A Review of Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof

[D]on’t let the fashions crush you. And so many of them are so, so very bad. The thrill of innovation, the desire for simple answers, and the mistaken belief that educational research will shine a guiding light to a smarter, more efficient system, has proven the undoing of us, and will undermine us further if we let it. So we mustn’t let it. (217)

teacherRarely in my 20 years of teaching have I read a book that is actually written by a teacher, for teachers and in defence of teachers. Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof is an invigorating breath of fresh air that deftly counter-attacks the onslaught of dubious educational “research” that bedevils our profession, and places pedagogical leadership back into the hands of those who understand education best: the front-line classroom teacher. Teacher Proof is a witty, defiant, thought-provoking and practical call-to-arms. As a result, it’s a book that new teachers will likely never be assigned in teachers’ training programs, even though every teacher ought to be compelled to read it by threat of a good horsewhipping.

To outsiders, especially in North America, educational politics are characterized by struggles over testing, labour contracts and government cutbacks. However, there is another struggle within the profession that pits teachers against teachers, and teachers against education “experts”. This struggle is over pedagogy, which we can define as the skills and theories of good teaching practice. Bennett’s book focuses largely on this struggle, from the point of view of an active British educator. His central thesis is that “educational science” is a problematic field of academic research, and its application to everyday teaching practice should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Instead of relying on people who are unfamiliar with the classroom to show teachers how to teach, front-line educators should look to themselves for professional improvement:

My opinion is this: there are few things that educational science has brought to the classroom that could not already have been discerned by a competent teacher intent on teaching well after a few years of practice. (64)

Bennett begins in an unexpected manner: he doesn’t really talk about education, but about the scientific method. Given my own training in social science and the philosophy of science, I think Bennett’s summary is clear and pithy, and simplifies the field for non-experts without being overly simplistic. Of course, readers may wonder why they are reading about biased agendas, “cargo cult” science, small sample sizes, lack of control groups, the Hawthorne effect, the appeal to novelty, and confirmation bias, but it becomes clear that these concepts are central to his analysis of educational research. For those who feel the urge to skip this section, I recommend paying attention to the first chapters; they are invaluable to his critique.

And the critique begins in earnest with an assault on Multiple Intelligences, which postulates that there are many types of intelligence (interpersonal; bodily kinaesthetic; spiritual; moral) that exist beyond the traditional measurement of IQ. Like so many of the theories that follow, MI posits a theory of intelligence that is largely untestable and deeply value laden. As a result, MI really has no scientific basis. Even Howard Gardner, according to Bennett, has admitted to the dubious scientific basis of the theory that Gardner has championed: “‘At present it must be admitted that the selection (or rejection) of a candidate’s intelligence is reminiscent more of an artistic judgement than of a scientific assessment.’ So just to be clear, he [Gardner] admits that this is an aesthetic taxonomy, not an objective definition and guide. Some would describe that as ‘opinion’” (73).

From there, Bennett sets his sights on a series of theories that are pillars of modern educational theory: Brain Gym, group work, Emotional Intelligence, 21st century skills, the digital classroom, multiple learning styles, gamification, learning to learn, school uniforms and De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. All of these are reviewed with a skeptical eye, and bludgeoned with highly critical meta-studies, their own lack of substantive scientific evidence, and/or Bennett’s keen Humean suspicion. Cooperative learning, as an example, is examined through the filter of Bennett’s own experience:

Loads of kids really really do like working in groups – witness the phenomenon when you have a group of agreeable, biddable kids who get on with each other and want to show what a great bunch of pals they are by making the best poster. I’ve seen it happen a lot. But this appears to put the strategy benefit before the horse; the point of group work is that it is supposed to develop and encourage these skills of interactivity and motivation. But in the examples where it seems to work best, these qualities and skills have to pre-exist the activity. Which seems to make the whole thing pointless. (85)

In terms of multiple learning styles, the major research in favour of this theory (by Dunn) is based on preferences rather than replicable and measurable data: “The problem with the Dunn research is that they mistook expressed preferences for learning, for real modalities. Just because someone claims they learn better one way, means very little” (159). And after reviewing the literature on learning to learn (L2L), Bennett finds that, so far, “we have precious little research to suggest that children actually can improve their learning by learning about learning, or even that conceptually, such a thing might exist” (176). Bennett thus makes the following conclusion: “Wishy-washy pseudoscience has infected the everyday idiom of educational discourse, so that even the language we use is based on the Orwellian absurdities and inanities of the quacks and hucksters trying to hustle the latest fad and fashion” (210).

In the final section, Bennett offers us common sense advice that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent significant time in the classroom. I won’t go into too much detail, but he discusses such basics as attendance, punctuality, behavior, feedback, solid subject knowledge and classroom experience (much akin to Aristotle’s conception of phronesis, or practical wisdom). Bennett also encourages teachers to exercise autonomy and integrity: “Up to a point, you have autonomy. You don’t always have to use the latest technique or fad, even if the school recommends it. In fact, I would wait until the school demands you do something specifically before you follow the fashion” (216). If you have to “feed the beast” to temporarily satisfy the so-called experts, then so be it, but then “completely ignore it for the other 99.5 per cent of your career” (ibid).

