What is Canada?

On this Canada Day weekend I reflect on exactly what Canada is. II’s a challenging concept. We’re such a geographically  vast country that any singular vision of us as a nation is very difficult to find. Sometimes I think that we are, at best, a loose collection of mutually exclusive municipalities. I grew up in small towns in the Interior of British Columbia, but spent my adult years (most of my life) in Greater Vancouver. The differences in lifestyle are striking. Once you leave the the metropolitan Fraser Valley and start east down Highway 3, you can go for a hundred kilometres without seeing so much as a house. From the small junction town of Hope to the small copper mining town of Princeton is a one and a half hour drive through a winding mountain pass. I imagine the issues that concern the people in Hope and the people in Princeton vary markedly.

Even within the very metropolitan Lower Mainland of British Columbia, our needs and interests from borough to borough are different. For example, pockets of Surrey are heavily populated by Indians. My neighbourhood in Coquitlam has a large Persian minority. In Richmond are many immigrants from Hong Kong. But racial and linguistic differences only tell a part of the story. The geography of these boroughs has big effect on differences. The Fraser Valley still has an agricultural base (Yesterday at a Coquitlam farmers market I met a woman selling strawberries from her Abbottsford farm). Vancouver is very much the commercial centre of BC. Coquitlam is a bedroom community. All of these boroughs are within about a 75 km radius.

The difference become more profound when you consider the history and geography of a country that spans well over 4500 km from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Factor in the history of doomed tribalism and European expansionism onto the North American continent and our differences become impossibly irreconcilable. At least, that is how Canada sometimes seems.

Yesterday, though, one simple conversation reminded me of what is good about Canada. I was looking to rent an RV in the southeastern BC city of Cranbrook. My family is attending a reunion of my wife’s relatives in nearby Yahk, BC, and I hoped that the RV rental agency could set up a trailer for us in the campground there. I left a callback message, and received a call from a woman at the RV place later that day. I let her know my needs and she had to give me the bad news that no RVs were available on the weekend I had in mind. But I couldn’t get off the phone until this very affable person had got into my business (so to speak) and made sure that she could offer me at least some satisfaction. She spent some time talking to me about the various nearby communities and offering suggestions about the various bed and breakfast inns in the area. She had no way of benefitting from these recommendations; she was just a nice person, interested in helping others.

Now I known that such people exist everywhere in the world, and Canada has no exclusive claim to kindness. But there was something distinctly Canadian about my interaction with this person. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was because she was an entrepreneur (Through our conversation I learned that not only did she run an RV dealership, but she was also involved in the construction industry). Maybe it was because that even though I live some 600 km away from this person, I felt as though I could have been having a coffee with her in her kitchen. Maybe it’s because my travel plans include a drive through some of the most beautiful country on earth, culminating in a stay in Creston, a pastoral orchard town. Maybe it’s a thousand things that happen in a day that wrapped up with a pleasant conversation with a stranger. Hard to say. But I do know that Canada is a concept I believe in.

Happy Canada Day!

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Computers – the worksheets of today?

One of the more recent terms in education is “flipped classroom”. The idea behind the “flipped classroom” is that instruction should be given on the students’ own time via video, and the teacher or teaching aide can float around the classroom after students have watched video lessons and supervise the students’ assignment work, making himself/herself available for small group or individual remediation on concepts that students may be struggling with. The key to this model is the availability of technology that allows for storage and unlimited access to instructional videos for viewing or re-viewing at any time. One of the great benefits is that students can work at their own pace, and learning can be individualized somewhat.

I attended a conference in Kelowna in which this “flipped classroom” model was presented by some very energetic, and obviously competent teachers. As the two days wore on, a thought intruded on me. The basis for instructing this way is the exact same basis on which the use of worksheets was founded. Well-formed worksheets were instructional, providing a sequential, scaffolded pedagogy that students could follow at their own pace while the teacher circulated or worked with small groups. Ah yes! The much maligned worksheet.

