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!

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.


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.


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 and the retaliation I fear, 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. Forgive me, but the onus is on YOU, Mr. Teghtmeyer, to prove that a CHANGE in traditional methods will produce improved results. But that’s not how the game is played. Instead, I’m wasting my Sunday going through an explanation of why you should think twice before you, as a representative of teachers in Alberta, defend a highly arguable claim. I could ignore all of this, but I’m particularly annoyed, so here goes . . .

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, so maybe I have a right to speak?

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.”


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.





The Light of Knowledge

I recently read a piece by Tait Coles promoting the need for “critical pedagogy,” as though such a thing is the sole domain of punk teachers, catalysts, and system disruptors; it is taken as a foregone conclusion that traditional, knowledge-based education centered on a canon of any domain is not only ineffective in our brave new world, but racist.

Deliberate Strategy

Deliberate Strategy 2

This is beyond problematic. I’ve differed with many a “progressive” educator. I’ve sometimes come away feeling that a colleague may have drunk the Kool-Aid, a victim of an ITT programme of indoctrination that’s perpetuated in schools across the province. At worst, I’ve suspected that some such educators (those who are quick to do away with standardized curricula in an effort to blow open the whole system in deference to the whole child) are more interested in padding their own resumes as they climb the increasingly corporatized ladder of the world of education. However, I would never suggest that any of them are so maliciously motivated as to want to knowingly perpetuate an education system that ostensibly creates a caste-system wherein inequality is deliberately nurtured.

I quoted a link to Mr. Coles’s blog post via Rory Gribbell, along with a tweet regarding my initial impressions. Mr. Coles replied to my tweet by asking which part of his argument is “extrapolative” and “quasi.”

Twitter Start

While I’ll admit that Mr. Coles cites research, I’d hardly characterize his references as “evidence and data.” I’ll attempt to address my key points of disagreement.

First point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 1

First of all, I’m not sure anyone is suggesting that the Common Core and Cultural Literacy approach is the only way to improve oneself through education. However, given that resources are always finite, I’d argue that it may be one of the best ways. Further, jumping from Hirsch’s premise that a common core would enable students to adequately participate in society to the idea that it’s a ruse designed to produce passive consumers is a non-sequitur. There’s not a hint of conspiracy in Hirsch’s vision unless one is twisting its interpretation to make it so. If we allow that, we could find conspiracy almost anywhere.

Second point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 2

The most fervent proponents of Hirsch’s notion of cultural capital make the explicit argument that knowledge is arguably one of the best mechanisms whereby the marginalized can gain power. Having knowledge and understanding of the history of one’s oppressors, to use Coles’s paradigm (borrowed from Freire), is exactly what allows students to “understand their world.” How could they do so were they not familiar with how it came to be?

I would further suggest that Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy doesn’t simply end with knowing the works of dead white men. I would posit that it goes much further: knowledge should serve to expand the student’s mind, both physiologically, through the building of neural pathways and networks, and intellectually, through the critical analysis of the material learned. Just because one reads Othello does not mean he must share Elizabethan views on race; in fact, this is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to students the tenuous relationship between art and the culture in which it is produced.

I doubt that anyone is arguing that a canon can’t evolve, but to suggest that the absence of a common, shared knowledge and understanding of how we all got here somehow makes true freedom and equality possible is simplistic and lacks a nuanced treatment of the range of what makes us human, for better or worse.

NOTE: Greg Ashman unpacks a bit of Freire quite nicely here – much better than I could.

Third point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 3

I would suggest that this is another extrapolation. To argue that black and minority ethnic students can only succeed in school when they “promote white self-interest” is offensive. Could it not be due to a studious work ethic? Could it not be due to intellectual ability? Could it not be due to having been inspired by “the best that has been thought and said” (a phrase used pejoratively in Coles’s blog post)?

I currently teach a bottom set English class comprised entirely of boys, albeit a rather diverse group. We read Othello in March and April – the actual Shakespearean text. For a month, I read to them every class, out loud, as they followed along. Their attendance was the most consistent it had been all semester. I’m not blowing sunshine when I say that EVERY ONE OF THEM loved it. We travelled back in time to Elizabethan England through language, culture, prejudices, and Shakespeare’s genius. They were all reluctant at first, but by the time I explained what “making the beast with two backs” was, they were hooked. They were hooked not because of some “Faustian bargain” I’ve taken to “de-culturalise” them, but because it’s a great story, and they were proud to have been trusted to handle the level of rigour we associate with the study of Shakespeare. The knowledge of this text, and the context in which it was created, now informs their knowledge, and their knowledge informed the reading of it. Learning requires such interaction. Nothing nefarious here, nothing that was “contaminated by power.” In fact, if I may be so bold, the whole endeavor is a perfect example of how traditional knowledge can be and often is transformative.

Fourth point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 4

I would submit that this is another non-sequitur. I doubt that anyone is arguing that we should refuse to acknowledge that knowledge outside an approved curriculum exists. Also, I would suggest that by teaching students the history of human civilization, necessarily far from exhaustive, we are writing them into that history, not out of it. If nothing else, they become aware of it, and only then can they think critically, or think any way at all, about it, thus enabling them to participate more fully in democracy.

I would submit the U.S. system as an example, with apologies to my esteemed colleagues and all the lovely folk down south. For more than a hundred years, education in the U.S. has been de-centralized, in order to address the unique character, culture, and identity of each state. Few, if any, national standards existed, other than the SAT, but that was only for university-bound graduates. We now see a nation where science is often a matter of opinion, or political orientation, as seen in this clip from a recent “Scientific American” article:

Scientific American


Or this clip from a “Live Science” piece:

Live Science


Perhaps it’s a stretch, but in an education system where “anything goes,” where’s the line to be drawn? In the absence of a common core of knowledge, whose degree of evolution can be negotiated, how can we avoid such a piteous situation?

Fifth point of extrapolation:


While I’m not quite sure what is meant by “transformational knowledge,” I’m going to assume it’s the notion that when we truly learn and absorb something, it becomes part of us, and informs our being in the world. By suggesting that only knowledge grounded in one’s own culture (or experience) can precipitate this lovely sentiment is illogical. For every 50 students, you’d have 50 uniquely-designed curricula. I know this sounds like the Holy Grail for many trendy educators these days, but it’s not only impractical, it’s irresponsible.

Many years ago when I started teaching, in those few minutes before the bell would ring to signal the beginning of class, I’d often chat with my students about the previous evening’s television programs. Many of us had common tastes, and the students spoke with interest and excitement about their best-loved programs. I could connect with them, because we could discuss this area of common ground. Today, few of my students watch conventional television. They binge-watch series on Netflix or surf YouTube videos. There’s a sense of disjointedness that’s palpable as students watch these programs at different times, on-demand, or don’t watch the same programs at all, due to the myriad choices. The notion of common experience, even when it comes to something as banal as pop culture, is deteriorating. The effects, I’d argue, are more far-reaching than we might like to admit. I’ve written about that here.


Why is Mr. Coles’s blog post, then, a “quasi-argument?”

I use that term because saying something doesn’t make that thing a fact. Arguing a position wherein the original premise is extrapolated so far beyond its intellectual position doesn’t constitute an argument. While it’s evident that Mr. Coles is intelligent and well-read, his conclusions do not logically follow from his premise in this piece. He has employed the structure of argumentation, but not its essence, which must be grounded in systematic reasoning.

I believe wholeheartedly that a traditional education based on knowledge-rich curricula empowers and liberates all of us. I don’t think that those who disagree with me just want to watch the world burn. I’d appreciate the same courtesy.