155 years of Trinity College School

A notable birthday for a notable Canadian institution

for Our Kids Media

“I had an accident with gunpowder,” wrote Peter Perry in his diary. He was a student in the very first cohort at TCS, and was maybe a bit of a handful. In time his diary entries became more detailed, if equally enigmatic. “Thursday, [April] 12th. Rainy all day. Dinner: veal and roly-poly. Did not take any pudding. Mr. Badgley’s table did not take any because it was so bad.”

From day one—founded in 1865, TCS is celebrating its 155th birthday this year—the life of the school was lively, and not at all the kind of environment that we might assume was common to Victorian era boarding schools. As with Perry’s diary, it’s easy to be charmed by the accounts that exist from that time. Instructors included the “handsome Mr. Litchfield,” and Mr. Sefton, “a very jolly Englishman who knew all about church music.” Sergeant-Major Goodwin was “a thorough old soldier who boasted on having attained his 18th birthday on the very day that he fought at Waterloo, was adored by all the boys. … when he was not teaching [he] always had a bunch of boys round him who listened with delight to his many stories of military life.” Goodwin established the school’s cadet corps, and drilled students in the use of cavalry swords “which were worn with a great deal of ceremony going to and from the drill ground.”

TCS began in 1865 in a rectory in Weston, Ontario, and was created to offer an Anglican education to boys in the area. It was called the Weston School, and was founded by Rev. William Arthur Johnson, a man who was, in every conceivable way, a product of his time. He was born in Bombay, India, where his father was posted as Quartermaster-General to the British forces stationed there. When his father retired that post in 1819, the family moved to a parsonage near Bromley in Kent, England. William was granted an education appropriate to his class within a very class-conscious age: he was groomed to take a place in the administration of the commonwealth, just as his father before him.

But, it wasn’t to be. Instead, William came to Canada seeking adventure, married Laura Jukes, and moved into a log cabin that he built for her with his own hands. He farmed a bit, took part in the rebellion, and otherwise sketched and painted watercolours. He also studied plants and insects, which was something of a fad at the time, though Johnson indulged his passion more than most: his collection of nearly 1600 microscope slides was later donated to the Academy of Medicine in Toronto, where it remains today.

At 30 he decided to join the clergy, and the service he offered his congregation lead to a decision to start a school. In the first term there were nine students and a faculty of four. His three sons were the first students on the register, and he took in the sons of friends as well. The register has been kept to this day, and all students are placed on it when they enter the school. Albert, Johnson’s eldest son, is #1. Sir William Osler is #27. Frank Darling, who would one day become the architect of the school buildings (as well as the architect of U of T’s Convocation Hall, Victoria College, and the Bank of Montreal building which now houses the Hockey Hall of Fame) is #17. Peter Jennings, the ABC news anchor, is #4150. Businessman and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman Sr. (#3786) attended at the same time as the philosopher Charles Taylor (#3985). Reginald Fessenden, inventor of the radio, is #847.

To underwrite growth, Johnson applied for a partnership with the corporation of Trinity College, now part of the University of Toronto, and with it the name was changed to Trinity College School. Johnson set the tone for the school, one that is felt to this day. He emphasized outdoor education, taking boys on field trips, sharing with them his enthusiasm for natural science along the way. His approach was that of growing knowledge through engagement. “[Johnson’s] concept of education did not lie in the greatest number of facts that could be drilled into his boys,” wrote A. H. Humble, an early historian of the school, “but in ideas and pursuits that would stimulate and excite the unfolding mind.”

The school came into prominence under the leadership of Charles Bethune, who reluctantly accepted the role of headmaster in 1870. Reluctance is perhaps too kind a word—he was fairly irascible, didn’t love the thought of a life in administration or even education, and the school was dangerously in debt. “When Dr. Bethune became head master,” wrote the editor of The Record in 1899, “there was only a wooden building on the present site, and the school work was conducted in rooms in the town.” The first task was to literally build the school and grow the enrolment. And he did. By the second year Bethune had increased the student body by half, and by 1872 they were moving into the first building created specifically to house the school.

There was a renegade, frontier spirit in Bethune’s leadership, and one that he also brought to the school’s programs. At most private schools at the time, chapel sermons were no different than what you would hear in a typical church. At TCS, they “went far beyond the limits of time for ordinary sermons [yet] held the boys in rapt attention.” In one, the Archdeacon Vincent of Moosonee spoke about life in the north, and afterward “there were few, if any, who … did not think to be a missionary in Moosonee would be one of the happiest things possible.” (One student, R. J. Renison, actually became one.)

Bethune ultimately stayed on in the role for 29 years, something that even he seemed to marvel at. It was a period during which—as a result of his leadership—the school was incorporated and grew in size, stature, and reputation. Soon, students arrived from Iowa, Montreal, and even the west coast, despite the fact that the Canadian Pacific Railway had yet to be completed. Students loved him. He was seen as kind and fair, something he imparted to the character of the school he developed. One of the most moving and repeated moments in the school’s history is when Bethune arrived at the 50th anniversary celebration in 1915 and was given a spontaneous, lasting ovation.

The school today

“My uncle is that gentleman up there,” says Steph Feddery pointing to one of the portraits that look down from the walls of the dining hall. “My family would come down and spend holidays here. I lived in the Lodge for about six months at one point, and my aunt was the archivist at the time, so I picked her brain a lot. It is fascinating, when you look around and see the history and the names.”

The history provides a sense of tradition and place, one that the administration rightly seeks to maintain. “When we created the strategic plan,” says Stuart Grainger, “we asked ‘What is going to be the key to Trinity College School?’ And no matter what is going on in the world, we have to stand for integrity, compassion, kindness. And those values are referenced from 100 years ago. The history is in a series of personalities that sat in the same place that you are sitting in now. So that appreciation, respect, value-oriented leadership, value-oriented living, still remains as fundamental to living a purposeful life.”

Feddery has had a front-row seat for a considerable amount of its recent development, despite still being young. She enrolled in 1991, entering the school with the first cohort of girls—TCS was a boys’ school for the first 125 years of its life. “My brother had already been here for a year, and it was very overwhelming because there was a lot of animosity toward us. … a lot of the seniors were bothered when the girls arrived. Of course, some welcomed us with open arms,” she says, chuckling as she does.

“Things changed, and things were supposed to change anyway, but bringing in the girls exacerbated that. … But I had a great time, and made awesome friends that I’m still friends with today. It’s an experience. I was living away from home. I had focused tasks that I had to accomplish here: routines, schedules. And because there was a small group of girls—there were 60 of us in the first year—we were all in the same boat, experiencing the same things.”

The inclusion of girls within the student body paved the way for more women on faculty, of which Feddery is an example. She’s also the master of Wright House. “Having female role models in the science and math classrooms has really helped,” she says. “When I was here there weren’t very many female teachers. There were a few, but I didn’t happen to have them.” Unlike when she began, the school now has a history of coed education, with photos and paintings of girls and women up there on the walls with the men, something that Feddery feels is important. She’s up there too, in a photo from her days on the volleyball team. “My students used to mock me incessantly. ‘Miss Feddery I see you on the wall!’ … But just for them to see that you’re an alum, I think it’s very powerful … I think for girls to see girls in science and girls in math is quite powerful.”

It is. Since the beginning, the focus has been both on a strong academic program as well as developing character, interpersonal skills, and a dedication to service. When headmaster Grainger says that, as educators, “you just want to have an impact on a kid’s life,” it’s clear that he truly means it. The dedication to diversity within the student population, including financial diversity, is evidence of that, and something that the school manages particularly well. He, and other program leaders have an energy that they have brought to bear on the life of the school, including a dedication to addressing students’ lifestyles, and an attention to balance as much as achievement. They, as well as a very modern facility, keep the traditions and values in view.

For more, see the Our Kids Feature Review of Trinity College School

Building a better school

Elie Newman’s Transformation Project at The Bishop Strachan School

by Glen Herbert

“It's wonderfully constructed,” says Sugata Mitra. “It's just that we don't need it anymore.” Mitra is a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, best known for his "Hole in the Wall" experiment, which he discussed in a wildly popular TED talk. He was addressing an idea that comes up from time to time, that education is broken and needs fixing. What critics respond to are the outcomes, and lowering math scores is usually high on the list.

Mitra’s point is that it isn’t broken, but rather that we’re using an old model, one that was developed to train students for roles in a specific time and place, yet expecting results in keeping with modernity. What we think of as a traditional form of instruction—desks in rows, chalk and talk—was designed to meet the requirements of what he describes as a “global computer made up of people” that grew out of the age of Empire. “In order to have that machine running,” he says, “you need lots and lots of people … [and] they must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head.” It would produce what Sean McDougall calls “obedient specialists: adults who could work in factories, assembling components, or as domestic servants, not people who needed to think for themselves.”

Then and now

That’s not our world of course, though the legacy remains with us, more or less. “In the old days,” says Elie Newman of his own experience in elementary and high school, “there were a bunch of fixed desks with a bunch of pipes coming out of them.” That was the science lab. There was a teacher up at the front, and half of the equipment in the desks you never used. There was a map of the world pinned to the wall, the alphabet written out on ruled lines. "That’s the way we all went to school.”

That we expect it to deliver the kinds of skills that learners need to have today is akin, to borrow a phrase from Elton John, to "trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine." We need certain results, namely people who can think for themselves, yet we aren't working with tools that were developed to deliver them. Which begs a few very good questions: If you were to build a school for the needs of today, what would it look like? What would it include? What would you borrow from the past? What would you innovate?

Those are the questions that animate much of Elie Newman's work as principal architect of BNKC in Toronto. The answer, perhaps more than anything else, is embodied in the Transformation Project at The Bishop Strachan School (BSS) completed in 2017. “We’ve worked for BSS over the years,” says Newman. “Two major projects and a couple minor ones. And both times they were looking for similar things.” Often the object was to allow a bit of space. “Their junior school was in very cramped quarters. They were constrained within enclosed walls.” But other things crept in, too, such as developing more flexible uses of spaces, ones that would provide opportunities for more hands-on groups, more differentiated learning, and IT infrastructure. Essentially, “all those kinds of things that go into modern education as opposed to education back in 1926” when the main building on the BSS campus was completed. The Transformation Project would bring that building into a new age. It was the largest project yet, certainly the boldest, and conducted to tackle the big questions head on. Rather than small fixes, it would overhaul the entire concept of what a teaching environment can be.

The result, as you might expect, is one that learners from even half a century ago would have trouble recognizing as a school. All the key spaces are filled with natural light, with glass walls creating a porous interface between them. Where the divisions between programs were once stark—the music room was once on one floor, and the art and science labs on others—all are now intentionally cheek by jowl to allow daily interaction. “You’re not confined to a little box,” says one student, “but can see how your work connects with other things.” A geometry class, for example, can discover the mathematical principle at the heart of snowflake, and then code a 3D printer to build one. There are also ample opportunities for children to make their thinking visible. Catherine Hant, principal of the Junior School at BSS says, “we feel strongly that the learning of children, no matter what the age, [be] transparent to the other kids in the building." There's method there, from simply having a voice, to mutual inspiration. Says Angela Terpstra, head of school at BSS, “hopefully, when younger students walk by they’ll think, ‘that is so cool, how do they do that?’ or ‘I can’t wait till I do that’, asking questions that may spark new interests." By and large, that's exactly what they do. 

“ … a crucible of creativity …”

These are attractive projects—Newman has done similar work at Royal St. Georges and St. Andrews College, the Northmount School. They look good, with lots of space and natural light. And, yes, it’s nice to have nice spaces to work and learn within. But it’s about more than that. It’s about creating new ways to think about ourselves, and to explore our world. More prosaically, it’s about graduating people who have the skills they’ll need to work efficiently in the world as it is today: creativity, collaboration, communication, and innovation.

The design of a school, believes Newman, should encourage what some might think of as messy thinking. “It’s not that you always have to be in group sessions or small sessions. There are different ways of doing it. What you want is that the finishes shouldn’t feel precious. Not every room should look the same. With the flexibility to create different types of groupings. Or have groups of kids leave, and go off and work on a problem where the teachers can see them in a little niche, or collaboration spaces." Key is a sense of belonging. "You make it clear to the people who are using it, look, this is for you to own, this is for you to experiment with.” These aren't spaces where students worry that someone will yell at them for, say, writing on the walls or windows. In fact, more often than not, the materials Newman chooses are literally amenable to even that. These aren’t spaces to be venerated, but to be used.

“We look at it as the bones for a learning style,” says Newman. In many ways its antecedent lies in what Jonas Salk created at MIT, now known as the Salk Institute. Salk called it a “crucible of creativity,” an expression of his belief that “most of the exciting work in science occurs at the boundaries between disciplines.” Salk wanted to create an environment in which scientists could “explore the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity.”

