History: what is it good for?

      “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there (L. P. Hartley).”

The past seems mysterious. Noble savages appear as apparitions out of the mist. Prairie schooners drift across the cloud-strewn horizon buoyed by waves of grass.

Or, maybe not. Maybe the past is ancient history: over and done with. Get on with life.


History is a bore. That’s how some students in Professor Tina Loo’s UBC class feel. Their comments are hardly uplifting. “Professor Loo tries hard, but what can you do with Canadian history” and “Wake me when it’s over.” The end of history can’t come soon enough for them.

What do we want from history? “A lot, as it turns out,” says a weary Loo in Canada’s History magazine.

A safe point of agreement is that dry facts are ancient history. At one time the recital of dates was used to test history.  Now they are no more history than arithmetic is part of mathematics. “The Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867,” may be true but without the context of our territory being swallowed by the U.S. the fact is meaningless.

We expect history to be a teacher. If we don’t learn from history, the saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it. Without any real evidence to back the claim, the past can apparently predict the future. True, current events may have echoes in the past but do they predict the future? Stock market investors sure hope so.

“Or it’s a judge,” offers Loo. Is Stephen Harper the greatest prime minister that Canada ever had? History will be the judge. History as judge evaluates the legacy of leaders in the context of a larger narrative. History, like hindsight, is 20/20.

History is reconciliation. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission has wrapped up after touring the country for 4 years, listening to stories of cruelty and abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care.  The effect has been cathartic. “A lot of people got healed just by telling their story,” said 80 year old Vicki Crowchild of the Tsuu T’ina Nation, just outside of Calgary.

We want history to tell us who “we” are. Canadian identity is shaped by historical events. The struggle of the prairie populist Tommy Douglas to bring universal health care is a story we take pride in telling.

We want to be amused. “Finally, and not least, we consume history –literally as heritage foods, and figuratively, as entertainment, whether in the form of documentary films, historic sites, or museum exhibits,” says Loo.

While we may want history to teach and judge, are we prepared for the lessons and judgments that history offers? What we find might not be flattering such as the settler colonialism that stole the land of indigenous people, or the racist policies that ended in Japanese internment camps, or discriminatory Chinese head taxes.

What history has to offer is an argument, not a quarrel, not just the facts. “We should expect — even demand — of history and historians is an argument, and interpretation based on evidence and a deep understanding of context.”

Prime Minister’s Primer on Parliament

I notice that you keep butting heads with the Supreme Court, Prime Minister, so I’ve prepared this little guide on the role of the court in government.

Governments are made of three parts. It’s a system that goes way back to the Greeks. Each of the parts is purposely separate from the others to provide a distribution of powers. It’s preferable to an absolute monarchy in which one person runs the whole show. It’s a messy way of doing things, I know, but it safeguards democracy.


We don’t have to go all the way back to the Greeks to understand the system. Since you value the family, let’s go back to your childhood growing up in the suburbs of Toronto and imagine that your rotten sister has taken your Etch A Sketch and won’t give it back.

Your dad told her long ago that she can’t take things that don’t belong to her. This is an example of the Legislative branch of government. In Canada, parliament makes the laws.

So you tell your big brother and he goes to your sister to get the Etch A Sketch back. This is an example of the Executive branch of government consisting of the prime minister and cabinet who control the army. Your rotten sister says that she didn’t steal your Etch A Sketch; that you lent it to her.

The dispute is brought before your mom who listens to both sides. Can you imagine what branch of government this represents, Prime Minister? That’s right, it’s the Judicial branch. Your mom weighs the evidence and decides that the rotten sister has, indeed, taken your Etch A Sketch. As punishment, she will not be allowed to watch her favourite TV show “Leave it to Beaver” for two weeks.

All kinds of bad things can happen when one part tries to control the others.

Look at what happened last year, when the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected government and threw everyone else out. Your attempt to stack the Supreme Court with your appointees is not quite the same, but you get the idea: don’t mess with the independence of another part.

When you try to affect the outcome of the Supreme Court, that’s an example of one branch (the executive) trying to influence another (the judicial). The lack of separation of powers is bad for  Canada.

Not only is it a bad thing to do, Prime Minister, it doesn’t even seem to be working. Even though you appointed the majority of justices to the Supreme Court, they keep ruling against you: a total of six times recently.

Now, pay attention to what I’m about to tell you. Your latest plans to invade the internet privacy of Canadians (Bill C-13) will bring you more grief. This bill collides with a recent court ruling that says you can’t search Canadians’ internet use without a warrant and yet your bill proposes to do exactly that. Withdraw the bill or face the consequences of another court challenge in which the outcome will almost certainly go badly –again.

