Category Archives: Education

Early learning programs play critical role

 

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A debate now rages over what constitutes a proper grade-school education in Canada. Should it be, for example, a straight, by-the-numbers approach (literally) to teaching math? Or should it be a more flexible, creative, play-based model of problem solving?

It matters, because, until just recently, Canadian children have lagged their counterparts in other developed countries on international tests of basic numeracy and literacy skills. Increasingly, the best jobs in the world are going to European kids, whose educational systems have given them a leg up in the competitive, knowledge-reliant global economy.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent study on the efficacy of full-day kindergarten in Ontario – introduced four gears ago – is generating ample heat in the pages of the nation’s self-appointed arbiter of social values.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, bylined a story claiming that a new analysis from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto “is raising questions about the value of full-day kindergarten, showing children attending the program in Ontario are no better in reading, writing and number knowledge at the end if Grade 1 than their half-day peers.”

The piece quoted study leader Janette Pelletier, a professor at OISE, thusly: “I would say the challenge is to improve play-based programs that contribute to lasting change in things like writing and number knowledge. And we want to make sure that learning in Grades 1 and 2 builds on engaging learning in full-day kindergarten.” 

Within a day of the article’s publication, the Globe’s letters page bristled with commentary, both for and against FDK, starting with Professor Pelletier, herself. “Your report on my preliminary research,” she wrote, “did not put enough emphasis on the significant benefits of full-day kindergarten. I stressed that the findings of the study show the strong vocabulary and self-regulation benefits of full-day kindergarten. These are the cornerstones for life-long benefits of early childhood programs, including better education and mental health.”

Moreover, she scolded, “cherry-picking to create a negative impression regarding positive research results is not helpful to the public discourse about something as important as early childhood education.”  

Such are the perils, perhaps, of reporting from the front lines of the great and eternal conflict over human perfectibility. How do we measure achievement, and which achievements are more relevant than others at various stages in a kid’s academic career? What’s more, whose opinions should we heed? 

Doretta Wilson of the Society for Quality Education in Toronto thinks that would be her. In a letter she wrote wrote to the Globe, she insisted that “the best way to ensure that children are prepared to learn is to implement explicit, direct instruction of primary reading and mathematics in Grades 1 to 3.”

But is this actually verifiable? Is the best way to make kids active learners to keep them out of early childhood education programs and away from school until the last, possible minute and only then commence drilling math and language concepts into their supple minds. 

All of which, of course, misses the larger point about play-oriented (yet, also structured) early childhood education: Its true value, as Professor Pelletier and other experts in the field attest, is in its capacity to nurture and encourage certain qualities of character and habits of mind and expression that are foundation stones to later learning.

In her letter to the Globe on March 31, Kerry McCuaig, fellow in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre of the University of Toronto, wrote, “all the full-day children (in the OISE study) were significantly ahead of their half-day counterparts in self-regulation, which includes impulse control and the ability to focus on tasks. Research is showing that self-regulation may be far more important than IQ in determining the grades children achieve in school, attendance, time spent on homework, how aggressive they are, and even how vulnerable they are to risky behaviour as teens.” 

In fact, the body of evidence suggests that early childhood learning before and right through full-day kindergarten is not the expensive frill its detractors claim; rather, it is an essential aspect of a student’s entire academic career, and a fundamental predictor of human health and social stability. 

The only debate that now makes sense having is how best to implement these programs universally and publicly across Canada. 

 

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Cheaters, it seems, always prosper

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The scribe who penned the following line describes himself as a tenure-tracked academic: “I have not been successful in getting most cheaters I’ve caught removed from the university, only one, and it was their forth time being caught in three years.”

I must assume from the author’s grammatical misadventure (surely not his or her “forth” time at a keyboard), which appears in a letter posted beneath an online CBC report on rampant cheating in Canadian universities, that he or she is not on any tenure currently tracking in any academic department relating to the teaching of English.

Still, perhaps there is some brutal symmetry in the Ivory Tower, after all. Pedagogues, it appears, can’t write; their students, meanwhile, evince no interest in learning when easier and more efficient options are plentiful.

“A CBC survey of Canadian universities shows more than 7,000 students were disciplined for academic cheating in 2011-12, a finding experts say falls well short of the number of students who actually cheat,” the broadcaster reported this week.

