Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Delivering Educational Excellence Part 1

Director of Education, Toronto Board of Education

I want to speak about three things:

  • The general conditions and challenges of public education and lifelong learning.
  • What research has been done and what our teachers know from their observation and reflective practice about what really does make effective schools.
  • Some of the things we've been told in a recent survey of our students who are considered to be most at risk – our students from the inner city.

It is, indeed, a challenging time to deliver, in partnership with parents, excellence and equity in our public education system.

In Toronto, we have a budget of $650 million. That seems like an enormous amount of money, but only $88 million of it represents our operating budget. The rest is committed to the paying of salaries and benefits.

Given that we get no provincial grants, whatsoever, we are in a unique position when we asked to look at the budget and return to the province monies we never received. But, I suppose in times like these, what we must be mindful of is that when the watering hole shrinks the animals look at each other differently.

We have 75,000 day school pupils and 250,000 people studying through our continuing education programs in over 160 sites and we provide instruction in 38 languages.

There is no question that we need to continually improve our schools and renew our curriculum and to reflect on the challenges of the global economy in the technological age and the ever-increasing diversity and richness of our student population.

The old basics are a given and we are moving, in my view not quickly enough, beyond them. While instruction in science, math, social science, technology in all areas, reading and writing must be daily fare, so are the moral imperatives of educating about conflict resolution, political involvement as citizens, aids prevention, parenting, the environment, racism, sexism, homophobia and the list goes on.

It is now perceived orthodoxy that the future means participation in a technologically-based and interdependent world economy. Our students will reach maturity in a world of the interconnections and interdependencies that the information age provides – a truly global village.

Contemporary schooling faces a real dilemma: we find ourselves being expected to meet, in constantly changing conditions, social, economic and intellectual expectations. But, the basic structure and assumptions of our schools are still rooted in the industrial society, while our social environment is increasingly shaped by the information age.

If we once worried that students lacked information, or were ignorant, we now face the frightening possibility of them being overwhelmed by too much data. The challenge for our schools is to stress the vital importance of personal meaning and to help students learn to access, transform and organize that information to function freely and collaboratively.

Schools are part of a broad network of agents of transformation which include the family, the neighbourhood, the mass media and society-at-large. They are far more than mere conduits leading from the shelter of the family (which, in many children's lives, isn't very sheltering) to the demands of the workplace.

Parents are at the cutting edge of their children's competence. Parents know, more than anyone else, about how their children are progressing and what their children know. Our task is to connect that body of knowledge, insight and information to the body of knowledge the teacher has in the classroom. We know categorically and without any doubt that children do much better when their parents are actively involved in their education. Reading to children and problem solving with them is vitally important. A strong partnership between home and school provides security for children and enhances their potential.

In Toronto, through the local schools and through centralized parent advisory groups, we involve parents in wide-ranging decisions from curriculum initiatives to staffing allocations.

By the time our current students graduate, over half the workforce will be women and we will have a much wider range of ethnocultural diversity throughout the country. We know that by the year 2000 almost 70 per cent of Toronto's students will come from homes where the first language is not English. Right now it's 40 per cent.

As we would all acknowledge, learning is far beyond what is in textbooks. The real dilemmas of our world must be explored with our students if they are to emerge as responsible, contributing adults in our society. So we must look at the issues of the environment, the question of global confrontation and questions of poverty and racism and their impact, so that our students will be prepared for a broadly-based contribution to our society and its evolution in a new age.

The new basics of flexibility, problem-solving and team work (networking) are the keys to coping with massive and unrelenting change. We are in an era in which people will change jobs more often and skill sets several times. Current predictions are that pupils now in elementary school will be involved in six different careers by their 40th birthday.

We acknowledge that lifelong learning must be a reality for all of us.

In the restructuring now under way, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, except to a limited extent in the service sector, are virtually being eliminated. The new economy is based on the mastery of advanced technology, especially information technology, and will be characterized by rapid change.

The only decent jobs the economy will provide are those which will require workers to continually learn and to adapt to new needs and conditions.

In Toronto, we cope with another sobering statistic: one in every five children in elementary school needs some kind of psychological intervention. Schools are covering many more bases than they used to in areas where other agents, church, home, used to pick up the responsibility.

Consequently, while we must respond to changing needs, on the way to so doing schools sometimes suffer more than other social agencies from the tension and the trauma of conflicting demands and expectations and they often bear the burden of our most insatiable ambitions and the brunt of our most unreasonable frustrations.

Jennifer Lewington, author of Overdue Assignment, was quoted as saying there are four myths about public education that must be exploded.

One of the myths she cited is that schools can do it all: often schools are expected to fulfil the roles of home and church. Increasingly, teachers wonder if they are the parents, the therapists, the social workers, the translators, and in some sad cases, the parole officers as well as the curriculum deliverers.

What are the hallmarks of effective schools? There is a substantial and credible body of research which clearly identifies the indicators of schools that foster learning. These include a high rate of academic success for all students, high attendance rates, a high rate of student satisfaction with the school, student participation in co-curricular activities, a low suspension rate and low drop-out rate. We are working very hard to make these characteristics part of the heartbeat of all our schools.

Recently, our staff looked at successful inner city secondary school students and asked, "Who are they?" and "What is it that they do?" These students' observations are very revealing and enlightening.

These students are successful learners who describe themselves as hard working and goal-oriented. Most of them had beliefs since elementary school that they should and would go on to university and they kept this goal despite many odds working against them.

They identified, although they may not have used this language, an interactive classroom, a place where their voices were acknowledged as very important to their success. They also talked about the significance of being connected to their parents and feeling that their parents made a positive difference in their lives and in their attitudes towards school. Older siblings and friends, who were supportive of their academic goals, were also cited by these students as very important. Hence, the need again to foster close connections and to acknowledge the role of a student's life outside school.

They strongly articulated the importance of their connection to elementary school teachers as they made their choices for secondary school and their great need for the reinforcement of a significant adult in the school environment.

Over and over and over again we have found that students need to be connected positively, consistently to an adult who cares and demonstrates that caring daily and who recognizes the social life of the student and his or her connections to their peers.

They mentioned more opportunity for co-operative education, for business, mechanical, technological and industrial arts courses for all students which would help them explore the outside world, for more explicit connections and practical applications to the future world they would face in the courses they are now taking.

Our students spoke of the pressures they experience in school and talked how these pressures could be alleviated with an emphasis on less competition, less stress on marks and more focus of co-operation and integration across subject lines.

They also spoke passionately about the need for more personal relationships between teachers and students and an atmosphere in which dialogue between them is more welcome. Without exception, they commented on the need to explore growing understanding through their own talk.

As a psycho-linguist I have to say, "we told you so," because there is no doubt that the old gulp and vomit curriculum never worked and never will; we must re-emphasize that all learning floats on a sea of talk.