Looming on the horizon: English Studies 12

Of the many changes to British Columbia’s new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, none may be more problematic than English Studies 12. If all goes according to plan, the BC education system will see the wide-spread adoption of this new course in 2019-2020. In other words, folks, it’s arriving next September.

Why is it problematic? In short, English 12 Studies will replace the current English 12 and Communications 12 courses, and merge them – and their respective students – into one common course.* At a time when math and science remain largely streamed – a double-standard that I find staggering – English will now have a single required course in the final year before graduation. [Don’t bother fighting for a re-instatement of Communications; that horse has left the barn and is in the next valley. There are simply too many outside advocacy groups arrayed against its reappearance.]

Two massive problems are already obvious. The first is that English 12 Studies will have to act like a funnel (or is it a filter?) after two years of potentially disparate English education. In both Grades 10 and 11, students can take one of five different courses to fulfill that year’s ELA requirement. The courses are Composition, Creative Writing, Literary Studies, New Media and Spoken Language, and all are fully equivalent.** These five courses, particularly the final two, already present problems due to their shockingly flimsy curriculum documents. But when we add a final gatekeeper course that must bring together students from all five streams, the difficulties are clear. What do we do with students who have read little literature in the last two years? Or have written few, if any, formal compositions? Given the absurdly meager nature of the five new courses, this is certain to be a problem for many educators and their students. Nevertheless, I believe the second major problem will be much more daunting. That is, what do teachers do with the students who used to take Communications, a course designed for young people who have acute challenges with reading and writing? Put another way, how do we successfully combine in one classroom students who are heading to university with students who struggle to identify the subject and predicate in a simple sentence?

There has been a great deal of discussion within my department and between colleagues across the province. Here are, in short, the four potential outcomes we foresee. None is pleasant.

  1. Run English 12 Studies like a regular English 12 course.
    1. Problem? Weaker students will need to work much, much harder or they will fall through the cracks. If they don’t or can’t ask for help after school, or find help from their learning assistance departments, we may see a significant rise in drop-outs or adult grads.
  2. Run English 12 Studies like a slightly more challenging Communications 12 course.
    1. Problem? University-bound students will be badly under-served. Drop-out rates after the first semester in universities will likely get much worse. Of course, that won’t be the K-12 system’s problem.
  3. Appeal to the careerists and “personalize” our classrooms for the individual needs of each student.
    1. Problem? If we personalize for all of our students (and I have over 200 this year), we may find ourselves leaving the profession well before our retirement date. This is not a joke. Many administrators and MoE apparatchiks are actually suggesting this as an option. Alternatively, we could try package learning within our classrooms and create tiers of assignments, each with a different level of challenge. Of course, this creates a further headache: How do we assess these different tiers? Does a Gr. 12 student who earns a “B” while analyzing The Great Gatsby deserve the same mark as her best friend who earns a “B” while studying The Outsiders?
  4. Run a phantom Communications course as a response to Option #1. It might be labeled something like “English 12 Studies E” in the school calendar, but will appear as “English 12 Studies” on the official transcript.
    1. Problem? I have received very officious letters from MoE staff, and they are adamant that no student shall be streamed into a Communications course. So, essentially, the phantom Communications stream would contravene government policy, though it would make a lot of stakeholders (secretly) very happy. I would personally consider it a fraud.

So, what do you have to say? Which option will your school choose? Have I missed an option? Is there a way to invoke the magic beans of “core competency” or “proficiency-based learning” and wish the problem away? Please let me know in the comment section below.



* Students may opt for an alternative course, English First Peoples 12, a course that in my estimation has a much richer and more fully realized curriculum. However, many schools in BC, because of low numbers, simply do not run EFP; other schools are lucky to run a few blocks. The key point is that the vast majority of students will choose English 12 Studies. And even teachers of EFP will have to face the same challenges that teachers of English 12 Studies will face.

** In Gr. 10, these options are two credits; most schools have implemented four credit “combo” courses. 

A Few Thoughts on BC’s Electoral Reform Ballot

If you’re a BC resident, don’t forget to send in your ballot for the 2018 Referendum on Electoral Reform. This opportunity may not come along again in our life time, so don’t waste a rare chance to have a direct say in how our democracy is run. When I used to teach political science at UFV, I would always start my lecture on elections with this line from David Foster Wallace:

“By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard’s vote.”