I come away satisfied though not completely without concern. Bennett’s Humean skepticism parallels my own worldview, so I wonder if I’m a victim of confirmation bias (which Bennett discusses so effectively) and if I agree with Bennett simply because of the shock of recognition and the realization of kinship. I also wonder if his critiques, particularly of theories without critical meta-studies, are thorough enough to convince the Believers. As Hume might ask, has Bennett supplied enough inductive evidence to be persuasive? To be honest, while I completely agree with Bennett’s criticisms of cooperative learning and 21st century learning, I don’t think he offers the strongest arguments against these trends. (I’ve discussed these movements in a modest way on my own blog, in posts such as Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows and Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal.) And I suppose my own academic training unfairly discriminates against a writer whose caustic humour belies the serious nature of the topic.

Nevertheless, Bennett manages to cover a lot of ground with insight and courage; Teacher Proof is, on the whole, a well-argued jeremiad that effectively responds to the tsunami-like waves of dubious innovation that continually buffet the teaching profession.


Please feel free to read my other posts on education.


And here are more quotes from Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof:

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.’

[T]he generation of teachers working today (or trained in the last ten years) are barely taught anything other than the latest dogma and cant. Newer teachers I talk to are astounded by any presumption that these paradigms might be questionable.

What’s important is that we (and by we, I mean anyone in the teaching profession) are aware of how easy it is for a value or hunch to become a hypothesis that, untouched by credible testing, can escape the laboratory and run amok in the real world.

But even more important than all that is the experience of teachers, the great collective ocean of understanding that is treated as mere anecdote by many in the research industry, which is ironic when you consider how much is published that simply reflects intuition and personal prejudice dressed up in 10,000 words with references. That ocean of experience is hard to access, however; while most teachers are trained in the context of in-school tutors and mentors, the rot has set in so firmly in some schools and training institutions that dogma is often quoted as solutions to specific problems when what is required is personal experience, transmitted by expert professionals, one to the other.

Here’s what I believe; this informs everything I have learned in teaching after a decade: Experience trumps theory every time.

Bluntly, in a group, lazy kids get a chance to really spread their lazy-ass wings and reach heights of doing absolutely nothing.

[On 21st century learning] [T]his appeal to the terrifying unfamiliarity of the future is a sham nestled in a half-truth.

For a start, it generates the myth that what we teach children (content, facts, etc.) is less relevant, because everything’s changing so frightfully fast; so why bother teaching them anything? This leads to the second danger: the idea that if content is irrelevant (we can Google it after all) then what we should be teaching children is versatility, the ability to think on their feet, the ability to think creatively and adapt to the chaotic culture and fluid job market that our children will enter. Why, it’ll be barely recognisable! Who needs history or formulae when the inheritors of tomorrow will need all their wits about them just to inhabit the cybersphere?

The suggestion that the contemporary curriculum is somehow the death-knell of creativity is nonsense. It’s a bona fide saviour: millions of children exposed to a spectrum of art and opportunity that our grandparents would have drooled over.

But I tire of someone who has never been a classroom teacher telling me what classroom teaching is like, or how children should be taught. If I can paraphrase – I suspect – Christopher Hitchens, being told how to teach by a non-teacher with a PhD in education is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid. His good intentions and intuitions can’t replace the real experience of teaching children. Well-meant aphorisms about arming children to engage with the new learning society are easy to find inspirational, but they’re empty. It’s far harder to inspire someone with concrete and practical ideas. And abstracts, though they sound beautiful, are harder to both prove and disprove.

We learn through content; any skills of manipulating that content can only come about through familiarity with the content.

[On educational research] Enthusiasm trumps evidence.

Good teaching relies on things that have been around for millennia: good subject knowledge; good classroom control; good communication skills; heart and guts. You don’t need anything else. Maybe a pen, if you’re feeling profligate. Everything else is chaff. Everything else obscures the teacher. I don’t need a damn thing other than my voice and a room full of kids. The rest is bull, dressed up as Buck Rogers.

The push for digital literacy is simply a push for conventional literacies using new delivery mechanisms, and don’t rely on anything ground shaking. In essence digital literacy is simply regular, ready-salted literacy with a funny hat.

There’s another trap for teachers here, beyond the obvious ones of falling for yet another faddish piece of educational moronism: the trap of exhaustion, self-blame and guilt. We work hard enough as it is to try to make the lesson accessible to everyone, brainiac or blunt instrument. The added requirement that we tailor things for every individual learning style really is too much. You can hear teachers cracking from the effort.

As Stahl mentions, after a year, most people who attend courses on VARK usually end up, within a year, not using it.

What I’m very prickly about are spurious claims about the efficacy of a project without any evidence to back it up. This article seems to me to be a piece of advocacy and speculation, and that’s absolutely fine. What I don’t think it is, is proof of any kind, and I’m sure the authors didn’t intend it to be either.

What every paper cited seems to do is to draw useful links between the way they believe people learn, and the features of video games, or games in general that could either correlate or support them. Which is very interesting – genuinely. But none of this points to anything other than speculation.

We simply have no credible data to suggest in what ways gamification could help us in the classroom.

I suspect that children learn when they are told stuff, and forced in some way to remember it, and practise it.

The idea that a child, left alone, would teach itself language, poetry, art and music is palpable guano.

