Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Educational Ideals--A Personal Viewpoint Part 1

The following is the first of a series of blog posts in which I examine our current educational system in an effort to determine what is needed in order to achieve what I believe to be the best it can possibly be. I may seem idealistic at times, but if you can’t dream about the way things ought to be, then there is no chance of ever achieving it. Today I start with a philosophy of education.

What is the purpose of education in Canada? Is it to allow our country to function as a democratic nation? Is it to encourage its citizens to aspire to reach their full potential? Or is it to provide a functional workforce for corporations and maintain an economy?

I would say each of these points has some merit, but truly, for Canadian democracy to work, the citizens need to be educated. When citizens reach their potential, the entire nation benefits in both the short term and the long term. Reaching one’s potential means different things to different people, but for the sake of this post, I am going to argue that it involves the lifelong intellectual, creative, social and physical development of the individual to the level that allows them to continually gain a sense of accomplishment. The least of these goals refers to the workforce component; I prefer to think of us as much more than potential employees. When jobs alone become the focus of our efforts, we all lose out. Employment is important and everyone needs to make a living, this is true. But when we only view citizens with this narrow lens, we rob ourselves. We rob ourselves of the potential to be great. We rob ourselves of the potential to make the right decisions rather than default to the easy ones. We rob our nation of its humanity.

If our primary goal is a combination of democracy and realizing our potential, how do we achieve this?
First off, I believe we need to consult with the professionals. These are the psychologists who study cognitive development, and the educators who work directly with the students. We need to look at what the research says. We need to follow the science.

Nearly everyone you meet has a strong view of what education should be. This isn’t surprising considering the importance it has on the individual and society in general. We need to evaluate these ideas in terms of their robustness in light of current knowledge in the field.

One example is how the research shows that children learn best through unstructured play. Many people prefer to see these same children saddled with worksheets from an early age. What they don’t understand is what the research has shown. Worksheet “drill & kill” style education may impart some knowledge, but it does little to develop the creative and social (and physical) aspects of development; in fact, such activities tend to work against such development.

So often we hear the words “work ethic” bringing to mind images of Dickensian workhouses. It is not unreasonable to expect one’s livelihood to bring pleasure unto itself beyond the regular paycheck. In fact, people who enjoy their work tend to be more productive than those who do not. Some people refer to their work as “play”, such as mathematicians and scientists who have truly found their passion. Do they work hard? Certainly, but the work is fulfilling and pleasurable in and of itself. Personally, I would find being an accountant to be a sort of personal hell, but fortunately there are people who enjoy working with numbers and finances. Some people find they take great pleasure in making a difference in the lives of others, such as nurses, doctors, and teachers. Some enjoy the pleasure of putting food on people’s tables through farming. When education becomes little more than a process of completing discrete mundane tasks, it teaches people to accept such things as inevitable. The reality is that this is not inevitable at all. A factory worker who takes an interest in the processes and products made is much more likely to find their job interesting and feel fulfilled than one who is only there to earn a paycheck and has had their curiosity numbed. It is that very curiosity that we need to develop because it is from this that new insights and innovations come. This applies to everyone, from the chief designer to the assembler to the janitor. Accepting the mundane as a matter of course does us all a disservice.  

In considering my own children’s education, I have often thought that the ideal for them may be to gain both a profession and a trade. Learning a trade related to their chosen profession can aid in communication and respect between coworkers, and can also aid in flexibility in different economic situations as well as at different life stages. Understanding the challenges of others from different viewpoints is another valuable skill that aids both in personal fulfillment as well as citizenship. This is only one way to accomplish this; service hours/volunteer work, student exchanges, travel, etc. can also achieve similar goals.

Another benefit of learning both a trade and a profession is that it can give you flexibility. In various economic times, one may be a more reliable employment choice than the other. When starting a family, having this choice can help allow you to spend more time with your children. If you needed to cut back a little due to health issues of yourself or another family member, again, this could help allow for some flexibility.

To sum up: I believe the primary goal of education should be to encourage and enable all citizens to reach their potential and to participate as informed contributing members of society. Note: by contributing, I mean it not only financial, but also social and political terms.