As podcasters ourselves, we have learned a lot and see a lot of value in podcasting for the classroom. That said, for those not in podcasting, the idea of creating one with students can seem daunting; there are so many tools, and the starting point isn’t always that clear. That’s where we step in! Podcasting really isn’t that scary, and can be simple to do in the classroom.
We will help you to understand why podcasts are great for the classroom, and how you can get started.
Believe it or not, podcasting is a fantastic way to get students talking, and is a natural scaffold to the writing process. Here are some of our top reasons to introduce podcasting with your students:
As a bonus, it’s easy to get started. Podcasts don’t require much in the way of equipment. These days, almost all students have access to a cell phone or a device that can be used to capture audio.
Podcasting isn’t as complicated as you might think. There are four main phases in the podcasting process: Identify, plan, record, and share.
Here are some simple and free recording tools to consider:
The above tools are a great starting point for any skill level. They are simple to use and only require a student to click on record, and then click stop when they are done. The web-based tools will then give you the option to download the mp3 file.
If you have access, here are some additional tools to consider:
4. Share This doesn’t have to be public; it can be as simple as curating each student’s work on a collaborative slide deck (think PowerPoint or Google Slides), or simply sharing a folder that houses all of the audio files (Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.) with the class.
That being said, you may want to build toward creating a podcast that can be shared with a wider audience, such as your school community. Building in an authentic audience can help to create buy-in and motivation for students.
Podcasting is likely a new concept for your students, so it is important to scaffold the process as much as possible so that students can experience success with this new modality.
As a teacher, your first step should be to expose your students to the podcasting format. There are so many student-friendly podcasts, so a simple search should provide a wealth of options (See Student-Friendly Podcasts for some suggestions). While listening together, you can then identify the different components, such as an intro, an outro, and the different segment structures.
From there, identify what skills you want your students to demonstrate in their podcast. This is a totally new format for most students, so be sure to provide a planner, a template, and a means of brainstorming ideas either independently or as a class. This is also a time to help support students with skills such as pronunciation, language, and communication in general. This may be an uncomfortable format for many students at first, so they will need time to practise and get used to podcasting.
If students want to interview a guest, it is important to go over questioning techniques, question formation, and interview etiquette. You might consider offering a set of question starters or stems to scaffold the question creation process. A quick internet search will help you find lots of ideas to get started.
Podcasting doesn’t have to be an immediate or short-term goal. It is possible to scaffold it in such a way that you help your students to build the skills over a longer period of time, with the end goal of producing their own podcast by the end of the semester or term.
As with all things web-based, it is extremely important to consider the privacy and protection of student data when sharing the podcast. Make sure that you check with your administration, get permission from parents or guardians, and also review Board policies to ensure that you are not potentially putting students at risk.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
The EduGals Podcast E050: Podcasting in the Classroom https://edugals.com/podcasting-in-the-classroom-e050
The EduGals Podcast E083: Leveraging Audio in the Classroom https://edugals.com/leveraging-audio-in-the-classroom-e083
Blog Post: Student-Created Podcasts Made Easy with Screencastify https://edugals.com/student-created-podcasts-made-easy-with-screencastify
One of the many things COVID-19 has brought into focus is the classroom – the confined indoor space in which the majority of K–12 learning happens. Faced with the risk of spreading germs in indoor locations, many Canadian educators moved learning outside into schoolyards and local community spaces. In my view, these are steps in the right direction – but not only, or even primarily, because of viral spread. Rather, literally getting outside classroom walls and metaphorically getting outside the entrenched ways in which we tend to think about teaching and learning can offer learners important skills, knowledge, and dispositions.
Learners in Canada today are living the legacy of Western, industrial views of schooling, curriculum design, and humankind’s relationship with nature (Judson, 2010, 2017).
Overwhelmingly, schooling separates learners from the local natural and cultural contexts in which they are situated and divides a richly interconnected living world into disciplinary containers. “Real learning” happens inside, at desks or tables, not in local parks, communities, or schoolyards. Schooling also marginalizes imagination in the learning process. Outcomes or objectives drive curricular decisions rather than the emotional or imaginative significance of topics.
There is no better time than now – amidst the turmoil this pandemic has already caused – to take a critical look at education in Canada, how it may be missing the mark, and what can be improved. In this article I describe two changes that could better equip learners to face the uncertain years ahead: widespread cultivation of imagination and learning outdoors.
A world of complex issues and problems requires a population that has a richly developed ability to envision the possible, the not-yet. It is this imagination that is needed to navigate an unpredictable, wild, “white water world” that is “broadly connected, rapidly changing, and radically contingent” (Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018, p. 7). Pendleton-Jullian and Brown’s (2018) work on the pragmatic imagination challenges misconceptions that imagination is somehow antithetical to real academic learning or reasoning. They show the myriad ways in which imagination contributes to a range of cognitive processes, including perception and reasoning. They insist that the muscle of imagination is the force behind vital processes of speculation, experimentation, and free play that humans must employ when facing wildly complex and interrelated wicked problems.
In addition to needing imagination to deal with the complex world of today, it is imagination-focused pedagogy – teaching that brings into focus the emotional and imaginative core of all topics – that is most aligned with the emotional nature of human beings. We are, as psychologist David Kresh suggests, perfinkers. We perceive and feel and think at the same time. We perfink. And yet, far too often, students don’t feel much of anything about the topics they are learning about. Many educators think of the imagination as something that comes into play when foundational learning has already taken place; it is a kind of frill or supplement that may be valuable and enjoyable, but is not crucial to learning itself. While objectives are undoubtedly important for teaching, when they drive curricular decisions, teaching misses the emotional core of all learning (Egan, 1997).
At the same time, there are calls worldwide to improve schools so that students graduate with strong creative thinking skills. Education is needed, therefore, that feeds this emotional core. Imaginative Education is such a pedagogy that can fill that gap between valuing the imagination on one hand and cultivating it routinely in schooling on the other. It uses practical tools – cognitive tools – to shape lessons into engaging stories and cultivates imagination in the process. If imagination is understood to be the fertile soil out of which all learning, creativity, and innovation grow (Judson, 2021), then schooling should embrace the tools to cultivate it in all contexts and for learners of all ages.
In this Imaginative Education classroom, students are learning about the wonderful world of punctuation. Lisa is a comma, Hendrich, a period, and Paola, a semicolon. Each student has their own super power: Lisa the comma grants breaths and brings things together in a series; Hendrich the period has the power to end ideas, thoughts, and actions; one of Paola the semicolon’s mighty strengths is to connect full ideas. Their teacher is evoking the ingenuity of seemingly insignificant punctuation marks – those tidy little packages of meaning that help convey body language that we physically experience in face-to-face interactions but that is lost in written communication. Yesterday the students played with facial expressions and bodily gestures that may be conveyed with an “!” They giggled when they thought how a “;” can replace a wink (e.g. I got a new car; it is a midnight blue Maserati.) Tomorrow students are exploring the most unusual punctuation marks – have you heard of the interrobang?! – and the stories of those who invented them.
Human beings continually engage with the world in ways that evoke their emotions and imaginations. For example, words cause images to arise in our minds. We universally enjoy stories of all kinds. We identify patterns in the world around us. We enjoy jokes and humour. Extremes of experience and limits of reality – the stuff in the Guinness Book of World Records – intrigue us. We notice and often idolize people, ideas, or institutions. We collect things and obsess over hobbies. Mysteries entice us and we can experience awe in the face of unanswered questions or strange events. Our emotional and imaginative lives manifest themselves in many varied ways. These different forms of engagement are not insignificant; they are ways of thinking that help human beings learn.
In Imaginative Education, a theory and pedagogy developed by Dr. Kieran Egan, these acts of imagination are “cognitive tools.” They are emotional ways or strategies through which human beings make meaning in the world and, when used to shape lessons, can engage and grow imagination (Egan, 1997, 2005). Imaginative Education offers all educators a glimpse into the imaginative and emotional lives of their students and, importantly, describes sets of tools students are using to make emotional sense of the world that any teacher can use to shape curriculum. So rather than being objectives-driven, Imaginative Education is imagination-driven. Because cognitive tools are used to shape curricular decisions (Egan, 1997, 2005) teaching aligns with the emotional core of human beings.
In an Imaginative Education classroom, educators are storytellers. This does not mean they constantly create or integrate fictional stories in their teaching, but, rather, that they use cognitive tools such as revealing the heroic qualities of a topic, evoking powerful images, noticing the unique or novel, and engaging the body, to shape topics in ways that reveal their emotional importance. (See Learn More for resources.)
Focusing on imagination as we teach all curriculum topics is one way we can improve education in Canada post-pandemic. The next step? Literally stepping outside classroom walls.
Research shows that meaningful experiences in nature as children can impact the development of a conservation ethic (e.g. deBrito et al., 2017; Selby, 2017). Emotional connection can move us to action. Unfortunately, many students don’t have an emotional connection to the local natural and cultural contexts. My research has shown an alarming level of emotional disaffection among students. Students may know more about global warming but do not feel connected to any Place; they are not moved to live harmoniously with the natural world. Many students lack a sense of ecological understanding – knowledge of humankind’s interconnection in a living world and an affective relationship with nature that inspires changed action that is required in a world facing massive ecological crises (Judson 2010, 2015, 2018).
Understanding the natural world as a powerful teacher is uncommon in a Western view of schooling. Indeed, Place-based learning is a rich, but small, part of a Western educational tradition that has largely separated human beings and learning from nature. In contrast, the connection of learning with Place forms the heart of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. One of the devastating effects of colonization in Canada has been the virtual dismissal of Indigenous knowledges. Our education system can be improved if we learn from and with Indigenous peoples in Canada about a world view that acknowledges the inseparability of people and Place. I am dedicated to this work.
Unfortunately, not all outdoor learning experiences are created equal. Practices that neglect emotional and imaginative engagement in the learning process do little to cultivate the heart of a conservation ethic (Judson, 2010, 2015). Reconnecting with nature for its intrinsic value – re/membering (with) nature as an extension of our own selves – is a central goal of a cross-curricular approach to learning called Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).
Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) aims to nurture students’ personal relationships with the natural and cultural contexts in which they live through frequent engagement of the body, emotion, and imagination in learning. By designing pedagogy around the distinctive features of students’ imaginative lives – applying the cognitive tools of Imaginative Education discussed earlier in outdoor learning – IEE more routinely engages the body, emotion, and imagination where students live and learn. Because IEE is a cross-curricular approach to teaching suitable for students in elementary through secondary school in urban, sub-urban, or rural contexts, IEE makes it possible for the development of ecological understanding to take place alongside the fulfillment of curricular requirements.
The Walking Curriculum (Judson, 2018) is an accessible and highly practical set of activities educators can use to move learning outside with inquiry and imagination. Based on principles of IEE, the 60 easy-to-use walking-focused activities in the Walking Curriculum are designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with their local natural and cultural communities, to broaden their awareness of the particularities of Place, and to evoke their sense of wonder in learning. In the Walking Curriculum, a walking theme is paired with a cognitive tool to develop understanding and engage imagination. The resource is designed for teachers who don’t necessarily consider themselves “outdoor educators” – as a result, it has been of wide interest and is being widely implemented (Judson, 2021).
While I acknowledge that a radical revisioning of schooling and broad social changes will be required to learn to live within the Earth’s carrying capacities (Blenkinsop & Fettes, 2021), moving learning outside is one step in the right direction.
So, what do I recommend for changing the 130-year legacy that lives in schools today? Literally, we can change the story one step at a time. One tool at a time. We can cultivate learners’ imaginations through teaching as storytelling. We can shape learning opportunities for students of all ages in ways that move them outdoors, into communities and that employ tools that engage their emotions and imaginations in engaging with the natural world. When imagination and outdoor learning become core principles of education in Canada, we will be better equipped to navigate a “white water world” and may begin to form relationships with nature that can support a different ecological future.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Learn more about:
• Imaginative Education, the Walking Curriculum, Imaginative Ecological Education, and how to use cognitive tools on the imagineED website: www.educationthatinspires.ca/imaginative-education
• The Walking Curriculum: www.edcan.ca/articles/a-walking-curriculum
Blenkinsop, S. & Fettes, M. (2021). Living within the earth’s carrying capacity: Towards an education for eco-social-cultural change. Report for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. www.circesfu.ca/practice/ecological-place-based-education/educating-for-living-within-the-earths-carrying-capacity
de Brito Miranda, A.C., Jófili, Z., & dos Anjos Carneiro-Leão, A.M., (2017). Ecological literacy: Preparing children for the twenty-first century. Early Child Development and Care, 187(2), 192–205.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding University of Chicago Press.
Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Judson, G. (2010). A New approach to ecological education: Engaging students’ imaginations in their world. Peter Lang.
Judson, G. (2015). Engaging imagination in ecological education: Practical strategies for teaching. UBC Press.
Judson, G. (2017). Re-imagining relevance in education. In J. Cummings & M. Blatherwick (Eds.) Creative dimensions of teaching and learning in the 21st century (pp. 47–58). Sense Publishers.
Judson, G. (2018). A walking curriculum: Evoking wonder and developing sense of place (K-12). Kindle Direct Publishing.
Judson, G. (2021). Cultivating leadership imagination with cognitive tools: An imagination focused approach to leadership education. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. doi.org/10.1177/19427751211022028
Judson, G. (2021, June 21). Working with Place: Recommendations for developing imaginative ecological teaching practices. Green Teacher Magazine, 128. https://greenteacher.com/working-with-place/
Pendleton-Jullian, A. & Brown, J. S. (2018). Pragmatic imagination: A new terrain. CreateSpace.
Selby, D. (2017). Education for sustainable development, nature, and vernacular learning. CEPS Journal, 7(1), 9–27.
In recent years, because of globalization, the world has become increasingly small and interdependent. No longer confined by place of birth or residence, citizens have a collective responsibility to participate in a globalized society.
In 2015, the UN General Assembly recognized this responsibility by adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The resolution includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to promote far-reaching social, health, environmental, and political change.
At the same time, several Canadian ministries of education have stressed the importance of integrating the UN SDGs and contemporary world issues into the curriculum as part of a field of study known as global citizenship education (GCE). As a discipline, GCE aims to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and values to address critical global challenges. These include the alarming spread of misinformation, a global health crisis, climate change, and a growing threat to the liberal international order. While some provinces have incorporated GCE into their curricula, most do not offer it as a stand-alone course.
More Canadian ministries of education should adopt a required half-year course at the secondary level on responsible global citizenship. They should seek to equip students with critical thinking skills, including media and information literacy (the ability to find and evaluate information), health literacy (the ability to make informed health decisions), ecological literacy (the ability to identify and take action on environmental issues), and democratic literacy (the ability to understand and participate in civic affairs). Various stakeholders have a vested interest, including school administrators, teachers, curriculum writers, policymakers, scholars, and professors.
