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Children sit at a table at the Institute for Child Study
Photo by Frances Juriansz

Head of the Class

U of T’s Institute of Child Study has influenced education in Canada for more than 80 years. A visit to the lab school reveals why.

Scene: A high school classroom. Daytime. A weary teacher stands in front of a blackboard, scrawling notes in chalk.

Teacher: In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the… Anyone? Anyone?… the Great Depression, passed the… Anyone? Anyone?… the tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which … Anyone? Raised or lowered?… Raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects?… It did not work…

Even those who have never seen the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will be familiar with the above scene: a bored economics instructor drones on while his students stare back in a state of collective catatonia. Most are so stultified they can barely blink, although one student has managed to fall sound asleep – in a puddle of his own drool. Small wonder the film’s hero is playing hooky.

At one time or another, we have all sat in classrooms like this. Unfortunately, many students still do. Is it right that children should binge on facts, only to purge themselves of them through exams that measure short-term memory instead of real engagement? Anyone?

The classrooms at the Institute of Child Study Laboratory School are a long way from Ferris Bueller’s arid educational prison. The school is housed in a three-storey Georgian revival building on Walmer Road in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. At first glance, its elegant rooms seem more suited to high tea than fractions and adverbs. The 200 students enrolled in nursery school to Grade 6 do not sit in rows of desks; in fact, many of them aren’t sitting at all. In one Grade 4 class, some students lie prone on the carpet, while others walk around. All are involved in a shared activity – in this case, the study of rocks and minerals – but they’re free to approach the activity in whatever way is most meaningful to them. One child is creating crystals with sugar and water, while another is reading about the history of gemstones. Other students are trading information through conversations, while sitting alongside classmates absorbed in computer research. Teacher Krista Spence (MEd 2003) acts as a sort of pedagogical maître d’: she provides children with the menu, but doesn’t tell them what to order.

Founded in 1926, the Institute of Child Study (ICS) has a triple mandate: to educate student teachers as well as children, and to be a world-class pedagogical research facility. Staffed by teaching professionals and affiliated with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, ICS advocates for experiential education, which posits that children learn best through experience. Promoted during the first half of the 20th century by the American philosopher John Dewey, the notion is radical to those who think that children enter school as blank slates.

Photo by Frances Juriansz

At the ICS lab school, Carol Stephenson’s senior kindergarten class proves that the mind of a child is far from blank. Among other topics, her pupils are undertaking a term-long study of the human body. Stephenson started by canvassing the children about what they knew – or thought they knew – about the way the body works. “I asked them what was under the skin,” she says. “Where do food, air and blood go?” The wealth of ideas these pre-readers have brought to the subject is astonishing. Like British physician William Harvey centuries before them, they have even arrived at the idea of circulation. One child suggested that cardiac function might work like a pump from a fish tank and a student teacher brought one in to illustrate the theory to the class.

During my visit to the school, another student – bespectacled Phoebe – creates an anatomical diagram. Stephenson (BA 1990 University College, DipCS 1993) asks her about the grey scribble she’s drawn in the head area. “That’s the brain,” the little girl says, swinging her hair with the confidence of a practised talk-show guest. “It helps you think. If you didn’t have one, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a salamander and a chameleon.”

Phoebe is right, but some of her fellow students have mistaken ideas about how the body works. “When you pull air in, the heart pumps it out,” a boy suggests. Remarkably,  Stephenson does not correct him. “In five years, if I asked them what they thought about the body, all these ideas would be gone anyway,” she says. “But the curiosity that’s been developed will still be there. My job is to get them to ask questions.” These questions may well be answered by fellow students instead of teachers. ICS believes in knowledge building – the idea that both adults and children are on a communal path to understanding.

Here, students have considerable say in driving their own learning experience. Teachers provide a big idea – such as wheels, animals or trees – that enables children to embark on in-depth investigations that blur the lines between subjects. For example, math and science might blend into phys-ed as children study the velocity and acceleration of a figure skater.

This stands in marked contrast to the curriculum in some school systems, which divide subjects into one- to four-week units, offering little in the way of depth. “I’ve walked into classrooms and heard children say oh, we did rocks and minerals – as if they had acquired all the knowledge there is on the subject,” says ICS vice-principal Richard Messina (BA 1989 St. Michael’s, BEd 1993). “We’re doing students a disservice by not teaching them that these are deep questions people spend their lives asking.”

“Here we develop a culture where children love to read…. Children here walk around reading”

Progressive education, which developed roughly a century ago, has certainly had its enemies over the years. In the 1950s, critic Hyman Rickover’s protests were typical. He suggested the approach offered children insufficient grounding in basic subjects, such as reading and math. Since then, Rickover’s views have been on the rise. Former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush advocated for the educational methods of drilling and testing. They saw them as twin weapons against economic competition from countries that also use these methods.

