Michael Zwaagstra: Education Reforms in Canada Should Focus on Substance

July 29, 2019 Updated: July 29, 2019

Several provincial governments are trying to improve their K-12 education systems. British Columbia recently embarked on a curriculum transformation, Ontario plans to mandate online courses for high school students, and Alberta was about to begin field testing a new K-4 curriculum until the newly elected government put it on hold.

One thing these reforms have in common is the notion that the rapid advancement of technology requires a new approach to education. The B.C. government’s website states that the school system was “modelled on the very different circumstances of an earlier century—when change was much more gradual than today.” It goes on to say that rapid societal changes mean that education must “enable students in their own learning and support increasingly personalized learning.”

This was also the theme underlying the previous Alberta government’s “Inspiring Education” initiative that breathlessly proclaimed that schools must move away from the “industrial model,” become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.” Former Ontario education minister Lisa Thompson similarly defended her government’s plans for mandatory online learning as “embracing technology for good.”

However, while technology has changed, there is nothing new about any of these reforms. One hundred years ago, well-known American professor William Heard Kilpatrick pushed for similar reforms by arguing that “education is changing now more than ever before.” Because the world was changing so rapidly, Kilpatrick wanted schools to focus on the “educative process” rather than on specific factual knowledge that would soon be outdated.

In 1918, Kilpatrick wrote “The Project Method,” which appeared in the “Teachers College Record”, one of education’s foremost scholarly journals. He suggested that the school day should be centred on projects that are of interest to students (such as kite building), since these are “purposeful acts in the educative process.”

This article remains widely available on the internet. Anyone who takes the time to read it cannot help but see how closely it resembles the “cutting edge” education reforms taking place today in B.C., Alberta, and Ontario.

The ongoing influence of Kilpatrick’s ideas stems from his long career at Teachers College, Columbia University, the premiere teacher training institution in North America. As education historian Diane Ravitch documents in her 2000 book “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms,” Kilpatrick was a dynamic professor who influenced thousands of students, many of whom went on to become education professors themselves.

Kilpatrick was a disciple of progressive education reformer John Dewey and became a leading figure in the American progressive education movement. He taught for decades at Teachers College and outlived most of his ideological opponents. As a result, his progressive ideas took hold in education colleges throughout the world and remain dominant today. In fact, educational administrators are still relying on Kilpatrick’s mistaken ideas about teaching and learning.

The Alberta government’s recent decision to pause the implementation of its new curricula is a positive—not a negative—development. Hopefully, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange looks beyond the advice she is likely to receive from the Alberta Teachers’ Association, education consultants, professors of education, and school superintendents, most of whom remain under the sway of Kilpatrick’s wrong-headed progressive philosophy. Watch the British political satire “Yes Minister” to see the type of passive resistance LaGrange is likely to encounter from her own department officials if she strays too far from the progressive education party line.

Meanwhile, the Manitoba government is poised to embark on its own education reforms. Earlier this year, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen appointed an education review commission that was tasked with reviewing the K-12 public education system and making recommendations early next year. The commission recently completed an extensive series of public hearings, which included receiving more than 15,000 written submissions from Manitobans.

Fortunately, none of the commissioners are education professors, teacher union officials, superintendents, or education consultants. Even better, one of the co-chairs is a former education minister, who, back in the 1990s, implemented provincial standardized testing despite fierce opposition from the educational establishment. Hopefully, this means that the commission is prepared to look beyond William Heard Kilpatrick’s failed progressive ideas.

It would be a refreshing change if the commissioners jettisoned worn-out phrases such as the need to “prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist” and instead focused on matters of substance. It would help students (and their parents) if clear and sequential subject-specific content was in all the provincial curricula from K to grade 12, if province-wide standardized testing was done at multiple grade levels, and if school administrators promoted effective teaching methods such as direct instruction. Such changes would improve K-12 education in any province.

In his 2011 book, “Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning,” Mike Schmoker points out that far too many school boards and governments focus on superficial reforms such as integrating technology in the classroom. Instead, he argues for the importance of a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every subject. Not only will these have a measurable impact on academic achievement, they will not cost any additional money. In fact, this focus will surely save money.

Let’s hope that when provincial governments embark on future education reforms, they focus on substance rather than style. Canadian students deserve nothing less.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”