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


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!


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.

C is for Curriculum

This week’s edition of the Edmonton Journal Politics Podcast, The C is for Curriculum edition, was largely devoted to the curriculum review underway in Alberta. Emma Graney hosted the episode with panelists Graham Thomson, Stuart Thomson (no relation), and Paula Simons. Their conversation was representative of some of the concerns regarding this endeavor, and I thought I might address some of my main issues here.

The discussion began with the controversy surrounding the composition of the working groups developing these new curricula. It’s been said that approximately 300 people across subject areas are involved, although I’ve recently heard that it’s approaching 400. Stuart Thomson, at least initially, appeared to be in favour of releasing the names of these contributors, citing that most of them are teachers, a position with which Simons and Graham Thomson reasonably disagreed. However, the composition of these groups, if not the actual names, is important.

The designation of these people as “teachers” may be a bit misleading. In Alberta, all people with a teaching certificate working in or for schools are defined as teachers. This includes principals and other administrators, counselors, consultants, and various ATA officials. Without disparaging these important roles, many of these people have not been in the classroom for many years. This is an important distinction when the public may have the impression that actual classroom teachers, who interact daily with students and curriculum, are tasked with the curriculum review. This is not the case.

I, myself, was nominated by my superintendent to be on the senior high ELA working group and was not selected. I received no notice of this, nor did I receive an invitation to apply again for an upcoming circuit. About a month after I was nominated, I learned that the working groups had convened for their first meeting, and simply realized that I had not been selected. However, in another district, I learned of two people who were selected for ELA and two for Social Studies, none of whom are currently classroom teachers. One has not been in the classroom for almost ten years. This may be of interest to the public who assume that “most” of the working group participants are teachers, and the perception of what this title actually entails. Incidentally, this is a similar problem when class size is averaged in Alberta. Because of the nature of the “teacher” designation, class sizes are averaged to include even those teachers who don’t teach. So if I have 39 students in a class, and we include myself, the principal, and the counselor (the latter two may not teach a single class), the average class size would be calculated as being comprised of 13 students.

Both Simons and Graham Thomson recognized the valid concerns regarding individual teachers’ names being released to the public, particularly considering some of the vitriol we’ve all seen on social media. Graham Thomson noted that releasing the names could lead to ad hominem attacks on people based on their political affiliations rather than a debate of the ideas they present. This is an absolutely legitimate assumption that could well come to fruition. However, we must acknowledge that personal philosophies and politics will undoubtedly influence an individual’s input, and if certain individuals are selected for this reason, perhaps those philosophies and politics will guide the entire endeavour. I’m not sure how we can get around this conundrum. Given the fact that I understand the need for anonymity all too well, I might suggest a more detailed release of the composition of the groups rather than individual names, along with tasking a small contingent to speak publicly, or at least to teacher colleagues, about the specifics regarding the progress of a given subject area.

I thoroughly enjoy Paula Simons’s writing and I agree with her perspectives most of the time. However, she was a bit inconsistent in this conversation; I want to call this out because I think this is true of many Albertans when it comes to education. We’ve all been through school, so we’ve experienced it first-hand; perhaps we have children or grandchildren currently in the system and we have even more skin in the game. Undoubtedly, most people have some kind of opinion on some aspect of education, and given the adage about a little knowledge, this might be problematic. Simons began her defense of maintaining the privacy of teacher participants by suggesting that the curriculum review has nothing to do with partisan politics, but at the same time acknowledging that governments always try to infuse a particular view or doctrine into the process. This is important, because both things cannot be simultaneously true, particularly given that we don’t know who is actually involved. There was discussion of the previous administration’s desire to imbue young Alberta students with “entrepreneurial spirit” and this government’s goal of making them “agents of change.” For my international readers, I’ll bet you can guess the political stripe of each of these two administrations. Stuart Thompson also revealed a bit of cognitive dissonance when he suggested that such language isn’t necessarily political and then later claimed that a political slant is unavoidable, though not necessarily a bad thing, because people will have different ideas regarding what curriculum should do. I think we need to be open about the fact that philosophy and politics will influence the process, and I also think we should work to minimize that influence.

Simons also discussed a time when teachers were told not to teach phonics, but claimed that good teachers simply ignored this and taught students how to sound out words anyway. She noted that when new ways of teaching math rolled around, good teachers still did Mad Minutes. However, not all teachers are this subversive. Many students were taught to read using the far less effective whole language method and we all know that many students do not know their basic math facts. Simons warned that we must be careful regarding fads in education and teaching/learning, yet she acknowledged the detrimental effects of acquiescing to them in a personal account of having experienced a child-directed “open classroom” in grade three, where she chose to read voraciously, but didn’t learn math. Where were the “good teachers” to mitigate this disaster? If curricular goals are not clearly articulated, we are at the mercy of myriad interpretations, as Simons herself pointed out regarding the current Social Studies curriculum, which she claimed has drifted too far from history and more to social theory “unmoored from . . . pragmatic reality.”

