By macleans.ca - Friday, December 14, 2012 - 0 Comments
Good: allowing laptops on planes for take-off. Bad: getting fired for giving a student a zero
The Harper government has slashed nearly 11,000 public sector jobs this year, and thousands more are on the chopping block. So what’s the good news for federal civil servants? The ones still standing are free to decorate their cubicles with tinsel, wreaths and menorahs. Repeating a directive issued last holiday season—after a senior bureaucrat in Quebec banished all Christmas trees from front-line Service Canada offices across the province—Treasury Board president Tony Clement said employees are free to break out the ornaments. The government “will not allow the Christmas spirit to be grinched,” he said.
The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has urged the Federal Aviation Administration to finally let passengers use electronic devices during takeoff and landing. There is no evidence that tablets or laptops cause aircraft interference (some airlines have even replaced flight manuals in the cockpit with iPad versions) and thankfully, the FAA is now reviewing its policies. Because the last thing we need is 15 minutes of off-line existence.
By Cynthia Reynolds - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 7:30 AM - 0 Comments
Protesting oil pipelines, celebrating polygamy: is the new ‘social justice’ agenda in class pushing politics at the expense of learning?
To those who don’t keep up with education trends, certain recent events might appear to be unrelated. In May, a Grade 3 class in Toronto took to the streets with signs and an oversized papier mâché oil pipeline to protest the laying of an actual pipeline in western Canada. Last year, in Toronto, first-graders brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. In Ste-Marie-de-Kent, N.B., in 2009, Grade 4 students were given 10 minutes to decide which three people from this group should be saved from an imminent planetary explosion: a black African, a Chinese person, an Aboriginal, an Acadian francophone and an anglophone.
These are just a handful of examples of the more peculiar by-products of a vision gaining ground among many education architects: an elementary school education rooted in social-justice principles. Increasingly, faculties of education in Canada and much of the Western world are preparing their student teachers to weave social justice throughout the primary school curriculum—in math and science, language arts and social studies, drama and even gym—as well as into a range of cross-curricular activities, events and projects. The idea is to encourage kids to become critical analysts of contemporary issues, empathetic defenders of human rights and gatekeepers of the beleaguered Earth.
But social justice—which encompasses diversity, sustainability, global affairs and issues of race and class—is a broad term with varying interpretations. It can manifest in wildly different ways. In the hands of one teacher, social justice might entail teaching kids to care for the Earth by having them plant trees in the schoolyard. Another might have the same children write letters to the government about the environmental effects of mining, urging it to reform how mining claims are processed—part of an actual Grade 4 lesson plan created at the University of Ottawa.
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 12:27 PM - 0 Comments
New cutting-edge research says personality traits and social skills play a crucial role
In the last 25 years or so, the politically potent American education reform movement, a heterogeneous lot united by little else than a belief that the nation’s schools are in crisis, has moved from cause to cause, from standardized testing to charter schools, like a hyperactive child off his Ritalin. There’s good cause for this restlessness. For all the money poured into state and local school-board elections, for all the parent trigger laws that have resulted—like the one that allows Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis’s characters to rally their fellow parents to take over their local school in the hotly anticipated film Won’t Back Down—results have been stubbornly slow to come, and the target ever-evolving.
In the 1980s and ’90s, reformers concentrated on what they considered insufficient cognitive training, especially among disadvantaged kids. The divergence in outcomes between rich and poor children lay in the number of words they heard by age three—at the extremes, 30 million for the offspring of professionals and 10 million for those whose parents were on welfare. The latter could never catch up in school, the experts concluded, not without hours of language-intensive instruction. More recently, the focus has been on teacher quality. Those opposed to teacher tenure on pedagogical grounds (because tenure makes it harder to fire underperformers) have made successful common cause in an age of austerity (experienced instructors are paid more). Only half of New York City’s teachers, the city announced last month, now have tenure, compared to 80 per cent just three years ago.
The jury is still out on the gains to be reaped from wholesale changes in the way teachers are hired, fired and paid, not to mention whether any structural change can block the virtually inevitable tendency for the most underperforming teachers to end up in charge of the most underperforming students in the most wretched public schools. (Enthusiasts may wish to temper their enthusiasm: the academic research that shifted reformers’ focus to teacher quality concluded that better instructors were responsible for less than 10 per cent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.) As for the rest of the reforms, in a country with the second-highest college dropout rate in the 34-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, there has been little to show for years of effort and expense, especially for the seven million kids whose families make less than $11,000 a year. No matter what happens in schools, the chaos and the stress of their domestic lives obliviate it.
