New Brunswick can learn from global leaders in education about how to create a better school system and those reforms should start with improved use of technology, depoliticizing the education department and allowing teachers to teach their specialties, according to a Saint John man.
David Alston, the chief innovation officer at Introhive in Saint John, was one of a group of New Brunswickers who visited countries, such as Finland and Estonia, in 2013 to study their education systems.
That experience left Alston with the feeling that New Brunswick’s education system was misfiring.
In an op-ed for CBC News, Alston laid out a challenging set of reforms for the province’s education system.
Alston said the system must adapt its teaching approaches to utilize technology and the internet.
"This is not about throwing more technology into the classroom but finding teachers and students willing to try new methods of learning and removing the barriers to allow them to experiment and share their results with others," he said.
Alston's foreign travels allowed him to see how other countries have incorporated coding into their education systems.
He said in Finland and Estonia, coding is broadly incorporated into the education system.
"Teaching all students how to code not only allows them to be creators versus users of technology, but it also arms them with valuable problem solving skills," he said.
Another key change, Alston said, is to depoliticize the Department of Education. Alston said the minister of education should only have the power to set performance standards and the budget.
“The rest is up to the school system to manage. Set the envelope and let the education system do what it should know best,” Alston said.
“Structurally I don’t know what that means but it’s a big change and frankly it’s overdue.”
This move would take power away from politicians and it would mean that education was no longer a political football to be kicked around.
This is a theme that has been picked up political parties and other education experts this week.
Both Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward and Liberal Leader Brian Gallant have announced their education platforms this week and each included a commitment to push politicians to the sidelines when it comes to education.
Other education experts, such as Alan Sears, have also argued that education reform needs to be handled by people well versed in the system and not by politicians.
Once politicians are pushed to the sidelines of the education system, Alston said the system must look at upgrading the training of principals and teachers.
He pointed to Finland, where he said the country has achieved a goal of having every teacher possessing a master’s degree in education and the subject they teach.
In that system, Alston said the teachers taught the courses they were experts in and set their own curriculum to meet the goals established by the government.
“Now that they are each experts in their areas, just imagine the fun they have each week spending all of their time coming up with their own challenging curricula for their students rather than cramming the night before to learn subjects they don’t know or love in order to teach the students the next day,” Alston said.
The technology expert said he understands these reforms will be difficult and may not be popular within certain circles.
But he said it is crucial for New Brunswick’s future success, both socially and economically.
He likened the journey to former U.S. president John F. Kennedy setting a goal of putting a person on the moon and then having that accomplished in seven years.
“If a nation with only the capabilities of the 1960s can pull together to do the near impossible, just think about what we can achieve today by choosing to go to the moon of education,” he said.