Dr. Dawn C. Wallin

August 24, 2014 2:32 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Teachers, Students, and Teaching (5th Edition)

 

PROLOGUE

“Linda, do you have a few minutes to spare?” Linda Chartrand looked up from her pile of marking. Toni Nord, the new teacher on staff, was standing in the doorway of Linda’s classroom looking rather nervously.
“Sure,” Linda said. “Come in and sit down. Please shut the door behind you so we won’t be interrupted. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I wanted to ask you about the debate at the last staff meeting about students’ needs and how we meet them. You seemed to feel that we need to change quite a few of our teaching practices. I know you mentioned moving away from ability grouping and changing our assessment policies. I hadn’t thought much about that, but what you said made sense in terms of my class. Can you tell me some more?”

“Well,” Linda began, “my basic feeling is that sometimes we do things in schools in ways that don’t help students very much. It has more to do with the way schools were 50 or 100 years ago, and with sorting students instead of helping them learn. Take the issue of ability grouping in the elementary grades. My understanding of the research is that ability grouping isn’t a good strategy. Kids in the lower-ability groups actually do less reading, and the instruction they receive is quite different from that given to the kids in the higher groups. Instead of catching up, they fall further and further behind.”

“But how do we teach such different kids if we don’t group?” Toni interjected.

“Precisely the problem,” Linda responded. “Because we have classes of 25, we need a way of managing the work for ourselves while still supporting the learning in our classroom. We may talk about individualizing the program for each student, but it’s pretty unrealistic given one teacher, 25 kids, and six or eight different areas of curriculum if we aren’t prepared to change the way we structure what and how we teach. So the organization forces us to do something that doesn’t work very well, and alternatives aren’t easy to come up with. I personally like the idea of instituting more inclusive teaching strategies that recognize that students have a role to play in shaping their own learning. That would mean some pretty big changes, and I’m not sure I feel confident about making them without support from the principal, the staff, and the school district.

“Another problem that really concerns me is marks and grades. Of course, we need to give kids and parents feedback about how well they are doing. But I can see every year how discouraged some kids get early on when they only have one or two ways to demonstrate their learning, usually a test or a paper of some sort, and the feedback they get continually tells them that they just don’t get it. Some of them stop trying pretty quickly. Another problem with marks is that I have to give a mark or comment in each subject area. But I’d like to integrate them more, so that math was part of our work in science, and writing was part of our work in social studies, and so on. Yet our report card isn’t set up to report on those interdisciplinary experiences, and many parents want to see a number that reflects how their kid has done in each subject.”

“Those are problems in my class too,” Toni said. “But what do we do about them?”

“I don’t think there are any easy answers,” Linda replied. “We’ve got a system that’s set up to handle big bunches of kids in a standard way, teaching them the same things, when we know very well that each kid is different in many ways. Every few years, someone comes around with the latest cure-all; we have two days of in-service on it, then we’re left alone to try to implement it until the next magic strategy comes along. I think we’ve got to start asking ourselves tough questions about how we teach and organize for teaching, and stop expecting someone to give us a magic answer. We have to identify the problems and try out different ways of resolving them.

“You know, Toni, I’m really glad you came in. You’ve given me the impetus to do something. Why don’t you and I try to get a few others together to meet after school one day to talk about some of these problems? There are a couple of people at the university who might want to join us. Maybe all of us can help each other try out some different strategies.”

 

Teaching and learning are the central purposes of schools. Although this seems an obvious statement, is often appears to be ignored in discussions of educational administration, which may focus on issues of structures, governance systems, finance, or politics instead. The central purpose of this book is to describe the way Canadian schools are organized, but we must always remember that the purpose of all that organization is to support teaching and learning. All of the historical, legal, political, and economic features described in the previous chapters are presumably intended to create a structure that allows effective teaching and powerful learning.

The central tasks of education involve the development of knowledge, skills, behaviour, and attitudes in learners. There is nothing automatic about the way we choose to organize these tasks, even though most current practices are largely taken for granted. At one time, young people learned most of what they needed to know at home through regular contact with parents and other adults. The concept of school did not exist. Current adult education efforts are often organized in much less formal ways than schools.

It is not the authors’ purpose to provide any kind of thorough discussion of issues of teaching and learning. Rather, in this chapter the focus is on the ways in which the work of teachers and students is affected by the school’s organization and structures, and on what might be called normal school practices, that is, what has been typical of most schools and classrooms (although generalizations of this sort are potentially misleading). Many teachers are aware of problems with current educational practice, and in a significant number of schools and classrooms serious and important efforts to make changes are taking place.

 

CONSEQUENCES OF A STANDARDIZED MODEL OF SCHOOLING

As schooling became universal for children, mass forms of education were devised. Again, this was a deliberate choice rather than an inevitable outcome. Even the mass schooling of young people could be conducted in quite different ways from our current practices. For example, it could be noncompulsory; it could be spread over more hours of the day, with people attending at different times; it could involve more independent study, flipped classrooms, or work at home; or it could be spread over more years, allowing for periods of work or other activities in-between. Many schools and many teachers are involved in changes in organizational arrangements that they believe will result in better education.

Once the decision was made to organize schools using a factory model as the main analogue, important consequences for teaching and learning came into play. The central organizational problem for any school is what to do with a large number of children and young people who are required to be in attendance for five or six hours each school day. A typical elementary school, for example, might have 300 to 400 children arriving each day around 9:00 a.m. and staying until 3:30 p.m. (preschool students, who are there only half the day, cause further complications). The school must provide activities for those children during that time, and it must make those activities educational. Schools must organize the students, the teachers, the knowledge that will be regarded as legitimate, and the time around all these people and activities. These requirements may seem self-evident, but, as the next few pages will show, they have important implications for school organization, teaching, and learning.

A first effect of school organization has to do with physical facilities. Schooling takes place in buildings that are built for that purpose. The buildings are usually separated from other activities in the community, and from places where adults (other than teachers) are found. Schools tend not to have congregating places for adults other than teachers and staff, though there are examples where parents have spaces provided. Students go to school in large rooms full of desks, tables, chairs, and school equipment. In many schools, windows have been blocked up to save energy or for safety reasons, which considerably alters the feel of a room. Few schools provide places where students can be alone or work in small groups of their own choosing. Many schools in urban environments do not have any green space for students to enjoy.  Yet learners of all ages often prefer these modes of learning when given a choice. What happens in schools, therefore, is immediately constrained by the physical setting.

Because students are legally obliged to attend school, supervision and control are also important issues. The school literally has custody of the children, and must therefore ensure their presence and safety. Some of the legal ramifications of this requirement were explored in Chapter 4. The implications of the need to supervise children go far beyond legal issues, however. Organizationally, schools must ensure that students are directly supervised by an adult member of the staff. Typically, the means used to meet this requirement is to divide students into groups, with each group having an adult, usually a teacher, in charge. Thus, two other central characteristics of the school are created: students work in groups, and teachers work individually with groups of students.

Institutionalized schooling also creates the requirement for a timetable, which means that the movements of teachers and students are regulated by the schedule and the clock. Teachers must organize instruction to fit the timetable, regardless of their own style or their students’ needs. Classes must begin and end at a particular time (especially in secondary schools, but also in elementary schools that have specialists on staff), which may or may not fit the educational requirements of the material or meet the needs and preferences of students and teachers. Teachers and students experience the day as chopped into small pieces, requiring them to change their mindsets every 40 or 80 minutes, or whatever the schedule dictates. Secondary teachers may see only limited aspects of students because their contact with them is limited to particular subjects or times. Moreover, all subjects may get roughly equal time allocations, even though it seems evident that each might benefit from different scheduling arrangements.

