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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for March 2012

The UnI student conference at Kwantlen

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There are times when I really enjoy my job; that was the case yesterday, when I was able to attend UnI, a multidisciplinary undergrad conference organized by some students at Kwantlen.

And multidisciplinary it sure was.  There was art: paintings and sculpture, music, even slam poetry – all created by our undergrads.  And it was good, too, without any of the cringe factor that often accompanies first efforts; just a lot of talent and creativity.

The talks and workshops were a mix of presentations by students and professional alike, with a strong focus on social justice: MLA Jagrup Brar talked about what he learned while surviving a month on welfare; Jennifer Mervyn recounted her experience as a former street youth now working in counselling psychology; Max Valiquette talked demographic trends and connectedness (more on that talk later).  In that mix, students held their own, with topics as diverse as global water shortage (Luthfi Dhofier) or sexual health education (Lison Daubigeon).  And that was just one of the two days.

The organising committee - all students, except for two faculty members.

My contribution was to talk about food during lunch; a kind of extended way of saying grace, I suppose.  I talked about locavores, farmers markets, and food security.  Of course, I had to make a plug for what I’d love to see at Kwantlen: let’s teach sustainable agriculture, but also let’s use student grown food in our cafeterias, and compost the waste for our gardens.  Better still, let’s train students to become short-order cooks, chefs, and nutritionists.  That would close the cycle somewhat.  It would integrate nutrition and health into the routine of student life, as well as providing educational opportunities for youth at risk, two goals that fit well with the conference theme of (positive) change. (There are programs like this in Vancouver – see here and here – but I’m not aware of any south of the Fraser.)

Prior to my talk, Betty Cunnin, a Kwantlen horticulture instructor, showed a group of us how to make seed bombs and get our hands dirty – and the glee on the students’ faces made it clear how important a full-rounded experience (as in, learning manual skills) is important to a complete education, despite being so often neglected.  Now wonder students love the new Farm School; it’s one thing to learn about food security, it’s quite another to learn to transplant seedlings properly.  Both are essential – and it was brilliant of the students who organised the conference to recognise this.

But although the conference was an unqualified success, I’m left with a few questions.  The amount of work that went into organising this conference was prodigious, but even though that work was all conducted within the university, none of it will be reflected on the students’ transcripts.  What a shame.  We still cling to antiquated notions of what is an academic credit – something that must be earned sitting on school benches, writing essays and exams.  I would much rather grant credit for the numerous proposals, memos, and meetings that were held – if these don’t demonstrate competency, what on earth does?

Not that I want students to become mercenary, undertaking special projects just because there is a credit carrot at the end.  But when such initiative is displayed, we (Kwantlen, that is) ought to have a mechanism to recognize this.  And if this conference showed anything, it is how much talent and creativity students demonstrate when they are let loose on a project.  Yes, it isn’t for everyone.  But wouldn’t it be great if we could recognize and push those students who have these talents?  As it was, at times the conference was poorly attended by fellow students, too busy attending class and studying for midterms.  What a wasted opportunity!

In effect, I’m starting to see my job as an instructor not so much as imparting (and measuring) knowledge, but as that of a coach developing talent.  Facts and figures are all available within a few clicks; what is key is context, and the skill to ascribe credibility.  Providing this should be our main focus, as instructors.

At least, that is the lesson I got from Max Valiquette’s keynote presentation.  Valiquette studies demographics and youth trends, and he was asking the question: students and technology are changing, why are school remaining the same?  His presentation deftly balanced demographics (no such thing as a dominant generation any more) and technology (communication is instantaneous and continuous; collaborative work and networked innovations are becoming the norm).  He illustrated his talks with two favourites examples of mine, the amazing Johnny Cash Project (check it out!) and the Kiva microcredit clearinghouse (check it out, too!).

His presentation left me with even more questions, a fuzzy, uncomfortable feeling that we got education all wrong.  Our venerable university system carries within itself the evolutionary sequels of its roots: starting as the gateway to the clerical elite of the medieval era, continuing through the Victorian military tactic of breaking one’s spirit to enforce conformity – and defining bourgeoisie, in the process.  Students often labour under the assumption that a university is there to create knowledge, ignoring that, at least for undergrads, its key purpose is that of a custodian of accepted knowledge, teaching the canon, and enforcing norms.

