Building Success

Fresh ideas and new initiatives in Ontario’s technical education

by Melodie McCullough


On a September day, 22 students at St. Peter’s Secondary School in Peterborough are learning the Pythagorean theorem and there are no textbooks, blackboards or desks in sight.

Instead, the Grade 12 construction technology class of teacher Bernie O’Brien is in the back schoolyard staking a house perimeter using the 3–4–5 method, commonly used by builders to establish a right-angle corner in place of A² + B² = C².

The real-life learning doesn’t stop there. During the year, O’Brien’s class will do construction jobs for Habitat for Humanity and two other affordable-housing organizations – earning two credits, one in religion and one in construction as they combine community outreach with hands-on learning at the school.

Each spring at Thames Secondary School in London, the lineups start at 6:30 AM for the school’s annual giant one-day plant sale, brought to the community by the horticulture students of teacher Frances Elsen-Churchill. They’ve spent all year growing annuals and perennials in their greenhouses for the big event.

Throughout the school year, Elsen-Churchill’s floriculture students produce and sell floral arrangements to the public at the school’s full-service flower shop, taking custom orders for weddings, school proms, banquets and parties. Still other students learn landscaping in the school’s courtyard and recently contributed those skills and their labour to redo the grounds at a children’s centre down the street.

Technological education is alive and kicking in Ontario secondary schools and tech students are making connections to a world beyond school walls, discovering that the light doesn’t only get switched on in front of a blackboard. They’re busy building robots, creating school yearbooks or turning their schools on to healthy eating with meals concocted in their very own bistros and cafés.


The floriculture program includes a full-service flower shop at Thames SS in London.



Students rebuild a winning race car at École secondaire catholique de Plantagenet.



There is barely any facet of life untouched by the skills and knowledge that fall under the heading technology, and given current and projected shortages of skilled workers, it’s clear that technological programs have a role to play in high school curricula. Many technology educators say it’s high time respect was given to this education field, which has been long undervalued and forced to fight a poor-cousin image.

“Tech has been used as a dumping ground for years in this province,” says Ron Hansen, Associate Professor of Technological Education at the University of Western Ontario. “In Ontario, the secondary school system is a university-preparation system based on knowledge acquisition. It’s one way to look at the world of learning but it’s not the only way.

“The whole system needs to be revisited and critically analyzed so the needs of all the kids are met, not just the needs of the 30 per cent who go on to university. We don’t have a curriculum that looks at all students as equals.”

Under renovation
In the mid-1990s technological education underwent a major revision when the Ministry of Education introduced the concept of broad-based teaching. Previously, programs focused on teaching skills for specialized occupations like plumbing, electronics and machining. But as job descriptions became more general, the Ministry recognized the need for transferable skills in communication, research, design, personal management and team work. The new broad-based model moved numerous stand-alone tech courses into categories within two sections. Part A has seven categories: communications technology, construction technology, hospitality services, manufacturing technology, health and personal services, technological design and transportation technology. Part B covers computer studies and includes information science and engineering.

“Tech introduces kids to a host of opportunities they never would have considered otherwise,” says Art Niezen, past chair of the Ontario Council for Technology Education and a curriculum consultant with the York Region DSB.

Classes are activity based and project driven and teachers use problem-solving approaches to teach a combination of skill development and knowledge. For those who wish to specialize further, there are Co-op or Ontario Youth Apprenticeship programs (OYAP) and the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) newly introduced by the Ministry.

“Tech introduces kids to opportunities they never would have considered otherwise.”

But while the Ministry provides core expectations, boards and principals decide on the range of programs and direct funds in response to community capacity and needs. Many courses are developed to address unique local needs.

Since 2005, students at École secondaire catholique de Plantagenet have built and rebuilt a dirt-track racing car from scratch. They stripped a 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass down to its cage and then rebuilt it. It took a lot of time, energy and patience. The now renowned bright red Number 8 went on to compete in semi-pro summer races on speedways in Cornwall and Edelweiss in the Ottawa region.

The project was initiated by Marc Lalonde – a recipient of a certificate of honour in the 2008 Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence. When his cousin quit racing students were disappointed that he would no longer be working on his cousin’s car in his spare time. They had liked watching and helping out. Principal Robert Byham, worried at first, supported the project. The school board agreed so the project was integrated into the curriculum. The car, driven by the 40-year-old teacher, has done well and is a real source of pride for students and the community of Plantagenet.

“The students work hard. There’s excellent chemistry within the team. They make me feel proud and they take what they’re doing seriously,” says Lalonde. “It’s great to see them helping each other. It’s great to see that they’re proud of their car.”

Lalonde and his wife Josée Lalonde, who works in administration at Plantagenet, provide supervision when students work in the pits during evening races at speedways. Josée also helps to promote the program and leads fundraising activities. Money is needed just to carry out repairs but now the plan is to sell Number 8 to finance the assembly of another car from scratch.

“Nowadays, you can easily obtain assembled sections from suppliers and they don’t require too much detailed manipulation,” says Lalonde. “However, I prefer that my students start from scratch and understand what they’re doing.”

There’s a potpourri of available courses across the province and, with them, a potpourri of challenges.

