In Light of International Success, Why Settle for “The Basics”? - By Tom Boland

Canada has a world class education system, ranking in the top end of many international competitions for many years. PISA is a world-wide study organized and managed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The (PISA) assessment is designed by education experts from around the world. The countries that participate do so voluntarily. The schools are carefully selected and the students tested are randomly chosen. The assessment measures the academic comprehension of 15-year-old students in three subject areas: math, science and reading. More recently, it has also developed ways to assess more contemporary topics like financial literacy and collaborative problem-solving.

In the survey, the students are not asked to recall facts, figures, dates or names, or answer math equations. Rather, the goal of the test is to assess whether or not the students can apply what they learn in school to real-life situations by using their knowledge and reasoning skills. The intention is to see if students can integrate what they have learned and solve realistic problems. To get a sense of the scope of this test, in the 2015 survey over 500,000 students participated from 72 countries. This is a huge sample of teens from all over the world. In the most recent assessment done in 2015, Canada ranks the highest among all English-speaking countries and 6th overall. Canada placed 2nd in reading, 7th in science, and 10th in math.”

It’s no surprise then that Canadian curriculum and pedagogy is respected worldwide and taught in many international schools around the globe. Recently, I was hired by Maple Bears Global Schools to train foreign educators in Canadian curriculum and pedagogy in countries like Singapore, Brazil, and India (among others). Maple Bear alone has over 300 schools in 16 countries where Canadian educators support local educators to deliver Canadian-based education. What is a surprise, however, is that despite such a solid track record of success, specific regions within Canada would embark upon radical change in educational practice, supposedly intended to develop an education that works for our own children.

Unfortunately, too often such attempts at change are motivated by things other than research and evidenced-based best practice. To be clear, sometimes change is motivated purely by the political will of the day, using hyperbolic and misleading hype to create false concerns and misunderstandings among parents and other stakeholders in education. Credible statistics and data can be misrepresented and twisted in an attempt to create alarm. In fact, these tactics are often less related to improving educational outcomes than they are related to supporting other political agendas. Sadly, such practice results in putting the will of politicians ahead of years of research by experts in various fields of education, and are often at the expense of overall student success. 

As an example, recently the province of Ontario announced major changes to what they themselves referred to as a “world class education system”, causing one to perhaps wonder why they would want to impose such change on something that is already “world-class” by their own definition. Part of the reasoning becomes apparent when one reads a tweet, published by the province’s Premier, which misinterprets the provinces EQOA data, stating that “half of Ontario grade 6 and were unable to pass a basic math test”. The data he was referring to came from 2018 EQAO results and in fact referred to students who scored less than 70%. Most would agree that there’s a considerable difference between PASSING and scoring above 70%.

If the Premier himself misrepresents such data publicly, it’s understandable that parents would be confused as well, and that students themselves would be both demotivated and insulted by the Premier’s remarks. Likewise, when the Minister responsible for education first calls the provinces’s education system “world class”, and then, in the same announcement, calls for urgent change to ensure a world class education system that “... works for you”, it’s not surprising that her message would cause concern and her actual motives would be suspect. What’s seems unclear is why she would want to cause such concern and suggest such urgent change in the face of such global success?

Unfortunately, when such tactics are employed, often the most important and fundamental aspects of a successful education system are overlooked. To ensure that we are in fact getting it right, perhaps we need to reflect on what our ultimate goals as educators should be — the actual purpose of education. Is it to simply deliver an academic curriculum? Or is it more? In The Third Path, A Relationship-Based Approach to Well-being and Achievement,  authors Tranter, Carson and Boland propose that our ultimate purpose as educators is that of providing a safe environment where children can develop and grow in healthy ways, learning to communicate, to read and write and develop number sense, and to use such life skills to problem-solve and to ultimately contribute to a constantly evolving world around them.

If we subscribe to this richer philosophy, then we begin to envision an education system that takes the whole child into account — physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually. The Third Path suggests that such a system is built on nurturing a hierarchical set of conditions that support learning and development, namely, “safety, belonging, regulation, positivity, engagement, identity, mastery and meaning”. Tranter et al argue that each of these conditions is best nurtured through the building and sustaining of meaningful, genuine and purposeful relationships, and that student success at school is directly proportional to the quality of the relationships that surround and support them. 

With respect to individual curriculum areas (math, for example), it stands to reason that decades of research into best practice, and years of scoring at or near the top of international competitions, would suggest that Canadian educators are getting it right. This author suggests that combining those evidenced-based, best curriculum practices, with an intentional and purposeful focus on relationship, is the best way to support all students, including those who are currently struggling or underachieving, (far more likely due to personal circumstances than to less-than-optimal teaching practice). Such thinking suggests that it’s less than ideal to consider reforming our approaches to teaching math. Why settle for “going back to the basics”, when we can continue to provide a world-class program, while at the same time meet the very diverse needs of a whole country of learners? 

It remains my hope that all Canadian educators will continue on a journey of lifelong learning and that they’ll embed their professional learning, expertise and experience into a program that supports ALL children to learn, to grow and to develop in safe learning environments. Politicians have a job to do; educators have a job to do. Hopefully we can all support each other in the interests of children for generations to come. 

References: 

Doug Ford @fordnation

“Under the Liberals, math scores declined so badly that half of Ontario's grade six students can't pass a basic math test. That's completely unacceptable. We're going to scrap their failed Discovery Math curriculum to get our students back to basics. #OntEd #onpoli”

Tranter, D., Carson, L. & Boland, T. (2018). The third path: A relationship-based approach to student well-being and achievement. Nelson. Toronto: ON.

Tom Boland is an elementary school teacher, a consultant and an author. He has worked as a Student Achievement Officer for the Ontario Ministry of Education. He is a founding director of the Centre for Relationship-Based Education. 

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