In recent years, I have attended a plethora of workshops on how to engage adolescents. In almost all of them, the worksheet assignment is poo-pooed as an un-engaging, tiresome, irrelevant waste of time that smacks of lazy teaching. In fact, in one workshop, a teacher (whether mythological or real I don’t know) was ridiculed in absentia for using GeoLabs (workbooks published 20 or so years ago that systematically instruct students on geological concepts). And no doubt, for some students, worksheets are not engaging. However, having taught a class that leaned heavily on students’ use of laptop computers, I can say that just as many kids are un-engaged with laptop technology, unless they can be playing video games.

I dug out some old GeoLabs this year, and for the most part, they were a success. They really helped me to present the material in a sequential and visual way. And the kicker? The kids were very much engaged. They struggled and conquered and LEARNED! Would these grade 8 students have reported that they enjoyed working on GeoLabs? Probably not. But there was a palpable buzz in the room – that good buzz that every teacher recognizes and tries to achieve. I think that part of the appeal of the GeoLab is that it is finite. A lab presents a concept that can’t be ignored, and the student has a target for success that is easily recognized and easily reached.

The point of this story is not that the model presented in Kelowna is wrong. In fact, I was truly inspired by the resourcefulness, and the incredible dedication of the presenters at the conference. They’ll go far, and they deserve to. I’ve seen the “flipped classroom” model’s success first hand, as the auto mechanics teacher at my high school has been a quiet pioneer of the model for the last couple of years. Indeed, the model has much to recommend it. My point is that if a lesson is well structured, the medium in which the concept is presented is not terribly important. If we jump on bandwagons about which medium is best, we risk becoming gimmicky. We must always keep our conceptual goals in sight and reflect on the best means of teaching them. Furthermore, we are arrogant fools if we think that new always equals better.

You failed me.

A 35 year veteran physics teacher in Edmonton, AB has been suspended for recording zeros when work has not been handed in. His school’s policy does not allow for zeros because it is operating under the premise that students will show their learning in a variety of ways, and that if they are able to demonstrate their learning eventually during the year through some other means, they should be given credit. Under such a policy, whether a student hands things in on time or not is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is whether the student has mastered the concept by the end of the course. So in evaluating a student the question is no longer, “Did she do the work?”, but it’s “CAN she do the work?” Teachers are expected to use a variety of teaching and assessment tools to answer this question.

At the same time, teachers are under a lot of pressure to “engage” students. We are operating under the assumption that a big part of the reason that students are not completing assignments is because the  assignments are  not engaging. They’re not relevant in the students’ world. If teachers can “hook” students by creating “meaningful” activities that pique their interest, students will actively learn on their own. The teacher is now no longer trying to push concepts at the student, but the student is actively pursuing the concepts in her desire to accomplish a meaningful task.

So for example, if a student were engaged in designing a better bicycle, she would be more amenable to learning the concepts of force and motion. All of the physics equations involved in force and motion would be more interesting because they would have a real world relevance. Furthermore, in this scenario, the teacher (presumably) would have all kinds of means available to evaluate the student, as the student could make proposals, make hypotheses and test them, investigate historic precedents and theories of friction, motion, gear ratios – even as these relate to the human body. Any medium for demonstrating understanding counts as credit.

The theory is sound enough, but it is extremely hard to implement. In such a scenario, the teacher can look at the work of the student and describe her progress. He may even have a good idea about how well the student knows the concepts. But record keeping in such a scenario is a nightmare.

Can you imagine having individualize learning this way with a large class? The teacher would have to provide individualized scenarios for each student for each set of concepts.

And many concepts are very difficult to tie to practical models. When we learn about sub-atomic particles, the learning activities become harder to imagine.

One suggestion in these types of models is to put students into interest groups. But then it is almost impossible to evaluate the individual contributions of each student.

From time to time the media reports stories of kids who have accomplished amazing things in such learning scenarios. Quite often there is a beaming teacher standing behind them.

