(not our yesterday)
This is a Critical Time in Education
Guest Commentary by David Hancock
Education – assisting our children to find their passion, their gifts and their purpose – there really is no nobler purpose – and there really is nothing which more people have opinions on – informed and uniformed. I always said Education was the most difficult of portfolios – everyone has an opinion – and we are all experts because we all went through it 40 years ago. And therein lies the challenge! There has been copious research on brain development, there have been huge leaps forward in the creation of knowledge, there have been and continue to be fundamental shifts in technology, communication and access to information as well as computing and research power. And it continues!
How are we to as Daniel Pink put it “Educate our children for their future and not for our past”!
That really is the essential question. No one has ever challenged the premise that our children need unconditional education in literacy and numeracy skills. We have not abandoned the basics. I tire of the political rhetoric that comes around every ten years it seems calling for a return to rote learning so that our children can learn the basics. I see the Edmonton Journal Editorial Board, is getting in on that today, and of course David Staples was beating that drum a few years ago.
We truly need to take the discussion to a higher level – the topic of Inspiring Education was and is very relevant – what knowledge, skills and attributes do citizens need to be considered educated over the next 30 years. That is not a static question! That is a continually and rapidly developing and possibly changing discussion as knowledge development and technology change what we know and how we use it.
To get to that higher level we do need to focus somewhat on the basics – it is important that our children are literate and able to work with numbers. But we truly need to understand, and stop confusing, the difference between curriculum and pedagogy and work toward ensuring that our teachers are well equipped with all the tools, the pedagogical skills they need to assist every child to achieve the curricular outcomes and to maximize potential. That means not saddling teachers with expected methodologies but enabling them to use the right methodology for individual student success. In that area I can say I have always known teachers to be creative and inventive in achieving student outcomes. My mother – long before people started talking about gaming technology as a teaching tool – had students at the back of the classroom playing ring toss and other games which motivated them to learn to add – and other basic arithmetic skills. Some of us had to sit at our desks and memorize – but for others that wouldn’t work so she did something that would work for them. My brother-in-law was a CTS teacher in construction technology, he talks of students who came to him totally depressed and feeling dumb, who learned complex math they needed for construction without even suspecting they were doing it.
Lets not let the Tiger moms and journalists, with the superficial political endorsements of those looking for niche supporters, drive our system backward! There is a reason so many adults hate math and are worse at it than kids graduating today. We have a great public school system which is very effective for most students and which has progressed, adapted to changing times but which has always focused on the basic facts that strong curricular outcomes and expectations coupled with excellence in teaching are truly what makes a system successful for students. We also have choice for those who have a different view.
Alberta has been and is recognized internationally, as a leader in public education, but we’ve not been considered number one. If we are looking at PISA scores or those types of testing and gnashing our teeth over math scores – yes we should be concerned and yes we should try to analyze how to improve. Let us not miss the real story those results have been telling us for years. We could actually be number one, not that it should necessarily be our goal, if we closed the gap! What keeps us lower in the standings, is that we have such a broad range of success, not that we have too few at the top. It is important, not because we need the bragging rights of being number one, but because we need to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed. We cannot afford the loss of human potential, the social cost of failure and the cost of social failure. It is not the curriculum that matters in that regard. The curriculum is not the problem. Yes continue to update and modernize. Yes lets develop the skill sets necessary to succeed in tomorrows world. Yes lets continue to put excellence in teaching at the top of our agenda so that teachers have the knowledge and pedagogical skills to help every student succeed at learning. Let us acknowledge that is not where we have the biggest problem.
If every student is to succeed, it has to happen in the school, but not just in the classroom. I have long championed the concept of school community collaboration. I am here to give one more shout out to improvement of our public education system by ensuring that we understand our true goal. Every child must have a safe, caring and respectful environment in which to grow and find his or her passions, abilities and talents. Children come with an innate desire to learn. As Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out – we sometimes take the desire to learn out of the child by the way we do education. But we also have compelling evidence that we can create the environment for every child to learn.
Our children today live in a complex world. They have significant challenges. Far too many live in poverty. Not only financial poverty, where to live, what and when to eat, which of course significantly interferes with the ability to learn. It is also emotional poverty, which can occur at any financial level, and our young people need to know that someone cares about them.
Of course I know that our schools cannot be everything to everyone. We always put the burden on education when we want change in society. The school is always asked to do more, meaning teachers are asked to do more, and they feel overburdened!
We truly do need to change the focus a little, and some are doing it very well already, to actually put caring about the kids first and foremost, from the moment they arrive till long after they leave. It doesn’t need to be an additional burden, when done well, it can make all the jobs easier.
We have had a good start with the Mental Health Capacity Building Projects but we need to expand that process across all of our School Boards and all of our schools. A teacher often has the strongest relationship with a child outside the home. A teacher can identify, if they are paying attention, when there are changes in attitude, behavior, work habits, results but they are often not best equipped to do something about it.
A school which makes that type of relationship and data important and takes action on it can save a child. But they need partners. Drug, alcohol and mental health issues (the students or their family’s) are not education issues until you realize how many of our students are not succeeding because of them. If our goal is to have every student succeed at learning to their potential and to increase the number of students graduating high school and transitioning to post secondary how are these not education issues? We have models of success where we have paired counselors from AHS with a school for ready access, counseling, and referral on a timely basis. We can demonstrate where having a partnership with the YMCA, bringing counseling back, connecting with the Family Centre and other community resources supply the talent that is needed to reach kids, to help families.
