Saturday, 14 May 2022

Face Your Fear! Maths Trauma & Inequity in STEM Education

In January the president of the Ontario Association for Mathematics Educators (OAME) sent me an email after seeing our online activity around game development and coding and asked if I might present at their conference in May.   If you'd have told high school me that I'd one day present at a maths conference I would have thought you're having me on.  For me, maths and science were the hammers that the education system used to teach me that I wasn't good enough, but I'm rethinking that egotistical framing.

One of my co-presenters also didn't have a positive maths experience in high school and we were both worried that it would be like being back in class again.  That's where the teacher would single you out and make sure everyone in the room knew that you didn't know what you were doing, then they'd fail you, usually with a caustic remark about how 'this isn't for you'.  I'd internalized the idea that maths (and science) went out of their way to make me feel stupid, but after doing our presentation (everyone was lovely, of course), I'm reconsidering my failures in maths and science from another angle.

We immigrated to Canada when I was eight years old.  A lack of research had us moving to Montreal right after Bill 101 came in, which wasn't great for a little kid from rural England.  By 1980 we'd moved to Streetsville on the edge of Mississauga and that's where I grew up.  Various calamities happened both financially and emotionally while I was in high school.  I didn't play school sports because I worked every day after school from the age of 12 on.  School sports, like maths and science, are for those privileged children of leisure who have the time and money to participate - that's why we shape entire school cultures around them.

In senior high school my dad was in a near fatal car accident that had him hospitalized for months.  During that time I was working as well as doing all the home things that he usually did.  This meant that the hours of homework meted out by maths and science teachers didn't get the attention it demanded.  The tedious and repetitive/rote nature of S&M homework didn't help either.  Before grade 11 science I was daydreaming of becoming an astronomer.  After I failed it, not so much.  High school accommodated my lack of socio-economic clout by guidancing me to go find a job that Canadians don't like doing - like a good immigrant should.

I dropped out of grade 13, worked as a night security guard (full time) while trying to attend Sheridan College for visual arts.  I dropped out of Sheridan when I couldn't get to class after not sleeping every night before class.  Eventually I  found my way into a millwright apprenticeship which offered me the economic stability I needed to finish high school, which I did at the age of 22.  I eventually left millwrighting and went to university, finally settling on English and philosophy degrees, but even there my maths trauma haunted me.

A requirement for my philosophy degree was to take the symbolic logic course.  My first time through it was run by a computer science prof who didn't like how big the class was so he used every rotten maths trick in the book (surprise tests, undifferentiated instruction, sudden changes in direction, etc) to shake out the 'arts' students who needed it for their degree.  That course could also be used as an 'arts' credit for the STEM types who took it as a bird course.  That prof succeeded in chasing out all the philosophy students from that philosophy course.  The next semester I tried again, this time with a philosophy prof.  I told her of my fear of maths and she went out of her way to differentiate both instruction and assessment.  I ended up getting an 'A' on the mandatory course I thought I'd never finish.  I can do maths and complex logic, just not when it's weaponized against me.

As a millwright I never had a problem tackling applied maths when I needed it.  When I transitioned into information technology, again no issues using applied maths as I needed it to do my job.  It appeared that I wasn't as bad as maths as the education system had repeatedly told me I was, though I still carried that luggage with me.

My anxiety was high as I got ready for this presentation.  Alanna made a comment that resonated though.  If you work in a secondary classroom you've probably heard teens talking about how this or that teacher 'hates' them.  Alanna reminded me that this is a great example of everything-is-about-me teenage egotism.  My maths and science teachers didn't hate me and weren't vindictively attacking me for my failures; no student matters that much.  Having done this teaching thing for over two decades now, I can assure you that 'hate' isn't something most teachers feel.  To be honest, when we're not at work even the most difficult students aren't on our minds.  For the teachers who do feel hate for students, you need to find another career.

Looking past the teen-egoism of my own mathematical inferiority complex, I got along with my STEM teachers pretty well.  I certainly wasn't a classroom management headache.  In retrospect, what happened to me in class wasn't vindictive on their part, it was a result of my lowly socio-economic status.  Had I been a stable, well off, multi-generational settler whose ancestors were given whole swarths of Canada for free, I'm sure we'd have gotten along just fine.  Were I not in the middle of family trauma, perhaps I would have stuck it out.  Had I been a student of a less creative nature who thrived in structure and repetition, I imagine I'd have found a place in STEM even without the financial means - I did eventually embrace my technical skills despite the system's best efforts to alienate me from myself.