But in such scenarios, I often wonder what the other students in the class have done. And I wonder how the teacher has evaluated these students. Was it on the merits of the work done in the project, or was it on other more traditional evaluation tools, like tests, quizzes and assignments?

And I also wonder how many kids are in the class. This type of instruction becomes impossible when efficiency models come into play. The teacher who is monitoring this activity also has to teach six other classes. I don’t know if the school could hold that many bicycles. And after 25 years of teaching (and many workshops on the topic) I still don’t know how to convert learning scenarios like this into meaningful percentage-based letter grades.

Another problem inherent in this type of scenario is the fact that being able to build a bicycle does not guarantee a comprehensive understanding of the physics of bicycles. The goal of academic courses is not only to instil the ability to build a better bicycle, but also to instil an ability to articulate the physical principles at play, principles that can be generalized to other situations. These principles are expressed through complex mathematical equations. To understand intuitively is not enough. Academic understanding  assumes an understanding at a more general, theoretical level and the ability to articulate that understanding.

The assumption that teaching and learning can happen this way in schools is the driving force behind what the teacher in Edmonton is facing. On the one hand, he is expected to engage adolescents and individualize instruction. On the other hand he is expected to instil academic concepts that are very theoretical, and that to many students are less than engaging.

Furthermore there is an unstated assumption that a student’s failure reflects the failure of the teacher to engage the student properly. I have been to workshop after workshop on engaging adolescents. The very fact that these workshops exist suggest that it is a requirement of teacher to engage adolescents, and not just to teach.

In the 1950s Julian Rotter coined the term “locus of control” to describe individuals’ perception of what forces direct their lives. People with an internal locus of control sense that they are in control of their own fate, and therefore actively pursue goals, and tend to internalize failure. These people tend to be more successful in school and in career mobility because they “know” they can accomplish their goals, so they are more likely to try. On the other hand people with an external locus of control believe that they are in the hands of fate, so they are less likely to challenge the “system” over which they have no control. These people are less likely to do well in school, because they don’t see the point of trying. They’re going to get screwed by the system no matter what. Of course this is an overly simplistic model. People perceive their efficacy differently from situation to situation, but overall, Rotter’s idea has merit.

For some reason, education has moved from a knowledge-centred approach to a student-centered approach. What this has done, besides imposing on teachers the impossible mandate of individualizing instruction, is to create a scenario in which a student can blame the system for her failure. This plays right into maladaptive attitudes of students who have an external locus of control. Teachers must now accept the students’ failure to meet expectations as being our failure to engage them. Somehow, we, “the system”, have failed them. In many cases, the teacher is working harder to get an individual students’ assignment done than the student is. Multiply this by at least five students per class, and you’ve got a system in crisis. The crisis is reflected in the language. “I failed English” has been replaced by “The teacher failed me in English”.

For students who have an internal locus of control, the old school system works beautifully. If they know they will receive a zero for work not completed by deadline, they will complete assignments on time or willingly accept the consequences for not doing so. They will take responsibility for learning what they are expected to learn, and they will trust the teacher’s motives and competence. But for students who have an external locus of control, the system just won’t work. It never has worked. When dropping out was allowed, these were the kids who dropped out at 16. The student with the external l.o.c. will never meet expectations on her own. Instead, the teachers (under the auspice of “adapting” the curriculum) will push her through. She will never internalize the concepts that she is presented with, and when faced by a teacher brave enough to stand by his principles and give the kid a zero for work not done, the student will make a racket when she winds up with 45% in a course that she has not engaged in at all throughout the whole year, crying about how she has already bought her $1000 grad dress and now the teacher is failing her. The teacher will get dressed down by an enabling parent in front of the principal, who doesn’t want to open this theoretical can of worms, and therefore passes the problem onto the counsellors. Pressure is applied, and a last minute bargain is struck in which, somehow evidence is found suggesting that the child deserves 50%, (I’ve never understood why someone who has met only half the expectations can pass a course, but I digress.). The student’s world view is confirmed, and the teacher’s ethical stand is undermined. It must be June.