All Posts Tagged With: "education"
Colby Cosh sorts out education, job training and credentials
When you join a national newspaper or magazine as a writer, you start getting a lot more email from three kinds of people: PR folks, the insane and journalism students. Over the past decade I must have had 30 or 40 appeals for help, interviews, or extensive advice from J-schoolers. More famous colleagues must be well into the hundreds. This seems pretty paradoxical, from a labour-market standpoint. Although Maclean’s is a happy exception, the overall enterprise of journalism is shrinking, not growing. At least it is if we’re talking about paid journalism. This goes double for paid print journalism, and triple for paid print general-interest journalism.
If I were to drop dead tomorrow, the column inches I left behind could be filled pretty easily, perhaps by a cat trained to walk across a keyboard. But the journalism students who want to know about my career path and trade secrets are not idlers. They are people who have already invested heavily in training and effort to take my job, or one like it. This is puzzling, not only because I have only the one job for dozens to fight over gladiator-style, but because I never bothered with any of this training myself. Nor did many of the people who haunt, or even boss, big Canadian news institutions.
This English professor begs to differ
Google “university” and “real world” and you’ll see what you probably already know: to most people, they are very different things.
It’s amazing to me how often and how easily this anti-intellectual smear is repeated in the media, and even by universities themselves—as in this piece from my own alma mater, the University of Waterloo. The implication is that, at best, education is an ethereal paradise where no one has challenges or stresses or the difficulties that one encounters in actual reality. Or, worse, that education is a waste of time—because nothing you learned in that cushy little classroom means anything out here where things get real.
Anyone who has ever been in university—or at least has been and has tried to be successful there—can attest to the falsehood of this notion. University life is full of both hard work and stress. It is very real. Deadlines are numerous and hard to change. Evaluation is rigorous and frequent and comes not just from one supervisor but by numerous instructors, and a whole new set of them the following year.
I did fine without teachers who ‘looked’ exactly like me
An internal memo circulated earlier this week within the Toronto District School Board explicitly states: “The first round of TDSB interviews will be granted to teachers candidates that meet one or more of the following criteria in addition to being an outstanding teacher: Male, racial minority, French, Music, Aboriginal.”
Although the school board is taking the stance that the hiring criteria outlined above is not meant to actively exclude other groups, I can’t help but think that if I sent in a resume after graduating from York University’s education program this spring, as a female, I’d be rejected.
I’ve been constantly reminded that, as an Asian female, there are special scholarships available to me—that I enjoy a special kind of privilege offered to women of colour. A representative at a job fair stand once told me that if I ever considered applying for a position with the Toronto Police Service, I’d be a shoo-in. The TPS was running low on Asian female police officers—their words, not mine. Some would call this affirmative action. Others would cry reverse racism.
I say: why should any of this matter? Shouldn’t merit, skill and experience be what really counts?
It’s a difficult time to be an education student
I was sitting at a desk with four boys in their applied history class. Instead of diving straight into the political issues of World War Two, I started by comparing it to a schoolyard fight where everybody begins by taking their friends’ sides.
After this comparison, the boys were far more receptive to the details. When they were able to recall it almost perfectly on a test many days later, I was proud of them and surprised at myself.
That was three years ago when I was volunteering at my old high school and considering high school teaching as a career option. It was a time before lesson planning, hiring freezes and politics. It was a time of blissful naivety.
At some point during the past few months I found myself disillusioned by teacher’s college here at York University. It turns out I’m not alone. My classmates and I are feeling pressure from all sides, including the issues that come with the recently passed Bill 115, which freezes Ontario teachers’ wages and allows the government to intervene in school board negotiations with the unions.
Prof. Fiona Walton employs more than just empathy
“People aren’t fond of saying Aboriginal Education is going well,” says the University of Prince Edward Island’s Fiona Walton, “but there are many many pockets where marvelous things are happening.”
Walton’s CV is too long to recount, but there’s one central theme. This 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient is dedicated to building leaders in Indigenous Education by focusing on doing more of the things that are going right.
Walton has taught students from many backgrounds in the Bachelor of Education Specialization in Indigenous Education at the University of Prince Edward Island, which she helped develop after years teaching in the Arctic. More recently, she’s guided the curriculum of the groundbreaking Master of Education Leadership in Nunavut.
Subject rankings for psychology, law, economics…
Here are the top five highest ranked universities in the QS World University Rankings by Subject and the rankings of all Canadian schools for arts, humanities, and business. For science, engineering, and health disciplines click here. For the full rankings, visit TopUniversities.com.
1. Harvard University (United States)
2. University of California, Berkeley (UCB) (United States)
3. University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
4. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) (United Kingdom)
5. University of Chicago (United States)
16. University of Toronto
33. McGill University
40. University of British Columbia
45. Queen’s University
51-100. Université de Montréal, University of Alberta
101-150. McMaster University, Western University, Université du Québec, University of Waterloo, York University
151-200. Carleton University, Concordia University, Dalhousie University, Laval University, Simon Fraser University, University of Calgary, University of Ottawa, University of Victoria
Pettigrew applies logic to the debate over the value of arts
We scholars of the arts are used to the attitude that what we do is a luxury at best and a silly waste of time at the worst. But one rarely sees that contempt stated as baldly as it was last week by Luisa D’Amato in The Guelph Mercury.
