Category Archives: educational research

The Scientist In The Crib: a review

Cover of "The Scientist in the Crib: Mind...

Cover via Amazon

The Scientist In The Crib is a well written book on the intellectual development of children from birth to about three years old.  The three authors are experts in this field and have children on their own.  This combination shows in the easy connection they make between research and real life.  As the book is intended for the layman, it makes for a pleasant read.

It is also soundly researched and provides a solid understanding for teachers and other professionals.  For those who wish to learn more, there are footnotes, a bibliography, an index and an index of researchers cited.

The authors postulate that children are born armed and ready to be powerful learners.  They have not only powerful learning abilities but innate knowledge.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite party tricks with newborns has been to stick my tongue out at one.  To everyone’s astonishment, the baby will do the same back.  Sometimes she pokes it in and out, sometimes she sticks it out in a different  shape.  It turns out that this knowledge was confirmed by one of the authors about 20 years ago.  He tested newborns as soon after birth as possible; the youngest was 42 minutes old.  They all responded by copying him when he stuck out his tongue.

Why the tongue?  I suspect as babies are born knowing how to nurse, they have the most conscious control over their tongues.  As a nursing mother can tell you, babies use their tongues to help them get milk from the breast. What is more interesting is that the babies recognise at sight someone else’s tongue and identify it with their own.  It is excellent evidence that babies are born with innate knowledge.

This also demonstrates the third thing which contributes to the rapid progress that babies make: adults are innately motivated and able to teach their babies.  As they stick out their tongues at babies and watch the babies’ reaction, they are teaching the infants.  The adults and babies are also having fun.

My parents are so crazy, I just can't help lau...

My parents are so crazy, I just can’t help laughing… (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon)

This kind of interaction continues throughout childhood as children learn about the world and how to use language through games, exploration, play and mimicking the older people in their world.  The book makes it clear that children do not need enrichment or any extra stimulus to flourish; all they need is the opportunity to interact with loving adults who have the time and will to play with them.

Isn’t that reassuring?

It has been a long time since I last posted – too long!

IMG_5504I  have been busy because I have decided to write a book on education.  My subject is research-based education and does it exist?  Here in Ontario we are big on research based or brain based education.  I am always a bit dubious about this as there are at least three things that need considering in implementing education based on research.

The first is the reliability of the research For readers like me who don’t always remember the difference between those two important pillars of good science, reliability and validity, I will explain.

Reliability refers to whether an experiment can be done more than once and by other researchers and still get the same result.  If your dog eats a tablespoon of peanut butter and then lies down and rolls over twice, can you get the same effect the next day when you feed him peanut butter?  If you can, can your friend in the next city get her dog of a different age to lie down and roll over twice after he has eaten a tablespoon of peanut butter?  Will it work with different breeds or only black dogs weighing more than 60 lb.?   The more often replications of the experiment end up with the same result, the more likely it is to be reliable.

The second pillar of research is validity.  This is not as simple a concept to explain.  Validity requires that the thesis and experiment make sense i.e. they are designed using both logic and fact.  The conclusions must be interpreted logically, too.  As the saying goes: “data is not the plural of anecdote.”

One mistake we often make is confusing correlation and causation: a classic example is the woman who believed that it was the sign “deer crossing” that caused deer to cross at that particular spot on the road.  She thought this was very dangerous as she had hit a deer three times just after passing the spot.  Her solution was to move the crossing.

The mistake this woman made was to mistake the correlation of a deer crossing sign and the deer crossing the road with the sign causing the deer to cross the road.   Some careful thinking about the nature of deer and their abilities would have brought the realisation that deer can’t read or follow traffic rules.  The deer’s preference for crossing the road at that point was the reason the sign was posted, not the other way around.

We can laugh at this person’s logic, but how often do we see similar thinking in

World Health Organization building from the So...

World Health Organization building from the South-East, Geneva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our lives.  Think of your friend who won’t get her child vaccinated because she believes that vaccinations kill children.  The World Health Organization (WHO)

clearly outlines the faulty logic as it applies to the DPT i.e. Diphtheria, pertussis (whooping-cough) and polio:

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine And Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

One myth that won’t seem to go away is that DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This belief came about because a moderate proportion of children who die of SIDS have recently been vaccinated with DTP; on the surface, this seems to point toward a causal connection. This logic is faulty however; you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours.

If you consider that most SIDS deaths occur during the age range when three shots of DTP are given, you would expect DTP shots to precede a fair number of SIDS deaths simply by chance. In fact, when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted during the 1980s, the investigators found, nearly unanimously, that the number of SIDS deaths temporally associated with DTP vaccination was within the range expected to occur by chance. In other words, the SIDS deaths would have occurred even if no vaccinations had been given.

