#rEDOnt – A Diamond in the . . . Ice?!?

rEDOnt

Despite nature’s little surprise in the form of an ice storm, researchED Ontario was a success by every measure. This installment was the fifth I’ve attended, in three different countries. I can’t say enough about the inspirational and collegial atmosphere of this movement, and I’m so happy to see it growing into a successful and valuable staple in the world of teacher/educator professional development.

I hope the two-day conference trend continues, although there’s still never enough time to chat with people and to delve into everyone’s expertise in a variety of areas. My researchED Ontario experience began on Friday, April 13, where I socialized with respected authors and classroom practitioners, and where I was able to connect with people I’d met through Twitter and at other researchED events. We were treated to an opening address by founder Tom Bennett. Tom’s expertise lies in both distilling big ideas from education research, but also in maintaining a classroom as an effective learning environment, or, as he calls it, running a room. His suggestions for reforming teaching into a more evidence-informed profession are based on his own experiences as a teacher, on common sense, and on the research into which he has delved over the years. In a diverse group of more than 300 teachers and educators, each with their own experiences in schools, Tom’s ideas were universally well-received. Thanks to Stephen Hurley, Tom’s talk can be found here: Tom Bennett Keynote

The official Saturday conference began with a keynote address from Dr. Daniel Willingham. As a cognitive scientist, Dr. Willingham is in a unique position to help teachers understand the science of learning. He spoke about the most useful aspects of cognitive science as it applies to teaching and learning, and he addressed common, persistent myths in education. Again, thanks to Stephen Hurley, in his “On the Road to researchED” series, Dr. Willingham’s address can be found here: Daniel Willingham Keynote

My day continued with an excellent presentation from Carl Hendrick, who spoke about key findings in best teaching practices, and the importance of asking how research applies in the classroom. He has co-written a book on this topic, which is extremely helpful to those of us “at the chalkface.” For the second session, I attended Eva Hartell’s talk on comparative judgement. Eva presented a comprehensive overview of this somewhat complex idea; it’s taken me several conversations with CJ experts and more than two years to begin to wrap my head around how I might apply this approach to teaching and assessment in the classroom, particularly when I’d likely be doing it on my own.

After lunch, I got to see Beth Greville-Geddings expound on starting an education journal reading club. She outlined pitfalls to avoid, mindsets to embrace, and gave us a head start with respect to where we might look for articles. Most graciously, Beth offered to share her own hard work as a research lead in her school. For my next session, I attended Martin Robinson’s presentation entitled “Athena versus the Machine.” Martin explored the nature of consciousness and its role in education in general, not just in schooling, and he reiterated the need for knowledge if we are to meaningfully participate in the world. My day ended with my own talk, where I outlined my experience of Twitter as a gateway to the most valuable knowledge I’ve gained as a teacher, including what I learned during my education degree. In advance of the event, Stephen Hurley spoke with several participants about their presentations, and I was lucky enough to chat with him. My conversation with Stephen is available here: The Evidence-Informed Tweacher

The official program ended with a panel discussion about the future of education. While we all had pretty similar takes on the issue, key ideas were articulated through various starting points and examples that could resonate with most people working in schools today. The panel discussion was recorded, and Stephen Hurley has made it available here: Closing Panel

As always, the only problem with these events is that there are so many brilliant speakers, it’s not possible to attend every session, and cutthroat decisions must be made. But this just means that every researchED conference presents opportunities to see someone you might have missed, and to learn something new. Check out the other wonderful conversations with Stephen Hurley on voicED radio to see what I mean.

I’d like to thank everyone involved in researchED. As a full-time classroom teacher, I can attest that these events deliver the most useful and illuminating professional development I’ve attended. In particular, I’d like to thank Tom Bennett, Paul Bennett, Randy Banderob, Harvey Bischof, Stephen Hurley, and Eric Kalenze for their support and for nurturing my interest and involvement in issues that go beyond the classroom, yet that positively impact my classroom practice. I often feel hamstrung by education policies in Alberta, and I rarely feel that my views are respected or even acknowledged. This organization, and those associated with it, has inspired me to find a voice where I feel valued and inspired to always improve, even after thirteen years of teaching. I’ve met so many amazing people through this network and I plan to attend future events as the message and ethos of researchED continues to prove itself as the way forward. For me, this will probably be the next conference in the U.S. in late October. Philadelphia – here I come!

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Beyond the Self

This post might be a bit messy – I’ve only just recently started thinking about this in a deliberate manner, and I’m getting a bit tangled up in my own thoughts. So I’ll try to put some of these ruminations into words . . .

I was channel surfing over the holidays and landed on a B-movie about a woman who, when she feels bored with her life, or feels a need for a change, moves to a new place and creates a new identity, complete with a bogus personal history, educational background, and professional credentials. By the time we meet her, she’s done this nine times. She finds herself at a point where she wants to connect, however briefly, to a former flame from high school, because she wants to have her original self reflected back to her by someone who knew the first version of her.

This B-movie stayed with me far longer than I anticipated it would. It got me thinking about identity and what it is that makes us who we are. Why don’t we all uproot ourselves, change our names, and start over? Or do we – just not in such an obvious manner?

