Friday, 28 December 2012

Net Worth

Now that Christmas has passed, we have the next major season to look forward to: tax time. This means that for the coming weeks we will be bombarded with ads for RRSPs, RESPs, Mutual Funds and financial planning services.
Very few, if any, of these will focus on meaningful investment, unless you happen to consider unlimited financial gains regardless of the implications to be meaningful. A handful of funds, labelled as “ethical” or “environmental”, profess to somewhat higher ideals, but often fail to deliver much more than green-washing. In BC, investors may have an easier time finding viable options that do less damage than good, but for most Canadians, the choices are driven more by short-term, resource-laden gain than by a higher set of ideals.
In sorting out one’s finances, we bump into some more questionable value statements. The most obvious of these is the concept of “net worth”. In banking terms, a person’s net worth is set entirely on their financial assets, and nothing more. Every time I hear the term, I picture the bridge scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which George Bailey waves his insurance policy and says he’s worth more dead than alive. I find it a sad reflection on our society that we can use such terminology, and that this is how we consider the worth of individuals. By this standard, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and most artists and religious leaders and prophets have no “net worth”.  Newborn infants certainly value their mothers, but since they too have no “net worth”, we can toss out parenthood as well. The victims of the shooting in Newtown probably didn't have much "net worth", nor do the hundreds of missing Canadian First Nations women, or Chief Theresa Spence. 

It is true that this is simply the view of the world through banking terminology, but to pretend that it doesn’t transfer into our society’s culture is in my opinion, na├»ve. It is common for us to hold to highest value that which is financially lucrative, and ignore or demean that which is less so. This is why people who choose materially-based careers such as investment banking or business administration are more highly regarded than those who choose socially-based careers such as teaching or the arts. While the long-term benefits to society of the socially based careers is likely to be of greater benefit, the fact that these do not immediately turn a large profit means that they bring with them less honour, prestige and a lower salary, except in extreme cases. Few of our brightest and most motivated people are drawn to these fields when compared with those drawn to the materially-based careers.

Looking at where our country invests tax dollars, it would appear that our leaders value short-term financial gain for the few over long-term sustainability. Indigenous people are valued least, followed by children, immigrants and women. Natural resource extraction and foreign investment trump science (aside from the activities that involve cherry-picking studies in order to support a pre-determined financial agenda), education and the environment. Basic needs such as food security and clean water are secondary to foreign interests, tarsands development and military investment. The military is invested in as if it were a consumable, with little regard for soldiers and troops once they have served. Military engagement is based not on ethics but on resources and economics. There is no need to invest in science, research and development since it will not immediately benefit politicians and the corporations who control them. In fact, to invest in science, particularly in an inspiring, multi-national, long-term human endeavour would go against the strategy of day-to-day existence that fuels our increased reliance on unbridled consumerism. While the moon shot was once an inspiration, it wouldn’t sell enough merchandise now to compete with the growth mentality we’ve come to espouse.

We have a very obvious candidate for our collective energies, that being climate change, but too many people seem to have bought into the ideology of personal financial gain for us to move forward in any meaningful way. We have lost sight of what is real. As long as competition and fear guide us, we will continue to stagnate under the illusion of what we have fooled ourselves into believing is of value. “Me first” may have us all drowning (figuratively or literally) in the long run. Putting off tough decisions indefinitely does not work.

Our currency is a tool for trade, no more. What is it that is worth trading? Starting with basic needs in order of importance: clean air, clean water, healthy food, shelter, clothing. Money itself is not able to meet any of these needs; you cannot breathe it, you cannot drink it, you cannot eat it and gain any nutritional benefit (especially not those new plastic bills), it would be difficult to build a decent shelter from it, and it isn’t very easy or practical to sew together and wear. Money is a tool for trading goods, and is not a replacement for them. We seem to be losing sight of this rather obvious fact as evidenced by our government passing legislation that threatens the first three of these things.

Part of our problem too is that people have a nasty habit of looking at things with a competitive mindset. Because of this, the countries of the world are hesitant and defensive when it comes to working together on projects in which they are required to truly share in a long-term and meaningful way. There’s always a “you go first” playground-style defensiveness that keeps us from moving forward in a timely fashion to work on problems that concern all of us. Moving beyond this is crucial if we are to solve the climate change problem, yet I fear that we haven’t progressed far enough to accomplish this in time. 

There are people out there who are busy working towards change, people like Chief Theresa Spence who are willing to put themselves on the line for the sake of future generations. It is up to you and I to support their efforts. We need to redefine the meaning of "net worth" in our personal lives as well as in the larger culture. The time for change has come. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Differentiating Between Gifted and High Achieving Students

The title of this post may seem, at least at first glance, to be somewhat of a non-issue to many (most?) people, be they parents, educators or the general public. And yet, if we take the time to do this, we might just find that we are suddenly better able to understand and meet the needs of a large number of students.

Unfortunately, our society is driven by test scores. Because of this, IQ scores are sometimes viewed as value statements rather than descriptors. More useful than the number is a look into the individual subtest scores in order to determine a student's relative strengths and weaknesses in order to better meet their educational needs. Achievement and IQ are separate aspects of an individual and only through a combination of the two are students able to achieve true educational success, that is, to continue to learn and grow as individuals throughout life.

Truly Gifted Students

Let me start with another idea that may seem contradictory: many gifted students underachieve, fail, or drop out of school. They are more vulnerable to mental illness than the general population. Their needs can be, and are often, overlooked. There is a tendency to misdiagnose associated behaviours as social defiant or ADD/ ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder with or without hyperactivity), among other things. While it is true that one can be both gifted and have another such designation, it is often the case that the diagnosis is made through misunderstanding.

It is important to clarify what we mean by "gifted" in terms of both population and needs. Some places call all students who perform above average gifted; some rely on teacher reports, and others rely on a battery of standardized tests administered by a registered clinical psychologist to determine an IQ score, or when this is not possible due to subtest variation, a series of scores. [IQ tests are made up of several sections, called "subtests" which are made up of a series of tasks that test different cognitive functions]

Even when the students are properly tested, there is a discrepancy as to what magic number or numbers will be the "cutoff" between "gifted" and "non-gifted" populations. In some areas, this score can be as low as 120, and in others it is as high as 140. When you consider that an "average" score is 100, and a score of 70 is considered developmentally delayed (aka mentally retarded), the difficulties with the difference of 20 points in determining a gifted label become readily apparent.

For the sake of argument, I will use the number of 130; while recognizing that it is an imperfect designation.
In fact, the general consensus in psychological circles seems to be that 130-140 = gifted; 140-150 = highly gifted; 150-160 = exceptionally gifted and 160+ = profoundly gifted.

Let's think about a person who is profoundly gifted. This may be quite difficult for most of us, because a person with an IQ that high is literally one in a million. They are as different from "average" as someone who is low-functioning and will require lifelong assistance is on the other side of the distribution curve. Their needs are clearly very different than someone who is of average intelligence (90-110) or even highly intelligent or gifted.

I will try and put it another way to make my point here.

One definition for determining a learning disability is a discrepancy between scores of a subtest such that a low score is three or more standard deviations lower than the other scores.[It is important to note that there is a lack of consensus among professionals regarding a specific definition of learning disabilities and also of learning disorders] By this definition, a profoundly gifted student could have a learning disability in an area and still score in the gifted range in that area. Is this a problem for them? Possibly, if it affects their ability to communicate thoughts and ideas, or to remember them effectively. 
Even a student who is highly gifted might have a learning disability that is masked by their apparent "average" ability in that area. 
Students whose discrepancies are thus missed are at risk of low self-concept, frustration, and other emotional and academic problems.