The conceptual framework below (Figure 1) ties responsible global citizenship to critical thinking through four literacies:
As the framework reflects, critical thinking is a necessary skill to achieve responsible global citizenship. The UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) (2013) defines critical thinking as a “process that involves asking appropriate questions, gathering and creatively sorting through relevant information, relating new information to existing knowledge, re-examining beliefs and assumptions, reasoning logically, and drawing reliable and trustworthy conclusions” (p. 15). Critical thinking skills help global citizens make responsible choices when consuming information about the media, health, environment, and democracy. These skills are necessary to evaluate the abundance of information (and misinformation) in the digital age. They also play a central role in making evidence-based health decisions, provide a foundation for exploring today’s complex and interdependent ecosystem, and encourage the kind of civic engagement and participation needed to preserve a functioning democracy.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians have spent more time on the internet and their smartphones. A recent survey found that 98 percent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 years old use the internet (Statistics Canada, 2021). The survey also noted that 71 percent also check their smartphone, at a minimum, every half hour (Statistics Canada, 2021).
While Canadian youth have unprecedented access to knowledge and information, they are at the same time exposed to more misinformation and disinformation than at any other time in history. This makes it even more critical that students receive media and information literacy training at an early age.
Several organizations, including UNESCO, have taken notice. A decade after publishing the first edition of its media and information literacy curriculum, UNESCO (2021) released Think Critically, Click Wisely: Media and information literate citizens. The more-than-400-page document provides a curriculum and competency framework, along with modules divided into separate units. It also includes useful pedagogical approaches and strategies for teachers.
Meanwhile, in Canada, other organizations (e.g. the Association for Media Literacy, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations, and MediaSmarts) have promoted media and information literacy instruction. And for more than three decades, Canadian provinces and territories have incorporated such content into their curriculum. However, as the only Western nation without a federal department of education, Canada has a media and information literacy curriculum that varies by province and territory.
This moment requires increased focus and attention to help Canadian students learn how to think critically when evaluating the media and its information sources and distinguishing between fact and fiction while using information tools. As such, ministries of education should consider adding the following topics in the proposed media and information literacy unit:
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the importance of health literacy. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines it as the “ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course” (Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, 2008, p. 11). This form of literacy requires both knowledge and competence in health-related disciplines.
It should come as no surprise that Canadians lacking health literacy skills are less likely to retrieve reliable information or make informed choices. In fact, limited health literacy (or health illiteracy) can directly impact whether individuals comply with data-driven public health guidance. What’s more, the rapid dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation has placed them at an even greater health risk.
At an organizational level, public health agencies have struggled to manage the current “infodemic” (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021). In a Public Policy Forum report, University of Toronto professors Eric Merkley and Peter Loewen (2021) provide five recommendations, including to:
Additionally, medical professionals should provide up-to-date, credible information to large audiences through a strong social media presence.
At the school and board level, teachers and administrators should promote more health literacy instruction. While the concept of health-promoting schools dates back nearly three decades, there is an even greater imperative for students today. In fact, the World Health Organization and UNESCO (2021) recently proposed a whole-school approach to encourage student health and well-being, ranging from school policies and resources to a greater focus on community partnerships and a positive social-emotional environment.
Adopting these standards will help to facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, schools, and civil society organizations. Accordingly, a health literacy unit should include:
Being a responsible global citizen also requires ecological literacy – defined as “a way of thinking about the world in terms of its interdependent natural and human systems, including a consideration of the consequences of human actions and interactions within the natural context” (Manitoba Education and Training, 2017, p. 15). On top of the combined infodemic-pandemic, an ecological crisis continues to deteriorate. Earlier this year, the federal government released a 768-page document (Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing our knowledge for action) that examines the serious threat climate change poses to Canadians’ health (Berry & Schnitter, 2022). The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) report, in particular, details the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions, which is causing increasing temperatures and frequent natural disasters. Additionally, more than half of the world’s key biodiversity areas remain unprotected while pollution levels keep rising (UN, 2021).
A recent poll conducted by Ipsos (2021), in collaboration with the Canadian Youth Alliance for Climate Action (CYACA), examined the views of young Canadians 18 to 29 years old on climate change. The study found that Canadian youth consider climate change to be a top-five issue of concern after housing, COVID-19, health care, and unemployment. Upon reviewing each province’s secondary school science curriculum, sustainability researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (2019) conclude that there is insufficient focus on scientific consensus, impacts, or solutions to climate change. Government leaders may be more likely to fulfill their climate action promises if Canada does more to develop responsible environmental citizens through climate change education.
Ecological literacy, however, is not limited to climate change education and will require students to acquire skills and competencies in other areas. In addition to climate change, this unit should include:
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Canadian way of life has contributed to the discontent many feel. According to a Pew Research Center survey, while only 29 percent of Canadians at the beginning of the pandemic believed the country was more divided than before the outbreak, 61 percent held that view by the following year (Wike & Fetterolf, 2021).
Pandemic fatigue, however, should not serve as an excuse for undermining democratic institutions and norms. Indeed, in the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (2022) Democracy Index (global democracy rankings), Canada dropped seven spots (5th to 12th place). The report highlights a troubling trend – one in which Canadian citizens express an increasing level of support for non-democratic ideas and values.
Civically literate citizens are more likely to understand the inner workings of the democracy and participate through voting, peaceful assembly, or other forms of engagement (The Samara Centre for Democracy, 2019). The Samara Centre for Democracy (2019) report explains that civic literacy can be developed during the Canadian citizenship process, at home, in schools, and outside the classroom. Schools are a particularly important forum through which Canadian youth can learn about civic participation and engagement.
In a civics unit, students should have the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives, make informed opinions, and actively participate in the community. Democratic literacy content should include a discussion on:
As teachers prepare students for a post-pandemic world, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot address the needs of every student. Yet, there should be a common framework.
The responsible global citizenship framework can serve to guide ministries of education seeking to implement practical and relevant GCE-related courses and content. To develop responsible global citizens and critical thinkers requires the advancement of media and information, health, ecological, and democratic literacies. These four literacies are critical for Canada’s future success and relevance in a global society.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Berry, P., & Schnitter, R. (Eds.). (2022). Health of Canadians in a changing climate: Advancing our knowledge for action. Health Canada. https://changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/5/2022/02/CCHA-REPORT-EN.pdf
The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2022). Democracy index 2021: The China challenge. www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2021). Climate change 2021: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the sixth assessment report of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University. www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/
Ipsos. (2021). Young Canadians’ attitudes on climate change. www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2021-10/CYACA%20Report%2020211004_0.pdf
Manitoba Education and Training. (2017). Grade 12 Global Issues: Citizenship and Sustainability.
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2021). A vision to transform Canada’s public health system. Government of Canada. www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/corporate/publications/chief-public-health-officer-reports-state-public-health-canada/state-public-health-canada-2021/cpho-report-eng.pdf
Rootman, I., & Gordon-El-Bihbety, D. (2008). A vision for a health literate Canada: Report of the expert panel on health literacy. Canadian Public Health Association. https://swselfmanagement.ca/uploads/ResourceDocuments/CPHA%20(2008)%20A%20Vision%20for%20a%20Health%20Literate%20Canada.pdf
The Samara Centre for Democracy. (2019). Investing in Canadians’ civic literacy: An answer to fake news and disinformation. www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/investing-in-canadians-civic-literacy-by-the-samara-centre-for-democracy.pdf?sfvrsn=66f2072f_4
Statistics Canada. (2021). Canadian Internet use survey, 2020. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/daily-quotidien/210622/dq210622b-eng.pdf?st=O5mYsIgz
United Nations. (2021). The sustainable development goals report 2021. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2021.pdf
UNESCO. (2021). Think critically, click wisely: Media and information literate citizens. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377068
UNESCO-IBE. (2013). IBE glossary of curriculum terminology. www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/IBE_GlossaryCurriculumTerminology2013_eng.pdf
Wike, R., & Fetterolf, J. (2021). Global public opinion in an era of democratic anxiety. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/12/07/global-public-opinion-in-an-era-of-democratic-anxiety
World Health Organization & UNESCO. (2021). Making every school a health-promoting school: Implementation guidance. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377941
Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2019). Climate science curricula in Canadian secondary schools focus on human warming, not scientific consensus, impacts or solutions. PLoS ONE, 14(7), e0218305. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218305
The past 30 years have been marked by an increased rate of change in societies around the world. In the span of a single generation, new technologies like personal computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media forced us to reconceptualize the way we engage in social interactions, work, and public life. Now artificial intelligence is challenging the boundaries of what it means to be human.
While these technologies have largely been adopted in positive ways, the systems under which they were created have also caused or exacerbated major world crises. The climate change crisis has shown us the consequences of unsustainable exploitation of nature and little regard for our limited resources. The spread of COVID-19 revealed capacity, coordination, and equity issues in our health, government, and education systems. Finally, most modern societies are also facing an economic crisis as a result of late-stage capitalism,1 which will undoubtedly change the face of our cities, work relations, and public life.
With all of these life-changing scenarios, what can the educational community do to equip students to deal with the challenges facing our world? This kind of question is usually confined to conversations about curriculum policy or reform. Many teachers believe their current curriculum does not address these challenges effectively, making it hard to tackle them in the classroom – especially in mathematics.
Specifically in mathematics, why is it so hard to address matters of public life in class? Perhaps the answer has less to do with curriculum policies and more to do with how we understand math education. The solutions to a quadratic equation, for example, can be found through digital technologies with precision and efficiency, so why is it that we still teach the discriminant technique? If we were to pay less attention to procedures and formulas, what could we do in mathematics classes to support our students to navigate the changes in our societies?
Preparing students to respond to the challenges imposed on our lives in the 21st century is a shared responsibility between policymakers (responsible for designing curriculum and approving pedagogical resources) and practitioners (school boards, schools, and teachers). Many readers might argue that the solution is to change the curriculum. While this is true to some extent, most Canadian provinces and territories have recognized that mathematics teaching in the 21st century must look different from the past.
Provinces already incorporate some of these important issues in mathematics classes, and many others are revising their curricula to increase their importance. They do so in three ways:
If many provincial curricula already have space to address our generation’s most pressing problems, what is missing? This is an epistemological problem. We, as mathematics educators, have been trained to see mathematics through its scholarly representation. We understand and appreciate theorems, concepts, algorithms, and formulas. But if we take a step back and look at mathematics as a way of thinking and being in the world, we might be able to see how our classes can contribute to a better tomorrow. Teachers often find themselves confused about the values they promote regarding mathematics. What is the purpose of teaching mathematics in the 21st century?
As it turns out, there are three answers to this question. In my research with mathematics teachers, I have identified three main orientations of mathematics education: disciplinary, professional, and citizenship. Depending on their orientation, teachers understand the value of teaching mathematics in unique ways. Consequently, they will respond to social change and tackle contemporary challenges distinctively. Below, I provide a brief description of these epistemologies, along with suggestions for readings and activities teachers can do with their mathematics classes. These are suggestions I’ve been using in my teacher education courses that have proved relevant to mathematics teachers’ visions and values.
This orientation refers to the most traditional – and most common – approach to teaching mathematics. It approaches the subject as the teaching of a scientific discipline, i.e. as an abstract science that is worth knowing for its own sake.
Most secondary mathematics teachers who pursued a specific degree in the subject enjoy mathematics for its own sake. For these teachers, mathematics – just like fine arts – should not serve immediate economic goals. It should instead be appreciated and celebrated as a common heritage of humankind and a way of developing the mind through problem-solving, logic, and rationality.
Teachers who share the disciplinary orientation of mathematics can respond to contemporary challenges by portraying mathematics problems that have yet to be solved. It is important to show students that mathematics as a discipline is still unfinished. Most students would assume that mathematical knowledge is already established and there’s nothing else to discover or invent. That is the result of the way math is often represented in the curriculum and textbooks, with formulas and concepts that must be memorized. By sharing unsolved mathematical problems, teachers can also show students that mathematical investigations can be done with a variety of technologies, including spreadsheets, coding, software programs, simulators, etc. Unlike what many might think, mathematical work is not isolated, and it certainly uses more than just paper and pencil.
Instead, I would invite teachers to introduce to their students the notion of a conjecture (a proposition that seems to be true but for which we still lack proper proof). Exploring a conjecture provides many opportunities for students to learn about the work of mathematicians and use a variety of technologies to investigate mathematical propositions. Students can also learn about the history of mathematics and how mathematicians pushed the boundary of human knowledge in attempts to prove conjectures.
Suggested book: Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Simon Singh (Fourth Estate, 2017). This book explains the history of more than 300 years of mathematical endeavours to prove a relatively simple proposition. Students can create a book club to discuss the book in parts. They will learn that mathematics is a lively science with lots to explore. The theorem (previously known as a conjecture) was only proved in 1995, 350 years after it was first proposed.
Suggested classroom activity: Explore the Collatz Conjecture2 with students in class. This conjecture can be easily understood by middle and high-school students and can generate many beautiful representations. Use Excel spreadsheets to automatically create a sequence based on a seed number, implement an algorithm (in Python language) that creates the sequence based on the user’s input, and create a concept map (use CmapTools) of multiple sequences.
This orientation is perhaps the most pragmatic of all three; it stems from an economic view of education as training. For teachers (and students) who espouse this perspective, the teaching and learning of mathematics should prepare students for future professional life. Particularly in high school, mathematics classes should develop appropriate skills that students could use in the workplace and/or prepare them for university programs that demand mathematical skills. With the intensification of the use of technology, skills associated with mathematics (counting, estimating, measuring, comparing, reasoning, etc.) have become ubiquitous in virtually all fields of professional life, from life sciences and STEM to literary work and fine arts. Most professionals face some, if not multiple, strands of mathematics daily. These demands intensify as they attempt to get promotions and climb the ranks of their organizations (typically moving toward management positions).
Consequently, mathematics classes should be responsive to these changes and portray the use of mathematics in a range of professions, so that students can see the value of learning mathematics and make informed career decisions in an increasingly precarious job market.
Many teachers see this phenomenon as a way to increase their students’ motivation to study mathematics. However, when faced with the infamous question, “When am I ever gonna use this?” they struggle to bring authentic examples of math in professional life. After all, it is unrealistic to expect mathematics teachers to be aware of how different fields are evolving. Do we expect industrial engineers to solve quadratic equations by hand to optimize costs in a production line? Or do they use software programs to simulate different scenarios under budget and resource constraints?
To tackle this challenge, teachers could provide students with opportunities to explore mathematics in professional life through research and social media. Platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, and others provide a much-needed connection between school settings and real-life professionals. Through these platforms, students can reach out to workers from many fields and ask specific questions about the way they engage with mathematics in their daily tasks. Not only can this practice increase motivation, but it also allows teachers to create a portfolio of examples of math used in real-life workplace settings.
Suggested books: For middle school mathematics, On-The-Job Math Mysteries: Real-life math from exciting careers, by Marya Tyler (Prufrock Press, 2008). This book presents a set of mathematical problems faced by real-life professionals in interesting and unique fields. It provides teachers with explicitly mathematical problems that can be used in a class while also portraying mathematics authentically.
