Category Archives: education

Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #7: …And Plenty of Sleep

In Macbeth, the guilt-ridden titular character of Shakespeare’s tragedy begins to hear auditory hallucinations telling him that he has lost the ability to sleep, and will, for the rest of the play, effectively have become an insomniac. Realising what he’s lost, Macbeth lamentingly lists sleep’s virtues:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Macbeth (2.2.46-51)

He couldn’t have been more right. More and more studies are pointing to the desperate need our society has for more and better sleep, as well as to the drastic and rather frightening consequences of not getting it.

How much sleep should kids be getting? The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following:

That’s right; teenagers need more sleep than adults. Not less. But how many of you with teenaged children find that it’s you who are getting more sleep? Oh, sure, teenagers might sleep late on the weekends. But that’s part of the vicious cycle of adolescent sleep deprivation, which according to all kinds of sources, is approaching epidemic levels: here’s a graphic showing how it works.

Taking this one item at a time, it begins with later bedtimes for teenagers. This has many causes, including an apparent circadian “reset” that happens during adolescence. As is usual with such findings, however, it should be taken with a grain of salt, lest we fall prey to the “chicken and egg” fallacy: are the changes in the brains of teenagers the cause, or the result, of their changes in habits? Knowing what we know about neuroplasticity, it’s a question worth asking. More on that later.

Another reason teenagers are staying up later is the reason most of us these days are doing it: there is an unnerving loss of the conditions under which humans have traditionally slept: that is, night. We are losing true nighttime, as I realised in 2003, when I was in New York City during the great Blackout of August in that year. I spent a couple of days sleeping on the floor of the airport, and I was privileged to see what hardly anyone in my lifetime has seen: the Milky Way in the skies above Manhattan. Light pollution has turned nighttime, for the majority of us on the planet who now live in cities, into a kind of a dull glow, or a “luminous fog”, as Ian Cheney puts it in his documentary on the Loss of Night, titled The City Dark.

The body, simply put, needs darkness. The ebb and flow of sunlight in our normal ancestral days regulates melatonin production in the brain. Disrupting this process with light – particularly blue light – has a number of surprising adverse health effects, including cancer, depression, obesity, and heart disease. Yes, cancer – and it seems like light pollution might exacerbate air pollution, too, by killing air-cleansing agents that live only in the darkness! The American Medical Association (AMA) has recognised the important role light pollution plays in detrimental health effects on the population: the AMA, in their Action of the AMA House of Delegates 2012 Annual Meeting, “Recognizes that exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders, especially in children and adolescents.” (My emphasis)
The presence of TV, computer, and now cell phone screens in bedrooms is a major deterrent to normal sleep patterns, as well. And, of course, there are social reasons for teens’ staying up later: they’re building and testing their autonomy away from parental influence.

Unfortunately, although teenagers might try to compensate by sleeping late on weekends, the body’s need for sleep functions something like a bank account: you can run a debt, and it’s cumulative. That means that if you accumulate ten hours’ worth of “sleep debt” one week, just returning to normal sleep levels the next week isn’t going to cut it: You need to regain those ten lost hours on top of it. And the body is an unforgiving creditor, as we shall see.

What are, then, the consequences of sleeplessness? It’s a lot worse than just grumpiness in the mornings, which most parents of teens have experience with. In fact, it’s really, really bad. And the worst part is, we’re not taking it seriously. So it appears that it’ll get worse before it improves. Here’s a graphic that outlines just some of the problems:

Let’s start with the physical consequences of sleep deprivation. As an ex-soldier, I’m familiar with quite a few of them personally, and I remember my acquaintance with them with a great deal of discomfort, even 15 years later. Sleep deprivation contributes to:

• Hypertension
• Heart disease
• Diabetes
• Obesity
• Reduced immunity
• Death

Yeah, death. Both because of the reduced immunity (hamsters kept awake died within 3 days), as well as over 100 000 car accidents a year caused by inattention or microsleeps behind the wheel. (Humans can’t stay awake indefinitely; unavoidable moments of sleep called ‘microsleeps’ happen involuntarily not long into prolonged sleep deprivation conditions.) Death by car accident remains the Number One killer of our young people in Canada and the U.S., although our complete surrender to a car culture blinds us to the sheer staggering numbers: In the U.S. in 2010, seven teenagers died every single day in car accidents. Add to that, the number of kids whose health is affected by obesity, as well as the second-biggest killer of teens – suicide, which is of course linked to depression (see below) – and you’ve accounted for the majority of teen deaths in North America, period. Taken together or apart, these are a clear and present danger to our young people.

Bad as those are, the cognitive consequences are just as harmful. Sleep deprivation causes or contributes to:

• Symptoms often mistaken for ADHD, an increasingly-diagnosed disorder in teens
• Reduction in ability to concentrate and pay attention
• Memory reduction and loss, as well as reduced verbal skills (as an English teacher, I see this all the time).  This also includes a heavy reliance on simple, clichéd phrases and a crippled capacity for creativity.  Uncommunicative, incoherent teens are a cliché themselves!
• Hallucinations (I vividly remember seeing Napoleon one night after many days in the field!)
• Impaired judgement, especially moral judgement:  it turns the world into a black-and-white affair
• Depression (also increasingly diagnosed in our teens)
• Reduced ability to cope with negative emotions (the famous ‘moody teen’ syndrome)
• Increased percentages of substance abuse
Impaired ability to judge and manage risk (which contributes to all sorts of behaviour that adults have blamed teens for in the past)

In our society, where teenagers and adults are generally, chronically, sleep-deprived, it bears thinking about the consequences. From my vantage point as an educator, I can tell two things:

1. I can’t educate sleep-deprived teens. Their brains are too severely compromised for real learning to take place.

2. This is bigger than it looks. Take a good look at the list of cognitive and physical consequences. Apart from hallucinations and death, how many so-called “attributes” of adolescence, as it has been defined by our society, are actually not essential to teens at all, but to sleep deprivation? How many of the current epidemics of ADHD, poor academic performance, depression, moodiness, substance abuse, car accidents, obesity, and poor judgement that we have traditionally looked at individually, might actually be the result, or at least exacerbated by, lack of decent sleep?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, teenagers in North America and the developed world are not typical of adolescents in either the rest of the world, or in the historical record. The danger of looking at our teens, who are extreme outliers in terms of behaviour worldwide, as representing some kind of biological or developmental “norm” is a big one. It causes us to look at behaviour which is actually by definition “unnatural”, judge it as ‘normal’, and then adjust our expectations based on a false norm. I see no reason in the historical record or in other cultures I’ve visited to believe that the intensely anti-social, attention-challenged, moody behaviour and crippled judgement capacity that most North Americans associate with the teenage years is biologically based at all. Looking at this evidence, I’m strongly leaning toward viewing all those symptoms as springing from (or at least connected to) a single cause – namely, unhealthy sleep patterns.

