Balancing the E’s of a 21st Century Education

A few weeks ago, our 11 year old neighbour told us that she had some extra spending money, thanks to our son Jacob, who paid her to clean his room. I tried to be non-judgemental: “Really?”  Then, when I had time to think about it, I felt sheepishly proud of him for showing a bit of an entrepreneurial spark.

Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson and others have been touting the need to encourage creativity for a while – it is undoubtedly one of the 21st century learning skills. Wagner has a new book coming out in April called Creating Innovators, in which he will show examples of parents and teachers whose unconventional methods nurtured and developed curiosity, imagination, creativity, and initiative.  The proud parent in me hoped that perhaps I could be one of those parents in his book!

But then this week, I overheard the kids talking about Jacob paying our neighbour to do his homework. And I felt sick. Here I had spent time arguing against parents buying grades, and my son is buying homework.

I had the same visceral reaction when listening this morning to Cameron Herald’s TedTalk called, Let’s raise kids to be entrepreneurs. He offered some ideas worth sharing, but many ideas were worth questioning.

So how do we balance Entrepreneurialism and Ethics? What’s the right thing to do?

Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote a book called The parents we mean to be. He has been researching children’s moral development for a long time, and he writes: “But if I could give just one piece of advice to adults, it would be to focus not on children’s happiness or self-esteem but on their maturity.” He advises parents to encourage reflection, so I gave it a try:

Mom:   Tell me about you paying Natasha to do your homework.

Jacob:  She just coloured the background of a poster for me.

Mom:    But is that right?

Jacob:   That’s not cheating. I probably wouldn’t tell my teacher, but I still think it was smart to get someone else to colour when my hand was sore from doing all the hard parts. I would never pay someone to do my math – that would be wrong.

I’m not sure I fully agree with him – especially the part about his standard of ‘would I tell the teacher’ – but I did come to understand his perspective and was reassured that he’s not a bad kid.

So while all schools are trying to improve how they encourage the 21st Century learning skill of Entrepreneurialism, I am comforted by the fact that our CAIS schools excel at emphasizing Ethics. Good teachers – like good parents – take the time to explore questions about what’s right.

CAIS schools live the adage that education is about more than just knowing the right answer. It’s about knowing what’s right.

No Cash for Credits at CAIS

Do you ever have those days when you get nothing on your to-do list done?  On Friday, I got a text at 6:08 am saying, “You will not be happy about the lead article in the Star.”  That was all I focused on for the rest of the day, which was bad news, because I got back from Colorado at 2:30 a.m. and I had a Board meeting that I wanted to focus on at 1:00 p.m.  But this was a priority…

I am pleased to report that by 4:00pm, we sent out a letter to CAIS schools, purchased on-line advertising, drafted a letter to the Editor, met with UCC and Havergal to coordinate communication efforts, met with the Toronto French School to coordinate the Radio-Canada interviews, met with LiQuid to develop our ad, and approved our strategy with the CAIS Board. (On that last point, truth is, we got lucky that the Board meeting was that day.)

I believe that CAIS can play a role in helping to spread the word – that there is a real difference between a CAIS accredited school and ….well… all the other schools.

At this point, however, the Toronto Star has not published the letter to the Editor, so I am presenting it and a screen shot of our on-line ad below:

Dear Editor,

Congratulations to the Toronto Star and Ryerson School of Journalism on their investigative reports. Mark inflation in high schools is a serious issue, and the government should investigate to ensure the highest academic and ethical standards are met in the educational system.

But it is important that people are aware that not all tuition-charging schools are equal. Over 25 years ago, an organization was formed to establish high national standards for independent schools. Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) is a community of independent schools that pursues international standards of educational excellence. CAIS schools undergo a rigorous accreditation process that encompasses all areas of programs and operations. More than that, CAIS schools are committed to the ongoing pursuit of excellence.

Today, of the thousands of private and independent schools in Canada, only 90 of them meet the 12 National Standards, with 40 CAIS accredited schools in Toronto, including Upper Canada College and Havergal College.

The other group that needs to enter this debate is parents. Inflating marks is unacceptable, but so too is buying grades, and these are not the values that anyone should encourage in children.

The fact is that parents may play the strongest role in ensuring high standards. They need to insist on the integrity of credits in a learning environment that is ethical, challenging, and committed to excellence. They need to be vigilant to find out if a school meets their standards.

CAIS partners with parents and all other members of the educational community in articulating high standards and accrediting the best schools.

ps – Thanks to my Mentor for being my Google Alert on Friday.


I’ve been in NAIS meetings in Colorado this week, so I am relying on email and skype to hear about my kids’ first days in the classroom. Here’s Jacob’s email response to my classic question: “How was your first day?”

Jacob: “Hi mom actually I might have a chance to make the team”

Nothing about his teachers, friends or what he is learning – he is fully focused on soccer.