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 12:00 PM - 4 Comments
How government cuts threaten Oxford and Cambridge’s unique teaching style
In 1945, Evelyn Waugh famously depicted Oxford in his classic novel Brideshead Revisited as a place where young people spend their days “twittering and fluttering over the cobbles and up the steps, sightseeing and pleasure-seeking, drinking claret cup, eating cucumber sandwiches.” Six-and-a-half decades later, things in the whimsical college town are far less civilized. Oxford University students spent much of the fall term staging angry protests, gathering in town by the hundreds to demonstrate against the government. Meanwhile, at its historic rival Cambridge, a 2½-hour train ride away, students are equally fired up. After a number of boisterous marches in November, about 1,000 students staged an 11-day occupation of a university building. At issue is Britain’s massive new austerity package, which includes an 80 per cent cut to higher education teaching grants by 2012, and a potential tripling of tuition fees. The protests were “a wake-up call,” says Tom, a Cambridge Ph.D. student and one of the occupation organizers, who spoke with Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity. “The things the government are calling for seem extreme,” he says. “And extremely dangerous to education.”
Protests have taken place across Britain. But students at Oxford and Cambridge are motivated by a more pressing fear: that the new cuts will end the centuries-old reign of the institutions collectively called Oxbridge. Some are afraid the famed Oxbridge “tutorial system” is in jeopardy. Since their conception, Oxford and Cambridge have dismissed the traditional lecture system. Instead, undergrads are taught largely through one-on-one “tutorials” with professors. In between the weekly or fortnightly meetings, students work through massive reading lists, and write papers to later discuss with their tutors. “It makes the best use of bright students,” says David Palfreyman, an Oxford tutor and editor of The Oxford Tutorial. Students at the two schools work harder—10 to 15 hours a week more than average students, he says—“because [they] can’t escape in the tutorial system.” And it teaches them to think more creatively; many papers aren’t formally assessed, so students “can be a bit adventurous.”
It certainly attracts some keeners. David Barclay, an Oxford undergrad and president of the student union, says the tutorial system was one of the things that drew him to Oxford from Scotland, where he grew up. “It’s the best way of teaching,” he says. “One-on-one interaction with the best minds in the world.” At a coffee shop near the history department, Barclay recounts some particularly memorable classes, including one on 20th-century political history taught by a sitting member of Parliament. “Tutorials can be pretty scary,” he grinned. “But I love them.”
By Lianne George - Friday, November 7, 2008 at 1:00 AM - 1,095 Comments
The troubling science of how technology is rewiring kids’ brains
For almost three decades, the Arrowsmith School, a small Toronto private school housed in a converted mansion on the edge of Forest Hill, has been treating kids with learning disabilities. When its founder, Barbara Arrowsmith Young, developed the school’s patented program in the late ’70s, it was with a first-hand knowledge of the frustration and stigma of living with cognitive deficits. Growing up, Young struggled with dyslexia. She had difficulties with problem-solving and visual and auditory memory. Finding connections between things and ideas was a challenge, and telling time was impossible—she couldn’t grasp the relationship between the big hand and the little hand. Traditional learning programs taught her tricks to compensate for her deficits, but they never improved her ability to think. “I walked around in a fog,” she says. But as a young psychology graduate, Young came across the brain maps created by the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who studied soldiers who had suffered head wounds. Using these maps, she identified 19 unique learning dysfunctions and the brain regions that control them. Her theory was that a person can transform weak areas of the brain through repetitive and targeted cognitive exercises, and she was right. Today, this notion of brain plasticity—which she intuited three decades ago—is established wisdom in neuroscience.
Over the past decade, the Arrowsmith program has been proven so effective that schools throughout Canada and the U.S. have adopted it. In 2003, a report commissioned by the Toronto Catholic District School Board found that students’ rate of learning on specific tasks like math and reading comprehension increased by 1½ to three times.
These days, though, Young has noticed a new development: increasingly, she’s seeing a great many young people having difficulties with executive function, which involves thinking, problem-solving and task completion. “It looks like an attention deficit disorder,” she says. “The person has a job or a task and they start doing it but they can’t stay oriented to it. They get distracted and they can’t get reoriented. When I started using the programs, I really didn’t see a lot of this. I would say now, 50 per cent of students walking through the door have difficulty in that area.” The second thing she’s noticing is more frequent trouble with non-verbal thinking skills. These kids struggle to read facial expressions and body language—which can make dating and friendships, and indeed, most social situations, tricky. Continue…