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The metric system: children better educated than parents

Depending on your perspective, it was either a sensible scientific shift, an annoying unnecessary change or a sinister communist plot. Canada's decision to go metric in 1970 definitely sparked some passionate debates. It even drove some Canadians to civil disobedience. CBC Archives explores the history of Canada's gradual and sometimes shaky transition to the metric system — a transition that, to this day, has yet to be fully completed.

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"With metric, parents are ending up in that uncomfortable position, you know, when their child knows something they don't," says reporter Shelley Pomerance. She's talking to a group of kids from "the metric generation" and she's finding out some interesting things. They clearly know Celsius better than Fahrenheit and litres better than quarts. But when it comes to height and weight, the youngsters are still talking feet and pounds. In this 1983 clip from Daybreak, Pomerance blames it on the parents. 
. Canadian elementary and secondary schools started phasing in metric instruction in 1974. By the late 1970s, most schools across the country had gone metric.
. In order to teach metric to students, teachers had to learn it first. School boards ran metric workshops for teachers, and frequently issued printed material and metric teaching aids to schools. Some school boards, such as Toronto's public board, kept math consultants on hand for teachers to go to for metric help if necessary.

. In a 1977 Toronto Star article, one school principal explained that even though his school day was dominated by metric, lifetime imperial habits were hard to break. "My kids correct me at home when I talk about miles and ounces," he said. "I guess we [educators] are like most people."

. By 1983, there was clearly a "metric generation." A 1983 letter to the Toronto Star from two "metricated" high school students illustrates this point. They wished the metric-resistant older generation would just accept metric as the way of the future: "You must appreciate the situation of youth today. We are. torn between two worlds: One that we understand fully but our parents and grandparents do not; the other we know nothing about, but are pressured into accepting instead of the easier and more familiar method."

. More than 20 years after this clip aired, Canadian school children who are otherwise well-versed in metric still typically state their weight and height in imperial. Like Pomerance, a number of today's journalists and metric experts - including Joseph B. Reid of the Canadian Metric Association - blame this on the fact that parents persist in using those measurements. "They hear their parents speak in feet and inches and they pick up on that," explained a Toronto District School Board employee in a 2004 Toronto Star article.
Medium: Radio
Program: Daybreak
Broadcast Date: Nov. 15, 1983
Host: Dennis Trudeau
Reporter: Shelley Pomerance
Duration: 4:03

Last updated: March 19, 2012

Page consulted on May 8, 2014

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