Allandale Heights Public School in Barrie, Ontario, is a school without walls, which is both a literal and a symbolic description of the building and the kind of education available in a score or so such schools opened across Canada in the past few years.
Literally, there are just about as many walls as you must have to support the roof. Instead of conventional classrooms, there are broadloomed learning areas, each big enough to house at least three age groups which, in a traditional school, are called grades. Children of, say, five, six and seven, or eight, nine and 10, are housed in the same areas.
Symbolically, there are no limits to the children’s freedom to learn as much as they are able; no fetters on their compulsive curiosity. No exams, so the kids don’t grow up believing education is a series of specific tasks to be finished. No one who says, “You’re all the same age, so all read Golden Treasury Reader No. 5.” No orders to sit up, shut up and behave. For one thing, there aren’t any desks; just multi - shaped occasional tables, usually arranged at random, and for another, talking in class usually means one child is cribbing from another — and learning in the process.
At Allandale Heights one day in February, Louise Pearce and Elizabeth Grosch, both 12, each spent the morning doing math, some spelling and a little handwriting. Each read part of a novel and listened to some taped music. Each did different math, different spelling, read a different novel and listened to different music. They also did all these things at different times. Around them, the rest of teacher Elizabeth Pearce’s class were drawing and painting; watching film strips or writing a dialogue story; working with atlases or simply sitting on the carpet, reading.
Each was, incredibly, following a work timetable that he had set for himself, with Mrs. Pearce’s approval. “There are goals,” explained Mrs. Pearce. “I expect my pupils to have
the same knowledge and skills as others of their age. But we help them find their own way to this level.”
What classmates Louise and Elizabeth did together that day was work on their joint February project, a study of the Galapagos Islands where Darwin developed his theory of evolution. This sort of thing has been called “discovery learning”: having borrowed a tape recorder from the resource room, the girls curled up in the corridor and went to work on Darwin and the origin of species.
Later that month they presented their project in dramatic form. The other children voted for it on a oneto-four rating scale. Had the girls wanted, Mrs. Pearce would have marked it in private.
Some schools - without - walls have abandoned marks entirely, but Allandale Heights’ principal, Mrs. Dorothy Banting, says: “It’s important for
children to have a sense of achievement. Even so, seven out of 10 means we think they have not done as well as they are able as individuals, not as 10-year-olds, or whatever. Besides, we’re still learning. Maybe we’ll abandon marks, too.”
is just six, like 10 other particularly bright children in Mrs. Frances Besse’s class of eight-year-olds. On this particular February day Bobby was to demonstrate dramatically a fundamental merit of schools-without-walls: children can learn at their own pace.
It was the day of The Great Toothpick Breakthrough. For the first time three age groups — the eights, nines and 10s — in one learning area (called pods) were to work en masse.
The focus was a wooden toothpick. There were three study areas, each one handled by one of the pod’s three teachers. Science was subdivided into: How are toothpicks made? Of soft or hard wood? How do they help teeth? What does a tooth look like? And so on. Social Studies involved describing how trees are cut, how a lumbermill works, what other products are made from wood. Mathematics and Art in-
volved measuring and weighing toothpicks, using them to make geometric shapes, drawing trees and mills, and using toothpicks to make bas-reliefs.
Each child chose a question to answer, a project to complete, then worked alone or with others. Bobby McKitrick chose to work with Paul Cherry, nine, and two 10-year-olds. “His work isn’t as neat, but he’s keeping up,” said Linda Parker, the 10-year-olds’ teacher.
Some schools - without - walls have provided this freedom to cross-pollinate from the start. Allandale Heights is more conservative. “If the children do too much discovery learning on their own without occasional checks and structures, their work becomes too shallow,” says Mrs. Besse. “They must learn what there is to learn.”
The Great Toothpick Breakthrough lasted for more than a week, with each child moving from one finished project to another. They always worked in chaos, usually lying on the broadloom. Principal Dorothy Banting plans to remove almost all tables and chairs from the school library. “For children, tummies are a great place to work,” she says.
Discovery learning isn’t new. It is the basis of many systems of “free” education, and teachers in conventional schools regularly use some of the techniques. But even though discovery learning was the basis of recommendations in Ontario’s recent Hall-Dennis Report on Education (an international best seller among educationists), the methods have widely been regarded as suspiciously experimental, or impractical in existing buildings. Discovery learning has, however, been enshrined in the schools-withoutwalls, designed to enable any teaching methods to be used.
All depend on generating a climate of freedom and responsibility. Allandale Heights pupils don’t have to hang around the playground until school opens; they can go in at any time and use library or classroom. They are not reprimanded for being late, though if it happens too often Mrs. Banting phones home. In fact, lateness and absenteeism are below average. Not untypically, one 11-year-old girl completed a creative-writing assignment on her own initiative while away sick.
it always available. Terry Ellis, now seven, learned to operate Allandale Heights’ fairly complicated film projector when he was only six. Ever since he has been projectionist for his learning area.
On the February day Maclean’s photographer Horst Ehricht spent at the school, Terry showed a film to the fiveand six-year-olds. The film was called Kindness to Others, which, as kindergarten teacher Joan Stoner observed, was rather suitable for the occasion “since young Mr. Ellis got rather excited when he was leaving class and knocked six pots of paint all over the broadloom. You know, some days I could kill them all.”
The freedom of movement, working
while sprawled all over the floor and the co-operative projects have produced an unexpected side benefit of schools-without-walls: a slow disappearance of the touch-taboo problems that bedevil Anglo-Saxon societies.
“In the conventional school, where everything and everyone has a place, a child reacts quite violently when another child touches or bumps against him,” says the headmaster of a schoolwithout-walls in Montreal. “The kids in this new school get used to body contact and the number of fights is about halved.”
It is part of an observable tolerance toward one another in pupils of schools such as Allandale Heights. Principal Banting says: “There is need to accommodate, not eradicate, personal eccentricities and the differences in maturity and learning ability. We do have a structure, because some agreed behavior is essential, but it is, hopefully, one that changes to fit the children,
not demands children change to fit it.”
As an experiment, schools-withoutwalls cannot be judged fairly for years. Their staffs do not say they will teach the child more: indeed, he may learn less in the lower grades than at a more traditional school. They do hope to produce people for whom the learning process will end only when they die, not when they quit school.
Revolution comes more slowly to the nation’s high schools. Some have ungraded classes; some give students a voice in running the school. But to many the principles on which Allandale Heights is built are still a heresy.
And therein lies a possible problem.
Allandale Heights teacher Elizabeth Pearce says: “If some of our senior children move into a more structured, disciplined environment and are denied the freedom to move around, talk and set up their own work programs, then I think they will want to debate the matter with the authorities.” □
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