We’re all defined by a multitude of factors, including our upbringing, our culture, our personal experiences, our relationships, and so on. We also have versions of ourselves so that aspects of a single identity dominate in certain situations – I’m not the “same” person in my role as a parent as I am in my role as a partner, or a child, or a sibling, or a teacher. Yet each of these roles contribute to what I might define as my identity. I think people yearn for a sense of wholeness, and therefore we try to unify these versions of ourselves into a consistent representation of our “selves.” This idea is articulated in the modern mantra of being your “authentic self,” whatever that means for each of us as individuals. This desire drives us to retreat into echo chambers, where we are reflected back to ourselves, it explains our tendency toward confirmation bias, and it can create cognitive dissonance when reality contradicts our ideas and experiences.

I’m not nearly as active as some people are on social media, and I’ve largely limited my involvement in this sphere to Twitter and to this blog. Still, I’ve learned so much – including that unless I change my mind when new information is brought to light, I’ll be stuck in loop where I’ll simply shut myself off from new ideas that could enhance my own thinking, that could improve my practice as a teacher, or that could make me a better person.

I saw some weird stuff on Twitter over the holidays, where people seemed to retreat to their respective “camps” to either support or to condemn others. I guess this is Twitter. I’m tempted to do the same, for the aforementioned reasons. I think this is normal, but in 2018, I want to evaluate situations more critically, and deliberate contexts in their own right, rather than simply lumping one thing in with another because it fits the overarching narrative through which I define myself. We see this in education when political progressives, like myself, are derided as right-wingers due to, say, a “traditional” philosophy of education.

I’m going to continue to try to hold more than one idea in my head at a time. I can disagree with someone’s politics, but still recognize him or her as a loving parent. I can find someone funny, but cringe at his or her decisions in personal matters. I can support a political party, but still call out what I deem to be bad policy. I’m going to try to embrace this tension and, hopefully, enrich my experience of the world.

A Program of Promise – #rEDTO17

rEDTOI attended my fourth installment of a ResearchED event November 10-11 – the first one here in Canada. As always, the conference was invigorating and inspiring, propelling me further in my professional reflection and practice.

I can’t begin to express the perfection with which this event was executed. Paul Bennett (@educhatter) and his team thought of everything, from an opening panel and reception where speakers and delegates could mingle as we all put Twitter personalities to real people, to the closing panel and pub night, by which point professional connections and even friendships were solidified. I know that many people were involved in making this event so brilliant, but I’d like to pay special thanks and respect to Paul Bennett and to the British Council (@BritishCouncil); their involvement seemed to take this stellar project to another level and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

The opening reception set the tone for a weekend of a respectful and diverse exchange of ideas. One of the speakers to whom I was most looking forward was Martin Robinson (@trivium21C). Having never met him in person, but having read both Trivium books and having watched his talks from afar via youtube, I reveled in every thought he put forth. His provocative, engaging, and insightful comments reached beyond “camps” and caused valuable reflection. The panel then continued the provocative tone, where Susan Douglas (@SusanDouglas70), Harvey Bischof (@HarveyBischof), Michael Salvatori (@salvatorim), and John Mighton (@JUMP_Math) discussed aspects of education in Ontario, Canada, and around the world. Susan Douglas’s context clearly inspires the passion with which she approaches her multi-faceted involvement in education, and Harvey Bischof’s candid and honest comments made my jaw drop more than a few times; it was so refreshing to listen to a systems-leader speak as a teacher for teachers. John Mighton’s brilliant approach to teaching math goes beyond that space alone; his comments caused me to reflect on how such practices can be implemented on a systemic level. Michael Salvatori provided a balance to our tendency to sometimes want to adopt wholesale approaches, with words of context and caution as we investigate ways forward.

The next day, for me, began with a session led by Martin Robinson. I could listen to this man speak for hours on end, particularly when exploring the need for us to be as human as we can be, even in our flaws. Martin’s talk was centered on the use of technology, particularly in primary school, where we may be enticed by the technology, rather than by the creative process. He reminded us that art is about a feeling, and it is our expression of us, and this central focus must not be swallowed up by the machine. The second session I attended was led by Katie Ashford (@katie_s_ashford), of Michaela fame. I’ve also watched, on youtube, the Michaela debates and other events in which Katie has participated, and I’ve read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I even had the privilege of visiting Michaela this past summer. Katie’s message, which has greatly influenced my own practice, is all about keeping expectations high for students, and for giving them all the support they need to succeed, leaving nothing to chance, or even to human frailties, like the tendency we all have to take the easy way out when we can, and to avoid hard work. Sachin Maharaj led the third session I attended, and this was a brilliant investigation into the professionalization of teaching. He drew on history to propose a way forward where teachers would enter a profession that is, on an ongoing basis, intentionally and pragmatically structured to enable the support and development of the whole system by addressing teachers as the inherent foundation of that system. The afternoon presented a special treat when I attended Michael Zwaagtra’s (@ZwaagtraM) session on content knowledge as the key to learning. Michael speaks with such precision, insight, and confidence, that one cannot help but be edified. His talk was recorded, so I’d encourage you to listen to it here. The last session, for me, was my own. Thanks to Paul Bennett’s encouragement and support, I was invited to speak about developing and maintaining high expectations and a rigorous standard in the high school English classroom. I outlined the philosophy behind my belief that all students have a right to learn about the history and progress of our civilization in order to gain cultural knowledge and to engage meaningfully in their world. I provided the educational context in which I work, and I detailed the principles by which I achieve these goals. I’ve attached my slides at the end of this post, for anyone who might be interested.

