Category Archives: Teaching

The Goldner Report on VSB – biased and myopic.

The investigation by Roslyn Goldner on allegations of a toxic work environment is not at all conclusive, and is itself controversial. The report is flawed on several bases.

First of all, it was prepared by a lawyer, when the issues really should have been investigated by a workplace psychologist: someone who has better credentials for understanding workplace dynamics.

Second, the report is written from a biased point of view. Most of the incidents that it cites as evidence of a toxic work environment relate to activism by Vision trustees on behalf of citizens. In emphasizing these incidents as negative impacts, the report takes a position on the role of a school board, preferring a “stewardship model” to an advocacy model of board responsibility.

Although the report doesn’t detail what is meant by stewardship, one can only assume the definition to include fiduciary responsibility to Ministry of Education policy –in other words, a sycophantic obedience to superiors rather than a bold representation of the desires of the electorate. To that end, Goldner failed to investigate the financial pressures imposed by the Ministry of Education that were the toxin that saturated the whole process.

Furthermore, the report accepts the findings of an audit by Earnst and Young ipso facto rather than considering audit itself as a likely stressor in the work environment. As the Earnst and Young audit was the second audit in as many years inflicted by the Ministry of Education, it is itself a form of bullying that was not addressed at all in Goldner.

The report finds that unlike past school boards, the current board was particularly problematic, but then it fails to describe how the board had changed in composition.

Board trustee Patti Bacchus’ behaviour is repeatedly mentioned in the report as an example of the “bullying” inflicted on the District employees, but Bacchus has been a constant on past boards. The report fails to delve into this issue.

Bullying breeds bullying. If one wants to truly understand the source of bullying, one must investigate far more thoroughly. The report’s failure to provide a context for the alleged bullying must be at least in part attributable to Goldner’s lack of expertise in psychology.

Another problem with the report is its constant negative reference to political agendas of board members. It’s understandable that respondents to the investigation pointed out how board governance was mired in political agendas, but the report fails to disambiguate these agendas.

Agendas are based on belief systems and therefore, they are necessarily political. Agendas are at the heart of policymaking. The trustees were elected based on their stated beliefs, and were required, therefore, to try and influence policy according to those beliefs.

The Vision candidates, who are presented negatively in this report, had an agenda that was at odds with the policy of the current Ministry of Education. Therefore, their mandate was necessarily activist. It was easy for the NPA trustees to present themselves with more equanimity in such a climate. They enjoyed the privilege of being in agreement with the Ministry.

The report connotes democratic activism and disagreement as a negative force. Certainly the political situation was heated. Certainly the School Board employees were placed in a difficult if not impossible position. But this investigation, while being able to point to the symptoms of a toxic work environment, fails to get to the underlying cause.

To get to the cause, Goldner needed to go deeper. She needed to identify the realpolitik that was infecting the education system. She needed to consider the pressure brought to trustees by parents angry at the imminent closures of their children’s schools. She needed acknowledge the anger of teachers, and the frustration of the electorate engendered by the unconstitutional behaviour of government, both of which were stressors on senior staff as well as trustees.

Instead, her report is myopic. It points fingers at well-meaning people who were jealously trying to protect the school system from further decimation by a government bent on privatizing education.


The Supreme Court of Canada Decision Against Christy Clark’s Government, and the Dark Story It Confirms

The Supreme Court of Canada’s repudiation of the BC Liberal Government on November 10, 2016 is a huge validation for teachers, but its meaning goes far beyond education policy. The Court’s verdict confirms a very dark story of government duplicity.

The story begins in 2002 with Christy Clark’s proud announcement in the BC Legislature of a new law – a law that allowed the government to renege on a contract. This contract contained provisions that the allowable number of students in a classroom had limits, and those limits were lowered if the class included children with special needs. These limits allowed teachers to better reach students who needed help, and they ensured that teachers were not so preoccupied managing classroom behaviour that they couldn’t actually teach.

The contract stripping directly violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This in itself should have been enough to warrant Christy Clark’s resignation. But the BC Liberals went further still, much further.

The teachers took the BC Liberals to court, and in 2010 the BC Supreme Court ordered restitution and gave the government a year to negotiate terms with the teachers. The BC Liberals never did. In fact, how they responded to the BC Supreme Court’s order was so duplicitous as to be reprehensible.