In fact, even without discrepancies in different areas, gifted students have different needs than other students, particularly in the areas of emotional and social development, study skills, and executive functioning. It is not uncommon for these students to reach the university level without ever having had to study in order to do well. Since they have never had to learn this and possibly other executive functioning skills, they have not had any experience with them and can find themselves suddenly overwhelmed. They need to be specifically taught how to study and manage their time. Gifted students are often observant and reflective, and can have anxiety over local and global issues that their peers are not likely to understand. A program that is truly designed for gifted students should incorporate meaningful ways to address these issues that are unique to this population.

In terms of academics, each student will need their own IEP (Individualized Education Plan) which addresses their strengths and weaknesses. Always strengths before weaknesses! These students know they are different and they need to find ways to celebrate those differences in a positive way. It is important that these students learn how to cope with failure, which can only come when they are challenged at an appropriate level and supported emotionally so that they learn how to take risks and work towards a goal. Letting gifted students coast through known or comfortable material does these students a grave disservice and must be discouraged in order for these students to thrive, not only in school but also in life. 

Gifted students, particularly those with the highest IQs, need opportunities to meet and work together through conferences, exchanges, ability grouping where possible, etc. Mentoring with specialists and professionals in various fields of study can form an important part of their middle and high school education.

High Achievers

We all know the stereotype--the kids with their hands up, who hand in their assignments early with double the word-count, who do their homework and reach beyond it to understand the material inside-out. They are the Hermione Grangers of the world. These are kids who are average to above average in ability but who are for one reason or another driven to achieve. These kids know how to study because it is a way of life for them. They are organized and diligent, and they understand that their achievement is linked to hard work because they have learned this through experience.
Frustrations these kids may have often come from group work with less motivated students, delays in feedback from teachers, and material that repeats itself. 
These students are often the "do-ers" and "joiners" in the school, and some may enjoy leadership within and outside of the school setting. 
Academic enrichment for these students should include just that--enrichment. Guest speakers, field trips, and cluster grouping for project work, as well as opportunities for students to share their work with others will meet these students' needs much better than the gifted programming I describe above. Peer tutoring is also an option for these students, but should be a choice and not a substitute for enrichment, or a punishment. Students should not be given the job/punishment/perk of marking other students' work. This is the teacher's job, and it is the teacher's job because all students deserve a degree confidentiality.

There are, of course, students who belong to both groups--students who are highly motivated and gifted. I would argue that those students should have access to the options I outlined in the "truly gifted" section, mainly because I believe that those are the most crucial skills and issues that need to be addressed for any gifted student. The IEP should identify and aid in further meeting their needs.

When we envision programming for gifted students, we often think of the options I have described for the high-achieving group. In this way, we set ourselves up for many of the problems that riddle gifted education, particularly regarding those related to demographics. Between sexism, racism and elitism, gifted programming has many feeling that it is somehow an unfair advantage provided for a chosen few. It is no wonder then that many educators treat is as a sort of reward for accomplishments rather than a necessary means to meet student needs.

Only when we can be honest about IQs and the "gifted" label can we progress to the point where we can distinguish between the two and break through the barriers of misunderstanding in order to better meet student needs.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Why I Hate Flashcards

Way back in the 1970's, I was a student in a grade 1-2-3 split class. It was not a small school, so I would guess that it was one of the many educational experiments going on during that time.

There are two things I remember well about my grade 1 teacher: how hard she spanked and her incessant use of flashcards. The words, "if you're so smart..." still set my teeth on edge. I didn't think I was smart at all. Before we could read actual stories, we each needed to recite the current list of flash-words correctly, even though they were completely out of context. Only then, when we were tired and bored out of our minds, would we have the "privilege" of reading aloud in front of the class a page from the classroom reader. That classroom reader, "Just For Fun", was decidedly NOT fun for me!

It may be that I have an unfounded bias against flashcards based on my experiences with that teacher.

But aside from those experiences, there is a lot to be said against "flashcard" style instruction. Rote and memorization techniques do not involve any higher cognitive functioning; there is no deep thought involved in memorizing a set of facts. There is no "grey area" to be explored or probed; there is no room for reflection or making connections with other areas. It is a sort of "desert learning" where only that particular piece of information is deemed relevant. For those familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, you will recognize that flash cards represent remembering, which sits at the bottom of the list as the lowest of the lower-order skills.

Bloom's Taxonomy
Yes, there are some facts that simply beg for memorization, such as the alphabet, musical note names, capital cities, etc. For these purposes, flashcards may not be a bad choice. Likewise, some older students find writing facts out on index cards and reviewing them to be a useful study tool that combines kinesthetic (writing) and visual cues.

For math facts though, it is crucial that students work through the actual quantities to understand the patterns involved. These do not show up on flashcards; nor do "real life" applications of the concept. 9 x 9 can be solved in many different ways, and for students to gain numeracy they must be encouraged to explore those ways for themselves. Some ways they might do this can be found here. Only once they have gained the concept, the "understanding" and "applying" on the next levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, is memorization relevant. This doesn't mean that a student who learns the concept quickly should need to continue working with manipulatives ad nauseum, but that they should be able to demonstrate the concept behind the fact before moving on.

The same goes for reading. Using flashcards to memorize words deprives students of many of the other different ways to decode and comprehend words and phrases. There are many aspects used in reading including contextual clues, phonics, word shape, structural patterns, linguistic patterns, and many others as well. Not many of us have the mental capacity to memorize every word we will ever read; we clearly need to  use a variety of strategies in order to become fluent readers and gain higher level literacy skills. Isolating one skill and focusing on that alone (usually either flashcards or phonics) does not reflect the reality of how readers process print. It is true that it might be useful for students with specific needs to reduce the visual or auditory component for a very short time in order to allow them to focus on specifics, but the students who require this sort of breaking down tend to have special needs related to sensory issues; and their needs are quite different from the needs of the general student population.

Going back again to the musical note example, could we not improve the experience by making it richer with a wider variety of sensory input? Imagine a simple program that not only shows the note written on the staff, but also plays the tone. Now the student has an opportunity not only to learn the note visually, but also to gain an auditory sense of it at the same time. This is not a complicated thing to program, in fact, there are many websites, programs and apps that do this that have been around for years. If you want to avoid electronic technology, you can always do this with a piano or other instrument as well. Of course, you can also take this much further by reversing the process, and add composition, duets, etc. to the mix. None of this is new.

This is only one example. I challenge those of you who use flashcards to find a replacement or means of enriching the experience.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Educational Ideals--An Afterword

Seth Godin sums up many of the issues I have addressed on education in recent posts. Since he is more eloquent than I, I have included his TedTalk here.

Of course, the system he addresses is that of the United States, but here in Canada, and also in other parts of the world, there are many features that are similar and need to be addressed.

One thing he speaks about is the "Flipped Classroom". The backlash against this concept is astounding to me, but I think that there are some other things going on here that have contributed. 

For one thing, it assumes internet access. While most people have this, there are still many who do not, and this can put those students at a further disadvantage. 

