February 8, 2022: Prof. Jason Ellis, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, UBC – Topic: Post Pandemic Education – Zoom

Dr. Jason-Ellis

Dr Ellis is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies (EDST) and a historian of education.

His PhD is from the Department of History at York University, where he studied under Dr. Paul Axelrod (then dean of education, cross-appointed to history). He also has MA and BAH degrees in History, and a B.Ed. degree from OISE-University of Toronto, with qualifications in Intermediate/Senior (7-12) History and French.

He began his post-secondary teaching career as a sessional instructor at Brock University in 2008. After teaching as a sessional in a faculty of education and several arts faculties in Ontario, he had the enormous privilege of coming to UBC as an assistant professor in 2013.

Since arriving, he has contributed to UBC’s teacher education program and graduate programs. He has taught seven sections of the required B.Ed. course, EDST 401 Education, Schools and Social Institutions, and would have taught more sections but for a parental leave and a fellowship buying him out of his teaching. In EDST’s graduate programs, he teaches and supervises students in the history of education.

He has served on several successful search committees, including the most recent successful search for an associate dean of teacher education and a successful search for an Educational Leadership stream professor in Indigenous education. His other service includes terms as chair of the EDST Undergraduate Program and Curriculum Committee (UPACC) and as coordinator of EDST’s Society, Culture, and Politics in Education (SCPE) graduate courses. He was program chair for the Canadian Foundations of Education conference at Congress 2019.

He maintains a valid British Columbia K-12 teaching certificate (professional certificate of qualification). He has given invited speeches to the BCTF and the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association and has done over two-dozen newspaper, radio, and TV interviews about K-12 education in the province.

How the educational past shapes the educational present and future is the main theme running through all of Dr. Ellis’s research. He has written on the history of special education – the award-winning book, A Class by Themselves – the history of suburbs and schools, and educational spending in British Columbia, among other topics.

Dr Ellis lives in Vancouver with his partner Christine and their two children.

 

Summary of presentation

Thomas Edison once claimed that teachers would be replaced by the exciting new technology of the day, motion pictures. Now with the surge of virtual at-home learning forced upon classrooms by the pandemic, there are once again talks about how technology will be revolutionizing the education system. However, just as movies didn’t render teachers obsolete, post-pandemic technology isn’t predicted to lead to greatly alter the education system either. History shows us that technology is additive to existing tried-and-true educational practices. For example, kindergartners today with all of the modern-day technologies available, still participate in the activities of decades ago, except now when they present their show-and-tells, they use an interactive digital smartboard. Teachers also provide progress reports to parents, but now they use their smartphones and messaging services like Microsoft Teams to share photos of their students directly with parents on a daily basis. Educators are very attached to existing teaching practices and while they may incorporate new technologies as a tool to enhance their curriculums, the core of their teaching will likely not change much anytime soon.

While the small shifts in technology may not be revolutionary, a big change is predicted in the area of Indigenous education. This critical change has been a long time coming and merely delivers on demands that Indigenous people within Canada have been making since confederation; that is to have quality schooling serving Indigenous peoples’ needs, in Indigenous communities, organized on Indigenous terms.

Treaties were a means to extinguish Indigenous land titles so that settlers could legally take up these lands. However, for the Indigenous peoples, treaties served as a means to survive the economic collapse, appropriation of lands, violence, disease, and famine brought on by settlers. Essentially, treaties were regarded as an opportunity to prepare their children for an uncertain and terrifying future. For this reason, First Nations often asked to include a promise for schooling in these treaties and other agreements. Importantly, these requests for schooling never entailed the repression and loss of Indigenous languages and cultures like the incredibly damaging and abusive Indian Residential School system practiced.

In 1950, intense pressure from Indigenous leaders finally led to the creation of a joint committee between the Canadian Senate and the House of Commons looking at Indigenous Affairs in Canada. In response to the detrimental effects of the deep inequalities present in the Indigenous educational system, they began to integrate Indigenous youth into provincial public schools. However, the Assembly of First Nations (then known as the National Indian Brotherhood) pushed further by releasing the Indian Control of Indian Education, which remains one of the most important education policy documents in Canadian history today. This policy asked the provinces to cede education authority, governance, and policy-making privileges to Indigenous peoples themselves as the best judges of the proper education of their youth. This policy envisioned a system that would give Indigenous youth the knowledge to understand and feel pride in themselves and gain the knowledge to understand the world around them through culturally-sensitive education receptive to Indigenous peoples’ beliefs and ideas while also permitting Indigenous children to meet Canadian settler children on the same terms and equal ground. It’s taken a long time, but new agreements that give control of Indigenous educational policies, laws, and curriculums back to First Nations are becoming more common. Just last month the Cowichan tribes signed such an agreement. As many Indigenous communities are building more capacity and with so many more Indigenous young adults now attending universities and colleges for their teaching degrees,  the opportunity for a long-awaited revolution in Indigenous education is very possible.

