Bicycles, attendance and the purpose of education

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. ~ Edward M. Forster

So I’m listening to a piece on CBC a couple of weeks ago regarding an idea someone in British Columbia has of licensing bicycles. Essentially, so the argument went, if people had to license bikes, thefts would be reduced, people would be more responsible, etc., etc. I’m sure most of us could come up with a rationale for such a thing. Personally, I don’t have a well-developed opinion on the matter. I don’t own a bike and I’m not familiar with the challenges bikers face. I have to say that, from the perspective of a motorist, bike lanes seem like a good idea. But that’s about it when it comes to my thinking on bikes.

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The people interviewed on CBC, of course, had far more to say about the issue than I could be expected to have. Of greatest interest to me, for the purposes of this particular blog, was the alternative suggested by someone that bicycle use and all the associated concerns (whatever they might be – as I said, I’m no expert of any kind in the field) should be rolled into a course that would be offered in the public schools. Since any proposed bicycle law was viewed as difficult to enforce, having schools develop and institute a bike curriculum was felt to be a better approach. Let’s leave that for a moment.

I haven’t been teaching in over five years now so I’m not quite as tuned in as I once was to what’s happening in schools these days but my attention was captured just yesterday when a bus went by with a lovely poster announcing, on behalf of Anglophone School District South (our local district), that student attendance was important. That jogged my memory. I recalled that I had heard and/or read another article that was summarizing the push that was being undertaken to improve student attendance, something that was equally an issue when I was still in the classroom.

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While these two items may seem entirely unrelated, both, in their way, point to some of the absurdities that the school system and teachers must deal with as they go about the incredibly difficult task of trying to be all things to everybody when it comes to the education of children.

A dedicated course on biking? Really? I’m not saying in any way that it is a bad thing for young people to learn all they can about bikes. At the same time, does anyone really imagine that amidst the many demands already placed upon the system and the teachers who labour there that adding just one more thing doesn’t make so much difference? Think again.

From virtually the onset of my own career as a teacher, though, – over 30 years ago – I’ve watched schools be considered as the natural repositories of responsibilities that might have, at one time, been deemed inappropriate for an educational setting. From courses with such names as “Family Living” through “Outdoor Pursuits”, the very idea of a school has moved far from its original conception as a place where young people went to learn basic skills that would enable them to succeed as citizens in adulthood.

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Please, don’t mistake my intentions: much of what has been added as far as curriculum goes has a place and can be easily defended. At the same time, the notion of the school as an agent of socialization has come to mean more than, in many cases, the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. The emphasis on inclusion at the expense of virtually any other consideration (discipline, learning environment, effect on other students, etc.) is the clearest example of that.

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This latest push on attendance, though, is another manifestation of how expectations and the means of meeting those expectations seldom line up. When I saw the poster on the bus telling anyone reading it that student attendance mattered, I couldn’t help but chuckle. DUH! Does anyone question for a second that it matters?

At the same time, from my own experience, I felt the pain of those who had to devise a campaign for this big push to improve attendance. Over my time in the classroom, I saw any number of attendance policies come and go. At the core of all changes was the conflict between those who believed that only if some kind of consequence was involved could attendance be improved and those who insisted that it was all about making school more attractive to those who tended not to come.

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When I am confronted with the reasoning of the latter group, I confess I want to weep. These are the “school as socialization” theorists who picture human beings as eager learners who somehow get turned off when they are actually expected to be responsible for something. Never mind that as soon as they leave the cozy confines of public schools, a very unforgiving world expects a great deal.

As for the attendance policy here in New Brunswick, all attempts to encourage attendance must be undertaken in the face of the stark reality that not attending carries no consequence. To be clear, if I am a student and I choose not to attend class, the most I might suffer is a letter telling me I should come. Granted, the longer-term cost of no education is not being factored in, but you get my point.

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Initially, the argument was floated that poor attendance was the fault of teachers. They just weren’t interesting enough or something along those lines. Happily, we’re not so far gone (most of us) that we would allow that “opinion” to hold sway.

In different ways, both the bikes issue and the attendance policy point to how disconnected and confused we are when it comes to what we imagine schools can and should do. At one time, I would argue, society’s expectations of a school system were fairly clear. Over the last 40 years, especially, those expectations have diversified to the point where no one could easily specify just what they are except in the very broadest of terms. And as we all know, it’s difficult to arrive at any destination when we don’t know where we are going in the first place.

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