What they did do is foment teachers’ anger by ignoring the court order for two years. It turns out that this was not just negligence, but part of an egregious plan.

The BC Liberals knew about the growing outrage among teachers as they waited for the court-ordered restitution, and they wanted to capitalize on it. They also knew that the teachers union had finite resources, and that further lawsuits would cripple the union financially. So the more they could game the system, the stronger the government’s position became vis a vis negotiations with the BC Teachers Federation.

When the BC Liberals finally did respond to the court order, they timed their response so that it would happen during contract negotiations when tensions were high. Far from following the spirit of the court’s ruling, they simply wrote a new legislation that committed the exact same violation. In fact, the new legislation (Bill 22) contained verbatim passages ripped from the original disqualified legislation.

By now it was 2012. At that time, UBC Law Professor, Joel Bakan, wrote a column in the Vancouver Sun decrying the action of the BC Liberals, writing:

“Governments are obliged to govern according to law. That is what distinguishes democracies from tyrannies. As a fundamental democratic principle, the rule of law is seriously jeopardized when governments play fast and loose with constitutional and international laws, as this government is now doing with Bill 22.”

Naturally the teachers took the BC Liberals to court again. And during the court’s investigation, a stunning revelation was made. Cabinet documents, as well as insider testimony revealed that all along the government had been engaged in political deceit. The Court found that the BC Liberals, by their own admission, had been using legislation to goad teachers into a strike so that they could sweep in with a back-to-work order to reopen schools –a move they believed would win public favour ahead of an upcoming election.

In short, the BC Liberals wanted the union to strike. They wanted schools to be closed and parents to be outraged. They knew they could use this outrage. They were using school children and teachers as political pawns. This can all be read in the BC Supreme Court’s final ruling.

In its ruling, the court expressed its own outrage at the government’s behaviour

[620] It was fundamentally unfair for the government to extend the unconstitutional legislation by way of Bill 22, after the union had already prosecuted and won a Court decision declaring that the legislation was unconstitutional. The government here was strongly influenced to continue the unconstitutional legislation because of its desire to gain the upper-hand in negotiations with the union and not in pursuit of any valid policy objective.

[621] The evidence is that the government knew, following the Bill 28 Decision, that the legislative prohibition on bargaining over Working Conditions was unconstitutional, and so must have known that continuing the prohibition was also unconstitutional.

The Court ordered an immediate return of class size and composition levels to what they were in 2002, even though it would add an enormous cost burden to the government, stating:

… the awarding of Charter damages on the basis of deterring government conduct is meant to deter the government from engaging in conduct that is not in compliance with the Constitution. Furthermore, this deterrence is not aimed at influencing the errant behaviour of a specific government actor but is meant to serve a much broader purpose: to influence government behaviour in general, in order to ensure government compliance with the Charter in the future.

The BC Liberals responded by appealing the decision at the BC Court of Appeal – further delaying action, further antagonizing teachers, and further prolonging the strike in which teachers fought the best they could, now with depleted resources, against the injustice committed against them.

The teachers did everything they could to get to an equitable settlement, including asking for binding arbitration. The government refused. Eventually, from a weak bargaining position against a government that held all the cards, the teachers accepted a mediated settlement.

The government won its appeal at Provincial Court, but sensing (likely based on the strong written dissent of one of the judges on the case) that the case was ultimately un-winnable at the Supreme Court level, they put public money aside to address the court’s inevitable mandate.

It took 20 minutes for the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn the BC Liberals’ appeal. Now that the final decision has been rendered in favour of the teachers, it will be interesting to see what other slick plans the BC Liberals have up their sleeve. It would be hard to imagine them acting with any kind of nobility at this point.

One Experience – Technology and Note-taking

I believe there is still merit in note taking at school. When students write notes, they have to echo a concept in their brains, and transcribe it into meaningful text. Then they are able to revisit the concept later to “rehearse” it. Rehearsal is an important component of memory. Studying depends on good note taking.

Note taking is particularly effective if it is done actively rather than passively. That is to say, if students hear or read a concept, and then translate it into their own words rather than simply copy text word for word, they learn and remember better.

In order to facilitate active note taking in my Psychology 12 class, I would typically reveal the notes a line at a time using Powerpoint. So I’d talk, ask questions, issue challenges, and then review the concept by revealing one line of text at a time.