According to the piece, Julia Christensen Hughes, dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says, “There’s a huge gap between what students are telling us they’re doing and the numbers of students that are being caught and sanctioned for those behaviours.”

The survey data – which indicates that cheating is certainly systematic at universities across Canada, but not yet prevalent – seems to bear out her claims. Indeed, apart from underreported incidences of dissimulation, pupils at Atlantic Canada’s fine institutions of higher learning appear, at least officially, pretty clean.

The University of New Brunswick reported 33 cases of student plagiarism, or 0.3 per cent of the 10,000-strong student body. The University of Moncton reported 56 cases of plagiarism, or just under one per cent of the 6,000 student population. Crandall University fared slightly worse with 12 cases of plagiarism, or 1.5 per cent of its 1,000 student population.

Dalhousie University, a much larger institution than any of New Brunswick’s colleges and institutes, reported a broader suite of infractions – everything from plagiarism to “unauthorized aid”. Still, such cases only amounted to 1.3 per cent of its 18,000 student population.

Frankly, even if these numbers only scratch the surface, what’s truly shocking are some of the perpetrators’ attitudes.

The CBC quotes one student, speaking on condition of anonymity, thusly: “The professor left the room. I reached into my bag and I looked at some keywords to help me. I’d challenge anyone who can say that they haven’t broken the law. So for me to have cheated on an exam to get ahead in life, I think it’s wrong, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing that could be done.”

Another was even more cold-eyed about his crime: “We just had to get it done. I had to get these assignments done and they had to be right.”

Like just about everything else in this cash-and-carry society, the university experience has been illegitimately commodified, packaged and gamed for any who can afford to pay for it on the down low.

Take, for example, essay writing services. These are not illegal, per se. But are they ethical?

That’s the question Richard Gunderman, an M.D. and PhD. at Indiana University, posed in the Atlantic magazine a hear ago. In his piece, “Write my essay, please!” he observed that “essay writing has become a cottage industry premised on systematic flaunting of the most basic aims of higher education. The very fact that such services exist reflects a deep and widespread misunderstanding of why colleges and universities ask students to write essays in the first place.”

He morosely concludes that “some students may question the very value of writing term papers. After all, they may ask, how many contemporary jobs really require such archaic forms of writing? And what is the point of doing research and formulating an argument when reams of information on virtually any topic are available at the click of a button on the Internet? Some may even doubt the relevance of the whole college experience.”

Of course, when teacher, himself, can’t string a few words together to save his academic bacon, you have to wonder whether the little cheaters are on to something.

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Training the literate mind: the younger the better

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As two New Brunswick political leaders duke it out over the wisdom of a school policy that neither seems to fully comprehend, at least one educator is fixing her gaze on the only issue that truly matters in the pedagogical careers of this province’s young and malleable: Literacy or, more precisely, the lack of it.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy threw down the gauntlet last week when he blamed low proficiency rates of reading and writing in New Brunswick on the provincial system of fast-forwarding effectively failed students through high school graduation and into colleges and universities.

Vowing to change this perfidious policy in the unlikely event that he should one day form a government, he declared at an editorial board meeting of Brunswick News, “If you’re a good teacher you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your kids are doing well and you are going to pass them on to the next level.

“But if you’re not as good or the kid is that much more difficult, it takes a lot of the incentives out of the system if there is no social consequence for the child not doing well and there is no professional reason for the teacher to work harder,” adding, “You can’t fail right now.”

To which the Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward predictably harumphed in disdain to reporters: “There is no ‘no-failure policy’ in New Brunswick,’ . . .there are children who do, for various reasons, spend more than one year in a grade level  – that is done in a collaborative process in co-operation with parents, with a teacher, to identify what’s best for the child.”

Indeed, he boasted, “We have an inclusive education system in our province, which we are leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

That, of course, is solely a matter of opinion as there is nothing empirically testable about the claim.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardy’s approach – holding kids back a grade or two until they learn how to read in a system that couldn’t manage to teach them the first time around – seems almost mad.

Meanwhile, Marilyn Luscombe, president of New Brunswick Community College wisely avoids the blame-game altogether and suggests that low literacy is a far more complex problem than the province’s politicos – who adore their policy footballs – care to concede. “We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations,” she told the Telegraph-Journal recently.