I hope you liked my little primer. As a retired teacher, I’m always ready to help.

Digital Surveillance in Education

Loss of privacy is not such a bad thing when it comes to education says Professor George Siemens.

Digital surveillance of can help students, says Siemens, professor at Athabasca University and adviser for open learning courses at Thompson Rivers University.


Professor Siemens told CBC’s technology program Spark that monitoring student performance can be useful in determining when problems arise and what the remedies might be. Such programs track progress by monitoring the rate at which students read online material, and what parts they highlight and annotate. When problems are detected, intervention can be done either by faculty or automatically by the system itself.

Siemens doesn’t think this kind of surveillance is creepy at all not when the stakes are so high –the difference between passing and failing.

Digital monitoring by the university is just part of a useful technology says Siemens; part of “learning analytics.” A Wikipedia article, referring to Professor Siemens, defines it: “Learning analytics is the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections for predicting and advising people’s learning.”

The “social connections” part is troubling. Analytics that harvest personal information from social networks like Facebook and Twitter skirt the boundaries of school and private life. Also, they could be breaking B.C. privacy laws which prevent storage of student information held on foreign servers. For that reason, universities are moving away from cloud-based foreign servers like Dropbox and email accounts from Google and Microsoft.

By law, public institutions must protect student information from the prying eyes of foreign governments. As we now know from the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the U.S. spies in the National Security Agency (NSA) happily violate the privacy of anyone in the world.

The data culled from most social networks is stored on servers in the U.S.

Of course professors should know as much relevant student information as possible to provide remediation when skilled, industrious students are failing. Some of these barriers to success are family income and whether the student is the first in the family to attend a post-secondary institution. These things are known to affect performance.

Online courses could be tailor-made so that any qualified student who applies themselves to the course material could pass with a grade of A. The host of Spark, Nora Young, wondered if the tailoring of curriculum to the point of making it difficult for a student to fail wasn’t doing education a disservice –what’s the point of grades if everyone gets an A?

In the first place, replied Siemens, monitoring of students will determine who is lazy and therefore undeserving. Secondly, why shouldn’t students who have mastered the course material receive an A?

Why not, indeed? Student grades based on bell curves and Standard Deviation take no account of the personal profiles of students that have been proven to determine outcomes, the design of curricula in which well-designed courses should produce higher grades, and the skill of the teacher in delivering the course. All these factors should produce higher grades.

Too often, grades are used as proxy for students intelligence, not whether they have mastered the course materials. We have a measure of intelligence already: IQ tests.

Teachers are ready for challenge, including the impossible

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” B. F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) 

Ah, education.  What is it?  Psychologist B.F. Skinner thinks that education is the remnants of learning, not the beginning of it.

Almost everyone has an opinion about education.  Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers.  Ask one hundred groups, as B.C. Minister of Education Christy Clark did, and you’ll get many more.


It’s no wonder that everyone has an opinion.  We spend a dozen or more years on the receiving end of education.  Some of us spend many more years on the delivery end.

Students, parents, and the general public rightfully expect results.  British Columbians spend a lot of money on education, second only to health care.  Last year we spent $6.8 billion on education and $9.5 billion health care.

Minister Clark’s recently released goals for Education are ambitious.  She would require school districts to make physical education mandatory for grades 11 and 12.  She wants school districts to enhance student life skills and readiness for employment.  She expects a lot from school boards.

Clark has to be careful with how far she pushes school boards.  School boards now provide a convenient scapegoat for the B.C. Liberals.  They do the governments dirty work in cutting expensive programs and take all the flack.

Recently, some school boards have rebelled and run deficits.   This left the government with no option but to fire the boards and take them over.  In doing so, the government becomes directly answerable to the electorate – – something the Liberals would like to avoid.

Clarke’s plans are potentially expensive and she is not giving school boards any more money to implement these plans.  The B.C. Liberals plan to spend less on education, when you take inflation into account.

In addition to financial and political problems with Clark’s plan, there are logistical problem.  Some goals contradict others.  She plans to introduce “pathway concentrations” in areas like trades and technology, humanities, science, and business and marketing.

That contradicts another Clark proposal: “critical thinking, problem solving and community and social responsibility.”  Whereas pathway concentrations require a focus on a clusters of studies, critical thinking and problem solving require a broad range of subjects.   Specific pathways don’t allow for exploration.  Critical thinking requires a broad liberal education with many paths traveled.

Then there are the pedagogical problems having to do with the design of a curriculum that will meet her goals.  Curriculum design is based on concepts first identified by Benjamin Bloom in 1948.

Bloom categorized three levels of educational abstraction which he called “domains.”  Bloom called them the psychomotor, cognitive, and affective domains.  The first step in curriculum design is to decide which domain your educational goal falls.  Next, write objectives that meet that goal.

