Monthly Archives: February 2014

Teachers: Don’t doubt yourselves.

     As we realize that negotiations are getting nowhere with the provincial government, teachers are implementing Phase One of job action. I’d like to remind my colleagues (and anyone else who cares to read this) about some facts. Don’t worry about the spin that the government puts on things (and that the press reports). Here are the facts.

1. We care about the children we teach.

How could we not? The greatest moment for us as teachers is the “aha” moment when we see it in children. Of course we care! In fact, there are some kids in every school for whom we are the only adults who care. We volunteer our time. We actively try to engage the kids in various things, trying to hook them into education (and some of them are tough to hook). We pick them up when they fall. We volunteer far beyond the expectations of our job.

We should not feel shame that we are asking for smaller class sizes. We want to be able to do our jobs well. We won’t work less hard just because our classes are small, but we will be able to do more – to teach better. This will make our jobs more satisfying.

Our schools are currently funded at $1000 PER CHILD lower than the national average. This is unconscionable.

2. We are not greedy.

If we were greedy we would never have become teachers. We should not feel shame for asking for a substantial increase in pay to match teachers in other provinces. Most of us are primary breadwinners. We don’t make that much money. We’ll certainly never be rich. Our pension plans won’t put us in yachts. And it’s damn hard work. Most of the guest speakers who visit classes leave wondering how we do it. I hear this over and over again. Most people can’t do what we do.

3. Our union is not militant.

Believe me. I grew up in a steelworkers town. You want to see militant?  I’ll show you militant. For us, it is one of the most dismaying things in the world to take up a job action, because not only does it affect our own families’ wellbeing; but it also affects the wellbeing of the kids at school THAT WE CARE ABOUT.  In fact, I become very, very distressed over it.

A strike is the last thing we want, but when the government is as intractable as this one, we have no other way to fight. If they had their wish, we would continue to lose ground against the cost of living. That’s an awfully strange wish for a government to have for its people. We made much more money relative to the cost of living twenty-five years ago. A simple fact.

4. We should not feel ashamed to make good pay just because we belong to the public sector.

The fact that we are funded by tax dollars doesn’t make our service less valuable. We generate wealth by keeping kids off the streets and by educating them. Paying tax dollars is the same as paying for bread. You pay something and you get something. An educated society is the key to happiness, harmony and democracy. It also produces a huge savings in health costs.

5. We should be respected and not belittled by our government.

The current BC government has been cited numerous times by the International Labour Organization for disrespectful treatment of teachers. The government’s job is not to keep people’s taxes low; it is to make sure its citizens are well cared-for. We are citizens too.

6. We are the vanguard of the human rights movement.

We have stood up to a brutal government in gut-wrenching labour disputes. At the heart of these disputes was the issue of contract-stripping, which has been found to be unconstitutional. The Bill 28 ruling was never appealed, and it is a precedent for Canadian constitutional law for all of the future. Who else but the BCTF could have taken on this huge burden? Every union in the province — even in the country should thank us for affirming their rights. We can be proud of this!

Furthermore, our working conditions are also the children’s working conditions. When we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for children. Of this there is no doubt. This is true symbiosis.

A 1% increase in BC’s 2 highest tax brackets would generate over $62 million in added revenue.

Taxation is the main way your government generates revenue. The reason we have universal free public education, and health care (among other benefits) is because everyone pays taxes. Unquestionably, tax revenue allows the government to make a more equitable, safe, orderly society.

Historically, though, “tax” has been a bad word. Realistically, no one likes giving up such a huge chunk of their income to the government that spends it on things that may not directly benefit the individual tax payer. It takes a big person to surrender his taxes lovingly for the greater good.

With this idea in mind, I present the following scenario for British Columbians:

IF WE WERE TO INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF TAX ON THE HIGHEST TWO BRACKETS BY 1% EACH: (*see table below)

A person earning $150,000 would now pay a total of $451 more per year in tax, or o.3% of total income
A person earning $200,000 would now pay a total of $951 more per year in tax, or 0.5% of total income
A person earning $1,000,000 would now pay a total of $8,951 more per year in tax, or 0.9% of total income

According to Statistics Canada there were 65,600 people in BC earning above $150,000/a in 2011.

Even if the annual income of all these people averaged out to $200,000 per year (It’s almost certainly higher than that.), a 1% increase on the last two tax brackets would generate $62,385,600 in revenue.

To put this in perspective, the province could hire over 700 more full time public school teachers per year if the highest two tax brackets were increased by 1%.

This represents the tax on individuals’ income only. It’s well known that our corporate tax rate in BC is one of the lowest in the country.

The scenario I have presented here is very simplistic, but it illustrates how a modest increase in the nominal tax rate can make a huge difference. The reality in BC is that the nominal tax rate across the board was lowered by 25% by the BC Liberals almost immediately when they got into power.

