Those responsible for leadership in our public education systems often respond to the tyranny of the urgent. Student safety, complaints about day to day issues, media spotlights, shifts in policy or the requests from a myriad of external agencies who view our schools as a convenient spot to address the masses. But when do we step back from these day to day complexities, look critically at the “system” and consider the long range? Where exactly are we going? What are the external forces driving education in the decades to come? What does it mean to prepare students for a world yet to be defined? Unless we plan and prepare for the time to come, we will always be in reactive mode which will only serve to distract us from the real conversations that need to occur. What is the new narrative of public education that compels the public toward change and who will craft it?
We have an impending crisis that we see unfold before us every day. Our society is aging and along with it comes declining student enrolment and increased health care costs. In the battle for public dollars, health care will win every time. In the minds of the public, lineups for life-saving care and surgery will always trump class size, new technologies or new curriculum. A quick scan of historical budgets of health care vs education will show the trends and the future looks very clear.
Along with the health care versus education debate is the radically changing nature of society and what that means for the students we want and the skills we need. The demand for rote manual skills has plummeted while the demand for flexible critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, excellent communicators and collaborators has skyrocketed. Even the coming trade shortage requires skilled critical thinkers and problem solvers not the manual labourers of the past. As the Industrial Age gives way to the Information Age there is little doubt that the needs of our labour force are changing and along with it, our education systems must change as well.
The above issues aren’t, in my humble opinion, important – they are urgent. We know that education and health care are not either/or. We know that the very health of society is woven by the fabric that is public education. We also know that if we don’t pay attention to the skills we need for the future, then we face some serious challenges in the decades to come. For one critical example, who is going to address and resolve our global issues of the environment and sustainability in the next 20 years? Don’t look at industry and science now, they hopefully will begin the journey but for a final solution, look at our students who are currently somewhere in their pre or early teens. In 20 years, these children will be in their early to mid 30’s and will need to take the next 20 years of their lives after that to address these issues and effect the changes to come. It took us a century at least to get into our current global warming situation and the solution isn’t going to take 5 years. Likely this is a lifetime’s work for the next generation. The hope for our future is in our schools today.
I got my pension statement recently. The horizon is a long way away. However, I know that when I get there, I will want the same care that my father and mother are currently getting and I will also want to know that this care doesn’t come at the expense of our children’s future. The answer to that balance comes in the form of a new narrative and plan for action in public education in the context of today’s society. It is a complex issue and a big challenge but, it’s more than just important, it is urgent for us all. So, when there is a chance, get engaged, speak your mind, push for the larger conversation about where we are going. It is true that the conversation is already happening all over in different spots including in every district in BC. However, the conversation doesn’t seem to have the urgency it needs and will require for a significant change to come.
I read a book recently that had a nice quote from Jennifer James. My own modified version of her quote would state that those who will inspire and innovate toward a better future will be those who can tell a compelling story of change that is connected to the widely held values of the people and that links directly to the work of teachers in our classrooms. That’s a big challenge in itself, but I believe the urgency is here and I look forward in taking part in the dialogue. It is the future we need and the one our children deserve.