Category Archives: primary

how to take down a teacher in the ottawa district schhol board (sic)


The title was the search engine term used by one reader who reached my site.

Wolves chasing an elk

Wolves taking down an elk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It made me start thinking about my career with this board and the number of teachers in the board I have seen targeted, or I have been told about by a colleague who saw them targeted.

Here is a partial list of those cases in no particular order.  Some were dealt with fairly; some resulted in a teacher suspension or a teacher being charged.

  1. A primary student told a supply teacher that he was going to tell the principal that he (the teacher) had taken down his (the student’s) pants.
  2.   Parents decided a junior teacher was too fat to teach physical education and were instrumental in getting her dismissed.
  3. Some intermediate girls were annoyed with their poor marks and got back at their teacher by falsely claiming that he had sexually assaulted them.
  4. Some intermediate students set up a homophobic web site and showed it to one of their teachers on the assumption that he was gay.  The parents of one of them thought the subsequent suspension was unfair.
  5. On two different occasions in the same school two different students lied about two different teachers in two consecutive years.  Instead of investigating, the principal turned each one over to the board which chose to believe the children.
  6. A teacher on an exchange on the other side of the world was called by a friend to find out if she had a good lawyer.  Unbeknownst to her, she had been charged with sexual assault by a former student and it was all over the news.  The judge eventually threw it out of court but not before she and her family had been through public hell.
  7. Thirteen parents got together in a private home to discuss a new teacher’s math program because A) she said math wasn’t her thing so she wouldn’t be running an extracurricular math program, B) she didn’t always teach from the textbook or assign lots of homework (she was an experienced math, English and social studies teacher).  The principal refused to deal with it.
  8. A gifted and imaginative grade one teacher was turned on by the parents and her colleagues in the program she taught in because she (successfully) used whole language rather than phonics exercise books to teach reading.  Her students also learned to appreciate art through an appropriately designed unit on Matisse.  One of her colleagues even withdrew her daughter from the class.  Her principal did not defend her or reprimand the colleague.  She left the program.

Unfortunately this desire is not an anomaly.  There are many students and sometimes parents who want to “take down” a teacher.  If  parents support the students or the administration does not support the teacher, the life of the targeted teacher becomes hell.  Every action, every slip, bad call, ambiguous action becomes open to the worst possible interpretation. 

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Problem Solving and Ill-Structured Problem Solving


Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.   Roger Lewin

Cadets at BRNC participate in a team problem-s...

Cadets at BRNC participate in a group problem solving exercise. Image via Wikipedia

If school were to prepare children to solve the problems of real life, we would have to consider the nature of real life problems.  So let’s look at two.

REAL LIFE: THE PASSPORT OFFICE

At the passport office in Ottawa there is a guard who sits at the door.  His job is to check whether applicants have everything they need to get their passport.  He then directs them in one of three ways: to the right because they have all their paperwork done, to the left because they need to pick up paperwork or sort out a problem or home because a signature or a photograph is missing.  It is very efficient and saves everyone a lot of time.  Whoever thought of this had carefully considered what the bottlenecks are at this point in the bureaucracy and how they could be resolved.

What I think is interesting is the likelihood that a good percentage of those people who don’t go to the right, could have been spared the trip altogether if they had carefully read the instructions and the followed them with equal care.

REAL LIFE IMAGINED: THE NEW JOB

A single healthy young woman who has been working for a year and lives in a city has been offered a new job.  The new workplace is awkward to get to.  What should she do?

Most peoples’ response would be that we don’t have enough information to answer the question.  In fact this may be all the information the young woman might have.

To solve this problem she and we need to ask questions to get useful information.

What other information do we need to answer the question?

What makes it awkward to get to?

Is it close enough to walk?

Is cycling an option?

What bus route options are available?

Could she take a bus that comes close and walk the rest of the way?

Would using a car help?

Could she afford a car?

Is car-pooling an option?

Is moving an option?

The answers to these questions may create other questions such as costs in time spent traveling, distance from favourite activities, whether the new job is worth the difficulties, are there trade-offs such as walking becoming part of her exercise program?  From our own experiences we know it is rare that immediately we have a problem we will have enough information to solve it. We also know that sometimes there is not one right answer and we are left deciding between two or more equally acceptable but different answers.