No one but the wealthy benefited noticeably from this, and since then, public service has taken a terrible hit. Hospitals are filthy – rife with C. difficile and other superbugs. And school districts are forced to cut way back on services.

For an eyebrow-raising review of how tax revenue in BC has decreased under the BC Liberal government, read “BC’s Regressive Tax Shift” published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

We have become programmed to think of taxation only in terms of deficit and surplus, but we should really be thinking about the living conditions in the province. When the NDP left office in 2001, BC was far better off than it is now, according to virtually every social measure (School achievement, child poverty rate, homelessness, mental health) and the provincial budget was in surplus!

*Calculating BC Provincial Personal Income Tax

Here’s how your provincial income tax is calculated if you make $200 000

5.06% on the first $37,606 of taxable income, (up to $37,606 total)    = 1902.86
7.7% on the next $37,607, +                             (up to $75,213 total)   = 2895.74
10.5% on the next $11,141, +                           (up to $86,354 total)   = 1169.81
12.29% on the next $18,504, +                         (up to $104,858 total) = 2274.14
14.7% on the next $45,142, +                           (up to $150,000 total) = 6635.87
16.8% on the amount over $150,000                                                   = 8400.00

Total BC provincial income tax for a person earning $200 000/a       = $ 23,278.42

On Blended Learning™

Excerpt from a previous post:

Blended Learning

“Blended learning” is a term being bandied about a lot these days. It is the latest and greatest “technique” that will revolutionize teaching and learning! Hallelujah!

What blended actually is, is the integration of technology into sound pedagogical practice. I do NOT oppose blended learning. What I oppose is Blended Learning™. This term creates a little clique of teachers and administrators who can become “experts” on it, thereby identifying themselves as teacher leaders, as if the idea of integrating technology into pedagogical methods is some new technique that only those who’ve been to the workshop can understand.

Again, I am not against blended learning, but when the term is used as a hammer to attack teachers who are doing a superlative job without using computer gimmicks in their teaching, I object strongly. Teachers are exposed to this kind of tawdry proselytizing through their whole careers. Many of us will remember “new math.” None of this has ever made any positive impact on good teaching or learning.

What is particularly dismaying about Blended Learning is that it seems to ignore the fact that technology in schools is often more of a distraction than it is a learning tool. Walk through any school, or simply observe your own children. Their cel phone is constantly taking their attention away from a learning task. You may say, “So what?”, but there are things in life that require intense, focused concentration. Persuasive writing, for example, is one of those things, as the writer needs to gather evidence, anticipate criticism, and articulate thoughts in a cohesive sequence all at the same time. Any distraction can be the death of a good treatise.

Amazingly, many teachers are ignoring the evidence right in front of their faces, and subscribing to the idea that students can be focused while listening to music or checking into social media. In fact, there is NO EVIDENCE that these things enhance concentration. At the very most, we find that there are some rare instances in which music being played through headphones can mute out external distractions and enhance concentration, but I will argue that the circumstances in which this is preferable to silence, are rare indeed.

At the heart of “blended learning” is the notion that students will have networked technology at their side, and that somehow all of the latest enhancements in technology will be able to enhance learning. There is no question that some technological advances will impact and likely benefit learning, but we need to dispel the ridiculous guilt trip that is put on teachers (quite often, venerated senior teachers) who dare to impugn God’s latest gift to teaching. There’s an ugly arrogance in some of the promotors of this new movement (that is not new at all), and their smug missive that those who raise concerns about student distraction are just “doing it wrong”. Please…

And we must also question the motives of the people funding these initiatives. I would be extremely wary of an ideology that is backed by, say… Microsoft.

On inquiry in education: a caution

An excerpt from a previous post:

Inquiry:

Never in the history of teaching has anybody ever suggested that teachers should just lecture students about the world while they sit passively. No learning can take place without inquiry. From our first breath as human beings, we learn about the world through inquiry – through the cycle of questioning, hypothesizing, testing, revising and integrating. Any parent knows this from watching her child in the bathtub. The child will become curious about something, begin playing, and discover new things (for example, how to make a big splash!).

Even in the most drear of lectures, learning can take place if the audience member listens, anticipates and predicts what is coming next. Inquiry is at the heart of learning.

But these days, it’s as if we’ve discovered for the first time that inquiry is important. So we’re coming up with hair-brained notions that students should choose for themselves what is interesting (see “flexibility”), and that they should learn through inquiry projects on their chosen topics.

Even the most competent student will not likely be able to discover on his own some of the knowledge that he will need to have in order to become sufficiently expert in his field of inquiry. Take a physics lesson, for example. Students could do an open-ended inquiry on simple machines, but in doing so they may never arrive at the most important idea behind the topic (indeed the very reason we teach it), which is that machines produce a calculable mechanical advantage. We teach this concept because it is a rudiment for further understanding – a stepping stone for students to develop enough expertise that they can eventually form their own inquiries into the applications of this concept.

