Reimagining the Same-Old-Same-Old: Lakeshore School Division’s Reforms as an Example of School Rhetoric, Part Two: The Bias of Educational Research

In the last post on this topic (Reimagining the Same-Old-Same-Old: Lakeshore School Division’s Reforms as an Example of School Rhetoric, Part One)  , I looked at the school rhetoric that surrounded school change in a particular school division in Manitoba, Canada: Lakeshore School Division, by looking at the different phases of the “reform process” of school change in the school change project “Reimagine Lakeshore.” This post will look, critically, at some of the rhetoric involved in publications surrounding this reform process.

Jacqueline Kirk and Michael Nantais wrote an article titled “Reimagine Lakeshore: A School Division Change Initiative for the Twenty-First Century”  (in pages 317-342, Educating for the 21st Century:  Perspectives, Policies and Practices from Around the World, Suzanne Choo, Deb Sawch,
Alison Villanueva and Ruth Vinz,  Editors).The authors are hardly uninterested researchers. They themselves participated in the Reimagine Lakeshore project. From page 337:

A key part of the Reimagine process was the use of action research. Each year,
schools, teams of teachers, and individuals could apply for funding to pursue an
innovation in one of three pathways. Two university researchers, the authors, supported these projects.

The authors assume, throughout their review of the process, that the modern school system only needs to be reformed–not restructured in a radical manner to meet the learning needs of children and adolescents by integrating their nature as both  living beings and as intellectual/spirital beings (which is what The Dewey School in Chicago tried to do between 1896 and 1904). They assume, in other words, that children’s and adolescents’ learning needs are mainly symbolic and academic (see “Is the Teaching of Symbolic Learning in the School System Educational?” in the Publications and Writings section of this blog, found on the home page, for a critique of this view).

This lack of critical distance from the modern school system is reflected in their persistent positive evaluation of the project. They use the noun “excitement” several times in describing the reaction of the employees in the Division to the project. From page 334:

Data analysis indicated a high level of engagement and excitement [my emphasis] throughout the school division, particularly in the first phases of the Reimagine process. While direct involvement of teachers and administrators in the process was voluntary [my emphasis], approximately 67 % of survey respondents at the end of the second year (61 % response rate) indicated medium to high levels of participation, and only 11 % reported no participation.

As I argued in my last post, “Teachers are employees and thus subject to the economic pressure and influence of their employer.” The authors simply accept the claim that “direct involvement … in the process was voluntary.” What would happen if most teachers did not participate in the process? Did some teachers feel coerced economically or socially in any way to participate due to their situation as employees? The authors are blind to such a question. They assume throughout that participation was voluntary merely because it was declared to be voluntary.

This lack of critical distance can be seen in other things they wrote. For example, from page 336:

Much of the excitement across the division seemed to arise from the culture of trust
and risk-taking that was encouraged and nurtured.

Again, how trust can really emerge in the context of being an employee, on the one hand, and the employer on the other (represented by principals and superintendent) is beyond me. It is as if the economic power of the employer simply did not exist. Such a view, however, is consistent with the indoctrination typical in Canadian schools (see, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees).

As for risk-taking, the following is supposed to express an environment of risk-taking. From page 331:

The school division supported the plans with necessary resources and freedom to
experiment without the fear of failure. This support was exemplified when a school
trustee stood and stated, “The board is behind you. We want you to try some things
in your classrooms; if those don’t work, try some other things. It’s OK to fail.”

Firstly, merely saying that failure is acceptable can hardly compensate for the economic power that an employer actually holds. Teachers know that. experiments were to occur always within the confines of the power of the employers over their heads. Secondly, even if teachers felt that they could experiment, the experiment was always defined in terms of the modern school system. The following is thus pure rhetoric. From page 336:

One focus group participant explained that the division gives them “permission to think outside of the box, permission to try new things, to fail forward, to take chances and to take risks . . . I think that’s really powerful.”

To think outside the box–within the boxes called the modern school system and the curriculum–such is the limits of “risk taking” and “permission to fail.” The process was rigged from the beginning. That some teachers fell for the rhetoric is probably true, as the quote above shows, but this does not change the fact that it is school rhetoric that hides the reality of the limited changes possible in “Reimagine Lakeshore.”

