Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Technology in school? How much is too much

When a parent visits a daycare, top of their minds is what kind of activities their children will be doing. A typical visit includes a description of the day, from play time, to nap time, to out door time. Most day cares proudly announce that they have no or very little screen time - be it television or computers.

But suddenly, the "critical thinkers" in the education policy world think we should be infusing and transforming our schools, including our primary classrooms, with endless numbers of screens and gadgets. Class sets of iPads, BYOD (bring your own device), blended learning...there is a never ending push for more technology in teaching.

Just today I had a look at a slideshow from Brian Kuhn, an IT Manager of School District 43. The show is entitled Brittania Elementary Education Technology Ideas (http://www.slideshare.net/bkuhn/britannia-elementary-educational-technology-ideas-nov2012) and displays the so-called wonders of using digital cameras, smart phones, ipads and laptops in elementary school. While no doubt many of the activities presented are fun, engaging, and involve some learning, nowhere was there a critical look at a most basic question: how much technology is appropriate for children? what are the downsides? at what age? and critically, how much is too much?

Or, to put it visually, do we want schools with more of this:


or with more of this:


Far away from the education policy makers, other fields of study - notably pediatrics and child psychology - are making some very relevant critiques of the dangers of screen time, particularly for children and teenagers.

Dr. Larry Rosen, writing for Psychology Today, describes a recent study of students:

"Recently my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying something important for a mere 15 minutes in their natural environments. We were interested in whether they could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. Every minute we noted exactly what they were doing, whether they were studying, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television in the background, and if they had a computer screen in front of them and what websites were being visited.

The results were startling. First, these students were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology. [By the way, other researchers have found similar attention spans with computer programmers and medical students.] The major culprit: their smartphone and their laptop were providing constant interruptions. We also looked at whether these distractors might predict who was a better student. Not surprisingly those who stayed on task longer and had study strategies were better students. The worst students were those who consumed more media each day and had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them. One additional result stunned us: If they checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period they were worse students. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook; once was enough." (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201204/attention-alert-study-distraction-reveals-some-surpris)

Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist, writes on her web site about the effects on children of over stimulation from television:

"In 1970, the average age at which children watched television was four years old. Today, the average age is four months. The typical child before the age of five is watching 4 ½ hours of television per day, 40% of their waking hours! Recent studies have linked television to the over-stimulation of an infant’s brain, leading to the development of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in young children."

She is referring to studies by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, MD, on the effect of television viewing on children. Dr. Christakis has produced a TED talk on the topic of media and children, and suggests parents need to ensure their children are on a "media diet".

Interestingly, school is one place where children currently escape from their gadgets and screens. But this could be set to change, without much public discussion.

This theme is also taken up by Dr. Stuart Shankar, a Canadian researcher involved in the study of self-regulation, who talks about the effects of stress and over stimulation:

"What we're seeing is a generation of children whose nervous system is essentially being overstimulated."

Reasons included emotional and physiological stressors such as changing marital patterns, parental stress, changes in extended family involvement, increased use of the television, video games and the internet, and exposure to damaging themes via marketing and the media.

"We're concerned about the dramatic increase in television viewing, which is a physiological stressor because so much of the brain's energy is used on visual processing," Dr Shanker says.

The corporations who stand to make substantial profits from technology in education have spent a decade promoting the "edtech" business. They are single minded - they want as much technology in schools as possible. And they are on the cusp of getting what they want in growing numbers of jurisdictions all over the world. Layers of education policy makers and bureaucrats now mindlessly push technology without any discussion about potential drawbacks or health concerns, but rather just the "more is better" mantra.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Corporate advertising in public schools

I noticed in the news this week that a debate is taking place in Alberta over the consideration of selling naming rights to companies for school facilities and classrooms. The administration at the Calgary Board claims the funds are necessary to create classrooms that provide hands-on learning in technology education. (http://metronews.ca/news/calgary/428011/trustee-wants-corporate-sponsorship-in-cbe-schools-put-to-public-survey/) Thankfully, the NDP education critic, David Eggan, has opposed this measure - so someone is speaking up to keep corporate ads out of schools.

