was difficult if not impossible for the uninitiated parent or student to put a finger on exactly where things had gone wrong.
I hesitate to state with total assurance that this obscurantism is deliberate and planned; nevertheless, I do believe it has proven convenient at the very least. When those with an immediate interest in education (students and parents) are unable to grasp the shape and substance of the system which serves them, it is very difficult to formulate significant critiques. Hence, it is very difficult for clear and coherent criticism to be leveled by those who might be most interested in doing so, namely, those same students and their parents. Once again, I am forced to depend on my personal experience and observations to illustrate this process (tune in tomorrow!)

A digression on literacy

images-2While I feel I am digressing somewhat from the original focus of this lengthy, multi-part post, my last statement deserves explanation. Literacy – and its measure for the individual – has commonly been defined as the ability to read and to write. If you look the word up in a dictionary these days, chances are you will find an additional entry defining literacy in more general terms. For example, do a google search and you might find “competence or knowledge in a specified area”. As I indicated in an earlier post, this shifting and/or expansion in application is not new to the English language. Ours is a language especially adept at adopting words, even making them up, when the situation warrants.

Ordinarily, this presents few problems. That being said, commonly, new words and/or definitions result when new concepts appear or emphasis/application shifts. To “google” something exemplifies the former; the word “gay”, the latter. I contend that the application of the word “literacy” to virtually any competence has made it difficult for all those concerned about reading and writing skills (or language skills in general if you wish to expand that to include listening and speaking) to focus on the task at hand.

To repeat, you cannot teach literacy – it is a condition attained: one is or is not literate. The extent to which one is literate can be measured. So it is that New Brunswick is commonly said to have something in the order of a 50%-60% adult functional illiteracy rate. These are people who may be able to decode individual words but who find it difficult to make meaning out of those same words. Hence, they struggle with instructions, application forms and many of the minor reading and writing tasks encountered in modern life.

You can, however, teach people to read and to write. As soon as literacy is defined according to these very tangible skills, problems arise for the defenders of modern thinking in education. The cheerleaders for the latest trend in educational theory commonly decry restrictive definitions. The classic example remains the notion that writing can be separated into technical competence and obvious intent. If it hasn’t happened to you personally, chances are you’ve heard the story from someone of the child who brings home the paper with a very good grade, a paper rife with spelling and grammatical errors, errors which are discounted because the paper managed to convey the idea and/or the intent.

In the convoluted thinking of modern educational theory, the latter somehow is almost entirely disconnected from the need for actual competence in written conventions. It wouldn’t be so bad if the conventions themselves were reinforced and taught but, again, the thinking of the theorists is that doing so would disrupt the free flow of ideas. And so it is that students in the system can freefall through 12 or 13 years of public education only to find themselves joining the ranks of the functionally illiterate upon graduation.

Perhaps the greatest irony in all of this is the demand for technical competence placed upon students when the time comes for external evaluation, whether through provincial and/or international exams or through application to an employer. Is it any wonder that virtually every university or community college now requires that students take writing courses during their first year of study? And make no mistake, these are courses focused on the technical aspects of good writing, a fundamental element of LITERACY.

An education agenda, please! (part three)

imagesLiteracy and numeracy have become the centerpiece of all our efforts, at least in word if not in reality. I must believe that those who trumpet the importance of these central competencies honestly desire improvement. And yet, however much we try, whether as government or within the system itself, no appreciable improvement is seen. Granted, the government and the assessment arm of the Department of Education point to improvements in literacy among Grade 2 students as proof that something is working; unfortunately, the presumed methodology for achieving this improvement is unclear and the validity of the reported “data” is, itself, easily challenged on scientific grounds.

Even assuming such purported evidence could be shown to be reliable, the fact remains that by the time students reach high school and graduate, literacy and numeracy among graduates remain questionable. Inevitably, I am forced to speak anecdotally from my experience as a classroom teacher at the high school level. In my almost 30 years in the classroom, I watched literacy among my students grow progressively worse. Assignments given and expectations that I had for Grade 11 students were impossible to have for virtually any of my students by the time I was in my last few years. Exceptions arose but they were few. My career as a teacher was spent teaching English language and literature at the high school level. As such, I have had a great deal of time to reflect on the issue of literacy and why it is that we see little in the way of real gains even as we graduate, on a percentage basis, far more of our population than we did 50 years ago.

