June 5, 2014
Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)
Nova Scotia schools could be in for some major changes. The Minister’s Panel on Education, struck by the Liberal government, will review public education and make recommendations. But if it embraces contemporary education fads, it will do more harm than good.
For parents eagerly awaiting the panel’s report, here’s a prediction of what’s likely to appear.
The panel will begin by pointing out that the world is changing rapidly while schools are still mired in “factory-model” education of the 19th century. Instead of getting students to memorize facts that will soon become outdated, the panel will recommend that teachers must focus on “helping students learn to learn.”
This will lead to the central theme in the panel’s report — the need to move Nova Scotia to a 21st-century learning model. It will recommend rewriting curriculum guides to focus less on content, and more on the process of learning. In addition, it will stress the need for schools to do a better job of integrating technology in classrooms.
How can I be so confident about what’s going to appear in the panel’s report? Because the same empty philosophy and shallow platitudes appear in similar reports from other provinces. The most obvious example is Alberta’s “Inspiring Education” initiative.
Released in 2010 with great fanfare, Inspiring Education suggested that Alberta’s education system needs a fundamental transformation. It trumpeted the importance of 21st-century skills and spoke about “the role of the teacher changing from that of a knowledge authority to an architect of learning.” And, for good measure, Inspiring Education concluded that “technology should play a broader role in the classroom.”
However, while the Alberta government appears enthusiastic about this new direction, this is not true for Alberta parents, teachers, and students.
For example, more than 14,000 parents signed a petition expressing their unhappiness with Alberta’s fuzzy math curriculum. They want the education minister to ensure students learn standard algorithms and memorize their math facts.
Currently, the math curriculum does none of this. Instead, it places a strong emphasis on the so-called discovery approach. Students are supposed to figure out ways of solving math problems by themselves while teachers are discouraged from providing direct instruction. Unfortunately, this is exactly the learning environment envisioned for all grades and subjects in Inspiring Education.
The Alberta education minister recently reinforced this direction with the release of his Task Force for Teaching Excellence report. In it, the task force insists that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”
The task force also wants principals to evaluate teachers based on the degree to which they adopt this philosophy. Teachers would need to get re-certified every five years and, presumably, could lose their licences if they use a more traditional teaching approach.
It should come as little surprise that the Alberta Teachers’ Association is against these recommendations. Over 450 teacher delegates took the unprecedented step of unanimously voting no-confidence in the education minister at their annual meeting.
Clearly, Alberta’s Inspiring Education agenda is far from universally supported.
Despite the train wreck in Alberta, other provincial governments are moving in the same misguided direction. British Columbia’s education department is promoting the B.C. Education Plan, which similarly trumpets the need to change everything in schools because “the world is changing.”
Like Alberta, it wants to make teachers “shift from being the primary source of content to focus on helping students learn how to learn.”
Fortunately, Nova Scotia still has the opportunity to avoid these misguided educational reforms. Instead of copying empty slogans from the 21st century education movement, the Minister’s Panel on Education should examine ways to help teachers do their jobs more effectively. Less top-down micromanagement by bureaucrats, fewer useless education fads, and more empowerment of classroom teachers would be good places to start.
Nova Scotian parents and students deserve more than failed approaches and empty platitudes. Hopefully, the panel’s upcoming report will prove my pessimistic predictions wrong, and will propose evidence-based recommendations that would actually improve this province’s schools.
Unfortunately, it is more likely we will see more of the faddish and misguided policy advice that has emerged from similar review processes in other jurisdictions.