Advertising in schools is extremely problematic on a number of levels. First, schools are public spaces that should serve the public interest, not corporate interests. Additionally, allowing advertising in schools can pervert a school's primary function - teaching and learning. Choices should always be made based on pedagogy, but when free materials or free equipment is offered, school administrators feel pressured, particularly when budgets are slim.

Already, schools are full of advertising - on score boards in gymnasiums, on the Coke machines in the hallways, in the resources provided free of change to teachers (such as materials on loans and credit from VISA and videos on puberty from KOTEX). But children and teenagers are such a lucrative market that corporations and businesses want more.

Here in BC a crafty entrepreneur has developed "Chatter High". It is a web site where teens answer quiz questions about companies and non-profit institutions and can use points to win prizes. To find the answer, they use a "hint" which tells them how to go to the company web site. So a student might spend ten or twenty minutes searching web sites to find the answers to get the points to win the prizes. Chatter High sells the rights to be on their service to local Victoria businesses. If you go into the Victoria airport, you will see giant billboards advertising to local businesses how they can purchase this service (see photos above). In the schools, daily announcements invite teens to sign on to Chatter High so they don't miss out on the prizes. I signed up for Chatter High, wondering if I would see Camosun College and UVic, but on my first visit the only educational institute was Sprott Shaw College, and the prizes were for local spas. Hardly the kind of thorough and useful information a student might want or need as part of their career development education. In essence, this profit making service is filtering what information is being marketed to students using school property and resources including the announcement system and the computer labs. They are making a business of selling access to students in schools. In an interview with the Saanich News, school Principal Judy Harrison had this to say to defend the use of this commercial product at Spectrum Community School: 'Harrison justifies the inclusion of businesses on the site, most which have no clear connection to education, since they’re merely providing incentives for students, such as gift certificates for gas or ferry travel.“I guess we’re all enticed by prizes,” Harrison said. “The (most) time was spent on answering the questions, so that’s where it was consistent.”' (http://www.saanichnews.com/news/159574585.html)

Across North America under funded school systems are facing increasing pressure to use advertising and charity to make up budget shortfalls. But these come with a very serious cost. In Seattle, when the Board proposed selling ads in schools, parents reacted strongly:

At a community meeting on the issue, one parent said, "Schools should be all about teaching students to make their own choices, not coercing them to buy things they don't need. Schools should not be selling my child as a consumer to corporations." 
Another said, "We need less materialism in this country, not more. To 'teach' children that they 'need' unnecessary commercial products is morally wrong. That this is done on commercial television is bad enough. But to do it in a public school is reprehensible." 


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thoughts on parent advocacy and the Moore decision: guest post

Today's post is from David Komljenovic, in Kamloops:

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Moore case creates a framework of advocacy for parents of children with special needs (and I am one). Often parents find school boards obstinate when more support is requested despite good reasons for providing them. I am hopeful that this decision will change the attitude that many boards have towards special education. The views of the courts should change how special education is viewed and in context to the required human rights considerations when Boards make budgetary decisions:

"Adequate special education...is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia."

In that vein, there is also now advice provided by the SCC to parents about how to advocate for their children including the requirements on districts to undertake a review that considers impacts on the human rights of children with special needs before changing or taking away programs. Some of the points in the decision related to this were:

"In Jeffrey’s case, the Tribunal accepted that the District faced financial difficulties during the relevant period. Yet it also found that cuts were disproportionately made to special needs programs. Despite their similar cost, the District retained some discretionary programs, such as the Outdoor School — an outdoor campus where students learned about community and the environment — while eliminating the Diagnostic Centre." (para 51)

"More significantly, the Tribunal found, as previously noted, that the District undertook no assessment, financial or otherwise, of what alternatives were or could be reasonably available to accommodate special needs students if the Diagnostic Centre were closed...the failure to consider financial alternatives completely undermines what is, in essence, the District’s argument, namely that it was justified in providing no meaningful access to an education for Jeffrey because it had no economic choice. In order to decide that it had no other choice, it had at least to consider what those other choices were." (para 52)

The SCC makes a harsh commentary on the North Vancouver Board and perhaps warns other Boards that do not complete their analysis before making a decision of potential consequences.  Boards have to do more than just take into consideration budgetary constraints. The SCC has now decreed that human rights considerations must also be made and may exempt the closure of certain facilities or dismantling of programs.

