Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Pushing the Limits of the Future


Kids in pods? Virtual reality glasses beaming math problems into children’s eyes? Whose idea of a bright future was this, asked Kelly Gallagher-Mackay as she glared at a magazine cover blaring the headline “Future Schools.” 


If you, too, feel horrified at this techno-dystopian vision then you’ll feel glad of the alternatives discussed by authors Nancy Steinhauer and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay in their new book Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today. Both authors appeared on stage Saturday evening with adept moderator Julie Garlen, associate professor and co-director of Child Studies at Carleton University.


Together, Steinhauer and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay explored crucial questions being increasingly asked by the Canadian public. In a world of rapidly changing technological, economic, and social conditions, how do we prepare children for the future ahead? More to the point, how can we equip people for challenges we can’t even imagine?


In confronting these questions, both authors are armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Nancy Steinhauer has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Education; she also received Canada’s Outstanding Principals Award. Co-author Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a lawyer who also holds Ph.D. in Education Policy. Together, Steinhauer and Gallagher-Mackay wrote Pushing the Limits as a way of addressing the deep public hunger to understand how schools can ready us for life in the 21st century. Their book is a timely call to find answers that are badly needed. 


Our nation is riddled with social problems, not the least of them being unemployable graduates. It is past time to ask “what are schools doing?” We can of course expect the usual stock answers, such as "Preparing children for life.” But these slogans are now offered meekly, as if in fear that the listener may laugh.


As with all our institutions, political, judicial, and medical, education must be based on first principles. Schools are a profound moral imperative, as their only legitimate purpose is to create human welfare. Now, we must stop to ask if schools are really maximizing human welfare through reading, writing, and arithmetic. Here, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay assured the audience that she is not opposed to reading and writing, only the idea that these traditional endeavors should be the sole goals of public education.


Gallagher-Mackay continued by pointing out that many of our provincial curricula were first articulated over a century ago. Back when Canadian public schools were first formed, our society was just stepping out from the Victorian age, and women were not allowed so much as a vote. Safe to say the era held an limited view of what it means to be human. This has since produced our current impoverished view of education. At present, the schooling system is the echo of a darker past. It is not so much broken as obsolete. There is an old maxim about the pointlessness of training soldiers to fight the last war. It conjures up the picture of fighting the dangers of cyberspace from horseback with sabres.


And so modern parents find that, far from strengthening childrens’ minds, schools are infantilizing them, leading to a childhood extending well into adulthood. Clearly, test-taking is not a character-building skill. 


Progressive educators regularly face indignation from those protecting the status quo. Yet even more frequently, the authors find the desire to break through the barriers of a stagnant system to create something new. Fortunately, a growing number of schools are experimenting with different curriculums. 


Nancy Steinhauer explains that Ottawa contains more schools with programs of choice than anywhere else in Canada. She has also been involved with “Measuring What Matters,” an initiative designed to help define the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century. These include social and emotional skills, citizenship values, and even digital citizenship; the latter is an under-appreciated yet increasingly vital part of education. 


Pushing the Limits offers hope for the future of public schooling. Authors Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer step onto the ideological battlefield to bravely face the entrenched status quo. Their book provides optimism and guidance for those looking to join the steep fight ahead. The battle for education cannot be left to a policy of wait and see. It is a war for the future itself. From a previous battleground we find a sentiment resounding deeply from Abraham Lincoln. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . .  As our case is new, so we must think anew.” That's pretty much the heart of it.