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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Preparing Students for the Future

As we start a new year, we should once again review the purpose of education.  One common purpose is to prepare students for the future.  Let's take a brief look at the current economy.  In Canada we seem to be following a trend of limited manufacturing (How could we possibly compete with the low wages of workers in India, Mexico, and China?), lots of natural resources and a huge growth in small businesses and service industries.  Just look around your neighbourhood and count the number of small spas, yoga studios, photographers, artists, cleaning services, daycares, website designers, graphic artists, electricians, business coaches, experts of many kinds, and many other services that did not even exist ten years ago.    The future is the property of the entrepreneur.

How are we preparing our children?  What are the skills that they will need?  Let's ask an entrepreneur.  I'm sure you know at least one.  First, they must be able to think outside the box.  They must have the organizational skills to put together all the pieces to make a business successful.  Many unsuccessful businesses happen because the passion is not coupled with the details.  Business plans, finances, market research - all necessary.  They must have the self-confidence to believe that they can succeed.  Without that, there is no sense to even begin!  They must be critical thinkers, be able to look at an idea from all sides and see the advantages and potential weaknesses.  They must have learned that failure is as necessary to success as falling down is necessary when learning to walk.  They must have the confidence to deal with failure and move on.  They must be empathetic so they can imagine what their clients will want.  They need to have strong interpersonal skills to deal with customers and employees.  They need to be firm in their convictions and respectful of others.

For your New Year's Resolution - why not give your children the education that they deserve?

Saturday, 19 November 2011

No Room Left for Bullying

Mother Teresa: "I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there".  (Thanks, Janice, for this quote.)

Recently there has been a lot in the news and on line about bullying.  I have remained silent.  There is so much anger and aggression aimed at children.  I am not talking about the bullying victims.  I am talking about the adults responding to these incidents.  Somehow people seem to think that if we call someone a bully, we have turned them into a monster worthy of our anger and hate.  I cannot forget that bullies are children, too.  It wasn't until a friend posted the above quotation that I realized why I have been so hesitant to join in the fray.  I cannot support an anti-bullying policy.  I will whole-heartedly support a policy which eliminates bullying through all inclusion.

Bullying is omnipresent, as many have noted.  It exists at home, in schools, at work.  Bullying is used because it works.  It gives the bully two things every child craves - attention and power.   The goal of any environment should be to give these to all children without them having to resort to other means.  In a school which celebrates differences, there is no one left out - no one to be a potential victim - no one feeling the need to lower others in order to feel valued.  

Before we go any further, let me make one thing clear.  I am completely opposed to anti-discrimination policies which want to emphasize how we are all the same.  That quickly turns us into the automatons of "A Brave New World".  BEING EQUAL DOES NOT MEAN BEING THE SAME!  Sorry for the yelling but I am so tired of hearing people espousing how similar we are.  That completely defeats the point.  We need to glorify in our differences, our uniqueness.  Policies which celebrate other races but neglect to say that "caucasian" is also a race are still separating.  I, too, as a WASP would like to share my cultural dances and foods.  If I don't, them I am once again the "dominant race".   We need to be treated equally.  Sorry for that digression but I need to say it as many times as I can!

Our whole economic society is based on competition.  One of the first questions that a business is asked is "Who is your competition?"  We raise our children to be the best.  That is fine as long as they are compared only to themselves.  Otherwise they are being judged with respect to others.  That is the foundation of "not belonging".  We live in a society which considers, particularly for young people, belonging to be the latest craze or fad.  "Coolness" or "hot", depending on your generation, is determined by tv shows, celebrities, ads, essentially marketing firms trying to have the next big craze.  Shoes, jewelry, haircuts, clothes, games, language, and a million more etcs.  These make you "in".  Without them you are "out" and the "outs" are the breeding ground for both bullies and the bullied.  Why do we let marketers have such a profound effect on our children?  Why can't we teach them to be critical thinkers?  

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Best School for Bored Teens

The Best School for Bored Teens

The greatest waste imaginable is a bored student mind. Here is a child ready to learn, eager (hopefully still) to learn, in a school setting, and bored. Something is very wrong with this picture.

