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Friday, September 20, 2013

On Preparing Students for the 21st Century

Yesterday I attended a meeting organized by the Ontario Ministry of Education. The theme was From Great to Excellent: The Next Phase in Ontario's Education Strategy. The idea was to promote widespread consultation before the Ontario government releases its new plan for education reform next year.

I was attending on behalf of my friend Chris DiCarlo who had to be out of town. He (and I) are promoting the concept of critical thinking; specifically, the idea that it needs to be explicitly taught in a high school philosophy course.

The Minister of Education (Liz Sandals) and several of the senior members of her ministry were there. They told us that today's students are facing unprecedented changes and that the Ontario education system has to change in order to cope. They were mostly thinking about technological change and the possibility that today's students would have new types of jobs and careers.

I'm certain that we can improve our education system but I'm not sure it's helpful, or even correct, to focus on the idea that the next generation will have to cope with situations we never faced in the past. If we could show that our existing education system did a pretty good job of preparing students for change then maybe we should turn our attention to problems other than job training and technological innovation?

My grandparents were born in the late 1800s and went to school in the 1890s and the first decade of the 2Oth century. All of them were born on farms and two of them came from other countries where their families were barely scratching out a living as farmers on rented land. My Canadian grandparents went to school at a time when public schooling through grade 8 was just becoming widespread and one-room schools were being replaced by larger buildings. Most of that generation did not complete high school and very few went to university.

That generation coped with enormous economic and social change of the sort that none of us can imagine. One of my grandfathers was born into a family of serfs in Russia and ended up working as a steam engineer in a hospital in a Saskatchewan city. Rapid urbanization and technological change meant that millions of school children in Canada were born on farms but grew up to become car salesmen, telephone repairmen, insurance brokers, teachers, hospital nurses, department store sales clerks, secretaries, and lawyers. Some of these jobs didn't exist when they were born and most were not ever available to their parents.

Some of the men of that generation didn't get jobs like that. They died in trenches in Europe.

My parents grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. They coped with radio, automobiles, talking pictures, and airplanes. They lived through prohibition, gangsters, and the roaring twenties in the aftermath of the most destructive war in history. Then they survived the great depression. They graduated from high school and that was getting to be quite common. Some of that generation when to university ... a possibility that was just becoming available to the middle class. Most of them faced a very bleak future.

Then came World War II and the holocaust. If you think it's tough for children graduating today then imagine what it was like in 1910 or 1938.

My parents' generation became scientists, jet pilots, and astronauts. They built computers and learned how to program them. They launched satellites and created a global telecommunications network. They worked on atomic-powered ships and staffed nuclear power plants. They invented lasers. They discovered new drugs and created a huge pharmaceutical industry. They discovered the secret of life (DNA). They also created a gigantic finance industry and big business and the military-industrial complex. They are responsible for organizations like UNESCO and OXFAM as they reached out into the global community. They got jobs as social workers and psychiatrists. Huge numbers of them worked in government at jobs that didn't exist when they were born. That's how they coped with change. Back in 1938, very few of them could have imagined what kind of jobs they would have in 1970 or 1980 when they were 50 or 60 years old.

My parents' generation improved high schools and public schools. They build new universities and colleges and made it possible for millions of ordinary students to go to university (and graduate school and medical school) based only on merit and not on race, religion, or economic class.

My generation is the Baby Boomers. We went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. We grew up with technological innovations like television, air conditioners, computers, the birth control pill, transistor radios. cassette players, space flight. It was the time for rock-and-roll, Viet Nam, assassinations, and the conquest of smallpox and polio. The social changes included the civil rights movement in the USA, drugs, the peace movement, sexual freedom, the rise of feminism and McDonald's.

My friends ended up in jobs like building the world wide web, high speed computing for business, software design, venture capital for high tech companies, aerospace, hedge funds, managing government health insurance, and drug design as well as many "traditional" jobs like teachers, lawyers, accountants, and doctors. Back in 1964 when we graduated from high school, most of my friends could not have anticipated what jobs they would retire from in 2011. Our high school education prepared us for university and for all kinds of jobs that never existed when we were born.

My children are products of the 1980s and 1990s. They dealt with the widespread use of personal computers and the internet. They grew up with computer games, VCRs, laptops, CDs. mobile phones, credit cards, and Tim Hortons. They witnessed the gay rights movement, AIDS, terrorism, starvation in Africa, and genocide in Rwanda. Somehow they survived Michael Jackson, Madonna, New Kids on the Block, hip-hop, sex, drugs, Mike Harris,1 and rap.

