Education in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Education in Canada

 Education is a basic activity of human association in any social group or community, regardless of size. It is a part of the regular interaction within a family, business or nation.


 Education is a basic activity of human association in any social group or community, regardless of size. It is a part of the regular interaction within a family, business or nation. The process whereby people gain knowledge, acquire understanding, master skills or internalize values is referred to as education. This same term is used to describe the outcomes of educational experiences. In other words, we may speak of education to refer to what school, television or recreational activity offer people or we may use the same term to indicate what the participants or viewers have received from their involvement in these educational experiences.

Significance of Instruction and Learning

In human societies the maintenance and enhancement of the knowledge, skills and values of the group depend on instruction and learning. Failure to share and to pass on its social heritage leads to the eventual extinction of the group. For example, at the level of the FAMILY, our most basic social group, unless the members of the unit find ways to identify, preserve, communicate and share the beliefs, traditions, values and essential characteristics of the group, in time, the cohesiveness of the family will be lost, individual members will not identify with the unit or the name and new relationships with different norms and interests will replace it.

People in all of the varying roles and responsibilities of society share and acquire information, skills, attitudes and values. Whether raising a family, earning a living, administering a large corporation or conversing with friends, education occurs and is received. In its broadest sense education includes the total range and variety of processes evident in a social group or community by which the social heredity of the unit is maintained.

The less knowledgeable and less experienced members of the group depend on educational experiences which will help them build on the established learning and practice of their predecessors. If this function were not performed, progress would be limited and slow. In more primitive or simple societies, the function of education is, relatively speaking, not as obvious: the more underdeveloped the social life of a group, the less complex its knowledge and traditions and the less demanding and essential is the task of sharing and acquiring its social heritage. In groups of limited sophistication, the less knowledgeable and less experienced members learn acceptable behaviour by imitating their elders, by obeying injunctions, by following suggestions and responding to prohibitions.

Distinctions Between Formal and Informal Education

As the complexity of the society increases and as the store of knowledge, traditions and values expands, the difference between those who possess the heritage and those who do not is more pronounced. Whereas in simple society no particular agency is charged with the responsibility of educating, in the more advanced social groups an institutionalized system emerges with specific agencies being charged with this responsibility. The emergence of schools, colleges and universities and other related institutions does not obviate the educational function of other social agencies. Instead it leads to the distinction between formal and informal education.

 Formal education is the effort to do systematically and explicitly by means of specialist roles and functions what formerly transpired in the casual intercourse of family and community living. The differentiated system of education known as schooling has been charged with ever-expanding duties and responsibilities. Initially the invention of letters that required specialist training for mastery and use gave rise to the role of teacher and the emergence of schools. Over time, this learning was not restricted to a privileged elite, but came to be regarded as the legitimate possession of all who had the ability to master it. Schooling has come to be regarded as a right of citizenship. An equally compelling reason for its growth and popularity is the belief that industrial and economic expansion depend on education. Leading industrial nations look to their schools to provide the training essential to continued economic and political prominence.

The Church and Socializing Agencies

The church, another social institution that once enjoyed a prominent role in the socializing of societal members, is also experiencing a diminished effect in the lives of Canadians. Until the mid-20th century, the 3 major churches in Canada - the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church - exerted significant influences on Canadian ethics and morals and provided obvious support to the maintenance of prevailing economic, social and political views. Membership and affiliation for many Canadians now is nominal in nature. Harmony of belief is less characteristic among Canadians, as the authority of churches and clerics has been challenged, as religious views are less popular in a more materialistic society and as new religions within the Christian tradition and from outside gain in prominence.

Tensions and conflicts accompanying marked demographic changes in society also contribute to the increasing pluralism of Canadian life and the related difficulty of identifying and providing common socializing experiences. When the majority of Canadians were rural dwellers, their communities were perceived to be relatively homogeneous, closely knit and supportive of similar ideals and values. There was greater compatibility of the educational efforts and goals of the various socializing agencies.

In recent decades, however, this feature of Canadian life diminished significantly. By 1996, only 21% of Canada's population was rural with increasing urbanization. Impersonal relations and anonymity challenged feelings of closeness and mutual support. New social agencies and roles emerged and traditional institutions such as schools and churches took on modified responsibilities in an attempt to cope with social change and an obviously growing divergence of perspective.

New Cultural Realities

Another significant contributor to the mounting diversity in beliefs, practices and values in Canada was the introduction of large numbers of immigrants into Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Particularly since 1901 the proportion of the population composed of ethno-religious groups other than the founding French and English elements has increased from approximately 12% to nearly 27%. The declaration in October 1971 of an official Canadian policy of "multiculturalism within a bilingual framework" gave recognition to a cultural reality. Pluralism was an acknowledged condition and latitude was extended to those who wished to preserve their unique ethnic and linguistic roots. One effect of growing pluralism in Canada has been to expect more of schools in building a common culture and to compensate for diminishing contributions of families, churches and communities.