The best school for bored, and perhaps not so bored teens, is one which constantly challenges them. Instead of teaching the curriculum to the middle majority, the school focuses on teaching each child, encouraging them to go one step higher, no matter what the subject or challenge. Instead of teaching geometry from a book, the teacher gives the class a project or problem and lets them work on it at each separate level. Through collaboration, sharing final solutions, and guidance from the teacher you have an immense amount of learning happening and no one is bored. Also no one is lost. For though we all have strengths, we all have weaknesses, too. Even the brightest brain can encounter concepts that just don't compute easily.

The whole key lies in the way that the classroom is envisioned and organized. Many teachers, seeing a class of active, noisy students see only chaos. I see opportunity and growth. I am not speaking about the free schools of the 1960's for our school is founded on a strong commitment to the basic skills that children need to succeed in life. Communication (through literature, writing, art, computers), organization (through math, essay writing, reports), finding themselves and their place in society (through science, history, civics), gaining self-confidence and self-expression (through art and the challenges of each day to explore another facet of their world). Work ethic, morality, justice, and compassion are on-going as students and teachers work out ways to meet the needs of all and to encourage the strength of both the individual and the group.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Food and Math

Anyone who has ever taken a math class from me knows that food will be mentioned.  I always say that this is because, even more than video games, food is central to any teen's life.  Actually it may be that I find food very helpful because it is universal.  So chocolate chip cookies teach basic arithmetic; pizza is a natural for fractions; and, fruit salad was meant for algebra.  I have also noticed that the higher the math skills the less fun the food becomes.  Am I subconsciously trying to get the kids to eat properly?  Not sure about that one.  Maybe I won't spend time here exploring my subconscious.  That could be rather scary!

So then I was thinking about how to use food to explain common denominators for fractions.  What about a camping trip?  Or just your weekly shopping list?  Maybe we'll have spaghetti one night, shepherd's pie another, chicken cacciatore on Wednesday, fish next, and pizza on Friday.  So how does one make the list?  We take the ingredients and check the supplies.  But we combine the fact that Monday and Tuesday's dinners both need ground beef.  We reduce the recipes to the common ingredients.  You have to break down the big numbers until you get the common parts.  Break 1/3 into 2/6 or 4/12 (always smaller units) until you get to a unit that can work with 3/4, or 6/8 or 9/12.  And so we have a common denominator.

But then it struck me!  I am not only finding a common denominator but also showing that you need to put like ingredients together.  Ground beef from two dinners, tomato sauce from three, etc.  So I am adding like terms.  Algebra here we come!  Math is so great because it is so simple!  And yet can be made so beautifully complex!

My other passion is language where complexity is found in the innuendos and subtle flavours of words and their juxtapositions.  Math is so magnificent in its simplicity and clarity.  There are such strict rules and no exceptions.  I find it very amusing that students think speaking and texting are so simple and math is so hard.  The opposite is true.  We all know the messes that can occur with a simple misunderstanding of the words on a message or the tone of a note.  In math there can be no misunderstanding.  What you see is what you get.  There are no interpretations, no miscommunications.  2 + 2 is always 4, regardless of your mood, the weather, how much sleep you got, and whether the source is a friend or foe.  Math is pure and consistent in a world constantly changing.  It can explore the universe and still remain the same.  Anyone can learn it because, unlike our spoken language, it is a universal language.  It is based on some very clearly laid out principles and then everything is derived from that.

So back to food.  Math should not be taught as a series of recipes to be memorized but as a list of ingredients which can be combined in certain ways to produce something so much more.  Just as understanding the properties of flour and water can produce bread, pizza dough, gravy or glue, so understanding the basics of math can lead to algebra, functions, and calculus.  The more you cook, the better you become.  The more you play with math, the easier it is.  So join me sometime in the kitchen and we will learn some algebra.

Long live chocolate chip cookies!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Parent's Guide to Going Back to School

Another school year! Seeing old friends; making new friends; new opportunities, adventures, and challenges. The beginning of September is always an exciting time. Children are eager, nervous, ecstatic, or (outwardly) nonchalantly glad to be one step closer to being finished. Parents are eager, worried, relieved and hopeful.

Here are a few simple suggestions for parents to make the first few weeks of the new school year smoother. It is very important to acknowledge that there are several people all working to give your child an education. Things go best if everyone is going in the same direction. Much more gets done through cooperation. So the first point is to understand the separate areas of responsibility.

