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It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is with bittersweet emotions that I write my last School for Thought blog. We began our blog on May 29, 2009 and have been going almost continuously since then - that's more than seven years if you're counting. So I think we have had a very good run.
I want to thank all of our faithful readers over the years, especially those who sent in reader tips. I couldn't have done it without you.
But nothing lasts forever, and now SQE is rebranding. Its new website will be launched tomorrow - be sure to visit it at www.sqecanada.org.
And please keep on pressing for education reform. It's important.
The groups that represent senior executives at Ontario school boards are shocked and appalled because the government thinks that the public sector wage freeze applies to them too. In fact, some boards were apparently so sure that they are special that they went ahead and gave them wage increases despite the freeze. Now the government is expecting these top officials to pay the money back! more
As you can imagine, the only reason these pay increases were granted by the school boards is because of the difficulty of recruiting qualified people to the positions.
As we've mentioned before on this blog, Alberta students used to do extremely well on international comparisons of student achievement, scoring near the top. But over the last ten years or so, Alberta's rankings have been tumbling, suggesting that all is not well in the Alberta education system (which has been emphasizing constructivist learning more and more).
So, surprise, the Alberta Teachers' Association is calling for Alberta's withdrawal from all of the international tests - on the grounds that other countries are gaming the system and that Alberta, by remaining inclusive, looks bad but is actually better. Furthermore, the tests may do "irreparable harm to students and schools". more
So to paraphrase, the Alberta Teachers' Association is saying - we want to harm Alberta students and schools by introducing more constructivist learning but we don't want people to know that it's causing irreparable harm to students so we are calling for Alberta's withdrawal from the the tests that provide evidence of this damage. H/T TB
Click here for an interesting blog about the diversity of Ontario's private school sector. Clearly, the province's private schools have an important part to play in the eyes of many Ontario parents, given that they are being chosen over the free alternative public schools. It's like someone turning up his nose at a free company car - a quite remarkable phenomenon! And it's not as if most private school parents have money to burn - only about 4% of Ontario private schools qualify as "élite".
For me, though, the most interesting thing about the analysis is the number of religious schools in Ontario - almost half of the schools! Clearly, many Ontario parents want a religious education for their children.
Ontario's discriminatory policy (twice condemned by the UN) of funding schools for Catholics but not families of other religions is obviously unfair, but more than that it flies in the face of the government's lip service to multiculturalism. How can the government say it respects and values the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of its diverse families and then refuse to provide them with the kind of schools they so desperately want?
All other major Canadian provinces provide funding for private religious schools, with very positive results. If Ontario were to begin to partially subsidize its private schools, the province would a) move into the 21st century; b) save money; c) end its unfair discrimination against non-Catholics; d) please its ethnic voters; and e) improve its students' academic results. There are not too many policies with so many desirable outcomes.
In April, the Ontario government announced that it would spend $60 on measures designed to improve math outcomes. My own analysis, and that of many others, concluded that this money will be just about totally wasted, as it is to be spent on just more of the same (more).
Now, the English government has announced that it will spend £41 - very roughly the same amount as the Ontario government - on a measure designed to improve the country's math scores. The English initiative is far more promising than its Ontario counterpart, as it involves the expansion of a method that is already being successfully used in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai - jurisdictions that score at the top of international math rankings. more
Sadly, this very promising initiative is unlikely to be welcome in Ontario any time soon, as it involves a mastery approach that allows the whole class to progress together at the same rate. Another unpopular-in-Ontario aspect is that although the Asian mastery approach does not emphasize rote learning and drilling, it does require the students to have automatic recall of basic number facts and other fundamentals. And lastly, there is crucial difference between England and Ontario in that the English initiative will be available to interested schools but not imposed on any schools - while Ontario schools will have no choice but to do the Ministry of Education's bidding. H/T TH & TB
For the past 50 years or so, the field of education has been dominated by the belief that direct, explicit instruction is harmful, and as a result ever since the 1960's education leaders have favoured teaching techniques that use minimal guidance. Unfortunately for these educators, empirical research kept providing solid evidence that their minimal guidance techniques weren't working as well as direct instruction. Before long, whatever term the educators were using at the time for their pet approach got changed to a different name but kept on going. Thus, discovery learning gave way to experiential learning, which in turn gave way to problem-based learning, which gave way to inquiry learning, which gave way to the currently-used term "constructivist learning". And every time, the newly-fired up passionate advocates of the latest recycled approach appear to be unaware of its long history of failure!
