Category Archives: High school

3D thought experiment to understand the construction of the brain.

Thought Experiment Three: Vat.

(Photo credit: Sinead Fenton)

I find trying to create a 3D image of the brain in my head a tad difficult.  The diagrams in books are still two-dimensional however skilled the artist.  Pictures of cross sections don’t seem to help me.  The mathematically talented can probably visualise it, but I need something more.

This works for me as a thought experiment:  blow up a balloon and partly fill it with pale pink jelly whipped with milk or cream.  The jelly should

A Twisted Family Tradition ~ The Lime Jello Brain

A Twisted Family Tradition ~ The Lime Jello Brain (Photo credit: hurleygurley)

English: A cranberry jello salad made in a rin...

English: A cranberry jello salad made in a ring mold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

be a little short on gelatine so it cannot hold much shape unsupported.  Take a large blob of chocolate on a stick.  How large?  It should be about 2/3 of the

Mousse au chocolat (sur fond transparent)

Mousse au chocolat (sur fond transparent) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

volume of the jelly;  err on the side of being more.   Chocolate mousse would be better for authenticity but less practical.  Ideally the chocolate should be grey, but this grey chocolate is unattractive.

It’s our thought experiment, so chocolate mousse is fine.  Cut a few holes in the blob, then insert it into the balloon and finish filling the balloon with the pink jelly.  Some of the pink

English: Drawings of the cerebral cortex.

English: Drawings of the cerebral cortex. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

jelly will fill the holes in the chocolate.

Now coat the balloon in chocolate.  Again, chocolate mouse would be closer to the right texture but impractical. Your choice.  Mould papier-mâché around the balloon and allow to set.

Human cerebral cortex, Brain MRI, Coronal slic...

Human cerebral cortex, Brain MRI, Coronal slices of a hemisphere with gray/white (yellow) and pial (red) surfaces overlaid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine that you can dissolve the balloon, just leaving the jelly, chocolate and papier-mâché.  The papier-mâché is the skull; the thin coating of chocolate is the cerebral cortex and made up of grey matter, neurons. Notice how the wrinkling in the picture below increases considerably the area of the cerebral cortex and therefore the volume as well.   The pale pink jelly is the white matter, largely made up of myelinated axons. The chunk of chocolate in

the middle is the cerebellum, cerebellar and cerebrum, mainly made up of grey matter, except where the jelly fills the holes.  The stick is the part of the spine that uses grey matter.  Of course, the dried papier-mâché is the skull.


brains! (Photo credit: cloois)

It all looks delicious, what a shame about  the papier-mâché skull.  You could try to carefully cut away the skull, pick up the brain and put it on the plate.  Oops, the brain collapses under its own weight.  I hope the plate was right beside the skull, ready to catch the brain.


Rainbow-Jello-Cut-2004-Jul-30 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This thought experiment helped me understand why brains often bruise on the opposite side from where the head was struck.  I also realised how white matter can be effective as a transmitter of messages as it seems to be everywhere that the grey matter isn’t.

If you are interested in making a brain dessert, there are brain moulds around or use a ring-shaped jelly mould, fill in the hole with chocolate mousse and gently cover with almost set jelly.  Cover the whole thing with chocolate mousse and la voilà, an educational treat!


When zero is not allowed, what is the difference between a student who doesn’t do assignments and a student who is on an Individual Education Program?

It is common to accommodate a student on an Individual Education Plan due to a disability either intellectual or physical, by reducing her workload if that is appropriate.  For example, an English teacher might require a student to answer one of two questions as thoroughly as every one else in the class.  For the second question he might jot down a few words to remind him of his thoughts on a possible answer, if he had time.  He will meet requirements of the assignment by thinking about both questions, but reducing the amount of writing required would accommodate his dysgraphia.

I should add that there are many other forms of accommodation.  Shortening the amount of work is only one but sometimes a useful one.

Gifted students on an IEP may have the number of questions they do for math practice reduced as they do not need as many to cement the concept.  Instead, the teacher may assign problems that take them farther into the concept.

You can see where this is leading.  What a teacher assigns and the amount she assigns is tied in to how much work she believes is needed to learn the material.  If you have read my four posts “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” you will remember that repetition AKA practice is necessary for learning skills.

If a student is not on an IEP, does a teacher have a moral right to change the program he used his expertise, experience and professional judgement to design just to accommodate a normal student who hasn’t handed in some assignments?

