Counterpoint: When the Future Is the Past

May 21, 2010 David Flower

How many platitudes involving the past can you recall? Here are just a few: “There’s nothing new under the sun”; “Been there, done that”; “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” These clichés can also be applied to education and to many provincial and federal policies. In Alberta, at various times, teachers, students and parents have been promised the world. Education, it is often claimed, is more important than anything else our provincial government offers. Yet talk is cheap and action can be expensive—time after time, promises to reform the province’s education system have been waylaid.

Is teachers’ cynicism warranted?

Teachers have been repeatedly disappointed over promised changes to education. In 1997, then-premier Ralph Klein’s request to “work with me, people,” uttered after thousands demonstrated their frustration with education cutbacks, resulted in no change. Parents, teachers and students were conned. The failure of the government to manage the boom-and-bust economic cycle has not helped education or the province. Nor has the pressure from external forces, such as the Conference Board of Canada, the Economic Council of Canada, the Council of Higher Education, and a multitude of other people and groups demanding a business culture for schools, international test results and privatization. Those groups are still lurking in the wings, still being listened to as they mutter about what should or should not be taught. However, the voices of teachers requesting changes to education have been ignored because teachers are viewed as self-serving. Stuart Maclure, in his assessment of the 1988 Education Reform Act in Britain, pointed out that choosing to not involve teachers in the reform process was a mistake that resulted in the education reforms failing in that country.[1] Wayne Russell, the former executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, explained educational reforms in the 1990s this way:

Society asked the teachers in the 1970s and 1980s to build a family car called “education,” a car that was the perfect, all-purpose family car which was safe, had plenty of room, was easy to operate and was useable by all people. Suddenly in the 1990s the demand changed. The influence makers decided they wanted to race our car against a high speed racier foreign model. Because our car didn’t always win, it was viewed as a failure. The influence makers were looking for a competitive, productive, efficient and cost-effective car to fit the needs of the society that they saw emerging. The owners had forgotten what they had asked us to build and they were prepared to set aside all its strengths and its beauty and they even demanded to review the work of both the designer and the builder.[2]

Ceaselessly tinkering with education

If you think back to all the tinkering with the education car that has occurred over the last decades, you’ll recognize some of those changes, some of which arose before you started teaching. Teaching styles, for example, have varied depending on which guru was in fashion. Teachers have experienced open classrooms, team teaching, learning pods, individualized instruction, streaming, de-streaming, single-sex schooling and more, some of which proved successful, and many of which passed into history only to be regurgitated a generation or so later. Changes to the curriculum, invariably imposed from above, have included increasing emphasis on mathematics and science; developing numeracy and literacy programs; cancelling compulsory physical education; reinstituting daily physical education; eliminating shop and home economics programs; and eliminating textbooks. Then there were the technological changes, some of which, it was claimed, would result in the demise of school buildings. There were tape recorders, slide projectors, overhead projectors, television, 16-mm film projectors, language laboratories and ultimately computers, all of which have had an effect and been costly.

Over the years, required repairs to infrastructure have taken second place to the political goals of eliminating the province’s debt. Taxation was centralized in the hands of the provincial government, thereby significantly reducing the role of school boards. Students became customers. Parent councils received more power in the operation of schools. There have been growth summits and education summits involving stakeholders of every kind, and the changes keep coming. There is, however, no single panacea.

If there were ever an attempt to redesign the education car, which model should we copy? Japanese, Korean or Finnish designs, or should we pick the best from each? How would we know which one would work best in our system? Should we test our students internationally, between provinces or within the province, and then permit the corporate-driven Fraser Institute to determine how our schools are performing? Will our critics ever be satisfied?

We continue to go around in circles with our education changes, repeating ideas that were previously tried and rejected. We have seen “a piecemeal shake-up of the system with the hope that when things settle down, everything would work. It has not.”[3] However, until society actively promotes the benefits of education (because that is the successful strategy in countries where students excel); until we see parents putting education before everything else for their children (because that is what we see in countries where students excel); and, until we see a provincial government that makes education its important social obligation (because that is what we see in countries where students excel), we will continue to tinker with the old car and never redesign a new vehicle that will take us forward.

The way ahead

Alberta’s new education vehicle must be designed by teachers. Why does the province heed the advice of experts when it comes to handling our natural resources but refuse to credit teachers as experts when it comes to education? It is time “to listen to and consult those in education, not just parents but people at the sharp end like teachers.”[4] The new vehicle needs to take us far away from what John Ralston Saul calls “the 19th century negative nationalist policies which say, in effect, ‘We don’t need to learn much. We’re just fine here. We can cut down on education; we’ll just teach the kids how to run machines.’”[5]

Such a vehicle might well be in the making. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, in The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change (reviewed in this issue of the ATA Magazine), suggest that emerging from the “age of unregulated markets and wanton greed” could well be a new vision of education.[6] This inclusive vision with all stakeholders working together will result in creative, engaging and demanding student learning. Such a vision needs everyone to be involved; otherwise, its noble goals could be undermined by political and ideological interference.

In a perfect world, the proposals described by the authors in The Fourth Way would be ideal, but unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world. Unless we’re vigilant, we could find ourselves repeating the past yet again.


[1] Stuart Maclure, Education Re-formed; Guide to the Education Reform Act 1988, Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1988.

[2] Wayne Russell, Speech to the Canadian Educational Press Association, St. John’s, Newfoundland, June 19, 1991.

[3] Bauni Mackay and David Flower, Public Education: The Passion and the Politics, Alberta Teachers’ Association, 1999.

[4] “Too Much Change, Too Quickly,” Times Educational Supplement, October 31, 1997.

[5] John Ralston Saul, “Interview with Jeremy Mouat,” Aurora, Athabasca University Press, August 5, 1998.

[6] Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change, Corwin, California, 2009.

Dr. David Flower served as the ATA’s coordinator of communications from 1983 to 2001.

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