Parents should be responsible for having their children ready to learn. This spans all the way from being fed and well rested to supporting the school and teacher. Children, especially young ones, although it is also true for teenagers, pick up their cues from the adults around them. If an adult is disrespectful of a teacher then it will be nearly impossible for the child to learn from that teacher.

You know your child best, that goes without argument. So help the teacher to understand your child. But remember that the teacher has many other students whom she is trying to learn at the same time. Patience is required. The class each year has its own dynamic. It takes a few weeks for a pattern to be established. Be patient and help your child to be patient. Teachers are super people but they don't have super powers!

The child is your responsibility but the classroom is the teacher's. They are responsible not only for your child but also for the safety and education of all the children. They are also trained professionals who are using their education and experience to give the best possible learning environment for all their students. Compromise is a part of any classroom, or indeed any group activity.

If, however, the compromises that you feel you have to make are too big or too crucial, then you have a responsibility to your child to act upon this. You can discuss the situation with the teacher, the principal, or the board. If that does not give satisfaction then you might have to consider other options, such as home schooling or private school.

No system can meet all the needs of all the children. The public system strives to meet most of the needs of most of the children. If you or your child want something different, it is up to you to find it. The worst thing to do is to complain about a teacher or school but do nothing to rectify the situation. You not only waste everyone's time but your attitude will rub off on your child and you will merely fulfil your fear that your child will not be well educated. Education does not rest solely on the shoulders of the teachers. The parents and students are vital participants.

So pack up the new pencils and backpacks. Kiss your child as they leave the nest again. And keep your usual watchful eye open. Change what you can change. Accept what you cannot change. And be wise enough to know the difference. (Serenity Prayer)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Education Reform - Is it Possible?

Recently I completed my Masters of Education and the thing that really surprised me was to find that all the things I had complained about public education while my children and their friends were growing up had been discussed and commented on by education experts over 50 years ago!  If they knew the system didn't work back then, why do we still have the same system now?  Why does serious education reform seem to be impossible?  (I am not talking about the latest "flavour of the month" reforms which come and go all the time.)

There are, to simplify things, two main reasons change does not happen.  First, those who have the power and benefit from the current system are obviously resistant to change.  This might include bureaucrats, union members, tenured teachers, curriculum developers, textbook publishers, etc.  Second, is a basic human fear of change.  It doesn't work; it didn't work when we were in school; but at least it is familiar.  "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't."  Right?  Problem with that is you are always stuck with a devil.  Staying with a bad system leaves no hope for a good one to arise. 

I am not really an anarchist.  I am not advocating completely destroying the public school system and scrounging around for a substitute.  I am saying that if, as a society, we truly want to reform our education system, we are going to have to give up some of the safe secure (but failing) practices that we know. 

A way to start is to ask questions about the current system.  Just take a moment and try to think of your answers and if they are relevant.

1)    Why do we put children born in the same year all together?

2)    Why do we teach the subjects separately as if life is compartmentalized?

3)     Why do we see learning in school as separate from learning in life?

4)     Why do educators seek standard best practices for teaching when each child is different?

5)     Why does the student who blindly follows orders and does what he/she is told succeed the most in school?

6)     Why is imagination, breaking out of boxes, free expression usually frowned upon in class?

7)    What does school have to do with life?

Reform will happen one teacher, one administrator, one parent, one citizen at a time, if we want it to happen.  Otherwise, we will continue to fail our children and our society.   Or we will remove our children from the system and let it die - which would be the worst tragedy of all.  Except the tragedy of sacrificing another child on the altar of the "same old, same old."  Private schools and homeschools are there because the system is not listening.  So yell a little louder!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

School and Happiness

When I first entered the arena of schooling for my children I had some ideas on what they should learn but mostly I was content to sit back and let the teachers do their jobs.  Of course it wasn't all perfect.  The value of some of the things taught was questionable but I still thought that this was the way it was supposed to be.  Disquiet set in as I found myself unteaching the children after school and helping them learn how to tell the valuable from the garbage.  More and more of our home time was spent on things that I had (naively) assumed would be taught during class.   I started volunteering in their classrooms, had a few strategic visits with the principal, and began asking myself the purpose of education. 

