Public Ponderings & Perspectives

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The neglect of youth mental health is a form of self-harm that society has inflicted on itself. -- John Gunn, 2004. Foreword. In Bailey, S. & Dolan, M., (Eds). Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry.

Vision Statement

Introduction to the Problem

Education is described as a public good (UNESCO, 2015) and is positively associated with economic and social outcomes for both individuals and states (OECD, 2020; World Bank, 2018; World Economic Forum, 2020). While there are many challenges and obstacles to realizing universal basic education and education to maximize citizen participation and potentiality, this paper focuses on one such challenge: learner mental well-being. Specifically, this paper offers rationale for and proposes a new policy to build educator capacity in such a way that learner mental well-being is supported and barriers to well-being are minimized in the context of Canada’s post-secondary education (PSE) system.

The lens I apply to the evolution of this paper and its incorporated policy proposal is one of optimism – optimism that we have the collective wisdom and ability to create learning environments in which every learner ‘sees’ themselves in the curriculum and pedagogy with which they are interacting; is able to flourish and discover their true passion; and can succeed with resilience, motivation, and hope for the future. After all, “[p]edagogy is at the core of teaching and learning” (Paniagua & Istance, 2018, p. 20) and educators are at the core of pedagogy.

Differentiating Mental Health and Mental Well-being

In its Constitution, the World Health Organization inextricably includes mental health and well-being as integrated components and determinants of overall health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization, 2013, p. 7). For its part, Canada’s working definition of mental health is “the capacities of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity” (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2002, para. 2). ‘Well-being’ or ‘mental well-being’ is more than just the absence of any form of ailment or illness. It “is associated with experiences of personal growth, intrinsic motivation, positive relationships, autonomy and competence” (Baik et al., 2017, p. 3).

A learner’s decision to disclose information about a mental health issue is both intensely personal and deeply complex (Madness, Distress and the Politics of Disablement, 2015). They may not recognize they have an issue or may fear stigma or discrimination (Markoulakis & Kirsh, 2013). Respecting this, in this paper, I use the term ‘well-being’ rather than ‘mental health’ because we all have and experience well-being and, while we all may experience a decline in well-being from time to time, not all of us would consider this a ‘health’ issue. Well-being tends to be both an individual and a collective, social good. Notwithstanding that some learners require a deeper level of support beyond that possible in a school, by using the term ‘well-being’ when I refer to supporting educator ‘mental well-being literacy,’ it includes the well-being of all learners regardless of their personal decision to disclose health information.

State of Learner Mental Health in Canada

The vulnerability of post-secondary learners in Canada is evidenced by the growth and frequency of the challenges they face to mental well-being. Indeed, it has been described as an “important public health concern” (Wiens et al., 2020, p. 30). The Mental Health Commission of Canada (2013, as cited in Porter, 2019) estimates that, by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, half will have experienced some form of mental illness. Three-quarters of these diagnoses will have been confirmed by 24 years of age. In addition, and to underscore the threat to young adults 15 to 24 years of age, suicide is the second leading cause of death – 25% of this age cohort. To exacerbate this problem, millennials are less likely to seek help than previous generations (, 2019). In 2016, as part of the Canadian National College Health Assessment (ACHA, 2016), 59.6% of learners reported feelings of hopelessness in the preceding year, 64.5% experienced overpowering anxiety, and 44.4% reported trouble functioning due to depression. Each of these measures increased in comparison to the previous assessment in 2013 (Porter, 2019).

Indigenous learners fare even less well in comparison with their non-indigenous compeers. Across a variety of indicators, indigenous learners experience psychological distress and depression at higher rates and are more likely to engage in suicide ideation, with First Nations and Inuit youth committing suicide six times and 11 times more often, respectively, than non-indigenous learners (Hop Wo et al., 2020).

Academic Success and Learner Mental Well-being

Education, particularly post-secondary education, has a positive influence on mental well-being (Yakovlev & Leguizamon, 2012). Conversely, a low level of well-being often accompanied by physical ailments, can impede the ability and motivation to learn (Houghton & Anderson, 2017). In an emergent knowledge society in which education is a key driver and indicator of economic success, universities and colleges have a pivotal role to support, enhance, and transform the life and health of citizens and the communities in which they live (Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, 2015).

There are barriers, however, to achieving this goal. While some are systemic and deep-rooted organizational and operational challenges, others stem from external pressures on the organization. Because of the diversity of personal characteristics, beliefs, values, needs, and expectations, challenges posed by people or groups of people can be among the most demanding. Arguably, the most critical of these is student academic success (International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges, 2015). “Results from the 2018 National College Health Assessment (NCHA) found that 87% of Canadian post-secondary students felt overwhelmed by their academic responsibilities, 84% felt exhausted (not from physical activity), just under two-thirds (63%) felt overwhelming anxiety, and 42% felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function” (, 2019, p. 24).

Recent research correlates learner mental well-being with academic success (Linden & Stuart, 2019; McEwan & Downie, 2013). Learners face a variety of challenges in pursuit of academic success, such as during their transition from high school into PSE. This often includes unfamiliar experiences and expectations in unknown environments; conflicting demands, deadlines, and priorities; pressures to perform well (Cunningham & Duffy, 2019; Linden & Stuart, 2019; Pascoe et al., 2020; Rosvall, 2019), and use of unfamiliar learning technologies (Taylor et al., 2018). One study (Poole et al., 2017) also explores the seemingly incongruous academic stressors created by time away from studies, such as that resulting from the recently-implemented fall break week at Canadian colleges and universities. On their own or when combined with other stressors, such as living away from home, peer pressure, changing personal relationships, and financial matters, they can be daunting, intimidating, and even paralyzing as they erode one’s resilience (Cunningham & Duffy, 2019; Linden & Stuart, 2019; Pascoe et al., 2020; Rosvall, 2019). Such stressors may also create implications beyond academic performance, potentially leading to unemployment, underemployment, and other financial challenges (da Silva et al., 2017).

