Power Corrupts Absolutely, Even in Education

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Lord Acton,  in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887

I started off my day today reading about the testimony of Jody Wilson Raybould to the Justice Committee and John Ibbitson’s response in the Globe and Mail        “Trudeau has lost the moral mandate to govern“. It was quite the day yesterday. Not only did we have the stunning testimony of the former Justice Minister, the House Oversight Committee in the United States grilled Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer, for over nine hours. I watched lots of this testimony, it was incredible. While I didn’t see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning, I saw a clip of her quizzing Cohen later in the day. If you haven’t seen it you should take a look here

If you contrast this with the performance of her Republican colleagues, you can get a good example of power corrupting absolutely. Like their Liberal Party cousins here in Canada, they are displaying blind loyalty to a leader and a party that has lost the right to govern due to their abuse of power.

I think we need more oversight committees and more politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jodi Wilson Raybould. Speaking truth to power is a very rare commodity these days.

There are more examples of the corrupting influence of power closer to home. Our premier Doug Ford has been in the news twice this week. First, it was reported that lobbyists, companies and industry groups are feeling pressure to attend a $1,250-a-person fundraiser in order to maintain access to Ford’s government “Doug Ford defends fundraising dinner amid cash-for-access criticisms“.

Then there is the $50,000 bill for Doug Ford’s new van with leather-covered swivel chairs. Very nice, but is this something he really needs to be premier of the province? This is yet another interesting article to read – all published this week! Here it is “Doug Ford’s van customization has $50K price tag, documents show”.

Power corrupts absolutely. Is there an educational context? I think there is. As a society, we are just not interested in making the investments necessary to ensure a safe system that is flexible enough to cater to all children. There is no reason at all that in a wealthy society like our own we can’t create a system that caters to the needs of all children. The fact that we have daily incidents of violence, especially in our elementary schools is an indication that we are not willing to make the hard choices that would allow for a more humane system.

Instead, we get the shoddy of implementation of cure-all philosophies like self-regulation. We get well-meaning educators who claim that if we just trained really hard, there would be no violence in our schools because everyone would be ‘regulated’ somehow. While this is an interesting idea, school boards will never be able to make this happen. Their implementation has been way too ham-handed.

The senior administrators who have played out this cure-all are happy with this self-regulation movement. They want violence in the schools to be the educator’s problem. Advocating for a whole-scale change to the education system to put all children first is not part of their game plan. It doesn’t have to be. Like all those in positions of absolute power, there is no real incentive to solve, or even look into the problems of school violence.

Education commentators are no better. Because they are linked to the current ideas on self-regulation they seem to be unable to think outside the education box. The response seems to be that this is the best we can do or that this is ‘part of the solution’. What if we put the child, every child, including the autistic child first? Why are we instead contemplating a system that stops intensive treatment at a very early age then putting everything on the backs of the school system? We are inviting more violence. Is self-regulation really going to be our best tool, or are we just blurring the issue and blunting the debate about what is really needed.

parent protests against the proposed changes to funding of autism programming in Ontario

One school board – Halton District has reversed this trend by speaking some truth to power. This week (again – a big week!) they published a letter to Education Minister Lisa Thompson and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod. In the letter, the school board indicated that a lack of communication about government funding has made it challenging to ensure that these students have the resources they need.

Without the current government funding, many of these families will be unable to continue therapy at current levels. For example, some students may drop from 25+ hours of therapy per week to two hours per week under the new program. Presumably, students will spend some, if not all, of the rest of this time within publicly funded schools…

Halton school board ‘gravely concerned’ about Ontario autism program changes

I would be surprised to hear that many other school boards are planning to write similar letters and I am sure none of the Catholic boards will do so.

Power corrupts at all levels. When it comes to senior management in school boards, there is little connection to the classroom and to the current debate on violence in the classroom. While protesting against a cut in funding for treatment programs for autistic children is a necessary step, senior officials need to question why we have the problem of rising violence in our schools. The symptom is the violence, the problem is that we are doing an inadequate job at serving our most needy children.

If they cannot address the problem they should get out of the way and let others try. That will never happen. They have the power and authority and power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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Self-Regulation and Evangelism in Education

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond?

Dr. Stan Kutcher

Many years ago I travelled to the Dominican Republic with some of my students. This was easily a transformative experience for me. I witnessed true poverty and injustice in the streets of Dominican towns and especially in the hovels of the sugar cane plantations called bateys.

a batey in the Dominican Republic. Modern-day slavery

Everything is wrong about how people, especially Haitians, are treated in the Dominican Republic, but there is one thing that really stuck out during my visits. One constant presence on the bateys were the evangelical churches.

