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.

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.

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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.