Although statistics vary across provinces, Canadian schools in general were closed for a total of 51 weeks during the pandemic – placing the nation in the highest bracket globally for school closures (UNESCO, n.d.). Unsurprisingly, provincial policymakers across Canada continue to be concerned about the negative short- and long-term impacts of the disruptions created by these closures on students’ learning and have been focusing their attention on improving achievement in traditional content areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. The dominant political and popular media discourse is that students have fallen behind and need to “catch up” in these foundational subject areas. Certainly, international research suggests that this concern is well-founded, and that students’ learning has been significantly disrupted during the pandemic.
Learning loss within and outside of Canada
International research is beginning to document the learning losses students experienced due to school closures, shifts toward online and hybrid learning, and other impacts associated with successive waves of the pandemic. Although these studies are relatively sparse, a limited number of Western nations such as the Netherlands (Engzell et al., 2021), Germany (Depping et al., 2021), Belgium (Maldonato & De Witte, 2021), and the U.S. (Bailey et al., 2021) suggest learning essentially stalled during the pandemic. These studies also suggest that the pandemic may have exacerbated existing inequalities, with lower socio-economic status (SES) students falling even further behind their more affluent peers. Collectively, the emergent literature suggests that learning and the academic resilience of students globally have been particularly threatened during the pandemic (Volante & Klinger, 2022a).
Unfortunately, Canadian large-scale assessment research, which is used to draw reliable and comparative measures of student achievement and system-level judgments, has been particularly constrained during the pandemic. Indeed, the administration of international, national, and provincial assessments have all been adversely impacted, with numerous cancellations during the initial waves of the pandemic. Further, those assessment programs that did occur met with high levels of non-participation, impacting sampling designs. These challenges have made it difficult to make provincial comparisons of student achievement. Those studies that do exist are confined to select geographical contexts such as Toronto (Toronto District School Board, 2021), or offer predicted losses extrapolated from summer learning research (Aurini & Davies, 2021). Collectively, the available research in Canada has been unable to quantify, with any level of certainty, the pandemic’s impact on students’ achievement.
Nevertheless, Canadian education systems, including higher education settings, are reporting important gaps in student learning, suggesting that learning losses have occurred for students in K–12 and beyond. International organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2020) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2022) have also reported that lower SES students and their families have been unable to secure the necessary resources needed to succeed in online and hybrid learning environments amidst the turmoil created by the pandemic. These challenges are also well documented in popular media stories across Canada and reflected in the policy interventions adopted by various provincial governments to try to support our most vulnerable student groups. Nonetheless, the relative success of these efforts and interventions has not been measured.
Policy trends across Canada
One of our recent studies provided a pan-Canadian analysis of educational policy developments from January 2020 to December 2021 that were specifically related to academic resilience in the wake of the initial waves of the pandemic. Not surprisingly, our findings suggested greater attention was devoted to academic issues – namely learning outcomes in cognitive domains – with relatively fewer policies and resources to support mental health and general physical wellness (Volante et al., 2022c). Our analysis also suggested that there was also a general lack of policy differentiation in terms of how specific resources and supports were to be directed within provincial educational jurisdictions to help support at-risk students. Without such differentiation, we have argued that the resources developed will not be fully realized, and will undoubtedly fail to stem the growing disparities between low- and high-SES student populations that have been amplified by the pandemic.
Collectively, our policy research also underscores the importance of reconsidering how provincial education systems operate to achieve positive outcomes for students and how these outcomes might be “measured” and evaluated. Although a great deal of work is already underway by provincial testing bodies, large-scale assessment measures currently do not offer a multifaceted picture of student development. Conversely, international achievement measures such as those administered by the OECD and/or the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), provide background questionnaires that attempt to capture student-, school-, and system-level factors that may be related to student outcomes. As an example, these international measures increasingly include factors and outcomes that could be classified as non-cognitive skills, drawing attention to the importance of non-cognitive and mental/physical wellness outcomes.
Challenging the dominant discourse
One would be hard-pressed to find any educational stakeholder group that does not recognize the importance of student achievement in traditional subject areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Nevertheless, the pandemic has highlighted how achievement in traditional cognitive domains offers a necessary, but incomplete picture of the pressing challenges that face Canadian youth. As Volante, Klinger, and Barrett (2021) noted in a previous Education Canada article, Canadian children reported disturbing trends in relation to mental health and general wellness. Similarly, the promotion of non-cognitive skills such as growth mindset represents an increasingly important cadre of key attributes that contribute to resilient students, schools, and education systems in general (Volante & Klinger, 2022b).
Thus, provincial policymakers are faced with an important dilemma. Namely, to develop a comprehensive vision of student learning and wellbeing that emphasizes cognitive (i.e. reading, writing, mathematics, science achievement), non-cognitive (i.e. learning habits, self-beliefs, growth mindset), and general wellness in the face of dominant historical and political ideologies that have focused almost exclusively on standards-based education reform. Indeed, standards-based reform and achievement of the “three R’s” (reading, writing, arithmetic), has largely driven large-scale reform agendas in much of the Western world for more than half a century (Volante et al., 2022d). In spite of the concerns and evidence that have arisen with respect to the impact of the pandemic, every provincial jurisdiction in Canada continues to adhere to a standards-based reform model that emphasizes a hierarchy of subject areas and achievement outcomes. The importance of other critical factors and outcomes may be acknowledged, but receives little if any formal attention, and there is little effort to build on the information being collected by international assessments that now include such measures.
Rethinking large-scale reform
It is often written that adversity is a catalyst for growth and change. Certainly, the last several years have likely presented the most formidable adversity that many students, families, and teachers may face in their lifetimes. Rather than return to status quo approaches that emphasize a narrow set of achievement outcomes, this critical epoch in our collective history offers an opportunity to rethink our approaches to large-scale education reform to provide a more nuanced recognition of the skills and attributes required to face the challenges of the future. Certainly, any student, parent, or teacher will tell you that more than academic content was lost during the pandemic – capturing and addressing the multifaceted complexity of this “loss” requires a new conception of what quality education looks like in a post-COVID world. Failing to recognize the latter could undoubtedly result in students catching up in academic content, only to fall behind in the non-cognitive skills they require for further success. It is time for us to look for ways to link provincial, national, and international assessments and surveys in order to obtain the data needed to examine the complexity of learning that supports the whole child.
This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Aurini, J., & Davies, S. (2020). COVID-19 school closures and educational achievement gaps in Canada: Lessons from Ontario summer learning research. Canadian Review of Sociology, 58(2), 165–185. doi.org/10.1111/cars.12334
Bailey, D. H., Duncan, G. J., Murnane, R. J., & Yeung, N. A. (2021). Achievement gaps in the wake of COVID-19. Educational Researcher, 50(5), 266–275. doi.org/10.3102%2F0013189X211011237
Depping, D., Lücken, M. et al. (2021). KompetenzständeHamburger Schülerinnen vor und während der Corona-Pandemie [Alternative pupils’ competence measurement in Hamburg during the Corona pandemic]. DDS – Die Deutsche Schule, Beiheft, 17, 51–79. www.pedocs.de/volltexte/2021/21514/pdf/DDS_Beiheft_17_2021_Depping_et_al_Kompetenzstaende_Hamburger.pdf
Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. D. (2021). Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(17), 1-7.www.pnas.org/content/pnas/118/17/e2022376118.full.pdf
Maldonato, J. E., & De Witte, C. (2021). The effect of school closures on standardised student test outcomes. British Educational Research Journal. doi.org/10.1002/berj.3754
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on student equity and inclusion: supporting vulnerable students during school closures and school re-openings. OECD Publishing. https://oecd.org/education/strength-through-diversity/OECD%20COVID-19%20Brief%20Vulnerable%20Students.pdf
UNESCO. (n.d.). Dashboards on the Global Monitoring of School Closures Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://covid19.uis.unesco.org/global-monitoring-school-closures-covid19
Volante, L., & Klinger, D. A. (2022a). PISA, global reference societies, and policy borrowing: The promises and pitfalls of academic resilience. Policy Futures in Education. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/14782103211069002
Volante, L., & Klinger, D. A. (2022b, January 27–28). Assessing non-cognitive skills to promote equity and academic resilience [Paper presentation]. Advancing Assessment and Evaluation Virtual Conference. https://aaec2022.netlify.app/_main.pdf
Volante, L., Klinger, D. A., & Barrett, J. (2021). Academic resilience in a post-COVID world: a multi-level approach to capacity building. Education Canada, 61(3), 32–34.
Volante, L., Lara, C., Klinger, D. A., & Siegel, M. (2022c). Academic resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic: a triarchic analysis of education policy developments across Canada. Canadian Journal of Education, 45(4), 1112–1140.
Volante, L., Schnepf, S., & Klinger, D. A. (Eds.) (2022d). Cross-national achievement surveys for monitoring educational outcomes: Policies, practices, and political reforms within the European Union. Publications Office of the European Union. https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2760/406165
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
During the last few years, we saw over 90 percent of the world’s student population affected by school closures linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation has created a world crisis in education and reminds us how quickly rights can be taken away. UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, science and culture, responded by launching the COVID-19 Global Education Coalition to help countries reach at-risk children and youth.
Meanwhile in Canada, 5.7 million students in primary and secondary school were impacted by school closures over the last three years. Statistics Canada identified that this had a big impact on the academic success, mental and physical health, and socio-economic status of children. From an inclusion and diversity lens, COVID-19 was particularly detrimental to members of some populations who were overrepresented among the most vulnerable groups.
The Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) responded by gathering free and accessible online educational resources to share with teachers, students and parents across the country. It has also collaborated with the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to support UNESCO’s work in collecting information on the impact of the pandemic in education. Lastly, CCUNESCO most recently launched an Expert Working Group to explore the various impacts of the pandemic by province and territory.
As most of you know, education is a provincial and territorial jurisdiction in Canada. It is therefore of upmost importance that we share with each other lessons learned and opportunities gained during the pandemic. Innovations in one region should be shared and celebrated across the country, as well as ongoing challenges that need to be faced. We hope to continue to gather and collaborate with all education stakeholders in Canada. Only by working together can we create a future for education that is inclusive, accessible and sustainable.
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
It is now THREE years since governments around the world announced the shutdown of schools to protect students and teachers from COVID-19. According to UNESCO (2020), more than 1.5 billion children from more than 190 countries were sent home in March 2020 to receive instruction remotely, if at all. Since then, educators, parents, and policymakers have been interested in knowing how much the disruptions COVID-19 brought to regular reading instruction impacted children’s reading performance. In this article, we expand on a previous report on children’s reading performance during the first six months of the pandemic (see Georgiou, 2021) to include information from 20 K–9 schools in Alberta from September 2019 until they returned to regular classroom instruction in September 2022.
Findings from the rest of the world
The results of most published studies in different parts of the world indicate that COVID-19 had a significant impact on children’s reading performance, particularly in early grades. For example, in a recent study covering five million Grade 3 to 8 students in the U.S., Kuhfeld et al. (2023) reported that the average fall 2021 reading scores on a standardized reading measure were .09 to .17 standard deviations lower relative to same-grade scores in the fall of 2019. Compared to the growth a typical (pre-pandemic) student makes in these grades, these test score drops represent roughly a third of a school year’s worth of growth. Similarly, working with a sample of Finnish children, Lerkkanen et al. (2022) reported that the growth in reading from Grade 1 to 4 was slower for their COVID-19 cohort than for their pre-COVID-19 cohort.
The same body of research has also revealed that the effect of COVID-19 has not been equal for different groups of students. For example, students from lower socio-economic (SES) backgrounds (or students attending high-poverty schools) seem to have been influenced more than students from higher SES backgrounds. There is also some evidence that students with reading disabilities were more impacted than students without reading disabilities. Finally, Kuhfeld et al. (2022) found that in the U.S., the effect of COVID-19 was greater for Hispanic, American Indian and Alaskan Native, and Black students than for Asian American or White students.1
Findings from Canada
Evidence on how COVID-19 has impacted Canadian students is still scarce and we know of only two studies reporting on how Canadian students were affected, one conducted in Alberta and one conducted in Quebec.
The Alberta study: Georgiou (2021) compared the performance of approximately 4,000 English-speaking students from Grades 2 to 9 in September 2020 (right after the schools re-opened) to the performance of same-grade students in the three years prior to the school closures. Georgiou found that only the performance of younger children (Grades 2 and 3) was lower compared to previous years. Interestingly, the performance of older children (Grades 4 to 9) either remained the same or improved during the pandemic. On the basis of these findings, the Ministry of Education in Alberta (Alberta Education) asked schools to test all their Grade 1 to 3 students in reading and provided substantial funding to support schools in providing reading interventions to the most affected children in early grades.
The Quebec study: Côté and Haeck (personal communication, June 3, 2022) compared the performance of Grade 4 French-speaking students in Quebec using the results from the reading ministerial exam in June 2019 (prior to the pandemic) and June 2021 (a year into the pandemic). They found a substantial decrease in the average performance of students between the two measurement points (77.3 percent in 2019 vs. 69 percent in 2021).
Back on track?
We have been studying reading development and difficulties in Alberta for the past 20 years. Because of this, we had measures in place in multiple schools to also examine the impact of COVID-19. For the purpose of this article, we examined:
To better understand the impact of COVID-19, it is important to break down the time into three separate periods. The first time period covers September 2019 to September 2020. This time period captures the time when schools closed indefinitely after the COVID-19 outbreak and only remote instruction was available to children. The second period (September 2020 to September 2021) is the academic year when schools re-opened, but children had to quarantine for 10 to 14 days if they had COVID-19 and whole classes shifted between face-to-face and online teaching depending on the number of positive cases in each class. Finally, the third time period (from September 2021 to September 2022) is when most teaching took place face-to-face and there were relatively fewer learning disruptions.
These findings suggest that the students in these 20 schools might be back on track in reading following three years of COVID-19 pandemic.
Four keys to recovery
There are four key factors we believe that have helped the students in this sample to get back on track. We summarize them below.
Use of evidence-based practices in the participating schools
Obviously, we wouldn’t have any data to present here unless these schools were collecting data from their students on a yearly basis using norm-referenced assessments. In addition, teachers in these schools have been participating in ongoing professional development seminars with us focusing on best practices in teaching reading, and have been sharing their experiences from field-testing different strategies as part of their communities of practice (see Georgiou et al., 2020, for more information). Principals have also been meeting regularly to discuss the results of their assessments and to identify areas in which their teachers would benefit from further professional development. It is important to note here that the evidence-based practices were in place in the sample schools well before COVID-19. This means that when Alberta Education called teachers in the province to focus their instruction on foundational skills in learning to read (e.g. phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency), the teachers in these schools did not have to change what they were already successfully doing. This likely had a positive impact on their students’ reading performance and contributed to a quicker recovery.