For high-school mathematics, 101 Careers in Mathematics – Fourth Edition, by Andrew Sterrett Jr. (Maa Pr, 2019). This book can be used by students, teachers, or counsellors to explore a wide range of careers for those who enjoy mathematics in high school. The book features real people in different fields and how mathematics was part of their professional trajectory.
Suggested classroom activity: Although most “traditionally mathematical” professions now use software programs for mathematical tasks, there is a lot of value in knowing how particular mathematical concepts were developed within those fields. One good example is geometric instruments and constructions, both of which were developed in the context of architecture. Notable angles, parallel and perpendicular lines, and triangle centres can all be constructed with high precision simply through a compass and a ruler. Students can learn a great deal of math by exploring why such constructions work. Here is a guide for a variety of constructions: www.mathsisfun.com/geometry/constructions.html
This orientation perceives the teaching of mathematics as a way of facilitating active participation in social life. Mathematical knowledge is one lens through which students can understand the world. When we discuss issues of public policies, the planning of our cities, the distribution of resources, or the electoral system, it is important to understand how mathematical information is produced, used, and communicated. It is therefore paramount that our students learn to decode different discourses through mathematics.
Most teachers present this orientation in implicit or explicit ways. They agree that mathematics is required to become a well-rounded individual in our societies, but sometimes struggle to identify proper opportunities to discuss important issues in the classroom. How much time should be spent discussing the context before diving into the “actual” mathematics? How much preparation does a math teacher need to approach sensitive topics? How do we identify the underlying mathematics concepts that can be explored in such topics as city planning or government budgets?
It is true that mathematics teachers need to go above and beyond their original training to make connections between mathematics and citizenship. However, once this connection becomes clear, it can save time in the classroom by interweaving different math strands into one unit. Also, the most recent curriculum revisions have introduced topics that facilitate these connections explicitly. Financial literacy, coding, and data literacy are just some examples of new mathematics strands that can easily be implemented with a citizenship epistemology. These concepts are unequivocally connected to social situations.
Suggested book: How Not to Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin, 2015). Each chapter of this book explores a different mathematical concept or principle and how it has been used to shape our daily lives. It is a great resource to find deep and authentic connections between mathematics and social life.
Suggested classroom activity: One of the biggest debates in Canada over the last decade has been electoral reform. Currently, Canada uses the so-called first-pass-the-post system: each of 338 districts elects a member of Parliament to represent its interests, and the party with the most seats then forms the government. Through publicly available data,3 students can organize a spreadsheet according to each district and the votes received by each party.
A range of questions can be explored: What is the percentage of votes received by your MP? In which riding does a vote have the most/least percentage impact? Which riding elected an MP with the highest/lowest number of votes? Which riding had the closest race or largest landslide victory? Which non-elected candidate received the greatest number of votes? Has any MP been elected with less than this number? These questions elevate the debate about Canada’s voting system without promoting any specific position about electoral reform.
Similar to art, which can be valued for its aesthetic contribution as well as its depiction of social issues, mathematics is multi-faceted in its contributions to our world. The orientations described above are present in curriculum expectations, textbooks, teaching practices, and students’ rapport with the subject. They are certainly not mutually exclusive and can emerge in the classroom at different moments. Mathematics educators can benefit from a deeper look at their own values related to mathematics in order to recognize the biases and ideas guiding their instructional choices. In doing so, they might also be able to recognize the orientations their own students bring to the classroom and express in mathematics.
Which of these orientations is most closely aligned with your values? How do they inform your practices in the classroom?
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
1 Commodification of housing and health, widespread industry monopolies, precariousness of workers’ rights.
2 See The Simplest Math Problem No One Can Solve – Collatz Conjecture. Veritasium. www.youtube.com/watch?v=094y1Z2wpJg
3 2021 results: www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rep/off/44gedata&document=index&lang=e
On January 11, 2020, a 61-year-old man in the central Chinese city of Wuhan succumbed to a new virus that had sickened at least 41 people. “There is no evidence that the virus can be spread between humans,” the New York Times reported at the time (Quin & Hernandez, 2020). By April 2, the COVID-19 coronavirus had sickened more than one million people in 171 countries across six continents and had killed more than 51,000. In a recent report for the Royal Society of Canada, my colleague Michelle Hagerman and I noted that nearly two years later, the pandemic had not only claimed the lives of millions but also upended nearly every public, private, and non-governmental institution around the globe (Westheimer & Hagerman, 2021).
Crises have a way of making us ask big questions. They focus our attention on what matters most – to us, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and the planet. For educators, prioritizing what is important became fundamental as teachers grappled with the new realities of online learning, spotty attendance, and the immense inequalities the pandemic revealed about the lives of students and their families. These new realities offer an opportunity to reshape our thinking about what matters in education. But opportunity is not the same as destiny. For lasting change to occur, we must focus our attention on using what we have learned.
Can you name any of the fourteen plant phyla? What’s the difference between sine and cosine? When did the Assyrian empire’s reign over Mesopotamia begin and end? What roles do chloroplasts, vacuole, or mitochondria play in the basic functioning of cells? If you don’t know the answers, you’re not alone. The truth is that few adults (whose professions do not require such specialized knowledge) know the answers to these questions. And even fewer face social, civic, or career setbacks as a result.
If I could ban any two words from education talk for the next year or so, I would choose these: learning loss. The past two years of interrupted schooling has meant that countless children missed lessons in math, history, geography, science, and literature. Every day we read about children falling behind, but the curriculum is bursting at the seams. Falling behind what? Behind whom? Estimates are that nearly 90 percent of the world’s 1.7 billion students have missed a significant amount of school these past two years. So we shouldn’t be surprised if testing experts tell us that, on balance, the COVID generation is not performing as well on standardized assessments of progress as previous cohorts of children at the same stage in their schooling. We probably didn’t need the tests to tell us that predictable fact. But what if that model of teaching and learning is outdated and there are more important things for teachers to think about than whether they’ve “covered” the curriculum?
For certain basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, the language of learning loss is an understandable way of expressing concern over an achievement gap between high- and low- achieving students. But for more than three decades, the school curriculum has become increasingly consumed with all the things students should know before they graduate. That has resulted in an unprecedented global obsession with micro-managing teachers’ work to ensure the right information is taught, and with standardized testing to find out if they’re succeeding. Yet those who seek to demonstrate the importance of coverage in the curriculum mostly use standardized measures of knowledge attainment to prove their point. This tautological approach should be easily dismissed, pandemic or no pandemic, when making the case that we need to move our priorities away from a mile-wide-inch-deep approach to teaching and learning.
Research in teaching and child development tells us that learning how to think analytically is much more important than cramming in material that students won’t remember weeks or years later. We live in an age of instantly accessible information in an infinite number of domains. Living well in the 21st century does not require more information, but rather the knowledge and skills needed to sift, understand, and assess the quality of information. Teaching content matters, but covering every possible historical event and scientific or mathematical concept does not.
I would be thrilled if my child had the opportunity to read and discuss with her teacher and classmates the brilliant allegorical novel, The Alchemist. After all, many students learn valuable ways of thinking about the world from reading it. But I’d be OK if they had to miss that one and read only Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi instead. What matters is finding topics of interest to both teachers and students, having the time to explore those topics in depth, and facilitating connections between subject matter and the outside world. A deep-dive into topics of interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows.
This is not a new idea. “Less is more” has been a common aphorism in curriculum development for more than 30 years. The harms wrought by trying to meet curricular standards bursting at the seams were well documented before the pandemic (see for example Kempf, 2016), but during the past two years, as teachers and school boards across the country were forced to recognize the impossibility of covering the entire prescribed curriculum, the very idea of breadth versus depth came under increased scrutiny. It has become clearer than ever that endlessly expanding content goals reduce teachers’ control over the curriculum, undermine their professional judgment, and limit student engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic functioned like an X-ray, revealing already existing fault lines in our nation and the world: poverty and economic inequality, hunger and homelessness, racial and ethnic bias, unequal access to high-speed internet and computers, and inadequate resources for those most in need. None of these are new challenges, but they are newly spotlighted for all of us to see – “pinned” in the vernacular of the now-ubiquitous video conferencing platforms. Online learning meant that educators were transported into students’ homes, making inequality difficult to ignore.
What bothers me about a focus on learning loss and “falling behind” is that it will increase these already existing gaps. Calls for economically disadvantaged students to keep up with their wealthier peers will not diminish the achievement gap between children from poorer and wealthier households. The problem is not that some kids will learn more than others as much as it is the consequences we tie to arbitrary benchmarks of learning in the first place. Since students are likely to be evaluated in the future using assessments of how much of the curriculum was covered, and since those evaluations continue to be used to sort students in ways that will affect their futures, we are, at least in part, creating the very problem we hope to eliminate by emphasizing the achievement gap. The more we value the acquisition of information over the development of intellectual, emotional, and relational capacities, the more we contribute to rather than ameliorate inequality.
I do not want to minimize the added supports some children need to make up for lost schooling in basic skills. A child entering Grade 3 after having missed much of the previous two years may not be able to read. Some children will have missed the opportunity to learn or solidify basic mathematical literacy. These are significant liabilities, not really comparable to missing stories about some explorers in Canadian history. It is a significant handicap to be lacking these “basic skills,” and for most children, it would be difficult to acquire these skills on their own. To be sure, we should support additional funding for more teachers, smaller classes, and additional programming so that these gaps can be addressed.
But there is much more to schooling than basic skills alone, and we must be careful not to create arbitrary barriers to those students who, beyond common-sense basic skills, have not acquired the same level of curriculum coverage as their more well-resourced peers.
Schools have been stuck in the wrong paradigm for success, one in which individualized knowledge and skills are the end-goal instead of a means to develop students’ best selves within the community of their teachers and peers, and, by extension, improve society for all of us.
If we agree to move beyond an outdated paradigm of education centred around curriculum coverage, what kind of vision for post-pandemic education can take its place? Two decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that education either functions to inculcate conformity in the younger generation or it becomes “the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (2000, p. 34). To Freire, the sense of pedagogical meaning-making that derives from curriculum is inseparable from the goal of improving society. In other words, improving society requires not only teaching basic skills and knowledge, but also engaging young and old alike in a process of collective meaning-making and community-building.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the ways people treat one another, learn from one another, and live together in local, national, and global communities – in short, how people see themselves as members of a community. Education has always seemed important to me, not because of the debates about passing fads and strategies (phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math, small classes versus big classes), but rather because choices about how we teach our children are choices about the kind of society we believe in and the kind of people we hope will emerge from our schoolhouse doors. Will they be concerned only with their own individual success and ambitions without regard to the welfare of others? Will they form healthy and happy relationships with others? Will they value democratic values such as self-governance and social justice? Will they learn how to develop convictions and the courage to stand up for those convictions if and when it becomes necessary to do so? Will they be able to engage in work and community activities they find meaningful? These values are manifestations of a sense of both personal and civic identity and form the basis of community life.
You can see, then, that I think about schools not only or even primarily as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge, but also as places where children learn about the society in which they are growing up: how they might engage productively, how they can fight for change when change is warranted, and how to know when it is warranted. Schools have always taught lessons in areas such as citizenship, moral values, good behaviour, and “character.” Schools teach children to follow rules, to wait their turn, and (ideally) to cooperate with others. Schools (again, ideally) also teach children how to acquire and process information and how to articulate their ideas to others – all necessary skills for democratic community life. Some schools also help students consider whether being a “good” citizen or member of the community ever requires questioning rules, or what might be the proper balance between rule following and thinking about the origins and purpose of rules.
Schools teach these lessons regardless of whether or not they aim to do so explicitly. How classrooms are set up, who gets to talk when, how adults conduct themselves, how decisions are made, how lessons are enacted – all these inevitably serve as lessons in how to live together. Whether teachers explicitly “teach” these subjects or not, students learn about community organization, the distribution of power and resources, rights, responsibilities, and of course, justice and injustice. These same lessons are mirrored in students’ online interactions. Curricular choices and the relative importance we put on covering all the content standards contain both overt and hidden lessons as well.
When policy-makers focus obsessively on learning metrics, teachers are forced to reduce their teaching to endless lists of facts and skills, unmoored from their social meaning. But when we consider what a successful education might look like more broadly and we think about the impact our curricular choices have on the people we hope students will become, we create new ways of seeing the complex work of teaching and we form new expectations for the purposes of a public education.
Schools should teach subject matter content. There, I said it. I do not want to entertain strawman arguments about progressive educators who don’t care whether children learn to read and write, add and subtract numbers, or learn facts about things. As far as I know, there is not a group anyone can join called “Parents and Educators Against Children Learning How to Read.”
What I am suggesting is that schools should teach content without becoming overly concerned with teaching all content. The need for such a shift in thinking is not new but was made newly possible by the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eliminating the need for each and every student to cover the exact same material at the same time would free teachers to help their students create meaning, develop a sense of purpose, belonging, well-being, and the chance to learn more deeply about things that excite their curiosity. A paradigm for education that embraces these kinds of goals encourages teachers and students to develop content knowledge and skills by drawing on the local passions, interests, and resources of the school and community. As high school history teacher Michael Berkowitz likes to say: content matters more than coverage.
Most importantly, a successful education should be one that allows each child to become the best version of themselves, and to envision a future for their communities and the planet that isn’t yet realized – but that they can help bring about.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
Kempf, A. (2016). The pedagogy of standardized testing: The radical impacts of educational standardization in the US and Canada. Palgrave.
Qin, A. & Hernández, J. C. (2020, January 10). China reports first death from new virus. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/world/asia/china-virus-wuhan-death.html. Para 4
Westheimer, J., & Hagerman, M. (2021). After COVID: Lessons from a pandemic for K-12 education. In T. Vaillancourt (Ed.), Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://education.uottawa.ca/en/news/royal-society-canada-policy-briefing-children-and-schools-during-covid-19-and-beyond
The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) introduced EmpowerTM Reading (henceforth, Empower) to address the ongoing needs of exceptional students with reading difficulties.
Over 30 years ago, TCDSB partnered with Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) to introduce Empower in its developmental phase (Lovett & Steinbach, 1997). TCDSB continues to use Empower’s commercial version in up to 100 classes, located in 70+ schools; numbers vary slightly by year.
The TCDSB-SickKids’ partnership occurred when the whole-language approach was influential in shaping educational practice in Ontario. Its opponents, however, presented counter-evidence that basic pre-requisite skills, including phonemic awareness, reading fluency, and vocabulary development (Nathan & Stanovich, 1991), are critical in improving automaticity in decoding and reading, necessary before learning higher-level skills. Persistent deficits in basic word identification skills require direct remediation of phonologically-based reading skills, systematic and explicit instruction in letter-sound and letter cluster-sound mappings, and reinforcement of word identification learning (Rayner, et al., 2001).
TCDSB’s involvement in Empower development began when the identification of learning disabilities was based on the now-defunct model of IQ-achievement discrepancy. Current practice across Ontario school-boards focuses instead on the “psychological processes” underlying a learning disability, of which phonological processing is one. It involves the awareness of phonemes – the alphabetic principle that underlies our system of written language. Specifically, developing readers need an understanding of the internal structure of words to benefit from formal reading instruction (Adams, 1990). Once decoding is efficient, attention and memory processes are freed for comprehension. Phonological awareness therefore assumes a pivotal role in learning to read. It is a strong predictor of a child’s literacy development (Melby‐Lervåg et al., 2012), from Kindergarten throughout school (Perfetti et al., 1987; Calfee et al., 1973).
