As we finalized the articles for this issue of Education Canada, schools and campuses across the country had been closed for about a month to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It looked like students would not be back in class anytime soon. And we were wondering how much sense it made to ship boxes of magazines to empty buildings.
Those closed schools are the reason we are not printing our May issue. Like the teachers and profs who have turned to online technology to connect with their students, we have created an online-only magazine. We invite you to enjoy the PDF version as you “shelter in place.”
In this issue of Education Canada we focus on the skilled trades, and specifically on the K-12 system’s role in connecting students to trades training.
So here’s the dilemma. While I still devoutly believe in the value of a liberal arts education, our world is full of highly educated young adults working precarious minimum-wage service jobs because that’s all they could find. Many of them never even considered skilled trades. Probably nobody ever suggested that they were worth looking into. Some students may have even been steered away from trades when they expressed interest.
Meanwhile, well paying, challenging, steady jobs are going unfilled in many trades sectors. While it’s not up to K-12 schools to qualify students for a trade, we think we could be doing a better job of introducing them to the trades as a desirable career path. We also need more options that allow secondary students to “try before they buy” (and ideally earn credits at the same time), and more fluid pathways that allow students to combine academic and skills-based training.
In our theme section, two innovative Canadian programs that give high schools students a great head start in trades (“TAP into Trades, p. 14, and “Youth Train in Trades,” p. 22) share how they fill that gap. And looking at the bigger picture, David Livingstone and Milosh Raykov (p. 18) discuss the need for expanded apprenticeship programs and better linkages between our education and apprenticeship systems. Paul Stastny (p. 25) examines our other big labour need – digital technology skills – and how the digitizing of many trades creates new opportunities, while Alison Taylor (on our website) argues for experiential and work-integrated learning programs as a means of breaking down “the binary between vocational and professional education.”
Perhaps it comes down to that old ideal of a “well-rounded education.” Shouldn’t an education include learning how to do things as well as how to know things? And can’t we, as Taylor suggests, educate students in a way that prepares them for both democratic citizenship and employability?
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
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
Why does the Canadian apprenticeship system have relatively low participation and completion rates, despite a chronic labour shortage in skilled trades? Closing this apprenticeship training gap by developing a more integrated, accessible, and expanded apprenticeship system will ensure more effective transitions from school to work for many students.
Canada has one of the most fully developed systems of general formal education in the world. There are diverse and relatively accessible programs of studies from early Kindergarten to post-doctoral university levels. By international standards, the quality of many of these programs is outstanding, as confirmed by the recently released OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for reading, mathematics and science.1 The proportion of Canadians who have completed a post-secondary university or community college program is among the highest in the world. Canadian school systems still have a lot of room for improvement on equity issues, but in terms of general levels of participation and quality of provision, they have few current peers.2 In addition, it is well documented that Canadian adults are very active lifelong learners, spending much more time in informal learning activities than organized formal education.3 But the Canadian apprenticeship system is quite a different story.
In stark contrast, the Canadian apprenticeship system has had relatively low participation rates and low completion rates. There is long-time agreement among policymakers that there have been chronic shortages of certified skilled trades, and public opinion surveys consistently show that the majority of Canadians want to give among the highest funding priorities to apprenticeship programs.4
The German apprenticeship system has frequently been suggested as one Canada could emulate.5 According to recent estimates, about half of Germans in their 30s have completed an apprenticeship. Most of these start at high school age, with extensive information about a wide range of occupations – and placements into them – available through school-related agencies and networks of employers. The vast majority of apprenticeships are completed and most lead to permanent jobs. Most Canadian apprenticeships begin after high school is finished, when both information and placements remain fragmented, and completions are probably less than half. So, only around ten percent of Canadians in their 30s have completed apprenticeships. (See Figure 1.)While there are many differences between German and Canadian apprenticeship systems and both systems are changing, it is reasonably clear that the Canadian system has a lot of room for development.
On the other hand, Germans in their 30s are only about half as likely as Canadians to have university or college completion. So, it could be argued that many Germans are being denied opportunities to reach their full educational potential by early selection into specific occupations, however effective their apprenticeships are. The bottom line for Canada is that there is great potential for closing the apprenticeship training gap by providing more opportunities for practical job-related training in conjunction with our current high post-secondary educational levels.
It is reasonably clear that, whatever decent jobs are available in the foreseeable future, more of them will involve working with knowledge rather than handling material goods – the much heralded “knowledge economy.” Since the 1980s, both industrial trades and clerical, sales and service jobs have been declining, while professional and managerial jobs have grown greatly.6 Rapid increases in popular demand for, and completion of, post-secondary education reflect public awareness of these employment changes. But there is a serious and increasing disconnect between advanced education and jobs. There are now many more highly qualified graduates than jobs with matching requirements, a condition we call underemployment or over-qualification. Canada has one of the most underemployed labour forces in the world. Of course, in a dynamic market economy, there are continual technological changes that call for new technical skills. But with Canadian students and workers continuing pursuit of new qualifications and informal lifelong learning, specific skills gaps do not last long and their underemployment continues to grow.7
One response to this condition would be to narrow access to post-secondary education. While this might now appeal to some short-sighted, austerity-minded elites, denial of educational opportunity is never a good idea and it would also fritter away Canada’s current leading post-secondary education position. Much better to find ways to close the gap by improving the linkage between advanced education and 21st century jobs.
The most effective means of linking education and jobs has been apprenticeship. Prior to the era of industrialization and mass schooling, most work-related learning occurred on the job from others who had already mastered it. In countries with well-established skilled trades apprenticeship systems, like Germany, these systems became integrated with emerging school systems. In Canada, we relied for a long time on importing skilled trades from abroad while schooling developed quite separately. The technical skill-focused programs in high schools had little connection with relevant job experience.
The relatively small apprenticeship programs in Canada and the U.S., generally with poor linkage to the educational system and low completion rates, have changed only gradually. This contrasts with more rapid evolution and expansion in countries like Germany, Australia and England to many occupations beyond the dwindling numbers in traditional skilled trades. Canada may now finally be producing more auto mechanics and plumbers on a per capita basis than Germany, but Germany is producing far more apprenticed IT professionals, health technologists and other knowledge workers better matched to the growing numbers of knowledge economy jobs. We are producing plenty of potential knowledge workers through our universities and colleges, but without effective linkage to apprenticeship experience, many of their skills are wasted: nearly 50 percent of clerical, sales and service workers in Canada are now underemployed and their skills are unrecognized by their employers. There is also serious continuing underrepresentation of women, visible minorities and immigrants in apprenticeships. All these conditions cry out for coordinated national action.
Policymakers in some countries (e.g. France) have recognized the value of creating effective new pathways between post-secondary education and apprenticeships in response to the growth of knowledge work that requires advanced formal education to perform well. The challenge for Germany is to produce more post-secondary graduates to link with its apprenticeship system. This is probably a greater institutional and resource challenge than Canada’s need to create apprenticeships for its much higher proportion of post-secondary graduates.
An anemic apprenticeship system is not the only reason for the large gap between educational qualifications and workplace utilization in Canada. A branch-plant economy focused on extraction and export of raw materials rather than more complex value-added jobs has been a factor. Governments responded keenly to popular demand for more post-secondary education programs in the simplistic belief that such educational investment would naturally lead to job creation – it did not. Antagonistic workplace relations led employers’ organizations with similar faith in human capital investment for job creation to encourage the production of large numbers of highly qualified potential workers – perhaps also in the hope that their presence as a “reserve army” would serve to discipline already hired workers. Unions in this context found little chance of working with either employers or governments cooperatively to determine working conditions or workplace training programs, as was the case for many years in Germany’s “co-determination” model.
But all of these conditions are changing in Canada – with growing recognition of underemployment of post-secondary graduates, the evident need to “harness” the talent of more of these highly qualified people for a “knowledge economy” and an increasing level of organization of professional employees into unions and associations to contend for greater recognition and reward for their skills. The need for an apprenticeship system linking workplace experience more fully and effectively with both high schools and post-secondary institutions is becoming painfully obvious to anyone who cares to look closely at education and work in this country.
Many people now recognize the value of linking formal schooling and job experience. For many years, some of our universities have reached out to networks of employers and developed effective programs integrating schooling and work in applied fields like engineering. Most community colleges now have administrative departments established to aid in providing practical job experience for students. There have also been increasing efforts to provide pathways to apprenticeships via high schools (e.g. Co-op Diploma Apprenticeships in Ontario). Individuals are making increasing efforts to find more effective pathways to jobs – more university graduates are going to community colleges to acquire technical job skills, for example. In sum, there are increasing numbers of largely ad hoc efforts at all levels of the education system to find means to ensure needed job experience for prospective graduates, but most have proven temporary and difficult to sustain. Coordinated initiatives to further develop the apprenticeship system in this country continue to suffer from a lack of commitment by employers, labour unions and governments. At the same time, there is probably no other public policy issue on which there is currently greater declared agreement between the general public, employers, unions and governments across this country than the need for a more fully developed apprenticeship system for more effective preparation for 21st century jobs. There are working models all around us. They have to be more effectively organized and expanded. But that is a task that neither Canadian employers, unions nor governments are inclined to own at the moment.
Employers, unions and governments have alluded ad nauseum to an array of barriers preventing growth of our apprenticeship system much beyond 50 odd Red Seal trades recognized since the 1960s. Familiar factors include: regional economic differences, inequitable funding responsibilities, overly complex administrative processes, low status of apprentices, and parental bias toward more academic programs. All of these may be valid from the standpoint of current vested interests. But all are also directly surmountable through concerted action such as:
A more fully developed apprenticeship system would not be a panacea for all education-job transition problems, but it would ensure more effective transitions from school to work for many and reduce underemployment for large numbers of post-secondary graduates. We have seen exceptional personal efforts by Canadian young people in recent decades to invest in higher education. They deserve decent jobs to use their achieved qualifications for the good of themselves and society. Canadian employers, labour unions, governments and the highly educated general public all now increasingly recognize the value of apprenticeships. Concerted efforts by our governments, employers and unions are needed now. Let’s do it.
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
1 Snapshot of Student Performance: www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/pisa-2018-resultshtm.htm
2 David Clandfield et al., Restacking the Deck: Streaming by class, race and gender in Ontario schools (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).
3 D. W. Livingstone, Lifelong Learning in Paid and Unpaid Work: Survey and case study findings (London: Routledge, 2010).
4 Doug Hart and Arlo Kempf, Public Attitudes Toward Education in Ontario 2018: The 20th OISE survey of educational issues (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 2018). www.oise.utoronto.ca
5 For an extensive comparison of the Canadian apprenticeship system with Germany, England, France, Australia, the U.S. and several other countries, see Erica Smith and Ros Brennan Kemmis, Towards a Model Apprenticeship Framework: A comparative analysis of national apprenticeship systems (Geneva: International Labour Office, 2013).
6 D. W. Livingstone and B. Watts, “The Changing Class Structure and Pivotal Role of Professional Employees in an Advanced Capitalist ‘Knowledge Economy’: Canada, 1982–2016,” Studies in Political Economy99, No. 1 (2018): 79-96.
7 D. W. Livingstone, “Underemployment of Highly Qualified Labour in Advanced Capitalism: Trends and prospects,” Journal of Education and Work 32, No. 4 (2019): 305-319.
The Trades Awareness Program (TAP) brings high school students from the outlying communities of the South Slave Division in the NWT to Aurora College for a hands-on introduction to the trades. Through TAP, students who would not otherwise have exposure to qualified instructors, accredited shops or equipment may be motivated to complete high school, enroll in the College, and pursue careers in the trades, with benefit to both themselves and their communities.
The skilled trades gap continues to widen as more tradespersons retire than join the Red Seal ranks each year. Such is the case in the Northwest Territories, where the largely Indigenous population is located in 33 communities distributed across more than 1.3 million square kilometres of land between the Alberta border and the High Arctic. With the high cost of living and lack of skilled tradespeople in most communities, it may be impossible to find a plumber or an electrician – and the pipes freeze quickly at 40 below.
