Some anecdotal musings

Misdirected focus on paperwork, on procedures, and on bureaucracy frustrates teachers and fails to give children the education they need.
– Christopher Bond

I happened to catch Cross-Country Checkup last night on CBC Radio and I couldn’t have asked for a better topic. Under consideration were Canada’s results on PISA math exams. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is one commonly accepted measure these days of just how countries are doing generally in certain core subject areas (reading, math and science). Operating on a three-year cycle, the tests focus on one area at a time. Considering that some 70 countries have participated to date, PISA offers, at the very least, a kind of comparison of school systems. The interpretation of results and such comparisons is the devil amidst those details but I’ll leave that for another day.

Pisa 1
When I was teaching, PISA exams in English were administered on more than one occasion and the results were always regarded with what might be called suspicious interest. In my experience, real teachers – the ones who spend their time in classrooms with students rather than speculating from afar from some theoretically supported ivory tower – always view external standardized tests with a grain of salt. While I am among those who always had questions about their quality, I have never discounted them entirely. Through my work with New Brunswick’s own provincial assessments as well as with Advanced Placement exams, I am convinced that good standardized exams can provide a useful snapshot of basic skills.

The discussion on Cross-Country Checkup was the result of Canada’s less than stellar performance on the PISA exams seen in light of other studies which have argued that math and other basic skills are in decline across the country. Nowhere amidst such arguments is much room allowed for anecdotal reports but, as a retired teacher of high school English, I’m going to venture an opinion formed through years of dealing with students after they had made their way through a system that abandoned the teaching of grammar, asserted that spelling was largely irrelevant, insisted that memorization or any brand of rote learning was to be avoided, promoted writing without consideration for form: you get the picture. Guess what, over my approximately 30 year career, students proved less and less capable of reading, of writing or of anything requiring an even mildly sophisticated use of language. One way of summarizing things from my experience: tasks that I would assign to grade 11 students in 1982 were more than I could expect from grade 12 students in 2010.

pisa 2
But, in today’s environment, nothing gets much of a hearing unless it is supported by “research”, a term deserving of quotation marks so that I might indicate how skeptically I view research in education. Considering everything I learned when I was a student, one of the key elements of effective research was the ability to control the variables that might have an effect on results. I’ve never been entirely clear how such control is possible in something as varied and changeable as a real classroom. But that, too, is subject that I have explored previously and that I will, no doubt, return to again.

As far as math is concerned, the debate concerns what, apparently, goes under a number of names but the designation that I had heard before was “discovery learning”. In brief, this is the theory (emphasis on “theory”) that memorizing times tables and learning specific operations (think long division for those of you who remember such archaic methods) is largely a waste of time. Instead, students are supposed to discover solutions on their own, the theory being that the student who can make such discoveries will remember things better and learn more thoroughly.

pisa 3
Suffice to say I think this is hogwash. As it turns out, considerable “research” is emerging that supports my contention. At its heart, research critical of discovery learning argues that some foundation of basic knowledge of a subject is needed if any kind of discovery is going to go forward. DUH! At which point my mind is truly boggled. Does it really take years of meta-analysis, studies, investigations, reports, etc., etc., etc., to figure that out?!? To put it another way, it’s pretty hard to discover something when you don’t have the slightest clue what it might be you are looking for. Double DUH!

If my exasperation with all of this isn’t evident by now, you’re just not reading. Some of my greatest moments in teaching were those where students suddenly had an insight which made the work before them easier. They crossed over from accumulation of data to application and understanding, you might say (I’m doing my best to imitate a certain eduspeak with which, I confess, I have little expertise). But no such insight or epiphany was ever possible without the grunt-work that precedes such moments.

