Vitalizing Our Schools

DUNCAN MCARTHUR, LL.D. February 15 1939

Vitalizing Our Schools

DUNCAN MCARTHUR, LL.D. February 15 1939

Vitalizing Our Schools


Deputy Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario

Editor's Note: This article, by one of the Dominion's outstanding authorities on education, appears during Education Week, which is being observed in Ontario February 5 to 12.

DURING the past three years the Department of Education of the Province of Ontario has been engaged in a thorough, if not drastic, revision of the courses of study prescribed for both the elementary and secondary schools of that province.

A new program of studies for elementary schools is now in effect, and with the change a new method of designating grades has been adopted. Instead of the former designation by “Books” (as, for example. Junior and Senior Third), the grades have been numbered consecutively from I to VIII, Grade VIII being the former Senior Fourth, or Entrance grade. The revised course for Grades I to VI inclusive was introduced in September, 1937, and that for Grades VII and VIII in September, 1938. the change from the old to the new having been made in two stages.

In the case of the secondary schools, which present a greater variety of problems than do the elementary schools, the changes are being carried out over a period of four years. The revised course of study for Grade IX (first year) was introduced in the autumn of 1937; that for Grade X (second year) in the autumn of 1938; that for Grade XI will be introduced this autumn; and it will not be until 1940 that the new courses in their entirety will be in operation.

Why should it be considered necessary now to revise the courses of study in our schools? Briefly, because much of the method of instruction formerly used failed to take into account phenomenal changes in the actual conditions of living which have occurred in the post-War period, and the substantial extension of knowledge of the mode of operation of the child mind which has been effected during the past thirty years.

If education is to be regarded not only as a preparation for life but as a vital part of life itself, it is essential that it should be in harmony with the life with which it is related. The changes now being made have their origin in a more adequate conception of the purpose and nature of education; and they are designed primarily to provide that form of training which will enable the present generation of youth to live a rich and satisfying life in a rapidly changing., world.

The principles underlying the changes are not fundamentally new. They have been applied successfully in the schools of Great Britain. In the past, Canadian educational method has drawn heavily on British experience with satisfactory results. To say that the inspiration of the new program is British, therefore, is simply to say that the new program is based on precedents which are in keeping with the historic evolution of Canadian educational practice.

There is justification, however, for the claim that the ideas embodied in the new courses are Canadian products. Much of the seed grain may have been imported, but it germinated in Canadian soil and developed in the atmosphere of Canadian experience. Such changes as are being made are being made from within the Ontario educational system. Moreover, the transition from the old to the new is being effected gradually, to the end that it may cause a minimum of disturbance to the discharge of the normal functions of the schools.

Let us now consider the nature of the changes being made in the courses of study, first of the elementary schools, and then of the secondary schools.

Adjusting System to Child

OF PRIMARY importance is the attempt to clarify the understanding of the function of education in relation to the child. No adequate system of training can be constructed'on the foundation of an unsound philosophy of education. No new philosophy of education is now being formulated, but an attempt is being made to remove certain of the barriers of custom and practice which have obscured the view of principles regarded as fundamental since the days of Plato and Aristotle.

The first of these principles is that the child must be made the centre of the scheme of training. The system must be adjusted to meet the requirements of the child; the child should not be fashioned according to the molds provided by the system. The mere statement of such a principle carries conviction of its truth, yet practices have been evolved which have prevented its application to the training of our children. In the new program, an attempt has been made to restore the child to its rightful place of central importance in the processes of education.

Of equal importance is the principle that the child is a person, entitled equally with the adult to the rights of personality. There must be a recognition of the fact that the life of the child is for the child as real and as full of meaning as is the life of the adult real and meaningful for the adult. It follows as a corollary that the pattern of life of the adult may have little reality or meaning for the child.

Again, much of educational practice has assumed that education is a process designed primarily to create certain conditions, skills or capabilities which will become manifest at some period in the future. This attitude, in its highest expression, regards education as a training for the life of

the adult. There is involved in this approach to the problems of education a real danger of attempting to force on the child attitudes of mind and habits of thought which are meaningless because they are wholly unrelated to the experience of the child. The most effective training for a wholesome life tomorrow is the creation of a wholesome life today.

The centre of the educational “system” must, therefore. be the active, growing child, living from day to day a life which is supremely real and full of meaning. The purpose of education is to contribute to the growth and development of the powers of the child. It follows, therefore, that courses of study must be thought of “in terms of activity and experience. rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored.” The statement has been made with much truth that “the old education forced information into the child; the new calls forth life from the child.” The introduction of the new courses of study constitutes an attempt to apply these principles to the education of the children of Ontario.

Individual Development Stressed

T_TOW should these principles be applied? Two questions are presented on the threshold of this enquiry. What should a child learn in the elementary school r By what method should he be taught?

