Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning


The learning system: Building a curriculum of literacies

We come now to the heart of our report: our vision of what we wish the entire learning system looked like. Assuming our four engines functioned to open the system in the way we've described, what follows is our newly transformed system in action. Perhaps we'd better repeat that this description is of an ideal system, some may even say a utopian one. But so far we've tried to show that we're neither dreamy idealists nor naive utopians. We know the system won't change easily. We know the reality of student and school life. But we also know that the need for change is great.

We also know what could be possible. After all, almost everything we recommend is actually happening somewhere in Ontario at this time. So our understanding of how good teaching and learning happens, of how fundamental change takes place, of the kind of reforms that would lead to the kind of learning system we envision, convinces us that we dare not recommend anything inferior to the model we describe in Volume II. It is our curriculum for literacies, using the term curriculum to mean not just course content but, in the larger sense, to include the entire life of a school.

As we've tried to make clear, the curriculum we favour is based on two firm convictions. First, we believe that every student can and should learn more in school, that he or she can and should acquire a greater depth of understanding and an ability to apply critical and creative thinking to what he or she learns. Secondly, we are convinced that all parts of the learning system - including the performance of both students and teachers - need to be assessed more frequently and more usefully, so that individual teaching and learning, as well as the system as a whole, can be continuously improved. Once these goals became clear to us, the question, of course, was how to achieve them. This is what we explain fully in Volumes II and III, and we're frankly concerned that we can't adequately capture the complexity and logic of those large sections in this brief summary. Obviously we hope readers will be inspired to move beyond these few pages to the two volumes themselves.

The vision of curriculum we ended up with is a very broad one. It begins with the traditional, and we think very proper, concern for acquisition of essential foundation skills - which have always meant literacy and numeracy, have long included scientific thinking, and now, we strongly believe, these skills also must include computer literacy, the skills of working and learning with and from others, and an attitude of concern and respect for others. As you see, these skills include subjects in their own right, and also ways of learning to learn and think. Some call them the new basics, and we agree that's a useful term.

Beyond these foundation areas come the core subjects, areas in which every Ontario school child must have solid grounding: geography, history, international languages, the often-neglected arts, fitness and health education, and career education. As we pointed out earlier, it could be a great learning experience if community experts worked with schools in several of these core subjects, as we know they've offered to do in a number of centres.

But from the beginning we've talked about more than the traditional curriculum; in fact, we have talked about more than the program of schools. In the first place, our discussion and recommendations are directed at understanding and improving the learning system as an integrated whole, a system that we see stretching not only beyond the individual classroom walls but beyond the school walls.

Equally important, we see basic literacy, even the new basics, as simply the beginning of real learning. Our notion has every student building on these fundamental blocks, as the system takes them year by year to accelerating levels of skills, knowledge, and understanding. But right from the start, all learning should include meaning and context, besides mechanics, and we consider learning to think to be one of the most basic skills.

That's what we mean when we speak of a curriculum for literacies, rather than simply literacy. This is the reason we are sympathetic to the attempt in the common curriculum to have subjects taught in a more integrated manner; after all, outside of schools and universities, knowledge is rarely ever compartmentalized into isolated boxes called physics or geography. We encourage experimentation with this kind of subject integration beyond Grade 9 as well, and worry that rigid departmental lines in high schools, combined with universities determined to fit graduates into their traditional disciplines, may constrain progress in this area.

For the same reason, we're persuaded that there are more intellectually effective ways to teach math and science than are now mostly the case. Many people came to us to plead for more math and science to be taught in our schools. We've concluded that the greater priority is for them to be taught better. With the knowledge explosion, which even the greatest scientists and mathematicians in the world can't begin to keep up with, we need to teach our children more thoughtfully.

Math educators, for example, tell us that students need to see how mathematical ideas are related, that math must be seen as something beyond the manipulation of numbers. Instead of seeing the subject as consisting of many different discrete strands, students need to broaden their perspective to view math as an integrated whole, and to recognize its usefulness both inside and outside of school. In much the same way, science educators are recommending an emphasis, not on lists of facts that have little meaning and won't be remembered, but on a smaller number of concepts, patterns, and connections. Both groups are calling for the focus to be on problem-solving, application, and understanding - in other words, what we call the literacies. (We might add here that there are some impressive gender-fair teaching practices in math and science, which also happen to be effective for all students.)