While Indigenous education funding has generally been a federal responsibility, public K-12 education falls under provincial jurisdiction. This spending will be a topic of much consideration and debate in the coming post-pandemic years. Since the 1970s, spending on public education has consistently grown. Though provincial governments over the decades have tried to use legislation to rein spending, they have seldom been successful. Adjusting for inflation, public school expenditures have increased by $3.3 billion or 250% between 1970 and 2020. While overall operational spending has increased significantly, enrollment in the public K-12 education system is only 110% of enrollment in 1970. This increase in expenditure over the years is a result of more teachers being hired. The province’s pupil-teacher ratio plummeted from 22.5 in 1972 to 14.5 today. The BC Teachers’ Federation has worked diligently towards getting class size and composition caps into teachers’ contracts which can cause significant spending increases for little benefit when applied rigidly.

While increased spending in the public education system is generally a good thing, the BCTF’s 50-year winning streak may be coming to an end shortly as the province recovers from the effects of the pandemic. In particular, BC’s public healthcare system will require significant funds to manage surgery backlogs and healthcare worker burnout. Unfortunately, with a limited budget, the province will have to decide whether it wants to prioritize the healthcare system or the education system. Will it be knee replacements or early learning programs?

Qs & As session

Question from Bill Hooker: In the post-secondary sector, could you speak to the morale problem of first-class Ph.D.s doomed to permanent sessional work in contrast to tenured positions?

Answer: I experienced this personally. I was a sessional. It overlapped at the end of my doctoral studies, but for sake of argument, for a good two years, it was difficult. It was demoralizing. I used to teach at three different universities. I lived in Toronto and I commuted to all of them and I was in a different place every day of the week practically. That said, you know, I don’t know if the job market for teaching positions is any worse now than it has been for a long time. The numbers I’ve seen are that about half of Ph.D. graduates will not get tenure positions, but will instead do a variety of other work. They’ll be sessionals, or they’ll work in government, or they’ll be in business for themselves, and consulting. and that sort of thing. So that’s tough. But on the other hand, I don’t know if the Ph.D. was ever a guarantee of a particular type of job and it is heartening that you know 50%, the other half, will be very fortunate like me and find a position.

Question: Thank you very much for the talk. I was wondering a little bit further to Bill’s question and what you were saying, in your summary there. In act one, you talked about technology, and how it really hasn’t changed a lot. It’s not a world difference. But it seems that, and maybe I’m wrong, but the students are impacted by the COVID situation, and their morale, their ability to learn, their “freedom”, of working at home. And then more recently, just this week on the news, the concern, and it’s been going on, about the students being evaluated for post-secondary education or even post-secondary students being evaluated for job positions moving forward in these trying times. So what do you have to say about that?

Answer: I think that this is going to be a huge problem. We don’t really know what we’re missing, or what we’ve missed yet. But we can guess. I think in K-12, the areas that we’re in need of the most, are the very young kids, especially sort of Grade 1 and Grade 2 because they need to learn to read before they can read to learn. That is a very important initial part of schooling and I definitely think that that does not go on nearly as effectively over Zoom, as it does in person. Very luckily, I don’t have much experience trying to homeschool my daughter over Zoom, that didn’t affect us, but I can certainly tell you about my sister and my nephews the same age and in the midst of an enormous amount of schooling in Ontario, and I think that’s going to be a problem where kids don’t learn to read when they need to.