Further important consequences arise from trying to undertake the educational mission of the school in a mass-organization setting. Schools are supposed to teach things to students, and to make efforts to have the students learn those things. The content to be taught and learned is already dictated through provincial curricula, about which more will be said shortly. The school then faces the question of how to organize in a way that ensures that the required content is in fact learned.

 

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TEACHING AND LEARNING

Fundamental to understanding the nature of teaching is appreciating the uncertain relationship between teaching and learning. Presumably, schools are for learning. The goals and objectives of schools, which we discussed in Chapter 1, have to do with what students will learn, do, think, and feel, and how they will behave. We want and expect students to develop literacy and numeracy skills. We want them to develop an appreciation of ideas, skills in finding knowledge, an interest in the variety of the world, an appreciation for the Canadian way of life, and so on. We want them to learn to be tolerant, caring, thoughtful, and sensitive people.

We also know that people learn things in different ways. Learning theory is a complex field and, despite important developments in the last few decades, the science of learning is certainly not definitive. It is clear that learning is related in complex ways to previous knowledge and experience, to motivation, to one’s life situation at any given time, to the stimuli for learning, and so on (OECD, 2010; 2012). It is also evident that no single approach to learning will work for all students. While there is no such thing as a typical class of students, at any given moment within a group of students one would find some who are interested in a particular subject, and others who are not; some for whom the teacher’s style works, and others for whom it does not; some with and some without backgrounds that facilitate the task at hand; some who find the particular presentation of material meaningful and helpful, and others who do not. Some students may be preoccupied with other demands made on them, whether from home or from friends. Some may feel incompetent at the subject being studied. Some may not understand the teacher’s language very well. Some may find that the material and the examples don’t fit the world they know. In short, people learn different things, in different ways, at different times, and with varying speeds.

Some might see this variety as a problem to be remedied, thinking that if only people were the same, schools could be so much more effective. The argument for a standard curriculum across the country or a province is an example of such reasoning. Another way to think about variety in people, though, is to value it as one of the things that make life interesting and worthwhile. What kind of world would it be if we all thought the same, felt the same, and did the same things? Uniformity would also cost us the sudden insight from a student, the flash of understanding, the humorous remark that brightens a class, the countless unexpected ways in which other people surprise and delight us by being themselves.

The organization of schools does not always reflect our knowledge about learning or about differences among people. The organizational choices that have been made mean that schooling is organized on the basis of groups of students learning the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, and at the same speed. There are standard curricula that are supposed to apply to all students in a given grade or course. Students are divided into classes, their days are divided into subjects or courses, and they are assigned to teachers for these chunks of time, on the presumption that they will learn what the teachers teach them. Essentially, the organization of learning is determined for students; they are told what to do, and when and how to do it.  Rarely are their own understandings of themselves as learners, what they can accomplish, or what they might like to learn taken into consideration.

Many teachers realize that education cannot be effectively standardized, and some schools have made efforts to change the delivery model to de-emphasize these features. However, it is difficult for even the most committed staff to work against the various requirements that may be imposed by provincial regulations, school board requirements, or the habits of experience.

 

ELEMENTARY, MIDDLE, AND SECONDARY SCHOOLS

The teacher responsible for any given class must be capable of teaching the required subject matter. The usual way of meeting this requirement is to have teachers specialize in some manner, and to organize the students accordingly. Schools deal with this requirement differently in elementary, middle, and secondary schools.

In elementary schools, a concern for specific content, such as learning to read, tends to be combined with a strong interest in the overall development of each student. The development of academic skills is stressed, but so are behaviour, motivation, and the all-round development of the child. In the first years of education, the school focuses on the students’ need to acquire the ability to do later, more specialized, studies. Young children are regarded as being more dependent on adults. Elementary schools also place considerable stress on students’ self-concept—the sense students develop about their own skills and abilities. Given this emphasis on basic skills and child development, the most common arrangement is for a single teacher to teach most or all of the material; thus, each teacher usually has the same group of students for most of the school day. Within this basic organizational structure, however, it is much more common to see more than one adult in an elementary classroom.  Given the recognition that early literacy and numeracy are key to successful learning later on, much more emphasis has been placed on providing team supports to ensure elementary learners acquire the basic skills they need.  Specialist teachers (e.g. languages, music, and physical education), educational assistants, resource teachers and student services personnel are now quite commonly part of the everyday classroom experience of elementary school students

Middle schools are commonly arranged as a hybrid of the workings of elementary and secondary schools. This arrangement eases the transition that takes place in the general philosophy between elementary and secondary schooling, and the changes in identity, learning, and physical stature that occur in this ambiguous time of adolescent development. Often, middle schools are organized around the concept of team teaching, so that groups of teachers remain aware of the learning needs of a particular group of middle-school learners. These students therefore have a core group of teachers with whom they can identify as they move through the system.

In secondary schools, much more stress is placed on specialized subject matter. The secondary school, like the university, often emphasizes content over concerns about learners as individuals. Teachers’  specialize in particular content knowledge areas, and students encounter different teachers in each subject. It is now the student’s task to coordinate her or his school program across the various subjects. Work in secondary schools is also influenced powerfully by the organization of teachers into subject-based departments. Science teachers tend to see issues quite differently from, say, English teachers. Some departments may also have higher status than others, so that the secondary school becomes compartmentalized and elitist. As a consequence, cross- or inter-disciplinary work is rarely conducted. 

Elementary, middle, and secondary teachers may have rather different views, then, of what their job is and how best to approach it. Elementary teachers more often describe themselves as teachers of students; middle-school teachers view themselves as guides during a development transition; and secondary teachers see themselves as content specialists. These differences in viewpoint can lead to significant differences in school practices such as grouping, instruction and assessment. For example, Canadian elementary schools tend to use anecdotal reporting and rubrics, while secondary schools are more apt to use letter or number grades. The idea of continuous progress is an elementary-school invention; secondary schools are much more likely to see their program in discrete packages.

Grouping

As has been noted, students vary in their interests, motivation, experience, skills, and background knowledge with respect to what the school seeks to have them learn. If all learning were individualized, such differences might not be problematic. But when instruction is organized around groups of students taught by one teacher, variability can become a fundamental problem, especially since the organization of school curricula implies (in principle at least) that every student should learn essentially the same things. Teachers and schools have always had to grapple with the tension between common goals and diverse people. Guided by the assumption that it is easier to teach students who are similar to one another in skill and interests, schools have usually dealt with this tension by trying to limit the variability in groups of students. The most common strategies used for this purpose are creating subgroups within classes and putting students into different courses or programs.

Elementary and secondary schools have different practices for reducing variability. The most common form of grouping entire classes in elementary schools is by age, the assumption being that students of similar ages have roughly similar skills and dispositions. Of course, as any parent or elementary school teacher knows, this assumption is only partly true. Each elementary classroom contains students with a wide range of abilities, interests, motivations and backgrounds. One common response in elementary schools is to create, within each class, subgroups of students based on their perceived ability, and to differentiate the work to accommodate the presumed capacity of each group. This strategy is called within-class ability grouping or homogenous grouping. The problem with ability grouping is that it does not appear to be a very effective practice, and is especially unhelpful to those students who are least successful (Chapman & King, 2005; Glass, 2002; Oakes, 2013). In the last few years, more schools have begun to try alternative ways of organizing elementary-school classrooms that are based on mixed-ability or multi-age groups.

In secondary schools, the problem of diversity has generally been addressed through tracking or, as it is sometimes called, streaming. Rather than group students within a class, entire courses are differentiated by presumed level of difficulty, and students choose or are assigned to courses on the basis of their perceived capacity and willingness to do the work required. Most provinces organize their high-school courses into several streams, such as general, advanced, vocational, or university entrance. Students who are regarded as having less ability, or as being less motivated, are pushed toward tracks and courses considered to be less academically demanding. The result is classes that are less diverse.

Although the diversity within classes may be reduced through tracking, the diversity in the school population is not reduced, and this can lead to biases towards and labelling of courses and students. A considerable amount of research on tracking in secondary schools also shows that the practice has negative effects on the experience of students who are not placed in the top tracks. Researchers have consistently found that students in tracks called general, basic, or vocational have less actual instructional time, are assigned less challenging tasks, have fewer chances to discuss ideas, are often segregated by social characteristics rather than actual ability, and generally have a significantly inferior educational experience (Glass, 2002; Oakes, 2013).

Herein lies the dilemma of grouping practices. It makes great sense in principle to organize students by interest and ability so as to foster appropriate teaching. But when such organization does occur, there is a very strong tendency for the students placed at the lower end of the continuum to receive less stimulating, less challenging, and less effective instruction. As Goodlad put it three decades ago, “The decision to track is essentially one of giving up on the problem of human variability in learning. It is a retreat rather than a strategy” (1984, p. 297).

All grouping practices require judgments about students so that they can be placed accordingly. Determining students’ characteristics, however, is not nearly as straightforward a matter as it might seem. Most of us probably remember the experience of a teacher whose belief in our ability brought better results than we ourselves might have expected, or a teacher with whom we didn’t get along and who therefore didn’t motivate us to work as hard. Research supports our experience, showing that grouping is not simply a matter of assigning students based on immutable characteristics, but a matter of judgments made by teachers and schools about students. These judgments are, in turn, powerfully affected by teachers’ ideas about students. For many years, girls were widely thought to be less capable than boys in science and mathematics. Students for whom English is an additional language have been considered less able, even though their problem is one of language, not ability. Teachers may tend to regard students from particular kinds of backgrounds (e.g., Aboriginal students or students from single-parent families) as being more likely to have academic problems. These preconceptions, however untrue, can have powerful consequences for students (Oakes, 2013; Reynolds, 2004). Rather than relying on “conventional wisdom,” it becomes more important to initiate discussions and an examination of how it is that particular groups of students learn, and to incorporate these understandings into differentiating instruction to best suit student needs.

Grouping practices are also affected by the structure of the classroom. The requirement for teachers to maintain order affects their attitudes toward individual students. For example, teachers who place more value on sitting still and working quietly may identify more boys as having learning problems because boys tend to exhibit more rambunctious behaviour, at least partly because they are socialized to be more active. However, as (2013) notes, “creating a learning environment where all students can thrive academically requires an understanding of the complexities of classroom management. The notions of "discipline," "conformity" and "obedience" … are no longer sufficient” (p. 4).” Moreover, non-promotion in the tracking system may result as much from poor behaviour as from poor academic performance.

Grouping has many other consequences. Because groups carry value rankings—with more academic groups generally seen as more prestigious by teachers, students, and the public—the school must be able to defend the way it has judged and assigned each student. Various kinds of tests and other devices are put in place for this purpose. Counsellors and school administrators may devote a great deal of time to this task. Much of the paraphernalia of testing and grading students has to do with making decisions about grouping. All of this is time and energy diverted from the goal of instruction.

Educators have long been aware of some of these problems, and many attempts have been made to organize schooling somewhat differently. Such changes are not easy to make since they require teachers to organize instruction differently, which is something they may not know how to do should they even wish to. The key point to understand here is that practices of teaching assignment, grouping, and tracking are not simply spontaneous, but arise out of the basic organizational issues facing schools.

 

CURRICULA

In addition to managing the placement and the time of students and teachers, schools are also responsible for organizing knowledge—for determining what is to be learned and how it is to be taught. The content that is to be taught in each grade or subject is termed the school’s curriculum. In addition to the formal curriculum of the school—the subjects and courses—there also exists something called the hidden curriculum, which has to do with all those things taught by the school (whether consciously or not) that are not part of the formal curriculum.

Formal Curricula

Covering the curriculum has already been mentioned as a central concern of teachers. The development of curricula, exemplified in Figure 7.1, is primarily organized by the Department or Ministry of Education in each province. Usually groups of teachers and subject-area experts work to write a provincial curriculum document, which is then distributed to schools and teachers. The entire process—involving writing a curriculum, pilot testing it in some schools, and revising it—may take several years. Parents, students, and non-educators are formally involved in some provinces.

Figure 7.1 Alberta Education Flowchart on Curriculum Development

Source:  Alberta Education. (2014).  Curriculum Development Prototyping.  Available at http://education.alberta.ca/media/8383113/prototypingoverview-10mar2014.pdf

 

Provincial curricula vary in how prescriptive they are. A few curriculum documents are quite specific, outlining topics to be covered, giving examples of activities and assignments, and specifying the kinds of learning outcomes that are sought. In most provinces, however, the documents are more like guidelines. They may still contain a set of topics to be covered and provide ideas about classroom activities, but they leave to teachers matters such as the time and effort to be devoted to each topic and the order in which material is to be taken up.

In addition to provincial curricula, school districts may have their own curriculum development processes in which local teams of teachers develop curriculum units in those areas a district wants to emphasize. Again, these may be more or less prescriptive. In some schools, teams of teachers may make further modifications or develop school-based curricula in a particular area.

A change in the last few years in Canada has been the move toward regional and even national curriculum development. Groups of provinces in the west and in the Maritimes have formed consortia to develop courses that will be used across each region, and a similar project occurred for sciences at the national level. Although there have long been advocates in Canada of national curricula, these projects begun in the 1990s are the first real effort to move in that direction. However, these projects have had quite modest results, as provinces continue to maintain their autonomy in altering curricula, even those produced through the regional consortia, to suit their own needs and interests.

Additional implications for curriculum development arise from changes in information communications technology (ICT) as teachers, schools, and provinces are able to learn about and exchange curriculum materials via the Internet and through the use of other digital capabilities. The availability of curriculum on the World Wide Web has resulted in greater standardization while also providing access to a greater variety of material and ideas.

Curriculum Implementation

Curriculum use can be understood as emerging from two aspects of teaching. One is the teacher’s thinking both about content and about teaching. Each teacher has ideas about the subject to be taught and the best way to teach it. For example, a teacher may think of literature as being primarily about the analysis of language use, and may regard carefully led class discussion of particular works as the best way to develop these skills. Another teacher may see literature as a means of reflecting on our own lives, and may want to make considerable use of small groups in teaching. A third teacher may be teaching subjects about which he or she does not feel highly knowledgeable, and thus may be inclined to use the curriculum guide almost as a textbook. These three hypothetical teachers will approach the same curriculum document in quite different ways, looking for content and ideas that are consistent with their own understandings, both of the subject and of what teaching is about. A teacher may use all three approaches at different times.

A second key aspect is the teacher’s need to have a set of activities for each class of students. Ideas are not enough; teachers are expected to facilitate the nature of the learning activities that go on in the classroom. Many teachers evaluate curriculum documents based on the extent to which these documents help them organize class time in ways that foster the learning outcomes they hope to achieve. A curriculum document with interesting concepts but no description of how teachers might use it is unlikely to get very much use in classrooms.

Curricula and the Organization of Knowledge

Whatever curriculum is used, it will have built into it a set of assumptions about what knowledge is and how knowledge is structured. In any textbook, such as this one, some topics are emphasized over others. Connections are made between some ideas and not others. These decisions are not naturally present in the world, but are made by people who prepare curricula, whether these are provincial committees or individual teachers in classrooms (Bascia, Carr-Harris, Fine-Meyer, & Zurzola, 2014). History books may focus on the actions of kings and prime ministers, but say little about Indigenous peoples and female factory workers. Chemistry texts may talk about the composition of all sorts of compounds, but give few illustrations as to how these compounds are used or what their consequences are for the environment unless individual teachers deliberately focus on these larger issues.