In a typically Western fashion, we have ascribed these behaviours to non-contextual categories, and decided that they represent the ‘nature’ of adolescence, rather than seeing them in a broader social, historical, and holistic matrix of contingencies. In a brilliant paper published in 2010, UBC professors Joseph Heinrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan challenge the practice of making universal generalizations about psychological norms based on studies that are done almost exclusively on American undergraduate students. Heinrich et al. point out that of all the human populations in the world, these WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Developed) people are among the least likely to represent global norms. In fact, in areas as wide-ranging as spatial awareness, visual perception, moral reasoning, inferential reasoning, WEIRD people are “frequent outliers”, “particularly unusual compared to the rest of the species”. They go on to say in the abstract that “members of WEIRD societies, including young children, [my emphasis] are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.” The full paper, available as a PDF here, is well worth reading.

We’re witnessing a number of crises in the mental and physical health of our children, but are we being blinded to a simple solution to nearly all of them simultaneously, because we’ve become so used to the symptoms of the epidemics of obesity, depression, suicide, and car accidents that we’ve started thinking they’re normal?


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Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #6: Fresh Air and Exercise

There’s an amusing anecdote in The English Gentleman, a humourous exposé of English upper-class life by Douglas Sutherland. In it, the author instructs us on the various ways one might master gentlemanly behaviour, from the dining hall to the hunting field:

He must also realise that once he is in the saddle he must be as rude as possible to anyone who crosses his path. One quasi-gentleman, when he was asked by the Master what the devil he thought he was doing out hunting, was naïve enough to reply that he only came out for the fresh air and exercise. ‘In that case you had better go home and bugger yourself with a pair of bellows,’ thundered the Master, riding off in pursuit of another victim for his scorn (91).

I mention this for two reasons: one is that in 1978, when the book was published, it was a natural response to the question of what one is doing outside: fresh air and exercise. The fact that the ‘quasi-gentleman’ answered without thinking allowed the ‘Master’ to take advantage of the idiom, which I (growing up in the 1970s) heard all the time from my mother as she closed the screen door behind me and sent me out into the world. I was not to come back until lunch time, after which I would be out again until dark. This seems, sadly, no longer to be the case for our young people .

The second is that we have, if you will pardon the expression, well and truly buggered ourselves on this front. Somehow, my generation, ignoring our own childhood experiences of endless summer days, independent adventure, creativity, and blissful activity outdoors for its own sake, have transformed the notion of ‘outside’ from “the natural and salubrious habitat of a child” to “the weird and unnatural habitat of paedophiles and/or early death”. In a single generation, it seems that the natural “roaming range” of a child at play has declined to one-ninth its former area! Have a look at this unsettling picture, from Britain’s Daily Mail:

This trend seems to be accelerating: the percentage of Canadian kids who play outside after school has dropped 14% over the last decade alone, and 46% of Canadian kids now get 3 hours or less of active play per week, including weekends.

The consequences of this sudden trend to raise children in captivity to children’s mental  and physical health have been enormous and well documented. For complex social reasons, children are now subject to restrictions on their movements and activities that outnumber those of incarcerated felons. In one of the worst examples of Newspeak that I have witnessed, we justify our shameful treatment of young people by claiming that it is in their best interest.

Many go so far as to blame children for being lazy: the typical response of colonisers to the colonised. Create conditions that are so unhealthy and oppressive that, in order to survive, the victims adapt and change their behaviour. Then blame them for that behaviour and use it to justify further control and oppression.

Kids are not naturally lazy. In a recent global study, playing outside with friends was the single most popular choice of activity for children around the world. They don’t want to just sit quietly, allaying their parents’ worries: depression rates in children are skyrocketing. They’re fatter, sicker, stiller and sadder than any kid in history. In Canada, 92% of kids say they would rather play outside than watch TV. So why, why, why are they spending on average almost 8 hours a day in front of screens – as much time as you or I might spend at a full-time job??

The answer: Parental anxiety. Parents’ fears for children’s safety have turned them into (in the words of one child welfare spokesperson in the U.K.) “Battery chickens”. These parental fears are almost totally uncalled for. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, contrary to media-distorted perception, the world is not becoming more dangerous. Crime levels are at or below the idyllic levels of Baby-Boomer childhood days. Violent crime is especially low, as is death from disease or accident. We are the safest people ever to walk the planet, as Stephen Pinker points out in this TED talk:

In fact, we’re so safe it’s becoming dangerous. Everyone has seen for themselves that “kids are getting fatter these days”. But that seems sort of benign, next to the horrific fears of pedophile abduction that popular culture forces on the imaginations of parents everywhere. So let’s look at the consequences of sedating our children.


In short, inactivity is killing our children slowly. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that, for the first time in history, our children’s lifespan could be 2-5 years less than our own.  This is despite the fact of our increasing safety, mentioned above, and despite the fact that this appears to be entirely avoidable: fit individuals outlive unfit individuals across the board, including all causes of death. Regular physical activity is associated with as much as a 30% reduction in all causes of mortality.

Some fun facts from the ParticipACTION site (remember them? I used to have a jacket sewn all over with medals of theirs…one of my proudest moments as a kid was earning a gold one year):

• The number of obese children has tripled in the last 3 decades.

• That means that 26% of our kids are overweight or obese. That’s 1 in 4. By the time they reach adulthood, that same percentage will be fully obese.

• Sport participation rates in Canadian youth aged 15-18 declined from 77% in 1992 to 59% in 2005. Adults continue the trend: Canadian adult participation in sport declined from 45% in 1992 to 28% in 2005.

• What is killing our kids? Car accidents, mostly. But if they make it to adulthood, it’s heart disease, possibly cancer. Inactivity contributes strongly to more than 25 chronic conditions, many of which are potentially fatal: coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, breast cancer, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

• The link is strong, and causal: inactivity doesn’t just exacerbate illnesses – it causes them. Physical inactivity is estimated to cause 21-25% of breast cancers and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of ischemic heart disease.

• Physical inactivity – let’s be clear – is deadly. It is one of the five leading global risk factors for mortality and is estimated to cause 2 million deaths per year. Now a paper in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet is calling for exercise to be listed as a vital sign, alongside pulse and respiratory rate.

• For the first time in history, obesity is responsible for more deaths than being underweight, worldwide.

