Reminiscing about Mont-de-La Salle

While discussing educational systems in relation to Finnish results in the OECD’s PISA results, I got to think about my high school. Here’s a slightly edited version of my forum post.

Focusing on those who need help? Interesting learning philosophy. Several WSJ forum comments mentioned this and it goes well with some parts of the article itself.

As it so happens, this is close to the model used at the high school I attended. 😉 This high school (École secondaire Mont-de-La Salle) was a “semi-alternative school” («école semi-alternative»). The school was consistently the highest-scoring public school in the province while I was there. 🙂
One thing about that school was that, contrary to many other schools, there wasn’t much of a stigma attached to academic success. Those who got high grades weren’t “called names.” And though some students were probably a bit condescending, having difficulty grasping some of the material was viewed as a normal thing. Students would help each other out quite frequently.
One thing about our school was that we had increasing amounts of free time. From 20% the first year to 50% the third and final year, IIRC. For many of us, that time was devoted to a passion which often remained important throughout our lives. For instance, like most members of the concert band, I spent a good proportion of that time on private rehearsal. Chances are that I wouldn’t have become an ethnomusicologist if it hadn’t been for that time.
Another dimension of our schedule which was quite useful is that we had “resource center” time («centre de ressources»). During that time, a teacher would be available for questions and students would try and help each other out.
Partly through the whole dynamic (and partly through self-selection), we had incredibly dedicated teachers. The kind of teacher who actually answered questions when you bumped into her/him in the corridor. I distinctly remember a math teacher to scribbling down some explanations to a problem on a student’s locker door. And things like these weren’t uncommon.

Obviously, many people complained about the way the school worked. Some people said that it encouraged dropouts. In fact, before I attended it, the school had a reputation for soft drug use. When I attended that school, I know some students smoked pot (and I remember smelling it on occasion) but it actually wasn’t ever an issue for me. I didn’t want to smoke so I never smoked. And, contrary to many private schools, hard drugs weren’t common.
Apart from the fact that I tremendously enjoyed my time at that high school and that it actually opened my horizons, I sincerely think that it was excellent preparation for college (Cegep), which was excellent preparation for university. For those of us in music, the training was especially valuable and a disproportionate number of us went on to play in different contexts. Friends of mine who pursued careers in hard sciences found some college courses easier than some of what we had in high school.
We were also very engaged in learning. When the school board threatened to close our school, some of us demonstrated peacefully while school was off. We organized a campaign to mobilize parents and to help school board commissioners see the value in our school. We eventually “won” in the sense that the school wasn’t closed. But they merged it with another school which followed a more “mainstream” model and eventually changed the educational model used at our school. From what I heard, that school is now pretty much like any other school in that same school board.
Ah, well…

Sure, it’s partly nostalgia. But there was something special about that school. Not only for me. For a significant number of students attending MDLS in the late 1980s. We cared and we became engaged students.

Like Finnish high schools described in the Wall Street Journal, our school was about equal opportunity, not about internal competition. We did compete with other schools in some contexts. But we usually didn’t care so much about school rivalries.

Ok. This “we” may not apply to everyone who attended MDLS during those years. But there were enough of us to make for an interesting dynamic.

A criticism which might be levelled at us is that, in a way, many of us were likely budding young geeks. Given the current state of things in North America, I’m personally not sure that this part is so much of a problem.

Obviously, this all reminds me of social networks and their current online forms. There are several MDLS groups on Facebook and it hasn’t been that difficult for me to reconnect with some school friends through Retrouvailles, Classmates, and Facebook itself. Although, there still are some people about whom I haven’t heard anything in many years.

Ah, well…

5 thoughts on “Reminiscing about Mont-de-La Salle”

  1. In these times of babbling about socio-constructivism… Here are other things about that particular high school… While I was studying over there (1986 to 1989), I encountered academic difficulties during my first year. Wrong friends, weak motivation, no representation of my future. During that foggy period, there has never been a time when I felt tossed apart by my classmates or teachers. Had I not gone any further in high school, I nevertheless felt comfortable with everyone around. I know I was not the only one in that situation. Mont-de-La Salle high school was composed of a sample of the society that worked well enough to help each of its member to find his place within. Even in the following years, where things got easier, I had as many opportunities of improvement and exploration offered both by my teachers and other students as before. And it was the same for every student I knew over there, as far as I know.

    The approach used widely in that school was focusing on each individual’s responsibility facing himself and the effect he had on the collectivity. There was a proeminent open-minded attitude of the teaching staff as to student initiatives. Study support prediods were offered by teachers inside the schedule grid. In that regard, there was a strong local socio-constructivist way of learning in that school community. One could choose to be helped either by a teacher or his classmates even outside of the regular classroom time. As written in the first comment above, the presence of free time in a student’s schedule gave the opportunity of learning a great deal of self-reliance, thus preparing students to be reliable for upper scholar levels.

    Also very strong in that school was the general feeling that you were not there to compete with enyone’s grades. One was there to exploit his full potential and to choose his future from there. There was never a time where a student could consider himself placed on a scale and compared to others. I still think that the overall mentality was helping each one to discover his personal abilities and define his personal goals.

    Since that time, I have never seen another place where young people are as much encouraged to find their place in society. I still believe that this approach should be used on a larger scale, especially in these times of need in the research of common social values.

    Not unlike my old friend Alexandre, I might put part of my perception of those years on the account of nostalgia… Well, that makes two of us!

    Simon V.

  2. “Like Finnish high schools described in the Wall Street Journal, our school was about equal opportunity, not about internal competition. “

    I would claim that in the Finnish schools there is not only equal opportunity but active interventions to make those who are, for a reason or another, “less equal” to become “more equal”. This means positive discrimination, which is not based on any general statistical facts of differences between social classes or groups, but to the aim to recognize those individuals who really are “less equal” and help them.

  3. @Teemu This is the impression I got from the WSJ piece and from some discussions in other venues. Some people might dislike the system you describe but it’s quite compatible with the way I was raised. In fact, I perceive a distinct connection between that system of “positive discrimination” and the overall dynamic at Mont-de-La Salle (at the time). Unfortunately for me, this type of “levelling up” isn’t that prominent everywhere and I sometimes end up in situations which call for a type of embedded meritocracy.
    Do you happen to have any advice on “selling” student-aware instructional designs to administrators?

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