That is a tricky question.  There are many purposes from creating productive citizens to teaching life skills, from preparing for higher education to training for a job, from developing academic skills and literacies to realizing potential.  These are all valid and worthwhile.  Many seemed to be, at least, an intent of what was going on in class.  And yet my uneasiness grew.  Why?  Because my children were not happy.  It was that simple.

I know that I cannot create a Utopia for my children.  They have to live in the real world and it is not all sunshine, kindness and happiness.  But we are not talking about being upset because they have to do homework instead of playing, or worried because a friend may be mad at them.  We are talking about deep down unhappiness.  Children crying after school.  Children not wanting to be there.  This is wrong - just completely wrong.

I will not go into the reasons for their unhappiness.  It was at the time irrelevant.  I could not, as a parent, just sit back and let my children be unhappy.  Whatever childhood is, it should not be that.  So I acted.  I found another (private) school.  We tightened our belts ( a whole lot), and we moved the children.  They not only were happy, they were learning, and that love of learning has stayed with all of them even as the adults that they now are. 

Despite being the principal of a private school, I thoroughly support the public system.  I believe that public education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our society and our children.  In fact, I have just completed my Masters in Education researching how to change the public system.  I do not advocate any particular teaching style or goal for education.  What I propose is a system which allows flexibility equal to the variety of children and families who use it.  I propose a system where children can be happy while learning.  We are not talking fun and games.  We are talking about seeing each child as an individual and respecting that when we, as teachers and administrators, guide them through the curriculum.  Children, and adults, feel happiness when they have some say in their lives and they are respected.  Shouldn't be hard to achieve. 

So, is your child happy?

Sharon Holzscherer

Mississippi School for the Arts

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A School of Many Rooms

I would like to propose a new model for schools. Perhaps the best way is to look at what we want for our children and work backwards from there. Debates about which cultures to teach, which voices to hear, which skills to develop, which “best practices” to follow are all based on a model of school as a place to implant knowledge. An educational authority decides what should be taught and how and then that plan is implemented. This has been the system for a long time and, as we all know, it is seriously flawed. The premise that what is good for one is good for all is so fallacious that it is laughable, tragically so. It is the assumption of the residential schools for aboriginals. It is the assumption for the marginalization of huge segments of society including anyone who is not of the desired “mold” or is not “teachable”. It is the assumption for the epidemic of learning disabled youth. It needs to change.

When a child is learning to walk, we do not teach that child the best way to achieve this. We do not give lessons or assign exercises. We demonstrate and support efforts but the child, through trial and error, will achieve the goal regardless of how we behave. (Please do not bring in mention of extreme cases such as physical child abuse. We are discussing the average experiences here.) The same might be said of learning. Learning is natural and happens all the time, despite the environment. Students are always learning if we define learning as acquiring new knowledge in the form of sensory input and figuring out new ways to assimilate and use that knowledge. This has been glaringly proven in the aptitude of children to video games, learned in an environment of ignorant parents and teachers. 

What if school becomes not a place to implant skills and values but rather a place for children to explore, in safety and with guidance, their world? Resources are centralized in a school including texts, computers, information, and teachers. Teachers are trained to recognize aptitudes, strengthen weaknesses, and be experts in their own area of passion. By passing through many different teachers, students see different perspectives and learn to recognize and appreciate many different viewpoints. They do not need to be exposed to all viewpoints in order to be open to them. Just as a child does not need to meet all people in order to understand that there are different personalities. They do not judge first but learn first. Judgement is an adult attribute, probably taught in school and at home. Bias is not inherent but learned.

Recently in the State of Indiana they removed the writing of cursive from their curriculum. The argument was that future generations would never have to write anything by hand. Now is not the place to debate their assessment of the value of cursive writing but I am appalled by their assumption that there is a limit to what children can learn. They seek to simplify the curriculum down to the few essential skills needed to excel at standardized testing and that is the biggest crime imaginable. They are destroying a generation of children for a goal they do not even understand. The only children to succeed will be those who do not attend public school. Unfortunately this has been true for quite some time with many geniuses in science, the arts, and public service coming from “drop-outs” or private schools.

