Friday, December 21, 2012

A tribute to #idlenomore

I was delighted to be able to attend one of the many drumming and dancing events today to support the Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and justice for all the indigenous people of the lands on which we live. I was delighted to be able to attend as a teacher, a trade union member and a representative of others in our community who want to stand with our First Nations to combat the injustices of the Federal government and the disregard for natural world.

The First Nations of what is now called Canada have been subject to centuries of injustice, beginning with the theft of their land, the genocidal obliteration of some of their peoples, the interference with their culture and ways of being, and the terrible mistreatment of their children in residential schools.

If you are a teacher reading this post, please take the time this holiday to learn more about the history of residential schooling and how we can help to educate about this injustice at the Project of Heart, where you will find history, resources, and community:

Sadly, the legacy of these crimes is still here.

Today, in what ought to be a more enlightened time, the injustices continue with the Highway of Tears, with the failure to live up to treaty obligations, and most recently with the passage of Bill C 45 - yet another theft from aboriginal peoples and their land.

Bill C 45, just passed, was developed without the required consultation with First Nations. It changes the voting procedures for ceding rights for purposes such as pipelines and power transmission. The Bill will make it easier for industrial projects to interfere with traditional lands and territories and waterways.

In October, I was taken aback by the thousands of people on the lawn of legislature who came together to protest the Enbridge pipeline, the tar sands, and the proposal for tankers on our coast. That protest was so amazing because of the solidarity between environmentalists, social justice activists, trade unionists and First Nations. It reminded me of the 1999 "Battle of Seattle" when seemingly disparate groups of people came together to demand justice for the world's citizens.

Idle no more is attracting the same type of solidarity. Read this excellent letter of support from the President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, as just one example:

Whether it is the Occupy movement's calls for a fair distribution of wealth, the environmental call for the respect of our planet, the First Nations demanding respect and justice and rights, or workers seeking dignity and democracy, we are all, hopefully, idle no more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When skills trump content

The BC edplan, along with most incarnations of 21st Century Learning, calls for a reduction in specificity of learning outcomes in favour of more integration of skill based learning. This is part of a world wide push by business and education think tanks. The underlying theme is to repurpose schools into training centres for the workplace by replacing a broad liberal arts education with a much stronger focus on job training.

The recent changes in the US curriculum give us an idea of what this means when it reaches classrooms. The new Common Core standards will mandate that 70% of high school reading is non-fiction, or "informational text". To do this, there will be a significant reduction in literature in the curriculum. As many commentators have pointed out, literature is probably what engages most students in developing a love of reading and books, so why a school system would limit the relative amount of literature to other reading while claiming to want to engage children certainly seems odd. It also minimizes the role of schools in developing appreciation for literature and creative writing and the personal fulfillment that accompanies exposure to our rich literary traditions. Here is how the British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported the change:

" American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.

A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 per cent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace.

Books such as JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird will be replaced by "informational texts" approved by the Common Core State Standards.

Suggested non-fiction texts include Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California's Invasive Plant Council.

The new educational standards have the backing of the influential National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and are being part-funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "

A closer look at the "skills" agenda reveals some subtle and some not so sublte undertones.

Critical thinking is almost always included in proposed curricular changes, and certainly should be. But what is the definition of critical thinking? Many of the examples in the 21st Century literature apply this term in an entrepreneurial way looking at problem solving and technology, rather than the historical meaning of critical thinking of identifying bias and interests and determining opinions and beliefs.

For example, a lovely video on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website shows a student thinking outside the box when she takes her premade kit for a toy car and instead creates an airplane. This is meant to demonstrate critical thinking and creativity - two of the four "C"s in the Partnerships list of 21st Century Skills.

In this example, the "critical" part of critical thinking is going beyond the status quo of the kit provided - that is, using the materials for a purpose other than the one originally intended. While this may be a wonderful attribute (and worth teaching), it is not the type of critical thinking that participants in a democracy need. It is the type of critical thinking that entrepreneurs in a growth based, competitive economy need. It is better described as problem solving rather than critical thinking and therefore to call it critical thinking is misleading.

Critical thinking for decision making requires the ability to analyse information to identify points of view and bias, and use this analysis to develop beliefs and opinions. Students need to understand that information is not value neutral and that democratic decision making includes an understanding whose interests are served with a given set of ideas. 

There is danger in promoting a type of critical thinking whose end goal is merely technological advancement or a product that will sell in the marketplace.  Or put another way, there is a danger in confusing problem solving with critical thinking. If we do, we might ignore or omit genuine critical thinking altogether in favour of entrepreneurial problem solving.

A second example of the subtle ideological undertone in the skills agenda relates to "citizenship". The notion of citizenship is contained in the curriculum of many democratic jurisdictions, as it should be. In my opinion, it should include or even prioritize the notion of democratic citizenship.