I bring this up here for a post on the self-regulation movement because there is a link I want to explore. The evangelicals were very popular on the bateys because their ministers did not call into question the injustice of their situation on the plantations. Their reward was elsewhere – not in protesting against the grinding poverty they suffered so we could all have cheap sugar.

Here is the link. Self-regulation never calls into question a system that lends inadequate support to educators in their struggle to teach in a peaceful environment. Rather, self-regulation or mindfulness calls on the educator to transform their inner self and the inner selves of their students to create a peaceful environment in the classroom.

There is no need to advocate for change because the change is within us.

In the past few days, I have received a fair amount of push back for posting about the self-regulation movement. Fair enough, the conversation is a healthy one. We are gearing up for an episode of the Class Struggle podcast on this topic, but we aren’t ready yet. More conversation is needed.

What I find interesting is the push back. People are writing about how self-regulation has transformed their lives and has saved their careers. People write stories about how they were able to transform a situation with a hug while other staff looked on.

Statements like this make me uncomfortable. They have a certain whiff of evangelism. You just need to see the light and your classroom will be at peace. Nothing else is necessary.

My former school board loves self-regulation. Why wouldn’t they? By putting it back on educators to transform their students there would no longer be a need to spend more on educational assistants. There would be no need to lobby the government to change the way we approach the education of our children.

It’s a simple solution.

At one point, our local ‘self-regulation consultant’ came to see me to complain about a new teacher in our school. During her observations, she did not see any ‘evidence of self-regulation in the classroom.’ I think she expected me to march right in and get that fixed. To be honest, I really didn’t know what she wanted or expected. I did know that we weren’t following the new orthodoxy and that this needed to change.

Nothing changed and the consultant moved on to spread more of the good news.

Self-Regulation is based on Mindfulness and Mindfulness is heavily influenced by Buddhism. I think Mindfulness is really great and I have practised it for many years. It is intensely personal and takes years of practice to get good at it. From a Buddhist perspective, you never really get good at this, your whole life is spent working on getting better.

Paul Bennett has written a series of articles (Teaching ‘Stressed-Out’ Kids: Why is the Self-Regulation Movement Spreading?) on self-regulation. They are worth reading. I won’t summarize his writing here, but he makes some very good points about the nature of the self-regulation movement and the approach it is taking in our schools.

I got into this most recent debate not because I wanted to write about self-regulation. I wanted to highlight the important CBC piece on the Sunday edition about violence in schools. This became a bit of a rant about self-regulation when it was suggested that the solution to violence in schools is self-regulation.

I have to push back against this idea. No one idea will save our education system. An idea based on developing a stronger sense of self puts an undue burden on the educator. There is a strong current of evangelism in the current self-regulation movement that blurs our vision when it comes to what is truly needed in our schools.

Violence is tearing at the heart of our education system, we need to keep a clear focus on the problem and avoid distraction.

 

Are Educators Talking to Themselves?

Every day I start by reading the paper. It is a longtime practice and it grounds me before moving on to other projects. This is not something I started in retirement, I did this almost every day while I was actively involved as an educator.

Now I have more time to check out social media as well and I spend time every day going through my networks on Twitter, Facebook and Discovery Education (The DEN).

There is lots of good stuff going on. An online conference planned for the May 5th weekend, an educators summer book study, a new education news show on Voiced Radio lots of conversations between educators involved in Discovery Education on a variety of edtech (mainly) topics.

There is something unsettling here.

If I contrast what I read each day in the paper with what I see educators writing about there is a very discouraging disconnect.

The world is in crisis. Last week we had the Western Alliance hurtling cruise missiles at targets in Syria with the potential of initiating a world conflict between the West and the Russians. Sea levels continue to rise as the Globe and Mail continues to report in an excellent series on global warming and sea levels. In Ontario, we are heading into a provincial election with stark choices between a populist right-wing party and a corrupt moribund government.

Yet, when I look to comments from educators, I see a group that seems oblivious to what is happening in the world. I see a group that seems comfortable remaining blissfully neutral to what is going on.

Maybe educators on social media need to wake up. Maybe the inclusion of a book like American War recently published by former Globe and Mail writer Omar El Akkad would be a useful inclusion in a summer book study too heavy with technical manuals on teaching.