The Empower program addresses learning problems of struggling readers by remediating core deficits in decoding, spelling, word-reading, vocabulary development, and text comprehension. The program’s initial focus on letter-sound identification and sound-blending training gradually moves to larger sub-syllabic units such as phonograms, vowel clusters and affixes, each with its own metacognitive strategy.
To address reading difficulties confronting special education students, TCDSB deploys Empower as a Tier-3 reading intervention, targeting those with a Learning Disability (LD)/Language Impairment (LI) learning profile for whom previous Tier-1 & 2 interventions (e.g. 5th Block) have been unsuccessful. The main admission criteria are:
Select TCDSB elementary schools host Empower program(s), with mandatory training by SickKids-appointed staff, accountability/research tracking, and centralized monitoring/management by the TCDSB Empower Steering Committee. Comprised of interdisciplinary representatives, the Empower Steering Committee oversees program implementation.
With authorization from SickKids, highly experienced TCDSB-appointed special education teachers monitor the fidelity of implementation by serving as internal mentors/trainers. There are two initial training days for teachers, further training during the year, and subsequent refreshers. The mentor provides scheduled classroom visits and consultation via phone/e-mail. Training focuses on instructional methods, Empower lesson components and materials, student monitoring and assessment.
When interviewed, teachers were very pleased with the initial training (despite its intensity) and support/feedback from mentors’ classroom visits.
About half of the 70+ participating schools were selected as Empower “Hubs,” receiving additional staffing allocation. Eligible students from non-Empower schools could transfer to a nearby “Hub” for one year and receive instruction in Empower and all other subjects. Teachers consistently reported that transferred students made academic and social progress similar to other Empower students.
We focus on Empower Decoding/Spelling for Grades 2 to 5. More than 100 60-minute lessons are taught to about 500 students in small classes of 4–7. In addition, the Board recently implemented Decoding/Spelling for Grades 6 to 8, and Comprehension for Grades 3 to 7.
To address core deficits in decoding and spelling, students receive instruction in five decoding strategies in sequence:
On several letter-sound and word-identification tests, most students made substantial gains in decoding (see examples in sidebar). Students read more in class or at home and were positive about their reading ability. Students admitted to Empower while waiting for assessment for LD/LI difficulties made good progress with Empower. Often they ended up not meeting the requirements of a formal identification, or no longer required a formal IEP. Some formally identified LD students and most LI students made progress, but less so than other students. Others made limited progress because of poor attendance and behaviour, reinforcing the requirement to address these issues before Empower. The behaviour of some students improved after success in decoding.
Teachers recommended that 20–40 percent (depending on the measure/report) of students receive additional reinforcement after Empower to help them cope with reading in higher grades.
Empower teachers were interviewed/surveyed every year on implementation of Empower. Often, they reported successful implementation. Some problems were often resolved in the first year; others persisted and required central intervention.
When Empower classes first rolled out, staff were pressured to place English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) and Mild-Intellectual-Disability (MID) students in their classes, as well as students with behavioural and attendance issues. Some teachers had classes of students with varying grade levels and needs. By the following year, however, school administrators corroborated with teachers to adhere to admission criteria, but problems around behaviour and attendance persisted. In response, the Empower Committee provided written instructions to principals, followed by specific procedures to centralize annual screening.
Initially, about 40 percent of classes did not finish the program in one school year, often delaying the class that followed. The Empower Committee therefore required all new classes to begin in September. As a result, classes now finish on time, except under exceptional circumstances (e.g. long-term teacher illness).
At the outset, first-year teachers reported needing 70+ minutes per class. More experienced teachers generally completed instruction in 60 minutes or less.
As the program progressed, most Empower teachers met with regular/special education teachers, often informally, to discuss Empower lessons and students’ needs/progress. Classroom teachers were encouraged to have Empower students read in class and at home. Teachers discussed collaboration on assessment and sharing results, especially when Empower teachers were not familiar with Primary assessment. Support from the principal was essential, especially in addressing scheduling and collaboration. Sometimes, diplomatic negotiation was needed to schedule Empower, mandatory classes taught by itinerant teachers (Gym, French), and major subjects like Math. Empower is fast-paced, requiring uninterrupted class time without announcements, school activities or professional obligations. After the first year of Empower, such interruptions were rare.
Parents were expected to meet the Empower teacher as part of the admission process. Students were encouraged to read at home and discuss passages with parents. On interview night, about half of parents met with teachers who provided them with information on Empower and homework. Some parents were highly cooperative; others less so.
The Empower program requires a strong commitment to implement effectively. However, we feel the results attest to the program’s worth. This success is not only determined by assessment, but by continuing positive feedback obtained from stakeholders that Empower has indeed changed students’ lives and positively impacted their learning. As one Grade 3 student put it: “Thank you for making Empower. I couldn’t even read a book that was easy. I can read books that are chapter books AND 24 pages long!” Parents are equally enthused, as one described her experience: “This program has not only helped my son to learn how to read but also improved his self-esteem. He doesn’t have to pretend to know how to read anymore; he knows that he can actually do it.” Teacher and school administrators are similarly highly motivated to host Empower, as in one principal’s feedback: “The Empower program has made a profound difference to the lives of many students. Students become strategic and successful readers. Over 12 years, I have witnessed the transformative power of the Empower program.” Perhaps what is most rewarding to teachers, frontline staff and the interdisciplinary professionals running Empower is the affirmation that scientifically-based and well-executed remediation programs have a key role to play in the eradication of illiteracy in our 21st century learning, to forever change the lives of children and their families for the better.
Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc.
Calfee R.C., Lindamood, P., & Lindamood, C. (1973). Acoustic-phonetic skills and reading–kindergarten through twelfth grade. J Educ Psychol. 1973 Jun, 64(3):293–298.
Lovett, M. W., & Steinbach, K. A. (1997). The effectiveness of remedial programs for reading disabled children of different ages: Does the benefit decrease for older children? Learning Disability Quarterly, 20(3), 189–210.
Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S.-A. H., & Hulme, C. (2012). Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 322–352. doi.org/10.1037/a0026744
Nathan, R. G., & Stanovich, K. E. (1991). The Causes and Consequences of Differences in Reading Fluency. Theory into Practice, 30(3), 176–183.
Perfetti, C. A., Beck, I., Bell, L. C., & Hughes, C. (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33(3), 283–319.
Rayner, K., Foorman, B., Perfetti, C. A., Pesetsky, D., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2001). How psychological science informs the teaching of reading. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2, 31–74.
The research described in this article has previously been reported to various TCDSB committees. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions/policy of the TCDSB.
The authors wish to express their gratitude to Dr. Maria Kokai (TCDSB), Dr. Marina Vanayan (TCDSB), and the SickKids’ LDRP Team for their guidance and advice. The successful implementation of Empower was only made possible by the vision and firm support of the TCDSB Superintendents of Special Services, past and present, as well as the professionalism and hard work of the many Empower teachers, the Empower Steering Committee, mentors/trainers, and Special Services staff who dedicate their time and career to better the lives of children under our care.
Play: It’s a word most people use without much forethought. We have all engaged in play at some point in our life, so we know what it is, right? Yet this seemingly simple word is more complex than we first imagined.
Picture a young child playing with blocks. The child uses the blocks to build a tower. As the child adds blocks to the top of the tower, it becomes less stable and eventually tumbles to the floor. At this point, the child either becomes frustrated and gives up or perseveres and tries again. If block building persists, it is highly unlikely that the child will instinctively establish the wide tower base needed for stability; prior knowledge about structures would be needed for this. You see, in young children most child-directed play involves what they already know; it is assimilative in nature (Piaget, 1962). This brings into question the widely held belief that children must be learning if they are playing. Perhaps, but how can they learn new, more challenging concepts by using knowledge and skills they already possess?
To distinguish regular play from educational play, The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) uses the term “play-based learning,” which is “intentional” and “purposeful” play (CMEC, 2012). Play-based learning is seen as different from regular play because it has specific learning objectives, requiring educators to structure the learning within play. There are three main ways educators can structure play to promote new learning:
There is growing awareness of the importance of developing strong early math skills in young children. Not only is math learning cumulative, but early math skills predict future math and academic achievement (Duncan et al., 2007). However, many primary teachers and early childhood educators lack knowledge about early math education and development (Youmans et al., 2018), do not feel comfortable teaching math (Germeroth & Sarama, 2017), and may be afraid to interfere in children’s play (Pyle & Danniels, 2016). There is clearly a need for early math-focused training that is tailored to suit the needs of classroom educators.
Children’s spontaneous play can involve explicit math content, like numbers and patterns. However, it is unlikely that new math learning will occur without intentional instruction. To support early math development, educators of young children need to plan for and prioritize math learning (Ginsburg et al., 2008). This can be done by “mathematizing” the learning environment with playful materials, tools, and activities that support math understanding (Clements & Sarama, 2013). Ultimately, structured play is ideal for building a solid early math foundation because it capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity, while incorporating targeted learning objectives. Educators can effectively promote early math learning by structuring math play in three key ways:
1. Use playful math tasks to introduce vocabulary and ideas. One of the most important steps educators can take to mathematize play is to introduce materials and tools that promote mathematical understanding (e.g. pattern blocks, pentominoes, relational rods, linking cubes, number paths, tens frames). After students have a chance to explore a material, educators should present a playful task and engage in meaningful interactions with their students (e.g. encourage the use of math vocabulary, ask questions that prompt student thinking and help them communicate their understanding).
For example, pattern block puzzles (shown above) can be used to build children’s visualization skills and geometric understanding. In this playful task, students are asked to match pattern blocks with their shape outlines, as educators model the use of geometric vocabulary (vertices, sides, rotation, shape names) and discuss strategies students use for matching pattern blocks with the appropriate outlines (shape discrimination and rotation). To extend learning, pattern block puzzles that require multiple shapes (two or more) to fit into one space can be used.
2. Present math play challenges to deepen students’ conceptual understanding. Young students are far more capable of mathematical understanding than previously thought and can engage with complex mathematical concepts with sustained attention (Bruce et al., 2016). Presenting students with a math play challenge encourages them to work with different ideas and make connections among them. One early math play challenge involves asking students to represent a number, like the number 7, using two sets of coloured linking cubes, in as many ways as possible (two blue cubes and five red cubes, one blue cube and six red cubes, and so on). This math play challenge helps students develop a greater understanding of the value a number represents and the multiple ways in which it can be composed.
3. Use structured math activities and games to promote automaticity. The more frequently young students engage with structured math activities and games, the more automatic their early math skills become. The activity of having students match quantity cards (pictures of small sets of objects represented as dots, fingers, frames, etc., shown right) with their corresponding numbers helps promote numerical knowledge. Dice games help students learn to subitize numbers (recognize the number of items in a group without counting), and playing dominoes can support student learning of basic addition facts. Moreover, using activities and games to promote automaticity in math is a great alternative to “drill and kill” worksheets that tend to leave students feeling unsuccessful and demotivated.
There is little doubt that early mathematics plays a critical role in promoting future math and school success. At the same time, many Kindergarten teachers and early childhood educators are ill-equipped to teach mathematics and are, understandably, uncomfortable with doing so. Structured math play is ideal for supporting early math learning because it promotes student engagement and targets important foundational skills.
First Photo: iStock
All other photos: Courtesy of the authors
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
For more information about ways to incorporate structured math play in preschools and Kindergarten classrooms, visit these websites:
The Robertson Program – Early Years Math
Erikson Institute – Big Ideas of Early Math
Play Learning Lab – Examples of Play
Bruce, C., Flynn, T, & Moss, J. (2016). Early mathematics: Challenges, possibilities, and new directions in the research. http://mkn-rcm.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/M4YC_LiteratureReview_25June12_RevisedSept2016.pdf
Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2013). Rethinking early mathematics: What is research-based curriculum for young children? In L.D. English & J.T. Mulligan (Eds.), Reconceptualizing early mathematics learning (pp. 121–47). Springer.
Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC). (2012). CMEC statement on play-based learning.
Duncan, G. J., Magnuson, K., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428–1446.
Germeroth, C., & Sarama, J. (2017). Coaching in early mathematics. In J. Sarama, D. H. Clements, et al. (Eds.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior: Vol. 53. The development of early childhood mathematics education (pp. 127–167). Academic Press.
Ginsburg, H. P., Lee, J. S., & Boyd, J. S. (2008). Mathematics education for young children: What it is and how to promote it. Social Policy Report: Giving child and youth development knowledge away, 22(1), 1–23. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED521700
Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. W. W. Norton & Co.
Pyle, A. & Danniels, E. (2016). A continuum of play-based learning: The role of the teacher in a play-based pedagogy and the fear of hijacking play. Early Education & Development. doi: 10.1080/10409289.2016.1220771
Youmans, A., Coombs, A., & Colgan, L.E.C. (2018). Early childhood educators’ and teachers’ early math education knowledge, beliefs, and pedagogy. The Canadian Journal of Education, 41(4), 1080–1104.
In 2015, all 193 countries of the United Nations along with scientists and political leaders agreed to partner together to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the year 2030. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals aimed at achieving peace and prosperity worldwide by addressing pressing issues such as climate change, quality education, and poverty, to name a few. Issues such as these are expected to have devastating impacts on people and the planet if not addressed. For example, climate change is expected to lead to global challenges in this lifetime that no single country alone can resolve. Approximately 42% of the world’s population is currently under 25-years-old, children and youth are at most at risk of experiencing the impacts of these issues, making schools an ideal place for learning about the SDGs.
Choose one or a few SDGs to start with when planning class activities and discussions. Each SDG also comes paired with “Global Targets,” which can make them more manageable to address.
Students are often already passionate about global issues, and the SDGs provide a way for them to learn how to become active global citizens. Take the opportunity to learn about what your students are passionate about and build activities, projects, and discussions around these.
The SDGs can enhance the curriculum by making space for learning about global issues and including perspectives from people around the world, which are often left out of national curriculums. There are many resources available for teachers that can be used as content for teaching the SDGs across subject areas.
There are programs where you can partner with other classrooms locally or in other countries to work on projects that address global issues. This gives students an engaging opportunity to learn from other students who have different perspectives and to see how their actions can impact other people – even people halfway across the world.
In an increasingly interconnected world where local and regional decisions can have global impacts on world economies, policies, and societies, it’s evermore important for countries to find ways to collaborate on issues that affect us all. Teaching about the SDGs offers meaningful learning opportunities and encourages students to discover their role in solving local, regional, and global issues. As today’s children and youth will become the next generation of voters and leaders, it is necessary to equip them with the knowledge and skills to make sound decisions in an increasingly complex world – and the SDGs provide a framework to do just that.