“(We have to) figure out more clearly who does what and how we can ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful. It’s much more than the no-fail policy. It’s a lot of elements.”

In fact, teaching kids how to read is not essentially the function of primary – certainly not secondary – school educators. Expecting them to take the lead misses the point of graduated learning and baldly ignores every gradient in human development.

Learning first words, and learning them well, happens in early childhood education programs, pre-school and, ultimately, the home, where mum and dad and older brother and sister help junior practice until perfect. That’s because nature has programmed our species to learn best before age five. These are the optimal years for acquiring languages, developing math skills and recognizing spatial relationships.

It stands to reason that if we want literate, critical, thinkers populating our universities and trade schools, we should spend most of our energies and resources on the early years.

Of course, one point on which all – feuding politicians and bemused educators, alike – can agree: Low literacy costs society in material and tangible ways. It taps the social welfare system, and drives up poverty and homelessness rates. Some studies have even suggested that it increases the incidence of crime, mental illness and drug addiction.

Is there, then, much sense in jawboning about rickety middle and high school matriculation policies – which don’t make an iota of difference to the structurally illiterate and innumerate – that distract us from the issue that truly matters?

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Caring for others starts early in life

He's empathy incarnate!

He’s empathy incarnate!

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Now, according to a piece in Forbes magazine last December, “research, by Rice University sociologist (Erin Cech) who also has a degree in electrical engineering, finds that engineering students graduate from college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered. . . Cech says her findings suggest that topics relating to empathy and public welfare need to be integrated into all of engineering undergraduates’ coursework.”

In reality, the subject of empathy has moved, of late, out of the health and wellness community and into the marketplace, itself. Some economists are even treating it like a verifiable, measurable commodity in a world that appears to be running out of the stuff.

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail last summer. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the central tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education (ECE) is teaching empathy to preschoolers. Putting oneself in another person’s shoes. Coping with strong emotions, especially one’s own. Understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn  in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

That’s not to say that such environments don’t exist in other settings: schools, community centers and homes. Of course they do. Indeed, far too much time and energy have been invested in the rhetoric of divisiveness, as if the institutions devoted to children’s welfare ought to operate separately behind locked doors.

What a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE should do is open all the doors of the village, as it were.

“The feeling of being included is a prerequisite for early learning,” states the groundbreaking Canadian Early Years Study 3. “Children and their families are part of broader communities: neighbourhood, faith, ethnocultural, school professional and workplace. Children bring traditional practices, values, beliefs and the experiences of family and community to early childhood programs. Their sense of inclusion increases in environments that allow their full participation and promotes attitudes, beliefs and values of equity and democracy.”

This, of course, is how empathy begins to take root in the child and, with hard work, faith and forbearance, grow to full flower in the adult.

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The social dividends of an early education

He deserves the best start life affords

He deserves the best start life affords

For such a dynamic, complex subject – teeming with diverse research and evidence from best practices around the world – it does seem strange that some attitudes towards early child education (ECE) in Canada remain frozen in time.

Without regard to the very real achievements of enlightened jurisdictions, administrators and practitioners in this country, the naysayers and poo-pooers continue to contend that a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE is, at best, an expensive frill. At worst, it’s a wobbly experiment that does not, in fact, live up to its billing.

Yet, the results of a study, released in September, of 693 Ontario kids in Grade One showed convincingly that those who had participated in two years of full-day kindergarten (FDK) in that province were far better equipped to thrive in school than those who had not.

The research, undertaken by Queen’s and MacMaster universities concluded, “Overall, students in FDK are better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school. In every area, students improved their readiness for Grade 1 and accelerated their development. Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent; in language and cognitive development from 15.8 per cent to 4.3 per cent; (and) in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent.”

At the time, some likened this to winning educations lottery. Others, however, remained unmoved.

In October, McMaster professor of public economics Philip DeCicca told a national columnist that preschool outcomes are not things that “can be studied in a rigorous way” and intimated that the money required for such programming might be used to more efficacious effect.

I would argue just the opposite.

Preschool – specifically, early child education – is, in fact, something that has been studied “in a rigorous way” both here in Canada and around the world for a number of years. The question is not whether we can afford ECE. The question is whether we can afford to do without it.