School Districts, Schools, and Learner Mental Well-being

By 2013, the focus of the Canadian PSE community shifted from one of supporting the mental health needs of individual learners to one of creating an environment that promotes and supports the well-being of all learners (CCVPS, 2015). While there appears to be widespread interest and enthusiasm in and the desire to support all learners in the way they each need support, especially those who are most vulnerable, a survey of schools and school districts by the Mental Health Commission of Canada revealed that these intentions are not materializing (Fortier et al., 2017; Weist et al., 2003). The survey found that few schools have either the infrastructure or processes in place to sustainably deliver any programs supportive of learner mental well-being. Educators, themselves, also acknowledged their own lack of knowledge about and comfort in delivering programs supportive of learner mental health and well-being and their desire for role-specific training and capacity building. Finally, schools and school districts cited a lack of access to evidence-based information and examples of programming needed to be supportive.

Despite these shortcomings, it is incorrect to think that PSE institutions failed to address well-being concerns rooted in academic stressors. The original conception of the education system was to prepare learners for the workforce, and it was not designed with the mental health and well-being needs of learners in mind. There are many initiatives that exist at most schools to address part of this need (, 2019). These are not the subject of this paper.

Policy Proposal

Recommended Policy

It appears as though a gap exists between the desired state – support for all learners – and educator capacity, especially given the diversity and complexity of learner needs (Daniszewski, 2013; Ireland, 2017). The gap exists due to an insufficiency of financial, temporal, and professional development resources. If educator capacity is to improve and evolve into a culture of continuous and lifelong learning, the entire infrastructure of a school must be oriented toward providing 360o support for teaching and learning, including educator professional development (Ireland, 2017; Paniagua & Istance, 2018).

Recognizing that Canada lacks any federal authority regarding the governance of education and provision of educational services, but that the Government of Canada has a vested interest in its citizens being adequately prepared for future success, it is imperative that a comprehensive learner well-being support policy that focuses on educator capacity building be established collaboratively by all levels of government, including the involvement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.

Such a policy should account for and acknowledge that all Canadians have a basic right to seek success and strive toward their potentiality and that education is one of the best ways to facilitate this. It should recognize that a learner’s academic journey has the potential to add stressors that may adversely affect well-being, and that learners who transition into the workforce with mental illness and those who withdraw from the workforce for the same reason add to the burden on the economy either through increased health costs or decreased productivity.

In order to be of greatest benefit, keeping in mind that any work done to support learners with mental illness will be a benefit for all learners in the development of their personal resilience, well-being, and self-awareness; the policy should be oriented toward educators, including building their capacity to support learners’ well-being as well as related curriculum and pedagogical practices. These include practices that help to mitigate stressors that learners may experience on their academic journey. One such significant stressor relates to financial matters (Cunningham & Duffy, 2019; Linden & Stuart, 2019; Pascoe et al., 2020; Rosvall, 2019) which, among other considerations, includes the increasing costs of textbooks and other learning materials and resources. By making use of open educational resources (see Appendix A) and similar learning and teaching options, educators and schools help to mitigate the costs associated with learning and, by association, the financial burden on learners.

The following Policy Proposal represents the framework for a policy discussion between the Government of Canada, its provinces and territories, and indigenous peoples. It is my recommendation that each jurisdiction require the creation and implementation of such a policy at each PSE institution.

TABLE 1: Policy Proposal: Building Educator Capacity to Support Learner Well-being


This policy establishes the institution’s commitment to respecting and supporting the health and well-being of learners and employees to the extent that can be accomplished through ongoing professional development and capacity building.

Recognizing the importance of reconciliation with indigenous peoples in order that Canadians know their true national history and to right systemic injustices from the past, this policy should be implemented and interpreted only in conjunction with institutional policies related to Decolonization and Indigenization.

This policy also complements and enhances other existing institutional policies such as, but not necessarily limited to, Dignity and Respect, Equality of Persons, Statements of Diversity, Recruitment and Admissions, Human Rights, Integrity of Learning Environments, Occupational Health and Safety, Use of Substances, Professional Development, Human Resources, and other policies that exist or may be enacted.

Statement of Principles

Post-secondary learning institutions in Canada recognize the following core principles integral to effective teaching and learning:

  • All learners are inherently equal and must be afforded both the opportunity and right to participate in both the academic and co-curricular life of the institution.

  • All learners have the right to follow a path of their choosing in pursuit of their academic dreams.

  • New approaches to teaching and learning, including pedagogical approaches and means of assessment, are required to satisfy the evolving learning needs of the 21st century while maintaining the need for depth and breadth of content knowledge.

  • Innovative pedagogy and educator pedagogical literacy are central to effective teaching and learning and should arise from both the intrinsic inclinations of learners toward knowledge acquisition and the experience and skills of educators.

  • Pedagogical practices supporting well-being must account for and mitigate stressors that learners may experience on their academic journey, such as by applying a constructivist lens to pedagogical and curriculum development, and employing open educational and pedagogical resources where available.

  • Educators are most effective as facilitators of pedagogy and as designers of learning environments when they work within a 360o culture of caring, support, and lifelong learning.

  • The mental health and well-being of both educators and learners is critical to effective teaching and learning and, therefore, should become a central goal of pedagogy and educator capacity building.


  • Provincial or territorial human rights act or code

  • Provincial or territorial occupational health and safety act

  • Provincial or territorial universities and colleges act


  • Mental Health is “the capacities of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity” (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2002, para. 2).

  • Well-being is “the presence of the highest possible quality of life in its full breadth of expression focused on but not necessarily exclusive to: good living standards, robust health, a sustainable environment, vital communities, an educated populace, balanced time use, high levels of democratic participation, and access to participation in leisure and culture” (University of Waterloo, 2020, para. 1).

