Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Alberta Superintendents support Inspiring Education and Curriculum Redesign

This was written by Dr. Larry Jacobs who is the President of the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS). This first appeared as a press release from CASS in support of Alberta's Inspiring Education and curriculum redesign.

by Dr. Larry Jacobs

My name is Larry Jacobs and I am proud to serve as the President of the College of Alberta Superintendents (CASS) for 2013/14. CASS represents the system education leaders (Superintendents, Directors) for public, separate, Francophone and charter school jurisdictions in Alberta.

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on a topic in education that is being discussed in our province; curriculum redesign and specifically the Alberta math curriculum. We are fortunate in Alberta to have an education system which ranks among the top in the world. It is common for officials from around the world to visit Alberta to learn about our K-12 system. With that in mind, CASS understands that to rest on our laurels of what we have achieved in the past will not serve our students of today and the future.

One specific example that demonstrates the need to consider change has to do with the Alberta math curriculum which is generating much conversation in recent weeks. It is important to understand that many of the jurisdictions which scored above Alberta in the 2012 international math assessments implemented changes to their math curriculum ten or more years ago; the same changes that Alberta more recently has implemented within the current curriculum. 

It is also important to understand that the changes taking place in education in Alberta are a direct result of the unprecedented public input during the Inspiring Education in-person and on-line consultations with parents, students, educators and community members in 2008 and 2009. Of tremendous significance is that 63% of participants in the consultations indicated that Alberta’s education system required informed transformation while an additional 28% felt that the education system in our province required a complete overhaul. Less than one per-cent of the participants felt Alberta’s education system required no change moving forward. 

While we must consider change in order to maintain our status as one of the top education systems in the world, I want to acknowledge that the successes we have realized in education in our province are the result of the commitment by generations of students striving to excel and who are supported by their parents, their dedicated teachers and principals, and by every other person in the school jurisdictions and community that contributes to the growth and development of each child. In January of this year CASS hosted a delegation of educators from across the United States and they continuously commented on the collaborative nature of all partners in education in Alberta. 

I doubt many would disagree that many aspects of our world, including how people learn, have changed and will continue to change dramatically in the years ahead. To address these changes it is essential that Albert’s curriculum, often cited as a cornerstone of our strong education system, must undergo continuous review and revision in order to serve students of today and tomorrow. CASS supports the curriculum redesign process being undertaken by Alberta Education. Curriculum development has always been a collaboration involving Alberta Education, school jurisdictions and Alberta’s outstanding teachers and has been based on informed, researched practice. 

Curriculum redesign will enable school jurisdictions and teachers to be involved at the outset of what will be a more timely review and development cycle to ensure future curriculum is engaging, relevant and inspiring for students, who should be and must be the centre of what happens in our schools. Most importantly, curriculum redesign will ensure equity of opportunity for every single child in Alberta, a key pillar of the Inspiring Education framework that is guiding change in education in our province. 

One component of Alberta’s curriculum, math, has been the subject of much commentary recently following the release of the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a world-wide assessment of 15 year old students conducted every three years. While the 2012 PISA math results do show that there has been a slight decline in achievement by Alberta students (approximately 2.5% over twelve years), I offer the following for consideration: 

a. Alberta has a higher percentage of students complete the PISA assessment than most if not all jurisdictions; 

b. Alberta ensures that students of all academic levels complete the PISA assessment; more so than many other jurisdictions; 

c. the 2012 results show Alberta students performed well above average in math as compared to other jurisdictions; 

d. PISA categorizes six level of math skills, and 96% of Alberta students reached or surpassed the first level which measures basic math skills; 

e. only 4.5% of Alberta’s students achieved level six of the PISA category, which measures advanced mathematical thinking; 

f. the current Alberta math curriculum does not ‘abandon’ the basic skills of math but does also address how students can better apply basic concepts to complex situations; 

g. as mentioned previously, many of the jurisdictions which scored above Alberta in the 2012 PISA math assessment implemented changes to their math curriculum ten or more years ago; the same changes that Alberta has implemented within the current curriculum; 

h. the students who wrote the 2012 PISA assessment studied math under the previous curriculum; 

i. some of the jurisdictions whose students scored above Alberta in math see students receive tutoring in math for two hours per week and also see students doing math homework for 14 hours per week. We must ask ourselves, do we want this for our children? 

To conclude, I repeat that CASS is supportive of the curriculum redesign that is taking place in Alberta. To borrow the words of Ken Chapman who recently spoke at a CASS event, all education partners in Alberta are working together so that parents can be assured their children, who are our students, can not only be the best IN the world, but be prepared to be the best FOR the world. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

David Staples, the Wildrose and their war on teachers and learning

Here is Bruce McAllister and David Staples
 talking with Alberta teachers.
David Staples is a columnist who has an interest in education.