• This is, by all normal definitions, an epidemic. And a big one. In lower-income countries, it is comparable to two of the biggest, scariest health scourges on Earth: HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. And yet, we’re apparently doing nothing about it. This is despite the fact that, repeatedly, Health Care is reported to be the #1 topic of concern to Canadians.

Even if you define ‘concern’ as merely referring to the cost associated with it, we’re being obtuse. The estimated costs of obesity and physical inactivity are as high as $7.1 billion a year, as of 2008. Add in the costs associated with reduced productivity, and you’ve got what should be a massive financial incentive to get our kids outside.


Children are experiencing depression and anxiety at earlier ages than ever before. Now, Statistics Canada has found that 6.5% of youth and young adults between 15 and 24 had major depression last year. That’s more than 250, 000 kids. I recently attended a mental health seminar at the school I work at in Ontario. We were told that, out of a population of 1500, four students know a peer who has committed suicide in the last year. In terms of the whole city, in a population of around 22 500 high school students, 48.7% of male students and 47.9% of females had experienced depression during their high school careers; 45% of the males had never admitted it to anyone, suggesting that the alarming rates of teen depression in the news are actually underreported.

I can’t help but feel that the answer to these problems is the same one my mum had, all those years: Fresh air and exercise. And there’s a growing body of research to back her up. Let’s break it down:


Defined as ‘being outside in nature’. Parental fear of strangers and traffic have contributed to the decline of unstructured, unsupervised, outdoor play. 71 % of today’s mothers said they recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 % of them allow their kids to play outdoors daily. Most Canadians (75%) got their primary opportunities to experience the outdoors through school programmes, many of which are now being cut. Even recess has become a thing of the past in many schools in North America.

So few kids get out into nature these days that Richard Louv has coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the array of symptoms that could be allayed or eliminated with more contact with the natural world. These include:

• ADHD: even marginal exposure to nature alleviates many symptoms

• Vitamin D deficiency

• Myopia:  do more kids wear glasses these days, or is it me?

• Asthma

• Stress, anxiety, and depression

Check out this infographic, from the David Suzuki Foundation:

These are over and above the benefits of just plain ol’ exercise, and the reduction of obesity-related morbidity, mentioned above. In fact, exercise in a natural setting seems to have more benefits than exercise alone – even the sight of green spaces through a hospital window has been linked to faster recovery times from surgery!  The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science posits a direct relationship between biodiversity and human mental health.  Even five minutes of exposure to nature has significant positive mental/emotional impact.


The benefits are huge, and the drawbacks are nonexistent. Why do we not just do this? Remember, kids want exercise. All we have to do is get out of their way. Seriously: that might be it. We might be able to cure one of the biggest epidemic health threats to our children just by calming the hell down and stepping back. According to Dr W.H. Dietz,

Opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity. Reducing the amount of time that children are allowed to watch television is one strategy that offers children opportunities for activity, and it is likely to alter requests for advertised foods as well.

The physical advantages of exercise should be obvious; what might not be so blatant are the psychological, neurological, and cognitive benefits it confers. I previously reported on an open letter by hundreds of mental health professionals across the world, calling on the return of unstructured, unsupervised play as a potential cure for many of the psychological woes suffered by our children these days.

But there’s more: lots more.

One of the ways that parents interfere with children’s fresh air and exercise is an inappropriate, status-driven obsession with academic performance.  As is so often the case with these things, the obsessive behaviour actually brings about the very outcome they are trying to avoid. Regular exercise in fact increases attention, focus, memory, critical thinking, and overall cognitive ability.

Further to the treatment of ADD and ADHD by exposure to nature, discussed above, exercise has also been shown to have a positive effect .

It has been shown to increase brain function and (what is critical) plasticity, allowing for amazing advantages ranging from recovery from brain injury to increased ability to learn to a reduced risk of dementia.

Aerobic exercise has even been linked to neurogenesis: that is, it triggers the growth of new brain cells, something that people used to think was impossible. This was shown to have an effect even in the brains of depressed people, where it is normally reduced. The reduction of cortisol, a stress hormone, may be implicated in this.

It has also been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, which has an overall, generalised beneficial effect on executive cognitive function. Study subjects showed marked improvement in areas such as “tasks that require planning, working memory, multitasking, [and] resistance to distraction.” Mental exercises, by contrast, tend to be task-specific in the way they improve cognition.

Exercise prevents memory loss by reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. It also has a positive effect on sleep patterns and insomnia in adolescents, which is at the root of all kinds of health and cognitive detriments.

After a study by a Harvard medical team, even our very own Canadian national emblem, the Mounties of the RCMP, have adopted a fitness programme for their officers – not to keep them fit so they can chase criminals, but specifically for the improvement of their cognitive functions. They’ve invested in fitness programmes for their inspectors to help them solve crimes.

So with all these common-sense, obvious, well-documented benefits of fresh air and exercise, how have we allowed our own groundless anxieties to rob our children of the world of nature, and possibly of their very future? I’ll explore some of that in my next post.

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Student Protests: Part 3

Finally, I’d like to address another facet of the reaction to (against) the Québec student protests:  Childism.

It is a remarkable fact of life in modern North America that there exists in nearly every part of society a profound contempt for, and both fear and hatred of, children.  This is a provocative statement, but I believe that the remarkable nature of prejudice against children  in North America has a lot to do with the fact that so few people find it remarkable at all, in the sense that nobody remarks on it.  In fact, I think most people would reject the idea, and feel genuinely shocked at the suggestion.   But let’s look at the question objectively, if we can.  This is difficult, since (as I posted elsewhere), one of the factors that interferes cognitively with objectivity most powerfully is the mention of children.    But we’ll try.

One of the indicators that tell me that we deal with a prejudice is when someone uses the name of an identifiable group as a common pejorative.  In many of the comments in English media concerning the student protests in Québec, the term ‘childish’ comes up.  Imagine, for an instant, replacing the negative description of a protest for the rights of the disenfranchised with another group’s name.  Imagine if the protests were being compared to, say, women.  “Those protesters are just being womanly.”   Or an ethnic group.  “Don’t those protesters see how African-American they’re being?”  Or a religion.  “Why can’t they just stop being such Muslims about all this?”  We’re shocked by those hypothetical statements (which only a generation ago wouldn’t have been hypothetical at all), but we take the ‘childish’ moniker in stride.  After all, there are no children who object publicly to the term, so we can safely ignore them.

