Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ontario's Education: Call for Ideas

Today's the last chance to tell Doug Ford and the Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, what we should do with the educational system.

As if it matters.

At least it presents the illusion of being heard. People revolt less if they have a chance to speak to the political elites. For hundreds of years, commoners were allowed to speak at assemblies without any actual voting power to affect change there, yet it kept people relatively content. Plus ça change....

BUT, a conservative government might actually be the ones to fix some of the issues with education. Or, in other words, when it comes to education, perhaps I actually lean a little further to the right on some issues. I think it's important to let kids fail, to give them zeros for zero work, and to deduct late marks when their work is late in order to create better work habits in the long run. And I completely disagree with some NDP politicians who advocate for destreaming. This is all an old debate between Rousseau's child-centred learning style (currently in vogue) and B.F. Skinner's style of filling the pail. I think it has to be both in different places, but we've tossed the drills and memorization that enables later critical thinking. And we've stopped training the good work habits that help everybody do everything better later on. Just because training is something done in factories, it doesn't follow that any training necessarily turns people into automatons. Drill the multiplication tables, grammar conventions, and musical scales into their heads when they're young, and they'll thank us later.

So here are the questions they ask and some more of my two cents on the issue. It's more like a couple thousand pennies, though. Also not worth much, but I can go on forever about what's wrong with education today. It's wise that they have a 500 word limit on each question.

If you are a member of a stakeholder group interested in Ontario’s education system, please describe:

When we're talking about the education system, we are all members of a stakeholder group as citizens of the province. We are all affected by the quality of education of our least educated members. Beyond that, I have children in the system, who have struggled at different times with barriers that shouldn't exist. And finally I've been teaching in the public school system for almost thirty years.

How should we improve student performance in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)? 

Teach more and earlier. We need to improve basic skills at a younger age with more direct instruction. Students can learn the right way to do things from the beginning, rather than a watered-down version that has to be corrected later. They are sponges at an early age. Take advantage of that with a more rigorous education system in the early years.

Make math teaching about teaching the most direct route to the answer, first, rather than starting with discovery learning to find the best path that suits each child. There are tried and tested methods that most students will use to excel. The few who don't think in that linear manner, can be taught a variety of other means to get to the answer. I got top marks in math when I was in school, yet I struggled to understand the directions of the math work my children were required to complete, and I retaught each lesson to them the way I was taught, with number lines and specific directions for multiplying double digits.

Drill them repeatedly on number facts. Ban the use of calculators up to grade 8 so they're forced to master mathematics before it gets more complex. Do the same with science and computers. Drills don't have to be boring. We can drill with games, or teach fractions by baking with a recipe cut in half. Get them to master how to type with more frequent skills training in the early grades so they don't use hunt and peck their way through 10-pages essays by university. Teach them, overtly, all the ways computers can help them learn. There are many simple tricks they can use on a keyboard to search documents, for instance, that grade 12s are just discovering. And, in science, drill the names of plants, and body parts, and planets, and cell structures. Help them use mnemonics to remember and understand the basic structures in their world, and THEN they can better USE their knowledge to think about the world, develop their own opinions, and discover their interests.

For all subjects, identify struggling learners much earlier and offer extra help. In the primary schools, the last period of each school day could be an independent learning period where students do assigned lessons (aka homework) in whichever subject they need the most help, while the teacher is in the room to help them individually. BUT, for this to work well, we need more teachers, better trained for helping struggling learners, and a significantly smaller student:teacher ratio in the primary years.

How should our schools prepare students with needed job skills, such as skilled trades and coding? 

This problem has to be solved with a media campaign selling the benefits of the skilled trades. But the government has to make sure there are jobs available that haven't been lost to outsourcing and technology. It's a big challenge to teach people to recognize the dignity in working in any field and to undo the current dominant mindset that the only valuable fields are STEM fields. The fact that med schools and Google hire people with humanities educations should be widely acknowledged. The advantages of a wide variety of fields of study need to be clarified for students.

In order for students to find a career that is the best fit for them, we need to stream earlier. Grades 7 and 8 classes can be loosely streamed to help students find their strongest abilities and work towards achievable goals and with more help for areas of weakness. BUT we also need to make it easier to shift streams up to the end of grade 10 without losing credits. Students doing well in an applied class, should be able to get the credit of an academic class with a 10-20 point deduction and immediately go into the next grade. Similarly, students doing poorly in an academic class, should be able to get the credit as applied with a 10-20 point addition. This will help keep students from being too discouraged to continue. I'd also like to bring back the 5-year, 4-year, 3-year system that enabled students to leave high school earlier to go directly into the workplace, and bring back a fifth year (since so many take it anyway) rather than rush students off to university less prepared than they should be, but I won't hold my breath on that one.

What measures can be taken to improve provincial standardized testing? 

