The Vagaries of Vision

I spent this weekend binge-watching Season 3 of House of Cards. There’s an excellent scene in one of the latter episodes where Frank is prepping for an upcoming debate and he’s concerned about using the word “action.” His Communications Director suggests replacing the word with “vision” because “people can project anything they want onto vision.” So true.

Recently I attended a PD conference for my district. One of the sessions was a panel discussion wherein the issue was trends in education. No practicing teachers were on the panel, but the room was filled with about 600 of us. The panel members discussed the glory of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, the failure of constructivist approaches in elementary mathematics, the inextricable socio-economic factors that influence education, and the nature of trends in pedagogy and philosophies of education. The last ten minutes were reserved for questions from the audience, none of which were particularly illuminating.

As a subject expert with ten years of secondary education experience, I enjoyed the range of opinions presented in the discussion, but I also felt somewhat offended, as I often do when education policy is discussed with “stakeholders” throughout the province. Perhaps more than any other profession, teaching is subject to the scrutiny and influence of people who are not teachers, or may never even have been. That’s because every member of society is impacted by education. So, of course, teachers, policy experts, parents, and students should have a voice in defining what we want our education system to be. However, deference should be given to teachers, who are on the front lines of education every day and who, presumably, have the historical knowledge and training to the job they’re entrusted to do.

Unfortunately, when teachers allow themselves to engage in fruitless debates, such as whether or not constructivist approaches to teaching and learning yield deeper understanding for the majority of students, or whether or not allowing the majority of students to choose what they want to learn will lead to engagement and a love of learning, we marginalize our own voices in discussions regarding the advancement of education. If teachers don’t know the answers to these questions, who does?!? By allowing various “visions” to be espoused and mindlessly adopted, like that of Inspiring Education here in Alberta, we relegate ourselves to the periphery; educrats and those with economic interests take center stage and push their fads, where any interpretation of these “visions” can be justified, depending on the ebb and flow of the ideological tide.

Evidence supporting the most effective approaches to curriculum design and development, teaching methods, and assessment, exists. As teachers, it is our responsibility to be aware of and to make ourselves familiar with this research. Don’t get me wrong – all good teachers employ various methods at various times, to achieve various goals. I’ve mentioned that I, too, elicit student participation in class discussions. I, too, assign small-scale projects in an effort to diversify the teaching and learning experience. I, too, have formative assessment embedded in my teaching practice. We must get beyond the false dichotomy of teachers as stand-and-deliver drill sergeants or teachers as guides-on-the-side who never explain anything directly. Good teaching has always been somewhere in the middle, involving a wide range of methodologies. But the fact is that teachers are trained in a given subject area; they are the experts, having earned their designation as the “sage on the stage.” If that doesn’t manifest itself in the classroom as the standard, there’s a problem.

I narrowly avoided a bit of a Twitter-war yesterday in this regard, because I chose not to engage, albeit reluctantly; I sometimes must force myself to bite my tongue (or Twitter-finger, in this case) because I can get myself into trouble. I was part of a thread where two teachers, one of whom is pursuing a PhD in education, dismissively admitted that they’ve never hear of Project Follow Through. Wow. How can you so vehemently oppose direct instruction if you’ve never heard of the largest-scale longitudinal study, replicated on a smaller scale in 2004, which unequivocally supports the efficacy of direct instruction?!? Later, in the same thread, another person asked me to define constructivism, since I clearly didn’t understand its superiority to traditional teaching methods. That’s when I tapped out; it was late and I had neither the time nor the inclination to start the debate from square one.

This reborn “progressive” ideology has permeated Alberta Education, among many other systems in the world, it seems. We need to respond with logic, reason, research, and evidence. Schools are institutions that should serve as strong foundations in an ever-changing world. They cannot be ideological transients subject to whatever fads and trends come and go, or we’ll never get anywhere. Incidentally, look how far we have come as a civilization over the past 200 years – under a traditional model of schooling and education. In fact, many of those traditional methods now have research in the fields of cognitive science and psychology to support their efficacy. Schools are the bedrock of our contemporary civilization and while they should change with the times to some extent, those changes should be motivated by clearly articulated reasons and goals, not by fuzzy and intangible “visions” that lack clarity and definition, let alone the ability to be meaningfully measured. Further, they should be incremental; sweeping changes for no good reason, as we see happening in Alberta, compromise our balance as we stand on the shoulders of giants.

