New Brunswick’s education minister is planning dramatic changes to the way children are taught in his province, saying schools need to eliminate early grade levels, use more artificial intelligence in the classroom, reintroduce trades training and begin teaching a second language as early as daycare.
The reforms announced by Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dominic Cardy are intended to improve student performance, and address an out-migration of young people who often leave the province after graduation.
“Our education system is sliding towards crisis. Not for all students. Not every day. But for more and more students, and the teachers who guide them, school isn’t working,” Mr. Cardy wrote in a green paper released this week.
One of the more notable changes planned involves grouping students by ability instead of age between kindergarten and Grade 2. Young children will be placed in “flexible primary learning environments” instead of age-based grade levels, beginning as soon as next year, he said.
“We’ve all grown up with the traditional grade model, and it’s been a feature of our education system for a long time. But if you think about it, it’s sort of an odd idea, grouping people together just based on the calendar year they were born within,” Mr. Cardy said. “We want to group students on readiness to learn, rather than just chronological age.”
By grouping children by ability, that would encourage students’ critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving, while relieving the pressure on teachers and educational assistants, Mr. Cardy said. These are major changes to the way schools traditionally operate, he acknowledged, but the challenge facing the province is significant.
“We need some political courage to make sure our school systems are working, because if we don’t, 10, 20 years down the road we’re going to be facing some real problems,” he said. “We’re a small, geographically isolated province. … We need people to talk about how we can make our education system better, and it’s the only way New Brunswick can survive going into the future.”
The province’s teachers union says it hasn’t had time to process the sweeping changes proposed to the education system, and declined to comment. But some educational experts warn other provinces have considered eliminating grade levels before, and said it’s a difficult sell to parents.
“The problem with this type of reform is that when you start to change schools such that they stop to look the way people think schools are supposed to look, parents and the public start to get upset,” said Jason Ellis, a historian who studies education at the University of British Columbia.
“A school is supposed to have grades. As soon as it doesn’t, people start to ask, ‘Well, what is this?’ ”
The province also wants to boost the amount of training students can get in school to better prepare them for a career in the trades. Many schools in the province long ago lost their shop classes that taught practical, hands-on skills such as carpentry or mechanics – and that needs to be fixed by partnering with the private sector, the minister said.
“We fell into the trap that the only path to the middle class was to go to university. … Now we’ve got a massive shortage of skilled trades,” Mr. Cardy said. “We want to encourage students who want to work with their hands. If a student knows in Grade 10 they want to be a welder, why on Earth wouldn’t we take advantage of those last two years in school?”
The provincial government also wants to ensure all Anglophone students graduate from high school with at least a conversational level of French, and plans to start teaching them two languages as early as daycare to achieve that.
Improving the school system is closely connected to New Brunswick’s economic fortunes, Mr. Cardy said. He believes better schools will help retain residents and attract newcomers. The problems facing the school system are significant, and need bold ideas, he said.
“Our education system faces significant challenges, ranging from extremely challenging classroom compositions, to large numbers of disengaged students,” Mr. Cardy said. “These and other factors have led to unacceptably low levels of student achievement. Our province’s current social and economic reality should be enough to trigger bold and immediate action. Together, we have a moral imperative to re-imagine our education system and get to work on making necessary changes.”
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