Canadian public schools can’t compete

Why where you learned as a child matters

Our contributor argues that Canadian students are limited by an inferior academic environment in elementary and high schools.
Our contributor argues that Canadian students are limited by an inferior academic environment in elementary and high schools.

As Canadians, we’re widely unprepared for scholarly competition in comparison to our international counterparts. 

Watching the latter groups succeed makes some wonder what went wrong at their local elementary and high schools. I believe this is because we underestimate the capability of our students to learn difficult concepts at a young age.  

I met Wilson in grade nine science when our teacher told us we had a genius in our class. 

“He’s a refugee from India,” she said. “If I’m busy with another student, he’s your guy.” 

After countless tutoring sessions, lunch breaks spent together and group projects, Wilson and I became great friends, although a part of me always resented his intellect. It wasn’t that I didn’t like being challenged. It was that I felt he was, in some way, luckier for growing up in a war-torn town in India. 

“I did this in grade four. I can’t believe they’re only letting you learn this now,” he complained to me in almost every class. Key word: letting. 

Even though we went through the same program and wound up with similar grades, Wilson got more out of high school than the rest of us. Learning the material early gave him the opportunity to ask better questions and ultimately gave him the opportunity to make it big — he’s only 20 and he just began his medical residency in the UK. 

The more I saw how large the gap our education was, the more unfair I thought it was that I never got to learn harder concepts at an earlier age. Why was it that while Wilson was learning differential calculus in the fifth grade, I was learning how to multiply fractions? 

The fundamental question I ask is this: Do we, as Canadians, underestimate our elementary and high school students? The answer is yes. 

Curriculums move slowly in elementary and high schools with important topics covered quickly in a last-ditch attempt to get through as much as possible before summer. As a result, the expected prior knowledge in first-year classes has yet to become part of our long-term memories. 

A successful curriculum should combine early exposure to difficult topics, adequate time to process them, and long-term repetition.

Nearly all of Asia and north-western Europe use this type of education system and unsurprisingly make up all the countries that rank highly in education — and they all place emphasis on learning what’s necessary for higher education and the workforce. For example, India’s National Curriculum Framework prioritizes learning three languages, mathematics, social science and science so that these subjects takes up 68 per cent of the material. 

In addition to this, each of the countries that the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the highest in all of its surveys has their students learn pre-algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics and biology around the same time Canadian and American students learn how to add and subtract three figures.

We underestimate our students’ abilities to understand difficult concepts and delay them until hormones and a developing dopamine reward-system skew the brain to take more risks and find leisure more appealing than ever before. This is the stage in life when humans learn what not to do as an adult. However, as children, we’re prime subjects for learning. We’re eager to do more, to learn more and to do better than the last time — it’s inherent to us. 

As children, our brains have a huge capacity to form long-term neural pathways. Making use of them at this stage not only makes an undergraduate student’s life much easier later down the line, but it makes learning difficult subjects less likely to be stressful. 

This “spoon feeding” process prevents many students from smoothly transitioning into higher education. Many are put into less challenging streams and sometimes lose the motivation to graduate. Comparatively, when “problem children” in north-western Europe finish elementary school, they’re not told they’re too stupid to take part in the regular curriculum. Instead they’re given chances to intern at various jobs and are often hired. In fact, 52 per cent of Switzerland’s employed are considered special needs.

It’s no wonder that transitioning into post-secondary education makes many feel anxiety and depression. In the 2013 survey for the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), 89 per cent of Queen’s students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do. 

Try as I might to catch up to the Wilsons in my classes, I wind up spending more time learning what he learned as a child rather than learning what I’m taught now. Many succeed in catching up, but the rest shouldn’t be forgotten because they failed — it’s our country’s education system that has failed them.

Nicole Costa is a third-year English student.

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