Last week one of our maths teachers emailed the entire building asking how she could punish students who are skipping tests in order to give themselves more time to prepare for them.  Our principal emailed all reminding everyone of Growing Success, but this didn't stop a science teacher from jumping in with our written-in-the-1950s student handbook which still contains escalating penalties (including handing out zeroes) for late or missing work, even if that is directly contrary to Ministry direction.

In my last round of IT testing for my grade 10s I left each chapter test available for three tries, and students could take it open book if they wished.  When you finished the test it would even review it for you and tell you what the correct answers were and why, if you could be bothered to do that.  Ample class time was provided to review the material both on screen and hands-on.  You could not design a more equitable and differentiated approach to learning computer technology.  Our class average on these three tries/open book tests/wildly-differentiated and in-class supported tests?  11.07/20 - that's a 55% class average.  Even when you differentiate and build in equity to support assessment in COVID-world classes, many students won't bother doing any of it anyway, and this is in an optional subject they chose to take!  I turned down the weight of those results, not because I think my subject doesn't matter, but because the COVID malaise on students is real  (it's real on staff too, not that anyone cares) and holding them to pre-pandemic standards is neither compassionate nor pedagogically correct.

If someone wants to skip a period to get more study time in, let 'em.  What would be even better is having open and honest communications with your students to the point where they can simply ask for extra time rather than feeling like they have to skip because they know you won't give give it to them   They probably won't use their extra time anyway and the result will be what it is.  Clinging to schedules and testing that only examines rote memorization (another issue in STEM that produces A+ students who don't know how to apply what they know), is the kind of undifferentiated and tedious 'learning' that made me despise maths and science in high school.

After COVID swept through our family recently, my son returned to class only to get no lunches for days on end (while still recovering from the virus) as he took test after missed maths test.  When he didn't do well on them we had to intervene and ask for some compassion.  Why do S&M subject teachers believe that curriculum comes before differentiation based on circumstances (especially IEPs!), or even basic wellness?  We're all in exceptional circumstances.  I suspect these teachers believe that this 'rigour' makes them a credible and serious discipline of study.  I'm not sure how you change that rigid culture founded on privilege, conformity and exclusion.

My maths trauma in high school sent me on a crooked path before I was finally able to come to terms with my intelligence and abilities; it made me doubt myself and misaim my expectations.  I'd hope public education would do the opposite of that, but it still doesn't.  We've got too many classes still predicating success on hours of homework using undifferentiated and repetitive rote learning under the assumption that everyone has the time and inclination to find success in that.  It's even worse now two years into a pandemic.  During quadmesters it was particularly acute with students in S&M heavy quads telling me they were expected to do 4+ hours of homework EVERY DAY - even as the working ones were forced to take on extra hours as 'heroic' front line workers.

In my classroom I aim to find every students' talents and help them find digital pathways that will support them in our technology driven economy.  My senior classes are supposed to be 'M' level post-secondary bound students (which is why they cap me at 31 like an academic calculus class), but in actuality the majority of my students do not attend university and good percentage go straight into the workplace.  We also frequently have essential level and special needs students finding their way in our program because we differentiate even when the system holds us all back with an inequitable distribution of resources.  My stuffed classes serving all pathways help make grade 12 academic physics classes with a dozen students in them happen because those very special kids need that credit for university.

In order to find student strengths I focus on foundational skills like practicing an effective engineering design process, which is more about organization and self-direction than it is about technical details.  I could drill them on tests about technical specifics and fail the ones who skip rote memorizing reams of facts for a variety of reasons (they can't afford the time, their IEP doesn't allow them learn like that, etc), but then I'd be doing exactly what was done to me in high school.  That'd be a jerk move.

"You! Yes, you! Stand still laddy!"

When we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children any way they could

By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids"

We don't need no education, but we all need direction to help find our strengths... especially in STEM.

Saturday, 7 May 2022

A Letter to Candidates: Is Anyone Interested In Refocusing Public Education On Student Pathways?

I've been assisting with the Ontario Literacy test this week at school.  Watching students have to put phones away in a system that allows full access all the time is like watching a long distance runner getting a foot amputated before having to run a marathon.  Students didn't understand the instructions and many ignored them and had to be individually assisted in unplugging themselves from their devices.  They then looked disorientated and confused, and then we hit 'em with a high stakes literacy test!

