Saturday, October 21, 2017

End of Big May Mean Scrapping Little Red School House

When I was news editor at the Chatham Daily News in 1968, my mother, Muriel E. (Hunt) Morris decided to come from Chapleau and spend  the summer with me. To keep herself busy during the day, she decided to take a summer course in education.

The times they were a changing in the late sixties in more ways than one, and education was included. Mom, who had taught school for 34 years at the time became increasingly frustrated with the new thinking in education being set out by the professor.

Just an aside about the changing times in the Sixties -- shortly after I arrived in Chatham 
Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated; peace talks started in Paris to end the Vietnam war and on June 24, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals to victory in the federal election. Our headline in 120 point type was CANADA GOES TRUDEAU, which wasn't quite true as he was not popular in some parts of the country.

Anyway, back to Mom and the professor.

One day the professor said in effect that teachers must "account for individual differences" in children, and used some other trendy words in his lecture. Mom, who had not said a word in class all summer, raised her hand to ask him a question. But the classroom teacher still taught to the middle simply because the way the system is structured., including new trendy words signifying really nothing.

"Don't you mean that all children are special with needs?," she asked. I don't recall his reply to Mom, but I do know the rest of the class agreed with her. After spending her entire teaching career treating each and every child as special with needs, she retired two years later after teaching at Chapleau Public School and at Kekabeka Falls for a total of 36 years.

Mom taught elementary school and emphasized the child before the subject content always.
Obviously she had no use for the labelling of children, or anyone else for that matter.

Let me give you an example that involved me. I was teaching economics at Chapleau High School, and almost all the students in my class failed a test. I was having coffee with my mother and pontificating against my students in typical teacher fashion. Mom stopped my little rant, made some suggestions including that maybe I scrap the course content as I had prepared it, and start over. She also suggested I might want to think about finding another career.

"Start where the students are, not where you are," she recommended, adding that she didn't have the foggiest notion what I was talking about when I tried to explain the material on the test.
I took her advice and we started over. In fact, as Junior "B" hockey was very big in Chapleau at the time, I used a hockey rink to teach the factors of production.

Some years later, a school board member, on a tour of the school, stuck his head in my classroom and asked me, "Is this there where they teach hockey?" I replied yes it was and offered to demonstrate. He didn't take me up on the offer. 

Today, more than ever, I believe my mother was right, and I was so fortunate to finish my teaching career at College of the Rockies where I helped found a grad program in new media communications which was very student centred. I will always be indebted to Dr. Wm. Berry Calder, the president of COTR, who believed that the future is now in 1994 and supported me as we pioneered web based communications when many told me that even email would never really catch on.

The advances in technology since I retired in 2000 have been phenomenal, and today I think of the possibilities for a real student centred education system where it is accepted that each child is special with needs is a starting point. Increasingly methinks that the little red school house and all its trappings designed for the 19th century should be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Recently, over coffee, I was thumbing through 'The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath' by the American writer Nicco Nele which I had bought from and picked up at the Canada Post Office in Shoppers Drug Mart.

However, I chuckled to myself given that I usually have coffee in "big" coffee chains and kept thumbing through Nele's rather incredibly good read and near the end came across two suggestions he makes. To better help us inhabit the End of Big, he suggests that in revising institutions, focus on making them more amenable and responsive to individuals and second, demand serious, thoughtful, informed leadership. (Italics are Nele's)

I would be most interested to hear from you. Please comment or email me

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