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From Mike Lushington

So What Do we Really Want From Our Schools?

        Recently I read a report that indicated that Canadian schools were doing a poor job of addressing several critical needs of students. Actually, I have read a whole slew of such reports over the past few years, but this one focussed particularly on the evidence that kids are obviously overweight, inactive, and performing poorly in all sorts of areas because of these factors. The report concluded that schools need to do much more to address these concerns. I agree, just as I have agreed with similar conclusions from many of the earlier reports. But then I started to do a bit of very elementary mathematics.

        Consider the daily schedule of a student, let's say in Grade Ten, if it were to reflect the recommendations of all of these well considered and important reports. We know that New Brunswick students are not doing very well on National tests on reading and writing. Therefore, we must ensure that all students get at least an hour a day of good instruction in English. The same can be said for fundamental mathematics, so we add another hour. For all sorts of good reasons, we need to ensure that the quality of second language instruction is maintained or improved (according to the current situation in individual schools), so an hour a day has to be set aside for that.

        At this point it occurs to me to clarify a certain point - in order for instruction, learning, practice, reinforcement, and evaluation to take place effectively, one needs a hour or more. Trying to do more things in shorter time snippets simply fails to accomplish anything beyond a superficial glossing of the topic.

        Grade ten students must be getting instruction in science - and, once again, we know that New Brunswick students do not do as well as those in other jurisdictions in the fundamental sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology. Add another hour. They need instruction in History, Geography, and in Social Sciences. They need at least an hour of physical activity each day. They need instruction in Computer Science, and an opportunity to develop essential creative skills in the arts. And now, we are told, they need to be given instruction in nutrition, personal health, motivation, goal setting, career planning ... the list continues.

        Grade ten students spend between five and five-and-one-half hours in class each day. One could argue, I suppose, that that could be extended to six (although there are all sorts of reasons why so doing would be very difficult) but that would be the limit. If we consider travel time, a minimum lunch break, times for class changes, and so on, we are looking at a full day. Now consider the problem that is created by the demands on their time that I have outlined above. If we were to address all of them, we would need to have students in classes for nine or ten hours a day - and that would be self-defeating simply because no one would be learning anything after five or six.

        It seems that we have created impossible demands for our schools by requiring them to become all things to all people. The initial consequences of these demands are already evident; we are producing students who have a smattering of knowledge in a wide variety of topics, but little depth in any of them. More seriously, we are overlooking the most fundamental element of all in any good education; most students who graduate from high school right now really do not understand the principle of learning itself. As a society, we have to re-examine what exactly it is that we want from our education system - and then take steps to accomplish these goals.

        Obviously, this is a topic about which I continue to care. Next week, I would like to articulate some further considerations. Do I have solutions? No, probably not - who was it who first said that critics, like philosophers, are never concerned with answers,but only with the questions? In any case ...!



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