Homework ban’s long-term consequences for students & society

Credit Microsoft.

Credit Microsoft.

Some progressively oriented parents must think they can have their cake and eat it too. They want basic math facts and skills sets returned to the math curriculum, while simultaneously wanting a ban on homework. As Sarah Boesveld wrote in the National Post on September 5th, 2014, “there is a growing sensitivity to parent preference for work getting done at school.” (H/T newswatchcanada.ca)

Yet, a parent in Alberta, Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, has a petition going at Change.org, as well as discussions with Alberta’s Education Minister to include basic math skills with the discovery emphasis. Similarly, a retired teacher in Ontario, Teresa Murray, is encouraging parents to sign a “bring back basic math skills petition.” Which makes me wonder if the thousands of parents signing these petitions realize that homework is needed to consolidate those very same basic skills?

The problem, apparently is that families are busy and parents are tired after working all day. I understand. As the saying goes, been there and done that. But, isn’t preparing our kids for the world of work our responsibility as well? School is either important or it isn’t. There are simply some basic skills that children and youth need time to learn.

I mean, think about the repetition of skills you went through to learn to drive and the point of consolidation when you didn’t have to think about the mechanics of driving or the rules of the road anymore. That process couldn’t be rushed. You simply had to drive as often as you could to get to that point.

True, I don’t agree with giving Grades 1, 2 and 3 homework with the expectation that the parents need to teach their kids new skills. That’s a teacher’s job. However, I do agree that, no matter what the age of the child, they should do some reading and calculating at home, even if it is on a multiplication computer game. Such repetition would, in fact, be particularly important for kids who are struggling academically.

Interestingly, David Martin, a Calgary teacher quoted in the Boesveld article,  believes by removing homework he has reduced the drop-out rate in his classes. Of course, keeping young people engaged in learning is a good thing. But, what does making a course so easy students won’t drop out actually teach a young person?  In my opinion, it demonstrates that when things get tough, you can simply quit or expect modifications.

The crux of the matter is that there will definitely be long-term consequences for Canadian society a decade or two from now if a homework ban becomes the norm because a whole cohort of children will not know how to deal with the kind of challenging workload they will have to face in all post-secondary programs and employment.

In other words, contrary to Martin’s non-sequitur, that one of his former students claimed he aced his university math class because of the no homework rule in high school, university and college professors and employers will not likely revise their courses or job tasks to make things easier. I have taught university and can verify that three hours a week of lecture and seminar is not enough time for university students to get their assignments done.

Rather, post-secondary teachers and employers will expect their students and employees to know how to spell and do basic calculations without a calculator, as well as how to be self-directed, motivated and organized to get their work done and on time. That, I am afraid, is the reality parents face today, no matter what their line of work, and so will their children!

Something to think about.

“Talent Egg’s” website tips for finding job after college or university!

I am always looking for news or helpful information on education at all levels. Today I came across a real winner. Written in October 2013 by a Globe and Mail guest columnist, Kate MacKenzie, she presented four tips to land a great job straight out of school.

Of course it was the catchy title of the article that got my attention and that is precisely what job seekers have to do as well — get the attention of an employer who is hiring.

I also noticed that MacKenzie indicated in her byline that she was a representative of TalentEgg, although she is not shown as part of the team on their About page.  In any event, visitors to TalentEgg.ca have got to know they can count on good ideas and contacts given a motto like — hatching student and grad careers.

Hatching indeed!

Tip One:  Campus Involvement and Leadership. There is no better way to show what you are made of, and how you can be a valuable contribution to an employer, than what you did during the three or four years you were studying — be it volunteer or paid work. The reason this is important is because you would have been using transferable skills and attributes, such as showing you can lead, get along with people, organize and prioritize events, communicate in person and in writing and, last but not least, that you are reliable — that when you say you will do something, you follow through.

Tip Two: Make sure you have a mix of soft skills. When employers are looking for someone who has the right “fit” they look for soft skills. More often than not, today’s businesses look for team players. Being able to effectively work as part of a team is a soft skill. However, occasionally, the opposite may be true. So, being able to work independently is another soft skill. As well, as already alluded to in Point # 1, good verbal communication skills, as well as being able to problem solve on your feet, are soft skills.

Tip Three: Strong Written and Oral Communication Skills. Note that all of these tips involve skills and attributes that are interconnected. I have hired staff in the past. The key to getting an interview in the first place is the covering letter and resume because if you can’t communicate effectively in writing, most human resource people, or if a small business, the employer, will simply pass over your application. In other words, because you are marketing yourself your covering letter has to state why you would be a good choice for the job — whether it was advertised or you heard about it through word of mouth. Yes, this is one time you can blow your own horn — as long as you word things in a way that doesn’t come across as bravado or bragging.

