Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Difficult Path from Good to Better

From Good to Better, the title of my blog, is taken from the Voltaire quote, “The better is the enemy of the good”.  A variant of this quote was used recently at the BCSSA Conference in Victoria, and I think it describes very accurately the situation in which the BC public education system currently finds itself.

As with past PISA results, in the results released last week Canada has done quite well and BC has done quite well within Canada.  We in BC take pride in the fact that we have a strong and relatively progressive education system.  For instance, the graduation rates in BC as a whole are about 80%.  The graduation rate of my own district (Richmond) is consistently on the order of 90%, a statistic of which we are rightfully proud.  To find these statistics and others about BC education click here.  So by just about any accepted measure, the province of BC as a whole is doing quite well, educationally speaking.  But this is where we need to consider Voltaire’s quote.

Though the overall picture is good, there are populations and districts across the province that continue to struggle, and though we may wring our hands and come up with new strategies, these groups continue to flounder in the current system.  So maybe we really need to look at changing ‘all of it’ meaning the current paradigm of education and all the various mindsets that go with it.  This is where ‘good’ really is the enemy of ‘better’.

Our current system, particularly secondary schools, is essentially a factory model of school built around the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor.  Reductionism and efficiency of purpose were the order of the day.  Couple these with a simplistic and limited model of intelligence; throw in some 20th century behaviourism, and the underpinnings of our educational model become apparent.  But as researchers in various fields have come to discover, true learning is not efficient and compartmentalized.  Intelligence is almost infinitely malleable and notoriously difficult to define, and behaviourism is a very weak model for how human beings actually learn and master things.  In other words, the foundations of our current model of education are shaky at best.

So we’re left in the awkward situation where we as a province are doing very well within a system that itself is not well designed for optimal learning.  If a system is failing its students, then in many ways it’s easier to chuck the whole thing in and start again.  But when you are doing very well according to the predominant model of education worldwide, then revolutionary ‘new beginnings’ are impossible, not to mention ill advised.  One (among many) of our major tasks is going to be overcoming the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality.  We need to work toward changing current thinking and current practices to take into account new findings in various fields such as neuro and evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology and psychology.  We need to review, and revise as necessary, our educational frameworks such that our pedagogical habits are more in line  “With the grain of the brain”.  Good may well be the enemy of better, but better is better.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Adding My 2 Cents...

As I write my inaugural entry for this site, Julian Assange is being persecuted by the press and the political establishment for leaking documents that amount to nothing more critical than serious embarrassment for those involved.  Many have even flippantly called for his assassination.  While, as Dan Gardner pointed out recently in the Vancouver Sun, “Dubya” has admitted recently in his memoirs that he authorized the use of torture (water boarding) which is, in fact, a criminal offense.  Yet GWB remains free.

Canada meanwhile has been awarded yet another “Fossil of the Day Award” at the most recent climate talks taking place in Cancun.

This is but a glimpse of the socio political climate in which we’re trying to educate our students.  I can’t help but notice the disconnect between what we’re trying to teach kids in the classroom about freedom of speech, civilized discourse and just generally ‘doing the right thing’ and what we, as adults, often model in the world that we’ve created.

At the same time I see numerous movements in education, both locally and internationally, that offer inspiration, and hope.  The inspiration provides the impetus to change what we do as educators so as to prepare students for a wildly uncertain future.  This gives me hope that given the energy, enthusiasm and optimism so prevalent among the young, the right educational reforms will lead to some truly transformative change on all levels.  As John Abbott so succinctly puts it in his book “Over Schooled But Undereducated”, we all need to ask ourselves “What Kind of Education for What Kind of World?”

The BC Ministry of Education is moving the province's schools toward a model of “Personalized Learning”, herein lays opportunity.  Since even the Minister and Deputy Minister of education admit that they’re not sure what it’s going to look like, this is our chance as educators to get involved with educational reform rather than having it dictated to us.

Much difficult work lies ahead however.  If we accept that ‘personalized learning’ is the way of the future, the name itself implies that “education” will look different for each and every student.  How do we attend to such practical tasks as timetabling students and effectively and efficiently assessing work in such an environment?  On another level, how do we move school and community culture, particularly at secondary school, away from the model that holds grades and marks as ‘currency’ to be bartered for coveted spots in post secondary institutions?  Is such a cultural paradigm shift even possible?  How we deal with issues such these will determine whether or not the Ministry’s goal of Personalized Education amounts to another evolutionary change or a truly revolutionary change.

The role of technology is another huge topic for consideration as education moves forward.  The technological landscape of today would be unrecognizable to someone looking forward from even as recently as 10 years ago.  Blogs, Tweets and Texts (oh my!) are three forms of communication considered vital among the young, yet none of them even existed 10 years ago.  Today’s kids can’t even imagine the world in which we grew up, where the phone was the thing that hung on the wall in the kitchen.  One of our tasks is to teach creative and judicious use of these incredibly powerful communication tools, even as we learn how to use them ourselves, and as the tools themselves continue to evolve.  This sort of constant, perpetual change in communication technology offers both exciting opportunities, and potential pitfalls as we move toward Personalized Learning.

So that's just a bit of thinking about where I stand.  As I wrap this up I'm listening to Bernie Sanders filibuster speech in the US Senate.  Unlike most filibusters, Mr. Sanders has spoken eloquently and engagingly for over 6 hours now about the precarious and sometimes desperate plight of much of the US population.  Though I'm well aware that things here in Canada are not as dire, nor are the politics as divisive or polarized, the troubles of our large neighbour to the south are indicative of the tumultuous and, in many ways, troubling times in which we live.  All true educators however believe in the transformative power of their chosen profession.  Now more than ever we need to step up and help lead the way to a more just and equal society.  The first step toward such a daunting goal would be to take our education system from good to better.