Author Archives: Jacob Cowan

Terms, Information, Pictures

Rollins (2014) suggests using a TIP: “a continually growing anchor wall chart that includes vocabulary terms, information on those terms, and pictures of the terms.” This is a fairly common practise, especially in elementary classrooms. Reading this, however, gave me the idea of creating this as a digital space which students can co-create and edit. The results could be projected or otherwise displayed, but also accessible through a classroom website. The space would be accessible throughout the unit and even after, so that it would have a chance to be a living reflection of student learning, and students could use the product to help prepare for summative evaluation.

Learners in the Fast Lane

In the book Learners in the Fast Lane: 8 Ways to Put All Students on the Road to Academic Success, (2014) Rollins’ suggests that students who have fallen behind should be accelerated rather than remediated. This means that students should be provided with timely instruction in skills that that will be immediately useful in upcoming units and lessons. This gives students a chance to practise these skills in a meaningful context, and also provides the schema necessary to engage meaningfully with new material.

The question that comes to my mind when I read this – and I hope this will be answered as I get into the book – is when is this instruction to take place? If it takes place before the unit starts, then does it take place during the previous unit? If so, would it be confusing for struggling learners who may need the extra time and attention to complete the unit that their class is currently working on?

This is a very intriguing concept, but the details of implementation would need to be worked out very carefully, and would require a great deal of collaboration between the classroom and resource teachers, and likely between same-grade classroom teachers as well.

What is the purpose of Education?

The BC School Act has two quotes that set out the goals and purposes of Education in British Columbia:

“it is the goal of a democratic society to ensure that all its members receive an education that enables them to become literate, personally fulfilled and publicly useful, thereby increasing the strength and contributions to the health and stability of that society” – BC School Act (emphasis added)

“the purpose of the British Columbia school system is to enable all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy” – BC School Act (emphasis added)

There are three parts to these statements:

  • literacy, which I would assume would be broadly defined to include numeracy – after Math 11 is a graduation requirement.
  • individual fulfillment
  • public utility – the individual has the skills, knowledge and attitudes required to be a contributing member of society.

There are two clients of the system, then: the individual and the society, and needs of both seem to be weighed equally. 

How Long is School?

We make a big deal about education. It’s important, after all. Other than work ethic, what could make a bigger difference for an individual’s future? But look at these charts – K-12 education takes up a pretty small part of your life. Even on a school day, it’s less than a quarter of the day. Sleep stays at a third assuming eight hours of sleep, and ‘Everything Else’ consistently is the biggest category. We really should make sure we use those hours wisely,

Restorative Breaks

A break from work serves one of two purposes: to invigorate or relax. Students should be engaged in a discussion of which break activities have which effect, and which kind of break students need. Self-awareness precedes self-regulation.

Closing the Gap

I attended a professional development event last night where I was told that it is our moral imperative to close the gap between high and low achieving students. How do we do this?

Let’s say there are two students: Bob and Doug. Both students are in Grade 6. Bob reads at a Grade 8 level, and Doug reads at a Grade 3 level. They are both in the same class, and their teacher does a great job and both student improve their reading level. Now this improvement could either be expressed through multiplication or addition. Let’s say that they both improve by a multiple – 1.5. If that were the case, then the gap between the students also increases by 1.5. Bob would now read at a Grade 12 level and Doug at a Grade 4.5 level. If both student improve by the same percentage the gap increases by the same percentage as well, creating a greater disparity while improving outcomes for both students. If the improvement was expressed as addition, then both students improve by the same amount and the gap does not change.

I would argue that the regular classroom may be not the place for the gap to be closed, but it is the place for all students. I remember when my sister’s teacher told my mother that my sister was “by far the best reader in her class, but she was confident that the other students would catch up by the end of the year.” My mother was appalled. The teacher had basically said that my sister would not be receiving any instruction that year. Is it fair to hold back or ignore high functioning students to allow the others to catch up? Maybe they should just stay home and watch TV until the others have caught up.

The answer is not, in my opinion, in the regular classroom or in pull-out classes. The answer is in extra instruction outside of the bookends of the school day. We should be looking at using after school classes, weekend classes, summer classes, anything to reach these people without ignoring those who do not need the extra help. Students in Canada attend school about 185 days a year for 5 to 5.3 hours a day. This leaves 10 hours outside of school and sleep, and 180 full days, to find extra time for extra help. We obviously don’t need to use all of it, but even a small percentage would make an enormous difference.