What I found was that the students did not engage very well. As soon as the note taking started, they went into a passive mode. The “buzz” of learning in the room was gone, and they became task-oriented human photostat machines.

However, one day, my projector failed. I alone could see my Powerpoint slides, and I had to copy the notes onto a whiteboard in my own handwriting (for the love of God!).

Low and behold, I found that the buzz was back. It seemed that my gesticulating while I was writing, my penmanship and personality lit up the topic. Kids asked for clarification of concepts. I was hopping around, circling words, underlining some, pointing to this and that.  I was translating the language out loud –pausing here and there, disambiguating vocabulary. Previously, when I’d put up the pre-written notes on a screen, I would add emphasis as well, but it is impossible to engage in the same way with text on a screen. And it seemed that once that line of text was up, the students ignored me, and passively copied the text.

Thinking back on the discovery, there are a few dynamics worth considering. First of all, this discovery had more to do with my behaviour than the students’. I think I became more engaging as I switched from Power point to white board writing. And I think pacing was important. When the words hit the board one at a time at an organic pace (with me saying them and repeating as I write), there was less urgency to copy and get ready for the next note. The students could “dwell” in the concept for a few seconds. We were more together on our timing.

Second, a separate, but related issue: the students were writing notes, not keying them into keyboards. I wonder if the tactile act of scritching a pen or pencil on a leaf of paper connects learning more than keying words into a keyboard. Not to mention the problem of external distractions: instant messaging, social media alerts, gaming temptations…

Admittedly this is just one anecdote: one teacher with one subject taught in one class. But deny it gravitas at your peril. Although it’s just an anecdote is advised by all of the teaching I’ve ever done.

Certainly, recent research should cause us to question how we use technology in the classroom. I myself have not seen one example of how students have “learned better” with computers.  On the other hand, I have seen a lot of examples of how computers have become disruptive to learning.

There it is again: “Schools fail…”

A recent Washington Post article by Jennifer Fink got my blood boiling. Her 9 year-old boy is not doing well in school, and her first impulse is to blame this problem on the school. She complains, “The lack of movement and rigid restrictions associated with modern schooling are killing my son’s soul.”

Notwithstanding the screwed up social conscience demonstrated in the words “School is failing boys”, when the opposite is true, Fink’s understanding of what happens in a classroom is just plain wrong. The “modern schooling” she refers to is far less rigid than schooling of the past, and yet boys (in her mind at least) seemed to do better in the past. So unless less structure is hurting boys’ learning, one needs to think about the possibility that school is not the problem and something else is.

Tellingly, Fink mentions her son’s interest in Minecraft –an internet game that boys seem to like… a lot. In fact, I have heard one father/vice-principal describe it as “crack cocaine” for boys. I myself have seen students so consumed by Minecraft and other onscreen games that without exaggeration, I can only describe their behaviour as addict-like. There is no way schools can compete for attention with these games.

Here’s the truth. School is hard. It requires that students engage themselves in activities that are less fun than screen-based games. It requires them to reflect on what they know, and to stretch that understanding to grasp new, often abstract concepts like algebra, or literary symbolism.

Conceptual learning requires that students use their short term memory and rehearse concepts until they are part of long-term memory. The concentration required for conceptual learning means that concepts like algebra or literacy cannot be taught efficiently in a jungle gym. Concentration for learning is naturally subverted by any kind of distraction, including music played through headphones or a lit screen on a child’s desk. The huge body of cognitive psychology from the past 50 years provides enough information to make it obvious what is going on. Students are distracted.

So here’s an idea. Before you blame school for your child’s failure, look at your child’s environment, do a little research, and (God forbid) examine your own parenting. Stop expecting schools to take care of the needs of your child that would best be met while he is wasting time on Minecraft. Give him a ball and glove and send him outside. And tell him that he is expected to pay attention in class.

Another shot at American schools, and another “solution”.

I have seen many articles decrying the way education is delivered in America, for example this one by David Edwards, entitled,

American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

Edwards starts off by asking, “Are Americans getting dumber?” He laments the decline in math, reading, and literacy skills in America compared to other countries, and identifies an education “crisis”.