  • Mental Health Literacy “encompasses the knowledge, beliefs and abilities that enable the recognition, management or prevention of mental health problems with a range of benefits including early recognition and intervention, and reduction of stigma associated with mental illness” (UBC Faculty of Education, 2020, para. 3).


Vice Chancellor (VC) or Vice President, Academic (VPA)

  • Holds overall accountability and responsibility for day-to-day institutional administration of the academic policies of the institution. The VC or VPA may delegate authority to identified roles as described below.

Deans, Directors, and Senior Managers of Faculties and Schools

  • Implements and promotes the behaviours and principles of institutional policies that positively influence the well-being of both learners and staff.

  • Implements policies for teams and areas that they supervise directly.

  • Establishes a culture of lifelong learning by implementing opportunities for educator capacity building and mitigating barriers to participation by allocating time in all workloads for learning, synthesis, and adoption into practice.

Directors and Senior Managers of Professional Services and Non-Academic Units

  • Assesses any risks to health and well-being and implements appropriate control measures so that risks are eliminated or mitigated to a level deemed safe and conducive to teaching, learning, and work.

  • Maintains the strictest confidence of any personal and health information that may be disclosed by learners or staff, releasing it only as appropriate and to whom it may be appropriate to support an individual or protect their well-being and safety and/or that of others who may be affected.

Front Line Managers and Supervisors

  • Conducts risk assessments and develops group responses (e.g. Emergency Evacuation Plan) or individual responses (e.g. Mental Health Care Plan) to minimize risk and maximize health and well-being.

  • Monitors staff workloads and schedules to ensure a balance between work time, breaks, and time away from work.

  • Consults, as required, with educators and other administrators regarding plans to maximize health and well-being and/or to assess and identify strategies and interventions required for individual support.

  • Ensures, in consultation with Human Resources, that those away from work or learning are provided with appropriate time off to attend appointments and/or have an appropriate return to work plan.


  • Designs learning environments that are conducive to 21st century learning and that are respectful and inclusive of all learners.

  • Develops innovative pedagogies using a constructivist approach focused on learners’ co-creation of knowledge and resources (e.g. open educational and pedagogical resources) that mitigate academic stressors experienced by learners.

  • Supports all learners to the extent appropriate within the 360o support structure.

  • Engages in and adopts a personal culture of lifelong learning respecting the ongoing and evolving needs, including mental health and well-being support needs, of learners.

Evidence of Need

Economic Cost of Mental Illness

Canada spends less than most developed countries on the promotion of mental well-being and the prevention of mental illness (Deraspe, 2013). Three types of costs associated with this affect Canada’s economy. Direct costs include those required for treatment, support, and rehabilitation. Indirect costs usually manifest in low productivity in the workplace through absenteeism, presenteeism, and withdrawal from the labour market. There are also human costs associated with a loss of enjoyment of life and pain, including emotional pain, resulting from anxiety, depression, other illness, and their potential side effects such as loss of relationships (Deraspe, 2013).

In an Institute of Health Economics study, work was conducted to determine the financial cost of mental illness to the Canadian economy, including direct, indirect, and human costs. In all, the estimated obligation to the economy in 2006 was $52 billion (Lim et al., 2008) and this amount was expected to grow as the population increases and as the number of Canadians experiencing mental illness increases.

Educational Cost of Mental Illness

If left unidentified or unsupported, learners with mental illness risk being left behind for a variety of reasons including poor attendance, lack of institutional support, and difficulty assessing and evaluating progress (Roberts, 2014). Any mental illness, alone or when compounded, has the ability to impair cognitive functioning (Eisenberg et al., 2009).

A variety of other behavioural manifestations of mental illness affect education participation and success. Depression can lead to sleep disorders (both too little and too much), decreased energy levels, difficulty concentrating, restlessness and slow movement, suicide ideation, and feelings of sadness and hopelessness. In addition to some of the outcomes of depression, anxiety can bring on uncontrollable worrying, an inability to focus on the task at hand, and panic attacks (Eisenberg et al., 2009). Mental illness directly affects attendance. For example, many people with depression experience a lack of interest and pleasure in engaging in their usual activities. Known as anhedonia, this condition is strongly correlated with decreasing grade point averages and increasing drop-out rates (Eisenberg et al., 2009; Pascoe et al., 2020).

Social Cost of Mental Illness

It is often a challenge for learners with mental illness to create, maintain, and even participate in relationships and friendships. Many mental illnesses can lead to personal withdrawal. In school, this can manifest as an inability to take part in group work and activities or to approach their teacher to ask questions. These behaviours can be compounded by absenteeism and other stressors and may, if they spiral to a personal threshold, result in self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse, involvement with law enforcement, self-harm, and suicide ideation (Roberts, 2014).

The overarching presence of social stigma about mental illness can exacerbate the need to withdraw. People with mental illness face discrimination on a regular basis. They risk being labelled and deal with chronic stress. Stigma may prevent some from seeking treatment and others to abandon their treatment. It also affects relationships with friends and family in two ways: (a) adversely affecting them by association, and (b) when they engage in stigmatizing language and action (Link & Phelan, 2006). Max and Waters (2018) report on one study’s findings indicating that 30% of learners who could have benefited from mental health support services fail to disclose information about their health fearing discrimination from faculty and peers and limited employment prospects if employers learn about their disclosure.

In recent years, the concept of loneliness entered discourse related to mental health and well-being. “It can be construed as a painful experience that happens when there is a subjective difference between the desired and actual social interaction” (Wang et al., 2020, p. 2). The effects of loneliness on physical health leading to such issues as obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, heart disease, and stroke are well known. More recent studies link loneliness with psychosis, depression, personality disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and suicide (Wang et al., 2020). Learners making the transition to PSE, especially those who relocate to a new city or country, may be predisposed toward loneliness. Research conducted by Richardson et al. (2017) found that loneliness contributes to challenges to well-being faced by students. An informal study conducted in May 2020 by OutLife, an equality, health, and rights organization based in the UK, with more than 2,300 respondents, found that loneliness almost tripled from 21% pre-COVID-19 to 56% during the pandemic (OutLife, 2020). Further findings suggest that those with differing sexual orientations or gender identities may also experience loneliness and, by extension, challenges to their mental well-being, more than the average population.

