Town Crier January 2002
Town Crier Newspaper
In Shakespeare's Macbeth, after King Duncan has been discovered brutally murdered, Macduff bellows the agony of his gruesome discovery to the sleeping inhabitants. "Confusion hath made his masterpiece," he cries. Macduff could just as easily have been describing the state of education in Ontario.
The media have been having a marvelously mischievous time following the bouncing education ball. On slow days, bold headlines have pronounced the certain and imminent demise of western civilization due to the decay of school standards. Our Education Minister vociferously defends the rigors of Ontario's new curriculum by arguing that she only wants students to be successful, making all unfortunate students who were educated under the "old" system feel positively inadequate. (Visits to therapists spike as practitioners throughout Ontario hear the plaintive whimper, "… but I thought I was successful . . .) No one, by the by, bothers to ask Ms. Ecker how she might define successful. Those pedagogues who were involved in the design phase of the seemingly cruel and heartless new curriculum point to teachers in the lower grades for the abysmal results on Grade 9 Mathematics scores. "Not enough preparation!" they chant. The much-maligned teachers point to the Ministry of Education for foisting this gargantuan curricular change upon them with little warning, no professional upgrading, and little prior resource material. And after the implementation of the new curriculum, the Ministry points back with wagging finger and declares that all teachers will be upgraded within five years, although the upgrading is completely generic, and by the way, we've not designed the programmes yet. Finally, Mike Harris announces his retirement, and the upcoming leadership and a provincial election just might change the whole edu-landscape anyway. (In the schoolyard, there is a phrase for individuals like Mr. Harris who stir it up, and then leave. The second word is "Disturber.") Finally, there are some reports that actually celebrate our students' academic achievements, and position those remarkable young men and women at par with or exceeding the best students in the world.
What's a poor parent to believe? And more to the point, what's a poor student to do? If on a plate of ham and eggs, the chicken is said to have made a contribution while the pig has made a commitment, then in education, parents are most certainly the hens, and the students are the curly-tailed victims. It's their bacon that's being fried if we get education wrong.
To get unstuck from this morass of educational intelligence and counter-intelligence, one might start by strapping on the boots of basic principles.
" Education is not going to heck in a handbag (or words to that effect.)
For as long as I've been in education (a couple of decades), and even before that as a student myself, there has been, at frighteningly regular intervals, a call for an overhaul of education. Everyone has some expertise in education because everyone, probably, has been a student at one time or another. (It's as if all patients who have survived suturing are now fit to be physicians after undergoing a stitch or two. But that's another story.) Nevertheless, we will always be looking to overhaul education - and should strive to examine the process of education - because all of us, teachers, parents, (and politicians) - want the same thing: young men and women who will grow up to be good people, decent citizens, and happy, balanced human beings. Educational reform is absolutely necessary, and should be regularly occurring. We should welcome the process. We all share the same ideological goal. How we collectively achieve that goal, however, is often the sticking point.
" A successful student cannot be judged by marks alone.
A successful student is an amalgam of many things. His or her marks, however lofty, do not measure true worth. It appears that the contemporary drive for accountability and measurement has become terribly micro-minded. Some factions have been examining a miniscule part without examining the whole, a dangerous exercise at the best of times, (ask the blind man and the elephant) and particularly perilous when attempting to assess the efficacy of current educational practices on such a complex entity as a student. As a prognostication of future success for students, (however one might define that), one might have as much success examining the entrails of birds as relying solely on Math and English scores.
A successful student, in my view, is a balanced student who has learned how to learn and takes some measure of joy in it. A successful student has learned to manage his or her time well. A successful student has fallen or failed along the way, and has learned how to overcome adversity. A successful student is one who is self-reliant, yet is aware and emotionally confident that there is support when necessary. A successful student is not much different from and equally complex as those successful human beings you and I know and admire.
" No student has ever thanked a curriculum for preparing him/her well.
This recent focus on curriculum alone has been, in my view, close to disastrous, and misses by a country mile the heart of education. Education is a living, breathing dynamic. While curriculum is important, more important is the quality of the relationship of student to teacher, the teacher's passion and understanding for the subject, and the quasi-cultural values lived and celebrated at each individual school. Just as a car is more than tires, educational reform must focus on more than curriculum or on any other individual part of the educational complex.
" Great education is a combination of broadly nutritious curriculum sautéed by dedicated, energetic and caring teachers, and consumed by hungry students.
There is no doubt that Ontario's curriculum is excellent, and the changes made to it have ramped it up a notch. But teachers have not been given the credit they deserve - or need - in this change. They're the ones who are charged with breathing life into the material. They infuse creativity in the delivery of all the material, and are charged to engage students. Setting the bar high is not enough. Students will achieve those lofty goals, but only after being coaxed, goaded, cajoled, encouraged, coached, directed, aligned and managed by caring professionals who are valued by students, parents, the schools and society. Exhibiting some trust in teachers - however difficult that might be for some - is the cornerstone of effective and expedient educational reform. Ownership of change by front-line practitioners will ensure that long-term change comes about.
" Teaching is not a science.
We struggle for metaphors to organize our worlds, but a science - or a business - model does not fully capture nor dignify the experience of education. Teaching is a increasingly difficulty job, and with the multitude of student needs to be addressed everyday, it takes the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and psychoanalytic insights of Freud to do the job well. Students aren't widgets and they aren't something static to be examined or dissected. Students are wonderfully self-determining, terribly fickle, and absolutely moveable feasts, and any attempt to categorize them, or to mechanize the process of teaching them is doomed to disappoint those who make that attempt. Teachers have the same goals as all parents - it's why they got into the profession in the first place. Teachers are passionate about what they teach and they want to pass on that flame to the next generation. In short, teaching may be one of the most idealistic professions on the planet. Teaching is not a science; it's closer to a belief system.
The Ontario education landscape appears to be in a state of upheaval, and we're not clear of the lava and flying boulders yet. Eventually, however, we will get to a point of semi-stasis in educational reform. In the meantime, however, I have faith in the students and the teachers that throughout the tremors, perhaps in spite of and because of it all, students will learn, they will be successful, and they will make masterpieces of their own lives, despite the apparent confusion around them.