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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Have A Little Faith in Education

Two trends emerging in the Ontario zeitgeist:

1)      A realization that inefficiencies (duplication, gaps and overlaps) are costing far more than we can afford

2)      The rising primacy of religion as a central topic of conversation with all that entails; morality, sex education, church vs state, etc.

At first blush, it looks like these two things are at odds with each other.  Differing religions have differing views; both are not infrequently at odds with secular views (Gay/Straight alliances being a great example of this).  There is no way to have one school system that allows for all children to be exposed to the niche lessons of their faith, particularly as it influences various other subject matter (science and evolution being the classic example).

More than that, there are structural issues.  Attempts to synergize transportation between Public and Private boards has often been met with heavy resistance, in many cases because, ironically, the well-organized Catholic Boards lacked faith in their Public partners being able to up their game in terms of logistics.

Regardless of the politics, the facts are pretty clear; schooling is costly, there are less kids being supported by increasingly empty, aging facilities.  In some schools, taxpayer dollars are going to heat dead space, while in other schools, cockroach infestation problems go unchecked.  It’s unsustainable.

Due to an ideological, political divide, we are facing resource duplication, gaps and overlaps that are causing our fiscal woes.

Frank Klees’ suggestion to fund religious schools is not the answer – in fact, such a move not only increases the problems outlined above, it creates less understanding and more cause for suspicion and recrimination between faith groups.  With more school spaces competing for resources, students, duplicating infrastructure and operational costs, this approach would frankly increase the occurrence of duplication, gaps and overlaps we already have.  Beyond this, the religious-community focus of siloed education would isolate kids from each other, creating a social divide in terms of understanding and exposure.  Diversity is a strength, like learning in general - why would we want to take tools away from our kids and leave them ill-prepared to function in a diversified society and economy post-education?

The answer isn’t to completely remove religion from schools, either.  Remember, we want a division between church and state, but we also want our youth to be as knowledgeable, prepared and resilient as possible – all religions have something to offer on this score.

The answer is to reduce the silos of disparate school boards and reduce the inefficiency problem by bringing religion into school more broadly.  Ludicrous, you might say!  It can’t be done! 

Yes it can; here’s how.

1)      Include an overview of religion in the public curriculum

Like it or not, religion has had an integral role in the history of society.  If you look at the archaeological record, there's a strong correlation between the growth of religion and the development of civilization (as evidenced by some exciting work being done in Turkey).  Why not teach this to our youth?  We don't need to provide firm conclusions; just provide them with facts and empower them to put those facts together from their own perspective.  Call it critical thinking.

You wouldn’t need to have dedicated religious classes in the elementary system; just little tidbits here and there to build awareness, same as we do with numeracy, literacy, etc.  Plant the seeds of awareness, give the odd drink of knowledge, let youth grow as they may.  With encouragement and opportunity, they will seek out the influences that help them individually understand themselves and the world in a way that prepares them to be engaged, resilient, collaborative adults (Google: Social Emotional Learning).

A distinction would need to be made between a faith, like Christianity or Islam or Buddhism, and a faith’s institution.  This is not as hard to do as people think; democracy was first introduced in Greece on the back of social slavery; slavery plays as much a role in the history of the US as does ethnic genocide, which Canada has equally been guilty of.  We don’t discard the philosophy of democracy, though – we continually try to embody it more fully.  The history of religion would cover the human need to understand the world through a unifying lens and carry forward the trajectory of religion, who were the people that shaped it in the public discourse for better or for worse, subjectively.  To some degree the history curriculum does this already.

Separate from the history piece would be the social piece – the mechanics of religious philosophy (in basic terms) and the role of religion in society today; advocacy, charity, etc.  Religious leaders of different faiths would be invited to schools as guest lecturers; they could offer seminars on what their faith means to them.  Other guest lecturers can be invited on other topics related to the broader curriculum; politicians, scientists, etc.  Again, this happens already – the trick is to coordinate it more efficiently, as can only be done through collaboration.  Guest-lectured seminars could coincide with a teacher’s prep-time, maximizing efficiency of time.

In high school, there may be religious courses available, based on interest of students.  When I was in high school, I wanted to learn Spanish; I built up a network of support, identified a teacher and pitched the class to the administration.  Because I did my homework and brought partners and a ready-made-plan to the table, I was able to make it happen.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t encourage such active participation in all youth (which is why I advocate youth participation in Parliament in general).  A couple ideas?  The role of the Inquisition in the colonizing of the New World; the role of faith in the Civil Rights movement; the influence of Islamic belief on the development of remarkable art, architecture and algebra in the Muslim/Western world; the commonalities between world religions through symbols like the tree of life. 

When you really dig into it, religion offers an important window into history and offers some really cool concepts of common philosophical bonds that connect us all as human beings.

2)      Expand After-School Programs to include Religion

If the mountain won’t go to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. 

