Saturday, August 31, 2013

Elements of Curriculum

Elements of curriculum are more than what the BC Ministry of Education tells us they are.  This is from the ministry's website:

"The Ministry of Education sets the education standards for students in grades K to 12 through the provincial curriculum. These standards are called Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs). PLOs outline the expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade and within each subject area."

(BC Ministry of Education)

From the time I became a teacher and for much of my career this was how I saw curriculum too. It was the skills and content of the subjects I taught as outlined by the ministry.  As I grew as a teacher I began to see it as more than that. It included everything that happens in the school.  From the sports and arts activities that happen outside of school hours to the interactions in the hallway.  All these experiences are influences that shape children's view of the world and their place in it.    

This past summer I participated in a school activity that expanded my definition of curriculum further.  I have a summer job running a camp for schools from abroad.  We had a two week camp with 21 high school students from a school in Japan who were billeted with families in the community and received ESL instruction as well as sports, gardening, art and First Nations culture lessons at the school.  The school in Japan wanted interaction with Canadian students, but as it was summer vacation that was not so easy to do.  But they were paying, so I used some of that money to hire five students from my Japanese program who are going with me on a study tour of Japan next spring break. It was a good match.  The students I hired are energetic and motivated to earn money for their trip and to interact with Japanese people.

We also connected with a group in our town that is teaching sustainable gardening techniques in our community and has reached out to the school to start a garden here.  This group got a grant to hire a very capable Vancouver Island University student, Madeliene Dwyer,  who set up the garden on an unused piece of land behind our gym.  Using some of the money the Japanese school paid us, Madeliene bought top soil, seeds and a few other supplies.  Over two mornings our Japanese and Canadian students learned how to make a lasagna garden ( a layered garden) and planted it with vegetables common to Japan.  My Canadian students will maintain this garden and will make some Japanese dishes with it later in the fall.  We are documenting this with a web page on my class site that the students from Japan have access to and will show our dishes and our meal when it is made.

So my definition and understanding of curriculum has expanded.  It now includes interaction with the local community of my town and even a community far off in Japan.  Teaching and education always have been more than just what happens in the classroom.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Does Online Instruction Work?

