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People Without Educational Expertise Shouldn't Draft Educational Policy

Posted: 04/07/2014 7:35 am

When artists depict the future, we should take the time to listen. What if they're warning us of something that could be avoided?

"Brawndo! It's got what plants crave!"

This slogan for the popular sports drink 'Brawndo' is the mantra of citizens in Mike Judge's 2006 film 'Idiocracy.' It's information everyone has memorized, word for word, ready to trump anyone who would dare to question their precious "Thirst Mutilator!" And because they believe so absolutely in the claim, they can't understand why their plants won't grow when they stop watering them altogether, instead feeding them only Brawndo -- since, of course, it's got what plants crave.

The film depicts a society so degraded in educational norms, and so smitten by emboldened advertisement, that its members passively accept the most powerful and obvious ideas thrust upon them. The words are so loud and the font is so bold; how could it be a lie?

Education was replaced by advertisement. No one needed the slightest botanical leanings, since everyone knew that Brawndo was all that plants need. The ad had taught them this; the ad had made it clear.

What does it matter to us? We needn't worry; it's all comedy or science fiction. It's just a joke.

Yet every now and then, black comedy becomes reality.

In a recent piece, DeSmog Canada documented a new role the oil and gas industry will play in the development of primary and secondary school curriculum: "The province of Alberta has recently released a development plan for public schools that enlists Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada in the creation of future Kindergarten to grade three curriculum. Oil giant Cenovus will partner in developing curriculum for grades four to 12."

Big oil in the classroom. You can already imagine the slogan: "Oil! It's got what societies need!" Are children learning to think, or are they being sold a product?

And while the place of industry in the classroom is clearly contested, there is a more fundamental issue at play here: Big Oil or not, why are we entrusting the development of childhood educational curriculum to non-experts?

Speaking on the issue, NDP Education Critic Deron Bilous argues that, in drafting the curriculum, the ministry of education should "[...] remove any partners that are not experts in childhood education. Somehow, I don't think that oil and gas companies have the necessary qualifications." Further, Bilous goes on to ask, why it is that "parents and teachers are being pushed aside to make room for oil and gas companies? I certainly can't even begin to rationalize these decisions, or why the minister would undermine the value of our education system."

The answer seems to be found in that old abysmal gap between policy-makers and practitioners. Why is anyone without educational expertise drafting educational policy?

The actual question of who decides upon curriculum is nothing new: even the role and qualifications of teachers in this process is a contested matter. And who is to say that the curriculum handed down to those teachers is the best material for the students in the class?

Educational experts, in many cases current and former teachers, inform schoolroom policy throughout the country - a cursory search of provincial education ministries' websites reveals this.

But the influence of these experts may fade if they are forced to compete with corporations for a seat at the table. What is the voice of a teacher next to the dollar-strength and political influence of an oil corporation?

And where, in this scenario, are students to learn the value of critical thinking? Of challenging what has come before to make room for something better?

In Ontario the "government is putting a new policy into force this fall that will focus on career planning for students from kindergarten to Grade 12" in an effort to keep students on a straight path to the workplace.

In describing the problem, Kelly Pedro for the London Free Press reports that young students aren't getting enough career guidance at an early age, leading to uncertainty when entering university.

She writes, "With less amount of time to think about career options or ask questions, some students have taken an extra year of high school, entered university when college would have been a better path, or changed majors as their world opens up."

Let that sink in. That they 'changed majors as their world opens up,' is described as the problem.

Clearly the overarching role of education is not to inspire, to open minds, or to pursue learning; it is to funnel children into the productivity machine, even at the expense of intelligence.

This becomes particularly troubling when the entire educational process is turned into a corporate endeavour.

Corporations exercising influence on curriculum could very easily make self-serving use of such practices. In fact, it's difficult to imagine why they'd be there otherwise. They could very well funnel children into their own factories.

Education becomes advertisement: come work for us!

Are we to imagine a future in which children are placed on a pathway to the oil patch from Kindergarten on? Or is that future already upon us?

The child's trajectory will be said to reflect his or her 'personal interests,' but can that future be considered free if there was no discernable alternative?

Changing majors when your world opens up is the same thing as using your critical powers. It is realizing that people change, and interests change, and that the world changes, and there are far more expansive realms of knowledge beyond a single marketable skill.

We do have one thing going for us: we've been warned. We have the comedy and the science fiction; we know what to expect. It's in artist's renderings of the possible future that we see what very well could happen to the world around us. It's our choice to listen to the warnings.

And there's one more thing we have on our side: every open mind so highly sought after, because in the final analysis, it is the children themselves who have to buy what the curriculum is selling.

By David Tracey, DeSmog Canada



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  • Emori Joi, Kenya

    A future teacher outside her primary school in Emori Joi, a pastoral Kipsigis community in Kenya’s Rift Valley. In 2002, Kenya’s newly elected government made primary education free, leaving no time for schools to prepare for the one million additional eligible children. To this day, the government is struggling to catch up, so Free The Children builds schools and schoolrooms, libraries, latrines, clean water projects, agriculture and health programs, and alternative income programs to remove barriers to children attending school, while the Kenyan government pledges to maintain the schools in their entirety, including hiring teachers and providing materials and resources.