Consistently not doing work is a behaviour problem and those who are best equipped to deal with them should be informed: parents, guidance counsellors, principals, vice principals.  In the meantime, teachers should be allowed to get on with what they were trained to do.  And that includes assessment

Do we really want our future doctor, lawyer, builder of bridges, electrician or plumber accepted to train in their professions even though they had missed parts of their math or physics or English classes?  If they find zeroes discouraging, let them ask for help.  If they don’t want to learn enough to ask for help, please don’t lie to the public by indicating they have actually passed a course.

Problem Solving and Ill-Structured Problem Solving

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.   Roger Lewin

Cadets at BRNC participate in a team problem-s...

Cadets at BRNC participate in a group problem solving exercise. Image via Wikipedia

If school were to prepare children to solve the problems of real life, we would have to consider the nature of real life problems.  So let’s look at two.


At the passport office in Ottawa there is a guard who sits at the door.  His job is to check whether applicants have everything they need to get their passport.  He then directs them in one of three ways: to the right because they have all their paperwork done, to the left because they need to pick up paperwork or sort out a problem or home because a signature or a photograph is missing.  It is very efficient and saves everyone a lot of time.  Whoever thought of this had carefully considered what the bottlenecks are at this point in the bureaucracy and how they could be resolved.

What I think is interesting is the likelihood that a good percentage of those people who don’t go to the right, could have been spared the trip altogether if they had carefully read the instructions and the followed them with equal care.


A single healthy young woman who has been working for a year and lives in a city has been offered a new job.  The new workplace is awkward to get to.  What should she do?

Most peoples’ response would be that we don’t have enough information to answer the question.  In fact this may be all the information the young woman might have.

To solve this problem she and we need to ask questions to get useful information.

What other information do we need to answer the question?

What makes it awkward to get to?

Is it close enough to walk?

Is cycling an option?

What bus route options are available?

Could she take a bus that comes close and walk the rest of the way?

Would using a car help?

Could she afford a car?

Is car-pooling an option?

Is moving an option?

The answers to these questions may create other questions such as costs in time spent traveling, distance from favourite activities, whether the new job is worth the difficulties, are there trade-offs such as walking becoming part of her exercise program?  From our own experiences we know it is rare that immediately we have a problem we will have enough information to solve it. We also know that sometimes there is not one right answer and we are left deciding between two or more equally acceptable but different answers.


This is the essence of what is known as ill-structured problem solving.  Students are given a problem to solve.  In solving it, they discover they need more information and sometimes as they acquire that information, they discover that the problem is not quite what they thought it was.

In the problem above, the young woman may realise that the issue is not how to get to her new job but whether the extra costs and difficulties make it worth taking the job in the first place.  She may be able to negotiate working part time from home or working flexible hours.  She may decide the increase in salary and opportunities for promotion are worth the difficulties and hope that later she can find either an alternate means of transportation or closer accommodation. Some are solutions that are not obvious in the statement of the problem or in the information supplied.

With the same information available to start with and the same information available through research, different people or groups of people may solve the problem differently and may also take different paths in accumulating facts and applying logic to arrive at a solution.


This kind of problem solving as a teaching tool was first used at McMaster medical school* in Hamilton, Ontario.  While it didn’t change the retention of information by much, it did improve diagnostic and other skills in the embryo doctors.  It was so successful it was soon copied by Harvard’s medical school.   In browsing through the Internet I noticed that ISPS seems to be most used in higher education and sometimes in secondary schools.  It is also seen as something appropriate for academically talented students.

This is the kind of problem solving that will be a permanent part of our lives and good decision-making will rely, in part, on our skill in dealing with it.  The question arises, can we teach it earlier? How old do children have to be before they will benefit?


TRIZ process for creative problem solving

One model for solving problems Image via Wikipedia

Take a look at most math books. The word problems often follow the same structure for each concept taught.  If the unit taught were subtraction, most of the word problems would follow a pattern:


Owner        has X  things.    If   it gives away Y things, how many will be left?

Harry              has 7 puppies.     If he gives away 5 puppies, how many will be left?

The teacher   has 25 cookies.    If he gives away 5 cookies, how many will be left?

The merchant has 10 free cars.  If he gives away 7 cars,    how many will be left?

