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Perhaps the education mandarins are right

May 20, 2018

Perhaps the education mandarins are right. There is no need for new skills for the future. Our culture really hasn’t changed. All fake news.

Jarvis Collegiate Institute was one of the top schools in Canada in past years. It may still be. It saved me as did Bishop’s U! As you can see, it was built as a temple for instruction—content delivery when content was finite. Temples were built to preserve the immutable. Schools, churches, armouries, post offices, city halls/courthouses, and union railway stations all served a similar role: they were the key pillars supporting our prosperous society.

By the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, the boom years, the temples of instruction had evolved into cheap modular fabrications with outlying communities of portables – trying to serve the same purpose, but without the status of a pillar of society. The system could not keep up with population boom, so the bureaucrats improvised downward: No longer that key pillar, but just a cellular mass instructional machine kept humanized for the progressively disengaged students by remarkable teachers. It was as if the educational officials had declared (after a brilliant but failed attempt at reform by Premier Davis), ‘Mission accomplished!’

The Industrial Age system was built on hierarchies, homogeneous populations (whether they were or not) and mass production of goods, services and information. That’s not the age we now live in. We just haven’t replaced it or planned for it in education. Society is showing the way, but the mandarins are sticking to their old guns. Some newer schools, Bracebridge High (Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School), for instance, indicate that some are thinking, at least with respect to the physical environments and community involvement.

Experts with solid evidence in most major countries have identified the new executive skills needed for the coming, almost already here, working world. Michael Fullan is top expert in Canada, Tony Wagner in the States, and Michael Barber in the UK. For years they have been giving rationales for a competency system to enrich the curriculum to very little avail so far. While certain key skills are imbedded into the curriculum as published by the Ministry of Education, Ontario, unlike New Hampshire, for instance, has no demonstrable competency outcome for the students. Why not? No answer.

Temples by definition are not agile. They are constructed to preserve a culture, not to change it. ‘It’ here is a common curriculum mainly dedicated to providing basic literacy and numeracy for all though to age 16, and to winnowing out all those who can’t progress through to ‘higher’ schooling. They went on to productive manual labour, the basis for some 38% of GDP in the States, now under 10%. The need for that labour has disappeared, and the large, non-academic but very smart, cohort of students are left hanging, unprepared for the very large number of unfilled jobs.

Meantime ‘schooling’ has carried on, not as a parody as with Last Night at the Proms, but as usual. In the working world the new wealth has moved from mass production to digitized minimization of the inefficient and maximization of personal value. This mindset is best illustrated by GE’s latest ad. That is what schools need to be supporting by preparing students to think like that. What is getting in the way? (Note that when she is at school, there are still rows of desks with the teacher delivering content – schooling carrying on as usual.) Here are a few reasons:

  • Teachers in high schools are paid and timetabled to teach subjects to classes. The new era demands that they become managers of students’ learning agendas to acquire content knowledge and executive skills from all of their learning activities, in or out of school, equally reported for credit. We can no longer afford to let the majority of the students drift through until they join the workforce. That ‘force’ isn’t there for the skills they have. They won’t have the skills for the jobs going begging.
  • The millennials have been raised very differently from the boomers. While the thin top tier are highly educated, the group as a whole is not, but they still feel more entitled to the meeting of their own needs, and have new values about ownership and working entitlements. This does not make them bad. They still want the same security, caring communities and livelihoods as before, just differently packaged. The top achievers do better than ever before. But those formerly scheduled for the manufacturing middle mass are just left hanging – under-challenged, disengaged and without the most common self-starting attributes.
  • ‘Personalization’ has become the byword for one major theme of the age that has turned the model upside down. It is the very opposite of the former ‘mass’ concept. It implies that the vast majority of students can succeed if the program builds from their strengths rather than trying to plug weaknesses. Teachers have a very difficult time turning red pencils into green ones, But Montessori succeeded in the early 1900’s with the planned, managed learning environment in the most challenging of communities. It is a great model to consider.
  • Technology has always been an intruder into schooling but has rarely created change. The overhead projector and spirit duplicators ended up in cupboards, while black and green and white boards converted to smart ones. So why does student engagement at the higher grades continue to fall to less than 50%, while their engagement with complex digital games is over 70%? None of those intrusions changed the basic tenet of teaching. The base was still content delivery in what was hoped to be a more engaging format.
  • The Industrial Age pillars no longer serve the needs of society. The collective agreements, for instance, which were absolutely needed to protect teachers from polticians, no longer serve the public. Education systems have no professional management. The goals of the system and its reporting mandate cross too many lines (ministry, trustees, directors, superintendents and principals), often neither co-ordinated, nor clear nor crisp. Until the system embraces clear goals with professional management and clear lines of rational organizational structure, we are wasting most of the funding that should be driving our society and economy to prosperity. Converting boards of education into professionally run crown corporations would be a start. (That is effectively what the unions did to maximize and preserve the pensions – they hired top corporate managers, their supposed enemies, to run things properly!)

So while we look at blistering-speed tube travel, self-driving vehicles, instant data feedback, availability of most common information in multi-million hits in less than a second, the mandarins in educational office blocks carry on as usual. Perhaps they are right. It is all fake news.