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Opinion: Royal Roads sees value of public education

Geoff Johnson

While the local jury is still undecided about directions for public education in B.C., China, and specifically Beijing, harbours no doubts.

With a population of 20.7 million as of 2012, China’s capital city has become the country’s most entrepreneurial city and is home to 41 Fortune Global 500 companies — the second most in the world behind Tokyo — plus more than 100 of the largest companies in China.

It is regarded as the nation’s political, cultural and educational centre, which helps us partly understand why Beijing would, each year since 2010, send principals and vice-principals of schools from five school districts in metro Beijing, all expenses paid, to Victoria’s Royal Roads University’s Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program.

This year, 27 Beijing school administrators came to Royal Roads, up from 21 in 2011.

They began their RRU program on July 30, 2012, and studied for two terms until Oct. 19.

The courses were taught in English by RRU instructors in Beijing. Students then arrived in Victoria in mid-February 2013 for another six months of study and visits to B.C. schools.

In 1986, China set the long-term goal of providing compulsory basic education to every child.

In February 2006, the Chinese government pledged to provide a completely free nine-year education, including textbooks and fees, and in March 2007, the Chinese government declared education a national “strategic priority.”

The central budget for national scholarships was tripled between 2007 and 2009.

So what interest could a closed system, one-party, one-child-per-family, no-dissent style of government have in B.C.’s system of public education and why now?

In 2010, a nationally mandated document called Towards a Learning Society was released in China.

Aware of the necessity to prepare kids for China’s emerging role as a world business leader, local authorities were instructed to update their systems in a way that established self-management, democratic supervision and social participation.

Curriculum reform that promoted research-based study, community service and social practice in learning was part of the package.

Ten years earlier, the business-based Conference Board of Canada had also begun to urge educators here to consider curriculum through which students would learn to think and solve problems by assessing situations and identifying problems by seeking different points of view and evaluating them based on facts.

Learning to identify and access learning sources and opportunities, then plan for and achieve learning goals, was a part of that.

It has taken a while, but now B.C.’s Education Plan also emphasizes key competencies such as self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and collaborations and technological literacy. Connecting students more directly with the world outside of school is a feature of the plan.

None of this, not here and not in China, represents any kind of experimentation or dumbing-down of public education, just an awareness of the demands and expectations of 21st-century skills-based economies.

Growing economies will demand that today’s kids develop not just content knowledge, but skills and attitudes that will carry them into the future.

Schools will be the starting place for that, so when Royal Roads University offers a master’s program in educational leadership and management, it is demonstrating an understanding of where public education must be heading.

Doug Hamilton, who heads up the RRU program, says: “China is undertaking a series of far-reaching, nation-wide educational reforms. The school principal plays a key role in supporting this change.”

And when Beijing is willing to fully fund its school administrators to take part in that program, partly in Victoria and partly in Beijing, they are demonstrating an awareness that the future is now and that those expected to lead must be prepared.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.