Aptitude: the missing link in 21st century educational theory

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.
– Lou Holtz

My daughter has started her own company, one that seeks to promote and to support entrepreneurs. We’ve spoken often about the things that she encounters but the one detail that I find consistently amazing concerns the number of jobs available in New Brunswick that cannot be filled. The problem? We lack people with the skills to fill those jobs.

In a recognizably simplistic approach, any number of individuals and organizations decry the educational system’s failure to provide the training necessary to ensure that young people graduate from schools and universities with the skills that the economy requires. Fundamentally, such a claim fails to acknowledge the complexity of human achievement and ability.

Perhaps the “economy” requires 100 computer programmers. In the minds of those who are so often critical of the system’s failure to produce those 100 programmers, it should be possible to fashion a curriculum that will produce those 100 programmers from the first 100 students that are enrolled in a school. If this strikes you as absurd, I say simply, good! The product oriented mentality that has come to infect so much of the discourse surrounding education has promoted a view of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled for whatever “outcome” is desired, primarily with an eye to economic concerns.

Please don’t think that I am deaf to economics. When I was teaching, I always assured students that seeking a good job that paid the bills required their attention. At the same time, somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the importance that, to my mind, was once given to aptitude and ability. Because of the ironic homogeneity of our society’s school system – which claims diversity as a central value – students are exposed to a curriculum standardized and uniform for virtually everyone. The little flexibility that exists is bounded by consistent messages that direct one and all to dream of university degrees and jobs that require advanced technical skills.

My teaching career was restricted to the high school level so my observations necessarily arise from that experience. When I started teaching, various trade opportunities existed at the high school level. Additionally, there were programs designed for students who realized they either lacked the interest or innate ability to be successful at the university level. I’m fairly certain that my last sentence would cause a measure of outrage in certain circles as it has become a brand of educational heresy to use a phrase such as “lacked innate ability”.

Rather than apologize, let me say it again, in another way, by virtue of a personal example. Somehow, I managed to make it through childhood without really learning to skate. I owned skates and even went skating a few times but I never really became anything even approaching adept. That being said, even if I had learned to skate and had practiced constantly, I do not believe I could have been the next Wayne Gretzky.

I really don’t believe many people would challenge the notion that certain athletes have abilities that are exceptional and cannot simply be learned. Why, I ask, is this realization so easily acknowledged when it comes to athletics? Why is it so difficult to apply it to other features of human endeavour?

What frustrated me so frequently throughout my teaching career was the determined unwillingness of those with the power to decide curriculum and the design of the school system to recognize that not all students are the same. I have always held that each of us has aptitudes and interests that need to be identified (primarily by ourselves!) and nurtured.

In my perfect school system, such would be the case. I applaud the many teachers I have known over the years who have held on to that ideal even as the system, driven by a product mindset, has been dominated by an underlying presumption that all students can be molded to fit only the most evident economic needs of the day.

The greatest irony of all? The system’s determined efforts to insist that the proper application of uniform curriculum will provide the needed workforce instead produces a few very well-prepared students and a generation of young people with few skills and little clear idea of what interests them or where they might fit in this advanced economy of ours. Hence the continuing inability of New Brunswick to make any improvement in the rate of illiteracy among adults even as the number of graduates from high school increases.

Until we are ready to acknowledge, in a real way, that differences matter – through curriculum designed to account for students of varying aptitudes and interests – we need not look for any substantial improvement in literacy and numeracy. Consequently, neither need we expect to see those many unfilled jobs being filled by graduates from New Brunswick schools.

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Electoral reform: it’s not all about you!

Being political doesn’t only or principally mean caring what party wins the next election; to be political is to care about the happiness of strangers.
― Alain de Botton

An article this morning in the local paper caught my eye, dealing as it did with a favourite topic of mine: electoral reform. I’m probably not joined by a great many of my friends and acquaintances when I say that I am satisfied with the system we have inherited from the British. Proponents of proportional representation decry how their votes (and voices) are not counted in a system where a party which receives only 40% (for example) of the popular vote ends up with a majority of seats.

Let’s discount the obvious first. All votes that were cast were, very obviously, “counted”. That’s how a winner is determined in an individual constituency. But that’s not the sense in which the naysayers mean “counted”. In their view, in order for their votes to “count” (what they really mean is “matter”), they must see their collective numbers, across all constituencies, result in someone being elected under their party’s banner.

