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Deani Van Pelt: The pandemic made us reimagine work. Schools should be next

Commentary

Work reimagined. This is a central theme among calls for restoring economic growth in a post-pandemic recovery. But there’s one critical opportunity our economy and society cannot afford to miss: school reimagined.

Reflecting back on this crisis, did our centralized school systems fail us? Wave upon wave of school building closures cannot be ignored and months of lost education cannot be dismissed.

Looking forward, are school systems producing graduates capable of contributing to the economic and societal renewal Canada needs? The answer is key to future growth and prosperity.

In a recent article, Sean Speer suggested that growth comes from “pushing towards new frontiers,” and that what Canada needs is a “frontier agenda.” He doesn’t leave it there. Speer claims that our story is a “frontier story,” marked by ambition and urgency. In other words, we are up to this challenge because we’ve done this before. It’s who we are, as Canadians.

I agree. So, what might a frontier agenda mean for school reimagined?

At the very least, it should be person-centred and place-based.

Consider person-centred, first. This is perhaps the most lingering lesson from pandemic-era schooling. Lockdowns unexpectedly positioned students as central. Each was left, albeit many with a parent at their side, to negotiate the new terrain of remote learning from basement or bedroom. Dedicated teachers, digital platforms, and portable devices all played a role, but the student was the pivot upon which all succeeded or failed.

Each person on the frontier matters. A person-centred education — not to be confused with the antiquated ‘progressive’ framing of a “child-centred” (read: child-indulgent) approach — is about a nurturing environment that prioritizes student learning, while empowering teachers, parents, and the entire school community in their respective and critically important roles. Each brings capacity to learn, to participate, and to contribute.

Because each person matters, person-centred schooling recognizes the relational nature of education, and thus, aims to put students in relation with the best that has been known, thought, expressed, and discovered across time and place in a wide variety of subject areas. As for how learning is designed, students will play an active and engaged part in their learning. Navigating real questions, problems, and opportunities, they will develop skills and capacities through which they can contribute on this new frontier.

The result? School reimagined will embody the frontier spirit of discovery, ingenuity, and usefulness.

Ontario’s independent schools educate more students than any education system in Atlantic Canada.

A frontier agenda for school reimagined would also embrace relationship to place. Of course, place-based education engages the learner with the natural distinctions of the area in which they live — including the local geology, land formations, the plants, trees, animals, birds, fish, and insects of the area — but it should involve so much more. Place-based schooling leans into recognizing and engaging the communities within which the school exists, in order to build and strengthen them.

What does that look like, practically? Place-based education does not exclude parents, extended family, and community. It engages the time and talents of locals. It engages their artistic, musical, athletic, spiritual, agricultural, and manufacturing knowledge. A deep acquaintance with local culture, industry, and the natural world in which the learner lives sets one up for local participation and regional impact — and for much richer national and global contribution.

In other words, school reimagined, to use Paul Bennett’s words from his new book, “flips the system and builds from the school up.” A frontier agenda for school reimagined recognizes the research findings that good schools engage local capacity in school governance, are small, and keep kids off long bus rides to centralized, consolidated facilities where a standardized education is delivered.

Hints are afoot that changes in the education frontier may already be en route. Take Ontario, for example. Eighty new independent schools were opened during the pandemic, and over the last 16 years the number of independent schools has nearly doubled, so that today’s 1,503 independent schools represent nearly one in four Ontario schools.

Actual enrolment data for independent schools during the pandemic have not yet been released, but the most recent Statistics Canada data show Ontario independent school enrolments are growing at eight times the rate of government schools.

Let’s put this in perspective. At 150,666 students, Ontario’s independent schools educate more students than any education system in Atlantic Canada, and almost as many as Manitoba and Saskatchewan’s public systems. In other words, it’s one of Canada’s largest school sectors.

But why is it growing?

A frontier attracts newcomers: folks with vision for building, creating, and contributing to something fresh and promising. This vibrancy is clearly seen in the independent school sector, where growth is driven not only by visionary school founders but by the parents and students attracted to them. Keep in mind, research shows 75 per cent of Ontario independent school parents attended government schools. They are choosing schools that emerge out of self-organizing communities, not because the terrain is familiar but, because these spaces recognize the uniqueness of their child. And, to quote the recent European Union statement on education modernization, independent schools value the pedagogical, religious, or philosophical convictions parents hold for their child’s education.

By contrast, public school boards received stabilization payments this year, “to mitigate the financial impact of the unexpected enrolment decrease,” as “some school boards are facing unexpected enrolment declines,” — indicating significant migration to local independent schools and other non-government alternatives.

If Speer is correct — that what we need is a frontier agenda and that in this post-pandemic era we are pursuing a new frontier of pluralism and diversity in a multi-ethnic democracy — then school reimagined will need to reflect a diversity of options and opportunities. The recent dynamism in non-government schooling indicates the innovation and entrepreneurship that is possible in the entire education world.

The solutions of bygone eras are not the solutions of today. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all, command-tower delivered, bureaucratically-managed, mass-produced, system-centred schooling. Let’s learn from work reimagined. Work is about much more than jobs and will involve shifting objectives beyond mere efficiency to expanding and creating value and meaningful impact for customers, employees, and complex stakeholder communities. Likewise, school reimagined for the new frontier will create conditions where students are viewed as persons and human qualities and capacities are cultivated in connection with community.