Tip Four: An understanding of the employer and the industry. I actually believe this tip should be first. With the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, there is absolutely no reason not to have a pretty good picture of the business or industry in which you want to work. If being interviewed, you simply have to sound informed and interested.

Related to this point, but not part of MacKenzie’s tips, if you are to be interviewed, think of one or more questions you can ask. Why? Because no job interview is complete until the interviewer(s) say: “So, do you have any questions?” Always have at least one question ready because, as with knowing about the company and/or industry, it shows you really want the job.

Oh, and when you are researching the company, find out what you can about their dress code because the last thing a job seeker needs to find out at the time of an interview, is that they are over-dressed in a tailored suit or dress or under-dressed in jeans. If, however, that information is not available, it is best to err on the side of caution and simply go dressy casual.

Conclusion: The crux of the matter is that all job seekers right out of college or university need to figure out what skills and attributes they have that an employer might want. And, no, the major or specialization you took is not what I am talking about because that information is likely a given. Rather, think about what you know and can do related to your field of expertise.

To do that, you will have to brainstorm skills and attributes and prioritize them into categories and point-form lists. Then, you will have to use that information to develop a blueprint resume which can be slightly revised to reflect each job search. In fact, if there is an advertisement available, go through all the points of the ad and make sure your resume deals with each point.

That is where your education and training comes into play. If the ad says, for example, you need a B.Sc in a certain discipline, make sure you have such a degree, will soon have such a degree, or at the very least, have equivalent experience.

It is similar with covering letters, although obviously not as detailed because they are usually no more than three paragraphs. Just make sure each letter is tailored to the job as advertised. The first paragraph of such a letter describes the job being applied for, the second states why you would be a good candidate and the third and final paragraph says why you are looking forward to an interview.

Without a doubt, using these four tips to develop a personal job strategy, as well as what the TalentEgg website has to offer, is sure to put graduates on a path to getting hired.

Are Fanshaw College rioters vandals or bullies or both?

Fanshaw Riot Courtesy CBC

A bully is “a person who uses strength or power to charm or intimidate others who are weaker. ” So, whether destroying property or someone’s reputation, let’s call the Fanshaw St. Patrick’s Day riot what it is at its core  — an extreme form of bullying.

Yet, one of the first articles I read on the topic had a thread of comments, from what sounded like students, openly complaining that the college president had no “right” to suspend anyone because the riot did not happen on school property — that it was solely a police matter. 

What ever happened to personal responsibility and integrity? Why does everything have to come down to  the perpetrators’ “rights?” What about the rights of others? Next thing you know we’ll be hearing that one of those kicked out of Fanshaw will claim their suspension violates their human rights and either go to the Ontario Human Rights Commission or sue the college for wrongful suspension. And, if they actually won, what message would that send?

Thankfully, nowever, as the days have gone on since the riot, most  people agree that it was correct that the local police have made a minimum of thirteen arrests and that eight Fanshaw students received suspensions.  Interestingly, other colleges piped up soon after the dust settled (literally) to say their institutions had rules about such behaviour as well (e.g., Sault College and Algoma University).

The reality is that society is very different from what it used to be. Publicly funded universities and colleges can be located anywhere. And, thanks to unnamed entrepreneurs who buy up property for the sole purpose of renting to students, even when bylaws forbid it, those students usually live near the colleges.  That reality, unfortunately, is not just a problem for Fanshaw.

In St. Catharines, for example, a formerly very lovely community has gradually become ugly because of the “Brock Houses.” In neighbourhoods wherever there is a Niagara College campus, it is similar. Municipal governments and non-student residents spend a great deal of time, energy and money trying to get the school in question to do something, anything to stop property values from plummeting. Yet, legally, what can the schools do apart from asking the municipality to enforce by-law infractions?

Well, we now know that students can besuspended for breaking rules beyond a school’s property. So,  just remember that whether the Fanshaw students were vandals or bullies, there needs to be “a zero tolerance” policy regarding post-secondary students and regulations or legislation in place much like the Mike Harris Safe Schools Act (which the McGuinty government undid by the way saying expulsions should be the last resort).

Update (1): Police have now named those charged. Some, however, who joined in, were only 15 and can’t be named under the Young Offenders Act.

Update (2):  I used the word suspended and expelled interchangeably at first because that is the way it was when I was teaching secondary school. However, as a regular commenter pointed out, the Fanshaw students are not expelled yet, just suspended.  So, I made the applicable corrections in text.  However, it appears that Fanshaw administration is considering how they might make the suspensions permanent expulsions.

UofT accepts thesis that Holocaust education programs racist

As an alumnus of the University of Toronto (UofT), I feel I should let the blogosphere know that the content of a Master’s thesis has made the mainstream press. Why? Because someone dared to write something considered negative and controversial about the Holocaust.

