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Fifty years ago, in June of 1968, an Ontario government report, entitled, Living and Learning, captured the experimental flavour of the late 1960s and rocked the Ontario educational world.  While that report created a major creative disruption, it disappeared like a meteorite and, a decade later, was widely dismissed as a passing phase. Its influence in reaffirming progressive education’ ideals cannot be over-estimated and, in many ways, the ghost of Hall-Dennis haunts K-12 education still.  It remains the one report that sparked progressive thinking in provincial school systems right across Canada.

Looking back at the Hall-Dennis Report, is rewarding and opportune because it demonstrates the enduring value of historical-mindedness and provides a few lessons for present day education policy-makers. We can learn much from the excitement of its arrival, the fierce debate it provoked, and  its long-term impact on “progressive education.” Many ideas labeled ‘innovative’ in teaching and learning can be traced back to the pages of Living and Learning and the influence of those ideas can be seen in most elementary school classrooms to this day.

 When it first appeared, the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, named after its co-chairs, Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis, was greeted with lavish praise, mostly generated by the Toronto popular media. Unlike previous dry and formalistic government reports, it conveyed a powerful message with catchy slogans such as “the truth shall make us free” and images of smiling children at play in the schools.

The attractive and well-packaged report was so impressive that even Ontario Education Minister William G. Davis was initially swayed by its charms.  Even though it was not formally endorsed by the Ontario government, it was essentially the brainchild of Deputy Education Minister J.R. (Jack) McCarthy and his freshly-recruited band of “progressive education” acolytes within the Department.

When the Report was released on June 12, 1968, the Toronto media were effusive in their praise for the three-year study with its 258 sweeping recommendations.  It was “a revolutionary blueprint for education,” The Toronto Daily Star proclaimed, and nothing short of “a radical program to liberate our school system.”Even the normally dour Toronto Globe and Mail jumped on the bandwagon.  With a big splash, The Globe’s news team of Barrie Zwicker and Douglas Sagi welcomed the Report as one that recommended “Ontario’s educational system be turned upside down and all the old ways of doing things be shaken from it.” Education Minister Davis’s mere presence at the official announcement was interpreted as an endorsement, even though he cautioned that it was only  “a step in the right direction for planning.”

 The initial editorials were equally rapturous and reflected the irreverent spirit of the times. In its lead editorial, The Globe and Mail heralded the Hall-Dennis Report as truly revolutionary in the sense that, unlike other commission or inquiry reports, it would not be “retired to gather dust.”  Its ringing endorsement of the report was total and unqualified:

The school system it envisions would abolish all the multiplicity of rigidities that now dominate the child, and set him free to search, with assistance, for the truth….What the report does is to set a goal –creative, conscienceful (sic), human –away out ahead of the solemn strivers in the present educational prisons. It may frighten and infuriate, but by degrees, it will also force, by its sheer rightness, the changes that we all know must be made.

Not to be outdone, The Toronto Daily Star appropriated “the language of the hippies” and noted that the Report “advises us to let every schoolchild ‘do his own thing.’” Conscious of how it sounded, the editorialists hastened to add that the “carefully reasoned recommendations of this excellent report” would never “stoop to such ‘pop’ language.” But it was too late for such qualifiers. Most of the popular commentaries latched onto the line that the Report was an open invitation for students to “do their own thing” in Ontario’s public schools.

The Globe and Mail’s influential and widely-read columnist Richard J. Needham quickly emerged as one of the Report’s champions. He was, in the mid-to- late 1960s, a popular but quixotic Toronto cultural figure, a balding, pipe-smoking and a ‘pied piper’ for the rising youth culture. Viewed by most parents as an aged “hippie,” he paid close attention to, and gave voice to, the young and restless.  Needham’s daily newspaper ramblings were wildly popular with school teachers and even read by more studious teens, like me.

Needham’s pronouncements on the Report carried some weight at the time. “It’s a good report,” he told his readers, because it reflected “what he had observed visiting hundreds of public schools over the previous three years.” In Needham’s familiar overblown rhetoric, it promised an end to “fear, threats, humiliations, beatings…”  He went even further. The “Ontario Establishment,” he wrote, “lives by fear, threats, humiliations, beatings; being anti-people, It doesn’t know any other way to run things…” He then offered this memorable prediction:

…the schools will keep right on being at worst operated like grim penitentiaries and at best like cloistered monasteries – cut off from the real world of life, strife, adventure, change, triumph, disaster, action, beauty, glory, and poetry. Stop thinking about the Taj Mahal and get your nose into that algebra book! Don’t you want a good job in the glue factory?

