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Ontario students falling through the cracks

May 25, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 09:05 AM

There's an article in today's Globe and Mail about an estimated 2,000 Ontario kids who have been permanently pulled from their public schools because of the new sex ed curriculum. 

Every time I look at the Ministry of Education's list of Ontario private schools, there are more of them. In 1980 there were less than 100; now there are almost 1,200 private schools in Ontario. And of course the number of homeschoolers just keeps exploding (more).

It would be pretty remarkable if someone turned up his nose at a free company car. In effect, that is what all these parents are doing. Amazing!

Without a path forward, parents won’t vote with their feet.

May 24, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 06:49 AM

This article sheds light on a longstanding education mystery, namely why so many parents give high marks to their kids' schools even though they think most other schools are less than stellar. 

It turns out that if someone sits down with parents who have expressed satisfaction with their children's school and ask them if they'd like to learn about other options, those parents almost always express interest in finding out what's out there. Ten minutes later, they're eager to transfer their kids to a different school.

It seems that a lot of parents figure schools are more or less all the same and so they might as well make the best of the school they're stuck with. Why expend a lot of time and effort to make a change that might not be an improvement?

This suggests that more parents would participate in school choice programs where they exist if it's made easier for them to navigate the choices.

A Win-Win Solution: The empirical evidence on school choice

May 23, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 07:00 AM

The fourth edition of A Win-Win Solution: The empirical evidence on school choice has just been released. 

"This report surveys the empirical research on private school choice programs. It provides a thorough overview of what the research has found on five key topics:

• Academic outcomes of choice participants
• Academic outcomes of public schools
• Fiscal impact on taxpayers and public schools
• Racial segregation in schools
• Civic values and practices

"The evidence points clearly in one direction. Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy. A few outlier cases that do not fit this pattern may get a disproportionate amount of attention, but the research consensus in favor of school choice as a general policy is clear and consistent.

"The results are not difficult to explain. School choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities. And it strengthens democracy by accommodating diversity, de-politicizing the curriculum, and allowing schools the freedom to sustain the strong institutional cultures that are necessary to cultivate democratic virtues, such as honesty, diligence, achievement, responsibility, service to others, civic participation, and respect for the rights of others.

"The size of the benefit provided by existing school choice programs is sometimes large, but is usually more modest. This is not surprising because the programs themselves are modest—curtailed by strict limits on the students they can serve, the resources they provide, and the freedom to innovate. Only a universal educational choice program, accessible to all students, is likely to deliver the kind of dramatic improvement American schools need in all five of these important areas."

Sunday at the Movies (Deliberate Practice)

May 22, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:09 AM

In this clip, Jimmy Cliff shows that he figured out about the need for 10,000 hours of deliberate practice all by himself.

Time to Ditch the Helicopters

May 21, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:40 AM


It's almost time for students here in Ontario to write their EQAO tests, and the on-going debate over standardized testing is heating up.

In recent years people have made testing sound like the boogeyman who is coming to take away children's happiness, a teacher's dignity, or the system's pride. People are afraid that if their child doesn't do well on standardized testing that it will hinder their learning abilities and ruin their future. Teachers may be afraid that if students aren't successful, it means it's their fault and they were not effective at teaching.  The education system may fear that results will negatively impact how the public perceives them and their methods of educating our children.

Everyone  needs to relax. No one is testing your child with nefarious intentions of ruining their future , and no one is going to start burning teachers at the stake. The system, well, it should be afraid. It holds a large responsibility, and if it’s not being met, it should be held accountable.

I don't mind having my children tested in school. Why? I personally want to know if my children doing well. That's why they are there isn't it, to learn?  A Peterborough parent long ago asked: What is Johnny supposed to know? By when is he supposed to know it, and how do I know that he knows it?  Without testing, how do we know whether kids are achieving, whether they need help, or whether they may have a learning disability that requires further investigation? The negativity surrounding tests is becoming a fad, and perhaps a dangerous one.

For the EQAO, I'm not that bothered. I've read the Fraser Institute's reports and I've seen what they do with it. The picture certainly isn't as clear, straight forward, and pretty as we would like, but we do have a less than impressive curriculum, so test scores will naturally mirror that . If anything, we need to stop our anxious thoughts and worries about tests. Tests are needed to measure achievement. Of course we can say " Kids can be examined during the school year based on how well they do on tasks and assignments, testing is not necessary". Sure, we can say that, but sometimes students also need to be put in a situation like testing to make sure that even under pressure they are able to perform at a certain level .