The trades shortage is exacerbated by the prevalence of oil, natural gas and mining activities in the North that have generated a large demand for skilled workers. Compounding the issue is the fact that schools in the North are small and often lack shop facilities and qualified instructors. As a result, finding ways to raise awareness and expose Northern students to careers in the trades is problematic.
In 2005, the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), Aurora College and the Fort Smith Career Centre formed a partnership called the South Slave Communities’ Learning Network (SSCLN). The SSCLN’s first task was to brainstorm initiatives of mutual interest and potential benefit to the South Slave region and the predominantly Indigenous communities (75% Dene and Métis) of Fort Smith (Chipewyan, Cree, English and French), Hay River (Slavey, English and French), Fort Resolution (Chipewyan), K’atlodeeche First Nation (Slavey), and the fly-in-only community of Lutsel K’e (Chipewyan).
The SSCLN identified career development as a key area of mutual interest, which then led to the creation of the Trades Awareness Program (TAP). TAP began with the intent of providing a hands-on trades experience for students in the South Slave who did not otherwise have exposure to qualified instructors, accredited shops or equipment. The hope is that, through TAP, more and more students will be motivated to complete high school, enrol in the College, and pursue careers in the trades, with potential benefit to both themselves and their communities.
The Trades Awareness Program (TAP) brings interested Grade 8-12 students from the outlying communities to the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College in Fort Smith to experience a series of short courses in several different trades. For each week of sessions, the partnership organizes transportation, meals and accommodation in the student residences, and instruction for 30-50 students.
After its inception in 2005, TAP quickly expanded from a one-week pilot into a three-part program in which students can earn up to three credits toward high school graduation. The TAP program now includes two on-site options for students: TAP Introductory and TAP Intensive.
First-time participants attend TAP Introductory, which provides students with experiences in a variety of trades. Students spend one full day in each of four different trades. Depending on the availability of instructors and facilities, students have had the opportunity to choose one-day workshops in carpentry, plumbing, cooking, electrical, welding, computer diagnosis and repair, heavy equipment technology, and environment and natural resources technology. In most years, local businesses have also partnered and generously provided more options for students in mechanics, aviation, and hairdressing.
The TAP Introductory schedule keeps students busy and authentically engaged. Each day they are fitted with proper attire, be it steel-toed boots, hard hats, chef uniforms, welding leathers, hair nets, or safety goggles. They learn about such things as basic pipe fitting, extension cord composition and assembly, meal planning and preparation, toilet installation, and how to use tools like hand saws, measuring tapes, band saws and welders. The flight simulator at the flight training centre of the local airline has been a highlight for many. The students who rotate through the cooking option prepare lunch for the entire group of students in the Introductory program for that day. Most students also return to their communities having completed a project or two they can take home – wooden birdhouses, extension cords and metal wind chimes, to name a few.
The Introductory program also includes workplace safety and career development sessions, and an extremely popular Trades Olympics event where students compete against each other in a race that has included tasks such as hammering a nail, sawing a piece of wood, assembling a pipe fitting design, and installing a light switch cover.
Completion of the Introductory program is a prerequisite for students who are interested in returning to attend one or more TAP Intensive sessions. In the Intensive program, students complete a week in one trade of their choice, providing students with more in-depth exposure to that trade. Some students have returned for a third and fourth Intensive session, when space is available, to gain further exposure in a different trade than they did in previous years.
In both programs, students are required to participate in all activities and behave respectfully at all times. They are informed that they are ambassadors for their people, their schools and their communities, and reminded that their behaviour and effort should make their respective families and communities proud. Thankfully, it is a rare case in which a student breaks the rules and must be sent home early.
Students are evaluated by instructors in both the Introductory and Intensive modules by means of an evaluation rubric. The rubric addresses six areas: safety, student effort, punctuality, participation, use of equipment, and task completion/workmanship. Students are able to earn one credit upon successful completion of the Introductory Program and another credit in the Intensive Program. A third credit is also available for work completed by participating students in their home community in preparation for TAP Intensive, and follow-up reporting and personal career planning upon their return.
The delivery of TAP over its 15-year history is attributable to those involved in the SSCLN partnership. Each plays a critical role. The regional school council provides the students and chaperones, organizes transportation (taxis, buses and a chartered flight for Lutsel K’e students) and hires the program coordinator to plan, promote and oversee both TAP modules each year. The Career Centre has access to labour market funding and provides student access to career counsellors during the TAP modules. Aurora College provides the facilities, accommodations and trades instructors for the modules. Other important partners are local businesses that also provide instruction and facilities. The efforts of the SSCLN ensure there is no cost to students who wish to attend TAP.
When TAP rolled out as a pilot in 2005, the SSCLN identified several objectives, including:
Clearly, the program has provided awareness and access, having introduced hundreds of students to the trades over the past 15 years, but how do we know if it’s making a difference and worth continuing?
Student interest and participation in the program is one measure. Approximately 80-100 students attend TAP each year (in a region of only 1,300 JK-12 students overall). The program set a new participation record this past fall when Aurora College was able to accommodate 53 students in the Introductory program. Most Introductory students return for TAP Intensive.
TAP has proven popular as further evidenced by consistently positive ratings from students, chaperones, and instructors on feedback forms completed and submitted on the last day of each program. The feedback forms encourage facilitators of the program to ensure a quality program every year. The initiative stays fresh and is constantly improving because the feedback is also used to prepare a report with conclusions, commendations, and recommendations for further improvements the following year. An analysis of this historical data found that over 96 percent of students and chaperones who attended over the years indicated the value of the program to be either “very good” or “good.”
The partnership also contracted out a longitudinal review of the program that sought feedback from both past and present students, including those who were in post-secondary school and/or in the workforce. The review’ has garnered further feedback on the long-term value of the program and helped to determine what further improvements might be considered. The study concluded that TAP was both memorable and valuable. TAP helped 81 percent of participants to decide on their future careers. Thirty-nine percent indicated TAP helped them decide to pursue a career in one particular trade. Feedback also confirmed that some students discovered the trades were not for them, which can also be considered a positive outcome from the program.
Due mostly to the Trades Awareness Program and its success, the SSCLN partnership was presented with the Premier’s Award of Excellence for Collaboration.
Both students and their parents have expressed surprise and excitement about how much they learn and the skills they can employ in such a short period of time. The fact that most of the instructors and chaperones are enthusiastic and Indigenous themselves has provided important modelling for students to consider and set similar career goals, especially for our students from the smaller and more remote communities.
We give others the last word on the success of TAP. These quotes were obtained as part of the longitudinal review:
“It was very good, in fact, it was better than I expected,” wrote one student. “I met new people, learned new things and most importantly I had fun. The instructors and chaperones were amazing and I learned a lot. It was useful to me because it opened me up to new opportunities and it gave me ideas of what I want to be in the future.”
“I have always had a fascination with mechanics, and how things work together to make an effective machine. Seeing the shop and tools, meeting the instructors, I realized that I wanted to become a mechanic,” wrote another student.
“The students are told, on the very first day, that they are in a college setting and that they are expected to behave as college students. And, they do!” wrote one instructor. “The reason I take part in and support this program is just this: the students who participate are being given a valuable opportunity to experience a trade and what they can expect while attending a post-secondary institution. While many may not go into a trade, I hope that all of them will attend college or university at some point, and what better way to get a feel for it than in this safe and nurturing environment. As long as this program runs, I will continue to participate and support it.”
“My daughter has learned a lot from the TAP program,” responded one parent. “She cooks a lot at home now and likes to try new things. When she got back from the program she told me she had lots of fun and enjoyed the instructors. I hope she gets to go one last time this coming year. Thanks again.”
The program has been a tremendous success, but it has not been without its challenges.
The North may be small in population, but it’s large in land size. With South Slave communities and schools separated by hundreds of kilometres of highway, and one community accessible only by air, the logistics are nothing short of complicated.
Scheduling both the Introductory and Intensive modules also requires a delicate balance. TAP must be scheduled during appropriate times in the calendars of five schools, when regular Aurora College programs are not in session and students not in the dormitory, when the college instructors are available, and when a suitable coordinator can be contracted. TAP also relies on the ability of local businesses to fit students into their busy schedules. The available dates vary from year to year but have most often occurred in September and June, with at least one Introductory and one Intensive week per calendar year. In the end, it still means taking students out of their normal classroom routines for an entire week, which means catch-up on their return. Students tend not to enrol in their final Grade 12 year, when success on the diploma exams takes precedence.
Maintaining relations and commitment to the initiative in the face of staff turnover has also been a priority. Only one of the three original CEOs remains. Yet the program has been able to continue each year because of its evident value and because of the partnership, commitment, and generous contributions of the South Slave Divisional Education Council, Aurora College, and the Fort Smith Career Centre (Government of the NWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment).
The SSCLN partnership and its Trades Awareness Program was designed to provide students with greater information and exposure to the trades and college life. TAP gives opportunities for students from across the South Slave to “try out” several trades. TAP has also been instrumental in getting students thinking about the trades as viable career options after high school. But TAP has proven to be more than that.
Justice Murray Sinclair has said, in reference to the legacy of Residential Schools, “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships,” and, “Education is what got us here, and education is what will get us out.” TAP appears to be doing its part in responding to these calls to action. Since students have been scheduled according to their preferred trades, the makeup of each group changes daily, which provides opportunities to socialize with youth from other communities. The meals and social activities further integrate students with food and laughter. The quiet silos of students, clustered by community and language group on day one, completely transform by the end of the week into large group banter and laughter, hugs, exchanges of contact information, and sometimes tears upon departure. In addition to increasing career opportunities for youth, TAP is also helping to break down cultural barriers, strengthen relations, expand comfort zones, and encourage student aspirations.
The skilled trades gap isn’t going away. However, by providing students with an organized gateway to the trades that is both fun and educational, TAP is strengthening relations and creating futures.
Photo: courtesy South Slave Divisional Education Council
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 encourage high schools to think differently about how they advise and stream students. We know that there is a great deal of mobility within the post-secondary system, with students taking transfer programs as well as moving back and forth between technical and academic programs and institutions to acquire additional qualifications. The idea of a “linear pathway” has not been the norm for some time. Therefore, high school course streams said to destine students for the Workplace or College or University/College (U/C) or University make less and less sense.5 Students need flexible systems that respond to their non-linear development and shifting identities, but there is much institutional work to do, starting in the K-12 system. There is also room for more dialogue across different kinds of research on experiential learning.
As a university faculty member, I have observed a growing interest in WIL across campus. Not only are university students encouraged to enroll in the wide range of cooperative education programs that are available, but they are also encouraged to seek part-time jobs at the university related to their studies (e.g. Work Learn program at UBC) or take on internships to gain experience. While high schools can learn a great deal from research on vocational education and training, the literature on Professional Vocational Work Learning (PVWL) also yields important insights.6 For example, the literature finds that the effectiveness of WIL depends on how those experiences are organized and integrated with other student learning.
WIL tends to rely on the ideal of the student as a learner who is able to engage independently and direct and manage their own learning; however, to support them, attention must be given to how experiential learning is integrated with formal classroom learning before, during, and after such experiences.7 Planning effective WIL involves: preparing students for what they will be expected to do; providing opportunities to engage with both peers and experts to extend their learning; helping students develop the capacity to think, question and critically reflect on workplace practices; and helping them develop “work process knowledge” and recognize the social relations they’re participating in and creating through their work.8 Since it’s infeasible that high schools or universities can provide WIL for every student, educators might consider drawing on students’ part-time work experiences in classroom discussions about working life in general as well as specific kinds of issues at work. Voluntary as well as paid work can provide excellent opportunities for students to develop boundary-crossing skills. This observation leads to my final point about expanding the discourse of “learning for earning.”