Does Online Instruction Work?
(Part 3)
Larry Cuban is a former high school teacher, superintendent and university professor.  He writes on classroom teaching, the history of school reform, the use of technology in K-12 and how policy is translated into practice.  In part three of his blog series on Online Instruction, Larry looks at the research used to justify the implementation of online instruction. His blog post is re-posted here with permission.
The first two part of this series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2.
Here is the fundamental question that public policymakers (e.g., federal and state officials, local school board members and superintendents) have to answer when making decisions that involve children and youth compelled to attend public school. Such a question, however, about the effectiveness of online instruction in raising student’s academic achievement and producing other desirable outcomes such as increased attendance, higher graduation and lower dropout rates, and college admissions—that is what I mean by “work”– gives educational leaders heartburn.
Why heartburn? Because of the tortuous role that research plays in policymaker decisions about adopting and implementing technologies in schools, especially the current clamor for online instruction. Over the past few decades, there have been thousands of K-12 studies that have sought an answer to the question.
The answers provided by scores of studies have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture.[i]
Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. The overall picture is considerably less than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected.[ii]
What complicates matters is that findings drawn from research studies on the effectiveness of online instruction are only one of many interlocking tiles in a mosaic that policymakers assemble in judging whether to adopt virtual instruction for children and youth. Policymakers are often torn by the push-and-pull of conflicting impulses over determining what kinds of evidence of effectiveness matter and how much evidence is necessary to inform, shape, and justify a policy decision?[iii]
Consider the push impulse for evidence. Using research and other forms of evidence to make a decision is rational, a value highly prized in life much less for policymaking where the stakes in power, influence, and resources run high. Gathering, sifting, and analyzing data to make a personal, professional, or organizational decision is what is expected of those in decision-making posts. So when it comes to public policy decisions, in the best or worst of fiscal times, policymakers have to make a strong public case anchored in ample evidence to convince voters and key stakeholders (e.g., school boards, chambers of commerce, teacher unions, state officials, etc.) to buy and deploy new technologies in classrooms and have students use them regularly. Evidence, including research studies, that these technologies will help students learn more, faster, and better is expected.  Furthermore, current top-down pressure among business, civic, and educational leaders for “research-based practice” and “data-driven decisions” hammers school decision-makers to have solid proof in their pockets or snazzy PowerPoint presentations filled with studies that tout the effectiveness of students receiving online instruction.[iv]
Where the pull impulse enters the policy picture is that these very same policymakers have an equally strong tug to buy and deploy glittering new technologies as quickly as possible without waiting for researchers to come up with supportive findings. At professional conferences, national leaders pitch the virtues of “revolutionary” changes springing from virtual instruction and placing new technologies in classrooms. Pulled by first-hand experiences and stories of “transformations” in student learning and astute marketing by vendors, policymakers, technology leaders and school officials do not need to read research studies, visit other districts, or attend more conferences. They know in their gut the answer to the question of what works; they have faith in their intuition and, like entrepreneurs and ambitious decision-makers elsewhere, they want to forge ahead and implement virtual schooling swiftly because they believe it will help students learn.
These policymakers are not irrational. There is a political logic in mandating online courses for every student as a graduation requirement, starting pilot tablet and laptop programs, and encouraging a principal and cadre of teachers to create a technological innovation tailored to their school They consult with key stakeholders in the community before inviting charter management organizations like Rocketship Schools to establish blended learning programs in their schools. These decision-makers do not need researchers to tell them that these new technologies “work.” They believe in their heart that they will work. Push-and-pull conflicting urges pit solid research studies against strong beliefs and leave unanswered the question of what kinds of evidence matter. Too often beliefs trump facts.[v]
In asking the fundamental policy question that too often goes unanswered about whether online instruction is effective in teaching and learning, it helps to examine other reforms that have “worked” where responsible decision-makers did not rely on stories, beliefs, and intuitive snap judgments but, instead, were guided by solid research evidence.
Take preschool education. Well-designed study after study of three and four year-olds who were in preschool programs (e.g., Perry pre-schools, Abecedarian) followed their progress through schools and into adulthood. These studies show short- and long-term gains in academic achievement, adult behaviors, and post-graduation earnings. Or consider the research and evaluations of career-technical academies where students get prepared for both college and career.  Researchers doing experimental and quasi-experimental studies have found over the past four decades a range of positive student outcomes for graduates of these programs.[vii]
Considering these examples where research studies in K-12 schooling clearly show that certain investments in programs and practices work, why do so few policymakers who buy, deploy, and mandate different forms of virtual schooling seldom cite studies to determine whether online instruction is effective? Why is the return on investment of taxpayer monies so often ignored?
Three reasons come to mind.
Research results are scant and mixed. As stated above, the results of meta-analyses of K-12 studies do not show a decided edge for students taking online courses or in virtual full-time schools performing even marginally above students who are in teacher-led classrooms.  More striking, however, is that only a few studies of virtual instruction in K-12 schools meet the minimum quality threshold for design, sampling, and methodologies. From a recent (and often cited) meta-analysis of studies, researchers stated:
Few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K–12 students have been published.  (original italics). A systematic search of the research literature from 1994 through 2006 found no experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies comparing the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K–12 students that provide sufficient data to compute an effect size. A subsequent search that expanded the time frame through July 2008 identified just five published studies meeting meta-analysis criteria.[viii]
The authors of the meta-analysis conclude that these five studies:
comprises a very small number of studies, especially considering the extent to which secondary schools are using online courses and the rapid growth of online instruction in K–12 education as a whole. Educators making decisions about online learning need rigorous research examining the effectiveness of online learning for different types of students and subject matter as well as studies of the relative effectiveness of different online learning practices.[ix]
In short, given the results of the few K-12 studies that have been done, there is clearly insufficient evidence to launch major online initiatives in either elementary or secondary schools. For those policymakers who seek to appear rational and prize research findings, the pantry is nearly empty.
The research being done is shoddy. While only a few analyses of online instruction approach the gold standard of experimental or quasi-experimental studies, a great deal of research has been (and continues to be) done. Unfortunately, much of it is poor quality. Most studies fall far below minimum standards researchers have established to determine the effectiveness of an educational program or procedure. Bias is evident in the sampling of students and teachers included in studies. Bias also appears in studies funded by technology vendors. Moreover, there is far too much reliance on teacher and principal surveys and self-reports of student engagement and achievement. Finally, among those studies that claim higher test scores as a result of online instruction, few studies control for obvious factors that could explain the rise in test scores. [x]
Slip-shod research, of course, has seldom stopped champions of online instruction from pressing policymakers to include such studies in their recommendations and use such research to persuade practitioners of the merits of virtual schooling for children and youth. Thus, poorly designed studies loaded with lethal flaws that show student gains in test scores often made media headlines for millions of readers and viewers while occasional well-designed studies that show modest or no gains turned up in academic journals read by a few hundreds researchers.
Nonetheless, policymakers have decided again and again to have more and more elementary and secondary school students in blended schools and taking online courses to solve one or more of the problems described in Part 2.  Were sensible observers of the contemporary policy scene to watch top-level district, state, and federal leaders push ambitious virtual programs, these observers would note the frequent absence of convincing evidence for the sharp expansion of online instruction. These observers would easily conclude that decision-makers made policy on grounds other than research findings. They would hardly miss that when policymakers did cite research studies in making the decisions, citations would be selective and, more often than not, had justified a policy already decided upon. Why is that? Here is where I offer a third reason for the minor role that research plays in making decisions about virtual learning.
Symbolic, political, and budgetary reasons carry far more weight in making policy decisions about online instruction than research findings.
State and local school boards and superintendents adopt elements of virtual schooling because they want to be seen as technologically innovative and ahead of other districts. In this culture, the value of technology is equal to social and economic progress. Even the term “high tech”—like high fashion, high church, high class, high society—conveys a whiff of superiority relative to “low tech” methods and materials. Symbolically, high-tech is high status. Students using new technologies signals that schools are modern, up-to-date, and preparing the next generation to enter higher education or go directly into the labor market with sufficient skills and knowledge to find jobs. Being in the vanguard of innovation—schools buying iPads for every kindergarteners—signals voters, taxpayers, and parents that the district wants to raise achievement through engaging students while bringing the real-world into classrooms to prepare children and youth for an information-driven economy. Not adopting new technologies, even when funds are short, sends a clear message that district leaders are failing their students, mindlessly reinforcing traditional instruction, and neglecting grave educational problems. (xi)
For policymakers to be seen as ahead of the game in technology garners public support. Too often school critics forget that local boards of education are completely dependent upon voters for funding. Those school boards that rely upon local and state resources to raise funds for schools are politically smart, then, to buy computers, whiteboards, and expand online instruction as high-status symbols to cement community support for future tax levies and bond referenda. They are also politically smart in spending monies to adopt and implement virtual schooling because in the long-term—about a decade—it will reduce significantly the cost of schooling children and youth.
Finally, policymakers also know that business, civic, and community expect of them unceasing efforts to improve students’ academic performance through better school organization, governance, curriculum, and instruction—including the adoption of technology. Since World War II, job number one has been reform. Unrelenting reform is, in short, a policymaker strategy for political survival. [xii]
For these three reasons, policymaker use of research studies on online instructional effectiveness matters little.  The truth is that even were there more than a handful of rigorously designed studies showing strong student effects from taking online courses, such results would be used to justify after-the-fact policy decisions. Of course, such solid studies are missing from the research pantry. The fact remains that no one knows for sure for which students virtual schooling works, in what subjects, and under what conditions.
If that is the case now, it does not mean it will be so forever. Recall that I pointed out how rigorous research designs, sampling, and methodologies have produced findings over time that have accumulated into convincing caches of evidence (e.g., preschool and career-technical academies) sufficient to give policymakers a rock-solid foundation for making decisions if the political conditions and resources were favorable for such policies.
Sure, that final “if” clause is crucial but it is realistic in light of the history and practice of making and implementing school policy over the past half-century. Political, economic, and social conditions influence which reforms get identified and adopted. With the current excitement over virtual learning and blended schools unlikely to abate in the immediate future and interest in spending ever larger amounts of money on online instruction, asking decision-makers about the evidence supporting expansion of online instruction is, at the least, a question that demands answers that can be reviewed and analyzed publicly.