The thesis under attack was written by Jenny Peto who, apparently, concludes that two Holocaust education programs are at their core, “racist.” As such, there are complaints that the thesis should not have been accepted by UofT.

Now, let me be clear. I disagree with the way Peto defines her problem. However, we have freedom of speech in this country and while many of us may disagree with her premise, she has the right to express it, particularly in a thesis.  I mean, disagreeing with the rationale behind the Holocaust education programs or even calling them racist is not, in my opinion, a hate crime.

I mean, where do we draw the line? The argument that the thesis is not scholarship, but ideology holds no water either. All scholarship reflects the researcher’s world view and beliefs, upon which all ideology is based. In fact, that was the subject of my own doctoral thesis. Even the complaints in the ShalomLife.com article are based on ideology because our world view can be both implicit or explicit in what we say or write.

Speaking of ideology, full disclosure: I am a conservative (of the Red Tory variety), pro-Israel, pro-free speech and pro-free scholarship. And, if I was still an academic, I might even write a rebuttal to Peto’s premise. But, that said. She has the right to her views which are no more ideological than those who disagree with her.

For more information, read the ShalomLife article and/or check out some of these Google sources.

Brains alone will not get you into McMaster Medical School

Here is a very interesting article from today’s Globe and Mail. Written by James Bradshaw, it states: “In late October, the first 3,548 applicants to McMaster’s program took the Computer-based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics, or CASPer. With its advent, the school is putting less emphasis on students’ grades than ever before in an effort to groom better, more balanced doctors.

To read the whole article, go here. What readers will find is that, although McMaster’s medical training admission criteria will depend less on grades (although it goes without saying that all students will need to be smart) and grade point averages, more  emphasis will be put on an applicant’s problem-solving abilities, communications skills and cultural sensitivity. Not a bad thing when bedside manner is nearly as important as skills.

Prof. Lukacs exposes Univ. Manitoba “no-fail” policy at Ph.D level

Can you believe it?  The University of Manitoba’s Mathematics Department has succumbed to the politically correct policy of promoting a student who was not ready to graduate. Only, this time we are talking about a student who has already had their Ph.D conferred — even though they did not pass one of their required comprehensive exams.

No big deal you say? Sorry, but it “is” a big deal because it is the comprehensive exams that decide whether or not a Ph.D candidate is ready to be identified as a scholar and a professor.

Been there and done that. Tough? Stressful? You bet it is.  Did I suffer from test anxiety? Absolutely. The thing is, there were only four of us in a large room. At the doctoral level, there are not hundreds of students, or even dozens. Likely, the student involved wrote their exam alone. But, because they are usually timed (anywhere from three hours to eight hours), you have to think fast and you have to know your research paradigms. My guess is that this student still doesn’t understand the purpose for the exam.

In any event, good on Professor Gabor Lukacs! Suspended without pay for three months, you sure have to hand it to him for exposing all this! I have taught in two universities. I know only too well the fortitude it would require to take on the administration and the politically correct “let’s lower our academic standards in this case” attitude, particularly since the student had a medical letter.

While this matter may be happening in Manitoba, it is also alive and well in Ontario. The McGuinty government call their lowering of academic standards at the high school level, their  “success” initiative — which I call their “no-fail” policy.

Odd isn’t it that the person who exposes this travesty is suspended but the person who failed the comprehensive test is out there somewhere pretending to have successfully completed all of their doctoral program. For full details, read yesterday’s special to the National Post. Written by Joseph Brean, it just has to be a wake-up call to everyone.

Obviously, what started out as well-meaning accommodations for students with average to above average ability, who also had learning or other disabilities (including severe math or test anxiety), has now become a crutch and a detriment to academic accomplishment.

And, unfortunately, nearly twenty years ago, I had a hand in that process when I wrote a text-book about accommodations and compensations — used world-wide in university special needs departments. I also worked with dozens of college and university students in my private practice who needed help learning essay-writing techniques, study and test-taking strategies. However, I never would have suggested waiving an exam, most especially a failed comprehensive exam. Nor, would I have suggested accommodations at the doctoral level.


While no one at the University of Manitoba has asked for my opinion, I intent to give it anyway.

  1. The President of the University of Manitoba and the Math Chair have to stop blaming the whistle-blower, Prof. Lukacs.
  2. While they can’t take away a Ph.D once it has been conferred, they can insist the person involved rewrite the test as many times as it takes for them to pass it — marked by an outside neutral source.

Otherwise, all those who have a part in this fiasco have ruined the University of Manitoba’s reputation, as well as put in question “all” previous Ph.D’s conferred there.

For the rest of society, it is long past time to stop promoting students who are not ready, for whatever reason. If that means, a higher drop out rate, so be it. And, yes, having taught sociology, I know there will be those who say dropping out creates strain and the likelihood of higher crime statistics. Well, young people have choices and those choices have consequences. My point is to stop making excuses for them because  chances are most will return to school once they find out they can’t get meaningful work.