Then there is the other end of the K-12 that I’m worried about as well, Grade 11 and 12 students who are graduating and want to go to post-secondary. They’re going to be missing the math, and maybe some of the science, and some of the language that they need to make that transition. These are kids who are really going to struggle. You know, a problem we have in Canada, though, is that we don’t measure a lot of education. We do in BC have foundational skills assessments to sort of take the temperature of the system, but we don’t do as much measuring as we can and when you don’t measure, you don’t know where the gaps are. You have to try to figure them out. For the post-secondary, I can tell you sort of anecdotally, my students prefer face-to-face instruction to online. I can tell you that I prefer face-to-face to teaching online, I vastly prefer it. I see a lot of graduate and professional students, they’re self-starters, and they’re good learners anyway, so they tend to do okay. But I would again worry about students in their first year or who are taking Math 101, Stats 101, or English 101, those types of courses, that they’ll really struggle.

Question from Hugh Lindsay: Does technology promise to be beneficial to Indigenous education?

Answer: I can tell you one area where I think it is really interesting, technology isn’t really my field, but there are so many remote and rural Indigenous communities in this province. What we see in our teacher education programs is that it’s very difficult to deliver instruction to them, unless we get them to come to the Lower Mainland, but then they have commitments in their home communities that prevent them from coming. So, this technology allows us to deliver some of this instruction remotely, and that’s a huge benefit to rural and remote places. I can see it being especially beneficial in high school, right? If you have a really, specific senior math or a senior physics course that you need to instruct, but it’s hard to get a teacher in a remote community, well, you could do some of that remotely and then Indigenous communities that might really benefit from being able to keep kids at home for Grade 11 and 12 and use that technology there.

Question from Doreen Jacobs: The government inflation numbers are suspect.

Answer. Yeah. Well, that’s the difference between increased prices and inflation. We’re not sure which we’re seeing, but it does look like there’s probably some inflation since the two are related.

Question from Nicholas Lemoine: With the lower student-to-teacher ratio that has taken place in recent years has the graduating student come out with a better education?

Answer: That is the question. I don’t know. At some point, I mean, we do know that lower class sizes are generally beneficial. There was a time, not that long ago, you know, probably in school experiences of many of the folks in this room, each class would have had an average of 42 kids. There would have been some classes as big as 50. That’s a big number for a teacher to handle. Now, 98% of classes have under 30 students, a much more manageable number. If you go under 20, is that better than under 30? I don’t know, at some point, the returns start to peter out. I don’t know what that number is. But, certainly, the BCTF’s position has consistently been, for some time now, lower class sizes are better, we will make them lower. How much better is an average of 14.5 and versus an average of 12.5? They won’t say, but they certainly are committed to making it lower.

Question from John Sullivan: If post-pandemic schools/university teachers could teach by the internet – surely we would not require as many teachers & thus reduce education costs?

Answer: Maybe, but that means that some teachers are going to be teaching more students for the same amount of money. And I can tell you, I won’t be one of those people. I think in principle, it could be possible to make bigger units, but it’s difficult to get folks to accept teaching that way without some sort of parallel compensation. It is a question of whether or not that’s very effective. I mean, a recording that you watch on Zoom is not the same as teaching. Teaching is an interactive activity, where people engage with one another. So we might be able to deliver some parts of it through the internet, but that doesn’t mean that they take away the need for teachers necessarily. I think, anyway,

Question: I was especially thinking about the example of the 22 students in the Kindergarten class when they required another teacher. That’s what concerns me. It’s ridiculous.

Answer: Yeah, that’s my, view as well. That it’s an unnecessarily rigid policy that contributes to unnecessary costs. I mean, you know what would even be better? It would be all those kids in one room with two teachers. I think that would actually be more effective. There are lots of ways that two teachers can do a lot of very interesting things working together. But that’s not how this works. In most provinces, classroom size is a management prerogative. It’s usually the principal who makes up classes and who has the authority to do so. It’s only in this province in a little bit in some districts in Manitoba that we actually put that into collective agreements, and that’s because the union has wanted them in there for various reasons.

Question from David Chandler: Does the increased funding to K-12 you report result in better outcomes, measured by unbiased international standards?

Answer: I don’t know. I generally think we get very good value in BC. We tend to do relatively well. British Columbia tends to do relatively well. Similar competitors, when you look at things like PISA, which is an international test where they give the same test to different kids at the same age in different countries, we do well against large linguistically and culturally heterogeneous places that are very particular like Finland or some cities like Shanghai, which report independently from Hong Kong. They do better, but they have different populations to serve and they have different ways of structuring their systems. This is one of the classic problems in education policy; it’s very hard to see the returns on investments in education and to actually measure how well they’re realized. But we tend to measure inputs more than outputs.