"The Tribunal found that when the decision to close the Diagnostic Centre was made, the District did so without knowing how the needs of students like Jeffrey would be addressed, and without "undertak[ing] a needs-based analysis, consider[ing] what might replace Diagnostic Centre, or assess[ing] the effect of the closure on [Severe Learning Disabilities] students". The Tribunal noted that at the Board meeting on April 26, 1994, when the budget closing the Diagnostic Centre was approved, the Minutes stated that "[a]ll Trustees indicated in this discussion that they were adopting the bylaw as it was required by legislation and not because they believed it met the needs of the students". It concluded that Dr. Robin Brayne, the District’s Superintendent of Schools, and the District in general "did not know how many students would be affected" by the closure. In fact, on the day of the Board vote, the District’s Assistant Superintendent and the Coordinator of Student Services informed Dr. Brayne that it was "too early to know precisely how the needs of high incidence students will be addressed in the absence of the Diagnostic Centre". (para 43)

I would note that the SCC did not completely absolve the province noting that the budgetary crisis was partly created by them:

"This brings us to the Province’s role. The District’s budgetary crisis was created, at least in part, by the Province’s funding shortfalls..."

However, it is logical to understand why the SCC did not expand its decision of discrimination beyond the district. I noted these three quotes that explain how a complaint is centred on the complainant and not on systemic issues that may tangentially be related to the complainant.

"A practice is discriminatory whether it has an unjustifiably adverse impact on a single individual or systemically on several..."

"But the remedy must flow from the claim. In this case, the claim was made on behalf of Jeffrey, and the evidence giving concrete support to the claim all centred on him. While the Tribunal was certainly entitled to consider systemic evidence in order to determine whether Jeffrey had suffered discrimination, it was unnecessary for it to hold an extensive inquiry into the precise format of the provincial funding mechanism or the entire provincial administration of special education in order to determine whether Jeffrey was discriminated against. The Tribunal, with great respect, is an adjudicator of the particular claim that is before it, not a Royal Commission."

"However, she properly noted that "[a]lthough systemic discrimination does not have to be specifically pleaded, it must relate to the complaint as framed by the Complainant" (emphasis added). This, I think, was a clear direction to the Tribunal hearing the merits of the case that while systemic evidence could be helpful, the claim should remain centred on Jeffrey."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Technology in a 21st Century Learning Inc world

Not surprisingly, technology is almost always identified as a component of 21st Century Learning. But this isn't simply adding new technology to aid in the delivery of curriculum or to allow new teaching methods. It is not a matter of adding a few computer labs or replacing textbooks with eBooks.  In the 21st Century Learning model technology defines the learning methods. It is absolutely backwards - rather than pedagogy defining if and what technologies are used, instead, it is technology driving the choices for learning. As such, it is fundamentally different than the type of technology integration we've seen in the past. It is also, ironically, antithetical to a student-centred or personalized approach because the technology is driving decisions, not student needs.

Whole books have been written on the degree to which technology should or shouldn't be in our schools, but we can consider just a few statistics to get a sense of where 21st Century Learning advocates would like to take us. A paper by CISCO provides a helpful chart documenting what media consumption Dutch teenagers do during an average day (

The question CISCO asks is, “How can traditional modes of classroom instruction engage and inspire students when life outside the classroom has changed so dramatically? In 2007, teens in the United States spent 40 percent of their media time on cell phones, the Internet, and games, up from 16 percent in 1998. For many learners, class is the only time in their day  when they completely ‘disconnect.’” Rather than question how much is too much technology, this technology company wonders how we can increase the screen time of teenagers by filling in the one relatively screen free time - school. Meanwhile the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends a two hour screen time limit for children. Significant social issues related to screen time include obesity, mental health and even changing brain chemistry for younger children.

To sell more IT products, the 21st Century Learning advocates create a need for those products. No longer should schools spend their resource and IT budgets only on textbooks and computer labs. Anytime, anywhere, collaborative, integrated, blended learning requires a massive infusion of new IT products.

