Last Column –
Here we go! If
I did not edit these responses, and leave a few out, I
would have run out of time. Thank you all for your
thoughtful replies (essays!).
You raise several a number of interesting points about
education (some, like seniority vs. quality, aren't
likely to be resolved anytime soon).The issue of
identifying a child's motivation and tailoring the
learning to suit their interests is extremely important.
A few years back I came across a study that indicated
that when an individual, of any age, has the internal
motivation to study in a particular area they can
achieve superior results. External motivation (scoring
good grades to meet the expectations of parents /
teachers) wears rather thin over the years. I've
witnessed this first hand with my son, who commenced his
last year of high school today. The subjects he enjoys
he does very well in. The ones he doesn't like (eg...Spanish)
suffer quite badly. Parents and teachers have a crucial
role to play in helping children identify their unique
interests and learning styles.
There's a book called Dumbing Us Down : The Hidden
Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto
that you may find interesting. He discusses the rise of
the public education system and the unrest that resulted
when children from a largely agrarian society were
legislated away from home schooling into the industrial
education model that prevails to this day.
Over the years we've come to understand that there is no
one way or right way for children to be educated, as
each one is unique and has something very special that
they bring to the process.... Enjoy the journey....
Bob: You echoed
another strong theme of the responses. There is no blame
to lay at any particular group's feet. In the end, we
are all very different and we learn differently. I tried
a few suggestions for recognizing that individuality and
embracing different learning needs. But practically
administering that vision seems, well, it seems like it
needs a little more thought.
I disagree that "the" most important factor in
education is the teacher ("the education you
receive is far more dependent on who is teaching it to
you than any other factor"). *The* most important
factor in your education is YOU. Even in grades 1 and 2
my son's experience differed greatly from some of his
peers because of his attitude. Same teacher, same
program very different results.
We need to take responsibility for our own education,
health, financial affairs etc. etc. etc. and not expect
the government, Education System, Health Care System to
solve all our problems for us. If a child does not go to
1. a good night's sleep
2. a good breakfast
3. a big hug
They WILL NOT LEARN, no matter how wonderful the teacher
or the program.
The most powerful enrichment program available to your
children is the one you provide at home by teaching them
the value of life long learning. If they have a love of
learning, the rest will follow.
Heather Regehr mother of a Grade 3 Student
for the reminder. My kids sleep and eat well. I am the
one forgetting steps 1, 2 and 3. Five hours of sleep,
followed by a quick shower and caffeine for breakfast.
I appreciated your article on the educational system in
Canada and type of questions we need to be asking about
preparing ourselves and our children to be the business,
social and cultural leaders of tomorrow. As an educator,
life-long learner and researcher on the knowledge-based
economy, I was pleased to see that you did not fall into
the trap of supporting 'skills, skills, skills' as some
have done. Granted, a good case can be made that in many
Universities we do a good job of educating students to
think critically and ask good questions, we do however,
sometimes fall short on equipping them with the skills
to *answer* those questions. Conversely, many new tech
colleges and tech universities load students up with
skills, but unfortunately ignore that skills are only as
good as the creative mind behind them. Given this
scenario, some would say the problem is solved - you
hire certain people to think creatively and create
vision, others to work that vision into reality. 20-50
years ago when development stages and product life
cycles were measured in years not months, that was an
option - today with the pace of innovation it is not.
You need people who can think creatively and problem
Therefore, my comment is that to equip ourselves and our
children to meet the economic, political, social and
environmental challenges of the future, we must focus on
developing *abilities*, not skills. It may seem like I
am splitting hairs, but look closely and you realize
that the difference is enormous. Simply teaching
students a variety of skills does not necessarily mean
they will be able to use those skills in a creative and
imaginative manner. Ability however, implies that the
student is not only comfortable with skills content, but
can use those skills in a variety of creative and able
manner to realize their visions (cognition and
metacognition... if ya want the educational jargon).