A change is in the wind, at least where math is concerned. More and more, educational systems are returning to things such as memorizing times-tables, practicing specific methods, learning the process, etc. Why is it that we can accept the need to repeatedly practice a golf swing or a slapshot if we want to improve our particular athletic skill while arguing that practice and technique are somehow irrelevant when it comes to higher order thinking?

pisa 4
At this point, the theorists are no longer listening. I’ve made the mistake of asserting something based upon my experience, an anecdotal report of what I’ve seen work through my years as a teacher. I haven’t done a study nor have I sought to test my claims in some clearly and objectively measurable way. In this, though, I’m a bit of Luddite. I’m happy to listen to those who have walked the walk, those who are praised by students for the impact they have had on their education, for the success such people have helped students achieve. Their methods are varied and malleable, as varied and malleable as the people who have attended school in the past and continue to do so today. When those with the power to change the system begin to listen to the honest voices of real teachers, only then will we see the improvements we all believe we need.

When definition fails

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
– George Orwell, 1984

I thoroughly enjoy the English language. It’s willingness to adopt virtually anything as a word as long as it finds its way into common usage, regardless of origin, is part of its charm. I know some would disagree but, as an especial admirer of poetry, I’m intrigued by the subtle differences that can exist among words with very similar definitions. More often than not, variations on a theme seek precision: do you love, adore, worship, idolize, or cherish a certain someone? Certainly all five possible choices suggest affection of some sort, but a great many factors might influence which one is most appropriate at a given time. I commonly told students that the value of an expanding vocabulary was its ability to allow you to formulate ideas and ultimately express them more clearly. For all that intuition might account for understanding in certain instances, communicating ideas and concepts requires language, the more precise the better.

What happens, though, when we move in the opposite direction? The ultimate nightmare of the reduction of language to its most utilitarian was explored famously in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel I have felt compelled to reread on a number of occasions in order to remind myself of just how profoundly it outlines trends that continue to come to pass. Granted, Orwell’s vision is “wrong” in many of its specifics, but the core ideas are worth examining. His description of “Newspeak” and its ultimate goal of reducing language so that the only things that can be talked about are those concepts acceptable to “the Party” might sound bizarre, but I’m convinced, personally, that a kind of Orwellian misuse of language is happening, minus the malicious intent (the idealist in me speaking).

language and thought
In an earlier blog I argued that a perceived simplicity has become so predominant in the world that it has become almost a matter of faith that virtually anything can be reduced to recognizable and definable component parts. If I haven’t made it clear, I do not believe such is the case. In fact, I would argue that the tendency of language to constantly expand over time in order to include both new concepts and further refinements of old ones suggests just the opposite. The language landscape becomes even more challenging when a group deliberately chooses familiar language and uses it in ways not commonly understood (as, I believe, is the sad case in education).

I think most of us would agree that some part of each of us, whether it’s a large or a small part, commonly longs for simplicity. We think of lazy days at the cottage or on the beach, a life free of worries over all the things we commonly worry about, all outstanding issues, whatever they might be, settled once and for all. This desire, when paired with the often overwhelming variety of complications to be found when we open our eyes to see them, cannot help but lead most people to want to tend to their own affairs and leave the bigger issues to those with time to spend on them. Further, when we have been largely convinced that research in every field of human endeavor is ongoing and continuing to provide answers to whatever questions might be out there, why wouldn’t we tend to cocoon ourselves and “leave it to the experts”?

While such an approach might be understandable and acceptable when it comes to technological advances, the same cannot be said for education. More than any other undertaking, perhaps, education should be a reflection of the community’s highest aspirations. Sadly, based upon the direction currently evident in the educational system, with all of its attendant fanfare, the community is largely being shut out. Bewildered parents, by and large, have a felt sense of what it is they want for their children as a result of twelve and more years in school: “success”.

However, that very word – “success” – and the many different ways we try to incorporate everyone within the bounds of its definition, suggests why improving schools has been so difficult through time. While governments, educational researchers, and others who are the determiners of curriculum and of the focus of programs trumpet the ongoing advances being made within the system, parents can’t help feeling that something just isn’t right. What is success? While that might seem like an innocuous question, an answer might not be as easily determined as you would think. Success is more a concept than it is an observable phenomenon. In the past, the aims of a formal education were reasonably well understood: learn to read and write passably, be able to perform essential mathematical tasks and maybe have a general sense of the history of the province or country. Anything beyond the “three r’s” was interesting, perhaps, but the attainment of those basics was paramount.

