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March 1999

Quest for Coherence

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The Quest for Coherence, Passion and Hope

York Region District School Board Conference stresses teacher connections to students and community.

Purpball.gif (183 bytes) Ovide Mercredi Reflects on Aboriginal Education

By Rick Chambers

It’s rare that all the speakers at a symposium reflect a common theme. "The Quest: Designing Effective Secondary School Learning Environments," held in Richmond Hill in November, was that rarity. Speaker after speaker focused on the incoherence of relentless change and reiterated the notion that student success in school is related directly to the degree of care and compassion that teachers are willing to invest.

Keynote speakers Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves established the symposium’s common ground when they talked about what educators seem to know intuitively and policy-makers seem to misunderstand continually – education is an emotional enterprise with an overwhelming emphasis on human interaction.

Fullan is dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and Hargreaves is director of the International Centre for Educational Change at OISE/UT. If public education is to survive relentless and accelerating changes, they said, then teachers and principals need to select wisely the issues they can address successfully, and by doing so, attack the incoherence that unrelenting change brings.

Attacking the incoherence of change requires everyone’s involvement. Principals and administrators cannot and should not act alone. Fullan and Hargreaves believe that administrators’ responses are not related directly to teaching and learning and that their solutions are often ad hoc. The process demands that all stakeholders in the school community participate and become involved in improving student learning.

With so many problems, challenges, and pressing concerns, teachers have to choose the issues they take on. And Fullan says that identifying the issues is easier at a school level than at a district level.

He said there is no simple answer, but that external restructuring is not as important as internal reculturing. The teachers have to address the issues in their own schools: What kind of culture do they have in the school? What kind of culture do they want? How do they move from what they have to what they want?


Technology, for some teachers, is dangerous and discomforting. Fullan and Hargreaves recommend confronting the danger. Teachers must work through their discomfort because the more important technology becomes in education, the more important the teacher will be in helping children learn how to use it effectively. To that end, teacher education – both pre-service and in-service – should address the infusion of technology into the teaching and learning process.

Confronting the danger also means learning about assessment practices. Fullan said that teachers must be assessment literate: they must understand the data, be able to develop plans as a result of it, and be comfortable explaining their assessment strategies.

The point that both Fullan and Hargreaves were making is that an organization like the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is not going away. External assessment of students is a growing reality in education regardless of what individual teachers may feel about the quality or purpose of the tests. In fact, the new Grade 10 literacy test being developed by the EQAO changes the role of the organization from an arm’s length accountability and assessment agency to a credentialing body, since passing the literacy test will become a prerequisite for high school graduation. Fullan and Hargreaves urged teachers to learn more about structures like the EQAO: teachers have to be articulate about how the tests work, how they were developed, how the results will be used, and how the tests affect curriculum and student learning.


Fullan and Hargreaves spent some time on the importance of emotional intelligence in teaching. At a time when educators know that one caring adult can be the difference between a student completing secondary school or dropping out, more effort must be spent in making emotional connections with students.

The 1990s have seen what Hargreaves called emotional downsizing by parents – spending less time with their children as both parents and children are pulled different ways by careers and societal stresses. Parents have taken to emotional outsourcing for their children – daycares, after-school programs, organized school or community activities that free parents for other priorities.

Emotional understanding is essential to effective teaching and learning. It is achieved through relationships. Teachers have to bond with their students, and schools should build the capacity to strengthen that emotional bond.

Hargreaves referred to the proposed secondary school advisory system as an example of emotional understanding. An advisory system whose aim could be to help establish emotional bonds has to be part of an integrated learning program and therefore part of a teacher’s teaching load and responsibility.

Unfortunately, Hargreaves said, government policy rarely relies on research to make its decisions. If it did, Ontario would have fully-funded pre-kindergarten programs and teacher advisory groups would be considered part of an integrated teaching assignment.

Most other symposium speakers, whether addressing the entire 350-person audience or in workshops, dealt with the themes laid out by the keynote speakers.

In the workshop on the Manitoba School Improvement Program, MSIP co-ordinator Maxine Zimmerman and Lori Wilcosh, principal of Mulvey School in Winnipeg, discussed the MSIP method of bringing coherence to change. In the MSIP, school teams are asked to focus on student learning. Their own internal research will reveal whether the issues are literacy, information technology, curriculum integration or other challenges. Reaching out to teachers, students, parents and the larger school community is the next step.

