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OpEd: Let’s send our kids back to school, not back in time

A new year, the same old system. It's time we learned to forget the past in education and focus on the future.
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Gord Woodward, September 3, 2013 1:16:47 PM

Well, parents, it’s that time of year again: the biggest week in education. It is a moment filled with trepidation and uncertainty, no matter how many times we’ve been through it before.

But enough about that annual rite known as the Threat of a Teacher Strike. Let’s instead talk about our kids going back to school, where they will be trained for the world of tomorrow by a system that was designed hundreds of years in the past. Anyone who thinks that make sense really should consider modernizing their communication system from a telegraph machine to one of those new-fangled cell phones.

And speaking of upgrades, our education system badly needs one. It’s well past time to ditch the institutional model that can’t even get its calendar right.

Why, for example, does school generally start early in the morning, when all the science tells us the young brain isn’t awake by then? Why do schools stop for two consecutive months every summer, when research says shorter breaks would be far more beneficial for learning?

Why? Because institutions function best when they adapt people to rigid processes that they have always used. Unfortunately, education works best with the reverse.

Research professor Peter Gray, in fact, likens the current system to a prison. (Technically, that’s inaccurate. For while the food many be similar in both settings, at least in prison the inmates wear appropriate clothing.) He argues that its confining one-size-fits-all approach handcuffs the ability to learn.

His solution? Home schooling (an option most parents would equate with doing hard time). And if that’s not possible, something he calls “democratic schools,” in which students are in charge of their own education.

That’s the kind of creative thinking that shows why professors should not be allowed to do drugs. But it’s also the kind of creative thinking we need to apply to the discussion of education reforms. Exploring new ideas with critical thinking, rather than simply with criticism, will allow us to identify and break down barriers to their inception.

When it comes to year-round schooling and later start times, for example, opponents often argue that such measures would inconvenience working parents and make it difficult for kids to get jobs. Yet that ignores the reality of humankind: we adapt.

At one time it was widely accepted that child labour was essential to the survival of many industries. Remarkably, when children were legally barred from mines and other dangerous work sites, the industries soldiered on — and the children who traded work boots for text books went on to make society better for all.

So in a modern world, families would adapt their vacation times to a rejigged school calendar. Daycares would adapt their hours to suit later start and end times for classes. Business would continue to hire students, but for different shifts — their hours based on the new schedules of customers.

Our “inconvenience” would soon be forgotten. Our students’ educational benefits would last their lifetimes.

Maybe it’s the jitters talking, but we think that should be the goal, from the first day of school to the last.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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