Inciting rabid debate and stirring a reaction was his stock-and-trade and the Hall-Dennis Report provided him with plenty of fodder.

Socially aware Ontario teens and ‘hip’ high school English teachers simply ate up Needham’s regular comments, especially on the subject “doing your own thing” over the objections of stuffy, old-fashioned parents. One of those receptive teens was Fred Freeman, a politically-active Grade 11 student at Toronto’s Bathurst Heights Collegiate.  He wholeheartedly agreed with Needham. There was “something wrong with the way high schools are run,” he told  The Toronto Daily Star. “Who else can decide what a student is to learn except the student himself,?” he asked, before complaining that being forced to study Latin from Grade 10 onward squelched his enjoyment of learning. Such viewpoints only echoed those of Needham and fixed, in the public mind, the distinct but rather misleading impression that the Report was a colourful recipe book for an “anything goes” brand of  education.

 The Report did not spring out of nowhere.  It was actually an outgrowth of the progressive educational philosophy inspired by American educator John Dewey then being espoused by Deputy Minister McCarthy.  A student-centred, team-teaching, open concept school model had been seeded in 1962 with a few pilot schools, including Pleasant Avenue Public School in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale, Ontario.  What had begun in 1965 as a modestly conceived elementary curriculum review had gradually morphed into a full-blown committee of inquiry into the aims of education with an ever-expanding mandate.

The Committee, as education researcher Eric W. Ricker demonstrated, was a classic example of a bureaucratically-driven consensus-building exercise. It was structured in a fashion recommended by McCarthy and the Department; its agendas and working papers were drafted by Department staff; almost all of the initial expert testimony was provided by the ‘educrats’; and , finally, a number of its key members were “insiders’– close associates, or former teachers and professors, of members of the Department’s curriculum branch.  Although the Committee of 22 appointed members was described by Lloyd Dennis as a group of “all sorts” chosen from a “grab bag,” it was, in Ricker’s words, “clearly biased before its work even commenced.”

In the three-year-long study, McCarthy and his officials skilfully steered the Committee in the direction of “progressivism.” While the Committee had its share of traditionalists, as well as a number of Catholic members, both French and English, the progressives gained the upper hand in its internal workings. The predominantly child-centred philosophy conveyed in the briefs was reinforced by the” professionals” relatively unencumbered by the usual teacher federation pressures and constraints. The addition of Charles E. Phillips, the reputed dean of Canadian educational history,  to the Committee strengthened the hand of progressives.

Most significantly, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which favoured a reformed traditionalist approach, was effectively marginalized on the Committee.  The OSSTF’s one lone representative was, in fact, no longer a high school teacher by the time the Committee got down to serious work. Under such favourable conditions, the progressive educators were able to seize the initiative in not only planning the Committee’s work, but also in drafting its recommendations. That decision would turn out to be a critical mistake when, within weeks, a furious and determined opposition began to take shape among high school teachers, university academics, local chambers of commerce, and captains of industry.

 What caused the Great Disruption associated with the arrival of the Hall-Dennis Report?  Where did the progressive ideas espoused in the Report actually originate? What can be learned about the shaping of a “broad consensus” in education politics? To what extent was the over-hyping of the Report responsible for the fierce debate that ensued in education circles? 

First in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, Fifty Years On

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One of the most stimulating recent ‘think pieces,’  Houman Harouni’s  “What should a School be?has set the cat among the pigeons in the North American education world.  Originally published in The American Reader (Vol. 8, 2013), the Harvard researcher’s article essentially challenges educationists to think more broadly and seek fresh insights from outside their intellectual cocoons.  While many education observers claim that “the school system is broken,”  few actually stop to do what is known as a “deeper dive.”  In our post-modern era of globalization and connectivity, fewer still pause to ask whether the purpose of education should be completely subsumed by“dancing with robots.”