Political Cost of Mental Illness

The Canada Health Act is the legislation governing healthcare in Canada. “The objective of the Canada Health Act is to protect, promote and restore the mental and physical well-being of Canadians and to ensure reasonable access to health services regardless of personal factors such as income, education or cultural differences” (McPhail, 2017, para. 2). Funded federally, each province and territory provides healthcare services that are medically necessary. The concept of ‘medically necessary’ is the subject of debate in Canada, and several services such as dentistry, optometry, and mental health remain only partially covered. This leaves individuals with the burden of paying for healthcare if needed and many simply opt not to seek help. Others avoid doing so because of stigma (McPhail, 2017).

While the current Canadian government promised in 2016 to increase funding for mental health and well-being, the systemic act of only partially funding healthcare in Canada has the potential of ‘othering’ portions of the population. ‘Othering’ is defined by Merriam-Webster (2020, entry 5 of 5) as “to treat or consider (a person or a group of people) as alien to oneself or one's group (as because of different racial, sexual, or cultural characteristics).” The process of creating an environment that others people or groups, whether purposeful or inadvertent, creates an “affectively charged… boundary between ingroup and outgroup” (Kirmayer, 2019, p. 1126). The politics of othering originates in colonialism and examples are rampant in today’s world. For example, young Muslim men must navigate life through a web of discrimination. Black men and women of all ages must do the same with racism and learn to teach their children how to remain alive from one day to the next because of it. As Canada continues to experience, the systemic othering of indigenous peoples results in an intense distrust of governments and police, adding to the challenge of rekindling a relationship through reconciliation (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). Those with mental illness fear the same cognitive segregation (Kirmayer, 2019).

Supporting Educator Capacity Building

“Teaching now is more dynamic, challenging and demanding than ever before” (OECD, 2018a, p. 3). Teachers may be reliant upon school leaders to ensure that a supportive infrastructure is in place, but they must also be prepared sufficiently to be able to foster mental well-being class-wide, to facilitate an environment supportive of social emotional learning, to identify signs of distress, and to provide accommodations for and transitions to and through a variety of professional services that may be required for vulnerable learners (Daniszewski, 2013; Fortier et al., 2017; Headley & Campbell, 2013).

“The area of student mental health and well-being is complex” (School Mental Health-Assist, 2019, p. 41). Everyone, everywhere, including all staff in the school districts in Canada and around the world can benefit from mental well-being awareness training, but this level of training is insufficient for full support. Instead, school leaders and educators require ongoing, role-specific, professional training to build the confidence, competencies, and capacity necessary to be properly and effectively supportive (Daniszewski, 2013). Indeed, the OECD (2018) reports that educators felt more prepared and required less professional development in environments in which school leadership established a culture of support. That said, “[s]pecial needs education training emerges as the highest need area expressed by teachers among 14 TALIS professional development areas” (OECD, 2018, p. 3).

It is also imperative to acknowledge the well-being of educators. Often facing an “intensification and multiplicity of demands” (Houghton & Anderson, 2017, p. 10), educators’ capacities to support learners’ well-being may be affected. Drawing from a constructivist approach to curriculum and pedagogy, I would advocate for the need to provide opportunities for dialogue about mental well-being among colleagues as well as appropriate time within an educator’s work schedule to facilitate both the synthesis of new knowledge and its integration into both lesson planning and practice. Permitting and encouraging educators to make meaning for themselves by understanding the linkages between well-being and learning seems to be core to being able to support learners (Houghton & Anderson, 2017).

In a recent study conducted in British Columbia, 100% of educator participants indicated that their institutions would be interested in open educational resources (OERs) as a potential support to them in support of mental health and well-being (Moore, 2019). Specifically focusing on modular and easily repurposed resources, respondents envisioned that OERs could be used in a variety of ways: (a) behavioural forms, (b) suicide intervention training, and (c) curricula, both for their own training and to incorporate into lesson plans for delivery to learners.

In addition to the use of OERs, such as e-textbooks, to specifically mitigate academic stressors experienced by learners (i.e. financial stressors), these help to satisfy global agreements related to OERs that are supported by BC Campus and several other Canadian organizations promoting their use. Specifically, their use in this way helps to build capacity in the use, repurposing, and sharing of OERs; and developing a culture of supportive policy (UNESCO, 2012, 2017). To learn more about OERs, see Appendix A.

Ontario launched a pilot initiative that provides support but that also recognizes realistic limitations of educators’ abilities. Based on the premise that all learners deserve to have access to mental health support and promotion programs and that educators cannot be expected to provide for the totality of learner need alone, the Aligned and Integration Model (AIM) is producing results since it was piloted in two school districts and is being introduced across the province (School Mental Health Ontario, 2019; School Mental Health-Assist, 2019). See Appendix B for details about the AIM model as a potential solution.


I recall a time back in elementary school when I was in Grade 5 or 6 and there was about to be a solar eclipse. There were many warnings leading up to the event cautioning against looking at the sun while in eclipse. Curiosity threatened to damage some young eyes, but my teacher had a solution. We were each given a paper cup and, with a nail, punched a small round hole in the bottom. Outside, holding the cup upside down so that the hole behaved like the aperture of a camera, the image of the eclipse projected onto a piece of paper held below. True amazement!

That pinhole opened dozens of eyes to wonders they had never experienced. It is this very sense of wonder, curiosity, and discovery that every learner has the right to experience. Similarly, it is this very sense of awe, inspiration, and interest in the world that every educator has the right to be able to foster among learners. Moreover, it happened in a safe, inclusive learning environment in which every learner could experience, internalize, and create the meaning they needed.