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2 thoughts on “The Vagaries of Vision

  1. It has been a week since your “Vagaries” narrative was posted and that has given me enough time to digest both this submission, and the unfolding manifesto you are delivering in blog format. I want to be up front about why I found your blog and why I’m submitting this reply. I have a long history of being in education in Alberta as well as being employed in private industry in a global capacity. My years of professional experience have afforded me a chance to recognize when a hidden agenda with existential consequences exists. In the case of Inspiring Education, you could not find a more lucid and disturbing example of how politically motivated initiatives rarely, if ever, serve anyone beyond the core constituency from which the politically enacted power is derived. This “Inspiration” effort has been in “official” existence now for about 16 years, right around the time that the Science Alberta Foundation gamed the charter system by proposing to a separate board, so that they could be rejected, set up shop, and begin the “overhaul from within” that their courtiers and industry backers hoped to construct. As they see it, “the system is in need of repair”. There are many details of what has been happening between then and now that I will leave out, as my leaving a reply today has less to do with creating a timeline, and all to do with “outing” a group of people, who, like the political party they are all intimately connected to, have no other goal than to perpetuate their hubris on the rest of us because they believe they can.

    The road to I.E. is paved with good intensions, or at least that is what the “visionaries” behind it would like to think. But not unlike the path to hell itself, this journey over the past decade and a half will lead to nothing but hyperbolic outcomes that will result in the oil companies, the publishing companies, and the hardware/software industry and their minions (politicians, Alberta Education managers, think tanks including the Canada West Foundation, and post-secondary sponsored educational reform incubators -Galileo Network at the top of the list) enacting a curriculum on this province that will end up affecting learning outcomes in ways more constraining for teacher and learner alike. All of this in the name of addressing new realities and de-constraining the system. Some outcomes will be held up as evidence that the “Inspiration” was in fact the correct elixir, and for some learners it could be. But for many, the result will be an even greater dependency on these “High Priests of educational vision and wisdom” as the rest of us sort out how their system’s flaws can be de-engineered to save young people from completely wasting their time in school.

    If I’ve already inverted the adage of ‘starting someplace simple’, I promise to follow a more conventional “moving around a lot” process now that I’ve commenced. I think it is clever that you incorporate the philosophy of semantics within your blog title, but I also promise you that as I applaud your willingness to share your thoughtful opinions about the educational realities unfolding around you, I am very comfortable challenging some of the assumptions you have already made (and will likely build off of going forward). My goal is not to correct you, any more than it was my goal to correct Alfie Kohn, or Daniel Willingham, or Seth Godin, all of whom I’ve had multiple extended conversations with. Their agenda is to point out the gaps of the current system. But none of them would benefit from resolving the great debate around learning that serves their need to be recognized as “experts.” They simply make explicit what I believe to be the obvious – learning is about resolving “blindspots”. So yah, rhetoricians are just as self-serving as the next guy/girl until otherwise dis-proved.

    And so it begins. The “expertise” in education is different than the expertise in virtually any other professional domain. I won’t get into why that is right now, but suffice it to say that describing yourself as an educational expert places you on some rather unstable footing right out of the blocks. From the current education minister to the head of Galileo Project to the names mentioned above, there appears to be a need on their part to show why they possess the credentials to “fix education.” While not claiming the expert title myself, there is one thing I know for sure: that the more you understand about how learning unfolds as opposed to how expertise develops (not everything in learning is about being “trained-up”, …but more on that later), the less you care about being given title for what you know. Learning experts don’t require the narcissistic echo-chamber of public approval to “shroud” their political agendas, because they don’t generally carry a political agenda…they are too busy learning themselves. The expert politician wrapped in an “educationalist” cloak will however use any means necessary to give themselves the bully pulpit, especially if it provides sufficient money and the resultant power that their inflated egos demand.

    So yes, I like the reference to House of Cards, but no, I do not like like it when you tell your readers that your tenure in education makes you an expert. Forgive me if that seems a little harsh, but this getting the conditions correct around learning, always seems to get sidetracked by “experts” shouting about their abilities at one another…and no, I’m not saying YOU are a shouter. I suggest a different tack. Let them say what they want about their credentials, as in telling you/us how much of an expert they are, then as their mouth continues to flap, see how quickly that all falls apart when it comes to articulating an understanding of the paradoxical nature of learning. Despite the significance and role of the “Primordial Soup” from whence the world we now inhabit formed, it is thin gruel relative to the complexities encountered when helping someone to develop the ability to recognize and effectively make manifest, the quantum nature of mental time travel (both memorial and aspirational) in today’s complex world…that thing learners are all supposed to have at their disposal once released from the “expert’s” clutches.