I’m a diehard. You can see how I voted. So why did I vote this way? The simple answer is that no electoral system is perfect. Each one has flaws, so we should choose the system with fewest weaknesses and the best chance of maintaining the best features of each system.

The First Past the Post system, the one we have now, is grossly undemocratic. It allows the candidate with the most votes to take all the power in his or her riding (that is, 100%), even if the candidate only receives 40% of the vote. All the other votes – and the candidates the votes are attached to – are ignored. Add that up 87 times and you can imagine how lopsided the results can be. In fact, the Socreds, NDP and the Liberals have all benefited from lopsided BC votes, getting far more ridings than their popular vote would suggest. If a democracy is supposed to represent the will of the people, FPTP simply isn’t kosher.

Of course, a purely proportional system has one key disadvantage too. A proportional system is usually based on party lists that are published by each political party before the election. As such, there is no politician elected by constituents to represent their local interests. As someone who’s had a family member work for a local MP, I know this representation is an important link between citizens and government.

Ranked ballot systems (RBS) allow you choice, and, in fact, the current ballot uses a ranking system to decide which proportional system you prefer. If we use RBS in a system with political ridings like we have in BC, we will certainly get more candidates over the 50% mark, and allow them to say they represent the “majority” of the riding. Of course, given all the 2nd and 3rd votes, this majority is often artificial, and only partially legitimizes all of the votes in that riding. RBS also requires complicated computer tallies, which removes an important part of the election system from popular oversight. [This is one reason I don’t like the RUP option.] Finally, RBS sometimes allows a fringe third party to gain power, as voters of the two dominant parties will often refuse to give a 2nd vote to the other main party.

So what is the best course of action? Given that no system is perfect, I say we choose a system that strikes a balance, and provides the best features of an electoral system while mitigating the worst. For me that is Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP). It is part FPTP (which provides local representation) and part proportionality, which allows for a list of party candidates that is chosen on straight percentages. A 5% minimum filters out the crazies. Two questions on a ballot, one for a local representative and one for your party. Easy to vote, easy to figure out.

What do you think?

Curriculum must be a teacher’s ally, not a teacher’s foe.

In the spring of 1993, despite working in a temporary five month teaching contract in the lower mainland, I faced the reality that permanent, full-time teaching positions in British Columbia were scarce, so I found myself looking northward. Thus, in September, I started teaching in a small rural school two kilometres from the Alaska border. I was the social studies department. I taught seven distinct courses in my first full year, five of which I had hitherto never encountered. It was a brutal ten months, and I almost left the profession at the end of June.

What saved me? Desperation, for the most part. My wife worked at home raising our two young children, but they depended on me to provide an outside income, and we didn’t have many other options. Another element that sustained me was a fairly impressive armoury of resources. My first indispensable tool was the social studies curriculum binder. Back then, curriculum documents were somewhat helpful. They included resource lists and recommended periods of time for each unit. In addition, one teacher at my first school took pity on me before I left for the north and lent me multiple thick binders that provided the bare bones of four different courses (including fill-in-the-blank worksheets, crosswords and questions). To that teacher, I offer my eternal thanks; to the photocopier technician, I apologize for all the extra strain I put on the machines. I also visited the BCTF Lesson Aid service [the loss of which was a real misfortune] and purchased as many unit and lesson items as I could. Finally, my new northern school offered a complete surprise: a well stocked resource room. In return for educating a small number of American students from across the border, I was paid in part by the neighbouring Alaskan school district. As part of this unique arrangement, the Americans supplied my school with a vast array of videos, handouts, overheads and suggested lesson plans for the American government and history courses that were part of my bailiwick. Collectively, all of these resources offered me a necessary lifeline. They may not have been original, complete or elegant, but I don’t think I could have survived my first full year without them.

