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.


5 Common Mistakes Students Make On The GRE

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is today arguably one of the most popular standardized globalized tests. More often than not, the applicants are tested on various vocabulary skills in analytical writing, verbal and quantitative sections. This is probably one of the main reasons why it the test is one of the most challenging today. In this regard, the slightest of mistakes can cost applicants dearly and conceivably prevent them from getting into preferred school. Five most common mistakes students make on the GRE include:

  • Not studying
  • Poor language skills
  • Poor time managing
  • Not reading the problem properly
  • Answering every question in order.

Let us discuss them more closely.

1. Mistake of not studying

One of the common mistakes made by students while preparing for the GRE is inadequate preparation. Most of the students think that working under pressure will increase their output. Nonetheless, this is just but a common fallacy. In many cases, applicants are underprepared for the examination in terms of basic reading, writing as well as analytical skills. In addition, many students fail to look for various guidebooks, multiple test preparation materials, tests online, test sample questions, and the downloads when preparing for the GRE. On the contrary, many students stick to just one type of study material, which makes their preparation less detailed and diverse. This mistake has proved costly to the vast majority of students.

2. Mistake of answering every question in order

One of the unique features of the GRE is that a student can skip some of the questions and later come back and handle them. Unfortunately, many students fail to use this to their advantage. Students try to answer each question from the sections in sequence on the first attempt. On the contrary, the students should handle the questions that they are conversant with and then come back to the particular questions they were unsure of. That way they will at least complete the section and answer all of the questions they can handle without wasting a lot of time. Similarly, confusing multiple-option and single-option questions will lower the scores that will cost students dearly.

3. Students not reading the problem properly.

Many students feel compelled to rush when under timed and strained exam conditions. They often misread words, eventually making inaccurate assumptions, and, as a result, rather straightforward mistakes. More often than not, applicants fail in their choice when selecting one – normally the incorrect one – usually the closest answer to theirs. Worse yet, in the quantitative section, students may get a correct numeric entry but blithely enter the wrong answer. This is something easily avoidable by reading the problem properly.

4. Poor language skills

Largely, failure of many applicants in the GRE hinges directly on mastery of the language. Just like many known assessment and proficiency tests, an applicant sitting for the exam should be able to write a paper, read, and listen commendably. As ETS makes emphasis on vocabulary, language skills are key in the GRE. Sadly this never the case for some students and this is where many of the mistakes made in all sections of the exam. A common mistake here is that a student brings in an outside information – things that are outside passage scope. Unknown to students, some of the language mistakes are not related to analytical skills and intelligence but rather poor prior mastery and lack of practice.

5. Mistake of not managing time

The other mistake made by many students is poor time management in each of the sections. Many fail to pace their exam time and end up not using the allocated time well. Applicants find it challenging to finish the GRE on time. Unknown to many, each section of the GRE is specifically unique and needs special preparation. Failing to practice equally for all the test sections, even if the applicants have performed remarkably well in other sections their final score will definitely suffer. Unknown to applicants, there are multiple free online resources and materials that offer practice tools for managing time during the exam. Of course, exam preparations might be stressful, but there are numerous ways to reduce the stress.

As exemplified in the article, the GRE is the most widely recognized graduate admission test. However, student’s success depends on his or her prior language command, preparation for the exam, as well as answering every question and providing solutions to all the sections of the exam.

The Intimacy of Strangers


How do you get to know a person? You talk to them, right? Hi. What’s your name? What do you do for a living? Where are you from? Most relationships start with small talk, but there’s an intimacy to being strangers to someone that can’t be described with a single word or phrase. Because of clashing schedules and busy lives, many of us have spent at least one moment or another alone, whether it be studying in the library during a break, grabbing a quick bite or even commuting to school. When I’m not zoning out looking through a window or burying my nose in a textbook, I like to think about the endless possibilities to be had with strangers. As Alice Munro put it, it’s like “looking into an open secret, something not startling until you think of trying to tell it.”

Just the other day, I was waiting in line to order at Subway. I wasn’t sure what to order, so I decided to listen to the guy in front of me and copy his exact words. “One six-inch sub of the day on honey oat bread, please.” I noticed a slight tremble to his voice. Was he nervous to order? Was he, also like me, unsure of what to order? Or maybe he was just so hungry he couldn’t think properly. I wondered what it was.

Walking towards the 510 Spadina streetcar from the northbound subway, I trailed down the path where street musicians often play for small change. I happened to be right behind a girl who seemed to be my age. I figured we’d both walk by casually but then she reached into her purse and tossed in some loose change. Did she always participate in this random act of kindness? Or was the music especially deserving today? Was this something her parents or guardian had taught her to do? I wondered what it was.

I didn’t think much of these thoughts until we discussed Alice Munro’s Open Secrets in English Class (ENG215 if anybody is wondering). Through the few observations the narrator makes on a couple, she begins to wonder about the possibilities behind them and this startled her. We can see so much without even saying a word. We can choose what to say and what decisions to make, but at the end of the day, it’s the little things we do that reveal our open secrets.

