The resilience and adaptability of the Toronto District Board of Education are a cause for celebration.
I was dismayed when the Conservatives at Queen’s Park revamped the provincial education system. I admired their central objective, which was to establish clearly defined achievement levels for students. That, they did well. They removed the ambiguity from expectations, so students can have a clear idea of what’s required, and so their progress can be closely tracked.
But the revamping was based on a pigeon-hole perception of education. It was to be education by separate subjects — mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, French, etc. The pigeon holes were like the floor-to-ceiling rooms in an old fashioned office building. Doors and hallways connect the rooms, but the layout sure doesn’t promote intermingling.
In other words, under the revamping there would not be much integration. Not much multidisciplinary activity. And, most appalling, there was to be no pigeon hole for the environment.
The result, I feared, would be failure to equip students with the multidisciplinary skills they’ll need to cope with the complexities of the modern world. Added to that was my concern that nothing spells doom for the environment more than the tunnel visions of people who have isolated themselves in different disciplines.
Enter the Toronto board.
Following the amalgamation of the education boards in Toronto, Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough, Rod Thompson was appointed executive officer of instruction. Last June he appointed Richard Christie to be in charge of « global and environmental education.’’
It was a revolutionary move. Environment had never been blessed with the status of being a department. Instantaneously, it acquired a lustre within the board. « The power of power is amazing,’’ Christie said in a recent interview.
Thompson had been director of education for the Scarborough board. His new position is akin to that of a senior vice president of a company. He reports to the director of education for the new district board, and is responsible for the board’s teaching programs. Under him is a superintendent in charge of 20 coordinators — one for every school program run by the board. Christie is one of those coordinators.
The goal Christie has set is to engage the other coordinators in developing teaching materials for their subjects that will consistently draw upon the environment for illustrations and examples.
He hopes the materials will give teachers « everything they need in order to teach, but give it to them within an environmental theme.’’
If he and his fellow coordinators are successful, the ramifications could be profound. They’ll have a theme teachers can build on year after year, integrating their instruction not only from grade to grade, but across subjects in each grade. In short, public education in Toronto could reach a level of integration and multidisciplinary learning it has not yet experienced.
The beauty of this initiative is that it is occurring in compliance with the new Queen’s Park guidelines. Christie and his assistants have been combing through the guidelines and noting every reference to the environment. They use the references to orient the teaching materials. As a result, the materials will deliver what the Conservatives have called for — and more.
This « more’’ could be extremely important. According to a study in the United States, when multidisciplinary teaching around environmental themes is used, students score higher on standardized tests, and pose fewer discipline problems, than students enrolled in conventional programs.
The study was produced in 1998 by the State Education and Environment Roundtable, a cooperative undertaking by the education authorities in 12 states. (A brief summary of the report can be found on the internet at http://www.seer.org).
There won’t be many boards in Ontario that have the resources to put into the kind of effort the Toronto board is undertaking. That’s why parent groups across the province should keep an eye on what Christie and his fellow coordinators are producing — and ask for copies. Christie’s number is (416) 395-4914.
NEXT WEEK: What’s being produced