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We need to make school more relevant

Bill FoxBy Bill Fox/Columnist

I believe after spending all or part of 40 years teaching at the elementary, secondary and university levels, I have gained some valid opinions as to what we could be doing to make our schools much more relevant. This comes as a result of a recent column on Michael Moore’s film, Where to Invade Next, I wrote a column, “We could be doing so much better.”

A retired math teacher then sent me some comments … “get rid of math as a subject from Grade 6 to 11…. just teach the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percent, integers and fractions up to Grade 6, and then teach the math necessary in subject areas such as science, business, social studies, shops (auto and woodworking), and culinary, in those subject areas ONLY… then the math becomes RELEVANT for students and students make the necessary CONNECTIONS needed for TRUE learning!”

How stressed were you taking math in school, and how stressed were your children? My Grade 13 algebra, trigonometry, and geometry never served me well in the real world. I thought the comments above were brilliant, especially in light of some recent news articles.

“…Weeks before changes to Ontario’s math curriculum kick in this September, test results reveal half of Ontario’s Grade 6 students failed to meet the provincial math standard this year. The report released by Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office noted the math results follow a steady decline in math performance on its tests over the past five years. The falling scores have been attributed to several issues …which school boards have tried to tackle …as well as students’ growing anxiety associated with math.”

Half of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard on this year’s test compares to 58 per cent in 2012. The Grade 3 math results showed a decline too, with 63 per cent of students meeting the provincial standard, down from 68 per cent in 2012.

Seems to me that the people in the Ministry of Education need a shake up. I’m sure most of these so-called experts were products of the past education systems. Maybe we need to get more normal people who struggled through school, yet still succeeded, to verify the value of certain education.

Schools have become too much like factories with deadlines, and too much structure. In the old days at Paul Dwyer, we used to have a special day when we all left the classroom to pursue things we were not familiar with. As an example, I had never cross-country skied and so two busloads of budding cross-country skiers headed out to Trillium Trails to learn and experience cross-country skiing. After falling, and then struggling to get back up on my skis, a student took a picture for the yearbook. This was not one of my favourite moments, but the day itself was great in that teachers and students alike enjoyed learning activities outside of the classroom, and saw each other in a different light.

So how does Finland do it? Teachers effectively are given the same status as doctors and lawyers. They teach four hours a day, and have two hours a week in professional development activities. Teachers are selected from the top 10 per cent of graduates and recently there were 6,600 applicants for 660 openings in elementary schools.

School starts at age 7! Students rarely have homework or take exams until their mid-teens, yet 66 per cent go to college – the highest rate of any European country.

Science classes are capped at 16 students so that everyone gets a chance to do the practical experiments in every class.

I once took a household science course on making science and math more relevant to our students. Among other things, we learned how to measure the strongest and most absorbent paper towels and how to determine cent for cent what was the best buy. When I took these lessons back to my Grade 8 students, they were very enthusiastic about the new unit we were to take, and proud to take home their results to their parents.

Relevant and practical education can be done!