Schools must get back to basics
While we’re hopefully done with COVID-related school closures and mask mandates, a new endemic problem looms large over education in Canada. It seems that classroom instruction and curriculum increasingly includes “causes” of one kind or another, “equity” in many competing and confusing forms, the environment with its shifting priorities and panics, and the trumpeted claims of diversity, systemic racism, sexual health, identity and even practises.
Where is education, the true business of schools, in this mélange? What can any of these fashions, fads and fantasies have to do with giving and receiving a proper education? Or more to the point, a good education? There seems to be no shortage of official voices ready to explain the need for new curriculum content, but the explanations almost always seem to have more to do with advancing a higher agenda in some hazy politically-connected way, rather than teaching kids the important knowledge we expect them to learn.
Whatever the officially declared purpose of state schools in these modern times, they seem to have only a superficial commitment to form, enrich and enlighten young minds by acquainting them with the best that has been thought and said. And they seem to completely eschew the belief that this pursuit, in and of itself, is inherently meaningful and worthwhile.
In every province, to varying degrees, the state schooling machine has replaced such rich goals and conceptions of education with utilitarian and trendy substitutes. “Education” has become just another mess of budget lines and political footballs, which place state interests and institutions ahead of the hopes of parents, the promise of their children and the ideals of many rank-and-file teachers.
But while public schools seem lost, the ideal of a high-quality publicly-financed education for all, regardless of circumstances, remains as important today as ever. But in Canada, we need new ideas about how to realize this ideal and lift the heavy hand of central government from our schools and what they teach.
Why must governments dictate detailed official curriculum documents for all grades in elementary school and all courses in high school? Of course, some official standards are necessary, if only to prevent local school boards from adopting outrageous curriculum content as we hear about in some precincts in the United States, to the great chagrin of many parents. But this can be done with much shorter and more streamlined guidelines than is currently the case. Indeed, as it was done not so long ago.
Across Canada, we need a new Back to the Basics movement, which not only focuses on teaching and helping kids learn the fundamentals, but also gives teachers and schools more latitude to design learning plans and programs in ways they know will better meet and serve the interests and needs of their students.
Ironically, teachers these days are much better educated and professionally prepared than teachers in previous generations when curriculum documents were much leaner, more tightly focused, and less prescriptive. Let’s free this new generation of teachers from the limiting constraints of overly detailed, overly trendy, official curricula and give them the professional autonomy they need to spread their pedagogic winds and expand the minds of their students.