I am just glad that someone said “enough is enough” and exposed the University of Manitoba’s implicit “no-fail” policy.  Thank you Professor Lukacs!

Endnotes: Professor Lukacs was a child prodigy, meaning he was a “gifted” child. The fact that he is willing to buck his university’s administration shows he is made of different stuff and not afraid to rock the boat. Check out Paul Bennett’s blog EduChatter and his latest post on where gifted education should be going. While you’re at it, read the comment thread as well because there is an excellent discussion going on that deals with the “lowered academic standards” we see in this situation.

Ontario university students’ “notewagon” website innovative

The first time I read this London Free Press article by Kate Dubinski, titled “Slacker Students Get Help” (H/T Catherine), I was shocked and appalled. A team of students at the University of Western Ontario, Waterloo and Guelph had started up a website for sharing (buying and selling) lecture notes. Meaning, as the LFP column title implies, it sounded like slacking off, or even worse, cheating.

Yet, on second reading (and therein lies the reason students should be taking their own notes), I came to the conclusion that this was not, in fact, slacking off at all. Rather, it was a very creative and innovative solution to a chronic student issue — having to miss classes for one reason or another.

Look, I manage this blog myself, so I know how time-consuming setting up and maintaining a website can be.  However, bloggers have templates they can use, as do website developers of course. But, clearly, setting up a complex website like www.notewagon.com must have been incredibly complicated and time-consuming. So, kudos to the developers!

Now, a fair question would be: Why did they not use all that creativity and energy simply to go to class and take their own notes? I don’t know, although I can guess — boredom and not seeing the relevance of lecture content to what they want to do with their future lives. So, perhaps university professors can learn something from this and make their classes so interesting that no one will want to miss anything.

In any event, the note sharing website is not likely to slow down since students from Toronto, McMaster, Waterloo, Guelph, Ryerson and Laurier have now joined in as well. So, here is my point. The developers and managers need to realize that learning anything new is a process that involves attending (concentrating), digging into our long-term memory for what we already know, adding to that pre-requisite knowledge, and then retaining enough of it in long-term memory for later use.

So, while I can appreciate that the “notewagon” site developers are making sure the content of lectures are thorough and complete, they also need to find a way to highlight the main ideas, key points or concepts before they are available for sharing.

Why? Because, as I explained above, the student getting the notes needs to be able to learn what is relevant and important without having been present at the lecture. Students reading this might want to check out what I have written here about organizational strategies because knowing what to do to remember notes is not automatic. They could also check out Chapter Six in my book, which is specifically about notetaking strategies, and likely available in most university libraries. There are also some excellent Internet sources, such as College Board and Alamo’s Notetaking Strategies, as well as a number of links via this Google page. 

So, in summary, note sharing by itself is not necessary slacking off, although it can be for some students. However, in my opinion, the developers and managers of this service are hardly slackers, particularly if their “notes” service includes the necessary highlighting and follow-up summaries. By so doing, they can actually be of some benefit for students who: (1) have to miss a class for some reason, (2) are not good at writing notes, (3) have learning disabilities, or (4) have some kind of a physical challenge whereby they do not have full use of their hands.

Endnote: Although I have turned the comment feature off for awhile, I would be interested in receiving feedback from university students involved in this project or using it.  To do so, please use the Contact Form on the header bar.

Update: Here, then, are examples of messages received:

  1. From fh: “Sandy, I think the students are very creative we all remember trying to get notes for missed lectures notes are guarded like a pot of gold. I remember my friend getting his notes back and they looked like they had been in a hurricane and he was in a fraternity where notes were more easily obtained. Kudos to the students it is about time. I just hope that they keep up the quality of the notes. (Time: Thursday November 25, 2010 at 12:47pm)”
  2. From Janalee: “I think another benefit is getting a second set of notes. I remember sharing notes in my university days with other students in the class and noticing that they emphasised things in thier notes that I missed in mine. Particularly in history courses where the lectures consisted of a professor talking for the entire class it was easy to miss something as you were attempting to keep up. (Time: Thursday November 25, 2010 at 6:57 pm)”
  3. From Saif Altimimi: “Hey Sandy, I’m Saif, the Co-Founder of Notewagon. I read your article about us, just wanted to say thank you very much for the positive input. I want to assure you that we are indeed not incentively students to slack off but in fact we are working hard to provide a learning management system for students by students. A Peer-2-Peer network of sharing knowledge specific per classroom. We have other product launches that will make this vision come true! (Time: Thursday November 25, 2010 at 5:58 pm)
  4. Saif also clarified the following: “One of our co-founders goes to western, but the core team is actually in Waterloo&Guelph Ontario.” (Time: Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 8:05pm)