Early screening and intervention
Alberta Education mandated screening of all Grade 1 to 3 children using reliable and valid assessments of foundational reading skills. Traditionally, most school divisions in Alberta have been using various benchmark assessments to identify struggling readers, despite research showing that they are neither reliable nor accurate (Burns et al., 2015; Parker et al., 2015). Alberta Education did not approve these assessments for accessing additional funding. In addition, Alberta Education shared a reading intervention program with all schools in the province that included 80 lessons on phonological awareness and phonics, and asked schools to report on children’s growth over time. To our knowledge, this is the first time a province mandated early literacy screening and provided free intervention materials to all schools; both policies should continue in the future.
Alberta Education provided $45 million additional funding to schools to address any learning losses. To our knowledge, this is the largest amount spent in the country and assuming the money was used for the intended purpose (i.e. intervention), it may explain why students in our sample schools caught up quickly. Alberta Education also funded research projects on early intervention and the results of these projects provided valuable information on how to address learning losses. In one of these projects, we provided intervention to 365 Grade 2 and 3 struggling readers, and after 4.5 months of intervention, 80 percent of them had improved about 1.5 years in their reading. Some of these children were in the schools included in the study reported above. Funding of evidence-based reading interventions in conjunction with frequent monitoring of students’ progress using reliable and accurate measures should continue in the future.
Discussions around evidence-based practices
The discussions taking place around the country on what should be done to address learning losses drew teachers’ attention to evidence-based practices in reading. For example, among the recommendations given to teachers through different media was one that reading researchers have long asked for: Provide systematic and explicit phonics instruction in early grades. This recommendation is now also included in the new Alberta English Language Arts curriculum for the early primary years.
The positive results on recovery come from schools that use evidence-based early literacy instructional practices and have provided their teachers with professional development on these practices that they may not have received in their teacher education programs. At this time, we don’t yet have reliable information on COVID-19 recovery from schools that are behind in transitioning to evidence-based early literacy programs. Finally, the promising results we see in our schools in Alberta reflect positively on the policy implemented by Alberta Education. By mandating early screening and funding additional interventions, and by making reliable assessments and effective intervention programs available to schools, Alberta Education essentially acted on the recommendations provided by the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read report.
Burns, M. K., Pulles, S. M., et al. (2015). Accuracy of student performance while reading leveled books rated at their instructional level by a reading inventory. Journal of School Psychology, 53, 437–445.
Georgiou, G. (2021). Has COVID-19 impacted children’s reading scores? The Reading League Journal, 2, 34–39.
Georgiou, G., Kushnir, G., & Parrila, R. (2020). Moving the needle on literacy: Lessons learned from a school where literacy rates have improved over time. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 66, 347–359. doi.org/10.11575/ajer.v66i3.56988
Kuhfeld, M., Lewis, K., & Peltier, T. (2023). Reading achievement declines during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from 5 million U.S. students in Grades 3–8. Reading and Writing. doi.org/10.1007/s11145-022-10345-8
Lerkkanen, M.-K., Pakarinen, E., et al. (2022). Reading and math skills development among Finnish primary school children before and after COVID-19 school closure. Reading and Writing. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11145-022-10358-3
Parker, D. C., Zaslofsky, A. F., et al. (2015). A brief report of the diagnostic accuracy of oral reading fluency and reading inventory levels for reading failure risk among second- and third-grade students. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 31, 56-67.
UNESCO. (2020). COVID-19 impact on education. https://en.unesco.org/COVID19/educationresponse
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 These are the descriptors used in the study.
“Ongoing staffing challenges, lack of daily staff supports for post-pandemic recovery, daily bus cancellations, lack of system navigation and social work for all families, and a focus on ‘catching up’ when massive structural issues continue to be major challenges. The idea that we are ‘back to normal’ seems to reign, yet every day is a challenge for staff and families. This places incredible pressure on administrators and staff who consistently attend work, further burning out essential staff. With labour challenges at the forefront and possible strikes, it remains unseen how much more the system can bear.” – Elementary school principal, Northern Ont.
The start of the 2022-23 school year was the closest to normal that students, families, and educators have experienced since September 2019 – but how are schools, educators, and students really doing? Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the newest findings from People for Education’s Annual Ontario School Survey (AOSS) provide valuable insights. This article will focus primarily on the data collected from the 2022-23 AOSS,1 which received responses from 1,044 principals across all 72 publicly funded school boards in the province.
When the pandemic first shut down schools in March 2020, the list of challenges that emerged seemed endless. There now exists a substantial body of research documenting how the relentless pivoting between no school, virtual school, hybrid school, and eventually in-person school triggered a domino effect of issues that included families troubleshooting technology, juggling remote learning and work, and navigating perpetually evolving health and safety protocols (People for Education, 2021a). None of us had ever gone through a global pandemic before, so it was natural to be focused on the logistics of COVID-19: monitoring positive case counts, screening tools, social distancing, and never leaving the house without a mask – or at all. In the meantime, people’s mental health and wellbeing were progressively being impacted by feelings of anxiety, isolation, or depression, to name just a few (Vaillancourt et al., 2021).
The first AOSS conducted after the arrival of COVID-19 immediately shone a light on the toll that the pandemic had taken, specifically on the wellbeing of school principals. More than half of the 1,173 principals who responded during the 2020-21 school year disagreed or strongly disagreed that their levels of stress felt manageable (People for Education, 2021b). This same finding occurred in the following 2021-22 school year, along with principals’ concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff (People for Education, 2022). At this point in time, principals’ perceptions about the availability of school resources to support staff and student mental health and wellbeing were mixed:
However, in October 2022, when asked to indicate the level of support needed from boards and the Ministry of Education for recovery from COVID-19, the vast majority of schools (91%) reported that they require some or more support for mental health and wellbeing, with almost half (46%) reporting that they need a lot of support.
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the focus in schools was on COVID-19 safety and the logistics of remote learning; three years into the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing supports have emerged as a top priority. Numerous principals shared insights about the specific challenges they are witnessing in the current school year.
“Children are excited to be back at school and there is an energy in the building. That said, many students have never experienced school pre-COVID and as such, are needing support in basic expectations regarding how to behave at school. We are noticing significant self-regulation challenges in primary; anxiety and fears of coming to school in junior; and a lot of sexualized /swearing/inappropriate language in our intermediates. And all grades struggling with conflict resolution skills.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
“Student needs have increased significantly due to COVID-19: self-regulation, literacy, numeracy, mental wellness. Due to the impact of COVID-19 many students are experiencing many more challenges. These challenges are being met as best we can with the resources we have. Human resources are the most important type of resource.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
Although mental health and wellbeing was identified as the area where schools feel that support is most needed, staffing was also consistently underscored as a critical issue. This finding is not surprising, given that:
“Supporting increased children’s mental health needs with no increases in resources stresses the staff and leads to increased absenteeism. The lack of replacement staff (especially for Educational Assistants (EAs) and designated Early Childhood Educators (DECEs)) causes this problem to snowball.” – Elementary school principal, southwestern Ont.
The lack of sufficient staff has been regularly highlighted over the past three years (People for Education 2021a; 2022). Early in 2022, a wave of the highly transmissible Omicron variant prompted an investigation into staff absences across numerous school boards and found that the number of daily unfilled teaching jobs was, on average, steadily increasing (Teotonio & Rushowy, 2022). School boards used various strategies to cover staffing shortages, such as removing the caps on the number of days worked by retired teachers, permitting student teachers to work, assigning teachers classes to cover during their planning time, and principals stepping back into classrooms.
These survival tactics, however, did not come without a cost to the mental health and wellbeing of school staff and students alike. When asked if there were any challenges so far in the current 2022-23 school year, one elementary school principal in northern Ontario wrote:
“People are burning out way more quickly post-COVID, partly due to staffing challenges; learning and mental health needs of students are exacerbated post-COVID; the staff shortage impact on daily triage of student needs because of illness and no one to cover; having all expectations of a ‘normal everything open year’ without allowing educators to build back up before being expected to go all out for everything.”
The finding that 91% of Ontario schools need some or more support for mental health and wellbeing supports is inextricably tied to the finding that 82% of Ontario schools reported needing some or more support for school support staff. After all, one of the primary ways of addressing mental health and wellbeing is with more staff who specialize in this area. An elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario explained, “Full-time mental health care workers are required in schools to be present and available to support students and families on a DAILY basis, and to offer support for staff who are struggling to deal with the class dynamics erupting from mental health challenges.”
While 78% of schools expressed needing some or more support for teaching staff, only 19% noted needing a lot of support, which is markedly less than the 35% of schools who expressed needing a lot of support for school support staff (e.g. educational assistants, administrators, custodians, etc.) (See Figure 2). This finding is significant, given recent events related to job action and labour negotiations for education workers in the province (McKenzie-Sutter, 2022). While teaching shortages do exist, there is currently a higher demand for education support workers. One elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario described the situation: “Staffing shortages are leading to a crisis in education. Addressing the shortages across all employee groups has to be a priority for the government.”
As we look ahead to the remainder of the 2022-23 school year, it is essential to consider what actions are necessary to address the needs of Ontario’s publicly funded schools. Here are some ideas suggested by principals:
Three years into the pandemic, COVID has taught us the importance of mental health and wellbeing, as well as the incredibly huge role that schools play in our lives. If public education is the foundation of our society and the key to solving many of society’s current problems, it is crucial to learn from the challenges of the past few years and get our priorities right as we plan for a happier, healthier, and more hopeful future. As one elementary school principal from southwestern Ontario put it:
“A recovery plan for a global pandemic, hmm… I think it is an opportunity to rethink some aspects of public education. Could be a great opportunity.”
McKenzie-Sutter, H. (2022, November 4). What you need to know about the Ontario education workers’ strike. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9253376/ontario-cupe-education-worker-strike-explained
People for Education. (2021a). Challenges and innovations: 2021-20 annual report on Ontario schools.
People for Education. (2021b). Ontario principals’ challenges and well-being: Annual Ontario School Survey 2021. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/People-for-Educations-report-on-Ontario-Principals-Challenges-and-Wellbeing-AOSS2021.pdf
People for Education. (2022). A perfect storm of stress: Ontario’s publicly funded schools in year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/People-for-Education_A-Perfect-Storm-of-Stress_May-2022.pdf
Teotonio, I. & Rushowy, K. (2022, February 7). ‘Really severe challenges’: Ontario school boards struggle with unprecedented staff absences. The Toronto Star. www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/02/07/really-severe-challenges-ontario-school-boards-struggle-with-unprecedented-staff-absences.html
Vaillancourt, T., Szatmari, P., Georgiades, K., & Krygsman, A. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of Canadian children and youth. FACETS, 6(1), 1628–1648. doi.org/10.1139/FACETS-2021-0078
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 The 2022–2023 AOSS is the 26th annual survey of elementary schools and 23rd annual survey of secondary schools in Ontario.
Many workplace well-being initiatives in Canadian school districts originally developed approaches focusing on the individual, such as mindfulness, improving sleep patterns, doing more exercise, and improving diets. This approach was critiqued as limited by those who felt such a focus ignored systemic factors, like class size and workload, that can impact teacher and staff well-being. As Chelsea Prax, programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, said in an Education Week article:
“You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems. Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem”
The notion of systemic change in some literature states or implies system transformation: radical overhauls of K–12 school systems to replace allegedly creaking systems with brand-new models in a brave new world. Well, brave new worlds come and go. Concepts and trends emerge, peak, and falter, yet education systems somehow continue, adapting and evolving. Or not, depending on your perspective.
In the world of workplace well-being, the notion of systems change is gaining greater credibility as an approach to improving staff well-being. Corporate Canada recognizes that organizations need to change and adapt to promote employees’ mental health, yet it can be argued that provincial governments and school districts have been slow to focus on their systems rather than on individuals when addressing workplace well-being in Canadian schools. So how to consider systems change concepts that provide direction for systemic implementation to improve workplace well-being?
Let’s consider what we mean by systemic implementation by looking at three ways to change systems:
This might include allocations for staff with responsibilities for staff well-being within or beyond the domain of district HR departments. It might mean focusing on workplace well-being in strategic plans and budgets, so that well-being is central to planning and funding, moving it away from the periphery to the core business of school districts. A focus on all staff – teachers, administrators, support and exempt staff – also suggests a major structural change in terms of focus.
Changing policies, administrative procedures, and guidelines to address well-being can send both a powerful signal and impact educators’ work and the expectations placed on them. Such policies might be at a provincial or district level, establishing priorities, directions, and values.
This concept is emerging as one possible strategy for creating systemic change. As enablers, school districts fund, support, and disseminate collaborative and facilitated approaches to workplace well-being, which are intended to permeate a system over time rather than mandate one-off approaches that may or may not be implemented or sustained. In some provinces, union grants can also be applied to support collaborative inquiry into workplace well-being, which potentially positions unions as enablers of systemic action. With some co-ordination, district and union actions could combine to systemically address workplace well-being issues.
Enabling systemic action may be considered “slow” systemic change, requiring staff buy-in and participation, but it may be more sustainable than policy mandates over the long term.
Some of these approaches have been documented and are accessible on EdCan’s Well at Work website
(https://k12wellatwork.ca) and on the B.C. K–12 Staff Well-being Network’s site (https://bc.k12wellatwork.ca).
We suggest that systemic action is possible through these three channels: structural change, policy initiatives, and school districts/unions acting as enablers of actions that can become systemic.
By combining these three approaches, school districts can include but move beyond a focus on the individual to create a sense of shared responsibility through collaborative actions and systemic change. The combination of approaches might also help to bridge the gap between unions and governments/districts if more ways can be found to introduce systemic change initiatives that address workload issues.
As we expand our scope and focus, we hope to share what we learn, and to learn ourselves from multiple jurisdictions about approaches to improving workplace well-being. Join us!
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
A growing number of school districts in several provinces are participating in a new EdCan Well at Work project (https://k12wellatwork.ca/advisors). This provides advisors to school districts wanting to further their workplace wellbeing efforts with the support of external expertise, acting as advisors and “critical friends.” We have developed a concept that includes individual approaches to wellbeing but goes beyond to propose and attempt new collaborative and systemic approaches to improve wellbeing of all staff in Canada’s K–12 schools.
