Work, Unrequited Love, and Regret

It never ceases to amaze me how our chaotic lives so often lead to order. Just how is it that all of the random interactions between the thousands of souls within our circles of friendship can lead to any semblance of sanity? Social norms? Maybe? Bias? Possibly? All that is sure is that, now and then, powerful messages and lessons arise from the milieu and, if we allow ourselves a little peace and quiet there are there for the taking. Sometimes that lesson is one of regret.

Just the other day, I found myself making a point to a colleague like this: I asked, “Have you ever had a crush on someone who did not return your feelings? She chuckled, “Just one?” It was an easy question. It’s happened to all of us and unless someone’s really been blessed (actually I would say they are either very unlucky or, at best, awfully forgetful; after all strength only grows from times of pain), the mere mention of it can’t fail to resurrect, from those long-ago teenage and twenty-something years, the feelings of shame, of sadness; that overpowering grief which accompanies the realization that something you so dearly and powerfully want will remain forever beyond your grasp.

The subject? Work. My point? Even though we can love work it’s important to realize that work does not love us back. It can’t. It has, after all, no feelings and, therefore, no real means by which it can reciprocate. Any love-ish responses from work that we may experience, either real or imagined, are just in accordance with policy or some higher directive within the corporate structure. It’s just behaviourist; programmed.

Ersatz love is not love.

Now don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t suggesting that we should not love work. Far from it! Throwing one’s soul and passion into the daily labour is just about the healthiest form of self-expression I can fathom. That which occupies the lion’s share of our waking hours should be something about which we care deeply, right? Else, why bother? Find something else. There are, after all, plenty of ways in which you can spend the day.

No, it’s just that we should not expect reciprocity for those extras we put in. We are hired, after all, to do something fairly specific and, in return, it’s agreed that we will receive financial compensation along with, hopefully, a modicum of respect–although the later part is far from guaranteed. Anything else is on us, and us alone. The extras we do are best seen as things we do to receive rewards that are intrinsic. And good for that! After all there are few things more rewarding that the certitude that what we have done demonstrates excellence and is the results of our best efforts.

Life, at least seen through the rear-view, has an uncanny knack of leaving us with a more-or-less coherent rendition of events. Even ones that probably once bore no semblance of connection become, over time, all coupled, to a single train. So too with this week. After a conversation from last night here’s now a part two to my story.

Chatting at a party with a former student, I became aware of an even more powerful rendition of the story of one-sided love. She graduated with her B.Ed. some years ago and since then has been working hard in the hopes of some day obtaining full time employment. At the party she was quite upbeat. The number of substitute days she’d been getting, per week, has been steadily growing. She’s been working on another degree, one that will make her even more employable, and is right now just one course short–a course that is not offered in the next semester. No worries, though, she’s also working on a go-around, for a system that apparently does not really care if she succeeds or not.

There are times during a conversation when you disengage, temporarily, from the outward discourse and rejoin that ever-present inner conversation. So, shifting my mouth to automatic, my thoughts ran instead to the obvious: this young teacher–a particularly talented and well-suited individual, I might point out–had, some two years earlier, already achieved all that is necessary to pursue her chosen career. Since then she’s been going day by day, looking for substitute work while, at the same time, working feverishly to add yet another degree to an already impressive list. And all for what? “Hopefully sometime soon, maybe I will able to snag a term contract,” she’d said. She didn’t even see a permanent job as a realistic outcome at this point! How completely messed up, all things considered! I returned to the conversation, assured her that she was taking all the right steps, said, in all sincerity, “I am so very proud of you,” and returned to the group I was mostly hanging with.

It happened again on the ride home. Thinking back on the exchange with the former student a flood of similar stories of former students trying so very hard to break into such a walled-up system flowed through my head. This time the thought was inescapable. There’s love. There’s unrequited love and then there’s … this.

What have we done? How could we have possibly created such an uncaring, unfeeling structure? The irony! After all, this is the same system charged with the education, the care and, yes, the love of our young people. Is it too much to ask that it spare a little of that same love for those who so dearly want to be one of those charged with carrying out its mission?

