For many reasons, I sometime find myself wondering about the journey that I have taken in my life. Decisions that I have made, both personally and in my work – good or bad- have made me who I am today. For example, when I finished high school, for very personal reasons, I did not pursue the career of my choice and entered an education program in my home town. I lived at home and elected a vocational track, studying Home Economics as a teaching discipline. Despite that not being my first choice, I have never regretted my decision and I know that having this vocation background has served me well throughout my life. Sadly, I didn’t always feel that others saw it this way.
I recently visited the city of Zurich. On a tour, the young tour guide was very proud to tell us all that Zurich is second in the world for quality of life and that the education system in the city is very important. He went on to explain that the Zurich education system followed a belief in educating the head, heart and hand, based on the theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who was born in Zurich in 1746.
Pestalozzi wrote books based on the theories that he had about education. “Children should learn through activity and through things (hands-on tools). They should be free to pursue their own interests and draw their own conclusions.” Pestalozzi argued that there was a need for balance, that the three elements of head, heart and hands were most important to children receiving a great education. In Zurich, and in many other European cities, apprenticeships and experimental-learning opportunities are a strong component of education systems and are part of the overall expectations of a balanced education program.
Over my career as an educator, I experienced a strong focus on vocational programs. Sadly, I also witnessed most of the vocational labs removed from schools only to see the need later to have them restored. As a Superintendent, I was part of a great project that saw students able to go out in the workforce and experience an “apprenticeship-like” program; although not to the extent that was described to me when I was in Zurich. I also had many conversations with educators, parents and students and know that, it was often seen as a less than favorable decision to select a vocation training course.
Personally, I can remember many times when someone would find out that the superintendent had a home economics degree. And then the surprise would continue when they discovered that the assistant superintendent had been an industrial arts teacher. Imagine two vocationally trained teachers leading a school district?
As I continue to work in schools that want nothing more than to make students successful, we focus many efforts on engaging students in their own learning. Teachers know that students will be more interested in what they are studying if it is relevant to them and especially when their is a hands-on experience attached to the learning. It is not always possible, especially in small schools, communities or districts to provide a large buffet of programs to offer, however, in each and every classroom, teachers have the choice of how they will present the learning. Considering ways to engage through project-based learning, exploratory lessons and opportunities for students to have choice when it is possible can go a long way in sparking an interest.
My home province of New Brunswick, Canada is reviewing the current education plan and inviting input from all New Brunswickers. I was part of the research and recommendations for the ten-year plan in 2015-2016. I clearly remember the conversations that were had throughout the province as we were asked to make sure our recommendations included a focus on vocational, cooperative learning and hands-on opportunities. Business leaders, community members, parents and students discussed the need to make sure that essential non-academic skills were seen as important as literacy, mathematics and science.
Please do not misunderstand this blog. I would be the first person to tell you that if we do not ensure that children have strong literacy skills then we are not going to succeed as an education system. Ensuring that youngsters learn to read and then read to learn is critical to the success of any community or country. Once this is done however, we can look at the opportunities that support the balance of head, heart and hand. It is a balance; not one or the other.
In school improvement work, it is about each student – student by student/skill by skill. How important is it for us to know more about these students and the skills that would truly turn them on to learning? How valuable would it be for us to have opportunities for more experiments, more hands-on projects, more music, more art, more drama and more vocational programs? However small or big we can make these offers, they will be appreciated. Have a great week.