For the sake of our kids, we have to be honest about the concerning state of traditional education.
Our global economy is changing so rapidly that we have to prepare children for a future we can’t even imagine. This is quite a task for someone like me and all the others who run a school or make education decisions; we have to make choices that affect people in a profound way - now and for their future. Talk about pressure! We are constantly thinking about how we can guide these children so they can weather, and even soar upon, these wild winds.
I’m turning 50 this year and, in my most far-reaching imagination as a child, I could not have dreamed up the internet, smartphones, and all the other technology we use today. I also could not have anticipated the ways we access information or the skills I rely on to navigate the many ways we communicate with each other.
We have known for decades that education needs to undertake a major overhaul to meet the demands and changes of this era. The current traditional school system was created by people (mostly elite men) over a century ago who didn’t have the knowledge we have now about how people learn, how emotional growth develops, how to foster the growth of strong mental health, and how to promote strong character development. And they didn’t have the internet!
Many decisions made back then - like putting children of the same age in a single grade, using tests to assess people, having homework, and separating learning out into subjects - were made by a small group of people making their best guess about what would work for the masses.
This small group also decided what everyone would learn and when -- curriculum. To the month, day, and even week, they created a calendar of information to be delivered to our children. Everyone was to learn at the same pace.
Guess what? People don’t all learn at the same pace. Homework actually hasn’t been shown to improve outcomes. And putting 25 four-year-olds in one room might actually hamper their development!
The WHY of education is so different now than it was even twenty years ago, yet the system influencing most of today’s children is based on the WHY from the mid to late 19th century. It’s a good thing they at least pulled blacksmithing out of the curriculum.
According to Foundation for Economic Education: “the central aim of the public school movement was to establish more efficient mechanisms of social control, and its chief legacy was the principle that ‘education was something the better part of the community did to the others to make them orderly, moral, and tractable.” Compliance and conformity were the goals.
I would suggest that the WHY today is to provide the opportunity for success for our children in their futures. This is done by facilitating the growth of critical thinking, understanding how to access and understand information, sharing it, and then using it in smart ways.
Given that, one of the biggest problems I believe that we are facing is the growing divide between children who have 21st-century abilities and those who do not.
Children who are locked into the worksheet/ study/ review/ test/ repeat cycle, large classrooms where they aren’t seen or heard, and a system that is focused on the delivery of content via the “teacher as expert” role, are not developing the skills they need to thrive in this messy world we have. In contrast, those who are able to think for themselves, who can access, analyze, and use information effectively, and who exhibit strong positive character traits (such as grit, growth mindset, goal-setting, curiosity, social awareness) will flourish.
Having taught in public schools, on-reserve Indigenous schools, and elite private schools over the years, I believe we also have to admit as a country that schools often actually hurt our children. I’ve seen high school hallways and elementary outdoor recess play yards as the battle zones they can often be. I was happy to see that CBC did a series about the prevalence of violence in schools. As parents, we need to be diligent in asking school organizations what is being done about this.
It has come to the point where we all need to stand up and say, “This is not okay!” I did so to the degree where I pulled my children out of public school and started my own! But while I am immensely proud of our Infinity School where we promote self-directed learning, small classes, great relationships, mental health growth, self-governance, and profound real-world learning, I continually find myself thinking, “It’s not fair.”
It’s not fair that a small number of children are getting this opportunity to be future-ready, nevermind safe and happy at school; this should be available to everyone! It’s not fair that while we, as dozens of independent education leaders, sat around a table to discuss how to infuse innovation into education, most of the province’s administrators and teachers are preoccupied by a labour conflict. I’m referring here to the ongoing teacher strikes in Ontario while we hosted a meeting at our school where leaders of several independent schools in Southwestern Ontario discussed how to do things better.
So what can be done about this?!
Admittedly, I struggle with this question. But, in order to start looking for solutions, we have to be very clear on what the problems are and be honest about the scope of them. Realistically, a school designed for this era has to look drastically different than the way it does now. It feels like a gargantuan endeavour to try to change what is here to what it needs to be. It’s like trying to convert a car into a boat. Different goals, different materials, different outcomes.
In order to start this process, I believe we have to have leaders willing to make courageous decisions that are necessary. These leaders need to be invested in this issue given that they are the ones making the decision that affects our education system. As such, I strongly feel that they need to have their own children enrolled in public school - which is often not the case with our government representatives.
The main shift that needs to happen is to move away from content-focused schooling (you follow a curriculum that is decided for you, at the pace I want you to do it) into a process-focused one. These are processes like critical thinking, creativity, communication, messy problem-solving, and adapting to change.
We need to honestly examine each and every aspect of school like age-based grade levels, report cards, homework, bells, subject-separation, tests, and teachers who create lesson plans and assess grades. Do they help our children succeed? If not, then why are they included? Our school does not include any of those items in our program.
Ultimately, it is up to us as parents to demand that these necessary changes are made. I have seen parents make phenomenal changes in schools but it takes huge perseverance and courage to speak up with new, unpopular ideas.
While I have left the public system, my heart is still with my fellow educators and the children in our community. I hope that our small school can serve as an example and incubator for innovative education ideas and thinking. We are happily hosting student-teachers from our local university, and are open to discussing education with those motivated to look at things differently. I do consulting on education innovation and experiential learning for schools and school divisions.
I think we owe it to our children to talk about what can be done today, tomorrow, next week, and next year to move towards a system that best prepares them for their future - whatever that will look like.
I encourage you to get involved in your local parent school council, school board, or provincial election system. Create time and space to brainstorm ideas, read about innovative schools and practices, and find the people who can make things happen. Mistakes will be made -- that’s okay, as that is a key part of the learning process. As long as there is a willingness to admit the state of education, have a desire to change, try things, and move forward - we will see progress.