Feature

Standard Issues

An Alberta teacher wants to liberate our schools from the educrats

Illustration by Genevieve Simms

Joe bower is a public school teacher who conducts his classes from Unit 39 of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre in central Alberta. His students, aged seven to seventeen, who are also patients, arrive via the emergency room. Some have mental health disorders, and many did poorly in a traditional school environment. All are having their psychological needs assessed. Students pursue the subject areas that interest them (biology might consist of a study of breast cancer because an aunt has been diagnosed with it). They enter and exit the room without permission, and they don’t need to raise their hands before speaking. Some stay for weeks; others stick around for less than a day. Like all public school students in Alberta, they are required to write provincial tests, but Bower can request their exemption. He prefers written evaluations rather than marks for classwork. For decoration, he has pinned his favourite sayings to the walls, among them a quote from the American psychologist Jerome Bruner: “Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information.”

From this closet-sized classroom on the margins of Canada’s most progressive public school systems, Bower—a plain-spoken thirty-four-year-old from Alberta who looks more like a hockey player than a teacher—has become one of the country’s highest-profile, most vocal educators. His alternative pedagogy has attracted the attention of parents, administrators, teachers, and students from all over the world. More than a million people have visited his blog, and 12,500 more receive regular (often hourly) updates from his Twitter account. Blog posts trumpet “The Death of Learning” and “Who will pack your parachute,” while Tweets distill his pedagogical beliefs into accessible sound bites (“Democracy, not our economy, is dependent on public education”). The result has made him a star in Canadian education, a mantle he has willingly assumed. (Question: “Do you see yourself as an agent of change? ” Answer: “I do.”)

In 2013, he edited a collection of progressive teaching ideas in a pun-laden book, De-testing and De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization. The introduction was written by the Oprah-endorsed author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, who, like Bower, believes students learn best through experience, not tests. Bower has also received nods of recognition from Finland’s star delegate Pasi Sahlberg, and high-profile American reformer and former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch. Compared with these globally renowned educators, Bower is closer to Kohn (very progressive) than Ravitch (moderately progressive). All three are persuasive critics of what Sahlberg calls the global education reform movement, conveniently abbreviated to GERM. The shorthand encompasses numerous federal policies implemented around the world, but especially in the US—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and various STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) initiatives—which many educators have come to view negatively. GERM’s influence is perhaps easiest to identify in the vogue here and abroad for standardized tests, compulsory assessments manufactured by ministries of education and private corporations and delivered to kids at regular intervals throughout their schooling. While advocates believe the tests help bureaucrats better assess learning needs, making teachers more accountable and ensuring that the same opportunities are made available to everyone, critics contend that learning is inherently individualistic, and that it hinges on the relationship between teacher and student. Bower falls distinctly into this second category, practising and preaching the belief that teachers should help their students acquire personalized knowledge, insight, and awareness, rather than grade and test their work as if they were all the same.

“Public education needs to do a better job of discovering the needs of its students,” he says, as we settle into the dappled shade of the local Earls restaurant patio, just off Red Deer’s main thoroughfare. “That means we need to set standardization to the side. We have to stop pretending we can give all kids a great education by giving them all the same education.”

However, such opinions, and how they manifest in the classroom, draw an appreciable volume of criticism. On CBC Radio’s The Current, John Long, a retired professor of education from the University of Manitoba, dismissed Bower’s no-marks policy as “unrealistic” (Long believes numerical feedback is essential to students’ growth). Other tactics, including Bower’s refusal to assign homework and his critique of Bill Gates’ educational philanthropy, which promotes standards-based reforms, have drawn backlash on his blog and his Twitter feed. Halfway through the 2010–11 school year, his heterodox methods led to his transfer from Normandeau School to the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, presumably so he would do less harm. He saw the switch as an opportunity to go even further: the alternative environment made it easier for him to teach using alternative methods.

Independent-minded teachers like Bower have existed since school first became formalized in the nineteenth century. However, social media has become a powerful ally for radical reformers like Bower, with his songwriter’s knack for distilling complicated subjects into engaging, often metaphorical truths. On Twitter, the effect can sometimes sound hollow, even platitudinous—like lyrics divorced from music (“Fair isn’t always equal,” “Paperwork is the monster that eats great teachers”)—but in person, combined with his unwavering gaze, the result is something more special, a transference of insight from his mind to yours.

“Two young goldfish are swimming along,” he says. “And there’s this older goldfish. He says to the two young goldfish, ‘Hey boys, how’s the water?’ The two goldfish keep swimming. Then one turns to the other and says, ‘What the hell is water?’ ” He gives me a moment to reflect. “We’re so immersed in school that we don’t even know what it is.”

Then he lets his gaze wander. “I sometimes think that’s my role as a teacher. I’m trying to help people figure out what the water is.”