In higher education today, there is considerable emphasis on graduates’ employability. However, as noted, another trend in higher education (that complicates this economic focus) calls on higher education to develop ethical and engaged citizens through programs like community service-learning. It seems to me that the aims of employability and citizenship are more easily reconciled when service-learning programs, like cooperative education, is valued as a way of helping students make transitions after graduation. My research on the impact of service learning on university graduates’ pathways found that such learning opportunities were often instrumental in helping them find their vocation, and more broadly, their place in the world. Unlike some other WIL, service learning encouraged creative, multi-disciplinary approaches to thinking about societal problems while developing substantial work process knowledge. In fact, because of its relative lack of formal expectations, coupled with a deep commitment to fostering reflective practice, service learning has great potential to foster socially critical vocationalism.9
Based on my research and experiences as an instructor, I am arguing for experiential learning as a way of preparing ethical, socially aware, and capable graduates. This vision for education draws inspiration from Dewey and his followers in the U.S., who envision a collaborative, and I would add, seamless system of K-12 and higher education engaged in real world community problem-solving. Founded in the tradition of community schools, these educational institutions work collectively across age levels and function as a hub for broadly based community partnerships that create knowledge “made in the world and for the world.”10
The suggestions I’ve made here are not “pie in the sky,” so to speak. Rather, volunteer work has been encouraged, even mandated, as part of most high school programs. Nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity already have programs for youth aimed at providing them with trade and life skills while strengthening communities.11 What is lacking is more collaboration across K-12 and higher education systems in coordinating opportunities for students and in recognizing their role in achieving aims related to democratic citizenship as well as employability.
Further, many committed educators in K-12 and higher education systems are seeking ways to help students combine workplace and formal learning in ways that help them integrate their understanding. What is needed, in my opinion, is more dialogue across vocational education and training and professional education research literatures about promising practices. Despite the legacy of devaluing vocational education in Canadian schools,12 initiatives like dual credit and joint programs encourage access to higher education for more students and erode the distinctions between academic and vocational knowledge.
A variety of forms of experiential learning in K-12 and in higher education can be combined to create meaningful and pedagogically appropriate experiences for students – experiences that build on one another and that encourage exploration and learning from mistakes. 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.
1. For many policy makers and employers, the term “employability skills” refers to individuals’ credentialed knowledge; a more nuanced understanding attends to the interactions between individuals’ knowledge and circumstances and labour market policies and conditions (supply and demand).
2. Regarding human capital discourse, see Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human capital and the making of millenials (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2017).
3. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College learning and democracy’s future (Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012).
4. British Columbia Council on Admissions and Transfers, Dual Credit Forum. www.bccat.ca/about/dual
5. For example, see Toronto District School board description of Ontario course streams in grade 11 and 12: www.tdsb.on.ca/High-School/Guidance/Course-Types
6. For a discussion of Professional Vocational Work Learning, see David Guile, The Learning Challenge of the Knowledge Economy (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2010).
7. Stephen Billett, “Key Findings About Integrating Experiences,” in Practice-Based Learning in Higher Education: Jostling cultures, Eds. by Monica Kennedy et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015).
8. Nicholas Boreham, “Work Process Knowledge in Technological and Organizational Development,” in Work Process Knowledge, Eds. Nicholas Boreham et al., (London: Routledge, 2002).
9. Sam Peach, “A Curriculum Philosophy for Higher Education: Socially critical vocationalism,” Teaching in Higher Education 15, no. 4 (2010): 449–460.
10. Lee Benson, Ira Richard Harkavy, and John L. Puckett. Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform: Civil society, public schools, and democratic citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007), 99.
11. For example, see information about Habitat for Humanity’s Every Youth Initiative: https://habitat.ca/en/ways-to-partner/partner-with-us/every-youth-initiative
12. Alison Taylor, Vocational Education in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Photo: courtesy of Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board
One school board is giving students a hands-on taste of trades as early as Grade 7, in the belief that early awareness of the value of the trades will help them make more informed career choices when they graduate.
Six Grade 7 students cluster around the car as the Auto Mechanics instructor explains and traces the flow of electricity from the power supply in the vehicle. Next they will complete a hands-on activity where they build their own circuits on two separate lighting boards. Meanwhile, the students visiting the Vocational Health program are taking part in a state-of-the-art simulated medical intervention – one that they might experience as professionals in a hospital.
“Lester’s shaking! I think he’s having a seizure!”
“Justin! Call for help! Put the bed down!”
In the Electro-technology department, students have the opportunity to test circuits, and Electricity teachers provide a visual interactive display using a Google app voice activation to control lights.
The students are naturally curious and these hands-on introductions to various skilled trades, experienced as part of the Lester B. Pearson School Board’s inaugural “Doing is Believing” tour, fascinated them. They walked away from the experience realizing that vocational careers are combining the use of the highest technology and equipment with a hands-on approach. “Super cool” and “I love this” are expressions we heard often from students during the tour.
Introducing and exposing all students to the many skilled trade options as early as Grade 7 is embedded in the culture of the Lester B. Pearson School Board in Dorval, Quebec. It is a core belief that every student should understand the value of the trades and what programs are offered to ensure our students will be highly skilled and ready for the many challenges in their future careers.
For many years there has been a stigma that went along with the trades that only the “non-academic” or those that did not have the grades to enter university would consider the trades. In fact, there is a true shift occurring in the thinking about vocational programs; students in our schools who are the highest academic achievers are realizing the trades can offer “skills for life” and steady, well compensated, technical, creative and intellectually challenging and satisfying careers.
What better way to build curiosity and esteem for the trades than through action? The LBPSB Continuing Education department (Vocational Education) in partnership with the LBPSB Youth Sector, hosted its second annual Doing is Believing vocational centre tour in March 2020. The program offers every Grade 7 student in our school board (1,700 total) an opportunity to experience an insight into a variety of skilled trades in the following sectors: Beauty, Food Services, Health, Administration, Commerce and Computer Technology, Building and Public Works, Electro technology, Motorized Equipment Maintenance, and Arts. A unique aspect of the tour is that the Grade 7 teachers and administrators, many of whom have never visited a vocational centre, accompany the students. Pedagogical consultants and guidance counselors from the Youth Sector also lend a hand at the event and have their own opportunity to learn even more about the skilled trades offered.
It’s an important shift in post-secondary education planning for students, and very often parents. There can be a resistance or skepticism from parents about their children pursuing a vocational career instead of what they feel is a more valuable university education. We are working to inform parents and all stakeholders of the value of these valuable vocational careers through programs such as our Doing is Believing tour.
The Doing is Believing tour came about through partnerships built among trade schools, school boards, guidance counselors, teachers, administrators, and parents. It requires a huge commitment and planning on the part of our vocational centres to gear the program to a Grade 7 audience. All centres create a fun-filled hands-on learning experience for the younger students. The goal is that these students have a unique opportunity to experience a day in the life of a vocational centre. It is all about encouraging students to find their passion, work hard in school, and recognize the many educational choices they will have for careers in their future, whether that be skilled trades training, a technical program or university (see sidebar, “Quebec’s post-secondary system”). How can a student know what they want to be if they are not shown what they can be? One student, after visiting a mechanic on his tour, asked, “Why is a mechanic not a doctor? They have to fix a car or airplane to make it safe for passengers… and that’s a big responsibility.”
Maggie Soldano, Director of Continuing Education at LBPSB, and her team were very pleased with the success of the first annual Doing is Believing tour. “When I saw the faces of the Grade 7 students light up during the tours, I knew our goal was achieved. Not only did students take pictures to later share with their families, they also left the tour with knowledge of the many career opportunities offered through vocational education,” said Soldano.
The Doing is Believing tour is a large event; however, the key is to start small. Building partnerships between early high school and nearby vocational trade schools is the way to start. Schools can begin by inviting teachers and students from the trade schools to speak in their schools and to begin building those relationships. If there are several high schools in proximity to a trade school, perhaps a career fair can be planned where trade schools can showcase their programs. Students registered in trade schools can have a very powerful message to younger students about the value of a career in a skilled trade. In fact, many students currently in trade schools have already gained a university degree but have returned to further their skills by enrolling in a trade. Spending the time to cement these partnerships will help to ensure buy-in and success for future more complex initiatives.
Vocational education (skilled trades) are an integral part of education in Quebec. Many of the programs are a part of our public school system, with a DVS (Diploma of Vocational Studies) being attained in 6 to 18 months, depending on the program. Students may also pursue a technical three-year program in the Quebec Cégep system for programs such as Graphic Design, Medical Laboratory Technology, Police Technology, Business Administration, Youth and Adult Correction programs, and more. Alternatively, they may enter a two-year Cégep pre-university program leading on to a university degree.
Photo: Joan Zachariou, LBPSB
The digitization of trades demands new skill sets, makes some trades more appealing to a wider range of apprentices and is creating new career and training pathways. For educators, this will require a better understanding of the overlap and differences between trades and information/communications technology and the new opportunities they present to students willing to consider less traditional careers.
The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, as a combination of digital technologies permeate every sector of the economy and most every occupation – including those in the skilled trades. The digitization of trades demands new skill sets, makes some trades more appealing to a wider range of apprentices, and is creating new career and training pathways.
At the same time, the blurring of lines between information and communications technology (ICT) and skilled trades has created a confusing occupational grey area. The two sectors notably share one feature: both ICT and trades need more workers.
For educators, this evolution in the workplace will require a better understanding of the overlap between trades and digital tech, its extent and limitations, and the new opportunities it presents to students willing to consider less traditional careers.
The digital economy has been growing at roughly double the pace of the wider economy for more than a decade now. According to the most recent labour forecast by the Information and Communication Technology Council (ICTC), by 2023, the demand for digitally skilled talent in Canada is expected to exceed 305,000. If filled, ICTC expects total employment in the Canadian digital economy to reach more than 2.1 million tech jobs.1
Interestingly, more than half of the current tech work is outside of the ICT sector per se. That means most tech jobs are now in sectors such as banking, insurance, and oil and gas, and in organizations across the entire economy looking to digital technology for better operational, safety and environmental performance.
The rapid growth of the digital economy has outstripped available ICT talent. In Canada’s major tech hubs – Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal – the shortfall in senior-level tech workers has even prompted international hiring symposiums such as the one last year in Calgary, hosted by Calgary Economic Development and international ICT recruitment firm VanHack. In October, VanHack vetted 36 intermediate and senior tech job seekers from five continents to help local Calgary companies hire the talent they desperately need to grow. The skilled trades tell a similar story. Fewer youth are learning the skills needed to replace an aging generation of soon-to-retire tradespeople. Critical shortages in skilled workers are on the horizon.2 In Alberta, during the economic downturn, trades groups reported continued healthy demand for skilled workers, but during the province’s oil and gas boom years, worker shortages were so acute that projects also imported tradespeople from abroad. This practice is expensive and risky, and almost always “the option of last resort,” whether in trades or tech.
By now, educators have surely heard a well-honed message from Canada’s trades groups. “If we want to have a well-functioning society, we need people with diverse interests and diverse skills,” says Shaun Thorson, Chief Executive Officer of Skills/Compétences Canada. Students should be led to consider all occupations and not just those that shepherd them through a university education, he says.
This message, however, doesn’t seem to be translating into more tradespeople. Despite steady, well-compensated work in trades, there remains a deeply entrenched perception that trades are a lesser career path to one that requires a university education – even as increasing numbers of university graduates struggle to find employment.
“It’s worth repeating that not everyone wants an office job in front of a computer,” Thorson says. “And not everyone wants to be out on a worksite, working with tools and materials. The main thing is to tell students to do their research and not get trapped in the six to ten occupations that you mostly hear about.”
Some of the obvious examples of digitized trades are the diagnostic tools that automotive and heavy-equipment technicians use today. GPS-guided excavation is now run-of-the-mill technology in road construction and natural resource extraction projects. Schematic drawings are now mostly read on tablets rather than from rolls of paper blueprints.
Pretty much all trades contractors rely on scheduling, invoicing and other software programs to expedite their paperwork. The ubiquitous smartphone and the many communication platforms such as Teams and other video/chat/file-sharing apps allow for greater collaboration and problem solving among tradespeople, designers and engineers. And new digital applications are being introduced each year.