Salk thought big thoughts, to be sure, though he was right, not just for the PhD candidates thinking of changing the future of humanity, but for everyone: we think and learn best at the boundary between disciplines, where thinking is more fluid, and less doctrinaire. Salk knew, too, that we learn as much from those next to us as from those standing at the front of the room.  

A capacity for wonder

“When I go in today what really gives me pleasure is to see those rooms being used, even in ways that I didn’t imagine." The fact that Newman can't imagine the extent of the uses of the rooms is, of course, precisely the point. They aren't programmed, but instead about possibility. They are spaces designed, as with the Salk lab at MIT, to allow outcomes to exceed expectations, and to do so in unexpected, unanticipated ways. 

While the Transformation Project is precisely that—a large-scale transformation—Newman notes that it doesn’t take a complete overhaul to adapt spaces to new ways of learning and interacting. “There are lots of schools that have those old fashioned rooms that have been reconfigured in minor ways, and its done beautifully.” Still, he sees the BSS project as a proof of the concept, and perhaps also as the culmination of much of the work that he’s been doing in the education space: to bring disciplines together, allowing them to intersect naturally by virtue of proximity; to empower the students at the centre of the teaching environment, helping them to develop the skills that they’ll need today, as well as when they enter post-secondary and professional life; to provde spaces that aren't precious, and as such to allow for the augmentation of innate curiosities, to fuel interests and aspirations. As authors Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough have written, “We need to think about creating classroom environments that give children the opportunity for wonder, mystery and discovery; an environment that speaks to young children’s inherent curiosity and innate yearning for exploration is a classroom where children are passionate about learning and love school.” To walk through BSS on a busy day, it's clear that Newman has done exactly that. 


Why do we go to school?

The best reasons aren’t always the ones you think of first

by Glen Herbert

“It’s very Harry Potter,” says Michael Simmonds, chuckling a bit as he does. I was speaking to him about what Havergal College does best, a school in Toronto where he is vice principal. Havergal is one of the foremost girls’ schools in Canada, and regularly ranks among the top schools in the nation. It really does have ivy-covered walls, and the fact that he’s comparing it to a fictional school for wizards feels a bit wilting. Hence the chuckle. He continues, “But, you know, I’m serious. Harry Potter lived in a closet, hid his special powers, knew he was different, and had to go to Hogwarts to be empowered. There’s a lot to be said for bringing a group of like people together … It’s a culture of empowerment.”

For everything that Havergal does—its list of alumni reads like a list of Canadian who’s who—it’s interesting that, when asked about the quality of the school, he doesn’t talk about outcomes, he talks about the culture and the learning environment. We too often think about education in terms of the stuff we find there: desks, books, curriculum, lessons. We also, I think wrongly, too often think of education in transactional terms: do this now, so that you can do something else later, such as get a job, or enter post-secondary studies.

The lesson of Harry Potter is that the real strength of successful schools community. The best educational environments are personal, relational. Karrie Weinstock says that “no child learns math before she learns the connection with her teacher. If the connection isn’t there, she’s never going to learn as well. This is the enduring value of connection and community.” Weinstock is a long-time educator, and currently vice-principal at Branksome Hall, another prominent private school in Toronto. Like Simmons, for her the strength of the school isn’t the buildings or the books, but the relationships that form there. When I asked her what makes a school a great school, she said “it’s a million small conversations” namely those between students, faculty, and peers. “I believe every girl comes to school every day wanting to be the best she can be. And then to meet adults and peers in that environment who are similarly aspiring—that’s a very good mix. That to me is a good school.”

” … the place where citizens prevail … “

The Learning Center was formed in 2003 to be that kind of environment, even if the founders perhaps didn’t think of it explicitly in those terms. Tylisha Miller, a teacher and director at The Learning Center in Port Elizabeth is like Simmonds in that she doesn’t see her work as simply teaching, or tutoring. She sees her role as one of listening, and supporting, and recognizing their special powers: the skills, talents, and personalities that students bring with them into the classroom. She describes it as an environment “where they don’t feel pressured but instead feel safe, loved and cared for.”

“For me it was not employment,” says Miller of finding a role at the center, “it was my new found family, my home.” It’s a place where, says Miller, kids “are given the attention needed to excel.” It’s a community in the way that John McKnight, director of the Community Studies Program at the Center for Urban Affairs at Northwestern University, defines it: “the place where citizens prevail.”

Why we do what we do

The support that we give, through the Grenadines Initiative, is in the service of those larger goals. That’s why we listen to teachers, first, before sending stuff—they know best what their students need, and we want to help them deliver it.

Because, ultimately, the real value of school is the people you find there. People like Morrie Hercules, who inspired other people, through example, to join the effort, including Felicia Frederick. People like Devvy King, who think about best practices, and are as open to their students as they are to new ideas. Or Jan Providence, who is excited about raising chickens with her students. She should be excited. It’s great work. It’s not really about chickens, of course, it’s about the quality of the relationships that hands-on learning can engender. That’s why kids go to school: to grow those kinds of relationships. To grow their sense of who they are and gain a confidence in bringing their talents to bear in their communities. To enter a space where people laugh at their jokes, and ache in the same places. A space where they know, without question: these are my friends, this is my school.

What makes a great teacher great?

What should parents be looking for in educators?

by Glen Herbert

Beth Alexander, a primary and elementary instructor at The Linden School, is a teacher that a lot of people think is great, including the prime minister. In 2017, she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and this year she was the first Canadian educator to earn a Lowell Milken Centre Fellowship. Beth is a STEM teacher extraordinaire, which is likely why she came to the attention of the Lowell Milken Centre. She built the school’s makerspace herself out of salvaged materials; she constructed a life-size model that allows students to climb inside a computer; she created a lab to explore the chemistry of candy; there wasn’t a K-8 computer studies curriculum, so she wrote one. But all of it, she feels, is in service to a set of relationships: those between her and her students, and those they share each other. For her, learning begins with those relationships. And when it comes to great teaching, she knows what she’s talking about. We asked her about what she likes to see in educators, and what she hopes her students will see in her. 

GH: What teacher did you have that really stood out? Who was your great teacher?  

Beth Alexander: I had two high school teachers that I thought were great. One of them was really strict. He had unbelievably high standards and gave so much work that we thought we would die. But he obviously really cared about the kids, so that combination of firm boundaries and a lot of love was really motivating and helped his students really grow. And then the other was the most loosey goosey. He let me take two weeks to research whether Paul McCartney really was dead and then give a presentation. Like, I gave this multimedia presentation about whether or not Paul McCartney was dead, which probably wasn’t in the curriculum! [laughs] But I learned so much from it. I don’t know why I cared about that topic, but I did, and he honoured what I was interested in; he didn’t impose his ideas on me; and he gave me a lot of freedom and encouragement.

Those two teachers were very different from each other, though I think kids benefit from a lot of different teaching styles. As long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing and really care about the kids, I think the particular style of teaching matters a little less. And it’s good for kids to see a bunch of different folks, because that’s the world.  They’re going to work with a lot of different people who have different kinds of expectations.

But both of those teachers really cared about me and they were both open to who I really was. That’s key. I distrust those teachers who say “here are my lesson plans for the entire year and I will not be deviating from them.” Well, what about the actual kids? Are you going to listen to what they want? Are you going to respond to what their needs are? Because you need to be flexible enough to do that.

In twenty years’ time, when students think back on the time they spent with you in the classroom, what do you hope they will remember?

Sometimes students will come back and tell me things that they remember, and it always surprises me. Often, it isn’t the things that I worked really hard on planning. Often it will be spontaneous things. So I think having a sense of humour is important.

But when I taught a core class and I had the same students all day long, I would send them anonymous surveys pretty frequently, just getting their feedback on how things were going. And one of the questions that I would always ask was “do you genuinely believe that Beth cares about you?” And if I got a single “no,” I would be really worried about that, and I would figure out what was going on. Because young people need to know that the grownups in charge of them care. That they’re seen and valued for who they are. I would hope that my students felt that that was really obvious from my relationships with them. I would also hope that they found the things I taught were interesting and useful, but that’s secondary. A really caring person who has a great relationship with students could probably teach the history of dirt and the kids would care. 

You’ve been described as an innovative teacher. What does it mean to be innovative?

When I was growing up, science class was: read three pages in a book and answer five questions. You wrote down the questions in your lined notebook, and you wrote the answers, and your teacher judged you 50% on the quality of the facts in your answer, and 50% on the neatness of your handwriting. That was how you earned grades. And if you were quiet while you did it, you got an A.

So, things have changed, but I think good innovators are people who don’t just change for the sake of change. That sort of innovation gets a bad rap, and I feel dismayed when some demand comes down from the ministry saying “you have to change this” when the old way was just fine. You know, reading a book aloud to a class, what can be a more old idea than that? Yet, in all my years of teaching, when I think about those moments when the kids were riveted, I was reading from a book.

But I think that the true spirit of innovation is when you’re constantly seeking to improve by being thoughtful about what is happening. I started a program here that combined a makerspace with a more academic idea of a makerspace, where you’re really using pretty high-level engineering skills to get kids to learn by doing. The fun in it is coming up with the new ideas, but the rigour in it is in genuinely assessing how well those ideas are working, and throwing out what doesn’t work and bringing in something new. And that involves consulting with a lot of people—I’m on Twitter a lot, grabbing ideas from other people, I’m reading the paper—and thinking about things that could be brought into the class. That’s innovation that isn’t necessarily about using a new machine, but thinking of a new connection. And that’s one of my favourite aspects of the job. Coming up with new connections, and rethinking things. Is there a way to take something hard and not necessarily make it less hard, but to find ways to motivate kids to push through the hard parts of it? The more multi-sensory something can be, the better. If you can touch something, if you can move it around, if you can taste it maybe—those are always better ways of teaching than just listening or reading. I’m not teaching in ways that I was taught in school, but instead trying to figure out about how kids learn better.

What are the moments in which you think “this is what it’s all about, this is why I’m here on this earth”?

The thing that I feel is worth as much as my paycheck are those moments when a student has discovered something new. I have a student who is in junior kindergarten, and every day is a brand new day for her. She comes into the lab, and she’ll get to use a tool for the first time. She used a pair of pliers one day. Another day she was using a handsaw—so she had on work gloves on and was given that opportunity to use an adult tool—and the joy on her face was unbelievable. The privilege of being able to introduce those things to her, that’s one of those moments where you’re like, “Ah, this is so fun!” That is worth a million dollars right there. They light up, you can see the adrenaline in their body and the excitement. When a kid says “I get it!” that’s catnip to me. That’s the sound that every teacher wants to hear.

Do island students need STEM?

STEM is about engaging collaboratively, thinking creatively, across disciplines. And, in education and business, its fast becoming the way of the world.


STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And, at its simplest, that’s what STEM programs provide: an intensive focus on the hard sciences.

In practice, however, it’s much more than that. The best STEM programs are ones that not only stress the academic areas, but do so in an interdisciplinary way; they are programs where the sciences aren’t siloed—learning math in one classroom and chemistry in another—but integrated so that students not only perceive the connections between them, but also apprehend their mutual application.

STEM programs achieve that, largely, through problem-based learning, with each of the elements providing tools for discovery, creative problem solving, and communication:

  • Science: questioning, observing, predicting
  • Technology: applying analytic tools, putting ideas into practice, being inventive
  • Engineering: building, understanding material properties, designing effective solutions
  • Math: identifying patterns, making connections, communicating results

That’s what distinguishes STEM programs from the science classes that we knew when we were in grade school and high school. Physics, for example, was the class that we took, and little if any effort was made to relate it to the other science disciplines or, all too often, practical application. STEM programs, in contrast, are curiosity driven, applied to real world problems, ranging across disciplines, and conducted in collaboration with others. Physics isn’t so much a thing unto itself, but rather a set of ideas, principles and tools that can be used to help answer questions and solve problems. Yes, there are still bricks and inclined planes, but they’re a starting point, rather than an end point of study.

STEM in schools

The goal of STEM programs is to get beyond the prejudices that we might have about the sciences, including, say, the difficulty of physics or the nerdiness of computer coding. Those things are less in evidence today than they once were, but STEM programs take that even further and work to make the sciences inviting, approachable, and inspiring.

If there is a dark side to STEM, it’s the awareness that women continue to be underrepresented in industry, something that can be a catalyst for the adoption of a STEM approach. “Now more than ever it’s important to see strong female leadership in the tech industry,” says Reshma Saujani, CEO & Founder of Girls Who Code, one of the most visible STEM programs out there today. She’s right of course, and in all kinds of ways. Girls want to be involved in tech, but often there remain hurdles to involvement. That’s coupled with an awareness that industry benefits from a proliferation of voices, perspectives, and approaches. It’s about parity in the workplace, as well as making sure that talent is encouraged and applied to the best advantage for all.

