New Brunswick Votes·Opinion

Education reform needs to shoot for the moon

David Alston writes about how New Brunswick politicians need to strive for a "moonshot" when it comes to reforming the province's education system.

David Alston offers policy ideas after visiting leading classrooms in Finland and Estonia

David Alston says New Brunswick needs to "shoot for the moon" when it comes to improving education. (Submitted by David Alston)

This past summer was the 45th since the first human walked on the moon. And that achievement came less than seven years after President John F. Kennedy made his speech to the nation that they would “choose to go to the moon.”

Imagine, in a span of less than two government mandates they put people on the moon and brought them back home again alive with technology probably a million times less powerful than that smartphone sitting inside your pocket.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," Kennedy said on Sept. 12, 1962.

Indeed, progress comes when we aim for a dream.

And so, what is our “moonshot” for education and what will we achieve in our next seven short years. Well, I got a chance to walk on the moon of education during the past year and as you would expect, it was an amazing experience.

Visiting pioneers in education

When we were shooting footage for what became CBC’s Code Kids documentary produced and directed by New Brunswick’s Hemmings House Pictures, I got to travel to Estonia and Finland, two pioneers in education, especially around the areas of using technology in the classroom to inspire kids to learn.

Alston travelled to Finland and Estonia last year to study the education system in those countries. Those trips were part of a CBC documentary, "Code Kids." (Submitted by David Alston)
I was expecting to see what the power of teaching coding, what we call computer programming today, could do in terms of teaching a modern skill as well as problem solving skills and collaboration, but it was how it was framed in an overall education approach that stopped me in my tracks.

Everyone I met with in both countries, from teachers, administrators, department staff, principals, politicians and everyone in between spoke with pride in how they approached education. They were great folks, willing to share and just like us, but with a different approach to how they helped kids learn.

And it wasn’t just a different approach for the sake of different — students coming out of their system were achieving top ranks on the world stage. They were creating “world smart” kids, not just book smart ones.

So what did landing on the moon of education feel like anyway? Well, it was a learning vs. teaching-centric environment.

In a “flipped classroom” approach teachers became coaches and kids went home and read up on the lessons for the following day and then came to the classroom to apply their learning in hands on activities they would do with their peers.

In many cases, students taught fellow students what they learned when they needed help, with the teacher there only to help when all avenues were exhausted.

Teachers taught the subjects they majored in in university and passionately developed their own curriculums to meet outcomes set by the state.

Schools created holistic pedagogical approaches to learning. They might invite all students and teachers to write, build, design and act in a school play that would tie together everything they learned for an entire year to help children apply what they learned in a special and memorable way.

Students in Estonia use new forms of technology, including hand-held devices, as part of their education. (Submitted by David Alston)
And they had done away with nearly all regular standardized assessments, except for the final years when students needed something to take to university to show how they compared on the world stage.

Teachers were the experts and as long as they knew their students were achieving the nationally set, high standards outcomes then that was all that mattered.

To be honest, and in a weird way, it was like I landed in an environment that felt, well, very natural, the way that education probably should feel like. I started questioning why we were so unnatural back home.

So when I returned to New Brunswick I went on a bit of a quest, as an interested parent and one who stood in the green grass on the other side of the fence.

I spoke to teachers, leaders within the civil service and teachers association, with other parents and politicians. Why hadn’t we landed on the moon?

In short, as always, the answer was rather complicated and a mix of many different roadblocks. If it was simple no doubt we would have accomplished it because we have many amazing people in the system that all want the best for our kids.

But what I did discover is that there are some very key things we can do. And keep in mind when you read this list, they are all hard things to do, but if we want to go to the moon then we can certainly do them.

Depoliticizing education

When I was sitting in the lobby of the Department of Education this past year I believe I counted 13 different ministers of education in the past 20 years.

No organization can run successfully with that many changes in leadership, period. On the moon of education, politicians only get a say in two things, help tweak the high set of outcomes required and the budget for the overall education system.

The rest is up to the school system to manage. Set the envelope and let the education system do what it should know best. Structurally I don’t know what that means but it’s a big change and frankly it’s overdue.

Keep an eye out during this election for the number of political promises to build schools to get votes for  local candidates. 

While some school buildings need to be addressed, playing politic football messes up how we strategically invest in education to produce the best results for all of our children. The bottom line is we need to let the school system figure out how to spend the money wisely and trust them to do what’s right.