If we're not getting rid of it, can we at least change the test conditions to be a better measurement of abilities? Allow dictionaries, which are used by anyone literate. Allow them to type in order to be alerted to spelling errors automatically, as we all are in real life now. But most importantly, measure a variety of skills. Do we just want students who can read and write despite the fact that many people have jobs that involve little literacy in the way that the test currently measures it? The reality is that, by high-school, some students might never be able to write a good new article or opinion essay. They're employable and enjoyable, but they get destroyed by this one disability in persuasive writing and journalism - skills they're unlikely to need in any job. Any students with a reading disability is allowed to have the test read to them and responses recorded for them, so it's a measure of comprehension, not literacy. The current testing procedures do not prevent students from graduating if they can't read or write, which is the intent of the test (or so it's claimed).

Worse than that, however, students get stressed out for a week beforehand, and they are terrified of failing. The ones that fail have to write and fail again before they're given the option of taking a literacy course in order to get their OSSD. It doesn't prevent students from graduating without being able to read and write, and it does clarify for them that their struggles with reading writing will define them.

A 2007 essay in CJEAP reported that, "...low achieving students are 25% more likely to drop out of school in states that employ graduation tests versus non-tested states. Recent announcements by the Ontario government suggest that the province may be experiencing a similar trend. For example, the high school completion rate was steady in the mid 1990’s to 2001 at 78 per cent, but dropped sharply in 2001 to 71 per cent, and has remained relatively unchanged. The 2001 date is significant since the OSSLT was introduced as a graduation requirement during the 2000/2001 school year." Why would anyone stay in an institution that makes it clear they're below par?

If it must stay, then we must make it devoted to a variety of skills and content that we want to see in our citizens, not just the ability to write a new article or understand vocabulary they're never encountered previously.

What more can be done to ensure students graduate high school with important life skills, including financial literacy?

I propose, radically, having one Real World course each year in the secondary schools to help develop and reinforce the concepts of specific areas of study. These four credits would replace required credits for Health & Phys Ed, Civics & Careers, a social science, and either a Science or English credit. I expect this to have minimal impact on the Phys Ed, Family Studies, History, Science, or English Departments except to remove students who have absolutely no interest in those subjects. If anything, a week or two of instruction in a specific area might make more students want to take a full course in the area. Additionally, there are a range of equity courses offered at some schools, and this would essentially make part of those courses mandatory.

Instructors can spend approximately one week per unit each year, but some years could have more focus on one area than another. Students must show they have mastered each area or have to re-do sections at the end. For instance, they'd actually have to pass the section on grammar in order to pass the course. The courses would be entirely content-driven (direct instruction followed by student practice then testing in a repetitive fashion) to ensure a fluent understanding of the skills and information necessary to thrive in our world.

The units would include, Grammar and Mechanics of Communication; Citing Sources and Plagiarism (copyright infringement online and off); Evaluating News Media and Identifying Scholarly Sources (including the scientific method); Logic and Critical Thinking (fallacies in argumentation); Statistical Analysis (interpreting data); Environmental Sciences (including climate change facts); Nutrition Sciences (how to grow, preserve, and cook food); Home Economics (from hygiene to home repairs); Kinetic Sciences (first aid to fitness); Mental Health (basic self-help, healthy living, and how to get help); Applied Ethics (personal responsibility and interdependence); Sexual Education (reproduction, attraction, and relationships); Politics (government and economics); North American Culture: Indigenous History & World Religions (basics of all religious systems); Law (courts, charter, ICC); Finances (reading a paycheque to getting a loan); Careers (best fit of skills and interests); Virtual Technology (staying safe on social media); Parenting and Development (stages of learning and expectations of each age), and Transportation (rules of the road). I'd be happy to write the curriculum for each course!

What steps could schools take to ban cellphone use in the classroom?

This is a conundrum. Parents are concerned about cell phone use, but not enough to take their devices away, and teachers are not allowed to touch them. This is a new set of problems being created. Students might get a job even without standard literacy skills, but they can't work with earbuds in during the day's instruction, and many students can't seem to breath without at least one earbud in at all times.

It has to fall on the parents to start early teaching children about the harm caused by screens, but for that to happen, we need to teach the parents with widespread media campaigns. Books like Nicholas Carr's The Shallows should be required reading for teachers and administrators. We need to recognize the early stages of addictive habits. Phones works on a variable ratio rate of reinforcement, just like slot machines. They need to be relegated to just certain times of the day based on the age of children.

In schools, a top-down rule keeping phones out of classrooms (slotted at the front of the room as they walk in, or kept in a velcroed pocket at the side of each desk) can benefit everyone. However, it will have no effect if we have them using chrome books during their class time. Working online with wifi in every class opens the door to ongoing distractions. We have to train children from an early age, and in ongoing lessons, how to restrain themselves from the distractions available to them.

How can we build a new age-appropriate Health and Physical Education curriculum that includes subjects like mental health, sexual health education and the legalization of cannabis?

Sexual health education matters more than partisan politics. We should follow the Liberal's plan. It's a good one. IF parents don't want their children to know about sexual health, consent, or LGBTQ issues, that's similar to parents not wanting their children to know about Indigenous land treaties, or the variety of religions in society, or the history of slavery and racial discrimination. This is all necessary information to live in peace and security in our world, not liberal brainwashing. People do not have a right to raise their children in ignorance or to be intolerant of difference. Children have a right to know how their bodies work. Real facts on drugs, rather than scare tactics, will help save their lives at a time when, in the U.S., more people under 50 die from opiates than any other cause.

