The Classroom Should be Freed from Unnatural Restraints
In my most recent blog, I referred to St. George’s Six Founding Principles, specifically the first and most often quoted: “Health Must Come First.” I have since received requests for a greater explanation of the genesis of these six principles. In the late 1920s, a group of parents in Montreal came together to discuss the founding of the first independent progressive school in Canada, which subsequently became known as St. George’s School of Montreal.
DISTANCE LEARNING CLOSES
ONE DOOR (THAT OF A BRICKS
AND MORTAR SCHOOL)
BUT SIMULTANEOUSLY OPENS
ANOTHER (THAT OF THE WORLD
OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
WALLS). OUR CURRENT REALITY
HAS INVITED US TO RETHINK THE
DELIVERY OF OUR CURRICULUM,
TO CREATIVELY INNOVATE WITH
A NEW SET OF PARAMETERS.
For confirmation, they looked to the proximate examples of progressive education in New York City’s Little Red School House, in Greenwich Village, and the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Furthermore, they invited Stanwood Cobb, then President of the American Progressive Education Association, champions of student-centred learning, to join them in their planning process.
It was through these discussions that the founders decided not to compose a generic mission statement—undoubtedly adorned with a formal-looking crest—as a definition of purpose for their new school. Rather, it was decided to develop a well thought out and carefully considered set of fundamental guiding principles that would inspire a progressive and innovative direction for their school.
AS EXPLAINED IN THE SCHOOL’S FIRST PROSPECTUS IN 1930, THESE PRINCIPLES REPRESENTED “…A CONSENSUS OF OPINION OF THE BASE UPON WHICH MODERN EDUCATION SHOULD REST. THE DAY-BY-DAY PROGRAMME OF THE ST. GEORGE’S SCHOOL IS DOMINATED BY THESE PRINCIPLES.”
THE CLASSROOM SHOULD BE FREED FROM UNNATURAL RESTRAINTS
Another one of these six principles, “The Classroom Should Be Freed from Unnatural Restraints,” is often is the least understood, yet it speaks to the heart of our child-centred philosophy. Nostalgic photographs of typical schools of that time usually show classrooms with children sitting in 5 rows of 6 desks, or variations of same, facing forward towards the teacher, who stands at the blackboard at the front of the class, in what one might term an unnatural constraint.
However, from our very beginning, St. George’s students assembled around tables, or were seated in smaller groups on the floor to delve into creative and critical thinking inquiries that would engage them personally and socially, beyond prescribed knowledge and basic skills. These informal, less structured and more “natural” arrangements, coupled with open-ended tasks, encouraged spontaneous and engaging discussions and collaboration.
COVID-19: A NEW CONSTRAINT
Let’s now fast-forward to the present day. As our teachers collaborate to create our new Distance Learning program, The BLVD., being sure to include student input and parent feedback in this evolving model, they face a new remote learning constraint: the delivery of curriculum through online platforms, which by their very nature restrict creative, personal engagement and expression.
Despite these remote connections and the fluid schedules of our families, St. George’s teachers have learned new ways to engage housebound students, while also taking advantage of their home environment and the presence of other adults and siblings.
EDUCATION BEYOND THE CLASSROOM WALLS
Case in point: our Elementary School art specialist, Zenia Dusaniwsky, believes that the constraints of the current pandemic actually provide her the opportunity to spark student expression in new and exciting ways, beyond what a regular school experience might allow.
To quote Zenia, “Distance learning closes one door (that of a bricks and mortar school) but simultaneously opens another (that of the world outside the classroom walls). Our current reality has invited us to rethink the delivery of our curriculum, to creatively innovate with a new set of parameters.”
MATERIALS IN THE MAKING
“As an art teacher, one of the obvious hurdles of a COVID-driven distance education program is the lack of consistent access to traditional artistic materials for all students. However, this does not inhibit the exploration of ideas or concepts. Rather, students are invited to broaden their definition of artistic media to compose and create with things that might otherwise be overlooked. For example, Kindergarten students created colour wheels at home using found objects, and some even invited siblings to participate thereby reinforcing their own learning by teaching another.”
“He really likes Pollock and he did that on his own, based on his own research, his own interests and his own personal idea,” explained the parent of the child who created with condiments.
PURSUING PERSONAL PROJECTS, INTERESTS AND PASSIONS
Based on a project related to expressions, one Grade 2 student created such an interesting array of characters that he chose to continue his exploration in the form of a comic strip. Again, one of the luxuries of distance education is the opportunity to explore all ideas to their fullest potential without arbitrary time restrictions.
“Despite ample opportunity for choice in St. George’s classrooms,” explains Zenia, “space and time are nonetheless traditionally limiting factors of a brick and mortar school. Distance learning overrides these as it frees students to work as large and as long as their creativity inspires them to do so. As such, they own every step of the process and all of the creative decisions.”
PARTNERSHIPS WITH PARENTS
A final perk afforded by distance education is both “…the expected and unexpected involvement of parents, making education a true team effort. We all know that it takes a village to raise a child. With distance learning, the brick and mortar walls have come down; we are broadcasting in living rooms, conferencing in kitchens, teaching in dens. This provides the opportunity and potential to develop a seamless ebb and flow of communication, feedback and involvement of teachers, parents and students, particularly in the younger grades.” Zenia concludes, “Not only do parents support and facilitate the learning for the little ones, they also have their own great ideas and can further extend the work in so many wonderful ways. This is truly a win-win-win situation!”
CONTINUING TO ADAPT
Constraints in life are unavoidable but they represent conditions from which human growth happens. Restraints, on the other hand, are manmade. In traditional school settings, they provide a narrow structure by which to simplify group management, yet they also limit students’ natural ability to push beyond the obvious and adapt to changing world challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic is most certainly a major constraint. Happily, the St. George’s Distance Learning program provides a pedagogy that is free from unnatural restraints, providing education beyond the classroom walls. Once again, I salute our amazing faculty for their tireless and inspired efforts as they navigate this new domain.