Sunday, November 6, 2011

Smartphones or saxophones? bcedplan gets it wrong

I don't happen to believe that schooling is simply a preparation for the workforce. But even if you did, a little critical examination of Minister Abbott's bcedplan might have you shaking your head.

Minister Abbott was widely quoted promoting the virtues of technology in schools. CKNW reported that "The model includes a focus on critical thinking and bringing technology into the classroom, including smartphones and tablets." Abbott's rationale? ""The world has changed and continues to change and in order to keep pace we need to shift the way we look at teaching and learning". (

Now I'm not a Luddite, and as an Information Technology teacher myself I do believe we need computer education at the secondary level and that there is an argument for some technology in earlier grades based on good pedagogy and as a tool for teachers and students. But I was intrigued by a quote from an article in The Economist this week on a similar subject: "The nature of what constitutes work today—the notion of a full-time job—will have to change dramatically. The things that make people human—the ability to imagine, feel, learn, create, adapt, improvise, have intuition, act spontaneously—are the comparative advantages they have over machines. They are also the skills that machines, no matter how smart, have had the greatest difficulty replicating." (

So even if you did happen to think that so called 21st century education should be preparation for 21st century work, you might still come to the conclusion that more technology in schools is a mistake, and maybe focusing on creativity should happen without machines - particularly at younger ages.

Two widely circulated articles appeared this week in the New York Times and the Globe & Mail on the subject of Waldorf schools and their attitude towards technology in schools. Waldorf schools do not introduce any technology until high school. They also require that every student learn a string instrument. (

There is a growing collection of reasons to question the validity of more technology for younger students. Recent recommendations from the medical community suggest no screen time for very young children and limited screen time for elementary age children. The realities of two working parent households mean that many children get all the screen time they should before they step into the school yard. Most parents I know judge a child care centre on how few televisions or computers they have, not how many.

Which gets me to the title of today's post: Smartphones or saxophones?

I'm using music here as a metaphor for all the creative arts - many of the same arguments apply. And of course it shouldn't necessarily be an either or for resources in schools, but exactly where are the saxophones in the Minister's plan?

I've never understood why music has been relegated to an "extra" in our schools. Almost no school or District in BC provides music at every school and free musical instruments for every student. And yet no school expects students to bring their own laptop to the computer lab, soccer ball to the playing field or saw to the carpentry room (although they are increasingly charged for the wood!).

Sadly, most music programs have been forced to charge fees and rely on parents supplying instruments and fundraising extensively. Some even ask parents to purchase the sheet music. Music specialist teachers have all but disappeared in many Districts at the elementary level. Music teachers pour their hearts into their programs and work hours and hours of overtime to provide concert opportunities, to organize fundraising, and to plan trips for bands, choirs and orchestras.

In my mind, music literacy and knowing how to play a musical instrument and read music should be one of the core skills taught in K-12 schools. A myriad of literature makes the connection between musical literacy and learning - particularly learning of pattern recognition and mathematical skills. Music teaches about persistence, patience, creativity, teamwork, history, and beauty. Moreover music is an integral component to many of the "knowledge based" work opportunities available today. Outside private music lessons are prohibitively expensive for many families, making public school the only opportunity for learning an instrument for a good portion of the population.

I heard a music teacher lament recently about the impossibility of the school District ever supplying adequate resources to purchase $500 instruments for all students. And yet the very same government can afford a $1.2 billion contract with Telus for increased computer network access. Where's the 21st century creativity in that?


  1. Music in general, band classes, guitar class, drama, and art: it's all headed for the scrap heap.
    I don’t even get enough of a budget for reeds in my band program; never mind new sheet music.
    Today’s students are not really interested in much of anything that involves school. They love their phones.

  2. Great article. Very well said.

  3. This is inspirational and quotable - thanks VERY much! I've just forwarded the URL to the Board members of the Kodaly Society of Canada.

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