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Joseph Wilson on learning: ‘People are envious of what we’re doing in education’

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with taking our place in the world.

Joseph Wilson, education adviser at MaRS Discovery District, was interviewed on August 2 by Monica Pohlmann, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pohlmann: Where have we done a good job at living up to our potential as a nation?

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Wilson: We're known around the world for our education system. Public education is a respected institution, we pay our teachers relatively well, we do well on standardized assessments, and the equality gap here is not huge. Canadians value our education system in a similar way to how we value our health-care system. That leads to pressure to innovate, from both the private and the public sectors. Toronto is home to perhaps the largest cluster of education innovation in the world. We have a high-quality university system and talented people coming out of universities. When you unleash them on a messy problem like education, you get some really interesting stuff. For example, MOOCs – massive open online courses – are everywhere now, but they were invented in Canada. When we go to New York or Silicon Valley or London, people are envious of what we're doing in education.

Pohlmann: What energizes you about Canada these days?

Wilson: Our young people. It's unfashionable to defend teenagers, but they give me hope. Young people are creative and subversive and tenacious and fearless. We can learn from them how to get angry instead of being complacent in the face of injustice. We adults tend to elevate our governmental, religious, familial and economic institutions to a place of reverence that they don't deserve. We need our kids to ask hard questions about where these systems came from and why they are the way they are. We need them to dig and not to be satisfied with the status quo.

Pohlmann: If things turn out badly over the next 20 years, what would have happened?

Wilson: There's a huge disconnect right now between what we know we need from our education system and what our education system is set to deliver. In 20 years, we might look back and say, "We knew we had to double down on innovation and creative thinking for the sake of the economy and for solving complex problems. Instead, we insisted that everybody learn the same baseline knowledge and we basically drilled creativity out of kids. As a result, we don't have the intellectual and creative capital to solve our massive problems."

In 20 years, our health-care system may be completely overburdened. We are heading toward a kind of perfect storm with an aging population and an already stressed health-care system. The stress may create a more unequal society. New immigrants, aboriginal people and at-risk populations may not get the health care they are entitled to.

Pohlmann: And if things turn out well over the next 20 years, what would the story be?

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Wilson: If the rhetoric we hear about the importance of 21st-century skills comes to fruition, you would see a less centralized and standardized education system. Kids would be able to follow their natural curiosity in whatever way made sense for them. We would evaluate and assess their decision-making and project-building processes rather than the end product.

You cannot start to embed a culture of entrepreneurship with 25-year-old grad students. We're teaching entrepreneurial thinking in middle school and high school and, more recently, in kindergarten. The habits of mind of good entrepreneurs closely match the 21st-century skills taught in elementary school, including communication, resilience and teamwork. Entrepreneurs who work alone don't get funded. It's always teams, and those teams need to show that they can work together, deal with adversity and know their weaknesses and strengths. These are skills you start to learn in kindergarten.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit

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