This is the first article of a 3 part series, the second article of which was written by my colleague Stephen Armstrong, focusing on the current situation of education in Canada.
At the end of 2011, Canada was ranked number one when it comes to university and college enrolments, but we are also number one in the number of people with university degrees that live in poverty. Critics may pass this off as an after-effect of the 2008 recession, however even before the economic downturn, the 2006 census showed that as many as one-quarter of young people with bachelor’s degrees were holding down jobs that did not require one. These are terrifying statistics that highlight important issues within the Canadian education system, but first I would like to guide you through the journey of the institutionalization of how we learn, and further, how this affects our country as a whole.
The Second World War and the industrial revolution changed the structure of the North American economy in such a way that turned our countries into a “factory” – striving to manufacture peace against the tyrants overseas. Our men were sent to fight, our women were introduced into the workforce, and our children were forced into mandatory education. The fight that emphasized capitalism over communism ironically caused our countries to adopt several ‘socialist’ policies such as free education and subsidized childcare, which were used to help ensure the survival of struggling families during such a necessary contest. It was a time where North Americans were called upon to help defend the freedom of our fellow humans overseas, and our citizens answered their call and were aided by their government for doing so. Both during and following the war, North Americans were subjected to multiple forms of propaganda causing social changes including strict support of capitalism, nationalism, and mass-media. Westerners were slowly directed down the path of individualism by their government as they were manipulated to aspire to achieve the American Dream, turning their old fighters into new tools – Consumers, to be used towards the achievement of a new task: build the largest economy imaginable.
Unfortunately, the transformation of citizens into consumers has brought about an interesting change in our education system, where education is being “sold” as a route to higher earning potential, rather than an opportunity to expand your knowledge base for personal or social reasons outside of employment capability. Our youth begin to understand the world though the focused view of capitalism, which restricts their ability to understand their experiences from a number of perspectives. The reason why innovation is so hard to come by is because we are restricted to thinking within the ‘box’ we are provided by our government. The additional restrictions placed on higher education pose even greater threats to our aging society by further limiting our abilities to develop our own understanding of how our world works.
Mandatory education has played a great role in our country in the fact that it helps to decrease crime rates, increase our potential for employment, and provides direction for our youth until we have deemed them “mature”. Some open questions to consider regarding mandatory education include:
- What is the purpose of receiving an education for ~12 years?
- Who determines what knowledge is necessary for dissemination?
- How is that knowledge packaged and delivered to students?
- What relationship does the student have with the teacher?
- How is each party involved rewarded for their commitment?
Here is how I might answer these questions:
- The purpose of receiving a mandatory, ‘free’, education is to occupy a youth’s time while their parents are off contributing to the economy; to instill the necessary knowledge for a citizen to participate within society (i.e. free, basic job training); to demonstrate the various and plentiful areas of knowledge that are available to expand upon; and to prepare each youth for their future potential to contribute to the economy.
- The party that holds most power is the ultimate decision maker when it comes to handpicking the information that will be taught to our youth.
- Knowledge is packaged by educators who have mainly only experienced an environment of institutionalized learning, it is delivered in such a way that teachers and professors have become instructors rather than learning facilitators – spewing a continuously regurgitated ideology that one should conform to memorize facts and processes rather than challenge the status quo.
- A student learns from a teacher because they are the main source of knowledge available to them in this social context. The teacher assumes power and control over their students because they have the answers, in addition to the questions. The lack of a connection between student and teacher may result from the idea that the student has no choice in the matter, or that the teacher is not rewarded for additional effort on their part.
- A teacher is rewarded for their commitment with a salary, usually less than $50,000. While the student is rewarded with a piece of paper acknowledging the completion of their education.
What questions would you like to ask or have answered about our education system?
What is your perspective on the questions above?
As someone who is currently doing her B.Ed (that weird stage where you are both a student and a teacher), I would have to argue against a lot of your responses to the questions above.
Here are my perspectives:
1) Fair enough.