The introduction of STEM-specific programming is a bit of a rising tide in the private school market across the country. St. Margaret’s School in Victoria, BC, was an early adopter. There, and elsewhere, the adoption of STEM is aligned with gender parity. In 2016 the Coalition of Single Sex Schools of Toronto (COSSOT) devoted its annual conference to the intersection of gender and the sciences, and was titled STEMinism (a neologism of STEM and feminism). Keynote speakers included Dr. Shohini Ghose, director of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Dr. Renee Hlozek, professor of astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

The association of STEM and gender is absolutely valuable, and the benefits are readily apparent. That said, it’s important to note that, at its core, STEM isn’t about gender specifically but rather about how schools approach the delivery of science and technology curricula. It’s about how we frame questions, as well as growing awareness of the how questions are best asked and the tools available for answering them.

A new relationship to science

STEM programs seek to reorient students’ relationship to science, namely through working collaboratively. Especially in the past, scientists were thought of as lone geniuses. Einstein, for example, devising the theory of relativity while riding a bicycle through the countryside, Newton sitting beneath a tree, Pythagoras cogitating in his cave, or Darwin scribbling away in his berth on the Beagle.

There is some truth to those ideas, and in the past many people did actually work in isolation. Einstein very famously did. So did Gregor Mendel and Marie Curie. Many, however, didn’t, and Thomas Edison is a great example of that. The oft-repeated idea that he invented the lightbulb, for example, reflects a desire to see inspiration and lone genius at the core of scientific discovery and technological advancement. But Edison would better be celebrated as one of the first in the world of technology who saw what the tech fields would in time become, i.e., collaborative. Menlo Park was perhaps his greatest invention, a facility bringing hundreds of people together, along with their talents, and applying them to solving real-world problems. For the light bulb Edison built a team of people to help find the right filament, and they experimented with hundreds of materials, from carbonized banana peels and beard hair, to, ultimately, tungsten. (Robert Friedel and Paul Israel in their book Edison’s Electric Light: A Biography of an Invention note 22 inventors who created incandescent lamps prior to Edison—he wasn’t the inventor so much as the director of the lab that was first to produce a commercially viable prototype.)

STEM programs adopt and promote that idea, namely that science and technology isn’t a field dominated by lone geniuses squirreled away ruminating on problems. Rather, it’s a celebration of the community of people around the world that, working together, will solve the problems that we face and, together, make the greatest advances.

What does it mean to be a global learner?

Schools like Pickering College are redefining international education

by Glen Herbert for Our Kids


There was a time when the concept of international education and global learning was principally about experience: getting students out into the world, travelling, first to Europe and then further afield. The world was posited as a rich museum of culture, art, and experience. At Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario, that concept has been turned on its head. There, a school-wide global learning curriculum is less about experiencing the world than it is enabling and empowering students to act effectively within it. It’s less about becoming good tourists, and more about becoming good global citizens, positing the world not as a museum, but as a home.

That’s the thinking that informed the creation of Pickering’s Global Leadership Program (GLP) which was launched in 2017. “I want our students to believe,” says Headmaster Peter Sturrup, “that they have the capacity to look at a situation that they feel may not be just, may not be fair, may not be right, and … [feel they can] do something about it. To not just sit idly by and be frustrated that, well, there’s nothing I can do … We want to teach them to be creative, to come up with new and different approaches, and then to actually do something about it.”

The GLP was essentially reverse engineered from that goal, based in an understanding of the skills students would need to succeed in academics and life while cognizant of the kinds of experience that universities would be looking for. The intention is to develop global leaders for the world they’ll move into after graduation, ensuring they have the skills and attributes necessary to engage meaningfully with the challenges they’ll encounter.

What does it mean to be a good global citizen?

While many global learning programs are geared for the high school years, Pickering begins instilling the concepts as young as JK. “It grows as the students grow,” says Andrea Cleland, coordinator of the GLP middle school program. In the primary years, students think in terms of their agency within the classroom. When the students move on to the junior years, that community becomes the school community, and so on. In the high school years, “that’s when their world really opens up, and they’re beginning to really think in a global way.”

As an administrator of the middle school, Cleland oversees a period in the students’ lives that can be as difficult as it is central to their personal growth and development. “This age group is really looking at figuring out who they are, developing and solidifying their identity, so that’s what we target.” That includes working with students on the building blocks of their learning: figuring out what their skills are, what their challenges are, and helping them gain a sense of what they love and what they’re capable of. “The second piece is being able to enact change: knowing what it means to be involved in community, being able to advocate for things that are important to them, and knowing how to do that in a way that respects the people that they’re working with.”

The middle years program culminates in a TED-talk like presentation to answer the foundation question “Who am I? What can I do?” In the talk students present their topic area, why it interests them, and then explain where they want to take it as they move into the senior school. Cleland feels that that action piece is what sets the GLP apart. “It’s not just saying, Ok, you’ve learned it and off you go. Instead, it’s saying, OK, you’ve learned this, now what are you going to do, and how are you going to [use it to] be a global citizen and engage in a way that’s authentic?”

“Who am I? What can I do?”

In many ways, the approach has already proven itself through tangible results. The diploma culminates in the Capstone project, where Grade 11 students write a research proposal based on a global issue of interest to them—suggesting solutions and implementation—which they pitch in front of a judging panel. Kim Bartlett, director of teaching and learning, recalls one of the first students to complete a Capstone project, designing and engineering equipment to scale walls. Today he is completing an engineering degree at Northwestern University where he was part of a team that helped develop the fuselage for the SpaceX Mars missions.

Says Bartlett, “these are the kind of kids that are now coming out of our programming. They’ve got the thinking skills, they’ve been trained in integrative thinking. We want all of our kids to have that kind of experience.” As such, the force of the GLP has been applied across the breadth and depth of the curriculum, not merely the obvious areas, such as STEM or social studies. “In all of our programs, there is a strong focus on real-life experience,” says Noeline Burk, head of the arts program. “It’s not just whether or not you’re the best drawer in the class; it’s about being able to develop an idea and see it through to a successful ending.” Burk believes that art is about more than expression, and that it can and should be used to develop communication, presentation, and even entrepreneurial skills.

That intensive focus on skills, and ensuring that they are brought to the fore, is what ultimately gives the GLP its character. It understands is that a good global citizen isn’t one who simply recognises the superficial differences between cultures—the “food and dance” approach to international and cultural diversity—but rather one who has the skills to navigate the world, to collaborate effectively and empathetically with others, to think creatively about the causes they believe in, and to realize all of that through positive action.

“When we designed it, the goal really was: ‘what do we want our graduates to be able to do at the end?’” says Bartlett. “It was really about imagining the ideal graduate.” Says Sturrup of the GLP, “as it fulfills its potential, it’s setting students up to be successful not only in university, but successful in whatever they want to do.” It understands that the globe isn’t just out there, it’s here too, and that being a global citizen begins at home.


Reimagining girls’ education

The Linden School’s ongoing impact on how we think about how girls learn.

By Glen Herbert

All private schools defy the stereotypes that the general population might have about private education, though the Linden School is a particularly stark example of that. Founded by Diane Goudie and Eleanor Moore in 1993, the school was intended as a needed and necessary alternative to what was happening in public schools and private institutions at the time. Further, it was created to demonstrate what we could be doing better, to create a space in which to think creatively, openly, and collaboratively about best practices for educating girls.

Today, 25 years later, Linden is living up to that promise and then some. In 2007 Goudie and Moore received honorary doctorate of law degrees from York University in 2007 in recognition of their leadership in the field of education. This year they have been honoured as recipients of the 2019 Women of Distinction Award by YWCA Toronto. Now in their 39th year, the YWCA awards are given to women who exemplify the resolve, passion and intelligence necessary to transform the lives of women and girls.

Diane Goudie and Eleanor Moore at the 2019 YWCA Women of Distinction Award Announcement Reception, March 7, 2019.


The capacity to dream

The Women of Distinction Award citation notes the founders’ vision of creating an “independent, girls school centred on feminist pedagogy” though Goudie and Moore admit they’ve had a wavering relationship with the word “feminist” as it applied to work of the school. “We alternately avoided and endorsed the word,” said Goudie in a recent interview. “It was and still is a lightning rod” though “there is no doubt in my mind that Linden exists because of feminism.”

It wasn’t intended as activist training, which is the spin that detractors might have been inclined to put on it. Rather, they wanted Linden to be a great school in the way that any school is great. Per educators Kelly-Gallagher Mackay and Nancy Steinhauser, a school is a great school when it “bolster’s students’ capacities to dream and their confidence that they can enact change no matter their starting circumstances.” One of those circumstances, in the case of female students, was silence. “When we founded Linden,” says Goudie, “girls told us that they had felt silenced in their schools.” That’s where a feminist pedagogy begins. “In our curriculum and structures, we teach our students to ask: Who speaks? Who is heard? Who is missing? And who decides who has the voice at any given time and in any place?”

The approach begins from there, keenly aware of the needs and dispositions that girls bring with them into the classroom. “Those who advocate for conventional math practices, for example,” says Moore, “ignore the experience of all of those young people (especially girls) who dropped math because it made little sense and had little relevance for them.”

A feminist pedagogy seeks to restore a sense of relevance and involvement.  “As feminist pedagogical practice was not one that was taught in faculties of education, we needed to work together with the faculty to develop these practices.” The process was one of close collaboration with faculty and students, a collaboration that has continued for a quarter century. While Goudie notes that at times it meant for a bumpy ride, that reflects a desire to set a bumpy course, to dig in wherever digging in was required, and to take nothing for granted.

The confidence to change

The result is, frankly, a great school, one that is formed around that capacity to dream, that confidence to enact change, and a desire to impart all of that to the students. Understandably, other schools have taken note. They are reluctant to talk much about it—“I do see their ads and recognize our words,” says Goudie—though the impact of their work is being felt, and best practices replicated, well beyond the walls of Linden.

The Women of Distinction Award recognizes that leadership in the world of education, both through the work of the school proper as well as through events such as the Teaching for Justice Conference, held in Toronto each fall. The conference is an opportunity for educators and activists to share ideas and resources with a focus on inquiry, activism, and student empowerment, and to apply that to teaching strategies and practice. That event is indicative of the overall project of the school, namely to consistently review and consider best practices, to share knowledge and expertise, and to “navigate the grey” per the work of JoAnn Deak. “We are in an age of great change,” says Goudie, “and children must be educated to risk, to experience uncertainty, and to trust that their experience will enable them to pick themselves up and continue successfully. As educators, we know that children need time to dream, to experiment, and to create.” Says Moore, “our girls must be prepared not only to be change-makers but also to be able to respond to changes efficiently” within the context of a changing world.

In that is the story of the school itself, namely an environment designed to navigate the grey, to risk uncertainty, and to grow and dream. While Goudie and Moore no longer direct the daily life of the school, both serve on the Board of Trustees as members of the board’s finance, archives, human resources and governance committees. They also mentored the current leadership to continue to fulfill the work that they set forth those decades ago, the result of which is abundantly evident. Linden’s Curriculum Leader Beth Alexander is a recipient of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. And on it goes. The school is small, perhaps, but its impact on education, both in Toronto and beyond, will rightly continue to grow.  Just as the founders intended, it provides an example of a school for girls that will make a difference in the students’ lives and, in turn, help them in realizing their aspirations, utilizing their talents, and changing the world.

Off to school

by Glen Herbert

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 1.23.32 PMLauriel Stowe wants to be a volcanologist. “We had a geography class,” she says, recalling some years ago, “and [the teacher] was talking about plate tectonics, and I really found the topic interesting.” She did some of her own research and, among other things, learned that there is only one working volcanologist in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “I was thinking about what would happen if this person was to get old and can’t do the work anymore? And I thought that’s what I’d like to do.”

The volcanologist monitors La Soufrière, an active volcano that is also the highest point on St. Vincent. It dominates much of the skyline. The history of its eruptions is as good an example of the value of volcanology as you could hope to find: in 1902 it erupted killing 1680 people. When it erupted in 1979 there were no casualties, thanks entirely to the advanced warning offered by those tasked with monitoring it.

Lauriel’s desire to learn about her world, to ask questions, and to think locally with a mind to ongoing service is why she was such a good candidate for the scholarship program. In addition to ferry costs, the scholarships provide school uniforms, shoes and books, lunches, and ground transportation on the mainland. Little things, perhaps, though they make a world of difference in the lives of the students. The scholarships remove the barriers between them and their academic aspirations. While there are two secondary schools on Bequia, there are more course options and more academic resources in schools on St. Vincent. For some students those options—including physics, chemistry, and better-equipped biology labs—are essential to successful applications to post-secondary programs.

