The government of Alberta recently announced a plan to review and update the K-12 educational curriculum in our province. Queue the naysayers, keyboard warriors and the NIMBY crowd… But to all those people, all I can say is this: our kids have already left the curriculum behind, so if we don’t change it, we only further endanger the opportunity for them to progress meaningfully into this world upon graduation.
Our kids have left the curriculum behind? What could that possibly mean? Are we breeding a culture of super-geniuses in Alberta or something? Let me share…
6 months ago at supper my then 9 year old son enthusiastically told me about an initiative his 4th grade class had started. Later, at his younger sister’s Christmas concert, their principal found me and excitedly told me about the class “project”. The project was to help the homeless people of Red Deer have a happier Christmas. Entirely of their own volition, this class of 9 year old children had come up with the idea that they would like to help the approximately 150 homeless people in Red Deer, Alberta. The students approached their teacher with the idea, and being at an excellent public school that encourages creativity and collaboration, the teacher ran the idea up the flagpole to the principal. The students spent their recess telling the principal about their idea. At one point when the ruckus in the hallway – from other students enjoying their recess – became too much, a student got up to close the door to allow this very serious conversation to continue. At no point did one of these children even mention the word recess; they were too engrossed in how to bring their idea into reality to worry about the self indulgence of playtime. Students split into groups: one to write a letter to go home to parents (which we will received that week); one to write and perform an announcement over the school PA system; one to research homelessness and what the true “needs” were; and one to write a letter to staff. How these students came up with this idea isn’t necessarily important here. Why is.
This group of children who should be focused on having fun and learning exhibited a quality that often appears to be sorely lacking in today’s world – compassion. Coupled with empathy, they have resolved to assist with the plight of a group of people they have never met. My son vibrated with excitement. In order of importance, the homeless shelter indicated that the needs of their clientele were: clean socks, gloves & mittens (it gets pretty cold in Alberta), scarves (again, cold) and backpacks. So, the school embarked on a clothing drive to help the homeless this past Christmas season. And a surprising result of their research? A similar size city in Alberta has already “eliminated” homelessness in their community. This spurred the students to write a letter to the City of Red Deer advising them of some of the tactics that Medicine Hat employed to functionally reduce homelessness.
My son is a country boy, born and raised (technically he was born in a hospital in the city, but I digress). I can say with absolute certainty that he has never knowingly met a homeless person. So why would he and his peers be so excited about helping people they’ve never met? Because children show empathy, caring and compassion. Because the world has not yet taken it away from them.
As I drove home a few nights after that conversation, I got to thinking about how impressive this was. Which led me to realize that there are so many other things we, as adults, can learn from our children. I don’t mean that you have to have children of your own, because our children are the children of the world. They are our future and we have a very palpable opportunity to learn some valuable life lessons from them.
Children are natural inquisitive. They touch hot things to see what it will feel like. They stick their tongues to frozen steel poles or bicycle racks to see what will happen (the results are predictable). They ask questions. Many, many (exhausting how many) questions. As adults, we tend to tire of answering those questions but we owe it to our children to answer the best we can. “I don’t know, that’s a really good question. We should ask someone who does know.” is always a perfectly acceptable answer. So why do so many of us refuse to admit that we don’t actually know all of the answers? When we let hubris get in the way of the natural inquisition and education of our children, it’s all of us that suffer. I once read that we are a blank slate when born; the world is our oyster. We then learn through the narrowing of experience, and through rules, and through selective teaching in regimented school curricula, that all the possibilities we thought we had in front of us, aren’t really so possible. We become jaded and we become conservative (careful) in our nature. As a country (perhaps as a culture) that wishes to promote innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, is this any way to teach our children? We need to give them the freedom of exploration, while teaching them the tools of critical thinking and reasoning so that they can work their way through their adventures. If we simply sit them down and tell them that if they do *x*, then *y* will happen, all we’ve done is given them an if-then equation to remember. There’s no learning value or life lesson in that because we have stripped them of their curiosity.
