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B.C. Teachers' Strike Is Epic Struggle Of Dinosaurs

09/15/2014 07:09 EDT | Updated 11/15/2014 05:59 EST
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Sixty-five million years ago, a triceratops and a Tyrannosaurus rex fought it out as the Cretaceous period came to a end. Neither realized their struggle was futile since they were both about to become extinct.

The B.C. teachers' strike is another epic struggle of dinosaurs as the Ministry of Education and teachers' union are locked in bitter dispute over issues that have little significance since the market for education has fundamentally changed.

Knowledge used to be a scarce resource, carefully passed from mentor to pupil -- much as a cup of water is passed down a line of people. Each person had to be careful not to spill any while the rare individual was so fortunate as to add a few new drops before passing the cup on to the next generation.

Suddenly, due to the Internet, the body of available knowledge has become an enormous ocean. Our children are bobbing in the current, joining with friends to form groups that change form and composition as freely as water flows. They are finding new ways to navigate the sea of information, communicate, and collaborate.

Adults are largely sinking in the sea of information. Many are unable or unwilling to adapt the new information-rich environment. For the first time in human history, students are able to acquire and internalize information more rapidly than their teachers, yet governments and unions desperately cling to the debris of the old education model as if nothing has changed.

The issue of class size illustrates the absurdity of the dispute since large classes are caused by the unwillingness of both parties to evolve the education system. Students are still forced to listen to often mediocre lectures that have been presented a million times before.

The waste of teaching hours is staggering since the technology exists to enable the very best lecturer in the world to be recorded once and then viewed by millions of students at leisure. If teachers were only released from the burden of preparing and delivering lectures, they would have more time to work one-on-one with students and classes could be smaller.

Much of the curriculum is still focused on memorizing information that can be looked up online in a few seconds, teaching skills of dubious benefit to the students, and helping students work toward acquiring credentials solely for the purpose of meeting antiquated post-secondary requirements.

Advisers help students work towards degrees to secure jobs that no longer offer security and the curriculum drives students away from careers in the sciences by imposing arcane math prerequisites that have been unnecessary since the advent of computers.

The 19th-century education model is not the best way to deliver education in the 21st century. The system could be made much more efficient, enabling smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay without requiring the expenditure of additional resources.

But the situation is even more desperate. Today we know the human brain can reform itself to suit its environment. Children are constantly processing information from parallel streams at high speed. This behaviour has physiological effects on the brain as their ability to sift through huge quantities of information is enhanced while their ability to focus on long linear activities like listening to lectures or reading books is diminished. Many simply can't do it for any length of time.

Obviously, some children do have problems that limit their abilities but the prevalence of ADHD has more than doubled since 1994, with much of the increase occurring in the last decade -- precisely aligned with the widespread adoption of Internet technologies. It seems clear that this increase is not so much an epidemic but a symptom of the human brain's evolution as it gracefully adapts to our new information-rich environment.

Given these changes, we shouldn't force children to memorize anything they can look up online in 30 seconds or less, do anything by hand that a computer can do better (beyond what is required to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts involved), suffer through closed book exams, or carry backpacks crammed with 40 lbs. of textbooks. We must ensure that every child has access to Internet-enabled technology, can access the very best content, and achieves their learning objectives using whatever medium suits best.

Of course, Internet safety is a major concern. Students need to learn how to identify poor sources and search effectively and these should be added to the curriculum. Concentration and social interaction should also be taught to balance some of the negative aspects of the changes overtaking us.

Much of this seems obvious to students. Most administrators and educators are also well aware of what needs to happen, although many teachers are afraid and overwhelmed. The real obstacles are government bureaucracies and unions, both of whom ferociously resist change.

The result is that half a million children are sitting at home watching the government and union fight it out to preserve their influence over a largely irrelevant system. Sadly, nothing is likely to change in the immediate future so we must resolve the dispute and get out children back to school.

Hopefully, the parties will learn something from this experience and move towards a more effective education model before our children's future becomes extinct. Unfortunately, I'm not hopeful that any meaningful change will happen in the near future.

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