Lloyd Dennis, who died on March 7 at his home in Orillia, Ont., at the age of 88, was one of his generation’s most influential educators, revered by many and misunderstood by some.
Raised in the hardscrabble backwoods of Depression-era Muskoka, Dennis was a Second World War paratrooper and a postwar Toronto grade school teacher and principal, who became prominent with the 1968 release of Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario, better known as the Hall-Dennis Report.
The progressive report advocated scrapping rote learning and regimentation for a child-centred, inquiry-based model that would tailor lessons to students’ individual needs and interests. Personal discovery was in; corporal punishment was out.
Walter Pitman, the NDP’s education critic at Queen’s Park at the time, writes that he first looked at the report for a way to criticize the minister of education, William Davis.
“Instead, I found myself captivated by the sensitivity and vision of this beautifully presented document that articulated everything I had come to believe about learning.
“Living and Learning became the most internationally recognized and respected report ever produced in Ontario and perhaps the most-quoted document ever published in the province. But, to its critics, it also became the perceived cause of everything that was, and was seen to be, wrong with the schools of Ontario – even though its recommendations were never legislated in any consistent way throughout the jurisdiction.”
Lloyd Arthur Dennis did not choose the easiest day of his mother’s life when he was born on Nov. 9, 1923, at the Burton’s Mill logging camp, where Bessie Dennis was working as a cook. Bessie was anticipating that her good friend, Alice Milford, would assist as midwife. But the evening before Lloyd’s birth, Milford’s son came to the door of the cookhouse to ask if Bessie could “lay out” his mother, who had just died of the flu. The next morning, after feeding the loggers their breakfast and setting out their lunch, Bessie took a shortcut through a swamp to prepare her friend for burial, returning to the camp that evening. Dennis was born before midnight, with the nervous assistance of his father, Alf.
As their second son was growing up, Alf and Bessie moved him and his brother, Vernon, from place to place, lumber camp to rural hamlet, school to school. They sought work wherever they could find it. And if it was cooking at a lumber camp, this meant for Bessie 20-hour, backbreaking days. She was the dominant force in the family; the more diminutive Alf, a bookkeeper and some-time labourer, a secondary presence.
Life became more settled for the family by Dennis’ early teenage years, when they were able to settle in Huntsville. He attended high school in the town, played goalie for the school’s hockey team and became part of a gang of fun-loving friends. Then came the Second World War in 1939. Alf, Bessie and Vernon left Huntsville for jobs at the munitions factory in Nobel, Ont., just outside Parry Sound. Dennis joined them later that winter, leaving school at 16, before graduation, his decision prompted in part by being jilted by a girl.
He landed a job as the assistant director of the factory’s recreational club. By 18, he was married to a blonde beauty, Dorothy Swartz, who had arrived at Nobel in circumstances similar to his. A few days after their wedding, Dennis waved goodbye to a forlorn group standing on the Parry Sound station platform and left for basic army training in Toronto.
Although he ended the war an elite soldier, a lieutenant in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, one of the great regrets of his life was that he did not make it overseas into action. Two months into a training stage at Camp Borden, a company commander told him to ship out for officer training in Trois Rivières, Que. The army had identified him as officer material following a routine IQ test. By August, 1943, Lloyd Dennis, 19, was an officer in His Majesty’s Army. Cooling his heels at a base in Peterborough two months after D-Day, Dennis thought a transfer to the Parachute Battalion might move him ahead in the overseas queue. But it was not to be.