Spanning the education spectrum
Construction of Whistler’s second elementary school has yet to begin, but work on shaping the educational philosophy of the new school is well underway
By Loreth Beswetherick
"Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives"
Those were the words of Waldorf school founder Rudolph Steiner in the early 1900s — noble words that speak to the Steiner philosophy of education.
It is Steiner’s Waldorf pedagogy that has come to symbolize one end of an educational spectrum that has fundamental or "traditional" schools at the polar opposite.
Those that lean, in varying degrees, toward the Waldorf end of the scale are dubbed progressive, child-centred systems, while those on the other end are described as skills centred.
The antonyms highlighting the differences between the two pedagogical antipodes abound: informal versus formal; wide course offerings versus narrow course offerings; individualism and diversity versus conservatism and uniformity; co-operative classrooms versus competitive classrooms; student centred versus institution.
Somewhere along that educational spectrum, probably more on the traditional side, lies mainstream B.C. public education. But, within B.C.’s public school system, more and more choices are being found and parents are being faced with decisions, like where exactly on that spectrum do they see what is best for their child.
That is a question currently facing Whistler parents.
A new elementary school is slated to open September 2002 in Intrawest’s Spring Creek subdivision and it has opened doors to the possibility of choice.
The boundaries that determine which Whistler children will feed that school have yet to be determined, but already several parent groups are lobbying to shape the new facility to fit their educational philosophies.
Whether the Whistler student population can support an educational choice in the community has yet to be seen, but the possibilities have got parents talking… and debating.
The loudest voice yet has come from a group of parents who would like to see the Spring Creek school run as a "traditional" facility.
"The new school provides parents with a fantastic opportunity to have a choice provided in Whistler that will provide many benefits for our children," says traditional proponent Susan Jernigan.
At the other end of the pedagogical spectrum is a group of parents who find even the public school system too traditional.
Waldorf proponent and teacher Michelle Kirkegaard was introduced to the Steiner concept in Denver, Colorado. She and a group of parents have opted to home school their kids this year using a Waldorf-oriented curriculum. The group is, however, registered with Myrtle Philip elementary and lobbying for classroom space within the Spring Creek school.
There is also a push for a Montessori facility in Whistler. Some parents are inclined toward a private school option. There are those parents who feel school uniforms will make a difference and there are parents who thing things are just fine the way they are.
"There are a whole lot of people looking at different things," says Kirkegaard. "It just means as a community, parents would like some choices available to them."
The debate is not new to B.C. communities.
There are currently 82 "alternate" schools and learning centres within the B.C. public school system, offering options for students who have special interests and needs that cannot be met effectively in regular schools.
There is a veritable menu of choices, including the traditional and fundamental schools; Montessori schools; facilities that focus on the arts; schools with a heavy bent on outdoor skills including classes held outside and first hand immersion into environmental studies; schools that focus on special needs — such as the Burnaby School for the Deaf; and schools that focus on technical skills. There are language immersion schools where students spend almost the entire day speaking, reading, writing and listening to a language other than English, including French, Mandarin, Russian, Italian and Aboriginal languages.
And there are also community schools, like Myrtle Philip, that open their doors to community services and events and offer lifelong learning opportunities for all. Members of the community generally have a say in these school operations through a community school association.
But it is the traditional schools that have been grabbing the media limelight over the last five years. Parents are clamouring to register their children in these schools — even camping for up to 12 days in a school parking lot to get on the list. The Surrey Traditional School, for example, has 360 students with another 800 still waiting to get in.
The "traditional" method of delivering education is not new. It’s been around since about 1910 — about the time children began to be grouped together in classrooms to learn.
Parents like the discipline offered by a traditional school. They like the values, the consistency and the uniforms. They like the fact traditional students are reported to score better on standardized tests. They feel this will give their offspring a better shot at university placement and a better chance in life.
As Surrey Traditional School principal John Munson explained to Whistler parents recently, there is no integration of subjects in a traditional school and teachers deliver the curriculum from the front of the class to children at desks in rows — always. Emphasis is on repetition and structure. He said the curriculum is learned best this way.
Munson said he is not sure why there is a surge of interest in these schools but he thinks it may be a backlash to the Year 2000 program introduced about five years ago.
Public education has been shifting slowly toward the progressive side of the spectrum and this has some parents digging their heels in.
It’s shifting, said Richmond teacher John Hudson, who spoke at the Myrtle Philip Parent Advisory Council meeting last week, because research shows children learn better with the more progressive approach.
"The trend is not toward the traditional, it’s toward progressive," he said.