Supposedly we live in an age of coddled millennials who don’t want to work, don’t need to work and don’t have any sense of work ethic instilled in them. Anecdotally, this sounds great, but if you actually examine the workforce statistics and *gasp* talk to a millennial, there’s a very different story. I don’t need to go into the details because there are a multitude of career-based speakers and writers who can elaborate far better. But what I can say is this: millennials (kids, as I call them), WANT to work. The point is, they just don’t always want to do it under the guise of the restrictive 9-5, 40hr/week, sit in an office, punch the time clock type of system that the rest of us were indoctrinated into as followers of the industrial revolution. What do they want then, if they don’t want to work in that system? They want to work. They want to have time to enjoy their personal life. They want to communicate and collaborate. They want to be involved. They want to PARTICIPATE. Wait, isn’t participate a nasty word? I mean, we’re raising a generation of kids where everyone gets a medal or a cookie or a pat on the back for just showing up and participating. How can we breed and train the cold-blooded steely killers of the corporate world that we need to lead us into the future? Well, here’s the thing, and any one of you that actually has school-aged children and is invested heavily in them already knows this: kids keep score. Despite participation medals, despite awards for everyone in the class, kids know who is performing and who isn’t. They are now becoming more and more intrinsically motivated to succeed; they don’t need external motivation like we did in order to achieve success. Sure, they might not want to put in 80-hour, burn the candle at both ends kind of work weeks. But this isn’t because they’re lazy… It’s because they work smarter than we do! They put technology and collaboration and creativity at the forefront, so that they can get done what they have to do faster, and get onto what they want to do sooner. If you asked me, I’d tell you I’m jealous of that generation. I’m envious of our kids, because they’ve figured out already how to work smarter, not harder, in spite of all of our leanings and teachings to the contrary.
Acceptance is a particularly touchy topic these days, particularly in the wake of hate crimes, terrorism, presidential candidates boasting about religious segregation and alienation and the seemingly never ending bevy of trolls on social media and online commentaries. One thing anyone who has, or ever has had, or ever will have children comes to learn really really quickly, is that children are accepting. They forgive others for their mistakes and they recognize that those they trespass against will grant them forgiveness as well. Hardened hearts are a learned behaviour; they’re an adult thing. Our children accept somebody regardless of race, creed, religion, colour, gender, gender identity, sexual preference, family status or genetic makeup. How much better is a world in which we accept people for who they are and what they have to offer, instead of deriding them for why they think or act differently from ourselves? Sure kids fight and sure they pick allegiances. There is little more heartbreaking than learning that your child has been excluded from a group they so desperately want to be part of. Maybe though, it’s time that we look in the mirror and determine if our children are just modeling our behaviour. Maybe it’s time we realize that if we showed a little more acceptance and a little more willingness to be kind, to be human, our children would follow suit and do the same. We talk about ending hate. We talk about ending bullying. We talk about ending discrimination. We talk about ending violence. We talk… Maybe it’s time we act. Our children are watching us. As they formulate their values and their opinions, they will base them on ours. So maybe one day, we should turn the tables and let our children teach us something about acceptance.
Maybe by now you’re asking what this has to do with an upgrade to the curriculum in Alberta. Maybe you haven’t even read this far, but if you haven’t, you aren’t technically reading this sentence so I’ll keep going. What does any of this have to do with changing what we teach our kids, or how, or why?
It has everything to do with what, how, when, where and why we teach our kids. Our children have experienced some of the most rapid technological change of any generation. They will continue to experience rapid technological change. Heck, we have kids in school that are older than Facebook… My point is, our children are learning at a pace so rapid that they are completely outpacing the methodologies used to develop the curriculum they are learning. It’s time for us to update so that our curriculum can catch up to our kids. Sure, math is math, language arts are language arts, theology is theology and history is….well, as they say, history. But social science, sex education (*crowd gasps*), science, technology and a litany of other subjects are changing in their subject matter. Moreover, and most importantly, the WAY in which our children is learning is changing. It’s no longer satisfactory to just plunk a kid down in front of a textbook and tell them to absorb, or to drill repetition into their brain. Education is the act of learning, not the act of memorizing. Our kids are already coming to the table equipped with the skills, so it’s about time that we make sure we’re ready to work with those skills, however foreign to us they may be.
And one last thing… Social license? We can teach that. We should teach that. But you know what? Based on what I’ve learned from my children, from their friends and from the administrators at their school, they already know it and embody it far better than we could ever imagine. It’s about time we stopped leaving our children behind, and let them run ahead.