So that brings me to the central point of this post. Do we want new educators to survive past the first year? Do we want to ensure their students aren’t subjected to seriously fatigued and stressed out teachers, as well as hit and miss schooling? The questions should be rhetorical. Obviously we must not throw teachers into the bonfire without fireproofing them. And an essential part of this process must be a rich, helpful curriculum with a wide range of resources that ensure new teachers aren’t creating everything from scratch and reinventing the proverbial wheel.

But… teacher autonomy!

Ah yes, that hoary old chestnut. Let’s address it. Teachers are not autonomous when their teachers’ training has ignored the nuts and bolts of everyday education in favour of (bad) theory, leaving teachers to their own devices. Teachers are not autonomous when they’re stuck in school until 10 o’clock building worksheets and sweating over lesson plans, wondering how they’ll create – yet again – something out of nothing. Teachers are not autonomous when they’re forced to rely on a textbook, because sleep deprivation prevents them from building a “golden” lesson plan. And teachers are not autonomous if their curriculum documents are so vague that buying unit plans or copying other people’s work are the only barriers between them and a nervous breakdown. In short, if teachers only have time for the bare necessities, then they are slaves to necessity. That’s not autonomy.

So what is teacher autonomy? It should be enough time for teachers to pick and choose from a variety of options, rather than start from nothing. It should be enough time for teachers to modify and refine existing resources to meet the particular needs of their students, or create an original resource without feeling their careers depend on it. It should be enough time for teachers to work with their students and colleagues, and not resent the loss of precious prep time. And it should be enough time for teachers to, dare I say, spend quality time with their families. Thus, rich curricula, a plethora of resources, and suggested lesson plans do not infringe on teacher autonomy. Quite the opposite. They enhance the ability of teachers to create, to adapt and to refine.

All of this leads to my final point. In British Columbia, we have a particularly perverse approach to teacher support. At the secondary level, and particularly in social studies and English/language arts, curriculum and resources have steadily dwindled.

  • In the mid-1990’s, for instance, recommended time allocations were eliminated. I remember attending a summer conference at SFU on the new curriculum; the central justification for the time allocation change was, not surprisingly, “teacher autonomy”.
  • Only a handful of large school districts have curriculum departments that actually produce useful classroom resources or learning objects anymore, or at least that’s what I have been told by other teachers. I haven’t taught in a district for over 20 years that has produced such tools. [Please correct me if my impressions here are incorrect.]
  • In the early 2000’s, official resource lists for English/language arts were removed. As a consequence, in many districts with middle and secondary schools, we now encounter teachers in earlier grades using texts that used to be taught in later grades. In these cases, the costs of rebuilding secondary-level resources and units have been quite substantial. In my experience, this free-for-all has caused a great deal of confusion and ill-will, and damaged inter-school cooperation. [This lack of resource articulation will also negatively impact the implementation of aboriginal content, in my opinion.]
  • After a number of iterations, the latest secondary curricula for English Language Arts has reached a new low. For example, the five new Grade 10 courses, predicated on an unsupported belief in expanded choice, offer little help to practising teachers. The curriculum document for each of the five new courses is seven or eight pages long. Only the first page is unique in each document; as you can see above for New Media 10, only a few vague platitudes and suggestions are offered. After that, the rest of the documents are almost identical to each other: six to seven pages each of boilerplate language arts edu-jargon that will be of little use to classroom teachers who need to build the courses… for tomorrow morning. In other words, BC secondary English teachers will now need to build courses from nothing (particularly New Media and Spoken Language) or – assuming they are experienced teachers with access to them – from the pieces of the old curriculum (like in Composition, Literary Studies and Creative Writing). Oh, and do the new courses come with curated and articulated lists of recommended resources? So far, nope, nothing, zilch and nada, though some enterprising publishing companies are trying to fill the void with de facto corporate substitutes. The ministry’s “curriculum” above is, in a word, preposterous.

In brief, we can’t keep going down the path we’ve been taking for decades here in B.C. If we’re truly concerned with teacher burnout, we need to address the need for a rich, properly articulated and fully resourced curriculum. Throwing teachers to the wolves is not respecting teacher autonomy; it is, in fact, profoundly disparaging to educators who should spend more time with their students and less time re-creating what has already been created. Put another way, teachers should survive and thrive with the help of curriculum, not in spite of curriculum.


