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Education (and how we talk about it) matters
Narratives from the United Conservative Party on education have been correct, completely false, divisive, straight forward, and confusing. We need to talk about how we talk about education.
I spent four years with Alberta’s now defunct Learning Clicks program promoting post-secondary education opportunities to junior and senior high school students in Alberta. I’ve continued that promotion with the general public since because I believe in education, its value, and the opportunities it brings.
The presentations we gave to students varied somewhat based on our personal journey and narrative, and also (I eventually discovered) where in the province, and the student’s journey, we were delivering them.
I started in “central” Alberta, covering a region around Red Deer that included north to Wetaskiwin, south to Carstairs, and everything in between from the borders of B.C. to Saskatchewan. Therefore, it was incredibly rural and every school I visited that could have a RAP (Registered Apprenticeship Program) already did.
Teachers in these schools tended, in my experience, to be strong proponents of the program and it quickly became obvious that my mentioning it was a mere formality in the region.
I heard stories that not every school in the province was as accepting of this but I didn’t experience it until I moved down to the Calgary region and began giving presentations in schools there.
Before a presentation in Calgary one day, the teacher asked what I talked about and I gave them the bullet points of the presentation. After I said “apprenticeships”, they responded “oh, they don’t need that — we’re an academic school”.
I imagine the smile left my eyes but froze on my lips as my back stiffened at the slight.
However, I’m also aware that parents (who have the strongest influence on their kids, even if their kids learn things about the world outside of them) can maintain certain expectations or hopes that their children do something they think is “more respectable”.
There is a lot of pressure on kids, especially from immigrant families, to pursue careers that were either unavailable to their parents (because of streamlining and unaffordable post-secondary education), or was more respected generally where they came from. While it may be different here, neither I nor the government is likely to change their minds.
I also attended a career day at one Calgary school where the kids were able to choose which sessions they wanted to partake in — except mine on trades and apprenticeships; it was mandatory.
For that, I decided to tell a story about how much contact they had with a tradesperson’s work before they even got to school in the morning.
From waking up in their bedroom, especially if it’s warm, turning on the light, using the washroom, getting cold milk for their breakfast, having freshly washed clothes, walking on a sidewalk to the bus stop or car, and getting the ride to school, the ease with which all of that took place is thanks to no less than work from 17 different qualified trades.
I only looked it up because I had to — I’m sure most people don’t think of it at all.
Streamlining education cannot be the only option
I have a tonne of respect for the trades but I wouldn’t have considered them for myself. After someone told my grandmother she had “working hands” I asked what they might have said about mine. She replied “they’d have said you never worked a day in your life”.
I was maybe 14 at the time but I got what she meant. She grew up on a farm in the 1930’s and I had the luxury of forced air heating, hot water on tap, and electric appliances. I was also raised in a space and time when our education was more widely promoted because we weren’t inheriting farms.
My aptitude for education was excellent. My motivation — as I began to question why I needed maths and science, or to succinctly demonstrate what I comprehended from Shakespeare or random poetry — lagged; especially in high school.
I wasn’t into studying, or necessarily paying attention in class. I graduated with mediocre grades and pure relief that it was over.
When I hear “streamlining kids for careers”, I think of where my lack of interest would have sent me.
Would they have decided I was a candidate for working with my hands? L-O-effing-L.
I may not be the weekly manicure sort but neither do I like getting my hands (or clothes) dirty.
In junior high, I did try out shop class one year. The lathe was pretty cool. I made a wooden vase, obviously.
Truth be told, as someone who had an interest in writing and storytelling from the time I was five or six, they may have pushed me toward journalism or writing generally, which would have obviously been a good match but I might have missed out on sociology. And psychology. And philosophy.
Those classes both challenged some long-held beliefs (and allowed me to pre-emptively challenge everything else) and taught me more about who I am as a person.
I excelled in university, which my lackluster high school attempt would not have foretold.
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One of my classmates who also excelled in university — psychology, to be exact — was a millwright by trade.
Had he been streamlined out of grade 11 and 12 into the trade he ended up getting, he would have had to redo his 30-levels before he could gain entrance into the program and possibly would not have bothered.
We might be exceptions, sure, but that’s why we offer the same opportunities to all students.
I don’t mind the idea that we seek to offer better programming for students, especially programs that further their interests early.
As someone who went to school in rural Alberta, though, our options were limited — not that I think there’s any excuse for that in the post-pandemic world.
Alberta Education should have a centralized, online course delivery option available for all students in the province to expand their access to learning opportunities. Alberta Education should provide accessible in-person options for trades and other courses that require specialized equipment and instruction. Don’t tell me it can’t be done — there are ways.
However, if we’re going to change the rules for high school completion, we must also ensure that students are receiving the essential education to transition into the post-secondary program of their choice, if ever the interest may arise.
All education that helps a student reach their goal is valuable. All education that helps a student figure out who they are and what they want to be is valuable.
Education should never be focused on removing opportunities for students — that’s the exact opposite of what our goals should be.