Innovation in Teaching

Power of Change

As we head into Module Four of our PME 811 course, I continue to focus on my burning question of:

How do we keep our teaching innovative and creative? How do stay relevant and create programming that follows curriculum, teaches students the necessary skills and engages them with the material?

This past week, I read two readings on the history of education: The complexity of intellectual currents: Duncan McArthur and Ontario’s progressivist curriculum reforms by T.M. Christou and The history of education: State and the art at the turn of the century in Europe and North America by J. Herbst. While I will admit I was most fascinated with learning who Duncan McArthur actually was (besides having a Queen’s building named after him), I am always referring back to my burning question and how this course relates to it.

I started thinking about how McArthur was basically the person who brought education to what it is today. Having the freedom of choice and selecting electives, and trusting the teachers to bring creativity to the materials, etc. Then I thought about what Herbst said – that basically, no “major” changes/reforms are happening in education today. That the history of education is becoming somewhat lost and now falls under the umbrella of the history department instead of that of the education department.

My question is – how much freedom do college professors have? I feel I am currently surrounded by many elementary and secondary school teachers in this course, who are on a pretty fixed curriculum (please correct me if I’m wrong). So, I wonder if being in the post-secondary institution actually gives you MORE room for innovation and creativity?

Each year is a chance to reform in post-secondary education. I think of some of the programs or courses I have taken that experimented with teaching styles, class size, class style – each year with slight to major modifications. The material itself changed with the ebb and flow, and the demand of the industries. Ultimately, the professors did have a ton of flexibility in their material.

So, do we have it easier in the post-secondary? Or… is it much harder? It’s one thing to have all the flexibility, but I think it’s sometimes nice to have a bit of a mold. I think back to high school and how I longed to go to a school with uniforms. It’s not that I wanted to conform, it’s just that I wanted that simplicity of knowing what my outfit was that day. Is elementary and secondary school somewhat like that uniform in high school? You have the choice of pants or skirt, blouse or sweater – but ultimately you have a bit of a guide to follow?

I look forward to your thoughts!

Works Cited:

Christou, T. M. (2012). The complexity of intellectual currents: Duncan McArthur and Ontario’s progressivist curriculum reforms. Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, 49(5), 677–697. doi: 10.1080/00309230.2012.739181

Herbst, J. (1999). The history of education: State and the art at the turn of the century in Europe and North America. Paedegogia Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, 35(3), 737–747. doi: 10.1080/0030923990350308

8 thoughts on “Power of Change

  1. Hi Erica – I’ve often wondered about the amount of freedom afforded college and university professors and instructors. I have no idea what the setup is like – the curriculum expectations, the expectations on the amount of student work to be assigned, etc.

    I’m not in a typical secondary school, since I’m at a private boarding school for international students, but I do feel like I have a lot of freedom. If we’re comparing it to a uniform, I guess I feel like the dress code is “collared shirt, no jeans.” There are limitations, but I feel like I have a fair bit of room to be creative. I’ve heard other secondary teachers complain about having to meet curriculum expectations, but as long as we meet those expectations, we can go about it pretty much any way we want (and if your plans are creative, you can cover a lot of expectations at once).

    I’d be interested in hearing what public secondary teachers’ experiences are like in this area too, though; if nothing else, it would tell me if my experience is standard fare, or if I’m just really lucky!

    Great post – thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Taylor,

      I think the private school system is a really interesting one. In my hometown, we have a private school (Albert College) and I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a few of their students’ private music lessons. Hearing about their educational experience astounded me. They seemed to have SO much more experiential learning and it seemed like an incredible environment.

      There’s a certain level of awesome (for lack of better term) in being able to design your own courses and assignments, etc. I hope to be able to share more about the guidelines/limitations in the very near future.

      Thanks for reading and sharing!


  2. Thanks for sharing – interesting topic. Academic freedom is a really big factor for many professors. This varies from institution to institutions. Personally, I have seen a wide range. Using my own experience, I have had the freedom up to 80% in one university and in others 40%. Oftentimes the reason has to do with structure and the need to ensure students know what is happening at all times. I do see us “innovation and creativity” in this world of high accountability and structure.

    1. Hi Dr. ABC,

      Thank you for the insight! It’s amazing how much variation you have experienced from different institutions. I wonder how much it differs between college and universities too?

      I think there is some benefit to having a structure in post-secondary systems too though. I have had friends take the same program at different schools and come out with completely different experiences in content. While I know there will always be some level of variation between the schools, I think we should also be held accountable for making sure the students are receiving the right information in their studies.


