TORONTO — The key to ensuring kids are prepared for the unpredictable world that awaits is to make sure today’s schools allow them to take risks, try new things and learn how to adapt to change, says educator Nancy Steinhauer.
The Toronto school principal teamed up with lawyer and education activist Kelly Gallagher-Mackay to lay out their vision for the future of education in the book “Pushing the Limits,” out Tuesday.
They profile several public schools that are already championing harder-to-measure skills including high-order thinking and social-emotional learning.
Current achievement tests — which measure math and reading levels — are still important pieces of information, but they’re only part of the picture, Steinhauer says.
“The kinds of things people were learning 50 years ago, 75 years ago, in school, that’s not going to prepare our kids for the world that they live in,” she says.
Steinhauer documents the five years she spent at an under-performing school where many students were refugees and new immigrants, and most lived in poverty. She says a shift in priorities — and an influx of funds and professional development through a special program targeting inner-city schools — helped turn things around.
She says this isn’t an isolated case, and that parents can be encouraged by a growing movement to employ innovative approaches at Canada’s schools.
CP: I hear a lot about teaching the four C’s — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. How broadly embraced is that?
Steinhauer: Many of the provincial systems are really looking at that whole idea of 21st-century learning: what do our kids need to know to thrive in a world that is constantly changing? It’s common knowledge now that most of the jobs that will be the best jobs in 10 years don’t even exist right now. So it’s not enough to teach children basic skills anymore … students need to learn about creativity, about problem-solving, they need to learn emotional intelligence, they need to learn how to think about thinking, learn about learning.
CP: Does this conflict with the simultaneous push for STEM education, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math?
Steinhauer: I don’t think it has to be opposed at all. Really, STEM-based learning is about thinking about problems and coming up with solutions and design-thinking and using the tools that we have before us to try and be creative…. It’s harder to measure creativity, it’s harder to measure social and emotional learning, but what we were finding as we were talking to people — especially to kids who had really extraordinary experiences in schools — was that it was that social-emotional learning piece, it was what they learned about themselves, it was opportunities to think creatively that really kept them motivated and made them feel like the learning was meaningful and worth doing.
CP: Does any province measure creativity?
Steinhauer: Most provinces as far as I understand are relying on achievement data for the most part. (As part of the Model Schools for Inner Cities program) we were also looking at things like resilience surveys and the Early Development Instrument, which measures a number of things including social-emotional factors in young children. And we were using parent surveys and student surveys and teacher surveys, staff surveys…. We were able to see for example that our resilience scores were really high. Our kids were feeling really secure in the school. Our parents’ satisfaction surveys were extremely high, they were feeling really good. We discovered that the vast majority of our parents had expectations that their children would continue beyond high school to post-secondary education. That was really a good thing to know.
CP: How would a parent be able to evaluate a school on those terms? That information isn’t necessarily readily available.
Steinhauer: Parents can have a lot of power in their own school system. If they let their educational leaders know we value more than just academic achievement, (that) we also want to know how you are addressing these needs of teaching creativity, teaching problem-solving, (then) people pay attention to that.
CP: What would you like to see changed?
Steinhauer: One thing I would make sure of is that there is time for teachers to learn together about their students and what their students need. Time to collaborate…. A second thing would be to have schools look at high-order thinking and how much of the time is spent on basic knowledge and understanding and how much of the time is spent on applying those to new situations.
CP: What should the split be?
Steinhauer: Most of our time should be spent on applying those skills to authentic problem-solving situations. And I guess the third thing would be the whole social-emotional piece. I think sometimes we think that that’s an extra, but unless kids’ social-emotional needs are being met, it’s much harder for them to be successful in the learning.
CP: What should parents take away from this book?
Steinhauer: First of all a sense of hope…. There is a lot of good practice happening in our schools. But then also … a sense of what’s possible, so they can engage in a dialogue with their own schools and their own system about what they want for their children.