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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.