Researcher’s Journal – Learning is Hard

I am writing this for me, but you can read this if you want.

Whoever said that failure is good, that’s how students learn. Have you tried it? It is good learning, but it is really hard.

So, I want to read this post in January when my comprehensive exams are over. I did a mock version of my research question and I failed miserably. I think there is probably a comment on every paragraph I wrote. And I appreciate every comment. Two very busy academics took the time to go over every word I wrote, the fact that I came up short is good, it gives me something to work on.

It is hard after a long and pretty successful career to start over. It is like learning Spanish in downtown Consuelo (in the DR) you feel a little like a baby, each step is tentative, and everything is risky.

taking baby steps again

I certainly didn’t have to do this, but I have to take the long view right now. The courses were the easy part, the comprehensives are really serious and no one is going to give you a break here. I have six months to get ready for the comprehensives. My original research question was too much, it was a bit like flying in the face of a hurricane. I winced, so I need to move on.

My old question is gone, I don’t think I even understood what I was asking. I am going back to something I have experienced – how does one assess and use digital resources as a credible learning tool when there are no rules? Textbooks were easy, they were written by credible publishers and they have been approved by our provincial government.

starting with words and pictures

Web information is different – this is a totally unregulated field. Does anyone understand how dangerous this can be? What is a good source? Who is behind the site? What is available at 8:30 in the morning when you have a 90-minute class to teach?

I think I was focusing on themes that were not my own. If you are going to spend four years studying something, you better choose something that you care about deeply. My advisors gently moved me away from a theme that really didn’t resonate. Digital literacy and the curation of learning resources for teachers and students is something I am passionate about. While textbooks are still produced for schools, people (school boards) don’t want to invest as much in digital materials. The temptation is to use Google – Google is free, Google will tell you what you need to know.

When I worked on a committee that advised the school board on digital implementation this attitude was shared by many. When something is free and it looks good it is very hard to convince people to invest in content and staff training to effectively use this content. This was shocking to me, but it makes sense. Digital curation is really hard and it costs money. School boards still focus on expensive textbooks. The idea that you should pay for digital content is still a bit of a reach.

So here is my new question:

Digital literacies and the teaching of history – the development of critical thinking skills to assess and curate learning material for the classroom.

This is my old question, not answering this well has taught me a great deal:

Drawing on existing history education scholarship, how have different writers sought to critically address the teaching of history education in Canada? In your response draw on the scholarly literature to show 1) the role of historical thinking concepts in Canada; 2) the tensions that currently exist; and 3) how these relate to settler colonial narratives about Canada’s past.

Thanks very much to my course prof and my academic advisor for taking the considerable time to go over my work. I am sure this was not easy to do and it took lots of time. Yes, in the trial run I didn’t do very well, but I will keep and read again every comment that they have written. Failure is tough, failure is liberating and it can be a wonderful teacher.

This where I start again. I am getting really good
material on comprehensive exams and new resources!

Teaching new teachers in 2022

Next week we start the interesting process of looking at our teacher education program. This is the unique time in the year when staff have a chance to suggest changes for the next academic year. This year, after three years of working with new teachers, I have a few ideas on how we might be able to make things more meaningful for people starting out in the profession.

First, Canadian universities need to make a strong commitment to doing their very best to develop innovative teacher education programs. This is such an important role for the academy. We have a collective responsibility to present a program that challenges, trains and inspires people who may be involved in the education of young Canadians for the next 30 years. It should go without saying, but there are powerful competing interests in the academy that work against this notion.

Universities value scholarship and research. In many faculties across the country, teaching excellence is not a requirement they are looking for. For faculty of education programs, there has to be a shift in emphasis. While educational research is an important component, we must also model teaching excellence in all the courses we teach. We only have two years to work with new teachers and there needs to be a new consideration of the balance between the academic and the practical.

I can’t offer a systematic review of what is needed to develop innovative programming, but I would love to see examples of how this is being done well in Canada. Has this been studied? Do we know what the components of an excellent program are? Is this knowledge shared and discussed throughout the academic community?

