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What We Would Change About Education in Canada

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Leading up to Canada Day, the Huffington Post blog team asked prominent Canadians what they would change about one aspect of our country. We are publishing their answers in our series "What I'd Change About Canada" leading up to July 1. You can find the full series here.

We ask a lot of our schools. Teach our children to read and write. Convince them that Pythagorean's Theorem will factor greatly into their adult lives. And while you're at it, teach them intangible things: compassion, social responsibility and altruism.

It's possible.

Some provincial curricula are making great strides with community service requirements or ethics classes. But there's still something missing from our education system. Service learning integrates offsite volunteer work into the curriculum, providing context to the students' service work with corresponding lessons about social issues. This is what we would change about Canada: Compulsory volunteer hours as part of a holistic service learning model -- in every classroom in the country.

Ontario high school students log 40 volunteer hours in order to graduate. In Manitoba, students can serve the community for credit as part of a student initiated project, if they choose. In Alberta, civic engagement through community service is encouraged, but not officially required, as an enhanced learning opportunity. These are all important steps. We'd take it one step further.

Formal instruction should help students learn the root causes of whatever social deficit their volunteer hours help fill. Just like a field trip to the science centre accompanies an actual science class, stocking shelves at the food bank will be an enhanced experience when students learn about hunger; that global food production is sufficient to feed the global population; how local hunger differs from world hunger.

We know there are critics of ministry-ordered community service. It's true that mandatory volunteerism is an oxymoron. But in every other aspect of formal education, students are told what to do -- when to eat, what to wear, not to chew gum in class -- community service is the least arbitrary of these rules.

Studies prove that children who "learn" to serve tend to do better both academically and socially.

As it turns out, being "volun-told" doesn't detract from the experience, according to at least one report. A survey of Ontario's first high school cohort of mandatory volunteers post graduation found that participants were introduced to the volunteer sector when they may not have been otherwise. The mandated component had no negative impacts on their attitudes toward volunteering.

A compulsory experience doesn't have to be an empty experience. But we do agree that if students don't understand the purpose, they won't act with purpose, and that's where holistic service learning comes in. Young people are inherently idealistic. Add knowledge and a structured environment to their arsenal of ideals, and they'll be motivated to make a difference.

We've seen it happen.

Southridge School in Surrey, B.C., regularly embarks on volunteer field trips. Service -- local and global -- is one of their educational pillars, built into the broad vision and the classroom initiatives. And, every student logs at least 30 volunteer hours, every senior year (many exceed those hours). Developing long-term relationships with the communities served is strongly encouraged so that each student is part of the school's legacy.

This shouldn't be an experiment; it should be the norm. Every school should be granted funding and the resources needed to adapt their own service-learning model.

Let's celebrate Canada by encouraging young people to serve our nation's communities.

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