Education in Ontario – anecdotal evidence

GA, Teri.  (Teri Pecoskie is Education reporter for the Hamilton Spectator)

Anecdotal evidence, wise statisticians tell us, must not be relied upon; you need masses of data.  But even wiser statisticians assure us: Don’t dismiss anecdotes, because they are data too.  So:  This letter is a bunch of anecdotes.  Hope you can wade through it.  These leads are doubtless too late for your current series, but I hope they give you something for the future.
Re gender of students:
The education folk in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, ran a well designed formal seven-year-long (horizontal) study to compare the effectiveness of Direct (traditional) Instruction (DI) with Whole Language (WL) instruction.  To the surprise of no one of the many like me, DI came out well ahead of WL.  But to the considerable surprise of everyone involved, certainly including me, an unintended result was that the gender gap vanished.  They don’t know why, and I certainly don’t!  Tantalizing … ??  Some folk better qualified than I pooh-pooh the Clackmannanshire study, but I’ve learned to be at least a little skeptical about any Education guru who declaims on anything, pro or con.  One-up (among many) for traditional DI.
Re gender of teachers:
Your informants say there is no discernible impact of teacher gender upon the teaching of math.  I strongly feel this is questionable.  Many folk adhere to the superstition that “girls are not good at math”.  As the saying goes, people live up to (or down to) what is expected of them.  A school girl suffering under this superstition is bound to do less well than her potential as a student or as a teacher.  Further, among my wife’s counselling clients have been women teachers who complain about being “… pitchforked into teaching math, which I haven’t touched since high school and which I can’t do very well.”  How good a math teacher will she be?  A Finnish math teacher must have a master’s degree in math!
Re teachers and teaching:
I once asked the then Director of Education of Burlington District 6 whether he employed science-and-math teachers in proportion to some analyzed need (of employers, Universities, etc.) or in proportion to the number of such teachers available.  He acknowledged that it was the latter, and that he could never get  enough such.  A different, later Dir. of Ed. (himself a science graduate) commented sadly to me that, “My managers (Supts of Instruction etc.) don’t understand, like, or know how to use numbers.”  One wonders how such high-level educators, having come up through the ranks of similar educators, can possibly manage improvement programs without intensive use of numbers, some quite sophisticated, e.g. standard deviations.  For instance, how many senior educators still adhere to the policy stance of the one-time Supt. of Instruction in Burlington, who declared firmly and publicly, “We will not use comparisons.”?  Without using comparison, nothing can be improved.
One major teaching paradigm in use widely is Constructivism (or Experiential Learning, or Learning by Discovery – it has a lot of names).  A Queens summer-school instructor long ago explained it to me.   Concerned about what I was hearing, I asked, “But at the end of the day, don’t you want to graduate a literate, numerate student?”  In a tone of cold hostility, this teacher replied, “Why?”  (I’m serious!).  Later in the discussion, this teacher-of-teachers commented, “If they don’t want to learn, that’s their problem.”  (Again, I am serious.  I am not making this up.)
An associate of mine, a wealthy business man who could afford to take the time off, was sufficiently concerned about the education of his boy that he took a two-year Education degree.  He reported that:
*  His intake class of 28 was assured by their instructor that all would graduate; they duly did.
*  He (as an employer) would have considered hiring two or three of the 28.
*  Two of the 28 were clearly illiterate.
If you want, I can relay this conversation to this person and leave it to him if he wishes to contact you.
You and many others have commented to the effect that students, of course, vary widely in their talents and interests, i.e. their potential.  True; and this leads to a need to identify aptitudes (inherent talents, not merely interests) and in some logical way group or stream students and hire teachers appropriately.  At 17, I was taken by my far-seeing Dad to the Human Engineering Lab at the U. of Chicago for aptitude testing.  Their advice changed the course of my life.  (“Yes, you could be a writer.  But your profile is engineer, scientist, or something like that.”)  Result: With a very modest set of abilities I have had an enormously satisfying career as an engineer which has overlapped with basic science.  I don’t think our ed. system does enough aptitude testing.  Get the square pegs into square holes, you know.
Again, congrats to you and Paul and whoever else is involved in this Education series.
Frank Gue.

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