By Wendy Harris
The tension is palpable as the
election draws closer. Conservative, Liberal, Alliance and NDP strategists
huddle to debate last minute tactics. Speechwriters work overtime to fine
tune messages to sway voters. Which party will capture the sometimes-fickle
electorate? Who has momentum? These are questions that will have to wait ...
until after recess.
This is Carrie Geberdt-Noade’s Grade 5/6 class at Northwood Public School
in Windsor. The voters, speechwriters and party faithful are all Grade 5
students deeply involved in a social studies unit covering democracy and
But there’s more than civics being taught, says Geberdt-Noade. The
students are developing communication and written language skills with all
the speechifying, math skills analyzing voting numbers and patterns,
computer skills doing Internet research, social and co-operative skills in
sorting out party issues. Best of all, the students are having so much fun
with the election that this other learning has been integrated and absorbed
naturally as part of an engaging, not to mention thoroughly democratic and
noisy, process. "It’s active learning," says Geberdt-Noade.
Geberdt-Noade is on the leading edge of a giant cohort of new teachers in
Ontario who will help shape our schools for the first half of the 21st
century. These new teachers bring with them not only their youth, enthusiasm
and range of life experiences, but also a new set of teaching skills shaped
by research that documents more and more precisely what children and young
adults need in order to learn.
By the year 2005, about 50,000 of
Ontario’s 124,000 full-time teachers in the publicly funded systems will
have five years experience or less. That means two out of every five
teachers will be people like Geberdt-Noade, new teachers with new ideas who
will spread new pedagogies throughout the system.
S T AN D A R D B E A R E R S
And while these young teachers may be the standard bearers for new teaching
practices, these practices are also being eagerly adopted by more
experienced teachers through formal professional development opportunities
as well as informal staffroom discussion.
Jim Craigen is an instructional strategies facilitator with the Durham
District School Board, a board that is internationally recognized for
innovation in teaching teachers how to teach. Craigen says that pedagogy has
been utterly transformed over the last 10 years because of what has been
learned by brain theorists and researchers about how people, and most
particularly children, learn.
"All the new information on brain theory indicates that kids learn in a
very different way than we thought," he says. "We’re really just
on the fringe of a learning revolution. We can track how kids learn with MRI
scans. We can track brain functions. We now know how we can activate the
brain and the kinds of techniques and strategies needed to activate
One of the most effective strategies to activate learning in children
employs the ideas clustered around the concept of multiple intelligences.
That means teaching specifically to the needs or intelligence(s) of a child
who may learn in other ways than the traditional linguistic/verbal or
Some 95 per cent of all instructional materials are geared towards those two
intelligences. Most kids don’t learn well that way, says Craigen. Some
children learn in a visual/spatial way, by making mind maps of images that
help them to retain knowledge. Others learn kinesthetically, perhaps by
building models or using manipulatives in math, and still others relate to
music or rhythm and poetry as a way of retaining new ideas or concepts.
(Think of the ABC song – it stuck, didn’t it?) Most kids learn when
lessons appeal to several of their eight intelligences.
C O N V I N C I N G D E M O N S T R A T I O N
Todd Miller, a Grade 6 teacher at Thunder Bay’s Isabella Public School,
experienced a stunning example of multiple intelligences at work in his
classroom this year.
For one of his science lessons, he asked students to design and build a
battery-operated car. Four of his students who generally work at a low C or
D level finished building a car quickly, with remarkable results. In other
words, they were all kinesthetic learners – they learned with their hands.
However, when asked to write a log on the process of creating the car, they
Meanwhile, four of Miller’s A students kept asking more questions about
what they should do and how they should build the car. They struggled for
hours to come up with a plausible vehicle. It was a graphic insight for
Miller into the fact that children learn in very different ways. "It’s
not that the A students are so much brighter, it’s that they respond to
your kind of teaching," he says. "I’m a pencil and paper person.
A lot of teachers are. That’s why I did well at school." But that’s
definitely not how all people learn.