This past fall, the Solutions Network of the United Nations issued its long-awaited report, “The Future Of Our Children: Lifelong, Multi-Generational Learning For Sustainable Development”. In it, the organization recommends that “all girls and boys complete affordable and high-quality early childhood development programs, and primary and secondary education to prepare them for the challenges of modern life and decent livelihoods (and that) all youth and adults have access to continuous lifelong learning to acquire functional literacy, numeracy, and skills to earn a living through decent employment or self-employment.”

Meanwhile, as a means to fight the pernicious and growing income disparity in much of the developed world, The Economist (a sober voice of pragmatism if ever there was one) issued this appeal in a September editorial: “A two-part agenda drawing on ideas from both left and right, aimed at reducing boondoggles for the affluent and increasing investment in the young, could achieve a lot. . .Investment in the young should focus on early education. Pre-school is a crucial first step to improving the lot of disadvantaged children, and America is an international laggard. According to the OECD, it ranks only 28th out of 38 leading economies in the proportion of four-year-olds in education.”

All of which confirms that ECE is not the expensive frill or wobbly experiment  skeptics and detractors would have us believe. On the contrary, it is a tangible, real-world application for fighting some of society’s biggest problems. What’s more governments from Sweden to the UK to right here at home in Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and (if I correctly understand the sentiments of Brian Gallant, New Brunswick’s Liberal aspirant to the provincial premiership) are committed to success.

The sooner some of our more frigid attitudes on this complex, dynamic subject begin to thaw, the better for our children; the better for all of us.

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Valuable lessons from La belle province

What price doth the future demand?

What price doth the future demand?

Although Quebec’s Charter of Values is not, by any sane measure, a beacon of wise public policy, at least two of its civic programs indisputably are: its public child care initiative and its school system.

Fifteen years ago, La belle province launched universal, full-day, $7-per-diem early childhood education, a program unlike any other in Canada and one that a recent Globe and Mail report described as a “a wildly ambitious experiment in society-building – a controversial $2.2-billion bet that better daycare can not only transform child development but also vastly improve the prospects of women and the poor, and build a better labour force.”

Today, 15 years later, Quebec teenagers are among the most mathematically proficient secondary schoolers in the world; on par with their counterparts in Japan, and not far off the mark set by those in Macau-China. 

Considering that the rest of Canada declined precipitously in the 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development survey, compared with results from 2006 and 2009, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Quebec’s structured and integrated approach – a “whole child” concept that provides both consistent and standardized learning opportunities from pre-kindergarten to post-grade school – is actually working.

That may come as a great disappointment to libertarian brand warriors, both in and out  of government, who believe that schools should reflect the diversity and often unequal capabilities of the “customers” they serve. 

For many, the Bush-era mantra of “no child left behind” means literally that: by hook or by crook, all kids matriculate either to university or into the workforce, regardless of their respective abilities to make change from a five dollar bill or find the square root of four (spoiler alert: it’s two).

That’s one reason why falling high school drop-out rates in Canada provides only false hope to educators, parents and employers. A far more serious problem is the widening skills gap – a complex problem that many experts say is exacerbated by rickety educational apparatus across the country.

“Jobs are being created, but we simply don’t have enough skills in the right place at the right time,” Alistair Cox, the chief executive of international recruiting firm Hays PLC told the Globe in October. “Sadly, there is a lot of friction in the system, which will make [the jobs mismatch] worse as the economy improves. . .Companies are really struggling to find the high-end niche skills that they need for the jobs that are available.”

Added the Globe writer: “One problem in filling the skills gap is that educational institutions take so long to redirect their resources to the jobs that are opening up, while immigration rules are being ‘tuned to mass and unskilled migration issues, as opposed to highly skilled migration,’ Mr. Cox said.”

It may well be as Paul Cappon, a senior fellow at the graduate school of international and public policy at the University of Ottawa, tells the Globe this week: “Canada will continue its decline in all international rankings in the education field until it develops a national strategy – including standards and shared learning outcomes for all age and grade levels.”

But Quebec’s example suggests that such ambitions are worthy. They even become workable when you consider the economic impact.

