Golden Age? Rose-Coloured Glasses? Neither.

For my first (non-introductory) blog, I’d like to look at “the state of education today”, if I may begin ridiculously broadly. In the spirit of bettering education by questioning its memes and practices, I’d like to talk about it critically. Pretty much everyone I know, inside and outside of the system, thinks it could stand some improvement. Many of us within the system, who have thought about the subject quite a bit, still disagree over what those improvements ought to be, depending on our vision of an ideal system or our encounters with the imperfect one we have. I’ve had brilliant discussions with colleagues, wonderful and fruitful disagreements with thoughtful vice-principals (whose job is to ensure the smooth running of the present system, and who are therefore nearly perpetually frustrated), and lovely conversations off-the-record with principals and school board trustees.   I’ve also had innumerable ideas dismissed, and had my discussions cut short by narrow-minded administrators who saw the act of questioning our own methods as tantamount to heresy, or at least an annoying and unnecessary impediment to the smooth running of their machines.  My major beef is the almost total lack of support for coherent, transparent, democratic, honest, strategic discussion and debate of issues within the teaching profession. This blog is kind of my way of scratching that itch for myself.

I’ll state here, rather forcefully, that the abysmally low quality of P.D. I have suffered through in my career as a high school teacher is inexcusable.  I would trade every single wasted hour of sitting about, fretting over the implementation of some cockamamie new marking rubric — every single minute of feeling disempowered and infantilised as a principal or ‘expert’ made us play awkward games involving chart paper and jujubes thinly veneered over policy announcements that were being implemented without consulting us — every single second of enduring meetings that were called, not because of any worthwhile content that had to be transmitted, but because a policy somewhere said that there had to be a meeting — every single nanosecond of having ‘facts’ paraded before us in a sickly-sweet, “no-child-left-behind”-style  PowerPoint presentation that I knew to be counterfactual glurge intended to further an ideological agenda — I would trade it all in a heartbeat for some real discussion of actual issues that get in the way of providing truly excellent education to real kids.   In fact, this subject of inadequate and badly-named Professional Development in high schools will be the subject of a later entry, where I’ll try to make the case for a better system with examples from my own teaching experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I think there are some things that the system gets right, or nearly right, anyway. Sometimes they get the idea right, but bollocks up the implementation; more often, it’s the opposite. I don’t think that the ‘system’, taken wholesale, was much better or worse than when I went to school a couple of decades ago. Certainly, when I was a student, I was almost completely unaware of the impact of the system on my education; I was immersed in it, and couldn’t have given you much of a coherent opinion:  a fish would be the last person you asked for an objective view of water.  Sure, “the way things were done” sometimes (often) struck me as inequitable or inane, or both, but I never stopped to think about the matrix of policies and unexamined assumptions and politics and philosophies that framed my experience. I was more often, more potently, and more immediately affected by individual teachers: their personalities, their ideas, their attitudes, and their relationship with me. I didn’t see the big picture, running in the background like the OS of a computer, invisible and ubiquitous, which in the end has shaped me as much or more than the ways I was more aware of.

So I don’t believe in a golden age. Professor James Côté, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, in his blog ivorytowerblues.com, has identified this as an impediment to real conversation about the issues: basically, somebody points out a flaw in the education system, and gets accused by someone else of a Pollyanna-like vision of a bygone time where everything was just milk, honey, wine, and roses. It’s a way of dismissing someone’s argument without addressing it. It’s condescending and intellectually lazy, if not downright dishonest. So, before anyone accuses me of being stuck in the past, I’ll be the first to admit that my own experience with the education system in Ontario when I was growing up was mostly bad: full of boredom, confinement, and the arbitrary exercise of power. I’m not looking at a return to the policies of our grandparents as a panacea for modern learning.

Or am I? Certainly I have no desire to step back into the old regime of “term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we die”, as C.S. Lewis described his indenture in a school he called ‘Belsen’. My own research into the history of public education in Upper Canada from the beginning has certainly left me with no rose-tinted opinions of any period in the history of education in Ontario. But my grandparents’ education must have given them something, because they were in many ways the antithesis of our present generation: they were mostly happy, confident, capable people who approached a problem with a combination of humility and common sense that makes me envious.   I’m not really into Jeremiads, either:  like I said, we do get some stuff right.  I’d like to look into these things a bit more deeply in individual posts.

My next ten blog entries or so will all fall under the general title of “10 Things Our Grandparents Got Right” concerning education; then I’ll follow those up with “10 Things They Got Wrong”, to see if I can draw any lessons for my generation.  See you then!

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