fixing a plane in flight

The following opinion article was published this weekend in local newspapers — Telegraph JournalTimes & Transcript, & Daily Gleaner.

Education changes: ‘like fixing a plane in mid-flight’

By Harold Jarche

Politicians constantly tinker with our public education system because it is designed without a solid foundation, just a series of cobbled-together initiatives based on whatever was in vogue at the time.

I participated in my first protest at the legislature in 2008 when the government of the day cancelled the early immersion program. Gaining a second language is one of the few useful skills that students can develop and keep long after they have memorized and forgotten useless data for most academic subjects. I did not want to lose this potential for our children.

If you do not speak more than one language it is difficult to understand the richness of thought that bilingualism brings. It is not another subject area of expertise. It is a different way of understanding the world.

The current provincial government is making a sweeping change to French immersion in the English language school system, replacing it with what amounts to French taught as just another subject.

I learned French as an adult and have worked in the language in Canada, Europe, and Africa. Our children were in the province’s early French immersion program and both speak passable French. So I have seen the success of the existing program, even though it has areas that could be improved, such as having only native speakers as teachers. When there is only one person to model on, it must be a native speaker, as the Berlitz school understands.

Moving away from intense use of French for about 40 per cent of anglophone students to less French for all students may seem more democratic, but it misses the objectives of bilingualism. Instead of almost half of students with the potential to work or serve in French we will have almost all graduates without a mastery of French. How much will they remember after graduation?

An important moment in my learning of French – after 13 weeks of immersion in Québec, and one hour per day at university for four years – was when I started dreaming in the language while working in a francophone military unit. I hope many anglophone students can have a similar experience some day.

Real learning or language acquisition happens below the level of conscious activity. This is why immersion can be highly efficient – learners can focus on doing other useful tasks without explicit reference to the target language. It’s a true case of learning by doing. I started dreaming in French only when I was working in French.

So why is the government changing this major educational policy? First of all, we cannot lay all the blame on this government, though this new approach is being ramrodded down the system with little thought. It is also doubtful there will be enough teachers available. It is highly unlikely there are enough native French speakers in the anglophone system.

This initiative seems to be driven by a need for the government to be seen taking action, under the guise of opening French ‘immersion’ to all students. But in the name of equality we will likely get many fewer graduates able to actually work in their second language. This will appease all those who see bilingualism as an elite prerogative used against the majority anglophone population.

There is no foundational methodology upon which public education is based. One cannot go back to first principles to see if a new approach adheres to the tenets of education because there are none. Education has always been whatever the experts think should be taught.
Is education as socialization our priority? What about education as a quest for truth, or education as the realization of individual potential? It cannot be all three. Public education has become all things to all people and that makes it an excellent political football.

The minister of education is using his powers to change the curriculum and one group of parents feels bullied — those who may be perceived as having their children in the ‘elite’ early immersion program. Others, who may have felt threatened by the perceived dominance of French culture and language feel more empowered. No matter what happens, someone will feel like the victim at the end of this.

Basically, standardized curriculum is the confinement of the human experience. It is a blunt tool that winds up bullying someone. It’s time to throw this tool away, but first we have to ask why we’re using it in the first place. That is the job of our professional educators who should be providing some leadership.

Nobody can take the government to task on first principles when they do not exist. Much of the blame lies with the professionals managing the system. They have handed over this cobbled-together system to each successive government to do their political whims. And so it will continue.

In the short term, this change will be a challenge for teachers. While what are called ‘core’ subjects will be in English, a new curriculum will have to be developed for the French language activities. How much time and assistance will teachers get? How will parents understand the new system and learn how best to help their children? There is no other program like this so schools cannot even find existing good practices to pass on. They will all have to learn and work at the same. It will be like repairing a plane in mid flight.

I do not think this new approach to French language instruction will be a success but I am also certain that future governments will continue to tinker with public education. The losers will be students graduating without the richness of a second language.

Previous blog posts on the topic of public education

First, we kill the curriculum (2008)

Immersed in New Brunswick (2008)

Learning in NB (2012)

Our education system stumbles into the future (2014)

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)