Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning


The reality of childhood

Besides the controversy over so many education ideas, as the British-French disagreements vividly indicate, non-educational factors must be taken into account. Let's begin with children themselves, always the best starting point when we discuss schooling.

Would-be reformers need to keep in mind that young people are kids first, students second. As the long-time educator Des Dixon has wisely pointed out, "The mark of an authentic proposal for education reform offers a vision of the whole reality of childhood. School is a part-time job for most children, yet the school system sputters along pretending the main activity of children is attending school." We have tried to keep this useful perspective in mind. There are a thousand distractions, a thousand interests, anxieties, and needs, that compete insistently with schooling for the time and attention of young people: sports, watching TV, listening to music, maybe learning to play an instrument, video arcades, malls, glamour and sports magazines, or just hanging out. Even in schools, as teachers across the land can attest, they must compete for their students? interest and attention. Sports, dances, drugs, relationships, gangs, clubs, recess, the nearest convenience store, kids who?ve dropped out - not to say the rivalries among jocks, whiggers, brainers, skaters, alternatives, and all the rest of a complex youth culture - this is a variety and complexity that few adults ever fully grasp, or even seem to remember.

Young people as such may not have changed, but the world in which they operate certainly has. Kids have always yearned for good friends, good looks, and good times, but their lives are vastly more complicated today than they were in the past. Many of the values that are supposed to hold society together are no longer clear or universally supported. At the same time, the institutions that are supposed to inculcate these values - above all religious groups and the family - are often devalued and sometimes appear to have forfeited their responsibility.

Far more young people hold jobs, and work longer hours at them, than in the past. Far more seem anxious about their future job prospects than was true even a few years ago - a perfectly rational reaction to the severe recession and the disappearance of many job opportunities through technology, corporate restructuring, and continental trade. Every increase in university tuition fees is an incentive for kids from less affluent families to consider dropping out of high school. Active sexuality, besides the traditional consequence of unwanted pregnancies, now threatens to result in a deadly, uncontrollable disease. The very physical and ethnic diversity of young people challenges former certainties, as do the great changes that have taken place in the structure of the family itself. While two-parent families are still the most common by far, in many schools a third of the students come from single-family homes. And even among the majority, families with two working parents are very much the rule, not the exception.

Too many kids are confronted by a litany of severe problems they are in general helpless to solve: some are beaten, some have an abused parent (usually the mother), some live in poverty, some have a physical or emotional disabilities, some are victims of racism, some are in contact with drugs, some are children of anxious immigrants with different cultural traditions and may be the products of violent foreign conflicts, and too many girls are sexually harassed - the list is long indeed.

We don't know exactly how many kids have one or more of these problems, but there are lots of them, and they cut across socio-economic strata and across cultures. Students bring them to school every day, and each one is a barrier to learning. A problem that attracted much attention in the months we were at work was the widespread fear that schools are unsafe for their students. So any school that doesn't try consciously to marshal all possible community resources to deal with the deficits that these young people carry is doing a grave disservice not just to them but also to those lucky enough not to have such problems; after all, their learning is disrupted if kids with problems aren't systematically helped. Any school that fails to recognize that the "whole reality of childhood" is rich and complex, and that school is only one portion of it, is looking for trouble. Any attempt to make schools better without recognizing the reality of kids' lives is doomed to failure. We hope we haven't made that mistake.

Return to RCL menu page