Considering just one corporate player, Pearson, we see the objectives identified in this report written by Donald Gutstein for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation:

“According to investment research firm Sanford Bernstein & Co., Pearson is pursuing three  growth strategies. First, the company is investing in content and technology to increase its  market share of the education industry. Second, the company is restructuring away from the FT  Group and reinvesting the proceeds into the high-growth areas of emerging markets (Brazil,  India, China, South Africa) and consumer—rather than publicly—financed education. The third  strategy is new, and Bernstein predicts it will ‘revolutionize how education is delivered to  students around the world, starting with the United States.’ It is an ambitious attempt to  further commercialize education by claiming its products and services will raise student and  teacher performance while at the same time cutting spending. If successful, Bernstein argues,  ‘it would make every teacher and school student in the United States a potential customer’ by  ‘personalizing education in U.S. schools through technology and best practices.’” (

Pearson appears to have the US government firmly in its corner with the launch of the ‘Digital Promise’ announced in 2011. Digital Promise, “will work with leading researchers, entrepreneurs, and schools to identify and spur breakthrough learning technologies that deliver the best results for students, parents, and teachers.” (

Without doubt there is a place for technology in schools and classrooms. It is also likely that new technological developments can provide useful tools to enhance learning. Online and blended models certainly have a place to address issues such as geographic distance and schooling in small communities with few children.

What is troubling is that rather than a broad discussion about the potential new uses of technology along with the potential risks and pitfalls, the dialogue is one-sided and misleading.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The slow death of special education

The last decade has been bad for special education - services for those students with identified disabilities (learning, intellectual, or physical).

In response to court victories requiring inclusion - the policy that all children should be integrated as much as possibly into the main stream classroom setting - a framework was developed in most jurisdictions in Canada to define and determine how each student's need would be addressed. Typically this means a team including parents, special education teachers, classroom teachers and administration work together to develop an individual education plan (IEP). In some cases the actual content of the student's education is modified - they complete different learning outcomes. In others, different learning strategies are used to help a student reach the same learning outcomes. These strategies are identified in the plan along with how they will be accomplished.

Prior to 2002, students with a designation (a disability identified through testing and/or diagnosis) in BC received targeted funding. This funding paid for various resources in the school such as special education teachers, educational assistants, special equipment, and so forth. The targeting meant that the funding had to be directed to resources for a particular child.

In addition, prior to 2002, teachers in BC had limits on how many students in each class was a student requiring an IEP. If this number was exceeded (usually 2 or 3), the teacher was assigned additional preparation time. This recognized that in order to carry out a modified program in the classroom, a teacher needed time to plan and prepare additional lessons and materials. It also recognized that a teacher could only feasibly do this for so many children before all the hours in the day were gone. Finally it ensured that children with disabilities really were integrated - they could not be bunched up into one or two classes within a school.

Today's world is very different. There is now very limited targeted funding, and it is usually inadequate. Non-targeted funds have been used for a whole variety of other expenses, including carbon offsets, un-funded salary increases, technology purchases.

Today, a child with autism may only have enough funding for an educational assistant half time, rather than full time (of course their autism doesn't magically go away for the other half of the day). Children with learning disabilities do not receive any targeted funding at all. It is not unusual for a class to have 3 - 12 students with an IEP. BC has lost over 700 special education teachers. They have more and more been replaced with an increase in education assistants, who have typically 6 months training, in comparison to five years of university plus a special education specialization.

Teachers cannot manage and students' needs are not being met. It is now common place for teachers to refuse to sign off on an IEP - they simply don't believe that adequate resources are available to actually meet the plans identified.

Classroom teachers struggle to cope with large numbers of students with widely varying needs. There are fewer and fewer "pull out" programs to help with reading and numeracy, so this is left to the classroom teacher. One teacher told me a few years ago she was delivering 18 different reading programs in her primary classroom.  In my school district, in a five year period, one in ten teachers is off on a stress related illness.

Teachers are told to use teaching techniques to solve these problems. First, the answer was "differentiated learning". Simply create a lesson with variations for many different ability levels.

Now teachers are being told to teach children to "self regulate". Simply ensure that your teaching includes self-regulation methods and children will be able to develop the skills to concentrate and function in a classroom setting.

And the latest? Personalization. In the new 21st century learning world, as all teaching will be personalized to fit each individual student's needs, a student with a disability is no different than any other student.

BC's Superintendent of Achievement, Rod Allen, has said there will be: "'no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is." This is meant to rationalize complete de-categorization - the wholesale elimination of the identification and programming for students with a disability.