In fact, in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS. The Institute of Medicine reported that “all controlled studies that have compared immunized versus non-immunized children have found either no association . . . or a decreased risk . . . of SIDS among immunized children” and concluded that “the evidence does not indicate a causal relation between [DTP] vaccine and SIDS.”

Looking at risk alone is not enough however – you must always look at both risks and benefits. Even one serious adverse effect in a million doses of vaccine cannot be justified if there is no benefit from the vaccination. If there were no vaccines, there would be many more cases of disease, and along with them, more serious side effects and more deaths. For example, according to an analysis of the benefit and risk of DTP immunization, if there was no immunization program in the United States, pertussis cases could increase 71-fold and deaths due to pertussis could increase four-fold. Comparing the risk from disease with the risk from the vaccines can give us an idea of the benefits we get from vaccinating our children.

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information on vaccines and childhood illnesses go to Global Vaccine Safety:

Six common misconceptions about immunization.  This is a much more serious case of correlation = causation than the Deer Lady’s confusion.

The sample used should be a reasonable size and reflect the population in question.  How many samples, people, classrooms or animals are needed can’t be defined theoretically, but scientists and most sensible people should know when the sample is not enough.   For example if one wants to know the death rate from measles, the best sample would be all the reported cases of measles in an area or all the confirmed cases of measles.  The latter would be better, unless one can safely assume that doctors are generally accurate in diagnosing measles and therefore their reports won’t skew the data.

One of the cruellest results of poor research is the myth that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine causes autism .  The research was published in 1988 and retracted by the eminent medical journal, Lancet in 2012.  Not only was the research retracted but the author was also reprimanded by Britain’s General Medical Council and stripped of the right to practice medicine in Britain.

The doctor used only 12 children for his research, taking the blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party.  There were other flaws in his work; for more information see the sites below.

After his results were published in 1988, some British parents refused to get their children immunized with the MMR vaccine and the incidence of all three diseases increased.  Measles is highly contagious and can lead to more serious illnesses or death.  For example: one in twenty will develop pneumonia (a common cause of death from measles) and one in a thousand will develop encephalitis, putting them at risk for convulsions, deafness, mental retardation or death.  By 2008 there were enough measles cases in Britain to declare it an epidemic.  See web sites in the bibliography below for a discussion of MMR vaccination from at least two opposing perspectives.

Even when research is well done, there are two more pits for the unwary: drawing conclusions and applying the results correctly. If your dog rolls over repeatedly after eating peanut butter, is it to please you in order to get more peanut butter or does peanut butter put his belly in such agony that he needs to roll over more than once to relieve it?  One might argue that the dog’s motivation doesn’t matter; the important thing is that the dog rolls over.  It does, however, make a difference to dogs and to dog lovers.  They care whether pain or delight is causing the new tricks.  This is another case where the researcher will have to explore the connection between the incidents in order to do good science.

Research intent on testing the results of other studies is not glamorous and doesn’t get the headlines (or the grants, sometimes) but it is as important as the initial work.  In fact, without it, we would have more drugs with disastrous side effects, more collapsing structures and poorer educational systems.

The third thing that needs considering, besides reliability and validity and the conclusions draw by the researcher, is the interpretation of research by the layman – or woman.  It is easy to misunderstand research if we don’t read the work or summaries without a critical eye.  I find myself increasingly wondering who did the original research, how valid and reliable it was, if the researcher had a bias towards the results and what other research has been done. Education needs good research to inform good teaching practices and teachers need to know how to read the research, question it and implement what has been learned.

I have not covered everything you need to know about scientific methods and the methods of science.  My intention here is to draw attention to the layman’s need to understand scientific thinking and reflect critically on research before applying it in the field.  For a more thorough analysis, go to:  The Scientific Method vs. Real Science at  It does require some thoughtful reading but it is worth the effort.

So, I am writing a book about the relationship between education and what we really know about the brain and relevant psychology.  I am still in the research stage.  Instead of doing my own original research, I am reviewing other peoples’ studies to understand the results and their relevance to education.

My blog will probably have a different flavour, as it is likely to reflect my thoughts and discoveries as I learn.  I hope you enjoy accompanying me on this journey.


Donna, The Deer Lady

The MMR Vaccine Discussion.

Autism-vaccine study retracted Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 10:08 PM ET CBC News


Scientific Method:

Interrupting School Work and Sleep

From 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report as quoted in Backbone November/December 2011

In a given hour of school work, 90 percent of [Canadian university] students (84 per cent globally) reported being interrupted at least once by instant messaging, social media updates and phone calls.  Twenty-three (19 per cent globally) reported interruptions six times or more.

Most university work that is not tested with multiple guess exams requires a period of uninterrupted thought to understand what is being learned.  In math, it is the understanding of the problem, then the working out of the answer.  The more difficult the math, the longer that period can be.  In the humanities such as English or history, it can be reflecting on patterns until you see a bigger or smaller pattern e.g. a metaphor that emerges over the length of a novel or correlations of epidemics and war.

