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Paul W. Bennett: Therapeutic education is no substitute for academic learning

Commentary

The fears, anxieties, and confusion that gripped us during the worst of the global COVID-19 crisis are gradually lifting and exposing an altered world. Therapy culture, so starkly revealed twenty years ago by British sociologist Frank Furedi, is now dominant and more firmly entrenched in Canada’s K-12 schools. Therapy talk is rife in most domains of Canadian life, but particularly in education where “student well-being” has superseded “academics” in curricula, education magazines, pre-service training, and staff meeting sessions. 

Clothed in various guises, such as “Social and Emotional Learning” (SEL), ”therapeutic education,” or “trauma-informed practice,” it is ascendant in our provincial systems. Widely viewed as “an unambiguously positive development,” the therapeutic ethos and imperative has, according to American policy analyst Robert Pondiscio, extended the reach of education into students’ lives and expanded the role of teachers. While it’s recognized and openly debated in the United Kingdom and the United States, the phenomenon remains largely unexamined in Canada’s disaggregated provincial school systems. 

The therapeutic turn 

Provincial ministries of education, school leaders, and most parent advocacy groups have been subsumed in the spread of what British education professors Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes termed “therapeutic education.” Published in 2009 and republished a decade later, their book attracted little attention here in North America. When immersed in a culture, it can be difficult to see it whole or grasp its immense influence. That is perhaps why it was, rather predictably, mostly ignored or simply dismissed in Canadian education ministries and faculties of education.  

After two decades of governmental focus on raising academic standards, since the arrival of the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) and so-called high-stakes testing, the appeal of a therapeutic turn for school leaders and educators at all levels is understandable. Public support for testing and accountability, however, remains fairly strong, which explains why Canadian curricular and pedagogical reforms aimed at advancing SEL are spun by advocacy groups like Ontario’s People for Education as “broadening the basis” of curriculum and assessment as a new mutation of core academic competencies.  

While therapeutic education’s roots go back decades, Ecclestone and Hayes’s pioneering 2009 book was the first to precisely describe how popular psychology and “medicalized thinking” have gradually taken over classroom practice along with emotionalism. In most provinces and regional school districts, emotional well-being, emotional literacy, and emotional competency have made significant inroads, dislodging academic skills, knowledge, and cognitive learning as the primary outcomes of the education system. 

The Canadian variant of therapeutic education is somewhat distinct from iterations in the United States. Character education and Christian religious values hold far more sway in American state systems, and leading education conservatives such as Chester Finn and Rick Hess see moral education as an essential component of the American educational tradition from the founding of the Republic and the formative days of Horace Mann onward. Up here in Anglo Canada, the public education culture is far more receptive to collective approaches aimed at advancing the public good through well-intended psychological strategies and practices. 

Trauma-informed education 

Torn from its moral and religious foundations, Canadian public education iterations of SEL are totally subsumed by the secular therapeutic ethos and self-absorbed pursuit of personal identities. The exponential growth of therapy culture has proceeded almost unimpeded in Canada’s schools, as measured by the proliferation of child psychologists, mental health counselling, and mindfulness curriculum programs. One of the great ironies of this recent phenomenon is that the purveyors of therapeutic education, ensconced in public health units and education faculties, arrive promising uplift, quietude, and empowerment, but tend to “cultivate vulnerability” and can foster feelings associated with what psychologists term a “diminished self.” 

One of the most trenchant critiques of contemporary social trends, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s 2019 book The Coddling of the American Mind tackled the contradictions inherent in education at all levels from preschool to the universities. What the authors clearly identified was the “coddling of the mind” and the desire to weave a protective web of “safetyism” around today’s generation of students. Fierce critics of the rise of therapy culture in education like Furedi go much further, claiming that therapy culture draws sustenance from trauma-informed approaches, implants a culture of fear, and gives credence to claims that most students are vulnerable and need protection. 

Overdiagnosis of children and teens with broadly-defined mental health issues may well be an unrecognized problem. More than two-thirds of American students, according to Heath and Human Services survey data, reportedly suffer one traumatic event before their sixteenth birthday. In the case of Canada, leading experts like Rosalynn M. Record-Lemon and Maria J. Buchanan, routinely claim that statistics show 76.1 percent of Canadians will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Many and perhaps most children and adults, before COVID-19, were said to be facing psychological trauma and life situations that overwhelm the individual’s capacity to cope. Maltreatment, family violence, bullying, natural disasters, illnesses, and personal loss were linked to “pervasive psychological, physical and developments impacts.” All of this is commonly used as a rationale for the widespread adoption of Trauma-Informed Practice (TIP) in publicly-funded schools. 

Reframing the education debate 

Education is devolving into social therapy for children and teens. For that reason, the tired old debate pitting education progressivism against traditional teaching is losing its resonance. It’s all devolved into whether the purpose of schooling is to cultivate rather than transmit fundamental skills, including core competencies, critical thinking, creativity, and communication. Most teachers tend to oscillate between the two approaches, confronting everyday classroom realities borrowing from one approach or the other looking for, then settling upon, something that works for them and their students. 

Over the past decade, and particularly since the great pandemic disruption, therapeutic education has emerged in ascendancy. It may be more fruitful, as British educator David Didau once observed, to reframe the whole education debate: Give the conventional progressive vs. traditional battle a rest because it’s now more of a contest between “therapeutic” and “academic” education. 

The pandemic education crisis was accompanied by a profound catharsis transforming school systems, over two school years, for months on end, into protective spaces adhering to COVID-19 public health directives, and focused on providing a semblance of rough equity and support for students from disadvantaged or marginalized communities. In Ontario, it’s even spawned a new educational administration venture into “trauma-sensitive school leadership.” 

