Schooling: Repeat After Me

My first teaching experience was in the late 1980s at Westwood Secondary School, located north of Toronto’s airport in Mississauga. The local population was clearly transient, “just off the plane” …

My first teaching experience was in the late 1980s at Westwood Secondary School, located north of Toronto’s airport in Mississauga. The local population was clearly transient, “just off the plane” being a common marker, and moving in and out as jobs or more affordable apartments beckoned. The school had a large adult student program, and I remember well my first class. It was Adult esl 1 and was comprised of twenty-nine students: twenty-two Sikh men, five Pakistanis (also men), and, incongruously, two Jamaican women.

Apart from Jonavia Hines and Hollingsworth Hope, the basic English skills of the group ranged from nonexistent to meagre. The presence of these two women, seated with obvious determination in the front row, prompted a question. “Where are your wives?,” I shouted over the largely Punjabi din. “We came to school to find one,” came one response. A snake in the grass, I thought, a student who needed to be upgraded immediately. (A note to the office, and the wag was sent the next day to more challenging climes.) What the now twenty-one Punjabi and five Urdu speakers were desperate to learn, I was told, was how “to sound like you.”

No mean feat, but to land telemarketing, cab-driving, and restaurant jobs the students deemed some form of accent reform a requirement, and so, for elocution and pronunciation, the pedagogical devices quickly became songs and poetry, more specifically Stompin’ Tom Connors (all of him) and Dr. Seuss (nearly all of him). “Why ketchup loves potatoes” would crackle out of a beat-up school tape recorder, and, with song sheets in hand and standing at full attention, the chorus would rise, the sheer volume and enthusiasm causing passersby to peek through the window. “Again, this time ‘Bud the Spud’ or ‘Sudbury Saturday Night,’ ” came the demand as “Ketchup” wound down. “No, we’ve done our three songs for today,” I would reply. “It’s time for Mulberry Street and then The Cat in the Hat,” and the sheets were dispersed before I led the clipped poetic chants. The volume would rise again, a rich cacophony of modern Canada. It was fun and jaunty and took up half an hour a day. Jonavia and Hollingsworth, always game, joined in with great alacrity, but they shone in the next phase of the class.

I managed to convince the group that if they didn’t read—on the bus to school or to the night shift, on the toilet, after feeding their little urchins, whenever—for at least an hour every day, there was no point coming to school. We had the “easy readers” to loan, and the students took up the challenge, regularly coming to class with “response to literature” reports (ranging in length and presentation from scrawled paragraphs to two typewritten pages) to be dissected, improved upon, and then rewritten. That was it, and at the end of the semester the group left with dozens of books under their belts, a folder of corrected reports, accents intact, and a feeling of accomplishment.

Since that looser time, schooling, especially public high school, has become a most complicated affair. It has been buffeted between the extremes of child- versus teacher-centred learning; between a push for the acquisition of testable skills and the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake; between the whole child (i.e., the mind, body, and soul—and the future voter) and that part of the child most closely associated with learning, the mind. On the issue of best practices, the pendulum swings back and forth, education institutes produce papers, Ph.D.s are awarded, teachers are retrained, the theories of Neil Postman and Ivan Illich revisited, cognitive scientists weigh in, and, as with child-rearing in an anxious age, a written body of knowledge spirals skyward. Adolescents themselves pay no heed to the research, take little notice if subjected to a new pedagogical trick of the trade, and continue to enjoy their status as the black hole of human development—mysterious, awkward, refusing to be pinned down, and existing in a perpetual present.

Into the mix, with teachers wondering if their job is to educate, to act in loco parentis, to do both, schools have become society’s incubators for a hoped-for positive “ethnocultural pluralism”—the term having replaced multiculturalism (or “multi-culti,” as it is sometimes called), with its negative connotations of song and dance, of festival foods and costumes. The list of things high schools do, or are asked to do, has become positively endless, and this fall, like most falls, the universities, the next gatekeepers in society’s long march toward proficiency, ability, and progress, said “Stop! We are sympathetic. Your job is difficult, we appreciate that, but many of those arriving on our doorsteps, the cream of the crop and those who have survived the Darwinian calculus of the teenage years, will not read and cannot write.”

By my own observations and experience—eight years in front of high-school English and history classes of ever-increasing size; treks across the country each spring for literary evenings with teachers; anecdotal evidence accumulated through friends in academe—the impossibility of both situations (teaching high school and having hallowed university halls graced by students lacking essential skills) has reached a crisis point.