Interruptions of those periods of thought waste a student’s time and may lose her the concept she was just beginning to explore.

The Chronicle of Higher Education as reported in the Globe and Mail, Tuesday, November 22, 2011 tells of a study of 200 university students and their use of cellphones. The students were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week due to the cells.  One student, woken by a text message, reported that she felt her friend might be upset if she didn’t answer.

I won’t go into what lack of sleep does to the ability to think, perhaps in another post, another day.  I am astonished by the power given to social media by intelligent people to disrupt the most important parst of their lives.

Perhaps I am making two assumptions: that their studies are more important to students than their social lives.  I am also assuming that these students are both intelligent and of an age to make mature decisions.  In fact neuroscientists seem generally in agreement that brain development goes on until age 25.  At least one has speculated that the frontal lobe which among other things, is responsible for making judgment calls, may continue developing for another five years.

This does make sense of the British tradition of giving children the key to the door on their twenty-first birthday and the medieval apprenticeship tradition that had children working and learning with a craftsman until the age of 21 .  That there are similar traditions in other countries and that versions of the apprenticeships are being revived in many countries is probably no surprise.

So what does this mean for parents of teenagers?  Remember who has the fully developed brain and whose brain is almost there but still in training.  Help your children create a habit of nothing interfering with study or sleep time.  You will have to model it yourself by letting people know that you won’t answer calls after a certain hour.  Letting the phone ring when you are working can be irritating at first, but the mantra “it can wait an hour (or whatever the time is until you take a break)” will help. After all, that’s what the answering machine and caller identity were created for: your convenience.  In my household we also have specific rings for certain people so we know who we must interrupt for and whose call can wait for an hour.

The computer is easier as most instant messaging can be turned off and ignored as can your email and messages from Facebook.  Recording TV programs for recreational time will make it easier to turn the television off when the members of the household are working.  I hope you take regular breaks and can use that time to return messages and calls.  How long a period you allow yourself to work without a proper break is a personal thing.  For most people it varies between 15 minutes and an hour and a half.  Fifteen minutes is for things you really don’t want to do (for more on this see Fly Lady) and most people can focus much longer on other things.  Things that really get my attention will keep me going for an hour and a half so I set a timer for a couple of mini stretch breaks in between (check out Time Out).

When you are doing what you expect your children to do, they can’t cry “no fair” and they will see this is what adults do.  Self discipline and using social media instead of letting it use them is the lesson you want to send with them to any post-secondary education.

Technology and Education

Technology and the Author

While I have to confess to losing my temper and being rude to the first microwave that took up residence in my kitchen, in general I am a technophile, especially when it comes to things that make my life easier.  Typewriters were a gift to this dysgraphic child; electric typewriters were even better but the advent of word processors and personal computers made my life much easier.  Suddenly I could write nearly as fast as I could think, have a machine catch most of my typographical errors and revise my work often and quickly.  Paragraphs flew from one end of a composition to the other, split, spliced with other paragraphs, were deleted, then reintroduced almost unrecognisable in new vocabulary, style and brevity.  Gone were the days of double spaced writing on yellow legal pads, cutting up pages, numbering paragraphs and setting up a new scheme.

I was among the first teachers to pounce on computers as an aide to drilling arithmetic.  I taught my older students to type, save to disc and do their essays on the computer as part of a history/English course.  Before the word summative began to haunt the dreams of high school students and teachers, my grade seven students researched certain topics and wrote essays under controlled conditions (the library and the computer lab) to demonstrate they had learned the skills taught in English and history.

Electronic devices make a difference to students with learning differences:  blind students can hear text using text-to-speech software, the partially sighted can do homework using machines that magnify textbooks, the dyslexic can use spelling dictionaries and word processors, the deaf have access to FM broadcasters, the physically handicapped have access to a number of tools to help them learn.  The electronic devices do not level the playing field, but they allow these students on to it.

I love my MacBook, my Kindle and my iPod Touch because they allow me to write, read, store information and photos and organise myself within a minimum of space.  The Kindle has its limitations, but it still reduces the number of books I need to carry on vacation.

Technology Good …

You hear the BUT coming.  Yes, here it is: technology can do a great deal for students and educators but sometimes we are dazzled by its magic.  Technology does not teach reading, writing or arithmetic.  For that we need only very simple tools such as paper, pencil, literature and counters of some sort such as stones, buttons or beans.  I have put paper bags over students’ heads to demonstrate unknown variables when teaching algebra and created a dance to demonstrate the relationship between high pressure, low pressure and rain.  Everything else is extra and not necessarily helpful.

Before we invest in tools for schools, especially expensive technology, we should ask why we are buying the tools.  What, exactly, will it help us teach and how will it help us teach it?  Will it be used frequently?  How flexible is it?  How will the kids respond to it?  Finally, is it truly good value as a teaching or learning tool for the money and time that will be spent on it?