Hudson, an educator of 26 years with experience from Kindergarten to adult education, did his 1997 Masters thesis in innovation in schools. "I wanted to make sense of education," he said. Hudson was invited by the Myrtle Philip PAC to help parents confronted with the different local lobbies make an educated decision.
"All learners learn in different ways," said Hudson. He noted this is being backed by research in brain science. It’s accepted, for example, that adults learn language differently from young children.
Findings show pitch is something learned very early in life and children whose mothers sing to them as babies speak better. "We know this," said Hudson, who has a passion for his craft. Musicians, he said, develop a larger corpus calossum — the core of fibres connecting the two halves of the brain — because they constantly transfer information back and forth between the two cerebral hemispheres.
Findings like this, he said, are helping shape theory in delivering education.
"When little Johnny walks into a classroom, you have a highly complex little person there," said Hudson. Not all kids learn in the same uniform way and some just take a little longer, he said. "But by teen-age, they are all equal... these are the issues we have to deal with and sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit the foot, or the school doesn’t fit the learner," he said.
Hudson told the group of Myrtle Philip parents that any decisions they make now for their school will leave a legacy that will resound in the building and that they should take care to make informed choices that will best help their children learn.
"Meaning is constructed within the learner… You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink."
Hudson also said our brains work best in complex situations. For example, children will learn better in a more integrated environment that combines ancient Egyptian sociology with geography and math and art. This is contrary to curriculum delivery in traditional schools where subjects are never combined in a lesson.
"In my experience, reducing things down to one fact doesn’t work very well," said Hudson.
He said children also need emotion which facilitates the learning process. Even fear, he noted, can be used as a motivator.
Hudson presented a list of antonyms describing traditional versus progressive education. He said a lot of the words used to describe traditional pedagogy don’t work as well to help children learn.
"We are training our teachers in how children learn."
Hudson said he doesn’t know why the traditional method is currently so popular but he said he wasn’t in Whistler to speak against traditional schools, but rather to share the finding of his research into how children learn best.
He said a good school is one that acknowledges how children learn, and a school with uniforms and a focus on discipline may also have many of the more progressive elements.
And, no matter what the pedagogy, schools and students with high levels of parental involvement tend to rate better in various tests.
Parents in Richmond’s School District 38, where Hudson teaches, were up against the same issues now facing Whistler.
Hudson said there were hot buttons — like uniforms and traditional schools — that just don’t come up any more because of an innovative compromise reached by the district about six years ago, called Foundations.
The Foundations program was the Richmond School Board’s response to community concerns about education. It’s about a clearly-defined partnership between students, parents and teachers with avenues to discuss and deal with concerns.
The motto is clarity, consistency and communication.
Foundations embraces three fundamental principles of learning: It holds that learning requires active participation of the student; that people learn in different ways and at different rates, and that learning is both an individual and a group process.
Foundations also holds that all partners need to be clear on their respective roles in the system. The learner has to be clear on what he or she is learning and why; what is expected and how he or she is doing.
The teacher has to be clear on how the child learns best; what his or her needs, interests and abilities are; and how he or she is feeling about his learning and how his home environment can support that learning.
The parents have to be clear on what the child is being taught; why and how it is being taught; what is expected of the child and how the child is doing.
The school district in turn has to be clear about its expectations of the school and its community and clear about its responsibilities to support those expectations.
There is a shared commitment to consistency and to communication.
Foundations also outlines three circles of influence and responsibility.
The student is responsible as a member of the classroom and school and has a duty to strive for productive work habits and appropriate conduct so that everyone can perform well as students and function positively as members of a peer group or community.
The teacher’s responsibility basically involves determining, clarifying and communicating what happens in the classroom. Parents have a responsibility to support their children’s learning as well as keeping the communication lines open with the teachers.
The school has a responsibility to support that teacher-parent relationship and underscore the importance of clarity, consistency and communication.
The district in turn has a duty to clarify and communicate what is meant by Foundations as well as monitor, support and assess the program.
Hudson said through the formation of this contract, hot-button issues have been resolved and schools are being shaped to best meet everyone’s needs.
It is this same sort of consistency and ‘buy-in’ parents who favour the traditional system are after.
"The way I move forward as an educator is through my kids," said Hudson. "We talk and its democratic. I am a strong believer in education as it is unfolding today."
He said his goal in talking to Whistler parents was to stimulate further discussion, to perhaps push a few buttons and "show where the Richmond School District has taken the process" Whistler has now started.
"I hope you follow the road that is best for your kids."
Hudson said, after the meeting, that parents must think long and hard before sticking a sign up on their school.
"Choices made now will have resounding consequences. You’ve got to be careful what you wish for."
"To receive the child in gratitude from the world it comes from: to educate the child with love; and to lead the child into the true freedom which belongs to man."
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