“Math Wrath”: Are parents pushing for a return to tradition?

January 13, 2014

Recently, Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published, “Math wrath: Parents and teachers demanding a return to basic skills.” The article talks about a movement by some Canadian educators and parents to put greater emphasis on developing concrete math skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and less focus on discovery and creative strategies.

I find myself fascinated by this debate. I have long wondered about “creative strategies” in education. At the very beginning of my teaching career I took the Gregorc learning styles test. I came out perfectly balanced between all four quadrants: concrete, abstract, random and sequential. Apparently, that’s not particularly common. What it means though is that I can see and appreciate a variety of different learning styles.

Over the past 20 years or so (about the length of my teaching career), I have noted a distinct shift away from concrete sequential learning. Order, logic, learning to follow directions and getting facts seem to have diminished in value, while experimentation, risk taking, using intuition, problem-solving, learning to work in teams and focusing on this issues at hand all seem to fit with the creative learning strategies that have become popular in recent decades.

There has been a notable shift away from valuing sequential learning, structure, learning to follow precise directions and memorizing. In decades past, educational structures and systems may have favoured the concrete sequential learner. Today’s educational systems favour a more random or exploratory approach.

The debate has become almost vicious in some educational circles. Those who favor teaching methods that are concrete and sequential have been poo-poo’ed or dismissed by colleagues who insist vehemently on the random nouveau. I have known colleagues who have been quietly yet unapologetically exited from their teaching jobs because they continue to insist that their students follow directions, do activities in a particular order or memorize.

I worry a bit about the defiant horror expressed by some educational experts and parents at the idea of memorizing. While I agree that rote learning may not employ the highest levels of our cognition, memorization has its place. Learning to say, “Please” and “Thank you” are largely memorized behaviours. Learning to stop at a red light and drive on a green light is also a memorized response. Memorizing how to do CPR could save someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe that we need to go back to the days of corporal punishment for an incorrect answer based on memorization. What has always puzzled me though, is how quickly methodological fashions change in education. When a new way of learning or teaching is introduced, old ways seem to be immediately, unequivocally and vehemently dismissed. Really good teachers whose background are more traditional than fashionable are thrown out along with their teaching methods.

Do we need to take a step back and look at models that integrate and value a variety of approaches? Would it be wise to hesitate… just a little bit… before we denounce traditional methods as being heinous and abhorrent, with only newer and more fashionable ones as being worthy?

I wonder if the obsessive focus on creativity, exploration and problem-solving might be doing some harm that we can not yet predict? Perhaps a small dose of memorization, learning to follow specific directions and learning systematically might be helpful?

Personally, I give both children and adults more credit than some educators or policy makers who insist on a singular approach to learning, regardless of whether it is systematic memorization or exploratory problem-solving. Being the utterly complex and capable creatures humans are, surely we can cope with both memorization and developing creativity simultaneously?

It’s the drastic swings of the policy pendulum that should worry us. The unflinching insistence that exploratory methods are the only legitimate or credible ways of learning should make us nervous. Polarized and uncompromising opinions on the singular “best” way to learn should be considered suspect.

There is almost always more than one “right” way to learn.

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How to love your job as a contract teacher

January 2, 2014

2014 marks my 20th year teaching at post-secondary institutions. I have spent the past two decades of my teaching career as a part-time contract instructor, also known as a “sessional” in Canada, or an “adjunct” in the United States.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the past twenty years:

1. Know your “why”.

hands hope sunI have friends and colleagues who have been contract teachers for a long time. Some become bitter and jaded because they do not get hired into full-time and permanent positions. If you want a full-time position, then you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get one. That may mean moving to a new city, region or even a different country to get it. If you aren’t willing to do that, then don’t get grumpy about being a part-time teacher. Understand that you are putting staying in your current location above getting a permanent job. If you are very lucky, eventually you may get hired on full-time, but there are no guarantees. It comes with the territory.

Like a potted plant, each of us has an ideal set of conditions in which we blossom. For me, the idea of going into an office at the same time every day for the rest of my life makes my heart wilt. I have learned that I serve my institutions, my clients and my students better when I honour that part of my character that thrives in an environment of flexibility, independence and variety.