See also:

On the latest report card “innovation”

There is a renewed push in BC to remove letter grades from report cards. The front line of this struggle is currently in Squamish. Here is my response to the local newspaper’s story on this issue.


The push against letter grades is, of course, not new. It’s just the latest salvo from the Romantics who brought you, among other things, open-air classrooms in the 70’s and the Year 2000 initiative in the 90’s. And yes, neither of them lasted.

Two significant problems with anecdotal reporting are jargon and lack of context. We can already see the creeping edubabble from phrases like “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset”. These are not only highly ideological and loaded terms for teachers but also, frankly, the beginning of an impenetrable fog of specialist language that means little to the average parent. Depending on the report card format, parents might also gain little sense of how their children are doing versus other children or against fixed standards. Indeed, part of the philosophical (or, dare I say, political) nature of this bandwagon is the fear that letter grades might harm children. If you hear this argument, ask for the scientifically valid double-blind studies that support this belief. Don’t just accept that educators’ fears are “based on research”. In my experience as an educator, I have seen precious little evidence in this regard.

If I were a parent in Squamish, I would demand letter grades along with all other potential feedback. More is better, and those letter grades might just help you cut through the miasma of so-called innovation.

Reflections on BC’s proposed English 10-12 curriculum

As someone who has taught for 24 years in the BC public education system, I am somewhat bewildered by the new curriculum proposals for English 10 to 12.

First, the lack of a Communications stream is a serious mistake. I am glad that some of the language that initially justified the removal of Communications is not in the most recent draft. Frankly, the earlier language was insulting to those of us who work with Communications students. Generally speaking, these young people have significant challenges in writing, reading fluency and comprehension. A “focus on improving instruction” will not change the fact that these students need a great deal of support to successfully complete the less stringent demands of Communications, let alone mainstream English. If Communications 11 and 12 are not reinstated, many schools will simply create equivalents and do what has to be done. We’ll see solutions like stripped down “E” courses that “teach to” the new literacy test. Is that what the government wants? Probably not. In general, the distance between the BC English curriculum and reality has been significant for decades; a lack of Communications would split it wide open.

Second, the five Grade 10 two-credit courses are extremely difficult to schedule and organize. If the proposals don’t change, my department and administration have devised a plan to create a “combo” course – of Composition and Literature – that will look a lot like the current Grade 10 English course. Nevertheless, if the Ministry is serious about all five options, then the combo option won’t be very helpful. And the challenge of the five full-credit Grade 11 courses remains. In the end, a smorgasbord of options may have sounded exciting at the conceptualization stage, but anyone interested in timetabling knows how challenging it is to multiply course selection.

Third, the different types of English courses fill many English teachers with dread. For example, many feel uncomfortable with New Media as an English course, and we are worried that many students would choose it over more traditional options if we are compelled to offer everything. Where’s the training for teachers? Where are the resources? Will we be supplied with a fully-developed curriculum and resource guide, or documents full of platitudes and edu-jargon? Please don’t tell us that the new courses will be created on the backs of classroom teachers!

A few questions keep arising. The first is, “Which problem are we trying to solve?” Is it a lack of choice? Personally, I’ve never heard this issue raised by anyone. Neither have my colleagues. We can’t really understand the embrace of choice, since there is no research to suggest a choice of courses improves completion rates – the current reductionist obsession of our education system. The second major question is, “Why are English teachers at the cutting edge of curricular change?” We look to our colleagues in math and science with envy. All they have to do is move a few modular deck chairs. Social studies? They get rid of Social Studies 11 and enjoy their electives. So why are we on a crusade? Is that what most English teachers want?

Overall, I’d like the government to reconsider the English 10 to 12 curricula. We face so many other more important issues at the secondary level. A general lack of resources, no scope-and-sequence of skills, and a “wild west” of text choices all come to mind. A whole slew of new courses – courses we’d be building largely from scratch – is the last thing we need.