The authors refer to several researchers in justifying their views. Let us take a look at one of their references: Michael Fullan. Mr. Fullan has written several works on educational change and school leadership. His arguments are couched in terms of the modern school system, with proposed changes being merely modifications of the modern school system–like “Reimagine Lakeshore.” Since some of the schools in Lakeshore School Division (such as Ashern Central School) are similar to urban inner-city schools (with parents whose income is relatively lower than the average), the criticism of Fullan’s approach by Pedro Noguera, in his article titled “A critical response to Michael Fullan’s ‘The future of educational change: system thinkers in action,'” Journal of Educational Change, Volume 7, is appropriate. From pages 130-131:

… by neglecting to discuss context, and by that I mean the reality of social and racial inequality in the US (or for that matter Canada and the UK) and its effects on school performance, Fullan inadvertently contributes to the narrow, de-contextualized, ‘‘blame-the-victim,’’ thinking that characterizes much of the scholarship and policy in the field of education. In the field of education, generalizing about what schools or educational leaders should do to promote successful practices and higher levels of achievement, simply does not work given the ‘‘savage inequalities’’ (Kozol 1991) that characterize American education.

At the most fundamental level, the educational leaders in impoverished areas must
figure out how to get those who serve their students—teachers, principals, secretaries and custodians, to treat them and their parents with dignity and respect. This is an especially great challenge because in American society, the institutions that serve poor people are rarely known for quality service.

Mr. Noguera’s own approach is itself, of course, limited since he refers to school bureaucrats as educational leaders–as if they were not part of the problem. Nonetheless, he does recognize that neglect of consideration of the social and economic conditions of most students and their parents is typical of school reform.

Fullan in turn criticizes Noquer’s own critique: Michael Fullan, “Reply to Noguera, Datnow and Stoll, Jan 2006,” Journal of Educational Change, Volume 7. Mr. Fullan’s response to Mr. Noguera’s critique is hardly adequate. From page137:

I have two main disagreements with how Noguera positions his argument. First, he
assumes that my eight elements of sustainability are only conceptual. What could he have thought I meant by the ‘‘in action’’ part of ‘‘System thinkers in action?’’ From where did he think I derived the main elements? In fact, these elements of sustainability consist of conclusions from my own and others’ work on the very problems Noguera brings to the fore. All eight, starting with the first, moral purpose, are devoted to matters, strategies, actions focusing on raising the bar and closing the gap in student achievement. The majority of the work involves working with schools in disadvantaged circumstances, and none of it is distant research let alone abstract theorizing. It all concerns working in partnerships with schools, districts, and states ‘‘to cause’’ improvements relative to the very issues highlighted by Noguera. I can see how he might have been misled and frustrated by the broad strokes in my paper, and I should have used some concrete examples (see Fullan, 2006), but to interpret what I said as merely theoretical misses the action-basis of my message.

There are many problems with this response. Firstly, the claim that Mr. Fullan’s model for school change is grounded in real schools that existed in “disadvantaged circumstances” in order to “raise the bar” and “close the gap in student achievement,” as already noted, merely assumes that “non-disadvantaged” schools form the standard for judging whether the reformed schools have ‘raised the bar” and “closed the gap in student achievement.” In other words, Mr. Fullan accepts the present modern school system as adequate for meeting the learning needs of students. This is hardly the case.

Secondly, is there proof that students from schools in disadvantaged areas, even with such school changes, can actually “raise the bar” to the level of the assumed “non-disadvantaged” schools and “close the gap in student achievement?” Thirdly, even if that were the case, there would still be competition between graduates for jobs on the market for workers–and the market for workers would sort them out according to the needs of employers, with some being assigned lower positions within a hierarchy of workers. Fourthly, even if there were not a hierarchy of positions, graduates as workers would still be used as things by employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Mr. Fullan also pulls the old trick out of his hat of arguing that it is necessary to offer solutions to identified problems rather than just criticism. From pages 137-138:

The second problem I have concerns Noguera’s failure to offer any solutions or even
lines of solutions to the critical issues he identifies. He devotes several paragraphs to a series of tough questions, such as, ‘‘In communities like Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and Buffalo what should schools do to meet the needs of the children they serve? What type of reading program should the vast number of inexperienced and uncredentialled teachers in Los Angeles employ?’’ and so on. There are few people in the field who are more relevant to these topics than Pedro Noguera, but if you really want to be relevant, do not just ask the questions, start providing ideas relevant to action. I know Noguera is actually engaged in such action as his great book City Schools and the American Dream (2003) attests to; I just wish he had provided some of this wisdom to the issues at hand in this exchange.

Identifying problems forms part of any necessary solution–they are not separate. Indeed, the proper formulation of a problem goes a long way towards its solution, as John Dewey, a major American philosopher of education, noted (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, page 108):

It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved. To find out what the problem and problems are which a problematic situation presents to be inquired into, is to be well along in inquiry. To mistake the problem involved is to cause subsequent inquiry to be irrelevant or to go astray. Without a problem, there is blind groping in the dark. The way in which the problem is conceived decides what specific suggestions are entertained and which are dismissed; what data are selected and which rejected; it is the criterion for relevancy and irrelevancy of hypotheses and conceptual structures.

Furthermore, conceiving solutions to problems in schools that are defined in abstraction from the problem of the existence of a market for workers and the existence of a class of employers–as Mr. Fullan evidently does–is to limit solutions to window-dressing. Systemic change in the modern school system, if needed as a solution, is excluded from the start. Solutions to problems are to sought that coincide with conditions that reflect the modern school system.

Ms. Kirk and Mr. Mantais,  in conjunction with Ayodeji Osiname,  (M.Ed. Candidate, Brandon University), Janet Martell (Superintendent, Lakeshore School Division) and Leanne Peters (Assistant Superintendent, Lakeshore School Division) presented at the 43rd Annual Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) Conference (2015) in Ottawa. The title of their presentation is: ” Reimagine Lakeshore: A Reflective Analysis of a School Division Change Initiative.” It is the same school rhetoric as analyzed in part one, so there is no point in referring further to it.

In the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents MASS Journal (Fall 2013), pages 12-15, Ms. Martell and Ms. Peters published an article on Reimagine Lakeshore titled “Excitement, Energy and Enthusiasm: Lakeshore School Division and the Process of Change.” The article is full of school rhetoric, such as “Teachers from all 10 schools in Lakeshore volunteered to work with their colleagues to imagine a different kind of classroom, with different ways to learn and to teach,” or the following (page 12):

The Challenge

In late December 2012, I l[Ms. Martell] aid down a challenge to all of our teachers, “By September 2014 we have to be doing something radically different [my emphasis] in each and every one of our classrooms. We are no longer serving the needs of our current student population.”

Obviously, their definition of “something radically different” is rather conservative. I take it that the reader will be able to determine whether the actual Reimagine Lakeshore was “something radically different” or not.

The authors provide one additional detail that is worth noting (page 13):

One of the key components of the Learning Vision has been reading comprehension.
In order to make this a reality, all teachers received professional development and support from literacy consultants in teaching reading comprehension  strategies to students. The division developed a Standard Reading Assessment (SRA) that is administered to students twice per year to track levels of comprehension and to determine areas for direct teaching. Although this presented considerable challenges, it became instrumental in shifting teachers’ thinking from the idea that teaching reading is the job of the language arts teacher to the idea that all teachers who put text in front of students are teachers of reading.

Learning to read in various disciplines is of course useful, but the focus on learning to read rather than learning about life in general and human life in particular, with reading as a means to that end, reflects what I called in one article the fetishism for literacy.

I will leave this school rhetoric for now. Students, as living human beings, deserve much, much more than this school rhetoric: they deserve the best that this society can offer all children–but that requires a radical change in social and economic conditions that are governed by a class of employers. In conjunction with such change, school changes will proceed to repair the division between human beings as living beings and human beings as spiritual and intellectual beings. That is the real radical challenge of our times–not the pseudo-challenges thrown up by school bureaucrats.

