On Canada Day: Solving Big Hairy Problems

Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to present at conferences in other Canadian provinces. Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 10.22.52 AM It makes me realize how little I actually know about education in Canada outside of Ontario.

It’s silly, really.  Just because we exist in different education jurisdictions doesn’t mean we can’t spend more time learning from each other and collaborating on common problems.

My Canada Day resolution is to focus on building connections with my out-of-province colleagues.

We know that Canada has big problems and challenges.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 10.13.39 AMPhoto Credit: Celestine Chua via Compfight cc

For example, we don’t know how to safely dispose of nuclear waste.  We are destroying Arctic coastlines with oil spills.  The tar sands have far reaching environmental and health impacts.  Our population is aging.  Our First Nations, Metis and Inuit citizens are isolated and can’t access the basics we take for granted in the south.

I would argue that our education system must build the capacity and desire in our future generations to solve these problems.  As Pak Tee Ng says, if we want our graduates to be creative and curious citizens, consider that’s how they arrive in school, so do no harm!

Yesterday, I was reading about some of the work my cousin, Robert LeRoy, has done in chemical and physical sciences, and I stumbled upon this quote from an interview with him:

Q: Are there any words of wisdom you could pass on to a novice in the world of science?

Finding something which interests you enough that you are willing to work really hard on it, and which challenges you to use your abilities to the fullest, is the key to a fulfilling and enjoyable life. Whether this involves basic or applied science (as in my case) or any other area of human endeavour is immaterial, and whether or not it pays particularly well, is also of no matter. Don’t choose something because it is easy – choose it because it is challenging and worthwhile.

Robert J. LeRoy, Theoretical Chemistry, University of Waterloo

We know there are barriers that keep some of our best thinkers from accessing opportunities to contribute to the solutions to Canada’s problems.  How could we collaborate as educators across the country to remove some of these barriers?

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Pasi Sahlberg, slides from #uLead15 Keynote shared here: http://pasisahlberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/uLead-Talk-2015.pdf

Our current system of high grades as a filter for future formal education is one such barrier.  In countries like Finland, there is the recognition that high marks are not proven indicators of success in all professional fields.  For example,  high marks in high school do not predict success as a classroom teacher, so high school marks are not used to select candidates for the Finnish Education Program.  In fact, about a quarter of successful applicants to the Teacher Education Program come from the lowest quartile of secondary school grades.

When we look at the number of disengaged secondary school students, we have to see a national tragedy.  This, in itself, is a big hairy problem for Canada.  How many of these students could be the ones with the ability and desire to find answers to our global and national challenges?

How can we create a system that embraces and enables all learners to reach their full potential, for the common good of all Canadians?

The story of the Genetic Genius, Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui, the man who isolated and identified the gene that causes Cystic Fibrosis, exemplifies some of the barriers faced by brilliant minds.  Dr. Tsui was not a good student and he could not score well on tests. Without numerous interventions, he would never have had the opportunity to make this important discovery.  The results of his work have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Please take the time to listen to the full story here, on CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy.  I have summarized the story below.

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As a child, Lap-Chee Tsui lived in China before fleeing to Hong Kong with his family, where frequently, his family was unable to pay his tuition fees for high school.  A kind and generous teacher loaned him money for the fees, until the teacher could be repaid by Lap-Chee’s father, so that he would be able to continue to study.  His parents stressed the critical importance of a good education, but it was his free time out of school that nurtured his curiosity.

Without many toys, Lap-Chee turned to ponds and tadpoles for entertainment. He loved to draw and build things. He experimented with his sister’s kitchen toys, burning salt and sugar to see the chemical reactions.   

Dr. Tsui characterizes himself as a very good learner with a very curious mind, but he could not write tests, the primary form of assessment in school.  As a result, he did not get good grades.

Other students could regurgitate class notes, right down to the punctuation errors, and score very high marks.  Lap-Chee felt he knew the material well, in fact he still uses some of that learning today, but he could not provide rote memorization of the material on the tests.

His poor grades would have stopped most people from pursuing further education.  However, he persisted, and with some luck, found an opportunity to begin laboratory research.

Here, he excelled.

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I will let you listen to the rest of the story that led to this amazing discovery.

My question is, how many brilliant problem-solvers in Canada have been blocked from achieving their potential by the false barriers the system has established?

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Photo Credit: Mike Prince

As Canadians, how can we ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to aspire to greatness, so that we all have a better quality of life?

The role of educators is key to the future of Canada.

 

July 3, 2015 edit: I have added this brilliant 3 minutes from Scott McLeod on how we are really good at using the words for change, but we are not seeing it in our classrooms.

 

 

 

Enable every child to grow to contribute to the good of this country.

Do no harm.

Resources:

Canadian Medical Hall of Fame: Dr Lap-Chee Tsui

Propelling a New Education Paradigm Forward to Reduce Dropouts – CEA (Deborah McCallum)

3 thoughts on “On Canada Day: Solving Big Hairy Problems

  1. Quoting: “I would argue that our education system must build the capacity and desire in our future generations to solve these problems.” So very, very pleased that you didn’t raise the cliche: ‘We have to teach our future generations to solve these problems!!!’ I’m believing you agree with me that educators facilitate learning; they rarely teach – unless the students (of any age) decide they are motivated to learn!!!

    This is a post with links so important for us to Consider (http://johncbennettjr.com ).

  2. Thanks again Donna for all you share! Always thought-provoking and transformative!

    As a teacher who taught grade eight for five years and then grades 9&10 for 2, I always thought students were thrown into the ‘rotary’/impersonal environment of high school too quickly, especially applied students who need routine and a personal connection the most.

    I always found it easier to assess ‘student’ knowledge and understanding in the elementary environment, while in secondary there was a default to assessing assignments. Much of the difference was in the amount of time I spent with each student and how deeply I could respond to their needs and learning styles.

    I love the idea of streaming those with an aptitude for teaching towards the craft. One day, with hope and a few more voices willing to speak against the tide!

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