Interview

With educator Lloyd Dennis

September 4 1978
Interview

With educator Lloyd Dennis

September 4 1978

With educator Lloyd Dennis

Interview

There was a time at the end of the ’60s when the words Hall-Dennis were virtually synonymous in Canada with the revolution taking place in the nation’s classrooms. The vast social upheaval of that decade wrought enormous changes in almost every facet of life, but developments in one particular field—education—produced more than their share of controversy. The debate over deregulation of the school system was in full swing 10 years ago, in 1968, when a glossy, 221-page, government-sponsored report was unveiled in Ontario, according fullhearted approval to the kinds of changes that were giving educational traditionalists apoplexy. Eliminate exams, grades, percentage marks; abolish the strap, class standings, even school subjects as they were then known—on and on in this vein went the 258 recommendations of what was formally called Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in Schools of Ontario. It was known popularly as the HallDennis Report after its coauthors, Mr. Justice Emmett Hall of the Supreme Court of Canada and school principal Dr. Lloyd Dennis. Their published work, which quickly became the centre of debate on reforms in education in Ontario and other provinces was the product of three years of study by a 24-man committee created by the Ontario legislature.

A decade later, roughly a third of those recommendations have been implemented and educational reform, caught like everything else in the economic squeeze, seems to have entered a new period of restraint. But Lloyd Dennis feels it’s still too early to judge the full impact of his report. Looking back on the furor he helped to create, Dennis regrets that so much emotionalism has been attached to the debate on education. He’d like to see his report republished and re-examined and says, with the kind of optimism that characterized the liberal vanguard of the '60s: “I defy the public to read it and conclude that it is damaging to the soul—liberating the mind and spirit, that’s what it’s all about.”

Dennis is spending more of his time these days trying to apply his philosophy to the international scene in the belief that Canada—if it will take the opportunity—could lead the way in promoting understanding through education. He was interviewed for Maclean's by free-lance education writer David Hillen.

Maclean’s: Ten years ago the Hall-Dennis report created a considerable furore in educational circles. What impact has it had in the long run?

Dennis: The long run hasn’t been seen yet. I think we’re in the short run still. I don’t know that it can lay claim to the impact we’ve seen in the last decade of education, but I would be pleased to say it had a part of that impact. The school has become less an image of authority and more an image

You encourage, you provoke, you embrace,

but you don’t say:

‘You can’t do that’

of service. I think Living and Learning pleaded for that kind of sentiment. Maclean’s: So you would deny, then, what some have claimed, that it merely had a gadfly effect?

Dennis: Oh yes. Because it was striking at a fundamental problem and offered some rather fundamental ideas about the remediation of those problems. If it were a gadfly effect, I don’t think we’d be talking today, 10 years later, about its impact. The report is still a living document, at least for conversation and argument, if not for implementation.

Maclean’s: Has there been more impact within certain boards of education than in others?

Dennis: Yes, but it doesn’t go as one might expect. One might expect that the more sophisticated the board, or the larger the

board, the more responsive it would be to Living and Learning. I don’t think it holds true. The most responsive schools are all over the place, sometimes where you least expect them. I haven’t got a survey to back me up, but in some of the most unexpected and remote areas, you’ll find beautiful examples of the kind of warmth and provocation for learning that we talked about. In some places among the more affluent, where you’d expect to find that kind of enlightenment and capability, you find the least attention given to that fundamental argument in Living and Learning. But the best support of our argument was in the report, Learning To Be, which is the UNESCO response to an international question asked of education. The argument there is that you must encourage learning to take place with dignity, for fulfilment of individual needs rather than state or ideological needs, and that learning takes place best in a human environment rather than a pure technological one; it takes place best without threat but with encouragement. Maclean’s: Is your own Leeds and Grenville Board a Hall-Dennis board with you as the director?

