Education Options in Ontario and Beyond

Education options in Kitchener: Child in blue shirt sitting with back to us in front of a blackboard with two arrows - left and right

Written by Lisa Bean

Lisa is the founder and head of school for IGNITE: An Acton Academy. She is a Mom of two boys, an entrepreneur, and a coach for high-performance businesses, leaders, and parents. She is passionate about re-defining education for the 21st century, and is adamant that learning be a fun and engaging experience that honours a child's unique strengths and passions.

December 27, 2021

Education Options in Ontario and Beyond

 

Growing up, I can honestly say that I hardly thought about how school was designed.

 I’m a Type A achiever by nature, and school with its grades and well-structured, monotonous path suited me.

I did what I was supposed to do.

I listened.

I sat still.

I studied.

I got good grades.

I didn’t think about why I was doing what I was doing. I just did what people told me and I basked in praise for doing well at what those people valued.

So, it’s no surprise then that when I had children, my husband and I didn’t think about  their education options

In our minds, there was no choice. There was no need to do research. There was no need to discuss your values. You just enrolled your children at whatever school was closest and you showed up to drop them off on the first day of kindergarten.

You trusted that the system worked and was looking out for you, and you did what everyone else was doing.

The Default Decision

What we didn’t realize at the time, is that there was value in being more intentional.

You see, the current public education system in Canada (and many other countries) has some faults and drawbacks.

The current school system was established in the early 1900s at the height of the industrial era. Industrial leaders established schools to provide training for individuals who’d one day soon work in factories.

Since the point of school was to fit children into a mould that would make for efficient one-size-fits-all, productive factory workers, this is what they needed to drill into children:

  • Memorize and regurgitate information.
  • Be docile, and don’t question authority.
  • Fit in.
  • Follow instructions.
  • Don’t think or act of your own free will and don’t be creative or innovative.

While no one thinks these things are valuable for today’s day and age, it has been incredibly hard for our machine-like school system to make anything but the smallest of tweaks to the way it operates.

Children sit still  behind desks in orderly rows most of the day while a teacher instructs from the front of the classroom.

Students still memorize facts for the purpose of taking quizzes and tests, only to forget most of this information shortly after.

Curriculums still cater to the average student when no one individual student actually fits this average.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone, including teachers, who haven’t recognized the faults in our school system. Teachers are usually called to the profession because they have a love of children and want to see them succeed. There are countless stories of teachers who started their careers with optimism and the best intentions to inspire and encourage the children in their classes.

Unfortunately, teachers find themselves as only one small part of a system that doesn’t facilitate these same desires. The Washington Post’s recent article shares what teachers have gone through both before and during the pandemic and the reason they’re leaving in droves. It cites one reason for teachers leaving as “Existing frustrations with an education system that never quite seemed to meet the needs of its students and staff.”

Another article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education titled “Bored Out of Their Minds” shares details of a system of uninspiring, disconnected curricula that have most students checked out by the time they get to middle school. One teacher says: “My freedom as a teacher continues to be curtailed with every passing year. I am not able to teach for the sake of teaching.”

Education Options in Kitchener: Boy stands at chalkboard pointing to the word Education. Below there are two check-boxes Yes and No.

The Call for Change

So, why haven’t schools changed? And, why, if we know all these things, do we continue to send our children?

Well, for one, it’s free. (Well, paid for by our taxes—so shouldn’t we take advantage?). But even more important, it’s the accepted path. We’ve been doing it for so long we don’t even question it. We were likely raised as students of a traditional school, and we didn’t turn out so bad, right?

Unfortunately, good student behaviour and our early education dictates that we all default to following along and fitting in. It seems risky to dare to do it differently.

However, some brave individuals are doing things a new way and have carved paths that work best for their families.

Many more, like us, continue along the well-trodden path unless life circumstances throw a curveball.

Our Wake-Up Call

And, a curveball we were thrown.

As I dropped my almost 4-year-old off for his first day of Junior Kindergarten, I remember a nervous and excited energy flowing through me. It was the start of so much possibility. Later on, when I picked him up and we walked the short distance home, I asked him how it was.

His response: “I hate those words.”

Hmmm… interesting. “What words, Gavin?”

“Sit on the carpet. Sit on the carpet. Sit on the carpet.” he said with a 3-year old’s tone of utter disgust.

At the time, I thought this was irresistibly cute. Now, however, with 20/20 hindsight, I see it as a foreshadowing of what was to come.

By the end of Senior Kindergarten, we were informed that Gavin was falling behind. By mid-Grade One, we were having regular teacher conversations and had started working with various tutors. By the end of Grade Two we were so fed up and exhausted by his diminishing self-esteem, apparent apathy, and daily homework battles and tears.

No one seemed to know what to do.