Many educators are starting to question the effectiveness of this approach, though. Some have criticized Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” policy for creating a test-heavy system where teachers “teach to the test” instead of fostering real learning. Across Canada, curriculum integration is catching on, and the trend is now toward “big ideas” instead of myriad “expectations.” The Ontario ministry’s new science curriculum, for example, contains 20 per cent less content than its predecessor. Even the Japanese, long known for their brutal, constant exams, now give students more unstructured thinking time.

Do progressive educators really consider reading and math less important? Two former ICS parents, whose children struggled mightily with reading in Grade 2, are convinced their kids wouldn’t have been better served at another school. ICS teachers use a blend of whole language and phonics to teach reading. But with the latest research on reading at their disposal, they may be able to offer a more tailored approach to remediation. Says one mother: “The question is always, ‘What does this particular kid need?’ ” The ICS lab school doesn’t blindly follow progressive ideology, but goes with what works. “Here we develop a culture where children love to read. Funnily enough that’s not an expectation in the [Ontario] ministry’s language arts curriculum,” says Messina, a passionate educator who projects what might be described as electrified calm. “When I got here, children were walking around reading,” he marvels. “You had to tell them to close their books because it’s not safe to walk the hallways that way.”

Math is equally important. One day last year, I observed guest researcher Joan Moss (DipCS 1988, MA 1997, PhD 2000) working with a group of Grade 3 students on algebra, a subject that public school children don’t usually encounter until Grade 6 or 7. The children were making innocuous pictures of houses and flowers from tiles. But in doing so they were actually creating patterns from equations (such as 2x +3), and then asking fellow students to guess the equations they had devised. This was astonishing, but shouldn’t have been: even the most conservative math experts cite the late introduction of algebra as the biggest cause of math failure in high school.

Later, I watched Messina (who also teaches) guide a group of Grade 6 pupils through a unit on graphing. A student named Tillie solved a problem quickly while Messina scratched his head in wonder at her results. “Richard, how can you not understand this?” she asks.

Many adults would be shocked by this exchange. Talking back to a teacher? Calling a teacher by his first name? A teacher admitting that he doesn’t understand? But that’s how things are done here. The children are collaborators, not sponges. “When I think about my own schooling,” says Messina, “at no point until the post-graduate level did I feel I was contributing something. My job was to receive, remember and give back. That was the game of schooling. I would hope – and I know – that our children don’t play that game.” It’s not surprising that ICS children are treated as if they’re much older than they actually are. This may be because the school’s roots are in adult education. Founder William Blatz was a medical doctor with training in psychology. He became intrigued by the results of a program at U of T’s Hart House from 1916 to 1919, in which wounded war veterans were taught to “re-educate” their bodies’ muscular function. Doctors noticed that soldiers who took personal ownership of their healing had more favourable results.

Blatz believed that what was good for the body might be good for the mind. Beginning with a group of eight youngsters aged two to four, he explored whether the Hart House results applied to children’s learning. They did.

Researcher Joan Moss works with young ICS students on algebra. Experts cite the late introduction of algebra as the biggest cause of math failure in high school
Researcher Joan Moss works with young ICS students on algebra. Experts cite the late introduction of algebra as the biggest cause of math failure in high school

This is why, 83 years later, the ideas of Blatz and other researchers are still being refined, tested and improved. ICS’s pupils learn from a variety of pedagogical techniques, which the teaching staff constantly assess and refine. “We’re involved in both the art of teaching the students we have and disseminating a distilled conversation about what we do,” says Elizabeth Morley (DipCS 1981), now in her 16th year as ICS school principal. “We open our doors to visitors from all over the world and run local workshops for teachers. We intend our practice to be examined.”

Of course, the idea of child study has come a long way since Blatz’s era. In his day, the flamboyant doctor was a sort of Canadian Benjamin Spock, flying overseas to study children traumatized by war and penning regular columns for Maclean’s and Chatelaine. He also conducted in-depth observations of the Dionne Quintuplets in their infamous nine-room nursery. This research, while considerate of the Dionnes’ well-being, probably didn’t accord with today’s notions of strictly ethical child study. “I think education is more sophisticated and mature now, and child study reflects that,” says Morley. “But I don’t want people to think child study is just kids sitting in a classroom and being tested. Child study is multidisciplinary, and looks at all the different perspectives we can take in coming to understand a child.”

The research conducted at ICS is diverse. Under the auspices of the institute’s Dr. R.G.N. Laidlaw Centre, educational researchers work in tandem with teachers to look at such topics as the influence of bedtime stories on literacy and the existence of a child’s “school personality.” Perhaps most importantly, they continue to improve our understanding of how children best absorb reading and math concepts. They also investigate whole new subjects, such as environmental education.