This paragraph is essential:

Even the earliest days ‘in the field’ convinced us that this was too simplistic. Schools, particularly at this time, are experiencing such a plethora of initiatives that isolating ‘our’ interventions would be extremely difficult.

In other words, we realised quickly that we couldn’t just see if it was our project that was having an effect, or other projects. Aren’t humans just frustratingly complicated?

The researchers make these findings:
Pupils’ measured academic performance varied between project schools. These results need to be treated with caution as possible outcomes of the project.

The four-year project found that L2L wasn’t a discrete skill, but ‘a family of learning practices that enable learning to happen’. So it isn’t a thing. It’s a bundle of things. I could probably have told you that diligence, liking your subject, dedication, effort and focus were good ways to behave as a learner, but apparently we need millions of pounds to tell us the obvious.

Reference was made to the Halo effect, where our judgement of someone is influenced by our overall opinion of someone – so for example we might not believe someone is lying because we find them attractive, or we believe school uniform helps students with behaviour because we remember seeing well-behaved students in uniform.

As I have been at pains to mention, this is not an all-out assault on all educational research. This is an assault on bad research, because it is not carbon neutral; it does not exist in a vacuum. Make no mistake: it hurts us. It makes my job more difficult, and it makes children’s lives harder.

One of the things that repels me at times is that the author is telling the reader to do things their way, when doing things their way is only achievable for … well, them. That’s why I don’t try to flog anyone the Tom Bennett Teaching Tool Kit; I only ever advise people to do things that I think the vast majority of people could do. I once got a kid to stop playing with a mobile phone by implying he was playing with himself. Job tightrope klaxon. But I got away with it because of the extremely good relationship I had with my class. I would never recommend it as a course of action for someone else.

It’s the economy, stupid

Probably the only positive outcome after the stunning BC election of May 14 was a petty sense of “I told you so”. Though I had predicted (like most people) a victory for the NDP, I had become disenchanted with the New Democrats’ performance because it was hard to distinguish the 2013 election from the failed election campaigns of 2001, 2005 and 2009. The central problem persisted: almost complete silence on economic policy.

I have argued for years that silence on this core issue concedes the topic to the Liberals, and makes the latter the de facto “party of the economy” (and thus the party of “prosperity”, “growth” and “jobs”). And without this issue, the NDP will probably never win. For example, in one of my first ever blog posts back in April 2009, I discussed the paucity of policy on economic issues by the provincial NDP, and how Carole James’s stubborn refusal to discuss the economy and the NDP’s economic record in the 1990’s  would lead to failure in the upcoming 2009 election.

And now we come to another electoral failure, albeit one where the outcome was supposed to be different. There is no doubt that the NDP’s failure resulted from a constellation of forces. On an electoral level, it’s difficult to say with certainty if the Green vote prevented an NDP victory, but it was pretty clear that both NDP and Green voters viewed the other party as their second choice in the election.  Tactically, the NDP realized only at the end that negative campaigning works. In the last few days, NDP advertising finally began to accentuate many of the Liberals’ failings, but by then it was too late.


Adrian Dix and his campaign team also tried to run a “light” campaign – a campaign long on optimism and short on commitments to difficult issues. And one of Dix’s rare policy pronouncements, his flip-flop on the southern Kinder Morgan pipeline, certainly didn’t help.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, all of this is prologue. The heart of NDP electoral failure, as I’ve stated above, is their relative silence on economic policy. All other issues are secondary or derive from the NDP economic vacuum. As James Carville insisted back in the early 90’s, it’s “the economy, stupid”.1 For decades, most British Columbians made the economy their number one concern. Despite the failure of pollsters to accurately predict the May election, the preoccupation with the economy remained clear and consistent. And according to Angus Reid, the economy was the number one issue heading into election night.

BKA5-ffCIAEETI6.jpg large

Yet the NDP said little about the dismal Liberal record on the economy. They could have railed against Christy Clark’s BC Jobs Plan that failed to ignite private sector employment, and continues to saddle us with the worst unemployment record in western Canada. The Liberals also gave us an enormous debt load. As noted by Damien Gillis,

the Liberals have raised our real provincial debt from $34 Billion to $171 Billion since they came to power. The NDP, by contrast, raised it by $17 Billion over a similar period.

Much of this debt is in the form of “contractual obligations” to private power producers who will enjoy generous power contracts with the province for decades to come. Again, on this issue, the NDP was largely silent.

BC debt and contractual obligations

Where was the sustained attack on the tragic effects of the Liberals’ tax-cutting, trickle-down agenda? Inequality in this province remains a blight on our society and economy, but it was merely a tag line in a few advertisements near the end of the campaign:

ScreenHunter_08 May. 18 14.01

And tax cuts have not led to an increase in productivity as its proponents have promised. As the Institute of Chartered Accountants of BC noted in 2010, despite

the infusion of investment and human capital in the past five years, BC’s labour force productivity stagnated. All of Canada suffers from a labour productivity gap with the US, but BC’s productivity has remained below the national average for many years. To a large degree, poor productivity explains the lower real wage in BC…

Arguments regarding productivity and competitiveness would have damaged the Liberals on their “home turf”, but not a word was heard from their opponents.