That, in my opinion, would go an enormous way in
creating life-long learners who are imaginative,
creative, flexible - and any other new-economy term you
might want to throw at them! To realize this, we must
all embrace the idea that to dream is not enough, to
'know' is not enough - we must combine our knowledge and
our visions. To me, this means at a University level we
return to our roots of creating 'thinkers', but do so in
an enlightened way, benefitting from a greater
understanding of how people learn. In addition to
teaching students how to 'do' chemistry, or how to 'do'
history, we must first teach them how they *learn* and
where their strengths, aptitudes and natural abilities
lie. In doing so, we create a student-centered approach
where students take responsibility for their own
education and if they get a teacher that 'sucks', they
still can draw from that person's insights and
experiences. In addition, it would greatly enhance the
experience because you would hopefully no longer have
the engineer picking an Art's Requirement on the basis
of the least amount of writing, or an Art's student
avoiding any subject with too much Math (rocks for jocks
Anyway, Brent, that is my two cents. Thank you again for
the article, it is refreshing to read something from the
Venture / High-tech side which sees education as
something more than just career training. As a personal
aside, let me extend my condolences for marrying a
teacher - I grew up in a house where my Mom, Dad and
even (eventually) my sister were teachers and know how
much they love to tell stories from the classroom! If
you ever want to get together for a beer as a bit of a
mini-support group, let me know!
Matt: Excellent response. I don't
think we have yet solved the issue down to the
"micro" level. Can we really get children to
understand where their abilities can take them? Do we
have the facility to figure out what's best for the
individual? How much can we steer them without being
overly suggestive? (Eg. Stacey, you have great abilities
in logical thinking and reasoning. I know you want to be
a ballerina, but your abilities suggest you would be a
better accountant.) I'm being Mister Rhetorical, but
there are some tough practical things to work out,
I have a 7 year old girl in grade 2, and I am confronted
with the same difficulties - to get the teacher to
challenge her in the area where she has the strongest
interest. Old habits ( or systems ) die hard. I agree
with your logic. If you ever decide to go into politics,
I vote for you.
David C. Lam
I'm not sure I could ever keep my mouth out of trouble
in that game. And I have zero patience for red tape and
due process. Ugggh. I appreciate the vote, though. And I
will keep watching West Wing, just in case.
Enjoyed your column as always. The state of public
education right now is pretty much as you describe - I
have kids in Grade 5 and 9. But there are a couple other
The equation is weighted in another way - where
wealthier parents can and do invest in extra training,
coaching or private schools for their kids; probably the
same as it always has been. This does give an advantage
to the kids fortunate enough to have the benefit of
this. My kids compete with others who go to extra
classes up to 6 days a week - in Math, languages, music,
Reading, etc. My kids will be joining the extra training
hoards this year - because they have to - to be able to
have a future.
So is the best chance to excel in life to have rich,
caring parents? It sure helps.
The public schools are determined to cram even more info
into the kids - not how to learn. I saw all the grade
four's last year with huge backpacks. My daughter
regularly came home with 20lbs. of books each day. Since
she only weighed 60 lbs, it's a damn good thing we chose
to move right across the street from the school. I can't
remember having homework until about grade 8. This isn't
the change that you mentioned. Is it the result of the
extra class madness?
Since we're so damn smart now, why can't we test and
find an easier way to operate our own brains; to input
the facts quickly, easily and then, as you suggested,
let the kids find and explore what they are good at. No
compelling business model there so we are not investing
Why not organize a huge investment in the research and
testing of how humans learn - akin to the Human Genome
project - in order to get answers on how to optimize
this, for everyone on earth. There are people who
exhibit amazing capabilities; memory, reading speed,
intuition, business acumen, etc. We all use little of
our potential. This might just give kids time to be kids
- you know to explore life without having to have a
frikkin' organizer at 10 years old.
Aside - Job satisfaction comes from knowing and doing
what you are good at; fulfilling your potential - yet
many spend their whole lives not enjoying their work
life because they are doing something that they are not
Thanks for the thoughts.
Mark: Very deep
final thoughts. I hadn't realized that the class loads
were getting that ridiculous. We absolutely should not
be creating a bunch of Alex Keatons running around our
elementary schools trading stocks and "doing"
lunch. Any accelerated learning needs to be balanced
with fun and just being young.
Even if children aren't learning computers at school,
many are messing about on the family computer and
getting further ahead with simple curiosity than any
parent or teacher could provide them with..... and they
often end up teaching their parents how to work the
machine because adults hate to admit to ignorance
(especially when they think this thing's simple.....if
only everyone used a Mac..).
I suppose we need a fusion of the general acceptance of
this lovely technology (so that EVERYONE's comfortable
with it, not just the geeks) and, assuming that the pace
of innovation/change continues unabated, providing
current information and technology to the children to
learn on.... without descending into the crassness of
commercials pitched to children while they're at school,
to pay for the technology.