The young learner

Traditionally, discussions of curriculum begin with the curriculum of Grade 1; sometimes they include kindergarten. Our discussion of the learning system begins at birth, and with children's first teachers - their parents. And we hope that, throughout the hundreds of pages and dozens of recommendations in our report, it is clear to our readers that we've tried never to lose sight of those first, most important teachers, and how deep, lasting and central their influence is on the learners. Children without parents, or without families who involve themselves in their children's schooling, are without question at a great disadvantage in doing well at school.

Many of our recommendations stress the necessity of increasing knowledge and communication in both directions between home and school, and of increasing the sharing of information and authority between the two. We want parents to know what children can and should be expected to learn at every age and stage in their development for two reasons: first, so parents can be effective as educators in their own right; and second, so they can be effective as emissaries and advocates for their children at school. In both roles, it is in the children's interest as learners that their parents be both well-informed and influential. That's why we speak of the need for parents to be informed and aware of what the curriculum is, what students are expected to learn (usually called expected learning outcomes), and what standards of achievement are considered acceptable in foundation and in core subjects.

Our recommendations for building expertise for teachers in assessment are also designed to improve teaching and learning, and to make more information available to parents and the public about what's being taught and learned. The same is true of our recommendations concerning system-wide curriculum reviews, and of our recommendation that a standardized and informative report card (the Ontario Student Achievement Report) be adopted by all schools.

We begin our discussion of learning at the beginning, at birth; and we begin our discussion of the school curriculum at age 3. You'll recall that one of the four engines that we think will drive the process of transformation is early childhood education, which we discussed at some length earlier in this summary. We've recommended strongly that all boards make full-time schooling available to parents who wish it for every child across Ontario, beginning at age 3. Let's be clear: we're not speaking of child care, but of a carefully structured enterprise that combines an introduction to learning, often through play, with high quality education. While this is routine in some countries, most famously France, we're aware that some may consider this idea either an unwarranted invasion of the family's right and responsibility to raise its very young children, or an unaffordable luxury too expensive to provide universally, if at all.

We see it differently. The evidence we've reviewed of the effectiveness of such programs, combined with the significant number of households at all socio-economic levels where positive family responsibilities are not met effectively, tells us that we can't afford not to have them. Canadian children are in school longer than most others, and we spend very significant sums of money on remedial and special education programs which are too often ineffective. In spite of these expenditures and in spite of these programs - of which we as Canadians are rightfully proud the overall achievement level of our students is not outstanding. And while many children get an excellent public education in Ontario, it is still true that only a minority achieve what can be called high-level literacy; that a significant minority doesn't make it through high school; and that, among some disadvantaged groups, that minority comes perilously close to, or even becomes, the majority.

We want more children to be better educated, and we want the irreplaceable asset of an excellent education to be owned equally by all of our children; we believe that most people in Ontario share this ideal. Excellent early childhood education is one big step towards that goal, as we've already pointed out. Among the many reasons why this has been shown to be true are two central ones we'll emphasize here. First, early childhood education seems to predispose children to have a more positive view of schooling and of formal learning. Secondly, from infancy children are acquiring ideas about cause and effect, about comparison and contrast, about quantity - in short, about the most fundamental building blocks of thinking and learning - and by the time they are three years old, knowledgeable, skilled and caring teachers can make a real difference for them.

Beginning school earlier advantages all children. But the advantage can be lost if the emphasis on teaching and monitoring the acquisition of foundation skills, especially language skills, isn't maintained throughout the whole of elementary and secondary education, and especially during the first three years of compulsory schooling. We take the position that there is no good reason why almost all children should not have mastered the basic literacy skills before the end of Grade 3 and should be able to demonstrate it. Schools should offer society an early literacy guarantee for almost every child that completes Grade 3. That's why, you may remember, we call for a universal literacy test (as well as a numeracy test) at that stage, with the understanding that children who are having problems will have had serious support in the preceding year or two.

Of course some kids, unhappily, will always have special needs. While we know that many children will continue to need support throughout the common curriculum years (Grades 1 through 9), and that some individual learning difficulties require ongoing special attention, there is good evidence that early education and early help will prevent an enormous amount of frustration and suffering. It is the first essential step that the education system can take towards a better-educated citizenry.

We stress continuity. This seems to us a very important matter. Children pass through teacher after teacher, class after class, and school after school, from the early years until the end of secondary school. But, as their parents know, they are the same people, and while their interests and aptitudes grow and change, their singularity and consistency is apparent almost from birth. It's very difficult for teachers or schools to have such a comprehensive view of a student, but unless we can do better than we do now, students will remain too undifferentiated and their education too fragmented and too discontinuous, with consequences for the individual and the system that are at least very wasteful in terms of talent and fulfilment, and at worst truly destructive.

