Monday, February 28, 2011

There was an interesting article in the Globe and Mail on Saturday (Feb. 26th) regarding a new, and controversial, school in St. Catherines Ontario.  As with most controversies in education, no matter which side of the issue you find yourself drawn to, many valuable ideas, and some troubling concerns, are raised.  The school in question, which isn’t even slated to open until September of 2011, is a public school, (DSBN Academy) which is geared specifically to low-income students and their families.

“The academy promises extra supports, tutors, mentors and a golden ticket to university for low-income students in a region with withered roots in the manufacturing industry.”

Proponents of the model argue that an environment such as this is exactly what is needed to provide low income students the extra academic and social supports they need to have a closer to equal chance of moving on successfully to post secondary education.  While critics argue that such an environment is just one more way in which poor kids get stigmatized and ghettoized.  Both sides are correct.

Parents whose children would qualify for the school, but are nevertheless wary of the negative impacts, hit the nail on the head when they demanded of trustees why these kinds of supports are not available at their kids’ current schools.  The simple answer is that it is expensive to implement these kinds of supports at all schools, it is far cheaper, or more “cost effective” (depending on your political bent) for schools to specialize in dealing with various populations with different needs.  The article mentioned Toronto’s Africentric School as another example of a school catering specifically to the needs of the local community.

It’s true that different populations have different needs when it comes to schooling.  All kids need structure, support and opportunities for engagement in their lives.  For low-income kids, especially those with single parents, these kinds of supports are often not available at home.  A single parent (often working two jobs) simply does not have the resources (time, financial, material etc.) that middle and upper income families can provide.  If these can’t be provided at home then we, as a community and a civil society, must help provide them at school.  This is what is being proposed for DSBN Academy.

What many find troubling is that in order to give these low-income students extra support, should it really be necessary to move them into a school of their own?  If we’ve decided that ‘inclusion’ (in any of its many forms) is what we believe in as a model for schooling, isn’t this a step in the wrong direction?  After all, opening up a string of ‘specialized’ schools is essentially saying that inclusion does NOT work and that students do better in more homogeneous populations.  The school is being modeled after a similar school in California.  This in itself is a red flag for many.  After all, given the current state of public education in the US, do we really want to start modeling schools after a system that is in such great turmoil?

To me this whole issue boils down to realism vs idealism.   Given neo-conservative pressures from governments over the past 20 or 30 years, is opening up schools like the DSBN Academy just one more in a limitless series of small steps in nickel and diming to death the public school systems we’ve spent so many years building?  Or are current economic realities such that we should ignore idealistic goals and create schools that do the best job for students academically, despite possible long-term divisions and social stigmatization? 

Deep down I’m an idealist, so my vote would be with the former.  After all, specialization of schools is just what any acolyte of Frederick W. Taylor would recommend for purposes of efficiency.  But one thing more people need to accept is that education should not be a matter of efficiency, it should be a matter of efficacy, and efficacy may cost a little more.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Reason for Teaching HOTS Demonstrated

Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) are becoming a hot topic in education reform, and that’s a good thing.  The trouble is that some people misconstrue the idea of teaching HOTS as a replacement for establishing a wide (and deep) knowledge base rather than a vital complement to a wide knowledge base.  This misconception, and other false dichotomies, are often put forth by people or institutions with a vested interest in the status quo.  One component of HOTS is the ability to recognize this, and figure out what’s really being “sold”.

In an article that appeared recently in the Vancouver Sun (Purdue University Study Confronts Edu-babble) Michael Zwaagstra makes a number of spurious points, and misleading claims.   For instance, when he says;  “Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.”  He is purposely misleading the reader into conflating tests with assessment.  And that if  “tests” are eliminated they will simply be replaced by “hands-on activities.” Surely the elimination of standardized tests does not mean that students will no longer be assessed on their work using other means?

Though Mr. Zwaagstra goes on to make some valid points regarding the value of memorization, the whole premise of his article is based on the false assumptions that a) teachers and administrators universally agree that all memorization is bad (they don’t) b) that teachers and administrators don’t understand the necessity of a solid knowledge base upon which to build HOTS (they do).