[i] Gene Glass, “The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education,” p. 5.
[ii] Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005,  Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).
[iii] See, for example, Charles Lindblom and David Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979); Carol Weiss, et. al., “The Fairy Godmother and Her Warts: Making the Dream of Evidence-Based Policy Come True,”American Journal of Evaluation, 2008, 29(1) at:
[iv] For a typical example of calls for practitioners to use data-driven decision making, see:  Pamela Shorr, “10 Things You Always Wanted To Know about Data-Driven Decision Making,” Scholastic Administr@tor, September 2003, at:
[v]Michelle Davis, “States, Districts Move to Require Virtual Classes,”Education Week, October 9, 2011; Kelsey Sheehy, “States, Districts Require Online Ed for High School Graduation,” U.S. News, October 24, 2012 at:
[vi] Districts sometimes give up laptops. See Winnie Hu, “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” New York Times, May 4, 2007; Jonathan Schorr and Deborah McGriff, “Future Schools,” Education Next, 2011 at:
[vii] James Heckman, “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children,” Science, Vol. 312,  June 30, 2006, pp. 1900-1902; James Kemple, “Career Academies: Impact on Work and Educational Attainment,” March 2004, MDRC
[viii] Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010), p. xiv.
[ix] Ibid., p. 54.
[x] Yong Zhao et. al., “What Makes the Difference? A Practical Analysis of Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Education,” Teachers College Record,  2005, 107(8), pp. 1836-1884; Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” For an example of vendor bias in reporting research, see: Intel White Paper: Education Transformation, “The Positive Impact of eLearning—2012 Update.” A capsule summary that contains the both the high-and-low of research on online instruction as well as studies of educational technology is on p,8:
While few rigorous experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies on eLearning’s benefits have been published, a critical mass of evidence indicates that investments in eLearning can deliver substantial positive effects.
[xi] In the discussion on symbolism of technology in K-12 schools and in the larger culture I draw from Kathryn Henderson, On Line and On Paper(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998, chapter 8; John Meyer and Brian Rowan, “Institutional Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony, in Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio (Eds.) The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp.41-62; Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Management as Symbolic Action: The Creation and Maintenance of Organizational Paradigms,” Research in Organizational Behavior, 1981, 3, pp. 1-52.
[xii] Frederick Hess, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform(Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Monday, June 10, 2013

