By: Dan Kenkel
Principal of Valemount Secondary

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.— Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Aristotle believed in life long learning and the power of connections. He saw the power in people learning from each other: from peers, mentors, parents, neighbours. He also believed that as well as philosophy and science, students needed to learn about other aspects of life and ways of thinking: the arts, craftsmanship, fitness, debate, nature and play. All of these subjects had knowledge, and all of them were teachers. By learning in an integrated way, knowledge grew like a web. Ideas connected and interconnected. Thoughts and concepts related to each other in new and meaningful ways that stuck in the mind and encouraged further inquiry. Debate and questioning deepened thinking and challenged weak assumptions. Learning grew from one’s own experiences and the experiences of others.

The type of learning Aristotle describes is not about transferring a databank of information; it is about the development of self. It encompasses the growth of body, mind and spirit. It helps in the formation of who you are, and where you fit in the world.

Today, these old concepts have been repackaged, renamed and remarketed. We speak of Constructivism, Inquiry Based Learning, and Experiential Learning, but the ideas and methods are the same.

Aristotle, Plato and Socrates had it right. The apprenticeship system, the guild system, and early universities all used this method of learning. It is also the way we learn on the job, problem solve around the house, and even surf the web.

But during the Industrial Revolution, schools were changed to a factory model, and learning was chopped up into measurable and differentiated bits. Subjects were taught in isolation from each other; learning was compartmentalized and standardized to ease measurement and to track performance. Learning became isolated, rote and competitive.

We have learned from these mistakes, but many of the structures and mindsets of “factory” schools remain. Bells, subject classes, desks in rows, report cards, lockers, dropout rates are all remnants of this industrial school model. It has been around for more than two hundred years, so it seems old and permanent, but it is neither.

New advances in communications technology are changing the playing field. Young people are gravitating to the kinds of learning experiences and tools that interest them. They are web based, just like Aristotle said, but this web is far bigger than even he could have imagined. At our fingertips is every conceivable topic, interest, human quirk, and recorded human achievement. We can access anyone in the world, anywhere in the world, in a nanosecond.

This new information reality, this information vortex, that has drawn in our young people, has not created something new. In fact the opposite is true. The type of technology is new, but the connection between learning and technology is not.

Even the word “technology” is based on the ancient Greek word techne, meaning skill, craft or art. Plato saw that knowledge and techne were reliant on each other, and complementary to learning.

The new communication age has allowed our youth to seek out a natural way to learn that, except for the industrial age, has been going on for at least as long as Ancient Greece, and probably well before that. It has allowed students today to begin to see the possibilities of a better way to learn, and to move toward it. It has forced educators to look at better models of teaching and learning, not only to modernize, but to survive. We see the future and it is not blackboards and desks in rows.

But paradigms don’t shift overnight. While we see the future, the present realities of college requirements, parent mindsets and school structures and traditions often impede our ability to move forward as fast as students would like. We are stuck between two paradigms, and history tells us that old paradigms don’t fare well in these situations. Change is coming, and while stuck in the middle of it, we have to respond with leadership, thoughtfulness and clarity of purpose.

At Valemount Secondary, we have been keeping up with technology and innovation in teaching. We are reflecting back on very old ideas that are becoming new again. Our Mountain School is a reflection of that new focus, and our new reality. Balanced, integrated and connected learning based on inquiry and innovation. Mentorships, craftsmanship and the integration of learning. We are on our way forward, toward the past.

So I invite you, parents of today, to engage in the conversations about learning at our school. PAC meetings have a focus on learning, and we are always interested in hearing what you think. Or just come on in to the school. Sit down with me for a cup of coffee, and maybe we can connect and learn together. I won’t be wearing a Toga or speaking Greek, I promise.

Dan Kenkel
Valemount Secondary Principal