Both these questions raise issues of fundamental importance.

The child is a living organism, living in a physical environment and in association with other persons in the home, the school, the community.

The measure of his growth and the degree of his satisfaction in living will be determined by the extent to which he adjusts himself harmoniously to his physical and social environments. These conditions should determine the character of his experiences and the things which he should learn through his experience.

Because he is a growing physical organism, the school should create an environment which will contribute to a maximum degree to his physical well-being. The school should, likewise, encourage the formation of those habits which alone will ensure the maintenance of good health habits relating to food, to exercise, to cleanliness. He should acquire gradually such a knowledge of the physical organism and its functions as will inspire a determination to maintain its effectiveness, and a general understanding of the means by which that end can be achieved. A study of the conditions contributing to good health, therefore, is entitled to a position of prominence in the curriculum of the elementary school.

But the child is endowed with a mind as well as a body, and must live in association with other people. “The curriculum, therefore, must provide for the child those intellectual activities and experiences which are necessary for his intelligent participation in the life of the home, the school, and the community.” He must acquire a command of language as an instrument by which he can communicate his own thoughts and desires to others, and participate in the life of other people. The richness of his experience will be determined by his ability to formulate his own thoughts and to communicate them to others.

He will learn to read, and the range of his experiences will be greatly enlarged by his admission through the written word

A review of the new Ontario school program by the man who initiated it —"The old education forced information info the child; the new calls forth life from the child"

to the experiences of other jxople of different places and different times. He should acquire enjoyment in the sound of words as produced by the human voice. He can learn to find pleasure in the sound of childlike rhymes and, if not required to analyze the meaning of words and phrases, will be led to an enjoyment of that which we call poetry. As he discovers the world of beauty, a new and vast range of rich experience will be opened to him.

He must acquire skill in the use of numbers as one branch of the field of communication, or language, and his knowledge of numbers should extend as the extension of his experience requires the use of numbers. He must learn that the language of numbers is precise and exact, as are the realities which the numbers designate.

The child lives, likewise, in a physical environment which abounds in other forms of life. As he learns to observe with accuracy the features of the physical life surrounding him. his experience will be enriched, and gradually he will learn that “nature” is not wholly capricious, but that it too acts in an orderly manner and according to fixed habits. Nature Study, not primarily as an introduction to “Science” but essentially as a means for the enlargement and enrichment of the experience of the child, should enter into his life in the elementary school.

Of no less importance in his experience will he find the human environment with which he is related from day to day. I le will observe as he grows older that other {X'ople enter into his life the grocer, the milkman, the teacher, the jxjstman, the policeman, and he will learn not only that his own community has a life extending into the past but that there are other people living in distant lands, possibly in a different manner. Thus he will learn that History and Geography are related to his ex|xrience today.

Just because he is a child anxious to do things, he ought to be taught to use his hands with skill, and to be given the opportunity of enjoying that pleasure which is the reward of making things. Again his experience will lx* enriched by the discovery that there is harmony, or beauty, in form, in design, and in color. We do an injustice to this childlike exjx-rience by attaching to it the pompous and ambitious designation of "Art."

From this jx>int of view the education of the child becomes less a matter of teaching "subjects” than the enrichment of his experience. It. becomes concerned with the growth and development of his jxwers. It should not lx satisfied until it has created such conditions as will enable each child to place into active use all the jx>wers and capabilities with which nature has endowed him. Only as it draws forth new life from the child does it fulfill its purpose.

Learning by Doing

THIS statement of the practical task which must lx undertaken by the elementary schcx>l will have indicated the nature of the methods of instruction which are likely to prove most effective. These methods, based on an understanding of the character of the mind of the child, should be directed to the promotion of growth through the enrichment of the child’s experience. They must recognize the fact that the child’s mind is active and is inquisitive regarding the things which are real in its world of experience. It would, therefore, seem logical to attempt to direct the activity and the inquisitiveness of the child into channels which will effectively promote his development.

The child learns by doing. The role of the child in education should lx1 one of activity. He should not be a mere passive agent—a receptacle into which information should be poured. His activity should be directed to tasks which he is capable of performing, and which in the course of their performance will involve the processes of learning. The pattern of the activities in which he shall be engaged must be designed by the teacher to the end that it will draw out the latent powers of his mind.

Again, the interest and inquisitiveness, of the child should be captured and harnessed in the service of learning. And this should be done, not for the purpose of making learning easy, but of making it effective by reason of its being real and meaningful to the child. It is an essential condition to the process of learning that the thing to be learned shall be woven into the actual fabric of the web of the child's ideas and experiences. In the past, much of time and effort has been wasted in the endeavor to store his memory with facts wholly unrelated to his experience, and, therefore, to him unreal. The fencing of fields and the papering of walls have had their day with younger children. There is yet to be recorded an instance in which the principles learned in the junior grades and applied by the adult “come out right.”

