My Toaster is Broken: An Analogy About the Current State of Education

smoking toaster

It makes a terrible cup of coffee.

I put the coffee in the toaster, pour in some water and push the lever down and then I get sparks, and smoke and, well, really gross coffee. My toaster is just terrible. It needs to work harder. Each day I try something new. I jostle the level, play around with the settings, vary the timing and the amount of water, but it still produces terrible results.When I compare the coffee my toaster makes to the coffee I get at Starbucks, it’s really quite frightening.

My point, patient readers, is that my fictitious toaster dilemma is (in my opinion) analogous to the current state of education in North America (And I must give credit to Melanie McBride for using the toaster analogy one night–although I think we were discussing a different issue). I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman” yet, and I’m not sure I can handle it because, as a teacher, I’m feeling a bit fragile at the moment. Based on what I’ve read about this documentary, it identifies a number of problems with the American education system, including the opinions that raising test scores are a top priority and teachers just aren’t trying hard enough.

Even if I’m wrong and the documentary doesn’t suggest these points, they’re certainly not points we in education haven’t heard before. School improvement plans are consistently tied to standardized test scores, and teachers consistently get the message that they’re just not cutting it.

Just to clarify, teachers are not toasters in this analogy, but they’re part of the toaster. The toaster is our current education paradigm, and we desperately need a paradigm shift. Don’t believe me? Ask Sir Ken Robinson. He’s much more persuasive because he’s a “Sir” and has a clever British accent.

We’re working within an educational model that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century and was never designed to get all students to excel; it was designed to create factory workers with basic literacy and numeracy skills who could follow orders. We’ve got an educational model that was designed to produce well… toast!

Should we expect teachers to work hard? Absolutely. I don’t believe in dwelling helplessly on things that are out of our control. BUT, if you’re going to go talking trash about my toasters er colleagues, I’m going to come out swinging.

A Lesson From “Cheaters”: Ethics and Standardized Testing



Gosh I love when teachers are in the news, don’t you?

So by now you may have heard of the 10 Ontario schools that are facing allegations of cheating on EQAO tests.

I feel torn about this issue because on the one hand the last thing I want to hear is another story in the news that makes teachers look unprofessional. And I just love how every news agency makes it sound like teachers were all intentionally and maliciously cheating, when in many cases, the teachers may not have been aware that what they were doing was considered “cheating”, especially when doing things like allowing students access to dictionaries is generally just considered good teaching. On the other hand, this story raises an important issue for me and I think it’s an important issue for a lot of teachers:

I am so sick of our province’s love affair with standardized tests that provide a very narrow and artificial snapshot of our students’ success in literacy and numeracy. During my short tenure as a learning coordinator, every school that I worked with had a goal that involved improving EQAO or OSSLT scores–which makes sense in a way because those are goals that are measurable, and I’m sure that there is also pressure from superintendents to make these an integral part of the school goals. We all report to someone.

But why oh why do we put so much stock in a test that gives us such a narrow range of information? Does the grade 10 literacy test or OSSLT (for example) really tell us whether or not a student is literate? There is so much more to being literate than colouring in the correct bubble for a multiple choice reading response question or filling the requisite number of lines for a “series of paragraphs”. The test is not in any way representative of what we are told is an effective method of assessment or evaluation. It is the complete antithesis of differentiated assessment. And because of this, teachers have to spend time teaching students how to respond “correctly” to these types of questions rather than focus on the curriculum–or, god forbid, critical thinking.

Are teachers under pressure? Absolutely. Are kids under pressure? Are you kidding? Is it any great surprise that in some schools, some teachers feel compelled to provide students with dictionaries or give them practice questions from previous years’ tests?

Now I’m not saying I condone the behaviour of the teachers if they did indeed knowingly break the rules, but I can understand it. There’s nothing worse than seeing a student, who you KNOW is capable of answering a question correctly if only you could direct them to re-read the question, bomb an entire question that may mean the difference between passing or failing the OSSLT. But I’ll sit there and suffer in silence because I can only say what’s in the script and I don’t have any interest in appearing in the blue pages of the Ontario College of Teachers magazine.

Maybe what we can learn from these incidents of “cheating” is that EQAO testing is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that this form of testing forces teachers to suppress everything they know about what it means to be a good teacher.

Readicide–Musings on Kelly Gallagher’s new book

First, about the book title, Gallagher writes “Read-i-cide:noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” pg 2. Not to be too picky, but I think “Legicide” would be a slicker name– “Legi” from the Latin “Lego” meaning to read. But it also has the sweet connotation of legislate, so you end up with the idea of a legislated killing of reading.

Not really the point. Sorry Mr. Gallagher.

My point is, after an admittedly brief skimming of the book (which is hardly enough evidence upon which to formulate an opinion–I know), I surprised to find myself disagreeing with him a little bit.

I don’t disagree in principle with the idea that an over-emphasis on high-stakes testing is partially responsible for killing “reading for the love of reading”. Thankfully, I don’t teach in the United States where some schools actually receive economic sanctions for poor test scores! Although I do think that placing too much importance on the evidence we get from EQAO tests hurts student learning and teacher practice in the long run.

Nor do I disagree with his point that “there is a dearth of interesting reading materials in our schools” (pg. 45).

Maybe Gallagher would disagree with me, but I get the impression that when he writes about reading materials, he’s only talking about novels. I don’t think that’s a misinterpretation since he writes “When schools remove novels from the students’ curriculum and replace challenging books with shorter pieces and worksheets, they are denying students the foundational reading experiences for developing those regions of their brains that enable them to think deeply” (pg. 40). First of all, from my perspective as a teacher, I know that novels have been disappearing from course outlines, but not to make room for more standardize test preparation; rather, they have been removed so that we have more room for texts that represent authentic reading for our students.

Gallagher writes about the need for authentic reading experiences, but he really only seems to be writing about novels. I would argue that if we really want to give our students authentic reading experiences, we need to provide texts that honour the types of reading they see as valuable. I believe novels can be a part of that, but when I think of a wealth of reading materials, I’m picturing a print rich environment that includes magazines, non-fiction books, blogs, wikis, newspapers, plays, graphic novels, scripts, AND novels. I am coming at this from the perspective of an English major who loves to read novels but respects the fact that many highly intelligent critical thinkers do not share my love of reading novels.

It really is a wonderful thing when you can turn a kid on to a novel–when they find that story they can connect to and become engrossed in, but I don’t think that should be our ultimate goal as English teachers. I think we need to find ways to provide opportunities for students to engage in reading so that they are thinking critically, questioning, responding, connecting, and being entertained! But I don’t think that The Novel is always the best way to do that.

We need to broaden our definition of reading, but we also need to broaden our appreciation for the benefits of different types of reading, especially when thinking about what it means to be literate in the 21st century.