To improve continuity for students, we've recommended that from the beginning of their compulsory schooling in Grade 1, every child in the system be assigned one person in the school responsible for knowing the child and her record. As year succeeds year, and teacher succeeds teacher, there should always be someone who is aware of whether that child is progressing at a normal rate, who makes certain that each new teacher has a good idea of her strengths and needs, and who can speak to the parents as an informed and concerned representative of the school.

At a later point in the system schools become more specialized, children have several different subject teachers, and teachers have far more students than they can know well individually. At that stage we've recommended that this case-management function become much more personal and hands-on. All students should have a teacher who acts as an advisor, someone who not only remains aware of their overall progress but who actually meets with them regularly, and with their parents at least twice annually, and who assists them with educational and career planning in an informal but informed way.

Both to facilitate and record this process, we recommend something we call the cumulative educational plan (CEP). This is a planning tool for each student that would include a systematic record of her progress from Grade 7 on. As we see it, it would offer a perspective on the growth and development of each student in a way that's never been done before. It would allow parents, the students themselves, and successive generations of teachers to have real and unprecedented insight into each child's progress, talents, interests, and problems as she advances through the system.

It would also be a comprehensive record, because as we already said, we don't believe it makes sense for schools to ignore what students are learning outside of school and the interests they're developing. We've made much in this section of the report of community-based career awareness, a concept that means that the whole community is and should be used as a child's school, and that schools must act accordingly. The curriculum must take students out of the classroom, by foot and by computer; and the school must insist that the resources of the community become the resources of the learning system for students. That's why we include a community career co-ordinator for the younger grades, and a career education specialist for the older ones, and put considerable emphasis on the continuity of career education from beginning to end. We don't mean that schools should train kids for a particular job, or panic them about being prepared for that ruthlessly competitive, globalized economy which so many people continually warned us about. But schools should make students aware of their special talents and capacities, and of the career choices that might be most appropriate for those skills.

We expect the CEP to include information on what students are learning in the community that has implications for their school program and for their futures. A concrete example is international languages, where community resources often exceed school resources: many children in Ontario develop fluency and literacy in international languages outside of school. Surely such knowledge should become part of their record. Young people should be encouraged to be tested in international languages in which they have competence when they reach Grade 10, and should receive both advanced placement and credits toward their diploma for that knowledge. We see this kind of encouragement of learning, wherever it happens, as enriching the community as well as the individual.

As soon as we began to consider the curriculum to be more than what's taught in classrooms, we began to appreciate the advantages, as well as the necessity, of a certain amount of flexibility in the learning system. Although we believe that a common curriculum for all Ontario students should take some 90 percent of the learning agenda from Grades 1 through 9, we think that 10 percent of the curriculum should be available for definition at the school level. Depending on the physical environment, the geography of the school and community, its social environment, and its human geography, a school may decide to put a special focus on an environmental study project, on a social or economic history project, or on some other worthwhile endeavour that can enhance students' knowledge and skills and perhaps also benefit the larger community.

At the individual level, flexibility in what's learned, and at what pace, has always been necessary, just as individual variation has always been inevitable. But for many reasons it's been difficult for schools to provide the necessary flexibility, and it will continue to be difficult. Any system that tries to provide for everyone will have difficulty in providing for those who are farthest from the average. Yet we firmly believe it's possible to do better and extremely important to try. As we emphasized earlier, computer technology opens up new possibilities for individualizing students' learning programs. In the report itself, we draw attention to a few schools that have made real efforts to diminish the lock-step nature of learning by, for example, allowing students to use the whole 12-month calendar, or more or even much less, rather than insisting that learning comes in packages of ten months only.

Similarly, we favour more use of all the techniques that make it easier for students to learn at the pace that makes most sense for them. For students who are capable of moving faster in a subject, there could be acceleration: finishing math in five months instead of ten, for example, or demonstrating through a challenge exam that she can move directly from Grade 9 to Grade 11 math. Similarly, within the common curriculum a Grade fiver could be taking Grade 6 math.

In the same way, a student who needs more time or help, or both, should get them at once, intensively, and if possible should not be kept out of her regular classroom. The emphasis is on catching up quickly. Her extra time should be in addition to regular learning time, not instead of it. We know this is an area that requires greater skill and greater will from educators, and we've urged the Minister of Education and Training to provide leadership and support for those who are willing to work at developing models and strategies to increase flexibility for learners.