For now, let’s just remember that people do other things than work. They vote, and serve on juries, and raise their kids, and make a thousand critical judgements over the course of their lives.
Wouldn’t it be nice if some of them had been taught to think about more than how to build and market the next generation of smart phones?
Hint: It’s not schools, and they pay $80k after three years.
Education graduates face a dismal job market. Two-thirds of recent grads in Ontario aren’t working full-time. The University of British Columbia’s teacher’s college recently admitted that many graduates won’t find jobs in teaching.
Things are bad in Manitoba too. The local school boards didn’t even show up at Monday’s University of Manitoba education job fair.
But that same job fair should give education graduates a reason to be hopeful, because it showed how certain other employers value their experiences.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for example, showed up at Manitoba’s education job fair for the first time Monday. The force is recruiting education graduates for the police academy in Regina.
Nine per cent drop in Ontario
The Ontario College of Teachers sounded the alarm bells in 2011 about the gap between the number of graduating teachers and the shrinking number of jobs available. Their survey of new graduates showed 24 per cent were unemployed and only one-third were employed full-time.
John Milloy, the minister in charge, reacted by taking the unprecedented step of capping the number of first-year education students at 9,058.
This week, new statistics show that students got the message. The Ontario University Application Centre reports that provincial teacher’s colleges received 8.9 per cent fewer applicants in 2012.
Some schools saw huge declines. Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont. got 15.8 per cent fewer applications. Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. got 21.5 per cent fewer applications.
Petition asks gov. for higher standards
“We’ve kind of been watching a train wreck,” University of Winnipeg math Prof. Anna Stokke told the Winnipeg Free Press last week. She’s talking about the fact that many education students aren’t getting the math they need in university and are therefore less likely to be able to teach elementary school students the subject, perpetuating bad math skills at a time when more jobs require them.
Most people aren’t aware that a student can get into a faculty of education with only Grade 12 consumer math, Stokke said. “I wouldn’t even call it a math course — it’s a life-skills course.”
That’s why she is circulating a petition demanding higher standards for education students. So far, 224 people, including professors, parents, students and teachers have signed the petition.
“Currently, many students enter education faculties in the universities in Manitoba with the least demanding of the Grade 12 mathematics courses,” reads the petition. “University math professors have found that students with this minimum requirement often have alarmingly weak mathematics skills and high levels of math anxiety…. It has also been documented that math anxiety in a classroom teacher may transfer to his or her students.”
What started as demonstration of where meat comes from ended with outraged parents and upset kids
In the town of Ratekau, what started as a fifth-grade demonstration of where meat comes from—and how it was prepared in the days before refrigeration—ended with outraged parents, upset kids, and a denouncement from state officials. As part of a curriculum unit on how people lived in the Stone Age, one parent (a farmer) volunteered to slaughter a rabbit for the class. Teachers voted in favour, but apparently didn’t inform parents or the principal. Some fifth-graders launched a petition to save the rabbit, but teachers seem to have ignored them. “One can’t collect signatures against a math test either,” one told the newspaper Lübecker Nachrichten.
In the end, 50 students voluntarily gathered in the school courtyard. They said goodbye to the rabbit; the farmer then hit it with a hammer, slit its throat, gutted and skinned it, and hung it to drain. It was later grilled and consumed. Parents complained, leading the state’s Education Ministry to denounce the slaughter as “educationally problematic.” “My point wasn’t to show children death,” the farmer told Der Spiegel. “We wanted to demonstrate that killing animals involves taking on responsibility.”
Photo: Getty Images
Whole grain education: what a fresh idea.
Peggy Berkowitz over at University Affairs reports on an interesting talk given recently by Louis Menand, whose talk, she characterized, in part, as follows:
He said the natural sciences have been able to reconfigure themselves to overcome the “silo” problem of different disciplines; but for a variety of reasons, the humanities haven’t. He pointed to the need for reform, acknowledging that “we’re right when we say that many reformers are not educational. But that is all the more reason for academics to take the task upon themselves to reform.”
Berkowitz doesn’t explain what Menand means by “the silo problem” because she doesn’t have to. Everyone in the university game these days has heard our institutions described as silos in one way or another.
The silo problem, as people like Menand would have it, is this: universities have always been arranged by discipline, where one group of scholars researches and teaches in one discipline and another group researches and teaches in another and so on. Like grain silos on a farm, the stuff is all there, but it never mingles or touches. Siloed as we are, university professors never think about anything outside their own disciplines and teach students only one thing at a time. So neither profs nor students ever have the chance to study the wonderful complexities of the world.
I have several problems with this metaphor. First, there is a whiff of snobbery about it. Siloes are so very working class, you see, and one can’t help but wonder whether subconsciously the anti-silo crowd has chosen this metaphor thinking that no intellectual wants to act like a (gasp) farmer. They could have called it the office-tower problem or the guru-on-the-mountain problem, but no . . .
Second, as it happens, silos are actually very useful devices because grains really do need to be kept apart from other grains so that they can be sold accurately for what they are. Some idealistic farmer might get it into his head that the old silo system is out-of-date, and why shouldn’t the buckwheat mix with the sorghum and the millet? Let’s break down the artificial constructs of the agricultural revolution, he says, and embrace inter-grainiarity! Sounds fun, but it wouldn’t work. Because the baker making a loaf of rye bread needs to know his rye flour is actually rye. The brewer needs to know her hops are hops and so on. Silos exist for reasons.
