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Everette Surgenor

Cautiously skeptimistic: Can we revamp Canadian education? Add to ...

The Globe and Mail recently challenged its readers to vote on the next conversation that Canadians need to have, with selected experts providing a list of topics that ranged from first nations to foreign aid. Missing was the one topic that, without which, no list could properly be addressed: the design and development of a learning system that would promote the skills, thinking and understanding needed by Canadians to work, learn and respond to societal issues within the context of rapid and relentless 21st-century change.

We're a nation trapped in our Industrial Age past, struggling to find a future within the realities of a new age. We want to maintain our way of life, our economy, our value system, our cultural norms. But we face challenges that threaten our collective well-being, whether it be illiteracy, climate change, the urban-rural divide, the future of work, sovereignty, infrastructure renewal, privacy and technology issues, delivery of health and educational services, crime, policing or renewable energy. We are in a state of flux, and we feel that many aspects of our way of life are at risk.

There's no consensus as to what needs to change and why. Consequently, when faced with challenge or change, we frequently revert to the status quo simply because we don't know what else to do. We've enjoyed 200 years of success within the industrial paradigm. But that success poses our greatest threat, and it's preventing us from making the changes we need to make.

Many people say we're in the Information Age, but it's really the shaping of information into knowledge and applications that's driving this new era. Being able to work and learn in this new environment requires people to possess skills and attributes that would allow them to shape, build, acquire, share and develop knowledge. They must also develop the ability to "unlearn" and "relearn," as well as adopt new ways to collaborate, co-operate and innovate.

But these aren't the skills and attributes that most of us possess. Our educational systems were designed to serve another age. That's why we must redesign those systems. The past two decades of piecemeal reform efforts have been a dismal failure. Any group or individual proposing single-purpose non-systemic reform should be viewed as incompetent and a threat to the common good.

Our country, indeed our world, is facing challenges unlike anything ever encountered. The requirements of citizenship in a democratic Information Age society are higher than those of its Industrial Age counterpart. We need our citizens to think systemically, to apply knowledge and applications, to problem solve and make appropriate decisions. Our very future is dependent on them being able to do so.

Redesigning our learning systems to achieve this outcome requires levels of co-operation and sacrifice not seen since the Second World War. It means designing and developing new models for governance and leadership, as well as assessment and evaluation. It means rethinking the curriculum, new applications for technology, new models for instruction and the training of teachers, new definitions of literacy, and rethinking schedules and organizational structures, as well as blending philosophical positions around a liberal arts education and training for the world of work. A new learning system is the building block for societal change.

Do we have the political will to do this? Well, if we collectively understood the imminent danger to our way of life, we might change. But history is full of examples that show people don't change until disaster strikes. So who knows. Perhaps in this era of information and knowledge, we just might find the wisdom to shape a different historical outcome. Until then, I remain cautiously skeptimistic.

Everette Surgenor retired from B.C.'s education system after 30 years (as teacher, principal, superintendent of schools and regional co-ordinator for the Ministry of Education). He is the a uthor of The Gated Society: Exploring Information Age Realities for Schools .

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