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Stephen Johnson



Stephen Johnson


stephen johnson

The boys who come running, laughing and shouting through our doors every morning are growing up in complicated times. They live in a rapidly changing world, marked by explosions in science and information. You remember what we were expected to learn? They have to learn more.

Good schools have to change to help students make sense of an increasingly complex world. But how?

Part of our job is to make sure the boys feel part of that world. They have to be comfortable with the technologies that will be part of their lives. At the Prep, we take full advantage of boys’ innate curiosity and love of machines to incorporate technology into all aspects of teaching and learning. Students as young as age seven think no more about launching an Internet search than we did about opening an encyclopedia or the National Geographic.

Beginning in Form 4, our boys are involved in complex science projects that go far beyond anything most of us learned in elementary school. Technology is creating exciting changes in the way we work in a classroom. In the future, the teacher will stop pretending to be the source of all knowledge — in fact, most of us abandoned that pretence long ago. Instead, teachers will act more as guides and facilitators, encouraging students to ask questions, explore, and become independent learners. While technology can extend our students’ reach, it can’t make them smart or teach them to listen or think. One of the Prep’s challenges is to balance what technology offers with what we know is best for learning.

So, how will the Prep ensure the boys continue to experience real learning, and develop the skills they will need in the future? We’re going to do four things:

1. We will offer a challenging academic program that excites both our teachers and our young learners.

We’ve introduced the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme. It’s a rigorous program with a compelling Student Profile that will help create enquiring minds and life-long learners. The Middle Years Programme is next, with its integrated, holistic approach and the Areas of Interaction. We shall continue to derive huge benefits from the Richard Wernham and Julia West Centre for Learning, which connects our faculty with the latest developments in brain research and individual teaching and learning styles. It’s put us at the forefront of how boys learn and is helping us improve the way we teach.

2. We will provide a broad-based arts program that encourages students to be creative and take risks.

Research tells us that students who participate in drama, music and art programs develop strong creative thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and reasoning skills. We have always had outstanding music and art programs as part of the curriculum. This year we’ve added drama classes for Forms 6 and Remove, and we’ve started a public speaking club. Our goal is to give our boys as many opportunities as possible to develop those higher-level creative skills that universities and employers want.

3. We will offer a strong physical fitness and athletics program.

This program is not just for the natural athletes and students who make the teams. It's for everyone. As you are probably aware, many schools are cutting physical education to give more time for academics. But that is a mistake. We know that students who engage in daily physical activity do better in math and reading. Their memory and concentration improve. They have more self-esteem and feel less stress. Every day, all our boys spend at least 40 minutes doing some form of physical activity. We encourage the older boys in Forms 5 to Remove to try out for teams. If they don’t make the teams, they’re automatically part of an intramural sports/games program.

4. We will build a guidance and life-skills program to support students’ social and emotional health.

Good education is about hearts as well as minds. We want our students to be confident, poised and articulate. We want them to grow up to be good people, good friends, good parents and good citizens. As a private school with a public purpose, this is where it begins. Over the last few years, the Prep has developed a very active guidance and life-skills program. We encourage students to be more purposefully involved in community service and to develop their skills for life and for leadership. Our goal is to create moments where our students can take responsibility and succeed. Each time that happens, your sons gain a greater sense of confidence and self-worth. Through these activities, our students grow immeasurably as people.

With this four-pronged approach to education, we think the Prep has all the characteristics and commitment of a great private school for the 21st century.

But we want to be more. We want to be a great private school for boys.

Some people may think that’s anachronistic. Do we still need boys’ schools? Why not, like many private schools in the U.S. and parts of Canada, go co-ed? Why – despite all the other changes we’ve made – are we still committed to boys’ education?

Because it is important, and because it works. Because it supports boys developmentally where we know they need it most.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a great deal written about the value of single-sex education for girls. It’s now well accepted that a single-sex learning environment helps girls develop to their full potential. The same is true of boys. The literature on educating boys is still relatively new, but it is affirming what the Prep and most parents with boys have known intuitively for many years: boys are different.

How many of you have both daughters and sons? Have you noticed differences in their learning styles? In the way they relate to their peers? In how they approach life?