The assumption behind such name-calling is that children are selfish, Hobbes-ian creatures of pure ego, irrational and impulsive, incapable of reasoning or debate, or even of having real reasons for doing what they do.  They are mindless.  They act merely randomly out of intense self-interest, sucking resources from society and giving nothing in return.  Their value, if they have any, is entirely passive, not active.  They provide us with joy because we look at them and think they’re cute; they’re there for our aesthetic appreciation, like possessions or pets.  Such a creature ought surely to be sequestered from society, have their rights limited or annulled, and in the best Victorian manner, speak only when spoken to, for the good of the social order.

Does this sound like your child?  Of course not.  Yours is the exception.  Thanks to the cognitive biases known as the  Self-Serving Bias , the Introspection Illusion, and the Attribution Bias, among others, we are quite willing to believe that our own (or our close peers’) motivations for particular beliefs or actions are rational, while those of our neighbours are emotional or irrational.  This is true even when the action or belief is identical.  A recent study found that people’s own belief in God, for example, was explained in purely logical, rational terms, while others’ belief in the same God was attributed to irrational motivations like upbringing, tradition, etc.  In my own classroom, I do a twice-annual survey that asks students in their senior year of high school about their own motivations, as well as those of their peers.  The numbers are too small to be scientific, but they pretty much exactly follow the  trends mentioned in Michael Schermer’s article, in the link above.  My students consistently claim (on anonymous surveys) that their peers are more biased than they are — and the fact that they are told that they are taking a survey on universal cognitive biases does not seem to influence their choices, or make them think about the possibility of their own prejudices at all!

Think for a moment about driving on the highway.  Three situations present themselves:

A)  You’re driving a little below the speed limit, enjoying your day, and someone in a faster car hugs your butt for a click or two, then zips past you at higher speed.  This person is a jerk, you reason;what’s he trying to prove?  I’m already going 90; is his manhood threatened or something?  Why is everything such an emergency all the time for some people?

B)  You’re driving a little above the speed limit, since you have to get somewhere in a hurry;  and  you come up behind someone going slower – maybe even a little under the limit.  Come on, you think; let’s go!  Can’t you at least go 100?  Why does everyone have to be such sightseers?

C)  You’re driving  the speed limit, and there’s a car directly beside you, in the next lane, pacing you the whole time.   Geez,  you think, what is this creep’s problem?  What happened to personal space?  Does he have to take the speed limit so literally?

The interesting thing about these scenarios  is that in every case, the other person is assumed to be irrational, whereas you have good reasons for being a little fast or a little slow on the highway.  Those reasons are not typically attributed to other drivers; they do what they do because they are irrational — whereas you do the exact same thing for justifiable reasons.  The other interesting thing is that there is no winning situation for the other driver:  he has only three options:  he can go faster than you, slower than you, or the same speed as you.  In every one of those cases, he’s a jerk — not so easy, being someone other than you!!   🙂

We all do this.  If you’re blushing right now, recognising your own behaviour, you’re just like the rest of us.  The shocking part isn’t so much that we do this, but that we’re all so blind to it until it’s pointed out to us.  That’s how prejudices work.  Part of the self-serving bias tells us that, since we’re essentially good people, the things we do are essentially good, too.  It is extremely difficult, without psychological damage, to perceive of ourselves as people who are not fundamentally good.  This makes our prejudices hard to catch, hard to own up to, and hard to change.  Ever have the kind of habit that people have to point out to you, or else you don’t even know you’re doing it?  Chewing your nails, for example?  Much of our own behaviour, even if it runs directly contrary to our conscious wishes and values, remains invisible to us.  And so it is with attitudes.

If you were to ask someone, “If you were likely to take to the streets and protest against some government policy that directly affected you, what might be some of the reasons for doing so?”, they would likely be able to come up with several possibilities without much effort, all very noble and reasonable.  But when presented with masses of students protesting something that they have not taken the time to understand, they are willing to assume that it is being done for irrational, selfish reasons, or even for reasons that are ‘essential’ to the group in question.  “That’s just what they do,” they’ll tell you, referring to protesting students.  “It’s in their nature.  They hardly even understand the issues; they just like to protest.  They’re just naturally contrary, I guess…maybe it’s hormones.  It’s childish, really.”

These same arguments were used, one need hardly remind anyone, against Abolitionists and Suffragettes, in times  past.

BONUS FUN THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #1:  Next time you are engaged in a disagreement with an adult woman, suggest to her that her inability to understand that your stance is the correct one is the result of hormones, perhaps because of her period.  Then ask her why she’s so irrationally upset all of a sudden.

Economic ‘reality’ is frequently cited as a reason not to listen to the ideas or concerns of the under-classes; and it bears thinking about how much our economic ‘realities’ are predicated on the exploitation of under-classes, if every time they insist on fair or equal treatment it is seen as such a threat to our own material comfort.  This stares us in the face every day, but we can’t seem to see ourselves in that light.  The United States grew rich on the backs of African slaves, and their descendants were (and still are) discriminated against, from Jim Crow to the modern prison system.  But the majority of people still see this as somehow part of the “natural order” or the “economic reality”, rather than the result of history and of choices made by those in power, from slaveowners to current governments.

BONUS FUN THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #2:  Ask someone if free tuition nationwide would cripple the economy, or if honouring Native land claims would (substitute any enfranchisement of any minority group, really).  If they say ‘yes’, then point out to them that we’ve just discovered that therefore, the economy not only tolerates, but actually relies on the disenfranchisement of minorities.  Watch them squirm.

The comparison of children’s rights to slavery is not hyperbole, nor a random choice on my part.  Universal human rights are either a universal concept, or else just another way to exploit people; that’s clear:  if only certain people get rights, it’s not ‘rights’, but ‘privilege’, and a profound and ugly hypocrisy, using noble language for selfish purposes.  Interestingly, on the subject of rights, the United Nations has a useful document detailing the universal rights of children everywhere:  it is telling that alone on the planet, only Somalia (which has not had an effective government since the 1980s) and the United States have refused to sign it.  Before we in Canada get too smug, though, it bears mentioning that we have been cited by the U.N. for our lack of enforcement of the document that we are signatories to, true to Canadian form, it seems.