Welcome to the year 2015. The average parent, when asking about a child’s progress will be buried, in all likelihood, in an avalanche of educational jargon: outcomes, formative versus summative evaluation, anecdotal reporting, learning styles, multiple intelligences, accommodations, learning strategies, peer evaluation, etc., etc., etc. In case you were wondering why I spent so much time at the beginning of this blog talking about language, here’s why.

If you take a look at the list I’ve just assembled, virtually every word I’ve included has a meaning outside a theoretical educational context. As education has become, increasingly, the domain of educational psychologists and an assortment of “experts” in the “field” of education, the distance from which the general public is forced to observe public education grows greater with every passing year. Education, as a system administered by a government bureaucracy governed by policies devised largely by people with little or no real experience in classrooms, is driven by the belief (the one I’ve been discussing for a number of blogs now) that whatever the “problem” might be in education, analysis and experimentation will provide the way forward. As the language becomes increasingly vague and inscrutable – both to those using it and to those hearing it – the distance between the theory that dominates conversations about education and the day-to-day reality grows ever greater.

For at least 50 years, educational theorists – and the industry that promotes both the theory and the products that inevitably accompany it – have been telling us that things are getting better and better all the time. When teachers (and society at large) look around and see fewer good readers and writers, young people who cannot do the most basic math, students whose grasp of the world is limited to what their friends and social media tell them, those same teachers and parents have their doubts. But the aura of expertise and the convolution of the language we employ when speaking of education have become so powerful, most are afraid to speak up. In an Orwellian world, reality as we experience it is always trumped by the reality that the powers-that-be pronounce. Welcome to 1984, the 2015 version.

Define “education” – I dare you!

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” Hamlet, 2.2.303-312

While the specifics of my concerns with education are complicated and often difficult to articulate, the essential core of the problem is neither. It all boils down to what is meant by “education” and, by extension, what it means to be educated. As I’ve tried to make clear in my previous blogs, even those things which seem simple, seldom are. Should you happen to find yourself in a conversation and the word “education” is used, how likely are you to stop whoever is speaking and ask them what they mean by the word? We use language with a kind of understandable indifference – after all, if English is your first language, you’ve been speaking it since before you can remember and you’ve managed to get by.

Einstein genius
Additionally, “education” isn’t a word commonly subjected to the quibbles that might accompany “love”, “faith”, or “integrity”, for example. These are but three words that can mean very different things depending upon any number of factors including context, who is using the word, or when or where it is used. Education, though? Surely we all know what we mean by that? After all, we attended school in our time and we had some great teachers. Most of us would readily assert that he/she is or isn’t educated according to an unstated scale that might use university degrees attained as a partial measure. Still, most of us probably know someone who doesn’t have the credentials in place, someone we would, nevertheless, consider “educated”.

I’ve quoted Hamlet above because, in this passage, Shakespeare articulates a view of human beings that was somewhat new at the time. A child of the Renaissance, Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) were embracing a view of human beings very much at odds with a medieval view of humanity as largely debased and sinful and very much in need of divine intervention if we were to rise above our lowly station. The “renaissance man (person)” notion exemplifies these high-minded assertions. He/she is someone who develops to the maximum possible extent the potential Renaissance thinkers imagined we might have.

As a confessed lover of literature and the arts, I can’t avoid being moved by Shakespeare’s expression of such a noble ideal. An equally adept portrayer of human evil and depravity, Shakespeare does not pretend that Hamlet’s vision of humanity’s grandeur is all that needs to be said. But through this passage, he does provide a vision of what COULD be – an ideal, the details of which are, hopefully, to be actualized in the individual life.