Instead of looking at curriculum as a moving van of things that need to be installed in a child, see curriculum as a building with limitless doors. Some lead to small rooms, some to huge rooms, and many to other doors and stairways leading further and further. Teachers are situated in those rooms to warn about unsafe doors, to help organize the information in that room, to encourage when a student gets lost, and to share their own expertise about the contents of that room. Students come and go at will, wherever their interest and passion takes them. I can hear the traditional educators leaping from their seats in dismay. What about mathematics? What child would ever voluntarily choose to enter a room of mathematics? And my reply would be – very few. But why should there be a room full of mathematics? Mathematics is a tool. It should be in many rooms – all those dealing with trade, marketing, design and architecture, engineering, physics, statistics, size and volume, art, etc. And theoretical mathematics should have a space where those who love the clarity and ideas of the mathematical constructs can play. Literacy will be in all rooms, helping communication between people within the room and anywhere else in the house. Simple literacy for simple ideas, more complex literacies for more complex ideas. Numeracy when dealing with quantities and spaces. Foreign language when seeking to read or understand another person or culture. Visual literacy and multimedia literacy when an idea cannot be adequately expressed in words. All children will be literate to the full extent of their capabilities and none will be sitting in a room they hate. 

What if children do not want to learn? That is like saying children would choose to not walk or run. Children cannot help learning. Children do not hate to learn; they hate school. So how do we know that they are learning? How do we assess them? The voices of the threatened status quo educators cry. You know they are learning the same way you know that they are breathing. They are alive therefore they are learning. What you do no longer control is what they are learning. And where is the danger in that? Might they be learning to build bombs? Possibly but with the guidance of a professional teacher they will understand the uses of bombs and their role in history. Might they be learning how to analyse and criticize their government? We sincerely hope so. That is the very foundation of a strong democracy, as Socrates pointed out so long ago. Will they be learning the teachings of Islam? What a wonderful way to seek solutions to global problems. This will be true globalization. Students will have access through technology to all the great thinkers of the world and they will have learned the skills, through constant modelling of their teachers, to critically assess them and apply that knowledge to their own lives, societies, and cultures. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Outside the Box

What does that really mean?  Outside the box?  We use the expression all the time, normally when complimenting someone for an innovative idea.  We know that creative thinkers are in high demand.  We want our children to think creatively.  That is why we support arts in education.  But what box are they talking about?

It is not just the box of conformity or the box of the "same old same old".  Those boxes are just convenient and easy.  Anyone can be creative any time they want.  They can come up with a better mousetrap or a different way to do something.  The difficulty is in the level of comfort.  Just as our comfort foods are ones which remind us of the security of childhood, our boxes are safe.  If we act as we have always acted then we can predict the results.  We may not like the results but at least we know what they will be.  This is reflected in the aphorism "Better the devil you know than the one you don't."  The problem is that with this attitude you will always be stuck with the devil.  There is no chance to exchange it for a better result.

Einstein said that the surest sign of insanity was to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.  If it didn't work the first time, it won't work the second or third.  So what does this have to do with education?  It is a personal reaction to the oft heard line "I survived public school, so my kids can, too."  That to me is a kind of insanity.  If school did not work for you, why would you ever inflict the same on your children?  Because it is known?! 

The largest impediment for people, beyond financial, putting their children into private school is this concept of stepping out of the box of the public school system.  There are accusations of elitism.  There is censure because you are implying criticism of a public institution.  There are warnings that you are permanently harming your child by not allowing them to experience public school.  That's right.  You are not allowing them to experience bullying, overcrowded classrooms, monotonous curriculum, a huge bureaucracy which will never even know the name of your child beyond a listing on a student record.  Yes, you can find good teachers.  Yes, there will be good experiences.  But if overall your child does not enjoy school, or even more hates it, then it is time to leave the comfortable failing box. 

Nothing is more important than our children.  They will be spending 14 years in some form of organized education.  Maybe it is time that we take a risk, check out the other options, and make sure that our children are happy.  How can we possibly raise self-confident, happy adults if we as parents are too scared to try something different?  They learn by imitation.  If we want a different result, then let's try a different path.  Is there really anything worse than a disillusioned unhappy child?  Especially when we do have options. 