To my way of thinking, this represents a profound difference in how one values an electoral system and, in fact, government itself. Our current system allows local people the opportunity to elect a local representative. Once that councillor, MLA or MP is elected, he/she becomes EVERYONE’s representative. If you are among those who choose to believe that that is just not true, then I suspect you are more partisan and ideological in your thinking than I am.

Representation and governance are not the same thing. Every vote cast in an election is counted but the hard truth is that elections have winners and losers. Those who long for proportional representation will not consider their voices heard until such time as they have a legislator in place sporting the party colours. Governance, first and foremost, should be effective, and a system which tends to majority governments offers the best chance of that. Those in favour of proportional representation argue that it tends to make compromise inevitable. If you take a look around the world, all too often it ends up leading to gridlock and chaos.

No system is perfect and the current one could, undoubtedly, use improvement. Can we please get over the idea, though, that Canadian government is is dire need of an overhaul? We are a peaceful, wealthy, diverse and well-respected country. Surely our electoral system has played some role in making it that way.

As I said earlier, those who oppose the current system don’t like it when someone with whom they are directly affiliated fails to be elected in some way. And the unstated premise is that no one can conceivably represent someone’s interests unless such a person is of the same political stripe. I prefer a more optimistic view, one where the elected representative takes the charge of representing a constituency seriously and realizes that said constituency includes one and all. To me, such a view suggests a respect for diversity that we are, surely, very much in need of these days.

Let’s meet, before it’s too late

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. – Dante

Recent events in the U.S. as well as an interview with one of the federal Conservative party leadership candidates has convinced me all the more that we need to see the emergence of a truly Progressive Conservative option in this country. I know this will distress an equal number of friends on either side of this paradoxical descriptor but it remains my preferred position.

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Kellie Leitch, federal Conservative MP and leadership hopeful, spoke with the host of Sunday Morning on CBC, largely trying to defend/avoid her position on a “Canadian values” test for prospective immigrants. According to her, some two thirds of Canadians are in favour of such a test. Really? I would need to see the question that led to that result or some other kind of evidence before I would even begin to believe it but I won’t make the mistake of dismissing such a claim.

That’s where the results of the U.S. election come into the picture. I was among the many here in Canada, the U.S. and around the world who just couldn’t believe that someone as apparently vile and unsuitable for high office as Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. At the same time, for all of my personal revulsion, I am enough of a student of history to know that people can make choices, to put it mildly, that are not necessarily in their best interest.

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So I’ll pause right there. Chances are I’ve offended someone by now. Trump’s victory tells us that some 60 million people in the United States were able either to embrace whatever it is he stands for or, at the very least, to see him as preferable to the alternative, regardless of his flaws. So I’ve potentially ticked off 60 million. Perhaps someone who agrees in general with Kellie Leitch’s idea will see me as elitist. Someone else might think I’m going too easy on Trump and his supporters. Who knows.

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What I absolutely believe, however, is that the only way forward is to walk the middle ground. While Canada has not succumbed to the drastic polarization that we see in the U.S., I fear that we could be subject to the same forces as led to the rise of Donald Trump. I was never confident that he couldn’t win, however much, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe that he couldn’t. Through my experiences in politics, I know there are people who are quietly applauding a Trump victory (or, like Kellie Leitch, not so quietly). I don’t fully understand how anyone could but then neither can I fully understand much of what has happened in the world that I consider horrifying.

I’ve written, in other contexts (mostly surrounding education), of the dangers of fanaticism. While “progressives” might not like to hear it, I happen to think they fall into that category far too often. They believe that they occupy a moral high ground to which others might hope to ascend and, filled with the warmth of righteousness, disregard those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to climb that mountain with them.

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Conservatives (most Trump supporters, Tea Party and Kellie Leitch variety) are equally ideological. They contend that their view is sacrosanct, and that they alone represent what is righteous and good. Too often, especially in the U.S., a somewhat bizarre form of Christian fundamentalism is mixed in. Whatever the case, in the same manner as the progressives I’ve mentioned, they alone possess the “truth”.

Hence my affection for the “progressive conservative”. Some will, no doubt (some already have), argue that I am simply remaking the designation. I choose to leave that argument for another time. For now, I simply want to suggest that the paradoxical quality of the Progressive Conservative brand points to a much-needed balance. A great deal of ink has been spilled in the U.S. crediting Trump’s victory to the deafness of the progressive left to any voices but their own. Personally, I think that is overstating the case but I might take that up at another time as well.

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For now, suffice to say that I think that tunnel vision has become the order of the day all across the political spectrum. Sadly lacking just about everywhere are nuance and an acknowledgement of divergent positions that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. When you ignore the FELT opinions of millions of people, don’t be surprised by a backlash.

