Chapter Ten: Prospects for Education

10.6 Responding to the Tensions

Some readers might find the analysis of schooling in this chapter depressing. Schools face important challenges in the form of social change, yet our experience indicates that creating meaningful and lasting improvement is quite difficult to do. To say that things are difficult and that we are not sure what to do, however, does not mean we should do nothing. In this final section of the book, we suggest some strategies that educators and those interested in education might use to create a climate for the thoughtful improvement of schools. Because educators need to explain themselves, not just assert their opinions, they themselves need to put more care into their thinking—they need a clearly articulated world view, better arguments, more evidence, and, most importantly, the disposition to change when they encounter persuasive evidence that is contrary to current thought or practice. And because of the growing pluralization of views, it is less likely that a single conception of education could be effective, let alone should be imposed on everyone. As we continue to “unsettle” our Canadian milieu towards recognition, and towards schooling, there exists a great need to increase the scope of our educational imagination. Indeed, one way of framing the challenge is to say that schools should change from organizations that are about learning to ones that embody the ideas of learning in their own structure and operation.

Responding to change is an educational task in which educators and schools need to do the same things we say we want to do with students—create positive collaborative relationships, define and debate issues, analyse data, develop and test strategies, and learn from our experience. True, there is no formal curriculum for doing this, and no set of correct answers to be found in the back of the book. We will have to discover answers as we proceed, and to discard what does not seem to serve our purposes. But surely this is what real learning is about, and we should be excited by the opportunity to organize schooling in a manner that embodies the values we profess as educators. The absence of a single view of desirable change can be seen as an advantage that allows more options and possibilities. We need not wait to know the right way before we begin a journey.

What does this mean in specific terms? The four elements mentioned in the previous paragraph provide a set of possibilities:

Create positive, collaborative relationships. As should be evident in this text, schools are a microcosm of our larger society, and every person has a vested interest in how they are structured, what their purposes should be, and their consequences (sometimes positive, but as we’ve seen in the Canadian experience, sometimes tragic). It is also the case that schools can no longer sustain themselves without building strong and productive relationships within and outside the school. To build the capacity to respond to changing imperatives, to be thoughtful about the goals and potential consequences of change, and to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse society that exists within the depleting biodiversity of our world, educators and leaders need to regularly engage with parents, differing communities, business, and governmental agencies across sectors to come to terms with what they might achieve if they collectively vision.  Such engagement becomes a means of acquiring stronger ideas, and perhaps resources, for making those ideas come alive. In the Canadian milieu, it may also become a means of serving our national interest in reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Defining issues suggests that educators and their communities—parents, students, and the public generally—need more opportunities to talk about educational matters. Schools tend to shy away from conflict about ideas, yet different points of view provide the opportunity for everyone to learn. It is important to understand how students and parents think about schools and what their values, hopes, and aspirations are, and to compare those with the goals of staff. Disagreements and uncertainties can be explored so that everyone can understand one another’s concerns.

It is also important to be able to talk more openly about issues we do not understand or do not know how to address. Educators, like other professionals, often feel that it is important to maintain an air of knowledge and certainty at all times. But this attitude may preclude the kind of open dialogue that is more important than ever. What does it mean to have truly public schools in the current era? How can we provide education that values both diversity and equity? How do we reconcile Education for Sustainable Development with our reliance on the harvesting of natural resources that has been a staple of our Canadian economy? We can improve our ability to address these questions only by debating them openly and accepting that our current knowledge and practices can benefit from thoughtful and sympathetic scrutiny. It is especially important to include in discussion those who may tend not to participate, or who may feel least able to contribute. The problems and challenges facing schools are different today; there is nothing wrong with admitting that we do not know how to address some of them. Admitting what we don’t know is a critical step toward learning.

Analyzing data provides a way of testing our beliefs and assumptions. Much of the debate about education has proceeded in the absence of good evidence. Yet real learning must involve careful consideration of what is known. Schools can benefit from gathering and analyzing more information about their social context: Who are our students and their families? What is the social and economic structure of the community? What kinds of work do people do, and what is its impact on our world? What do they see as critical problems and important opportunities? In many of these areas, data already exist through sources such as Statistics Canada; in others, schools can gather data readily through surveys of students and families (which might even be done by high-school students as assignments). These data provide additional opportunities to talk about important issues in the school and the community and they provide a means of getting beyond people’s initial positions, or even prejudices.

Schools could also benefit from looking more carefully at data on their own outcomes. What proportion of students and what kinds of students are struggling? How many students are failing courses, and which ones? How are the achievement patterns different between males and females, or for particular identity groups? Are the patterns the same across the school, or do they differ from grade to grade and subject to subject? How might we explain these patterns and what implications might they have for the way we organize teaching and learning?

In Chapter One we suggested that schools across Canada (and in many other countries) tend to operate in very similar ways. Given that we do not fully understand the changes taking place around us, or their impact on us, experimentation seems an essential strategy, and this would seem to imply more diversity in the arrangements for schooling. It is vital to develop and test strategies for improved schooling. Learning occurs when people try a variety of different things to see how they work. Yet policies of conscious and deliberate experimentation organized to promote learning about education are rare. Much more frequent is the belief that a solution has been found and that the only need is to make everyone conform to it. The imposition of dogma—no matter whose dogma it is—inevitably leads away from learning, not toward it.

At the same time, experimentation is not very useful unless we learn from our experience. Schools have been, as noted earlier in this chapter, subject to many experiments. We have not, however, typically seen these as opportunities to learn. Instead, each new strategy has been treated as the answer—something to be done, not something from which to be learned (Levin, 2012). Consistent and systematic use of research as a strategy for learning about what works in education is quite rare. The Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) concludes that education research is a very small enterprise, especially considering how large the education sector is. Countries simply do not make sustained efforts to improve their education systems through research as they do, for example, in health care.

Research is not only a matter for governments, however. Every teacher and every school can ask questions and collect data about the effects of different policies and practices. Limits of time mean that not everything a teacher or school does can be studied carefully, but schooling might very well benefit from a greater propensity to ask whether what we are doing is working and whether something else might work even better. Action research and inquiry conducted by teachers in their own classrooms and schools, offers guidance on how such work can be done and can be useful.

All of these steps would move schools in the direction of embodying principles of learning in their own operations. When faced with the question of how “good” or “bad” Canadian schools are, we need to first ask, “compared to what”? To each other? To the different types of school system we offer (provincial, denominational, private, federal)? To other countries? To the “good old days” that have not been equally “good” to all people? We need to deconstruct our expectations and assumptions embedded in a question of this nature, reflect on what our notions of the “good” entail, and how the notion of the “good” might be considered differently by differently positioned peoples. What makes a school “good,” may very well be linked to those who benefit the most from it, and from those who have the privilege to decide on what is “good” for others. Along many of the dimensions we have offered in this text, Canadian public schools are considered to be very good, and are the envy of those in many other countries. Yet, as we have also demonstrated, there are perennial tensions between value systems enacted daily in Canadian schools that have led to systemic inequities for many different groups of people. Not everyone has had a “good” experience in a Canadian school, and in fact, our colonial history demonstrates that our school system has done irreparable harm to many children and families. If we are to continue to strive for the “good”, that quality must be collectively constructed through respectful public debate. We have to find ways to deconstruct and minimize privileges that continue to perpetrate injustice; to deliberately design opportunities for meaningful participation and democratic governance; and to create and enact policies, programs and systems that foster inclusion, individual and collective rights, and a sustainable world.


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