Here Comes the Class of 2041

Teachers and teachers-to-be, get ready to break free from another generation's mindset.

By Crawford Kilian 27 Feb 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Beloit, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, has gained fame over the years for its student mindset list. It's a useful way to remind faculty that they share less and less with each incoming class.

Students in the class of 2019, for example, "have never licked a postage stamp. ... Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule. ... They have grown up treating Wi-Fi as an entitlement."

As a first-year student in the class of 1962, I heard again and again that "change is the only constant." That's part of my own mindset. But no one expected this much change. I for one am still trying to process the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, not to mention a new-old expression on newscasts: "the Trudeau government."

For most new teachers starting their careers in 2016, both the Soviet Union and Pierre Trudeau are ancient history, something their parents talk about. By the time they retire in mid-century, our present worries will seem equally remote.

Given the pace of social and political change, our education system seems like a laggard, always responding too sluggishly to everything new. Entirely too much of what goes on in today's schools would have been instantly recognizable to a B.C. teacher in, say, 1956 -- right down to the overcrowded classrooms. We prattle about students as "our investment in the future," while seemingly preparing them for life in John Diefenbaker's Canada.

Teachers' reluctance to change is understandable. We enter the profession because we liked going to school and we tend to teach as we've been taught. Paradise, it's been said, is the world we knew when we were kids.

So we're a pretty conservative crew despite our unfortunate love of fads like online courses and PowerPoint slides. As we gain in experience, we get better at using such fads to go on teaching -- conservatively.

Meanwhile our students are going through all the tumultuous changes of growing up, as well as changes in technology, social attitudes, and politics. For them, last year is history, and their teachers grew up in an ancient and barbarous era like the Eighties (the Sixties were probably cooler).

Student generations and teacher generations

Think of the 12 years trough Grade 1 to graduation as a "student generation," with an entirely new crop arriving the following September. This year's grads arrived in Grade 1 in the fall of 2004; the first iPhone appeared when they were in Grade 3 and the first iPad when they were in Grade 6.

To them, Canada has always been fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, same-sex marriage has always been OK, Stephen Harper had always been prime minister until very recently, and B.C. has always been ruled by the Liberals.

The teachers retiring this year have much longer memories. They started their careers when Justin's father welcomed them to the 1980s and computers had not yet conquered the world. As young teachers they survived the Socreds' restraint program, the Vander Zalm years, and a decade of the NDP before being hit with the provincial Liberals and 15 years of cutbacks and contempt, first under Gordon Campbell and then Christy Clark. Their younger colleagues must have had an earful in the teachers' lounge.

But the youngsters' own experience has been just the endless, pointless school wars the Liberals have waged in their own 15-year-long political generation. Despite those wars, some students' school experience still attracted them to teaching.

Go back still further: The teachers who retired in 1980 would have started teaching around 1944, in an utterly different world ruled by decree from the Ministry of Education in Victoria. They witnessed the baby boom that transformed B.C. education; they taught their students in shifts while W.A.C. Bennett's Socreds grudgingly built more schools.

By the time that generation was halfway through its career, new teachers were arriving: they had bachelor's degrees, even master's degrees. Most of them were far better educated than Wacky Bennett and his cabinet, and far less patient than their older teaching colleagues.

Questioning authority

Authority in all its forms was coming under question in the 1960s, and especially educational authority. Never that respectful of education themselves, the Socreds were soon locked in combat with a B.C. Teachers' Federation that was far more assertive than it had ever been before.

So while students go through the system in just 12 years, teachers take three and a half decades. The teacher aggressiveness of the 1960s might have died out as that generation retired in the 1990s. But after Vander Zalm, the NDP governments of Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark weren't decisive enough to end the school wars, or competent enough to fend off the rebranded Socreds led by Gordon Campbell. The attitudes of the 1960s generation endured and deepened.

We've now had more than a student generation and half a teacher generation under the Liberals. Parents and teachers continue to protest about underfunding just as they did in the 1980s, and the government continues to protest that it's spending more than ever despite falling enrolments. This passive-aggressive response only prolongs the war, but that's the B.C. Liberal mindset -- effectively unchanged in over 60 years.

But British Columbia itself has changed and keeps on changing. Forty years ago, in 1976, the median age in B.C. was 28.9 and the median age at death was 71.8. This year the median age is 42.3 and median age at death is 79.9. In 2041, when this year's new teachers have a quarter-century of experience, B.C.'s median age will be 46.1 and median age at death will be 85.3. (I will celebrate my 100th birthday in that year, and look forward to a congratulatory email from whichever king is then on the British throne.)

To enable fewer young people to support the growing population of retiring boomers, we will have to educate them not for specific jobs, but to be ready to create, and succeed in, whole new industries still undreamed of.

The nostalgia items of 2016

Remembering these will be the task of teachers just entering the profession this year. They will retire around the year 2052, the battered survivors of who knows how many industrial and technological (and political) revolutions. Even they will barely recall the concerns of 2016 -- LNG! balanced budgets! growing the economy! Site C! Those will be nostalgia items, as far in the past to them as 1980 is to us now.

But these latest teachers have been trained in this era to teach for an indefinitely extended 2016. Even if they see the need for radically new approaches, they will do only what their governments allow them to do, on the budgets their governments provide. And those governments will be in power because their voters will tend to support the status quo, right up to the moment it collapses.

If it does collapse, it will be because teachers have failed to break out of their generation's mindset and also failed to educate their students, their fellow-citizens, and their politicians. They can't expect the public to be accurately informed about the problems we face, not when so many profit from keeping them misinformed about those problems.

But good teachers start where their students are, not from where they ought to be, and work from there. Sometimes they'll need to be low-key, patient, and encouraging; sometimes they'll have to shock public and students alike to make them realize how serious the situation is and get them moving to save themselves.

It's a cliché that generals always want to fight the last war. The teachers going into the trenches this fall have been trained to do just that. Their challenge will be to break out of that training (does it have to be a war at all?) and improvise an effective response to threats and opportunities we can barely glimpse today.

If we have trained the imagination and confidence out of them, we're finished. If we haven't, this year's new teachers could save midcentury B.C. and Canada.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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