Queen’s Park smothering our future

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It goes without saying that the Canada of our future will need people with skills in mathematics, science, and reading. But is that all we’ll need? In fact, are these even the most important skills that will be needed?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. We’ll need people with these skills, of course, but we’ll also need much more. We’ll need people who are able to generate a wealth of ideas. Who have great imagination and a passion for innovation.

But these are the very attributes that are being smothered by school curriculums set at Queen’s Park. They place too much stress on learning by volume within subject silos, and too little stress on interdisciplinary exploring. Too much stress on learning within the categories you’ll find in any encyclopedia, and too little stress on thinking outside the box.

One of the impacts of the approach taken by Queen’s Park is the slow strangling of outdoor education. There is no money for it in the province’s funding formulas, and there is no mention of it in curriculum guidelines.

As a result, the Toronto District School Board is scrimping everywhere it can to keep some semblance of outdoor education alive. It still guarantees students two one-day outings, and one five-day residential visit to an outdoor education centre while they are in public school. But the board has cut the number of teachers at the centres by 60 per cent.

The teachers are being replaced by « paraprofessionals’’ — outdoor specialists and interns who will earn a third less than teachers. However, the paraprofessionals will have great difficulty delivering key objectives of outdoor education. That takes trained and experienced teachers.

Chuck Hopkins explains the objectives. He’s a former superintendent of curriculum for the Toronto board. Currently, he occupies the chair at York University funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and established to develop methods of training teachers internationally in the principles of sustainability. Hopkins has also been principal at two of Toronto’s leading outdoor education centres.

Primary and secondary education ought to have  three main objectives, he says, and they are to:
•   teach the main academic disciplines — language, mathematics, science, history, geography;
•   engage students in what he calls the « hidden curriculum’’ — developing social skills, refining values, and instilling a sense of ethics; and
•   involve students in the « meta-curriculum’’ — developing higher orders of thinking skills and nurturing creativity.

Only the first of these is addressed by the province in its guidelines and funding formulas.

The failure to address the final two objectives is derelict in the extreme. This is not the nineteen century, where if people could read and do their times tables they could prosper. Economists, such as Paul Romer at the University of California at Berkeley, are telling us we’re in a « new economy,’’ where nations will prosper only if they invent. « The emerging economy is based on ideas more than on (manufactured) objects,’’ says Romer.

To get ideas we will need people with creativity. And one of the best ways to nurture creativity is to get students out of doors where they can experience diversity far beyond anything they can get in a classroom. Where they can see the intricacies of nature’s complexity.

That’s when students move into respect, Hopkins says, when the world discloses to them its endless possibilities, and provides a platform from which their imaginations can take off.

« I used to love taking kids on a night hike,’’ he says. « To lie and look at the stars, and to reflect on the past, the present, and the future….

« If we don’t give our kids these experiences, we’ll end up as an assembly of technicians, not a nation of designers. Not a creative people who can build a Canadarm, or develop Imax, or leap the barriers in computer animation.’’

As Hopkins makes plain, the future is to be found in our children’s sense of wonder. And we limit the scope of their wonder at our peril.

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