Developed by the EdCan Network, Well at Work supports education leaders across Canada to develop and implement system-wide strategies to improve K-12 workplace wellbeing for the long term – all while mobilizing a network of passionate educators, researchers, practitioners, and stakeholder groups.
Well at Work offers an advisory service, professional learning, and resources.
Alberta Education. (2018). Superintendent leadership quality standard. Government of Alberta. www.alberta.ca/professional-practice-standards.aspx#jumplinks-3
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia. www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/erase/documents/mental-health-wellness/mhis-strategy.pdf
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2020). Workplace wellness. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/wellness/
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2021). Practice profiles. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/practice-profile
Naylor, C. (2020). The Powell River Learning Group: Improving professional relationships. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nSs5ZGmqQkYWCxqio42JehlV473kqm_l/view
Will, M. (2021, Sept. 14). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be: Administrators must think about teacher well-being differently. Education Week. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09
In recent years, because of globalization, the world has become increasingly small and interdependent. No longer confined by place of birth or residence, citizens have a collective responsibility to participate in a globalized society.
In 2015, the UN General Assembly recognized this responsibility by adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The resolution includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to promote far-reaching social, health, environmental, and political change.
At the same time, several Canadian ministries of education have stressed the importance of integrating the UN SDGs and contemporary world issues into the curriculum as part of a field of study known as global citizenship education (GCE). As a discipline, GCE aims to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and values to address critical global challenges. These include the alarming spread of misinformation, a global health crisis, climate change, and a growing threat to the liberal international order. While some provinces have incorporated GCE into their curricula, most do not offer it as a stand-alone course.
More Canadian ministries of education should adopt a required half-year course at the secondary level on responsible global citizenship. They should seek to equip students with critical thinking skills, including media and information literacy (the ability to find and evaluate information), health literacy (the ability to make informed health decisions), ecological literacy (the ability to identify and take action on environmental issues), and democratic literacy (the ability to understand and participate in civic affairs). Various stakeholders have a vested interest, including school administrators, teachers, curriculum writers, policymakers, scholars, and professors.
The conceptual framework below (Figure 1) ties responsible global citizenship to critical thinking through four literacies:
As the framework reflects, critical thinking is a necessary skill to achieve responsible global citizenship. The UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) (2013) defines critical thinking as a “process that involves asking appropriate questions, gathering and creatively sorting through relevant information, relating new information to existing knowledge, re-examining beliefs and assumptions, reasoning logically, and drawing reliable and trustworthy conclusions” (p. 15). Critical thinking skills help global citizens make responsible choices when consuming information about the media, health, environment, and democracy. These skills are necessary to evaluate the abundance of information (and misinformation) in the digital age. They also play a central role in making evidence-based health decisions, provide a foundation for exploring today’s complex and interdependent ecosystem, and encourage the kind of civic engagement and participation needed to preserve a functioning democracy.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians have spent more time on the internet and their smartphones. A recent survey found that 98 percent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 years old use the internet (Statistics Canada, 2021). The survey also noted that 71 percent also check their smartphone, at a minimum, every half hour (Statistics Canada, 2021).
While Canadian youth have unprecedented access to knowledge and information, they are at the same time exposed to more misinformation and disinformation than at any other time in history. This makes it even more critical that students receive media and information literacy training at an early age.
Several organizations, including UNESCO, have taken notice. A decade after publishing the first edition of its media and information literacy curriculum, UNESCO (2021) released Think Critically, Click Wisely: Media and information literate citizens. The more-than-400-page document provides a curriculum and competency framework, along with modules divided into separate units. It also includes useful pedagogical approaches and strategies for teachers.
Meanwhile, in Canada, other organizations (e.g. the Association for Media Literacy, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations, and MediaSmarts) have promoted media and information literacy instruction. And for more than three decades, Canadian provinces and territories have incorporated such content into their curriculum. However, as the only Western nation without a federal department of education, Canada has a media and information literacy curriculum that varies by province and territory.
This moment requires increased focus and attention to help Canadian students learn how to think critically when evaluating the media and its information sources and distinguishing between fact and fiction while using information tools. As such, ministries of education should consider adding the following topics in the proposed media and information literacy unit:
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the importance of health literacy. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines it as the “ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course” (Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, 2008, p. 11). This form of literacy requires both knowledge and competence in health-related disciplines.
It should come as no surprise that Canadians lacking health literacy skills are less likely to retrieve reliable information or make informed choices. In fact, limited health literacy (or health illiteracy) can directly impact whether individuals comply with data-driven public health guidance. What’s more, the rapid dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation has placed them at an even greater health risk.
At an organizational level, public health agencies have struggled to manage the current “infodemic” (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021). In a Public Policy Forum report, University of Toronto professors Eric Merkley and Peter Loewen (2021) provide five recommendations, including to:
Additionally, medical professionals should provide up-to-date, credible information to large audiences through a strong social media presence.
At the school and board level, teachers and administrators should promote more health literacy instruction. While the concept of health-promoting schools dates back nearly three decades, there is an even greater imperative for students today. In fact, the World Health Organization and UNESCO (2021) recently proposed a whole-school approach to encourage student health and well-being, ranging from school policies and resources to a greater focus on community partnerships and a positive social-emotional environment.
Adopting these standards will help to facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, schools, and civil society organizations. Accordingly, a health literacy unit should include:
Being a responsible global citizen also requires ecological literacy – defined as “a way of thinking about the world in terms of its interdependent natural and human systems, including a consideration of the consequences of human actions and interactions within the natural context” (Manitoba Education and Training, 2017, p. 15). On top of the combined infodemic-pandemic, an ecological crisis continues to deteriorate. Earlier this year, the federal government released a 768-page document (Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing our knowledge for action) that examines the serious threat climate change poses to Canadians’ health (Berry & Schnitter, 2022). The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) report, in particular, details the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions, which is causing increasing temperatures and frequent natural disasters. Additionally, more than half of the world’s key biodiversity areas remain unprotected while pollution levels keep rising (UN, 2021).
A recent poll conducted by Ipsos (2021), in collaboration with the Canadian Youth Alliance for Climate Action (CYACA), examined the views of young Canadians 18 to 29 years old on climate change. The study found that Canadian youth consider climate change to be a top-five issue of concern after housing, COVID-19, health care, and unemployment. Upon reviewing each province’s secondary school science curriculum, sustainability researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (2019) conclude that there is insufficient focus on scientific consensus, impacts, or solutions to climate change. Government leaders may be more likely to fulfill their climate action promises if Canada does more to develop responsible environmental citizens through climate change education.
Ecological literacy, however, is not limited to climate change education and will require students to acquire skills and competencies in other areas. In addition to climate change, this unit should include:
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Canadian way of life has contributed to the discontent many feel. According to a Pew Research Center survey, while only 29 percent of Canadians at the beginning of the pandemic believed the country was more divided than before the outbreak, 61 percent held that view by the following year (Wike & Fetterolf, 2021).
Pandemic fatigue, however, should not serve as an excuse for undermining democratic institutions and norms. Indeed, in the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (2022) Democracy Index (global democracy rankings), Canada dropped seven spots (5th to 12th place). The report highlights a troubling trend – one in which Canadian citizens express an increasing level of support for non-democratic ideas and values.
Civically literate citizens are more likely to understand the inner workings of the democracy and participate through voting, peaceful assembly, or other forms of engagement (The Samara Centre for Democracy, 2019). The Samara Centre for Democracy (2019) report explains that civic literacy can be developed during the Canadian citizenship process, at home, in schools, and outside the classroom. Schools are a particularly important forum through which Canadian youth can learn about civic participation and engagement.
In a civics unit, students should have the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives, make informed opinions, and actively participate in the community. Democratic literacy content should include a discussion on:
As teachers prepare students for a post-pandemic world, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot address the needs of every student. Yet, there should be a common framework.
The responsible global citizenship framework can serve to guide ministries of education seeking to implement practical and relevant GCE-related courses and content. To develop responsible global citizens and critical thinkers requires the advancement of media and information, health, ecological, and democratic literacies. These four literacies are critical for Canada’s future success and relevance in a global society.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Berry, P., & Schnitter, R. (Eds.). (2022). Health of Canadians in a changing climate: Advancing our knowledge for action. Health Canada. https://changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/5/2022/02/CCHA-REPORT-EN.pdf
The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2022). Democracy index 2021: The China challenge. www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2021). Climate change 2021: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the sixth assessment report of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University. www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/
Ipsos. (2021). Young Canadians’ attitudes on climate change. www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2021-10/CYACA%20Report%2020211004_0.pdf
Manitoba Education and Training. (2017). Grade 12 Global Issues: Citizenship and Sustainability.
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2021). A vision to transform Canada’s public health system. Government of Canada. www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/corporate/publications/chief-public-health-officer-reports-state-public-health-canada/state-public-health-canada-2021/cpho-report-eng.pdf
Rootman, I., & Gordon-El-Bihbety, D. (2008). A vision for a health literate Canada: Report of the expert panel on health literacy. Canadian Public Health Association. https://swselfmanagement.ca/uploads/ResourceDocuments/CPHA%20(2008)%20A%20Vision%20for%20a%20Health%20Literate%20Canada.pdf
The Samara Centre for Democracy. (2019). Investing in Canadians’ civic literacy: An answer to fake news and disinformation. www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/investing-in-canadians-civic-literacy-by-the-samara-centre-for-democracy.pdf?sfvrsn=66f2072f_4
Statistics Canada. (2021). Canadian Internet use survey, 2020. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/daily-quotidien/210622/dq210622b-eng.pdf?st=O5mYsIgz
United Nations. (2021). The sustainable development goals report 2021. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2021.pdf
UNESCO. (2021). Think critically, click wisely: Media and information literate citizens. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377068
UNESCO-IBE. (2013). IBE glossary of curriculum terminology. www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/IBE_GlossaryCurriculumTerminology2013_eng.pdf
Wike, R., & Fetterolf, J. (2021). Global public opinion in an era of democratic anxiety. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/12/07/global-public-opinion-in-an-era-of-democratic-anxiety
World Health Organization & UNESCO. (2021). Making every school a health-promoting school: Implementation guidance. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377941
Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2019). Climate science curricula in Canadian secondary schools focus on human warming, not scientific consensus, impacts or solutions. PLoS ONE, 14(7), e0218305. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218305
The handshake depicted on this Treaty 6 medal is understood by nêhiyawak to symbolize asotamâkêwin – a sacred promise to live together in the spirit of good relations.
In September 1874, Treaty Commissioners representing Queen Victoria traveled to Fort Qu’Appelle to negotiate the terms of a sacred promise to live in peace and friendship with nehiyawak (Cree), Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda peoples of the region that came to be known as Treaty 4. Prior to this meeting, the Indigenous leaders had learned that the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold their lands to the Dominion of Canada without their consultation or consent. Thus, when the Treaty Commissioners sought to initiate negotiations, the leaders declined to discuss the Treaty. Instead, an Anihšināpēk spokesman named Otahaoman explained with the help of a translator that the assembled peoples felt that there was “something in the way” of their ability to discuss the terms of the Treaty in good faith (Morris, 2014, pp. 97–98).
It took several days of discussion for the Queen’s representatives to comprehend the concerns expressed by Otahaoman. The people were questioning the sincerity of these Treaty negotiations because they knew that the Government of Canada had already made a side deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company for the purchase of their lands. The view expressed by Otahaoman was that these side dealings undermined the integrity of the Government’s Treaty intentions. Through the translator, Otahaoman clearly articulated the view that the Hudson’s Bay Company only had the permission of Indigenous peoples to conduct trade. They did not have the right to claim ownership over any land: “The Indians want the Company to keep at their post and nothing beyond. After that is signed they will talk about something else” (Morris, 2014, p. 110). Despite these misunderstandings, as well as notable disagreement among the various Indigenous groups in attendance, the terms of Treaty 4 were eventually ratified.
I begin with this story to draw attention to the persistence of Canadian colonial culture as “something in the way” of efforts to repair Indigenous-Canadian relations. The critical observation that Otahaoman articulated in 1874 is still a very relevant and unsettling problem today. In the wake of the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, educational jurisdictions and institutions across Canada have rushed to respond to the Calls through the implementation of various policies and program initiatives. However, the rush to Reconciliation facilitates an active disregard of the Truth of colonial ideologies and structures that continue to block possibilities for the emergence of healthy and balanced Indigenous-Canadian relations in Canada. Before Reconciliation can even be considered as a possibility, a broad social, cultural, and educational reckoning process must be undertaken that focuses on unlearning colonialism. Colonial ideologies remain mostly uninterrogated in Canadian educational contexts and continue to be “in the way” of meaningful Indigenous-Canadian relational renewal. Such relational renewal is only possible if colonialism is unlearned.
Colonial ideologies have got “in the way” of schooling practices in the sense that prevailing curricular and pedagogical approaches perpetuate colonial worldview. The founding principle of colonialism is relationship denial1 and the centuries-long predominance of this principle has resulted in the creation of educational practices that perpetuate relationship denial in mostly subtle and unquestioned ways. One prominent form of relationship denial is evident in the ways in which the mental aspect of a human being is considered more important than the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects. The possibility for holistic unity and balance is denied when the different aspects of a human being are increasingly fragmented and disassociated as a person becomes educated. The teachings of relationship denial can also be seen in the ways in which human beings are taught to believe that their needs are always more important than the needs of other forms of life. They are also evident in the ways in which students are taught to deny relationships that they have with people who do not look like them, speak like them, or pray like them. When someone is educated to accept relationship denial as a way of being in the world, it becomes part of how they are as a human being – how they live – and this acceptance has a very distinctive bearing on how they understand knowledge and knowing.
Such practices are reflective of the “Western code” – the Enlightenment-based knowledge paradigm that is presented as possessing all the answers to any important questions that could be asked by anyone, anywhere in the world. It is important to state that Western conceptions of knowledge and knowing have provided many benefits. However, belief in the veracity of those understandings becomes a form of violence when they are prescribed as the only way to be a successful human being. Wynter (1992), for example, has argued that the arrival of Christopher Columbus to Turtle Island instigated a centuries-long process wherein a universalized model of the human being was imposed on people around the world. She asserts that this particular advancement of colonial power has served to “absolutize the behavioural norms encoded in our present culture-specific conception of being human, allowing it to be posited as if it were the universal of the human species” (Wynter, 1992, pp. 42-43). The assertion of this colonial power is carried out in the name of Progress.2 Formal schooling eventually became a primary means by which those with power could discipline the citizenry to conform to this model of the human being and this notion of Progress. As I see it, this has resulted in the predominance of curricular and pedagogical approaches that perpetuate these universalized behavioural norms by persistently presenting knowledge and knowing according to the rubric of relationship denial.