University disciplines exist for reasons, too. And it’s this: this stuff is complicated. Mastering even a narrow topic of intellectual inquiry requires years and years of painstaking study just to get going. Try writing 200 pages of original analysis of Shakespeare, and you’ll see what I mean. Seriously, get yourself up to speed on the current debate over the causes of the First World War, or Medieval ideas about the philosophical reality of evil, or how to locate exo-planets and you’ll see what I mean. At the highest levels of expertise, people must, as a practical necessity, specialize if they are going to do the best possible work. That’s why medical practitioners are trained in particular areas. We could have one big category called “Health Expertise” and you could just go to a health expert whatever your ailment. But such a person would not really be an expert. He’d be a dabbler. It’s much better to have your heart surgery performed by someone specialized in cardiac medicine and have your foot looked at by a podiatrist. Even if the heart surgeon and podiatrist never see each other.
Still, wouldn’t some interdisciplinarity be good? Shouldn’t students be taught to see that literature and science and all that stuff are not really separate things? Of course they should. Which is why we do it already.
Which brings me to the third objection I have to the silo metaphor. It’s wrong. Although academics do arrange themselves by discipline at most universities (there are a few exceptions), we are not locked in our offices, nor in or minds. When I teach literature, for example, part of what I teach is the cultural context of everything else that goes into producing literature. My classes on Milton, for example, bring in political history as well as theology. I use the the Pythagorean Theorem to teach Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”
So too for research. My first book dealt with the way Shakespeare’s plays respond to the political arguments over legal medical practice in the sixteenth century. Maybe dull for the average reader, but my point is that my own research connects literature with medicine, history, law, and politics. And this is not unusual in my discipline, nor, from what I can tell, in other disciplines either. Philosophers work with mathematicians, physicists with biologists, and so on. Recently, I’ve been working with a colleague in our Sports and Human Kinetics program to develop a new course called The Literature of Sport. I’ve even been discussing working on a research project with a chemist about how the periodic table has been interpreted.
Education critics love to invent problems that they think they can solve. Universities don’t use new technologies! University courses are nothing but lecture! Students aren’t taught critical thinking! They are all based on half-truths, exaggerations, or outright falsehoods. But it gets them consulting deals and book contracts and, yes, invited to talks.
And as for the silo problem? It’s nothing but a straw man.
Will education play a role in the campaign?
According to the Toronto Star, education should be a major feature of an election.
Investing in innovation. The Conservatives did a poor job in their anti-recession stimulus package of building for the future. They could have turned the crisis into an opportunity, but their 2009 budget actually cut funding for scientific research (though they later addressed that mistake by creating more research chairs and luring world-class researchers to Canada). But the steps are still tentative: last year’s federal budget increased Ottawa’s spending on R&D by $200 million — while President Barack Obama was upping U.S. spending by $15 billion.
Canada needs to step up dramatically in this area. Our economy now runs on ideas; more and more of us discover, design and create things. Waterloo’s Research in Motion is the poster child for that kind of innovation, but we need much more. What kind of investment in research and higher education do the parties propose to keep the country competitive for the next generation?
While it is unclear whether education and research will play a central role in a campaign, all three parties have introduced, or hinted, at what their education platforms could look like. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff says he plans to focus on access for students and has, in the past, endorsed centralization by creating a dedicated higher education transfer to the provinces, presumably with conditions similar to the Canada Health Act. We could likely expect something similar from the NDP.
And, if the Tory budget, released earlier this week, really is to double as an election platform, their position is to focus on targeted research for the physical, engineering and technological sciences, while mostly limiting support for students through established programs such as the Canada Student Loans and Grants programs. The Tories have, in the past, promoted developing something similar to a dedicated transfer in higher education, largely through working with the provinces to outline priorities and demanding reporting for how transfers are spent, though they have been slow to follow up.
The federal role in post-secondary education has always been a bit murky. Ottawa is involved in student loans, in part, because it holds jurisdiction over the banking sector, but the provinces still retain responsibility for determining a student’s eligibility for loans. Because of the presumed importance of research to economic development, a large federal role in this area could arguably be justified under the trade and commerce power.
In any case, all three parties advocate a visible role for the federal government in this education and research, with the NDP and the Liberals likely to promise a more robust presence for Ottawa, and the Tories likely to take a more incrementalist approach more in line with the constitutional division of powers.
Michael Ignatieff ignores the fact that there are already too many people with degrees
If you’ve been reading the funnies lately, and by that I mean the political pages, you know that the Liberals and Conservatives have been squabbling over the issue of corporate tax cuts.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and his band of brothers set out Wednesday to peddle the merits of “tax relief for job creators,” while Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff announced his pledge to roll back corporate tax breaks to 2010 levels if elected and instead invest in education. “We think the way to create jobs is invest in post-secondary education and help small and medium enterprises to become more competitive and take on more workers,” he said during a scrum.
If you ask the Conservatives, reducing corporate taxes will stimulate business investment, thereby encouraging growth and competition. According to Jack Mintz, head of the public policy school at the University of Calgary, the tax cut from 16.5 per cent to 15 per cent will generate an estimated $30-billion in investment funds and 102,500 new jobs over seven years. However, according to the Liberals and some labour economists, Canada’s corporate tax rates are already internationally competitive. They argue that the cut will hurt Ottawa’s bottom line and will not necessarily amount to real long term benefits–which is a fair point, in my opinion.
But while Ignatieff’s pledge might spawn warm fuzzies in the hearts of students and professors, it is misleading in several ways.
The idea that pumping more money into post-secondary education is a way to create more jobs ignores a fundamental condition of unemployment among new grads in Canada. While American president, Barack Obama pitched the same idea during his State of the Union address, the educational barriers in this country aren’t nearly as dire as they are the U.S. in terms of financial responsibility. Contrary to what some blue-in-the-face placard-pumpers might tell you, if you want a post-secondary education in Canada and you’re bright enough to pass a few tests, you can probably get one. The number of university enrollments has been steadily increasing over the past several years, meaning more and more individuals are getting post-secondary degrees. Therefore, the problem in Canada is not a poorly-funded system resulting in a lack of access, but rather, a surplus of educated people.
This surplus means that there is increased competition for jobs. A Statistics Canada study looked at university graduates in 2001 and found that nearly one in five worked a job that required a high school education at most. Many other grads nowadays still struggle to find work in their fields. Take teaching, for example. In 2010, the Globe and Mail reported that while about 6,500 new jobs for teachers becomes available in Ontario annually, the Ontario College of Teachers certified 12,774 new teachers in 2008, and another 9,100 in 2009. That’s a lot of competition for a few coveted positions.
How government cuts threaten Oxford and Cambridge’s unique teaching style
In 1945, Evelyn Waugh famously depicted Oxford in his classic novel Brideshead Revisited as a place where young people spend their days “twittering and fluttering over the cobbles and up the steps, sightseeing and pleasure-seeking, drinking claret cup, eating cucumber sandwiches.” Six-and-a-half decades later, things in the whimsical college town are far less civilized. Oxford University students spent much of the fall term staging angry protests, gathering in town by the hundreds to demonstrate against the government. Meanwhile, at its historic rival Cambridge, a 21/2-hour train ride away, students are equally fired up. After a number of boisterous marches in November, about 1,000 students staged an 11-day occupation of a university building. At issue is Britain’s massive new austerity package, which includes an 80 per cent cut to higher education teaching grants by 2012, and a potential tripling of tuition fees. The protests were “a wake-up call,” says Tom, a Cambridge Ph.D. student and one of the occupation organizers, who spoke with Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity. “The things the government are calling for seem extreme,” he says. “And extremely dangerous to education.”
Protests have taken place across Britain. But students at Oxford and Cambridge are motivated by a more pressing fear: that the new cuts will end the centuries-old reign of the institutions collectively called Oxbridge. Some are afraid the famed Oxbridge “tutorial system” is in jeopardy. Since their conception, Oxford and Cambridge have dismissed the traditional lecture system. Instead, undergrads are taught largely through one-on-one “tutorials” with professors. In between the weekly or fortnightly meetings, students work through massive reading lists, and write papers to later discuss with their tutors. “It makes the best use of bright students,” says David Palfreyman, an Oxford tutor and editor of The Oxford Tutorial. Students at the two schools work harder—10 to 15 hours a week more than average students, he says—“because [they] can’t escape in the tutorial system.” And it teaches them to think more creatively; many papers aren’t formally assessed, so students “can be a bit adventurous.”
It certainly attracts some keeners. David Barclay, an Oxford undergrad and president of the student union, says the tutorial system was one of the things that drew him to Oxford from Scotland, where he grew up. “It’s the best way of teaching,” he says. “One-on-one interaction with the best minds in the world.” At a coffee shop near the history department, Barclay recounts some particularly memorable classes, including one on 20th-century political history taught by a sitting member of Parliament. “Tutorials can be pretty scary,” he grinned. “But I love them.”
But will tutorials—and with them, Oxbridge’s international standing—ride the wave of public cuts? “The tutorial system is absolutely wonderful,” says Phil Baty, deputy editor of the London Times Higher Education World University Rankings. “But it is extremely expensive. And the universities have really struggled to maintain it.”
Currently, university tuition in Britain is capped at $5,150. Since it costs far more to teach students one-on-one, Oxford and Cambridge have relied on teaching funds from the government. As well, says Baty, the schools subsidize the system, likely to the tune of $8,000 to $9,000 a year per student.
But come 2012, almost all of the public money for university teaching will be gone. To address the shortfall, the government will allow universities to raise fees—up to $14,000 in as-of-yet-unspecific “exceptional” circumstances. This amounts to a near tripling of tuition. But administrators say the tuition hikes may not be enough. According to Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, it costs $25,000 a year to teach an undergrad at Oxford. “If we believe strongly that the tutorial system is the best way to nurture maturing minds,” says Hamilton, “we are going to have to find ways of making it more financially sustainable.”
Also hurting Oxbridge is the scrapping in 2009 of the Historic Buildings Fund, which was set up to dole out money to preserve the nation’s prized architecture, but has gone disproportionately to keeping Oxford and Cambridge’s buildings well kept. “With [the cut],” says Barclay, “died any acknowledgment, subtle or unsubtle, about the special nature of Oxford and Cambridge in public life in Britain.”