After a couple of questions, the students look for the numbers, plug them into the formula without thinking about the problem: X-Y= right answer, and move on.  To be sure we now require students to write down what the problem is, the method and the answer, but these, too, are formulaic.

Should we throw in a question such as:

Collector has Y whatsits but needs X whatsits, how many more does he need to find?

the child who hasn’t truly grasped the concept of subtraction will be confused.

Adam has 5  flat smooth rocks, but needs 13.  How many more does he need to find?

Should the subtraction problems be mixed with other word problems, such as addition, the child who hasn’t grasped the concepts will be completely stymied.  If she has also not learned her number facts, she will be so slowed and frustrated that arithmetic will become difficult.


These problems are not ill structured because all the information necessary to solve the problem is available, but the issues I have described are part of the skills involved in being able to solve an ill-structured problem.  The child needs to understand what kind of problem is in front of her, whether she has all the information she needs to solve it and what tools she could use to solve it.  She needs to have the confidence to examine the problem to see if she can extrapolate or calculate the information she needs and especially the confidence to declare that there is not enough information.

If one of the problems read:

 Justin needs 13 smooth white stones.  He found some beside the river and 6 in the schoolyard.  How many more does he need?

the child should recognise what she needs to do solve the problem and that she cannot do it without a certain piece of information.

Depending on her age, it might not be essential that she can voice the necessary operation; it would be sufficient to demonstrate the difficulty using drawings or beans.  She might say:

He has 6 stones and some of the 7 he needs to make 13.  That means he must have at least 1 stone.  The best estimate I can make is that he needs between 6 stones and none to make up the 13.  

Or she might say:

I know that 13 – 6 = 7 so the stones he got in the school yard are between 1 and 7.  If the number of stones he found in the schoolyard is subtracted from 7, the answer is the number needed. 

There are lots of ways for a child in grade two or three to talk about a problem like this.  The point is that she is considering the problem itself, rather than plugging in a formula.  I am not knocking learning formulae or number facts; I believe they are worth the effort, but without learning to play with ideas to solve problems, a student is only being trained to be a calculator.

It also really doesn’t matter if she is using mathematical terms.  In fact it is probably too much to ask her to use what is new vocabulary for her.  What matters is that she is solving the problem to the point where she can see her way through to an answer or why she can’t reach an answer.

TN2020: Problem solving through storyboarding

TN2020: Problem solving through storyboarding (Photo credit: Zadi Diaz) There are many processes that are useful in solving a problem.


In many grade 11 and 12 academic math and physics classes today, students complain that the teacher is unfair if she gives problem sets on tests or exams that are not more or less identical to the ones they studied in class.  In other words, they expect not to have to figure out a problem, but simply recognise it, match it with the correct formula and plug in the numbers.   They want this in order to get the highest possible marks to aid their applications to universities. This is neither math nor thinking.

This story astonished me when I first heard it, as I naively assume that the last two years in an academic stream should be used to hone students’ analytical abilities.  I wondered how these students would cope if they were given and ill-structured problem in science or in math.  How would they cope if it were their summative?

These students do not see variety in their problem sets, much less ill-structured problems.  They arrive at universities unprepared to think, expecting to memorise facts and formulas.  Professors who expect them to think are resented and courses they expect to be bird courses are unpleasant surprises when the professors demand thought.

The professors are distressed, too.  They expect to teach concepts that the students will take away and make an effort to understand.  They expect to have embryo scientists and mathematicians in front of them, eager to learn and understand; they do not expect clever calculators waiting for more formulae and numbers.

Math and the sciences aren’t the only subjects where students are allowed to slip through using formulae.  It is not uncommon for students to leave high school for university never having progressed beyond the five-paragraph essay.  For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, the five-paragraph essay is another formula.  I won’t go into it as you can find it on the Internet.  Suffice it to say that no student starting first year in the Humanities should be stuck knowing only how to write a five-paragraph essay.  For a start, their ideas should be too complex and too subtle to be expressed in such a crude instrument.

Problem Solving PDCA

Problem Solving PDCA (Photo credit: Luigi Mengato)


It isn’t only true for academics.  What kind of job is a plumber or electrician or cleaner going to do if their only thinking is formulaic?  How will parents deal with their children and the school or medical system if they can’t think things through to ask the questions that will help their children or themselves?  Just because students are not going on to university is no reason to condemn them to simplistic thinking.

