In a demographically challenged and technology fuelled world, where talent and ideas are the new wealth of nations, are we adequately focused on the role of a strong public education for our future success in Canada?
The concern that we are not was the impetus for a recent education summit, organized by the Learning Partnership, where leaders from business, government, public policy and education came together to contemplate what public education 2.0 needs to look like, and how we might get there from here.
The good news is that Canada is doing well in the basics: Canadian students' reading, mathematics and science test scores were sixth, 10th and eighth, respectively, among OECD countries in the most recent Program for International Student Assessment. By comparison, U.S. students had respective rankings of 31st, 23rd and 17th.
But to succeed in this new world, we need a public education system that meets future needs as well as today's basics, and is adaptive to the changing requirements of workers, employers, students and citizens – one that creates opportunity and mobility for our students in a fiercely competitive, global knowledge economy; one that incorporates the information revolution into the classroom; one that engages students in citizenship; one that's managed for results.
Today, we see a growing mismatch between "people without jobs" and "jobs without people," and we simply have to do better at aligning the two. The public education system is still organized around separate K-to-12 systems, community college systems and university systems, but the student is really engaged in a "K-to-work" journey.
Can we not better co-ordinate the primary, secondary and tertiary education systems, putting the emphasis on what it will take for students to succeed in the changing workplace? Can we not better provide information for students and their parents while they're still in the K-to-12 system about postsecondary educational and career options? Ontario's Jobs and Prosperity Council, for example, called for the availability of up-to-date information on labour-market opportunities, working with the business, government and education sectors, and make this accessible to K-to-12 students and their parents to help inform decisions earlier and better about career choices.
Tomorrow, the world of massively online open courses (MOOCs) will be at the gates of the traditional education system, whether it's a high school or a university. Just imagine if we employed Canada's best teachers to deliver high-school math, physics, chemistry and languages through these MOOCs that use sophisticated, interactive technologies that are already available in electronic games and demonstrate the capacity to captivate kids.
In the classroom, teachers would be freed up to lead interactive study groups and guide students in using online tools. More learning will take place in this type of "flipped classroom." Engaged students and innovative teaching will mean lower high-school dropout rates, and students better prepared for college, university or trades training.
The education system has to focus on more than the basics: There's an emerging imperative to teach higher-order skills as well. These are the competencies our children will need to succeed in a challenging world. These "soft skills," such as entrepreneurship, creativity and teamwork, have a hard edge – they're increasingly the skills that help our graduates become entrepreneurs, launch start-ups or thrive in fast-growing small and medium enterprises. They shape the creative and innovative attitudes that will make our workers and firms more productive and competitive.
What about the limited role for experiential learning in today's education system? The combination of academic learning and practical workplace experience gives students an opportunity to apply their knowledge, build new skill sets, experiment with possible career options and mature. We need to motivate students and put them at the centre of a broader view of what constitutes learning. Experiential learning must have a greater priority in how we think about educating students, according to the Jobs and Prosperity Council, and we must challenge the private sector to increase the number of experiential learning opportunities for both high-school and postsecondary students by providing more co-ops, work placements and apprenticeships.
And then there's management. A successful education system has to be outcomes-based, managed for quantifiable results, and productive in how it uses its resources. Front-line managers have to be empowered just as in any other sector, and innovation encouraged. And the production cycle, the school year in educational nomenclature, has to reflect changing realities. The 10-week summer break needs to be reconsidered. Year-round schooling can improve learning retention, particularly for children from single-parent and lower-income families who may not have many development opportunities during extended summer vacations. A trimester school calendar should be considered for the K-to-12 system.
We have a good public education system in Canada. The question is whether we're willing to challenge the status quo, to be innovators in delivering public education 2.0, and go from good to great. The payoff to future generations would be immense.
Kevin Lynch is vice-chair of BMO Financial Group.