||Volume 23, Number 4, Jan./Feb. 2011
Waiting on 21st century learning…without apology to “Waiting on Superman”
By Grant Osborne
I attended the BC Superintendent’s Association Conference in Victoria on November 17–19, 2010, with the two local reps of the New Westminster Teachers’ Union. This annual conference is usually only attended to a capacity of 50% but this year was a sell-out. Why? We were to receive from on high the message of 21st century personalized learning. This was to be a “sea change” in learning in BC, emphasizing an increased use of technology, increased involvement of parents, students selecting from a smorgasbord of learning opportunities, and a move to having teachers become facilitators of learning. Superintendents, administrators, principals and vice-principals, select teachers and a small number of local union and BCTF executive members, and staff waited with bated breath to find out how this educational tsunami would appear. In a meeting with the 20 or so BCTF and local union reps the night before, the question was how to respond, especially since, to date, there had been no consultation with teachers.
What did we get? The new Minister of Education George Abbott led off with a speech in which he explained how new he was to education and how he hoped to learn with us. His humourous take on a “Curious George” approach with frequent reference to lyrics of the Beatles was at least entertaining. We had soon-to-be-ex-Premier Campbell give a gushing tribute to teachers saying how society needed to celebrate their passion, listen to their voices, have the best and brightest become teachers, reach out and support us. After all this time, we didn’t realize how much he loved us! Cue Rod Serling and Twilight Zone music. Between this, we heard from presenters Valeria Hannon and Tony McKay (British and Australian respectively) describe to us 21st Century Learning. We were told it had no given menu, that we were co-creating, that education is a global business, and numerous references to the Gates Foundation and Global Education Leaders Programme. Education was constantly linked with employment, and one quote they liked was, “We have to be hospice workers bringing the old system to a dignified death and midwives helping birth the new.” We heard of Finland being a market leader without reference to the social factors that rank Finland number one in international testing—5% poverty (versus 15% +/- here), homogenous culture, small schools, a veneration of education, and the fact that it is extremely challenging to become a teacher in Finland. We heard about ubiquitous technology and opportunity and collaborative social-constructivist learning (a prize to anyone who can explain what was just said). We had videos from the states—my favourite was High Tech High, shot in black and white—which had many of the participants musing, “Why are we looking to the United States as an example of education when it ranks 33rd in the world and we rank in the top 5?” And yes, the musings. The presenters encouraged the participants to post Twitter feeds while the presentations unfolded, and to make their thoughts known on SurveyMonkey. This was to be their undoing.
On Friday afternoon, after a conference-highlight presentation by Stuart Shaenker, an expert in child development and development disorders, who provided a low-tech, riveting, funny, story-telling approach to his topic (definitely not 21st century learning!), we had a somewhat subdued pair of presenters return to tell us that they had spent the night looking at the Twitter feeds and survey results. They never meant to emphasize a corporate agenda, they said. They didn’t realize that much of what they were presenting as cutting edge was already being done in BC schools; that probably they should have asked what was being done in BC schools first. That’s how the conference concluded: roundtable discussions about the cutting-edge learning already happening here and now in British Columbia.
So what to take away from it? That’s a hard question. One memorable speech was from Deputy Education Minister James Gorman who told us that he didn’t know who was going to lead the government, how long George Abbott would be the minister (Abbott had yet to declare his leadership intentions and had yet to resign as minister), and that 21st Century Learning was flying at 50,000 feet and we don’t know where it will land. This spoke of a government and ministry without any direction. Another reference by the presenters was to the documentary, Waiting on Superman, a film made by the same director who did An Inconvenient Truth. This docu-mentary follows several children and their families as they wait to see if they have won the lottery to attend a prestigious American charter school. The film goes to great lengths to laud the charter school movement, but imbedded in it are the real facts—that only 17% of charter schools are outperforming public schools, with 46% performing the same and 37% worse (CREDO study)—or that there were charter school principals being indicted for embezzlement, or that studies have shown that teachers account for around 10% of a student’s standardized test scores and non-school factors account for 60%. The praise is actually a condemnation of the charter system. Perhaps that’s it—do you improve a system by supporting it or declaring it broken and in need of replacement without any meaningful studies to reach that conclusion?
International rankings have Canada near the top in the world in education and BC, despite the lack of government support, is on the top of that heap. Why are we looking to Britain (13th), the United States (33rd), or the Peoples’ Republic of China (mentioned often in the presentation) as education models? Looking at other systems can be enlightening but we need to be clear why we are looking at them and what we are looking for. Rather, the final roundtable exercise of the conference was valuable. BC has an exceptional education system despite the lack of government funding and support. Imagine what we could do if public education was seen as the great social equalizer and promoter, the most successful social experiment in history, and something worth honouring and supporting.
In the meantime, the message from the Ministry of Education seems to be the need for change… the mantra seems to be:
21st Century Learning…it’s coming, be excited, start talking about it, and planning for it…we just can’t tell you what it is. At least Campbell says he loves teachers. Who’ da thunk it.
Grant Osborne is president, New Westminster Teachers’ Union.