Knowing why you accept part-time contract teaching jobs helps you stay positive. Once you know your why, you can stand in your truth about what is important to you and what you need to thrive.

2. Have more than one gig at all times.

As much as you may love the department or institution you work for, there may be semesters when there are no classes for you to teach. The reasons for this may vary. For me, these have included lower departmental enrolments, insufficient enrollment in a particular course, departmental commitments to give jobs to visiting professors or scholars, or jobs going to other contract teachers with more years of service.

For me, a combination of teaching, consulting, researching, and freelance work has proven successful. I don’t do as much freelance work as I did in the early years. My career has evolved to the point where I do organizational consulting. The difference is that in freelance work you have a clear set of deliverables due by a particular date. In consulting, the work is often more iterative, strategic and adaptive. The deliverables are not always clear, but the results can be documented or measured.

Whether the work involves a clear set of deliverables (freelancing) or the ability to work iteratively with a client to change processes or systems (consulting) or teaching a group of students, I have learned that having more than one gig ensures I can pay the bills every month.

When you aim to always have more than one gig, you build your own safety net. This builds your confidence and assertiveness as a professional. If there’s a semester when there are no teaching opportunities, you can redirect your energy to another element of your career for a while.

3. Don’t take it personally if there is no course for you to teach.

If you look at the list above, you’ll see that all the examples I shared had nothing to do with me personally or my job performance. They are all factors outside my control. Having a semester when there are zero courses for me to teach has been rare. But there have been times when I have been offered only one course. Either way, I don’t take it personally.

It is naive to assume that just because you had three courses last semester that you will have the same number of classes next term. I have found that having high expectations around the number or type of my teaching assignments causes unnecessary stress. In the early years, I became frustrated or angry when I received fewer teaching opportunities than I had the semester before. I have learned that there are many variables, most of which are outside my control. There are no guarantees… and that’s not your fault.

4. Unofficial seniority is a reality.

In some teaching environments, seniority is a reality among full-time or tenured staff. Those with the most seniority can cherry pick their assignments.

In most of the part-time, sessional or contract teaching contexts I have worked in, seniority does not exist. At least, not on paper. In reality though, department heads and managers often use an informal or unofficial system of seniority that is not written down anywhere. Those who have been teaching the longest are often first in line for contract teaching assignments.

Such “unofficial” systems come with the territory. Understand that these undocumented systems do not exist only at your institution. They exist everywhere. Being resentful of them doesn’t change them. You can spend your time protesting unofficial seniority or other undocumented systems that make up the culture of educational institutions, or you can understand that it is an unspoken reality of the profession and go about creating your career anyway. Learn to live with the informal or implicit culture of your school or organization.

5. Develop a tolerance for uncertainty.

Contract teachers never know from one semester to the next what their teaching assignments will be, or even if there will be a job next term. If you can’t cope with that, you may want to think hard about whether this professional situation is really for you.

I have learned that I have a fairly high tolerance for uncertainty in my work life. Because I aim to have at least three gigs at any given time, that adds stability to my life, and I have learned that a contract teacher needs to develop resilience and a tolerance for professional uncertainty. If you need a steady pay cheque to stay sane, contract teaching may not be for you.

6. Your finances are your responsibility.

Contract teachers are more like entrepreneurs than employees. Entrepreneurs learn not to depend on a boss, a company or an organization for a regular pay cheque. I have often heard new entrepreneurs told, “If you are not making money, you don’t have a business. You have a hobby.”

Part-time teaching can be one element of a successful career in education. It may not be the only element and if it doesn’t pay all your bills, it probably should not be the only element. Entrepreneurs, freelancers and contract teachers all need to have a firm grasp of reality when it comes to finances. If teaching does not pay the bills, then find something to supplement your income that will. It may be editing, writing or whatever. You may love teaching, but passion does not pay the mortgage. Learn to think like an entrepreneur and hunt out new contracts, new clients and whatever it takes for you to have a career, not a hobby.

