Sunday, June 26, 2011
More ruminations on 21st century learning and the concept of change
As usual in the distributed learning (DL) world, the month of June is absurdly hectic. Students who’ve enjoyed the right to create their own learning schedules realize, at the end, that no right exists without a corresponding responsibility. And now - as their asynchronous bliss meets the realities of graduation, post-secondary timetables and the rigours of employment - their panic must become my panic!
In any case, I am returning to my blog with a multitude of ideas for the summer. The one topic that continues to dominate my thoughts is “21st century learning”. In my last blog entry, I discussed the bait and switch nature of this latest educational bandwagon. The Minister of Education and his underlings are baiting us with golden visions of individualized learning, where students can follow their own pursuits and passions and be forever unshackled from the factory-like uniformity that supposedly characterizes (and impedes) our modern education system.
My response is one of deep suspicion. In my opinion, the vision they propose is extremely unrealistic. The amount of time and resources it would require is almost immeasurable, and will certainly not be available to a branch of government that the Minister has said will only receive “incremental funding” in the near future.1 Instead of personalized learning, I fear we will instead be switched to something less savoury: correspondence courses within brick and mortar institutions.
There are others (like here and here) who see an even more insidious game afoot. For them, this 21st century bait and switch is actually a Trojan Horse. Hidden inside the promises of “creativity and innovation”, “[t]ailored learning” and “[a]daptability” 2 are the banal realities of 19th century power politics: the breaking of unions; the end of work-hour, seniority and autonomy provisions; and the centralized control of professional development. Recent talks between BCPSEA and the ministry have focused upon the apparently inflexible nature of the current teachers’ contract, and how it’s an obstacle to 21st century learning. Indeed, in a recent government presentation to the BCTF, the rather cryptic nature of government objectives has led to a real fear by teachers that 21st century learning is simply code for breaking the BCTF and imposing a Wisconsin-style work environment. Nobody really knows what the government objectives mean in concrete, policy-manual terms, but here are a few objectives that can spark your imagination:
- We want the right teachers placed in the right positions. Qualified and suitable teachers – in best “fit” placements - lead to better learning
- We want to ensure that school districts are able to make human resource decisions that are effective and efficient
- We want to align professional development with teacher performance evaluations and school district policy requirements.
In the end, I am not entirely sure if the worst-case scenario is any different from the bargaining objectives of past Socred, NDP and Liberal governments. Perhaps the BCTF is ramping up the concern in anticipation of the upcoming strike vote. Nevertheless, I’ll follow the old adage and “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. My apprehension about 21st century learning, not surprisingly, remains strong.
Another curious development related to the
21st century learning bandwagon is the colonization of the word
“change”. As a person trained in political philosophy and the politics
of language, I'm fascinated by the politicization of the word. Perhaps
"change" is destined to become politicized any time there are great
struggles between groups seeking to preserve and those seeking to change
the status quo, or between groups who have competing visions of the
future. In the context of BC’s education system, “change” has become weaponized.
In other words, it has become a unit of rhetorical armament that is
deployed at the first sign of dissent. What do you mean you oppose
these policies? Why are you scared of change? Clearly you are an
obstacle to 21st century realities! If you’re a skeptic like me,
you’ve doubtlessly encountered this
response many times. Those who ask tough questions about policy shifts
(such as the underlying assumptions, the actual costs, and the positive
policies that may be discarded) are often cast as “resistors” to change.
We are dinosaurs who care only for ourselves, and not “the kids”. [In
education, appealing to "the kids" is like both sides in the Crusades
appealing to God.]
Notice what’s going on. “Change” does not imply that the intended alterations are positive. Change is simply difference or an adjustment of position. It’s not a straight line of progress from the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment. It could be meandering. It could ultimately bring us back to the starting point. It says nothing of the merit of that adjustment. In short, "change" means nothing.
Yet to the “change agents” who view dissenters as obstacles rather than valued interlocutors, their change is necessarily good. They've captured a neutral term and armed it with a more powerful meaning - goodness - that no one wants to oppose.
But this is nonsense. If I oppose your “change”, it’s because I believe your proposal is flawed. Just because you invoke “change” does not mean I concede its superiority. I believe my own position, which may or may not be the status quo, is better than yours. Amongst other things, I believe my position is better because it more accurately aligns itself with human nature, actual financing and/or the nature of institutions. And it offers less BS.