Some comments on the Supreme Court education decision

On Thursday, November 10, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision from the bench only 20 minutes after final arguments in the long standing dispute between the BC government and the BCTF. Here is my contribution to Vaughn Palmer’s first article on the teachers’ victory:


Can you imagine if a new BC government unilaterally ripped up a long term communications contract with Telus, arguing that it could get a better deal with Bell and so it shouldn’t have to honour a contract signed by the previous government? There would be howls of outrage from Howe Street and Bay Street, and instantaneous court cases. And quite rightly, too: total chaos would ensue if a new government could arbitrarily end its contractual commitments.

But here we have seen BC’s government unilaterally ripping apart another contract, this time with a union, and the corporate elite and their supporters are, well, not too interested in the rule of law. The hypocrisy is incredible.

Thankfully, Thursday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada has reinforced the rule of law and delivered a stunning indictment of both the BC Court of Appeal and the BC Liberals. The SCC has recognized the constitutional rights of unions in many recent court cases, but the conservative (and stacked) BC Court of Appeals apparently didn’t get the memo. The BC Liberals, in turn, are now learning that massive financial giveaways to corporations – reckless tax cuts that never did improve productivity or employment – should never have been paid for by BC’s children and the people who educate them.

The Liberals were quiet in the aftermath but I’m sure they’ll get their communications strategy figured out soon. Seriously, they have so many corporate media types working for them that it shouldn’t take too long. I look forward to the spin they provide on this debacle.


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Choice and flexibility: some thoughts on the new curriculum

The latest drafts of the grades 10-12 English and social studies curricula and the recent announcement of BC’s new graduation requirements confirm what many secondary teachers have feared: the continued (and perhaps accelerated) slide towards a consumer-oriented education system that offers little accountability.

Let’s start with the new curricula. [Because I am a secondary humanities teacher, I’ll confine my remarks to English and social studies; from what I can see, these two disciplines appear to be at the bleeding edge of this general curricular shift.] The central, recurring motif of the new English and social studies documents is choice. In the latest English draft, for example, we see choice as the key to student motivation:

Enabling students to be active participants in their learning is well-recognized as a powerful motivator. For this reason, choice is provided to students early in the Graduation years, as a testament to their capacity as young adults to make judicious selections from a variety of English Language Arts Options and to allow them a sense of agency in their own education. This is consistent with a strength-based rather than a deficit-based approach to education.

Leaving aside the horrifically loaded jargon of the final sentence, it’s clear that this is a system full of choosers. Choice is “powerful”, leads to “judicious selections” and provides “a sense of agency”.

Given this core value, both curriculum proposals have been adjusted to maximize student options. The latest English proposal offers a Core course [Ed. Note: It is once again English 12.] and five different optional courses: Composition; Creative Writing; Focused Literary Studies; New Media; and Spoken Communication. According to the latest proposal, students entering Grade 10 will choose two of the five “Optionals” via two half-year (i.e. two credit) courses; this will equal the four credits that students currently receive for English 10. Students in Grades 11 and 12 will select one of the Optionals in a presumably more advanced four credit version, and take the four credit Core course, “which represents ‘essential learning’ in language arts, including reading and writing, speaking and listening, viewing and representing.”

The commitment to choice is even more pronounced in the latest social studies draft. First, the curriculum has been revised and condensed downward. Social Studies 9 and 10, ironically, are positively crammed with content, quite the opposite of what teachers were seeking. However, the solution is obvious: pick and choose your content to reflect thematic Big Ideas. Want to discuss “conflict” in the new Socials 9? Sample some of these topics:

  • Opium Wars
  • Boxer Rebellion
  • Boer War
  • wars of independence in Latin America
  • Armenian genocide
  • Chilcotin War
  • Fraser Canyon War
  • American Civil War
  • Franco-Prussian War of 1871
  • Russian Revolution
  • Crimean War
  • Russo-Japanese War
  • Chinese Rebellion of 1911
  • World War I

As we can see, these topics are not listed chronologically or even alphabetically, but that’s on purpose. Traditional historical thinking concepts like continuity and change, or cause and consequence, are largely supplanted by sampling, as if history is a potpourri of exotic ingredients mixed into a thematic soup.

