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Viewpoints: Something is wrong with our schools

August 25, 2015 Stephen Murgatroyd, The Murgatroyd Blog

Schools shape our future as a society. They are the bedrock of a community — a place in which all of our futures are nourished and developed; a place where skills are taught, enabled and encouraged; a place where young people discover their passions and concerns and are encouraged to develop. We should all care about what happens in schools, even if we do not have children attending them. One of those kids standing at the bus stop with baggy jeans and a funny hat may well become your pension fund manager just a few years from now. Others will run businesses that will hire your granddaughter or work to ensure our planet survives the onslaught of climate change.

But there is something wrong with our schools. They are burdened with too much direction about what they should teach — too many curriculum objectives, too many politically correct imperatives and too many instructions for our instructors. They are held accountable but are not given the tools for the responsible tasks they are given. They are subject to high-stakes testing where students, on a single day, determine the fate of the school and its teachers. They are vulnerable and stressful. They are permanently failing to deliver to all of our expectations.

We also do not treat our teachers as true professionals. They are given limited scope for independent action — as if we do not trust them, despite their years of training, to do the job entrusted to them. We disdain their professional development activities and scoff at their summer vacations. We do not show them respect when, as they must do, they tell us that our children are not the paragons of excellence we thought them to be and that they are struggling.

We also see schools as a preparation for something else — for work, college or university — rather than places of learning in their own right. In fact, as one keen observer has noted, much of schooling is seen as a preparation for the work of a few — those who go to university — and is not, therefore, a great place for those for whom the trades, or creative arts or community service or retail is their chosen destination. We therefore teach, through our structures, large numbers of students to live with failure.

It is time for a radical change. Our schools need to do more to help our students be part of the solution to the problems our communities face — homelessness, poverty, isolation of the elderly, climate change, driver irresponsibility, the growing challenges of obesity and early onset diabetes, to name just some. Our schools also need to become less focused on being the pathway to post-secondary education and more focused on developing the skills that would enable all students to be lifelong learners at any level and at any time.

We need to counter the view that schools should narrow their focus to the basic science, mathematics, literacy and technology subjects and instead encourage a richness of personal learning that involves creativity, emotional intelligence, physical education, wellness and social skills as well as the more usual subjects. Creative diversity is a better bet for our future than a focused insistence on just a core. All need literacy and numeracy, but the development of these skills needs to be based on authentic and engaging learning activities.

We should reduce our division of knowledge into subjects and focus more on real-world problem solving for authentic audiences where students are asked to contribute directly and in a meaningful way to the solution of problems facing their communities. By focusing on project-based work, the need to learn and develop skills normally associated with our “traditional” subject areas will arise naturally and be driven by student engagement rather than provincial requirements.

We should empower and enable teachers to determine large “chunks” of the work their students do, rather than directing them with curriculum requirements — one Grade 9 science provincial curriculum has more than 260 objectives that teachers “must” complete during the year, 60 per cent of which are likely to appear on a Provincial Achievement Test. This is pure nonsense, driven by the demands of post-secondary institutions rather than the learning needs of students. If we give schools back to the teachers, we should indicate the competencies at a broad level that students need on leaving school and let them, as professionals, determine the best route to these outcomes.

Finally, we should accept that teachers are best placed to assess their students and reduce the focus on standardized, annualized, aggregated, average test results and focus instead on frequent, systematic and focused teacher assessments as the basis for pupil evaluation.

Our schools and the curriculum that informs their work were designed for 19th-century education for an industrial world. It is the 21st century and an age in which knowledge, rather than industrial systems, drives our economy. Our schools need a transformation — they need to be part of the future, not stand apart from our time or our destiny. ❚

Stephen Murgatroyd is an Edmonton-based education researcher and commenter. This piece was originally published on his blog at and by Troy Media.

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