If this information exists, why are we not reading this material before we meet to discuss changes to the program? I think we are going in unprepared for the task.

Teacher education is grounded in the academic and the practical. There are other areas that have this mix where the academy is developing professionals. Medicine and law come to mind. In all cases where professional training is involved, there is a constant need to assess how effective these programs are at preparing new professionals for the working world. While the Ontario College of Teachers regularly certifies teacher training programs in the province, what role does the OTC play in the years between reviews?

How can we best strike a balance between teaching theory and practice? At the university, the teaching staff is made up of full-time professors – experts in their fields of study, seconded teachers who teach up to three semesters in their subject areas, part-time professors and graduate students and faculty advisors. Faculty advisors act as a liaison between the university and the practicum schools. In non-Covid years, these faculty advisors visit the schools on a regular basis to connect with the associate teacher and the teacher candidate.

The key staff position is the associate teacher. This is the person who volunteers (there is a small stipend) to take on one or more student teachers for the year. They are responsible for overseeing the practice of the student teacher and they assess the success and areas of growth of their students throughout the year.

This is the essential component of training that takes place over the two years of teacher education. Associate teachers are given no time off to do this important work; it is one of the many add-ons that society depends on teachers to assume to keep education moving in the province. Associate teachers have no say in what is taught at the university and do not play any role in the program review process we are going through right now.

There is another group of volunteers that receive even less attention. A small collection of university professors coordinate the in-university practicum programs over the two-year period. They play crucial roles in developing connections and partnerships with schools, associate teachers and administrators and they play an important role in fashioning the student teacher reflective component of the practicum experience.

Because the coordinating role does not count as part of their academic load, these educators take this on as part of their extra duties apart from the research they are expected to do and their academic teaching load.

The two most important roles in teacher education are being conducted by volunteers. I don’t think many people think or write about this, but volunteer associate teachers and university coordinators give their own precious professional time to nurture the next generation of teachers in this province. Both groups have little say in the structure and content of the teacher education program.

Universities, like other large institutions, move very slowly. There is little incentive to make changes that would give volunteers a voice in the development of new teachers. Like many institutions, the paid permanent staff hold almost all the reins of control and power and see little need to change a situation that in their minds, works very well.

Some people – academic advisors, professional staff, full-time professors are doing very well in this current system. They are protected by seniority and tenure, structural program components that guarantee complacency. Academic advisors are kept in their jobs well beyond their best before date. Some advisors have not seen the inside of a classroom in 20 years. Student teachers, associate teachers and volunteer academic staff have no voice in program design even though they represent the essential stakeholders in teacher education.

I don’t know if this has been studied in Canada. There is a problem although it is not in the interest of the academy to do anything about this. Earlier this year we read The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Henry et. al., 2017). This is an excellent study of the inequities around race and indigeneity that exist in Canadian universities. While the problems in teacher education are different many of the same elements that block reform are similar. It is a stunning rebuke to the academic system here in Canada.

These are discouraging situations, all the more important to write about them. Solutions do exist, this is not hopeless, but we have to start asking the right people the important questions.

My Academic Life (continues)

At the beginning of this year, I started work on my first assignment for the second semester. We were asked to develop a schedule for our academic work over the next few years – what would the day-to-day look like?

I wrote this assignment as a blog post and here it is.

Eleven days after I wrote this post, my mother died. We were then under the ludicrous convoy occupation and soon after that in an act reminiscent of the Second World War, Russia invaded Ukraine.

My schedule looks a little silly now.

Being in school; being a principal had some semblance of order. This calls for a different sort of calendar.