So what’s my point? Frankly I’m not completely sure. I only wish I could suggest some positive steps that might ameliorate this, items that might make it a little more fair, more tolerable, more just plain right. Of course it’s not that simple. There are no real dragons to slay, no villains to vanquish. No doubt, as is the case in all walks, there are more than a few self-centered thugs who have muscled their way to positions of influence and power and, for whom, self-interest trumps integrity. They are the minority, though. The vast majority of all of those who serve the system, whether as teachers, administrators or as trustees, do so in pursuit of the lofty goals you’d expect. It’s just that we’re all just one piece of a much larger mosaic, one that cares about much more than young professionals and their contribution to our future.

There are those who will scoff, and assert that it’s all confirmation bias. You know, that style of wrong thinking, when we only acknowledge the evidence that supports our beliefs and either ignore that which is to the contrary or find a way to refute it. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps, though, they’re not, at least not this time.

For my part, the best I have is a feeling of gratitude. It provides a huge measure of comfort knowing that those who wish to join the teaching profession do so with such a degree of fortitude and passion. That said, there’s something else and it’s not good. I’m left with deep regret knowing that my own veteran’s legacy, my own contribution of thirty-five years of service to the same profession has not contributed in any meaningful way to improvement in how we treat those who aspire to follow in our footsteps.

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They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.

Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.

But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.

…until the penny dropped.

Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.

And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.

Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.

What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.

Too bad that the simulated and  talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.

Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Again

A conversation with a former student, now abroad, who informed me of how all the teachers’ lesson plans need to be written in procedural form and pre-approved by the upper administration, reminded me of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Tired of fetching the water himself, the master sorcerer enlists the aid of his best apprentice to do the menial task. Thinking he knows more than the master, the apprentice enchants a broom to do it for him. Sadly, though, he does not know how to stop it and soon the place is flooded. Sometimes the “upper underlings” think they know more than they really do, to the detriment of us all.

The mysterious duality that brain physiology imposes upon our perceptions!  While the notion of the hard and inseparable divide between the left and right brain function has been debunked over the past ten years or so it remains that the brain is not symmetric. There are significant differences between the left and right halves–differences in weight, in shape, in appearance and even in the ratio of right to grey matter. And while neuroplasticity is a thing; yes, the brain can “rewire” itself in response to injury and to education, there is a decided selection on the left for processing things in a logical, procedural way and on the right for dealing with things that, frankly, seem to be decidedly quantum-mechanical, governed by things that can only be understood on a more holistic, probabilistic, even whimsical sense.

It’s painful, therefore, to observe, more and more, a growing emphasis, throughout society, on things that appear more left-brained, at the expense of things that best come from the right. Witness the increased de-skilling of the trades and the professions, a thing you see increasingly in my own field as, more and more, everything gets reduced to something “anybody could do.” Everything has to be reduced to an algorithm, a set of procedures or rules, with less and less room left for that wonderful, powerful thing we call “good judgement” or “art” depending on the context. It all makes you  wonder just how many of those apprentices are busy enchanting brooms as you read this. Let’s hope there’s at least a few wiser sorcerers who can undo it.

What do I Teach?

My friend Ed Wade was shocked to hear I planned to offer you advice.
Said, “They’ve heard enough of our old stuff. Some stories should suffice.”
Let’s do both, but be forewarned, you’re about to hear the pronoun “I” a lot.
It’s not about me, but about you, and maybe you’ll find some food for thought.

As this past year went by so fast many thoughts have came my way.
So I supposed I’d draw on those to frame out what to you I’d say.
I don’t want to ramble as I often do. I’ll try to be more concise
and gauge my speed against your need to check what’s on your mobile device.

This time each year I try to put a few words together for you
who are about to start; words from the heart; advice on what you might do.
In the past I made a list of things that seemed important at the time
and figured a way for me to say them in a way that rhymed.

But looking back I realized I’d made an error fundamental,
said too much, and so, as such, lacked an idea that was central.
Therefore, this time I took my own advice, and thought it through before I begun.
So now I’ll share one idea here, not a bunch as from a scatter gun.

“What do you teach?” I’ve often been asked by people I’ve just met.
That’ll be the thing to which I’ll cling in the few words you’re about to get.
But first let’s come around to it in a way that makes more sense
for you’re all from here, and you know, my dears that’s not how things commence.