Let's look at a few things and see how your bias changes. Would you feel safe if we handed out drivers' licenses to people without testing them? Would you have open-heart surgery by a doctor who didn't attend medical school or failed his medical exam? Or would you let a tradesperson without a gas ticket or who failed his C of Q do work in your home? I'm going to assume you said no to at least half of these things.  

People are put under stress when they drive, when they operate, even when they are doing jobs that might not seem stressful to others. Being able to perform under stress is a remarkable skill to have, and it is one we should encourage our children to develop. Our students will one day become our doctors and tradespeople, they will become the people who work and run our economy. They will have to pass tests in order to get to where they want to be and do the things they want to do . If we start discouraging testing because of our own fears and bad experiences, we are going to take away opportunities from them, and that is not fair. We cannot push our own insecurities onto our children because, at the end of the day when they become adults, they will live with those burdens, not us.

We have become a generation of helicopter parents who shelter our children to the point that we are  taking away their ability to learn through natural curiosity, their ability to make judgment calls on their own, and their ability to learn self control and responsibility.  Children, like any other conscious species on this planet, are designed to learn through experience. If we don't let them experience testing and being put under pressure, it will only hinder them later and cause much more anxiety and unneeded stress as adults.

If you have questions about your child's testing being done, please ask your child's teacher or school. Don't just jump on the bandwagon without informing yourself. We live in a rapidly-changing world, but there are a few things that will always be certain, and pressure and anxiety are one of them. We are humans, we have emotions and thoughts. Talking to your children about their thoughts and feelings is one way to make testing less stressful for both them and you. 

It is up to us as parents to give our children as many opportunities as possible and to make sure we are preparing them for the future the best we can. Encourage success in your children,  and teach them to accept failure and learn from it how to do better.

The Dark Side of Believing in Innate Talent

May 20, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 09:08 AM

This is the last in my mini-series of excerpts from Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. After explaining that people vary in how quickly they pick something up, such that some people get good at things sooner than others, but that our natural assumption that the tendency will persist is incorrect (a fast start is just the beginning of the story - in fact, it's the end of the story that tells the tale), the author continues as follows.

"When people assume that talent plays a major, even determining, role in how accomplished a person can become, that assumption points one toward certain decisions and actions. If you assume that people who are not innately gifted are never going to be good at something, then the children who don't excel at something right away are encouraged to try something else. The clumsy ones are pushed away from sports, the ones who can't carry a tune right away are told they should try something other than music, and the ones who don't immediately get comfortable with numbers are told they are no good at math. And, no surprise, the predictions come true: the girl who was told to forget about sports never becomes any good at hitting a tennis ball or kicking a soccer ball; the boy who was told he was tone-deaf never learns to play a musical instrument or to sing well; and the children who were told they were no good at math grow up believing it. The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling.

"On the flip side, of course, the children who get more attention and praise from their teachers and coaches and more support and encouragement from their parents do end up developing their abilities to a much greater degree than the ones who were told never to try -- thus convincing everyone that their initial appraisals were correct. Again, self-fulfilling.

"Malcolm Gladwell told a story in his book Outliers - a story that others had told before him, but it was Gladwell's telling that got the most attention - of how there are many more Canadian professional hockey players born in the months of January through March than born in October through December. Is there something magical about being born in these months that grants extra talent for hockey to babies lucky enough to be born then? No. What happens is that there is a cutoff for playing youth hockey in Canada - you must be a certain age by December 31 of the previous year - and the children born in the first three months of the year are the oldest players in each class of players. When children start playing hockey at around age four or five, the advantage that older kids can have over younger ones is striking. Kids with an age advantage of close to a year will generally be taller, heavier, and somewhat more coordinated and mentally mature, and they may have had one more hockey season to develop ther hockey skills, so they are likely to be better at hockey than the younger players in their age group.. But those age-related physical differences get smaller and smaller as the hockey players get older, and they have pretty much disappeared by the time the players reach adulthood. So the age-related advantage must have its roots in childhood, when the physical differences still exist.

"The obvious explanation for the age effect is that it starts with the coaches, who are searching for the most talented players, beginning at the very earliest ages. Coaches can't really tell how old the various child hockey players are: all they can see is who is doing better and thus, by inference, who appears to be more talented. Many coaches will tend to treat the more 'talented' players with more praise and better instruction and to give these players more opportunities to play in games. And these players will be viewed as more talented not just by the coach but also by the other players. Furthermore, these players might be more willing to practice more because they are told that they have the promise of playing at very high levels, even professionally. The results of all this are striking - and not just in hockey. For example, one study found that among thirteen-year-old soccer players, more than 90 percent of the ones who were nominated as the best had been born in the first six months of the year....