Furthermore, the NDP could have hammered the Liberals over their appalling record on child poverty, but the NDP only referred to it briefly in a few advertisements:

ScreenHunter_11 May. 18 14.02

Finally, how about the Liberals’ poor record on investing in education in BC? Aside from “skills training”, the NDP ignored the issue of education underfunding and the serious consequences it has engendered.

ScreenHunter_13 May. 18 15.25

ScreenHunter_12 May. 18 15.24


Without a critique of BC Liberal economic policy, the NDP concedes the issue to the BC Liberals. Yet the NDP simply can’t afford to surrender this territory. It is the only real place to grow their support beyond the traditional base.  Put another way, without a split in the right-wing vote, they need to appeal to new voters who (as we’ve seen above) care deeply about economic performance. As I’ve noted before, the right-wing coalition normally polls about 5-10% above the NDP, so if anyone needs to blaze new paths, it’s the NDP, not the Liberals. [To put things in perspective, the 2013 NDP earned just 1.2% less of the popular vote than in their big win of 1991.] This means tackling the economy and taking away, or at least minimizing, the major perceived strength of the “party of the economy”. As Gillis has argued, echoing Karl Rove, “You don’t attack your opponent’s weakness; you attack their greatest strength, because if you take that leg out from under them, they have nothing left to stand on.”

The NDP has also failed to articulate any coherent alternative vision for a growing, prosperous economy. A critique may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. In the absence of pipelines, for example, what is the NDP approach to developing the economy? Let’s return to Damien Gillis; he talks about a positive and sustainable way of growing the economy:

By contrast, [the NDP] could have offered a bold vision of a stronger, greener economic future for BC – one built on innovation, clean technology, public transit, rebuilding local, value-added manufacturing, supporting our vital film industry and creative sectors, harnessing the true potential of “Super, Natural BC”… Alas, they did some of these things, but in piecemeal fashion – detached from any central narrative. And they failed to distinguish clearly their own record and vision from those of their opponents.

I would add to this a need to re-purpose the economy and address the central issue of inequality. Robert Reich and others have warned that inequality is not only morally offensive, but it’s devastating for the economy, too. Given the role of consumer spending in the economies of Canada and the United States, squeezing the poor and middle classes can only damage the economic system – rich included. With this in mind, I have argued in an earlier post that a progressive economic agenda should include  a commitment co-operative capitalism. In brief, supporting an economic system of economic competition within a framework of broader ownership reduces inequality and labour strife and, from that, stabilizes and sustains the economy.

In the end, what I want is a New Democratic Party that offers something to look forward to. It’s not enough to conserve social programs and the environment; those alone strike an ironically conservative tone. What people want is to know is that they and their families will be economically secure and better off in the future. The NDP has the tools to do this, but it will need to find the courage to capture ground it has all too easily yielded.

1 Stephanopoulos, George. All too human: a political education. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999. Print. (p. 88)

Union support for the BC NDP is not the same as corporate support for the BC Liberals

A sore point for supporters of the right-wing BC Liberals is that their party seems so financially beholden to corporations. An immediate retort is that the NDP is equally beholden to unions. The NDP, in other words, is just as bad, so let’s move on.  The problem with this response is that, in British Columbia, the two major political parties are not equally indebted to their largest sponsors. More precisely, the leading right-wing party is much more beholden to corporations than the leading left-wing party is to unions. Thus, an argument of equivalence – a false equivalence in which both sides are equally obligated to outside masters, so both are excused – simply doesn’t hold up to examination.

A case in point is a recent five-day analysis of campaign donations conducted by the long-standing corporate media icon, The Vancouver Sun.* Through the use of parallelism, the newspaper asserts a position of equivalence:

It’s well-known that unions are big supporters of the NDP, just as corporations bankroll the B.C. Liberals. (The Vancouver Sun, April 24, 2013, A4)

However, when we start examining the numbers closely, something startling appears from the statistics provided by the The Vancouver Sun itself – statistics which go largely unexamined in the newspaper’s analysis.


From the numbers above** we can make the following calculations:

  1. Corporate donations to the BC Liberals are five times greater than that of union donations to the BC NDP.
  2. Corporate contributions make up 61% of BC Liberal donations, whereas union contributions are only 23% of BC NDP donations.

These calculations are never mentioned in the text of the newspaper’s five-day series.

Equivalence indeed.


*April 23, 2013 to April 27, 2013

**I could not find this particular chart online, so I scanned the original paper version. (The Vancouver Sun, April 23, 2013, A8)

Windows 8 can be fixed (and made better than Windows 7) for a mere $10

In an earlier post, I discussed my initial skepticism regarding Windows 8, but I decided to reserve judgment until I had a reasonable amount of time to play with the much-maligned new operating system. So, after five months, I’ve come to this general conclusion: the “under the hood” changes are excellent, but the default user interface (UI) is terrible. Happily, the awful UI experience can be completely altered for a mere $10.

The underlying improvements to Windows 8 are usually ignored by the screaming masses, but they are very impressive. The new OS loads onto my desktop computer in about half the time Windows 7 used to start in my current rig, and Windows 8 closes in less than a third of the time of its predecessor. The regular operation of programs is smoother and snappier, and I encounter very few of the “Not Responding” slowdowns that I used to face in Windows 7. The integrated Task Manager is by far the best version I’ve ever seen in a Windows OS, and networking is even simpler and more intuitive than before. I’ve not had a single driver issue either, something that could not be said for Vista or 7. Overall, the underlying functions of Windows 8  are superb, and justify the $40 upgrade I undertook last November.