Study Made Interesting

WHAT specific and definite changes in the work being done in the classroom will result from the revision of the courses of study?

First, and of greatest importance, is a modification of our conception of the function of the school. The school will not be concerned primarily with “classes” or “subjects” but with persons. It will be “child-centred.”

And because it stresses the importance of regarding the child as an active person who learns by doing, the school will set before him “projects” or “enterprises” in which he may participate actively with his fellows. The projects will be selected not only because of their interest to the pupil, but because of the degree to which they will demand the use and the extension of his powers. A project which finds great favor with children is the building of a house, which involves the selection of materials, the planning of the rooms, their decoration and furnishing, arranging for ventilation and heating, the making of a lawn, the planting of a garden and trees, and always the reasons for their decision. The advantage of such an approach to the problem of learning is that the processes liave meaning, and the child employs practically his skill in handicraft, in the use of numbers, in design. I íe learns something of the requirements of healthy living, of plants and trees, and he should gain experience in that difficult art of co-operation with others.

The study of History and Literature provides unlimited scope for dramatization. The making of costumes involves a knowledge of the social customs of the period, of the economic conditions in which people lived in another age, and the acting of a role of a historic personage encourages an understanding of the realities of conditions of life of another day. Pupils are led to a study of Canadian History by way of a knowledge of the growth of their own community. 'The “ancient landmarks”-—it may be a mill, a bridge, a church, or other building are made the subjects of enquiry, and gradually the history of the community, from the day of the pioneers forward, is supplied by means of the enquiries conducted by the pupils.

Less Emphasis on Examinations

rTM IE project method in education is not T new. William Cobbett, we are told, employed this scheme a century and a half ago in the education of his own children. But its use in education has not been as extensive as its merits have justified. Nor can it replace entirely the work of the classroom. But it can be employed successfully to give meaning and reality to the processes of learning. It involves more extensive reading on the part of the pupils, and, therefore, access to books. Already the public libraries of this province are demanding larger rooms with which to accommodate the new crop of juvenile readers. And this may be the most convincing evidence of the effectiveness of the new methods in education.

Again, to a greater degree than formerly, emphasis will be laid on the integration of the subject matter of instruction, precisely because it will be related more intimately to the life of the child. The child’s exixrience is itself a unity; his learning through experience must necessarily break down certain of the artificial barriers which have been erected between “subjects.” While the child’s interests and capabilities vary, he is not yet a “specialist,” and it is imjy.rtant that his approach to the world of reality should emphasize the essential unity of that reality. For example, the subject of Geography, which deals with the physical conditions in which people live, will le studied along with History, which tells the story of the life of those people. And the subject which we have designated as “Composition” will be related intimately to all the experiences of the child in the school. It is desirable that he should learn to express his ideas adequately in words. 1 le should not be required to write comixjsitions until he has acquired a stock of ideas with which to give expression. His writing should lxlimited to the world of reality which is a part of his experience. Then only will it be the natural expression of thought.

The program of studies in the school will be less rigidly organized. There will be less regimentation, precisely because the child is the centre of the process. Organization will be essential, but it will not be necessary that each child shall spend thirty minutes each day, each week of the school year, in exercises with numbers. The pace must lx* adjusted to the capabilities of the child, and recognition must lx* given to the fact that certain children progress more rapidly than others. It will not be regarded as a supreme virtue of the Ontario educational system that it is known that at 11.30 o’clock, on the morning of November 12, every child in the province in Grade 111 will be learning to multiply by nine.

Again, much less emphasis will be placed on examinations. The only use of examina-

tions is as a test of progress. If the teacher is directing and following the work of her children as she should, examinations will not be necessary. It is agreed that the purpose of the school is the promotion of growth. The examination does not provide an adequate yardstick for the measurement of experience. The traditional method of examination has tended to too great an extent to emphasize comparisons between the achievement of pupils of widely differing capacities, whereas comparisons should be made between the achievement of a pupil at one stage and at an earlier stage in his own development. It will be most difficult to eliminate the element of competition in any system of examinations, but a pupil should learn that he is competing, not with another pupil but with himself.

The role of the teacher in such a scheme of learning becomes much more difficult than it has been in the past. The teacher must become familiar with the differing powers and capacities of the pupils, and must select the processes and materials of learning which will be best adapted to meet the requirements of individual children. The task of directing and guiding the mental growth of the child is much more difficult than that of imparting information, but it is infinitely more satisfying and stimulating to the teacher who is genuinely interested in children.

