Changes in Core Competencies?

The following is my response to the Ministry of Education’s question,

What new competencies will students need to prepare them for graduation and the future?

The question can be found on the Ministry’s new website,


The most important competencies are the ones that have existed for millennia.

In terms of the basic literacy of secondary school students, they need to be able to write effective sentences, paragraphs and extended compositions. They need to understand the differences between writing for formal situations and communicating with friends. They should be able to distinguish words like “then” and “than”, and understand that complete sentences are not connected by commas.

They should have an inkling of ironic tone and common allusions. No, Animal Farm is not merely a children’s story about belligerent swine. They need, in short, enough “cultural depth” to start the long journey towards critical thinking, a process that cannot happen in a cultural vacuum – whatever culture that may be. And if they have to look up a witty aside on Google, the conversation has already passed them by.

Similarly, students should be able to make basic computations in their heads without rushing to a calculator. These computations are not simply “rote memory”; they represent the basic functional relationships between numbers that form the foundation of mathematical analysis and creativity.

Let’s not stop there. Are the rules of grammar completely arbitrary? Is the logic of balancing equations a matter of taste? Is the role of federalism in Canadian politics, or the increasing complexity of animal phyla, simply a jumble of random factoids that we can look up in Google? I shudder to think that anyone who is serious would say yes to any of these questions. 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. As more and more researchers are finding, skimming for information is not the same thing as deep thinking.

What I am saying, in other words, is that we need to be very skeptical about the latest education bandwagon and claims that things have changed fundamentally in our society and in our education system. As a teacher who has taught for almost 19 years in the classroom and online, and at the secondary and first-year university levels, I have witnessed much change, yet I have not seen any fundamental alteration of the “core competencies”.  So I wonder about things. Is this call for “21st century learning” simply a change for the sake of change? Is it a Trojan Horse designed to “teacher proof” our profession and introduce a Wisconsin-style working environment? Or perhaps it’s the result of well-meaning apparatchiks in the Ministry of Education who have little connection to front line teaching? [Would they, for example, survive a week in my remedial language arts classes?] I suspect it is all of that.

I also wonder about the lack of funding. Minister Abbott has already said there is no new money available for these massive proposed changes. But we all know that massive changes require massive increases in funding for retraining, restructuring, and rebuilding. So either the changes won’t actually happen (though there will be much chaos in the short term), or education will be reduced to the lowest common denominator. We might see, in one version of change, personalized learning based upon pre-packaged correspondence workbooks. How else could a teacher deal with 200+ separate IEP’s, 200+ sets of ongoing student research projects, and 200+ sets of tailored assessments? If this scenario comes true, we might see more variation in pace, but much more standardization of content and assessment. How factory-like!

In the end, let’s be very careful. Let’s be very suspicious of glitzy Powerpoints and videos that are long on Rousseauian slogans and short on detail. If the rumours are true, we are at the cusp of a major experiment in social engineering. Let’s make sure that the objects of this engineering – the students and their teachers – don’t suffer from the grand designs, and unintended consequences, of those whose lives and livelihoods exist outside the school.

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