You see around here, when you meet someone, first thing they will blurt out
is, “Hello me son, where are ya from?” They know people from there no doubt.
Next thing you’re asked is what you do—that’s the one that leaves me most concerned.
Are they following cues, or judging you, based on what they think you earn?

And so you answer them as you see fit; maybe ask about them too,
‘til finally they come around to the one about which I’m making all this ado.
“Oh! What do you teach?” they’ll ask, expecting you to answer in terms so short & plain.
Ah, it makes me squirm, I must affirm! Please sit and listen while I explain.

You’re thinking maybe I can’t commit, for many of you know why I have no tattoos.
You’ve heard my fears that after seven years, when our bodies are made anew,
the several things that once meant the most will likely have been replaced
as experience brings even more new things and the old stuff gets displaced.

But it’s more than that, sure I’ve changed. In first year MUN I’ve memories so clear.
Physics and Math, choosing, all the while musing teaching them as my career.
But my first job in a small rural school proved that wouldn’t be the case.
Eleven courses kinda forces subject teaching to an impossible pace.

I found it best to look at my students instead of the subjects that I taught.
It being a small school I found, as a rule, I’d have ‘em again more often than not.
Knowing their strengths & shortcomings let me get the most from those I’d been assigned.
Nine years came & went with me giving 100%, ‘til to move on I felt inclined.

I still recall that day twenty five years ago when I landed what was then my dream job.
Teaching Physics and Math online—ah the stars had aligned for this poor geeky bay-dwelling knob!
And to my delight I found that things hadn’t changed much. I still taught students from small rural schools.
Taught multiple subjects, and in many respects still able to use all my tried and tested teaching tools.

And so the time passed. Every few years brought more change: some good, some bad, some unexpected.
I got better, yup, yet I often screwed up, but each time I had more experience thus collected.
And so, over time, many things became clearer—that’s one gift that experience brings.
What I teach,” I now know, and I’ll tell you, although, first let me clarify several important things.

In the time you’ve been here many of you’ve come to know there’s some questions that I love to ask.
My favourite? This is it, “What’s love’s opposite?” If you say, “hate” I will take you to task.
For both love and hate coexist; you can feel both at one time, so opposites then they surely can’t be.
So take away love, yes, go give ‘er a shove, and what’s left is not hate but apathy.

So I caution you, then, when you’re put in clarge of a class and your priority is maintaining control,
keeping the sweet little dears all quiet—or in fear—really, that should never ever be your first goal.
Be mindful that when they’re unwilling to express what’s going on inside of their heads
you’re just flying blind, while they’re falling behind. All hands’d be better off at home in their beds!

But in all the time that I’ve asked of the opposite of love not one soul has shot back, “But what’s love?”
To me that seems weird, but perhaps you were “afeard” I’d keep babbling…I’m like that…sort of.
As you probably know, there’s many possible responses; the ancient Greeks spoke of no less than eight.
But it is this for me: “to want you become the best you can be.” So to teach is to love; ain’t it great!

So, then, as you practice your craft, and get on with your lives, you’ll let students in more and more.
And while their joys you will share, I bid you beware for then they can hurt you right down to the core.
And after several bouts of this you may feel jaded and wonder if it’s all really worth the price.
But let there be no doubt, once they’re “in” there’s no “out.” Been there, and on that I’ve advice.

At times you’ll get hurt, perhaps by students you love, or maybe because of the stunned things you’ll do.
Perhaps you’ll be too headstrong, at any rate there’ll be wrong that will leave you feeling broken too.
When you’re down you’ve three choices of what happens next. Here they are in the order of ease:
First: stay down, don’t get up, you poor sweet buttercup. If that’s you, you best quit now; do it please.

Second, you can get back on your feet and go on, displaying fortitude and resiliency.
But there’s a third choice: become stronger; it’s been voiced by sages with some brilliancy.
In order to get stronger, first you must get hurt but work carefully on that damage, I implore.
Because your strength it will grow and in time it will show, you’re far better than you were before.

After all there’s no sense expecting students and class to always be perfect and bright.
Rose-coloured glasses, are only for asses convinced their way is the only one that is right.
For once you get used to letting your students just be, even cranky and putting you to the test
they’ll trust you enough to share with you the stuff you need to help them be their best.

