TW Viewpoint | Crisis in Western Education

April 4, 2018 | Stuart Wachowicz

How has education in Canada changed? Are the youth of today better equipped to face the challenges of society? Or are progressive learning techniques detrimental to our nation?

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In January of 2013 a small event became national news across Canada. Professor Judith Adler, at Memorial University of Newfoundland, had grown concerned that many of her students might be lacking awareness of geography that would enable them to comprehend course issues about global cultural traditions. She gave her students a quiz consisting of a blank map of the world, with instructions to indicate where places and features such as Africa, Europe, Great Britain and the Atlantic Ocean were. To her surprise, many students had not the most rudimentary geographic awareness. Some did not know where the Atlantic Ocean was, even though they could see it from their university ("Lost without a map ", The National Post, Jan 13, 2013).

The nation was horrified. How could it be that high school graduates could complete schooling and have such a knowledge deficit? Yet this was not the first sign of trouble in the nation's schools. In September 2007 MacLean's Magazine ran an article reporting on a study released by Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist of TD Bank Financial Group.

The Canadian economy could enjoy a $32-billion boost if literacy rates were improved by only one percent… It represents an extraordinary drain on our economy… .

"What is really disappointing is that there has not been any significant improvement in literacy since the 1970's," said Alexander. The report noted that four in 10 high school youth have insufficient reading skills… We need to make sure that every single person that gets a high school diploma is literate. ( Canada is losing billions because of illiteracy, Maclean's, Sept 2007 )

The public assumes basic knowledge and skills are in place in the upcoming generation. The evidence however indicates this assumption is a fantasy. In Canadian schools there is a growing knowledge deficit. How can this be the case? Canada is one of the world's richest countries, with a well-established and very well-funded education system, and a tradition of scholarship.

Many excuse the present problems in education as a result of poverty and a host of other social maladies. But in the early part of the 20th century Canadian schools, indeed schools throughout the western world, were educating large numbers of poor students, many of whom became extremely successful both in a financial and scholastic sense. The problem is not money or poverty. History shows throwing more money at education does not create better results. For example no quantified studies exist that link investment in computer technologies to improvements in student achievement on standardized assessments, yet billions continue to be spent on an assumption.

Beginning in the 1970's a new education fad called "Progressive Education" began finding its way into school systems. Writer Andrew Nikiforuk describes the impetus for this:

The American philosopher John Dewey, the modern father of this form of pedagogy, … reacted to the extreme formalism and rigidity of schools in the 1890s …. Dewey…believed schools should "adjust" children…He viewed schools as instruments for social change… Deploring the traditional emphasis on reading and math, he called for "learning by doing." (If Learning is so Natural, Why am I going to School?, p.34)

Interpreters of Dewey now design curricula mined of knowledge objectives, to allow time for process skills. No one will argue the importance of process, but the "progressive educators" devalue the knowledge component of learning. This is done under the banners of Child-Centered Learning, Constructivism, Whole Language, Cooperative Learning and other labels. The concept of the teacher as expert, passing on information society has determined to be essential, is thus deliberately undermined. Universal education in the west was funded to ensure that the youth would become knowledgeable, and thus continue the nation's capacity to create wealth, and enable culture, history, traditions and norms of civil behavior to be passed on. Yet today society's role has been usurped by a small band of self-described educational experts.

Progressivists rejected this role and ridiculed the explicit teaching of phonics, the code on which reading is based, because they object to teaching rules. Formal spelling has largely been dropped as a requirement in most Canadian and American schools. Given the absence of the phonetic code, combined with the inability to spell, should we be surprised that many students do not learn to read? Handwriting is no longer taught in many most classrooms, despite its known importance in developing both sides of the brain, as well as providing a vital skill. Thus another educational industry is created, helping students "recover" what they could easily have been given with explicit instruction. Even the new definitions of "literacy" do not refer just to reading and writing. Under the new definition the works of Tennyson and Longfellow become literary text along with World Wrestling Federation shows. Memorization, the greatest single tool for developing attention span and facilitating rapid recall and analysis, is spurned.

The flaws of "progressive education" have long been known. This notion that students will sense when they need to learn something and chose to learn it is a fallacy.

No less a scientist that Dr. Steven Pinker, former Director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, a leading expert on the human brain, raises concerns over modern approaches in the classroom.

The ascendant philosophy of mathematical education in the United States [and Canada] is constructivism…Children must actively construct mathematical knowledge for themselves in a social enterprise …. The teacher provides the materials and the social milieu but does not lecture … Drill and practice, the routes to automaticity, are called "mechanistic", and seen as detrimental to understanding…

The better curricula explicitly point out connections … Mastery of mathematics is deeply satisfying, but it is a reward for hard work that is not itself always pleasurable. Without the esteem for hard-won mathematical skills … the mastery is unlikely to blossom. Sadly, the same story is being played out in…reading instruction. … Old-fashioned practice at connecting letters to sounds is replaced by immersion in a text rich social environment, and children don't learn to read (How the Mind Works, p 341-342).

Modern western education is on a path to render its youth unable to compete on a global scale. When well educated graduates of those nations come to the west, their multilingual ability and superior knowledge base will see them rise higher and higher, and those educated here will fall lower and lower. This is eerily similar to an ancient predication made 3400 years ago in Deuteronomy 28:43. Caring parents now need to augment children's education helping them know history, geography and good literature.

The war against knowledge and traditional western culture in our schools reveals another threat. As reading ability falls, books which hold the cultural heritage of the western world will fall into disuse. This includes the inevitable loss of the histories and stories of the Bible, the foundation of western cultural thought.

Perhaps it is time that parents, and indeed all those who will be impacted by the de-education of our children demand that education no longer be the preserve of the extreme far left to experiment with our most precious resource and the future of our country.

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