The report of the Massey Commission also expressed concern over the effects of living in such close proximity to the US. The commission members recognized the importance of the mass media as a vital element of education, particularly as American popular culture became more pervasive within Canada (see CULTURAL POLICY). While the influence of the traditional socializing agencies has been waning in Canada, the power of the mass media has been increasing significantly.

Influence of Media

From their earliest years children are subject to the influence of the media. Television, especially, has become the purveyor of values, beliefs and knowledge. Time formerly spent in discussing, playing or reading is now more commonly associated with television viewing, as children are often left to watch unattended. It was estimated that in 1997 the average Canadian watches 22.7 hours of television per week and cable and satellite broadcast facilities afford viewers wide choice in program selection with extensive exposure to American programs. Recognizing the educative influence of TV, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission stated in 1986 that it was working to "safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada."

One effect of all forms of mass media is that peoples' perspectives are broadened. The result in countries where information access is valued and sustained is that the educational power of the media is pronounced, and leads to greater openness, pluralism and relativism. The media, in testing public attitudes, also serve to influence and to shape them. Among the media published sources, including books and newspapers, are important instruments of education (see LITERACY).

Film also contributes to the education of Canadians. The film viewing of Canadians is dominated by access to films produced in the US. Canadians by an Act of Parliament established the NATIONAL FILM BOARD in 1939, charging it with the mandate "to initiate and promote the production of films in the national interest." Produced in Canada's 2 official languages, the films of the NFB depict events that shaped history and show the diversity of Canadian concerns and achievement. The efforts of the NFB are recognition of the value of this medium as an educational agent in providing a common Canadian viewpoint. However, the rapid expansion and popularity of television is overshadowing that of film in Canada, as videotape production now exceeds that of film production.

As prominent and important as are the socializing agencies and informal educational means of the mass media in Canada, the formal educational system is recognized as being central to the experience of the large majority of Canadians. Within Canada, residents of all ages and circumstances have come to seek and gain access to schools, universities and colleges. Relatively early in Canada's history, attention was directed to making some provision for schooling.

Foundations of Present-Day Education

Realized Human Potential

 As important as formal SCHOOL SYSTEMS have become in modern society, the influence and interplay of all educational influences should not be overlooked. The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, 1949-51, defined education as "the progressive development of the individual in all his faculties, physical and intellectual, aesthetic and moral." The result of such disciplined growth, according to the commission, was the educated person who has fully realized his or her human possibilities.

Three means or instruments for achieving this end were identified: common life experiences; various sources of popular culture and information such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines and books; and formal education in schools, colleges and universities. Development in each of these areas is essential to an understanding of education in Canada.

Common life experiences, according to the commission, were seen to be available through socializing agencies such as the family, the church, the government and the community. Traditionally, the family has been the most powerful of all educational institutions. Changing social conditions have had a noticeable effect on the influence of this agency within Canadian society. As an increasing number of married women are being employed outside the home, as the number of marriage dissolutions and single parents increases, and as nontraditional forms of marriage arrangements expand, the impact of the traditional family is lessened and other agencies such as the school are being expected to fill the educational void. Topics such as sex education, consumer spending and life skills are being turned over to the school along with extensive counselling responsibilities. As cohesion and solidarity of the contemporary Canadian family decline, so too does the effectiveness and influence of this educational agency.

The First Teachers in Canada

 The first teachers in Canada, 4 priests, came with Champlain in 1616. As settlements were established, petites écoles under the direction of parish priests became relatively common. The foundations of the present-day Canadian educational system were laid in the 19th century, with Egerton RYERSON playing an important role. Through his work in Canada West (present-day Ontario), a free, universal, nonsectarian and compulsory school system was established.

 Provision of schooling has not been easy or inexpensive for Canadians, in part because of the vastness of the country and the sparseness of the population. However, efforts have been made through the proliferation of one-room country schools which dotted the countryside even up to the outbreak of WWII and through novel arrangements such as railway and correspondence schools to extend schooling to as many children as possible. The importance assigned to education by Canadians over the years is evident in the financial commitment made for its provision. Canada tends to spend a higher proportion of its gross domestic product on education than other Western developed countries. In 1992 education expenditures represented 8.1% of Canada's gross domestic product.

 Formal education within Canada has been subject to and influenced by American developments. As progressive education and the ideas of American educators such as John Dewey, W.H. Kilpatrick and George Counts found acceptance in the US between WWI and WWII, these same practices and ideas attracted attention in Canada. School curricula and methods were altered in all provinces to give place to learning by doing, integration of subject areas, individualized learning and instruction of the whole child. While the popularity of the movement subsided in the post-WWII era, the impact of the reform carried on. Schools have come to provide for a wider range of students, to offer a highly diversified curriculum, to be less authoritarian and to be willing to assume responsibility for an ever-increasing number of duties and responsibilities, many of which have resulted from the declining effectiveness of other social agencies such as the family.