The same problems emerge in the division between subjects. Schools divide the curriculum into chunks—language, mathematics, science, and so on. These divisions are not inherent in the world, however, but are structures people have created as a way of thinking. When we look at a tree we are seeing biology, botany, chemistry, physics, geography, sociology, history, and economics at work: all are related to this tree being what it is, where it is. Teachers have the privilege of deciding what it is about the tree that they want students to learn. Moreover, in adult life, work does not proceed in the neat divisions that are used by the school to organize its curriculum. Scientists are heavily involved in the use of both mathematics and language, and may work in a setting that is highly political. Writers are writing about something, for some purpose.

Choices about how to organize the school’s curriculum have to be made; we cannot teach everything. However, it is important to recognize that these are choices that reflect somebody’s view of the world rather than being a necessary way of thinking. Some important areas do not appear very often in school curricula—for example, economics, business, or psychology. Education itself, an important subject of study in postsecondary education, is not part of the school curriculum. Important consequences flow from choices about which knowledge is valued in schools, and which is not. Nor are the decisions about which knowledge to value in schools made in an objective manner. The curriculum is a historical product, and thus largely reflects a white, male, middle-class view of what knowledge is valuable. Students who come to school knowing about the things that the school teaches—numbers, letters, geography, and so on—may feel valued and reinforced. Students who come to school knowing about things not valued in school—looking after a younger sibling, dealing with a social services worker, understanding gang culture—do not find that same sense of reinforcement.

Hidden Curricula

The term “hidden curriculum” was coined by Jackson (1968), who was among the first to point out that much of what the school teaches and what students learn does not appear in any curriculum guide. For example, schools may emphasize behaviour such as punctuality, obedience, truthfulness, independence, or competitiveness. In the eyes of many, these characteristics are more important than learning to solve quadratic equations or identify elements in the periodic table. Much of what happens in schools has to do with the influencing of behaviour, rather than with the learning of prescribed content or skills. Indeed, students often get into much more serious trouble for violating the rules of the schools (e.g., fighting or being disrespectful to teachers) than they do for failing to learn whatever is in the academic program.

Another dimension of the hidden curriculum relates to the values implied by the formal curriculum. If textbooks are full of pictures of males in active roles and females in passive roles, students are more likely to absorb, however unintentionally, this view of how the world ought to be. If history courses do not talk about the ways in which government policy obliterated traditional Aboriginal cultures, or about biased policies against certain immigrant groups, or about the exclusion of women from many important spheres of life, then students do not come to understand the very different experiences some people may have of our country. If science and technology are presented as the best ways to solve social problems, students may not be able to make reasoned judgements about the appropriate role of these areas in our lives.

Reviews of Canadian textbooks and curricula have shown how many biases and opinions were built into the curricula while being displayed as if they were the truth. In the last few years, considerable effort has been made to eliminate many of these representations. It is more than likely, though, that 20 or 30 years from now, as social values change, others will be looking at our current books and curricula and finding other kinds of bias. Indeed, the view taken in this book is that there cannot and should not be a single version of knowledge presented as if it were true for all time. As our views of the world change, our ways of explaining the world also change, and so must school curricula.

 

SCHOOLING FROM THE TEACHER’S POINT OF VIEW

For teachers, being in a classroom with students is a highly demanding activity. At any given moment, teachers are trying to do several things at once. One concern, of course, has to do with whatever is being taught at the moment—subtracting with fractions, the geography of the Maritimes, playing the recorder, or any one of the myriad things that are part of the school curriculum. Are students understanding what is being said? Do they see the connections between one point and another? Is the material of interest to them?

These immediate curricular concerns are set in the context of long-term goals. Are students learning to learn on their own? Are students developing an appreciation of the particular subject? Are students being challenged to think for themselves? Are they learning respect for the views of others, good work habits, and persistence? Most people, including parents and most teachers, believe that these larger goals are more important than the discrete pieces of information in the curriculum, even though it is the latter that receive most of the direct attention in schools.
Teachers also need to be highly attentive to the classroom as a social setting. A prime concern of all teachers—especially new ones—is the ability to keep order in the class. If students are not focused on the task at hand, they will not be learning what the school wants them to learn (although they may well be learning something else). Teachers have to balance their concern for an intellectually stimulating classroom with the requirement that they maintain a certain level of order. In a 2013 Canadian Teachers’ Federation student behaviour was noted to be a major cause of workload stress for teachers.  

An awareness of the differences among students is also a constant preoccupation of teachers. Teachers quickly develop a sense of which students require different types of attention. At any given time, teachers are monitoring different individuals and groups in the classroom in an effort to assess how learning is being facilitated. Do some students have puzzled looks? Perhaps they need more explanation. Are some students gazing at nothing? Perhaps they need a reminder to help them refocus their attention. Are some students busily engaged in talking to each other or passing notes? Some action may be needed to keep the class on task.

Teachers are also aware of the need to be accountable for what they are doing. If students tell their parents about this class, what will parents think? What if the principal drops in? Will he or she support what I’m doing? Am I undermining my colleagues by doing something that is different from what they do in their classes?
The teacher is engaged in a constant act of improvisation (Sawyer, 2004; Twiner, Littleton, Coffin, & Whitelock, 2013). While teachers begin a class with a plan of some kind (it may be carefully written out or simply carried in one’s head), those with experience know that classes rarely go according to plan. As a class or lesson proceeds, a teacher is constantly monitoring what is happening and making adjustments to meet changing circumstances.

The requirement to do several things at the same time, and to adjust things as one proceeds, makes teaching very demanding. The teacher’s attention is usually fully engaged all the time. While teaching, the teacher is also carrying on a silent internal dialogue. Students see only the external actions of the teacher, but much of the work of teaching occurs in the teacher’s thoughts, like the 90 percent of the iceberg that is below the surface of the water. “That group doesn’t seem to be following me; I’d better go over this again…. Allan and Nadja are busy doing something else; if I just move over in their direction I may get their attention back…. I need a better example to illustrate this point…. Only 10 more minutes left; I’d better wrap this up…. Have they had enough time to do the problems, or do I need to assign them for homework? … They’re all so excited about the assembly this afternoon that they really aren’t concentrating….”

 

ENDEMIC TENSIONS IN TEACHING

Teaching also has several endemic tensions or dilemmas. These are problems that teachers face constantly. They are also problems that cannot be settled once and for all, but have to be addressed continuously through various sorts of adjustments and strategies.

First, as we have already noted, teachers are faced with the tension between what might make most sense educationally and what is required to keep order. In studying natural science, for example, a teacher may want to send students outside to look at plants or insects. However, this cannot be done on the spur of the moment; normally, days or weeks of advance notice are necessary for this sort of activity. Moreover, there are problems of supervision once students are no longer all under the teacher’s watchful eye. How much simpler to show a film about plants, or even simply to talk about them in the classroom, perhaps with reference to a few pictures in the textbook.

Consider another example. A very common teaching technique is to ask students questions about the subject matter to see how much they’ve remembered. Researchers who have investigated questioning in the classroom have found that when teachers do ask questions, they allow only a very short time for students to think about answers. Typically, if nobody answers or puts up a hand almost immediately, the teacher will begin speaking again, either to give an answer or to ask another question. The time between asking a question and speaking again is called wait or response time. Researchers have also found, not surprisingly, that giving students more time to think before they answer results in better answers. Many teachers, however, are reluctant to have very much silence in the classroom because they fear that silence will lead to disorder. They fear that when the teacher gives up some control over the learning process, students may become inattentive or disruptive. Thus, the requirement for order may interfere with what makes most sense educationally.