I do try to write in the morning. It sounds like a lovely idea, but that always doesn’t work out. I am writing this now at the end of a long day and a long week of writing and researching every day. Learn something new – work when you can, be more flexible, schedules crumble. (but, I am writing the final version this morning – much better)

I have done it. Three very demanding courses along with lots of thinking about what I will be writing about and researching for the next three years. The elements of the new plan reside in the questions I have been writing about for the past two weeks:

Some fragments

Choose a qualitative methodology – OK Critical Participatory Action Research (PAR). This was a true revelation for me. In PAR the actions and research are situationed in the real world. The product does not necessarily return to the academy, instead it is left in the hands of the participants. This type of work shows the ultimate respect for the subject and breaks down the barriers that usually exist in qualitative research. This reseach has true meaning and that is an inspiration. PAR is framed in social justice and focuses on revealing truth – truth with a plan – to the people who are part of the project. This kind of work offers so many incredible opportunities!

(Source: P. McGuire 2011. What an adventure it would be to return to San Jose Las Flores to take part in a PAR project with these teachers!)

how have different writers sought to critically address the teaching of history education in Canada? – Here is a question that will stay with me. I wonder what people in our country think about their history? While it seems to be different in Quebec, most Canadian students have to take only one course in Canadian history while in high school. I have taught this course and have seen it taught many times. Most students see it as something they have to get through. Most probably come out of the course with a rudimentary understanding of their country’s history (Gibson & Peck 2020). In most cases, the teaching of history remains unchanged and relies on old, tired, and outmoded methodoligies. Barton and Levstik write:

One of us, in fact, has a daughter currently enrolled in eighth grade U.S. history, and she analyzes exactly as many primary sources, reads exactly as many works of historical literature, takes part in exactly as many inquiry projects and simulations, and considers exactly as many alternative historical perspectives as her father did nearly 30 years ago: zero. We wish this were an isolated example, but we know that it isn’t. (Barton & Levstik, 2004, p. 3)

how do tensions in this work these lead to a disruption of settler-colonial narratives about Canada’s past? The tensions are so interesting. Historical Thinking Concepts remain the accepted methodology, but there are questions – how many teachers actually use this in their classrooms? As a more scientific approach to the study of history – what qualitative features of our narrative are sidelined? We live in a society informed by the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are also more and more a diverse, multicultural society, especially in our urban centers – how can one methodology address all of these challenges?

This is a very rich experience. There are so many interesting questions I want to work on, and I just love the experience of exercising my mind and working on my writing. I have one course to go and then I get to start preparing for my comprehensives. I want to get this done by the fall.

So, next – a little reading for the next few weeks:

New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada – Penny Clark (Ed.)

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts – Sam Wineburg

We Want to do More Than Survive – Bettina Love

History Education and the Construction of National Identities Carretero, Asensio, Rodriguez-Moneo (Eds.)

Beyond History for Historical Consciousness – Levesque and Croteau

Colonialism/Postcolonialism – Ania Loomba

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan

This list comes from my profs and the research I have been doing. They are the foundation of the next step and I will be working through all this until the summer.

Next – I really need to figure out how to organize all this information. Some people are using Zotero, others NVivo some Dedoose. People speak with such authority about these programs, but I really need to do my own research and figure something that will work for me. In case I haven’t listed enough tools here are nine more.

What’s next?

I have to sort through the tangle of ideas to come up with questions for my comp question. Am I any closer to figuring this out?

And, finally another thing I have learned, it would be good to do this:

Song of the Day

References to texts mentioned

Barton, & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching history for the common good. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410610508

Clark. C.,(2011). New possibilities for the past shaping history education in Canada. UBC Press.

Gibson L., Peck C.L. (2020) More than a Methods Course: Teaching Preservice Teachers to Think Historically. In: Berg C., Christou T. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of History and Social Studies Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.1007/978-3-030-37210-1_10

Lévesque S., & Croteau J.P., (2020). Beyond history for historical consciousness : students, narrative, and memory. University of Toronto Press.

Loomba, A., (2015). Colonialism/postcolonialism (Third edition.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315751245

Love, B., (2019). We want to do more than survive : abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press.

MacMillan, M., (2010). Dangerous games : the uses and abuses of history (Modern Library paperback ed.). Modern Library.

Wineburg, S., (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts : charting the future of teaching the past. Temple University.