A Meditation on Cancer, Climate Change, and Life


Astronaut Piers Sellers recently published an article in The New York Times Sunday Review section. I came across it on Twitter, seized by its audacious title: “Cancer and Climate Change”. With an open mind, I learned that the 60-year-old NASA scientist recently diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer wants nothing more than to spend his remaining days back at work.

I was once told to be open-minded, but not so much so that my brain falls out of my head. This time, it did. I was shocked to see that Sellers could not find something else to do with his golden years, like conquering Mount Everest or enjoying a permanent spot at a beach resort. I found this bloodlessly macabre. In fact, I closed the tab before I even finished the article.

I was appalled by Sellers’ end-of-life decision because it counters what many others (and myself) have in mind for our own retirements, mostly including checking off those selfish, self-indulgent, and pathetic items on our to-do list before we die. In fact, Dr. Oliver W. Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author, published a series of farewell articles in the NYT and his memoir On the Move when his melanoma metastasized into his liver in 2015. He said “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at News Hour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” Of course, this is not to say that Dr. Sacks is selfish or pathetic. He chose intimacy with his lover and readers instead of taking a stand on global issues when he knew his expiration date was soon to come. Isn’t it only normal for terminal patients to take their remaining time to enjoy the limited clarity of mind which comes with their condition to better face the unfair early death sentence put on their lives?

Seller’s altruistic reasoning and plan on what to do before death shames mine into inferiority. In the next few days, I couldn’t shake his article from my mind, and so decided to resolve my feelings. At the end of the article Sellers reveals his reason for going back to work. He is not just another faceless member of NASA’s staff. Rather, he was an astronaut who walked in space above the Earth and floated alongside the International Space Station. He did what many can only dream of doing, and it was continuing to live this dream which gave him the reason he needed to go back to work, even with cancer.

Like many of you who grind day in and day out for a minimum wage paycheck to survive, you bet that when I face death I will spend all of my time and money doing things I never got to indulge in: visiting foreign lands, skydiving, or just simply being lazy. I cannot even attempt to image what a fantastic life Sellers has lived; however, by finishing his article, I do seem to understand why he chose going back to work as the only item on his bucket list. His life experiences have trumped anything my supposedly boundless brain could ever achieve. Murakami liked to consider people as onions; he said if you peel people layers after layers, what’s left is pride. Reading Seller’s article is like dicing an onion; that burning sensation in your eyes is unmistakable.

I am not writing to condescend anyone’s choices or decisions, but rather to ask the question of how we should live our lives, even without immediate death sentences chasing our rears. Should we push our limits and expand our boundaries to the point that we have little happiness, or should we just be normal and even mediocre so that we can enjoy the present and not worry about how we will become the next Bill Gates or Charles Darwin? Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year old neurosurgeon, died of metastasized lung cancer. Just before his passing he wrote When Breath Becomes Air in which he said that he postponed learning how to live while he was becoming a neurosurgeon. When he finally stopped striving forward, he ended up spending the last moments of his life learning how to die.

I understand the yearning to achieve success, and surely everyone wants a piece of that pie. The question to ask yourself is: “what are you willing to forfeit and sacrifice for it?” It is not simply about losing a few hours of sleep, but your sanity. Often, our choices can lead us to the brink of collapse.


Everybody loves poignant tales in which benign madness precipitates success. Van Gogh’s madness devastated his life and killed him, but it allowed him to see colors unlike anybody else before and after him. Depression made Sylvia Plath stick her head inside a carbon monoxide-filled oven, but one can also argue that her sensitivity granted her the ability to write some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry in contemporary literature. By the same token, alcoholism took Eleanora Fagan’ s ( Billie Holiday)’s liver and life, but she claimed alcohol loosened her up to produce some of the best of jazz vocals in the recording business.

Today, everyone is looking for this form of ephemeral and intelligent madness so that we too can become brilliant. Some of us work 24/7/365 to  convince this genius to visit us; others cheat their way through drugs,  seeking out-of-body experiences. We no longer take care of ourselves, nor do we pay attention to our surroundings, where love, content, and satisfaction all lie.

The question I have is why we all want to be the greatest when we know that there can often only be one in most disciplines. The Earth revolves around its axis with or without you, no matter who you are. If you don’t believe me, recall Albert Einstein, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandel, and more. People often forget that these great figures all stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said. So I ask you: where would that shoulder be if we all want to be the ones standing on top of it?

I am not dissuading anyone from trying to achieve the best in themselves. I am simply saying that to enjoy your life while you have it you must pursue realistic goals, not egocentric ones. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.” So do try hard, but also do remember what Charles Dickens said in Great Expectations, “If you can’t get to be uncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked. So don’t tell no more on ’em, Pip, and live well and die happy.”