“We estimate that in 2008 universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec induced nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program existed – an increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment,” concluded a report by Canadian economists Pierre Fortin, Luc Godbout and Suxie St.-Cerny a few years ago. “By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent ($5 billion) as a result. We find that the tax-transfer return the federal and Quebec governments get from the program significantly exceeds its cost.”

Indeed, given the larger and longer-term contributions of a national model of early childhood learning and disciplined public education to the country’s prosperity and competitiveness, any program would be a bargain at thrice the price of Quebec’s.

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Stupid is what stupid does

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John Manley, the former federal cabinet minister and current president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, does not overstate the problem of falling math scores in this country by likening it to a national emergency.

In fact, he’s utterly correct when he tells The Globe and Mail, “we need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society (because) having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs.”

But apart from sounding the alarm bell (again), there’s not much he or anyone else is doing about what is clearly becoming a structurally deficient system of public education – one that routinely emphasizes social integration over actual learning.

These days, schools are virtual trauma centers. Teachers are overwhelmed patching up kids who are injured by exposure to all the rank perfidies this linked-in, hooked-up, texting, sexting world has to offer, 24 hours a day, every day. They’re too busy wondering whether little Johnny had a bagel or bupkis for breakfast.

The stark fact is that, relative to their peers in other developed countries, Canadian children are falling behind in every subject that matters to a so-called knowledge-loving global marketplace, especially math.

The most recent results are in and they are not encouraging. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canadian 15-year-olds plunged to 13th place, overall, in the global rankings of math proficiency. That was down from 10th in 2009 and seventh in 2006. If this trend holds up, three years from now, Vanuatu will be wiping the floor with us.

Why is this troubling?

“Nearly all adults, not just those with technical or scientific careers, now need to have adequate proficiency in mathematics – as well as reading and science – for personal fulfillment, employment and full participation in society,” the PISA executive summary states. “Literacy in mathematics . . .is not an attribute that an individual has or does not have; rather, it is a skill that can be acquired and used, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout a lifetime.”

Despite these rather obvious facts, however, we continue to enlist teachers with liberal arts backgrounds to instruct their charges on functions, fractions and decimals, because, we have been told, actual expertise scares kids silly. Indeed, the problem, many experts say, is cultural.

“Parents with school-aged children will be familiar with the rhetoric surrounding math education today,” observed Anna Stokke, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, in a piece she penned for The Globe in October. (The good professor is also co-founder of the non-profit organization Archimedes Math Schools and of WISE Math).

“Children are to discover their own techniques, pencil and paper math and extended practice are kept at a minimum and conventional math techniques are discouraged in favour of using objects like blocks and fraction strips. Teachers are told to encourage children to create their own math questions instead of assigning prescribed problems. It is argued that children will then feel successful even if their math skills are lacking. Much time is devoted to projects intended to keep children engaged in math, such as building gardens or creating posters that list examples of uses of math. Parents are told that these teaching methods have been well researched and will benefit their children in the long run.”

That’s the theory, at any rate. But if this approach works, then why, asks Prof. Stokke “are parents across Canada concerned about their children being unable to carry out the simplest mathematical calculations? Why are business owners, tradespeople, university and college professors and scientists concerned about the lack of skills in high school graduates? Why could only 28 per cent of eighth graders in one of our highest performing province – Alberta – correctly subtract two simple fractions on the 2011 international TIMSS exam, compared with 86 per cent in Korea?”

John Manley shrewdly alludes to Canada’s natural resource sector as key to the country’s competitiveness. It “pays the rent,” he says, “but that just keeps us in the house.”

What will keep us in the global game of productivity and innovation are strategic investments in that other, far more necessary, natural resource: the human intellect.

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The many-splendored sources of innovation

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No compendium of great inventions would be complete without a nod to the personal computer. Naturally, those born after Blondie first warbled “Heart of Glass” will almost certainly rank the device as mankind’s No. 1 brainchild.

Clearly, the scientists and historians who contributed to The Atlantic’s Technology Issue (this month’s edition) are somewhat longer in the tooth than the average computer geek. For the cover story, “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel”, they relegated the near-ubiquitous machine to 16th place.

Meanwhile, the top spot went to. . .wait for it. . .the printing press, because, in the words of one judge, “the invention was the turning point at which knowledge began freely replicating and assumed a life of its own.”