The use of the word ‘childish’ as a pejorative really gets to the root of how we see children in Canada and much of the world.  Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her posthumous work, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, coins a term and  exposes something that most people in our society would never admit exists, let alone admit to participation in it.  A scholar of Prejudice Studies, Young-Bruehl explains that all prejudices share certain traits in common.  At their core, they represent a kind of psychological defence mechanism similar to projection, and known in some academic circles as the process of ‘othering’.  Prejudice arises against a “target group…one whose members share characteristics and conditions that those prejudiced against them seize on and distort for their own purposes” (p. 19).   In the case of children, these characteristics include dependency, incapacity, irrationality, and selfishness.  Rather than dealing with those traits in our own lives, they are projected onto children, and our attitudes towards them are modified in order to strengthen that notion of them being ‘different’ from us.  This can take many forms, from simple condescension to overprotection to outright abuse.  In fact, Young-Bruehl makes the point that childism might be at the root of many other forms of prejudice.  I am inclined to agree, seeing how often the tactic of infantilisation is used against minority opinions.  Women were kept in line in previous generations through a kind of semi-benign imposed childishness:  they were kept from true agency in their own society under the self-fulfilling prophecy that they were incapable of mature, rational participation.  The same ‘childish’ argument was used historically against Africans:  both individually and as a class.  Africa as a whole was seen as a kind of kid brother to Europe, needing colonial control to keep it out of trouble.  And individual Africans were seen as impulsive, irrational, and potentially dangerous on some sort of OEdipal level.

The comments I have read on news websites advocating for the imposition of draconian force against the ‘spoiled brat’ students appal me, but I am reminded that in popular culture, the only class of person that it is still somewhat permissible to talk about beating in order to force compliance in them  is children.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, the saying goes, and I would urge those of you who assume that this is true to substitute another class of human being in that proverb:  “Spare the rod and spoil the woman”, for example.  Or what about disabled adults, based on their supposed developmental similarity to children?  Obviously ugly.  But with children, if we’re not actively spanking our own, we tacitly mostly agree with the right of parents to strike theirs, in the privacy of their own home.   72% of Canadians believe that spanking should remain a legal option for Canadian parents. This includes 57% of parents who say they never spank their children.   More than 75% of Canadian adults report having been spanked as children.  The right to strike children is enshrined in law.  Any objective view of our attitudes and preoccupations with controlling our own children would have to conclude that it borders on the obsessive.  Robert Epstein reports that the restrictions on adolescent behaviour in the U.S. match or exceed even those of convicted felons and members of the Marine Corps!   Just saying that we’re doing it “for their own good” doesn’t excuse it, either, especially if the evidence does not support that statement.   With the confinement and disempowerment of children at an all-time high, all in the name of their own good, it’s hardly a wonder that physical and mental health is at serious risk among the youth population.  This is clear evidence to me that we are not only discriminating against our children, but that our discrimination is of a nature that does fundamental and real harm to them.  The fact that we claim we’re doing it for good reasons does not pass the sniff test, sadly, any more than did Apartheid or Jim Crow.

The people participating in these protests are not children.  They are not infants, and they are not any more irrational than you or I.  Their reasons for protesting are specific to their own situation, obviously, but that does not mean that they are wrong.   People who make this ‘argument’ (I can hardly call it that) are simply making an ad-hominem attack. They are unable to listen to the reasons why the students are doing what they are doing, or to make the effort to understand. Instead, they attack something personal and unchangeable about them: their age. They make the assumption that because they are ‘different’ , i.e., younger, they possess characteristics that make them impossible to be right, or taken seriously.  And in doing so, they reveal the truth about how we see children in general in our society.

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Student Protests in Québec: Signs of Youth Empowerment?

I’ll get back to my series of posts about our grandparents’ methods of education soon.  But  in the meantime, the student protests in Québec, and the reaction in the English Canadian media to them, have my attention.  I have rarely seen such virulent, ignorant, and prejudiced attitudes towards youth as in recent days.  The total inability of the English media to understand, or their unwillingness to understand, the situation in Québec is astonishing, and plays into several established memes of prejudice that I find unconscionable.  With your permission, I’d like to react to some of the recent events. I’ll start with the background, in case you’re reading this from outside of Canada.  In the past few months, hundreds of thousands of students in the province of Québec have taken to the streets in protest against Premier Jean Charest’s government’s proposal to hike tuition costs by 75% over five years.  Exacerbating the issue, the government (claiming that civil unrest warranted extraordinary powers for itself) passed a law on May 18th that limited fundamental rights of gathering, protest, and association for the students.  The English Canadian media has portrayed all this in such a way as to encourage those outside of the province to regard the protests as childish, selfish, violent, and unreasonable, and the government’s fascist response as entirely warranted.  I do not find that the issues have been adequately presented, and I am only saddened, not surprised, at the angry and bitter reaction from English Canada, who cite the comparatively lower costs of tuition in Québec as an argument for the students’ irrational and selfish mindset.   Let me try to explain.

Québec’s checkered history in education

Québec, for those of you who are not from here, has a long history of oppression in Canada.  After the defeat of Montcalm’s forces at the battle of the Plains of Abraham near Québec City in 1759, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the survival of French Canadian culture under British rule has been a difficult question.   British Imperialism was at its height, and historically speaking, their treatment of conquered minorities in the colonies was harsh, with powerful incentives and policies of cultural and linguistic assimilation being the norm worldwide.  Colonial education has a very complex and mostly negative effect on these minority groups. The pattern of education in Québec matches that of other postcolonial nations. In such places, education is often used as a weapon of assimilation. At the same time, it is made difficult for the members of the minority to benefit from the process. In Kenya, for example, the colonial English school system, set up to ‘civilize’ the Africans, produced only a paltry number of university graduates, well into our own times. The crisis here at home in Aboriginal education is well documented, including but not limited to the Residential Schools.

During the period of decolonization, attempts at reform to colonial education were made throughout the former British Empire.  In Québec, the period of the 1960s brought enormous social change in the form of the Quiet Revolution.   The formerly Catholic-church-regulated elite education was challenged, and a more egalitarian model was put forward.  Before the Revolution, nearly half of all Québec youth were dropping out of school by age 15.  Education levels lagged far behind the rest of privileged, English Canada.

This historical and cultural context is almost entirely ignored in the Canadian press.  Former  Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau recently pointed out the connection, but this was largely unmentioned outside of Québec itself, probably because most of English Canada does not understand or remember the significance of the Quiet Revolution.  Instead, the situation is filtered almost entirely through the cultural lens of the English majority outside of la belle province.  Students, through this lens, are seen as entitled, spoiled brats who do not understand the value of a dollar, and whose irrational protests are merely an excuse to riot and party in the streets.  After all, since the hard-won changes of the Quiet Revolution, tuition fees in the province have been historically lower than in the rest of Canada, where we have let tuition rates creep up over the years, on the idea that education is a commodity, a privilege, something to be bought, not a fundamental right such as we perceive health care to be, funded by taxes, meaning a public investment.