I have seen so-called "flipped classrooms" where the teacher watches the students all watch the same lecture. For this, I'm not even sure where to start! Certainly this is a huge waste of time and resources. The lectures and resources are supposed to happen away from the teacher; the discussion and application are what the teacher and class are there for during the classroom time.

I also wonder how this can be used in classrooms that are deemed "inclusive" and in which the abilities and needs of the students are extremely diverse. I would argue that both interest and ability groupings may be the most effective way to encourage all students to reach their potential. 

People have criticized Sal Khan for not being a complete resource unto himself. That is as ridiculous as saying that a research paper with only a single source is complete. Life doesn't work that way. Students need to learn to consult varied resources and to consider biases and limitations within those sources as part of learning critical thinking. Khan Academy, TedTalks, MIT Courseware, PI Lectures, and a multitude of other online lectures are now available, as are websites, internet chats, email, and yes, even textbooks. There is no need for a teacher to present this at a single speed to a classroom of students. Where the value of a teacher lies is in generating discussion, and encouraging students to delve deeply and ask questions, to think of things in different ways, make connections and apply these concepts in new ways. Round-robin reading of a textbook is no more than a way to fill in time. Wasting the time of our students is quite possibly the most disrespectful thing we can do as teachers.

I do disagree though that there is no place for textbooks in exciting students to learn. I do think though that they should be treated as reference materials rather than the main or sole source of information, just as we might consult a dictionary on occasion but are unlikely to sit down and read it cover-to-cover.

What are your thoughts on flipped classrooms, and education in general?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Letting Go

I wrote this last Wednesday after dropping off my son at his math program. It's funny how as a parent, you never know when these moments are going to come, when your child suddenly moves beyond your sights and you find yourself not wanting to let go, but knowing that is what you must do. Sometimes it happens when you least expect it.

The little boy with the round face and red-blonde hair broke into a sprint alongside the family car in a race with his dad. My husband was turning the car around to continue with errands after dropping us off at the local university campus.
We walked along through the familiar surroundings and entered the math building, climbing all the way up to the fifth floor, with him waiting patiently for me at the landing. We were early, so we wandered the hallways, delighting at some of the cartoons and signs on the office doors, signs that read "IQC" and promising of cutting-edge research that will no doubt lead to places as yet unimagined.  Bulletin boards advertising seminars on quantum physics, nano particles and various other topics we only barely understood tickled our imaginations.
This was not Squirt's first time coming to the department; last year he attended the grade 7/8 session, which he did not enjoy. He already knew the material, and even with the clever presentations and hands-on games the teachers devised, it failed to challenge him. This year we were back, but under his terms, which is what brought us all the way up to the fifth floor where the high school students were taught.
The professor (the high school groups are taught by university professors) welcomed him warmly and invited him to choose a seat where he'd be able to see the projection screen.
Squirt pulled out his binder and I saw his paper was in upside-down. Normally I would have let it go, but in a rare fit of protectiveness I fussed and fixed it. His eyes told me "enough", so I left.
Eleven years old and he is already forging his own path through life, and I am a spectator on the sidelines who can only begin to comprehend his world.
This isn't the first time I've walked away and left him to fulfill his dreams. He swims competitively and has traveled to other cities with his team and without me; he has attended residential summer camp. But this is different. Tonight felt like a turning point, one where I begin to hand over the reigns of his education to those better equipped to mentor him and meet his needs.
In two hours he will return to me, a happy little boy who will want a snack and another chapter of our novel read aloud to him before bed. I will cuddle with him and we will read together and I will watch him drift off to sleep. But I know these days are numbered, and I am reminded of the words of Kahlil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. 

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Educational Ideals Part 3: The Educational Setting

In creating an ideal setting, there are three things that need to be considered in order to make this model work in the best manner possible: the teachers, the students and the vision/mission statement.

The Teachers

Teachers need to be well educated in human development. A single course in developmental psychology is not sufficient to accomplish this. Teachers need to understand through research as well as direct observation and discussion how children of different ages naturally learn and grow. They need to understand the basis for language acquisition, numeracy, and abstract thinking. They need to understand what, how and when various milestones are reached. They need to understand cognitive development in order to encourage the student and adapt the environment appropriately.   When a teacher understands human development, that teacher is able to apply this knowledge, recognize the behavior patterns of students, and encourage them at the appropriate level.
This also allows teachers to better identify learners who have unique needs and to help to meet these needs. As it stands now, many teachers in the system have no background in special education whatsoever. This needs to change.
All too often, the developmental aspect of teacher training is neglected and teachers are given courses in subject matter instead. While every teacher should be well-versed in his or her specialty subjects, this should not be done at the expense of a thorough understanding of development. Understanding of the subject matter should be the main focus of the undergraduate degree; the teaching degree should focus on development. We need to teach students, not subjects.
Only once prospective teachers have an understanding of development should they begin to work on practical classroom strategies.
Our society has a bad habit of looking down on the teaching profession. Teachers are not treated as professionals with a great deal of responsibility, but rather as fancy babysitters, at least by some. Teachers are professionals though, with five or more years of post-secondary education. They are responsible for the education of the coming generation, which is something that will carry a lasting effect for decades to come. The effects of a good teacher can be felt through the community. By supporting our teachers, treating them as professionals and expecting professionalism from them, we will help to elevate the image of the profession, attract the best possible teachers to the profession, and provide the best possible future for our children.
Institutions such as the Ontario College of Teachers can help foster this improvement, by holding teachers accountable, supporting professional development, and by fostering communication and sharing of techniques, strategies and visions that work. Gaining and maintaining dialogue among educators is a challenge we must undertake in order to improve our educational system. All too often, teachers, especially newer ones, are left to their own devices and must “reinvent the wheel” when there are many teachers out there who have been there and can share their own valuable experiences. We need to budget time for such dialogue. We also need to maintain a dialogue between educators and the general public. There are many misconceptions regarding teaching that could be easily dispelled through better communication with the general public.

The Students

By emphasizing an understanding of human development in teacher training, students can become the focus of education. It may sound silly to say this, but all too often we are caught up in pedagogy, politics, pre-defined curriculum and policies that we lose sight of the real reason we are here: the students.
There is a tendency to view students in financial terms: as commodities, customers, consumers or investments in the future. Many of us come to education with an agenda of sorts, including social justice, power or control (never a good reason to work with others!), idealism, a quest for a sense of immortality by empowering students for the future, or any number of other reasons. We need to be honest about these, and then let them go. Our own agendas have no business here. I know that even that statement is an agenda of sorts, but once the students arrive on the scene, it is one that is easily transferred to them. If we are to encourage our students to become active, engaged critical thinkers who seek out lifelong learning, we need to empower them and rescind our own control in order to foster their growth.

