Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Inclusiveness, a Profound 30 Year Shift

Wandering around the school at lunch I always ponder what’s going on around me and how things have changed and continue to improve in the world of education.  Today my thoughts wandered to “What would have happened to ______ in the school system in which I grew up?”  I saw Jimmy (no real names) who has a gregarious personality and genuinely wants the best for everyone.  But he’s not particularly academic, he ran into some minor behaviour issues as a younger student and his outgoing boisterous nature, coupled with not always knowing “when to stop” means he can rub people the wrong way.  He’s offended more than a few fellow students and teachers alike.  In a school in the 70s or 80s Jimmy would most likely have dropped out by now and would probably have been labeled a “juvenile delinquent” for his lack of abilities at school coupled with his indiscretions.  Yet in 2014 Jimmy is an integral part of the fibre of our facility.  He’s at the centre of the cafeteria high fiving and greeting all comers, he loves being here (despite his struggles) and in his own ways he’s growing into a genuine leader.

As I ponder Jimmy’s progress Alexa comes bouncing past, the human pinball.  Alexa has ASD and ADHD and as such is pretty unpredictable (not in a dangerous way) one moment to the next.  Each day she literally bounces around the cafeteria group to group, table to table saying hi, proclaiming random facts about Harry Potter or One Direction to anyone and everyone.  But all her fellow students take it in stride, nobody looks askance, everyone says hi, many even listening sincerely to her essentially random ideas.  And there’s Jimmy in the centre of it, hi fiving Alexa every time she wanders past, asking how her day’s been so far, engaging her (as much as possible) in friendly conversation.

Forty years ago I’m pretty sure most high schools wouldn’t have had a place for Jimmy or Alexa.  I know my own high school, though liberal and caring for its day, would have been unwelcoming in ways both subtle and blatant for either of these two students.  Both of these kids will have struggles in their lives more profound than most of us will face.  And these are only two of myriad others who have unique challenges of their own. But at least we now provide a warm, caring inclusive place for them as they develop the social skills necessary to function in our ever more diverse society.  That is a distinct improvement over how school “used to be done”.

Now that we provide such an inclusive environment for all learners other issues are starting to appear…stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

As I sit here watching teachers picket during Richmond's day of rotating strikes a number of complementary and conflicting notions regarding the state of our education system keep running through my mind.  Underlying all these ideas is the simple question "Why are we going through this…AGAIN?"  We live in one of the richest countries in the richest epoch in history, so why are we, as a society, perpetually nickel and diming our education system?  Long ago we ran out of "fat" to cut, we've been cutting and eliminating crucial elements of our system for years now.

Somehow we've managed to remain a world class system, that's a huge accomplishment by the thousands of dedicated educators across this province.  But it can't keep going like this, as an administrator I'm starting to see the edges fray.  EAs taking more sick days off each year due to stress and burnout, kids with special needs not being addressed due to lack of resources.  The irony is that more so than ever we know how to help kids with special needs thrive, yet for some we have no option but to watch them float or worse, flounder.

Our school systems have done a wonderful job of incorporating inclusive education principles over the past two decades, kids who are "different" are now more accepted than ever.  But we risk losing some of that if we continue to underfund the system.  Some special needs kids thrive in mainstream classes given enough support.  But providing that support for all kids who need it has become an impossibility, and having these students in class without support leads to frustration for the student and often disruption for the rest of the class.  The result is that some students are often left out of classes in which they could otherwise be successful.

The provincial government is ever mindful of the bottom line, as it should be.  But at what point do we, as a society, decide that a robust education system is more important than ever lower tax rates?  We have some of the lowest income and corporate tax rates in Canada, but we also have the second lowest rate of pay for teachers next to PEI…and we most certainly don't have the second lowest cost of living.

The bottom line is simply that our education system needs more money.  Teachers ARE NOT greedy, they're not in it to get rich, but neither should they be getting progressively poorer.  As enrolment decreases costs most certainly do not decrease accordingly, yet funding does.  MLA Andrew Weaver has provided a cogent and workable way forward here, we all need to start looking for a better way to do things, starting with a more collaborative and respectful relationship between the government and teachers.  As Derek Bok said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Change…From the Ground Up

The changes coming to BCs Education system are profound and, in my opinion, well founded in educational and brain based research.  Moving to a system with goals based more in thinking abilities rather than knowledge will prepare students far better for a rapidly changing world.  Making education "fit" the world of the future by incorporating more varied structures (both physical and temporal) is long overdue.

However, sitting in a workshop the other day looking at the latest iteration of the ministry's curriculum documents I was struck by the enormity of the changes and some of the hurdles we face as we make these changes.  One issue that came up for discussion at our table was the issue of resources.  Will teachers be able to use existing resources?  Will current lesson plans work with the new framework?
Thinking this over, my thoughts are that yes, current resources probably could be 'repurposed', but I think it would be a mistake and here's why.

Though teachers create their units and their lessons, and textbooks and other resources are created by educators, we must also acknowledge that once created, all these artifacts affect us right back.  By this I mean that consciously or unconsciously the way we teach (and sometimes the material that we teach) is affected by the content and structure of the resources we're using.  This is not to say of course that most teachers simply "teach from the book," they don't.  But to deny that having lesson plans from previous years, or well used and beloved texts and materials affect the way we think, or affect the way we structure our teaching is to live in denial.  My worry is that failure to acknowledge this, and to reuse too many of the current resources (no matter how well produced and effective) will lead people back to familiar thought patterns, familiar activities and, inevitably, to comfortable and familiar teaching.  At that point we risk replacing the revolutionary nature of the changes being proposed with just another evolutionary change (to borrow a comparison from Thomas Kuhn).  If we're hoping for a "paradigm shift" then we have to recreate what we do from the ground up.

Of course it's too much to ask of teachers to change everything they do all at once, but as educators we all need to be aware that in the long run simply adjusting our outlook and materials to try to fit new ways of thinking about education poses the risk of falling back into old habits and old ways of thinking.  A conscious effort must be made to encourage educators throughout the province to recreate their courses from scratch.  In an ideal world the ministry would understand this and help provide new resources (and dare I say time?).  After all, restructuring properly usually requires a new foundation.