The other substantial pressure is the deification of
stupidity in this society: those with the brains and the
encouragement at home are usually ostracised by others
because they're far too bright and are open about it.
Roger: You made
some great points, but I pulled these out for others to
read. Generally speaking, the responses agreed with me
that teaching just skills, like computer skills, is only
a small step towards a "brighter" society. I
like your last point. We need to celebrate the geek…
let those who feel ostracized step out of the closet and
feel comfortable in their skin.
Brent, you've hit my hot button,
and I'll bet it's the hot button of many more of your
I'm a product of that pre-1950 education system you
referred to (UBC grad, BASc '55). I guess you're too
young to have experienced it, but in my experience at
least, it wasn't all, or even largely, rote learning. I
was taught to think, even in the elementary grades. I
agree that the teacher makes the difference, and I
believe I had some good ones -- especially in math and
english. And in my schools, at least, we had choice.
Once the basic courses were mastered, I was allowed to
progress at my own rate and do other things. I was
fortunate to attend King Edward High School. At King Ed,
right from grade 9, we were given course outlines and
teaching schedules, then had to scurry around and sign
up with teachers for the courses and times we wanted. We
could take as many or as few courses as we liked, but
had to achieve a certain number of course credits to
advance to the next grade -- just like at university.
King Ed was the only high school in Vancouver operating
on that system. The classes with the best teachers
filled quickly, and second-rate teachers were quickly
identified as such by the lack of sign-ups for their
classes. It seemed those lightly-loaded teachers somehow
were replaced after a couple of years!
Interestingly enough, it was at university that I found
myself stifled by instructors and professors who did not
allow us to think things through, but expected us to
learn almost by rote -- at least in the engineering
school, and in physics and chemistry courses. English
and math profs still expected us to think, however.
Bill: You had
many good thoughts in your long letter, but this was
very interesting. Your experience at King Ed speaks to
one solution for poor teachers. They would sit in front
of empty classes. I agree with the rote method of
university teaching. I learned how to write multiple
choice exams in my science courses. Not until fourth
year when I was in a small group, did we learn how to do
really good research and challenge each other to be
I enjoyed your article very much and found myself
nodding emphatically at several of your points.
Since your bright son is starting the adventure through
our education system (be it public or private), you may
wish to consider joining your local chapter of the
Gifted Children's Association (http://www.vcn.bc.ca/gca).
The GCA is very active in working to achieve the very
goals you espoused in your article.
Well, I'm not
sure that he is gifted, but I appreciate the
notification of such an organization. I had heard of
Shad Valley through a friend of mine, David Vogt. This
sounds very different.
What I wonder is if ever in socialist Canada will the
big brother government and their friends in unions let
go of the control over education eg: as in allowing
decent private education (ahem, not necessary religious
based)??? -- as in free market. Sure it has to have some
regulations (note SOME...) to outline the common ground
for all institutions, but only that.
Oops, here comes the storm...
Someone had to
say the uncomfortable, I guess. Two tier education is as
hot and issue in California as two tier health care is
in Alberta. California has "charter schools"
which are semi-private, benefiting only those that can
afford to pay the extra amount. As for religion in the
school, I am not even going to touch that one. Let me
just say that we have been killing each other for 5000
years because of deeply ingrained intolerance of other
religions, but I digress.
I'm a Burnaby Elementary School teacher, and enjoyed
reading your column on Education. Here are some thoughts
on your thoughts.
When I began teaching in 1975 teaching was just leaving
the 'teacher as craftsman' phase. The concept of teacher
as professional was just being developed. After teaching
for a few years I went back to school and returned in
1992. I found the system had dramatically changed. The
demands by society had changed. I am not an expert on
educational history, but I agree with you that 'the
memorization as learning paradigm' began to fade in the
early 1950's, but I believe the big change was the
recession of 1982 when General Motors went from 50% to
33% market share under the attack of the Japanese. Among
the Japanese innovations were quality circles, that is
factory floor workers providing suggestions. I think
that marked a turning point in the 'industrial mind set'
in North America. Suddenly large influential companies
needed factory floor workers to THINK. This was new, and
has had a profound effect on the expectations we have
for our education system. Before about 1982 it was nice
if people could think as citizens, but now society
NEEDED thinkers or we'd all be working for Japanese
companies! It meant all the graduates of the public
school system needed to think (rather than just the
Another thing that had changed is we 'discovered' a new
'microscope' to look at learning.