When I was learning to teach ESL we were given the rule of thumb, teach new grammar using old vocabulary and new vocabulary using old grammar.  When we use technology are we using it to enhance what we are teaching or are we using skills the students already have to teach them how to use the technology.  Both are valid.

What are the School’s Computer Labs for?

For example, we have computer labs.  Why?  We have to teach children how to use the Internet.  What do they need to learn about the Internet?  How to find information is probably the first thing you think of.  The biggest problem with information on the Internet is the variability of the quality.

When children start visiting the computer lab in kindergarten what can they learn about assessing the quality of information?  You laugh; you know that kindergarten kids just play games on the computers.  The games are chosen to improve the children’s knowledge of letters and numbers, to acquaint them with the keyboard, to improve their manual dexterity and for a number of solid educational reasons.  The games would not be in the lab if they were not educational.  We hope.

By grades four and five they are doing research but the research is usually on sites handpicked (by their teacher) where the job is to find the information required and make notes or answer questions Taking notes and answering questions are important skills.  Doing them in a lab does create a stimulating change of pace from writing notes in the classroom.

However, the students do not have to determine how good the site is as their teacher has already done that.  They can not be allowed the freedom to roam the Internet and assess what they find as some of it would be entirely inappropriate.  When my sister was concerned that my niece might have scarlet fever, I typed those two words into the search engine and the first site I found had nothing to do with medicine.  The difficulty is that by the time students are free to roam the Internet at will, they still have not learned to assess the sites they find.

One Way to Integrate Technology and a Number of Forms of Media:

Starting in the Library Using Indexes, Chapter Headings, Catalogues and Key Words

So how could you teach children of that age to search for and assess the quality of the information they find?  You could take them to the library and teach them what they might find in an encyclopaedia, a dictionary, a book on the topic or a thesaurus.  Many students don’t realise that if they want to know something about cows, a book on farms might have something.  They don’t know that if they have five books in front of them, perhaps only two have a lot of information and the other three should be searched using the index or the chapter titles for a few salient facts.  What kind of words should they use to look up information in the index?  If they were studying cows, how about bull, calf, cattle, beef, milk, leather, ranches and so on.  This is often a new idea to them, but when they start using the Internet knowing how to come up with good keywords will be essential in their searches.

I like to give students an adult crossword to solve after pointing out the encyclopaedias of pop culture, space, writers, sports figures and other specialty references.  It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can figure out the answers, using only books. The crosswords are at their most effective if they are difficult.

Assessing the Quality of Information

Once students know how to find information you can teach them to think about what things should make them sceptical about the quality of the knowledge.  Which might be more out of date: a book on cows or a book on rockets ships written in the 1950’s?  Would a book about farming written by an astronaut be as informative as one written by a farmer?  Would a farmer who had studied physics and math at university be able to write a good book on rockets?  What kind of books is most likely to provide information?  What would you find in a book labelled fiction? Biography? Non-fiction? A search on the online library catalogue has turned up:

It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English Lucy Rogers

Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Rocket Science: 50 Flying, Floating, Flipping, Spinning Gadgets Kids Create Themselves Jim Wiese &Tina Cash-Walsh

 Sesame Subjects: My First Book about Airplanes and Rockets (Sesame Street) by Kama Einhorn and Christopher Maroney

The Rocket Mike Leonetti & Greg Banning

Now ask the students which books are not likely to help them learn about rockets.  What helpful information is missing that they should expect to find in a library catalogue? What other information will they find only by looking at the book? Of the books they think might help them learn, which do they think might have the most information?  Which one would they prefer to start with (not always the same one).

Ready for the Internet, More Skills and Boolean Logic *

All of this thinking applies to searching the Internet.  Once students have learned how to search for information and having found information, examine the source with a critical eye, they are in a better position to make good use of electronic sources. They will now need to learn how to search effectively using Boolean logic* and how to navigate web sites.  Just because they can navigate their favourite web sites doesn’t mean they know how to navigate those which will provide useful information

Students researching cows and rocket ships are just one example of how some of the skills needed on the Internet can be taught and honed elsewhere. Skills like these are transferable and not just from the library to the Internet.

From the Internet to Media Studies

From the Internet the skills transfer neatly to media studies.  Here the added value is learning how language, graphics and sound are used to influence consumers. You can show this on Internet sites as well as magazine and television advertising. In fact, it is important to teach detecting bias on Internet sites.  In teaching your students you will bring them through the skills of searching for facts and analysing sources to looking for bias and observing how bias can subtly affect people.

Your students will be better equipped to look beyond the razzle-dazzle to the message. This is use of technology in education but not technology for its own sake.  This is examining how to use technology and how other peoples’ use of it affects us.  With luck you could leave your students with the most valuable lesson of all, the inclination not to take information at face value no matter where it comes from.