Going back to our grade two student: if every year she is in school she is taught and expected to think and apply the facts she has also learned, consider how she will be empowered to make good decisions for her own life.

If she has the talents to go on to university, imagine how little time she will waste as she engages with new ideas.  The same applies no matter what post-secondary education she chooses because she will have learned to look beyond the obvious. In a world, we are told, where she can be expected to change jobs and learn new skills with some regularity, isn’t that what her education system should do for her?

English: Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”. Categories...

Image via Wikipedia

* McMaster Medical School:  the Little School that Could and Did

Harvard Dean Gives McMaster an A

McMaster’s Innovations in Medical Innovation Honoured in NewsWeek

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Should Elementary Teachers Work Longer Hours for Less Pay than Secondary Teachers?

A Reply to Olivier’s Comment on

Have You Ever Wondered Why Your Child’s Elementary Teacher Looks So Tired?

If we were merely imparters of random knowledge from aging textbooks, Olivier, I might find your argument interesting; after all even you could drill children in exercises until they had memorised facts.  The difference is that we prepare the students who will go into high school to learn more difficult subject matter.  We equip them with the tools to learn:  not just reading and writing and arithmetic, but also thought and imagination and questions.

Ages & Stages

Elementary teaching requires an understanding of the stage that the child is at for example between the ages of two and seven a child believes that a tall glass holds more water than a short glass regardless of their diameters.  Thirteen year olds, on the other hand, go through a stage that lasts roughly a year in which they cannot process facts using the scientific method; in other words, once they have a theory, they have great difficulty accepting facts that disprove the theory. A teacher who is unaware of the pedagogical and psychological realities of the stages their students are in is going to have great difficulty teaching most subject material and especially any subject material which requires the children to do more than just memorise facts.

Critical Thinking: Not Just for High School Teachers

In fact, the Ontario Ministry for Education and Training requires that every subject from Grade One up be taught and assessed with a critical and creative thinking component as well as a knowledge and skill component.  This makes sense, Olivier, when you realise that each discipline has its own way of thinking about the world.  A scientist creates a hypothesis, a well-designed experiment to test the hypothesis (and anyone who has done this will tell you that experimental design is not simple), observes the results and draws conclusions from the results.  On the other hand, an historian can’t do experiments to demonstrate truths about historical events; facts such as writing, artefacts and drawings are collected and the historian considers what conclusions can be most logically drawn from the evidence.

I could go on to discuss the other subjects we teach, but I am sure you see my point.  The historian must, even more than the scientist, consider the biases of every one involved in contributing to the conclusions. Elementary teachers must understand and train their students in the kind of thinking experts do in each discipline.  Facts can be found in books, videos and sometimes on the Internet but thinking about it cannot.

To teach thinking we use tools that aren’t always found in textbooks.  You would not recognise an elementary math class today because students will often be using manipulatives to learn such things as algebra.  We don’t just get them to memorise equations, we let them discover why they work, why they are helpful and why the rules of solving equations matter.

[For an fascinating and in depth discussion of thinking in different disciplines see  World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence by Stephen C. Pepper]

Curriculum Updates

It is not obvious where you live.  The Math and Language Arts curriculum I am referring to is the one in Ontario, Canada; it was written in 2005 and 2006 respectively.  It was supplemented with marking exemplars in math, reading and writing.  Recent curriculum is no guarantee of good curriculum but it does demonstrate that the powers-that-be are paying attention.

Textbooks:  Not for Every Grade or Every Subject and Never Enough for French Immersion

The Trillium List is a list of textbooks approved by the ministry for use in the schools.  Although there are textbooks approved for almost every subject in every grade, the reality is, as one teacher wrote to me today, that there are seldom texts used for math in grade one and two.  Subjects such as science and social studies in the primary grades do not have textbooks although there may be some teacher guides.  These subjects are taught through hands on, carefully planned activities.  And I have yet to see a text beyond an anthology for Language Arts for any elementary grade.  If that sounds like enough, I should remind my readers that students in Language Arts learn grammar, spelling, composition (for a variety of audiences), participation in group discussions, public speaking, reading non-fiction, reading for information, to skim or scan and much more.  French Immersion teachers have access to fewer texts than those teaching in English (see Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?) and find themselves frequently translating materials for their students.

Elementary Teachers as Diagnosticians

You are right in one sense, Olivier, we do teach children first.  Their well-being and safety is our first mandated concern but it requires an expertise beyond a normal caregiver’s. Elementary school is where a lot of diagnostic work happens.  If by the end of grade eight a learning disability or behavioural problem has not been diagnosed, it is not likely to happen in high school, no matter what the severity.  I speak from both experience and observation.  Elementary school teachers use their knowledge of child development, the subjects they teach, their observational skills and finely honed abilities in multi-tasking to spot anomalies in student performance and investigate further.  Should the child be diagnosed with a disability or any other kind of problem, it will be the teacher who carries out any suggested accommodations or modifications.  She will also be the one who will continue to adjust the delivery of the curriculum to allow the child to learn it.

And Creative & Critical Thinkers

Notice I say adjust the delivery of the curriculum, not adjust the curriculum.  Most children with learning disabilities are perfectly capable of learning the same material as their classmates.  All they require is the ingenuity of their teacher in finding an alternate way of for them to learn or demonstrate their understanding of the topic.  I should not really use the word “all” as sometimes this is quite a challenge and requires considerable negotiation with student, parents and experts and experimenting with methods until one is found that is effective.

Teaching Many in One Class, One Curriculum (Have You Ever Seen a One Man Band)

The elementary classroom includes students of a wide range of abilities.  There may be a range as much as two grades below and two grades above intellectually.  Some students may be barely functional in English.  Some may have emotional and behavioural problems that require professional help, but may or may not be receiving it.  We teach in a public school system and therefore we teach every child.  Currently the default placement for any child with special needs is the regular classroom, so that is where most of them are being taught.  The teacher has a curriculum to teach AND she must consider the nature of her students’ abilities as she plans how to deliver it.  This is not usually the case for high school teachers.

For more information about the administrivia that a teacher deals with, I refer you to Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching? I have not outlined the rest of a teacher’s duties such as supervision and meetings.  I will finish this incomplete summary with one additional expectation of all elementary teachers:  no matter how weary, how sore, how ill she is, she smiles, speaks softly and puts the kids first.

For Even More Information about Elementary Teachers’ Working Conditions:

My astonishment is no longer that people believe that elementary teachers should be on a different pay scale from high school teachers but, meaning no disrespect to my secondary colleagues, that people aren’t agitating to have elementary teachers paid a great deal more to work fewer hours.  Could it be that young children are considered women’s work and women’s work is not accorded much value?  If men dominated elementary school teaching would the job still be valued less?  Do we pay pediatricians less than urologists on the grounds that they deal with young children?  Are people who make cribs paid less than those who make beds?

A Modest Proposal

Given that you think people who teach from a textbook that their students could probably read and learn from themselves should be paid less than high school teachers, Olivier, I have a modest proposal.  University professors should have their salaries divided such that the part that represents the proportion of time spent teaching courses be reduced to less than that of an elementary teacher (as they don’t have to diagnose learning difficulties or supervise playgrounds).  After all, if the high school teachers have done THEIR job, university students should be perfectly capable of reading the texts and learning the course work themselves.  And we all know that either a computer or teaching assistants do their marking.

And a Chuckle

A few years ago I saw an amusing analysis of the comment that elementary teachers were just glorified babysitters.  I don’t know if this is the same one, but it comes to the same conclusion:

Ok- to the people that say teachers are babysitters- and we know that during the school year the teachers probably see the children more than their own parents…soooooooooo if teachers are babysitters….then teachers should be paid as babysitters…back when I was 12 (oh…say 23 years ago) I charged $5.00 per child per hour, and I am sure the price has gone up, but you know what… let’s pay these babysitters $5.00 per child per hour, for every day they have the children. No holiday pay, nothing like that. There’s 180 school days, right? 7 hours in a school day (we won’t let the teacher get paid for her lunch). A teacher has…let’s say 20 children. Holy crap- that’s $126K a year!!! Yeah!!! Please please please pay teachers as babysitters.

French as a Second Language is not Taught in a Vacuum; How Do We Teach All the Children?

I have spent a number of posts writing about the attempt of the New Brunswick Ministry of Education’s attempt to revise its FSL program because it mirrors situations in provinces and communities across Canada.   The situation there seemed to be typical not only of difficulties in FSL education across Canada but also typical of the way efforts to improve education are stymied by political haste and unwillingness to thoroughly understand the issue, typical of the insufficient or inadequate resources used to research every aspect of the problem and typical of the inflexibility in proposing solutions apparently set in stone.  Surely solutions require brainstorming for a time before an effective answer can be found.

