Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices, School Community

The Education Reform Movement

Re-engage students with the adult world as part of their formal education

Earlier blog postings at this website have roamed widely over the field of needed changes: Teacher training and compensation, student assessment, community engagement by students, teacher-student relations, standardized testing, innovation, creativity, digital learning, discovery learning, etc.

Some of the blogs have obliquely referred to the obsolescence of the school model. As I see it, schools are indeed dysfunctional places – fertile seed grounds for bullying, e-mail hate mongering, smoking, doing drugs, engaging in unsafe sex, negative peer pressure about nearly everything, competition as a prime value, materialism, cliques and gang codes of behaviour, the iron bands of teen conventionalism in dress and language – any of which can be factors in teenagers’ mental and physical health. In the worst cases, schools are hellholes of classism (see the movie Waiting for Superman). Fortunately for some, schools are happy places – for the winners on the playing field and in the high marks game.

Historically, teenagers and many pre-teens worked side by side with adults in ugly circumstances. Liberal democratic societies invented public schools in the 19th century or earlier as models of social advancement. In the evolution of the schoolhouse cocoon, we have by and large ended up with what is written above. We seem to be at a historical crossroads with a chance to turn the corner.

To break the mould, it will be necessary to re-engage students with the adult world as part of their formal education, at least for those in their adolescent years. Done successfully, most school graduates, will have the benefit of adult role models to steer them in the direction of good citizenship – engaged, tolerant, open-minded, curious persons.

This is not a pipe dream. There are examples of high school students involved in the life of their communities as pre-apprentices, job shadowing, carpentry assistants, personal support for institutionalized persons of all ages, hands-on work to beautify parks and school grounds, etc. There are stories of community-engaged students putting in as much as two hours daily within the school timetable in addition to their schoolwork. Less glamorously, to do this will be hard work for everyone concerned. But the result will be worth the effort if it enhances our democratic citizenship as a benefit for both the most and the least advantaged. I view this as the primary purpose of public education. All the rest is secondary.

Meet the Expert(s)

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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