A second perennial tension in teaching is that between the individual and the group. It is individuals who learn, of course, but teachers are almost always responsible for groups of students. Teachers constantly face the problem of how to allocate their limited time and attention to the needs of all students in the classroom. Is it better to spend the most time with the students who are having the most difficulty, or should one concentrate on enriching the learning of those who accomplished the learning objectives in short order?  Or is the best strategy to direct one’s teaching to the middle, doing the best one can with those at the extremes? Can teachers actually do all three?  And if so, how? There are no easy answers to these questions, even though they are faced by teachers every day.

A third tension is between adequate coverage of the curriculum and following up on students’ interests. We have already discussed some curriculum issues, but it should also be noted that most curricula are designed to use all the available time during the year, and many have supplementary topics that can be taken up if additional time is available. Teachers almost always feel pressure to move ahead with the content, to make sure that all the important topics have been covered. Provincial testing creates more pressure in this direction. At the same time, opportunities constantly arise in the classroom for inquiry learning opportunities. A group of students have an interest in pursuing one element of the curriculum in some depth. A topic that was supposed to be dealt with in one hour piques the class’s interest and stretches into a week of curiosity and discussion. Does the teacher cut this short, thereby losing the opportunity to do something that interests students and is relevant to the subject? Or does one try to scrimp somewhere else in the curriculum?

Finally, there is an important tension in schools between learning and assessment. An important goal of schools is for students to stretch their abilities. This means taking risks and making mistakes. At one level, it is commonly accepted that we can learn a great deal from our errors. But marks and grades are a critical part of students’ school life, and making mistakes is generally not rewarded even if it may spark better understanding than which occurs for a student who completes the learning objective without making a mistake, but learns less about the depth of the content, or about him/herself as a learner.

Teachers recognize these dilemmas. What do we do about the student who works and improves considerably, but still only gets a C? How do we encourage students to be concerned with judging their own learning if, in the end, the teacher’s assessment is what determines their fate in school (and possibly out of it, as well)? A further discussion of assessment occurs later in this chapter.

 

SCHOOLING FROM THE STUDENT’S POINT OF VIEW

Students and teachers tend to experience school life quite differently. Although the experiences of students can vary considerably depending on their teacher and their school, a consistent body of research shows that students are not highly engaged in their own education (Willms & Friesen, 2012). While teachers are trying to work out what to do next, students may be trying to figure out what the teacher wants, or simply trying to make the time pass. While teachers are excited about the subject matter, students are worrying about getting marks and knowing the right answers. Most significantly, students usually have little or no say about the nature of their schooling. It is something that is done to them, rather than something they do. While teachers value highly their ability to make choices about how to structure their teaching, students rarely have such choices about how to structure their learning.


BOX 7.1 Students' Experience of School

What did you do in school today? is a national initiative of the Canadian Education Association (CEA) designed to capture, assess and inspire new ideas for enhancing the learning experiences of adolescents in classrooms and schools. What did you do in school today? is one of the few initiatives in Canada that focus specifically on the experiences of adolescent students. And it is the only initiative that focuses on the powerful concept of intellectual engagement.

What did you do in school today? has advanced a core set of ideas about adolescent learning and educational change (e.g., students as agents of change) and has popularized a multidimensional framework of student engagement that recognizes the importance of young people’s engagement in school (social and institutional engagement) and learning (intellectual engagement). It has also drawn attention to important relationships between engagement and key developmental outcomes for adolescent learners, and to increased student engagement as a pivotal idea for improving the quality of teaching and learning in Canadian schools.

Since What did you do in school today? was launched in 2007, more than 63,000 students have shared their experiences of learning and engagement with CEA through an online survey. This significant database forms a foundation of our national research strategy, which examines the policy and practice implications of many types of evidence, both qualitative and quantitative. First-year findings from the initiative were shared in a First National Report (Willms, Friesen, & Milton, 2009).

Findings show that many students in Canada find their school work in Language Arts, Math and Science too easy or too hard because the learning is not synchronized with their skills. The implications of this imbalance have significant implications for student engagement. For example, students with low skills are less likely to feel socially, institutionally and intellectually engaged; but students with high skills who feel under-challenged in class are also prone to disengagement. Shifting the relationship between instructional challenge and student engagement requires a reorientation in the way we think about the qualities of effective learning and a commitment to supporting the organizational, pedagogical and curricular changes required for all students to experience intellectually engaging learning environments. (p. 1)

Source: Willms, D., & Friesen, S.  (2012, Sept).  The relationship between instructional challenge and student engagement.  What Did You Do in School Today Research Series Report #2.  Canadian Education Association.  Available at http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea-2012-wdydist-report-2.pdf

 

As noted earlier, the school curriculum comes divided into courses and units that are administered to students by teachers. The assumption is that students learn slowly, hierarchically, and one thing at a time. From students’ point of view, these packages may have not the slightest connection to their experiences or with their way of seeing the world. Nor does the school delivery model correspond to current thinking about how learning occurs.

Despite many years of effort to move toward so-called higher-level skills, the research suggests that classrooms are still heavily concentrated on getting students to produce the right answers rather than to think about important questions. The vast majority of questions that students are asked require a single, correct answer. Indeed, so pervasive is the emphasis on learning content that students come to expect it, and may be quite resistant to a teacher who tries to create open-ended debate without specifying correct answers. And, as has been noted, open-ended debates that excite students carry the risk of excessive noise and perceived loss of classroom control.
Students’ experience of schooling also depends on their backgrounds and on how the school has categorized them. Students in tracks regarded as lower ability may find that less is expected of them, that more attention is given to their behaviour than to their learning, and that their efforts to improve themselves are actively resisted. Students whose language and culture are not that of the majority may also find that they are marginalized within the schools.
Gender plays a particularly important role in shaping school experience. In most classrooms, boys speak more, are asked more questions, receive more attention from teachers, interrupt girls, and generally dominate classroom discourse (Sadker, Sadker, & Zittleman, 2009). Boys may be encouraged to experiment with ideas and behaviour, while girls are dissuaded (albeit subtly) from doing so. And there is still a general perception that girls academically outperform boys in the majority of subjects. However, one must guard against applying these general differences to all girls and all boys. For example, much of the research illustrates that poverty plays more of a role in academic achievement than perhaps any other social category. Therefore it may not be accurate to suggest that girls from poor neighbourhoods will outperform boys from upper-class neighbourhoods. Gender intersects with a number of variables, such as race, sexual identity, and disability, to shape the educational experience of boys and girls quite differently, depending on context. It is therefore necessary that educators pay attention to the different ways boys and girls may learn, but also to be wary of essentializing the educational experience for students.

Over the past few years, the high-school completion rates and university entrance rates of girls has increased considerably. However, on a more global level, more women than men still do not have access to education. As well, although increasing, women’s earnings and their participation rates in non-traditional employment still lag behind that of men (Reynolds, 2004).

The competitive nature of many classrooms also affects the way in which students experience school. Students are well aware that they are being rated and ranked on the basis of their ability and behaviour, at least as it is interpreted and valued by the school. What matters are marks, the teacher’s praise, and being promoted into the next grade or advancing to the next level of the system. Even grade 1 students are well aware that there are differences among them, and they recognize who is on “top of the pile.” Moreover, it is individual skills that count; the ability to work effectively in a group, although an important skill in the modern workplace, is only recently coming to play a substantial role in schools, chiefly elementary ones.

