On the Education of Children in Ontario Today

What does it mean to “educate” and to be “educated”? I’ve asked myself this question many times while completing my PhD in Education, and I recently returned to it when re-reading Michel de Montaigne’s “On the Education of Children.” In his treatise, Montaigne—like many philosophers before him—attempts to articulate the best ways to teach children, with the goal of producing “educated” citizens. According to Isocrates—a philosopher upon whom Montaigne drew, and who has been credited as the father of education—an educated person is a person of “good character”: one who embodies judgement, honour, decency, goodness, and who manages daily life with a good nature. Although Isocrates was writing in 5th century BC, most parents today would agree that this description (perhaps with the addition of excellent grades) sounds like an ideal outcome. But does the Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Education agree with this ideal definition of an “educated” person? Does the Ministry’s definition match Isocrates’s paradigm? Most of all, how do the curriculum and schools achieve the aim of “educating” youth in Ontario?

More than a decade ago, former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that the province was implementing a character education policy in public schools from grades K through 12. This commitment was aimed at instilling in students the characteristics and habits of responsible citizens—i.e. “educating” individuals in good character. From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of high school, all Ontario children are now required to participate in this initiative, although both students and parents have expressed concerns. The most obvious question was whether graduating Ontarians were not sufficiently “educated” before this new initiative. But the announcement also included a puzzling contradiction: McGuinty claimed both that good character is “universal and transcend[s] racial, religious, ethno-cultural, linguistic, and other demographic factors,” and that there is a growing need to establish a “common ground” of Ontarian values. If we share a value in “good character,” which has universal attributes, why is it necessary to establish “common ground” of Ontarian values? If common ground needs finding, who helps find that ground? How many perspectives—social, religious, cultural, political, and racial—will we consider in the conversation about the meaning and process of character development?

Despite the promising rhetoric about creating a culture of good citizenship, the Ontario Character Education Program takes a top-down and not bottom-up approach. In addition to articulating only a vague goal of promoting good citizenship and sense of community, the Ontario government did not sufficiently consult communities to establish a “common ground” when choosing the ten character traits that schools were required to inculcate. Each month (for the 10 months of the school year), one character trait, such as “honesty,” “integrity,” or “loyalty,” is posted at the school. Despite having received no training for this program, teachers (most of whom do not have credentials in philosophy or moral education) are expected to weave these concepts into their daily lesson plans. In some schools, teachers award students who best exhibit the trait-of-the-month.

My doctoral research published an analysis of this initiative, including its rhetoric, its promises, and its many contradictions. My continued interest in this program has left me with four reservations and one proposed solution. My first concern is that the Ontario government imported a failed American model, rather than design a Canadian model for the project. The second issue is that the program takes a traits-based approach, which has been long invalidated by research in education and character development. The third concern stems from this second one: the government failed to consider the ongoing research into the relationship between education and “good character,” failing to consider multidisciplinary research, including cutting-edge theories of mind and the insight of neuroscientists into moral development. Furthermore, there is a general lack of rigour in the design and in the direction of the initiative: character-education curricular are lacking, there is no province-wide agenda (or outlined assessment of success). While teachers are competent and well-meaning, they cannot be expected to address the complex topics of morality and “good character” without guidance. In interviews, teachers and students unanimously agreed that this program has been treated either as an afterthought or has been ignored entirely in their schools, and that the policy has not changed school culture.

I agree that character development is important to education, and I have a vision for a viable character education program for Ontario: the province should institute mandatory philosophical inquiry with the aim of teaching both empathy and critical thinking skills. I’m not the only one to have proposed this solution: Catherine Little of the Toronto Star echoes my view in “Trump, Trudeau, and Teaching Critical Thinking for 2017.”

Why not bring into the curriculum the very question of what it means to be “educated” today? Isocrates, were he alive today, would likely agree that having children enter into dialogue about the meaning of “education,” thereby discussing moral education. Scholarly research continually points to the benefits of studying philosophy to academic and empathetic development. It is our responsibility include philosophical inquiry as a required subject in our children’s schooling. Trained and accredited teachers are needed to facilitate students’ philosophical explorations. A great start would the considering ethics—perhaps even whether a universal approach to morality is a valid conceptual framework for character education.

As an educator, I make a point to include philosophical inquiry in every single lesson I teach. I cannot imagine “educating” without this central pedagogical component (and would argue that removing it would detract from my students’ “education”). If even Google has learned to value philosophers, hiring them to direct their “moral operating system”, our government can learn the value of employing a serious philosophical approach in its attempts at moral education. 
This 2000-year+ discussion of the meaning of “education,” is enduring and rich. Our policymakers may not be able or willing to engage meaningfully in philosophical discussions, but we should aim for our children to be learn how to explore and engage with classical ideas and debates. I’d like to think that an educated youth able to carefully and thoughtfully consider the history of ideas and develop their own thoughts and ideas out of that exploration. In doing so, they would be adopting the sage advice of yet another moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant: Sapere aude! Dare to think for yourself.

Karine Rashkovsky, Honours B.Sc., B.Ed., M.Ed., Ph.D. (Education Policy) and Founder & Director of Brain Power Enrichment Programs. 
Karine is well-known for her passionate, quirky, and inspiring teaching from the heart, as well as her extensive knowledge in a variety of academic fields. Karine has co-authored Brain Power's math and problem solving textbooks, an advanced grammar and classical literature textbook, and research that has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Educational Leadership and Urban Education.  Karine's research interests include education policy, critical thinking education, and curriculum, teaching, and social justice. As an experienced and expert teacher, Karine has taught teacher-training courses at York University's Faculty of Education and has provided professional development training for private school educators. In addition to her above contributions, Karine is also the official Education Expert for Vaughan's SRC community and an Ontario Mentor for select top youth startups through the Vaughan Business Enterprise Centre (VBEC). Find out more about Brain Power Enrichment Programs at www.brainpower.ca.

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