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B.C. Teachers Could Tell Forum A Thing Or Two About Innovation

01/24/2015 12:51 EST | Updated 03/25/2015 05:59 EDT

2015-01-24-fatherandchild.jpg (Photo by gagilas/Flickr)

I wish I could get excited about the BC Focus on Learning: Rising to the Global Challenge forum taking place later this week. I wish I could believe the news release that the forum promises to bring forth ideas that will be responsive "to the unique needs of students." I wish I wasn't so skeptical of what terms like "innovation strategy" actually mean in BCLiberalspeak.

Last summer I learned so many new definitions for words like "benefits" and "affordability" that whenever a new B.C. Liberal government announcement is made, I wonder in how many ways each word can be spun.

I am curious though. I wonder what "international experts" could tell the Ministry of Education what teachers in B.C. do not already know about students and their needs?

The announcement of a new B.C. Innovation Strategy is particularly intriguing. When I think of innovation, I think about the many ways teachers have had to creatively do more with less over so many years of debilitating cuts to budgets and resources.

There is a Hindi word for this kind of innovation -- jugaad. For the past 14 years under the B.C. Liberal government, public school teachers have applied the principles of jugaad thinking to deal with their shrinking resources and found ways to transform what happens in classrooms despite deliberate defunding.

The announcement mentions that one of the Innovation Strategy's purposes is to "gather evidence that shows actions are improving student success." But I wonder what's stopping them from doing that right now. Why don't they simply ask teachers, as the superintendent of the Surrey school district, Jordan Tinney, recently did? Like Tinney, the ministry might be shocked to discover that teachers have been innovating and transforming the education system one classroom at a time for many years.

But there is now a need for transformation in our education system that teachers cannot undertake alone and that is unlikely to be addressed at the Wosk Education Forum. And this time jugaad thinking will not suffice.

The climate change crisis is soon going to force the complete reconfiguration of all our social, political and economic systems, one way or another. Increasingly devastating droughts and floods will test our capacity for innovation and will demand the transformation of civilization as we know it. As Naomi Klein has said, given the reality of climate change:

[T]he task is to articulate...an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis -- embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. ...Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakeable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism. (This Changes Everything, page 462)

She may not have had our public education system in mind when she made this call to action in the final chapter of her book "This Changes Everything" but let's consider the innovative possibility that our public schools could provide a place for the exploration and practice of an alternative worldview, one that could save civilization.

Wouldn't it be truly innovative if the Wosk Education Forum addressed that task?

But I suspect what it will do instead is explore more ways that technology can be used to prepare our students to be careerists and consumers in an extractivist economy while completely ignoring the fact that there can be no economy without a viable environment.

Ignoring the climate change crisis that our students will have to deal with is akin to the band on the Titanic playing while the ship was sinking. Or Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Can't we do better?

What if, to prepare our children for the complete restructuring of our political, economic, and social systems necessitated by the climate change crisis, the dominant paradigm in schools was not competition for grades but instead collaboration to solve real problems?

What if, instead of only teaching our children the traditional literacies -- reading, writing, numeracy -- we also taught them ecological literacy, social literacy, emotional literacy, and other ways of "reading the world"?

And what if we did all this within the framework of ubuntu, the African philosophy that suggests that I am because we are, that my ongoing existence depends on the existence of others?

Could adopting the ubuntu worldview save us from a slide toward a state of barbarism that will inevitably exist should the climate change predictions of the Pentagon and the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change be allowed to come to fruition?

Imagine schools where students were competent not only in reading, writing and arithmetic, but were also able to "read" the land around the school, noticing when there are changes in the natural environment and what those changes meant for birds, for animals, and also for people.

Imagine schools where diverse groups of students, guided by teacher-mentors, worked collaboratively on projects that solved actual problems, gaining valuable experiences while doing meaningful work.

Imagine schools where project-based learning and place-based education were not the exceptions that they are now but instead were part of a seamless connection between classrooms and the communities surrounding schools.

Teachers are always keenly aware that they are midwives for their students' futures. Now, more than ever, they need to be supported in the work that they do to prepare students for a chaotic and challenging future.

Instead of defunding public schools, wise politicians -- guided by an enlightened public -- should realize that teachers, not corporations, are critically important to our future.

If the participants in the Wosk Education Forum addressed the fact that we need to prepare our children for climate change, we will all be able to breathe easier.

But I won't hold my breath waiting or hoping.