The purveyors of educational television and computer learning point to an increase in multimedia awareness and kinesthetic ability among teenagers, who, according to recent surveys, on average spend more time in front of the goggle box than they do in class, and a roughly equal amount of time computer- and video-gaming. (Time will tell how long they will spend watching TV on their cellphones . . . this technology is coming to a neighbourhood near you, soon.) Speaking with high-school teachers, it is difficult to be sanguine about this state of affairs. Even trumped up as “fluid intelligence,” one senses from them that “visual learning” actually exacerbates the already debilitating need for instant gratification, delays maturity, and contributes to a generalized attention deficit disorder among young people. And many teachers feel stuck.

Schools have responded to this development—summarized by Neil Postman as “amusing ourselves to death”—not by offering safe haven from the visual world, but rather by embracing it. And so, we have Shakespeare delivered on video, World War II captured through interactive computer games, and so forth. While such activities may have some merit, the total effect is to depress the ability to engender meaning for oneself, and to muddy the waters as to the essential purpose of schooling—perfecting the crafts of reading, writing, and thinking. In short, the trouble with visual learning is that it rarely places the responsibility for making meaning on the viewer, and is thus more entertaining than edifying.

If the matter can be removed for a moment from the educational specialists—that is, the vast industry that has a vested interest in keeping the pendulum swinging—there may be a rather simple solution. High-school teachers must know, in very clear terms, what they must do: equally, university professors must know, both in terms of knowledge and ability, what they are getting. Solutions to both dilemmas lie in simplicity.

First, the time-tested small university seminar is an ideal learning environment. It should be replicated as closely as possible at the high-school level. (There is much dubious research suggesting that class size is not a major issue. I suspect that such papers are written by the mavens of educational theory, not by beleaguered high-school teachers faced daily with a thick pile of teenage humanity, some asleep, others wired.) In general, adolescents need to be corralled, and corralling twenty-five can be achieved by most adults with imagination; corralling a group of forty requires a drill sergeant.

Second, a high-school teacher should not have students who have already read and understood The Catcher in the Rye and are eager to move on to Dostoevsky sitting beside students who are busily pulling the thorns out of their paws. (The good work of guidance departments should not be overlooked.)

Third, for the obvious reasons that they do not handle choice well and that democracy requires a certain knowledge base, society has decided that teenagers should not vote until they are eighteen. (That they can drive at sixteen may be considered a sop to the automobile industry.) Why then do we accord them so much choice at high school? What is wrong with a core curriculum of English, history, geography, math, science, art, and physical education—for all students, at every level of ability, to be repeated every year and taught at appropriate but increasing levels of sophistication and with new material?

I can hear the anti-elitist arguments: What about shop, keyboarding, family studies, careers, computer programming, business, off-campus credits? All such activities are no doubt worthy in their own right, and should be pursued . . . at community clubs, libraries, after school, wherever, but not during the six hours a day teenagers are actually required to be in school. Furthermore, self-esteem, that lacuna of the teenage years, is achieved through a sense of accomplishment, and there is simply no comparing the feeling of satisfaction gained from reading with the sensation of robotically following most forms of visual stimuli. In brief, private schools are offering smaller classes and a straightforward liberal arts and sciences curriculum, and unless the public-sector schools offer the same, the middle- and upper-class exodus to private schooling will continue unabated. The job of high-school education is to produce learned, curious, knowledgeable folks, not those in need of remedial help in basic skills at the university or college level.

Whatever else happens during the torrid years of high school, no student with designs on post-secondary education should emerge without having read a slew of curricular and extracurricular books. They can range from Gordon Korman to Margaret Atwood. It doesn’t much matter, but 100 titles under their belts, and the ability to sit still for a couple of hours creating meaning from static black-and-white type, should be a bare minimum.

As part of the exit criteria from high school, all students should be paraded down to the cafeteria, given five or six sheets of blank paper and two hours, and told: “Okay, one of the entrance requirements to university and college is a ten-paragraph essay on the colour red. Take your time.” For regular readers, such an assignment might even be pleasurable. Either way, it represents a good test of accumulated skill and a clear indicator to colleges and universities of student ability. University students stampeding off to remedial English classes isn’t the end of civilization, but, to paraphrase Robin Williams, “You can see it from there.”

Ken Alexander