Improve teacher working conditions: dump bad ideas

In a recent presentation to the Premier’s Task Force on Improving Education Outcomes, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association presented compelling scientific and anecdotal data showing that the working conditions for classroom teachers are not good.

Classes include many students with severe behavioural problems, significant cognitive disabilities and diverse academic skills. With only limited support, teachers find it difficult to provide adequate instruction. They’re pressured to develop multiple lesson plans for each class to accommodate the variety of individual needs.

Frankly, this expectation is unrealistic and sets teachers up for failure.

Over the last 30 years, Newfoundland and Labrador, like other provinces, has moved to an inclusive education model. In principle, this makes sense. Students deserve to be educated with their peers. While some students require specialized support, there are good reasons to include all students in regular classrooms to the greatest degree possible.

However, problems arise when faulty educational theories are pushed on teachers who have little choice but to comply. The worst, without a doubt, is that teachers should replace structured, whole-class teaching with project-based discovery learning. Even though a wealth of evidence supports traditional teaching techniques, school administrators, provincial officials and education professors often push an ideological agenda against traditional methods.

Interestingly, traditional classrooms are exactly what many students with learning disabilities benefit from the most. A structured classroom with desks facing the front, with a clear and focused lesson delivered by a competent teacher, create an excellent environment in which to learn.

Instead, however, teachers are told to seat their students in groups, facing each other, and let them learn together at their own pace.

This is a recipe for disaster, particularly in classrooms with students who have behavioural challenges.

Differentiated instruction is a fad often pushed on teachers. Based largely on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, differentiated instruction tells teachers to adapt their lessons to the learning styles of each student. While this sounds good in theory, it falls apart in practice since it’s impossible for teachers to design multiple effective lessons for each course they teach every day.

Teachers end up dividing their classes into groups and trying to give mini-lessons to each small groups, while hoping that the remaining students remain focused enough on their independent assignments to not cause too much distraction. It’s a horrendously inefficient way to teach and creates an impossible workload for teachers. Teachers burn out in short order.

To make matters worse, there’s no empirical evidence that differentiated instruction works.

For example, Bryan Goodwin of Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning stated in his 2010 report Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most that there is a “dearth of evidence supporting differentiated instruction” and that “the extent to which teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms is not a key variable in student success.”

Unfortunately, teachers rarely hear about this evidence.

One of the key faults of differentiated instruction is that it’s based on the even faultier notion of individual learning styles. While many teachers accept the gospel that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learnings and others are tactile-kinesthetic learners, there’s not a shred of evidence supporting this theory.

Prof. John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, reviewed thousands of studies about student achievement. In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie bluntly states there’s “zero supporting evidence” for learning styles.

The damage caused by this failed theory is substantial. Instead of providing well-designed whole class lessons, teachers waste hours trying to adapt to the learning styles of each student. As a result, teachers end up working harder, getting worse results and burning themselves out.

Things need to change in Newfoundland and Labrador. Instead of forcing teachers to adopt failed theories and foolish fads, teachers should be empowered to use the most effective methods.

Dumping bad ideas and bad practices would go a long way to improving the effectiveness of teachers in the province.

— Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

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