One final point: Social democrats and social reformers underestimate the extent to which it is necessary to incorporate constant criticism of such rhetoric in various domains. They thus underestimate the importance of an ideological battle not just in universities but in the community and in the workplace. The ruling class ideologues, on the other hand, persistently engage in ideological endeavours to achieve their goals. Reimagine Lakeshore is one such endeavour. Where were the social democrats? They were nowhere to be found.

Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Six: The Reduction of the Nature of Teenagers to Their Brains

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that Neil MacNeil, the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

The relevance of the issue has to do with division of labour between intellectual labour and manual labour. Typically in schools, there is an emphasis on “academic learning”–which means purely intellectual pursuits at the expense of the use of the body as an essential aspect of the learning process. To ignore such issues is to ignore a cleavage in our society that needs to be repaired through the creation of a socialist society that eliminates such a division of labour.

I must emphasize that such work is necessary despite the possible negative repercussions by management. If we are afraid to question management and employers in our own workplace, how can we expect others to challenger their particular employer? How can we expect to unite to challenge the class of employers generally if we fail to challenge our own particular employer?

It is much easier to criticize other employers than one’s own–just as it is easier to criticize other nations than one’s own.

Such criticism is also necessary since the class power of employers is supported in various ways, including ideological means. To fail to challenge the power of the class of employers in diverse domains makes it all the more difficult to challenge them at the economic and political level. This is a typical weakness of social-democratic or reformist approaches to challenging the class power of employers. They idealize one or more domains (such as the public sector or education or law) without engaging in inquiry into the real nature of these domains (see, for example, Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Two).

Hello everyone,

Attached is another article sent to the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following summary and commentary:

The author of the following article, “The Gift and the Trap: Working the `Teenage Brain’ into our Concept of Youth,” (Howard Sercombe) argues that Michael Males’ criticisms of most of the research on youth’s so-called risk-taking behaviour, as reductionist and unscientific is justified. Most of the research ignores social environmental conditions that influence behaviour; the conclusions derived from such “brain research” should therefore be treated with suspicion. Youth, like all human beings, should be seen as a conjunction of biology, social environment and agency (self-determination). Youth, like all human beings, is irreducible to “brain states.”

Sercombe calls for research that unites the biological approach, the sociological approach and the role of agency (human beings as persons who make decisions). However, he argues that we lack a model that incorporates all three. Hence we need to focus on both the biological approach and the sociological approach in succession, with the one balancing the other until a new synthesis may arise.
Sercombe concurs with Males’ earlier view that, when sociological factors are taken into account (such as comparable levels of poverty between teenagers and adults), then the level of risk-taking is comparable.

The author points out that the issue of whether youth have inherent characteristics or have characteristics that are accidental (dependent on social circumstances) has had a long history, dating back at least to Aristotle. Hence, the issue has divided theoreticians for a long time.

What is new is the use of recent “brain research” to claim that teenagers have tendencies towards risk-taking when compared to adults. Such a view claims to be scientific but in fact expresses a prejudice by adults against teenagers. In other words, it is stereotyping in the form of alleged scientific inquiry.

Sercombe, by contrast, claims that modern brain research actually tells a different story. Brain research shows that the neural structure of the brain is subject to modification due to experience. Therefore, neural anatomy and physiology are functions of both maturational processes and environmental processes. The emergence of certain behaviours is a function of genes and the environment. If environmental conditions are not present, then the neural connections may not be established despite appropriate genetic timing. Conversely, if genetic conditions are not present, then the neural connections may not be established despite appropriate environmental conditions. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are two sides of the same coin; they both need to be present for certain neural structures to emerge.

There is (contrary to such authors as David Dobb, in his article “Beautiful Brains”) no one-to-one correspondence between genetics and human behaviour.

Recent brain imaging shows that different connections between neurons are established as experiences differ. Furthermore, human beings, as agents, persons or subjects of their own lives make decisions which, in turn, influence both the environment and the neural structure of their brains (and those of other people).