Encouraging an empowered culture

While I believe many teachers will gradually come out from behind the shelter they’ve taken to  withstand the current system, the leadership within the new school system will need help creating a  new culture of empowerment.

It’s innately within everyone to operate in this model but if you haven’t been mentored in how to do it then you could create a lot of pain for yourself and those you are leading if you don’t have a bit of help.

We should encourage the new system to seek out new leadership training for their principals and budget time and money for teachers to upgrade their approaches to learner centric methods and develop and share new curriculums.

Teachers teaching what they love

Who wouldn’t want to be in a classroom where a teacher is passionate about the subject and can’t wait to share what they know?

Teachers in Finland now have a master's degree in education and the subject they teach. Alston said teachers need to teach the subjects that they love. (iStock)
Our current system treats a teacher a bit like a utility player — we need a defenceman, goalie you are up next, get out there and play defence. You are a hockey player aren’t you?

That approach is not fair to the teacher or to the student. Yes, we have a lot of rural schools where teachers are required to teach multiple subjects and that’s going to happen but in principle we can still set a goal to match up passion and subjects taught and aim for it generally.

We can also encourage the new school system to pay teachers to upgrade their education to specialize in what they love to teach.

In Finland, they’ve now achieved a goal of every teacher reaching their master's degree in education and the subject they teach. 

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.

Leveraging technology

Just like the moon shot of the 1960s, the only way to get to the moon of education is to fully leverage the technology of the day. Our current school system is long overdue for another great leap forward and adapting educational approaches to leverage our new world in the Internet age is par for the course.

I often use the example of a trained carpenter to illustrate this point.

While every new carpenter needs to understand how to use a hammer, handsaw, etc. they also need to be able to use all of the modern electric and pneumatic tools to operate in the most efficient and effective way in their trade. To not teach them these skills would be a disservice and would put them at an immediately disadvantage. 

So we must find ways to adapt to leverage all of the latest technological advances within education.  For example, 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. 

Should we teach memorization of information in the age of Googling or should we be focused on the meaning behind it and how it could be applied to new scenarios or problems? 

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.

The introduction of Brilliant Labs to help facilitate is the first step of many.

Championing early literacy

Alston said it is important for the education system to focus on improving early literacy levels. (CBC)
If the launch pad for the moon landing had been improperly built we know that it could have been the downfall of the mission and led to disaster. The first few minutes during lift off are so critical. 
This principle is well understood in early childhood education, yet here in New Brunswick we are still  seeing children failing to successful launch with literacy. 

Studies are now showing that, not surprisingly, students who fail to launch properly stay behind on literacy straight through to adulthood. This then puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to employment and can push them closer to a life of crime. 

We then all feel their lessened impact on our economy and community.  Experts have shared that the first three years of school are critical. Which is why I’m so proud to see a  number of our business and community leaders as well as local organizations stepping forward and willing to collaborate with teachers and principals  to tackle this problem head on.

As the saying goes, “it takes a community to raise a child” and these champions are taking that to heart.

All of the recommendations above, basically the structure to prepare a child to be a productive, passionate and fully contributing citizen, can essentially go critically off course if a student doesn’t have the skills and the confidence that comes with essential literacy and numeracy skills.

Scrimping on the launch pad is not an option.

Recognizing that education underpins our new economy

This last one is up to all of us. We all need to recognize just how important education truly is. Based on the spending of tax dollars it comes in second after health care in terms of where we currently invest  more than $1 billion a year or about $12,199 per student per year according to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Our province is currently on a slide into a pit of debt with an aging population and a steady stream of young people heading elsewhere to find careers. It’s not pretty. But there is a grassroots movement building to change this economy to one that will rely on our most natural resource of all, the knowledge capacity and ideas of our future generation.

As they say, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Just imagine what things look like just seven years from now. We are producing North America’s best students — kids full of passion for what they love, world smart, knowledgeable on how to leverage the latest in tech for whatever problems they need to solve in whatever field they choose.

Parent entrepreneurs and investors from around the world looking to immigrate to Canada choose New Brunswick because they want to have their kids reach their full potential.

Kids are coming out confident in themselves and their skills and are ready to tackle the world’s problems with their own ideas, creating their own social impact companies — ones that create jobs but also help change the world for the better, including our own world here at home.

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.


David Alston

Education thinker

David Alston is the chief innovation officer at Introhive in Saint John. He is a Code Kids advocate. Alston travelled to Finland and Estonia in 2013 to study how their education systems were thriving.


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