Bruce McAllister is a Wildrose MLA and education critic in the Alberta Legislature.

Together, they are waging war on teachers and learning by demanding that teachers teach in a way that mandates children play a passive role in school. Together, they argue there simply is not enough memorization and tests in school.

Standardized Testing

When the Wildrose and David Staples cite a real world need for annual standardized testing, I ask some questions:
1. As a columnist, can you share the standardized multiple choice test that the Edmonton Journal makes you do to keep you accountable and transparent? As a politician, would you be willing to take Alberta's Diplomas exams and have your results published for all to see?
2. As a columnist, can you share the standardized rubric that the Edmonton Journal uses to score and judge your columns? As a politician can you share the scoring guide that citizens use to score and judge your work?
4. As a columnist or a politician, can you show me the column you wrote or the bill you voted on where you are not allowed access to the Internet, fact-check or talk to anyone? 
5. As a columnist or a politician, if there were no standardized test scores, what would you know about education?
We need to stop thinking we can meet all
children's needs by pretending all children
have the same needs.
It is hypocritical for adults to demand students and teachers be held accountable in ways that they would not hold themselves to.
Standardized testing is what constitutes an amazingly contrived and unrealistic form of assessment that is used by people outside the classroom to judge and control what happens inside the classroom without ever visiting the schools.

Teachers are not afraid of accountability -- but they do oppose being held accountable for things out of their control. Teachers also know that there is nothing transparent about having children fill in bubble-tests.

The best feedback parents can receive about their children's learning is to see their children learning. The best teachers don't need tests because they make learning visible via projects and performances collected in portfolios.

This is a shift from test and punish accountability to more authentic public assurance. The Alberta Teachers' Association also outlines a vision for A Great School for All, and the Alberta Assessment Consortium offers A New Look at Public Assurance.

And here's my story about how I teach and my students learn without grades.

"Old" and "New" Math

Staples continued his war on learning with a column that featured Ken Porteous who is a retired chemical engineering professor from the University of Alberta. Porteous writes: 
The discovery approach has no place in arithmetic at the junior elementary level. There is nothing to discover.
If there was ever a need for a single statement that one could show people such that their response would predict whether they knew anything about how children learn -- this is it. 

To carry this mindset out to its (il)logical conclusion, I guess there is nothing left to discover in this world...

Teachers and other early childhood development experts who understand how children learn define their careers by children's Aha! moments. These are the moments when metaphorical lightbulbs illuminate on top of children's heads. Anyone with a clue about how children learn knows that these Aha! moments rarely, if ever, happen because kids were simply told to have them. Aha! moments are not passively absorbed or memorized -- they are actively constructed by the student with the artful guidance of a teacher.

The best teachers have teeth marks on their tongues because they know that when kids are simply told the most efficient way of getting the answer, they get in the habit of looking to adults instead of thinking things through for themselves. They understand that learning happens when the child is ready to learn, not necessarily when someone is ready to teach -- teachers call these teachable moments.

I am a huge supporter of teacher professional development where teachers learn how to be better teachers, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that a back to basics approach that romanticizes the past will make things better for our children.

Let's not pretend that traditional math instruction didn't confuse and turn a lot of students off of math. When adults think back on their schooling, it's easy to succumb to something called Nostesia which is a hallucinogenic mixture of 50% nostalgia and 50% amnesia which distorts rational thinking.

Wishing tomorrow to be just like yesterday won't make today a better place. We aren't going to get more children to love math by pretending that school already doesn't have enough lectures, direct instruction, worksheets, textbooks, tests and memorization.

Staples and the Wildrose would like Albertans to believe that they are waging war against the government and education consultants but the truth is they are also attacking teachers who work hard to engage students in a way that has them play a more active role in constructing their own understanding with the artful guidance of their teacher.

While some teachers and parents may agree with Staples and the Wildrose, it's important to note that many teachers in Alberta feel that they are doing more harm than good. When Staples and the Wildrose mislead the public by telling teachers how they have to teach, they make it harder for great teachers to do their job.

Here's my take on the math wars, and Alfie Kohn's article answers the question: What works better than traditional math instruction?

Columnists are not Journalists and (most) Politicians are not teachers

Staples is a columnist -- which is not the same as a journalist, and I fear that too many people don't understand the difference.