By enacting policies that promote teaching and learning to achieve similar outcomes for learners and educators, we ensure that our education system reflects who we are, as individuals, and where we are going, as a people.


Open Educational Resources (OERs)

With roots in the development of learning objects, OERs are, in their simplest form, “any resource available free of cost, mostly on the Internet” (Mishra, 2017, p. 371). However, while most material on the Internet may be accessible and seemingly usable, they may also be subject to various copyright restrictions regarding use, reuse, revision, and repurposing. Copyright protects the creator of the document or work. In recent years, there are growing repositories of OERs providing resources for teaching, learning, and research that “reside in the public domain or under an intellectual property licence that permits their free use and repurposing by others” (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (2017), as cited in Mishra, 2017, p. 372). Such repositories may include entire course curricula, learning and teaching materials, textbooks, videos, assessments and evaluations, and tools to support knowledge acquisition.

In 2012, UNESCO member countries established the OER Paris Declaration reaffirming the definition of OERs as follows: “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions. Open licensing is built within the existing framework of intellectual property rights as defined by relevant international conventions and respects the authorship of the work” (UNESCO, 2012, para. 2). At the same time, it made note that OERs contribute toward the achievement of such other international goals as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 2015) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (United Nations, 2020b).

In 2017, UNESCO marked the Year of Open with the 2nd World OER Congress, hosted in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where attendees identified strategies to act in the adoption of OERs. Specifically, they streamlined the goals for the use of OERs to conform with and contribute toward achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) (United Nations, 2020a) related to the provision of quality education as follows:

  • Promoting the use, reuse, creation, and repurposing of OERs and building the capacity to do so;

  • Establishing that OERs should be available in as many languages and cultural contexts as possible, including indigenous languages;

  • Ensuring ubiquitous access to OERs by all learners in all learning contexts (formal, informal, and non-formal);

  • Defining models of sustainability, such as means by which to encourage new OER developers to contribute, to assure OER quality, and to promote OER innovation; and

  • Developing national policy environments in support of OERs (UNESCO, 2017).

In Canada, OERs are gaining traction and the community of educators making use of them continues to grow. In British Columbia (BC), for example, OERs began in 2013 with the launch of the Open Textbook project. Since then, not only is a growing repository of diverse resources available, but BC Campus estimates that BC students saved in excess of $12 million by 2018 through the use of open textbooks alone (Caldwell, 2019, para. 3). BC Campus, along with the University of Northern British Columbia and the Journal of Human Security, are credited with advancing the agenda toward SDG 4 by bringing OERs and the discipline of human security closer together through the 2017 open textbook release of Human Security in World Affairs: Problems and Opportunities – 2nd Edition. This is significant because, in the words of Mahbub ul Haq, Pakistani economist, politician, international development theorist, and founder of the concept of human security, human security means a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crushed” (Caldwell, 2020, para. 5).

Following are several OER websites containing resources that are publicly available. This is not an exhaustive list.

BC Campus OpenEd

BC Faculty OER Toolkit

eCampusOntario Open Educational Resources

eCampusOntario Open Library

Dalhousie University Open Educational Resources

University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence – OER Canada

Ontario Tech University Open Educational Resources

OER Commons


Ontario’s Solution: The Aligned and Integration Model

The Aligned and Integration Model (AIM) conceptualizes and supports a multi-tiered approach to well-being support as illustrated in Figure 1. Tier 1 supports mental health promotion for all students. Educators, administrators, and all other school staff receive ongoing professional development in this area so that regular support can be woven into pedagogy, practice, and the creation of the learning environment.

FIGURE 1: Aligned and Integration Model (AIM)

(School Mental Health Ontario, 2019; School Mental Health-Assist, 2019)

Tier 2 is needed for some learners and focuses on identifying learners at risk and the provision of preventive intervention strategies. This may involve educators, but non-routine and in-depth strategies become the responsibility of a broader team of support professionals.

Tier 3 is essential for a few learners and supports learners with a significant mental health challenge and requiring more intensive interventions and therapies. Trained mental health professionals, either from the community or school district, would be engaged for the provision of these services.

The entire mental health leadership team provides 360o support for learners in need and includes educators, administrators, other school staff, mental health professionals, families, general practitioners, and mental health coaches all supported centrally by the school district and School Mental Health Ontario (SMHO). SMHO identifies and tests support resources with the assistance of subject matter experts. The entire support team has access to an Innovation and Scale-Up Lab in which experimentation and learning about supportive resource implementation occurs.

For more information about AIM, please refer to the ‘Overview of Mental Well-Being at School’ Info Sheet available at


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  • Caldwell, J. (2019). $3.26M pledged to OER to enable student savings throughout the province. BCcampus News.

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This morning, a question crossed through my email from a researcher doing some work on this topic. The original question reads:

"E-learning has some mixed benefits. It has a lack of social interaction between the instructor and the students. But on the other hand, online learning is both inexpensive and less time-consuming. If a platform could actually cater content and interaction around the individual user—their speed, their interests, their location—then e-learning could give them the ability to learn whatever they want, from wherever they want. What do you think, with the advancement of technology will E-learning replace F2F learning?"

My response:

I understand that some of my comments may be viewed as controversial, but they come with total respect...

Why does this have to be a dichotomous choice?

Effective teaching and learning involve three fundamental components about which the educator must have some expertise: the development and delivery of learning outcomes, the curriculum, and the pedagogies associated with delivery. Any delivery mode - traditional, online or hybrid/blended - has the potential to deliver and produce learner satisfaction, but that success is dependant upon three critical inputs.

First, learners must be motivated and contribute the effort toward learning (I fully believe, for example, that learners have the right to fail in their studies should they wish to do so). Part of this is internally-driven, but the remainder depends fully on the following two inputs.