So I know you’re wondering, “Where’s the point in all this?” After all I promised an answer to you.
But you made a mistake, said my time I could take. To me that’s licence for some ballyhoo.
One last thing I will tell: back when I was in school, I was advised I should be an engineer.
At gadgets I liked to pick, I could fix ‘em right quick so ‘twas a good choice for me, they were clear.

But there was this thing, see there was something else that intrigued me far more than that stuff.
And so when I applied to MUN ‘twas cut and dried, choosing Education, for me, was not tough.
Yes, messing around in the lab is still fun, but a life in the classroom leaves me with no remorse.
And if you haven’t figured it out, what I teach, there’s no doubt: I teach students, of course!

Zero’s Nothing, Right, so What’s Wrong with It?

There’s a lively conversation in my province around something called a “no-zero policy.” This was something several school districts implemented several years ago, however there seems to be no evidence of any such thing being currently in existence in the current school board configuration. At the moment it’s my understanding that new policy is being written and that in the meantime the existing regions that were folded into a larger board are expected to continue with whatever they previously had. The “no zero” policy applies variously, then, depending on where you are located. That, however, does not seem to matter  to anyone, especially now in pre-election times when cries of “end the no-zero policy” seem to be coming from several quarters, with the assumption that at the moment it applies to all.

Just what is a no-zero policy and why do some think it’s important? And, just as importantly why are others so bitterly opposed to it?

Let’s try and make it simple. It’s generally reported that “no zero policies” state that students cannot be given a grade of zero for late, un-submitted, or plagiarized work. The most often reported justification is that evaluation consultants (who are sometimes accused in the media of never having to step foot into a classroom) recommend this because young people should not be unduly punished for making the kind of stupid mistakes they have always been want to make. Presumably by offering second chances the students have the chance to learn by their mistakes and, hopefully, not suffer any long-term negative consequences as a result.

Sounds OK, right? So why is it that so many are bitterly opposed to it?

For an answer to that let’s briefly consider human nature. What if there were absolutely no consequences for not submitting work on time or not being honest, that is, plagiarizing work? To answer that, just ask this question: why do we insist that work get passed in on time and that it be the individual’s own efforts? Simple—if you don’t do that, many (perhaps even most) will not bother putting in the required effort and will just put it off for some other time. That’s why we have deadlines and that’s also why we attach consequences to them. If we didn’t most work would never get submitted in a timely fashion and the small trickle of always-late work would result in very poor learning and an impossible-to-manage situation for the classroom teachers. Small wonder that much of the resistance to “no zero” policies comes from practicing teachers who are tired of dealing with this.

Well, then. Fine—it seems that, in light of this, it makes perfect sense to totally ditch no-policies, right? After all it’s one thing to give a student a break, but the removal of consequences in the form of zero-grades will likely result in a situation that is far worse: (a) students will do worse because they don’t take the assigned work seriously, always figuring they can do it later or maybe even get a do over and (b) the steady, unregulated trickle of inbound work that happens in the absence of enforced deadlines results in an unmanageable situation for the teacher.

Just think about how this might play out. Suppose that you are the type of student who leaves things until the last possible moment. In all likelihood there will come a time that you will finally have to deal with a back-load of work. Perhaps it’s the few days before the first progress reports are due to be sent home. “Alright,” you’ll say, “I can’t get zero so I won’t submit. What’s the worst that can happen?” So, the teacher does the best they can. When scanning through your work they notice that several important things were never submitted and so, instead of giving you a grade—as they should be able to; after all the work should be there to be evaluated; it’s not the teacher’s fault—they instead have to write something like, “I am unable to evaluate your son/daughter because they did not submit any work.”

Stay with me.

The report eventually gets home. In all likelihood the parents would have to find out about it themselves. After all, what student would be stunned enough to bring home what is essentially a blank report card? Perhaps the parents get notified via email, or maybe from a friend. Whatever. At any rate the parents / guardians eventually see it.

And freak out.

You know what happens next: angry words are exchanged with the child and then frantic calls are made to the schools. The end result is that the parent swears that the late work will be submitted asap. Within a few days the student brings a pile of paper to the teacher and dumps it on the desk. “Here’s all my late work.”