According to Craigen, who has trained teachers all over the world, the
majority of students in Canada are either bodily/kinesthetic or learn
interpersonally, that is by interacting with others either one on one or in
a group. "Many students need the active involvement of someone
else." Hence, the growing emphasis in many classrooms on co-operative
learning, team research and group work.
What educators have learned about multiple intelligences has spawned
numerous teaching techniques that are being adopted by teachers across the
province. Animated literacy is one of them. It employs music, movement,
poetry, visual cues and gestures, phonics and a host of spin-off techniques
to help children learn to read.
Process math follows a similar path, teaching students to arrive at math
solutions by following an investigative process rather than by relying on
rote memory work. Tribes training helps teachers to foster strong working
relationships and accountability among their students. And quantum teaching,
a new method whose roots are in California, attempts to incorporate all
these ideas into a style of teaching that according to Mark Joel, a staff
development co-ordinator for the Durham board, "puts the pizzazz back
D I F F E R E N T A N G L E
Joel says new and compelling research is emerging daily about the
extraordinary workings of the brain. And that has compelled educators and
teachers to examine and re-examine all their methodologies to ensure that
what they’re doing is consistent with what is known about brain function.
"If they always use the same approach, they’re always going to get
what they always got," he says. "They have to learn how to look at
teaching from a different angle."
Looking at things from a different angle is precisely what new teacher Erin
Aylward did in her Grade 7/8 classroom at C.D. Howe Public School in Thunder
Bay when she detected that her Grade 7s were less than thrilled by the
prospect of studying the battle of the Plains of Abraham.
Aylward decided to inject some drama into the lesson by getting her kids to
act out that critical moment in Canadian history. One student was the St.
Lawrence River, one was a clock (the eyewitness account they were using as
background research made reference to the hour when the battle began), one
was General Wolfe and another was, of course, Montcalm.
There were also many supporting roles. "They had a riot, they were
killing themselves laughing," reports Aylward. But they also learned
their history – the marks from a test on that particular unit were really
Aylward clearly doesn’t yearn for the old school stereotype of neat rows
of tidy children keeping their mouths shut. She is well aware that
individual kids learn in very different ways. With that in mind, she strives
to make her classroom sizzle with the energy of students really grappling
with new ideas in ways that make a connection with all the facets of their
She doesn’t rely on "pencils, papers and little tests." Rather,
the emphasis is on active participation and an effort to teach her students
to synthesize the information they already have in order to arrive at a new
H U G E
D E B T
That’s not to say that experienced teachers or teachers of previous
generations are not dynamic. All of the young teachers interviewed for this
article have been in the profession for no more than three or four years.
Some are in their first year of teaching.
Every one of them says they owe a huge debt to the teachers who preceded
them. As Miller says, "I’m not trying to break new ground. I work
with teachers who have taught for 20 or 30 years and who are fresher than I
am. I’m really trying to emulate them. I am so amazed at how dynamic they
Ottawa’s Val Palumbo, who started teaching at St. Pius X High School in
1999, finds her role models by looking across the table at family dinners.
Both her father and mother are veteran teachers, so she grew up with talk of
tests and curriculum. But while a love of teaching unites this family, they
sometimes now part company at the classroom door when it comes to technique.
Val says teaching new curriculum math to Grades 9 and 10 almost requires a
departure from traditional teaching methods to allow students to investigate
and express math concepts in a wide variety of ways. It’s particularly
effective for the students who traditionally haven’t done well in math
because they are invited to use different methods of inquiry to get at a
"They can answer questions using whatever tools they know how to
use," says Val. That means they can explain concepts in words, rather
than numbers or with a drawing or by showing their thinking in whatever way
they can communicate it. It’s a radically different approach than both her
parents may have learned when they started teaching more than 30 years ago.