Second, at the point of design and development, the learning outcomes and curriculum must be considered mindfully through a lens of learner-centredness in such a way as to promote learning that serves the needs of modern learners preparing themselves for an uncertain, challenging, destabilizing future in which they will be required to navigate and address complex global problems, like climate change, for which there is no historical perspective. This responsibility falls on program managers, advisory committees, curriculum specialists and instructional designers... and two more groups that, here in Canada in each of our provinces, are not pulling their weight: (a) Ministries of Education and Advanced Education, many of whose policies are rooted in a history two centuries old, and (b) unions, whose members and administrators often seem unwilling to accept that teaching and learning require significant change if we are to future-proof our learners.

Finally, educators play a significant role as well. Educators play the central role of weaving together the learner experience based on the tools (the outcomes and curriculum provided) that they were given. Educators must shape the pedagogies to engage learners. The problem with this is, and I will speak from experience over the past 20 years in post-secondary (higher) education, that many educators have never been trained to do so. They may be experts in their respective fields, but few have actually received any formal training in curriculum delivery, learner mindsets or, most importantly, pedagogy. Some educators are amazing, but others - those that save a lecture capture online or those that post a readings and assignments list online and believe that to be online learning - are the reason, in my humble opinion, that we even have a conversation occurring regarding the efficacy of one delivery mode over another.

All delivery modes are viable. We simply need to be motivated and contribute the effort toward excellence in their development. After all, as educators, unlike learners, we do not have the right to fail indiscriminately. If we choose to behave this way, we do a fundamental disservice to our learners, to our profession and to our personal reputation.

"Without freedom [we] cannot exist authentically." --- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2018, p. 48)


Education at a Crossroads

At the World Economic Forum in 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau observed that “the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again” (Special Address by Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, 2018, 5:34) . Indeed, technology fosters innovation and perpetual change. It improves standards of living. It provides better access to products and services. Technology also revolutionizes aspects of our economic, social, and political beliefs that we often take for granted. Despite the potential for considerable growth opportunities, the advent of artificial intelligence along with other automation technologies and the rise of the gig economy, has revolutionized the world of work (Jahanian, 2020), fundamentally shifting our perspectives about the future in many instances from one of contentment and optimism to one of skepticism and uncertainty. In reality, however, young people are unaware of the opportunities, still making career choices that are “limited by their gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background” (Chambers, 2020).

At the same time, the need to produce an active, engaged citizenry could not be more urgent (Krishnan, 2020). The transformations required to address complex global issues such as climate change, migration, and security presuppose a robust system of education that effectively prepares learners to solve problems for which there is no historical perspective (Jónasson, 2016). Furthermore, the rise of systemic social issues of disparity such as racism, populism, and growing wealth inequality only serve to underscore the changes required in education today to effectively prepare people for the future. It is becoming increasingly apparent that we must broaden our understanding of literacy. “Literacy, in its traditional definition, isn’t just the ability to read or write – it’s actually about the capacity to reflect, analyse and create” (Srinivasan, 2020). The type of knowledge that leads to these abilities has been referred to as powerful knowledge (Quinn, 2019; Young, 2014). The ‘power’ in powerful knowledge exists in what learners do with that knowledge to improve the world around them (Quinn, 2019).

If young people are still making traditional career choices, this may indicate that they are also unaware of the skills required to thrive and succeed in the twenty-first century. In addition, educational creators, deliverers, and policy makers could be more overt about working with learners to ensure that they are better prepared to transition from a future based on training for a career to one requiring competence in various skills clusters. Education required for the future challenges at the heart of our belief systems. Knowledge, in and of itself, will no longer prepare an effective citizenry to address complex global problems like climate change (Field et al., 2020). What is required is the ability to critically evaluate worldviews and biases to facilitate “critical questioning of societal norms and cultural drivers, such as: the definition of progress; the idea of perpetual growth on a finite planet; the roles of science and technology; the viability of capitalism, consumerism, and the exploitation of nature; and values such as ‘freedom,’ ‘independence,’ ‘success,’ and ‘comfort’” (Field et al., 2020). This paper provides a critical evaluation regarding the nature of future knowledge requirements and the concomitant implications for curriculum.

Learning is Freedom

More than a century ago, John Dewey (2018) was already advocating for education to keep pace with rapidly changing times. With a focus on learner development and citing the unpredictability of the state of the world, he argued that education should enhance personal capacity by teaching how to learn effectively (Dewey, 2018; Williams, 2017). For Dewey, this included an awareness of our interdependence and an openness to learning from life experiences and allowing them to reshape our meanings and perspectives (Dewey, 2018). In his New York Times opinion piece “Learning as Freedom,” Roth restates Dewey’s position that “learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that's what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society” (Roth, 2012).

There is a long history in North America of curriculum adapting to meet the needs of corporations and lobby-intensive special interest groups (Hinchey, 2018). This materializes in several ways: keeping topics like climate change out of schools and curriculum because of the costs to corporations in adapting to increased regulation, and corporations actually creating and forcing schools to adopt curriculum intended to shape learner thinking in their favour on controversial topics like fracking in the gas industry. These inroads that inhibit the democratic freedom of education have resulted in dangerously polarized political perspectives, violent racist activism, citizens carrying firearms and viewing those around them as possible threats and increasing occurrence of mental illness.

"The kind of citizens that schools educate will shape the kind of society the country becomes tomorrow. If what we want are concerned citizens who believe they have a responsibility to contribute to their communities, who understand the dangers of shutting certain segments of society out of democracy’s promise of fair opportunities for life, liberty and happiness, then teachers need to think deeply about what they do in their classrooms and why, about whether memorizing formulas is more important than learning to question the claims of politicians, ads or journalists" (Hinchey, 2018, xviii).

