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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

Historical perspectives: Teachers, curriculum, and the BCTF

by Ken Novakowski

On September 8, 2006, the Dalai Lama participated in a dialogue on the topic of "Educating the heart" at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. In the audience were many teachers, including the Executive Committee of the BCTF. It was significant to hear from one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders that "educating the heart" was not the responsibility of the church or family, but that, indeed, it was a central responsibility of the school system. The education we provide in our schools should result not only in knowledgeable and learned individuals, but also in caring and compassionate citizens.

The Dalai Lama’s message was an important one for Premier Gordon Campbell, who met with him earlier that day. Particularly important because the provincial government has chosen to focus the energies of the school system on the aspect of achievement, causing all manner of priorities and organization to be directed toward that goal. The result has been a school system overly burdened with testing, accountability contracts, and bureaucratic hoops that, in the final analysis, have little to do with education. The BCTF has long advocated for the education of the whole child, and following the Dalai Lama’s dialogue, president Jinny Sims wrote the premier to tell him so: "Achievement is important, but it is only a part of the student learning process and should not exclude other important discussions about education that need to occur. I would propose that we open up the dialogue on education in BC. This would include listening to all points of view and not narrowing the focus on teaching and learning to simply what can be measured on a standardized test."

The BCTF has, from its inception 90 years ago, focused on the professional aspects of the lives of teachers in addition to its higher profile involvement in bargaining. Yet it has been through bargaining that we have succeeded in informing parents and the public of the central role of appropriate classroom conditions in creating successful learning environments in our schools. In a major submission to the Cameron Commission in 1945, the BCTF took on the issue of the direct relationship between educating the whole child and class size:

"The narrow concept of education based on the impartation of skills and the acquisition of facts has long been abandoned and teachers have become imbued with the philosophy that it is their concern to educate the whole child. Our program of studies is based on the philosophy that we should be concerned with the development of the total personality and provision of individual differences looms large in the plan of school organization.

"How this modern philosophy is to be made to work in practice is beyond the understanding of many teachers who at the present time enroll classes of from 40 to 50 pupils."

The BCTF submission to the Cameron Commission covered all aspects of teaching and learning but that was not our first collective attempt to influence education policy in BC.

In 1924, after numerous submissions from the BCTF, the provincial government finally acceded to establish the Putman-Weir Commission to examine all aspects of education in the province. In December of 1924, a BCTF committee chaired by G.A. Fergusson pulled together a comprehensive accounting of the views of BC teachers on everything from curriculum to educational governance and from education finance to teacher training and tenure. In its opening statement on general comments, the BCTF committee expounded this view on the very new and young BCTF:

"Since its inception, the Federation has constantly urged upon its members the great importance of increasing their professional efficiency—by every possible means, and particularly by taking a keen interest in the modern movements that have brought about so many changes in the conception of the aims of education, in the theory and practice of teaching and in the methods of administration."

Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the BCTF lobbied governments for an increased role of the teaching profession, as represented by the BCTF, in curriculum and other professional matters controlled by the then Department of Education. In October 1946, the BCTF Executive Committee affirmed that "any request by the Department of Education for teachers to assist in curriculum work be channeled through the Federation." By the 1960s things had moved in that direction. In an analysis of the BCTF role in curriculum revision and development through the 1960s, John Church, a long time, now retired member of BCTF professional development staff wrote positively about the model that gave teachers a significant role in the process. The BCTF had gained direct and shared sponsorship of curriculum revision.

"The central role of teachers defining the direction for education and the curriculum was established once again in the ensuing changes that occurred following the 1988 Commission on Education. In particular, the new primary program was created and developed by primary teachers and focused on the development and education of the whole child. It became a program that garnered interest and attention around the world and helped a generation of BC students establish a successful understanding of not only subjects, but of themselves and their role in the school and the broader community. The program, indeed, addresses the development of the whole child."

Now even this remarkable educational achievement of the last decade is under threat from the all-consuming "achievement/testing/accountability" scheme of the current government.

BC primary teachers have written extensively in Teacher newsmagazine about the negative impact of the data-collection frenzy on the program.

It is time for BC teachers to heed the call of the 2006 AGM and begin once again to assert our right as professionals to have an appropriate and significant role in determining the curriculum, classroom conditions, the educational program and, indeed, the priority focus of our schools.

Our failure to do so will allow the further bureaucratization of our public schools to completely remove the joy from teaching and learning. We cannot let that happen. And we won’t.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.

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