But now for the bad news: the default user interface is absolutely dreadful, particularly for the hundreds of millions of people who prefer to multitask with multiple windows, a mouse, and a large monitor (or two… or three). The new Start Screen – a full window that replaces the old fold-out Start Menu – is where you begin navigating to your applications. This is the core of Microsoft’s new “Modern” UI.

Immediately you see how the old desktop paradigm has been lost, and that many of the customary efficiencies are not readily available. After playing with this new Start Menu for five months, here is a summary of the problems I face with the default UI in Windows 8:

  1. Windows 8 is optimized for a touch interface,  but I do not have a touch interface and will never want one. I currently have two large monitors run by a fairly beefy video card and a mouse. The idea of reaching up, over to and across my monitors all day strikes me (and others) as absurd, as I can move around my monitors with just a few inches of movement from my mouse. The ergonomics of touch make no sense in a large, complex computing environment. If you want to single task on a small hand-held device, like I do with my Nokia 920, then touch is wonderful paradigm, but then the ergonomics are obviously very different.
  2. When you boot up your computer, you are faced with two hurdles: (1) a lock screen that makes sense on a phone but not on a desktop, and (2) the new Start Screen. You can get to the traditional desktop, but you have to click on one of the tiles on the Start Screen to access the desktop. I know this is only one click, but it’s one more click than I had before to get to the same place. By definition, this is a step backward.
  3. The Start Screen wastes an extraordinary amount of screen space on the top and bottom, which seems extravagant and wasteful to those of us who want to maximize usable space.
  4. The Modern Start Screen supposedly replaces the old Start Menu, but, because it’s full screen, the Start Screen looks more like a desktop replacement. Unfortunately, the Modern UI breaks my initial workflow: the first thing I usually do on a desktop is click on a document (Word or Powerpoint), rather than an application. However, it is difficult to pin a document to the Start Screen. There are workarounds, of course, but a workaround is by definition a  step backward, particularly when it involves a registry hack.
  5. When programs are opened, they open full screen. I can’t properly express to you how annoying this is. It’s a major deal-breaker, to say the least. I hardly ever run a window full screen, as I like to run at least two or three overlapping programs at one time on each monitor, an approach that allows me to quickly and intuitively switch between windows. [The full screen approach has given rise to the ironic meme of “Window 8”.]
  6. Navigation tools are, get this, hidden! A graphical user interface that expects people to visually navigate an OS with tools that can’t be seen is almost Orwellian. Many critical system tools are hidden in the Charm Bar to the right (which makes a secondary monitor on the right a hassle), and even the taskbar is hidden to the left. Apparently, saving space is important for a tablet, so you need to navigate around the edges to activate the navigation tools. [But if space is so important, why do we face the problem in #3 above?] For average users, it can lead to a frustrating – and OS-killing –  experience, like we see below:
  7. “But,” Win8 apologists will cry, “you can always memorize dozens of keyboard commands!” Memorize keyboard commands? Hmmm… why does that sound familiar? Hmmm… er…uhm… oh, I know! I used to do that in DOS on my Zenith computer! 25 years ago! And I hated it! Navigating an OS with a keyboard is the ultimate in “legacy app”.
  8. Finally,  Microsoft is deliberately forsaking the desktop user because it wants to get a share of the tablet market. Aside from the possibility that the tablet may well go the way of the netbook, the treatment of desktop users as second-class consumers is simply irksome. Why can’t we get a bevy of upgrades, too? Why are our dollars less important than those of tablet users? And, will there ever come a time when the desktop disappears and we are forced into the vexing walled garden of the Windows App Store? All I can say is this: given my complaints above, I will not continue with Windows if the long term plan is to eliminate the desktop.


However, not all is doom and gloom. Until the desktop is taken away, there are two simple fixes that make Windows 8 the best desktop OS that Windows has ever produced. Oddly, Windows 8 is salvaged not by Microsoft, but by a company called Stardock. As a I reported earlier, the $5 Start8 program allows the computer user to boot directly into the desktop, and completely bypass the Start Screen. [Because of this, I’m not really bothered by the switching back and forth between desktop and Start Screen modes; I simply ignore the latter unless I want to browse the App Store.] Start8 will also allow you to insert and customize a Start Button and Start Menu. The latter remains an important option when you have hundreds of programs that won’t fit easily onto the Modern UI’s Start Screen, or even onto the  desktop or taskbar. Recently, Stardock introduced ModernMix, another $5 program which allows users, for the first time, to use Modern apps in scalable windows inside the traditional desktop, and pin these apps to the taskbar. Though there are very few killer apps in the Windows App Store, it’s nice to have the option of accessing these apps when desired. App Radio, for example, is the one Modern UI app I use on the desktop, and it makes me feel like a first class consumer once again. Together, these two programs give me Windows 8 speed and stability with a Windows 7 interface.

As a result, I now consider Windows 8 an excellent operating system in spite of Microsoft. Who knew that $10 could turn Windows 8 from a frog into a king?

