Friday, February 6, 2009

Expanding the Grey

Diversity is underappreciated.

What’s that you say, but we love diversity. Heck, we’re lowermainlanders, (those of us not off plundering the rich bounty of the sea anyway) we’re all about that stuff.

On the surface that may be true, we celebrate lunar New Year alongside Robbie Burns day. We appreciate the different smells, flavours, and the rich patina of a multicultural landscape. What we don’t seem to truly appreciate is mental diversity.

It’s not that we don’t recognize the breadth in our varying capacity to learn, cope, empathize, love, and generally thrive amongst our peers. The issue is that we have created a divisive atmosphere focused on the extreme. We built a black and white landscape where we’re either gifted or handicapped, and thus celebrated or medicated.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, partially because of the rough waters in the k-12 community.

The B.C. Labour Relations Board has ruled that not administering FSA tests amounts to illegal job action, yet a substantial number of parents and teachers oppose the tests. Part of the problem is the tests don’t properly account for diversity in the classroom.

We’re not just talking social diversity here, but the breadth in maturity and capacity to thrive in a traditional learning environment.

There’s a whole grey area that comes into play between gifted learners and those with significant challenges. Our resources go to coping as best we can with those on either end of the spectrum, while to a great extent those in the great gray are ignored.

This mirrors life outside the k-12 community as well. In order to get support people are pushed to align themselves with one extreme or another.

There aren’t a lot of groups or programs dedicated to helping average people succeed, which is leading to the diagnosis and treatment (which all too often means medication) of ever slighter variances from the norm.

Feel awkward in social settings?
It’s not that while being told you were a unique snowflake during your formative years you found yourself amid a sea of indistinguishable yet equally unique snowflakes. Find the right diagnosis and you can be medicated for your pervasive developmental disorders.

Worried to the point of exhaustion?
That’s not because your education and upbringing didn’t equip you with adequate coping mechanisms for the realities of an uncertain future. It’s an anxiety disorder and you need TCAs and SSRI

I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t strive to recognize and address mental illness. I’m sure each and every one of us has seen or felt the effects of mental illness at some point in our lives. I’m saying we should appreciate mental diversity as we appreciate physical and social diversity.

Those of us that are awkward, nervous, or prone to worries need patients, caring, and appreciation for what we bring to the table.

A complex grisaille.

So expand the grey. Find beauty in its complexity, and opportunities to help all of us who exist within its gauzy borders to thrive. After all, grey is a common companion to us landlubbing lowermainlanders for the better part of the year.



Kurt Heinrich said...

great article mike. Welcome to the team.

Megan said...

omg ... I had NO idea where you were going with that @ first & have a whole bunch of opinions on that FSA issue -- but once I kept reading I thought that's a pretty brilliant way of looking @ things!
Maybe you are gifted Mike & maybe I am slow for never looking at the world this way!
lol... now I tease. I did honestly think it was great & thought provoking.

Mike Boronowski said...

Thanks Meg -
I've got heaps of opinions on the FSA issue as well, but every story I heard or read mentioned children with learning challenges.

I've seen far too many friends medicated into a really sad, bored, and boring state. Plus, I like weirdos. I've been bored off my rocker by far too many normal people.

Kurt Heinrich said...

Its important not to forget that one of the key things about FSA is that it isn't necessarily only aimed at the student - it's also designed to evaluate teachers. The idea being: can we find a yard stick to judge teacher's abilities in the classroom as well as the general education given by particular schools. How effective these tests are in evaluating this is another matter.

John Horn said...

Kurt, I hope you're trying to say something controversial and/or "pragmatic".

What kind of yardstick can equally measure teachers working at schools in Dunbar, East Hastings, Miracle Beach, and Cumberland alike?

BC's worst teacher in a Dunbar elementary school has a better chance of having a higher class-average on the FSA than the province's best teacher in Cumberland/Hastings.

So, all I'm saying is that I'd like to see a picture of your yardstick. It sounds fascinating!


Kurt Heinrich said...

Just because something is difficult to measure doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Godfrey said...

Standardized testing is a slippery, slippery slope.

I agree, that not testing because it's too difficult is not enough justification not to try, there is ample evidence out there that standardized testing of schools and students, depending on the policy objectives behind it, can have disastrous results. Data from poorly designed tests (which don't take into account the myriad differences created by socio economic circumstance alone) can be used by politicians in all kinds of ill-conceived ways, stripping schools of funding where they need it the most and ruining careers. It's also often a waste of money. I for one am very, very, wary of the benefits of standardized testing for improving learning at the grassroots level. Because, hey, isnt' that the point?

Check out this Harper's Magazine article on No Child Left Behind, Bush's most important domestic reform of the past decade. And an utter, utter disaster.

The BC case, while different on many levels and not conceived by the idiot Bush, smacks of NCLB.

John Horn said...

Great...researched...response, Kurt.

Hmmm, I think an outcome for said measurement needs to be where this Canadian version of "No Child Left Behind"-esque standardized testing begins.

What's the point?

If it's, as you say, to rate/score/evaluate teachers (not create an artificial ranking system that celebrates and values private schools over public ones), then I have a problem for you to solve with your yardstick:

You are a teacher (anywhere in BC - even Little Flower Academy). You are a lucky one, and only have 25 students in your grade four class. Six of your students, though, are on modified programs: three are reading and doing math ('mathing'?) at a grade two level, two are 'mathing' at a grade three level, one is reading at a grade one level, and the other kid is autistic. They will all write the FSA. This will, with a difficult-to-create/measure yardstick, go towards your overall, standardized score as an elementary educator in the province of BC. You will have seven kids writing a test based on the province's grade four curriculum outcomes, and, because of their modified program, you haven't taught them much - or any - of the stuff on the test.

So, seven of your 25 students bomb the FSA. Usually, you only have two or three students on modified programs, but, due to high levels of mercury in the water 10 years ago, things got a little screwy and, well, you have seven - oh, shit, wait, and you also have one or two ESL students, because of changing demographics amongst Canadians combined with the lucrative tuition fees garnered by international recruitment - so, seven or more students will fail all or part of the test on which your skill as a teacher and worthiness of your school are going to be measured - hopefully just a part of it, not your entire reputation. I mean, that might be a little ridiculous...

So, Kurt, using the FSA model and a yardstick, please solve for "X".

Show your work.

- JCH, who, admittedly, got a lot of ammunition from his two retired-teacher parents last night...