The teacher groans. First of all there’s really no telling how much of the work was the student’s own. Perhaps it was, but under the extremely tense situation that would have unfolded at home in all likelihood other hands were involved in the production. Perhaps the parents “helped” or maybe a tutor was enlisted. Perhaps—heaven forbid—some of the stuff was even purchased online. It’s easy to do that. The teacher knows that too, and then is left in the unfair position in which they have to make an evaluation based on work that may, or may not, have been done by the student.

It gets worse, though. Recall that this work was done at the last minute. This, in turn, places great strain on the teacher. Evaluating student work is always time consuming and difficult. It’s also best done efficiently and well when the tasks are combined and grouped. Simply put, a teacher can do a better job in marking all of the work at once than in doing it in dribs and drabs. It will take much longer overall and will likely not be done with the same level of consistency. The end result is not good—much more work for the teacher along with the likelihood that evaluation is nowhere at the same level of quality and consistency.

So, with that in mind it seems to make perfect sense to ban all mention of “no-zero” policies, right?

No, it doesn’t.

Why? It still could still be about the fact that young people do dumb things and need to be given second chances (a thing I wholeheartedly agree on, by the way) but even if, in light of the previous argument, we decided that human nature will have to trump humanity, there still remains a tricky, insurmountable obstacle: grades are not “rewards.”

What is a grade? There are two answers:

  • (The informal one that seems to be prevalent in general use) It is a reward for “good work.” The better the work the better the grade. No work, therefore, translates to a grade of zero.
  • (the CORRECT one) it is a measurement of how well the student has achieved the curriculum outcomes.

Curriculum outcomes? Since 1995 the curriculum in this province, and for that matter, the rest of Canada, has been defined in terms of specific curriculum outcomes. These are statements that express what students must be able to do and are organized more-or-less hierarchically, and broken down by key-stage (grades k-3, 4-6, 7-9,a high can be key stages), by course, and then down to more specific statements that apply to a given course at a given grade level.

For example, one specific outcome from grade 6 mathematics is, “express improper fractions as mixed numbers.” (Note: improper fractions have a larger number on the top and mixed numbers are a combination of a whole number and a fraction. For example 9/2 is an improper fraction that, when expressed as a mixed number is 4 1/2)

Every course is defined this way and the Department of Education (DOE) has expended considerable resources in developing curriculum guides for teachers that, among other things, explain and describe the outcomes, offer teaching suggestions (contrary to popular opinion the DOE does not prescribe the method by which they are taught. It prescribes the what, not the how. Take note you people stuck saying “oh the Department imposes discovery learning” nonsense.) along with suggested methods by which achievement of the outcomes can be evaluated.

Here’s how it works. The DOE describes what is to be taught and the school district takes care of getting the job done—the how. Teachers are therefore expected to provide evaluations that provide an indication of the extent to which the outcomes have been met. It’s all about the outcomes. They–and nothing else–are what define the curriculum. It’s not about what individuals feel should be in the curriculum but, rather, what’s been agreed to by curriculum committees staffed by teachers and led by officials from the DOE.

Evaluation? Grades are not rewards; they are measurements. In the example above it comes down to this: to what extent can the student write improper fractions as mixed numbers? In general terms a grade of 80-100 says they do it with excellence, a grade between, say 65 and 80 means they do it very well, a grade between 50 and 65 mean they do it reasonably well but could do better as this will impact future work. Grades below 50 mean that in the teacher’s professional opinion they do not do it well enough.

What, then, does a grade of zero mean?

This: that the student knows NOTHING WHATSOEVER about converting improper fractions to mixed numbers.

When a teacher assigns a grade of zero to a particular assessment they are certifying, professionally, using everything they have learned through 5-8 years of university learning (and backed up by numerous years of professional practice) that this is the case. A grade of zero, in this case means the teacher is saying “The student knows nothing whatsoever about improper fractions and that’s my professional judgement.”

Seriously, how can you certify that? They must know something about the topic.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But, what else is the teacher to do? In all likelihood the student had loads of opportunity to show the teacher they could do this. There’s no way the teacher sprang the assessment on them at the last minute and surely the teacher would have been open to working something out if the student had to miss the assessment for a valid reason. It’s probably the case that the student threw away the chances they had and so, what else could the teacher have done? They deserved the zero and if we did this more often they’d probably pull up their socks and get the work done.”