Anxiety about the environment, a sense of helplessness, pessimism about the future, individualism – the world is going through a dark time and many people are concerned about the morale of young people and their ability to exercise active citizenship. However, Oxfam-Québec meets thousands of young people every year who are exercising their citizenship in the fields of climate, economics and gender justice, with both hope and ingenuity.
For over 45 years, our organization has been active in schools to encourage youth civic engagement so we can build a fair, sustainable world. We believe that young people wield citizen power and that it is crucial to treat them as what they are – agents of change – and in light of what they do – take unified action to fight inequalities.
When describing Oxfam-Québec’s current educational activities, we talk about global citizenship education, an educational approach that helps young people grow into responsible, united citizens of the world. The goal of this educational continuum is to inform youth, mobilize them, encourage them to influence the halls of power, and promote their activities. Young people join this movement by attending in-class workshops; taking part in the World Walk, which for many is their first experience of collective action; working on long-term projects like fundraising for sustainable development projects; or by engaging in calls for action as part of mobilization campaigns.
All of these activities correspond to specific elements in the Quebec Education Program (QEP), in terms of its mission, broad areas of learning, skills to be developed, and progression of learning. Oxfam is even cited as a cultural reference in the school curriculum, under the theme of wealth disparity in the Contemporary World course offered in Grade 11. All of our resources clearly identify the corresponding QEP elements. Many teachers, as well as non-teaching staff like spiritual leaders and community programmers, use these resources in class or as part of extracurricular activities. Given their demanding mandates and busy schedules, school staff members appreciate the support of our team, which offers learning activities to meet their needs. To use these resources, one can find all the information needed on the Oxfam-Québec site, under the heading Ressources pour les milieux scolaires (School resources, in French only).
The educational activities we offer are both transformative and empowering. In particular, they enable girls and minority youth to have a voice and be heard in their fight against injustice. We can build a fair world without poverty if young people mobilize to exercise their global citizenship, solve problems, and work with their peers around the globe.
In accordance with UNESCO guidelines, the Oxfam confederation believes that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations must be the priorities driving global citizenship education. In the following paragraphs, we present groups of educational activities tailored for four SDGs. These activities have been adapted to remain accessible during the pandemic, using online communication tools and interactive digital resources.
SDG 5, Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, is the heart of our work: it is impossible to build a just world if half of humanity cannot flourish and have their rights respected.
For example, the campaign Les tâches ménagères et le travail de soin. Ça compte! (Make Care Count) teaches young people about the unequal division of care work between the sexes, notably through a policy paper entitled Time to Care. A free workshop, Libres de choisir (Free to Choose), teaches high school students about sexual rights – which are a human right – and encourages them to consider the social and cultural context when reflecting on the impact of failing to respect these rights. The workshop’s title, referencing the question of freedom of choice, is significant: when it comes to choice, the inequalities faced by teenage girls around the world have major consequences on their lives. In Quebec as well, young people must make choices about their sexual rights. After taking this workshop, young people are invited to support a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Healthy Mothers, Healthy children, which aims to improve the health of women, teens, and children. In the case of older youth ages 18 to 30, the project C’est pour elles aussi (It’s her right, too) can help develop their abilities to mobilize friends and family and disseminate positive messages using coordinated actions, digital action plans, and meetings with elected officials.
“My participation in the Oxfam-Québec project ‘C’est pour elles aussi’ (It’s her right, too) helped me understand that my voice is valid and that I have the right to be heard. Social networks are powerful allies for raising people’s awareness and advancing the debate. […] The team introduced me to theoretical concepts related to cyber activism and gave me the courage I needed to use my voice! I was even empowered to develop my own platform of inspiring resources on Instagram (@lesensduchaos) to counter the psychological stress caused by the lockdown.”
– Laurence C. Germain, participant in the Oxfam-Québec “C’est pour elles aussi” project
SDG 13, Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, plays a key role in Oxfam’s educational outreach efforts. This issue is intertwined with all global issues of inequality: historic, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities.
The campaign devoted to this topic is called Climat de justice (Climate justice). Like the content in the free workshop offered to young people ages 12 to 30, the campaign highlights the injustices associated with the climate crisis, and the outsized impact this crisis is having on the people who produce the fewest carbon emissions. Since indignation can be a powerful driving force, the young people involved can then participate in the 50th World Walk for Climate Justice. The World Walk is the culmination of a year of action. To highlight these efforts, the Oxfam-Québec team has asked the young people preparing for the walk to meet several challenges, from filming a video to speaking to the media. At the beginning of the school year, young people can also organize a symbolic, united action in their respective schools called Stand Up for the Planet to tell decision-makers they are committed to climate justice.
“To everyone who says that we can’t accomplish anything, look at us – 6,000 young people marching for the world! I am really proud to see this! It is our place, meaning that, regardless of our age, gender, colour, or religion, we have the right to use our voice.”
– Estelle Lafrance, age 17, member of the Oxfam-Québec Youth Seat, participant and spokesperson for the World Walk
Of course, SDG 1, End poverty in all its forms everywhere, underpins all the others. It is important to talk to young people about the economy and deconstruct dogmas that hinder a real understanding of possible solutions so everyone can live with dignity on this planet.
Along these lines, there is a free workshop for young people on the new economic model created by Oxfam. L’économie du beigne (Doughnut Economics) rejects the obsession with infinite growth at all cost and proposes instead that the economy target the well-being of humanity by respecting a series of social indicators without overshooting any planetary boundaries. This new model has already been adopted by many cities around the world, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and Nanaimo in Canada. This workshop is part of the campaign Taxing wealth: Flattening inequalities. Young people are invited to sign the petition addressed to the Canadian government asking it to rebuild an economy that is capable of tackling inequalities. In anticipation of the upcoming municipal elections, young people could ask candidates if they are interested in applying the doughnut economics model to their city. A wonderful way to learn about politics!
Doughnut economics also refers to SDG 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.
An innovative Oxfam-Québec project started some 15 years ago introducing young people to the values of innovation, creativity, and sustainability advocated by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC): Magasin du Monde (World Shop). This initiative has students create social economy businesses to promote fair trade. Participants create a shop, sit on a board of directors, and share the tasks involved: market research, inventory management and sales, activities to educate the school community, and internal and external communications. The shops do not sell ordinary products, as everything is certified fair trade and a percentage of the profits are used to support a sustainable development project. In some cases, the entire local community participates in the project, which becomes an engine of development. This happens, for example, when local farmers’ markets and tourism agencies help to promote these extraordinary shops.
“The work we accomplished on the committee for a sustainable City of Mont-Saint-Hilaire has increased my desire to have an impact on the world in which I live. It is proof that when you work at it, anything is possible!”
– Émile Chapdelaine, founding member of the World Shop at École Ozias-Leduc, member of the Oxfam-Québec Youth Observatory, and a member of the committee that helped get Mont-Saint-Hilaire recognized as a Fair Trade Town.
Research on and assessments of student participation in these so-called “civic engagement” activities reveal many benefits for the young people themselves. Those interviewed report improved self-esteem and a greater sense of responsibility. In addition, they exhibit an increase in positive social attitudes and a decrease in risky behaviours. This is mainly due to a greater sense of belonging to their school and improved academic results.
An external impact assessment carried out last year (Sogémap) confirmed the positive effect of youth civic engagement. According to this document, Oxfam-Québec’s global citizenship education programming enables young people to develop an awareness of global issues, an open, engaged mind and an increased ability to defend arguments. Not surprisingly, young people who take part in these activities maintain their civic engagement when they become adults.
In light of the above, it is easy to understand why encouraging young people to exercise their citizenship is crucial to supporting democracy and achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Back in 2017, the United Nations Population Fund noted that meeting the SDGs relies on bold measures to ensure that 60 million girls around the globe can live a life of dignity. In this pandemic period, young people, like the rest of the world, are experiencing unprecedented crises that directly threaten their present and future lives. By working with schools, Oxfam-Québec hopes to provide them with concrete measures for overcoming this challenge and support their efforts to create a more sustainable, inclusive society.
This article is translated from the original French. Some resources are also available in English; check the websites.
Resources for SDG 5:
Resources for SDG 13:
Resources for SDG 1:
Resources for SDG 8:
Photos : La Boîte 7
Read other articles from this issue
Caron, C. (2018). La citoyenneté des adolescents du 21e siècle dans une perspective de justice sociale : pourquoi et comment ? www.erudit.org/fr/revues/lsp/2018-n80-lsp03532/1044109ar/
Gingras, M.-P., Phillipe, F.L., Poulin, F., Robitaille, J (2018). Étude sur les obstacles à la mise en place d’activités d’engagement civique en milieu scolaire au Québec. Canadian Journal of Education, 41(3), 661-687. https://journals.sfu.ca/cje/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/3177
Philippe, F. (2019). Projet de recherche Réussir : 15 constats révélateurs sur l’impact des activités d’engagement civique chez les jeunes de niveau secondaire au Québec. www.elaborer.org/pdf/R3.pdf
United Nations Population Fund. (2017). Worlds apart: Reproductive health and rights in an age of inequality. www.unfpa.org/swop-2017
There is a unique opportunity before us to inspire and mobilize our students to engage with the world’s most pressing issues, as defined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide educators with a wonderful canvas to embed global issues that require collective expertise and solutions into our curriculum. In this article, I share my experience with incorporating the SDGs into one of my courses to help students realize their lifelong mission and career purpose. While the example I provide was used in a post-secondary setting as a career education framework, my intention is to inspire you to consider how you might incorporate a similar approach toward helping your K–12 students connect with these critical topics and relate them to their own career aspirations.
I teach a post-university transitions course at both the University of the Fraser Valley and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. The main course objective is to ensure students are well prepared for their journey after post-secondary graduation. I elected to use the SDGs as a framework to help students consider three ambitious questions that can evoke personal values and their sense of purpose:
Rather than simply pose these questions in a single lecture, I elected to embed them in various capacities within assignments and activities throughout the term. In particular, I chose to structure these as “renewable assignments” that aim to provide value and impact beyond the course, as opposed to disposable assignments that students set aside once they are completed.
The results demonstrated immediate impact; students felt that the content was engaging and they immersed themselves into their assignments and activities. As one student noted:
“This course [and the SDG components] has me more focused on my dream of being more than a teacher… to ensure children are receiving more than a quality education… [and that they] do not go without food, have access to clean water, are healthy (mentally, physically, and emotionally), have equality, and gain skills to thrive in their community.”
Furthermore, a common insight that many students shared is articulated in this student’s comment about introducing the SDGs within the K–12 system:
“I found it surprising that the SDGs… (or the MDGs, which was the earlier version) were not introduced earlier in my undergrad, or even while I was in elementary and high school! Learning about them earlier on would have helped me better connect what I want to know and how I can help my community.”
I agree with this student that the SDGs can and should be introduced at a much earlier age. Three assignments that resonated particularly well with my students are described below, along with ideas for adapting them to suit the K–12 environment:
In the course, students are asked to research labour market information related to their career aspirations, using search engines such as the Government of Canada’s National Occupation Code (National) and WorkBC’s Labour Market Information Office (Provincial). What skills, education, and experiences are required to enter the occupation? What might be their career outlook and prospects, provincially and nationally? Having conducted this research, students are asked to consider which of the 17 SDGs their chosen profession or field might help advance and how.
Applicability to K–12: This assignment and its activities are likely suitable to the more senior secondary school years to help students further their research literacy and critical thinking skills. Students may also use this opportunity to explore the types of work – both in terms of paid employment and unpaid volunteer/service pursuits – that directly support or are involved within one or more of the SDGs, to help expand their understanding of how diverse occupations might be.
In the information interview project, students speak with three individuals whom they believe can provide insight into a type of work they are considering, and then they reflect on these conversations. One of the reflective questions embedded in the project asks them to consider the common themes that emerged in their conversations, and how they believe these themes and individuals shed further insights into the SDGs.
Applicability to K–12: This assignment can be adapted to suit a particular grade level, from teachers providing a list of questions to ask in the lower grades, to empowering students to generate questions on their own in the higher levels. This assignment might be comparable to a career/occupation activity where teachers invite guest speakers to visit the class and talk about their profession, resulting in a group information interview where any students can pose questions. For example, a student interested in pursuing an occupation in trades might interview an electrician and learn that she is either explicitly or unknowingly supporting SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities by sourcing and using local materials in her projects, as well as SDG 5: Gender Equality through her advocacy work as a female in her trade association. If an obvious connection isn’t immediately made, the student and professional can engage in a conversation about how someone working in the profession could potentially align their work with one of the SDGs. This then becomes an interesting two-way instructional opportunity where the student can, in turn, help educate the professional about the SDGs.
Students develop their mission statement as part of an ePortfolio. During the development process, they consider: What is the work they want to pursue? Who are they doing this work for? And how might the SDGs be furthered as a result of their work? In the last question, they are able to again infuse the SDGs and talk about the overarching goal and connect it back to their ideal work and profession.
Applicability to K–12: Teachers can adjust the scope of this project based on the grade level to have students identify what they can do in their own life to help advance one or more of the SDGs; a charter of sorts. This may also align with a research project on how one can make a specific impact in their local (school or neighbourhood) community.
Ultimately, the SDGs as a career education framework can be used with students to generate ideas on occupations they’d like to pursue. Using the UN SDGs as a framework helps them expand their current career aspirations by asking, “Which of the SDGs do you think you can contribute to as you work in your chosen field, and how so?” By doing this they can better connect their work aspiration to a bigger purpose, and that purpose can also be a motivating factor in their coursework and post-secondary options. Additionally, the SDGs can help students who are unsure about their occupational goals answer the question: “What is a cause I am passionate about and how might I contribute to that cause, either through paid work or through volunteering?”
I’d like to offer a few tips for educators who wish to incorporate the SDGs into their curriculum as a means to enhance their students’ career development:
In the case of my students, the response has been very positive. I’ve had students and graduates tell me they are incorporating the SDGs in their job and graduate school applications and even during job and admissions interviews.
This quote from one student reveals the seemingly lifelong impact that embedding the SDGs into my curriculum achieved:
“Something that I have learned about myself in relation to the UN SDG(s) that I have identified was that it is not easy to accomplish these goals right away, as it happens over time… The way I treat others and the actions I take always depend upon peace and justice as everyone should be treated equally and be able to have a second chance to grow from their mistakes.”
Photo: Adobe Stock
Read other articles from this issue
Canadian Commission for UNESCO. (2020). Teacher’s toolkit: UNESCO Schools Network in Canada. UNESCO.
Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation (2021). Online global citizenship education resources.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals – also known as the SDGs or the Global Goals – offer a blueprint for a more just and sustainable future for all. As many as 193 governments from around the world adopted these goals in 2015 and agreed to implement them in their own countries in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the coming decade, these countries will continue to mobilize efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. These new, interconnected goals build on the earlier Millennium Development Goals while encompassing new priority areas, such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, and others.
SDGs have a huge part to play in today’s classrooms. As a road map for making the world a better place, these goals can support student engagement and can also inform and influence lesson plans. The Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) has been supporting students and educators in bringing these global goals to the classroom through the UNESCO Schools Network, a global network of schools contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Here are a few examples of how members of this network are taking action on the SDGs in their schools across Canada.