As families and schools gradually recover from “learning loss” and the collateral psycho-social effects, the almost exclusive emphasis on SEL and trauma-informed practice will subside. When we clear our heads, policy-makers, school leaders, and educators will be more favourably disposed to putting therapeutic practice back in its rightful place: as a support rather than a substitute for meaningful, purposeful, and effective teaching and learning. 

Mark Hill: The future looks dim: Silicon Valley and the race to make everything more annoying

Commentary

The fallout from Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse has been the lowlight of a horrible month for America’s tech sector. Canadian banking regulations may protect us from a financial shockwave, but assuming you use the internet rather than having had a print-off of this article handed to you by a helpful passerby, you might feel the effects of Amazon and Meta axing tens of thousands of people. 

Meta’s layoffs won’t come as a surprise to anyone still using their products. Facebook has bled users, reducing news feeds to wastelands where inspirational memes drift by like typo-riddled tumbleweeds. And wherever the deserters have gone, it certainly isn’t the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg’s ode to setting billions of dollars alight. If it feels like just months ago that we were told “Web 3.0” was going to change life as we know it, that’s because it was, but so far all it’s changed is Silicon Valley’s employment statistics. 

Now that crypto has crashed and NFTs are a thing of the obnoxious past, the new buzz is over ChatGPT, the AI writing tool whose introduction Thomas Friedman recently called “a Promethean moment” that will revolutionize the creative arts, presumably before he was rendered speechless by an unusually feature-laden toaster oven. 

Its hype men may think that ChatGPT is Shakespeare with a dash of Skynet, but as pointed out by critics like Canadian sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow, AI isn’t really intelligent; ChatGPT is essentially a glorified upscale of the autocomplete technology that tries to tack “wife” onto your attempt to Google search celebrities and athletes. Thousands of furtive perverts have already chosen that option, and so Google thinks you might be interested too.   

Predicting what comes next with reasonable accuracy is a useful skill that some venerable newspaper columnists may lack, but stringing sentences together doesn’t make for accurate paragraphs. GPT struggles with math and logic, while Google’s competitor to GPT, Bard, confidently declared the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to be true. A word that sounds correct can often be the wrong won. 

GPT will have its uses, but it certainly doesn’t appear qualified to replace jobs, a fact that has not stopped it from doing so anyway. CNET, the once well-respected tech site, was caught flooding the internet with AI-written articles featuring financial advice that was simple, straightforward, and riddled with more factual errors than a hungover freshman’s midterm paper. Apparently Prometheus is bringing us clickbait. 

Will there still be useful financial advice out there? Sure. But good luck finding it, because Google’s search engine has become so inept that people are unironically using Bing. Search for anything more complicated than “pizza” and you’ll have to wade through a slurry of spam and lies, a problem that arose because, apparently, a growing portion of the internet is nothing but spam and lies. Google profits when you click on ads and feed it data, not when you get a satisfying answer to “What new tv model is best?” 

In fact, most of Silicon Valley’s stars are dimming. Airbnbs, once an affordable travel alternative, are now as expensive as hotel rooms, and their owners expect you to take out the garbage, shovel the sidewalk, and file their taxes. Amazon is flooded with fake and knockoff products. Netflix is raising prices, cracking down on account sharing, and trying to keep us loyal with ground-breaking original movies like Glowering Ryan Gosling Shoots Gun. Maybe you’ve already read about some of these problems by squinting at what few words news sites deign to make visible amid a flurry of ads placed by venture capitalists wondering why none of their stones will bleed. 

I don’t want to be overly nostalgic for the days when Uber was growing by flouting laws and letting founder Travis Kalanick run his company like a frat house, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t found Uber useful. Now, however, Silicon Valley seems less interested in improving our lives and more interested in trying to sell us ways to get so rich so quick that these problems will be beneath you. Don’t worry if your crypto portfolio tanked; you can grab a copy of The ChatGPT Millionaire: Making Money Online has never been this EASY from Amazon

On the off-chance that doesn’t lead you to your fortune, you may wonder what the internet and the companies that dominate it have done recently to solve a problem instead of create one. Our phones are faster and our laptops are sleeker, but we’re using them to log onto Vichy Twitter and see someone elucidate on the economic opportunities of slurp juice. “Summon a car” and “Crash on a couch” are clear use cases. “Believe in the future of connection,” as Meta encourages us to, is not. I don’t want to “Work up a sweat alongside my friends in a virtual studio” by strapping on enough doodads to qualify as semi-cyborg. I want to search for the best gym nearby without having to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. 

The Facebooks of the world want to pretend they’re still agile startups powered by Red Bull and dreams, but they’re lumbering behemoths responsible for important aspects of our lives. You’d think that being a behemoth, with all the power and profit that implies, would be a comfortable position. But rather than coast into the future, they seem hellbent on making our lives much more annoying for the sake of insisting they’re still innovative. That’s not how you save a marriage, let alone a corporation. 

And so between Zuckerberg burning his empire to pursue a sci-fi vision straight out of 2003, and Elon Musk taking time out of his ostensibly busy day to ensure an influential Twitter account named after cat feces remains content, the veneer of infallible Silicon Valley genius has been sandblasted away. What’s left, if you believe the hype, are tools that promise to make the internet even less reliable. ChatGPT’s creators say they’re shocked by its popularity; if so, maybe Silicon Valley needs to actually start thinking about what it’s making.