To teach this idea in the traditional way, the teacher directs learning toward the goal of this understanding. He uses readings, exercises and lab experiments to provide an inquiry pathway for students to discover this concept. Always the teacher is mindful of Blooms Taxonomy, combined with his understandings of age-related levels of intellectual development to “push” learning. So “inquiry” is at the heart of his teaching.

The notion that students can direct their own learning is absurd. Students “go to school” and in doing so the “go to” the body of knowledge that exists in the “university” (the one truth) that we must show them. School does not “go to students” for them to select what they would like to learn. This form of inquiry is directionless, and it will only ensure that our society as a whole will become stupider.

On flexibility in schools: a caution.

Excerpt from a previous post:

Flexibility:

There is a line of thinking that suggests that the knowledge of facts is not important any more. It is based on the success of technology. The reasoning goes “With the ubiquity of technology, factual knowledge is at our fingertips; therefore there is no point in having students memorize irrelevant facts”.

There is a kernel of truth to this assertion. It is easy to find factual knowledge online, and I quite often find students checking up on me when I teach them a new idea. I love this! It shows me that they care about what I’m teaching them. And if I get it wrong (which is rare), I allow them a little playful derision.

But there are some facts that must be taught. Yesterday, I explained to my grade 8 students how the provincial parliament works. After about 15 minutes of hopping around and drawing diagrams on the board, I asked them if any of them had learned anything; if they’d known this information already.

For all of them, this was new information. Now, they could have looked this up online, and discovered for themselves how a parliamentary system works, but I believe that I was able to filter out some of the extraneous information, focus on what was important, disambiguate the terms, and generally contextualize the information in such a way that they could really “learn” it.

There is no way on earth that they would have chosen to do this on their own, and there is no way on earth that they would have learned it better if they had inquired on their own. There is too much vocabulary involved, and there is too much background context to democracy for them to be able to integrate the knowledge into their personal experience on their own.

Certainly this basic lesson in civics is important for democracy. And yet a misunderstanding of “flexibility” models threatens to allow students to learn what they would like to learn. It would be a disastrous thing for students to get through school having bypassed a knowledge of how their democracy works, simply because they chose not to learn it.

What “flexibility” is really about is denying the importance of input from teachers. The current ideal seems to be a world in which the students choose their courses, are given learning packets, and then go to school to get help with their learning exercises from aides (not teachers). So the idea is a cost saving measure – an effort to use technology to “teach” children, thereby reducing the need for teachers.

It should be noted that my lesson on the parliamentary system had been impromptu. We were actually examining the Justinian Code in an effort to get at the meaning of “law”, and the history of where law comes from. A student had asked a question “Can’t the government just make up any law that it wants?”. This led to a discussion of the difference between, and the roles of the courts and the government.

It should also be noted that this information is available online, but had I not understood the parliamentary system myself, I would not even have been able to know enough to address the issue. This idea of “flexibility” which is supported by such terms as “discovery learning” or “inquiry” is bunk.

On student engagement

Excerpt from a previous post:

Student engagement

A good lecturer will be engaging for his audience, and a good teacher will create lessons that engage students by accessing their prior knowledge, and using what they already know as a springboard into knew ideas. This is good pedagogy.

However, student engagement can be problematic. There are kids who, for myriad reasons, are very, very difficult to engage. Teachers are being brow-beaten with the idea that they must “engage students”. This isn’t fair. While the teacher must do the best he can to engage children, the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” holds true. The teacher has no control over most of the factors that decrease student engagement.

Engagement is the purview of the student. Most often it is a choice. Even the most monotonous lecture can be a brilliant learning opportunity if the learner is tuned in. It’s a ridiculous assertion that it’s the teacher’s fault or the “system’s” fault that a student is disengaged. No responsible parent would ever say to a child, “That’s okay. You don’t have to do it if it’s boring.”

The teacher should make learning “accessible”, but “engagement” is up to the student.

 

On “student-centred” education

Excerpt from a previous post:

Student-centred education:

This sounds like a humanistic idea: the idea that we should try to meet the needs of each individual student – that we should consider the fact that all students “learn differently” and have different interests. This is all well and good, but it concerns me that we may be subtly reinforcing to children the notion that they are the centre of the universe and that society should cater to their needs. Furthermore, the idea that all students “learn differently” is a bit spurious. Aside from individual proclivities, for the most part, all humans “learn the same way”.

As parents and educators, we know what knowledge, skills, and attitudes children need to be taught in order to participate in, and contribute to a rich society. Students “go to” school for an education for that reason. They “go to” the bigger ideas that they don’t already know. It’s not the other way around. Surely education should be “learning centred”.