Janis Lawrence-Harper, director of research and development with Careers: The Next Generation, an Alberta trade group launched in 1997 to support the growth of the oilsands industry by promoting skilled trades, adds some of the latest developments along this digital journey. “In the oilsands, the heavy haulers have a tremendous number of sensors that collect data about everything from how hard the equipment is hitting bumps, to how inflated the tires are and where the bumps are located so the road can actually be fixed,” she says. That data is tracked and processed by the mechanic, whose job it is to optimize the efficient running of these machines. (What Lawrence-Harper doesn’t mention is that autonomous vehicles are also becoming the norm in some mining operations in Alberta and around the world.)
Agricultural equipment technicians also rely on data to do their job. Advanced agricultural equipment today can seed a field within an inch of the previous year’s seeding plan. To maximize crop growth, drones help run and monitor fertilization programs.
“As technology continues to play a bigger role in many skilled trades, we are going to see changes in the required skillsets,” says Lawrence-Harper. “That might mean those occupations change, or in some cases, it might create new specialized positions that could fall into the categories of skilled trades and ICT. It will be up to the Alberta government to decide where those occupations belong.”.
The Working Centre, an Ontario group established in 1982 as a response to unemployment and poverty in downtown Kitchener, now lists several ICT roles as skilled trades under the “Services” banner. These occupations include Contact Centre Customer Service Agent, Technical Support Agent, Hardware Technician, and Network Technician.
The grey area between tech and trades has prompted Careers: The Next Generation to launch an Information and Communication Technology Internship Program to help meet the growing demand for tech workers in the next decade. The program offers six-week hands-on-learning internships to high school students interested in expanding their understanding of ICT opportunities in the workplace and to help define their potential career paths.
“We’re piloting it this year – though it’s a bit of a stretch right now with the COVID 19 pandemic,” Lawrence-Harper says. “We see a huge synergy between skilled trades and ICT. These two directions build on each other and this program bridges that gap between tech and trades.”
Careers: The Next Generation works with companies and organizations whose primary role isn’t ICT, but which have an ICT dimension. These have been in transportation, construction, marketing, the not-for-profit sector or others. At the other end, Careers works with high school staff to match Grade 11 and 12 students who have specific ICT skills and interests with target company needs. “Pacific Western, for example, has a lot of heavy-equipment technicians, so we talk to them about what role ICT plays in their company, what the crossover is in their heavy-equipment garage and how they could benefit from hiring a student intern,” Lawrence-Harper says. The company or organization foots the bill for the six-week internship, and benefits from the placement to the extent of the type and scope of work identified for the intern. Part of this value proposition is a line of sight to future ICT hiring, development of mentoring capabilities, strengthening of its ICT focus and connection to community.
To date, about 30 students have taken part in this internship, but the program is expected to expand into something bigger. Lawrence-Harper says that the skilled trades’ training model, which combines on-the-job mentoring and post-secondary education, could apply to learning certain ICT roles.
The blurring of lines between information and communications technology (ICT) and skilled trades has created a confusing occupational grey area.
Despite the overlap of skilled trades and tech, Skills Canada’s Thorson is careful not to oversell the razzle and dazzle of tech to prospective apprentices. “The digitization of trades is exciting and interesting and may initially attract more students to learn about what’s involved in these occupations, but I don’t think digital tech will necessarily keep them in a skilled trade occupation [if they don’t enjoy the trade itself],” he says.
ICTC’s manager of data analysis and research, Rob Davidson, puts a finer point on this. “Trades are typically tactile occupations. So they are almost the opposite of digital jobs, which are mostly abstract,” he says. Many tech roles, in fact, involve high levels of abstract thinking and knowledge of programming languages. This is true of the top five in-demand digital occupations identified by ICTC’s Canada’s Growth Currency: Digital Talent Outlook 2023 (software developer, data scientist, data analyst, UX/UI designer, and full stack developer).
Thorson, however, urges people to move beyond the idea that students are either abstract learners or experiential learners. Students fall somewhere along a continuum between these poles. This perspective opens the door to “helping students find the right comfort level with abstract concepts that are married to tactile occupations that manipulate objects.”
Moreover, Davidson notes that the growing importance of digital technology challenges other sterotypes. The image of the socially inept techie in a dim backroom full of computer screens is giving way to tech workers who can fluently explain digital functionalities and present the business case for a new technology platform to C-suite executives.
A parallel trend in the skilled trades is driven by the collaborative nature of digital technology, which is allowing tradespeople to share their expertise. Construction outcomes, for example, can be improved when trades collaboration is sought earlier in the planning and design process rather than later in the execution stage, as has traditionally been the case. Shared digital platforms are facilitating this type of stakeholder consultation.
Exposing students to these tech and occupational trends is key. Educators can play an important role in helping students find meaningful careers by sharing their understanding of digital technology developments and their impacts on in-demand occupations. This awareness could extend to keeping abreast of new tech curricula developments in Canada’s post-secondary institutions, and various initiatives such as the Careers ICT pilot, or ICTC’s nationwide CyberTitan program, which provides middle and secondary school students with a foundation in digital skills by participating in a competition to fend off simulated cyber attacks. Career options have never been as diverse as they are today.
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
As their children’s first teachers, parents contribute to their academic and professional development. While parental engagement is crucial to children’s well-being and positive development, parents can also have a negative impact by failing to meet children’s fundamental psychological needs, which are essential to academic and professional success.
Research demonstrates that children generally perceive their parents as being supportive of their psychological needs. It’s important for parents to recognize that they can have a significant impact – positive or negative – on their children’s development. Therefore, parents hoping to guide the positive development of their children are well advised to meet their fundamental psychological needs, thereby encouraging greater academic and professional success.
Guay, F., Ratelle, C.F., Larose, S., Vallerand, R.J., Vitaro, F. (2013). The number of autonomy-supportive relationships: Are more relationships better for motivation, perceived competence, and achievement? Contemporary Educational Psychology. 38, 375-382. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych. 2013.07.005 Guay, F, Ratelle, C.F., Lessard, V., Dubois, P., & Duchesne, S. (2018). Mothers’ and fathers’ autonomy-supportive and controlling behaviors: An analysis of interparental contributions. Parenting: Science and Practice, 18, 45-65. Duchesne, S., & Ratelle., C.F. (2010). Parental behaviors and adolescents’ achievement goals at the beginning of middle school: Emotional problems as potential mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 497-507. doi:10.1037/a0019320 Duchesne, S. & Ratelle, C.F., Feng, B. (2017). Psychological need satisfaction and achievement goals: Exploring indirect effects of academic and social adaptation following the transition to secondary school. Journal of Early Adolescence. doi: 10.1177/0272431616659561 Maltais, C., Duchesne, S., Ratelle, C. F., & Feng, B. (2017). Learning climate, academic competence, and anxiety during the transition to middle school: Parental attachment as a protective factor. European Review of Applied Psychology, 67, 103-112. Ratelle, C.F., Morin, A.J.S., Guay, F., & Duchesne, S. (2018). Sources of evaluation of parental behaviors as predictors of achievement outcomes. Motivation and Emotion,42, 513-526. doi: 10.1007/s11031-018-9692-4
Guay, F., Ratelle, C.F., Larose, S., Vallerand, R.J., Vitaro, F. (2013). The number of autonomy-supportive relationships: Are more relationships better for motivation, perceived competence, and achievement? Contemporary Educational Psychology. 38, 375-382. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych. 2013.07.005
Guay, F, Ratelle, C.F., Lessard, V., Dubois, P., & Duchesne, S. (2018). Mothers’ and fathers’ autonomy-supportive and controlling behaviors: An analysis of interparental contributions. Parenting: Science and Practice, 18, 45-65.
Duchesne, S., & Ratelle., C.F. (2010). Parental behaviors and adolescents’ achievement goals at the beginning of middle school: Emotional problems as potential mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 497-507. doi:10.1037/a0019320
Duchesne, S. & Ratelle, C.F., Feng, B. (2017). Psychological need satisfaction and achievement goals: Exploring indirect effects of academic and social adaptation following the transition to secondary school. Journal of Early Adolescence. doi: 10.1177/0272431616659561
Maltais, C., Duchesne, S., Ratelle, C. F., & Feng, B. (2017). Learning climate, academic competence, and anxiety during the transition to middle school: Parental attachment as a protective factor. European Review of Applied Psychology, 67, 103-112.
Ratelle, C.F., Morin, A.J.S., Guay, F., & Duchesne, S. (2018). Sources of evaluation of parental behaviors as predictors of achievement outcomes. Motivation and Emotion,42, 513-526. doi: 10.1007/s11031-018-9692-4
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott
THE CLASSROOM is calm and quiet. Students chat with classmates from around the world while working on their projects. Settlement workers, multicultural workers and counselors come in and out of the classroom, addressing a myriad of needs to support the students’ transition to a Canadian school. Mayahe Assaf (see photo) looks at a map and asks in Arabic, “Where is my country, where is Canada?” He turns to his friend behind him and they speak in Arabic and then laugh. The settlement worker explains, “The boys thought Syria was a big country, and then they looked at the size of Canada.” The hum of the classroom is filled with wonder, confusion and many questions. For many of the students, this is their first opportunity to find peace in school; some have lived for years in countries under conflict and disruption. A program that focuses on “settling in” is essential for their success.
The Surrey (B.C.) School District English Language Learner Welcome Centre offers programs to support parents’ and students’ initial settlement into their new community. This centre has been thought of as a model in countries with high immigrant and refugee student numbers, such as the U.S and Sweden. One of the programs at the Welcome Centre is the Bridge Program for newcomer students, including those with refugee experience.1 Classroom teacher Kris Hull describes it as a “soft landing into Canada.” The classroom, he says, “is a place for students to heal, relax, settle, acclimatize and reset their bearings, so they too can experience success in the next step of their educational journey.” For students who have experienced gaps in learning due to war, displacement or other factors, the adjustment into Canada begins with a predictable, safe, comfortable, low-pressure environment to allow the mind to start calming, to open up and prepare for learning.2
Mayahe’s family began their settlement journey with their acceptance into Canada. This invitation for resettlement into Canada brought peace and an opportunity to quell the storm they had been living in for the last four years in Syria – but the road ahead for this family is still complex and challenging. Mayahe was 18 years old when he entered Canada just over a year ago. He had some reading and writing in Arabic, no English speaking, reading or writing and had missed the last four years of school. Mayahe has been a witness to death and life experiences not even imagined in Canada. He is one of the many students and families from a refugee background who have found that in time, and with the right supports, their lives can be seamed back together.
The Surrey School District is the largest school district in B.C., with approximately 71,000 students. With a growing immigrant and refugee population, it is one of the most diverse public school systems in Canada; about half of the students have a home language other than English.3
Schools are one of the first connection points for newcomers to British Columbia. The Surrey School District English Learner Welcome Centre opened its doors in 2008 as part of a provincial initiative to enhance the role of schools and school districts in the settlement of school-age immigrants and their families. School districts were given the opportunity to contract directly with the provincial government for delivery of the Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program (funding of the program has since moved to Immigrant, Refugee and Citizenship Canada). This was an opportunity for school districts to access external funding to support newcomer families in their settlement journey, utilizing community-based staff’s knowledge of government programs, policies and immigration laws, their expertise in serving immigrants, and their connections to other community services and resources.4
We recognize that all families come with different levels of need, and those needs are personal and unique. This principle guides us in developing strategies for support and case management. Comprehensive and cohesive settlement services must include a universal platform of services for all. Within that platform, the right tools and structures are provided at various levels of intensity and scale, tailored to the unique needs of different families and communities. Realizing a universal system that is locally responsive requires a partnership between governments and community stakeholders who also believe that:
Often we are asked, “How do newcomer families come to know about the Welcome Centre?” The first point of contact is during school registration. When a new family arrives at a school in Surrey, the Multicultural Worker (MCW) is often called to support the family in their first language for registration and a school welcome. Once this is complete, the child’s registration is sent to the Welcome Centre, where the families are connected to the Settlement Worker. This becomes the first contact in a supportive relationship between the school system and the families.