That attitude is not something a minority group can afford. What is the best indicator of whether a child will attend university? Whether his parents went before him. But that ball has to start rolling somewhere. High tuition fees, and the crippling debt that comes with university education, are deterrents to anyone but the privileged, and those who are not faced with an uphill battle in society to begin with. So, during the Quiet Revolution, it was decided that education would be seen as something fundamentally necessary for the advancement of Quebec society — not, as elsewhere, as a “nice to have”, but a right.   The corporatization of education is not something that I fundamentally agree with even in Ontario, where I work; resistance to that mindset is both refreshing and hope-inducing.

My real point here is that the socio-historical situation in Québec is fundamentally different than in the rest of the country.  You will not be able to understand the reasons behind the protests, or their massive popularity, if you attempt to view them from your own cultural background.  Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, the English media, and those who read it, are making little or no attempt to understand, but only to denigrate, belittle, and condemn.  This makes me sad.

In my next post, I’d like to address some of the misunderstandings that stem from using the English cultural lens to try to understand  the protests.

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Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

Final Part

Benefits of failure 

All of the factors mentioned in the first three segments of this posting series have contributed to the notion that risk is unacceptable in any form.  Failure, the constant companion of risk, is just as much of a pariah.  But they are both very necessary for healthy development.  David McClelland, of Harvard University Psychology Department, found that setting goals with a high possibility of failure – somewhere between 30 and 50% chance – actually helped highly motivated people to improve their skills.  His work in achievement and motivation earned him the APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.

 Over at Stanford, Dr Carol Dweck suggests that two different attitudes towards the concept of intelligence can have a huge effect on not only learning, but anxiety.  A ‘fixed’ mindset is one that is born of a belief that success and intelligence are innate:  statements like “You’re very bright” accentuate this belief.  Holders of this mindset are upset with the notion of failure, because it so obviously reflects on them as people, on the essential level.  The ‘growth’ mindset is different:  it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and therefore holders of this mentality fear failure much less:  they’ll just keep trying and learning as they go.  Obviously, these are the innovators and high achievers of our times; the ‘fixed’ mindset leads more often to anxiety and paralysis than any kind of growth or success.  You can see the two mindsets laid out in this graphic: 

Michael Jordan once said on the subject:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  More famous “failures” are highlighted in this short video:

On an even more fundamental level, Gandhi reminds us that “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Or, more correctly, freedom does not exist under those circumstances.  And when freedom does not exist, there is no control over one’s future, a circumstance that psychologists point out is a big factor in the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in kids today.  In 2007, a group of 270 child psychologists from around the English-speaking Western world wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph suggested that the loss of unstructured play time was behind the “explosion in children’s diagnosable mental health problems”.  This seems to be supported by some research:  overprotective and controlling behaviour by parents might be the mechanism by which the transmission of anxiety from parent to child (well documented elsewhere) is effected.

Risk aversion is rampant in the education system today.  There are dozens of anecdotal examples from the Phys. Ed. Department where I work.  Some kid, against instructions, climbs one of those apparatuses in the gym that fold out for climbing, and falls off:  instant ad-hoc regulation from the Board, banning the use of the apparatus.  Apparently the dangers inherent in not listening to safety instructions are overshadowed by those in everyday physical objects.  A celebrity dies on a ski slope after hitting her head – and immediately, all students in the Board are required to wear helmets for all  outdoor winter activities, which means that the annual ESL field trip to go ice skating is cancelled, because the recent immigrants to Canada (many of them refugees) are often too poor to afford sports equipment.  These kids survived war zones, and now aren’t allowed outside without helmets.  What is the actual rate of injury or death on ski hills in Canada?  Who cares?  A celebrity died, so it could happen to anybody, right?  The list of acceptable activities in Gym class is steadily shrinking.  Statistics (otherwise known as facts) play no apparent role in Board decisions of this type; only gut feelings of fear and probable danger hold sway.  Some simple research would tell you how many times an injury has occurred during a particular activity; then, divide that into the number of students who have participated in the activity.  This should give you some idea of the risk.  The number will rarely be zero, but if the activity has benefits (such as generating camaraderie, self-confidence, cooperation, etc.) that are significant, it’s usually worth enduring some slight risk in order to participate.  As Dan Gardner says, saying that something could happen is a meaningless statement.  It’s the probability of that event happening which ought to guide our responses.  Though I must say that the risk of litigation over rare incidents is much higher than the risk of the incidents themselves!  This is really a problem, and ought to be considered more carefully.

 It need not be said that the perceived risk of the effects of failure on students is exaggerated, by parents and administrators, as well as by students themselves.  It is often presented as the End of Dreams:  a shut door to the future, equivalent in many cases to the loss of hope.  The amazing self-absorption of many of us in the field of education astounds me daily.  Every person reading this probably knows at least one high school dropout who went on to live a perfectly happy and productive life.  The entrepreneurial world is full of them: lists 755 notable elementary- and high-school-dropouts on what it claims is the most comprehensive list ever compiled on the subject; it includes 25 billionaires, 8 U.S. Presidents (that’s about 18% of the total number of Presidents ever!), 28 knighthoods, 55 bestselling authors, 10 Nobel Prize winners, and an astronaut.  The number is of course tiny compared to all the students who did graduate, but there are plenty of non-graduates who are living good, though non-spectacular lives all over the world.  The increased expectation for children to attend university in Canada has had some serious effects on schools and on society, according to James Côté and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues

 In universities, as well as in high schools, it has led to remarkable grade inflation.  The Ontario Scholar bursary, awarded to students who graduate with an average of 80% or better, is now awarded to over 40% of all graduates, making it nearly meaningless.  Back in the 1960s, when it was conceived, only about 5% of students managed it.  At the same time, professors’ satisfaction with the knowledge base of undergraduates is steadily decreasing.  A big part of this is due to the sheer numbers of students attending university; attendance at postsecondary institutions has increased over 900% since the 1950s, making undergraduate students comprise about the same percentage of the population in 2004 as high school students did back in 1950.  (Ivory Tower Blues, p.26)  And with grade inflation comes credentialism, where a diploma or degree is seen as either an end in itself (and not the learning that earns the degree), or else a stepping stone to later employment or social success.  Neither of these takes into account that intrinsic motivation for learning, in other words, genuine, applied, and focused attention and interest in a subject, is the only real way that long-term brain mapping is accomplished (what we might call actual learning).  Goal-oriented practices such as focusing on diplomas or even on grades have been clinically shown to actually decrease success in academic pursuits (see Alfie Kohn’s article, “From Degrading to De-Grading” in High School Magazine , March 1999, among others.  Available at  The problem is that they make you focus beyond what you’re doing to the activity’s results and even beyond, to the consequences of those results.  It’s a distraction.  And our society is good at distraction.  Note that being focused on the present, that zen-like Eastern mindset, is once again absent from the Western picture.