The complex task of unlearning colonial forms of relationship denial does require learning more about colonial worldview and the ways in which the cultural assumptions of that worldview deeply inform the structure and character of the common-sense conventions of educational practices. However, it cannot only rely on learning about such things in an informational way. To do so is to assume that relationship denial is really just an intellectual problem and that unlearning can be accomplished via a detailed three-hour lecture with accompanying PowerPoint slides.
The difficult truth is that colonial forms of relationship denial are much more than just intellectual problems. Human beings who accept colonial worldview as natural, normal, and common sense come to embody colonial forms of relationship denial that teach them to divide the world. The field of education has become so fully informed by the assumed correctness of colonial worldview that it has become difficult to take seriously other knowledge systems or ways of being human. However, this struggle to honour other knowledge systems or ways of being is implicated in the deepest difficulties faced today in trying to live in less damaging, divisive, and ecologically destructive ways. It is clear to me that the acceptance of relationship denial as the natural cognitive habit of successful human beings undermines the ability to respond to these complex challenges in dynamic ways. Thus, an urgent educational challenge facing educators today involves:
As a teacher educator struggling to address this challenge, I draw significant guidance and inspiration from Indigenous wisdom teachings of kinship relationality. These wisdom teachings emphasize how human beings are at their best when they recognize themselves as enmeshed in networks of human and more-than-human relationships that enable life and living. For example, in nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language), a foundational wisdom concept that is central to nêhiyaw (Cree) worldview is wâhkôhtowin. Translated into English, wâhkôhtowin is generally understood to refer to kinship. In a practical way, wâhkôhtowin describes ethical guidelines regarding how you are related to your kin and how to conduct yourself as a good relative. Following those guidelines teaches one how to relate to human relatives and interact with them in accordance with traditional kinship teachings. Importantly, however, wâhkôhtowin is also extended to include more-than-human kinship relations. The nêhiyaw worldview emphasizes honouring the ancient kinship relationships that humans have with all other forms of life that inhabit their traditional territories. This emphasis teaches human beings to understand themselves as fully enmeshed in networks of relationships that support and enable their life and living. Métis Elder Maria Campbell (2007) eloquently addresses wâhkôhtowin enmeshment:
“And our teachings taught us that all of creation is related and inter-connected to all things within it.
Wahkotowin meant honoring and respecting those relationships. They are our stories, songs, ceremonies, and dances that taught us from birth to death our responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to each other. Human to human, human to plants, human to animals, to the water and especially to the earth. And in turn all of creation had responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to us” (p. 5).
Thus, following the relational kinship wisdom of wâhkôhtowin, human beings are called to repeatedly acknowledge and honour the sun, the moon, the sky, the land, the wind, the water, the animals, and the trees (just to name a few), as quite literally our kinship relations. Humans are fully reliant on these entities for survival and so the wise person works to ensure that those more-than-human relatives are healthy and consistently honoured. Cradled within this kinship teaching is an understanding that healthy human-to-human relations depend upon and flow from healthy relations with the more-than-human. They cannot be separated out.
These wisdom teachings of wâhkôhtowin enmeshment and kinship relationality are also central to the spirit and intent of the so-called Numbered Treaties negotiated between Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1871–1921. Although I cannot claim expertise in the details of each individual Treaty, I can state that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as sacred adoption ceremonies through which they agreed to live in peaceful coexistence with their newcomer relatives. This means that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as a formal commitment to welcome newcomers into their kinship networks, share land and resources with them, and work together with them as relatives for mutual benefit. In this sense, the Numbered Treaties can be understood as expressions of the wâhkôhtowin imagination – human and more-than-human kinship interconnectivities.
However, such kinship interconnectivities are not a central part of how most Canadians understand the Numbered Treaties. In accordance with the colonial emphasis on relationship denial, Treaties have been a massive curricular omission in Canadian education systems. If Canadians have learned anything of Treaties in their formal schooling experiences, it usually comes in the form of historical background information that characterizes Treaties as business deals through which Indigenous peoples surrendered their lands and received gifts and certain rights in return. So, tragically, the possibility that the Numbered Treaties could actually honour the layered complexities of kinship relationality and its constant renewal is undermined by ongoing institutional and societal dedication to relationship denial.
It is my view that Treaties can be a significant source of inspiration in addressing the two educational challenges mentioned previously: unlearning colonialism and honouring other ways to know and be. The handshake depicted on the Treaty medal guides me to work together with others in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together. Specific to Treaty 6, the shaking of hands is understood to signify ka-miyo-wîcêhtoyahk (for us to get along well), ka-wîtaskîhtoyahk (for us to live as Nations), ka-wîtaskêhtoyahk (for us to share the land and live as good neighbours), and ka-miyo-ohpikihitoyahk (for us to raise each other’s children well). These teachings place emphasis on learning from each other in balanced ways and sharing the wisdom that comes from living together in the spirit of good relations. Indeed, Treaty teachings appear to provide the much-needed antidote to colonial logics of relationship denial and assist in the educational challenge to unlearn. Importantly, however, the wâhkôhtowin imagination also offers a significant opportunity to engage with other ways of knowing and being by consistently reminding us of our enmeshment within more-than-human kinship connectivities.
What expressions of knowledge and knowing flow from an education that emphasizes kinship connectivities and relational renewal? What kind of human being emerges from such educational experiences? These are questions without clear answers. However, they are also questions that educators must begin to carefully consider as part of the much larger struggle to unlearn colonialism. It is clear to me that the human ability to honour other ways to know and be depends on the willingness to return to the ancient wisdom teachings of kinship relationality that are clearly emphasized in Treaty teachings.
Photo: courtesy Dwayne Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Campbell, M. (2007, November). We need to return to the principles of Wahkotowin. Eagle Feather News, 10(11), 5. www.eaglefeathernews.com/quadrant/media//pastIssues/November_2007.pdf
Donald, D. (2019) Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum. In H. Tomlinson-Jahnke, S. Styres, S. Lille, & D. Zinga (Eds.), Indigenous education: New directions in theory and practice (pp. 103–125). University of Alberta Press.
Morris, A. (2014). The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories: Including the negotiations on which they are based, and other information relating thereto. Cambridge University Press.
Nisbet, R. A. (1980). History of the idea of progress. Transaction.
Wynter, S. (1995). 1492: A new world view. In V. L. Hyatt & R. Nettleford (Eds.), Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new world view (pp. 5–57). Smithsonian.
1 I use this phrase to draw attention to the ways in which the institutional and socio-cultural practice of dividing the world according to colonial worldview has trained Canadians to disregard Indigenous peoples as fellow human beings and thus deny relationships with them. This disregard maintains unethical relationships and promotes the development of cognitive blockages (psychoses) that undermine the possibility for improved Indigenous-Canadian relations. The psychosis of relationship denial results from a decades-long curricular project dedicated to the telling of a Canadian national narrative that has largely excluded the memories and experiences of Indigenous peoples. A major assertion that stems from this relational psychosis is that Indigenous peoples do not belong in Canada and are therefore out of place in their own traditional territories. This relational psychosis is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian colonial culture that must be unlearned.
2 I choose to capitalize this term to denote its mythological prominence within settler colonial societies like Canada. This notion of Progress has grown out of the colonial experience and is predicated on the pursuit of unfettered economic growth and material prosperity stemming from faith in market capitalism. For more on this see Donald (2019) and Nisbet (1980).
On January 11, 2020, a 61-year-old man in the central Chinese city of Wuhan succumbed to a new virus that had sickened at least 41 people. “There is no evidence that the virus can be spread between humans,” the New York Times reported at the time (Quin & Hernandez, 2020). By April 2, the COVID-19 coronavirus had sickened more than one million people in 171 countries across six continents and had killed more than 51,000. In a recent report for the Royal Society of Canada, my colleague Michelle Hagerman and I noted that nearly two years later, the pandemic had not only claimed the lives of millions but also upended nearly every public, private, and non-governmental institution around the globe (Westheimer & Hagerman, 2021).
Crises have a way of making us ask big questions. They focus our attention on what matters most – to us, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and the planet. For educators, prioritizing what is important became fundamental as teachers grappled with the new realities of online learning, spotty attendance, and the immense inequalities the pandemic revealed about the lives of students and their families. These new realities offer an opportunity to reshape our thinking about what matters in education. But opportunity is not the same as destiny. For lasting change to occur, we must focus our attention on using what we have learned.
Can you name any of the fourteen plant phyla? What’s the difference between sine and cosine? When did the Assyrian empire’s reign over Mesopotamia begin and end? What roles do chloroplasts, vacuole, or mitochondria play in the basic functioning of cells? If you don’t know the answers, you’re not alone. The truth is that few adults (whose professions do not require such specialized knowledge) know the answers to these questions. And even fewer face social, civic, or career setbacks as a result.
If I could ban any two words from education talk for the next year or so, I would choose these: learning loss. The past two years of interrupted schooling has meant that countless children missed lessons in math, history, geography, science, and literature. Every day we read about children falling behind, but the curriculum is bursting at the seams. Falling behind what? Behind whom? Estimates are that nearly 90 percent of the world’s 1.7 billion students have missed a significant amount of school these past two years. So we shouldn’t be surprised if testing experts tell us that, on balance, the COVID generation is not performing as well on standardized assessments of progress as previous cohorts of children at the same stage in their schooling. We probably didn’t need the tests to tell us that predictable fact. But what if that model of teaching and learning is outdated and there are more important things for teachers to think about than whether they’ve “covered” the curriculum?
For certain basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, the language of learning loss is an understandable way of expressing concern over an achievement gap between high- and low- achieving students. But for more than three decades, the school curriculum has become increasingly consumed with all the things students should know before they graduate. That has resulted in an unprecedented global obsession with micro-managing teachers’ work to ensure the right information is taught, and with standardized testing to find out if they’re succeeding. Yet those who seek to demonstrate the importance of coverage in the curriculum mostly use standardized measures of knowledge attainment to prove their point. This tautological approach should be easily dismissed, pandemic or no pandemic, when making the case that we need to move our priorities away from a mile-wide-inch-deep approach to teaching and learning.
Research in teaching and child development tells us that learning how to think analytically is much more important than cramming in material that students won’t remember weeks or years later. We live in an age of instantly accessible information in an infinite number of domains. Living well in the 21st century does not require more information, but rather the knowledge and skills needed to sift, understand, and assess the quality of information. Teaching content matters, but covering every possible historical event and scientific or mathematical concept does not.
I would be thrilled if my child had the opportunity to read and discuss with her teacher and classmates the brilliant allegorical novel, The Alchemist. After all, many students learn valuable ways of thinking about the world from reading it. But I’d be OK if they had to miss that one and read only Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi instead. What matters is finding topics of interest to both teachers and students, having the time to explore those topics in depth, and facilitating connections between subject matter and the outside world. A deep-dive into topics of interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows.
This is not a new idea. “Less is more” has been a common aphorism in curriculum development for more than 30 years. The harms wrought by trying to meet curricular standards bursting at the seams were well documented before the pandemic (see for example Kempf, 2016), but during the past two years, as teachers and school boards across the country were forced to recognize the impossibility of covering the entire prescribed curriculum, the very idea of breadth versus depth came under increased scrutiny. It has become clearer than ever that endlessly expanding content goals reduce teachers’ control over the curriculum, undermine their professional judgment, and limit student engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic functioned like an X-ray, revealing already existing fault lines in our nation and the world: poverty and economic inequality, hunger and homelessness, racial and ethnic bias, unequal access to high-speed internet and computers, and inadequate resources for those most in need. None of these are new challenges, but they are newly spotlighted for all of us to see – “pinned” in the vernacular of the now-ubiquitous video conferencing platforms. Online learning meant that educators were transported into students’ homes, making inequality difficult to ignore.
What bothers me about a focus on learning loss and “falling behind” is that it will increase these already existing gaps. Calls for economically disadvantaged students to keep up with their wealthier peers will not diminish the achievement gap between children from poorer and wealthier households. The problem is not that some kids will learn more than others as much as it is the consequences we tie to arbitrary benchmarks of learning in the first place. Since students are likely to be evaluated in the future using assessments of how much of the curriculum was covered, and since those evaluations continue to be used to sort students in ways that will affect their futures, we are, at least in part, creating the very problem we hope to eliminate by emphasizing the achievement gap. The more we value the acquisition of information over the development of intellectual, emotional, and relational capacities, the more we contribute to rather than ameliorate inequality.
I do not want to minimize the added supports some children need to make up for lost schooling in basic skills. A child entering Grade 3 after having missed much of the previous two years may not be able to read. Some children will have missed the opportunity to learn or solidify basic mathematical literacy. These are significant liabilities, not really comparable to missing stories about some explorers in Canadian history. It is a significant handicap to be lacking these “basic skills,” and for most children, it would be difficult to acquire these skills on their own. To be sure, we should support additional funding for more teachers, smaller classes, and additional programming so that these gaps can be addressed.
But there is much more to schooling than basic skills alone, and we must be careful not to create arbitrary barriers to those students who, beyond common-sense basic skills, have not acquired the same level of curriculum coverage as their more well-resourced peers.
Schools have been stuck in the wrong paradigm for success, one in which individualized knowledge and skills are the end-goal instead of a means to develop students’ best selves within the community of their teachers and peers, and, by extension, improve society for all of us.
If we agree to move beyond an outdated paradigm of education centred around curriculum coverage, what kind of vision for post-pandemic education can take its place? Two decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that education either functions to inculcate conformity in the younger generation or it becomes “the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (2000, p. 34). To Freire, the sense of pedagogical meaning-making that derives from curriculum is inseparable from the goal of improving society. In other words, improving society requires not only teaching basic skills and knowledge, but also engaging young and old alike in a process of collective meaning-making and community-building.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the ways people treat one another, learn from one another, and live together in local, national, and global communities – in short, how people see themselves as members of a community. Education has always seemed important to me, not because of the debates about passing fads and strategies (phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math, small classes versus big classes), but rather because choices about how we teach our children are choices about the kind of society we believe in and the kind of people we hope will emerge from our schoolhouse doors. Will they be concerned only with their own individual success and ambitions without regard to the welfare of others? Will they form healthy and happy relationships with others? Will they value democratic values such as self-governance and social justice? Will they learn how to develop convictions and the courage to stand up for those convictions if and when it becomes necessary to do so? Will they be able to engage in work and community activities they find meaningful? These values are manifestations of a sense of both personal and civic identity and form the basis of community life.