            Let’s look at the problem New Brunswick really had:

  • Very few of the students were leaving high school with any kind of fluency in their second language, French.
  • The FSL teachers could not be guaranteed to be Francophone or of native-like quality in their French
  • If the FSL teacher’s French was excellent, his training in teaching L2 couldn’t be guaranteed to be sufficient.
  • Both the Early and Late French Immersion programs were losing large proportions of their students before the end of high school, thus making it unlikely that the bilingual goal of the programs would be achieved.
  • Some parents were placing their children in Immersion in order to ensure that their children were in a stream with few learning-disabled, immigrant or disruptive students. 
  • In spite of the politically correct statements about French Immersion being available to all children, the truth is that there was little support for children who flounder in the program for whatever reason.  If there are not enough bilingual teachers with appropriate training to teach French, it stands to reason that there would not be enough bilingual special education teachers.
  • Only 80% of children of the appropriate age live within 16 kilometres of a school offering EFI.  This means that one fifth of New Brunswick children entering first grade did not have the option of entering EFI.  I suspect most of those are in rural populations.

Unfortunately, almost everyone who took issue with the Croll/Lee report focussed on Early French Immersion; they saw it as an attack on Early Immersion. Although they fiercely criticised the report and many of those criticisms were warranted, they missed the kernel of the problem and not only proposed no solution but did not acknowledge that there was a problem.  Most critics were too busy marshalling their arguments for the reinstatement of the EFI to concern themselves with the whole picture.

So here is the problem: New Brunswick wants its Anglophone graduates to speak sufficient French to get by in a Francophone area.  At this moment very few are anywhere close to modest fluency, much less bilingualism at graduation.  N. B. can’t throw money at this problem to fix it. 

French Immersion is a pretty good system for teaching French when the students stay in it right through to Grade 12 and when the appropriate supports are provided.  Most students who start in FI, especially EFI, don’t stay the course. Of the kids eligible to start in EFI, 20% would have to travel over 16 k, making EFI an unlikely option.

There is strong evidence that the ministry has not been successful in training or finding enough near-native French speaking well-trained French teachers.  This is one of the reasons that support for children floundering in FI is not available.  It is also a factor frequently ignored by researchers, educators, parents and politicians.  Would it be better to have fewer and better French teachers?

The other problem with FI seems to be social; it may be due to inadequate support from the ministry or class perceptions of the parents.  Whatever the cause, students in difficulty in FI don’t stay in FI.  With that awareness, some parents won’t even put their kids in FI, some will be gently dissuaded by well-meaning teachers and other parents will have their children transferred to the Core French program when she starts to have difficulties.

Daily lessons don’t seem to be effective in teaching FSL; we don’t know why but it doesn’t work.  Students are usually bored and uninterested at best.  A program called Intensive French, requiring a one off year of differentiated programming shows promise on a number of levels.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  What solution will do the best job of teaching all of the children to speak sufficient French to order a meal, make an appointment with a doctor or ask for help in normal day to day life?  Of course, some of the children can go much farther than that so we want a program that will provide for them, too, if we can afford it; we have to remember, though, that some things don’t just cost money, they also cost opportunities for others.  This should be the bottom line for every ministry of education in the country and every Anglophone board of education in the country.

THE SOLUTION will require the wisdom of Solomon and parents who are willing to put other people’s children’s needs first.  It will require politicians who call it like it is and researchers who look beyond one narrow area of research.  It will require unions who will acknowledge that although their mandate is to protect jobs, they are teachers first and want what provides a good education for students.  We have the capacity to provide for the educational needs of our children but not the wants of all the stakeholders.  It is time for the adults to act like adults.

A School for Scientifically and Technically Talented Students

            One of my observations as a teacher of regular and gifted middle school students is that almost every parent wants their child to go to university.  They want their children in the university stream in secondary school and will rarely consider that a career in a trade might be an excellent goal.  Students whose intelligence is strongest in their ability to work with their hands are forced like square pegs into the round holes of an academic stream. The parents’ concern is understandable, as the second stream often becomes, in effect, a holding pen for the academically indifferent or inept. Many colleges are now requiring courses from the academic stream as part of their admissions criteria and there is no strong apprenticeship stream.