Dennis: That’s inevitably true, because my philosophical argument is at work in Leeds and Grenville. You know, you don’t go around with Living and Learning under your arm; you go around with it in your heart. It’s that kind of argument. Living and Learning says corporal punishment is not an appropriate learning experience. I happen to believe that. But Leeds and Grenville doesn’t say to its teachers, “You can’t strap in the schools.” You see, the other argument is you don’t dictate, either to your employee or to your student. You encourage, you provoke, you embrace, but you don’t say “you can’t do that.” Macleans: The report made 258 specific recommendations; has anyone been monitoring their implementation?

Dennis: Yes, the ministry of education has never published its monitoring roll, but it did ask one official to find out how many of the recommendations had been acted upon, how many were in the process of being implemented and so on. That report never saw the light of day. I don’t know why. About a third of the recommendations are already in practice. Another third are in various stages of implementation. The other third haven’t been touched. Maclean’s: Are you personally satisfied with the degree of implementation? Dennis: I have to say yes because I have become a realist. I’m somewhat despairing as a Canadian because the thing that

underlies the thinking of Living and Learning isn’t present sufficiently in our society. I’m not satisfied that the beauty, the verve or the basic premise or logic was carried to the school institutions. That’s where I’m bothered. I think we’ve made great strides compared to what it was before. As a matter of fact, I think Canadians are rather hard on one another. We tend to be very pragmatic and very materialistic, and we look for visible evidence all the time. We run out and build a school with no walls and say, “Look, we just implemented Living and Learning.” When Living and Learning talks about an open school, it talks about an openness of mind, not an openness of plan.

Maclean’s: What do you see as the continuing role of the report today? Does it have a continuing impact?

Dennis: It has a continuing impact because it is still being quoted as either for or against, and I think any report that generates the thought or the question in the mind is in itself valuable. Mind you, I think we tend to dwell too much on it. There’s a new agenda now. Perhaps what we should do is go back to Living and Learning, because we’ve got a calamity on our hands, I believe. We have managed to set ourselves up in confrontation in education; board against teachers, teachers against board, teachers against teachers, administration against both, to the point where we’re surely being preoccupied with things other than the welfare of the student. Maybe we should stop talking about teachers’ salaries and how to battle them out and talk about understanding one another’s various interests. Maybe that’s what the agenda should be today. The present condition demands honesty and trust.

Maclean’s: How do you handle people who say that you should be dealing with the alleged illiterates now arriving at the universities?

Dennis: I’m hard put to know where to start. I want the child to be as capable as possible in coping with English; if knowledge of grammar is a part of that coping, then of course I want him to have a knowledge of it. But even more than that, I want him to feel good inside, I don’t want to do destruction with my demands upon him and his excellence in grammar. The real challenge is to help each one to develop his potential according to his ability. But if you come along and give my students an examination and expect the same kind of results in English that you would have gotten 20 years ago, I would say that’s a fallacious argument. It’s a different child, a different medium in which he lives. His language is different. His skill of communicating is different. More of them are allowed into university than we used to allow; many of them, therefore, are less able than students used to be and inevitably their marks are lower. He’s already watched 18,000 hours of television; he’s in a nonverbal environment. He’s no longer academically preoccupied as he goes through school. So he’s

likely, if you ask him to do a test in one of the basic disciplines, to come off not as well as his counterpart of a few years ago. Maclean’s: What is your reaction to recent trends toward traditionalism?

Dennis: I see the demand to go back to the basics as a yearning for something else that’s lost in the culture. It isn’t arithmetic that we lost, and it isn’t how to spell “cat” or how to put a sentence together. We may have lost a sense of purpose about life and we may have an apprehension about where we’re going. We no longer sanctify the church or the prime minister or even the schoolteacher, so the leadership is gone. It makes me, the body public, nervous. I’m

A child’s knowledge of grammar is important, but not as much as his feeling good inside

upset. So I look around for the lifeline that keeps me to my shore, to my past that I remember so well. And when I do that I see the strong rocks of arithmetic and memory work and spelling and homework and the strap—all those things that once held me safe.

