Dialogue: Challenges and Change in Education

I have the great privilege to work with a forward-thinking organization, Action Canada.  A leadership program for young Canadians, Action Canada explores topics of national interest and investigates ways to make improvements for Canada’s future.  This year, their theme is:  Does Canada have the education systems it needs to meet the economic and societal challenges of the future?

Today, at the Wosk Centre, Action Canada presented a Public Dialogue on Challenges and Change in Canada’s Education Systems.  The task forces brought together panels of experts to spark conversation on three topics:

  • Standardized Testing in Canada
  • Teaching Questions Not Answers
  • Who Cares About Young Caregivers?

Fortunately, I was able to take part in the second session:  Teaching Questions Not Answers.

This particular task force explored the subject of adapting Canada’s education system for the 21st century.  At the end of September, the Fellows had come to St Alcuin College, a liberal arts K-12 school offering a 21st century skills-based program.  They were especially interested to experience firsthand our unique learning environment, and how that was different from mainstream education.  After speaking to the faculty and students about what it meant to be living the learning revolution, one Fellow observed that at St Alcuin, changing education was a movement.  We can attest that education reform is a movement that requires intense energy, as stated today by Mr Rod Allen, Superintendent of the Ministry of Education’s Learning Division.

It was not a surprise to hear that the panellists were espousing the principles upon which we are founded at St Alcuin:  highly personalized education, community partnerships and an emergent curriculum.  One question posed to the panel was why it was not easy to implement this educational reform in schools across Canada.  One of the panellists, Dr. Roland Case, executive director and co-founder of The Critical Thinking Consortium, identified five “winning conditions” for educational reform.  As I understood them, they are:

  1. Students are engaged in their learning.  Instruction is not transmission from the teacher.
  2. There is sustained inquiry for learning.  This is a regular practice.
  3. Students have self-regulated control of tools.  They don’t just produce the action when required by a teacher, but know how and when to use the skill.
  4. Assessment is timely and supportive.
  5. Learning is digitally enhanced.

At St Alcuin College, in keeping with our studies in Big History, we recognize that these are the five ‘Goldilocks conditions’ to educational change.  These are our guiding principles in our daily teaching.

Thank you to Action Canada and the Fellows for bringing us together to discuss Canada’s education systems and the challenges to change.  It is a subject that so many are passionate about, and it is this passion that continually drives us to create these ‘Goldilocks conditions’ at St Alcuin College.

We don’t need bad education!

It is widely touted that it is no longer necessary to focus as much on the acquisition of knowledge (read: “memorise”) as it is about the attainment of skills for the future. Is this true? It is probably more appropriate to ask whether this ever was NOT true. Surely education was never intended to be a process whereby success is assessed only by a student’s ability to regurgitate facts in an exam? Were the sages of old and classic educators so far off the mark?

Well, the simple answer is “no”; education (even as far back as the ancient Greece, Egypt or Rome) has never professed to be merely about the retention of knowledge. As far back as 900 BC, the Etruscans placed great emphasis on education, which most probably was only skills-based, hands-on learning (it is debatable whether ancient Etruscan and Raetian languages were standardised in order to articulate such a level of assessment). Sure, the classical scholar needed to memorise the terminology – the “language” of the discipline he/she was studying to the point of enduring extreme physical punishment for ‘failing to remember’. Students of poetry needed to memorise the classic works; in politics, it would be the terminology of the ‘rhetors’, and if it was housekeeping …. I think you get the idea. The point I am trying to make is that poor education practices have never been ‘right’; they have always been misplaced, most probably only gaining prominence to satisfy our insatiable need to measure success. Although standardised testing certainly has a place in assessment, it is not the sum of education.

While the powers that be are starting to see the light and skills-based learning is being re-established, we need to guard against the notion that all information now resides on the internet or in a dusty library somewhere beyond Alexandria, only to be accessed when needed … but that is the topic for a future blog!
Eddie de Beer