Spirit Quest on schooling or learning

Spirit Quest

Schooling or learning, that is the challenge

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

15 February 2013 — I  didn’t much like school but I was a timid boy who wanted very much to please, especially my parents and teachers.

I should have become a teacher, like my son Stephen, inasmuch as I am a veteran of many schools, all of them very different. I have been a pupil in an all-boys class in a German language school; the prep school of a prestigious private school in Scotland; a one room public school in rural Saskatchewan whose 20 year old teacher, probably the best teacher I ever had, presided over 45 children, 8 grades, and no indoor toilet. I attended an experimental school in Toronto where there were no desks. There were tables for four that competed with all the other table groups in the room. Then there was the village school in rural Ontario where each room consisted of two grades and one teacher. And finally I completed my schooling prior to university in a high school with more than a thousand students where I felt totally lost socially and academically, where the sole object of Grade 13 was to prepare for the final examinations. I am sure you will agree that I have some valuable pedagogical insights to share.

Throughout my educational career I worked hard. It is one thing to work hard and obtain good results, but quite another when, no matter how hard I laboured, my achievements remained mediocre. Today I would be diagnosed with learning disabilities. In my early years one was deemed either bright or dull. Today there are resources to help those who don’t fit the learning norm. In my time the struggling student often had more work heaped on him/her that took away the joy of learning and time-out for fun.

Arithmetic was my first stumbling block. Try as I might I could not memorize the times table. One day my father came home from work with a large sheet of bristol board, a flat nibbed pen and a vat of India ink. He then proceeded to draw a graph and placed the numbers of the times table in the spaces. When completed, this chart was hung in my room so that I would  see and learn it. It didn’t work.

I also had a struggle with reading. A book of more than 200 pages seemed like an insurmountable barrier to me. Somehow, I made it out the other end, educationally speaking.
Since those “dear old golden rule days” education has changed. My spouse and I had a dramatic revelation of this when we visited the school that our granddaughter is now attending. Granted it is called “an alternative school” in the public system. It is a place to which many teachers send their children. It is progressive, no rows of desks, instead there are learning areas filled with books and pictures and materials. Teachers have an intimate relationship with children who feel at home with them. Children help each other. It is not top down teaching but  experiental learning. Not all schools, by any means, are like that. Education has a long way to go. Much schooling unfortunately is still based on testing and jumping through the hoops.

I am particularly pleased that my son is one who is leading the way in education. His own history was not an easy one. Some of the schools that he attended were less than helpful. Unfortunately he inherited from me some of my negative learning traits.

His field was music and he was very much involved in the music programs of the schools he attended, at least those that had one. Unfortunately some didn’t and seemed to be just rows of desks, a virtual learning desert. His first job was teaching music at the International Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was there, however, that he decided that he did not want to specialize in music but rather become an elementary classroom teacher.

While attending the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keen, New Hampshire, he experienced an “open sesame” in education. David Sobel, one of his teachers and his mentor, is one with whom he is still very much in contact. He discovered a whole new attitude to teaching.

Stephen is now an elementary school teacher at Devonshire Public School in the Ottawa-Carleton School Board. Here his big interest is allowing and encouraging children to experience the environment. Thus he and his children  created a vegetable garden in the school yard. It was a learning experience for those pupils that they will not forget. We sensed the pride of those children as they served cups of gezpacho from tomatoes harvested from their own garden at a community function.

To best understand Stephen’s educational philosophy I shall quote him at some length from an essay titled, Environmental Inquiry: An Innately Natural Way to Instill Curiosity.  He writes:

“Nurturing lifelong learning is no doubt the wide-ranging goal of 21st Century educators. We want future generations to learn to critically think and we need to ensure they are prepared to resolve the unknown challenges of tomorrow. The risk takers amongst us throw caution to the wind as we lead young people into authentic learning situations without a clear and focused agenda while trusting our intuition. We hope that the resulting landscape of inquiry allows our students to connect the dots and bring order to the chaos. This is always an intimidating prospect but one that historians, biologists and archeologists have learned is archived in the Earth’s bedrock. Darwin, as he sailed the world aboard the Beagle, knew that a natural learning progression could be best experienced when he was immersed in situations embedded in the real world.”

He continues: “Initially, the classroom culture must be nurtured to create a group of confident and comfortable 9 year olds. The right conditions must be created for learning environments to effectively become the British coffee house of the 17th century or the coral reefs of the 19th century. From the moment my drum begins to play at the beginning of class, students learn to find their original rhythm to accompany mine. Every clap is honoured as a unique and valued contribution to what becomes a collaborative symphony of rhythm. For those students who find themselves on the fringes and not yet confident enough to jump into the fray, they can break the ice by contributing a rhythmic ostinato (repetition). This rhythmic ritual is ended by a drum roll. I want a strong collaborative potential to exist so that the exchange of ideas can more often than not be an inclusive experience for everyone. The ideas must be able to percolate so good ideas can be transformed into great ones.

“At the beginning of the year every student introduces themselves in an I Am poster and they write a letter to themselves in 20 years; all open ended attempts that allow students to introduce or reintroduce themselves to their peers while building collective inspiration out of their hopes and dreams for the future. These fundamentals must be in place and consistently reinforced for a truly democratic classroom to exist. In order to feel I can, at times, throw caution to the wind, this beginning allows us all to trust that goodwill is embedded in the learning culture of my students.”

(The full text of the article by Stephen Skoutajan is available on the website at www.naturalcuriosity.ca)   

School Spirit was usually interpreted as a kind of a rah-rah thing that is exhibited at sporting events. But school spirit is far more than that. It is finding that learning is relevant and exciting. It is, in fact, a spiritual experience that allows the child as well as the adult to recognize that they are more than pawns; they are participants in the human society and environment. I believe that this is what religion should be about.