If education in British Columbia made news over the last few years, it was almost exclusively around the ongoing labour issues. With new contracts in place now for teachers and support staff, there is more of an opportunity for other education stories to hit the mainstream news – whether that is television, radio or newspapers. There have been quite a few recent stories, that might at first glance appear to be unrelated, but are all very much connected and part of a larger story – one of quite a shift happening in education, both in BC and around the world. For regular readers of this and other educator’s blogs, this might almost seem passé, the shifts happening have been well covered inside the profession, but now, in between stories of hospital wait-times and transit plans, there is some space for some important education issues to be part of a larger public dialogue.
My broad sweeping generalization about the current changes in education around curriculum, reporting, innovation, and related topics is that students and families who are engaged and part of the change are excited, and as one moves out from them to the broader community, there is increased concern, skepticism and distrust. While families in a class that has moved away from using letter grades in elementary school to more descriptive feedback may appreciate the way the reporting support improved learning, those at a distance may see this a edu mumble-jumble and a lowering of standards in the system.
I want to take three recent stories – read in isolation they are interesting – but collectively tell a larger story, and open up a large, rich and important conversation.
From January 29th, Tamsyn Burgmann of The Globe and Mail, wrote a story on a forum hosted by the BC Ministry of Education and included all key educational partners and a number of International experts, including internationally known scholar, author, and speaker Yong Zhao, who is extensively referenced in the quote below:
The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child’s individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.
“To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics,” Dr. Zhou told the room. “But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people’s interest.”
His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province’s education minister announced a new education strategy.
Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning.
Work around personalized learning is well underway in West Vancouver, with teachers and schools focusing in inquiry, student passion projects, unique community partnerships and other initiatives give students real world learning experiences.
A week later, Tracy Sherlock of the Vancouver Sun wrote about reporting in the age of social media:
Report cards are entering the social media age as new software called FreshGrade allows real-time sharing and reporting on student progress.
Tracy Cramer, a kindergarten teacher at Richard Bullpit Elementary School in Langley, has been using FreshGrade since the beginning of this school year and says she loves it because it makes communicating with parents so easy and it makes doing her students’ report cards relatively painless.
“Teachers get anxious around this time because of report cards. But I have all my evidence there … so I just have to go in and add a few comments and my report cards are done,” Cramer said.
She says the program gives the kids — even in kindergarten — ownership of their work.
“They will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’” Cramer said. “I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.”
And at the same time, a number of local news outlets picked up on a petition started by a parent in North Saanich to take a look at the state of math instruction – calling for a back-to-basics approach. The CBC was one of those outlets to pick up the story:
A North Saanich parent has started a petition against new math learning methods currently being adopted as part of the province’s revamped curricula for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
Tara Houle launched the petition, which calls for the return of traditional learning like rote memorization of multiplication tables. So far the petition has gathered more than 500 signatures.
“What I find is the biggest challenge is at the elementary level where we have a lot of math concepts being introduced to kids at a very young age,” said Houle. “It completely overwhelms their minds.”
Houle wants kids to develop a strong foundation of math skills before trying to learn “higher-order concepts.”
She believes new learning methods don’t stand up to research that supports explicit, direct instruction and memorization, adding that the U.K. and Australia had abandoned the new methods since adopting them.
Three different stories yet all linked. Part of the challenge with change in education is that one cannot change one part, without changing other parts as well. If you alter the curriculum, you need to change assessment. And if you modify assessment in K-12, you need to be sure it aligns with post-secondary admissions. And if you are moving individual parts, you need to develop new models to lead the way on what the future of learning can look like. And while you are doing all of this, you have to continue to ensure you have some social licence – some acceptance and approval from stakeholders and the broader community.
And on these three items – what do I think? I think encouraging innovation is a good thing and networking teachers and schools together is the right way to do it – so much better than a top-down approach. I think assessment is changing and has been changing for many years. My crystal ball says that we will be less reliant on letter grades in five years and that is a good thing. And I think the math conversation is not a black / white dialouge. There are fundamentals that all students absolutely need and they must be able to apply these concepts. A return to the math teaching of a generation ago is not the answer – just ask how many parents had a good experience with math growing up but math teaching is a healthy discussion as it helps parents better understand what they can do to support their children at home.
But, as I said, the shifts are not just about these three issues – they are broader and it is heartening to see the media bringing these issues forward so we can have the rich discussions about teaching and learning for now and into the future.