In other words, Gutenberg’s invention (circa 1430) is, arguably, more significant in the history of innovation than a box of transistors and capacitors, because, without it, the pace of technological advancement would have remained stuck in first gear.

That’s oddly comforting to an ink-stained wretch such as myself, who was still writing magazine copy on a Royal portable typewriter as late as 1991.

But, The Atlantic’s exercise, and others like it (The Smithsonian magazine is just out with is “101 Objects That Made America”), is more interesting for what it says about how we perceive innovation than for its actual choices.

Indeed, writes lead contributor James Fallows, “One aspect of the results will be evident as soon as you start looking through them: the debatability of the choices and rankings once you move beyond the first few.”

He continues: “For instance, anesthesia, which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer. In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn’t exist? . . .I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction; I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn’t pay for novocaine.”

Here, in Canada, the policy debate about innovation and technology has drawn a line in the sand between researchers and scientists, on one side, and bureaucrats and politicians, on the other.

The thinking, becoming ever more prevalent, in government is that innovations must be “useful” or “relevant” and replete with everyday applications to justify public investment. The National Research Council (NRC),  the Government of Canada’s “premier research and technology organization (RTO)” puts it this way: “RTOs are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life.”

Its vision is “to be the most effective research and development organization in the world, stimulating sustainable domestic prosperity.” Its mandate is to work with “clients and partners” and “provide innovation support, strategic research, scientific and technical services to develop and deploy solutions to meet Canada’s current and future industrial and societal needs.”

The language signals a recent and deliberate shift in the NRC’s position in society – one that’s more closely aligned to the interests of industry than to those of academia. And that worries many in the research community.

“You can’t convert a government research agency into a contract research organization,” Peter Morand, former dean of science and engineering at the University of Ottawa and a past president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council told the Globe and Mail last May.

Added David Robinson of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in the same article: “It’s a very sad day for science in Canada. . .(The NRC) “was established to develop Canada’s basic research capacity and did perform admirably.”

Still, the root causes of innovation – especially of the technical varieties – are notoriously difficult to pin down. It is more often than not the case that hard science and applied research dance a stately minuet, from which emerge everything from nuclear fission and the telephone to the personal computer and the printing press.

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Banging the drum loudly for early learning

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As Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne exhumes the corpse of John Maynard Keynes and pivots from belt-tightening to sluice-opening in her bid to jumpstart the nation’s largest provincial economy, fiscal conservatives are already muttering darkly about the consequences.

Now, they say, is the time for more cutting, more trimming, more shaving. Now, they say, is not the time for economic stimulus of any sort, for what governments in a spending mood like to call “strategic investments”. Ontario, insists the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, “does have room to cut.”

Why, wasn’t it just two years ago when Don Drummond, an economist, suggested that Ontario get its fiscal house in order by avoiding a few costly distractions, including full-day kindergarten, “the cost of which,” The Globe says, the good fellow “pegged at $1.5 billion.”

This is, of course, just the sort of false economy that deficit hawks and their ideologically right-wing fellow travellers love to embrace. And it’s one reason why Canada does not maintain a universally accessible, structured system of early childhood education, integrated into public schools nationwide.

Nope. As parents and grandparents, our political leaders assure, we know best. About everything. We are the bosses of our home lives, the masters of the little blighters we bring into the world. You can keep you nanny state. Just send me my Child Tax Benefit and stay out of my way.

Fortunately, this partisan pabulum doesn’t fortify everyone whose opinions count on subjects economic. It doesn’t, for example, move Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group.

In a paper, penned and dated October 25, the economist states that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run.”

Specifically, he notes, “Investing more in children would help to address Canada’s essential skills challenge. Evidence from an international benchmark study on literacy showed that 5-in-10 Canadians have literacy skills below the desired level for a modern knowledge based economy, while 6-in-10 have below desired numeracy skills. Canada’s performance in the 2012 survey was weaker than in the prior surveys in 2003 and 1994. And, Canadian youths scored lower than the average of youths in other industrialized economies.”

What’s more, “Raising investment in early childhood education would bring long-term benefits. Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”

The obvious question is: What are we waiting for?