You can see, then, that I think about schools not only or even primarily as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge, but also as places where children learn about the society in which they are growing up: how they might engage productively, how they can fight for change when change is warranted, and how to know when it is warranted. Schools have always taught lessons in areas such as citizenship, moral values, good behaviour, and “character.” Schools teach children to follow rules, to wait their turn, and (ideally) to cooperate with others. Schools (again, ideally) also teach children how to acquire and process information and how to articulate their ideas to others – all necessary skills for democratic community life. Some schools also help students consider whether being a “good” citizen or member of the community ever requires questioning rules, or what might be the proper balance between rule following and thinking about the origins and purpose of rules.
Schools teach these lessons regardless of whether or not they aim to do so explicitly. How classrooms are set up, who gets to talk when, how adults conduct themselves, how decisions are made, how lessons are enacted – all these inevitably serve as lessons in how to live together. Whether teachers explicitly “teach” these subjects or not, students learn about community organization, the distribution of power and resources, rights, responsibilities, and of course, justice and injustice. These same lessons are mirrored in students’ online interactions. Curricular choices and the relative importance we put on covering all the content standards contain both overt and hidden lessons as well.
When policy-makers focus obsessively on learning metrics, teachers are forced to reduce their teaching to endless lists of facts and skills, unmoored from their social meaning. But when we consider what a successful education might look like more broadly and we think about the impact our curricular choices have on the people we hope students will become, we create new ways of seeing the complex work of teaching and we form new expectations for the purposes of a public education.
Schools should teach subject matter content. There, I said it. I do not want to entertain strawman arguments about progressive educators who don’t care whether children learn to read and write, add and subtract numbers, or learn facts about things. As far as I know, there is not a group anyone can join called “Parents and Educators Against Children Learning How to Read.”
What I am suggesting is that schools should teach content without becoming overly concerned with teaching all content. The need for such a shift in thinking is not new but was made newly possible by the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eliminating the need for each and every student to cover the exact same material at the same time would free teachers to help their students create meaning, develop a sense of purpose, belonging, well-being, and the chance to learn more deeply about things that excite their curiosity. A paradigm for education that embraces these kinds of goals encourages teachers and students to develop content knowledge and skills by drawing on the local passions, interests, and resources of the school and community. As high school history teacher Michael Berkowitz likes to say: content matters more than coverage.
Most importantly, a successful education should be one that allows each child to become the best version of themselves, and to envision a future for their communities and the planet that isn’t yet realized – but that they can help bring about.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
Kempf, A. (2016). The pedagogy of standardized testing: The radical impacts of educational standardization in the US and Canada. Palgrave.
Qin, A. & Hernández, J. C. (2020, January 10). China reports first death from new virus. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/world/asia/china-virus-wuhan-death.html. Para 4
Westheimer, J., & Hagerman, M. (2021). After COVID: Lessons from a pandemic for K-12 education. In T. Vaillancourt (Ed.), Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://education.uottawa.ca/en/news/royal-society-canada-policy-briefing-children-and-schools-during-covid-19-and-beyond
During the pandemic, school closures affected almost all the children on planet Earth, with billions more parents, educators, and school staff impacted as well.
In Canada, schools were closed for between eight weeks (in Québec) and 26 weeks (in Ontario) from March 2020 to June 2021. Many schools closed again in January 2022 because of the Omicron variant. By now, we know the drill. When schools close, classes move online: teachers use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction and activities to help students learn, and parents of younger children pick up their unofficial teachers’ assistant roles.
Schools are where children and youth play, build relationships, create, develop their sense of selves, and need to be active. They are also, fundamentally, a place where students gain academic skills. Those skills include literacy and numeracy, which are the two most often measured. They also include developing scientific foundations, and learning about history, geography, and citizenship. Students’ learning and academic progress is a key determinant of health, income, happiness, and civic participation across the lifetime. Unaddressed gaps in these outcomes are very likely to contribute to the continuation, or deepening, of long-term social inequalities.
The overwhelming weight of international evidence1 suggests that, on average, students made less academic progress during pandemic-related closures than they would have in normal years (e.g. Hammarstein et al., 2021). Research shows that relative to previous years, there were greater gaps for younger children and in math achievement as opposed to English/language arts. Many studies looked at issues of equity. Where data is disaggregated, there have been consistent findings that such groups as low-income students, Black and Latinx students, students with special education needs, and English-language learners have fallen disproportionately far behind (see Gallagher-Mackay, Srivastava, et. al, 2021). Those same groups have also been disproportionately affected by the hardships of the pandemic – a higher burden of illness, household stressors such as unemployment, less access to technology, and so forth.
More recent large-scale studies with data from spring 2021 – 15 months into the pandemic – have showed that students who experienced more time in remote learning did, on average, worse during the pandemic than those who had more time learning in person (Halloran et al., 2021). Further, students who gained ground with a return to in-person learning lost it again during subsequent closures – even with significant support from synchronous learning (Renaissance/Educational Policy Institute, 2021).
In Canada, most large-scale assessments – which might allow us to benchmark progress using comparable data – were suspended from 2020 to 2021. One of the few investigations using standardized measures was led by University of Alberta’s George Georgiou, who compared the reading scores of elementary students captured in an annual September assessment. He found that younger students demonstrated greater learning loss than older students, and those in Grades 1–3 who were already struggling before lockdowns were up to six months behind where they should have been by September 2020.
Though there have been investments in safety measures, Canadian commitments to educational recovery have been far lower than other countries (see Gallagher-Mackay et al., 2021). For example, the federal government in the United States has committed $25 billion (of a total $124 billion for K–12) to education recovery, alongside investments by individual states, which have constitutional responsibility for education.
Where there has been large-scale recovery funding there has also been a profusion of programming, research, and active experimentation into effective ways of helping students catch up. The resources available through Brown University’s Annenberg Institute (https://annenberg.brown.edu/recovery), for example, provide terrific roadmaps to best practices for learning acceleration and to address key challenges faced by educators and school systems. There are a number of specific approaches worth highlighting.
Small group tutoring (one tutor with up to five students) is a complement to – not a replacement for – the more complex work of a classroom teacher. Our recent evidence review (Gallagher-Mackay, Mundy, et al., 2021; see also Nickow et al. 2020) highlights evidence that “high dosage tutoring” – at least three times a week – is one of the most effective educational interventions, especially when it is closely linked to in-school curriculum. For example, in rigorous studies, full-time college graduates in a national service program were able to gain two and a half years of learning in math over the course of one year. School-based tutoring has been a key plank of recovery efforts in the U.K., U.S., and Australia.
There is promising evidence that high-quality voluntary summer programs of at least five weeks duration – programs that include both academic instruction and enrichment activities to promote attendance and pleasure in learning – can boost achievement for participating students (McCombs et al., 2019). Small groups (fewer than 15 students) and specialized supports for students with special education or English language learning needs led to more powerful impacts. This research was conducted on in-person summer schools, and many students – including those with the greatest needs – may not choose to participate.
Large-scale data from France showed a surprising outcome: most of the learning losses found in Grade 1, 2, and 6 tests from 2020 were regained by September 2021. Moreover, achievement gaps based on socio-economic status (SES) initially widened, but by September 2021, the gaps had narrowed (Rosenwald, 2021). One factor that may have played a role in the French case is class size: in 2017, a new policy halved class sizes for Grade 1 and 2 classes in priority (low-SES) areas across the country. During the 2020/2021 school year all priority-area Grade 1 and 2 classrooms served a maximum of 12 (rather than 24) students (OECD, 2020). It is possible that the smaller class sizes in targeted regions across the country helped swiftly mitigate learning losses among particularly vulnerable groups.
Wraparound services to reconnect families and community
COVID-19 has fractured or further damaged relationships between schools, family and community. Safety measures have kept families out of schools, while underscoring the need for broader social supports beyond what schools are set up to provide: from settlement services to social work, mental health supports or opportunities for recreation. Unfortunately, current staffing doesn’t make room to build these enriching connections. There is a long history of research on community schools (see Maier et al., 2017). Canadian research shows that even a 0.5-time position dedicated to strengthening community can be transformative – providing a great return on investment in terms of bringing resources into the school (Lamarre et al., 2020).
There is evidence to suggest certain approaches should be avoided. In particular, having students repeat years of schooling is extremely expensive and has been associated with heightened risk of drop-out in a large volume of studies. Compressed curriculum – without additional supports – has not proved effective (Allensworth & Schwartz, 2021). Narrowing the focus of the curriculum to the purely academic, at the cost of physical activity, social-emotional learning, and opportunities to engage in creativity and citizenship learning would fail to reflect the many aspects of children’s development supported by schools.
Whatever approach we undertake, tracking student outcomes matters. Consistent aggregation of teacher-administered diagnostic assessment data would support this goal, if large-scale assessments aren’t going to be used.
We need this data to identify gaps, to support an appropriate, targeted strategy for deploying resources, and to better understand the effectiveness of whatever recovery measures we finally undertake.
There have been significant learning impacts related to the pandemic, but there are also promising educational interventions and supports that can help students thrive and recover academically, support educators facing enormous challenges, and help address some of the system’s long-term inequities. Canada needs to get moving.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
1 While the overwhelming majority of the studies reviewed show significant losses (e.g. Kuhfeld, Tarasawa, et al., 2020), some studies in Germany and the Netherlands found that many students improved in limited subjects through practice in online environments over the pandemic (e.g. Spitzer & Musslick, 2021). Studies based on general tests of knowledge and skills – either national/state assessments or diagnostic, including in the Netherlands – all point to significant losses.
Allensworth, E., & Schwartz, N. (2020). School practices to address student learning loss.
EdResearch for Recovery Project. https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_1.pdf
Gallagher-Mackay, K., Srivastava, P., et al. (2021). COVID-19 and education disruption in Ontario: Emerging evidence on impacts. Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. https://covid19-sciencetable.ca/sciencebrief/covid-19-and-education-disruption-in-ontario-emerging-evidence-on-impacts
Gallagher-Mackay, K., Mundy, K., et al. (2021). The evidence for tutoring to accelerate learning and address educational inequities during canada’s pandemic recovery. Diversity Institute at Ryerson University.
Halloran, C., Jack, R., et al. (2021). Pandemic schooling mode and student test scores: Evidence from US states (No. w29497; p. w29497). National Bureau of Economic Research. doi.org/10.3386/w29497
Hammerstein, S., König, C., et al. (2021). Effects of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement – A systematic review. PsyArXiv. doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/mcnvk
Kuhfeld, M., Tarasawa, B., et al. (2020). Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth. NWEA. www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/11/Collaborative-brief-Learning-during-COVID-19.NOV2020.pdf
Lamarre, P., Horrocks, D. & Legault, E. (2020). The community school network in Quebec’s official language minority education sector. Concordia University. https://learnquebec.ca/clc-history
Maier, A., Daniel, J., & Oakes, J. (2017). Community schools as an effective school improvement strategy: A review of the evidence. Learning Policy Insitute/National Education Planning Centre. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Community_Schools_Effective_BRIEF.pdf.
McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., et al. (2019). Investing in successful summer programs: A review of evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act. RAND Corporation. www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2836.html
Nickow, A., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The impressive effects of tutoring on PreK-12 learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. (NBER Working Papers, Vol. 1 – Working Paper 27476). National Bureau of Economic Research.
OECD. (2020). Education policy outlook: France. www.oecd.org/education/policy-outlook/country-profile-France-2020.pdf
Renaissance Learning, Educational Policy Institute. (2021). Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year (p. 42). Department of Education. www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupils-progress-in-the-2020-to-2021-academic-year-interim-report
Rosenwald, F. (2021, November 29). The 2020 French school lockdown and its impact on education: What do we know so far? [Forum presentation]. OECD-AERA forum: How education fared during the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns? International evidence, broadcast on Zoom. https://www.aera.net/Events-Meetings/How-Education-Fared-During-the-First-Wave-of-COVID-19-Lockdowns-International-Evidence
Spitzer, M. W . H., Musslick, S. (2021). Academic performance of K-12 students in an online-learning environment for mathematics increased during the shutdown of schools in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE 16(8): e0255629. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255629
Shanna (eight) has always been a sensitive child. She feels nervous about many things, and these feelings have only increased during the pandemic. It is becoming increasingly difficult for her caregiver to get her to school in the mornings.
Yasmin (11) has struggled with her adjustment to Canada and gets frustrated that school is so difficult when she was a strong student in her home country. Her worries about her family that are still back at home can feel overwhelming, and often distract her from her classes.
Jesse (14) is finding it really difficult to navigate their queer identity in different spaces, including different levels of acceptance at the home of each of their parents. They are feeling increasingly isolated and have thoughts of harming themselves.
What do these seemingly diverse students have in common? They have different strengths and different challenges, but are all struggling with the everyday expectations placed on them, including at school. Further, they could all benefit from opportunities to improve their mental health. For many students, mental health can be promoted through creating welcoming environments and teaching skills such as self-regulation, communication, and healthy relationships. For others, additional opportunities to learn coping strategies might be required. Still others may need more specialized services. As a major piece of children’s ecosystems, schools must be intentional in how they support positive mental health. We need to look beyond academic rankings for schools and recognize that successful schools support mental health, both for compassionate reasons and because strong mental health underlies future success.
Canada is often identified as a great place to live on international lists and rankings. However, our performance on children’s mental health is not a source of national pride. Even prior to the pandemic, the last UN report card ranked us 31st out of 38 rich countries on children’s mental health and happiness. We also have one of the highest rates of adolescent suicide. We would not accept such a ranking for our math scores; to score this low in mental health is cause for a significant call to action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives and routines. Not surprisingly, children and youth are paying the price with decreased well-being. Data collected by SickKids looking at impacts during the second wave found that more than half of 750 kids aged 8–12 reported significant symptoms of depression; 70 percent of adolescents reported significant depression. Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed and amplified the inequities that were there all along. Equity-seeking groups have been harder hit by pandemic impacts, and this includes worse mental health for youth who belong to marginalized groups. The jury is still out on long-term impacts of disruptions related to the pandemic, but there is no question many of the negative impacts will linger.