Self Regulation

I have just started reading Calm, Alert, and Learning, Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation by Stuart Shankar (2013). By part way through the first chapter, on the biological domain, I started wondering about how we teach self-regulation. Like many of the most important things taught and learned in schools, self-regulation is not really part of the curriculum. Self-regulation is seldom explicitly taught, except to remediate deficiencies or to respond to observed infractions such as fist fights or habitually incomplete work.

Would explicit instruction in self-regulation help children who struggle to self-regulate? How would such instruction affect students in the middle?

This speculation brings me to a point I have often pondered. Should the implicit curriculum be made explicit? If self-regulation and related skills such as emotional intelligence are more important than IQ in future success, then why are they not part of the curriculum? Arguments could be made that they are, but I can only do so by creatively interpreting a few learning outcomes scattered seemingly randomly in various course outlines. I have heard teachers claim that these types of skills are infused throughout the curriculum, and there is some truth to this claim. However, some parents, students, and even educators argue that the education system should focus on the explicit curriculum. For example, the call to assess learning instead of work completion is justified by the fact that the learning outcomes do not mention completing work. Where is completing work mentioned? Nowhere, really. It’s part of the implied curriculum, just like self-regulation. This does not, to my mind, depreciate the value of work completion or self-regulation. On the contrary, they are so essential that they were considered a given. No one thought to write them down, because they were considered too obvious to bother with.

I would argue that the time has come to make the implicit explicit. We need to talk about the assumptions that underpin the education system, decide which ones are worth keeping, and then make them part of the explicit curriculum.


The End of Letter Grades

In this story, the National Post reports that Calgary has eliminated letter grades up till Grade 9. Similar movements are afoot in other jurisdictions. What is driving this change? Formative assessment certainly, but are there other factors?

In this time of tax and spending cuts it is hard not to be cynical. I hope that this policy shift is not being driven by a desire to push students through the middle school and junior high school years until they can be streamed into non-academic courses at the senior levels.

Currently, in British Columbia Math is not streamed until Grade 10. In Grade 9 all students take Math 9. In Grade 10 they have a choice between Foundations of Mathematics and Precalculus 10, which is academic, and Apprenticeship and Workplace Math 10, which is more focused on employment skills and trades math. In my experience, Math 9 is harder than Apprenticeship and Workplace Math 10. Many students fail Math 8 and 9, but can not be streamed into easier Math until Grade 10. A similar problem may exist in English Language Arts, which only has the easier Communications courses at the Grade 11 and 12 level.

Eliminating letter grades should allow teachers and students to focus on learning instead of simply jumping through the hoops of letter grade achievement. There must remain some sort of accountability for actually learning the material. I propose that streaming students at an earlier age into programs designed to fill trades may be a better solution for students who struggle academically for whatever reason.

Integrating art

Hardiman (2012) suggests that integrating art into instruction aids student learning in four ways:
– art is in itself a worthwhile pursuit
– artistic experiences enhance student academic and cognitive skills
– art helps students cultivate “habits of mind” such as persistence which aid in academic performance
– integrating art instruction aids in the long term memory of content.
How can this be implemented in an alternate setting, where students are working at their own pace in different courses at different grade levels. In my limited experience, getting alternate education students to participate in any performance arts can be challenging. The answer, I think, lies in creating opportunities for student choice.
If students were given the choice some would, at least initially, continue with the text-based courses, with worksheets and tests. Some may choose to express their learning in other ways, especially if the medium was left up to them. Rubrics would have to be created that are not medium specific.

Marijuana and Learning

A recent study shows that habitual marijuana use reduces the amount of dopamine in the brain. This is linked to a general lack of caring, as the habitual users are experiencing a dampened-down version of reality. Low dopamine levels have been linked to depression, ADHD, anxiety, etc.

There is a perception out there that marijuana is “natural” – barely a drug. Studies like this show that habitual use of marijuana does have profound negative consequences, including to a students ability and motivation to learn.

I am a firm believer in the legalization of marijuana – I believe that organized crime is the only beneficiary of prohibition. However, legal or not, individuals should not choose to allow marijuana to become a lifestyle, as the effects of its habitual use are insidious and far-reaching.