The day ended with a closing panel comprised of Tom Bennett (@tombennet71), the humble genius behind ResearchEd, who addressed student behaviour, and Dr. Stan Kutcher (@StanKutcher), a surprisingly candid voice on teen mental health and well-being. These two speakers brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to often thorny issues in a thoughtful and measured manner.

I can’t praise ResearchED enough. This endeavor has reignited my love of teaching in the past few years, and I’m so grateful to those with whom I’ve connected online, and in person, through events like this. It was wonderful to meet @TaraMathBC, @fixONTmath, @Stephen_Hurley, @RandyBanderob, @PoeticDevicesX, @BevFiddler, @doctorkul, @JUMP_Math, @HarveyBischof, @KatyTheobald, and so many others, including members of @BritishCouncil. It was also lovely to reconnect with @Albertans4math and @rcraigen as well as my fellow ResearchED groupies! I’m sorry to have not had a chance to speak in person with @MatthewOldridge, @numcog, and @StanKutcher, but I look forward to future events, hopefully closer to home, here out west!

Many thanks again to those who organize ResearchED here in North America and abroad. This is, hands down, the best series of PD events I attend because each event is novel and refreshing, and I learn something new every time. I appreciate the buzz of energy throughout the day, and the respectful collegiality that comes when we meet real people in real life. Kudos to the gentlemen Bennett, who knocked it outta the park, and to @osstf for supporting this event and for partnering with ResearchED this coming April 14, 2018 for an event in Mississauga.

Aiming High

 

 

Why Are We So Afraid of Knowledge?

I’ve had a bit of time to review the newly released draft scope and sequence for several curricula here in Alberta, although I’m largely focused on English Language Arts, since that’s my area of specialization. I was hoping that some of the trepidation surrounding this process would be allayed, but this has not been the case. Having seen these initial documents, my worries about the direction of curriculum, and, thus, education, in Alberta, have been largely confirmed.

The K-12 draft scope and sequence for ELA is comprised of three “essential understandings” under which ostensible details are developed. The three “essential understandings” are:

  • Exploring a variety of texts provides opportunities to experience enjoyment, appreciate artistry and craft, broaden perspectives and worldviews, and build cross-cultural awareness.
  • Exploring the multiple ways that meaning is constructed and expressed fosters purposeful and effective communication in all areas of life.
  • Exploring the relationship between thought and language strengthens understanding of self, culture and others, and empowers individuals to communicate ethically and responsibly in an ever-changing world.

This overarching direction permeates kindergarten through grade 12, with 18 “guiding questions” that purportedly deepen from one grade level to the next, but are based on the same fundamental idea. The “possible concepts and procedures” under each “guiding question” appear to be geared to each grade level, although most seem very skewed to favour a progressive ideology and constructivist teaching and learning philosophy. I will leave this last bit for now, mostly because it is framed as a suggestive, rather than prescriptive, element.

The main problem with the three “essential understandings,” as I see it, is a lack of clarity and an inordinate risk of unlimited interpretations. If I am to have students “[explore] a variety of texts [to provide] opportunities to experience enjoyment,” what does this actually mean? Why leave an “essential understanding” so deliberately vague? Would a semester of study steeped in the Marvel universe of comic books, films, and Reddit posts meet the criteria of this “essential understanding?” What does it mean to “[explore] multiple ways that meaning is constructed and expressed?” This strikes me as being rooted in postmodern philosophy, which would mean the curriculum is going in a deliberate direction, without actually being clear about that intention – kind of like a dog whistle: only those “in the know” can hear it. My bottom line: on the surface, none of these “essential understandings” strike me as particularly problematic, if I’m interpreting them correctly, because they don’t really articulate anything that we wouldn’t have had as a goal for the past many decades. But therein lies the problem: they’re far too open to interpretation and, ironically, they don’t provide an understanding of our focus in English Language Arts.

The guiding questions do not clarify a focus, and are more problematic for me. There are 7 guiding questions pertaining to the first essential understanding, most of which are too vague in my estimation, but not inherently troubling. The second essential understanding contains 6 guiding questions, two of which are more problematic:

  • What are the implications of expressing ideas, experiences and feelings in different contexts? (for grade 12)

Again, what does this mean? There doesn’t appear to be any hierarchy of skills or any description of a focus on, say, reading and writing. These two “express [ions of] ideas, experiences and feelings” are listed among others, seemingly equally, like speaking, listening, representing, and feelings.