The irony of the precarious position that Oxbridge now finds itself in thanks to government cuts is not lost on critics. Many point out that 70 per cent of the British cabinet was educated at Oxbridge. Twenty per cent of the cabinet and 35 members of the House of Commons took Oxford’s famed philosophy, politics and economics degree, dubbed “the surest ticket to the top” by the BBC. (Graduates include British Prime Minister David Cameron, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.)
Of course, the tutorial system isn’t all that keeps Oxbridge afloat. But it helps. Its standing in the Times ranking, Baty says, is boosted by its unmatched student-faculty ratio and intense learning environment. It’s also one of the biggest draws for international students, at a time when Britain’s share is declining. Tim Hands, an Oxford headmaster, recently bemoaned: “There is no doubt that parents are increasingly interested in the prestige of an American university as an alternative to a British one. Now the chief barrier, that of cost, looks as though it may disappear.”
Still, some insist the cuts will actually be a step in the right direction: toward privatization. For years, administrators at the two schools have issued barely masked threats to break free from state control, particularly over the issue of tuition caps. “It is surely a mad world,” Oxford chancellor Lord Chris Patten has remarked, “in which parents and grandparents are prepared to shell out tens of thousands of pounds to put their children through private schools to get them into universities, and then object to paying a tuition fee of more than [$4,500] when they are here.” Even some students are sympathetic. One Oxford graduate student who preferred not to be named was adamant: “If students don’t believe their education is worth more than a few thousand pounds, they should think about what they’re doing at university.”
The crux of the problem, says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, is that Britain has struck an unhappy marriage between state control and market control of higher education. Until 1998, education in Britain was free. Since then, the state has held tuition artiﬁcially low. And yet, Britain’s public spending on higher education ranks near the bottom of OECD countries: 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2007, compared to 3.1 per cent in the U.S. and 2.6 per cent in Canada. The result is that top schools must rely heavily on philanthropic donations to maintain their education standards: a system that may not be sustainable.
The government also limits the number of students that universities can accept—largely because every undergraduate, regardless of family income, is entitled to state-subsidized loans. Those loans, says Claire Callender, professor of higher education at University College London, cost the government around £30 for every £100 borrowed. So, in effect, the government must be prepared for all students—even, Callender says, “the kids of millionaires”—to draw on government aid.
The new system may help correct these long-standing ills. Top schools like Oxbridge, which will likely command the maximum $14,000, might see some financial gain. And though tuition will increase for most, children from the lowest-earning families may actually see theirs go down, as subsidies for the poorest students are expanded.
But for Cambridge’s Tom, this higher education experiment is not worth the risk. “I’m afraid,” he says, “that my discipline, in 10 years’ time, will be little more than a finishing school for the rich.” But how best to decide what’s fair? That debate, wrote the Telegraph’s Neil O’Brien last month, sounds like the kind worthy of a “chin-stroking philosophy tutorial at Oxbridge.”
Canadian students have come a long way
The end of the year is a hopeful and generous time for Canadians, a time when we indulge our better instincts and tend to look on the bright side of things. How strange then, that recent good news about Canada’s education system has prompted a sudden bout of pessimism.
Last week saw the release of a massive comparison of school systems around the world. The Programme for International School Assessment (PISA) is run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and tests 470,000 15-year-old students across 65 countries and regions in reading, math and science. Canada, once again, found itself among the world’s leaders in educational performance.
Despite top 10 results in all categories, however, some commentators felt the need to lament the fact we were beaten by Shanghai, which made its first appearance in the PISA tests and stole the show with some very impressive scores. The Globe and Mail claimed the results showed other countries were “leaving us in the chalk dust.” A below-average performance by Prince Edward Island’s students was presented as something of a national disaster. It seems a rather Grinchy way of looking at things, particularly when Canada is doing so well in so many aspects of education.
Beyond our sixth-place finish in reading, seventh in math and eighth in science, the PISA results show that socio-economic status is much less a factor in Canadian test scores than most other countries, suggesting a strong commitment to equality of outcomes. Along with Korea and Finland, Canada was also praised for a low percentage of students failing the tests.
And in a special chapter within one volume, the OECD specifically recognizes Canada’s outstanding performance in the face of the challenges faced by our school system. While Canada’s large immigrant population is a significant strength for our economy and society, issues of language, culture and integration can make success more difficult for new Canadians. Less than one per cent of Shanghai’s student population comes from an immigrant background; for Canada, the figure is 24 per cent. Among countries that receive substantial levels of immigration, such as Australia, the United States, Germany or Switzerland, our test scores are at the top of the heap. And we are the only major country to show no significant difference in performance between immigrant and native-born students. “Canada could provide a model of how to achieve educational success in a large, geographically dispersed, and culturally heterogeneous country,” the report notes admiringly.
Diversity in governance is another area of strength for Canada. While conventional wisdom suggests strict centralization is the key to educational prowess, the OECD observes that “Canada has achieved success within a highly federated system.” We are in fact the only developed country without a national department of education. But this is not an obstacle, as our performance proves. Provincial control of education encourages experimentation and variety. If one province falls below the line, competitive national pressures inevitably motivate it to copy the best practices of other provinces, as is currently the case with P.E.I.