Such is the case for Lauriel, who attends St. Joseph Convent, known as one of the best schools in the country. “It’s a good school,” she says. Each day she meets the ferry in Port Elizabeth. The hour-long passage takes her past schools of dolphin, terns, and, at certain times of year, schools of flying fish. “This one time we saw a whale, and it was really up close,” she says. I ask if we’ll see flying fish. “We’d have to be really lucky. I don’t know if it’s because of climate change, but we rarely see them anymore.” (We were lucky that day, actually, seeing schools of fish taking flight in the wake around the boat to flee the birds diving from above.) As the boat lists, I ask if this is a rough day. “It’s not that rough because you can still walk around pretty easily.” When it’s rough, you can’t.

St. Joseph is in Kingstown, the nation’s capital. As such, Lauriel’s journey each day takes her seemingly the entire length and breadth of the country. While Bequia can feel at a remove, once in Kingstown she walks past all of the key institutions in the nation, including parliament, the prime minister’s office, the national banks, the supreme court, even a sizeable prison, its perimeter girded with concertina wire. The city has a population more than three times that of Bequia and is home to the largest customs port in the country, its main commercial centre. There’s a lot of bustle, and the colonial history is evident, too, in historic stone buildings blackening beneath a patina of lichen. (Also nearby is the botanical garden. Founded in the 18th century, it includes a breadfruit tree that is a direct descendant of the one William Bligh planted there in 1793.)

She typically doesn’t get back to Bequia until 7pm, so it makes for a long day. Still, Lauriel knows that it’s the right thing for her, and is thankful for the opportunity. Recipients of the scholarships give back by providing academic support to students of the Learning Center. As such, the scholarships have a significant and lasting effect on the development of educational opportunities on the island through improving delivery of the curriculum, encouraging mentorship, and promoting the value of academic achievement. Lauriel, nearly 50 other students, and the culture as a whole all benefit from the program. “It helps everyone to bring out themselves,” she says of the school she attends and, by inference, the scholarship that helps get her there. “It’s important.” She’s right. It is.


Night owls by nature

Some schools, such as Toronto Prep School, are adapting their schedules to their students’ sleep cycles. The question is, why aren’t they all? 

by Glen Herbert


“The optimal time for teenagers to learn is late in the morning through to late afternoon,” says Fouli Tsimikalis, vice principal of Toronto Prep School (TPS), a school she co-founded with Steve Tsimikalis in 2009. “An ideal school schedule for teens is a class timetable that starts at about 10:00 a.m. and continues until after 4:00 p.m.” More than three decades of research backs up that assertion. So, when they developed the program, that’s exactly what they did: since day one—TPS is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year—the school has opened its doors at 7:30 each morning, with teachers available for extra help between 9 and 10, and classes beginning at 10. The instructional day ends at 4, with discretionary clubs and sports until 6 or so. 

“It made sense for us,” she says, something based in her experience of having taught for more that 20 years. Likewise, Steve is in his 35th year of teaching, while also serving as principal of TPS. “After teaching thousands of kids, literally, and reading hundreds of psychological assessments, educational assessments, we decided to put a program together that we felt could reach a lot of children who were not reaching their potentials.” Principally, that was kids who were coming from different academic backgrounds, and who were looking for a safe, nurturing school, one that could be more effective in supporting them. As such, they built the TPS program around what they had grown increasingly to see as core best practices: a late start, a semestered system, small classes, and a high teacher-to-student ratio.

The late start, particularly, continues to demonstrate its worth. “Period one isn’t frenzied in the morning,” says Tsimikalis. “The students come in and they are awake, they are much more responsive, clearer, and they are more ready to work.” The feedback from parents, too, has been consistently positive, often in ways that weren’t expected. “They say that their kids are more engaged when they come home from school. They talk about what they did at school. At the dinner table they’ll talk about what they did in their classes, which some parents say is something they never got before.”  

A reasoned response to a growing problem

In many ways, those kinds of anecdotal benefits are the tip of a very large iceberg. A growing body of research shows that, when it comes to learning and sleep, there’s a lot at stake. A study published in 2014 by researchers at the University of Minnesota was based on 9000 students across three US states. It found that teens who get less than eight hours of sleep had higher rates of depression, and a greater reliance on substances, principally caffeine. Grades went down relative to sleep, and truancy went up. Further, “the number of car crashes for teen drivers from 16 to 18 years of age was significantly reduced by 70% when a school shifted start times.”

Because of those kinds of findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics called insufficient sleep in adolescents “an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success” of middle- and high-school students. “We are in an epidemic of sleep deprivation,” says Indra Narang, director of sleep medicine at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “In 20 years time, we’re going to see a whole generation of adults who are functioning sub-optimally.” That includes a spike in diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle, including obesity and diabetes.

The science behind early birds and night owls

“What happens is [that their] circadian rhythms … get shifted by about one or two hours when puberty starts,” says Genevieve Gariepy, lead researcher on a teen sleep study at McGill University that was published in 2016. “Adolescents tend to just fall asleep later and wake up later. Adolescents will typically fall asleep around 11 or midnight and wake up around eight hours later.”

Gariepy’s research is a direct descendent of work that began in 1976 when James Horne and Olov Östberg developed a tool—the morningness–eveningness questionnaire (MEQ)—in order to gain a better sense of what circadian rhythms are. In the years since, the MEQ has been used extensively, and we’ve learned a lot from it as well as the secondary research that it inspired. Among other things, we’ve learned that older people tend to skew more to morningness—they get up early, and go to bed early—and it’s not just personal preference. Rather, it’s a reflection of what’s going on in their bodies, right down to the cellular level.

Similarly, teens skew to eveningness, and it isn’t because they are sluggish or indolent, but because there is more to our circadian rhythms than most of us are aware. First, they aren’t localised in our brains, but instead dispersed throughout  bodies. Our cells themselves have their own oscillations throughout the 24-hour cycle, regulating temperature, metabolic function, hormone levels, and mental acuity. The mechanisms associated with puberty shift teens’ natural sleep cycles back, and all the various processes of their bodies fall in line with that delay, including spikes in body temperature and the ebb and flow of metabolism and alertness across the course of the day.

” … what we don’t want to do is miss the opportunity”

The instructional schedules that schools tend to keep—something akin to bankers’ hours—aren’t aligned with the predominant teen chronotype, but rather run precisely counter to it. Yet, despite the success of schools like TPS, as well as others in the US, most schools in Canada have been slow to adjust. Some boards have initiated pilot projects, notes Tsimikalis, though the public system is unwieldy and slow to change. Most private schools, too, have opted to stay with more traditional schedules, either out of inertia or for the convenience of teachers and parents. But that of course comes with a cost. Says Narang, “what we don’t want to do is miss the opportunity to intervene now,” rather than later when the damage to academic success, lifestyle, and overall health has already been done.

Some, however, are taking note. Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, Ridley College moved morning chapel to the afternoon and pushed classes back to open up time in the mornings for physical activity. TPS, though, has distinguished itself as an earlier adopterperhaps the first in Canadaof more radical, decisive and ultimately more effective change. In doing so they’re providing a model that others will soon follow, or certainly should.

Do all students need tutors?

Cutting edge academic programs, such as Focus Learning, suggest that, yes, they do.

by Glen Herbert for Our Kids


When we think of after-school academic programs, thoughts first turn to remediation: extra classes to help struggling students raise course marks. For some, that’s certainly the impetus, though ‘tutorial,’ more properly understood, refers to a style of instruction rather than any specific area of academic need. It’s characterised by lessons and approaches more suited to personal learning styles, from struggling learners, to those who are bored and require a challenge, to everyone in between.

Further, educators increasingly believe that students learn better—which is to say that they become more conversant and have a more dynamic facility with the content—in small group and one-on-one settings than they do in traditional classroom environments. There are some good reasons for that. Tutorial environments are quieter, more intensive, and more focussed on active engagement. They also tend to be more geared to specific curiosities, and with more room to build instruction around students’ personal interests and particular points of view.

Still, it’s more than that. Done well, tutorial environments recast the entire project of learning, centering it around the teacher-student relationship rather than marks or content. It’s something that can make all the difference in how children learn the material, as well as—and arguably more importantly—how they begin to understand themselves as learners. “Educators should be effective coaches and role models,” writes Shelly Zheng, director of Focus Learning, an academic centre in the GTA. As such, she’s making an important distinction, one that she took to heart when building the program: teachers work best as partners in learning relationship, not arbiters. “Our goal is to guide [students] on their journey to become accomplished and independent individuals, and to gain the skills needed for continuing practice,” a goal that she feels the Focus Learning model is particularly adept at accomplishing.

A better way to learn

Zheng founded Focus Learning in 2010 with a group of passionate educators who shared her perspective on teaching and mentorship. “Most kids see school and learning as a burden,” says Zheng, as “a chore that they have to do before being allowed to play with their iPads.” To some extent, traditional classrooms reinforce that approach, with progress and projects given to entire groups of students, rather than tailored to specific learners’ needs. She believes that by sparking curiosity, and building from where they are—rather than wherever their peers might be—teachers can better and more meaningfully engage them as active, motivated learners.

Since it began, Focus Learning has grown to comprise a series of afterschool, weekend, and camp programs, offered out of three locations: North York, Don Mills, and Markham. There are courses based in STEM concepts, including robotics and programming, but Zheng was sure to build out the full range of curricular areas. Some, such as BizKids, are unlike any you’ll find anywhere else. In that program, offered principally through summer day camp sessions, kids learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, including elementary financial and marketing concepts.

“I treat it like more a workshop than a classroom,” says Michael Wisniowski, who teaches the writing and public speaking courses. “Rather than focussing on getting the better grade, I want to focus on getting students to create work that they’re proud of.” His students, notably, aren’t those that are struggling, but rather those who have a authentic interest in writing or speaking, and who are looking for an outlet to practice and grow those skills.

Lessons with fun as a focus

From coding to communication, each session is crafted to offer a chance for students to engage their core talents and interests in an environment that supports and prizes them. “It’s an enriched program in the sense of how food is enriched,” says teacher Lisa Hines of the Focus Learning approach, “where you get all of your nutrients.” Hines teaches computer programming and robotics. “All of our teachers are highly qualified or industry experts,” though they also share a sense of best practices, including the benefits of bringing a playfulness into the teaching relationship. She notes that they also tend to be earlier adopters of cutting edge programs, and work with a greater array of tools than instructors in the public system. “We’ve been teaching math using a curriculum that, as far as we know, we’re the only school using it in Canada.” It was developed in the US by the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS), and called The Beast Academy. Used widely in the US, particularly with students preparing for national academic competitions, it’s just now starting to turn heads this side of the border, and Focus Learning is leading the charge.

It’s that kind of flexibility and energy that distinguishes the Focus Learning program. Says Hines, “we start by having high expectations, but also that ability to really experiment and play” with the concepts. And it works. It’s school, but not. It’s different, and that difference isn’t lost on the students. They engage in sound programs, tied idelibly to the provincial curriculum outcomes, that build basic facility as well as higher-order literacies. They even do it for weeks at a time during the summer, a time when kids, perhaps understandably, would otherwise be averse to anything smelling even slightly of school. That’s because the approach posits them as equals, in an environment of equals. It’s not about marks, but rather the child’s personal relationship with learning. Which, ultimately, is the most important lesson of all.


A Brief History of Boarding Schools

The British Tradition

British boarding schools have historically provided the model for boarding schools in Canada. Prime among the antecedents is the King’s School in Canterbury, England. It was founded in the year 597 and, until the dissolution of the monasteries act nearly a century later, it remained a cloistered religious institution. At King’s, students were kept apart from society at large, were instructed by clergy, and were expected to devote themselves to religious contemplation. Certainly, there wasn’t time for much else—there were 14 chapel services each day in addition to mass and daily prayers for the dead.

King’s was a grammar school in the literal meaning of the term. The main focus of study was Latin grammar, the language of the church. While there were a few other subjects on offer, all were intended solely to prepare students for religious work, not creative thinking or academic engagement. There was music for religious services, astronomy and mathematics to set and interpret the church calendar, and law to prepare students for administrative roles in the church.

Similarly, when Eton was founded in the 15th century by Henry VI, it was a charity school intended to provide free education to seventy boys. As Sir Henry Lyte wrote in his history of the school published in 1877, Eton reflected a renewed interest in the dissemination of knowledge, and that “a movement in popular education had set in.” He writes that the foundation of the school “is also important as marking a turning-point in the struggle between the regular and the secular clergy. During the middle ages the monasteries had been the principle seats of education in England, but their inefficiency had become notorious.” Lyte didn’t see it, perhaps, but it wasn’t so much a question of quality than it was a changing view toward the goal of education. The monasteries produced religious leaders, though the founders of Eton wanted instead to supply the universities with “scholars from a great grammar-school.” Ones that, in turn, would advance to positions of leadership within business and the military rather than the church.

That said, life at the school, by today’s standards, can seem strikingly monastic. Students were roused at 5 a.m., chanted prayers while they dressed, and were at their lessons by 6 a.m. They had two meals every day except Friday, when they weren’t fed at all. Lessons ended at 8 p.m. when all students went to bed.

