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.

Two different inclusions

Under popular culture’s obsession with a naive inclusion, everything is O.K.
– Stanley Crouch

The Supreme Court’s recent decision that prayer in public institutions – specifically at a council meeting in Saguenay, Quebec – shouldn’t be allowed provides an interesting entry point for a discussion of inclusion, a hot topic in New Brunswick, especially as it relates to public schools. At first glance, someone might be moved to question how the two could possibly relate to one another. Prayer at a council meeting segues into a discussion of inclusion in schools? Understandably, it seems like a stretch to want to talk about the two things in the same breath.

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A story on the Supreme Court’s decision piqued my interest when it used the word “inclusion” in reference to factors which determined the justices’ conclusions. Needless to say, inclusion here means something quite different from inclusion when employed in an educational context. The fact that the same word can be used in such radically different situations points to the problematic quality of such terms when they are used as if their meaning is crystal clear. In fact, as the radically different contexts suggest, definitions and their implications can serve as profound examples of the commonly expressed truth that “the devil is in the details”.

When it comes to the issue of prayer, the view of the Supreme Court seems fairly straightforward to me. While the article notes that our constitution, unlike that of the U.S.A., makes no specific mention of the separation of church and state, the principle of ensuring that PUBLIC institutions are inclusive suggests that favouring a religious stance over an expressed irreligious or atheistic one, has the potential to make someone in the latter category feel left out or uncomfortable. And the solution to this dilemma (let’s leave any discussion of how much of a dilemma really exists to another day) is so simple: before this decision, identifiably Christian prayers were said before council meetings; from this point forward, they won’t be said. Case closed.

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When the word “inclusion” is used in reference to education, on the other hand, it just isn’t that simple. Inclusion has become both a stated policy and a guiding principle in education in the New Brunswick school system. To speak publicly, in a negative way, about the policy is anathema for teachers. If anyone is fool enough to do so, an abrupt rebuke is likely to follow. Having worked in the system at a time when current inclusion policies were being developed but had not been implemented to the degree to which they are now, I have limited experience with the impact such policies have had to the present moment. Based upon discussions I’ve had with former colleagues who are working amidst the current inclusive environment, however, it sounds as though the challenges are many, to put it mildly.

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Just so no one reading this thinks I am someone deserving of one of those afore-mentioned rebukes, I am not writing to voice my opposition to inclusion in schools. As Canadians, we have many things of which we are rightly proud and I would like to think that our capacity for welcoming diversity within our communities is among the most highly regarded. Creating an inclusive society is on a par with any other element which might come to mind when envisioning the best Canada we can imagine.

But, in schools, inclusion isn’t on a par with the Supreme Court’s decision. In the latter case, a judgement is rendered and from that day forth, no prayers in council chambers ensures that one and all are “included” in such sessions. Unfortunately, in our rush to achieve inclusive schools, we employ a similarly narrow view. The prohibition that governs commentary on inclusion prevents anything resembling assessment of its effectiveness from occurring.

When I’ve tried to bring this subject up with people who are proponents of current practice, I am commonly confronted with the assertion: “Inclusion is working”. Considering our penchant for researching everything in education before we allow that it even exists, I am surprised on the one hand that such views are offered without qualification. On the other hand, the defense of inclusion as a principle has become ideological; hence, no time can be allowed for any opinion that questions the central article of faith, namely, that inclusion of all students in common classrooms without consideration for differences of any kind is an absolute good.

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In the case of a classroom, though, what does it mean to say that “inclusion is working”? Do we assemble students in classrooms with nothing more than the express purpose of gathering them together without consideration being given to anything beyond their age and grade level (assuming grade levels exist)? Most people, I’m guessing, would think that what is being learned and the environment in which learning is, hopefully, going to take place would be at least as important.

Perhaps the core of the problem with inclusion in reality – as opposed to inclusion in theory – lies with the either/or mentality that is so prevalent in this age of oversimplification. I’ve been privy to conversations where someone tries to raise a concern regarding a personal experience with inclusive classrooms only to be shut down before the concern can be adequately outlined. This is a siege mentality that imagines the issue exclusively in the framework of “you’re either with me or against me”.

Surely there is room for some honest examination of the impact inclusion is having on classrooms. Good teachers speak of more time being spent in raw classroom management than is spent on actual instruction. And even as I say that, I know that I could easily be assailed by someone who would question my formulation of a classroom as a place where instruction occurs: “we facilitate; we don’t instruct”, or something along those lines.

Even that, though, helps support my point. Classrooms are dynamic places and inclusion is just one element of that dynamic, albeit an important one. Focusing on just one element to the exclusion of all others costs all concerned. If improving schools is our highest aspiration, we need to recognize the true complexity of the inclusion model. If our PROOF that “inclusion is working” is simply that everyone is now in similar class groupings, we end up serving no one well.