The intake with the family allows the staff to assess their needs and to connect them with their schools and the greater community. The students’ English Language assessment allows for a detailed and holistic assessment of student needs. Ross Powell, an assessment teacher at the Welcome Centre, believes that, given the wide range of education systems around the world and the even wider range of students’ language skills, a perfect language assessment for English Language Learners does not exist. However, good assessments “should provide a strengths-based profile of a student’s language proficiency and inform instruction for tomorrow.”
The assessment tools and processes used at the Welcome Centre are intended to assess both students’ social language and their academic language. Assessment is not a stand-alone event, but a starting point for planning, instruction and communicating student learning. Powell uses multiple measures to assess a child’s language ability. The assessment helps teachers set effective goals for the student’s growth, and also provides information as to what kind of curriculum and instructional designs will be most effective. In the interview with the students, Powell tries to view the “whole” child and identify all of the strengths each student brings. Equally important is to understand the possible barriers that might hinder performance on an assessment, such as students’ shyness, nervousness, previous experiences in school, or parental expectations. What Powell envisions for the initial assessment is not a “level of skill,” but “a profile of language strengths, and hope – for every child.”
Mayahe’s Canadian schooling began with a brief assessment using basic Dolch pre-primer sight words, and a conversation in Arabic about his schooling experience and language ability in Arabic. For Mayahe, attempting a more rigorous assessment would impact his confidence and feelings about being a student, and would not change the level of instruction he would require.
Trust, a sense of safety, and relationship are the first priorities when supporting refugee students and families in our schools. For school districts, having staff in schools who can communicate with parents in their first language and demonstrate cultural understanding helps build trust and a connection between home and school.
Mayahe’s memories of the war in Iraq are vivid. He remembers when the war reached their village and the family moved to Syria because of death threats. His hometown was no longer idyllic and safe; it became a place where different warring factions threatened the very life of their family. Experiences like this, that threaten the survival of the family’s children, are carried into the Canadian landscape and the need to restore safety is paramount. Through school, community and accessible programs the family slowly learned to gain trust in the Canadian system and access much-needed supports for their family.
Coralee Curby, our school psychologist, notes that programs like the Bridge Program allow time for newcomer youth to forge strong relationships with caring adults and learn in a predictable and safe environment.5 This is especially important for students from refugee backgrounds. Coralee finds that providing a “safe and supportive setting that promotes calming, caring connections and emotional regulation” gives students with complex backgrounds the best chance to recover from trauma.
The Centre for Health reports that although many immigrant and refugee children require increased levels of mental health support upon entering Canada, some refugee communities, unfortunately, are less likely to receive or access health services in comparison to others in the community. Some of the barriers to access can include: personal views on gender differences of the service provider, cultural misconceptions of mental health issues or personal health issues, language barriers, no access for unique languages, the availability of family or friends to assist and many other factors.
Upon arrival into Canada, students we have supported in the Bridge Program often show signs of trauma, displacement, and disconnection from their new country, which can significantly impair learning. Some of the features of trauma or post-migratory stress that we have witnessed in the Bridge Program include:
While each person’s story, experience and needs are unique, the research shows that the most important facets of any trauma recovery include:
Mayahe also remembers times of peace and fun in his home in Syria. He and his younger brother, Mohamed, used to help their father in his grocery store after school. Before the war, Syrian schools had an excellent reputation and Mayahe attended school with students from Yemen, China, Afghanistan, Russia, Syria and Iraq. Mayahe smiles quietly at these good memories.
“When did this memory change?” Mayahe’s face draws down and he says slowly, “Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Everything changed – ISIS burned my dad’s supermarket.” He goes on to say that his family was targeted for their beliefs. He tells us he saw dead people, burning, shooting, and killing. In 2013, mortar and rockets began firing against Damascus and conditions in the city declined. The children could no longer attend school. When the conflict became more intense, Mayahe started to combat against ISIS. He says, “For two years and eight months, I was fighting with the Syrian Army.” He pulls out his phone and shows a photo of himself in army greens, holding a heavy artillery weapon. He is just 15 years old.
In early 2015, the Assaf family received notification that their application to Canada was accepted, and they arrived in Vancouver on July 25th. Mayahe remembers walking in downtown Vancouver and feeling that “I didn’t know what to do. I had no English and I had no friends here in Canada.” When asked if adjusting to Canada was difficult for him, Mayahe says, “When I first arrived in Canada, I thought learning English was going to be hard, but it was not that hard for me. But I was worried they might send me back to Iraq.”
That September, “Someone [SWIS] helped us enroll in school and I started in the Bridge Program.” What were his early days of school like? “I didn’t understand anything; I thought I wouldn’t ever understand anything. I felt totally overwhelmed. I felt very challenged and frustrated. I was miserable and wanted to go back to Iraq.” But, he says, his teachers, Mr. Hull and Ms. Tang, were incredibly patient and good to him.
Mayahe says the Bridge Program “helped me learn to cope and do school in Canada. My school helped me so much. I know how to use words properly, make sentences and how to function in Canadian society – to speak to people and do what I can for myself.” Mayahe also attributes his success to his Canadian friends who helped him understand how to work and live here. He says, “I have kept going because I want a future, so I can take care of myself.” When asked what advice he give to a new student coming into Canada like he did, Mayahe laughs a little. “First when I came, I was angry, I got into fights outside of school, and this was my only way to express myself. But I learned if I want to live in Canada I have to change… Stay away from angry feelings, and focus on school and stay away from friends who lead you the wrong way.”
Like any 19-year-old, Mayahe is unsure about his future. But his ship is stable. The storm has passed. He has hope.
Photo: Courtesy Caroline Lai
First published in Education Canada, March 2017
1 Gerard Toal, Critical Geopolitics blog, Department of Government and International Affairs, Virginia Tech (2013). https://toal.org/page/7
2 Bruce D. Perry, Helping Traumatized Children: A Brief overview for caregivers (Child Trauma Academy, 2016).
3 City of Surrey Immigration Fact Sheet, 2011. www.surrey.ca/files/Immigration_Demographic_Profile.pdf
4 Ference Weicker & Company, Delivery Model for School-Based Settlement Services (Vancouver, B.C.: Ministry of Education, 2007).
5 CMAS, Caring for Syrian Refugee Children: A program guide for welcoming young children and their families (2015). http://cmascanada.ca/2015/12/12/caring-for-syrian-refugee-children-a-program-guide-for-welcoming-young-children-and-their-families/
My teaching career, which has not really ended despite superannuation from the profession over two decades ago, is wonderful to celebrate during Shakespeare 400, the year marking William Shakespeare’s death in 1616.
Fifty years ago I was a novice, teaching English, History and associated subjects in Kinistino, Saskatchewan, a rural community about two hours northeast of Saskatoon.
Teaching there was a delight for this city kid. The students were every bit as full of zip, mischief and talent as any I’ve known anywhere, before or since. Among them were the brilliant, the reluctant, the achievers, and those who simply could not care less, so long as the school dances and parties were frequent and fun.
The tie-in to Shakespeare and the celebration is not about me. It is about the amazing, heart-rending efforts of two farm lads, Donald and Les. Neither was a strong student. Both were frankly incapable of managing the work of senior English literature and composition. The dilemma was: what to do with the boys while their classmates were reading Hamlet, looking at soliloquies and language formation from the master playwright and discussing meaningfully, in prose, what they had learned. Alternatives were not prescribed in the Saskatchewan curricula of those days.
Donald and Les met with me privately one noon hour. One could not keep farm kids after school; they headed home on buses to work at various chores. But they were happy to meet at noon, perhaps because I offered them a coffee – something seldom done.
I told them the upcoming unit of work was very challenging and that they could play an important part in making it understandable for themselves and their classmates. I asked them to undertake some research about the Globe Theatre and present that to the class. For this effort, they would be evaluated and given a mark. They asked questions about the length of their report, and whether they would be obliged to do an oral presentation to their classmates (something they abhorred) or whether they could just turn in a written description, with some drawings.
Rather than making a firm decision then, they were asked to begin with some books the three of us would locate from various sources: the school library, the regional library, other individuals and sundry possibilities in magazines or home collections in the community.
Something caught their fancy and the boys jumped into the project. They were excused from the daily English literature classes so they could pursue their research. They read widely, they asked for pictures, they sought out any information anybody in the school or the community might have. In short, Donald and Les became far more knowledgeable about the Globe Theatre’s construction, design and use for staging the bard’s plays than the teacher.
And then, the magic. One noon hour they asked for a meeting. Shyly, they asked if I would provide money for the materials to build a model of the Globe. It was an easy and positive response. We made arrangements with the shop teacher to provide access to his teaching area when they were working on the construction. They made a model that was about four feet high and as wide, and where the original Globe Theatre had a stage with a trap door their model replicated that. In short, they modeled the Globe.
The school year ended. The boys asked if they could keep the model with them, because they had ideas about taking it to regional fairs and exhibitions and putting it on display. They were a hit. They won prizes, ribbons and money, and were featured in several community weekly newspapers.
Did they learn anything in their Shakespeare class? I would like to see them now and ask them what they recall. Did I learn anything from them? More than anyone might guess.
In 1969 when I moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, the model of the Globe went with me. I used it in my teaching in several classes and then, when I transferred into administration, I gave the model to the school where it was stored in a dusty hole under a stage for years. Now it is likely long gone, but those young men and their efforts remain among my most poignant memories of teaching.
Illustration: public domain
First published in Education Canada, September 2016
Three months into my first year of teaching, I had an exit plan. I would go back to university and be a journalist. I’d work alone, quietly, and have green tea or go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. The dream of that freedom was intoxicating. I was twenty-three.
As a brand-new English teacher, I had four different courses, lunch duty, and classes just shy of 40 students, with many of them boasting that they’d never read a book before. I was in survival mode – and I was sinking. Three of my students were booted out by winter break after getting in trouble with the law, but not before testing every ounce of my patience and compassion. I stayed up all night planning lessons and woke up early for the commute, waiting to apply my makeup in the school parking lot in case I cried my frustration out en route. I took long baths before bed and my husband would perch on the counter and try to convince me that tomorrow would be better, I just had to see the year through, didn’t anything positive happen…?
I was resolute. I just had to survive until June, and then I’d be gone.
Then I met Mary (pseudonym). Mary was a Grade 12 student I taught in second semester. She wanted to go to college to become a youth counselor, to help other kids who were in the foster care system, like her. She wrote about this in a personal essay where she shared her difficult upbringing after being taken away from her addict mother, separated from her siblings, and bounced around homes with no one ever wanting to keep her. This included her current “family,” who regularly reminded her that on her 18th birthday, which was quickly approaching, she was out.
I asked to speak to her about her essay and she waited at her desk at the end of the day. As I sat beside her, her eyes watered. “I knew you’d want to talk to me,” she laughed, embarrassed. I told her I loved it, had read it twice, and just wanted her to know that her work had greatly impacted me. I thanked her. I told her that her hopeful tone had really made me stop and reflect on my life, which is a mark of great writing. I asked if I could do anything to help.
She paused and considered. Then, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a lease. Her 18th birthday was nearing and she needed to find somewhere to live. Her social worker had set her up with funding to pay for a new home, but she seemed to be on her own to find it because her social worker, she sighed with an eye roll, “is useless and doesn’t like me much anyway.” She asked if I knew anything about renting an apartment, what questions should she ask, and was this a good price?
We sat and discussed what she needed and wanted, and what to clarify with her potential landlord. For the first time, I actually felt as though I was teaching someone and they were learning. We both leaned in and read together; she nodded, asked more questions, and seemed to leave feeling better about her upcoming meeting.
By the end of second semester, my exit plan was a faded memory. My new classes were repeats of the four I had struggled through the first time, so I spent my time tweaking and polishing lessons instead of starting from scratch. I didn’t teach any students who would eventually end up in jail, and a few of them even read on their own.
During the week before graduation, I overheard some Grade 12 students in the hall discussing party plans after prom, Mary among them. A popular boy turned to Mary and began pleading with her to “host a rager.” She peered up at him with disgust and retorted, “You have got to be kidding me. Like I’m going to let you guys trash my new place. There is no way – I just finished setting it up.”