When William Shakespeare attended King’s New School in Stratford, the school was open to all boys. There was no tuition. The only requirement for admission was the ability to read and write. “Pupils sat on hard wooden benches from six in the morning to five or six in the evening,” writes Bill Bryson, “with only two short pauses for refreshment, six days a week. … For much of the year they can hardly have seen daylight.” The school was, for the time, one of the best in the country. There Shakespeare learned Latin grammar and rhetoric (“one of the principle texts of the day,” writes Bryson, “taught pupils 150 different was of saying ‘Thank you for your letter’ in Latin”) and little else. “Whatever mathematics, history, or geography Shakespeare knew, he almost certainly didn’t learn it at grammar school.”

However daunting the experience may have been, the early boarding schools met the needs for which they were created, namely to educate boys into positions of religious leadership within a society that was organized, socially and politically, around religious life.


Illustration from A History of Eton College 1440-1875, by Sir Henry Churchill Maxwell Lyte. When the history was published in 1877, Eton had been operating as a boarding school for more than four centuries.


As society changed, so did the schools. At the time of the Reformation schools were removed from the authority of the church, marking an abrupt change in how education was conducted, and what it was intended to do. The Reformation coincided with (if not directly caused by) a decline in feudalism and a rise in nationalism, common law, and printed books.

Grammar schools soon reflected all of that, adopting new curricula and adjusting admissions in order to produce the human resources needed in post-Reformation England, one increasingly organized around the demands of a market economy. The result was the development in the sixteenth century of an educational curriculum based in humanism and a formulation of the liberal arts as we think of them today. The goal of education was to prepare free people for active roles in civic life. Debate, criminal law, logic and rhetoric were taught intensively for the first time. Math and geometry, once taught for the purposes of calendar making, were now taught also for the purposes of engineering and the maintenance of civic works. That kind of curriculum—liberal arts education grounded in classical languages and literature—persisted throughout Europe and North America well into the 20th century. While there has been a recent proliferation of alternative curricula, the foundation of education of North America still reflects those innovations undertaken in the 16th century. Often unwittingly, many of the alternative approaches do as well.


boarding-hub-2Eton, founded in the 15th century by Henry VI.


Imagining a better world

As Britain moved into the age of empire and industry, schools continued to evolve. By the 18th century—in response to Britain’s geographic and economic growth—students were learning modern languages, political leadership, military theory, and commerce. When Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s School Days in the 1830s, he used Rugby School as the setting, a school that his readers would have seen as strikingly modern. As he admitted at the time, Hughes created the characters of Tom and Dr. Arnold to illustrate how to live a good life and, by analogy, how to build a great nation. All the classic elements of the boarding school novel were there: students mentoring each other, a strong and empathetic teacher, sports and, inevitably, bullying and corporal punishment. With the help of friends and the advice of Dr. Arnold, Tom defeats the bully and becomes a mentor himself. He doesn’t cheat on homework, he plays cricket, and life goes on.

What would have struck early readers aren’t the things that strike us today. Corporal punishment, for example, would have seemed familiar, and not at all specific to boarding school. What also would have struck them were the educational reforms that Dr. Arnold brought to the school. What would have struck them were the educational reforms that Dr. Arnold brought to the school. Rugby wasn’t the King’s School, but something entirely different. Rugby was an example of a modern school addressing the needs of students in a modern world. Boys were encouraged to follow their desires, to think and act as individuals, and to choose their own path into religious, secular, or military life. That was big. Students, remarkably, were presented with options, choice, and an unprecedented range of individual autonomy.

Of course, there was also a dark side. While Hughes worked to show what boarding school could be, Dickens, as in Nicholas Nickleby, intended to show what it really was, exposing the faults that he found there. While writing the novel Dickens toured boarding schools, an experience that informed the fictional Dotheboys Hall, the boarding school for unwanted children that Nicholas attends. As cruel and abusive as the schoolmaster there may be, it seems that Dickens didn’t have to do much when creating the character—Mr. Squeers, even down to the wording of his business card, is a faithful portrait of William Shaw, a schoolmaster that Dickens had met. Not long after that meeting, Shaw was sued for blinding one of his students through physical abuse, malnourishment and neglect. Notes from the court case describe Shaw’s school, and the similarity between it and Dotheboys is striking.

The backbone of empire

Both Hughes and Dickens were writing at a time of intense change, both in England and the world. Indeed, it was change, specifically, that they were writing about. There was a significant rise in literacy, literature, and scientific inquiry. Schools were becoming more secular. There was a growing sense of how an individual might participate within society, and a greater awareness of the power of independent thinking.

During 1800s boarding schools cemented an association with the British ruling class, trading the religious focus for a military one. Sons of officers and administrators of the Empire attended boarding school while their parents fulfilled political and military postings overseas. The focus of education was diplomacy for the upper classes, and military life for those of lesser stature. Rudyard Kipling was an example of the former. He attended United Services College while his parents were stationed in India, an experience he wrote about in the novel Stalky & Co. Like Kipling himself, Stalky was educated to become part of the imperial machine. And he does. At the end of the book, fresh from that education, he is shown leading troops in India.

In life, as in fiction, boarding schools were part of the backbone of the empire, educating its military officers, senior clerics, lawyers, and administrators. They used the means that were popular for the time. Ben MacIntyre writes that Durnford School “epitomized the strange British faith in bad food, plenty of Latin and beatings from an early age.” At the school “there was no fresh fruit, no toilets with doors, no restraint on bullying, and no possibility of escape. Today such an institution would be illegal; in 1925 it was considered ‘character-forming.’”

School practices reflected a popular belief in social Darwinism—survival of the fittest—and that academic, moral, and physical strength were gained through challenge and adversity. Strict discipline, discomfort, even bullying was considered a necessary experience in the progress of moral and physical development. Royals experienced these things, too, not just students who came from poor families or who attended sub-standard schools. Thankfully, over the course of the 20th century, all of that would change.

Boarding in Canada

“What people teach their young is often what they think is most important. And so what people teach their children … in school gives us a very good sense of what the values of society are. What is it that you would like your children to learn? What is it that you’d like the next generation to learn?”

—Margaret MacMillan

The oldest boarding school in Canada, King’s Collegiate School (now King’s-Edgehill School), in Windsor, Ontario, was founded by United Empire Loyalists in 1788. It was given royal assent by King George III the following year, the first instance that honour was bestowed outside Britain. Beginning with just 12 boys in a private home near Windsor, Nova Scotia, the school quickly set an educational standard for the region and, later, the country. It continues to hold a place in the national consciousness today. Because of the age and importance of the buildings, King’s College is a National Historic Site, a designation it has held since 1923.

King’s was created at moment of heightened political anxiety in the wake of the American Revolution. While there were schools in New York and New England, there were none in the British colonies that remained after American independence. The initial goal of the school was to prevent young men from traveling abroad to receive an education, men that would be needed to stay to administer and defend the colonies. While the school remained small, its alumni took prominent roles in military, legal, religious, and political life (including two fathers of Confederation).

King’s set the tone for other boarding schools that would be created in the British Empire outside of the UK. They were established so that the children of British ex-patriots could receive an authentically British education, as well as to retain and augment the human resources required to maintain the colonies. Schools throughout the commonwealth were organized in the same manner as their British counterparts—there were houses and headmasters, forms and terms—and reflected the values of Victorian England. The educational environment was much as we might imagine: high brow, strict, and reflective of all the class distinctions of the age. Leadership was an important topic, in part because it was of prime interest to many of the political leaders who sent their children to board. Further, the benefits were unequivocal—merely having gone to boarding school, regardless of any academic achievement there, was often considered a reasonable prerequisite to positions of leadership in business and political life.

Many of the best-known Canadian schools were founded in the late 19th century: Pickering College, 1842; Bishop Strachan School, 1867; Stanstead College, 1872; Ashbury College, 1891; St. Andrew’s College, 1899. Life there, at least in the early days, was spartan and challenging in ways that no boarding school is today. At Upper Canada College, Frederick Hutt, a student in the 1830s, wrote to his brother, “I hope you will send plenty of nuts and cakes as I can hardly subsist on what we get.”

Ted Rogers, founder of Rogers Communication, went to board when he was seven. Having had a nanny at home, he recalled that “I went from having somebody brushing my teeth for me to being caned if my teeth weren’t clean enough. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was a bit of a shock.” He later described the school as his “a surrogate father” in the absence of his own father, who had passed away prior to his enrolment.

There was a strong association with the military, something that was still very prominent when Rogers arrived. The Cadet Corps of Upper Canada College was begun in 1869, and through its 127-year history it remained an integral part of school life. Students took part in regular drills and exercises, including those with active rounds. Boys were expected be prepared for deployment at any time, as occasionally they were. During the Fenian Raids of 1866 UCC students were mobilized to guard military buildings and the port in Toronto.

The cadet program was an expression of the spirit of volunteerism and the Victorian militia movement, and it maintained an ongoing association with the national military. Between 1875 and 1937 UCC produced six commanding officers of The Queen’s Own Rifles. During WWI, 1,089 volunteered for military service, and 176 gave their lives. In 1919, membership in the corps became compulsory for all students. None of this was unique to a particular to UCC school, with boarding schools and many public schools following suit. Many cadet corps remained active into the 1960s and 70s.

In time, however, the cadet programs began to feel less relevant, more relics of an earlier time. Which indeed they were, especially when real rifles were replaced with wooden ones, or when real training evolved into a kind of pantomime of military training, and when the relationship with the military became less explicit. At UCC the corps was formally retired in 1987, one of last of its kind in Canada. (Two schools, St. Andrews College and Bishop’s College School have active cadet corps, though for the most part the programs have evolved, becoming more akin to outdoor education programs than military.)


Gabby’s story

For the Grenadines Initiative

Gabby Ollivierre’s first real experience of snow came with a freak storm that hit Calgary on October 2. It was notable by anyone’s standards–the storm made national news in Canada–though especially for someone from the islands who had yet to get a proper pair of boots. When I met her at the campus of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) two days prior, she was wearing flip flips. Why? “I just didn’t feel like wearing shoes,” she said. Fair enough.

Gabby grew up on the island, just as island kids do. It’s home, and when she completes her two-year degree in Calgary, she’ll go back, taking with her everything she’s learned. For the most part, that will be what she’s learned about cooking. This year–thanks to a foundation in partnership with the Grenadines Initiative–she enrolled in a professional cooking program, one that, in many ways, is one of a kind. I met with Richard Horbachewski, director of development for the college, in the Highwood, a full-service restaurant staffed entirely by students of program. “You’re sitting in a classroom,” he said. It’s one of four spaces–two on campus and two downtown–that many people visit without ever knowing that they’re in a teaching facility. The downtown culinary arts campus is housed within Calgary’s signature shopping mall, The Core, where students prepare and sell pastries, lunches, and prepared meals. And added last year, at the corner of 7th and 4th, is the Tastemarket, an urban eatery for downtown foodies which doubles as an innovative learning environment for budding entrepreneurs. All the spaces–the main and satellite facilities–are alike in that they don’t divide cooking from the business of cooking: nothing is made that isn’t intended for presentation and sale within one of these professional spaces.

It’s a unique environment, and one that Gabby is quickly integrating into. Though she’s only been in the program for a few weeks, when she walks me through the kitchens she interacts amiably with students and teachers, all wearing chefs hats and crisp white jackets. There’s a lovely collegiality, to be sure, but the program is all business. Gabby shows me her marks so far, all of which are delivered to her via an app on her phone. She’s been marked on everything from food prep, to making a hollandaise sauce, to knife skills. “I don’t like that one,” she says skipping past a mark for a pop quiz. The rest, though, are all As.

She’s proud, and she should be. Considered the best in Canada, the Professional Cooking program at SAIT is delivered by chefs who provide expert, hands-on training. In the next two years Gabby will train and interact with dozens of leading culinary professionals and hundreds of like-minded peers. It’s an amazing experience for anyone passionate about the culinary arts. “I don’t mean to brag, but, really, we are in the top 40 programs in the world,” says Horbachewski, “that said, we’re planning to be in the top 10 within the next decade.” Given the program development, and the creation of the new spaces, and the development of the faculty, they’re clearly very firmly on that path.

For Gabby, it’s a step along the way, taking something she loves, cooking, into a professional role through which she’ll share that love. In time, all going well, she’ll be working in a kitchen of her own one day, on Bequia. She’ll be serving great food, of course, but as the chefs she’s learning from tell her, it’s about more than that. It’s about sharing an experience. So, she’ll share her experiences, too. They’ll include those of moving to Canada for a time, working with others from around the world, and learning from some of the best. In there, too, will be the experience of a snowstorm, the one in early October not long after she arrived, the one that convinced her to get out, sooner rather than later, to buy some boots.