It’s not up to your school or your department head to ensure you can pay your bills. It’s up to you. In fact, if you choose a career as a contract teacher (and it is important to recognize that you have indeed made a choice on some level) then not only do you need enough income to cover your expenses every month, you also need to put a little bit away every month for those times when you may not have a teaching assignment.

7. Courses do not equal a career.

If you spend your years as a contract teacher whining about not having job security or a pension, you can end up marinating in self-created misery that can mutate into lifelong jaded bitterness.

I love the work I do. I deeply enjoy working with my students. I am surrounded by brilliant colleagues who care deeply about learning. I eagerly embrace the chance to do consulting work with organizations focused on education, training or social development. Every contract provides an unparalleled opportunity to work with new people, each of whom is committed in some way or another to lifelong learning.

My work has spanned a variety of sectors including education, non-profit and government. Some of my full-time colleagues see that as haphazard or unfocused. But not me. I am crystal clear on what my purpose is. What drives me has a singular focus: To improve the human condition.

While I may work independently, I relish the thought that I am not alone in what I do. There are hundreds of thousands of us — maybe even millions of us — around the globe who teach part time, on contract, without job security, pensions or a regular pay cheque because when we get right down to it, we love teaching and we believe in education. The bottom line for any social entrepreneur or contract teacher is simple: The work we do matters. The work we do individually —  our daily practice of teaching, researching, consulting, freelancing and all our other educational work — contributes to a collective global commitment to improve the human condition.

As harsh as it may seem, when you are a contract teacher, you are not in control of the courses you are offered to teach. But you are still in control of your career. How you use your skills, talents and expertise is ultimately up to you. Whether it’s teaching, researching, consulting or freelancing, understand what drives you, what matters deeply to you and what you need not just to survive, but to thrive as a professional.

When you look back in twenty years (or more) what will matter more, the courses you have taught or the career you have cultivated?

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How to use Scribd to publish your own documents online: A free, downloadable, step-by-step guide

September 2, 2013

With a new school year about to start, a great online tool for teachers and students to know about is Scribd. This online service lets you publish all kinds of documents, including:

  • Resources (like the guide I am sharing with you in this post)
  • Slide presentations
  • Digitally created books
  • Basically any document you can save in Word or .pdf format.

Here’s a preview, step-by-step, “how to” guide for you:

View this document on Scribd

To download a free copy, click on the download icon next to the word “Scribd” at the bottom of the frame. (It looks like an arrow pointing downwards.)

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Why “as cited in” should be avoided in academic writing

May 21, 2013

For my graduate students… and other readers:

When you are referencing others’ work in our course, whehter it is on the discussion board, in your presentation or in your final paper, I urge you to find the primary sources for your citations.

I will be upfront about this and say that I am not at all a fan of citing a work that somone else has cited. Please find the original reference yourself and cite that instead.

The reason for this is three-fold:

  1. You want to be sure that the “original” author actually exists. As heinous as it may seem, people have been known to fabricate references.
  2. More common is that a researcher will mis-quote an author or take someone’s work out of context. By going back to the original source, you have the opportunity to verify for yourself what the original author was trying to say.
  3. “As cited in…” can be an indicator of either a lazy or disinterested scholar who does not care enough to find and cite original authors. I do not think this is the case with anyone in our course, but it is not uncommon for other scholars to dismiss the credibility of a researcher who does not take the time to find primary sources.

Earlier this year, I conducted an informal in-class experiment with a Master’s level class at the U of C. I challenged them to find the original version of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. To their surprise, they found that the pyramid that has become an iconic representation of Maslow’s hierarchy is nowhere to be found in his original work. (You can read about it here: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Is the pyramid a hoax?  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1rU)

I tell my students, “My point to you is this: Please cite only primary sources in our course. Avoid using ‘as cited in…’ or similar strategies. If you can’t find an original source, don’t cite it.”

The only exception to this would be original works of extreme rarity which are almost impossible to source without physically visiting historical archives.

