This past Saturday, People for Education held their annual conference, with the theme “Public Education in a Changing World.” The conference featured sessions on e-learning, Indigenous education, and mental health in schools among other timely topics. I was pleased to attend at York University in Toronto, and to contribute YPI’s perspective to a panel presentation, “Beyond Tokenism” on the topic of youth engagement in curriculum and education policy. The conference drew diverse education stakeholders including teachers, school and board administrators, students, researchers, elected officials, parents, and representatives from community-based organizations. Here are some of my highlights and reflections from the day:
Stephen Lewis Keynote
Stephen Lewis’ incredible contributions to progress on the issues of HIV/AIDS, gender equality, and human rights are unparalleled and absolutely inspiring (Exhibit A: my star-struck face, pictured above). Mr. Lewis used the UN’s Convention of the Rights of the Child, ratified by Canada in 1989, as a framework for his remarks about the purpose of public education: schools are a site where young people should be able to fully realize their rights, like the right to form and express their individual views, to learn about their rights, and to live free from discrimination. In the context of the genocide experienced by Indigenous people in Canada, systemic anti-Black racism, and acts of violence against members of religious groups around the world, Mr. Lewis argued that schools must be places for young people to talk about these things with their teachers and with one another, building towards understanding and a more just future for everyone.
E-Learning in Ontario Panel
The Ontario government recently announced that, starting in Fall 2020, high school students will be required to complete four credits through e-learning to graduate from high school. Panelists shared their perspectives on the pros and cons of e-learning. While they disagreed on some points, there was a consensus that for e-learning to be effective for all students, comprehensive supports need to be in place that are resource-intensive (i.e. designated teachers to check in with students about their learning one-on-one, on a regular basis), and that Ontario is not ready to implement the government’s mandate in a way that will serve students effectively next Fall.
On my part, I am very concerned about this new policy’s impact on experiential learning programs like YPI. If Civics, the course in which YPI is commonly implemented in Ontario, moves online for the majority of Ontario’s secondary students, how will teachers facilitate experiences that bring students out into their communities, experiences that bring course content to life? YPI, and other experiential learning programs, can be eye-opening and transformative for students in ways that traditional research projects are not. Students remember their experiences with real people in these programs in a way that they don’t with other classroom projects, and will not with fully online courses. Taking away this opportunity is a real disservice, and I am invested in advocating for the reversal of this policy.
Information on the panelists, and PFE’s session highlights, can be found here.
The Right to Education
In the afternoon, People for Education staff facilitated a conversation about the right to education. Education is a right identified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both ratified by Canada. But what does this right really mean? Through YPI, I talk to many students about social issues that represent challenges to rights. Take the right to housing for example, in the context of issues like poverty and homelessness: when these rights are challenged, whose responsibility is it to strengthen our social safety net and support people who are struggling?
In the case of the right to education, as with other social and economic rights, it is a right that has not been clearly defined: there are currently no indicators, or clear mechanisms for responding when a person feels that their right is being challenged. People for Education, along with other rights-supporting organizations, is in the process of identifying these indicators, reflecting comprehensively what the right to a quality education looks like – an education that will effectively prepare young people for long-term success in the 21st century. You can learn more here.
Closing Thoughts: Hope
I left the conference feeling really hopeful about the future of public education, which is saying a lot considering the state of labour relations, the divisive rhetoric, and the political discord across the country. People for Education’s Executive Director Annie Kidder shared about the organization’s work, including its evidence-informed policy recommendations in the face of challenging times. In this work, and in the spirit of the conversations at the conference, there is much hope, passion, and dedication to positive change that is really inspiring to me personally.
Starting next month, I will have the privilege of serving on People for Education’s Board of Directors. I look forward to learning from, and contributing to, this important work. I also feel more energized than ever to continue working towards YPI’s mission to grow compassionate, connected communities, empowering young people to support their rights and the rights of everyone across Canada through philanthropy in our schools.
For other highlights published by People for Education, visit https://peopleforeducation.ca/events/annual-conference-2019/.