Question from David Chandler: In your opinion, is “critical thinking” or being told what to think rather than how to think being encouraged?

Answer: I don’t know. I generally think we get very good value in BC. We tend to do relatively well. British Columbia tends to do relatively well. Similar competitors, when you look at things like PISA, which is an international test where they give the same test to different kids at the same age in different countries, we do well against large linguistically and culturally heterogeneous places that are very particular like Finland or some cities like Shanghai, which report independently from Hong Kong. They do better, but they have different populations to serve and they have different ways of structuring their systems. This is one of the classic problems in education policy; it’s very hard to see the returns on investments in education and to actually measure how well they’re realized. But we tend to measure inputs more than outputs.

Question from David Chandler: In your opinion, is “critical thinking” or being told what to think rather than how to think being encouraged?

Answer: Yeah, sure. Schools are always telling people what to think. I mean, I don’t think that’s changed in a long time. I think some of the people who think they’re teaching critical thinking are teaching people what to think, but others are teaching them how to think.

Question from Douglas Filipenko: What types of measurements do you think the K-12 school system currently needs?

Answer: I wouldn’t mind seeing diagnostic measurements in selected grades maybe as a sample. So, like in Grade 3, how many kids are reading at the level they expect? How many kids know basic math facts at the level we’d expect? And then again, in Grade 6, and again, in Grade 9… Those are very helpful because they allow us to measure things like the impact of a new curriculum. We have a relatively new curriculum that BC implemented in a staged process, grade-by-grade. Well, if you implement that, and you measure kids’ reading before and after, and it goes down quite a bit, then you know something about the changes you made, or if it goes up quite a bit. I think those types of diagnostic tests, that measure what is being learned, are really good. I don’t think we need to test every kid every year on everything. I think that’s not a really effective use of public funds, either.

Question from Chris Finch: Do you see similar competition for post-secondary spending as you discussed for K-12? Will university fees be impacted?

Answer: Yeah, that’s a tough one, because I know less about post-secondary, but post-secondary has two very important revenue streams, that make the spending thing less of an issue. One of those is tuition. The government sets a cap on domestic, but universities pressure domestic tuition all the time, and they will pressure I think to increase it because of inflation, at a discretionary level. I can tell you, at my university, the reason that we have 25% of undergraduates who are international students, is that they return an enormous amount of revenue to the university. And so, you can be a little less disciplined in your spending if money keeps coming in like that. That might be where we are, but that could change, then you might see a lot more spending for those government dollars. Because government dollars matter less and less in universities now because of the effects of international tuition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answer: Yeah, sure. Schools are always telling people what to think. I mean, I don’t think that’s changed in a long time. I think some of the people who think they’re teaching critical thinking are teaching people what to think, but others are teaching them how to think.

 

Question from Douglas Filipenko: What types of measurements do you think the K-12 school system currently needs?

 

Answer: I wouldn’t mind seeing diagnostic measurements in selected grades maybe as a sample. So, like in Grade 3, how many kids are reading at the level they expect? How many kids know basic math facts at the level we’d expect? And then again, in Grade 6, and again, in Grade 9… Those are very helpful because they allow us to measure things like the impact of a new curriculum. We have a relatively new curriculum that BC implemented in a staged process, grade-by-grade. Well, if you implement that, and you measure kids’ reading before and after, and it goes down quite a bit, then you know something about the changes you made, or if it goes up quite a bit. I think those types of diagnostic tests, that measure what is being learned, are really good. I don’t think we need to test every kid every year on everything. I think that’s not a really effective use of public funds, either.

 

Question from Chris Finch: Do you see similar competition for post-secondary spending as you discussed for K-12? Will university fees be impacted?

 

Answer: Yeah, that’s a tough one, because I know less about post-secondary, but post-secondary has two very important revenue streams, that make the spending thing less of an issue. One of those is tuition. The government sets a cap on domestic, but universities pressure domestic tuition all the time, and they will pressure I think to increase it because of inflation, at a discretionary level. I can tell you, at my university, the reason that we have 25% of undergraduates who are international students, is that they return an enormous amount of revenue to the university. And so, you can be a little less disciplined in your spending if money keeps coming in like that. That might be where we are, but that could change, then you might see a lot more spending for those government dollars. Because government dollars matter less and less in universities now because of the effects of international tuition


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