Can we move to a middle ground? Can we imagine ourselves as progressive in some things (socially is the most commonly mentioned) and conservative in others (fiscally being the usual)? Such a clear division is, itself, an oversimplification. I would rather think of “progressive conservative” as a state of mind, one where you are always open to new information, hoping to clarify situations and understand more thoroughly and deeply.

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As an idealist, I refuse to adopt a stance which demonizes either the left or the right. I do not think anyone possesses some absolute truth to which all others must ascribe. Canadians rightly pride themselves on their overall fairness and respect for difference. At the same time, complacency fueled by a sense of moral superiority is a sure way to alienate lots of people. If Kellie Leitch’s claim to have 2/3 of Canadians supporting a “Canadian values” test is even somewhat true, then we need to have a national conversation. If someone objects to the designation “progressive conservative” then I’ll put it this way: please, let’s meet in the middle. And let’s do so before it’s too late. If you need an object lesson, consider this: you can’t unelect Donald Trump.

And the winner is . . . .

The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.
– Ray Kroc
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Blaine Higgs is the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. Truly, a change has come and is coming. Understandably, a great many of those who are busy with their lives, and have little ongoing interest in politics, might shrug if given this news. “Change”, if you were to do a survey of all elections just about anywhere, is the recurring theme of well over 90% of them. Certainly it has featured prominently in any I’ve either been in myself or watched from afar.

But this is different. I say that (and I can already hear the sceptics sighing) because I know Blaine Higgs. I have been there to watch him when he was the Finance Minister in David Alward’s government. I have been privy to a number of the arguments that were had over the path Blaine wanted to follow and the opposition he experienced in trying to implement certain policies and plans.
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I am not overstating the case when I say that I never once saw Blaine diverge from a principled position he had adopted. The objections raised to certain of his plans were almost exclusively “political” in the worst sense of the word. On occasion, he could be overruled but never once did I see him compromise on an issue of principle for the sake of political expediency. I wonder how many politicians of any age can say that.

The manner in which he was selected was the purest form of democracy. With few exceptions, a cast of volunteers comprised the support staff responsible for the conduct of the actual election. Considering that from beginning to end that meant some 13-15 hours behind registration desks or manning polling stations, their efforts should be acknowledged.
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And then there were the supporters of the various candidates. While each ballot signaled a reduction of actual votes cast, the number willing to hang in until the end was remarkable. I was personally involved as a scrutineer and one of my roles had me observing a mobile poll provided for those who could not endure the long line-ups. Any number of elderly and disabled delegates were determined that they would make their choice known, regardless of the waiting, the heat in the athletic centre or any other reason that might make someone depart. Again and again, I was convinced that a great many people felt that THIS leadership election really mattered.

And, yes, I am among those who believe that this was a truly remarkable day. We live in an age where cynicism and politics are commonly combined in the minds of a great many. Watching our neighbours to the south, it’s easy to see why. But we don’t need to look beyond our own borders. I will allow Blaine Higgs and the elected members to outline the failings of the current Gallant government. But one of the many things that makes Blaine Higgs different is his willingness to acknowledge the systemic problem that afflicts politics in New Brunswick.
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Traditional political culture demands that the opposition condemn virtually everything the government does and that the ruling party dismiss as foolhardy or absurd anything the opposition might suggest. Blaine Higgs wants to build a new paradigm, one where a succeeding government builds on the achievements of the preceding one, rather than tearing down all that came before just because the other government did it; one that promises only to govern well and in the interest of all citizens, rather than promising specific things to specific groups in hopes of garnering support.

Make no mistake: this is new. I happen to think it is an idea that has been around for some time but never before have we had someone who is as willing to put it to the test in a real way. Blaine Higgs has said that his first priority is the province of New Brunswick and its people; second is politics. I would argue that if you take care of the first priority, the second will take care of itself.

In fact, the two are really, in an ideal world, the same. “Politics” comes from a Greek word meaning “relating to citizens”. Blaine Higgs was elected as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick through an appeal to our best selves. He wants to stop waste – of people and resources – and to promote common sense and real solutions based on evidence and analysis.
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In a strange but appropriate paradox, Blaine Higgs is the realistic idealist New Brunswick needs for its next Premier. He is an idealist who believes that people want the best and are willing to participate in achieving that best where and when they can. He is the realist who knows that no ideal can be reached without clear direction and hard work. Now that’s a vision for the future that any New Brunswicker, of any party, should be ready to support.