ILL-STRUCTURED PROBLEM SOLVING

This is the essence of what is known as ill-structured problem solving.  Students are given a problem to solve.  In solving it, they discover they need more information and sometimes as they acquire that information, they discover that the problem is not quite what they thought it was.

In the problem above, the young woman may realise that the issue is not how to get to her new job but whether the extra costs and difficulties make it worth taking the job in the first place.  She may be able to negotiate working part time from home or working flexible hours.  She may decide the increase in salary and opportunities for promotion are worth the difficulties and hope that later she can find either an alternate means of transportation or closer accommodation. Some are solutions that are not obvious in the statement of the problem or in the information supplied.

With the same information available to start with and the same information available through research, different people or groups of people may solve the problem differently and may also take different paths in accumulating facts and applying logic to arrive at a solution.

ILL STRUCTURED PROBLEM SOLVING AS A TEACHING TOOL

This kind of problem solving as a teaching tool was first used at McMaster medical school* in Hamilton, Ontario.  While it didn’t change the retention of information by much, it did improve diagnostic and other skills in the embryo doctors.  It was so successful it was soon copied by Harvard’s medical school.   In browsing through the Internet I noticed that ISPS seems to be most used in higher education and sometimes in secondary schools.  It is also seen as something appropriate for academically talented students.

This is the kind of problem solving that will be a permanent part of our lives and good decision-making will rely, in part, on our skill in dealing with it.  The question arises, can we teach it earlier? How old do children have to be before they will benefit?

CHILDREN AND PROBLEM SOLVING

TRIZ process for creative problem solving

One model for solving problems Image via Wikipedia

Take a look at most math books. The word problems often follow the same structure for each concept taught.  If the unit taught were subtraction, most of the word problems would follow a pattern:

 

Owner        has X  things.    If   it gives away Y things, how many will be left?

Harry              has 7 puppies.     If he gives away 5 puppies, how many will be left?

The teacher   has 25 cookies.    If he gives away 5 cookies, how many will be left?

The merchant has 10 free cars.  If he gives away 7 cars,    how many will be left?

After a couple of questions, the students look for the numbers, plug them into the formula without thinking about the problem: X-Y= right answer, and move on.  To be sure we now require students to write down what the problem is, the method and the answer, but these, too, are formulaic.

Should we throw in a question such as:

Collector has Y whatsits but needs X whatsits, how many more does he need to find?

the child who hasn’t truly grasped the concept of subtraction will be confused.

Adam has 5  flat smooth rocks, but needs 13.  How many more does he need to find?

Should the subtraction problems be mixed with other word problems, such as addition, the child who hasn’t grasped the concepts will be completely stymied.  If she has also not learned her number facts, she will be so slowed and frustrated that arithmetic will become difficult.

CHILDREN AND ILL-STRUCTURED PROBLEMS

These problems are not ill structured because all the information necessary to solve the problem is available, but the issues I have described are part of the skills involved in being able to solve an ill-structured problem.  The child needs to understand what kind of problem is in front of her, whether she has all the information she needs to solve it and what tools she could use to solve it.  She needs to have the confidence to examine the problem to see if she can extrapolate or calculate the information she needs and especially the confidence to declare that there is not enough information.

If one of the problems read:

 Justin needs 13 smooth white stones.  He found some beside the river and 6 in the schoolyard.  How many more does he need?

the child should recognise what she needs to do solve the problem and that she cannot do it without a certain piece of information.

Depending on her age, it might not be essential that she can voice the necessary operation; it would be sufficient to demonstrate the difficulty using drawings or beans.  She might say:

He has 6 stones and some of the 7 he needs to make 13.  That means he must have at least 1 stone.  The best estimate I can make is that he needs between 6 stones and none to make up the 13.  

Or she might say:

I know that 13 – 6 = 7 so the stones he got in the school yard are between 1 and 7.  If the number of stones he found in the schoolyard is subtracted from 7, the answer is the number needed. 

