Curriculum, Leadership, Opinion, Policy, Promising Practices

Just Supposing…

Most people, though they care about public education, are at a loss when it comes to changing it substantially

Just supposing a province or territory decided to conduct a major study of its public education system, a ‘thorough airing of the bedclothes’ so to speak. And just supposing it announced in predictably prosaic language the title of the study: Education for the 21st Century. Then imagine the number of other projects both private and public with the same title. So, to be taken seriously, it would be essential to set out terms of reference that would elicit some excitement among the taxpaying public. Tough assignment considering that most people, though they care about public education, are at a loss when it comes to changing it substantially. As things stand now, school offers security, qualified teachers, more or less competent instruction in the basic subjects, approved assessment practices, predictable reporting to parents, regulations for the care and management of needy and undisciplined children. Isn’t that adequate?

No, not really. There is still a wide gap between the emerging realities of life as represented by the high flyers of all ages in the web world and what actually goes on inside the schoolhouse. The authors of a recent work, Teaching the Digital Generation (Kelly, McCain, Jukes), 2009, argue persuasively that education must be brought in line with the current situation where kids are “exposed to new kinds of input from digital experiences for sustained periods of time on a daily basis.” Most of that input is beyond the purview or control of parents and teachers. And, I believe, most of it renders the schoolhouse obsolete in the minds of its young clients – who still crave learning as much as ever. A checklist of emerging or real obsolescence would include: the textbook, the print oriented library, compulsory attendance until late adolescence, standardized testing for information recall, assessment of progress based on mastery of print information, age-grade lock-step progression. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these traditional education practices except that they are in varying degrees obsolete, that’s all. They are out of sync.

The book mentioned above proposes asynchronous learning instead of everything synchronized with the textbook, the school timetable, the exam-test schedule etc. Some features of the new learning would include stronger emphasis on visual learning both artistic and practical, generous use of community resources, assessment of pupil progress based on teacher-pupil initiated projects, school architecture for individual or small group instruction, teaching as a largely advisory process. Farewell pedanticism as we’ve known it.

As I suggested in my last blog, the emerging education paradigm for the 21st century would highlight individualism, singularity, and selfhood.  These need not be seen as menacing signs of civic irresponsibility or self-centredness running amok. Rather, they simply recognize and embrace the digital reality, which is all around us all the time. Education within such a paradigm would, on the contrary, foster the kind of citizenship compatible with a democratic society – intensely knowledge-based and emotionally satisfying. As for terms of reference for this new study, I would be happy with those set down in 1967 for the Hall-Dennis Report:

  • Identify the needs of the child as a person and as a member of society.
  • Set forth aims of education for the province.
  • Outline objectives for the curriculum.
  • Propose means of realizing those aims and objectives.

That is to say, the terms of reference do not matter so much as the people who relate them to the facts that confront them. Look again at the first one above. An authoritarian reactionary sort of person would respond “Teach the little _______ to behave and work hard” while a more liberal-minded person might say “Our students are young citizens; treat them accordingly”. Either point of view would have profound implications for educators not the least of which would be unsettling questions like: What is the practical meaning of citizenship in a democracy? Should school life be a model for democratic citizenship? If so, how is that to be done?

The Hall-Dennis Committee wrestled with such questions for a couple of years before publishing their coffee table book Living and Learning, a best seller. Next time, I’ll recall some of the Hall-Dennis fall-out relative to the second decade of the 21st century.

Meet the Expert(s)

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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