The ICS lab school was one of the first elementary schools to use Knowledge Forum software, through which students share received ideas in order to build new ones. First tested in 1986, co-developer Marlene Scardamalia calls Knowledge Forum the “first collaborative networked learning environment.” The product is now being used in 19 countries.

Philosophically, ICS still touts Blatz’s philosophy of security, the notion that every person should be equipped with the courage to make decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions. That security extends to the way the school deals with bullying. Playground fights used to be seen not as an adult’s problem, but as a necessary part of growing up. Now, however – whether because acts are more aggressive, parents more vocal or there has been a cultural shift – bullying concerns everyone. Workshops and zero tolerance policies are in vogue, but haven’t really succeeded; many kids just laugh at the workshops, and suffer exile through the latter.

ICS’s lab school takes bullying seriously. Its teachers believe that instructing students in how to handle conflict is as important a subject as any other. One former parent was deeply moved by the way Messina handled her son’s victimization at the hands of another boy. “Richard called me first, so we could figure out together what should be done,” she says. “Then he got the whole class involved in a discussion of the problem.”

Indeed, dialogue is an essential tool at the ICS school. Parent after parent told me how the school had given shy children the courage to handle interviews and speeches with aplomb. As a result, some young graduates take on sophisticated public roles well before adulthood. These ICS alumni have included actor Megan Follows and New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough, who started hosting a CBC Radio show before he hit high school.

Who gets in to the ICS lab school? Not everyone who wants to; in fact, the waiting list has more than 1,000 children’s names on it. And that’s for a school with a yearly tuition fee of about $11,000. Admissions are handled on a first-come, first-served basis, although children with siblings have priority, as do children of staff members and students from the Bloorview Kids Rehab integrated kindergarten program. Four in 10 students come from a visible minority background, and all classes are gender-balanced. Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi, a U of T chemistry professor, photographer Edward Burtynsky and CBC television host Evan Solomon send, or have sent, their kids to ICS. These parents are outside-the-box thinkers whose children may well follow suit. “Our students tend to go into writing, the arts, business, medicine – always something with a bit of a creative take,” says Morley. Some are rebellious, too: perhaps the best example is Abby Hoffman (BA 1968 University College), the female Olympian who made headlines as a child in the 1950s by sneaking onto a boys’ hockey team.

The exclusivity can be maddening: if an ICS lab school education is a good one, why shouldn’t it be available to all children? Morley insists that, indirectly, it is. “This institute is about public education,” she says. “Our mandate is to educate teachers who will teach almost entirely in public schools. Our research doesn’t change this school alone; that would be irresponsible. It changes other places as well. In fact, ICS’s three inextricably linked missions are what make it so unusual and dynamic. It’s a real think tank with innovative perspectives on child development and childhood education.”

Morley describes herself as a “born teacher.” By the age of four, she had already decided to pursue a career in education. Morley spent her early years as an educator in Latin America working with street children, an experience she loved. She admits she never expected to work at a school like ICS. “From my life experiences and the way I was raised, I’m a little bit surprised that I’m working in what some people would call an elite independent school. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit with what’s important to me. But below the surface is our purpose: if we can train teachers who understand that ideas are improvable and students can contribute, we’ve succeeded.”

Teachers concur. Jill Baptist, who earned her MA and elementary teacher certification at ICS before she began teaching in the public system 18 months ago, is introducing a violence prevention program in the Toronto school where she works. Baptist says she was influenced by ICS’s emphasis on emotional literacy. “I think the best part of what ICS taught me is that I can follow the curriculum, but I know that if I let the kids drive a little bit, it’s OK too,” she says.

Morley is concerned that kids from diverse backgrounds be represented in school

ICS researchers also go out in the field. Moss’s algebra project has been introduced to Toronto’s Rose Avenue Public School, which has a large immigrant student population. Researchers also helped link ICS’s lab school with the city’s Bloorview School Authority (part of Bloorview Kids Rehab), where children with disabilities and their able-bodied peers attend kindergarten together. Finally, ICS has had an important effect on general education policy. Blatz and his colleagues helped write and develop the Day Nurseries Act, which is still in use, and the ICS school’s research into full-day kindergarten helped provide the impetus for testing the model throughout Ontario.

Morley is concerned that kids from diverse backgrounds be represented in the school; if they aren’t, the studies won’t truly reflect the range of childhood experiences. The admissions policy includes a visible-minority quota, but ICS’s school rarely grapples with English-as-a-second-language requirements, a key challenge in other Toronto schools. Like other Toronto private schools, ICS is not as socio-economically diverse as the average public school. “One way in which we are limited is in whether we have economic accessibility for all,” says Morley. “But we’re doing something about it. This year, we’ve given out $45,000 in tuition support, and next year it will be almost $100,000.”

