Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reboot Alberta: Education - A Charter

Education is critical to the future of Alberta. Rethinking how we provide learning and support and what it is that our learners do is essential if Alberta is to build a strong, responsible and sustainable economy which competes effectively with other jurisdictions.

It is time for leading Albertans – business, communities, educators, politicians and thought leaders – to share a commitment to a vigorous, affordable, accessible education system K-PhD which enables each Albertan to find their talent, develop it and become effective and creative members of organizations, communities and society. Its time to reboot education.

Our two Ministers for Learning – our 25th Minister of Education, Dave Hancock (K-12) and our 12th Minister for Advanced Education, Doug Horner (the post secondary system) - and their colleagues understand something has to change. A new School Act is in preparation and significant and substantive changes are in progress within the K-12 Ministry. Of all areas of the Alberta government, Education will see the most major changes in 2010.

But what will these changes focus on? What will be their underlying purpose? For Reboot Alberta, they should focus on making the system nimble, locally responsive, reliant on professional support from teachers and other professionals and focused on learning rather than teaching.

In fact, as part of the Reboot Alberta process, the following Charter for 21st Century Education is suggested as something every Albertan should be asked to sign up to. The Charter should inform all changes being made to K-12 and our thinking about how to make more accessible and affordable the post-secondary system in Alberta. What follows is the proposed charter, taken without apology from the one developed by The Royal Society of Arts in the UK and adapted for the Alberta context.


The Charter

It is the primary purpose of education to awaken a love of learning in all people, and give them the ability and desire to carry on learning throughout life.

We need to recognise that education has many aims

Education must nurture creativity and capacity for independent and critical thought.

Learners should leave formal education equipped with the confidence, aptitude and skills they need for life, community, social and environmental responsibility and for work.

Education should help learners to understand how to be healthy, happy and to develop and maintain their own emotional, physical and mental well-being.

Every young person has the right to develop to their full potential

Ability comes in many forms and learners need to be supported to enjoy success no matter where their talents lie – education is not just for and about “academics”.

The educational success of learners should not depend on their background or post-code. Schools, communities and families must work together to close gaps in attainment.

The curriculum in schools and colleges should balance abstract and practical knowledge so that every learner can access high quality knowledge and skills as well as vocational opportunities.

Education should engage the learner with exciting, relevant content and opportunities for learning through experience and by doing.

Education and learning should embrace, leverage and be enhanced by appropriate technologies.

Education and learning takes place outside of schools, colleges and learning – we need to facilitate, enable and recognize learning from a variety of different settings.

Education must be a partnership

Learners have a valuable role to play in contributing to the design of their own learning, and in shaping the way their learning environment operates.

The education of Albertans should be a partnership of schools, parents and the wider community in a local area.

Schools, colleges and universities should be inclusive, creative communities which build tolerance, respect and empathy in young people.

We must trust our schools and education professionals

Every teacher should be a creative professional involved in the design of curricula and learning environments, and should be supported and developed to fulfil that role.

Every place of learning should be different and innovative and we must find ways of holding them to account for their performance that reward rather than stifle this creativity.

As part of our thinking about Reboot Alberta, we should refine this charter and then secure as many signatures as possible from all those who have a commitment to learning.

You will notice that the charter does not address the normal “challenge points” in the K-12 system – class size, funding, governance structures – but instead works at the level of principles. This is deliberate. When the new School Act is published, it needs to be assessed against these principles and amendments suggested to make sure it meets the needs of Alberta as a dynamic place. When the post-secondary system is being reformed or financed, we need to use the framework of the charter to assess the veracity of the proposals. In short, lets start with principles and then work to action.

And these principles are challenging. Lets take three of them as examples. First, the idea that “every teacher should be a creative professional involved in the design of curricula and learning environments, and should be supported and developed to fulfil that role” requires a radical rethink of the nature of the Provincial curriculum, the balance between a curriculum framework and the creativity of professional teachers to develop appropriate learning for the young people in their learning community. Its not business as usual.

Let’s look at another principle: “every place of learning should be different and innovative and we must find ways of holding them to account for their performance that reward rather than stifle this creativity”. This too is a big change. Some three hundred people work in the Alberta Government to manage accountability and performance assessment. Every students is assessed on Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) on a periodic basis and schools are expected to file development plans to show what action they intend to take to improve their performance. Some have argued that the PAT’s distract from learning and sap the system of creativity, energy and money – three hundred people is a lot. Imagine, then, if the Province sample tested at appropriate key stages rather than tested everyone; if the each school determined what, in addition to core skills, they wished to be held accountable for; if individual teachers were to use peer review and best practices as a basis for their evaluation. It would be a very different system.

Finally, let us look at just one more of these charter principles: “education and learning takes place outside of schools, colleges and learning – we need to facilitate, enable and recognize learning from a variety of different settings”. Imagine a high school student who is learning how to fly an aeroplane – some 2,000 of them are doing just that right now. The skills involved are significant – navigational and map reading, technical and engineering, mathematical, health and safety, communication skills – one could go on. There are also many other examples of work-based learning or learning in the community that could be recognized for credit, either by schools, colleges or universities. It’s time to rethink what “counts” for credit and to tear down artificial barriers to recognizing real learning.