Back then, it was understandable that educators should endorse minimal guidance techniques when they were first proposed because at that time "the structures and relations that constitute human cognitive architecture had not yet been mapped. We are now in a quite different environment because we know much more about the structures, functions, and characteristics of working and long-term memory; the relations between them and their consequences for learning and problem solving. This new understanding has been the basis for systematic research and development of instructional theories that reflect our current understanding of cognitive architecture. This work should be central to the design of effective, guided instruction."
Unfortunately, constructivist educators continue to believe that too much guidance will impair later performance, because the students' ability to retrieve correct responses from memory on their own will be impaired and because learners best remember new information if they construct their own solutions as opposed to being told how. The advances in cognitive science - in particular the new understanding of the critical importance of long-term memory in human cognition - show this type of thinking to be nonsense. Here's why.
"Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory....The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned."
Working memory, on the other hand, is very limited and very transitory. But when working memory can access previously-learned information stored in long-term memory, its limitations disappear. "Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information is unlikely to be effective. Recommendations advocating minimal guidance during instruction proceed as though working memory does not exist or, if it does exist, that it has no relevant limitations when dealing with novel information, the very information of interest to constructivist teaching procedures. We know that problem solving, which is central to one instructional procedure advocating minimal guidance, called inquiry-based instruction, places a huge burden on working memory....
"Furthermore, that working memory load does not contribute to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory because while working memory is based used to search for problem solutions, it is not available and cannot be used to learn. Indeed, it is possible to search for extended periods of time with quite minimal alterations to long-term memory....
"After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective, there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge."
So see, now I know what day of the week it is. Unlike yesterday. Oh well.
Anyway, today I am writing about a simple and inexpensive way to make teachers more effective. The thing is - we are making teachers' jobs too hard. They are expected to present four or five good lessons a day - and at the same time deal with dozens of other associated issues, including bad behaviour, homework, administrative issues, and much more. Sure, maybe some superstars can pull it off, at least the ones without families and those who need very little sleep, but the vast majority of ordinary mortals can't and shouldn't be expected to do the impossible day in and day out. It's like asking a pilot with very little training to fly a very demanding and advanced supersonic jet solo from Timbuktu to Antarctica.
Click here for an article about how the provision of online lessons and support resulted in an increase of .08 standard deviations in math achievement - a similarly-sized effect to that of reducing class size by 15%.
To me, this looks like an education reform everyone can get behind. Taxpayers - check. Teachers - check. Parents - check. Union leaders - check. Education administrators - check. So let's do it.
There's an interesting story out of San Francisco where a shortage of certified teachers has prompted several principals to hire Teach for America teachers, despite the school board''s opposition. Churlishly, the board will not be paying the TFA $2,500 per teacher fee. more
It's worth reading the story to see the back and forth, but to me the bottom line is that these principals are accountable for their school's results, yet are being frowned upon by their superiors for hiring the best teachers they can.. Imagine if a store manager was prevented from hiring the employees who best matched his store's needs! The bottom line is that school principals should be able to build strong teams by hiring teachers who share their vision and have the particular skills needed to strengthen the team.
Once again, we find education decision-makers focusing on inputs, as opposed to outputs. Principals should be judged by their results, most especially academic performance and parental satisfaction, not by whether they use approved textbooks and sing kumbaya. H/T TB