In his paper presented to Fifth International Roundtable on Discourse Analysis, Selwyn (2013) notes that, despite the ubiquity of digital technology and social media some four decades after stand-alone computers started appearing in schools, they remain a source of conflict – from resource allocation to generating profits to the quality of and access to education. From their initial promise to “disrupt old-fashioned practices” (Selwyn, 2013, p. 3), the purported benefits of a digital education have run the gamut from rethinking learning to gamification to open badges. A significant source of conflict has been the discourse related to the concept of digital de-schooling in which technology appropriates traditional education. From the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ program to ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ and ‘School-in-the-Clouds’ initiatives and ‘Massively Open Online Courses,’ the de-schooling argument promotes individualized learning, anytime, anywhere. The depth of discourse regarding digital and social media technologies has been so pervasive that it is generally agreed that they fit “neatly with a number of values and interests relating to the nature and organization of learning” (Selwyn, 2013, p. 10). The discourse suggests that fundamental change in education practices remains a desired yet distant goal.

One of the recent benefits of digital education emerging in the discourse, the concept of twenty-first century skills, has become so universally accepted as to become known as a “blueprint for education [reform] in a digital age” (Selwyn, 2013, p. 5). Post COVID-19 predictions about the future of higher education are emerging. According to Murgatroyd (2020, u.p.), one idea surfacing theorizes that the work of colleges and universities will shift from supply-driven to demand-driven models. With governments as the primary source of funding, they will be able to more effectively ensure that higher education aligns with the skills demanded in the future.

Required skills have been categorized into foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities. Foundational literacies refer to how skills are applied on the job and include several that have been universal goals of education, namely literacy and numeracy. In addition, scientific, digital, financial, and cultural literacies are required. Competencies refer to how complex problems and challenges are approached on the job. These include critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Finally, character qualities refer to how a changing work environment is approached. These are curiosity, adaptability, persistence, initiative, leadership, and social and cultural awareness (Marope et al., 2019; World Economic Forum, 2015).

Implications for Curriculum

New skills are required for new jobs emerging in global economies based on innovation, collaboration and creativity but the emerging skills demand has identified a skills shortage (World Economic Forum, 2015). Key challenges in meeting future skills needs, particularly in meeting competencies and character qualities, arise in disagreements surrounding definitions and success indicators (Marope et al., 2019; World Economic Forum, 2015).

Technology is generally accepted as a potential solution to help address the skills gap but, for it to be most effective and produce results, it must be part of an integrated solution known as a closed loop. At the educator/learner interface, the closed loop includes the development and delivery of learning outcomes, curricula, and pedagogies associated with delivery. It also includes interventions based on learner need and the tracking of academic success by embedding meaningful and authentic assessments. All of these efforts must be integrated with each other and aligned with developing required skills (World Economic Forum, 2015). Many desired skills can be achieved by personalizing and adapting curricula; incorporating open educational resources, simulations, and games; and using communication and collaboration tools. They can also be achieved by employing enterprise initiatives such as learning management and student information systems and offering digital professional development opportunities to staff and faculty. By weaving these together into a closed loop, technology has the potential to identify and enable solutions previously unavailable (World Economic Forum, 2015). “We will not be able to simply ride our way into the future,” warns Marx (2014). “We’ll have to invent our way into the future.”

The best curricula integrate multiple skills simultaneously (Marope et al., 2019). Technology may assist with this integration, allowing educators to teach combinations of foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities more effectively. If technology developers can deliver learning tailored specifically to individual learner needs and this is integrated into a blended or hybrid delivery system, educators may find themselves with more time available to focus on teaching competencies and character qualities. Technology may also be able to assess learning and track academic progress (World Economic Forum, 2015). At present, however, most efforts to personalise and adapt content and curricula focus on foundational literacies and function best when learning can be broken into progressive chunks.

The use of open educational resources (OERs) increases both the availability and accessibility of content (subject-specific knowledge) and curricula (lesson plans and pedagogical approaches) for both learners and educators. Some publishers are now incorporating these resources into their proprietary materials to the benefit of educators who may wish to customize curricula. The array of OERs available online highlights the need for some form of quality control to assist educators in selecting the best resources to promote learning (World Economic Forum, 2015).

A growing number of digital tools are assisting learners with skills related to collaboration and communicating by facilitating group work. By combining these with project-based and experiential pedagogical approaches, learners will be able to work in real time to creatively solve complex problems. Learners can work in collaboration on assignments, share interpretations from readings, and keep abreast of news and announcements (World Economic Forum, 2015).

Simulations and gamification facilitate an opportunity for learners to engage in deeper learning by focusing on multiple skills simultaneously. While attending to various foundational literacies, learners also develop creativity, curiosity, and persistence skills. Some of these tools engage learners with higher order cognitive skill and reasoning. SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge!, for example, helps learners develop skills such as systems thinking, critical thinking, and cause and effect relationships (World Economic Forum, 2015).

At the institutional level, there are two key areas for consideration that are likely to improve the quality of both teaching and learning. These are programs to professionally develop educators, particularly in areas such as digital literacy and the effective use of technology in teaching and learning, and investments in enterprise systems that improve data management and flow. These allow for “greater productivity, efficiency and effectiveness at all levels of the closed loop” (World Economic Forum, 2015, p. 12).

The need to address the skills gap offers a significant challenge to educators and learners alike. They are, however, an overlay on an existing infrastructure in which several trends have already emerged that cannot be set aside (Marx, 2014). Lifelong learning already demands that learning be available anytime, anywhere, any pace and any way. As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, new parental expectations will emerge. Leadership will become more horizontal, rather than hierarchical, and will focus on sense making and unification of direction. In developing nations, populations are expected to increase by as much as 60% by 2050 while, in developed nations, the expected increase is about 4.3%. By the same time, the proliferation of languages is expected to be topped by Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Arabic (Marx, 2014). Each of these trends has an impact on educational practices, particularly the development of curricula and pedagogies.