 I have actually had a principal tell me that I was not “getting the big picture”, which to her meant the four-year career of a student through high school to a diploma.  She had no real answer to my suggestion that a “big picture” ought reasonably to include the long-term well-being of students once they leave our halls.  Teachers, whose understanding of the process of learning is generally considerable, are the only ones who seem not to be as affected by this anxiety — that said, there is an enormous amount of pressure on educators not to assign failing grades.

 The practice of “Social Promotion” is badly understood by those within and without the system of education.  It is based on studies which appeared to show a correlation between students who were held back a year and those who eventually drop out of the system.  But a basic understanding of the term ‘correlation’ would help to disentangle some of the angst:  ‘correlation’ does not imply ‘causation’.  That is, one might expect to find that students who are disengaged from the learning process or from the environment of school for reasons of predisposition, stresses at home, a lack of support, etc. are the ones who are most likely to both fail courses and eventually drop out altogether.  The one does not necessarily cause the other to happen.  And yet many students are passed by administrators (often over the objections of subject teachers) despite the fact that they have not mastered the material covered by the course, on the assumption that their self-image will be damaged.  This has snowballing effects up the various grades and into universities, where less and less often professors are reporting satisfaction with the skills and knowledge base of undergraduates.  Despite studies which have shown that the causal link between repeating a grade and dropping out is tenuous at best, it might be true that the social cost of failing a grade and being held back is real, at least to some degree.  There is a maelstrom of debate about this, of course, but even assuming it does exist, it would seem to me to be more of a problem with the whole process of segregating students by age in the first place, rather than with the question of whether or not they are going to be left behind by their peers.  And there are good indications that the practice of passing people who know that they do not deserve to pass creates problems in self-esteem, which good psychologists know has to be genuine and earned in order to be beneficial.   Or, as James   Côté explains, it’s a difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy:

“The problem with the feel-good pedagogy of self-esteem is that it leads to neglect of basic pedagogical principles of learning and progressive skill acquisition.  In contrast to rewarding everyone regardless of how well the job is done, when a student learns the rudiments and masters the elements of a skill or area of knowledge, that person also acquires a sense of self-efficacy [, ] a sense that one can accomplish things and that those things are under one’s control.  [It] is thus a form of personal agency […] fromthis experience follows a realistic sense of self-esteem, and this sense of self-esteem is reinforced with every efficacious experience.  […]  People with high self-esteem, but low self-efficacy, must rely on continual feedback from others.”   (Ivory Tower Blues, p.70) 

 Our grandparents weren’t so risk averse.  “With the proliferation of graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13”  (Rose, Janet S.; et al. “A Fresh Look at the Retention-Promotion Controversy.” Journal of School Psychology, v21 n3 p201-11 Fall 1983).  But this was in the days before the strange practice of age-apartheid in modern schools.  In the one-room schoolhouse, the older children provided behavioural models for the younger kids, as well as helping to teach them curriculum.  And if there’s one thing I have found out over more than a decade of teaching, it’s that if you want to know a subject well, you should teach it to someone else.

 Remember the numbers a few paragraphs back?  Undergraduate registration has risen 900% in 60 years, largely the result of the intellectual “arms race” of the Cold War.  The idea was that the supply of a large educated class would produce its own demand – but it didn’t.  Students and parents frequently are pushed (not pulled) toward university educations because of the rampant credentialism that tells them that a degree is like a passport to a good, white-collar job.  But though the number of undergraduates increased a hundred and fifty times in the last hundred years, the population of Canada only increased six times during that same period, and the number of white collar jobs (the supposed extrinsic aim of such an education) only increased by about 60%, and sits today at only about 16% of all jobs.  The story is a fib, in other words, and it’s one that causes disengagement and erosion of academic values, as well as a devaluation of the trades.  Students are in university for the wrong reasons, and even if they don’t drop out or fail in their first year (which nearly half do), there’s no guarantee of a job in their field after they graduate.

 So, those fears of a dark future without a high school diploma or a university degree are pretty much just that:  fear.  Whatever basis in reality it has is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has no bearing on the actual state of affairs in Canada.  But when you have a massively risk-averse culture, and public policy that is too often based on emotions or ideology, rather than research, the result is a chaotic mess of anxieties and confusion and artificial pressures on students and teachers alike.  Combine that with the beneficial effects of a growth mindset – one that takes failure for granted, and actually depends on it for improvement and development – and you have a conundrum.

 That P.D. session I mentioned in the first of the blog entries under this title reinforces the point:  That well-meaning ex-clergyman wanted to spare children the pain of failure, and in doing so, took all the responsibility for that student’s success onto himself.  This may have been good for his own sense of martyrdom or of self-esteem based on his own perceived heroism, but it does little for the kids it’s supposed to help.

 Students don’t just survive failure.  They need it to learn.  And our overprotective attitude towards the topic hurts them in the long run.


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Golden Age? Rose-Coloured Glasses? Neither.

For my first (non-introductory) blog, I’d like to look at “the state of education today”, if I may begin ridiculously broadly. In the spirit of bettering education by questioning its memes and practices, I’d like to talk about it critically. Pretty much everyone I know, inside and outside of the system, thinks it could stand some improvement. Many of us within the system, who have thought about the subject quite a bit, still disagree over what those improvements ought to be, depending on our vision of an ideal system or our encounters with the imperfect one we have. I’ve had brilliant discussions with colleagues, wonderful and fruitful disagreements with thoughtful vice-principals (whose job is to ensure the smooth running of the present system, and who are therefore nearly perpetually frustrated), and lovely conversations off-the-record with principals and school board trustees.   I’ve also had innumerable ideas dismissed, and had my discussions cut short by narrow-minded administrators who saw the act of questioning our own methods as tantamount to heresy, or at least an annoying and unnecessary impediment to the smooth running of their machines.  My major beef is the almost total lack of support for coherent, transparent, democratic, honest, strategic discussion and debate of issues within the teaching profession. This blog is kind of my way of scratching that itch for myself.