There are lots of ways for a child in grade two or three to talk about a problem like this.  The point is that she is considering the problem itself, rather than plugging in a formula.  I am not knocking learning formulae or number facts; I believe they are worth the effort, but without learning to play with ideas to solve problems, a student is only being trained to be a calculator.

It also really doesn’t matter if she is using mathematical terms.  In fact it is probably too much to ask her to use what is new vocabulary for her.  What matters is that she is solving the problem to the point where she can see her way through to an answer or why she can’t reach an answer.

TN2020: Problem solving through storyboarding

TN2020: Problem solving through storyboarding (Photo credit: Zadi Diaz) There are many processes that are useful in solving a problem.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

In many grade 11 and 12 academic math and physics classes today, students complain that the teacher is unfair if she gives problem sets on tests or exams that are not more or less identical to the ones they studied in class.  In other words, they expect not to have to figure out a problem, but simply recognise it, match it with the correct formula and plug in the numbers.   They want this in order to get the highest possible marks to aid their applications to universities. This is neither math nor thinking.

This story astonished me when I first heard it, as I naively assume that the last two years in an academic stream should be used to hone students’ analytical abilities.  I wondered how these students would cope if they were given and ill-structured problem in science or in math.  How would they cope if it were their summative?

These students do not see variety in their problem sets, much less ill-structured problems.  They arrive at universities unprepared to think, expecting to memorise facts and formulas.  Professors who expect them to think are resented and courses they expect to be bird courses are unpleasant surprises when the professors demand thought.

The professors are distressed, too.  They expect to teach concepts that the students will take away and make an effort to understand.  They expect to have embryo scientists and mathematicians in front of them, eager to learn and understand; they do not expect clever calculators waiting for more formulae and numbers.

Math and the sciences aren’t the only subjects where students are allowed to slip through using formulae.  It is not uncommon for students to leave high school for university never having progressed beyond the five-paragraph essay.  For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, the five-paragraph essay is another formula.  I won’t go into it as you can find it on the Internet.  Suffice it to say that no student starting first year in the Humanities should be stuck knowing only how to write a five-paragraph essay.  For a start, their ideas should be too complex and too subtle to be expressed in such a crude instrument.

Problem Solving PDCA

Problem Solving PDCA (Photo credit: Luigi Mengato)

BUT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT UNIVERSITY STUDENTS

It isn’t only true for academics.  What kind of job is a plumber or electrician or cleaner going to do if their only thinking is formulaic?  How will parents deal with their children and the school or medical system if they can’t think things through to ask the questions that will help their children or themselves?  Just because students are not going on to university is no reason to condemn them to simplistic thinking.

Going back to our grade two student: if every year she is in school she is taught and expected to think and apply the facts she has also learned, consider how she will be empowered to make good decisions for her own life.

If she has the talents to go on to university, imagine how little time she will waste as she engages with new ideas.  The same applies no matter what post-secondary education she chooses because she will have learned to look beyond the obvious. In a world, we are told, where she can be expected to change jobs and learn new skills with some regularity, isn’t that what her education system should do for her?

English: Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”. Categories...

Image via Wikipedia

* McMaster Medical School:  the Little School that Could and Did  http://www.scribd.com/doc/20150938/McMaster-University-Medical-School

Harvard Dean Gives McMaster an A   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1491910/pdf/cmaj00138-0091.pdf

McMaster’s Innovations in Medical Innovation Honoured in NewsWeek   http://fhs.mcmaster.ca/main/news/news_archives/newsweek.htm

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Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching?


Having just posted a number of charts based on Education for All, (See For Teachers: Some Charts Based on Education for All) I find myself appalled at the amount of paper work a teacher deals with. These charts add to the already increased load of paper a teacher might find herself dealing with in the course of the year.  If it improves learning in the classroom, I am all for it; the question is does it improve learning?

First let’s review some of the paper a teacher deals with in the course of a normal year:

1.     Set up marking records

2.     Collect tombstone data about students and pass on to the office, recording relevant information for own files beforehand.

