Engagement, Policy

Questions, Conversations, and Education Canada

I love this magazine. I come to each new issue with excitement about finding gems inside. Often I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting, a luxury few can enjoy these days. I wish I could read the French articles with greater understanding.

This column is my last contribution to Education Canada as its Executive Editor. Preparation for retirement is prime time for reflection, and so I’ve been thinking about why the magazine means so much to me. First there are the people. Paula Dunning, the Editor, who with skill and grace recruits writers and edits their work with a deft but determined hand that makes texts meaningful to professional rather than academic readers; and Corinne Cécilia who does the same in French. Art Director, J. Lynn Campbell designs graphic treatments that best present the articles, and Gilles Latour and his staff manage the business side from circulation to the ups and downs of an erratic advertising market.

But it’s the writers who make the magazine. They keep me engaged through thoughtful reflections on their practice, on ideas and perspectives that challenge my own, and on the contributions of their research to the understanding of teaching and learning. Professional magazines like Education Canada play a key role in providing educators with relevant and timely access to both research knowledge and questions arising from the classroom experience of teachers and students.

My first encounters with education research were as an elected trustee of a school board whose administration believed that policy should take account of research findings, but also knew that research cannot substitute for consensus building across ideological divides and ­– perhaps most important – that research may tell us what is, but rarely tells us what could be. Most of us accept research conclusions that align with our own experience or beliefs and challenge those that don’t. In the end, it’s the questions that research provokes and the conversations that ensue that are most valuable to policymakers and practitioners.

Sometimes, in the rush for results, educators don’t wait for those questions and conversations to show a clear direction. That may be one reason that education is such a frequent victim of fads. Consider “brain-based” learning (as opposed to what, “liver-based” learning?). Understanding how the brain learns is exciting science, but it’s a science in its infancy. I’m hard pressed to think of another field that would accept claims as expansive as those found in many of the “brain-based” resources offered to teachers.

The conversations prompted by authors in Education Canada are not limited to academic research. Personal questions based on experience need to be debated too, and may ultimately lead to research we can build policies around. With four children born in three seasons of the year, the notion of “school readiness” – or worse, “readiness to learn” – was problematic for me. In childcare, the kids moved to the toddler room when they became toddlers, not because it was September. Is a child who enters junior kindergarten at age 3 years and 8 months less “ready for school” than one who begins at age 4 years and 8 months? Does the possibility of up to a year’s difference in age in Grade 3 influence how we understand results of Grade 3 standardized assessments? Would achievement profiles be different if we only assessed, say, children who are eight years old at the time of test-taking? Whether or not these questions interest policymakers, they certainly matter to the boy born in December who experiences school as the place where he’s never quite good enough at the stuff that schools care about.

We need to validate student voices and experiences, too. As a very naïve but altruistic new teacher in the UK, I joined a rehabilitation program for young offenders (we called them juvenile delinquents in those days). They were, they told me, “doin orticulcha” at the training school, and I was to teach plant physiology. Their classroom behaviour was dreadful, often verging on the psychotic. After three sessions, I admitted my pain and asked them how we might at least co-exist comfortably for the remainder of the term. The ring-leader piped up, “Giv’s a recess, and we’ll tell ya.” They came back with a deal. “You teach us what we want to learn and we’ll behave like students.” How simple, how obvious. Not surprisingly, they wanted sex education. “The real stuff. Not birds and bees.” Their ignorance was profound and their desire to learn intense. They did know how to be students, and I learned a lot about teaching.

Here’s a place where research, experience, and student voice come together. We know how important motivation is to learning. We know that intrinsic motivation is more powerful for learning than the extrinsic motivation that comes from good marks or gold stars. So why are we so reluctant to let young people learn what they need and want to know or what interests them deeply?

Some years ago Mary Pratt, the painter, ended a back-page column in this magazine with a plea for educators to make a commitment – something like the Hippocratic oath – to at least “do no harm” to the hearts and minds entrusted to public education. I’d like to go beyond that, and I will continue to count on the writers in Education Canada to challenge their readers to think deeply, weigh evidence carefully, and give thoughtful attention to the voices of those whose lives and futures depend on us “getting it right”.

Meet the Expert(s)

Penny Milton

Penny Milton

Penny Milton is former CEO of the Canadian Education Association and the initiator of What did you do in school today?

Penny Milton a été chef de la direction de l’Association canadienne d’éducation et a lancé l’initiative Qu’as-tu fait à l’école aujourd’hui?

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