There’s still the fundamental problem, though. The above argument just brought the whole thing back to the original—incorrect—definition of what a grade is. In the same way that a grade cannot be considered a reward for good work it also cannot be considered a punishment for un-submitted work. That’s not what assessment is about. Any way you look at it, as long as our curriculum is defined in terms of outcomes the grade has to be a measure of how well they have been achieved.

What then do you do in the case of un-submitted or plagiarized work?

That is the real question.

Let’s draw a box around the answer so before defining what one should do, let’s specify what you should NOT DO. You should not:

  • Assign an arbitrary zero as there’s no way the student knows nothing about the outcome.
  • Roll over and do whatever the student / parent wants you to do.

At this point in the essay the preachiness will come to an end. Clearly there are no simple answers but something needs to get worked out that is in everyone’s best interests. Perhaps this means a provisional “no-zero” that imposes practical limits to prevent abuse. Middle ground is the only workable solution but it’s very difficult to state the procedures in simple terms as by codifying the contingencies and responses, all you will do is (make a game of it and) construct something that starts to look as onerous as the criminal code of Canada! It might be best to express what is needed in the form of a framework, a more general set of intents and values that leaves the major decisions to the professional judgement of the teacher and school.

So what do you do when a student consistently fails to turn in work? You give them a reasonable opportunity to address the situation. Hopefully they will make good use of the chance given to them. Most will. What if they don’t? If there is evidence that the student has behaved in an unreasonable manner despite being given chances then an incomplete or failing grade will have to be justified and assigned. Recall that a zero grade doesn’t mean the student DID nothing, but rather that they KNOW nothing whatsoever. Frankly it`s difficult to see how anyone can score below, say, 20, so maybe that should be the arbitrary minimum.

But that’s not for me to say. It is, rather, an issue for the school district to continue to grapple with and hopefully it gets to do so without political interference. Know what? Right now, as the politicians rant and rave about the no-zero policy I’m willing to bet that teachers are busy behind the scenes trying to work through the complexities that have just been laid out. I wish them all the best.

The Myth of the Good Old Days and the Lies it Perpetuates

Stories in the local media pertaining to k-12 education tend to generate a lot of audience feedback, especially of the negative variety. Just allude to student achievement and the barrage of emotion responses begins. The majority–or at least the most vocal–come from adults who have long since left the system, and the implication is always the same: EITHER schools are not doing nearly as good a job as they used to OR today’s young people just can’t cut it. The comments run a bit like this: (From those claiming to to be post-secondary instructors) students entering the institution are far weaker than they used to be and (From the general population) the schools obviously are offering a watered-down curriculum and students these days are awfully lazy and unprepared.

Know why brainstorming doesn’t work–doesn’t EVER produce the diversity it is supposed to? It’s because it’s human nature to try and find common ground. Ask for divergent opinions and people will timidly at first and then with increasing ferocity state that which they are sure the rest of the group will agree with. Everyone just wants to be the one saying that thing, the thing that everyone is thinking at the time, regardless of how accurate or helpful it may be. It’s like that with education too. Over time it’s become accepted in the popular press to bitch about the sorry state its. It’s now to the point that people just go along with it without even thinking it through.

Too bad it’s pretty much nonsense.

As an educator with over three decades of experience in the system at the classroom, government and university level I have had ample opportunity to observe it from a variety of perspectives. What’s more I’ve maintained decent records over the years and, based on what I have accumulated, those popular assertions can be challenged and possibly even exposed as unfounded myths.

There are two items that need to be addressed.