This probably makes me sound like a sixties throwback to the “free children of Summerhill” and other paeans of free education.  Maybe; if so, so be it.  I do believe, though, that there are such things as defined standards and skill sets, and that our job, as instructors, is partly to ensure that students earn these and gain those.  But does that necessarily mean turning our backs on the creative energy of these students?  I don’t think so, and I think those who attended the conference would agree.

Imagine a system where students pick and choose topics and practical skills wherever their interests lead them, at their own pace, interspersed with socially-driven projects as opportunity arises.  Imagine them completing a set of achievements in order to request a credential, instead of a mundane list of courses passed.  Imagine “learned to make seed bombs” cheek by jowl with “wrote a proposal to integrate sexual health in a curriculum” on a list of achievements – and having those recognized as part of a degree.

I know, I know, I’m dreaming.  But I’ll keep pushing; that’s the least I owe these students.  What a conference!

Written by enviropaul

March 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Smart growth debate in Langley

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un-smart growth

Thursday last week I went to see Todd Litman debate Randal O’Toole on smart growth.

The debate was held in the Township of Langley city hall – an unexpected venue, but a good one, considering what is at stake with all the growth in the Fraser Valley.  Art Buchwald, of the Langley Times, moderated the debate and later wrote about it here.  The debate was organized by OnTrax; details in the excellent South Fraser Blog.

The whole concept of smart growth can be quite technical, but it may be summarized by saying that it focuses on planning walkable urban development and public transit.  There’s a lot of information that can be downloaded from a variety of sites, including SmartGrowthBC and Todd Litman’s own Victoria Transport Planning Institute.

Todd opened his presentation with a slide show of a walk through his very walkable neighbourhood – a personalized approach that featured the question “why is it better that I walk to the neighbourhood pub, rather than drive there?”  Followed a number of statistics explaining why smart growth is good –  lots of stuff, thankfully centralized on Todd’s blog here.

Randal O’Toole, from the US right-wing Cato Institute, billed himself as the “anti-planner” – a defender of private freedoms.  His slide show was very clever, featuring many idealized wild sceneries, a paean of Americana to be accessed by car.  And a monument of misleading statistics.

Maybe not surprisingly, Randal was the better debater of the two. It is easy to debate from ideology instead of facts.  He had an easy going demeanor, could rattle off studies, and appealed to a line common in that sort of debate: “you don’t want the government to dictate how and where you live.”  When answering questions he showed no hesitation, knew his lines.  Todd, on the other hand, often hesitated before answering a question, referred to specific studies that he clearly didn’t want to misquote, and seemed to be cautious in stating his numbers.  He was a bit plodding.

Did it matter?  Not one bit.  This was billed as a debate, but people were really looking for information (and city councillors from the Langleys were looking for crowd reactions).  Of course O’Toole is a better debater – he speaks from ideology, from which all doubt is banished.  Litman, by contrast, gave the impression of a researcher very respectful of his craft; someone who cares more about uncovering truth, not spouting rehearsed platitudes.  Kudos to Todd for not yielding to the temptation of debating for the sake of entertainment; too much is at stake for this.  I was reminded of Bertrand Russell’s quip that “the purpose of education is to resist the seduction of eloquence.”

For all his practiced eloquence, though, O’Toole came up with some remarkable whoppers.  He said that protecting farm land was silly; farm lands are just former forests, he said, and we could just as easily create terraces in farm on our local mountains – with slides from hillside farming from Bali and Italy.  Ah yes, how can our BC farmers be so unimaginative as to farm flat land!  He also said that a higher urban density causes a higher energy use per capita, a misleading confusion of (questionable) correlation with causation.  He also repeated the chestnut that buses consume much more fuel per passenger than average cars (I won’t even bother explaining why this plain wrong).  He also stated that real estate costs are directly proportional to regulations; the more rules, the higher the cost.  (Here Todd lost a bit of his reserve and pointed out that regulations that produce sprawl –height and density restrictions, parking requirements – are in fact what cause the high costs.)

Overall, O’Toole tried to paint a picture of himself as a defender of individual freedom.  But this did not resonate with the audience.  It seemed instead that O’Toole was advocating a one-size-fits-all lifestyle; if you’d rather take the train, if you like to walk to work, tough.  Planning is taboo, even if it has demonstrated advantages (including a convincing argument from Litman about transportation costs that arise from laissez-faire sprawl).

Instead, I was reminded of an essay by British journalist George Monbiot, deploring the impact of the automobile:

When you drive, society becomes an obstacle.  Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away.  The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become.  The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation that recognizes only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions.

A wiser concept of freedom, if you ask me.