On Education

Thinking outside the classroom:

While discussing youth unemployment at the September 18 meeting, the LYAC found that one particular topic took over the conversation: education. How can education play a role in reducing youth unemployment? What do we need to fix about the current system? This report is the result of the LYAC’s discussion of what an ideal educational system could look like, which took place at the September 25, 2014 meeting.

Who Should Read This?

  • People who have found traditional top-down school systems stifling

  • People who feel as though their education was/is incomplete

  • People concerned about the future of education

  • People who succeeded in the traditional school system, but who are open to examining new systems

A Note About Our Reports 

LYAC reports are a different kind of report. They are conversational, friendly and honest. These reports don’t try to trick you by using complicated language or pretend to be based on the opinions of experts. They are based on the best information that the Youth Councillors have at the time of each discussion. We hope that the reports make you think, make you act and challenge you to consider things that you haven’t considered before. Share your opinions with us so that we can represent you better!

Freedom versus Structure

We began our discussion by asking questions about freedom and structure in schools. In what sense should there be more freedom in a new school system? For one, we can think of freedom in terms of course selection. While some councillors suggested that some course requirements should be removed to allow students more freedom in their selection, others were quick to respond that too much freedom will not work for every student, and that some students require more structure to be engaged. Students are not always able to forecast what skills they may need in their futures; you may not want to study math when you’re seventeen, but you could need it later in life.

In another sense, we can think of freedom in terms of how we learn, and what we consider to be education. There seems to be a generally held belief that in order for something to qualify as an act of learning, it has to be difficult and require precise focus. For example, field trips are not always thought of as learning because they can be a lot of fun. We spoke about the “discovery method” of learning, in which students are encouraged to explore tangents and learn for themselves through discussion. This is a method of learning that is discouraged by the strict format of traditional schooling, and we discussed whether or not shutting down tangents in conversation hurts students’ learning. Again, this form of learning may not be effective for students who need structure.  In terms of applying different formats to a new educational system, we have to take care not to leave students behind.

What Do We Teach? What is School For?

Of course, form is not the only concern to consider when rethinking the school system. No matter what form a new educational system would take, be it discovery method or otherwise, we must also consider the content. In discussing this question we found two areas that are neglected or excluded in the current educational system: life skills and career planning. Meaghan suggested that education needs a change of agenda, in that rather than focusing just on hard educational courses, schools could include courses on dealing with real-life situations, such as offering students support on how to deal with divorce for example. Including education in coping with difficult life situations could help curb mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, which can cause employment and quality-of-life issues later in a student’s life.

Continuing on the link between education and employment, Scott spoke about career classes and their role in helping students realise how their passions can benefit them down the road. He pointed out that a problem with current career courses is that the teacher for such courses has not experienced a wide range of particular careers they can teach. This raised the question of who could possibly teach such a course. Should employers be involved? Who decides the curriculum in our new school system?

Experts and Educators: Who’s in charge?

We spoke about what makes a strong teacher and what role teachers should play. Generally we found that the best teachers are engaged and empathetic, and that they genuinely want to help students learn rather than simply lecturing in a top-down approach. Olivia spoke about the concept of two-way learning, meaning that both the teacher and the student can and should learn from each other’s experiences. We also discussed discipline, and thought that instead of punishing students, teachers should learn more about why the student is acting out and learn how they can help by listening to that student’s experience.

Teachers certainly can play an important mentorship role, but who else should be involved in education? Psychologists were brought up as having a role because they can have expert knowledge in certain areas of the mind, so they may have well-researched ideas on how to engage learners. Employers were also discussed as having a possible role in the educational system, but we would need to be cautious to avoid having those employers dictate what knowledge should or should not be taught. Even if a student is more career-oriented in their educational goals, they should not be pushed towards a particular occupation or employer.

Tangible Change

With all of this in mind, we were faced with the question of what tangible changes we could make to the current educational system. For inspiration, we discussed European models of schooling, in which education is delivered in a 2-tiered system. One tier is aimed towards general skills and workplace-oriented training, while the other tier is focused on theory. There are tiers that exist in our current system, in courses where there are Applied and Academic options and in schools where some schools are trade-based while others are focused on theory. This brought up the issue of stigma, and we noted there often seems to be a stigma against Applied classes or trade-based schools. How can we change those attitudes?

As the meeting came to a close, everyone contributed a couple of ideas they had for changes based on their own individual experiences in school. Here are some of the suggestions that were discussed:

  • online access to courses, especially for those in rural communities

  • assessing people based on their growth

  • collaboration between schools based on respective school strengths

  • getting rid of the classroom model

  • having a narrative transcript rather than just numerical grades

Personal Stories

Jess brought up her own experience of unconventional learning. She explained that she once had a History teacher who would dress up as the historical figures he was teaching. The professor later assigned a project to his students in which they would dress as the historical figures they were studying. Jess found that this process gave her new understanding that helped her with the project, though she was skeptical of the costumes’ educational value at first.

Wadhah spoke about a neuroscience professor he worked with who attended an interdisciplinary meeting regarding ways to change the educational system. The conference brought different schools of thought together in dialog as experts in many different fields brought forth ideas that perhaps had not been considered before. For example, including yoga as a form of meditation in schools was suggested in order to soothe students’ mental stress.

Big Questions

Here are some of the big questions we discussed that remain open for debate:

  • What do we consider to be “learning”?

  • What is the purpose of education?

  • What does an ideal education system look like?

Recorder’s Notes

What all of these debates seem to point to is that educational needs are personalized. Some students would thrive in a school without structure, while other students need rigid structure in order to flourish. Some students are more career-oriented in their schooling, while others want to learn for personal or social improvement. It seems that there is no one system for everyone, but perhaps with some more research of what is available we can have a better conception of our ideal system looks like.

I thought of my own experience at Bishop Carroll High School, a member school of the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning, where I experienced a very different format of secondary schooling. I wanted to hear more discussion about the base format of traditional schools and how that could be changed – we started to get into this topic when discussing European models and the discovery method. I must note that while the self-directed model did offer answers to many of the issues we brought up the discussion, the school was still not a system that everyone succeeded in, and we should continue to discuss other alternative systems further in depth.

Things We Still Need to Learn

We need to take a good look at what alternative school systems are present, inside and outside of Canada. Perhaps with a closer look at some statistics, we would have a better idea of what elements of alternative schooling seem to work well for students.

Some other questions we should consider researching are:

  • What are some ways to get rid of the stigma towards hands-on education?

  • What is the relationship between where a student lives and what types of programs/courses they will have access to?

  • Are there schools that teach emotional/coping with life skills? How do they incorporate those courses and who teaches them?

Things We Missed the First Time

  • If you’re going to build something, like a new education system, you need to have a meaningful conversation with all of the people involved

  • From Scott:  In the part about my recommendations, I want it stated that I think careers should be a portion of each class taken. Leave a day or two where there is discussion about careers that you could have using the topics and materials covered as well as areas where this material may be helpful you wouldn’t think of down the road.

  • We think there needs to be a wider conversation about professional development for educational professionals

  • Non-tangible forms of education are not valued for their transferable skills; how do we change this?

  • Why don’t we have more career fairs in high schools?

  • There should be more programs for youth helping youth: older students talking to younger students about educational opportunities

  • Ward 3 Councillor Meaghan Bennett asked that we include a link to her essay “Redefining Education” as means of capturing her thoughts on the topic. For those interested in reading Meaghan’s thoughts please click HERE.