Thinking holistically about education

Thinking back to my participation in an Alberta government commission on education in 2002-3 has lead me to reflect on what other jurisdictions could and should do about their vision for education. It takes time and commitment to solicit input and then create a vision for education, but there’s value in regularly doing so.

Thinking holistically about education by Nancy Knowlton

In 2002 I was asked by the Alberta Minister of Education to join the 9-member independent commission that was being struck to review the province’s basic education system. The last full review and visioning had been undertaken in 1972, so it was time for a full refresh. Thinking that a vision can last for 30 years really is quite optimistic, perhaps a little unrealistic if we consider all of the changes that have transpired during any recent 30-year period. But it was with that timeframe in mind that we undertook a 15-month process that ended in 2003.

We produced a report called “Every Child Learns, Every Child Succeeds” that contained 95 recommendations in 8 areas:

  • Ready to learn
  • What students learn
  • The schools we need
  • Success for every child
  • Making the grade
  • Technology plus
  • Excellent teachers and school leaders
  • Good governance

It was a great experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time on the commission with a solid group of people led by a very able chair. The group worked well together. What was truly gratifying was that the vast preponderance of the 95 recommendations that we made were accepted, funded and implemented over a period of time.

I have skimmed through the report a couple of times over the 10 years since it was produced and much of the material remains valid in the context of today.

The process

The aspect of this work that I think is important and relevant today is not the end report (although it is good in not just my opinion but in that of many others), but rather the process through which we went for the benefit of all Albertans.

Broad-based input

We sought advice and input from all stakeholders across the province. Some groups were specifically invited, and it’s easy to imagine who they would be. In addition, we provided an open forum for any person or group to provide their thoughts in person or in writing. We traveled the province to hold input sessions, and people came to us through the period of our work. We also invited globally recognized experts to speak to us either in person or by video to ensure that we had outside perspective as well.

We had the benefit of a research team who pulled and summarized all the relevant research globally that had a bearing on good practice in education and more generally around children and associated services.

A vision for education in Alberta

The combination of the stakeholder input and information allowed us to tailor a vision for education that was appropriate for our province. Moreover, the report that we produced and delivered to the minister of education was the basis for an active discussion province wide.

Whether this vision lives for 30 years remains to be seen. What is clear is that the province is committed to a consultative process with diverse stakeholders to look holistically at its education system. Such a process keeps everyone engaged with education and its value to us as a social and political unit.

Examining education in your jurisdiction

The Alberta process is easily replicable in other jurisdictions, but there are no shortcuts. Is there a national or provincial/state vision for education where you live that has input from teachers and all other interested stakeholders? Is there alignment on and funding for that vision? Full stakeholder engagement, global research reviews and the production of a formal report require time and commitment.


Engagement with stakeholders has to be real and meaningful. Take a read through Tony Mullen’s article, Teachers should be seen and not heard, to appreciate a teacher’s reaction to shallow analysis and deliberation of education strategies. Getting a broad range of insightful input is a significant commitment.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.