Friday, 24 June 2011

Democracy in Education

There is a lot of talk about bringing democracy into schools.  It is important to understand what is meant by democracy.  Education in Ontario, and in many countries, is a huge bureaucracy run in a very hierarchical manner.  We have all experienced this in the relative positions of teachers, principals, board representatives, and Ministry representatives.  A hierarchy such as this cannot truly be democratic because there is unequal power and the various levels are not chosen by election.  When a board or school talks about a democratic process, they usually refer to the fact that all, or most stakeholders, were asked for an opinion.  But the leader still made the final decision and is responsible for that decision.  He or she is not required to listen to, or follow, any of the opinions given. 

The best definition of democracy that I have come across, and I cannot remember where, is "a system which follows the wishes of the majority while respecting the rights of the individual".  If we consider the "wishes of the majority" we need to consider the majority of whom?  The majority of the population at large?  Of parents?  Of teachers?  Of educational experts?  Of politicians?  Of board or Ministry personnel?  There is no voting process within the education system.  The only say that the populace has is in electing a premier, who appoints the Education Minister, and electing the School Board Trustees, who do what the Minister says.  Let us look at this from the perspective of a school, particularly the many reforms which have come through the Ontario system in the last years.  New math, whole language, social peers, safe schools, zero tolerance, streaming, integration, credit recovery, co-operative programs, MSIP, full day kindergarten, French immersion, mandatory phys.ed.  How did these reforms come about?  Were they the wishes of a majority?  I would hypothesize that they were the wishes of a special interest group which caught the attention of either the politicians or the media or both.  Many of these ideas are good and have a good intent.  Some are successful for the groups which they represent.  And there is the problem.

We are neglecting the part about the rights of the individual.  In fact, almost all of these reforms are protests by groups of individuals who feel wronged.  The special needs children, the French speakers, the parents needing full day care for their kindergarten children, people against skipping students, parents of students who are struggling with pure academics, etc.  Each reform has its own support group and arguments.  And those arguments are valid for a section of the population.  The difficulty comes when these policies are implemented on a large scale.  The problem is the basic underlying assumption that what is good for some must be good for all.  We are still searching for best practices when there is no such thing in education.  What is best for one student, one school, one community, can be complete disaster for another.  Safe schools are a tragedy for bullies and their families.  Instead of receiving help and support they are banished.  Whole language may have eased the road for some readers but has left most of a generation with appalling writing skills and spelling.  Integration of special needs children is wonderful for them and teaches acceptance for their peers but puts a burden on teachers and withdraws support from other students.  French immersion programs often leave the English only side with few resources and struggling students.  The list could go on.

The point is that there are always two sides, or more, to any issue, particularly when you are dealing with chronically limited resources of time, money, and trained personnel.  The solution is to respect the rights of all individuals.  Only use province wide policies on those areas, like curriculum foundations, which should be equal for all.  Other policies should be decided on a community, school, or individual basis.  Just because some people suffered from having skipped a grade should not translate into a blanket policy of keeping all children with their social peers - essentially eliminating skipping and failing.  (By the way, who ever decided that all children born in the same year are social peers?  Obviously they have never spent any time in a classroom!) 

True democracy is not just about voting.  It is about sharing both the power and the responsibility.   The media likes to blame teachers for poor education and yet the system has taken away almost all of their power.   We hire teachers because they are trained professionals.  Let's give them back the power to do their jobs.  The Ministry can set certain curricular standards to ensure that all students receive a similar education regardless of location.  Beyond that, they should leave the decisions to the professionals.  Do you realize that the Minister of Education  is not required to have any teaching experience or training at all?  What a strange system we have. 

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Innovation and Failure

According to the press, at least, the world's economy is in a mess.  Not for me to agree or disagree.  My focus is how do we best prepare our children for whatever is coming?  Canada has never been really big on manufacturing, and I don't see that changing dramatically in the foreseeable future.  We have our natural resources and that is great, although we do need to hold them precious and take care of them.  But what about our other minds?  What can our kids do if they are not able to get, or don't want, jobs in that sector.  Where Canada has great potential is in the area of innovation.  We have bright minds and the freedom and security to use them.  So I think the best thing that we can teach our children to be is innovative.  Another word is creative.