Michael Scott, OYAP co-ordinator and consultant for technological education and business studies for the Ottawa Catholic DSB, says the big issue is funding.

Elsen-Churchill and O’Brien agree. Elsen-Churchill could use more money for classroom materials and depends on community support to help keep her programs running. O’Brien worries about safety in his overcrowded wood-shop classes.

Rather than a “one-shot deal,” Scott would like to see “sustained, comprehensive and accountable” government money for equipment upgrades and professional development so teachers can keep on top of fast-paced technological changes.

“People say tech ed is expensive but how expensive will it be to not have it?”

Just about everyone in the field seems to agree that at the root of many problems is the stigma attached to technical education.

“It’s alive and well in the minds of the kids, parents, education leaders, policy-makers and even politicians,” says Hansen. “There’s a huge disconnect. We have not accepted apprenticeship, tech learning and tech thinking as valuable, and we’re paying the price in our economy with a shortage of skilled workers.”

The Conference Board of Canada estimates a shortage of 360,000 skilled workers by 2025, says Gail Smyth, executive director of the Ontario branch of Skills Canada, a not-for-profit organization promoting skilled trades and technologies as career options. It organizes skills competitions for students each year at regional, provincial and national levels.

“It’s alarming to me because who is going to fill these jobs if we don’t encourage our young people? It’s important to have more tech classes in high schools and also in elementary schools,” she says. “These jobs have competitive salaries and advancement opportunities. The government is putting lots of funding into colleges but I would like to see more funding at the high school level. If students don’t have hands-on experiences, we are denying them an opportunity to learn.”

Hansen would like to see the core curriculum reformed to allow more room on timetables for technology classes, which now compete against other electives and university-destination subjects.

“People say tech ed is expensive but how expensive will it be to not have it?”

O’Brien, curriculum chair for technology, business and computers at his school and a 25-year teaching veteran, sees how the poor-cousin image plays out in the classroom. He agrees with Hansen and feels that the secondary school curriculum is weighted in favour of academic classes at the expense of tech, and that this imbalance is rooted in the backgrounds of decision makers.

“The vast majority of these people, from our Minister on down through the boards of education to school administrators, were never enrolled in a high school tech class, nor have they taught one.”

“How can you explain a university prep class running with small numbers – because a few may need that course to get into university – against an overcrowded tech class where the student-teacher ratio is more important?” asks O’Brien.

“Right now tech ed is a catch-all for students who don’t fit very well anywhere else,” he continues. “These are quite often students with learning disabilities, attitude problems or weak academic skills. The talk now is about differentiated learning. That’s all we’ve ever done. We’ve got 24 kids in here and that’s 24 individualized programs going at one time. It requires much more one-on-one time.”

O’Brien says one solution would be funding for mandated class caps.


Culinary arts are part of the SHSM program in hospitality and tourism at Patrick Fogarty Catholic SS in Orillia.




The Blended Bicycles program at St. David Catholic SS in Waterloo gives recycling added meaning.



Concept to implementation
Mario Blouin has been teaching for 21 years at École secondaire catholique de Hearst, the school from which he graduated. He sees the programs at his school as an excellent example of what can be accomplished when technological programs are supported.

“Most of our success is due to the encouragement we’ve received from our principals, who have always been firm believers in tech ed, and our board has always been open to our requests, which makes our job a lot easier,” says Blouin. “You seldom hear people say this about administration, but ours has always been 100 per cent behind our tech programs and our vision of the future of technology.”

Grade 9 tech design is compulsory at Hearst. There are seven fully equipped shops, guidance counsellors are on board and timetables allow extra tech options. When students leave, they go on to apprenticeships, college courses and engineering degrees.

Girls in a design and renovation class are drawing an apartment using Architectural Desktop software and creating a walk-through using a 3ds Max program. They will then go into the construction classroom where they will see their plans through – drywalling, painting, installing flooring and decorating.

“The focus of our programs is the interest of the students and the confidence of the community,” says Blouin, who teaches robotics and design, welding manufacturing, machining and manufacturing, information technology, communications and animation, GPS/GIS and video production. In 2006 he received a Certificate of Achievement from the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence program. The certificate acknowledged not only his leadership and innovation in programs that include building remote radio-control aircraft and robots, but also the success his students have achieved at skills competitions.

In the past 16 years, the school has won over 50 medals at skills competitions hosted by Skills Ontario and Skills Canada – making it to the national level in all but two of those years. Medals include three gold and one bronze in robotics, one silver and two bronze in welding, one gold and one silver in mechanical computer-assisted design, and three gold in CAD/CAM and CNC (computer assisted design, manufacturing and numerical control programs).

“There is never a dull moment. We have fun, we design, invent and build stuff every day of the year. It’s just great,” says Blouin.

Priority, planning and skill
The York Region DSB is another example of a board where technological education has become a priority, says Niezen. A few years ago, York determined that its technology programs were at capacity and not equitably distributed across the region. So the board committed to a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project to expand technology facilities, with the principle of region-wide planning rather than individual school planning driving the process. Three new schools, built since 2005, have more facilities than schools built five years ago, while tech facilities were expanded at two older schools.