Kadeen’s story

For the Grenadines Initiative 

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 12.56.41 PM“On Bequia, if you tell someone that you are going to be a pilot, they don’t believe,” says Kadeen Hazell. “They think it’s just talk.” He feels that’s true for most people on the island: they don’t have a sense of real possibility.

Kadeen, from early days, clearly wasn’t most people. Growing up in Paget Farm, a small community on a dot of an island in the Caribbean, he dreamed of being a pilot, something he was open about. And, yes, he was met with dismissive chuckles. But he meant it. He was always a strong student. “I don’t mean to brag,” he said recently, “but I’m good at math and physics. I always did well, the best in my class.” He excelled in academics, perhaps knowing that they were his ticket to a career in aviation. And so, for the last seven years of his academic career—including secondary and some post-secondary studies—he travelled to St. Vincent via ferry every school day, an hour there, and an hour back.

In that, and in much else, he demonstrated his personal determination, though he’s also quick to place credit where credit is due. “You do better when people believe you can do better,” he says. His father is a carpenter on Bequia, and he, perhaps more than anyone, was careful not to dismiss his son’s ambitions, but rather to quietly recognize and encourage them.

It’s telling that those are the things he mentions when he talks about where he is today: belief in yourself, recognition of your talents, and acknowledgement of support. When Kadeen came to the attention of the Anderson Family Foundation, he had all of the key pieces in place: a strong academic record, a clear apprehension of the challenges ahead, and a plan for success. Today, through the Foundation, he’s attending flight school at Canadore College in North Bay, Ontario. There, he’s living, working, and learning with peers of a like mind and interest every day. He’s also learning about the culture of aviation through people who have lived it—the school has regular visitors from industry to meet and speak with students, including regular visits from Chris Hadfield. Kadeen will learn about the job, but also the values and the pride that are an essential part of it.

When I visited him just prior to the start of classes I took him shopping for some essentials. Picking up some groceries he said, “I think the biggest challenge will be cooking.” When I said that, actually, handling an aircraft might be a challenge of a somewhat different order, he said, “But I want to do that. I don’t want to cook.” Point taken.

While some on Bequia might still not believe it, Kadeen is learning to fly. As such—and this is something he’s absolutely aware of—his experience serves as an important model to others, both in Paget Farm and beyond. He knows that the biggest obstacle to achieving anything (perhaps cooking included) is thinking that you can’t. More than anything, he wants to show that, actually, you can. That he can. Kadeen’s program takes two years to complete. In 2020, he’ll be a pilot.

The cognitive benefits of Mandarin/English dual-language instruction

(For Ourkids.net)

“When you learn a second language,” says Donna Booth, “it lets you know that there’s more than one way to do things.” As principal at Toronto’s Dalton School, an English/Mandarin dual-immersion school in Toronto, Booth sees the benefits of that in her work every day.

Less obvious—though becoming more so—is how learning languages can affect not just what we think, but, quite literally, how we think. This, too, is something that Booth sees in her work, and is one of the reasons she co-founded the school in 2012.

It’s sort of like piano… We put our children into piano to exercise their brain, to open up new pathways.

Increasingly, it’s the cognitive benefits of language acquisition that are the draw to intensive language programs, including the development of attention and the relaxation of academic inhibition, as well as sensory benefits, such as the encoding of sound cues. Still, even that may be just the tip of the iceberg. A study conducted at Northwestern University in Illinois found, in the elementary grades, “both the majority-language and minority-language two-way immersion (TWI) students exhibited reading and math advantages over their non-TWI peers.” Unexpectedly, those benefits were found to be greater for students in the minority language group, rather than those in the majority, somewhat dispelling the notion that learning in a second language is detrimental to academic achievement.

“It’s sort of like piano,” says Booth of language learning. “Do we put our kids in piano because we expect them to be a concert pianist? No. We put them in piano to exercise the brain, to open up new pathways within the brain.” Booth feels that conceptual flexibility—the opening up of those pathways—is something that her students will take with them wherever they go in addition to the languages themselves.

5 key brain benefits of dual-language immersion programs

“In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism,” says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California. Research has found the benefits include enhanced:

  1. Attention

  2. Empathy

  3. Reading comprehension

  4. School performance and engagement

  5. Diversity and integration

The Dalton approach to Mandarin/English instruction

“Bilingualism,” says Gigi Luk, associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, “is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime.” The program at the Dalton School is based on Booth’s experience working and teaching in China, where her classrooms were a mix of international and domestic students, and in which the core curriculum was taught using both instructional languages equally. The surprise for her was that it wasn’t the chaos that we might assume. Rather, students functioned in both languages with remarkable ease. Conversations with students would switch between them as they moved between topics or thoughts fluidly and unselfconsciously.

Certainly, that’s a common experience in schools around the world—students in Finland, for example, learn many languages, and shift between them even from a very young age—though less common in this country. We might assume that the culture of the school—the language spoken in the hallways and the cafeteria—would gravitate to one language, but that’s not what happens. Students move between languages as they move naturally between thoughts, ideas, and concepts, and are largely unaware of the transitions. If you ask, “Why did you switch from English to Mandarin just then?” they respond, “Did I?”

Students at the Dalton School, a bilingual Mandarin/English private school in Toronto, Ontario

“We’re not teaching Mandarin as a subject,” says Booth. “We’re teaching school in Mandarin.” As such, cognitive and social development proceed naturally along with language development—language isn’t a course of study, but instead a tool learners use to understand the world around them.

Due to its character-symbol relationship and its varying tonality, Mandarin requires the use of more areas of the brain than French or Spanish. Young children easily absorb the difficult tones and nuances of the Mandarin language.

Fluency is just one goal among many, and Mandarin lends itself particularly well to all of them. Due to its character-symbol relationship and its varying tonality, Mandarin requires the use of more areas of the brain than English, French or Spanish. That level of challenge and stimulation, says Booth, is in fact one of the reasons that it was chosen for The Dalton School program.

“At the beginning of the year it’s a very quiet classroom,” she says. “But as the year goes on it becomes much, much louder.” Chuckling, she adds that “when you hear them arguing with one and another in Mandarin, you know you’ve been successful.”

Sending your child to a bilingual Mandarin/English school makes a world of sense. Your child will not only be learning the fastest growing language on the planet, they will be learning the fasted growing second language in the West. Click here to learn more about Dalton School, Toronto’s only Mandarin/English dual-language school.

Why do parents consider private school?

The answer is best expressed in a single word: Choice


“The common school ideal is the source of one of the oldest educational debates …  The movement in favour of greater educational choice is the source of one of the most recent”

—Rob Reich[1]

Education in public schools remains the dominant form of education in Canada, though given the findings of a recent study, that’s changing. “The data indicates,” writes Deani van Pelt, “parents are increasingly looking to independent schools for more choice in how their children are educated.”

Van Pelt is director of the Fraser Institute’s Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education. She is also co-author of A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, published by the institute this past June. The study is the first of its kind in Canada, and provides what is by far the most comprehensive portrait of independent schooling in this country to date.

And there are some surprises. What first catches a reader’s attention is the number of students that attend independent school, totaling 6.8 percent of the national K to 12 student population. There’s a higher percentage in some provinces — BC’s numbers are double that of the national average — though in all enrollment continues to rise. “A greater number of parents,” writes Van Pelt, “[are] choosing to have their children educated outside of the public school system.”[3]

Graphic courtesy the Fraser Institute. Used with permission.

So, there are a lot of students going to private school. But there’s another surprise too: those that do aren’t necessarily who we think they are. “Rigid typecasting of independent schools is more myth than reality,” the authors report. “In Canada, the lingering stereotypes are not reflective of the landscape” namely that private schools are all the same and, together, serve a very narrow portion of the student population:

“…  the parents of over 368,000 students—one of every fifteen students in Canada—are sending their children to one of the 1,935 independent, non-government schools in the country, and the picture is clear. They are choosing schools that differ in many ways from one another, the vast majority of which do not conform to the prevailing caricature that private schools in Canada are exclusive enclaves serving only the wealthy urban elite.”

Still, the stereotypes persist, something that Van Pelt and others believe isn’t merely unfortunate, but potentially detrimental. “The widespread misperceptions of independent schools,” she writes, “impede honest debate about why thousands of families make the additional financial sacrifice to send their children to these schools.” Especially in light of her recent findings, Van Pelt says it’s time for Canadians to “understand and recognize the tremendous value and choice provided by independent schools to the education system.”

Learning in the Canadian context

The public school system in Canada is vast. It is comprised of a network of provincial and regional boards that are free to adapt curriculum, allocate funding, and set degree requirements. Aside from a core curriculum, the public system offers additional programs based on need, interest, and what resources will allow: Catholic,[4] First Nations, Francophone curricula and French immersion. Some boards offer specialty programs, including gifted, special needs, athletics, and performing arts.

Nevertheless, those specialized programs are typically seen as simply addenda to the core public program, rather than essential parts of it. Likewise, when challenges are made to specialty schools and private schooling, they centre on the belief that a strong core program should take precedence, and that resources are best focused there rather than being diverted to serve a minority of students at the periphery.

“Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better,”[5] writes Allison Benedikt in an op-ed piece for Slate magazine. She adds that some parents choose private school “for religious reasons, or because their kids have behavioral or learning issues, or simply because the public school in their district is not so hot. None of these are compelling reasons.”

It’s a typical criticism, regularly raised, in support of the common schooling model. The belief is that the public system is strong enough and adaptable enough to meet the needs of all students and all families.

Choice is important

Which all sounds good, of course, though the reality is that learning or behavioural issues, religious reasons, and quality are, in fact, compelling reasons. Among other things. “The idea of choice is attractive,” write Lynn Bosetti and Dianne Gereluk in their book Understanding School Choice in Canada, published this year by University of Toronto Press. “Its promise of equality, freedom, and democracy … reflects the modern desire for autonomy, control, and self-expression.”[6] And, when given a choice, parents historically take it, and they do so for compelling reasons: we’re changing, as a country, and therefore our needs are changing, too.

While common schooling has indeed worked very well for many, the reality is that choice has always been a considerable factor within it. It’s also nothing new. Roman Catholic schools have been a feature of public education in Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan since each province entered confederation.

Ontario offers less financial incentive for alternative education than most of the other provinces, yet, even there, a large portion of students are enrolled in alternative programs. The most recent ministry data available was gathered in 2012/13. During that school year 26.5 percent of Ontario students were in enrolled in Roman Catholic English schools, 3.3 percent in Roman Catholic Francophone schools, 1.2 percent in Francophone schools, and 6 percent in independent or home schools. Taken together only 63.1 per cent of students were enrolled in English public schools, [7] yet, even of those, 170 000 students were enrolled in public French immersion programs. Derek Allison writes that:

Alternative schools within the boards also provide a less well-known form of school choice in Ontario including specialist arts and sports schools, single-gender schools, schools featuring more progressive or traditional approaches to the curriculum, and other themes and foci. Taken together, it might not be a stretch to claim that almost one-half of Ontario students attend schools of choice.”[8]

Parts of a whole

Rather than limiting that choice, many believe the quality of education were able to offer depends on increasing it. Dalton McGuinty Sr. (father of the past premier of Ontario) served on the Ottawa Board of Education for more than a decade and was a vocal initiator of provincial secondary school curriculum reform. He was also a very visible proponent of the combined benefits of both the common and private model:

“With students and teachers of diverse convictions, the public school must attempt a so-called neutrality on the great issues of life. It must operate with limited horizons. The independent-alternative school is able to assume a clearly defined philosophy of life and a specific orientation in accord with the values of its students and their parents. The public school must serve the interests of those who would keep that dimension out. The independent-alternative school can serve those who would keep it in.”[10]

It’s an understanding that remains with us, and which is at the heart of Bosetti and Gereluk’s book all these decades later:

“… the historical record suggests public schools have demonstrated little respect for diversity of thinking among different political, religious, and ethical stances. … School choice has the potential to make provisions … for students whose identity and self-understanding depend on the vitality of their own cultural, religious, ethnic, racial, or gender context. In contrast, the common school model can present potentially constraining elements and limit their prospects.”[11]

It’s not about either/or, but the compatibility of both. All agree that the public education system, as McGuinty rightly suggested, provides a strong and necessary foundation for education in this country. It ensures that quality education is available and within the reach of all Canadians. It sets the tone for Canada’s educational system, public and private, and serves as a regulatory body for private and independent institutions. Most importantly, public schooling reflects the core educational values that Canadians share, namely to provide students an opportunity to realize their potential in becoming skilled, knowledgeable, and caring citizens. The strength of Canadian private schools owes a lot to the strength of the public system.

Where we do ourselves a disservice, McGuinty suggested, is a failure to recognize that there are limits to what a public system can do, coupled with a lingering reluctance to acknowledge private schools’ value in augmenting and enlivening the national educational mosaic.

