Article Review- Restructuring for Learning by Phillip Harris

It seems that the education system is constantly under attack. Many have an opinion of how teachers and the teaching profession should change. What everyone does agree on is that education is vital to the reordering the country (Harris, 1992). It is for this reason that many place blame on schools for the problems that happen in society.

As a teacher in an Inuit community, I am often seen as an outsider; the majority of teaching staff is from the south and there has traditionally been a gap between the Inuit and the southerners. However, the Inuit are changing to match the ways of the southern world. Canada’s largest land claim, Nunavut, is looming on the horizon and the Inuit are depending on their educated youth to govern it. For this reason, the school system has been challenged to change and teachers need to be the force behind it.

The article, "Restructuring for Learning" (Harris, 1992), clarified this need to change for me. I was particularly caught by the opening analogy that described schools in the past as a family farm model changing to a factory system. When I think about how the Inuit taught their children in the past, it was much like the family farm model of learning; Inuit were taught by observation. How shocking it must have been for children to be removed from such a family atmosphere into the factory model of neatly compartmentalised learning without even experiencing the industrial era of the western world. Now the Inuit are faced with the post-industrial era of information, all which has happened over the last fifty years. It becomes obvious that we must not only restructure but also reconceptualise education because the aspect of work is being reconceived and not simply modernised (Harris, 1992).

Harris (1992) explains that there are three areas that need to be reconceptualised and restructured. Firstly, education must become a community responsibility by rethinking the role of the community and the role of the institution. Secondly, a purpose for education must be created that is strongly supported at all levels; thus we must rethink the curriculum goals and accountability. Thirdly, we must look again at what it means to be an educated person of the future. In this critique, I will reflect on these areas as they relate to my teaching of Inuit youth in Nunavut.

With regards to the community responsibility of education, the north has many opportunities for improvement. The article discusses issues dealing with local financing; richer communities result in quality education while poorer communities result in failure. Harris (1992) does not believe in a shift from the rich to the poor but rather a levelling up of the playing field rather than levelling down. In my situation, this in not yet an issue because funding is determined on a per capita basis. However, where community involvement could really improve is in the education of the members on the District Education Authority (DEA) with regards to educational goals and practice. The DEA is somewhat ineffective because it does not understand its use of power and its potential for positive outcomes at the school level. I would like to see the DEA put forth more encouragement to elders and local people to come into the school to form stronger partnerships. I believe that a discussion of community responsibility must include community involvement issues and not only concerns over local financing.

Secondly, Harris (1992) states that a purpose for public education must be created that is supported at all level. For me the questions become: 1) for what reasons do we have schools in Nunavut? 2) What roles do schools, the curriculum, the teacher and the student play? 3) What are the issues of accountability at stake?

To answer my first question, we need to look back. In the past, there was a need to educate our youth to survive in an adult world. Inuit children were taught the skills they needed for a life on the land. Today, Inuit youth are facing a life totally different from their parents. Schools are expected to meet so many modern needs while merging with traditional educational goals. Eventually, the system becomes overloaded with the layering on of curriculum by legislators Harris (1992). Unfortunately, often teachers tend to focus on completing the material at the expense of meaningful learning. We are stuck with figuring out effective ways to deal with this load.

We are currently undergoing changes to our education system due to the separation of Nunavut from the NWT. Up to now our curriculum has been decided by officials in Yellowknife who chose the Alberta curriculum to be in place at the high school level. There is talk of changing our curriculum to match our unique needs and developing a Nunavut-wide curriculum. These changes must be carefully done and must have teacher and community involvement in order to achieve success. Harris (1992) states that many schools are jumping on the restructuring bandwagon but there are still questions remaining as to effectiveness. He goes on to say that any efforts to restructure will be insufficient unless they deal with issues that deal with the way that teachers interact with students inside the classroom. Harris (1992) believes that what really matters is the relationship between student and teacher; this must not be overlooked.

The question of relationship between student and teacher drives my second question that explores the changing roles of the major stakeholders: schools, curriculum, student and teacher. Harris (1992) states: "(Teachers) must develop a new understanding of what it means to say "all children can learn"" (p.8). We must examine what messages we send to students and beware of labelling and grouping students into those that can and those that cannot. A conscious effort is required when teachers are under stress of accountability through departmental examinations. Teachers must remember that students are valuable human resources (Harris, 1992). Too easily can our resources turn into a liability when students drop out because of failure. This is all too true with the coming of Nunavut; each Inuit youth has an important role to play in order to make this new government work.

Harris (1992) looks at the role of schools as become primary care givers. In my school, teachers are: providers of breakfast and lunch, suicide prevention counsellors, prenatal educators, recreation leaders, health instructors, drug and alcohol workers, career counsellors and wear many other hats inside and outside of the classroom. As Harris (1992) suggests, we have changed our school year to match hunting season in June and July. I have mixed feelings about our various roles. I wonder if the education system has taken too much of the duties that belong to the family. I understand that children’s needs must be met in order for them to succeed at school but I regret that it seems to always be put upon the school to fulfil these needs. I question how educators can make society see that teaching is a full time job even if the calendar says it we have two months of break (Harris, 1992).

Finally, there is an issue of accountability. Teachers are being limited because they are under pressure to teach exclusively what is on the examination. Recently, many provinces have gone towards standardised testing. What bothers me is that my students are not able to learn from this type of paper-pencil test results. I am not trained to know how to use the data generated in the effort to improve my teaching (Harris, 1992). Many of the tests are not relative to my students’ northern Native experiences and therefore are bias against them. Many of my students learn best with hands-on activities as were common in traditional educational practices. Standardised exams are not a valid measure of their learning. Harris (1992) declares that administrators must place more confidence in the teacher’s judgment and not overlook the teacher who can probably tell the most.

Ultimately, challenge in restructuring for learning requires changes in attitude for teachers and society. Harris (1992) started his article linking restructuring to reconceptualising. He cites Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence as a way to get the ball rolling. What it means to be an educated person in the new millennium is changing to value all of the areas of the human intelligence. It is interesting to think about what a school should look like based on the multiple intelligence theory. We need to put learning first and that’s the key (Harris,1992).

References

Harris, Phillip. (1992). Restructuring for learning. In Costa, A., Bellanca, J. & Fogarty, R. (Eds.). If Minds Matter: A Foreword to the Future vol 1. (pp. 3 - 11) Illinois: SkyLight Training and Publishing, Inc.