Have you ever gone to an event only to wonder why it isn’t standing room only? As I arrived at the Education for the 21st century event I was shocked at how small the crowd was; yes I realize there was an important hockey game on, but I still wanted to yell from the roof top “Ottawa, why aren’t you here?”
Even though the venue was less than half full, everyone was engaged and interested in the subject matter and before the event started the room was full of lively discussions about education in anticipation of the speakers ahead. Given the level of excitement, I was shocked when during the presentations it because clear that many in the audience were unfamiliar with John Mighton’s JUMP Math program and the results it has achieved for math education. I had just assumed that everyone there would have been as excited as I was to hear him speak, having read his book when it came out in 2007 after he was interviewed on All in a Day. I knew of Joel Westheimer as the education columnist for CBC Ottawa, but knew little about his new book. So much was shared over the course of the evening that I am certain everyone left having learned something new and with much to think about.
John Mighton described his experiences with JUMP Math which started as a tutoring group and expanded as he gained experience with students in classrooms, and looked to empirical evidence for best teaching practices. The results he has seen are remarkable, and really dispute the age-old idea that only an elite few can do math. His book The End of Ignorance (and its predecessor The Myth of Ability) are both fascinating reads that really disrupt much of what we believe to be truth about education.
John Mighton described what it was like going into a classroom as a playwright and realizing that a classroom of students can become an audience. When students are all learning together as the lesson unfolds it is much like they are the audience for a play engaging in the story of what they are learning. Yes, they even engage in the story of math. Mighton discussed the synergy that happens in the moments when the students are learning together, and how that is missing when students only learn independently or at staggered rates due to some being left behind. Mighton walked us through a mini math lesson, giving us a glimpse of what we was referring to, the isolation of being left out as others solve a question you don’t get, and then the collective excitement as you all work through the concepts to achieve the answer together. To me this was a magical revelation to consider, so often when we are worried about the end goal of education we forget about the experience and the value found in the experience itself. This is something that came up throughout the evening, the reminder that education is not about the destination, but the journey.
Joel Westheimer was at ease with the audience and a very engaging speaker. More than a few times I was so caught up with what he was saying that I forgot to focus on my notes. For example I started writing about the three main things he outlined from his book and only clearly wrote down the first, which was the current obsession with standardization in education. The topic of standardized testing is heavily covered in the news right now, and Westheimer spoke about how the focus on testing has taken many things of great value out of our schools. He spoke of the challenge of testing passion, creativity, critical thinking, art appreciation and many other concepts that are highly valuable but hard to test, and suggested that instead of measuring what we care about, as a society, we have chosen to care about what we can measure. This is no clearer than when discussing school registration with other parents. Every parent I have spoken with about choosing a school for my daughter has mentioned the EQAO scores as if they will tell me whether or not the school is a good fit for my child and family. When I later asked about choosing a great school the answer was to find one that doesn’t stress grades, or ranking students, and encourages every student to contribute and grow, and his suggestion on how to find a school like this was simple: visit the school and look on the walls, see what the school is choosing to showcase. That will tell you more about the culture of the school than the test scores, and is the first step in measuring what matters.
The theme of the night was “Education for the 21st Century” and both Westheimer and Mighton shared many great ideas to ensure that no child is left behind in any way that matters, and while both stressed that there are great things happening in schools, it is clear that our students are not being given the education they deserve—yet.