When she walked the stage, I clapped so hard my palms turned red and stung.
Photo: Fatih Hoca (iStock)
First published in Education Canada, September 2015
Reading through the blog contributions that accompany the CEA’s latest theme issue, Towards Fewer Dropouts, is a little like holding a diamond up to the light. The diverse perspectives presented here over the past few weeks have helped us to see that the challenges and opportunities that exist, as we pay closer attention to the students who choose to leave our public schools prior to graduation, are quite complex.
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s recently renewed goals for education – achieving excellence, ensuring quality, promoting well-being, and enhancing public confidence – are praiseworthy and, in my view, attainable[i]. An important step in achieving these goals is to provide the necessary supports to students who are considered at-risk and, in particular, those students who are at-risk of dropping out.
Help for these students typically come in the form of a new or revised policy, program or other initiative. One such example is Ontario’s lauded Dual Credit program, which aims to helps students who are at-risk of not graduating to graduate from secondary school and increase their likelihood pursuing further education[ii]. Investments in innovative programs like these are translating into measurable results. In 2004, the five-year graduation rate was 68 per cent; in 2014, the rate is 84 per cent, a climb of 16 percentage points[iii]. This increase is a major success for the ministry and should be recognized. Despite this success, 16% of students are not graduating in five years and, presumably, this is because some of these students are failing their enrolled secondary courses.
Failing secondary courses is problematic for all sorts of reasons, the four most important being[iv]:
I’m not going to propose a new program or policy to tackle the challenge of course failure. Rather, I propose tackling the issue from another angle: thinking of alternative ways the ministry, school boards, and schools can use the resources available to them (e.g., funding and human resources) to minimize course failure and, ultimately, student dropouts. One area in particular is to rethink the resources that are tied to course failure in public secondary schools. The graduation rates discussed earlier are an indication that thousands of secondary courses are failed each year, and these outcomes represent a significant fiscal cost to the public. Surely we can do something better with these resources. I am not the first researcher to propose this idea. What I offer here are some possible recommendations based on research I conducted in 2012.
My study began by asking a straightforward and yet unanswered question about failure in education: how much money does secondary course failure cost the Ontario public education system in one school year? I conducted a study that estimated the volume of course failures in Ontario’s public secondary schools and estimated the annual cost of secondary course failures, taking into account some factors known to be systematically related (i.e., grade level, subject area, special education status). You may have read similar studies that used secondary dropouts as the measure and estimated the private and public costs over the lifetime of the student. This study focused on the direct budget impact on districts and the school system.
Below I present some of the key results of the study[v] and some recommendations, intended mostly for education leaders, on how the resources tied to secondary course failure could be used differently to reduce course failure and better meet student needs.
Results – In 2008-09, there were 5,082,543 secondary course attempts across 70 publicly funded school boards in Ontario with secondary schools; 4,682,535 completed successfully (or passed) and 400,008 unsuccessfully (or failed). This means 92.1% of all enrolled secondary courses were completed successfully and 7.9% unsuccessfully. The total gross cost of these course failures is estimated to be $472,729,698, or 7.7% of total instructional and operational spending.
Reducing all secondary course failures in the province could result in efficiencies up to $472 million. How so? If more students are passing their enrolled courses and graduating on time, then districts will receive less overall per pupil funding from the ministry; the cost savings would be realized by the ministry. How does any of this help prevent dropout? One idea would be for the ministry and districts to enter into an agreement allowing school boards to keep any funding as a result of improving efficiency in their schools, i.e., reduced course failure. This arrangement would create a significant positive incentive for school boards to experiment with new ideas to prevent course failure and dropout, and use any resulting efficiencies to hire teachers, in-class/school tutors, etc.
Results – The number of course failures for Math and English were estimated to be 79,096 and 58,580 respectively across all 70 school boards, with an estimated annual cost of $162 million for these two subject areas alone.
Given the critical importance of these two core subject areas, school leaders could also use the data to justify re-orienting existing professional development and learning supports to target these two subject areas, across all secondary grade levels and student types (academically inclined and not, students receiving special services, etc.), to improve fail rates.
Results – Students who receive special education and English-second language services fail at higher rates in all subject areas and across grade levels, compared to students who do not receive these services.
Education leaders may want to consider evaluating the effectiveness of these services. The data suggest that the millions (and billions) of dollars spent each year providing services to these student groups are not levelling the fail rates. In no way am I suggesting that these services be cut. Rather, I propose more research into the effectiveness of resources/services provided to these students.
Another recommendation is to use of some of the statistics reported in the study as district and system level performance indicators. For example, the province could share school board and provincially aggregated course pass/fail rates with district leaders to allow comparative analysis, reflection, and encourage dialogue among education leaders. Another interesting statistic to share would be the average number of course failures per student enrolled in each school board. These statistics could help ministry and district leaders identify those boards that seem to be more successful than others at helping students complete their enrolled courses.
To be sure, the recommendations presented here cannot on their own resolve the issue of course failure. What I offer here are recommendations that can help to tackle the issue from another angle – making even better use of existing resources to minimize course failure and prevent dropout.
Easy solutions are in short supply when it comes to addressing complex social problems, like student dropouts. Instead, solutions to these challenges often require confronting the issue from multiple angles to achieve success. If implemented, my recommendations would converge with other policy and program efforts aimed at supporting student success. Given what is at stake, I believe that it’s worth considering a wide range of available options.
n.b.: The data used in the study were provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education. The views expressed in this piece are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry.
[i] Ontario Ministry of Education (2014a). Achieving excellence – A renewed vision for education in Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/renewedVision.pdf
[ii] Whitaker, C. (2011). The Impact of dual credit on college access and participation: An Ontario Case Study. Retrieved from University of Toronto library tspace https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/29641/6/Whitaker_Christopher_201106_PhD_thesis.pdf
[iii] Ontario Newsroom (2015, April 1). More Ontario students graduating high school than ever before – Ontario publishing board-by-board rates to help more students succeed. Retrieved from http://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2015/04/more-ontario-students-graduating-high-school-than-ever-before.html?utm_source=shortlinks&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=b9ap
[iv] Faubert, B. (2013). The cost of failure in Ontario’s public secondary schools. Retrieved from University of Toronto library tspace https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/35818/1/Faubert_Brent_C_201306_PhD_thesis.pdf
Prior to entering a post-secondary institution, students are constantly bombarded with information about the importance of pursuing post-secondary education, because these ‘institutes of higher learning’ open doors to greater opportunities for those who choose that path rather than entering the workforce immediately after receiving their secondary school diploma or equivalent certification.
Students enter colleges and universities with a wealth of knowledge from all over the world and these institutions are tasked with combining all of these unique experiences to develop a learning structure for the leaders of tomorrow. This is a complex task that requires an understanding of the populations that fill these institutions. The demographics of student populations across Canada represent individuals whose identities vary in age, race, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, among other characteristics. These identities inform the perspectives of students that pursue post-secondary education and across this wide range of identity lines, the question still remains: why are students unable to complete their post-secondary studies?
One of the greatest influencing factors in a student’s choice to stay in school is program affordability. As a student in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa, the cost of tuition, and incidental fees, for my first year of study was a little under $3,100 (excluding housing, textbooks, and additional living costs). Four years later, the entering cost exceeds $3,400 and continues to rise annually. When supporting student populations, it is essential that the students have the ability to voice their concerns and opinions about the services offered to them and how these services are, or are not, meeting their needs. Similar to many other post-secondary institutions, the University of Ottawa offers a work-study program, to allow students to maintain a part-time job during the academic year. As a first-generation university student who is studying away from home, I valued the opportunity to support myself financially throughout my undergrad. I participated in the work-study program during my third year. In years prior I, along with other students, faced incredible difficulties accessing the program because of the eligibility restrictions related to the difference between your expenses and your gross income. I was denied twice from the program because I accrued too much debt, although demonstrating financial need is an eligibility requirement. After going to the Financial Aid office to inquire further, I was ultimately told that if students needed that much money to cover the costs of their expenses, they should consider looking elsewhere for jobs.
I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work full-time as an executive member of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) – the students’ union representing over 30,000 undergraduate students. Academic supports provided by universities do not assess students’ cases holistically and these services often struggle to adequately address the root cause of the student dropout rate. At the SFUO, there are staff and volunteers who work throughout the year to administer services that benefit the student population. The Student Federation owns and operates the campus Food Bank, which hosts regular breakfasts and lunchtime cooking classes, as well as keeping the shelves stocked to ensure that students do not feel pressured to choose between receiving a healthy meal and purchasing their course material.
There are a multitude of services that the SFUO provides to ensure student success by hosting events that aim to educate, provide safe drop-in spaces, and advocate for the rights of students who are often found at the margins of discussions surrounding post-secondary education because of their race, ability, gender, socio-economic status, etc. This concept is not unique to the SFUO; students’ unions across the country do the same work for their students by starting and restarting conversations with students, faculty members, administration, and community members to ensure students’ needs are being prioritized in spaces that focus on our learning and development.
One of the roadblocks I encountered in my work at the Student Federation was figuring out how to reach out to communities that have limited to no connection with the students’ union. Tackling this challenge required conversations with students whose experiences differed from my own. As a Social Sciences student, it was challenging to understand how to provide supports for students in programs that had more structured course sequences or heavier workloads, such as business, nursing or engineering. There are programs of study, such as law, education, and medicine that require different types of supports to ensure student success. The work of students’ unions shows how far students are able to push their own limits to support each other. There are other characteristics that complicate the work of students’ unions to provide support mechanisms for students.
The needs of part-time students vary from those of full-time students, as part-time students are often working one or two part-time jobs to cover their living costs and tuition. Mature students often return to continue their post-secondary pursuits either because they have dependants, because they chose to enter the workforce and gain new skills afterwards, or any number of circumstances. The Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) at the University of Toronto aims to represent the interests of part-time students on all three of the University of Toronto campuses, providing them with access to a health and dental plan and a variety of other resources. MatSA, the University of Toronto Mature Students Association, is a student group that aims to provide resources to student-parents and other mature students, in order for them to have access to the tools and spaces other students typically use on their campuses.
Student-led associations provide a variety of support resources that might not otherwise be provided for students on Canadian campuses. The work that student unions do to defend students’ rights in within the academic environment, offer them spaces for learning outside of class, and advocate for accessible education is what keeps students in classrooms and helps them build safe, non-judgmental communities outside of post-secondary institutions irrespective of whether they choose to continue their studies.
Research demonstrates particular risk factors that impact a student’s decision to stay in school. These include, but are not limited to: academic failure, low socio-economic status and behavioural problems[i]. Other risk factors can include: family organizational problems, little emotional support from parents[ii], and the increasing disengagement among students at school. The harsh reality is that, for many students, staying in school and success in school means having to suppress personal identities to act within the traditional school paradigms of what a ‘good’ student looks like[iii].
The most significant education paradigms are those that include building strong relationships – beginning in early elementary school – to prevent future dropouts. The earlier that new education paradigms can emerge to support ‘at-risk’ students, the better the prognosis for their graduation. Strong relationship are those that foster student voice, involve students in real decisions, and create equitable power distributions. Strong schools also provide inclusive cultures, authentic assessments, curricula related to students’ lives, and are respectful of learning as a social process with the relationships being the major priorities[iv]. But first, we must recognize our traditional views about what school is, before we can map out new education paradigms to support at-risk students.
We know that the foundations of 19th-century schooling are based on standardized tests, textbooks, classroom management and organization strategies, and mandatory curriculum outcomes. Canada’s modern school systems are still based on the same hierarchical philosophies espoused by Egerton Ryerson[v] where schools are organized with the principal at the top, teachers in the middle, and students at the bottom. We’re also still using common school texts as advocated for by Ryerson himself. We reward behavioural outcomes with grades and other forms of reinforcing compliance from our students – embedded beliefs that we need to maintain group compliance for efficient organization, drill, memorization and standardized tests. However, in following this paradigm, we do a great disservice to those students who are at-risk. We inadvertently send strong messages that if you do not comply: “you will be a failure”, or that “you are a failure”. Attention is given to prescribed units of study learned in isolation of subject areas that are discrete and separate from each other, and in groups of same-aged peers. Families and communities are rarely included, and fixed mindsets are the norm where it is difficult if not impossible to move from your ‘rank’ in school i.e., who is at the top, who is in the middle and who is at the bottom. As a result, students who are at risk are left with little leeway for success in terms of the traditional school paradigm.