Heliset Hale

Got an email from my principal Friday night saying a group of First Nation runners who were on a run from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Victoria at the southern tip, and wanted to visit a class at my school on Monday.  I agreed of course and we had Kelly Paul of the Tsartlip First Nation, her fellow runners and their support team visited our First Nations 12 class today.  Kelly and her group are carrying a message to First Nations communities and schools along their route to cherish life and in so doing try to stop the suicides that have affected too many families - especially too many First Nations families.

The name of their journey is Heliset Hale, which is Salish for "awaken life within you".  Kelly and the other members of her group told the students of how suicides in their families had affected them.  They talked about the pain they see in the eyes of family members who lost a child, or brother or sister.  They talked about how the run had become a healing journey for them.  Kelly said that running had become part prayer for her - that her run was now a spiritual experience.

The Heliset Hale team then got my students up and moving and interacting with them.  There was laughter and questions and conversation.  They bonded with the students in a very short time.

This serendipitous meeting of the Heliset Hale runners and my students comes at the end of a semester learning about the effects of colonization, attempts to force assimilation through restrictive laws and of course the impact of residential schools.  While my students will forget many things about my class as time rolls on, today was one of those days that will stay with them.  They were touched deeply, as was I.

Go the Heliset Hale site here.

Friday, May 31, 2013

DL Credentialism and my mistake

I had a disheartening pre-class conversation with a bright grade 12 student recently.  It was a Monday morning and she told me she was tired.  She told me she had spent the weekend completing her Distance Learning (DL) Psychology 12 course.  Not simply finishing it mind you, but doing virtually the whole thing in two days.  She had been procrastinating after she had started the course and was receiving emails from her DL teacher urging her to get to work.  So she decided to get it done and worked straight through the weekend doing the workbook assignments and projects.  

She was proud of herself for working so hard and wanted me to share in her accomplishment, but of course I couldn't.  She is a smart girl who had read/scanned the text and found the answers.  At no point in her work did she have a meaningful discussion with a teacher or peer about the ideas she was reading about.  She jumped through the hoops the DL course presented her and got the credit.  What did she learn?  She learned to game the DL system in my district.  She learned how to get the credential.

My Mistake

After I talked to this girl I identified her to the DL admin and did receive a reply, but the story was not contradicted.  I have since learned that the student still has some work to do and the final exam.  I should have properly checked to see if this student had in fact done all the work.  It was negligent on my part.  I will leave the blog post as I originally wrote it with this correction in bold and accept my just deserts.

Had she taken that course with the teacher who teaches it at my school, she certainly would have gotten the credit.  She would also have been involved in class discussions about concepts and theories.  She would have joined other students in group work and presentations.  With her peers and teacher she would have built a deeper understanding for herself and others.