Then he goes on to imply that the traditional school model separates learning from doing. And from here he offers a solution: “Maker” workshops.

Maker workshops are all-day workshops in which a class identifies a large societal issue (for example, difficulties that might be faced by an aging population). The class is then divided into small groups which collaboratively tackle a specific problem related to the overall issue (perhaps the problem of lifting heavy pots on a stove), and then seeks to invent a device that will address the problem.

The group is given a kit with which to construct a prototype model. The kit contains items like pipe cleaner, thumb tacks, paper plates, plasticine, plastic bags, cardboard, bailing wire, and other things. In addition, some construction materials and tools are made available.

I have attended a Maker workshop. And don’t get me wrong, without any qualification I can say that the workshops truly are wonderful exercises in creative thinking, collaboration and skill building. But as much as the experience offered many educational benefits, it could never replace what I learned over 35 years ago in a grade 8 class called “industrial education”, which was a rotation of woodwork, metalwork, and drafting. Nor could it ever come close to being able to match the depth of conceptual learning that took place in science classes in which the supplementary labs ensured that the theories taught had a chance to be played out in hands-on practice. In fact, I dare say that this old liberal arts teacher got much more benefit out of the Maker experience having first attended those science and industrial ed. classes all those years ago.

The real problem in education is not pedagogical; it is, rather, our society’s lack of financial commitment to producing an educated population. The problem has two branches. First, and most critical, is the brutal cycle of poverty that kills both attitudes toward education, and access to it. Poor kids do poorly in school.

The second finance-related problem is our never-ending search for business-model efficiencies, leading us to cut more and more laboratory and practical courses and to promote more online courses and larger class sizes in theoretical subjects.

What’s worse is that while schools reel under this financial strain, headlines like the one announcing Edwards’ article, whether by design or not, is just the kind of language that policymakers like to use as justification for dismantling public education in favour of a private model that leaves the most vulnerable students out in the cold.

Maker workshops have their place. They create scenarios that allow students to “discover”, to share ideas, and to learn how to collaborate in construction, as well as find out what works and what doesn’t work in design. Maker can encourage people to dream up new inventions. But Maker is far from a solution to declining math and reading skills –the problem articulated at the beginning of this article. And in order to integrate any theoretical depth (for example, understanding of electrical current flow), the students need to get to a classroom. We simply can’t afford to integrate concept-teaching into each student’s individual Maker experience.

Meanwhile, if you want to teach a kid to build a house or a car, you’re not going to be able to do it by giving him a bunch of straws, duct tape and plasticine. No doubt our tech courses should reflect changes in technology, but the way education is delivered in these courses is still relevant.

But try to find a school that offers both high level theory courses and technology courses at the same time. The private charter model leads schools to specialize: in sports, in fine arts, in university transfer, OR in technology. Whereas individual public schools used to offer all of those things, now they are not able to. It is the current new thinking about education that separates learning from doing, and not the traditional public school model. What we really have is a funding crisis.

I will vote YES.

I’m going to hold my nose and vote YES today for ratification of the teachers contract.

I’m not happy with the contract. A wage increase below the cost of inflation after 3 years of 0% is unnecessarily austere. What I do is a valuable service. I’m a citizen. We live in a prosperous province. It infuriates me that my service is viewed as a tax burden – that my industry  is viewed as less important than a roof on a little-used sports stadium, or investment in an already-saturated fossil fuel industry (Liquid Natural Gas). What could be more important than a good educational experience for kids?

But I’ll vote YES anyway.

While corporations reap huge profits, BC’s lowest-in-Canada corporate tax rate only ensures that the wealth of these multinational giants does nothing to make BC better. Through a more progressive tax structure in line with the rest of the country, BC could provide children with better learning conditions, and public sector citizens with a living that keeps pace with inflation. How angry and frustrated it makes me feel knowing this, and knowing that my government wants me to lose my standard of living! Am I not a citizen? Is our province’s prosperity not for me?

And this is why we’ll never have labour peace as long as the BC Liberals run the show. Whatever economy they claim to be supporting, it isn’t the economy of most citizens.

So why will I vote YES?

Well, quite simply, we lost. And I suppose it was inevitable. How can we win against a government who doesn’t value what we do? How can there be any expectation of compassion from a government who repeatedly violates Charter rights?