In fact flexibility in general seems to us the best way to encourage responsibility and creativity in the learning system so long as the goals and principles are clearly understood and widely shared. Our recommendations stress clarity about ends and flexibility about means. That's why we say that teachers and parents must have clarity about intended learning outcomes and standards, and about the essential components of a course, whether it's Grade 7 math or Grade 11 geography.

In our view, the principles we've emphasized - continuity, stewardship, flexibility for learners, learning without walls are tremendously important everywhere. But we also believe there are as many ways of teaching an excellent Grade 7 math or Grade 11 art course as there are excellent math and art teachers; and as many ways of building strong relationships among students, teachers, parents, and the community on behalf of learning as there are caring and committed professionals and parents. Frankly, far too many of the disputes that have divided people, about school reform are about means, not ends, and we've found the extremes on both sides to be less than helpful. In most of these cases - the phonics versus whole-language debate is a good example - it appears that a position between the extremes, or incorporating the extremes, often represents the most effective strategy.

That's why we believe that much good can be achieved by offering teachers, parents, and volunteers the training and the opportunity to work together to come up with their own strategies for supporting shared principles, in ways that will work in their particular schools and in their communities.

The years of specialization

The same principles that we have developed and discussed in talking about younger learners apply to older ones as well. Teenagers may be less enthusiastic about their families intervening in their school lives, but the fact remains they need well-informed parents who are on comfortable terms with their teachers; they continue to need a teacher who knows them and acts on their behalf; and they continue to need flexibility in learning time. But, in addition, as our children pass beyond the age of the common curriculum, when all of them are meant to be acquiring that bank of literacies they need - knowledge and essential thinking and learning skills - they must be given opportunities for making choices based on what they've learned about themselves and the world. In the learning system we envision, by the time students reach Grade 10 many of them are ready to make some decisions - not irreversible, by any means, but very important nonetheless - about what direction they want to take, not only in secondary school, but afterwards. Traditionally, this has been the case; secondary education has always meant the point at which options increase and alternative paths open up.

But there's long been a major problem here. After numerous reorganizations of various kinds over more than a half-century, the truth is that ultimately high schools end up catering primarily to the minority of students who go on to university, and these young women and men happen to be disproportionately from advantaged backgrounds. The dilemma is how to increase options and open up paths in a way that is inclusive, that doesn't leave out those students who come to school with fewer advantages, less "social capital," which usually means parents with less education and less money. In our opinion, differences in interest and aptitude, which is what program options should accommodate, have become confused with differences in social class and social rewards.

At this moment, despite all the different reforms that have been attempted, we still have a secondary system organized by levels that are supposed to reflect the inherent ability levels of individual students. In fact, however, it substantially reflects such factors as parents' occupations, education, and income levels, and sometimes, we fear, race, home language or national origin. We have concrete suggestions for reforming the high school specialization years, although we're only too aware of the failures that litter the road on which we walk.

We want to reform and improve education beyond the years of the common curriculum, so as to continue to strengthen core knowledge and skill areas for all students, while at the same time making alternative paths as clear and as open to everyone as possible. So, for example, we redefine the courses that are offered as falling into three categories, which shouldn't be thought of as reflecting greater or lesser ability, but rather different degrees of emphasis along a continuum from more applied to more academic. To clarify what we're getting at, we stress first that it's courses, not students, that fall into one or another of these three categories, and second, that categories are not levels or tracks.

As an example, in Grade 10 a student might choose a science course that emphasizes practical applications (let's call it an Ontario applied course); a history course that puts more emphasis on a traditional academic approach (an Ontario academic course); and a music course that attempts to maintain an even balance between applied and academic emphasis (a common course). This student may be someone who's thinking of going on to a technical course at college, but has a strong personal interest in history; or alternatively, someone who wants to study social sciences at university, and also wants to have an intelligent layperson's understanding of basic science; or, in either case, someone who wants to play in a pop band.

It's necessary that we acknowledge, however reluctantly, that no plan, however flexible, is ever going to completely overcome social preferences, prejudices, and rewards which favour academic over applied skills and university over college education. But we do believe that it is plausible that a system such as we suggest could at least increase students' options, and result in a better match between interest and talent on the one hand, and useful post-secondary education on the other.

