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Good Enough Shouldn’t Be Good Enough

So, this article posted on CBC News this morning caught my wife’s and my attention over our breakfast. Particularly my wife, since she is in fact a science and mathematics specialist (who incidentally can teach those in two different languages – yes, I feel intimidated, why do you ask?). For those of you who don’t want to parse the full text (although it isn’t that complicated), Canada has been downgraded slightly from its usual position on the international rankings of education system, in particular, trending downwards in math and science.

Particularly of interest was the fact that reading scores have been pretty much stable, science very slightly down, and math more significantly down. Also of note, females perform better than males (in Canada) at reading, males perform better at math, and the genders are equal in science.

Now, to go along with this, there is, of course, the typical government hedges and dry statements. Basically it all comes down to “Canada still has pretty darn good scores and our students are still very well educated, but we want to do better”. Then everyone chimes in with how that’s going to happen, regardless of experience with or in the field of education itself (in particular, the fact that many of our provincial ministers for education are not and have not been teachers is somewhat unsettling). For anyone who actually finds random facts interesting, of the provinces and territories (there are 13 total), a grand total of 2 have ministers who have actually been classroom teachers, while another 3 or so have had some experience as a public school trustee.

The article mentions several other countries as having performance above that of Canada, and so of course my wife and I thought and talked about why those particular countries might be outperforming us.

The obvious ones are spotted right away. China, Japan, and Korea are very culturally different from us, and have an education system that is brutally competitive and overloaded with immense pressure from home to do well. Students attend school for longer, have more homework, and in general are forced to work much harder for their success than in Canada.  There’s very little left to say there – when the entire culture values the high standards of performance, students meet them.

Secondly, our ‘traditional’ competitor, a country that had been at the very top until recently – Finland. This is the most interesting one to me, because I’ll regularly talk about how good Finland is at education and people say something to the effect of “Why can’t we be that good?”.

The answer is very simple – we don’t value education (as a culture) to the same extent.

You can see this in the very foundations of how Finland’s system works. I don’t know all of the specifics, but here is an excellent interview from last year with an education expert from Finland. Also, their Wikipedia entries seem overall fairly reliable to me, so hit that one up as well. The key is that Finland trusts its teachers, and its teachers are exceptional teachers.

If you want to be a teacher in Finland, you probably need a Master’s degree. Many teacher prep programs have acceptance rates of 10% or lower. That’s like medical school. Teachers in Finland are hand-picked for their beneficial qualities as teachers, and trained rigorously for years in their craft. Once they graduate, they are going to be given autonomy to exercise those skills: local principals hire and fire their staff, and within a very general framework, schools can customize and create their own curriculum so teachers are teaching both what they are good at and know well, in addition to the looser national standards.

There’s a commonality to the Finnish and Eastern (sorry for the west-centric terminology) system, which is that they don’t believe in a ‘good enough’. If you get a 70 in Japan, you’re not getting a job, so you’d better bust your butt to improve. If you want to be a teacher in Finland, you need to be at the very top of your career path. In Canada, we have this problem not only in schools, but particularly in the home.

This is something I see all the time. Billy’s parents come in for a parent teacher interview and the conversation turns to his English mark, which is ‘passing’, but isn’t great (let’s say 67 percent). I express concerns, the parents don’t share them. When Billy gets 65 on his next test and I express privately to him that I think he’s capable of better, he shrugs it off and says “Meh, I didn’t fail. It’s good.”

Now I know for a fact that if I’d come home with a 65 on anything, my parents would have stepped in to find out what everyone could do to help that improve. I am just as sure of the fact that the non-concern I see with students about their learning flows back from the home, as my family life impacted my schooling. It’s a common phenomenon that my wife and I chuckle about which is that the parents who most consistently make contact with you and come in for checkups are the ones you don’t really need to talk to – their kids are busy scoring 90 on everything they touch, sometimes even 100. But it really shows where your values lie.

If we want to keep the education system in Canada doing well (and make no mistake, we do get a good education in Canada), we need to shift some values. More people need to stand up and say that ‘good enough’ is not in fact ‘good enough’. Good enough gets you beat to space by the Soviets. Good enough gets you zero scholarships. Good enough means you just lost that job interview to the person who really buckled down for it.

As a musician, I don’t want the audience to say, “Well, that was good enough”. I want an audience that can’t tell me how amazing that was because they’re crying tears of joy (okay, maybe that is a pipe dream that probably won’t ever come true but I still want it because feelings). Don’t settle. Not just for your education, but for everything. It’s not ‘good enough’ if you haven’t mastered it yet.

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1 Comment

  1. […] back on track. I’ve written before about the downwards trend in Canada’s international math scores rankings. The occasion that […]

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