Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.
Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.
The Dream World of the 1968 Hall-Dennis Living and Learning Report is alive and well in the story of transforming public education
The visionaries on the Hall-Dennis Committee, the ones who carried the day with their 1968 report Living and Learning, set out their aims a few of which are worth repeating for their relevance in 2011:
- To serve the needs and aspirations of the people, there should be an advisory body of citizens to keep education policy and practice under review with power to report to the Legislature.
- The fixed position of student and teacher must give way to a more relaxed relationship, which will encourage discussion, inquiry, and experimentation and will enhance the dignity of the individual.
- Given an increased measure of professional freedom and inspired by a philosophy which puts foremost the needs and dignity of the child, our teachers will provide the education we envisage.
There is more between the lines of these selected statements than in them. The first one directly challenges the Czarist power of the Minister of Education about which I commented in my blog Bossism in Public Education. The picture of a citizens’ advisory body voicing their wishes before the Legislature would surely cause heartburn among the bureaucrats who enjoy primary access to the ear of the Minister. Further, some would argue that it would be contrary to the tradition of responsible government achieved by dedicated effort in Queen Victoria’s time.
Still, citizens/parents/teachers are relatively powerless in the structure and conduct of Canadian public education. By degrees, they have turned it over to the experts. Elected school boards, which have steadily grown in size and complexity in my lifetime are, to an increasing degree, mere handmaidens of the Ministry. New Brunswick tackled this problem by abolishing the boards some years ago and replacing them with a parent advisory structure. After more changes, there are now District Councils to manage the schools much as the school boards used to do. At the provincial level, the Minister is legally bound to consult with citizens on a regular basis. It seems apt to observe Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose. But give New Brunswick credit where it’s due – they have recognized a problem and tackled it seriously.
Ontario has mandated parent councils for every school but they have not changed by one iota the hierarchical nature of public education. The councils typically are busy with fundraising and fancying up the playground. Any really significant features of education policy and practice are beyond the purview of the councils. Nearly ten years ago when I questioned the capacity of a school council to examine and comment on the curriculum, a spokesperson for the council responded “Oh dear, we don’t want that kind of responsibility”.
So, the Hall-Dennis dream of parental engagement in policy making in education has remained a dream. Officialdom in education resist with the argument that there must be system-wide standards. In the digital age, I prefer the idea of system-wide ferment within a framework of generalized system aims.
The second of the Hall-Dennis aims quoted above has been realized to some degree. When the report was written in 1967-68, male teachers wore shirt and tie and females a skirt or dress. Males were often called “Sir”. If casualness is part of the ambience for good education, then the few surviving advocates of the Hall-Dennis philosophy can relax.
The third aim above remains an unfulfilled dream. As I explained in my Oct 12th blog, professionalism has largely eluded the teaching profession in North America. Many teachers, trapped in the no-man’s land between unionism and professionalism, are inhibited from offering leadership in education innovation and transformation – inhibited also by the all-powerful ministries of education, which continue to monopolize curriculum change.
Let me conclude this brief retrospective on the Hall-Dennis era by recollecting a few of the mess-ups of the 1970s that doomed the report to ridicule and rejection. The brief flush of excitement in Ontario resulted in a slew of experimental stuff – team teaching, audio-visual instruction, movies for social studies and language study, field trips galore. Complaints piled up about functional illiteracy and lack of readiness for the discipline of the work place or post-secondary education. The politicians seized upon the complaints so that by 1980 Hall-Dennis was breathing its last.
For me at least, Hall-Dennis is alive and well in the story of transforming public education. Here is a quotation from the report that is more current than when it was written: Unless a people is on its guard, the economic demands of society can be made to determine what is done in education. The society whose educational system gives priority to the economic over the spiritual and emotional needs of man defines its citizens in terms of economic units and in so doing debases them. There is a dignity and nobility of man that has nothing to do with economic considerations. The development of this dignity and nobility is one of education's tasks.