*Don’t know what Boolean Logic is?  I won’t tell.  See this site for a good explanation in how to use it in Internet searches:

Boolean Searching on the Internet: A Primer in Boolean Logic by Laura B. Cohen.  Part of Internet Tutorials: your basic guide to the Internet If you teach math, set theory and Venn diagrams, you will be able to do a two for one lesson or reinforce one concept in the other class.  Show your students how even the weirdest math has real life applications!  How cool is that?

French as a Second Language is not Taught in a Vacuum; How Do We Teach All the Children?

I have spent a number of posts writing about the attempt of the New Brunswick Ministry of Education’s attempt to revise its FSL program because it mirrors situations in provinces and communities across Canada.   The situation there seemed to be typical not only of difficulties in FSL education across Canada but also typical of the way efforts to improve education are stymied by political haste and unwillingness to thoroughly understand the issue, typical of the insufficient or inadequate resources used to research every aspect of the problem and typical of the inflexibility in proposing solutions apparently set in stone.  Surely solutions require brainstorming for a time before an effective answer can be found.

            Let’s look at the problem New Brunswick really had:

  • Very few of the students were leaving high school with any kind of fluency in their second language, French.
  • The FSL teachers could not be guaranteed to be Francophone or of native-like quality in their French
  • If the FSL teacher’s French was excellent, his training in teaching L2 couldn’t be guaranteed to be sufficient.
  • Both the Early and Late French Immersion programs were losing large proportions of their students before the end of high school, thus making it unlikely that the bilingual goal of the programs would be achieved.
  • Some parents were placing their children in Immersion in order to ensure that their children were in a stream with few learning-disabled, immigrant or disruptive students. 
  • In spite of the politically correct statements about French Immersion being available to all children, the truth is that there was little support for children who flounder in the program for whatever reason.  If there are not enough bilingual teachers with appropriate training to teach French, it stands to reason that there would not be enough bilingual special education teachers.
  • Only 80% of children of the appropriate age live within 16 kilometres of a school offering EFI.  This means that one fifth of New Brunswick children entering first grade did not have the option of entering EFI.  I suspect most of those are in rural populations.

Unfortunately, almost everyone who took issue with the Croll/Lee report focussed on Early French Immersion; they saw it as an attack on Early Immersion. Although they fiercely criticised the report and many of those criticisms were warranted, they missed the kernel of the problem and not only proposed no solution but did not acknowledge that there was a problem.  Most critics were too busy marshalling their arguments for the reinstatement of the EFI to concern themselves with the whole picture.

So here is the problem: New Brunswick wants its Anglophone graduates to speak sufficient French to get by in a Francophone area.  At this moment very few are anywhere close to modest fluency, much less bilingualism at graduation.  N. B. can’t throw money at this problem to fix it. 

French Immersion is a pretty good system for teaching French when the students stay in it right through to Grade 12 and when the appropriate supports are provided.  Most students who start in FI, especially EFI, don’t stay the course. Of the kids eligible to start in EFI, 20% would have to travel over 16 k, making EFI an unlikely option.

There is strong evidence that the ministry has not been successful in training or finding enough near-native French speaking well-trained French teachers.  This is one of the reasons that support for children floundering in FI is not available.  It is also a factor frequently ignored by researchers, educators, parents and politicians.  Would it be better to have fewer and better French teachers?

The other problem with FI seems to be social; it may be due to inadequate support from the ministry or class perceptions of the parents.  Whatever the cause, students in difficulty in FI don’t stay in FI.  With that awareness, some parents won’t even put their kids in FI, some will be gently dissuaded by well-meaning teachers and other parents will have their children transferred to the Core French program when she starts to have difficulties.

Daily lessons don’t seem to be effective in teaching FSL; we don’t know why but it doesn’t work.  Students are usually bored and uninterested at best.  A program called Intensive French, requiring a one off year of differentiated programming shows promise on a number of levels.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  What solution will do the best job of teaching all of the children to speak sufficient French to order a meal, make an appointment with a doctor or ask for help in normal day to day life?  Of course, some of the children can go much farther than that so we want a program that will provide for them, too, if we can afford it; we have to remember, though, that some things don’t just cost money, they also cost opportunities for others.  This should be the bottom line for every ministry of education in the country and every Anglophone board of education in the country.

THE SOLUTION will require the wisdom of Solomon and parents who are willing to put other people’s children’s needs first.  It will require politicians who call it like it is and researchers who look beyond one narrow area of research.  It will require unions who will acknowledge that although their mandate is to protect jobs, they are teachers first and want what provides a good education for students.  We have the capacity to provide for the educational needs of our children but not the wants of all the stakeholders.  It is time for the adults to act like adults.