The Learning Environment

My own ideal for a learning environment would be a mixture of Reggio Emilia and the Sudbury-style schools, with some elements of Waldorf, Montessori (as Maria herself described—not the modern variations), The Teacher Tom’s approach, and even “Maker Sheds” such as KWARTZlab.
There would be indoor and outdoor spaces in which to learn and explore, with spaces created for individual, small group and large group work. 
Play and open exploration would take priority over structure, although there would be a “rhythm” to each day and each season. This would continue through all ages with materials and mentors being available for students based on student interests. Students would have regular counseling sessions with an advisor group to ensure they were on track to meeting their own goals, and these goals would include academics, creative pursuits, physical development (fine and gross motor skill development), spiritual growth (philosophical, social), and general well-being (including physical and mental health). Students would be encouraged to arrange additional mentorships and forge connections with various experts and professionals as they became able to do so. Research would be paramount, from exploring caterpillars to viewing distant galaxies, and everything in between. Students would be encouraged to collaborate and also to share their work with other students of different ages and experiences as a means for fostering in communication skills necessary in most fields of endeavour. Age would be no barrier for learning; all limits would be based on ability, aptitude, physical limitations (ie. if you cannot reach the knobs, you cannot use the stove) and any applicable legal limitations. Students with special needs would have access to the mentors they need in order to work towards their potential. Since all abilities would be mixed, yet each student would determine their own pathway, tolerance would be encouraged through a non-competitive atmosphere. Older students would have an opportunity to mentor younger students without being compelled to do so.
The role of the teacher would become a facilitator. The teacher would provide links to resources and opportunities, be there to bounce ideas off of, ask open-ended questions to encourage students to stretch their limits, and help students create long and short-term personal goals and plan towards them.
The school would be similar to a Sudbury school, except the teachers would take a slightly more hands-on role, and the students would be required to explain their choices and review and update their goals on a regular basis.
The role of the teacher would be more demanding because it would require monitoring of a wide variety of topics and projects, and also a monitoring of available outside opportunities that might be of relevance to the students, such as college/university courses, contests, science fairs, performances, community events, gallery showings, etc.
Since the reporting would be based on portfolios, there would be little testing involved. Anecdotal reports, notes from counseling meetings, goal setting and reviews and physical projects would form the bulk of the assessments.
Some challenges would include the use of space, supervision, communication with community resources including mentors, lab / workshop access, apprenticeships, and co-ordinating with online and college/university programs. Working with less imposed structure demands a great deal of organizational skill on the part of the facilitators, and this would need to be recognized in advance. Excellent and regular communication between the teachers as well as the administration and older students would be imperative.
Some people are bound to balk at the idea of less structure, but after much research as well as some 24 years of experience in education, I believe that this is in fact the best and most effective learning environment possible. It fosters the natural learning patterns of young children, provides a stimulating environment in which to explore ideas, and feedback in order to adapt and learn in an ongoing fashion. Learning to make and set goals, then to follow up with them from an early age will help foster study skills, time management and also enable students to make connections between their goals and the foundation skills needed in order to attain them. Support from teachers who act as facilitators and educational counselors will help students work out their own learning pathways while providing support as needed. When the learning is relevant and comes in an order that is logical to and for the learner, it becomes deeper and better learned. The student values it and understands its relevance, and can be free to embrace it.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Quick But Sincere Apology Regarding Broken Links

Not being a trained web designer, my website is at times a reflection of this, and when I moved my website to its new domain, I made some mistakes. I realized this about a month later, and fixed them, or so I thought. I recently learned that my "batch processing" method of changing links did not work on a large number of my pages. A quick check failed to find many of them.

I am aware of the Google tools I can use to provide this information, but they too miss things, and I have not been as diligent as I could have been in this regard.

Tonight I went through and manually fixed many, many links. I believe I have caught them all now, but it is still possible that I missed a few.

Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused. I know how frustrating it can be to try and find information and end up with a 404 or 401 error.

If you happen to find any I have missed, please let me know here or by email llamgf @ (delete the spaces) and I will fix them ASAP.

Thank you for reading my blog and visiting my website. I hope you are able to find something of value in your Lemonade experience.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Educational Ideals Part 2: The Learners

So many times parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and the general public become so wound up in their own ideas about education that they lose sight of those most important in decision making: the students.
Let’s look at the average young child, say, 3 years of age. Most children at this age have gained the ability not only to understand language, but to communicate their own thoughts, needs and opinions. They are beginning to see themselves as separate and unique human beings. They thirst for independence while still heavily relying on the adults around them to meet their needs. These kids are mobile and have all the skills necessary to explore their world, and indeed, this is what they are incessantly driven to do. Follow your average 3 year old around for a day and you will see a small scientist perform dozens of experiments with seemingly ceaseless energy. Try and stop them and you will often find resistance, sometimes complete meltdowns. The child has work to do here! This work takes many forms, but one thing is common to all of it: it falls into the category we call “play”.

Fast forward a couple of years. Now the child has a more sophisticated level of play. Following a 5 year old around you can see that they are experienced now. Parallel play becomes partner play, causation is understood, comparisons are made and language and motor skills are more developed. A 5 year old may remember the names of other children and use them, remember which kids enjoy which activities, and have a longer attention span for completing an activity. They may find difficult social tasks such as waiting one’s turn, sharing and listening in conversation are now within their reach. They are forming a base on which crucial social constructs including  cooperation and collaboration can grow.

The five year old child is just refining these skills and then what do we do? We sit the child down for rote learning tasks led by an adult in which they are told what to do and how to do it. No more taking turns, no more listening, no more experimenting with “why”, cause and effect, etc.  No more choices to be made by the child; suddenly the adults know best and the children become vessels to fill with the answers to standardized tests. We pit them against each other in this way, comparing results between students, classrooms, schools and boards or districts, guiding them away from any growth toward cooperation and collaboration. We suddenly label these children as “ready to learn” and completely negate the natural learning that has worked so well for them up until this point.

In some places, we impose this agenda even earlier. We degrade children's natural learning in order to make our schools into publicly-funded daycare institutions.

In the name of (take your pick here): politics, funding, equality, opportunity… we “streamline” education by age-segregating children into often packed classrooms and feed them pre-packaged, one-size fits no one curriculum developed with corporate and political interests at heart and parental convenience backing it up.

We deny individualism on every front—from development on through interests, background, natural abilities, culture, aptitudes, and freedom of choice. It is a factory model of education which suits no one well. We stifle creativity, play time and free time by bringing busy work (often called homework) into our children’s lives even in the primary grades sometimes. We do this despite the many studies that show that this is not helpful to children’s learning, and may well be detrimental to them in many ways down the road. Our children are caged by a society that spreads fear through its media, despite falling crime rates, causing parents to place unreasonable restrictions on children’s free outdoor play time. Our kids are able to name more brand names than common native species. They spend hours more on homework and hours less on meaningful learning and growing.

At the same time, we introduce a feeling of alienation by denying them the experience of true collaboration and substituting competitiveness in every aspect of their education.

Why do we allow this?

The truth is that those who can afford to often find alternatives, be they private schools, homeschooling or advocating on their child’s behalf (which can be a full-time endeavour that may lead nowhere in the end).
Some parents buy into the homework myth and/or the standardization myth. Some believe that allowing children to learn naturally and at their own pace leads to certain groups falling behind. They believe in the “political correctness” without realizing that this idea is itself upheld by prejudiced ideas of what these groups are capable of. They ignore other factors that can be addressed but are unpopular, such as poverty and mental and physical illness and problems with the health care system. They also ignore language and cultural barriers. It is easier to generalize, and in generalizing we have created “opportunity” for “all” to “achieve” to “the same” level as each other.