Before we talk about the central role schools can play in promoting student well-being, I want to clarify what is meant by mental health. All too often, mental health is considered synonymous with mental illness, as if it only exists when there is a problem. Of course, we all have mental health the same way we all have physical health. Thinking about mental health in a deficit-based manner is analogous to saying we only have physical health when we are sick. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines positive mental health as, “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.” Within that definition, we can see there is significant overlap with the role of schools. We need to expand our ideas around what makes a school successful and recognize that one indicator of a successful school or school system is that proper mental-health supports are in place and education is seen as truly being about the development of the whole person.
There are many pragmatic reasons to think about an expanded notion of school mental health. Many skills that underlie positive mental health can be taught, often within a social-emotional learning framework. Promoting facets of mental health, such as self-regulation and optimism, improve learning outcomes. Most children and youth attend school, thus minimizing access barriers. Educators see children daily and are familiar with a wide range of what might be considered normal and healthy in a particular age group; as such, they are well positioned to notice changes.
Obviously, teachers are not social workers, nor should they be expected to take on that role. The answer lies in a tiered school mental-health approach, with role clarity at each tier. This tiered approach is often conceptualized as a triangle, and although different names are given to the tiers in different models, the notion of three tiers that represent universal, selected, and targeted intervention is widely understood in any comprehensive public health approach.
TIER 1 is where universal prevention or promotion happens. It can include everyday practices that create welcoming spaces for all students. At Tier 1, educators can introduce social-emotional learning concepts in short activities and reinforce them during teachable moments. There are also excellent programs that are effective in promoting well-being and align well with curricular expectations.
Over the past five years, my team has partnered with the London District Catholic School Board to implement and evaluate a program called MindUP. In our research with students with 580 students in 42 kindergarten classrooms, we found that students in MindUP classrooms experienced significant benefits. Problematic behaviours were reduced (Crooks, Bax et al., 2020). Their prosocial behaviours and executive functioning showed gains, suggesting that new and mental-health promoting skills were being developed. This project shows how mental health promotion can lead to much wider benefits than simply less depressed children. Improvements in executive functioning could be expected to translate to improved academic performance – a contention we were in the process of investigating when COVID hit and ended our research!
Furthermore, educators reported decreased burnout and an increased sense of personal efficacy (Kim et al., 2021). They talked about creating calmer classrooms that in turn led to a greater sense of personal well-being. By implementing a program that was aligned with curriculum and board priorities, this initiative reduced educator stress rather than leading to work intensification.
“I’ve become a lot more mindful as a teacher. You always recognize those kids who have difficulty, but there’s a whole different perspective now… as to how we look at children and how we deal with them.” – MindUP educator
TIER 2 is where students who may be considered vulnerable can be offered additional support. The source of this vulnerability may not be the individual child at all; effective programming at this level for identified equity-seeking groups might help buffer against experiences of discrimination or past trauma. Tier 2 work is often implemented by mental-health professionals, but educators still have an important role in identifying students who would benefit and supporting their involvement. We have developed or evaluated several programs through our intervention research over the past 15 years.
For example, our Uniting Our Nations mentoring program for Indigenous students promotes healthy relationship skills and coping, within a cultural framework. In the elementary school version, students meet weekly in groups with an adult mentor. The secondary school version uses student mentors and mentees who are also guided by an adult mentor. Our longitudinal evaluation found that students who were involved for two years had increased positive mental health, were more culturally connected, and achieved better credit accumulation than their peers (Crooks et al., 2017). This is an important study because it counters the prevailing notion that focusing on social and emotional well-being and cultural connectedness somehow competes with academic achievement. In this study, the opposite was true. By focusing on social and emotional well-being with an identity-affirming approach, students were able to shine with their academics.
Mentors are showing other kids that you can succeed and still be First Nations. That’s the key; it’s showing kids they don’t have to lose who they are in order to be successful. We are not asking you to assimilate or give up everything to succeed. We know that you can keep connected to your culture and succeed. – Indigenous educator
Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups (STRONG) is a small-group resiliency-enhancing intervention for newcomer students who are struggling with some aspect of their adjustment. STRONG brings together groups of six to ten students with a clinician (and often a co-facilitator, who may be an educator) to teach youth resilience skills such as relaxation, coping, problem-solving skills, and goal setting. In addition to the individual skill development, youth benefit from the relationships they develop with other participants, and a decreased sense of being alone. Preliminary evidence suggests that STRONG increases coping strategies, connectedness, and resilience (Crooks, Kubyshin, et al., 2020).
HRP for 2SLGBTQA+ Youth is a group-based intervention for secondary school students who identify as gender, romantic, and sexual minority youth (and their allies). It was designed to be facilitated by educators in schools in the context of gender sexuality alliances (GSAs). The program includes key relationship skills and coping strategies appropriate for all youth, but has an expanded focus on being identity affirming and addressing stressors that are more specific to 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. Our focus groups with youth and educators suggest that students enjoy the program and benefit from the skills they learn, as well as the connections they make to others (Lapointe & Crooks, 2018).
Clearly, having effective programs for equity-seeking groups does not reduce the need to fight racism, colonialism, and homophobia on a larger societal level, but these strengths-based programs can help students develop important skills and strategies while also developing a sense of community.
TIER 3 refers to the domain where students’ mental health needs are of sufficient severity and complexity to require specialized services. Within a comprehensive school mental health model, the vision is for schools to hand over the care of students to qualified mental health professionals in the community at this point, while staying involved as part of the circle of supports for the student. In reality, there is a significant shortage of mental health resources in the community and schools are often left trying to support students with Tier 3 needs. Some boards are even exploring taking on this work more intentionally, in the face of the shortage of referral options.
The three tiers of a comprehensive school mental health approach are not isolated, and students may need different levels of support at different times. Also, referring to this integrated and comprehensive approach as school mental health does not let those beyond the school setting off the hook – we all have a role to play in promoting well-being for children and youth.
So, what do we need to advance the vision of comprehensive school mental health in every school in Canada? We need to move beyond piecemeal initiatives and create a comprehensive and coordinated strategy. Organizations such as the pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (www.jcsh-cces.ca) can facilitate the sharing of effective practices across jurisdictions. This work cannot be achieved on the backs of individual educator and administrator champions. We need all the implicated government ministries to commit to this work and provide the appropriate resources.
What would a co-ordinated, comprehensive approach include?
Finally, we need to remember that schools are embedded in and reflect larger societal values and dynamics. As Canada continues to navigate reconciliation and attend to systemic racism, we need to think critically about how school mental health initiatives can be aligned with these movements and not reinforce negative systemic influences.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
For two-page summaries of the research mentioned in this article, see “Research Snapshots” at: www.csmh.uwo.ca/research
Crooks, C. V, Bax, K., et al. (2020). Impact of MindUP among young children: Improvements in behavioral problems, adaptive skills, and executive functioning. Mindfulness, 11(10), 2433–2444. doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01460-0.
Crooks, C. V., Exner-Cortens, D., et al. (2017). Two years of relationship-focused mentoring for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit adolescents: Promoting positive mental health. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 38. doi.org/10.1007/s10935-016-0457-0.
Crooks, C. V., Kubishyn, N., et al. (2020). The STRONG Resiliency program for newcomer youth: A mixed-methods exploration of youth experiences and impacts. International Journal of School Social Work, 5(2). doi.org/10.4148/2161-4148.1059.
Kim, S., Crooks, C. V., Bax, K., & Shokoohi, M. (2021). Impact of trauma-informed training and mindfulness-based social–emotional learning program on teacher attitudes and burnout: A mixed-methods study. School Mental Health, 13(1), 55-68.
Lapointe, A., & Crooks, C. (2018). GSA members’ experiences with a structured program to promote well-being. Journal of LGBT Youth, 15(4), 300–318. doi.org/10.1080/19361653.2018.1479672.
THIS ARTICLE DRAWS on four high school teachers’ experiences to show how a multiliteracies approach can be practised in the classroom. Multiliteracies envisions inclusive education that encompasses:
The examples we discuss are drawn from a national research study, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. Our research explores multiliteracies in Grades 7–12 classrooms and adult community spaces.
Lifelong learning is not just about acquiring workplace skills. It offers a vision for a more just, compassionate, and creative society based on the values of “participatory democracy” (Brookfield & Holst, 2011, p. 5). Ideally, adolescents’ education prepares them to become adults who will engage with passion, intelligence, and integrity in shaping the world. Teachers foster a disposition for lifelong learning in their students by opening up opportunities for students to think deeply and holistically about meaningful contributions they can make to their societies. Many of the students in our research indicated they felt more engaged in courses when teachers allowed them to follow their own interests and included topics or assignments that explored cultural diversity.
In our study, a Visual Arts teacher provided an interdisciplinary opportunity for her students to collaborate in a multimedia exhibit with the English department’s Indigenous literature course. The teacher noted, “Even through interviews they [students] had conducted with First Nations elders, they wanted to distill it symbolically within a work, and that process alone, coming from an abstraction, and realizing it visually, is a very difficult thing to do.” Shifting from the oral mode to the visual mode, students needed to find ways to visually symbolize their interpretations of the interviews they had conducted with the elders. The teacher observed that students opened up more about their own cultural backgrounds when asked to be a part of this art exhibit. The students’ artwork was shared with a broader audience of teachers, administrators, parents, guardians, and community members. Thus, this exhibit bridged students’ school and home lives.
The New London Group coined the term “multiliteracies” and called for civic pluralism, involving the “formation of new civic spaces and new notions of citizenship” (New London Group, 2000, p. 15). Our research revealed examples of teachers bringing civic pluralism into their pedagogy. The Civics teacher reflected,
“I think it is my job as a teacher to prepare them [students] for life as citizens of the community that they are in, and I try to make sure that whatever I do, whether it be computers or careers or communications technology, it shows them how best to participate in society.”
This teacher involved students in the community’s Youth and Philanthropy Initiative. Students chose a social justice issue, found a local charity that addressed that social issue, and interviewed someone at the charity. The students then created a presentation to convince the Initiative that this charity deserved their $5,000 grant. Through this assignment, the students had to consider, in philosophical and practical terms, what citizenship meant to them. Initially, the teacher encountered some resistance from students about having to go into the community for this assignment, but ultimately they became enthusiastic, and some students even continued working with the charities afterwards.
Teachers in this study modelled inclusive education by reaching out to their students with significant learning disabilities, using multimodalities and differentiated assessment and evaluation tools. As one Special Education teacher reflected,
“What’s necessary for some, is good for everyone. And so, ensuring that you are helping every student at the ‘just right’ step of their process of learning, enables them to have the confidence and the tools to show you what they know. And just writing it down on a piece of paper is not the best vehicle for every student.”
As this teacher recalled, she often had students create “a three-dimensional landscape of where the story takes place. And so, they would tell me why the character starts here doing this… they’re either giving me the plot or they’re focusing on character.” Another example of an alternative assessment involved creating graphic novels that highlighted an important scene or summarized the plot of a literary story through visual means. For example, one student created a graphic novel in English but also translated it into Hebrew. (See photo.) Alternative assessments like these give high-school students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge without solely relying on the written mode to express themselves.
In another secondary classroom for students with special needs, a Biology teacher similarly engaged in a multimodal teaching strategy. She explained how she worked with her students to build a model of lungs using balloons. She wanted students to physically see how the diaphragm’s contraction makes the lungs expand. The teacher commented that building the model helped the students “concretely grasp” this abstract concept.
This teacher’s assessment used multimodalities: tactile (blowing on balloons), spatial (making organs proportionate), visual (getting colours and shapes accurate), gestural (ensuring movement mimics human respiration), and oral (team discussions). To follow up, she consolidated students’ knowledge by having them create an interactive book about the respiratory system. (See photo.) Theorists such as Kalantzis et al. (2016) believe that “knowing how to represent and communicate things in multiple modes is a way to get a multifaceted and, in this sense, a deeper understanding” (p. 234). Teachers in this research promoted student success and a deeper understanding by building multimodalities into their assessment practices.
An Art teacher in the study questioned, “What would life be like without people wondering and making and doing and creating meaning and connecting culture and using our humanity to inform the good work of the future?” She believed in the importance of identity exploration through various artistic forms. One of her students explored religious identity. This teacher recalled that the student created “a portrait of a girl wearing a hijab – or as an Arabic [sic] student would say a ‘hijabi girl’ – and there were colours all over the hijab that revealed she was wearing [it] as a crown.” Later, that same student painted a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Her teacher commented on the power of students creating portraits to represent diversity in a positive light. Serafini (2014) makes the point that “visual literacy combines psychological theories of perception with sociocultural and critical aspects of visual design” (p. 29). Through visual literacy, these young student-artists negotiated ways to visually communicate their interpretations of cultural diversity. In an interview, another student said, “I think it’s important to maintain what was brought down from different cultures. And that way we get to see different views on teaching and different styles.”
Recognizing the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity on students’ experience, a Civics teacher discussed an assignment she used that encouraged students in a rural, monocultural school to think analytically about their community. She explained,
“What I have the students do is create a cultural brochure that introduces immigrant workers to differences that they might face working in Canada as opposed to in their home country. So, it forces the students to actually examine what culture is like here.”
This assignment allowed students to reflect critically on their own culture, which they were so fully immersed in that it might have felt invisible to them. This teacher, as a person of colour herself, recognized that it is vital when teaching a homogenous student body to engage in critical thinking about cultural diversity to encourage students to be prepared for their futures in an increasingly globalized, heterogeneous society.
THE MULTILITERACIES PROJECT web platform (www.multiliteraciesproject.com), founded on this research, is designed for classroom teachers and adult educators to provide them with free resources and ideas for teaching using a multiliteracies approach. The theory of multiliteracies offers a practical way forward for teachers to foster an inclusive classroom that allows students of diverse backgrounds and levels of abilities to thrive in their school classrooms and beyond.
All Photos: courtesy of authors
Brookfield, S. D., & Holst, J. D. (2011). Radicalizing learning: Adult education for a just world. Jossey-Bass.
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.). (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. Psychology Press.
Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., Chan, E. et al. (2016). Literacies. Cambridge University Press.
New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp. 9–38). Routledge.
Serafini, F. (2014). Reading the visual: An introduction to teaching multimodal literacy. Teachers College Press.
The close coupling of content standards with standardized testing brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. government in the late 1980s ushered in a new form of school accountability that has become the dominant education reform model used by industrialized governments around the world (Volante, 2012). Student performance on large-scale assessment measures are intended to hold school administrators and teachers accountable while also providing the “data” to spur system and school-level improvements. Indeed, every single Canadian province and territory administers and reports achievement in relation to these external provincial measures and also participates in varying degrees in prominent international tests such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA).
