Controversial for decades but still influencing ministers;Briefing

12th June 1998 at 01:00
CANADA. It is 30 years to the day since the bible of progressive teaching in Canada, the Hall-Dennis report, was published. But it continues to influence the shape and mission of schools in Canada.

Unlike any government report that had gone before, it was as lavishly illustrated as a coffee-table book, and became a surprise bestseller in 1968.

The authors were Mr Justice Emmett Hall, a liberal judge and inspiration behind the introduction of national health insurance, and Lloyd Dennis, a progressive school principal. They headed a committee of the great and the good appointed by the Government.

In place of schools in which the child is "expected to learn, memorise, mimic, regurgitate, and duplicate the pearls of wisdom to which he is exposed," they declared the mission of Ontario's schools to be the development of each student's interests, values and heart.

"The chastisement of pupils for not meeting set, rigid requirements is almost a form of barbarism," wrote the committee. It told teachers to do less talking and, instead, devise co-operative activities that would lead children "to dream the impossible dream".

Professor Mark Holmes, who studied the implementation of Hall-Dennis' recommendations, said its philosophy is best symbolised by the spread of the elementary "school without walls". "The great power of these schools is that they make teaching of a traditional kind impossible. When four or five classes are grouped together, students cannot focus on a teacher instructing them. Rather, the teacher must attend to students working together on what interests them."

Today, however, there are prominent critics. Professor Waller Newell, co-author of Bankrupt Education: The decline of liberal education in Canada, said: "The abandonment of direct instruction and the adoption of fads like whole-language teaching and self-esteem classes has done more than lead to the demonstrable decline in our students' abilities to read, write and think.

"The pedagogy that flows from the report led to the gradual deconstruction of anything like a substantive common curriculum, instances of which are the abandonment of the teaching of narrative history and literature, the absence of which, ironically enough imperil both democracy and creativity - two of the banners Hall-Dennis flew."

Of all the manifestos written in the 60s, Hall-Dennis may be the most important, for none continues to so influence a major government. Dan Gardner, policy adviser to former minister of education John Snobelen, says its ethos has underpinned all subsequent educational reforms in Ontario. The common curriculum, brought in by the left-wing New Democratic Government in 1993, was largely an attempt to implement such plans as the de-streaming of high school students, that Bill Davis, the education minister who tabled Hall-Dennis, backed away from after he became Premier.

"Ontario's present Tory government likes to talk about knowledge, excellence and standards, but the curriculum it has developed continues to be stripped clear of factual knowledge," said Gardner.

Professor Holmes says Hall and Dennis's vision is behind a drive to remove subject departments in high schools in favour of teaching through multidisplinary projects instead.

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