This sounds great.  Only one problem.  Funding is being cut for most of the arts programs.  Focus is all on literacy and numeracy.  (For those of you not in the education field that's reading, writing, and arithmetic.)  I am all for these basics (afterall, I do teach English and mathematics) but even they would benefit from a little creativity.  It is not just the reduction or elimination of art and music programs that is hurting the imagination of our children.  It is some of the basic pedagogical (teaching) methods that are traditionally used.

The worst is the attitude towards failure.  Failure is terrible.  Failure is something that erodes self-confidence.  Failure means that you are no good.  That you are wrong.  That you cannot do something.  I guess nobody told Edison that.  And thank goodness or we would never have light bulbs.  Or told Albert Einstein.  Or George Lucas.  Or Bill Gates.  No scientist, inventor, entrepreneur even got where they are without failure.  Failures are a necessary learning tool.  They are not to be avoided.  In fact, they should be embraced.  They are the perfect learning opportunity.  From failure we find the next step.  Edison did not have 99 failures.  He had 99 steps that finally showed him how to light that bulb.  Without those steps, that didn't work, he never would have reached his goal. 

Read any book on how to succeed in anything and there will be a chapter, at least, on how to benefit from failure.  And yet, this technique, adopted and valued by successful people everywhere, is not in schools.  In schools we abhor failure.  We teach our children that failure is either their fault or that they have a learning disability which becomes their excuse.  We either run them out or we weaken them by saying "It's okay.  You have a challenge which means you cannot do this."  HOGWASH!  (Sorry, I get a bit irritated sometimes.)

Why do I so strongly support Art in schools?  Because that seems to be the one subject which has not been infiltrated by this attitude.  In Art there is no failure except not doing anything.  Experiments are allowed and encouraged.  Attempts are seen as necessary steps to the final work.  Risk taking is encouraged.  Try something and see what happens.  Why can't we do this in math?  We can but we have to change our attitude towards failure.

I have only two criteria when I assess student work.  1) Is there some sign of intelligence?  In other words, did they actually focus on the project and think about it?  2)  Is there some sign of effort?  Did they just brush this off or work at it?  These two characteristics are essential to any kind of progress no matter what the goal.  Did they do the assignment the way I would have done it?  That is irrelevant.  Did they do it the "best" way?  Maybe for them at that time and stage.  Might they fail?  In the effort to get to their goal, very likely.  In the class, no way.  Did they learn?  Absolutely.  They now know what will not work and that is a huge step towards finding what will work.

If we want Canada to be a country of innovators then we had better start encouraging risk taking and productive use of failure right now.  Remove the stigma from failure.  The only real failure is the failure to do anything.   

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Common Assumptions

We often make assumptions about things without even being aware that they may be wrong or misguided.  It is very difficult to get people to change their minds about something that they have assumed for a long time.  There are two assumptions that I am challenging at this time.

The first assumption is about my home town.  Carleton Place was for many generations a farming community.  You can still see much evidence of the farming families' names in the news and on street signs.  However, in the last 10 years Carleton Place has changed dramatically.  Primarily this was caused by the spreading of Ottawa.  Not only are there more people in this country's capitol but more and more of them would like to go home to a country house, or estate.  The twinning of the main arterial highway is both a consequence and a driver of this expansion.  By the end of this year highway 7 will be four lanes from Ottawa to Carleton Place.  House building is booming.  There has been no housing recession here.  Sub-divisions are growing as fast as they can be built.  The population is not only growing but it is of a different breed.  These are highly educated, high tech young families.  There is also a large influx of active young seniors.  They are looking for a different level of service.  Carleton Place is no longer a farming town (although we have a good little farmer's market!).

And yet, when my husband and I go to dinners or parties in Ottawa, people cannot believe that we would drive that far.   How far?  With the new highway and consequently higher speeds, we are in Kanata in under 20 minutes.  It is not that far!   It is all a matter of perception.  The citizens of Ottawa perceive Carleton Place to be a small farm town on the outskirts of their area.  They should come and take a look!