  • How can inquiry lead to innovation and societal change? (for grade 12)

What is this supposed to mean, particularly in the context of ELA? If this is a “guiding question,” the possible answer(s) should be plain, at least for an experienced teacher of the subject. I have no idea what I would be expected to do with this.

The third essential understanding contains 5 guiding questions, three of which are quite problematic:

  • How can language be used to collaborate without the loss of individuality and independent thought? (for grade 12)
  • What are the consequences of privileging some voices and omitting others? (for grade 12)
  • What is the ethical responsibility to use language to foster reconciliation? (for grade 12)

These guiding questions are heavy-handed and arguably hint at a political bent. If we are to study multicultural literature, which we should, the document should state that. What if a teacher decides that the “answer” is that there is no consequence to “privileging some voices and omitting others” and skews his or her syllabus to that end? What if a class decides that there is no “ethical responsibility to use language to foster reconciliation?” This kind of vague language is potentially dangerous, both politically and educationally.

In a recent ATA editorial, Jonathan Teghtmeyer criticized David Staples, an Edmonton journalist, for asserting that the Social Studies draft scope and sequence lacks a focus on history. One of the guiding questions in that document is: “In what ways have individuals and groups in what is now Canada taken action to effect change?” Teghtmeyer claims that this “is clearly an effort to explore historically significant moments such as the Riel rebellion or the women’s suffrage movement.” Herein lies the problem: it’s not clear at all. If that’s what teachers are meant to teach, why not state that explicitly? Then teachers would know that this is what they’re supposed to teach and students would know that this is what they’re supposed to learn. There would be no guessing as to what historical references would be on the PAT or diploma exams and we could actually sequence a curriculum that builds on foundational knowledge from one grade to the next. We could even ensure that students at a certain grade level develop background knowledge for future grades and topics of study so that they can reference this knowledge and make connections – even between subject areas. Instead, what happens now is that students learn about the Riel rebellion in grade 4, and maybe again in grade 6, and perhaps in grade 11 their teacher spends some time on it, too. The same is true in English. Some teacher decides to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in grade 8, and when students get to grade 10, and that novel is on the list, they’ve already read it. Because the teacher is prepared to teach that novel, he or she may simply have students do it again. The opportunity cost in this case, as in the Social Studies example, is significant. Instead of broadening students’ knowledge base by studying three different historical events, or two different novels, we’re bothering ourselves with vague, indistinct, and ill-defined “guiding questions.”

The strengths of what I’ve seen in this document are limited, although I appreciate the explicit mention of phonics, grammar, spelling, conventions, and morphology. I also appreciate attention being paid to oral communication. However, the degree of detail that is expressed in defining completely ethereal concepts that are far too subject to interpretation is rather astonishing. I would much rather see such precision go into the mechanics of the domain, particularly as it relates to reading and writing. The definition of “texts” is too broad, and I would hope to see a supporting document that provides guidelines in order to ensure that an adequate level of rigour is maintained. The draft scope and sequence pays too much attention to individual interpretations, a preoccupation with self and personal feelings and experiences, as well as a disconcerting focus on identity. I would like to see a more academic scope and sequence, particularly in the early grades where clear concepts and goals must be defined. An example to consider is the U.K.’s national curriculum for English; this is the direction I wish we were going. Unfortunately, we seem to be going the direction of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which is not working out so well, as Alan Convery so brilliantly outlines here. We should heed his warning, because we are most certainly on the wrong path.

These draft scopes and sequences seem to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 

*NOTE: Neglecting the use of the Oxford comma is due to quotations from the draft itself. I would never neglect to use the Oxford comma.

Raving about #rEDWash

Aside from not having a minute to spare during this hectic week to record my thoughts on my amazing experiences at #rEDWash, I needed some time to reflect on the brilliant sessions I attended. The ResearchED series of events is, bar none, the best PD I’ve ever attended. The ideas presented are challenging, relevant, and useful. The entire day is jam-packed, and I still didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see. That’s the rub of Tom Bennett’s curating expertise – the diversity of topics and the powerhouse line-up of speakers inevitably demands that difficult choices be made. On a positive note, I got to socialize with almost everyone, thanks to the inviting and inclusive community created by Tom Bennett and Eric Kalenze, both at the official conference and beyond the main event.

After making some of those inevitably difficult choices, I came away with a stellar day. It began with a keynote presentation from Dylan Wiliam, the authoritative voice on formative assessment and assessment for learning. His focus here was on the delicate balance we must maintain between research and practice and on the important considerations we must take into account when applying research findings to classroom teaching. Wiliam provided astute analogies and sage advice. My favourite bit of food for thought was his assertion that “everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” Always mindful of the dangers of falling victim to confirmation bias, this is something I’ll try to remember throughout my career.

The first session I attended was David Didau’s Poor Proxies for Learning. Not only is Didau able to persuasively challenge often unquestioned positions, he is a most entertaining and engaging speaker. It’s obvious he was a master in the classroom and I almost feel badly for the students who don’t have the privilege of taking his classes now that he’s moved into another sphere, but their loss is my gain! I’m not sure Didau is even aware that attendees of his sessions take as much away from WHAT he says as HOW he says it.

