Moving out towards reform

In an age of constant reform, a teacher is constantly put in the spotlight. The way that he or she teaches is constantly in question.

The teachers I know became teachers because of something from deep within – a passion, a desire to help others, to pay something back, to follow in the footsteps of their own teachers, to make positive change – whatever the impetus it comes from deep within themselves.

The very fact that they are teachers is closely enmeshed with their own sense of self. Teaching, then, is closely tied to our values, even to our sense of what is right and what is wrong.

And so, when teachers are told that they need to change how they teach they just may feel that their values are being put into question and they will hold on to them like there is no tomorrow. It will become messy, no doubt.

Think about that as we struggle through curricular reform, technology integration, differentiation, classroom flipping, backwards design, project-based learning…

(I think that the answer lies somewhere in starting from values and moving out towards reform.)

“Planned school board cuts anger Quebec teachers”…why?

When I first heard the news – that Line Beauchamp, Quebec’s Education Minister, is presenting a proposal during this weekend’s Liberal party caucus to cut school board funding in half – I literally high-fived my rear-view mirror. Maybe not the best thing to do while driving through the slippery roadways skirting the construction of highway 30 as you approach the island of Montreal from the west in the dark and rain at 6am… but I was happy to hear it.

We’ve been moving in this direction. Decision-making power has been slowly shifting to the schools over the past little while as it is. School-based success plans are one example. The Quebec Education Program, with its student-centered, competency based approach, is in itself a template for a school-centered education system.

Where will the money that is being cut from the school boards go? Last night on CBC news Mrs. Beauchamp said it herself – it will go directly to the schools. And it will be the schools who will decide where the money will go.

So why are teachers (and here I am probably referring more to teacher unions rather than individual teachers) angered?

There is a lot to do in order to make the transition from the model where school board makes the decisions that principals and, in turn, teachers have to carry out to a model that has principals and teachers carrying out their own decisions. But this model can only benefit our bottom line, our students. Individuals in the schools know what is best for the students in them. As well as for the adults that care for the students.

I think this is great news. What do you think?

ps – the title to this blog post is taken directly from this Oct. 21/2011 CBC news article:
Planned school board cuts anger Quebec teachers

Changing how we evaluate…utopic?

I was asked to think about this statement and how it can be considered an assumption:

The notion of systemic change in how we evaluate is utopic since it goes against parent expectations and societal values.

If this were true then women would never have gotten the vote and black people would still be riding the back of the bus and children would still be working in coal mines.

Any kind of systemic change is challenging but certainly not utopic or impossible! If that were the case then nothing would ever change. For this statement to be qualified as true then I must assume the following:

One at a time now.
Parent expectations and the values of society are homogenous and fixed
In my experience working with parents I know that their expectations are not fixed in favour of the stagnancy of how we evaluate students. Parents of students who have test anxiety, for example, would love to see formal, high-stakes summative evaluations bite the dust. And societal values? Which society are we talking about? Is there an assumption here that all societies have the same values when it comes to education and evaluation? I’ve worked in a few different social arenas myself and each one held different values. Even within the same school community I’ve experienced some parents who were in favour of rigorous testing while others were in favour of less rigorous practice. Oh and wait, don’t my values as a teacher fall into the realm of societal values? Am I not part of society?

The whole system of education is formed by these two elements alone.
As soon as we talk ‘systemic change’ we can not base our ideas on only 2 elements of a system. Theories about how systems work tell us that a system is made up of many parts and that none of the parts can be looked at in isolation in order to gain a complete understanding of how the system works. This is because each of the parts affects each of the other parts. Think of your own body. Do you think we could get a good understanding of why you have that headache by only looking at your head? A friend of mine’s headaches ended up being as a result of high blood pressure. If his doctors had only examined his head he may never have found out why they were happening.

By its very definition, a system is an arrangement (pattern, design) of parts which interact with each other within the system’s boundaries (form, structure, organization) to function as a whole. The saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” reflects the notion that it is not enough to focus our evaluative gaze on single goals, objectives, actors, processes, activities, and the like, without attempting to understand the larger system in which the initiative lives. From Evaluating Systems Change by Hallie Preskill

What educators have to say has no affect on any other element of the education system (esp. parents and society)
This assumes that as teachers/administrators/consultants we have no power within our own workplace, that our beliefs and practices do not count. When looked at within the concept of systems thinking, as briefly explained above, we see this is nonsense. While we may sometimes feel this to be true, we know that if we need to change something we can. Look at how a group of Catholic educators changed public policy on the teaching of ethics and religion in Quebec, look at the number of hits that come up when I google teachers as change agents.

What do you think? Is it erroneous to think that we can change evaluative systems in education?
What would you like to see change in how we evaluate in schools?

