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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Guide to Education (in Ontario)

What is Education?

According to the Education Act of Ontario: “The purpose of education is to provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society.” I would argue that this defines schooling. Education is so much more.

Education happens all the time, all around us, particularly with children. Education is a lifelong process whereby we learn. From the first words to the last task on our bucket list, we are being educated. We are educated by parents, teachers, storekeepers, police, older siblings, friends, relatives, and a myriad of other people whom we meet. We are also educated by situations and observations. Descartes said that we are thinking beings. We are also learning beings. We can't help it. We are always learning.

What is School?

School is a formal institution which teaches a given curriculum. This can be academic, skill building, career training, etc. Just as your health and your doctor are not the same, education and school are not the same. A school is a part of education but only a part.

What is a Good Education?

This has been debated for years and will continue to be debated because we all want different things from life and for our children. It is up to each parent or guardian to decide what makes up a good education for the child. But it is up to our society as a whole to decide what role our public school system should play in providing that education.

Many Goals : One System

How can you achieve many different goals under one standard system? This is the problem that the Ontario Public Education System has struggled with for many years. And it is a problem which cannot be solved within the structure of the current system. As many have explained before, the public school system is based on a manufacturing model. (Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms) Given the raw material, the goal is to turn out the finished product with the most efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Thus we apply theories of best practices and maximizing resources. Works with lumber, oil, cars. Not with children. It is like trying to produce a lovely wooden dining room table at a car factory. It comes out all wrong.

Children may be raw material, in some sense, but none of them are the same. So why do we keep on feeding them into the same system? Because we are shackled to this system. It is the one that failed us. It is the one that is failing our children. But it is familiar. It is time to do away with the familiar and embrace something different. In order to do that we need to change the very way in which we look at education.

Remember the characteristics of school: 1) children sorted by grade (age); 2) one teacher for each group of 30 or so children; 3) teachers deliver the material and assign the work; 4) students are to do what they are told and be respectful. That is the ideal situation, for the traditional school. And it works for some, if the goal is a child who can listen well, follow instructions, and attain outside goals for outside rewards (grades or diplomas). Listening well is a good trait as is following instruction. But I have an issue with attaining goals for outside rewards. This means that the child is not learning for himself but for others. That kind of learning does not develop the individual that he is or could be. That learning produces the end product that the society thinks it wants. What it usually does not produce is a happy child.

To get back to characteristics of school, there are some other things which seem to be constant: 1) boredom, leading to 'zoning out'; 2) confusion, leading to 'zoning out'; 3) pressure to conform, not just from peers but from the system itself which rewards certain types of learning (oral and visual) and discourages other types (tactile and kinesthetic); 4) disengagement of students because they are not interested in the subject matter or are not ready for it. All of these characteristics lead to a great deal of time and effort being spent with the net result that little learning is going on. I heard a great quote about how sitting a child in a classroom and claiming that you are teaching her is like throwing marshmallows at a child and claiming that you are feeding her. In order to learn, children must be engaged. That is so blatantly obvious. And so is the fact that children are only engaged with subjects that interest them. I don't mean teaching mathematics by using skate boards as your example or teaching writing by texting on smart phones. Children are not that dumb. They can easily spy the lesson amidst the surface paraphernalia. I mean let the children learn. What they want, how they want and when they want.

In today's schools children learn to blindly obey, without being allowed to question why. They learn to do the minimum amount of work to achieve a goal, since being punctual with assignments or doing more than asked is seldom if ever rewarded. They learn to wait while others catch up or until someone can explain in a different way what was just taught. They learn that being different is bad, being subservient to adults is good, that you can only be creative within the boundaries laid out. They do not learn to take responsibility for their work. They do not learn self-discipline. They do not learn to always do their best. They do not learn how to be happy. They do not learn to love learning. School is a necessary trial to get through. How sad.

Let's start with a whole new model. Keep the school buildings. They are institutional and bland but they are already there so we might as well use them. Ideally we could use any structure or even location. Keep the teachers. They have been trained to deal with large groups of children, a skill that many parents lack. They also have a broad understanding of the many different ways that children can learn. They are also a wonderful resource as guides for safe and purposeful education. Keep the resources. The books are another wonderful resource. The computers can be very useful as tools for exploration and information. So the physical structure remains intact. What needs to change is the imposed structure within the school day. Since it is an impossible challenge to produce many different goals with one system, let's get rid of the system. Who knows best what a child wants to learn? The child. Who knows best what a child should learn? The parent, in consultation with teachers who may have broader experience on how to achieve specific goals.

