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The Pandemic Should Change Education: Nine Ways to Start

The world is a different place, and school curriculums need to shift too.

Crawford Kilian 13 May 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Parents of school-age children are at least as eager as teachers to see the schools reopen. It was good news that the BC Teachers’ Federation voted 98 per cent to accept a new contract, but it seems unlikely that classes will resume before September.

We might spend some of the next four months, then, considering what to teach the kids as the pandemic recedes (at least temporarily) into the past. If we go back to the same old curriculum, we are all too likely to stagger through the 2020s trying to prepare students for life in the 1990s.

B.C.’s Ministry of Education does have a new curriculum, but it was designed pre-pandemic and, like most such plans, it has a fatal flaw: the public was involved little and late in its development.

The public, meanwhile, has gone through a harrowing experience and expects to spend many months more contending with not only COVID-19 but a catastrophic economic downturn that could go on for years. We need to redefine education itself so that it can prepare students for an uncertain future, not just an endless rerun of 2019.

That redefinition can’t be left to the current government and whoever happens to have its ear. It should be based on what British Columbians want, and it should not be a partisan issue.

In a province as polarized as B.C., that’s a tall order. But it might just be possible in the midst of a pandemic to work out a consensus on where education should go for the next 20 or 30 years.

Overdue for an education commission

The first step should be an education commission, well funded and staffed, led by a capable person with no strong partisan ties. We haven’t had such a commission in over 30 years; the last one, launched by the Bill Vander Zalm Socreds, held hearings all over the province and produced a remarkable report that would have transformed our schools. But its chair, Barry Sullivan, died soon after releasing it, the Socreds watered it down and the Mike Harcourt NDP killed it off.

Ever since, public education has drifted as governments changed, each trying to please its base rather than serve students. The current curriculum would be predictably killed or rewritten if the NDP loses the next election.

A new commission that respected all stakeholders and was backed by the major parties could lay out the principles for preparing young people (and their parents and employers) for the turbulent times we can expect for the rest of the century. If such a commission existed, and I could present my own views to it, my argument would run something like this:

Teach citizens, not employees. Education should serve the interests of students, not employers (and not parents, either). They’ll soon be voting. So a solid, multi-year grounding in Canadian history and politics should be a graduation requirement. MLAs should be in their local high schools all the time, ready to be cross-examined by students who will soon be voters.

Teach both science and scientific thinking. Students should understand how a scientific fact has to fight for its life; the bigger the claim, the stronger the evidence must be that backs it up. Strong opinions aren’t strong evidence.

Teach practical life skills. No boy should leave Grade 8 without being able to cook a good meal for four from scratch — and sew on a button. Girls should be able to sharpen and use a chain saw; they should also be able to program and run a 3D printer.

Teach (and practise) serious nutrition. A solid breakfast and lunch should be part of every school’s curriculum, backed up by courses in how junk food leads to lifelong problems like diabetes and hypertension — making people easy targets for the next pandemic. Rebellious kids will still hate school meals and gorge on junk, but they’ll get over that phase, I hope, a little faster. Involving students in preparation of school meals could help.

Teach the young with the old. Much of the pre-pandemic world was good and students should know about it. Sessions with elders should be part of education at every grade level, with students encouraged to go home and interview their parents and grandparents about “the olden times.” Otherwise, our children will stumble through the rest of the century culturally bereft?

Teach critical thinking. It’s usually just a buzzword for educators, because they know that students with critical-thinking skills will turn them first on their teachers and parents. Apprentice critics can be tedious to live with, but it’s better than living with credulous idiots who accept every lie that offers itself on social media.

Teach both self-reliance and social interdependence. Just as a 14-year-old boy should be able to cook a good dinner and iron a presentable shirt, he should also be able to negotiate with others and build a web of useful relationships. If enough students master those two skills, Canada itself will be both self-reliant and an effective bargainer with other countries. Given the abdication of American leadership, those will be useful skills for the foreseeable future.

Teach social equality, not social mobility. Schools have long been complicit in a con game, pretending they can pave the way for anyone to attain a high-income, high-prestige career. Better to treat all careers as valuable, especially the ones we suddenly find “essential” like truck driving, child and senior care and cleaning. Better to be a cherished (and well-paid) early childhood educator than an academic peon with a PhD, teaching from semester to semester with no hope of tenure.

Teach teachers. This is as good a time as any time to build the status of teachers by making them fully professional: As in Finland, recruit them carefully and train them to at least the master’s level before allowing them into a classroom. Then ensure they keep developing, pay them well and let them achieve curriculum goals as they choose, without bureaucratic second-guessing.

Those are just my ideas, and I’d be amazed to see them all adopted in a new curriculum. But the shock of the pandemic, and the aftershock of the economic collapse, should have overturned our ideas about our society’s goals and how the schools might help to achieve them.

Education is both a deeply conservative institution, and a sucker for the latest fad — that’s why the schools are always in turmoil and always revert to something our grandparents would have recognized.

But the pandemic has forced a pause. This is our chance to rethink what schools are for, and to try to prepare our children for a very uncertain future.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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