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Back to School Blues after a Hazy Lazy Summer

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

My daughter was doodling last night - the night before highschool starts as we talked about the busy week ahead. I was startled when I noticed a figure she had drawn with its hands straight up in the air and its mouth wide open. It’s a simple illustration of her feelings the night before Grade 11. A silent scream. “This is the year that matters” the kids say, because the grades will be recorded and they think the only option is to get all A's (90 percent) to get into university. That’s the message they are hearing from the world and school advisors.

The current culture puts a lot of pressure on young people to be everything - to perform in school, to be active & healthy, to be committed to a cause in your community through volunteering, activities and part time work. Parents struggle to reduce the number of hours that sports and other activities require of our kids. 2 days a week would be perfect but most activities are asking 4 days a week.

I wonder if teachers will start this week by talking about what it was like to live in Canada this summer with the fires burning across most of the provinces, the smoke warnings in the city, the inflation and the droughts. We had water restrictions and road closures on our annual trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island. Are we going to talk about this in class or just keep that for the final unit of science? Or does that fit into the current curriculum?

Kids can literally smell the planet burning.

How do teachers think about and teach climate change in a world filled with anxious kids? We need more courses for teachers on how to approach this current moment as complex as it is - to be helping kids to support one another and moving forward as a team. Maybe we need collaborative entrance requirements for university? Maybe kids should be able to apply as a group with an idea for changing the world?

My kid is anxious about going back and explains to me that she loves how summer feels and doesn’t want to go back to the pressures of the school year. By the time kids reach grade 11 in Canada there is a ton of pressure related to discussions of university, college and grades. The headlines are filled with stories about grade inflation and the reality that many schools require high averages for admissions. Our current culture treats university as a required building block to a successful life. What if we had more alternatives for 17 year olds who were unsure about what comes next?

Let’s be clear, there are many kids who are excited about the challenge of getting into university and finding a career option that fits. These are the kids who have brains designed for our current mode of schooling. For many kids it just feels like ‘a lot’ and it really gets in the way of being able to think creatively and enjoy growing up and finding cool things to learn about.

Our kids were lucky to go to camp for a few weeks this summer - they had no access to screens or internet- just a lot time spent playing games with other kids and deeply immersed in the outdoor world. Camp is a very privileged experience these days - to afford to send your kid away from a screen filled environment is a lot of savings that many families don’t have. What if there was a 4 year outdoor experience that qualified as a degree? What if backpacking got you credit instead of sitting in classes writing essays with chat gpt?

Our kids said they felt at ease and relaxed and were sad to come back to the city, social media and all the pressure of urban life. As 16 year olds, the most frequent question from adults is ‘what are you planning on doing at school’ or ‘what university are you thinking about going to?’ or ‘do you know what career direction you are going in?’. The world has been asking her this question year after year to the point where it brings her to tears. “I have no idea what I want to do or become - what is wrong with me?”. I can’t imagine she is alone in this feeling.

Kids are asked in Grade 10 to make decisions about what courses to take in the Grade 11 year that set a path in the direction of Arts or in the direction of Science/Engineering. Try explaining to a kid what we call Arts and what we call Science and start asking the question why do even do this?

I challenged this notion of Arts vs Science as an undergraduate and took courses in both arts and science at a time when this was challenging to do. I had to get a lot of signatures from advisors and Professors and I learned to navigate a degree filled with courses I wanted to take in order to answer questions I had about the world. I took courses in health, anthropology and literature while completing a BSc but that was an unusual route. It is possible to find more programs that mix these disciplines and divisions but in general the clear question to our Grade 10 students is “do you want to study arts or science?”. Its really no longer OK to divide the world like this.

I spent the last 30 years working at universities trying to create spaces where the division between arts and science did not exist…I worked to create learning spaces where we understood the complexity of the challenges we are facing on this planet and taught skills that are needed to live in such a complex world. Climate change, poverty, inequality, health of ecosystems, humans and communities - it turns out all our challenges cross disciplinary lines and yet we are still asking 15 year olds to split the world into arts and science.

Our cities are stuck because of arguments between politicians, planners and engineers instead of collaborative problem solvers who work together and understand how to work across disciplines. Our elected officials are rarely experts in the fields that they are overseeing. Why don't we start teaching courses about “Cities” or “Healthy Communities” and “Changemaking” instead of labelling calculus, english and physics. Most of our foundational courses involve sitting in lecture halls trying to reflect back to the teachers that we understand what they are teaching. What if we admitted that we don't know how to get out of this planetary mess? Schools and programs need to be less impressive and more willing to be vulnerable about what we still don't know how to do. We need to reinvent the systems at all levels.

We need to be teaching creativity, design, collaboration, facilitation, decision making, policy and behaviour change but we don’t talk about these kinds of skills because very few folks know how to create a classroom that is open to experimentation. For some reason, pre-calculus is still the most important thing you can learn in Canada. Thank goodness for the tutors because most students need one to get an A in these courses.

Over 25 years ago at UBC I helped put together a proposal for an Inter-faculty transdisciplinary degree in Sustainability Studies with George Spiegelman and Rob Vanwynsberghe. It didnt' get picked up at the time. I learned recently that these inter-faculty ideas for a School of Sustainability are still being discussed (argued about?) 25 years later and UBC has not found a way to implement the program. Yes there are some streams and programs but the point is that it is hard system to transform and that's a post for another time (ie. financial models at the university, bums in seats and pre-requisites).

We need collaborative problem solvers learning to test, prototype, fail, re-imagine possibilities and support one another through all of the emotions that come along with building and testing new ideas. We need healers of all kinds and partnerships we could never have dreamed of. We don’t need more pressure on kids to get 'higher' grades nor do we need to ask them to choose at age 15 what they want to do with their life. We need more emphasis on soft skills and teamwork and less focus on individual success. We need cities that support small businesses to thrive and prosper (so students can imagine being a small business owner as an option!). We need kids thinking about cities much earlier than graduate school as an option for work.

We need to understand that the way universities are set up is not ideal and does not align with a world filled with inequity and climate chaos. Only a small percentage of folks work in the disciplines that they went to school for and yet we continue to prop up a university education as the starting point to a successful life. There is not a world of ‘arts’ and another world that is ‘science’ and another world of ‘engineers’. There are thousands of career and life possibilities that have nothing to do with the names of your degree and that is an incredible opportunity for young people that we don’t spend enough time talking about.

So the next time you get to talk to young people about their future - you might want to ask “what lights you up these days?” Or “what problems do you want to spend your life solving?” Or “what are you imagining could be different?”. Maybe less focus on the university as the only pathway could help us all imagine new futures together.

The poetry of Gary Snyder comes to mind- from his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection titled Turtle Island.

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes, of statistics lie before us.

The steep climb of everything, going up, up, as we all go down.

In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pastures, we can meet there in peace if we make it.

To climb these coming crests one word to you, to you and your children:

stay together learn the flowers go light

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