3.     Reviewing students’ OSRs  (Ontario Student Records) for information about the children.

4.     Collect and record money – school fees, Scholastic books purchases, milk for lunch, hot dog day fundraisers, school field trips, photographs; it is expected that the teacher add up the money, record who paid what and record the amount of change, dollars, cheques & totals before submitting it to the office.  Often she is expected to hand it in to the office on a daily basis for safekeeping.

5.     Write a detailed description (after researching and reserving activities and possibly buses) to apply to take her class on a field trip.  Her principal and superintendent review this; if either of them wants a change, it must be rewritten and resubmitted.  This means that the teacher does every thing she can to speed the approval process along, as she is anxious to have approval quickly to retain her spot and bus.  Field trips include anything outside the school grounds which means that even a walk around the block must be written up and submitted for approval.

6.     Locate, price and write up an order sheet for textbooks for an application to the principal to purchase on the off chance the money is available.

7.     Record sufficient notes about behaviour and academic performance of each student in the class so she can support her comments in any interview with a parent.

8.     Write up her notes for the next day’s plans in a clear fashion with reference to textbooks etc. so a supply teacher can take over her class in event of illness or accident.

9.     Prepare materials for lesson plans manually in the event suitable textbooks are not available.

10.  Do attendance at least twice a day and see that it is sent down to the office.  No, students may not do the attendance.  A mistake can wreak havoc, either worrying a parent or not alerting the school & parents to a child’s absence.

11.  Notes from parents about children’s absences.

12.  Everyday memos from the board, the union, the parent council, colleagues and the school, catalogues and flyers end up in a teacher’s mail slot; some require action, some request help, some are merely informative.  I have a bumf file and put everything in it in case I need a memo later on.  At the end of the year, I can usually throw the whole lot in the recycling.  Still, some of them are important so each must be scanned and the key ones dealt with, responded to, pinned on the bulletin board, information provided, door decorated, children informed or taught, time allocated or lesson plans changed.

13.  Report cards are largely done on computers these days.  The programs change yearly or every two years, mainly in response to bugs in the previous programs, but each new version requires time spent learning.  In some schools, the teachers print them, in others it is done by the office personnel.

14.  Report cards – sign, fold, put in envelopes, give to children; Make sure all the comments sheet with parental signatures are collected from children the following week, then filed with a copy of report card in the OSRs – every term

15.  Write IEPs for every exceptional student in the class, copy filed in the OSR and a copy is sent to the parents – by the teacher, every term

16.  Record number of hours each child has spent in French class updated on a card in the OSR in June – by the homeroom teacher.

17.  Photographs of each child in the class stuck in place in the OSR and dated

18.  Tidy contents of OSR into a specific order in June

19.  If the students are in a class that is leaving the school in June, bundle the students’ OSRs according to which schools they will attend.

20.  Of course, teachers photocopy their own material, create or buy signs, posters and other decorations for the classroom.  If the equipment is available, they also laminate them.  If they are lucky, money is available for decorating the classroom.  Either way the classroom is empty when they arrive and they are expected to decorate it appropriately.

Now add the documentation from Education for All

So what is all that paperwork for?  The two main reasons are records and accountability.  When you think of it, they overlap in spots: report cards both record and account for student progress and marking records and teacher’s notes support the more formal report cards.  Even recording hours of French is necessary given the number of different programs.  It wouldn’t be sufficient to record the program as students frequently drop out into other programs. (See French as a Second Language is not Taught in a Vacuum; How Do We Teach All the Children?)  Recording hours of French is a form of accountability although it is not related to the teacher recording them.

The question is, how much paperwork is necessary to provide sufficient record keeping for the sake of accountability?  Just looking at the incomplete list above, you can imagine what proportion of a teacher’s time this requires.  Which of these activities would be better replaced with planning, helping children before and after class and assessing the students’ work?  I can list several items of which all or part are not directly related to teaching:  #2, 4, 6, 11, 13 to 20.  As you can see, much of it involves filing.

When I first started teaching, my principal believed that teachers should have goals for their students written down.  This only came out when some teachers were evaluated and expressed their indignation at what was an unusual expectation.  Most teachers have goals for their students tucked in the back of their mind, goals that change as the child changes, but few think of writing them down any more than they would write down the criteria that determine where they seat a child in the classroom.  Believe me, that can be a long list, including sight, hearing, behavioral and learning factors, friends, distracters, need for cues from the teacher and so on.

As a new teacher, I was also being evaluated, so I quickly jotted down my thoughts on my students and casually stuck the page behind the half a dozen pages that formed my notes supporting my plans for the day and week.  Naturally, when the principal went through my day plan, he found them and I earned brownie points.

The thing is that writing down my goals for my students hadn’t created them; they were there all along, otherwise I couldn’t have hastily written them down before the principal’s visit.   The most that writing them down had done for me (besides improving my evaluation) was to clarify them a little.  Within a week or two, the goals were no longer accurate because the child was changing, showing new strengths or weaknesses or I was gaining greater insights.

Where writing down observations and goals did help was when I had students whose difficulties seemed beyond help in my classroom.  Then, I worked to write them down accurately and clearly because I was going to turn to my colleagues or principal for help.  If they did not know the child, then I was going to be the sole source of information.  At that point, the information garnered through the Education for All Charts would be useful.  Virtually nothing is left out.

Is it necessary to fill out all the charts on literacy and numeracy for every child?  Most teachers are very aware of the basic academic and learning skills of each student in their class by the end of the first term and many have them pegged much earlier than that.  As long as each child is learning well and assessed accurately both formatively and summatively, is a learning profile worth the cost in time?

To explain:  formative assessment is evaluation used to figure out how much the student has understood.  This helps the teacher determine how to teach the next section; it also helps the student understand what needs reviewing.  Summative assessment is used for final evaluation i.e. marks.  In theory, these are separate assessments; in practice, they may cross over as when a teacher allows redoing assignments for mastery or when the most recent, highest marks in a unit are used for final assessment.

Returning to paperwork: time is most effectively spent on learning profiles when a student is struggling.  At that point, a thorough understanding of strengths and weaknesses will be an asset as a starting point in determining the next steps in helping the child.  Time spent observing, reflecting and writing down the points in each part of the learning profile may provide the basis for useful insights.

A learning profile as an aide memoire in preparation for report cards or a guide for planning units may also be helpful.  The danger is that principals who don’t trust their teachers to use their professional judgment may jump on the Education for All bandwagon and ask that all these forms be used.  It will look like accountability, but it will be no more accountability than asking teachers to sign time cards.

Am I saying teachers shouldn’t do any paperwork?  No.  I am saying that before teachers are asked to do any paperwork, the usefulness of the paperwork as records or a measure of accountability should be weighed against the usefulness of the teachers’ time spent teaching or planning or assessing or consulting with colleagues.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

“Education for All” and the Myth of Universal Design


Part 2 of Education for All

Universal Design in Architecture

Universal design is a concept that has come to us from architecture.  Architects noticed that as the handicapped were increasingly accommodated not only by retrofitting buildings, but by designing buildings from scratch to meet the needs of the handicapped, a curious thing was happening: the general public was also benefiting from the designs.

The wheelchair ramps worked well for cyclists and parents with children in strollers.  The lower wash basins and levered handles made life easier for small children.  Even the subtitles on television have proven a boon in places such as noisy hospital waiting rooms.  And who hasn’t hit the big blue button with their elbow or their foot when trying to wrangle too many packages through a heavy door?  In fact, the accommodations that many of us thought would be expensive extras for the few have proven to be welcome improvements in the lives of many.

Now it sometimes happens that the lessons or ideas of one discipline cross over successfully to another.  A well-made woodworking tool becomes a surgical instrument and leads to an unexpected partnership between the toolmaker and the surgeon.   The sciences of psychology and neurology, the art of religion and the discipline of philosophy discover that more and more often they are saying similar things until a psychiatrist finds himself writing a guide to meditation, a neurologist writes a book on Zen and the Brain and another neurologist explores the importance of emotions and the meaning of consciousness.  The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education is offering collaborative graduate work in areas such as neuroscience.  These developments come from a willingness to explore an unordinary take on things using a combination of imagination, openness to new ideas and critical thinking.