Social Studies 11 will be eliminated. In its place, secondary students will choose a final course from a veritable smorgasbord of optional secondary titles. At the time of writing, there are a staggering 17 secondary options, with “more more courses in draft form”. Many of these courses are reboots of existing offerings (Law 12, History 12, etc.) but most of them look like 1st year university survey courses. Whether all of these could be realistically available even in the largest of schools is a matter of debate, though students moving between schools or taking online courses seems like a likely solution.

So we’ve established that choice is a foundational concept in the curriculum revisions and that the new drafts have responded in kind. Yet one question continues to come to mind: Is this faith in choice justified? Worryingly, only one piece of evidence (in the English draft document) is provided:

The aim of the ELA 10-12 curriculum structure is to maximize students’ chances of success by allowing them to choose the Optional courses that are most engaging for them and to achieve deeper learning. Because the curriculum has been redesigned to be less prescriptive and more flexible, there are increased opportunities for students to pursue their interests, aspirations, and passions and to benefit from more specialized areas of language arts study. Choice also includes encouraging increased opportunities for students to select the types of texts they will use, such as a variety of text types in the context of literature circles, particularly in the Options (e.g., Focused Literary Studies or New Media):

“Research has demonstrated that access to self-selected texts improves students’ reading performance… This is especially true for struggling readers….” (Krashen, 2011). From: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar12/vol69/num06/Every-Child,-Every-Day.aspx

After reading the article above, I’m a little perplexed. It refers to children (apparently of elementary age) who are choosing books within a classroom. But how does this apply to adolescents choosing courses for an entire year? I really don’t find this reference particularly convincing, and it seems like another example of progressive educators building an edifice without a solid research base. Speaking of research, I’m reminded of John Hattie’s work, in which he concludes that the positive effect of “student control over learning” is almost negligible.  One synthesis of Hattie’s research explains that the effect “of student choice and control over learning is somewhat higher on motivation outcomes than achievement outcomes, but neither have major consequences on learning and too many choices can be overwhelming.”

Perhaps the Ministry of Education will eventually buttress its curriculum with more evidence, but in the meantime it’s probably more fruitful to see this commitment to course-based choice as part of a larger commitment to neo-liberal education reform. Much of this is inspired by GELP, a corporate sponsored global education reform organization connected to BC’s Ministry of Education, and manifested in the current government’s BC Edplan. At its most ideological level, GELP aims to “to design public services that deliver different and better outcomes at a lower cost”. At its most benign level, the GELP approach is designed to “create better opportunities for parents to engage in their child’s learning with more flexibility and choice with respect to what, how, when and where their child learns”. Even here, though, the policy above is preceded by a chilling notion that “parents and students still have choice and opportunity to decide which school their child attends within the public and independent school systems”. Given BC’s current discussion about a two-tiered education system, it’s a little disconcerting to hear our current Minister of Education defend private school funding with similar language: “When we look at education in British Columbia, I would say we don’t fund private schools. We fund students. We fund opportunities for students and those opportunities are chosen by parents.” At this point, it sounds awfully similar to the logic of the voucher system.

Overall, we appear to be facing a curricular worldview in which students are viewed as consumers rather than citizens. Consumers choose their preferences rather than work together for a greater good. In the fragmented (or, rather, “specialized”) market place we see above, there doesn’t seem to be much space for common cause or a common narrative. I’m not saying choosing courses necessarily leads to vouchers and market-based schooling (after all, this might simply be another example of BC’s reductive obsession with improving the graduation rate) but surely there’s an affinity between course choice and a funding system that encourages parents to “decide which school their child attends”. And if we accept the former as “common sense” or “obvious”, then the latter becomes much easier to introduce.


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Is a teacher’s knowledge tacit or just uncomfortable?

The following is a response to a post by Carl Hendrick, an educator who writes about education theory and practice.


I enjoyed another thought-provoking and thoughtful post, Carl!