What elements should be included in a Ministry of Education Parents’ Bill of Rights? 

Parent's have a right to transparency in education. They need the ability to see what is being taught and why. They should have access to all curriculum documents, as they currently do. Documents in brief could be developed at the front of all curriculum document in order to save non-educators from wading through all aspects of the courses. They have a right to ensure the safety of their children from violence, taunts, and teasing from children as well as from teachers who might inadvertently or otherwise believe all students enjoy sarcasm. They need a clear route, starting with the teacher involved, towards guaranteeing the physical and mental security of their children. They have a right to easy online access to teachers, within school hours, to discuss concerns. Like all citizens, they should have a right to discuss the education system and curriculum with their MPP if they hope for changes to be made.

Parents should also have a right and easy access to all documentation about their child beyond report cards. The OSR could easily be an online record, as part of Compass, that parents have free access to. If it's online, then teachers can indicate any concerns with learning or behaviour, or any methods of teaching that were particularly useful, and future teachers can use these notes rather than reinventing the wheel each year with each student. It's also a means to keep records of specific issues between students within a class or with cheating, etc. in order to watch for patterns of behaviour. That way, teachers can better address ongoing concerns as such, and weed them out from one-time issues or new developments, and parents can be kept abreast of these types of issues as they happen. This ongoing record can also eliminate all take-home report cards except for homes without computer access. It can also include an online portfolio of the student's work throughout the years. It's one-stop information for parents and teachers.

Do you have any other feedback or ideas? 

Teachers are being asked to do more each year. As such, training should be improved, not just by stretching out the learning by an additional year, but by improving the learning to the standard of a Masters degree in education instead of a two-year B.Ed. To get in to the program, all applicants should be required to take a CASPer test, which tests empathy, equity, collaboration, etc., to determine their ability to work with people. Teachers must also past an entrance exam to prove they are well educated in the basics of all areas, and actually specialists in their own areas. They should be proficient in math (up to grade 9 - I'm not sure why that's appalling to some people), grammar, spelling, ethics, and reasoning skills. French teaching applicants must have requisite courses in the subjects they're teaching AND be fluent in french reading and writing. One study found that 80% of principals have trouble finding teachers with French and their subject matter. If there are not enough qualified teachers, then we should offer fewer French courses rather than hiring unqualified teachers. If we want to improve education, we can start by making sure each candidate who gets into the program is excellent.

The program should emphasize training with special needs and mental health issues as these continue to rise. It must include mediation skills for help with conflicts, which are a regular part of any job involving working with 100 people each day. It should be rigorous and actually train people how to work with students to bring out the best in each one.

Then, trust the teachers. Give teachers back the right to give a student zero if they don't do any work, and to deduct late marks on late assignments. Allow teachers to assess students' work in the way that works best for their subject matter rather than a set method designed by people who are not currently in a classroom. Allow teachers to use Professional Development days for their own purposes instead of sitting through meetings that are not the best use of their time. Treat them like the professionals that they are.


Christine said...

Thanks for the prompt and inspiration - I have completed the Ontario Education System questionnaire!

Marie Snyder said...

Awesome! We'll see if it does any good!

Dustin Vinland Jarl said...

No, I think the entire system is garbage, and I think it ought to be dismantled. For me, the most beautiful moment was when my sister's grade literally went on strike and they said "Kids have rights! We will fight! Kids have rights! We will fight!" It was the most beautiful moment. It was a real "wildcat strike" that nobody foresaw. I cannot recall what single incident set it off, but it was really because of a culmination of the way that school treated those (us) kids and the tremendous pressure put on those (us) kids from an early age because of the system of neoliberalism that everything is embedded in.

Needlesss to say, the strike ended with my sister's grade being sat down for a very, very long time and given a very, very long speech about how essentially they had no rights that the system was bound to respect.

It is still something that I have never, ever forgotten to this day.

I don't believe in socialism, but the one part of socialism that I do believe in is that when children turn 6, they should be given the option to leave their birth families and to join a socialist-style creche in which they will be treated as totally equal people. Everything will be child-centered. Nothing will be centered around turning these kids into submissive slaves of neoliberalism. Also child abuse by birth families that all too often happens behind closed doors in private family homes will also not happen. I'm not kidding about this. I wrote the same thing on Larry Hamelin's blog and he agreed with me.

Marie Snyder said...

@Dustin - I'm all for preventing child abuse, but I'm wary of the solution of joining a mass nursery. All groups of people, from neo-liberals to commies, have a possibility of carrying out abuse. Put a bunch of children together in a group, and people with the propensity for abusing will find a way to run that group. It's evil and malicious and so difficult to prevent. I'd rather have children with their parents and then have parents be given an enormous amount of training and support and help with their own issues to stop the cycle of abuse. Giving children the right to leave at six will mean some kids, who are unaware that they're in great homes, will leave for a new level of horror. Some kids call the cops when their parents tell them to clean up after themselves. I'm not convinced that giving them more control over that will fix the problem. But it IS a problem that needs fixing, absolutely.

Have a very happy new year, Dustin!