The next great leap forward

Yukon children are not well served by the education system. If 400 of the little blighters enter kindergarten, only 240 emerge from Grade 12 with a diploma scrunched up in their fist. The other 160 drop out. They're gonzo. Frankly, that is unacceptable.

Yukon children are not well served by the education system.

If 400 of the little blighters enter kindergarten, only 240 emerge from Grade 12 with a diploma scrunched up in their fist. The other 160 drop out. They’re gonzo.

Frankly, that is unacceptable.

Now, we’re going to try to delve into this issue. But first, we have to muddy it. So stick with us just for a second while we alight on a few statistics.

When it comes to language arts, students are holding their own. In fact, about three-quarters of Yukon students are passing.

However, the number achieving excellence – scoring above 80 per cent – is down to just 13 per cent from 24 per cent five years ago.

Average math scores here are trending down. Today, they hover around 57.5 per cent, down from 60 per cent a few years ago. The average aboriginal child is sitting around 43.4 per cent in math, and two of nine reporting schools had failing averages.

These statistics are often used like a whip, to highlight how screwed up the system is.

Critics will cite how we spend millions on education. How we have, with much fanfare, launched education reform initiatives and reviewed secondary school programming with a goal of retooling things, to improve the system.

And then they cite math and language scores as evidence the reforms and studies aren’t working, that the class sizes are too large, or small – that we’re failing our children.

And we are.

But what if the problem isn’t the math and language scores?

Or rather, what if math and language scores are the problem – what if the problem is, in fact, society’s singleminded focus on math and language skills?

Think about that a moment….

Consider that something more profound is screwed up. Something far beyond the Yukon’s borders.

Like the whole education system.

It is very possible it has been knocked off the rails by globalization, the internet and the information revolution.

That’s what Sir Ken Robinson believes. And he’s got a point.

Robinson is an educator who led the British government’s advisory committee on creative and cultural education, which examined the significance of creativity on schools and the economy.

Now, this is a big topic. Huge actually, and we’re just going to open the door a crack here. But it’s a fascinating topic, and relevant to learning in the territory.

The existing public education system was developed in the 19th century to meet the needs of the industrial revolution. It was focussed on literacy, math and sciences - which were deemed higher-order studies. They were placed-top of the heap in terms of importance – skills needed to get a good job.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it. We still think the education system is there to prepare our kids for the workforce.

But is it? Should it be?

And should success in English and math and science be the litmus test of the education system?

Maybe the system needs to come up with a new focus? Like creativity.

Now, before you start yelling “hogwash,” and label those promoting such heresy as yoga-mat owning, camomile-tea-sipping loonies, consider for a moment that the child entering kindergarten today will be retiring in 2070, or later (depending on the financial viability of pension funds).

And nobody has a clue what the world will look like in five years.

The pace of change, ushered in by the information change, is exponential. A student entering a four-year college course in electronics can expect to have their first-year skills rendered obsolete by the time they graduate.

The world is in revolution. Are our 19th-century schools preparing them for that revolution?

Intelligence is a many faceted thing, says Robinson.

“Academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence,” he says. And this is wrong.

By focusing on a very narrow range of scholarly pursuits in our schools we are “training highly intelligent, brilliant, creative people to think they’re not. Because the thing they are good at at school was not valued, or was actually stigmatized.

“We can’t afford to go on that way.”

Why? Because today’s world is much broader than it was.

Today, we know intelligence is not just about listening - it also relies on seeing, on touch, sound, movement.

And creativity - the process of coming up with an original idea with value – comes about through interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.

Are our schools set up to teach creativity? Or are they set up to prepare our kids for college and university? Because college and university degrees are not what they once were, says Robinson.

“In the next 30 years, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than through the beginning of history,” he says.

In that environment, a college or university degree is almost worthless – students will need a master’s or PhD to differentiate themselves from the crowd.

And yet, people who can think creatively, who can use their own unique talents and experience to conjure unique ideas will be much better suited to our information age.

“The whole structure is shifting,” says Robinson. “We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.

“Our education system has mined our minds in the way we have strip mined the earth, for a particular commodity.”

And that’s the problem.

So it’s time to revolutionize our education system.

We began by saying Yukon children are not well served by the existing one. But the problem is much broader.

Canadian children are not well served by our 19th-century model.

“All children have tremendous talents and we squander them. Pretty ruthlessly,” says Robinson.

Here, about 160 of them are squandered every year.

The trick is finding out what makes them tick – what their hidden talent is, and fostering that.

It may not be math. Or English. It probably isn’t.

But that shouldn’t mean it’s any less important to our society.

The trick will be rebuilding the education system to recognize that.

And, once we do that, we probably won’t see as many dropouts here.

And society will take its next great leap forward.