Student Engagement – The social contract is changing

I love the fact that we are moving toward a different model of teaching and learning because to be quite honest, I am not really a big fan of the old one. I didn’t really like the traditional model when I was a kid and I am not a big fan of it now as a teacher either. This is not to say the traditional model doesn’t work. Generations of people have been taught this way and accomplished great things as a result but these are different times and so things must change.

There is one thing that is troubling me however. As we move toward a more personalized “twenty-first century learner” (TFCL) model, there seems to be little if any discussion about the students part in the social contract we call an education system. Sure we talk about how we want the kids to be engaged and excited about learning but it is always in the context of what the school system is doing to create a new “love of learning”. It would seem to me that, the student need only take on the roll of grateful recipient in this new and improved, hand crafted education system.

I started to think about this the other day, as I was sitting down doing my homework at one end of the dining room table, while my daughter sat doing hers at the other. Up until now she has been one of these kids who is very bright, usually enjoys school and cruises through without too much effort. This year however, she has had to knuckle down a fair bit because her grade 7 teacher is old school and PILES on the homework. So far she has fared pretty well and has managed the workload with relative ease. What I am most pleased about this year, is her willingness (without too much prodding) to get the work done. In my mind she is demonstrating that she is willing to work her backside off and invest in her education.

During our little father daughter homework session, I began to think about our current education system and my children’s place in it and asked myself the following.

  • Why is there a movement under foot to change the system?
  • Is it really so bad?
  • Is the system failing kids or could it be that the kids failing the system?

My daughter is bright but is not a genius and she seems to be excelling in this archaic, factory system we call education.

  • If she can manage to plod along why can’t others?

My daughter is literate, creative, works well with others, has a keen interest in science and is a successful little athlete.

  • Where is the failure of the system here?

Then my wife came up the stairs and hovered over my daughter’s shoulder, inspecting every last pencil mark on the page and I thought to myself, School gives my daughter the opportunity to learn but her degree of success is more about what is going on outside the classroom. Sure a good education system is important and always will be but how well she does (thus far) has less to do with the school system and more to do with the effort my daughter puts in and a hovering task master of a mother.

So here is the issue I am having with the personalized TFCL model. We all know that there is no substitute for hard work and dedication to one’s education. We can see examples of this everywhere and teachers see it every day. The kids who excel make an extra effort, those who don’t are usually on the other end of the spectrum. My concern is that we are billing TFCL as a no fail, perfect fit system which guarantees unconditional success to all who enter. The social contract between student and school in the old system, which was based on hard work and effort between all stakeholders, is being replaced with a simple promissory note that guarantees a perfect and effortless education for students from K to 12.

As a teacher I can see the point of trying to create an education system that makes learning better because it is perfectly suited to each learner but as a parent, I don’t want easy for my kids. I want them to have to muscle through classes they don’t like. I think the effort it takes to choke down a class you despise holds as much value as the enlightenment you may gain from a class you love. Sure I want my kids to follow their dreams and have the opportunity to learn new, exciting and interesting things but I also want them to fail and then succeed. I want them to face frustration and overcome and perhaps even experience crushing disappointment and live to tell about it.

Life is not about perfect or easy and school should reflect that. We need to teach kids that life is more about taking pride in your efforts, whatever the result, not just doing what comes easy or is interesting. Unfortunately, I am not sure the TFCL model can accomplish this.

I am all for changing our current education system to meet the needs of Twenty First Century Learners but let make sure that the social contract between student and school, places as much value in good old-fashioned effort as it does the joy of effortless learning.


  1. Patrick Swanson

    That has to the the stupidest bloody blog post I have ever read. Why in the hell would you want to make school harder on kids. It makes no sense at all.

    I hated school from beginning to end and I only wish I had a school system that catered to me a little. Anything I have ever earned in my life time was certainly not because of the schools I went to.

    School should be enjoyable and interesting for kids and it is sick twisted bastards like you who keep it the god awful place it has always been.

    1. Post

      Patrick, thanks for the comment! I am glad you disliked the post enough that you felt compelled to leave your opinion.

      Your comment in itself is an example of what I was trying to get at. Whatever you managed to accomplish in this life is more about your efforts not a school system.

      I am truly sorry your experience was so awful but there is a movement underway to make things better and perhaps your own children won’t have to suffer the same but again. Their success in whatever they do should be more about their efforts then the school system.

  2. Trickykidzmum

    I think you raise some interesting points. Life isn’t easy, kids should fail and be allowed to learn how to pick themselves up again. I am not a fan of the new age view where everyone gets a medal just for taking part because I think it sets people up for a far bigger fall in real life. Having said all that though… I think school should be a positive experience that builds confidence and self-esteem. Not everyone learns in the same way and I think that teaching styles need to reflect this. In my experience, kids (and adults) excel and learn when they are happy, challenged (but not overwhelmed) and enjoying themselves.

  3. Elyssa Derban

    This brings up so many questions that I am currently struggling with. Is the old system so broken? Is technology forcing the formation of a new system? Who is going to sculpt the individual education of each student – the teacher, the student or…the parent? And my final question, where are we going to find the $ resources.

    Let me know if you find the answers?

    1. Post

      All good questions and here is a weak attempt to answer them. Keep in mind I am completely sold on using technology in the classroom but I have been known to be a bit of a subversive.

      Is it Broke Personally I don’t think the traditional system of teaching is broke so much as the recipients are different and not necessarily in a good way. There are so many reasons why kids today do not, will not or cannot learn in a traditional manner. Much of it are for reasons which I am not sure there is a pedagogical solution for.

      Technology driven change Absolutely, our dependence or perhaps addiction to technology is driving much of the change we are seeing in our schools. What is more is that the drivers behind the push is more economic than pedagogical. Just look at the advertising around the iPad. They sell it as an educational tool like none other but simply put, it isn’t. I a don’t think a single educator was ever consulted in its design or functionality. In my opinion, this is a case of an economic driver pushing technology into the classroom.

      Teacher, Student, Parent I am a firm believer that the parent is initially the centre of the universe when it comes to a child’s success or failure. Once a child hits about grade 9 or 10 they need to take the reigns and be successful for themselves. Lurking in the mix from k – 12 is the teacher. Teachers are critical to the whole system and can make a huge difference in a child’s life but ultimately, a child’s success or failure is up to the parent and the child.

      The direction we have been heading however is toward a system that takes on sole responsibility for a child’s academic success and in doing this it also takes on responsibility for a child’s failure. As a result, if a child fails, it is ultimately a teachers fault regardless of any circumstance beyond the walls of the school

      This blog post by my boss illustrates what I mean about how the system (right or wrong) is eagerly taking on every aspect of a child’s development:

      This blog post is one of my own about the parents role:

      Money Simply put there is no money. There will be no increased funding for any of these initiatives and if things don’t go well… You know who gets the blame.

      As I was saying at a dinner party the other night with a bunch of non teachers. “There is a reason a Toyota Camry is cheaper then a Aston Martin DB9. One comes off an assembly line while the other is handmade.” They were all appalled at that but if we want our education system to evolve from a factory system, to one where we are hand making young minds, the money is going to have to come from somewhere. Currently our political leaders are looking to get it out of our hide.

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