Opportunity = highly structured environment in which all children are treated not only equally but the same
All = those who fit in or conform to the expectations of the “average” or “slightly below average” in all given subjects at the same given time based solely on age
Achieve = obtain acceptable test scores on arbitrary standardized tests written and mandated by someone who has not met the learner
The Same = all expectations of achievement are based on the age of the child and the perceived ability of the teacher and are evaluated solely by standardized test scores written and mandated by someone who has not met the learner

This model is meant to be “objective” in that all children are “treated equal”. Being “treated equal” here though is not the problem; being treated “the same” is.
Being treated equal could allow for more reasonable goals, such as “each student will be challenged at his or her current level of ability in each given subject area”. This allows flexibility for children to move at their own pace without having their time wasted or forcing them ahead before they are ready to move on.
It is not the same as ability grouping because it is constantly up for review. Student A may find place value easy, but have difficulty with long division. She can move quickly through place value and spend a little more time working on long division.
The reality is that no child learns every subject and subtopic at the same rate and at the same pace as the “average” student their age.

One way to be certain to waste the time of every student, ensure that at least once they meet with frustration, and stifle executive function development (time management, organizational skills, study skills), creative problem solving and critical thinking skills is to follow this standardized educational model.
This model will ensure the “success” of compliant employees and middle-management, but it comes at a cost.  That cost includes a rise in health care costs, a continuing disconnection with nature, the loss of the values of science and innovations, and a loss of our souls as creativity and the arts in general are devalued.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Educational Ideals--A Personal Viewpoint Part 1

The following is the first of a series of blog posts in which I examine our current educational system in an effort to determine what is needed in order to achieve what I believe to be the best it can possibly be. I may seem idealistic at times, but if you can’t dream about the way things ought to be, then there is no chance of ever achieving it. Today I start with a philosophy of education.

What is the purpose of education in Canada? Is it to allow our country to function as a democratic nation? Is it to encourage its citizens to aspire to reach their full potential? Or is it to provide a functional workforce for corporations and maintain an economy?

I would say each of these points has some merit, but truly, for Canadian democracy to work, the citizens need to be educated. When citizens reach their potential, the entire nation benefits in both the short term and the long term. Reaching one’s potential means different things to different people, but for the sake of this post, I am going to argue that it involves the lifelong intellectual, creative, social and physical development of the individual to the level that allows them to continually gain a sense of accomplishment. The least of these goals refers to the workforce component; I prefer to think of us as much more than potential employees. When jobs alone become the focus of our efforts, we all lose out. Employment is important and everyone needs to make a living, this is true. But when we only view citizens with this narrow lens, we rob ourselves. We rob ourselves of the potential to be great. We rob ourselves of the potential to make the right decisions rather than default to the easy ones. We rob our nation of its humanity.

If our primary goal is a combination of democracy and realizing our potential, how do we achieve this?
First off, I believe we need to consult with the professionals. These are the psychologists who study cognitive development, and the educators who work directly with the students. We need to look at what the research says. We need to follow the science.

Nearly everyone you meet has a strong view of what education should be. This isn’t surprising considering the importance it has on the individual and society in general. We need to evaluate these ideas in terms of their robustness in light of current knowledge in the field.

One example is how the research shows that children learn best through unstructured play. Many people prefer to see these same children saddled with worksheets from an early age. What they don’t understand is what the research has shown. Worksheet “drill & kill” style education may impart some knowledge, but it does little to develop the creative and social (and physical) aspects of development; in fact, such activities tend to work against such development.

So often we hear the words “work ethic” bringing to mind images of Dickensian workhouses. It is not unreasonable to expect one’s livelihood to bring pleasure unto itself beyond the regular paycheck. In fact, people who enjoy their work tend to be more productive than those who do not. Some people refer to their work as “play”, such as mathematicians and scientists who have truly found their passion. Do they work hard? Certainly, but the work is fulfilling and pleasurable in and of itself. Personally, I would find being an accountant to be a sort of personal hell, but fortunately there are people who enjoy working with numbers and finances. Some people find they take great pleasure in making a difference in the lives of others, such as nurses, doctors, and teachers. Some enjoy the pleasure of putting food on people’s tables through farming. When education becomes little more than a process of completing discrete mundane tasks, it teaches people to accept such things as inevitable. The reality is that this is not inevitable at all. A factory worker who takes an interest in the processes and products made is much more likely to find their job interesting and feel fulfilled than one who is only there to earn a paycheck and has had their curiosity numbed. It is that very curiosity that we need to develop because it is from this that new insights and innovations come. This applies to everyone, from the chief designer to the assembler to the janitor. Accepting the mundane as a matter of course does us all a disservice.  

In considering my own children’s education, I have often thought that the ideal for them may be to gain both a profession and a trade. Learning a trade related to their chosen profession can aid in communication and respect between coworkers, and can also aid in flexibility in different economic situations as well as at different life stages. Understanding the challenges of others from different viewpoints is another valuable skill that aids both in personal fulfillment as well as citizenship. This is only one way to accomplish this; service hours/volunteer work, student exchanges, travel, etc. can also achieve similar goals.

Another benefit of learning both a trade and a profession is that it can give you flexibility. In various economic times, one may be a more reliable employment choice than the other. When starting a family, having this choice can help allow you to spend more time with your children. If you needed to cut back a little due to health issues of yourself or another family member, again, this could help allow for some flexibility.

To sum up: I believe the primary goal of education should be to encourage and enable all citizens to reach their potential and to participate as informed contributing members of society. Note: by contributing, I mean it not only financial, but also social and political terms.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Writing and Fine Motor Skills

Two generations ago, handwriting received great attention in the schools. Many hours would be spent creating a flowing cursive script akin to calligraphy. The handwriting of our grandparents was often like a work of art in its beauty. Many people mourn those days, but as a person who always struggled with both writing and typing, and the mother of a son with a fine-motor learning disability, I find the current availability of word processors and other writing tools to be a relief.


Do we even need handwriting?

Actually, we do. The most important use of handwriting is one's signature. A signature is a wonderful thing. It is our own personal security code that we'll never forget. It need not be legible. It can be as decorative or plain as we desire. It is a symbol that has historically separated the illiterate from the literate, often with serious legal implications. In every aspect, it is a symbol of our own uniqueness.

Beyond the signature though, we do need our writing to be legible.

We need to be able to fill in forms, as many forms still cannot be filled in on computer. We need to be able to make quick lists and notes to others. Perhaps in the near future our smart phones and such will take over these tasks, but we're not completely there yet.

There are two main kinds of writing for the English language: manuscript (printing) and cursive. Since the type of most fonts falls into the manuscript category, and since traditionally this is what is taught and learned first, there are many people who advocate for its exclusive use. It is easier to read. Some people find it easier to write as they can concentrate on one letter at a time without worrying about the joinings. Many people can print almost as fast as they can write in cursive, assuming they have learned both systems.

But there is another population for which cursive may continue to meet a need. Students with fine motor disabilities may find cursive somewhat more accessible. When printing, the writer needs to position their pencil at the right place on the paper before starting each letter. To help new writers, some teachers use a ruler on the line below and/or show the writers how to space out words by placing a finger down at the end of a word to help them leave a "finger space" between the words. There is still a need to re-position the pencil after each and every letter. For those who fine motor issues, this can become a very onerous task. Add any visual perception difficulties (reversals, flips, "swimming words", etc.) and the task can become near impossible.

Cursive writing can help. When the need to re-position the pencil occurs less often, it becomes easier to complete a word. This doesn't mean the writing will become magically easier; cursive has its own challenges for these learners, such as planning ahead for coming letter placement, and remembering the high and low joining conventions. It can be like learning a new code for writing as it is becoming less common and students are less likely to be familiar with reading it. However, the trade-offs may be worth considering. Those who master cursive often find it faster than manuscript, but this may not be the case for everyone.