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Top 10 affordable and unique Christmas gift ideas for teachers

December 10, 2012

Swirl of giftsIt is that time of year again when parents and children want to acknowledge teachers’ hard work and commitment to education with a token of appreciation.

Over the years, teachers collect dozens of boxes of chocolates and coffee mugs, so avoid those and instead opt for affordable gifts that your teacher is sure to appreciate. Here are some gift ideas for teachers, educational aides and volunteers, do not cost a lot of money and say “thank you” in a unique way:

1. Specialty tea

Choose black, green or herbal teas that are organic and high quality. Visit a local speciality tea shop and choose one that your teacher will love. Avoid the temptation to present it in a mug though. Many teachers already have a hearty collection of mugs, comprised of previous gifts from students.

2. High quality coffee

If you know for sure that the teacher drinks coffee, then the gift of java will surely be appreciated. Opt for high quality ground coffee unless you know for sure that the teacher uses a coffee grinder. Look for organic, fair trade or direct trade coffee from a local distributor.

3. Hand-made soap or lotion

Body products are another typical holiday gift for teachers, but many of the commercial products contain unhealthy ingredients. Opt for naturally-made, locally produced products that are scent-free or only lightly scented. This increases the chances that teacher will actually use the bath product.

4. A bottle of wine

Only give this gift if you know for sure that the teacher drinks alcohol. If she or he does, then a high quality bottle of wine can go a long way to help a stressed teacher relax once the term is over.

5. A gift card for classroom supplies

Did you know that many teachers buy their own classroom supplies? Some teachers love strolling the aisles of office supply stores, looking at markers, paper, pens, pencils and other classroom supplies. A gift card to an office supply store is a wonderful way to help teachers help kids.

6. A box of elegant, high quality blank cards

An exquisite box of blank cards is a great idea because it means that when the teacher is too busy during the term to go out and buy a special occasion card, they have one handy. Choose high quality paper with a design that can be used for a multitude of purposes.

7. A gift certificate for housecleaning services

This is another great idea from a group of parents. Many teachers find themselves so busy during the term that their house keeping chores just do not get done. If it comes to preparing a lesson plan or cleaning their toilet, teachers will opt to focus on their students. A gift certificate for maid services for a day can provide welcome relief. Choose a well-known service with an excellent reputation.

8. Gift certificates to a locally owned restaurant

Pool resources with a few other parents and buy a gift certificate to a local fancy restaurant. A group gift that allows a teacher to take their special someone out for a complete dinner with wine will be appreciated and remembered for a long time to come.

9. Gift certificates to the movies, live theatre or a concert

This kind of gift sends the message, “You deserve to relax.” A gift certificate or card for entertainment allows the teacher to take a break and forget all the day-to-day stresses of their job.

10. A gift made by you and your child

A gift handmade by your child, together with you, is a surefire way to touch a teacher’s heart. A handmade card, bookmark or other small token is enough to say, “We appreciate you!”

Avoid sugary or sweet gifts such as chocolate, cookies or other sweets. The school staff room is probably full of high calorie treats and many teachers end up laden with boxes of chocolates that they do not particularly want or need.

Instead, show your appreciation to teachers with small, thoughtful gifts that are unique and sure to be appreciated. Choose gifts that do double-duty of helping to support ethical business and local entrepreneurs and you’ll be giving a gift in more ways than one. You are guaranteed a great big smile on the teacher’s face when you do.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


5 Easy Christmas Blogging Ideas for Literacy and Language Teachers

December 5, 2012

With Christmas right around the corner, teachers are scrambling to finish up the semester before the holidays. If you are a blogger, you probably do not have much time for your blog at the moment. Here are five easy ideas to keep you blogging through this busy time of year:

1. A guide to Christmas away from home

Do you have students from other countries who are missing their family and friends back home? Write a post with your top suggestions on how to survive the holidays away from home.

2. Local Christmas traditions and events

Many areas have special events such as craft fairs, light displays or free ice skating to celebrate the holidays. Tap into your local community to find out what is going on. Write a post that highlights some free or low-cost options for your students and their families.