He is not required to check his biases or opinions at the door -- in fact, as a columnist,  he has a better chance of selling newspapers and collecting page-views online with his biases and opinions fully intact. Staples is biased because that is his job.

Research isn't sexy and it doesn't sell unless it's accompanied by sensationalism, and when it comes to sensationalism, Staples sells the Wildrose. Making claims that teachers are no longer teaching children basic arithmetic may make for a snappy headline and a wedge issue to gain cheap political points for the next election but it couldn't be further from the truth.

As a side note, when I tried to share my math post with Bruce McAllister on his Facebook page, he deleted it and blocked me. You'd think that the opposition party would have a keen sense of appreciation for opposition, but I guess not.

"I wish a columnist and politician with no teaching experience would just
 come in and tell me how to teach," said no teacher ever.
And yet Staples isn't always wrong -- he knows just enough about education to get in trouble. His columns are filled with half-truths that are supported by cherry picked research, revisionist history and preconceived notions. He props up math PhDs, engineers, testing consultants, bureaucrats and others who have expertise in areas other than teaching young children math.

Canadians love their Olympians, but nobody confuses a hockey players' expertise for a rhythmic gymnastics coach. Similarly, a PhD in mathematics or engineering is not a PhD in early childhood development, psychology or math education.

Mathematicians are not (necessarily) Math Teachers

The best math teachers understand math and how children learn math -- these are two different skills. It is irresponsible to simply assume that someone who is good at math knows anything about how to teach it.
Just because you know how to skate or shoot a puck doesn't mean you have a clue how to properly teach young children how to skate or shoot. If you want to coach organized hockey in Canada, you are required to be educated through a certification process. One expectation is for coaches to learn the content of hockey, and another expectation is to learn how to teach children to skate and shoot.

The teaching part is so important that even if you played hockey at a high level, you would still be required to take the certification program. Knowing how to play hockey or how to do math is necessary but not sufficient for coaching or teaching -- this is why we have coaching and teaching certification programs.

Getting advice on how to teach or play hockey from someone who has never taught or played hockey is kind of like getting advice from a virgin on how to get laid. Opinion needs to be based on experience and expertise -- Staples and the Wildrose have neither.

I'm not saying that there isn't a place for columnists and politicians -- what I'm saying is that columnists and politicians need to be kept in their place, because when David Staples and the Wildrose confuse having an interest in education with being experts, they mislead people.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Alberta Party supports gay-straight alliances

This was written by Greg Clark who is the leader of the Alberta Party. This post first appeared here.

by Greg Clark

The headlines ricochet around the world.

“Alberta MLAs vote against gay-straight alliance bill for schools”

“Gay-straight alliance bill for schools voted down in Alberta”

“Alberta Conservatives join Wildrose to defeat bill in 31-19 vote allowing gay-straight alliances in high schools”

These headlines, and the close-minded thinking that spawned them, are hurtful to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) teens in Alberta. They also perpetuate the outdated and flat-out wrong stereotype of Alberta as an intolerant place where only those who conform to some archaic notion of morality are considered acceptable.

The Alberta I know and love is a place not simply of tolerance, but a place of respect. Respect for all people irrespective of where they come from, the colour of their skin or who they love.

This reflects my Alberta, and I believe reflects the views of the vast majority of Albertans. It is also the right thing to do.

But there are still pockets of intolerance in the province and that’s why Motion 503 is so important. There should never be a barrier when students, in any school, of any faith, anywhere in the province, want to create a group proven to reduce bullying and promote inclusion. Gay-straight alliances are a powerful tool that provide a supportive environment for LGBTQ youth and their straight allies.

By rejecting Motion 503 the PC and Wildrose MLAs who voted against it (and the 36 MLAs –over 40% of the Legislature– who gave their tacit approval by choosing to be absent for the vote) sent a damaging message to LGBTQ teens, but also to the rest of the world about Alberta. An Alberta that desperately needs to attract people from around the world to drive our growing economy.

Defeating Motion 503 not only hurts LGBTQ teens. It might just hurt Alberta’s prosperity.

On the record, once and for all, the Alberta Party strongly supports GSA’s. It is completely consistent with our core values of inclusiveness, caring for one another and ensuring the safety of our most vulnerable, among which LGBTQ teens must be included. We believe that GSAs in school will actually save lives.

We have to ask, is there any reason that we would not want our children to feel safer in schools?

The Alberta Party represents an Alberta that is welcoming to all. It's the politicians that need to catch up.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sir Ken Robinson: How to Change Education

Sir Ken Robinson wants education to get back to basics -- but his definition for "basics" may not be what you think. Take 24 minutes to ponder.

Here's my favourite quote from this video:

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