We know the stories about how a teacher has made a difference in a student’s life. One of my favourites is that of a young lady who spoke at the annual meeting of JACC a school and social agency organization. There is much to be learned from her story. She had been in I think she said, 17 foster homes before she found her forever home, having tried undoubtedly too many times to rebuild her natural family. Every time she was taken from her natural family she had to change schools information was not shared. The one time she went back to the same school, in grade three, everyone thought she had died and were shocked to see her. But in grade six a teacher instead of yelling at her and punishing her, talked to her, asked her about herself, what was in her life that she couldn’t be at school on time and missed school. When he realized she was taking care of her younger siblings, getting them up and out to school because her parents were drunk, that she was often making sure they ate, that teacher helped. Little things that didn’t embarrass her or make her stand out, a new coat for winter, some food and mostly someone to talk with. That caring teacher changed her life.
Obviously that is a one-off – but what if it wasn’t? What if that teacher had school and community resources that could kick into gear? What if that caring was the environment and culture of the school? What if information was truly shared between school, police, social services, health and health professionals in the interest of the child?
The Way IN project in Edmonton Public in Mill Woods showed incredible leadership in this area and it is not unique. As a collaborative team they went above and beyond! When a young student advised the school that she would be moving – again – the school team looked beyond – they cared enough to know that this student had not been successful partially because she was always moving. They discovered the family was being evicted because the home was a mess and the landlord was concerned about his property. A team went to that house and cleaned it thoroughly, arranged for the family to be able to stay, got help for the mom whose health conditions did not allow her to keep things up. That child stayed in one school for a year. That child was able to focus on learning and was successful. That child is not just a statistic in our social system. Was that an appropriate use of educational resources? A child who otherwise would likely be a dropout is now likely completing school – so yes!
Mental Health issues are significant in our schools. They range from dug and alcohol addiction issues, family violence, abandonment, depression, and conditions including diagnosable disorders. Early assistance and intervention on many of them, actually all of them, can make a huge difference to the success of a child and their family. The school is where that first intervention has to happen but the school can’t do it alone. When a school wanted to partner with AHS to have an addictions and mental health counselor, operate in the community from the school and pay a portion of the costs, questions were raised about whether that was an appropriate use of educational dollars. Do you have any idea how many students have benefited and gone on to success as a result of that program? Of course it is appropriate and should be a built-in part of the system.
We Need two things to be Truly Successful
Of course we need good schools, strong curricular outcomes and excellent professional teachers with continuing professional development. That is the basis of a strong educational system. We need to continue our focus on renewing curriculum, preparing selecting and growing, while retaining excellent teachers.
That is Not Sufficient
We need safe, caring respectful schools! Recent discussions about LGBT policy only serves to demonstrate how much work we have to do in this area. The culture of the school is important. In every school we have to recognize each child while ensuring each child is welcomed, noticed, nourished, protected, valued. Our students come with many diversities, many backgrounds and faiths, abilities and challenges. They are learning about themselves, their sexuality, their capacities. School must be a safe place! School must be a caring and respectful place. School is not about the faith, belief or values of the trustees or the system. The School Act makes it clear – and the new Education Act if anyone ever gets around to proclaiming it, even clearer. School is a safe caring respectful place for our children to learn and grow to their potential. Period!
Principal leadership. The Principal is the most important leadership role in education. The principal sets the culture of the school. And you can tell. When I went into a school as education minister, and I went to many, I knew going in the door the atmosphere of the school. Almost always borne out when the visit was complete. Unfortunately I cannot say it was always great. As much as we need Excellence in Teaching we need Excellence in School Leadership. The selection, education and continuing support of Principals needs much more focus. Educational leadership is important, but as or more important is the ability to set, expect and inspire an attitude of caring, respect and safety. Good work has been done and is being done – but much more is required. Each Principal needs to know that their performance metrics include evaluating their school on its ability to be a safe, caring respectful environment for students!
Secondly we require collaborative partnerships. Schools, principals and teachers cannot do it alone. They are of necessity at the core. They know the kids. They have the relationships necessary to find the way in – but they need other community resources – both government in terms of health, social services and police and community such as the Family Centre, the Y and others. We need to expand the wrap around services model as true collaborative partnerships, grown and supported at the community level., Each of them, sensitive to the needs of the schools and communities they serve, not bureaucracies or standardized.
When we do that children and their families grow stronger. When we do that children are ready to learn. And when we do that teachers can work their magic, with more students getting the math scores, that some people use as a measurement of their abilities. More students will graduate and more students will enjoy being learners not just now but throughout their lives. More students will achieve their potential!
Everyone will be the beneficiary of an even better public education system. Even greater than the great board governed system, the great schools, and great teachers we have today.
David Hancock spoke at the Lt. Gov. Lois E Hole Lecture, at the Public School Boards Association October 22, 2015. Dave’s career in politics began in 1974, then elected to office from March 11, 1997 – September 15, 2014. During a tumultuous time, March 23, 2014 – September 15, 2014, Dave Hancock was the 15th Premier of Alberta.