It’s worth asking why the ICS lab school caters only to elementary school students. After Grade 6, the children typically go on to other private schools, often with wildly different educational philosophies. Messina says the school’s stalwart smallness is a function of the building’s size and a belief that small class sizes are the most conducive to student success. “But while I think that for some children it would make perfect sense to continue in a small school setting, others are ready to go off to larger schools where they can join clubs and teams that we can’t provide. I think another thing is that socially, they’re ready to make new friends, and that is such a huge skill – to be able to be confident and meet others.”

A good elementary education doesn’t guarantee that students won’t struggle later on. One former student I spoke with admitted to feeling hopelessly defeated by the vast impersonality of his high school.

The benefits of this student’s progressive elementary school education may be realized much later. Noah Cowan, former co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival and now artistic director of Bell Lightbox, says that ICS had a direct influence on his career. Cowan, 41, is overseeing the construction of Bell Lightbox, a cultural centre devoted to the history of film. It’s “an enormous undertaking,” he said via email. “As the artistic director, I am responsible for creating a program and vision that will be unique. I would have been unable to do so without my background at the Institute of Child Study. The school teaches creativity foremost, especially the importance of non-traditional solutions and the fluid interplay of interesting ideas. Such openness is impossible to develop later in life, in my opinion.”

In his formative years, Cowan wasn’t taught to build the Lightbox, any more than Abby Hoffman was taught that she should protest women’s exclusion from hockey. What they were taught is how to think critically. And principal Elizabeth Morley has choice words for schools hell-bent on churning out lawyers, doctors and financiers, without regard to how these professions are constantly changing: “We have to make sure we’re not getting children ready for our reality,” she says. In times to come, she warns that society will need “robust individuals with eyes wide open, who can observe extremely carefully what a situation requires and move in a collaborative way to contribute to that – or they won’t be successful.”

In other words, ICS offers education not just for what is, but what will be. It is education that seems to work for most kids – an approach that may, if more widely accepted, keep Ferris Bueller in the classroom, where he so rightly belongs.

Cynthia Macdonald (BA 1986 St. Michael’s) is a writer in Toronto. Her story about teaching math appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of U of T Magazine.

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  1. 5 Responses to “ Head of the Class ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Your article highlights the jewel in the crown of U of T’s Faculty of Education: the only research-based lab school of its kind in Canada and one of the few in the world. May I suggest that you do a follow-up piece on OISE’s two-year Master of Arts program in Child Study based at ICS? It is arguably the best elementary teacher education program in Canada.

    Malcolm Levin
    Past program director, ICS (2001-2003)

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    “Head of the Class” should be required reading for the too-large-percentage of current teachers who have missed the message of enquiry-based education.

    Research has shown that teachers ask yes-or-no or basic knowledge questions 80 to 90 per cent of the time. By encouraging their students to think at only this lowest possible level, they deny them the opportunity to develop an intellectual approach in which comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information becomes a personal standard for lifelong learning. (For explanation, see "Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy.")

    As well students who ask and answer questions at these higher levels of thinking have a lot of fun!

    John Harrison
    BEd 1966, MEd 1970

  4. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Cynthia Macdonald's article was interesting -- not just because one of my grandchildren graduated from the Institue of Child Study two years ago and another one of my grandchildren is currently attending.

    The article mentioned Dr. William Blatz, whose book Understanding the Young Child I read when I took a course in child psychology at UC. Later, when I was in medical school, Dr. Blatz lectured to us for one semester in second year.

    Although there was no examination on the content of the lectures, as I remember, attendance was good. Dr. Blatz offered wise advice about discipline and consistency with children, but what impressed me most was his view that the main goal in raising children is to help them mature to become confident, productive adults.

    Paul Hoaken
    BA 1953 UC, MD 1957
    Millhaven, Ontario

  5. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    It's astounding that this article doesn't mention one word about the predecessor of the Institute of Child Study - the University of Toronto Schools.

    That school is about 100 years old. Although it no longer receives financial support from the university, it continues to be a leading school in Canada.

    I graduated from UTS in 1941 and returned for the 60th reunion of the class several years ago.

    Perhaps you can do a piece on UTS and mention all the prominent people who have graced its halls.

    George F Bain
    Silver Spring, Maryland

  6. Cresenciana Pineda says:

    I find ICS's admissions policy ironic. On one hand it encourages diversity and anti-elitism. On the other hand, only those at the top of the waiting list are invited to an interview. What happens when the most diverse part of the waiting list is at the bottom? By the time parents find out about this jewel of a school... they may already be # 1001.