The water is vast. Alberta alone has about 35,000 public school teachers. Their mission, by and large, is to cram students’ minds with thousands of “learning outcomes,” or chunks of quasi-knowledge, information, and social values. If that definition sounds nebulous, try a more official one, penned by Alberta Education: “The learning outcomes within a subject or discipline help students to develop and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of competencies.” Before they leave grade twelve, kids are required to gain 4,800 outcomes ranging from formalistic directives to propagandistic decrees, and to “manage time and other resources needed to complete a task,” and “demonstrate desirable personal characteristics such as…commitment to democratic ideals.” In a recent repeal of Ministerial Order No. 004/98 (an effete name for an effete document in a field with too much of both), Alberta’s learning outcomes have been amended to include new goals that read like the overeager pronouncements of a valedictorian on commencement day. Graduates are now expected to be “Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with Entrepreneurial Spirit,” and to “strive for engagement and personal excellence in their learning journey.”

By the time a teacher like Bower sets foot in a classroom, most of his decisions have already been made for him, by people he has never met, in buildings he has never visited, using rationale he may not agree with or support. Teachers are obliged to follow an administrative mandate that can make them feel more like automatons than educators. They then face a choice: do what they are told and keep a bad job, or risk everything—including their jobs—to do what they think is right.

Bower, who often displays a fiery discontentment in his tweets, has a keen sense of right and wrong. In 2006, six years into a job at Westpark Middle School in Red Deer, where he worked before Normandeau, he began making major changes to his practice after an article by Kohn titled “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement” convinced him of another way to teach. “If learning is the goal, and not compliance, it changes everything. You’re not just trying to get [students] to do whatever the hell you want,” explains Bower. The day after he read the article, he returned to class reinvigorated, bearing what he thought would be good news: he would not be grading his students’ latest assignment on the particle model of matter. “They looked at me like I was from Mars,” he says. “All of them said, almost in sync, ‘You mean we did this for nothing?’ ”

He stopped marking papers and assigning homework, and started asking students what they wanted to learn. He rearranged his classroom to invite conversation: “I had tables in a horseshoe. I had two couches. I had my own personal flat screen TV on the wall. I had tools in the corner, where a kid was working on his bike,” he recalls over his dish of Hunan Kung Pao. As it happened, the Earls hostess, Breana Cook, was a student of his then. She remembers learning World War II history as she played the board game Risk. “Being able to play Risk was a lot more interesting than just reading and stuff,” she says, “because I’m not a fan of social studies or history. It doesn’t catch my eye. But I will always remember learning how to play Risk. It was just cool.”

Compared with Bower’s pedagogy, the educational philosophy that undergirds Alberta’s public school system isn’t just conventional but soporific. Yet it says something about the state of Canadian education that, relative to other systems in other provinces and territories, the province is actually progressive. In 2010, Dave Hancock, then minister of education, drafted a blueprint called Inspiring Action on Education that promised to revamp the system, reconsider standardized testing, and give students more flexibility in how they could learn and achieve credits. An educational document that seemed genuinely educational, it won support from teachers across the province (“I actually really like it,” Bower told me in an email). Two years after Inspiring Action, a follow-up publication outlined “Twelve Dimensions for Transforming Education in Alberta.” These were not vaguely worded goals, but concrete steps that could lead to tangible change. First on the agenda was a conceit: “Outdated test-based compliance requirements continue to distract education partners from making real learning first a priority for Alberta students.” In a field that loves to hand out marks but hates to acknowledge its own failings, this simple-sounding concession was—and is—a major step forward.

The current enthusiasm for standardized testing can be traced back to Sputnik, when Russia shocked the world by sending a man-made satellite into space. Then as now, strategists saw education as key to geopolitical supremacy. Like many other nations, Canada responded to Sputnik by enlisting in the so-called Brains Race, a series of legislative initiatives that re-examined the purpose of publicly funded education. In 1957, the Alberta government appointed the Royal Commission on Education to examine the system and make recommendations. The commission found numerous flaws, including under-prepared high school graduates and an under-skilled workforce. As late as 1976, writes Margaret Dagenais, in a doctoral dissertation for the University of Regina, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was suggesting that Canada’s ad hoc education system would put future generations and the economy at risk.

The solution, the government thought, lay in adopting mass testing and other standards-based reforms. Over time, measuring became the primary goal of education, not just the means for understanding it. It also laid the groundwork for the bureaucratization of learning. In the mid-’90s, at the behest of the Royal Commission on Learning, the Ontario government founded the Education Quality and Accountability Office. EQAO has since become the data-obsessed apex of the Ministry of Education, which is itself data obsessed. As the largest branch of its kind in the country, Ontario’s Ministry of Education employs about 1,700 educrats who establish mandates for teachers. The ratio works out to about one administrator for every seventy teachers. In this hegemonic arrangement, a few boardroom educrats decide not only how learning takes place, but the very language used to define it (e.g., “learning outcomes”). This is done through numerous Kafkaesque agencies, boards, commissions, and departments with names like the Strategic Transformation Branch and the Ontario Internal Audit Education Audit Service Team.

