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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

A radical alternative: real teaching Add to ...

Paul Ballard liked the public school he used to go to in Toronto. The teachers were nice and he had a lot of friends there. But by Grade 6, he was behind in a lot of subjects and his handwriting was an illegible scrawl. He was told that because of his learning disability, he would never learn to write, and would always have to rely on a computer.

"There were many meetings," he told me. "They told my parents there were many things I would never learn to do."

Jan Howlett has seen this scene before. By the time Paul (not his real name) arrived at her little private school last spring, his file was an inch thick. She has another diagnosis for kids like these. NBT: Never Been Taught. "They spend all their time talking about the kid instead of teaching the kid," she said tartly.

The Howlett Academy, housed inside a plain red building in Toronto's Annex, offers a radical alternative to the public-school approach. Its teaching methods are heavily discouraged in today's public schools. It stresses penmanship and spelling, accuracy and focus. Every mistake in every essay is corrected - in red ink. The school's three Rs are resilience, rigour and repetition.

Not all the kids here are like Paul. Some arrive with straight As. "My daughter was getting great grades," one mother told me, "but she wasn't learning anything." When she expressed concern about her daughter's growing indifference to school, she was told not to worry.

I watched as a teacher took her students through a quick vocabulary and spelling drill. "Threadbare," they spelled aloud in unison. "This would be a no-no with the board of education," said Ms. Howlett. "It's called direct instruction." In the age of "child-centred" education, direct instruction is thought to stifle children's inherent creativity. They're supposed to discover math and spelling, not memorize the times tables.

Ms. Howlett's school has only 52 kids, from kindergarten through Grade 8. She started it by accident nine years ago, when she realized that her younger son wasn't learning much in public school. One morning she looked at him and said, "You might as well stay home." With a long track record as a teacher in Australia and Toronto, she figured she could just do the job herself. Then other parents begged her to teach their children too. The Howlett Academy's annual tuition is $13,500. Many parents must dig deep to pay it.

According to the prevailing pedagogy, these kids are oppressed. They don't seem oppressed to me. They seem attentive and engaged. When a teacher asks a question, almost every hand shoots up. It's impossible to pick out the "behaviour" cases, because all the kids are well behaved.

"So much of public school is about making it fun," said Ms. Howlett, a fierce advocate for her students. "But the fun is when you've gone from not knowing something to grasping it. That's when you feel good inside."

The parents here have enormous sympathy for the strained public-school system, which, they were quick to say, has many excellent and dedicated teachers. It's the system that's broken. They talked about the chaos, the bullying, the lack of feedback and the failure to teach students who, like Paul, are actually quite bright. They know the public system can't offer the small classes and the individual attention their children get here. But they also think that it's letting too many kids down.

Last week, Paul showed me a story he wrote. It was full of crackling dialogue and the handwriting was exemplary. "I learned in three months what I was told I could never learn to do in my life," he said. "The school board just didn't want to deal with me."

The public system pays lip service to educational diversity. It has schools that focus on sports or arts, schools for gay and lesbian students, schools for students who want to protest against global capitalism. What it doesn't have is any schools like the Howlett Academy. That would be too radical.

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