One of the most fundamental beliefs held by Canadian parents is that their children will have the opportunity for a good education. For the most part, that belief is reasonably well founded.
When compared to 16 peer countries around the world, Canadian education is still considered to be very good. According to the Conference Board of Canada our schools regularly earn an “A” in education and skills training. The Conference Board proudly states that Canada’s strength is delivering “a high-quality education…to people between the ages of 5 and 19.”
It isn’t surprising then, that most parents trust that they need only to deposit their child at the doors of their local schoolhouse and their job is done. Their children will fi le into class fi ve days a week and their little heads will be stuffed with all the knowledge they’ll need to face an ever-changing world.
Oh sure, parents know that they’ll have to attend the occasional meet-the-teacher night and sit appreciatively through school concerts. They may even have to participate on a Parents Advisory Committee and do some fundraising for the cash-strapped school board of Everytown, Canada. But overall, parents can relax, assured that their children are in the hands of well-trained and dedicated professionals: folks who will employ the latest in educational practices and deliver a solid, consistent and well-considered curriculum.
What could go wrong?
The answer, apparently, is quite a bit – at least according to education critics. Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high school teacher and research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, maintains that parents need to play a more active role in auditing their child’s school and not be shy about intervening when things appear to be hitting the skids. “Parents need to know what’s going on behind school walls and not be afraid of questioning the system,” he says. “It can be a lot of work, but it may be the most important thing you ever do as a parent.”
Here are five education trends – some people might call them fads – with which you might want to have a passing understanding in case they make an appearance at a school near you.
1. Whole Language
Definition: Whole language doesn’t use phonics or sounding out words to “crack the code” when learning to read, but rather, treats reading as a “complete meaning-making system.” Also known by terms like “balanced literacy,” “guided reading,” or “shared reading.”
Whole language is the absence of interpreting words using a sound by sound application of phonics. In fact, phonics are only used as a last resort and then only on an individual student basis. The goal of whole language is to read a specifi ed text, and not to learn the skills that can be applied to all texts.
The conflict between approaches has been dubbed “the reading war.” On one side of the battle are educators who, according to educational research scholar Reid Lyon, PhD, are “latching on to their beliefs, their assumptions, their egos and their careers rather than looking very clearly at what works.” On the other side are the traditionalists, people like Dr. Louisa Moats who maintains that teaching phonics is necessary to give children “command of the tools that (will) allow them to progress academically.”
Although some researchers say that the whole language philosophy has been widely debunked as an effective teaching method since its emergence some 30 years ago (Australia banned the method in 2005), it has made a resurgence in North American schools.
Critics say that some teachers, particularly new ones, may not even realize that they are using a system that has proven ineffective.
“Some teachers have never been taught how to teach phonics,” said one elementary school teacher who asked not to be named. “Educational colleges and universities continue to promote a system that doesn’t work.”
2. The New Math
Definition: This “discovery” or “inquiry-based” approach to math discards the traditional rote learning of multiplication and division tables in favour of strategies like estimating and complicated methods of solving problems in a bid to deepen the student’s understanding of how the calculations work.
According to John Hattie and Greg Yates, there was a point a few years ago when teachers “were encouraged to believe that rote learning stood in antagonism to deeper understanding.” In their 2014 book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, the authors speak out against the philosophy that gave rise to the Discovery/Inquiry Method of math education. In that method children are not required to memorize math facts but are “encouraged to fi nd their own methods for solving mathematical problems.” This worries John. “Students who don’t know their basic math facts will invariably struggle when they progress to higher levels of math,” he says.
A case in point is Hanz Alignay. The Grade 12 student from Manitoba doesn’t think much of the math education he received in the primary grades. In a 2013 CBC interview he said “I don’t know how to do simple things. I need a calculator for tests and I don’t think that’s good.”
Apparently the Manitoba Education Minister, Nancy Allen agreed. In 2013, in response to declining math scores and complaints from parents, the Manitoba government ordered a return to basics wherein students (particularly in the lower grades) are now required to memorize multiplication and division tables and return to traditional learning methods.
Yet that same epiphany has not reached other areas of Canada. An Alberta initiative called “Inspiring Education” still espouses the concept that “students should develop their own problem-solving strategies.”
“It’s a waste of time and energy,” says Manitoba teacher Michael Zwaagstra. “Using various individual strategies, wooden blocks, and diagrams and who knows what else to solve the area of a 5×6 enclosure is a waste of mental energy. The answer is 30. They should have memorized that in elementary school.”
(Incidentally, if you solved that problem without a calculator or resorting to wooden blocks, you probably weren’t exposed to the Discovery/Inquiry Method when you went to school.)
There are scores of legitimate concerns regarding the integration of information and communication technology into the classroom. Equal access for less advantaged students, bandwidth availability, privacy, classroom management, theft, bullying and a plethora of other issues are clouding the thinking about the issue.
One thing is certain: technology is deeply embedded in our society. In 2012, Neilsen reported that more than 58 percent of children over 13 own smartphones, an increase of 60 percent from the previous year.
According to some experts, incorporating technology is the key to a complete 21st century education. But it must go hand-in-hand with critical thinking, says Dave Thomson, principal at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, B.C.
