An English girl at Canada: in search of middle ground
By: Lindsey WellsteadI’m the first person in my family to be educated at a Canadian institute. Being the only strangler left at secondary school during our emigration from rural England to Ontario, Canada in 2007, this seems like an obvious statement; but with it comes a whole aggregation of unexpected problems and surprises. Since the first day I timidly stepped into my new High School at the tender age of 15, life was one big learning experience - even more so than it already is at that age! Now as a third year university student, things are still very much the same way.
Through the ups and downs I have often (and sometimes regrettably) paralleled my own post secondary experience to that of my friends and brother, who all attended or are currently enrolled in a university in Britain. Both being predominately white, English speaking countries with an interrelated history, it is often assumed that the culture and therefore curriculum between Britain and Canada are the same. However, this is not the case.
I’ve currently completed by third year as a Geography and Environmental Studies major at McMaster University and so far, my time there has been enjoyable - I do not have a negative thing to say. Yet there have been a few nagging issues about the Canadian education system at large, issues that I will share with you in confidence.
Most importantly, is the question of flexibility. Having freedom and the abundance of options in regards to course selection seems like a blessing at first, which it is, if you understand the far reaching implications of your early choices. One word: prerequisites. What looks like a vast array of classes may, upon inspection, actually be drastically limited due to decisions made multiple years prior. For example, when planning what courses to take next year, my intentions were often dashed: that interesting-course-on-advanced-physical-climatology was suddenly out of reach since I had unknowingly decided not to take a related class in second year. This makes sense of course, since a basic understanding of the relevant principles is imperative; but why entice students with delusionary hope? As for my brother - who has a Master of Science - being told that he cannot take a first year chemistry lecture because he did not take grade 11 Canadian chemistry, well, you can understand the frustration. Little guidance is given to those walking the post secondary path and one wrong turn can easily result in a desperate scramble to backtrack in time for graduation. This has happened to me and consequently, I am forced to remain a student for another semester. Coupled with the unnecessary amount of electives that are required for a degree (an amount foreign to the British psyche), a regular undergraduate program lasts four years. Therefore, as my British friends walk away with a Masters in four years, I’ll be completing my Bachelors in five. Freedom is a two edged sword.
Another example featuring my brother demonstrates the negative effects of too little freedom: this story takes place in England. Early in his first semester as an Earth and Planetary Science student, my brother decided that perhaps it would be better to change his degree to strictly Geology only. Despite it being shy of six weeks into the program, his request was denied; it was Earth and Planetary Science, or nothing. Luckily for my brother, things worked out in his favour but others may not be so fortune. At the age on enrollment (usually eighteen) it is unlikely that a person knows exactly the right career that they wish to pursue for the rest of their adult life. Through attending classes, students can learn what interests them, and what doesn’t, ultimately shaping themselves and their future; but what use is this if you cannot modify your program to reflect these personal developments? In Canada, this is not a problem. I’ll openly admit that since attending university I have changed my major approximately four times (although always within the field of Geography) and that I have thereby benefitted from the flexibility of the Canadian system. Within reason, questioning ones place in their program should be encouraged.
When observing and comparing the educational systems, Canada and Britain could learn a lot from one another. Currently at two extremes, if a middle ground could be established - one that guides students on the right path but allows for organized, directed flexibility - then hopefully everyone can benefit. This is something that only a participant of both systems could distinguish and as a British expat living in Canada, I unknowingly fit the bill perfectly. I intent to continue exploring more cultural differences to a similar depth, since to understand a culture, is to understand your place in it.
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