            The flip side is that many students who should be headed for a university education in math or science by the nature of their talents are often discouraged from taking shop courses.  They are encouraged to focus on the abstract and yet working with concrete materials would give embryo engineers a better understanding of problems they will usually deal with in the abstract.  In fact, in Ottawa, one of the gifted programs is housed in a school wholly without shops.

            The truth is that few people are wholly concrete thinkers or wholly abstract and both aspects of students’ abilities need to be nurtured.  We need a school where both kinds of talents are nurtured and seen as valuable and complementary.

            I propose a School for the Scientifically and Technically Talented.  This school would have a top notch program for the scientifically and mathematically gifted; a top notch program in a variety of trades, leading to an early apprenticeship and top notch specialists in giftedness, learning disabilities and gifted/learning disabled. 

            The reason for the specialists is that it is not unusual for students who have strong gifts in one area to have a learning disability in another.  In fact, the apparently lazy bright student is often both gifted and LD.  Sometimes the learning disability may be severe enough that scores on intelligences tests may appear lower than cut offs for gifted or academically talented programs.  Such students, however, may be extremely talented in specific areas.  This kind of profile is not limited to students with strong mathematical and technical talents, but it is seen frequently in them.  The specialists would help identify learning problems and work with students and teachers to discern ways to help talents flourish in spite of difficulties.

Students would be allowed and even encourage to take some options in an area they find interesting but aren’t sure they could manage.  In those courses, they would be given a peer mentor and extra help after school.  Their grades in those courses would be pass/fail/honours so they could focus on learning,

            Academically oriented students would have access to shop courses all the way through secondary school and if they wished, they could extend their time in school to start an apprenticeship and complete the requirements for university. 

            Students who do not think of themselves as academically oriented would have access to academic courses and support.  If they needed a bridge class to qualify to do an academic course, it would be available.  It would be possible for a student who started as an apprentice to finish with qualifications to apply for university if she so chose.  She could also finish her apprenticeship.

Bridge classes are not a new concept, but few actually exist in reality.  If bridge classes would be too small to justify a teacher, then correspondence classes would be set up for these students with a supervising teacher in the school available to help as needed.  The concept would be much the same as is used in many alternative secondary schools where students work at their own speed to cover the material.

There would be several criteria for entrance to this school: middle school marks, recommendations from shop, home economics or art teachers, an observed workshop in which students created a project out of materials in a set time, recommendations from home room, science, math or geography teachers and an interview.  None of the criteria in itself would block a student from entering the school; poor marks with positive results in every other area might be fine.  Excellent marks with poor recommendations and a demonstrated inability to share ideas and work with others might result in a refusal.

            The school would have the prestige of gifted programs, so parents of less academically oriented students would be more inclined to let their children go there.  The academic students who went there would have the appropriate programs and teachers to develop their talents, too, but they would also have the opportunity to develop complementary hands on skills.

            Concrete thinkers who were uncomfortable with academics would have their strengths nurtured.  Eventually they might discover a need for math or physics as they become more skilled in shop work.  Academic work that relates to the real world might be a great motivator.  Success breeds success and students who might not have done more than drifted through high school may find a meaningful education that will give them a strong foundation for their post-secondary life.

            Co-operative work programs would be a large factor in this school’s life.  Clearly, students in apprenticeship programs will need to spend time in the field practising, but all students would be encouraged to do at least one co-op program, preferably in a field that interests them.  I suspect a little time spent with a real engineer on the job might change a few students’ minds about the charms of that iron ring.  Time in a hospital might make them aware of the different skills and specialties needed in the medical field.

            In short, the concept behind this school would be to get talented abstract and concrete thinkers in science and technology exposed to the variety of skills available to them.  It is also intended to get us past the snobbery that believes academic skills are more valuable that technical skills.  Think of it: both a good surgeon and a good mechanic can save your life.  We want both of them to be skilled and thinking outside the box.

            And if it were in Ottawa, where would we place it?  In the new mixed use downtown school with the condominium above it and the most of the major bus routes (when there isn’t a strike!) running past it.

Don’t Sell off Those Downtown Schools!

 In these times of declining enrolment, cuts to school budgets and no prospect of new income sources on the horizon, it is easy for a school board to look at the valuable downtown properties and consider selling them.  However, in many cities, such as Ottawa, there are still many families from all walks of life living in the inner city.  In the not far distant future, these families will be looking again for schools for their children, preferably community schools.