Of necessity, such an ideal lacks specifics. The manifestations of human achievement are as varied as we are. At the heart of Hamlet’s speech is a conception of human possibility that is not tied to measurable “outcomes”; rather, we are invited to participate in a suggestive vision, the details of which it is up to each person to imagine. When I read passages such as this one from Hamlet, I am caught in the dilemma I often described to students as the central quest of probably all significant literature: trying to find words to express that which cannot be expressed. Another way of putting it: Shakespeare and any number of other writers inspire me, provide me with a sense of connection to the world, even provide an inexpressible grasp of life’s meaning.

Maya Angelou
Excuse me?!? The majority of those with whom I have had contact and/or discussions regarding trends in modern education would dismiss my last paragraph, out of hand, as utterly irrelevant. Such abstractions have no place in modern educational theory. The analytical model that currently dominates educational research and the theories and applications that arise as a result demands “data”. Inspiration and vision, in my experience, have little place in a world of tools and outcomes.

In order to illustrate what I am suggesting in, hopefully, a more accessible way, consider the following: have you ever had good teachers? Even a couple of great ones? I know I have. When I look over my academic path from kindergarten through university, I can say that I had quite a few good teachers. The great ones I can count on one hand. I’ll choose two. One was a history teacher I had in high school.

good teacher
Based upon my understanding of current notions of what makes for effective teaching, this guy was an abject failure. He rarely emerged from behind his desk, seldom provided a visual aid, tested infrequently at best and, overall, seemed indifferent when it came to assessment in any form. That being said, I can say without hesitation that any student who had him would include him as among the very best teachers of their lives. History to him was living and, through his telling of history, he brought it alive for his students. His thirst for knowledge – the implicit respect he had for his subject (and for so many other things that were of interest to him) was infectious. He made those who had him as a teacher want to know more.

My second example was a professor I had as an undergraduate student. She was the most unforgiving and demanding teacher I have ever had. She had a deep and profound respect for writers and for writing and expected that the study of literature would be undertaken with an effort commensurate with the work that went into the creation of the works we considered.

What unites these two, regardless of their differences in style, is the ability to inspire. Without ever really articulating it, they were presenting an argument that “education” – as opposed to the modern substitute, “learning” – was not about utility but about personal fulfillment. As students, we were being invited to have a glimpse of that humanity, of that world, that Shakespeare allows Hamlet to suggest. Whatever problems we might believe are present in education today, the root cause of the overall crisis, – and this is the central tenet of my overall argument – is the abandonment of an IDEAL of the educated person in favour of a pseudo-scientific IDEOLOGY that imagines human beings as component parts awaiting improvement if we can only identify more clearly what parts need adjusting and/or enhancement. And so the system and its many supports carry on with their futile quest to develop the “strategies” and “tools” that will provide us with the outcomes individuals purportedly need. Speaking personally, is it any wonder such a notion fails to inspire?

Education is like the weather . . .

When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.
– Albert Einstein

You are here 2
A frequent criticism I heard throughout the time I was involved in politics concerned the political “system”. Repeatedly I was told that the system was broken, that it doesn’t work, that it has failed – you get the picture. I mention this, not because I want to begin a defense of our political system; rather, it serves as an excellent launching point for an examination of the notion of “system”.

I’m fairly confident that most people don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about what words mean. Most of us reach for words in conversation, ordinarily confident that whatever word we’ve chosen is appropriate for the context in which we are employing it. Using the wrong word can lead to laughter or to embarrassment, by times, but, for the most part, all of us conduct the business of our days secure in the belief that as native speakers of a language – English for most of us – we’re on pretty solid ground.

And we’re right about that, inasmuch as language, for the sake of day-to-day discourse, is a fluid tool that we use with varying degrees of confidence. Any one of us, when confronted with someone who is more articulate or has a larger vocabulary, can feel intimidated and perhaps be less inclined to have our say but that, I suspect, is more the exception than the rule.