At Elm Creek School, a K–12 community school in Elm Creek, Manitoba, their UNESCO team of students and lead teachers launched a school-wide project to bring more awareness to, and take action on, the SDGs. The World’s Largest Lesson, launched in 2015 to bring these global goals to children everywhere, was shared with all students in a special school assembly. At this assembly, students were placed into various multi-graded groups. The school’s UNESCO committee collected various print and electronic resources, and then assigned each of these groups one or two of the goals to research. This research process led to planning that supported the ultimate goal of the entire school working together to implement action projects that could address the SDGs. Action projects that continue to be implemented and sustained include:
In 2020, the CCUNESCO and the Global Centre for Pluralism launched online teacher training on “Talking About Racism in the Classroom” in response to racial injustice in Canada and in our schools. More than 1,000 teachers responded and more than 500 participated in online training as it was clear that teachers and school administrators urgently wished to be equipped and supported to have these conversations and to explore systemic racism within their school systems.
In order to continue this important conversation with students, CCUNESCO partnered with TakingItGlobal and the Centre for Global Education to organize an online live video conference for schools across the country titled “#BlackLivesMatter in Canadian Schools.” The two keynote speakers for this video conference were two students from the David Suzuki Secondary School from Brampton, Ontario. As members of the United Souls, a Black student leadership group that shares a common ideal of upholding Black excellence, they were able to share their personal experiences of racism and how we can address systemic racism within our school systems.
To promote health and well-being in their community, some of the students at F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, Yukon, organized care packages for people in need this winter. Students purchased arm socks and mitts along with personal-care products and some chocolate to be distributed locally. The students enjoyed working together to spread some holiday cheer and work toward SDG #3: Good Health and Well-Being.
Climate action is essential for sustainable development, which, at heart, is a way for people to benefit from natural resources without using them all up and depriving future generations. For example, reducing carbon emissions is key to living within environmental limits. So is being responsible about excess packaging, waste disposal, and how we treat the world’s oceans. It is increasingly urgent to preserve the world’s ecosystems and natural and cultural heritage, and to protect the Earth from the most devastating effects of weather extremes, such as wildfires, floods, severe storms, and more.
At Bruce Peninsula District School in rural Ontario, teachers, students, and staff have implemented a comprehensive program driving climate action in every classroom, with monthly challenges and tips. As part of this approach, the entire K–12 school completed ten monthly challenges focused on climate action during the school year. The projects supported what students were learning in class and involved parents and community members. To ensure everyone stayed on track, the school kept tally sheets of climate actions and had one student elected by each class to make sure climate actions were being taken.
At École secondaire Cavelier-De LaSalle in Quebec, reducing waste is serious business. After installing an industrial composter, the school redirected 176 kg of waste as compost in 2017, and 200 kg of waste in 2018. The school also reduced plastic waste by selling reusable water bottles in the 2017–2018 school year, which are fillable at the school’s bottle fountains.
In order to ensure peace, justice and strong institutions in Canada, Indigenous peoples’ rights must be respected. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society. The UNESCO Schools Network supports initiatives that promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada within UNESCO’s program areas. To facilitate the conversation around reconciliation within the classroom, CCUNESCO partnered with Wapikoni, an organization that works with Indigenous youth through cinema and music to develop their artistic, technical, social, and professional skills, and broadcasts their films to increase public awareness of issues facing Indigenous communities. The result was a teaching guide intended to encourage high-school teachers to engage students in discussions about current issues and to introduce them to the diversity of Indigenous cultures in Canada.
At Allison Bernard Memorial High School, located in Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia, the school uses music and technology to help students engage with, share, and celebrate their cultural identity. For example, high-school students put Rita Joe’s famous poem, I Lost My Talk, to music. “It’s all about reconciliation through art – that was the overriding idea with this whole project,” says Eskasoni teacher Carter Chiasson. They are also in the process of developing a language app to revive Mi’kmaq.
Imagine more than 11,500 schools in 182 countries connecting and learning from one other, where students reflect on global challenges such as peace, climate action, human rights, cultural diversity, and sustainable development, while taking action to contribute to positive changes in their own communities. This is what the UNESCO Schools Network is all about. Created in 1953, it connects schools across the world to promote quality education for all in the pursuit of peace and development. There are more than 100 UNESCO schools across Canada.
There is a particularly important role for UNESCO schools in Canada to take action on SDGs. A Teacher’s Toolkit was recently created to support all educators and students who are interested in implementing UNESCO values at their schools. While all schools can access UNESCO and CCUNESCO educational resources and publications, those that are part of the network also get to learn from one another with other schools that are committed to tackling local and global issues related to the SDGs, thereby contributing to a better and more sustainable future for all. Learn more about the SDGs, connect with others across Canada and the world, and join the movement!
Read other articles from this issue
Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
Canadian Commission for UNESCO. (March 2020). Teachers toolkit: UNESCO Schools Network in Canada. UNESCO.
Rita Joe Song Project. Gentle warrior. National Arts Centre.
Global Centre for Pluralism. (2020). Talking about racism in the classroom: Webinar and resources for educators on anti-Black racism.
UNESCO Schools Network.
Wapikoni. (n.d.) Wapikoni teaching guide: An introduction to the diversity of Indigenous cultures in Canada.
World’s Largest Lessons.
Image: United Nations
Sustainability gives purpose to education.1
THE IDEA of education for sustainable development is not entirely new. My introduction to it began in 2008, with a simple request. A group of students required a staff advisor in order to participate in the Plan International Canada program, Spread the Net. Co-founded by Rick Mercer and Belinda Stronach, Spread the Net was a friendly national fundraising initiative among K–20 institutions to engage communities in international development actions. As a science teacher, it was not lost on me that malaria had been eradicated in Canada for more than 60 years (70+ years today), yet it remained a challenge for some nations globally. Moreover, due to changing global climate systems, there was the potential for Canada to face similar challenges with malaria in the future.
Months later, I learned that the Spread the Net initiative was rooted in one of the United Nations’ eight international development goals, known as the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs). Spread the Net was my introduction to the world of education for sustainable development (ESD) and the work of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for global education. Because of this experience, my philosophy for “why I teach” broadened in scope from subject-specific curriculum expectations to a more global perspective: How will students apply this information to address the complexities of today and of the future?
On September 15, 2015 at the UN General Assembly, global leaders unanimously adopted Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a new set of progressive universal and transformative goals for global development. The new UN framework that superseded the MDGs was created so that nations could continue to reimagine and reshape the future, with one major difference – this framework had global significance and was positioned in a way that all nations could plan, act on, and measure their progress over a 15-year period. The resulting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets were developed with the input of people from all over the world to ensure they represented the needs of the global population. That is why the framework has come to be known in education circles as the Global Goals.
Building on the principle of “leaving no one behind,” the new Agenda emphasizes a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all. The 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development are integrated and indivisible.
The 2030 Agenda is an ambitious plan in which education is mentioned 28 times across six goals (#1, #3, #5, #8, #12, and #13), in addition to Goal #4, which is dedicated solely to education. Education is positioned as both an enabler and a driver of capacity building toward achieving the SDGs.
But the SDGs also bring to education systems an exciting new model on which to scaffold teaching through the 17 cross-cutting themes that intersect all societies, all grade levels, and all disciplines. Using the 17 SDGs as lenses for teaching presents subject-matter content in a relevant context, helping students to apply what they are learning locally to global conditions and current events.
The appeal of the framework for me is the interconnected, interlinked nature of the goals. At first glance the SDG poster with the 17 tiles, vivid hues of primary colours, and skillfully arranged composite of squares to form a rectangle, looked simple. But it is not. No tile exists in isolation! Once I ventured behind each tile, exploring each indicator (measure of progress) and tangential connection, I realized that in its wholeness these 17 tiles represented life’s challenges and opportunities that could be investigated and discussed in varying magnitudes/scales, e.g. individual, community, region, country, continent, and the world. I had discovered concrete and flexible ways to actively engage learners in critical thinking and systems practice.
Consider the discipline of science, my playground. It is a powerful tool that learners can use to understand natural and social phenomena in their communities. These phenomena, usually distilled into discrete subject areas, are presented in the SDGs with all their beautiful real-world complexities and nuances. Learners are required to mobilize knowledges (from areas other than science) skills, and attitudes – including the pan-Canadian global competencies2 – to identify local problems and action solutions. Since the SDGs serve to spark the problem-finding, the solutions that arise can have global application.
The SDGs position the subject-specific knowledges in their true form: multifaceted, multilayered, and complex. When learners apply subject-specific knowledge in a context that is positioned in local realities, they are empowered to explore, analyze, and engage with their environment, both natural and human-made, and to strengthen skills (global competencies) that will enable them to tackle complex issues that are affecting their communities now and in future.
When I agreed to contribute to this publication, I knew that the narrative I would share could not be my story alone. This was an opportunity to serve as a knowledge broker for the SDGs. I decided to provide space for more voices to be heard and posted a call for contributors via a brief survey to the TeachSDGs Ambassador Slack platform. It did not take long for responses to come in – from Greece, Canada, Lebanon, Nigeria, the U.K., the U.S., United Arab Emirates, and France – a global community bound together by their belief in the power of education to transform the world. Formal and informal educators, former teachers, and an administrator responded to the call.
My first question centred on the benefits of membership in a global community of practitioners (Teacher SDGs Ambassadors). Here are just a few responses:
“Sharing of best practices with each other. Networking with like-minded people from across the world. Learning from a global community to help prepare students to think local and act global.” – Anita Singh, teacher at a Farm School, United Arab Emirates
“… collaborating with other educators on ideas to teach the SDGs.” – Doreen N. Myrie, teacher-educator, U.S.
“The main benefits are creating partnerships with each other to increase our implementation efficiency. These partnerships would be in different forms like sharing resources, expertise, affiliation, and all kinds of support.” – Jinan Karameh, school principal, Lebanon
“Access to a community of like-minded practitioners who share the same vision and ultimately the same goal. Sharing best practice. Kept informed with current initiatives and learning development opportunities.” – Tim Black, former teacher, France
Reading these comments, a proverb came to mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Through the global collaboration and partnership enabled by the TeachSDGs Ambassador program, my voice, my work, and my contribution to education benefits many more individuals than I actually see, and every opportunity to collaborate serves to amplify the actions that support desirable practices in education.
In order to engage students, teachers must understand the purpose of learning – the collective why – for themselves and the students. Whether it be social studies, the arts, science, or math, teachers must consider:
The 17 Global Goals offer teachers myriad ways to educate students about global complexities through local contexts. Research on Education for Sustainable Development supports this approach for enhancing student self-esteem, character development, empathy, and empowerment. Framing the learning at the community level also provides students the chance to apply knowledge to authentic contexts. In addition, ESD pedagogies encourage teachers to consider more learner-centred approaches, enabling students to be self-governing in their learning. Schooling must now prioritize the development of competences for sustainability3 that support participatory action of students by identifying alignment between curricula and perspectives that the 17 Goals and 169 targets provide.
Since my induction into ESD, my role in education has shifted from classroom teacher to a curriculum developer working at the ministerial level. To demonstrate the potential for SDGs to positively impact education, I defer once again to the educators from the TeachSDGs community. I asked them to share their insights on how framing subjects through many perspectives of the UN SDGs empowers learners. Here are a few responses:
“When you bring the Global goals to a local level, and the students can make the connection with what you are learning and discussing in class and their life and lived experience, it is a powerful combination. If you can ignite a passion within a student to work to make a positive change in the world, what could be better?” – Mahfuza Rahman, teacher (Science) and technology coach, Canada
“Learners… realize the need for inclusive solutions (Leave No One Behind) and develop their critical thinking, innovation, and creativity trying to help the future of our planet.” – Stavroula Skiada, teacher (ICT), Greece
“Encourages broader thinking. Helps them [students] become global citizens and can inspire them [students] to take action as a global change-maker.” – Kirsten Thompson, former teacher, U.K.
“Learners are empowered to problem solve, to use their voice to teach others to make a change and a difference about issues that they care about. They are empowered to learn about cultures and see the value in learning about other cultures and the world.” – Lynn Thomas, teacher (English Literature), Canada
“Students see and experience the world as an interdependent ecosystem and acknowledge, create, and find their place in it.” – Julia Fliss, teacher (English Language Arts), U.S.
Kristen Thompson summed it up nicely when she reflected that framing subject matter through the many perspectives of the SDGs, “brings education to life for students by focusing on real-world issues.”
Currently, there are many challenges to embedding the Global Goals into our teaching practice – such as communication gaps within ministries and districts/school boards, competing interests and priorities within public education, and a lack of professional development opportunities for interested teachers on SDGs topics. But difficult is not impossible. An important driver for reorienting education is knowledge mobilization, sharing of resources, and professional learning support.
Since the inception of the Global Goals, a flood of resources have been created by ESD champions and developed by teachers to support related work on regional, national, and international levels. Schools that put the Global Goals at the centre of their approach to education are part of a greater whole. There are multiple on-ramps for individual teachers as well as school communities to get involved.
Wondering how you can start weaving the Global Goals into teaching and supporting a sustainability mindset for learning in school communities? Here are a few accessible suggestions:
My discovery of ESD and the 17 Global Goals has led me to bring a more holistic approach to my practice and served as a window to the world by opening my professional community to places and people in ways that I could have never imagined! Good news stories in the education sector (or at least the dissemination of them) are typically in short supply, and I hope that by sharing my story, readers will come to understand the many ways the Global Goals will provide learners – both teachers and students – with on-ramps to meaningful community-based learning that has global significance. Education in 2021 is glocal!
Information about the UN SDGs and their potential to positively impact teaching and learning is sorely required, especially now. September 2020 marked the five-year milestone of the 15-year action-oriented framework and launched the Decade of Action: a call to accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges by 2030. The clock is counting down. Let’s continue the good work of making the world a safe, just, and equitable place through education, for everyone.
Video: UNESCO: The Lab of Ideas, the Lab for Change!
Teach SDGs Manifesto: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1CUlNQpAd4YfwC8QjC1MK8qNQV3lUr67U/view
These are my go-to resources that I access regularly.
Banner Photo: Adobe Stock
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1 Source: G. Connelly, former Superintendent of Toronto Board of Education. Education for sustainable development is designed to raise students’ awareness of and encourage them to become actively engaged in working for a sustainable society.
2 Articulated by the Canadian Ministers of Education (CMEC) in 2016:
3 Competencies for sustainability include systems and future-oriented thinking, normative competency, strategic competency, critical thinking, collaboration, integrated problem-solving, and knowledge about planetary phenomena.
4 A curriculum audit involves surveying courses offered to identify which units/topics currently include sustainability topics and mapping them to the 17 Goals (and 169 targets).
When my family and I emigrated to Canada from England in 1987, we left behind a country with a deep-seated history of social class division and class-consciousness. Britain has long been obsessed with social class. My memoir, Moving (2020) – about growing up and being educated in a working-class community in Northern England – describes how social class differences affected every aspect of my own education.