Next fall, the Ministry of Education will implement minor adjustments to the technological education curriculum, says spokesperson Patricia MacNeil, but the focus will continue to be on experiential learning. (See Curriculum change, page 36.)

In 2006–07, the Ministry introduced five Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM) for students who have career paths in mind. This year, 14 majors are available. Students can take bundles of six to 12 courses that help prepare them for specific employment sectors, such as hospitality and tourism, construction and manufacturing.

In the new SHSM course in hospitality and tourism at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia, students in sparkling new kitchen facilities are learning how to cook and prepare food for serving under the guidance of Andrew Fruchter, a qualified chef and first-time teacher. Funding for the program is in part a bi-product of the classes themselves.

Students plan and prepare a cafeteria menu each Friday for staff and students and sell weekly take-home dinners for two – with money going back into the program. The Grade 11 class is planning a January after-hours formal dinner for staff. All profits, as well as leftovers, will go to the local Salvation Army. The end-of-semester goal for the Grade 12 class is a full banquet dinner, with appetizers, for family and friends. Banquet proceeds will support the school program, with leftovers offered to the local food bank or Salvation Army.

MacNeil says the Ministry recognizes the value of technology programs offered in Ontario schools and has recently created The College of Trades to help raise awareness of the importance of skilled trades.

“The Ministry has recognized the importance of technological education and provided resources in the past,” she says. “And this is reviewed on an ongoing basis.

“We continue to develop different programs to provide high school students with more opportunities to customize their school experience around learning that is relevant to them.”

Sara McKitrick, a lecturer and Co-ordinator of Technological Studies, Teacher Education at OISE/UT, is well aware of the issues facing her students when they graduate to the classroom.

“We have fun, we design, invent and build stuff every day of the year.”

A key problem is the lack of leadership in technological education in the last 10 years since the government changed the departmental headship structure, she says.

“Where there is a head, schools are looking a lot better than where there isn’t one. In many, many boards there is no co-ordinator. There’s no one advocating for the physical plant and buildings,” she says.

“I’ve travelled all over Ontario and it’s hard to think of any school where you don’t see great ideas and initiatives,” says McKitrick. “I see great things because of the great teachers and programs. But we’re in need of a new vision and commitment from government. We need to protect the investment we already have and decide what place technological education will have in our elementary and secondary schools in the 21st century.”

One of those great programs is Blended Bicycles at the Waterloo Catholic DSB, in which students learn skills, recycle and help the community all at once. At three of its high schools – St. David in Waterloo, St. Benedict in Cambridge and St. Mary’s in Kitchener – Grade 10 transportation technology students repair bicycles diverted from the Region of Waterloo landfill. The bicycles are then given to those who can use them.

“These bicycles would otherwise end up in the scrap heap,” says Val Millen, community and workplace officer with the board. “It’s a win-win situation.”

McKitrick says it’s the creativity and strength of teachers that inspire students and make programs work.

Tech teachers, who must teach a mix of subjects to a mix of students, bring a diverse and distinct background of trades training and on-the-job experience to the classroom. The requirement of tech teachers to have a five-year minimum of industry training before entering teacher education faculties also means that they’re 10 years older, on average, than their academic counterparts when starting out, bringing maturity and commitment to the job.

“They bring a different attitude, character and personality to the classroom,” says Niezen. “That’s why many of the kids can relate to them in a meaningful way. Often they see the tech teacher as a real person more than their academic teachers.”

Fruchter is a perfect example. He’s a certified Red Seal chef with college and apprenticeship training and 14 years experience in restaurants in Barrie, Toronto and Orillia.

“I bring real-world experience to the classroom,” he says. “I know what employers are looking for when they’re hiring students – not just kitchen skills but work ethic and a good attitude.”

But the qualities and qualifications of tech teachers need to be properly recognized, says Michael Scott. Many face a huge cut in pay from what they make in industry.

“It’s ludicrous that someone with a trade certification and many years of experience doesn’t equate to someone with four years of university,” says Scott. “And what message does that send our kids? There’s a real onus on government to change this to attract the best people to teaching.”

At Thames Secondary School, Elsen-Churchill is optimistic that change is in the air.

“In the past year, the McGuinty government has started a campaign to recognize and embrace skilled trades. They’re taking a step in the right direction,” she says.

“What we do at our school is unbelievable, and when the community supports us, it’s acknowledgement that what we do is valuable. I have an exceptionally heavy load but I still love my job. I love the kids. I love it when I see a light go on and I can tell them something and relate it to the real world.

“The buzz word now is student success. If student success is to be a priority, then tech ed has to be a priority.


Renovation and design at École secondaire catholique de Hearst.



Curriculum change

The Ministry of Education will implement some adjustments to the technological education curriculum in 2009 while continuing to focus on experiential learning.

One notable change is the introduction of a category that includes landscaping, horticulture, forestry and agriculture.

Health and personal services will be divided into two subjects: health care; hairstyling and aesthetics.Computer engineering will be renamed computer technology.

Computer and information science will move out of the technological education curriculum to the general curriculum and will be called computer studies.

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