The system we have, the system we need

When he first developed the national system of education, Edgerton Ryerson intended it to mediate cultural differences and promote consistent social ideals within the nascent, post-colonial population. As chief superintendent for education in Upper Canada, he promoted free, secular, universal education. That ideal was then formalized in law with the Free School Act of 1864 and the Common Schools Act of 1871.

Ryerson believed that public education would provide a means of addressing a range of social problems—principally the high rates of crime and poverty—and ease the transition from an agricultural economy to one based in industrial capitalism. By adopting a secular curriculum, he hoped it would settle the social, class, and religious divisions that plagued the colonies. And he kept a tight leash. While the Lord’s Prayer was allowed when opening the school day, teachers were prohibited from teaching religion or displaying religious symbols, including clothing.[12] That was just as contentionus then as it would be today, if perhaps for different reasons.

Of the things that Ryerson didn’t intend, however, are many of the goals that we hold for education today: to promote creative thinking, to provide opportunities to pursue personal interests and skills, and to allow students to express their own thoughts and ideas. Ryerson wasn’t intending to provide a system to promote academic achievement, but rather to assimilate difference within the Canadian population. The residential schools, as misguided as they were, were born of similar impulses, and their effect rightly remains a source of profound national regret.

The population of the country isn’t what it was in Ryerson’s day, and the things we require of education aren’t the same, either. We desire an educational system that reflects the mosaic of Canadian cultural life, one that supports different learners, different traditions, and different goals. It’s a desire that is born of a sense of who we are and what we’d like for our children.

“Increasing levels of urbanization and immigration, and a shift to a knowledge-based economy requiring more highly skilled workers have intensified pressure on schools to reform the common schooling model. Pressure to reform this system of education has also come from marginalized and minority groups, who have contested the dominant ideologies implicit in and perpetuated by the common school movement. … these groups have sought accommodations for their culture, identity, values, and beliefs. In a similar vein, parents seeking more voice in the socialization and education of their children have looked for schools more in line with their family values, child-rearing practices, and aspirations for their children. These social, political, and economic factors have created the impetus for ministries of education and school boards throughout Canada to consider alternative schooling arrangements.”[13]

Parents, today, look to education to provide their child with an opportunity, in the words of Deryn Lavell, head of school at Bishop Strachan in Toronto, “to understand who she is, her place in the world, to become an independent young woman, to have a chance to learn leadership skills, [and] to find a voice in a multiplicity of voices.” Increasingly, they’re turning to private and independent schools in order to find it.

[1] Rob Reich “How and Why to Support Common Schooling and Educational Choice at the Same Time” Journal of Philosophy of Education. 41 (4):709-725 (2007).

[4] Roman Catholic separate schools have been a feature of the educational landscapes in Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan since they became part of the Canadian confederation. Other provinces, such as Manitoba and British Columbia, have historically resisted the establishment of Catholic schools within their public education systems.

[6] Bosetti and Gereluk. Understanding School Choice in Canada. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2016.  p. 3

[10] McGuinty, D. J. ((December 27, 1984). The relevance of independent alternative schools in society today. (Series RG 18-195, Box 4, File #395, Barcode B268930). Records of the Commission on Private Schools in Ontario, Archives of Ontario, Toronto, ON. p. 7

[11] Bosetti and Gereluk. Understanding School Choice in Canada. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2016.  P. 24

[12] Bushnell, Ian (1992). The captive court: a study of the Supreme Court of Canada. Montreal; Ithaca: McGill – Queen’s University Press

[13] Bosetti and Gereluk. Understanding School Choice in Canada. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2016.  p. 4

Students praise Lakefield College School for Outdoor Ed program

“I thought, ‘this is the place where I could be the best version of myself.’”

for Ourkids.net

One of Betsy Macdonnell’s first glimpses of life at Lakefield College School was a grade 9 outdoor education class, one of the stops on her first tour of the campus. “I remember seeing how supportive they were with each other,” she says of the students, particularly in the case of one who was struggling with a fear of heights on the climbing wall. “Everyone was helping her to get to the top.”

What Macdonnell noticed most was what it said about the student population, and what it said about the values of the school. “I thought, ‘this is the place where I could be the best version of myself.’” She’s currently completing grade 12. Looking back over her years at LCS, she says “it was 100% the right choice.”

“ … we do it all right here … ”

LCS has long been a leader in outdoor education, in large part due to the physical assets of the campus. They include a sizeable lakefront and a vast property with trails, fields, and access to a range of green spaces. “A lot of other schools have what they call outdoor education,” says Peter Andras, Outdoor Education Coordinator and OE instructor for the past 16 years. “They are bussed up to a camp, they spend two or three days, and it’s only done in one instance, or a couple instances, throughout the year. Whereas, at Lakefield, we can integrate it into everything that we do. We have all the canoes, all the climbing stuff. We do it all right here, right on site.”

First-hand learning

That said, the reason they do it—and ultimately why outdoor education has become such a core element of the culture of the school—is because of the skills, behaviours, and values that it imparts. “We’re in the business of educating the whole person,” says Andras. “It’s not just sitting in a classroom and memorizing material. … We value relationships, and we value all of those cross-curricular ties. And everything can be integrated into outdoor ed.”

Certainly, the school does a great job of using outdoor experience—getting beyond the walls of the school—across the full breadth of the curricular offerings. Trips are taken into Algonquin park, for example, for sketching and painting the landscape, just as Tom Thomson did to create some of his most celebrated work. Like Thomson, they travel in by canoe, and stay within the landscape they are describing in their artwork.

“In physics,” says Andras, “they’re learning about estimating distances, or working through architectural problems, or trail maintenance. …. There are so many different things that you can tie together through outdoor education if you have the space to do it, and can get kids out of the classroom to do it.” Geography classes make use of the various ecosystems and landforms within the property; Phys ed classes include time on the high ropes course, and, in winter, Nordic skiing on the campus trails; biology classes make use of the various biomes on site. “It’s common to see us going outside in the trigonometry unit,” says instructor Tim Rollwagen, “with the students all focused on the ratios in triangles, finding the height of buildings and the heights of trees.”

Life lessons

Rollwagen is the Director of Global Learning, something which extends the outdoor focus of the school effectively around the world. “All of our international trips do have an extensive outdoor program,” he says. This year’s trip to Peru includes a wellness and spirituality piece, and research into Incan culture. A trip to Ecuador includes a first-hand experience of the biological diversity within the Galapagos. “Our whole school is rooted in outdoor education,” says Macdonnell, “our entire school program is based around the connection with the land.”

The feel on campus is perhaps akin to summer camp. “When they go to camp it’s almost like a second family,” says Rollwagen. “And the atmosphere at Lakefield, and the freedom that it allows, including the variety of opportunities that it has … it’s much like that. Maybe it’s even just going for a walk in the woods at the end of the day … it allows you to have this feeling of a second home.”

Decidedly, it’s a way of being that is unique to the school. “You see students coming from around the world, all different backgrounds, and suddenly they’re thrown into the middle of the woods in Canada. And its minus 20 degrees and they’re learning to use a compass, and finding their way back,” says Macdonnell, chuckling a bit as she does. She and the faculty truly appreciate how those kinds of experiences can bring students together around a new, and ultimately more positive, set of priorities.

“Kids need to get outside, and to learn to enjoy being outside,” says Andras. “In life, you have to be resilient, and to be able to rely on each other.” Those are the kinds of lessons that the environment at LCS, and the outdoor education program in particular, has been developed to provide.


Navigating the gap year

Neuchâtel Junior College

(for OurKids.net) At its simplest, a gap year is a non-academic year between high school graduation and enrollment at university. It’s becoming more common, and more structured, though the vast majority of Canadian parents didn’t take a gap year. Because of that lack of first-person experience, misconceptions abound. The fear is that it’s a year off, with the only goal being to have a good time and experience some newfound freedom at the parents’ expense.

Occasionally, those misconceptions may be somewhat apt. In some instances, a gap year is simply a decision made by default: a student doesn’t know what to study at university, or would like to go on a year-long travel party. As such, it’s a “gap” in the truest sense of the term: a break in learning, disrupting the development from high school into post-secondary work.

Not a break from learning, but a continuation of it. 

Parents rightly frown on those motives despite the fact that, even then, the time away from school can prove useful and motivating. If a student truly doesn’t know what he or she would like to study after high school, then taking the time to consider options is far better for all involved than simply enrolling at university as the default. Given the costs of tuition, as well as academic competition, university is not the place to be finding yourself or trying new interests on for size, something that the stats demonstrate. Each year 38% of students drop out of university or change majors, delaying or obviating graduation. That’s a big number. It’s easy to wonder if it would be as high if more students saw a gap year as a viable option. It might delay graduation by a year, though not always. In some cases, it could mean the difference between completing a university degree and, well, not.

That said, the best use of a gap year is one that isn’t just a break, but augments the student’s high school career. Princeton University describes its program as a “bridge year,” this to highlight the continuum of a student’s intellectual and academic path. Some schools in Canada offer bridge programs, though they don’t always deploy the term in the same way; bridging programs at York University, for example, are designed to prepare students for success at university, such as mature students, international students, or those arriving from community college. The University of Alberta uses the term specifically in reference to international students, where their bridging program intends to build the requisite language skills in students for who English is a second language.

The best case

Whatever term we use, the best gap year plan is one that puts parents and university admissions officers’ minds at ease. This would be it: a student applies for university entrance at the end of high school, gains admission, then requests deferral and submitting a plan for how they intend to spend it. The plan is concrete, listing real plans, and participation in accredited programs that reflect the student’s interests and course of study. Then, the university grants the deferral, and all is well. It’s a common model in Europe, where gap programs began in the 1960s, and is increasingly common in the US. Harvard, for example, suggests that students defer their acceptance for a year in order to gain some real-world experience. The Yale University office of carreer strategy notes that “short-term experiences can help students explore career paths and gain experience and credentials.” They also outline some of the things they feel make for a productive use of the time.

All of that is an indication of how central the gap year experience is becoming to student success in North America. While deferring university entrance is less common in Canada than elsewhere, that is changing, too. At many Canadian private schools between 7 and 10% of graduates will defer university acceptances in order to take a gap year.

The next best case

The more common model in Canada at the moment is when a student creates a plan for their gap year, one that is sound, and which allows them to further explore their academic interests. Then they apply to post-secondary programs at the completion of the year.

Not an extended beach vacation, but travel in order to gain a sense of the world and their place within it.

What a university admission officer will want to see is that the time has been used productively, and that students have used it to add value to their application. A well-spent year will be one that has been challenging, allowing students to explore their place in the world, interact authentically with others, and foster academic and social maturity.

Class Afloat – West Island College International

Why it’s important 

Employers look very favourably on university graduates who have taken a gap year that is relevant to their course of study. It demonstrates self-determination and dedication to the content of their studies, and travel can suggest a real-world experience with international communication. “The biggest problem for student’s post-graduation when they’re applying for jobs,” says Lauren Friese, a career consultant, “is that they all look like clones; there’s not a lot to differentiate business grad one from business grad two, or sociology grad one from sociology grad two. Taking the initiative to work with a charity, or travel the world or whatever it is, those things stand out.”

That said, it’s alright to be selfish. Sailing around the world seems like an adventure of a lifetime, and it is. It’s also one of those things that, if you don’t do it now, you likely never will. When Alexandra Moore heard about the Class Afloat program, she decided to seize the day. Just finishing high school, Alexandra had sailed on a tall ship before and thought that West Island’s program would allow her to see the world.

Jane Ritcey, Alexandra’s mother, took a bit of convincing, though now agrees that the expeirence was an important one. “She certainly has a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world,” says Ritcey. “They have seen everything from palaces to poverty.”

While Alexandra had always been independent, according to Ritcey, she’s become even more responsible and team-oriented after her time on the ship, where everybody is expected to pull their weight and watch out for others, both on land and off. During her travels, Alexandra also decided what she wants to do with the next stage of her life.

How to spend a gap year

International volunteer programs

Making money, especially when facing university enrollment, is always a good idea. That said, a gap year spent only making money—taking a local 9 to 5 job doing something unrelated to their future goals, say—isn’t always, or perhaps ever, the best use of the year. It will help with payments, perhaps, but better would be engaging in activities that will help a student gain insight into who they are, what they’d like to persue, and help build their resume toward that end. Volunteering abroad meets all of those goals and then some, often at low cost to the student, which is why it has long been the most popular gap-year activity.

The volunteering options are vast, as are the means of acquiring them. Some organizations recruit international volunteers in Canada, while others are organized once a student arrives in the destination country. ECO Volunteer UP, for example, offers programs in Ecuador, ranging from working with street children in Quito, or travelling to the countryside to work in a farming community. Travel to and from Ecuador isn’t covered, and there is a fee for administration, but otherwise room and board and local transportation are provided.