 

CLASSROOM CONTROL, TEACHER AUTHORITY, AND THE EFFORT BARGAIN

Although teachers have formal authority in the classroom the atmosphere of any class is also powerfully shaped by students. As teachers well know, a group of students who want to make a teacher’s life miserable can certainly do so, and the teacher may have very little recourse. The treatment of substitute teachers by some classes of students is a case in point. Indeed, one might wonder how it is that teachers are able to command students’ obedience at all. Why is it that students so often do agree to do what teachers tell them?

There are several sources of teacher authority. In Chapter 6, three ways of thinking about the authority of school administrators were described. These same categories—traditional, legal, and charismatic—can be applied to teachers and students. At a basic level, teachers have coercive legal power over students. They can punish students through poor grades, detentions, complaints to parents, and through formal disciplinary action such as suspensions. So at least some student obedience is probably motivated by a fear of these types of consequences. However, coercion is not a desirable way to manage a classroom because it is antithetical to the development of the kind of relationship between teacher and students that is conducive to learning. Effective teaching and learning require mutual trust and open communication; coercion destroys these qualities. One can help people learn, motivate people to learn, and support people in the learning process, but one cannot make people learn. To be effective, teachers’ authority must be consented to by students because it is the students who must do the learning. Usually students consent to obey teachers, and usually they do so for several reasons other than fear of authority (Harjunen, 2011). This does not mean, however, that they believe that teacher authority is always exercised fairly.

To help explain classroom order, researchers have developed the concept of the effort bargain (Doyle, 1986). According to this concept, a teacher and a class of students arrive, through a complex and largely unacknowledged negotiation process, at an arrangement regarding what the learning environment in their classroom will be like. Students respond to the demands the teacher makes through their behaviour, and teachers affect students’ behaviour through both their demands and their responses to students. For example, more challenging academic work creates additional tensions for students, who may seek (largely unconsciously) to reduce the teachers’ expectations of them by misbehaving. As a result, teachers might come to the conclusion that students will behave only if they are given relatively simple and straightforward work to do, and if teachers do not expect too much from them. In other classes, students may accept or even welcome a high level of demand if they see it as serving their purposes in some way (e.g., their desire for the high grades that will enable them to enter university). Whatever form it takes, the effort bargain is a clear example of the way in which the need for order and control affects learning in the classroom.

 

ASSESSMENT, GRADING, AND TESTING

Students’ experience in school is substantially shaped by the fact that they are assessed and graded. Again, the primacy of assessment is the result of deliberate choices about how to organize schooling. A school system that uses a whole series of grades in elementary school, and a wide range of separate courses in secondary school ensures that each student will face a large number of assessments during her or his schooling. In fact, students receive hundreds of grades or other assessments each year for assignments, essays, tests, exams, or projects (far more than would be the case in any workplace). Most of these assessments, and almost all of them after elementary school, are given to individual students rather than to groups of students.

The requirement that students be graded and assessed has a whole series of consequences for teaching and learning. It can sometimes result in grades becoming more important than the knowledge they are supposed to represent. This becomes apparent when students want to know whether something will “count” before deciding how much effort to put into it. Rather than representing a measure of progress toward the goal of learning, grades instead become the goal. Grades may also change the nature of the student–teacher relationship. Since the assessments may have important consequences for students’ futures, a tension necessarily arises between teacher (assessor) and student. And, since not every student can be at the top of the class, grades also have the potential to create conflicts among students.

As mentioned above, school grades have important consequences for a student’s future. They may determine whether a student enters an enrichment program or qualifies for a particular university or college program. The problems with grades have been recognized for many years. In principle, it ought to be possible to provide a thoughtful and thorough analysis of students’ skills and weaknesses without using any comparative measure, whether it be letters or numbers. And important changes have been made, particularly in elementary schools, in terms of assessing students’ progress using other forms of assessment (Clarke, Owens, & Sutton, 2006). However, the school still plays an important role as a sorting organization, helping to determine who will have what economic and social status. Grades play a critical role in that process in that they are used by colleges and universities to determine admissions and by employers to determine hiring. Assessment thus remains an important element of every student’s experience in school.

Assessment also presents teachers with the dilemma of deciding how to determine grades or standing. Does one reward knowledge, effort, good behaviour, or some combination thereof? Most provinces in Canada have recently made an effort to balance the two extremes, which is illustrated in the focus on assessment and differentiated instruction (an attempt to meet the learning needs of individual learners rather than treating students as standardized homogenous beings).

A further example of the impact of school evaluation practices concerns the issue of retention in grade versus social promotion (see Box 7.2). Not so long ago, it was routine for students who were having difficulty in school to be failed and required to repeat an entire year’s work over again. In fact, the research shows that students who are retained in grade do not improve their academic performance (Jimerson et al., 2006).These findings have prompted school systems to develop policies, supported by research, that make it difficult to retain or fail students. Critics have called these policies social promotion on the grounds that students who lack skills should not be promoted until after they acquire them; social promotion, they argue, makes it possible for students to finish years of school without having learned very much. In fact, Jimerson et al. (2006) note:

Research examining the efficacy of grade retention suggests that it is not likely to be effective in remediating academic failure and/or behavioral difficulties; rather, it is essential to focus on instructional strategies and specific interventions to facilitate the education of children at risk of academic failure (Jimerson, 2001b). Unfortunately, there is often a disparity between research, policy, and practice, such that educational policy and instructional strategies do not necessarily follow from what has been empirically shown to be effective (Jimerson, 2001a, 2001b). It is possible to strengthen the connection between research and practice by recognizing that educational professionals who are knowledgeable of educational research are those best prepared to implement effective strategies to maintain high standards and facilitate student success. (p. 86)

Interventions might include (a) preschool programs, (b) comprehensive school- wide programs, (c) summer school and after school programs, (d) looping and multi-age class- rooms, (e) school-based mental health programs, (f ) parent involvement, (g) early reading programs, (h) effective instructional strategies and assessment, and (i) behavior/cognitive behavior modification. Some of the alternatives described may involve substantial changes to existing school structure. (p. 90)

In the view of these researchers, neither grade retention nor social promotion is a successful strategy for improving educational success; rather, the focus must be on the use of effective intervention strategies, programs and policies that “facilitate the success of all students” (p. 85)


BOX 7.2 “No-Fail Policy Sparks Debate about Schools”: A Letter to the Editor

The recent series of articles in the Free Press on whether to fail students or not shows how the way we define a problem has important consequences for the range of solutions we can generate. The article posed the question in the way it is typically put: Should a student who has not mastered the material in one grade be required to repeat that grade, or should the student be sent on to the next grade regardless?

This question does present a serious dilemma. Retaining students to do the work again has considerable intuitive appeal. It is an application of the old maxim, “If at first you don’t succeed….” The problem is, we know from extensive research that retaining students does not work. A large and consistent body of studies over many years shows convincingly that students who are held back a year do not usually improve their performance. Nor do they outperform students with similar difficulties who are not held back a year. Instead of catching up, they fall further and further behind. Moreover, failing a grade is associated with all sorts of later educational problems and with the likelihood of dropping out of high school. This is why so many educators argue against retaining or failing students.
But passing on students from grade to grade who do not have the required skills is also a poor strategy. After all, education is about learning something; prison is about putting in your time regardless. Social promotion raises the possibility that students can go through many years of school without learning what most of us regard as essential. And it may have the effect of absolving the school from taking responsibility for the student’s lack of learning.

The resolution to the dilemma lies in posing the question differently. Suppose we asked instead: What can we do to maximize the chances that all students will learn to read and write competently? Now we have moved from a yes–no decision about failure to an inquiry into teaching and learning—surely a much more relevant way of thinking about the issue. Moreover, a different question immediately suggests some different answers. If some students are not learning using one approach, perhaps we need to try some other approaches. Education is not like manufacturing, in which we can count on a particular process to produce a particular result. In education, it is the match of the student, the teacher and the situation which is essential, making it much more difficult to determine how teaching should best occur in any given situation.