The threats and fear generated by the test are also part of this wonderful experience.  "You can't graduate without this" is the most common refrain.  I've been wondering why it's all stick and no carrot with the literacy test, and then I got one of those 'support education' emails that'll send the email an organization wrote in your name to your members of parliament.

We have a provincial election approaching and the stakes are high.  My problem is that no one has any vision for Ontario's public education system that would actually improve it or make it sustainable into an uncertain future.  Liberals are entirely invested in keeping things as they are (they're also the main reason why things are the way they are), and the conservatives aren't interested in improving it at all as they collect supporters intent on privatizing it.

Rather than send off someone else's words to my representatives, I sent a suggestion for a leaner, diversity-of-pathways honouring system that might also be greener, but no one in Ontario politics has a vision for public education beyond either keeping it as it is or selling it of to their donors.  Ontario students deserve better...

***

Dear Candidates,

I'm going to cut out the form letter and speak frankly.  After years of Liberal stewardship, the public education system in Ontario wasn't in the best shape and needed an overhaul.

As a teacher in the system, I believe the entrenched political entities (councils, unions, colleges etc) have become more fixated on their own continued status quo than they have in an education system focused on student needs.

I had hoped that the current government would go about the serious business of fixing it, but they seem entirely focused on dismantling it for private benefit, which isn't going to help anyone.

Ontario's education system was broken by the 2006 learning to 18 amendment to the education act.  There are many pathways and learning should be a lifelong commitment; schools do not own the concept of learning.  Forcing students to stay in public schools until 18 has done irreparable harm to students and the system itself, though none of the many groups with a vested interest in a bloated public system will want you to address this.

A lean and individually responsive education system (that is also more fiscally responsible) could be achieved if we shelved this legislation and opened up pathways by allowing students who have demonstrated sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to move on if they wish.  In this way our high-stakes and expensive OSSLT would offer an opportunity rather than being a purely punitive experience.  If students were able to graduate at the end of grade 10 with a basic Ontario diploma which would allow them to pursue pathways directly into the workplace or into alternate learning situations like apprenticeships, our senior classrooms would no long be daycare centres for students who don't want to be there.  The students in senior high school would be there with intent and the system would be able to align their limited resources to serve students who are learning with the intent to continue on into post-secondary.

This change would drastically reduce our overages on building maintenance by reducing the number of buildings needed.  It might also offer an opportunity where schools can amalgamate beyond the rigid elementary/secondary system we run now, offering hyper local schooling that drastically reduces busing costs.  In a world where fuel prices are skyrocketing and supply chains are stretched to breaking, this seems like an inevitability.  Moving towards a digitally enhanced, hyper-local future now would mean it doesn't come as a violent upheaval later.

With strong digital/remote skills and effective leverage of emerging technologies, we could create a leaner, greener and more individually responsive public school system in Ontario.  Academic teaching in classrooms works for students who understand that they need what's being taught in order to prepare for post-secondary, but for many Ontario students who aren't on that pathway, these final years are torture for them and for front line education staff trying to deal with them with ever shrinking resources.

No one will consider options like this because there are far too many organizations committed to the way things are for their own benefit.  Conservatives won't do it because their private school friends won't like them taking away customers.  The Liberals are so entwined with unions and other educational groups that they too won't touch this.  I hope someone can see the light here and make moves to create a more student responsive, less bloated and more environmentally responsible education system.  In such an Ontario, redundancies like education systems serving a single belief system would also end, but no political party will touch that either for fear of upsetting Ontario's status quo religious privilege

Our public education system wasn't in great shape before the last four years beat it to a pulp.  If Doug doesn't win again this June, whoever does will give us half of what was stripped away back and we'll be told by the various colleges/unions/councils they're aligned with that we should thank them for it.  I don't want things to go back to the way they were, I want them to respect the many pathways students choose and honour those choices by not forcing students to remain in classrooms that aren't aligned with their learning needs until they are eighteen.  Does anyone in Ontario politics have anything like this kind of vision?

Sincerely,

Tim King
Classroom Teacher
Elora, ON.

Saturday, 26 March 2022

You Didn't Prepare Me for Post-Secondary

Over the past several years I've been contacted by graduates or their parents with a similar complaint:  why didn't you prepare me/my child for post secondary math?