In the end, teachers ought to be very wary of “change”, whether it’s change for the sake of change, change that merely advances a person’s career, or – in the worst case situation – change that masks a partisan, non-consensual agenda. Above all else, don’t let others define their change as necessarily good change. If you do, and the BCTF is right about the government’s desire for less union protection, then those who demand honesty and clarity will be the first to go.
1. Abbott, George. “Opening Remarks”, Digital Learning Spring Conference: Personalized Learning for the 21st Century. April 18, 2011.
2. Premier’s Technology Council. A
Vision for 21st Century Education. (http://www.gov.bc.ca/premier/attachments/PTC_vision%20for_education.pdf)
Dec. 2010. Accessed 25 June 2011.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Personalized Learning? Unlikely...
The latest buzz-phrase in education is “personalized learning”. Like so many other education bandwagons, it has enjoyed a surge in popularity in university education programs, the provincial Ministry of Education, and recent education conferences. In December of 2010, the BC Ministry of Education and the Premier’s Technology Council [PTC] published its Vision for 21st Century Education, a vision “rooted in personalized learning” and our “knowledge-based society”. Recently, LearnNowBC held its 2011 conference, entitled Personalized Learning for the 21st Century.
So what exactly is “personalized learning”? According to the PTC manifesto, it means that education is individualized to the needs of each student. Because content is constantly evolving, the PTC asserts, instruction “should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content.” Over time, students will “increasingly access and engage with their own content, at their own pace of learning and take an increasing role in charting a path best suited to those talents, interests and abilities.” With the help of technology, and greater maturity, students “will, with the assistance of teachers and parents, take on more responsibility for choosing their educational path. The student would still have to achieve learning outcomes but focused on the student’s particular interests.”
So here it is. Another major bandwagon that's going to create a lot of changes in BC. Or will it?
Suffice to say, I remain deeply skeptical of this move into “21st century learning”. After 18 years in education, I have seen a lot of education fads come and go. Many have been riddled with faults, based upon theories of human nature that are well-meaning but have little basis in reality. The ultra-permissiveness of Martin Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage comes to mind, as does the impracticality of portfolio assessment. Other bandwagons may have merit, but die because they require a level of commitment that is hard to find. In my district, for example, much was made of AVID, but it died a slow and miserable death within a few years of its introduction. AVID’s commitment to helping students enter post-secondary education clashed with the anti-intellectualism that was (and is) rampant in my school district. Most of our kids don’t go to university, so why bother? More importantly, AVID requires a huge investment in resources and timetabling. However, most people with power seemed to want the resources to go elsewhere – to the next shiny new panacea. Our current flavour du jour, “professional learning communities,” is also fading as its novelty declines.
To be sure, some bandwagons persist. The “I” or “incomplete” policy is one of the more unfortunate elements that has survived from the “Year 2000” era. It’s added a layer of complexity for teachers and non-accountability for students, and has done nothing but harden cynicism. Students who are unwilling to do the work the first time are now entitled to an “I” plan that will allow them to make up the work – or “learning objectives” – at a later date. Of course, those unwilling to do the work the first time rarely do the work at a later date. But “plans for success” are nevertheless developed, discussed, implemented and measured.
So, will “personalized learning” fade away, or will it persist? To be truthful, I really don’t know, and I have no feeling or intuition regarding its future. It seems like a very flaky concept (see below), but the recent BCPSEA discussions with the Ministry of Education over this very issue make it seem like the government appears serious. The fact that tweeting by the participants in these discussions was banned also makes me wonder.
So let’s say “personalized learning” is indeed a serious contender. What can we make of it? My belief is that there’s a serious "bait and switch" effort underway. [Perhaps this is more circumstantial evidence of the seriousness of the initiative.] The bait is the promise of an education tailored to the specific needs of each student. Wow! This seems fantastic! What incredible service! But then you have to wonder about its practicality. How is a high school teacher with 200 students going to help each and every student create a personalized learning plan, replete with - in the words of the PTC initiative - “an ‘integrated’, ‘project- based’ or ‘problem-based’ approach to learning”? When will the teacher have time to create 200 separate projects and problems on an ongoing basis? What about counseling students as they choose “their educational path”? How is the teacher then going to monitor each student, providing instruction and advice for each step of the problem or project? And, finally, how will he or she provide timely and individualized assessment?
Only non-educators could think this is practical. Every teacher, however, will tell you the same thing. It’s utter madness. An unremitting fantasy. Total cock ‘n bull. There is simply not enough time in the day to personalize the learning for each student. It will never happen.