My own struggles were with upward mobility – how to reconcile the culture of my selective grammar school with that of my working-class community. My two brothers had different struggles. At age 11, a standardized test marked them out for failure. I eventually made it to university on the other side of the country. They ended up in factories at the bottom of the hill. Social class mattered a lot in England then. It still does.
But in 1987, I was leaving all this behind. My Dean envied me. He had just returned from his first visit to Canada, the world’s first constitutionally bilingual, multicultural society. How lucky I was to be going there.
I arrived in a country that didn’t really talk much about social class at all. There were other serious sources of inequality to attend to instead. Race, immigration, language, poverty, and disability were foremost among these. Attention to inequalities in Indigenous and LGBTQ2+ communities would follow later. In our research, Dennis Shirley and I (2018) witnessed how assiduously Ontario educators addressed these issues from 2014–2018. But Canadians didn’t really seem to be concerned about social class at all. Working class inequality was a silent and invisible feature of the educational and social change agenda.
The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly brought the health and education of working-class people and their families to the forefront of our attention. They are the most likely to contract COVID-19, to have no one on hand to supervise them when they need to learn at home, and to live in overcrowded and unstable conditions unsuitable for learning or health.
What it means to be working class is a matter of debate, with some commentators defining it in terms of poor income or low level of education, for example. Traditionally, though, social class is about the kind of work people do and how that structures people’s opportunities and identities. In general, working class people do manual work (either skilled or unskilled), and/or have little control over their work conditions – think call-centre employees, people who have to work on contract in multiple care homes, or employees in the gig economy, for instance.
Social-class inequality is closely tied to student achievement and well-being, but compared to other causes of educational inequality, like race or poverty, it has received little attention. There are four explanations for this neglect and for why coronavirus is changing all that.
Why has Canada’s commitment to diversity not included social class? One reason is that acknowledging the struggles of the working class might be equated with acknowledging the white working class. That would risk associating whiteness with disadvantage instead of with its historic racial privilege.
The coronavirus crisis, though, has made clear that the working class is actually very diverse. Vulnerable, essential front-line workers include migrant farm labourers, immigrant care home workers, hospital cleaners, Uber drivers, and virtual shoppers. Whatever their race or ethnicity, they are all working class. They have the low pay, contractual insecurities, and vulnerability to COVID-19 to prove it.
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. Her study of battered women’s shelters (1991) showed that the experience of an abused white middle-class woman was different from that of a low-income immigrant woman speaking English as her second language. So, we had to examine the intersectionalities of oppressed women’s multiple identities. Working-class identity intersects with many other aspects of diversity. Social class needs to come back into our reckoning about inequality – and the coronavirus crisis is doing that with a bang.
Joan Williams (2017), author of White Working Class, says that the U.S. has become “clueless” about social class. Canada has its own (working class) cluelessness, expressed in the widespread belief that the vast majority of Canadians are middle class.
“Most Canadians think of themselves as middle class,” says Julie Cazzin in Maclean’s magazine (2017). Around 70 percent of Canadians self-identify as middle class, according to a poll conducted by the magazine. In another Maclean’s article, Shannon Proudfoot (2019) reflects on her own working-class background. She warns that “the way we elide, erase and ignore socio-economic class in Canada” makes it “like an invisible fact that shapes everything, but is acknowledged nowhere.”
Wolfgang Lehmann, Professor of sociology at Western University, has studied social class and education in Canada. The son of German immigrants, Lehmann grew up in a working-class family and, like me, still struggles with his identity as a middle-class academic. Lehmann’s research (2014) with 70 university students from working-class backgrounds shows how their experiences of educational success are corroded by “conflicting relationships with parents and former friends.” The upwardly mobile students’ new knowledge, experiences, and relationships set them apart from family members and friends in their former communities. They are also more likely to disengage or drop out from their studies. They feel caught between two cultures, belonging to neither one nor the other.
“Conflating class in Canada” and “making everybody middle class who isn’t rich” is “maybe dangerous,” says Lehmann. My own biography and 50 years of research support Lehmann’s findings that the particular culture of academic success is constantly tugging students away from their class identity. There has been a positive movement for schools to enable young people to retain pride in their race or gender identities, for example, as they strive to succeed. But working-class identity seems to be something that upwardly mobile students feel pressured to leave behind.
Our schools must accord as much dignity to the labour and values of working-class life as they do to other aspects of identity.
Coronavirus has witnessed displays of appreciation for front-line workers (many of whom are working class) on signs by the roadside and in pots being clattered on balconies. But we must do more. The hard work, labour, dedication, and sacrifice of these workers have kept the rest of us alive. Post-pandemic, we must no longer condemn workers in the gig economy to job insecurity and working multiple, contract-based jobs just to get by. Our schools must also accord as much dignity to the labour and values of working-class life as they do to other aspects of identity in a diverse and inclusive society.
Poverty continues to have massive consequences for student achievement and well-being. Several of the Ontario school districts that Dennis Shirley and I have studied instituted a wide array of anti-poverty strategies. But it is impossible to turn poverty on its head and celebrate it in the way we do with Black power, gay pride, and other kinds of diversity. And being working class is more than having a certain income level.
Until the 1970s, skilled manual labour had dignity and worth. Working-class labour and working-class communities were a source of collective pride. In Canada’s Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, for example, alongside the harrowing depictions of genocide and the inspiring tributes to champions of human rights, is a compelling display on labour rights that includes the women and men who founded the Polish Solidarity Movement in the 1980s.
What should our schools be teaching about working-class identity? Where in our curriculum is the history of labour, labour rights, and trade unions, alongside business entrepreneurship and financial literacy? We should teach the concept of class through literature, history, and interdisciplinary projects, as robustly as we do race, gender, and gender identity. How can and should our schools engage with the class culture of our students, as well as other aspects of their culture? If equity is now about inclusion, it should be about social class inclusion and addressing socio-economic privilege too.
One consequence of the pandemic will be that some manufacturing will come back home from overseas. The availability of essential goods can no longer depend on vulnerable global supply chains. These new, working-class manufacturing jobs will be highly technical and involve sophisticated training.
In Germany, vocational education for skilled trades has very high status. In North America, though, it has become a second-class alternative for those who have failed to get into university. Commitment to vocational education, traditionally a politically conservative priority, must now become a priority of all Canadians. The labour, culture, skills, and pride of the working class and its educational preparation must be acknowledged, not ignored.
If we say we’re all middle class, this doesn’t just mean we ignore the working class. We ignore extreme wealth, too. We’re all becoming familiar with how the richest 1 percent of the world’s population owns more than half of the world’s wealth. The revenue of any of the Big 5 tech companies is greater than the GDP of many European nations. During the pandemic, the profits of the Big 5 have increased by about one-third. Meanwhile, for 40 years, the bottom half of society has barely advanced in real income terms at all – despite working longer hours and taking on more debt to make ends meet.
In Plutocrats: The rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else (2012), Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, claims that more and more of the world is now a plutocracy of rule by the wealthy. Although many modern plutocrats worked their own way up from modest beginnings, they now protect these gains for themselves, their class, and their families. The meritocrats have turned into aristocrats, she says.
Along with a growing number of influential economists – most of them women – Freeland lists how the super-elite protect their wealth. They do this by tax avoidance, by lobbying parliament, by establishing not-for-profit foundations where they can shelter their wealth and champion their own causes, and by buying their children places in top global universities with sizeable “legacy” donations.
Plutocrats also hijack the global discourse of improvement and change by defining what is transformational and what is not. In Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world (2019), Anand Giridharadas interviews one of the key organizers for the vastly popular TED Talks. This organizer describes how TED Talks might address questions of how to reduce poverty. But one thing it absolutely won’t touch is economic inequality. Poverty and diversity get airtime. Wealth and inequality do not.
It’s time for this to change. Emboldened by the pandemic crisis, Freeland and other economists, like Joe Biden’s Economic Advisor, Heather Boushey (2019), propose a series of measures to combat the effect of extreme economic inequality on society. “Now is not the time for austerity,” said the Throne Speech on September 22. Instead there must be investment to support the vulnerable, restart public education, and create jobs that in turn will stimulate the consumer demand that will regenerate the economy. The new normal should be about prosperity, not austerity. The Latin origin prosperus means, simply, “doing well.” Prosperity is about reducing inequality and improving well-being and quality of life. In education, well-being should not be an afterthought or an add-on. It is integral to creating a prosperous society.
For too long, social class has been the masked face of inequity, disadvantage, and marginalization. We must no longer pretend we are all middle class. This ignores the privilege of extreme wealth and the profound struggles of the millions of front-line workers on whom all our lives depend. It also runs the risk of equating working-class identity with poverty and turning it into the only identity that has to be left behind in the struggle to improve. The role of front-line workers during the pandemic has taught us that working-class identity is part of diversity, not an exception to it.
To be fully equitable and inclusive, our schools must re-engage with working-class identity. They must teach working-class identity as a history and culture of pride involving the dignity of labour, solidarity with one’s fellows, the value of hard work, and the importance of self-improvement. They must resurrect and reinvent vocational education as a high-quality commitment. They must address socio-economic diversity as a fundamental aspect of inclusion, and must approach class inequality as something that entails the privileges of the extremely wealthy and not just the privations of the poor. They must teach students about wealth tax and tax avoidance as well as financial literacy and income tax management. They must, in other words, rethink everything they do on social class lines, as much as they have in relation to all other aspects of diversity.
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
Boushey, H. (2019). Unbound: How inequality constricts our economy and what we can do about it. Harvard University Press.
Cazzin, J. (2017, June 16). What’s middle class? It’s as much to do with values as with income. Maclean’s. www.macleans.ca/economy/why-everyone-feels-like-theyre-in-the-middle-class
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), Article 8. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299. doi:10.2307/1229039
Freeland, C. (2012). Plutocrats: The rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else. Doubleday Canada.
Giridharadas, A. (2019). Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world. Knopf.
Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (2018). Well-being and success: Opposites that need to attract. Education Canada, 58(4), 40–43. www.edcan.ca/articles/well-being-and-success
Hargreaves, A. (2020). Moving: A memoir of social mobility. Solution Tree.
Lehmann, W. (2014). Habitus transformation and hidden injuries: Successful working-class university students. Sociology of Education, 87(1), 9. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040713498777
Proudfoot, S. (2019, July 16). What does it mean to be working class in Canada? Maclean’s. www.macleans.ca/society/what-does-it-mean-to-be-working-class-in-canada
Williams, J. D. (2017). White working class: Overcoming class cluelessness in America. Harvard Business Review Press.
As a Grade 6 generalist teacher I struggled this past year with teaching visual arts to my class of 28 students. This surprised me, as I had taught visual arts at a high school for the past 18 years. It was not due to a lack of ideas, knowledge of the arts, materials, or resources. It simply boiled down to the realities of teaching the curriculum of the core subjects along with preparing my students for mandatory provincial exams. There was no time to engage in meaningful and authentic art learning in the designated 50-minute weekly period. A month would pass and the students would still be working on a drawing. Their enthusiasm would dwindle and it showed in their projects. To counter this, I began to trim lessons: fewer discussions about works of art, less time to explore a new medium. I even reduced the size of paper that students worked on. Teaching art became a frustrating chore to maximize the minutes before the bell.
To solve this problem, I was advised to skim ideas off Pinterest and find a quick 50-minute project with step-by-step instructions. Chapman, Wright and Pascoe researched elementary teachers who routinely used Pinterest as a resource to build their lessons. They found that while Pinterest allowed teachers to easily access art-making ideas, the “activities on Pinterest provided things to do, but do not necessarily improve arts learning.”1 As I swiped over colourful images, it reminded me of what arts educator Arthur Efland l#_edn1abelled “the school art style.”2 Forty years ago, Efland proclaimed that a particular style of art was generated in elementary classrooms across North America. While art is habitually associated with self-expression, Efland observed that art making at the elementary level was tightly controlled and limited the child’s creative and expressive selves. Due to the children following the teacher’s step-by-step instructions, art projects contained a certain aesthetic that lacked imagination – thus the school art style. As I considered the step-by-step art lesson plans on Pinterest, I realized that my teaching was going in reverse. I abandoned Pinterest and instead reflected upon the ways the other subjects that I taught were interconnected with art.
Arts Integration may appear similar to cross-curricular learning, yet there are distinct differences. In cross-curricular learning, a teacher merges two subjects into a project with the goal of showcasing the content of both. Cross-curricular learning can bring about new knowledge for students concerning how the two subjects intersect. However, a significant critique of cross-curricular learning is that more often one subject becomes an add-on to the project.3 For example, educational researchers Clapp and Jimenez4 observed that in STEAM projects, the arts were mainly used to beautify projects. While there are intentions to utilize art as a creative force. the reality may be just a quick application of paint or glitter.
Arts Integration is “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form.”5 Duma and Silverstein assert that Arts Integration is not just an activity. It engages students to think critically and imaginatively through the process of exploration and creation. The teacher’s role is to assist students in their creative explorations and allow for students to build their own knowledge. One central benefit of Arts Integration is that the learning is naturally diversified as students uncover their own approaches to completing a project. Furthermore, Smilan suggests that the goal of Arts Integration is to not simply design a project; it is to focus on the process and the act of inquiry.6 Experimenting, collaboration, creation, and reflection are a few of the principles of Arts Integration.7
To embrace an Arts Integration approach, I had to address several obstacles. First, the timetable that divided up the subjects into neat 50-minute blocks would be abolished. I explained to my students that we would be “shutting down the classroom” to work on a project several times during the next three weeks. To my surprise, they cheered and were intrigued by this new approach to the daily schedule. Secondly, I had to expand upon what materials could be used in an art project. Having the pressure to display art projects on a bulletin board does not lend itself to unconventional materials. In addition, I wondered whether it was important that each student brought home a project. For some students, there is a sense of pride and a need to show family or friends. Other students are indifferent and the recycling bin becomes the drawing or painting’s final destination. Since I was leaning towards a group project, I would embrace photography to capture the process and provide the students with the photographs to show their families and friends. Finally, I had to redefine my role from a teacher who instructs to one who works alongside her students to support their learning.
Usually when designing a project, I consider projects that have worked in previous years. Instead, I invited my students to create a list of ideas. What struck me most was that the students wished to produce art that looked more “high school.” They were tired of cute art-making projects. Letting go of what elementary art should look like was the last step.
Our Arts Integrated project centred on the students recycling an article of clothing and giving it a new function. For inspiration, we explored the work of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, who views fashion as “a dialogue between our insides and our outsides.” The 3D printed dresses of Danit Peleg provided insight into digital technologies. And the Sound Shirt, designed by fashion-tech company Cute Circuit, revealed how individuals can experience music through sensors placed within the clothing, allowing those who are deaf to “internalize(ing) something they cannot hear.”8 To ground the fashion project, three paths of exploration were selected: fashion for fun, fashion and technology, and fashion with a social message. The end goal was to present the finished clothing at a fashion show to be held in the classroom.
