The French Choice

When we lived in Montreal, we put Jacob in French school, which meant he didn’t understand a word of what his teacher or classmates said. I wanted Jacob to be bilingual, and I remember being quite cavalier about his full immersion experience.  I thought, “He’s five. It is not like he can ask friends at the park if they understand their teacher at school.  He just thinks that is what school is. He will catch on.”

But at the October parent-teacher interviews, his teacher reported that he didn’t speak at school.  This disturbed us and we considered switching to an English school.  Kevin worked at McGill at the time and asked his colleagues in the education department. Their advice was to leave him.  His teacher also advised us not to worry.  She said his language acquisition was progressing normally, especially for boys.

Sure enough, in mid-January his teacher called to say that not only was he speaking French, he was using full sentences.

So in St Catharines, we were excited to put both kids in the French Catholic board.  Kathleen’s Junior Kindergarten experience was opposite to Jacob.  She came home that first week convinced that she spoke French and would speak a combination of French and English.  Not speaking French is one of my life regrets, and I believe all schools should give the gift of languages to children at a young age.

Around the world, second – and third! – language acquisition is a priority. In Europe, promotion of language learning is one of the main objectives of a Commission of Education and Training Strategy (ET 2020), and pupils are generally between 6 and 9 years old when they have to start learning a second language.  Singapore views language proficiency as part of its “ambition to ride on the tide of globalization and excel in an era of knowledge-driven economic activities”.  Here at home, according to Margaret Wente, “the demand for French has been soaring out of sight”.

Last week, a vision for the future of public schools in Canada was launched: Shifting Minds: A Vision and Framework for 21st Century Learning in Canada.  It is exciting and the emphasis on skills and innovation is inspirational.  Reading it made me think that our nimble CAIS schools can be positioned as leaders in this arena.  But there is a second opportunity for CAIS schools as well.  The vision for the public system does not include a focus on languages. I believe that all Canadians should be bilingual, and when I see CAIS schools that develop kids with three languages by age 12, I think there is no excuse for Canadians.

I’m reading Roger Martin’s Playing to Win and his thesis is that “Strategy is a set of choices about winning.”  There are many reasons why the public system cannot be best at languages.  So as I think about the competitive skills needed in the future and the intrinsic value that languages provide people, I have to ask:

Perhaps CAIS schools can provide superior value in this area of second and third languages?

p.s. Check out “Oui, Je parle francais,” a video that explores the benefits of learning French.


I often hear from members about the value of accreditation, but I don’t always get the chance to share the feedback.  It is one thing for me to promote the fact that accreditation is an effective continuous school improvement process, but it is another thing to see others describe it.  So when I saw Bob Snowden’s blog, I got pretty excited…. In the past 8 years, I have been on more accreditation reviews than anyone in Canada; in fact, because of our unique model where a CAIS staff is on-site during the visit, I have probably been on more reviews than anyone in the world.

So this morning, Bob Snowden, Head of SMUS, gave me permission to post his blog here:

One of our Senior Math teachers, Deanna Catto, just returned from a four-day accreditation visit to another member school of CAIS, the national organization to which we belong, Canadian Accredited Independent Schools. Tomorrow morning, I and our Director of Junior School, Nancy Richards, leave for a similar accreditation visit to a school in Toronto, Bishop Strachan School. SMUS had its last accreditation visit in the fall of 2007, and will be due for another one in the next couple of years. We are strong believers in this process, which involves a thorough self-examination by staff in every sector of the School – including academics, extra-curricular life, finances, athletics, and even Board, Alumni and Parents Association. It is a comprehensive and integrated examination of how effectively we fulfill our Mission in all ways, and it is conducted over four days by a team of about twelve staff and Board members from other Canadian schools, usually with a couple of independent professionals thrown in. No stone is unturned, so to speak.

In explaining the process, I regularly refer to Socrates’ line, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Likewise a school: it is useful to examine what we do and have others participate in the examination to provide an external and unbiased point of view. We want to open ourselves up to the scrutiny of eyes not our own, recognizing that the pursuit of excellence does not end in a destination you arrive at; it is the journey itself, and it never ends. For those who are curious, our last accreditation report was very positive, the visiting team finding a School where the staff engaged in their work in a spirit of continuous improvement. Music to my ears.

When the shoe is on the other foot – that is, when staff members of ours are on accreditation teams to other schools, the benefits are also significant. To go into another independent school and examine its efforts, with the aim of recognizing what works and recommending improvements where we can, does take us out of our focused and intense SMUS bubble and compel us to see how other institutions are grappling with the same purposes we pursue: the challenge of preparing young people for a dynamically changing world. Both exercises – either as the visitor or as the visited – are exercises in humility since you recognize that there is always something that needs improvement or new emphasis. And also in aspiration, since you recognize that seeking the best environment for the current generation of leaders is all about the world of tomorrow.

p.s. I encourage you to follow “Vivat! The Head’s Blog”: