STORY AND PHOTO BY GEOFF DAVIES
Expert opinions are well and good, but there’s something to be said about hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Before tonight, CCEPA’s ‘Trust in Education’ series had spotlighted only the voices of experts. With the third installment, held March 26 at Citadel High, the audience saw for themselves what the education system does in Nova Scotia.
In fact, they saw the schools’ masterpieces.
Six local high school students faced off in a good ol’ fashioned debate, complete with new ties, school uniforms, and the elaborate hand signals that only those inducted into the great debating team can comprehend.
There were three students from public schools and three from private schools, all mixed into equal teams. Some were dressed to the nines and one was in a track suit – the others fell somewhere in between.
Any attempt of mine to guess the student’s school based on their attire proved to be false and futile. Kids can be surprising that way.
The topic of the debate was the financial compensation of high school teachers. The style was strictly parliamentary.
One side, dubbed “the government”, proposed to introduce a scheme where teachers got paid bonuses – or commissions, depending on how you look at it – based on how hard they tried to inspire and motivate their students to learn. The level of effort and inspiration was to be measured through standardized testing.
The opposition, of course, opposed this course of action, arguing that it would be nearly impossible to measure a teacher’s merit based on the results of standardized testing. They also emphasized the importance of teachers being themselves inspired to teach for reasons that run deeper than the wallet, and argued that a commissions-system would demean that.
The debaters took turns speaking, with the teams alternating turns and rotating through their speakers. As they zoomed through their arguments, racing to beat the clock, they consistently referred to their opponents as “my friend” and always without sarcasm.
Any objections, which were marked by the squealing of their chairs as they stood, could be waved down by the speaker on a whim, even two or three times in a row. There were no interruptions from the other side of the House, and there were no hilarious heckles from the back-benches.
I guess I’m trying to say that, though it mimicked parliament, the students were a lot more polite than parliamentarians. They knew the rules of the game, and they played it well.
But the hypothetical policy they were debating wasn’t the important question of the night. It was just an exercise. It was an experiment to get at the bigger question: does our education system properly teach our children “to know, to do, to live together, and to be?”
Of course, these aren’t arbitrary goals. They’re the Four Pillars of Education, as laid out by UNESCO. The question of whether or not we live up to them in our part of the world is the whole point of CCEPA’s four-part lecture series.
What’s the answer? If you take a look at the student-debaters, it’s very adamant: “damn straight.” Here are kids who – thanks to, or in spite of, our education system – are applying to Harvard and Yale, who are national-level championship debaters, who are quite polite, and who dress appropriately.
Their classroom anecdotes are about their experiences in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. These are kids who say their mother is the greatest motivation to do well in school, who say students would be better off if the bar were higher to pass a grade, and who think “self-respect” would stop from screwing up a test if it meant the teacher they hate would lose their holiday bonus.
These are the kids who make parents think, “Why aren’t my kids like that?” The system has been good to them, and they know how to succeed within the system. The six students we saw on March 26 would have done pretty well regardless of Citadel High’s curriculum or the quality of teachers at Sacred Heart School. They know the rules of the game, and they play it well.
So there you have it. When put on display before teachers, parents, university presidents, and leaders in education policy, six teenagers have successfully shown the education system works for them. It probably works for a lot of students like them, as well.
But the jury’s still out on whether it works for the humble majority of somewhat-less-extraordinary students out there. They’re the real “horse’s mouth,” if you’ll excuse the crude expression. Too bad we can’t cram them all behind the podium.