  • Emori Joi, Kenya

    Once a dark and overcrowded mud structure, Emori Joi Primary School has been rebuilt by Free The Children. Presently, the new school consists of 9 school houses, a kitchen and library. Not only does the school provide access to education for more than 530 local children; it also serves as a meeting place for the whole community. Since initial construction, academic progress has been at the forefront of the leaders of Emori Joi Primary School. In January 2008, Emori Joi was the top-ranked school in its district! Female attendance and retention have also increased, to almost 50 per cent of the student population.

  • Kamoda, India

    Students at a new school in Kamoda, a rural community in the hills of Rajasthan in northwestern India. Sixty per cent of the local population are Bhils, a scheduled tribe that historically has been discriminated against due to their relatively low ranking in the caste system. The other 40% of Kamoda are Rajputs who have a higher social standing than the Bhils, however, the vast majority of them still live below the poverty line, which is why Free The Children has chosen to work with both caste groups to improve the collective situation in Kamoda.

  • Kamoda, India

    A recent series of renovations at Kamoda Primary School have included a new toilet block for students, an administrative room, and re-painting the walls to ensure that students have a bright and comfortable environment where they can thrive. An enrolment campaign focused on addressing individual families’ barriers to sending their children to school led to seven new girl students at the school, and the hiring of a second teacher!

  • Chimborazo, Ecuador

    Free The Children has been working in Ecuador since 1999 with a focus on school building in the province of Chimborazo, home to the largest number of indigenous communities who suffer from some of the highest rates of poverty in the country. These communities have very limited access to education, water, economic opportunities, health care services and the resources needed to maintain a nutritious food supply, so Free The Children’s multi-pillar “Adopt a Village” program provides clean water, health and agriculture programs, and alternative income projects to remove the barriers to children’s education.

  • Aluo, China

    A classroom in Aluo, a remote community in China’s southwestern Sichuan province. Schools in this region were heavily damaged in the 2008 earthquake, and the lone school in Aluo was completely destroyed. Over half of Aluo’s male population and 70 per cent of females are illiterate, in part because of high drop-out rates resulting from poorly trained teachers. Free The Children provides teacher training programs to improve the quality of education in the new Aluo Primary School, and since many teachers live too far from Aluo to travel to the community for work each day, they live at the school in our teacher accommodations. As a result, teachers in Aluo have become more involved in the school and in the community as a whole. A recent study by China’s Ministry of Education found that Aluo has the highest attendance rates of any school in the surrounding Xide County!

  • Manac, Haiti

    Students working diligently in Manac, an isolated community that sits at the intersection of five of Haiti’s mountain ranges. The five-hour hike down the mountain to the nearest town, Hinche, is not fit for vehicles, and even donkeys have trouble traveling up and down the slope. But the residents of Manac were so enthusiastic about the construction of the new school that they volunteered their time and effort, hauling supplies and donating stones from their yards to be used as concrete for the walls and foundation of the new school. Since Free The Children first encountered Manac, student enrolment has grown to 475 students, and examination results are among the best of all Free The Children schools in Haiti.

  • El Trapiche, Nicaragua

    When we held the inauguration of a new school room in El Trapiche, a small community in the Central Pacific Region of Nicaragua, it was a historic moment. El Trapiche had never before had a school building for its children, not even a classroom. Nearly 60 people gathered to celebrate the opening of the school, including excited well-wishers from neighbouring communities. Free The Children also works in the Nicaraguan community of San Diego, where outside the newly built library there is a new school garden, complete with a wide variety of flowers and vegetables. The community’s teachers will receive training on how to maintain the garden, and they will share this knowledge with the many students and parents who have eagerly come forward to help.

  • Sukudu, Sierra Leone

    Due to the devastating effects of an 11-year civil war that ended in 2000, access to education in Sierra Leone’s Kono District is very limited. Almost all infrastructure—schools, homes, medical and water facilities, and businesses—were destroyed during the war. Years later, the area is still severely neglected by the government and remains very low on the United Nations Human Development Index. Due to the fragile post-war environment, Free The Children implements its projects through a local partner, the St. Joseph of Cluny Sisters, since 2002. All children involved in our projects are war-affected youth—amputees, former child soldiers, and those who have lost family and friends.

  • Asemkow, Ghana

    Free The Children has worked in Ghana since the early 2000s, building and renovating classrooms and schools, and initiating clean water projects in the village of Domeabra, which is about two hours north of Kumasi city in Ashanti Region and about eight hours from the capital city of Accra. In response to the country’s ongoing need, Free The Children is now working with communities in the western region of the country, where these two young students study in the brand-new primary school in Asemkow, a fishing and farming community of 900 people along the ocean coast in Ghana’s Ahanta West District.


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