Emma Graney explained that curriculum is based on broad principles and that it does not dictate what teachers actually do in classrooms in terms of delivery and implementation. She said that “teachers can . . . pick and choose what bits they want to do” and that a curriculum redesign won’t change this. While I would say she’s actually right about this assertion, I would suggest that this is a significant problem. In response to Graney’s claim that “good teachers will keep on teaching really well,” I would ask how we’d address problems that arise when students don’t happen to have “good” teachers? I know in Alberta we don’t discuss this, and even to suggest the possibility might be a professional-code-of-conduct-grey-area for me, but the reality is that if curriculum is too broad, we can’t reasonably manage how that curriculum is taught. This does not necessarily come down to “good” teachers and “bad” teachers. One can easily complete an education degree in Alberta without ever having heard of Hirsch, Kirschner, Sweller, Clark, or Project Follow Through. If all you’ve ever been taught is through the lens of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, then you’re not a “bad” teacher, you’re just not fully informed – and your classroom practice will likely demonstrate a particular bent. Currently, we’re in the thick of such a problem now, which is why I’m so hopeful that a review/redesign will allow us to course-correct.

Simons advocated for curricula that would teach students to be “critical thinkers,” but this is not some generic skill that can be taught in a vacuum, as Dr. D. Willingham, among many others, writes here. Stuart Thomson lamented the depressing idea of students sitting in classrooms doing multiplication tables, but these broad, generic goals of critical thinking and collaboration in a student-centred environment geared toward individual learning have been demonstrated to be far less effective than a strong, knowledge/content-based curriculum delivered through whole-class explicit instruction.  Simons, herself, detailed the dangers of allowing an 8-year-old to make choices about her educational interests and the lifelong ramifications of such an enterprise. I’m nervous that we’re still seeing so many of these buzzwords in the early stages of this curriculum review, and I hope this is addressed at some point soon.

This latest installment of the Edmonton Journal Politics Podcast was well worth the time, and I appreciate these journalists bringing some important issues to light. At this point, we’re all just making hypotheses about where this curriculum review is going, since nothing concrete has been released yet. The main point of the initial topic of the podcast seems to have been about the release of individual names of those on the working groups. While I agree that there is a legitimate and valid apprehension concerning making such information public, I’m hoping for at least some measure of transparency, which we have not seen thus far. How in-line is this process with the previous government’s Inspiring Education vision? Is there a clear commitment to provincially administered standardized tests? Surely these are broad enough questions that could be answered, even at this early stage. I’d like ministry spokespeople to move away from abstract platitudes and instead begin to address tangible aspects of the review process.

A Word on Curriculum

I teach English Language Arts in Alberta, Canada at the high school level. The program of study, at this stage, is largely geared towards literary interpretation and analysis, represented through the six language arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing. Our program of study (curriculum) includes five general outcomes:

Students will

  1. explore thoughts, ideas, feelings, and experiences
  2. comprehend literature and other texts in oral, print, visual, and multimedia forms, and respond personally, critically, and creatively
  3. manage ideas and information
  4. create oral, print, visual, and multimedia texts, and enhance the clarity and artistry of communication
  5. respect, support, and collaborate with others

Each of these general outcomes encompasses a number of specific outcomes, none of which provide any more clarity as to what or how students will learn in the context of a given classroom. I used to think that Alberta had an enviable curriculum, at least in English Language Arts, but I’ve come to realize that it’s sorely lacking specificity, precision, depth, sequence, and unity. I’m not sure what exactly brought me to this realization, but certainly investigating other systems has helped me to see what we’re missing. Also, after more than ten years in this profession, the cracks have begun to reveal themselves to me. I’ve been particularly preoccupied with ideas on how we can improve things, likely because we’re in the midst of a curriculum review/rewrite across all subject areas. I hope for the best, but I fear that the powers-that-be will simply double-down on the 21st century-project/inquiry-based-edutech bet they made more than a decade ago.

When I meet students in high school, there’s little I can do to catch them up if they’re struggling readers. Why? Because never in my teacher training, nor in available professional development, have I learned to teach children to read. Until two years ago, I had no idea that there was a controversy in this field. I had never heard about phonics, or look-say, or balanced literacy. It was by following authorities on the subject on Twitter that I came to learn about The Reading Wars. Slowly, I’m gaining a sense of proficiency in my understanding and application of the evidence-informed method of systematic synthetic phonics. But at the high school level, when this was supposed to have been sorted, why do I need to do this?

