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Thursday, 19 October 2017

The hubris of David Staples.


David Staples - Hockey Report
David Staples is an interesting kind of guy. His primary interest is hockey which he writes about and produces a podcast about entitled, "The Cult of Hockey." Nevertheless, that doesn't stop him from pronouncing his expertise in other areas. For the last four or five years, one of his primary concerns has been Alberta's math curriculum. Why he should write so prolifically on the subject or feel so passionately is a bit of a mystery. More mysterious is why he considers himself an expert on the subject.

Alberta Education just released the results of the Provincial Achievement Tests and Diploma Exams. For the first time, the students were given a written, no-calculator portion of the test which 1/3 of Grade 6 students failed. In other respects the results for both PATs and Diploma exams were much the same as last year. Grade 9 math PAT results were slightly down from last year while the Diploma results in math were slightly up. Pretty boring stuff, right? Yet David gets right into it.

He responded on Twitter linking the related Edmonton Journal article with the comment, "Tragic that 1/3 of AB Gr. 6 students can't do basic arithmetic. But at least we know how low we have sunk." That said, he goes on to praise David Eggen, Minister of Education for bringing in the timed tests without

calculators in Grade 6. He retweeted Gary Feltham's tweet "It's pretty sad that my father got a better math education in rural Newfoundland in the 1940s that do students nowadays." Why? Does Mr. Staples really believe this? Does he even know what's expected of students working with math in the job market?

Recently I took a first year Real Estate Math course through Sauder Business School at the University of British Columbia. One of the main objectives of the course was to learn how to use a business calculator which was frustrating because the real work of this math is not done through the long drawn-out process of punching huge strings of numbers into a calculator. It's done by using an excel spreadsheet where the user can program complicated formulas into a long list of numbers that can be checked for accuracy. How would a 1940 math education in rural Newfoundland helped me with the real-world math of appraising house prices?

In an article published just before the municipal elections was entitled Culture wars heat up school trustee races," David claimed that “the culture wars around various educational issues have exploded into the political realm” and that “debates rage on topics ranging from gay-straight alliances to the ideological slant of the professors writing our new school curriculum.”

What debates? If the debates actually exist, how are they related to a "culture war"? Culture has many definitions and almost none make sense here. Unless he means the recent emphasis on First Nations in the present and proposed social studies curriculum? But he doesn't say that so is it a dog whistle? Bad writing? Who knows?

He further claims that educational issues have exploded into the political realm. Well, who's responsible for that? Could it be the same guy who's claiming it to exist. He began his diatribes with the introduction of the new math curriculum when Dave Hancock was the P.C. Minister of Education. No question, the performance of Alberta students in math has slipped according to the PISA scores last updated by the Conference Board of Canada in 2014. That said, of all the provinces only Quebec received an A rating while Alberta, Ontario and B.C. all received a B.

Researchers who had investigated the reasons for Quebec's superior performance concluded that the result of intensive teacher training and a curriculum balancing math drills with problem-solving approaches. For example, elementary school teachers in Quebec must take 225 hours of university courses in math training while in other provinces it can be as little as 39. I believe the University of Alberta requires about 90.

According to the a Globe and Mail article published in 2014, "Alberta, which fared above-average in the test scores, has been the only province to bend to pressure from parents for curriculum changes." David Staples is at least partially responsible for those changes since he's been on a back to basics campaign since 2014.

So, instead of using real research that's been done by professionals, Alberta has chosen to focus on a pedagogical practice that may have little or no impact on student performance. After all, the "new math" as Mr. Staples likes to call it, may or may not have led to a drop in student performance. Perhaps, there's another factor at play. Could it also be possible that the bump of experienced teachers began to retire about this time and replaced by new ones possibly not trained to the extent of their Quebec counterparts? Who know? That's what research is for.

Besides math, how did Quebec students perform on the other PISA tests? They received "Bs" in both inadequate and high-level scores in reading skills while Alberta received and "A" and a "B" respectively. In science, Quebec received PISA scores of "D" in high-level and "B" in inadequate while Alberta received "A"s in both. So, where would you rather send your child?



Students in Brad Wall's Saskatchewan, Jason Kenney's paragon of how a province should be run, scored abysmally on the PISA tests with a "D" in high level reading, "C" in high level math and a "D" in high level science. Competing in university with students from Alberta must be very difficult for students from Saskatchewan.

So, why are we not listening to the professionals at least partially responsible for these excellent results? Why are we even engaging with David Staples who spouts off theories as facts and anecdotes as proof? After all, we all have anecdotes. I have three children who have all pursued math related careers.

My eldest daughter received a perfect score on the Math 30 Diploma exam, graduated with an Engineering degree from the U. of A. and then went on to complete a PhD in Biotechnology from Cambridge University. My second daughter has a geophysics degree from the U. of A. and works for an oil company in Calgary. My youngest just graduated with a science degree specializing in computing science and works for a start-up in Calgary. They all come from a small town without the benefit of specialized programs like the I.B. or parents who could help them. After all, my wife and I are social studies teachers.