  3. Hi Erica, I read the same article about Duncan McArthur and concur that it was interesting to learn about the man since I attended teacher’s college at Queen’s. As you pointed out his ideas have shaped education today which I would argue is reform, countering what you mentioned Herbst says. Think back to your early days in high school, in terms of pedagogy they probably look different than today’s.
    Speaking for personal experience, at the two international schools I have taught at over the last 13 years I have seen the change from teacher-centred to a hybrid of teacher-learner centred approaches with the advent of project based learning, flipping the classroom, the maker-movement & robotics, cloud-based servers like Google Drive and Office 365 which make collaboration and feedback more convenient, likely and timely, and notably assessment practices that place huge emphasis on performance (like learning the hard stuff in school and showing it), self-regulation and assessment as learning. This is not to mention that student voice, social-emotional learning has become more popular in schools which McArthur was certainly in favour of. The changes McArthur wanted to see are happening right now. Perhaps moreso than public schools, internationals schools being privately funded, tuition-based, there tends to be more leeway when it comes to experimentation and budgeting. Also, at my current school there is no unified curriculum except for a small IB stream in the upper high school. Therefore, teachers are permitted to use their “suitcase curriculum”, or choose one of their liking from a variety of public education sectors (I use the Ontario curriculum for my courses, but others use Australian, British and American). I tend to agree with Taylor however that even public school teachers bound by a certain curriculum are still free to create their courses almost any way they want as long as they meet the expectations. I actually prefer to have a curriculum because it gives me the peace of mind that people way smarter than me deem these things to be valuable and that peace of mind allows me to be creative when thinking of ways to teach those expectations rather than worrying about whether or not what I personally choose to “cover” is doing my students and society justice.

    1. Hi Ryan,

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and thoughts – I think that’s a really interesting structure at the international school. What an interesting way to give those students exposure to different ways of thinking, learning, and curriculums in general.


  4. Hi, Erica!

    From my position as a public secondary school teacher in Ontario, I can tell you that we are indeed expected to stick to the curriculum provided to us. However, it is so broad in most domains that it feels virtually impossible to include everything that we are expected to do. We speak of ‘covering’ the curriculum, but to me that language evokes skimming a surface rather than accomplishing deep learning and developing problem-solving and other 21st century skills. In speaking with a friend the other day, I learned the impression some parents have is that schools teach the curriculum using the same timelines and the same lessons throughout the province — she was shocked to learn that this is logistically not possible, not when you take into account the individual passions of the teachers who feel stronger in certain aspects of their subject areas than others, the individual and collective interests of the students in their classes, the characters of their communities, and other variables that go into determining how each school’s classes address the overriding or key expectations in each strand. When I was first hired to teach History classes, I walked into a building in which the History teachers thought they had to push the students through all the sample questions provided by the Ontario Ministry documents, racing the calendar to include as much content as possible. The students were flooded with paperwork because it was perceived that handouts and reports were the only ways to get through what was required. Since then, administrators have recognized that it’s more important to hit those main expectations, encouraging the staff to select from the sub-sections of the curriculum those pieces of knowledge and skill that will be of highest interest and relevance to their students. We have a standardized curriculum from which we tailor our lessons to meet the needs of particular groups and individuals.

    For example, in CHC2D (Academic Canadian History), Strand B1 is about Social, Economic, and Political Context. The overall expectation is that students “describe some key social, economic, and political events, trends, and developments between 1914 and 1929, and assess their significance for different groups in Canada (FOCUS ON: Historical Significance; Historical Perspective)” (, p. 108).

    There are four specific expectations that follow or support this focus:

    B1.1 analyse historical statistics and other primary
    sources to identify major demographic trends
    in Canada between 1914 and 1929 (e.g., trends
    related to immigration to Canada, Aboriginal
    populations, migration between provinces and
    to urban centres, the number of women in the
    labour force and the type of work they performed,
    birth rates or life expectancy), and assess their
    significance for different groups in Canada

    B1.2 identify some major developments in science
    and/or technology during this period, and assess
    their significance for different groups in Canada
    (e.g., the impact of: new military technologies on
    Canadian soldiers; developments in mechanization
    on Canadian farmers; developments in transportation
    and communication, such as those related to
    cars, radios, or motion pictures, on the recreational
    activities of some Canadians; insulin and/or other
    medical developments on the health of people
    in Canada)

    B1.3 describe some key economic trends and
    developments in Canada during this period
    (e.g., with reference to the wartime economy,
    new manufacturing sectors, postwar recession,
    consumerism, buying on credit, unions, rising
    prices), and assess their impact on various
    groups in Canada

    B1.4 explain the impact on Canadian society
    and politics of some key events and/or
    developments during World War I (e.g., with
    reference to shortages on the home front; the
    internment of “enemy aliens”; an increase in the
    number of women in the workforce; the Union
    government; new laws such as the Military Voters
    Act, the Wartime Elections Act, the Income Tax Act,
    and/or the War Measures Act; the Halifax Explosion;
    the role of veterans in postwar labour unrest)

    My colleagues and I have worked with some groups of students for whom addressing these specific expectations has taken upwards of three months in a five-month semester. It is only a fraction of the overall curriculum, though. So where our freedom lies is not only in being selective as to what we will include from the curriculum, taking into account student interests and goals, community impacts and influences, and our own areas of expertise, but also how we will engage our students and have them demonstrate their learning. When the Ontario curriculum was first introduced, I think the expectation was that it needed to be rigorously followed and learning tightly controlled. Twenty (?) years later, the constraints have been relaxed, particularly in light of the literature indicating that when students are given more choice and voice, they are more apt to be engaged in deep learning. Public school teachers are definitely encouraged to be innovative in how they address the requirements of the curriculum, because sometimes one approach — like problem- or challenge-based learning — ends up addressing multiple curriculum expectations at once.

    This has been my experience in the public realm, though. I’d be interested to know whether others have had similar or different experiences, too.


    1. Wow – I had no idea. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I find the whole process of planning and curriculum really interesting now that I’m on the educator side of things. Throughout elementary and secondary education, we truly do not understand the planning that goes into the implementation of lessons. It truly is a fascinating situation!


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