About 85 parents, students, teachers, school support workers, local politicians and community members spent more than two hours Thursday night discussing the future of public education at Sackville Town Hall.
In response to their ideas and concerns, the participants heard about the provincial government’s latest proposals for reform from George Daley, the deputy minister of education for anglophone schools who was appointed in mid-November, just over two months ago.
Daley, a veteran teacher and vice-principal, who served a two-year term as head of the teachers’ union, was a last-minute substitute for Education Minister Dominic Cardy who was ill.
Daley noted that the province’s 25-page discussion paper on education released last fall calls for a complete review of the system every 10 years and agreed with participants who said that was a good idea.
“We’re also going through a new planning model with districts and schools because our intention is to try to actually turn the system upside down so the planning starts in the schools and the teachers and the administrators will determine what the needs of the schools are,” he said.
“It is a new way of thinking,” he added, referring to what he called the previous “top-down” model of decision making.
“We’re going to try to flip that. I hope it’s going to work,” he said. “When we get to the point about how do we involve communities and how do we engage,” he added, “we have to put decision-making and some authority in our communities.”
Daley’s comments appeared to support the efforts of Sackville 20/20, the non-profit group that is lobbying for local, community-based learning involving partnerships that would integrate all of the schools and the university in a “community learning campus.”
Daley said later during an interview that while he’s familiar with Sackville 20/20, he hasn’t followed what the group has been doing in the past year.
“I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of it, but I know they’re here and their references pop up quite a lot,” he added.
Hunger in schools
On other issues, Daley repeated the position outlined in the discussion paper that ways have to be found to improve French immersion so that anglophone students can speak the language by the time they graduate from high school.
He also said he recognized the need for better mental health services in schools as well as the crucial importance of food programs to eliminate hunger.
“Our students have got to be in school first, they’ve got to be fed, they’ve got to be safe, we have to build relationships with them,” he said, “after that’s done, then we can start teaching.”
Daley added he was hired as deputy minister to do things differently.
“One of the things I said is, ‘that what we’re measuring, we’re going to change’ because I don’t think we’re measuring the right things and I do believe one of the things we need to measure is the breakfast program,” he said, adding that, at present, food security programs are not funded by the province.
Daley said he couldn’t promise that he could get funding for every school food program.
“But I do think that is one of those conversations we’ve got to have.”
Watching educational reform initiatives is like listening to the proverbial blind monks trying to describe an elephant. They only feel a piece of it and no one sees the whole.
I liken our dominant educational structure as the offspring of a shotgun wedding between industrialists who needed literate workers to operate their machinery, and progressives who wanted to lift up the common person from poverty and drudgery. It wasn’t an easy marriage, and the children are a tad dysfunctional now. The union was never able to clearly identify the guiding principle of education. One book that has influenced many of my opinions on public education is Kieran Egan’s, ‘The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding’. Egan says that Western education is based on three incompatible principles, where all three can never be achieved in a single system.
1. Education as Socialization (age cohorts, class groupings, team sports)
2. Education as learning about Truth & Reality, based on Plato (varied subjects, academic material, connection to culture)
3. Education as discovery of our nature, based on Rousseau (personal sense-making, teacher as facilitator)
If you put emphasis on any one of these principles, the others get ignored. The industrialists would have preferred education as socialization and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth. We have seen some attempts, like Waldorf schools, to develop systems that promote education as discovery of our nature, but that does not go well with a standardized curriculum, whether it has a corporatist agenda or a progressive one. As Egan says:
“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.” —Kieran Egan
Basically, it’s complex and no single curriculum will ever be adequate. In our networked society, education should be organized like the web — small pieces, loosely joined.