The current siloization of education into discreet subjects is another problematic issue for the future of education. Reviewing and mapping curriculum across subjects provides an opportunity to identify gaps and, more importantly, overlaps in content. Integrating and optimizing learning across disciplines offers an opportunity, similar to economies of scale, to create “a more integrated approach [which] can afford more time for deeper, spiraled learning experiences” (Saldutti, 2014). It will also approximate the authentic, cross-disciplinary reality learners will face when on the job (Jahanian, 2020; Marope et al., 2019). According to Srinivasan (2020), most education systems fail to treat disciplines such as science and engineering as the social constructs they are; rather treating them as merely technical. As systems implement cross-disciplinary approaches to teaching and learning, society is likely to experience workers who understand both the technical operation of the systems they create as well as the ramifications and benefits of those systems on society.

It might be assumed that a system that is in many ways geared to prepare people to participate in a constantly changing world would also change the material it uses at a similar pace” (Jónasson, 2016, p. 2), but a metric to assess the amount and rate of curriculum change does not yet exist. In Canada, the only jurisdiction considering possible futures – for example, as result of climate change – is the Alberta Teacher’s Association. With a pragmatic approach, the association considers the emphasis that must be placed on aspects of learning, the new content and pedagogy that must be presented, and those that must be discontinued, as well as depth and breadth of knowledge, ways of knowing, responsive curriculum, and personalisation (Parsons & Beauchamp, 2012).

"Institutions change slowly. The educational edifice is an institution at more than one level. It is an intricate system, which has developed to become stable. Perhaps, no social institution equals the system of education in terms of its strong and rich legacy, reinforced by laws, regulations, culture and traditions; a system that also rests on a number of principles, most notably those of equality of access and basic education for all" (Jónasson, 2016, p. 4). Today’s learners are more connected and tech-savvy than any previous generation (Siegel, 2014). Consequently, educators and policy-makers must move away from the early twentieth century factory assembly line approach to learning popularized and problematized by Sir Ken Robinson (2006) in his TedTalk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ Instead, they must adopt practices rooted in the very skills needed for the future to offer a proficiency-based and personalised approach to learning. This shifts the constant in education from time to learning (Wilson, 2018).

In the United States and to a somewhat lesser extent in Canada, “there is growing consensus… that the primary goal of the K–12 education system is to prepare all students to graduate from high school ready for college and careers” (Martinez, 2014). This extends to an understanding that all learners require the same core skills, particularly in mathematics and language arts. Research is beginning to show a correlation between developing cognitive skills and an academic mindset and academic success. Deeper learning incorporates these with required future skills. An academic mindset and propensity for lifelong learning have strong correlations with learner self‑efficacy, another skill that would be of benefit to citizens in the future (Martinez, 2014).

Notwithstanding all of the above, in Canada, as in a number of other countries, there is a decided need and desire to right historical wrongs and injustices, particularly those directed at First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples by successive non-indigenous governments and non-indigenous settlers. The effort required to both decolonize and indigenize curricula across the country, to restore the true histories of our peoples, is intense (Bartlett et al., 2012; Ng-A-Fook, 2014; Quinn, 2019). It presupposes that non‑indigenous educators are willing to allow their worldviews to change or broaden by engaging in practices associated with two-eyed seeing, a broadening of personal perspectives in which one learns to “see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all” (Bartlett et al., 2012, p. 335). Educators should be willing – willing to expand their own minds, values, beliefs and worldviews much the same as they are trying to expand those of their learners (Ng-A-Fook, 2014). The challenge, however, is that most teacher candidates at universities in Canadian cities are white, middle-aged women, many of whom have traditionally arrived without any conceptions regarding white privilege or the need to reconcile the past (Nardozi, 2016). Hopefully, with discussions related to recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and more recent global conversations in the media regarding racism and white privilege, this will change.

Colonized learning challenges the concept of powerful knowledge because it prevents some learners from seeing themselves and their culture in the curriculum (Quinn, 2019; Ragoonaden & Mueller, 2017). Only when knowledges and ways of knowing are woven together in a more comprehensive manner through a process of decolonization, a daunting challenge for any curriculum specialist, can the curriculum address “the coloniality of power, of knowledge and of being” (Quinn, 2019, p. 12). Kirby (2020) argues that climate change also challenges the concept of powerful knowledge because of the high value placed on science and the fact that science education is not available to everyone. Young (2014) and Hordern (2018) also points to the formal and informal rules established by subject experts about what constitutes valid knowledge and what is required for learners to progress academically.

Values, ideologies, and beliefs provide the foundation for curriculum, much the same as they do for education overall. For educators to make significant progress in redesigning curriculum for the future, they require a broad understanding about the various purposes of education along with theories of knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy as well as a solid grounding in the implications of decolonization and indigenization (Quinn, 2019). Deng (2020) and Kulasegaram et al (2018) argue that there is more to deciding what should be taught than theories of knowledge. In addition, consideration should be given to the needs of both society and learners.

Concluding Thoughts

Of course, revolutionizing education (Robinson, 2006) to personalize learning for a new future requires a fundamental understanding about the diversity of skills, talents, aptitudes, cultural requirements, and socio-economic factors that collectively and uniquely shape learners (Quinn, 2019). “In a world of diverse talents and aspirations, we will increasingly discover and accept that one size does not fit all” (Marx, 2014). It is no longer sufficient to assign success based on what learners know; what is important is how that knowledge is applied (Marope et al., 2019). If education is intended to generate productive, participatory citizens, it will be critical to educate holistically so that everyone has the ability to function effectively across disciplines, to creatively see things from different perspectives, and to find solutions for paradox, complexity and controversy.


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  • Young, M. (2014, March 25). The curriculum and the entitlement to knowledge. Cambridge Assessment Network, Magdalene College, Cambridge, UK.

OOKPIK Service Inc. is proud to acknowledge the unceded traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, səl̓ilwətaɁɬ, kʷikʷəƛ̓əm and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh) on whose lands we live, work, learn and play.

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All photos by Larry White, except as noted. 

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