To determine how a day should go, look at most kindergarten classrooms. There are areas for different activities. The book area for quiet time. The block area for constructive play. The house area for imaginative play. And others. So design a school on the same idea. Each teacher creates a space filled with his or her passions. These would include not only the curriculum topics but any interest that any individual teacher might have, be it butterflies, hockey, fishing, stamp collecting, or zombies. But the key point is that these are the passions of the teachers, not constructed for the interests of the students. Children can spot a fake very easily. They will know quickly whether or not the teacher is sincere. It is amazing how quickly students will be drawn to a real passion, even opera. (Here I speak from personal experience with a class of Grade 7 and 8 students.) Allow students to wander as they will as long as they are in a classroom under supervision. Teachers don't teach, guide. Just stand there and answer any questions or help with solutions to problems which may arise, or talk about butterflies to anyone interested.

Total chaos is the result. I would agree. But there is nothing wrong with chaos. We seem to think that children left to their own devices will be destructive. Maybe we all were influenced too much by “Lord of the Flies”. Truthfully, children left unfettered by adult restrictions quickly work out rules of conduct. Children have a very strong sense of fairness. We are told that children need a quiet studious atmosphere in which to learn. Actually they learn a lot more when interacting with others and playing with objects. And there is always the quiet book corner to which those overwhelmed by the chaos can retreat. You will sometimes find me there because another passion is books.

Next challenge I hear coming from the doubters: my child will spend the whole day playing a video game. Which is okay, as long as they are achieving the set goals. Oh, goals, you say! That's better! But who sets those goals? Why, the child, of course, in consultation with parents and teachers. The more children control their education the more they are invested in it. They set the goals which are meaningful to them and then they are motivated to reach them. Obviously the younger the child, the more input from adults. But children as young as eight can understand the value of learning to read or understand numbers. They set the goals, they set the plan to reach the goals, they provide evidence which can be assessed to demonstrate that they have achieved the goals.

Children learn. They can't help it. Every minute they are learning. But when they are sitting in a class, being taught a subject they have no interest in, they are not learning what we think they are. They are learning how to entertain themselves without getting caught (texting each other, throwing spitballs, doodling, etc.) I remember writing many Star Trek fan fiction stories while I was supposedly learning history or literature. All of us can recall how we spent our time in class. Seldom was it being engaged in the subject matter. Yes, there are exceptional teachers who can inspire many students but there would be much more learning if the students actually chose to be there.

If you want evidence that this is so, you can look at programs in the United States like The Agile Learning Centers or Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning right here in Ottawa. Or, better yet, talk with people who homeschool. There are thousands of them and their children are all happy and learning like crazy. Learning can be fun. Therefore, school can be fun.

Pipe Dream?

I think that we have two choices. We can continue with the existing system which provides well paying jobs for many and is familiar and has left several generations now with a dislike for school and education. Or we can take a chance and work out a system which will still provide those jobs but which will also better serve our children. Why are we so convinced that something must be hard and dreary to have value? Why do we continue to send our children to schools that aren't fun? Why do we think it is a silly dream to have fun while working and learning? Are we really so fated to be miserable? A resounding NO!

I have my own experience teaching for over a quarter of a century. Comments from past students: “Thank you for showing me that school can be fun.”(Grade 7) “I have never worked so hard in my life, or had so much fun.”(Grade 9) “Thank you for allowing me to blossom.” (Grade 9) “The best teacher that I ever had (Mrs. Holzscherer) allowed me to be me – as silly as I am.” (Grade 8) I have never worked within the public system, despite having a Masters of Education. I could not reconcile my own experiences with the way that children learn and the way that teachers are expected to teach. My own children only attended the public system for a few years.

Creating a system which treats each child as an individual and allows them to explore the world as and when they see fit is not a pipe dream. It can happen simply because we live in a democracy. The government has no incentive to change the system. The boards of education are doing their bit to keep everyone within financial guidelines and accountable. Teachers need to do what they are told to keep their jobs. The only source of change is the mass of parents who know that the child they send to school is not like any other child and should not be treated as raw material in need of molding into a finished product which will blindly do what it is told. How much are you willing to do for the happiness of your child? Learn about other systems. Learn about other options. Join groups like OPERI in Ottawa. Watch the videos of Sir Ken Robinson. Talk with other parents. The more you learn the more you will see how the Public School system in Ontario cannot work. Tell your local MPP that you want to see significant change. Not the bandages of the last twenty years.

We all have different expectations for our children. We all want them to learn different things in different ways. But I think that we can all agree on one thing. We want our children to be happy. So ask yourself this one question: Is your child happy at school?


Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning

The Agile Learning Center NY

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Socialization - What is it?

Socialization: Another one of those terms tossed around, debated, and assumed to be something "for good", often without any definition.  Well, my training in philosophy will not allow me to discuss a term without first defining it.  So, here goes.

