The Slippery Slope

“The principal goal of education in schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”    ~Jean Piaget~

For the first time in almost 20 years, my school, along with the rest of Ontario’s public elementary schools are missing out on the annual ‘conversation’ about the results of the annual grade 3 and 6 provincial EQAO assessments.  EQAO opted not administer the assessments after public elementary teachers refused to participate in the testing process as  part of the work to rule sanctions imposed in the spring.  Whatever one’s opinions are on standardized testing (not the focus of this post) it has made for an interesting fall.

Normally, at this time of the year school and system leaders are responding to the results on multiple fronts. Depending on the numbers, one could be dancing in the hallways and serving cake in the staff room, or sweating through an angry parent meeting trying to articulate the plan that will raise the scores and floating in stream of the annual media hand wringing about the decline of our system and our inability to ‘compete’.

Serendipity being what it is, our school board did engage in some broadly-based data collection last year- we conducted a system-wide student engagement survey. Near the end of the school year students in grades 5 to12 were invited to complete a questionnaire on a few key aspects of their life at school.  Over 52,000 students completed the survey (mostly online) representing 72% of our student population- a pretty robust sample size.

One of the key areas the survey focused on was how our students perceived their schools as engaging, modern learning environments.  A slice of data in this area of our student survey is represented below:




The percentage values on the left (light blue) represent responses from our gr.5-8 (middle school) students and those on the right (navy) are responses from our gr.9-12 (high school) students.  What is noteworthy for me is the quantity of students who feel that their voices, values and interests are not evident in the school they attend and the decline in each category’s percentages from the middle school to high school results.


It reminds me of the results reported from the survey the Gallup organization conducted with a similar aged cohort of over 500 000 American students in 2012. An 80’s themed piece on this report can be found in The Atlantic .


Engagement and motivation are essential for deep learning. Whatever one’s stance or perspective is on what school should be; it’s pretty clear to me our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that school is not what it could be. Do we really wish to be part of a system that gradually erodes the enthusiasm and joy of learning of the majority of the children it is designed to serve?

This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an address by Will Richardson in which he challenged us to consider the beliefs we hold about our own learning and reflect upon whether these beliefs were evident in the actions we take in our schools and classrooms.  I think (hope) most of us know that the things we do to children do not reflect what we know we ought to be doing- and yet we persist.

Regardless of your role, if you work in schools now, knowing what our students have told us, how will you respond?

  1. Stephen Rensink
    November 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Hi Brian…thanks for the posts. I read them regularly but comment of few of them because they are always so thoughtfully prepared. This one is no exception. I am not surprised by the data nor should the Board…it is consistent with data that has been collected over the years through Scott’s work, the work of the student engagement team and others on a more localized basis. What troubles me and you allude to this, is that despite all of the data and the recommendations for action that have accompanied them the Board has stuck doggedly to their path which is well rooted in mid 20th century pedagogy (and not just our Board…from our work across the province we know that the picture is the same if not worse). We can do better…we must do better or we will find that in the technological/knowledge age public schools and schooling as we know them will cease to exist. More on this if you wish.

    The other bit that troubles me is that absence of teacher voice in this “thin” dialogue of engagement. As we must with students we must also do better at engaging the voices of those who work on the front lines with our students. I know while I was working with adults in the system there was a general “fear” of being critical of the path the Board was/is on…a fear of negative recrimination. Whether these fears were/are justified or not the fact remains that they are very real. Please excuse me if this sounds like union rhetoric…it isn’t as many of these same people are just as if even more fearful of speaking out on federation issues.

    Now comes the big question…how to change/transform the system. We know that education reform is simply reshuffling the pieces with hopes that the puzzle will come up looking different. We know reform efforts often do not have the far-reaching or sustainable impact that we would like to think it has. We know, because the numbers tell us so. So what is the answer? First, I believe we need to have the courage to identify and acknowledge what is not working and to accept the need for a new truly new vision…not just a re-hash of old policies. Second, the courage to commit to a new path, a path that draws on all the assets we have available to us, students, staffs, parents, communities and, yes, government. This need not create a financial burden although it will if we refuse to let go of the system we are currently funding. I recall listening to Larry Lezotte compare what education could/should be to a composite bin. If all we do is pile it on top, if we don’t mix it and remove from the bottom not only does the bin become full to overflowing but is ceases to work. So we need to have the courage to let go of that which we know does not yield results and that can be the hardest thing.

    Thanks for putting up with the ramblings of an old retired guy.

  2. Brian Harrison
    November 22, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Hi Stephen- it’s always nice to hear from you! Your point about teacher voice is important- actually it is probably the most important part of the work we need to do. As much as we look to policy makers to drive reform it is the willingness (or lack thereof) of school administrators and teachers to work to together to evolve their practice that can achieve this:)
    Peace my friend.

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