His Story: My Family and the Great Wars

A British soldier reads up on Sicily, the target for the next Allied invasion, July 1943. NA 4105 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Keating G (Major) No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit
A British soldier reads up on Sicily, a target for WWII Allied invasion in July 1943.

It’s during the holidays when families tell their stories. The cold and snow (or this year, rain) lure people indoors, silent nights filling with tales of those both present and long passed.

Having recently completed a course on the military’s role in shaping modern society, I wanted to learn more about the impact war has had upon my own family.  Over the course of a single one-hour conversation with my grandfather (we call him Nonno), I heard the story that I share with you today.

My grandfather was sixteen when Allied forces invaded Sicily.

His North-Eastern hometown of Francavilla, isolated from the combat raging in the South, was used by occupying Fascist and Nazi forces as a transportation hub for arms, food, and materiel. It was the Nazis that my grandfather spoke of as most cruel. They killed women and children who refused to part with scarce rations, and caged residents of entire neighborhoods without food or water in livestock pens watched over by machine-gun carrying guards for days. Fascist forces accosted my grandfather as he picked oranges in his family’s orchard, demanding to know his age and if he was a defector masquerading as a civilian, a practice which grew more common as the war waged on.

The Allies announced their presence with swiftly-passing planes which bombed transport  vehicles and killed nearby civilians with each drop. Despite the carnage, the attacks on Axis supply lines were effective;  my grandfather described pairs of patrolling Fascist soldiers forced to share one rifle between them. Fleeing Germans passed through their town towards ships bound for the continent, blowing up bridges and planting land mines in their wake. Nazi reinforcements in the Mediterranean were met by Allied Jeeps and machine guns in their attempts to reach the Sicilian coast.

Frightened of the bombings and German scouts, my grandfather, his family, and crowds of townspeople hid in an abandoned train tunnel in the mountains, leaving its safety only to scavenge food and game in the hills.  A dead man had been sprawled on a sidewalk when the town made its flight; when they returned four days later, certain that the new forces they saw in town where Allies and not Axis, the body had remained untouched.

When the Allies arrived they swept Francavilla for remaining Axis soldiers, finding one Nazi in a countryside shack. The town’s cemetery, used by Axis forces to store drums of gasoline, was set ablaze. Pamphlets were distributed calling for hiding Fascists to surrender at the local church, the crowd which congregated there then taken prisoner. American GIs led the POWs on a side road toward an Allied base outside of town. Crossing one of the town’s few remaining bridges, a land mine was triggered and every man on it was killed.

My grandfather concluded his story here, adding that his family was lucky not to have lost anyone or have been solely dependent on rations, having a farm and livestock to supplement the 150 grams of bread allocated to each citizen per day.

Francavilla di Sicilia
Francavilla di Sicilia and it’s famous ruins of a Medieval castle

He went on to speak of his father, a World War One veteran. Having immigrated to Montreal in the early 1900s, his father answered his nation’s call to arms and returned to Sicily to serve in a volunteer Special Forces storm trooper battalion known as the Arditi (“daring ones”) on the Western Front. These troops were responsible for breaching enemy lines to pave the way for a broader infantry advance to follow. According to the Wikipedia, they “were successful in bringing in a degree of movement to what had previously been a war of entrenched positions. Their exploits on the battlefield were exemplary and they gained an illustrious place in Italian military history.” The Arditi were the most elite force in the Italian army. Some historians consider them to be the modern world’s first true “special forces”. Pretty neat.

His father often told him the story of the Special Forces mutiny which arose following a territorial advance that had quickly been reclaimed by the German line. Exhausted and only just returned to camp from their effort, their commander informed them of the news and demanded that they immediately return to the Front. In response to the ensuring rebellion, the commander lined up the battalion and executed half at random. Rather than quelling rebellion, it infuriated the surviving men who had been forced to watch their comrades die. They were eventually forced to fight by their commander, standing behind them with a pistol pointed at their backs.

The rest of his Special Forces unit was killed in a shelling attack, my great-grandfather surviving under the body of a friend. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Italian victory in WWI all living soldiers who had fought for at least six months were awarded the order of Cavaliere (knight) in recognition of their service to the Italian Republic, including himself.

A sample Cavaliere di_Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather's was issued July 30 1947 under the name Antonio Mazza.
A sample Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather’s was issued under the name Antonio Mazza.

I highly encourage you to ask your elders about how war has impacted their personal history. You never know what stories you’ll keep to commemorate for another generation.

5 Quick (and Healthy!) Lunches for a Long Day on Campus


It can be a struggle to entice yourself to spend an entire day on campus. Sure, you may study better, or you may be obligated to stay considering your course load, but it can be gruelling to sit for an entire day in libraries or campus common spaces that are obnoxiously packed, with the lure of tantalizing fast food aromas all around. Continue reading “5 Quick (and Healthy!) Lunches for a Long Day on Campus”