    Maybe you don’t see your role as one who unfolds the physical laws of cognition. Instead, you may be asking, “as a teacher is it my responsibility to continually develop my abilities to think fluidly across time and space so that I can pass those abilities on to others?” Maybe you take the position that your role is to be able to get learners to be able to write a cogent argument, or translate into new forms the structural arch of poetic phrase, or simply edit a transcript effectively. Maybe you see yourself as being able to transfer the skill of synthesizing the “Key” question from the many possible questions raised around a value proposition, or, the confidence to categorize the different types of causality present and therefore represented in a dramatic representation, or maybe you just want people in your class to be able to communicate within a negotiation framework in such a way, that a raging debate isn’t the inevitable outcome.

    And maybe you also believe that regardless of the infinite number of concepts the government could hold up as requiring attending to – a recipe known as curriculum – the method chosen to effect the learning outcome should rest with the discretion of the “expert” at the front of the room. Let’s face it, just addressing the conceptual understandings development picture I’ve framed above, could appear to have the potential for cognitive overload, written all over it. The bottom line is, if the person at the front of the room doesn’t know what they are doing, the resultant effect would be massive overload on the part of at least some of the learners grappling with this conceptual condition-today’s lesson. So you are right in pointing out that a curriculum re-write may not be the best use of limited resources at this time. In fact, the people in charge of the re-write are of the opinion that the new curriculum will drive the necessary changes to teacher practice that will enable “better” learning outcomes. Of course, as the example with the new math curriculum shows, that isn’t necessarily the case. But before I too get trapped in the quagmire of “I’m right and your not!” the point of why I’ve spilled all of these key strokes thus far must be stated:

    If learning is to be increased, modified, refined from previous methodological iterations, then the nature and quality of the learner feedback loops embedded within the new iterative plan (The Curriculum) must be more useful than past formats. Inspiring Education does nothing to address this. Nothing. A group of educational acolytes (ironically mostly made up of empiricist fundamentalists) congregated around the concept of educational reform, then carried out a process of attracting enough educational practitioners who would become disciples, and then set about to dismiss anyone who questioned their motivations. The bottom line is: Reformers don’t want feedback loops that tell them THEY are wrong, as that really gets in the way of evolving a system that will develop learners who are equipped to handle more complex realities – because this is a “reform” problem pivoting on the systemic response to the ‘accepted need’ to formally educate. Ironically, this has nothing to do with helping learners better articulate what they see, so they can address THEIR blindspots.

    As much as they might say they want feedback, what they really want is affirmation.

    Assuming you agree that these are some of the elements in play, if those opposed to the re-write turn their focus solely on the end game argument of who has the wisdom, and how that wisdom transaction is to be carried out with learners, then the folks behind IE win. Literally millions of dollars have been spent, both directly and indirectly, to ensure that anyone opposed to their idea of what a new iteration of the systemic approach to education should look like, will be marginalized. Just ask Jim Prentice whether he likes the fact that the party HE now leads, should be questioned when he raises a “mirror moment” in conversation. He can claim all he wants that he was misinterpreted with the “look in the mirror” comment, but the fact is, everything about this government and the current leadership is predicated on not revealing the true intent of either the public facing representatives or the true determiners of policy – the “central committee” of the PCAA.

    Pro-scribing the effective ways to take on this problem at this point is time wasted. Instead, what I will point out is that people who take to blogging have an average lifespan of a dozen posts. It is at that point that their initial rage subsides, and the smouldering embers must be re-ignited, or the flame dies. I hope that in posting such a lengthy comment I’ve added some fuel back onto your fire. If it took the people behind IE 15 years to get where they are in terms of imposing bad practice onto every educational practitioner in the province, I’m not sure that 15 blog posts will throw off course the evolving danger. At least you are giving voice to your concerns and might be of a mindset that welcomes ideas that care not for worn out debates on which “method” is the most effective – which ever method(s) work should be used, and that takes someone who is willing to learn. Maybe you’ll consider some of this information provided and think about how to get your message to those that take more than a passing interest in what is going on in learning because their kid comes home unhappy after a day of school. I guess what I’m saying is, keep it up.

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