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In 2007, the faculty is celebrating a 150th anniversary. Tell us about that.
It's not an anniversary of the faculty, but of 150 years of our antecedents. In 1857 the McGill Normal School was established by agreement between McGill University and the Government of Quebec, at 32 Belmont St. in Montreal, for the training of Protestant teachers. There were 35 women and five men enrolled and the principal was Sir William Dawson. So, it's 150 years of McGill's formal involvement in teacher education. It's also a 100-year celebration, with ties to our colleagues at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, of being at Macdonald Campus.
In 1907, the Normal School was renamed the School for Teachers, and shifted to Ste Anne de Bellevue. There were 28 students in agriculture, 62 in household science, and 115 involved in teacher education at Macdonald College.
It's something we can be justifiably proud of, the education of teachers for 150 years. People around here are pretty excited about it, and want to host a number of major functions to celebrate that, starting in January.
What are the challenges to education now, 150 years later?
The challenges are significant. In terms of the history of teaching and learning we're at a stage now that is a real epoch marker. Years ago, Gutenberg and Caxton transferred information, with this thing called the book, that could be circulated en masse. It broadened the site of teaching from close relationships between ecclesiasts and their students. Within a generation, you had a shift akin to mass education. I think we're now at a similar stage with the World Wide Web and the Internet.
The change in the production and distribution of information changes the way young people engage with their world. There's a proficiency challenge, making sure that prospective teachers are comfortable with the technology that young people interact with. Because information is so varied and so broadly available, young people are really making decisions constantly about what kind of information is legitimate and useful. We have to teach people how to read and make discernments on the nature of what they're engaging with.
How are educators responding to these changes?
It's ironic that some people are calling for a return to basics. That schools have to make sure kids read, write, add up, and if they have those basic skills the world is their oyster.
But I think that we need new basics rather than retuning to the old basics, to deal with the changing nature of the workforce.
Schools are now much more complex places, from the impact of globalization and in their cosmopolitan mix. The students come from different cultures where different forms of pedagogy and interactions are practiced. Similarly, there are changes in different sectors of the population that have been excluded in the past, like disabled students, so the classroom reflects different levels of diversity. Teachers have to be comfortable with that and be able to work effectively in those settings. We need to be able to teach effectively across difference and recognize difference as a valuable resource for the improvement of education.
How is McGill's Faculty of Education responding?
We have to be constantly reflexive about what it is we do here and not simply think that the things we've always done will suffice. I think we have to look very seriously at the nature of training and the relationship between ourselves and schools to see how we can best equip our teachers for the new world that they're going into.
For our teaching practicum, we're looking at different models of the time spent in the school and in the faculty. And how we can work more closely with school boards to make sure the practicum provides opportunities for these young teachers to experience as much variety within the school as possible.
We're also looking very seriously at technology and education. There's some really interesting research going on in the faculty on how young people learn through video and computer games. For example, we find young people who are excluded from formal education, who are described as illiterate, yet who are able to negotiate their way through very complex operational procedures in these games in a way that makes me feel like a troglodyte.
How do you use that technology to expand the repertoire of skills that young people have?
I believe at McGill, Canada's leading research-intensive university, that we have to be among the handful of universities around the world that are developing greater levels of research into teacher education itself and leading the field. We've got a very good basis for pursuing that, right across all our departments. And soon, we'll be able to announce a second Canada Research Chair, to join Joe Kincheloe, our first.
Things are really looking forward. The faculty has come a long way since its humble origins of 35 women and five men in 1857.
Roger Slee is co-chair of McGill's Centraide Committee. He plays drums for the university rockers The Diminished Faculties, as well as for The House Band, which is made up of folks from the Faculty of Education.
One job while putting myself through university was as an ice cream man, in Brisbane, Australia. We served 40-odd flavours of ice cream and made hamburgers out in back. At the same time I worked at jobs like the Golden Circle pineapple factory and as a building labourer, putting air conditioners in high-rise buildings.