So what’s going to happen instead? Well, this is where it gets hazy, but I think this is where we'll see the switch part of the bait and switch. It will look something like this: pre-packaged programs where students work at their own pace. In other words, students will get correspondence courses, built by distributed learning (DL) teachers or institutions like Open School. I've been told it's about to happen in some districts; in the nebulously labeled “blended model”, pre-packaged content will be offered to students within regular schools. Depending on the district, students will complete these courses on their own time, or in an “X” or designated “distance ed" block, with or without access to an actual teacher. Content from DL teachers will be appropriated and shared throughout certain districts, or students will receive the canned packages that we all know and love from Open School. I’ve heard that some district administrators like this model because it earns their district full funding per block, rather than the less-than-full funding currently received by DL schools. [There's also a concern that the blended model might encourage schools to override the recent court ruling against the BC government and increase the number of students taught, er, ... guided... by each teacher.]
The result, if my prognosis is correct, will take us to a place far different than the world of “personalized learning”. This so-called blended model is, in fact, the epitome of “pre-determined content”. Nothing will be personalized. You’ll do the same Foundations of Mathematics 11 course and the same Social Studies 8 course as everyone else. If you’re lucky, you might get a teacher who can modify an assignment or two, but, more than likely, your courses will be more standardized than ever. Talk about bait and switch.
But there are more problems. As a teacher currently working in the DL world, I can tell you that “working at your own pace” is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think it’s for most people. It only really works for those who are highly self-motivated and/or those with a strong support network. It’s also a very lonely way to learn. Working at your own pace, in an asynchronous manner, makes it less likely that you'll find people with whom you can collaborate. Indeed, in my asynchronous DL school, we have largely given up on the interactive Elluminate vClass program because it’s a synchronous tool; it only works well when a large number of students are available at the same time and working on the same part of the course. In our asynchronous, “anytime, anywhere” environment, it’s a largely irrelevant technology. Finally, these blended courses will likely be housed in some form of electronic Learning Management System, like Moodle, Blackboard or D2L. Any desire to change or modify a course will require time as well as the skills necessary to work with the LMS. At that point, educators in regular schools will find out what I learned years ago: distributed learning, if done properly, takes an incredible amount of time, effort and training. It’s no cheaper (again, if done properly) than traditional “brick and mortar” education.
So, in the coming months, the question is clear: what does the government really mean by personalized learning? I think we need to prepare ourselves for a huge disconnect between rhetoric and reality.
Saturday, February 05, 2011
Dogs, Children, Culling...
Don't get me wrong: I like dogs. But our society's love for dogs sometimes goes over the top. Is it because they are a substitute for the children we haven't had for decades? Or the children we will never have, period? Whatever it is, it seems wholly disproportionate to the other challenges we face, especially those faced by actual children.
Shelley Fralic's recent
op-ed on the Whistler sled dog controversy captures my thoughts
... there is something almost obscene about the reaction to this story, especially coming on the heels of some of the most disturbing news to have been released in this province in recent years: the report by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, who is the diligent canary in the coal mine for the many abused and neglected kids among us.
Turpel-Lafond has been sounding the alarm for years, but no one seems to be listening, because it never seems to get better for children at risk. Her latest report? Turpel-Lafond found that 21 children, between 2007 and 2009, died before the age of two in homes where the government's child-welfare system was aware of the "tremendous challenges" facing those families, including domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health issues.
Twenty-one babies. Dead. For no good reason, except our lack of care and caring. Where is the public outpouring? The public memorials? The letters and tweets and Facebook posts and on-air callers and letters to the editor demanding justice, demanding heads roll, demanding changes to the system?
Dead dogs? That gruesome news was enough to make Premier Gordon Campbell launch an investigation, as he did Wednesday, a taxpayer-funded panel that will examine how and why 100 sled dogs came to meet such a grisly fate.
But babies? We just let them die, with nary a whimper.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
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 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 often find 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 a path away
from the latest changes - and make them a target.
Improvement, Not Innovation, is the Key to Greater Equity from CEA ACE on Vimeo.
Friday, December 10, 2010
The NDP vote in BC
The following chart from Will McMartin's most recent Tyee article offers some interesting insights into BC politics:
The first thing one notices is that the NDP's support has remained relatively constant over the last 40 years, aside from the 2001 debacle. In 9 of 10 elections, the NDP share of the popular vote has remained within a 7% range, from 39% to 46%. And in 7 of 10 elections, that range has been less than 3.5%. In other words, NDP supporters are a fairly consistent and committed group of voters.
