Friday, September 26, 2014

Pak Tee Ng (Singapore): Teach Less, Learn More

Here are 5 points that stand out for me:

1. Focusing on PISA scores, or scores on any other test, is not the same as focusing on student learning in the classroom. Too often, a focus on standardized testing can actually have a harmful affect on teaching and learning.

2. Education is an investment -- not an expenditure. Cutting education is like a farmer who sells his top soil.

3. Teachers don't need surveillance -- they need support. You don't improve the education system by firing individual bad teachers -- you improve the education system by creating good teachers and then trust them to do their job.

4. Teach Less -- Learn More. Pasi Sahlberg writes about Finland and Gary Stager writes about the Maker Movement. Pak Tee Ng reminds us that, "more of the same teaching is not the way to inspire better learning." Efforts to "teacher-proof" education via standardization is not the solution, it's the problem. 

5. You say you want this, so why are you doing that? Unfortunately, myths are often more satisfying to us than the truth - in education we are satisfyingly distracted by a great many myths. If we are to improve school, we have to allow it to change. And if we want to make the right change, we need to be evidence and research based.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Teaching would be easier if it wasn't for the students

Here's what happened the other day.

My grade 8 students were exiting our classroom from social studies, as my grade 6 students began to enter.

I was getting myself focused on teaching a lesson on sentence writing, with an emphasis on using commas. I was thinking about how I could teach my students to write with a variety of sentence lengths so that their writing might flow for the reader.

I was trying to figure out how I was going to teach them how to use independent and dependent clauses to make short, medium and long sentences without boring them to death by talking about independent and dependent clauses.

I was proud that I had completely abstained from using the school's photocopier until the third week of school for a one-page handout on sentence writing.

But before half the class could even arrive, Kevin and Thomas were engaged in yet another one of their daily disagreements. Despite the obvious that they want to be friends, and that they need each other to get through the day, Kevin and Thomas's lagging social skills continue to set each other at odds.

Kevin was pissed right off and wouldn't even come in the classroom. He was going home.

Thomas came in but he was both denying and avoiding Kevin's accusations over a missing Rubik's Cube.

I immediately caught myself being completely annoyed by this spat.

I don't have time for this!

I had a lesson on sentences to teach! I didn't have time to worry about some stupid Rubik's Cube that may or may not have been stolen!

Sometimes it's tempting to think about how much easier teaching would be if it wasn't for the students -- Sometimes it's challenging to remember that there is no teaching without the students.

I had to remind myself that for every problem that occurs in school, there are actually two problems -- a teacher's problem and a student's problem and rarely are they ever the same.

I had to remind myself that I am the adult and that if I wanted Kevin to care about my problem -- teaching and learning sentences -- then I had to first show Kevin that I cared about his problem -- the missing Rubik's Cube.

I had to remind myself that I teach children first and curriculum second. Yes, sentences are critically important for teachers to teach and children to learn, but teaching children how to problem solve first may be our only chance of getting to academics like sentences.

So I walked into the hallway and asked Kevin, "What's up?"

He told me about his missing Rubik's Cube, and that he was certain Thomas had it in his locker.

I looked Kevin in the eye and said, "Kevin, I promise you that I will help you solve this problem and find your Rubik's Cube."

He looked at me and said, "Right now?"

I said, "No. Not right now. Right now I need to teach you about sentences and you need to learn about sentences -- but at the end of class, I promise that we will make time to find your Rubik's Cube. Can we do that?"

I could tell that Kevin really wanted to find it now, but he looked at me and reluctantly said OK.

Kevin and Thomas sat down and learned about sentences while I taught. With a few minutes left in class, I talked with Thomas about the Rubik's Cube. It didn't take long to discover that it was in his locker.

Kevin had his Rubik's Cube back.

The next day, I sat with the two boys in the hallway and debriefed this situation. Rather than punish Thomas for doing wrong, I worked with him and Kevin through a conversation about why he shouldn't steal. Thomas came to the conclusion that he shouldn't steal from Kevin, because he wanted to be Kevin's friend.

Now they are writing stories and learning to write sentences.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why higher education should be free

This was written by Zander Sherman who is the author of The Curiosity of School.

By Zander Sherman

Classes have barely begun, but the most important lesson of the year may already be here: Higher education should be free. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t, and plenty of reasons why it should.

Here are a few:

1. We should be giving students knowledge, not burdening them with debt

University-aged kids are on the threshold of adulthood and all of the responsibilities that come with it. They need all the help they can get—and that doesn’t include being saddled with debt. Canadian students are $30 billion in arrears. Many will be middle-aged before they repay their loans. Others never will.