Domestic volunteer programs

Staying in Canada for a volunteer placement may not sound as exotic as going to Africa or Ecuador, though it can be just as rewarding, if not more so. Because it is within a student’s home country, it can also be more meaningful, and lead more readily to connections within a career path later on.

Cultural immersion programs

There can be quite a bit of grey area between volunteering and cultural immersion programs, so much so that it’s perhaps all grey area. Volunteer Nepal, for example, places volunteers within poverty stricken communities, helping with daily life and the administration of health care. Getting to Nepal is a journey unto itself, and the experience wtihin the community is a great entrée into issues of population health. The program is augmented by living within the community, we well as trekking and rafting trips, among other things, to allow a bit of fun while interacting with like-minded peers from around the world.

Not a tour of museums and cathedrals, but opportunities to engage with others, authentically experiencing the challenges of international communication.

Academic programs

Just as there can be significant grey area between volunteer and culture programs, so too between academic and non-academic programs. The term post-graduate year is primarily used in reference to academic programs, such as that offered at Ridley College in Ontario. Commonly known as the “victory lap,” a post-graduate year is a fifth year of high school courses, intended to take courses and raise marks in order to strengthen a university application. Robert Land Academy offers a similar option, if in a more ordered setting.

Gap years, in contrast, are more typically chosen in order to get away from classroom academics, and to gain experience prior to entering university, though some programs offer a little bit of both. Class Afloat, for example, accepts graduates on board their sailing programs, though all participants also enroll in courses for credit.

Ridley College

Language immersion programs

Fulford Academy in Brockville, Ontario offers international students a gap year program to master their English skills before moving on to a North American boarding school or university. Students work on mastering English through English fundamentals and credit support classes. Fulford Academy also prepares its students for life in Canada with frequent evening and weekend excursions. “It’s not just an ESL curriculum; they focus on the cultural integration, too,” says Anna Galanta, admissions director at Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario. “The Fulford grads are well-prepared when they get here.”

Similarly there are French language programs that, as with the English counterparts, offer full linguistic and cultural immersion. The benefits can be utilitarian, such as preparing for study in a French-language environment, as well as personal, affording insight into the linguistic and cultural diversity of the nation. Some, such as the YMCA International Language School Gap Year Program run out of LaSalle College in Montreal, attracts participants from across Canada around the world, allowing for a strikingly international experience.

Resources and programs:

Canada World Youth

World University Service of Canada

Education First

CUSO International

My Gap Year

Study and Go Abroad

Global Leadership Academy

Thinking Beyond Borders

Projects Abroad

World University Service of Canada 

Gap Work



Students praise LCS outdoor education program

By Glen Herbert for OurKids.net

One of Betsy Macdonnell’s first glimpses of life at Lakefield College School was a grade 9 outdoor education class, one of the stops on her first tour of the campus. “I remember seeing how supportive they were with each other,” she says of the students, particularly in the case of one who was struggling with a fear of heights on the climbing wall. “Everyone was helping her to get to the top.”

What Macdonnell noticed most was what it said about the student population, and what it said about the values of the school. “I thought, ‘this is the place where I could be the best version of myself.’” She’s currently completing grade 12. Looking back over her years at LCS, she says “it was 100% the right choice.”

“ … we do it all right here … ”

LCS has long been a leader in outdoor education, in large part due to the physical assets of the campus. They include a sizeable lakefront and a vast property with trails, fields, and access to a range of green spaces. “A lot of other schools have what they call outdoor education,” says Peter Andras, Outdoor Education Coordinator and OE instructor for the past 16 years. “They are bussed up to a camp, they spend two or three days, and it’s only done in one instance, or a couple instances, throughout the year. Whereas, at Lakefield, we can integrate it into everything that we do. We have all the canoes, all the climbing stuff. We do it all right here, right on site.”

First-hand learning

That said, the reason they do it—and ultimately why outdoor education has become such a core element of the culture of the school—is because of the skills, behaviours, and values that it imparts. “We’re in the business of educating the whole person,” says Andras. “It’s not just sitting in a classroom and memorizing material. … We value relationships, and we value all of those cross-curricular ties. And everything can be integrated into outdoor ed.”

Certainly, the school does a great job of using outdoor experience—getting beyond the walls of the school—across the full breadth of the curricular offerings. Trips are taken into Algonquin park, for example, for sketching and painting the landscape, just as Tom Thomson did to create some of his most celebrated work. Like Thomson, they travel in by canoe, and stay within the landscape they are describing in their artwork.

“In physics,” says Andras, “they’re learning about estimating distances, or working through architectural problems, or trail maintenance. …. There are so many different things that you can tie together through outdoor education if you have the space to do it, and can get kids out of the classroom to do it.” Geography classes make use of the various ecosystems and landforms within the property; Phys ed classes include time on the high ropes course, and, in winter, Nordic skiing on the campus trails; biology classes make use of the various biomes on site. “It’s common to see us going outside in the trigonometry unit,” says instructor Tim Rollwagen, “with the students all focused on the ratios in triangles, finding the height of buildings and the heights of trees.”

Life lessons

Rollwagen is the Director of Global Learning, something which extends the outdoor focus of the school effectively around the world. “All of our international trips do have an extensive outdoor program,” he says. This year’s trip to Peru includes a wellness and spirituality piece, and research into Incan culture. A trip to Ecuador includes a first-hand experience of the biological diversity within the Galapagos. “Our whole school is rooted in outdoor education,” says Macdonnell, “our entire school program is based around the connection with the land.”

The feel on campus is perhaps akin to summer camp. “When they go to camp it’s almost like a second family,” says Rollwagen. “And the atmosphere at Lakefield, and the freedom that it allows, including the variety of opportunities that it has … it’s much like that. Maybe it’s even just going for a walk in the woods at the end of the day … it allows you to have this feeling of a second home.”

Decidedly, it’s a way of being that is unique to the school. “You see students coming from around the world, all different backgrounds, and suddenly they’re thrown into the middle of the woods in Canada. And its minus 20 degrees and they’re learning to use a compass, and finding their way back,” says Macdonnell, chuckling a bit as she does. She and the faculty truly appreciate how those kinds of experiences can bring students together around a new, and ultimately more positive, set of priorities.

“Kids need to get outside, and to learn to enjoy being outside,” says Andras. “In life, you have to be resilient, and to be able to rely on each other.” Those are the kinds of lessons that the environment at LCS, and the outdoor education program in particular, has been developed to provide.

Boarding school

(For OurKids.net) Before the Golden Goal, or the Stanley Cup win, or the NHL draft, Sidney Crosby was a student at boarding school, something that many Canadians may find surprising. But he was. As a tween, Crosby and his parents recognized that he needed something more than he was getting at home in Cole Harbour, NS. He was excelling in school, yet there were social pressures. In minor league hockey, Crosby was clearly more skilled than his peers, something that may have been celebrated, yet was increasingly resented. On the ice, and in the stands, he was becoming a target of aggression.

All of that—academics, athletic development, social development—were factors that prompted a consideration of options beyond those available locally. For Crosby and his parents, it was less about sending him away than it was recognizing and seeking the support he needed at a critical and decisive time in his life. <Read more>


It’s personal

When it comes to alternative education, is it possible to go too far?

rawImageAll advances in education are emblematic of their time, arising out of a specific political context and cultural experience. The education that Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner knew as children, for example, was severe. Classrooms were institutional, teaching was rote, punishments could be brutal. The methods they developed were intended to provide an alterative. In some ways, they simply took what was happening in typical classrooms and did the opposite: support rather than punish, encourage creativity, and treat them with all the the kindness we would like to develop in them. There are aspects of their work that we might not care to adopt as readily—Steiner’s anthroposophy, for example—though what distinguished their methods was that they created caring educational environments. That, perhaps more than anything else, was revolutionary.

It’s easy to wonder where the Montessoris and the Steiners are today. What are they reacting to? What ideas are they trying to put into practice? What problems are they trying to solve? Yes, we think that education on the whole could be better, and that innovation is an important part of it. We also like words like “personal” and “disruptive.” We are seduced by technology, and look to the corporate world for our models of success, Silicon Valley for innovation. Given all of that, AltSchool, might be the school for us. With 10 locations in the US, AltSchool is promoted as a collaborative network of micro-schools. For the people behind AltSchool, it’s an opportunity to change the nature of education in North America.

“The décor evokes an IKEA showroom,” writes Rebecca Mead, with “low-slung couches, beanbags, clusters of tables, and wooden chairs in progressively smaller sizes, like those belonging to Goldilocks’s three bears.” A staff writer with the New Yorker, Mead visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders at Manhattan AltSchool location. There she found “most of the children were sunk into their laptops.” All were free to describe the course of their academic day; as at home, the laptops—each student is issued one on enrollment—are endlessly seductive. Kids were often working alone, engaging with online curricula, including BrainPop and typing games. AltVideo, a surveillance system installed throughout the school, including cameras mounted on classroom ceilings, allows parents to check in, watching on their iPhone as their child taps on their iPad.

It’s the kind of school that a Google employee might develop, and indeed, that’s exactly what it is. Max Ventilla, still just 35 years old, left Google to start AltSchool in 2013. He had studied math and physics at Yale, and when he founded AltSchool he had no experience as a teacher or school administrator. Whatever he may have lacked in educational experience, he made up for as a corporate fundraiser: the school raised in excess of $100 in venture capital in 2015, including sizable donations from Mark Zuckerberg and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, among others.

“We started the company with the ambition to create a new model of how to experience school in the 21st century,” says Ventilla. Certainly he succeeded in that. It’s different. Really, really different. What the school doesn’t do, however, is reflect any of the centuries of academic thought that grounds education, something that is less oversight than benign ignorance. The school gives “individual teachers autonomy to make changes without affecting everyone else.” That is, to do whatever they want, whenever they want to, without requiring any of the checks and balances that we find in more typical classrooms. In a Forbes article, Ventilla asks, “Why doesn’t a teacher use the best lesson plan out there instead of having to use one of their own?” It’s not perhaps a question that we all would answer in the same way that Ventillo does (let alone formulate it in the tortured way he does). He defines a traditional instructor as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.” Real teachers, that is those with teaching degrees and classroom experience would and should take exception. They feel that they represent a tradition that is bigger than themselves, because education is, actually, bigger than ourselves. But Ventilla has other ideas. “We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” (Hunh?)

“We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.”–Max Ventilla, AltSchool founder and CEO

“There’s a healthy amount of skepticism for anybody coming in with what they purport to be a new model,” he ventures. “But something needs to change in the education space, and the problem is so complex that we need all kinds of organizations and people working to a solution.”[1] The guiding principle of AltSchool sounds just as good, and is equally vague: “every child should have access to an exceptional, personalized education that enables them to be happy and successful in an ever-changing world.”

But is AltSchool the kind of institution that is best suited to provide that? And what does “exceptional” mean? For one, it doesn’t include languages. Says Ventilla, “If the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now—well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps.”

Indeed, it’s the efficiencies and redundancies of industry that provide inspiration for the school. “Facebook started as, essentially, a bulletin board for Harvard students,” Ventilla told Rebecca Mead. “Uber started as a private chauffeur that Garrett [Camp] hired and rode around with. This is a relatively common occurrence. You start in a very narrow way that you control and that really represents a kind of fundamentally different approach. And then you iterate.”

Christie Seyfert, a teacher that has been with the school for its entire history (it opened last spring) uses Torrent files as analogies for how children learn: scrambled rather than sequential. “What we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains,” says Kimberly Johnson, AltSchool’s head of product success and training. “Anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it.”

One of those things is assessment. Student progress is reported online, in real time, with parents able to check an app whenever they like: in-app scores, in-class snapshots of breakthrough moments, and tallies of Newsla articles read (or at least clicked on; Newsla is a site with Associated Press articles graded to specific reading levels). Teachers do have a role, including taking those snapshots of breakthrough moments, though Johnson feels that there is room for automation there as well.

AltSchool does meet with a healthy amount of skepticism, as it should. It offers a format that, unlike that of Montessori or Steiner, indulges the prejudices of the culture rather than providing an antidote to them. We like disruption, and the school proposes disruption as a goal, (though not for its investors, presumably). While the CEO and the board members are well-versed in the buzzwords of education and the language of change—“something needs to change in the education space”—it’s unclear whether they realize that the task of education isn’t coding a website, or building a better Uber, but in creating a caring, expansive, value-laden environment in which children can learn things that they can’t learn anywhere else.

Ventilla remains undeterred, using those millions in financial backing as evidence of the veracity and validity of his claims. “You are going to see, ideally, many more people enter the teaching profession and the role of the teacher be elevated,” he says, at a stroke congratulating the future and condemning the past. “Now we have the capital and leeway to learn ourselves by doing.” Indeed, whatever that means, he apparently does. Unsettlingly, his money is where his mouth is.