As it was a pre-class discussion I did not have chance to ask her what her motivations were for taking the DL course in the first place.  Frankly I was too depressed to go into it with her at that time, but will in the coming week.  I would like to see if her motivations are anything like those described by Doug Smith in his blog post about DL at his Vancouver school. He describes the motivation students have in his school for taking DL courses.  A quote from his blog:

"Currently at the school I work at we have seen the following:
  • students signing up for online courses because they know it is less work
  • students signing up for online courses because they know they will get a higher grade
  • students dropping a f2f course after a month or two because their grades aren’t as high as they want
  • students stop working in a f2f course because they will take it again online for a higher grade
  • students taking science courses online because there are less labs (eg chemistry labs are done via videos)
  • students dropping English with 70% averages and getting over 80% online"
That is behaviour we can expect from high school students.  So why do we continue to promote DL learning for those for whom it is not a necessity?  This is not what I have read 21st Century Learning should be.  The blended learning approach is certainly better than a straight DL course, as it does call for online conferencing, participating in discussion boards and some face to face seminars with a teacher and other students.  But online conferencing and discussion boards are poor replacements for face to face conferencing with teachers and students.  

When you are physically with someone you read and respond to body language.  You get humour because you can hear the tone of voice and see the raised eyebrow or feel the nudge.  The discussion boards and conferencing sacrifice that energetic piece of communication.  Some blended learning does call for a face to face component, but blended learning also calls for flexible time tables and students learning at their own pace.  This lack of co-ordination of student learning at a set pace means the students cannot discuss a common point in their understanding.  They can only do that with their instructor.  So the building a of a learning community is inhibited.

Here is a video of Shelley Wright's brick and mortar class. (Her blog is here ) 

She is using technology to leverage her students' access to up to date knowledge from experts in the field.  At the same time the brick and mortar setting, with its schedule, allows students to share their understanding with each other and build on it. The time students have to discuss, debate and clarify also builds interpersonal skills, helps strengthen patience, empathy and other things we don't test, but do value as teachers and as a society. DL cannot do this.  Blended learning that treats the student's setting of their own pace, and time when they will learn as primary elements in the students learning cannot do this.

Distance Learning in BC was originally meant for those who did not have access to certain courses because of geographic isolation or illness.  Blended learning is being used for students in my district  who are not ready for the classroom because of emotional disposition or for students whose families have chosen home schooling for philosophical reasons.  The teachers are having great success with these students.

However when DL or blended learning as it stands now, pulls students out of an engaging and challenging learning environment into one that is perceived by the student as easier and less challenging - we are promoting credentialism over learning and doing our students and society a disservice.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mini and micro seminars

Two years ago I had the pleasure of being the teacher sponsor for Jake West, who because of his creativity and confidence has become an excellent teacher.  His site is here. Jake introduced me to the idea of using mini-seminars in class which has become a valuable teaching and learning technique.  I have used it in Social Studies 9 and BC First Nations 12 to great effect and have modified it into what I call micro-seminars that I have used to cover a number of complicated land mark legal cases involving First Nations people in Canada in my BC First Nations 12 class.

Here is how the mini-seminar works:

Students or the teacher select pairs or small groups.  Students are presented with an event that involves conflict between two groups of people.  They are provided with material to read from their text, and other sources supplied by the teacher.

In their groups they take turns reading aloud as the other students read along silently.  They then discuss what they think are the important points in the reading they have done and take notes together. This is in fact a seminar among the students themselves although it has not been implicitly described to them as such.

They then must practice presenting from their notes to each other what they have learned, but are not allowed to rehearse only one particular part of the story.  They are aware they must know the whole thing and that the order of the presentation is decided by the teacher.

When they present to the teacher they are allowed to use their notes but must try to tell a story and have a discussion rather than simply read what they have written.

I have found that there are natural points in each story to interrupt and ask for judgments of individual players actions.  Motivations of historical players become clearer or more open to analysis and speculation through discussion.  Students naturally come to analyse events rather than simply try to remember them.  I have often been exposed to viable interpretations that had not occurred to me.

Once they have tried this method students like it and become good at it.  While one group is presenting, the rest of the class is practicing or working on something else.

The micro-seminars work the same way, but are used once the students are familiar and comfortable with the method.  They are used for smaller chunks of material and can be done quickly.

Check out the use of this activity for the Chilcotin War on my class blog here.