For this to happen, colleges and universities must co-operate with secondary educators to redefine entrance requirements. Universities especially play a powerful role in determining the nature of high schools, and they too need to show more flexibility. The object would be to define entrance requirements in ways that are clearer for colleges and more differentiated for universities than at present. At the present time, universities for the most part look at students' marks in their last year only, and insist on courses that are defined as pre-university in all those six final OACs. While this is clear enough, it's not necessarily the best arrangement for the student; someone who wants to study history must take the same science course as someone else who wants to be a chemist, or else take no science course at all. Colleges, for their part, have no such blanket rule; but while they show greater flexibility, the paths to college are very confused and unclear for students, except in cases where individual colleges and secondary schools have worked out specific articulation programs.

There's more to teaching and learning in high schools than just taking courses, and we suggest a number of important changes in other areas as well. Smaller seems to be better in some matters, and we recommend that schools organize themselves into relatively small units, which will most often be small schools within large buildings, or schools within schools, sharing administrators and some facilities and courses. These smaller units could have a subject or career focus, as is now available in a few Ontario cities in schools that have an arts academy or a science academy. In such academies, students who are interested in a career in art history or arts administration, in engineering, or in electronics, can find a curriculum which has a clear relationship to their interests and to their futures - if course packages have been defined collaboratively between schools and institutions of higher learning, as we also suggest.

Reasonably enough, all students want to understand the practical applications of what they're learning, and we think it's highly motivating for all adolescents and young adults to be able to see a connection between their formal education and their futures. That's why we enthusiastically endorse such out-of-school learning experiences as co-operative education and community service (which, in fact, we think should be mandatory), both as emphases within courses and as experiences in themselves.

To our minds, the common needs of secondary students include certain outcomes that must be achieved as a prerequisite to graduation. To that end, we call for specified learner outcomes at the end of Grade 12 - in our scheme, the last year of high school - just as there are for the lower grades. Most of these outcomes will be common to all learners, while some will be specific to courses offered as academic or applied. And at this level, as well as earlier, we recommend more province-wide assessments of courses through random sampling of students' work, so that educators and the public can know how successfully the curriculum is being learned, and so that some consistency is guaranteed amongst teachers and schools.

It's also time for a more efficient system at this level, one that doesn't encourage students to extend their stay in secondary school by a year or two beyond what's needed to take the required number of courses and graduate. We continue to support flexibility in learning time, and have no intention of making matters more difficult for students who need longer to complete their course of study for legitimate reasons connected to how they learn or to other circumstances in their lives. But it should not take the majority of students longer than three years, beginning in Grade 10, to complete their diploma. No other province keeps most of its students in secondary school so long, and there is no clear advantage to doing so. So far as we?re concerned, all that extra expenditure would be far better spent on early childhood education. To that end we make recommendations to limit the number of credits students can accumulate before they graduate.

As well, we call for a second universal literacy test to be given initially in Grade 11, and to be passed before a student can receive a diploma. Any student failing the test should get extra help in preparing to repeat it. The emphasis which we have put on literacy, beginning at age 3, led to our recommending an early literacy guarantee in Grade 3, and culminates here in a final literacy guarantee: a promise to the public that any student who graduates high school in Ontario can read and understand, and can write and convey information and feeling, precisely as an educated adult should be able to do.

We have little doubt that if the kind of recommendations we've made were actually taken seriously - from the four engines to smaller schools, teacher advisors and career awareness - no student would graduate from an Ontario high school without being able to sail through such a test.

Consistent with our emphasis on continuity of concern for students' progress, we want secondary schools to maintain contact with and support for students until they are 18 years old, whether or not they remain in school to finish their diploma. Students need help with the transition not only to post-secondary education but to work. After all, almost a third of them do go directly from high school to work, and until they are 18, school should be there for them, just as it is for their peers who are going on with their education.

Finally, just as we began our discussion of the formal learning system before age 6, we do not end it at age 18. The increasing number of adults wanting to complete their secondary education do not always receive the attention they warrant from educators, yet they deserve the same opportunities as younger learners, and we recommend that space be guaranteed them in the publicly funded school system. As well, we strongly recommend that the literacy guarantee that we want our school system to make be also a literacy promise for all adults who wish to become fluent and literate in either of the official languages. After all, those adults include parents and future parents, grandparents and future grandparents, whose literacy is perhaps the most significant part of the learning legacy they pass on to their children and grandchildren. And as this long section has emphasized so strongly, a child from a family that values education is a child who is well on the way to becoming a lifelong learner.

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