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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

What's the point of education?

Last week The Globe and Mail ran an opinion piece calling for coding to become a mandatory subject in Canadian schools. I’m sympathetic to the idea, for I agree that computer literacy and an awareness of how the algorithms and programs that increasingly influence our lives is crucial to being an informed citizen. That being said, I disagree with almost all the points made in that article. More generally, as I continue to think about my own opinions of the state of education here in Ontario, particularly when it comes to math, I keep coming back to the question that heads this post.

The entire article rests on a premise that Canadian kids are less prepared for jobs that involve coding because of its omission as a required subject. Frelix starts with a strong and confident statement:

Parents have certain expectations when they send their children to school. They’ll learn to read, write, do math, maybe learn a second language, generally prepare for postsecondary education and build a foundation for entering the workforce. But most Canadian kids aren’t getting everything they’ll need for the working world that will await them upon graduation.

This seems uncontroversial if you take as an implicit premise that education is necessarily about preparing people for work. But what if that axiom is flawed? What if we go back to first principles and actually examine the point to all this schooling?

Certainly, education is necessary for certain types of work. But the nature of work is changing.

The Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs

Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing company responsible for assembling things like your iPhone, replaced 60 000 of its assembly line workers with robots this year. Self-driving cars are coming, and Uber is piloting its flavour to replace the drivers who demand pesky things like a living wage and benefits and respect. Even jobs that don’t involve manual labour, such as data analysis, are being replaced, augmented, or transformed by robots and algorithms.

This is, for the most part, to the good. Technology is awesome. And why should humans have to work in dangerous jobs simply to live? We should be free to pursue that which interests us and find how we are suited to contributing to the common good.

Even if you disagree with this, if you think I’m a bleeding heart, pie-in-the-sky liberal who is totally off base, you can’t ignore the fact that the world of work is changing, and it is changing incredibly fast. In my parents’ generation, it was possible to expect that post-secondary schooling would lead to a job offer or apprenticeship or whatnot, which would lead to an entry-level job, which would turn into a career. You might switch firms once or twice, but you had a place, a pathway. This dream doesn’t apply to my generation. Ideas of stability like home ownership seem like dreams to many of us, at least not without our parents' financial assistance, because it's hard enough to find a job, let alone keep it. Unpaid internships sit side-by-side with paid positions that expect “five years’ experience” on jobs you were hoping to get right out of school. Oh, and those student debts….

That’s the other thing: education at an elementary and secondary level can’t be about preparing students for work, because there is little room for specialization. There are specialized schools for the musically and athletically adept, sure. There are specialized programs for a few pathways, like the Specialist High Skills Major. By and large, though, our secondary curriculum makes a half-hearted attempt to stream students into one of three post-secondary pathways (work, college, university) and then throws darts at the chart of learning, hoping they hit something. I know a lot of post-secondary educators complain about students coming into their programs without the prerequisite skills, whether it’s pre-calculus or writing an essay. While there are doubtless deficiencies in the teaching that need to be addressed (that’s another post), part of the problem is simply that we can’t be expected to prepare every student for every possible career they might or might not want to study. We can pretend that by the time they’re in Grade 12 a student will have some idea of what they want to do, but that doesn’t make it so. Their job might not even exist yet! And even if it does, one year is not long enough if someone suddenly decides to switch from STEM to the arts or vice versa.

My point is that if we want to talk about education primarily as a way of preparing people for work, we are doing those people a disservice. We are treating them like fungible quantities in an equation, and we are ignoring the bigger, systemic issues and barriers present beyond education. Finally, we are twisting the facts to fit our pet theory, because learning can never stop after high school or even after a post-secondary program. People will always have to learn more on the job, engage in professional development, and even retrain for entirely new careers. Yet how often do we talk about this? How often do we mention it to students?

Education does, as part of its remit, prepare people to work. But that should not be the point of education. The point of education should be to help people learn how to learn, in the ways that suit and interest them, about the things that they need to know. The point of education should be to help children grow into the most responsible, thoughtful, creative, and passionate individuals they can be.

Just Make It Required!

The Globe and Mail article is not wrong to concentrate on coding as an important skill. I want to emphasize I’m not opposed to raising the profile of coding in schooling; hell, I would love it if more students learned to code! Even if they don’t end up in the lucrative fields that involve programming (and to be sure, as automation ramps up, those fields will grow), coding teaches excellent logical and lateral thinking, critical thinking, collaboration and social skills, and creativity. It’s a wonderful activity.

I question the wisdom of making it a required subject.

I mean, we made math a required subject. That doesn’t automatically translate into students clamouring to study higher-level math at university. Indeed, it’s almost to the point where we assume people are going to have a negative experience with math in school, and the very people who should be helping to fix that problem (parents, administrators, etc.) make jokes about it instead and commiserate about their own poor experiences with math.

So making a subject a required subject is not automatically going to make more students interested in it, and in fact it’s probably a quick way of making them resent it even more. If you want to get students interested in coding you’d be better off banning it. After all, that is how many of the coding and hacker legends we like to cite these days as inspirational tales got started—not from the rubber-stamped, hands-tied atmosphere of a classroom, but from the basements and garages and off-hours computer labs where they could explore and innovate without having to worry about grades or test scores.

Frelix notes that there is going to be a shortfall of 182 000 jobs in communications technology. This is the “pipeline problem”, claiming that issues in an industry (such as a lack of representation of women or minorities) stems from not enough of a group of people entering that industry’s training. While that may be true, it is only a small part of the story. The tech industry has serious cultural problems with its approach to diversity and dealing with sexism and racism. Frelix acknowledges none of this, postulating instead that if we can somehow magically shepherd 182 000 people into post-secondary comp. sci. programs we’ll have solved the problem. But unless those 182 000 students are all white men, a good portion of them are going to drop out, either while in school or after they get their first jobs.

Don’t get me wrong: we should totally encourage students of all shape, ability, and gender to learn coding and go into coding-related fields, if that’s what they want to do. But let’s not pretend that the pipeline is the only reason we have a shortfall in people to fill those jobs.

Remember that the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. It takes years to draft and revise new curriculum. I agree that the curriculum needs to change and that we should probably reconsider how and what we teach with regards to computer science. But if we use only short-term labour projections as our motivation, we’ll only be in this position again in another decade. We need to consider what types of programmers and coders we might need not just five years from now, but fifteen or twenty years down the line. This is difficult, of course, given the pace of progress in the tech industry. But it is a critical question.

All this talk about making coding mandatory has me wondering about other potentially lucrative fields, though. Why not make trades mandatory? As aging tradespeople set to retire, we’re going to see shortfalls in those areas too … but I don’t see many people arguing that students should have to take plumbing as a required course (but wouldn’t that be a useful skill to have, even if you don’t become a plumber?).

No matter how much we try to re-brand the course streams or run commercials claiming that Canada needs the trades, the fact is that as a society, we continue to place greater cachet on young people entering university, or more academic college programs, than on entering the trades. We view academia as something that requires “more” skill, “better” grades, “higher” learning, while trades are for people who fall short of those marks. I’m certainly guilty of this myself. It’s a type of class snobbery disguised by good intentions, by “wanting better” for our children. But we can’t have it both ways.

We talk about education as if it is a great leveller, but "education" is not a neutral force. It only levels the playing field if we intentionally structure the system that way, and we haven’t done that. Instead, we’ve replicated society’s wider inequities within the fabric of education. If we are to improve, that means we need to acknowledge those inequities. It’s not enough simply to rethink what courses we make mandatory or what jobs we need people to fill: we need to have a vision of what we want school to be.