Health Comes First
A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON
At the height of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic it was estimated that as many as 50 million people had died having contracted the virus. It is little wonder that some 12 years later, when a group of prominent educators and progressive parents established the Six Founding Principles of St. George’s School of Montreal that “Health must come first” topped their list.
However, physical well-being aside, our founders also believed that emotional, intellectual and spiritual health were important components of this principle. One can only imagine that this was a revolutionary approach as presented by a Canadian independent private school in 1930.
ONCE UPON A TIME
ST. GEORGE'S FOUNDING
PRINCIPLES WERE REGARDED
AS OUTSIDE THE ACADEMIC
TODAY, THEY ARE EMBRACED
AS BEST PRACTICE BY THE MOST
ACROSS THE WORLD. AND WE
CONTINUE TO LEAD BY EVOLVING
THEM - NOT JUST FOR TODAY
BUT FOR TOMORROW.
It’s Gone Viral
Now let’s fast forward to our COVID-19 present day. Beyond frequently washing our hands and maintaining physical distance, we are constantly reminded to maintain social engagement and be mindful of our emotional and mental health as well. Perhaps, most pertinent from an enlightened educator's point of view, is the understanding of the connection that exists between emotional health and depth of learning.
We Feel, Therefore we Learn
The internationally recognized research of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang speaks to the fundamental and essential activation of positive emotions that engender and support cognitive engagement. At St. George’s, the essential connections between healthy social, emotional and cognitive engagement are core to all of our practices.
This explains why, when we were faced with the challenge to transition our school from brick and mortar classrooms to a remote learning environment, we looked past the more traditional Online Learning models and chose Distance Learning to encourage the greater engagement of our students as our main priority. Rather than selecting from the multitude of online platforms structured around specific apps and "canned" online learning activities, we stretched further and chose to create “from scratch” our own Distance Learning approach, which we have branded The Blvd.—a proprietary pathway leading to all things St. George’s, but from a distance.
A Comparison - Distance vs. Online Learning
Our Distance Learning model is based on an understanding of cognitive development. Teachers must skillfully present a curriculum that approaches their students in ways that engage them emotionally and socially. The virtual, or online aspect of this process, is merely the means or the conduit of transmission. In our view, authentic learning includes the demonstration of a deeper and shared understanding.
Online learning, strictly speaking, represents a static and almost “by the books” approach. In many of the current Independent school online initiatives, learning is presented as a linear process through which the student is required to follow a set of instructions.
Contrast this approach with the Distance Learning program of St. George’s by which the student is invited to co–define the lesson at hand. It is an open ended and creative process, not limited and defined by a prescribed schedule. Students are encouraged to break out and regroup as they search for meaning and share unique interpretations. Distance Learning is authentic and organic, aided by the wise collateral presence of an ever “present” enlightened St. George’s educator.
With Distance Learning, the medium is definitely not the message. Rather, the message is meaningful and shared intellectual and social experience within a cognitive engagement. Our Distance Learning model invokes the St. George’s approach to teaching and learning to further foster collaboration, creativity, and connection.
What does it Look Like?
In a recent Distant Learning session, a group of grade 10 Marine Biology students were asked to research an endangered fish species and present an analysis of the reasons why they were endangered and possible solutions to address the problem. As members of a collaborative team, they assembled video clips containing artwork and graphics and they composed, sang and played original music containing catchy “ear worm” mantras to consolidate a powerful and unforgettable message (click on the attached video). The final result was most impressive and inspired joy as realized through the deep cognitive engagement of our students to the task at hand.
What is Flow?
This reaction of joy, in the context of learning, is best defined by the ground breaking studies of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as described in his 2019 Ted Talk presentation “Flow, The Secret of Happiness.” Csikszentmihalyi postulated that people find genuine satisfaction, best described as joyful, during a state of consciousness which he called FLOW (an emanation of energy) as we become completely absorbed in an activity, especially one which involves creative and critical thinking abilities such as exists in a meaningful learning program.
Of course the real time collaborative and cooperative emphasis of this model also fosters a healthy social and emotional Health Must Come First type of engagement present throughout our teaching and learning process.
Happiness and Better Health
We are continuously advised that if we want to feel better and improve our overall health, we should focus on the things that bring us happiness and joy. Scientific evidence during this COVID-19 pandemic suggests that positive emotions help to make life longer and healthier.
The fact that our students are socially and emotionally connecting to each other, while engaging in relevant absorbing real-life problem-solving activities, inspires healthier connections and certainly align well with our first founding principle: “Health Must Come First.”
History Repeats Itself
Although we cannot say how long COVID-19 will continue to dominate the current landscape, we can most assuredly state that the engagement of our students through meaningful learning will continue well past the day that the “all clear sign” is given by our elected officials.
We can also confirm that the progressive teaching and learning practices originally found in the St. George’s open classrooms of the 1930s (St. George’s Archives, Principal Agnes Matthews) will continue past the present day and will always include the emotional and social components of effective learning practices.
Thank you to all our incomparable educators, staff, families and students for enabling this important work to flourish.
MAY YOUR HEALTH CONTINUE TO COME FIRST.