Where we are not being successful, we might change the material students are asked to read and write about, and even ask students to make their own choices about what they would like to read. We might change the setting in which they learn, by moving them to a library or to a small, private room to work on reading or writing. We might change the people who try to help them, using tutors, or parents, or trusted adults, or computers, or even other students. We might change the timing, so that they worked in the afternoon (in most schools language skills are taught in the morning), or at home after supper. We might even ask students how they think they might best learn to read and write. No doubt the reader can imagine many other possibilities. The same sorts of possibilities apply to arithmetic or any other subject.

There is nothing original about any of these suggestions. Many excellent teachers in our schools already do these things. There is no guarantee that any of them will be successful, although there is evidence that there are good strategies for teaching nonreaders to read. After all, this is what adult literacy programs do with considerable success.

We do not need to accept failure in schools. We can and should expect every student to learn to read and write with reasonable competence. But our attempts to do so are not assisted by sterile debates over promotion or retention in grade. Nor are we helped by attempts to blame problems on teachers, or on school policies. These debates draw attention to rewarding or punishing students (or teachers) for what they have or have not learned. Instead, we need to think hard about how to help young people learn, and organize ourselves to support them in doing so.

Source: Levin, B. (1992, July 25). Letter to the editor. Winnipeg Free Press. Reproduced with permission.


The debate over retention in grade, which has gone on for more than 20 years, is a good example of the impact of school organization on teaching and learning. One might say that the existence of grades by age is an arbitrary device in the first place, since the skills and interests of children of the same age can vary greatly. If there were no grades in elementary school, there would be no problem of retention. Indeed, this is the solution that was advocated by the Sullivan Commission in British Columbia in 1988. But the Sullivan proposals were never put into practice. More recently some governments and school systems have moved in the other direction, taking steps to make it harder for students to advance a grade unless they have developed specific skills and knowledge.

Issues around the assessment of students have been intensified in recent years by the growing emphasis on external testing of students. Provinces have increased substantially the amount of provincial testing, and the results are being used more publicly to evaluate the overall quality of the school system. Canada also participates in a number of international testing programs that compare students’ achievement in many countries. Such assessments as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), the Programme for International Student Assessment, and others have been growing in importance over the past decade, with more countries and more students participating. The results of such large-scale testing are often reported extensively by the mass media, although international comparisons are fraught with problems (Martino & Rezai-Rashti, 2013).

Many educators feel that the focus on external tests is a bad practice for at least two reasons. First, such tests may fail to measure many of the important goals and processes of schooling (Yakulic & Noonan, 2000). It is accepted, for example, that measuring skills in areas such as problem solving through paper-and-pencil tests is very difficult. Efforts have been made to design large-scale tests that do a better job in this regard, but what is called authentic assessment—that is, assessment that is closely matched to the actual skills that are the goals of teaching—is turning out to be both difficult and very expensive.

Second, external tests are seen as driving instruction to an undesirable extent, so that teachers focus on preparing students for tests rather than on other aspects of instruction that may be more important. Some evidence suggests that providing students with careful feedback on their work even without any mark attached has more powerful positive effects on learning than external tests (Littky & Grabelle, 2004). Insofar as tests do focus only on a limited range of skills and knowledge, the problem of diverting instruction is increased. Recent moves in the United States to extend testing to more subjects and grades, with passing a requirement for graduating, have been accompanied by increasing numbers of dropouts and many more allegations of cheating.

Proponents of testing and then publishing results, on the other hand, argue that parents and the public need better information about what students are learning and how well schools are doing in developing skills and knowledge. Some proponents explicitly support such public accountability as a way of putting pressure on educators to do a better job, on the assumption that external review is a powerful motivator—just as, one might note, schools assume that external evaluation motivates students to work harder.  They also are justified as being another tool to consider as schools are accountable for data-based decision making.

In fact, large-scale external testing of students shows every sign of continuing and quite possibly expanding in coming years, and so will continue to be an area of controversy.

 

THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPECIAL EDUCATION

The subject of special education illustrates the interplay of educational considerations with organizational issues in schools, and is a field full of debate and controversy. The extensive development of special education in Canadian public schools goes back about 50 years. In 1967, a report entitled One Million Children was published by the Canadian Enquiry into Learning Disabilities in Children (CELDIC). The report pointed out that large numbers of students were not being served appropriately by schools because insufficient efforts were being made to meet their particular needs. The CELDIC report was itself the result of organization and lobbying efforts by parents and others interested in these children. After the report’s release, these groups used it to pressure schools and provincial governments to take action on its recommendations.

Over the next 10 years or so, departments and ministries of education in Canada’s provinces developed policies on various aspects of special education. From the outset, the development of special education has been shaped by two simultaneous but contradictory elements. On the one hand, much of special education has been heavily influenced by the concept of normalization (Wolfensberger, 1972), which argues that services to people with disabilities should be as similar as possible to those provided to the rest of the population. The move to normalization was not confined to schools, but developed broadly in the social services, primarily those that served persons with cognitive and physical disabilities. The concept of normalization implies that people with disabilities should receive specific support services to allow them to function as normally as possible, instead of being segregated in separate programs or facilities. On the other hand, a large part of special education involved identifying students as having particular problems and then programming to meet their needs, thereby setting them apart from other students. Here the dilemma of grouping, discussed earlier in this chapter, is drawn even more sharply.

Normalization played an important role in the development of special education, initiating policies such as the integration of many disabled students into regular classrooms. Previously, students who were blind, deaf or physically disabled had been taught primarily in separate schools and classes, and many children with cognitive disabilities were not in school at all. In the 1970s, however, many such students were returned to neighbourhood schools where, it was found, they could cope quite well if adaptations were made for their particular needs.

Another set of special-education practices was geared toward providing educational programs for students who did not seem to fit into the educational mainstream. Concepts such as “learning disability,” “hyperactivity,” “emotionally disturbed,” and other supposed diagnoses of student problems were developed in the 1970s, along with a whole series of testing devices that were used to assess students who fell under these categories. In many provinces, definitions of special education were broadened as well to include such services as English as an Additional Language (EAL) and other learning limitations that are related to students’ social background.

A delivery and support apparatus emerged alongside special education. New programs and classes were created for special-needs students. New categories of teachers, such as resource teachers and behavioural class teachers, were also created, with different certification requirements in some provinces. Extensive professional development programs were offered to teachers. Universities established special-education programs and departments, journals began to publish, and research programs developed. Provinces created special education branches and provided targeted funding to support special education programs and staff. Today, running throughout the school system is a large apparatus dedicated to the area of special education, even though one supposed purpose of the activity is to assist educators to meet the learning needs of all students.

The early advocates of special education wanted something much more than simply having a wider range of students included in regular classrooms. A greater degree of individualization, they argued, would be needed in all classrooms in order to meet the needs of all students without having to resort to special classes or schools. Special education would thus require major changes in the delivery of education altogether. Although the development of special education has affected schools in important ways, the basic elements of classroom organization and instruction have not altered in most schools. Critics have argued that instead of being a means of changing what schools do so as to help children, special education has served as a way of labelling children as deficient (Cochrane-Smith & Dudley-Marling, 2012). Much of special education depends on categorizing students on the basis of tests whose validity has been called into question. Despite this, however, the number of students identified by schools as requiring special education has increased steadily in Canada.

Mainstreaming and Inclusion

The paradox of separation and normalization is also evident in the debate that occurred over mainstreaming in schools in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Wilgosh, 1992). The concept of mainstreaming originally grew out of the normalization movement; many parents and educators advocated placing almost all students in regular classrooms in neighbourhood schools. The adoption of mainstreaming as a policy meant that many students who in the past would have been in segregated classes were moved into ordinary classrooms. These students included those with severe cognitive disabilities and those who were medically fragile.