2) A lot of it actually comes down to the individual teacher when it comes to handpicking the information that we want to pass on to our students. As teachers, we are given curriculum documents to follow, which have a ton of general and specific outcomes we need to touch on throughout the year. You might argue that “party in power” is then responsible for creating the curriculum documents, which may be true. However, many of the outcomes are purposely left very vague, so that teachers can bend the curriculum to reach the outcomes in any way they see fit. For example, I am currently working with a grade 8 English curriculum, where an example of a specific outcome is to “understand how language is used to influence and manipulate”. This can be done in many ways: critical media awareness (critiquing advertisements, newspapers, etc.), looking at euphuisms which mean the same thing but produce different perspectives (think terrorists vs. freedom fighters), or even something as simple as decoding metaphors. You get the picture.
3) Completely dependent on the subject matter. As per your idea of “teacher as instructor” rather than facilitator… this completely goes against everything we have learned in the program thus far. Many would argue that a good classroom in the 21st century is very student-centric, where the teacher doesn’t do all of the talking (or even most of it), and where there are lots of possibilities for self-guided learning. With all of new technology we have, classrooms, along with the options for delivery of information, have come a loooong way from when we were in school.
4) True, educators must have some form of power/control over their students, but I would argue that this relates to classroom management, not because we are the ones with the answers, as you suggest. Also, if you gain respect from your students and have a mutually respectful classroom environment, these things come pretty naturally from them. I am also going to totally disagree with you when you say a lack of connection between students and teachers may stem from the fact that teachers are not rewarded for putting in the extra effort. We are most certainly not in it for the pay check. The reward come from making meaningful connections with your students, and knowing that you may have made a small difference in their lives. If you are not interested in doing this then you’re probably in the wrong profession.
5) This kind of relates to my answer above. It is about more than the pay check for the teacher (should be, anyway), and if we are doing our jobs right, the school experience for students should be about more than receiving a report card at the end of the year.
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Thank you Kate for providing your accurate and passionate perspective on the questions that I put forth. My reply is structured by points in response to yours.
1) I would also like to highlight my opinion on some additional negative aspects of mandatory education:
a) Holding function: mandatory education fills a significant amount of time in a youth’s life that could be spent in other ways.
b) Conformity function: this structure forces students to conform to the standards set by education policies, and thought processes instilled by their educators.
c) Standardization function: curriculums are standardized for a large group of students, of whom may have varied learning styles, etc.
2) You are quite right to make the point that yes, teachers are given a framework of goals and the freedom to interpret those goals as they see fit. However, without a guiding vision, an educator may wish to interpret the goal to “understand how language is used to influence and manipulate” as a path to teach youth about potentially harmful manipulation tactics from a compellingly positive perspective, ultimately providing a negative influence on their students and setting groundwork for the potential construction of harmful behaviours, morals and values that would be detrimental to our society. Additionally, the vagueness of the phrase may lead to varied teaching methods which lead to varied levels of understanding and knowledge attained by the students.
3) I would love to hear more about the topic of self-guided learning that is being introduced into our system. The question however is more focused on delivery as in the person, method, and type of information is being taught to students. In Canada, teachers who enter the profession are often high achievers from universities. They are not required to have any work experience in their respective fields or disciplines. They have mastered the narrow cognitive world of schooling and are not asked to account for life-course experience. Furthermore their attraction to, and acceptance into, teaching ensures that the status quo is maintained. In the words of Pan-Qing-yu, “The paradox of modern education is that it divorces knowledge from life, practice, and values.” Teachers are seldom fully aware of this paradox. Additionally, most knowledge conveyed in formal educational institutions is constructed knowledge. It is packaged for delivery and consumption the same way as a new product for the retail market, and its consumption reinforces human capital thinking, thereby diminishing the “human development” purposes of learning. The current perspective on education seems to be “The more formal education I get, the richer I will be, and the more I can shower myself with material things.”
4) I agree with many of your points. Unfortunately, not every educator is as interested in making a meaningful impact, and the mention of additional compensation was in regards to teachers organizing activities, coaching sports, or being involved in other activities not directly associated with their specific curriculum.
5) You’re right that teaching should be about more than the paycheck, but additionally shouldn’t there be an additional reward other than intrinsic motivation? Teachers and caregivers are ultimately the most important part of building a society and they should be rewarded proportionately to their aggregate value. Similarly, school should be about more than a report card for students – however within the system that we have today, it seems that grades are all that really matters in the end.