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An education: priceless

The perils of not teaching thinking skills

Fade in:

INT. Day. Suburban Mall

Close up: Exhausted, bewildered parents stand in the tile-rich, air-deprived landscape of a suburban mall. Under the artificial light they look particularly grey and drawn. The lack of brain-sustaining glucose is evident in their dazed expressions.

A Muzak medley of Prince’s Greatest Hits plays in the background. "Erotic City" sounds decidedly non-erotic with the additions of a piccolo bridge and string arrangement.

Children, with pleading eyes, dance around the two worn out adults. It is obvious that the parental figures no longer have the fortitude to deny their offspring license wear backpacks, $35 retro T-shirts or binder "systems" with attributes more appropriate for a CEO than a 5 th Grader.

Words, accompanied by soothing narration, appear over the images long enough for the audience to absorb each factoid.

"New runners: $90. Pencil crayons with bonus sharpener: $5.99. An education: Priceless. For everything else there’s…"

Fade out.

As illustrated by the scenario above, back to school shopping is a universal parental nightmare. But we do it because we believe than an education is indeed, priceless. If a Sponge Bob Squarepants backpack makes school more exciting, it’s worth it.

This is important to remember because even a modest spree, such as the one Spousal Equivalent and I indulged in, can result in heart attack-inducing bills.

However, it wasn’t the associated costs of sending Number One and Two back to school looking a little less like extras from Les Miserables that caused me cardiac grief. Shelling out for clothes and specialty supplies was fine. It was coughing up cash for basic supplies such as pencils, paper, erasers and glue sticks that irked me. I considered organizing a protest.

Unfortunately, before I could even get a phone tree together, my attention was swiftly diverted by media intent on whipping me into a frenzy about the inevitability of a teachers’ strike. That particular outrage only lasted until I realized our school district defined "day," as it applied to the first day of school, as a unit of time being 90 minutes in duration.

Upon quiet reflection I concluded that these mid-size irritants were part of a greater conspiracy. Get parents angry about having to buy exercise books, arranging unexpected childcare or incurring the extra costs associated with a four-day week and we’re not going to be worried about the bigger issues surrounding that priceless education, like credentialing.

Credentialing essentially means doing the minimum to get through a course of study to get on to the next thing. It’s the English 100 course everyone has to take in first year college. It’s the program designed to teach students a specific set of skills to do a specific job. It’s the development of a list of traits that will suitably match the requirements of the job market. In short, credentialing is the antithesis of the classical education that used philosophy and literature to teach students how to think. Instead of acquiring a foundation of knowledge designed to generate ideas, students learn how to interpret the ideas of others.

What does this have to do with public school age kids? The public education system has become little more than a set of hoops that prepares students for a post-secondary education that is basically an advanced set of hoops.

Elementary and secondary school, curriculum is often tired and close to irrelevant.

Evidence? Woefully out of date textbooks (some from the early ’80s) are being used to teach social studies, the consequence being that students are being taught about a world that no longer exists. S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders , about a bunch of disenfranchised urban youth in New York, is still being taught to Grade 8s in rural B.C. And at a time when harm reduction models are being discussed as a way of dealing with drug and alcohol issues, the "just say no" anti-drug DARE program is featured in elementary schools.

The development of critical thinking skills is not a priority. Get kids from one academic hurdle to the next with adequate reading, writing and arithmetic and success can be heralded.

Tests today increasingly run towards short answer and multiple-choice styles. While these test formats are undoubtedly quicker to mark than those composed of essay questions, the results offer little proof of anything other than memorization of key facts. Analysis appears to hold less value than it did even 25 years ago.

And discussion-generating subjects, like ethics, are now educational taboo in our politically over-cautious society.

By removing all vestiges of critical thinking – which begins with teaching kids how to think – from the public school system, we’re supporting credentialing and a world where ideas will be accepted instead of challenged. Eventually, what was considered priceless could end up being worthless.

Welcome to the school year. And remember, when in doubt, think critically.

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