All of us are now inundated with information. Every day we are literally bombarded with new facts and opinions. On the Internet and television as well as in newspapers, magazines and textbooks, writers and posters present ideas they want us to accept. Academics and media analysts argue about the real impact of overexposure to violence, skinny models, and gratuitous sexuality on today’s children and teens. One educational progressive says we need to “respect the child” at all times; an education reformer rails about the latest abysmal test results and says we need to restore “standards.”
Today’s educational world is downright confusing to most observers. Rarely do the educational “experts” agree and when they do get ready for wholesale implementation of the idea. One of my favourite little books, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions (Prentice Hall, 2001) puts a finger on the essential problem: In most cases, you are faced with the prospect of deciding on your own which ideas to accept, which to reject, and which to withhold judgment on.
Since the time of the Ancients, education has been guided by philosophical principles. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates observed that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It follows, then, that a truly educated person is one who lives “an examined life.” And one would expect to find many such people in the world of education. Yet everywhere you look educators seem to be parroting dogma or accepting most of what they encounter, making someone else’s opinion their own. It’s become so prevalent that whole books are being written and workshops being given on “How to Do Critical Thinking” in schools.
Self-examination is good for you. In my case, it was prompted by being asked by Stephen Patrick Clare to do a “Question and Answer” piece for a local Halifax monthly magazine (The Southender, August, 2010). That little exercise forced me to think more deeply about my core philosophy and what really makes me tick. Here’s a sample of my responses:
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing you?
Engaging the public in education is the biggest challenge. Schools and school systems tend to be surprisingly insular and can become modern day fortresses. Our aging population is gradually becoming more disconnected from the educational world. We need more public accountability in education, not less. Public concern over the state of education remains high, but many feel powerless and adults without children in the system can be indifferent. Most educational “research” is politically-driven, so there’s a great need for people who can cut to the heart of the matter. It takes a crisis like the whole Ken Fells fiasco for most people to sit-up and take notice.
Q:What are the rewards of doing what you do?
Educating children, mostly teenagers, and leading schools has been my life’s work for over three decades, in Ontario, Quebec, and now here in Nova Scotia. Since the founding of Schoolhouse Consulting in September 2009, I am enjoying the new-found freedom to think, read, and write about issues that matter. Being accountable only to yourself is far more satisfying and I’m much happier tackling big issues than fretting about petty issues or administrivia.
Q: What motivated you to write The Grammar School: Striving for Excellence for 50 Years in a Public School World?
With the Grammar School’s fiftieth anniversary approaching, I became fascinated with the untold story of the School’s unique origins, trials, and triumphs. Board member John Kitz, son of one of the Founders, Leonard Kitz, piqued my curiosity and provided a missing link. It was through John that I learned of the important role Hilda Neatby’s 1953 best seller So Little for the Mind played in sparking the whole Grammar School experiment. Right from the beginning the School has been a “lighthouse” seeking to raise the standard in what Neatby called a virtual “sea of mediocrity.” It’s a ‘warts and all’ story of one school’s titanic struggles to carry the torch for standards in a public school world. It ended up being my gift to the School and a fine way to finish my tenure.
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges currently facing the city’s – and the province’s – education sector?
Our education sector is in far better shape than that of the United States, where the “School Wars” are tearing the public system apart. Judging from Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) we are fortunate to be living here. Having said that, we do face our own challenges.
Complacency and insularity are bigger issues in Nova Scotia because we are quite removed from the main currents of educational change. Our Halifax Regional Board has aggressively embraced standardized testing and systematized school improvement strategies. People are now asking “how much testing is too much?” and can we continue to defend the “one-size-fits-all” model of public education? We are lagging behind in “resetting” the system for the 21st century.
Closing the alarming educational gap is becoming one of my biggest concerns. With 81% of Nova Scotia students securing a high school diploma, we are producing far more university students than we can possibly absorb in the workforce. Yet about 38% of Nova Scotians still lack basic literacy and are facing gloomy life prospects. We simply have to narrow that gap between the educated and the undereducated in our society.
Q:What are some of the solutions to those issues?
That’s a much tougher question and there are no easy answers. If it was up to me, I’d focus on restoring academic standards, developing workplace transition partnership programs, and social enterprise solutions such as Pathways to Education. We would benefit greatly from introducing more school choices within the publicly-funded school system. Your everyday garden variety public schools suffer in comparison with mission-driven schools. More school options for parents of autistic children are desperately needed, as are “stay-in-school” programs that actually work to produce motivated, productive citizens.
Q: What does the future look like for the Canadian education sector?
It’s much brighter than that of the United States. We would benefit from taking a hard look at what’s happened to the entire American school system. Some say it’s “creative destruction” but I see it as more of a “class struggle” for control of the schools. We have to overcome the desire to provide schools that try to be ‘all things to all people.’ Public issues that inflame racial tensions in Nova Scotia continue to be worrisome to me. Good sound curriculum, more effective teaching, and support for the vulnerable and disadvantaged remain the best routes to better schools and educating motivated, purposeful children.
Thank you for bearing with me and taking the time to consider my responses. You are, in all likelihood, a thoughtful person.
Why the rambling discourse? Have I hooked you?
If so, the Big Question is: What Makes You Tick? And what matters most to you in education?