I am watching the excellent series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. This would be a great topic for educators to discuss! One of the most compelling characters in this documentary is a man who was a young professor in the early days of the war. He is compelling because he was so committed to protesting against an unjust, wasteful war, years before this became the popular thing to do. Where are these voices today?

Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a co-founder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society.

 

Where are we now? Why do we never seem to raise a voice of protest or even criticism of our system? Are we afraid for our jobs? Is it not the right thing to do? Do we even have an opinion?

A few weeks ago I took part in a training in South Carolina with American educators. Not once did we ever talk about politics. The whole world is coming apart because of a rogue president who takes his marching orders from Fox and Friends and we don’t even discuss this over a beer at the end of the day.

This is a problem. I realized this while I was at the training, but it seemed almost impolite to talk about this stuff. It is almost like educators are above this now and we have higher, better things to talk about.

This is distressing. I don’t think this is right. As educators, we have a higher purpose and we can raise the dialogue beyond complaining about testing which seems to be the best that we can do.

Can we do better? Should we do better?

Yes, of course we should.

Fashionable Ideas in Education – suiting other’s agendas?

I read an incredible post today on Twitter – not everything you read is equally useful.

Coordinating a session today about growth mindset… “Allowing yourself to learn from others, not on what you want to learn from them but instead on what they have to teach you is demonstrating a growth mindset!” Do we sometimes sabotage our growth because we want to control it?

I responded with this – ‘I think we need to control our own learning. Learning based on someone else’s agenda is what has always happened. Spent too many years listening to what other people thought I should know.’

How do terms like ‘growth mindset’ get subverted to take on meanings that suit other people’s agenda?

Maybe it has always been this way. How many terms in education do you know that have been subverted to take on a more corporate definition?

Here is one of my favourites – PLC – Professional Learning Community. There was a time when you could go to a three-day conference and hear Richard Dufour and others make really interesting presentations on the importance of personalized learning and collaboration. The books they wrote on PLCs were complex and really useful. Setting up a real PLC was a complex process that followed an outline developed by Dufour over years of trial and error as a high school principal.

PLC’s eventually became something that was used to define any meeting that took place with educators present. There became little distinction between Dufour’s carefully laid out process and a coffee klatch.  Superintendents in an effort to remain current and relevant used the term without any apparent understanding of the research behind the PLC. Recently, I heard a teacher complain (rightly) that her principal had taken all their planning time away by insisting that everyone at their school take part in a PLC.

This is not what should happen. The PLC is a great way to personalize teacher learning and encourage collaboration amongst educators. It should not be something that happens everyday everywhere. It should not be a way to show how ‘current’ you are in your instructional leadership practice.

The implementation of ideas and practices needs to be flexible and intuitive. They need to be pursued in an intelligent manner and they can’t be used to fit every situation.

Maybe this is a problem for all education institutions. Too often we all want to jump on the latest bandwagon – whether this is growth mindset, PLCs, social-emotional learning or half a hundred other fashionable ideas out there that suffer from mass adoption with very little critical consideration.

I am only focusing on two here – what would you add to the list?

Move Like a Cat: Challenging the System Every Day.

from George Couros – Only Schools Can End Schools

There are some education writers who always catch my attention. They are provocative and they give me ideas on what I can write about.

Two of these educators are George Couros and Greg Ashman.

In a recent post, George Couros wrote about institutional change and the school. He featured a quote that mentioned businesses like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb and how these innovators have challenged or replaced institutions that believed they were secure in supporting the status quo.

Greg Ashman seems to come up with something challenging almost daily. Recently he wrote a biting critique of the 6C fad, 21st-century skills and the current belief that teaching collaboration beats out traditional content. I love the title – Can we add ‘move like a cat’ to the list of 21st century skills?

There may not be too much in common in the two articles, but both challenge complacency and that is a really important service that all educators need. Greg Ashman’s article, in particular, would be a wonderful opener at a principal’s meeting at my former school board! Greg, I would have added this video.

Funny, but are there ever workshops at education conferences on reforming the system? Is this a topic that is just a little too uncomfortable?

While these ideas are important for our growth as a profession, George Couros makes the point that the people who really need to hear this message are not even listening.

They are not listening to Greg Ashman’s challenge of the sacred cow that is the 6C’s – maybe better called the silly C’s?