New tools make new understandings possible. Prior to
about 1982, to be accepted in peer reviewed journals,
educational research had to be done in such a way as to
prove 'statistical significance', this meant it had to
be reducible to numbers, and this meant some type of
standardized testing. Imagine how limiting it is to
study something as complex as a learning person, let
alone the interactions of a classroom full of them and a
teacher! In the early 1980's ethnographic research
techniques, which might be described as the observations
of a skilled observer (which was used for years by
sociologists and anthropologists), became acceptable.
This opened up a powerful new avenues for research and
has resulted in a much better understanding of what is
going on for learners in a classroom. Of course good
teachers were doing their own observations before that,
and 'always knew' about many of the 'new' ideas, but it
has still had a powerful effect on what techniques are
recommended, and promoted. This is good and has resulted
in curriculums and workshops and textbooks that are much
more skilfully done than 20 years ago. As a result of
all this the skill level is much higher too, as is the
talent level of most student teachers. All of this is
improving the performance in the classroom. The
curriculum is much more demanding for example the
curriculum of the mid 1980's is now allotted about 70%
of the time because of new courses such as personal
planning, and so on. We are doing more now than ever
before. I recently discovered some of my own notebooks
from junior high, and found I was covering much of same
material in my grade 4/5/6 classes, and we now teach it
to all the kids, not just the streamed ones as in the
I would agree with you in general about allowing
students to follow their interests. I'm fortunate to
teach Grade 4/5/6 which also happens to the golden age
of hobbies. I try to encourage these hobbies, and have
able and sometimes not so able kids follow their
interests. I think interests are actually like a
pyramid, in order to go really high (deep knowledge) you
actually have to eventually go wide (build wide
Re Teacher's unions: Perhaps teacher's unions are too
strong, some observers of management might say you get
the union you deserve. I think this is the case here
While there are militants within any group, in general,
like other knowledge workers, teachers have a higher
affiliation to their profession than they do to their
union. Most of the issues teachers and the BCTF
champion, like class size are more complex than just
In general, I think our society is less caring for
children than it was when I was growing up (maybe we are
more knowledgeable, but we don't put our children's
priorities ahead of our own wants to the degree our
parents did I think). In many ways the education system
is called on to supply some of that care now. I think
that the best way for us to improve society and
educational performance is to concentrate on the 0-5 age
group (don't you just hate to hear this as your kid
reaches 5 years old, I did). In elementary schools we
end up doing major 'repair work' on a few kids in each
class that have not had the best experience in the first
5 years of life. Fraser Mustard (sp?) of the Advanced
Systems Institute makes a very good case for investment
in this stage of life.
The kids who will graduate in the next few years from
high school have amazing abilities to collaborate in
ways that I certainly did not have at the same age. I
really noticed a turning point in the kids in my classes
about 7 years ago (those kids are just graduating now).
I can't speak for any where else on this, but I really
think the kids I had when Nintendo first came out were
scary, but he kids after that have been amazing. As for
collaboration, sure the internet etc will help, but in
my world at least, we've been working hard on the 'soft'
people skills that make group work effective, and
overall I've been impressed with the abilities the kids
display as they get older.
As an aside, I'm convinced that a major challenge in our
education and in society is 'How do we make the bottom
third of boys positive contributors to society?' The top
1/3 of boys will do well anywhere, girls have gone
through a dramatic improvement in their opportunities to
contribute and so are doing better. However the bottom
half or third of boys are in trouble, and unlike
females, when they are in trouble, they won't blame
themselves, they will blame someone else. They become
destructive both to themselves and to others. Unlike
girls, boys who are not employable may not be 'marragable(SP?)'
and often don't make the same contribution to society (I
not referring to children here, but overall
contribution). Have you read Lester Thurow's Building
Wealth? He talks about the need to skill the 'non elite'
to make them competitive with the rest of the world and
applies to boys especially.
That's all for now, I've got to get ready for the first
day of school, cheers!
I left this one
to the end because I could not edit it. There were far
too many good points. I hope people took the time to
read it. Thank you for a well thought out response.
What Do You Think? Talk
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