Education, training, and labour in Atlantic Canada: The big picture

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow)

In my previous AIMS On Campus op-eds regarding K-12 education in Atlantic Canada, I tended to focus on specific issue areas. For instance, I wrote about the value of e-learning in the region’s education systems. I also examined the fate of disused school buildings following school closures. Yet, while following discussions about the future of K-12 education in Atlantic Canada, I found that many debates regarding how schools in the region ought to function stemmed from one concern in particular. In Atlantic Canada—and, indeed, across the country—there exists an underlying tension within the public K-12 education system. On one hand, schools seek to deliver the same, shared experience to students. They hold students to agreed-upon standards: report cards, exams, grades, learning outcomes, behavioural expectations, and so on. They grant graduating students diplomas that have a widely understood meaning—and value—for employers and post-secondary institutions. At the same time, however, accommodating students with varying learning needs, interests, and career ambitions has become increasingly integral to how schools function.

This core trade-off between standardization and individualization informs a number of questions faced by educators, policymakers, and parents in Atlantic Canada. To what extent should parents and students be able to choose a course of study and personalize their education, and to what extent should school curricula set course requirements and standards? How can schools respond to calls to offer additional program requirements perceived to be relevant to the post-graduation world, such as career studies, coding, language courses, and more, while also taking heed of cries for a “back to the basics approach,” focused on nailing down the fundamentals of key subjects like mathematics and language arts? How can curriculum developers establish common, meaningful grading requirements while also challenging academically-inclined students and assisting students with learning difficulties?

Fortunately, several promising educational initiatives—many from Atlantic Canada, and a few from further afield—can provide insight into how schools could negotiate this balance and deliver even more relevant, engaging, and useful learning experiences to all.

Expand and standardize learning experiences beyond the classroom

A number of high schools across Atlantic Canada offer co-operative (“co-op”) education programs. Students enrolled in these courses complete a placement with the partner employer of their choice over a set time period, often for academic credit. This immersive learning experience can benefit students with a variety of academic, career, and personal goals. For example, the hands-on approach of a co-op placement can help to engage tactile learners. Co-op can also enable students to “test drive” a prospective career and afford students learning opportunities virtually impossible to access in a classroom setting—whether one seeks to work in the trades, health services, policing, or another field entirely. Co-op also provides students with advantages are pertinent to Atlantic Canada schools’ mission to prepare students to enter the labour force. That is, co-op entails firsthand experience in the workplace before graduation as well as valuable skills like resume- and cover letter-writing, interview techniques, and goal-setting. Nonetheless, co-op curricula and placement offerings can vary from province to province, or even from school to school. Therefore, educational jurisdictions in Atlantic Canada should expand co-op programs to more schools and seek out partnerships in a greater variety of professional fields, particularly when it comes to smaller or more isolated schools. They should also establish common inter-provincial and inter-scholastic standards regarding co-op learning outcomes, grading, and training before, during, and after placements. (Nova Scotia’s Options and Opportunities (O2) program provides one compelling model for a region-wide co-op program.) By doing so, schools can deliver a learning experience tailored to students’ needs and ambitions, in the context of Atlantic Canada’s labour market, while simultaneously providing a uniform, transferable qualification to those who complete the program.

Pursue tuition support programs

In the words of AIMS Schoolhouse Consulting Director Dr. Paul Bennett, the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP) affords some students with learning challenges “a vitally important educational lifeline.” The TSP provides students who cannot be served by their local public schools with the financial means to attend specialized schools. The TSP is a prime example of how education systems can grant students individualized learning experiences while ensuring that these experiences remain accessible to all. In a recent AIMS report, Dr. Bennett wrote that since its establishment in 2004 the TSP has enjoyed substantial success in meeting recipient students’ personal and academic needs. For provinces which lack similar tuition support programs, such as New Brunswick, the TSP could prove transferable. According to Dr. Bennett, a New Brunswick TSP could, if adopted, prove advantageous for the province’s 1 000 children who could benefit from specialized schools like Moncton’s Riverbend Community School.

Utilize inquiry-based learning

The term inquiry-based learning (ILB) may, initially, prompt skepticism, particularly in the wake of failed “educational fads.” ILB, however, stems from a substantial body of academic theory and empirical research. While the concept has a number of variations, inquiry-based learning is essentially a teaching method where an educator uses students’ initial questions, ideas, and observations about the subject at hand to structure the learning process, guiding students through problem-solving, debate, evidence-gathering, and, eventually, learning something new. Although putting ILB into practice is not without its challenges, the process nonetheless serves to sustain a balance between a personalized approach to education and a standardized one. Specifically, ILB enables students to delve more deeply into aspects of the curriculum which interest them or to focus on elements which they find confusing, while teaching all students valuable research and critical-thinking skills (capabilities which are especially important in the information age). ILB has been adapted to suit a variety of age groups and school subjects in classrooms around the world. Indeed, ILB was recently implemented in Ontario’s kindergarten classrooms.

Offer programs with international recognition

Finally, specialized programs with international standards allow students to pursue niche interests or meet their individual academic needs, while also earning a widely recognized qualification. Examples include the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) programs, offered at multiple schools in each of the Atlantic provinces. These programs deliver rigorous, internationally recognized curricula. The IB’s high school-level diploma program even affords graduating students academic credits at multiple universities around the world. Students seeking an academic challenges could also look to the Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered at some Atlantic Canada high schools. On a smaller scale, language tests like the French DELF/DALF provide a common measure of achievement. Therefore, Atlantic Canada schools should look to expanding their existing offerings of such programs, or even look into additional globally recognized programs with their own unique course content and benefits, like the International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) for 14 to 16 year-olds.

Ultimately, grappling with the questions and debates which surround Atlantic Canada’s K-12 schools requires a close look at the tensions within K-12 education itself. The aforementioned measures, models, and examples from the region—and beyond—provide ample ways for policymakers, educators, and parents to move forward.

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