My point is that these and other writers need to hold a central place in our discussions on how the education system needs to evolve. There should be a place for these discussions at education conferences and we need to realize we can do better and we need to challenge more.

We do not have to be slaves to alignment. Maybe we need to move a little like a cat!

The education hierarchy may not be interested in such talk, but neither were the owners of Block Buster.

So, let’s move.

Can Ontario fix its maths curriculum – Not Yet: Response to Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman seems to be one of the few people writing in opposition to the ongoing disaster that is math instruction in Ontario. This week, he wrote another great article on what is not working with math in Ontario – Can Ontario fix its math curriculum.

Great article and really interesting comments. I agree that Ontario’s obsession with Michael Fullan is misplaced and he needs to move on. However, from what I have seen, Fullan is still the hero of the Ontario education scene and he can do no wrong. The solution to the problem of low scores in Ontario is just to train teachers harder in the inquiry-based system. You can get a good sense of this in this recent interview with Dr Mary Reid of OISE http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1041393219874/

True enough, no one will listen to the critics as we have been marginalized and to speak out against Fullan and the dominant ideology in Ontario is a huge risk to your career in education. As Greg Ashman writes,

There are a few prominent Canadian voices on Twitter but, as far as I can tell, they hold no positions of authority in Canadian education and will be easily marginalised as eccentric, old-fashioned conservatives.

I have felt this way for awhile and as an administrator here in Ottawa, I knew that to publically speak out about the inquiry obsession would have been very unwise from a career perspective. Now as a retired educator I can speak out, but it is not likely that what I write will have any impact.

The trend will continue to be to emphasise inquiry over explicit teaching and results will continue to go down. Senior administrators and ministry officials will continue to drink to constructivist kool-aid because there is little critical thinking going on and school boards demand conformity from their educators and conformity to some really bad thinking is actually the way to guarantee an advancing career for an administrator.

How many years will this silliness continue? How long will we put the blame on teachers who just don’t get inquiry? How long with Ontario’s math curriculum be directed by people who do not need to face its consequences in the classroom?

Thank-you Greg Ashman for your clear perspective on math in Ontario. We can only hope that someone here is listening!

Poor Math Scores – Should We Really Blame the Teacher?

I am listening to a rebroadcast of a CBC Ottawa interview on the Ontario Math curriculum with Mary Reid from OISE. This is one of a series of interviews and articles seeking to understand why students, especially in elementary school, are doing so poorly in math. You can hear the full interview here.

The interview was really nothing new until around the 5-minute mark when Mary Reid makes the classic argument that I always find misses the mark. At this point, Dr Reid dismisses any problem with EQAO and squarely puts the blame on teachers and their training for low math scores in Ontario.

Teachers, she says are not ready for inquiry-based learning. Teachers have high anxiety and low content knowledge when it comes to the inquiry approach. Professional development takes a ‘one size fits all approach’ whatever that means. So, because of the teacher’s high anxiety levels, we are failing at the inquiry-based approach.

These ‘highly anxious’ math teachers then pass this anxiety on to their students.

Then the argument takes on a bizarre note – research shows, according to Dr Reid that it really is the female teachers who are to blame. Female teachers especially pass on this anxiety to their female students, not the male students. This is what the ‘research’ shows. How do you even test for that?

We have been doing inquiry-based math in Ontario for a long time. Over the years, math results in grade 3 and 6 EQAO tests have steadily gone down. During this same period of time, teachers have been continually blamed for not being strong and skilled enough to effectively teach math.

The human factor always comes out – if you are really skilled and somehow ‘get’ the inquiry approach, your kids will do well. If not, your kids will do poorly. I only thank my lucky stars that I never had to teach math in such a poisoned atmosphere. How do elementary teachers do this when they are continually blamed by OISE professors and senior administrators for failing their students?

Why do we not look at the tests? Why do we not examine the curriculum or the inquiry approach?

As long as we see our teachers as lacking something we will continue to have problems when it comes to the math curriculum. It is now time to stop this fruitless blaming and look critically at EQAO and the curriculum.

We certainly need to look at how we assess learning in our schools. Today in the Globe and Mail, Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed and came much closer to a true assessment of our current system.

We need to recognize that children have a huge range of natural abilities and they all have them differently. Our education systems are designed to focus on a small band of those. If you have a narrow conception of ability, you end up with a very big conception of disability.

Sir Ken Robinson, Globe & Mail, September 8, 2017

The sooner we take a really creative approach to how we do education in Ontario the sooner we will be able to liberate our teachers and students to learn, live and grow in our schools. We really need to learn to stop blaming our frontline educators and move on to something much better.