Fortunately, there are other options that help alleviate the physical demands of writing. There are adaptive keyboards designed to adjust for pressure, length of touch, etc.; regular word processing, speech to text programs, text to speech programs that allow students to hear their writing read back to them, and visual planning packages, such as Inspire. Each of these meets a different need and most programs offer a free 30-day trial to help you figure out what will best meet your needs.

It is important that students be able to express themselves well and often using whatever means works for them. These adaptations are not "crutches" but needed tools to enable them to continue to develop their communication skills. Slowing them down by forcing handwriting of any kind or even typing may cause them to write less and stunt their development. In such cases, it may be a good idea to separate fine-motor activities (handwriting, typing, drawing, etc.) from the communication activities (stories, poems, essays, reports, speeches, etc.) in order to allow students to continue to develop in both areas.

As homeschoolers, we have usually done things orally to compensate. In a classroom situation, this may not always be practical, but should be considered at least on occasion. Shyer students may need to do this one-on-one with a teacher or aide.

We are trying out various software options, and also working on developing finger strength and control, with the goal of improving legibility as well as increasing typing speed while using software to help with communication and academics in the meantime.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Geography Games

Photo source: NASA (posted on Wikimedia Commons)
If you follow my educational posts, you may have noticed that we play a lot of games. This is intentional. When children play, they explore and learn. Learning is natural and child-driven. Our adult agendas often serve to slow down learning, despite our good intentions of focusing on skills development. When we lighten up and embrace children's own natural ways of learning, we can become partners and guides.

Having said that, sometimes our society works such that kids need specific information at a specific time. Geographical knowledge is one example of this, although the subject might easily come up on its own after watching a documentary, trying out a new restaurant, or meeting a neighbour from a different land. Since most of us cannot afford to travel the world and explore many places in person, a few games may be in order.

For those of you who are hooked on integrated unit studies (I am, although my children do not like to learn this way), I have included some ideas for one at the bottom of this post.

Alphabet Geography

either alphabet dice, such as those found in Boggle, or slips of paper each with a different letter of the alphabet kept in a container that can be shaken
a world map with location names (or a more detailed country, province etc. map depending on your intended focus)
note paper and pencils or laminated lined paper with wipe-off markers
optional: a timer

Choose a letter by rolling a dice or selecting a slip of paper. All players must write down as many place names as possible that start with that letter. When the time is up (3 minutes recommended), players check their answers against the map. If a player cannot show where one or more of their selections is located on the map, that selection does not count. Award a point for each correct place. Play for several rounds, over several days. The first game is the baseline. A player wins by gaining a higher score than their most recent game. Overall winners at the end of the series are those who have scored the highest cumulative amount, OR who have the highest final score, depending on the needs of the group.

Where In the World Am I?

Students use their understanding of cultural and physical features of places to aid teammates in figuring out their mystery location.

Large and detailed World Map
various atlases, cultural, ecological, geological etc. references (library books can supplement your own)
a small pebble, bingo chip or similar
a timer (optional)

Students break into groups of 2-5 people per group. The first team decides who will be the first to travel. This person is blindfolded and must toss the marker onto the world map (which is to be lying spread-out on the floor or a large table). The teammates must spin the map as the traveler tosses so that there is no chance of the traveler knowing the general area it must have landed.
While still blindfolded, the traveler may ask yes/no questions about the culture, climate, ecology, terrain features, etc. of the place they are at. The goal is to figure out where they are in the least amount of time possible.
To make it more challenging: students must name a reference in literature, music, visual art, traditional clothing, or other art-related aspect of the country and must first use this to name the country or region before narrowing down the location any further with additional questions.
Alternatively, choose both a place and a time (you can toss a marker onto a timeline for this), and get some history happening here too!

Note: since the planet is 2/3 ocean, it is likely that a large number of tosses will land in the ocean. You can deal with these in several ways:
- if there is a nearby island, use this as the landing spot
- let the person guess until it is obvious they are in the ocean, and perhaps make it necessary to determine which ocean and whether it is tropical/temperate etc.
- have the person toss again until they hit land

Grocery Store Geography Study

This field trip unit helps make connections between food, climate, ecology, farming and trade with extensions that include budgeting, cost, measurement, history, population distribution, and many other areas.

Organize a trip to a grocery store. 

For the first try at this, it is best to start in the produce section. Ask your students to choose at least five different types of produce to research. Now they find these in the produce section and record their country of origin. Be sure they double-check with any stickers or other labels right on the fruit, as the larger signs may not be accurate.

Back in the classroom or home, have the students make small labels of pictures of their produce and, using sticky tack, place them on the map according to the country from which they came. Repeat this at different times of year. When do apples come from nearby? Which produce is tropical? What kinds of produce could you grow where you live? What edible plants grow naturally in your area? What produce had to travel furthest to reach you?

Look up the climate of the various countries. Can you see a pattern in what grows best in each circumstance? Why don't bananas and mangoes grow in Canada? Why don't they make maple syrup in Africa?

Try this several times, visiting a local farm, a farmer's market, and/or an Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jamaican, European etc. grocery store. What different produce was on offer? Where was it grown? Where do you think it originally grew? How does this affect the cooking styles of different cultures? What might be on the menu in a Chinese restaurant? Italian? Indian? African? Add as many different cultures and regions as possible.

For younger students, or as a first start of an extended unit:

Have a grocery store scavenger hunt. Divide students into small teams of 2-4 students. Distribute lists of items with different categories on them, such as tropical fruit, root vegetable, something from China, something grown close by, something with more than ten ingredients, something they think every student in the group would like, something with vitamin c, something that has protein, something that is a complex carbohydrate, something you can eat raw, something on sale, etc. Make sure students write or draw their answers rather than collect them, as the "put away" component isn't nearly as popular as the search! Also, do not make this time dependent, as this can encourage running and pushing in even very reserved students. If you suspect this might become an issue with your group, try staying all together and slowly walking through the store aisle by aisle together as they quietly and secretively note their finds.


Maslow hierarchy of needsDiscuss what our basic needs are as human beings. Encourage students to brainstorm their own answers and share and discuss as a group. If you wish, you can introduce Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs (the link here is much more detailed than the image I have included). Once you have a basic list that the class has agreed upon, discuss how this might influence human settlement, both in the past and in the present. Refer to population maps and historical maps to see how accurate your predictions really were.

Integrated Unit Extensions:

Have students find a recipe and make a list of needed ingredients, then visit a grocery store to cost it out and, ideally, purchase the ingredients. You may give them some guidance here: it must be a type of salad, a soup, a type of cookie, etc., but then let the students decide on the details. Provide some strict budget guidelines. This is a great time to introduce the concept of cost per unit, both in terms of purchasing ingredients (encourage groups to share ingredients and pool their resources to buy in bulk), and also in figuring out the total cost per unit of their finished recipe compared with a prepared version of the same or similar item. Back at school, arrange for access to the staff room for groups of students to make/bake/cook their recipe. Share the food with the class at an end-of-unit potluck party. To include language arts, have the students create menus and/or write restaurant-style reviews after the party.
The skills used here include arithmetic, measuring (volume, temperature, currency, etc.), co-operation, negotiation, detailed planning, recipe research, reading for meaning, budgeting, sharing, and I'm sure there are many others I've forgotten! 

