It is clear to me - after 51 years of remedial teaching ages 4 - 18 in six countries, that education in Ontario is failing miserably. I have watched us "progress" from the "Hands-On-Teaching-for-meaning" approaches of the late 60s, 70s, and 80s, to the sheer silliness of "Learning-by-watching" as more and more technology is introduced. We had spent decades realizing just how important manipulation and real-life experience is for concept-acquisition, when suddenly, all of that was thrown out with the bathwater as technology companies courted ways to improve their bottom lines.
Introducing calculators in elementary schools was the first huge mistake. (Math was never a favourite teachable of many of my primary grade colleagues; so they undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when they could simply pass the child a machine.) I had to suppress a chuckle when, about ten years ago, I witnessed the Cuisenaire Rods we had introduced at Grade 1 level in the 70s, being re-introduced into the system at Grade 9 level to teach basic computation. What technology buffs had failed to realize was that the child who cannot add and multiply, also cannot subtract and divide, and therefore cannot work with fractions, decimals, percentages, square numbers, prime numbers, ratios, etc., etc., etc. Calculators cannot recognize patterns (like "What is the common factor of "18, 36, and 72?" or "Is 1.5, 2.0, 2.5 a 3/4/5/ ratio?") At the turn of this 21st century I sat in a European International School and watched five Japanese Grade 8 students - laughing and chatting - come up with three ways to solve a trigonometry problem while the Western kids fumbled for their calculators. Then there was the International School in China where a Korean Grade 2 boy - who had the devil of a time learning English - taught me a subtraction method far more efficient than the one I've been using - and teaching - for decades. And that was followed by working in a bi-lingual international school in Beijing where no Asian parent allows their child to be taught Math by a "foreigner".
The second, and continuing, error here in North America, is the increasing move toward justifying our students' inability to compete on the world stage by suggesting that all those kids from other countries - where technology is generally kept away from developing young brains - just aren't measuring the "right" things.
So, what is "right"?
Consider what is happening in my own back yard regarding LITERACY. (I will simply ASSUME we all agree that literacy is still an essential.) Three recent “tutees” (aged 10,14, and 17) informed me only this past spring that I need not stress about enhancing their reading skills since the all tests have always been read TO them. DID I HEAR RIGHT? DID I MISUNDERSTAND SOMEHOW? I gave my head a serious shake and asked “You mean for Math problems?” The answer came back loud and clear “No, for EVERYTHING.” By checking with their parents – and with a local on-line chat group – I discovered this was actually TRUE! Reading tests were being read TO the children who were having their reading skills assessed!?! This included Provincial Standardized tests. I’ll bypass the “why” and source of THIS particular idiocy to address the impact on the students.
The feedback I consistently get from parents is about “increased confidence”. Their off-spring, typically labelled as “Learning Disabled” with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), make excellent progress within 4-6 hours ofspecialized tuition. Not one of the dozen or so students whose parents have brought them for help, have felt happy about school or about themselves. They are insecure enough to appreciate having a "Reader/Scribe" for test sessions, but generally feel "stupid" about not being able to work independently. There is nothing quite as rewarding as seeing the lights go on as these young minds begin to realize that, with a change of methodology, they really CAN read, do math, write essays!
So NOW let’s talk about Mental Health and self-esteem and all that “right stuff”. An education system that finds a way to protect its data (and its funds?) AT THE EXPENSE of children, CREATES mental health issues! For decades now I have watched “LD” kids, who, by definition, are “normally bright”, be treated as less than capable. “Differentiated instruction” has come to mean a change of instructor – from trained teacher to poorly-paid Educational Assistant.
Look around. For the past few decades there have been no significant efforts toward better, more appropriate methodology for children who learn differently. All the emphasis has centered on providing fancy machinery to deliver that out-dated lecture method and rote drill we had tried to leave behind half a century ago…