Let's get something straight. Jobs exist to make us money. To put yourself in debt in order to get one is not only backward, but crippling. How are graduates supposed to make a life, build a home, have a family? With the anxiety of having to pay back their loan, how they are even supposed to concentrate on work?

2. Knowledge is a basic human right

Like clean air and drinking water, knowledge is essential to life. We can’t get through life without it. We pine for knowledge the way we pine for love and happiness, because it’s hardwired into us, and its absence creates a biological hunger.

To deny that knowledge is a basic human right is to brand it a luxury. And if learning is a luxury, an education is available only to those who can afford it. If only those who can afford an education become educated, most people will be ignorant.

3. Higher ed. should be free because it can be

The biggest myth of higher education is that we need to pay for it. We don’t, and here’s why: Higher education is free in other parts of the world. It’s free in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Before you say that those countries pay for higher education with higher taxes, think again.

Higher education is also free in countries that have no welfare state, like Ecuador, Egypt, and Estonia. If it can be free there, it can be free here too.

4. The good would outweigh the bad

Those who say we can’t afford to have free post-secondary education argue that the cost to society (through taxation) would outweigh the benefit of having more educated labor. Not true at all. Opening university doors to anyone regardless of whether they can afford it or not would double, triple, quadruple enrollment. A better educated populace means a more dynamic economy, and a more dynamic economy means a larger benefit to society.

5. It would end the rich-poor divide

Wealth is what stands between students and the future. Not intelligence, not work ethic, not study hours or memorization skills. Wealth. Rich kids are born rich, go to rich schools, and end up with the kind of credentials that get them well-paying jobs. Poor kids are stuck in the opposite track. They’re born poor, go to poor schools, and either drop out before university or go on to study at an affordable post-secondary school … where they begin collecting debt.

Free higher education would give poor students access to those same prized credentials that lead to rich jobs, and so close the wealth gap.

6. It would also kill credentialism, for-profit universities, and private schools

A degree from Harvard or the Cambridge is worth more than a degree from, let’s say, Canada Christian College. Highbrow schools always justify astronomical tuition by saying they have a tradition of excellence. In fact, the so-called “ancient universities” began very modestly. Harvard was once a puritan stronghold. Cambridge was built in a swamp.

What the most prestigious universities have is a tradition of money. The richest universities in the world see more money in a year than some of the poorest countries in Africa. When you get a degree from these schools, you become entitled to that wealth.

Making higher education free would kill credentialism. It would also kill for-profit universities (why give your money to a diploma mill when you could go to a real school and get one for free?) and take a bite out of private schools (why send your child to an expensive prep school when the advantage falls away as soon as they get to university?).

So there you have it, six reasons why higher education should be free.

Let those who would disagree defend the status quo: a system that impoverishes students before they’re qualified to make enough money to pay off their debt; a system that encourages the rich-poor divide and the culture of credentialism; and a system that treats knowledge as a commodity, not an essential human right.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The future of principals in Canada

This was written by David Berliner who is Regents' Professor Emeritus at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University. His interests are in the study of teaching and general educational policy. He is the author, with Bruce J. Biddle, of The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. This post was originally published as the Forward for a national research study The Future of the Principalship in Canada.

by David Berliner

I am old enough to have learned that those predicting the future for American education are frequently wrong. As I grew up the Russians were going to beat us in everything; as I matured the Japanese were going to do the same; later I learned we were not competitive in industry. But then Apple and Microsoft came along. The futility of prediction beyond, say, the next three years became clear. But, on the other hand, strategic action calls for examination of current and future trends.

There is value in trying to understand the contemporary life of principals and to extrapolate the implications for the professional and personal life of the holders of that position, now and in the future. In order to understand the work of school leaders—as it is now and as it will be in the future— the voices of those undertaking that role must be heard by stakeholders and policymakers. With this in mind, the ensuing report focuses on principals’ perspectives from across Canada and offers remarkable insight into what needs to be done to improve this job at the personal level and to redesign the job to support efficacy.

The social contexts in which Canadian principals, as well as their colleagues globally, operate are always different and always fluctuating. Particularly in education, general findings stop being general because contexts vary significantly. For instance, schools in a First Nations community, suburban Calgary or inner city Toronto have different needs and demand different types of work from principals. Safety may be a primary concern and a powerful stressor for one principal; for another principal, stress on the job is rooted in the behavior of local parents; for other principals, scores on externally- mandated tests are what stress the principal and demand more time. Further, all educational work must take context into consideration because certain educational ideas, practices or leaders may not be right for a particular setting. Instability of context—and the need to adapt to an unstable context— is perhaps the only thing that can be generalized.