Talking to Everyone

         The Croll-Lee Report on FSL in New Brunswick has been justifiably criticised as sloppy and limited in its use of research on methods of teaching FSL.  Critics have also pointed out the inaccurate use of figures and tables provided by the New Brunswick Ministry of Education.  It was unfortunate that New Brunswick children were so ill served in what was a good cause and for which there was so much solid evidence available.

            Before I go further, I want to discuss academic research in the social sciences as it has some bearing on this issue. The social sciences such as education are seen as soft sciences because so little can be proved quantitatively.  By quantitative, I mean what can be measured and reproduced given the same situation.  For a start, it is impossible to have identical situations where people are concerned.  In education, no two teachers are alike and no two classes are alike.  No matter how carefully we select for similar age, gender, socio-economic status (i.e. are they upper, middle or lower class) race, faith and ability the classes may be similar but never the same. To do that we have also recognised our own bias, abandoning the myth that researchers operate objectively in studying their subjects     

For many people, this is a new way of looking at things.  Acknowledging bias in scientists, valuing description and narratives as part of the results of research? This is a different world from the expectation that numbers are the most precise way and therefore the best, least biased way of measuring the world around us.  We admit our bias and record it with the narrations or anecdotal evidence.  Sometimes, as action researchers, for example, teachers doing research as they work, the bias is very much a part of the research.  

Just as quantum physics discovered that under some circumstances observation changes what is observed, so too, observing in the social sciences changes what we observe.  I suspect quantum physics may have opened the quantitative thinking world to the potential of qualitative research.  This recognition and the awareness of bias have lead the researcher to include herself sometimes in the story of the research.

That being said, there were facts and figures that needed to be included in the Croll-Lee Report.  The commissioners did comment that little useful information was available.  This is not surprising.  Education ministries and school boards do not evaluate results for their programs as a rule.  They may do it as a spot check or because anecdotal evidence suggests it is necessary but rarely in an ongoing fashion.  Before we become too critical, we have to remember that many ministries across the country have been asked to cut the fat, the deadwood and all positions not relevant to teaching.  Researchers and analysts would be among the first to the guillotine.

A reporter in British Columbia, responding to the events in FSL education in New Brunswick asked the B.C. ministry of education how their French Immersion program was doing.

Asked for comparable B.C. figures [to those citing dropout numbers and numbers achieving ministry goals in N.B.], an Education Ministry spokesperson said the government does not have them. “We don’t track early immersion students through to Grade 12,” she said… “I guess tracking French students was something we’ve never done,” she said.

According to Education Ministry policy, the “major goal” for the French immersion program is for students to become bilingual. The ministry is not, however, checking to see how many students meet that goal.

         From Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod
Published: April 10, 2008,

                  However, the dearth of statistical information should not have stopped the commissioners from making good use of what was available.  When I was tearing my hair out trying to get a handle on calculating statistics for a course on research design I took in graduate school, a colleague explained to me that I didn’t have to do my own statistics.  Many people hire a statistician to help them plan the taking of data and the analysis afterwards; studying stats was a good idea, as it would give me an understanding of what was involved.  It was sufficient that I understood the theory and the kinds of cases in which certain methods were used so I could work knowledgeably with the experts.

            Similarly, if time was limited or neither Lee nor Croll were adept at number crunching, they should have employed someone to do it for them.  The sad fact is that the few errors I reviewed with the aid of my own number cruncher may have given them the wrong numbers, but if they had done them the right way, they would have had almost as effective evidence for the points they were trying to make.

            Another unfortunate error was the lack of explanation of research results into the three major teaching methods they were discussing.  Croll and Lee did not need specific expertise in this area; if expertise were needed in all the topics they covered in their review and recommendations, they would have needed experts in teaching FSL, learning disabilities (especially language related ones), school organisation and management, rural and urban schools, language development and teaching L1.  That would have just been the beginning. 

            The purpose in doing graduate work in a subject is to learn to do original research, think logically knowing your own bias and add to the body of knowledge. Most importantly, the student develops expertise to be shared with other people so they don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of time doing their own research or guessing wildly. The student also acquires the skill to read work in other disciplines with a critical eye.

The academic information was available and I have reviewed it in my last post.  With the tools at their disposal, they should have been able to do a more thorough and clearer job.  Dr. Croll taught at the University of New Brunswick, which had a Faculty of Education and housed the Second Language Research Institute of Canada (L2RIC).  I am sure the latter would have been happy to provide appropriate information; they certainly were after the report was published.  In fact, Paula Kristmanson presented a paper on Intensive Core French (see April 19 post on 3 options for FSL delivery) at the fourth International Symposium on Bilingualism in 2003.  She was then at UNB and is now at L2RIC.

If time had been a problem, they should have asked for more time.  If they had a proposal but needed to review it with others who had more specific expertise, then they should have asked for time to do that.  In other words, they did not have to be experts, they only needed to know when to consult them.