By contrast, if we focus on new paradigms of education that incorporate key strategies including relationship building, then I believe that students have a greater chance of graduating. Key strategies can include a deeper focus on student voice, inclusion, authentic learning and assessment, and involvement of knowledge from families and communities. We need to enable ourselves to step away from the limits of traditional schooling to focus on educating under the assumption that each child is individual, valued, and whole, with special needs to be met. Within this new paradigm, there would be great flexibility in terms of time, space and what is learned. Students would work on their own collaborative inquiries; those that need open-ended tasks would have access while others would receive more closed tasks. Education wouldn’t be limited to the school day, and it could also capitalize on after-hours aspects with parents and families. It is of course a complex problem with complex solutions. However, I think that this warrants increased attention to target specific variables beginning in early elementary school.
Another factor that needs to be addressed is that at-risk students do not see themselves reflected in their teachers. It may behoove us to consider alternate methods of choosing the teachers in our system, to include counsellors, family and community members, and to ensure a wider demographic of teachers who have lived experiences of at-risk students and can be positive models of instruction.
Schools are gradually aligning with the principles of the Education Paradigm that embody Community, Culture, Caring, and Character Education. Yet, they systematically remain unchanged, with continued vested interests in standardized testing results, separate subject areas and isolated units of study, funding for specific diagnoses and labels instead of the whole child, fixed schedules, grades and disciplinary tactics that propel the traditional School Paradigm forward. However, to promote a school system with fewer dropouts, education paradigms need to evolve to emphasize relationships and recognize traditional and contemporary contributions of individuals, families and communities from all walks of life.
[i] Suhyun, S. J. (2007). Risk Factors and Levels of Risk for High School Dropouts. Professional School Counseling , 10 (3), 297-306.
[ii] Fortin, L. M. (2006). Typology of students at risk of dropping out of school: Description by personal, family and school factors. European Journal of Psychology of Education , XXI (4), 363-383.
[iii] Smyth, J. (2006). ‘When students have power’: student engagement, student voice, and the possibilities for school reform around ‘dropping out’ of school. International Journal of Leadership in Education , 9 (4), 285-298.
[v] Egerton Ryerson. (2015). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egerton_Ryerson
Over the course of the past twenty years that I have worked with at-risk students, I have heard countless times from colleagues and professionals in the field that “it’s all about relationships”. This advice is usually passed on as requisite insight that everyone who works with at-risk youth either understands or will come to understand as a truism. I agree that it’s all about relationships, yet what does this actually tell you? How does it help? Does your relationship or empathy lead to students’ resilience?
Even though graduation rates have stabilized in the province of Quebec, failure to graduate remains an acknowledged problem for provincial educators. Here at Concordia’s Department of Art Education in Montreal, we focus on questions of how the visual arts and digital media can engage youth who are at-risk of dropping out. We have studied existing programs, such as Maison Kekpart and have developed and researched a mobile media curriculum. Though these projects are presently focused on the impact that visual arts and digital media can have on a student, we have identified a number of outcomes that suggest student engagement need not be limited to the arts.
Agency to Move
We are currently working on a long-term research study investigating the use of visual arts and civic engagement curriculum delivered through mobile media (smartphones and tablets). We are using this curriculum and digital technology with youth who are at risk of dropping out of high school or who have just returned to school to complete their diploma. Our intention was to engage students with learning outside of school through mobile media and art making. Participants shared images, made comments, and responded to the curricular missions posted by the researchers and educators involved. while the study was ongoing, Each week or so we would host after-school meetings to discuss the project. As the project evolved, participants wanted to increase the number of afterschool meetings. Students also used the mobile social network to coordinate the times and places they would meet in order to go on field trips together. When we asked participants why they wanted to come to the afterschool meetings and to go on field trips together, they enthusiastically contrasted these student-initiated activities with their former more teacher-directed experiences of schooling. Most of these students had spent their time in schools under constant surveillance and with restricted mobility. While we had hypothesized that the mobile media devices would enable participants to learn on their own, what we did not foresee was that their use prompted a sense of agency mobility, self-organization, and informal learning among our participants. What we found was that students who feel in control of their learning also feel more connected to it. This effect promises to make school as a whole, less alienating for at-risk youth.
Real World Relevancy: Learning Professional Skills
From our studies, we found that curricula incorporating professional skills and tools engage students in learning. In the above-mentioned mobile media curriculum, we started by asking students to engage critically with their civic environments by asking them what would they like to change to make their community better. For the most part participants were more interested in learning how to make beautiful images and felt they had no power to change things in their neighbourhoods. We noted that before students responded to the challenge of engaging critically with the world around them, they need and want to develop their visual voice and to master the grammar of their visual culture. In other words, they wanted to make images like professionals. Only then did they feel empowered to think about change in their neighborhoods. At Maison Kekpart outside of Montreal in Longueuil, media professionals taught students professional skills in media production. Many of the students when interviewed described how learning professional tools and techniques gave them a sense of accomplishment and the authority to voice their ideas. Students are savvy enough to identify learning that will empower them in the future. Given that students are immersed in visual culture every day, they implicitly know what an authoritative image looks like. They want to know how to make such effective images. Curricula that connect to their everyday experiences and instruction on how to participate as equals with media professionals (adult teachers and instructors) contributed to the highly engaging learning environment at Maison Kekpart.
Incorporating Youth Cultural Practices into Curricula
At Maison Kekpart, we observed how instructors incorporated into their curricula what students did with social media in their personal lives. For example, one media arts instructor noticed that one of his students was an avid YouTube user who posted new videos on an almost daily basis. Recognizing the social currency that is developed through an online presence as a professional himself, he began to model his social media practices by inviting students to follow and friend him online. This practice stands in stark contrast to how many schools approach social media. Instead, Maison Kekpart and their instructors use social media to connect with youth and to model professional practices. What instructors are doing is helping to transform the online cultural practices of youth into professional practices by engaging with them as professionals in the media arts.
While there is no easy fix for engaging youth with their education, we have found that the approaches presented here nurture the sense of agency in the learner. A large part of student engagement in education is based on the student feeling empowered to make choices about how and when that student will engage in learning. The knowledge that students acquire under these conditions makes them feel confident and competent. The knowledge that what they are learning is valued outside of the classroom but is of wide enough application to be used in the conventional classroom.
Dropping out is typically triggered by innumerable events, choices and experiences over years, so there is no magic remedy. Nonetheless, supportive adult relationships and a compelling answer to the question “Why stay in?” are key.
I have dedicated my professional life to developing programs to help educators help students plan their learning and career journeys. I believe the ultimate goal of education is to prepare students for successful lives beyond school. While adult life is much more than work, most of us spend more time on the job than anything other than sleeping for most of our lives. As adults, we know our career choices profoundly impact every aspect of our lives. Yet, we graduate students unprepared to make employment choices.
Roughly 1 in 2 young people, from dropouts to those with degrees, fail to “launch” smoothly from school to work. Many begin their careers in low wage jobs unrelated to their studies and interests, unsure how, or if, they will ever land a “good” job. “Many young people find out who they are and where they belong by bouncing off things (experiences) for several years until they eventually commit or settle.”  Their prospects for early student loan repayment (average $30,000), buying a car, home, and building a life and family may seem bleak to them, and to their parents.
Given the exodus of high-end “boomer” talent already underway, ensuring young people launch successfully from school to good jobs is critical. Today’s school leavers will carry the primary burden of taxation for the next 40 years. We all need them to be successful. Young people in good jobs are happier, healthier, and more productive, they pay higher taxes, and they contribute more to their families and communities. Those that lose their early adult years drifting between underemployment and unemployment may never recover lost ground. Rather than contributing to prosperity for all, they diminish it for all. From every perspective, dropouts and failed launches are simply too costly in human and economic terms to tolerate.
Young people are in school from Kindergarten until they enter the workforce. Preparing them to make good choices as they enter and navigate the complex, constantly changing maze that is today’s labour market isn’t in the curriculum. Most educators feel unprepared and unequipped to help students prepare for the working world. So, whose job is it?
To answer this question, I helped organize Thoughtexchanges at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Pathways to Prosperity Conference in March, 2013, the National Career Development Conference in July, 2013 and The Association of Career and Technical Educators’ CareerTech Vision 2013. Over 500 eminent education, government, business, community and career leaders reflected for two weeks – one month prior to each conference – then submitted their ideas. They then had two weeks to read others’ responses and vote for the ideas they considered best of all. The results were shared at the conferences.
Of the hundreds of ideas generated, the following rose to the top:
Like most jobs, this one requires training and tools. I believe the following, all of which are available, are essential:
To illustrate, here’s a true story from North Carolina, where the “tools” above are in place. Interestingly, they are from Canada.
A Grade 9 student hated school. He seldom completed assignments and was disruptive in class. The only thing he looked forward to each day was getting to his uncle’s garage to work on motors. He was a magician at this! He planned to drop out of school on his 16th birthday (in 3 months) and work on his passion full-time.
Then he received a message in his ePortfolio from John Deere saying “You might be the kind of person we are looking for. Would you like to come and see our facilities and meet some of our people?” When he got there his eyes lit up. Surrounded by tractors, lawn mowers, and off-road vehicles, this looked like heaven to him.
John Deere told him if he dropped out of school they wouldn’t consider hiring him. They said he needed to do well in his academics, particularly Math and Science, and work on his people skills and character. They didn’t promise him a job, but they offered him a mentor and the possibility of experiential learning (job-shadowing, internships, part-time job).
He was different person in school the next day. He now saw high school as a bridge he wanted to cross. His teachers and parents couldn’t believe his transformation. When he graduated with above average marks, John Deere paid his tuition for a 2-year community college small engine repair course. When he finished the course they hired him at $50,000, loan-free.
John Deere found this student because he had expressed his passion for and experience with motor repair in his ePortfolio. They found him, and he found a compelling reason to stay in school, and new supporting relationships with adults beyond school or home. It takes a community.
This can happen with any student, whether at-risk of dropping out or on the honour roll, when new connections between school and the “real world” occur and students with dreams meet employers seeking talented young candidates.
 Career Crafting the Decade after High School, Cathy Campbell and Peggy Dutton, CERIC 2015.
 Thoughtexchange (https://thoughtexchange.com/) is a British Columbia-based company that has developed a unique group inquiry software platform used by many school districts across Canada and the United States.
“Sorry I’m late,” says a young woman breathlessly as she walks in, halfway through the class. “My sitter was late, and then I missed my bus.” The student, in her early 20s, has two children under four, and is constantly juggling childcare arrangements while waiting for full-time subsidized spots in the daycare near her home.
“No problem,” says the teacher, as she continues writing a formula on a whiteboard. “We were in the middle of reviewing yesterday’s work. You’re just in time to join us as we cover the trickiest part.”
A little later, a man in his early 30s raises his hand. “Miss? Um…” He hesitates awkwardly before addressing the teacher by her first name. “…um, Michelle, could you tell me what’s on this week’s quiz?” Although they are the same age, he is unaccustomed to using a teacher’s first name. All staff, including the administration, in this mature student program are on a first-name basis. The man was recently laid off, and wants to complete his high school education in order to enter a post-secondary program that will lead to new career.
From the back of the classroom an F-bomb is dropped. A young man, who looks like he could easily be in a regular high school, pushes his chair back from a computer desk in frustration.
“That’s a loonie for the coffee fund,” says the woman sitting at the computer next to him. Now in her 40s, she came to Canada soon after her marriage at the age of 16. She always regretted not being able to complete high school, but waited until her youngest child was in school full-time before returning to a mature student program.
