Think of the last time you were traveling and came across an idea so new, so startling, so perfect that it caused a eureka moment. Superintendent of Winnipeg Schools Dr. Daniel McIntyre, on one of his “reconnaissance” missions to the United States and eastern Canada, was introduced to the concept of the junior high school in 1918. Whether it was a eureka moment or the seed for his thoughtful innovation, the idea make absolute sense to the Superintendent.
Junior high schools – sometimes called intermediate or middle schools – developed partly as a reaction to the Old World socialization of parents who believed education culminated at Grade 8 and, thereafter, you worked. This resulted in a significant dropout rate at Grade 8.
Educators had long studied the problem of the quick transition from elementary school to high school that occurred after Grade 8. Students often were ill equipped to deal with specialized teachers, note-taking requirements and the independence of subject selection.
The junior high concept also resulted from the realization that children in the 11 to 15 year old range experienced life much differently than they had at a younger age and differently than they would in the future. Hormonal changes in our bodies ignite puberty and its confusions. New worldviews begin to emerge as we deal with our new ability to think about thinking.
During these transitional years, developmentally we experience the birth of mental rules and roles and the ability to take the role of the Other, moving from a purely egocentric worldview to one that is more sociocentric and inclusive. At this stage, we experience a strong need to “belong” thus our passionate attachments to sports teams, musicians, fashions, groups of any kind. As we find our place in the group and we seek our individuality, from that new vantage point grows our self-esteem and the ability to think about thinking. Rampant with possibilities, this stage – Grades 7, 8 and 9 – requires a different approach to education.
In September 1919, Earl Grey School in Winnipeg became the site of the first junior high school in Canada. Asked to create an experimental junior high curriculum for 400 students, Earl Grey principal J.S. Little introduced teaching methods quite unusual for the time.
Junior high gave students the opportunity to select various subjects as a way of determining their aptitude and inclinations. Part of the experiment was having the students move, not the teachers. This was adopted because the equipment for science laboratories and other specialized curricula was difficult to move. Instead of a text, history students created scrapbooks of clippings from newspapers and magazines.
These early curriculum ideas evolved, through decades of trail and error, into junior high as we know it today. Innovative curriculum ideas and subjects, experiments in classroom design and focus, introduction of guidance counseling and many other concepts have been tried.
The junior high concept proved so successful it was adopted by other Winnipeg schools and within ten years was standard curriculum across Canada. The first Winnipeg school built specifically as a junior high school was Isaac Newton, which opened in January 1922 and housed students previously at Strathcona School. The principal at the new school was William Sisler.
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