Yet much of the 21st Century literature is reframing citizenship using the terminology "ethical citizenship" or "social responsibility". Again, these terms really have different meanings.

Democratic citizenship describes the role of an individual within a group or social structure that involves democratic decision making. Both ethical citizenship and social responsibility focus on individual actions in moral terms - am I behaving respectfully or ethically towards another person. Again, teaching social responsibility is important and necessary. But the concern is that by reframing citizenship towards individual ethical behaviour, we lose the focus on democracy and replace it with personal ethics.

The C21 Canada paper "Shifting Minds" contains the word democracy only once. And yet public schooling should have as one of its primary functions the preparation of citizens to be active participants in democratic process. Instead, the words innovation, entrepreneurism, financial and economic appear frequently. The focus is a shift indeed - away from a school system serving our individual and social well being and toward one serving economic interests.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Losing public control of public education

We elect three different governments to look after different parts of our school system. Locally elected School Boards develop budgets, define policy, and manage the day to day running of Districts. Provincial governments set curriculum and most education policy. They create the legal and regulatory framework for schools. The federal government plays a role in Aboriginal education and French education.

But there are others wanting a say in how schools are run and governed, and they were not chosen by you or me. They are the ever growing field of education lobby groups - both non-profit and corporately funded. Sadly, our governments are more and more adopting their ideas rather than those of their electorate.

The earliest and perhaps most influential is the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), an organization of which Canada is a member. This organization is not neutral - it aims to foster global development through economic growth. It therefore has a focus on skills and training in relation to education. It is the OECD that conducts the international standardized PISA tests that compare students from different countries in reading, writing, math and science. Noticeably absent from the OECD education program is any mention of education beyond training for the workforce or the role of education  in fostering and enhancing democracy.The OECD looks through just one lens - economic development.

There is the Global Education Leaders Partnership. This is a self-styled independent but corporate backed lobby group. GELP was instrumental in fostering and helping develop the BC education plan, behind closed doors.

There is C21 Canada - again, a corporately funded lobby group whose objectives orient around technology integration and radical change to schooling. They describe themselves:

“C21 Canada is a national, not for profit organization that advocates for 21st Century models of learning in education. The goal of C21 Canada is to witness an accelerated pace of 21st competencies, instructional practices, and digital resources and services being integrated into Canada’s learning systems. C21 Canada is a unique blend of national education associations and knowledge sector businesses united in their belief that 21st Century models of learning must be adopted in public education on an urgent basis to position Canadians for economic, social and personal success in the high skills, knowledge and innovation based economy.”

C21 Canada is funded primarily by business: Dell, EF Educational Tours, IBM, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Microsoft, Nelson Education, Oxford University Press, Pearson, Scholastic Education, Smart Technologies; as well as two non-profit groups: the Canadian School Board Association and the Canadian Education Association.

Their discussion document, Shifting Minds: A 21st Century Vision for Public Education in Canada  provides insight into their values.

Despite the claim that “Canadians would prefer to see a national learning vision founded on Canadian values and principles”  the content is remarkably similar to what has been articulated in both the US and the UK by similar corporately backed non-profit lobby groups.

There is the promotion of 21st Century “competencies” - a shift from content based curriculum to skill based curriculum.

They also promote “radical transformation”, envisioned as “core  elements  of  public  education  that  must  undergo  elements  of transformation. This systemic change must be strategic and focused to be successful.” It includes curriculum overhaul, changes in pedagogy, modifying the learning environment, changing school governance structures and citizen engagement.  There is a heavy focus on technology, including: “anytime, anywhere learning”, “personalized learning opportunities” for “all students”, a commitment that “on-line learning, blended learning and virtual schools must be pursued as viable and relevant options to meeting the needs of many learners”, and “assistive technologies to support the diversified needs of learners must be ubiquitous.”

There are private consultants, to help you transform your education system. One is 21st Century Learning Associates, a private business run by John Kershaw, the former Deputy Minister of Education in New Brunswick. These consultants are ready to step in when governments hire them for “Strategic Planning: Visioning and strategic planning expertise and development services in the field of public education, including policy, legislative and regulatory.

But sometimes governments just go straight to the source: the corporations themselves. Manitoba has just announced their 21st Century Learning initiative:

The Ministry of Education of the Government of Manitoba is set to make a major announcement to encourage youth to pursue careers in technology on December 5.

The Ministry, represented by Deputy Minister Dr. Gerald Farthing, as well as the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), along with Google Canada, Cisco Canada and Canada’s Association of IT Professionals (CIPS) will host a launch event in Winnipeg to kick off a major initiative.

The tsunami of education reform is coming our way, and it is coming not from the needs and wants of parents and students. It is coming from the plethora of individuals, private businesses, non-profit lobby groups and corporations who have something to gain.