The key element is people: catalytic teams of teachers, parents, and students will determine the success of the change. Looking in to find and collect the empirical data is an important element in the reculturing of a school. Teachers have to engage in ongoing inquiry and reflection as they use their school as a laboratory to collect the data to discover if their change process is having results. The involvement of the school community creates a coherence and integration that increases the internal capacity for change.


Assessment is built into any method of change, and teachers need to learn how it works. To assist educators in confronting the challenge of assessment, Joan Green, CEO of the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office, explained its role and operation.

She affirmed that not everything that counts can be counted, and that accountability is not just accounting. She said the EQAO values the well-being of learners above all other interests, which is why, for example, accommodation policies for special education students are in place. The EQAO values only that information which has the potential to bring about constructive change and improvement. In other words, the mission of the EQAO is not to create destructive or demoralizing comparisons between schools even though the media are often quick to make such use of EQAO results. The role of the EQAO is to give teachers assessment data that will help them improve student learning.


Alan King, director of the Social Program Evaluation Group at Queen’s University, talked about assessment on another level. In an international comparison of student attitudes toward school, researchers found that Canadian students think they are doing better than they are. King said that international test results indicate that Canadian students are performing as well as students in other developed countries but not better.

King focused his comments on those students who are officially disengaged from school—those students in the smoking area. In a recent national study of 2,468 Grade 10 students, King found that 20 per cent smoked daily; 28 per cent had been really drunk at least four times; 31 per cent smoked hashish or marijuana; and 28 per cent had done all three. More girls than boys were part of those statistics. King found 49 per cent of the students with average or below average marks are smokers and 69 per cent have negative relationships with their parents. He pointed out that these students are very difficult to reclaim once they become part of the disengaged crowd that lingers in the smoking areas at the fringes of school properties.

In a related study, King asked Grade 8 students what they look for in a high school. Girls’ number one reason for going to high school was meeting new and having more friends. When asked what they were afraid of in high school, the students made a list: marks, violence, the workload, not having friends, and the size of the school. Clearly, addressing the emotional needs of adolescents remains critical.

Creating reasons for students to become engaged with their education in secondary school goes beyond academics. Emotional intelligence indicates that a caring adult can make a world of difference to an adolescent. King said that in Ontario, the system is losing at-risk students after Grade 10 because there are few programs left for them. If there are no programs and no extracurricular activities, then the system has a recipe for social unrest: disaffected teenagers lead to gangs, which lead to violence. King said that the new secondary school curriculum, in its current form, will result in about 25 per cent of Ontario students being cut loose from the system. Ontario is the only place in the developed world where at-risk students are being abandoned to this degree.

Student disengagement with school, as educators know, often means that students will leave school without graduating. Students will "cruise" school if they are not engaged, and what that disengagement means is that there is no emotional attachment to the school, to parents, or to the community.


Bernard Shapiro, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University, had the unenviable task of reflecting on the Quest Conference. Although trying to sound dispassionate, and cautioning against the glibness of those who preach passion, faith and caring, Shapiro nevertheless ended the conference with his own version of a hopeful message.

The only sure thing, according to Shapiro, is ambiguity. Count on it. Technology will always have unintended consequences, and educators will have to learn to cope with them.

He said that the term "distance education" is a misnomer: schools should stop worrying about distance education and focus on proximity education. Disengaged teachers are as bad as disengaged students, and he feared that too many secondary schools had teachers who were engaged in distance education with the students in front of them. The future is inevitable but unknowable. Students are a sure thing and the proximity of their learning is the most crucial issue affecting education and educators. Shapiro reminded the participants that public education has much to be proud of and that teaching is a moral profession because it has a direct effect on people. Finally, he said that education is a myth, something that one has faith in when all the empirical evidence is not present. Faith, he said, should be flaunted, now more than ever.

What’s worth fighting for, as demonstrated at the Quest Conference, was a reaffirmation of the importance of the human element in education. Competence must be wedded to passion. Knowledge must be tempered by love. Strategies must involve caring. Leadership must be collaborative. Commitment to students and student learning must be central.

Symposium co-chairs Avis Glaze and Sylvia Terpstra think their next Quest will push the educational agenda to the horizon. In October 1999, the conference will explore new possibilities for the human enterprise of teaching and learning. The emphasis will be on what’s worth working together for.

Rick Chambers taught English for 27 years before becoming a program officer in the Accreditation Unit of the Ontario College of Teachers.

The Quest Symposium was sponsored by York Region District School Board in co-operation with the Northern Centre for Instructional Leadership, the Peel District School Board, the Simcoe District School Board and the Toronto Principals’ Centre.