Both the Canadian Association of Foundations of Education and Canadian History of Education Association examine the fundamentals of teacher education in the country today
The foundations of education, usually including the fields of educational history, philosophy and sociology, have held a central place in most teacher education programmes in Canadian universities. Traditionally, these subjects were taught as a means for teacher candidates to understand their place within their profession and the larger society.
Over the past two generations, the foundations have gone through profound changes in perspective that reflect the cultural, legal and philosophical shifts of this country’s populace: based on its roots in the humanities, the foundations’ content, methodology and pedagogy now offer vital, critical perceptions and approaches to understanding and teaching in our pluralistic globally-oriented society.
In the most recent wave of educational reform discussions, however, arguments have been made that treating foundational fields as isolated disciplines is an outdated approach, ineffective in a post-modern, integrated world. This assault has taken on two facets that have become all too common: the desire to eliminate the “foundations” configuration altogether in teacher education to be replaced with more ‘practical’ study; or, the appropriation of the term “foundations” by fields not heretofore associated with this area of study.
Prioritising educational research and teaching
As Faculties of Education reassess and redistribute their programme content, a host of more practical subjects (e.g., educational technology, classroom management and instructional methodologies) have tended to take expanding roles in the newest courses of study, while educational foundations fight rear guard actions, arguing only for its preservation in some form. In more stark cases, such as the recent decision at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, whole Departments related to the foundations have been shuttered, with researchers being redeployed into other areas.
Of course, this does not represent the path of all scholarship and university programmes across the country. Nevertheless, we are very concerned that the undermining of the foundations will have a grave effect on the possibility of improving educational understanding in our country. We argue that teacher education must be more than merely training for classroom practice – the offering of tips and tricks. Rather than separating the theoretical from the practical, choices of practice must be underpinned by critical and creative thinking arising from holistic understandings. The study of classroom management, for example, can only be properly understood when revealed through a wider philosophical, historical and sociological framework. Here, students may be able to balance promising practices with such larger issues of power, context and anti-racist/anti-oppressive education.
Other stakeholder groups within the debate concerning teacher education argue that research and teaching in the foundational areas need to be expanded to include additional fields such as anthropology, Indigenous studies and gender and sexual diversity studies and that these studies be taken up in integrated ways. As such, a number of new courses not traditionally associated with the foundations have appeared in various programmes, as well as on government research grants.
Overall, this is part of the ongoing debate within any discipline. What we argue, however, is that the foundations should not be viewed as a simple body of knowledge to be memorised, with more content being added in a snowball effect. Rather, the field must come together as an integrated perspective that can aid both teachers and citizens as they confront the plethora of complex questions and concerns they will face in the 21st century. Splintering the foundations into a loosely connected umbrella of courses would not help achieve the needed deeper understandings.
Challenges that lie ahead
While recent attempts to dislodge the “foundations” have shaken confidence, we posit that the single greatest challenge to improving education in Canada arises out of the taken-for-granted assumptions of techno-rationalism and neo-liberalism. If Canadian educators and educational researchers focus on the logic of ‘efficiency and effectiveness’, simply preparing individuals for the ‘world of work’, then how can we expect teachers and citizens at large to take up and engage in holistic and more profound ways of thinking?
We believe that teaching and research in educational foundations should take on greater significance as success in society will depend on knowledge and learning about the historical context of educational/societal assumptions, theories and practices; about how knowledge is put together and ethical decisions made; about school systems as social structures embedded in communities; and about the disparities that existed and continue to exist in society and schools, including those based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, abled-ness and so on.
This means, of course, that the foundations must be more than museum-work. Like any other living entity, it must grow and adapt to the changing world around it. This involves breaking the old rigid disciplines into more integrated, flexible shapes, more accepting of new ideas and forms. If educational foundations can grow, adapt and integrate, this area of teaching and research will contribute in deep and meaningful ways to improving education in Canada. As such, bolstering foundational studies is an important part of the way ahead in bettering education in Canada.
President, Canadian Association of Foundations of Education
Past-President, Canadian History of Education Association