On Saturday, September 14th the Vancouver Sun ran a two-page spread entitled “New Curriculum Stirs Excitement” which dealt with changes to the BC high school program. (A12-13) Reporter Lori Culbert explained that high schools are now putting more emphasis on project-based learning and much less emphasis on narrowly-focused assessments that would have students cram for exams by memorizing facts they will soon forget.
Parents, teachers, and students themselves might not yet recognize what a wonderful and profound sea-change that this represents.
The educational literature, and the BC Ministry’s own survey research, shows that levels of student interest and engagement drop precipitously from elementary to high school. The internal engagement that students carry with them through elementary and (hopefully) middle school gives way to an external obligation to grind through the courses and meet the requirements of graduation. This uninspiring state of affairs is exacerbated by an assessment system that narrows, fragments, and trivializes the curriculum all the while systematically disenfranchising whole populations of students.
Under the leadership of Education Minister Rob Fleming, and through the inspired commitment of past Superintendent of Graduation and Student Transitions Jan Unwin, the BC Ministry of Education has been working hard to turn this ship around. The changes that are occuring in BC high schools this year are the result of a prolonged, collaborative and thoughtful exploration of a better version of education.
While some worry that the greatest challenge to this different way of doing things lies in the way colleges and universities will interpret these new programs, Culbert points out in her article that BC colleges and universities are already preparing themselves to accept this new student profile. This isn’t just happening in B.C.; the mechanics of student admissions is changing in America as well. In 2016, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success introduced a new portfolio-based application that is accepted by over 120 universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Change is always difficult, and there will be those who harken back to the good old days of narrowly-set curriculum matched with narrowly-defined assessment criteria. Despite the good intentions, hard work, and commitment of teachers in classrooms, however, we have inherited a system of education that does not do justice to the intelligence and aspirations of our kids. My own prediction is that parents in 25 years from now will look back at our recent practices and incredulously ask, “What possibly possessed you to think this way about something as important as the education of our young?”. Kudos to Lori Culbert for bringing this to our attention, and to the BC Ministry of Education for having the courage to break the mold.
Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he recently completed his new book, Education Reimagined: The Schools Our Children Need, which is now available on Amazon