“Students have to be able to critically evaluate the information that comes from the information highway,” says Dave. “It’s like trying to drink from a fire hose, and a lot of what’s out there isn’t the best information.”
Other educators are more critical. In 2013, Peter Reidman of the University of Sydney reported research indicating that the use of technology resulted in only moderate academic benefit.
Regardless, the use of tablets, smartphones and other emerging technologies is sure to be controversial. Some schools will allow the pendulum to swing too far in one direction.
“That’s where parents come in,” says Michael Zwaagstra. “They need to be sure that changes are based on solid reasoning, and not just the embracing of the latest fad.”
3. Open Area Schools
Definition: Also known as “open concept schools,” interior walls are eliminated to create a less stifling environment and develop a “community of learners”.
If you were involved with education in the late ’70s, it’s a fair bet that you’ll recall the open-area schools and their eventual demise. The concept seemed simple enough – build schools with as few walls as possible and teachers and students from the full range of grades would collaborate. The hum of the learning community would permeate the school as everyone worked together in collaborative bliss.
It was an unmitigated disaster. Teachers and students alike found the environment to be distracting, noisy and detrimental to learning. By the ’80s most of the open area schools had been retrofi tted with walls and that particular education debacle seemed to be dead and buried.
Unfortunately, this approach has returned under the moniker of “open-concept schools.” Fielding Nair International, an architecture fi rm that specializes in this approach to school design, describes the concept as “innovative” and “progressive” and creating a “community of learners.” The fi rm has been responsible for the construction of more than 400 such schools worldwide.
The designs seek to re-invent schools in a way that will promote critical thinking, collaboration and fl exibility, and the concept has been sold to several Canadian school boards. Vancouver recently built Lord Kitchener School based on the open-area philosophy and in Regina, decision makers seem to be beating the tambourine for the “new philosophy.” Other school divisions are also considering the concept as they move to construct new schools.
While there is no empirical research supporting the claims that open-concept schools will improve education, there is considerable experience pointing to exactly the opposite. The open-area schools of the past were not retrofitted without cause.
4. Student-Centered Education
Definition: Also referred to as the “flipped classroom” this system advocates that students acquire knowledge from a variety of sources. Teachers become a guide to learning and, rather than providing direct class instruction, act as a tutor and facilitator on a one-on-one or small group basis.
The time has come where teachers should stop being the “sage from the stage” and become “the guide from the side.” That’s the mantra of this current fad – a belief that traditional classroom instruction needs to be replaced by personalized learning experiences.
In a method that has also been referred to as the “fl ipped classroom,” many teachers are now encouraged to divide their classrooms into small groups. Instead of offering a single explanation to the whole class the teachers travel from group to group, repeating the same lesson multiple times to each group.
Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.
Jeanne Chall was a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than 30 years. In her 2000 book The Academic Achievement Challenge; What Really Works in the Classroom, Jeanne examined the research evidence and compared student-centred education with the traditional teacher-centred approach. Her conclusions read as follows: “Traditional, teacher centred schools, according to research and practice, are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children.”
Catherine Scott, a widely published Australian education researcher is still more critical. She believes individualized instruction and any other activities based upon learning styles theory “represent a waste of precious teaching and learning time”.
Yet, despite the lack of evidence supporting the concept, individual, student-centered learning continues to be widely promoted by Provincial education departments, faculties of education and public school boards across Canada.
5. Progressive Report Cards
Definition: Percentage scores and the traditional letter or number grades are replaced with words from a prescribed list.
Imagine the reaction of parents in Calgary whose little ones arrived home with their report cards entirely devoid of percentage grades or even the traditional A,B,C,D, and F letter grading system. Instead, these parents (and many others across the country) saw terms like “exemplary”, “evident”, “emerging”, or “support required”.
To make matters even more confusing, there are no teacher comments on the report card.
It’s all part of “progressive assessment theory”, a belief that comparative grading is counterproductive and limits communication with parents.
“I’m still searching for the benefit to the children,” says Peter Cowley, the Director of School Performance at the Fraser Institute. “A lot of things happening in education are happening for political reasons, with little demonstrable benefi t to students.”
In fairness, the traditional percentages and letter grades have been the source of controversy for decades. In his 2009 book, Visible Learning, educator John Hattie states, “While traditional letter and percentage grades are far from perfect, they are a long-standing and important form of feedback to students and their parents. The traditional grades should not be abandoned without very good reasons and, so far, the reasons are not evident.”
But the battle over assessment philosophy can also venture into what grades are allowable, even when traditional percentage grades are reported. Take the case of Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval, who was fi red after refusing his principal’s direction to forgo a mark of “0” for work that was not turned in by students. The principal was an adherent to “outcomes based assessment,” a theory in which grades should only reflect “achievement of learning outcomes.” In other words, students would only be marked on work that they decided to complete.
After receiving national attention, the policy was reversed and the principal opted to move to a different position. Similar policies, however, continue in other schools.
There have, though, been some positive developments in report cards. In Surrey, B.C., a pilot project has replaced letter grades with face to face meetings with parents and emailing work samples home. The intent is to provide parents with “fuller and more on-going information” about their children’s performance.
Tim Collins is a Victoria, B.C.-based journalist who brings his perspective as a grandfather to two six-year-olds to all his writing.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, September 2015.