It’s also worth noting that Canada is a relative newcomer to such high expectations. Prior to 2000 we rarely appeared in the top 10 of any PISA category. Now it’s become something of a national obligation. This is certainly a good thing, but at the same time we should recognize how far we’ve come. In a few decades, Canada has built a unique education system recognized as one of the best and most equitable in the world. And that’s something to celebrate any time of year.
From the editors
Some startling revelations about the radical nature of the curriculum being taught
An investigation into more than 40 part-time Muslim schools and clubs in the U.K. has uncovered some startling revelations about the radical nature of the curriculum being taught. Materials obtained by the BBC include textbooks that detail the application of sharia law, such as how to chop off a person’s hands and feet if they are caught stealing, along with whether the best punishment for homosexuals who engage in sexual activities is for them to be stoned, burned or thrown off a cliff. Other materials ask children to list the “reprehensible” traits of Jewish people and note that non-believers will end up in “hellfire” when they die.
This isn’t the first instance of extremist undertakings occurring at schools in the U.K. In 2007, at the prestigious King Fahad Academy in west London, one teacher reported that pupils as young as five were being taught from Arabic textbooks that described Jews as “monkeys” and Christians as “pigs.” And this past August, a Muslim women’s group reported that an increasing number of female students at universities were being recruited by their peers for violent endeavours.
To stop the spread of extremist activities and teachings in academia, the government needs to start enforcing the law, says Douglas Murray, director of the London-based think tank Centre for Social Cohesion. “It is already illegal to teach racist, sectarian and bigoted attitudes in schools. If these were neo-Nazi schools, whether private or not, the government would have sent in the police at the start.”
Yet for decades, such hateful literature was largely ignored by civil society and considered just part of Muslim culture, adds Talal Rajab with the counter-extremism organization Quilliam. “Such ideas therefore went unchallenged, creating a climate where extremism could foster.” To curtail the problem, Rajab believes teachers should be heavily scrutinized to ensure that they are not extremists themselves, then equipped with the necessary training to spot the early signs of radicalization among pupils. Unfortunately, many of the Muslim schools are not funded by the state, which makes them difficult to monitor.
Slang just might make a new Canadian feel more like everyone else
English as a Second Language (ESL) now goes by the new, politically correct name of English Language Learning (ELL), in official recognition of the fact that immigrants new to Canada may know more than one language already. That doesn’t, however, make the average ELL student a champion of political correctness. At least it’s doubtful that Amira Azad, an Iranian Muslim woman in her mid-40s, had cultural sensitivity on the brain when she interrupted our ELL tutorial on the prepositional phrase. “May I ask a question?” she said, and then leaned closer to whisper: “Tell me please, what is the difference between a slut and whore?”
“The first sleeps with a lot of men,” I answered when I recovered, “and the second gets paid to do the same.” “Oh,” she said, “same in Iran.” Amira (who, like the other students interviewed, requested that her name be changed) asked roughly 30 similar questions that day, compiling a mini lexicon of English curse words and expressions that she covered with her hands every time the program supervisor walked by. Writing down the definition of “bitch,” she noted: “Thank you. My sons will be punished.”
As someone who’s been volunteer-teaching ELL at my local library in Halifax for the past three years, I assumed that people like Amira immigrate to Canada and learn English for a “better life.” But we seldom ask exactly what kind of English is most relevant to that life. A 2007 survey of ESL students by the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education cites the ability to use English in daily life as the single most important goal for learners; above both employment advancement and access to higher education. Chinese immigrant and English language learner Michelle Wong (who also asked that her real name not be used) points out that “everyday English” is far removed from textbook English. “In [textbook] English you have lots of grammar rules,” she says, “and I noticed people were not always following these rules. They used slang and swear words and it confused me.” To remedy her colloquial gaps, Michelle enrolled in a free, student-driven ELL program at the Halifax Regional Library (the same program I volunteer with, and Amira belonged to), where her volunteer tutor briefed her in conversational English, Western profanities and, finally, the answer to something that had been puzzling her for a long time: the definition of “funky.”
Frances Smith-McCarley, the coordinator of the program, is a street-speech activist in her own right. Helping students grasp not only English grammar but the naughty parts that go with it is, she believes, a lesson in survival skills. “What most concerns me,” she says, “is when our students hear racial or religious swear or hate words and may not know that they or their children are the victims of discrimination.” In other words, Amira didn’t have to cover her notebook when Smith-McCarley walked by. In fact, she didn’t need a notebook to begin with.
This is something David Burke, author of The Slangman Guide to Dirty English, has been preaching for 20 years. Burke, an American writer, has written over 50 books and products specializing in cross-cultural slang and idioms—many of which have been distributed to ELL programs around the world. Burke acknowledges that making the vernacular and the profane respectable hasn’t been an easy battle. “I was once the ESL bad boy,” he says. At his first TESOL conference (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) in Arlington, Texas, in 2001, an incensed fellow attendee told him that he had no business teaching informal language, and that his disregard for “pure English” would sully the name of ELL education everywhere. “She caused a scene so loud,” he says, “other teachers came over to my booth to watch!” The showdown came to an end when the purist made the mistake of telling Burke he really ticked her off. “Tick you off?” he said, “That’s slang.”
Nowhere is Burke’s obsession and message more applicable than in this country, where Statistics Canada estimates that by the year 2031, one half of the population over the age of 15 will be foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent. A Canadian citizenship hopeful won’t find the sort of language on her citizenship test that she’d find in one of Burke’s books, but just because she isn’t required to know English slang or swearing to become a Canadian doesn’t mean she won’t need it in order to feel like one.
Everyday language, the discourse of everyday people, has never worried about being politically correct. What’s ironic is that our Canadian fear of cultural imposition (always the mosaic, never the melting pot) might end up disadvantaging the very people we’re trying not to impose on. Knowing the proper place to use “slut” and “whore” might not be polite, but it’s just as important as etiquette when it comes to building an identity in your new home. Amira’s only complaint about Canada was that its native citizens were far “too nice.” Fortunately, her sons weren’t.
If you’re living on a scurvy diet of raisin bread and Stove Top Stuffing, Maclean’s is here to help
Four 21 year-old University of Toronto undergraduate students are gathered around the table in their Woodsworth College residence’s communal kitchen on a recent Friday night inspecting a bounty of fresh vegetables. “Leeks!” shouts Tingting Zhang, a psychology and neuroscience major who could point out the difference between a ganglia and an axon in her sleep, but takes childlike delight in recognizing the ubiquitous vegetable before her roommates do. Karen Sohn, an economics and psychology major, holds a bunch of thin grass-like spears. “Chives?” It’s more of a question than an answer. Aaron Shapland, who studies Middle Eastern civilization and geographical information systems, takes the easy road and correctly identifies the lone red onion. Meanwhile, the bag of baby arugula stumps Dorin Manase, who studies biology and computer science. In fact, they’re all baffled. “Is that leaves?” asks Tingting. “It tastes like nuts.” In an age when all things gastronomic are featured front and centre in television, movies and blogs, you might think this bunch would be more food-savvy. But as Karen pops a yellow-coloured cherry tomato into her mouth, she confesses, “you couldn’t find four people who make more disgusting food.”
Maclean’s is here to help. We’re armed with three simple recipes, for a soup, pasta and mussels. All require just one pot, minimal ingredients and extremely basic kitchen know-how. Our mission is to get these four students eating better fare than Stove Top Stuffing, pasta topped with ketchup, and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup poured on top of a microwaved chicken breast, “Chicken à la King”: staple student meals from the 1990s. Surely times have changed.
Nobu Adilman, actor, writer, and one of the hosts of the Food Network’s Food Jammers, who graduated from Halifax’s Dalhousie in 1995, says, “It’s a matter of having only so many minutes in a day. You’ve got so much s–t flying at you and you don’t want to spend all that time on cooking. So you just eat to soak up the booze.”
Most students juggle full course loads, part-time jobs and extracurricular activities, which doesn’t leave a lot of free time to visit farmers’ markets, let alone plan a week’s worth of meals. Luckily, in downtown Toronto there are other options: “I don’t know if you saw the hotdog vendor across the street, but she’s going to be my best friend next week during exams,” says Aaron as he chops an onion. Dorin, who just finished an exam, ate cereal for his last three meals, while Tingting polished off an entire loaf of raisin bread yesterday: “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, just in my room,” she says. “I didn’t even use a plate because I was cramming: I had two assignments due.”
Bestselling cookbook author Bonnie Stern, who also runs a Toronto cooking school, has a brighter outlook on students’ eating habits. “They’re much more savvy than they used to be because of the Food Network. They love that feeling of making something—the excitement of it. It’s very cool now.” She ought to know: for the last 15 years her school has offered a university survival class for students leaving home for the first time. “They do have a short attention span so we try to just do one class and then pack it full.” One of the most popular recipes is an Asian-inspired salad dressing, named after her daughter Anna, “who went through all of university without eating a salad.”
Not all university students are clueless come dinnertime. Amanda Garbutt, 22, has been preparing meals since her first year at McGill University in 2006. “I would whip up something in the floor’s kitchen and no one else could even fry an egg.” Soon she was teaching her roommate basic kitchen fundamentals. “We’d buy identical ingredients and split the stove in half and she’d take the left side and I would take the right and we’d make identical meals.” Friends started coming over to watch. “They’d bring wine and it became a social event. And then I came up with BYOI, bring your own ingredients, and I would pick a recipe—a risotto, stew or soup—and assign everyone an ingredient to bring and it would end up being very cost-effective, and we’d all take turns stirring and chopping. It was fun.”
April Engelberg, also 22, met Amanda on their first day at McGill and came up with the idea of filming these sessions. The result was The Hot Plate, a show launched through TV McGill, the University’s student-run television station, in the fall of 2008. Engelberg and Garbutt, who graduated this May, are now developing The Hot Plate’s website, which features about a dozen instructional videos for simple dinners, and their cookbook, which comes out this month.
Like Stern, Engelberg has “noticed a massive trend toward students caring more about cooking. It’s cool to say last night I made risotto, and people are always taking pictures of their food and posting them.” Still, Garbutt says, “Some students go for the McGill pizza down the street. ‘Two bucks? I can do that for breakfast, lunch and dinner until I get scurvy.’ I actually know someone who got scurvy from a pure mac and cheese diet.”
Back in the Maclean’s kitchen, so far scurvy-free, we’ve hit a few snags. Tingting discloses that they don’t have a cheese grater. “I usually use a potato peeler,” she says. There’s also no measuring cup—no measuring device of any sort. More surprising is the absence of a colander from the kitchen of this pasta-loving group. “We use our hands,” says Tingting. “It’s not what you’re supposed to do?” When her three roommates cast steely glares in her direction, she adds, “We wash our hands first.” “Welcome to college,” says Aaron.