A Review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

I have a rather equivocal opinion of ref=cm_cr-mr-img The Road. On one hand, it’s a beautifully phrased novel, full of powerful images and rich language. On the other hand, the plot is rather pedestrian, and the author’s defiance of writing conventions is tiresome.

There’s no doubt that McCarthy is a gifted writer. Many passages are profoundly beautiful and show McCarthy’s daunting command of language. He is a fabulous painter of words. The son, for example, is described in a wonderfully figurative manner: “Knobby spine-bones. The razarous shoulder blades sawing under the pale skin” (p. 218). Quite often, individual words surprise and enrich: “rasping”, “viscera”, “dentil”, “macadam”, and so on. In an age of anti-intellectualism, where so-called “big words” expose a person to abuse like glasses do in a Khmer Rouge nightmare, McCarthy’s breadth of vocabulary is impressive, perhaps even inspiring. Finally, the relationship between father and son seems genuine and real, and moves beyond the easy nihilism for which McCarthy is often accused.

Nevertheless, many aspects disappoint. The plot is predictable and surprisingly repetitive: look down at a town or house; search town or house for food; discover amazingly well-preserved food stores just in time to avoid starvation; avoid cannibals where necessary; climb to the top of the next hill and consider the depravity of man (or at least flat caricatures of depraved beasts); repeat sequence at least four times. Indeed, the plot seems awfully amenable to a screen play, almost as if The Road was written as a novelization of a movie. McCarthy’s well-known aversion to grammar rules also grates, and I personally think it overwhelms the linguistic and emotional side of the book. I don’t really care about the lack of apostrophes or quotation marks; I get the rather bludgeoned symbolism about the artificiality (and thus fragility) of society. But the apparently random use of sentence fragments borders on the unbearable. I spent a lot of my time filling in the subject or the predicate, or both. Such undue effort eventually led me to skip-read much of the novel, only occasionally slowing down to savour an occasional passage. Are such rules of writing really so imposing? McCarthy seems to be saying yes, but it’s a bit like arguing that the colour scheme of traffic lights is fascistic, when such conventionality is really about moving on to more important things. In the end, the fragments and other broken rules seem like gimmicks, and convince me that McCarthy should have spent more time on plot development than the arbitrary rules of grammar.

So The Road leaves me perplexed: maybe it’s his Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and maybe it’s because other people lavish such praise on his book. If Oprah loves the novel, it must be good, right? Yet for me, it has the whiff of pretentiousness. McCarthy is a great writer, no doubt, but beating up sentences and punctuation does not replace good old fashioned story telling.

Reflections on a 21st Century School

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day at Thomas Haney Secondary School in Maple Ridge, BC. The school is known for its commitment to flexible, personalized, learn-at-your-own-pace education, and is touted by many as an exemplar of progressive pedagogy. As a teacher curious about the phenomenon of “21st century learning”, but also a little skeptical of the hype, I relished the opportunity to visit THSS and examine how it works. I had also taught many THSS students while I worked in distance education, so this was a school I wanted to understand.

DSC02946One visit later, I am certainly no expert on the school, but I do think that some of my questions have been answered. Nevertheless, new questions have arisen, and in this post I’ll begin the process of sorting out what I know, what I don’t know, and what we can learn from Thomas Haney as BC’s education system pursues a reform agenda.


Let’s be clear – the Thomas Haney model is not easily replicated in other schools:

  • A grade 8 to 12 school: the Maple Ridge school district uses an elementary/secondary system, and THSS therefore has five grade levels. One of the key benefits of this approach is that THSS can gradually introduce its students to the concept of self-directed learning. The Grade 8 students, for example, have very little choice and flexibility, but do observe older students using their time in a self-directed manner, and as they get older, students are given more and more “flex” time to pursue their learning. This gradualist method thus avoids a “shock to the system” for young people emerging from a fairly structured elementary experience.
    • Challenge: How do you implement this gradualist approach in a school district with middle schools?
  • A linear timetable: To offer the best chance for success, open-ended schooling needs to give students as much time as possible, and THSS therefore works on a full year, linear timetable.
    • Challenge:  How do you reconcile this with a school and/or district committed to the semester system? [Hint: The flexibility offered by the Thomas Haney model may mitigate one of the main reasons in favour of semestered schools.]
  • An open campus: THSS operates as an open campus, especially for its older students, and therefore attendance is not taken except for seminars. [These have recently been introduced, as I understand it, to provide more structured contact between teachers and secondary students.]  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this open system – which goes well beyond allowing students out for lunch to Tim Horton’s – comes at a cost in terms of accountability and supervision. On the other hand, it helps that Maple Ridge has six secondary schools, so students and parents who aren’t happy with the Thomas Haney model have other choices.
    • Challenge:  How do you introduce an open campus in a community with fewer school choices? What if your local neighbourhood is opposed to an open campus? And is it possible to implement an open campus program (for example, a pilot project with just a few courses) within a larger, relatively closed school?
  • Thomas Haney is a school of choice: Though we were told that THSS is a neighbourhood school, roughly 70% of the students come from beyond the catchment area, and even beyond the district. There appears to be a high degree of self-selection amongst the students; according to the students and parents I met, Thomas Haney is considered an “academic school”, and probably derives much of its academic success due to the high quality of students who choose to attend THSS.
    • Challenge:  Is it possible to introduce personalized, learn-at-your-own-pace education to a broader group of students who haven’t committed to this approach? What do you do with those who abuse their freedom? And if it works better with a self-selected group of students, can it be introduced in a larger school where the educational system remains more structured?
    • Point to ponder: Thomas Haney has been around since the 1990’s. If THSS is such a revelation, why are the other five Maple Ridge secondary schools (or schools in the rest of BC, for that matter) not following its model?
  • A lack of school district busing: Despite the large number of students coming from beyond the catchment boundaries, there are very few school buses arriving at THSS. Students either arrange their own transportation, or use public transit.
    • Challenge:  Will a lack of public transportation in smaller communities reduce the enthusiasm for this sort of schooling?
  • Year-end assignment dumping and power marking: I didn’t receive a clear-cut answer to this concern, but my general suspicion is that a great deal of marking piles up in May and June. Students who have procrastinated all year are suddenly faced with the prospect of failure, and thus a crisis ensues for both the student and his or her teacher. The student’s crisis is obvious, but the teacher’s challenge is enormous, too. When faced with a Mt. Slesse-like pile of completed assignments, the only solution is power marking: each assignment gets a quick read and a simple letter grade or percentage, with no feedback, no chance to guide the student to the next assignment, and no mastery learning. Moreover, as the crisis of time mounts, the allure of plagiarism looms ever larger, and more effort is spent chasing somebody else’s prior learning than assessing current understanding. I know all about these problems, because I faced them in distance education. It is a soul-sapping and demoralizing experience for a teacher, I can assure you.
    • Point to ponder: I saw a lot of assignments on display that looked a lot like assignments from any other school. The assignments were prepackaged in some cases, and teachers offered some alternatives and choices, but how is this so different from other schools? Indeed, I didn’t really see any significant personalization of content beyond what I and most other teachers offer.


Generally speaking, I don’t believe that Thomas Haney is a panacea to the straw-man “factory model” that progressives so detest. Like distance education, a realm in which I taught for eight years, I think an open, flexible school like Thomas Haney Secondary is a niche product for a niche market. This is not meant as an insult. What I mean to say is that it has some very positive possibilities for a minority of adolescents who genuinely love learning (particularly in more abstract disciplines) and are capable of learning with minimal supervision. But since I will never believe this applies to the large majority of adolescents, and there is ample research to support the general necessity of direct instruction, I simply don’t believe that the THSS model is “the answer”.

To be fair, I don’t believe that any philosophy or pedagogical approach is “the answer”. I personally favour a more liberal arts approach, but I know some students chafe under its demand for breadth. So, if flexible, individualized learning does have value for some students, the central challenge is how to incorporate it within a larger, more structured system. As Hamlet might say, there lies the rub!


Let’s Hope High School Won’t Be Your “Glory Days”

After another day of classes, and another round of adolescent glowering and truculence, I am reminded of Springsteen’s classic, “Glory Days”. Nobody said it so well: let’s hope your years in high school won’t be your glory days. If they are, then the rest of your life will be a big disappointment!

One of the most interesting things about adolescents is how many live totally in the present. In some ways this is positive: they live with an intensity that I no longer have, and which I envy. But it can also be overwhelming and crippling. Many teens are utterly convinced that everything they do is earth-shattering and monumentally important, and are incapable of viewing their lives proportionally from the vantage point of the future. I think this lack of perspective is why advice about their future often goes nowhere, and why a few, tragically, don’t survive their teen years.

So, in a weird way, one of my roles as a teacher is to assure them that their years in high school aren’t their glory days. These days are important, to be sure, but they are connected to a much larger thread. Hopefully, my students will soon realize how long and complex this tapestry of life actually is. And maybe – if my students live a bit more with the future in mind – they’ll have many more glory days in the years to come.


Embracing Windows 8… Somewhat

The inner geek in me couldn’t resist. For $40, I had to try the upgrade of Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 8, on my desktop computer. I’m not unhappy with Windows 7 – it’s a very solid OS – but I wanted to try something new, and see for myself what has become a virtual battle ground:

The upgrade part was very smooth. I downloaded an .iso image of Windows 8 Upgrade from the Microsoft site (you can pay via credit card or Paypal), burnt it to a blank DVD disc, rebooted my computer, and started the installation almost instantly.

Microsoft has really improved this process. Every step was clearly explained and no major glitches occurred. The Upgrade disc scanned my existing Windows 7 software and drivers, and the vast majority of them were compatible (or so I was told) with the new OS. A few programs, like Win7’s Windows Security Essentials, had to be deleted before I proceeded, and would be reinstalled as new Windows 8 programs. (In the case of WSE, Windows 8 comes with a built-in Windows Defender that looks a lot like WSE, but with the old Vista name.) A few other programs, like Camtasia, will need to be manually installed.

I had a new OS on my computer in about 20 minutes. This really is quite amazing. In prior Windows OS’s, the process often took hours. In this case, everything was up and running in under half an hour.

Well, not quite. There were a few things I had to fix.

