When we look at the future of schooling in Canada what do we see?
First we see a willingness to challenge teacher professionalism, in part on the basis of outcome data which is questionable. While PISA provides benchmark “snapshots” on a limited range of measures for school systems (Alberta vs Ontario, Canada versus Finland, for example) these data points do not reflect the broad purpose of schooling. Schooling is about much more than maths, science and language arts (though these are important) – schools are also about learning to learn, social skills and civic responsibility. They are also are about arts, laughter, music, creativity and imagination. While PISA may expand to measure soft skills and other features of learning, as it plans to do, it will never capture what schools are actually all about.
The challenge to the professionalism of teachers is in part about whether or not they are achieving the outcomes their students are capable of, but it is also directly related to a bigger question about the role of professionals in our globalized economy. Should professions like doctors, teachers, lawyers determine what should happen in key institutions (like hospitals, schools and courts) or should others (politicians, consultants, corporations) make these determinations on behalf of society? While some acknowledge the expertise of teachers as teachers, they do not feel they have the monopoly of understanding about schooling, learning and education. The democratic control of schools is said to be the key here – but in fact few are engaged in the genuine debate about the future of schools, which is increasingly controlled by corporate interests and a select group of influencers.
Collaborative professional autonomy is essential if schools are not to be “lost” to the forces of capitalism and corporatism, already demanding that technologies for learning and standardized curriculum together with seeing schools as “business” (which they are not) should provide the operational basis for educational reform and development. Teachers need to “take back” their schools, supported by mindful school leaders, if they are not to become the new laboratories for corporate greed.
Second, we see attempts to shift curriculum (what, how and when students learn) from a broad based, socially oriented and conceptual understanding focused curriculum to one more directly related to the needs of the global economy. Shifting from “learning outcomes” to “skills” and “competencies”, from broad objectives to narrow skills signals a departure from a world in which the economy served society to one in which society now serves the economy. It is a positive thing that the curriculum does not stay still – society changes all the time – it is unfortunate that current changes (so called 21st century skills) are actually leading to the atomisation of learning and the reduction of breadth and choice. As someone has observed, capitalism has defeated communism and is now well on the way to defeating democracy – in this case, through making it less likely that critical understanding, analysis and thinking will occur – there are just too many atomised “buts of pieces” of competency to master to permit creative time for such work. Humpty Dumpty seems to be in charge of curriculum development in many parts of the world.
Third, we see a demand that technology find a stronger place in the daily lives of teachers and students. If there was ever an example of how corporations are influencing education it is in the pressure students, teachers, school leaders, Superintendents and educational policy makers are under to buy and use technology, whether it is iPads (or tablets), internet based learning resources, analytics, reporting systems or some other device or solution. Technology companies have encouraged the adoption of the phrase “learning anytime, anywhere” – a phrase which turns out to have no meaning or substance for most school aged learners. They have also encouraged the adoption of “bring your own device” (BYOD) so that they can compete for the $$ students and their parents are willing to spend on such pieces of kit. They are encouraging “technology for everything and anywhere” in the school – despite the compelling evidence that this actually hinders learning and genuine understanding and interaction.
A long time ago I used to say “if technology is the answer, we are obviously asking the wrong question!”. Now I say “technology is part of the problem as well as part of the solution – the trouble is, its getting to be a bigger part of the problem and is less likely to be a solution to anything”. Education is about finding the talents, interests and passions of a person and then enabling them to flourish. This demands creative and imaginative inquiry by teachers and their students (technology can be a valuable tool here), but not standardization and compartmentalization, not rigid assessments and analytics but genuine evaluations and assessments for learning. Technology is currently too primitive to support many of the things we are trying to do in K-12 school systems (though is getting better).
The reality for many teachers is that no real and meaningful investment has been made in equipping them to leverage technologies for learning, creativity and explorative education. They have simply been given a minimal exposure to some low level capabilities of devices, systems and services and have then been expected “in their own time” to become Masters of technology. It would be rather like giving a medical team an MRI system with an instruction book and120 minutes of training and expecting them to accurately and reliable use the MRI for medical diagnosis. Sound silly? Not all teachers have had the luxiry of 120 minutes of effective training.