While I have many complaints about methodology, I want to focus on the term “literacy” for a moment. The cavalier handling of the definition is especially significant. By that I mean that “literacy” is the very best example of a clearly defined concept muddied for purposes ranging from convenience to laziness. While I readily concede the flexibility of the English language (its willingness to adopt any word as its own from anywhere partially explains its dominance), the adaptation of literacy to purposes beyond its original meaning has confused one and all: teachers, students, the public, the powers that be. While it might sound compelling to speak of “teaching literacy”, such a thing is not possible.

Literacy is an acquired condition where one possesses defined abilities, namely being able to read and to write. To some this will seem a quibble but, to my mind, it is an indicator of an ongoing societal trend where language, supposedly the key to meaning and understanding, becomes, instead, a source of confusion and misdirection.

An education agenda, please! (part two)

So it is that we are called to celebrate a system that has shown no significant improvement in real results – the graduation of students who are demonstrably prepared for the challenges of post-secondary education and the workplace – in at least fifty years. In fact, the collective assessment of those who deal directly with today’s graduates – post-secondary instructors and employers – asserts again and again that students coming out of the public school system are, with the exception of a small cohort of top-level students, woefully unprepared for the demands of higher education and/or work.

We are either unable or unwilling to face this reality, at least within the system itself. We attempt to accommodate this failure through adult literacy programs in the larger community and any number of skills enhancement efforts – either voluntary or required – at post-secondary institutions. We celebrate interventions such as UNBSJ’s involvement at Hazen White-St. Francis school (the intervention itself is rightly celebrated) rather than asking why it is that teachers are unable to work effectively to achieve the basic results in literacy and numeracy that the system was supposedly designed to ensure.
My core contention is that if we do not find a way to address the reality of the system as it exists rather than constantly celebrating what we hope and imagine it might become as a result of the latest, greatest initiative (and there have been many throughout the course of my career), we will continue to see a fundamental decline in skills and demonstrable ability among succeeding generations. While inclusion, preventing bullying, ensuring gender equity and other goals are laudable in themselves, these pursuits should not be confused with the core responsibility of the “education” system, namely, ensuring that young people leave high school with a diploma that serves as convincing evidence that they possess those skills and that knowledge that we believe are the essentials if one is to become the “life-long learner” that has become the ideal. What that means in practical terms is itself a big part of the problem but no one would challenge the central place held by two things in particular: literacy and numeracy.

An education agenda, please! (part one)

On November 5th-6th, 2012, I attended a provincial forum of the Learning Initiative, held at the Crowne Plaza in Fredericton. Those attending the forum were mandated to analyze “Learn: For Life!”, a document developed over, approximately, the preceding two years. More specifically the document stated “as a member of the Provincial Forum of the Learning Initiative, your role is to review this document, provide your insight and ideas, and be an active participant in the Provincial Forum.” (p 5) It later states “it will be up to you and other members of the provincial Forum to endorse the Vision and Guiding Principles proposed in this document.” (p 6)

Am I alone in finding that a curious directive? Wouldn’t a more appropriate task be to analyze and to challenge any elements of the document with which you might disagree or regarding which you might have some questions? The document itself purports to provide a number of “actionable” items. The specific task of the breakout sessions on the second day was to look at each specific item and determine how “stakeholders” could implement these actions and, by doing so, help achieve the ultimate goal of New Brunswick being regarded throughout the country as “The Learning Province”.

While I agree entirely with the underlying issue of the importance – indeed, the profound and absolute necessity – of developing a better educated and skilled population, I do not believe that either this document or the general approach that created it (and continues to animate those committed to its precepts) provide the “path forward” that is so essential to each of us and to society as a whole.

This event provides a clear example of the prevailing trend both in thinking and in organization when it comes to “education”. Sadly, it is my deeply felt belief that the supposed path outlined throughout the sessions I attended (and in the supporting document) is no path at all. At best, it is the expression of a laudable aspiration; in reality, it is an expensive and time-consuming exercise in societal distraction. It allows us to believe we are pursuing a grand outcome while also permitting us to gloss over the anomalies of day-to-day reality in classrooms as aberrations, departures from the ever-advancing march toward ever greater actualization of the ideal we have embraced.

While I fear many will take great umbrage at the comparison, I am reminded of the doublethink of George Orwell’s 1984. Doublethink allows people to ignore the evidence of their senses – which, in Orwell’s world, tell them that living conditions are bad and getting worse – and celebrate, instead, how wonderful things are becoming. The triumphal tone evident in this meeting and in so many other meetings of a similar type replaces real achievement. As long as we can produce reports and agendas and other artifacts as evidence of good intentions, we need not confront the tangible reality.