March 1998

Surfing the World
Surfing the World and its Schools

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Surfing the World and its Schools

A Thunder Bay principal travels the world, windsurfing and investigating educational systems.

By Gib Taylor

In China, I saw a class of 50 students perched, literally, on the edge of their seats, eyes focused on the teacher, hands poised to go up. For them, it is a privilege to answer a question.

In Japan, the principal of Rikodai Elementary School struggled with our concept of teacher supervision at recess and lunch. He said, "When students go out to play at recess and lunch, that is their own time. No teachers are needed to supervise."

In Papua New Guinea, I visited one school in the tropical highlands that had a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1 and the same technology we do. In a nearby school some of the classroom floors are under water during the rainy season.

Two recurrent themes emerged during my foray into educational systems around the world. Countries organize their curriculum and schools based on their cultural view of the purpose of education. Technology is advancing so rapidly that some cultures, which in the past have had less sophisticated technology, are now playing leapfrog. They have simply jumped a few steps straight to the leading edge. Both of these could have a dramatic impact on the role of Ontario educators.

One, or Four, Agenda Items?

Many countries believe the purpose of education consists of one item – academic excellence.

The purpose of our education system embraces multiple agenda items: academic excellence, physical development, and morals, values and social development. This holistic approach may produce a more rounded graduate, but international tests are measuring academic knowledge and skills.

In 1950, Japan had 140 instructional days in the school year and Ontario had 185. Close to half a century later, our schools still have 185 and Japan has 240. In addition, their school day is 20 per cent longer.

Their curriculum and educational preparation is geared to students passing tests that gain them access to specific choice schools and programs. Many Pacific Rim countries adhere to this structure, so it should come as no surprise that, as they spend more time in school studying specific content for tests, they have better results.

In Papua New Guinea, I saw sharp contrasts between their two educational systems and the one in Ontario. My first visit was to an international school, comprised of elementary and secondary schools. The modern buildings nestled in the picturesque tropical highlands and had all the resources and computer technology of our schools. In addition, many classes had a teacher-to-pupil ratio of 15 or less, about half of many of our schools. The curriculum was highly academic with a strong emphasis on testing. These students will be accepted and able to succeed in any educational institution anywhere in the world when they leave the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea.

The aboriginal school a few miles away was a different story. Its 400 students were housed in classrooms of varying degrees of disrepair. There was no electricity in the classrooms, some had mud floors, there was little classroom furniture and curriculum material. Government financial support for education fluctuates from year to year, in some cases from month to month, with teachers occasionally not being paid. These students will not receive the level of education that will let them be strong competitors in the international job market.

Being competitive in the international market is an argument often heard in discussions about the future of education.

In Ontario, the government is placing an increasing emphasis on accountability. The latest initiatives include more standardized provincial testing, a more explicit structured curriculum that is outcome-based, and a new provincial report card that uses percentages and letter grades to reflect a student’s progress.

In China and Japan they have a strongly structured, defined curriculum and testing system that is geared to assist the efficient streaming of students. But I discovered in both countries a definite interest in moving away from the traditional structure to a more open system where the students become creative, independent problem solvers.

Ontario educators’ efforts in the last few decades have concentrated on developing creative thinkers with good inquiry and problem-solving skills who can work on a team. This emphasis could contribute to our students not being as successful as those of other countries on international tests.

To be more accountable, our government is tightening up the curriculum and focusing on student preparation for testing. Japan and other countries, which do well on international tests, see that their students lack creativity, problem solving and human relations skills that allow them to be team players as well as work independently – skills required by industry.

Perhaps these two polar positions are moving toward the centre where the swing radius of the pendulum will be much smaller. This should result in a better balance in education, one that possesses both structure and creativity.

Cultural Influences

In Japan, teachers don’t supervise recess or lunch. The number of litigation cases that would arise in Ontario if we didn’t have teacher supervision would be endless. There are strong cultural influences that affect how students interact and behave. Education and academic achievement are important and revered.

In China, classrooms are crowded. Yet the students demonstrate a strong eagerness to learn and an unbelievable discipline to focus on the task.

The same 50-student average in Ontario classes would create unimaginable behaviour management problems, considering the attitude and work ethic many students currently hold. Let’s hope the government’s latest initiative to cap class sizes addresses the problems related to large classes.

Australia, even though it is half way around the world, has far more similarities to our system than differences. In fact, they are undertaking many of the same initiatives we are – school councils, strategic plans, codes of behaviour, mission statements, a more structured curriculum and more accountability through standardized testing. It would be relatively easy for teachers or students to switch systems.

Technology Growing, Planet Shrinking

Switching systems would require some adjustment to the technology, in directions not always predictable.

In China, for example, I found it amazing that they use DVD, digital video disc, for their movies instead of videotapes and VCRs. They bypassed a whole age of technology and are currently future-oriented. We’re still using old technology, videotapes.

In Australia, I was astounded at the vast number of people who were talking on their cell phones in every conceivable place. Apparently no other country uses this form of communication as much.

In many cases, countries that don’t have the infrastructure in place, like elaborate telephone pole and wire systems, especially to remote areas, can simply use the latest cellular technology and never undergo the major cost of the older telephone system. Why buy VCRs when the new DVDs are available?

How many Ontario schools still have Commodore 64s and 286 computers?

Should we rethink the importance of technological advancement in Ontario schools? It is a skill area where other, less developed countries are surpassing us.

Since other countries, like Japan and China, view education more as the dispensing of a well-defined body of knowledge in a structured systematic manner, there is a better chance of a comprehensive computer literacy and skill program being offered.

Besides being a windsurfer, Gib Taylor is principal at McKenzie Public School in Thunder Bay and a part-time professor at Lakehead University’s faculty of education.

Gib Taylor set out to windsurf around the world, at least six of the seven continents. He skipped Antarctica – a little too remote and cold.

He took a laptop computer and faced the challenge of e-mailing articles from distant continents back to the United States to meet his monthly deadline for a column in Windsurfing Magazine.

Over the course of his six-month journey, Taylor also visited schools to uncover the similarities and differences between the school he was visiting and Ontario schools in curriculum, special education, behaviour management, teaching strategies, computer literacy level and development, communications with the community, culture of school and community.

Taylor talked with principals, teachers, students and parents and collected any available print material about the particular school and district.