Planning Notes

To make the trip run smoothly and to ensure your continued welcome, ask the store manager when the least busy time is, and try and use this to schedule your trip. Group students into teams. Remind them that they are to be courteous and polite, refrain from running, and wait their turns. If your group needs extra support, be sure to enlist help from parents and other adults as needed. This could be an opportunity to discuss adult perceptions of children, how these may or may not be fair, and how their own behaviour could help influence these perceptions. Some kids may want to discuss ageism, so you may wish to ensure you give them enough time to discuss this very relevant issue.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

10 Great Ideas for Father's Day

No more ties!
Do you remember making endless construction paper ties for Father's Day as a kid? Are you stuck for an idea for something better, or at least different? You may want to try some of these. I've included five traditional gift ideas, and five of the "more memorable" variety. Enjoy!

Tried and True:

  1. Dad t-shirts and/or baseball caps: personalize these with hand prints, foot prints and other kid-style art
  2.  Dad mugs: you can custom decorate a ceramic mug using special ceramic paint (for the outside only)
  3.  Pencil & pen holders: you can make these from washed-out jars etc.; hot-glue on decorative features such as glass half-marbles, colourful rocks & gems, and/or use puffy paint to draw on details *these are more appropriate for dads who work in an office than, say, in construction 
  4.  Find a suitable photograph of child(ren) + dad & make a custom frame for it
  5.  Make homemade soap-on-a-rope rope

Less Traditional:

  1. Tie-dye a shirt, towel, etc. for dad
  2.  Make homemade ice cream for dad be sure to add lots of topping options to suit dad's preferences
  3.  Candy shirt: find an old shirt especially suited to the occasion; gather wrapped candy of varieties especially enjoyed by dad; hot glue these (on low temp. setting) to the shirt; give dad a running start before the kids give chase to grab the candies off the shirt Note: I take no responsibility for the results if you choose this activity! 
  4. Have the kids create a treasure hunt complete with clues etc. for dad; have a gift at the end, smaller gifts along the way, or you can have the end destination as the gift (restaurant, mini-putt, favourite fishing hole, etc.) Click here for tips on how to create a scavenger hunt
  5. Take our the old family photos & movies and put together a video specifically for dad; you can use Windows Movie Maker or try here for more Widows-based free software: Mac users can do a quick internet search for Mac software

Monday, 4 June 2012

Ask Your Teacher To Take You Outside

measuring claws
I have a t-shirt I wear often at this time of year. The front of it reads "Ask your teacher to take you outside today".

My oldest son attends a Sr. Public school, which means that there are only grade 7 and 8 classes there. In his first year, there was a grand total of one day of outdoor education. It was part of a science unit about food chains. On that day, the kids were piled into school buses and driven to a dedicated outdoor centre about 20 minutes away. It was a beautiful location, but the species we saw (I volunteered as a parent) could all be found within a 10-15 minute walk from the school. In grade 8, the was no trip; there was absolutely no outdoor education at all.

Now, this school has also won some environmental awards, mainly based on the efforts of a group of students to maximize recycling and composting during nutrition breaks. Some students have also worked to try and get some trees planted on the barren property, and others have suggested plans to build an outdoor classroom in the future. Would this classroom be used, were it to be built? Would demand slacken once the weather turned cold? What about kids who don't have adequate winter clothing, how could they take advantage of such an opportunity? Who would maintain it? How could it be used best?

Kids who play and learn outside tend to be calmer, more physically fit, and are less likely to be deficient in vitamin D.

When the teachers do not see the connections between nature and the subjects they teach, then they are unable to help the students make these connections. When the students rarely experience nature, they are not likely to make these connections on their own either.

In a world threatened by climate change, alarming rates of species loss, vast deforestation, explosive human population, ocean acidification, food security issues, and lack of clean water (more people have access to a cell phone than to a toilet), the lack of connection we have with nature is downright terrifying.

I could start quoting Richard Louv, but it would be much better if you were to read his books. The point I am making here is that our very educational system is missing one of the most crucial fields of study and our society is suffering as a result.

The sad fact is that children are better able to name brand logos than they are to name or in other ways identify plant and animal species found in their own back yard. Kids may go years without ever seeing any wild nature at all, let alone learn how to relate to it, understand it and learn from it. This reflects our obsession with things instead of life and place. Is this really the value system we want to pass on to our children?

I am fortunate to live in an urban area with easy access to natural areas. Yet the kids of neighbouring families still do not use these places, for reasons I can only guess at--safety, over-scheduling, or maybe because they fail to see the value in these places.

When we pare down our needs to the basics: food, clean water, clean air, shelter, and some might argue, companionship, it becomes clear that we are a part of the natural world. The rest is just static that we've created along the way. We are a busy, restless species, and this static can help us sometimes, but it is not a need, and it often gets in the way of our understanding of our place within the larger natural system.

Camping is a wonderful way to connect with nature. The less you bring along from home, the stronger your connection can be. Part of the trick is to relax and listen. Nature is not quiet, at least not in terms of actual sound; in fact it can be quite loud at times! But it has a rhythm and calmness to it that bring to it a different sort of qualitative "quietness" to it. Nature doesn't have "should's" or "ought to's" about it; it just is. For the keen observer, such as a child at play, there is much to be learned.

Do you remember that kid who never wore a coat when it was cold out, who spent more time outside than in, played outside even in the rain, and was daring enough to even sample the mud pies (you know, way back when kids actually used to make mud pies)? Do you remember how the adults used to say that he'd catch his death of cold etc., yet he never got sick? There are reasons for this that we are only now beginning to understand.

Last autumn my family and I went on a canoe trip down the Obabika River in Temagami (Ontario). This trip was a couple of days longer than our usual trip, there was rain through part of it, and a creek with what we called "quickmud" rather than water. We became wet, and slogged harder and further than on previous trips. When we returned home, we found the house unbearably warm, despite the fact that the thermostat read 18 C. During the trip our bodies had acclimatized to the weather without our noticing. This is something we don't often allow to happen, at least not in the western world, and yet it could be so very useful. I have to wonder, what other natural qualities have we lost along the way?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Giftedness and Achievement: Attitudes, Misconceptions and Recommendations

What Does "Gifted" Actually Mean?

Part of the issue with identifying gifted students is that the criteria vary widely from place to place. Add to this the idea that permeates our society that gifted programs are somehow educationally superior to "regular" education, and a sense of elitism develops. In my opinion, groups such as Mensa do not help with this problem. Because of this, such programs are in high demand from parents who understandably want the best for their children. Different states and provinces face the need to look to a standardized test score criteria at which they can point to justify their programming decisions. Since different jurisdictions have varying levels of funding, student populations, resources, etc., the numbers are based on the perceived number of students they are able to serve. For example, many US states have a cutoff of a WISC IV score (one of the more common IQ tests) of 120; British Columbia has a cutoff in the low 130's. Other areas have different criteria again. Moving from one place to another doesn't change a learner's needs, but it may alter the services that are available.  When the learner is generally in the 120's range, the programs available in the US may well meet their needs. Placing a student with scores in the 160's in that same group will mean that either the teacher must be talented when it comes to providing differentiated instruction, or the needs of one or both extremes will not be well met.

