Get lost with your basics

Get lost with your basics

Stephen Lecce, who is inexplicably Ontario’s minister of education, is currently fronting another one of those asinine “common sense” education reforms aimed at getting back to basics, because this government doesn’t want to be explicit about its desire to crush those pesky teachers’ unions that think they know better how to educationate your child than Doug Ford does. 

Among the lowlights: 

Each school board is required to post what’s called its Student Achievement Plan, a document that lays out how the board intends to work on the education priorities laid out by the government.

Those stated priorities are:

  • Core academic skills, focusing on reading, writing and math. 
  • Preparing students for future success, focusing on providing students with what the government calls “the skills needed to succeed in life.” 
  • Student engagement and well-being, focusing on ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment. 

For the record, I’m cool with a safe and supportive learning environment. It’s the other shit I’ve got issues with. 

And then I have a question: Exactly what is it that children need to be successful at life? Seriously. Can you name it and then measure it?

My first encounter with Stephen Lecce was in 2011 when I was a national reporter with Sun Media (and also one of the least screechy talking heads on Sun News Network). At the time he was working as a person in short pants in the prime minister’s office and he just cold-called me one day to announce that he was Stephen Lecce. 


Well, I work in the prime minister’s office...


I am calling to introduce myself.

Well done you.

I wanted to reach out in case you need anything.

Like what?

Well, I wanted to introduce myself. 

Oh don’t worry, I won’t forget you. Bye.

Being a journalist is fun because all kinds of keen political newbies clutter up your inbox with their irrelevant and uninteresting stories thinking that if they only tell you one more time why they think you should care you’ll magically start singing their virtues instead of hanging up on them like the insufferable pests they are. I may not remember exactly how the conversation with Lecce went in 2011 but the above captures the gist of it. I do remember being distinctly unimpressed and I promise you there is nothing he hasn’t done in the intervening years that has compelled me to change my mind. 

Which brings me up to today, and the basics of educationating small humans so they can turn up just as bland and boring and useless as the average Ontario education minister.

I homeschooled my three children between the time the eldest was born in late 2006 until the last one headed off to school in the spring of 2018. If you’re as good about one of the three Rs, namely rithmetic, as Lecce thinks he is, you’ll know that’s a dozen years. 

Well done you. 

I homeschooled because 1) I believe in attachment parenting for small children and did not want to put mine in daycare and 2) I had been so underwhelmed by public education as a student that I wanted to save my kids from it, for as long as I could. 

I chose a classical sort-of curriculum that was very heavy on poetry and storytelling. It had Latin, too. And lots of hands-on science. Given that I am religiously anti-religion we covered the major ones in some detail and then left them behind. We did a lot of music and art and read a ton. The kids each had their own laptop and were given a few hours each day to look things up on their own and watch documentaries or films as they wished. I was an anti-Dora the Explorer dictator and never let them watch those idiotic kid shows. But movies with character development and plots and things? Pfft. They watched at least one feature film a day. 

They were also made/tortured to go outside to play every day. And no, I did not sign them up to anything organized until they were much bigger. I believe little kids need to be bored. It’s the only way they’ll develop their abilities to use their own imagination, instead of having it crushed by some random curriculum. 

I am incredibly proud of the work I did and of how wonderfully articulate and competent my teenagers are. And I am here to tell you this about what children need to be successful in life.

Yes, of course they need to be able to read and write and count. Duh. 

But beyond that they need their imagination uncrushed by the dullness of adult schedules and key performance indicators. They also need to have empathy and know how to express kindness in a way that truly helps those who need it. 

Kids need to learn to be creative, which they mostly learn as they find ways to unbore themselves. If you enrol them in so many structured activities that they require their own calendar, you will find that during those structured activities everything they do is directed by someone else down to the last detail. That’s what “structured” means. All the kids learn is how to follow directions and obey the schedule. Not for me, thanks. I was into free-range parenting long before the term became cool. 

Kids need to be able to solve problems. They will never learn that if they are never faced with the real possibility of failure. I will repeat this until I’m dead and probably beyond: Kids need to fail. The earlier the better because their failures don’t really matter in the long term. Overcoming failure teaches them who they are. A kid who grows up knowing they can overcome failure will not let anyone get in their way ever. 

Kids need to learn to communicate effectively and get their points across, and not by whining either. When my eldest (then 11) expressed the desire to go to regular school I gave her an assignment. You know why I am against you going to school. Convince me otherwise. 

Wouldn’t you know, within three days the kid had come up with an extremely convincing sales pitch that preemptively countered all my objections. I knew she was ready. For anything.

Public school is obviously not like homeschool. Teachers don’t have the same time to devote to kids as parents do. But if you don’t trust the teachers to give the kids what they need, in the way that they need it, then you’re shortchanging those children. All in the name of common sense. 

Might as well spell it b-u-l-l-s-h-i-t. 

Teachers are not machines, and neither are kids. Standardized teaching and standardized testing only lead to very standardized children prepared for a standardized life in a standardized job. 

If you had to boil it down to one thing it would be this: what humans need to master in order to succeed at whatever it is they decide to do with their lives is adaptability. You can’t teach that from a spreadsheet. The basics are fine, of course. But so much more is needed, and most of that is in those hard-to-measure soft skills that are imparted by caring teachers to children who feel safe and valued. 

By focusing on his stupid common sense, Lecce is making himself look like a flat-footed Fred Flintstone in a world of nimble knowledge workers. Ontario children deserve so much better than that.