Religion in school – who has the final say?

Poor Calvin. He would certainly not get that exemption in Quebec.

Poor Calvin. He would certainly not get that exemption in Quebec.

According to the Quebec courts it is the government who has the final say, at least in terms of what our children learn in school.

I heard about this story on cbc news as I was driving to work this morning:
Parents group to appeal ruling on ethics course: judge rejects bid for exemption. Studying religious culture doesn’t violate children’s right to freedom of religion, he rules

Though it has been in some schools as a pilot program for a few years, Ethics & Religious Culture has been a mandatory course for all schools, grades 1-11, in Quebec for the past 2 years. All schools. The idea first came out when I was working with the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre in Montreal. In response, our schools were concerned that we were being forced to add a course on diverse religions to an already packed school day – what with 3 and sometimes 4 languages (English, French, Hebrew, and Yiddish) and their own Judaic programming. Catholic and Muslim schools had similar concerns, so quite a few of the religious schools opted into the pilot phase of the program to see what they were dealing with.

Now that the course is in the schools, parents are starting to express their own concerns. Some are bringing the ministry of education to court because they want to opt their children out of the course. Today we found out the Superior court has denied this petition. This course replaces older religion and morals courses, it teaches about diverse religions with an emphasis on the Catholic tradition since that is the historical religious tradition in Quebec. The goal is to open minds to different world views around ethical issues. Specifically, the 3 competencies for the course are:

Competency 1 – Reflects on ethical questions
Competency 2 – Demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of religion
Competency 3 – Engages in dialogue

What I like about it is the focus on dialogue that ethics brings into the course. That being said, I am not religious. I am not sure how I would feel if I were very religious and were trying to raise my children to be the same.

I’m teaching the course for the first time this year and will be looking at the issue raised with this ruling as part of it. Issues like the role of the state, parent rights, children/student rights, the whole messy issue of multiculturalism and reasonable accommodation. Of course, I teach in a province that already has a precedent of mandating the learning of French in our schools, along with whether or not one has the right to an English education depending on the educational background (linguistic) of your family in the province of Quebec. Complicated, eh? Lucky for us, our own government is offering ample fodder for dialogue within its own practice. Doubly lucky since there are no English language materials – besides ones which were created by teachers involved in the pilot programs and who have taught it since then – being provided to us in order to teach the provincially mandated course. Oops, a little bit of ‘I digress’ going on, sorry.

What do you think? Should the government or parents have the final say on religious education for children?

What I mean by teachers being the only real agents of school reform

This post is actually a comment in the conversation around school change over at Public School Insights – Casting Call for Teachers. It’s pretty much in the same state, maybe an extra sentence or two. I think it helps to clarify what I mean when I say “Teachers are the only real agents of school reform.” It’s a stark statement but holds truth.


I think there is a confusion with what I term as passion in teaching and teacher-hero. I absolutely do not believe in the teacher hero, unless it is as a community hero who just does the right thing (there are different understandings of hero – some have capes, like the movie star heroes, but most heroes are privately so and don’t even realize they are.)

I disagree that retaining a model of passionate teaching will result in failed culture change. Retaining that model as hope for the future can only succeed in creating more instances of it – we see what we ask questions about.

If it was understood that I thought teachers could/should act completely independently of anyone else I did not explain myself very well and for that I apologize.

I am a big believer in whole system change initiatives. In particular through theoretical and methodological lenses like appreciative inquiry, open systems theory, and participatory action research. These theories state that all parts of any system have an effect on each other part, even when we don’t realize it. Each part is important, there is a symbiotic relationship through the parts of any system. Therefore all (or as many as we can get in the room) parts of a system need to be involved in any kind of change process for it to become transformational, as Sheryl so wonderfully put it.

We do, however, have to recognize that the parts play different roles. In the educational system all of the roles are important and depend on each other – admin, teacher, support, children, families, boards (governing and school or district), government, health, social services… the list can go on. Even if all of the parts seem to be running in fabulous order – policy is good, the school is clean, parents are supportive, etc – if the teacher does not translate that policy into practice in her/his classroom, it doesn’t happen for the children.

That is why I say that teachers are the only REAL agents of school reform – agent as acting agent. We are not the only participants in reform, we are not the only ones who can trigger reform, but we put policy into practice on the front lines. We act on it. In good situations that passion breathes life into the lessons we work on with our students, and the school-based policy we help to create with our colleagues and administration. In difficult situations we need passion to be able to spin bad policy into good practice. That’s a given. Otherwise, the practice will merely reflect the policy upon which it was based.

We see what we ask questions about. If we continue to ask questions about how to fix a broken system we will see broken systems all around us. If we ask questions about how to generate balanced, participatory learning cultures, we will start to see places where they exist. And where they work.