Sercombe then provides some facts from the U.K. that question the so-called nature of adolescents for risk-taking. He points out that the recent financial meltdown was hardly due to teenagers but rather to adults. Such a meltdown has had much more devastating consequences than the so-called risk-taking behaviour of youth.

Sercombe calls for humility among researchers who favour nature over nurture, or nurture over nature. We do not, at present, he claims, have a model that integrates both in any consistent manner.

He only takes issue with Males’ apparent rejection of the tendential distinctiveness of adolescence as a transition towards adulthood as revealed in brain imagery.

He does criticize Males for apparently rejecting modern brain research and what it tells us about teenagers. The structure of modern teenage brains share certain commonalities with the structure of the brains of adults (since both share a common environment in, for instance, experiencing similar school structures), but there are distinctive aspects to the structure of the brains of teenagers. There is a change in the ratio of grey brain matter to white brain matter from the onset of puberty until the early 20s. Myelination occurs, making the brain more efficient as certain neural structures are selected for use(a function of genetics, environment and agency and not just genetics, as the reductionists claims), whereas synaptic pruning results in the elimination of connections and hence structures that are not used. The teenage years do bear witness to an evident restructuring that makes the neural structures more nearly approximate the more rigid structures of adult brains. By the age of 14, more or less, teenage brains are similar in structure to the structure of adult brains, but they need to be edited and organized into more efficient structures.

The author considers differences between the structure of the brains of teenagers and the brains of adults to be significant only in terms of tendencies. If certain environmental conditions are present (including specific kinds of agents), then there may be certain tendencies to act in certain ways. The specific environmental conditions will have a say in whether adolescents will act differently from their adult counterparts to any great extent.

Sercombe, like Males, points out just how bias the research is against youth. Interpretations of the data from brain research invariably treat youth as deficient when compared to adults. Sercombe queries why research never emphasizes the positive aspects of teenagers as exemplified in the data. (Although he does not specify, it can be inferred that such a characteristic as greater flexibility in rule rejection and reconstruction may be something which adults would do well to cherish.) The discourse on youth (by, of course, mainly adults) presupposes that youth are defective in some manner so that such discourse infects research as well. Such a view leads to the slippery slope of treating youth as pathological and in need of strict control by adults.

Although the author’s approach is noteworthy in the much needed attempt to take into consideration the biological and the sociological (and psychological) aspects of the problem, he seems to be unaware that such a synthetic approach to all three was proposed by John Dewey a long time ago. Sercombe’s view that we need to balance research that excludes sociology and psychology from biology (or vice versa) by referring to research that emphasizes sociology and psychology will never result in a synthesis. What is needed is a synthetic approach that incorporates all three from the beginning, even if implicitly—as does Dewey’s theory.

Dewey begins with human beings who are dependent on each other and on the world of which they are a part—a social, biological and physical-chemical environment. Emphasis on the biological, the sociological or the psychological assumes a functional character: we emphasize one or the other for particular purposes. At a lived level, though, there is no distinction. Human experience is never purely physical-chemical, or purely biological, or purely social. It is all of them together in an inseparable unity. Emphasizing the biological may be required to ascertain certain aspects of our experience, but it never exhausts it.

Educators would do well to study more carefully Dewey’s philosophy in general and his philosophy of education in particular. They may then avoid the reductionism characteristic of biological approaches to human beings or, for that matter, the reductionism characteristic of sociological (and psychological) approaches to human beings and the education process. They may also avoid pandering to prejudices against youth based on pseudo-science (such as that presented in David Dobb’s article, “Beautiful Brain”).

Educators, however, are adults, and as adults they tend to consider their standards to be sacrosanct. They may well avoid engaging with Dewey’s theory since Dewey long ago argued that, although children (and adolescents) need in some ways to become like adults, adults need to become more like children (and adolescents):

“With respect to the development of powers devoted to coping with specific scientific and economic problems we may say the child [and adolescents] should be growing in manhood. With respect to sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind, we may say that the adult should be growing in childlikeness. One statement is as true as the other.” (Democracy and Education, 1916, p. 55)