There’s no doubt that the formal education of students has been sideswiped by the coronavirus pandemic. But there’s also no doubt that we are not solving the problem, and it’s because we are conflating this impact with two distinctly different matters: child care and certification. Let’s see if we can get a handle on all of this.
The reality for most families in the Western world is that both parents work. In direct consequence, one of the primary functions of our schools is to look after the kids when mom and dad are at work. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense-- it’s just part of the package into which we’ve all bought.
When COVID closes schools, kids generally have nowhere to go but home. If mom and dad are working from home, things may be manageable, perhaps barely so, but if one or both parents are still “going in to work”, you have a serious childcare gap. This is not to say the problem is not serious, it’s just that it’s a problem distinct from the kids’ education. Conflating the two won’t help solve either.
The second confusion arises from a failure to distinguish between education and certification. Certification, accreditation, credentialing, or whatever else you may choose to call it, is not education. It is either acknowledgment or permission, sometimes both. It is distinct from education.
If you have a High School Leaving Certificate, all it says is that you attended high school and the administration concluded that you had paid your dues, even if that consisted of little more than attendance. More than one kid has been presented a scroll at commencement because faculty really didn’t want to see his face for one more year. I may have been one such kid.
One of my medical friends asked me, “What do they call the guy who graduates last at medical school?” I fell for it and admitted I didn’t know the answer. “Doctor!”, he chortled with glee. As long as you have the certificate on the wall, you can stick needles in people.
Certification doesn’t really mean you know anything or can do anything. It just means that you have managed to put in some time and pass some tests. Credentialing means only that you have been granted permission to perform certain activities, but it is no guarantee that you can perform them well, or even adequately. (Professional governance is a completely separate matter-- let’s put it aside for this discussion.)
Please don’t get me wrong-- I have a BA, a JD, and an LLM, all of them earned the hard way. I’ve worked for and earned a handful of professional designations as educator, lawyer, trusts and estates professional, and professional speaker. Oh yes, and an Ottawa Taxi License. Firearms Acquisition Certificate, and a judo belt. But none of these will tell you, simply by their existence, if I’m actually any good at what I profess. Certificates on the wall only mean I know how to pass tests.
These things are not education. Education is formation, education is growth, education is understanding. Real education imparts an ability to do something, whether it is to predict the weather, design a ship, write a book, or run a commercial kitchen. The best education begins with the student’s innate aptitudes and imparts the knowledge and skills to enable excellence.
Take my grandfather, for example. A farm boy, he left school after Grade Four. That was in the 1800s, so it wasn’t remarkable. By the time he retired, he was the superintendent of construction for a major Ontario construction company, and spent his evenings poring over complex engineering and architectural drawings, doing complex calculations. He had acquired education on the job, but he had no certificates to show for it. His employers didn’t care, and let him build airports.
This acquisition of knowledge and skills is perhaps most efficiently done in the classroom, but often the better inculcation occurs in the home, the shop, and even online. I have been blessed with many great teachers, but few greater than my parents and grandparents. They taught work ethic, problem solving, human relations… heck, I learned to read long before I went to school by ciphering the headlines as my Grandad read the newspaper, chuffed on his pipe, and tolerated (perhaps even encouraged) my constant questioning.
One summer, when I was a junior counsellor at summer camp, one of the senior counselors taught me Euclid and chess strategy in the evenings. Why? Well, he was born to teach, and couldn’t help himself.
None of this is to belittle the role of our schools and our dedicated teachers. My own Ontario Teacher’s Certificate is among my proudest possessions. But this is to argue that we need to untangle the knot of education, certification, and daycare. They are completely different matters, and to try to solve all three at once will only produce a headache.
To the daycare conundrum I have no snappy answers and I’m intensely grateful that I’m not the one to have to sort that out. But to the notion that essential education stops when kids can’t go to school, I say “Nonsense!”
There may never be a better time for our kids to discover their giftings, passions, and aptitudes, and to spend time toying with ideas, musical notes, web design, history, paint, calculus, German poetry, or the violin. With the depth and breadth of the internet and the ability for like-minded kids to collaborate online, who could ask for richer resources? And given the likelihood that many of these giftings are inherited, what better time for mom or dad or Aunt Ethel to pour of themselves into the lives of their talented kids.
Because every kid is talented. The trick for us is to identify their giftings, and to help them discover and develop them. The happy news is that this exercise invariably gives more back than we give in.
Yes, but what of that High School Leaving Certificate? What of the application to grad school? Well, for the most part, this isn’t competitive-- almost everyone is in the same boat. And second, maybe it’s time for credential granters to get a little more creative about what really matters and the purpose of the certification.
Post-COVID may be another six months, maybe another year, down the road. But in the meantime, let’s not waste the opportunity we have. There’s a lot of real, serious education to acquire. Heck, even for adults!
Norman Bowley teaches the Alignment Doctrine and the Client Code-- secrets to building the professional practice you and your clients deserve.