Which leads to my second assumption.  You see, Mississippi School for the Arts is opening in Carleton Place, partly to meet the needs of new and existing families and partly because I personally feel that there should be educational options for those who do not live in large cities.  But people assume that a private school is for the elite, a member of which they usually do not consider themselves.   In reality, the posh private schools of the Hollywood films are mostly in the United States and only constitute about 10% of private schools in Canada.  Most private schools in Canada are small schools based on a religion or a philosophy of education.  They are run in church basements, in old houses, in an old (beautiful) mill (ours) and in regular neighbourhoods.  Regular children from regular families attend.  Yes, there is a cost.  Private schools do not receive any kind of government support so parents and the community must pick up the cost of providing high quality education, small class sizes, and good teachers.

Before you dismiss private schooling from your realm of possibility, do some research.  There are lots of options.  Different kinds of schools, different funding solutions.  Get your extended family involved.  Get your employer involved.  Get your community group involved.  Private schooling is definitely an investment which  gives a lifetime of return.  Especially if your child is not succeeding or getting all that is possible at a local public school.  By the way, if they are soaring at the local public school, that's fantastic!  But if they are not, check out your options.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

How Does Education Happen?

This is a continuation of the previous installment.  There we discussed the principles of education.  Now we will examine how education happens.  First of all, education happens naturally.  All creatures learn in order to survive.  But if we want to just stick to human beings and we want to consider education beyond merely eating and moving, we must deal with more advanced education.  Education happens any time there is something new introduced to a person's world.  Immediately the person, or student, for we are all students, tries to understand and categorize the new phenomenon.  In order to do that, he or she examines it.  We could say, they "learn" it. 

If you transfer this to a classroom, students are constantly introduced to new things - ideas, histories, methods of communication, and representations.  If the students are permitted to explore the new concept, to understand it in a way which is meaningful to themselves, then they will have learned it.  That is the basis of education.  This requires a flexible system since the understanding of the teacher may be quite different from the understanding of the student.  They have different frameworks.  Teachers should guide and be there to correct misinterpretations - when something is assumed that is not true or might be distorted.  They are a repository of knowledge to answer questions about the new concept.  This is how education happens.  

Is this how schools function?  I will leave that up to the reader to judge. 

Friday, 20 May 2011

Education and schooling

You must understand that in my reality education and schooling are two completely different things.  One can get an education without going to school and one can go to school but never get an education.  An education can be about the entire person or it can be in a specific discipline or field.  You can get an education in the art of tapestry or you can get an "education" in the classical education sense.  An education implies the learning of new ideas or skills - a growth of the individual in whatever direction.  Schooling is the process of attending a structured process which is meant to transfer information or knowledge.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  An education can be found in schools.  However, they are not mutually dependent.  It is possible to make it all the way through school, even get a diploma or degree, and receive little in the way of education.

The purpose of this blog is to explore the principles of education.  If we have time and energy, we might also investigate the ways in which schools can actually deliver an education, but for now, that is for another day.

Defining the "principles of education" is a lofty task to undertake.  Fortunately this is my own blog so I can define terms any way I like.  However, if I wish to convince others of the correctness of my perspective I must adhere to some sort of structure and rules.  So we will start with definitions that we, perhaps, can all agree on.  "Principles" in this blog will mean essential ideas and concepts that underlie the terms that we are discussing.  The principles of education are those basic assumptions or underpinnings upon which we rest the idea of education. 

Always best to start at the very foundation.  Education is about growth.  Whether we view the mind as a "tabula rasa" of Lockian philosophy or an unformed glob of potential, education is about letting that mind grow.  Children are natural learning creatures.  They can't help it.  They are always learning.  I often hear adults wonder at the speed at which children pick things up, whether it be a foreign language or a new technology.  If you consider where they started at birth and how far they have come by age 5 or 6, is it really that amazing that they learn things so quickly?  They need to.  They are preprogrammed to learn quickly in order to survive. 

When do they stop learning?  The answer is - never.  But they can slow down.  Just as children run everywhere and adults most often walk.  Over time if the muscles are not used they stiffen and become harder to use.  So a brain that is not exercised becomes more rigid.  Some people never stop learning.  They are the lucky ones, or more accurately, the well educated ones.  They have never lost the thrill of learning.  So education is about growth, the growing and stretching of the mind.  It can happen anywhere, in school or not.

Next chapter:  How does education happen?