Friday, October 18, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 1: Student Success

The Ontario government has recently initiated a process of public consultation about the future of education in the province. The different ways groups and individuals can participate in this initiative–called "From Great to Excellent: The Next Phase in Ontario's Education Strategy"–are explained on this ministry of education website,* but the easiest way to contribute, especially for individuals, is to fill out the online survey. The survey consists of seven questions about various aspects of Ontario's education system, including questions about  equity, student well-being, parent engagement and technology in schools.

I've decided to fill out the form and post my answers here as I complete them. I believe the consultation process is a good idea–in theory, at least. Questions have been raised about how much impact the consultations will have, whether certain contributions will be more welcome than others, and whether the process is in reality simply an exercise in public relations. I don't know the answers to these questions, and I have no idea who will read my submission or even if it will be read. Nonetheless, filling out the survey has been worthwhile for me, as it has allowed me to clarify my thinking about the issues being addressed. It has also allowed me to vent a little and have some fun with my answers. Below is my answer to the first question.

Question 1: What are the skills, knowledge and characteristics students need to succeed after they have completed school, and how do we better support all learners in their development? (1000 word-limit)

First, I think we need to define what we as a society mean by "succeed." What does "success" mean? How is it measured? I think the wording of this question assumes that "success" equals economic success. (I could be wrong.) But that is a very narrow understanding of success. It also reduces education to training for the job market. The problem is that the question "what do we mean by success?" is not primarily an educational one. It is moral and philosophical. In fact, it is the type of question I wish kids were exposed to more often in school. But an education that sees itself as equal to "training" has no room for this sort of question.

Personally, of course, I have opinions about what types of skills, knowledge and characteristics I want my own kids to acquire during their years of schooling. For instance, I want them to learn to think critically, but not in the amorphous edujargon sense in which the term is often used these days. To me, critical thinking isn't just thinking about pragmatic problems "outside the box" so you can make a lot of money like Steve Jobs (who, ironically, dropped out of university). To me, it means being able to apply a critical, questioning eye to everything, including the systems in which one finds oneself at any given time–i.e, including school. I want my kids to learn to think critically so they can make informed decisions as citizens in a (flawed) democracy, not so that they can become model employees in the global economy.

As for skills, I disagree with the emphasis on soft computer skills, such as how to use PowerPoint or create spreadsheets. I think the curriculum should be geared to encouraging students to read and write critically and to reason logically. Currently, the emphasis on cross-curricularity and on "presentation" skills (often colouring–even in grade 9!) in every subject distracts from this goal. Even if one sees education as training, it's impossible to try to predict which specific skills kids will need when they enter the job market. If they have a solid grounding in reading, writing and thinking analytically (which includes thinking mathematically), they will be intellectually adaptable and able to "succeed" at university and in most jobs.

To be clear, though, I'm not advocating a "back to basics" approach. I believe students should be offered a lot of choice and that arts should be given as much weight as the much-touted STEM subjects. What I am advocating is intellectual seriousness–no matter the subject, and for all students–in place of the incoherent whorl of "concepts," "21st-century skills," and cross-curricular "connections" that fills (to bursting!) the current curriculum.

*See also Sheila Stewart's informative post about the consultation process.

(Answer to question 2, about student well-being, can be found here.)

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