I’m not complaining, really, just explaining the reality. So, given that the curriculum rewrite is underway, this is actually about what I would suggest that the powers-that-be do with the opportunity, at least with respect to aspects of the ELA program of study.

First of all, beginning in Grade 1, dispense with the “balanced literacy” farce. If we can sort the mechanics of reading in these early grades, I won’t be faced with teenagers who can “kind of” read. Implement a solid systematic synthetic phonics program, and perhaps include a check at the end of Grade 1. I know this is a controversial suggestion, given that the UK has had a phonics check for years and many people still decry it, and that the proposal in Australia seems to be causing heads to explode, figuratively, of course.

There’s been a lot of pushback against constructivist approaches to teaching math, which seem to have a strangle-hold in Alberta. The issue has been taken increasingly seriously here, with thousands of parents and teachers petitioning the government to adopt a more explicit and evidence-informed position with respect to this subject. There’s a significant body of research in the field of cognitive load theory which suggests that we are all subject to the limitations of working memory. Applied to math learning, this means that if students are taking time to make simple calculations in addition and division, this overloads their working memory, creating an obstacle when higher-level functions are necessary. The idea is that the more we promote automaticity by moving elements of a process into long-term memory, the further we can stretch our functioning, since we clear thinking space in working memory.

The same principle applies to reading. If we explicitly teach and drill grapheme-phoneme connections, students can “chunk” those symbols into words, largely making the mechanics of reading automatic. From there, we use those fundamental principles as we teach new vocabulary, and embark on increasingly challenging texts. As well, it is in these early years that we should begin to explicitly teach about grammar, syntax, and mechanics. This element should continue through to the end of high school, as an unambiguously articulated component of the curriculum.

Secondly, ensure that teachers at this crucial first stage are explicitly and thoroughly trained in how to teach the program. Currently, in Alberta, any teacher can teach any subject in any grade. Obviously, attempts are always made to put the “right” person in the job, one with the training and background for a given subject or grade-stage. But this doesn’t always happen, and there are no parameters within the system to ensure that a secondary-trained biology teacher doesn’t end up taking, as his or her first job, a position as a grade one teacher. Again, in Alberta this is a controversial stance, because we’re often told that we don’t teach subjects, we teach children – which brings me to my next point.

Schools cannot be everything to everyone. From my first year teaching to now, I’ve seen initiatives and programs simply get piled onto the heap of responsibilities I have as a teacher. Again, I’m not complaining, but simply explaining that if more and more peripheral agendas are added to the finite school day, something will give. And it has. We’re not reading and writing in class as much as we should be. Parents and students plead with me for an answer regarding improving reading scores. I usually cite the old mantra that students must also read at home. While I know this to be true, I’ve recently considered that it may be well and good for students to read at home, but that should be supplemental to what we do in the classroom. And you know what? We don’t do enough in the classroom. Why not? Because we’re pushed to have students work in groups, to pursue projects, to discover through inquiry, to watch films, to make videos, and so much other fluff that I couldn’t begin to list here. All this takes so much time, which, as I’ve mentioned, is limited. If I only have x number of hours in a week with a given class, shouldn’t we focus on priorities that will yield the greatest return on that finite investment? For me, those priorities are reading and writing.

You may think that so much would necessarily be excluded if English classes were limited in this manner. I choose to see it as being able to more precisely focus on the most relevant aspects of this field as it pertains to novice learners, for we cannot do everything, despite all the airy-fairy platitudes that permeate the current program of study. The extraneous (to English) components could be built into their own programs, ideally connected to the frameworks of other subjects. These might include Film Studies and Film Theory, Debate and Rhetoric, and Art History. In fact, I would greatly welcome the inclusion of such academic optional courses, rather than the load of fluff that most schools offer far too early. We should do as much as we can to promote an academic environment for as long as possible.

In our study of English at the high school level, we should focus on reading and writing – a lot – with the goal of interpreting and analyzing literature that advances the cultural capital of our students. All these platitudes about creativity, critical thinking, 21st century skills, collaboration, and the like are not legitimate outcomes in themselves, although they may be subsequent by-products of a knowledge-rich, joined-up curriculum. Dispense with the ambiguity so evident in the general outcomes listed above. Students, even those in secondary school, thrive on clarity and structure. Let those elements guide the development of a new program of study.

I would urge the education ministry of Alberta to separate the wheat from the chaff in this curriculum review, so I have time to read and study a breadth of literature, in depth, with my students, so that they may broaden their horizons and go into the wider world with the foundational knowledge that will open doors for them. I would encourage the ministry to stop being beholden to special interests, especially those with a particular agenda to push, or even to sell, and focus on the most effective methods and practices that will empower teachers to teach and students to learn. In short, I hope the ministry seizes this opportunity to improve education and schooling for the children of Alberta.

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!