I’ll state here, rather forcefully, that the abysmally low quality of P.D. I have suffered through in my career as a high school teacher is inexcusable.  I would trade every single wasted hour of sitting about, fretting over the implementation of some cockamamie new marking rubric — every single minute of feeling disempowered and infantilised as a principal or ‘expert’ made us play awkward games involving chart paper and jujubes thinly veneered over policy announcements that were being implemented without consulting us — every single second of enduring meetings that were called, not because of any worthwhile content that had to be transmitted, but because a policy somewhere said that there had to be a meeting — every single nanosecond of having ‘facts’ paraded before us in a sickly-sweet, “no-child-left-behind”-style  PowerPoint presentation that I knew to be counterfactual glurge intended to further an ideological agenda — I would trade it all in a heartbeat for some real discussion of actual issues that get in the way of providing truly excellent education to real kids.   In fact, this subject of inadequate and badly-named Professional Development in high schools will be the subject of a later entry, where I’ll try to make the case for a better system with examples from my own teaching experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I think there are some things that the system gets right, or nearly right, anyway. Sometimes they get the idea right, but bollocks up the implementation; more often, it’s the opposite. I don’t think that the ‘system’, taken wholesale, was much better or worse than when I went to school a couple of decades ago. Certainly, when I was a student, I was almost completely unaware of the impact of the system on my education; I was immersed in it, and couldn’t have given you much of a coherent opinion:  a fish would be the last person you asked for an objective view of water.  Sure, “the way things were done” sometimes (often) struck me as inequitable or inane, or both, but I never stopped to think about the matrix of policies and unexamined assumptions and politics and philosophies that framed my experience. I was more often, more potently, and more immediately affected by individual teachers: their personalities, their ideas, their attitudes, and their relationship with me. I didn’t see the big picture, running in the background like the OS of a computer, invisible and ubiquitous, which in the end has shaped me as much or more than the ways I was more aware of.

So I don’t believe in a golden age. Professor James Côté, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, in his blog, has identified this as an impediment to real conversation about the issues: basically, somebody points out a flaw in the education system, and gets accused by someone else of a Pollyanna-like vision of a bygone time where everything was just milk, honey, wine, and roses. It’s a way of dismissing someone’s argument without addressing it. It’s condescending and intellectually lazy, if not downright dishonest. So, before anyone accuses me of being stuck in the past, I’ll be the first to admit that my own experience with the education system in Ontario when I was growing up was mostly bad: full of boredom, confinement, and the arbitrary exercise of power. I’m not looking at a return to the policies of our grandparents as a panacea for modern learning.

Or am I? Certainly I have no desire to step back into the old regime of “term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we die”, as C.S. Lewis described his indenture in a school he called ‘Belsen’. My own research into the history of public education in Upper Canada from the beginning has certainly left me with no rose-tinted opinions of any period in the history of education in Ontario. But my grandparents’ education must have given them something, because they were in many ways the antithesis of our present generation: they were mostly happy, confident, capable people who approached a problem with a combination of humility and common sense that makes me envious.   I’m not really into Jeremiads, either:  like I said, we do get some stuff right.  I’d like to look into these things a bit more deeply in individual posts.

My next ten blog entries or so will all fall under the general title of “10 Things Our Grandparents Got Right” concerning education; then I’ll follow those up with “10 Things They Got Wrong”, to see if I can draw any lessons for my generation.  See you then!

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I am a teacher…

…And as a teacher, believe me, there are plenty of things I have to say on the subject of education, both at the local level and more broadly philosophically.  In fact, I can’t think of a more important topic.  It’s something that everybody should discuss at least a little, and those of us who are teachers ought to be devoting a lot of time to discussion and thought about how to improve our profession.  I imagine that the public, who entrusts its children to our influence, expects us to.

I’ve found, however, that although  teachers care deeply about what we do, “what we do” is so hectic and stressful, so undervalued, and so needlessly distracting, that we almost never get the time to have serious conversations about “how we do it”, or, even more importantly, “why we do it”.  My colleagues (I work at a large high school in Ontario) are so frazzled trying to keep on top of the seemingly endless parade of administrative trivia, as well as trying to figure out how to make sense of  ill-thought-out and even contradictory directives from “above” — to say nothing of teaching full courseloads, with the mountains of grading and attendant management of student, parent, and administrative expectations (read: interference)  that come with such a career  — that they have little time or patience to have the longer, deeper, philosophical and practical discussions that we need in order to create the kind of education system that we all ache for.  “Just get it done” seems to be the attitude of many of my dedicated and more-than-commonly idealistic coworkers, too overwhelmed by the pace and noise of daily teaching jobs to sit down and hash it out.  When we do have a spare moment, it generally gets used either to get far away from topics pertaining to education, or to grab a precious moment of down-time, to recharge our batteries so we can go once more into the fray.  Alternatively, it gets absorbed into the never-ending search for new ways and means to make our lessons snazzier, more streamlined, more dynamic.

I have tried to start some of those discussions in other on-line forums over the years, but I’ve been stymied by various aspects of my job (the ones that aren’t actually directly related to teaching).    I love my job, but there are also many factors involved in it besides interacting with kids.   Many of these factors are profoundly harmful, if not downright antithetical, to teaching and learning.   I believe that our job as teachers is to nurture the whole child in development: including nurturing their senses of (among other things) confidence, independence, curiosity, justice, compassion, concentration, attention, community, flexibility, critical thought, and inner peace. The impediments to these goals, which include things which range from the political to the cognitive to the administrative to the systemic, will be the subjects of future posts.

For example, I was told some time ago by the administration at my school that to hold a public conversation amongst the teachers (as I was doing)  about ways we might see our profession from different angles with a view to improving what everyone agrees is a system that should continue to evolve and get better and better, was inappropriate.  It was a breach of my contract, they said, to criticise my employer, the Board of Education.

To which my response was, “Really?  The halls of an academic institution are not the appropriate place to be discussing issues pertaining to the betterment of education? Then where?”

This blog is my much-delayed answer to that question.  I’ll be posting essays, research (on all sorts of matters pertaining to education), opinion pieces, links to on-line content that I find inspiring or useful (or critiques of those I find less useful), reviews of books or articles on subjects germane to the discussion, commentary on my experiences on the front lines, so to speak; as well as broader philosophical musings.  I’ll try to keep my experiences as generic as possible, and focus on their impact on those ideals I mentioned above:  I don’t want to criticise individuals; I just want to use my experiences to illustrate my points.  The way I see it, if we stay clear in our minds and hearts about what we’re trying to accomplish, then our day-to-day decisions will be clear:  anything that increases our ability to accomplish them should be considered and likely adopted; anything that interferes with accomplishing them should be questioned and probably rejected.

I’m aware, of course, that not everyone shares my view of what education should accomplish.  But I believe that it is critical that we as individual educators have a strong sense of what we believe we are doing, and know why we believe that.  One of the biggest impediments, I think, to a truly excellent system of public education is the fuzziness of thinking that goes into defining what education is actually meant to do.  But if we each have a good, solid idea of an answer to that question, then at least a conversation can start to happen, which is essential in a democratic conception of public education.

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