What's also interesting is that the NDP's three electoral victories (1975, 1991 and 1996) were based on some of its smallest popular votes shares. Conversely, the best three elections in terms of vote share still resulted in electoral defeats to Bill Bennett's Social Credit Party.
What does this mean for the NDP? First, the best strategy for the NDP is to pray for the corruption of the right wing vote. In all three NDP victories, credible conservative alternatives helped cleave away crucial votes from the dominant right wing party (1975 and 1996), or there was simply no credible right wing party at all (1991). Another strategy, and something I've discussed before, is to address topics that are usually not associated with the NDP. Like the Liberals in 2009 - who successfully claimed new ground with the environment - the NDP needs to take economic policy seriously. This doesn't mean surrendering to the business sector and its destructive tax-cut monomania, but it does mean offering progressive ideas that will improve prosperity and productivity.
The chart also implies one other point, and one that McMartin's article effectively argues: the NDP is not likely to fall apart because of the departure of Carole James. The numbers above suggest a consistency that stands apart from any leader.
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Another Fraser Institute Joke
I'm pleased to see that Craig McInnes of the Vancouver Sun doesn't take the Fraser Institute’s latest salvo against Canada's surgical wait lists too seriously. A 16% return rate on a voluntary survey makes a mockery of any official conclusions. Little wonder that the report's authors fail to mention the response rate in their section on methodology, though one can locate the number in the corner of a chart on p. 40.
It reminds me of the Institute’s refusal to include apprenticeship data in its high school report, data which favours public schools over private schools.
In both cases, a barely-disguised ideological agenda overrides any concern for credibility.
Monday, December 06, 2010
A Carole James Requiem
It was another eventful day in B.C. politics. Carole James mercifully stepped down as the leader of the BC NDP party, and soon the spin was thick and saucy, with a hint of bovine dung.
James, of course, cast the 13 dissident MLA's as "bullies" and unity-wreckers, and herself as the innocent, hard-working victim who was - shades of Mike Harcourt - taking one for the team. She portrayed herself as an "excuse" for the dissidents to stop working for the party. And she repeatedly implied that unity was a virtue in itself, rather than the result of a proper democratic process.
The possibility that she was the problem never came up in her speech. The possibility that a two-time electoral loser should step aside was never mentioned. As I discussed in my April 29, 2009 entry, her refusal to make jobs and the economy her absolute priority has been a huge anchor for the NDP; this refusal was, of course, also ignored.
It certainly didn't help that, according to
NDP stalwart, Corky Evans, James forced the dissidents out
in the open and into a corner. According to Evans, the 13 dissident
MLA's sent a confidential letter to James, asking her to resign. But
instead of keeping it in-house, James and her supporters decided to make
the rift public and expose her detractors to the media. At a November 20
party meeting, yellow scarves were used to identify those who were team
players and those who were not. Evans explained it this way to the Georgia
"As we walked into the hotel the morning of the Provincial Council meeting, staff members stood in the hallway outside the meeting room and gave yellow scarves to everyone EXCEPT the folks they knew had signed or delivered the letter, and a few of the rest of us they figured might support the 13 signatories," Evans maintains. "The result was surreal."
He claims it was "the most divisive thing I have ever witnessed" in the NDP.
If this is true - and no one from the James' camp has denied or minimized the very public result - then James clearly has to shoulder much of the blame for the current fiasco. "Outing" dissenters in the hope of quashing their opposition is a very dangerous gambit. You often turn those who were quietly dissenting into betrayed and vocal critics. This certainly seems to be the case for Jenny Kwan, who really hadn't said much publicly until the "scarf meeting".
Another interesting point that arises from
James' resignation is the power of the caucus. Even though the party
membership or party leaders might select a party leader, in the
end it is the parliamentary caucus that holds power. If the caucus - in
whole or in part - can no longer support the leader, the leader is
finished. It's just another example of how party leadership is removed
from the electorate, and how parliamentary power is a matter of
confidence for both a party as a whole and a leader in particular. This
is the most potent example of a "check and balance" in the parliamentary
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Goin' out in style!
If the boss is forcing you out, then you might as well go out in a blaze of glory!
Here is Bill Bennett's quite remarkable exit interview after being removed from the cabinet of the BC Liberal government:
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
The Neo-Liberal Agenda: The Effects in BC, Part 2
In my last entry, I wrote about the pernicious attempts by the BC Liberals (and other neo-liberals) to promote tax cuts on the basis of improvements in productivity. I explained that these productivity increases simply haven't happened. This, in turn, suggests that Campbell's tax cut agenda is bogus and self-serving
The question, then, is what has come of the tax cuts that Campbell's government initiated almost immediately after coming to power in 2001?
