Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘A Million Futures’

A Million Futures

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

August 29, 2010

When Hamoon Ekhtiari came to Toronto from Teheran in 2001, he was just 17 and he spoke only Farsi. By January, 2009, he found himself speaking to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien at a large dinner at Power Corporation’s headquarters in Montreal. Hamoon was enrolled in a master’s degree program in mathematics and chartered accounting at the University of Waterloo, and he was already working in human capital consulting at accounting giant Deloitte. What he wanted to say to the former Prime Minister — on behalf of dozens of other students in the room, and thousands more elsewhere — was, “Thank you.”

A decade earlier, Prime Minister Chretien had been contemplating the millennium. As he said in his own inimitable way that evening, “The millennium, it’s something that comes only every one thousand years — so the next one, we might not be ‘ere.” To commemorate it, said Chretien, the government concluded “that we would create a programme de bourses, a bursary program. We would invest in the brains of the young people. And when I see the results today, that decision gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

The programme de bourses became the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, and its results were people like Hamoon Ekhtiari. The Foundation began with a $2.5 billion endowment and a 10-year mandate. It eventually gave out $3.3 billion — it had invested shrewdly — to more than a million needy and deserving students. It also did some trailblazing research on the obstacles that keep students out of post-secondary education, and about 5% of its funding went into a Millennium Excellence Awards program. One of the Excellence Award winners was Hamoon Ehktiari.

When Hamoon arrived in Canada, he had just finished Grade 9, and he was excited. He hadn’t wanted to move to Canada, but “if I’m here I want to get the most out of it,” he said. “I want to know what it is to live in Canada. I want to know what it means to be Canadian. So I chose the path of dropping myself, in my entirety, in every possible aspect, into the country. It was do-or-die having to take history and English.” He laughs. “And as an elective, I decided to take French. So I was sitting in a class where a teacher was teaching a language I didn’t know, in another language I didn’t know.”

After high school, he wanted to plunge deeper into his new life, so he applied to universities from UBC and UNB to the University of North Carolina to study anything from philosophy to architecture. He also applied for a Millennium Excellence Award, since his parents had made it clear that they couldn’t support him at university. To his surprise, he won the scholarship, and was drawn deeply into the other benefits that Millennium laureates were offered — national conferences, regional meetings, a national network of other student leaders, and backing from a superb group of young scholarship administrators.

“They recognize, they support, and they encourage, and they don’t stop doing it,” Hamoon said. “The money is important, nothing after it would have happened without the money, so that support piece is absolutely crucial. But the recognition and the encouragement is priceless. These people don’t give me the answer. They help me to ask the question. The lessons I’ve learned from some of these people in mere minutes have been worth more than spending months upon months in a classroom.

“And now, if you ask me where I’m from, I will tell you I’m from Toronto. I’m Canadian. If you ask me where I was born, I will tell you. But what I feel is, I’m Canadian, and this is my home.”

In 2008 I was asked to write the history of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. It’s a fascinating story, and the book — A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation – has just been published. The joy of the project was meeting so many fantastic people that I couldn’t get them all into the book. Hamoon is not in the book. But through the Foundation, Canada has shaped him and the leaders of his generation. Now they are shaping Canada. We will be a better, brighter country because of them.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s book, A Million Futures, is published by Douglas and McIntyre. It is available in bookstores, or online at

Beyond the Teapot Theory

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

July 11, 2010

The meaning of the PhD degree, said Stephen Leacock (who had one), “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

That’s the Teapot Theory of Education, stripped naked. The teacher is the full teapot, the students are empty cups. Tilt. Pour. At the end of the course, you put a measuring cup beside each student. Tilt. Pour. If there’s sufficient tea in the students, education has occurred.

That’s the unacknowledged model of education that underlies much of what we do in schools, colleges and universities. But it’s nonsense.

For two years I’ve been working on big projects about education. I recently completed a booklet for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on community service-learning, which is why I wrote no columns last month. I also wrote a book called A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which will be published around Labour Day.

The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete. It’s an industrial-era model, an assembly line designed to churn out interchangeable workers. Teapot education is a dreadful preparation for a tumultuous, shape-shifting post-industrial society. That’s not the way people learn.

So how do people learn?

One revealing analysis of human learning is a four-stage model created by David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most people start, says Kolb, with a concrete experience. We reflect on the experience, formulate some ideas, and then test those ideas by visiting the experience again. The result is a “spiral of learning” that gets steadily deeper and richer.

Notice this: in Kolb’s model, there is no such thing as a teacher. There’s only a learner — and learning is an active, iterative process. People don’t just sit there while knowledge is poured into them. They go seeking it, testing it, figuring it out. Isn’t that the way you learned to tie your shoes, reconcile your bank statement, take good photos? Nobody put those things on a curriculum and insisted that you learn them. You needed and wanted to know, and you sought out resources to help you, including people.Your mother. Your uncle, the book-keeper. The instructor at the evening class in photography.

That’s the natural and normal procedure. You try things on your own. You read a book. You apprentice yourself, perhaps only briefly, to someone who can show you.

So why do we need an educational system?

Primarily for the benefit of employers and clients. What the system provides are credentials — and that’s not a bad thing. I do want some reassurance that cardiologists and airline pilots know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they have to acquire the learning in the same place they acquire the credential.

In aboriginal cultures, in pre-industrial societies, kids learned by hanging around with adults who knew useful and interesting things. In 19th-century Nova Scotia, nobody went to ship-building college, but every village had master shipwrights. A Cape Breton apprenticeship agreement binds a young man to a blacksmith “to learn his art and mystery.” What a noble description of knowledge!

Similarly, in my youth a person could become a lawyer without attending university simply by apprenticing — or “articling”– with a lawyer, and passing the bar exams. To this day, graduates from some English universities can get “higher doctorates,” such as the DLitt, DD and DMus, simply by submitting a portfolio of published research that demonstrates the applicant’s scholarly eminence.

In a networked world, where some universities only exist online, why not award other degrees the same way? We already have student exchanges, off-campus placements, work terms and co-op education. Why shouldn’t a young person engage an academic planner — a personal teacher, like a personal trainer — to design a completely individualized program of apprenticeship, courses, work placements and independent study that could then be presented to a university for a degree?

Teapot education won’t do any longer. We need art and mystery, the liberation of learning. It’s an utterly glorious prospect.

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To learn more about Silver Donald’s new book, A Million Futures, to read the Preface, and even to pre-order it, visit his web site,