In the last few years the term, inclusion, has replaced the concept of mainstreaming. Inclusion (or inclusive schools) has a similar focus on trying to provide for all students in regular classroom settings, but whereas mainstreaming referred primarily to students with disabilities, inclusion is used to refer to students with various other differences, such as ethnicity, language, or social class (Katz, 2012).  Box 7.3 provides the understanding of inclusive education articulated by Manitoba Education. Mainstreaming was primarily about the physical location of students with disabilities, whereas inclusion refers also to attitudes, practices and the creation of inclusive environments that attempt to meet the needs of all students.

 

BOX 7.3 Manitoba Education's Philosophy of Inclusion

Philosophy of Inclusion
The Public Schools Acts supports Manitoba 's philosophy of inclusion, which states:
Inclusion is a way of thinking and acting that allows every individual to feel accepted, valued, and safe. An inclusive community consciously evolves to meet the changing needs of its members. Through recognition and support, an inclusive community provides meaningful involvement and equal access to the benefits of citizenship.
In Manitoba , we embrace inclusion as a means of enhancing the well-being of every member of the community. By working together, we strengthen our capacity to provide the foundation for a richer future for all of us.

What is Manitoba’s philosophy of Inclusion?

  1. Inclusion is a way of thinking and acting that allows every individual to feel accepted, valued, and safe. An inclusive community consciously evolves to meet the changing needs of its members.
  2. Through recognition and support, an inclusive community provides meaningful involvement and equal access to the benefits of citizenship.
  3. In Manitoba, we embrace inclusion as a means of enhancing the well-being of every member of the community. By working together, we strengthen our capacity to provide the foundation for a richer future for all of us.
  4. The philosophy of inclusion goes beyond the idea of physical location and incorporates basic values and a belief system that promotes the participation, belonging and interaction.

What does inclusion mean to a student with special learning needs?

  1. Students with special needs should experience school as much as possible like their peers without special needs.
  2. To make inclusion applicable in Manitoba schools, educators will:
    1. Foster school and classroom communities where all students, including those with diverse needs and abilities, have a sense of personal belonging and achievement.
    2. Engage in practices that allow students with a wide range of learning needs to be taught together effectively.
    3. Enhance students’ abilities to deal with diversity

Source:  Manitoba Education Philosophy of Inclusion.  Accessed on August 24, 2014 at http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/specedu/aep/inclusion.html

 

 

Though many schools and teachers welcomed inclusion, feeling that it would benefit students, others worried about their ability to provide good education for students and about the additional demands that would be placed on classroom teachers. Individual cases involving this issue have been quite heated, making national news. Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been invoked by parents and other advocates for students with disabilities, and a number of court cases in Canada, some of which were described in Chapter 4, have dealt with the extent to which schools can require students with disabilities to attend special classes, and/or provide appropriate educational services.

Inclusion is by now quite well established in Canadian schools, with the vast majority of children attending either their local school or another school of their choice (a small number of students remain in separate classes or separate schools). Although many teachers have serious concerns about their ability to teach students with severe disabilities, a more positive attitude toward inclusion is developing as teacher candidates are better prepared in universities to provide differentiated instruction. However, many teachers have not been prepared to deal with some of the special-needs students with whom they will work—for example, those who cannot speak or have little control over their movements. The most recent concern is over what appears to be an increasing number of students with serious emotional problems, especially in elementary schools. A single student who is highly disruptive can change the entire tenor of a class and make a teacher’s work much more difficult.

These debates illustrate the tensions between educational ideals and organizational practices. In principle, it ought to be possible to develop an individual program for each student and thus accommodate a very wide range of students in a classroom, but this is not so easy to achieve in practice. The school system is organized around groups, not around individual students. Moreover, the problems associated with maintaining classroom order, covering the curriculum, and grading all students make individualization a very challenging enterprise. What becomes an “appropriate education for all” may become something that, if Canada follows the American example, is decided on a case-by-case basis in the courts.

 

CONCLUSION

As should be evident by now, teaching is a very difficult undertaking. Student teachers may begin their programs in education thinking that teaching is relatively straightforward: one presents information to students, and, if one treats them reasonably well and makes the classes “interesting,” the students pick it up. In fact, there are many other factors at work, some conducive to learning, others not. Teachers will inevitably encounter difficulties and dilemmas that they do not know how to handle. Although experienced teachers develop strategies for dealing with certain types of problems, even the most skilled teachers frequently encounter new situations that require them to rethink what they should do. The issues raised in this chapter, including grouping, motivation, classroom control, evaluation, and special education, are among the most important of these. We should remember that, at the same time, many teachers do an outstanding job of working effectively with a wide range of students.

The challenge confronting every teacher is to remain open to new possibilities and to improve one’s skills constantly. It may sometimes be frustrating to realize that there is no recipe for teaching, and that the teacher, working with others who have related expertise, has to figure out anew, over and over again, what to do in a given situation. On the other hand, as we said earlier in the chapter with reference to differences among students, variety is also a powerful stimulus and source of interest in our lives and our work. As we shall see in the next chapter, many schools are making important efforts to change teaching and learning. Despite the difficulties, few teachers would want to trade their jobs for ones that are utterly predictable and therefore monotonous. As teachers, we have the requirement—and the opportunity also—to be learners all the time, discovering more about students, curricula, and education as we go. That is no small gift.

 

EXERCISES

1.   Working first individually and then in groups, develop a description of the way in which you learn best (e.g., episodically vs. in intensive stretches; one subject at a time vs. several things at once, visually, kinesthetically, and so on). Compare your own style with that of others in your class. Are they similar? To what extent did your schooling accommodate these characteristics? To what extent does the university do so? How might institutions do a better job of adapting to individuals’ learning styles?

2.   Conduct an examination of a school as a physical setting. How would you describe it? Is it comfortable? Friendly? Cold? Is the scale appropriate for young people? What kinds of signs, posters, or displays are there? What spaces do students use, and under what conditions? What spaces do teachers use, and under what conditions?

3.   Study the organization of classroom groups in a class in the school where you are observing or student teaching. Do all groups do the same things? What differences can you observe in the kinds of activities given to different groups? What effect might differences in group activity have on students? You may want to ask some students how they understand the grouping process.

4.   Hold a classroom debate on tracking in secondary schools: “Be it resolved that all high-school students should have the same basic program of studies.”

5.   Study the assessment practices in the school where you are assigned. What evaluative information is communicated to students? To parents? How often? How do teachers arrive at their judgments about students?

6.   Find a current curriculum guide for your province for a subject you are likely to teach. Which topics are given the most attention? Given the least attention? Missing entirely? How do you account for the guide’s balance of topics? What assumptions about the subject, about teaching and learning, or about knowledge are evident? Are there any assumptions with which you disagree? Why?

7.   Write a brief paper on the hidden curriculum as it operates in a particular classroom. What messages other than those in the formal curriculum are being given to students? How?

8.   Interview a few students in any grade. Ask them what aspects of school they find interesting, and why. Which subjects or activities do they like the least, and why? What implications can you draw from their comments about teaching and learning?

9.   What is the policy of the school to which you are assigned on failure or retention in grade? How many students take more than the required number of years to complete their school program?
10. Interview some teachers and students in regard to testing practices in their school and province. What impact do school tests and provincial exams have on the way teachers teach or on the way students approach learning?

10. Interview some teachers and students in regard to testing practices in their school and province. What impact do school tests and provincial exams have on the way teachers teach or on the way students approach learning?