The effect of this system—the educative illness that is GERM—is only too clear. In some places, teachers are dropping out of school faster than students. In Ontario, “relationship with administration” has been cited as the number one source of dissatisfaction among teachers, and the second most common reason they leave their jobs (the most common, still technically involving administrative dissonance, is workload). Arlo Kempf, a post-doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has surveyed thousands of teachers worldwide, found that standardized tests “can have a negative impact on teacher practice.” They can relegate too many classroom hours to test prep, and they rely on archaic methods such as rote memorization. The International Journal of Psychological Studies found a direct correlation in Canada between school-based stress and test anxiety.

Standardized tests are far from the only source of contention. In 2005, less than ten years after EQAO was founded, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s government introduced a $100-million initiative aimed at boosting the number of high school graduates, which then hovered at around 70 percent. The plan involved the creation of a new job: “student success teachers.” These administrative coaches work with teachers to help graduate more students. From a numbers perspective, they have succeeded; more than 80 percent of all students in the province now graduate high school. However, the program has a perceived negative consequence: increased micromanagement of the teaching profession.

“It used to be that the course would end and the student’s success would be determined by the teacher,” says Sean O’Toole, an English teacher and department head at Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School in Ontario. “Now we work in conjunction with student success teachers, whose sole job is to prop up students who are at risk of not achieving credit.” Teaching kids and helping them get the marks they need to achieve credit are different. The former requires teachers to trust their instincts and do what’s best for the student; the latter requires them to do what’s best for the system. In an outcomes-based system, teachers find it hard to teach. Therefore (it seems almost too obvious to say), students find it hard to learn.

Joe Bower didn’t always trust his teacherly instincts. In his early twenties, at the start of his career, he used students’ successes and failures as punishment and reward, as so many of his peers did. “I was a bad teacher,” he tells me. “I yelled at children. I used my power over them. I was perpetuating what had been done to me.”

He once punished a grade eight boy by telling him to do push-ups. “He wouldn’t,” Bower recalls, laughing out loud before suddenly turning serious. “At the time, I was angry and embarrassed. Today I’m proud of him. I’m proud that he refused.” I ask him how he would handle a similar situation now. He says he would reflect on his methods as a teacher: “Most misbehaviour is a symptom of something else. If it’s happening in the classroom, some of the most common symptoms are a boring curriculum, or too many kids in the class. I’m a better teacher now, not because I’m better at putting out fires; I’m better at not lighting them in the first place.”

The transfer to the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre gave him a fresh perspective on the education system’s bigger picture—what he calls the water. He thinks his entire profession is in a state of crisis, and that teachers like him, no matter how passionately involved in their students’ educations, are hampered by standards-based reforms and policies that control too much of their work. The best, most memorable teachers are the ones who don’t follow the rules, and who come up with surprising ways to present a lesson; but the system is set up to reward those who toe the line and don’t deviate from the thousands of learning outcomes mandated by Canada’s education ministries.

At Unit 39, Bower began to adopt the language of his new milieu. He compares teachers to medics on the front line of a battle that pits administrative forces on one side against educative forces on the other. What is required is immediate intervention in the classroom, or a triage of education: teachers who take matters into their own hands and don’t wait around for policies to guide their approach, or for administrative approval to sanction their actions. “Education’s triage” is gaining some traction among educators, thanks to the digital soapbox that allows him to disseminate his ideas more swiftly than previous generations could.

Still, how do you create—or, even more challenging, legislate—more independent-minded teachers? For a truly paradigmatic shift, change needs to start during teacher training. The seeds are already being sown: Kathryn Jefferies, a professor at Lakehead University in Orillia, Ontario, aims to foster independence of mind in her student teachers. At the University of Lethbridge, Alberta’s nationally renowned teacher prep program offers courses in assessment for individualized educational programming, intended to address some of the shortcomings that progressive educators see in standardized systems. Yet a major disconnect remains between the progressive theories being bandied about at teachers’ college and the reform realities of what teachers are expected to do in the classroom.

On my last day in Red Deer, I drove into the verdant hills that surround the city and down a long, willow-lined driveway to the Bower family farm. As we sat on a deck overlooking the Red Deer River hundreds of metres below, Bower expressed hope for the future. “I’m optimistic about some of the changes to curriculum and assessment,” he said, identifying two areas he has focused on in his own classes. “We’re in the midst of rethinking these content-bloated curriculums that have dominated the classroom for far too long.” New provincial initiatives, such as the Framework for Student Learning, seek to put students “at the centre of all decisions and discussions related to the curriculum.”

As the interview drew to a close, he led me down the stoop of his parents’ house, where his mother, Pat, suggested a brief tour of the gardens. She had done all of the work herself, but her son had helped to install a miniature waterfall in the side of an embankment. Pat flipped a switch, and a motor came on. I noticed two shapes moving through the water.

“Goldfish,” Bower explained.

Then, for a few seconds anyway, the three of us stood there in silence, seeing the water for what it was.

This appeared in the November 2013 issue.

Zander Sherman published The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment in 2012.

Genevieve Simms (@GDFSimms) draws for such publications as Canadian Business and McSweeney's.