In Arts Integration, the process is as important as the product. Therefore, I used various types of formative evaluations throughout the exploration and experimentation phases: planning sheets, written reflections, and peer evaluations. For the summative evaluation, I created a rubric based upon the Quebec curricular competencies: to use information, to solve problems, to exercise critical judgment, and to use creativity. A few students declared that their own evaluation was based upon whether the item of clothing item fell apart during the fashion show.
While the goal was to encourage creative exploration and work alongside the students, I recognized that the students needed specific skills, particularly sewing skills. I devoted one afternoon to showing basic stitches, how to create a hem, and a few embroidery techniques (Fig. 1). Once the students had figured out how to thread a needle, several began embroidering their names into the bits of fabric. I was amazed that the following morning several students came to my desk to show off purses and cellphone cases that they had sewed that night.
For the next task, students worked in teams to select the type of clothing they wanted to alter. Before deconstructing the old clothing, students conducted research and created sketches. This process invited students to further develop their research skills, experiment with design elements, use mathematical concepts of scale and measurement, and develop their communication skills. During the fabrication, students quickly discovered that proper measurement was important before cutting a piece of fabric. In regards to Arts Integration, the students discussed and debated ideas, worked creatively, and reflected on artistic choices throughout the project. One team imagined creating a hoodie that would express the emotions of the wearer. To achieve this, they embedded different coloured lights into the fabric that the wearer could alter depending upon his/her feelings (Fig. 2). Another team experimented with methods to sew cut-up cans onto a jean skirt. Within each project, the students were solving artistic problems and applying knowledge and skills from other subjects, particularly math and language arts.
To showcase this project, an afternoon fashion show was held in the classroom. Strings of lights formed a runway on the floor and House music played in the background. Each team wrote a text describing the inspiration behind their design. One student would read the text aloud while another student modelled the clothing. After rehearsing, the classroom was filled with excitement and nervous energy as students reworked their texts and other students practised walking with more swag. The students were more than pleased with their clothing projects. As for the teachers and parents who watched the final Fashion is Our Passion show – they were simply amazed.
The obstacle of limited time to teach authentic and engaging art required me to re-evaluate what art making at the elementary level could be. Arts Integration provided a new approach to the art curriculum that enabled students to develop communication skills, draw upon mathematical knowledge, and address their needs for self-expression. Furthermore, this Arts Integration project revealed that art at the elementary level does not need to be a step-by-step instructional process. It can be a more truly creative undertaking that allows students to learn new skills, solve problems and express themselves through art.
Photos courtesy J. Etheridge
First published in Education Canada, August 2020
1 S. Chapman, P. Wright, and R. Pascoe, “Criticality and Connoisseurship in Arts Education: Pedagogy, practice and ‘Pinterest©’, Education 3, no.13 (2018): 10.
2 A. Efland, “The School Art Style: A functional analysis,” Studies in Art Education 17, no. 2 (1976): 37-44.
3 H. H. Jacobs, “The Growing Need for Interdisciplinary Curriculum Content,” in (Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Ed.), Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and implementation, ed. Heidi Hayes Jacobs (ASCD Books, 1989), 1–11.
4 E. P. Clapp and R. L. Jimenez, “Implementing STEAM in Maker-Centered Learning,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 10, no. 4 (2016): 481.
5 A. L. Duma and L. B. Silverstein, “Arts Integration: A creative pathway for teaching,” Educational Leadership 76, no. 4 (2018): 57.
6 Smilan, C. (2016). Developing visual creative literacies through integrating art-based inquiry. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 89(4-5), 167-178.
7 L. B. Silverstein and S. Layne, Defining Arts Integration (The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2010).
8 Billboard (2019). www.billboard.com/articles/news/7378153/sound-shirt-deaf-people-feel-music-cutecircuit-video
A program offered at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, provides an immersive training experience to high school students interested in a career in trades. They take a full term of training in the trade of their choice and receive credits both for their high school graduation and toward their trade certification.
Classic thinking says: Students with strong academics go to university and those who don’t do well in school go into the trades. The Faculty of Trades and Technology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) seeks to dispel that myth and elevate trades to its rightful place alongside traditional academics at Canada’s only polytechnic university.
Challenging that misconception isn’t easy. Trades are often seen as dirty, back-breaking grunt work.
The truth is that academics play a huge role in the day-to-day work of most skilled tradespeople. Beyond the hands-on skills of each trade, students often use lots of math, and often physics, to complete complex tasks. Effective communication skills are also a must-have, so students are expected to have a solid foundation in English. And like other professionals, tradespeople use a host of soft skills to get their work done, including critical thinking, problem solving, time management, and creativity.
Through our program, Youth Train in Trades, we hope to counter the stigma surrounding skilled trades for counsellors, parents, and students. Youth Train in Trades provides opportunities beyond the ordinary shop class to high school students who want to explore a career in trades. Through the university, students receive an education in the trade of their choice, all while still in high school.
Youth Train in Trades is a trilateral partnership between KPU, local school districts, and the B.C.-focused Industry Training Authority (ITA), which funds the program. It offers high school students an opportunity to learn a trade, while earning credits that count toward their high school diploma and Level 1 of their trades training.
The Youth Train in Trades portfolio is administered by the Associate Dean of Trades and Technology (my office and my team) at KPU. Through regular Trades Training Partnership meetings, the school district representatives come to KPU to discuss schedules, questions, supports, and other information. There are also guest speakers to inform the school districts about things such as student rights and responsibilities.
Currently, KPU has agreements for Youth Train in Trades programs with ten B.C. school districts. For the participating school districts, these programs open up a world beyond traditional academics. KPU’s Faculty of Trades and Technology offers six Youth Train in Trades programs: Automotive, Carpentry, Masonry, Millwright, Plumbing and Piping, and Welding.
The program is relatively low cost for students, as high schools cover the tuition and fees. Students are only responsible for purchasing textbooks and any required personal protective equipment. Mark Flynn, Principal of Career Education at Surrey Schools, says, “We don’t offer programs in-house where students can actually do technical training. In the school system, for it to be viable, you would have to run a full class of 20 to 24 students. If we had too small a number, we couldn’t run the program. With KPU we can adjust. There’s more flexibility.”
Flynn adds, “KPU are easy to work with because they’ve been involved with this for so long they understand what the school districts need to make it work and what our students need to be successful in a program like this.”
Welding and Millwright, in particular, offer unique opportunities for high school students interested in the trades. “They’re really popular in our district. There’s always an interest in the programs, especially for Welding,” said Flynn.
Secondary schools lack the physical space and specialist equipment needed to offer trades programs like Welding or Millwright on their own. Welders fuse metal using flame-cutting, brazing and soldering equipment to form a permanent bond, while millwrights install, align, maintain, inspect, repair, overhaul and dismantle machinery and heavy mechanical equipment.
As mentioned, KPU offers six Youth Train in Trades programs. Depending on the program, they run between 21 and 30 weeks. Most are hybrid programs, with the bulk of the program taught at the student’s high school by a KPU instructor and several weeks taught at the KPU Tech campus.
Piping, Millwright and Welding are all delivered at KPU Tech in blended classrooms, where high school students learn alongside adult fee-paying students.
A Red Seal endorsement can open up a wide range of career paths that value the fundamental knowledge and experience gained through a trades education.
KPU brings the school districts and KPU instructors together to clearly define who’s teaching what. The ITA curriculum defines these as “Line Items”. The instructors negotiate who is teaching which lines to ensure all the required ITA curriculum is covered.
Once enrolled in Youth Train in Trades, students are 100 percent committed to their respective trade. Unless done on their own time, students won’t be taking other high school courses alongside the program. Youth Train in Trades is a dual-credit program, so students are earning high school as well as post-secondary credits.
“Most of our students are in Grade 12 when they do the program,” says Flynn. “So, they’re still going forward with their Dogwood [high school diploma], and now, because the market’s so good, they’re walking out into well-paying jobs. They’re job ready. It’s just a great stepping stone.”
Students in the program learn from skilled, Red Seal-endorsed KPU instructors, using the ITA curriculum. The Red Seal program sets common standards to assess the skills of tradespeople across Canada. To reach Red Seal level in welding, for example, they will have completed their Welding Level 1 and Level 2 apprenticeships, then, depending on their life experiences and employment status, their Welding Level 3 or Level B before taking their Red Seal exam. High school students who take Welding Foundations at KPU through Youth Train in Trades earn the equivalent of a Welding Level 1 and Level 2 apprenticeship.
At KPU, a Millwright student gets the equivalent of all the theory that a Level 1 apprentice would get, says Brian Myette, Millwright instructor and department chair. “Basically, a student who graduates from Millwright is going to get about 50 percent theory, 50 percent practical training,” he says. “And we have a simulated work environment. Why? Because they’re getting credit for practical hours towards their apprenticeship and Level 1 as well.”
The program provides more than specific trade skills. Students also acquire important work skills.
“We recognize that when the students first come in, it’s going to be a big transition for them,” says Myette. “The people studying trades can range in age from 17 up. So, it’s a mix. It’s very diverse. So, they come in, and they’re with many more mature students. That environment means there’s not as much horseplay. They decide it’s time to get serious, so it’s a very good learning environment.”
The benefits of the Youth Train in Trades program are not lost on Jaeden Wildenboer, a KPU Youth Train in Trades graduate and Red Seal-certified welder.
“Honestly, I don’t know what else I’d be doing besides this if I didn’t have that opportunity,” says Wildenboer. “With the skill set and the confidence that it built for me, it opened up so much.”
Most students take Youth Train in Trades in their final semester of high school. For Wildenboer, that meant making some hard decisions.
“When I first had the choice, I did second guess it because I wanted to have my last year of high school with my friends,” he says. “But now that I look back at it, I definitely made the right decision. I’m further ahead than anyone else that I can think of and it’s all because of Youth Train in Trades.”
With his passion ignited, Wildenboer continued to work in welding, gaining valuable hours as he waited for his chance to return for more training. Wildenboer landed a job within a month of graduating from Youth Train in Trades. “That’s only because I wanted to take a month off because we were doing a family vacation that summer. Otherwise it would have been sooner,” he adds.
“I knew I wanted to go back for my B level,” says Wildenboer. “I got my Red Seal when I was 19. I’ve just been working ever since.” Wildenboer says he frequently gets job offers from other companies. “I mean, I don’t even ask them for a job, they just come to me and offer it. I have a great job.”
Now 21, Wildenboer is a big advocate of Youth Train in Trades and has encouraged several friends to take the program.
“Honestly, if I had the chance to do it again, I wouldn’t hesitate,” he says. “I thought it would be a huge step being obviously one of the youngest people in the whole university. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The way the teachers had it all lined up, and all of the processes and everything we did there, it just made me overall a more confident person.”
Beyond the trades themselves, a Red Seal endorsement can open up a wide range of career paths that value the foundational knowledge and experience gained through a trades education, including being a business owner, supervisor, or trades instructor. As educators, we need to make sure that trades are seen by students as a viable career path, not a “backup plan.” Tradespeople require the same commitment and perseverance to succeed as anyone in any other profession.
Thanks to the support of ITA, Youth Train in Trades ensures students aren’t limited to what the high school has to offer and opens up a broader range of career opportunities.
Photo: courtesy KPU / Matt Law
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
“A rich and deep vocational education involves helping students explore linkages and possibilities as they crisscross the boundaries between school and work. To better help students find their way in our complex world, such a vision of expansive experiential learning holds much promise.”
Vocational education in Canadian schools has a checkered history. On one hand, it was given a boost in the 1960s with the Technical and Vocational Training Assistance Act when federal government resources were provided to build new schools and facilities across the country. On the other hand, vocational education has long been seen as a second-best choice for less able students, gaining attention mainly in times of labour shortage in key industries.
The under-valuation of vocational education reflects historical struggles. Recall the well-known debate in the early 20th century between social efficiency proponent David Sneddon and progressive educator John Dewey, who held very different visions for vocational education. Dewey opposed the separation between general education and trade education: he believed that vocational education should be liberal and liberal education should be vocational. Sneddon, in contrast, believed vocational education was largely about training working-class kids to meet industry needs. The distinction between education seen as “academic” and education seen as “vocational,” which persists to this day, supports the hierarchy that values academic knowledge and the professional occupations associated with it over practical vocational knowledge.
Currently, however, experiential learning, and especially work-integrated learning (WIL), is a hot topic in higher education policy discussions. Universities in Canada and elsewhere are encouraging all students to get a taste of the work world through internship, practicum, and cooperative education opportunities. The WIL movement is driven by a number of factors, including the concerns of employers about the “employability skills”1 of graduates, and the predominance of human capital discourse.2 In response, a burgeoning literature about how to foster effective experiential learning in higher education has emerged.
Another tendency in North American higher education is growing concern about students’ civic engagement as well as employability skills. As writers from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement in the U.S. argue in their 2012 report “A Crucible Moment,” higher education should be an incubator for fostering democratic voice, thought, and action rather than simply an engine of economic development.3 This report, coupled with the rapid growth of community service-learning in higher education, challenges the seemingly contradictory aims of educating for employability and educating for citizenship.
What does all this mean for education systems across Canada? This article argues that K-12 educators can learn from higher education approaches that:
In what follows, I elaborate on these points using examples.
Although the historical legacy of devaluing vocational education still haunts current descriptions of course streams and attitudes of educators and career counselors, steps have been taken in Canada and elsewhere to better integrate “vocational” and “general” qualifications, and to increase student access to higher education programs. In Europe, the term “hybrid qualifications” has been used to describe qualifications resulting from education and training pathways that provide access to both employment and higher education. For instance, in countries like Germany, with its highly institutionalized dual system of apprenticeship training, there is greater policy interest in encouraging young people to extend their technical training into university studies. In the Canadian context, university aspirants are also considering technical training. Toward this end, dual credit and joint degree programs are becoming more common.
Dual credit programs are being used in B.C., for example, to “enable high achieving, career oriented, and at-risk students to gain credit towards post-secondary credentials.”4 The description suggests that these programs are mainly targeting students who need encouragement to pursue education beyond high school. Dual credit courses, which involve a college credit course team-taught by a secondary school teacher and a college teacher or certified journeyperson, can be used toward a college certificate, diploma program, or apprenticeship as well as towards a high school diploma. Exposing students to the college environment is seen as a good way to expand their educational and career horizons and better prepare them to succeed in higher education. While this initiative requires greater collaboration between secondary and post-secondary systems, it is a promising way of expanding access to higher education.
Joint degree programs between colleges/technical institutes and universities represent another partnership that erodes the vocational-academic binary within the post-secondary education system. I’ve found it striking that a desire for “hands on” learning has been expressed by very different groups of students – by those participating in my earlier research into high school apprenticeship and by participants in my more recent research on university community service-learning programs (programs where students work, often in non-profit organizations, as part of an academic course). The “massification” of higher education and increasing labour market uncertainty has meant greater diversity in the student population, and an increased proportion of students who value practice-based learning.
Dual credit programs require secondary schools to collaborate with post-secondary institutions in their municipalities on partnerships that will benefit students – ideally, partnerships in areas of student interest where institutional supports can be provided. Sustainable provincial funding is a prerequisite for these initiatives. Joint degree programs encou