Besides bragging, there's no point to this story whatsoever. It's just an anecdote. There could be any number of reasons my children did well in math. It could be that they didn't like us and wanted to pursue careers that would make them as different as possible. It could be that they were encouraged to pursue the science because they'd witnessed the frustration their parents had experienced with parent and the public who think they know better how to do their job. Or, they could just be geniuses which may be the case however I can say that they worked awfully hard to be that way.

The problem is that for anyone to figure out why they succeeded in math and science where my wife and I didn't would require research. Research is a scary thing for those of us who are not involved. We like to think that we have greater control of our existence, that our intuition can tell us the right answer. Unfortunately, that's becoming more and more not the case. We are entering a world where machines tell us how to get to a location, what restaurant we might like in the area, how long it will take to go home and, in the not-too-distant future, drive us there.

Like most of the rest of us, David Staples is afraid of that future. He'd rather hide behind the facade of gut-feeling, to pick and choose his anecdotes and find comfort in the belief that, if only given a chance, he and his readers can gain greater control of his existence. After all, they grew up memorizing their mathematics tables. What's good for him is good for his children. But is it?

My children work with math everyday and it has nothing to do with basic math. Their math involves spreadsheets and formulas, algorithms and massive quantities of numbers that would require many individuals many lifetimes to calculate using basic math. Memorizing times-tables may be a good learning experience on its own (only research could tell) however don't pretend that's what our children are going to be using in the future.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Jason Kenney, the "unity' guy

In his campaign to become the United Conservative Party leader, Jason Kenney claims "it's time to Unite Alberta and bring back the Alberta Advantage."  He includes a commitment to unity in his banner 'Jason Kenney - Experience, Leadership, Unity.'


Ironically, he's the most divisive politician to enter Alberta Politics in recent memory. He uses dog whistle politics to question the heritage of First Nations people, the right of LGBTQ students to join a Gay Straight Association in school without being outed by their parents, accused the NDP of an ideology conspiracy and the use of social engineering to indoctrinate our young people, and called the politics of millennials a product of hardwiring collectivist ideas and identity politics. 

Lots of people hate Rachel Notley. She called Albertans the embarrassing cousins when referring to Alberta's environmental record; a huge strategic mistake probably the consequence of hubris after having just won a shocking majority for her NDP government. However, since that time, I've found no effort on her part to pit one group of Albertans against another. I couldn't even find a comment she might have made about George Clark's attempted 'kudutah." A more naive, ignorant effort to impact Alberta politics could hardly be imagined. Yet, to criticize George would have been to criticize his supporters. After all, cousins may be embarrassing but they're still part of the Alberta family. 

Jason Kenney likes to compare himself to Ralph Klein but Ralph never used social issues to divide the electorate. And, when he did, he apologized and humbly admitted to a serious drinking problem. During the recession of 1995, Ralph appealed to the public sector to roll back wages by 5%, I was in a room full of teachers who agreed to it. The problem was that he also  eliminated 4500 civil service jobs and 43% of all nursing positions, and cut funding for public kindergarten and didn't restore wages and jobs when the recession ended

Yet, Ralph was not known for using social issues or dog whistles to advance his agenda. After all, he knew the feeling of what it's like to be at the receiving end. In February of 2006,  Ezra Levant, a long-time fan of Jason's, published a story in his political magazine complaining about the influence of Colleen Klein on the political life of her husband. He stated that, "Once she [Colleen] stops being the premier's wife, she goes back to being just another Indian." Despite outrage from MLAs and a number of aboriginal groups, Ezra stood by his comment. Like a gentleman, Ralph refused to engage.

Jason demonstrated his disdain for aboriginal people and their heritage in June of 2016 when he tweeted that "on Aboriginal Day, we honour those  those who first settled Canada and their generations of descendants." What does this mean? Are they immigrants just like the rest of us? And, as immigrants, how can they have been nations when the French and British first arrived? And, if they weren't nations, how can they have signed treaties?

More recently, he's stated that the new social studies curriculum is "predictably riddled with politically correct themes like colonialism and oppression and climate change." I wonder, in what way is colonialism a politically correct theme? After all, according the Oxford Dictionary, colonization is "the action or process of settling among and control over the indigenous people of an area."

Ultimately, wouldn't the colonization of the First Nations peoples be an essential component of Canadian history? How else could I be here if my ancestors hadn't conquered these peoples and then removed them from the land I now inhabit? And wouldn't conquering a people and colonizing their land require some the oppression of those people? So, how could these be politically correct themes? Unless, of course, they were settlers just like us and like us, welcomed others to provide labour for our businesses and industry.