Erecting a national system of early childhood education might cost as much as $4 billion. But that’s a bargain given the savings promised through lower incidence of poverty, joblessness and crime and higher rates of entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity.

As Mr. Alexander points out, “Businesses strive to balance short-term priorities with their long-term strategies. The same is true for policymakers. Governments . . .can’t lose sight of the need to develop the most skilled labour force of the future. And, the future is our children. This calls for much more investment in high equality early childhood education and better access for such services for low and middle income Canadians.”

In fact, a recent precedent on the kindergarten front supports the broader argument.

“When looking at the evidence,” writes Charles Pascal (a professor at the University of Toronto, and former early learning adviser to the Premier of Ontario) in a recent piece for The Toronto Star, “the number of children with risk factors who have had two years of full-day kindergarten has dropped from 27 per cent to 20 per cent. Even after one year of Ontario’s world-class play-based learning program led by our highly competent early learning educators, risk in the area of language and cognitive development has plummeted a stunning 75 per cent.”

These aren’t mere conjectures; they are tangible results. And they should be enough to convince even the most uncompromising austerity devotee in our midst.

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When Johnny can’t read, we all suffer

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Some in New Brunswick (mostly politicians) will characterize rising or stable grade school enrolments in the province’s urban south in the vaguely encouraging ways one does when happy appearances mask troubling truths.

Is it heartening that, in a jurisdiction where outmigration among the young threatens to rend the social and economic fabric, classroom head counts are up, especially in the Francophone system?

Do we care that they come at the expense of the rural north, where communities are steadily emptying? At least, the number of bums in seats from Moncton to Fredericton to Saint John, is increasing. That ought to count for something. Oughtn’t it?

Of course, apart from this statistical shuffling of human capital from one region of the province to the other, what matters most is the education of these fresh-faced scholars during their academic sojourn. And in this regard, alone, no one in New Brunswick has cause for any degree of sanguinity.

The news from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent study on literacy, numeracy and skills is in. And, for New Brunswick, the news is not good. In fact, it’s plain awful.

Though Canada, overall, scored just above the OECD mean for 22 countries in reading ability (and just below in problem solving), New Brunswick ranked below in both categories. What’s more, the think tank observes a widening gap between those who can and those who cannot read in this country:

“Canada has a higher proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels in literacy. Fourteen percent of Canadians score at Level 4 or 5, meaning that they can undertake tasks that involve integrating information across multiple dense texts and reasoning by inference. This places Canada above the OECD average of 12 per cent, along with Japan (23 per cent), Finland (22 per cent), the Netherlands (19 per cent), Australia (17 per cent), and Sweden (16 per cent).

“At the other end of the scale, 17 per cent of Canadians score at Level 1 or below. Of these, 13 per cent score at Level 1: These individuals have skills that enable them to undertake tasks of limited complexity, such as locating single pieces of information in short texts in the absence of other distracting information. The remaining 4 per cent, categorized as ‘below Level 1,’ do not command these skills. They demonstrate only basic vocabulary, as well as the ability to read brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information. The OECD average for Level 1 or below is 15 per cent.”

As New Brunswick hovers near the bottom of the Canadian results, the literacy gap in this province is, presumably, more pronounced than in many other parts of the country.

All of which has rung the alarm bell for educators and literacy workers here.

“We continue to have over 50 per cent of the New Brunswick population below a Level 3 literacy level, which we consider to be a high school equivalency,” the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick’s Natasha Bozek told the Telegraph-Journal on Tuesday.

Added Patrick Lacroix of Elementary Literacy Inc. in the same article, “There is a huge amount of work ahead of us. Yes, the schools are making a lot of effort focused on literacy. But it takes the community to stress the importance of tackling the problem and to get as many people as possible involved in this movement for change.”

He’s right. The figurative village that raises the child must also teach him how to read and do math both in and out of the classroom. This requires a cultural shift in attitudes about learning – a basic acknowledgement that these hard skills are simply and permanently fundamental to a prosperous economy and effective labour force.

Is it a coincidence that nations, such as Japan and Finland, which boast comparatively high literacy and numeracy rates are also among the world’s most innovative (if not always the most economically robust).

In the end, it’s not the number of heads in New Brunswick schools that matter.

It’s what’s in them.

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