After they devour the leek and potato soup, which Tingting says “tastes like it’s from a restaurant,” the pasta is successfully drained, sans colander, and tossed simply with extra virgin olive oil, ricotta salata, cherry tomatoes and basil. “Mmm,” they hum. We do a second version with a handful of the arugula mixed in—a clever way to sneak a salad into a main dish. “I like it,” says Dorin, who’d earlier confessed to usually eating just meat. “I was skeptical. But it’s really good.”
The last recipe for curried coconut mussels, courtesy of Chatelaine, requires the most effort out of our three dishes—that is if you consider ripping out a few beards from the shells laborious. Not only are these bovines cheap (Chatelaine’s food editor, Claire Tansey, says they usually cost about two dollars for 250 grams) but they’re also high in zinc, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Pair them with a buttered baguette and call it dinner.
The four students gather round two kilos of steaming mussels piled high in a stainless steel bowl; not an ideal serving vessel for hot food, but it worked in a pinch. They all like mussels, but this was their first time making them. It’s also the first meal these roommates have shared since moving in together this September, although you’d be hard-pressed to tell: as they dunk their bread into the sauce and devour dinner, they talk and laugh as though this were a typical evening. “We should definitely do this again next Friday night,” says Aaron. Mission accomplished.
Learning at these three schools happens outside the lecture hall
Like Rodney Dangerfield and rolling in the mud, Concordia University has a tendency to be underappreciated. Long considered the red-headed stepchild of Montreal’s two English universities, it is often lost in the ivy-tinged shadow of McGill. Many wear their alma mater’s scruffier-than-thou reputation on their sleeve. “Concordia is to McGill what the United Church is to Catholicism,” says one-time contemporary dance major Amy Blackmore. Still, the university has consistently found itself on the wrong end of Maclean’s rankings.
But while the numbers may show the 30,000-student university has certain challenges, they obscure many of the innovative aspects of a Concordia education that attract people like Amy Blackmore. Case in point: the faculty of fine arts, based in the glass-and-steel confines of the university’s new Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex. By design, the roughly 3,700 fine arts students live and work in one of Montreal’s busiest strips—from which students and faculty alike draw inspiration. “There’s no sense of there being an ivory tower here,” says Chris Salter, a computer design professor. “There are no closed-off spaces. There’s more of what I’d call seepage.”
“Seepage” is an odd yet apt description of the department’s philosophy. Students who choose ﬁne arts won’t simply learn their chosen craft; more often than not, they’ll learn how to put it to use once they graduate. The department of design and computation arts doesn’t simply teach the esoteric aspects of the craft, but the practical as well. “In any given week I’ll be teaching the academic, such as media theory, to the hard-core technical, like digital audio design,” says Salter. The department offers a double major in computer science and computation arts, the only one of its kind in North America.
If there is a technological pièce de résistance in the department, it’s the Hexagram Institute. Established in 2001, it is the conglomeration of 16 so-called “new media labs” devoted solely to what the university calls “new processes, creative communities and innovative works or prototypes.” Translation: students get to dream up and make really, really cool stuff.
D. Andrew Stewart, a Concordia graduate, is using Matralab (one of the Hexagram’s spaces) to hone the T-Stick, a length of plumbing tube stuffed with electronics and layered with a touch-sensitive surface. The tube reacts to movement and touch, and when hooked up to a computer it can be manipulated to make custom sounds (a flute, maybe, or a sample of Stewart yelling something quasi-obscene). “It’s all open source,” Stewart says, “meaning you could build one yourself with instructions from the Internet. The gyroscope in it is from a Nintendo Wii controller.”
Matralab director Sandeep Bhagwati, who is also one of nine Canada Research Chairs in fine arts, says Stewart’s T-Stick is typical of the department’s beyond-the-box, interdisciplinary approach to art and performance. Indeed, it’s what attracted him to Concordia. “I have a very structured background as an orchestra director and composition professor,” Bhagwati says. “I really don’t like the divides. I needed input from people who were not musicians.”
Music therapy is another example of the department’s mix of theory and practicality. Music majors typically had three choices once they graduate: teaching, performing or gut-wrenching unemployment. You might say that Concordia’s music therapy program is a welcome fourth option. One of only two master’s-level programs in the country, music therapy students spend three days a week during the 12-month period (a total of 1,200 hours) working at various prenatal, health and palliative care centres, as well as women’s shelters and special education facilities around Montreal.
For professor P. K. Langshaw, interaction with the community at large goes both ways. In 2001, Langshaw began an ad hoc outreach program between her students and those of Dans La Rue, a resource centre for street kids featuring an alternative school. The reason: Langshaw, whose many specialties include computer art design, wanted to demystify the subject for DLR students. Her instinct has legs: today, DLR students can take classes at Concordia, earning the equivalent of six credits for producing university-level works. “For a lot of DLR kids, digital self-expression isn’t something that’s necessarily in their realm,” Langshaw says. “But here they are treated the same as any Concordia student.” It’s a ﬁtting partnership: Concordia itself is dans la rue—and proud to be far away from the ivory towers of certain other universities.
- Martin Patriquin