  1. The opinions you encounter in the media are just that: opinions. They are not based on fact, just impressions that are based on recalled events. Memory is a complex thing and, while it is without doubt vivid and useful, it’s overall accuracy is questionable. Many studies (like this one) have clearly demonstrated that the events, as remembered, change over time. Those who base an opinion on remembered details should be clearly aware of the limitations and resign themselves to the reality that the conclusions they reach are of questionable value at best. Simply put: your recollection of how school was is probably wildly inaccurate.
  2. You may be assuming that the situation is far simpler than it really is and, as such, are ignoring details that have a very real bearing on the situation. Things in education are not simple, physical things that can be easily described. Take the often-used term “success” as an example. On the surface it seems to indicate achievement–something that does not change over time. The reality could not be further from that! There are many ways of measuring this thing we call “success”: scores on provincial exams, scores on international assessments, graduation rates, percentage of students who enroll in particular programs (advanced vs. standard math, for example), how many actually finish, on and on. The list is virtually endless. Worse again, even if we stick with a particular measuring stick–and let’s take provincial exams for example–the situation is still quite undefined as (1) the exams may change from year to year and (2) the curriculum that they are based on also changes every few years. Things are always much more complicated than they seem.

Let’s just apply one bit of this thinking to the aforementioned rants. In particular let’s take a drive through this one thought: your memories of when you want to school were only based on a sub-set of the students. There’s a whole HUGE group of students you have forgotten about, as a result of the two items above.

Here it is: when you were a child a very large percentage of students never made it to high school. Only what might be (cautiously) regarded as the “top” students, or the “keeners”  remained to be your classmates. Whenever you take pot shots at the current system you are therefore guilty of comparing ALL of the current students to the TOP students from your day. It should go without saying that is profoundly inaccurate and unfair.

I can back this up. Based on previous experience with similar arguments its probably a waste of time because I’m using facts to fight an argument that is not based on them but, rather, on ill-informed emotion. Whatever. If you are interested in the truth read on.

Owing to various issues such as (1) students moving from province to province, (2) students repeating grades and (3) the lack of digital data prior to the late 1980s it is quite difficult to get a handle on just what fraction of students, historically, have left school before obtaining a graduation certificate. We won’t have to, though. We are looking instead at the people that self-appointed education critics feel were their classmates when they were in high school. They just assume it was “everyone I always went to school with, which is basically everyone from my generation.” Nope–it’s not. Let’s find out just who it really was for any given year.

Since most people are thinking of high school let’s focus on the grade eleven class. For older folks like me that would be the senior year. For those who would have started grade 1 1 1973 or later it would have been the second last year. Let’s compare the grade 1 enrollment for any given year to the grade 11 enrollment ten years later–in other words let’s track the students and see how many of them made it to grade 11. Acknowledged the results won’t be perfect. For the most part you will be looking at the same group of students. Yes, some students may have repeated a grade and now be recorded with the grade 10 group for that year but it’s safe bet that this would be more-or-less equal to the number of students from the grade ahead who repeated a grade and found themselves with this group.

Of course this analysis more-or-less assumes a closed system; that is that no students either left or entered the province. As you will see that is invalid and the data shows it.

The graph below shows the result of the analysis. The horizontal axis depicts the year that the students in question reached grade 11 and the vertical axis represents the percentage of students who started grade 1 ten years prior who now find themselves surviving to grade 11.

Before commenting on the graph several notes need to be made:

  • Grade 1 was used instead of Kindergarten because the data indicated that for many years not all of the grade ones did kindergarten.
  • Grade 11 was used throughout, instead of grade 12. This was done for two reasons. First, Grade 12 did not exist in this province prior to 1983 and second, it was felt that changing the period in mid-stream would result in not “comparing apples to apples.”

Percentage of students in grade 11 compared to the when they were in grade 1

Most importantly you will note an overall increasing trend over time. That is, overall, it’s clear that as time goes on, more students, survive to get to grade 11. The trend, however is far from linear.

Prior to the mid 1970’s: The fraction of students who survived to get to grade 11 was appallingly low thus indicating that anywhere from 35 to 40% of students who started school never made it to grade 11, let alone found themselves in a position to graduate. Fortunately, the graph also shows a marked improvement, over time, in that sorry state of affairs. This is the main point of this essay and we’ll come back to it shortly but before doing so it’s worthwhile examining two other portions of the graph.

Between the mid 1990s and 2005: The gains that were made in the decades leading up to this period began to dwindle. At first glance it looks as if something went terribly wrong and that, perhaps, maybe something was affecting the dropout rate. Upon closer analysis, however, you can see that something different is happening. In a previous post (on Duck Starfish 23, my other Blog) I charted NL’s population over time and noted a significant decline in population–out-migration–during that very same period. In all likelihood that dip in the graph is just a reflection of what was happening with the overall population. Many of the students were simply heading out of the province with their families and presumably completing grade 11 elsewhere.