Many people in my generation played on a global stage but my children's generation is the first truly global generation in Canada. A large percentage are working or have worked in different countries. They and many of their friends are currently employed in jobs that they never imagined when they graduated from high school in 1996. Some of them are data analysts working with companies like Google and Facebook. Some of them are creating computer games. Others are chefs making gluten-free pastries or managing wildlife in a National Park. There are science writers and makers of documentaries. One is a systems operator and one of them studies the internet as a university professor. I know someone, slightly older, who worked for a long time on internet security problems.

Their public school and high school education was perfectly fine for getting them into university and preparing them for all kinds of news jobs.

My grandchildren will be going to school in the 2010s and 2020s. I don't know what kind of change they will face but I don't see any reason to think that it's going to be any greater than the changes faced by me, my grandparents or my children. I'm pretty sure that we will see further decline in religion and the dismantling of the Roman Catholic Separate School Board in Ontario but, surprisingly, that's not the kind of change that was discussed at yesterday's meeting.

I really don't know why there was so much talk about the changes facing the current generation and how the education system needs to adapt. It was a belief that was widely shared by almost all the adults at the meeting and fervently embraced by all 20-30 high school students who were there. I think they were mostly thinking about social media (Twitter and Facebook) but I find it hard to imagine that such a change is more significant that ones previous generations lived through (e.g. radio, television, personal computers).

Some people talked about the high unemployment rate of today's high school graduates. They need to think about the 1930s if they want examples of what unemployment really means. Besides, there's nothing we can do to high school education that will fix that problem. But, if we try, there's lots we can do that will wreck the system for future generations.

A good "traditional" education with an emphasis on basic knowledge and critical thinking is probably the best way to prepare students for an uncertain future. It worked in the past—that's why we've seen so much change driven by those who graduated from those schools. If the world really is going to be different for the next generation then we should recognize that the change was brought about by the previous generations2 and we should be proud of the fact they received a good education.

1. Conservative Premier of Ontario in the 1990s. He tried to destroy the Ontario education system and very nearly succeeded.

2. In spite of what they might think, the internet and Facebook were not created last year by 14-year-olds. It was their parents who did it. Today's high school students are users, not innovators.


  1. Meh. The industry I work in (cell phones) did not exist when I graduated from university. Neither did the PCs I do most of my work and play on these days. Somehow, I'm coping.

    Learning how to learn is more important than any specific skill set. And probably always has been.

    If there's a single skill today's graduates need, it's how to make your own niche in a world where the great economic powers increasingly regard you as replaceable, interchangeable nothings.

    1. That's the same skill our generation needed and the same ones our children needed. You survived and so will they.

      The Ministry wants to change high school education to better prepare our grandchildren for the jobs of the future.

    2. You mean the bit about making your own niche? I mean that the corporate world has become noticeably nastier in the past couple of decades. My father, like many of those who entered the workforce immediately post-WWII, had a job for life with a full-benefits pension when he was done. My generation (late Boomers) has seen layoffs, and significantly less comfortable retirements (I will not on my own for dental or drugs when I quit). My kids? I dunno -- but they're not doing as well as I was at the same age. Basically, they'll have to be adaptable in a way I didn't need to be.

      None of which is to disagree with what I take to be your main point: that it's absurd to try and fine-tune today's K12 system for jobs that we can't possibly know anything about 20 years from now.

  2. I agree that fundamentals need to be emphasized and critical thinking is paramount. Hey, I graduated with a couple arts degrees from university and I make a living in IT doing a lot of analytical work that critical thinking learned through my liberal arts education afforded me. These are transferable skills. I often say the rest will take care of itself though few believe me.

  3. It's very odd that when politicians talk about addressing the bleak job prospects of the current generation, they cite the education system as the problem. That would make sense if we faced a situation in which there were abundant job vacancies that were not filled because there was a shortage of workers with the appropriate education. But my impression is that the opposite situation exists: We have large numbers of educated young people how are forced to take jobs below their level of training because appropriate jobs do not exist. So it seems to me it is the corporate and business world that needs to be reformed, not education.

  4. lutesuite - how exactly do we 'reform' the business world to create the jobs that all these grads are qualified for? Ultimately, business is driven by consumer demand, and hence the job market is driven by consumer demand. The highest rates of unemployment among college/university grads is among those who graduate in the arts and some social sciences, while things are much better for STEM & trade-school graduates. That reflects the modern job market & economy - i.e. one which is driven by technology, infrastructure & resources. How do you propose we change that, to benefit those who choose an education path (e.g. political sciences) with little practical applicability to the current economy?

    Getting an education in something that interests you is great - but there is no guarantee that a relevant job will be available when you graduate. Picking an education to fill a modern career niche is also risky - there is no guarantee that it'll still be a needed job in 10 or 20 years. The best we can do is educate as well as we can, try to create people with the skills to adapt to an ever-changing workforce, and then hope for the best. The question, described in the post, is how do we best reform the educational system to create people with these skills.