Post-pandemic restoration and growth in our economy and society depend, in large part, on our work in reimagining schools.

We’re up to it. This isn’t our first new frontier.

Janice Stein: Canada needs to walk and chew gum when it comes to China

Commentary

President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said that Gerald Ford was so dumb that he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Canada will have to do both as it crafts a China strategy in the shadow of the growing competition between the United States and China.

The relationship between the United States and China will be the scaffolding of the international order that emerges from the ashes of two global events that bookended the last decade — the global financial crisis and the pandemic. These last ten years have played to the relative advantage of China — a financial crisis that started in the United States and went global, and a global pandemic that started in China and was then horribly mismanaged in the United States. American own goals at the beginning and the end of a decade enabled China to gain rapidly on the United States. But the game is far from over.

The United States has never faced a challenge like the one it faces now from China. The analogy to the “cold war” with the Soviet Union is a poor fit because the Soviet and American economies were barely connected. The two powers competed intensely, but on a narrow band of security and ideological issues. The broad competition between China and the United States is of an entirely different order.

China is a significant economic competitor. Its economy is growing fast in the part of the world that is growing the fastest. China’s economy is already larger than that of the United States in purchasing parity power and will likely overtake the American economy sometime in the next 15 years. In this last decade, China has become the largest trading partner of 100 countries, while the United States is the largest trading partner for only half as many. Beijing has also invested trillions of dollars in infrastructure all over the world through its Belt and Road initiative and an equivalent amount in building digital infrastructure powered by its national champion, Huawei.

In this past decade, China has emerged as an innovator and a leader in many of the technologies that will shape the next twenty years. Its companies — Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei — now compete with the best of U.S. companies and lead in digital payments and integrated platforms. China currently lags badly in semiconductors, but is investing massively in robotics, biotechnology, quantum computing, and advanced artificial intelligence. In many of these next-generation technologies, China is already a formidable rival to the United States.

The gifts of this last decade enabled China to close the gap with the United States much more quickly than its leaders expected. Beijing nevertheless faces big challenges that can get in the way of its ambitious plans. Its population is aging rapidly and will peak in the next few years. Its population could shrink by half a billion over the next several decades and the number of workers per retiree is expected to decline dramatically. All of this leads to reduced productivity and slower growth at a time when China’s debt is now over 300 percent of GDP. At the National People’s Congress last month, Xi Jinping promised annual growth of around 6 percent, a sharp reduction from the sizzling growth of the last several decades.

At home, China is cracking down harshly on even mild dissent and is engaging in genocidal actions against its Uighur population. It has suppressed the remnants of democracy in Hong Kong and ratcheted up the pressure on Taiwan.

China is also increasing its defense spending more quickly than its GDP is projected to grow as it tries to establish itself as the undisputed hegemon of Asia. It has asserted expansive rights in the South and East China Seas, accelerated its border skirmishes with India, and grown more strident in its dealings with Australia and Canada. This far more assertive posture is consistent with Xi Jinping’s conclusion that China is rising and the United States is in decline.

Ottawa may have preferences, but little in the way of meaningful choice.

A newly assertive and dynamic China challenging the United States head-on is uncharted waters for the United States and its closest allies. The Biden Administration has yet to define its strategy toward China as it rebalances from the shambolic Trump presidency. What strategy it ultimately chooses will be of enormous consequence for Canada.

Canada will have to choose between two broad strategies.

In a world where globalization is retreating, supply chains are shortening, and resilience has become more important than efficient just-in-time delivery, Canada is more dependent on access to the U.S. economy than it ever has been. It is conceivable that this new world order will push us over the line into an integrated North American economy. We can already hear rumblings in discussions of integrated markets for electric vehicles, vaccines, and essential goods. In this world, Canada contracts out its China policy to Washington and is first in to Biden’s coalition of willing democrats. If the Biden Administration opts for a hybrid of containment and collaboration, so much the better. That option leaves the door open for progress on climate change, global health governance, and modernization of the trading system, all issues that matter to Canadians. If it opts for confrontation, so be it. In an increasingly integrated North American economy, Canada has little choice but to get in line with whatever strategy the United States chooses. Ottawa may have preferences, but little in the way of meaningful choice.

At the other end of the spectrum, Canada continues to plead for exemptions from U.S. protectionism and does what it absolutely must do but no more to accommodate the United States. Ottawa then makes a sustained effort to grow its trade with China and other Asian markets. It walks softly and carries a small stick, all in the name of the preservation of the autonomy Canada still has in a world that is regionalizing. Ottawa stays out of the headlights of the U.S.-China competition and reaps marginal advantage whenever it can.

Neither strategy is cost free. That Canadian public opinion has swung massively against China is an important constraint on the second option, at least for the short-term. Nor will Canadians cheer the creation of truly integrated North American markets and the contracting out of policy. That is a constraint on the first option.

Likely then, our government will mix and match, cherry picking the elements from each that best promote Canadian interests and leave Canada some voice on values. Whatever the mix and match, Ottawa will do far better acting in concert with others than alone.

As a perennial pragmatist, Canada will have to be extraordinarily proficient at walking and chewing gum at the same time.