School's out. At last, kids and parents can relax. No more worries about crowded classrooms and teachers' strikes – at least until September.
But parents should be very anxious indeed, especially if their children go to school in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario or Nova Scotia. These provinces are in the grip of an alarming education fad frequently known as "21st century learning." Behind the scenes, the educrats are pushing radical changes to curriculums and teaching styles that are meant to transform education as we know it.
"The world has changed dramatically and a new model of learning is required to ensure public education is relevant to today's learners," insists C21 Canada, a national group that pushes for "21st century models of learning" in education.
"The question is whether student achievement in literacy, numeracy and science can be substantially improved if Canadian schools adopt modern teaching and learning methodologies and technologies," it says. "The answer is yes."
Both British Columbia and Alberta are rewriting their entire K-12 curriculums to bring them into the 21st century. In Ontario, advocacy groups such as People for Education are pushing for similar changes.
The key features of this new model are an emphasis on creativity, innovation and "digital literacies," with more discussion of broad concepts and big ideas and less emphasis on factual knowledge. Courses will be personalized to suit students' "learning preferences." Classes will be "student-centred," and feature far less direct instruction and far more project and group work. Teachers will be expected to act as guides to "self-directed learners." Technology will feature heavily in the classroom. Grades and testing will be downgraded. (Because who, after all, can measure "creativity"?)
What evidence is there that this new approach produces better results? Er, none.
"Essentially it's faith-based," says Paul Bennett, an education consultant based in Halifax who is an expert on the history of education. In fact, all the evidence points the other way. Experiments with discovery-based math have generally been a flop. But never mind: The education reformers are pressing ahead full-speed.
Why are these changes necessary? Because the skills required in the 21st century, we are told, will be radically different from the ones people needed in the last one. As one powerful Alberta education bureaucrat gushed, "As adults, we must abandon our beliefs in our own experiences for our youth to have flourishing lives. A revolution is occurring – our only choice is whether we lead it or become irrelevant."
In fact, 21st century learning is nothing more than warmed-over romantic progressivism – think Summerhill mixed with a jolt of Future Shock. The goal is not to strengthen the system we have, with better evidence, analysis and accountability. The goal is to transform it completely. Here's how the need for change was explained to B.C. educators: "Once the entire system is redesigned on the basis of constructivist and enquiry-based practice, then student dependence on teacher and school will begin to decrease with age. This will allow a growth in student choice and responsibility so escaping from the present dilemma of squeezing outdated systems to perform in ways which truly release human potential at hitherto unprecedented levels."
Semi-literate, evidence-free gibberish such as this would be hooted out the door in any serious enterprise. But the B.C. education system is not, currently, a serious enterprise.
Advocates of 21st-century learning like to label their opponents as reactionaries who want to take us back to the bad old days of rote learning and an industrial model of education that stifles creativity and stresses conformity, hierarchy and uncritical acceptance of authority. Of course, there's nobody who advocates that. But it's a handy way to demonize dissent.
Unfortunately, it's harder to demonize the many, many parents who get quite upset once they get wind of what's going on. It turns out that there is still quite a constituency for teacher-guided, knowledge-based education with clear standards and a lot of measurement. In Alberta (where the curriculum revamp has been branded "Inspiring Education"), more than 12,000 such parents signed a petition demanding that Education Minister Jeff Johnson, a leader of the 21st century movement, bring back conventional math instruction. They believe it's no coincidence that math scores have plunged since discovery math was introduced.
Other voices have begun to weigh in too. Stuart Wachowicz, the former director of curriculum for Edmonton Public Schools, helped build the system that vaulted Alberta to the top of world education rankings in the early 2000s. He warns that the new approach "has a long record of failure" and that it will weaken Albertans' ability to compete in the global economy. "Children will in effect be handicapped thinkers, suffering from a basic knowledge deficit," he told the Edmonton Journal's David Staples.
The rationale for 21st century learning includes a bunch of half-baked neuroscience and formerly fashionable notions about different learning styles and multiple intelligences that have been utterly discredited. But the really curious thing is that it offers exactly the wrong remedy for students supposedly expected to grow up in a world that's becoming more competitive and more performance-oriented all the time. This paradox does not escape Mr. Bennett. "How can we have student-centred learning, students proceeding at their own pace and student happiness when they have to be more competitive, more resilient and tougher?" he asks.
Our current approach is far from perfect, he says. One piece that really would help kids succeed – especially vulnerable kids – is a better understanding of resilience, grit, determination and other factors that help them overcome failures and setbacks. Successful charter schools work hard on these things. But you don't read much about them in the mush that passes for deep thinking at our education ministries.
It's entirely reasonable for taxpayers to ask what value they're getting for their money from the mostly unaccountable liberal bureaucratic education state. It's even more reasonable for parents to ask why educrats are bent on wholesale experimentation with their kids. But the 21st century learning zealots really don't want you to ask questions. They're the experts, and you aren't.