Further complicating matters is the issue of potential cultural and linguistic bias in current measurement tools. While the tools are generally deemed statistically reliable, they are norm referenced on an "average" population which may differ substantially from the background of a student who comes from a different area and/or has a different first language or culture.

Another issue that often goes unaddressed is that of achievement vs. potential. For various reasons, many gifted students do not perform to their potential. When teachers are not trained to look for signs of giftedness, these students may be overlooked.

Gifted students may well be the stereotypical ones with their hand up to answer questions, their work completed perfectly and handed in on time, and who achieve straight A's on their report cards. It is just as likely though that the students who accomplish these things are high-achieving bright students who are not, in fact, gifted. The kid who spends hours on the bench by the principal's office, or the one who hides in the back of the classroom may be gifted. The little girl who comes to the breakfast program wearing hand-me-down pants with holes in the knees may be gifted too. So might the child who speaks no English and recently arrived to the school without any transcripts or files.

Overachieving is commendable, provided the child is happy and well-rounded, but it is not the same thing as being gifted. Overachievers who are grouped with gifted learners may suffer because their needs are much different.

I am going to say this once: not all children are gifted. All children have their own unique strengths and talents, and all children are valuable, but this is not the same thing as being gifted.

Being gifted is not a value statement. A person's worth is not measured purely by academic potential. Individual learners have the right to progress at their own pace, to learn in their own unique way, and to be challenged at a level that matches their own needs.

Gifted students face challenges that are not often understood by others.

Since learning often (but not always) comes easier for these students, it is not unusual to find students who have reached the post-secondary level who have never had to study for a midterm, have minimal note taking skills and suffer from an inability to properly organize and manage their time. Up until then, simply listening in class and occasionally flipping through the textbook may have been enough. Writing an assignment the night before it was due may have worked for them while in high school.
Since these skills were not essential, they were not learned and need to be learned if the student is to progress in higher education.

Now I'm going to backtrack a little. There are gifted students whose abilities are not necessarily in the academic realm. They may be gifted in the arts, leadership or sports. These students also have unique needs which must be addressed.

Because gifted students are more likely to understand complex social issues at a young age, they may have worries and nightmares that are difficult to manage. How do you explain away the famine in East Africa to a four year old in the wee hours of the night? You can try and shield him or her from the news, but it just takes a simple trip to the grocery store or library and the child has read the headlines (or full articles) and demands to know more. Gifted children tend to be keen observers; one way or another they are going to learn about these things, and probably at an earlier age than we would like.

It is important to understand that gifted 6 (8, 11, etc.) year-olds are still 6 year-olds. They may understand complex issues, but they are physically and emotionally still 6 years old. When an adult reads about these things and feels powerless, it is one thing, but when a young child reads it, that sense of powerlessness is magnified. These children may not understand why their friends do not share their concerns. This puts a strain on social relationships from an early age. People react differently to children who are exceptional, and gifted children feel this too. Responses may range from defensiveness to amazement and everything in between. No one likes to be a circus act or be told "Well, if you're so smart...", but the sad reality is that this is often a part of the package for gifted children.

Gifted children usually understand that they are different from most others from an early age. Depending on their personalities and experiences, they may react in different ways. They may retreat and pretend to be "normal", they may develop a fear of success (if I succeed, I or others will expect much more from me), a fear of failure (if I fail, then I wasn't really so smart after all), perfectionism, and / or depression. Less often, they may gloat and gain a superiority complex over their peers. Some try and hide their abilities, and some rebel. Psychological testing can help identify students who have built up their defenses and allow them to gain access to professionals and programs that can help them learn necessary coping skills in order to lead a fulfilling life. It can also help identify (or dispel incorrect diagnoses of) other issues, such as learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, etc.

It is a myth that all gifted students move on to higher education and fantastic careers. The attitude that "the cream will rise to the top" doesn't work for many; sometimes the cream sours, and sometimes the homogenized nature of society and especially our education system grinds them down, and many fail to live to their potential. I want to clarify here that by "potential" I mean the potential for a happy, fulfilling life, not the number of letters after the name or the dollar figure in their bank accounts. In fact, many gifted students fail to complete high school, and many suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or other related illnesses.

A well-designed gifted education isn't just something extra fun and exciting, with lots of academic prestige and opportunities for a special elite population. It can be a lifeline for some students.

Ideally, gifted programming should include coping mechanisms for dealing with these issues with peers and adults. It should teach students to understand how their brain functions and how they are both "the same" and "different" from others, why this is, and how this works for people with a variety of exceptionalities. Along with basic study skills and time management, it should include academic enhancement, enrichment and acceleration according to the individual needs of each learner. It should provide opportunities to work in the larger community both within the school and outside on various academic and community service projects. It should allow space and support for student-led inquiry. Like all education, it should help to develop the whole person, academically, socially, spiritually and emotionally.

The needs of the gifted are unique and in order to serve such students, we need teachers and administrators who understand these needs and have the necessary skills and training to serve this population.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

An Open Letter to John Milloy

Dear Mr. Milloy:

When I recently read about the proposed budget cuts to education, particularly the choices as to which programs will see funding cuts and which will not, I was deeply disturbed with the direction the Ontario Liberal Government has taken.

When I voted Liberal in the last election, I did so with the strong belief that your government would see fit to support the needs of our youth. By cutting the funding to northern communities and putting a low cap on the maximum credits a high school student may take, this budget will fail our youth.

Canada has an unfortunate reputation internationally as a nation that fails to support its aboriginal people. Cuts to northern education in Ontario will hit those groups who most need support. This will not fly under the radar of people who care, people who would normally vote Liberal.

The EQAO cuts do make sense to me. In fact, the tests are one way the educational system has sunk to its current low standards. The standardized curriculum is weak and our students enter high school with little to show for their previous years. Math and science are particularly weak areas when compared with other countries.

In order to gain all of the required and recommended courses for several post-secondary programs, a student will need at least as many credits, often more, than your budget accounts for. Many students will still take extra courses, but will need to pay for them out of hand. This sets up a two-tiered system of education in which students from less affluent families are penalized. But perhaps that doesn't matter, since proposed funding cuts also affect post secondary education.

How many students know their career path at 13 or 14 years of age? Yet by capping credits in this manner, students are given no room for flexibility in their choices. Choose one wrong course, and it could cost you your post-secondary education or a chance at an apprenticeship.

It is true that there is waste in our high schools and that this is one place where cuts can be made. Many students take the same course two or even three times over in order to upgrade their marks, even when a credit was granted. Should taxpayers foot this bill? I would say no.

What also bothers me is that funding for all-day kindergarten has not been touched. By making our schools into daycare services early on, we set the stage for low standards at an early age. Young children need free play and unstructured outdoor play in order to grow and thrive to their utmost potential. One only needs to consult any journal on developmental psychology to see the literature supports such choices. Schools are not created with these needs in mind. Clearly, once again it is not the needs of the students that are guiding the decisions. But then, since most students cannot vote, perhaps this is not of interest.

It is, however, in society's best interests to prepare students for the future in the best way possible. The economy cannot take increased youth unemployment, higher drop-out rates and possibly an increase in youth mental health issues and suicide rates. When students look at their prospects, particularly those who will be hardest hit by these cuts, they will no doubt lose some hope. The short and long-term costs of that cannot be underestimated.

I urge you to reconsider your budget allocations in education and to act in the best interests of Ontario's youth.

Laura Lamond