Besides the bizarre nature of these statements, I wonder how Jason can believe they will help unite Alberta? Or, are they meant to appeal to a certain segment of Albertans? Those who don't recognize the rights of indigenous peoples? And, does he even care about how his comments might be perceived by First Nations peoples? Or perhaps, he thinks his dog whistle is cleverly disguised as truly honouring the First Nations peoples.

Jason created a similar rift with the LGTBQ community when he stated that parents should be notified if their son or daughter joins a Gay Straight Alliance in school. He told the editorial board at Postmedia in Calgary that "parents have a right to know what's going on with their kids in schools unless the parents are abusive. I don't think it's right to keep secrets from parents about challenges their kids are going through." Except perhaps, if one of the students biggest and most feared challenges is informing his or her parents about their sexual orientation.

Bill 10, making GSAs mandatory if students request them, was introduced Laurie Blakeman, Libertal MLA as a private members in 2014. The bill received from all three parties and became legislation after a vote of 31 MLAs for and 19 against.

David Eggen, Minister of Education, called Jason's views extremist. Laurie Blakeman
tweeted ,"Dear #jkenney Remember, #GSAs were created to address the astonishing #s of young gay students committing suicide. Access to GSAs helped." K.D. Lang questioned Jason's own sexual orientation when she tweeted, "You're gay aren't you? @jkenney."

Could Jason's youth steeped in Catholic orthodoxy have prompted him to revisit this emotionally charged issue? (See "Nutty Jason Kenney, A History: Part 1) Does he see it as a way to bolstering support from his base? Or perhaps, he believes that outing LGBTQ students to their parents would be good for the student. Or perhaps, it doesn't matter so long as "parental rights" are observed.

Jason recently accused the NDP of carrying out a secret agenda with the current Alberta school curriculum review. As proof, he cites the fact that the names of teachers and professionals on the committee charged with the review were not released. Initially, my wife used her rights under Alberta FOIP legislation to prevent the publishing of her name. Like others on the committee, she had seen and heard the kinds of vitriols posted on Twitter against Rachel Notley and other members of her caucus and didn't relish the possibility of similar types of abuse.

Initially, my wife wondered why the publishing of the committee members' names mattered. After all, she'd participated in a number of social studies reviews, the first under Lyle Oberg, then PC Minister of Learning back in the early 2000s and then another when Dave Hancock was Minister. No demands from the opposition had been made for the names to be made public at that time and no accusations were made of secret PC agenda. However, after hearing Jason's accusations of a secret NDP agenda, she retracted her rights under FOIP and agreed to have her name published.

Jason expounded his "expert" views on the curriculum in a conversation with the Edmonton Journal back in August. He said the curriculum should "impartially transmit essential knowledge and skills to young people so that they can come to their own political and moral judgements about issues. I see that the language of that curriculum . . .  echoes of social engineering, telling young people what to think, rather than how to think, rather than quipping them with knowledge and facts and skills." He continues to say that the reason the NDP is proceeding in secret is because "the NDP has a political agenda at play here."


Jason speaks with the authority of a radio talk-show host with only dubious support for what is said. For example, how can a curriculum "impartially transmit essential knowledge and skills" and teach students "how to think rather than quipping them with knowledge and fact and skills"? How is not publishing the names of those participating proof of a secret NDP agenda? What does he mean by social engineering? Does he really think it only means teaching students what to think because the dictionary states that it's "an attempt to manage social change and regulate the future development and behaviour of a society"? If he means the latter, how can a school curriculum possibly achieve that goal? Or does he not care? Is Jason's real goal to create suspicion and anger? And, how does that help unite Alberta?

In a June, 2016 interview with Ezra Levant of Rebel Media, Jason states that "the big challenge which I don't have an easy answer is how to address the prevailing political attitude of millennials . . . I think it's the first generation to come through a schooling system where many of them have been hardwired with collectivist ideas with watching Michael Moore documentaries, with identity politics, from their primary and secondary to their universities. "


What does Jason Kenney know about millennials? Upon what does he base his judgement? He isn't a millennial and he doesn't have children He works 18 hours a day so when would he have time to get to know one? He refers to concepts that he doesn't seem to understand. For example, the equivalent in the brain to hardwiring in a computer would be the same as the anatomical make-up of the human brain at birth. If collectivist ideas are hard-wired at birth, no education system could change that.

Does Jason know that collectivist ideas and identity politics don't easily mix? Identity politics emphasizes individual rights and freedoms with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation or social background. Collectivist ideas require trading some of those rights and freedoms for the benefit of the group.

Identity politics depends on the protection of individual rights and freedoms as set out in our constitution. In 2006, a school board in Quebec refused to allow a Sikh student to carry a kirpan in school that is both a dagger and a religious object. The case was taken to the Supreme Court who overturned the ruling by the school board and Quebec's attorney general.  So, in this case, as in many others, the student's identity, as it's expressed in his religious rights, won out over a the school board's concern for the safety of the student body.