All leaders of industry and government need to monitor and understand shifts in context as they try to control their organizations’ and their nations’ future. Stasis is rare in educational systems and, thus, the question of “what needs to be done now” requires frequent re-examination. As highlighted in this report, this is part of the complexity inherent in school leadership: the principal has a critical role to play as the “change spotter” and leader of accommodations to change in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This is work that is both very hard and very important, and upon which communities and nations depend.

The effects of shifting contexts and trends require understanding by those who choose to become principals and, even more so, by those who judge their performance.

This study on the Canadian principalship highlights the burden that too many directives from above place on school leaders. This corresponds to data from the USA, where, for example, school leaders in the state of Massachusetts, in the years 2009-2013, received 5,382 multiple-page documents—around three documents a day—from the state and the federal government. These documents required action by local school districts and frequently demanded the time and attention of school principals. That reality makes Kafka’s worst descriptions of bureaucracy seem benign!

As long as the bureaucracies in which principals work inundate them with memos and mandates, neither American nor Canadian school leaders will be able to meet the needs of their students, parents and communities. Principals in both countries have to contend with almost endless needs to which attention must be paid; among the most galling of these are the ‘top-down’ mandates, which often imply that principals and teachers are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, or that they are super men and women who can do whatever is asked of them, regardless of their other responsibilities.

From the perspective of an outsider and researcher who has worked across the globe, the Canadian provincial and national systems seem to be shifting toward an organizational culture where there is diminished trust and much greater external accountability. The way around this issue was put well in this report: “At the risk of sounding simplistic, more trust and less accountability is required to make schools more engaging for our students and staff.” In fact, Finland has a system much like this, and it works.

What this report makes clear is that the principalship is a paradox. While it is a nearly impossible job, it is done remarkably well by most practitioners—even though they are usually understaffed and under- resourced—given the demands that are made on them.

If wisely acted upon, the findings in this document can be used to support and sustain a better principalship across Canada. If that is done, the profession will likely attract and keep the kind of leaders who can effectively shape the schools and communities serving this increasingly diverse and complex nation. But we need to remember that the challenges faced by our principals cannot all be addressed without also attending to the social context and the issues that exist within it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

5 ways to better support Principals

A national study on The Future of the Principalship in Canada takes a thoughtful look at what is happening to principals across Canada.

The study identifies five ways forward for principals to overcome the challenges they face and move toward their ultimate goals for their schools and students.

Way Forward 1: Teach and Learn for Diversity

“Diversity” encompasses an enormous array of cultural backgrounds, needs, interests and opportunity structures for Canadian students. Schools work to recognize and meet the needs of all kinds of diversity, and three key “ways forward” emerged from the comments of school leaders:
  • Support new Canadian families, particularly in English language learning 
  • Strategically engage and teach First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) students and develop better partnerships with families 
  • Strategically address growing mental health issues in children and young adults 

Way Forward 2: Collaborate and Build Professional Capacities in School Staff

Although some principals in this study discussed the importance of collaboration in their schools, many more appeared to carry the leadership burden alone. Participants noted the following strategies related to collaboration:
• Implement mentorship programs
• Foster leadership development to encourage school principals to draw on the strengths and talents of their teaching staff, moving toward distributive leadership models 

Way Forward 3: Build Family and Community Relationships

School principals and teachers need new ways to connect with parents and communities. There are both short-term and long-term “ways forward” to foster family and community relationships:
  • In the short term, support professional development that will help school leaders with negotiations, dispute resolutions, and boundary-setting 
  • In the long run, work to build community-level partnerships 
  • Advocate for integrated service models that house an array of family services in the school to benefit students and families directly, as well as to strengthen relationships in the community 

Way Forward 4: Use Technology for Creative Learning and Good Citizenship

School principals and teachers see both opportunities and social costs in the growth of information and communications technologies. In society and mass media, technology is largely taken up in an uncritical manner. This inspires the following “ways forward”:
  • Recognize and assume a significant leadership role in teaching children and young people to use technology responsibly and thoughtfully 
  • Continue professional development for school leaders and staff regarding technology in the classroom 
  • Balance technical skills with sensitivity to the pedagogical and social consequences of technology for students’ learning, social development, and well-being 

Way Forward 5: Promote Continuous Leadership Learning

Participants mentioned the need for more reflection and more collaboration with colleagues and clearly desired opportunities to work with their teachers to improve practices. Despite this, a specific vision for leadership development was not evident in these findings. Nonetheless, researchers drew the following “ways forward” from the participants’ responses:
  • Continue articulating leadership frameworks and competencies for school principals 
  • Advocate for conditions that will not crowd out leadership learning with managerial competencies
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