While We Await the Minister of Education’s Proposals (Voir)

By Normand Baillargeon
Originally published on: January 8, 2015
See original French version here: http://voir.ca/chroniques/prise-de-tete/2015/01/08/en-attendant-les-propositions-du-ministre-de-leducation/

If we are to believe Philippe Couillard’s statement, our Minister of Education, Yves Bolduc, will soon be presenting an educational platform that will guide the Quebec Liberals for the coming years.

To propose a vision of education is admittedly a tall order. With that in mind, I will humbly use the following few lines at my disposal to outline four ideas that are simple yet crucial, in my opinion, and that I would like to find inscribed in the minster’s vision.

Education and curriculum

The first notion is that it would appear that we find ourselves in a historical moment in which the very goal of education is changing. One of the principle aspects of education is that it is more and more externally defined at the whims of the economy’s needs, and answers less and less to its own internal standards.

What is falling behind, in step with the erosion of those standards, is an ideal for education that is set apart from short-term utilitarianism and that strives towards freedom from ignorance, from prejudice, from the here and now. Such an ideal grants access to knowledge that frees the beholder, which also is the means towards a deep political bond. I would like a vision of education that reaffirms the ideals of an education that the tradition interestingly qualified as being… liberal, as it sought to liberate.

The second idea that I would like to put forward is intimately linked to the first. I would like for us to move away from this notion of competency that has been dizzily adopted and placed at the core of our understanding of education. For that, we would need to elaborate a school curriculum based on progressive knowledge acquisition: we would clearly state what your child should be learning in first grade, in second grade, etc. We would therefore finally have, for instance, a list of works, of concepts, of trends that everyone studying French in secondary school would be studying.

Perhaps we would consequently witness throughout the school system a massive resurgence of our precious books. Which ones? In order to help you guess, this is how they are spoken of in the educational sphere: « A physician declares that he would give up x years of his life in order to read a certain book, if only for a few hours, but that it will only be published in 2100 ». Know the answer? Congratulations. It is indeed a textbook. There are some, I know, but we would need more of them, and they would need to be created according to programs such as the ones on my wish list.

Enlightened and informed decisions

Education is not quantum physics, and what we know about this highly complex human practice is far from characterized by the same precision or certainty as is physics.

Summarily, I would say that the knowledge base of education includes essentially two things.

Firstly, it rests upon the goals that we’ve entrusted to education, upon a vision of what it should be: the articulation and defence os these goals is the task of philosophy, and I’ve incidentally given my own proposal for a liberal education above (as well as in many other texts).

But the knowledge base of education also encompasses what we learn from credible empirical research. I say credible because studies that are questionable and even downright unbelievable are still being conducted on the subject of education. But credible studies have happened and their results have also pointed very clearly in a specific direction.

I admit that what follows is obvious. In order to propose a vision and practice of education, we should take what is to be learned from credible studies very seriously. That can seem banal and self-evident; alas, it is not the case in education.

I can affirm that, in its first iteration, educational reform proposed practices that were contrary to the findings and recommendations of credible research. I can also affirm, without fear of being challenged, that in the realm of education, pseudo-scientific, even esoteric, practices are still encouraged, that they are being taught in universities and that they are recommended to teachers by school commissions, sometimes at a high price. This must absolutely end.

The news provides me with the opportunity to draw attention to one of the unfounded notions that is often championed in education: smaller class sizes. The fact is that studies do not, however, point to that alone providing a panacea. Reason being that, all things considered, if you continue to teach a smaller group of students in the same way, the results still will not be different. (Note that I am not speaking of increasing the number of students with difficulties, which is a whole other story…)

I will bet that we would notice substantial improvements in education if only we accepted to take what we can learn from credible studies seriously and if we proposed to instate a model for education that is based on the burden of proof, such as is the case in medicine.

Equal opportunity schooling

We are not only living in an era ruled by the imperialism of economic logic: it is also marked by a significant increase in inequalities. That has a dastardly impact upon an ideal that has long been anchored at the heart of any liberal vision of education: that of equal opportunity.

And yet between private schools, international programs, course fees and the increasing cost of higher education, our school system is not well equipped to ensure the principle of equal opportunity. It is reasonable to think that some policies that we’ve put forth have not only hindered it, they have increased the inequality of opportunities. Such is the case when children are asked to apply skills at school that schools no longer teach: children from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds possess these skills before even starting school, whereas other children are found lacking.

We can imagine all kinds of means to give life to this ideal and I have no particular proposal to put forth here, except to say that a well-defined, tried and tested curriculum that is systematically and progressively imparted is part of the solution.

Regardless, I believe that we will learn something about our society through what Bolduc’s plan, if it can be referred to as such, is to propose with regards to the preferential treatment of children from underprivileged areas.

***

Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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