And I was fed up that no one even seemed to recognize that my son had some amazing strengths, passions and interests. He was just being hammered daily about the things he struggled with.

I began to question a system that would do this to such a young child. Sure, he had gaps to fill, but was it worth seeing the spark go out of his eyes? Wasn’t there more to learning than just reading and writing?

In my corporate world, everyone was talking about strengths-based leadership, where you look for the unique strengths a team member brings to the organization. Then you put them in a role where they can flourish with those strengths.

Where was strengths-based education?

As I angrily threw these questions out into the universe, I began a journey to understand the history of education, its present state, and its future possibilities.

In my research, I realized that I wasn’t the only one with these opinions and there were at least a few brave souls already doing remarkable work to change the future of education.

I’ve learned a lot over this journey, and it sure isn’t done yet. If there’s one thing that I want parents to know more than all else—it’s that you have a choice, and you should make a choice when it comes to the education of your children.

Education options in Kitchener: Boy sits at school with head in hands looking sad and crying.

Your Choice Matters

There are, in fact, many options available for your child’s education. They’re options that every family should evaluate and make a conscious choice about depending on your values and beliefs.

Consider your beliefs about what new graduates need to know now and what they’re likely to need to know 15 – 20 years down the line.

No one can predict the future, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Consider what values are important to you and your family.

Is it more important to you that your child can memorize facts and get an A+ on the final exam as a result, OR that they’re able to think critically, evaluate opportunities and carve their own path to a purposeful career?

Seth Godin, a thought leader and author of several best-selling books, wrote a blog post called “The Modern Curriculum” It’s about education and how it needs to change to reflect the 21st century. He says:

“We’re living in the age of an always-connected universal encyclopedia and instantly updated fact and teaching machine called the Net. This means that it’s more important to want to know the answer and to know how to look it up than it is to have memorized it when we were seven.”

Seth Godin

He goes on to suggest a new curriculum that parents should look for when making education choices for their family. It’s well worth reading and understanding as you develop your own viewpoints and evaluate options for your family.

Our Choice: Creating More Education Options in Kitchener-Waterloo

Our personal choice for an educational model was Acton Academy.

During the stage where I was angrily questioning why strengths-based education was not a thing, one friend responded by telling me about these amazing micro-schools that were cropping up all over the world.Education options in Kitchener: Green road sign. Pointing one way it says Old School. Pointing in the opposite direction it says New School. There were only 2 in Canada so far, but they were gaining momentum fast.

As I eagerly dug into the research, I found that Acton Academy was founded by people who were in a similar space as my family and I. They opted to wipe the slate clean, work with several experts in innovative education and build something remarkable.

Their model had a strong foundation of research-backed inspiration, such as:

  • Maria Montessori and the principle to “follow the child”;
  • Socrates and the belief that powerful questions were much more important than correct answers;
  • Lord John D. Acton, and the importance of freedom, excellence, and moral goodness;
  • Thomas Jefferson, who believed in learning by doing;
  • Sugata Mitra, and the power of technology to free children to learn without a teacher lecturing from the front of the room, and;
  • Sal Khan and the belief that children could drive their own education given the right tools.

The model appealed to us because it was based first and foremost on fun and engagement. Although learning wasn’t always expected to be easy, it was deeply rooted in personal motivation.

The Acton model inspired learners because everything was tied to the real-world and a direct connection to why learning something was actually important.

It stood out from other educational models because it didn’t shy away from challenging the individual student. Students set their own goals and faced real-world pressure as they prepared to launch a business, give a speech, or showcase their films, for example. Students were expected to fail and  learn to do so with grace and perseverance.

Since this education option wasn’t available in Kitchener (our hometown), we decided to start one!

It’s exactly what I was looking for, and now 3 months into experiencing this model first-hand, as a parent with 2 children at an Acton Academy, I’m thankful for the path that we found (even though I still wish we’d found it earlier!).

Your Choice: Education Options in the Kitchener-Waterloo area

If I could give you, the reader, one piece of advice, it would be to:

  • know that you have a choice,
  • embrace the value in considering your options, and
  • make a conscious decision around your child’s education.

Every family, and maybe even every child, is going to have something that works best for them. That may be Acton Academy, as it was for us, or Waldorf or Reggio Emilia. You might choose homeschooling or unschooling. You could choose a virtual school program.

You might even prefer the traditional model – whether that be public school, private school, Catholic school, or French immersion.

There are lots of options to consider and I choose to celebrate each individual’s unique choice.

If we at IGNITE can help you to decode the right education options in Kitchener-Waterloo for your family to consider, reach out to us. We’re always happy to support families thinking about what path works best for their unique needs.

If you’re considering IGNITE for your family, reach out to us at info@ignitelearning.ca and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of “Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down” by Laura Sandefer.

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