Rights for students with disabilities originate with the Charter. Educational opportunity must be preserved no matter what disabilities a child has, be it physical or mental. For some children to learn to read, significantly more resources are required. Learning disabilities require specific teaching strategies and often one-on-one instruction for periods of time. Physical disabilities may require additional supervision and equipment. It is more expensive, generally, to provide the same level of educational opportunity to a child with a disability than to a child without a disability, just as there may be costs involved to accommodate a worker with a disability in the workplace. 

In a world obsessed with cost cutting rather than fairness and equity, this means that these children are particularly vulnerable. It is much cheaper to tell teachers to simply use "differentiated learning" than it is to provide adequate numbers of special education teachers. It is much easier to blame teachers for failing to do an impossible job - meet every child's needs in a class with too many learning complexities and too many children - than to ensure an adequate tax base to so that funding is available to actually meet every child's needs.

The result? Only half of all students with special needs complete secondary school. 

Eliminating special education categories would be catastrophic  Not only would we fail more children, we wouldn't even know, because no information would be available to identify which children had disabilities and how they progressed through the school system.

Sadly, we appear to be on this path.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Attacks on public education are working...where is the NDP?

The news this week that BC parents are increasingly turning to private schools was not surprising. For two decades, teachers and trustees have been raising the alarm over the impact of funding cuts to our public schools. Parents notice too, and if they can afford it, they go elsewhere.

One of the biggest differences in private and public schools is class size. Whereas most private schools have classes in the 10 - 15 range for primary and the 15-20 range for secondary, BC public schools now have no class size limits whatsoever above grade 3 and class sizes are often 20 - 24 in primary and 28 - 30 and even larger in secondary. This week a group of students put a video online lamenting their class of 50 and how the only way to reach their teacher was via Facebook (http://youtu.be/k0JBv9n5Wyc). It is one of the single biggest differentiating factors between the two systems, and almost always a selling point for private schools.

The BC Liberals began the steady  increase in public school class sizes in 2002 when they unilaterally eliminated class size limits from teacher contracts. For a decade since, teachers have been out protesting and striking to try and regain those limits.

Sadly, it now appears that the NDP has no intention to reverse this trend if elected. In an interview with the Globe & Mail, Dix said he is concerned about class composition (the number of students with special needs in a class), but not class size. (http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/dix-firm-on-where-education-dollars-should-flow/article4617274/?service=mobile). When I raised this point at a recent Victoria Labour Council meeting with MLA Maureen Karagianis, she replied that we shouldn't listen to the right wing media, they get it wrong. Not a very convincing argument without a public statement from Dix. Evidently he has no issue with the Globe's reporting or we would have heard otherwise.

A few short days later, Dix chose to weigh in on private school funding. Currently private schools receive 50% of public school funding amounts per child. Evidently an NDP government would make no change to this (http://www.vancouversun.com/news/metro/backs+public+funding+independent+schools/7472681/story.html).

So is it any wonder that private schools have waitlists? Public schools are underfunded, with large and unmanageable class sizes, and neither party wants to do anything about it.

Some of my friends in the NDP say it is ok, the NDP is just being quiet before the election so they can win and we can't expect much anyway. I find this hard to swallow. First, parties win on a mandate, and if you don't state what your values are and what you want to achieve before the election, it becomes impossible to make change by stealth afterwards. (remember the HST). Second, I think the NDP is completely missing the boat on this one. Even the BC School Trustees Association, hardly a radical left wing group, says public funding should go to public schools, not private schools. I believe there is plenty of public support to redirect funding to the public system and to substantially increase funding to schools. After all, even the Fraser Institute acknowledges that 9 in 10 students are still attending public schools. So for that 90% of parental voters, it is just plain old self interest to want all of that public funding going into public schools.

But even for those without students currently in the school system, the rise of inequality and the loss of a middle income standard of living is intimately linked to the ability to rely on a strong social safety net. As Justin Trudeau pointed out this week in the Toronto Star (http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1280029--canadian-middle-class-left-out-of-the-growth-equation), key to combating inequality is the "need for a stable social safety net, essential to the middle class’s standard of living and economic security".Free, quality public education is a critical component of that safety net. Funding private schools with public money and refusing to address class sizes in the public system will lead to a further decline in our public system and drive more parents (who can afford it) into the private one.