Next, I was treated to Tom Bennett’s Running a Room presentation. As a fairly experienced teacher, much of what he said was not new to me, but only because, like Bennett himself, I had to figure classroom management out largely on my own. This was Bennett’s thesis: teacher-training programs need to more consciously and deliberately prepare their charges for typical situations in the classroom that can, for the most part, be anticipated. Thankfully, he’s started an online course where his wisdom is available to all.

After lunch, I got to see Eric Kalenze in action. His book, Education is Upside-Down, was one of the first policy-reform books I read in my independent research journey, and it blew my mind. Like Didau and Bennett, Kalenze’s presentation was as engaging as it was informative. A master of metaphor, he cautions us against over-correction in education policy and reminds us that we should be skeptical of initiatives that simply re-package old, failed ideas. Best of all, he provided a must-read list of hard-found resources for those getting started on their paths of questioning the established orthodoxy.

Next, I attended Robert Pondiscio’s Why Knowledge Matters, where we were given a primer in thinking about designing a curriculum based on core knowledge. A gifted orator with a wealth of knowledge, Pondiscio’s presentation came the day before I toured D.C., and I thought of his point about President Obama’s inauguration speech as he looked toward the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I wasn’t prepared for an emotional response, and I thank Pondiscio for providing a bit of a framework for the power of knowledge surrounding that bit of history.

I then attended Dr. Robert Craigen’s presentation on Project Follow-Through, still the most comprehensive longitudinal study on the efficacy of various teaching methods. Despite some technical difficulties, Dr. Craigen is so well-versed in this important study, he was able to communicate its relevance in a methodical manner. It always upsets me when I see how many people have never even heard of  of PFT, a study whose results should have informed education policy, rather than having been suppressed from teacher-training institutions and ignored by the education establishment.

Another expected treat was Benjamin Riley’s The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. Riley is the founder of Deans for Impact, a research-based organization that endeavours to bring evidence-informed theories to teacher training and practice. One of my main take-aways from this dynamic presentation was Riley’s tempered approach to effecting change, a particularly timely bit of wisdom given the international trend toward polarization and fragmentation. I look forward to the upcoming Deans for Impact report on initial teacher-training.

You’d think that by the end of the day, I’d be completely bagged, but I was as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I could be when the day closed with Paul Bennett’s presentation on Special Education. This Bennett, no relation to Tom, is Canadian, and his talk was actually focused on a relevant issue in the context of my own backyard. Bennett reinforced the idea that class size, while always a concern for classroom teachers, is not necessarily as pressing an issue as class composition. In Canada, a country that has largely adopted an inclusive model of education in most provinces, the challenge is how we can address a diverse learning environment in which we have students who struggle with speaking the language, those who require specific interventions based on medical diagnoses, and others with behavioural issues that go beyond any training the average teacher will have received. Bennett is an expert in this area, among others, and his findings have been largely ignored as provinces like Alberta keep pushing forward with this failed model that has been of questionable benefit to anyone. Incidentally, as a teacher in Alberta, my U.S. and U.K. counterparts were stunned to learn how much contact time I have with students as part of my mandated schedule. While my union, which also doubles as a professional association, has worked hard to ensure that we’re well-paid, this issue of class composition and prep time has largely been ignored.

My four days in D.C. also included a couple of great evenings with people I didn’t get to see present, like @bethgg, @BryanPenfound, and @thebandb. After #rEDYork, I also gained the confidence to approach people and introduce myself, which allowed me to meet @doctorwhy, @DrSmithRIC, and @DrGaryJones. I met so many other delegates from the U.S., the U.K., and Canada with whom I shared ideas and from whom I learned so much. As well, I saw the iconic sites of this great city and enhanced my own personal experience of the world. I look forward to the next time I can participate in a ResearchED event, and I hope to one day be able to have a hand in bringing these great ideas and people to Alberta – we really need this here.

P.S. Many thanks to David Didau, who got me 100 Twitter followers in less than 24 hours with his joke-tweet. That’s the power of greatness, I guess!

Shifting the Burden and Charging On

Yesterday, Jonathan Teghtmeyer, a prominent figure in the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the teachers’ union in Alberta, Canada), tweeted a link to an edweek.org editorial by Jo Boaler.

jt-tweet

I responded by suggesting that we shouldn’t take such claims about math anxiety too seriously, given that this is an opinion piece by a scholar who makes her living on the theory of “math anxiety,” and who has since been largely discredited by her own colleagues at Stanford, after her Railside research was found to be, at best, poorly administered and, at worst, falsified. I was accused of an ad hominem attack. With the limitations of 140 characters, I certainly did seem to be guilty of the ad hominem attack, so I tried to clarify by pointing out that the studies she cited in the piece are questionable. Apparently, it now falls on me to explain.

jt-exchange

I resent the position in which I now find myself. Mr. Teghtmeyer, a representative of teachers in Alberta, a group to which I belong, can apparently openly cite questionable and controversial opinions and I, a teacher who feels compelled to remain anonymous due to my contrarian views, must now defend the practices that have historically propelled Alberta to the top of international education rankings, against unproven, untested, theoretical claims for a new way forward. The onus should be on those who propose a CHANGE in traditional methods that new approaches will produce improved results.