In an all-boys’ school, we can celebrate boys’ strengths. We can tailor our programs and activities to the way boys grow and learn. With thanks to Michael Thompson, a celebrated author on boys’ social and emotional development and resident psychologist at a boys’ school in Boston — and with apologies to David Letterman — here are my top 10 reasons for boys’ education.

Top 10 Reasons for Boys’ Education

10. Boys learn at their own developmental pace in elementary school.

What does that mean? It means that girls learn to read before boys do, and they tend to achieve better in school, particularly in the early years. In an all-boy environment, boys are able to develop at their own pace. They are not judged in comparison to girls. They do not start off their school life with the sense that they are behind. As a result, they don’t lose interest in school or in reading.

The Prep instituted a daily reading period back in the 1930s, long before the research on the value of reading was in. We still have that reading period today. By the time our boys are in Form 3 or 4, most are avid readers and are reading far beyond their grade level.

9. Boys mature later than girls – physically and socially.

An all-boys’ school gives boys a little longer to grow up socially. It protects them from society’s pressure to get involved with girls before they are ready. It saves them spending all their time trying to impress the girls, and lets them focus on their school work and on being boys.

8. Boys have boundless physical energy.

Boys tend to engage physically with the world. I call it the stick principle. When you go out walking in the woods with boys, they all immediately pick up a stick. Girls don’t do this. But boys like to touch the world, poke at it and explore it physically. It is this male energy that is at the root of most behaviour and discipline problems at a young age. Boys are more physical. They have to move. They are more likely to fall or knock things over. In a class with girls, this normal boy behaviour stands out. It often seems inappropriate or wrong.

In an all-boy environment, we can use and direct that male energy, and help boys learn to manage their bodies and physical strength. Because they have positive outlets for their energy, they focus better in the classroom.

7. Boys are essentially disorganized.

This seems to be a male trait that doesn’t change with age. Back in the 1800s, Thomas Huxley wrote, “Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.”

Just walk down any hallway at the Prep between classes or when school is over and you will see examples of male disorganization! For boys, who tend to live in the moment and do not always think ahead, finding the right books at the right time, keeping lockers organized, and arriving at class with shirts tucked in can be an overwhelming challenge.

Unfortunately, boys need organizational skills to succeed at school and in life. In an all-boy setting, we can focus on helping them develop those skills through our tailor-made agendas and a timetable that sets aside structured time for this purpose to individualized and coordinated support through each Form Master and the Centre for Learning. This directly helps boys to identify strategies to be more organized and manage their time and their learning.

6. Boys are creative.

We know that, given the right opportunity, boys love to create. They throw themselves into music, art, drama and creative writing. Most have a strong artistic side. But in a co-ed setting, many boys simply will not pursue these activities.

They don’t try out for the play or join the choir – often because of some misguided social sense that these activities are not masculine. One of our teachers who came from a public school setting was struck by the sound of boys singing. In a co-ed school, it is primarily the girls who sing.

In an all-boy setting, boys are not silent or disengaged. They can explore their creative side without fear, take risks and develop a broader, more inclusive sense of what it means to be male.

5. Boys are great leaders.

Boys can handle responsibility from a very young age. Given the chance, they take charge, lead others and accomplish great things. In a co-ed environment, they may not get the same chance to be leaders – perhaps because of that male energy I talked about or because they are not as organized as the girls or as willing to volunteer. Peer pressure may keep them from becoming leaders.

In an all-boy environment, they have no choice. They have to play all the roles. They learn how to lead and how to work as part of a group with other boys: whether at our Norval Outdoor School, on stage, on a rep team, in the classroom, as reading buddies for the younger students or through community-service initiatives, such as Hoops for Heart. They learn leadership skills they will use the rest of their lives.

4. Boys are risk takers.

Boys tend to act first and think later. They often take risks without realizing they are risks. This can be a good thing – some of the greatest achievements in civilization start with someone taking a risk. We don’t want to subdue that male trait. But we do want to direct it and help boys learn the judgment they need to avoid hurting themselves or others.