There are two factors at play here – one, society keeps people busy; the social pressures parents are subjected to as they try to balance work/life pressures are enormous.  After-school programs can be pretty expensive, hard to reach, but the alternative of kids sitting at home glued to the tube isn’t appealing, either.  A fleshing out of existing after-school programming could turn schools into safe, monitored, multi-faceted after-school activity centres (some schools, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, are already there).  Two – the busy-ness of society is increasingly taking time away from the things that ground us, including religion.  There is definite value in feeling part of something larger than oneself and finding meaning beyond selfish interest in one’s work (that’s why I got into politics).

Picture a school, once the classes are out, turning daily into a trade fair of ideas; kids can walk around and listen to expert-led discussions about a broad variety of topics, or sign up to participate fully in a seminar, learning more about a subject that engages them.  It would be a perfect, safe and monitored opportunity for youth to begin finding themselves and their interests through exposure to ideas, sport, etc.  These after-school idea fairs would make better, long-term use of school facilities and could be monetized by sponsorship from charity and for-private entities like book sellers or sports associations, as would be the case at any trade-fair.

Religious institutions would be able to represent themselves, just as could any other stakeholder.  A child who has been exposed to a given faith at home, been interested by what they learned in class or who has a friend who practices would have a chance to learn more.  Equally, each youth would have the opportunity to sit in and engage with real pastors/preachers/imams/etc. of multiple faiths, in person, helping them develop informed opinions about religion and their own belief systems moving forward.

This kills several birds with one stone – it takes pressure off parents worried about their kids safety and engagement post-school; it provides inroads for children to pick up new ideas and develop critical thinking and time management skills (no pressure to attend, but if you want to, you have to allocate your time accordingly), gives opportunity for sports, increases opportunity for religion to engage with youth, allows the various presenters an opportunity to network, fostering innovative potentials, etc.  If less people are travelling less distances all at the same time, this could even have a positive impact on gridlock.  Tell me that's not a win.

3)      Unify the Separate and Public School Boards

This is an idea as inevitable as it is controversial.  As a parent, I can understand this clearly; I only want what’s best for my son and am fully aware that there are viewpoints out there that contrast with my own, sometimes radically.  I’m not trying to raise my son to be my clone, though – he’s his own person and his world will be completely different than mine.  I want to expose him to as much as possible; each experience is a teaching lesson that helps me help my son develop into a critical thinker who knows how to work with people in a way that teases the best out of him and his peers.  Parenting isn't about control - it's about empowerment.  So should be education in general (or government, for that matter).

I look at the concerns being raised about Gay/Straight Alliances or sexual education; the fear is that something you don’t agree with could seep into the mix, that your kids might be exposed to something you might not like, something that could be harmful.  Whether it happens in school or out in the real world (or worse, on the Internet), it’s gonna happen anyway – isn’t it better to ensure your kids build up their knowledge, critical thinking/morality and resiliency as early as possible?  I think this is something most parents would agree with, so long as they had comfort that their own perspective was part of the mix – which it would be through a combination of history classes that infuse religion and social science classes that infuse religion, religious seminars as options of after-school programming and, of course, the parents’ own influence.  Besides, who's to say that a network of critical-thinking youth exposed to conflicts of view between church and state/religion and science won't find ways to square the circles more myelinated adults have had such difficulty with? 

To make this idea more palatable, I would suggest this – incorporate the Public System into the Separate System, rather than the reverse that everyone thinks will happen.  I believe that avoids constitutional issues, making it an easier process to pursue.   There would have to be some curriculum tweaks, sacrifices made on both ends, as happens in any relationship (again, good training for the real world), but the fact that Separate Boards already have familiarity with religion in the school would make it easier for them to take the lead.

Fundamentally, nothing would change; kids would be exposed to the same things they are now; there would just be a few additions.  As they got older, they would still have the same opportunities for specialization that they do now; they will just have a greater knowledge base from which to make their choices from.

Logistically, lots would change, all for the better.  Parents would no longer need to pass by the school closest to them (because it’s Public/Private) to get to one in their Board.  The infrastructure/student-to-teacher ratio burden would be eased (saving the Premier from having to backtrack on increasing classroom sizes).  The costs from duplication, gaps and overlaps would significantly decrease, allowing for increased funding to go to programming, infrastructure, technology, etc.  The additional revenue from Knowledge Fair sponsors would offset costs.  Best of all, kids would have increased exposure to knowledge and opportunity, and teachers from all spheres would have more raw material and time to work with.

Is this a bold idea?  Certainly, but it tries to balance the interests of the various parties, including the students.  Are there flaws?  Always are; there are flaws with the system now, which is why new ideas are called for.  Will it be challenging?  Of course it will – and leadership would be tested to find the balance and maintain the objective.  Still, though, I have faith that we can build a more efficient, mutually beneficial and long-term practical system if we work at it together.

1 comment:

  1. If you've read this, you should also read:

    "We, as a society, need to stop having piecemeal discussions about issues that are much large in scope." - Paulo Senra