DancingwithRobotsEducation does matter but that is difficult to discern surveying the public debate over the current state and future of schooling.  Harouni, the agent provocateur, captures the  current dialectic in magical prose: “Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways which kids of color ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ on exams; whether to teach like a ‘champion,’ a ‘guide.’ or a ‘pirate’; whether the arts are a right or a privilege; all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place.” 

The entire North American education debate, Houman Harouni  contends, “keeps folding back into itself” because it accepts established parameters and is almost entirely based upon “self-referential questions” that perpetuate  “a system that has stagnated for seven generations.”  The promise of grace and salvation, in his view, is not enough to “justify the existence of the modern educational system.”  Leading philosophers of education from John Dewey to today’s ‘pedagodfathers’ , with few exceptions, “do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling.'”  While it endears them to educators, it is offered up to justify “the existence of schools as distinct spaces”  amid “the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas.”

What is the purpose of schooling?  Contemporary platitudes are usually served up to answer this question expressing some variation on the theme of ‘preparing students for success in the competitive 21st century global world.’ Such statements are accepted at face value and anyone raising a question about its primacy is invariably ignored or dismissed as a ‘turn-back-the-clocker.’  This state of affairs alone demonstrates why the world needs more education thinkers and fewer technocrats.

Schools are vital civic and social institutions but schooling is never openly discussed unless it’s said to be “in crisis.” Education matters because five hours a day, five days a week, from September to June, children and youth are its captives, up to the age of 16 or 18 years.  At their best, public schools can  inspire student curiosity and instil civic responsibility; at their worst they become what John Taylor Gatto termed “weapons of mass instruction.”  For many education theorists, like Louis Althusser, they essentially serve to “reproduce social relations” and slot young people into jobs suited to their own social class. While schools play a vital societal role, Althusser correctly observed that “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!”

Since the mid-1970s, Harouni claims that serious discourse about education was abandoned to ‘the educationists.‘ Cultural critics, sociologists, and outside scholars  simply “washed their hands of education.”  Progressive educators came to dominate the field, free to conduct research in pursuit of resources, and seemingly “not bothered by their seclusion.”  Today teachers, faculty of education students, and young researchers learn to show “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field.”  Pointed questions are deflected with a wave of the hand and the dismissive statement, “but has she ever taught?”  Any economist or “crossover” academic is listened to politely, then safely ignored.

Today’s educationists thrive on their own isolationism. Political or sociological critiques that challenge the prevailing “liberal social order” or “progressive pedagogy” are not welcome inside the modern schoolhouse. This does  allow educationists to merely shrug-off the core contradictions of their practice. Student-centred learning and promoting student happiness, we are assured, can coexist with raising standards and expecting more from today’s students. Classes would be so much more creative if only we could rid them of student performance testing. It’s tempting to agree with Harouni that schooling has to be “built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.”

Progressive education as promoted by John Dewey’s later day disciples has always tended to see mass education as the cure for social inequities and underestimated the impact of the class division of labour.  Now progressive education is essentially ignoring what social critics term “the end of labour” and best represented by the slow disappearance of the eight hour work day.  Promoters of “21st century learning” see technology as the salvation and many now parrot “the rhetoric of international competition.”

Progressivism has spawned a new 21st century mutation. Today’s children must be schooled to survive and perhaps thrive “dancing with robots.”  The future success of North American “middle class children,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane insist in Dancing with Robots (2013), will be determined by their preparedness for the changing “human labor market.”

Schooling, we are told, must adapt to the changing 21st century workplace. Does this sound familiar? Menial, unskilled job functions will be computerized and labour provided more cheaply in developing countries. Tomorrow’s economy will require three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying-out non routine tasks. Our educational future now rests upon our collective capacity to “sharply increase” the proportion of North American children with “the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”

Educational futurists appropriating the rhetoric of progressivism and acting at the behest of “big data” and “big technology” are, somehow, preying on our weaknesses.  ‘Fresh thinking’ from “Third Way” researchers like Levy and Murnane, based at MIT and Harvard, seems to be trying to fill “the silence” in contemporary educational discourse. Critical  perspectives informed by Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) are simply being ignored or marginalized in the public domain.  Where critical, independent thinking perishes, schools do not normally thrive.

Preparing our kids for success is being reduced to “dancing with robots.”  And, for those who see a more noble calling for schooling, it is somehow disconcerting.  It’s time to ask “is that all?”