This is one of those ideas that once you use it makes you think "Why didn't I think of this?".  It is simple and works.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Working Together to Contruct Meaning

My students made craft videos to present the challenges First Nations people faced in BC adapting to a capitalist economy last week.  My student teacher Philippa Burn ran the class, but it was a team teaching effort.  They are up at our class site here and you can find the project outline and the rubric we used on that site as well.   I regularly talk to students about constructing understanding by sharing ideas with others.  We talk things through in small groups a lot which takes time and puts pressure on us to complete the curriculum.  But I see eyes light up as connections are made that surprise me

The craft video project was done with groups that were chosen by me.  I decided to put students together who had demonstrated similar work habits and similar attitudes (emerging philosophies?)  to learning.  They weren't necessarily friends and one of the explicit goals of the project was to find ways of working with people.  One group clearly enjoyed their time together and made a video that was well produced and showed some imagination in their story line, but they missed a couple of important ideas on assimilation.  One group was made up of students who did not have great inter-personal skills at the start.  They often quarreled  one member took regular walks in the hall to let off steam.  They did not get done in the time allotted and had to finish their work at lunch.  But they produced a video that while it was not as polished as they wanted, it did hit all the important ideas they were tasked to explore.

We showed the final products in class last Thursday.  Lots of laughs, and pride was evident in completing a difficult task.

The next time I try this ...
- I will set a seminar time to discuss with students what they have learned and expand on themes.  These expanded ideas will then have to be incorporated in the final product.

A problem to be worked out .... two groups have yet to complete this project. They did not use their time well in class and must come in at lunch to make the videos but can't organize themselves to do that.  Capable kids who did not completely buy in to this project.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

the power of professional transparency

My time is limited because of the demands of school and family, so pardon me please, if it is a little disjointed, but I have what I think is an important idea to advance advocacy for public education.  Since this is my first blog post - a little about me.  I am 54 years old and nearing the end of my teaching career.  I teach Japanese, Social Studies and BC First Nations 12 now, but have taught a few other things over the years.  I teach at a small high school on Vancouver Island with a student population of  650.  I feel I am finally becoming a good teacher but am disappointed it took me so long.

I have come to understand what it means to truly care for my students.  I listen well now not just with my ears but with my heart too.  When I say 'listening with my heart', it sounds like a cliche.  But I do mean it and can actually feel a pressure in the centre of my chest when I am truly engaged with the students.  Perhaps that touchy feely stuff is better left for another post.

We in British Columbia have an education system that for all the use of buzz words such as "inclusiveness" and listening to  "stake holders" really is a system that concentrates real power at the top for the benefit of a corporatist ideology.  The proof is a system that mandates little time for teachers to prepare for classes that are too big.  A typical high school class has 30 or more students. Most BC high schools run on the semester system that means for half the year teachers are teaching four, 80 minute classes a  day with a five minute break between classes and no preparation time in the school day.  Our educational leaders in Victoria say we are to "personalize" education for each of the more than 120 students we see each day.  The students and parents are told they should expect to get that "personalized" education experience.  If we fail to deliver, then naturally as front line workers we teachers shoulder the blame.

Here is what our education system needs to look like to truly deliver a meaningful personalized education experience to the children of BC:

- All classes would have a maximum of 20 students enrolled
- All teachers would have preparation time in every school day
- A tutorial block (something private schools in BC offer) would be provided to give the needed extra help to students.
- Master teachers would be recognized and would work with teachers on a regular basis to improve practice.

We don't have those simple common sense conditions because they would not create a learning environment that simply produces consumers of corporate goods and minds easily directed to support corporate goals.

Does that mean this kind of learning environment is not achievable?  Not at all.  We simply have to work at achieving them daily in our own schools.  The first step to do that is to identify education issues that need dialogue and debate to fully understand.  The current push for online learning is one such issue.  We have natural networks as educators that include our school and district administration.  It is perfectly normal and healthy to have these conversations.  The great thing about an email conversation is you can reflect on what is said and go back and check what has been said.  The use of this method puts pressure on our administration staff to defend the programs they are implementing in a professional discussion with their teachers.  If they can do so effectively, it simply enhances their position as education leaders and creates an environment where those policies can be more effectively implemented.   If they can't defend these policies, or worse do not respond to the professional enquiry, the policy is discredited and their implied authority as an educational leader is damaged.

This course of action is not something that is open to direct sanction or punishment.  I have tried it at my school to some effect. (Some colleagues and I maintained a discussion on online education for a week.) I see this professional enquiry as a truly democratic, transparent and professional tool if used consistently and regularly.  It acknowledges the power of transparent, honest and sincere professional communication.

Once we have established a culture in our schools of ongoing professional transparency other issues such as common sense learning conditions can be brought forward.  When they are part of an ongoing discussion they become actionable in ways that may not yet be apparent.  It is worth a try.