What did the commissioners get right?  They did their best to make sure everyone was heard.  I know that one complaint was that there wasn’t enough time for everyone to be heard.  I also know that many people pass the large signs in their neighborhoods announcing an application to deviate from the local bylaw in a building application and neglect to stop and read the details.  They are often the first people to complain when application is approved, the building is built, the tenants move in and they discover the deviation is going to affect their property.  I read through the lists of organisations that were contacted and asked for input; if their members were contacted then, as far as I can tell, every avenue was used to communicate with stakeholders.

The anecdotal evidence the commissioners provide in their report made it clear that there was general and considerable discontent with the way FSL worked in New Brunswick.  The issues were not the small irritants of school life; they concerned quality of teaching, availability of resources and equity issues.  This was not a problem of a few rotten trees, it was a tangled forest of education where flowers bloomed in a few clearings and much of the undergrowth in the rest was so thick it made progress difficult.  The department of education and Croll and Lee were trying to see the forest.  That they botched it is regrettable.

For some interesting criticisms of the report go to     The author does not give sources for many of his facts and he doesn’t state his credentials for weighing the arguments given by the ministry.  However, some of his points are solid.  One of the best points he makes is that Croll and Lee recommend starting the FSL program in Grade 5 with Intensive French.  He correctly points out that programs where Intensive French has been used at that age have had students who have already had several years of French. 

What the commissioners proposed was to start the students study of FSL with Intensive French.  This was not something that had been studied although Intensive French and Intensive English at this age had proved successful with learners who had some of the L2.  By some I mean a little. Starting L2 learning with IF is an idea that needs to be thrashed out with second language teachers and especially those with experience in Intensive French.

The blogger above inadvertently makes a point on behalf of the ministry when he demonstrates that 20% of New Brunswick students, who are the right age for Early French Immersion, live too far away from an EFI program to make it practical.  You will remember from an earlier post that just under 50% of N.B.’s population is rural; one could infer that most of the students who are too far away from EFI are part of that rural population.  Perhaps the ministry was aware that two French streams were de facto discriminating against rural students.

The obvious solution to this is to put French Immersion into all schools, but to advocate that is to forget the enormous costs of two streams in five grade schools of 100 to 200 students. 

In the end the Croll/Lee report was a disaster because it was intended to correct a number of problems but due to its sloppiness created a political whirlwind which destroyed any chance of seriously reforming FSL in New Brunswick.  It became a rallying point for the middle class to push French Immersion rather than a place to start discussions concerning the most effective way to teach French to children.


Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod
Published: April 10, 2008,

New Brunswick’s Three Options for FSL Delivery

If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll

Part of the debate that rages around French as a Second Language and French Immersion is the everyone-knows statement that very young children learn languages faster than older people. The response to that is: yes, BUT.

The BUT lies in the difference between implicit and explicit learning.  Explicit learning takes place when there is direct instruction.  For example a teacher sets out to teach a grammatical rule, correct pronunciation or use of an equation; the students are experiencing explicit learning.

Implicit learning is often taught by experience.  A toddler copies her parents’ greetings to a neighbour or an adolescent is very clear on what is cool and what is not.  This is also called naturalistic learning.

Given the same amount of time spent in explicit learning, young adolescents are the most effective at learning grammar and literacy in a second language (compared to adults and young children).  However, when it comes to pronunciation, the younger children are most effective at learning pronunciation in a naturalistic setting.  French Immersion works as well as a naturalistic setting.  On the other hand, adolescents and adults have achieved near native accents, but with less frequency, so this is not a hard and fast rule, nor is there a point where abilities such as acquiring pronunciation or learning grammar switch on and off. This is a crude summary of years of research summarised in Rod Ellis, 2008.  I refer you to his excellent book for more detail and direct references to the research.

The answer is that young children who live part of their lives in a second language or take early Immersion in an L2 do learn pronunciation faster and more effectively than older learners.  This is probably why they seem to learn languages so well.  One thing few researchers mention is that very young children have the vocabularies and the grammar of the very young so while they may be fluent in the language of children (and we wouldn’t expect more), this is not a full command of the language.  Just as their L1 will need development, so will the L2.

Some researchers have argued that children have all the grammar they need by a very young age; having taught children from Grade 2 to Grade 8, I disagree.  They may have the basic grammar and be able to use complex sentences, but agreement of tenses and persons and accurate use of tense, for example, often remain a mystery for some years.  High school French Immersion teachers have commented to me on the propensity of EFI students to retain language errors and one researcher has observed a kind of pidgin French developing among some EFI students.  This suggests that they are not sufficiently grammar conscious to self-correct or seek correct forms.

If children are not in Immersion, then starting a second language early has no major advantage.  In fact, a solid foundation of literacy in their L1 may be more effective, in the long run at helping them acquire an L2.   The skills in one language are transferable to the other.   By skills, I mean the kind of things that give the learner more scope and flexibility in developing language: skills such as the capacity to infer meaning, guess at vocabulary from context, tolerate ambiguity, take risks and use resources. These kind of skills are necessary in all academic subjects as well so wherever the student learns them, there will be considerable benefit as the skills transfer.  Most researchers seem to assume that they will transfer automatically; my own experience has been that students often need a nudge to recognise that the context may be different but the situation is similar.  But a nudge is usually all that is necessary.