The OECD, and PISA in particular, has increasingly exerted a pronounced influence in the governance of education systems both nationally and internationally and forced policymakers to grapple with consistent and recurring challenges, such as achievement gaps between different segments of their national and provincial student populations (Volante et al., 2018). One key achievement gap that is often reported is the difference between high and low socio-economic status (SES) groups. The OECD provides national profiles – which can also be disaggregated at the provincial level – to indicate the differences in student achievement that exist between the most and least socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Countries that possess a higher relative share of low SES students who achieve well are said to have a more academically resilient population.
As previously suggested, academic resilience is the notion that there are some students who achieve favourable achievement outcomes despite coming from lower SES backgrounds. Yet, to the average person, the word “resilient” means something quite different. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc.” Clearly, the general notion of resilience is much broader than what is typically captured and often widely reported when discussing students and education systems. At the same time, the unprecedented and generational challenges presented by COVID-19 have provided an important impetus to reconsider how we support students in contemporary schools. It is highly likely that the pandemic has created even greater inequities with respect to students’ access to learning resources and supports due to socio-economic factors. Further, the impact of these inequities will impact more than just academic outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the growing necessity of broader notions of academic resilience that recognize important mental health as well as physical well-being concerns in children and adolescent populations – elements of resilience that are typically not captured by large-scale assessment measures. Rarely does a day go by without public recognition of the daily struggles students, particularly those from poorer households, are facing given the upheaval caused by school closures, social isolation, and familial economic losses – to name but a few factors. Certainly, federal resources such as the recently released Guide to Student Mental Health During COVID-19 (Health Canada, 2020) underscores some of the growing challenges students are facing during the pandemic.
Canadian children may be facing an impending epidemic of mental health and general wellness struggles when the virus eventually subsides. For example, a pan-Canadian survey of the impact of the COVID pandemic on physical activity found less than 5 percent of children 5–11 years old and 0.6 percent of youth 12–17 years old were meeting required guidelines (Moore et al., 2020). Similarly, a recent study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Ontario found a staggering 67–70 percent of children/adolescents experienced deterioration in at least one of six mental health domains during the COVID-19 pandemic: depression, anxiety, irritability, attention, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions (Cost et al., 2021). What steps should be taken by policymakers, district leaders and educators, and teacher education institutions to help alleviate these challenges, both in the short and long term?
There are scant examples within Canada where policymakers report on the overall mental health and/or physical well-being of their student populations. Although international and provincial metrics of student proficiency in such content areas as reading, mathematics, and science abound, measures of health and wellness are typically not reported in a consistent manner or given the same status in policy communities.
Perhaps the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey can serve as a model for provincial/territorial education systems. The HBSC is a cross-national survey conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) that is administered every four years and focuses on the health and well-being of young people (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2020). This survey is administered in Canada to 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds, and includes much broader aspects of health than those reported by large-scale assessments such as PISA. Provincial governments could develop a similar annual survey to provide more timely comparative data to inform policy directions during and after the pandemic. Ultimately, we need to provide and recognize markers of mental health and physical well-being with the same reverence that has been traditionally ascribed to student achievement measures.
In addition to policy reform considerations, building capacity for more healthy schools will ultimately depend on effective leadership and teaching practices. On a national level, we see Physical and Health Education Canada’s 2021–2024 strategic plan outline the organization’s aim to emerge from COVID-19 with clearly defined intentions targeting pan-Canadian education efforts to improve the well-being of children and youth (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2021). The proposed efforts are wide-ranging and build on current (e.g. Schonert-Reichel & Williams, 2020) and former (e.g. Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017) provincial-territorial healthy schools policy and practice priorities targeting student well-being (i.e. development of national competencies, innovations, testing, sharing of best practices, and professional development). For their part, school districts across Canada will need to devote the necessary resources and provide appropriate professional development opportunities so that teachers are equipped to better identify and intervene in the worsening physical and mental health crisis that is facing Canadian education systems.
Now more than ever, congruent efforts to expand universal screening measures will need to be deployed to address these worrisome trends. Screening in elementary and secondary schools would primarily involve the completion of student questionnaires (American Psychological Association, 2020) – albeit with notable adaptations to account for the unique challenges encountered during distance learning and social isolation. Emerging from this pandemic era of education, measures considerate of academic, personal, physical, cultural, and social circumstances should be considered to promote greater understanding of the relationships between student success and student well-being. Such surveys in provincial and territorial education systems could complement the school climate surveys that many schools and districts already use, but with the necessary specificity to provide more granular data for specific student interventions. Just as governments around the world have echoed the importance of contact tracing to tackle the pandemic, district leaders and teachers will need timely data to help direct their resources and efforts to where they are needed most.
Lastly, any discussion on addressing mental health and physical well-being issues must include considerations for the education of future teachers. Pre-service education programs across Canada will need to continually evolve to ensure aspiring teachers are equipped with the latest pedagogical approaches in both face-to-face and distance learning environments. In addition to instructional time devoted to traditional subject-areas (i.e. language arts, mathematics, science, etc.) is a greater recognition of health and physical literacy, which are regarded as desired outcomes of health and physical education teaching, and important system and school health promotion goals to be achieved (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2021).
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated with brute force that our traditional hierarchy of subjects, content knowledge, and associated skills are insufficient to “measure” the effectiveness of schools if we expect our students to thrive in a post-COVID world. Collectively, capacity building efforts geared at provincial policy reforms, districts and schools, and teacher education institutions represent a viable multi-level approach to strengthening the resilience of student populations. As one interesting example of a response to this growing need, New Zealand is developing a well-being curriculum that will be integrated across other curriculum streams.
Given the novelty of the current circumstances facing teachers and school-aged children across Canada, there will be a need to research and document the relative impact of different school structures and pedagogical approaches being utilized in online, blended, and socially distanced classroom learning environments. Understanding how these different structures and strategies interact and impact the most at-risk student populations will require an iterative process where recent research findings inform teaching and teaching informs subsequent research. This cyclical process is essential to establish a “best-practice” literature that policymakers and school leaders can draw upon to support their students in rapidly evolving school environments.
The effectiveness of these structures and approaches, and the impact of policies and programs utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic, must be rigorously researched and judged against a broader range of success criteria. Unfortunately, most of the current research in many international contexts appears to be focused on “learning loss” – which is essentially the examination of average drops in standardized test scores in different education systems during the pandemic (Kaffenberger, 2021). Yet virtually every school-based practitioner would acknowledge and echo the significant mental health and physical well-being “losses” that students are also experiencing. Certainly, it is possible for our education systems to attend to both the academic and mental health and physical wellness issues of Canadian youth to help build resilient schools.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
American Psychological Association (2020, September 22). Student mental health during and after COVID-19: How can schools identify youth who need support? www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/student-mental-health
Caldwell et al. (2020). Physical literacy, physical activity, and health indicators in school-aged children. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17. www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/15/5367
Cost et al. (2021). Mostly worse, occasionally better: Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of Canadian children and adolescents. European Child Adolescent Psychiatry. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33638005/
Ministry of Education. (2017). What we heard: Well-being in our schools, strength in our society. Government of Ontario. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/wb_what_we_heard_en.pdf
Health Canada (2020). Guide to Student Mental Health During COVID-19. Government of Canada. www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/sites/default/files/2020-09/covid_19_tip_sheet_student_mental_health_eng.pdf
Kaffenberger, M. (2021). Modelling the long-run learning impact of the Covid-19 learning shock: Actions to (more than) mitigate loss. International Journal of Development, 81. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059320304855#
Moore et al. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak on movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth: A national survey. International Journal of Behaviour Nutrition and Physical Activity, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-020-00987-8
Physical and Health Education Canada. (2021). 2021-2024 PHE Canada Strategic Plan: A clear path forward. https://phecanada.ca/about/strategic-plan
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2020, November). Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children. Government of Canada. www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/childhood-adolescence/programs-initiatives/school-health/health-behaviour-school-aged-children.html
Schonert-Reichel, K., & Williams, J. (2020). Assessment of Schoolwide Well-Being & Social-Emotional Learning. Well-Being BC. www.wellbeingbc.ca/images/school-toolkit/Well-Being-BC—Assesment-Tool—FULL-Workbook.pdf
Volante, L. (2012). Educational reform, standards, and school leadership. In L. Volante (Ed.), School Leadership in the Context of Standards-Based Reform: International Perspectives (pp. 3–20). Springer.
Volante, L. (Ed.). (2018). The PISA Effect on Global Educational Governance. Routledge.
Spring of 2020, mid-COVID lockdown and Canadian youth were planted at their computers for remote learning. Stores were closed, sports on hold, families isolated in their homes, and friends unable to hang out. Most middle- and high-school students spent part of their days creating ways to be interpersonal. Students from a high school in Alberta found an ingenious way to interact: they circled their wagons. Imitating ancestors who moved West almost two centuries ago, the students drove to the empty high-school parking lot and backed up to form a circle with their trunks and hatches open. They sat individually in the back of their own vehicles. Facing one another, between three and five metres apart, they sat, talked, and played music; they were kids doing what kids do. They had a space to be. Administrators still working daily in the school gave a thumbs-up to their creative pupils. I asked one of the Grade 11 students to send me a short video. In it, I observed 12 cars backed into the wagon wheel: one kid per vehicle, all legs dangling from the back and each teen engaged. During the most terrifying global time in a century, there was hope and initiative displayed by the clever youth who figured out how to safely be together, and with the approval from the school leadership team who were glad to create a space for their students to be, and to be well. I was impressed by the good intent and action all around and pitched an idea to make a short film with them. I would interview each participant remotely and ask them to shoot some of their sessions. The youth were thrilled that I was inspired by their collaborative genius, and I began to organize the logistics.
The local police shut it down. With no explanations, one day they came to the parking lot and told the youth to cease and desist. Overruling the school administrators, law enforcement made sure that no wagons would circle.
Having a place “to be,” a public space, creates healthy and positive ways of being. An ad hoc social community emerges in public spaces, where senses are stimulated and the similarities and diversity of those involved are displayed (Mean & Tims, 2005). Wellness is associated with the benefits of public space, which is claimed equally by everyone. The space reinvents itself daily: inhabitants change, the ability to seek an area for body and mind is created and recreated. Public space is not only the product of a developer, city planner, school board, or museum, it is often an unofficial collaboration between those who determine the space is valuable.
Urban public space is often conceived in parks, yet many areas have ceased mapping out new parks. While some public urban spaces for warm weather have been introduced, with shared public gardening, exercise space, meditation paths, biking and roller blading trails, and skateboard ramps and tubes, little consideration or initiative has been established to create winter-friendly public spaces. Canadian youth are left out in the cold.
Public space is often unattainable for youth; indeed many towns and cities have no designated space for youth. The last pre-pandemic public space I saw was in a parking lot. Between 25 and 40 high-school kids were hanging out in small groups in front of a Cineplex at the south end of an enormous mall, an early spring day, they were enjoying the weather. As I parked, four police cars pulled up and ordered them to leave. Canadian malls are often a gathering spot for youth. Avoiding inclement weather, Canadian youth visit malls for restrooms, food facilities, and stores, they also contribute to the economy by shopping. Claiming crime instances and theft, many malls have instituted bans for under-18 shoppers unless they are accompanied by a parent. Yet according to a 2016 Government of Quebec report, while youth are accused of shoplifting and vandalism over three times more often than adults, they are less likely to shoplift and vandalize (Lowrie, 2018).
Public space is democratic – not corporately or politically democratic. It is a space where one can feel safe. A place that allows movement, sound, art, quiet, the ability to congregate, the ability for a group of people to make known something important to them. But public space creates a difference between children and youth regarding access. Public space for children, of course, is chaperoned, shepherded. Children are with a teacher or an adult of some sort: a babysitter, a youth, someone who’s helping facilitate their enjoyment of the space. They interact in a place where they can climb on toys, wade, walk; someone is there to ensure little children are safe and nurtured. Adults and caregivers support children to enjoy public space, to run, to feel, to experiment. How important that experimentation becomes. Successes can happen for children in public spaces. The first time a child walks, runs, throws a ball, or rides a bike speaks to enormous growth and success. Public space is special for children, allowing socialization, physical activity, environmental awareness, fresh air, and wellness.
For youth, it can be a different scenario. North American youth are often seen as a population to be feared. My work has focused on the notion that many adults just don’t like youth (Steinberg, 2018). According to many adults, they are a revolutionary group, nonconformists. Along with their clothing, music, art, their way, the fact that they are youth, they become something to fear. Youth are often not allowed to be in a public space without adult supervision. There are dramatic differences in parental attitudes between a baby’s space and the space for a youth to be. With new babies, an obsession with advanced and appropriate development ensues. We watch for babies to roll over at four months, sit up at six months, and walk at one year. Potty training tends to be a milestone, with parents and family applauding as they stand around the toilet. Talking is an enormous concern for parents; expectations for the first word, then sentences haunt most parental minds. From preschool through Grade 1, expectations and hope surround the development of a child. Tying shoes is a stressful hurdle and the first playdate and friendship is a celebration. Riding the first trike and then a two-wheeler become kidhood capstones. Parents wait for their young children to become self-sufficient, independent, and able to entertain themselves. Up until nine or ten, each success is heralded and compared to other children of the same age.
By the time a child is a tween, parents reverse course and fear their child’s independence. No longer do parents push for their progeny to make their own decisions, pick out the day’s clothing, be creative. Parental complaints often barrage teens: their hair is wrong, their clothing is inappropriate, and their language is appalling. North American parents go from finding success in children to finding failure in teens. The same parents who pushed their little ones to make decisions, talk, choose clothes, and ride bikes are now fearful of skateboarding, rollerblading, pink hair, and midriff tops. Such irony in our childrearing. Adding to the nixing comes suspicion, doubt, fear and distrust… for both the teen and the parents. I contend that most adults just don’t understand or like teens; consequently, the rules pile on, adult/youth discord and tumultuous years commence. Along with this discord comes the restriction of places where teens are free “to be” and an adult need to control and surveil youth. To have healthy youth, we must find ways to have healthy public spaces available throughout the year for teens to create communities, hang out, and dangle their legs. Social distancing isn’t the problem; finding a place to safely socially distance is. Safe, public spaces must become a priority for our Canadian youth.
Dislike and fear of youth is uncovered regarding where the youth are, where they hang out, and who they are with. With limited safe spaces to be, our youth seek refuge in social media, online gaming, and smartphone addiction, all resulting in loss of socialization, healthy spaces, and shared communities. Space for youth to gather is limited: cars, homes with oft-gone parents, basements, and barns can become evening spaces to act out, kick back, and engage in exactly the activities the parents are so worried about. Without healthy special alternatives for youth, safe places to be, our teens resort to whatever they can find.