I’m not especially vocal about the math debate here in Alberta, largely because I’m not a math teacher. However, this debate crosses curricular lines and it’s representative of a more philosophical and pedagogical impetus. Further, while some people may claim to be math specialists, thus having more to say about the issue than I, many teachers in Alberta teach subjects outside their area of specialization.

Jo Boaler is a highly controversial figure in the field of math teaching and pedagogy. This is not to disparage her, only to report some facts about her research. I think it’s relevant, given that Mr. Teghtmeyer’s position on the new timed section of the PAT hinges on such research, based on the notion that timed tests in math result in anxiety for students. Boaler’s premise is further contingent on a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, one which has caused her some professional problems. For some perspectives on Boaler and the theory of math “anxiety,” see here, here, here, and here.

As for the edweek.org editorial, which is largely comprised of Boaler’s own opinions, she does cite three other sources that I deem questionable. I intend to explain (in more than 140 characters) to Mr. Teghtmeyer, and anyone else who may be interested, why this is the case.

The first link Boaler cites is an article from Current Directions in Psychological Science (Cleveland State University, 2002) by Mark Ashcraft. In this piece, Ashcraft admits that “there has been no thorough empirical work on the origins or causes of math anxiety,” and that, while traditional classroom methods” are risk factors for math anxiety,” this conclusion is “yet undocumented,” although he is determined that the condition exists. He also cites his “participants’ anecdotal (my emphasis) reports” of public embarrassment in math class. Nowhere does the article reference study size, or controls and variables. In fact, it seems to quite openly be a summary of anecdotal reports of people with an already-decided conclusion that they struggle with math and have faced anxiety. Even in the abstract, although Ashcraft claims that “some teaching styles are implicated as risk factors,” he admits that research is needed “on the origins of math anxiety.”

ashcrat-abstract

This is questionable, then, because we don’t know exactly how the “research” was conducted, and the article itself can offer no clear conclusions about the sources of math “anxiety,” if such a condition even exists.

The second source Boaler cites is from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, although the page is not found when the link is followed. I found what I believe to be the article, or a comparable study related to math anxiety, here. The main problem with this piece is, again, that no methods are divulged. We don’t know the study size, nor the controls, nor the variables. What we do know is that the article is heavily self-referenced, citing its own authors in other “studies,” a well-known tactic of academics who have a dodgy foundational premise. The piece also cites Boaler’s third and final source from the edweek.org editorial, titled “The Neurodevelopmental Basis of Math Anxiety,” by Young, Wu, and Menon, a paper co-authored by Boaler’s own colleagues at Stanford, and behind a paywall.

With respect to this third and final source cited by Boaler in the edweek.org editorial, I found what I believe to be a free version of the paper here. The questionable aspect of this source is that it appears to be the basis for the previous citation, the Maloney and Beilock piece. Whenever a limited number of papers are cited in a circular manner, it should signal a red flag. In its references, this paper also cites the other two aforementioned papers. Further, Young et. al. claim that the effects of math anxiety are “unrelated to general anxiety, working memory, or reading ability,” a claim that is patently contradicted by the Ashcraft article, which suggests that math anxiety “compromises the activities of working memory, and hence should disrupt performance on any math task that relies on working memory.” Lastly, the Young et. al. article is the only one that provides information regarding its methods. Under that heading, we find that the study involved 46 participants, which can hardly provide conclusive results. In the final analysis, the Young et. al. paper is primarily a neurological study, largely concerned with fMRI mapping, and does not, itself, purport to identify any specific causes of math anxiety, only to suggest that the condition exists.

So . . . this is why I would suggest that the “studies” Boaler, a contentious enough figure in her own right, cites in her opinion piece are questionable. For a concise approach to evaluating educational research, Greg Ashman outlines a useful approach here.

Mr. Teghtmeyer seems to be against the introduction of a timed math fact component on the Grade 6 PAT here in Alberta. He uses the same argument as opponents of the Phonics Check in the U.K. These arguments are often clouded by the premise that teachers are already teaching math facts (or phonics, in the case of the U.K.), and that teachers can use any methods they deem fit. However, that’s not the case in reality. The truth is that the curriculum itself is aligned with a constructivist philosophy in which foundational knowledge is sacrificed in favour of unsubstantiated claims for “skills” and “understanding.” One can hardly blame parents and those with vested interests in education for trying to implement a system of checks and balances, be they explicit directions in programs of study, components of a PAT, or a significant weighting for diploma exams. They have legitimate concerns, and the onus should be on proponents of change to justify their claims.