"Suppose for a moment that...children with a higher spatial intelligence can learn to do basic math more quickly than others. Recent research has shown that children who have had experience playing linear board games with counting steps before they start school will do better in math once they are in school. And there are likely many other ways that certain preschool experiences iwll held children perform better in math later on. Most teachers, however, are not familiar with this possibility, so when some kids 'get' math more quickly than others, they're generally assumed to be gifted at math while the others aren't. Then the 'gifted' ones get more encouragement, more training, and so on, and sure enough, after a year or so they're much better at math than the others, and this advantage propagates through the school years. Since there are a number of careers, like engineering or physics, that require math courses in college, the students who have been judged to have no talent for math find these careers closed to them. But if math works the same way as chess, then we have lost a whole collection of children who might eventually have become quite accomplished in these areas if only they hadn't been labeled as 'no good at math' in the very beginning.

"This is the dark side of believing in innate talent. It can beget a tendency to assume that some people have a talent for something and others don't, and that you can tell the difference early on. If you believe that, you encourage and support the 'talented' ones and discourage the rest, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy. It is human nature to want to put effort - time, money, teaching, encouragement, support - where it will do the most good and also to try to protect kids from disappointment. There is usually nothing nefarious going on here, but the results can be incredibly damaging. The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us - and work to find ways to develop it."

The Road to Extraordinary

May 19, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 07:08 AM

Further to both my Sunday at the Movies post about original thinking and my book review of Peak yesterday, here is an excerpt from Peak about the trajectory of expert performers who become pathfinders.

"Beethoven, van Gogh, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods - these are the people whose contributions leave their fields forever changed, the pathfinders who lead the way into new territory so that others can follow. This is the fourth stage of expert performance, where some peope move beyond the existing knowledge in their field and make unique creative contributions. It is the least well understood of the four stages and the most intriguing.

"One thing we do know about these innovators is that they, almost without exception, have worked to become expert performers in their fields before they started breaking new ground. It makes sense that this should be so:  After all, how are you going to come up with a valuable new theory in science or a useful new technique on the violin if you are not intimately familiar with - and able to reproduce - the accomplishments of those who preceded you?

"This is true even in those fields where it might not be so obvious that new inventions are always built upon older ones. Take Pablo Picasso. Someone who only knows his later, more famous paintins could reasonably conclude that they must have sprung directly from a mind untouched by earlier artistic traditions, because they looked to unlike anything from those traditions. in reality, Picasso began painting in an almost classical style - a style at which he was very accomplished. Over time he explored various other artistic styles, then combined them and modified them to develop his own style. But he had worked long and hard to develop himself as a painter and excel at the technique his predecessors had mastered.

"But where does such creativity ultimately come from? Is it not a whole other level beyond deliberate practice - which is, after all, based on practicing things in ways that other people have figured out in order to develop skills of the sort that others have already developed?

"I don't believe so. Having studied many examples of creative genius, it's clear to me that much of what expert performers do to move the boundary of their fields and create new things is very similar to what they were doing to reach that boundary in the first place.

"Consider this: Those experts who are at the very boundary of their professions - the best mathematicians, the top-ranked grandmasters in the world, the golfers who win major tournaments, the international touring violinists - didn't achieve their heights just by imitating their teachers. For one thing, most of them at this stage have already surpassed their teachers. The most important lesson they gleaned from their teachers is the ability to improve on their own. As part of their training, their teachers helped them develop mental representations that they could use to monitor their own performances, figure out what needs improving, and come up with ways to realize that improvement. These mental representations, which they are constantly sharpening and augmenting, are what guides them toward greatness.

"You can picture the process as building a ladder step by step. You climb as high as you can and build one more step at the top of the ladder, climb up one more step, build another step, and so on. Once you get to the edge of your field, you may not know exactly where you're headed, but you know the general direction, and you have spent a good deal of your life building this ladder, so you have a good sense of what it takes to add on onne ore step.