Universal Design and Education

At first blush, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s embrace of universal design might seem to be one of these happy crossovers.  Their idea is that if the curriculum is taught in a way that students with learning disabilities can learn it, then the same method will work for all the students in the class.  The corollary is that with rare exceptions all students should be in the same class because they all can be taught well at the same time.

A Brief Review of Learning Disabilities

To clarify (and those of you who know all about LD should skip the next couple of paragraphs): by definition, a student with a learning disability has average intelligence or above and has a deficit in one or more areas that affect learning.  The student may have difficulty reading but no difficulty with mathematical concepts or may have problems using a pen or pencil to write neatly at a reasonable speed but can write wonderful stories using a computer.   Each person who has a learning disability is different from any other one; the only thing they all have in common is they are all at least as smart as the normal person.

Many students with learning disabilities (or as one student I know puts it: learning differences) only need some simple accommodations to be very successful.  One student may need to have someone else’s notes photocopied for him (because he can’t write fast enough and, at the same time, pay attention to the material being taught), more time on tests, to take fewer courses and have textbooks recorded (because he can’t read fast enough even though his comprehension is excellent).  Another student might need to use a laptop in class and answer some questions in note form.  A third might use a non-programmable calculator for a math test because she can do mathematics but not arithmetic.

As an aside, I must note that these so-called disabilities would hardly have been noticed in another time and place.  In a society where minimal literacy and numeracy was needed, what counted would have been how hard people worked, how well they did their jobs and character.  Few people a hundred years ago would have been expected to do much in school after grade eight and many would not have gone even that far.  I think we should remember that an LD is a very subtle insult to the brain and in the larger scheme of things should not have an impact on our view of the student as a whole.

To return to universal design and education, it would be a great savings in time and money if universal design worked in the classroom.  However, for most LD students it is helpful to have highly structured assignments whereas the intellectually talented profit from open-ended assignments.  Combining high structure and open-endedness in an assignment can be done and I have created assignments that worked for everyone, however they generally took a considerable amount of planning and the most successful one took three teachers to deliver it.  The teacher librarian and the computer teacher participated in the delivery of the project.

While teachers of primary students are guaranteed a maximum of 23 students in their classrooms, teachers of grade seven and eight may have 34 students in theirs.  By the intermediate years, the gap in learning has grown considerably between the weak students and the strong students.  Throw in students who are learning disabled and some who have behavioural problems and a teacher will have her hands full trying to successfully meet everyone’s needs.  Should she try to teach using a single design the equivalent of an architectural ramp or lowered sink, she will find herself with a large group of bored, restless students.

An Example of Universal Design or Differentiation?

The example of Universal Design (P. 12) in Education for All is more like the architectural equivalent of a sign saying UP! at the base of a ramp, ladder, elevator and escalator; a health professional beside the sign would choose the most appropriate way for each individual to ascend and still get their heart rate to an aerobic level.  However, it is a wonderful example of differentiation in teaching a lesson in literature; what it does not explain clearly is how a teacher might handle the differentiation in a class of thirty if some of the students will need the teacher’s guidance for periods of time.  It especially does not address how to deal with students with behavioural challenges in this kind of situation; many of them need direct supervision.

The lay person reading this may assume that an educational assistant would be available but EAs are becoming more and more restricted to students with physical handicaps and are rarely assigned to classrooms anymore.  Administrators might point out that special education teachers are now coming into the classroom to support the regular classroom teachers.  This is true, but they are not available full time to any class so they focus on the three Rs, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

I have a sneaking suspicion that as time goes by, money for special education teachers will be cut until only the very severely affected students will receive support.  The argument will be that since many teachers are now receiving the equivalent of the old Special Education Certificate Part 1 as part of their B. Ed., they will soon be equipped to deal with behavioural, LD and other special education needs.  What the Ministry, administrators, academics and the public will forget is that this kind of teaching not only requires knowledge but also experience and time.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST:  EDUCATION FOR ALL: an analysis of the content.  August 14th

FOURTH POST:  Giftedness and EDUCATION FOR ALL: August 21st

FIFTH POST: Charts for Teachers derived from EDUCATION FOR ALL:  August 26st