In terms of tacit knowledge, however, I don’t believe that most of what we know is tacit. I think, in fact, that much of what we learn as teachers is actually quite coherent and articulable. The problem is that few people in power want to hear what we have to say. As a teacher of 23 years, I feel quite ignored, and whenever I or other veteran teachers speak up about teaching practice and learning, our leadership gets quite uncomfortable. I once led an after-school collaboration group on direct instruction. People higher up the food chain were almost apoplectic, and they let me know about it. I was Satan’s seed.

When it comes down to it, what I have to say is not “innovative”. I refuse to accept the paradigm of constant change and innovation, particularly since it’s usually a variation of Romanticism. My pedagogy is based upon the refinement and deepening of good teaching practice, and much of that practice, in my opinion, has remained stable for centuries. And that is what I offer to new teachers if they’re willing to listen.

Of course, this is not what the “movers and shakers” want to hear (or offer) as they ascend the hierarchy. Refinement of existing teaching practice doesn’t get anyone out of the classroom and into the school board office. It’s definitely not sexy, and it definitely cannot be packaged within the realm of “constant change and innovation”. It also doesn’t give the careerists power over the rest of us; indeed, a pedagogy that values refinement reverses the locus of control and places knowledge and its power squarely back in the hands of front line practitioners.

The Politics of Curriculum

Tonight a parent on social media asked if teachers were concerned about the BCTF’s collaboration with the government regarding BC’s new curriculum. Here’s my response:

As a secondary teacher, I can tell you that many, many teachers disagree fundamentally with the direction of this new curriculum. We don’t feel there has been much substantive input, and the feedback we have given certainly isn’t reflected in what is now being published. To me (and to many other teachers on the BCTF discussion forum), the process has appeared very obscure and it looks like teacher consultation was controlled by the BCTF, PSA leadership and a relatively small group of teachers with a very particular philosophy.

By the way, there is a substantial amount of research that supports direct instruction and a careful, scaffolded approach to mastery learning. This seems to be ignored whenever popularizers like Sir Ken assure the masses that the research clearly supports his Rousseauian values. For your own edification, please take a look at some of the research I’ve collected that favours a more traditional, whole-class, and teacher-centered approach to pedagogy. Believe me, progressivist assumptions are not a slam dunk:


At another level, people should indeed be wary of teachers taking the blame if this “innovation” goes the way of Year 2000. To believe at any point that the government would ever properly fund this change is, frankly, unbelievable. I’ve been teaching in the BC public school system for 22 years. When has a government ever properly funded new curricula? As a result, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to be surprised at the current lack of government support?

Well, it’s too late now. The fix is in, and we will own this if there is a backlash from the public.

Notes and commentary on Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (Part 1)

We all have those books – the ones we know are good for us but have remained on the bookshelf for years (or decades). Thankfully, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is now one of those books that I can return to my bookshelf with the satisfaction that I’ve finally read one of the masterpieces  of economic history. The following is not an exhaustive summary of Polanyi’s text, but it does represent what I take to be the most salient and resonant points of his elegant argument.



The Double Movement

Polanyi’s book surveys the history of the Western economy, roughly from the last 500 years. He is particularly concerned with the hegemonic concept of the “self-regulating economy”, which he defines as

an economic system controlled, regulated, and directed by market prices; order in the production and distribution of goods is entrusted to this self-regulating mechanism. An economy of this kind derives from the expectation that human beings behave in such a way as to achieve maximum money gains. (71)

His central thesis is that the idea of a self-regulating economy is “a stark Utopia” (3). In the long run, a self-regulating economy is not sustainable. It demands a complete reorganization of society that society cannot allow. In the pivotal 19th century, for example, the remnants of a feudal society were transformed into a capitalist system. Yet as workers and politicians discovered, an all-encompassing free-market system

could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. (3)

As a result, an inevitable social reaction comes to life. In this “double movement”, society must take “measures to protect itself” (ibid) and strives to ensure the transformation is never complete. Polanyi explains that this tension and resistance – predicated on the need for human beings to be more than mere economic pawns in a free market system – explains much of the conflict of modern history, including the rise of fascism and the two world wars.