The Case for Tests

The provincial government of Alberta has decided that it’s time to move on a curriculum review/redesign – a process already started under the former Conservative government. This is big news here, because it appears that this will be an all-encompassing process with far-reaching implications, not the least of which include an explicit focus on student-centered learning and cross-curricular competencies. These ideas sound nice in theory, but they rarely translate into anything tangible in practice. Further, Minister Eggen has vowed to collaborate with all stakeholders, including the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Again, this sounds reasonable, but the cacophony of voices may well lead to unintended consequences. However, I’ll reserve my judgement until I see something more concrete released. Perhaps they’ll get it right. We’ll have to wait and see.

One aspect of this review/redesign may include the abolition of our provincial achievement tests and diploma exams. Of course, this is still conjecture, but given the ATA’s position on such accountability measures, there’s a chance that the structure, implementation, and even existence of these exams will be affected.

As I’ve written before here and here, these exams are valuable tools that not only serve as periodic checks into the “provincial classroom,” but they ensure that key aspects of the curriculum in a given subject area have been taught and, hopefully, learned. Our testing context in Alberta does not remotely resemble some of the horror stories we see in the U.S. Nobody’s job is attached to students’ test scores. While we do have a “ranking report” produced by the Fraser Institute, the vast majority of parents send their kids to the community school or to the school that offers the programs they want anyway; few schools are meaningfully affected by the Frasier Institute’s ranking report. I’ve yet to see any tangible evidence that this ranking report is anything other than a political talking point.

We now have three provincial exams in twelve years of elementary and secondary schooling. Is that too much? I would vehemently argue that it is NOT too much. The PATs in grades 6 and 9 don’t even need to factor into students’ grades; it’s up to the teacher or school administrator whether or not to include the calculation of the PAT score into his or her students’ final marks. In grade 12, the final diploma exam has been reduced from a 50% weighting to a 30% weighting. This doesn’t make or break a student’s achievement in a course. And, again, teachers’ careers are not remotely connected to these test scores. Anecdote alert: My students always score well above provincial average and my discrepancy rates are low. This is rarely recognized by administration, other than perhaps privately, in passing. I’ve never been in a staff meeting where diploma scores were an agenda item, and every school has some good, bad, and ugly exam records. In my decade as a teacher, it seems the only one who cares about the diploma scores is me, and the teachers whose students will write these exams.

The point of this post will be to refute some of the “alternatives” to testing. I’ll not spend too much time defending Alberta’s achievement tests, other than to say they are reliable and valid, constructed by seconded teachers and subject specialists. Teachers who mark the written components are rigorously trained, combining elements of comparative judgement and rubric-referenced assessment, with checks and balances in place. While these exams admittedly do not assess the whole curriculum, they do demand a demonstration of comprehensive knowledge, and the application of it, wherein most of the outcomes that are not explicitly on the test are at least factors in the process of getting “the answer.” For more on assessment, see David Didau’s blog at thelearningspy.co.uk and Daisy Christodoulou’s blog at thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com.

I have no rebuttal to those like Alfie Kohn who argue for the abolition of grades entirely; this is beyond my frame of reference and I think those who agree with Kohn are coming from entirely different philosophical and political dimensions than the ones in which our society is structured. For those who agree that there should be structures in place to monitor and enhance education in schools, here are some of the most common alternatives presented to testing.

1: “A sample approach. The same tests, just fewer of ’em. Accountability could be achieved at the district level by administering traditional standardized tests to a statistically representative sampling of students, rather than to every student every year.”
Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/06/371659141/what-schools-could-use-instead-of-standardized-tests

This isn’t a bad idea – in theory. Mathematically, as an accountability measure, sampling would achieve the same goal. However, in reality, every teacher knows that at the mention of assessment, several hands shoot up to ask, “Is this for marks?” I have my own way of dealing with that issue, but the reality is that if there are no “stakes,” not all students will take the exam seriously. It’s like the sample group is doing a favour for the ministry to track achievement in the province. Students’ levels of engagement in the exam would be comparable to their levels of engagement in a survey. We live in a “what’s in it for me?” culture, and if there’s nothing “in it” for them, the validity of these sampled scores would be compromised.

2: “Stealth assessment. Similar math and reading data, but collected differently.
The major textbook publishers, plus companies like Dreambox, Scholastic and the nonprofit Khan Academy, all sell software for students to practice math and English. These programs register every single answer a student gives.
The companies that develop this software argue that it presents the opportunity to eliminate the time, cost and anxiety of “stop and test” in favor of passively collecting data on students’ knowledge over a semester, year or entire school career. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State University and former principal research scientist at ETS, coined the term “stealth assessment” to describe this approach.”
Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/06/371659141/what-schools-could-use-instead-of-standardized-tests

Again, this isn’t a bad idea, as an ongoing assessment option. But the limitations with this are the same as the limitations with standardized achievement testing, it’s just another medium. The real issue here becomes one of privacy. Do we want our students’ data to be mined by corporations whose goal is to sell to them? Do we want our schools’ data mined by corporations with various interests? How would the collection of this data impact our society? If you think the Fraser Institute ranking report is bad, it would pale in comparison to the possibilities here.

