Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Many Meanings of Back-to-School

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Education is truly timeless for all of us")

School bells ring! Over 14 years I’ve worked in a wide variety of teaching situations. Education, in all forms, is key to any society. It’s a growing industry in Barrie, and with low energy and material inputs this growth is very sustainable, creating social and economic benefits with minimal drawbacks.

“Education” calls to mind children’s public schooling, yet that represents only part of the process. Kids transcend “the three R’s” with extra-curricular sports, dance, swimming, martial arts, or crafts. Our boards offer them free foreign language classes, but in many countries such learning isn’t free. In Korea where I began teaching, a major industry is private English institutes building on the basic grammar & vocabulary taught in public schools. Supervised by native speakers, children and adults practice listening and expressing their own ideas, instead of preset answers. They see the economic value of international language and happily pay a premium to learn.

In Barrie, one can study almost any subject. Georgian College is a leader for careers, and a variety of private institutes offer accelerated work-skill programs. Like myself, many of their teachers find themselves in a classroom role based on life experience or communication skills rather than having gone the standard teacher’s college route. But this continues the age-old cultural tradition of people from all walks of life sharing and passing along their skills and knowledge.

The classroom is no longer the only site for learning; what was previously called correspondence study is a rapidly-growing field. Replacing mail, the swift and powerful Internet has driven the “distance learning” explosion of the past decade. For ten years since settling in Barrie, I have continued teaching Korean students English online. Distance education erases many barriers of traditional classroom studies like geography, scheduling or cost.

But back-to-school always means costs. Beyond clothes-shopping traditions of dubious educational value, a perennial expense is textbooks. While many suspect the driver of new editions is publishing profits – which I can’t deny is a factor – it’s a rare text which doesn’t need improvement or updating. In recent years I’ve been writing and editing English texts for foreign and Canadian markets. Students may find reading textbooks a chore; they can take solace knowing that writing them can be a chore, too!

Another growing influence is co-operative education, where students put classroom learning to use in the workplace. I benefited immensely from my 6 Waterloo co-op work terms, and over the past year the Barrie Green Party has in turn enjoyed the contributions of three Georgian co-ops, helping them learn by doing. Although a “new wave”, co-op is really a partial return to traditional non-classroom learning of past centuries.

And of course education isn’t limited to long-term enrollment. I’ve been invited to educate service clubs, NGOs, and business groups in Barrie and the US, addressing environmental & economic topics like carbon pricing. Audiences are still very interested in lecture-based learning; not just a dream, life-long education is a reality for many. So I guess we never outgrow that back-to-school feeling.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

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