How 60 million dollars will not save our Ontario pupils from academic failures?

(Ontario Education Minister)

50% of Ontario Grade 6 students failed this year’s provincial standard math qualification. It seems like a shocker in that how could the affluent and prosperous communities in Ontario failed half of its pupils at elementary school. Yet, barely understood the problem, the Ontario government impetuously decided to invest $60 millions in buying more resources and strictly reinforcing the presence of math and science teachers in the classroom, hoping this will help the students to pass. As lacking resources and teachers was ever the root cause for our failed students and in large the incompetent Canadian education system. Having problems is the norm of life, but having no solutions or worse wrong solutions is cul-de-sac of desperado. The action of the Ontario government is like a desperate zookeeper to strengthen the endangered pygmy marmoset by feeding him the elephant’s diet, you are not going to get an elephant sized monkey. Nor will we have more competent learners.

The key to understand this failure is to examine the pedagogy of our education system, instead of rummaging through what’s wrong with our students. Today, too many teachers teach students to how to pass exams, rather than mastering the materials. This strategy works only for a short term, because it is easy to duck feed students what they need to pass one test, one course, or a semester. The problem with duck feeding style teaching is that the “duck” will either puke out or poop out everything, meaning there is little or no retention in the end. Consequently, when students move onto the next subject, the next course, or the next semester, they do not feel prepared and have nothing to draw upon. The teaching for test scores focuses and cares only about the percentage gained, 60% passing, 75% B, 90% A, pays no attention to the 10%, 25%, and 40% lost or missing from our students. In essence, our students instead building the next stage of their lives on the things they know, they actually start with a foamy and bubbly foundation that is doomed to crumple.

Teaching for mastery is the norm of life. When we learn how to run, we start with crawling, then standing, and then walking, and it’s only when we master walking, we start running. In Taekwondo, you start your training with a white belt, you would remain as a white belt for as long as necessary, and only when you have mastered it you would move on to become a yellow belt and eventually to the black belt. Learning English, we begin with alphabets, and once we mastered the 26 alphabets, we move on to words, and then sentences, and it’s only when we mastered the grammars, we can attempt to write passages.

But, in education, we run to the opposite. We move students as cohorts, a pass of 60% or even worse in universities a D with 50% allows students to move onto the next course. So instead of building on what they know or retained, students in general accumulate more unknowns and misunderstandings, the result is falling behind and prematurely terminate one’s academic career. The structure of our education system resembles to terrible house building. When we build the house foundation, we rechon it to be 80% complete. Instead of perfecting it, we move on to build the first floor, and lucky us, we got 75% done. So move on again to build the second flood, and we got 65% done. So on and so forth until we reach the point of zero percent of confidence – the point of collapsing, costing time, money, or even lives. Why is this not OK in construction, but completely permissive when we are building our future selves?

My solution to this problem is to teach by mastery, not by test scores.

Students should not be moved as cohorts, they are all unique individuals. We need to provide personalized education. No horizontal comparison, but vertical comparison of past, now, and future. We ask students what they want to be in the next year, the next five years, or in the next decade. Students move on only when they completely comprehend and master the content. With mastery and continuous understanding of what they want, quickly student will develop a career perspective if not a life goal. From here, students only need to master what’s needed for her/his upcoming vocational educations and it’s only here that students can be diverted.

This practical education scheme based on mastery saves students’ time and money by eliminating the overspending on courses that they would never use nor benefit. Furthermore, this practice also breaks the trend of devaluation of education, meaning the bachelor degree will no longer be the new high school diploma. People who are earning their degrees are truly in position of needing them for their career aspiration, not just because everyone else is going to colleges.

One of the biggest critics of teaching for mastery is the complaint of lacking human resources to launch the personalized education. This is a complete lack of basic comprehension of what teaching for mastery and personalized education is. In teaching for mastery/personalized education, students needn’t to be paired with a teacher or teaching assistant in a one-on-one manner. Just like in personalized medicine, a doctor can still have many patients, but what makes it personalized is the retro fitted caring system, not the nomenclature. Thus, in personalized education, what matters is the communication between students and teachers. This communication is interpreted in two ways: one is the evidence-based learning; the other is the feedback-based teaching. In evidence-based learning, it is an opportunity for teachers to truly evaluate how well students have mastered the material. In feedback-based teaching, teachers inquire how students feel about their current learning experiences and what their next learning objectives are. The combination works as a synergism in which the evidence-based learning propels the feedback-based teaching, and in retrospect, the feedback-based teaching accentuates and focuses the evidence-based learning in the long run.

Of course, there are many other ideas and methodologies being touted with in order to fix our educational system with the $60 million. One of these is what Rob Furman referred to in Huffington Post as Service Learning. I am a true lover and believer of Service Learning, which is more commonly known as community based learning. There are many benefits of Service Learning, such as better absorption of knowledge, enhancing academic learning, reducing students’ stereotypes and preconceived notions. However, in this case where we are trying to address the poor math and science learning outcomes, fundraising, soup kitchen, and senior home visits are unlikely to do anything. In addition, one prominent danger of Service Learning is best summarized by Lori Pompa:

“If I “do for” you, “serve” you, “give to” you – that create a connection in which I have the resources, the abilities, the power, and you are on the receiving end. It can be – while benign in intent – ironically disempowering to the receiver, granting further power to the giver. Without meaning to, this process replicates the “have vs. have-not” paradigm that underlies many social problems.”

To improve the learning outcomes of our students, to nurture more competent and successful learners, and to encourage continuous learning, we need policy makers to be aware of, support, and reinforce the teaching for mastery, service learning, and many other great teaching practices, definitely NOT the teaching for test scores. Let’s make the next $ 60 millions dollars go where they belong.


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