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Public education systems tend to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that does not fit everyone.  Children who are highly gifted, severely challenged, or being raised in devout Christian homes often do not fit easily into the standard model, particularly in rural and small town Canada where few school alternatives exist for families. An estimated 100,000 Canadian children from 6 to 16 years of age are being educated outside the system in a variety of home education settings.  Most are being educated in traditional homeschool  fashion, and about 10% by parents committed to the philosophy of “unschooling” or deprogramming their children.

HomeschoolingChildOne of the best known parents who chose another option – homeschooling – is Quinn Cummings, author of The Year of Living Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling (2012). Her motivation, in homeschooling her 8-year old, grade 4 daughter, four years ago, was more mainstream. Like a growing number of home education families, she wanted her child “to work hard and be challenged without it meaning two to three hours of homework every night.”  “I wanted our daughter,” she says, “to learn how to learn. I suspect this is a skill school should give you, but i didn’t want her to look back on her childhood as an extended meditation on worksheets.”

Parents in the 21st century are becoming more adventuresome in finding new ways to educate their children. Traditional homeschooling is evolving from one-on-one home tutoring to online learning tapping into resources like Khan Academy and the latest electronic educational games.  It’s now possible to offer blended learning combining home instruction, online learning, and community-based programs. It’s a combination that allows parents to “custom build a curriculum” for each student using  “a mix-and-match approach” best suited to the individual child.   Cummings calls it “made to order education” for the 21st century.

Not every Canadian province “gets it” when it comes to home education. Wide variations exist across Canada in how school authorities respond to, and support, parents and families seeking to homeschool their children. Canada’s leading education province, Alberta, is officially committed to “school  choice” and the most receptive to homeschooling. Provincial funding is available, through a transfer of fees, and varies according to the program of studies you are offering. If you choose basic/traditional you usually get about $700. Blended is anywhere from $900-1200 and fully aligned you can receive as much $1500.00 per child.  Some variations do exist between the various school boards.  Provincial authorities in British Columbia and Ontario are open to homeschooling, albeit without such generous financial supports.

The most restrictive province may well be Nova Scotia, especially after a November 2012 Auditor General’s report proposing tighter regulation and more rigorous supervision. While only 850 out of 124,000 school age children are registered for homeschooling, AG Jacques Lapointe reported a “lack of adequate systems” to ensure a minimum of supervision, including proper registration records. Out of 120 files reviewed, he found 102 did not specify what a child was expected to learn and five had no information on the study program. It was a major embarrassment for the Education Department and may precipitate a backlash against homeschoolers.

Supporters of homeschooling in Canada were quick to react to the Nova Scotia Auditor General’s report.  Paul Faris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, charged that the AG’s proposed changes would make Nova Scotia “the worst place in Canada” to home-school children.  Nova Scotia, he pointed out, already has plenty of regulations, albeit some that are not currently being enforced.  The Auditor General, according to Faris, was “completely ignorant” of the research on homeschooling and was “trying to fit it into a public school model.”  Caught off-guard by the AG’s report, Education Minister Ramona Jennex responded by saying she was “open” to looking at changes.

A former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto created a sensation when he quit his decades-long teaching career and announced it in a 1991 Wall Street Journal column entitled, “I Quit, I Think.” Until encountering recent health problems, Gatto has been a major education critic and a proponent of homeschooling and unschooling children.  His two best known books, Dumbing Us Down (1992) and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008), provide the most searing radical critique of the impact of “compulsory schooling” on the creativity and imagination of children.

In a Homeschooling Magazine interview a few years ago, Gatto praised homeschoolers for showing “courage and determination” on “the front lines”  and for “making the right choice.”  “You’ve made a choice to free your children to be the best people they can be, the best citizens they can be, and to be their personal best, ” he said. ” But had you allowed those kids to remain in the grip of institutional schooling, the kids would have become instruments of a different purpose.”

Why do increasing numbers of Canadian parents choose to homeschool their own children?  Are home-schooled children more likely to be independent trailblazers or are they at risk of becoming ‘free floaters’ in life? What’s the secret of successfully homeschooling children?  And what is the real purpose of imposing tighter regulations on Canada’s home education families?

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