Last night when I spoke to both kids, the number one thing they wanted to discuss was whether or not they would get cut tomorrow from soccer and field-hockey.

As parents, we don’t want our children to be disappointed; we want them to excel and have a variety of great opportunities, like playing on a travel team. And as a tuition-paying-parent – and I am sorry to admit it – there’s a part of me that thinks my kids should make the travel teams because I’m not paying for the school to cut my kid. (Dear Ridley College, I promise not to be one of those parents who will call and make such demands.)

I believe in strong co-curricular programs, and I know that parents choose our CAIS schools, in part, because of the well-rounded programs they offer (See yesterday’s Globe where many of our schools were featured). The sports program was the number one reason that Jacob chose Ridley. So is it healthy for kids to be cut?  Let me ask that again – is it healthy for MY kids to be cut?

It is timely that my husband (source of all good ideas….) sent me a New York Times article yesterday, called What if the secret to success if failure? Domenic Randolph is Head of one of New York’s most prestigious independent schools. He has swapped the Head’s office with his secretary and he has one thing on his wall: a white sheet of paper with a big black question mark. He did away with APs, he limits homework and he doesn’t like standardized testing. But what makes him stand out most of all, is his focus on how independent schools develop character. He has spent years developing programs focused on good character and how it can be taught at school. My favorite line is this:

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Last night on skype, I liked seeing that they wanted to make these teams – they wanted it badly – and I admired their passion. We spoke about the what ifs – what if they made it and what if they got cut. We agreed that they would try their best and try to stay composed, whether they make it or not

And, thanks to Randolph, I will focus on the value of grit, whether they make it or not.

p.s.  For a complete look at the Globe’s coverage featuring CAIS schools, visit our home page.

Je n’aime pas ca

I was driving home on a rainy afternoon with my kids – then ages five and three – when I heard Jacob’s quiet voice:  “Joey kicks me at school. Most of the time it doesn’t matter but sometimes it hurts.” Those words struck me hard. Someone was hurting my baby boy at school? I wanted to hold my boy, and yet at the same time, I felt this surprising urge to hurt that bully. I had to concentrate on my driving to stay safe on the road, so I just asked Jacob to tell me more.

The next day, I was in Jacob’s kindergarten classroom with his teacher who wasn’t surprised to hear his experience. She took Jacob into the main hallway, which was empty at the time, and she got down to his eye level. She spoke to him in French – it was a French public school – and she told him that if that boy ever did anything to hurt him, he was to look him in the eyes and tell him, “Je n’aime pas ca.” She had him repeat that phrase. Then she told him that he needed to say it loud enough to get an adult’s attention. She had him say those words boldly – Je n’aime pas ca – and then repeat them even louder. In front of my eyes, I could almost see his courage rising as he yelled into the trusting eyes of his teacher.

This morning, as I watched the 9/​11 Memorial, I thought a lot about courage – the courage of that day and the days following. Where did those first responders get their courage? Where did the family members of those who lost loved ones that day find the courage to carry on?

Eventually we all have to summon the courage that I believe is within each of us. I am thankful that Jacob’s kindergarten teacher could help him to discover it in himself, and I hope that he uses it wisely whenever he needs it. Mostly, I am thankful that as we remember the tragic events of September 11, we can be moved by the courage of many.

The value of pink erasers

When I was in school, and we were bored in class, we sometimes passed around scrunched up pieces of paper.  We tossed them whenever the teacher turned her back or we maintained eyes front, in a studious pose, and passed them surreptitiously palm-to-palm. This amused us and connected us.

Or we wrote on pink erasers.  They were smallish, so you couldn’t fit much on them, maybe fewer than 50 characters.  But you could quickly delete any comments if necessary.  So you’d focus on the most important stuff, like:


“I’m bored”

“Question #25?”

“Do you like Kevin? Circle yes or no.”

Back in the 70s and 80s, pink erasers had a negative impact on classroom behaviour – they supported student distraction and cheating.

The pink eraser only served one educational purpose. It didn’t provide access to a limitless world of information, or connect you to students and learning around the world; and you couldn’t toss one to your Mom to ask if you could stay late to work on an assignment. No, the pink eraser only functioned to ensure that work was neat.  It is debatable if Marshall McLuhan would have even considered it to be an extension of a student.

I wonder.  Did educators debate the value of pink erasers and whether or not their potential for negative classroom behaviour outweighed their ability to improve work?  Did they discuss how to manage classrooms with pink erasers?  Did teachers sit in staff meetings discussing how to ban them or how long to keep them once confiscated?

Pink erasers have been a part of our classrooms for a long time (since 1770 – and that is no exaggeration!) and although students may still need the odd reminder of when it is appropriate and polite to use them, they know.

How long before cell phones are the same?