Reflections on the Social Studies Conference

On Oct. 21 I attended the annual conference held by the BC Social Studies Teachers’ Association. Given how touchy everyone is about Pro-D, I thought I should mention that I spent my time wisely!

The theme of this year’s conference was a familiar one – “21st century learning”. In the sessions I attended, the tone of the presenters and the audience ranged from cautious optimism to deep hostility. Here are some thoughts about the conference:

  • The motives underlying much of the corporate support for “21 century learning” are certainly suspect. Nevertheless, Roland Case, in the opening keynote panel discussion, reminded us that we should not “poison the well” against corporate leaders who are pursuing educational reform. The problem with this plea for fairness is that motives often have a direct bearing on future outcomes. IF the motive is based on assumptions and a particular worldview – and Bill Gates’s belief in technology may genuinely drive his love for education reform – then we should indeed focus on these assumptions rather than the person. However, IF the motives are self-serving and pecuniary, then these personal motives are entirely relevant to a discussion about reform. Eric Jordan, the former chair of the Premier’s Technology Council (PTC), claimed in the keynote discussion that education budgets are so barren that there isn’t enough money to render his form of involvement self-serving. Unlike some other teachers in attendance, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, self-interest does seem to be evident in the United States, where the “21st century” agenda is more advanced than BC’s. Katie Ash, writing for Education Week, argues that “[w]hile producers of print-based curriculum and instructional materials are struggling, companies that are focused on technology-based instruction and tools for data collection and analysis are thriving in the K-12 market”. Even in BC, companies like Pearson, IBM and Telus are making serious money on education initiatives. [Check out Tara Ehrcke’s excellent account of the corporate involvement in BC’s education system.]
  • Roland Case’s argument that critical thinking can only happen within a body of content was absolutely “bang on”. As I have said elsewhere, much of the content in our curricula is indeed quite stable, and needs to be mastered (and internalized) before any real critical thinking can occur. The distinction between skills and content is simplistic. Yes, they are conceptually distinct, but any experienced teacher knows that skills are taught within a particular realm of content. Knowledge, as I see it, is the exercise of intellectual skills within a field of study. In courses like English 12, English Literature 12 and History 12, for example, detecting bias is an extremely important skill. So how do we teach students this skill? To begin with, we examine content and compare it to other content. So students need to “know their stuff” before critical comparisons and detection of differences can illuminate potential bias. You need to think critically about something.
  • In the first breakout session I attended – the Social Studies Roundtable – a lot of concern was evident for the future of the discipline. For example, the PTC document argues that

    [i]nstruction should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content…. Content will have to evolve constantly, not only to remain relevant but so students are ready to deal with how rapidly information changes in a knowledge-based society. Students must play a greater role in discovering their own content…

    In a content-heavy discipline like social studies, what is its future when secondary students decide what is relevant for their education? Not to be too flippant, but how is anything in social studies relevant when Snooki’s adventures on Jersey Shore are a student’s prime concern? And what happens when a student’s interests don’t coincide with prescribed learning outcomes? In my mind, relevancy and content need a more honest discussion before we surrender control.

  • I attended an interesting session on student blogging. I’m interested in this innovation myself, but after the session I still have concerns. If a teacher links his/her classroom blog to separate student blogs (which may or may not be connected to a school-controlled system), doesn’t the teacher commit him or herself to a 24/7 job as moderator? With a family and many private obligations, I’m not sure I’m ready for that. I’ll have to consider the issue further, I suppose.
  • It’s becoming pretty clear that the challenges facing public education in this province come from a larger wave that is sweeping North America. The wave can be described loosely as “neo-liberal”, a hyper-capitalist (and globalist) ideology that largely eschews social conservatism, but still clings to an economic Darwinism that is centuries old. Toby Steeves, in my final session at the conference, emphasized an important point that is almost forgotten: in dressing itself up in the guise of 21st century efficiency, neo-liberalism is really not much different from Adam Smith’s economic doctrines of the 18th century [except it ignores Smith’s vital theory of human sentiments]. At the heart of neo-liberalism is a wave of pro-corporate policies that have dominated the Anglo-American world since the late 1970’s. In a bid to overcome stagflation and reverse the postwar neo-Keynesian consensus, the corporate world and it allies began a concerted campaign to re-introduce a low-tax, low-regulation business environment similar to the era before the Great Depression. This campaign succeeded, and since then we’ve seen almost every regional and national political entity substantially reduce business regulations and corporate taxation. At the state and provincial government level, governments have cut back their corporate revenues and social expenditures – particularly in relation to GDP – in a bid to be “competitive”  [which is a charitable euphemism for a more accurate metaphor, “racing to the bottom of the barrel”]. BC has been particularly susceptible to this, though it has abated in the last few years… now that we have some of the lowest business tax rates on the continent.

In general, this was one of the better PSA conferences that I have attended. I’ll be happy to return next year!

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