Does truth matter to Jason Kenney or would he rather push emotional buttons on social issues that divide Albertan? He's told millennials they have a "political attitude" that needs fixing. That teachers "hard-wired" students to accept collectivist ideas. Members of the Alberta curriculum review are part of a secret agenda to impose NDP ideology on students using a strategy called "social engineering" that brings up images of the Soviet Gulag.

According to Jason's "Grassroots Guarantee," he'll look to the "grassroots" of his party to create policy. But who will that grassroots include? Students? Millennials? First Nations? The LGTBQ community? Public service workers? Environmentalists? Or will he create a deeply divided political environment where only some people will feel welcome to engage in the political process?












Saturday, 16 September 2017

Hurricane Irma Relief Funds - some ideas

For those interested in helping with the hurricane relief, there are a number of efforts in place and the best way to support them is with money. The Center for International Disaster information encourages people not to send food, clothing and household items. They say
Sorting clothing - Slave Lake
that it causes problems with transportation and logistics that actually interfere with more urgent needs. 
I know we spent hundreds of man hours sorting clothes in Slave Lake after the 2011 wildfire with very little benefit. In the end, we had truck loads of clothing left over that could not be disposed of in the community. Much was sent to landfill


To donate money, the Hurricane Irma Relief Fund has been endorsed by the New York Times and Newsweek  magazine with a 4/4 star rating from Charity Navigator. Donations first go to the survivor's needs for food, fuel, clean water, hygiene products and shelter. Once those needs have been met, funds will be used toward long-term support for survivors. I would assume this would be to help the rebuilding of infrastructure and homes. Best of all, these long-term efforts will be run by local, vetted organizations. Local equipment owners and operators can often respond more effectively to an emergency situation than a central organization deciding what will be best for them. 
Volunteers needed Cuba
The Centre for International Disaster Information greatly discourages volunteering in areas affected by disaster. However, such is not the case with Cuba. According to Canadian Global Response, volunteers are needed there. If you've developed a special connection with Cuba and want to help, you can phone 1-403-512-5261 for volunteer opportunities or donate towards Hurricane Irma relief. 




Care Canada also provides emergency assistance to Cuba for water, sanitation, hygiene and household supplies. They also have a number of ongoing projects as outlined on their webpage such as promoting sustainable livelihoods, disaster risk and emergency response, (ideas that could be borrowed by the U.S. whose response in the past has been much worse than Cuba's), and learning partnerships.

If you have any other ideas of how to help the victims of Hurricane Irma, please add in the comments. Thanks. 


Havana before Irma
Havana - After




Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Hurricane Irma - A rant about CBC's Anna Maria Tremonte and tourists who don't care.

Turks & Caicos Club Med
I heard an interview on CBC’s the current yesterday morning. The host, Anna Maria Tremonte interviewed a woman stuck at a “Club Med” resort in the Turks and Caicos. With Anna Maria’s prompting and encouragement, the woman complained about the Canadian government not acting effectively enough in her favour. An Air Canada plane was sitting on the tarmac waiting to take Canadians out of the country but the local government wouldn’t let them leave. Why wasn’t the Canadian government doing enough to get them out of there?

Turks & Caicos after Irma
That was the story? Really? Was this all that Anna Maria and the woman had to talk about? How rough it was to her having to stay at the Club Med, fed and watered, with little else to do but wait? No mention of the locals and their loss. Nothing about how lucky she and her husband are for having survived a category 5 hurricane relatively unscathed. Just how upset she was at the Canadian government for not getting them out.


What, are we children here? Can we not take responsibility for our own actions? By this woman’s own account, she knew the hurricane was coming before she’d even flown to the resort. She just thought that the storm would die down or change directions. When my wife and I were in an accident in Nairobi, Kenya, the help we received from Canadian High Commission in getting my wife with a freshly broken back on a flight to Edmonton was quite a surprise to us. 

My wife in a Nairobi hospital
Not that we weren’t grateful to the high commission but it wasn’t our fellow Canadians or tourists who saved the day. It was a Kenyan man who’d stopped his flat bed truck to help when all the other white vans filled with foreign tourists refused. Fortunately, our hero spoke English and, with the assistance of other Kenyan bystanders, helped me put my wife on an improvised backboard and then transported her to a local hospital. Once we arrived at a clinic outpost, this Kenyan got me in contact with the Canadian High Commission and from there, the flying doctors were contacted and medical transportation was arranged to Nairobi. 


So, when I visit developing countries, I like to think at least a little about the people who live there. If I was caught in a disaster, I would hope to have some empathy. Put myself in their shoes. After all, they're going to have to deal with loss of life, home and livelihood long after I'm gone.