thoughts on public education

Everything I know, I did not learn in kindergarten. I didn’t go to kindergarten. Perhaps that was good, as that was the year that my father died, and I still did not speak much English anyway. It could have made for a stressful year. No kindergarten meant I could start school a bit later and I think I was really ready when I entered that one-room schoolhouse which was probably the best learning environment I ever had.

There were only three of us in Grade One, so I was also able to listen to what was going on in the Second Grade, in the same row, just ahead of me. Recess and lunch were usually fun, with all ages playing games together. There were not enough students in any one grade to form a dominant group. I was later home-schooled by my mother who never had any formal education in English. This was my introduction to public education.

I went to university straight out of high school and did a standard four-year degree. I got a gentleman’s pass from the Royal Military College and then put my books away. What remains of my undergraduate education is not so much my knowledge of History as my fluency in French. It wasn’t the classes that helped me master the language, but the girl I met in Québec between first and second year. That was real informal learning, watching morning TV cartoons with her young niece, whose French wasn’t too much more advanced than mine. I was one of only a few of my classmates who achieved fluency from no ability at all on entry. Motivation was the critical part of my learning.

Thirteen years later I went to graduate school part-time, with a full-time job and a young family. I could not have done it without the support of my wife. I received a graduate degree in Education but my real education has been in the 14 years since. I have been learning mostly online, first by accessing all of the information available on the web that interested me and more recently by connecting to a worldwide network of people, most of whom I have not met face-to-face. This network now numbers in the thousands.

I have learned that it was a shotgun wedding between robber baron capitalists and progressives, who at the turn of the last century helped to create our public education system, with age-based cohorts, classrooms, bells, and a standardized curriculum. The capitalists needed workers who could read instructions, while progressives, like Moses Coady, founder of the Antigonish movement, felt it their mission to help society.

I have noticed with our boys now finishing up at school, that for the most part, the current system does not help them learn. If anything, it stops them from learning. One-size fits nobody, I call it. We were lucky, in that one or both of us parents could be at home during the day. Our boys could stay at home from time to time, such as the year one was frequently bullied — by the teacher. They knew they always had an option not to go to school. If I had to do it over again, I would pull our kids out of the system during middle school and let them become self-directed learners, later having them rejoin their friends in high school. Middle school was a needlessly stressful time for our family.

When I went to school, if a book was not available in the library system, in reality, it did not exist. Now my children can find and read most of what they need. The shift from scarcity to abundance of information is one of the many reasons we need educational reform. There can be no standard curriculum when everything is miscellaneous, as co-author Dave Weinberger says. Courses are artifacts of a time when information was scarce and connections were few. With ubiquitous computing, that time is over. Our children know that.
school train
I watch how our kids learn to play computer games. There is no rule book. The fun of the game is in figuring it out. This is always done collaboratively. Collaboration seems natural to this generation. While studying, Facebook is usually open and classmates send messages back and forth as they share in their learning. The whole notion of cheating may be gone in a generation.

I think this generation will be one of the last in the current system. I hope the next public education system is not another shotgun wedding, or a reaction to change, like charter schools can be. Actually, I hope that it’s not a system at all. It should be a network, like the Internet — open, with no centre, using only basic protocols and allowing for innovation at the edges. If we let our children design it, that is most likely what it would be like. It might look like Stockholm’s school without classrooms or something even more radical.

4 Responses to “thoughts on public education”

  1. David Glow

    Thanks for these insights.

    As a father of children just finishing their first year of formalized schooling and seeing the road where it leads, I have concerns.

    To hear someone else validate the thoughts that my wife and I have expressed while discussing our children’s development is helpful.

  2. sheree

    Excellent teachers are my heroes, but the current “system” is geared toward remembering not learning. I agree with these thoughts you HJ– I look to Sweden and hope for models of experiential learning for the future. Great post!

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Sheree. Agree there are many good teachers, and our sons had a few, but it’s the system that’s the problem. For example, some of the best teachers don’t have seniority and they just fall out of the system.

  3. andrea


    Our sons had more than a few good teachers but all too often their influence and creative juices were stifled by excessive and inappropriate curriculum requirements. I feel empathy for those well-meaning teachers who have their enthusiasm snuffed out by the system and the powers that be.

    Yes, we encountered some bad apples and I still wish I could hold them accountable. But life goes on…

    Our children were very fortunate, in that they always had at least one parent at home and that we were both equipped to assist them with their education. This is not the norm. We also have very bright, well-behaved and self-directed, motivated kids.

    I haven’t followed the links in your blog and I will. I just want to make the case for kids who maybe don’t have the tools and opportunities ours do and maybe don’t have the unconditional support ours do. They may need more encadrement , more structure. This need not limit learning but it may require a more imposed structure. Self-directed learning is wonderful in theory but some kids couldn’t do it without direction, some never will.

    I don’t think that our points of view are mutually exclusive.



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