A few years ago it was a college bound student with learning challenges.  His mom was... outspoken (that's being very charitable) while he was in school, but I was able to work well with him and he eventually went into information technology at a local college.  He dropped out in his first semester with failing maths grades.  Mom emailed me in a rage blaming me for this.  I pointed out that I teach computer technology and asked how he was doing in those classes (he was getting 90s).  That ended that particular interaction, but it wasn't the first and it won't be the last.

I've also had students who I worked closely with both in class and on school teams, students who know me well enough to be straight up, get in touch while in post-secondary to say that they too are struggling with maths.  It's a familiar refrain; a student who got high 90s in high school maths suddenly finds themselves dysfunctional in post secondary.  A recent multi-award winning graduate put it well: "when we're given a problem, other students apply their maths skills like taking tools out of a toolbox.  They assess the problem and then apply the right mathematical approach to solve it.  I feel like we spent all our time learning mechanics on worksheets but spent no time contextualizing what we were doing."  This would be like trying to learn how to play hockey by drilling yourself independently on stick handling, skating and shooting, but never contextualizing those skills as a whole in a game.

When some of our most academically decorated students come back to me with this kind of feedback, I'm left wondering how to address it.  I don't think it's fair that the blame falls entirely on teachers.  Thanks to our community's everyone-can-go-to-university-if-they-want-to sense of privilege, many of our academic classes are populated by students without the background or interest in using what we're trying to teach them.  This means teachers have to simplify and compartmentalize their content to such a degree that the students who actually need it aren't getting it.  I frequently see students with weeks of absences who are still expected to earn a credit (you got auto-dropped at 10 absences when I was in high school).  When you've got students who barely attend, compartmentalizing the learning becomes a survival technique.  It also makes it nearly impossible to contextualize learning beyond single period lessons.

Last year my son was told, "don't worry, everyone fails that unit" in his grade eleven maths class.  If I had a unit that everyone failed, my first assumption would be that I'm teaching it wrong and I'd change my approach, but one of the ways we appear to drag students to the end of the Ontario maths curriculum is to just keep pushing through it, regardless of comprehension, context or mastery of previous concepts.  This isn't a new phenomenon, it happened to me in the 1980s too.

I'd quote statistics to you about how successful our graduates are once they leave the building, but no one in Ontario public education keeps those statistics.  Instead of quoting EQAO scores, what we should be doing is collecting data on the success rates of our graduates in post-secondary.  If we all claim to be about backward design, this kind of data would make that possible on a meta-level, but it's better to fly blind, then we don't have to take responsibility for those failures or change anything.

There is a lot of talk around destreaming as a cure-all to systemic prejudice, but the people framing it that way are usually the ones happy to see larger class sizes for everyone at a lower cost.  Streaming wasn't designed to denigrate anyone, it was instituted to let classes focus on learner needs with higher needs students having smaller classes and students aiming at advanced post-secondary programs working in a room where everyone is driving for the same goals.  The unfortunate truth is the destreaming has already occurred thanks in large part to parents and guidance ignoring it.  When I last taught university level classes I found that less than half the class was university bound and a number of those directionless students were put into university stream to 'keep their options open'.  In keeping their options open these students were knocking others out of contention.  In curriculums like English and mathematics, where skills development is vital in order for students to operate at the senior end of the program, this kind of watering down of intent hurts many of our graduates.

Even in my technology courses I see this.  My 'M' level courses are supposed to be for post-secondary bound students but I typically see 10-20% of the class coming out of credit poor essential and applied situations who have no intention of going into post-secondary.  I then spend an inordinate amount of my time catering to these high-needs children instead of helping the students who selected the right stream get to where they want to go.

I'm not sure why, with the pressure to reduce costs, we're not offering alternate pathways that allow the students who don't need senior classes to take alternate pathways.  An early graduation workplace/apprenticeship pathways option for students should be available for anyone who has passed the literacy and maths testing in grades 9 and 10.  If those students who would rather be out working were, we could refocus our classrooms on preparing the students in them for post-secondary success instead of watering everything down in order to babysit those who don't want to be there.  Instead we're all handcuffed by Ontario's learning until eighteen law.  If we're all really advocates for life-long learning, then it should be obvious that this doesn't just happen in schools.  There would be many benefits to stepping away from this mandatory restriction and refocusing our classrooms on developing rich, contextualized learning opportunities for students who show up and want to be there in order to go on and tackle post-secondary specialities.

This issue goes well beyond maths, but the structured development of skills over many years in mathematics exacerbates the problem in ways that make it much more visible.