3: “Multiple measures. Incorporate more, and different, kinds of data on student progress and school performance into accountability measures.”
Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/06/371659141/what-schools-could-use-instead-of-standardized-tests

This is already happening in classrooms in Alberta. Of course we don’t base a student’s achievement on a single test. Of course multiple measures are used throughout the year to assess a wide range of competencies using a wide range of methods. Suggestions in the article include social and emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments, and performance or portfolio-based assessments. Fine – include them all. This doesn’t negate the need for, or benefit of, traditional achievement testing. This is because we still need a more objective measure of achievement rather than simply a teacher’s subjective judgement. It’s all well and good to say that teachers are professionals and that their professional judgement should be respected; however, teachers are also human beings subject to biases, preferences, and partialities. I wouldn’t want my subjective judgement to be the sole factor in determining a student’s achievement. I welcome outside objective measures that serve to balance whatever flaws I may have inadvertently perpetuated in assessing my students.

When we mark the written component of the English Language Arts diploma exam, we spend almost an entire day working in groups to train for the task. The process begins a week before, with several Standards Confirmers selecting exemplars in every category of the rubric. They discuss these randomly selected papers and identify several dozen to serve as “hinges” when the rest of us come in to mark the 15 000 or so exams. I’ll sit at a table with five or six other teachers, and we begin by reviewing these standards, as they relate to the topics and texts for the marking session. We discuss our scoring and attempt to resolve any discrepancies in interpretation with practice papers. Reliability Reviews are conducted daily. If I have problems over the six or seven-day session, I bring the paper to the Table Leader, who clarifies the issue for me, or who passes it along to the original Standards Confirmers. Each paper is blind-marked by two different markers. If the discrepancy exceeds 10% or more than one level in one or more scoring categories, it goes to a third marker. I detail this here to demonstrate the rigorous standard according to which these exams are marked.

In my classroom, it’s just me. Teaching can be an isolating profession. Days and days can pass without speaking to another adult, particularly if one is teaching a full course load. If an assignment presents a problem, maybe I can ask the opinion of another teacher in the school, but many schools in the province employ only one English teacher, experienced or otherwise. I can employ all kinds of multiple measures, but the bottom line is that it’s still just me assessing them. Standardized objective tests provide the oversight to balance the flaws in subjective judgement. For more on this increasingly popular area of study, see Daisy Christodoulou’s thoughts here.

4: Inspections. Scotland is a place where you can see many of the approaches above in action. Unlike the rest of the U.K., it has no specifically government-mandated school tests. Schools do administer a sampling survey of math and literacy, and there is a series of high-school-exit/college-entrance exams that are high stakes for students. But national education policy emphasizes a wide range of approaches to assessment, including presentations, performances and reports. These are designed to measure higher-order skills like creativity, students’ well-being and technological literacy as well as traditional academics. Schools and teachers have a lot of control over the methods of evaluation.
Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/06/371659141/what-schools-could-use-instead-of-standardized-tests

I’m actually a fan of the idea of inspections, despite the myriad problems associated with this accountability measure, as well. Like any system, including testing, flaws need to be identified and rectified. In the above example, Scotland is cited. Coincidentally, a Scottish teacher was recently fired for being “too boring,” according to the inspection evaluation. Such examples are likely the reason the ATA abolished observations years ago, and why it would likely not support something similar in lieu of standardized achievement testing. Further, Scotland’s education system, which employs many of the above approaches, as noted in the NPR article, is not exactly revered. Their results are dropping – although without objective tests, I suppose we wouldn’t know this and everyone could just cheer about how great they are, no matter the country, province, or system.

The bottom line is that education is a system for which we, as a society, pay. Any system needs to have measures for accountability and oversight embedded. Standardized achievement testing serves this purpose, to some extent, among other purposes more connected to teaching and learning. Even Alberta’s Valhalla – Finland – has the National Matriculation Exam, a battery of tests in at least four subject areas. “Student musts complete all required tests of the examination within three consecutive exam periods of up to six hours each. All tests, except listening and reading comprehension in second domestic and foreign languages, are pencil-and-paper tests, typically requiring extensive writing in open-ended tasks.”  While Finland is known for its progressive approach to education, absent of high stakes testing throughout school, this series of exit exams is as high stakes as you can get; all students MUST pass them to graduate.

Most education systems accept that standardized testing benefits teaching and learning. In the UK, students write GCSEs as a requirement for graduation and A-Level exams for further education in university preparation. In France they write the Baccalaureat, in Germany, the Abitur, in other parts of central and Eastern Europe, the Matura, in Israel, the Bagrut, in South Africa, the Matric. They’re all high-stakes, with weightings ranging all the way up to 100%. Our little diploma exam in Alberta is worth 30% of a student’s final grade. That still leaves 70% to be determined by the classroom teacher. The other two achievement tests in grades 6 and 9 may not even be calculated in a student’s grade. Surely this is not the problem it’s being made out to be. Surely not everyone is blind to some truth regarding the evil of exams. Surely worldwide recognition of the value of standardized achievement testing suggests that we’ve been on to something for a while.

Ultimately, we cannot dispense with standardized achievement testing unless and until we have something to replace its value in teaching and learning and as a measure of accountability and oversight. I would bet that there may not be a “better” metric – at least I haven’t seen one yet.