The formal education structure is also adapting to the rapidly changing technological environment. Curriculum changes are being made to ensure that graduates are equipped to function effectively in the technologically rich work situations which they will face. Computer technology is being used both as a means of delivering traditional courses in a more sophisticated and efficient manner, and as subject material in its own right (see COMPUTER-ASSISTED LEARNING). At the same time this technology and its ancillary support structures make it possible to deliver extremely advanced and developed programs to small numbers of students in widely separated locations, on an individual or small group basis. Distance education, by means of computers and their peripherals, are providing small, more remote schools with opportunities to offer enriched programs which formerly were only available to larger, more centralized schools (see DISTANCE LEARNING).

The Ideology of Choice

Schools in this country are also adapting to the changing public ideology which advocates, in many areas, choice as a basic right. Parents' rights to choose the school to which to send their child are creating an environment in which administrators are faced with marketing their institutions as never before. When allied with a system of funding which is linked directly with student numbers, the ideology of choice frequently compels schools to compete with one another for parental support and commitment. Governments argue that this competition will enhance accountability and improve the relevance of education (see EDUCATION, ORGANIZATION).

An emerging feature of our educational scenario which can be linked to the concept of parental choice is that of home schooling. Within the past decade the choice to home school their children has been made in Canada by an increasing number of parents (see EDUCATION, ALTERNATIVE). At present almost 1% of all school age children are home schooled. Most of these students are at the elementary level. Technological advances have made it possible for school systems to provide considerable support to parents and students involved with home education. Home schooling is in its infancy still and it remains to be seen how governments and school systems will adapt their established modes of operation to best assist this movement.

The value and importance of education in Canada is seen in the increasing numbers who are pursuing post-secondary learning experiences. Lower birthrates and lower immigration helped to account for the steady decline in elementary and secondary enrolment in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the mid-1980s enrolment increased as baby boomers began to have children. From 1971 to 1985, when elementary and secondary enrolment dropped 14%, full-time post-secondary numbers increased nearly 62%, and the growth continued for the next 9 years. Only in the past year has a slight decrease been noted in the enrolment in post-secondary institutions, though present enrolments are still more than 70% above the 1971 figures (see EDUCATION, HIGHER).

In 1998 full-time enrolment in post-secondary institutions exceeded 968 000, of whom over 573 000 (59%) were in universities. Full-time enrolments account for about 70% of all students in universities and about 72% in colleges. In the past 15 years part-time enrolment at universities had increased by over 90%, peaking in 1992 at just over 316 000. In the past years there has been a steady decline in all provinces in the number of students attending university on a part-time basis - the present figure is approximately 250 000. It is also worth noting that in the past 30 years there has been a steady and sustained growth in the number of women attending post-secondary institutions in Canada and that women now make up the majority of students in both universities and colleges (see WOMEN AND EDUCATION).

Traditionally, there have been social and economic reasons for acquiring higher educational standards. Higher-status occupations are generally awarded to people who hold college or university degrees. And on the economic side, better education appears to have raised labour earnings per worker by about 30% from 1911-61, according to one estimate (see EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY).

 Although the growth in provision of formal education reflects a continuing faith in the advantages of formal education, there is no longer an assurance that more education will result in employment or better-paying jobs. Many highly educated people are unemployed or underemployed, and some futurists predict that an increasing number of people will never be engaged in work as it was known in the 1980s. However, educational reforms and reviews undertaken across Canada continue to emphasize the need for schools to concentrate, more than they have in the recent past, on the preparation of students for useful work.


So inclusive has the mandate for schooling become that it is difficult to determine what themes or topics can or should be legitimately excluded. Relatively little attention seems to be paid to matters relating to ecology, world peace and imbalances in food, wealth and educational opportunity.

UNESCO has identified the following as some of the important global issues deserving attention through education: the grievous inequalities among nations and peoples; the risk of growing dehumanization affecting both privileged and oppressed alike; the need for people to understand the global consequences of individual behaviours, of conceiving priorities and sharing of the joint responsibility in determining the destiny of the human race; and the need to give strong support to democracy as the only way to avoid becoming enslaved to machines, and as the only condition compatible with the dignity of the human race. UNESCO recognized the lifelong nature of education as well as the fact that education occurs in many contexts within society. A multiplicity of out-of-school forms of learning must be used in providing instruction and education for pupils of all ages, adults included. However in that organized education provides systems of knowledge and methods which help and enable individuals to form their own personal interpretation of the tremendous information flow and to assimilate it in a useful way, it remains an essential element of society.

The direction of education for the future is captured in the following observation, also from the UNESCO publication Learning to Be: "if learning involves all of one's life, in the sense of both time-span and diversity, and all of society, including its social and economic as well as its educational resources, then we must go even further than the necessary overhaul of educational systems until we reach the stage of a learning society."

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