"Socialization, also spelled socialisation, is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and educationalists to refer to the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies, providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within his or her own society." (

I like this definition because it mentions a lifelong process.  Socialization starts from the moment a child is born and introduced to others in a society.  That society can be initially as small as a family unit.  They gradually learn the routines and patterns of that unit.  They then branch out to larger units and continue to grow.  My difficulty arises when a person is introduced to a unit which has little or no reference to the society in which the child will eventually have to participate.  Let me give an extreme example.  Children born in war-torn countries without any stability may not learn the skills of participating in a peacetime society.  This has proven to be a significant problem in several parts of the world.  So it is important that children learn the skills and habits which will help them to succeed in the world they will inhabit at adulthood.

The most common use of the world "socialization", at least from my perspective of education, is in reference to homeschooling.  Parents seeking to homeschool teenagers are warned that the children might not learn to socialize.  This is based on the assumption that public high schools are microcosms of the adult world.  Let us examine that assumption.

Public School (PS):  All members, with a few exceptions (teachers and administrators) are born within a few years of each other.

Real World (RW): Multi-generational and multi-aged in almost all sectors, private and professional.

PS:  Members are grouped by age.

RW:  Members are grouped by common interest.

PS:  There is one dominant culture and all students are pressured into participating or being marginalized.

RW:  There are a multitude of cultures (social, professional, athletic) and members select the groups

PS:  Members develop special language, habits, customs that are only relevant within that specific culture and are often contrary to the customs of the larger world.

RW:  Different habits and customs are developed within the context of participating in the larger world, or not, if that is the preference.

Okay, so my bias is definitely making itself known and perhaps I am not being entirely fair.  After all, students still join other groups and have home lives.  My point is that high school is not the place to learn social skills.  Those are better learned by participating in the real world.   I will not repeat what has been said before about the socialization skills of homeschooled children.   This is a topic which keeps repeatedly raising its head, even though it has been answered numerous times.  To read some of those answers I refer you to the following link :

Children will socialize just fine.  They don't need to attend a public school to do so.  In fact, they will learn better socializing skills by visiting their grandparents or helping a neighbour rake the yard.   For anyone who confuses socialization with the ability to be popular, you might want to read the following report from Time.   (Especially the part about "popular" kids!)

I am not against children attending public high schools but send them for academic reasons, not because they will learn social skills to help them later in life.  You're looking in the wrong place.

To do or to just think about it

Theory or practice.  If we get stuck in theory then nothing ever happens.  If we make the bold move to putting theory into practice then we risk disillusionment.  Particularly if we are dealing with a huge immovable bureaucracy.  This is my dilemma.

For years I have read about education reform.  I even did my Masters of Education hoping to find insight into the area.  I have thought extensively about how education should be.  I have even taught in my own school in this fashion and have tweaked and polished my theories.  I think they are valid.  I think they have merit.  But what does it matter if they are not applied on a larger scale.

My theories are simple:
1)  All humans are learning creatures.
2)  The mind must be engaged in order to learn.

These are, to me, rather obvious.   Give anyone the opportunity to learn something they love and the job of the teacher becomes the job of the mentor.  A mentor guides, assists, encourages.  That is the job of the teacher.

I applied this at my little school.  I still apply this to my students who come to my house.  It works.  They learn.  I guide.  We have fun and education is achieved.

So to that extent I apply my theories.  But what about the thousands of children stuck in an antiquated behemoth of the public education system.  They are not learning, largely because they are not engaged.  Hours, days, and years of boredom are destroying any desire to learn.  Time and youth are wasted.  Teachers prepare lessons for non-existing standardized children.  Even those children who find morsels of information in this wasteland achieve a tiny fraction of what they could.  We are destroying them and our future.  Parents know this.   Children know this.  And, above all, teachers know this.  But no one does anything.  Because that antiquated behemoth rolls over anyone who suggests that it is destructive and should be destroyed. 

So I ask the question that all reformers must ask: Is it worth dying for?  Literally, probably not.  But do I give my time, my energy, my passion to pit my little, tiny David against that Goliath?  The immediate response is that to do anything else is cowardice.  But where is my slingshot?  How do I find a chink in the armor?

The answer surely lies in getting other Davids together.  There are so many out there, each choosing their rocks.  There is a tendency to want to create another Goliath to make this a fair fight.  If we can get enough people invested in taking down the beast, it might work.  Except that we might just replace it with another monster.  It is not the monster that we need to change but the very ground that it walks upon.  As long as we base any educational model on a business model, we are doomed to failure.  There are no best practices.  There are no products or methods that work for all children.  We need to stop looking out there for the perfect way to teach.  We need, each teacher, that is, to look at the children right in front of us each day and guide them. 

Parents do not teach their children to walk.  The children learn that all by themselves.  They provide a safe, conducive learning space and let the children figure it out.  That is the first school.  That should be the premise for all schools. 