"Researchers who study how the creative geniuses in any field - science, art, music, sports, and so on - come up with their innovations have found that it is always a long, slow, iterative process. Sometimes these pathbreakers know what they want to do but don't know how to do it - lilke a painter tryig to create a particular effect in the eye of the viewer - so they explore various approaches to find one that works. And sometimes they don't know exactly where they're going, but they recognize a problem that needs a solution or a situation that needs improving - like mathematicians trying to prove an intractable theorem - and again they try different things, guided by what has worked in the past. There are no big leaps, only developments that look like big leaps to people from the outside because they haven't seen all of the little steps that comprise them. Even the famous 'aha' moments could not exist without a great deal of work to build an edifice that needs just one more piece to make it complete.

"Furthermore, research on the most successful creative people in various fields, particularly science, finds that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time - exactly the ingredients of deliberate practice that produced their expert abilities in the first place. For example, a study of Nobel Prize winners found that they had generally published scientific papers earlier than most of their peers and that they published significantly more papers throughout their careers than others in their disipline. In other words, they worked harder than everyone else.

"Creativity will always retain a certain mystery because, by definition, it generates things that have not yet been seen or experienced. But we do know that the sort of focus and effort that give rise to expertise also characterize the work of those pioneers who move beyond where anyone has been before."

You too can be a genius

May 18, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:54 AM

The author of Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise is Anders Ericsson, a researcher who has spent 30 years studying outstanding performers. His conclusion? "Over time, I've come to understand that, yes, these people do have an extraordinary gift, which lies at the heart of their capabilities. But it is not the gift that people usually assume it to be, and it is even more powerful than we imagine. Most importantly, it is a gift that every one of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take advantage of."

"I get it. People want to believe that there is magic in life, that not everything has to abide by the staid, boring rules of the real world. And what could be more magical than being born with some incredible ability that doesn't require hard work or disipline to develop? There is an entire comic-book industry built on that premise - that sometimes something magical happens, and you suddenly acquire incredible powers. Unbeknownst to you, you were actually born on the plant Krypton and you can fly. Or you were bitten by a radioactive spider and you can cling to walls. Or you were exposed to cosmic radiation and now you can become invisible. But my decades of research in the area of expertise have convinced me that there is no magic."

"One of my favorite testimonies on this topic came from Ray Allen, a ten-time All-Star in the National Basketball Association and the greatest three-point shooter in the history of that league. Some years back, ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullan wrote an article about Allen as he was approaching his record for most three-point shots made. In talking with Allen for that story, MacMullan mentioned that another basketball commentator had said that Allen was born with a shooting touch - in other words, an innate gift for three pointers. Allen did not agree. 'I've argued this with a lot of people in my life,' he told MacMullan. When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, 'Don't undermine the work I've put in every day'. Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me.'"

Peak makes for very interesting reading, and I plan to give you more excerpts over the next little while. In the meantime, if any of my readers is convinced there is such a thing as prodigies or geniuses, it would be great if he or she would give me the name or names of some examples, and perhaps I can come up with a back story that will suggest that their achievement is the result of deliberate practice, not an innate gift, just like other high achievers.

Testing the Tests

May 17, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 06:47 AM

Ontario's largest teachers' union is asking its members to withdraw their own children from the province's standardized testing. more

In a way I can sympathize with the union, since the provincial tests are expensive, time-consuming, and yield paltry amounts of suspect information long after the fact. Having said this, however, I don't believe the tests' flaws are the reason behind the union's opposition. 

It seems to me that the union doesn't want any testing, good or bad, in any way, shape, or form, as part of its we-support-all-our-members-no-matter-what policies. Secondarily, the union is salivating over the $31 million the province spends on testing every year. And possibly thirdly, this move may suit the union's power play as it suits up for the next round of contract negotiations - you know, rattling its sabres and puffing up its tail feathers and flexing its muscles and all that stuff to remind the government how scary they are.

Lord Black of Crossharbour and the Duke of Kent

May 16, 2016 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 06:50 AM

A few days ago Conrad Black reviewed Darcy McKeough's new autobiography in The Globe and Mail. It's always enjoyable to read anything by Mr. Black because of his love affair with words, and this is no exception. But I thought you might be particularly interested in this excerpt re the Ontario public education system.  H/T BD

The McKeough I have known and admired these nearly 40 years, (and who complains of teachers’ unions near the end of his book) cannot have been pleased when Davis, as minister of education, turned our public schools into disorderly daycare centres with the Hall-Dennis report, the nostrums of OISE, and finally the devolution of the right to strike and to create chaos to the teachers’ unions. Had McKeough come back as premier, he might have been able to prevent the state education system of Ontario from putrefying as it has.

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