What’s Possible in Education

When the children walk into the school, it’s like going home.  The teachers wait in the front yard welcoming each one into the red-brick house not vastly different from the neighbors’ but inside lurks a laboratory school.  The teachers don’t wear white lab gowns but they do work on the cutting edge of education at the Jackman Institute of Child Study (JICS) right at the heart of downtown Toronto.

In the 1800’s, John Dewey, an American educational philosopher at the University of Chicago scanned the environment and observed how there were laboratories where scientists explore and investigate but there were none at the school of education.  He started a laboratory school in 1894 with the purpose of exploring what’s possible in education and examining how children learn best.  Teachers not only teach but they research best practices and contribute to shaping knowledge.  The laboratory school is a site for collecting information and sharing findings to the wider public.

Appropriately titled, The Possible School, a documentary was recently made about JICS by Daisy Gand, a French student doing her masters degree.  My schoolmate from University, Lally, introduced me to JICS when she found out that I was researching alternative forms of education.  Her two daughters, Avery and Coco attend the school. When asked if they observed any difference, Lally’s parents commented how students from JICS seem to have a happier disposition.  When Avery and her classmate, Toby toured me around the premises, it was easy to see why.  If I could send my own kids here, they’d probably radiate happiness, too not to mention their mom.  If other schools were made this way, there would be a lot more joyous students overall.

The school focuses on inquiry-based, problem-based and design-based learning, thus the students are more engaged being hands-on and minds-on.

Inquiry = engagement + connection

Vice Principal Christine Bogert explains how their curriculum is responsive daily to what actually happens in class so that the next day follows up on threads woven the previous day.  Even if there is a general curriculum, the teachers pick up on certain points worth pursuing so the curriculum evolves rather than stays fixed.  There are key words that are not just power point jargon but lived and fleshed out: deeply engaged, problem solver, collaboration, dealing with complexity and global citizens.

Education now is not about giving information and answering tests but what the students can do with the knowledge, how they use and apply it to think about and solve problems.  They go deeply into topics and one of the resources the lab school set up for teachers is called Natural Curiosity.

“Natural Curiosity is a teacher resource that was launched in 2011. It’s focus is on Environmental Inquiry, and how to bring inquiry-based teaching practices into the classroom. The resource offers elementary school teachers a guide to making both the content and process of learning about the world more engaging and relevant to their students. This is possible when students become personally invested in a collective learning process that is shaped by their very own questions and theories about the world – their natural curiosity – and a process that places them in direct contact and relationship with the natural environment.”

JICS employs a buddy system where each student is paired with a younger or older student from another grade which strengthens the sense of community and builds stronger ties among different ages.  The student to teacher ratio is already low at 1:22 but in certain subjects like French and math, the class is further divided into two, so one group of 11 studies French while the other group studies math and then the groups switch.

It’s great if one has access to a school like this however, it still is a private school with tuition fee beyond most people’s ability to pay, not to mention limited space.  But since it is a laboratory school, it aims to disseminate whatever the results and experience they have especially to the public schools.  They welcome visitors and their teachers and researchers speak at conferences.  They are an active part of the network of laboratory schools around the world.  They raise funds to allow scholarships.  They reflect the racial diversity of Toronto in how they accept students.

Knowledge Building – Inquiry Based Learning

In Knowledge Building/Creation classrooms, students work to identify problems of understanding, create theories, carry out research and investigations in order to refine their theories over time, revise their problems and strategies, and share and monitor the progress of the community towards its goals of advancing knowledge.

Talking to Christine about the association of laboratory schools makes me wish the Philippines could have a lab school as well, or leaders from the Department of Education can visit JICS or lab schools in Asia if Canada is too far.

Toby and Avery’s sincere excitement showing the artworks and projects on the walls of every classroom speaks volumes about the school.  When asked what she likes the most about the school, Avery said immediately it was easy.  It might be that learning occurs so so effortlessly and so naturally, the way perhaps it was intended to be.


Check the video about knowledge problems and how it’s used in classrooms:

The Learning Exchange

And also how JICS won this award:

Outstanding Laboratory School of the Year


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