Three seemingly unrelated things happened to me this week while attending the CTF President’s Forum in Halifax:
- For two full days, I was engaged in conversations with educators from across Canada on the idea quality in education
- I had the opportunity to share a lunch and a 2 hour discussion with SchoolHouse Consulting’s Paul W. Bennett
- I finished reading Kieran Egan’s ten year old book, Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget
(Actually, one connection did exist before I arrived in Halifax: it was Paul Bennett that recommended the book)
On their own, each of these events was fulfilling on both a personal and professional level. The CTF forum gathered together passionate and caring teacher leaders from across the country and gave us something important to talk about.
I connected with Paul Bennett’s writing quite by accident a couple of years ago and it was great to “put a voice to the writing”. We talked about our interests in education (and beyond) and discovered some exciting points of resonance on some of the underlying philosophical issues related to teaching, learning and schooling.
Finally, Kieran Egan always makes me think differently. While he doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers, he poses questions that help me dive beneath the surface of current educational discourse in ways that are always refreshing, if not exciting and exhilarating.
So, let me try to frame the connection in terms of a single sentence:
We’re going to continue to spin our wheels and waste our energy if we make quality the primary focus of our educational change agenda.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Quality is an important goal, but unless we do some important groundwork first, all of our talk of a focus on quality is silly and more than a little misguided. As Charles Ungerleider hinted during his closing remarks at the CTF President’s Forum this week, quality is word that doesn’t carry much inherent meaning. As a noun, it refers to a set of criteria that allows us to make some judgements about the value of something. As an adjective, it attaches those value judgements to a particular object or phenomenon.
We can talk about the qualities of a satisfying meal, but the word quality, in and of itself, doesn’t carry any meaning. We can talk about a quality bottle of wine, but such a judgement implies that we agree on the criteria and agree that they adequately describe what we value about the wine-tasting experience. (My father-in-law and I share a love of red wine, but differ on what we would consider a quality vintage!)
One of the confounding and frustrating things about the current quality education discourse is that it clearly lacks a shared set of value-inspired criteria that would enable us to agree on…well…quality. That hasn’t stopped us from talking about quality as if we knew what it was, trying to measure it as if we knew where to look for it, bemoaning the fact that it is sorely lacking in our current renditions of school, or accusing various groups of not caring about it. Unfortunately, this has only led to polarization, struggles for power and control of the education agenda, and lack of understanding between and among participants in the conversation.
We talk about creating an education system in Canada that reflects our shared values and beliefs. But what are these, and are they permitted to truly inspire our conversations about schools and educational transformation? We talk about moving our schools forward into the 21st century, but what are the principles that ground this energy, and are we in agreement that these should form the foundation of the education system that we want to see.
We need to get our act together—literally—when it comes to working towards the type of school systems that would truly reflect the quality and qualities to which we want to be able to point. But our efforts will always lead to frustration, confusion and acrimony unless we step back, breathe a little, and take the time, both collectively and individually, to ask the more fundamental questions about value and purpose.
Next: Why I believe that philosophy and not psychology will be what leads us towards a stronger school system.