Training for Democracy

"DECAUSE of its attempt to enlist the ■*-' interest of the child in the service of learning, and because of the pleasure which the child has found in such service, the new method of education has passed under a cloud of suspicion. It is charged that because it is painless it cannot be effective. There are those who believe that a child cannot learn unless he is “taught till it hurts,” just as there are probably those who still believe that a doctor’s medicine cannot be effective unless it is bitter.

More serious is the charge that the discovery of pleasure in learning is inconsistent with the “discipline” of the mind. If the lack of discipline which is deplored is understood as being an unwillingness to undertake or complete a difficult piece of work, then one cannot accept as valid this criticism of the new method of education. No more effective st imulus to sustained and hard labor can be found than interest. In the final analysis the only effective discipline is self-discipline. A child may turn his back on a particular task, not because it seems difficult, but because it is lacking in purpose and meaning for him. There is no more justification for demanding that a child undertake an exercise which is wholly artificial and unreal for him, than there is for imposing such a requirement on an adult. As a means for the development of a child’s powers, such a practice is utterly useless. Whether the processes of learning are pleasant or painful should concern us less than the question of their being effective in enlarging the powersof the child, and it will be found that the interest of the child can become a most valuable stimulus to continuity of effort.

But there are other “viewers-withalarm” who define discipline as a readiness to accept external authority. Lack of discipline is deplored because of a seeming unwillingness to obey some form of superior authority. To such critics, the ideal citizen is the obedient citizen.

Such a conception of discipline is the delight of the dictator. It is the very antithesis of the principles underlying democracy. Today, as never before, we are being reminded that the schools must provide a training for democracy. The only enduring foundation for democracy is to be found in respect for human personality. A recognition as belonging to others of the rights which we claim for ourselves, a tolerance of opinions which differ from our own, a willingness to settle disputes by the exchange of ideas in discussion—these are the attitudes of mind which must lx created if democracy is to be maintained. The practical operation of democracy involves necessarily the capacity to exercise independence of judgment. The newer practices in education set out from the beginning to recognize the rights of human personality, and at all stages attempt to encourage the exercise of independence in judgment. Democracy is less a form of government than it is an attitude of mind. The attitude of mind which it is the endeavor of the newer education to create, is that embodied in the democratic ideal.

Secondary School Changes

AGAINST this background, less need Ti. be said regarding the changes being made in the courses of study of the secondary schools. Again, courses of study are thought of in terms of the requirements of individual pupils. By the time students reach the secondary school, differences in endowment and in aptitudes have become more clearly manifest, and thoughts are being directed to the nature of the work to be undertaken in later years. The courses of study in the secondary schools are being designed to provide, within broad limits, a variety of training suitable to pupils differing in interests and aptitudes.

The course of study in Grade IX (first year) has been made a common year for all subsequent courses, for the purpose of providing a variety of experiences and tests in the hope that it will assist pupils in reaching wise decisions in the selection of a vocation. Provision is made in this course for instruction of girls in Home Economics and of boys in Manual Training and General Shopwork. not as a vocational training but to provide opportunities for boys to test their capabilities and skills in manual work. In the second year, the differentiation between the different types of training will begin. A central “core” of learning, however, is common to all courses -Health, English, History and Geography, Mathematics and Science, but provision is made for five different types of courses—a General Course (similar to those already offered by our high schools), a training for Industry, for Agriculture, for Commerce, and for Homemaking.

As the elementary school course was much concerned with the beginning of education obtained in school, so the second-

ary school course must be concerned with the completion of the process. The "saturation point” of that type of education is reached at different ages by different pupils, and when it is reached, the boy or girl should ideally leave the school and engage in practical work in the world outside. The course is designed to provide three “transfer points”—the first at the end of the second year, the second at the end of the fourth year, and the third at the end of the fifth year. The most effective system of secondary school training will encourage pupils to make the transfer at the stage when they have obtained the maximum of benefit which they are capable of deriving from the school. The Junior School Leaving certificate, granted on the completion of two years work of the secondary school, will be sought by many boys and girls who will then have reached the age of sixteen, the age to which attendance at school is compulsory.

The courses of the third and fourth year will provide for the extension of the training for which a foundation was laid in the second year, and will in each successive year involve a greater degree of specialization and a more intensive discipline. At the end of the fourth year a Senior School Leaving certificate will be awarded. The course of training in the fifth year will probably be designed to meet the requirements of those who plan to enter on a profession and who will continue their studies in a university or at the provincial normal schools. The satisfactory completion of the work of this year may be expected to be required of all candidates for admission to our universities.

The success of the new program of studies must depend on the understanding by the teachers of the principles on which it is constructed and on their ability to . apply them in practice. There is justification for the belief that, in large measure, the teachers of this province are willing to undertake the new responsibilities which the revised courses involve, and are capable of playing the more imjxirtant role which they must assume in the classroom. Because of this belief, there is confidence in the hope that the schools of Ontario will be enabled to render an even greater public service than they have in the past.