Let’s rethink our schools

Schools shape our future as a society. They are the bedrock of a community: a place in which all of our futures are nourished and developed; a place where skills are taught, enabled and encouraged. We should all care about what happens in schools, even if we do not have children attending them.

Schools shape our future as a society. They are the bedrock of a community: a place in which all of our futures are nourished and developed; a place where skills are taught, enabled and encouraged. We should all care about what happens in schools, even if we do not have children attending them.

One of those kids standing at the bus stop with baggy jeans and a funny hat may well become your pension fund manager just a few years from now. Others will run businesses that will hire your granddaughter or work to ensure our planet survives the onslaught of climate change.

But there is something wrong with our schools. They are burdened with too much direction about what they should teach – too many curriculum objectives, too many politically-correct imperatives and too many instructions for our instructors. They are held accountable but are not given the tools for the tasks they are responsible to achieve.

They are subject to high-stakes testing where students, on a single day, can determine their and their teachers’ fates. They are vulnerable and stressed. And they permanently fail to deliver to all of our expectations.

We also do not treat our teachers as true professionals. They are given limited scope for independent action – as if we do not trust them, despite their years of training, to do the job entrusted to them. We disdain their professional development activities and scoff at their summer vacations. We do not show them respect when, as they must do, they tell us that our son or daughter is not the paragon of excellence we thought them to be and that they are struggling.

We also see schools as a preparation for something else – for work, college or university – rather than places of learning in their own right. In fact, as one keen observer has noted, much of schooling is seen as a preparation for the work of a few – those who go to university – and is not, therefore, a great place for those who have chosen the trades, or creative arts or community service or retail as their destination. We therefore teach, through our structures, large numbers of students to live with failure.

It is time for a radical change. Our schools need to do more to help our students be part of the solution to the problems our communities’ face – homelessness, poverty, isolation of the elderly, climate change, the growing challenges of obesity and early onset diabetes, to name just some. Our schools also need to become less focused on being the pathway to post-secondary education and more focused on developing the skills which would enable all students to be life-long learners at any level and at anytime.

We need to counter the view that schools should narrow their focus to the basic science, mathematics, literacy and technology subjects and instead encourage the inclusion of a richness of personal learning which involves creativity, emotional intelligence, physical education, wellness and social skills.

Creative diversity is a better bet for our future that a focused insistence on core subjects.

We should reduce our division of knowledge into subjects and focus more on real world problem solving where students are asked to contribute directly and in a meaningful way to the solution of problems facing their community. By focusing on project-based work, the need to learn and develop skills normally associated with our “traditional” subject areas will arise naturally and be driven by student engagement rather than provincial requirements.

We should empower and enable teachers to determine large “chunks” of the work their students do, rather than directing them with curriculum requirements – one Grade 9 science provincial curriculum has over 260 objectives which teachers “must” complete during the year, 60 per cent of which are likely to appear on a Provincial Achievement Test.

This is pure nonsense, driven by the demands of post-secondary institutions rather than the learning needs of students. If we give schools back to the teachers, we should indicate the competencies at a broad level which students need on leaving school and let them, as professionals, determine the best route to these outcomes.

Finally, we should accept that teachers are best placed to assess their students and reduce the focus on standardized, annualized, aggregated, average test results. We should focus instead on frequent, systematic and focused teacher assessments as the basis for pupil evaluation.

Our schools and the curriculum which informs their work were designed for nineteenth century education for an industrial world. It is the 21st century and an age in which knowledge rather than industrial systems drive our economy. Our schools need a transformation – they need to become a part of the 21st century, not stand apart from our time.

Stephen Murgatroyd is a consultant in innovative business and education practices with a PhD in psychology. He writes for Troy Media Corporation.

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