Maclean’s: You think there’s something more basic than the school basics? Dennis: In the yearning of a people, yes. When they look back, they see no more students walking home with books under the arm, they see hair that’s different from theirs, they see a more casual approach to learning. My argument on back-to-thebasics is that we who teach should do as well as we can do about the development of those basic skills. But there are some other basics, too, perhaps more fundamental than that, and that is the student’s

attitude toward other human beings. Maclean’s: Are you in favor of a provincewide core curriculum?

Dennis: No, I’m not. That’s because I’m an idealist, I guess. I’m trying to shoot as high as I can on the question of curriculum and the ultimate is a curriculum generated by the needs of the student. I think it’s a much more mature society that doesn’t legislate uniformity in learning. Just to say that everybody is now obliged to study Canadian history, part one, by the time they’re 15 or whatever—I’m only using that hypothesis—doesn’t necessarily guarantee Canadian history in the minds and hearts of Canadians.

Maclean’s: You’re opposed, then, to any kind of a core, whether it’s a core of Canadian content, or a spelling core?

Dennis: Yes. You see, it’s how the teacher presents and how the students learns that really produces the result. To say that every student must take English doesn’t mean that every student takes English profitably or that it’s taught well. When we have a conscious desire to use language with clarity and honesty, we will do it, and we don’t need the minister of education to enforce it.

Maclean’s: Is there a place, in your view, for external exams, external monitoring of the school, the teacher or the student? Dennis: Well, I don’t think so, any more than there would be for the patients in my hospital. I wouldn’t want to ship my patient down for some kind of external examination upon completion of an appendectomy.

I want to rely upon the skill of my doctor and the treatment of the patient’s condition for the success of that operation. In the same way, I argue that the best monitor of the student’s progress is the teacher and the student himself.

Maclean’s: What about quality control, though? Don’t they need somebody outside to say, “Yes, you’re doing it well,” like a trustee?

Dennis: That’s okay on an optional basis. If I were selecting a profession like medicine I wouldn’t mind writing an examination of entry by that college. What I don’t consider pedagogically sound is writing an external examination to test my understanding of what I’ve just learned in my school locally. You cut the learning experience down to the point where it becomes a mechanical exercise, both for the teacher and the learner. If the purpose of education is to allow each individual to find himself mentally and intellectually and to develop his skills in myriad ways, then external examinations aren’t appropriate.. It won’t measure that success. The thing I want him to come out of secondary school with is a motivation to go on and ponder the imponderable. That’s the big thing I want. But if you tell me that the big thing is an external exam, that’s exactly what you’re going to get from me, and that’s what you’re going to get from him. He won’t be pondering any imponderables after he gets through that final exam. He never takes literature

again. He may never even pick up a book again.

Maclean’s: We hear a lot of references to good old-fashioned discipline and the need for that. How do you react to that? Dennis: I have yet to see self-discipline emanating from an external discipline model. I think learning itself is a self-discipline activity; it’s a progress toward selfdiscipline, toward independence and interdependence. I’m against the kind of discipline we knew in the past because I don’t think it bore fruit in terms of helping the individual to be self-disciplined. I want discipline to be an engrained part of the human experience, so that I’ll need a minimum of laws in my society. That doesn’t mean I won’t be firm with children; I believe that there are times when you are firm, very firm, with children. I just believe that working in a clinical atmosphere of learning in itself denies the kind of punishment syndrome that we used to attach to discipline. Canadians are very disciplineoriented. We abuse one another. We’re one of the most affluent countries in the world and we have one of the highest incidences of child abuse in the world. That’s why, I guess, when Living and Learning came out, one recommendation above all others attracted attention, the one that said corporal punishment is not an appropriate method of discipline.

Maclean’s: Weren’t 50 per cent of the high-school teachers in favor of corporal punishment?

Dennis: Yes, and an equal number of elementary teachers said this is one of the last vestiges of our power in the classroom, a rather unfortunate turn of phrase, too. But the mere symbol of authority is somewhat out of place in a real learning environment, I think. I’ll stand my ground on that one.

Maclean’s: Where can the educational system be most effectively changed by the general public?