To be honest, I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of teachers being the only group that fights for public education. Other unions don’t; universities don’t; parent groups don’t; the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t; the principals and vice principals don’t. Even school districts themselves don’t. The real fight always falls on teachers and always at contract time. It’s exhausting emotionally and financially. Eventually a person needs to be at work.

I will vote YES. Though we’ve given away a lot, it hasn’t been a total loss. We have managed to force government to obey the law. I suppose that’s something, although it’s something we shouldn’t have to do. Where are law societies, professional organizations and corporations themselves? And most of all, WHERE IS THE PRESS? Doesn’t anyone understand democracy any more?

Christy Clark tried to frame the latest dispute as a well fought noble battle, with an ending that will lead to labour stability and healing. The opposite is true. This government’s treatment of 41,000 citizens is disgraceful. And there will never be labour peace.

I will vote YES. This isn’t the hill I’ll die on. There are many battles ahead.

I’ll be watching Christy Clark and her cronies. I will watch every single step they take, and I will shout their acts of tyranny from the mountaintops: their ongoing and repeated conflicts of interest, their constant foibles in the courts, their deceptive sound bites in the press. I’ll teach it in the classrooms and in every public medium. Future voters will not miss a single transgression. In every venue, to every ear I’ll expose them.

The people will see them for who they are. A whole new generation of voters will see them for who they are.

The BC Liberals need to end the teachers dispute – the sooner the better.

I’ll say it again. In the dispute with the BCTF, the BC Liberal government is in trouble. During negotiations, the Liberals’ unceasing public pronouncements front-end loaded the ideas of an “affordability zone” and a settlement “consistent with other public sector unions”. And they repeatedly bargained in the press. This strategy has painted negotiations into a corner. It is now hard for either party to bend without losing face.

And the narrative is bogus anyhow. Negotiations with the teachers can not really be compared to other public sector union negotiations. First of all, the teachers have not had a pay increase for 3 years. And second, the teachers’ situation is complicated by the government’s own twice-repeated charter violation coming back to bite it, as well as the ongoing underfunding of school districts, putting public education into full-on crisis mode. The situation has gotten so bad that the Vancouver School District, in order to be able to continue offering its world class band programs, has had to resort to the temporary measure of spending its contingency fund.

The Liberals want the teachers to give up millions of dollars in court-ordered restitution for charter violations, while getting nothing in return. They feel that they can flex their muscle and grind down the union on this issue. It won’t happen. Having won a stunning court victory, the teachers can claim moral high-ground. They will never give up their quest for compensation. And it’s not greed that motivates them, but a sense of outrage that is revisited every time they look at their class composition. The cuts have gone too deep.

No question, the Liberals can eventually wear the union down financially, and the teachers will have to go to work (though it’s likely that before this were to happen, other unions would weigh in on the Charter violation issue). How many lost school days it will take for this to happen is anyone’s guess. The government has an endless supply taxpayer funds that it can wield on legal appeals and on populist stunts (e.g. a $40 a-day daycare benefit for parents with children under 13). Meanwhile, the union has finite reserves of cash, and can’t last forever.

But to what end would the government do this? Eventually it will have to open schools. Eventually the teachers will have to give up their full walkout and go back to work. But the climate, which has already become acrimonious after 12 years of Liberal de-funding of schools, would become so terrible that it would be very difficult to sustain a vibrant school system. Failing to achieve a deal at the end of a full-scale walkout, the teachers would revert to a slow-burn work-to-rule paradigm which would disrupt school for a long time, and prevent the government from being able to implement systemic change. Without the cooperation of professionals, the government can not run an education system. The students would continue to lose out – big time.

It’s likely that many people would fault teachers for all this disruption, but teachers are well-informed and well-educated, and they have an acute sense of justice. They are not likely to be easily cowed by the opinion of people outside the dispute.

Right now in negotiations, the teachers are willing to compromise on some of the court-ordered compensation. Eventually, the full weight of the court decision will come down on government, and by extension on the citizens of BC. The Liberals would be wise to quietly settle while there is time for people to forget this mess before the next election. To drag it through a low scale job action and court appeals will ensure that the issues follow the Liberals well into the next election campaign.

Furthermore, the casualty count of this battle has already begun. Education workers should be getting paid, and they’re not. Students should be in school, and they’re not.