The Essential Connection Between Politics & Economics

Another key point in Polanyi’s book is his insistence that economics can never truly be separated from the rest of society, despite the attempts mentioned above. Indeed, much of The Great Transformation explains that economic behaviour has historically been embedded and subordinated to the political and cultural institutions of all known human societies:

[A]ll economic systems known to us up to the end of feudalism in Western Europe were organized either on the principle of reciprocity or redistribution, or householding, or some combination of the three. These principles were institutionalized with the help of a social organization which, inter alia, made use of the patterns of symmetry, centricity, and autarchy. In this framework, the orderly production and distribution of goods was secured through a great variety of individual motives disciplined by general principles of behavior. Among these motives gain was not prominent. Custom and law, magic and religion cooperated in inducing the individual to comply with rules of behavior which, eventually, ensured his functioning in the economic system. (57)

This does not mean that market behaviour is unknown to pre-modern societies; it’s just that such behaviour is minimal or tangential.

No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. In spite of the chorus of academic incantations so persistent in the nineteenth century, gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy. Though the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age, its role was no more than incidental to economic life. (45)

However, a full-blown market economy cannot easily be embedded within more traditional forms of society. A market economy is almost an all-or-nothing proposition, and demands a reversal of the its typical subordination to political and cultural institutions:

The market pattern, on the other hand, being related to a peculiar motive of its own, the motive of truck or barter, is capable of creating a specific institution, namely, the market. Ultimately, that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system. The vital importance of the economic factor to the existence of society precludes any other result. For once the economic system is organized in separate institutions, based on specific motives and conferring a special status, society must be shaped in such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws. This is the meaning of the familiar assertion that a market economy can function only in a market society. (60)

So where has market behaviour – selling for profit, haggling, trading, etc. – actually come from? Certainly not from any inherent genetic propensity, according to Polanyi. He offers a more historical and geographical argument, one where the development of markets and trade is exogenous. As populations grew, contact inevitably brought different peoples together with different goods :

Markets are not institutions functioning mainly within an economy, but without. They are meeting place of long-distance trade… The orthodox teaching started from the individual’s propensity to barter; deduced from it the necessity of local markets, as well as of division of labor; and inferred, finally, the necessity of trade, eventually of foreign trade, including even long distance trade. In the light of our present knowledge we should almost reverse the sequence of the argument: the true starting point is long distance trade, a result of the geographical location of goods, and of the “division of labor” given by location. Long-distance trade often engenders markets, an institution which involves acts of barter, and, if money is used, of buying and selling, thus, eventually, but by no means necessarily, offering to some individuals an occasion to indulge in their propensity for bargaining and haggling. (61-62)


The Centrality of Politics to Capitalism

Adding to the necessary connection between politics and economics is Polanyi’s analysis of the rise and continuation of modern liberal capitalism. Here we see why a market society is so destructive: labor and land are not created to be sold as commodities; they are not harvested resources or manufactured items that can be purchased, traded and disposed of. Yet, land and labor need to be transformed into commodities to allow a market economy to function. The same can be said of money. Paper or coin or a metal needs to become a commodity in order for its function as currency to be realized.

The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them. In other words, according to the empirical definition of a commodity they are not commodities. Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance. None of them is produced for sale. The commodity description of labor, land, and money is entirely fictitious. Nevertheless, it is with the help of this fiction that the actual markets for labor, land, and money are organized… (75-76)

This process of transformation demonstrates not only the violence of the last 500 years but also the intrinsic role of government within the capitalist system itself.

There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free markets could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course. Just as cotton manufactures—the leading free trade industry—were created by the help of protective tariffs, export bounties, and indirect wage subsidies, laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state. The [eighteen] thirties and forties saw not only an outburst of legislation repealing restrictive regulations, but also an enormous increase in the administrative functions of the state, which was now being endowed with a central bureaucracy able to fulfil the tasks set by the adherents of liberalism. To the typical utilitarian, economic liberalism was a social project which should be put into effect for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; laissez-faire was not a method to achieve a thing, it was the thing to be achieved. (145)

And again,

Economic history reveals that the emergence of national markets was in no way the result of the gradual and spontaneous emancipation of the economic sphere from governmental control. On the contrary, the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends. (258)


I’ll post Part 2 tomorrow.