Stagnation threatens education system
BY GEOFF JOHNSON,
MARCH 25, 2010
Our schools in Canada and in British Columbia are not failing. Canadian students perform well compared with students in 31 other countries, ranking second in reading, sixth in mathematics (the United States is 25th) and fifth in science (the U.S. 24th).
Much of the current research on “education reform” focuses on systems that are failing. Washington, D.C., hires Michelle Rhee to “clean house.” Rhode Island fires an entire secondary school staff. Here in B.C. we do not have those kinds of problems — yet. Could we do better? Of course.
Could we improve our “first attempt” graduation rate? Yes. But when I say that the system is not failing, our public school system might face a greater danger. We might have stalled. We might have reached a flat spot, a plateau in the necessary climb into the 21st century and if we do not yet recognize why that is potentially a bigger problem our kids soon will.
– China will soon be the No. 1 English-speaking country in the world. Last year more Chinese students took the English Advanced Placement Exam than U.S. and Canadian students combined.
– The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004
– We are preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet, jobs using technologies that have yet to be invented
The Conference Board of Canada, along with many colleges, universities and other tertiary institutions agree on the skills 2010 and beyond will demand of K-12 graduates. These include the ability to:
– manage information;
– use numbers;
– think and solve problems;
– to think critically;
– demonstrate positive attitudes and behaviours;
– be adaptable;
– learn continuously;
– work with others;
– participate actively and constructively in projects and tasks.
These are processes and attitudes, different from knowledge, skills rather than content, things our kids, competing in a multicultural, even global job market, will need to be able to do as opposed to know.
And it will be the kids our education system produces now who will take hold of B.C. and Canada’s economic and social prospects for the next two or three generations.
Am I implying that B.C.’s and Canada’s economic development and its willingness to commit seriously to the next steps in the development of public education are inextricably linked? You bet I am. There is an entire anthology of research projects that are unequivocal about the bottom-line relationship between the progressive development of education systems from early childhood onward and GDP growth, nationally and provincially.
There is also an overwhelming body of knowledge about learning which, while it does not deny the value of what we have accomplished thus far, does not form the basis for the current system and points clearly to the needs of how public education will need to be organized and delivered in the future. We know for sure that:
– Learning is both an individual and a social process. In a group learning situation students learn that problems can have more than one solution.
– Learning occurs at different rates for each learner as they move through the several stages of learning, from knowledge or simple recall of data to comprehension or the ability to grasp meaning, to application or using learned material in new situations.
– Students need the opportunity to establish, test and rework patterns as they make meaning out of learning situations. Feedback on progress needs to be timely, frequent and constructive — assessment for, rather than of, learning.
– The social and emotional aspects of the classroom and school climate will affect all of this and will affect students in ways that enhance or hinder learning. When students fear ridicule or loss of self-esteem, they may disengage. Learning is not a fearful process.
Does our current system, especially at the secondary level with 20-30 students in desks and one teacher at the front of the class, enable what the Conference Board of Canada is telling us kids need to be learning? Or is our current system on a plateau where all we can see is more of the same?
And how long will our kids with their BlackBerrys, iPod Touches, iIPhones, thousands of Apps, Google and Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, GPS maps, their laptop windows on the world, their impatience to learn more about everything, their anxiety to get on with it and their apprehension about the future — how long will they wait for the system to move into now? They are, as Canadian slam poet Shane Koyczan describes our country, “The abandoned hesitation of those who cannot wait — the ‘what’ in ‘what’s new?'”
Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools. He lives in Mill Bay.
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