I was recently on a committee with city planners, university professors, and architects. Our charge was to discuss ways to turn a downtown walking mall into a viable and energetic public space. The area is known to be a haven for runaway youth and people who sleep rough, somewhat itinerant in nature, and many citizens avoid the area. I suggested creating a public space to serve youth, both the vulnerable teens who populate the mall and after-school kids in general. I noted that little ones run free in public spaces and are urged to experiment and climb, yet youth are often stopped or given signals that “you can’t be here, this space isn’t for you.” The same public space changes depending on the age of the occupant. I proposed a public theatre space – one that would allow crevices and climbing spots to serve both little ones and teens in physical movement and exercise, with the space also being used for impromptu performances, slam poetry, and improvisational theatre. Using the notion of theatre as public space, participants could mould the area to suit their visions. Possibly this area could offer some sort of wall in the same area that could be designated to create changeable graffiti where youth organizations could sponsor a space for artistic expression in a city where graffiti is completely illegal and has a full-time quasi police force patrolling for it. A small bit of interest was generated, but most of the group was anxious to turn back to exploring pop-up stores, picnic tables, and museum space.
I once found a place in the Highlands of Scotland by following an old sign, “Stone Circle” written with crayon or old paint, it had an arrow pointing to the left. I remember driving up there, just another pretty road. It led me to an enormous meadow of soft, green green moss, in the moss was a stone circle – a sort of Stonehenge, but not really. It didn’t have a name. There was a sense of mystery that I loved. One could walk all over…. there were no ropes, no signs, no poster that told us where we could take a picture. It was just a free space where anyone could run and touch the stones, chase around, or sit, as I chose to, in the very middle of the middle. I was in a space that was private and public at the same time. Low mountains were all around me, magical mountains with moors and the pillow softness of the Earth in all directions.
I’m not a meditator but I was able to do my way of meditating while I was there. Years later, when I want to put myself in a space that gives me peace, I still think of that free, unencumbered public space: a stone circle with no one in charge, no rules or cameras… it was free to the universe, free to the rain, the snow, and the people who touched it. I want our youth to know that they can go to a space, be safe, breathe fresh air, and just be. They need that. They deserve that.
Photo: courtesy Shirley R. Steinberg
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Lowrie, M. (2018, May 2). Quebec shopping mall bans unaccompanied children and teens. The Canadian Press.
Means, M. & Tims, C. (2005). People make places: Growing the public life of cities. Demos.
Steinberg, S. R. (Ed). (2018). Activists Under 30: Global Youth, Social Justice & Good work. Brill/Sense Publishing.
If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, one could argue that it demonstrated the critical role schools play in a functioning society, the interdependence of education and health, and the importance of a whole-school approach to health and well-being. We witnessed schools everywhere do their part in the crisis, going to great lengths to limit viral transmission. Imagine that! Every school in Canada took steps to protect public health that involved home, school, and community, while addressing social and physical environments, policies, teaching and learning, and partnerships and services. This, in essence, is Comprehensive School Health.
Physical health – mask-wearing, sanitizing, and distance between desks – was a dominant educational point for months, but perhaps the school health imperative we now face is the mental well-being of students, teachers, and staff. Can we learn from and leverage the education system’s pandemic response as a template for how to address health in other ways, and not only heal from the impacts of the pandemic, but also promote mental well-being in schools for all stakeholders?
If we ask the right questions now – with intention, compassion, and courage – we can reprioritize the value we place on well-being in school settings. Now more than ever, Comprehensive School Health needs to be on the national education agenda.
Courtesy of the Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health
Wellness is a balance of mind, body, and spirit that results in a feeling of well-being. As part of their social purpose, schools have a fundamental role to play in the well-being of children and youth. It is important to consider the systemic influences and environments in which children and adolescents emerge into adulthood. Young people spend a lot of time in educational contexts. When schools provide health-promoting environments, it creates capacity and opportunity for students to reach their full potential.
Comprehensive School Health (CSH) is gaining recognition among school districts across the globe, and across educational tiers in Canada, for its value in promoting wellness for students, teachers, and other members of the school community (staff, parents, community partners, etc.; Russell-Mayhew & Ireland et al., 2017). The CSH framework, which is based upon the knowledge that health and wellness enhance children’s ability to learn, provides a multifaceted structure for improving wellness within the school community.
Comprehensive School Health is an approach that includes:
It is an internationally recognized framework that places students as primary beneficiaries of improved health and learning outcomes through coordinated action with all members of the school community (Koenig & Rodger et al., 2018; Langford & Bonell et al., 2015). This framework is based on evidence that healthy students have increased capacity for learning and that well-being has a positive effect on academic achievement throughout their lifespan (Byrne & Pickett et al., 2016, 2018). Health and education are interdependent. In other words, healthy students are better learners, and better-educated students are healthier (Squires, 2019; Viner & Russell et al., 2020).
A whole-school approach like Comprehensive School Health considers the well-being of the whole student and the whole community. It is not a program or curriculum, it is a process that integrates health promotion into the daily life of the school. The CSH framework takes advantage of a community development approach to enable customization to each unique site and the local context of a school.
The CSH framework seeks to harmonize actions across four components:
• teaching and learning
• social and physical environments
• policy and partnerships
These components guide actions in schools, such as: Ensuring high-quality health education, addressing teacher and staff well-being, revising school development plans to include well-being, and/or increasing social engagement opportunities for students. Ultimately, the CSH framework is intended to foster local autonomy to shift the culture to embrace well-being practices.
Increasingly, teachers are recognized as key agents of socialization, as they occupy positions that allow them to positively influence school wellness and student well-being. Teachers are our most important resource for the well-being of school communities; there is no profession with such profound influence. They influence people, places, and spaces in education. We know that health and education are deeply interconnected and intertwined, so if we want to influence outcomes, we need to focus on the whole person – not just academic outcomes – whether that is faculty, teachers, staff, or students. This includes post-secondary teacher preparation programs, which both serve as a feeder system for, and are an active part of, the education system. Supporting the well-being of pre-service teachers prior to their involvement in K–12 schools is an innovative way to promote transformational systemic change.
The potential cumulative effects of widespread, comprehensive wellness action across educational contexts are exciting to imagine. How might the world be different if every educational space was a place where each student, staff, teacher, and faculty felt a sense of belonging and was able to reach their full potential? What if every school was a healthy school? What if every BEd program was offered in a health-promoting post-secondary context?
We urgently need coordinated strategies that support action at all levels of school governance to address mental health, safety, belonging, and other psychosocial outcomes in schools.
Recasting educational spaces as health-promoting spaces is a systemic change that requires societal support and commitment from across the health and education sectors, as we have recently experienced with the pandemic response. Now we know it is possible, and on a dramatically large scale, too. Comprehensive School Health gives us the framework, and the pandemic gave us the experience. In Figure 2, we explore how schools can leverage their experience of a system-wide approach to health through their pandemic practices into an opportunity for action that supports the mental health and well-being of students, staff, and teachers.
This may seem like a daunting task that is beyond any one individual, and it is. Still, there are small steps we can all take to do our part from both within and outside of the education system to drive change. A good first step is to educate ourselves and others about Comprehensive School Health (see Learn More).
Real and sustainable change is possible if the education system is structured, and supported, to embrace its role in creating health-promoting environments. At their best, education systems can support all children, youth, and young adults to reach their full potential, while ensuring teachers first learn and then work in health-promoting environments to facilitate learning and nurture the well-being of future generations. This type of system-wide embrace of well-being in Canadian education is not just the imaginings of idealists, but was proven possible in the context of the pandemic response.
Education is a human endeavour. In the context of CSH, this means attending to all the ways of wellness – physical, social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, environmental, and occupational – across educational contexts. The well-being of students, staff, teachers, and faculty is at stake, and we can now better imagine the difference it will make.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
For some excellent self-paced learning, check out:
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Over the past two decades, classroom assessment for formative purposes has taken centre stage in curriculum policies, assessment standards, and professional learning conversations across Canada. Educators have increasingly embraced and implemented formative assessment approaches under the umbrella of assessment for learning. This endorsement of formative assessment is unsurprising as it has been shown to improve student achievement, metacognition, and motivation (Hattie, 2013) and to aid in promoting more equitable outcomes for lower-achieving students (Black & Wiliam, 2009). As a result, assessment is now more integrated within teaching and learning in Canadian classrooms than ever before, fostering an assessment culture that prioritizes ongoing feedback and the growth mindset (Shepard, 2019).
In this article, we ask: Is the ongoing pandemic and related disruptions to Canadian education threatening the positive assessment culture we’ve worked so hard to create? Classroom teachers have been thrust into online or blended learning contexts, often with little notice and preparation, forcing them to reimagine and transform their instructional and assessment practices in real time. While summative assessment remains a required component of schooling, many teachers are challenged by how to adapt formative assessment practices for online and blended learning contexts. With screens now interfacing so much of our interactions with students, the teaching profession faces pressing questions such as: How can we effectively engage assessment for learning with our students when learning is mediated by technology? How do we maintain the spirit of formative assessment when we don’t “see” or “hear” our students as much as we used to, if at all? and How do we avoid reverting to an emphasis on summative assessment in our online and blended classrooms?
Indeed, emerging research confirms these concerns. A recent report by Doucet and his colleagues (2020) highlights five key assessment-related challenges currently experienced by educators around the world:
While there is cause for optimism that these global challenges in K–12 education will dissipate, it is likely that current conditions will persist for some time and that elements of online or blended learning will take on greater precedence in future classrooms. As we collectively pivot and adapt our approaches to assessment in online and blended learning contexts, it is critical that classroom teachers, school and system leaders, policymakers, researchers, and teacher educators come together to rethink how we assess in online and blended K–12 learning. The changes we make now will not only serve our current students but also inform how we integrate technology in assessment after the pandemic subsides. In this vein, we offer three foundational tenets to help us move forward together to continue to foster a productive assessment culture – whether in online, blended, or face-to-face classrooms.
In rethinking how we assess online, it is essential to remember that we need not start from scratch. Instead, we can look beyond the surface of tried-and-true assessments to their underlying first principles and focus on: the learning we need to assess from our students (purpose), how students may demonstrate their learning (process), and what it is that we might do with that assessment information (use). In keeping an assessment’s purpose, process, and use top of mind, we are better positioned to incorporate technological tools that enable the assessment – whether in a face-to-face, blended, or online learning context. For instance, technology has now made it easy to capture how an idea or a product has evolved over time. Students can save multiple iterations of their work easily and with minimal burden, and easily share their work with others for feedback. Adopting these new technological options serves to strengthen the validity of the assessment by generating richer and more numerous observations of the learning, allowing for better triangulation of student assessment data. While there is no shortage of technological tools and applications that support assessment for learning in K–12 learning – which can be overwhelming in and of itself – emphasizing first principles allows us to confidently select the tool that best aligns with our assessment’s purpose, process, and use.
The shift to online and blended learning has created new professional challenges for educators and led to new stresses for students and families. Now more than ever, we must keep students’ needs, interests, and well-being at the centre of all teaching and assessment activities. Whether face-to-face, blended, or online, we can use assessment for learning to build relationships with our students and support their sense of inclusion. Leveraging one of the greatest strengths of assessment for learning – its capacity to build community – is essential in this time of prolonged isolation. Engaging students in peer feedback processes through group work, collaborative problem-solving activities, breakout rooms, or discussion boards can be a productive place to start. In addition, ongoing teacher-student conversations provide opportunities to celebrate successes, provide feedback, and show our students care and compassion. This supports not only their growth as learners but also their development as individuals. Further, allowing multiple opportunities for students to engage in self-assessment and reflection can serve to support their self-regulation and mental health. And importantly, aside from providing feedback on learning itself, assessment for learning can enable teachers’ ongoing communication with students and their parents/guardians to ensure students have access to the necessary infrastructure to support their learning and address potential equity or social-emotional issues students might be facing.
As we experience and reflect on the sudden and widespread shift to online and blended classrooms, we must continue to learn together about how assessment supports our teaching and our students’ learning and well-being. In the decade prior to the pandemic, educators were increasingly exploring and using various new technologies in the classroom to support teaching, learning, and assessment. However, the pandemic has forced our hand as a profession, requiring widespread adoption of technology in all aspects of our teaching practice, including assessment (Doucet et al., 2020). So, while systematic professional learning about assessment was already essential prior to 2020, the global pandemic has magnified the need to help classroom teachers develop new strategies and leverage technology to support both formative and summative assessment in online and blended contexts. As a result, it is critical that educators across classrooms, schools, boards, regions, and provinces engage in various forms of professional learning and inquiry – whether through self-directed learning, collaborative professional inquiry, professional webinars, social media networks, or formal coursework. We are all learning at a rapid pace that has been forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control, but we can use this opportunity to grow and develop as individuals and as a profession. We particularly encourage a system-wide approach to professional learning within boards and engagement with online professional learning networks such as the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network1 (CAfLN) so that educators may generate relevant and appropriate insights to their local contexts.
While education is constantly evolving and changing, the global pandemic has intensified the need to adapt how we teach and assess our students to better support their learning, development, and well-being. As a profession, we have been forced to change, expand, and redefine the assessments we were doing face to face into online and blended learning contexts. We must acknowledge the steep learning curve we are experiencing as a profession and prioritize open and honest communication among all stakeholders involved – students, teachers, school leaders, system leaders, policymakers, parents/guardians, other professionals, researchers, and teacher educators. We must also pause to celebrate our successes and progress to date in forging new territory in K–12 assessment amid a challenging time. Moreover, we must continue to allocate time, resources, and supports as we continue to learn and grow in our understanding and practice of assessment.
The pandemic has altered many things in our world, but it has not eradicated what we know about the value and importance of assessment for learning and our shared desire to sustain a productive assessment culture in schools and classrooms. Nor has it changed the spirit of assessment, which is captured by the etymology of the word assess itself: to “sit beside” our learners and support their learning. At the end of the day, we need to continue to come together as an education community to use research-based practices to collectively navigate online assessment and promote a positive assessment culture that transcends context.
1 Canadian Assessment for Learning Network: www.cafln.ca
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 5–31.
Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., et al. (2020). Thinking about pedagogy in an unfolding pandemic: An independent report on approaches to distance learning during COVID19 school closures to inform Education International and UNESCO. Education International.