Val’s mom, Carla Palumbo, is a math teacher at Notre Dame High School in
Ottawa. She teaches the senior grades, 11, 12 and OAC, and as yet, has not
had much experience with the new curriculum. She says if she is going to
cover the curriculum in its entirety, she has no choice but to use a
straightforward Socratic method that gets to the point quickly.
N O T I M E
"When it comes down to it, I don’t have time to use different
methods," she says. "(The curriculum) requires a teacher to use
older techniques that have worked all along." Carla says in her view,
the biggest changes have occurred in assessment practices, which used to be
entirely knowledge based and are now based on knowledge as well as thinking,
communication and application skills.
Taking a slightly different viewpoint is Val’s dad, Fidel, who retired
this year after 35 years of teaching history, most recently at Hillcrest
High School in Ottawa. Over the years he changed and developed his
individual teaching style to suit the needs of both his students and the
"It’s a continuum," he says. "There’s really no major
break between the old and the new." So while there has been no radical
change, Fidel has been continually learning new and more effective teaching
In fact, if teachers are going to keep up with the dazzling shifts in
pedagogy and curriculum, they have no choice but to keep on learning
throughout their careers – to be dynamic, active, life-long learners.
Bev Freedman, superintendent of programs for the Durham District School
Board, says her board has placed a huge emphasis on staff development. One
of the first things teachers learn is to accommodate a wide range of
learning styles and abilities in their students because as she says,
"life isn’t fair and kids aren’t fair."
As Freedman puts it, some kids need glasses, some don’t. Some have trouble
reading or writing or completing their work or demonstrating that they’ve
learned their lessons by completing a test. That’s not fair. And teachers
need to modify their teaching accordingly. "Teachers have traditionally
taught to the middle and students on either side of the spectrum weren’t
dealt with or recognized."
For example, says Freedman, based on an analysis of EQAO results several
years ago, the board "clearly had a problem with boys’ reading and
writing. We found that we were teaching it the same way we always have and
it has always never really worked but we continued to do it anyway."
A N I M A T E D L I T E R A C Y
Armed with that knowledge, several Kindergarten teachers from Durham schools
went to California about three years ago to study animated literacy. They
returned absolutely convinced of its efficacy and have spent the last couple
of years training all the Kindergarten teachers in their board how to use
Wendy Armstrong, an early literacy resource teacher with the Durham board,
taught Kindergarten for 24 years before moving into her new role of training
teachers this year. She says in all her years of teaching, she has never
encountered as comprehensive and widely successful a program as animated
literacy. "Where has it been the last 24 years?" she says.
Starting with the basic sound P children are taught about "Polly Panda
Painting Purple Pants on Pizza Pans." They learn a gesture and movement
to go along with the P sound. They learn a song and they draw. They do the
same with the letter U, otherwise known as Uncle Upton. They put PUP
together and call it a noun. And so the reading program builds. "There
is something in this program that every child can do and relate to and focus
on ... . We’ve seen the results."
Teachers who are adopting process math to pique children’s curiosity about
numbers also like the results. Anne Lakoff, a Grade 5/6 French immersion
teacher at Runnymede Public School in Toronto, explains that the strict
methods of yesteryear for getting directly from A to B have been replaced by
a more circuitous investigative process.
It’s a process that allows students to explore math ideas in many
different ways – verbally by using words to describe math problems,
kinesthetically by using manipulatives to demonstrate math in three
dimensions and interpersonally by participating in a range of group
"It’s a reflective approach to math," says Lakoff, adding that
it can also be a very exuberant and creative approach too. Process math is
largely based on solving real life problems like how to allocate money at a
grocery store or how to evenly divide up a pizza among five friends or seven
or any number of variations that the problem may present.
T R I B E S
Spice Donohue, a science and social studies teacher at Nor’Wester View
Public School in Thunder Bay says that all her training and intuition leads
her in the direction of teaching that naturally utilizes the new
methodologies – integrating lessons from several disciplines at a time,
using different strategies to appeal to different kids and scaffolding or
providing learning structures to nudge her students along, to name a few.