The affective domain contains the highest level of abstraction, including Clark’s goals of critical thinking, problem solving and community and social responsibility.  It also includes the teaching of attitudes, values, and commitments.

It’s the kind of life-long learning that B. F. Skinner talks about.  We may forget facts, but things learned in the affective domain last a lifetime.

Teaching in the affective domain requires that students analyze “complex sets of values, possible disparate values, resolve conflicts between them, and begin to build an internally consistent value system,” according to one school of education.

It can be done but it requires not only careful planning but also requires that students are developed to the point of accepting higher levels of abstraction.

Teaching in the other educational domains – – the psychomotor and the cognitive – – are more manageable.

The psychomotor domain is for the teaching of manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills.  The cognitive domain is the teaching of knowledge as a result of the presentation of facts and ideas.  Teaching in the cognitive domain requires analysis, evaluation and synthesis.  It’s difficult but can be done.

I agree with Education Minister Clark when she says that “Education must go beyond teaching the skills necessary for university…”  Teachers are always ready for a challenge.

Teachers will train the bodies, educate the minds, and often sooth the souls of their students.  Teachers will do the difficult right now – – the impossible will take a little while.

University ranking system too often based on wrong criteria

Every year, Canadian universities wait with anticipation for comparisons  of their institution relative to others in periodicals like Maclean’s Magazine.  Depending on the results, there is rejoicing or muttering.  But too often such rankings are based on the wrong criteria say the authors of a new report called Missing Pieces II.


In their report, Denise Doherty-Deorme and Erika Shaker are critical of the assumptions and methods in which these reports have been used to devalue some, or promote others.  For example, universities are often ranked according to their ability to compete in an environment of dwindling resources.

Such contests force schools to compete without any consideration of the fiscal restraints under which they are forced to operate.  The authors consider factors that take into account how institutions serve the society  –equity, accountability, quality, and accessibility.  According to the report,  B.C. has one of the best post-secondary education systems in Canada.

B.C. ranks number one in equity.  The authors define equity as access to post-secondary education regardless of gender,  place of origin, or socioeconomic status.  Our province has high percentage of low-income citizens with a post secondary education — just one of five areas of research in the area of equity.

We are also number one in public accountability.  This is a measure of how well education serves general public needs, as opposed to narrow interests of corporations or private donors.   Rankings are based on each province’s commitment to funding education.  Private funds come with strings attached.

B.C. ranks second in quality, with New Brunswick coming in first.  Quality is determined by not only the amount of funding for post-secondary education, but where the spending priorities are.  It includes student to faculty ratios, and keeping full-time faculty.

Attracting and keeping full-time faculty is vital to high quality education. The trend towards part-time faculty reduces the quality of education.  Since part-time faculty are looking for regular work elsewhere, a consistent commitment to education is hard to achieve.

Only two provinces, Quebec and B.C. have increased full-time faculty in the college sector.  In the university sector, only Prince Edward Island has increased full-time faculty, and B.C. has reduced full-time faculty the least.

B.C. is fourth in accessibility, which is the freedom to obtain and make use of post-secondary education.  Newfoundland P.E.I. have joined  B.C. and Quebec in freezing tuition fees.  Manitoba has actually lowered tuition fees.  Alberta has increased fees by the greatest amount — 209 percent in the last decade.  Quebec is ranked first in accessibility, followed by Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Low tuition fees have also had the effect of increasing the quality of education, I think.  Low fees have increased demand for courses from B.C. students and out-of-province students from Alberta. This has some Albertans complaining of a brain-drain to B.C.  Post-secondary institutions have reacted to student demand by raising prerequisites.

In turn, higher quality students has increased the quality of instruction.  In my twenty-eight years of teaching in high schools and at the post-secondary level, one lesson I’ve learned is that the level of  my instruction is determined by the skills of my students.

Too much of the public analysis of post secondary education has taken the form of the forces of simplistic rankings devoid of context.  Such methods serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of restructuring — rewarding institutions that  move away from public  accessibility and towards market accountability — without  examining  the  source  of  this  rhetoric and its harmful influence.

Affordable education should be regarded as an investment in the future. Well paid wage earners return that investment through higher taxes.  They problem with privatized education is that it ignores the contribution that low-income students can make to society.

The lesson that Ireland learned is worth paying attention to.  They made post-secondary education free.  It took a decade for it, and other economic measures, to pay off, but now Ireland is regarded as an European tiger.

Although Missing Pieces II is not exhaustive, nor does it claim to be, the authors make use of a wide range of information from students, activists, educators, researchers, Statistics Canada.  The full report is available from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives at http://www.policyalternatives.ca/