First, I had to disable the login screen. I like jumping straight to the desktop, but Windows reasserted its preference for signing in. (This is a vestige of Microsoft’s enterprise heritage, I suppose.) Thankfully, the process of bypassing the login screen is similar to Windows 7.

Next I installed Stardock’s glorious little utility, Start8. In my mind, Start8 is indispensable if you own a desktop or laptop without a touch screen. For reasons I’ll discuss in a later post, Microsoft should have included all the functionalities that Start8 provides. First, it allows me to boot straight to the traditional desktop, and bypass the Windows 8 start screen altogether. Second, it provides a traditional start menu that Windows users have utilized since the 1990’s.  Moreover, Start8 is a light program that integrates effortlessly into your computer, and is a steal at $4.99. Finally, it still allows me to use the new Modern UI, but only when I’m curious. I am not forced to use the new UI; this is something I think is going to hurt Microsoft if they don’t provide some immediate changes.

I did have to buy a new (paid) version of Stardock’s Fences, and I was annoyed the older free version no longer worked, but after two days everything else has lived up to the Upgrade’s promise of full compatibility.

I am now running Windows 8 just like I ran Windows 7. The new OS certainly cuts the boot and shut down times in half, and opening and closing programs seems slightly snappier, even though they were never really slow in Windows 7. After examining the system data (which is presented in a much cleaner format), it appears the OS is certainly more efficient with RAM and CPU power.

The next thing, of course, is to discover what all the hubbub is about regarding the Metro, er, Modern UI. So far, it looks great for those with tablets and touch screens. Unfortunately for those with powerful desktops, large multiple monitors and a preference for a mouse, Windows 8 appears to be a significant step backwards. I’m not against change, per se, because change is meaningless; it’s just an alteration of direction. But I am against bad change, and for people like me it looks like Windows 8 is bad news for “traditional” desktops and laptops. Nevertheless, I won’t provide a definitive judgment yet; in a later post, I’ll offer a more thorough analysis of Windows 8.

Presumptuousness in Education

Here’s a comment I made today on Scott McLeod’s progressive education blog, Dangerously Irrelevant. My response is to his question, “When will we view educators that opt out of the use of social media for professional learning as an aberration rather than the norm?”


As someone who embraces many social media technologies but who also considers himself an “old school” teacher, I think part of the problem is the ethos that’s intrinsic to many so-called connected educators.

Let me blunt: many of these educators and “education experts” are presumptuous to the point of arrogance. Just jump onto Twitter for a few minutes, and you are sure to find another homily about the magical qualities of technology and/or 21st century learning, and the failure/incompetence/fearfulness of those teachers who aren’t on the bandwagon.

I rarely see any credible evidence, and usually it consists of other “experts” who repeat the same philosophical beliefs. And, of course, the echo chamber gets so loud that evidence – including that which favours direct instruction [for example, see here, here, and here] – really becomes irrelevant.

I know many educators – secondary school educators I’ve directly helped onto Twitter and blogging – who go online for awhile, shake their heads at the insulting dismissal of their practices, and tune out. [I’m stubborn, however; I like being a gadfly.]

As Keith has said above, there are many great teachers in our system who do not use social media. Their excellence ought to be part of the conversation, but I’m afraid the echo chamber rarely allows for humility or the exploration of old truths.


Here are some of my previous education posts that you might find interesting:

Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal

Individualized Learning = Pre-Packaged Learning

“Trades vs. Academics” is Obsolete

A Lament for the Provincial Exams

Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows

The Port Mann Mess

Pete McMartin has offered another masterfully lopsided argument!

It would be hypocritical of us “southsiders” to complain about the Port Mann toll if we had asked for a toll bridge earlier. But we hadn’t. We wanted the same deal everyone else was receiving, including the drivers of the new Sea-to-Sky highway, Pitt River bridge and Park Bridge near Golden: a bridge free of tolls and paid for out of general revenue. This would seem fair since the Port Mann is one of the most important regional crossings in BC, and one that is vital to Vancouver’s economy and the province in general. Moreover, southsiders have paid equally for all of those other toll-free edifices, so why not return the favour? [However, it would be hypocritical if we voted for BC Liberal candidates south of the Fraser and supported their tax-cutting agenda, and therefore undermined the ability of a government to pay for the bridge out of general revenue.]

McMartin’s either-or approach masks another reality: we need more driving lanes AND better public transit. Just one is simply not sufficient. The urban types seem to forget (or perhaps have never understood) how the Port Mann is a vital commercial link as well as a key regional and provincial artery. Most of this traffic simply can’t use public transit, and to wish otherwise is profoundly childish.

That being said, I wish the government had kept the current bridge, which by all accounts is still in good shape, and had twinned it. The money saved would have lowered overall costs, and helped pay for the Port Mann transit link (bus or rail) that is most certainly part of the transit solution for the Lower Mainland.

Some final thoughts: It would be fascinating to see the choices the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster would have to make if Surrey and Langley pulled out of TransLink. This I believe would be the ideal  solution for those of us south of the Fraser. Not one penny more for Vancouver projects! No more lopsided contributions which the hipsters on Granville (or Main) take for granted!

And in terms of shopping, entertainment, and travel, the world north of the Fraser is becoming increasingly irrelevant anyway. Perhaps a transit divorce would make things more respectful.