 

Take It Back – Where Are We With Explicit Teaching?

It’s worth considering why we are in this situation. Why do bad ideas persist and even flourish in the field of education when they would have been superseded in medicine or engineering?

Greg Ashman Take It Back

I just read Greg Ashman’s latest post – Take It Back, he writes some great material that flies in the face of current education orthodoxy, so I find him refreshing and I like how he challenges the education status quo.

Tomorrow, teachers and students across the province of Ontario will be returning to class again entering the world of the 4C’s, 6C’s, Play-Based Learning, Deeper Learning and Inquiry-based Instruction.

These are all wonderful ideas but they all skirt around the true nature of teaching. Ministry officials, politicians and senior administrators all love these ideas, but I am not entirely sure why. It seems to me that if you want to be part of the established flow, you must uncritically accept all these ideas. To stand up in a meeting of principals and say that you question any of these ideas is a great way to put your career aspirations on a back burner.

That is of course until the ideas get called into question in the forum of public opinion. Right now in Ontario, there are several good articles out there that attack the way math has been taught in schools for the past decade. The Inquiry approach is not leading to better math scores no matter how much the math deck chairs are rearranged. Take a look at When will Ontario break the cycle that is failing its math students? by Anna Stokke, a professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg.

To be honest, in my years as an administrator, I never saw a huge amount of inquiry-based teaching in the classroom. I always worked with really talented teachers who had seen many of these education fads come and go. I did see many educators on Twitter and at school board meetings talk about the revolutionary impact of inquiry-based learning and I witnessed the 6C dogma of Michael Fullan being proclaimed everywhere in our school board. I don’t really believe that these ideas ever had a huge impact on good teaching, but to say so publically was never a good idea.

Greg Ashman makes the point in his post that educators now need to ‘take back’ education from those who have swung too far away from explicit teaching in all areas of the curriculum.

Instead, we need to fix this. This one is on us. We are the ones who want to be treated as professionals and so it is time to take control of our profession.

Sadly, you won’t see many educators write like Greg Ashman, it is simply too dangerous. To go against the orthodoxy is somehow seen as disloyal, it certainly doesn’t make you a team player.

This is a big problem. How do we question ideas that in reality make little sense and that have little hard research to back them up? How do we act when we see the education emperor really has no clothes?

I would start by questioning more and reading more – don’t get too caught up in someone else’s education orthodoxy.

Second Response to Five ways to damage a good school

One of the roles I took very seriously as an administrator was that of the gate-keeper. The administrator needs to shelter staff from unnecessary distractions that take them away from the important job of teaching.

I took this to mean that I had a responsibility to protect staff from the many ‘edufads’ that continually rained down on us from our school board and the ministry. My most recent favourite is Deep Learning, something that still defies any logical explanation. Michael Fullan, Ontario’s education guru has written volumes on this concept and his ideas have filtered down to all the schools in my former board. There is no debate about this concept, all schools are expected to follow the Deep Learning mantra even though most of us have no idea what it is and how the concepts improves or even impacts the learning of our students.

The second of Greg Ashman’s ‘howlers’ that have the potential to damage a school has to do with this ongoing trend in education – Lock yourself into the latest novelty

It is almost impossible for schools to filter out all of the bad ideas. Often, senior managers will have a pet project or enthusiasm that seems pretty reasonable at the time.

We don’t need to belabour the point about Deep Learning, it is simply an example of another fad that needs to play out in our system until it exhausts itself. Then we can all go back to what we were trying to do before – offering an excellent education, devoid of distractions, to our students.

The most recent recruiting poster for the Ottawa Public Board plays on this idea of the deep learner. The poster is based on the idea of the 6C’s another Fullan concept that is usually put out there along with Deep Learning.

While all this looks wonderful on a poster, isn’t this what good teachers have always done? Don’t we want all educated people to collaborate and be globally aware? Would it not be more honest and appropriate to say that the goal of education is to teach concepts in math, science, language arts, history etc that people need to be competent and literate in t0day’s society?

I really like writing that provokes critical thinking and Greg Ashman is doing what good educators have always done. He thinks and he challenges the standard orthodoxy which calls on educators to accept ideas without challenge.

Maybe educators along with their students need to adopt a goal of really thinking critically for the academic year ahead.

Thanks for the challenge Greg!