The best answer is the same answer that we see in the United States: a concentration of wealth and income that leads to inequality.
The following is a chart
from the federal government. The richest quintile in BC made, on
average, 10.1 times the average income of the poorest quintile. The rest
At this point, a left-wing analysis of our economy really starts to make sense.
Monday, November 08, 2010
The Neo-Liberal Agenda: The Effects in BC, Part 1
I've talked at length about the failure of the neo-liberal agenda to increase productivity and high-quality employment, particularly in the Canadian context. But do these lack of economic benefits pertain to BC?
The Fraser Institute certainly doesn't think so. In a recent editorial puff piece in the Vancouver Sun - surprise, surprise - two writers from the F.I. extol the virtues of the BC Liberal government:
... Shortly after coming to power in June 2001, Campbell implemented major tax cuts on both personal and corporate income and scheduled additional cuts thereafter. Specifically, in his first budget (2001), Premier Campbell enacted a 25-per-cent across-the-board reduction in personal income tax rates, followed by more cuts in 2007 and 2008. The result was a significant improvement in incentives for British Columbians to work, save, invest, and be entrepreneurial.
His 2001 budget also reduced the general corporate income tax rate to 13.5 per cent from 16.5 per cent (effective in 2002); later reductions dropped the rate further to 10.5 per cent in 2010. Thanks to these and other business tax cuts (i. e. elimination of the corporate capital tax) B.C. now has a more competitive business tax regime.
Controlling government spending has also allowed Campbell to better manage government debt. From 2001-02 to 2009-10, Campbell's government generally balanced the books and on average recorded a small surplus (0.13 per cent of GDP). Over the same period, it reduced B.C.'s net debt to 15.7 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 from 18.5 per cent of GDP in 2001-02....
I won't go into the massive capital infrastructure costs that are not part of the Fraser Institute's accounting of our provincial debt. The real point is the drivel about "a more competitive business tax regime". In a truly competitive economy, profits and tax savings are supposed to be reinvested to make a business more efficient and more cost-effective. That's how you succeed in a competitive environment. But the problem with the Fraser Institute argument is - surprise, surprise - it's not happening.
In their recent "2010 BC Check-Up", the Institute of Chartered Accountants of British Columbia - no friends of progressive policy - offer very different conclusions about BC's "Golden Decade". To be sure, they do agree that productivity is important:
Improving productivity should be the cornerstone of any provincial economic action plan, as productive and efficient businesses have additional capital to reinvest in both their workforce and new machinery and equipment. A productive economy allows BC’s businesses to better compete internationally and will drive the province’s long-term economic health.
Unfortunately, BC isn't doing particularly well in terms of productivity:
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, as a less productive workforce affects profit margins and decreases the amount of capital that can be reinvested. This deterrent to investment, over the long-term, could erode BC’s ability to compete against the US. One of the more notable results in this year’s BC Check-Up was BC’s productivity gain of 2.1%, the best result in our comparison. However, to some extent, this gain was the result of rationalization in the forest industry, which means that BC’s turnaround in this critical indicator was linked to the loss of many jobs in a vulnerable sector, rather than increased investment in machinery and equipment and human capital.
Labour productivity rests not only on capital investment, but also the quality of the labour force itself. BC’s labour force educational attainment is still lower (63.1%) when compared to Alberta, Ontario, and Canada as a whole (64.3%, 68%, and 66.4% respectively); it also grew slowly during the past five years (3.8% compared to the national average growth rate of 4.7%). And employment in the sciences declined in 2009, by 0.6 ppt, as layoffs occurred across many sectors where these skills are needed.
This lack of productivity helps explain why BC has the highest child poverty rate in the country, and some of the worst real wages of any province. Indeed, the effects are quite staggering:
In 2009, BC’s real hourly wage was $23.89, compared to $27.24 in Alberta, and $24.48 in Ontario. Labour compensation per worker was even more skewed, at $44,568 in BC, compared to $64,516 in Alberta and $48,612 across Canada. Finally, the female/male wage ratio in BC is lower than it was five years ago (from 0.87 in 2004 to 0.84 in 2009), in stark contrast to all other comparison jurisdictions, where it has generally risen.
The only question remaining is this: After a
decade of massive tax cuts for businesses, what have they done with all