our education system stumbles into the future

It’s back to school time and education issues come to the fore with a provincial election in a few weeks. According to a local professor, the New Brunswick education system is too centralized — but it’s not just education. Addressing the problems of centralization is an issue with all established institutions as we shift from an industrial to a networked economy. First we might look at the underlying premises of the current system. According to SFU Professor Kieran Egan, in The Educated Mind, three premises compete for attention in our public education systems:

  1. education as socialization
  2. education as a quest for truth (Plato)
  3. education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)

Since no one premise can dominate without precluding the others, we continue to have conflict in our education system. When one dominates, then the others get less attention. We see this in initiatives like ‘no child left behind’ or the demise of music and physical education in the Canadian public school systems. There is no clear idea of what our education systems are trying to achieve, and we constantly go through ‘flavour of the year’ initiatives, like the early French immersion programme in New Brunswick. But none of these three approaches is appropriate for a modern society, as Egan explains:

“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.”

Public education has become all things to all people, and this conflict is clear in Egan’s book. You cannot socialize, seek the truth, and realize individual potential all at the same time — within a single, enclosed system. Our public education system was created to give equal access to all (a good thing) and to prepare workers for industrial jobs (a self-serving thing for the industrialists). Public education was embraced by reformers as well as factory owners. I call it a shotgun wedding.

The lack of agreement on what our education system should be is muddying the waters in our discussions about learning. When reduced to the basic process, learning is an individual and personal activity. But learning also has significant social aspects and can be helped or hindered in many ways. How we build systems to nurture, support, or coerce it, are the issues that we can address as a community.

While the industrialists would have preferred education as socialization and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth, we are stuck with a standardized curriculum that benefits few. In addition, the education system is in for some new competition. We may soon get invited to another shotgun wedding, this time between techno-utopians, with financial speculators as bridesmaids, and libertarians, who feel the state and teachers have screwed-up education. It will be education as socialization, but socialization to the dominant business paradigm. However, problems with any education system are mostly a result of the governance and economic environment in which it resides.

What can New Brunswick do?

  • Decentralize.
  • Allow for experimentation at the local level.
  • Empower teachers in a transparent manner so everyone can see what is happening.

Sadly, I think the province will continue to stumble into an increasingly complex future, for which its institutions are poorly prepared.


6 thoughts on “our education system stumbles into the future”

  1. Decentralization would probably work, but what type of decentralization is required? Hopefully not more power locally instead of the government level.

    Empowering teachers? Teachers are a big part of the current problem. A serious US study recommended that the teaching staff be composed of about 50% of people with teaching degrees and 50% of people who knew subject matter and were passionate about it. I have worked in the school system a while back and I found most teachers to be very uneducated almost to the point of being illiterates, and also to have very poor mastery of teaching science. We need more non-teachers in the classroom be it as knowledge and passion providers or observers.

    On the francophone side, the teachers have been calling the shots for many years. Our now retired assistant deputy minister was really good at convincing the Minister of Education to listen to the teachers. The final result was not very good.

    The NB schools focus too much on form, discipline and processes and are not result oriented. They also try to cover things that would be much better covered by other mechanisms.

    Our kids are getting educated by many sources. Schools are but one of them. My kids learned very little in school. They learned a lot more after school hours from books, TV, Internet, friends, just doing things. And they would have learned a lot more if they didn’t have to spend so much time in school and doing school homework.

    As long as NB schools think that they are the main provider of education, or should be, things won’t improve much.

    • I don’t see teachers as the problem, but rather the isolated classroom is. If the classroom is transparent, then teachers will be observable. With transparency, poor teaching will become evident to all.

  2. As someone who’s been involved in education governance for twelve years I couldn’t agree more with your presentation of the challenges and the solutions to them. The entrenched power system is centralized with big bureaucracy and big union battling for command and control. Though I’ve been invited to many forums where we’ve deliberated what our education system should be, the system continues to try to be all things to all people.

    Though we have a “local” governance model that should allow for parent and community engagement in innovation and support, the model has never been empowered – rather it has been used to maintain the status quo.

    The potential of public education to nurture and support personal learning, to embrace transparency and openness, and to be an investment in our collective future is what keeps me involved. But I grow increasingly frustrated with a system unwilling to embrace that potential.

  3. I am continually researching this area and have to agree with your overall perspective Harold. The core of any good learning system is good teachers with the freedom to interpret their learners need to focus on the development of the individual. Having now encountered a number of adult learners who have been home schooled, I would agree that the socialisation of learning is an important. Ensuring that our schools are well resourced and our teachers are well qualified is exactly what the Finish education system is based on and this is internationally recognised as a successful model.

  4. Also in “The Educated Mind”, Kieran Egan identifies 5 levels of understanding, with Ironic Thinking at the top.

    1. Somatic – (before language acquisition) the physical abilities of one’s own body are discovered, as are our emotions; somatic understanding includes the communicating activity that precedes the development of language; as the child grows and learns language, this kind of understanding survives in the way children “model their overall social structure in play”.

    2. Mythic – binary opposites (e.g. Tall/Short or Good/Evil), images, metaphor, and story-structure are prominent tools in pre-literate sense-making.

    3. Romantic – the limits of reality are discovered and rational thinking begins, connected with the development of literacy. Egan connects this stage with the desire to explore the limits of reality, an interest in the transcendent qualities of things, and “engagement with knowledge represented as a product of human emotions and intentions”

    4. Philosophic – the discovery of principles which underlie patterns and limits found in data; ordering knowledge into coherent general schemes.

    5. Ironic – it involves the “mental flexibility to recognize how inadequately flexible are our minds, and the languages we use, to the world we try to represent in them”; it therefore includes the ability to consider alternative philosophic explanations, and is characterized by a Socratic stance in the world.



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