Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Agents of Change

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney Part 1

Whether it's teaching 5 year olds to be kind to one another or encouraging junior high kids to raise funds for charity or reminding 18 year olds to vote according to their principles, for decades Alberta’s teachers have encouraged kids to be actively involved as citizens in a democratic society. Any education system in a democratic nation promotes the idea that we need informed, thoughtful, active and contributing members in our society. 

If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the evidence which is found in Alberta’s Social Studies curriculum over the past 6 decades.

In 1947, the Department of Education in Alberta wrote “Society wants and needs good citizens.  It is the business of the Social Studies courses to help produce these good citizens, well-adjusted socially and well equipped mentally, citizens capable of thinking intelligently and determined to do their part in bringing about social progress.”

Following on the heels of World War II, Albertans knew firsthand what dictatorships and propaganda looked like, fully aware that “This is an age of propaganda fraught with pitfalls for the unwary, the ignorant, the unthinking and the mentally unawakened.” The Department of Education in a province governed by Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning was determined that schools would train critical thinkers who were equipped to separate fact from fiction and make decisions based on evidence, not emotions. Students who were committed to “social betterment”. Students who had “an appreciation of the worth and dignity of the individual and a desire to preserve the rights of minority groups and maintain justice for all.”

In 1970, under soon-to-be-defeated Social Credit leader Harry Strom, a new curriculum was unveiled “…with optimism about the nature of man and the efficacy of democratic ideals, the new social studies involves free and open inquiry into individual and social values that will serve the humanistic goals of education by offering students experience in living and not just preparation for living…students will deal not only with the “what is” but also with the “what ought to be” and will have the opportunity to make this world a more desirable place in which to live.”

By 1978, with Progressive Conservative Peter Lougheed as premier, the curriculum called for the development of students who are “sensitive to their human and natural environment, with intellectual independence, moral maturity, effective participants in community affairs” which by 1985 evolved to preparing “students for responsible participation in a changing world.” By 1990, under Progressive Conservative Premier Don Getty  the ultimate aim of education was “to develop the ability of the individual so that he might fulfill personal aspirations while making a positive contribution to society…including justice, fair play and fundamental rights, responsibilities and freedoms.”

Our current program of studies, implemented in 2005 under Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein reads “Social Studies develops the key values and attitudes, knowledge and understanding, and skills and processes necessary for students to become active and responsible citizens, engaged in the democratic process and aware of their capacity to affect change in their communities, societies and world.”

Yet today members of the opposition deride the current NDP government for suggesting that students should be "agents of change." Why? For the last 60 years, no matter what the ideology of the day, our education system has tried to teach kids to seek a better way forward-not just for themselves but also for society. Whether we call it “social betterment”, “progress”, ”the opportunity to make the world more desirable,” “making a positive contribution”, or “the capacity to affect change”, successive generations of educators in our province have advocated for students to work towards creating a better world for all. Recognizing that the status quo isn't good enough, and understanding that "To know and not to act is not to know," they encourage their students to play a part in making a better, fairer and more just world.

Education should give children knowledge about the world. It should help them think critically and creatively. It should give them confidence to follow their dreams. It should help break the cycle of poverty. It should show them the world for what it is, including the marvels that are worth preserving and the injustices they need to do something about while providing them with the abilities and skills to act.

I think of the hundreds of kids I have worked with over the years. Kids who are compassionate, decent human beings - great parents and active community volunteers. Scientists and sales people. Professionals and artists and journalists. Conservatives and Liberals and New Democrats and those with no political affiliation. Kids who are now adults who are making changes every day in their families, their communities, their workplaces and on the global stage.

As a parent and a teacher, I want my children to be empowered in their own lives and as global citizens, with the skills, attitudes and knowledge that will help them create a positive future for themselves and the planet. I want them to keep reaching and striving to make changes in their world. What that change looks like is up to them.