The period from 2005 onward: Notice that the trend rises beyond 100%. I will admit this had me stumped fro a while, thinking I’d done an arithmetic error. Inspection of the data tables, however, showed no error. For any student cohort starting grade 1, by the time they reach grade 11, the cohort will have grown! This can be explained easily enough, though, when you take into account the reality that in recent years, some of the people who moved away in the 1990’s have returned along with families they started elsewhere. Likewise, the Oil and Gas industry has been attracting young families. This explains the trend, however, it also sheds light on the limitations that exists with making conclusions abour how many people are staying in school when analysed this way.

Nonetheless it’s safe to say that since the late 1960’s the fraction of students who stayed in school long enough to reach grade 11 has shown a remarkable increase. It’s up from an appalling figure below 60% to at least 95%.

Which brings me to the point. Let’s go back to the title. I alluded to Myths and Lies.

First the Myths: there’s a general “understanding” among our adult population that what happens in schools has gone significantly downhill; that schools have gotten worse, courses have been watered down needlessly and that students are far worse off as a result. I assert that this is a myth and the data supports it.

The adults who are perpetuating it are basing their opinions on what they remember about their own high school experiences and there are two problems with that. First, there’s no telling at all how accurate those memories are and second, and much more importantly, those recollections ignore the fact that the classmates from those days were only about 60% of the ones they started out with. Forty percent of the students never made it to be included in those memories. In all likelihood the ones that made it that far were the ones best suited to the “bookish” way of life that they now claim is diminished.

Those complainers are completely ignoring the HUGE fraction of students who, for whatever reason, simply dropped out; acting as if they did not count.

Today, most of the students who start survive to find themselves in high school and the entire school system has been re-imagined and redone to cause that and to nurture it–a fact conveniently overlooked by those who just wish to find fault.

And the lies that the myth creates:

Lie: Schools have dropped standards. No, they have not. We now have multiple paths for students and we acknowledge (well some of us do) that school doesn’t just exist to prepare students for universities. We’ve broadened the definition of success to include more than just readin’ and cyperin’. Sure, those things are important but so, too are other things–things like accepting responsibility, being able to use discrimination, the ability to do research, an acknowledgement that in this country multi-cultural is in our best interests… the list goes on.

Lie: Schools are failing students. We did once when we simply allowed–even encouraged–almost half of them to leave before it was completed. As for now–look around. We try and nurture all of our students, not jst the chosen few who seem suited to a life of academia. As a result, guess what, “She’s not falling apart.”

Lie: Students are ill-prepared. My response–for what? Perhaps they can’t rattle off, from memory, the list of mortal sins, the capitals of all of the countries, the dates when European conquerors did this or that, and, of course, the multiplication facts up to 20×20 (Mini-Rant: not that there’s any excuse for students not knowing at least up to 12×12, mind you, but that’s another story and another whole can of myths spread by adults who claim to have been forced to memorize them by rote in school when, in fact they did not since issues with math facts have, in fact, been in a horrible state since at least the 1960s). No, now they now have a much broader skill base. The evidence? Literacy rates are way up, the general tone of public discourse is greatly expanded especially for our young people and, of course, we continue to create (and, sadly export) highly skilled workers. As for being prepared for university there are 2 things to consider: (1) enrollments at University are generally rising and this means that students who at one time would not have considered university are now there. Once it was just the so-called top students and today the cross-section is wider and, of course, (2) the complaints about preparedness are  NOT NEW. The same complaints were occurring 10, 20 and even 50 years ago. Check the pass rates in first year courses–you won’t see the precipitous downward trend you’ve been led to believe exists.

But, of course, this bit of rationality will do nothing to appease the hoards of people who continue to complain about the schools based on their own inaccurate memories and based on only those who survived a different system, as those arguments are based on emotion, and not facts. Sadly, you can’t win an emotional argument with facts.

Still, facts are facts and the remembered state that our young people are being compared to is one that simply discounted as disposable the huge fraction of the population that today’s schools do not.