Mr. Zwaagstra quotes the author of the study (Professor Jeffrey Karpicke) as saying "But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy."   Mr. Zwaagstra, however, then goes on to conclude that,  “However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.”  This conclusion does not follow from the results of this study.  The conclusion of Professor Karpicke’s study is that traditional memorization, combined with continuous self-testing, often leads to better recall (or retrieval) than does other methods of studying.  In other words, traditional memorization and retrieval exercises lead to improved memorization and retrieval.  His study makes absolutely no claim whatsoever about keeping testing as a “central component of what happens in school”.

The biggest irony here is that without HOTS, readers of this article may accept the false dichotomies and contrived logic of Mr. Zwaagstra’s argument.  Without the ability to analyze and think critically, they may also miss the fact that Mr. Zwaagstra is a ‘research fellow’ with the Frontier Centre, a “conservative/libertarian non-profit think tank,” whose radio commentaries include such titles as “The Deception of Human Caused Global Warming”.  It’s no wonder then that writers of Mr. Zwaagstra’s ilk emphasize the value of rote learning, and downplay the necessity of teaching critical thinking and other HOTS.  After all, a paucity of critical thought is what allows ultra-conservative thought to thrive in North America.

Educators everywhere would agree with the necessity of teaching (among other things) factual knowledge, working knowledge and HOTS.  And given the rate at which much of our “working knowledge” and even some of our “factual knowledge” is changing, teaching HOTS is becoming an ever more important component of what we do as educators.  Critical thinking, problem solving, logical reasoning and other HOTS will always be useful and necessary skills, knowing the exact dates of the Winnipeg General Strike?…not so much.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Multi-....wait I've gotta take a call...Tasking

The current edition of Educational Leadership magazine is dedicated to “Teaching Screenagers”.  As one might guess there are articles related to cyber-bullying and what educational technology leaders are using in their classrooms.  But the content that I found most engaging were the ideas of current students and recent graduates around the use of technology in high school.  A few interesting opinions emerged as I read through their comments.  One topic of discussion was the increasing prevalence of multi-tasking.

For young people today multi-tasking is the norm.  Some even commented that they feel they have to do more than one thing at a time.  As one young person commented, “It’s not like we’re so distracted that we can’t accomplish anything.  It’s more that we’ve gotten into the habit of doing a couple of things at the same time and being able to function adequately in both areas.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”  What struck me immediately was the use of the word ‘adequately’.  This person was obviously aware, at least subconsciously, that while trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously, a lack of focus would actually hinder the outcomes.  After all, most of us don’t shoot for “adequate”.  So given that multi-tasking seems to be the new norm, I think it’s important that we make all students more aware of how the brain works and what the implications of multi-tasking really are, both positive and negative.

For instance, research has shown that our brains are not really made for true multi-tasking.  What we actually do is shift focus from one thing to another and then back again quickly and repeatedly, but we can really only focus on one thing at a time, especially men (insert snide comment here ladies). And with evolutionary biology being what it is, despite what the current generation of young people might believe, the human brain of today is not vastly different from human brains of the past; we just have more things competing for our attention.  If true multi-tasking were a forte of the human mind then cell phone use, and texting while driving wouldn’t be a problem.

Another interesting point of note was how social etiquette is being redefined in the age of iPods, cell phones and texting.  As one of these young people pointed out, it’s no longer considered rude (by some) to be receiving and sending texts while conversing with a friend or colleague.  Well, though others may not consider unsolicited impositions on their time rude, I certainly do.  And given what I’ve pointed out above, I defy anyone to fully engage in a conversation while texting such that the length and depth of the conversation is unaffected.

As technology continues to change the way we communicate and interact with each other, we need to make students mindful of the less obvious repercussions.  Students need to know that doing numerous things at once will indeed affect the outcome of each of the tasks.  And though social mores change with the times, and fatuous customs may fall by the wayside, (“Hats off inside boys!”) impositions on the time of other people will continue to be considered “rude”. As information technology facilitates communication, it also facilitates distraction.  In her book The Cult of Efficiency, Janice Gross Stein makes clear the difference between efficiency and efficacy.  We must ensure that as information technology becomes more ubiquitous, we teach students not to sacrifice the latter in a quest for the former.