Dennis: Like all the other changes in education, we thought parental involvement could be brought in next week. We thought we would introduce school committees at the school level, and that would be participatory democracy. That isn’t possible. It has nothing to do with reading and writing and art and music in the schools. Our real crisis has to do with the collective ownership of the great possibility of learning that we have right on our doorstep. We have one of the most expensive educational systems in the world. It costs more than any other, compared to the Gross National Product. We have a free society; the parent is encouraged to come, the teacher is reasonably well paid and reasonably autonomous to do exciting things in the classroom, the student has free access to a very sophisticated educational experience. The one ingredient that we probably need to make them work well is a will to work together, and I’m afraid we haven’t recognized that as an obstacle to good education. We haven’t found the strategies and techniques

that would bring about this kind of trusting relationship.

Maclean’s: Where do the key changes occur?

Dennis: They occur at the local level, at the most intimate level. The minister of education is an enabler, hopefully. That’s a sophisticated and realistic way to approach democracy. The only real learning that takes place is between the teacher and the learner, and that’s a local condition. Maclean’s: But if I wanted to leave out Canadian content, or not teach English, as the principal of a high school, I’m not legally allowed to do that at the moment.

The mere symbol of

authority simply has no place in a real learning environment

Dennis: Okay, but I don’t think you should be able to leave it out in the first place. I don’t think the principal is the man or the woman who says thou shalt take history. It’s the body public at the community or the regional level. That’s better than having the legislators decide that every student in this province shall take . .. Now I think legislators should be able to say, “Students should have access to take.” That’s legislating order and possibility. That’s what I think the minister’s job is. That’s not quite the same thing as the minister saying, “Thou shalt take.”

Maclean’s: As a liberal educator, if I can characterize you that way, do you have any uneasiness about the conservatism that might come through local change? Dennis: Yes, but I have to admit that that in itself is a democratic exercise. I mustn’t forget, however enthusiastic I might be about progressive education, that it isn’t

the most exciting thing in my country. The most exciting thing is my right as an individual citizen to have some influence on the educational scene. If I happen to be a parent who disagrees with Dennis and his philosophy, I should have the right to tell him that that is not the way it will be in my school system. Because the school system doesn’t belong to Lloyd Dennis; it belongs to the parents he’s trying to serve. The conservatism that might come out is bona fide, if the community is conservative. Maclean’s: Is there any way in which your views have cooled, if you like, from the heat of that time?

Dennis: Yes, I think I tended to oversimplify the humanistic aspects of learning, and downgrade too much the moral, fundamental aspects that people are now talking about. I’ve become much more realistic. But I would like us to declare a moratorium on what we’re doing now, stop the thing because it’s “grow’d” like Topsy, and find out what our priorities really are. We’re facing what I think could possibly be oblivion as a race or human condition. We need to examine our great power to communicate, a skill we don’t quite know how to use; our seeming loss of identity; our seeming loss of purpose; the dichotomy between those who have and those who haven’t; and our seeming loss of the spirit of man and our denial of its existence.

Maclean’s: On the practical level . . . Dennis: There are some things I would hope we could do within the next five years. One of them is national. I really am not a national chauvinist. I believe, however, that Canada as a national phenomenon has a great possibility for human betterment, so I go for some national educational organization that will increase my collective power across the country. I see the educational exercise as being one of the welding tools of my people, because it’s obvious to me that bigotry and self-centredness and balkanization in the country come partly from a lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding, things that can be partly solved by education. We also need to admit, finally, that a good deal of the curriculum is really not suited to our need. The present society is in need of improvement, not reaffirmation, so the curriculum isn’t serving enough if it just reaffirms the present condition. One of the great ills of our society is that we’re so busy defending ourselves against the attacker that we make no progress in the battlefield. I would take away from our system those things that force us into stances of confrontation because those never lead to anything good. For teachers and boards to do battle is almost immoral in a time of crisis like we’ve got now, an economic crisis, a cultural crisis. We don’t seem to have a purpose, collectively or individually, but we’re so busy fighting one another about things like salaries and pupil-teacher ratios and all those tricks of the trade that none of us is making any progress. We’re all out there in no man’s land battling it out.O