To achieve the goal of keeping downtown schools open and providing income or capital for the school boards, we need to rethink our use of property.  We need to consider sharing space the way stores have shared space with offices, apartments or condos above them for many years, even centuries, nay millennia.  The Romans had their stores or business places at the front of their homes, while the living quarters occupied the other three sides of the courtyard.  On many Canadian main streets there are stores with two or three stories of apartments or offices above them.

Obviously, because the health and safety of children is always a priority, schools sharing space with other facilities would require more careful planning than most arrangements.  In an age when we are locking school doors after school starts, questioning unknown adults on the schoolyard, insisting that visitors report first to the office for a badge and requiring all volunteers to have a police check, sharing property must be done with careful regard to student safety.

An example of the model I am proposing is this: in downtown Ottawa exists a former high school that takes up the better part of a city block.  Across the road from it are its former playing fields.  It would be too expensive to bring the building up to standard, but it is sitting on very valuable land ripe for development, eyed by property developers.  Here is what I propose.

Replace the high school with a three-story high school at the base of a multi-story condo. Immediately below the high school put a parking level for teachers, parents and visitors.  There set a security camera outside the stairwell and elevator leading to the school.  When visitors pressed the bell for admission the office would remotely unlock the door or elevator after checking the person through the camera.  If the elevator and stairwell opened immediately in front of the office, then visitors from the parking lot could be observed as they arrived on the main floor of the school.  Make the front entrance also visible from the office and security may not be perfect but it will be very good.

The condominiums would be from the fourth floor up.  Their lobby would be at street level, but on a street where there are no doors to the school; if the entrance to the parking lot was on the same side, there might not even be space for first floor windows in that side of the school.  The condominium lobby need not be much larger than the area required to accommodate an appropriate bank of elevators, mail boxes and small waiting room.  The elevators would serve the lower parking levels reserved for the use of the condominium owners, but skip the school parking level and the school itself.

This may sound complicated but this kind of mixed use or designated elevators is already being used commercially.  If you have ever been to a late movie in a theatre in an office tower, you might have noticed that the elevator was programmed to go only to certain floors and the parking garage.  On the other hand, if you have gone to dinner outside the building, leaving your car in the garage, you will find that access to it from outside would have been only through a door found in the building’s airlock.  Not only is there no need to go into the building to get your car, but those inner doors to the building will be locked!

Security cameras are not ubiquitous in our city and rightly so.  However their judicious use at entrances has been employed by organisations that are concerned about who is admitted to their building.  Women’s hostels are a case in point.  While I would not advocate security cameras within a school, their use at entrance and exit points is well worth considering.  It would certainly ease concerns about a high school and homes sharing the same building.

Why would people consider buying a condominium over a high school?  In this case, the view will be magnificent: the Ottawa River, the Gatineau Hills, the Parliament Buildings and much of Ottawa would spread below you.  Secondly, if carefully thought out, it might be possible for the condo and the school to share sports facilities.  A swimming pool, weights room and gym on the school’s third floor that was accessible to the owners of the condominiums outside of school and extra-curricular hours might be attractive.  In addition, the playing fields over the road could be accessible for Ultimate Frisbee and soccer and the track around it would be great for the runners.  There might be room in one corner for a tot lot.  Careful tree planting would provide shade in summer and make the playing fields attractive.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board does work to make school facilities available (for a modest fee) to the public outside of school hours; in fact the schools that are open most evenings and weekends are called Lighthouse Schools.  This would be an extension of that concept. 

Many schools these days are allowing day cares and even private schools to move into their unused facilities as enrolment shrinks.  The smart thing to do would be to design this high school with decreasing enrolment in mind.  One corner of the school could be designed to be shut off from the rest of the school if necessary and the rooms rearranged to suit offices or day cares or whatever organisation might be looking for space in the area. How could that be done?  I’m not sure, but isn’t that what good architects are for?  It would certainly be a challenge as walls that successfully block noise between classrooms are not easily removed for remodelling.

Enrolment does decrease from time to time, but eventually that earlier big wave of children will have children and enrolment will increase again.  We need to design our schools with the flexibility to meet the challenges of changes in enrolment.  We need to rethink how to effectively use expensive downtown space to the financial advantage of education.  Let’s not sell off our biggest financial assets but use them to guarantee schools within walking distance of the students who need them.  Let’s be innovators!