Education for citizenship


Most Nunavut students are now back at school, or ought to be.

After several years of headaches, embarrassments and controversies, the Nunavut department of education can report at least one piece of good news. Teacher recruitment is getting easier for them. Every teaching job in Nunavut’s K-12 system is now filled, and after years of declining interest, the number of people interested in Nunavut teaching jobs is growing.

So far, so good.

But the system within which those teachers are working is in desperate need of reform, in many ways, and at many levels.

That’s not news. Everyone in Nunavut with an interest in education already knows that. We’ve already witnessed the painful demise of the Nunavut government’s first education bill, endured a confusing debate on standardized testing and heard numerous Nunavut residents complain incessantly about the school system and its numerous shortcomings – whether real or perceived.

One of the most common complaints is that there is not enough money to pay for all of the new things people want – such as an Inuktitut curriculum, materials for use in teaching an Inuktitut curriculum, and more teachers so that class sizes can be reduced.

Those people are right, basically. There’s no question that Nunavut’s school system is short of money.

But it also lacks an even more precious resource – ideas.

The most dispiriting feature of education debate in Nunavut since 1999 – when work on a new education act began – is that throughout that entire time, hardly anybody said or thought anything about the issue that hasn’t been said or thought a hundred times before over the past 25 years.

Remember the “consultation” campaign that the Nunavut government launched at the beginning of its attempt to design a new education act? It was done in cooperation with the Nunavut Social Development Council and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. It consisted of a community tour, featuring loosely organized public meetings where people were invited to talk about education.

Predictably, people lined up at the microphones and said the same things that people in Nunavut have been saying about schools for more than a generation. They mostly said things that education officials and political leaders already know, or ought to know.

Those expensive “consultations,” and others like them done by MLAs, failed to produce a coherent vision of education in Nunavut. Without such a vision, any future attempts to reform education are doomed to failure.

Why? Because unless you can agree first on what a school system is for, you’ll never succeed in fixing it.

To that end, here’s a new idea. Actually, it’s not new at all. It’s just an old idea dressed up in new clothes. But it’s a new idea for Nunavut – because hardly anyone talks about it these days.

That idea is this: education for citizenship.

By “education for citizenship” we mean a form of education where people learn things that not only give them real power over their own lives, but also the power to participate fully in the various political and social institutions that act on their behalf.

Take mathematics, for example. In 2002, the results of a national mathematics test showed that Nunavut students know far less about simple arithmetic than students anywhere else in Canada. Only eight per cent of 13-year-olds in Nunavut met or exceeded “Level 2” – considered to be the minimum acceptable level of difficulty.

What does this mean? It means that when they grow up most of those students won’t have the basic arithmetic skills to understand their hamlet council’s budget, skills such as fractions, decimals, ratio and proportion. They won’t know how to do their own income tax returns. They won’t understand the simple arithmetic that goes into the setting of wildlife harvesting quotas or the creation of budgets for the various Inuit organizations. They may not even understand the simple arithmetic that lies behind the reporting of election results.

In other words, they won’t be able to participate within the new territory that was created to advance their rights and aspirations. Despite all the institutions that have been set up to advance their rights, as individuals, they will remain utterly powerless, dependent on a small elite to make decisions for them. The creation of Nunavut will have been a waste of time and money,

Unless of course, the department of education incorporates education for citizenship into a new vision for Nunavut’s schools. If education for citizenship were to become a priority, then the learning of basic arithmetic would also become a priority.

Similarly, language education – whether French, Inuktitut, or English – would take on a new significance. If you can’t read, speak or listen effectively in any known language, you will never be able to fully perform your duties as a citizen.

Schools ought to have a higher purpose than to simply turn out job-holders to meet abstract Inuit hiring targets for the Nunavut government. Learning is about more than economics. It’s about giving people the knowledge they need to acquire more knowledge on their own – because it’s knowledge, not land claim agreements and acronymic organizations, that represent the source of true political power.

And no democracy can survive for long without a well-educated citizenry. That’s why Nunavut should get serious about education for citizenship. JB

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