Ben Levin’s thoughts on education

The presentation below, by Ontario professor Ben Levin, makes some interesting points about modern education.

The first point is that many of the elements that differentiate the education systems of Canada and the USA – and lead to better PISA results in Canada – are macro-factors outside the control of individual teachers. Levin points to political differences, such as strong provincial governments versus weak state governments, that retard the consistent implementation of programs in America. He also points to financial inequities between American school districts that are much less pronounced in Canada. [He might have added that the USA is one of the most unequal societies in the western world.] Levin points out that countries with strong test scores closely correlate with strong teacher unions; strong unions succeed in winning good pay, benefits and working conditions, and this in turn attracts better candidates to the teaching profession. In many American school districts, where teachers are lucky to make $30,000 a year, the most capable young people generally go elsewhere to start their careers.

Levin’s second major point refers to a problem that I have witnessed since the start of my education career: innovation for the sake of innovation. Usually caused by certain educators wishing to advance their careers, the constant cycle of innovation produces exhaustion and cynicism. Even if a new program has merit, it will most assuredly be dropped within five years. At most. No discussion about the past is allowed – that would embarrass those in power and expose an endless cycle of change – while we move on to the “latest and greatest”. And there’s an almost Orwellian air to professional development discussions; we must pretend that the old programs never existed. Levin’s final conclusions on this topic should be a key lesson for all administrators: spend much more time on implementation rather than innovation. If he had supported the idea that brand new programs must be supported for at least, say, 8 years, then I would be in full agreement.

Levin’s last major point is somewhat more problematic. To be sure, he argues that teachers must be respected and convinced to employ best practices, rather than be used and bullied. I have no problem with that! But I do have a problem with his assumption that there is one best way to accomplish a certain goal (like improving reading scores) or manage a classroom. In my experience, education is not analogous to flying a plane or designing a bridge. I believe, after almost 20 years of teaching, that there are many ways to reach a common pedagogical goal or be a successful educator. These different paths often correlate with the many different personalities and temperaments that we find in a school’s staff. Unfortunately, those differences are often seen as threats to the innovators, and older teachers (especially) are compelled to withdraw to their classrooms, lest their wisdom and experience provide an alternative to the latest changes – and make them a target.

Improvement, Not Innovation, is the Key to Greater Equity from CEA ACE on Vimeo.

Posted by Colin Welch at 8:07 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 6:50 PM


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