As a foundation for co-operative
group learning, Donohue puts her students into tribes to promote not only
individual self-worth but also supportive relationships among the children
They frequently participate in a community circle in which each child shares
ideas or stories while the other children practice non-judgmental, attentive
listening. Young children may talk about favourite pets or what their
families did during a vacation. Older students have dug into much heftier
subjects. When the shooting at Columbine happened, for example, her Grade 7s
talked about weapons, anger and teenage alienation.
Donohue describes the community circle as "one of the strongest, most
powerful things in my classroom."
For Donohue, the most important skill she can offer her students is to teach
them how to think. "We’re trying to produce learners for jobs we don’t
even know will exist," she says. "Everything is changing so
quickly. It’s the unique thinkers who don’t think in a straight line who
Brain theory and multiple intelligences aside, there are a bewildering array
of other influences which are affecting teaching methodologies in Ontario’s
classrooms. The rapid pace of technological change is one.
For Tracy McGillivray, a Grade 4 teacher at Ottawa’s _St. Elizabeth Ann
Seton Catholic School, technology is a vital component of her teaching.
Sure, her nine and 10-year-old students know how to use a computer. But they
also regularly make use of digital cameras, scanners, projectors, laser
printers and a range of sophisticated software that they’re expected to
integrate as part of whatever they’re learning. Again, her pupils often
work in groups, showing each other their latest technological discoveries
and teaching each other what they know.
The explosion of standardized testing and evaluation have also radically
changed how teachers plan their lessons and teach in their classrooms.
Denis Maika, principal at St. Herbert Catholic School in Mississauga, says
teachers must constantly focus on what they expect from their students and
how they will evaluate them, the ultimate goal being a common picture of
student achievement across the province.
Rigorous evaluation with rubrics that clearly show where a student is now,
what good work looks like and how a student can get there are key to that
goal. Assessment and evaluation that are the same province-wide mean that
teachers are now able to figure out which kids aren’t getting it so they
can move on to other teaching strategies that may be more successful.
A S S E S S M E N T C H A N G I N G
Maika can remember when the goal of educators was almost exclusively to make
children feel good about themselves so they could learn. It was a time when
marks and marking were somewhere near the bottom of the list of concerns.
Those priorities are pretty well reversed now but according to Maika,
schools still develop the self-esteem children need to achieve. "As
kids get better academically, they develop a better notion of their
self-concept. We will have all these kids feeling good about themselves and
But much of what happens in the province’s classrooms, does, in fact,
remain the same.
L E A R N I N G E N V I R O N M E N T
Teri Dunn, principal at St. Jude Catholic School in Mississauga, has been in
education for 34 years, 11 of them as a principal. She is philosophical
about changes in teaching practices. The foundation of good teaching rests
on some fundamental principles. First and foremost, teachers must like kids,
she says. They need good classroom management skills and good planning
skills. They need a vision for education. They need to form strong collegial
bonds with their colleagues "because they’re the people who will
support them and see _them through."
Cameron Grant, a new 30-year-old Grade 5/6 teacher at Brock Public School in
Windsor, echoes those sentiments. Like his colleagues everywhere, he picks
and chooses the strategies that work for him from a huge array of new ideas,
practices and pedagogies.
But in the end, he says, what is most important is the learning environment
he creates for his students. The quality of that core relationship between
teacher and student is what new teachers say attracted them to the
profession in the first place, and remains a profound source of satisfaction
now that they’re at work. Good teaching remains good teaching, they say.
That means connecting with each individual child in their class and finding
a way for that child to really learn and to end up loving learning. "At
the core is the teacher and the student and the instruction," Grant
says. "Nothing can replace that core relationship in the
Ottawa math teacher Val Palumbo inherited her love of teaching from her
parents, Carla and Fidel. But she uses very different teaching techniques
than the ones they brought to their math and history classes 30 years ago.
Spice Donohue puts her students into tribes to promote supportive