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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

And the question is . . . .

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.
– Margaret Atwood

An article in the local newspaper caught my eye today. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I am inevitably drawn to issues surrounding education or, more specifically, to matters concerning public education here in New Brunswick and, by extension, elsewhere in Canada and in North America as well. The conventional wisdom throughout my career in the classroom was that ideas coming from the States made it to Ontario first and found their way to NB approximately five years later. Another pillar of that same wisdom suggested that those ideas only made it this far after they had been proven ineffective in the previous jurisdictions. Perhaps that can be a topic for another day.

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Anyway, in this article, a representative of a local adult education group (one that is best known for working to improve literacy among adults) voiced the concern that many students graduating from high schools do not possess sufficient literacy and numeracy skills “to cope at colleges and universities”. Chances are, this comes as no surprise to many people. Certainly employers, for some time now, have lamented the lack of fundamental literacy and numeracy among prospective employees, a matter distinct from the lack of “skilled” workers in any number of fields. In light of their concern it shouldn’t come as any great revelation that many receiving a diploma might not seem, according to traditional notions of why one SHOULD receive a diploma, especially deserving.

But that’s a field upon which most are very afraid to tread. Nowhere in the course of the article was any mention made of it being inappropriate that someone would graduate from high school without having achieved at least a passable level of literacy and numeracy. The article mentions that over half of New Brunswick’s population “over 16 lack minimum literacy skills”. We are told about the remediation efforts of universities, specifically the institution of tutoring programs and writing centres where students can get help with those basics that they seem to have missed through their years in the public system.

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This unwillingness to confront something fundamentally ineffective in our schools has become a predominant theme in many of my musings about public education in New Brunswick. Among any number of things that regularly come from the Department of Education about purported improvements in the public system, statistics about graduation rates has long been a favourite. Side by side with that number, you might find another, related percentage concerning student retention. Those reporting such numbers will also usually offer some kind of historical comparison suggesting that in the last 20 or however many years, both numbers have increased substantially and – here comes the conclusion – this proves that education in New Brunswick is constantly improving.

I have long decried the emptiness of this particular claim. How can the QUALITY of an education be summarized by a numerical assessment of graduation and retention without some accompanying account of the real achievement of those staying in school long enough to graduate? If New Brunswick’s functional literacy rate remains less than 50% among adults after almost 35 years of ongoing adjustment, change, innovation, tinkering , etc., surely someone should ask the simple question: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

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But that question is not one that either governments or those responsible for changes in the educational system are eager to confront. Here in New Brunswick we have created an educational system that costs over a billion dollars to operate year over year. Class sizes at all levels have been reduced on numerous occasions; specialists and experts have been hired in great number and work in schools or district offices; programs are added, subtracted, modified, replaced. You get the picture. And yet, something as simple as a measure of literacy suggests that all such innovation has amounted to virtually nothing in terms of real improvement.

But then, “improvement” is another one of those complicated words. The official who trumpets retention and graduation rates can’t really be faulted in one way. The measure of success in his/her account is clear and simple and can be reduced to a statistic. 20 years ago, let’s say, 75% of 18 year olds graduated from high school and now it’s 90%. Who can argue with the contention that this suggests an improvement of sorts?

As I was reading the article that served as a springboard for this blog, I was struck by how much it avoided any suggestion that something was wrong with the system itself. It chose to focus on remediation, reassurance, suggestions of circumstances external to schools that might contribute to the situation.

Strange where the mind can go. As I was reading this article and wondering how it was that no one was wondering WHY students were graduating in such numbers even though they did not possess what might be thought of as the bare essentials you could expect from 12 or 13 years of formal education – being able to read, to write and to do basic math – I thought of the movie I, Robot where a hologram of a dead scientist cautions the lead character, played by Will Smith, to “ask the right question”.

So it is with education in New Brunswick and, again, as far as I’m concerned, in many other jurisdictions. One of these days someone is going to have to ask the right question, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so.

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