From this, one might infer that a comparatively late start, such as Grades five, six or seven in learning French might be effective. Starting language training as late as Grade seven or eight is probably too late because as puberty descends, peer pressure increases.  Self consciousness makes it difficult for students at this age to give French the attention that good language learning requires.  This is not an issue only in French.  When we can successfully address it for all subjects, French will not suffer from it, either.  In the meantime, it makes these grades the poorest choice for the mandatory beginning of a second language program.

Except for the perils of puberty, the research supports a later introduction to a second language.  The one exception is that students will be less likely to acquire near-native pronunciation.  How important is near-native pronunciation?  As a former second language teacher, I can tell you that if a student learns the rhythms of a language and her accent does not impede comprehension, she is doing very well.  Daily work listening to news broadcasts, Quebec singers and watching Quebec television shows will help with oral comprehension and accents.

The oral component being satisfactory, we know that the students will learn to read and write in French with more ease, as the skills will transfer from what they have learned in English and their other subjects.  Core French and French Immersion, both early and late were not the only options under consideration in New Brunswick.

The Intensive French Program was based on the concept of the skills transfer described earlier.  In a nutshell, Grade 5 students did five months of only French at the beginning of the academic year.  The program was project based so the students were using French to do or create things.  The creation of the projects was used to teach skills such as co-operative and independent work and concentration.  Both the projects and language arts in French were used to teach literacy skills.  The last five months of the academic year were devoted to a compacted curriculum of the rest of the academic subjects.

The pilot project in New Brunswick proved to be very effective.  The students’ French improved very quickly as did their concentration and enthusiasm for school.  The skills learned in the first half of the year enabled them to deal with the second half of the year effectively.  The researcher, Paula Kristmanson of the University of New Brunswick, recorded positive responses from parents, teachers and students about the effectiveness of the program in her report on the pilot programs.

The one thing the report doesn’t mention directly is whether the students had studied French before.  My own assumption is that they had been taking 30 minutes of French a day since Grade 1.

Intensive French was not new.  It originated in Quebec in 1969 and has continued as a method for teaching French to immigrants.  In 1980 not long after the beginning of French Immersion and its success, researchers reported on the effort of educators to use Intensive French as a means of teaching Anglophone children French.  IS was used with Grade 1 and Grade 6 students.  The conclusion was that although it was effective with both groups, the younger children required more time to benefit.  Intensive French was more effective with an older group of children.  The method is still used in Quebec to teach English as an L2.

Canadian Parents for French used the lack of knowledge of long-term effects of IF as one reason not to allow the implementation of the Croll-Lee report.  I’m not sure how long they felt was necessary but I think 25 years should be enough. Since 1980 researchers have explored the possibilities of Intensive French. From Billy’s research in 1980 to Kristmanson’s in 2005 and the work of Netten and Germain among other researchers between the two, there is probably sufficient work to have confidence that Intensive French is effective in the year it runs and unlikely to do any harm to the following academic years.

In fact, the pilot programs in New Brunswick that Kristmanson reports on in 2005 were based on the design of Netten and Germain’s programs in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1998 to 2001.  By the time Kristmanson was doing her research in 2005, the children studied by Netten and Germain in 1998 would have been in Grade 12.  The second cohort would have reached Grade 12 the year of the Croll-Lee Report..  Finally, in 2004 in the The Canadian Modern Language Review, Netten and Germain referred to 25 years of success in Quebec with this method.  The only difference was that they were using it to teach English. For more information on Intensive French see the research list below

When people refer to research to support their arguments for or against specific forms of FSL, they take for granted that all the FSL teachers will have native or near-native competency in French. This is not the case in Canadian FSL classes.  The Croll-Lee Report (2006), for example, refers to FSL teachers in New Brunswick whose French is poor.  Netten and Germain in describing the parameters for their research into the effectiveness of IF from 1998 to 2001 stipulated three things about the teachers delivering the program:

· a good command of French,

· the ability to use effectively interactive teaching strategies in the classroom, and

· a desire to use innovative teaching methods.

A good command of French was the first stipulation.  Without that, any method of teaching French is working under the heaviest of handicaps.

Paula Kristmanson, University of New Brunswick, Beyond Time on Task: Strategy Use and Development in Intensive Core French, 2005
J. Netten et C. Germain, Intensive French – An Introduction,  Intensive French in Canada, Revue canadienne des langues vivantes/The Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol. 60, no 3, pp. 263-273.  2004
Ellis, Rod.  The Study of Second Language Acquisition: second edition. 2008