3. Christmas crafts for young and old

Believe it or not, doing crafts can be an excellent way to build literacy and language skills. You must read instructions, follow directions and use a step-by-step method to complete a task.

Create a post with links to simple crafts that are appropriate for the ages and language proficiency of the group you teach. A link to a YouTube video is always a great idea.

4. Christmas carols for language learning

Sarah Eaton blog photoAs children we learn Christmas carols without really thinking about the words. What does it mean to “deck the halls with boughs of holly”, anyway? If you live in an area where holly does not grow then you may have never seen real holly.

Write a blog post that de-mystifies some of the language and phrases in common Christmas songs.

5. Multicultural Christmas traditions

When I was a teenager my Mom befriended a lady from El Salvador. That first Christmas we exchanged stories about our different Christmas traditions. Marta told us that setting off fireworks after their turkey dinner was part of their tradition. We had a wonderful conversation as we learned about what the similarities and differences were between our two cultures.

Write a blog post that highlights some of the traditions of your students, friends or family members.

Christmas time is one of the busiest times of the year for many people. Keep your blog posts simple and light during this time of year. Focus on joy and sharing and you’ll continue to enjoy your own blogging through the holiday season.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


Is your research biased? Answer: Yes. (Here’s why.)

October 29, 2012

Sarah Eaton blog technology researchThis semester I am teaching a course on Research Methodology in Education. One of the topics that has come up is bias in our research

Bias is present is bascially every research study. Even though we strive to be objective — and that is part of our work, we nevertheless start with a set of values, beliefs and philosophies that shape our opinions and world view.  It is important for reasearchers to understand the biases they bring to their work and to acknowledge them.

For example, one of my biases is that I hold is that everyone is capable of learning. Not everyone is capable of earning a Ph.D. (for any number of reasons), but everyone is capable of learning something. This is one of my values and beliefs that shapes my work. If I am an honest researcher, I must declare and acknowlege that bias when I do research. It is one thing to have and acknowledge bias. It is an entirely different matter to purposely bias our research in favor of a particular outcome or do research just to prove a point.

There are two ways to approach research:

Approach #1 – Conduct research in a manner that supports your argument

The first is to start with an argument or a position and conduct research and find literature that supports your point of view.

Though some scholars might disagree, I would submit that is an undesirable starting position. The reason is that you are likely to skew either your research or your results so they fit with your argument. Forcing results to fit to a pre-determined argument may be considered unethical. For example, pharmaceutical companies that conduct drug tests in order to prove the drug is safe and refuse to release research that may contradict that starting point are harshly criticized. Such research is not considered believable because it is skewed.

Approach #2 – Start with a research question, hypothesis or topic. Conduct your research in a manner that seeks to answer a question.

The second way to approach you research is to begin with a problem you want to solve or a question you want to answer. Then, you conduct your research in a manner that seeks to answer your research question. Once you have conducted your research, your argument emerges from your data.

The data is the information that you gather that allows you develop a cogent argument to persuade others. You can gather primary data (e.g. interviews) or secondary data (e.g. literature review).

Part of a research study almost always involves a review of previous literature written on the topic you are studying. In your literature review, it is valuable to cite opposing views. Once you have considered your question or problem from a variety of angles, then you can begin to develop an argument, based on your findings. Considering a variety of viewpoints is highly desirable as it demonstrates that you are not attempting to skew your results in favor of a pre-determined outcome.

Be aware that just because you start your research with a particular question or topic, it is unwise to assume that your starting position is the correct one. Be curious, rather than dogmatic. What themes emerge from the literature that you surveyed? What surprised you? What arguments can be made? What conclusions can be drawn?

In my own research, it has happened to me that I start with a research question, problem or hypothesis and as I surveyed the literature, my hypothesis was proven to be incorrect. Be prepared for that to happen. It does not mean you are a bad researcher. Quite the contrary, it means you have allowed your hypothesis or question to be challenged and your research is driven by the data you find.

We may come to our work with a bias. But ultimately, the research needs to speak for itself. That’s what makes it credible.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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