The Charter, then, is a radical and innovative framework for our future. Suggest changes by the time Reboot Alberta meets again, and then we will ask Albertans to sign up in large numbers.

7 comments:

Linda Pushor said...

Please, please, please add that government understands that education is more than 'job' training.

It frightens me that the focus on making children and young adults, and also mature adults,ready for a work position has taken such a strong hold in our government, particularly in post secondary.

You wisely articulate that learning is far more than attaining the ability to perform a certain function. It's about helping every indivdual open their mind.

Kathryn Burke said...

Excellent idea Stephen. I appreciate that my comments below are implicit in what you have written but I would like to make them explicit.
First, we need to design a system that supports all learners. This means accommodating learners with exceptional needs emanating from disabilities (or differences). While we have a good accommodations policy in post secondary education in Alberta, incredibly, we do not have an accommodations policy in K to 12.
Accommodation is a term used to describe the supports, tools and/or services that are provided to individuals with disabilities to enable them to compensate for the difficulties arising from their disability. In an educational setting, accommodations are required in order for a student to access the curriculum, complete assignments and demonstrate and apply their skills and knowledge. Accommodations do not alter the provincial learning expectations for the grade. Appropriate accommodations are individually designed based on the unique learning needs of the student and reflect the demands of the curriculum including the approaches used for both instruction and evaluation.
What this means is that students with various disabilities must be provided with the appropriate accommodations – be it technology, time and other supports specific to their needs, to demonstrate their mastery of a subject area. I have heard, over and over, that many educators, parents, etc., feel it is unfair to provide those accommodations, except in very rare circumstances. So, we hamper students in the early grades, putting up barriers for them to enter post secondary, and only at that level provide accommodations supports. It really is the educational equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. I believe an Educational Charter should embrace the principle of supports to learning that equalize the playing field, and enable all of our citizens, whatever their age or stage in the K to PhD continuum, to demonstrate their mastery in the most creative way possible.
Next, I think we must embrace, not just support, the full spectrum of subjects. We have become very Machiavellian in our delivery of education… the evolution to a singular focus on the subjects covered by PATs and diploma exams worry me. It is often the “optional subjects” that keep people in school or spark lifelong learning. What a bland and unexciting world we would have without design, the arts, our sports heroes, etc. Let us build that component into our new vision.

Stephen Murgatroyd said...

Good observations - and I'd welcome more. I am tracking these and will post an amended charter in mid January. Keep the comments coming and watch for my post on Reboot Alberta: Health Care

Public School Boards' Association of Alberta said...

Thank you for this excellent post, Dr. Murgatroyd.

The Public School Boards' Association of Alberta is very encouraged to find Albertans drawing the connection between public education and the future of our province's democracy. We agree that public schools are the nurseries of citizenship, and that the School Act review process is about more than the future of education. These students must be taught in classrooms that foster the important values of our democracy. This is best reflected in the charter where it says "Schools... should be inclusive, creative communities which build tolerance, respect and empathy in young people."

This charter, and the comments that have already been left here, suggest that Albertans have already asked themselves how our students should learn. It is interesting to note that the contents of this charter and the comments left here allign very closely to what has been suggested by school boards, other education stakeholders, and the public through the School Act review process and the Inspiring Education dialogues. These principles have more or less been captured by the Foundational Themes the department (Alberta Education) has presented to guide the School Act review.

Teaching methods, learner outcomes, and curricula building are not the only important matters when it comes to overhauling an education system, however. Another fundamental question is: Who is responsible for educating our future citizens? Is this merely another provincial government service, or is it a valuable community endaevour? They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it is clear from the comments left here that citizens in the village already have important ideas to contribute. These kinds of questions (we call them governance questions) have largely been left out of discussions about the new School Act, both within the dialogue between stakeholders and the government, and within public conversations in the media, in coffee shops, and on blogs.

The charter mentions that "The education of young people should be a partnership of schools, parents and the wider community in a local area." We feel that this is one of the most important principles in this charter. This principle is what allows parents and the wider community to interpret the rest of the principles within the charter in a way that suits their local area, and most importantly, implement them in the way that works for them. This is the message Albertans must carry to their elected officials when they articulate their support for these principles. Otherwise, these governance questions will remain unanswered until it is too late.

For those that want to know more about the School Act review process, the principles being discussed, and the progress being made, our Association maintains a blog devoted to the subject.

http://psbaaschoolactreview.wordpress.com/

We encourage everyone to check it early, check it often, and leave their comments!

Stephen Murgatroyd said...

Thank you for these helpful and focused comments. I agree that a lot of what is in the Charter is also a focus for some of the work being done by others, especially as part of the Inspiring conversation and the submissions re the School Act2.0 - what I am hoping is that we can test the draft Act against these principles.

Keep the comments coming.

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