Canadian students in the Pacific Century skills race

To compete in the twenty-first century, Canada needs a student focus post-secondary system

A shift in economic power from the West to Asia demonstrates that a new perspective is needed for our students to compete in the new “Pacific Century.” “Canadian students in the Pacific Century” was the theme at a special post-federal budget conference held in March at the Park Hyatt Toronto. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) and the Canadian International Council (CIC) hosted the event. About 100 business leaders, government officials, educators, policy experts, and students attended the half-day event. The conference was part of the CCCE’s “Canada in the Pacific Century” initiative, which followed the publication of a series of papers in 2012. It is apparent that if Canadian students are to compete in this century, a comprehensive reassessment of the post-secondary education system is required.

The federal government addressed this issue in the 2013-2014 federal budget, which outlined reallocating $19 million over two years to promote education in high demand disciplines that employers are seeking to fill. This will help inform students about disciplines that are relevant to existing and forecasted demand for labour in occupations such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the skilled trades. The consensus suggests that knowledge and proficiency in these key study areas are correlated to a nation’s ability to compete in a technology driven economy.

The literature shows that Canadian students are competitive on an international level. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international study, tests knowledge and problem solving skills in math, science, and reading. Out of more than 70 participating countries, Canada ranks in the top ten in all three subjects. Although Canadian students are performing well, students in Asian countries are leading this race. Their success is credited to their diligence and discipline in these study areas. Despite our relative success, some believe we should be focused on emulating the performance of these Asian countries to remain competitive.

Mental health issues attributed to excessive academic pressure are endemic in these Asian countries. Studies show that Chinese children, for example, have significantly higher rates of depression than their Western counterparts. Chinese students tend to start school as early as age two and spend most of their youth and adolescence preparing for the gaokao, a grueling academic examination. This examination is a prerequisite for entrance into higher education and is thought to create a significant amount of stress on young students looking to continue their education and further their career prospects. South Korea has a similar culture around education. In addition to attending regular school, students sometimes spend long hours in controversial, private cram schools known as hagwon, which are aimed at preparing ambitious Korean students for entrance into top high schools and colleges.

Instead of adopting the model found in some Asian countries, we should build on our current success by re-evaluating how Canadian students are prepared at the post secondary level.

A change in mindset at the post-secondary level from a teacher-centric approach to a student-centric one may help with improving student engagement. At the high school level, pedagogical approaches tend to be student-centric. According to Sachin Maharaj, an assistant curriculum leader in the Toronto District School Board, “this means that  teaching and learning revolves around the needs and actions of the students, as opposed to just the teacher. Thus more opportunity is provided for students to engage with and learn from each other, as well as the teacher.” In addition, a system of descriptive feedback is often used. This feedback outlines accomplishments and areas of improvement. This system encourages students to improve by revisiting and building on their previous work.

At the post-secondary level, less emphasis is placed on teaching and more on the research and administrative duties of professors. “Professors are hired and promoted primarily based on their research productivity, with teaching ability often coming a distant second or even third, if they also have administrative duties to perform,”  says Maharaj. This disconnect can leave students with less confidence and lead to student disengagement.

The challenges of the Pacific Century present an opportunity to implement progressive changes at the post-secondary level. While Canadian students are performing relatively well, a shift in mind-set at the post-secondary level is the place to start with the goal  of improving our competitiveness in the future.

Dwayne G. White earned his BA in Political Science from U of T in 2012. 

Sachin Maharaj is a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, and an assistant curriculum leader in the Toronto District School Board.

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