That’s one of the reasons that we make a special effort at the Prep to have adults around at all times, supervising the boys, ready to step in. This wasn’t always the case. Mr. Meikle tells a story about the “old days” – back in the 1970s when all the teachers would go the faculty lounge during recess, leaving the boys on their own. A student knocked on the door to report that there was some water in the basement. The teacher told him to keep an eye on it, and he’d have someone deal with it after the break. About five minutes later, the boy knocked again. This time, his pants were wet right up to his thighs. The boy said, politely, “Excuse me, sir. It’s getting worse.” Apparently some boys had been swinging on one of the main water pipes and it had given way, quickly turning the basement into a lake.

Now, boys will still try crazy things, but there’s an adult nearby to help temper their enthusiasm and to deal a little more quickly with any problems. Through the Norval program, we also try to give boys safe opportunities to take risks and push themselves physically.

3. Boys make great friends.

What does friendship look like for boys? It changes as they grow. In Form 1, friendship is every boy in class spending his recess looking in the snow for a classmate’s lost tooth and then promising to look again the next recess.

As your sons mature, their friendships become deeper and more supportive. Here is a list of what boys in Forms 5 and 6 said recently about what it meant to be a friend: “being loyal; standing up for someone else; being encouraging; trusting; caring and helping; being someone you can depend on.”

What our boys learn about friendship now will enrich their lives. Many of the friendships they form here will, in fact, last a lifetime. I am always struck by how many returning alumni are still close, supportive friends. These vital male friendships grow and thrive best in an all-boy environment, where boys are not competing with one another for the girls’ attention.

2. Boys are funny.

In my experience, men tend to have an irreverent sense of humour. We use humour to cope, and to relate to one another. And that sense of humour starts very young. Boys make each other laugh, and they make their teachers – particularly the male teachers – laugh. They are always telling jokes – often very bad jokes – or imitating each other or their teachers.

In an all-boy setting, the sense of humour is everywhere. The more we can encourage that sense of humour, the better equipped your sons will be to develop relationships with other people and to thrive in the real world.

And, finally, my number one reason for boys’ education …

1. Boys need male role models.

Boys need male role models to help them grow and develop. They need men around to show them different ways of being male. These days, fathers are much more actively involved in their children’s lives than they used to be, and that’s good. But, even so, during the early years, boys often spend very little time with men.

At a boys’ school, they will have a number of male teachers. Those men will have different strengths. Some will be coaches, some musicians. Some will have a great passion for drama or poetry or science or English, and those men will make a huge difference in the boys’ lives. Almost every old boy I’ve met has talked about a particular male teacher who inspired or challenged him.

Another thing our male teachers model for the boys is how to relate to women, and this is no small thing. Years ago, the Prep was a male bastion. Today, it’s quite different. We have men and women working together in all aspects of the school: the office, the classroom, the sports fields, the guidance program and the drama productions. For example, the boys in our school musical are able to watch the close collaboration between Kathryn Edmondson and Warren Crawford, who each bring different strengths to the task, and learn from that.

The Prep has a rich history. Every day, when I walk along the hallway to my office, I pass the portraits of my five predecessors and photos of dozens of excellent former teachers – each one of them highly respected. As only the sixth head and the second “Steve” of the Prep in 100 years, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to build on the past. My goal is to continue to nurture boys who will succeed in all walks of life: business, international affairs, government, social services, the arts, sports, higher learning and the environment.

As the Prep moves into its second century, some change is inevitable. But we must make careful, critical decisions about what we change and why. We must not blindly follow every new trend in society, technology or education. As Jimmy Carter noted in his speech when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the challenge is to adapt to “changing times but hold to unchanging principles.”

Under my watch, the Prep will continue to provide a rigorous, relevant education, delivered by intelligent, empathetic people who have a passion for teaching, and supported by parents who care and who believe in what we do. I feel privileged to be here, and I look forward to being part of Upper Canada College's unmatched record in shaping the future of Canada's finest and most successful young men.

I leave you with a thought from W. B. Yeats, who said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

In the future – as in the past – that is what the Prep will do: celebrate boys’ strengths and abilities, and light the fire within them.

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Source: IBSC