Coming next:  The blueprint for educational spaces

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The dangers of the Comfort Zones

Boxes.  We all have them.  They are also called comfort zones.  They are ways of looking at the world that are comfortable to us.  Perhaps one box deals with relationships.  In that we put our ideas of friendship, marriage, parent/child.  Another box deals with work - ideas of productive activities, financial security, working towards retirement.  Many of these ideas come from others.  We get ideas from parents, school, friends, mentors, media.  They become ours either because we have considered them and agree or because we have had no reason to question them because they work.  However we arrive at these ideas, they give us comfort.

The fascinating paradox about boxes is that some will stay in them even when they don't work.  When they see that the box not what they wanted.  When they complain about the results.  They still don't step out of the box.  They somehow think they are better complaining about a broken box than risking the unknown involved with building a new box.

People will stay in an unsatisfactory job rather than launch into a new venture which might be financially, status-wise, egotistically risky.   They will conform to standards with which they don't agree.  They will keep their children in the same school system even when the children hate it and are failing.  Just how uncomfortable does a box have to get before people will go out of the box?

If something is not working, change it.  Don't complain, don't accept, don't blog.  Change it.  Out of the box is much less frightening than most people think and infinitely more rewarding.  Try it!


So far I have been speaking generally but I do have a specific box in mind.  The Education Box.  This box is highly structured.  All children enter at a specific age (4,5,or 6 or whatever the local school board determines).  All children are classed together by age.  They attend school for specific hours Monday to Friday between September and June.  There they will be taught lessons by a qualified teacher in a systematic way, separated by grade and subject.  Their learning will be assessed by an objective standard.  They will remain in school until they are able to take their places as adults in the outside world.  This has been the public school system for a long time.  And it sounds great.  We teach them how to be adults in the real world.  Except that it doesn't work.  And it hasn't worked for a long time.

If we take these pieces of structure one at a time we can see that it is doomed to failure.  Real life does not categorize people according to age.  In jobs people are sorted by ability.  In social groups people sort by interest.  Learning takes place continuously, not just 8 am to 3 pm on weekdays.  If these hours are intended to teach children that misery has these hours and play is only after misery, then I guess we have prepared them for miserable careers.  Is that what we want?  Why can't we play all the time - both kids and adults?  People who love their jobs do it.  Play does not equal irresponsibility.  Play is not a waste of time.  Perhaps it is the boring job that is the waste - of both time and potential.  The objective standard has fish being graded on how well they climb trees (in that popular FB post).  And lastly, life is not separated into subjects.  We all need the creativity of the arts, the precision of mathematics, the communication skills of language, the perspective of history.  And we need it all together for each situation.

It is time to rethink our education system from top to bottom.  What is the goal of education and how best to get there.  Stay tuned because I have a few ideas!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Back at it!

It has been a few years since I last posted a blog.  I used to post as part of my marketing campaign.  Not that I ever said anything in my blogs which wasn't 100% true, but the intent was to market the school.  So, although my blogs were sincere, they weren't honest. 

Many years ago I had a problem to solve.  So I found a solution and, sort of as a happy accident, I found a passion.  Now I have always had passions and I have been lucky enough to indulge several of them at various time during my life.  (To those of you who know me, I am NOT talking about chocolate!  That is not a passion but an obsession.)  To continue, this passion for teaching led to a dream of a private school to help my community.  The pursuit of the dream became all encompassing as my own children spread their wings and no longer needed teaching.  The problem that slowly came about was that the dream and the passion were no longer going in the same direction.  It took me quite awhile to realize this.  I had switched from a passion to teach to a need for the school to grow in order to feel successful.  I was striving for something that I didn't really want.  The journey had gone astray.  I found all my time being taken up with administrating and marketing.  There was no time for teaching.  And I was not happy nor benefiting anyone.  And so I stopped.  Very suddenly.  I abandoned the school.  I stopped going to networking groups.  I closed the website.  I cancelled all the social media.  And I stopped posting any blogs.  I pulled into my little cocoon and reassessed my life.

Slowly I re-emerged with the passion firmly grasped in my hands.  And now I teach.  That is all that I do.  And I am ecstatically happy.  And ready to post another blog.

Maybe I should have titled this blog "Another Life Lesson Learned".  What I have learned is that it is good sometimes, when on our journey, to stop and check to see where we are going and if we still want what awaits us there.   So I am back at blogging - because I love to write and because I still have something to say.  When I look at my tiny class of students I feel that I am helping.  But I know that there is so much more that I can do.  So this blog will be the start of my sharing my own experiences and studies to try and improve education for others.  The public school system in Ontario is not all that it could be.  Maybe I can at least give my informed opinion to anyone who wishes to listen (or read).  So I am back at it!  Stay turned for more.