2010-05-10

Racism in Nunavut Schools

Generations of Nunavut students are tripping over fractions.

The practice of promoting them based on age rather than subject-specific competence is crippling them. Grade 4 through Grade 7 curriculum especially is stunting their mental and intellectual growth as surely as would a lack of protein.

They miss decimals, ignore percentage, and choke on ratio, proportion and probability. They never recover. Not academically and not from the psychological scars of being made to feel they just aren't smart enough.

Some drift for another grade or two before being shunted away from the academic stream, but they abandon forever the kind of secondary and post-secondary thinking required for modern life and modern jobs.

The consequence of this failure in Nunavut schools disproportionately affects Inuit, of course, and is therefore institutionally racist. Here's an analogy from the world of chemistry. In 1972, University of Waterloo professor Murray Moo Young accused the entire western world of a blatantly discriminatory food aid policy toward Africa and Asia. At the time, the bulk of such aid from countries like Canada was grain. Since grain does not provide complete protein, dumping our excess wheat was actually harming mental development in generations of hungry third world children, just when their growing brains needed complete protein. Professor Moo Young developed a way of growing protein, microbial protein, on any cellulose base, even pee-drenched discarded Pampers. The result was a complete protein that could be formed into any shape, textured and flavoured to emulate anything from meat to cookies. It was brilliant. It could have worked locally on any continent. It would have decimated both food and transportation costs. Why haven't we heard more of this potentially Nobel Prize winning work? Because distinct silos in the chemical and food industries couldn't get together to combine the two ideas. It threatened their existing revenue streams.

So how is protein deprivation a suitable analogy to Nunavut’s policy of glossing over functional innumeracy? Simply that we've known the solution for nearly thirty years and yet we continue to opt for the status quo. For the first eighty years of the industrial era, we largely excluded women from the maths and sciences. "They will only get married and wouldn't need that sort of thing." We then compounded the idiocy by hiring, almost exclusively, those same women to teach our children throughout the early and middle years of school! We've cheated our children (and their teachers) for so long the problem has become structural and self-perpetuating. On her very first day of Grade 4, my daughter reported her teacher began the first math class by saying, "I don't really like this stuff either and I'm not very good at it, but, well, we have to do it anyway." The centuries old established pedagogical instruments for introducing abstract thinking are all numeric. Yet literacy campaigns seldom test for abstract thinking before presenting abstract literature. In Nunavut, the solution could be so simple. Rather than expecting 'home-room' teachers to teach all subjects during the middle years, we need only introduce the concept of a roving math wizard visiting each class specifically for math instruction. Just pick the best darn 'splainer', the best darn story teller, the richest and most prolific metaphor and analogy generating brain in the entire school and dedicate them to math class.

The vicious cycle of entrenched academic under achievement could be broken in a single generation.

If you have any doubt about this, take a look at some of the Navaho school boards in New Mexico where exceptional teachers have led this kind of transition to numeracy in aboriginal contexts for years. To paraphrase James Carville, "It's the fractions stupid!"

And, if that means continuing to offer well designed Grade 4 math classes to children who are purportedly in Grade 5 or 6, so be it!

6 comments:

  1. Love your comment, "We need the best darn 'splainer', the best darn story teller, the richest and most prolific metaphor and analogy generating brain in the entire school," but I think those should be characteristic of all teachers! Don't ask me how everybody can be the best... perhaps what we need are uniformly high standards for everyone!

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  2. Just found this TED Talk that is relevant to your post:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html

    It's not just an issue in Nunavut!

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  3. Peter,

    Thank you for sharing this link. We seem to be on the same page with regards to education in Nunavut (and education in general). When I worked in Resolute Bay (14 years ago), we tried out the model of rotating subject specialists and it worked out incredibly well. In fact, in my last year at that school we won more science awards than all the other schools in Nunavut combined. And, the first Inuit engineer was a graduate from Resolute (and that program). I constantly advocate for these type of educational models with the teacher candidates that pass through my classes (with the hopes that when they become principals they will remember). I would love to discuss these issues further with you sometime.

    Neil

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  4. Peter,

    Check out this link -

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/364/going-big

    Specifically, I am referring to "Act One. Harlem Renaissance." I have a copy of that podcast (and have been playing it for my education students). I can give you a copy the next time I am in Iqaluit.

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  5. Yes please! Looking forward to it.

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