I bring all this up to make a point. As a matter of habit, we rarely spend time examining how words are used or what they mean. I began with the political example simply because it is the “system” that most people are likely to criticize. In response to such criticism, consider the following definition: “system: A set of detailed methods, procedures and routines created to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem”.

Canadian political system
In other words, to strip the definition somewhat bare, a system is a structured undertaking seeking a specific result. As I said, I don’t want to get into (at the moment; I will later) a lengthy defense of our political system. Consider, however, Canada’s legislatures in light of the above definition. What is the political system of our country supposed to achieve? While a great deal can be said about the conduct of those involved and the limitations, flaws and imperfections of the day-to-day application of the components of the system, surely the system is successful in the big picture? After all, Canada has managed to go 200 years or so without a major war occurring within its borders. Canadians, by and large, conduct themselves without fear of tyrannical dictatorships foregoing elections, or of military leaders undertaking coups and/or rebellions. Ours is an ordered society and, I would argue, our political “system” has had a very important role to play in ensuring that such is the case.

Politics and business share a certain good fortune in that regard. Again, looking at the big picture, the desired RESULT of the system operating effectively is clear: in the political realm, the enactment of laws that ensure justice and good order; in business, policies, structures and practices that aim to make the business profitable. Again, I’m not suggesting that either is perfect – we all know that the devil is frequently in the details. Nevertheless, the overarching, desired result is pretty clear in either instance.

Unfortunately – and now we arrive at the point of this latest missive of mine – the same cannot be said for “education”. We live in a time when the word “education” and the term “education(al) system” are tossed about as though the meaning or the intent, in both instances, is clear. That being said, try this some time: ask anyone who is either praising or maligning education, or the system as it currently exists, what it means today to “be educated”. Or, ask instead, “what is the education(al) system seeking to achieve?”

Please don’t imagine I’m suggesting this out of some deep-seated desire to alienate people or to simply criticize for the sake of criticizing. I contend, with absolute conviction, that the mess we call the educational system today has arrived in its current state entirely as the result of good intentions. If you read my blog yesterday, then here we are at the “road to hell being paved with good intentions” moment.

human rights
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the last few centuries is, arguably, the development of the concept of universal human rights, rights which have come to include the right to an education. Problems have arisen within public schools because of how complicated that simple “right” really is. If “education” could be reduced to a simple checklist, wouldn’t the task be simple?

As it turns out, seeking just such a checklist goes along nicely with the predominant techno-faith that I’ve railed against in earlier blogs. Increasingly, a system which claims to be “child-centred” is focused on measurable “outcomes” and the success or failure of a school (and the system of which it is a part) is determined by an analysis of data and research. What I would think of as intrinsic differences in ability and in aptitudes among individuals are barriers which can be “accommodated” so that all those who participate in the system can achieve to the same degree in every pursuit.

Extreme, you say? If your view of human beings is fundamentally mechanistic, then it only makes sense that, with the proper adjustments, the deficit in a particular area of achievement can be overcome if the right “fix” is identified and applied. Again I remind you, these ideas are not malicious; they arise out of a sincere desire to provide real advantages to those perceived as lacking something, seldom identified clearly, that makes it difficult for he/she to acquire a particular “learning”.

As an example, a frequently quoted concern in education these days is “learning styles”. Good enough. I know that I am more likely to learn something well if I read it on my own. Someone else might learn the same thing better through conversation and/or interaction. Perhaps a third would benefit from a video presentation. And so it goes: we process things differently and certain things can help each of us learn BETTER.

Learning style 1

Learning style 3

Learnig Style 2
This well-intentioned understanding goes wrong when the theoretical concept becomes a would-be guarantor of a particular result, a “technology” in other words. If I don’t learn “concept A” well, the criticism might be heard that whoever was teaching concept A failed to take into account sufficiently my preferred learning style. In other words, I, the student, am the object waiting to be adjusted and the teacher is the technician doing the adjusting. To say that such a model is dehumanizing only scratches the surface. (to be continued)

Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.
– Albert Einstein