Technology has considerable promise, but it is no where near as transformative in schools as technofanatics suggest. I am a strong supporter of open schools, open education resources, online learning but I am also a realist. Most teachers can pass through initial training as a teacher with little or no substantial exposure to the utility and value of technology. Without investment in professional development it will continue to be a distraction rather than a substantial opportunity.
Fourth, we can see the bureaucratization of schools. In the UK the Health and Safety executive have made such things as school trips and excursions a nightmare – risk assessments, consents, security and background checks all make going somewhere interesting close to impossible. Reports, reviews, assessments, accountability statements, plans, and documented student reviews are all massively time-consuming and often add little value to the work of teachers, students and schools. They do keep central administration and school staff busy- often in distracted ways.
Some of this work is helpful – tracking attendance, reviewing student progress, case work teams for learners with special needs. But a lot of this work is CYA (cover your ass) work or done in the name of the accountability regime (about which more in a moment). Any conversations with imaginative and mindful school leaders (of which they are many), usually involves a review of the “silly things I have had to do this week”.
Which leads us to a confusion about public accountability and assurance. I have the good fortune to live and work in Alberta – one of the best educational jurisdictions in the English speaking world. Whether we look at PISA or TIMMS data, Alberta does very well. While we acknowledge we have a great many challenges, we are responding to these challenges from a position of strength. One challenge we have is to find a meaningful, imaginative and productive way of holding our schools accountable for the work that they do.
Misguidingly, this has been interpreted to be about testing. If we test students at key stages in their progress through school then we can see “how well students are doing”, especially when we can compare one school against another. Indeed, the Fraser Institute thinks this is marvellous, and they produce an analysis each year on the best and worst schools in Alberta – all of which disregards a whole range of challenges and issues. For example, the nature of the student population, the extent to which parents are involved in the education of their sons and daughters, the level of poverty, the nature of employment, the degree of social cohesion in the community and so on. Further, we measure so few things that we send a signal that what matters most is the few things the Province measures as opposed to what matters most is the educational agenda and learning agenda for each child. We distort the system so as it can be accountable in the simplest possible measure. We do this because others do, because its easy and because it sells to “politicians” and a select few constituents who show an interest in schools.
An alternative is to do what happens in the corporate world. Individual schools produce school development plans which commit each school to a strategy for continuous improvement on key measures which matter to that school. Such plans reflect the unique characteristics of that school, its students, its community and its parents. While some elements in every school could be the same, each school would focus on what it is seeking to achieve. We would then use simple indicators for each of the accountabilities the school has chosen to focus on to hold the school account. No two schools are the same, no two schools have the same student body, the same conditions of practice or the same resource base. It is the same for companies competing in the same market in a similar product space. Yet somehow we want to reduce complex systems (hospitals and schools, for example) to crude and distorting measurement which tells us little if anything about how schools are doing. For hospitals it is wait times (a very poor and distorting measure) while in schools it is results on crude tests. Time to get serious about public assurance.
The final challenge relates to the conditions of practice which teachers and school leaders face. There is a growing distortion around the importance of class size and composition – classes of 30-35 with up to six students with special needs are seen as “manageable” (they are not) with a single teacher and little if any access to other supports. Custodial services are seen as being only required before and after school – not during the school day, leaving teachers to clean up after sick children or some accident in the chemistry lab. We are neglecting the basic conditions in the name of economy. Attempts to challenge the creeping Fordism which such class sizes force on school systems are seen as “teacher whining”, yet parents and citizens should be appalled at some of the conditions under which we are asking teachers to produce the next generation of imagineers, artists, scientists, engineers and trades persons.
There are other issues, but it is clear that we are not working in any conscious, systematic and purposeful way towards a great school for all. Instead, we are creating a competitive and bureaucratic system which gets in the way of genuine learning and equitable society.
Education is a key battleground for this century. It is the new space for the exercise of the shock doctrine, a new space for capitalism and a new space for neo-liberal ideology. If we value the future, we need to take back our schools in the name of equality, democracy and our social values.