The hoodie-wearing 19-year-old rolls his eyes but digs into his pocket. The students developed their own ground rules for the way that they want their class to run, including the fine for swearing in front of others while in class. This young man left school – and home – at 17. He reluctantly returned at the age of 18 as a condition of receiving income assistance. He walks over to a desk covered with tea and coffee supplies and drops the loonie into an empty coffee tin. On most days, the teacher stays in the class and joins the students for their morning coffee break. Everyone takes turns doing the clean-up.
These vignettes reflect some key differences between many regular high school programs and adult high school completion programs. The students are, of course, older. But it is the overall environment that researchers, including myself, have identified as a key element in the success of these programs. A supportive environment means program planning and scheduling decisions are responsive to the busy and complex lives of adult students. A sense of acceptance contributes to supportive and respectful interactions with teachers and peers, which can help students overcome previous negative school experiences.1 Most importantly, “Teachers attuned to the unique needs and circumstances of adults [are] integral to a positive program experience.”2 During interviews, students in Ontario programs commented on their teachers’ genuine passion for their work, their patience and empathy, and their ability to use a combination of creative and explicit teaching methods.
Mature student programs and high school completion rates
Mature student programs focused on high school completion operate in a variety of ways across the country. There may even be several distinct pathways or approaches within a province, including adult language and literacy programs, which can prepare students to enter a credentialed secondary level program. The programs can be found in schools, colleges, and community organizations, in store-front locations and in correctional facilities. Whether referred to as adult upgrading, basic skills, adult credit, basic education, or GED programs,3 they all lead to a provincially sanctioned high school diploma or equivalency certificate.
These programs have become an important part of the education system, helping to ensure that Canada continues to achieve one of the highest rates of high school completion in the world, Between 1999 and 2007, nearly one-fifth (17 percent) of young people in Canada left high school without a diploma, but by the time the cohort was 26-28 years old, only six percent were without a high school diploma or post-secondary education.4
Figure 15 compares the percentage of graduates at age 18-19 in each province with the percentage at 20-24. It is likely that mature student programs helped boost the graduation rates in each province. Nationally, they generated 13 percent6 of graduates in 2009-2010. Programs in Nova Scotia, with one-fifth of young people obtaining a credential after the typical graduation age, play a particularly vital role.
Challenges facing mature student programs
Mature student programs are often referred to as “second chance” programs, suggesting that students somehow squandered their opportunities the first time around. However, adult students who attend these programs do so because they are compelled back into the secondary system or need an extended opportunity to complete secondary school. Those who are compelled back may need specific course pre-requisites for post-secondary education or may need to improve their marks. Some are recent immigrants who completed their secondary and possibly even post-secondary education, but who must now requalify in a system that doesn’t recognize or devalues foreign education credentials. Furthermore, as long as families live in poverty, there will be a need to offer an extended opportunity to adolescents and young adults to complete their diploma requirements. This is most apparent when looking at Aboriginal learners, who live in poverty at higher rates, and who are also more likely to delay their entry into the post-secondary system.7According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation,8 living in poverty is connected to an inter-related and accumulating set of factors that can combine to compel students to leave high school, such as their readiness to learn; low self-confidence or motivation; social exclusion; frequent moves and interrupted attendance; and inability to participate in enrichment activities.
Adult education programs at the secondary level are a vital part of long-term poverty reduction strategies.9 They are also an essential conduit into the post-secondary system. However, these programs face their own inequities and a sort of “second class” status within the education system. Straddled between the concerns and interests of the regular K-12 system and post-secondary programs, mature student programs are rarely the focus of sustained policy attention, and are vulnerable to short-sighted funding decisions.
Two provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, have recently instituted reforms in their college systems to either remove or substantially downsize adult programs leading to high school credentials. Newfoundland privatized its programs in the summer of 2013, removing them from the provincial college system and placing them in private career colleges. B.C. is eliminating funding for entry-level courses, after previously decreasing vital post-secondary access supports for social assistance recipients.10 B.C. is now focusing resources on those most likely to enter post-secondary education and decreasing access to those deemed less likely to proceed through all courses.11 There may be some room for optimism in Ontario which, after drastic cuts in the late 1990s, is beginning an extensive consultation process towards the development of a provincial adult education strategy centred on secondary completion and post-secondary access.
Mature student programs facilitate high school completion and access to post-secondary education, particularly for students living in poverty and for those compelled back into the secondary system. Given their importance to secondary graduation rates, especially for our most disadvantaged students, these programs deserve to have a more prominent place as an inherent and valued part of a comprehensive education system.
En Bref – Les programmes pour étudiants adultes visant l’achèvement des études secondaires offrent plus qu’une deuxième chance aux adultes. Ils sont maintenant une importante composante du système d’éducation pour les personnes qui doivent retourner au secondaire en vue d’entreprendre des études postsecondaires et pour celles qui ont besoin de ressources prolongées pour terminer leurs études secondaires. Un environnement de soutien tenant compte de la vie occupée et complexe des étudiants adultes se distingue des nombreux programmes réguliers d’études secondaires. Les programmes d’éducation de niveau secondaire pour adultes sont des éléments vitaux pour les stratégies à long terme de réduction de la pauvreté : ils contribuent à accroître les taux de diplomation d’études secondaires. Ils constituent également un mode essentiel de passage au système postsecondaire.
Photo: Chris Schmidt (iStock)
First published in Education Canada, May 2015
1 Christine Pinsent-Johnson, Shannon Howell and Rebekka King, Returning to High School in Ontario: Adult students, post-secondary plans and program supports (Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2013), www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Formatted_CESBA.pdf ; Cassandra MacGregor and Thomas Ryan, “Secondary Level Re-Entry of Young Canadian Adult Learners,” Australian Journal of Adult Learning 51, no. 1 (2011): 143-160, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ951990.pdf
2 Pinsent-Johnson, et al. Returning to High School, 37.
3 Students can prepare for and write a Canadian version of the General Educational Development (GED) test to receive a provincial high school equivalency certificate.
4 Statistics Canada, Interrupting High School and Returning to Education (Education Indicators in Canada: Fact Sheets, 2010). www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-599-x/81-599-x2010005-eng.htm
5 Statistics Canada, Interrupting High School.
6 From Kathryn McMullen and Jason Gilmore, A Note on High School Graduation and School Attendance, By Age and Province, 2009/2010 (Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 81-004-X, 2012).www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/2010004/article/11360-eng.htm The data do not directly distinguish between graduates with developmental disabilities, who complete modified diploma requirements at the age of 21, and graduates who complete standard diploma requirements between the ages of 20 and 24. However, related data do include the percentage of 20-24 year olds who had not graduated but were still in school; these would likely include students receiving a modified diploma. The percentage of these students is negligible in all provinces except Quebec, which has a different secondary/post-secondary system.
7 Educational Policy Institute, Access, Persistence, and Barriers in Post-secondary Education: A literature review and outline of future research (Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2008), 7.www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Access%20Persistence%20and%20Barriers%20ENG.pdf
8 Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Supporting Education… Building Canada: Child poverty and schools. (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 2009). www.ctf-fce.ca/Research-Library/FINAL_Hilldayleavebehind_eng.pdf
9 Shauna Butterwick, A Path Out of Poverty: Helping B.C. income assistance recipients upgrade their education (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, B.C. Office, 2006).www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC_Office_Pubs/bc_2006/path_out_of_poverty.pdf
10 Butterwick, A Path Out of Poverty.
11 Katie Hyslop, “Literacy Bumbled among Three Ministries: SFU prof,” The Tyee, March 8, 2013. http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/03/08/BC-Literacy-Mismanaged/
Having spent five years as a development worker in Vietnam, by the time I returned home to Canada in 2005, I was well aware of Article 28 of the UN Conventional on Rights of the Child, which states that children have a right to a Primary Education, compulsory and free. I was also very conscious of the UN Millennium Goal 2, Universal Primary Education. Thus, it was a big shock and disappointment to me to find that in my own country, one of the richest and most respected for educational achievement, there were children and adolescents being denied the opportunity to achieve even a basic, elementary education. Adolescent immigrants from refugee camps around the world were arriving in Canada, entering the high school system and dropping out within a few weeks. Children in lower grades were attending, often sporadically, and were showing little or no academic achievement. Obviously, schools were not meeting students’ needs.
Why do government-assisted refugee students drop out of school? Two factors are principle: first and foremost, the lack of educational programming that meets their academic readiness and, secondly, the financial pressure that forces older teens to quit school and help support their families – accepting dead-end jobs.
Crawford (2008)[i] published an adolescent psychology textbook that very rightly focused on the fundamental principle of differentiated instruction. She writes:
Since adolescents bring a diverse range of knowledge and interests that are shaped by varying biological, cultural, and experiential factors, the challenge for teachers is to find a point of connection with what students know, believe, and feel (Crawford, 2007). When teachers pay attention to the knowledge and beliefs that learners bring to the learning task and use this knowledge as a starting point for new instruction, learning is enhanced (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).
When Government Assisted Refugees (GAR) students enter our school system, they very often are met by a system that has little or no idea of their prior experiences, background knowledge, cultural practices nor academic readiness. The type of differentiating they need often cannot be met in the mainstream. Differentiation may mean differentiating environment and programming.
In 2001-2002, due to a change in federal immigration policy, schools in Canada began to see an increase in the arrival of GARs. Unfortunately, there was little or no preparation for the arrival of these children and teens, whose experiences, cultures, social, emotional and academic needs were very different from school populations we were equipped to service. In my province of Newfoundland and Labrador, nobody in the provincial education system – ministry, school boards, school administration, nor teachers – was given background information, or in-service on how to assess and support GARs. These children and teens, from war torn countries, were plucked from refugee camps and dumped into mainstream classrooms, placement and programming based on one criterion only – year of birth. In many cases, illiterate adolescents, with neither the language, the knowledge, cultural know-how, political clout, nor the self-esteem to protest, were dumped into mainstream middle and high school academic courses. When I, as a program specialist of the Ministry of Education in Newfoundland and Labrador, assessed GAR students in 2006-2008, the majority were placed in academic courses with outcomes anywhere from two to ten years above their numeracy and literacy levels. Needless to say, the majority of the GAR students in the ESL cluster high school in St. John’s dropped out with no higher academic skills than they day they had arrived. Fortunately, the situation turned around with the implementation of an academic bridging program (Noseworthy, 2014)[ii].
Differentiated instruction starts with an assessment of the needs of students. Obviously, there are far more factors to consider than year of birth in determining services and academic programming for students. By placing students in academic courses well above their achievement level, not only are we denying them the opportunity to learn, but we are very likely further marginalizing and traumatizing them.
No teacher, no matter how devoted, can differentiate instruction to fully meet the needs of students who are 2-10 years behind in their readiness level. If refugee students are to stay in school, schools need to assess and respond fully to their academic needs. It entails more than website with tips or a “toolbox”. It requires fully developed curriculum for bridging programs, curriculum based on a needs assessment of this specific group of students. Successful educational experiences are not only crucial stepping stones to integration, economic and personal self-fulfillment, but are also key to helping these students build much needed confidence, pride, and a commitment to Canadian citizenship.
I am not, by any means, in favour of segregating ESL students who have the readiness to succeed in the mainstream academic course. ESL classes that create ghettos are not acceptable. However, the needs of most GAR students go well beyond ESL and beyond the scope of the mainstream age-appropriate classroom.
Furthermore, if refugee students are to stay in schools, educational communities have to be proactive in pressuring government to properly support refugee families financially and provide incentives for adolescents to continue with their education. Nobody in our society benefits from sustaining a population of uneducated, marginalized immigrants. Apart from our ethical duty to support these youth and families in reaching their potential, in is in our own best interest to design and promote education for all.
[i] Crawford, G. B. (2008). Differentiation for the Adolescent Learner: Accommodating Brain Development, Language, Literacy, and Special Needs.
[ii] Noseworthy E. J. (2014). A Chance to LEARN: A bridging program for refugee students, Education Canada.